Thursday, April 21, 2016

Four Middle East Water Systems Shape History

April 23, 2016
Laina Farhat-Holzman

Controlling water was one of the first technological efforts at the beginning of what we call “civilization,” or city building. Even today, most human beings live on the rims of oceans or on river systems. We need water to drink, for washing ourselves and our goods, but most of all, for agriculture.

Where today Iraq and Iran meet arose the first urban civilization 5,000 years ago, Sumeria. This amazing culture created the first big city-state (Ur), a system of writing, sea-going boats, the wheel, and most important of all, irrigation systems to moderate and control the flow of the Tigress and Euphrates rivers. These two rivers customarily flowed either too much or too little (floods and droughts). The Sumerians devised a system of canals and dams to moderate the flow.

Iran (Persia), differed in geography from flat Mesopotamia, with highlands and plateaus ringed by mountain ranges. They invented a unique water system of tunnels that brought snowmelt from mountaintops down through gravity-flow earthen tunnels ending in the plateaus where villages, towns, and cities farmed. Climate change today is drying up lakes, melting glacier snows, and collapsing the tunnels. Villages are emptying, and population explosion, although now being reversed, has stressed water capacity. How does a country keep a population of 70 million alive with dwindling water, dwindling agriculture, and massive political corruption? Governments have fallen over less.

Egypt was the child of the Nile River, a river that rises in the mountains of East Africa (today's Ethiopia and Sudan). The Nile predictably (mostly) rose to gentle flood stage when it reached flat Egypt, every spring. The Egyptians designed a system of canals using waterwheels to irrigate what would otherwise be desert. It fed them and made them rich and powerful from antiquity---until recently.

Population explosion has overwhelmed the water capacity of the Nile. The disastrous Aswan dam on the Nile has failed to produce enough electric power and has devastated the agriculture of the Nile delta, depriving the land of the floods and new topsoil. Egypt now has bread riots.

Yemen, at the south end of the Arabian Peninsula, was a breadbasket that fed the entire region, thanks to building the world's largest earthen dam in the 6th century BC, 50 feet high and almost 2,000 feet long. A thousand years later, 6th century AD, global climate change with torrential rains made the dam collapse, flooding Yemen. Yemen began its long trajectory to becoming today's dysfunctional, water-short basket case. Their capital city Sanaa has no water today; they will move it to the seashore.

This miserable place, now in a proxy civil war, produces nothing but narcotics (qat), child brides, and far too many babies, a blueprint for disaster. On March 21st, Israel secretly rescued the last 19 Jews from Yemen, a place their ancestors had lived for 2,000 years. If not rescued, one or another of the warring factions would have exterminated them.

Iraq, the present heirs of ancient Babylon, Assyria, and Sumer, houses the most dangerous dam of all in Mosul, recently in the hands of ISIS. Saddam Hussein originally built this badly designed dam using cheap concrete that had to be regularly injected to plug the leaks. With Saddam gone, there is no more upkeep. The dam's cracks are growing and when that dam goes, there may be no more Iraq. The US is trying to help save the dam, not easy amidst warfare.

Other problems besetting the Middle East are the war within Islam, with sect fighting sect; passionate hatred of all the social aspects of modern Western society (emancipation of women and freedom of thought) but taste for its weapons and modern medicine for its leaders; and generational conflicts between half-educated youth and conservative parents. The dysfunction is clear in the flood of people trying to escape, and not just those immediately involved in civil war.

The entire Muslim world is in meltdown. The outcome of this war will depend upon who wins it: those opting for the modern world or those hankering after an imagined Muslim golden age.

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or    

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

How Our Presidents Promote Tolerance

February 13, 2016

The United States was founded just as the European Enlightenment swept through. The Enlightenment occurred after two centuries of religious wars had exhausted not only Europe's population, but also its intellectuals. Ordinary people were not theologians; they simply retreated to the various sects accepted by their families or rulers. Southern Europeans remained Catholic, while the more economically progressive north (England, Scotland, Scandinavia, and northern Germany) and their rulers favored Protestantism.

