Why secularism is good for the religious.

April 12, 2014

Thomas_Paine_rev1

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their “legislature” should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
– Thomas Jefferson.

A wall of Separation between Church and State” was a phrase first coined by Thomas Jefferson in his famous letter penned to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. The significance of Jefferson’s letter was that the phrase was not coined as an attack on religion in the United States, but protection for the freedom to be religious according to one’s own conscience. The Danbury Baptists in Connecticut were concerned that the powerful Congregationalist Church in the state may acquire a position of privilege and power and that their right to practice their faith freely, would be under threat. The same worry almost two centuries earlier had prompted the pilgrims to flee England, for a land in which they could worship according to their own conscience and without fear of state oppression. Jefferson wrote to the Baptists to reassure them that the constitution of the United States protected their right to believe and to worship, and would not empower another sect with state privilege above any other. Secularism protects and enhances the rights of the believers, to believer without fear.

Jefferson’s point in his letter to the Baptists was that secularism protects the right of individual interpretation of faith for the individual believer. Secularism concludes that belief is between the individual and their God, and has nothing to do with any Earthly power. If the individual wishes to dedicate their entire existence to their belief – including their choice of clothing, France banning the veil is the opposite of secularism – the secular state protects that right. Conversely, the Earthly power must not empower or permit privilege to a particular choice of belief, to the detriment of all others. A line of equality is maintained by state neutrality. We are equal regardless of ethnicity, sexuality, belief, and gender. From that position, we are free to test and elevate the boundaries of our own abilities and to seek happiness, without harming the same liberty for others.

If we imagine a small group of twenty believers of a particular faith, it is quite likely that each will have differences pertaining to interpretation of articles of faith, given that religious literature is so vast in scope even for one religion. They may be small differences or large important differences. In that situation, it would be absurd to say “Number 12 in the group has the inherent authority to punish those of us who don’t abandon our interpretation, and follow his interpretation“. It is obvious that no single individual in the group has that privilege of authority, simply because a faith is not an absolute science. We must start from the premise that all 20 have the equal right to belief. It is also obvious that if number 12 did institute a policy by which those who disagreed with him were punished, the differences do not suddenly go away. The individual beliefs will still differ, opinions don’t change, it is fear of punishment that will prevent those differences from being expressed, and so not only is the individual oppressed, but the right of all of us to hear dissenting views and not be told what we – as grown adults – should be allowed to hear, is similarly oppressed. Humanity is blessed with curiosity, and uniformity of thought is impossible, and attempts to argue otherwise are inevitably bloody and oppressive. Shia and Sunni, Catholic and Protestant; history teaches us that granting privilege to one interpretation, does not end well. If your faith relies on fear to survive, it not only has no right to privilege, it absolutely doesn’t deserve privilege.

An individual’s interpretation is anchored to their own experiences throughout life. As Jefferson noted; it is a matter that lies solely between an individual and his or her God. Only secularism protects the right of each individual within the group to disagree, to question, and to value each individual’s right to interpret their faith according to their conscience and without fear of oppression by any other member. If the personal belief of each member is strong, it will withstand the freedom of others to differ. Indeed, whilst secularism may diminish the privilege and supremacy of a single interpretation, it is the only mechanism by which religious liberty for the whole group is preserved and protected.

The great Thomas Paine expressed beautifully a concept in one sentence, that religious texts have failed to express through thousands of pages:

“Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.”

– Secularism guarantees equal rights as citizens under the law. If a Christian wishes the right to build a private temple of worship, the same right must be extended to Hindu’s, to Muslims, to Sikhs and so on. If, as an atheist, I wish the right to “offend” the beliefs of others, I must accept the right for others to hold views that “offend” my beliefs. You are free to believe that homosexuality is a sin, you are not free to restrict the liberty and equal civil rights of gay people according to your belief. Your belief plays no part in the liberty of others. You are free to believe that those who abandon their faith are evil. You are not free to restrict the liberty of those who abandon their faith based on your belief. Because again, your belief plays no part in the liberty of others. Similarly, if someone believes those who subscribe to your religion are a great evil and should be restricted and punished, they’re free to believe that, they’re just not free to enforce it through the state. We are all to be considered equal regardless of belief, or ethnicity, or sexuality, and of gender. This further enhances our security when questioning, criticising, and inquiring. The mark of a civilised society.

It isn’t just a single religion controlling the apparatus of state that leads almost inevitably to human rights violations. It is the tyranny of a single sect, of a single religion that tends to cause problems for smaller sects of the same faith. When Catholics held state power, Protestants were brutally slaughtered. When Protestants held state power, predictably, Catholics were brutally slaughtered. To end this ceaseless war between sects vying for power, required secularism and declarations of inalienable rights that no religion had a right to violate.

Indeed, the fight isn’t between secularism and religion – religion is protected and freed by secularism and anyone wishing to oppress rights based on someone’s belief, is by definition not secular – the fight is between secularism and a particular individual’s interpretation of their religion to the often violent exclusion of all others. If, in the group of 20, 19 of the members all believe one interpretation to be correct, but you don’t, those 19 still have no inherent right to force you to live by their beliefs. You have the right to criticise the beliefs of the 19, to believe differently to all of them, and to worship freely according to your conscience only without fear. You have a criticism of the Bible or Qur’an? Then say it, or keep it to yourself, or write it, or express it in anyway you wish. No one has a right to prevent you from that. Your expression of your faith – as long as it doesn’t interfere with the liberty of anyone else – is yours only. Secularism is therefore the only mechanism by which the smaller sects, and the individual believers are protected. A real world example, would see the natural rights of the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia currently facing oppression, completely protected. The barriers to freedom and equal rights for Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia are the necessary result of one sect opposed to Shia beliefs presuming a place of privilege that they do not deserve. Shia Muslims in Saudi are prevented from obtaining high office. Shia parents are banned from using certain names for their children. Saudi schools teach children that Shiites are a Jewish conspiracy, and need to be destroyed. I struggle to describe this hideous manipulation of the young minds of children, as anything other than abuse. The Shia minority in Saudi Arabia face oppression, for no other reason than the Salafi leadership doesn’t believe what they believe. The presumption on the part of the leadership, is that their belief is inherently privileged. It is a position maintained by force, and if a privilege must be maintained by force, it is wholly illegitimate.

If a religious authority in a non-secular country suddenly decries an aspect of your daily life, or something you consider sacred to you, as a violation of the state’s religious principles, you are in danger of the state punishing you. Your human rights are in the hands of the religious authority. In a secular state, if the same religious authority were to decry an aspect of your daily life as a violation of their religious belief, they’d be free to say so, they wouldn’t be free to punish you for it. Your liberty and right to believe differently is preserved and protected. No single religious person or group has a right to punish you for not accepting and living according to their beliefs. Secularism recognises this and trusts you as an individual to come to your own conclusions and beliefs freely and without fear.

It is clear to me that a faith loses its integrity the moment an individual is forced to accept it at gun point. When I hear the claim that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the World, I choose to discount not only those children considered ‘Muslim’ by way of being born to Muslim parents, but also those who live in countries in which it is illegal to leave the faith, or to openly question or criticise the faith. At it stands, apostasy is illegal in Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, UAE, Somalia, Afghanistan, Saudi, Sudan, Qatar, Yemen, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Jordan, and Oman. Apostasy in Jehovah’s Witness families is enough for a child to be disowned. It is supremacy by way of threat. If we were to hold a gun to someone’s head, and instructed them to say that they are in fact a giraffe or I’ll fire the gun, we wouldn’t then suggest the giraffe population was clearly growing. The integrity of an individual’s faith is diminished entirely when it is actively forced upon others. Similarly, a child isn’t to be considered of a particular faith. They have not reached an age by which they can rationalise, critique, and accept or reject religious precepts. Their minds are a sponge, and if a particular religion is indeed correct, teaching a child to be critical and curious will lead that child to the religious truth of that faith anyway. It should be obvious to all that a faith enhances its integrity if those who find it, find it through their own free inquiry and will, rather than indoctrination and threat. Secularism is an idea based on free inquiry, expression and will. The opposite, is indoctrination and threat.

Secularism begins and ends with the idea that the beliefs of an individual are sacred to that individual, and have no inherent right to trespass upon the liberty of others. A Sunni majority has no inherent right to force Shia to live by the dictates of their interpretation of Islam, Congregationalists have no inherent right to force Baptists by threat of state punishment, to live according to the dictates of their interpretation of Christianity. As a non-believer, no religious faith or sect has the right to threaten me with state punishment, if I do not adhere to, or if I criticise or satirise their religious guidelines. Similarly, I have no right to prevent or restrict your liberty in believing anything you choose to belief and worshiping where ever you choose to worship, as long as it isn’t forced through the mechanism of state. We are equal citizens deserving of equal protections. Progress – both individual and societal – is the product of free inquiry, debate, expression and compromise, and not forced adherence. If you believe a slightly different interpretation of your faith, than what is demanded of you by the authorities, then feel free! Express it! Secularism encourages that discussion. Indeed, as secularists, we believe only you have the right to decide what it is you believe, and how you express that belief. The chains between you and those wishing to regulate your thoughts, are completely smashed. To paraphrase Jefferson, the state should not be in the business of regulating your opinion and your expression; to do so is by its nature oppression. For that reason alone, secularism is good for those who are religious.


The blood-stained banners of Ashura

April 6, 2014

Shia Muslims at Hussain Mosque in Karbala  during Arba'een. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Shia Muslims at Hussain Mosque in Karbala during Arba’een.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

January 1979 and Iran was on the verge of a major revolution set to shape its nature for the next forty years. The Shah had fled to exile, and change was imminent. From exile in France, Khomeini had found a way to craft a revolutionary narrative that would sweep him to power. On exact day of the Shi’a religious observance of Arba’een – forty days after the day of mourning on the Day of Ashura – Khomeini referred to those revolutionaries dead at the hands of the Shah, as a continuation of the martyrs who died with Hussein at Karbala. He had written:

“Let the bloodstained banners of Ashura be raised where ever possible as a sign of the coming day when the oppressed shall avenge themselves on the oppressors.”

Thirty years later, December 2009, the Day of Ashura, protestors lined the streets to protest the suspect outcome of the Iranian Presidential election. The authorities opened fire, police vans ran down protestors, and arrests of the dissenters followed. It was this day, that Khamenei may have regretted his predecessor’s use of the Ashura metaphor thirty years prior, because reporters noted:

“They compared Ayatollah Khamenei to Yazid, the Sunni caliph who killed Imam Hossein. Film clips showed demonstrators trying to tear down Ayatollah Khamenei’s portrait and trampling on a street sign bearing his name.”

– The metaphor from Karbala in 680ad is a powerful one. It helped topple the Shah in 1979, it was also used to stir up Shia rebellion in south Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982, and it came close to toppling Khamenei in 2009.

The traditional story of the battle of Karbala is a detailed one. It began on the death of the first Umayyad Caliph, Muawiya in 680ad. For a brief time, Ali and Muawiya shared a claim to the caliphate. On Ali’s death, Muawiya was the sole caliph. Ali’s older son Hassan had given up his claim to the Caliphate after a series of battles between muslims in Kufa in Iraq, and Muawiya’s forces. One of the conditions of Hasan giving up his claim, was that Muawiya would not name a successor. On the death of Hasan, Muawiya went back on his word and soon transformed the Caliphate into a dynasty, by appointing his son Yazid heir to the Caliphate. Ali’s younger son Hussain – and the Arabian elite in general – took offence at this, and refused to pledge allegiance to the new Caliph. Whilst in Medina, Hussein began to receive letters from the people of Kufa in Iraq, who were equally horrified that they’d fallen under the control of another Umayyad. They believed the caliphate would fall back into the line of Ali, at the death of Muawiya. The people of Kufa promised their support – in the name of his father Ali – to Hussain’s claim to the Caliphate, and ensured they would rise up, should he ride into Kufa to overthrow Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, the pro-Yazid governor in Kufa. These were the first Shi’at Ali. The followers of Ali. They had no particular doctrine, just a leader and his progeny. Hussein sent his cousin, Muslim ibn Aqeel to Kufa to measure public opinion. Upon reaching Kufa, the Shi’a welcomed Muslim and had him stay with one of their leaders; Mukhtar ibn Abi ‘Ubayd. However, things soon turned sour and Muslim never left Kufa alive, executed at the command of Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad, the pro-Umayyad governor.

After the execution of his cousin, Hussein left Medina upon hearing of a threat on his own life for refusing to swear allegiance, and decided to ride to Kufa and confront the governor. Despite supporters telling him it was a suicide mission, that there was going to be no uprising on his behalf, and that he’d almost certainly be cut down – including the women and children that he took with him – he pushed on anyway. Two days from Kufa, Hussain and his 72 supporters reached Karbala. They were met by tens of thousands of Yazid’s soldiers. After weeks of dead end negotiations, and Hussain’s refusal to acknowledge Yazid as Caliph, a battle ensued. The Caliph’s soldiers cut off water supply to Hussain’s camp, and held siege for days. On Muharram 10th (The Day of Ashura), all of Hussain’s men – starved and thirsty – went out of the encampment to fight and die. Hussain rode out last, and was eventually cut down with an arrow, and stabbed to death thirty-three times. His body was then trampled on by horses. The women and children placed in chains and marched to Kufa.

The Shi’a narrative then takes on a more colourful tone, to add substance to the idea that Hussain was indeed chosen by God, and killed by the enemies of Islam. Upon Hussain’s death, it is said that his horse – Lahik – dipped his head in Hussain’s blood, and according to Imam Abu Ja’far al-Baqir, the horse said:

“What an injustice was done to the grandson of the Prophet by his own umma.”

– The commander of the forces tasked with defeating Hussain, Shimr ibn Dhi ‘l-Jawshan, beheaded Hussein and the head placed on a spike, and carried back to Ubayd Allah, who menacingly laughed as he kicked it around. Other’s claim it was Yazid who poked and kicked the head of Hussein. And so with that, the brutal murder of the a beloved member of the Ahl al-Bayt – Hussein – created a martyr that inspires great sadness and devotion to this day.

So detailed and colourful a story, but what do we know for sure, or at least, what can we deduce from the recorded history?

The earliest source for the battle of Karbala comes from Abu Mikhnaf. He was a founder of the Akhbari school of Islamic history. Mikhnaf died around 95 years after the battle of Karbala took place. Tradition holds that his grandfather died fighting for Ali at the battle of Siffin against the Umayyad’s. He wrote specifically on the life and death of Hussain in ‘Kitab Maqtal Al-Husayn’. His works no longer exist, and so the earliest mention of the battle of Karbala is Volume 19, of al-Tabari’s ‘History of the Prophets and Kings’. As well as relying on Mikhnaf, al-Tabari uses Hisham Ibn Al-Kalbi. Al-Kalbi was born 57 years after Karbala, a student of Mikhnaf and relies heavily on oral traditions for his works as well as referencing Mikhnaf’s work. As for the reliability of Mikhnaf, 14th century Muslim historian Ismail ibn Kathir writes:

“And the Shia and Rafidah had devised many false and fabricated long narrations regarding Hussain [ra]’s murder; and what we have quoted (here) is enough, in which few are those that are questionable (not reliable), had Ibn Jarir or other scholars etc not mentioned it (in their works) then I too haven’t had mentioned it; and its maximum portion is narrated from Abu Mikhnaf Lut bin Yahya who was a Shia and according to Scholars of Hadith was Da’eef (weak) in Hadith (reports), but he was a learned Akhbari.”

– Incidentally, ibn Kathir presents his own history of the battle of Karbala, a history that anti-semitic Dean of Academic Affairs at the Al-Maghrib Institutem, Yasir Qadhi prefers (along with other medieval Sunni histories) to rely on, despite being written 700+ years after the event. You can Yasir Qadhi’s discussionhere.

