Support the Mosque in Bendigo: Addressing the criticisms.

April 28, 2014

Very few of my articles have attracted such frenzied responses as my article in support of the proposed Mosque in Bendigo. The responses tend to be confused rather than reasonable, and anchored in deeply anti-secular sentiment similar to the tone of those the commenters claim to oppose. I thought I’d use this article to address some of the complaints raised in the previous article:

– It’s important to distinguish between fact, and opinion. The phrase… “based on a lie” is the commenters opinion (as, incidentally, is mine) that differs entirely from the religious folk – who are entitled to the equal protection that permit the expression of the commenters opinion – and so is perfectly relevant to the discussion on the right to believe, because it negates the point the commenter is trying to make. The commenter has expressed what he believes – a belief that other citizens may find as offensive as he/she finds Islam to be – without state punishment, thus discrediting the point the commenter was attempting to make in the first place.

Secondly, a recurring theme throughout the opposition responses to my article tend to be entirely predicated on the notion that every Muslim in the western world is secretly working for Hizb ut-Tahrir, seeking to overthrow western democracy, replace the statue of Nelson on top of the column at Trafalgar Square with one of al-Nabhani, and can only be stopped by heroic nationalists assigning themselves a “moral obligation” to outlaw all thoughts not agreeable to their own, thereby themselves overthrowing western secular democracy. It is an intriguing irony, because they must be under the impression that the rest of us find their particular brand of political supremacy less insidious than religious supremacy. Both have a complete disregard for individual liberty, if it offends their own thoughts.

There are plenty of ideologies that an individual may consider racist, and misogynistic. Why stop there? Some may consider liberalism to be anti-British, or anti-American. Why not outlaw them? Some may consider conservatism to be anti-Australian. Why not outlaw them? Some may consider secular democracy to be white, European colonialist. Why not outlaw them? Who is getting the privilege to decide what views are acceptable to hold? Indeed, every ideology by its nature is supremacist and to some degree intolerant and destructive, and by way of attempting to control the lives of others who are not inclined to individual belief in that one particular ideology; they are anti-human and anti-rational. None have a right to state power, but each individual certainly has a right to believe in any ideology they so wish, without imposing it upon others. Secularism is the way by which the state grants no privilege to any of them above any other. The line of secular equality is maintained.

The writer wishes to ensure that Islam isn’t spread any further. The method by which this is achieved is important. The state restricting individual beliefs and the right to worship according to one’s beliefs, is oppressive by its nature. To restrict the spread of any massively flawed ideology, it is the best practice to subject it to scrutiny and inquiry, to criticism and satire, not to oppression.

The writer apparently sees it as his/her ‘moral obligation’ to fight to outlaw beliefs that the writer doesn’t particular like. By claiming a ‘moral obligation’ first requires their own assumption that their belief is the ‘right’ one, and that all others are therefore to be measured against that one individual’s belief, and banned if it doesn’t fit the narrow scope. It’s a very Islamist-like delusion of grandeur. It is also self defeating, because whilst at the beginning the writer insists they do not claim “a right to an ideology that is…” before themselves claiming some sort of ideological crusade designed to oppress those who do not subscribe to his/her particular views. What if I, or others, dislike this ideological crusade? Must we launch our own ideological crusade to fight the ideological crusade of the one fighting the ideological crusade? What if someone disagrees then with my ideological crusade? We then find ourselves in the odd position of a sort of Hobbesian state of war, punishing each other for thoughts that offend our own. It ironically appears to be the culmination of a logical trail that leads directly from the “your views offend me” Islamist rule book. This right to our own individual thoughts, and expression without harming the same right for others, requires secular democratic protections. Secularism protects a Muslim’s right to worship and believe according to one’s own conscience, in their own private setting, whilst equally protecting the writer’s right to express discontent. It permits neither the right to abuse the liberty of the other.