The 17th-century Pilgrims brought with them a form of Calvinism that was neither tolerant nor compulsion-free. Their zeal flagged over the next two centuries so that by the actual founding of the new country at the end of the 18th century, the Enlightenment shaped it. The Founding fathers, Enlightenment men all, forbade state support for religion. Religion was permitted to flourish, but without compulsion. Religion without official force is a wobbly thing; people may join---or leave, something entirely new in the world. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, new sects flowered, some of them native-born, but some of which eventually burnt out.

American presidents have over the centuries worked to keep religion separate from government, yet they adopting the values that most of the population cherished. The Quakers, for example, with a British faith, came to America and were persecuted by the Calvinist Pilgrims. Over time, however, their values spread and they amassed a following that urged abolition of slavery. They succeeded in doing this in England in 1833; but it took thirty more years before slavery was abolished nationwide.

But, back to our beginnings as a country. The Dutch ruled New York (New Amsterdam) in the 17th century. When a shipload of Jews arrived fleeing Catholic persecution in Brazil, they sought refuge. The governor, Peter Stuyvesant, tried to bar them, but because the Dutch government had recently enacted the first legal religious toleration for Jews and Protestant dissidents, Stuyvesant was overruled by the home country. America's first Jews had arrived and lived, for the first time in 2,000 years, in freedom.

The Jews were granted full Dutch citizenship when a group of Jewish pirates brought to Holland the entire Spanish gold fleet they had captured at sea. Read this fascinating story in Edward Kritzler's: Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, 2008.

During the Revolutionary War, one Jewish friend of General George Washington gave his entire fortune to support the war. This loyalty was not forgotten. Upon the retirement of President Washington, he wrote a letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, promising that religious “toleration” would give way to religious liberty, and that the government would not interfere with individuals in matters of conscience and belief.

“Every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. For happily, the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” [Italics mine.]

Presidents Obama and Bush have been dealing with another bout of bigotry that both have tried to nip in the bud. Because Militant Islam carried out a deadly attack on this country on 9/11/01, President Bush hastened to distinguish between criminal Muslims and ordinary Muslim citizens. He insisted that “Islam is a religion of peace,” asking Americans not to brand all Muslims as terrorists.

His intentions were good. We have too many bullies ready to bash heads of the innocent when stirred up. But Islamist lone-wolf attacks continued.

This month, President Obama did the same. He visited a mosque and assured Muslims that they are welcome and do belong in this country. He, too, means well. However, since 9/11, Militant Islam has burrowed among the Muslim population, carrying out (or trying to) murderous attacks. President Obama, aware of this, echoed George Washington that this minority should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. Muslim spokesmen resent that they are being held to a standard that other immigrants have not. Other immigrants did not require it.

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or  

With Women Like These…..

Laina Farhat-Holzman
March 5, 2016

For all the vaunted “sisterhood” among women, we need to be aware that some are not always our friends. On January 17, a woman professor at Egypt's al-Azhar University, opined that “Allah allows Muslims to rape non-Muslim women.” One would think that for a Muslim university to admit a woman professor at all is amazingly liberated; however, it is apparent that this woman is in no way a feminist.

Another “champion for women,” a female Kuwaiti politician, Salwa al-Mutairi, promoted this same Islamic practice of sexually enslaving non-Muslim women, emphasizing that the practice accorded with Islamic law and morality. Both women are correct that there is plenty of Koranic defense for this practice.

Professor Suad Saleh spoke on Al-Hayat TV, criticizing the purchase of slaves from Asian countries for sexual purposes (a dirty little secret, apparently). Instead, she said, Allah has given the Muslim men a way to have sexual relations with slave women that is “legitimate” and a way to humiliate them. She scolds that the only time it is acceptable for Muslim men to enslave a woman for sexual purposes is during a “legitimate war” between Muslims and their enemies such as that with Israel. Therefore, the female Islamic professor says that enslaving Israeli women and raping them would be entirely acceptable and encouraged. (

The good professor must then approve the rape by ISIS of Yazidis, Kurds, and Christians, from girl children to old ladies. This horror is justified, she says:

“The seizure of Infidel girls and their use as sex slaves is sanctioned in the Qur'an. According to Islamic law, Muslim men can take “captives of the right hand” (Qur'an 4:3, 4:24, 33:50). The Qur'an says: “O Prophet! Lo! We have made lawful unto thee thy wives unto whom thou hast paid their dowries, and those whom thy right hand possesseth of those whom Allah hath given thee as spoils of war” (33:50). 4:3 and 4:24 extend this privilege to Muslim men in general. The Qur'an says that a man may have sex with his wives and with these slave girls, purchased at slave markets.”
It is also in Islamic law: “When a child or a woman is taken captive, they become slaves by the fact of capture, and the woman's previous marriage is immediately annulled.” (Umdat al-Salik O9.13) Men who use them are free from blame.

Lest we think that only benighted Muslim women are bad feminists,  some women in the West who think of themselves as feminists have no sympathy for the plight of their Muslim sisters. In Britain, Labor party feminists were silent when it came to public attention that Labor politicians regularly attended gender-segregated meetings. Apparently seeking immigrant Bangladehshi Muslim votes is more important than principle.

Labor Party feminists were silent when the scandal erupted in a Pakistani immigrant community. Girls, 1,400 or them (some as young as 12) were raped and molested and trafficked as sex slaves. Labor party women have been silent about polygamy, forced marriage, the burqa, female genital mutilation, and the notorious New Year's Eve sexual attacks in Cologne and all over Europe. I fear for their daughters.

American feminists are no better, unfortunately. When one's focus is on racial prejudice, the evils of Western Civilization, and the passionate belief that all “underdogs” need protection, these issues trump misogyny if it is practiced by their beloved “underdogs.”

It is monstrous that most outrage against horrific practices against women is expressed by the political right rather than the political left. I am waiting for German feminists to rise up in outrage over comments by a Muslim cleric in Cologne: “Girls were raped because they were half naked and wore perfume. It is not surprising the men wanted to attack them.”

Finally, an American woman professor who adopts a headscarf “in fellowship with her Muslim sisters” is failing to recognize the misogyny behind hijab. Women are to be covered up so that men will not sin. Why not just blindfold the men? “Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out” (G. K. Chesterton).

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or

Political Parties Are Not Permanent

March 19, 2016
Laina Farhat-Holzman

That the Republican Party is heading toward a demolition is no surprise by now. This is not the first time a major American political party fell apart. In the 19th century, between the 1830s and 1860, the Whig Party was the political rival to Jefferson's Democratic Republican (Democrat) Party. The Whigs ran candidates every election, but elected only two to the presidency.

Political parties are not cast in stone; they change over time. The Jeffersonian Democrats began as an elite party of landowners (mostly slave holding). They supported the equality of white propertied males, plantation owners versus city dwellers.

In 1830, President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, changed all this. He pushed for the enfranchisement of all White males, property and literacy not required. American politics in the 19th century reflected this sort of democracy, the best democracy that a free flow of liquor on election day could buy. This is the origin of “populism” that roils American politics even today. Power to the people!

The Democrats split further in giving birth not only to rabid populists, but to populists who rejected learning, science, and education: the “Know-Nothings” and “Mugwumps.” If this sounds familiar, they are indeed alive and well in today's angry supporters of the likes of Donald Trump and most of his current fellow candidates.

The Whig party, which rose during the 1830s, represented a new kind of elites, captains of industry as the industrial revolution transformed the north. It also appealed to a growing middle class in the north who were beginning to rue the institution of Black slavery. The party wobbled between big money interests and anti-slavery moralists, failing to convince the electorate well enough to win the White House more than twice in 30 years.

By 1860, the Democrats dominated the southern slave states, which promoted “states' rights” and disdained any interference from the US government. The slavery issue then dominated all political rhetoric until the anti-slavery faction of the Whig Party finally defected and created a new party, the Republicans. President Abraham Lincoln and most of his cabinet began as Whigs and became Republicans.

For the rest of the 19th century, Democrats were the conservatives, the embittered Southerners who mourned the loss of their “states' rights” to agricultural slavery. The slaves were emancipated, but remained as sharecroppers deprived of political participation.