Similarly, according to N.K Singh’s “Encyclopedia of the Muslim World”:

“Abu Mikhnaf is not very particular about and scrupulous in authority chains. He has abundantly incorporated in his narratives, especially in the narration of Siffin episode, the tribal stories and the local gossips.”

– This becomes clear when we notice the conversations Mikhnaf records, in detail and in full, despite them being decades old and not recorded:

‘Hussein said: “We are from God and to God shall we return. As for the oath of allegiance that you have demanded of me, it would not be appropriate for a person of my stature to do so in private. Further, you would not consider it sufficient unless I was to do so in a public forum.” Walid agreed and Hussein continued: “When you come out to the people to announce and obtain their oath of allegiance, then at that time summon us as well such that it will be a single affair.”
Walid desired to choose an easy option and said: “Go then in the name of God and return to us when we assembled the people”.
Marwan exclaimed: “By God! If he departs here without pledging allegiance you will never get a similar opportunity without much bloodshed between you and he. Seize him and do not allow him to leave without pledging allegiance or execute him!”
At this, Hussein jumped up and said: “Son of a blue-eyed woman, you or he wish to kill me? By God you are a liar and a sinner!” ‘

– This is an unusually in depth dialogue for an historian writing decades after the events he speaks of. Later, we find the apparent exact words Hussain spoke as he saw the cavalry approach on that fateful day:

“O God, it is You in Whom I trust amid all grief. You are my hope amid all violence. You are my trust and provision in everything that happens to me, (no matter) how much the heart may seem to weaken in it, trickery may seem to diminish (my hope) in it, the friend may seem to desert (me) in it, and the enemy may seem to rejoice in it. It comes upon me through You and when I complain to You of it, it is because of my desire for You, You alone. You have comforted me in (everything) and have revealed its (significance to me). You are the Master of all grace, the Possessor of all goodness and the Ultimate Resort of all desire.”

– The tone is one of absolute devotion to God rather than power. It is a show of the power of faith in the God of Islam, and yet it seems a little bit too long to have been remembered perfectly, word for word, and then recited decades later for Mikhnaf to write down, rewritten by his student, and eventually rewritten again by al-Tabari. In fact, practically everything Hassain supposedly said that day, appears in al-Tabari.

We also find the antagonist (Ubayd Allah) sounding like a villain in a bad movie. After Hussain writes to Ubayd Allah insisting that he will turn back now if the people of Kufa no longer want his support, Ubayd writes back:

“Now when our claws cling to him, he hopes for escape but he will be prevented now from getting any refuge!”

– This is the tone of Mikhnaf’s works as described by later historians like al-Tabari, throughout. The tone is perhaps directly related to the context of the period in which it was composed. Mikhnaf was from Kufa, presenting clear Shia bias. His information and dialogue is predictably anti-Yazid. The conversations he records have Hussain saying profound words of wisdom. “We are from God, and to God we shall return”. We must rely on Mikhnaf’s word for the earliest mentions of the battle of Karbala, and the words and language of Hussain and others, because there are no earlier sources, or sources directly related to the battle itself. The tone of the historical narrative presented by Mikhnaf is one of Shia bias. He was writing at a time of the political ascent of the Umayyad’s and it is clear that Mikhnaf is presenting anti-Umayyad tradition. The opposition was fierce especially in Kufa and Mikhnaf plays his part in that, undoubtedly relying on – as Singh suggests – tribal stories and local gossips in and around Kufa and dedicated to preserving and enhancing the memory of their fallen martyr. We see this particular bias again, when Mikhnaf recites a poem supposedly by Ali ibn al-Hussain, the son of Hussain:

“I am ‘Ali son of Hussein son of Ali;
We and the household of God are closer to the Prophet
Than Shabath and Shmir the vile.
I strike you with the sword until it bends,
The blows of a Hashimite youth, an ‘Alid,
And today I will not stop defending my father.
By God, son of the bastard shall not rule over us.”

– It was supposedly recited by Ali ibn al-Hussein as he rode into battle that day. But as suggested earlier, Mikhnaf is not particular about the chain of authority. Indeed, al-Tabari begins his history (Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk), with a warning to readers about presuming authenticity of sources he uses:

“Let him who examines this book of mine know that I have relied, as regards everything I mention therein which I stipulate to be described by me, solely upon what has been transmitted to me by way of reports which I cite therein and traditions which I ascribe to their narrators, to the exclusion of what may be apprehended by rational argument or deduced by the human mind, except in very few cases. This is because knowledge of the reports of men of the past and of contemporaneous views of men of the present do not reach the one who has not witnessed them nor lived in their times except through the accounts of reporters and the transmission of transmitters, to the exclusion of rational deduction and mental inference. Hence, if I mention in this book a report about some men of the past, which the reader or listener finds objectionable or worthy of censure because he can see no aspect of truth nor any factual substance therein, let him know that this is not to be attributed to us but to those who transmitted it to us and we have merely passed this on as it has been passed on to us.”

– Al-Tabari invites us to investigate for ourselves the claims made by those he cites. He does not claim to be reporting historical fact, only tradition.

Mikhnaf – through al-Tabari – tells us that just after the death of Muawiya, Hussain had a vision of his grandfather the Prophet. In the dream, Muhammad said:

“My beloved Hussain, I foresee you when you will be, in the very near future, covered with blood, slain at the land of Karbala, whilse thirsty, being deprived of water. This will be done to you by people who claim that they are from my followers.”

“My beloved Hussain, there are degrees which you will not acquire except through martydom.”

– This sets up Hussain as a sort of quasi-Prophet, the chosen hero of Muhammad, and a necessary sacrifice for the sake the righteous few, at the hands of those who a dreamland Muhammad considers enemies. All ‘monotheisms’ seem to have their secondary Gods.

Mikhnaf and later, al-Tabari do not mention Hussein’s horse dipping its head in the blood of Hussein. Nor do they mention later myths, like a dove dragging its wing in the blood of Hussein and flying back to Mecca to deliver the bad news. These supernatural elements are later additions far removed from the events itself, and strengthening the martyr narrative.

It is perhaps also worth noting that al-Tabari was writing during the Abbasid Caliphate, 250 years after the battle of Karbala. The Abbasid’s were Arabian rulers who took over from the Syrian Umayyad’s and reasserted the ‘right’ of Arabs to the leadership of the faithful. Indeed, the Umayyad regime had been overthrown by members of the Hashimiyya movement led by the Abbasid’s. The movement was named after the grandson of Ali; Abu Hashim. Hashim was said to have died in the home of Muhammad ibn Ali, the head of the Abbasid family at that time, in 717 (about 33 years prior to their ascension to the caliphate). Muhammad was the father of the first two Abbasid Caliphs; As-Saffah and al-Mansur. The Abbasid caliphs were no friend of the Shia that spawned them, but it is notable that al-Tabari focuses his account of Yazid’s caliphate, entirely on the opposition to him, rather than offering conflicting versions from different sources. He also focuses a large amount of time on the opposition lead by Hussain in a relatively small and unimpressive battle. And so the history of Yazid and the Umayyad’s at that time, is forever seen through the eyes of the early Abbasid opposition to Yazid. One study found that of al-Tabari’s 790 sources used for his history, 440 were Abbasid period texts.

There would be no real reason to doubt the fundamental basis of the story, that something happened at Karbala and a man called Hussain was killed. But the exact truth of just what happened at Karbala in 680ad may never be known. There is no known contemporary source or first hand account, or any completely reliable early mention free from obvious bias. We don’t know what was said and by whom. We don’t know if Hussain was driven by a desire to overthrow an oppressive regime, by his devotion to his God, or by his own obsessive grab for power at all costs (including the lives of those who followed him to Karbala) We don’t know if Hussain actually died at the hands of soldiers at all. If he did die at their hands, we don’t know if Hussain’s decapitated head was placed on a spike, and poked with a stick by the caliph’s governor back in Kufa or not. The language attributed to Hussain and to his enemies, shows clear bias in the retelling. The supernatural elements were propaganda techniques. For the history itself, we just don’t know. But that perhaps doesn’t matter. As is often the case – we really know nothing of the life of Muhammad either – the legend takes on a life larger than the historical truth itself for those who believe it. Hussain was immortalised a martyr, much like the Jesus figure of Christianity. The Karbala story – whether fact, fiction, or as I suspect a mixture of both – is a story that commands great devotion from Shia groups. It unites them all. The story has proven to be a powerful weapon in mobilising the people against a perceived tyranny, especially in Iran. One wrong move can bring an entire government to its knees, at the cry of the ‘bloodstained banners of Ashura’.


The Power of St Peter.

February 23, 2014

Source:  Wikimedia Commons Author: By Emilio García from Parla, Spain (cropped version of San Pedro vigila).

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Author: By Emilio García from Parla, Spain (cropped version of San Pedro vigila).

It is ten years this year since my first trip to Rome. A friend of mine had given me ‘Rubicon’ by Tom Holland to read. It’s a book that chapters the fall of the Republic and the rise of Octavian. The epic nature and the timeless names of the final years of the Roman Republic, with all its contradictions, had me hooked from the first page of the book, and I endeavoured to visit the city. At that time, it never occurred to me that Rome was the cradle of not just one masterful empire, but two.

The Via della Conciliazione leads from Castel Sant’Angelo to St Peter’s Square. It’s a relatively narrow street given how central its location to Papal power. Far narrower than the Mall leading to Buckingham Palace in London. It feels like a tunnel that comes to an end at the vast opening of St Peter’s Square. St Peter’s is an odd contradiction. A beautifully crafted plaza surrounded by stone Saints and the genius of Bernini, yet funded by the hideous robbery of the poor by the church through the sale of indulgences. It was the sale of indulgences that started the ball rolling of the rejection of Papal authority, through what became the reformation.

Inside the walls of the Vatican stands St Peter’s Baldachin. Bernini’s towering Baroque structure is said to stand directly above the tomb of St Peter, which apparently – though very doubtful – lies underneath St Peter’s basilica. The giant structure and its placement echoes the power and supremacy of the Roman Catholic Church, built upon the ‘rock’ of St Peter. Which leads to the question, what is the Biblical justification for the presumed power and supremacy of Rome, and for the legitimacy of the line of succession from St Peter to Pope Francis, and all in between who have had such vast power and influence?

You will have to excuse my overlooking of the question of whether the Biblical Peter actually visited Rome at all, or in fact, actually existed. I want instead to focus on presumed Papal authority and its fundamental justifications.

Paragraph 882 of the Cathechism of the Catholic Church says:

“… the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”

– The problem with this declaration is twofold. Firstly, there is no Biblical reason to accept that the Church in Rome was considered supreme in authority over any other sees. There is likewise no early Christian writings that establishes Rome as the supreme centre of Christendom for at least a century following the death of Peter. And even then, Irenaeus’s suggestion at the power of. Roman Catholic authority is dubious, due to its many translations. Secondly, there is no Biblical justification for a line of supreme authority succession from the Roman “Vicar of Christ”.

On the first point, it is generally argued that ‘1 Peter’ establishes – by Peter – the episcopal see in Rome as the supreme church governing all churches, with this particular verse that Peter supposedly wrote to several churches throughout early Christendom:

“The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you; and so doth Mark my son.”

– It is this that the Vatican uses primarily to place Peter in Rome. The common argument is that ‘Babylon’ was an early Christian code-word for Rome. The Book of Revelation similarly calls Rome ‘Babylon’, and this is used as further evidence that Peter thus used ‘Babylon’ as code for ‘Rome’. Though there is a vast difference between the writing style of Revelation – figurative, mythological – and the reference to ‘Babylon’ in 1 Peter – a plain, rather boring, matter-of-fact salutation. Revelation is also written decades after the death of Peter, and there is no reason to think Christians at the time of Peter were already using “Babylon” as a code for Rome. Also, Revelation is not speaking directly to any group in particular. Peter is tasked with speaking to Jewish communities. We know from Josephus, that Babylon had a great number of Jews at that time, and it isn’t unlikely that Peter was writing from the actual Babylon on the Euphrates itself.

The Vatican’s insistence that Rome was established as the supreme church is curious for several more reasons than just the writing style of 1 Peter. Firstly, Peter isn’t only thought to have established the episcopal see in Rome, but also the episcopal see at Antioch. And by early Christian standards, Antioch was a far more important place than Rome. And if we are to consider the idea that the word ‘Babylon’ in 1 Peter refers to another city, I’d suggest it’s far more likely to refer to Antioch, than to Rome:

Rome isn’t mentioned once as an important Christian city in the New Testament, but Antioch plays a vital role. Indeed, the importance of Peter in the early spread of Christianity, is echoed in the importance of Antioch. In Acts 11:26 we see just how important Antioch was for the early Christians:

“…And when he had found him, he brought him unto Antioch. And it came to pass, that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people. And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch. And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch.”

– The concept of being ‘Christian’ comes to us from Antioch. ‘Prophets’ – whomever they are – came specifically to Antioch all the way from Jerusalem, suggesting that Antioch was a city with great importance and influence for the early Christian communities across the empire at that point. This is also where Peter specifically chooses to establish a Church.

The fascinating pre-Christian history of Antioch brings up an unexpected link with Babylon. It was Alexander the Great’s general Seleucus I Nicator that built and established Antioch as his city of governance for the new Seleucid Empire in the fourth century BC. Seleucus established himself in Babylon in 312bc, which is the year given for the beginning of the Seleucid Empire. The importance of Babylon at that point cannot be overstated. Seleucus soon noticed that the Western section of the empire including Syria, and Turkey, had considerably more advantages than the Eastern section. The Eastern section contained Babylon. The Western section needed a Babylon of its own. So Seleucus had Antioch built in the West, and soon flocks of people from the east – including a great number of Babylonians – were now moving west, to Antioch. The establishment of Antioch and other cities by Seleucus was one of the key reasons for the decline of Babylon. Indeed, it was the Babylonian Priests that dominated Antioch at that time. Antioch was so incredibly Babylonian a few years later, that the historian Franz Cumont noted:

“There can be no doubt that Babylonian doctrines exercised decisive influence on this gradual metamorphosis and this latest phase of Semitic religion. The Seleucid princes of Antioch showed as great a deference to the science of the Babylonian clergy as the Persian Achaemenids had done before them.”

“It was Babylon that retained the intellectual supremacy, even after its political ruin. The powerful sacerdotal caste ruling it did not fall with the independence of the country, and it survived the conquests of Alexander. The researches of Assyriologists have shown that its ancient worship persisted under the Seleucids, and at the time of Strabo the Chaldeans still discussed cosmology and first principles in the rival schools of Borsippa and Orchoe.”

– From the clear influence of Babylonian culture on the foundations of Antioch, and from the clear central importance of Antioch to the early Christians, I would suggest that if we are to follow Papal reasoning, that Peter was not referring to Bablyon – then the reference to ‘Babylon’ in 1 Peter is more likely a reference to Antioch, and not to Rome. The Seleucid’s may have moved to Antioch, but remained the Kings of Babylon. This seems too significant for me, to simply overlook.

So, if we cannot reasonably suggest that Peter had established the church in Rome as the supreme authority, and placing aside the translation issues of the often quoted Irenaeus passage for the supremacy of Rome from around 120 years after the death of Peter – is there any Biblical reason to presume the supreme authority of Peter, and that of the established line of Papal succession?

Biblical scholars date the Gospel of Matthew to between 80ad and 110ad. At best, around fifteen years after the death of Peter in Rome, and at worst around half a century after the death of Peter in Rome. Between the death of Jesus, and the Gospel of Matthew, there is no hint of justification for the supremacy of the Bishop in Rome. Whilst Peter is given a special place among the apostles in spreading the message of Jesus, his establishment is never suggested supreme over all others, and the other apostles certainly are not told that they are subordinate to Peter.

