The Mormon Delusion Part II: The Book of Abraham.

September 10, 2014

Believed to be a  daguerreotype of Joseph Smith, by Lucian Foster in 1843.

Believed to be a daguerreotype of Joseph Smith, by Lucian Foster in 1843.

When one is to look back over our life, it is often true that we tell ourselves that we couldn’t have predicted we’d be where we are now, ten years ago. The same tends to be true for historical events. When Antonio Lebolo discovered several papyri buried with Egyptian mummies just outside of Thebes in Egypt around 1820, it would have taken a mind gifted with prophecy to predict those small papyri would be considered sacred scripture by the Church of Latter Day Saints some 194 years later.

Lebolo kept the papyri and mummies in his possession until his death in 1830, and by 1833, they were in the collection of Michael Chandler in New York. For the next few years Chandler displayed and sold the artifacts across the United States. Meanwhile, in Kirtland Ohio, the Latter Day Saints were growing in number, around the claims of their prophet Joseph Smith. Smith had claimed to have received and translated golden tablets from a – still undiscovered – ancient Egyptian language known as ‘reformed Egyptian’, into English, directed by the angel Moroni producing tales of an ancient pre-Columbian Israelite civilisation in North America; The Book of Mormon. The clear fraudulent nature of Smith’s claims I wrote on here – “The Mormon Delusion”.

In 1835, two years after collecting the artifacts, Chandler arrived in Kirtland with the papyri and the mummies. The LDS townsfolk – awaiting further revelations from God to His chosen prophet – excitedly pointed Chandler in the direction of Joseph Smith, since they knew he could translate ancient Egyptian following his divine revelations. Smith immediately told Chandler that he’d buy the papyri, and that he absolutely could translate the language, claiming to already recognise several phrases. Excitement gripped the LDS community. When he sat down with his scribes – Phelps and Cowdary – Smith found something astonishing:

“I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt.”

– One of the scrolls, according to Smith, was written by Abraham himself. It took seven years – and a lot of giving up and moving onto other ideas – before Smith finished his translation into what was now termed the ‘Book of Abraham‘. His followers – including the fourth President of the LDS Church Wilford Woodruff – were convinced in the authenticity of the work, and thus the unique status of Smith as a prophet of God. Writing in the 1840s, Woodruff noted:

“Joseph the Seer has presented us some of the Book of Abraham which was written by his own hand but hid from the knowledge of man for the last four thousand years but has now come to light through the mercy of God.”

– The Book of Abraham has been a central text in the sacred writings of the Church of Latter Day Saints ever since. Most convinced of its authenticity as a text written by Abraham, translated by Joseph Smith.

When examining Smith’s claim, it is important to first note that according to his absurd account, the monotheist Israelites hadn’t preserved the writings of Abraham himself, instead, the ancient polytheist Egyptians had preserved the writings, and stored them for posterity in a tomb. Immediately alarm bells should begin to ring.

In an age of experiment, and discovery, of enlightenment and skepticism, Smith’s claims were tested almost immediately. In the 1850s, renowned Egyptologist Théodule Devéria – responsible for studying a collection at the Louvre – examined Smith’s interpretations, including images Smith had copied from the scrolls to his book complete with interpretations. One of the images:

– According to Smith, figure 3 in this image is the priest of Elkenah about to sacrifice Abraham (figure 2). But Devéria and later Egyptologists – to this day – conclude that figure 3 is in fact Anubis, resurrecting Osiris (figure 2). Smith claimed figure 1 was an angel of God, whilst Egyptologists know that figure 1 is in fact the soul of Osiris in the form of a hawk. The image is actually from The Book of Breathings. The LDS website clings to Smith’s interpretation.

Further, the Egyptologists of the 19th Century concluded that due to the fact that in Smith’s image, the god Anubis (figure 3) has a human head rather than a Jackal’s head, the head must have been missing on the original papyrus, and Smith must just have used his imagination. Later, when the papyrus was actually discovered, it turned out that the head of Anubis was indeed missing, leading Smith not only to invent the translation, but completely redraw Egyptian gods. It wasn’t only Anubis that Smith redrew. Here is the actual papyrus that Smith used:

– You will note the missing head of Anubis, as well as the missing head of Osiris. Osiris should have a human head, but Smith drew him with a bird’s head. Figure 7 on the image is referred to as The idolatrous god of Mahmackrah, when in fact, it is the Nile God Hapi. In fact, every figure that Smith names, he gets wrong. Commenting on another image that Smith had wrongly translated, Professor of Assyriology at Oxford, Archibald Sayce wrote:

“It is difficult to deal seriously with Joseph Smith’s impudent fraud …. Smith has turned the goddess into a king and Osiris into Abraham.”

Conveniently, we don’t have the golden tablets that Smith ‘found’, given that the angel Moroni took them back the moment he’d finished translating them, but the papyri were not from a divine source, they were seen by many – not least because Smith had incorrectly copied a couple of pictures into the book. The scrolls were considered destroyed in the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871, where they were on display in a museum, after being sold by Smith’s widow Emma. That is until they were rediscovered in 1960s, studied by Egyptologists, and translated using modern techniques. Predictably – and confirming Théodule Devéria’s excellent debunking – the translated papyri bear no resemblance to the ‘Book of Abraham’ as translated by Smith, and were in fact simple and common funerary texts from ancient Egypt. The images, and the text; Smith had invented the whole thing.

And yet, despite the clear fraud Smith had committed, and its implications for the Book of Mormon, The Book of Abraham to this day is included in The Pearl of Great Price – the canonical text of Mormonism – and contains LDS doctrine fundamental to the faith, including exaltation and priesthood within the church. Mormon apologists go to great lengths to explain away the fraud. The only explanation I have for this, is that the need and the desire to believe so strongly in a faith that has been ingrained since childhood, and forms a major part of an individual’s identity and community, is stronger for many, than the desire to accept that it might – and quite likely is – not true. There is a refusal to move from the basic position that Smith was a Prophet, and so all explanations that arise seem to be a desperate attempt to save that status. Mormonism seems to me to epitomise that desire to protect a strongly held faith at the cost of critical faculties used far more efficiently in every other context. This is the Mormon delusion.

For Part I of ‘The Mormon Delusion’ click here.

Re: The $100,000 atheist challenge.

September 5, 2014

Dear Joshua Feuerstein,

Your recent YouTube video challenging atheists to disprove god for $100,000 has, as you know, received a lot of attention and criticism. I thought I’d offer my thoughts on why I am an atheist, and why it is unlikely that your God exists, because, well, I could really use that $100,000. I have four quick points I wanted to make:

Firstly, it’s important to note what the atheist proposition actually is. Contrary to your statement that we’re trying to claim there is no god that exists outside of our individual knowledge, we invite you to provide evidence that there is, at that point we can have a meaningful discussion. You cannot just assert the existence of a god, and decide it’s meaningful, without it actually based on anything other than you just asserting it. I could assert that I have an invisible, silent monkey on my shoulder, and the fact that the claim cannot be tested and proved or negated doesn’t render it more likely to be true, it renders it the opposite. Very few – if any at all – of us would ever claim with certainty that god doesn’t exist. We simply claim that there is no reason to believe god does exist, and that believers throughout history have never provided a substantial reason for us to believe god exists. The fact that we provide evidence that gravity exists, rather than forcing people by the sword to accept gravity without criticism, implies that evidence can stand on its own whilst precarious falsehoods require coercion to survive.
We do not claim certainty on anything. We do not even claim certainty on the Earth being a sphere. We assert that we are 99.9999% sure that the Earth is a sphere, but we leave 0.0001% open to doubt, because doubt is what drives scientific progress. We do not shut out all arguments that the Earth is not a sphere, instead we weigh the evidence. If the evidence for one position holds greater than the evidence for the other, we accept it. We want to disprove assertions, in order to come to stronger assertions about the nature of nature. So again, my proposition is that you have not provided any reason for me to believe a god exists; this is entirely different from insisting with certainty that god doesn’t exist. Further, by weighing the arguments for gods existence (usually the cosmological argument – which I try to refute here), and the teleological (from design/fine tuning) argument (which has been masterfully refuted by Victor Stenger – though I’d argue that an infinite and unrestricted god could create life for any possible universe, and so the ‘fine tuning’ is rendered unnecessary), and the moral dimension (which you predictably brought up with regards Hitler, and which I wrote on here) I come to the conclusion that I am 99.999% sure that god doesn’t exist. And since you asked for “proof or evidence“, I thought I’d provide what I’d consider evidence that god doesn’t exist.

Secondly, since all the arguments for the existence of god seem to be philosophical in nature, the refutations must be philosophical (when you provide material evidence, we can then scrutinise and attempt to refute it in the way we do with everything else). And from a philosophical point of reference – whilst based on what we know of the observable universe – the idea of a god seems to me to be entirely self defeating. Prof. Hawking notes:

“Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang.”

– With that in mind, let’s examine the implications. If time began at the big bang, by implication everything that exists – since existence requires time (unless you have evidence to the contrary?) – has therefore always existed. There was never a moment when ‘nothing’ could exist. There was never a ‘before’ the big bang, given that ‘before’ denotes a measurement of time, and is entirely reliant on time existing. Also reliant on time, is cause. Since the cosmological argument argues that everything that begins to exist has a creator, we must be consistent and accept that everything that begins to exist, was created in time and space. If god therefore created time and space, He would have required time and space in order to create time and space. We are left with three options; 1) Accepting the absurdity of that. 2) Asserting that god exists in another realm of space and time, that he used to create this realm of space and time. Or 3) Causation does not require space and time at all. If we take option 1, well, you’re close to owing me $100,000. If we take option 2, then you need to provide evidence for a time outside of time, it’s characteristics, and whether or not that realm of time preceded god, which then becomes an endless chain of realms of time, before you give up and accept that what we know of time appears to render god obsolete. Or we could take option 3, which is to say, we require abandoning everything we know of space and time, and starting from scratch, which would only eventually lead us back to where we are now.