The Republicans lost their progressive edge after the Civil War ended. It became the party of industry and big money power until President Theodore Roosevelt reawakened its “progressive” roots, providing a more equitable playing field for the growing Middle Class. He was the last Republican president to do so until Eisenhower.

The New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt picked up the progressive movement of the earlier Roosevelt, as did Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Carter, Johnson, Clinton, and Obama.

The Republican Party, which began as an anti-slavery progressive party under Lincoln, became over time the “conservative” party, representing those segments of society that feared too-rapid change, believed in conservative and traditional religion, and trusting educated elites rather than populist ignoramuses. Until the end of World War II, a vast majority of university intellectuals considered themselves conservatives as well.

Today, both political parties are rife with internal divisions, much like the period of the Civil War. Most Democrats stand for moderate progress, social justice, and strong central government to protect us from our less noble instincts. The minority, largely found in and around the academic world, have raised the standard for radical change, “multiculturalism,” and elimination of such  “outmoded” values as religion, polite speech, clothing, and manners. Vulgarity has become bipartisan, and both Democratic and Republican extremes detest government.

The Republicans are now divided between mainstream fiscal conservatives who can work with their counterparts among Democrats, and a resurgence of “Know-Nothings” who wildly support any demagogues who inveigh against “government,” science, and the rising tide of female equality. One of these pretend Know-Nothings may force the nominating process to accept him, which will lose them the election and send reasonable Republicans looking for a new party. Not a moment too soon.

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or    

US Election Dysfunction Has Solutions

Laina Farhat-Holzman
March 26, 2016

The US Constitutions says nothing about how candidates will be selected for our elections process. Our current practice of holding primaries came about to “democratize” the process of nominating candidates for office. The old system (by tradition) was to have political parties in each state select candidates and then in a nominating convention choose from among them. The Constitution does not mention political parties either. Our first president, George Washington, did not like them, fearing factional dysfunction. We can imagine what he would think of today's factional parties!

One of the great strengths of the United States is its ability to change those things that have gone wrong. We finally corrected the terrible institution of slavery, but it did take a horrific war to do so. Earlier, President Jackson thought that giving the vote to all white males was an improvement over the elite system that preceded it, white (educated) property owners. His intention was to spread political power to the people, not including, of course, women or Blacks. Uneducated voters with no skin in the game (property, for example) could be, and certainly were, bought. Following Jackson, our national politics were rife with corruption, and after the Civil War ended, rife with power to the very rich, the age of the Robber Barons.

Political parties, as written in my column of 3-19, are not cast in stone. We have, by and large, functioned with two major parties, fringe or third parties not able to gain direct tractions. The one exception to this was the collapse of the Whig Party (1830-60) and the birth of its spinoff, the Republican Party, which elected Abraham Lincoln. We may be approaching a repetition of this process if many Republicans defect from selecting Donald Trump as their 2016 candidate for the presidency.

There is a fever of anger and frustration loose in the country now, unhappiness with today's political dysfunction. A vocal minority feels betrayed by their parties not doing what they think right. Both the Tea Party on the far right and the far left Democrats detest any sort of cooperation in governance that compromises their “principles.” They are out of step with the idea of working across the aisle, negotiating those issues upon which they can agree. The rival parties have come to hate each other rather than considering each other as partners in governance.

Because we have a political system that can self-correct, there are a few things that we can do to make our election process better. I don't like the present primary system that gives a few states an undue benefit in selecting candidates. This could be remedied by holding the primary elections on the same day, nation wide, giving the state political parties more power in vetting candidates. People who work in the political system certainly know candidates better than most of us take the time to do.

Although the American press reaps great benefits from our long election process, playing up, as they have this time, spectacle over thought, most Americas should consider an election cycle of two months instead of nearly two years! Almost every other democracy in our time does this. And once more, the nominating conventions would return to doing the heavy lifting rather than just rubber-stamping the survivors of a grueling public circus.

