When Fanatics Attack, Blame the Victim

So, there's an outside chance you've heard about a certain column by Nancy Graham Holm, who gifted the world with her thoughts on the ax attack on Kurt Westergaard earlier this month. Although we got a bit sidetracked, I still want to write a direct response to what she said, because I think there are some lessons to be drawn from it.

Muslims failed to see Westergaard's cartoon as satire. Instead, they saw in it a defamatory and humiliating message: Muslims are terrorists. Humiliation is a devastating feeling...

Why did the editors of Jyllands-Posten want to mock Islam in this way? Some of us believed it was in bad taste and also cruel. Intentional humiliation is an aggressive act.

...The free society precept is merely an attempt to give the perpetrators the moral high ground when actually it is a smokescreen for a deeply rooted prejudice, not against Muslims, but against religion per se.

Really, I'm marveling at that last sentence. "The perpetrators", she says. And who are the perpetrators, according to Nancy Graham Holm? Not the people who've plotted to murder Kurt Westergaard - including, let me say it again, the fanatic who bashed down his door with an ax - but the people who drew cartoons that certain Muslims didn't want to be drawn. Those cartoonists are the ones who started this; they deserve the blame for their "aggressive act"; they've unjustly sought to claim "the moral high ground". Presumably, if any of them actually are murdered by religious fanatics, Holm will tell us that it was their fault.

Is there an informative parallel here? Why, yes, there is; I'm so glad you asked. The parallel that I'd draw is to the people who claim that rape victims are at fault for being raped, because they "invited" their own sexual assault by dressing or acting provocatively and we all know men just can't be expected to control themselves when that happens:

The survey also found that 26 per cent of adults believed that a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing. Some 22 per cent held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners. Similarly, 30 per cent said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk.

Another parallel is with the "gay panic" defense, which claims that men who are the recipients of unwanted homosexual advances are legally justified in murdering the other person:

Weighing the options, [the jury] chose to believe Biedermann and his lawyer, Sam Adam, Jr., who also successfully represented R. Kelly in his 2008 child pornography charges, and who is also ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich's defense attorney. They accepted as reasonable the premise that it had taken Biedermann 61 stab wounds in order to successfully fend off an unwanted sexual advance from another man.

The exact same reasoning is deployed by Nancy Graham Holm, here, in her argument that Danish cartoonists "provoked" the Muslim segment of society with their aggressive cartoons and therefore deserve what they get. As if any act of speech, regardless of the speaker's intent, could ever justify others committing violence against them! This is nothing less than a rejection of the charter of rights that makes democratic society possible in the first place. It's an abject surrender to the vicious thugs who would blackmail everyone else into submission by the threat of violence - as if it was our job to "back down" and "apologize" to them, both of which she calls on the Danes to do.

It's also, though Holm doesn't realize it, extremely prejudiced against Muslims. She criticizes the Danes for acting immaturely:

As a journalist now living in the same town as Westergaard, I thought some at Jyllands-Posten had acted like petulant adolescents.

Yet if Danish people are to be judged "petulant adolescents", the consequences of her view for Muslims are far worse. Her view treats Muslims as if they were wild animals - dangerous creatures who can't be counted on not to lash out if provoked. We, in contrast, view them as human beings, and accordingly expect that they should be able to listen to criticism and respond to it with an appropriate degree of maturity. In many cases, of course, this turns out not to be true. But arguing that we should censor ourselves so as not to anger them is as futile and offensive as arguing that women should never wear revealing clothes so they don't get raped, or arguing that homosexuals should stay in the closet so as not to be murdered by homophobic crazies. In a free society, we should all have the right to express ourselves in any way we choose. Why are some people so eager to call for the revocation of that right the moment a bunch of ignorant thugs object to it?

January 14, 2010, 7:54 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink44 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

A couple of noteworthy articles from this week that I didn't have time to write more about:

• To begin with, there's this excellent and in-depth profile of the FFRF's Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, from a local alternative paper in Madison.

• Archaeologists have discovered a genuine burial shroud from the first century CE. Unlike the Shroud of Turin, its radiocarbon date fixes it to the correct time period; it also has a very different weave than the more famous Turin hoax.

Churches in Malaysia are being attacked by Muslims, who are angry over a court ruling that struck down a government ban on the use of the word "Allah" by Christians. Perhaps we should get Nancy Graham Holm over there to explain to the Christians that it's their own fault they're getting firebombed, because they rudely persist in using a word of which Muslims are the rightful owners.

• A muckraking blogger named Failed Messiah exposes the scandals of the Orthodox Jewish world. (HT: New York Times).

• The Telegraph tells us that heroic behavior among animals is more common than previously thought. Who was it that said only human beings have a sense of morality?

• And finally, a story I may return to later: New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has invited atheists to the city's annual interfaith breakfast for the first time ever. Bravo, sir! It feels good to be taken seriously by politicians for once.

