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Jan/15

11

Too Dangerous a Historical Debate

Mohammed_receiving_revelation_from_the_angel_GabrielWriting in the Guardian, Nick Cohen on self-censorship:

Unless we find the courage to overcome fear, the self-censorship will spread, and not only in the media.

Colleagues who wanted historians at a London museum to talk about the long history of depictions of Muhammad in Islamic art last week were met with panicking press officers trying to shut them up. Historian Tom Holland, who received death threats after he challenged the creation myths of Islam, said: “I cannot think of any other area of history where debate is so nervous.” He hopes that historians will continue to say that the Koran was a manmade creation, but doubts that journalists will be keen to take their work to the public.

This is not a small capitulation. In the 19th century, the textual criticism of German scholars revealed that the supposed word of God in the Bible was a mess of competing stories. It did as much damage to Christianity and Judaism as Darwinism. Anyone hoping to repeat the exercise by taking apart the Koran and the hadiths today will be restrained by the fear that they will end up as dead as satirists who try to do the same with anti-clerical humour.

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Jan/15

11

#PasCharlie 2

ParisCross-posted on the Corner (yesterday):

Tomorrow Paris will play host to a march designed to show France’s unity in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

The Guardian explains:

Je suis Charlie. Nous sommes Charlie. La France est Charlie.

Under the banner of Tous Unis! (All United!), France’s Socialist government has called for a show of national unity after three days of bloodshed that were felt as a direct blow to the republican values of liberté, egalité, fraternité.

On Sunday David Cameron and Angela Merkel, as well as the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, president Matteo Renzi of Italy and the Spanish premier, Mariano Rajoy – 30 world leaders in all – will take part in one of the most significant public occasions in the history of post-war France….

The Guardian continues:

While almost everyone is Charlie when it comes to defending the fundamental values of the French republic, there is less unity when it comes to dealing with threats to those values.

Everyone is Charlie?

No, everyone is not.

And the French state most definitely is not.

Writing for the Washington Post, Jonathan Turley argues (my emphasis added):

Indeed, if the French want to memorialize those killed at Charlie Hebdo, they could start by rescinding their laws criminalizing speech that insults, defames or incites hatred, discrimination or violence on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, sex or sexual orientation. These laws have been used to harass the satirical newspaper and threaten its staff for years. Speech has been conditioned on being used “responsibly” in France, suggesting that it is more of a privilege than a right for those who hold controversial views….

The cases have been wide-ranging and bizarre. In 2008, for example, Brigitte Bardot was convicted for writing a letter to then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy about how she thought Muslims and homosexuals were ruining France. In 2011, fashion designer John Galliano was found guilty of making anti-Semitic comments against at least three people in a Paris cafe. In 2012, the government criminalized denial of the Armenian genocide (a law later overturned by the courts, but Holocaust denial remains a crime). In 2013, a French mother was sentenced for “glorifying a crime” after she allowed her son, named Jihad, to go to school wearing a shirt that said “I am a bomb.” Last year, Interior Minister Manuel Valls moved to ban performances by comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, declaring that he was “no longer a comedian” but was rather an “anti-Semite and racist.” It is easy to silence speakers who spew hate or obnoxious words, but censorship rarely ends with those on the margins of our society…

Recently, speech regulation in France has expanded into non-hate speech, with courts routinely intervening in matters of opinion. For example, last year, a French court fined blogger Caroline Doudet and ordered her to change a headline to reduce its prominence on Google — for her negative review of a restaurant.

While France long ago got rid of its blasphemy laws, there is precious little difference for speakers and authors in prosecutions for defamation or hate speech. There may also be little difference perceived by extremists, like those in Paris, who mete out their own justice for speech the government defines as a crime. To them, this is only a matter of degree in responding to what the government has called unlawful provocations.

And as Turley points out, it’s not just France:

The French, of course, have not been alone in rolling back protections on free speech. Britain, Canada and other nations have joined them. We have similar rumblings here in the United States. In 2009, the Obama administration shockingly supported Muslim allies trying to establish a new international blasphemy standard.

And ask yourself this: What would have been the reaction on an American campus, Brandeis say, or Yale, if (before this week) some of its students had retweeted some of those Charlie Hebdo covers or, maybe, horrors, invited the magazine’s now murdered editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, to speak?

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Jan/15

11

#PasCharlie

Je_suis_Charlie.svgCross-posted on the Corner:
The #JeSuisCharlie message doesn’t appear to be getting through to some.

The Global Post:

A Swedish member of parliament reported a far-right leader to the police on Friday for alleged incitement to hatred over a comment related to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.

In a Facebook comment to an article on the killings at the French satirical weekly’s office Wednesday, the party secretary of the Sweden Democrats Bjoern Soeder wrote “‘The religion of peace’ shows its face.”

