Ted Cruz’s ‘Obamacare’ Poll: The results are in!

March 31, 2014

I’ve spent a lot of time recently writing on religion, and not much on politics. And so today I thought I’d check in with how the Republican war on affordable care is going over in the States. Leading the Koch-funded attack on affordable healthcare, Senator Cruz took to his Facebook page last week to conduct a quick poll:

– The results – after 5 years of a clearly designed Tea Party policy of misinformation – were seemingly not quite what he was hoping for:


And then there’s more:


And then there’s a few more:


And not forgetting these:


Followed swiftly by these:


Oh and these:


And a few more:


Last one I’ll post, because there’s about 40,000 more YES comments, and that’s particularly difficult to fit on a single blog:


– The ‘YES’ votes are endless. See for yourself. The result of Senator Cruz’s poll were not what he was hoping to read. Two things are clear: Firstly, Senator Cruz really needs to rethink his social media strategy. Secondly, and most importantly, the Affordable Care Act has withstood five years of Republican misinformation and the most absurd end of World predictions (including the reintroduction of Feudalism, systematic genocide, and the US becoming an Islamic Caliphate outpost), and is beginning to change lives for the better. It is a legacy that the light of history will undoubtedly judge the President positively for.

Today is deadline day for sign ups. If you still haven’t signed up, you can do so easily on healthcare.gov, or call a toll free number: 1-800-318-2596 for advice and support. Don’t believe the misinformation, sign up, enjoy affordable healthcare for you and your family.

What secularism isn’t…

March 30, 2014

I’ve always been ever so slightly bemused by the term ‘militant secularist’. It is generally used by two groups primarily; those who wish to oppress the rights of the religious and presume secularism is a backdoor for Sharia. And ironically, the religious sects who think secularism is out to destroy their religion. From both sides, it’s an odd attack.

Secularism is particularly easy concept to grasp. It is quite simply the denial of religious supremacy and privilege – through the power of state – over the lives of others. Civil rights and protections come first. Religious belief is not inherently permitted to interfere with this. And so the term ‘militant secularist’ seems to be an attempt at a slur by religious sects unhappy that their institutional privileges – gained through centuries of erecting hideous barriers to equal civil rights – are increasingly under scrutiny. What is it that constitutes a ‘militant secularist’? Someone who militantly wishes the same protections for you, as for they? Baroness Warsi gave us her unique interpretation of the phrase, whilst completely misrepresenting what secularism actually is:

“For me, what I define as a secular fundamentalist is somebody who says that there should be no public space for faith.”

– And so begins my ‘what secularism is not…’ rant. Secularism is not seeking the outlawing of faith-based arguments in the public space. If someone wishes the state to punish those who argue from a position of faith in the public sphere, they aren’t secularists. For example, every argument against same-sex marriage in the Commons in 2013, was based on faith to some degree. This isn’t banned, nor do secularists wish to ban it. We do not advocate the state punishing anyone for arguing a principle according to their beliefs, nor, even, to stand for election according to those beliefs. I am absolutely fine with The Christian Party existing, with The Islamic Party existing, and I’ll always defend their right to exist. Progress and knowledge derives from free debate and inquiry, on a framework protecting all from oppression. Secularism protects free expression, inquiry, and belief for all. What you are not allowed to do, is force others to live according to the dictates of your religious beliefs only. To do so, is by its nature advocating the supremacy of your individual faith over the freedoms of those who do not subscribe to your beliefs. It presumes the superiority of your beliefs. You’re entitled to this belief, you just have no right to enforce the rest of us to accept it.

In 2012, Peter Popham – foreshadowing Warsi two years later – writing for the Independent, published a curious article entitled “No secularism please, we’re British“. A horrid title that presupposes those of us that hold secular principles dear, are not to be considered British. In it, Popham goes on to misrepresent – or simply misunderstand – secularism, and conflate it with a plethora of completely unrelated ideologies and concepts:

“But the fanaticism of the Islamists has provoked an equally intolerant and intemperate reaction from secular and other quarters, with the ban on headscarves in France and on mosque-building in Switzerland and the rabid anti-Islam rhetoric in the Netherlands; while in Britain it has produced a sudden lurch of opinion among our noisiest public intellectuals against any and all religion. All religions are wrong, goes the argument, everyone knows they are wrong, and their time has expired. As Dawkins put it at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month, faith is “a virus”; he looked forward, he said, to the “complete death of organised religion” in his lifetime.”

– This brings me to my next point on what secularism isn’t. Secularism is not anti-religious oppression. Indeed, for secularists, the idea of the state punishing people for their choice of clothing is grotesquely anti-secular. Whether the state punishes someone for choosing to wear headscarves, or the state punishes someone for choosing not to wear headscarves, for secularists it is equally as oppressive. It is not secularism. Secularism does not grant certain faiths privileges over others. To deny others the right to worship freely where they choose, and to develop property that they are as entitled as me to develop, denying them purely on the basis of what they choose to believe is an act of supremacy and oppression. This is not secularism.

The second point to take from the quote above, is that Popham apparently sees no difference between the French state banning religious garments, and criticism of religion in Britain in general. The two are entirely different concepts, and both have nothing to do with secularism. The former is the state interfering with the private lives and choices of its citizens through threat of punishment – a clear violation of the separation of church and state principle – whilst the latter is individual expression and critique of religion. Secularism ensures an individual the right to wear whatever she or he chooses, without fear of punishment, as well as ensuring the right of the individual to criticise all ideologies. Thus, Popham conflates secularism, with atheism. This ridiculous conflation ignores the myriad of religious secularists, like the wonderful ‘British Muslims for Secular Democracy’. We atheists do not have a monopoly on secularism.

Popham then goes on to rewrite history, in justifying his anti-secular, pro-religious supremacy position:

“What is staggering about the secularists is their arrogance and the shortness of their memories. The materialist utopianism of the Communists and Nazis is to blame for all the worst atrocities of the past century.
Dawkins may appear to make sense, but it is incredible that we should be ready to pay serious attention to a prophet whose message is the same as those whose schemes led straight to the hells of the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Mao’s Cultural Revolution and the Khmer Rouge.”

– It is difficult to know where to be begin with this, given the amount of misrepresentations to appear in such a short paragraph. I’m choosing to ignore the ridiculous comparison of Richard Dawkins, to every major dictator of the 20th century, because it’s pathetic. I will address the premise of the argument itself. Here, Popham – again conflating secularism with atheism, and both with anti-religious oppression – is entirely wrong. Secularism ensures equal protection for all, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or belief. No single ideology allowed a privileged position to oppress at will. Here’s the wonderful thing about secularism; you can be a secular Christian, a secular Muslim, a secular Atheist, a secular Communist, a secular Fascist. You’re beliefs still are not permitted a place of privilege above any others. You are equally protected, equally free from oppression. The right of Christians to publicly say that homosexuality is unnatural, the right of Wahhabi Muslims to insist that Sharia is greater than secular democracy, is protected by the same laws that protect my right to blaspheme and mock religion. What secularism doesn’t allow for, is a Nazi-esque extermination of an entire religious sect based on the dictates of one ideology (despite Popham’s claim, I am yet to see Richard Dawkins advocate this). For that, a state requires centuries of religious propaganda:

In Germany in 1543, Martin Luther produced his work “On the Jews and their lies“. In it, Luther calls for Jews to be put to work as slaves, for Jewish schools to be burnt to the ground, that Jewish people are the enemy of all Christianity. Johannes Wallmann writes:

“The assertion that Luther’s expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment have been of major and persistent influence in the centuries after the Reformation, and that there exists a continuity between Protestant anti-Judaism and modern racially oriented antisemitism, is at present wide-spread in the literature; since the Second World War it has understandably become the prevailing opinion.”

– Nazi policy toward Jewish people was not a new thing. It was the conclusion of 2000+ years of hideous Church sponsored anti-semitism. Luther is vicious in his criticisms and his ideas for the future. But it wasn’t just Luther. The Nazi precedent of forcing Jewish people to wear something that makes them identifiable as Jews, and inferior to the Christian population, was not a Nazi precedent at all. It began much earlier. The Nazis simply appropriated it. Pope Paul IV issued Papal bull Cum nimis absurdum in 1555. The bull states:

“Moreover, concerning the matter that Jews should be recognizable everywhere: [to this end] men must wear a hat, women, indeed, some other evident sign, yellow in color, that must not be concealed or covered by any means, and must be tightly affixed.”

– The Bull also insisted that Jews be moved to Jewish ghettos:

“…all Jews are to live in only one [quarter] to which there is only one entrance and from which there is but one exit.”

– To suggest that the concept of separating church from state – ensuring freedom of, and freedom from religion – is responsible for the terrors of the 20th century, is so incredibly short sighted, and requires a complete rewrite of history. Indeed, if you need to rewrite history to make your case; you’ve already failed.

As is usually the case when an argument fails on so many logical standards, Popham predictably then gets insulting:

“… religious faith can do what secularism cannot: open doors on to areas of human experience – compassion, altruism, serenity, even enlightenment – which have no meaning for the secularists.”

– Here, Popham has decided not to conflate atheism with secularism anymore, because it suits his purposes not to. For Popham, secularism is now soulless. Divorced from all ethical standards. A big grey wall blocking human compassion and enlightenment. And so again, here is what secularism is not. Secularism is not and does not claim to be a ‘moral anchor’ (as Hamza Tzortzis likes to call it) to one specific time and place (1st century Palestine, or 7th century Arabia). It makes no moral judgement. It isn’t trying to be a system of morality. This is why it isn’t an atheist concept. It appeals to all concepts. It rightly presupposes that the state has no right to claim religious truth and force uniformity through it. It acknowledges that you do not get to force the principles and beliefs that guide your life, onto me, and vice versa. Equal protection on a line of equality, ensuring that no ideology be granted special privilege. How you frame your individual moral compass, is then up to you. I see no example of state power combined with religious power, that ended in anything but oppression of those that did not fit its dogmatic heavenly vision.

