The Baathists of ISIS.

April 14, 2015

Haider Al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq speaking to the media following the Counter-ISIL Coalition Small Group Meeting in London, 22 January 2015. Picture courtesy of The Foreign and Commonwealth Office. .

Haider Al-Abadi, Prime Minister of Iraq speaking to the media following the Counter-ISIL Coalition Small Group Meeting in London, 22 January 2015.
Picture courtesy of The Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

It must come as a surprise to no-one, that the self-proclaimed Islamic State owes much of its success to ex-Baathist strategists and administrators. Brutal men, with a sense of Sunni superiority, authoritarians looking for a new outlet.

One of the less spoken reasons for the rise of ISIS, is the tactical failure of Paul Bremer, Ahmad Chalabi and the Coalition Provisional Authority’s badly handled de-Baathification process following the war. Specifically, the policy that anyone affiliated with the Baath Party in any way whatsoever, was to immediately lose their job, and be barred from public sector employment from May 2003 onwards. This – predictably – created thousands of unemployed Sunni’s in a war torn country of a majority Shia population, many of whom sought refuge in Mosul (now under ISIS control), many others ended up meeting in close quarters with other former Baathists and – significantly – Islamists in detention camps like Bucca, planning and sharing ideas; especially the reestablishing of Sunni political superiority, and Sunni political superiority finds no greater friend than a newly disenfranchised Sunni population.

Before his death in 2014, Abu Muslim al Afari al Turkmani – who spent time in Bucca – was working as al Baghdadi’s leading man in Iraq. When he was killed, intelligence agents stumbled upon documents setting out ISIS’ leadership that place al-Turkmani (a native of Iraq) as al-Baghdadi’s number two. He seems to have been responsible for working with ISIS appointed governors in cities and towns in Iraq captured by the extremist group. But tellingly, prior to his involvement with ISIS, al-Turkmani was a lieutenant colonel in Saddam’s Iraqi military intelligence.

Al-Turkmani’s counterpart in Syria is Abu Ali al-Anbari. Al-Anbari is responsible for overseeing ISIS appointed governors in Syria. Prior to the toppling of Saddam, al-Anbari worked as an Iraqi Major General for Saddam’s regime. Two of ISIS’s leadership were Baathists, fighting to defend Baath principles and the Baath state, later joining and leading a violent Sunni group, opposed to a return to Baathism.

Abu Ayman al-Iraqi is now ISIS’s head of its Military Council. Prior to life in ISIS, al-Iraqi – real name Adnan Latif Hamid al-Sweidawi – was a colonel in Saddam’s Iraqi Army, and a member of Iraq’s air defence intelligence, before – predictably – serving time in Camp Bucca. Immediately following his release from Bucca in 2010, he coordinated ISIS fighters in Aleppo.

Al-Iraqi’s predecessor as head of ISIS Military Council was a man by the name of Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi. Bilawi is believed to have been the head tactician behind the attack on Mosul. He was killed by Iraq’s security forces in 2014. Prior to ISIS, al-Bilawi was a captain in Saddam’s Military between 1993 and 2003, at which point he joined Al Zaqarwi’s AQI, and was later – predictably – serving time in Camp Bucca.

Haji Bakr was a senior commander for ISIS before his death by the Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade in 2014. Prior to his ascendancy in ISIS, Bakr – real name Samir al-Khlifawi – was a Military Officer for the Baath regime in Iraq, working on weapons development. Upon joining the militant group – swelling with disenfranchised Sunnis – Bakr helped to secure al-Baghdadi’s position as leader of the group, by ordering a purge of opponents.

ISIS’ top leadership over the past few years, have been former Baathists. Both al-Turkmani and al-Iraqi were members of IS’s Shura Council. Both al-Turkmani and al-Anbari were fundamental to ISIS propaganda efforts in Iraq. Al-Baghdadi, during the early phase of his leadership – and swift takeovers of disenfranchised Sunni areas – was keen to use Iraqi nationals, rather than angry Western kids to coordinate attacks. An ex-ISIS member by the name of Abu Hamza told The Washington Post:

“All the decision makers are Iraqi, and most of them are former Iraqi officers. The Iraqi officers are in command, and they make the tactics and the battle plans”

“But the Iraqis themselves don’t fight. They put the foreign fighters on the front lines.”

– The necessity of Iraqi nationals in leadership positions in order to give credit to ISIS overall was set years earlier, when al-Zaqawi lead AQI. AQI found to their detriment fairly quickly, that seemingly enthusiastic Sunni communities were less likely to accept Islamist interference in their lives (and those that did, soon changed allegiance with the US and Iraqi government’s diplomatic efforts during the surge), given that it was perceived as an outside, non-Iraqi militant force. A Sunni awakening against violent Islamists was the result. Today, The use of al-Turkmani and al-Anbari is an attempt to provide a national face to ISIS, whilst advocating a borderless Caliphate. This is coupled with a merciless policy of murdering any Sunni tribal groups that resist ISIS, as the Al Bu Nimr tribe found out so horrendously twice in 2014; once for fighting ISIS, and again when 150 women were slaughtered by the group, for refusing to marry the militants.

ISIS use ex-Baathists for the knowledge of the region, the military expertise, smuggling networks, local connections, the administrative capabilities, their nationality, and then they offer an ultimatum; drop the Baathist aspirations, or die. In July last year, ISIS caught 60+ ex senior military officers of Saddam’s regime – including Saifeddin al-Mashhadani, formally on the US’s Iraq’s Most Wanted list – during their takeover of Mosul. At the time, when he was a Parliamentarian, the now Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi said:

“ISIL called on their friends who are ex-Baathists to cooperate and they did. And now ISIL is kicking them out. Some will pledge allegiance. Those they don’t believe will pledge allegiance, they will execute.”