January 9, 2010, 9:29 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink1 comment

Free Speech Still Threatened in Europe

Scarcely two days into 2010, we've gotten a stark reminder of how free speech is still threatened by religious fanatics: Kurt Westergaard, the Danish cartoonist who drew the image of Mohammed depicted to the right, was attacked at home Friday night by a murderous, ax-wielding religious fanatic. Fortunately, neither Westergaard nor his 5-year-old granddaughter, who was with him at the time, were harmed. They escaped to a panic room built into the house for just this purpose and summoned police, who shot and wounded the attacker when he refused to surrender.

This isn't the first time Westergaard's life has been threatened by crazed Muslims. As I reported previously, he's been the target of multiple death threats since the Mohammed cartoons were first published in 2005, and in 2008, three other men were arrested by Danish police and charged with plotting his murder.

In an October interview with the conservative National Post (which notes ruefully that Westergaard isn't much of a fan of Christianity, either), the artist was unrepentant:

"As I see it, many of the immigrants who came to Denmark, they had nothing. We gave them everything - money, apartments, their own schools, free university, health care. In return, we asked one thing - respect for democratic values, including free speech. Do they agree? This is my simple test."

The best way to defend this brave man is to ensure that he's not the only target. There has been too much embarrassed silence and self-censorship over this affair in the halls of Western journalism. We need more images and drawings of Mohammed, not fewer, to show Muslim thugs that their religious laws have no power over us - and to ensure that they'll have no single target, if they persist in the belief that they can avoid criticism by murdering all their critics. (Any Daylight Atheism readers have artistic talent?)

It's not just lone fanatics, but governments that are getting in on the anti-free-speech game. Sadly, Ireland's new blasphemy law, which criminalizes the publication of matter "that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion", has just taken effect. (Atheism is not similarly protected from offense, in case you were wondering.)

However, we should count ourselves fortunate for having the smart freethinkers at Atheist Ireland - who promptly challenged this idiotic piece of medievalism by publishing 25 blasphemous quotes, against a wide variety of religions, as a way of testing the new law and exposing its foolishness. Will the government dare to prosecute them? Stay tuned!

January 2, 2010, 10:52 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink26 comments

Mountains of Prohibition

In January, I wrote about the Pakistani Taliban:

All that is worst in the human spirit, all that is savage and low and cruel, finds its expression in the Taliban. They are amoral and nihilistic fanatics who never create, only destroy - whether it be the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the girls' schools in Swat, or the very lives of those who oppose them. To them, everything good in life is a sin, and existence is a narrow, cramped, twisted path between vast mountains of prohibition.

What I find striking is that this stark prohibitionist impulse turns up so often in desperately poor, uneducated and superstitious societies - places where people's most urgent needs should be food and clean water, education, medicine, investment in infrastructure. Where the need is obvious, it would seem the response should also be obvious. Yet in so many of these societies, the governments turn their scarce resources to further restricting and limiting the lives of their citizens that are already so restricted by poverty and ignorance.

Take one of the most noteworthy examples, the Gaza Strip. Gaza is still suffering under an Israeli blockade; its infrastructure and health care system are in ruins from repeated wars, and 80% of the population lives below the poverty line, and dietary ailments like malnutrition and anemia are rampant. One would think that Hamas, which is in control of Gaza, would be bending all its efforts toward easing its people's suffering and securing their access to the necessities of life. Instead, we see this:

The Islamic Hamas movement banned girls last month from riding behind men on motor scooters and forbade women from dancing at the opening of a folk museum. Girls in some public schools must wear headscarves and cloaks.

...The government's Islamic Endowment Ministry has deployed Virtue Committee members to preach at public places to warn of the dangers of immodest dress, card playing and dating.

...The opening of the Palestinian Heritage Museum on Oct.7 was meant to include a rendition of the dabke, a line dance performed by girls and boys. Except that no girls were allowed.

Black-shirted men from Hamas carrying AK-47s appeared at the gates of the museum, on Gaza's waterfront, said Jamal Salem, the curator. They said girls shouldn't dance because it wasn't religiously proper.

Saudi Arabia is not as destitute as Gaza, but has an extremely high unemployment rate and a single-product economy that's bound to lead to economic disaster as their oil fields run dry and the world economy decarbonizes. But here, too, religious fanatics are steadfastly opposing any progress, even the very modest steps taken by the king, such as attempts to create mixed-gender universities where women are allowed to go unveiled and to drive on campus:

A backlash by clerics, led in public by Sheikh Saad Bin Naser al-Shatri, is slowing those efforts, though the king dismissed al-Shatri from the country's top religious body last month.

...Just days after the Saudi monarch presided over a Sept. 23 inauguration ceremony for KAUST in which he called it a "beacon of tolerance," al-Shatri said in a television interview that mixed-gender classes were "evil."

