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

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

The Futility of Appeasement

Quick! Somebody call the accommodationists!

Several men who went to a suburban mosque to perform morning prayers Wednesday were shocked to discover two bloodied wild boar heads wrapped in plastic bags in the mosque compound, said Zulkifli Mohamad, the top official at the Sri Sentosa Mosque on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's largest city.

This unpleasant stunt is just the latest symptom of a smoldering religious war that recently erupted in Malaysia, a multiethnic and multireligious country with a Muslim majority and significant Buddhist, Christian and Hindu minorities. The catalyst was a decision last year in which Malaysia's highest court ruled that the Herald, a Roman Catholic newspaper, had the right to use the word "Allah" in its Malay-language edition as a term for God. This overruled a "years-old government ban on the use of the word in non-Muslim publications", and this was the result:

Among the attacks in various Malaysian states, eight churches and two small Islamic prayer halls were firebombed, two churches were splashed with paint, one had a window broken, a rum bottle was thrown at a mosque and a Sikh temple was pelted with stones, apparently because Sikhs use "Allah" in their scriptures.

The New York Times gives further details of the ensuing violence and protests, including this bit:

"Allah is only for us," said Faedzah Fuad, 28, who participated in the rally. "The Christians can use any word, we don't care, but please don't use the word Allah."

...Hand-lettered signs reading "Please respect the name of Allah" remained in a stack on the ground where Ms. Faedzah had prepared them.

Another article notes that Malay Muslims "paraded a severed cow’s head in the streets" in November to protest the building of a new Hindu temple - one wonders if they inadvertently inspired the latest act of vandalism.

So far, prominent accommodationists like Chris Mooney and Karen Armstrong have yet to blame the Malaysian violence on Richard Dawkins, though I'm sure it's only a matter of time before they come up with some connection.

But I'd really like to know how people who hold such views would respond to this. Should the Christians have sought permission to use the word "Allah" in their own publications? Why or why not? And how would they respond to protestors like Faedzah Fuad? Since Mooney and his allies hold that religious beliefs must be respected, does being respectful require that the rest of us be forbidden to even use a word if a particular religious group claims ownership of it?

It's also worth noting, contrary to the worldview of the accommodationists, that the peace which formerly prevailed wasn't a cheerful democratic diplomacy that was disrupted by a few reckless agitators. On the contrary, it was enforced by coercion: it was illegal for non-Muslim publications to use the word "Allah", even if said publication was printed by people for whom that word was a part of their native language. Writing for Slate, Christopher Hitchens describes just how narrow the Malaysian court's ruling was:

The high court finding was very narrowly drawn; it said that the Catholic Herald could say Allah in its Malay-language edition, provided that the paper was sold "only on church grounds and bearing the label FOR NON-MUSLIMS ONLY."

But as Hitchens notes, even this incredibly circumscribed exemption was too much for the Islamists, and the court decision has now joined

the long list of actual and potential confrontations [between religions], derived from the infinitely elastic list of matters about which Muslims award themselves the right to be aggrieved... Who could have guessed that they wouldn't notice until last year that there were non-Muslims speaking the same language as them? Who could have foreseen that within weeks of this startling discovery we would witness the usual dreary display of yelling crowds, snarling preachers, and smoldering buildings?

Events like this show the futility of trying to keep the peace by tiptoeing around religious believers' sensibilities. Contrary to the accommodationists who believe all would be well if only we New Atheists would stop stirring up trouble, the truth of the matter is that there are millions of fundamentalists, of many different religions, who cannot be appeased, who will not accept anything less than total submission, and who need only the barest sliver of an excuse to resort to violence. Trying to keep these people happy is pointless: if we bow to one of their demands, that will just encourage them to demand more, until the whole world is shackled by their peculiar and archaic set of laws.

Violence like this is a reason why we need more atheist speech, not less. If religious believers expect that they can have any demand met by claiming offense, that only gives them an incentive to become more unreasonable and more prone to violence. We need to make it clear to everyone that no one's beliefs are above criticism, and no one can expect to escape skeptical inquiry. That attitude, and not hypersensitive demands for self-censorship, is the only thing that will lead to an end of religious warfare and violence in the long run.

February 9, 2010, 6:40 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink288 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

I'm happy to report that there's quite a lot of good news this week:

• The U.K. government recommends that primary school religious education classes should teach about "secular beliefs such as humanism and atheism", in addition to learning about major world religions like Christianity, Buddhism and Islam. This is just one more symptom of how far ahead of us our European friends are in some respects - can you imagine the religious right frenzy that would ensue if a U.S. politician recommended teaching about atheism in public high schools?