Thirdly, there is nothing in nature that requires divine intervention in order to exist. Life itself, did not require the hand of a creator. The entire basis of modern medicine, of modern biology, zoology, genetics, botany, is based on evolution by natural selection (note, this is different from the social Darwinist example you raise when you ask “how is Hitler not the fittest?”). If you seek to suggest that the beautiful tapestry of nature came about not by natural selection, but by divine magic, I await your thesis disproving the basis for all modern biology, zoology, medicine, genetics and botany and replacing with a theistic model. Good luck with that. Whilst it’s true that the biochemical study of the origins of life are yet to fully understand how life sprang into existence, there is no reason to place god in the gap. Indeed, the god-in-the-gap answer has a terrible track record of being wrong on every occasion, and so there’s little reason to suspect it is true on this occasion. By contrast, the scientific method has a pretty great track record.

Fourthly, a quick mention of your suggestion that the knowledge that murder is wrong – and moral principles – came from a divine source. You are right that our ability to deduce right from wrong is an in-built concept (though devout religious folk over the centuries appear to be the exception, as they murdered their way across the globe). But a lack of divine moral structure, does not imply that all moral conclusions must therefore be equal, dismissed as equal opinions. Our understanding of right and wrong is the result of a complex set of ideas. Murder contradicts our evolved ability to empathise with others, whilst posing a direct threat to our survival as a species if accepted universally. We rationalise, and we empathise, and we come to conclusions based on what we understand at that point in time. Sometimes we get it wrong, but we progress. Empathy is an evolved trait from the earliest days of mammal life. From taking care of young, to group living in order to survive, empathy was required for species survival. This isn’t a guess. neurologists invest vast time, and effort into understanding the evolution of empathy. We empathise; that is to say, we imagine ourselves in the position of the other. As we expanded, grew together, asked questions, created art, philosophised, our social needs evolved with them, and morality became very complex. Is that a basis itself for objective moral standards? Perhaps, though not in the form crafted by the religious, of an outside standard that transcends humanity. It is as much a part of our nature, as breathing. It is not separate from humanity. If indeed morality were a set of distinct rules, separate from humanity, existing prior to humanity, set out by a God, it would make sense – if God is to be considered ‘good’ – for those rules to be succinct and lacking ambiguity when handed to humanity. For those rules to be ambiguous, requiring 200,000 years of human suffering and violence to attempt to work out – which God would have known, given that he can see all of time and space – implies a vastly immoral game by the divine rule giver.

Lastly, I think a far better explanation for the origins of the concept of god stem from our evolved sense of curiosity and language to convey that curiosity through art, stories, music etc. At the primitive age of our species, a time in which rainbows were inexplicable and an earthquake was a sure sign that a small tribe had angered god, we had no explanations based in observable science. But we do have wonderful imaginations, a desire to understand, and we appeal to forces beyond our understanding, because we’re influenced by mystery. At a time when tribes across the World wished to explain the origins of their community, we see wonderful stories of Romulus of Rome, we see P’an Ku’s egg in China, we see the Lakota tell the tale of Ite, and we see the people in around Judea tell the story of Adam & Eve. We are a beautifully imaginative species, but when we apply the scientific method based on observed and repeated evidence, instead of coming closer to proving god, we shrink the space in which he resides, whilst at the same time sending Voyager 1 to the very limits of the solar system and beyond, and creating the internet for you to issue challenges. The scientific method works, and it hasn’t led to god. That is why I am atheist.


Futile Democracy.

God’s tapestry & the problem of foresight.

September 2, 2014

There was a moment during a debate between Dr William Lane Craig & Christopher Hitchens, in which Hitchens points out that to believe in the Christian narrative, one would have to believe that for 200,000 years of human existence, through the awful conditions that our fragile species barely survived within, through the disease and violence, through it all, heaven didn’t particularly care. 198,000 years later, heaven decided it was now time to intervene, by having a 1st century Palestinian Jew tortured to death somewhere in the Middle East. Laurence Krauss used a similar argument in his debate with Dr Craig also.

Craig countered and insisted that it wasn’t the timing that was important, but population, in that only 2% of the overall population of mankind existed prior to Christ and that Christ appeared to have arrived at a time prior to a population boom. Dr Craig referred to this as God choosing “an opportune moment” to send Jesus, right before massive population growth. Leaving aside God’s lack of concern for the poor 2%, and the fact that an all-powerful God could have created a population boom whenever He pleased rendering the “opportune moment” suggestion meaningless, I think it important to note the consequences of that “opportune moment” chosen to intervene, and its implications for the premise of the Christian God.

For, not only would you need to believe that for 198,000 years heaven peered on with indifference, but you’d also have to believe that either God did not foresee the future consequences of choosing that moment and that specific region to send Christ to ‘save’ mankind and the suffering that it would entail, or He did foresee it, and was absolutely fine with it; the problem of foresight.

All religious narratives suffer a form of contradiction every so often, whether that be contradiction within texts themselves, or the text contradicting the premise of the God on offer. In this case – the problem of foresight – it is the latter that we’re focusing on, because the premise of an all-knowing God implies eternal foresight, whilst the historical consequences of what Christian’s believe to be God’s actions, imply a God unaware of how this plan was going to turn out, or simply an uncaring God (contradicting the concept of an all-loving God).

For Christianity, time – God’s creation – is laid out in front of Him like a tapestry that He wove. Before the events of Genesis 1, He already knew, because He created as a timeless absolute, the consequences of the actions of all mankind at all times, from the hugely consequential decision to convert the Roman Empire to the faith, right through to an individual’s private sex life in the 21st Century. He sees it all and crucially, He can intervene whenever He chooses. And yet it seems unfathomable that such a power would be so oblivious – or simply uncaring – to the consequences of the manner in which His followers would convey the Christian message over the centuries. Indeed, He necessarily knew the consequences, and again sat back with indifference for the next 2000 years.

Whilst not wishing to document every instance of Christian-led persecution over the past 2000 years, it is perhaps worth noting a few, in order to highlight the contradiction and the problem of foresight.

It must be the case, that an all-knowing God knew that the brutality by which Christian Emperors of Rome – like Constantius and his persecution of Pagans – would aid the growth and power of Christian dogma into a disastrous dark age and the suppression of all things ‘heretical’ – including extensive book burning – for at least the next thousand years. He could have encouraged free inquiry in medicine, democratic accountability in political affairs, astronomy, human liberty, and all over forms of inquiry that simultaneously shrink the gaps by which God traditionally resides, whilst elevating the suffering of mankind. With few exceptions, the opposite occurred. Along with the centuries-long justification of tyrannical Christian power under the guise of “divine right”, and knowing as He would have if He were all-knowing, among other edicts of suppression, that the Emperor Jovian would order the burning of the library at Antioch, through to the child abuse scandal of the modern day Catholic Church.

It must be the case, that an all-knowing God knew that a great deal of Europe’s human beings – like Thomas Moore – and their families would suffer the indignity of religious-inspired state murder; the unimaginable physical and psychological pain that comes with confinement and executed for such nuanced differences as whether or not the King or the Pope had supreme control of the Church. His own devout followers, who offered nothing but devotion and love, He knew would be subject to the most cruel punishments for simple disagreements. An all-knowing God would necessarily have seen this in great detail, long before the “In the beginning…” of Genesis 1.

It must be the case, that an all-knowing God before events described in Genesis 1, knew the tragedy that would beset Native tribes in the Americas when the sincerely believed Christian message was forcefully imposed. Indeed, He knew far greater the reason for that pain and tragedy than the Friar’s involved, yet started the ball rolling down that inevitable path by sending Christ, and very mixed messages in the Holy Book that followed. Ken Burns documentary ‘The West’ notes one 18th Century Friar during the missionary period firmly believing his life’s work must be to save Natives from damnation, confused as to its clear failure, saying:

“They live well free, but as soon as we reduce them to a Christian and community life… they fatten, sicken and die.”

– The Friar could not understand how a Godly message of what he considered to be saving grace, was having such an adverse affect on the Native population. God however, does not get the luxury of such an excuse.

It must be the case that an all-knowing God knew that Jerusalem would be a Holy centre for three major faiths, and consequently, the centre of such a violent dispute. He set humanity up for that inevitable conflict. The Gods of Islam and Judaism don’t escape this criticism either.

And most notably, it must be the case that an all-knowing God knew that 1700+ years later, a movement to prevent further Christian state brutality, and to free human ingenuity and autonomy required the disestablishing of Christian authority over the public realm.

The birth of Jesus was a moment that would change the course of history for humanity… though not for God, who knew how it all would pan out anyway. It is on that second point that it is not viable to suggest He provided that divine message, and that from that moment on, it was up to humanity to live according to it. It is not viable, because with the tapestry of time laid out in front of Him, He could see the minute-by-minute detail of exactly how His message would be used, and He chose to go with that course anyway; in fact, He created that course and intrinsically stitched humanity to it. Indeed, to suggest God is all-knowing, is to suggest humanity has no choice but to follow the path God is already aware that he/she will follow. The only possible way to deflect from that path, is to be more powerful than God, which again, contradicts the premise of the all-powerful Christian God.

And so we’re left with three possibilities; 1) God knew exactly how the course of human history would be affected by the onset of Christianity, and not simply allowed, but forced through His unbreakable tapestry, centuries of violent oppression – including the suppression of scientific endeavor – to take place for the sake of a grand scheme that He refuses to reveal. This is appealing because it allows for the all-knowing God, yet leaves a lot to be desired for the notion of an all-loving God, seeming as it does to imply that God is playing a cruel game with human beings who have no choice. 2) God is restricted by time, cannot see the long stretching consequences of His actions, which implies He is not all-knowing, nor all-powerful and if we look back over the course of history of the religion, reads like a series of bad decisions by the divine. Or 3) There is no God, and the flawed species of humanity is responsible for its own shortcomings. Because the problem of foresight as summarised in points 1 and 2 necessarily contradict the Christian premise of an all-loving, all-knowing God, I am further led to conclude that point 3 is the more likely.

The fallacy of religious ‘objective morality’.

August 29, 2014

All atheists have come up against it at some point in their lives. Along with ‘so you think everything came from nothing?’, it is the main weapon in the ever shrinking theist arsenal. I’m talking of course, about the obsession with ‘objective’ morality and the absurdity that follows; ‘How can you condemn Hitler? By what standard?’ At first glance, it sounds like a philosophical conundrum that we may find troubling to deal with. But scratch the surface, and it really isn’t that difficult to respond to, without even having to begin to quote vastly immoral passages from those books.