“He has linked practising Muslims to a terrorist act, it’s extremely offensive,” Veronica Palm, from the ruling Social Democratic party told TV4 news.

“This statement is offensive to a group of people and I want to see if it comes under laws against inciting racial hatred,” said Palm.

Because there is a right not to be offended, because Islam is, of course, a race, and because it is absolutely not permitted to question the establishment line about what Islam is or is not.

We will, of course, have to see what Swedish law actually provides, but the broader point is this: until there is a proper roll-back of laws that make prosecution in cases like this an impossibility it cannot be said that Europe is beginning to be serious about free speech, a right that must be protected for all, even for the likes of Mr. Söder.

And what do I mean by that? Well, as the report goes on to note:

Soeder came under fire from Sweden’s Jewish community in December when he told a Swedish daily that Jews could not be considered Swedish unless they abandoned their religious identity.

For more on that controversy, here’s the Times of Israel from last month:

Björn Söder, party secretary of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party and also deputy speaker of parliament, told newspaper Dagens Nyheter there were some groups in Swedish society who were citizens but belonged to other nations — namely Jews and Sami [Lapps].

Asked if a person could not be Jewish and Swedish at the same time, Söder said, “I think most people of Jewish origin that have become Swedes leave their Jewish identity.

“But if they do not do it, it doesn’t need to be a problem. One must distinguish between citizenship and nationhood. They can still be Swedish citizens and live in Sweden. Sami and Jews have lived in Sweden for a long time.

“We have an open Swedishness, an individual can become Swedish regardless of background,” he said. “But it requires that they be assimilated.”

… Last year Söder and his party presented a motion in parliament to ban the non-medical circumcision of males younger than 18.

It’s not difficult to see why many Swedes believe that the SD has not moved as far from its extremist roots (which are not a distant thing; we are talking about the 1990s) as it likes to claim.

It is a tragedy that the SD is the only parliamentary party to challenge the consensus that prevails in the Swedish political establishment (of left and of what passes in Sweden for right), a consensus that not only favors multiculturalism and mass immigration (which is fine, if in my view, seriously mistaken) but also makes dissent a taboo, something which is not only not fine, but very dangerous indeed when it concerns issues that are quite obviously of serious — and legitimate — public concern.

To borrow those words (yet) again from Mark Steyn:

If the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain topics, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones.

Under the circumstances, the rapid rise of the SD should not have been that unexpected. In fact, I doubt the party will be too sad about what Ms. Palm has done. Her actions will reinforce its claim to be the only ‘real’ opposition in Sweden. No less seriously they may well provide yet more encouragement to those in the Islamic world and elsewhere who want the West to jettison what remains of that quaint belief that “free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”

Ms. Palm, I should add, has tweeted #JeSuisCharlie. Yes really.

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Jan/15

8

Will Anything Change?

Hebdo 2Cross-posted on the Corner.

At the Financial Times, Europe editor Tony Barber’s initial response to the atrocity in Paris included this:

Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.

This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.

That text was later changed to (amongst other things) remove the words I have highlighted, but the stink of the suggestion (no, more than a suggestion) of self-censorship remains.

Meanwhile the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, “unequivocally condemned” the murders, but in a piece headed “Muslims Are Right To Be Angry”, he also attacked Charlie Hebdo’s sometimes very crude treatment of religious figures:

Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.” Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive. Muhammad isn’t sacred to me, either, but it would never occur to me to deliberately insult Muslims by trashing him.

For the most part though, the response to the slaughter in Paris has been impressive, moving beyond hashtags, to large demonstrations, to the republication of ‘offensive’ images, the latter vital if the point is to be made—as it must be—that, to quote again those words from Jyllands-Posten (sorry, Mr. Butler) all those years ago, “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”

But the real test will be to see if anything changes. Will the creeping reintroduction of blasphemy laws (dressed up in modern clothes, of course, ‘hate speech’, mustn’t give offense, that sort of thing) go into reverse, let alone the self-censorship that is (Butler must approve) such a feature of our times?

Writing in Time, Walter Olson had this to say:

The danger is not that there will be too little outpouring of solidarity, grief, and outrage in coming days. Of course there will be that. Demonstrations are already underway across France. The danger comes afterward, once the story passes and intellectuals and those who discuss and distribute their work decide how and whether to adjust themselves to a more intense climate of fear. At media outlets, among conference planners, at universities, there will be certain lawyers and risk managers and compliance experts and insurance buyers ready to advise the safer course, the course of silence.

And then there are the lawmakers. After years in which blasphemy laws were assumed to be a relic of the past, laws accomplishing much of the same effect are once again on the march in Europe, banning “defamation of religion,” insult to religious beliefs, or overly vigorous criticism of other people’s religions when defined as “hate speech.” This must go no further. One way we can honor Charb, Cabu, Wolinski, Tignous, and the others who were killed Wednesday is by lifting legal constraints on what their successors tomorrow can draw and write.