Indeed, over the centuries compassion, altruism, serenity and enlightenment were strangely absent from religious societies (unless you observed the state religion as instructed). Prevalent in non-secular states; forced conversions, state murder for anyone deemed to say something heretical, forced payment to uphold the state faith, rampant homophobia (see Uganda). Most of those, still occur in nations whose institution of state is shackled by faith. For this, Popham has no basis by which to tell me, as a secularist, that compassion, altruism, serenity, and enlightenment have no meaning for me. I decide that, not him. Further, I believe Popham has the same right by which to decide what compassion, altruism, serenity and enlightenment mean for himself, as I do for me, without fear of state interference.

Another description of constitutes a ‘militant secularist’ comes to us via Mo Ansar:

– If opposing the ritualistic genital mutilation of children is to be considered ‘militant secularist’, I am happy to wear that badge. No one has a right – under any pretext, including ‘religion’ – to mutilate anyone else, especially children. There is no other area of life where this would be considered even slightly acceptable, and it doesn’t get a free pass simply for being shrouded in ‘faith’.

Secularism, coupled with democracy, is the only system that has an inbuilt mechanism by which we progress. Since its inception, we have slowly worked to break down oppressive barriers (most, originally erected by the parties of faith). I cannot imagine that states with an enshrined religion are ever likely to accept they have no right to viciously oppress sexuality. For this, secular democracy is necessary.

Secularism protects us equally. It is a system that allows for the religious to believe and express the violent notion that we non-believers are cursed to spend eternity burning in the unforgiving flames of hell. That is your right to believe and to say. Similarly, I have a right to say that I find that to belief to be horrific, outdated, and worthy of nothing but ridicule and condemnation. I have no right to censor that belief, in much the same way as you have no right to censor my expression.

It is secularism that protects religious minorities. No longer are Catholics permitted to utilise the power of state to oppress Protestants or vice verse. Sunni Muslims are not permitted the power of state to dictate how Shia Muslims observe Islam according to their own conscience, and vice versa. The secular state cares not for whether you believe the Pope to be the authority on Christianity, nor whether Abu Bakr, Omar and Uthman were rightful Caliphs. That’s up to the individual believer to decide. Evangelical Christian sects in the 1770s aligned themselves with the secularists in public life, in the hope of enshrining secular protections for all religious denominations. Within a century, the US was filled with a variety of denominations, from Catholics, to Mormons, none having power over others to enforce uniformity through privilege and oppression. The playing field is level. This is secularism.

The prominent arguments against secularism seem to follow the same underlying logic, regardless of how it’s presented. Firstly, the argument tends to be a misunderstanding of secularism as anti-religious oppression. Perhaps this is derived from fear of retribution for centuries of religious oppression. But it isn’t actually true. If indeed a state pursued policies designed to oppress the religious, it would follow that the state lost its secular title the moment the oppressive policies were instituted. Secondly, the arguments – especially from the Christian right in the US, and the more Wahhabi Muslim sects in the Middle East – tend to be nothing more than a child-like refusal to accept that their faith does not inherently deserve a place of privilege to interfere with the liberty of others. The former argument, is often an obvious mask for the latter.

It is perhaps worth remembering that had religion not so horrifically abused state power through grotesque persecution when it had it, there would be no need for ‘secularism’. The concept would almost certainly be considered a natural societal condition. The fact that we need a specific ‘ism’ to protect basic individual rights, speaks volumes of the history of religious oppression that preceded it, and how fast and loose they tended to play with human lives. Today, secularism must be the starting point. No one gets to claim their personal religious belief is more worthy of privilege and supremacy, over any other. A line of neutrality, on a framework of civil rights regardless of sexuality, gender, ethnicity and belief, is the only natural and reasonable position for a state to observe. If you wish to impose your personal religious principles on a population, you need to (not be forced to) accompany it with a reasoned argument. Your personal belief is not an adequate reason in itself. If the argument stands up to scrutiny, then it will stand by itself. If you wish your faith to be granted specific institutional privilege – as with the institution of marriage, for example – you’re going to have to provide a reasoned argument as to why the rest of us should accept your inherent right to a position of superiority, and live according to the dictates of your personal faith. If your argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, it would be prudent not to take this as a green light to claim oppression. To do so, comes across as one big child-like tantrum.

Secularism isn’t anti-religious oppression. Secularism isn’t the wish to ban religious folk from the public sphere. Secularism isn’t a system of anchored morality. Secularism isn’t Atheism. In short, secularism isn’t anything that anti-secularists seem to believe that it is.

A Brief History of Slavery in Islamic Societies.

March 21, 2014

The Synod of Gangra held in 340AD was formed to criticise and condemn the practices of the followers of the Iranian Prophet Mani. Manichaeism – as it became known – was a gnostic faith of late antiquity that among other things, preached the freedom of slaves. A revolutionary concept that Christian slave owners were not about to accept. The Christian Synod of Gangra wrote to condemn Manichaeism and insisted that slaves disobeying their masters was unlawful before the eyes of God. The Synod thus set a precedent – absorbing Roman, Greek, and Egyptian social structures that thrived on slavery – for the next 17 centuries of western Christian supremacy, that included the brutality of slavery throughout.

Sixteen centuries later, and Westminster was preparing the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The new Queen would become the head of state over a vast empire built on conquest, that had only abolished the horrendous practice of slavery – upon which the British empire owed so much of its power and privilege – 120 years earlier. The guest list for the coronation was vast and included dignitaries from across the World. Among them were a number of Sheikhs from Qatar, whose retinues included slaves. As late as 1952 Sheikhs in Muslim countries were slave holders.

Imperialism and slave holding isn’t unique to the west, nor has the west been the sole benefactor of imperialism and slave holding. Indeed, slave holding in all major societies – Islamic societies included – is as old, and as widespread as civilisation itself. Pliny claimed the Spartans invented slavery, though there’s no reason to suspect he’d carried out a thorough investigation to come to that conclusion. Much later, the Ottoman empire appropriated structures already in place when they found it, so as to not upset the order of things; this included slavery. They established slave markets in Constantinople, in Cairo, in Tana-Azov. They levied taxes on the sale of slaves. Slavery had helped build and maintain economic and social structures of Islamic empires, it had decimated eastern Africa, and it enshrined Islamic privilege through Ottoman law that forbade slave ownership by non-muslims.

A lot of Muslims I speak too, feel a great deal of unease at confronting or accepting that slavery did not just afford the Christian West a great deal of power and privilege that it continues to benefit from to this day, but also the Islamic East. I would perhaps suggest that this unease exists because it doesn’t fit a modern narrative designed to paint the muslim East as a harmless victim of centuries of western imperialism. The fact is, the Arab muslim east was as imperial, colonial, and reliant on slavery as the Christian west. For Islam, the lives of those captured belonged to the victors. When one group assumes supremacy of its own ‘kind’ – be it racial, religious, sexuality, or gender supremacy – over all others, oppression necessarily follows. A supremacist system that deviates beyond secular democracy, is sustainable only by institutional violence. This is how Christian and Islamic societies operated.

It’s important to note at this point that I am not going to mention verses of the Qur’an or Hadith. Islamic empires and societies since the dawn of Islam had undoubtedly absorbed cultures in which slavery already existed – including pre-Islamic Arabia – and continued the practice. It was a part of the fabric of most powerful empires and cultures. The Qur’an and Hadith reflect that, and so are used to justify slavery through fourteen centuries. This is religious supremacy, not a trait of Islam specifically. That is more than enough than my own reading of certain passages – of which interpretations are abundant – of the Qur’an and Hadith, which seem to me to be a reflection of late Antiquity more than anything. I also find it irrelevant. An ideology that specifically sets out to control the liberty of others – whether less harsh than what came before or not – is oppressive and supremacist by its very nature. This is wholly illegitimate and so even if a holy text called for a slave to be given the comfiest bed in the house, and an elaborate breakfast every morning, it’s irrelevant, because it’s still slavery. For example, a 1332 decree of appointment notes:

“The people of Damascus are often in need of a judge from the Hanbalite school in most contracts of sale and lease, in certain sharecropping contracts, in assessing settlements when contracts are frustrated by natural disasters, in marrying off a male slave to a free woman with the permission of his master….”

– The life of a human being here, is considered property, in at least Hanbali jurisprudence of the 14th century. The master – a muslim – is considered supreme by the simple fact that he is muslim. Again, this is supremacy and it is by definition, oppression. Whether the slave is treated well or not is irrelevant. Owning the life and liberty of another human being is the issue. In any case, slavery in Islamic societies wasn’t always more humane that its western counterpart. Often ‘Eunuch stations’ were set up across trade routes, that included the genital mutilation of young boys in such unsanitary conditions, most died. Punishment for trying to escape often resulted in execution. A popular punishment for not satisfying the desire of the ‘master’ was the immensely painful practice of foot whipping, used also on young criminals in Massachusetts as late as 1969, as a way to obtain confessions from prisoners in Czechoslovakia during its communist period, and reportedly by the Assad regime against rebels.