The authors of the letters of Paul and Peter themselves appear to have no conception of Roman church supremacy. As shown, there is certainly more reason to suggest the primacy of the Church at Antioch, than Rome. Paul certainly isn’t preaching the supremacy of Rome, and in fact appears to consider himself to be the authority on early Christian doctrine especially in relation to gentiles. It is Paul who by his own words rebukes Peter over Peter’s apparent hypocrisy. In Galatians 2:11-14 Paul says:

“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”

– Paul here – and later – argues that old Jewish laws should not apply to gentiles. Peter didn’t seem to know where he stood on certain Theological questions of the early Christians, which Paul then goes on to argue and address. The only mention of Peter, by Paul, is an argument between the two, and Paul rebuking Peter. It is afterall not the case today, that Christians must observe the laws of Moses.

Indeed, the author of 1 Peter himself seems to hint that Christians in Asia Minor are also to be considered stones upon which Churches are built, in much the same way as Matthew describes Peter:

“4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

– Later in the same chapter of 1 Peter, the author’s use of language is not demanding – as one might expect from the supreme leader of the Church over all other Churches – but simply one of an advice giver:

“11 Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”

– He ‘urges’. There is no authoritarian demands, as one might expect from the single authority of Christian dogma. There is simply suggestion. He has no authority to demand. He isn’t ever claiming to be an authority on the entire church.

It is clear from the Gospels that Peter doubtlessly plays a more pronounced role in the spread of Christianity, but not as the single supreme authority on the new faith. There is no hint in Peter’s letters in the New Testament, that he considered himself to be the supreme head of the entire Christian faith. This idea seems to come from one brief and ambiguous passage in Matthew – written decades after Peter’s death, and presumptions of superiority due to his elevated status among the other apostles. There is no hint anywhere in the Bible that Peter ever set out to establish a supreme Church to rule all the churches, from Rome. There no hint in the Bible or in the writings of Peter or Paul, that an apostolic line of succession for the Bishops of Rome would forever be the ultimate Christian authority. There is nothing from Paul to indicate that he had any idea of the supremacy of Peter – indeed, Paul rebukes and argues with Peter – or the necessity for a central authority in Rome. This has no basis in anything but later conjecture, that seems to begin with the Gospel of Matthew and – as usual – relies heavily on cherry picking.

So the question remains; for such a powerful institution that has controlled and influenced the land, the art, the expression, the sexuality, the thoughts and the lives of so many Christians and non-Christians over the centuries, on from clear Biblical basis does the Roman Catholic Church derive its power?


Uthman Badar: Rationalising the irrational.

February 7, 2014

“Give to every human being every right that you claim for yourself.”
– Robert Ingersoll.

In November last year, Recital Hall in Sydney played host to a debate with the motion: “God and Prophet’s should be protected from insult”. Arguing for the motion was Uthman Badar of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Naturally, Badar’s position was one in which he attempts very weakly to rationalise the irrational, advocate oppression, whilst trying to appear not just to be having a bit of a tantrum. I thought I’d address several of Uthman Badar’s claims in this article.

I was immediately struck by this incredibly hypocritical line from Badar:

“Here’s a frank memo to the liberals…. enough of the self indulgence.”

– If this isn’t the most ironic statement made by someone who advocates a global Caliphate based on the supremacy of his particular ideology above all others… I don’t know what is. It isn’t liberals who punish apostates, or call for the execution of those who make jokes out of our ideas. It isn’t liberals who poison and injure the minds of children with dogmatic stories of eternal torture for non-belief. It isn’t liberals who burn down embassies if someone publishes a cartoon we don’t like. It isn’t liberals who insist on banning people from marriage if they don’t have the specific set of genitals we deem to be ‘acceptable’. So it is perhaps prudent of Uthman Badar in future to look closer to home when it comes to centuries of religious self indulgence before churning out the pitiful line that it is liberals that are the self indulgent ones.

“Free speech is a liberal position. It is an ideological liberal position. Not some logical, universal position”.

– Very simplistic. Free expression absolutely is a logical, universal position. Liberals didn’t invent the idea of not being punished by oppressors for words that those oppressors don’t like. Oppressing expression requires an ideological framework of power, like, say, religion. Oppressing expression does not extinguish the thoughts, it simply reduces the person who has those thoughts, to silence through fear. It chains the tongue and instills fear into the mind. This is incredibly unnatural, very dangerous, and completely contemptible. The erected oppressive barrier is thus simply a form of control over others. Liberals may have broke down that oppressive barrier in periods of enlightenment and emphasis on human rights and individual liberty. It is the barrier itself that is not a natural one. Nature does not inherently permit the oppression of thoughts and expressions that run contrary to the dictates of a 7th Century Middle Eastern sect. The thoughts and expressions of others, are not the property of any ideology.

To be free to express oneself is a natural condition that is only subject to oppression in some form or another from ‘outside’. We erect walls of oppression around the freedom to express oneself that must also be reasonable and logical if they are to be acceptable to us collectively; defamation for example. I know of no one who would argue that defamation laws are not beneficial to us all, or that they restrict others in their pursuits. They protect us equally from damage to our reputation by those who seek to harm us. It is more than expression in that respect. Similarly, threatening through words to murder someone has implications to the safety of the person, and so is likely to encourage a visit from the police. This is entirely different from words that someone may find offensive about the ideas they quite like. We are not naturally restricted in how we express ourselves. Those who wish to do so, simply seek to enslave the mind of those they cannot win over any reasonable way.

It is therefore the burden of those seeking to erect barriers to that natural liberty, that must explain why they have that privilege, why they believe our lives are theirs to play with, and why the rest of us must acquiesce. Free expression is not ideological, it is natural.

We are also endowed with curiosity. This is expressed in terms of critiques (like this article), or artistically – through music, or comedy, or theatre, or any other form of self expression. It is this self expression – and primarily through comedy/satire/mocking – that Uthman objects to. What then Uthman Badar is arguing for, is the legitimacy of erecting further walls of oppression over a natural human condition, based solely on what he deems to be “offensive” for what he holds as sacred beliefs. It is no different to a non-Muslim advocating the banning of Islam or the Qur’an, if they find it to be offensive. For me, this is intensely irrational and dangerous. Why must we take Badar’s supremacy seriously, but not the individual wishing to restrict Islam? (Similarly, I have defended the right of Muslims to build a Mosque in Bendigo, when other supremacists demanded it stopped).

We know what happens when defensive, insecure and paranoid religious folk have power over the cogs of state. Currently, 72 year old Brit Masud Ahmad – part of the Ahmadiyya sect – faces three years in a Pakistan prison for reading the Qur’an out loud. Apparently blasphemy if carried by a ‘non-muslim’. The logic behind just what actually constitutes blasphemy in Pakistan, is irrelevant. The very fact that someone can face jail time for “blasphemy” is so utterly abhorrent, and enough to remind us of just why a state should never be governed along religious principles. When a state is governed by religious principles – the dogmatic adherence to moral ‘rules’ set out centuries ago by one group in one place in one time – human freedoms quickly erode, human progress quickly erodes, replaced by personal beliefs of the dominant group and the inevitable oppression of others.

Badar never actually explains why causing offense to a religion – blasphemy – should be off limits, yet other forms of offense shouldn’t. He never offers an explanation as to why his particular authoritarian idea – that includes political control over others – should be protected from the mocking words of those they seek to control. Defamation is quite clear cut and covers us all. Trying to ban offending someone’s beliefs isn’t as clear cut, and only seems to cover religious beliefs. If Badar’s demands for a ban on offending religious beliefs, doesn’t extend to offending political beliefs, or indeed, any form of offense that one might cause someone else through any medium including practically all forms of comedy; then immediately his argument falls down through a massive hole of inconsistency, and he is relegated to simply having a silly little child-like “I hate blasphemy” tantrum. 

Indeed, every human being ever condemned as a heretic or a blasphemer, and violently punished or killed as such across the centuries, must today be considered a hero in the cause of human freedom.

“To insult others is to treat them with gross insensitivity, insolence, or contemptuous rudeness. Those who want to allow this, the onus is on them to prove that such depravity should be allowed.”

– Yes. Exactly right, to insult others. Though it shouldn’t be banned by the state, insulting others for the sake of it certainly shouldn’t be encouraged and should indeed be discouraged. As adults, we should of course regulate ourselves as best we can. For example, Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman failed miserably on that, when he said:

“The kaffar, the disbelievers, the atheists who remain deaf and stubborn to the teachings of Islam, the rational message of the Quran; they are described in the Quran as, quote, “a people of no intelligence”, Allah describes them as; not of no morality, not as people of no belief – people of “no intelligence” – because they’re incapable of the intellectual effort it requires to shake off those blind prejudices, to shake off those easy assumptions about this world, about the existence of God.”

– This Kuffarophobic bigotry should indeed be discouraged. I wouldn’t wish to see Mehdi Hasan punished for expressing his bigoted views toward people he’s never met. He is entitled to hold those views and to say them. I should not be trying to punish that. And I wouldn’t wish to silence the words of his God, who considers me someone of “no intelligence” apparently. This is insulting to me as a person. Not to my beliefs, but to me as a human being. Insulting other human beings is entirely separate. Challenging authoritarian ideas and concepts – be them political or religious, with critique and satire, with criticism and poking fun – should be considered uncompromisable and absolutely necessary. Authoritarian ideas like Islam must not be afforded the opportunity to regulate our thoughts and our expressions. Humanity is not to be chained by a single ideology.

In his follow up article (it’s the same wording as the video, with a few tweaks), Badar says:

“…Would we accept white people using the “n word” against blacks?”

– No. The issue here isn’t the expression, the issue is the sentiment behind the expression. The sentiment behind the expression is one rooted in the history of an oppressive, supremacist ideology based on race. It is supremacy that is the problem. Racism is institutional supremacy, and its partnered language further goes to solidify those supremacist notions. For example, if a group – such as the one Badar represents – was to openly suggest “eradicating” Jews from the Earth, we may say that the words themselves are not the issue, the issue is the sentiment behind it. A very neo-nazi sentiment seeped in violent, oppressive history.

Secularism ensures a line of equality. It affords the same rights for you as a person as it does for me as a person. My gender, my sexuality, my race, or my beliefs have no more right to oppress you, as your gender, sexuality, race or beliefs have a right to oppress me. It is the only safeguard against supremacy. Anything that deviates from that line – the elevation of one race above another, or the elevation of one system of belief in a place of power above all others – is supremacist. This is the problem. This is what Badar advocates.

Badar says:

“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.”

– Two problems with this quote also. Firstly, Badar makes the mistake of presuming that offending religious beliefs, is primarily about trying to encourage people to think about those beliefs. Why does he presume that’s the case? I am quite certain that the ‘Life of Brian’ or ‘Father Ted’ were not intended to encourage people to think. They exist to make people laugh. Political satire equally is there to make people laugh, not primarily to make people think. Though, some is. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show exists to make people laugh, but also – as with the Kramer interview – to encourage thought. Still, Stewart mocks political ideas. For Badar, this is unacceptable.

Badar appears to believe any criticism of ideas must only be encouragement to think. I reject this wholeheartedly. Indeed, even when it is presented as a thoughtful discussion, it tends to be claimed to “insult” those who hold beliefs to be sacred. Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason” was so insulting to Christians, that in Britain he was condemned:

“…as an enemy of proper thought and of the morality of decent, enlightened people.”

– In this respect, Paine was writing to make people think, and simultaneously managed to insult people. Centuries earlier, the Syrian al-Ma’arri wrote poetry that openly mocked religion, but it is also conducive to thought and understanding; the history of non-belief in this case. This immediately shows just how mistaken Badar was when he claimed insulting beliefs does not encourage thought. It doesn’t have to be primarily about encouraging thought, but often when that is the primary point, it is still considered insulting anyway. It is often true, that most great leaps forward intellectually, were considered incredibly insulting and offensive when first proposed.

Secondly, in insisting that insulting another person’s beliefs is fundamentally wrong, Badar appears to be disagreeing with his own God. And he goes on to contradict the words of his own Holy Book again later, when he states:

“When it comes to critique – as opposed to insult – I’d say, bring it on. Any attempt to quash or stifle serious debate is unacceptable in Islam.”

– And yet, the Qur’an begins almost every chapter with a vivid description of the punishment awaiting we non-believers if – even through serious debate – we conclude there is no God. Here, a quick example:

“Surely it is He Who brings about the creation of all and He will repeat it so that He may justly reward those who believe and do righteous deeds, and those who disbelieve may have a draught of boiling water and suffer a painful chastisement for their denying the Truth.”

– Essentially, let’s debate it… but if you don’t end up agreeing with me, you will be tortured forever. This should be insulting to anyone who values free thought, and critical inquiry. It is insulting to me as a non-believer. It is a threat. I am insulted by this. It isn’t encouraging me to think. It is nothing but intimidation. When I point this out to Muslims, most say “You don’t believe it, so you shouldn’t be offended.” This cop-out completely misses the point. Just as it is not my place to tell you that you shouldn’t be offended by a cartoon of the Prophet, it is not your place to tell me I shouldn’t be offended by what is written in a Holy Book I find to be repugnant. And if a Holy Book spends so much time insisting that I as a non-believer deserve to be tortured for eternity, then I absolutely reserve the right to mock it. It deserves nothing less from me. There is no inherent right for this one particular ideology to be respected without question. It must earn our respect, and for me it has managed the complete opposite.

Further, the suggestion seems to be that if we non-believers do not inherently respect your religion, and your Prophet, then we should be forced to respect your religion, and your Prophet through threat of punishment. It seems rather obvious to me, that if you need to force people to respect your religion through blasphemy laws – chances are, it’s not a respectable religion.

Indeed, what I defend as a freedom for myself to express without force or punishment, I defend for those whose actual existence I am so vehemently offended by. I am insulted that Hizb ut-Tahrir wishes to establish a Theocratic system whereby I am relegated to a social rank below Muslims who are to have power over me, protected by a thoroughly Islamic constitutional framework. I am offended by Badar’s expression of this goal, but I do not wish to punish him for having it or expressing it. The same freedom that allowed for Graham Linehan’s wonderful ‘Father Ted’ blasphemous comedy, allows for Hizb ut-Tahrir to announce on their East Africa website that:

“Homosexuality is an Evil that Destroys Societies!”

– This is insulting on such a grand scale. Incredibly offensive. It is this that we can compare to use of the “n word” Badar mentioned earlier. When I read this statement, it is like reading a KKK white supremacist pronouncement of the evils of those with darker skin. It is supremacy based on the idea that one biological trait is supreme and must have control over others, for the benefit of that one trait. This is hideous to me. Sexuality, like race, is largely genetic and a vast spectrum that has no “right” or “wrong” and the only reason sexuality has been oppressed so viciously over the centuries, is entirely down to religious supremacy; a heterosexual male dominated sphere of influence. Similarly, the only reason those with darker skin tones have been so viciously oppressed over the centuries, is racial supremacy. The poison is the same; the irrational oppression of freedom forged by those with power over those with no power, in order to ensure conformity to that particular oppressive ideology.

It is because of that inherently oppressive nature of supremacist ideologies – they are not just ‘beliefs’ if they seek control over others – that I maintain that not only should mockery and criticism not be punished by the state, but if that mockery or criticism is aimed at supremacist ideologies with a long history of oppression and with very imperialist, supremacist doctrines that I find offensive – then mockery and criticism become vital and necessary. Similarly, I absolutely support Badar’s right to offend my views on the superiority of secular democracy and human rights. The line of equality is essential.

