Atheists Haven't Forgotten Poland

I've mentioned in the past that as the Catholic church dwindles and ages, it's increasingly having trouble finding enough people who want to join the priesthood, and it's relying heavily on the few Catholic-majority countries remaining, such as Poland, that are net exporters of priests. At the time, I mused:

Even former Catholic strongholds such as Italy and Spain, the article points out, have only a 10-20% rate of church attendance. In this respect, it seems that Europe is leading the way; now only if we can make headway in Poland, the Vatican's last European stronghold, the results might truly be worth seeing.

Well, what do you know: it looks like the gods of atheism have answered my prayers! (I knew that extra burnt offering would do the trick.)

"It seems we are Catholics in a cultural way; we identify as Catholic, but do not attend church," said Tomasz Terlikowski, editor of Fronda, a conservative Catholic magazine, who said he was upset with what he called the lack of effective church leadership against the secular tide.

Mr. Terlikowski said he was astounded when he heard that church leaders in Poland were so frustrated with what was being said about the church in the national newspapers that they ordered their staff members to stop bringing them the papers.

This article observes that Poland, in recent years, is experiencing the same secularizing trend we've seen in other European countries. A majority of Poles still identify as Catholic for cultural reasons, but church attendance is plummeting, the influence of church leaders is waning, and large majorities reject the church's harmful and archaic moral beliefs. In major cities like Warsaw and Krakow, church attendance has fallen as low as 20 percent, similar to the numbers in other former Catholic strongholds like Italy and Spain.

The papacy of John Paul II, who was hugely popular in his native country, probably masked this trend for a while. But since his death, the church has grown more rigid and doctrinaire, and Poles' warm feelings are beginning to ebb. A key turning point was the Vatican's recent, shockingly heavy-handed intrusion into Polish politics over in vitro fertilization. When Parliament took up a proposal to regulate the popular procedure, bishops demanded that it be banned and openly threatened to excommunicate any politician who didn't fall in line. Even Poland's center-right government was disgusted by this naked attempt at blackmail:

A spokesman for the centre-right government, Pawel Gras, said: "The threats and attempts to blackmail are amazing."

...Prime Minister Donald Tusk said politicians were responsible to citizens, not the Church hierarchy.

On behalf of the atheist movement, I'd love to take credit for the decline of the Catholic church in Poland. I'd love to say that our slashing rhetorical attacks and dazzling wit are persuading people to quit the church in droves. But the truth is that they brought it on themselves. With their clumsy and brutish intrusions into politics, with their arrogant demands that Polish people put their own opinions and moral beliefs aside and bow down before their betters, they've shown themselves to be a gang of thugs and bullies, and the people are responding accordingly. But even if atheists didn't have anything to do with this, we can take heart: even as the church shrinks and fades, it steadfastly refuses to change course, continuing to confidently steer its way into irrelevance.

December 20, 2010, 7:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink29 comments

Atheists Don't Debate (Except When We Do)

A Review of When Atheism Becomes Religion, Part II

In chapter 3, Hedges gives a two-and-a-half-page-long excerpt of a debate he had with Sam Harris at UCLA in May 2007, moderated by the columnist Robert Scheer, about whether Islam encourages suicide bombing:

HARRIS: OK, well, let me deal with your taking the measure of the Muslim world. Happily we do not assess public opinion by having New York Times journalists go out and live in the Muslim world and make friends and get a vibe... A single well-run opinion poll would be worth a thousand years of you wandering around the Middle East.

SCHEER: Come on.

HARRIS: That's not meant to be hyperbolic.

SCHEER: Wrong, wrong, wrong.

HARRIS: Let me tell you -

SCHEER: You can't possibly believe that about polls, my God -

HARRIS: All we've got is conversations; all we've got is conversations.

SCHEER: The man has lived there for 15 years, for God's sake. (p.73)

This quote is noteworthy for the way Scheer, allegedly present to act as the moderator, gives up the pretense of doing that and openly joins Hedges' side. Hedges doesn't comment on this, so either he didn't notice (unlikely) or doesn't think it casts him in a bad light that he let the moderator argue his side of the debate for him. After this quote, Hedges resumes bashing his opponents:

Harris follows the line of least resistance. He does not engage in the hard and laborious work of acquiring knowledge and understanding. Self-criticism and self-reflection are a waste of time. Nuance and complexity ruins the entertainment and defeats the simple, neat solutions he offers up to cope with the world's problems. He does not deal in abstractions. He sees all people as clearly defined. The world is divided into those who embrace or reject his belief system. Those that support him are good, and forces for human progress. Those that oppose him are ignorant at best, and probably evil. He has no interest in debate, dialogue or scholarship. (p.75)

Harris has "no interest in debate"? After you just spent two and a half pages quoting from a debate he had with you? Did an editor even look at this book?

What really piques Hedges' ire is that Sam Harris, when trying to explain the causes of Islamic terrorism, didn't accept Hedges' own personal reminiscences about people he met as a Mideast correspondent, and decided instead to rely on those worthless nobodies at Pew and their so-called "scientific 38,000-person random sampling of the populations of nine countries". And then there's Harris' outrageous statement about the cause of the Yugoslavian war in the 90s:

[Harris' book was] tedious, at its best, and often ignorant and racist. His assertion, for example, that the war in the former Yugoslavia was caused by religion was ridiculous. (p.2)

Ooh, those atheists just make Chris Hedges so mad! They don't know anything about what causes war. It's a good thing we have a foreign-policy genius like Hedges to tell us what factors really led to that brutal episode of ethnic cleansing:

The Serbian ethnic cleansing campaigns... sought their moral justification in distant and often mythic humiliations suffered by the Serbs, especially the 1396 defeat of Serbian forces by the Ottoman Turks at the Field of Blackbirds in the province of Kosovo... the mythic tale of the defeat, and the alleged treachery of the Muslims in the battle, figured prominently in windy discussions by common soldiers on the front lines in Bosnia during the war. (p.133)

The collective humiliation and the rage it produced obliterated self-reflection and self-criticism. It fed acts of aggression against Muslims. The images on the evening news in Belgrade of Serbian victims, as well as the alleged atrocities by the Muslims in Bosnia or Kosovo, were used to justify the wanton attacks by Serbs, most of them against unarmed Bosnian Muslims. (p.133)

The worst atrocities in Bosnia were sanctified not by imams, but by Catholic and Serbian Orthodox priests. (p.149)

But don't forget, religion had nothing to do with causing that war! To say so would be "ridiculous", and only "ignorant and racist" people like Sam Harris would think that! Aren't you glad you have a Very Serious Person like Chris Hedges to explain this all to you?