With that in mind, we begin in the first century of Islam. Muhammad bin Qassim was a young general embarking on a mission to conquer India for Islam in 711. On his expedition, he stopped in the Markan region to kill rebellions against Umayyad rule in Arman Belah among others. Pushing east across the Indus river, towns succumbed quickly to Qassim’s invasion. His armies collected and sent back spoils of war, including hundreds of slaves, to Qassim’s paternal uncle, Umayyad governor Al-Hajjaj. Expansion of the imperial Arab Muslim empire, right from the beginning, benefited hugely from slavery.

This continued into the 8th century, with military leader Hasham bin Amru invading Kashmir and collecting slaves to send home to the Caliph al-Mansur.

Later, in the 9th century, manual labour – such as draining the marshes – was considered demeaning for muslims in certain parts of the empire. In southern parts of modern day Iraq, just to the east of Basra, slaves from Africa were imported to fill the gap left by a lack of muslim labour. Over the years, and as the Abbasid caliphate weakened, the slaves in southern Iraq mounted a massive rebellion. After taking al-Ubullah in 870, and defeating the forces of the caliphate, the slave rebellion was eventually crushed by al-Muwaffaq – the brother of the new caliph, and leader of the armies of the caliphate – in 883. The incident shows us that regardless of new ‘protections’ afforded slaves as offered by interpretations of the Qur’an and Hadith, despite manumission encouraged by Islamic tradition, slaves were still recognised as slaves. The Qur’an acknowledges and so legitimises slavery, and this was all the justification that was required. People still owned and controlled the lives of others as a master and slave relationship, and those considered slaves fought back.

A few centuries later, the slave trade had gone beyond the spoils of war, and now became a key ingredient in muslim economies. The National Library of France shows a 13th century slave market in Zabid, Yemen:

Slave market in 13th century Yemen. Credit: BnF (National Library of France).

Slave market in 13th century Yemen.
Credit: BnF (National Library of France).

– This practice continued for centuries. We can imagine scenes like that depicted in the picture above, playing out across markets full of slaves imported from Africa. Zanzibar was perhaps one of the most important and largest slave ports dominated by Arab muslims. The slave traders – including Europeans – managed to get as far west as the Congo, forcing African people young and old to carry ivory and other goods across Africa – many died on the way – to be chained and thrown onto boats to be escorted to Stone Town in Zanzibar. At this point, there were kept in cramped, dark, underground prisons, chained to the floor, before being sold on. The London Maritime Museum has this utterly horrendous photo on display, of a chained child slave, on Zanzibar, controlled by the Arab Muslim slave trade:

– The slave trade in Zanzibar did not come to an end until 1873.

It is true that racial supremacy was not the presumed authority upon which Islamic slavery existed – religious supremacy was the motive – but racial supremacy was a factor. The 14th century Muslim philosopher Ibn Khaldūn wrote:

“The only people who accept slavery are the Negroes, owing to their low degree of humanity and proximity to the animal stage.”

– From this, we get the sense that Arab racial supremacy existed, and was used to justify slavery by at least the 14th century.

Also in the 14th century, the Ottoman Sultan Murad I instituted the practice of Devşirme. Every four years, the Ottoman Empire kidnapped and enslaved young boys from families in the Balkans, converted them to Islam, and prepared them for military service. This is elaborated on by Çandarlı Kara Halil Hayreddin Pasha, the Grand Vizier under Murad:

“The conquered are slaves of the conquerors, to whom their goods, their women, and their children belong as lawful possession”

By the 17th century, Barbary raiders had the potential to become immortalised. On the sunny island of Rhodes stands the Murat Reis Mosque. A charming temple built a few decades after the Ottoman’s took over Rhodes in the 16th Century. It is named after former slave, and convert to Islam, Murat Reis. Reis was a pirate that led a group of Turks and Algerians in a 1631 raid on Baltimore in West Cork in Ireland. At 2am that morning, the raiders – having slowly made their way to the village – stood outside of the doors of the inhabitants sleeping inside. On a given signal, they burst into the houses with iron bars, beat the confused and frightened people of the town, murdered a couple, and took the rest captive. The unprovoked raid ended with 107 men, women and 54 children herded onto the Corsair boats – on which the men were beaten to ensure conformity – and sold into slavery in northern Africa. Upon arriving in Algiers, the captives were taken to an official of the state, entitled to 10% of all booty. They were then chained and stripped and shown to potential buyers throughout North Africa. Reis continued capturing slaves to be sold throughout the Ottoman Empire and neighbouring Islamic states for years, before being made Governor of Oualidia. It is also suggested that he was so admired, that he married the daughter of Mawlay Zidan el Nasir; the Sultan of Morocco.

A few decades later, another Sultan from Morocco, Moulay Ismaïl Ibn Sharif was building a private protection force made up of African slaves captured as children – a practice echoed in the 21st century by the Christian fundamentalist Lord’s Resistance Army among others. These guards were made to swear allegiance to the Sultan on a copy of Sahih Bukhari’s Hadith book. Among more of his 25,000 slaves working on manual labour projects, included Christian Europeans captured and forced to build Moulay’s new capital city.

Two centuries later, Hamdan bin Othman Khoja wrote from Algiers in the 1830s condemning the French invasion of Algeria as a free country intent on enslaving the muslim population. Khoja failed to point out that Algiers was home already to hundreds of European slaves held by muslims, and was a key outpost for Barbary pirates dropping off their spoils including slaves. Apparently this wasn’t worthy of condemnation.

Interestingly, the great US abolitionist Charles Sumner noted in “White Slavery in the Barbary States” that Algiers fell on the Parallel 36°30′ north, the parallel of latitude that marked the Missouri compromise line between free states and slave states in pre-civil war US. He goes on to say that Virginia, Carolina, Mississippi and Texas, are the American version of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.

Sumner was writing a number of decades after President Jefferson (himself a slave holder) was forced to go to war with the Muslim Berber states over his refusal to pay such high ransoms for American ships being hijacked and their crews enslaved. It is estimated that between the 16th and 19th centuries, 1.25 million Europeans and Americans were enslaved by Barbary pirates, enriching the rulers of the semi-independent Berber states, and subjecting the crews – with families back home – to torturous slavery.

At the turn of the century that I was born in, slaves in Islamic South East Asia had a range of ‘duties’. According to W. G. Clarence-Smith:

“A Malay master around 1900 expected his slaves to: ‘plant his field, weed and tend his crops, to wash and guard his cattle, to punt his boat, to attend to him upon his journeys, to cook rice, and to serve in his house'”.

– As well in South East Asia, throughout the Ottoman empire most slaves were domestic slaves. The male slaves would perform domestic chores and – as noted in the Clarence-Smith quote – attend to the ‘master’, whilst the female (including children) slaves were quite simply, raped. They were there to be used as sex objects. Often young female slaves would be offered as gifts to people in positions of power for the sake of political favours, as noted by one 16th Century traveler:

“…the governors and other officials in the provinces take as their own slaves the most beautiful. They send a portion of these to the Sultan to gain his favor. These are usually sent at between the ages of ten and fifteen.”

– Mehmed II rebuilt the lands surrounding Constantinople using slave labour. At the end of the 1400s, around 1200 slaves lived surrounding Istanbul.

In the 1840s, Tunisia was importing and selling slaves in the Sūq al-Birka slave markets. This was happening, regardless of Mo Ansar’s revisionism in which he appears to be under the odd impression that imperialism began when the French invaded Tunisia, choosing to ignore the Islamic imperialism that led to Tunisia being a “Muslim country” held together by slaves in the first place.

In the 1860s, Egypt – run as an eyalet of the Ottoman empire – experienced a boom in cotton exports owing to the sudden outbreak of civil war in the US. The export of cotton in 1860 stood at 500,000 cantars, compared to 2,000,000 just five years later. According to Kenneth Cuno’s study:

“… during the cotton boom (1861–64), some 25,000 to 30,000 slaves were brought to Egypt each year to satisfy the demand for labor generated by the rapid expansion of cotton cultivation.”

– This wasn’t new in Egypt. It wasn’t an imitation of how the US south managed cotton cultivation. Slaves in Ottoman controlled Egypt was not new. It was simply increased in order to meet demand and enrich the privileged Islamic inhabitants.

In 1866 – two years after the Egyptian cotton boom – Dr David Livingston writing from Africa noted the horrifying treatment of slaves by their Arab ‘owners’:

“We passed a woman tied by the neck to a tree and dead, the people of the country explained that she had been unable to keep up with the other slaves in a gang, and her master had determined that she should not become the property of anyone else if she recovered after resting a time. . . . we saw others tied up in a similar manner . . . the Arab who owned these victims was enraged at losing his money by the slaves becoming unable to march, and vented his spleen by murdering them.”

The decade following the Egyptian cotton boom, a report following an expedition to Afghanistan in the 1870s noted:

“…A slave, if a strong man likely to stand work well, is, in Upper Badakshan, considered to be of the same value as one of the large dogs of the country, or of a horse, being about the equivalent of Rs 80. A slave girl is valued at from four horses or more, according to her looks. The men are, however, almost always exchanged for dogs.”

– A decade after that, and staying in Afghanistan, the ‘Iron’ Emir, Abdur Rahman Khan smashed a rebellion in Urozgan Province, and according to S.A.Mousavi:

“…thousands of Hazara men, women, and children were sold as slaves in the markets of Kabul and Qandahar, while numerous towers of human heads made from the defeated rebels as a warning to others who might challenge the rule of the Amir.”