If Uthman Badar wishes me not to “offend” his God, or his Prophet, then I demand with equal passion, that the Qur’an be rid of all references to the vicious eternal punishment awaiting we non-believers. Why is me feeling insulted by the words promoted in a book that believers have long used to oppress people like me, less important than the feelings of muslims with delusions of the importance of their doctrines? Why, if I find an ideology so repulsive to my own ideas of human freedom and rights, must I keep that to myself? When that faith no longer demands power over the lives of others through the mechanism of the state, when it longer seeks to indoctrinate children, when it no longer punishes apostates, when it doesn’t tell my gay friends they’re “unnatural” or shouldn’t be allowed to marry, when we’re not constantly told how awful the “kuffar” are or how evil the “west” is….. when all that self indulgence and Islamic supremacy stops, then I might cease criticising and mocking Badar’s ideology. Until then, I reserve the right without fear of punishment, to believe that all authoritarian ideas – of which Islam is certainly up there – should be open to criticism, mocking, and satire. And that those like Uthman Badar, a danger to the very basics of human liberty and dignity. Blasphemy is not just acceptable, it is absolutely vital to extinguishing the illegitimate power of religious oppression and supremacy.

It is quite simple, if you are not secularist, if you do not believe in a line of equality regardless of faith, race, gender, sexuality, then you are by definition advocating the power of one race, or one faith, or one gender, or one sexuality above all others. In Badar’s case, he advocates a state in which his particular ideology deserves power over the lives of us all, should be given special privileges over all others, simply because he believes its premise to be true. This is the advocating of oppression, regardless of how it is dressed up. No supremacist – to my knowledge – including Uthman Badar has ever provided a reasonable position as to why we should all accept their particular brand of supremacy as legitimate over our lives.

Let us be clear; free expression, freedom of belief, human and civil rights based on racial, religious, sexuality, and gender equality are not “liberal” principles. They’re not “Western” principles. They’re just not oppressive Theocratic principles. Those of us who hold those ideals; those of us with a respect for human beings before ideologies; those of us who believe in equal treatment under secular law… we should be intensely proud of those values.


James Madison: The Father of Secularism.

January 22, 2014

James_Madison
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”
– James Madison

The year was 1785 when Patrick Henry of Virginia worked tirelessly to push for the state to pass a law diverting tax dollars to directly funding “Teachers of the Christian Religion“. The oppressive nature of state sponsored religion so attached to the governing principles of the old world seemed to be one step closer to infecting the new world also. The genius of the American experiment in self government was put at risk in 1785. Had laws binding the state to a religion passed in Virginia, the Constitutional Congress may well have produced a document far different to the one that we all know today. The principles of the Enlightenment may not have been so beautifully enshrined, and the American experiment may have turned out very differently.

As it turns out, Patrick Henry had one very formidable foe in his attempts to directly establish a church-state binding link. James Madison – Father of the Constitution – existed at the moment in history, and in the exact place he was most needed, to argue so eloquently for the establishment and enshrining of secular ideals. Madison had astutely recognised the difference between tolerance, and liberty. Tolerance, in matters of state, he was certain, was the opposite of liberty. His words and brilliance worked to define secular ideals that permeate to this very day.

In the same year, Madison penned “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments”. A beautifully articulate and concise declaration of religious freedoms, in response to the Bill forwarded by Patrick Henry. In it, Madison states his reasons for opposing the Bill:

“Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men.”

“…If “all men are by nature equally free and independent,” all men are to be considered as entering into Society on equal conditions; as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, of their natural rights. Above all are they to be considered as retaining an “equal title to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience.” Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.”

– In two short paragraphs, Madison sets out the secular ideal. He makes clear the point that no single religious doctrine should be considered superior to any other, that the state should not promote dogma over reason, and that an individuals’ right to believe according to his or her own conscience is negated the moment the individual restricts the same right for another. For Madison, religious power over state had had its opportunity, and it was abused. For centuries religious power had fostered nothing but religious tyranny. With the minds of Jefferson, Adams, and Madison, the new World was not going to reflect the mistakes of the past when it came to religious power over state.

Further, Madison’s belief that no single religious doctrine be recognised as ‘official’ by the state, nor restricted therein is reflected in his support of Thomas Jefferson when establishing the University of Virginia. Both Jefferson and Madison believed religious theology had no place at the university, and Madison worked hard to ensure that the library books at the university contained moral philosophy, but no specific doctrinal teachings, so as to ensure a level playing field. The argument was simple, either the state has the right to invade and attempt to restrict the conscience of the individual, or it doesn’t. Madison’s response to Henry was a key factor is Henry losing the battle to divert tax dollars to the establishment of a religious order.

After the defeat of Henry’s Bill, Madison worked to ensure Jefferson’s ‘Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom’ passed through the Virginia Assembly, completely breaking the ties between the state government, and the Church of England. Indeed, Jefferson was so proud of penning the Statute, that he insisted on having it remembered on his tombstone. A tombstone that doesn’t even mention that he was President. Jefferson was in Paris on diplomatic orders as the Statute was up for discussion back home in Virginia, and it was James Madison who worked tirelessly to ensure its passage through the Assembly. The Statute states:

“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

– Not only does this ensure freedom of religion, it enshrines freedom from religion. No individual shall be compelled to support any ministry whatsoever. This is what was important to freethinkers and deists alike. Further, the statute makes clear that the beliefs of individuals should not affect their civil capacities. A line of equality drawn unequivocally. Virginians were to be considered equal in conscience, with no single faith or sect preferred in matters of state. This is reflected in a statement found earlier in the Statute:

“That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry”

– During the debate in the Assembly, a motion to include the name of Jesus Christ in the wording of the Bill was easily defeated. Once passed, the Bill was translated into several European languages and became a beacon for secularists across the old continent. The revolutionary importance of the Virginia statute is difficult to overstate. Indeed, in the US it took another 30 years before Catholics were permitted to hold public office in the state of New York. For Madison – as for Jefferson – liberties such as that of the freedom of conscience, fought so hard for during the revolutionary years, with a basis in reason rather than Christianity, were essential for the experiment in republican ideals and civil rights to succeed.

In 1776, Madison had amended George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights, and specifically, article 16. The vision of liberty as opposed to tolerance became a reality in the words that Madison had so beautifully penned:

“All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.”

– At this time, Madison – still in his mid-20s – was now the voice of secularism and freedom of conscience in the Virginia House of Delegates.

In the Federalist Papers, Madison argued that by levelling the playing field, and equalising belief whereby one faith or one sect of one faith is not permitted to rise above another, nor recognised by the state, fosters an environment for open debate, free thought and discourages oppression. We must note how revolutionary this concept was. The preceding centuries were centuries of religious war. Indeed, Christians spent an awful amount of time killing other Christians, for being the wrong type of Christian. In England alone, the Tudor monarchs were at odds with each other, murdering religious supporters of their rivals, simply for not adhering to the correct ‘sect’ of the same faith. By 1850, new Christian sects – such as Mormonism – with their own interpretations, were springing up everywhere, without fear of oppression. Separation of church and state is absolutely beneficial to the religious. Far more so, than when one sect controlled the reigns of power.

Madison had also argued that attempts to compromise between religious sects whilst still holding onto the state-church connection – the Elizabethan settlement was simply a compromise – failed, and that only complete liberty of conscience under a state framework neutral in matters of personal belief, could ensure the protection of all. This isn’t to say that religious tension was forever banished from society, far from it, simply that it created an atmosphere preferable to the religious tyranny and the climate of fear that leads to such vicious oppression, and the stifling of progress of the preceding centuries.

In 1822, Madison expressed another key secular concept, in a letter he wrote to the Jurist, Edward Livingston. In it, Madison expresses his belief that whilst religion should ordinarily be free from state interference, the state should interfere to limit religious power if that power attempts to infringe upon civil rights:

“I observe with particular pleasure the view that you have taken of the immunity of Religion from civil jurisdiction in every case where it does not trespass on private rights or public peace.”

– Practically, this thought process can be seen in 21st century America. After the decision in 2013 of the Supreme Court to deem the Defence of Marriage Act unconstitutional, President Obama made this statement:

“This was discrimination enshrined in law. It treated loving, committed gay and lesbian couples as a separate and lesser class of people. The Supreme Court has righted that wrong, and our country is better off for it.”

– The President is right. He was politically wise not to mention that the only reason same-sex couples are so viciously discriminated against, their rights trampled, treated as second class, is because of the supremacy of religion over the state. To paraphrase Madison, the court was absolutely right to step in and limit the power of the religious, when that power attempts to infringe upon the rights of individuals. The decision to overturn the Defence of Marriage Act represented the very essence of secularism.

Madison was convinced that the only way to ensure the freedom of inquiry, the freedom of expression, and the freedom of conscience for all, was to break the chains of church and state and enshrine reason and liberty into the founding framework of a nation. His vision for America – predicated largely on secular ideals – was the vision that won out. It is no surprise that Madison’s chose the first Amendment to the Bill of Rights to ensure this principle, enshrining religious freedom, and forever inhibiting the state from establishing a religion in the United States. The secular ideals that I base much of my political beliefs upon, derive from the works of James Madison. I reflect on his writings often, and they work to solidify my conviction that secular freedoms for all upon a democratic framework, are the only possible way to ensure the civil rights of all. To this day, Madison’s clear, concise, and rational arguments are far more persuasive than any other system of governance thus conceived. We owe many of freedoms and protections to James Madison: The Father of Secularism.


Dr Naik and the muddled Islamic story of creation.

January 13, 2014

Wikimedia Commons. Author: Ashfaq403

Wikimedia Commons.
Author: Ashfaq403

It is often the case that believers of Islam go to great lengths to thoroughly manipulate the words of their text to fit a modern narrative. Words are suddenly interpreted entirely differently to however they were interpreted for centuries previously, the moment a new scientific discovery is made, in order to make the Qur’an fit that new understanding. The historical context is abandoned. It is the religious equivalent of painting a 21st outfit onto Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, and then claiming it was like that all along. Dr Zakir Naik is an expert in this most curious and disingenuous form of manipulating the words of the Qur’an to mean something that they clearly don’t. In this article, I will look at Dr Naik’s claim that the Qur’an’s description of the creation of the universe perfectly corresponds to modern scientific understanding.

The softly spoken, suited Dr Naik is loved by many Muslim apologists. For the rest of us, he’s a bit of a mad Televangelist who thinks 9/11 was orchestrated by President Bush, believes apostates who ‘speak out’ against Islam should be put to death, and that evolution was originally a conspiracy against the Church, and is now “only a hypothesis”. Ridiculous. He is essentially the Jerry Falwell of Islam. Nevertheless, he is taken seriously by a large number of Muslims, and so I thought I’d focus on him today.

For reference, I am using the English translation of the Qur’an by M.A.S Abdel Haleem. Haleem was born in Egypt, he learnt the Qur’an off by heart at a young age, and he is now Professor of Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. His translation, according to ‘Muslim News’ is:

“One of the best to have appeared in recent times.”

Similarly, suhaibweb.com calls the translation:

“…one of the most genuine and refreshing translations in contemporary times.”

– I trust this translation. It sits on my shelf, and I use it for most articles I write on Islam.

Onto the topic. Here is Dr Naik trying so very hard to suggest that the Qur’an mentions the theory of the big bang.

Let’s examine the verses of the Qur’an mentioned here by Dr Zaik:
Chapter 21 Verse 30:

“Are disbelievers not aware that the heavens and the earth used to be joined together and that We ripped them apart…

– No. Disbelievers are not aware of this, because this isn’t reality. The verse is quite clear. The heavens and the Earth – not the raw material that eventually forms planets, but the Earth itself – were joined. This creation idea is not unique to Islam. It is worth noting that the idea of the pulling apart of the Earth and the sky at the moment of creation, is known itself as the ‘World parent’ myth of creation. It is a common myth. The sky is usually depicted as the male, and the Earth as the female in these myths, with both existing tightly packed together before splitting apart in primordial state of being. The Egyptian deity Shu split the Earth from the skies, for example. The Qur’an mixes elements of the World parent myth, with elements of an ex nihilo variety of myth creation, with Allah bringing the Earth and sky into existence with speech, by forcing them apart. This also, is common. It is important therefore to note that the Qur’an follows earlier creation myth building perfectly, and offers nothing new or impressive. This does not in any way relate to modern cosmology, because it is entirely related to earlier myth creation, which itself was a way to try to explain our origins at a time in our magnificent history, when our species had absolutely no idea what was going on.

The Qur’anic verse above implies that space and the Earth were ripped apart at the same moment. We of course know that the big bang happened around 13.7 billion years ago. The Earth formed around 4.5 billion years ago. The atoms that eventually became the Earth spent 9 billion years as other forms of matter. For most of the history of the universe, the matter that formed the Earth, was not, and will not be the Earth. The explosion of a star around 5 billion years ago, its remnants colliding with a gas cloud, that eventually formed our solar system. The heat from the supernova helped to form clusters of matter that eventually created enough gravitational pull to form the sun, which naturally became inconceivably dense and violently hot that it pulled surrounding objects into its orbit. Those surrounding objects eventually lumped together to form the Earth and other planets and moons. The matter that makes the Earth, will eventually create another form of matter, when the planet and the sun and solar system die out. The Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago. It was not once joined to the ‘heavens’ in the way the Qur’an implies.

A plethora of Islamic apologists – including Adnan Oktar – seem to suggest that the Qur’an actually means “matter” and not “the Earth” with verses like that of the one above. But that’s not what the words actually say. This represents one of those moments where Muslims insist every word of the Qur’an is exactly as it was revealed to Muhammad… until they decide it needs changing.

It is also worth pointing out that the materials required to create the Earth were created long after the big bang. For example, stable hydrogen atoms required the cooling of the universe over hundreds of thousands of years before it began to form. This of course, isn’t present in the Qur’an. Just “We ripped them apart”.

Also not present in the Qur’an; the infinitesimal singularity, there is no mention of matter, of atoms, of how planets form, of how gravity warps spacetime, no mention of the cooling period of the early universe and the creation of stable hydrogen atoms, no densely packed inconceivably hot energy in the early state of the universe, no quantum physics, no mention of the importance of the core of a star, no mention of how galaxies form, or of energy. There is no mention of these key aspects of the beginning of the universe because those who wrote the Qur’an were unaware of it all, relying instead on earlier myths. Had this been a ‘revelation’ from the divine, and given that the Qur’an goes out of its way to care enough to mention creation, I would have expected far more information, and a leap forward for scientific endeavour, rather than regurgitating legends of old. Instead we’re treated to cryptic nothingness that wouldn’t have been considered ‘advanced’ scientific knowledge, had it been ‘revealed’ 500 years earlier.

Further, the verse suggests that the Earth is now separate from the sky, and that separation occurred at the moment they were “ripped apart”. Whilst this is in keeping with World parent myth creation, in reality it doesn’t resemble truth at all. There is no separate “sky” and “Earth”, they are both part of the same system, with the Earth forming around 9 billion years after the initial expansion at the big bang. There was simply an expansion. There was no ‘before’ the big bang in which the Earth and the sky were in a different state of being, unless you accept the primitive creation myths in which a primordial state of being existed whereby the Earth and sky were joined. None of this is mentioned in the Qur’an, just a simplistic “We ripped them apart”. Let’s stop pretending this is credible, or scientific, or representing some sort of advanced knowledge. It isn’t. It is a simple, and primitive creation myth.