Ironically, Hedges' defense is the same as that of the Christian fundamentalists he decries: When discussing a modern holy war, if there are any identifiable political or nationalistic motives for either warring side, he concludes that religion is excused of all blame - even when religious figures sanctify acts of bloodshed, even when religious rhetoric is used by the warring sides to condemn each other or inflame their own people's passions, even when religion is the very basis that the warring sides use to tell each other apart in the first place. As atheists, we should have no trouble agreeing that factors other than religion play into violent conflict, even if religion also bears a large share of the responsibility. It's only people like Hedges who have to deny the obvious truth that religion can be both an initiator and an accelerant of bloodshed.

Other posts in this series:

December 13, 2010, 2:52 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments

Theocrats on the March in Israel

Since I wrote recently about the evil mullahs of the Middle East who ferociously resist the slightest spark of progress, I think it's worth pointing out - in the name of fairness - that destructive, theocratic insanity can be found in every religion. Christopher Hitchens has written an excellent column this week in Slate to remind us of that.

The right-wing government that's currently in charge of Israel is continuing the policy of building homes for Jewish settlers on land seized by force from Palestinians. Understandably, the Palestinians have demanded a freeze on these settlements as a condition of resuming peace talks. But Benjamin Netanyahu's government has been intransigent - and much of the blame for that can be laid on one man, a right-wing rabbi named Ovadia Yosef, who's the de facto head of a crucial party in Netanyahu's coalition. Hitchens calls Yosef an "elderly Sephardic ayatollah", and from a look at his record, that assessment is spot-on.

Last month, Yosef proclaimed that the sole purpose for the existence of gentiles is to be servants for Jews (and I should note that by "Jews", Yosef doubtlessly doesn't mean all people who claim Jewish heritage, but only the minority who are ultra-Orthodox like himself). Before that, he was well-known for publicly wishing that God would send a plague to eradicate the Palestinians, showing himself to be a staunch supporter of the Hebrew Bible's policy of holy genocide. He's also attributed Hurricane Katrina to insufficient Torah study in New Orleans, said that Holocaust victims were reincarnated sinners whom God was punishing, and proclaimed that Orthodox conversion, and only Orthodox conversion, gifts the convert with the "Jewish gene".

And this is the person whose consent is a necessary element of the settlement freeze. This is the person whom all the peace negotiations and all the diplomatic efforts depend on - not a reasonable person of good will who wants to promote peace, but a religious maniac who openly doubts the humanity of everyone outside his narrow circle of dogma. It's enough to make me despair of hoping that it will ever stop.

If it weren't for all the innocent people caught on both sides of the conflict, I'd say that we should withdraw from this region entirely and let the fanatics fight it out forever - let their endless war continue until the last two fall with their hands around each other's throats, while the rest of humanity moves on. But even the most bloodthirsty, fanatical partisans on both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides are still human beings, and should be capable of better than this. There must be a way, some way of persuasion, that will get them to put their spiral of grievance aside and get them all to see reason. I just wish that I could see what it was.

November 24, 2010, 6:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink21 comments

The March of Tyranny in the Middle East

The invasion of Iraq was cheered by right-wing Christians as a way to bring democracy to a people oppressed by tyranny. And, on paper at least, it achieved that goal. But in reality, Iraq as a nation hardly exists anymore. The anarchy of the invasion unleashed a wave of sectarian bloodshed, and the fragile stability which the country now possesses survives mainly because the ethnic cleansing is essentially complete - because all the mixed Sunni/Shia neighborhoods have been destroyed, their people fled or murdered, and those who remain live in isolated enclaves kept separate by blast walls and armed militias.

The religious right, of course, neither knows nor cares about any of this, about the suffering and disaster they've visited on the people they supposedly wanted to help. But maybe this gloomy story will drive it home for some of them: the invasion now seems almost certain to result in the extermination of the Iraqi Christian community, one of the oldest in the world.

Statistics vary wildly, but according to the US State Department, there are between 550,000 and 800,000 Christians left in Iraq, compared with 1.4 million in 1987 when a census was taken. Those numbers may be an over-estimation, but it is generally agreed that the number has halved since Saddam's fall as members of the faith flee the pogroms. Iraqi Christians say they are in graver danger now than at any time in their history.

..."To the Christian, we would like to inform you of the decision of the legal court of the Secret Islamic Army to notify you that this is your last and final threat," the letter read. "If you do not leave your home, your blood will be spilled. You and your family will be killed." With its chilling echoes of similar missives delivered to Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, it is little wonder that Iraqi Christians fear extermination.

Although Saddam Hussein was a ruthless and bloodthirsty dictator, his government actually afforded Christians more protection than they now possess. Last month's horrific attack on Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Church was a tragic illustration of that, and campaigns of terrorism and intimidation by Islamists are ongoing.

In another illustration that democracy alone doesn't always improve human rights, there's also this from the allegedly democratic Palestinian Authority:

Residents of Qalqiliya say they had no idea that Walid Husayin — the 26-year-old son of a Muslim scholar — was leading a double life.

Known as a quiet man who prayed with his family each Friday and spent his evenings working in his father's barbershop, Husayin was secretly posting anti-religion rants on the Internet during his free time.... He now faces a potential life prison sentence on heresy charges for "insulting the divine essence."

Many in this conservative Muslim town say that isn't enough, and suggested he should be killed for renouncing Islam. Even family members say he should remain behind bars for life.

"He should be burned to death," said Abdul-Latif Dahoud, a 35-year-old Qalqiliya resident. The execution should take place in public "to be an example to others," he added.

It's still possible that Western governments will put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to spare this young man, who stands accused of nothing besides voicing his opinions - an intolerable crime in the world of Islamist thought control, where dogma receives higher protection than human lives. If you live in a Western country, please contact your representatives and ask them to take action!

And finally, just to show that the Middle East isn't entirely benighted by fundamentalism, I present this lone, pitiful spark of meager progress:

When Saudi King Abdullah appeared in a newspaper photo with 40 veiled women in April, he broke a taboo by mixing with the opposite sex in public.

Since then, the 86-year-old monarch has crimped the power of conservative Muslim clerics more than any of his five predecessors since the foundation of the kingdom in 1932. He prohibited unauthorized religious edicts, or fatwas, and shut some of the websites where they’re issued. In the past month, he backed supermarkets employing females for the first time.