In 1924, the Somalian anti-colonial leader Shaykh Hagi Hassan wrote to the Italians:

“All our slaves escaped and went to you and you set them free. We are not happy with the [antislavery] order. We abandoned our law, for according to our law we can put slaves in prison or force them to work…
The government has its law and we have ours. We accept no law other than our own. Our law is that of God and of the Prophet.”

– As late as the 1920s, incredibly hypocritical anti-colonial leaders were using Islamic tradition to justify the owning of other human beings as slaves. Notice also the justification by religious freedom? Hasan’s tone is one of indignation that his religious freedom to control others has been abused, by breaking the shackles of those he thought he had a divine right to oppress. His presumed “right” to oppress others, he considers more important than a human being’s right to control his or her own life and body. The argument for ‘religious freedom’ is often a not-so-subtly-masked argument defending religious supremacy and privilege.

Abolitionism in Islamic societies did exist. Though it gained very little traction or philosophical reasoning and support, until the 19th century. Prior to that, the debate surrounded who could and who couldn’t be enslaved, and how they should be treated. This shouldn’t be considered abolitionism in any sense of the word. That being said, in the late 19th century the great Ahmad Khan used the Qur’an to argue that slavery was anti-Islamic and must be abolished. The poet and politician Muhammad Iqbal in the early 20th century condemned slavery.

In the later 20th century – particularly after Zia-ul-Haqq took power in Pakistan – slavery advocates began to make their voices heard again by insisting that abolition denies the “right” of future muslims to free slaves.

The historian Paul Lovejoy estimated that the Islamic slave trade was responsible for the enslavement of around 11,500,000 African people alone, from the 7th century, to the mid 20th century.

Today, 20% of the population of Mauritania are today considered slaves. A new proposed Iraqi law allows the marriage of girls as young as 9; modern day sexual slavery. In the apartheid state of Saudi Arabia, slavery was officially abolished in 1962, when the country still had over 300,000 slaves. That hasn’t changed much in Saudi. Human Rights Watch reported:

“Over 8 million migrant workers fill manual, clerical, and service jobs, constituting more than half the national workforce. Many suffer multiple abuses and labor exploitation, sometimes amounting to slavery-like conditions.”

– It is a curious misrepresentation of history to believe that ‘imperialism’ and slavery are anchored to the western colonial powers only. It is doubtless a narrative that complements anti-western sentiment, but it is wholly false. From the 2nd Century BC until around 1949, institutionalised slavery existed in China, it existed in Japan, it existed throughout the Joseon dynasty of Korea, Angkor Wat was built by slaves. It is the product of imperial conquest. Arab Muslim societies were not immune to this, nor did they take great efforts to end the slave trade. The spread of Islam relied on conquest and enslaving populations. They established the institution through Islamic jurisprudence and enforced it through violence. At the same time that the Atlantic slave trade was beginning to take shape, and slowly morphing from Christian supremacy, to racial supremacy, the Arab muslim slave trade was already in full swing. Those societies enshrined slavery into law using holy texts and traditions to justify it. Their economies relied heavily on slavery, and – as with the US, Europe, and China today – the Islamic world owes much of its success and privileges to the often violent oppression of the lives of those they deemed to be slaves.

The narrative must be re-framed. Human liberty protected by a secular and democratic framework, granting no special privileges according to race, beliefs, sexuality or gender is not a ‘western’ colonial value, it is not a political ideology, but a universal human value, and that universal value has to be the great cause of the 21st Century.

References used:

Click to access Islam,%20archaeology%20and%20slavery%20in%20Africa.pdf


Click to access second%20chapter%20dissertatie.pdf

The Tea Party: From Benghazi to Malaysia.

March 18, 2014

Since Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared last week, non-stop rumour invention has taken over the broadcast media as well as social media, all of which appears to be based on conjecture. At the end of last week, The Daily Mail had decided the pilot is a key suspect, because he was wearing a tshirt they didn’t like. Twitter has played its own blame game. Pakistan has been blamed, a conspiracy involving Uyghur separatists has been suggested, a pilot angry at the jailing of his friend is to blame, Iranians are to blame, the Muslim Brotherhood is to blame. Indeed, not content with running media outlets that push vastly inaccurate information on a daily basis, Rupert Murdoch decided flight 370 had crashed, and those responsible are Muslims attacking China:

– It’s probably worth noting at this point that there is no evidence of a crash, and the Chinese insist there is no link between terrorism and any of the passengers on board.

After over a year spent abusing and exploiting the memory of the victims of the attack in Benghazi, propagating ill-thought out conspiracy to attempt to present any sort of substance to their feigned outrage; Tea Party conservatives have now decided the tragedy unfolding with MH370 is the perfect opportunity to attack the President:













– This last tweet points to an article that tries to suggest a White House cover up. It offers this, with the suggestion that any claim of a lack of evidence for terrorism:

“…is strikingly similar to the statements issued after the Benghazi attacks, the terrorist shooting at Fort Hood, and other suspicious and deadly events during Obama’s tenure.”

– It would seem to me that the White House as well as Beijing and Kuala Lumpur are best advised not to jump to conclusions like those offered by Murdoch above, when there is absolutely no evidence for drawing any detailed conclusion. There is no ‘cover up’. There is just not enough evidence to draw conclusions. It is unwise for the President of the United States to be publicly speculating and playing a game of conjecture. Also, Benghazi isn’t in the least big suspicious. Neither was Fort Hood. And it’s worth noting that the author of that article is Floyd Brown. Brown is the creator of “exposeobama.com” noted for its massive misrepresentations and inconsistencies. The article offers absolutely no evidence or link between the White House and a conspiracy to cover up the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, but still ends with the odd insinuation that the two are intrinsically linked:

“Ultimately, our hearts go out to the families of the 227 passengers and the dozen crew members on board Flight 370. In the days and weeks ahead, the world will have more questions. Let’s hope that the Obama team will be honest with the public and not attempt to hide the facts as they have in the past.”

– It seems the argument is, if the President doesn’t play conjecture games, he’s hiding something. As if the President should be advised by infowars. The comments section of the article are equally as appalling:

– It is so predictable a response, it becomes easy to shake your head and roll your eyes and laugh it off. But there’s certainly a far more unnerving undertone to it all. Real human lives and tragic situations are increasingly exploited by these people, for the sake of grotesque political point scoring. It is gutter politics. This exploitation has lasted over a year with Benghazi, and it threatens to infect the aftermath of the tragedy with Malaysian Airlines Flight 350. This should not be a political football.

Meanwhile, the search for the missing flight continues, and it is another night of not knowing, and of despair for the families of those lost. I cannot imagine the horror they are currently going through. I am sure whatever our political persuasion, we wish for a swift and happy outcome to this awful situation.

The Markets of Islam.

March 12, 2014

Source:  Wikimedia Commons. Author: Adam Jones, Ph.D.  [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: Adam Jones, Ph.D. [CC-BY-SA-3.0]

It would be fair to say that Islam benefits from incorporating earlier traditions and concepts from the cultures that surrounded the early Muslim community, at its conception. Indeed, the Qur’an includes several stories borrowed from earlier gnostic Christian texts, whilst certain practices and rituals borrowed from the Pagan culture from which Islam sprang. The general explanation is that the Muhammad of Islamic tradition was influenced by a mix of cultures and sects during his years as a trader. Islam most certainly benefited from incorporating surrounding traditions into its framework.

So with that being said, one must also ask, if Islam benefited from trade links with different cultures during its early years, what ideological benefits did those cultures obtain from Islam? I would argue that the development of capitalism owes much to Arab culture at the dawn of Islam.

According to Islamic tradition, from his early 20s to his death, Muhammad was a man of commerce and trade. This wasn’t unique to Muhammad. Mecca under the Quraysh thrived on markets – the spice trade of the 6th century helped hugely, as did the accumulation of interest later outlawed by Islam – mainly unregulated and often chaotic due to lack of strong political or judicial protections. Nonetheless, the location of Mecca and the importance of the Ka’bah for pilgrims, rendered it a great environment for trade. Especially true, because inter-tribal fighting was prohibited in this commercial centre, making it a safe place to do business, whilst worshipping. Mecca’s mix of both faith with the Ka’bah, and commerce with the market, is a mixture that Islam would appropriate and make its own.

Indeed, Islamic tradition holds that Muhammad himself married Khadija; an incredibly successful merchant famed for investing in trade delegations, including one in which Muhammad brought back twice the return she had expected on her investment. Muhammad understood how to make money, how to get along in business, and he understood investment opportunities when he saw them. By the time of his death, he was incredibly wealthy.

His business character aside, Muhammad’s economic pronouncements during his time in Medina provided a framework conducive for business and incentivising further trade in the region, whilst Europe languished in a hopeless feudal dark age. Hadith supposedly collected by Abu Dawud in book 013, Hadith Number 3067, gives us an example of early property rights:

“Narated By Sa’id ibn Zayd : The Prophet (pbuh) said: If anyone brings barren land into cultivation, it belongs to him, and the unjust vein has no right.”

– The trustworthiness of this hadith attributed to Muhammad is irrelevant. What is relevant, is that this Hadith was collected in the 9th century, and so it is clear that the concept of property rights over laboured land existed at that period of time in the Middle East. Property rights would be a concept progressed beautifully by the Leveller movement during the English civil war centuries later. It would also become a concept that Locke elaborated upon, and would later define the nature of capitalism and its criticisms.