• In a story that made me especially happy, Andrew Wakefield, the pseudoscientific doctor who's almost single-handedly responsible for the anti-vaccination movement, was found to have seriously abused his trust as a medical practitioner by a U.K. ethics panel. According to the ruling, Wakefield ordered unnecessary and invasive tests on autistic children (including spinal taps and colonoscopies), without securing proper ethical approval, in the paper that claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. He also failed to disclose major conflicts of interest (he was being paid by trial lawyers looking to file claims against vaccine manufacturers). The General Medical Council ruled that Wakefield was "dishonest, irresponsible and showed callous disregard for the distress and pain" of the children, and is still evaluating a charge of professional misconduct that could lead to Wakefield's losing his license to practice medicine.

• And lastly, I'm glad to report that Scott Roeder, the Christian terrorist who shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, was convicted of first-degree murder by a Kansas jury this week. The judge rejected the defense's ludicrous request that the jury be allowed to consider voluntary manslaughter, and they returned the verdict after just 37 minutes of deliberation. Roeder faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison, the most fitting punishment for a cold-blooded and vicious killer like himself.

Although the cause of justice was served, this verdict can't undo the damage; Dr. Tiller's clinic will be closing for good, which means in a way that Roeder got exactly what he wanted. Still, the verdict sends a message that anti-choice zealots cannot commit these crimes with impunity. It may not be enough to discourage future acts of terrorism against abortion providers, but at least we have assurance that the rule of law is still operative in America.

January 30, 2010, 11:00 am • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink5 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

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

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

Militant Hinduism

People in Western societies often believe that Eastern religions are more peaceful, less fundamentalist, than Judaism, Christianity or Islam have historically been. And it may well be true that the fluid, polytheistic nature of Hinduism and Buddhism makes them more tolerant, more willing to accommodate differing beliefs, than the fiercely monotheistic religions whose gods are unable to abide any competition.

Nevertheless, every religion has its violent, fundamentalist wing, and Eastern religions like Hinduism are no exception. In India, the problem is mainly in the form of a right-wing, ultra-nationalist movement that calls itself Hindutva, which wants its version of Hindu religious law imposed on the world's largest democracy. Among other things, proponents of Hindutva are virulently anti-Muslim as a rule - some have called for the expulsion of all Muslims from India (there are over 100 million Indian Muslims, so this would be by far the largest forced migration in human history) and the annexation of the disputed territory Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have come to the brink of open war several times. Other Hindutva members have been linked to bombings and other terrorist acts aimed at Muslims.

Hindutva extremists have also targeted their fellow Hindu believers for not being sufficiently strict about religious observances and rules - especially those having to do with sex. In 2009, for example, a mob of youths from a right-wing Hindu group Sri Ram Sena attacked partygoers at a club in Mangalore, beating several people so severely they required hospitalization. The Sri Ram Sena has also warned local businesses not to celebrate Valentine's Day and couples not to show affection in public - although Indian feminists, showing some spirit of their own, have fought back by pledging to bombard the group with pink underwear.

Like most religious extremists, Hindu fundamentalists are also opposed to much of mainstream science and history. In 2006, for example, a Hindu nationalist group filed a lawsuit in California over the content of several world history textbooks which they claimed were discriminatory against Hinduism. In reality, most of the changes they were seeking were to whitewash history to cast their beliefs in a better light - they wanted to soften or delete references to polytheism, sexism against women, and the caste system in ancient India. Although the lawsuit was dismissed, it showed that Hindu groups are not above attempting to rewrite history to serve apologetic ends. (source; see also)

Hindus, like Christians, also have their own creationists who deny evolution and mainstream theories about the age of the earth and humanity - although, in this case, the Vedic creationists believe that humanity is far older than mainstream geology and the theory of evolution say. See this article for more (HT: Sensuous Curmudgeon).

Although these fundamentalists don't have quite as much influence in India as the Christian right does in America or the Muslim right does in most of the Islamic world, it's striking how similar their goals are. It implies that fundamentalism is the same kind of evil, no matter where it springs up; it's only the outward trappings used to justify these actions that differ from one culture to another.

October 7, 2009, 8:44 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink21 comments

Religion Promotes Morality: The Evidence

One could argue that atheism leads to immorality. With no God-given commandments, the atheist pretty much has to make up moral standards as he or she goes along... The philosopher John Locke – one of the intellectual forebears of American democracy – once said that atheists can't ultimately be trusted in their promises and commitments, since they have no ultimate divine authority to whom they must answer.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sued a California man and his company for allegedly defrauding a church community by claiming his investment successes were an "obvious favor of God."