Granted, women working in supermarkets - or being allowed to mingle with men in public, in full shroud and veil, for one day per year - is hardly an advance worth celebration. But it's noteworthy that even this tiny step toward female equality is being ferociously opposed by the mad, wretched Wahhabist clerics of that country. It says something unfortunate that this improvement, pitiful as it was, had to come from the monarchical tyranny that is Saudi Arabia rather than one of the nominal democracies that exist throughout the Middle East. As long as these countries are populated by those whose minds are poisoned by religion, it's unlikely that significant moral progress will ever occur there.

November 19, 2010, 2:23 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink60 comments

Spotlighting Atheism in Greece

Since Greece was the birthplace of Western philosophy, as well as the home of some of history's first freethinkers, it seems only fitting that it should have a lively atheist movement. And what do you know, it does! (HT: EvanT of On the Way to Ithaca)

This is a Greek version of the song "Godless and Free", written and performed by a member of the Atheist Union of Greece (they also have a forum and a blog, for native speakers). I'm told the lyrics can be translated as follows:

You believe in a god that your parents taught you.
But tell me, have you taken the time to think it through?
You were told about it by the school, the state and your dad,
you know everything by heart and mindlessly bow down.

Without a god, without a god,
Deny the doctrines and wonder if it's right,
A book of old with infallible holy words
Search and screw them and all their teachings
Without a god

They told you that you should wait for a second life
And for now to submit to their divine commands
But I'm telling you not to believe to their Santa Claus
And not to pay attention to what comes out of their mouths.

Without a god, without a god,
Live your life, break your silence without hesitation,
You have but a single life, make a difference with it
Just one chance, no more games,

Without a god,
Without a god,

Ask for evidence and not for suggestions, say "no more"
Look a bit into religion, its role in society,
Look into its rotting flesh, walk out and speak up!
Without a god

And if they put forward their morality,
Then ask "what does hell have to do with it?"
Look into your own humanity
and wonder if that's a thing you'd do.

And if the say "don't take the chance,
If you're wrong, you know where you'll end up"
Laught and say what it will become of them
If the god that exists is in fact Thor.

Without a god, without a god
Use reason as your principle every minute,
There are so many superstitions, biases and religions,
All of them artificial and thought-up
Without a god.

Some may be new, but they're all devious,
Without a god.

Let go of myths and pay attention to the lyrics
Live life with passion, there's nothing wrong about that,
Use your mind, judge by yourself
Without a god!

Unfortunately, despite Greece's illustrious intellectual history, the modern state is dominated by the Greek Orthodox church, which enjoys official government endorsement and favor. There's no constitutional provision for separating church and state; the church is exempt from taxation, Orthodox priests' salaries and pensions are paid by the state, and religious education is compulsory in public schools at all grade levels. It was only a few years ago that students were allowed to opt out at all (except for Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses, who've had the right to opt out since the 1980s).

Given all the financial troubles Greece is having, now would be an excellent time for the government to cut the church loose from state support and consider ending its tax exemption. In the past six months, the Atheist Union of Greece has been organizing demonstrations outside temples in Athens and Thessaloniki to push this proposal, as well as to call for greater separation of church and state in the school system. They've also been busy informing Greek citizens of their rights: that students can opt out of religious education, and that parents don't have to baptize their children in an Orthodox church to get a birth certificate (something that most Greeks don't know, according to my correspondent).

Although official statistics show that Greece is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian, that may only be because of another legal privilege accorded to the church: those numbers are obtained by counting baptismal records, which, as already mentioned, the vast majority of people have whether they actively belong to the church or not. Until the Greek atheist movement has had time to get its message out, there's no telling how many sympathizers they may have. If you're a freethinker living in Greece, why not contact them and stand up and be counted?

October 11, 2010, 4:25 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink12 comments

The Iron Curtain of Censorship

Well, it looks like we can add Russia to the list of countries where it's illegal to criticize religion:

Two Russian museum curators were found guilty of "inciting religious hatred" for displaying a painting of Jesus Christ with Mickey Mouse's head superimposed.
    A Moscow court ordered the two men, Yuri Samodurov and Andrei Yerofeyev, to pay fines of £4,200 each.
    They ruled that a 2007 exhibition in Moscow called "Forbidden Art" had caused psychological trauma and moral suffering to Christians.

"Psychological trauma and moral suffering". You know, I always thought the Bible told Christians to be glad when they were persecuted:

"Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you."

—Matthew 5:11-12

but apparently this verse, like many others, has been left by the wayside. In the writings of the church fathers, there are stories of Christian martyrs who gladly suffered torture and even death in the service of their faith. Whatever else I might think about their beliefs, I can give those people points for toughness, if nothing else. But now, instead of welcoming persecution, modern Christians in many nations have become delicate flowers, so protective of their fragile psyches that they can't even bear to see Jesus with mouse ears.

And no, it's not just the state taking action to shelter and coddle Christians against their will. The church, as you might expect, took an active role in the trial:

The two convicted curators said they would appeal against Monday's verdict, while the Russian Orthodox Church complained the fines were too small.

Well, naturally. The fines have to be cripplingly large, because if they aren't, these two hooligans might not learn their lesson. They might even be tempted to criticize Christianity again in the future, and that would be lethal to the poor, helpless Russian Orthodox church. Their weak nerves couldn't possibly survive another Virgin Mary sculpted from caviar!

We're seeing something firsthand that America's founding fathers knew well: any religion that gains secular power will abuse it, no matter how much experience they have of being in the minority. Decades of repression under the Soviet government apparently taught the Russian church absolutely nothing about tolerance of dissenting views, because as soon as they regained state favor, they immediately set about trying to outlaw all opinions they disapprove of; whether it's this case, or a similar story from 2007 about them lobbying the government to outlaw homosexuality; or from 2005, when the organizers of another sacrilegious art show were convicted and fined.

This is the first and most important reason why every nation needs a strong separation of church and state. Russia has granted the Orthodox church special status in its laws, part of a dangerous drive by its leaders to promote nationalism, and the erosion of Russian citizens' freedom is the obvious and inevitable result. There are still brave people in Russia, like these Voltaire-esque museum curators, fighting for human rights - but it's all too easy to see a new iron curtain, not made of concrete or barbed wire but nonetheless real, looming and threatening to close around the people's minds.

July 23, 2010, 5:49 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink15 comments

Britain Defends the Enlightenment

Despite the ongoing schism of the Anglican church, which I wrote about in my last post, I'm happy to see that there's still plenty of good sense and reason in the U.K. One outstanding example is this story from last month, where the British Medical Association voted to stop funding homeopathy in public hospitals. (UK readers, do you know if is this a binding vote or just advisory?) There's been some trenchant commentary on the decision, like this column from Ed West:

The most outspoken supporter of the motion, Dr Tom Dolphin, had earlier compared homeopathy to witchcraft, but then apologised to witches on the grounds that this was unfair. Homeopathy, he said, was "pernicious nonsense that feeds into a rising wave of irrationality which threatens to overwhelm the hard-won gains of the Enlightenment and the scientific method".

And from Martin Robbins, responding to a supporter of homeopathy:

Apparently 'thousands' of people - including Peter Hain's son - get better after taking homeopathy. This is absolutely true, but the problem is that most people get better anyway, whether you give them antibiotics, homeopathy, or a slap to the face. Humans tend to be quite good at healing themselves. Once you control for this sort of variable, the outcomes are much clearer.... the more rigorously we test homeopathy, the more it fails.

By way of response, defenders of homeopathy are reduced to reading from a by-now-familiar script:

Apparently... I'm displaying what Dr Le Fanu describes as "Dawkinsite arrogance", but there's nothing arrogant about researchers collectively testing ideas and accepting the results. What's arrogant is to ignore evidence when it doesn't produce the result you expect. Particularly when that evidence has been accumulating for two centuries – a period of time in which homeopaths apparently haven't even managed to agree on how much you have to shake the vial.

Yes, that's right - in two hundred years, homeopaths haven't gotten around to figuring out how many times a homeopathic remedy has to be "succussed" (i.e., shaken) in the course of dilution to activate its supposed curative powers. Do you really want to take medicine from people who can't be bothered to perform even the most basic tests on their own ideas? And what does it say about the homeopaths' level of devotion to scientific rigor that they've never even tried to determine this?

And this isn't the only good news out of England. It seems that Colin Hall, the recently elected mayor of Leicester, is a nonbeliever, and he's taken some commendable steps toward ending Christian privilege in his town:

Writing in this month's edition of the Leicester Secularist, the journal of the city's Secular Society, Cllr Hall, who will serve as Lord Mayor for the 2010-11 municipal year, said: "Contrary to the myths that certain organisations like to promote, the practice of observing prayers at the start of council meetings is a relatively recent one.

"I am delighted to confirm that I will be exercising my discretion as Lord Mayor to abolish the outdated, unnecessary and intrusive practice.

"I personally consider that religion, in whatever shape or form, has no role to play at all in the conduct of council business... This particularly applies in Leicester, where the majority of council members, myself included, do not regularly attend any particular faith service."

Although Hall's decision appears to have gone over smoothly with the majority, there was some predictable squawking from pushy Christians who are unhappy that their special rights are being taken away:

A Fellowship Pastor, Ian Jones, said: "I find it deeply sad that anyone would want to suppress the rights of others to pray.

"If someone has a problem with this practice, could they not simply join the meeting once it is over?"

Although the U.K. as a whole is friendly to reason, it seems its pastors suffer from the same disease that's endemic in America - the belief that they have the right to force their religion on others and that their free speech is being suppressed if they're denied this. I have a better idea, Pastor Jones: why don't you do your own praying before the meeting if you want to, and spare everyone else the wasted time of listening to your superstitious mumbling?

This isn't Mayor Hall's first action standing up for the rights of nonbelievers. He's hired the president of the local secular society to serve as the town's chaplain. When he took office, he also refused to take part in a service at Leicester Cathedral to ceremonially welcome him into his new role. As he wrote on Twitter, "Bear in mind though, I am Lord Mayor for all people of Leicester and not just those from the Church of England."

Hall's decision to stand up for secularism and conduct the people's business without giving special privileges to religion is a wonderful breath of fresh air, and something I wish we'd see more of in America. And for truth's sake, the U.K.'s current deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, is an atheist! You British people are just out to make us look bad, aren't you?

July 14, 2010, 7:24 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink17 comments

Simo Says

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

The other night I fled for my life. I fled a brawl in Paris. No, I didn't get entangled in a drunken bar fight. Again. Actually, I was in an elementary school.

Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS – Neither Whores Nor Submissives), the women's rights organization in Paris where I have been working as a human rights fellow, organized a public debate on the issue of the anticipated public burqa ban in France. The French Parliament is in the process of enacting a public ban on identity obscuring face coverings in France, which would include both the burqa (the all encompassing body covering) and the niqab (the face covering that leaves a slit for the eyes). The debate over the ban has embroiled all of France, and all of Europe, for that matter, in a battle over the role of religion in both government and public life in a democratic republic that espouses a strict secularism as the only foundation for equality amongst its citizens, including gender equality.

We chose a location, Montreuil, which is an inner ring suburb of Paris with a diverse population. We showered the local community with flyers and volunteers, engaging the inhabitants and inviting them to participate in the debate, both those in favor and those opposed to the ban. The goal was to have a real and meaningful exchange of ideas and opinions. Local community leaders and politicians were on the docket, as well as women's rights activists, such as Lubna Al Hussein, the Sudanese journalist who faced 40 lashings of the whip for wearing pants in Khartoum, and Sihem Habchi, the current President of Ni Putes Ni Soumises. Ni Putes Ni Soumises has, since its inception, made a point of holding open, public debates and panel discussions in the heart of the cités and quartiers of France (the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding France's major cities, which are primarily composed of marginalized Muslim immigrant communities).

I was absolutely heartbroken by the way in which the evening unfolded. It confirmed many of my worst fears about the fate of humanity and the utter incompatibility of religion and the survival of our species.

One of the women's rights activists would get up to speak. He or she would speak about secularism and gender equality and gender desegregation as the foundational pillars of a safe and egalitarian public space in which all citizens enjoy equal rights and equal protection under the law in a democratic republic.

Then, one of the Islamists would respond by telling us what Mohammed said or did as was recorded in the Quran or the Hadith and how wonderful Islam is for women, because it gives them rights according to their differentness. And, sum up with a lovely comment about how Jews are pigs or something or other and the speaker is an anti-immigrant racist who hates Muslims and is in league with the Zionists.

Then, a veiled woman would tell us that she is afraid of being attacked by Christian and Atheist Frenchmen, and that she thinks French society is disgusting because women wear thongs and Christie's auctioned off a portrait of Carla Bruni.

Then one of the secularists would state that any discussion of Islam is completely irrelevant and that anti-Semitic slurs will not be tolerated.

And, then someone would lunge at someone else.

One of the elected officials would get up to speak. He or she would speak about secularism and gender equality and gender desegregation as the foundational pillars of a safe and egalitarian public space in which all citizens enjoy equal rights and equal protection under the law in a democratic republic.