– For their part, ex-Baathists seem to fall into two categories for IS. Firstly, those who firmly seek a reestablished Islamic Caliphate – those holding senior positions in IS. These are the people intrinsic to the the future of ISIS in Iraq. And secondly, disenfranchised Sunni’s that ISIS consider expendable; those seeking protection, influence, and pay, following a catastrophic sectarian al-Maliki government in Baghdad. The dream of Sunni superiority restored to Iraq might motivate both ex-Baathists and IS, but the ideological differences between the two cannot be masked forever. As seen with Al Zarqawi’s similar attempt to enlist Sunni majority towns to his cause, it is easy to speak to a disenfranchised population and offer salvation, but those people are no more likely to accept long term harsh Islamist conditions that restrict their rights, than they are likely to accept sectarian policies coming out of Baghdad.

The de-Baathification of Iraq, coupled with the divisive sectarianism and revenge mentality of Shia political groups and the government of al-Maliki, has been disastrous for Iraq. It has fed ISIS far beyond what al-Zarqawi could ever have dreamed possible, and far beyond the war itself. The defeat of ISIS will of course take military might and international cooperation (seemingly impossible as Assad remains in power, and funding funnels up from the Gulf, along with Iran’s influence on the battlefield) but the key to a lasting suppression of the poison of extremism in Iraq, is in the hands of Baghdad, the new Prime Minister, and a much needed policy of reconciliation between Sunni & Shia, equal civil protections for all – including the right to expression and belief, regardless of gender, ethnicity and sexuality – alongside representative democratic accountability. Given that the religious dogma that informs the split in Islam is so horribly ingrained, it is fair to say that it is not going to be addressed any time soon, and so a secular political settlement that privileges no sect, and extends civil liberties to all, is the only way forward. And on that front, all eyes are on Haider al-Adabi.


Ayaan Hirsi Ali & the illiberal ‘liberals’.

March 30, 2015

In the past few months a string of new books ‘explaining’ the rise of ISIS have appeared on the shelves of the big book stores across the country. One of which is ‘ISIS: The State of Terror‘ by The excellent Jessica Stern & JM Berger. I wondered if perhaps this book – given that the authors are highly credited – would acknowledge at all the underlying problem of religious dogma (that is, the anchoring of morality to a single time & place, and belief in the universal viability of that), or if it begins from the premise that Islamic extremism is at its core geopolitical in nature, with religion as a sort of side note. My curiosity was answered on the first page, when we’re presented with a timeline, that begins “March 20th 2003 – President George W Bush announces the start of war against Iraq“.  Whilst it may go on to discuss Al Zarqawi’s beginnings and rise, the premise seems to be that we can blame everything & everyone else for the conditions in which Islamism flourishes, rather than the supremacist dogma itself. For those seeking to minimise the problem of religious dogma when accounting for conflict in the Middle East, there are two lines of attack. Firstly, claim the rise of groups like ISIS can be entirely divorced from religious dogma, and can instead be attached to geopolitics only (this feeds the larger Chomsky-esque narrative, that the US is the problem). Secondly, demonise any detractors who do focus on the problem of religious dogma. The latter – a tactic not used to quell criticism of any other concept on the planet – was surprisingly given credit this week, by anti-racism and anti-privilege writer and public speaker Tim Wise, when he posted a link to Max Blumenthal’s latest manipulation:

timwise

Ironic, given that the man who wrote the article has several of his own less than true ideas exposed by historian and journalist Eric Alterman in a beautifully concise manner. Nevertheless, It is a matter of consistency for me, that systems of oppression & supremacy – whether they’re based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or religion – must be resisted and dogma that informs those systems, discredited and opposed by anyone considering themselves liberal, and secular. This doesn’t seem to be the case with some ‘liberals’ who rightfully fight racial supremacy, yet find it difficult to retain consistency when it comes to illiberal dogma found in a certain religion. The product of which, is a curious holding of hands between those ‘liberals’, and the systems of oppression they should otherwise be opposing.

In his latest piece – Exposing Anti-Islam Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Latest Deception Max Blumenthal goes all out to attack Ayaan Hirsi Ali in what I can only describe as reworded Wikipedia article on Hirsi Ali, and a few extra manipulative additions to aid his overall premise (with the added joy of “Neocon!” yelled at anyone who calls him out on his manipulations). Take for example this paragraph:

“In Heretic, a polemic recycling many of her past arguments against Islam, she calls for the emergence of a Muslim Martin Luther — the authoritarian 16th-century zealot who called for burning down the synagogues of Jews, whom he compared to a gangrenous disease.”

– We might here be tempted to play the illiberal ‘liberal’ game, and refer to Blumenthal as Lutheranophobic for his critique of Martin Luther. But putting aside the silly tactics that those seeking to silence critique of Islam play, you’ll perhaps note here the big manipulation in the paragraph. Hirsi Ali is not at all suggesting that Islam needs a Medieval authoritarian willing to burn down Jewish temples. Hamas already exists. Blumenthal purposely recast the point to focus on Luther’s character, when in fact, Hirsi Ali is actually suggesting that Islam needs a reformation, that opens it up far more to individual critique, that it is too dogmatic as it is, too unable to progress with the rest of the World. A critique that is either disliked, discouraged, or punished in much of the Islamic World, and dismissed as ‘Islamophobia’ in the Western World. The character of Martin Luther is irrelevant to that discussion. But if there is to be a focus on the character of historical revolutionaries, I’m more than happy to start with religious Prophets.