Saudi clerics have also opposed the country's nascent film industry - yes, Saudi Arabia has a film industry; a fairly astonishing fact, considering that movie theaters are still illegal there - and their influence has caused several local film festivals to shut down:

Waleed Osman, a 21-year-old Saudi film director, almost got arrested when he shot his award-winning movie "The Revenge" on the seafront corniche in the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

...Senior religious figures have condemned cinema as un-Islamic. Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, in March told students at King Saud University in Riyadh that musical and film performances were against Sharia, or Islamic law.

I find it hard to comprehend the mindset that sees the world as bristling with snares and traps, that sees every interaction in daily life as a sin to be shunned or a temptation to be avoided. If these medievalist clerics wanted only to close themselves off from the universe and spend their lives in a dark and narrow box of dogma, I'd say more power to them. But instead, they've turned their fear outward, into a positive loathing of everything that doesn't conform to their ideas, and are trying to banish all unorthodoxy from the world. In the process, they're crippling their own societies, keeping millions of people trapped in benighted and stagnant pools. In Gaza and in Saudi Arabia, as in many other places, we can see the sparks of human creativity struggling to escape. If there's anything that gives me hope, it's that so many other tyrannical societies that sought to repress their people ultimately collapsed to make way for something better.

December 16, 2009, 6:49 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink23 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

For the holiday season, some goodies this weekend:

• First up, some music for the season: the blogger Lirone, of Words That Sing, in collaboration with William Morris, composer in residence at the British Humanist Association (did you know the British Humanist Association had a composer in residence? me neither!), has written a humanist carol, Gathering Round the Fire. It's 99 cents on iTunes, and all profits will go to the BHA. I downloaded and listened to it, and I enjoyed it greatly. Check it out, support a good cause, and lend a little bit of humanist cheer to your holiday gathering!

• Next, CNN has a surprisingly sympathetic interview with Richard Dawkins on evolution and atheist advocacy.

• The Daily Mail's Andrew Alexander offers a "heartfelt plea for atheism", an eloquent essay only slightly marred by an ignorant passage about climate change.

• Hanna Rosin asks whether the prosperity gospel contributed to the economic crash.

• On Daily Kos, it's a shameful day for the Irish Catholic Church, as a long-awaited report is released about the complicity of the bishops in sex abuse by predator priests.

• And finally, from Time, an unsparing essay about the subjugation and abuse of women in Islamic countries. (Did you know a Saudi Arabian woman has no legal proof of her existence besides her name on her husband's ID card? I didn't.) This is the kind of thing that the New Atheists get called "shrill" and "strident" when we write.

Also, you may have noticed that posts on Daylight Atheism are now classified by tag in addition to the six major categories (also, there's a tag cloud). I implemented this as a result of suggestions in the reader feedback thread, and I've been working my way backwards tagging older posts. Before I go further with that, I'm interested if people have any opinions on it. Too many tags? Too few? Are some missing that you'd like to see included? Personally, I'm still considering whether to add the "Science" tag to the posts on Lee Strobel.

December 12, 2009, 12:50 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink4 comments

Maybe Jesus Will Save Us After All

By Sarah Braasch

I think I destroyed someone's faith yesterday. Or, in truth, I think I may have struck the definitive blow. This doesn't bother me. Unlike what many atheists espouse, for fear of being labeled evangelical proselytizers of disbelief, I actively seek the de-conversion of humanity. I actively seek to destroy religion. Not spirituality, but organized religion. I believe that if we do not destroy it, it will destroy us.

And, when I say de-conversion I mean just that. I mean de-conversion, not conversion to an atheist creed or dogma or doctrine, because none exists. Atheism is simply the absence of faith. It is not a similarly blind faith in science or logic or reason or philosophy or individualism or liberal constitutional democracy or anything.

But, I admit, I am feeling some qualms since yesterday. I am struggling through some pangs of conscience since egging on a crisis of conscience.

In order to protect the innocent, I have altered all identifying characteristics.

Amina is a beautiful black French Muslim girl. She is a French citizen, but her family hails from Guinea in West Africa – a former French colony. She speaks Mandinka. She is Mandinka. She also speaks fluent French, decent Arabic, and very little English. She is very proud. She is very religious. She is also very sweet and loving. She would never wish to hurt anyone's feelings, but she does not hesitate to defend her faith, even from the mildest of chastisements. She does not wear the hijab or headscarf. She looks like a typical French teenager in her blue-jeans and t-shirts.

Amina was struggling with the burqa question. She supports women's rights, but she feels the possible ban in France as an attack on her religion and her culture. She doesn't want to think about Islam as inherently misogynistic. She still believes that Islam is God's (Allah's) final revelation to man. She still believes that the Quran is the infallible word of Allah. If Islam is inherently misogynistic, then that means that Allah hates her, because she is a woman. She cannot cope with the dissonance that this creates in her head. She asserts that women absolutely do freely choose to don both the niqab and the burqa as expressions of their love for Allah. She avers that women absolutely do freely choose to fulfill their God given roles as women in Islam according to the Quran.