There are several key problems, but the one I wanted to focus on is the misguided belief that religion provides a desirable objective moral standard. It is simply untrue that a moral
Statement magically transforms from ‘subjective’ to ‘objective’ by preceding it with a simple “my God says….”. I thought I’d highlight where I see the problems:

Firstly, to insist on an ‘objective’ moral base sent straight from heaven to humanity – the very base upon which a ‘subjective’ moral conclusion becomes ‘objective’ – one must conclusively prove the existence of your particular God. This means not simply convincing yourself of the existence of God, but convincing the rest of us also. Otherwise, the word ‘objective’ seems very familiar to the word ‘subjective’ and any moral judgement can be declared ‘objective’ if it is preceded with the phrase “My God said…“. We often hear from the religious the rather manipulative dichotomy presented as ‘Man’s law, or God’s law‘. Without first proving the existence of your God, what that dichotomy actually breaks down to, is 21st century Man’s law, or 1st/7th century Man’s law. If you cannot conclusively prove the existence of your God (this requires first proving the existence of a creator, followed by proof that the creator is all ‘good’ rather than all ‘evil’, followed by the leap from creator to your specific God) – through more than simple philosophical guesswork – the case for ‘objective morality’ or ‘God’s law’ falls before it’s even begun.

Secondly, both the Bible and Qur’an are subject to a myriad of interpretations and continual revisions depending on the context of the time and place, and the individual believer. Sit a liberal, secular Christian in a room with the Westboro Baptist Church, and the differences between them will be an ocean the size of the Pacific. Indeed, we see members of ISIS differing intensely in interpreting Islam’s ‘objective moral base’ from that of their immediate family members. If members of the same faith, in the same household, cannot agree on the meaning of countless ambiguous passages, nor can scholars over the course of time agree, constantly revising its meanings to fit a more modern narrative, it doesn’t get the luxury of being referred to as an ‘objective base’ for morality. If a divine being sent down obscure passages that believers in the same house hold cannot agree on, I’m afraid that reflects terribly on God’s ability to convey his message.

Thirdly, our nature is often – not always – in direct conflict with the idea of objective moral standards. Religion did not inform us that senseless murder is wrong (often, religion permits murder). We know this intuitively, and we punish murder, because murder contradicts our evolved ability to empathise with others, whilst posing a direct threat to our survival as a species if accepted universally. We empathise; that is to say, we imagine ourselves in the position of the other. Is that a basis itself for objective moral standards? Perhaps, though not in the form crafted by the religious, of an outside standard that transcends humanity. It is as much a part of our nature, as breathing. It is not separate from humanity. If indeed morality were a set of distinct rules, separate from humanity, existing prior to humanity, set out by a God, it would make sense – if God is to be considered ‘good’ – for those rules to be succinct and lacking ambiguity when handed to humanity. For those rules to be ambiguous, requiring 200,000 years of human suffering and violence to attempt to work out, implies a vastly immoral game by the divine rule giver.

It is then essential to note that humanity is not perfect. We are a wonderful yet very flawed species, and that reflects on our collective ideals over time, as we learn and grow. Morality is informed by complex interactions, including but my no means limited to our collective knowledge, our history, our mistakes, our experiences, and our evolved human intelligence – this essentially includes empathy and the ability to rationalise – at any given time. We are a complex species with deep flaws. Morality does not escape that. It evolved from our basic need to cooperate in order to survive the harshest of conditions, and grew as we grew. It is a natural condition in which without it, humanity would not have survived. Indeed, morality is essential for the survival of our species, yet not confined to our species. We see through the research of primatologists like Frans de Waal that our ape cousins show basic forms of moral reasoning; cooperation, conflict resolution etc. Morality is natural, and ever evolving. As with most natural occurrences – sexuality, gender, spirituality – religions tend to try to grab hold of nature, as if they own it, and shape it to fit the dictates of the faith, which in turn has the most awful consequences for those ‘outside’ of its narrow spectrum of what is to be considered God’s plan. In the case of morality, chaining moral progress by attempting to anchor moral ideals to tribal squabbles of 1st Century Palestine or 7th Century Arabia, and the obscurity of the passages that emerged as a result of those squabbles, is a distortion of nature, an attempt to reshape our nature, and by extension will without exception always end in oppression, because it cannot abide the nature of updated knowledge that contradicts 1st or 7th century far less informed dictates. From lands that were very patriarchal and very heterosexual dominated, it should come as no surprise that heterosexual males are the ones who coincidentally, God seems to offer the most privileges and power.

Further, there is a bizarre suggestion from the faithful, that no divine objective set of moral standards implies all moral conclusions are to be considered equal. For me, this isn’t true. One moral conclusion may be based on the available evidence and data, applied on a framework of our natural inclinations encompassing empathy among others, whilst the opposing moral conclusion may lack all evidence basing itself on mere belief, dismissing all contrary consideration. The two are not to be considered of equal weight. This is why I object to the reductive terms “objective” and “subjective” when speaking of morality. I don’t accept either.

So, we have noted that what the religious refer to as ‘objective’ requires as a bare minimum the conclusive proof of the existence of their particular God to begin its journey to actual objectivity; that what they tend to call ‘objective’ right now is simply their own subjective interpretation of ambiguous passages; and that anchoring morality to the moral ideals of a specific time and place is both unnatural, and by definition oppressive. So when theists insist that you as an atheist do not have an objective moral base distinct from humanity itself, by which to make moral judgements, the simple answer is; neither do you.

Spirituality does not require religion.

August 26, 2014

Buddhist Temple in Leshan, China.

Buddhist Temple in Leshan, China.

Back in 2010, the culture editor of Jesuit magazine ‘America’, the Jesuit priest Reverend James Martin wrote a book titled ‘The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything‘, in it, he criticises those who consider themselves spiritual, but not religious. I thought I’d offer my criticisms of several points Martin raises.

I felt it worth pointing out first – as a reference – exactly what spirituality means to me. For me, spirituality is serious inner engagement with what it means to be human. Whether we as individuals choose to involve religion or not in our personal journey, we are all spiritual, because we are all flawed and we do not like flaws. As a complex and diverse species blessed with curiosity and a burning desire for definitive answers – this, I believe is the reason for the development of religion – we cannot deal too well with flaws. We want definitive answers now. Prior to the scientific method of inquiry, we invented wonderful tales and myths to explain the seemingly inexplicable – and often terrifying – in a simple way, because we need answers, even when answers seem so complex and far away. It is how we explained volcanoes and earthquakes, rainbows and vast oceans. Not only that, but we evolved as a group species, across habitats, with a yearning for individual freedom, creating diverse social bonds. We are intrigued by beauty, we cry at the pain of others, we try to grasp fleeting happiness and make it last, we have different triggers that anger us, and we have no idea what the hell is going on most of the time, and that’s a frightening idea. We are simply very confused apes. Spirituality is a way we deal with that confusion. Evolved human intelligence has produced brilliant, yet tangled minds that brought great development aiding the survival of the species, but at the cost of inner emotional turmoil that affects us all. Spirituality is simply an individual shaped by the majesty and flaws of human evolution, and by their own experiences and memories, attempting to reconcile those confusions and those contradictions, a sort of unraveling of tangled wires in our minds, by our own minds. If religion helps an individual with that, great. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too.

Martin says:

“Religion can provide a check against my tendency to think that I am the center of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.”

– For Catholics to speak of their faith as humble, despite having their own city state and a massive palace, takes quite the imagination. And so I would argue the opposite to that which James Martin asserts. Religion does not check a tendency to believe oneself to be the centre of the universe. Quite the opposite, religion teaches that the chosen few are the centre of the universe. We inhabit an infinitesimally small section of time, in a universe so massive in both time and space that it requires great arrogance to believe a small section of a global population on a tiny planet are the ones blessed by a universal creator. We do not know how a universe springs into being. It is religion that teaches us that a personal God did it. A God that created everything specifically for humans, and cares who you have sex with. Indeed, not only are the chosen few the centre of the universe, not only was all of time waiting for over 13 billion years for them to spring up for a few seconds, but the rules of the chosen few must be placed upon those who do not adhere to its beliefs. The shackles of religious privilege in a secular country like the US can be quite clearly observed when we note how long it is taking to afford equal rights to same-sex couples, and the absurdity by which Christian bosses at Hobby Lobby believe the private lives of their employees, are to be linked to God against their will. We see ISIS insisting that their brand of Islam must engulf an entire region, whether the people of that region accept it or not. Martin’s implication that spirituality requires religion, is not humility, nor is it checking a tendency to believe oneself the centre of the universe. It is the exact opposite.

“More problematic than Sheilaism are spiritualities entirely focused on the self, with no place for humility, self-critique or any sense of responsibility for the community. Certain “New Age” movements find their goal not in God, or even the greater good, but in self-improvement — a valuable goal — but one that can degenerate into selfishness.”

– This strikes me as a particularly bizarre passage. The implication is that without a religious base for spiritual development, there can be no sense of humility (again, ironic given the history of the Catholic church), self-critique, or sense of responsibility, yet the goal is self improvement; which requires self-crique, and a sense of humility and responsibility. Critique, humility, and a sense of responsibility are not wholly owned subsidiaries of the religious community, which is why Eastern traditions – like Taoism – do not invoke an all powerful personal God for spiritual guidance. Gautama Buddha rejected the notion of a creator and personal God, and by Martin’s standards, Buddhists are therefore lacking a key ingredient to spiritual development. Critique, humility and a sense of communal responsibility are evolved traits from a communal and individual species, that informs our decision making, our daily interactions, and our progress as individuals and as a species. Without the development of human intelligence from Homo Habilis, through to Homo Sapiens, there would be no religion usurping the legacy of our wonderful ancestry. Religion owes its existence to evolved developments in human intelligence, not the other way around.

“Human beings naturally desire to be with one another, and that desire extends to worship. It’s natural to want to worship together, to gather with other people who share your desire for God, and to work with others to fulfill the dreams of your community.”

– This is true. But it’s not limited to gathering for religious purposes. Spiritual people do not require a belief in God to gather and to share spiritual experiences and stories. Church or Mosque or Synagogue are places that may facilitate that communal sense in-built to human beings, but we’ve been gathering, telling stories, painting art works, playing music, listening to each other and progressing long before the first Church sprang up. Secular atheists do not require the invoking of God in order to gather, to share stories, and to ‘work with others to fulfill the dreams of the community’. We don’t believe in a God, so it wouldn’t aid our spiritual journey to do so.