The secular claim is simple; the state must remain neutral in matters of individual belief, and as such has no inherent right to restrict thoughts, to punish belief, nor to ban private worship where no harm is coming to the liberty of others. This is an individual’s right to decide. Provided they act within the confines of secular law, they are not to be harassed by anyone assigning themselves a ‘moral obligation’ to oppress that basic right. Ensuring individual liberty of thought, is vital to the health of a democracy. The same is not true of the state oppressing the rights of individuals by placating the irrational fears of anti-secularists.

–  The confusion here – as we shall see again later – is between on the one hand disliking a belief – which we are all entitled to, and to vocalise – and on the other hand, wishing to oppress the right of others to believe that particular idea that we may dislike. It is of course not oppressive to criticise, to inquire, or to mock a particular belief; on the contrary, it is a necessary predicate for an open and free society, and as it turns out, the only legitimate way by which society tames an ideology. The oppression stems from the desire to see the state punishing people for their choice of belief when it doesn’t interfere with the same rights for others.

Here, the writer is advocating the privilege of power for those of us who proclaim non-belief, over everyone else. We get to decide what thoughts are acceptable. So then, why stop with Islam? I might believe that no civilised society should have to put up with an ideology that seeks to oppress others by punishing individual thoughts, or when and how they choose to pray. I could advocate a position of privilege for those who think like me, and demand punishment for those who don’t. Instead, I say that you should be as entitled to your beliefs – regardless of whether I like them or not – as religious folk should be to theirs, as I should be entitled to my own views, and none should be afforded a place of privilege. A line of secular equality maintained for all.

The writer then asks if I personally believe people should be allowed to “promote such views through public institutions via mosques and universities”. I had no idea that a Mosque was a public institution. But yes, Churches and Mosques should absolutely be allowed to argue that we non-believers will be sent to hell for the victimless crime of not believing. It is a putrid belief that I find myself debating a lot, but the state should not be sending early morning police raids into a Church suspected of promoting the concepts of heaven and hell. We do not defeat ideas, or dilute the power of ideas, by banning them. We do so by debating them and appealing to reason. Punishing the right to hold a particular belief, or to express a particular belief, similarly oppresses my right to hear that particular belief. I should be free to decide for myself, and to weigh up the arguments, not to have political or religious fanatics decide for me.

On the issue of public institutions; no…. they absolutely should not be recognising specific beliefs nor granting specific privileges to any single beliefs. Nor should universities be preventing students from their own beliefs, and sharing those beliefs with like-minded students. A university banning a specific society simply for its beliefs – if those societies are not actively promoting violence – or granting specific privileges (such as hideously segregating students by gender in lecture theatres) would offend my sense of secular freedom. In the same way that I wouldn’t wish to ban the Communist societies at universities nor any Nationalist societies at universities, despite my opposition to their message. Universities should not be in the business of deciding what views are “acceptable” and punishing those who don’t adhere to “acceptable” thoughts. Universities should promote free inquiry, discussion, and debate. When I was a student, I would have been particularly annoyed to hear that those in a position of power had banned beliefs and ideas, and thus banned me from hearing those ideas and beliefs and arguments, simply because they didn’t like them.

This leads me on to my next point; how do you police beliefs? If we are to ban the building of Mosques, does the state then take it upon itself to restrict the number of Muslims allowed to congregate in one place in case mass prayer breaks out? What if a Muslim invites friends to his or her house to pray? How many years in prison should that gain? What if Muslims in Universities get together to talk of Islam, should the University throw them out? How many Muslims are allowed to talk to each other at any one time at a university without state punishment? I am yet to hear anyone tell me how they intend to police Muslims being Muslims.

The writer of the above complaint seems to be under the impression that it is her/his right to get to decide which ideologies should be forbidden, on threat of punishment, automatically placing his/her own ideological position out of the line of fire that he/she is more than willing to place others into, thus granting themselves undeserved and self righteous privilege. Again, two sides, same coin. They have bizarrely decided that other people shouldn’t be allowed to worship in their own place of worship according to their own conscience, and that conscience must be molded to fit a narrative advocated by just one group. This is supremacy, and represents a disingenuous tactic designed to sound as if we’re being protected from a force that wishes us harm, whilst placing themselves in a position of privilege above the rest of us.

