Islam and the Future of Tolerance: A Dialogue

islamWhat a terrific book: Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz are model conversation partners as they discuss the un-discussable. Harris is a well-known critic of Islam, Nawaz a former Islamist radical who now calls for progressive reform. Their dialogue is so organic and respectful that half the time it doesn’t even feel like a debate. It is though, and it makes me want to sit down with one of my own colleagues, roll the tape, and see what we can hash out on this subject. I’ll go through some of the highlights.

Demographics and Beliefs

A sticking point in these debates is the number of jihadists and Islamists in the Muslim world. So it’s nice to see Harris and Nawaz in rough agreement, that together jihadists and Islamists constitute about 20% of the Muslim population (see pp 19-24, 32-33). That’s over 300 million Muslims, which is a hideous figure.

To keep the authors’ terminology clear: Jihadists believe in spreading Islam by holy war. Islamists want to impose sharia law on society through other means like the ballot box, political processes, and social influences — the “stealth jihad”, in other words, as it’s often called (but which neither Harris or Nawaz use in this book). Nawaz agrees with Harris that the motivation for both groups is a religious ideology which is sincerely and devoutly believed. Jihadists and Islamists think they are engaged in a cosmic struggle of good over evil, that martyrdom will award them virgins in paradise, and so forth. They may differ in opinions as to what constitutes appropriate martyrdom. For jihadists, it’s suicide-bombing and killing as many civilians as possible, or dying while fighting for his army. For Islamists, it’s being killed while defying a government official, or while trying to spread Islam effectively and recruit converts (pp 40-41). The point is that they have as their focus life beyond this world.

But these Muslims also believe in the evils of western imperialism and the Arab dictators they live under. As a result, says Nawaz, there are grievance narratives that often kick in prior to a point of recruitment by a charismatic leader, and which also results in an identity crisis. The religious ideology is then fossilized once the recruiters do their job. He outlines this process as follows (pp 36-37):

(1) grievance narrative –> (2) identity crisis –> (3) charismatic recruiter –> (4) religious ideology

I don’t think Nawaz is necessarily wrong about this — and Harris agrees that these factors can work together — but I’m not sure it’s particularly illuminating. What too often goes unacknowledged in these discussions is that religious ideology can drive people without any of the other aggravating factors. Identity crises are superficial in any case: “One could say,” says Harris, “that the whole of life is one long identity crisis” (p 45). That many jihadists are motivated primarily by religious beliefs is shown by (a) upper/middle-class educated people from across the globe who become jihadists, and (b), on the flip-side, third-world non-Muslim countries, whose people are just as poverty-stricken and grievance oriented, and yet not combustible like Islamic regions. When someone decides to burn a copy of the Qur’an, or draw a cartoon of Muhammad, the resulting outrage (and murder) speaks for itself. It speaks for itself in the same way a southern racist does, who walks into a church and shoots African-American people because — in his own words — he was inspired to do so by the Confederate Flag. Liberals are perfectly willing to take neo-Confederates at their own words (and rightly so), but when it comes to jihadists, they retreat into denial. Mis-emphasizing grievances and identity crises can obscure this.

(Note also that conservative southern politicians have claimed Dylann Roof was a “lone wolf” with grievances. Even if that’s true, that doesn’t change the fact that certain ideologies inspire “lone wolves” in ways that other ideologies would not. Liberals claim the same thing about westerns who leave to join ISIS — that they’re “lone wolves” with various grievances. Again, that may be true in some cases, but that doesn’t undermine the force of specific doctrines and beliefs.)

On the other hand, I find Nawaz’s point about the tribal values of conservative Muslims to be largely correct. He says that conservative Muslims can be very useful as allies against jihadism and Islamism, though they may oppose progressives on gender rights, equality and honor-killings (p 26). On these kind of issues, I agree that religious ideology will often be used to reinforce deeper and more primal values — whether a tribal desire to punish members of the out-group (killing apostates), upholding male sexual honor (raping and killing women), and enforcing female sexual honor (female circumcision). The Qur’an and hadiths support such honor-based beliefs but aren’t necessarily the driving force. Conservative Muslims aren’t galvanized by ideology in the same way that jihadists and Islamists are. Honor-shame codes reflect a wider phenomenon and are not unique to Islam.

The Betrayal of Liberalism: Today vs. the past

Harris and Nawaz agree on the point of liberal failure. The Leftist silencing of honest discussion has empowered Islamic theocrats to treat women and gays murderously, and to be spared offensive cartoons in the meantime out of “cultural sensitivity”. Nawaz holds up the example of the American civil rights movement, where people like Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders took responsibility for their communities and acted in a positively empowering way, instead of constantly playing the victim card or rioting in the streets (p 56). It’s refreshing to see agreement here.

Liberal self-deception?

At one point Harris makes a sweeping statement that needs modifying. He says that liberals (or moderates) are committed to reinterpreting the most dangerous or absurd parts of their scriptures, and while this is especially difficult in Islam, it requires an intellectual dishonesty in all religious faiths, because “moderates can’t acknowledge that their moderation comes from outside the faith. The doors leading out of the prison of scriptural literalism simply do not open from the inside. When moderates claim to find their modern commitments within scripture, it looks like an exercise in self-deception.” (p 65)

It’s true there are heavy doses of self-deception intrinsic to any game of scriptural reinterpretation. But against Harris, progressive doors can certainly be unlocked from the inside. It all depends on the issue and the scriptures you’re working with. A good example can be found in arguments that Christians should display good will and mercy to gay people, even if one’s church won’t go so far as to endorse gay marriage. Theologians who preach this are not only armed with a convincing arsenal of proof-texts from the bible, they have been well received by even conservative and evangelical Christians. In Islam it’s much harder (in some cases it seems impossible) to turn progressive keys from the inside. Anyone who says otherwise needs to prove it, and come up with something equivalent to either this, or this, and which has a reasonable chance of persuading vast numbers in the Muslim community. Until then, people who say “you can reinterpret Islamic beliefs just as easily as Judaic or Christian or Buddhist ones”, are just saying what they want to believe. (Harris would agree with that part, of course.)