Blumenthal then accuses Hirsi Ali of defending Anders Breivik. This too is a crude manipulation. He says:

“Junketed to Berlin in 2012 to receive the Axel Springer Honorary Award from the right-wing German publisher, Hirsi Ali appeared to blame liberal defenders of multiculturalism for the killing spree committed by the Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik, claiming they left Breivik with “no other choice but to use violence. (Breivik cited Hirsi Ali’s work in his 1,500 page manifesto explaining his plans to commit a series of terrorist attacks across Norway.)”

– It’d be just terrible to get praise from a right winger….. Like Max Blumenthal did, when the website of white supremacist David Duke praised Blumenthal’s book. Or when – as Hirsi Ali later pointed out in a conversation with Sam Harris – Bin Laden cited Noam Chomsky in a recording obtained by Al Jazeera back in 2010. We can all play the “you’re supported by extremists!” game.

Onto Blumenthal’s main manipulation in that particular paragraph. Hirsi Ali was not blaming liberals, because actual liberals are fine with, and promote the notion that all ideas – religious included – should be open up to criticism, satire, and inquiry, and that no idea – religious included – should be shielded. Especially ideas that create barriers to the secular liberty of others. Her criticism is of those vastly illiberal ‘liberals’ who work to prevent criticism of one single idea – by, among other forms, silencing ex-Muslims with manipulative articles – that create an atmosphere in which one idea is considered taboo, and that is deeply unhealthy for any liberal, secular, democracy. In other words; to push discussion, criticism, satire, ridicule of an authoritarian idea – be it religious or political, thus confirming the zealots insistence that ‘blasphemy’ is a terrible crime of expression – out of the public sphere of acceptability, has consequences. It creates a taboo around that one idea, and it is latched onto by dangerous fanatics like Breivik, who undoubtedly do mix their dislike for a faith, with racism, Nationalism, and their grotesque delusions of power. As she rightly says:

“In the long run, you get more jihadist ghettoes and intolerant right-wing enclaves. ”

– I’m fine with illiberal ‘liberals’ disagreeing with this contention, but rather than debate the point, Blumenthal has decided to claim this is “defending Breivik” – when it quite clearly isn’t. This is not an acceptable, nor respectable form of challenging an idea. It is a silencing technique, and it works only to create the conditions that Hirsi Ali speaks of.

Later, Blumenthal recounts the tale that Hirsi Ali had told the Netherlands authorities when applying for asylum, and giving a modified version of her name, and age:

” “Yeah, I made up the whole thing,” Hirsi Ali admitted on camera to a Zembla reporter who confronted her with her lies. “I said my name was Ayaan Hirsi Ali instead of Ayaan Hirsi Magan. I also said I was born in 1967 while I was actually born in 1969.”

– Now let’s look at the actual story behind the quote, rather than the simplified line Blumenthal has used. In an interview with Sam Harris, Hirsi Ali is quite clear on why she felt she had to hide her identity:

“When I arrived in the Netherlands, in 1992, I misrepresented the year of my birth at my intake interview. I said I was born in 1967, but I was born in 1969. I also changed my grandfather’s name. In many tribal societies, instead of a surname you have a string of names—I am Ayaan; my father is Hirsi; and my father’s father, when he was born, was named Ali. But later on, when he grew up and became a warrior, he was called Magan (Somali for “protection” or “refuge”), because he protected some of the peoples whom he conquered. Magan is, basically, a nickname that he acquired later in life. Technically, I did not lie about Ali, because that was also his name. I used it deliberately, because I figured that if I could get this intake interview, then my father or the man he married me off to could come and say that they were looking for Ayaan Hirsi Magan, born November 13, 1969, and they would find me very easily. I wanted to prevent that, so I called myself Ayaan Hirsi Ali and changed my birth year to 1967. I was trying to cover my trail just enough that I wouldn’t have the fear of being immediately found. I had never before lived in a system where there were any protections put in place for me.”

– Blumenthal wasn’t done with simply misrepresenting that part of the story either. He goes on:

“Hirsi Ali’s claim of honor killing threats also appears to be empty; she remained in touch with her father and aunt after she left her husband. In fact, her husband even came to visit her in the Dutch refugee center where she lived after leaving him. Even though he had paid her way to Europe on the grounds that she would join him in Canada, Hirsi Ali’s husband consented to the divorce she sought.”

– None of this is new information. Only the hideous way Blumenthal frames it, is different. Hirsi Ali herself has already spoken on her visit from her husband, in the same interview with Harris:

“I was terrified that either my father or some of our clansmen—or the man whom I had been married off to—would come looking for me and find me. And they did come! My ex-husband was accompanied by three other men when he showed up at the asylum center where I was. But by then I had been in the country for something like four to six months, and even in that very, very short period, I came to understand that I had rights.

On the day that they showed up, I went to the reception center and confessed everything to one of the people working there. Her name was Sylvia, and she said, “You don’t have to go with him if you don’t want to. You’re over the age of 18. In fact, here in the Netherlands, your marriage isn’t even recognized, because he is Canadian and the marriage took place somewhere else. So we will just protect you. I’ll simply call the police.” It was in this period that I found my independence. I had been able to live on my own for months, so I thought I could live on my own for longer.”

