King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: Mourning a monster.

January 26, 2015

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The planes carrying World leaders home from the unity march in Paris in support of free expression last week, barely had the chance to touch the tarmac before those same World leaders began queuing to offer their heartfelt sympathy and condolences to a man who ruled a country in which criticism of the King is illegal, and who spent his final days overseeing the hideous flogging of Raif Badawi for exercising his right to free expression.

On the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, The British Prime Minister, David Cameron (so overcome with grief was he, that he flew especially to Saudi Arabia), said:

“He will be remembered for his long years of service to the Kingdom, for his commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths.”

– Smilarly, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby praised Abdullah for his commitment to interfaith relations. This same – laughable, if it wasn’t so horribly tarred with the blood of many innocent people – sentiment was also echoed by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said:

“I am very sad indeed to hear of the passing of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah.
I am very sad indeed to hear of the passing of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah.“I knew him well and admired him greatly. Despite the turmoil of events in the region around him, he remained a stable and sound ally, was a patient and skilful moderniser of his country leading it step by step into the future. He was a staunch advocate of inter faith relations.”

– President Obama added to this feeling of great anguish and woe, insisting that he:

“….valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship.”

At first I thought I was reading condolences for someone else, perhaps someone with a record of human rights victories championing the plight of the most oppressed in society, but no, it is definitely King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia they are talking about. A man they are convinced was a wonderful ‘moderniser’ for intervening in one or two court cases that would otherwise have highlighted his regime as one of the most brutal in history (call it a PR stunt, given that he’s never indicated a preference for human rights instead of religious supremacy). Indeed, Saudi Arabia is a country that scored the lowest marks from Freedom House rankings in 2014 of civil freedoms. A country that, despite the Prime Minister’s comment that the dead King will long be remembered for his ‘commitment to peace‘ is about to continue its flogging of blogger Raif Badawi for blasphemy (having an opinion that differed from the ruling elite in Saudi), and on average beheads around 80 people a year.

It is simply madness that any human being should lose their life, due to the religious beliefs of someone else. Talking to BBC News back in 2003, Muhammad Saad al-Beshi – a Saudi executioner – worryingly said:

“It doesn’t matter to me: two, four, 10 – as long as I’m doing God’s will, it doesn’t matter how many people I execute”.

– The power structure of Saudi Arabia & those it privileges relies heavily on convincing otherwise decent human beings, that brutally murdering other human beings, is part of a plan designed by an invisible being. It is simply a horror story. We as humans are permitted such a brief time on this Earth as it is, it is so sad that others believe they have the express right to decide whether we live or die, according to religious beliefs. It seems to me that if you are going to claim ownership over the life of someone else, you must first offer irrefutable proof for the existence of your God, and then the rest of us must freely accept that we are to be ruled according to His principles. Otherwise, you are simply a murderer.

The Prime Minister’s insistence that King Abdullah would be remembered for ‘strengthening understanding between faiths‘ and Blair’s insistence that Abdullah was ‘a staunch advocate of inter faith relations‘, along with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby’s defense of the flags lowering to half mast, is entirely negated by the fact that Abdullah’s Theocratic Monarchy expressively forbade public practice of any religion but Islam, insists that children born to Muslim parents must be considered Muslim themselves, and has a legal system – for non-Muslims as well as Muslims – based entirely on Islam. From the moment you are born, until the moment you die in Saudi Arabia, you are a possession of the religion of state. You have no liberty. You are owned by one royal family, and their religious beliefs. You must not utter words they disapprove of, nor live according to your own beliefs. You are chained. If you happen to be gay, female, or you simply don’t believe in the faith that the state insists that you must, your life is not yours, your beliefs are not yours, and you are banned from falling in love with someone that the religion of someone else disapproves of. If you attempt to break free from such a hideously oppressive cage, you are likely to be flogged or beheaded. This was a system upheld and perpetuated by King Abdullah. Indeed, here are a few more examples of the innocent victims of the idea that human rights and civil liberty matters little, when it clashes with preserving religious privilege and supremacy.

Amina bint Abdel Halim Nassar was beheaded by the Saudi state in 2011 for:

“…the practice of witchcraft and sorcery.”