As an atheist, my spiritual journey is an attempt to understand myself on a deeper level, to progress, to love, to be a better person, to experience beauty, to always question my motives and thoughts, to establish my place within the wider community, and to reconcile conflicts in my life and in my mind. It does not require a belief in God.

It appears to me that the Reverend James Martin has attempted to claim spirituality and the natural human ability for self critique and development, for religion. As religious folk attempt to do with morality, it seems the religious are now taking credit for the evolution of human intelligence. Quite contrary to Martin’s attempts, Christianity simply attempted to anchor the moral musings, as well as spiritual developments of a single time and place – 1st Century Palestine – for the rest of forever. Religion therefore jumped on a moral and spiritual train already speeding along the tracks, whilst implying that they have been driving the train all along.

Creationists: Give equal airtime to P’an Ku.

May 15, 2014

P'an Ku - Creator of the universe, according to ancient Chinese mythology.

P’an Ku – Creator of the universe, according to ancient Chinese mythology.

Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ has been given a wonderful new life with Neil deGrasse Tyson resurrecting the popular series this year. But not everyone agrees. As we’re all aware by now, creationists across the US are incensed that ‘Cosmos’ only relies on an abundance of scientific data, rather than Bronze aged myths.

Whilst the complaint appears to be that ‘Cosmos’ doesn’t allow for the possibility of ‘creation science’, they specifically seem to mean Christian notions of young earth creation. As if scientific data, and the Book of Genesis, offer equally as viable explanations. But it seems to me that Christian creationists are guilty of the same charge they throw at ‘Cosmos’. Creationists should also be asking: Why aren’t Christian creationists willing to offer equal air time, and a place on the school science curriculum for the ancient Chinese creator of everything; P’an Ku.

China is rich with beautifully crafted mythology, framing the cultural heritage of one of the oldest civilisations on the planet. In the third century, the Chinese author Xú Zhěng wrote of the creation of the heavens, the earth, and everything on it from a Taoist perspective (A Buddhist perspective of the myth differs slightly). The creator is P’an Ku. As with most creation myths, a great void preceded P’an Ku, until the chaos of that void pulled together to form an egg. The egg lasted for 18,000 years. Inside the egg existed the elements of the universe, working to balance the concepts of Yin and Yang, until they perfectly aligned. Once aligned, the egg began to open and P’an Ku emerged. P’an Ku worked tirelessly with the perfect principles of Yin and Yang to create opposites; wet and dry, day and night, male and female.

The top part of the shell that cracked open as P’an Ku escaped, became the sky. The bottom part of the shell became the earth. Another 18,000 years passed as P’an Ku pushed up the sky, and pushed down the earth, as they grew larger and larger each day. Each day, P’an Ku grew six feet taller than the day before. P’an Ku parted the heavens and the earth (a claim that Muslims – like Zakir Naik – like to believe comes directly from the Qur’an and is evidence of their holy book mentioning the big bang; in reality, it’s a concept that preceded the Qur’an, existing in a plethora of creation myths).

Once the sky and the earth had been created, P’an Ku died. His body fell apart, and collapsed down to the earth. His final breaths became the wind that would forever circle the planet. His roaring voice became thunder. His teeth and bone marrow became metals. His blood became the waters in the rivers; the rivers controlled the earth before humanity. One of his eyes became the sun, and the other the moon. His head became the mountains. This idea of the dead body of the creator becoming a part of his creation, is reflected in the Norse creation myth of Ymir, whose flesh becomes the earth, and his blood becomes the rivers and seas. One must also note the similarity with the body of Jesus becoming the bread, and his blood becoming the wine served at the Eucharist. Unlike the God of Christianity, P’an Ku didn’t create humans, that was left to the Goddess Nüwa; the creator of humanity.

Nüwa was lonely on the earth by herself, so she started to create sheep, and horses among other creatures, to keep her company. After a while, she hand crafted humans out of clay. This process became tiresome, and so Nüwa dunked a vine in clay, and swung it around, with each droplet becoming a human. At times, she continued to hand craft humans out of clay, and those chosen few became the nobility.

And that is story of P’an Ku, and the creation of everything.

Humanity is a wonderfully creative and curious species. The Chinese merged those two together, to form the story of P’an Ku. Creation myths are beautifully creative, and expertly crafted works of art. They exist as an example of humanity’s ceaseless quest for understanding and explanation, in the primitive age of our species. But they are not testable explanations or predictions that can be applied reliably, and so they are not science. This is as true for the myth of P’an Ku as it is for the Biblical creation myth. If creationists wish to see equal airtime given to Christian creation myths as to science, or to be taught as science in schools, there is no reason the curriculum – or ‘Cosmos’ – shouldn’t also include every other possible creation myth – including P’an Ku – throughout history. All the more so, in a secular country.

Secularism VS Islam – Terry Sanderson VS Abdullah al Andalusi

May 7, 2014

I recently watched this debate between Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, and Abdullah al Andalusi of the Muslim Debate Initiative:

Around the 9:20 mark, Abdullah al Andalusi argues that same-sex marriage, is in fact anti-secular, in that it imposes humanist values on society. I will use this brief article, to point out the flaw in his logic:

“Recently there was a discussion about gay marriages and they said that it should be allowed. That gay marriages should be allowed, and so on. But that’s actually not the state being neutral to the issue of how humans should organise themselves. The state is now saying that marriage now means something, that we’re going to give it a different value or a different meaning to it a and now we’re going to implement this as law. This issue of same gender marriage is an example of the state getting involved in the issues of society. And now that they try to teach in school… to children [he says this in a tone that suggests disgust]… that gay marriage is an acceptable life path, that is also getting involved in the values.”

– Contrary to al Andalusi’s assertion, legalising same sex marriage, and teaching kids that no single sexuality is privileged, is absolutely the state remaining neutral on matters of religious belief, by not permitting religious belief to interfere with civil and individual rights. This is not to claim that the state remains neutral on how a society should organise itself, simply that my liberty should not be at the mercy of your religious beliefs. It is the opposite of religious privilege. It is quite simple; secularism provides equal protection for all, establishing a line of equality, whereby no one individual belief permitted the privilege of controlling the life of another.

In the case of same sex marriage, it seems to me that there are two distinct options:

Firstly, the state concedes to the demands of a religious sect, permits a right – in this case marriage – to one specific group, and erects barriers to that same liberty for others. It is therefore a right the privileged few enjoy for themselves, whilst denying it for others. This is the opposite of secular, and completely unjustifiable, simply because the followers of a single religion have permitted themselves the privileged right to decide upon who gets the the same rights as they themselves enjoy. To injure the liberty of others, you must provide a reason that isn’t simply based on your belief. For example, I give up my liberty to steal from you, because I don’t want you to steal from me, and so we enshrine this mutual pact into law. To restrain the right to marry, for two loving and consenting adults who are not in anyway harming your liberty, whilst you yourself enjoy the right you seek to restrict for others, would be the equivalent of me presuming the privilege of banning you from your right to disagree with me, whilst I myself enjoy the liberty to disagree with you. This is how supremacist systems work; it is how racial supremacist systems operated, and it is how religious supremacist systems operate. It is by definition, oppression.

The second option is the opposite; if I enjoy a specific right – in this case, as a heterosexual man (and so, already privileged through much of history, for no justifiable reason) – I have no inherent right to prevent your equal enjoyment of the same right. To do so, would be to presume I am deserving of a privilege that a homosexual person isn’t. To presume this, requires ideology, or in this case, religion. For the state to stay neutral, it must not grant me the privilege that I seek to enjoy a liberty whilst denying it others according to my religious beliefs. This is equally true for you, and does not impose itself upon your liberty. You – as a religious individual opposed to same sex marriage – still have the exact same rights you’ve always had, and are not forced to live according to anyone else’s dictates. Afford others the same. The state breaking down the barrier to sexuality equality, is not the same as the state oppressing a single right of yours. You lose nothing that you could justify keeping, when the state opens the cage door and frees those that your religion has locked inside for far too long. To put it simply, one of these options is to chain the right to life, to your individual belief. The other, is to free people from the chains of your individual belief. The latter, is how the state remains neutral, not the former.

On the issue of education; no one is claiming that the state is not ‘getting involved in the values’ of society. The value is simple; no single religious belief is permitted a privileged state position, including the privilege to institutionalise through state education, the dehumanising of human beings (including children in that room) that they dislike, simply because according to ancient myth (and not reality), God destroyed Sodom. You are fully entitled to that belief, you just aren’t entitled to make life hell for the group you personally dislike. To highlight this concept another way; in a classrom, Child A is not allowed to strike Child B, despite Child A believing he has an inherent right to strike Child B but that Child B has no right to strike him back. Child A believes the teacher should permit him the right to strike Child B, but that he himself should be protected from Child B invading his own liberty not to be struck. The restriction of Child A’s demands for privilege, does not qualify as the teacher not being neutral. It is the opposite.

I’m sure we’d both agree that the state shouldn’t be educating children to believe that being Muslim according to one’s free conscience is not an acceptable lifestyle path, if someone in the country has a God that tells them Muslims are evil. This would be the state privileging other beliefs, and oppressing Muslims. Or that having blue eyes is not an acceptable lifestyle path, because someone in the country has a God that tells them people with blue eyes are evil. This would be the state privileging all other eye colours, and oppressing those with blue eyes. Similarly, ensuring that children are not taught that heterosexuality is inherently ‘right’, whilst homosexuality inherently ‘wrong’, is the very essence of a secular education. In the same way that the state doesn’t teach that being white is inherently ‘right’, and any other ethnicity inherently ‘wrong’. To do so would be to provide state privilege based solely on the personal belief of those seeking the privilege.

The state remains neutral, by its line of equality, ensuring no child is inherently deserving of discrimination simply on account of sexuality, ethnicity, gender, or belief, where it doesn’t interfere with the liberty of others, and so allowing the individual talents of that child to be free from religious oppression. It is the protection of all, from all. This is secularism.

This is where it seems – like many Theists – Abdullah al Andalusi does not understand secularism.

