Monthly Archive for September, 2010

I Slam, You Slam, We All Slam for Islam!

Muslims walkin' the walk in Mecca.

Today is September 11th. The nation is awash in remembrances of that awful day, so I won’t add to the million-fold choir. Instead, I’d like to talk about the undercurrent of today’s mourning: Islam and America’s relationship to it.

Since Americans are woefully ignorant of Islam, let me set the stage by whipping together a quick history lesson on the subject.

Around 610AD, a guy named Muhammad was hanging out in a cave in what we now call Saudi Arabia. He was a religious fellow who was into meditation and religious thought. He was well aware of Judaic thoughts and teachings as well as that upstart Christian ideology. He liked all this stuff, and he wanted to figure it all out. There had to be a higher finality to all this stuff.

One day, he was chillin’ in his cave when the angel Gabriel appeared and told him to stop moping in that stupid cave and go forth to proclaim the glory of God. This freaked him out, as you can well imagine. But after the initial shock, he put his nose to the grindstone and began writing the early Qur’anic verses.

I like my head, so here's a representation of "Muhammad".

All that time spent cogitating in that cave really paid off. Muhammad wrote all kinds of things about history, ethics, Abrahamic law, best practices for eating and living, interesting parables, rules for family life and all the other things that make religion such a pain in the ass to follow. Most of all, he wanted everyone to know that God (Allah) was One. No trinities, no spirits in the rocks, no angry musclemen throwing lightning bolts from the clouds.

Allah, he figured, is the same True God (Yahweh) that the Jews worship, and is also the Being Incarnate of Christianity’s Holy Trinity. He is The One (not Neo), and it was pretty damn important to Muhammad that everyone knew this.

The prophet business is tough, but Muhammad was tougher. Just like Moses and Jesus before him, he built a core audience of fans then started spreading the Word far and wide. And like Moses and Jesus, this didn’t sit well with the entrenched authorities.

Sometimes you have to coax people into submitting to God.

His new religion was called Islam, which translates roughly to “submission”, a way of life that involves submission to God in all of one’s actions and duties. It’s a concept not far removed from the other religions of the day, but Muhammad was uncompromising in his emphasis on submitting oneself to God’s will. And not just on Sundays.

Eventually, Muhammad and Islam clashed with the powers that be. Rather than bore you (and me) with the details, suffice it to say that battles were won and lost throughout the Middle East until eventually the forces of Islam conquered all.

In his dotage, Muhammad had not only established a new religion as commanded by the angel Gabriel, he also unified the Arabian tribes of the Middle East into one coherent civilization. He really went out on top.

Before he shuffled off his mortal coil, Muhammad appointed four dudes to carry on his work. He called them “caliphs”. They would be the primary bureaucratic leaders of the new empire. To this day, the Sunni Muslims consider the original four caliphs and their descendants to be the true line of continuity for the faithful. The Shi’ite Muslims, however, feel that one of the four, a dude named Ali, was actually the bestest and truest caliph of them all, so they pay homage only to the hereditary line of Ali.

If this is starting to sound familiar to you, it’s because it is familiar to you.

Thirty Years War.........................War in Bosnia.......................The Troubles in Belfast

I won’t re-hash the Byzantine split from Rome, the Lutheran Reformation, the Puritan persecutions, the emergence of Zionism or the medieval Crusades or all the other sectarian craziness that has been waged in the name of religion. Let’s face it: if it hasn’t splintered into different warring factions, it isn’t really a proper religion, is it? Instead, this being 9/11, I’m going to narrow it down to what’s on everybody’s mind nowadays: Islam. Sorry to pick on you, Islam, but today you’re in the hot seat.

Back to our story: Islam flourished in the Middle East and eventually, a Turkish dude named Osman (Donny Osman, I think) put together an army of kick-ass light cavalry and founded the Ottoman Empire. These Musselman pushed all the way to Vienna, which scared the shit out of Christianized Europe. The schism between Muslim East and Christian West would continue for five hundred fucking years, until the Ottomans were dismantled (along with the Austro-Hungarian Empire) at the end of WWI.

For a brief moment, it seemed like there might be peace in our time. Islam still flourished in the Middle East and Africa, while Christianity ruled the West, albeit with a sprinkling of Jews here and there. The Crusades and the Great War were an embarrassment to enlightened Christians and Muslims alike. You do your thing, we’ll do ours, from now on.

But then…

Motherfuckin' oil, bitches!

One could argue that WWI was really the first oil war, with the West desirous of easy shipping access to the Middle East. It seems unlikely that some Serbian punk shooting a feathered archduke should plunge all of Earth into war. But it did. Why? Because the West and Russia had a common ambition: access to Ottoman territory. How to get it? Foment a war with those swarthy bastards and win it.

There’s ample evidence that Gavrilo Princip, the Serbian punk who shot Austria’s archduke Ferdinand, was tasked for the assassination by a group of Bulgarian criminals. These Bulgarian dudes had regular back-channel communication with…the court of the Russian Czar. Something may smell in Denmark, but it really reeked in Bulgaria.