Then, one of the Islamists would respond by telling us what Mohammed said or did as was recorded in the Quran or the Hadith and how wonderful Islam is for women, because it gives them rights according to their differentness. And, sum up with a lovely comment about how Jews are pigs or something or other and the speaker is an anti-immigrant racist who hates Muslims and is in league with the Zionists.

Then, a veiled woman would tell us that she really likes being the property of her husband, because that's what Allah commands, and no one can tell her that she shouldn't be a slave.

Then one of the secularists would state that any discussion of Islam is completely irrelevant and that anti-Semitic slurs will not be tolerated.

And, then someone would lunge at someone else.

And, so on and so forth.

Eventually the situation became scary enough that the police were called and the debate halted. At one point, my mammalian survival instinct usurped control of my bodily functions, and without a second thought, I fled the premises. I made a beeline for the nearest exit, and I wasn't the only one. Once outside, I turned back to peer in through a window to see what was transpiring. I was standing alongside a woman in hijab, and we both turned to look at each other. Without speaking a word, our faces communicated what we both were thinking, "These mofos are crazy."

It was truly an exasperating, disheartening experience. I literally walked out of that truncated debate thinking, "We're doomed. It's all over. Don't bother. Instead of just metaphorically drinking the Koolaid, we should all just go ahead and literally drink the Koolaid."

Did the Islamists really expect the secularists to acquiesce after a little Quranic exegesis? Oh, ok, well if Mohammed said it or did it, I guess that settles that.

Refusal to consider the religious viewpoint in the context of secular, democratic governance is not bigotry; it is not racism; it is not intolerance. It is common sense. This is why freedom from religion IS freedom of religion. How would you even begin to prioritize the litany of religious opinions on even a single subject? The only results would be either tyranny or anarchy. Do you think the participants in that room would tolerate being lectured on the tenets of Judaism? Of Christianity? Do you think they would say, "Oh, ok, well if Moses or Jesus said it or did it, then I guess that's the way it has to be"?

Islamists are called Islamists for a reason. They really do want to impose Sharia upon the societies in which they reside, and not only upon the Muslim populations within those societies. For them, there is no compromise. There is no other viewpoint worth considering, other than the Islamic viewpoint.

This is the result of brainwashing and indoctrinating and inculcating in religious cults. These people were incapable, quite literally incapable of allowing for a society structured on any other principles than those enumerated in the Quran and the Hadith. It was simply inconceivable to them that someone would not accept and conform to the example of the Prophet. Their brains were hardwired for Islam. All neural networks were devoted to Islam. All synapses were firing for Islam. The notion of the irrelevancy of Islam to the conversation about good democratic governance left them without an argument. They didn't know how to respond. In their desperation to respond to such a blasphemous suggestion, they short-circuited and the unspent energy exerted itself in eruptions of violence. It was scary. Quite simply – it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Not because of the violence, but, because of the futility of the exercise. For that debate to have actually taken place, in any sort of realistic, credible, viable manner, years of religious deprogramming of all participants would have had to occur first.

I know some, even many, will say that religion is not the problem; fundamentalism is the problem, or fanaticism is the problem. I think this argument is asinine.

Imagine a society in which we brainwash all children to believe that they can fly. From the moment they are born, all children are taught that, if they jump off any sufficiently high precipice, and they are worthy and morally sound, they will be able to flap their arms and take flight, saving themselves from a deathly plunge. With the modernization of society, many parents have ceased to inculcate their children in this belief, having realized its fallacy. And, of those who persist in perpetuating the custom, most reveal the hoax to their children before they are old enough to test its claims. Others have reformed the tradition, advising their children that they best not attempt to test the belief, given that few are so worthy. But, regardless of the claims of modernity, the custom persists, and, as young adults, a certain percentage of our youth attempt just such an act, resulting in many needless deaths.

Now, imagine that the purveyors of this custom defend the practice by claiming that the problem is not that they brainwash their children into believing that they can fly; the problem is that a certain percentage of these children believe it. The problem is that a certain percentage of these children grow into adults who persist on believing it. The problem is the fundamentalists and the fanatics who refuse to reveal the hoax or admonish their children against attempting flight. The belief simply needs to undergo a reformation, an enlightenment, if you will. A moderate version of the belief is acceptable in a modern society, and even compatible with science.

I acknowledge that I work with many wonderful Muslim women who claim their religion and the right to interpret their religion for themselves, who strive on behalf of secularism and gender equality and gender desegregation. We are able to work together in harmony, regardless of our disparate views on religion, because we are both striving for the same goals: secularism, gender equality and gender desegregation.

Obviously, I think it is a waste of time to try to reform Islam into a gender-friendly, or, even, a gender-neutral doctrine. I think women would be better off rejecting religion all together. Trying to find a place for gender equality in the context of religion is like trying to find a place for racial equality in the context of Nazism. But, despite my abhorrence for religion, in a legal context, this is not my fight.

In a legal context, my fight is secularism. My fight is women's rights. The fight for secularism is NOT an act of aggression against religion. The fight for women's rights is NOT an act of aggression against religion. It might appear this way to religionists, because religion is the institutionalization of misogyny. But, the way in which secular, democratic governance appears to religionists could not be more beside the point. I hate religion. I fight against religion, but NOT in a legal context. But, in the open, public marketplace of ideas, as it should be. I would never support the criminalization of religion. Never. I just wish religionists would extend me the same favor.

After the debate, I found myself standing on the street guarding Lubna Al Hussein's luggage and the amp and chatting with Sihem Habchi. Someone who was obviously having trouble cooling off took a last lunge at Sihem. I was impressed by how quickly the police and security guards acted. They swooped in, scooping up Sihem and whisking her away behind a line of stern-faced police officers. Then I realized that no one had swooped in and scooped me up and whisked me away behind a line of stern-faced police officers. And, I was on the wrong side of that line of stern-faced police officers. I was on the side with all of the bearded and veiled Islamists who were having trouble cooling off. "What should I do?" I wondered. I tried to get rid of my scared face and affect an angry face instead.

It was an impossible situation, and a perfect metaphor – law and order standing between the secularists and the violent Islamists.

And, while I hate to be fatalistic, more and more I fear that, eventually, reason will lose out to faith to the downfall of humanity.

But, I'm not going down without a fight.

