US Financial Meltdown – Too Big to Fail

Too Big to Fail

by Andrew Ross Sorkin

This is an absorbing book that takes readers through the financial meltdown from inside the banking institutions. It reads like a novel because Sorkin has pieced together private conversations from meetings and telephone calls as executives scrambled to save their businesses and government leaders struggled to find a soft landing for the U.S. economy.

Much like in  Conspiracy of Fools (about the Enron debacle by Kurt Eichenwald), Sorkin shows the actors caught in a vice of greed and ego as they try to shift blame, hold on to power and protect their wealth. Readers like me will have a difficult time comprehending the salaries and bonuses that these titans of destruction “earned”. The figures range from single-digit millions to three digit millions of dollars.

Islam: The Straight Path by Kurt Esposito and The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe

Islam: The Straight Path by Kurt Esposito and The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe

by Jytte  Klausen

Americans are quick to judge, and too often swing the finger of blame across an entire group of people. Such, I believe, is the case with Muslims. There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world and 1.6 million live in the United States.  Only a small fraction of these people can honestly be labeled as terrorists. They are, rather, faithful adherents to the world’s second largest religion, and loyal citizens of the countries in which they live.

I do not dismiss the danger of radical religious terrorists, Muslim or otherwise.  But it is crucial that we don’t brand all Muslims as enemies of the USA. Part of the problem in this country is that we do not understand Islam. These two books offer  a thoughtful and clear discussion of Islam and the Muslim people, from Muhammad and the Quran to the religion and politics of contemporary Islam. I highly recommend them.

Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11

Prodigal Nation: Moral Decline and Divine Punishment from New England to 9/11

by Andrew Murphy

In this book, Murphy examines the way in which the America jeremiad ( a term meaning a long lamentation, taken from the lamentations of Jeremiah) has influenced national identity. He combines historical themes with scholarly research to help us understand the power of religious yearning in shaping both liberal and conservative thought.

He focuses on three periods: the Puritan era, the jeremiads at the time of the Civil War, and those of the Christian right through present day. His approach is both that of a historian and a political scientist.

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years

by Diarmaid MacCulloch

This book is a 1161-page tome, delightfully written in  engaging language by an Oxford scholar of church history. I am reading “in” the book, moving from subject to subject rather than starting at page one and slogging through. MacCulloc describes himself as “a candid friend of Christianity.

I still appreciate the seriousness which a religious mentality brings to the mystery and misery of human existence, and I appreciate the solemnity of religious liturgy as a way of confronting these problems… I live with the puzzle of wondering how something so apparently crazy can be so captivating to millions of other members of my species.”

If the cornerstone of your Christian belief is in a literal understanding of the Bible, this book is not for you. If, like me, you understand the bible as an eclectic mix of history, stories and myths that points to truth rather than claiming fact, you will love it.

MacCulloch begins his story a millennium before Jesus. He writes that “Within the cluster of beliefs making up Christian faith is an instability which comes from a twofold ancestry. Far from simply being the pristine innovative teachings of Jesus Christ, it draws on two much more ancient cultural wellsprings, Greece and Israel” and Romans.

And how the interactions of religion, social institutions and politics forged the emerging Christian identity. He concludes the book with and examination of the culture wars, 1960 through the present day. In the book and in the subtitle, MacCulloch “invites the reader to consider whether Christianity has a future (the indications, it must be said, can hardly be other than affirmative),; yet it also points to the fact that what became Christian ideas have a human past in the minds of people who lived before the time of Jesus Christ.”

Book Review – Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea

by Greg Mortenson and David Relin

There is one person I would suggest that President Obama spend some time with before making a final decision on Afghanistan: Greg Mortenson. Mortenson is a man whose greatest successes were prompted by a nearly-catastrophic failure. He was forced to stop short of the summit of the world’s second tallest mountain, he lost his way down and ended up in a small, isolated rural village where he found his life’s work.

Mortenson’s story is recounted in a gripping book, Three Cups of Tea, that he wrote with David Oliver Relin. The book tells how Mortenson built and/or funded 131 schools that provide education for 58,000 students, 44,000 of whom are girls. It tells how he built relationships with Islamic, village and tribal leaders, overcame fatwehs from Islamic mullahs, and spent days in the captivity of kidnappers.

He went from being investigated by the CIA and having his life threatened by right-wing bozos after 9/11 because he was trying to educate Muslim children, to being sought out by General David Petraeus and Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Three Cups of Tea is now required reading for senior military commanders, for special forces deploying in Afghanistan, and military officers in counter-insurgency training. Mortenson has addressed the senior leadership at the Pentagon and visited more than 25 military bases, including all three military academies.

Mortenson told a group of military leaders that “I supported the war in Afghanistan. I believed in it because I believed that we were serious when we said we planned to rebuild Afghanistan. I am here (the Pentagon) because I know that military victory is only the first phase of winning the war on terror and I’m afraid we’re not willing to take the next steps.”

He then told the officers about the tribal traditions of fighting war: the warring parties hold a “jirga” before doing battle, “to discuss how many losses they were willing to accept, since victors were expected to care for the widows and orphans of the rivals they have vanquished. People in that part of the world are used to death and violence, and if you tell them, ‘We’re sorry your father died, but he died a martyr so Afghanistan could be free ‘…and if you offer them compensation and honor their sacrifice, I think people will support us. But the worst thing you can do is what we are doing— ignoring the victims… calling them collateral damage and not even counting the numbers of dead. Because to ignore them is to deny they ever existed, and you will never be forgiven.”

If President Obama visited with him, I imagine that Mortenson would tell him that story, and he would point out that we have “launched 114 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan… now take the cost of one of those missiles with a Raytheon guidance system, which I think is about $840,000. For that much money you could build dozens of schools that could provide tens of thousands of students with balanced non-extremist education over the course of a generation. Which do you think will make us more secure?”

He would also probably tell the president what he told a Republican congressman who interrupted Mortenson during a speech. “Building schools for kids is fine and dandy”, the Congressman said, “But our primary need as a nation now is security. Without security, what does all this matter?”

Mortenson replied that “I don’t do what I am doing to fight terror. I do it because I care about kids… but working over there, I’ve learned a few things. I’ve learned that terror doesn’t happen because some group of people somewhere like Pakistan or Afghanistan simply decide to hate us. It happens because children aren’t being offered a bright enough future that they have a reason to choose life over death.”

I think that Mortenson would share his belief that the Wahhabi madrassas are “sprouting like cancerous cells”, and billions of dollars from Saudi sheiks are carried into the region in suitcases “to fuel factories of jihad”. One of the congresspersons who heard him speak would tell the president that “I’ve learned more from Greg about the causes of terrorism than I did during all of our briefings on Capitol Hill.”

It seems clear to me that the only way to “win” in central Asia is to win the hearts and minds of a people whose culture we haven’t taken the time to understand. Our tactics-without-strategy have hardened Pakistani and Afghani hearts against us and filled their minds with hatred. Bombing villages, destroying homes and killing civilians who we dismiss as collateral damage is a sure way to lose.

Greg Mortenson can give the president a first-hand account of what is happening in those hearts and minds, and how it is that we can build the relationships that could lead to a generation of peace.