The Khilafah of al-Nabhani

April 30, 2014

Hizb ut-Tahrir demonstration in Copenhagen.  By: EPO (Own work). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hizb ut-Tahrir demonstration in Copenhagen.
By: EPO (Own work).
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 2011, Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir posted a graphic on their website that reads:

“The Khilafah is a state for all people, Muslim and Non-Muslim, to live under the system ordained for them by their Creator, where the leader is chosen by them and accounted by them, and no man, ruler, or ruled is above the divine law that was sent to establish the truth, uphold divine justice, and spread the message of Islam to the World. The rights of all are secured, their needs satisfied and their dreams pursued. It is a state where women are honoured, the weak and vulnerable protected, wealth is circulated throughout society, not only among the rich, and where people live in harmony with themselves, their family, their neighbours, community, society, environment and their Lord.”

– Naturally, I take issue with this entire paragraph. Not least because the phrase “their creator” is meaningless to me, what with being atheist. And so the entire political system derived from religious – in this case Islamic – belief, is simply man made moral guidelines from the 7th and 8th centuries, where it continues to linger.

As it happens, the founder of the Hizb ut-Tahrir, Taquiuddin al-Nabhani, left us what he referred to as ‘A draft constitution of the Islamic state’. So it’s perhaps worth cross referencing the claims in the above passage, with what their founder had to say on how an Islamic caliphate would affect those of us who aren’t of the Islamist persuasion.

The first claim is:

“The Khilafah is a state for all people, Muslim and Non-Muslim, to live under the system ordained for them by their Creator, where the leader is chosen by them and accounted by them…”

– According to al-Nabhani, this isn’t particularly true. Article 26 of Nabhani’s draft constitution:

“Every sane Muslim of legal age, male or female, has the right to elect the Khalifah and to give him the Ba’yah. Non Muslims have no right in this issue.”

– The claim by Hizb, that Muslims and Non-Muslims would have the ability to choose their leader, is not shared by their founder. According to al-Nabhani, we non-muslims are expected to give up our claim to equal civil rights; our right to choose who governs us; our right to voice our opposition at the ballot box; our right to stand for public office; our right to the equal protections under the law afforded Muslims, as afforded the rest of us (because there’s no justifiable reason to oppress equal democratic rights) in secular countries. Article 126 states:

“Every wealth which can be disposed of only through the opinion and Ijtihad of the Khalifah is considered to be State wealth. Examples of this are the funds raised through general taxes, Kharaj, and Jizya, which is payable by non-Muslims.”

– So, we non-Muslims are to give up our right to public office, our right to choose our leaders, and enter the cage to be ruled over according to the dictates of a faith we are quite certain does not have divine law in the first place… and then we must also pay a tax to uphold this cruelty. We pay for our own oppression. You can call it “divine” all you want; oppression is oppression, and that is exactly what Hizb advocate. This all quite obviously negates the next claim:

“The rights of all are secured, their needs satisfied and their dreams pursued.”

– What if I dream of public office? What if a woman seeks public office? What if someone decides they no longer believe Islam to be true? Well, Nabhani isn’t too keen on either of those. Article 37 refutes Hizb’s claim that ‘the rights of all are secured’:

“Furthermore, the Khalifah must not appoint any female or non-Muslim governor”

– By ‘rights of all’ they appear to mean; the right for Muslim men to grant themselves a privileged position of power over the rest of us, tax us for the pleasure, and so tenderly gift us with “rights” that Muslim men have decided are acceptable for us, based on their personal beliefs. How generous!

The next claim:

“It is a state where women are honoured”

– Whilst history is quite clear that religion mixed with the state isn’t exactly a great liberator of women (as well as gay people, apostates, and non-believers), perhaps al-Nabahni’s Islamic supremacist state will change that. So, how does he intend to provide for the ‘honour’ of women? Well, we’ve seen that women are to give up their right to seek public office, and be ruled over entirely by men. Further, al-Nabhani says:

“A woman is primarily a mother and a home maker. She is an honor that must be safeguarded.”

– This is a wonderful example of a deeply oppressive man dictating to an entire gender exactly what their role should be, whether an individual woman agrees or not, regardless of what she wants for her life, enshrining it in a constitution made by men for the sake of the power of men, and then justifying it by objectifying that gender as a weak and mild group that big strong men are tasked with protecting. Enshrining presumed gender roles is the opposite of liberation and “honouring” women. He continues in Article 112:

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

– It takes a very strange mind to argue that the right to stand for election and hold public office for all regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or faith is oppressive, whilst the right to stand for election and public office for male Muslims only, is a great liberator.

As well as banning women from seeking office, and institutionalising gender roles, what other delights can women expect?

“Article 114
(Khulwa) a man and a woman are not allowed to be alone without a Mahrem. (Tabaruj) Make up and dress that normally catches attention and/or exposes the body are not allowed in front of non- Mahrem.

– Predictably, women are only allowed to wear what a man has permitted. The state will also control who you and I are allowed to be alone with, based on what appears to be the sexual frustration of Islamist men. Today I enjoyed a coffee with a female friend in private. We talked about the weather, and Devon. Hizb ut-Tahrir wish to stop that terrible evil ever happening again!

As a non-believer, how will my children be educated? I’d hope they’d be educated to be curious, to question, to engage in free inquiry, and be completely liberated from religious indoctrination and dogma. Al-Nabhani says:

“The Islamic ‘Aqeeda constitutes the basis upon which the curriculum rests. The syllabus and the teaching methods are designed to prevent a departure from this basis”

“The Islamic culture must be taught at all levels of education.”

– So, my kids will be indoctrinated into a faith that I absolutely do not wish for them. More non-Muslim oppression. Hizb ut-Tahrir has now assumed the right to control the minds of my children. This is the game of a very insecure faith, given that it requires childhood indoctrination rather than a liberated search for truth, in order to survive.

As a non-believer, if I were to marry a muslim woman, Hizb ut-Tahrir would happily take my children away from me:

“The custody of children is both a right and duty of the mother, whether she is a Muslim or not, as long as the child is in need for it. When children, girls or boys, are no longer in need of care, they are to choose which parent they wish to live with. This applies if both parents are Muslim. If only one of the parents or guardians is a Muslim, there is no choice in the matter. The child is to join the Muslim.”

– Not only is a child to be psychologically abused by the forcing of a choice between parents if both parents are Muslim, but a child of a non-Muslim and a Muslim is to be forcefully removed from the non-Muslim.

So, that’s the oppression of non-believers, the control of the minds of our children, the taking of our children, the oppression of women for the sake of empowering muslim men (amusingly, elsewhere on their website, Hizb argue vehemently that this is in no way an Islamic dictatorship). Who else must give up their basic civil rights – and in fact, their right to actually be alive – to be accommodated by Hizb ut-Tahrir’s perfect state? Well, article 7 part C states:

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

– There is very little room to argue that this putrid statement is anything other than the complete opposite of liberty. It is the taking of a life, based on your personal religious belief. Let’s say I somehow come around to the idea of having my political and social rights rescinded, that I’m suddenly fine being arrested for the crime of talking to a woman in private, that I have no problem with my children being kidnapped by religious fascists, let’s say I’m fine with all that… I now have to watch as the same religious fascists, murder my ex-Muslim friends? And this is a state of peace and harmony? Sounds like paradise for fascists, and one big prison cell for the rest of us. Hizb ut-Tahrir have assumed the right for themselves to murder others who no longer believe as they belief. If this is beginning to sound like a very violent cult, it’s because it is. Institutionalised supremacy – religious, racial, or otherwise – is best upheld when it is accompanied by fear. And nothing is more oppressive and fear-inducing than claiming ownership of the minds of individuals, by threatening to murder them if they freely and individually utilise their faculties of reason to come to a conclusion that differs from those who seek to cage them.

Uthman Badar of Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia once said:

“Insulting another person’s beliefs does not encourage them to think. Instead, it makes them more entrenched, defensive and prepared to retaliate – that’s human nature.”

– Well Uthman, threatening to murder people if they no longer believe exactly as you do, also doesn’t encourage much thinking. Incidentally, I wrote on Uthman Badar’s demand to “protect” beliefs from offence here. It’s an odd demand from a group whose draft constitution is offensive to absolutely everyone other than Muslim men.

Al-Nabhani doesn’t mention the punishment for homosexuality, but if Hizb ut-Tahrir’s African sect is anything to go by, I’m pretty sure gay people – alongside women, apostates, and non-Muslims – may be on the receiving end of Islamist 7th century ‘divine justice’:

“Homosexuality is an Evil that Destroys Societies!”

– Ironic claim from Islamists. When gay people were under vicious abuse in Likoni, Hizb ut-Tahrir objected to their protection, encouraging violent attacks:

“Moreover, the action of the police in rescuing homosexuals is further evidence that the government has no intention to preventing such evils since this is not the first time for the police to protect sodomites and lesbians.”

– Of course, they justify attacking and abusing other human beings, with religious myths. To these people, if you happen to be gay, your right to be alive is negated by members of Hizb ut-Tahrir believing certain ancient myths. What hideous poison, and an obvious indication of the exact reason religion must not be allowed the power of state ever again. It is clear that disenfranchising all those who may pose a threat to an established order of tyranny, is a wonderful way to tighten a grip on power. It is therefore no surprise that al-Nabhani’s draft constitution is anti-liberty, and anti-human at its very core.

In the original paragraph posted at the beginning of this article, we see the insistance that the ‘vulnerable protected’ in a Hizb state. The word ‘vulnerable’ is subjective depending on the society. In an al-Nabhani state, the most vulnerable are quite clearly apostates, non-believers, women, and gay people. In Likoni, Hizb ut-Tahrir fully endorsed physically harming vulnerable people. By reducing their civil rights, dehumanising them, forcing them to pay for this grotesque state of oppression, Hizb ut-Tahrir do not ‘protect’ vulnerable people, on the contrary, they create vulnerable people and then abuse them. This is then presented as some sort of harmonious society. It is a state of fear and nothing more.

Of course, no Islamist can go very long without declaring all out war on Israel. Al-Nabhani goes further, and enshrines war and a war mentality into the draft constitution:

“With states that are actually belligerent states, such as Israel, a state of war must be taken as the basis for all dispositions with them. They must be dealt with as if a real war existed between us, whether during cease fire or other wise. All citizen of such states are prevented from entering the State.

– One can only presume that this is an extension of al-Nabhani’s belief that the entire region belongs to Islam; a bewildering claim on land, that echoes that of the Israeli far right perfectly. To the rest of us, land belongs to all those who live on it, not to a faith.