As well as property rights, one particular Hadith also collected by Abu Dawud gives us a taste of Adam Smith’s later ‘invisible hand’ metaphor:

“one person came to the Prophet and requested him to fix prices in the market but he refused. Another man came and made the same request; the Prophet said it is Allah who pushes prices up or down, I do not want to face Him with a burden of injustice”

– Here, it is quite obvious that debate around interfering with market forces was being had, in the 9th century. For 9th Century Muslim Arabs, price rises and falls were a natural process, and that human interference was a ‘burden of injustice’. It isn’t a relatively new discussion. Later, in the 13th Century, the Hanbali scholar and author, Imam Shamsuddeen Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi wrote:

“Two facts can be derived from the hadith. First, the Prophet did not control prices despite people’s pressure on him which should suggest that it is disallowed. If it were lawful the Prophet would have yielded to their demand. The second point is that the Prophet equated price control with injustice (zulm) and injustice is forbidden. The goods whose price was sought to be controlled were property of a man (trader). And that man cannot be prevented from selling his goods at an agreed upon price by the two parties, i.e. the buyer and the seller”

“In a way the control of price may give rise to price rise. The traders from outside will not bring their goods in a place where they would be forced to sell them at a price against their wish. The local traders would hide the goods instead of selling. People would get less than their need, so they would offer a higher price to obtain the goods.
Both parties (sellers and buyers) would lose; the sellers because they were prevented from selling their goods, and the buyers because they were prevented from fulfilling their needs. So this act will be termed as forbidden”

– By the 13th century, Islamic scholars were debating the economic problems associated with price fixing, rather than just in relation to faith and Godly demands. For this, they were relying on hadith as their base. Again, whether Muhammad actually said what is claimed in hadith is irrelevant. What is relevant is that economic theory was being debated – in relation to faith, and justice – by at least the 13th century, with its origin in at least 9th century Arabia.

Relating to market pricing, and also in the 13th century, the Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah wrote:

“If desire for goods increases while its availability decreases, its price rises. On the other hand, if availability of the good increases and the desire for it decreases, the price comes down.”

– We begin to see that concepts inherent to capitalism were being debated and practiced centuries prior to early capitalist structures on the Mediterranean coast in Europe.

Alongside the concept of property rights, and the nature of prices, we are also presented with the rules Muhammad supposedly laid down for the creation of the market in Medina. Al-Samhùdfs ‘History of Medina’, gives us a glimpse of that market:

‘Umar b. Shabba transmitted on the authority of ‘Atâ’ b. Yasár: When the Messenger of God wanted to establish for Medina a market, he came to the market of the Qaynuqa’, then he went to the market of Medina, stamped on it with his foot and declared: “This is your market, let its space not be diminished and let no tax be taken in it.”

– Long before the advent of Capitalism in Europe, the middle east – whether from Muhammad’s mouth or not – had a concept of individual property rights, free market prices, and incentives for business growth with the story of the tax-less market in Medinah. These were all concepts being discussed and tested in early Islamic Arabia. It is no surprise that Europe’s early capitalist centres – Venice especially – had strong trade links with the middle east, and were thus exposed to the Protestant work ethic and growing sense of individual freedom largely based in northern Protestant Europe, but also the frameworks developed for trade in Islamic societies centuries earlier.

Further, Abd al-Malik’s reign as Caliph – an indescribably important Caliph, responsible for much of what we know of Islam today, I wrote on here – saw the establishment of the dinar in previously independent currency areas, and thus began an era of monetary policy. Later came deficit financing, and early forms of savings and checking accounts. Modern principles of market economies, were developed within the markets of Islam.

This naturally leads to the question; how is it that the Middle East is now struggling economically, if the religion that it is based on seems just as suited, if not more so to capitalism than its Christian counterpart? Economic historian Angus Maddison points out that in 1000AD the Middle East’s global share of GDP was 10% to Europe’s 9%. But by 1800AD the Middle East’s share of GDP fell to 2%, with Europe’s rising to 22%. Life expectancy in the middle east is 8.5 years shorter than Europe, North America and East Asia. Indeed, in the 19th century global trade increased 64 fold, compared to the Ottomans, for whom it increased just 10 to 16 fold. What happened?

It is true that western economic development relied heavily on slavery at its foundation. But, so did the Ottoman Empire, and most Arab societies. At Istanbul in the early 1600s, one fifth of the population were slaves. According to Robert Davis, professor of history at Ohio State University, around 1.25 million Europeans were captured and enslaved as a result of the Barbary raids by largely Arab and Berber peoples. According to Britannica.com:

“Slaves were owned in all Islamic societies, both sedentary and nomadic, ranging from Arabia in the centre to North Africa in the west and to what is now Pakistan and Indonesia in the east. Some Islamic states, such as the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate, and the Sokoto caliphate, must be termed slave societies because slaves there were very important numerically as well as a focus of the polities’ energies.”

“Approximately 18 million Africans were delivered into the Islamic trans-Saharan and Indian Ocean slave trades between 650 and 1905.”

– Muslims were imperialist too. Arab towns and ports involved in the slave trade included Zabīd in Yemen, Muscat in Oman, and Aden in Yemen. Indeed, as late as 1963 the population of Saudi Arabia included around 300,000 slaves. Slavery also helped to build the power of the Chinese economy. Korea enslaved people. Slaves existed in India. And so, we must look to other sources for information why the Arab world started to decline economically.

Several theories persist – western imperialism being the most often suggested – though I am inclined to accept Timur Kuran’s argument in his wonderful book: “The Long Divergence: How Islamic Law Held Back the Middle East“. In it, Kuran argues that whilst this early form of Islamic proto-capitalism benefited early Muslims immensely for centuries following Muhammad’s death – the system was far more advanced than at the same point in time in Europe – it later became anchored to very dogmatic faith-based restrictions from Islamic jurisprudence of the middle ages that simply went unchallenged. And so as gradual liberation and evolution of market forces from state power in Europe – ironically, utilising methods cultivated by Arabs – gave the west a steady advantage, Islamic societies in the middle east – despite having clear advantages through past innovations – began to stagnate and fall behind due to a failure to modernise and utilise productive resources.

Kuran points to Islamic law governing business partnerships and inheritance for two examples of the more dogmatic ideological approach Islamic societies enforced through institutions. Kuran does not suggest that Islam itself is incompatible with modern liberal economies, simply that institutions developed – some much later – that severely restricted growth, and that those structures remained unchallenged. Whilst those laws and institutions had their benefits originally – they were particularly egalitarian whilst at the same time promoting innovative commerce and sophisticated partnerships for the time – they later began to hold back innovation with their failure to modernise, whilst Europe was experimenting with far more complex business frameworks.

Kuran notes that during the middle ages, Islamic jurisprudence decreed that business partnerships automatically disbanded the moment a partner died, regardless of how well that venture was doing. Kuran says:

“Active partners carried full liability. Also, an Islamic partnership lacked entity shielding: any partner could force its dissolution unilaterally, and its assets were exposed to demands from third parties. The death of a partner terminated the partnership automatically, giving heirs an immediate claim on a share of the assets; all surviving members incurred costs in the process of settlements. Moreover, the number of heirs could be large, because Islam’s inheritance law assigns mandatory shares to designated relatives of the decedent.”

– This meant that partnerships lasted very little time, were painfully insufficient and institutionally restricted from long term growth. There was just no framework for the development of modern, long lasting businesses and corporations that emerged in the west. This structure in the Middle East remained largely untouched right up until the 19th Century.

It must be said that this is a very quick summary of Kuran’s book. He elaborates and articulates the point far better than I ever could. I would strongly recommend getting a copy for a deeper explanation of the connection between Islamic jurisprudence in the middle ages, and the economic structures built around it.

The west’s enlightenment era philosophers on both social and economic theory – like Locke and Smith – seemingly took ideas already long in circulation – like property rights – developed them further, and structured a wonderful concept of individual civil and economic rights from that base. It took two revolutions in France and the US to begin that huge social and economic transformation. This was the key to the explosion of economic growth in Europe and the west. The separation of church and state, liberation of market forces, secular democratic protections, gender, race, and sexuality equality, and the limited power of the state over the rights and freedoms of the individual combined to give western economies far more room to innovate and grow. Secular democratic institutions have the remarkable quality of constantly reviewing social issues and updating accordingly; a quality lacking when a state and economy are under the control of one prevailing ideology.

As some largely Islamic countries now begin to embrace those modern concepts, invest in infrastructure, and liberalise socially and economically – Tunisia is a good example – I have no doubt that it will unleash innovation and creativity on a grand scale again, benefiting the entire planet.

It is easy in the west for us to overlook the contribution of Arab Muslim theorists throughout the ages on the development of structures we now take for granted. Many Arab economic theorists were centuries ahead of their European counterparts. Equally, it seems just as easy for Arab Muslims – particularly Islamists – to dismiss the developments – both socially and economically – since the days of the Caliphates, as a product of the big evil imperial west existing only to conquer ‘Muslim lands’. I would argue that there needs to be a systematic change to the prevailing narrative in so much as it currently seems to place notions of equal rights, secularism, and market liberalisation as ‘western values’ rather than universal. This naturally then leads to both Muslims and non-Muslims extolling the equally as misguided presumption that Islam itself is incapable of modernising and liberalising. It is a defensive reaction from both sides. This needs to be addressed, because it seems to me that equal protections and individual liberties manifested as free expression, the right to worship according to one’s own personal conscience, to associate, to trade, to love, and to pursue happiness regardless of gender, race, belief, or sexuality without oppression from any exclusive ideological principles, are universal principles that benefit all.

Jean Meslier: The first atheist of Christendom.

March 10, 2014

Meslier The Islamic World in its early centuries seems to have been far less prone to the horrifying treatment of ‘heretics’ than its Christian counterpart in Europe.

