Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The Saint, the Goddess and the Hope of Spring

February 1, 2020

St. Brigid, Imbolc and the Hope of Spring

Today, February first, is St. Brigid’s Day.  In Ireland it’s been celebrated for thousands of years. I know, someone will point out that Christianity has only been in Ireland for fifteen hundred years.  But, thanks to Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) missionaries were encouraged to adapt local holy places to Christian saints.  So Brigid, the Celtic Goddess, became Saint Brigid, a miracle-working abbess.

There may have been a real woman named Brigid, born sometime in the sixth century, who was first married to the lord of a feuding family to bring peace.  It didn’t work and, in on battle, her son was killed.  Converted by St. Patrick, she asked the local king for land to build her monastery.  He refused and so she asked only for the land that could be covered by her cloak.  The king agreed.  She lay out her cloak and it grew and grew until it covered acres and acres.  This became her abbey of Kildare.

Bridgid.jpgHowever, the goddess and the abbess never really separated in the minds of the Irish and still live comfortably together in rituals and art. In the picture to the left, Brigid holds her symbolic cross, which is made of reeds on January thirty-first.  The cross is placed over a door or window to protect the house from evil.

February first is Imbolc, one of the four Irish fire festivals to mark the seasons.  The name means ‘in the womb’ or ‘in milk’, apparently referring to the hope of a successful lambing season.  The next festival is Beltane, ‘bright’, at the beginning of summer.  Harvest season is marked by the feast of the sun god, Lugh, called Lughnasagh.  Finally comes Samhain ‘summers end’ now celebrated universally as Halloween.

In her other hand Brigid holds eternal fire.  That was another aspect of the goddess.  Both women watch over new mothers and protect cows. The goddess also protected poets and sailors.

“St. Brigid is the patron saint of babies, blacksmiths, boatmen, cattle farmers, children whose parents are not married, children whose mothers are mistreated by the children’s fathers, Clan Douglas, dairymaids, dairy workers, fugitives, Ireland, Leinster, mariners, midwives, milkmaids, nuns, poets, the poor, poultry farmers, poultry raisers, printing presses, sailors, scholars, travellers, and watermen.”

          There are many shrines to Brigid, many of them at holy wells.  We visited one the other day, near the Cliffs of Moher. It’s a grotto where a stream runs through a small hallwaySt. Bridget's Well 2.jpg. On the ways are hundreds of photos of people who have died.  There are also religious statues festooned with rosaries.  Sometimes toys or other mementos are also left.  Looking at these was very poignant.  People come here to grieve and find comfort.  It’s a place of shared sorrow.  They know that, since St. Brigid lost a child of her own, she would be kind to those who had also lost someone.  The day we were there, late January of 2020, we were the only pilgrims.  Having had three friends die in the proceeding weeks and feeling weighed down with the state of the world, I found solace in the thought that for so many centuries, both Brigids have been comforting people and reminding us that there will be another spring.

St Bridget's Well 4.jpg
St. Bridget;s Well 1.jpg

Warnings from History

January 22, 2020

Part II Philip the Fair, Pope Boniface VIII and the separation of Church and State.

Nogaret’s men arrest the pope

When the constitution of the United States was written, the founders established a principle that was unheard of in Western (or perhaps any) society.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Since many of the original colonists had come fleeing religious persecution by their governments, this made sense. But it was a radical solution to a problem that had existed for millennia.

Philip IV of France is a classic example of the struggle for power between Church and State.

Just a bit of background first.  Contrary to what is taught almost everywhere, the popes in Rome did not control the minds of every Christian in Europe.  Nor did the rulers of the various countries always feel obliged to obey them.  Yes, by and large, most people in Western Europe considered themselves Christian.  However, there were wild variations in how they understood the faith.

Philip IV of France was not the first ruler to take on the popes.  In the eleventh century the Holy Roman emperors had huge fights with Rome over the right to appoint bishops. It was called the Investiture Conflict. Barrels of ink have been used to describe the fun and games that ensued, so I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say that there was a lot of shouting, some fighting and several anti-popes.  However, all the participants were of the same faith even if they each thought the others to be heretics and power-grabbers.

Philip wanted something more.  He had a lot of issues concerning his family and religion. First of all, since the time of his umpteenth great-grandfather Louis VII, the kings had been anointed at their coronations with holy oil, found in the tomb of St. Remi. Popular belief stretched this much further back, to the time of the first Capetian, Hugh Capet, in 987.  To this they added that the oil had been delivered from heaven by the Holy Spirit, in its form of a dove.

