Theocracy Causes Famine

Recently, I got an e-mail from the Foundation Beyond Belief, which is working with USAID to raise awareness of the continuing drought and famine in the Horn of Africa. The toll in lives is already appalling, including over 29,000 deaths from starvation and outbreaks of measles and cholera, and hundreds more dying every day. The crisis has produced almost a million refugees, including over 400,000 at the Dadaab camp in Kenya.

I have to admit that my first reaction to this news was a feeling of hopelessness. Sometimes it seems that occasional famine is a painful fact of life, especially in poor, overpopulated regions of arid, sub-Saharan nations, and that any effort to help, however well-intentioned, is only going to delay the inevitable. I won't deny that I've had some of these thoughts myself. But I was brought up short by a passage that Johann Hari wrote in a recent book review:

As recently as the mid-1980s, it was thought that famine was usually an "act of God" - a "biblical" failure of rains or crops or seasons. But in the 1990s Amartya Sen, the Nobel­winning economist, showed this was wrong by proving one bold fact: "No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy." Famine, it turns out, is not caused by a failure to produce food. It is caused by a failure to distribute food correctly - because the ruler is not accountable to the starving.

Although a natural disaster, like drought, is often the trigger, the ultimate cause of famine is almost always a corrupt, greedy, or unaccountable government that siphons off food from the needy. For example, during the infamous Irish potato famine of the 1840s, Ireland was producing more than enough food to feed itself, but the imperial British rulers of the time demanded that the majority of it be shipped abroad for export. The only space left for the Irish to grow their own food was on small and marginal plots, and when the potato blight wiped out their chief crop, disaster followed.

And the same thing is happening now in Somalia. As Nicholas Kristof writes, the country is experiencing a historic drought - aggravated, no doubt, by climate change - but that alone wouldn't have caused such a severe crisis. Kenya and Ethiopia, which are also affected by the drought, are coping better thanks to technological advances, like drought-resistant crops and irrigation systems. But the closest thing to a government in Somalia is the violent, ignorant Islamist movement called the Shabab that's the only authority in most of the country. Kristof puts it chillingly:

The area where large numbers of people are dying almost perfectly overlays the regions where the Shabab is in control.

The Shabab has actively kept out aid workers and relief shipments, apparently viewing them as unwanted intrusions from corrupt and godless Western countries. They've blocked rivers and stolen water from villagers to divert it to farmers who pay them bribes. They've even tried to prevent starving people from fleeing.

So, yes, famine is an "act of God" - but only in the sense that it's caused by God's self-appointed agents, the forces of religious darkness that don't value human life and are perfectly willing to allow suffering and death. Famine is not inevitable, even in a warming and overpopulated world. The question is whether we, the defenders of humanity and civilization, the people who care about this life, are willing to act to prevent it.

Whenever I think of Somalia, I'm reminded that the brilliant, amazing Ayaan Hirsi Ali came from there. Could there be other minds like hers swept up in the famine, people with the same potential as her even now cradling their dying children or trudging to refugee camps? Will we stand by and permit the strangling darkness of theocracy to snuff out these bright sparks?

If you want to help, see the FBB's Humanist Crisis Response Program, supporting the International Rescue Committee.

September 26, 2011, 5:55 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink44 comments

Photo Sunday: Madrid

As I've mentioned, my wife and I took a trip to Spain last month to celebrate our first anniversary. I'm not going to inflict all my vacation photos on you, but we did see some sights that are relevant to the kind of thing I usually write about on Daylight Atheism. If you're interested in seeing more, click through to view the rest of the post.


June 12, 2011, 1:09 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink6 comments

Free Speech Still Under Attack

Free speech is always and everywhere under attack in the world, and as depressing as it is to have to keep pointing that out, I think it's vital to highlight it when it happens so that this human right is never taken for granted. Unfortunately, these past few weeks have offered a surfeit of examples.

First, there's India, whose government has quietly issued new rules allowing for the censorship of any internet content deemed "blasphemous", "hateful" or "disparaging". Apparently, all it takes is for someone to file a complaint. There's no mechanism of appeal, and websites created or maintained in other countries aren't exempted. Considering that India is beset with both Muslim and Hindu mobs that have shown themselves ready to riot over the slightest provocation, it's not hard to guess what kind of websites will be among the first targets of fundamentalist complaints. Speech which "outrages religious feelings" is already illegal in India, and journalists and publishers have been arrested and charged under this law for speaking their minds, but this attempt to censor the entire Internet is a new and frightening extreme even if it's certain to fail in practice.

