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Category: Islam (page 1 of 2)

Saying “That’s not Islam” doesn’t help

I’ve just read that a Muslim cleric — the aptly-named Kamal Mousselmani — has denounced “fake sheiks” in the wake of the Sydney siege. He thinks it’s too easy to call oneself a religious authority. Fancy that. He comments on the Sydney hostage-taker who claimed to be a religious authority, and says, essentially, “He wasn’t a proper one.”

More and more, I’ve been hearing moderate Muslims say that fundamentalist Muslims or extremist Muslims are “un-Islamic”. Sometimes they go full Scotsman: “That’s not real Islam.”

On one level, I’m glad to hear that Muslims are denouncing violence. That’s very positive. This needs to happen — not just in Western countries, but everywhere — for human survival on Earth to continue. And I stand with Muslims who are my friends, co-workers, and students, even as I find their religion to be just as nonsensical as all other religions.

But for a Muslim to flatly disclaim other versions of Islam as “fake” or “not Islam” is disingenuous. What makes this imam so sure that his moderate reading of Islam is the right one, and fundamentalists have it wrong? The fundamentalists can quote scriptures in their defence, just as the moderates can; everyone picks their favourite cherries. This is religion we’re talking about, and one of the things about religion is that it doesn’t offer a good way of telling who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong.

See, with science, reality is the court of final appeal. But religion doesn’t get its data or practices from reality, so reality can’t be appealed to when there’s a schism. All the parties can do is excommunicate each other and move on. That’s what we’re seeing here with this disavowal. But moderates can’t just say “That’s not Islam” and then keep going as if the extremists don’t exist. The book that they think is so wonderful and peaceful is the same book that the encouraged the extremists to commit violence in the first place. The good guys? That’s Islam. The bad guys? That’s Islam, too.

This kind of denunciation is also self-serving. A religious leader denounced his competition as fake? Gee, never seen that before. In part, this imam is trying to make sure that the image problem generated from Islamic-motivated violence doesn’t affect him. I get why he’s doing it, but it’s ass-coverage all the same. It also prevents that pesky need for any self-analysis. You don’t have to grapple with the problematic part of your faith or history if you just wall it off and say it doesn’t apply to you. How much better it would be to say, “There are things in the Quran and the Hadith that do encourage violence, and we need to be aware of this to make sure we don’t go down that road.”

I don’t want to come down too hard on someone for not wording things exactly the right way when they’re saying the right thing. I’m encouraged that many Muslims are disavowing violence. (Welcome to the 19th century.) I hope they succeed in reining in the worst behaviours of the Muslims who are — whether they like it or not — their co-religionists. But by saying “That’s not Islam”, moderate Muslims are copping out, not stepping up.

Imaginary debate between a progressive liberal atheist and an anti-Islam anti-theist.

Reading Sam Harris always gets me thinking. I’m trying to figure out if Islam poses a unique threat, and what chances there for them to change. So here’s an imaginary debate I staged to help me get things straight in my own mind. There’s Person A and Person B with my own thoughts after each question. Is A a hopelessly naïve liberal, or is B an Islamophobic racist? Or both!

Tell me if I’m straw-manning anyone.

Why are Muslims doing rotten things?

A: Because they’ve lived with pre-Enlightenment values, they feel aggrieved by Western imperialism, and to compound it all, they have a religion which tolerates violence.

B: Because Islam is a uniquely violent faith, and when they engage in violence, they’re really just taking their faith seriously. This is not a bug; it’s a feature.

Me: I’m with A. Islam is definitely a contributing factor, but I think it can be domesticated, as we’ve seen with other religions.

Is there any way around it?

A: Sure. Once Muslims become educated and affluent, and join the world community, they’ll mellow out and act normal, just like violent Christians did.

B: No. This kind of behaviour is an inextricable part of Islam. It’s naive to imagine that education is going to help. The bombers and terrorists that we’ve seen have actually come from the more highly-educated groups.

