Blind religious leaders

Asahara isn’t the only religious leader known for his poor vision. An installment of the explainer column this week at Slate discusses a practical reasons why there are so many blind Islamic clerics.

A traditional Muslim education in some ways favors the blind, since it proceeds largely through the repetition and memorization of sacred texts. Children chant Quranic verses until they know them by heart; those who learn the whole book often receive advanced religious training. Blind kids—who often make up for their disability with a finely tuned sense of hearing—tend to do quite well at this.

Children who can’t see may also get pushed toward the clergy by their parents. Clerics often preach through the artful recitation of the Quran—something a blind person can learn to do as well as anyone else. The same child would be at a severe disadvantage in a conventional classroom, and he’d have a harder time holding down a regular job.

The type of study needed for Buddhism is very different and with the heavy emphasis on Sutra study might not be as comfortable for a blind student, but Asahara’s partial-sightedness caused him to be placed in an environment that allowed his most anti-social tendencies to foster. Look at this excert from an article about Asahara and Aum that I linked to a few days ago.

Smitten at birth with infantile glaucoma, he was blind in his left eye and only partially sighted in his right.

Because of his disability and timid manner, he was bullied and teased constantly at school until his parents enrolled him in a government-funded school for the blind.

He quickly learned that being the only partially sighted child in a class full of blind students had distinct advantages. It wasn’t long before he became the school bully, dominating and manipulating his classmates into doing his bidding.

Have you heard the expression “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”? Have you ever before thought that it could be literally true?

Asahara is of course far from the only blind prophet in history. It’s a common archetype in mythology and fantasy, the most famous example of which is probably the Greek seer Tiresias.

Another Aum member sentenced

The Japan Times has the story:

The Tokyo District Court sentenced a past key Aum Shinrikyo figure to 30 months in prison Friday and fined him 2 million yen for unlicensed sales of skin ointment in 2003 and 2004.

Takashi Inoue, 37, who headed the cult’s Tokyo training center, had pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud and violation of the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law.

“It was not fraud. I did not know that it was a pharmaceutical product that requires a license,” Inoue said during the trial.

According to the prosecution, Inoue’s gains from selling some of the medicine by falsely advertising it as not including steroids amounted to 4.15 million yen.

Noda was found guilty in the same court in December of illegally selling the ointment and sentenced to a suspended 18-month prison term. He did not appeal.

While this doesn’t seem on the surface to have any direct connection with the operations of Aum itself (which was disbanded as an organization in 1997 by court order, and whose teachings were carried on by the successor organization Aleph), the snake oil sale hucksterism of the operation is very much in line with Asahara’s pre-Aum activity. Were they inspired by the scams of their former spiritual guru, or did he suggest the idea to them directly while communing in the astral plane from his prison cell?

Another good site for Aum background

If you can’t read the original Japanese court transcripts that have been published in book form in Japan, then this web site may be one of the best resources for learning about the legal aspects of the investigation and prosecution of the cult is this site created by Tokyo based software engineer Timothy Romero. Unfortunately he stopped updating it in 1997, many years before Asahara’s trial was concluded, but as he wrote at the time he decided to halt work on the site, “there is little doubt as to the eventual verdict.” Mr. Romero currently keeps an unrelated blog, which seems to be updated every week or two.

Some recommended background reading on Aum

If you’re interested in reading some more about Aum Shinrikyo, the easiest place to turn would be this fairly long article on Court TV’s Crime Library web site.

Additionally, I can’t strongly enough recommend Haruki Murakami’s book, Underground The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche. It’s actually a compilation of what was published as two separate volumes in Japan. The first volume, also named Underground, consists of a brief history of Aum, a description of the attacks, and a series of edited interviews in which survivors of the attack (and If I recall correctly, in one case a relative of a ‘survivor’ left in a coma, and a relative of a fatality). By interviewing some of the transit workers alongside a variety of ordinary commuters, interspersed with his own narrative, Murakami paints a vivid and complete picture of how the attack unfolded throughout the day, as well as giving the best overall impression of the Tokyo subway’s geography that I have ever seen in print.

The second (and much slimmer) volume, originally titled “To the place that was promised,” consists of interviews with former members of the cult, whose reactions range from regretful, to disbelieving, to resentful. Of course, at that time he was unable to gain access to any of the cult members who had actually been involved with or known in advance about the attacks, who were all either in prison or hiding (which is still the case).