Nawaz, meanwhile, accords perhaps too much weight to the idea that texts are subject to the interpreter’s values (p 74). While it’s true that texts are subject in this way, it’s not an inescapable rule of the game, and the converse is just as true and sometimes even more so — that people are galvanized by texts which advance clear ideologies. No one comes away from the Jain scriptures believing they endorse violence, regardless of what the reader brings to the text. I understand why someone like Nawaz needs to emphasize the fluid nature of religious texts. Anyone engaged in reform has to find a way forward. In some cases scriptures are pliable, in other cases not as much. Realistically, I’m not optimistic about the pliability of Islamic texts when it comes to jihad, expansionism, and the treatment of unbelievers; but I’m ready to be proven wrong.

Historic precedents

Inevitably reformers like Nawaz will try grounding a hope for Islam’s future in a golden-age precedent. I’ve written plenty on this subject, and will simply note Harris’ counter which is a good summary:

“Islam was spread primarily by conquest, not conversation. Infidels were forced to convert or die. ‘People of the Book’ — Jews and Christians — were given the option of paying a protection tax (jizya) and living in an apartheid state (as dhimmi). Muslim historians recorded in assiduous detail the number of infidels they slaughtered  or enslaved and deported. It seems to me that a politically correct mythology is replacing history on many of these topics. Consider the crusades. The Christians are often depicted as barbarian aggressors and the Muslims as their highly cultured victims. But the crusades were primarily a response to 300 years of jihad… The idea of Christian holy war was a late, peripheral, and in many ways self-contradictory development within Christianity — and one that has almost no connection to the life and teachings of Jesus. One can’t say the same thing about the status of jihad under Islam.” (pp 99-100)

Readers who want a more detailed review of the crusades and the so-called “golden age of Islam” should read here. But in a sentence, when we weigh the supposed features of this period — non-jihadist peace (false), cultural pluralism (half true), better treatment of women (false), cultural and scientific achievements (only superficially true) — they are seen to be virtually meaningless in assessing the potential for Islam’s future.

Naming the Unnameable

Harris has always said that Islam is a religion of violence (as I do), while Nawaz says that it’s a religion of violence for some Muslims, and a religion of peace for others. It’s important to be fair to Nawaz, and acknowledge that he isn’t playing the obscurantist game of someone like Reza Aslan. He is very realistic about the problems inherent to Islam which results in hugely disproportionate numbers of jihadists and Islamists. He emphasizes that these jihadists and Islamists have a very plausible reading of scripture, and he deserves a gold star for that alone. I never spotted him saying that Islam carries the same potential for peace or violence as any other religion, though he does emphasize the fluid nature of religious texts. And while I’m not as optimistic as he is about what reformers can do with the Islamic texts, I applaud his honest strategies, just as I applaud those of Irshad Manji and Zuhdi Jasser. They are the much-needed antidotes to those who simply lie about Islam — like Reza Aslan, Rula Jebreal, and Karen Armstrong.

Nawaz also rightly insists that “we must name the ideology behind the Islamic State so that we can refute it; merely calling it ‘extremism’ is too relative and vague” (p 121). And he ends by discussing the Voldemort effect, which many Leftists have essentially re-enacted from the Harry Potter series. (Voldemort is the villain who causes terror on such a scale that the story’s characters can’t even name him.) President Obama still cannot bring himself to name the pernicious ideology of Islam — and even worse denies the name, saying that the Islamic State isn’t Islamic.

I have the utmost respect for Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz for debating this taboo subject with integrity. Harris criticizes Islam without any demagoguery. Nawaz accepts certain problems with it, but sees a real hope for reform and pluralism.

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A Muslim Defends Ben Carson… But Only Half-Successfully

Image #: 21630241 width=Islamic thinker Tawfik Hamid defends Ben Carson as follows:

“When asked whether he believes that Islam is consistent with the Constitution, Ben Carson’s response was: ‘No, I don’t. I do not. I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.’

“As a Muslim — and particularly as a former member of a radical Islamist group — I can state unequivocally that Dr. Carson is correct. Without a single exception, the approved Islamic literature teaches violent principles such as killing apostates, beating women, killing gays, and enslaving female war prisoners for sexual purposes.

“If anyone doubts this, or wishes to challenge it, they need to prove this to be wrong. If Carson’s critics could provide a single approved Islamic theological book that would undermine his position.

“If they could point to just one treatise that is accepted by the leading Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University or the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia (the two Sunni religious bodies responsible for approving a printed Koran) that rejects the traditional barbaric principles of Islamic law.

“If they could produce a solitary approved Islamic text that stands clearly and unambiguously against killing apostates, beating women, killing gays, and enslaving female war prisoners for the express purpose of raping them — then perhaps the criticism would be justified.

“But such a text does not exist.

“In fact, until such a reference is found, Ben Carson is correct. These Shariah values and principles, which are so hostile to the American Constitution, are still an integral part of mainstream Islam.”

All of this is correct as stated. It is absolutely true that Islam, in its mainstream form, is pernicious in a way that other religions, even in most of their extremist forms, are not. The problem isn’t with Islamic fundamentalism but with the fundamentals of Islam, and the texture of beliefs shared by hundreds of millions of Muslims. Many Muslims who would not carry out jihad attacks support them nonetheless; and still more believe things about apostasy, heresy, free thought, women and gays which make the conservatives of other religions seem liberal. Jihad warfare is an essential pillar in every school of Islamic jurisprudence, and sharia law is mandatory.

What poisons Carson’s platform isn’t that he acknowledges these truths. It’s that he implicitly ascribes these mainstream Islamic beliefs to all Muslims (instead of a huge problematic minority) and declares that a person’s religion should rule him or her out in advance from consideration for public office (which is unconstitutional). You don’t fight the unconstitutionality of Islamic law with a sweeping unconstitutional measure.