Me: Christians and Jews have violent scriptures, and they’ve chilled out. Never underestimate the ability of religionists to throw core doctrines under the bus when it suits them. The trick is getting it to suit them.

What about moderate Muslims?

A: Even now we see that some Muslims are disavowing the violence that comes from their own people. They need to be encouraged so they become the norm.

B: So-called moderate Muslims will never be able to disavow the violence inherent in their religion, no matter how many disapproving noises they make. It’s moderates’ interpretation of Islam which is deviant, not the radicals’.

Me: No freakin’ clue.

What do we do about this as progressives?

A: Promote education and Enlightenment values, hoping that they’ll take. Speak out against Islam, but don’t be discriminatory against Muslims themselves.

B: Don’t let them in. They are having a radicalising effect on each other. The new generation of European Muslims are more radical than their parents.

Me: I think the current generation of Muslim immigrants are going to be the next generation of ex-Muslim atheists. Yes, some Muslims are radicalising, but I think this is a blip. I have no way of proving this, but it seems likely that these shocking cases would take up space in our minds out of proportion to their actual incidence, as they typically do. It’s normal for the first generation of immigrants to be more conservative than their parents, but over time, this changes. I hope.

Help me out, people. Your comments in comments. Religion bashing is fine, but no racism allowed.

Talk the Talk: Blasphemy!

If you like Good Reason for the atheism, but not so much for the linguistics, then this episode of Talk the Talk might be for you. It’s about blasphemy, the recent Muslim film riots, and the need for Blasphemy Day (which is September 30 — get your costumes early!).

It’s a little soap-boxy, but I said what I wanted to say: The right to question — and even ridicule — religious ideas is important. There needs to be a way of saying, “This is a bad idea.” It’s wrong to give up that right just because it will hurt someone’s feelings. If someone is willing to resort to violence and murder when their ideas aren’t treated with kid gloves, then this is an admission that their ideas aren’t defensible using regular means, and are invalid. Muslims, I’m looking at you.

On the other hand not all religious people lose their shit when they get sent up. Even though I have no love for the Mormon Church, I do cite them as an example of how to respond to criticism and mockery.

It was fun to be a bit blasphemous on the radio, and it was fun to watch Jess Allen squirm more and more throughout the interview. The look on her face when she heard “Hasa Diga Eebowai” for the first time was truly priceless — I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

One-off show: Here
Subscribe via iTunes: Here
Show notes: Here

Global Atheist Con: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is the author of ‘Infidel’. Her talk was entitled “The Arab Spring”.

I want to like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, but I’ve always been wary of her. I find her admirable because of what she’s been through, and her strong stand against Islam. So why the discomfort?

It’s like this: There are two ways to be anti-Islam. You can be a secularist, or you can be a racist. (No, Islam’s not a race, but people in this group conflate the two.) And while I don’t think she’s a racist, I think she got in with a lot of the very worrying anti-immigrant crowd during her time in the Netherlands, and I think she holds a lot of right-wing views, especially about support for Israel. Maybe the best way to say it is that she’s a hero that I sometimes disagree with, much like Christopher Hitchens (whose place she has stepped into). So I attended her talk ready to be convinced, and was encouraged by much of what I heard.

She started by relating the events of the Arab Spring of 2010. What would a secular spring mean to Northern Africa? Her list:

  • An end to human rights violations
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of press
  • Freedom of conscience
  • Women’s rights
  • Work
  • Voting
  • Protection from violence
  • Economic growth
  • Peace with Israel
  • End to Islamic terrorism
  • Youth would develop a confidence in life before death, instead of a life after death.

However, says Hirsi Ali, what we’re seeing is not a secular spring, but rather a Muslim winter, as old repression is being replaced by religious repression.

There are, however, signs of hope.