– The shameful manipulative nonsense of Blumenthal’s piece aside, I find there’s a bigger, and far more fundamental issue. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, A woman from an African country that consistently scores the very lowest score possible for political freedoms, and civil liberties, is abused by a very patriarchal system underpinned by religious supremacy, is mutilated as a child by a system underpinned by religious supremacy, watches as her female family members are not allowed to leave an airport without being accompanied by a man, is forced into a marriage by a system underpinned by religious supremacy, then – someone who has more right than any to call out the oppressive elements of a religious system of power – blames religious dogma for much of the trauma she and others face on a daily basis, and dedicates herself to fighting for the rights of victims of illiberal religious dogma across the World. She does this, whilst threatened with death notes pinned to the murdered body of a filmmaker she collaborated with because someone somewhere is “offended” by the content of the film. The implication is that she should just shut up about her experiences. Then come the white, upper middle class American men, not focusing at all on the supremacist dogma that informs the horrific abuse she’s suffered, or the violence she faces for speaking out, but instead they choose to focus on their own methods of silencing her with manipulations and misdirection, thus protecting the very oppressive ideas she’s fighting.

The privilege it takes for those who have never lived through her experiences, to dismiss her rather than challenge her ideas with debate, and to manipulate her calls for a reformation within the faith, in order to protect one specific religion, represents a massive confused betrayal of liberal principles, but one that we are all becoming very familiar with when illiberal ‘liberals’ put pen to paper.


The National Secular Society & Reverend Whittaker’s Apocalypse.

March 26, 2015

It’s funny how people interpret things in different ways. Especially when it involves religion, and even more so when it comes to the challenging of religious privileges. A quick trip over to the National Secular Society’s website, presents us with this line:

“The National Secular Society works towards a society in which all citizens, regardless of religious belief, or lack of religious belief, can live together fairly and cohesively. We campaign for a secular democracy with a separation of religion and state, where everyone’s Human Rights are respected equally.”

– Now – as a secular humanist – I interpret the above as a declaration of the principle that all are to be considered equal, regardless of belief. A post-Enlightenment World has no fairer way to organise a system, than one that privileges none, and protects all equally. Thomas Jefferson once noted that the our civil rights & civil society have no more dependence on our religious beliefs, as our opinions in geometry. The NSS reaffirms that understanding. But that’s not how Reverend John Whittaker interprets the work of the NSS. Reverend Whittaker – having a tantrum writing for The Hinckley Times – is convinced that a state that offers no special privileges to his particular religion, and does not allow religion to creep back into the institutions of state, can only be imagined as a terrible apocalyptic state in which no one gives to charity, and the sex trafficking industry is left unopposed. It’s an odd link to make, but let’s humour him. In response to the National Secular Society’s campaign to prevent council meetings opening with prayers – because council meetings aren’t churches – Whittaker said:

“And just in case anyone wants to make a point that religion has no place in public life, lets recall some of the facts of how faith interacts with and contributes to the common good in this country.”

– Are you ready for the “facts of how faith interacts….“. Facts, according to Whittaker:

“If religion were to hide in a corner as per the secularist’s fantasy world, 1.4 million Christian volunteers would drop out of community based work (that’s over and above the work to support the life of church communities and look after the largest number of listed buildings in the country). Foodbanks would cease, Street Pastors, with their sober, caring presence in so many of our city and town centres late at night would evaporate away. Mums and toddlers groups, homeless projects, work with ex-offenders, women in the sex industry, asylum seekers, vulnerable children, addicts and those who self-harm would all see a dropping away of sustained, tangible support. Air brush Christianity out of public engagement and around 114 million volunteer hours would need to be found to maintain the community work done by churches worth about £2.4 billion a year in addition to the use of buildings and direct financial contributions.”

– That’s right! If the state does not grant special privileges to Whittaker’s religion in turning secular council meetings into a Church service, charities will collapse, foodbanks will collapse, people would starve, work with vulnerable children and addicts would cease to exist, the homeless would be left to starve in the street, and the country would lose billions of pounds. It’s an odd charge, because those same council meetings also do not begin with Islamic prayers, or Hindu prayers, or any other prayers or dedications to a particular God, and yet, believers in those faiths still manage to give to charity and help the most vulnerable. Council meetings work fine without prayers from every other faith, it is simply bizarre to expect the World to stop turning if Christians are brought down to the same level as the rest of us in state affairs.

Secondly, it is probably worth noting that secularists do not want “religion to hide in the corner“, in the same way that we don’t wish liberalism, or communism, or capitalism, or conservatism, to hide in a corner. All ideas are to be treated equally, with no constitutional state recognition of any single one above any others. This implies that no single idea, is to be hidden away in a corner. To do so, would of course be oppressive. The operation of state is to be open to all, on an equal level. Leveling the playing field, and privileging no religion is not the same as oppressing those who believe.

Thirdly, as far as I’m aware, the National Secular Society is not attempting to prevent Christians undertaking charity work in any way. The suggestion that opposing state privileges for religion, as being synonymous with preventing charitable work, is a massively false, fear-based, and manipulative strategy on the part of the Reverend. A council meeting is the representative discussion of work required within the community. That’s a community that represents all who live in it, regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, gender, or belief. We do not offer special privileges to a single ethnicity, nor should we offer special privileges to a single religious belief.

And finally, the title of Whittaker’s piece – like the rest of it – is horribly misleading: “Not The Final Word: To pray or not to pray?” It’s like claiming oppression because a library wont allow you to play the drums. The right to pray and to believe according to one’s own conscience is not under threat by ensuring that a council meeting is not religious in nature. If Councillors wish to pray, they have every right to go to Church prior to a council meeting, and pray. They can pray until they can’t physically pray any more. They can join hands and pray together. There is no “to pray or not to pray” dichotomy here. They have every right to pray. They do not have a right to enshrine their particular brand of God, into the institution of state. A council meeting itself is an institution of state, not an institution of religion.

It becomes clear that when religions lose their traditional privileges and power over the lives of others, they tend to lash out in the most absurd ways. Reverend Whittaker has done just that with his bizarre apocalyptic portrait of a secular state he just doesn’t understand.