At least one convicted Aum member has told his story since though. Ikuo Hayashi, a former cardiologist who was arrested and subsequently confessed shortly after the sarin attack, has written a 575 page memoir entitled “Aum and I.” It has not been published in English, but I have a copy sitting right here and it’s a damn good read.
As an aside, I read Murakami’s Aum book about a year before I first went to Japan, when I had just started learning Japanese and was only starting to become interested in learning about the country. It was the first thing by Haruki Murakami that I had ever read, and only after reading Underground did I even know that he was a popular novelist.

Asahara not fit for trial: psychiatrist

Lawyers for Shoko Asahara, founder of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult, released portions of a psychiatrist’s report Monday stating that Asahara is unable to stand trial because of his confused state of mind.The report of Masaaki Noda, a professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, will be submitted to the Tokyo High Court, the lawyers said.

Asahara, 50, who has been sentenced to death and whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, is in the midst of an appeal.

Based on the report, the lawyers will ask the high court to suspend the appellate trial. Asahara has been found guilty on 13 counts, including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

“If competency to stand trial is defined as understanding the meaning of the trial and the ability to defend oneself, then (Asahara) should be deemed lacking in such competency,” Noda said in the report.

He also stated in the report that Asahara’s symptoms may improve in about six months if he is given immediate psychological treatment and that reopening the trial after his recovery would be more practical than arguing over whether he is pretending to be ill or is actually confused.

Three of the four psychiatrists, including Noda, who have interviewed Asahara have expressed doubts about his competency to stand trial. Another is drafting a report stating that Asahara is suffering from a mental disorder caused by his long stay in prison.

The Japan Times: Jan. 17, 2006

I’m currently in the midst of a job translating some Aum related documents into English so I know something about this Mr. Asahara. You’d think that someone who was supposedly such a master meditation guru would be able to cope with a prison stay. I mean, one of the training techniques he used on his followers was making them meditate for periods of time in an isolation cell! Didn’t he ever practice that one himself? Or maybe the fact that the prison isn’t feeding him the “Aum diet” of vegetables and natto is wreaking havoc with his charkas and inhibiting the flow of Kundalini energies. How could he possibly be expected to remain sane with his Kundalini energies locked down like that?

Or maybe it’s just the aftereffects of a little too much second-hand smoke from the sarin factory.

Beijing Post Publishes Posthumous Interview With Isaac Asimov

Danwei reports that Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is finally being published in Chinese, and in honor of this the Beijing News has put out a special science fiction issue. In addition to articles on Chinese language SF, they have also managed to get an interview with the man himself, (English translationthe first he has given since passing away in 1992.

Isaac Asimov passed away on 6 April 1992, so to be able to conduct this interview we must thank a scientist named Vikkor Mallansohn – according to Asimov’s novel [The End of Eternity] he invents something in the 24th century that makes a “time kettle” possible.

Among the highlights of the interview is this exchange on the much discussed Al Qaeda connection. It’s worth noting here that (according, again, to Danwei), both ‘Al Qaeda’ and ‘Foundation’ are translated the same in Chinese (基地)

TBN: What a terrible reader. Reportedly there are people who have examined Bin Laden’s choice to name his terrorist organization “Foundation” (Al Qaeda) and have concluded that it is perhaps because of your influence, that he was a science fiction fan in his youth. What is interesting about this is that you wrote the Foundation under upon the instigation of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and many scholars today believe that the United States is a New Roman Empire.

Asimov: I don’t know whether Bin Laden really understands English. “Foundation” (Al Qaeda) does resemble a group exiled from civilization, but they are at a lower level rather than a higher one. The US is unquestionably the most powerful country today, but I have a hard time determining whether it is in a process of decline akin to that in Foundation. This is perhaps the mystique of history; we can learn lessons and gain inspiration from similar historical situations. But I must point out that the “Empire” in my novels is not a country, but rather a description of a stage in the progression of the people of Earth. You can see that personal names are of all different types, not merely American.

The Ansible website has a good (if somewhat tongue in cheek)article on this theorized connection.

The small but alarming coincidence is that this is Asimov’s “Foundation” series (Seldon’s outfit is called the Foundation), allegedly popular among Arabic-speaking SF readers under its translated name Al Qaeda. Usually rendered into English as The Base, this also means The Foundation.

So, was Osama bin Laden inspired by Asimov’s fiction to establish his Al-Qaeda in an impoverished country, there to await and assist the fall of the West, issuing portentous videotapes the while?

Interestingly, while the Al-Qaeda/Foundation link is still a matter of controversy, it is generally accepted that the Foundation trilogy was in fact an inspiration for Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum cult responsible for the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks several years ago.
More on this later when I have time to do some checking.