1. Voting patterns. Secular parties aren’t winning, but they do exist.
2. The Iran uprising of 2009, which saw citizens protesting against theocrats.
3. The Muslim Diaspora: Ex-Muslims are growing, writing, and communicating with each other.
4. Freedom of expression is increasing. For example, Hamsa Kashgari, a 23 year old Saudi journalist, tweeted an imaginary meeting with Muhammad that was thought to be blasphemous. He fled Saudi Arabia, but was returned, and forced to apologise. Once you start having thoughts like these, says Hirsi, Ali, you do not go back, even if you are forced to apologise.

Hirsi Ali was especially critical of liberals in the West, who were failing to protect secularists in the Arab world. Why is this so? Her view is that these liberals are falling victim to a version of romantic primitivism. Particularly galling were middle-class Western women who convert to Islam and cover themselves. She also thinks ‘white guilt’ may apply.

Most troubling to me was Hirsi Ali’s assertion that conservatives and Christians were the ones who really comprehend the threat that Islam poses, particularly with regard to nuclear proliferation. I assume that means the people that used to be the cheering section for Team Bush, starting wars of choice with the wrong countries. Methinks most Christian conservatives don’t care much for people who look like Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

So what can be done to encourage a true Secular Spring in the Middle East? Her suggestions:

  • Develop a secular liberal narrative in the Middle East
  • Have policy training for people in these countries
  • Defeat radical Islam, which threatens our thinking. 
She mentioned that gatherings like the GAC with speeches and comedy were good, but that we need to place change on our agenda, not just gather to listen and laugh.

The yearly War on Christmas email from my family

A family member has sent this rather long and well-circulated email.

Apparently the White House referred to Christmas Trees as Holiday Trees for the first time this year which prompted CBS presenter, Ben Stein, to present this piece which I would like to share with you. I think it applies just as much to many countries as it does to America .

The following was written by Ben Stein and recited by him on CBS Sunday Morning Commentary.

My confession:

I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees, Christmas trees. I don’t feel threatened. I don’t feel discriminated against. That’s what they are, Christmas trees.

It doesn’t bother me a bit when people say, ‘Merry Christmas’ to me. I don’t think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year. It doesn’t bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a creche, it’s just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away.

I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from, that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.

Or maybe I can put it another way: where did the idea come from that we should worship celebrities and we aren’t allowed to worship God ? I guess that’s a sign that I’m getting old, too. But there are a lot of us who are wondering where these celebrities came from and where the America we knew went to.
– – – – –
In light of the many jokes we send to one another for a laugh, this is a little different: This is not intended to be a joke; it’s not funny, it’s intended to get you thinking.

Billy Graham’s daughter was interviewed on the Early Show and Jane Clayson asked her ‘How could God let something like this happen?’ (regarding Hurricane Katrina).. Anne Graham gave an extremely profound and insightful response. She said, ‘I believe God is deeply saddened by this, just as we are, but for years we’ve been telling God to get out of our schools, to get out of our government and to get out of our lives. And being the gentleman He is, I believe He has calmly backed out. How can we expect God to give us His blessing and His protection if we demand He leave us alone?’

In light of recent events… terrorists attack, school shootings, etc. I think it started when Madeleine Murray O’Hare (she was murdered, her body found a few years ago) complained she didn’t want prayer in our schools, and we said OK. Then someone said you better not read the Bible in school. The Bible says thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself. And we said OK.

Then Dr. Benjamin Spock said we shouldn’t spank our children when they misbehave, because their little personalities would be warped and we might damage their self-esteem (Dr. Spock’s son committed suicide). We said an expert should know what he’s talking about. And we said okay.

Now we’re asking ourselves why our children have no conscience, why they don’t know right from wrong, and why it doesn’t bother them to kill strangers, their classmates, and themselves.

Probably, if we think about it long and hard enough, we can figure it out. I think it has a great deal to do with ‘WE REAP WHAT WE SOW.’