If I had to guess, those legal constraints will—after the briefest of pauses to honor those murdered for daring to express themselves—continue to tighten.

To take one example of the way things have been going in Europe, let’s look at what Britain’s Theresa May has planned for her countrymen should the Tories win the next election. Reason’s Brendan O’Neill (writing in November) can be our guide:

May wants to introduce “extremism disruption orders”, which, yes, are as terrifyingly authoritarian as they sound. Last month, May unveiled her ambition to “eliminate extremism in all its forms.” Whether you’re a neo-Nazi or an Islamist, or just someone who says things which betray, in May’s words, a lack of “respect for the rule of law” and “respect for minorities”, then you could be served with an extremism disruption order (EDO).

Strikingly, EDOs will target even individuals who do not espouse or promote violence, which is already a crime in the U.K. As May says, “The problem that we have had is this distinction of saying we will only go after you if you are an extremist that directly supports violence. [This] has left the field open for extremists who know how not to step over the line.” How telling that a leading British politician should be snotty about “this distinction” between speech and violence, between words and actions, which isn’t actually some glitch in the legal system, as she seems to think, but rather is the foundation stone on which every free, democratic society ought to be built.

Once served with an EDO, you will be banned from publishing on the Internet, speaking in a public forum, or appearing on TV. To say something online, including just tweeting or posting on Facebook, you will need the permission of the police…..What sort of people might find themselves branded “extremists” and thus forbidden from speaking in public? Anyone, really. The definition of extremist being bandied about by May and her colleagues is so sweeping that pretty much all individuals with outré or edgy views could potentially find themselves served with an EDO and no longer allowed to make any public utterance without government approval.

Both secularists and Christians understand where this could lead.

The Daily Telegraph reported:

Keith Porteous Wood, director of the [National Secular Society], said secularists might have to think twice before criticising Christianity or Islam. He said secularists risk being branded Islamophobic and racist because of their high profile campaigns against the advance of Sharia law in the UK….

Simon Calvert, Deputy Director of the Christian Institute, said traditionalist evangelicals who criticise gay marriage or even argue that all religions are not the same could find themselves accused of extremism….

“Hand a judge a file of a thousand Twitter postings accusing this atheist or that evangelical of ‘spreading hatred’ and they could easily rule that an EDO is needed….”

Freedom of expression is no longer a ‘European value’, not even in Britain, a nation where that right was once a source of pride. That’s not going to change. There will be more ‘blasphemy’ laws, not fewer. In fact, I would not be surprised if there is a politician somewhere already preparing the argument that the murders in Paris could have been prevented if only Charlie Hebdo had been kept under a tighter rein.

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Jan/15

8

Charlie Hebdo

hebdoCross-posted on the Corner.

The revolting terrorist assault on Charlie Hebdo today is designed to intimidate for the future as much as to ‘punish’ for the past.

And I suspect that it has, to some degree, been encouraged by opinion in Europe that has gone along with the idea that, when it comes to Islam, certain things must not be written, said or shown.

Here’s part of something I posted on the Corner in 2007. It concerned the earlier decision by the editor of Charlie Hebdo to republish the Danish Mohammed cartoons . He was quoted (in part) by the Wall Street Journal as follows:

I invited my colleagues from the daily and weekly press to republish the Danish cartoons, too. Most of them published some of them; only L’Express did in full. Before publication, I was pressured not to go ahead and summoned to the Hôtel Matignon to see the prime minister’s chief of staff; I refused to go. The next day, summary proceedings were initiated by the Grand Mosque of Paris and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France to stop this issue of Charlie Hebdo from hitting newsstands. The government encouraged them, but their suit was dismissed.”

As I noted at the time, “The government encouraged them.”

And in a piece the previous year, I wrote this:

Jacques Chirac was quick to condemn the republication of the Danish cartoons in Charlie Hebdo, an iconoclastic French weekly, as an “overt provocation“, but was able to leave the dirty work to others. The French Council of Muslims, a body set up with official support, is reported to be organizing the prosecution of poor Charlie, quite for what remains unclear, but doubtless the Council’s lawyers will be able to find something useful in France’s laws against “hate speech” or any number of other offenses dreamt up by the enforcers of multiculturalism.

Responsibility (moral and legal) for today’s murders lies unequivocally with the criminals who butchered the innocent, but it’s hard not to think that they went about their killings knowing that intimidation has been shown to work.

I concluded that piece, which mainly concerned the reaction elsewhere in Europe to the stance taken by the Danes, as follows:

Denmark, and its tradition of free speech, has been left to twist in the wind, trashed, abused, and betrayed. An article published in Jyllands-Posten (yes, them again) on Friday revealed clear frustration over the way that the country is being treated. It’s in Danish only, but one phrase (“Ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed er ytringsfrihed. Der er intet men.”) stands out, and it deserves to be translated and repeated again, and again, and again: “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”

If only.

