The Bosnians of Salt Lake City and the best Balkan quote ever


A rather wonderful illustration of how the earthiness of Bosnian culture confounds assumptions about a puritanical Islam is provided by Ed Vulliamy in his book The War is Dead, Long Live the War.

He writes about the surprisingly large community of Bosnians in Salt Lake City. It is replete with examples of how the earthiness of the Bosnians contrasts with the clean cut mormons. This is wonderfully summed up by a welder named Arnel Begovic who says:

“Mormon man is crazy man. He is Christian, he have five wives and do not drink. I am Muslim, I have one wife and I want a drink!”*

You can read much of what Vulliamy has to say in this article though not alas Begovic’s quote.

*Mormons don’t really practice polygamy anymore but the quotes still funny

The story of my favourite blog post

depression xalt

My favourite blog post ever is Hyperbole and a half’s wonderful explanation of what it’s like to have depression. Salon carries an interview with its author Allie Brosh.

Having known several people who suffer from depression, I know it’s a hard thing to talk about — let alone share with the world. Why did you write about depression?

I thought a lot about this, and I think that putting it out there was sort of my way of owning it. You know, taking this scary thing, the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and just looking at it, and examining how absurd it is, was really liberating.

I’ve been working on [the post] for a very long time. Probably over a year. Once the depression got bad – my way of sorting through things and finding out how to progress during a difficult time in my life is really to think about it. I’m sort of a self-fixer — where if something’s wrong I just go into my head and just think about it and think about it until I find some way to either fix it or deal with it mentally, and in the process of that, I do a lot of writing, just to sort things out. So I’d written part one, and I thought it was over after I’d written that, like, “Oh yeah, that was my experience with depression and it’s done now!” That was not the case. Very much not the case.

What kind of feedback did you get?

I got a lot of feedback – depression is such an isolating experience, and because of that it’s sort of surprising to see how many people sort of feel the same way or identify with this totally isolating experience I went through. And yeah, I like seeing how helpful it was to people; there were some people who didn’t even realize they were depressed, and they got help because of it. People who wouldn’t have felt comfortable talking about it, were coming up and talking to me about it. So it was helpful, it was helpful to me to see – as it would be helpful for a reader to see this and think, I’m not alone, it was helpful for me to get that feedback from people.

Hilarious And Heartbreaking

The story behind my favourite blog post

The Dish

Danger Response Comic

Allie Brosh, author of the brilliant web-comic Hyperbole and a Half, has published her first book. In an interview, Brosh discusses her approach to comedy:

Stand-up was originally the thing that I wanted to do. I love stand-up, I watch a lot of it, I’m just very, very into stand-up. It’s always been a dream of mine to do that. I haven’t figured out how to do it in a way that I feel comfortable with. I almost think my writing and drawing is a result of my attempts to – subconscious attempts, of course – to bring the look or the feel of stand-up to this inanimate space. So there is more of facial expressions in drawings, so there is more of that sense of watching someone’s facial expressions and body language while you’re listening to them tell you jokes.

Linda Holmes applauds Brosh for writing so…

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The hollowness of Islamic banking and its lessons for Christians

The promise of Islamic finance

The UK government is apparently planning to sell £200 million worth of bonds that are compatible with the rules of Islamic finance. This is symbolic of the growth of so-called sharia compatible investments.

There are high hopes of Islamic finance amongst some of its promoters. For some of those who are trying to create new regimes in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, it appears to offer a new political economy for a new political order. The ban on the charging of interest is supposed to create a market economy without capitalism: giving people freedom to trade without being exploitation by the owners of finance capital.

 Why that promise is not delivered on

John Esposito, a professor of Islamic studies, asks rhetorically:

Where are the 10 largest Islamic Finance banks: Saudi Arabia? Kuwait? Qatar? or even Malaysia which has positioned itself to be the global capital for Islamic banking? If you guessed any of these or indeed any country in the Muslim world, you would be wrong. While Islamic banks do exist in many Muslim countries, the 10 largest Islamic finance institutions are European and American banks. UBS, HSBC, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Standard Chartered, Lloyds, Swiss re, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are some of the leading Western institutions that have rushed to the Shariah-compliant market. To assure their acceptability, all have Shariah advisory boards, made up of well-credentialed Islamic scholars.