I’d gladly vote for a Muslim who opposed both (a) mainstream Islamic beliefs and (b) liberal agendas that seek to marginalize or criminalize honest debate about Islam, presentations of Islam, or any kind of free speech or expression. There are practicing Muslims who do in fact stand against these equally. I wish there were more of them, but they certainly exist.

Delayed homage to Roger Ebert (and reflections on abortion)

palindromesEvery once in a green moon comes a review that’s so perfectly stated that it would be superfluous for me to bother writing my own, or add to it beyond a few supplementaries. This was the case of Roger Ebert’s review of Palindromes back in 2005. It was the year I started blogging, and ten years later I’m revisiting the review for two reasons. The first is that I never did a proper homage to Roger Ebert when he died two years ago. I often disagreed with his reviews but loved reading them regardless. Palindromes is one I agree with in every sentence; I consider it an Ebert classic.

The second reason ties in to the current climate. Presidential campaigns are under way and partisans are grinding their axes. In discussing the abortion issue with someone recently, I was reminded of Palindromes, and how the abortion debate is a bit different from others. Both sides ultimately beg the question in the others’ eyes. The pro-life position rests on the foundation that once 23 chromosomes are joined to the other 23, you have an entity that is accorded the same rights as one outside the womb. The whole point of the pro-choice position is that given messy real-world problems, and women’s rights issues, it’s more responsible to extend the boundary line, and allow for the killing of unborn fetuses as a lesser of evils. Both sides operate in a framework that the other isn’t willing to grant.

This is a reason I no longer beat up on anti-abortionists. I’m more than willing to debate issues like Islam, free speech, the drug war, racism, and the collapse of the middle class. These conversations can be rewarding (if heated), and people can be moved to change. In debating abortion, the conversation is usually over before it begins. And I have to admit that railroading pro-lifers leaves me feeling a bit hollow. There are enough of them, including intelligent women, who operate out of a genuine compassion that pro-choicers like myself can be blind to in our own framework of compassion.

So on that note, I reproduce a large portion of Roger Ebert’s review of Palindromes below, and encourage everyone to read it and watch the film. I’m as pro-choice as they come, but I don’t believe my position is unassailable or that anti-abortionists are the only hypocrites. Let Ebert’s review serve as a delayed homage to a great critic, and also as a check on our own values (whichever side of the fence we’re on) as we follow the presidential campaigns.

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From Roger Ebert’s review of Palindromes.

Todd Solondz’s Palindromes is a brave and challenging film for which there may not be much of an audience. That is not a fault of the film, which does not want to be liked and only casually hopes to be understood. What it wants is to provoke. You do not emerge untouched from a Solondz film. You may hate it, but you have seen it, and in a strange way it has seen you.

Palindromes contains characters in favor of abortion and characters opposed to it, and finds fault with all of them. The film has no heroes without flaws and no villains without virtues, and that is true no matter who you think the heroes and villains are. To ambiguity it adds perplexity by providing us with a central character named Aviva, a girl of about 12 played by eight different actors, two of them adults, one a boy, one a 6-year-old girl. She is not always called Aviva.

The point, I think, is to begin with the fact of a girl becoming pregnant at a too-early age and then show us how that situation might play out in different kinds of families with different kinds of girls. The method by which Aviva becomes pregnant is illegal in all cases, since she is underage, but there is a vast difference between a scenario in which Aviva persuades the reluctant son of family friends to experiment with sex, and another where she runs away from home and meets a truck driver.

Perhaps Solondz is suggesting that our response to Aviva’s pregnancy depends on the circumstances. He doesn’t take an obvious position on anything in the movie, but simply presents it and leaves us to sort it out. We probably can’t. Palindromes is like life: We know what we consider to be good and bad, but we can’t always be sure how to apply our beliefs in the messy real world.

Consider an early scene in the film where one of the Avivas gets pregnant and wants to have the child. Her mother (Ellen Barkin) argues that this will destroy her life; an abortion will allow her to continue her education and grow up to be a normal adolescent, rather than being a mother at 13. The mother goes on to make a long list of possible birth defects that might occur in an underage pregnancy.

Later in the film, we meet the “Sunshine Family,” a household full of adopted children with birth defects: One with Down Syndrome, one born without arms, etc. It occurs to us that these are the hypothetical children Barkin did not want her daughter to bear. The children are happy and seem pleased to be alive. Yes, but does Solondz consider the adoptive parents of the Sunshine Family to be good and moral people? Not precisely, not after we find Father Sunshine conspiring to bring about a murder.

The plot circles relentlessly, setting up moral situations and then pulling the moral ground out from under them. The movie is almost reckless in the way it refuses to provide us with a place to stand. It is all made of paradoxes. Pregnancy is pregnancy, rape is rape, abortion is abortion, murder is murder, and yet in the world of Palindromes the facts and categories shift under the pressure of human motives — some good, some bad, some misguided, some well-intentioned but disastrous.

We look for a clue in the movie’s title. A “palindrome” is a word which is spelled the same way forward and backward: Aviva, for example, or madam or racecar. Is Solondz saying that it doesn’t matter which side of the issue we enter from, it’s all the same and we’ll wind up where we started?

I look at a movie like this, and I consider what courage it took to make it. Solondz from the beginning has made a career out of refusing to cater to broad safe tastes. He shows us transgressive or evil characters, invites us to identify with their pathos, then shows us that despite our sympathy they’re rotten anyway. You walk out of one of his films feeling like you’ve just failed a class in ethics, and wondering if in this baffling world anyone ever passes.

The Case of Ahmed Mohamed: Keeping Perspective

AhmedLet’s acknowledge the obvious. Ahmed Mohamed shouldn’t have been arrested. But was racism in play? Highly doubtful.