There are candidates who feel, as Hillary Clinton confessed at a recent town meeting, that she does not have the pizazz on the podium that her husband and President Obama have; and she would much rather be doing the work than providing spectacle. The same can be said for Governor John Kasich, who has had difficulty generating rowdy mob appeal. Only a few gifted candidates can do both. Others are just spectacle, without substance, and most often, simpy demagogues.

Finally, the next Congress would do well to undo the disastrous Supreme Court judgment that money equals free speech. Having shorter election cycles, same- day primary elections, and protection against the contamination of dark money, we could do much better as a democratic republic.

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or    

Laina At the Movies

By Laina Farhat-Holzman
March, 2016


This was advertised as a horror film that I would have passed up, except when I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the intentions of the film maker. The film was supposed to be the most accurate depiction of what life was like during the American Pilgrim period.

It certainly was that. I very much admired the authenticity of details in this strange little film: clothing, implements, and the frightened piety of Calvinists who truly believed in witches and in hell.

What could have been a wonderful psychological drama about a very decent family (father, mother, five children) was turned instead into a horror film. Too bad.  This could have been really wonderful.

The Lady in the Van

If you find it interesting to watch a movie about a 1973 playwright who develops an unlikely relationship with a homeless and somewhat unhinged woman who lives in a van in his driveway, be my guest.

This film showcases the wonderful Maggie Smith, whom I would rather remember as the dowager countess in Downton Abbey. Yes, the acting was wonderful, but after two hours of sitting in the theater, watching the playwright scraping human dung off his shoes, I fail to see the point. The Academy might have liked it, but I didn't.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

This was the first really good movie I have seen this month. Tina Fey plays a TV cable news copywriter who volunteers for a short stint in Afghanistan early in the 2002 war. Being an on-camera journalist in a very remote country at war proves addictive. She remains for 3 years instead, leaving only when her cable news station brings her home because audiences are tired of the Afghan war.
However, this book, based on The Taliban Shuffle, Kim Barker's memoir, also shows the unhealthy addiction to excitement that takes over the lives of so many journalists living with the daily possibility of death.

Tina Fey plays Kim, is a somewhat nerdy workaholic who discovers courage that she never expected of herself. She is both funny and vulnerable, and I was touched by this portrayal, unlike most critics who did not find this film “edgy” enough.

Afghanistan is edgy enough for me. Ugly, violent, corrupt, and largely illiterate, the film provides many insights that say it all.  I loved the henna-bearded villager who sees a Black marine and tells his people that the Russians are black now.

When journalists from around the world are thrown together in one hotel in Kabul, and every time they go out, they might not come back, a certain amount of bravado creeps in. They bond as might soldiers, but unlike the discipline of the military, they dull their brains with every kind of alcohol, drugs, and sex.

The portrayal of a corrupt Afghan official (played by Alfred Molina) reminded me of counterparts whom I met during my own stint in Iran. And the lovely portrayal of her translator and bodyguard, Fahim, played by Christopher Abbott, gave me a twinge of pain thinking of what the Taliban has been doing to our former Afghan colleagues.

This film has managed to be entertaining without being vacuous. It was better than I expected.

The Wave
After a week of obnoxious American political life and the horrors of Islam-Gone-Mad in Belgium and Pakistan, this Norwegian catastrophe movie was a treat. It is a good thing to watch a film about decent, clever people responding to a horrific natural catastrophe.

This film tells the story about an event that happens with some regularity because of Norway's peculiar geography: the very rugged mountain slopes, almost vertical, framing the many fingers of ocean inlets called fjords. These mountains are not stable, and must be watched at all times for avalanches that can set off tsunamis up to 300 feet.

A very nice family lives in a village called Geiranger, a tourist town with a breathtaking view of water and mountains. The mountains are monitored by gauges that can pick up tremors or any sort of change that could predict a rockfall and tsunami. The geologists whose job is to monitor the equipment include one of their number, the film's protagonist, Kristian, who is a stickler for double and triple checking the findings. He is about to move with his family to a new job (a promotion), but on his last day at work, the team notices some anomalies in the gauges, which they are hesitant to use to warn the community of an avalanche (in the middle of tourist season). Kristian and a colleague go up the mountain to look, and suspect that something is not right.