– In the 21st century, a life, filled with memories, loves, passions, childhood friends, family…. so violently cut short for the ridiculous offence of ‘sorcery‘. There was no outpouring of grief from massively disingenuous political elite of Western nations, for her.

Also in 2011, 45 year old Mansor Almaribe – an Australian man with back problems – was sentenced to 500 lashes on the back, for blasphemy. His crime? Praying with fellow Shi’ites in a country run by Sunni extremists. After intervention from the Australian government, the great Saudi ‘reformer’ managed to get the sentence down from 500 lashes, to 75 lashes and a year in jail.

In 2005, Muhammad Al-Harbi was sentenced to 750 lashes for teaching children about other religions. For daring to teach children to think for themselves, that they are entitled to believe something other than what the state demands, the state violently tortured Al-Harbi and threw him in prison.

In 2014, Loujain al-Hathloul, and Maysa al-Amoudi were leading a campaign to allow women to drive in Saudi Arabia when authorities arrested them on ‘terror’ charges. In fact, terror charges are a new weapon of the religious supremacists in Saudi Arabia. So dedicated to ‘progress’ was the late Royal thug, that in 2014 a royal decree includes violent punishment for:

“… calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion on which this country is based”

– Atheism is now classed as terrorism in Saudi Arabia. The leader of the family that believes it has the inherent right to chain every last citizen – and their short lives, with much promise and hope – to their sociopathic dictates based solely on their personal religious beliefs, is the same leader that both Blair & Welby insist did so much for inter-faith relations. Further reducing the comments of Western leaders to at best an insincere round of grovelling, is the knowledge that whilst they insist Abdullah did much for inter-faith relations, in Saudi Arabia all faiths other than the one he personally believed in are largely prohibited, and questioning the fundamentals of – a very insecure – faith, apparently gives the King the right to violently harm other human beings. Saudi Arabia’s Monarchy is not content with owning your sex life, you love life, your words, it also requires you submit your own mind to their religious cage.

In 2007, the General Court of Qatif sentenced a woman to 90 lashes, for “illegal mingling” with a man who – with his friends – then raped her. She had the courage to speak out about the attack, and so the court more than doubled her sentence to 200 lashes, for, and I quote:

“….her attempt to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media.”

Similarly, In 2009, a 23 year old Saudi woman was hideously raped by a gang of rapists. She was then arrested and sentenced – yes, she was sentenced – to a year in prison and 100 lashes by more men, more abusers, for ‘committing adultery‘ and seeking an abortion. The White House issued no statement over this, instead, they sent their condolences upon the death of the King of a land that seeks to further harm victims of rape. The perpetuation of a religious settlement that is misogynistic by its very nature, requires the complete oppression of women for its survival.

As with misogyny, homophobia is never too far behind when it comes to religious power structures. The ironically named ‘Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice‘ sentenced a man to 450 lashes for Tweeting in the hope of meeting other gay men a couple of years ago. He was also sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 2007, two men were sentenced to 7000 lashes each, for being homosexual. We cannot imagine the fear that gay men and women must face every day in Saudi Arabia. Sexuality discrimination in Saudi Arabia is not surprising, given the utterly repulsive nature of just what Saudi Arabia teaches children about sexuality. One simple paragraph from the Saudi Ministry of Education Textbooks for Islamic Studies: 2007-2008 offers a prime example of just why politically religious folk should never be allowed power over the apparatus of a State, nor over the lives of its inhabitants especially its children, in an enlightened World. The barbaric nature of their law:

“Homosexuality is one of the most disgusting sins and greatest crimes…. It is a vile perversion that goes against sound nature, and is one of the most corrupting and hideous sins…. The punishment for homosexuality is death. Both the active and passive participants are to be killed whether or not they have previously had sexual intercourse in the context of a legal marriage…. Some of the companions of the Prophet stated that [the perpetrator] is to be burned with fire. It has also been said that he should be stoned, or thrown from a high place.”