Chapter 41, Verse 11 (a chapter that tenderly takes a brief time out – a couple of sentences – from describing the painful eternal torture awaiting us non-believers, to discuss ‘creation’, before launching into more violent descriptions of our imminent punishment):

“Then He turned to the sky, which was smoke – He said to it and the Earth, ‘come into being, willingly or not,’ and they said, ‘we come willingly…”

– Again it is worth noting that the use of God’s voice to bring into being everything, is not new. Everything springs from a creator after a thought, or words, or breath. Secondly, the mention of ‘smoke’ is not a new idea, having been propagated by the Greeks centuries earlier, as a potential state prior to the creation of the Earth. Aristotle, for example says To rest the entire idea of the Qur’an mentioning the state of the early universe on ‘which was smoke’ shows just how incredibly weak the claim is. There was no smoke at the conception of the universe. In fact, the early state of the universe cannot be said to resemble smoke – defined as ‘a visible suspension of carbon or other particles in air, typically one emitted from a burning substance’ – in any form. Carbon itself would not exist for a few million years. Stable hydrogen atoms also took a very long time to form. The early universe was a very dense, incredibly hot, lightless mass of energy. Not smoke. Nothing like smoke. Again, it takes very creative language manipulation to try to claim the word ‘smoke’ can be used to describe the early universe. It just can’t.

Much like the previous quoted verse, this verse suggests that the Earth and sky came into being at the same time, at the moment in which they were “ripped apart”, and again, this is wrong. Indeed, not only does Chapter 41, Verse 11 of the Qur’an absolutely contradict our understanding of the cosmos and the formation of the universe and Earth, but also, lazily, contradicts itself over the previous two verses. The preceding verses of Chapter 41, from verse 9-10 state:

“[9]Say ‘how can you disregard the One who created the Earth in two days? How can you set up other gods as His equals? He is the Lord of all Worlds! [10]He places solid mountains on it, blessed it, measured out its varied provisions for all who seek them – all in four days.[11]Then He turned to the sky, which was smoke – He said to it and the Earth, ‘come into being, willingly or not,’ and they said, ‘we come willingly…”

– So, from verse 9 and 10 we get creation of the Earth. The inclusion of the word ‘then’ at the beginning of verse 11, implies that God turned His attention to the sky, after already forming the Earth. By verse 11 the Earth has been created with mountains and ‘provisions’. There is no sky at this point, despite the fact that the earlier chapter 21 implies they were created at the exact same moment in which they were “ripped apart”. Provisions and mountains exist, but the sky is just smoke. But then, oddly, God turns to both and demands they come into existence together. Which they do, confirming the earlier chapter, but contradicting the previous verse.

An earlier myth from Memphis in Egypt tells us that the God Ptah simply thought the World into existence, and gave everything its essence, through his words. As noted earlier, the use of divine speech – important to this Quranic verse – to bring everything into existence is not new. As well as appearing in countless creation myths, it appears in the Torah too: “And God said; ‘let there be light!'”

So, if we take Chapter 21, Verse 30, along with Chapter 41, Verse 11, as Dr Naik does, we come to the conclusion that the Earth – complete with mountains and ‘provisions’ – was created first, the sky was then created. They were joined. They were then ripped apart. It is very similar to Genesis, with a few tweaks here and there. It corresponds wonderfully to earlier primitive creation myths that speak of the sky and Earth pulled apart at the moment of creation. But it doesn’t correspond in any conceivable way to reality, without a thorough rewording, and creative reinterpretation of what the text actually says. Dr Naik is attempting – unsuccessfully – to rescue a dying and failed ‘science’ from its inevitable demise, by recreating what it actually says. It is a very defensive form of apologetics. I am yet to find any scientific peer reviewed thesis in relation to the origins of the universe and planet formation that references the Qur’anic story. It isn’t difficult to see why.


The Hamza Delusion.

December 4, 2013

Hamza Tzortzis is an interesting chap. I’ve seen him debate live a couple of times. A few things strike me about Hamza. Firstly, he’s an excellent public speaker, very engaging, and incredibly articulate. Secondly, he doesn’t really say anything of substance. He tends to repeat the same arguments that Theists have always presented, with brand new sparkly language that he seems to think gives credit to the points he makes, or he completely rewrites scripture to mean something that it clearly doesn’t mean.

I recently watched this talk by Hamza, from earlier this year:

– First thing I noted was that for a speech that is intended to show the “rationality” of Islam, it takes Hamza less than five minutes to mention – as if a fact of reality – Angels, and Satan. Not rational explanations for what we’d traditionally call ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and that we now know are based on chemical imbalances in the mind, but instead chooses to stick with Angels and Satan. This is something Hamza wishes us to consider ‘rational’.

Hamza then moves on to present his own reworded version of the old cosmological argument, with the phrase “the universe began“, and that it was “…created by something uncreated“. He calls this a “logical explanation“. It’s important on that point to note that his “logical explanation” is completely divorced from logic at every point. I deal with the cosmological argument and its inherent illogic in another article, here.

The issue that I wanted to discuss in this article, relates to a quote from Hamza beginning at 6:37 of the video above:

“When God always mentions his creative power, when Allah always mentions his mastery of the universe, when Allah always mentions the fact that he is the one who sustains the universe and created the universe and he talks about creation itself, it’s always as a premise, it’s always as a launching pad to launch your intellect into the realisation that not only does Allah exist, but he is one, and he deserves to be worshipped.”

– So ‘masterful’ is Allah’s commanding of the universe, that he doesn’t actually tell us anything we didn’t already know at that exact moment in history. Nevertheless, with the quote itself, I have one main issue – besides the circular reasoning, which Hamza goes on to say “isn’t circular reasoning“, but it most certainly is circular reasoning.

I am almost certain that the Qur’an was compiled at a time of the framing of a new empire, for the sake of the power and stability of that new empire. Most notably, a massive PR offensive was launched during the reign of Abd al-Malik, that continued through his son’s reign, and it is this period in which Islam begins to become what we know today. In my previous article on the birth of the myths of the Prophet, I noted:

“The besieging of Mecca, in 692, with over 10,000 Syrian troops, shows just how serious Abd al-Malik believed the situation had become for the future of his dynasty. Eventually the rebellions, as well as the Byzantines were defeated, and so the next step is to unify the Empire. To further the plan of unification, he needed to solidify his own claims to the Caliphate. It is around this time, that coins start to be inscribed with the name of Muhammad, linked directly to the Caliph. It is also no surprise that the Sana’a manuscripts (the earliest Qur’anic manuscripts we have) are calligraphically dated to the era of Abd al-Malik.”

– It is very difficult to overstate the sheer importance and enormity of the task that Abd al-Malik faced in consolidating his empire and his power in 685ad. I would argue that the Qur’an, and its constant repetition of the power of God was created for the sake of ensuring obedience to the Caliphate and its new ruler. I say this, because almost every time God’s power is mentioned as what Hamza calls a “premise” in the Qur’an, it is followed by a threat for those who disbelieve.

Qur’an Chapter 2:

“I, Allah, am the best Knower. This Book, there is no doubt in it, is a guide to those who keep their duty, Who believe in the Unseen and keep up prayer and spend out of what We have given them, And who believe in that which has been revealed to thee and that which was revealed before thee, and of the Hereafter they are sure. These are on a right course from their Lord and these it is that are successful. Those who disbelieve — it being alike to them whether thou warn them or warn them not — they will not believe. Allah has sealed their hearts and their hearing; and there is a covering on their eyes, and for them is a grievous chastisement. And there are some people who say: We believe in Allah and the Last Day; and they are not believers. They seek to deceive Allah and those who believe, and they deceive only themselves and they perceive not. In their hearts is a disease, so Allah increased their disease, and for them is a painful chastisement because they lie.”

– If you wish to ensure the obedience of a scientifically illiterate population to your new Theocratic empire, there is no better way than to offer a divine carrot and stick approach, by using ones fear of death and the afterlife as a tool. When the state is wedded to the new faith, and the new faith is essentially crafted by the new state, it becomes necessary to say that a threat to ensure obedience to the new faith, is a threat to ensure obedience to the new state.

One verse of one chapter of course might not be enough to really drive home the message that this new empire is directly linked to heaven itself. And so just to make certain that potential non-believers understand the message, well, maybe another chapter will do the trick:

“Alif, Lam, Mim. Allah, the Ever-Living, the Self- Subsisting, Who sustains the entire order of the Universe – there is no god but He. He has revealed this Book to you, setting forth the Truth and confirming the earlier Books, and He revealed the Torah and the Gospel before that for the guidance of mankind; and He has also revealed the Criterion (to distinguish the Truth from falsehood). A severe chastisement lies in store for those who deny the Signs of Allah.”

– Remember, these are written at the beginning of the chapter. This ensures the reader knows that if he or she does not accept what comes next, severe punishment awaits. There is no intellect involved here. No thinking. No rationality. It isn’t asking you to think or to consider. It is demanding obedience at gunpoint.

And so it goes…

“[10:1] Alif. Lam. Ra’. These are the verses of the Book overflowing with wisdom. [10:2] Does it seem strange to people that We should have revealed to a man from among themselves, directing him to warn the people (who are engrossed in heedlessness), and to give good news to the believers that they shall enjoy true honour and an exalted status with their Lord? (This seemed so strange that) the deniers of the Truth said: “This man is indeed a plain sorcerer!” [10:3] Surely your Lord is Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth in six days, then established Himself on the Throne (of His Dominion), governing all affairs of the Universe. None may intercede with Him except after obtaining His leave. Such is Allah, your Lord; do therefore serve Him. Will you not take heed? [10:4] To Him is your return. This is Allah’s promise that will certainly come true. Surely it is He Who brings about the creation of all and He will repeat it so that He may justly reward those who believe and do righteous deeds, and those who disbelieve may have a draught of boiling water and suffer a painful chastisement for their denying the Truth.”

And it goes…

“[13:1] Alif. Lam. Mim. Ra’. These are the verses of the Divine Book. Whatever has been revealed to you from your Lord is the truth, and yet most (of your) people do not believe. [13:2] It is Allah Who has raised the heavens without any supports that you could see, and then He established Himself on the Throne (of Dominion). And He it is Who has made the sun and the moon subservient (to a law), each running its course till an appointed term. He governs the entire order of the universe and clearly explains the signs that you may be firmly convinced about meeting your Lord. [13:3] He it is Who has stretched out the earth and has placed in it firm mountains and has caused the rivers to flow. He has made every fruit in pairs, two and two, and He it is Who causes the night to cover the day. Surely there are signs in these for those who reflect. [13:4] And on the earth there are many tracts of land neighbouring each other. There are on it vineyards, and sown fields, and date palms: some growing in clusters from one root, some standing alone. They are irrigated by the same water, and yet We make some excel others in taste. Surely there are signs in these for a people who use their reason. [13:5] And were you to wonder, then wondrous indeed is the saying of those who say: “What! After we have been reduced to dust, shall we be created afresh?” They are the ones who disbelieved in their Lord; they are the ones who shall have shackles around their necks. They shall be the inmates of the Fire, wherein they will abide for ever.”

And it goes…

“[14:1] Alif. Lam. Ra’. This is a Book which We have revealed to you that you may bring forth mankind from every kind of darkness into light, and direct them, with the leave of their Lord, to the Way of the Mighty, the Innately Praiseworthy, [14:2] (to the Way of) Allah to Whom belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. Woe be to those who reject the Truth for a severe chastisement, [14:3] to those who have chosen the life of the world in preference to the Hereafter, who hinder people from the Way of Allah, and seek to make it crooked.”

And it goes…

“[15:1] Alif. Lam. Ra’. These are the verses of the Book, and a Clear Qur’an. [15:2] Soon will the time come when the unbelievers will wish they were Muslims. [15:3] Leave them to eat and enjoy life and let false hopes amuse them. They will soon come to know. [15:4] Whenever We destroyed a town, a definite term had previously been decreed for it. [15:5] No people can outstrip the term for its destruction nor can it delay it.”

– This is just a few of the first fifteen chapters of the Qur’an. It goes on and on and on, and the point of all of them is not that God wishes you to know how great he is, nor is it to “launch your intellect” as Hamza would have you think. The greatness of God is followed always by describing torturous punishment to those who doubt. Indeed, a considerable chunk of the Qur’an deals with threats of eternal punishment for the victimless crime of non-belief. The point is power and control, and nothing else. It is violent threats toward those who don’t conform to its dogma, and it is reflected entirely in the needs of the new fledgling empire and the necessity to control a population that wasn’t unified, and threatened rebellion at every point.

It is the case that by the late 7th century, the Prophet Muhammad’s name was suddenly being used to strengthen a fragmented, and fragile political Umayyad state and to solidify the claims of one particular Caliph; coins appear with Muhammad’s name on it; Hadith are being collected in order to provide a legal framework for the new empire; Muhammad suddenly becomes a legendary and much needed figurehead for the reign of Abd al-Malik (followed by his son, who carries on the imperial PR venture), upon his accession to a largely fragmented and warring empire; and the Qur’an is suddenly compiled including threats against those who disbelieve. This is quite obviously politics, this was never ‘revelation’.

I would argue that this is a far more logical, and rational explanation of the opening verses of the chapters of the Qur’an than “God wants to launch your intellect” which appears to be entirely contradicted by the use of threats.

Hamza goes on to inform us that in the Qur’an, God is telling us to reflect upon what we know, reflect upon the words of the text, and we’ll come to the conclusion that God exists. What Hamza doesn’t say, is that if you don’t come to that conclusion – like the majority of the World – then you will suffer intense and horrific punishment. It seems particularly pernicious to me that a God would bestow upon mankind the beautiful ability to doubt and to critique, but then to punish us the moment we come to a conclusion that isn’t based solely on glorifying Him. Hamza’s point is not rational, it is based on nothing of substance, and wholly contradictory. It is easily explained away with history, and at its core, tries to convince you that blindly accepting dogma is itself thoughtful and rational. It is for those reasons that Hamza possesses a unique inability to understand the word “rational”.


The Heroes of the Poppy Fields.

November 10, 2013

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: Tijl Vercaemer from Gent, Flanders #Belgium) (In Flanders Fields the poppies blow (3/3#)

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: Tijl Vercaemer from Gent, Flanders #Belgium) (In Flanders Fields the poppies blow (3/3#)

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
– John McCrae 1915.

They are human beings. They are not immune to horrendous fear and to physical and psychological harm. It is the measure of intense bravery to not only overcome those fears, but throw oneself into the middle of them. They are human beings. Through it all, through what most of us cannot imagine, they fought and died so that people like me have the luxury to write, speak, criticise, assemble, live and love happily and freely and without fear. This is heroism, and it is unforgettable.


The Muslim Hero of World War II

November 8, 2013

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: By Henk van der Wal.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: By Henk van der Wal.

It is fast approaching the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in which hostilities ceased on the Western front. The date is now significant in our collective memory for the remembrance of those who have given up so much in defence of the country and the people that they love.

It is typical of this time of year to hear the amplified voices of a select few occidentalist, far-right British Muslims who insist on making empty gestures of hostility to the significance of Remembrance Day. The breaking of the two minute silence by clad-in-black Islamist fanatics to shout “British soldiers burn in hell” offends us all. And whilst it is their right to hold and to speak such sentiments – after all, the secular democracy that was fought for, includes their right to oppose – their hostility should not drown out the voices of those Muslims over the years who have fought and died for this country. It is their memory also, that the fanatics offend. It is the memory of Muslim soldiers and intelligence officers, that Islamist fanatics set on fire when they throw a lit match at a Poppy doused in petrol. It is imperative that their memory be upheld and respected at every opportunity.

One of my favourite places in the UK is Falmouth down in Cornwall. Life is less stressful on the south coast, and the further west you travel the more at ease life feels. The beautiful little picturesque British sea side town of Falmouth – whilst playing home to a fantastic little Fish and Chip shop – also played home, in the 1940s, to the Inayat Khan family. A Muslim family of Indian descent, the Khan family – lead by Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Western Sufi teacher – landed in Cornwall after the Nazis overran their home in France. Soon after arriving in Falmouth, Hazrat’s daughter – the peace loving, gentle mannered Noor Inayat Khan – had joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and worked her way quickly to a position in which she was working for British Intelligence. She soon became the first female radio operator to be flown into the middle of Nazi occupied France to relay messages back to Britain on the French resistance. She could speak fluent French, and was an expert in wire communication.