On a side note, it is also vastly inconsistent that there doesn’t seem to be an equal outburst of opposition to the “Catch the Fire Ministries” church also being built in Bendigo, and run by the misogynistic, homophobic cult leader, Daniel Nalliah. Or, for that matter, any of the other 20+ Christian centres in Bendigo, despite Christianity’s equally as oppressive and imperial history. Strange that.

– A massive selection of inconsequential arguments to deal with here. Firstly, it is bewildering to me the suggestion that I am “guilty of the very thing I condemn in others”. I simply condemn the use of the state to punish beliefs, by banning places of private worship. If creationists wish to come together, I do not wish the state to prevent that right. I am not calling for the outlawing of creationist beliefs, nor the right to express those beliefs. I absolutely reserve the right to mock those beliefs, and to criticise those beliefs, but the right to hold those beliefs without punishment is vital. As a non-believer, I frequently and happily mock and criticise Islam. The freedom to criticise and satirise all ideas – especially political or religious authoritarian ideas – is the bedrock of a progressive and civil society. The freedom to hold those beliefs, is equally important to the health of a civil society.

The writer’s second point is entirely their own criticisms of Islam and detracts from the point of the article itself. I have plenty of complaints about Islam. It is just isn’t relevant to this debate. A personal dislike of a religion or ideology is extraneous to a conversation about secular protections and civil rights. I dislike a lot of Jesus’ teachings from the Gospels and Revelation, nor am I a fan of Communism or Fascism, but I accept that others similarly may not accept my liberal, secular beliefs. Neither of us has a right to punish the other for disagreeing. Whether someone likes a faith or an ideology or not, cannot be an acceptable reason to grant that one person and his/her beliefs a privileged social position entitling them an inherent right to oppress the same right of others who wish to privately and individually adhere to their own beliefs. The issue is the right to worship and believe according to one’s own conscience without the state punishing the individual for an expression of belief that doesn’t harm others, debating specific dogmas is entirely different. Indeed, the right to present a specific dogma to be debated, is the right we must insist be protected for all.

The next point raised, is the existence of Muslims in the World, and their relationship to violence. Well, then one must also point out that the gay community in Uganda are in fear of their lives due to Christian supremacy, or that currently Christian militants are working their way across Central African Republic, violently displacing and hurting tens of thousands of Muslim inhabitants in what the UN describes as ethnic cleansing. One Christian militant, having looted the local mosque, stood and shouted:

“We didn’t want the Muslims here and we don’t want their mosque here any more either”

– Both Uganda, and Central African Republic, along with every country in which Christianity has at some point controlled the apparatus of state, has resulted in violence and oppression. Perhaps we should also be banning the building of Churches and threatening state punishments for those who hold Christian beliefs. The ability of any faith to become hardline and oppressive when it has state power, suggests religion in general – rather than just Islam – when given an ounce of privileged power, becomes oppressive. Indeed, Christianity provided the backdrop to the emergence of a need for secularism. To have to invent an ‘ism’ as a safeguard for basic rights, suggests the religious settlement wasn’t too good at it. The Baptists of New England fully supported Jefferson and Madison in their wonderful efforts to secularise the US Constitution, through fear that largely protestant sects – protected and privileged by state constitutions – would be granted a nationally recognised privileged position, spelling danger for the smaller sects. The problem of state sponsored oppression is not unique to Islam, nor Christianity. The problem is a single interpretation of Islam and Christianity when attached to state power and granted specific privileges. All ideas and concepts should absolutely be free for inquiry, discussion, criticism, belief, worship, and satire, where it does not harm the civil rights and liberties of the individual.