– Last week, Downing Street, The White House, and other World leaders abandoned the lives of so many who have suffered, continue to suffer as you read this, and will suffer at the hands of religious thugs in Saudi Arabia in the future, and instead those leaders chose to send heartfelt condolences upon the death of the victims’ chief abuser; a misogynistic, homophobic, violent, abusive, religious supremacist who terrorised so many, and who worked hard to ensure civil liberties and human rights never got a foot in the door of Saudi Arabia. His reign should be viewed as a warning of the kind of hideous human rights abuses – that begin with the psychological abuse of children via religious indoctrination – that inevitably occurs when the religious are permitted power. The World should not mourn the death of such a monster.

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Charlie Hebdo & the importance of free expression.

January 15, 2015

For the most part, the response to the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week, has been one of staunch solidarity with the values that separate the civilised from the barbaric. The freedom to express ones thoughts and ideas, the right to criticise and satirise ideas, the rule of law; values that were attacked that day in the centre of Paris. This includes the freedom for religious folk to believe and express ideas that I myself find incredibly offensive. But every so often, we hear voices referring to themselves as liberal, or as progressives, making excuses for the violence whilst trying desperately to insist that they’re not making excuses for the violence. As the new edition of Charlie Hebdo went on sale this week, with a picture of Muhammad on the front, Sky News apologised for showing it live on air, and several commentators referred to it as needlessly ‘provoking‘ Muslims. The excuses tend to start with a line like “There can be no excuse for murder, but….” followed by a tirade of victim blaming. For example, Mehdi Hasan’s obscene article for the Huff Post here in which he begins by suggesting it is those who pronounce “Je suis Charlie” who are playing an “us vs them” game, and then himself goes on to play that very game far better than anyone else, by manipulatively implying that Charlie Hebdo focused entirely on Islam, when in reality it mocks the Pope often, Judaism, and Christianity, along with political figures across the World… Here:

“And why have you been so silent on the glaring double standards? Did you not know that Charlie Hebdo sacked the veteran French cartoonist Maurice Sinet in 2008 for making an allegedly anti-Semitic remark? Were you not aware that Jyllands-Posten, the Danish newspaper that published caricatures of the Prophet in 2005, reportedly rejected cartoons mocking Christ because they would “provoke an outcry” and proudly declared it would “in no circumstances… publish Holocaust cartoons”?
Muslims, I guess, are expected to have thicker skins than their Christian and Jewish brethren.”

– He must have been asleep (or, as he puts it “so silent”) when Charlie Hebdo printed this:

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– He must also not be aware that Catholic organisations have attempted to sue Charlie Hebdo on countless occasions for ‘offending’ them. So you see, contrary to Mehdi’s false game of us VS them, Islam is one in a list of ideas that Charlie Hebdo satirised. After this manipulation, Mehdi then proceeds to inform us that he isn’t sure why we’d feel the need to mock religions, but not the Holocaust. One being a 7th Century idea, the other being 6 million people murdered less than a century ago.

There are then several issues I take with the response outlined above. Firstly, I think it is vastly counter-productive. It implies that Islam is in some way different, and must be treated differently to other ideas, and that a protected space must be carved out specifically for one ideological framework of power (in this case, Islam), that no other system of belief is granted. That sort of subtle demand, is then backed by false narratives, like Mehdi’s. There was no anger or claims of racism when Charlie Hebdo mocked Catholicism. If Have I Got News For You mock conservatism, it isn’t usually followed by the suggestion that the show has ‘taken free speech too far’, nor Mehdi Hasan suggesting that Have I Got News For You should consider satirising 9/11 just for some balance. These ideas – Catholicism, conservatism, liberalism, Hinduism, capitalism – are all rightly granted no implied protection. Thus, they are considered on a level playing field, open as they should be, to criticism, mocking, and satire (despite the Pope’s bizarre insistence today that we shouldn’t ‘offend’ religious beliefs). There is no legitimate reason to protect religion – or a single religion – from the forms of criticism that all others are open to. It is in fact vital, that all religions – and in fact, ideas in general, be open to that criticism and mocking. Contrary to what detractors may assume – anti-Muslim hate (that is, the abuse of Muslims, the denial of rights, the demand for denial of equal rights, dehumanising) is not in any way to be compared with mocking the religion. One is violence aimed at human beings, the other is dis-empowering an ideological narrative, & system of morality. To conflate the two, is deeply problematic for a whole host of reasons, and the complete antithesis of secular, liberal inquiry and free expression.