Conspiracy theories aside, it seems quite clear that the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire opened up Mideast oil to the western powers. Pretty soon, Britain, France and Russia were making nicey-nice with the weakened states of the Middle East. They even started propping up otherwise unremarkable princes and creating new countries for them to rule. Iraq? Kuwait? They were created from whole cloth on a map, their borders designed to  divide oil assets, not demographic strata. Shi’ite? Sunni? What the fuck ever. Just shut up and keep the oil flowing.

Then came the American ascendancy. By the 1960’s, America’s insatiable thirst for oil outstripped its ability to produce. The solution was obvious: do like the Europeans. Leverage power in the Middle East and suck the deserts dry.

Our partner in peace.

Now, you can say a lot of things about Middle Eastern leaders. They have outdated mustaches, they wear funny hats, they bathe too often and they eat way too much goat. But you can’t call them stupid. They saw the West’s plan for them and they didn’t like it. In defiance, they formed OPEC: the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. This cartel was formed to protect the economic interests of these comparatively weak powers against undue predation by the likes of Europe and the US.

They had the power to control oil production, which in turn affected speculative prices. Thus, they were essentially able to fix the price of oil. It’s kind of like being WalMart, except you get lots of armies and cool warplanes, too.

Oil is a business, and this also meant working closely with huge oil companies. And would you like to guess what happens when you closely align autocratic governmental power with corporate greed? Did you guess “ungodly corruption”? My, you’re a smartie!

The oil-rich states of the Middle East became corrupt bastards. While many of them used their tremendous oil wealth to improve public life for their people, they typically turned a blind eye to grinding poverty among the lowest of the low.

Most governments do the same thing, but in an Islamic state, the dismissive attitude is particularly galling to the rank-and-file Muslim. After all, they’re supposed to be submitting themselves to Allah, not to Exxon.

The lowest of the low, in kid form.

Your leader is a super-rich douchebag in league with corporate scumbags from the United States. Your imam tells you to submit to God, that all your earthly activity should be in this endeavor. Does it look like those who hold sway over your life are obeying the imam, obeying God? Not likely.

Then, you read about a new Jewish state in the Mideast being bankrolled by the United States. You may not really give a crap about Jews; you probably never met one. But when you read about the occupation of Palestinian lands, things start coming together. Super-wealthy leaders + Western corporate power + Israeli occupation of Arabs  + historical also-ran status + golden oil opportunity slipping away = desperation and anger.

For most Muslims, this calculation was just a daily digest that they swallowed, albeit bitterly. Kind of like how Americans know about rotten corporate lobbying and the evils of the military/industrial complex, but they just suck it up and move on to the next hurdle in life. You can’t get all worked up about this shit or you’ll go crazy.

...and this guy really did go crazy.

In Muslim Africa and Indonesia, these geo-political intrigues didn’t really mean very much. But in the Middle East, shit was starting to boil over. In Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and the Arab states, small, angry groups started to get bigger and more vocal. National governments tried to squash these overly-religious troublemakers, but it’s kinda hard to persecute religious fanatics when your entire republic is founded on the institutionalization of that religion.

There are many routes to success. If you’re a little guy and you need to make your viewpoints known, you have options. You can form a group of like-minded individuals and spread the word. You can pool some resources and publish a book or three. You can leverage your meager successes to bankroll even bigger things, maybe a film about your struggle. If that seems to resonate, you’ll probably end up in the mass media. You’ll have a chance to really make that change.

Conversely, you can just start killing people.

Now, killing people shouldn’t be your first move. It’s frowned upon. But to crazy people, it seems like a good first option because it’s so darn effective at getting attention. Negative attention, for sure. But you can’t make an omlette without breaking a few eggs, eh?

What an ill-considered political statement may look like.

I’m not writing all this to excuse those evil fuck-wits who attacked the United States on 9/11 and who continue to perform outrageous acts of mass murder all around the globe. These people need to be found, isolated and destroyed, full stop.

What I am saying is that their religion, like many religions, is an excuse for their barbarity, not the source of their barbarity. Osama Bin Laden was  a very wealthy man. He had more options than most of us. He could have single-handedly begun a global dialog about grievances and problems. When you are smart and eloquent – and when your cause is just – you inevitably get heard.

If he had written a book, I’d have read it. If it made sense, I’d have defended it. If it had a road map to a better world, I’d have followed it.

But he didn’t write a book. His doctrine does not resonate with reasonable people. Even though his countrymen may have legitimate grievances, he completely fucked their plight, as well as ours.

Islamic extremists of every stripe are fuck-ups. They are incapable of reasonable exchange. That’s why they rely on terror. They offer nothing that the world wants. And it’s pretty ironic, considering the fact that the world wants change. It wants fairness and it wants justice. You’d think we’d all be clamoring to join their cause. But we don’t. We don’t because their cause is the mirror image of the cruel, vindictive, greedy evil bastards they despise. They can’t replace the evil elements in power because they are evil elements themselves.

If the US is bankrolling rotten Saudi leaders and a disliked Israeli state, let’s air that shit out. Let’s change the system from within. Let’s wear a tie and run for office. Let’s boycott. Let’s get the most people on our side. It works. From Ghandi to King to the fall of the Soviet system, a just cause with an eloquent voice can change the world.