The team, distrustful of instruments that might be off-base, causing them to sound the warning that would frighten off tourists, hesitate. They hesitate too long, and when they finally sound the alarm, the community has only 10 minutes to go evacuate to higher ground.

This is, of course, a disaster. What makes this film worth seeing (in addition to its absolute natural beauty) is how the geologist and his family, separated from each other, respond. This is a film about human beings at their most challenged, behaving with splendid courage and ingenuity.

Thinking about this afterwards, I wondered about our own reluctance to totally trust to our technology (the monitoring equipment, for example), and to realize how vulnerable we are to natural disasters. It was nice to find out at the end of the  movie  that after this, these mountains are monitored 24/7 and the next warning would not have to wait until only 10 minutes are left.

Also, the socialism of Norway has not done away with the work ethic, as critics would claim. All of these hard-working people were diligent and worthy citizens, even those working for the government.

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What is a Patriot?

Laina Farhat-Holzman
April 2, 2016

The first mention of love of country occurred in Rome, under the Republic. The slogan was: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and proper to die for one's country. The better translation is to give one's life for one's country.

During our own country's birth, during the Revolutionary War, Nathan Hale, an American spy captured by the British, said before his execution:  “ I have but one life to give for my country.”

The definition of “patriot” is undergoing an ugly transformation today when Donald Trump attributes “love of country” to a man who sucker punches a demonstrator being escorted from the rally.  Does love of country mean hatred of every other country? Does love of country mean hatred for different political views? Does love of country become love of party and hatred of the other party? Does love of country become hatred of its elected government? Didn't any of these people go to Civics class in high school?

The answer to this last question is, alas, no. When I was in high school (obviously a long time ago), in Rochester, New York, we were required to take Civics, where we learned about how our government is structured. We learned about balance of powers among the three branches of government, elections, and the duty of voters to be informed. Our school went even further than this.

We had school-wide programs in which we staged our own mock presidential  nominating conventions (in our case, a Republican convention), learning about how such conventions are organized and executed. A few years later, we (and many schools cross the country) held mock United Nations conferences also, to learn about the various delegations from around the world and the likelihood of their positions in world politics.

One should not love one's country blindly. The Germans did that when Hitler came to power. The public voted, and the Nazis won in a plurality (not a majority in their multi-party system), and there was never another election. One man, one vote, one time? Could we, in the longest-standing democratic republic come to that?

Many young people today have voluntarily become “low information” (ignorant), never reading newspapers, not watching television news, and only getting their national and world news through sound bites, late night satire, or word of mouth. Many express disinterest in voting at all. Other young people with a little information (university students) become one-sided activists convinced that their country and their society is evil and that only a revolution can fix it.

At the other end of the spectrum are those, like the sucker-puncher, whose response to a too-rapidly changing society has been fueled by a poisoned diet of government-hatred and simplistic promises of bringing back an imagined past. Both groups share disdain for “government.”

In Civics, we learn what government does. Without government, who would have made the national parks, social security, VA hospitals, military service academies, Manhattan Project, TVA, interstate highways, transportation safety administration (FAA), dams and power systems, national defense institutions, trade negotiators, Research & Development grants (essential especially today), NASA for space travel and research, Medicare, Food and Drug inspectors (including water watchdogs), and courts adjudicating conflicts and establishing important principles?

Government haters have cut so many funds from these institutions that they struggle to function.  EPA inspectors were too underfunded to protect Flint's water from the State's criminal negligence. These government institutions have given our citizens the best standard of living that the world has ever seen. Institutions are not perfect because human beings are not perfect. But they are a work in progress that is the envy of much of the world. People vote with their feet! Why else do political and economic refugees come here?

We need to revisit the concept of patriot. Patriots are those who love their country enough to participate in an informed, civil fashion. Choosing a party requires regarding both parties as partners, not enemies. And being “low information,” a category of supporter “loved” by Mr. Trump, have no business voting or pretending to be patriots.

Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of God's Law or Man's Law.  You may contact her at or  

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