Added to that, his immediate ancestors had all been pious crusaders.  Philip had a lot to live up to and those pesky popes kept getting in his way.

So, Philip set about slowly easing power from Rome.  He believed, and there is some truth in this, that the papacy was nothing more than a prize in a power struggle among the noble Roman families and not a divine calling.

The pope he faced was Boniface VIII,  the current winner, who was concerned to keep the rights of the church out of the hands of monarchs.

In Philip’s war with Edward I of England,* both sides had taxed the clerics, especially wealthy monasteries.  This was a no-no. said the pope.  The  tithes from churches and abbeys helped keep the papacy afloat. Boniface forbade the kings to take more money from the Church.  Did I mention that Philip and Edward both had active armies?  After some fuss, Boniface backed down and proclaimed that kings could tax the church without approval from the pope if there were a clear and present danger. 

Round one to Philip.

In 1297, after some pressure, Boniface declared Philip’s grandfather Louis IX, who had died on crusade, to be a saint.

Round two to Philip.

Next Philip heard that a bishop from the south of France had, while in his cups, said some nasty things about him.  Bernard Saisset was Bishop of Pamiers and a good friend of Pope Boniface.  He and Philip had already been on opposite sides of a land dispute.  According to many witnesses, Bernard had said of Philip, “Our king resembles an owl, the fairest of birds, but worthless. He is the handsomest man in the world, but he only knows how to look at people unblinkingly, without speaking.”  He also accused Philip of being a bastard and opined that St. Louis was in hell.  This insulted Philip and, even more, the counsellors who wrote most of his pronouncements.

Naturally, Philip went ballistic.  He ordered the bishop arrested and charged with heresy and treason, among other things.  Now, all clerics accused of a crime were supposed to be tried in religious courts.  If they were convicted, they might be turned over to secular courts for punishment.  Boniface couldn’t ignore the treatment of a bishop and a friend.  Perhaps unwisely, he sent a pronouncement to the king, titled Ausculta fili. Loosely translated, it means “Listen up, kid”. 

Philip’s minions quickly went to work and published a “slanted summary of its main points which gave the impression that the pope was claiming the feudal lordship of France.”@   This gave Philip the opening to attack the pope directly.  As I mentioned in the first part of this essay, he accused Boniface of heresy, sodomy, murder, idolatry and simony.  The actual author of this charge was Philip’s chief advisor, Nogaret.  He arranged for assemblies to be held across France to condemn Boniface.  Then, with the help of a rival Roman family, Nogaret went to Italy and captured the pope in his home town of Anagni.  Reports differ as to what was done to him, but he was certainly abused.  The citizens of Anagni rose up and freed Boniface but the pontiff, in his eighties, died a month later.

This round was sort of a tie.

Finally, Philip got a French pope, Clement V, who would compromise enough to dissolve the Templars. 

Are you still with me?  Because I’m finally getting to the point.

Philip IV wanted money, but he also wanted to be free of papal meddling.  He was divinely consecrated, the grandson of a saint.  “ In accusing Bernard Saisset of heresy, Nogaret  created the chance to affirm the right of the Capetian king to replace the pope, if necessary, in his Christlike function Henceforth, “what [was] committed against God, against the faith or against the Roman Church, the king consider[ed] committed against himself.” #

Philip was establishing himself as the direct link to God, above the popes.  His broadsides confirmed this.  During the trial of the Templars, another advisor, Guillaume de Plaisians, told the assembly that “The king of France has come to announce to you great joy!” This was the dissolution of the Templars.  Plaisians was stating that, like the angels, Philip had received word from Heaven without going through the pope.#   God had sent Philip to the French, and he agreed, styling himself  “the most Christian king”, in the world.

Louis XIV

So Philip, and the kings who followed him, up to Louis XVI, did not want to separate church and state; they wanted control of both.  And, with power over both, people had no one to appeal to against the excesses of the monarch.  It was as if the American president also controlled the Congress and the Supreme Court,

The framers of the Constitution got it right, in my opinion.  They learned from history that legislating private belief is tyranny.  Let’s don’t let it happen again.


*The war continued, off and on, for over a hundred years.  You may have heard of it.