Whilst the Abbasid Caliph al-Mahdi and his successor al-Hadi did initiate violent oppression of anyone even suspected of atheism, the ferocity by which this policy was pursued dwindled significantly by the reign of Harun al-Rashid at the beginning of the 9th Century. It briefly returned in the form of The Miḥnah (an inquisition) for around fifteen years until 851, when the hideous policy was completely reversed by al-Mutawakkil.

At this time, we see a number of culturally Islamic freethinkers enter the frame, newly freed from the shackles of religious oppression. Muhammad al Warraq was a wonderful early critic of Islam – leading the criticism of the idea of a God in general, and later, criticising the notion of ‘Prophets’ including Muhammad. Al Warraq openly and publicly derided God as a ‘fool’ and followers as ‘slaves’. Had that occurred in 9th Century Europe, Al Warraq would almost certainly have faced severe punishment before a violent and hellish death. Al Warraq also produced the longest attack on the Christian trinity doctrine that still survives today. The criticism influenced not only future Atheist criticisms of Christian theology, but also Islamic criticisms of Christian theology.

A student of Al Warraq, Ibn Al-Rawāndī abandoned his earlier attachment to Shia Islam for a life of free thinking in the late 9th Century. Similarly, the spectacular polymath, and unrivaled medical science pioneer Abū Bakr Al-Rāzī criticised the need for ‘Prophets’. Al-Rāzī was one of the first to note and criticise the often violent response to perceived religious ‘insult’ and the oppression of ideas deemed blasphemous:

“If the people of this religion are asked about the proof for the soundness of their religion, they flare up, get angry and spill the blood of whoever confronts them with this question. They forbid rational speculation, and strive to kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thoroughly silenced and concealed.”

– Al-Rāzī then goes one step further, and denounces a bizarre Islamic tradition still preached in the 21st Century:

“You claim that the evidentiary miracle is present and available, namely, the Koran. You say: “Whoever denies it, let him produce a similar one.” Indeed, we shall produce a thousand similar, from the works of rhetoricians, eloquent speakers and valiant poets, which are more appropriately phrased and state the issues more succinctly. They convey the meaning better and their rhymed prose is in better meter. By God what you say astonishes us! You are talking about a work which recounts ancient myths, and which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful information or explanation. Then you say: “Produce something like it”‽

– Today, Al-Rāzī would almost certainly be condemned as some sort of awful Islamophobe. Had his similar polemic tone been aimed publicly at Christianity throughout the Middle Ages, it would have almost definitely been viciously oppressed. Indeed, even theological positions contrary to the dictates of Roman Catholic dogma – or more precisely, theological reasoning perceived as a threat to Roman Catholic authority – more often than not resulted in violent suppression.

So, whilst the Islamic world of the mid to late 9th Century and early 10th Century (and into the 11th century, with the wonderful Syrian freethinker Al-Ma’arri, whom I wrote on here) produced some wonderful critics of faith, and of Islamic dogma, the Christian world was keeping a firm grip on anyone suspected of any form of heretical views for centuries to come. We get a sense of just how dangerous it was to question the legitimacy of Christian dogma, from a spectacular book left in northern France in the 18th Century by Jean Meslier.

Meslier was born in the Ardennes in 1664. He lived poor, and led a quiet life in the tiny village of Étrépigny, fulfilling his Holy duties without controversy. That all changed within days of his death, in 1729. When his house was being cleared, a 630+ page manuscript was found written by Meslier, in which he denounces all religion, attacks the doctrines of the Christian faith foreshadowing the writings of Paine, Ingersoll and Hitchens, and becomes the first known person in Christian history to espouse Atheism and the morality of non-belief.

The ‘Testament of Jean Meslier’ is an extraordinary work and almost impossible to comment on in such a brief blog entry. Indeed, each paragraph could, and should receive a vast commentary worthy of the points it raises, and the importance of its place at that specific time in history. The entire ‘Testament’ can be seen here. It is a pioneering work of rational brilliance at the dawn of the enlightenment.

Meslier begins his book, with a masterfully vivid comparison of dictatorship, and the divine realm preached by the Abrahamic tradions:

“There is a vast empire governed by a monarch, whose conduct does but confound the minds of his subjects. He desires to be known, loved, respected, and obeyed, but he never shows himself; everything tends to make uncertain the notions which we are able to form about him. The people subjected to his power have only such ideas of the character and the laws of their invisible sovereign as his ministers give them; these suit, however, because they themselves have no idea of their master, for his ways are impenetrable, and his views and his qualities are totally incomprehensible.

He is supposed to be infinitely wise, and in his administration everything seems contrary to reason and good sense. They boast of his justice, and the best of his subjects are generally the least favored. We are assured that he sees everything, yet his presence remedies nothing. It is said that he is the friend of order, and everything in his universe is in a state of confusion and disorder; all is created by him, yet events rarely happen according to his projects. He foresees everything, but his foresight prevents nothing. He is impatient if any offend him; at the same time he puts everyone in the way of offending him. His knowledge is admired in the perfection of his works, but his works are full of imperfections, and of little permanence.

He is continually occupied in creating and destroying, then repairing what he has done, never appearing to be satisfied with his work. In all his enterprises he seeks but his own glory, but he does not succeed in being glorified. He works but for the good of his subjects, and most of them lack the necessities of life. Those whom he seems to favor, are generally those who are the least satisfied with their fate; we see them all continually revolting against a master whose greatness they admire, whose wisdom they extol, whose goodness they worship, and whose justice they fear, revering orders which they never follow. This empire is the world; its monarch is God; His ministers are the priests; their subjects are men.”

– From this, you can perhaps discern just why Meslier did not allow anyone to see the works whilst he was still alive.

Meslier then moves on to the vital importance of reason, and the falsifiability of theories:

“All religious principles are founded upon the idea of a God, but it is impossible for men to have true ideas of a being who does not act upon any one of their senses. All our ideas are but pictures of objects which strike us. What can the idea of God represent to us when it is evidently an idea without an object? Is not such an idea as impossible as an effect without a cause? An idea without a prototype, is it anything but a chimera?”

– For Meslier – as for those of us who hold similar principles true today – a theory that cannot be tested against the senses, is by definition nothing more than a chimera; an illusion. He summarises this in chapter 28:

“In truth, to adore God is to adore nothing but fictions of one’s own brain, or rather, it is to adore nothing.”

In chapter 76, Meslier goes after the supposed ‘goodness’ of God, by arguing that to create mankind as necessarily sinful, and to punish that sinful nature, must be condemned as violence:

“Man’s nature, it is said, must necessarily become corrupt. God could not endow him with sinlessness, which is an inalienable portion of Divine perfection. But if God could not render him sinless, why did He take the trouble of creating man, whose nature was to become corrupt, and which, consequently, had to offend God? On the other side, if God Himself was not able to render human nature sinless, what right had He to punish men for not being sinless? It is but by the right of might. But the right of the strongest is violence; and violence is not suited to the most Just of Beings. God would be supremely unjust if He punished men for not having a portion of the Divine perfections, or for not being able to be Gods like Himself.”

– This theme continues, a chapter later. In this, Meslier appears to be arguing a form of ‘Rights of Man’ later made famous by Paine. Perhaps influenced by the liberal writings of Locke – who was born just 30 years before Meslier – Meslier aims his argument at those who insist that we must not question God’s conduct toward mankind, by insisting that we are autonomous beings, capable of emotional response, and the importance of individual rights:

“We are told that the enormous distance which separates God from men, makes God’s conduct necessarily a mystery for us, and that we have no right to interrogate our Master. Is this statement satisfactory? But according to you, when my eternal happiness is involved, have I not the right to examine God’s own conduct? It is but with the hope of happiness that men submit to the empire of a God. A despot to whom men are subjected but through fear, a master whom they can not interrogate, a totally inaccessible sovereign, can not merit the homage of intelligent beings. If God’s conduct is a mystery to me, it is not made for me. Man can not adore, admire, respect, or imitate a conduct of which everything is impossible to conceive, or of which he can not form any but revolting ideas; unless it is pretended that he should worship all the things of which he is forced to be ignorant, and then all that he does not understand becomes admirable.”

– As well as possessing a Lockean quality, it also seems to draw on Descartes. Though Meslier is more conscious of shifting the ascertaining of truth from God, to individual humans, and makes it an issue of the supremacy of natural rights above divine authority. This foreshadows Jefferson’s complaints against King George III in the Declaration. For Jefferson, the King was inaccessible to the revolutionaries, they had no ability to ‘interrogate’ their ‘Master’. Meslier’s work here represents a paradigm shift in favour of the individual over the power of state that had been on the rise for the century prior to his death in 1729. For Meslier, natural rights are withheld by God, and so God is a ‘despot’.

Meslier’s scorn isn’t just poured upon the concept of a despotic God, but also upon the ‘morality’ of Jesus Christ:

“Shall we imitate, then, the Jesus of the Christians? Can this God, who died to appease the implacable fury of His Father, serve as an example which men ought to follow? Alas! we will see in Him but a God, or rather a fanatic, a misanthrope, who being plunged Himself into misery, and preaching to the wretched, advises them to be poor, to combat and extinguish nature, to hate pleasure, to seek sufferings, and to despise themselves; He tells them to leave father, mother, all the ties of life, in order to follow Him. What beautiful morality! you will say. It is admirable, no doubt; it must be Divine, because it is impracticable for men.