In 1943, most of her unit in the French Resistance in Paris were arrested by the Sicherheitsdienst. London tried to persuade Noor to return, due to fear that she’d be arrested. But she stayed in Paris, despite the threat, and continued to work for the British. She refused to leave her unit behind without communications expertise, worrying that they’d be captured and killed. The Nazis had information on her, and considered her a threat. They spent an extraordinary amount of effort to find and detain Noor and referred to her as a “danger”.

In October, Noor was arrested and held captive, but refused to give up any information to the Nazis. She was held on the fifth floor of Gestapo HQ and twice made attempts to escape. She was sent to Pforsheim Prison in November, and interrogated for weeks, still refusing to give up any information, remaining completely loyal to Britain and the resistance throughout. Throughout her imprisonment, she was kept in chains, and held in solitary confinement. There is also suggestion that she would have been repeatedly, and brutally tortured. But she still refused to talk.

Less than a year later, Noor Inayat Khan was taken to Dachau Camp, and despite more torture, more confinement, and more horrific mistreatment, still refused to give up any information. Her ultimatum was now give up information, or be murdered. Her extraordinary moral conviction led her to make the decision none of us could ever conceive of being in a position to make. She chose the latter option. Noor was executed by a Nazi gunman on September 12th, 1944.

Her bravery and moral conviction, her refusal to cave into Fascist thuggery, and her loyalty to the Britain that gave her family protection, and the French resistance, earned her the British George Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. She was the third of only three Princess Royal’s Volunteer Corps members to be awarded the George Cross.

So when we see the images of the viciously anti-Western, bigoted far-right Islamist groups take to social media, and the streets of Britain to protest & injure the memory of fallen heroes, to burn and vandalise, to shout abuse and play the victim-card, it is important that those we remember include the sacrifices made by Noor Inayat Khan and countless Muslims who fought for and continue to fight for the sake of the universal right of freedom and liberal, secular democracy. Their memory should always be upheld.


Atheism, Aisha, and Answering a Critic

October 25, 2013

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: ~crystalina~ (Flickr).

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: ~crystalina~ (Flickr).

I’ve commented a couple of times on Islamic blogger, and occidentalist Hakeem Muhammad’s obsession with presenting every critical comment of Islam, as a product of racism. I wrote here taking point by point Hakeem’s claim that Atheism itself, is a product of white supremacy. Indeed secularism – all belief treated equally under the law – he considers a white supremacist plot. What I’ve come to understand by Hakeem’s obsession with ensuring that every criticism has a racial element to it, is that he considers the criticism and the critic as a threat to an unearned, unjustifiable religious privilege that simple ‘belief’ has allowed believers to enjoy for so long. It is the only reason that his most recent attack on me (though I do like the picture he used, I scrub up well when I try), contained the word “white” 15 times. And every one of those times, to reiterate just how terrible critics of Islam are, if they happen to be white. “Racist white men”, “misogynistic white men”, “Patriarchal white men”, “white saviour complex”. It is quite insulting to be reduced to what colour my skin is, rather than the content of my argument.

Let’s begin at the start:

“Here is futiledemocracy’s basic argument: Ayesha, who lived over 1,400 years ago, was a victim of sexual assault, and I, as a white male, need to save her. ”

– No it isn’t. This has never been my ‘basic argument’. The article in question can be seen here. My argument was quite clear, allow me to reiterate what I said, and what Hakeem completely misrepresented:

“Therefore the Prophet – when it comes to his marriage to a young girl – cannot be judged entirely by today’s standards. He is anchored to the cultural context of the period in which he lived. It would be arrogant of me to suggest that had I lived back then, and in that region, I would have felt the same way as I do today. Of course I wouldn’t, because I am constrained by the context of the time. But Hakeem fails in his basic premise, when we flip the argument back around to face him. The Prophet Muhammad, to Hakeem, was in touch with the eternal. He was in touch with a being that transcends time. He is not restricted by the cultural context of 7th Century Arabia, and in fact for Muslims, the Prophet is there to change the context of the time period. He certainly isn’t restricted by it.”

– My argument was structured upon the concept of ‘objective’ morality as offered by the religious, and how that static concept hinders progress. In other words, how anchoring your sense of moral justice to a 7th Century text might cause some problems in the future. I never claim the Prophet is a paedophile in the modern sense, and don’t consider it right to do so. I also don’t believe he was a Prophet, nor heard the word of God, and therefore Muhammad is just another human being constrained by the social context of the time in which he lived. However, it is the enshrining of that one particular time period into a system that is claimed to be timeless and unchanging and taught as truth to young and impressionable minds, that I find repulsive and dangerous. I do not claim Muhammad, or Aisha’s father could at that time rationalise that promising a young girl in marriage at such a young age to an old man, locks her into a life without her considered consent and is in fact abuse. Of course they didn’t understand the effects of child abuse, 1400 years ago.

Similarly, those who wrote and later edited the Old Testament books were writing from the context of their time, and so the buying of selling of slaves as advocated in Leviticus 25:44-46 is completely redundant today, and called out for the horrifying “objective” moral cancer that it is. And whilst Christians continue to chirp the same “we have a book of objective morality” nonsense, they eerily discard those passages that no are no longer acceptable to modern life. And so, Muslims and Christians have in fact out grown and progressed beyond the “morality” of their own Gods.

I thought I would comment on Aisha’s age, because it has become a relatively new form of apologetics, mainly by Western Muslims, who feel a sense of shame that their Prophet might have consummated his marriage to a child. It is they who abuse the memory of the history of their religion by trying to twist it to fit a modern narrative. They tend to present that modern narrative, disregarding the historical consensus for the story of Muhammad and Aisha, to seem more presentable to a global audience that has come to understand child abuse for what it is; a cancer. So I will focus here on Hakeem’s highlighted point:

“Ayesha was an adult when the marriage was consummated”

– This is by no means an established Islamic truth (it certainly isn’t an established reality-based truth). In fact, according to muslim.org, the first person to suggest that Aisha may not have been 9 years old when the marriage was consummated, was Maulana Muhammad Ali, in the 1920s. For 1200+ years, this wasn’t even questioned. And from my reading, the new 20th Century interpretations are almost all based on very weak guessing games and conjecture, rather than the actual testimony of Aisha…. the testimony of whom Hakeem places great importance upon… until it doesn’t go his way. No evidence is progressed for why the testimony of Aisha is wrong. It’s just ignored, despite the fact that the well respected and authentic source sahih al-Bukhari is quite clear on the matter:

“Narrated Aisha:
The Prophet engaged me when I was a girl of six (years). We went to Medina and stayed at the home of Bani-al-Harith bin Khazraj. Then I got ill and my hair fell down. Later on my hair grew (again) and my mother, Um Ruman, came to me while I was playing in a swing with some of my girl friends. She called me, and I went to her, not knowing what she wanted to do to me. She caught me by the hand and made me stand at the door of the house. I was breathless then, and when my breathing became All right, she took some water and rubbed my face and head with it. Then she took me into the house. There in the house I saw some Ansari women who said, “Best wishes and Allah’s Blessing and a good luck.” Then she entrusted me to them and they prepared me (for the marriage). Unexpectedly Allah’s Apostle came to me in the forenoon and my mother handed me over to him, and at that time I was a girl of nine years of age.
Sahih al-Bukhari: Volume 5, Book 58, Number 234:

– And in fact, again, in sahih al-Bukhari:

“Narrated Hisham’s father:
Khadija died three years before the Prophet departed to Medina. He stayed there for two years or so and then he married ‘Aisha when she was a girl of six years of age, and he consumed that marriage when she was nine years old.”
Volume 5, Book 58, Number 236.

– If these verses are considered to be entirely wrong by the apologists, why is everything else supposedly collected by Muhammad al-Bukhari not considered just as questionable? Indeed, Hakeem himself, in his article references al-Bukhari and tells us that only a “white misogynist” (why race has anything to do with misogyny, is beyond me) would disregard the testimony of Aisha, and then goes on to use her testimony in al-Bukhari to support his point. He then completely ignores her testimony when she gives her actual age (he must be a white supremacist). Not only that, but Muhammad al-Bukhari’s findings are confirmed by Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj, whose Hadith are considered second in authenticity only to al-Bukhari:

Aisha (Allah be pleased with her) reported: “Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) married me when I was six years old, and I was admitted to his house when I was nine years old.”
Sahih Muslim 8:3310

– Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari in his wonderful Quranic commentary ‘Tafsir al-Tabari’ also appears fine with the age of Aisha at the point the marriage was consummated:

“I was brought in while Muhammad was sitting on a bed in our house. My mother made me sit on his lap. The other men and women got up and left. The Prophet consummated his marriage with me in my house when I was nine years old. Neither a camel nor a sheep was slaughtered on behalf of me.”
Al-Tabari, Vol. 9, p. 131

– The fact that Aisha was a young child is repeated through many more verses, including Abu Dawud 41:4915:

“Narrated Aisha, Ummul Mu’minin: “The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) married me when I was seven or six. When we came to Medina, some women came. according to Bishr’s version: Umm Ruman came to me when I was swinging. They took me, made me prepared and decorated me. I was then brought to the Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him), and he took up cohabitation with me when I was nine. She halted me at the door, and I burst into laughter.””

– And again, in Ibn Majah Vol. 3, Book 9, Hadith 1877:

“It was narrated that: Abdullah said: “The Prophet married Aishah when she was seven years old, and consummated the marriage with her when she was nine, and he passed away when she was eighteen.”

– Prize winning author Safiur Rahman Mubarakpuri in his modern day biography of the Prophet ‘Ar-Raheeq Al-Makhtum’ writes:

“She was six years old when he married her. However, he did not consummate the marriage with her till Shawwal seven months after Al-Hijra, and that was in Madinah. She was nine then. She was the only virgin he married, and the most beloved creature to him. As a woman she was the most learnèd woman in jurisprudence.”

– It takes some incredibly creative number games (or the usual… the interpretation must be wrong!) to attempt to dismiss the obvious, in order to appeal to a modern narrative. Hakeem is one of those seemingly embarrassed by the age of Aisha when his Prophet married and consummated the marriage to his young bride. Hakeem’s article is a mess of inconcise arguments from “She wasn’t a child!” to “It was fine to marry children back then!” to “omg why aren’t you focusing on how great Aisha was?” Look:

“Ayesha was outspoken, powerful, and witty; certainly not the type of woman who people would see as a victim. This utter demolishing of such a fallacious trope demonstrated by Ayesha’s life leads to imperial feminists slandering, degrading, and misrepresenting her story.”

– So that’s “white supremacists”, “white misogynists”, “patriarchal white men”, and “imperial feminists”. Meaningless ad hom attacks. Hakeem the psychologist has now apparently decided he knows “the type of woman who people would see as a victim”, presumably the opposite of outspoken, powerful and witty.

It is absolutely right, when talking about a man considered the ideal human being, whose life must be replicated as best as possible, to thoroughly critique and understand that life. This cannot be escaped by glossing over it, focusing on something entirely different – like Aisha’s ability in war or her later political prowess – or attacking anyone who does bring up the uncomfortable narrative of the marriage and consummation, as “imperialists” or “white supremacists”. It isn’t good enough.

As it turns out, I do quite like Aisha. She seems to have been incredibly rebellious, supremely well educated and echoes suspicions we non-believers share with regard the questionable times the Prophet has ‘revelations’ coinciding with his own personal desire for women:

Narrated Aisha: I used to look down upon those ladies who had given themselves to Allah’s Apostle and I used to say, “Can a lady give herself (to a man)?” But when Allah revealed: “You (O Muhammad) can postpone (the turn of) whom you will of them (your wives), and you may receive any of them whom you will; and there is no blame on you if you invite one whose turn you have set aside (temporarily).” I said (to the Prophet), “I feel that your Lord hastens in fulfilling your wishes and desires.”
Sahih Bukhari 6:60:311

– Sarcasm at its finest! And I completely agree with her. She was certainly impressive, outspoken, witty and suspicious, and rightfully so, given that Sura 66 of the Qur’an exists for no other reason than to threaten the Prophet’s wives with hellfire usually reserved for us terrible Atheists. Never one to miss an opportunity to speak degradingly and violently against those of us who don’t believe, the same Sura 66 insists that the Prophet should “deal sternly” with us because “Hell will be their home”. It then goes on to note specific women currently in hell, in order to ensure Aisha and Hafsa toe the line and allow their husband to continue his conquest of slave girls.

Whilst Aisha’s strength in suspicion and outspokenness, and her dedication to women’s education must be taken into account for discussions around Aisha as a person according to Islamic accounts and women in Islam today; her achievements and historical importance do not apply to a debate around the ‘objective moral anchor’ that Islam claims through the life of its Prophet especially when it concerns the vulnerable. It is a separate discussion, and one that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially when child marriage in Islamic states continue to this day.

But we must also note that in late antiquity, child marriage was not confined to Islam. Child marriage was common across the World, in Europe too, and lasted until very recently. It is unfair for non-Muslims to focus on the Prophet Muhammad whilst ignoring the vast majority of the rest of the very Patriarchal planet for the past few thousand years. It was a planet (and still is) ruled by men, for men. It is no surprise that Holy Texts reflect that. But it isn’t the context of the time that is the debate here, it is the enshrining of the context of one time period, for all subsequent time periods, through the life and deeds of one man confined by that time period, and presenting it as universal “truth”. That simply cannot be justified.

Indeed, if you absolutely believe that a text that anchors ‘right and wrong’ to a single geographical location at a single point in time, is the unchangeable word of truth, requires the belief that everything in that text is infallible, that the God who spoke those words exists across the context of all time periods did not consider it important to let the Prophet know that marrying and having sex with children might be wrong. This is uncompromisable to believers, and that is when dogma becomes dangerous. Given that a perfect God must know in the 7th Century, that which we in the 21st Century now understand about the horrific psychological effects of child abuse, why would He insist on intervening with Sura 66 to sort out the Prophet’s love life…. but not intervene to let his followers know the damage caused by child abuse? From an Atheist point of view, Muhammad cannot be condemned through 21st Century specs. The concept of anchored morality to one specific point in time…. absolutely can be condemned.


The Republican Party: Dreams of the Confederacy.

October 15, 2013

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: By Donald Lee Pardue (Flickr: Still Waving).

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: By Donald Lee Pardue (Flickr: Still Waving).

Conservatives are out in force on social media this week after a Tea Party protest included protestors waving Confederate flags at the White House of the first African American President. The conservative response has typically taken two directions; either the suggestion that the man with the flag was planted by a devious Democrat Party in an attempt to undermine the Tea Party and paint them as racist…. or that it is just one man who does not represent the Tea Party in general. Both presuppose that this is an anomaly. It isn’t.

In June this year, Rand Paul – potential Presidential candidate for 2016 – had to fire the co-author of his book, and his 2012 campaign blogger Jack Hunter, after Hunter penned an article with the by-line “Abraham Hitler“, in which he compares the Lincoln Presidency to the Third Reich. In it, Hunter neatly rewrites history to make the Confederacy seem freedom loving, State’s rights protecting heroes with a goal to be proud of:

“Dissuading the South from seceding by promising to protect slavery didn’t work, because the issue was secondary to the primary issue of constitutional government and states’ rights.”

– This is simply untrue. The Southern States seceded, because of the issue of slavery. There is no other way to spin it without completely disregarding the actual history itself. Any other ’cause’ was simply a device to win over more moderate forces. We know this, because Mississippi’s Declaration of Secession states:

“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery — the greatest material interest of the world … a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.”