So, that’s death to apostates, oppression for women, dehumanising non-believers (a joyful existence we’re expected to pay for), controlling the minds of our children for the sake of your faith, the taking of our children, harming gay people (I presume), anti-Semitism, and all out war on Israel. If this is ‘divine justice’, I don’t think your ‘God’ is for me, and so I’ll stick to secular democracy and equal rights and liberty for all, protected from His tyranny. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s ideal state, is one in which genocide is the norm, until all those who don’t fit its very narrow ideological precepts are dead. It is a state of perpetual horror, with absolutely no respect nor concern for the basic right to life.

Whilst al-Nabhani spent his time raging against what he perceived as Western imperialism, the system he came up with was not one that liberated, but one that created new oppressors to replace the old ones. His system is the very definition of imperialism, and supremacy. The concept of liberty, and equal civil rights for all regardless of ethnicity, faith, gender, sexuality is abandoned, for the sake of the violent dictatorship of one faith. A supremacist system we are all expected to pay to uphold, whilst being excluded from the political system itself, denied our basic rights, institutionalised as second rate citizens, and punished by a religion we don’t adhere to. I can’t imagine the horrific treatment afforded to an apostate who also happens to be gay. The presumption that we must sign away our political and social freedoms, and climb into the Islamist cage to be abused at will, is imperialism at its most oppressive.

Anchoring morality to a single time and place, claiming it is from God, drawing up a political system based on it, and then expecting me to adhere to its principles and be punished if I don’t, first requires you convince me that the claim is true; offer irrefutable proof, not philosophical conjecture and rehashed centuries old cosmological arguments that weren’t very convincing in the first place. Until you do that, you have absolutely no jurisdiction over anyone else’s life other than your own, and to claim that you do and then to enforce it, is the very definition of oppression.

The Oppression of Brunei.

April 9, 2014

Secretary Kerry meets Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei.  Secretary Kerry insists the US has a "robust relationship" with one of the most oppressive states on the planet. Source: By U.S. Department of State from United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Secretary Kerry meets Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei.
Secretary Kerry insists the US has a “robust relationship” with one of the most oppressive states on the planet.
Source: By U.S. Department of State from United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei is an autocratic ruler with honours from across the Globe. One of the richest men in the World – not least due to Brunei’s oil wealth, which accounts for almost two thirds of its export revenue, and is set to run out within 30 years – Bolkiah has been awarded the British Honorary Companion of The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, Honorary Knight Grand Cross of The Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George, and Honorary Knight Grand Cross of The Most Honourable Order of the Bath. In Sweden he was the recipient of the Knight of the Royal Order of the Seraphim award. In France, the Grand Croix of the National Order of the Legion of Honour. In Germany, the Grand Cross Special Class of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. And US Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the “excellent cooperation” and “robust relationship” between the US and Brunei recently. So, on the World stage, a pretty respected leader it seems (I’m sure it has absolutely nothing to do with the oil and gas reserves). And yet, by the end of April this year, Brunei is set to become one of the most oppressive nations on Earth.

This isn’t the start of the oppressive nature of the state in Brunei. The country tries to maintain the image of respect for the freedom of other faiths, and other Islamic sects, by signing agreements like the ASEAN Kuala Lumpur Declaration on Human Rights. Similarly, economic strength and popular welfare provisions mask its vicious prevention of the most basic rights. Since the 1990s Brunei has been in the process of de-secularisation and enforcing an ideology that mixes Shafi’i Islamist thought and a Monarchical system of oppression to form a new political ideology they call ‘Melayu Islam Beraja‘. Basically, a weak attempt at a faith-based justification for the Sultan’s right to control and oppress whomever he pleases.

Through institutionalising ‘Melayu Islam Beraja‘, the Islamic Al-Arqam sect was banned by authorities in the mid-90s with the adherents made to undergo a sort of Orwellian reprogramming class. Their leader – Ustaz Ashaari Muhammad – spent 10 years in prison. The pretense for the ban was “theological deviation” from what is considered an acceptable interpretation of Islam (that which the Sultanate decides is acceptable) though the state only took notice of the movement as the sect grew in size, suggesting the true reason for the crackdown was political paranoia. Senior Christian Church leaders believe they’re under surveillance and are careful what they say at Church for fear of repression. The Bahá’í Faith is banned. Bibles are not permitted to be imported, all schools are banned from teaching Christianity, and temples dedicated to others faiths are no longer permitted to be built. Proselytizing for other faiths is already banned. It is illegal for a Muslim to convert to another faith; if someone does convert, they are immediately required to undergo Islamic schooling again until they revert. Public celebration of Christmas is banned. Additionally, all post-secondary school students must take lessons on the incredibly anti-secular, anti-democratic ideology of Melayu Islam Beraja. And as of this month, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah’s hideously oppressive new Syariah penal code based on the most cruel aspects of Shari’a is set to come into force. April 2014 marks the final stage of the de-secularisation process, transforming Brunei into a fully fledged Theocratic dictatorship.

Despite the International Commission of Jurists ruling that the new Syariah penal code violated practically every possible human right, in its quest to anchor concepts of justice to the 7th Century, Brunei decided to push ahead regardless. The ICJ said:

“If implemented, the code would lead to serious human rights violations by reintroducing the death penalty and imposing other cruel and inhuman punishment including stoning, even for conduct that should not even be considered criminal.”

– According to the new penal code, the death penalty for both Muslims and non-Muslims will now be utilised for those convicted of robbery, adultery, and ‘sodomy’. Amputation is the punishment for theft. For sexual ‘crimes’ the method of death will be stoning. Homosexuality carries the penalty of flogging. Despite Brunei’s apparent commitment to women’s rights, the ICJ notes that the new death penalty law will disproportionately apply to women. This is because it is difficult proving rape, and if the woman fell pregnant due to being raped, she will be prosecuted and stoned for ‘adultery’ whilst the rapist is statistically likely to walk free.

Ex-Muslims face death for apostasy. Public gatherings of those adhering to other faiths will now be restricted and those wishing to gather will need to register. Anyone caught selling anything during Friday prayers will lose their licence to conduct business. Also under the new code, if a non-Muslim adopts a Muslim child, the biological Muslim parent will now face 5 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

The new penal code will also crack down on the fundamental right to free expression. For Muslims who publicly insult the Prophet, or to mock and deny certain teachings of the Qur’an and Hadith carries a penalty of up to 30 years in prison, and 40 lashes. But it isn’t just mocking faith that will carry punishment. Opposition to the implementation of harsh Shari’a codes has been popping up on social media sites from all different sects of Brunei life; including from Muslims. The grotesquely oppressive regime that runs the country responded by threatening anyone caught mocking or insulting the new penal code itself:

“They can no longer be given the liberty to continue with their mockery and if there is a basis for them to be brought to court, then therefore, the first phase of the Syariah law this coming April will be relevant to them.”

– Criticising and mocking the law itself – the very fundamental of a free and progressive society – is now to be considered a crime. It is a curious threat that highlights the narcissism of the Sultan. Human beings are not “given the liberty” by anyone else to speak freely. Free expression is a natural condition, restricted by those who assume positions of privilege for themselves to erect barriers to that freedom. Usually when it threatens the prevailing power structure.

Quite ridiculously, non-Muslims will be banned from using certain words. 19 words in all. The state will now punish non-Muslims for uttering baitullah; Al Quran; Allah; fatwa; Firman Allah; hadith; Haji; hukum syara’; ilahi; Ka’bah; kalimah al syahadah; kiblat; masjid; imam; mufti; mu’min; solat; and wali. This is impossible to define as anything other than oppression. A clear attempt to prevent non-Muslims freely critiquing, inquiring, and investigating a religion and its history, because that religion and that history is intrinsically ties to the perceived legitimacy of the Sultans authority. Having read the Qur’an several times, and familiarised myself with a collection of Hadith, I am struggling to figure out where a ban on Islamic words is found.

Brunei’s Minister for Religious Affairs, Muhammad Abdulrahman met with the chairman of the Saudi Consultative Council, Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al ash-Sheikh in February this year to take advice on how to implement Shari’a. One has to question the mentality of a leadership that sees the Saudi system – a system that has just designated all atheists as terrorists and is hated even by the majority of Muslims – as one to be emulated. Again, it is one of narcissism. This is echoed in the Sultan’s own words on the new penal code, which he claims:

“…should be regarded as a form of special guidance from God and would be part of the great history of Borneo island.”

– The Sultan seems to be under the bizarre impression that his personal beliefs have the inherent and legitimate authority to inform others how they should view a code based on his personal beliefs and values. One suspects faith is the excuse for the creeping paranoia at the knowledge that political instability in the country is inevitable, as crude oil and natural gas reserves deplete without a viable economic alternative – that ensures the high standard of public services many in Brunei now expect – short of political and economic liberalisation; a threat to the autocratic Sultanate itself. And so increasingly one paranoid sect of one faith burns its dictates into the fabric of society and refuses to allow any form of criticism. It is an ideology invented by the state, and which coincidentally, permits the state the privilege of being the sole authority on the whole of Islam. The Sultan is essentially casting himself as a Medieval Pope. It is no surprise that under those conditions, oppression is aimed at potential political – as well as religious – dissent and free expression. Indeed, if the Sultan genuinely believed his position to be self evidently legitimate, the people would come to the same conclusion freely, rather than at the point of a gun. I would suggest he probably knows he has no more right to rule and to use his beliefs to infringe upon the liberty of others, than has any other citizen of Brunei.

The new penal code is one long grotesque licence to abuse others, that quite obviously exists for no other reason than to further cement the power of the ruling family. It is an extension of the crackdown on Al-Arqam. It is political. It is the product of an oppressive and sociopathic regime with a delusional sense of its own importance and supremacy, controlled by a paranoid and narcissistic man that the British, French, Germans, Swedes and Americans among others have pathetically bestowed honours upon for decades.

Lady Gaga, the veil, and the charge of ‘cultural appropriation’.

April 7, 2014

The Ghunghat - Traditional Hindu face veil used in parts of India. Source: By Mohsyn Clicked by Zainab Zaidi (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons.