David Souza, 53, described by the agency as a former truck driver and handyman, raised more than $1 million from 28 investors tied to a Redding-based church from August 2007 until April 2008 by promising an annual return of more than 150 percent, the SEC said today in a lawsuit filed at federal court in Sacramento.

...He made more than $100,000 in charitable contributions to the Redding church community, about 180 miles north of San Francisco, where he advertised his fund in materials headlined "Where Business Is Moral and the Miraculous Is Routine." The agency didn't identify the church by name.

SEC Sues Man for Defrauding Church Community in Ponzi Scheme

* * *

Some respondents associated atheism with illegal behavior, like drug use and prostitution: "that is, with immoral people who threaten respectable community from the lower end of the social hierarchy."

Research Finds that Atheists are Most Despised, Most Distrusted Minority

A Liberty University chaplain is facing drug and burglary charges. Last week, a homeowner caught Scott Ray on surveillance video breaking into a home to steal painkillers. Ray, who is the chaplain for the men's basketball team and the Director of Convocation, is also suspected in other Campbell County break-ins. In 2005 he was arrested and charged with the same thing.

Liberty University chaplain faces drug and burglary charges

* * *

If you want to live a degenerate life, God is your mortal enemy. He represents a lethal danger to your selfishness, greed, lechery and hatred. It is in your interest to despise Him and do whatever you can to rid the universe of His presence. So there are powerful attractions to life in a God-free world.

Atheism: the End of Morality

Murder charges were filed Tuesday against the man accused of swinging a baseball bat in a church in Wheaton, Minn., killing a 14-month-old girl with a blow meant for her father.

...The charges include two counts of both murder and attempted murder because the attack during a prayer service at Thy Kingdom Come World Ministry on Thursday could be viewed as intentional, and it is a different charge when the crime is intended, said Matt Franzese, Traverse County attorney.

...The fight began with a dispute about $20 that Hankins owed Collins as well as a used washer and dryer that the church wanted Collins to give to Hankins' family.

Murder charges filed in Wheaton baseball bat attack

* * *

For this reason, the root of the terrorism that plagues our world is not in any of the monotheistic religions, but is in atheism, and the expression of atheism in our times: 'Darwinism' and 'materialism.'

The Real Ideological Root of Terrorism: Darwinism and Materialism

A Bolivian-born man clutching a Bible and claiming a divine mission hijacked a plane in Mexico with more than 100 people aboard on Wednesday...

Flores, 44, smuggled a false bomb on board and threatened to blow up the aircraft if he could not warn the president of what he said was an impending earthquake, police said.

"He said he is a minister and that it was a divine revelation that made him carry out this action," Security Minister Genaro Garcia told reporters.

Religious fanatic briefly hijacks Mexican plane

September 12, 2009, 12:09 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink41 comments

Too High a Price to Pay for Comfort

Religion inspires billions of people around the world today to live honest, decent, law-abiding lives. Faith-based charities of every religious tradition have brought comfort, hope, and healing to millions of people who would otherwise starve, lay homeless, and be left to fend for themselves. Religion gives comfort and consolation to so many who have faced adversity in their lives, whether it be suffering from illness, natural disaster, or the loss of someone whom they loved.

The good that's done by religion, the peace and comfort it gives to millions of faithful, is often cited as a reason to be a believer despite the manifest harm that it does in the world. Often, paired with this argument, the charge is made that atheists don't understand the solace people find in religion - that we seek to tear down and destroy without truly knowing what we're attacking. I have a few words to say to both of these claims.

I understand why people are Roman Catholic. I understand the comfort of tradition and ritual, the deep sense of grounding that comes from being part of the world's largest and most ancient Christian faith. I understand the attraction of participating in the sacraments as they've been practiced for millennia, the sense of treading in the footsteps where the first Christians walked. I understand the intellectual depth and heft that comes of having nearly two thousand years of theological reflection and elaboration to draw on.

The former No. 2 official of the Catholic church in Chicago admitted that he knew 25 priests broke the law by sexually abusing children but did not report them, according to depositions made public Tuesday.

..."I knew the civil law considered it a crime," Goedert said in the deposition.

—"Bishop remained silent about 25 abusive priests." The Chicago Sun-Times, 22 July 2009.

I understand why people are Jewish. I understand the comfort of heritage, of identity, of continuity with the past that's been faithfully preserved in written text and living tradition. I understand the pull of cultural memory, of remembering the thread that runs unbroken through the generations and reenacting the sacred rituals as they've always been practiced. I understand the bittersweet joy and stubborn pride that comes with the knowledge that enemies have sought to eradicate your people for millennia, whether by law, by steel or by flame, and every time, your ancestors emerged from the ashes, battered but unbowed. I understand the appeal of having a true homeland, a place in the world that is finally yours and where you can dwell in peace and security.