Perhaps most tellingly of all, is the Confederate Constitution. Section 9 of which states:

“(4) No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.”

– This shows how little the Confederacy cared about State’s Rights. The State’s have no right to abolish Slavery. No individual State can pass a law impairing the right of property in slaves. The Confederate Federal Government did not care for State’s Rights. They cared only about maintaining and spreading African American slavery.

Hunter isn’t the first to express sympathy for the Confederate cause. In 2009 – and only a month after the inauguration of the United States’ first African American President, Rep. Bryan Stevenson (R) of the Missouri State House said in reference to the Freedom of Choice Act:

“What we are dealing with today is the greatest power grab by the federal government since the war of northern aggression”.

– Yes, a Unite States, State Representative genuinely referred to the war that ended the hideous institution of owning human beings as slaves, as ‘northern aggression’.

Four years later, House Republican for Texas’s 36th District, Steve Stockman invited Ted Nugent to the 2013 State of the Union, noting in a press release:

“I am excited to have a Patriot like Ted Nugent joining me in the House Chamber to hear from President Obama.”

– We should perhaps then examine just what credentials Republican House Representative Steve Stockman believes a ‘Patriot’ must have. In 2012, the ‘Patriot’ Ted Nugent said of anyone that supports President Obama:

“Pimps whores & welfare brats & their soulless supporters have a president to destroy America.”

In a 1995 interview, the ‘Patriot’ Ted Nugent said:

“I’m on top of a real America with working hard, playing hard, white motherfucking shit kickers, who are independent and get up in the morning.”

– In the same interview, when asked why he specifically mentions white people, and if he believe African Americans are equally hard working and independent, the ‘Patriot’ Ted Nugent responded:

“Show me one.”

In 2012, the ‘Patriot’ Ted Nugent told us all just how much he adores the United States, in the Washington Times:

“I’m beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War.”

In 2000, during controversy over the displaying of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House, Nugent said that those objecting:

“Can take the flag down, but I am going to wear it forever.”

– A “Patriot” to Tea Party Confederates & Republicans like Steve Stockman, wave Confederate flags, wishes the South had won the Civil War (thus upholding slavery), believes African Americans are not hard working, that only white people are true Americans, and anyone who votes Democrat is a “whore” and “Welfare brat”. Sentiments like that spewed by Nugent are not condemned by Republicans as completely unacceptable, offensive, vile, and entirely contrary to the American sense of justice and liberty; but are instead treated with either complete indifference, or promoted as the words of a Patriot.

On January 22nd 2013, whilst Sen. Henry Marsh (D) – a veteran of the Civil Rights era – was attending President Obama’s inauguration, Senate Republicans in the 20-20 split Virginia Senate sneaked through a redistricting bill essentially ensuring a Republican Senate in 2015. Republicans in the Senate went even further that day. Not only did they manipulate the absence of a civil rights veteran to ensure a majority in 2015… they called a halt to the day’s proceedings with the following announcement in the minutes of the day:

“On motion of Senator Stosch, the Senate adjourned in memory or [sic] General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson at 4:10 p.m. to convene Tuesday, January 22, 2013”

– They called a halt to proceedings not because the President had just been re-inaugurated a day before, but instead to honour a Confederate general. Furthermore, Senator Henry Marsh was a lawyer during the Civil Rights days. His law practice focused on civil rights cases. At the same time, Virginia’s Republican Senators were organising resistance to desegregation. That was the 1960s. In 2013, the children of those Republicans use his absence to advance their cause, and pay their respects to a Confederate general. Times change, attitudes and sentiment apparently don’t.

The spectre of the Confederacy follows the 21st Century Republican Party everywhere they go. The Tea Party Confederates aren’t just one man outside the White House waving a flag, it is a growing number of Party members in general, with an apparent air of Confederate nostalgia attaching itself to everything they do and everything they say. A man outside of the White House waving a flag, is simply a drop in the ocean of the thoughts, words, and actions of the Tea Party dream of Confederacy.


The Tea Party: In the shadow on the Confederacy.

October 10, 2013

The Signing of the Constitution. By Thomas Rossiter.

The Signing of the Constitution. By Thomas Rossiter.

As the days turn into weeks, the US shutdown edges no closer to being resolved. Polls consistently show that the public believe the Republican Party shoulders most of the blame for the chaos and the threat of default. Moderate Republicans join the growing chorus of disapproval of the shutdown and takeover by a small fringe group of well funded Tea Party Senators and House members. But it isn’t just the public, Democrats, the President, the courts, and moderate Republicans who blame the Tea Party faction for the shutdown, the Tea Party doesn’t seem to have the Constitution on its side either.

The Constitution of the United States is a work of genius. Largely influenced by James Madison’s brilliance for applying enlightenment philosophy to practical politics, and moderating the thoughts of Jefferson (who wished for the Constitution and all laws to be replaced every ‘generation’; 35 years) and the ideas of Hamilton (who pushed for a President elected for life); the Constitution ensures the minority cannot and should not be allowed to dictate policy on threat of economic or political catastrophe. The delegates to the Constitutional convention knew that the Constitution must be adaptable to the progress of US society beyond their own lifetime, and so amendments were the answer. The Founding generation – though they knew the threat loomed heavily – could not have accounted for the Constitutional issues that would arise when a Civil War eventually proved the biggest threat to the Union. One of which, was the debt.

The Fourteenth Amendment is one of those Constitutional Amendments that isn’t ambiguous. There isn’t much room for discussion or debate over its legitimate meaning. Section 4:

“The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.”

– The validity of public debt shall not be questioned. The Amendment was passed in 1868, as a result of political wrangling in a Congress worried that the public debt would be used as a weapon by southern States for reconstruction concessions in social and economic spheres of influence. The 14th Amendment put a stop to that threat. The South reacted bitterly to all of the 14th’s provisions (including section 4), refusing to ratify it. They wished to use the threat of the debt, to force the US government to bend to their will, despite losing an election, and a war. The South was eventually forced to sign up, with threat of exclusion from representation in the United States Congress, if they refused. The 14th Amendment was an attempt to prevent the minority – and those who lose elections – from seeking to rule on their own terms. And it worked, until today.

It would appear with the threat of default looming on the horizon, the Republican Party has decided that the wording of the 14th is not clear enough, choosing instead to openly and proudly use the public debt as a weapon to extract concessions that they didn’t manage to win through the electoral process. It took over 140 years, but we cannot be under any illusion; as they move further to the right, the Republicans have spent the past few years channelling the spirit of the Confederacy when it comes to voter suppression, when it comes to subtle hints at secession upon the election of a candidate they didn’t like, and now in seeking to use the debt ceiling as a way to defund and delay an established, Constitutional law.

On the validity of the 14th Amendment, Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote in 1935:

“While this provision was undoubtedly inspired by the desire to put beyond question the obligations of the government issued during the Civil War, its language indicates a broader connotation. Nor can we perceive any reason for not considering the expression ‘the validity of the public debt’ as embracing whatever concerns the integrity of the public obligations.”

– It is all embracing. It isn’t questionable. It should not be used as a tool for partisan point scoring.

Section 5 of the 14th Amendment tells us exactly which branch of government is in charge of ensuring the 14th Amendment is carried through:

“The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.”

– It is Congress’s job to ensure that the validity of the public debt of the United States is not questioned. The historical context of the Amendment is such, that the Amendment was specifically designed to prevent the threat of default unless concessions are met. This isn’t new money the President is asking for, it is money already spent, debts already incurred. It is House Republicans refusing to pay the bills unless they get what they want. And whilst Speaker Boehner is right in that the debt ceiling has been used by both parties as a bargaining chip before, it has never been used to threaten closure of government and default on debts.

The President has no power to invoke the 14th Amendment to unilaterally incur and pay the US’s debts. The constitutional crisis caused by such a move by the President, may well prove to be more damaging than the threat of default itself. The President has been clear; the 14th Amendment does not allow him the power to raise the debt ceiling himself.

To this end, the Republicans know just how dangerous the course they have chosen is. This isn’t a negotiation. This is a threat of force. In 2011 Standard & Poor’s Credit Rating Agency issued the following statement:

“Since we revised the outlook on our ‘AAA’ long-term rating to negative from stable on April 18, 2011, the political debate about the U.S.’ fiscal stance and the related issue of the U.S. government debt ceiling has, in our view, only become more entangled. Despite months of negotiations, the two sides remain at odds on fundamental fiscal policy issues. Consequently, we believe there is an increasing risk of a substantial policy stalemate enduring beyond any near-term agreement to raise the debt ceiling. As a consequence, we now believe that we could lower our ratings on the U.S. within three months.”

– They are quite clear. The debt itself is not what will lead ratings agencies to lower the US’s Credit Rating. It is the politics of the debt ceiling and continued threat of political instability. This instability is driven by a small group of highly financed Republicans, distrusted and disliked not just by the American people and the Democrat Party, but also by their own colleagues. Whilst this is true, the instability is also the product of a lack of clarity on just which branch of government is responsible for ensuring payment of public debt, and if it is constitutional to use the payment of the public debt as political leverage. It is quite clear that the Republicans are using that lack of clarity for political posturing and to circumnavigate the democratic process that didn’t go the way they wanted. If this isn’t the use of force to extract concessions and hinder the stability of Constitutional, democratic government, the entire economy, and the will of the people in the United States, I don’t know what is. In theory, a law exists to deal with that threat:

18 USC Chapter 115 – TREASON, SEDITION, AND SUBVERSIVE ACTIVITIES:
“If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.”

– There are several reasons here why I would argue that the Republicans in Congress have already openly played loose with this law. Firstly, the use of the tactic of closing down the government, by attempting to hinder, and delay the execution of the Affordable Care Act – a law passed by Congress, signed by the President, and upheld by the Supreme Court. Secondly, by attempting to prevent, hinder, or delay the payment of debts that the 14th Amendment insists shall not be questioned, and shall be enforced by Congress. And thirdly, the word “conspire” is key, especially given the months of planning that this shutdown has seemingly involved. The legal framework of the United States has been completely disregarded by a very small fringe right-winged movement that cannot abide elections that they did not win, and constitutional laws that they do not like.

Whether or not the Republican Party has broken, or cleverly maneuvered its way around Federal laws, is up for debate. The period of reconstruction attempted to set straight the Southern treat of using the debt as a bargaining chip, with the 14th Amendment. Today that democratic idea is being challenged by the children of the Confederacy. Reason dictates that if a small band of fringe Congressional representatives are able to close down the government, threaten economic disaster, unless a concession is made to defund or delay a law that the American people largely voted on in 2012, that was passed by Congress, signed by the President, and upheld by the Judiciary – all three branches of government – then something is seriously wrong with a democratic framework that allows for such a vicious tactic.


The Republican Individual Mandate: A forgotten history.

October 2, 2013

The President signs the Affordable Care Act into law. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author:  Pete Souza.

The President signs the Affordable Care Act into law.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: Pete Souza.

A brief timeline of Republicans and the individual mandate:

1960s: President Kennedy subtly hints at universal healthcare for America. Republicans don’t know how to react.
1970s: Republican President Nixon offers market based solution and employer mandate.
1980s: Republican think tank comes up with individual mandate.
1990s: Democrats offer ‘HillaryCare’ a step on the path to universal healthcare.
1990s: Republicans respond by sponsoring market-based Acts with individual mandate attached.
1990s: Republicans propose individual mandate, to prevent government-run healthcare.
2000s: Republicans create individual mandate system in Massachusetts.
2010s: Democrats throw out universal healthcare goal, adopt Republican individual mandate idea.
2010s: Republicans forget that it was their idea for decades, and decide it’s actually Marxist.

Through all the misinformation and misleading arguments against the Affordable Care Act, one of the most prominent is the conservative assurance that the individual mandate represents ‘government compulsion’ and so is the death of liberty. With this in mind, it would then seem natural to believe that the Affordable Care Act was conceived in a room of shadowy Marxists, waving an American flag upon which the 50 stars of Old Glory replaced by a hammer and sickle, thinking up devious ways to enslave the American people to the will of the big bad government. And conservatives – in the most over-dramatic fashion possible, are sure of that synopsis:

obama1
– Despite ridiculous comparisons to Stalin, slavery, and Nazis, the history of the idea of an individual mandate is in fact a conservative conception.

Born close to the border between England and Wales, Stuart Butler emigrated to the US in 1975 and has slowly worked his way up the ranks of the conservative Think Tank ‘The Heritage Foundation’, and is currently the foundation’s Director of the Center for Policy Innovation. In 1981, Butler gave a speech on healthcare in the United States, in it he says:

“We would include a mandate in our proposal–not a mandate on employers, but a mandate on heads of households–to obtain at least a basic package of health insurance for themselves and their families. That would have to include, by federal law, a catastrophic provision in the form of a stop loss for a family’s total health outlays. It would have to include all members of the family, and it might also include certain very specific services, such as preventive care, well baby visits, and other items.”

– Here we have for the first time, an influential right winged think tank proposing ‘government compulsion’ within the healthcare market. This idea was pushed an alternative to universal healthcare, which of course was then described as ‘government compulsion’ whilst the individual mandate promoted as a reasonable market-driven solution. Republicans today complaining that the President is not compromising appear to not understand that Obamacare absolutely is the compromise.

Conservatives including the Heritage Foundation today claim they changed their position in the early 90s and were now against the mandate. This isn’t exactly the case. They were against inclusion of the mandate in a Democratic authored Bill, not because they suddenly disagreed with the principle of an individual mandate, but because of the projected cost of the Democrat plan. We know that Butler was not against the idea of an individual mandate in principle, because in 2003 he told Congress:

“The obligations on individuals does not have to be a “hard” mandate, in the sense that failure to obtain coverage would be illegal. It could be a “soft” mandate, meaning that failure to obtain coverage could result in the loss of tax benefits and other government entitlements.”

– Are Republicans in 2013 willing to suggest that the Director of the Center for Policy Innovation at a leading conservative think tank, is advocating ‘Marxist’ forced government interference, with his 25 year support for an individual mandate?

In 1991, Mark Pauly – the lead author of a Health Affairs paper – wrote a paper for President Bush insisting that an individual mandate to purchase private health insurance was an effective way to keep government from nationalising healthcare. The individual mandate, in other words, was an anti-socialist principle in 1991. Pauly says:

“I was involved in developing a plan for the George H.W. Bush administration. I wasn’t a member of the administration, but part of a team of academics who believe the administration needed good proposals to look at. We did it because we were concerned about the specter of single payer insurance, which isn’t market-oriented, and we didn’t think was a good idea. One feature was the individual mandate.”

– So, all through the ’80s, ’90s, and early 00’s, Republicans and conservatives were touting an individual mandate for purchasing private health insurance, as a conservative principle designed to derail nationalised healthcare.

In 2011 Tea Party favourite Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) referred to an individual mandate as:

“…the unconstitutional employee mandate.”

– Leaving aside the fact that the Supreme Court upheld the mandate, back in 1993 Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) was a co-sponsor of a Healthcare Bill introduced by Republicans, that included an individual mandate. He fully supported it, along with current Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), and Richard Lugar (R-Ind). Senator Grassley is currently on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and supported Ted Cruz’s miserable attempts to defund The Affordable Care Act and its individual mandate, twenty years after he proposed and supported a similar Act. Senator Lugar (co-sponsor of the 1993 Act that included the individual mandate) is responsible for pushing Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller to question the constitutionality of the individual mandate. Both Senators support an individual mandate when Republicans propose it so much so that they co-sponsor it…. they’re then anti-individual mandate when Democrats compromise and propose it.