From India to England, where a man has been sentenced to 70 days in jail for burning a Qur'an. The local police labeled this a "hate crime", and the judge explained: "People are entitled to protest in this country... but [not] in such a way as it will inflame". Since it "inflames" me to see a nonviolent act of protest punished with imprisonment, regardless of whether or not it was done with racist intent, am I entitled to demand that this judge and these police be sent to jail as well?

Meanwhile, in Italy, the director Nanni Moretti produced a satirical film called Habemus Papam ("We Have a Pope"), which depicts a panic-stricken incompetent thrust into the papacy who seeks psychiatric help to cope with the pressure. The shrieking denunciations and fatwa envy expressed by Catholic hard-liners were to be expected, but what's more noteworthy is that a Catholic bigot named Bruno Volpe promptly filed a lawsuit against the producers under the Lateran Pact, a treaty ratified by Mussolini's government that protects the "prestige of the pope". Yes, let that sink in: Right-wing Catholics are openly using a law passed by fascists to attack free speech!

And for the European trifecta, there's Spain, where a Madrid court has banned an atheist procession that had been scheduled to coincide with Catholic marches on Easter weekend. The "State Association of Christian Lawyers" (now there's a pro-theocratic group if ever I heard of one) filed complaints which spurred the government to investigate and, astonishingly, file charges against the atheists, just for seeking permission to march:

Madrid's local government... has launched legal proceedings against the group Ateos en Lucha [great name! —Ebonmuse] insisting it is 'ridiculing religion' and 'glorifying terrorism'.

Apparently, the official position of the Spanish government is that Roman Catholics own certain dates and all nonbelievers are required to stay indoors and keep quiet. I always thought Spain was a secular country. What on earth is going on there?

May 5, 2011, 6:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments

Open Thread: We Got Him!

I had a post about marriage equality I was going to put up today, but instead, let me just say this:

Holy shit, we killed Osama bin Laden.

I'm still speechless - this doesn't seem real. My reactions, more or less in order:

(1) When I opened my news reader this morning, the first headline was a story from CNN, "Stocks set for higher open after death of Osama bin Laden." I think I did a classic comedy double-take.

(2) The Republicans who were planning to run for president must be crying tonight. There's no way in hell they're going to beat Obama in 2012 now.

(3) It's about time we got this done. Even I almost wish there was a hell so that evil bastard can rot there.

Your thoughts?

UPDATE: I wrote this post quickly while still half-asleep, after turning on my computer in the morning and seeing the news headlines. I've since had time to collect my thoughts and have written a lengthier account of my position.

May 2, 2011, 6:34 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink146 comments

Marching for Oppression

Over the past few months, we've seen amazing and inspiring demonstrations of people power erupting across the Middle East, toppling dictatorships that have been in place for decades. It's far too soon to say what form of government will emerge from these movements - whether they'll give rise to true democracies, or whether new dictatorships will replace the old - and the unwelcome news that Egypt's transitional military government has just sentenced a blogger to prison shows that it will take far more than toppling one dictator to break the old, entrenched habits of oppression and illiberalism. But whatever the future holds, the success of the protests has shown, at least for one shining moment, what free human beings can achieve when they cooperate to defy tyranny.

But there's a dark side to people power as well. America's founders knew that rule by a mob is no better than rule by a dictator, which is why they built so many counter-majoritarian safeguards into the Constitution. Democracy is an essential ingredient in a free society, but it's no panacea, especially when the majority of people are openly prejudiced toward minorities. This past week, we saw this vividly in Bangladesh:

Dozens of people have been injured as Bangladesh police battled Islamists protesting against new government policies aimed at giving women equal inheritance rights.

The violence came as the hardline Islami Oikyo Jote, a coalition of Islamic groups, enforced a nationwide general strike on Monday, demanding the government institute Islamic law and scrap policies aimed at giving women greater rights to property, employment and education.

Although Bangladesh's population is about 90% Muslim, its laws are relatively secular by the standards of the region. Its current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, is a woman, and it's invested heavily in education and job training for women, as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn wrote in Half the Sky [p.238], which has created a stronger civil society and a thriving export industry, part of the reason it's far more stable than nearby Pakistan.

However, for Bangladesh's overwhelming Muslim majority, laws relating to marriage, family and inheritance are based on the principles of sharia. Among other things, these laws mandate that daughters inherit only half the share given to sons. Sheikh Hasina's government has proposed changing this to give women an equal share, which enraged the Islamic political parties who turned out to demand that sexism remain enshrined in the country's family law. A main highway in Dhaka, a city of 10 million people, was blockaded by the strike until riot police dispersed it, and schools and businesses throughout the country remain closed.

