30 January, 2010

The Six Blind Men and an Elephant

I came across this fabulous poem by John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887). It is based on an old Indian legend.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -"Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he,
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

26 January, 2010

The Burkha Dilemma

A recent publication in France recommends the option of banning the use of islamic burkhas in public places, BBC reports. Why would they want to do that? Let's see what a French politician had to say about it:
"This divisive approach is a denial of the equality between men and women and a rejection of co-existence side-by-side, without which our republic is nothing."

"It is the symbol of the repression of women, and... of extremist fundamentalism. "

- Bernard Accoyer, President of the National Assembly of France

In the report itself it is said that the use of burkhas is "against the French republican principles of secularism and equality" (BBC).

Looking at the above statements, it is not still very clear what the actual reasons are, or what they're trying to say when talking about burkhas being against equality. Shouldn't it be everybody's right to wear what she chooses to? The second statement by Mr Accoyer reveals, that the matter of equality rests on the assumption that the burkha is a means of repressing islamic women. Anyway, in my humble opinion the reasons for banning burkhas can be summed up in the following way:
  1. Secularism
  2. Equality
  3. Public safety
  4. Nationalism
Secularism is the belief that state and church should be separated. The ideas of secularism can also be applied in the spirit that everyone's beliefs (or the lack of them) are an entirely personal matter. Stretching the argument a little further, it can be argued that it is wrong to preach to others about one's own beliefs. The use of a burkha or a hijãb is interpreted as preaching or "bringing religion too much in the open". Some who advocate the banning of islamic clothing also want to ban other religious clothing and adornments as well, making a coherent secular argument from a mainly atheist viewpoint.

As I said before, the equality argument rests primarily on the premise that traditional islamic clothing is mainly used for repressing women. They make communication much harder and force the woman to live inside her own clothing as a prisoner would, cut off from the rest of society. There is no reliable data on how many islamic women wear the traditional outfit willingly. Therefore, this makes for a pretty unreliable argument. And even if some are forced to dress in this way, what about those who do it willingly? Are we not restricting their lives with the ban, thus reducing equality? For me, the point is that if the repression of women is the problem here, it must be dealt with separately and not be connected to islam directly.

Public safety
Ok, here's an actual reason for once. Dressing in a burkha and covering one's face makes identification impossible, pure and simple. How can we give passports or any other documents to people not willing to reveal their faces? Or even if they have a passport, how can we trust it? For the moment, we can't. The use of biotechnology may change that however, as an retinal scanner might be a good solution to this, though an expensive one. Another option would be the use of fingerprints in all documents with a picture.

A reason that is completely left unnoticed in public media is nationalism. In Europe, nationalism has been on the rise throughout the first decade of the new millennia. The Al-Qaedan terrorist attacks conjured a backlash of nationalism, especially against islam, that is felt today in Europe. I've seen even arguments against islamic immigration because "they are bad", "they're evil" and "they want to conquer Europe". I mean, what the hell? Who are "they" anyway? And I really don't feel that the islamic people I come across in Helsinki are of any significant threat - even if they're wearing burkhas.

As a conclusion, I'd say that this burkha-ban is another case of intelligent dishonesty, where the real agenda is preventing islamic immigration. There are approximately 2000 burkha-wearers in France, and I'm not really confident about French politicians being so sympathetic for them as to be concerned about their (alleged) repression. Secularism, even in France, is not a coherent reason either, as they haven't called for a ban of all religious clothing. Public safety is the only plausible reason, but that wasn't even mentioned in the BBC report. Not sure about the original French report though, since I haven't read that. But still, I feel this is mostly a clear case of religious backlash.

06 January, 2010


During my Christmas holidays I read Juha Vakkuri's book Afrikan poikki (Across Africa freely translated). In the book Vakkuri describes his journey across Africa from Dakar to Djibouti, using almost exclusively "public transport", meaning the transportation available to normal African citizens. That is mainly buses and so-called "bush taxis", which, I gather, are just people driving their cars and offering rides to other people. Kind of illegal taxis, I guess, except they go from city to city.

Anyway, reading the book made a deep impression on me. As much as a journey across Africa and into the African culture, it was a journey into my own mind. I realized that I'm an adventurer at heart. Looking back at the best experiences I've had I could see a clear pattern: I've most thoroughly enjoyed things that have made me see or experience something new, something maybe a bit uncommon - something I wouldn't come across naturally.

The trips to Slovenia and London last summer, orienteering in Spain, being at the cottage in summer 2008, they all have the adventure aspect in common. All those trips were more or less foolhardy, idealistic - or just plain odd. Some of those have made people question my sanity (which I do daily) but hey, you only got one chance in this world! Better make the most of it now, while I still have the chance! :) And to be honest, all those trips have marked the high points in my life, and I definitely wouldn't change a day!

Applying this adventure aspect theory further into learning seems to work as well. I love to learn new things, and don't care much for delving very deep into one subject. I guess I'm one of those people who'd rather know something about everything that everything about something. And all the adventuring fits into my interest for philosophy as well. After all, philosophy is just one big adventure - you venture out into the world of ideas, thoughts and theories armed with nothing except your own reason.

So, after discovering my inner adventurer, what is going to change in my life? Well, I can't be sure, really. All of my previous adventures have been a little unexpected, they've been the end result of pure luck and a bit of opportunism. To improve my chances, I think I'll just try to see more opportunities around me and embrace them in an even more foolhardy manner :) Whatever the result, an experience is usually worth all the trouble!

Obviously this is what I mean: