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

Qur'an Burnings and Manhattan Mosques

I haven't commented until now on this "Ground Zero mosque" - a ridiculous misnomer invented to inflame prejudice, since it's not at Ground Zero and it isn't a mosque - because, honestly, I don't think there's much that needs to be said. America still has the First Amendment, it still has freedom of religion, and Muslims have the same rights as anyone to build their religious centers anywhere they want. Unless they're directly advocating or planning violence, there's nothing that the government or anyone else can do to stop them, and that's as it should be.

The idea apparently motivating the resistance to Park51 is that Muslims bear some sort of collective responsibility for 9/11, which is absurd. Muslim Americans died on that day, along with the other victims, and al-Qaeda itself spends a great deal of time and effort killing other Muslims. There are violent undercurrents in Islam, ones which command the allegiance of a disturbingly large number of people, that must be fought - but that's no basis for a blanket denial of all Muslim building projects, in Manhattan or anywhere else. (I would add that the compromise solution preferred by many politicians, namely to move the Park51 center a few blocks away, makes absolutely no sense. Why is a Muslim community center four blocks away more respectful than one that's two blocks away? Is there an invisible line somewhere?)

On the subject of pseudocontroversies, I'm sure you've also heard about this Florida pastor who plans to burn copies of the Qur'an. He's repeatedly changed his mind about whether to do it, and as of now the burning is off, but there are some things that should be said regardless.

First of all, the same comments as above apply: America has freedom of religion, which includes the freedom not to believe and even the freedom to treat other people's holy symbols disrespectfully. This includes the freedom to treat wafers in ways Catholics dislike, to draw Mohammed even if others think we shouldn't, and so on. Having freedom of religion means that religious beliefs are not encoded in state law. It's ridiculous that so many Muslims have worked themselves into a frenzy about this. Did they not realize that Christians reject many of their beliefs?

That said, this doesn't mean I'm fully behind this pastor's deed. For one thing, many of his former parishioners describe him as a vicious, deceitful cult leader. But more importantly, the act of burning a book has historically been intended to convey the message: "Your ideas should be destroyed so that no one has a chance to read them." I'm opposed to Islam as I am to every other religion, but I'm absolutely not in favor of destroying the Qur'an or any other book. Even when an idea is bad, I think it should be preserved so people can study it and recognize the fallacy, not eradicated so they can't make up their own minds.

Even in the infamous wafer incident, PZ wasn't doing it just to make Catholics mad. It was a protest against bullying, tyrannical religious groups who try to make everyone, including nonmembers, live by their rules - and he said so very clearly. Similar with the Mohammed cartoons: they weren't a pointless provocation of Muslims, but a specifically pointed commentary on press freedom and intimidation - a protest aimed at religious theocrats who think their private beliefs should be binding on everyone. I see no such free-speech message in the Qur'an burning.

Whether it's Muslims or Christians rioting in the streets, the Twin Towers burning or the Taliban in Afghanistan, the lesson from all these stories is the divisive effect that religion has on humanity. It encourages us to group people into Us and Other, to battle and hate each other over ultimately inconsequential differences. If we all had the well-being of our fellow humans as our highest goal, rather than the worship of invisible entities and obedience to arbitrary rules, there would be that much less reason for people and nations to fight one another.

September 11, 2010, 4:58 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink60 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

• President Obama signs a law to fight British libel tourism by barring such judgments from being enforced in the U.S.

• My esteemed guest author, Sarah Braasch, has an article in the latest issue of The Humanist on the French burqa ban.

• After a scary brush with mortality, everyone's favorite squid-loving atheist professor is back in action. Visit his blog and leave some get-well-soon comments!

Did a Catholic priest carry out an IRA bombing? And if so, did the church help cover it up and shield him from justice?

• Susan Jacoby contemplates the theodicy of the bedbug.