This is what Islamist political movements stand for, this is how they want the world to see them: the spectacle of people marching not to end oppression, but to perpetuate oppression - not to demand that justice be done, but to demand that injustice continue to be done. The contrast is stark, especially when compared to the determined displays of national pride and secular unity in the popular uprisings that have toppled dictators. People joining together regardless of their beliefs are usually demanding something beneficial, some shared notion of rights; people marching together who are all of one belief, especially when that belief is in the majority, ought to be immediately suspect.

This ought to be a lesson to us about the terrible importance of secularism, for all human beings in general but for women in particular. Around the world, there are religious groups - not just Muslims - to whom modernity is meaningless, who would gladly drag us all back to medieval mores if given the chance. As societies become more prosperous, their influence tends to wane, but Bangladesh is still far from that point. The government needs to press on with their plans to give full and equal rights to all human beings, because only in this way can they leave the past behind and create a stable and secure society where the voices of religious extremism will no longer be a threat.

April 13, 2011, 6:35 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments

What Comes Next For the Middle East?

The last few weeks in the Middle East have been a story of extraordinary courage and heroism. With dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia lying in ruins and the democratic revolt now spreading to Yemen, Bahrain and Libya, it's not too early to start thinking about what will come next.

The omnipresent fear in Western media is that the newly free countries will be taken over by an Islamist majority. This isn't an unreasonable concern (although it hardly justifies the West's decades of supporting brutal, repressive dictators just because they weren't theocrats). However, I think that at least in these two countries, there's reason for optimism.

As this article points out, and as I've observed previously, one of the newest and most surprising things about the protests was the huge and crucial role played by women. Tunisia, in particular, had a strong tradition of women's rights - its female citizens were among the first of any Arab country to gain the vote - and high rates of female education and literacy. The ex-dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali gambled that this liberality would keep people pacified, but it had the opposite effect: the educated populace was more able to see his corruption for what it was and less willing to tolerate it, and women joined the marches in vast numbers. Tunisia's women played such a crucial role in the revolution that even the country's formerly exiled Islamists feel compelled to recognize their leadership:

Crowds of women in traditional Islamic dress welcomed the long-exiled leader of Tunisia's Ennahda movement, Rachid Ghannouchi, upon his return to the country Jan. 30.

But, as Radhia Nasraoui, a prominent Tunisian human rights lawyer points out, unlike the Taliban in 1996 or Iran's mullahs in 1979, Mr. Ghannouchi has felt compelled to repeatedly and publicly pledge to safeguard women's rights in recent weeks.

"It may be tactical, but the fact that he feels he has to talk this way is a pretty good indication that wanting to roll back women rights is no way to gain support in Tunisia right now," Ms. Nasraoui said.

Then there's Egypt. On the surface, there's less reason for optimism here. Before the revolution, aggressive sexual harassment of Egyptian women was routine and omnipresent, as dramatized by Egyptian director Mohamed Diab in his film 678. The savage sexual assault on Lara Logan in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall (whether by regime supporters or opponents will probably never be known) was a highly visible example of the brutality too often tolerated in Egyptian society.

But here, too, there are some green sprouts. Chief among these was the way that women fearlessly joined the crowds in Tahrir Square (and also see my earlier post):

Fatma Emam's mother accused her of wanting to be a man and threatened to disown her if the 28-year-old joined the protests in Tahrir Square. She went anyway.

"There are so many women who like me defied their families," Emam said after spending five days and four nights in downtown Cairo. "The revolution is not only taking place in Tahrir, it is taking place in every Egyptian house. It is the revolution of fighting the patriarch."

...The 25-year-old who helped spark the demonstrations with an online video, Asmaa Mahfouz, said her father refused to allow her to stay in the plaza after dark. "No girl of mine spends the night away from home," Mahfouz said he told her.

In the video, Mahfouz said: "I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square. Come down with us and demand your rights."

I know better than to believe that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or Ennahda have completely given up their theocratic aims, whatever they say in public. But it also seems clear that they're biding their time, not wanting to move openly unless they believe they have a good chance of success - and if the Middle East's young secular revolutionaries remain vigilant, the theocrats may never get that chance. Now that Egypt's women have tasted real freedom, we can hope, they won't be quieted - they know perfectly well what they'd stand to lose from the imposition of sharia, and they have the confidence that comes of having toppled one dictatorship already.