The Ghunghat – Traditional Hindu face veil used in parts of India.
Source: By Mohsyn Clicked by Zainab Zaidi (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a certain irony in conservative members of a faith that has a long history of invading three continents, countless cultures, institutionalised slavery, building a Mosque on Temple Mount, building a Mosque over the church in Istanbul, destroying the Gods worshiped by others in the Ka’bah, appropriating the centuries old veil as its own, and borrowing Pagan and Gnostic Christian myths for its own holy book, to then claim others are “culturally appropriating” its symbols. None of them were the symbols of Islam in the first place, including the veil. The charge of offensive “cultural appropriation” is thrown at the pop star from the conservative sect of Islam. I find this to be a particularly dishonest explanation for the claim of ‘offence’ on this subject.

It is a similar tone – based entirely on western colonialism and a disingenuous ‘victim’ mentality – to that made by several conservative Muslims – including Mo Ansar – when they speak of western ‘imperialism’ of the past. Ansar once mentioned the French invading Muslim Tunisia in the 19th Century as an act of western imperialism. He neglected to mention that Tunisia was only “Muslim” by the 19th Century, because imperialist Arab Muslims had invaded it and established the Arab Aghlabids dynasty in the first place.

When we analyse where the problem actually lies, it isn’t long before we find the predictable occidentalist, anti-western undertones that drive the ‘offence’ this time (as with most other times). The problem doesn’t seem to be based on cultural ideas or garments making their way across cultural boundaries, or a desire to keep a symbol of faith particular to Islam, nor on Lady Gaga’s intentions, but simply, that white people from the west have done it. A sort of “it’s not fair! They’re copying us! And we don’t like them!” child-like attitude.

– It’s a curious charge to make. It suddenly became a ‘race’ thing. Let me be clear, it is quite obvious that privilege based on gender, sexuality, and ethnicity persists and oppresses. This is true in Islamic countries, as it is in Western countries. The struggle for equality is ongoing, and I am quite sure that only secular democracy provides the mechanism for correction and progress. It is also true that the suggestion of privilege, sometimes – like this time – doesn’t stand to even the most basic of scrutiny, and is quite obviously used as a tool to deflect from a weak argument or a complete inability to address the content of the argument presented. That is the case here. The last half of the above tweet is the suggestion that all white people – including Lady Gaga – are actively trying to destroy another culture. All of us. We plot against Arab muslims; the eternal victims of colonial white devils. One suspects this line of reasoning isn’t extended to white, western muslims. In which case, what she means is, white non-muslims should not be allowed to wear the clothing of their choice, if a particular religion – one that appropriated it in the first place – has decided they now completely own it.

– To claim ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘not your costume’ of the veil from conservative Muslims, is to suggest Muslims have completely monopolised the use of the veil from every other culture that’s ever used it and continues to use it. The very same ‘colonial’ attitude that Lady Gaga is charged with. Religious hypocrisy at its finest.

Islam appropriated the veil from Pre-Islamic Arab culture, which in turn, probably inherited it from earlier semitic cultures in the north. The veil is first mentioned in Assyria, centuries prior to Islam. Millions of non-Arab Muslims wear a veil, appropriated from those pre-Islamic cultures. To suggest Lady Gaga wearing the face veil is an insult to Islam, further suggests that non-Islamic cultures that have always had the veil, and long before Islam are not to be considered, and that it is an Arab Islamic garment only, with anyone else wearing it to be compared to the Arab Islamic standard only. Ironically, this is an Arab Islamic imperial attitude. Check your privilege!

The veil existed long before Islam, and across cultures. It isn’t just Arabic, nor Islamic. About 20 centuries before Islam appropriated cultural symbols of lands that it invaded, Assyrian kings introduced a ban on slave women wearing the veil, whilst high ranking women wore them as a symbol of honour. For the Assyrians, the veil was a symbol of the class system. Later, according to the 6th book of Herodotus, the deposed King of Sparta – Demaratus – left Sparta for exile, with his face veiled to show he felt insulted by the tone of the new King Leotychidas. Tradition tells us that Sikh Guru Ji refused to meet a Hindu Queen unless she removed her veil. According to The Lalitavistara – a biography of the Buddha – describes how Yasodharā, the wife of Prince Siddhattha was constantly insulted for not veiling her face. She replied:

“Those who are restrained in body and behavior, measured in speech, with senses controlled, calm and at peace, why should they veil their faces? Even if covered with a thousand veils, if they are shameless and immodest, dishonest and devoid of virtue, they live in this world uncovered and exposed. Even without being veiled if their senses and their minds are well-guarded, they are faithful to one husband, never thinking of another, they shine like the sun and the moon. So why should they veil their faces? The sage reading the minds of others knows my intentions as do the gods know my conduct and virtue, my discipline and my modesty. Therefore why should I veil my face?”

– Tertullian writing in the 3rd century speaks of Arab women veiling their faces, as well as Greeks and Africans. Strabo in the 1st century speaks of Persian women veiling their faces. According to the Jewish apocrypha, and the story of Susanna:

“31: Now Susanna was a very delicate woman and beauteous to behold. 32: And these wicked men commanded to uncover her face (for she was covered) that they might be filled with her beauty.”

– Indeed, today there exists a denomination of Christian nuns who completely cover their faces with a veil. In Rome, they ascend the Scala Sancta steps on their knees, with their faces covered by the veil. As a part of the Nishimonai Bon Dancing in Japan, female dancers wear the Hikosa zukin face veil. The Hindi word ‘ghunghat’ is a that describes a face veil worn by some sects of traditional Hindus in regions of Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Gujarat among other places in India. The veil has never been, and never will be a garment specific to Islam, with a meaning controlled by whatever conservative Muslims decide it means.

One would have to travel far, far back in the history of mankind to find an era when all cultural groups kept to themselves, and did not benefit and grow from constant exchange of ideas and symbols. Britain is a melting pot of beautiful cultures. Indeed, as an Atheist I celebrate Christmas on December 25th, despite it being Christian and Pagan in origin (Christianity appropriating that particular festival for itself). I get the “you shouldn’t be allowed to celebrate Christmas!” nonsense from angry Christians claiming it an insult to their faith, but that isn’t the point. I enjoy that time of the year, the family traditions, the happiness. I also enjoy the evening out on Diwali. In the UK, you will find Muslims celebrating Christmas, giving cards and gifts and love on St Valentine’s day. We are a melting pot, and it’s a good, progressive thing.

There is no reason to suggest that Lady Gaga’s use of the face cover, was in any way malicious. In fact, in 2012, she explained she wears it as a symbol of “mourning” for problems in the World. Clearly she’s a very expressive person, and clothing is a wonderful form of self expression, whether you like or agree with the sentiment behind the expression or not. Other forms may include making a comedy movie, like The Life of Brian, or a piece of art, like ‘Christ in Piss’. It is self expression; a way to convey how one feels. That is absolutely everyone’s right. Her skin tone, the country she was born, or her religious beliefs are not relevant, the expression in this case was not based on anything like that. To suggest it, is a weak counter-argument that is only used to perpetuate an east vs west, Muslim vs Everyone else false narrative and it is incredibly destructive and intellectually bankrupt. Lady Gaga is not setting out to intentionally mock or insult anyone else. Crucially, Lady Gaga wearing the veil, does not intrude upon the freedom of Muslim women to wear the veil as an expression of faith or cultural heritage. The basic freedom and right should always be protected.

For Muslim women the veil may indeed be a symbol of modesty, it may be a symbol of faith or culture. It may symbolise whatever that particular Muslim woman decides it symbolises to her alone. But that in no way impacts on how non-Muslims have worn the veil throughout history, or how anyone else chooses to wear it today. The veil is a garment like any other, and all should be free to wear whatever they choose, to express however they choose, for it to mean whatever it is the individual decides it means to them, without harming the liberty of others, and free from state or religious coercion. In this case, the charge of ‘cultural appropriation’ does not stand up to scrutiny, and is quite obviously used as a way to express anti-western sentiment, a perpetual fantasy conflict, hidden behind wrongly appropriated language that denotes oppression. It isn’t.

Atheist discrimination in the United States.

April 5, 2014


When Thomas Jefferson was establishing the University of Virginia, he fought hard to ensure that no religious books were included in its library. According to Professor Leonard Levy of Southern Oregon State University:

“No part of the regular school day was set aside for religious worship….Jefferson did not permit the room belonging to the university to be used for religious purposes.”

– Similarly, according to Dr. Daryl Cornett of Mid-America Theological Seminary:

“Jefferson also founded the first intentionally secularized university in America. His vision for the University of Virginia was for education finally free from traditional Christian dogma. He had a disdain for the influence that institutional Christianity had on education. At the University of Virginia there was no Christian curriculum and the school had no chaplain.”

– It is with this in mind, that one must note the anti-secular, anti-American treatment by which Damon Fowler, an atheist student at Bastrop High School in Louisiana, was subjected to when he objected to Christian prayer at graduation. He was threatened, thrown out of his own home by his parents, and his own teacher told a news outlet that he wasn’t respecting the ‘majority’ of students, and felt the need to demean him by saying he’d not contributed much to class. Essentially, the constitution doesn’t matter, if the majority of students are Christian. The very reason schools get away with promoting Christianity in an obvious abuse of the constitution, is because speaking out leads to the hideous treatment that Fowler faced; public abuse, and the loss of his family. On the night of the graduation at Bastrop High, students gleefully prayed anyway, as if abusing a kid standing up for the constitution of the United States, was some sort of great victory. The video of their sickening joy can be viewed here. I wonder how they would have reacted, had the speaker pulled out a prayer mat to lead an Islamic prayer. Or a massive banner above the stage with “There is no God. Jesus didn’t die for your sins” written across it. I’m almost certain it’d make national news, with parents and students registering their disgust and claiming a war on Christianity. And yet, for consistency’s sake, If they don’t support this, they’re simply advocating a public institution recognise an inherent privilege of one faith. Unjustifiable and completely un-American.

A graduation is not a Christian ceremony any more than it is a Poseidon ceremony. It is a secular event. There is no excuse for imposing Christian ritual upon it.

Those kids are not born with discriminatory attitudes. It is enshrined through years of being taught that their faith, is true and that those who question or criticise, are agents of the devil. This is ideology, taught as truth and it is the foundation of discrimination. The poison grows more potent and the sense of religious privilege those kids are imbued with, necessarily transfers from public school, to public office.