“The sun has perished”: The creative myths of an eclipse.

March 20, 2015

600px-Sun_and_Moon

A couple of days ago, Pastor Mark Biltz – in 2015 – warned that the solar eclipse – a natural phenomena that we can predict and understand – was actually a sign from God, warning humanity. Biltz, using what can only be described as flawless logic, said:

“When we look at where the darkness will be, it will be in northern European countries like England and Sweden where we see the rise of Islam and anti-Israel sentiment.”

– That’s right. An eclipse that would have happened anyway, actually happened because there’s a few Muslims in England. If we can say anything about God, it’s that His ‘signs’ are often very ambiguous, and irritatingly – for His devout followers – far better explained scientifically. The creative rethinking of Pastor Biltz when it comes to natural event is not unique to a few devout believers, but the gap in which supernatural explanations reside is growing ever smaller.

The racecourse not too far from my house, has for the past 24 hours been streaming with stargazers, waiting to catch a cloudless glimpse of the solar eclipse; the moment the Sun blocks out the light of the Sun, and for a brief moment our city is plunged into darkness. Driving home tonight, I passed several amateur astronomers picking out the perfect spot. Today we watch the universe, not for the mystery of the unknown, but for the beauty of reality. Science has allowed us to understand a natural phenomena, that has a wonderfully creative history in the minds of humanity. With the Sun having long been considered a source of life, it is not surprising that most myths used to explain a solar eclipse, were more often than not, based on fear.

Babylonians were so fearful of eclipses, they would protect the King by placing a substitute King on the throne at the time of an eclipse, just in case. Over in ancient Greece, Homer’s Odyssey may perhaps be referring to an eclipse when it says:

“The sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist has overspread the world.”

– Several centuries later – around 500bc – the Greeks developed a method to predict eclipses, and Hipparchus used an eclipse to predict the distance between the Earth and the Moon to only 11% away from the distance as understood today. Similarly, The Vikings interpretation of an eclipse, was based on fear. The Vikings believed two wolves – Skoll and Hati – were chasing the Sun and Moon, with an eclipse occurring whenever a wolf caught up with either celestial body. Vikings would bang drums, scream loudly, throw rocks, and make as much noise as possible in order to scare the wolves away. A few centuries later, when King Henry I died just after an eclipse in 1133ad, the country was sure it was a sign from the heavens. Much like Pastor Biltz, the Islamic website onislam takes the fear of eclipses into the 21st century and gives the myth a bit of an update when they say:

The Muslim reaction to lunar and solar eclipses can be summarized as follows:
1. Solar and lunar eclipses are reminders of the Day of Judgment, when the sun, moon, and stars will all lose their light.
2. Being a reminder of the Last Day, the eclipse is a time for Prayer, charitable acts, and generally remembering Allah and seeking His forgiveness.

– The eclipse itself is no longer directly linked to a myth in itself, but instead, is based on the larger myth of Islam in general. This is perhaps the difference between the ancient myths – that tended to have the Moon and Sun as personified objects fighting or being chased (Willcox and Littman’s book “Totality” explores this idea further) – and monotheistic myths – that tend to be linked to the overall faith, manipulated by an outside force. In the Islamic example, an eclipse is encompassed into the Islamic narrative, without first proving the basis of the Islamic narrative to be true. It is in essence absolutely no different to Vikings believing in hungry celestial wolves.

A wonderful trait of human-kind, is our natural desire to understand. We look in wonder at the sky, at the Earth, at the seas, and we need to know how it all works. To this day, religious folk will remind you to ‘just look around’ if you inquire as to why they believe a God exists. When we don’t understand, we create often wonderful quick-fix myths, adding more mystery to the actual original mystery. Creative and ingenious myths grew up around natural phenomena, later becoming religions in themselves. The scientific method has grounded our desire to understand, in reality, distinguishing what we’d like to be true, with what is actually true. To continue to insist upon adding a supernatural agent to an explainable natural event, is to complicate nature, with unnecessary and unanswerable questions for the sake of preserving the religious narrative and ultimately its power structure. The wonderful thing about the abandonment of such myths, is that the reality is often far more beautiful and awe-inspiring than the myth.


The Theocrats crying discrimination.

March 12, 2015

As someone who writes, and occasionally speaks on religion and its unearned privileges, I’m more than aware that often claims of oppression from the religious, tend to be just a backlash against a society having progressed far beyond the barbarism of the more conservative religious sects and what they advocate, and so inevitably tantrums erupt. Christians unhappy that they can’t stop a gay couple from expressing their commitment through marriage insist they are oppressed, or Jehovah’s Witnesses unhappy that the concept of disfellowshipping is particularly frowned up. There is something about religion, that demands privileges.

Yesterday, the Guardian published a statement signed by – among others – several conservative Muslims in Britain, having what appears to be a collective tantrum over the fact that their fringe views, are not unquestioningly respected:

“This joint statement expresses a position with respect to the ongoing demonisation of Muslims in Britain, their values as well as prominent scholars, speakers and organisations.

– The statement goes on to firstly present a false dichotomy between a state that can only possibly focus on either Islamist extremism, or the NHS and economy, and then proceeds to list a variety of grievances, including two particular connecting points that I wanted to pick up on here, especially with regards to the people who actually signed the statement:

“5) Similarly, it is unacceptable to label as ‘extremist’ numerous normative Islamic opinions on a variety of issues, founded on the Qur’an and Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), implying there is a link between them and violence, using such labels as an excuse to silence speakers.