This is why groups like the Taliban are so fanatically opposed to schools for girls. The way to keep people under your thumb is to keep them poor, isolated and ignorant - because only then can they be persuaded to believe that no change is ever possible. The more educated a nation's people are, the more they can look beyond their own circumstances to the wider world and imagine how things could be different. This is true for both men and women, but since patriarchal religions put special emphasis on controlling women's lives, women's education is particularly deadly to them. That's a lesson to keep in mind as these nations begin to rebuild themselves.

February 28, 2011, 1:52 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink10 comments

Wednesday Link Roundup

I may write more about some of these stories over the weekend, but in the meantime, I just had to make quick mention of them:

• Prominent evangelical pastor John MacArthur, whom Daylight Atheism readers have heard about before, has a new pearl of wisdom to bestow on us as regards the democratic revolutions currently sweeping the Middle East (HT: Slacktivist):

I think there are a lot of ways to approach that but if you just talk about a biblical thing, [the protesters] are all in violation of a biblical command – to submit to the powers that be because they're ordained of God. I'm not saying Moammar Gadhafi is the best leader, I'm not saying that Mubarak is a great, benevolent and just leader, not when he's got $70 billion in his own pockets at the expense of people.

But what I am saying is that whatever the government would be, even if it was Caesar in the New Testament, that the believers are commanded to live orderly lives, peaceful, quiet lives, subjecting themselves to the powers that be because they're ordained of God... After all, who said democracy's the best form of government? No matter what the form of government is, the Bible doesn't advocate anything but a theocracy.

Libertarianism in a nutshell, as told by The Volokh Conspiracy (HT: Slacktivist, again - what can I say, he's posted some great stuff lately!):

I think there's a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress's powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective.

And emphasized by the author, in a comment:

Yes, the view I've stated opposes taxation even to prevent the end of civilization, provided that end happens by purely natural means.

I laughed a lot at this, until the sobering realization that some people who believe this have probably been elected to high office. Do read the post about it on Slacktivist - he also discusses a very interesting distinction between "first-order insanity" and "second-order insanity", which could be very useful concepts for atheists.

• A discussion of conservative atheists. Unfortunately, it rather proves the point that they are, for all intents and purposes, utterly irrelevant compared to the religious right:

In 2008, feeling the absence of irreligious voices on the right, Mr. Khan, who also blogs about science for Discover magazine's Web site, started Today, the site usually gets 500 to 1,000 hits a day, Mr. Khan said, although there are spikes as high as 10,000.

Sheesh. I get more than 10,000 hits on an average day. When do I get a writeup in the New York Times?

February 23, 2011, 7:45 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink26 comments

Women Take the Helm in Egypt

I wrote about the massive uprising in Egypt earlier this week, but events are moving so fast that I have to write again, and by the time you read this post, it may well be outdated. The latest development is that the Mubarak administration is apparently sending armed and organized gangs of thugs out onto the streets to masquerade as counter-protesters, probably in the hopes of provoking a violent confrontation that would force the army to intervene. American journalists including Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour have already been assaulted.

That notwithstanding, I continue to be enormously impressed by how peaceful and how resolute the anti-Mubarak protests have been. I also note with pleasure that women are actively taking a leadership role, especially a famous YouTube video by 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz that played a pivotal role in the January 25 initial uprising:

"As long as you say there is no hope, then there will be no hope, but if you go down and take a stance, then there will be hope." That was what Ms. Mahfouz had to say in a video she posted online more than two weeks ago. She spoke straight to the camera and held a sign saying she would go out and protest to try to bring down Mr. Mubarak's regime.

This was certainly not the first time a young activist used the Internet -- later virtually shut down by the government -- as a tool to organize and mobilize, but it departed from the convenient, familiar anonymity of online activism.

More than that, it was a woman who dared put a face to the message, unfazed by the possibility of arrest for her defiance. "Do not be afraid," she said.

The major role women played in the genesis of the protests is probably part of the reason why they've been so unusually egalitarian, as outside observers found to their surprise. As reporter Sarah Topol wrote for Slate:

Egypt has a sexual harassment problem. In a 2008 study, 86 percent of women said they had been harassed on Egypt's streets — any woman walking through a crowd of men in Egypt braces to get groped. But in the square, crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, men apologized if they so much as bumped into you. After wandering around the protests for days, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn't been groped, a constant annoyance when I'm faced with large crowds in Cairo.