@ Malcolm Barber, The Trial of the Templars. P. 30

#Julien Théry-Astruc, “Guillaume de Nogaret and the Conflicts Between Philip the Fair and the Papacy”  The Capetian Century ed. William Chester Jordan and Jenna Rebecca Phillips.(Brepols, Turnhout, Belgium, 2017) p219

Saudi Arabia-the beginning

December 6, 2018

Know your terrorist: the Wahabi sect of Saudi Arabia and the Family Saud.[1]

Yes, I know it’s been ages since I posted anything.  The Saud family and  Wahhabi Islam shouldn’t have taken so long.  I did keep busy with other things, of course, but the research for this report kept expanding.  I began to feel that I was writing a dissertation.  And, just a few days ago, I read an article by Carlotta Gall about Saudi influence in Kosovo.[2]  But more about that later.

Saudi Arabia, as far as I know, is the only country in the world named for its ruling family.  It was founded, in 1932 by Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud (Ibn Saud).  However, Ibn Saud was preceded by nearly two hundred years of determined ancestors whose beliefs made the Puritans seem easy going.

It all began in the early 1700s.  At that time, Arabia was ruled, in principle, by the Ottoman Empire.  It was actually a land of many tribes who spent most of their time fighting each other.  One aspect of the society was the blood feud.  This was not unique to Arabs.  As in other cultures, the tribe of the murderer could pay a blood price to the aggrieved family.  If this failed, there existed an elaborate system of rules. Revenge could reach to the fifth generation and if the perpetrator died before the family of the  victim could take revenge, his nearest relative would be targeted.[3]  Loyalty to the tribe was essential for self-protection.

The Ottoman rulers were not terribly interested in Arabia.  Most of its interaction with the outside world was trade. From the time of Herodotus, North Arabia  produced many luxury goods, not available  elsewhere: frankincense, myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, and laudanum.  They also transferred spices, silks and other luxury goods from India and Yemen.  [4]

Both the Saud family and their religion came from the central region of the peninsula. known as the Najd. (plateau)  Surrounded by coastline and mountains, it was little explored and thought to be inhabited only by nomadic Bedouin traders.  However, hidden among the arid dunes were a number of oasis towns.  Under the Najd is an enormous glacial aquafer.  Grain, dates and other fruit were grown and the culture allowed time for poetry and study. [5]  Gertrude Bell in 1927 was still surprised by the oases, “ It was curious riding through hilly ways and cultivated country to-day after three weeks of desert.”[6]

Now the stage is set.  Imagine this remote, independent cluster of towns at the beginning of the eighteenth century.  Apart from trade and Muslim pilgrims, most inhabitants neither know nor care about the world outside.

Part Two, The Purifier of Islam

Mohammad ibn Ahd al-Wahhib was born in the town of Uyaina, in 1704.  He came from a family of scholars.  His father was a qadi, or judge according to the Hanbali school of shari’a law.  Ahd was Mohammad’s first teacher.  By the time he was ten Mohammad had memorized the Quran.  He  then went to Mecca on the hajd, or pilgrimage.  There he studied for a time, then continued to Medina for further education.  Over the years, he traveled as far as Bagdad and Damascus.[7]

In his studies and his travels, ibn Abd al-Wahhib was shocked at how far the Muslim population had strayed from the teaching of the Prophet.  He began preaching a return to the roots of Islam. Only the Qur’an, and the Hadith were authoritative.  Every innovation since then was shirk, idolatry.

In Islam at the time, many people believed in the power of saints to give aid to the living.  Pilgrims brought offerings to their graves.  They also believed in holy stones, trees and caves, soothsayers and the power of djinn, all of which horrified ibn al-Wahhib.  Even more, he was shocked by the mysticism of the Sufis, who tried to achieve oneness with Allah. This was blasphemy.

His book of Islam is still studied by all Wahhabi followers,  It has influenced radical fundamentalist groups such as Al-Quaeda, ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood. It begins with a commandment that may sound familiar:

“And verily, We have sent among every Ummah (community, nation) a Messenger (proclaiming): ‘Worship Allah (Alone), and avoid (or keep away from) Taghut (all false deities etc. i.e. do not worship Taghut besides Allah).’ 