But does not this sublime morality tend to render virtue despicable? According to this boasted morality of the man-God of the Christians, His disciples in this lower world are, like Tantalus, tormented with burning thirst, which they are not permitted to quench. Do not such morals give us a wonderful idea of nature’s Author? If He has, as we are assured, created everything for the use of His creatures, by what strange caprice does He forbid the use of the good things which He has created for them? Is the pleasure which man constantly desires but a snare that God has maliciously laid in his path to entrap him?”

– This again plays upon the idea of God the despot. For Meslier, the God of Christianity is playing a wicked game with mankind. Like a child torturing an animal. The coming of Jesus offers no consolation, in fact he makes things worse. Jesus demands that his followers dissolve family ties, to hate everything our nature – created by God – tells us to love. Jesus’ apparent anti-family values is the direct cause of the psychological abuse practiced by Jehovah’s Witnesses with their policy of ‘disfellowshipping’. Meslier was right to point out the hideous nature of that particular moral teaching of Christ.

For some odd reason, Theists tend to argue their case for religion, by advocating the position that morality is dependent upon ‘God’. That, without anchoring right and wrong to a particular time and place in which a holy text was compiled, humanity is essentially free to do as we please. Today, we can point to the evolution of the human mind, its hardwiring for empathy and friendship, in connection with a constant shift of culture, society, expectation, and interaction, as a basis for how morality is defined and projected. Centuries ago, Meslier did not have that information, but he still managed to neatly address anchored religious morality, by hinting at a natural approach to the framing of human morality, centuries before modern evolutionary theories developed:

“The rules which govern men’s conduct spring from their own nature, which they are supposed to know, and not from the Divine nature, of which they have no conception; these rules compel us to render ourselves estimable or contemptible, amiable or hateful, worthy of reward or of punishments, happy or unhappy, according to the extent to which we observe them. The law that compels man not to harm himself, is inherent in the nature of a sensible being, who, no matter how he came into this world, or what can be his fate in another, is compelled by his very nature to seek his welfare and to shun evil, to love pleasure and to fear pain.

The law which compels a man not to harm others and to do good, is inherent in the nature of sensible beings living in society, who, by their nature, are compelled to despise those who do them no good, and to detest those who oppose their happiness. Whether there exists a God or not, whether this God has spoken or not, men’s moral duties will always be the same so long as they possess their own nature; that is to say, so long as they are sensible beings.”

– He goes on to espouse how morality is best served without God:

“Can an atheist have conscience? What are his motives for abstaining from secret vices and crimes of which other men are ignorant, and which are beyond the reach of laws? He can be assured by constant experience that there is no vice which, in the nature of things, does not bring its own punishment. If he wishes to preserve himself, he will avoid all those excesses which can be injurious to his health; he would not desire to live and linger, thus becoming a burden to himself and others.

In regard to secret crimes, he would avoid them through fear of being ashamed of himself, from whom he can not hide. If he has reason, he will know the price of the esteem that an honest man should have for himself. He will know, besides, that unexpected circumstances can unveil to the eyes of others the conduct which he feels interested in concealing. The other world gives no motive for doing well to him who finds no motive for it here.”

– This represents the first public pronouncement in Christendom, of the merits of atheist morality, over religious morality. The importance of this for the history of freethought, and the shift of mentality that the following century would produce, is evident. Indeed, it is Descartes taken one step further. Remember, Meslier was born in the same century that the last Tudor monarch died, and the counter-reformation came to a close. He was surrounded by Christianity and thought.

In chapter 169, Meslier eloquently recognises the mask of Christian ‘charity’ and the dogmatic and oppressive disclaimer that often comes with that promise of ‘charity’:

“When we reproach the theologians with the sterility of their religious virtues, they praise, with emphasis, charity, that tender love of our neighbor which Christianity makes an essential duty for its disciples. But, alas! what becomes of this pretended charity as soon as we examine the actions of the Lord’s ministers? Ask if you must love your neighbor if he is impious, heretical, and incredulous, that is to say, if he does not think as they do? Ask them if you must tolerate opinions contrary to those which they profess? Ask them if the Lord can show indulgence to those who are in error? Immediately their charity disappears, and the dominating clergy will tell you that the prince carries the sword but to sustain the interests of the Most High; they will tell you that for love of the neighbor, you must persecute, imprison, exile, or burn him. You will find tolerance among a few priests who are persecuted themselves, but who put aside Christian charity as soon as they have the power to persecute in their turn.”

– In one book, Meslier has taken on the absurdity of a theory that cannot be tested, he’s dismantled the concept of anchored religious morality, pronounced the virtues of atheist morality, denounced Jesus, and referred to the Christian God as a despotic ruler. And that is just a very brief selection of less than 10% of the chapters of Meslier’s masterful work.

‘Testament’, kept hidden for fear of persecution, was written by a man born 40+ years before Benjamin Franklin, born over 100 years before the American revolution enshrined the principles of secularism in its governing literature. His arguments form the very base of religious criticism in the 21st century and foreshadow Ingersoll in the 19th Century, Russell in the 20th and Hitchens in the 21st. ‘Testament’ predates Paine’s ‘Age of Reason’ by over half a century. No Christian writer before had issued such a polemic attack on church doctrine nor the concept of God in general. It is all the more profound and impressive a critique, when we remember that Jean Meslier spent 50 years, and died as a Catholic Priest.

Madam President: Hillary leading for 2016.

March 5, 2014

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: White House (Pete Souza) (White House) [Public domain].

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: White House (Pete Souza) (White House) [Public domain].

Prior to 2008, Virginia’s electoral college votes were solidly red. Republicans could count on votes from the state of Jefferson and Washington, as much as they could count on the votes of the deep south. Democrats had not taken the state in a Presidential election since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. That changed in 2008. A year in which both parties campaigned heavily, saw the once solidly red Virginia hand its votes to the Democrats by a margin of 6.3%, for the first time in 44 years.

By 2012, President Obama became the first Democratic President since Franklin Roosevelt, to carry Virginia in two consecutive elections. In fact, the margin of victory for the Democrats in 2012, was greater than the margin of victory for the President in the country overall. A year later, Virginia voted to elect Democrat McAuliffe to the Governorship ahead of Tea Party favourite, Ken Cuccinelli. Thanks to the far more progressive areas of Fairfax and Loudoun, and the toxic brand of the Tea Party movement; Virginia is becoming blue.

This is bad news for the GOP for 2016. The potential field for Republican candidates in 2016 is not particularly inspiring, and no single candidate stands out. A poll out of New England College found that despite having no intention to run, Mitt Romney is favourite among GOP voters for the nomination in 2006. Ted Cruz only manages 10% support, the scandal prone Chris Christie only managing 13%, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio sharing 7% apiece.

Even more concerning for Republican strategists, is a latest poll of voters in Virginia, conducted by Roanoke College this week, showing that any of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination, would face a massive defeat, if the Democrat nomination was Hillary Clinton. If the 2016 Presidential race were between Clinton, and Christie, Clinton would come out victorious at 43% to Christie’s 41%. A race between Clinton and Paul Ryan, would give us Clinton on 53% to Ryan’s 37%. Others include; Clinton 51% to Jeb Bush 38%. Clinton 47% to Rand Paul’s 40%. Clinton on 47% with Ted Cruz on 37%.

In Ohio – an incredibly important battleground state – Clinton commands a firm lead in polls over all Republican candidates. A poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut found that biggest challenge in Ohio to Clinton would be from Paul Ryan, who trails by a huge 9 points. Clinton leads by double figures over Bush, Rubio, Cruz, Ryan, and Kasich.

The bad news for Republicans doesn’t end there. Even in the solidly red state of Texas, the Republicans are struggling. In 2012, Romney won 57% of the vote to the President’s 41%. Even with Texas’ changing population, it is still cloaked in red. Yet, according to a poll by Public Policy Polling, of all potential Republican candidates, none manage to win over 50% of the vote if paired off against Hillary. Jeb Bush comes closest with 49% to Clinton’s 42%. Though it’s unlikely that Bush will run. Senator Cruz – the favoured Republican candidate in Texas by a clear margin – only manages 48% to Clinton’s 45%. So, if on the off chance Jeb Bush were to run and win the Republican nomination, he may take Texas, but he’d lose Ohio, and according to another poll, he’d lose Florida too.

The close polling between Republican candidates and Hillary Clinton in Texas, are echoed in Red States like Louisiana. Louisiana last went blue in 1996, voting to help secure a second term for President Clinton. Twenty years later, and another Clinton has the potential to turn Louisiana blue once more. Another poll by Public Policy Polling found that whilst the Republican contenders hold leads over Hillary, the margin is small enough to push Louisiana into the Democrat camp, with the right campaigning from the Clinton team in 2016. Jeb Bush again leads Hillary by the largest margin of 7 points, whilst Christie’s lead is down to just 1 point.

This is particularly problematic for Republicans for a number of reasons. Firstly, as noted above, there aren’t any stand out GOP candidates that one might consider as posing any sort of a threat to a Hillary campaign in 2016. Secondly, the majority of Republican voters are not on the Tea Party fringes, and moderate Republicans might well be tempted to vote Democrat or simply not vote at all; the former is certainly a possibility if the Clinton campaign presents a more moderately conservative message going into 2016. This is of particular worry for Republicans in swing states and states polling low margins between Hillary and Republican candidates. Of Florida, Virginia, and Ohio, the Republicans will need to take two of the three to stand any chance at the White House. As it stands, they may not take any. Thirdly, the majority of US citizens placed blame for the government shutdown on Congressional Republicans, leading to this Congress sporting an all time low approval rating. Congress began 2014 on just 13% approval rating. Republicans in Congress are not popular, this is damaging to any future President campaign, particularly if the prevailing candidate comes direct from an appalling incompetent Congress. And lastly, the Republicans are going to have to spend a large amount of money defending their lead in states that would normally be solidly Republican. They need to do this, whilst also spending vast sums of money to win swing states like Ohio and states recently lost to Democrats, like Virginia. This is one huge uphill battle for Republicans.