• And last but not least, An Apostate's Chapel has this outstanding example of the eloquence, wit and wisdom of Robert Ingersoll, written in response to a Salvation Army-organized vigil of several thousand Christians praying simultaneously for his conversion. (Spoiler: It didn't work!)

August 27, 2010, 12:12 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink10 comments

How to Eradicate Militant Islam

It's said that nothing is harder to kill than an idea. Trying to stamp out a deeply felt belief by force, especially a religious belief, not only makes its followers cling to it more tenaciously, it gives them an aura of martyrdom that makes the belief look even more attractive to outsiders. And when the belief in question is a religious belief whose scriptures claim that persecution of the faithful is a sign of their righteousness, these tendencies become all the stronger.

This is more than just an academic debate, unfortunately, because we're currently seeing it play out in the spread of militant Islam. In some form or another, Islam is practiced by almost a third of the population of this planet, and this means there's a vast pool of people who are susceptible to the siren song of radical preachers calling for violent jihad. Fundamentalism is spreading among them like a weed, and the memes that give fundamentalist Islam its resilience and persistence are interwoven with memes that encourage acts of bloodshed and terrorism: suicide bombings, chopping off heads and hands, stoning and hanging as routine punishments, the execution of apostates, the brutal oppression of women and religious minorities.

Nor can it be said any longer that militant, fundamentalist Islam is just an insignificant minority within a peaceful faith community. Polls of Muslim countries routinely find that majorities or sizable pluralities approve of tactics like suicide bombing, even against civilians (see p.39). And diplomatic organizations representing dozens of Islamic governments are still pressing for legal restrictions on free speech around the world. In most Muslim-majority nations, the rights of women and minorities, both de facto and de jure, are practically nonexistent.

We badly need to provoke a new Enlightenment in the Islamic world, but how? As any atheist knows, religious memes are self-protecting; they come packaged with concepts such as faith, obedience to religious authorities, the command to trust only one book, and the promise of hellfire for those who disobey or doubt, all of which make it difficult for people inside the religion to take a critical look at their own beliefs. Once they've taken root, they're very difficult to eradicate.

To answer this question, I think it's worth asking another one. Why is it that violent Islam has had so much success at spreading itself? How has it made so many converts?

I don't believe that it's because militant Islam is intrinsically more appealing than moderate Islam, or because it offers a stronger sense of purpose or identity. Nor is it because, as racists sometimes claim, Muslim people are less intelligent or more prone to violence than Westerners. I think the real explanation is very different and, once you realize it, much more obvious. Ayaan Hirsi Ali explains it in her book Nomad, describing her experiences with rootless Somali youth in Nairobi:

"Some of these young men later repented and joined the Muslim Brotherhood. They would go to Saudi Arabia on Islamic scholarships and come back as preachers of what we would now call radical Islam. Their own story was compelling, for they had been saved from evil, Westernized behavior when Allah showed them the straight path." [p.57]

The spread of radical Islam can be traced directly to the disastrous coincidence that the more severe forms of Islam, like Wahhabism, were born in and came to dominate the same countries that have some of the world's richest oil reserves. The leaders of these countries, all of which are theocracies, treated this discovery as proof that God favors their beliefs. And they've used - they're still using - their vast oil wealth to fund an evangelistic movement spreading the poison of militant Islam throughout the world.

This makes the otherwise mysterious success of Islamism much more understandable. There's nothing inexplicable about it - it's entirely to be expected that the wealthiest faction will have the most ability to spread its message. And this is all the more true when they're preaching to people in poor and developing nations, who stand to gain the most from affiliating themselves with the Islamist movement and the financial power that supports it. Most of these countries have governments that are weak, corrupt or autocratic, making an attractive alternative of charismatic Islamist preachers who claim to represent virtue and societal order. And in many poverty-stricken regions, Saudi-funded madrassas are literally the only source of education, which means these preachers face little resistance or competition in the battle for young minds. (This sheds some light on why the Afghani Taliban are so bent on destroying Western-built schools, especially girls' schools. It's not just because they want to keep women ignorant; it's because they fear the competition.)