7) We affirm our concern about peace and security for all. We, however, refuse to be lectured on peace-building and harmony by a government that plays divisive politics and uses fear to elicit uncertainty in the general public, whilst maintaining support for dictators across the Muslim world, who continue to brutalise and legitimate political opposition to their tyranny.”

– The implication of point five is that oppressive views are not to be labelled as such, simply because they are “normative Islamic opinions“. As if where they come from, is at all important. It is a desired privilege. Contrary to the aggressive tone of point 5, we are all within our rights – especially in a secular, liberal country – to label any ideological view point – regardless of what it is based upon – as extreme, if it includes the control & oppression of other people. The right to an opinion is to be protected, but the opinion itself is absolutely open to all forms of criticism, and mockery, especially If those views include the lives of anyone else, chained to the religious rules of another. It does not matter if it is “based on the Qur’an and Sunnah“. It does not matter if an opinion is a “normative Islamic opinion”. Neither of those reasons, makes the opinion any less extreme. To highlight this point, it is prudent to consider two signatures on the list; that of Reza Pankhurst & Dr Abdul Wahid, of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Note that in point seven, the focus is on “concern about peace & security for all”. Consider that claim, when analysing Article 7C of Hizb’s own draft constitution:

“Those who are guilty of apostasy from Islam are to be executed.”

– I guess “peace and security” is far more likely if you just execute anyone who leaves the religion. Here they are, reaffirming that same belief. It isn’t just apostates exempt from Hizb’s “concern for peace & security“, Hizb’s African sect wrote:

“Homosexuality is an Evil that Destroys Societies!”

– Obviously here they offer no actual evidence for such a petty and vicious claim (that undoubtedly they teach to younger, impressionable minds, further perpetuating homophobia). They’re not finished with apostates and gays either. Hizb in Bangladesh wrote:

“The Muslims joining the demonstration called upon the Muslim armies to march forth to fight the Jews, eradicate Israel and purify the earth of Jewish filth.”

– And so it appears that demanding the murder of apostates, whilst dehumanising homosexuality, and calling for the ‘eradication of the Jewish filth” is – according to Hizb – absolutely fine. But referring to those hideous ideas as ‘extreme’ is completely unacceptable.

Dr Pankhurst has a bit of a history of having a tantrum at the way Hizb are treated. When The Times published an article linking him to Hizb, he responded:

“Rather, this is a wider debate in which there seems to be an attempt to demonise anyone holding ideological opinions the British government doesn’t like, in a manner that the dictatorial “hereditary democracy” that is Egypt would be proud – hounding them into either remaining silent or else face being forced out of their profession.

– Still, I suppose “demonising” oppressive theocratic beliefs is a little more civilised than executing anyone who changes religion. Pankhurst goes on to make the most amusing statement I think I’ve ever heard from a member of a group who believe in disenfranchising non-Muslims, limiting ultimate power to male Muslims only, punishing homosexuality, and killing apostates:

“I would like to point out that no other religious or political grouping is treated in such a manner, whereby because someone is a Muslim who believes in Islamic values and the revival of an Islamic State in Muslim countries means that their professionalism is automatically questioned. This is actually a form of discrimination.”

– That’s right! It’s a form of discrimination to demonise the idea that apostates should be executed and homosexuality oppressed. It’s like the KKK claiming discrimination on account of the fact that their particular brand of supremacy is demonised. In the light of Pankhurst’s tantrum about discrimination, it is worth noting that Article 112 of Hizb’s draft constitution enshrines constitutional discrimination based on gender:

“It is not permitted for a woman to assume responsibility for government”

– It seems to be more the case that grown ups with such ingrained and bigoted supremacist views, views that dehumanise and disenfranchise millions whilst elevating one group of people to power and perpetual terror over everyone else based on nothing more than their belief in one particular god, play the cowardly victim the moment those views are under examination.

The LGBT community are targeted by another signature on the statement. Abdurraheem Green of iERA once wrote on his blog:

“The “harm” of the punishment for adultery is offset by the need of the “benefit” and protects the wider society. All of this also goes some way to help understand way acts of homosexuality are simlarily treated so harshly.”

– What “Green” means by “wider society” is actually the opposite; a very patriarchal, heterosexual dominated society. It is true that breaking irrational and oppressive barriers to liberty, erected originally by people like Green, for the benefit of people like Green, is a threat to people like Green. I am absolutely fine with that.

Another signature is that of Shaykh Tauqir Ishaq of the Muslim Action Forum. Ishaq arranged a protest in London in February over depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in cartoon form, as offensive to Muslims. I am yet to see Ishaq arrange protests for those of us who aren’t too keen on hearing that non-believers are likely to burn in hell. Indeed, Ishaq’s freedom to believe that non-believers are destined for an eternity of violent torture in the pits of hell, is my freedom to openly mock that ridiculous (and frankly, offensive) belief and any man (considered a Prophet or not) that may have uttered the words. But this isn’t what Ishaq is having a tantrum about. He wishes the right for religious folk to believe, and perpetuate out-dated, bigoted & offensive ideas, whilst protecting the religion itself from criticism and satire. As mentioned at the beginning, this is a case of the religious struggling to deal with not being afforded special privileges.

Mohammed Hamid was convicted and jailed for training terrorists for a failed attempt at a second attack in London in 2005. In court, the jury heard recordings of Hamid speaking on those murdered during 7/7 London attacks, in which he said:

“Fifty-two? That’s not even a breakfast for me.”