Indeed, the uphill battle is of their own making. The loss of Virginia represents the failing message of a Republican Party being dragged to the fringes of the right wing and failing to modernise. Inevitably, a shift to the fringes presents massive election issues for the GOP. In less than three years, they need to craft an entirely new, modern and inclusive message, an electable platform away from the fringes, improving their image especially with minority groups, and women voters. They also need one candidate to rally behind, and present that new message of inclusivity and modernity. A political party that only appears to represent white, middle aged, heterosexual, Christian, business men driven solely by imagined Benghazi conspiracies, is not an electable party.

Offending the Church: Caravaggio’s St Matthew.

March 2, 2014

Caravaggio's 'The Inspiration of St Matthew' - the altarpiece for the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: I, Sailko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

Caravaggio’s ‘The Inspiration of St Matthew’ – the altarpiece for the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: I, Sailko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

The religious art of the Renaissance portrayed Jesus’ divinity above all else, in dream like states. The physical and the spiritual almost become one in the same. As if Pagan Gods existing in a perfected World separate from our own. The perfectly chiseled bodies of Biblical patriarchs cover the Sistine Chapel, with Jesus on the far wall judging souls and displaying his power. Similarly, ‘The Last Judgement’ by Rogier van der Weyden shows Christ illuminated by surrounding fire, floating on a rainbow above every other figure. Jesus and the saints were idealised in the art of the middle ages, through the Renaissance, right up until the turn of the 17th Century.

Born in 1571, half a century after Luther sparked the reformation, Michelangelo Merisi – Caravaggio – through his art, contributed greatly to the new Roman Catholic desire to counter the Protestants, and reaffirm the importance of religious imagery in connecting the founding years of Christianity, with modern day Catholicism. A few years prior to the artist’s birth, the Catholic Church convened the Council of Trent’s final session and set its new rules on religious imagery:

“Moreover, in the invocation of saints, the veneration of relics, and the sacred use of images, every superstition shall be removed, all filthy lucre be abolished; finally, all lasciviousness be avoided; in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust; nor the celebration of the saints, and the visitation of relics be by any perverted into revellings and drunkenness; as if festivals are celebrated to the honour of the saints by luxury and wantonness.”

– One might suggest that this marks a point in time in which the Church began its long history of obsession with sexual repression. But it also marks the break from the art of the renaissance depicting idealised saints far removed from the lives of ordinary people, and gave Caravaggio’s more naturalistic and human style access to the wealthiest patrons, through the Catholic Church. Cardinal Del Monte being a key player in the promotion of the young artist when he arrived in Rome. To this end, Caravaggio worked to emphasise the humanity and naturalism and humble nature of Jesus and the saints. The material Jesus and the Saints, as ordinary human beings. Divinity was not a theme he cared too much for. To attempt to provide links from the past to the present, Caravaggio would place Jesus or the Saints often in early 17th Century Rome, in naturalistic settings completely removed from anything previously imagined. No idealised hills and valleys would be included. For example ‘The Calling of St Matthew’ sees Matthew dressed in late 16th Century Roman clothing, in a 16th Century dingey Roman house, with dirty windows, whilst Jesus appears in 1st Century attire, bear foot, so as to emphasise his humbleness. And whilst this seems to be in keeping with the Church’s new strict rules on religious art, it seems they weren’t entirely ready for what they had unleashed.

In 1602 Caravaggio was tasked with producing an altarpiece for the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, in Rome. The French Church sits close to the Piazza Navona, housed Martin Luther during his trial in Rome, and already contained two Caravaggio works either side of the altar, depicting St Matthew’s calling (an obvious homage to French King Henri IV and his conversion to Catholicism in the 1590s), and St Matthew’s martyrdom. The newly commissioned piece was entitled ‘St Matthew and the Angel’. The painting itself was destroyed in Berlin during World War II, but this is a photo of it:

– This is a work of profound genius. St Matthew is portrayed as a humble human being, wrinkled and old, a poor Roman of Caravaggio’s day, completely dazed and shocked by the divine guidance being offered to him by an angel, whilst bathed in light. As with all Caravaggio works, God is represented by a stream of light in a darkened surrounding. The Conversion of St Paul similarly shows this style, with Paul’s outstretched arms soaking in the light. A World away from the bearded God flying through the air in Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Caravaggio’s lowly ‘St Matthew’ is intended to connect the saints, to the common man. As if to say “they’re just like you”. He is unable to comprehend the gravity of the mission in front of him. Matthew’s hand is directed to write the very first words of the very first account of the life of Jesus – the Gospel of Matthew was at this time believed to be the first – almost as if he is in such a state of profound shock, he cannot write without the guiding hand of the angel. He is depicted as just a man, unable to comprehend the message without direct and concentrated help. The angel is concentrating intently on the hand of the illiterate Saint, producing the presumed first account of the life of Jesus, and you can almost imagine the words being written slowly, guided throughout by the patient teaching angel. The saint’s clothes are all over the place, exposing his legs and his dirty feet that point directly out to the viewer. Caravaggio has painted Matthew as real as humanly possible. And for that reason, the Church censored the painting and scandal ensued. According to Caravaggio’s early biographer, Giovanni Bellori:

“Then something happened which greatly disturbed Caravaggio and almost made him despair of his reputation. After the
central picture of St. Matthew had been finished and placed on the altar, it was taken away by the priests, who said that the figure with his legs crossed and his feet crudely exposed to the public had neither decorum nor the appearance of a saint.”

Art historian E.H. Gombrich elaborates on this episode in Caravaggio’s life:

“Caravaggio, who was a very imaginative and uncompromising young artist, thought hard about what it must have been like when an elderly, poor, working man, a simple publican, suddenly had to sit down to write a book. And so he painted a picture of St Matthew with a bald head and bare, dusty feet, awkwardly gripping the huge volume, anxiously wrinkling his brow under the unaccustomed strain of writing. By his side he painted a youthful angel, who seems just to have arrived from on high, and who gently guides the labourer’s hand as a teacher may do to a child. When Caravaggio delivered this picture to the church where it was to be placed on the altar, people were scandalized at what they took to be lack of respect for the saint. The painting was not accepted, and Caravaggio had to try again. This time he took no chance. He kept strictly to the conventional ideas of what an angel and a saint should look like. The outcome is still quite a good picture, for Caravaggio had tried hard to make it look lively and interesting, but we feel that it is less honest and sincere than the first had been.”

– Bellori conveys to us the despair that Caravaggio felt at being censored, whilst Gombrich informs us of the scandal that ensued from such a break from traditional depictions of saints and from that which the Church deemed acceptable. It is the epitome of expression through artistic endeavour meeting dominant resistant power structures.

Despite the strict new rules on religious imagery set by the Council of Trent, the Church was unable to let go of what they previously believed the ‘appearance of a saint’ should be; a belief that must not be contradicted on threat of censorship and scandal. The Church of San Luigi dei Francesi still believed that depictions of the saints should retain an element of the divine about them; something that differentiated them from ordinary people, a sort of inability to let go of the idealised Catholic art of the past. Any deviation, any attempt to suggest a link between the common folk, and the saints was still not completely acceptable, and so Caravaggio’s attempt at a truthful portrayal of the apostle could not penetrate Church propaganda and ideals, and so was censored. It ended up in a private collection far away from the public gaze. Millions of people denied the right to see this work, purely because the Church deemed it to be offensive to their tastes.

Caravaggio painted a second dumbed down version, seen at the top of this article. Whilst still seeped in realism, and a wonderful painting, it loses a lot of the merits of the first painting. In it, a perfectly literate St Matthew in flowing rich red robes, an air of ‘respectability’ looks like a philosopher from antiquity. Holding the pen himself, Matthew lacks the look of shock that he had in the first painting, almost as if he’s perfectly prepared for this. The angel may as well not be there. The angel – counting on his hand – dictates arguments rather than the Gospel word for word. The saint writes unaided, his feet pointing away so as to not cause any offence, and most telling of all, the newly depicted St Matthew has a halo. He is now balancing between a regular human being, and divine. He is no longer connected to ordinary people. This version of St Matthew, with all its confusions, is entirely mirrored in a Catholic counter-reformation still unsure of itself.

I am often inclined to wonder if Caravaggio’s dangerous life might have turned out differently, had his creative flair been fully liberated from the clutch of a Church that presumed it had a right to prohibit what it considered to be ‘offensive’ to its wholly illegitimate grip on power. Challenging power structures on any level, is absolutely vital. Caravaggio was – to a degree – constrained by ideology. Modern day attempts to prohibit expression based on what a religious group consider ‘offensive’ are no different. The rationale they employ is one that attempts to tell the rest of us that we shouldn’t be allowed to produce what they deem to be ‘offensive’ expressions, and by attempting to outlaw ‘offensive’ material, it further seeks to forbid our right – as grown adults – to view material that adherents to that one religion might consider ‘offensive’. We are denied a right to see or hear dissenting views, as much as we are denied a right to create dissenting views. This is abhorrent to me. It is constraining human thoughts, and naturally creative instincts, for the perpetuation of one ideology. It is this censorship inherent to authoritarian religions that contributed greatly to their spread and grip on power and the one reason that liberation of ideas, of art, or expression in all its forms is the very basis of a decent, free and progressive society.