Funny how simple it is for people to trash God and then wonder why the world’s going to hell. Funny how we believe what the newspapers say, but question what the Bible says. Funny how you can send ‘jokes’ through e-mail and they spread like wildfire, but when you start sending messages regarding the Lord, people think twice about sharing. Funny how lewd, crude, vulgar and obscene articles pass freely through cyberspace, but public discussion of God is suppressed in the school and workplace.

Are you laughing yet?

Funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what God thinks of us.

Pass it on if you think it has merit.

If not, then just discard it…. no one will know you did. But, if you discard this thought process, don’t sit back and complain about what bad shape the world is in.

My Best Regards, Honestly and respectfully,

Ben Stein

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
I sent this back:

As the atheist of the family, I thought I’d respond.

There seems to be some idea floating around that atheists hate Christmas and want to stop it. Well, that’s just silly. I love Christmas! In fact, for the last ten years, I’ve been in a choir that puts on a big Christmas show. (Some of the other singers are atheists, and they like Christmas too.) I’ve got most of Handel’s Messiah memorised, and when we do “Angels We Have Heard on High”, I can belt out a lusty “Glo-ria” with the best of them. I don’t believe the story, but I keep singing at Christmas because I like the music. I like the lights, and the food, and being with family, just like everyone does.

What I don’t like, however, is compulsory worship. Christians like their religion, and that’s fine. But I don’t like how some Christians have decided that schools are the place where they want this part of the culture war to play out. I hope nobody I’m writing to thinks this, but maybe someone thinks that prayer in school is a pretty good idea. So here’s a thought experiment.

Imagine your school district announced that, starting tomorrow, everyone was going to have Muslim prayers to Allah. If you’re thinking, “Gee, I don’t know if I’d feel very comfortable with that,” well, that’s about how an atheist feels. And that’s not just because atheists don’t want to have prayers to Allah in school (although that’s true). It’s also because we think public schools ought to be neutral on the subject of religion. That way, the children of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Wiccans, Mormons, and (yes) atheists all get a level playing field. No one’s religion is promoted at the expense of anyone else’s. Sounds fair to me. And by doing it that way, schools are obeying the Constitution, which is the law of the land.

If people (including Ben Stein) are concerned that there isn’t enough religion in society, then I have some good news: there are already buildings for teaching religion, and they’re called churches. They’re very nice, they’re already built, and you can choose exactly which kind you like. (And they’re tax-free, because tax-payers are compelled to pick up the financial burden for churches, even wealthy ones, whether they want to or not.) Worshipping at home is also a very good option.

I don’t know if I really needed to write this. I actually think that most Christians are smarter and more fair-minded than the person who wrote the latter half of the email (and it wasn’t Ben Stein). The idea that God is going to allow the nation to be smitten with horrible disasters unless enough non-believers are compelled to grovel before him against their will is, fortunately, not an idea that I have seen too many Christians get behind. But here it is, just in case.

Comments welcome.


Terry Jones would “think twice” about satirising religion today

I’m always up for a bit of Monty Python, so I read this interview with Terry Jones with interest.

The Life Of Brian star says he never believed the 1979 comedy about Jesus would be as controversial as it was at the time. He certainly never expected people still to be discussing it now.

Jones, 69, says he and his fellow comics were able to make the film only because, at the time, religion “seemed to be on the back burner”.

He said: “I never thought it would be as controversial as it turned out, although I remember saying when we were writing it that some religious nutcase may take pot shots at us, and everyone replied, ‘No’.

“I took the view it wasn’t blasphemous,” he tells Radio Times. “At the time religion seemed to be on the back burner and it felt like kicking a dead donkey.” But he says: “It’s come back with a vengeance and we’d think twice about making it now.

It’s true that religion has come roaring back since the secular 70s, and we’re still feeling it now. But why would he think twice about making Life of Brian now? Python usually dealt out their surrealism with a light touch, but they certainly didn’t shy away from institutional targets. It wasn’t all kicking dead donkeys. (Usually it was dead parrots.) I hope it was an off-the-cuff remark.