In some places where he preached, local authorities were tolerant of his ideas.  However, many towns made a good income from the pilgrims. Others saw no problem with popular belief and considered ibn al-Wahhib a trouble maker.[8]  He was expelled from one place to another until he had the good fortune to land in Dariyah, the home of emir Mohammed ibn Saud, who “presented himself before the Sheikh as one of his students of Islam, along with his family.”[9]  This was the beginning of the partnership that would result in the formation of the theocracy of Saudi Arabia,

[1] Nawaf E. Obaid. “In Al-Saud We Trust”,   Foreign Policy, No. 128 (Jan. – Feb., 2002), p. 74

[2] Carlotta Gall. “How Kosovo Was Turned to Fertile Ground for ISIS” New York Times, (May 21, 2016)

[3] Alexi Vassiliev, History of Saudi Arabia, Saki Books, (2013) Kindle edition. Chapter One, p. 25 As a side note, there was a gang-related murder in Ireland recently where the victim was a relative of a target who could not be found,

[4] Sharifah M. Al-Boudi, “Najd, the Heart of Arabia”. Arab Studies Quarterly  (Summer, 2015)

[5] Al-Boudi p 10

[6] Gertrude Bell, Letters Jan. 10, 1927.

[7] Vassilev, Chapter 2 p. 3

[8]Joseph Nevo, “Religion and National Identity in Saudi Arabia”,  Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Jul., 1998), pp 37-38

[9] ‘Alamah’ Abd al-Rahman al-Sa’di. Explanation ‘ Of an by Mohammad Ibn Wahhadi ‘s Kitab the At-Tauhid ,   nd

______________________________________________________________________________IIf there is interest in my thumbnail sketch of how we got so entangled with Saudi Arabia and why I, along with many others, find it unsettling, let me know and I’ll post another piece on how we wound up in this situation.  There are many good books on the topic.  I’m writing for those who just want the basic information.  Thanks, Sharan.

My Women’s Shuffle inWashington

January 29, 2017


Here I am, totally ignorant of what will happen, trying on my pussy hat for the Women’s March on Washington. ( “SPES” by the way, is Latin for “hope”, something in short supply lately.)

People asked me why I felt I had to take my walker and go all the way across the country to do this when there were protests in town.  There are either too many answers to that, or none.  One reason is that more than half my ancestors have been in the country since before 1700.  They settled the land, served in the armies and government.  Some were kind, compassionate people, some weren’t.  Some clear cut trees for their fields, fought Natives in King Joseph’s War, owned slaves and persecuted Quakers.  One can be proud of Colonial ancestors but also see the results of their actions.

I stand with Standing Rock, because they were among those who pushed Natives onto reservations.  water-is-life


I stand for women’s rights because my  male ancestors refused to vote for them.susan-c-davis-young

I believe Black Lives Matter remembering how those of my family believed their lives were property.  black-women

In short, I believe in not repeating history but in working hard to make the world better and more equal for all.

So, I went to Washington and it was a euphoric experience.  Whatever you hear, I was surrounded by people of all ages, ethnic backgrounds, ages, genders and professions.  They say that there were so many causes that it was chaos.  I didn’t see one sign I didn’t agree with.  Heidi Stemple put it better than I can:

I’m seeing lots of criticism of the Women’s Marches. Let us all remember, that whatever it meant to each of us– every one of those reasons are important and significant. Did we save access to health care for women? Did we stop the pipeline or make undocumented people more safe? No. But, we needed each other and we showed up to prove that we are here and not to be taken lightly, forgotten, or discounted. We are women who, when pushed, will push back. Will letters or phone calls help these causes? Perhaps not. But, we, the daughters, mothers, lovers, and sisters, we will raise our voices and shout down those who wish to keep us down–every damn time– until the time when we find or make or learn other ways to make a difference. We ARE the wall. We will take care of the children you will leave behind and we will boil the water you make unsafe to drink. We will nurse the ill who have no access to health care. We will teach the science you refuse to believe. We will remember the souls you shoot and kill on the streets. We will form the secret networks to help all the people you care nothing about. We are not snowflakes. We are the people who birthed you, fed you, nurtured you. Do NOT mistake our femininity as weakness. Because, even when we are down, WE ARE NOT WITHOUT POWER.

What she said.  Here are some examples of the wonderful people who came out to support us all:



United Health Workers.  There were at least a hundred of them, with shirts, purple hats and stickers.  (They gave me one)  They marched for health care for all and better working conditions for those who do the real caring; home health workers, CNAs and nurses.


There were many people supporting gay and trans issues.



Domestic workers came to many of the marches all over the country.  They wanted respect, immigration reform, health care and decent pay.  Or, as they said. Human Rights for all.

These speak for themselves.  Personally, I think that a man wearing a pussyhat is very appealing. A man who takes his daughter to a march for human rights is a treasure and an example to fathers everywhere.


When your congress person votes to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, this young man is the one who will have fewer treatment and education options.  Many people were concerned about health care cost and availability.  I rant about this all the time.  We are the only first world country without national health.  Could is possibly be because there is such a powerful health insurance lobby ?