School officials overreact to phantom-weapon threats all the time. The Caucasian seven-year old who was suspended last year for (yes, seriously) chewing his food into the shape of a gun wasn’t a Muslim. If he had been, you can be sure everyone would have cried bigotry. But in the case of Ahmed Mohamed, his clock does look like it could be a real bomb, and the appropriate measure in such a case is to err on the side of caution. When the kid was questioned by his teachers about the device, he apparently wasn’t forthcoming. He may have just been naturally shy and nervous, or he may have had a passive-aggressive attitude. The point is, school officials don’t dismiss strange devices that alarm people, and nor should they. (The Caucasian kid who was suspended for chewing his food into the shape of a gun, on the other hand — that should have been completely ignored.)

There is also the question of whether or not the incident was staged. ArtVoice argues for a hoax, that Ahmed didn’t invent or build a clock, but rather took apart an existing clock, transplanted the guts into a pencil box, and claimed it was his own creation. Given that Ahmed’s father is known for debating Islamophobia publicly, and that Ahmed has been bullied himself, he/they may have wanted to precipitate a certain reaction. If that’s true, they sure as hell got it. I’m not saying this was a hoax (I’m simply not sure), but those who claim it is aren’t conspiracy theorists.

Watch Bill Maher’s panel discussion. And Bill is right: if you want to wax wroth over the mistreatment of a teen Muslim, try Ali Mohammed al-Nimr. He’s slated for crucifixion and beheading in Saudi Arabia. By all means let’s fight the real race battles on our own turf. But let’s also keep a fucking perspective. The amount of attention Ahmed Mohamed has received is off-the-scales absurd when the likes of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr receive so less by comparison.

Evangelical Pastor Supports Bernie Sanders

liberty-universityjpg-4a0f7d98ebd28917This evangelical pastor is a Liberty University alumni, and a card-carrying conservative who worked for the George Bush campaign of 2004. Yet he insists that Bernie Sanders is the only viable option from a fundamentalist Christian perspective. I’ve said many times that the Judeo-Christian bible, when read honestly, is liberal-friendly in some ways, conservative-friendly in others, and either-or in the remainder. On the subject of economics and wealth (which is the heart of Bernie’s campaign), there’s no question that liberals have the bible on their side. This evangelical has the integrity to acknowledge that, and to stand with Bernie as a result.

Read the full transcript here. Here’s a sample:

“I’m a card-carrying Evangelical Christian. I still subscribe to a conservative evangelical theology. So, how did I come to find myself supporting Bernie Sanders? How did that evolution take place? How could it be that in 2004 I was working for the George W. Bush campaign, and today in 2015, as a double Liberty University graduate, under Jerry Falwell — when I went to school, Jerry Falwell was the Chancellor — how is it that I could be now supporting Bernie Sanders, who’s a very progressive, very liberal guy; he describes himself as a ‘democratic socialist.’ How do I find common ground on those two things?

“When I heard Bernie speaking at Liberty University, I saw John the Baptist. I saw the wild-haired, roughly-clothed John the Baptist, eating honey and wearing camel’s hair, and crying out to the religious leaders, the Pharisees of his day, calling them corrupt and complicit with those who have all the power and all the money and all the wealth, and for abandoning the people that God loves, that God cares about. For the Pharisees, who were siding with those who already have power and wealth and saying that they will be the last in the Kingdom of God, and that the weak, and the meek, and the simple, and those who need help — they are first in the Kingdom of God.

“As I heard Bernie Sanders crying out to the religious leaders at Liberty University, in his hoarse voice, with his wild hair, this Jew, and he proclaimed justice over us. He called us to account for being complicit with those who are wealthy and those who are powerful and for abandoning the poor, ‘the least of these’ who Jesus said he had come to bring good news to. And in that moment, something occurred to me, as I saw Bernie Sanders up there, as I watched him I realized: Bernie Sanders, for President, is good news for the poor.

“I realized that we are Evangelical Christians, that we believe the Bible. We believe in Jesus. We absolutely shun those who attempt to find nuance and twisted and tortured interpretation of scripture that they would use to master all other broader interpretations, to find some kind of big message that they want to flout. We absolutely scorn such things. And yet somehow, we commit to the mental gymnastics necessary that allows us to abandon ‘the least of these,’ to abandon the poor, to abandon the immigrants, to abandon those who are in prison. I listened to Bernie Sanders, as he said he wanted to welcome the immigrants and give them dignity. As he said he wanted to care for the sick children, and mothers, and fathers, who do not have health care. As he said he wanted to decrease the amount of human beings who are corralled like cattle in the prisons. As he said he wanted to do justice for those who have nothing and live homeless. And I remembered the words of Jesus, who warned his disciples that there will be judgment, and on that day he will look to his friends, and he will say ‘Blessed are you, for you cared for me, for I was naked and you clothed me; I was sick, and you cared for me; I was hungry, and you fed me; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was in prison, and you came to visit me; I was homeless, and you gave me shelter.” And the disciples said, “Jesus, when did we do any of those things for you?” And he said, “If you have done it for ‘the least of these,’ you have done it for me.

“Yes. I am an Evangelical Christian. I believe in the Bible. I follow Jesus. When I look at Bernie Sanders, and I hear the things that he’s saying, it’s like he’s ripping them out of the pages of scripture. I would have to try to avoid the meaning of those words. I would have to bury my head in the sand to continue to support conservative policies. I am religiously conservative but I am not politically so. And I think here is the heart and soul of it:

“When we chose to follow Jesus, we decided that the Kingdom of God, and the men and women and children of this world, were more important than us. And that accidentally made us all liberals. The day we decided to follow Christ, and the day we decided that we value other human beings more than ourselves, we accidentally became liberals.

“And so there is no contradiction between being a Bible-believing Christian and a Bernie Sanders supporter.”

Hannibal Ranked

hannibal dinnerI’ve explained why Hannibal is almost my favorite TV show. It reimagines Tom Harris’ source material in terms of a dark fable, and with an aesthetic that beats anything ever seen on TV. Despite the gore and brutality, what you’re watching doesn’t seem so brutal. But its real genius is how it explores empathy — the flip side of sadism but dangerously connected to it. The series ends up being a love story between two men who need each other despite their polarities.