Asked if he would make a satirical film about Muslims now, he replied, “Probably not – looking at Salman Rushdie. I suppose people would be frightened.”

I can’t tell you how disappointing I find this comment. I guess our heroes don’t stay young and argumentative forever. But it shows me that we really can slip backwards. Religions, more today than ever, take themselves too seriously, and try to claim for themselves a respect that’s way out of proportion to their truthfulness. The antidote is blasphemy and satire — the kind Monty Python was so good at. Thankfully, a new wave of skeptical satirists has arisen, and we can now enjoy Ricky Gervais, Tim Minchin, Sue Ann Post, Eddie Izzard, Julia Sweeney…

I’m missing people. Who’s on your list of funny atheists?

Arabic not materialising on airplanes

Is there any language scarier than Arabic? (Unless you understand it, of course.) It doesn’t go in the right direction, and it looks so… foreign! No wonder it’s caused havoc before.

And when Arabic script unexpectedly appears on airplanes, well, it’s enough to make people involuntarily micturate.

Mysterious messages that appeared to be scrawled in Arabic writing on the underbellies of several Southwest Airlines jets were being investigated Wednesday by the airline and the FBI, Los Angeles radio station KNX-1070 reported.
The graffiti, which began appearing in February on 737-model planes, has been found more often in recent weeks, according to the report.
The writing appears to have been etched using a chemical process and is visible only after an auxiliary power unit is turned on.

So how do they know it’s Arabic? Gawker comes to the rescue with photos.

Where’s the Arabic? You mean those cross-looking things that look like someone wiped some dust off the plane? That’s the Arabic? Hey, wait — it looks kind of like a sword! Yeah! That’s Arabic, right? I think they have a sword on their flags.

Well, the markings are so not Arabic that even the Daily Mail has had to admit it.

The airline had suggested the symbols, which only show up with heat and are believed to be vandalism, looked like Arabic writing.

However the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. looked at the photos for MailOnline and a spokesman concluded they are ‘not Arabic script’.

It’s kind of sad: Muslims are now the most-feared group in society, just as Jews, Freemasons, and Catholics were in times past. As such, nervous people project their fears onto them. Strange markings on airplanes? Concerns over immigration? Mosque down the road? Obviously all part of a takeover attempt by Muslims.

But now, hopefully now people who work in aviation can stop being worried about Arabic script, and worry about something else, like lesbians kissing.

Prayer ban: Like a burqa ban, but with prayer.

France, what am I going to do with you? You know I love you, right? because you’re so cool, and you have a great language and everything. But I’m all torn about this.

Paris ban on Muslim street prayers comes into effect

A ban on saying prayers in the street, a practice by French Muslims unable to find space in mosques, has come into effect in the capital, Paris.

Interior Minister Claude Gueant has offered believers the use of a disused fire brigade barracks instead.

The phenomenon of street prayers, which see Muslims spreading mats on footpaths, became a political issue after far right protests.

Sure, they’re praying, which is stupid and useless. And it is unsightly having people clogging the streets like this.

I actually feel kind of embarrassed for those people, groveling around like that. But as obnoxious as public prayer is, banning it will heighten tension, and turn an annoying (but relatively harmless) public performance into a political football — or even an opportunity for civil disobedience. That brings in the sympathy. Shoot, even I’d be sympathetic to some non-violent civil disobedience on a issue of conscience.

There must some way of fixing this without some ad hoc law seemingly targeting Muslims. If all these people praying in the street is a problem, how about prosecuting it using an existing law? How about obstructing a footpath? Blocking traffic? Noise pollution? Littering?

Okay, that was reaching, but I’m trying to help here.

Monson fondly remembers 9/11

Religions are in the business of providing emotional comfort (among other things), and after 11/9/1, Americans’ sense of stability was rocked. I think this played out in a predictable way for Mormons.