– It may amaze you, but such a grotesque human being with so little sense of human decency has at least one supporter. That supporter is Uthman Lateef. Lateef signed the “concerned about peace & security” statement shown in The Guardian yesterday. Here is Lateef on his Facebook profile:

Untitled
– So to neatly summarise yesterday’s tantrum, several of those signatures are from an illiberal group whose constitution and the author of that constitution calls for death to apostates, oppression for women, dehumanising non-believers (a joyful existence we’re expected to pay for), controlling the minds of our children for the sake of the perpetuation of the faith, the suppression of free expression, oppressing homosexuality, anti-Semitism, and all out war on Israel, followed by another signature from a man who offers his support to a hideous convict unhappy that not enough people had been brutally murdered in the July 7th attacks. The irony of the entire statement is that several of those accusing the government of “crude and divisive” tactics, themselves are some of the most crude and divisive, illiberal, and anti-secular people in the country. They just want us to be a little bit nicer to them.

For another excellent response to yesterday’s joint statement, see Homo Economicus Blog.


ISIS and the theology of end-times.

March 10, 2015

“The spark has been ignited in Iraq, and its flames will grow until they burn the Crusader armies in Dabiq”
– Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Less than 3000 people live in the small Syrian town of Dabiq. It sits right in the north of the country in A’zaz district. It is an unassuming town that would command little attention, if it wasn’t for the fact that ISIS has carried out brutal beheadings, and even named its magazine ‘Dabiq’ in its honour.

When discussing the motivations for ISIS’s brutal regime, we find Western commentators quick to deflect from religious dogma, by narrowing the context to the Iraq war, or Blair, or Bush, or more recently… MI5. They insist that not all religious folk are out beheading aid workers, and so religious dogma can be dismissed, failing to apply the same logic that not all those opposed to the Iraq war are out beheading aid workers either. The importance of the geo-political context must be taken into consideration, but not at the complete dismissal of Islamic dogma. Dabiq is central to that dogma.

ISIS chose Dabiq for one very specific reason; a Sahih-Muslim Hadith states:

“The Last Hour would not come until the Romans land at al-A’maq or in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best (soldiers) of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina (to counteract them)”

– Dabiq is centre stage for the coming apocalypse to take place between Muslims, and Christians. A battle between Romans (whom no longer exist, and so Islamists – rather than accept that their Prophet might have been wrong, have decided “Romans” is code for “Christians”) and a resurrected Caliphate (as well as the conquest of Istanbul) is necessary to usher in the end of days. ISIS, is an end-times cult.

End times (eschatology) is central to all of the Abrahamic traditions (including offshoots – like Heaven’s Gate). The concept of the final confrontation between the chosen few, and the enemy, cannot be divorced from the religions that spawn them. They tend to see certain World events – natural and man-made – as evidence that the end is on its way. Indeed, the earliest traditions of Jesus in the Bible have him as what appears to be a man convinced that the end of time will occur within the lifetime of his followers. To this day, Christians in the US predict the World is about to end at least once a year. By the time the Biblical Jesus’ companions had died, Christians began becoming suspicious that end-times may not be on the way. Contradictory writings attributed to Paul in the Bible try to deal with that, but simply work to confuse the matter more; 2 Thessalonians sets out conditions required before the day of judgement occurs, directly contradicting 1 Thessalonians that insists that Jesus’s return would be sudden and that the Thessalonians should be prepared. By the time Islam comes along, the writers of the Qur’an make sure not to make the same mistake, and to be as teasing and ambiguous as possible:

“Lo! the Hour is surely coming. But I will to keep it hidden, that every soul may be rewarded for that which it striveth (to achieve)
Surah 20:15″

– It’s far easier if a Holy Book has God teasing – like a child – His creation. Though this is also problematic, because a truly all-knowing God would be able to look down the line and see the violent mess that His little tease had inspired, and perhaps be a little more cautious. But that’s a digression.

The arguments from all major religions for end-times – and the expectations placed on believers by their God – tend to be Theologically wide. They are divisive by their very nature. They provide – by the judgement of a divine overlord as of yet unproven to exist – a dichotomy between the morally good, waiting to be saved, and the evil non-believers deserving of the torture that awaits them. The dogma creates the extremist atmosphere, independent of the geopolitical context.

The reason ISIS chooses to murder innocent people in Dabiq, and to make sure we all know it is Dabiq, is in order to fulfill a religious prophecy of provoking the ‘Romans’ to confront the Islamic State there, bringing on the conditions for the return of Jesus, the Mahdi, and the end of times in which they will be saved. Several ISIS propaganda videos are filmed in and around the town of Dabiq for the same purpose; to fulfill a theological prophecy, providing legitimacy to their incredibly flawed cause.

This was perhaps most notable when ISIS horrifically murdered Abdul-Rahman Kassig. After the murder, the ISIS killer said:

“Here we are burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.”

– Suddenly, ‘Romans’ actually means ‘Americans’ (not at all what Muhammad supposedly said, requiring a great deal of creative rewriting of his words to justify). But it goes back further than 2014. Before his death in 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq – had already alluded to the importance that Dabiq would play in the following years. In 2004 al-Zarqawi said:

“The spark has been ignited in Iraq, and its flames will grow until they burn the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

– Iraq may have been the spark, but the fuel itself was the religious dogma that inspires such an irrational and violent desire to watch the World burn. The beheading of Western aid workers, is not in response to the Iraq war, or even the civil war in Syria, instead it is an attempt to provoke a fictional battle – rooted entirely to the context of the time period that Sahih-Muslim was put together – in order to fulfill a religious prophecy. Religion is at the very core of the hideous acts of violence that have taken place – and publicised across the World – in and around Dabiq.

In the fourth edition of the magazine ‘Dabiq’, ISIS produced an article entitled:

“The revival (of) slavery before the Hour”

– The article calls for the re-establishing of slave holding, and the kidnapping of women, before the final judgement. The implication is that out-dated religious rules must be re-established prior to the anticipated apocalypse. The consequence has been the capturing and sexual abuse of Yazidi women and girls.