And this theory points the way to breaking the power of radical Islam: We badly need to free ourselves from our dependency on fossil fuel. The fact that it lubricates every part of our economy means that America and the West are, in effect, paying a tax to the religious fanatics who desire our destruction. This isn't a new observation, of course, but I think this analysis clarifies the direct connection between our addiction to oil and the spread of jihadist ideologies that cultivate theocracy and terrorism.

If we could develop an alternative-energy economy not based on importing fossil fuels from the Mideast, the Islamist regimes would shrivel up and die, and the source of funding for al-Qaeda and its affiliates would dry up virtually overnight. As it is, we're bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives in a futile quest to establish Western-friendly regimes, while at the same time spending rivers of cash that flows to the factions resisting us. We're fighting the enemy with one hand while aiding them with the other. It would be laughably absurd, if the consequences weren't so deadly serious.

August 4, 2010, 5:54 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink40 comments

Strategically Supporting Religious Charities

Are there any circumstances under which an atheist can support a religious group doing social work, even if doing so may advance a religious message we disagree with?

This is on my mind because of the post I wrote last month about the Foundation Beyond Belief supporting a Quaker charity, and because I just finished reading Nomad, Ayaan Hirsi Ali's excellent second book, which serendipitously touches on similar ideas. Nomad is about the closing of the Muslim mind: the way that Islamic immigrants to Western countries often form isolated enclaves, rather than assimilate into their new society and absorb its values. The result is that barbaric practices like honor killing, female genital cutting, and violent jihadism that were once confined to third-world theocracies are appearing in Western countries, rather than immigrants taking up our ideals of tolerance and secularism.

To turn back this tide, Hirsi Ali proposes that the institutions of Western civilization need to make a greater effort to reach out to immigrants. This appeal, to my surprise, includes a section aimed specifically at Christian churches, encouraging them to make greater efforts to proselytize, and urging atheists to support them in this:

I hope my friends Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens... will not be dismayed by the idea of a strategic alliance between secular people and Christians... [p.240]

That is why I think we must also appeal to other, more traditional sources of ideological strength in Western society. And that must include the Christian churches... We should bury the hatchet, rearrange our priorities, and fight together against a much more dangerous common enemy. [p.243]

Even though Hirsi Ali stresses that she intends us to work together with "mainstream, moderate denominations" and not the fundamentalist "freak-show" churches that oppose women's rights and science, I was taken aback by her argument initially. After all, it runs against the grain of what atheists tend to believe.

Hardly any atheists are willing to aid religious groups that proselytize, and it's easy to come up with good reasons why. Doing so means that our contributions, directly or indirectly, will be used to advance religious beliefs that we don't agree with - and history has shown over and over again that churches which accumulate secular power, even the mainstream ones that are allegedly more enlightened and tolerant, tend to use it to restrict the freedom of nonbelievers. In most cases, there are secular competitors that do just as much good without spreading unreason. And even more important, there's a growing humanist and secular community still establishing itself, one that needs our support to build an infrastructure and could put our aid to worthier use.

All these arguments are good ones, and I think they offer convincing reasons why atheists shouldn't support religious groups under most ordinary circumstances. But there's a counterargument that I find more difficult to dismiss.

Although I think atheists should evangelize, we can take it for granted that we're not going to reach everyone, no matter how vigorous our effort. Becoming an atheist is a big leap, one that a lot of people just aren't ready to take. There are many who still need the comforts of religious belief, illusory though they are, and won't even consider our arguments in good faith. Given that this is so, isn't it better for us if those people join a moderate, liberal faith - one that respects secularism and teaches reasonable moral ideas, one we can easily coexist with - rather than a fundamentalist cult that attacks science, opposes equal rights for women and gays, and fights for theocracy?