And in the square itself, women have been taking a leadership role as well - organizing checkpoints to search newcomers for weapons, and continuing to speak out for themselves:

Soheir Sadi was one of them. This morning, she sat in the square with her 14-year-old daughter. They had come every day since the protests started on Jan. 25. "I came seeking my rights, like any Egyptian. I rent my apartment, I don't own it, and I can't afford food. What kind of life is that? And for my children?" she asks. "I wasn't afraid for my daughter, because everyone is family in the square. We are all real men standing up for ourselves, even the girls. And now they have learned that they can protect themselves like men."

It's still too early to say if Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will co-opt the Egyptian revolution to their own ends, but reports like these give me hope that they won't. From what I've heard, the marchers are largely young and secular, far more concerned with their national than their religious identity, and seeking reasonable, this-worldly goals like good jobs and a fairer distribution of wealth. Any religious movement that tried to hijack the protesters' energy and passion to impose sharia law, they'd surely resist as fiercely as they've resisted Mubarak's autocratic rule. And every woman like Asmaa Mahfouz who has the courage to throw off her culture's stifling prejudices about gender roles and demand liberty is a living repudiation of theocracy. Is it too ambitious to hope that some of them could ultimately sit in the Parliament of a free, secular and democratic Egypt?

UPDATE: Further thoughts.

February 3, 2011, 6:42 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink12 comments

The Beginnings of an Arab Enlightenment?

I've written recently about the vicious, dispiriting murders of human-rights advocates in Pakistan and Uganda. I'm an optimist by temperament, but stories like these are enough to drive me to the edge of despair. In my worst moments, it makes me wonder: is it possible for liberal, secular democracies to survive over the long term? Can free and enlightened nations ever endure, or are they nothing more than a momentary flicker in the dark?

No republic can survive if its people don't value it, if they're not willing to defend it - and in so many cases, the people have proven all too eager to listen, instead, to religious demagogues who preach that free speech is blasphemy, that women are divinely ordained to be slaves, and that the role of the state is to compel faith and enforce ancient dogma. Even in modern, advanced states, those hard-won freedoms seem to be slipping away.

So yes, I do have moments when despair creeps up on me. But then, a few weeks ago, the Arab world exploded, and we're suddenly glimpsing the possibility that everything may change.

Tunisia was the first: a small but well-educated secular Arab state, run by a kleptocratic dictator. A few weeks ago, a street vendor immolated himself in a cry of protest when the government denied him his last chance to make a living, and his final despairing act became the catalyst for a vast, spontaneous uprising that drove the dictator out with amazing swiftness. Almost as quickly as that, Egypt became the next domino to fall. Seemingly overnight, the country erupted in massive protests airing long-pent-up grievances over its rampant corruption, appalling poverty, widespread police brutality, and an absolute ruler with designs on monarchy. And now there are tentative reports of protests in Syria, in Jordan, in Yemen... And I think, too, of Iran's embryonic Green Revolution, stopped for now by a brutal show of state power but, I have no doubt, still simmering beneath the surface.

What I find most inspiring, and most incredible, is that the protesters in these countries aren't rising in support of Islam, aren't marching to demand a theocracy. They're marching for liberty, for a society free of corrupt dictatorships and presidents-for-life, for the right to self-determination and democratic representation. (Egypt's largest opposition party, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, was taken by surprise by the protests and has been scrambling to keep up.) And both in Tunisia and in Egypt, the protesters have been amazingly peaceful. There were even reports of ordinary people forming human chains to protect the country's museums.

So far, the marchers aren't looking to the United States, and I don't blame them. We've spent so much money for so long propping up tyrannies and arming dictators that they're right not to trust us. They're working out their destiny on their own, and the best thing we can do is stay out of the way. Nevertheless, this is a dramatic confirmation that America's founders were right. Their assessment of human nature isn't just a pleasantly naive fantasy or a self-serving pipe dream: people the world over really do want freedom, independence, human rights. And given the right set of circumstances and the right spark, they'll arise and fight for them, just as our patriots did over two hundred years ago.

That said, it's much too early to tell what will come of these revolutions. Egypt is poised on a knife edge, and the Egyptian streets could still explode into an all-out bloodbath (there are already scattered reports of police brutality and killings, difficult to confirm or disprove under a government-imposed media blackout). Even if the protesters are successful and governments fall, new dictatorships could replace the old. The Islamists may yet find a way to subvert the revolutions to their advantage. Still, these uprisings are dramatic evidence for the hypothesis that tyranny never lasts forever, that the people will always rise up and throw off dictatorships eventually. In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, it's a dramatic reconfirmation of the great, soaring potential inherent in the human spirit.