So, this is my new Facebook image, partly because I need to keep reminding myself not to fear and partly because I really would like to look as beautiful as she.


Crusades material and class plan

September 23, 2016

First of all, for those of you who have been patiently waiting for my report on the Saudi family, I’m still working on it. Every time I thought I was finished. I found something more.  I will finish it asap.

Now, for those of you taking my class on the Crusades, this is where you will find extra information and synopses of previous classes as well as my general ideas for the whole course.


This map will be on the screen at the next class.  In the last class we….

Set the scene by touching on the complexity of the situation in the three major areas: Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire (which they called the Roman Empire) and the Turkish Caliphs in Baghdad.  We also touched upon the various Christian sects in the east.  I forgot to mention that there were also at least three Jewish sects, Talmudic, Karite and Samaritan.  Yes, those Samaritans.

The idea of a Crusade to liberate Jerusalem from the Muslims had been floating about for some time.  Pope Gregory VII had tried to stir up interest in 1071.  Prof. Andrew Holt has an excellent article on this in his blog:

Why the call to a Crusade failed in 1071 and was wildly popular in 1095 is not easy to say.  There are a number of theories.  Some have been discarded by historians, such as the belief that invading the Holy Land would be an outlet for younger sons or that all of Europe blindly obeyed the pope. (They wished!)  One thing I stressed was that most individuals were very religious, if not respectful of clerical authority.  Whatever their other motivations, the remission of sins was a major reason to take the cross.

In the east the long wars between Byzantium and Baghdad had weakened both sides.  This was compounded by civil war among the Byzantines and loss of authority among other Islamic groups by the Sunnit Caliphs.  The Shi’ite Fatimids of Egypt were also moving into the Near East.  For the Caliphs, they were a greater threat than the  Christians.

We discussed the beginnings of the First Crusade and will go over this in the second class, along with the travel across Europe by both the “Peasant Army”  led by Peter the Hermit, and the “Army of the Barons”, led by an uneasy coalition of upper nobility.clearer-peter

The remaining five classes will cover:

2.  The First Crusade and settlement in the Crusader States.

3. The space between the Crusades and the acculturation of the new settlers as well as the reactions of Muslims, Eastern Christians, Jews and others to their arrival.

4. The Second and Third Crusades, both led by Kings.

5. The Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople leading to an altered attitude toward crusading.

6. Other “crusades”: the Albigensian Crusade in Southern France, the Children’s Crusade and the expeditions of Louis IX aka St. Louis.

Well, that’s the plan, anyway.  I’ll give you a reading list at the end so that you can fill in the gaps.



The Rules of War?

January 24, 2016


I’ve  been away for a few weeks and am later than usual in posting.  In spare moments, I have been researching the Koch brothers and the Saudi Royal family and, the more I do, the less difference I see between them. Did you know that the Koch brothers’ father was a founding member of the John Birch Society? Both families donate heavily to charities of their choosing and both show a wanton disregard for the rights of others. I’ll keep working on this, but it is very depressing.


So, while I’m depressed already, I thought I would discuss one of the more bizarre beliefs that seems to be shared by a number of people and, worse, governments. That is the myth that war has rules. I keep hearing that DAESH isn’t abiding by the rules of war, that everywhere civilians are being killed, hospitals bombed, people being raped and tortured and ancient art being destroyed.

Hello? That IS war. It isn’t two lines of eager volunteers in an empty field going at each other. That’s called football. War is when all laws, ethics and human decency break down. It’s when the people with weapons are encouraged to release their inner psychopaths. Civilization is simply the constant attempt to keep savagery tamped down. We aren’t doing a very good job of it at the moment, even though we’ve been trying for thousands of years.

(As a medievalist, I feel obliged to add here that, if the Catholic Church had been as powerful and good at mind control as many believe, then the Peace of God and the Truce of God would have ended war in Europe nine hundred years ago)

I think that a good first step would be to stop talking about rules of war and war crimes. War is a crime.

And, in my opinion, the ones with the guns aren’t the worst criminals. Many of the most terrifying crimes against humanity are committed by people in elegant offices with manicured fingers; people who donate to the charities of their choice.

p.s. I know nothing I say here is new, but it needs constant repeating if a real civilization has a chance.