Season One is about Will’s breakdown, owing to strobe-light sessions on top of his empathy disorder and encephalitis. He loses his sense of identity and is framed for Hannibal’s crimes. It’s the most straightforward of the three seasons, and in hindsight the least interesting though still excellent. Season Two is a masterpiece from start to finish and I could talk about it for days. The first half reverses the conceit from the books, putting Will behind bars while Hannibal taunts him from the outside, and the second half finds the two men exploring the unacknowledged love they have for each other. Season Three is the most esoteric, taking the show’s gonzo imagery to the highest level. It wasn’t a crowd pleaser, but that was its strength; it was as good as anything David Lynch ever put on celluloid.

Here’s how the episodes rank.

Mizumono1. Mizumono. Season 2, Episode 13. Never mind the best Hannibal episode. This is the best TV episode ever. Yes, even better than Ozymandias and Rains of Castamere. It leaves me crying for the shattered love triangle — Abigail (dead), Will (dying), and Hannibal who sliced them open in an act of heartbroken forgiveness. The pre-credits scene alone is amazing. It beats to the sound of a ticking clock, and flips back and forth between Will sitting across from Jack, and then from Hannibal, each of whom suspects Will will betray him to the other. It’s impossible to predict how Will intends to resolve his double-agent game; his loyalties are evenly divided. The aesthetic is flawless, blending the texture of a thriller with the dream state that saturated season two from the first episode. It’s a season that remained consistent in excellence and complexity, and Mizumono does more justice to it than Will himself could have dreamed.

digestivo22. Digestivo. Season 3, Episode 7. The nightmare at Muskrat Farm proceeds much as a nightmare would, with captives treated to a morbid feast before their torture. Hannibal is slated to lose his extremities (feet, hands, arms, and legs) one-by-one as Mason devours them in front of him. Will, for his part, will be losing his face (surgically, while not under anesthesia) so that Mason can wear it while feasting on Hannibal’s body parts. Mason goes sadistic on his sister too. Even though he removed Margot’s reproductive organs back in season two, he kept one of her eggs alive and thriving inside the womb of a surrogate. This “surrogate”, however, is a pig; her baby dead inside. An act of cruelty that gets Mason held underwater and killed by his pet eel. Digestivo is a transgressive masterpiece that caps off an extraordinary half-season.

wrath13. The Wrath of the Lamb. Season 3, Episode 13. I can hardly imagine a more suitable conclusion for the series: “This is all I ever wanted for you, Will. For both of us.” To which Will can only whisper, “It’s beautiful,” before throwing them both off the cliff. He does what needs to be done, and while this had been his plan all along (to kill Hannibal while ostensibly taking out Dolarhyde) he pursued it with reckless vengeance, without any regard for collateral. The escape scene on the road conveys this point: dead police guards shown with blurred faces, as if their deaths are hardly important. In the end he goes through with his plan, but at his own expense, realizing that his divorce at the end of Digestivo was a lie: he still loves Hannibal and knows what even worse disaster that spells.

cage4-10. Kaiseki, Sakizuke, Hassun, Takiawase, Mukōzuke, Futamono, Yakimono. Season 2, Episodes 1-7. According to a critic at A.V. Club, this run of episodes contains “some of the most pulse-pounding thriller TV mounted in the last several years, made all the more harrowing for their intense understanding of the characters’ psychologies and motivations”. He excludes Hassun from this praise, calling it “an ill-advised shift into legal drama”, but I disagree; even that episode is top-notch. From Will struggling to prove his innocence, to Beverly working on his behalf and then ending up on Hannibal’s dinner plate for her efforts, to the assassination-hit Will puts on Hannibal, to the Chesapeake Ripper finally declaring himself — and Chilton taking the fall in the brutal snares of Yakimono — it’s non-stop suspense.mural2 In order for all this to work, a near perfect balance must be struck. Jack Crawford must be potentially smart enough to figure out Hannibal for what he is, while Hannibal must be shrewd enough to fool Jack and the rest of the FBI in plausible ways. As if all this weren’t impressive enough, we also get the most demented tableau of the series, the mural killing. The “Eye of God” seriously freaked me out; it’s impossible to repress memory of the hostage who breaks apart from it by tearing off his flesh. Killings of the week are usually window dressing for Hannibal, but the mural killer almost upstages the main events.

dolce 11. Dolce. Season 3, Episode 6. This one contains my favorite scene of the series: Will and Hannibal’s reunion in the art gallery. It’s their long overdue reconciliation during which Bach’s Aria Da Capo plays over their dialogue. I finally “got” their relationship in this scene; Hannibal’s psychopathic love for a man who can understand him, and Will’s empathy disorder which allows — no, requires — him to ignore the worst in Hannibal so he can benefit from the best. There’s plenty more to savor, not least Hannibal’s sawing open Will’s head in front of Jack. Also Margot and Alana’s kaleidoscopic sex scene, a stunning metaphor for them being “as one” on the same side (against Mason as much as Hannibal). Dolce is undiluted excellence.

releves12-13. Relevés, Savoureux. Season 1, Episodes 12-13. Let’s be clear that Savoureux isn’t quite the masterpiece it’s made out to be. Yes, it’s outstanding but it can’t compete with the three finales at the top of the list. In fact, if you really forced me to choose between Relevés and Savoureux, I’d probably go with the former. The penultimate episode is a cascade of revelations that come too late: Will realizes the Cotard-Syndrome woman (Georgia Madschen) was killed by the same person who killed the neurologist (Sutcliffe); which means that person had been copycatting Georgia when he killed Sutcliffe; it then hits him that this copycat is the same copycat of Garrett Jacob Hobbs, who killed Cassie Boyle and Marissa Shore, since in all these cases the copycat takes the grotesque a bit further. sav Unfortunately, Will ends up indicting himself, as Hannibal sets his fall in motion, telling Jack that Will seems to be suffering dissociative personality disorder, and plays a recording of Will saying that he felt guilty when he saw Marissa Shore because “it felt like he killed her”. Jack suddenly realizes that Will was in Sutcliffe’s office the night he was killed, and that Will was also the last person to visit Georgia before she was burned alive. And so forth. It all comes together incredibly well, and while I don’t want to detract from the thrilling way it all explodes in Will’s face in Savoureux, for me the high points of season-one’s end game are in the convolutions of Relevés.