She asked me what I thought about the potential burqa ban in France. I paused and sighed deeply. She said that it is a difficult question. I agreed.

I told her many things. I told her that I am an atheist. I told her that I abhor all religions as the sexual slavery of women and the psychological torture of children. I told her that I do not believe any of them to be true. I told her that I have read all of the so-called holy books, and that I was not convinced that any of them could have been divinely inspired or dictated. Not in the least. I told her that I think religion must be destroyed in order for humanity to survive.

She told me many things. She told me that she does not think that religion is the problem. She told me that she thinks men pervert and misapply and manipulate religion for their own aims, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly, and sometimes disingenuously.

We looked upon one another with the same vaguely supercilious, rather patronizing pity. We felt sorry for one another. I pitied her ignorance and inculcation, and she pitied my ignorance and inculcation. The difference being that I had escaped the iron grasp of a cult through years of struggle and effort. I could fully demonstrate my knowing choice to be free of dogma and superstition.

She told me that she had not read the Bible, but that when she reads the Quran, she knows that she is reading the words of Allah. She spoke of so many of the same arguments one hears by Christians defending the Bible. The alleged way-ahead-of-its-time science in the Quran, including something about salty seawater and fresh ground water, and something about the earth being round, and something about embryology. She spoke of the evil and dissolution of the surrounding societies during Mohammed's time and how Mohammed introduced an as yet unheard of morality. And, she spoke of women's rights. She told me that the Quran lists right after right for women. She told me about the entire chapter on Mary, the mother of Jesus. She told me that men pervert the message of the Quran, but that the Quran itself is perfect.

Needless to say, I was hardly won over by these arguments.

And, even after having told me that she had never read the Bible, she began to compare the Quran to the Bible and disparage the biblical text. Of course, this is neither here nor there to me, as I find both texts equally unconvincing.

She told me that the Bible contradicts itself and is incoherent. I agreed. She then told me that the Quran has a single, singular and coherent message from beginning to end. I was silent.

She told me that the Bible was written and assembled by the clergy. This is why there are so many perversions and errors and mistranslations of God's intended revelation. She told me that there is no clergy in Islam to muddy the waters of the direct conduit between Allah and man, as, originally, there were no intermediaries between Allah and Mohammed (save Gabriel). She proudly proclaimed Mohammed's illiteracy as ostensible proof of the Quran's greater authenticity.

This claim has always left me perplexed. First of all, there is most assuredly a clergy class in Islam. It just isn't referred to as such. (Much in the same way that Muslims do in fact worship Mohammed; they just say that they don't.) In fact I have seen very little evidence of the vaunted ijtihad in Islam, which is individual study and reflection and interpretation. In my opinion, Islamic scholars have a stranglehold on Quranic exegesis and doctrinal interpretation, including the hadiths, Sharia and issuing fatwas. Second of all, the fact that the Quran is allegedly the secondhand account of a series of direct revelations to an illiterate peasant doesn't seem to be much of an improvement over the Bible's divinely inspired theory.

But, I agreed with her arguments regarding the Bible. I saw an opening. I lambasted the Bible and Christianity mercilessly and, in particular, the divinity of Jesus.

I told her that the Bible is ridiculous. She nodded fervently. I told her that the Bible contradicts itself relentlessly. She nodded and smiled assiduously. I told her that the Bible excludes many apocryphal texts, which were left out for this or that reason by men. She nodded and smirked avidly. I told her that the Bible was obviously written by and for men in the pursuit of their earthly preoccupations, namely conquering lands and raping and enslaving women. She nodded forcefully. She beamed. I understood.

I moved on to Jesus. I spoke of the seemingly limitless number of almost identical Sun God myths floating around the Mediterranean and the Middle East for thousands of years before Jesus Christ showed up. She concurred. I spoke of all of the ways in which Jesus' story matches these other Sun God tales of virgin birth, crucifixion and resurrection. She agreed.

I rattled on about the Nicene Creed and the Council of Nicaea and Constantine and the Roman Empire. I spoke of Constantine's desire to unify his empire under a single Christian creed. I spoke of how the divinity of Jesus was brought to a vote at the Council of Nicaea, along with other doctrinal elements of this new religion. And she nodded approvingly and encouraged me.

I spoke about how the gospels were written at the very least 3 or 4 decades after the supposed death of Jesus Christ. How they conflict with one another. How they are plagiarisms of one another. I spoke about how Paul and the other earlier, but still not contemporaneous, biblical authors, wrote not of an earthly man who had been born, lived, performed miracles, preached, and died, but of the same Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Sun God as heavenly archetype as everyone else had done.