June 18, 2010, 5:47 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink28 comments

Yes, That's Me in the Burqa

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

I am an incipient First Amendment lawyer and a staunch church-state separatist. I surpass even my most progressive friends and colleagues in my unflinching and unwavering support of the freedom of speech and expression, including religious expression. I am pretty much the only person I know who hates hate crime legislation as little more than bald-faced thought crime legislation. I am not infrequently verbally vilified for asserting the claim that morality has no place in the law.

And, I support the anticipated public burqa ban in France. And, I would support a public burqa ban in the United States. In fact, I would support a global public burqa ban.

(I will pause briefly for what I am sure are the many gasps of incredulity.)

I am working in Paris, France for a year as an international human rights fellow at Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS). Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives) is a well-known international human rights organization, which advocates unequivocally for women's rights as universal human rights without compromise. They condemn both cultural relativism and obscurantism. They wholeheartedly support the anticipated public burqa ban in France. One of the reasons why I wished to work there is because I wanted to support this effort.

We have been marching and rallying and demonstrating and speaking and speechifying and writing and posting and blogging and publishing up a storm. We marched in front of the National Assembly (their lower house of Parliament) in burqas. We marched in front of the Socialist Party headquarters in burqas. We marched in front of the UMP Party headquarters in burqas. Lubna Al Hussein, the Sudanese journalist who was threatened with 40 lashes of the whip for wearing pants in Khartoum, has embraced the effort while she is visiting France as the guest of NPNS. I have been doing my utmost to spread the word throughout the English-speaking world and especially within the US. Unfortunately, the greater part of the US, including Obama, is woefully misguided on this issue. The US should pay greater attention to the European debate on this subject, instead of dismissing it offhand.

The US needs to hear the message of Ni Putes Ni Soumises. NPNS rose up out of a ferocious grassroots response to the unfathomable violence being perpetrated against the women and girls of the quartiers and cités in the banlieues (the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding France's major cities, which are comprised predominantly of marginalized Muslim immigrant communities). Ni Putes Ni Soumises continues to be led by the women of the quartiers from sub-Saharan and North African Muslim immigrant backgrounds. They are not anti-Islam. They claim their religion, and they claim the right to interpret their religion for themselves. They wholly reject the burqa as a barbaric patriarchal cultural tradition that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Islam.

To me, the issue of whether or not the burqa/niqab is mandated by Islam is irrelevant. In fact, in this instance, as far as I am concerned, Islam is irrelevant. We don't make laws based upon whether or not they coincide with Islamic doctrine or scripture or apocrypha or tradition or custom or what have you. We make laws based upon secular principles and concerns and objectives. Likewise, Ni Putes Ni Soumises fights on behalf of secularism, gender equality and gender desegregation as the foundational elements of a truly egalitarian public space, in which all citizens may participate as equals.

The burqa ban should be a non-issue. To me, it's such a simple issue that it's stupid simple. It's ridiculously simple. Of course there should be a ban on identity obscuring face coverings in public. Of course. I don't even think of it as a ban. It's a requirement to reveal one's identity in the public space.

But, before I get ahead of myself, I'm setting some ground rules. I am speaking of the burqa/niqab ban. I am not addressing the hijab or the chador (which do not hide the face). I am not addressing issues of national identity or immigration. I have entirely different takes on those very important issues, but I am not addressing those issues here. I am addressing simply a proposed ban on identity obscuring face coverings in public. I am addressing a proposed ban on public self-effacement, a requirement to reveal one's identity in the public space.

The argument against the burqa ban always takes a very decided path, which I will follow quite plainly here, addressing each concern as I go.

1. A lot of people will be exempt from the ban, so why not Muslim women?

The argument that the person drilling into the sidewalk is wearing a mask, and has been exempted from the ban on face coverings, so everyone else should also be able to walk around in public with identity obscuring face coverings is asinine.

The person in a bright orange vest surrounded by orange traffic cones and yellow caution tape standing next to a dump truck emblazoned with the local municipality's name and operating heavy machinery in the midst of his or her similarly attired co-workers, one of whom is the foreperson who is ready to present his or her official documents of authority for engaging in such activity – an activity that had been publicized in advance in the local press, no doubt, is NOT obscuring his or her identity.

Can we move beyond this point already?

A doctor wearing a mask while performing surgery (or a masked EMT/paramedic or some other similarly masked medical professional) is NOT obscuring his or her identity.

Are you with me yet?

A skier fully decked out in skiing regalia and flying past you on the slopes at a ski resort while wearing a face mask as protection against the biting wind is NOT obscuring his or her identity.

Is this clear already? And, by the way, I grew up in Minnesota, so I understand this point well. The cold winters. Not the skiing.

What's next? Oh, yeah.

2. You just have a problem with banning things.

I'm not sure which nation you happen to reside in or which planet you happen to reside on, but if this is a serious issue for you – "the banning of things" – then you have bigger fish to fry than the burqa. Additionally, I see the burqa ban not so much as a ban, but as a requirement to reveal one's identity in the public space.

3. You see the burqa ban as a limitation on the free exercise of religious faith.

A legitimate government CAN and MAY and MUST be able to tell its citizens what is and is not permissible behavior in public, EVEN IF these laws incidentally encroach upon expressions of religious faith.

The freedom of religious expression is not unlimited. This would result in anarchy. Each and every single law in existence encroaches upon someone's ability to express his or her religious faith. Snake handling? Girl child marriages? Hunting bald eagles? Female genital mutilation? Smoking peyote? Polygamy? Public nudity? Compulsory childhood education? Military draft? Vaccinations? Photo ID's? Taxes? I could go on ad nauseum.

Nowadays, religion is just as likely as not to be defined as an all-encompassing tautology of spiritual mysticism. Whatever that means. It's hard for legislators to come up with laws that don't violate someone's expression of their all-encompassing tautology of spiritual mysticism.

If a law is being enacted for a wholly secular purpose, and it happens to impinge upon someone's religious expression – too bad, so sad. We don't live in a theocracy. We don't make laws, which pay any heed whatsoever to religious doctrine. Thank gods.

The burqa ban is analogous to drivers' licenses and childhood vaccinations. If you don't want to follow the rules, fine, but then you don't get to play. No one is forcing you to play. But, if you want to play the game (i.e. participate in society), you have to follow the rules.

A ban on identity obscuring face coverings in public is not a violation of the Free Exercise Clause. The government turning a knowing blind eye away from egregious human and civil rights violations being perpetrated under cover of religious liberty is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Batter up.

4. You don't see the issue of the rapidly increasing use of identity obscuring face

coverings in the public space as an issue of public welfare or safety or security or protecting our democracy.