In other words, it is not those of us who openly criticise, or mock Islam that create a taboo around that particular faith. On the contrary, we treat it like any other ideological framework of power. We do not seek to deny Muslims equal rights, we believe those who commit anti-Muslim hate, those who attack Mosques, are grotesque human beings lacking any sense of decency, and we will always defend equal rights & dignity for all, including Muslims. People deserve that, not ideas. Ideas must be open to critique and satire. It is those who seek to protect Islam from mockery (whilst themselves defending the freedom for the religious to continue to believe and express a belief in offensive ideas to the rest of us), that not only create a taboo out of the faith – hence, counter-productive – but also give credit to the extreme idea that one must be a little less forthcoming with our expression on one particular idea, if it might ‘offend’ believers in that one particular idea.

I would also suggest that it is a betrayal of those Muslim voices fighting for secular, liberal values, & free expression against a poisonous narrative within their faith, for liberals who should be on their side of the fight, instead choosing to give credit to the narrative on the extremes.

Secondly, it is a reflection of the authoritarian nature of a religion, when its followers suggest we should either unquestioningly respect the faith, or else keep quiet. Which, in turn, means it is vital that it be open to criticism and satire. If satirising that religion is even a matter of debate, it already has far too much power.

Indeed, your freedom to believe that non-believers are destined an eternity of violent torture in the pits of hell – alongside our apostate and LGBT friends – is my freedom to openly mock that ridiculous (and frankly, offensive) belief. The freedom for Mehdi Hasan to refer to believers as keeping the moral high ground, whilst non-believers as those who “live their lives as animals“, is my freedom to express a distinct lack of respect for that particular moral anchor. Any less, implies that your belief that I am morally lacking, to be eternally tortured, is deserving of a level of unquestioning respect, that my objection (however I express that objection) simply isn’t. Further, if your religion – or political ideal – in any way, extends beyond the individual, to the lives of others (be it non-believers, apostates, the LGBT community) – not only in belief, and writing, but also in practice in many countries on this planet – then it is absolutely vital that that religion be open to the same criticism and satire as every other system of oppression. Indeed, the greatest indicator that a religion so desperately requires being opened up to free expression in all its forms, is if it can result in your murder for doing so.

Islam – like Christianity – is a system of power, regardless of how it is framed by those seeking to protect it. When it has any sort of political power, it is oppressive. This is why it is vital to stand up for the necessity of free expression. But on a purely individual basis; if your religion insists that I am to be burned for eternity in hell for non-belief, then I’m afraid you’re not going to get away with telling me that it is I who is the one being ‘offensive’ for mocking that belief. The freedom to express one, is the freedom to express the other.


France’s March for Unity: A who’s who of global oppression.

January 12, 2015

jesuischarlie, world leaders at french unity rally

It has always bewildered me the level of hypocrisy necessary to demand curbs on expression deemed ‘offensive’ to an Islamist ideological World-view that itself daily offends apostates, non-believers, women, Muslims that aren’t considered Muslim enough, and the entire LGBT community. Nevertheless, Paris was at the centre of the World last week when three gunman brutally murdered 17 human beings for publishing cartoons. France – including all sections of society – reacted in a show of unity, strength and respect for the fundamental right to free expression. But among the marchers were those who seem so entirely out of place. Indeed, Islamists were not the only ones to display hypocrisy this week in France.

The unity march – including 1.4 million people – through the streets of Paris included over 40 World leaders, some of whom, are not too keen on the fundamental human right to free expression:

Queen Rania of Jordan.
Linking arms with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Queen of Jordan presides over a country that is far from an advocate of free expression. In Jordan, if you happen to dislike the King, and you express that particular dislike, you can face up to three years in prison. Similarly, if you ‘insult’ Islam, you may face up to three years in prison (predictably, you may use the Qur’an to insult non-believers with threats of eternal torture). In 2006, two Jordanian journalists were imprisoned and fined for reprinting the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons. In 2003, the newspaper Al Hilal was closed for two months and three of its journalists arrested for publishing an article discussing Muhammad’s sex life. In February 2009, student Imad al-Ash was arrested for sharing “controversial religious opinions” online, and sentenced to two years in prison.