jack14. Contorno. Season 3, Episode 5. In which Jack beats the shit out of Hannibal — his delayed retribution for the outrages of Mizumono. The slow burn of season three up to this point makes the sudden showdown a ripper. My favorite part is actually Will’s night on the train, gorgeously shot, with subdued conversation used by Chiyoh to create a false sense of solidarity. She seems to know that Will wants revenge on Hannibal as much as a reconciliation, and so pushes him from the train in a sort of symbolic prophecy. Then there is the Italian inspector, whose bounty greed gets him instantly subdued, thrown from a balcony, and disemboweled.

naka15-19. Su-zakana, Shiizakana, Naka-choko, Kō No Mono, Tome-wan. Season 2, Episodes 8-12. The first half of season two is phenomenal, but the second part is amazing too, and needs rescue from mediocre assessments. Some have criticized the killers of the week and the annoying character of Mason Verger, but as far as I’m concerned, you could almost throw them out and leave the meditations between Will and Hannibal. Their sessions together are spellbinding, and it’s the first time we’ve seen them engage like this as equals. In the first season Hannibal was just using therapy to tear Will apart and frame him for crimes.teacup Now he genuinely wants Will to become a killer like him, and while Will is playing along as a mole for the FBI, he is also starting to sincerely identify with Hannibal. By the time of Mizumono his allegiance is evenly split, and these five episodes build to that point with a near esoteric perfection. I do not agree with objections to Mason Verger, whose obnoxious behavior is rather hilarious and irritating manners the whole point. The scene where he cuts his face off and feeds the pieces to Will’s dogs is (obviously) one of the best of the series.

miriam20-21. Entrée, Rôti. Season 1, Episodes 6 and 11. Before I knew about the six-season plan, I thought Entrée was intended as “Silence of the Lambs”. It features a colorful psychopath under care of Dr. Chilton. He taunts those who engage him through his glass prison. He fakes a seizure, and attacks a nurse when rushed to ER. Meanwhile, Jack Crawford pulls an attractive FBI trainee from her routine, and enlists her help in finding a serial killer. I was sure Miriam Lass was “Clarice Starling”, but later learned that Silence of the Lambs would be covered in a fifth season which we now know will never be. That being the case, I’m sticking to my original idea: Entrée is a strong enough episode to be worthy of Silence, and it introduces the Chesapeake Ripper.roti1 That’s Hannibal of course, but Abel Gideon is suspect and evil enough to qualify. Rôti is his sequel and also the point at which Hannibal’s manipulations of Will reach a critical mass. Will’s hallucinations are out of control, his memory shot, and his sense of identity shattered. And with Gideon on the loose, Hannibal capitalizes on this by sending Will after him. These episodes are the unquestioned high points of season one before the end-game takes over.

primavera22-23. Primavera, Secondo. Season 3, Episodes 2-3. Some judge these episodes among the weakest in the series, but I strongly disagree. They take the kind of risks I like. Gone are the procedurals of the first two seasons, and in their place a dreamscape of doubt and nightmares. I was fooled by Will’s hallucination of Abigail. It makes sense that Hannibal cut her as he did Will, with the surgical precision that would allow them both to survive. When the hallucination finally dissolves in the Palermo chapel, it’s like Abigail died now (yes) three times. The Lithuanian chapter of Secondo gets a lot of hate, but I like the character of Chiyoh and love the way the episode serves as a rebuttal to Hannibal Rising. In the book and film, Hannibal’s sister was murdered and eaten by a group of Nazi deserters, which explains why Hannibal snapped and became a cannibal-killer himself.secondo3 That’s always been a rubbish explanation, and when Will in this episode is presented with a similar account (here it’s one man, not a group of soldiers who is apparently responsible) he dismisses it out of hand: “Misha doesn’t explain Hannibal. She doesn’t quantify what he does.” And indeed we learn that Hannibal ate Misha himself, not the caged man who is innocent; Hannibal was born fucked-up, as most psychopaths are. The Lithuanian castle that belonged to Hannibal’s family looks like something out of Pan’s Labyrinth, and works brilliantly in the context of Will’s soul-searching.

fromage124. Fromage. Season 1, Episode 8. Killers of the week are usually eye-candy that supplement Hannibal‘s main story arcs. In two exceptional cases they steal the show. The mural killer of Sakizuke is one, and the musician killer of Fromage the other. Will is called on to interpret a corpse that has a cello neck rammed through its mouth and its vocal chords splayed out like cello strings. It turns out a psycho-musician named Tobias likes turning people into human instruments, or, in Will’s words, “to open them up and get a decent sound out of them for a change”. There are shocking moments that come out of left field, as when Hannibal suddenly snaps the neck of his own patient who is trying to reason with Tobias. Fromage also marks a dramatic escalation of Will’s mental problems, as he begins having auditory hallucinations of animals in pain.

hannibal311b25-26. The Beast from the Sea, The Number of the Beast Is 666. Season 3, Episodes 11-12. There are two memorable Hannibal quotes here. One is spoken to Alana when she asks if Hannibal would have ever told her the truth. He replies, “In my own way, I always have.” Which is indeed true, and one of the things that makes Hannibal so intriguing. Lying is common and healthy in the human species; too much honesty is antisocial if not pathological. Hannibal is, however, that rare pathological breed who esteems the purity of truth. His other quote is “Kill them all”. number is 666I always thought Dolarhyde’s attack on Will’s family was lame, and Manhunter wisely omitted it. The TV series makes it work, not only by use of darkness and quiet stalking-scenes throughout the house, but because Will doesn’t come to the rescue; Molly and Walter barely escape alive. It’s an extremely uncomfortable sequence and very effective. As for the penultimate episode, the centerfold is Chilton’s abduction by Dolarhyde — his subjection to the Dragon, his tongue bitten out, and then burned alive in a rolling wheelchair. As if this poor guy hadn’t been trashed enough in seasons one and two.