February 1, 2011, 6:42 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink32 comments

Darkness Gathers Over Pakistan

    "When we consider the founders of our nation - Jefferson, Washington, Samuel and John Adams, Madison and Monroe, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and many others - we have before us a list of at least ten and maybe even dozens of great political leaders. They were well-educated. Products of the European Enlightenment, they were students of history. They knew human fallibility and weakness and corruptibility... They attempted to set a course for the United States into the far future - not so much by establishing laws as by setting limits on what kinds of laws could be passed.
    The Constitution and its Bill of Rights have done remarkably well, constituting, despite human weaknesses, a machine able, more often than not, to correct its own trajectory.
    At that time, there were only about two and a half million citizens of the United States. Today there are about a hundred times more. So if there were ten people of the caliber of Thomas Jefferson then, there ought to be 10 x 100 = 1,000 Thomas Jeffersons today.
    Where are they?"

—Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World. From Chapter 25, "Real Patriots Ask Questions", p.428.

That passage has stayed with me ever since I first read it. Where are the modern world's Thomas Jeffersons? Is it that the philosophical climate that once produced great men like this has changed, so that the people who could have been them never come into being, never take the right paths down the tree of contingency? Has the world grown more politically settled, so that there's less room for them to make their mark? Or has the world just grown so much bigger and more complex that their contributions are harder to notice?

I don't have the answer to this question, but it's hard for me not to think that a man who was one of those thousand, or someday could have been, was just murdered:

...Pakistan has become a country so scared of the inciters of religious violence that liberals stay silent for fear the assassins will come for them; a land so benighted Jamaat-e-Islami and other mobster theocrats can get away with blaming Taseer for his own death and treating his killer as a hero for enforcing the will of god.

The reason offered for Punjab governor Salman Taseer's murder was that he advocated the cause of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. For fundamentalist death-worshippers, not only is any speech disagreeing with their religious beliefs a capital offense (although blasphemy accusations are often used to settle village vendettas), but defending someone accused of such, or calling for the reform of these barbaric statutes, is also worthy of death. As recently as a month ago, Taseer was scornful of the screaming maniacs calling for his blood:

Mr Taseer responded with characteristic insouciance. “It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “Who the hell are these illiterare maulvis to decide to whether i’m a Muslim or not?” Earlier, he tweeted: “Tomorrow mullahs r demonstrating against me...Thousands of beards screaming 4 my head.What a great feeling!”

Even in the glimmerings of a Twitter post, you begin to get the idea of what we lost with his death. Taseer was a brave man who believed in human rights; his killer was one of the violent, death-worshipping thugs who believe that the first, last and only response to people speaking their own minds or doing anything they dislike is to pick up a gun. Their guiding principle is that the rule of murder is the only law they need, and that they can kill their critics faster than they arise. The frightening thing is that they may not be wrong. The virus that infects their minds is spreading so fast; when Taseer's murderer was being brought to court, jubilant crowds cheered and showered him with flower petals.

It's tempting, so tempting, to take the eschatological route: to write off Pakistan as hopeless, a lost cause, and say to the few rational and enlightened human beings left there, "Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues." But giving up and turning one's back on the world has never worked, and it won't work here. For one thing, there's still the question of Pakistan's nuclear weapons - one of the few innovations of science that the fundamentalists gladly accept in a land benighted by the absolute darkness of superstition - and, in any case, we're seeing the same mentality breaking out in America as well. In the war of reason against superstition and conscience against hate, we can't afford to surrender any ground, because it only emboldens the enemy to press harder and to advance further.

But the struggle is so hard, so wearying, and it seems as if our adversaries are inexhaustible. They have seemingly limitless reservoirs of hate to drive them, and in any case, they're so many and the guardians of reason are so few. If anything gives me the motivation to fight on despite all their evil and their barbarism, it's words like these from Taseer's son Shehrbano Taseer, who argues passionately that the cause of human rights in his country hasn't been silenced. For humanity's sake, for the sake of all we've accomplished and may yet accomplish, I hope he's right.

January 11, 2011, 8:38 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments

Older Posts >

Now available from Big Think!


MUST-READ POSTS (view all)


SITE CATEGORIES (explanation)




see all >













SSA Speaker Page
Find Me on Facebook Find Me on Atheist Nexus
Kiva - loans that change lives
Foundation Beyond Belief
The Out Campaign
Winner of the 2009 3 Quarks Daily Science Writing Prize