Then, I hit her with the punch line. Given all of this information, all of these facts, many, not all, but many scholars do not believe that there is any evidence at all that anyone by the name of Jesus, as described in the Christian Bible, ever existed. Jesus was an archetype. He was an amalgamation of the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Sun God myths. Not a single contemporaneous historian ever speaks a word about anyone named Jesus who even comes close to matching the Jesus in the Christian Bible. First century Palestine is a very well documented era and geographic location. Had someone actually been walking around performing miracles, causing turmoil for the Jewish and Roman leadership, been crucified, and, finally, been resurrected, in front of eyewitnesses, someone would have recorded it. Someone. Anyone. But, no one ever did. He never existed at all. No man. No rabbi. No preacher. No traveling salesman. No prophet. No farmer. No leader. There was no Jesus. No one at all.

Her beautiful, proud eyes that had flickered with the fire of her religious conviction fell into a momentary downward glance as she grappled with a fleeting spasm of doubt. I read the doubt on her face, clear as day.

She caught herself after just a moment, just as she was about to fall off the edge of her flat earth. One of her flailing hands caught a shrub, and she was able to pull herself back up to a more secure footing. She became an automaton. She fell back into her rote, prepared spiel. She said, "Me, I believe that he existed. But, he was just a man. I do not believe that he was the Son of God. He was a great teacher."

But the hairline crack of doubt remained in the slight, barely visible furrow of her brow.

I decided to lessen some of her pain. I explained to her that, for the most part, the scholars who believe that there might have been an actual Jesus believe so for a single reason. This reason is the great labors and pains taken to match Jesus' personal history with the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. If there hadn't been an actual Jesus, there would not have been any need to go to such arduous lengths to get him to Bethlehem, for instance, and into the house of David.

I suddenly felt a spasm of guilt. What had I done? Had I tricked her? I knew what I was doing. I had manipulated her. I argued my point in such a way as to lure her into a boxed-in corner. I wasn't upset, because I had caused her to doubt her faith. On the contrary, that was a victory. But, I was upset, because of my methods. I felt slimy and smarmy and unctuous. I felt like a Jehovah's Witness. I was reminded of all of my childhood witnessing tricks of the trade – the specious and disingenuous arguments, the rhetoric gymnastics of semantics and semiotics, the fatuous and fallacious non-logic. I was a little bit disgusted with myself.

But, I hadn't said anything untrue. My only sin was the fact that I knew where my argument was heading, and she did not. Predestination in microcosm. I think I just empathized with her emotional pain. I know it. I knew it. Leaving one's faith can feel like tearing one's self in two.

Then, something occurred to me, which I am sure is no great revelation to anyone else, but it was a tremendous personal revelation.

Jesus is the key. Jesus is the key to destroying the three great monotheisms. Judaism is out of luck. The Messianic ship has sailed. No one in their right mind could ever be made to believe that someone yet to come is the Messiah. Anyone from here on out claiming to be the Anointed One will be sent straight to the loony bin. Unless, of course, some as yet unknown alien civilization attempts to take advantage of our credulity and shows up in a space ship more advanced than our wildest sci-fi fantasies. Islam is a very poorly cobbled together plagiarism of both Judaism and Christianity. Despite their seeming antipathy for one another, Islam is wholly reliant upon the other two. Islam is discredited the second that either or both Christianity and Judaism are discredited. Jesus' existence is the easiest to discredit. There isn't a shred of evidence that he ever existed at all, while there is a mountain of evidence that he was merely a knock off Egyptian Osiris. While Mohammed may have been a bloodthirsty pedophile warlord, he was also an actual flesh and blood human being who managed to hold sway over the minds of thousands upon thousands of credulous souls. But Jesus probably didn't exist at all. Muslims want desperately to concur with all of the criticisms of Jesus, every single one, right up to the point where you say that he didn't exist at all, not even as a lowly man. And, the Quran lives and dies with Jesus. Every word of the Quran is supposedly the infallible word of Allah. The Quran is all about Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.

Thank you Jesus.

October 28, 2009, 6:49 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink125 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

Here are a few edifying, inspiring, or (alas) infuriating stories that are making the rounds this week:

• First up, this truly outstanding piece from Wired on the anti-vaccination movement, An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All. This is what journalism is supposed to do: listen to the experts, survey the facts and adjudicate the truth, without the false-equivalency tactics that are the breath of life to kooks and advocates of pseudoscience. Here are a few samples:

In the center of the fray is Paul Offit. "People describe me as a vaccine advocate," he says. "I see myself as a science advocate." But in this battle — and make no mistake, he says, it's a pitched and heated battle — "science alone isn't enough ... People are getting hurt. The parent who reads what Jenny McCarthy says and thinks, 'Well, maybe I shouldn't get this vaccine,' and their child dies of Hib meningitis," he says, shaking his head. "It's such a fundamental failure on our part that we haven't convinced that parent."