Prime Minister Davutoglu of Turkey.
Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code makes it an offence to insult ‘Turkishness’. In 2008, this was changed from “Turkishness” to “The Turkish Nation”. It brings with it a two year jail sentence. Internet regulation from 2014 allows the Telecommunication and Transmission Authority to ban websites it deems inappropriate. This includes websites that ‘insult’ the state. In 2007, Turkey banned YouTube, for a video that insulted Ataturk. They demanded YouTube remove the video. Rightfully, YouTube refused. In 2008, richarddawkins.net was blocked in Turkey. In 2014 Tayyip Erdogan insisted he’d “wipe out Twitter”, and subsequently, Twitter was blocked.

Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban.
In 2013, the Hungarian Parliament passed a Bill that includes three years in prison for ‘harming another person’s dignity‘ in a video or voice recording. This includes political satire. The law further makes it an offence to harm “the dignity of the Hungarian nation or of any national, ethnic, racial or religious community.

Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra.
Algeria – that enshrines Islam as its state religion, and bans anyone from spreading any other religious idea, punishable with three years in prison – is run by its longest serving President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Under his rule, the newspaper ‘Le Matin’ was censored and closed down, and its journalist imprisoned for exposing corruption. Journalists can be fined for insulting foreign diplomats or politicians, under reforms the media law of 2012.
Article 144 ratified June, 2001:

“It is punishable by imprisonment from 3 to 5 years, and by a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 Algerian Dinars — or, one of these two punishments only — whoever insults the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), any of the other Prophets, or denigrates the practices or rituals of Islam, regardless of whether it is through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means.”

In 2006, 26-year-old Samia Smets was arrested and imprisoned (later overturned) for blasphemy for accidentally dropping a Qur’an into some water. At the 2008 Algiers Book Fair, the Ministry of Religious Affairs banned over 1000 books that they deemed to contain blasphemy. Al Jazeera was banned in 2004. Web services providers can be fined for granting access to sites that are “incompatible with morality or public opinion.” It is bizarre to me that the Algerian government believes it has a monopoly on morality, and that ‘public opinion’ is a static concept free from challenge.

UAE Foreign Minister Shaikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
In 2008 three Filipino workers were imprisoned for ripping out a page of the Qur’an. Their right to work in UAE was revoked. Further, The Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information and Culture bans any books, leaflets, or in fact, any form of written literature, if it is deemed offensive to Islam. Access to websites supportive of democracy & secularism is prohibited.
Article 312:

“Shall be punishable by confinement and by fine or by one of these two penalties any individual who commitsany of the following offences:
1. Offence against any of the Islamic sacred things or rites.
2. To insult and revile any of the recognized divine religions.
3. To portray disobedience in a positive light, to incite thereto, to promote it or to procure any meanssusceptible of tempting people to disobey.
4. To knowingly eat porkmeat while being a Muslim.
Where any of the above offences is committed in public, the punishment shall be either confinement for aminimum period of one year or a fine.”

– Whilst UAE’s foreign minister marched in unity in France this weekend, back home it is illegal to dare to speak your mind, if your mind does not conform to the religious dogma of those who have taken it upon themselves to declare their beliefs supreme.

Prime Minister Jomaa of Tunisia.
The interim Prime Minister joined the march, and also signed the book of condolence at the French embassy in Tunisia on Saturday. This, despite the fact that Tunisian blogger Yassine Ayari was tried for insulting state officials and sentenced to three years by the military, for criticising the military on Facebook. Article 91 of the Code of Military Justice makes it an offence to criticise the “dignity, reputation and morale” of the army. In 2012 Jabeur Mejri was jailed for posting ‘insulting’ pictures of Muhammad on Facebook… or, as the the courts in Tunisia call it; “transgressing morality, defamation and disrupting public order“. He was released in 2014 after two years in prison.

Whilst it was pleasing to see so many people stand together in defence of free expression during the Paris march for unity, it is equally worrying that so many World leaders linking arms that day operate incredibly oppressive restrictions including violence for criticism they can’t handle, perpetuating the notion that ‘blasphemy’ should be restricted & punishable, enshrining one religion into the framework of state, whilst so shamefully out in a show of unity for that same free expression they can’t themselves handle.