Know Your Terrorist

November 20, 2015

I heard someone in politics say today that we have to refuse admittance to immigrants because this is a “very unique time”. This is incorrect on two counts. One: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS ‘VERY UNIQUE’. IT IS AN ABSOLUTE. Two: This is not a unique time. America has always wanted to lock the door after “our” people came in. In the 1800’s Irish Catholics were going to turn the country over to the Pope. Then the Italians were all anarchists (see Sacco and Vanzetti) Eastern Europeans would bring communism when they arrived in the 1920s. The Chinese and Japanese were too “oriental” ever to fit in. In the 1940s millions of those who died in concentration camps were refused any place of exile. Jews again, of course, but who even suggested that we let in Roma or homosexuals or the handicapped? They would destroy our society. In the 1970s there was a backlash against the Vietnamese who ate strange food and overran the fishing industry and weren’t well enough vetted to keep out the Viet Cong and communists. Apart from the fact that Latinos settled mainly in states that were originally colonized by Spain and might make people nervous that they’ll try to take back Texas, I’m not really sure why we are worried about them.

Now who are the terrorists?

  1. Timothy MeVeigh, a white American, killed 168 people, including many children in Oklahoma City, in 1995
  2. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, white Americans, killed thirteen students and one teacher at Columbine High School in 1999
  3. Wade Michael Page, a white American, killed six people in a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in 2012
  4. Adam Lanza, a white American, killed teachers and children at a Sandy Hook school in 2012
  5. James Egan Holmes, a white American, killed twelve people in a theater in Aurora CO. in 2012
  6. Dylan Roof, a white American, killed nine people in a church in Charleston SC. In 2015

There are too many more to keep track. If you’re feeling masochistic, add your own.

The glaring exception here is the Boston Marathon bombers, Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his brother, Dzhokhar.  They were white Chechnians who immigrated to America as children with their mother.  If you are wondering about the perpetrators or 9/11, all of them were here legally, coming from our good friend and ally, Saudi Arabia.  The shooter in Chattanooga this year, Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, was a naturalized US citizen who came from our other ally, Kuwait.

I tried to find a report of any of the fears about earlier immigrants coming true. Of course, there is some question about Italians bringing the Sicilian Mafia with them. Perhaps we should have been more careful about Italians.

What I do find is that almost all of these murderers were men under the age of thirty. Also, the shooters in Paris were young men. Most of the members of Boko Haram, DAESH, and The Lord’s Christian Army, are young men, although some were unwillingly recruited as child soldiers. Al Shabaab, actually means “youth” in Arabic.

See a pattern? Clearly, if we are going to censure a group for the deeds of a few, we should be rounding up all males between the ages of fifteen and thirty and putting them in “comfortable detention” camps until they are deemed to have no homicidal tendencies.

Makes sense to me, statistically.

An interim interview

September 20, 2015

While I’m trying to decide which terrorist to write about next, here is a very nice discussion I had recently with Candace Robb on her WordPress website.

Now, which do you think, the Koch brothers

Koch brothers

….or the Saudi Royal family?


They both are only know on the surface to most people and both scare me equally.

Know Your Terrorist: Bashar al-Assad and the Alawites

July 17, 2015

I know it’s been forever since I posted.  I have been working on this bloody article since April.  Finally, I realized that it wasn’t a dissertation, but a blog.  The main point is that we have ignored how much Alawite theology and history informs the state of Syria today.  Every time I started on this, I would read another article.  I followed the trail all over.  But you don’t need to know the history of the Ba’ath party or the Muslim Brotherhood and probably not the Gnostic elements in the religion.  So, here it is for the six or so of you faithful readers.  If you think it has merit, please pass it on.



Born on September 11, 1965, Bashar Hafez al-Assad is the second son of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, and his wife, Anisa. [i] Bashar received his early education in Damascus and studied medicine at the University of Damascus, graduating as an ophthalmologist in 1988. He then served as an army doctor at a Damascus military hospital and in 1992 moved to London to continue his studies.[ii] His older brother, Bassel, was intended to be the successor to their father. However, when Bassel died in a car crash in 1994, Bashar was brought in to take his place.

Fluent in Arabic, French and English, Bashar seemed to be a positive change from the iron rule of his father. However, events have proven that, if anything, he is more oppressive.

I’m not going into the labyrinthine recent history of Syria. It was part of the French Mandate, then part of Egypt under Nassar. The Assad family came into power only in 1980, when Hafez emerged as the leader after a coup. What interests me most is the religion that the Assads are associated with, Alawite. Without the support of others of the religion and without the accommodating nature of its beliefs, it’s doubtful that the family could have taken control of Syria.