Three weeks ago, Uganda enacted its anti-gay law entirely motivated by religion (the exact same grotesque reasons for Governor Bryant signing off on Mississippi’s anti-gay bill, though I’m guessing Bryant is still perfectly happy to have part of his pay packet funded by the LGBT community in his state). This week, Saudi Arabia – home to 18 of the 19 suicide bombers from September 11th – declared all atheists to be terrorists. In fact, Atheists face death execution in thirteen countries across the World – all Islamic. The challenges to religious supremacy and privilege almost always result in oppressive outbursts. A sense of supremacy and privilege – whether based on religion, sexuality, gender, or ethnicity – is a learned behaviour, and completely illegitimate. Indeed, there is no such thing as a ‘Christian country’ or a ‘Muslim country’, only a country whose leaders violently impose a single ideology and privilege, upon a diverse group of curious, and critical human beings. They are exclusive barriers, they are not defining features of an entire population.

The exclusive religious barriers that necessarily leads to discrimination, including atheist discrimination isn’t unique to the Theocratic world. Indeed, as seen with the treatment of Damon Fowler, the US have a recent history of abandoning secularism, for the sake of atheist discrimination. Whilst atheist discrimination does not reach the same horrific heights of racial discrimination, nor homophobic discrimination, it is still prevalent and still causes a lot of difficulty and harm for those not professing deep religious sentiment in the US. Often non-believers will not speak out, through fear that questioning Christian privilege, leads to social exclusion, and family trouble. This is not to be taken lightly.

One has to wonder how Thomas Jefferson and James Madison would have reacted – having worked so hard to ensure a secular birth for the new nation – had they been around to hear President Bush Sr allegedly say:

“No, I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.”

– Apparently the atheists (of which there would have been a few) sent to the Persian Gulf to put their lives on the line and fight for a President whose own son had dodged the draft years earlier, can not be regarded as citizens, or patriotic. Such is the absurd and insulting nature of the mix of religion and state. No single belief system has a fundamental right to claim the privilege of the standard by which everyone else is measured. A country belongs to those who live in it, regardless of sexuality, gender, belief, or ethnicity. It does not belong to a single religion or ideology.

When Asheville City Councilman Cecil Bothwell declared that he does not believe in a God, the Christian Right of North Carolina took great offence. H.K. Edgerton, a board member for the Southern Legal Resource Center – an organisation that apparently stands to protect the rights of all, threatened to file a law suit against Bothwell, claiming he is unfit to serve, and that his appointment violates North Carolina’s anti-Atheist Constitutional provision. Indeed, the provision in the constitution of North Carolina reads:

“No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.”

– This provision is overruled by Paragraph 3, of Article VI of the Constitution which insists that no religious test shall be required for public office. And so whilst barring an Atheist from public office would certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court as a violation of the Federal Constitution; it didn’t stop the Christian Right from trying to impose their beliefs only, which often leads to long battles for an Atheist to serve publicly. For example, Herb Silverman ran for the post of Governor of South Carolina in 1992, but was discarded from the race for refusing to swear an oath to God. A whole five years later, the courts ruled in his favour.

In 2001, Carletta Sims – the Tennessee director of American Atheists Inc – worked for Associates Commerce Solutions. Two of her colleagues discovered she was atheist, and requested to be moved away from her desk. After the company obliged, the two colleagues left a sketched picture of Jesus stuck to Sims’ computer. Sims complained of the incident, and was fired for disruption. So, when the Christians complained they were moved desk. When the atheist complained, she was fired. She sued ACS and Citigroup for discrimination, and eventually settled for an undisclosed sum. The judge said:

“The court has reconsidered the facts and does believe that an inference of discriminatory intent could be drawn from the facts now before it.”

In 1991, Professor William Zelner was the victim of discrimination after a student wrote to her local newspaper, and said:

“I don’t take Dr. Zellner’s classes because he is an atheist.”

– What followed, were threatening phone calls to Zellner’s home, his car was keyed on an almost nightly basis, a fellow lecturer wrote that he was in league with Satan, a local church group created buttons for people to wear reading:

“I am praying for Dr. Zellner.”

– His two children – aged 6 and 9 – were shunned, and beaten up. Zellner said:

“He [his son] couldn’t understand why they wanted to hurt him. Explaining bigotry to children is difficult.”

– This is what happens when you teach a single ideology – with its moral anchor somewhere in 1st century Palestine – as truth to children, excluding those who don’t fit its narrow confines. These children are not ‘Christian’ children. They are impressionable minds that absorb the prejudices of parents. It is abuse. The Boy Scouts of America, which exists through a Congressional Charter, currently does not allow Atheists to be a part of it and abuses the naivety and curiosity of children through its institutional Christian dogma. It states:

“The Boy Scouts of America maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God. In the first part of the Scout Oath or Promise the member declares, ‘On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law.’ The recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary to the best type of citizenship and are wholesome precepts in the education of the growing members.”

– This dangerously theocratic passage doesn’t go on to provide a reason as to why a belief in a ‘ruling and leading power’ and ‘grateful acknowledgement of his favours and blessings’ are required for good citizenship. The implication being that non-religious folk, are not good citizens. There is of course no analysis to back up this implication, just words, by Christians, who consider themselves the best kind of citizenship. Such is the nature of unjustifiable discrimination, and it is this that leads to the hideous bullying by fellow students, of those who don’t share the exact beliefs of the parents and teachers. It is institutional discrimination aimed at dehumanising those who don’t fit a specific set of criteria set by those privileged few in a position of power, and according to their beliefs only. It is also vastly anti-American, and anti-secular and it is this that eventually leads to situations like that at Bastrop High; where anti-secular bullying and discrimination was so loudly celebrated as a victory.

A recent study found that those surveyed favoured medical treatment for Christians, over atheists. Most placing ‘atheist’ down the list of priorities for a Kidney transplant, simply for professing a lack of belief in a God.

Similarly, according to a Gallup poll from 2007, 48% of those surveyed would not vote for an Atheist running for President.

According to a a poll by the University of Minnesota, parents would not be happy for their child to marry an atheist. A parent would look at me as unworthy of marrying their daughter, simply because I don’t believe the Bible to be the ultimate truth.

State judges for some odd reason, give lectures on how to be good parents, through religious teaching. When challenged on the constitutionality of that lecture, they then try to defend it in the most ridiculous way, as was the case with Anita McLemore v. Carl McLemore. Originally, the chancellor had insisted that both parents should take their children to church on Sunday. This was challenged, and so this bizarre response was penned:

“Anita misinterprets the court’s order. She was not ordered to attend church. The court’s order pertained
only to the children, stating that “[b]oth parties shall assume responsibility for the attendance of the
children in church each Sunday while in their respective custody.” (emphasis added). Anita asserts that this
court order violates the First Amendment establishment and free exercise clauses of the U.S. Constitution
as well as the Fourteenth Amendment, arguing that the court order constitutes government establishment of
the Christian religion. She alleges that the word “church” used in conjunction with a specific day, Sunday,
implicates a particular religion, Christianity. THE AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY OF THE
ENGLISH LANGUAGE (1981) defines “church” as “place of worship, a congregation”. It is not a
foregone conclusion that such could only refer to a particular religion, sect, or denomination. The chancellor
did not specify a particular faith. There was no discrimination or preference shown. The chancellor’s order
that the children attend church inherently provided for choice. One need only glance through the yellow
pages for the vicinity in which Anita and Carl live to appreciate the diverse meaning of the word “church”.
This is simply a succinct term employed by the chancellor to describe a benefit that he determined to be in
the best interest of the children.”

Anita asserts that the court order violates her constitutional right not to practice organized religion. While the order for the children to attend “church” might somehow inhibit her ability to be completely free from
any effect that “church” might have on her, the order was reasonably based upon serving the best interests
of the children. The chancellor, familiar with the churches in the community, was doubtless aware of the
myriad of programs offered for enrichment of children’s lives. The range is great. Churches are traditionally
places of calm and concern. At virtually no expense to parents, churches offer children the opportunity for
interaction with groups of other children as well as adults, in an environment conducive to character-building.

– They have answered the criticism, with the reason they were criticised in the first place, and added a ridiculous clause; that by “church” and “on Sunday” they didn’t actually mean specifically Christianity. Does anyone buy that? And even if they genuinely had Taoism or Buddhism in mind as well as Christianity when suggesting “church” on “Sunday”, it is irrelevant. The court has ordered someone to force their child to receive a religious education every Sunday. Christians have decided they know what’s best for children. And whether Christians believe this to be true or not, the courts should not be endorsing – let alone forcing – any religious practice or teaching.

In 2006, Judge James Punch of Orleans County stripped Rachel Bevilacqua of custody of her son, because of her involvement in the ‘Church of Subgenius’; a parody religion. The Judge called her a “pervert” and “mentally ill”. After the case, she finally regained custody in 2007 (after spending $140,000 in legal costs; the cost of overturning the discriminatory attitudes of Christian supremacist Judges), but was told by Judge Adams that she must keep all ‘Subgenius’ literature away from where her child might see and become corrupted by it. Obviously, the child is allowed to see and become corrupted by Christian literature, that leads to homophobia, and bullying those who object to schools promoting Christian prayer at graduation.

In 2012, the San Antonio Independent School District firewall provider, Fortinet blocked school access to atheist websites, categorising them as ‘occult’, whilst allowing access to Christian and creationist websites. It took a threat of court action on the basis of 1st Amendment discrimination, for the District’s Chief Information Officer provider to back down.

According to “The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” conducted by WIN-Gallup International, 5% of the US population now identify as Atheist. There are no Atheists in the US Senate. By contrast, Lutherans account for 4.6% of the population, and are represented by 5% of the Senate. Episcopalians make up 1.8% of the population, and enjoy 4% representation in the Senate. Most astonishingly, Presbyterians make up just 2.8% of the population, whilst enjoying 13% of the US Senate. The Senate is dominated by religion.

One must conclude that there is no ‘war on Christianity’ but a war on Christian supremacy. The courts offer preferential treatment to the religious, public schools constantly preach Christianity. For years, religious privilege and supremacy ensured vital stem cell research was withheld. The US political system is loaded with Christian supremacists. It is all but impossible for an Atheist to become President. An ongoing battle since the dawn of the enlightenment – the cause of Jefferson and Madison – to slowly roll back the illegitimate power and privilege of religion over the lives of others and the misery it inflicts on those that don’t adhere to its dictates; this is secular goal the US was founded upon and it is a war that must be won.

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 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

“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.

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 (

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 (

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.