First of all, you're wrong. If I had to write down a recipe for lawlessness, I think I would start by having everyone walk around with black tarps over their heads. There's a reason why burglars and bank robbers and suicide bombers wear masks. If you still fail to grasp this point, I suggest you try an experiment. Try walking into any federal building with a sheet over your head and let me know how that works out for you.

I have a right to know with whom I am interacting in the public space. The public space does not only belong to those citizens who wish to wear the burqa or niqab. The public space belongs to all citizens. It belongs to all persons. Revelation of one's identity is pretty much the most rudimentary step towards participation in society.

A high level of trust is one of the defining attributes of a highly functioning, socially cohesive society. How much trust do you think is engendered by the citizenry walking around with black tarps over their heads?

If you remain unconvinced on the point about security, how about as an issue of protecting our democracy?

It is beyond ludicrous to think that any society can maintain a liberal constitutional democracy with its electorate walking around in public with their identities wholly obscured. You first have to claim your humanity before you can claim your human rights. You first have to claim your citizenship before you can claim your civil rights. This is not possible without claiming one's identity. Identity is power. Why do you think misogynists impose the burqa upon women? To render them powerless.

5. But, it's just a handful of women, you say.

So, doesn't that seem like a good time to nip the problem in the bud? Before it becomes an even more serious issue? And, when has it ever been ok to violate the human rights of just a few persons?

6. But, these women will be sequestered in their homes, because their

husbands and families will not allow them to venture outside without burqas, thereby rendering these women prisoners without contact with the wider society, nor access to public services.

I find this particular argument to be something of a thinly veiled threat. It reeks of the same sort of fear mongering and paternalism that takes place every time women's rights take a step forward. Men will force women to take the pill. Men will treat women like dirty whores, if they can't get them pregnant. Men will force women to have abortions. And, now, when I speak of our need in the US for over the counter abortifacients, I hear the same horror stories: men will force women to take them. Truth be told, in France, when the law against ostentatious religious symbols in public schools was enacted, the same horror stories were recited: the families that demand that their daughters wear hijab will simply pull them out of school. By and large – never happened. But, the French legislators are proposing a burqa ban, which meets the needs of the fear mongering paternalists: the second portion of the French bill includes a severe penalty for forcing a woman to wear a burqa or any garment whatsoever by reason of her gender.

7. But, you're still just incensed, absolutely incensed, about the ostensibly (to you)

unnecessary limitations on the freedom of expression and religion of Muslim women.

Where were you when the massive waves of protests were overwhelming our major cities to protect the right of Native Americans to hunt bald eagles? Where were you when the write in campaigns were flooding the offices of our legislators in Congress to protect the right of Native Americans to smoke peyote?

Oh, that's right. You weren't there. Because that never happened. Because no one cared.

Oh, and as a side note, it seems pretty obvious to me that a handful of Native Americans smoking peyote or handling (not hunting) bald eagle feathers is far less of a public safety issue than identity obscuring face coverings.

But, for some reason, you've decided that you need to take up the cause of the Muslim women who wear the burqa or niqab in Western nations. You are tremendously invested in their ability to express their religious faith, even though you understand that, for the vast majority of Muslim women, the "choice" to don the burqa or no is anything but free.

I would strongly encourage you to search deep within your freedom loving soul to examine the true nature of this stance.

I just find it interesting that no one has any issue with the whole litany of laws, be they federal, state or local, that encroach upon religious expression, but everyone has an ardent opinion on a simple public ban of identity obscuring face coverings, a ban which should be a non-issue.

Why is that?

Could it be because it violates our deeply rooted notions of women as the sexual and reproductive chattel of their families and communities?

I'm just asking.

Or, maybe you're afraid of Muslims.

That's Islamophobia -- treating Muslims as if their hypersensitive feelings have to be endlessly coddled lest they blow something up.

Why don't we treat the Muslim community like intelligent, sophisticated adults who can appreciate the merits of living in a liberal constitutional democracy?

And, just for the record, I'm tired of the suggestions that I'm being played for a fool by the fascist, anti-immigrant Religious Right, as if their tantrums were a good reason to abandon women to misogyny and sex slavery.

Since I'm encouraging soul searching, I want to assure you, dear reader, that I, too, have engaged in some soul searching of my own. I have scoured and examined my motives. I have interrogated my super-ego, my id and my inner child.

I'll admit it: I hate the burqa and the niqab. I hate everything it represents. The oppression of women. The demonization of female sexuality.

But, this, in and of itself, would not be reason enough to restrict a woman's choice to wear it as an expression of her religious faith. And, I do understand that issues of coercion and consent are muddy waters indeed. (I'll save my argument that the liberation of women is a compelling government interest in and of itself for another day.)

But, having turned my (nonexistent) soul inside out, looking for ulterior motives, I am comfortable with my stance on the burqa/niqab ban. The burqa ban is a straightforward issue of public safety and security coupled with democratic representation. The fact that this seemingly benign issue gets so much media and political play is a direct result of our continued and ugly perception of women's bodies as communal property.

And, I mean, think about it for more than one second. Move past the knee jerk reaction.

All of the same arguments could be made both for and against regulations requiring parents to vaccinate their children before enrolling them in public schools. If it is against your religious beliefs to vaccinate your children, fine. Don't vaccinate your kids. No one is forcing you to vaccinate your children. But, then, congratulations! You just won the grand prize of being able to home school your kids, because you don't get to send your unvaccinated kids to public schools. If you don't want to follow the rules, no problem, no one is forcing you to play. Someone could argue that this is an undue burden upon the parents that will disproportionately fall upon the mothers, confining the women to roles as housewives. Someone could argue that this is an unfair constraint upon the children, punishing the kids for their parents' ignorance, further isolating them from the wider society. It is unfortunate, that is true, but these women and these kids are not the only parts of the equation. The other kids, the vaccinated kids, or kids who simply cannot be vaccinated (for health reasons, etc.), should not have to suffer for the sake of someone else's religious beliefs. The argument that some kids cannot be vaccinated for health reasons, so those whose parents harbor religious concerns about vaccination should be exempted as well, is plainly stupid. The goal is to minimize the number of unvaccinated children in the community, so as to increase the potency of the community's herd immunity.

Same scenario removed from the context of women's bodies and female sexuality. Are you shocked by how differently you feel about the subject? You should be.

I support the anticipated public burqa ban in France.

I am reclaiming this discourse, which has been hijacked by the cultural relativists and the obscurantists. I will not be booed out of the theater. I will be heard. Let the name-calling commence.

I am not afraid of you.