It is often argued that Islam is too inflexible to accommodate itself to modernity, for which the weak economic and social development of much of the Islamic world is often cited as evidence. That Islamic banking has been accommodated into the global financial system in this way is a strong indication that ways can be found to comply with ‘sharia’ law whilst still participating in activities considered essential for living in an advanced economy such as borrowing and saving money.

On the other hand, for those who had hoped that that Islamic finance can provide an alternative to Western capitalism the compatibility of the two must be disturbing. Timur Kuran, a Turkish American professor of economics has branded Islamic banking as “a mighty deceit” because “Islamic banks give and take interest as a matter of course, though under the guise of commissions, fees, penalties or profit shares. The holder of a “halal” credit card pays a penalty on unpaid balances; this penalty is proportionate to the size of the balance, which makes it equivalent to interest. The sharia code was suited to the Middle Ages, when it assumed its classical form. At least on matters of economics and finance, it has not advanced measurably since then. To regain economic usefulness, it would have to be modified so extensively as to make it unrecognisable.”

Why this matters to Christians

I would suggest that this is also relevant to debates within Christianity. What conservative evangelicals are trying to do to Christianity is at a certain level trying to make it more like Islam: a faith centred on an inerrant scripture delivered direct from God that yields a set of binding and inflexible set of moral precepts. They also have a tendency to suggest that Christians who advocate a less legalistic form of the faith are seeking an easier faith. On the contrary as Islamic finance shows it is legalism that is easy. A set of specific rules can either be complied with or not. Hence Islamic theology tends to affirm the possibility of an individual saving themselves from sin. By contrast, it is virtually impossible not to fall short of the command to “love others as we love ourselves” hence the Christian emphasis on us being rescued by God’s grace

Correction Of The Day

American conservatives are rapidly rendering satire obsolete

The Dish

From the WSJ dealing with an op-ed they commissioned from – no, I’m not kidding – Suzanne Somers:

An earlier version of this post contained a quotation attributed to Lenin (“Socialized medicine is the keystone to the arch of the socialist state”) that has been widely disputed. And it included a quotation attributed to Churchill (“Control your citizens’ health care and you control your citizens“) that the Journal has been unable to confirm.

Also, the cover of a Maclean’s magazine issue in 2008 showed a picture of a dog on an examining table with the headline “Your Dog Can Get Better Health Care Than You.” An earlier version of this post incorrectly said the photo showed and headline referred to a horse.

It was not a long article. Update from a reader:

You mock the Wall Street Journal for publishing Suzanne Somers’ silly, error-filled piece on Obamacare. But the…

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Why Macedonia sits next to Thailand at the UN


In the ancient world, Macedonia was a small Greek speaking kingdom around modern day Thessaloniki. Then Alexander the Great converted it into a mighty empire. This piece of ancient history underlines one of the most bizarre disputes in European politics.

In 1991, the Yugoslav province of Macedonia declared its independence. This created tension with its neighbour to the south: Greece. This was underlain by complicated issues of ethnic identity – of which more later – but it was to be boiled down to one essential question: what was the new state to be called.


The new state referred to itself as the ‘republic of Macedonia’ but this met with furious opposition from Greece. In protest they vetoed Macedonia’s accession to the UN and other international organisations. As a compromise to overcome this veto Macedonia joined these organisations on the condition that they refered to it as ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’

This set the stage for the absurd spectacle of bickering about where Macedonia would sit in the UN chamber:

Greece rejected seating the Republic’s representative under M [as in “Macedonia (former Yugoslav Republic of)”], and the Republic rejected sitting under F (as in “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, which turned the reference into a proper noun rather than a description). Instead, it was seated under T as “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and placed next to Thailand.