To be clear, there is no credible evidence to indicate that any of this is true. None. Twelve epidemiological studies have found no data that links the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine to autism; six studies have found no trace of an association between thimerosal (a preservative containing ethylmercury that has largely been removed from vaccines since 2001) and autism, and three other studies have found no indication that thimerosal causes even subtle neurological problems.

...Kaiser Permanente reported that unvaccinated children were 23 times more likely to get pertussis, a highly contagious bacterial disease that causes violent coughing and is potentially lethal to infants. In the June issue of the journal Pediatrics, Jason Glanz, an epidemiologist at Kaiser's Institute for Health Research, revealed that the number of reported pertussis cases jumped from 1,000 in 1976 to 26,000 in 2004. A disease that vaccines made rare, in other words, is making a comeback.

• From the Times, an article on how cancerous tumors can spontaneously disappear, for reasons that are not yet fully understood. Think of this one the next time a faith-healing zealot claims that supernatural fetishism cured them of an incurable disease.

• Also, this superb editorial from the normally mediocre Maureen Dowd about the Vatican's increasingly archaic and misogynist attitude toward nuns (and women in general).

• And lastly, check out this piece from the Financial Times about the degree to which Muslim immigrants are assimilating into European society. Sarah Braasch, Daylight Atheism's correspondent from France (she actually lives in the area described by the article) tells me that some of this is overly optimistic and doesn't fully do justice to the serious problems of abuse and subjugation that some immigrants, especially women, still face. On the other hand, the doomsday "Islamofascists are taking over Europe!" scenarios so often pushed by right-wingers go too far in the opposite direction, ignoring relevant facts (such as the plunging birthrate among increasingly well-educated immigrant families) that tend to undermine their scare tactics.

October 27, 2009, 8:53 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink2 comments

Feminism's Freedom Fighter? On Feminism, Atheism and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

By Sikivu Hutchinson

In mainstream media, public conversation about the intersection between atheism and what I will loosely term third world feminism is as rare as Halley's Comet. In the corporate media universe, the groundbreaking work of feminists of African descent like bell hooks, Angela Davis and Patricia Hill Collins remains largely unknown, relegated to academe. Feminism, when invoked at all in mainstream media, is framed as the province of white women, a vestige of a less "enlightened" phase of American civil society.

The phenomenon of world renowned atheist feminist author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, however, would seem to defy this pattern. In a recent Los Angeles Times interview entitled "Feminism's Freedom Fighter," the Somalian-born Ali proclaimed women's rights the human rights issue of the 21st century. An outspoken critic of Islam, Ali is a controversial and uncompromising figure with a compelling personal story of triumph over adversity. A victim of clitoral mutilation in her youth, she has dedicated her life to challenging institutional sexism and patriarchy in Muslim societies. Her activism against gender-based terrorism and repression of Muslim women has been influential in the West, generating international accolades as well as death threats from Muslim extremists. Rising to prominence in the post 9/11 anti-Muslim hysteria of the Bush era, Ali has elicited controversy for her perceived Muslim-bashing, garnering a plum position at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and morphing into a champion of Israel.

Much of Ali's feminist ideology is based on the contrast between the violent repression of women under Islam and the liberal humanist traditions that supposedly shape women's rights in the West. In her writings and public discourse she is fond of making sweeping pronouncements deriding the cultures of Muslim societies, valorizing the West in ways that downplay its cultural hierarchies. In a 2007 interview with Reason Magazine she waxed, "Western civilization is a celebration of life... everybody's life, even the life of your enemy." Of course, in many Muslim societies feminism is still a dangerously radical concept. For many Muslim feminists, the very notion of women's personal freedom is a space of epic struggle. Yet Ali's totalizing assessments set up a false dichotomy between the West and Muslim societies. By portraying feminism as a battle that the West has already won, she absolves bourgeois democracies like the United States of their schizoid relationship to women rights and human rights, a relationship in which rape and domestic violence are part of the national "democratic" currency. And by ignoring the historical context of the "third world within the first world," she ignores the very real socioeconomic differences that exist between American women of color and white women.

For Ali, white supremacy is no longer a credible threat or motivation for feminist struggle. In the Times interview she rightly criticized men of color for their perpetuation of sexist beliefs and practices, calling for heightened focus on the "internal" politics and tyrannies of misogyny in "third world" communities. Addressing the subject of President Obama's recent trip to Cairo she stated, "It would have been fantastic if...Obama had said, we have taught the white man that bigotry is bad and he has given it up, at least most of it. Now bigotry is committed in the name of the black man, the brown man, the yellow man." Ali's apparent unwillingness to engage the connection between white supremacy, imperialism and sexism is a critical blind spot. Her failure to acknowledge the persistence of institutionalized segregation and its relationship to the disenfranchisement of women of color is problematic. These biases, and her paternalistic stance on Islam, explain why she has been such a darling of the European American conservative elite.