prem27-28. Apéritif, Potage. Season 1, Episodes 1 and 3. The overrated and underrated are equal in my eyes. While I thoroughly enjoyed the series premiere, it didn’t hook me on the show. I had to watch it a second time months later, and it was the third episode Potage that got me officially addicted. This is not to damn Apéritif with faint praise; it’s a very good episode. But it certainly doesn’t belong in the top ten where many fans place it. Like many premieres, it shows fledgling syndrome as the show was finding its footing. What it does do well, it does very well by its presentation of the Minnesota Shrike and a copycat whose obscenities will drive the season. potage Potage is the unsung gem that establishes the love triangle between Will, Hannibal, and Abigail Hobbs, the consequences of which steamroll into all three seasons. The whole episode is focused on the trio (no killer of the week), which makes it unique. They return to Abigail’s hometown and are confronted by Nicholas Boyle, whose sister was killed by Abigail’s father. Abigail ends up killing him, and when Hannibal decides to help cover it up, the awful chain of events is set in motion. Great character moments here.

with sun29-30. The Woman Clothed with the Sun, The Woman Clothed in Sun. Season 3, Episodes 9-10. After catching up on Will’s life in episode eight, he and Hannibal are back together, and in the way we know from the books and films: with Hannibal locked up. Because we’ve seen their positions reversed in season 2, there’s the added thrust of tables being turned, though not really. Will was in a cage because Hannibal put him there; Hannibal is in a cage only because he willingly surrendered. He’s always in control, and he’s bloody patient, content to have waited three years for Will to seek him out and rekindle their romance. These episodes are filled with weird love-bonds.eat dragon We get a long overdue flashback of Hannibal orchestrating Abigail’s fake-death which convicted Will. He does it with a loving intimacy that makes his real killing of her in Mizumono all the more heartbreaking. Then there is Reba, the blind woman who becomes intimate with Dolarhyde, blind in every way to what he is “becoming”; his romantic ideas include taking her to a zoo so she can pet a sedated tiger. Dolarhyde also connects with Hannibal, who encourages his “becoming”. Will has sessions with Bedelia, and the two compare their relationships with Hannibal. And finally, Dolarhyde consumes the dragon itself (the original artpiece). In the framework of season-three’s esoteric insistence, this is powerful stuff.

Ceuf_Dinner31-32. Ceuf, Trou Normand. Season 1, Episodes 4 and 9. These would join the four at the bottom of the list if not for the supplement of Abigail Hobbs. They’re mostly killers-of-the-week (the format that defines season one), and Ceuf was deemed so controversial that it never aired on TV. Which is ridiculous; Americans are hyper-sensitive when it comes to kids. The idea of kidnapped children who help their surrogate mother kill their real families doesn’t warrant censorship. On the other hand, the way this surrogate family is portrayed isn’t terribly convincing. The best part is the sideshow of Hannibal abducting Abigail from the hospital (to Alana’s outrage) and then “treating” her with psychedelic drugs.trou As for Trou Normand, it’s distinguished by the totem-pole killer, but for me its selling points are the worsening of Will’s hallucinations and sleepwalking, and the way Hannibal suggests his mind is breaking down from dealing with brutal murders and empathizing too successfully with killers. Abigail’s thread is also picked up, as the body of Nicholas Boyle is found, and Will deduces that she’s the one who killed him, which he agrees to keep secret with Hannibal. Jacks suspects the same thing and all but accuses her as they stand over Boyle’s corpse. This is also the episode in which Abigail confides in Hannibal (though not Will) that she helped her father kill the girls.

lucfer33-34. Antipasto, Aperitivo. Season 3, Episodes 1 and 4. As a fan of season-three’s first half, I try liking these episodes more than they deserve. One sets the stage for Hannibal’s exile in Florence, and the other is an extended flashback covering the aftermath of season two. The Hannibal material is presented matter-of-fact and almost mundane, unlike the charged esoteric feeling of most of season three. The most gratifying scene is Hannibal teaching Dante’s Inferno at university. apertivoMeanwhile, Apervito catches up with Will, Jack, and Alana who are all scarred by the events of Mizumono but coping very differently. Jack is mourning his dead wife; Alana has risen from the ash a severe person — even wearing harsh-colored clothes which seem to broadcast her need for revenge — and has joined forces with Mason Verger in a criminal scheme to capture and torture Hannibal; Will insists on forgiveness, which he defines to her as “a mutually unspoken pact to ignore the worst in each other to continue to enjoy the best”. A pact he will keep until the end of Digestivo.

great red dragon35. The Great Red Dragon. Season 3, Episode 8. We haven’t seen Will process a crime season since season two, and for that matter neither has he. Three years have passed since the batshit crazy events of Digestivo, during which time he has divorced himself from the FBI and settled into a normal life. Hannibal has been locked up, and Will has made good on his promise to shun him like the plague. Enter the Red Dragon, a serial killer of families in well-to-do homes. This story has been done in two film adaptations, Michael Mann’s cult classic Manhunter, and Brett Ratner’s laughable Red Dragon. Hannibal supersedes both with the darkest interpretation yet. With six episodes to tell the story, however, this first is admittedly a stage-setter with a lot of exposition.

coquilles36-39. Amuse-Bouche, Coquilles, Sorbet, Buffet Froid. Season 1, Episodes 2, 5, 7, and 10. It says something that even the worst Hannibal episodes are still quite good. These are purely episodic killers-of-the-week. In one, a pharmacist uses his victims as fertilizer for growing mushrooms. In another, a psycho turns his victims into angels by flaying their backs and transforming their loose skin into wings. Then there is an organ-harvester who extracts hearts and livers. Last is a woman with Cotard’s Syndrome (she thinks she’s dead) who slices her victims’ faces into Glasgow smiles. The imagery on display is brilliant, but these episodes have little bearing on the over-arching season plot involving Abigail Hobbs and Will’s breakdown. Will does begin suffering the effects of encephalitis in episode 5 (sleepwalking) and the character of Bedelia is notably introduced in episode 7. Other than that, it’s standard fare.