I visited my US home ward in late 2001, and it was the strangest thing: I’d never heard so many references to Satan before. Naturally, when people feel like events are out of their hands (what’s known as an ‘external locus of control’), they develop superstitions, and here it was unseen malevolent agents. I saw something else on that visit that I’d never seen before: In Priesthood Meeting, they’d developed the habit of reciting their ‘group values’ in unison, chanting a sort of ‘we believe’ mantra. Even as a believer, it struck me that here was a group of people too frightened to think.

From a look at this WaPo column, Mormon president Thomas Monson sure misses that time.

There was, as many have noted, a remarkable surge of faith following the tragedy. People across the United States rediscovered the need for God and turned to Him for solace and understanding. Comfortable times were shattered. We felt the great unsteadiness of life and reached for the great steadiness of our Father in Heaven. And, as ever, we found it. Americans of all faiths came together in a remarkable way.

And the bottom line couldn’t have been better.

Side note: what’s with the capital H on ‘Him’? I haven’t seen that in Church publications since the 1920s.

Sadly, it seems that much of that renewal of faith has waned in the years that have followed. Healing has come with time, but so has indifference.

Isn’t it too bad that we don’t have more horrible tragedies to turn our hearts to god? Darned if Monson doesn’t feel some nostalgia for that time of national agony. What a ghoul.

Whether it is the best of times or the worst, He is with us. He has promised us that this will never change.

But we are less faithful than He is. By nature we are vain, frail, and foolish. We sometimes neglect God.

Then we’re even, because God was more than a little neglectful on that day. He failed to save the lives of 3,000 people, but left instead a steel cross. You know, just to let us know he’s there, thinking about us.

If you object to this, saying that ‘super-hero’ isn’t part of god’s job description, consider: What would you have done if you’d had the knowledge of what was about to happen that day, and the ability to do anything? Well, god had all that, and still failed to do what you — a normal human, with all your goods and bads — would have done. Why do people say that god is good?

Mormons talk interminably about what they call the ‘pride cycle’: People get prosperous and prideful, they forget god, then god (that sicko) burns them up in fires, buries their cities in earthquakes, or sinks them into the sea (and that was gentle Jesus, BTW). Then the people remember to grovel sufficiently before him, and he prospers them. Because it’s all about him.

One could rewrite the narrative thus: Tragedies happen, and the feeling of vulnerability drives people into authoritarian religions. But life goes on, and people stop feeling frightened, at which point they abandon superstition, becoming secular or at least joining liberal churches. Until the next tragedy. Rinse, repeat.

Small wonder, then, that Monson is banging the drum for a more godly society. The vacuum cleaner salesman wants everyone to buy vacuum cleaners, and the god salesman… you get the picture. It’s just business.

I didn’t draw Mohammed — this time.

May 20th was ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’, part 2. It went nearly unnoticed, what with all the excitement over God’s latest mistake.

I didn’t draw Mohammed this year. For one thing, I did it last year, and I didn’t think I could improve on it. But the main reason is that the conditions are a little different this year.

I don’t have a problem with blasphemy, mockery, or confrontation. I think these tools can be valid and justifiable responses in cases where believers are making threats of violence or unreasonable demands for complicity or respect. But I do make decisions as to when I’m going to use such tools.

Last year, Muslims were making unreasonable demands that non-Muslims obey the rules of their religion, and some individuals were making specific threats of violence against Molly Norris (originator of ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day’) and against the creators of South Park. Under these circumstances, I decided that it was appropriate to join a concerted effort in direct confrontation to these demands.

This year, though, the issue hasn’t been on my radar. If there have been any credible threats made, I haven’t heard of them. Good. That’s how I like it.

Maybe not much has changed since last year. Many Muslims are still hypersensitive to criticism — witness their attempts to influence the UN to outlaw criticism of Islam — and this needs to be addressed until they learn that their religious views are no more entitled to respect than anyone else’s. However, I’m content to let the cartoon issue rest until such time as believers — Muslim or otherwise — try to use coercion or threats to curtail freedom of expression. When they do, it will once again be time to protest with pen or keyboard.

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