Certainly when one assesses women's socialization into and investment in organized religion there are many commonalities between Muslim and Christian systems of patriarchy. Granted Western women are not subject to some of the more overtly terroristic and repressive social prohibitions that Muslim women are. Clitoridectomies and honor killings are not part of Western cultural practices (nor, as many critics of Ali have pointed out, do they occur in all Muslim societies, and in fact derive from tribal not Islamic law). And granted men of color are responsible for the very intimate interpersonal violations of the lives and bodies of women of color. However, legacies of colonialism and racist beliefs about the sexuality of women of color continue to limit equitable access to health care and social welfare in the U.S. Women of color in Western societies are still subjugated by the dictates of Judeo Christian culture masquerading as secularized society. Puritanical prohibitions on women's sexuality and mobility inform institutionalized sexual and domestic violence against women. Rising rates of sexually transmitted disease and (in many highly religious white fundamentalist Christian and Latino Catholic communities) compulsory pregnancy due to failed abstinence-only sex education policies continue to imperil life conditions for women. Staggeringly high HIV/AIDS contraction rates, infant mortality rates and intimate partner homicide rates among African American women bespeak unequal access to health and social services in communities of color. Epidemic rates of sexual assault among Native American women reflect not only patriarchal control but the invisibility of Native communities vis-à-vis federal health public policy.

Thus Ali's contention that the West has "adjusted" its cultural and institutional structures to redress the hierarchies of Judeo Christian ideology is short sighted. Indeed, one need look no further than the wide cultural berth given to the Religious Right to see that it is one of the most powerful contemporary threats to civil rights and civil liberty in American history. The white Christian fundamentalist movement's assault upon human rights, women's rights and reproductive justice have the potential to reverse gains women have made in the U.S. over the past few decades. In the aftermath of decades of abortion clinic vandalism, bombings and murders of practitioners there is still no international outcry over the insurgent white Christian fundamentalist terrorist movement in the U.S.

From an atheist feminist of color perspective it is problematic to espouse reductive critiques of non-Western religions through the lens of a Western or American exceptionalism; particularly when these paradigms are based on the othering of people of color. The West has xenophobically demonized Muslim societies for their backwardness while "whitewashing" its own anti-democratic traditions and human rights transgressions. Ali's perspectives unfortunately reinforce this propaganda.

As an atheist woman of African descent Ali's life narrative and struggle for gender justice is a powerful example for women under the yoke of traditional Islam. Yet her analysis of the path to liberation has been severely clouded by superstar patronage from the very forces that would undermine the human rights mission of feminism.

October 26, 2009, 6:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink68 comments

On the Front Lines of Islamism

While we in the West work to defend secularism against creationists, pro-lifers and other would-be theocrats, it's worth remembering from time to time how good we have it. Our church-state wall may be an embattled boundary, but in most of the world, it's nonexistent. This is especially true in most of the world's Muslim-majority countries, where a few heroes of secularism are fighting against nearly impossible odds. Take Kuwait, where two courageous female MPs are refusing to wear headscarves in Parliament, in defiance of Islamist lawmakers who want to force all women to obey sharia:

"You can't force a woman going to the mall to wear a hijab and you can't force a woman going to work to wear the hijab," the MP, Rola Dashti, told The Daily Telegraph. "This is not Iran or Saudi Arabia."

Although Kuwait has taken some small steps forward as compared to its neighbors - women gained the right to vote and to run for office only in 2005 - the Islamist parties that still exercise major influence in its government are doing their best to roll back that progress. Granting women the vote was a major advance, since female Kuwaitis now have a say in how they are governed. Rest assured, however, that the Islamists will take away that power if they can. Their demands to impose sharia and the hijab even on elected female lawmakers are doubtless their way of testing the waters for more restrictive laws. Rola Dashti and her colleague, Aseel Al-Awadhi, deserve great credit for having the courage to stand up to them, but victory is far from certain.

And when Islamists can't win at the ballot box, they've proven time and time again that they'll eagerly resort to violence to get their way. Just so is this story, about a suicide bomber who targeted the Pakistani office of the World Food Program:

The bomb exploded without warning about noon, said Saadia Abbasi, a Pakistani lawyer and former senator who lives across the street. "There was a terrible blast, and everything shook and smoke started pouring out" of the compound, she said in a telephone interview.

...Five people -- an Iraqi man and four Pakistanis, two of them women -- died by early evening, said Wasim Khawaja, spokesman for the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences hospital.

Attacking hotels and embassies is bad enough, but this savage assault on a purely charitable organization shows that our enemy has truly abandoned any trace of humanity. The only thing the WFP had done was try to help hungry, homeless Pakistani citizens displaced by internal conflict. If that makes them a target for terrorism, then we can see all the more clearly how those who planned and carried out this attack have given their allegiance to a religious cult of death and mayhem.