It is worth noting that provoking the conditions necessary to fulfill the prophecy is not the only reason for ISIS to use Dabiq in its media propaganda, it also works as a recruiting technique. The constant reference and use of Dabiq emphasises the distinctly Islamic nature of the cause (with Hadith to back it up), by linking back to the purported words of the Prophet and highlighting the idea that the final battle is on the horizon, in the hope of enticing young, disaffected kids seeking a purpose with a divinely promised victory.

The fact that a state based almost solely on what is deemed to be the necessary rape, torture and murder bestowed upon innocent people required to bring about the end of the World, is being left to flourish in an already volatile region, is hugely unnerving. Those who adhere to the end-times theological narrative cannot be defeated simply by dismissing them as “not real Muslims” (the far-right – in bizarre agreement with Islamists – also dismiss liberal, progressive Muslims as “not real Muslims”, leaving a completely undefined religion). Nor is it acceptable to dismiss the clear religious dogma that ISIS are based upon, in order to progress a very anti-Western narrative, as many on the Western ‘liberal’ left insist upon progressing far too often. Islam as a set of ideas, words, and deeds, rooted to the time in which it sprang, must be scrutinised, its most out-dated elements detoxified, and the extremes made as undesirable as Soviet Communism is to the modern left, if groups like ISIS are to be defeated. The religious element must not be dismissed.


God: The ‘fine tuning’ problem.

March 3, 2015

fine tuning, atheism

“One does not have to appeal to God to set the initial conditions for the creation of the universe, but if one does He would have to act through the laws of physics”.
– Stephen Hawking.

At first glance, one may be forgiven for presuming that the physical constants that make up our universe, are clear evidence for a very precise designer. Paley argued as much with his watch. In these more enlightened times, the physicist and author Victor Stenger, writing in ‘The Fallacy of Fine Tuning‘ wonderfully dismantles the presumptions that inform the ‘classical proof’ using the physics itself. Supporting Stenger’s critique – and far more in keeping with the theme of this article – is the “The God Argument” by A.C Grayling. In it, Grayling provides a simple, rational dismantling of the fine turning argument, that coupled with Stenger’s critique, must surely put an end to the use of the argument as evidence for the existence of a creator.

To highlight the problem with the fine tuning argument for the existence of God, Grayling states that if his great-great-great grandparents had not lived the exact life that they had, had they lived ever so slightly differently, circumstances would perhaps not have permitted his own life. The intense number of coincidences that are required to line up in order to result in the life of A.C Grayling, are amazingly unlikely…. in retrospect. And yet, one would not suggest that the history of Grayling’s family was specifically finely tuned to arrive at his life. The fine tuning argument for the existence of a creator is retrospective in exactly the same way.

The point Grayling raises, is that it is both arrogant and irrational to believe the history of your family was specifically designed in order to produce you, looking back retrospectively, and simply because you exist. Similarly – and perhaps more so – it is arrogant and irrational to retrospectively argue that 14 billion years ago, the universe was ‘created’, took 9 billion years in order for the Earth to develop, an Earth that is uninhabitable in large parts and contains the ability for natural disasters to destroy life, alongside 99% of species since that time dying out, and humanity struggling to survive the harshest of conditions, just so religious philosophers can presume it was all designed with them in mind; a species that – in the context of the time scale of the universe – exists for such a short pin point of time. Indeed, life – human life – on planet Earth is such a small momentary blip in the history of vast open of space-time, that the universe seems anything but created with life at the forefront.

But I think even before we feel obliged to move on to the logical problems with the intricacies of the fine tuning argument, before we need mention Grayling’s family history, before we note that the vast majority of the universe – throughout time – is uninhabitable, we must note that the very premise of the argument in the first instance is in fact, self defeating in a couple of ways. Let’s assume for the moment that the ‘creator’ posited in the fine tuning argument is given the traditional attributes of the God of the Judeo-Christian traditions – omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence – it would necessarily follow that such a creator could ensure life existed for any possible tuning of the universe. If that creator could not create life to exist in any possible tuning of universe, it would at the very least suggest that the creator’s actions are dictated by the conditions of life – conditions that ‘He’ has no control over. Thus, the creator did not create life, life (as we know it, because we’re here) can exist with or without the ‘creator’, requiring only the conditions to be right. The ‘creator’ is thus defeated by the very fact that the natural laws that ‘He’ must adhere to in order for life to flourish are – by definition – greater than ‘He’ because they precede ‘He’.

But even that is one big step further than we need to take to discard the ‘fine tuning’ argument as self defeating. Indeed, if a creator did in fact create the conditions for the existence of intelligent beings, the creator must have done so – and thus, existed ‘Himself’ – in conditions that permit existence, other than the conditions that He has now created. The conditions for existence, thus exist prior to the creator. And so before we even discuss whether or not a creator should be able to create life to suit any and all possible universes, we must note that the conditions for existence must precede the creator.

If human life were transplanted from Earth, to 99% of the rest of the universe, it would instantly perish. Indeed, just outside of the boundaries of our own atmosphere, we encounter radiation that would kill us in an instant. If human life were transplanted to a past state of the Earth throughout most of its history, it would not survive. And so, it is no great exaggeration to say that the ‘fine tuning’ argument for the existence of a ‘creator’ is the weakest of all the classical ‘proofs’. It is self defeating, it depends largely on our bizarre assumption that the universe – largely uninhabitable and violently opposed to life – is created with us – a split second in cosmic time – in mind, and falls apart before we even have to analyse the actual cosmological constants that permit you to be sat reading this right now.


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