So what’s all this about? Well Greece and Macedonia are fighting over the ownership of the idea of Macedonia. Greeks took the new republic’s name as a challenge to the legitimacy of a region in northern Greece also called “Macedonia.” Greece suggested that the name implied a territorial claim on its own Macedonian region and an attempt by the Slavic population of Macedonia to co-opt the heritage of the Ancient Greek Macedonians.

This can all seem rather trivial – and on one level it is – but it’s having real consequences. It is a barrier to Macedonia’s accession to the EU and NATO. It has also had an unhelpfully inflammatory effect on Macedonia’s unstable internal politics. The country’s government has responded to the stand off by emphasing its ancient history – much to the irritation of its Albanian minority who feel excluded from that heritage.


The Greeks at Srebrenica: a warning from history?


Why a horrifying massacre twenty years ago should raise alarm bells about the potential repercussions of the Eurozone crisis

Do you want to be scared about the Eurozone crisis? Then read a book about the war in Bosnia. The Greek journalist Takis Micas’ Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic’s Serbia includes an account of how around a dozen Greek soldiers came to be in Srebrenica in July 1995.

The Massacre

Before that month, this small town in eastern Bosnia was known – to the limited extent it was known at all – for salt mining and spas. After that it would be known as the site of the worst massacre in Europe since the Holocaust. The town had been declared by the UN as a safe zone and thousands of Bosnian Muslim refugees fled there from neighbouring Serb controlled areas. However, when it came under siege, rather than defend it, the UN peacekeeping force turned it over to the Bosnian Serb forces. What ensued in the following days is close to unspeakable. Men of fighting age were separated off from the rest of the refugees and were systematically executed. Many women were raped and tortured. Those refugees who’d fled into the hills found themselves in a desperate race to get out of Serb territory before they were hunted down and killed. By the end, more than 8,000 people had been murdered.

The Greeks who participated in this atrocity belonged to the Greek Volunteer Guards, a unit of the Bonsian Serb army, composed mostly of mercenaries and members of the far right. In fact, when the town was captured by the Bosnian Serbs, their commander Ratko Mladić ordered that the Greek flag be flown over the city.


Greek volunteers with the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic

The Unholy Alliance

While it would be unfair to read too much into the actions of a dozen men – people from many countries fought in the war – their actions were unfortunately a microcosm for Greek attitudes to the war. People and politicians alike at best ignored and at worst actively condoned the atrocities being committed. Michas describes how during the nineties a Serb journalist working on his magazine was frequently approached by strangers who would congratulate him on the “great work you guys are doing.” Michas also points to polling evidence showing that not only was there near universal opposition to NATO’s military action amongst Greeks but that a clear majority said they actually approved of Milosevic’s regime.

This support manifested itself in many ways. Greek officials passed the information they obtained from NATO briefings to the Serb military. Priests from the Greek Orthodox Church blessed Serb units. And the Greek government helped break the economic sanctions against Serbia.

The Scary Part

The obvious explanation for Greece’s support for Serbia is their shared Orthodox Christian heritage and fear of a Muslim enemy – Bosnia and Turkey. But Michas suggests there is more to it than that. He suggests his country is defined by ethnic rather than civic nationalism. Modern Greece was formed by population transfers that purged it of its non-Greek inhabitants. Michas suggests that this created a political culture that allowed Greeks to see the actions of their co-religionists as excusable or even commendable.

Golden Dawn party members

Golden Dawn party members

The alarming part of this in the context of the Eurozone crisis is this: if Greeks were prepared to condone mass murder in Bosnia and Kosovo, might they do the same in their own country? Yugoslavia fell into bloody chaos after an economic crisis pushed the country to accept an international bailout the terms of which lead to a recession that sent unemployment skyrocketing. That gave extreme nationalists the chance to gain power. Now a decade and half later Greece is suffering a post bailout economic crisis and its own extreme nationalists are on the march. Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi movement that supplied many of the members of the Greek Volunteer Guards is now the third largest party in Greece. Its members have been linked with numerous acts of violence and even mainstream parties are pushing a progressively more extreme line on the treatment of migrants. For these reasons it would be a mistake to think that the dangers of the austerity policies being pushed by the Troika are purely economic: a bad bailout can lead to genocide.