Guest Blogger: Ray Vaillancourt on the Bible, Homosexuality, and the Triumph of Mercy

[Editor: The Busybody welcomes an old high-school classmate, Ray Vaillancourt, who demonstrates the biblical pattern of mercy trumping judgment, especially in cases when scripture is weaponized against the weak and marginal. Christian sexual morality can be debated, but to enforce it partially and as an oppressive measure is non-biblical. See also here for my earlier discussion of Michael Bird, who lands similar conclusions from an evangelical point of view. Vaillancourt works in a Catholic context.]

The Bible is Clear: Bible Truth and Homosexuality
by Ray Vaillancourt

Conservatives remind us that the Bible is clear: homosexual behavior is a sin. We have a moral duty to stop it. God wants us to teach homosexuals some Bible values.

Some folks protest, though. It’s discrimination. We’re not supposed to judge. We’re supposed to love and accept people.

Who are we to believe? Well, if we say we believe in Jesus, then let’s look to Jesus. What would he say about the Christian campaign against homosexuality and gay marriage? To help understand how Jesus might respond, let’s look at a case of sexual sin brought before him.

Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:3-5)

The scribes and Pharisees are technically correct in their application of the law to this woman caught in adultery. The Law proscribes death for adultery. But their justice is partial, by both meanings of the word “partial.” It is partial (incomplete) because the Law (Deuteronomy 22:22) calls for death for both the man and the woman, and they’re only charging the woman; and it is partial (discriminatory) because they are clearly using part of the law as an instrument of oppression against those they hate. It’s hateful politics disguised as righteousness.

This is the problem with many Christians trying to use the political process to defend marriage from homosexuality. While technically correct in isolation, the effort is partial— incomplete and discriminatory. It’s only about homosexuality. Conservative Catholics like to quote the terms “intrinsically disordered” or “objectively disordered” from the Catechism (#2357,2358) to show just how terrible homosexuality is. But I wonder how many can name the sexual sins that go with these labels:

  • “morally disordered”
  • “intrinsically and gravely disordered”
  • “gravely contrary to the dignity of persons”
  • “a grave offense”
  • “a grave offense against the natural law”
  • an “injustice” that “undermines the institution of marriage”

They are, in order, lust, masturbation, fornication, pornography, divorce, and adultery (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2351-2384). Why aren’t Catholics pushing to criminalize these grave sins? Why doesn’t the defense of marriage address the “injustice” that “undermines the institution of marriage?” Partiality. They’re not trying to codify the beautiful Christian morality of human sexuality into civil law— just the parts about homosexuality. It’s hateful politics disguised as righteousness.

Whether Christian sexual morality should be written into civil law is a matter for discussion. But doing so partially is wrong from both a civil and a moral perspective. The Bible is clear: “You must not distort justice: you shall not show partiality.” (Deuteronomy 16:18-20; cf Leviticus 19:15, Proverbs 24:23, Proverbs 28:21, Acts 10:34, James 2:1-13, Romans 2:11, Ephesians 6:9, Colossians 3:25)

God has always had a special affection for the poor, the weak and the oppressed, starting with the tiny nation of Israel itself, to the widows and orphans and immigrants and day laborers in the Law, to the prostitutes and tax collectors and Samaritans of the Gospels, to the woman caught in adultery, “for God is a God of justice, who shows no partiality. God shows no partiality to the weak but hears the grievance of the oppressed.” (Sirach 35:15-16). The Bible is clear: oppression of any group triggers a merciful and just response by God on their behalf. This is true biblical justice: evening the odds by siding with the weaker and smaller and those under attack. Thus, we can make any group God’s chosen people simply by hating and oppressing them. When we call down God’s fury on people, God showers them with mercy and gives us the condemnation. “For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13. cf Matthew 5:7, Matthew 6:12, 14-15, Matthew 7:1-2, Matthew 18:21-35, Luke 11:4, Romans 2:1, Colossians 3:12-13, Ephesians 4:32, Sirach 28:1-5)

Back to our story:

[Jesus said,] “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.” (John 8:7b,9-11)

Withholding condemnation is not acceptance of sin. Jesus did not come out saying, “Adultery is not a sin.” Quite the opposite actually (Matthew 5:27-28, Mark 7:21-23). But when people are weaponizing parts of the Law to oppress people, then the Lord of mercy and true biblical justice is firmly on the side of the people being attacked. The woman caught in adultery didn’t get the stoning she legitimately deserved under the Law. It’s not that she didn’t sin— it’s that the scribes and Pharisees hated and oppressed her right into the merciful bosom of God. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

Jesus made it clear that technical correctness does not justify neglecting “the weightier things of the Law,” such as unconditional love, impartial justice, mercy, and compassion (Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42; cf Hosea 2:21-22, Micah 6:8, Deuteronomy 32:3-4, Psalm 33:4-5, Isaiah 16:5, Jeremiah 9:22-23, Zechariah 7:9, 1 Timothy 6:11). No Catholic teaching about homosexuality is complete without true justice and mercy and grace. “[Homosexual persons] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #2358)

If you want to defend marriage, then be careful that you’re defending marriage and not attacking God’s chosen people. If you want the government to regulate sexuality, but only certain people’s sexuality, “have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?” (James 2:4) “If you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” (James 2:8-9)

Partial Christians are partially correct: we do have a duty to teach and uphold the Gospel in our participation in civil life; the rest of that truth is that we have a duty to make sure our Gospel teaching and actions are Gospel teaching and actions. Condemnation and partiality are not Gospel values. It is time for Christians to teach LGBT people some real biblical values: impartial justice and mercy and faithfulness and the unconditional love of God.

The Bible is clear.