I’ve seen very little in the mass media or in on-line comments about the Alawites, or Nusaryi as they were traditionally called. The more I’ve learned about their beliefs, the better I understand why Assad is still in power and why there was an uprising against him in the first place.

The Nusaryi religion is a syncretic mystery sect. It is syncretic because it draws from a number of other faiths, including Zoroastrian, Christian and Islamic. It was also influenced by gnostic traditions in Iraq, where the sect began.[iii] The mystery part comes from the oaths members take never to reveal the dogma or rituals of the religion. The little that is known of these come from apostates who gave Nusaryi books to outsiders.[iv]

The Alawite/Nusaryi sect began in Bagdad in the early days of Islam. It developed from Twelver Shi’ism, probably in the 10th century.[v] But, unlike other forms of Shi’ism, it was also heavily influenced by other religions in the area.

“First, from paganism the Alawis adopted the idea of a divine triad, of its successive manifestation in the seven cycles of world history, and of the transmigration of souls. God revealed Himself to the worlds seven different times: each time with two persons who, with God, made a holy trinity. The Alawis also believe that at first all Alawis were stars in the world of light, into which a virtuous Alawi is transformed upon death. A sinning Alawi becomes a Jew, Muslim or Christian. Second, from Shi’a, Islam the Alawis took over the belief in a system of successive divine emanations and the cult of Ali (the Prophet’s cousin and his son-in-law). Unlike other Shi’ites, the Alawis believe that Ali was the incarnation of God Himself in a divine triad: Ali is the Ma’na (meaning or essence); Muhammad, whom Ali created in his own light, is the Ism (name), and Salman al-Farsi (the Persian; one of the Companions of the Prophet) is al-Bab ( the gate). This is the most distinguishing feature of the Alawi religion, namely the centrality of Ali, whom the Alawis deify. Third, in common with Isma’ili Shi’ites, the Alawis subscribe to the idea of an esoteric religious knowledge hidden from the masses and revealed to only a few who are initiated into the secrets in a lengthy and complex initiation. In fact, both the Isma’ili and the Alawis are known in Arabic as al-batiniyah, referring to the undisclosed tenets of their religion.”

They also have drawn some of their ritual from Christianity. They celebrate Christmas and sacramental wine is an important part of their ceremonies, particularly that of initiation.[vi]

There are two important aspects of the Alawite religion. The first is that the beliefs and rituals are intensely secret. No women and only a few of the men are admitted to the full mystical dogma of the sect.[vii] The second is that they were persecuted by both Sunni and Shi’ite rulers throughout their existence. These things combined to create the most important tenet of the Alawite religion; one can and should lie about one’s faith. This, known as taqiya, led naturally to dissimulating about everything else. Alawites are not Muslims and most Muslims consider them heretics, at best. But they are able to perform Sunni or Shi’ite rituals with no compunction when called upon. There is an Alawite saying. “However a man dresses does not change him. So we remain always Nusayris, even though we externally adopt the practices of our neighbors. Whoever does not dissimulate is a fool, for no intelligent person goes naked in the market.”[viii]

In 1940, as part of a new pan-Arab movement, a group of thirteen Nusaryi sheiks sent a letter to the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, asking for a fatwa, or decree, stating that they were Muslim. The letter stated the basic tenets of the faith and assured the Mufti that they followed all of these. Amazingly, the Mufti and his advisors granted this. Why they did is difficult to say, since they presumably knew of the practice of taqiya.   From this time, the Nusaryi officially were known as Alawite.[ix]


            This demonstrates how Assad can with apparent sincerity tell the world that he has no chemical weapons. Then he says, whoops, has some but he’ll turn them over to the UN. Oh dear, he found a few more but he won’t use them. And, of course, he would never drop chlorine bombs on his own people. But, the people he’s bombing are Syrians, often Sunni or Christian or Druze. I presume he would never attack fellow Alawites. At least, that’s what he says.