This is a similar dilemma to the one that faces American freethinkers in the voting booth. For the most part, open atheists don't stand a chance of winning elections, which means our choice is usually between a Democrat who panders to religious voters but by and large respects separation of church and state, versus a Republican who courts the religious bigot vote and is an active supporter of theocracy. Given these choices, I believe it's better to support the religious progressive - even if I have to hold my nose and ignore insipid, god-drenched campaign rhetoric. Admittedly, this boils down to choosing the lesser of two evils. But withholding our votes in protest means only that the fundamentalists and theocrats, who definitely aren't going to sit an election out, become that much more influential.

That's why, on balance, I do agree with Hirsi Ali that there are cases where alliance with religious moderates, even evangelical ones, pays strategic dividends. Whether we should underwrite Christian efforts to convert Islamic immigrants, I'm not so sure. But I think it's worthwhile to, for example, support courageous reformers like Irshad Manji who are trying to liberalize Islam from the inside. This is basically the same argument I made in "The Soft Landing": we want the world's transition away from religion to be as calm as possible, not a world where the moderates fade away and leave only belligerent fundamentalists. When we can further that aim by tactically supporting religious moderates and reformers - shifting the overall tenor of a religion in a direction that's friendlier to us - we can and should.

I do want to stress one point: we shouldn't ally with believers when doing so requires us to give up our own voice. (This is how my argument differs from that of the accommodationists who tell us to pipe down and stop criticizing religion.) Our alliance will be most effective when we unite in pursuit of a common goal, not a common message. We'll always have differences of opinion and we should be free to air them. And we certainly shouldn't enter any alliance that's conditioned on our subservience.

August 2, 2010, 7:06 pm • Posted in: The GardenPermalink35 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

Weekly Link Roundup

• It's about time! The SEC has charged a psychic with securities fraud for claiming to be able to supernaturally foretell the direction of the market.

• The staff of IslamOnline, a Cairo-based journalism website that offers a platform for liberal and reformist views, have gone on strike over plans by the Qatari owners to impose stricter editorial controls and force a more conservative viewpoint.

• I'm very glad to report that Ireland's government is now backtracking on the ludicrous blasphemy law it passed several months ago. The government plans to hold a referendum later this year on whether the law should be repealed. Now it's just up to the people of Ireland to do the right thing.

• Less positively, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld religious language in the Pledge of Allegiance, ruling against a new lawsuit brought by Michael Newdow, and reaching the ridiculous conclusion that "one nation under God" is not religious language. One of the judges who took part in the original decision (which Newdow won before his first case was thrown out by the Supreme Court for lack of standing) wrote a scathing dissent. Newdow plans to ask for an en banc rehearing.

• Also, there's a truly outstanding article by Johann Hari interviewing the Ethiopian women fighting back against bride abduction, the brutal practice of men finding wives by kidnapping and raping them (at which point, in agreement with biblical law, they're expected to marry their rapist - since they've been "ruined" and no other man will have them). In the shadow of a vicious dictatorship, there are heroic women, and men, fighting to change a culture where this is accepted and common.

March 20, 2010, 10:01 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink4 comments

Geert Wilders on Trial

This week, the Dutch politician Geert Wilders appeared in court in his home country to face charges of "inciting discrimination and hatred", which could carry a two-year prison sentence on each count. Wilders is, of course, the bomb-throwing right-wing populist whom I wrote about in 2008, made infamous by his short film Fitna (caution: some disturbing images).

When Wilders' blunt criticisms of Islam caused fury among Muslims, the nation of Jordan - of which Wilders is not a citizen, and where he has no political or personal connections - demanded that he be extradited there in order to punish him. Understandably, the Dutch government refused. And despite a flood of complaints, Dutch prosecutors - to their credit - refused to charge him, finding that he had broken no laws. Their statement on the matter was a clear and welcome affirmation of the principle of free speech:

"That comments are hurtful and offensive for a large number of Muslims does not mean that they are punishable. Freedom of expression fulfils an essential role in public debate in a democratic society. That means that offensive comments can be made in a political debate."