– It’s ludicrous that it even needs pointing out, but if “fairie worshipers” were an actual thing, it would be classed as a belief until it introduced specific doctrine. Belief is simply trust that something is true. An ideology incorporates belief into a system of ideas that form political and economic theories. Islam is used as both, from different groups. For most it is a belief that influences their life as a guide and doesn’t require me to live by the same set of rules. For Islamists, it is a political system that must be implemented, and violently if necessary. Secularism tames both. It ensures the hideously oppressive desire to control ideas suitable only to the individual, is not given a place of privilege or supremacy by the state to interfere with the liberty of others. All are open to worship and belief, all are open to criticism and satire and inquiry without fear of state punishment.

The second point seems to be wholly inconsistent to me. It is impossible to pinpoint what it is the writer is advocating. At first there is an acknowledgment of no inherent right to punish certain beliefs, but this is quickly negated by the claim that society shouldn’t have to put up with beliefs this particular commenter doesn’t like. He asks “what reason” a society should “put up with” an ideology that distinguishes between believer and non-believer.  Again, this can be applied to most ideologies. Distinctions disagreeable to an individual, may be perfectly reasonable to another. Capitalism distinguishes between employer and employee on a level that Communists might disapprove of. Class distinctions, racial distinctions, national distinctions, gender, sexuality, belief, the list is endless. The commenter thus defines ‘society’ as one in which only they get to decide who does and doesn’t fit that conception of society, using examples that can apply to plenty of other ideologies. The commenter thus places his or herself in a position of privilege whereby those who don’t share the exact thoughts of him/her are bizarrely excluded from this conception of ‘society’ simply because they are of one particular faith whose political distinctions are disagreeable to the commenter, even though those specifically mentioned distinctions are replicated in thousands of ideologies and thoughts that should – for the sake of anti-secular consistency – also be banned by the state. Reason surely dictates that none be granted that position of privilege. And that is the “reason” a society should “put up with” ideas that another individual may find disagreeable.

In truth, Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, Communists, Fascists, Liberals, Conservatives, and a plethora of beliefs and backgrounds all constitute society, with inherent and as Jefferson so beautifully noted – unalienable rights – protected equally by the civil state, with none permitted a privileged position, none recognised as supreme of thought, and none entitled a right to inhibit the liberty of others. This is a secular society. Any deviation, is supremacist by its nature.

– What an interesting policy idea. For every problem caused by ideological supremacy in another country, we should mimic it in the west. For every gay person hurt by a Christian supremacist in Uganda, gay people should, by this insane logic, hurt a Christian in the West. Perhaps for every non-believer and “heretic” murdered by Christian supremacists in the past, we non-believers should seek revenge, promoted by the state, to murder a Christian. This seems to be what the commenter is oddly implying.

Incidentally, the commenter seems to agree with my point; societies based on the supremacy of one particular ideology, are by their very nature, oppressive. We absolutely agree on that. My solution is secular democracy, whilst the commenter’s solution for the ills caused by a society based on the supremacy of one particular ideology,  is a society based on the supremacy of another particular ideology.

– Here, I am informed that we must oppose the Mosque in Bendigo, because Hizb ut-Tahrir exists. It is a curious argument, because the commenter doesn’t provide any shred of evidence that the Mosque in Bendigo is to be run by Hizb, and actively and covertly working to radicalise young Muslims. Instead, because Hizb exists, so Mosques must be opposed! It is the hysterical and inconsistent non-argument of anti-secularists, who have more in common with the Islamists they claim to hate, than either side would care to admit. As it stands, I’m unaware of any ties between the Mosque in Bendigo, and Hizb ut-Tahrir.

A nation is not Christian, nor Muslim, nor Atheist. It belongs to no particular sect, and equally no particular sect has an inherent right to state recognised privilege. A nation belongs to all those who live in it, with equal civil rights by which no sect be granted privileges. It doesn’t matter if the demand for privilege comes from the religious, or the non-religious. The coin is the same, the sides just have different faces. So far, no one has been able to produced a single valid argument – free from paranoid hysteria – that legitimises oppressing basic rights of Muslim citizens in Bendigo, and so for that reason, I continue to support the establishing of a Mosque in Bendigo.

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:

“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.