Finally, I wrote in January about the Taliban takeover of Pakistan's Swat Valley. Shortly thereafter, the Pakistani government found the will to launch a counteroffensive and drove them out, thankfully. Now they're targeting the true power center of the Islamist insurgency, the tribal region of South Waziristan. But the coming battle may be a costly one, as reported in this article from the Telegraph:

"If the soldiers come to our land I am ready to fight them," said one of them, a teenager called Ijazullah, who only had one name. "I am ready to die. I am even ready for a suicide mission if that is required."

..."There are thousands more like me who have come here to join our Muslim brothers," he said. "We are ready to fight these Pakistani soldiers who are doing the work of the American unbelievers."

I've often said that beliefs can't be defeated by force alone, that the only way to truly overcome an idea is with a better idea. I still hold that to be true. But when violent extremists of any kind come together in an organized center of power, when they terrorize the populace and seek to impose their way of life on everyone, then the use of force is necessary as a means of self-defense.

The Taliban, al-Qaeda and their allies can't be permitted to have a safe haven or to exercise uncontested control over any region of a sovereign nation, and there's ample evidence that trying diplomacy only gives them a chance to consolidate their power. This hornets' nest has to be cleared out, lest the fundamentalists overthrow Pakistan's fragile democracy or get their hands on the country's nuclear arsenal. This isn't a recommendation I make lightly, but if ever there was a just war to uproot dangerous extremism, this is it. Pakistan's army has tried and failed to uproot them in the past; whether they will succeed this time is something that time will soon tell.

October 14, 2009, 6:41 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink34 comments

Freedom to Dress

It's a sad day when you read stories like this from the city where the renowned Library of Alexandria once stood:

Along the miles of crowded beachfront in Egypt's second city, women in bathing suits are nowhere in sight.

On Alexandria's breeze-blown shores, they all wear long-sleeve shirts and ankle-length black caftans topped by head scarves. Awkwardly afloat in the rough seas, the bathers look like wads of kelp loosened from the sandy bottom.

In Alexandria, a city once renowned for its culture and its cosmopolitanism, those secular values are having to contend with a rigid and increasingly aggressive strain of Islam exported from Saudi Arabia, here constituted by a political party called the Muslim Brotherhood. As is always the case, this movement takes no heed of the city's rich and diverse history:

"At the end of the day, that's all history," said Sobhi Saleh, a Brotherhood member of Parliament.

...Even the library — with its museum that includes pharaonic, Greek, Roman, Coptic and Islamic relics — is misguided, Mr. Saleh said.

"There, Islam is just one topic among many. We don't like those naked Greek statues. Anyway, that's over. Islam should have a special status at the library," he said. "This is a Muslim city in a Muslim country; that is our identity."

As the article notes, the Muslim Brotherhood has won support by handing out food and social services to Egypt's millions of poor. But in exchange for that help, it's seeking - and winning - more and more restrictions on people's freedom: enforced Islamic attire for women, the disappearance of alcohol from restaurants, and growing tension and violence with Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. This is a point worth remembering when people praise religion for the good it's done for the world's poor and needy. Too often, the price of that help is much steeper than it first appears.

But while the spread of Islamic fundamentalism is worrying, there are good ways and bad ways to oppose it. France hasn't chosen a good way:

France's struggle with Islamic dress has moved into the swimming pool after a 35-year-old woman was banned from bathing in her "burkini", a head-to-toe swimsuit.

...a 32-member parliamentary inquiry... opened last month to review the possibility of a law to bar Muslim women from wearing the face-covering niqab in public. President Sarkozy stirred fundamentalist anger in June when he sided with the review, saying that such dress was not a symbol of faith, but a sign of women's subservience and that it had "no place in France". (source)

The stated reason for banning this woman from the public pool was hygiene, but since her dress is basically a wetsuit, that seems unlikely to be the real reason. France has been moving in the direction of restricting public displays of religious attire since 2004, when it banned headscarves in state-run schools. As the above quote shows, they're now considering outlawing many kinds of religious dress altogether.

I understand France's desire to maintain a secular state and prevent the religious oppression of women, but this isn't the way to do it. The woman in this case isn't even from a Muslim family, but was an adult convert from Christianity - it's absurd to argue that she was being coerced. And banning religious attire in schools and public places isn't going to free women from Islamic families. If anything, it's likely to result in them being even more restricted and less able to leave their homes.

Forcing women to wear Muslim garb, or banning them from wearing it, are wrong for the same reasons. When it comes to people expressing themselves, dress is second only to speech. Any restriction on freedom of expression should be justified by only the most compelling reasons, and the mere desire to maintain an outwardly secular state isn't one of those. Fighting imposed religious oppression is a worthy goal, but this is a battle of ideas and persuasion, not one that can be won by the force of law. If the values and freedoms offered by the Western world - or the Islamic world, for that matter - are superior, people will come to adopt them of their own free will. If they're not superior, trying to impose them anyway is an effort that's bound to end only in failure and worsened division.

August 26, 2009, 6:43 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink31 comments

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