But now a Dutch court of appeals, acting on its own initiative, has reversed this decision and ordered that Wilders be prosecuted - hence this week's hearing.

Before I respond to this, let me make one thing clear: Wilders himself is a hypocrite. Despite his vaunted love for the principle of free speech, he's called for a ban on the Qur'an, a ban on the founding of new mosques, and a ban on further immigration from Islamic countries. I disagree with all those proposals just as vehemently as I disagree with the plan to prosecute him.

But that's precisely the point. It's not Geert Wilders to whom I owe any allegiance, but the principle of freedom of expression. And the Netherlands is doing grave harm to that principle by its decision to prosecute someone for doing nothing more than voicing his opinion. As Russell Blackford astutely notes, it's not just Geert Wilders who's on trial now - it's the Netherlands as well. If it shows by its actions that it is now a country where a person can be jailed for speaking his mind, it's well on its way to erasing the distinction between itself and the theocracies of Islam.

In truth, it's not Wilders' fate I'm particularly concerned about. If he's acquitted, so much the better. If he's found guilty and punished, that will in all likelihood allow him to paint himself as a martyr (and rightfully so) and will probably win him even more support. The Dutch court has yet to learn the most basic lesson of free speech, that trying to suppress ideas by force tends to make them even more powerful and resilient.

What does concern me is that there are those among the Dutch people who fail to grasp what's at stake here, who think they can solve all their problems with Islam by punishing the ones who call attention to them:

Gerard Spong, a prominent lawyer who pushed for Mr Wilders's prosecution, welcomed the court's decision.

"This is a happy day for all followers of Islam who do not want to be tossed on the garbage dump of Nazism," he told reporters.

If Muslims are indeed concerned with avoiding that label, they should be doing more to stop violence in the name of Islam. Speak out, support free speech, denounce the imams who call for violence, make it clear that they are not the sole authority on the teachings of Islam! Muslims have not done nearly enough along these lines, and throwing one Geert Wilders in jail will accomplish precisely nothing if their actions are such as to cause similar thoughts to occur in a million minds. If anything, it's likely to inspire more hatred, more anger, more xenophobia, and make the eventual outcome worse for everyone concerned.

January 22, 2010, 6:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink31 comments

Ni Putes Ni Soumises Organizes a Protest for Rayhana

By Sarah Braasch

Rayhana, a French-Algerian playwright and actress, was attacked last week in front of the theater in Paris where she is performing her provocative play, "At My Age, I Still Hide My Smoking". Rayhana speaks out against Islamism and obscurantism and the Muslim culture of female oppression in Algeria. Her play takes place in a hammam in Algeria and portrays nine women sitting together and discussing their daily lives. The two men who attacked Rayhana grabbed her from behind, forcing her to the ground, and poured gasoline over her head and in her face, momentarily blinding her, and then attempted to set her on fire by throwing a lit cigarette on top of her head. Prior to this incident, Rayhana had been harassed verbally. Despite the attack and the threats of violence, Rayhana is determined to continue performing her play. She has received many offers to stage performances from theaters throughout France, in response to this outrageous criminal act.

Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives), a French women's rights organization that condemns cultural relativism and fights for women's rights as universal human rights without compromise, organized a protest to support Rayhana on Saturday afternoon, January 16th. A huge crowd assembled in front of the theater, la Maison des Métallos, where Rayhana is performing her play. The crowd included women's rights activists, government officials and representatives from some of France's political parties. Sihem Habchi, the President of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, condemned the attack on Rayhana and proclaimed, "It is her job to be in the theater and our job to be in the streets."

[Editor's Note: Sarah provided some pictures of the protest, several of which are reproduced below.]

January 19, 2010, 7:39 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink6 comments

< Newer Posts 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