Bombing innocent people? That’s for evil fucks. And these evil fucks will be defeated by more Ghandis, more Kings and more Russian nobodies who finally stand up and say “enough is enough from you fucking assholes”.

On this 9/11, I’m not in mourning. I’m just angry that our noblest impulses have been transformed into childish anti-Islamic crapola. We had a golden opportunity in the wake of 9/11 to unify the world and create a whole shitload of Ghandis and Kings. Instead, we went full retard and created armies of Osama Bin Ladens.

The people that died on that day aren’t calling from the grave for revenge. They are calling from the grave for a stop to the madness. They want a solution, not a war.

Muslim Americans have an interesting quirk: they are statistically likely to be law-abiding taxpayers and contributors to the nation. They tend to be educated and revere education. Like other religious folks, they can compartmentalize their religious lives into the American way of life. How many Islamic street gangs are there, selling crack and shooting up neighborhoods? How many American Muslim drunks come roaring out of bars and start fistfights in the streets? How many American Muslims roam the night, burglarizing houses and smashing windshields?

Almost none.

America: your war is not with Islam. Your war is with evil fucks. Some of those evil fucks are Muslims. Some are Christians. Some have political power. Some run corporations. There is no need to demonize a demographic; Evil knows no bounds and fears only enlightenment.


Hotel Hell

How was your stay?

Hotels are a highly personal service. Unless you’re separating from a spouse, you usually prefer the familiarity of home to the strangeness of a hotel. After all, where the hell are your slippers and why is it so awkward to turn the lamp on?

Hoteliers go to great pains to make their rooms as generic as possible so the largest number of people will feel secure. They want you to enjoy your stay – not because they like you, but because they can’t afford to have bad feedback hurt future business.

Well, most of them want you back. But not all of them.

Like most young people, when I was a 20-something adventurer I was more than happy to stay in any crappy Motel6 or hostel that saved me money. Now that I’m older, I’m not as forgiving of crappy beds, noisy neighbors and clogged drains. I can’t afford Presidential Suites, but I won’t abide roach-filled crap-holes, either.

My hotel requirements are somewhere between these two.

As a middle-of-the-road hotel customer, I have the most daunting task when booking hotels. Let’s face it: the two opposite sides of the spectrum are easy to find and easy to book. The huge middle bulge of the market is harder to gauge.

Respected guidebooks like Fodor’s, Lonely Planet and Frommer’s are helpful resources and are generally trustworthy, but a nod from them usually means the suggested hotels are fully booked unless you plan way ahead. I use these guides as…guides. They are helpful, but are not my sole sources of information.

To avoid Hotel Hell, I employ a multi-pronged method of attack: geographical/online/published.

Geographical

It’s the oldest saw in real estate: the three most important aspects are location, location and location. Download and install GoogleEarth and check the More > Place Categories > Lodging button. Now when you zoom into a city, little bed icons will appear that have weblinks.

Here’s a test: we want a mid-priced hotel in Prague for late September. GoogleEarth: ENGAGE!

Hotel Rott! Sounds good!

I moused around the central district and clicked on the first one that looked well-located. It linked to the hotel website. Looks like they’re having some specials in late September! Double-rooms for €100! That’s about $130 a night! Not bad for a 4-star hotel in a European capital in summer!

Online

Of course, their website shows beautiful rooms and glowing descriptions of the property.  For all I know, the place is actually a vermin-riddled dump run by a troglodyte.  What’s the web say? Tripadvisor has a solid 4 dots out of 5. Most people from around the world liked the place, while a couple Americans bitched about stupid stuff that reflected more on them than the hotel.

So far, the Hotel Rott is looking good.

The Rott: rotten or a riot?

How do I know the TripAdvisor 4/5 is earned? Maybe the Hotel Rott staff stacked the numbers with fake reviews.  Booking.com, hotels.com and Virtual Tourist produced similar results. One common thread: the staff had a tendency to tack on charges during checkout. This isn’t good, but it’s something that can be overcome by verbal threats and intimidation.

So, it passed the Internet test. By a little red pubic hair, but it passed.

Published

So, what do the snobby experts say? Well, the Hotel Rott didn’t make Frommer’s and didn’t make Fodor’s Choice, either. This means they’ll never make the Michelin guide. Lonely Planet is a stupid waste , so we’re at a crossroads here. We’ll have to weigh the following:

Pro:

  • Cool 13th century building
  • Perfect fucking location
  • Reviews are good, mostly 4/5
  • Prices seem OK

Con:

  • No established expert opinion of the place
  • Some visitors complained of being gouged

Conclusion

If I had my druthers, I’d book this one.  Its location is spot-on. You can get roaring drunk in Wenceslas Square  and stumble right into your hotel, no problem. The building is attractive and historic. According to reports, it may suffer from some street noise and the staff may try to renege on billing, so you must bring earplugs and a binding agreement at check-in. Not too hard.

I hope you enjoyed this object lesson in avoiding Hotel Hell. If you have any comments, add them.

What you'll get when you ignore my advice.