Plastered across Israeli TV screens for the past week have been pictures of settler youths, some as young as 13, stoning and then trying to lynch a teenage Palestinian in a Gaza village.

...That thump is the sound of a rock thrown by a teenage Jewish settler hitting an unconscious Hilal Majaida in the head. The 16-year-old Palestinian was set upon by a mob of Jewish settler youth, who'd taken over a house in Hilal Majaida's village of Mouasi in Gaza.

—"Israeli settlers attempt to lynch Palestinian teenager." The World Today (Australia), 8 July 2005.

I understand why people are Muslim. I understand the comfort that comes from belonging to a worldwide community of fellow believers, one united by faith and creed without regard to race or nation. I understand the vigor and pride of the world's youngest monotheism, the heritage rich with scientific and artistic accomplishment. I understand the bracing certainty of possessing God's actual words exactly as he intended them to be read and following the last and truest prophet he sent to the world. And I understand the appeal of simplicity, the attractiveness of stripping away all corruptions and confusions and everything unnecessary, producing a faith as clean and pure and directed in purpose as the desert lands where it was born.

Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan have executed a school teacher in front of his pupils for refusing to comply with warnings to stop educating girls.

..."They dragged the teacher from the classroom and shot him at the school gate," said Abdul Rahman Sabir, Helmand's police chief.

"He had received many warning letters from the Taliban to stop teaching, but he continued to do so happily and honestly - he liked to teach boys and girls."

—"Taliban execute teacher in front of his pupils for educating girls." The Telegraph, 17 December 2005.

And I understand why people are evangelical Christians. I understand the ecstasy of being born again, the sense of being unconditionally forgiven and cleansed. I understand the excitement of being on a grand spiritual mission, the sense of being a foot soldier in a quest to save the world. I understand the appeal of answered prayer, the promise of miracles all around. I understand the belief that the material world is like a thin curtain over a far more important and unseen world, and the appeal of a book which claims to be the inerrant and infallible word of God to believers, a book which pulls back that curtain and unlocks all the secrets of the future and the world to come. I understand the appeal of a personal relationship with a loving savior who promises he will never abandon nor forsake those who love him, even to the end of the world.

But an exploitative situation has now grown into something much more sinister as preachers are turning their attentions to children - naming them as witches. In a maddened state of terror, parents and whole villages turn on the child. They are burnt, poisoned, slashed, chained to trees, buried alive or simply beaten and chased off into the bush.

Pastor Joe Ita is the preacher at Liberty Gospel Church in nearby Eket. 'We base our faith on the Bible, we are led by the holy spirit and we have a programme of exposing false religion and sorcery.... Parents don't come here with the intention of abandoning their children, but when a child is a witch then you have to say "what is that there? Not your child."'

—"Children are targets of Nigerian witch hunt." The Observer, 9 December 2007.

I understand, but I do not believe. No matter how comforting these faiths may be to their followers, they are still based on supernatural claims for which I see no good evidence. Worse, most of them make assertions that are plainly based on the superstitious ideas of primitive people, and are flatly contradicted by everything we've learned about human history and the laws by which the cosmos works. I understand the appeal of culture and tradition, but these are not good enough reasons for belief when these religions make factual claims that are so plainly untrue.

If these factual falsehoods were all that was wrong with religion, one might still argue that it's worth believing for the sake of the comfort that belief brings. But religion has also wrought terrible evil in the world. And the unnecessary pain, suffering, and destruction that faith has caused is too high a price to pay for comfort. A total catalogue of these harms would be impossibly long, but I can list a few of the major ones: the terror of children who are taught they'll be tortured eternally if they stray; the monstrous crimes of predatory clergy that were long concealed and abetted by their superiors; the suffering and degradation of women whose faith teaches them that they are inferior; the bloody holy wars waged in the name of God; the violent censorship of free speech and free minds; morality based on fear and obedience rather than reason and conscience; the opposition to the advance of human rights; the opposition to science and knowledge; the propping up of kings and theocracies; and most grievous, the stifling of curiosity, teaching people to be satisfied with ignorance.

Whatever comfort religion brings, whatever solace it brings, it isn't worth it if this is the price we must pay. There are other, better ways to find comfort, ways that have just as much potential for good without so much potential for evil. There are countless philosophies that, like religion, accentuate the positive traits of humanity, but that, unlike religion, don't intensify the negative ones.

August 12, 2009, 6:37 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink46 comments

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