In many ways, the rise of the Alawite power is much like that of other minorities who took over governments. They were generally reviled and persuted. Living in the mountains near Latakia, they were looked on as illiterate bumpkins. Sunni families in Damascus and other places hired them as maids and laborers, often under servile conditions.[x] Over the centuries, they acquired a reputation for a fierce isolationism. In addition to praying for the damnation of their Sunni enemies, Alawis attacked outsiders. They acquired a reputation as fierce and unruly mountain people who resisted paying the taxes they owed the authorities and frequently plundered Sunni villagers on the plains.”[xi]

Under the French Mandate of 1922, the Alawite’s were granted their own state in and around Latakia. Finally finding protection from their Sunni persecutors, they welcomed French colonial oversight. When the Mandate ended in 1946, and the Sunnis regained power, the Alawites joined with other minorities, Druze and Christians, in several attempts to overthrow them. They also began to join the Syrian army, a job considered low class by most Sunni Syrians. [xii]

With the support of the largely Alawite military, Bashar’s father, Hafiz, came to power in November, 1970, in a bloody coup. His consequent oppression of Sunnis led to the rise of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, which committed several massacres of Alawites in 1979 and 1980, although they failed in their attempts to assassinate Hafiz.[xiii]330px-Hafez_al-Assad

Thanks to his father, who cultivated the Soviets, Bashar al-Assad has a well-armed army that he doesn’t hesitate to turn on his own people. The destruction of Aleppo and other cities is a repeat of the razing by Hafiz of large sections of centers of rebellion.[xiv]

In the years since 1970, the Syrian government has endured many revolts. Most of these it has quashed through force and dissimulation. It is known that Bashar al-Assad buys oil from the (self-named) Islamic State.[xv] Theoretically, he should be opposed to the extremist Sunni group that executes anyone who differs from their narrow view of Islam. One wonders if Bashar is still practicing ­taqiya to encourage his natural enemy to turn its sights to Iraq in exchange for cash.

With the dramatic brutality of the Islamic State, Bashar al-Assad has moved to the back pages.   The beleaguered citizens who have held out against him for almost four years are no longer noticed except when they flee to other countries. In Damascus, Assad still seems to be solidly entrenched, dropping bombs on his people, arresting and torturing those who oppose him and destroying more historical monuments than the Islamic State has managed to do. But, following the dictates of his faith, he has hidden behind dissimilation to misdirect the world’s attention toward the flashier terrorists. It was his behavior and that of his father that allowed the rise of, note only the Islamic State, but also the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet I wonder who will be left when the dust finally settles.


[i] Bashar al-Assad. [Internet]. 2015. The website. Available from: [Accessed 28 Jun 2015].

[ii] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “Bashar al-Assad”, accessed June 28, 2015,

[iii] Yaron Friedman. “al-Husayn ibn Hamdân al-Khasîbî: A Historical Biography of the Founder of the Nusayrî-‘Alawite Sect” Studia islamica No. 93, 2001. p. 92

[iv] Bella Tendler Krieger. Marriage, Birth, and batini tawil: A Study of Nusayri Initiation Based on the Kitab al-Hawi fi ilm al-fatawi of Abu Sa’id Maymun al-Ta barani” Arabica 58, 2011 p. 55

[v][v] For an explanation and history of the Twelvers, see: Andrew Newman. Twelver Shiism: Unity and Diversity in the Life of Islam, 632 to 1722. Edinburgh University Press, 2013

[vi] Krieger, p. 56

[vii] Daniel Pipes. “The Alawi Capture of Syria”. Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 25, No. 4 (Oct., 1989), 431

[viii] Quoted in Pipes. P. 433

[ix] Paulo Boneschi. “Une fatwà du Grand Muftī de Jérusalem Muḥammad ʾAmīn al-Ḥusaynī sur les ʿAlawītes” . Revue de l’histoire des religions. Vol 122 (1940) pp. 42-54

[x] Mahmud A. Faksh. “The Alawi Community of Syria: A New Dominant Political Force” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Apr., 1984) p. 133

[xi] Pipes. 436

[xii] Faksh. p. 143

[xiii] Amy Dockser. “Assad Hangs on”. Harvard International Review, Vol. 6, No. 4 (Jan/Feb 1984), p. 29

[xiv] Alysdair Drysdale. “The Asad [sic] Regime and Its Troubles”. MERIP Reports, No. 110, Syria’s Troubles (Nov. – Dec., 1982) p. 8

[xv] Mark Piggot. “Isis Crisis: An Unholy Alliance ‘Islamic State Selling Oil to President Assad’s Regime”.   International Business Report. Sept. 13, 2014 There are many more reports of this, including ABC news, the New York Times and Time Magazine.

Still working

March 7, 2015

I apologize to all three of you for not posting more. I have this problem with research: I do it. One thing leads to another and another. I’ve noticed that it’s incredibly easy to spout some unfounded “fact” off the top of one’s head or somewhere. It takes forever to check it and find out if it is totally imaginary, a half-truth, something out of context or even accurate.

So please excuse me while I track down what I can about who the real terrorists are. When I post it, there will be references.