Instead of registering outrage at the ‘Marxist’ government compulsion involved in mandating individuals to purchase private health insurance (the strangest understanding of the concept of Marxism I’ve yet come across), Mitt Romney when governor of Massachusetts embraced it whole-heartedly. In 2006 the state of Massachusetts passed ‘An Act Providing Access to Affordable, Quality, Accountable Health Care’. Dubbed ‘Romneycare’, chapter 58 requires that all citizens of Massachusetts purchase health insurance coverage. Before signing the Act into law, Governor Romney vetoes eight provisions in the Act. Predictably, he vetoed providing dental help to the most vulnerable on Medicaid, and particularly heartlessly, he vetoed providing State funded care for legal immigrants with disabilities. What Romney didn’t veto, was the individual mandate. He seems to have been perfectly fine with that section. But don’t accept my word for it, here is what Romney himself had to say in 2006:

“With regards to the individual mandate, the individual responsibility program that I proposed, I was very pleased that the compromise between the two houses includes the personal responsibility mandate. That is essential for bringing the health care costs down for everyone and getting everyone the health insurance they need.”

And as a conservative idea, it seems to have worked. Conservatives should be proud. It’s a good idea. The Urban Institute released a report in 2010, that noted 98.1% of residents were insured, compared with 83% nationwide. 99.8% of children were now covered. 99.6% of seniors now covered. In 2011, the National Bureau of Economic research released a report noting that:

“…health care reform in Massachusetts led to better overall self-assessed health and improvements in several determinants of overall health, including physical health, mental health, functional limitations, joint disorders, body mass index, and moderate physical activity.”

– It works. Democrats adopted a Republican idea that works.

But it isn’t just the individual mandate that began life as a conservative idea. Let’s not forget that the employer mandate was first accepted by a Republican President. In 1974 President Nixon stood in front of Congress and offered his idea for comprehensive healthcare reform. He stated:

“Every employer would be required to offer all full-time employees the Comprehensive Health Insurance Plan.”

– Every employer. The Democrat President in 2012 has watered down this conservative proposal, and mandated that in 2015, only employers with over 50 employees provide health insurance for their workers, with the first 30 employees exempt. This is a major difference from what conservatives were offering with employer mandated health reform. Would Republicans be willing to accept that President Nixon was more ‘Marxist’ and anti-business, than President Obama? I suspect not.

It’s worth noting that Kennedy and the 1960s Democrats first argued the case for universal healthcare in the US. The UK had created the NHS after World War II during the wonderful Prime Ministerial reign of Clement Atlee. The NHS is a national treasure today. President Kennedy stood in front of an audience at Madison Square Garden and argued the case for a National Health Service in the US. Since then, Republicans have focused on reacting to Democrats on health care. First, they reacted by offering a market based solution that included an individual mandate to counter universal health care. For this, they also at times argued for an employer mandate. And now, the react by opposing Democrats, and previous generations of Republicans, but offer nothing new. The Republicans represent opposition to the President whatever he says or does, badly masked as a practical alternative.

It seems that for the majority of the past half a century, pre-Tea Party Republicans understood that healthcare is not a commodity like any other. That it isn’t based on choice in the first place. It is a necessity, and represents a product that can be the difference between life and death, and so it must be treated differently, focusing on the human aspect rather than the profit aspect first and foremost. Republicans in the past have understood that. Whilst universal healthcare is the ideal, it is still far away from being released in the US, and so until then Obamacare is a good, practical alternative that was first conceived by thinking Republicans, and that works well. We mustn’t be under the impression that Republicans oppose Democrats on health reform for any practical reason – after all they’ve offered no alternative – other than their traditional aimless opposition to Democrats on health reform, even if it was their own idea in the first place.


The Photography of the US Civil War.

August 27, 2013

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“Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it.”
The New York Times on Oct. 20, 1862

The great US Civil War historian Shelby Foote, once commented that the Civil War fundamentally changed the US linguistically from ‘the United States are…‘ to ‘the United States is…‘. A rather perfect outline of the result of the war. But there’s another interesting result of the conflict. The Civil War also introduced photography to journalism.

Lincoln recognised the power of photography, having joked that he may never have been re-elected without Mathew Brady’s portrait. Lincoln knew by 1865 the importance of photography, because its use in the US Civil War helped to diminish northern support for the Union forces, the moment hundreds of photographers invaded the battlefield at the end of a battle.

It was one thing to read letters from the front line (this also struck a blow to Northern support for the war, given the growth of the postal service at this time), but it was a completely different thing to see broken and torn corpses strewn across the battlefield, from a quiet house in northern towns and cities, far from the frontlines. The birth of Photojournalism at this point brought images of hell, to every American house in the country.

Today, they give us an incredible documentation of that four year period that cost so many lives, made so many political careers, and gave birth to ‘the United States is…‘.

Here are a few that caught my attention. Click the images, for larger versions.

A Confederate soldier, killed at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse:

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The inauguration of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, 1861:

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Union War General, and 18th President of the United States, Ulysses S.Grant. 1863:

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Confederate troops killed at Antietam:

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A slave family on a cotton plantation in Georgia:

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President Lincoln, with the Glaswegian Allan Pinkerton on the left, and Union General John McClernand:

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A regiment in formation, in Missouri:

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The 8th New York State Militia:

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Confederate Commander Robert E.Lee:

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Union Troops at Fredericksburg:

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Union General, and scorched Earth enthusiast, William Tecumseh Sherman:

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Confederate Soldiers killed, at Spotsylvania Court House. 1864:

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The camp of the 31st Pennsylvania Infantry, outside of Fort Slocum. 1862. A lot of wives and children insisted on joining their husbands at camp:

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Confederate Soldiers of Louisiana’s Washington Artillery, preparing for the Battle of Shiloh. 1862:

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President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

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A Union camp:

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The flag of the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves. 1864:

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Civil War Photography was used for a duel purpose. Firstly, we see from the horrendous images of those killed in battle, those young men who lost their lives so early, for a war that shaped the US ever since; as the New York Times pointed out in 1862, those images brought the horrors of war to the doorstep of every American. Secondly, the photography of the Civil War was used to create heroes out of its leaders. Tecumseh Sherman is sitting mightily, back straight, in a leadership pose atop his horse, in eerily similar pictures to early paintings of George Washington similarly used to convey a sense of majesty and honour. Similar images from the Mathew Brady collection show us Lincoln, as a towering figure, looking purposeful. Civil War photography helped propel the face of Ulysses Grant into the minds of millions. Photojournalism was a key component of the US Civil War and its legacy can be seen whenever we are presented with the horrors of war and conflict, and the images of World leaders appearing to look determined and thoughtful. US Civil War Photojournalism is an often forgotten, but vastly important contribution to the modern World.


The Republican Party: From Lincoln to Romney.

August 26, 2013

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“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
— President Abraham Lincoln, Nov. 21, 1864

“Corporations are people, my friend… of course they are.”
– Mitt Romney, 2012.

There is a rather neat simplicity in Republican circles that insists upon the populace, that the Republican Party of the 21st Century, is a continuation of the Republican Party of President Lincoln. In 2010, Christine O’Donnell, running for Senate seat for Delaware, was one of those running for Congress, asserting that the Republican Party that she belonged to, was the Party of Lincoln. It is as if they believe that had Abraham Lincoln, or Teddy Roosevelt (another name often used to link the GOP to its roots) existed today, they would find a similar Republican Party – in tone, and in policy – to the GOP they left behind, when in fact the history of the Republican Party renders it a completely separate entity from its late 19th early 20th Century counterpart.

It isn’t difficult to draw parallels between Texan Governor Rick Perry’s subtle call for secession, on the re-election of President Obama, shouting States Rights, to the same calls upon the election of President Lincoln in 1860 and the same States demanding secession, shouting States Rights (the Civil War was never about States Rights, as I point out in a previous article here).

Indeed, had Lincoln lived today, I would go as far as to say that the Republican Right might categorise him as a liberal who should be opposed at every opportunity. It would be the Republicans calling for secession. The GOP in 2013 is simply anti-government intervention for the most vulnerable. It is a fundamentalist position. It does not take into account context, or indeed, facts.

In contrast, President Lincoln was not anti-government intervention. Far from it, he pressed for state sponsored subsidies for railway building, canal building, road building amongst other Federally financed projects – a stimulus, as you may call it today. A vast swarm of States at the time – including Maine, Iowa, Minnesota, Maryland, Kentucky – had State constitutional bans on Federal subsidies for infrastructure. In fact, it was such a contentious issue splitting the progressive, Government-spending attitude of Lincoln’s northern Republicans with the Democrats in the South, that the Confederate Constitutional Drafters included the particularly conservative, anti-Federal clause:

“… neither this, nor any other clause in the Constitution shall ever be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvements intended to facilitate commerce”

– The Confederacy – with logic similar to today’s Republicans – considered internal improvements to be a matter for the individual states, not the Federal government. Lincoln disagreed. To the South, Lincoln was the very epitome of the power of central Federal government. Lincoln believed the Federal government to be a force for good.

In 1862, the Lincoln Administration signed into law, the Revenue Act. What this did, was to create the Commissioner of Internal Revenue; the IRS. Furthermore, the law created the USA’s first ever progressive income tax. If your annual income was less than $600, you paid nothing. If your income was greater than $10,000, you paid 5% (this was increased to 10% in the Revenue Act of 1864). It was designed to aid those who couldn’t afford to pay, whilst placing an increasing burden on those who could most afford to. For its time, this was an incredibly progressive step. We can contrast this today to Republicans in – for example – Wisconsin, who are currently pushing for a State flat tax, that independent analysis suggests is simply a massive tax cut for the wealthiest, whilst increasing the burden on the most vulnerable. The exact opposite of the Lincoln plan.

But it isn’t only Lincoln. Republicans will also mention their party’s ties to Teddy Roosevelt. “We’re the Party of Lincoln & Roosevelt!” is the cry from the Republican faithful. And yet, it is difficult to find any similarities between the Republican Party of 1901 – 1909, and the Republican Party in 2013. For example, in the 2012 campaign, Romney set himself up as the anti-union candidate. For Romney, unions were the problem. They hampered corporate power (the corporate power Lincoln – and in fact, Jefferson – were fearful of). For Romney, any legislation that empowered working people over the managerial classes, was only going to create bigger economic problems. This is no surprise given that when Romney was in control of Bain Capital, his company took over Marion, Ind, laid off one fifth of its workers, sharply cut health benefits, cut wages, and abolished its retirement plan. Romney got rich, by hammering working people into the ground, destroying unions, and fostering poverty.

By contrast Teddy Roosevelt supported United Mine Workers, when they went on strike in 1902 for higher wages and better conditions. The Republican President’s support for unions led UMW to a pay increase, for less hours. This, a year after Roosevelt delivered a speech to Congress demanding the curbing of power of large corporations, earning him the title of ‘Trust Buster’. He then signed into law the Meat Inspection Act making it illegal for a label to be misleading, and banned harmful chemicals. With his trust busting, and his dedication to food safety, Monsanto’s abuses certainly wouldn’t have lasted very long. To today’s Republicans, Teddy Roosevelt is far more to the left, than President Obama.

Moreover, Theodore Roosevelt wished to regain the Presidency in 1912, from his Republican ally William Taft, whom he now distrusted and considered anti-progressive. Failing to do so, Roosevelt then went about setting up the very short lived Progressive Party. The Progressive Party proposed the following; strict regulations on campaign contributions (Senate Minority Leader in 2013, Mitch McConnell has very good reason to oppose campaign finance reform; his loyalties lie entirely with big business); A universal healthcare system, proposed 40 years before the British NHS, and still not realised to this day whilst Republicans spend an incredible amount of money on constant repeal-Obamacare votes in the House; Minimum wage for women; social security to provide for the elderly, disabled and unemployed (all threatened by 21st Century Republicans); an inheritance tax (repealed in Indiana by State Republicans in 2012).
Naturally the Progressive Party died horribly, after funding ran dry given that Corporate interests didn’t particularly favour a progressive position. Nevertheless, in 1912, hundreds of progressive Republicans ran for office.

Let us also not forget that whilst the Republican Party today appears to be having a problem appealing to minorities, and giving the impression that it is willing to suppress voting rights of African Americans the moment the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the defining feature of the Ulysses Grant Republican administration, was one of extending voting rights, and progressing civil rights for African Americans. Grant was the first President to sign a Civil Rights Act, in direct conflict with rising anti-civil rights groups in the South.

On the issue of race, it appears to me that the period following the 1876 election, which saw the removal of Federal Troops from the South, allowing Democrats to again mistreat African Americans, lead to Southern Republicans trying to win over those white folk who were naturally drawn to the Democrats, thus we see Republicans actively abandoning the cause of civil rights.

The Democrats had a similar struggle to become the more progressive party we see today. As late as the 1950s we see a Democratic Party that included Hubert Humphrey who strongly advocated a shift in Democrat policy, by including the idea to end racial segregation, at the 1948 Party Platform at the DNC. This moment marks a huge shift for the Democrats. Humphrey took to the DNC floor and demanded that on racial segregation, the Democrats abandon their old position, and:

“…walk into the sunshine of human rights.”

– As Humphrey was making his way through the Democratic ranks, forging new ideas for the Party, another Democrat – Strom Thurmond – was actively fighting the change. Thurmond supported Jim Crow, and segregation. This split eventually lead to Thurmond joining the Republicans, and supporting Nixon’s vastly racist southern strategy. It is incredible to note than in less than a century, the Republican Party went from passing the 13th, 14th & 15th Amendments, reconstruction, and pioneering the way to bring African Americans into politics….. to supporting, and violently enforcing racial segregation. The Eisenhower Republicans of the 1950s, were completely different to the Lincoln Republicans of the 1850s.

By the 1960 election, we see a clear shift of powerful rhetoric, defining what the Democrats now stood for. Less than 100 years after the end of the Civil War, the Democrats were now firmly the party of the progressives, the heirs to Lincoln and Roosevelt. We see this, with Kennedy’s nomination acceptance speech in New York:

“If by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.” ”

– This could easily be repeated in 2013, and the same lines of division between liberal and conservative, Democratic and Republican, would apply.

The Republicans we see today started to crop up around the time of the Roosevelt New Deal era, having been stirring for around the previous 60+ years since the end of Reconstruction. According to Nancy Weiss in “Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR” writes:

“Roosevelt and the New Deal changed the voting habits of black Americans in ways that have lasted to our own time.”

– For a number of years before the New Deal, both Parties were promising some sort of help for the most vulnerable, via the enlarging of Federal Government. The northern Democrats of the Roosevelt era knew fully that the Great Depression gave them the opportunity to reconstitute the entire Democratic Platform. It is only during the New Deal era that the Republicans start becoming the Party of small government, and pressing ahead with much more racially divisive ideas. It is around this time too, that the Republicans start to become involved far more with the Christian Right. President Lincoln did not advertise his religious beliefs, and often questioned Christian dogma. Not as much as Jefferson, but certainly enough to render him the devil in the eyes of a fundamentalist like Rick Santorum.

The name “The Republican Party” is empty & meaningless for the sake of recalling its history. It is the attitudes – conservative or progressive – inclinations, beliefs and policies that form a Party, not its name. The big business, anti-progressive, anti-welfare, rabid obsession with small government fundamentalist vision of the Republican Party in 2013, cannot be identified in any way with the early Republican Administrations, and certainly not with that of Theodore Roosevelt. The Democrats & Republicans of the 19th Century are in no way comparable to their 21st Century counterparts. It is important to point our the complete 180 degree turn the Republicans & Democrats have gone through over the past 150+ years, when confronted with those who claim that today’s GOP is the “Party of Lincoln!“.

21st Century progressivism is the natural heir to the 19th and 20th Century progressivism of Lincoln and Roosevelt.