May 12, 2010, 11:48 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink182 comments

Book Review: Half the Sky

Summary: A wrenching chronicle of the injustices and preventable evils committed against women around the world. The bright spots are few and far between, but that should only instill readers with a greater sense of urgency to do something about all this. I felt intense pangs of conscience while reading this book; you probably will too.

In January, I reviewed Michelle Goldberg's book The Means of Reproduction. That was an outstanding work of consciousness-raising, one which enlightened me to the ways in which the success or failure of the atheist movement is bound up with the liberation of women from patriarchal religious traditions. Half the Sky, written by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, follows in the same vein and is a worthy companion to Goldberg's book. Its focus is broader - not just reproductive politics, but all the ways that the world's women experience violations of human rights. That makes it less a single, sustained argument and more a collection of stories, but its narrative force is undiminished for all that.

Kristof and WuDunn address three major areas in which women throughout the developing world still suffer from horrendous, yet wholly preventable, injustices. Those three are: sex trafficking and forced prostitution; gender-based violence, including honor killings and rape as a weapon of war; and maternal mortality. Collectively, according to Nobel-winning economist (and atheist) Amartya Sen, these have resulted in the deaths of more than a hundred million women. As the authors write:

More girls are killed in this routine "gendercide" in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century. [p.xvii]

All these evils can be prevented or remedied, and in most cases, it would take only a small amount of attention and money from the wealthier nations of the world. Yet because the victims are poor, politically voiceless women of color, their sufferings tend to be ignored or marginalized as "women's issues" - even though, in nearly all cases, educating and empowering women is an effort that pays for itself many times over in terms of economic prosperity and social progress.

The first evil described by Kristof and WuDunn is one that readers may be surprised to learn still exists: slavery. In the past, slaves were used for labor, but many modern slaves are women coerced into work as prostitutes. Some are outright kidnapped; others are deceived by traffickers who promise to find them jobs, only to sell them to brothels. In either case, once they're there, the brothel owners use the same means to induce compliance: threats, beatings, torture, or forcing them to take meth or other drugs. In the rare cases where women escape and go to the police, the police often refuse to listen, or even send them back to the brothels. And since enslaved women obviously have no power to ask their customers to use condoms, many of them end up dying of AIDS. Estimates for the size of the modern slave trade are difficult to come by, but various sources estimate the number of slaves at between 1 and 10 million - many of them children.

Most atheists are aware of the practice of honor killing, where men in (mostly Muslim) societies murder their own wives and daughters for perceived immodesty. The following chapters discuss this as well as other forms of sexual violence: acid attacks, mass rape as a weapon of war, abduction and rape as a means of obtaining a wife, the routine abuse and beatings that women and girls suffer in many cultures, and female genital cutting, a barbaric practice disguised with the innocuous-sounding term of female circumcision. Awful as they are, many of these practices have resisted eradication because they're deeply entrenched in the culture. The authors interview women who agree that husbands have a right to beat their wives if they're disobedient, or older women who perpetuate the practice of female genital cutting on their own daughters, or girls who are rescued from slavery in brothels and then return to them willingly. None of this means that these practices can't be ended or that it's not worth the trouble to try, but, the authors argue, it does show the ineffectiveness of top-down diplomatic efforts that involve changing a country's laws and expecting all its people to follow suit. The authors argue that real social progress, for women and for everyone in developing countries, has to be done at the grassroots level by groups that have an intimate familiarity with local people and conditions on the ground.

The last of the three major issues is maternal mortality. In wealthy nations where C-sections are routine, hardly any women die in childbirth, but in countries lacking a medical infrastructure, death from obstructed labor is still a real and present danger. Even women who survive the ordeal can be scarred for life, such as in the case of fistula, a crippling injury that causes incontinence and paralysis. Fistulas are easily fixed with surgery, but if untreated, it often sentences women to a life of outcast misery. As the authors point out, however, this is not a hard problem to address. Sri Lanka, still a relatively poor country, has maternal mortality rates as low as many industrialized nations. What's needed isn't wealth per se, so much as the political will to confront the problem and to make real investments in clinics and women's health.

I don't mean to give the impression that Half the Sky is one long chronicle of misery. In every chapter there are bright spots, examples of women who've heroically defied religious and cultural oppression to fight for human rights and equality, as well as innovative charities and NGOs working to advance the cause of human equality in the poorest and most downtrodden corners of the world. One of the best examples was the story of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman who was gang-raped as the result of a tribal dispute, and rather than commit suicide to cleanse her honor (the expected response of a woman in that situation) defied her attackers and her government and now runs a school for women and girls. Another is Zainab Salbi, who grew up in Saddam Hussein's Iraq and now runs a charity called Women for Women International which aids survivors of civil war and ethnic cleansing worldwide. Another cause for optimism is the fading of female genital cutting, which the authors confidently predict will be eradicated in the near future, just as the once-widespread Chinese practice of foot binding has all but disappeared. And one point I especially appreciated was that the closing chapter lists several immediate steps readers can take (I was happy to see that joining Kiva is one of them!).

If I have one major complaint, it's that the authors pull their punches when discussing religion. They repeatedly emphasize the good that religious charities have done in poor and rural areas (not an unfair point, I acknowledge). Yet they pass up countless opportunities to explain how religion contributes to these very problems: African evangelicals who burn condoms for Jesus, monasteries which teach that AIDS can be cured by drinking magical water, religions that encourage witch hunts and teach that the role of women is to be subservient to their husbands, American conservatives whose votes have resulted in the shutdown of life-saving family planning clinics and the teaching of ineffective abstinence programs throughout the Third World. Even the Vatican's deadly opposition to birth control is only mentioned in passing (they spend more space discussing a few brave Catholic priests who hand out condoms in defiance of Rome's orders).

To an extent I understand this decision, since they're clearly trying to build a coalition between left and right to address these issues and don't want to drive off any potential allies. But I think their argument is hampered by their refusal to face up to the real cause of the problems they're battling. I don't expect this book to be an atheist tract, yet it would be much stronger if the authors would clearly state even that some forms of religion are oppressive and brutal to women and should be abolished.

That said, Half the Sky is a powerful work of consciousness-raising. We citizens of the First World have by no means abolished sexism, yet women and girls here enjoy a level of freedom and autonomy that's light-years beyond the status of millions throughout the world. This is a huge accomplishment, but we can't forget how much remains to be done. There's a truly huge gulf that remains to be bridged, and this book gives a glimpse of how deep it runs - and, with luck, what we have to do to get to the other side.

March 22, 2010, 5:45 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink10 comments

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