And to the victims today, slaughtered for the ‘crime’ of free expression, RIP.

This is a terrible day.

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Jan/15

4

On Living in a Theocracy

Saudi_Arabia_flagGulf News:

Manama: Saudi Arabia’s efforts to edge closer to setting a minimum age for marriage have received a blow after the Grand Mufti said there was nothing wrong with girls below 15 getting married.

“There is currently no intention to discuss the issue,” Shaikh Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh said, quoted by local daily Al Riyadh on Sunday.

In a bold attempt to force changes on the grounds, the justice ministry has been pushing for setting up the minimum age.

Bold?

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Sep/14

21

‘Religious Freedom’, Dogs and Taxis

taxiCBC:

A Saskatoon man who is blind and uses a service animal has launched a complaint to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, alleging a local taxi company is not providing service because of his guide dog. Mike Simmonds claims he’s been denied taxi service more than once because of his dog.

“I think it is common,” Simmonds told CBC News Friday. “If you don’t have the dog you’re not going to hear much about it. Someone like me, I feel strongly about my rights. I feel strongly about my dog helping me out. I want to speak out.”

Simmonds said he has been told that some cab drivers have refused to pick him up with his dog because of their religious beliefs.

Michael Coren, noting that the always PC CBC had oddly omitted to mention what those ‘religious beliefs” might be, tweets, “those Christians!”

Now there needs to be some caution about this story (“Simmonds said he has been told that”), but I suspect that this ABC report from 2007 is not entirely irrelevant:

Commissioners at one of the country’s biggest airports are considering punishing Muslim cab drivers who refuse service to passengers possessing alcohol or guide dogs. The cabbies claim transporting those items violates Islamic law.

“It is against our faith and the airport is discriminating against Muslim drivers,” says a cab driver who would only give his first name, Hashim.

Three-quarters of the 900 cabbies licensed to operate at [Minneapolis-St. Paul’s] airport are Muslim, most from Somalia. It is unclear how many are adhering to this letter of Islamic law which considers the purchase, drinking and transport of alcoholic beverages a sin. Islam also regards the saliva from dogs to be unclean. Nearly 40 million people travel through Minneapolis-St Paul airport annually. Over the past 5 years, airport officials say 5,400 passengers have been turned away. Some had guide dogs or pets, others were carrying cases of wine from California, or liquor from duty-free shops.

“There are times where cab after cab will refuse service, and passengers can be waiting for 20 minutes,” says Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. “We’ve had complaints of people being asked if they had any alcoholic beverages in their luggage.”

To be sure, the airport commissioners were reported as going to take action as, apparently are city officials in Saskatoon. Nevertheless these two stories— one from Canada, one from the US—are a useful reminder to those in the United States currently pushing for a very wide definition of the religious rights protected by the First Amendment that, in an increasingly multicultural nation, they may find some of the consequences far less congenial than they imagine.

It ought to go without saying that religious freedom is part of the bedrock of American liberty, but so too is the notion of equality before the law.

There has to be unum, so to speak, as well as pluribus.

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Sep/14

8

ISIS: Making the Trains Run on Time (Apparently)

ISISThe Independent

In the cities and towns across the desert plains of north-east Syria, the ultra-hardline al-Qa’ida offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) has insinuated itself into nearly every aspect of daily life.

The ‘Islamic State’ group, infamous for its beheadings, crucifixions and mass executions, provides electricity and water, pays salaries, controls traffic, and runs nearly everything from bakeries and banks to schools, courts and mosques. While its merciless battlefield tactics and the imposition of its austere vision of Islamic law made headlines, residents say much of its power lies in its efficient and often deeply pragmatic ability to govern…

The Independent’s jokey headline: Life under Isis: For residents of Raqqa is this really a caliphate worse than death?

The idea that fanatacism and a certain degree of efficiency are incompatible is nonsene, and this report is not a bad reminder of that, but there’s something about the language in which it is written…

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Aug/14

24

Saudi Arabia, a Reminder

Execution by beheading in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 1985Writing in the New York Times, Ed Husain:

Let’s be clear: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram, the Shabab and others are all violent Sunni Salafi groupings. For five decades, Saudi Arabia has been the official sponsor of Sunni Salafism across the globe….

Unlike a majority of Sunnis, Salafis are evangelicals who wish to convert Muslims and others to their “purer” form of Islam — unpolluted, as they see it, by modernity. In this effort, they have been lavishly supported by the Saudi government, which has appointed emissaries to its embassies in Muslim countries who proselytize for Salafism. The kingdom also grants compliant imams V.I.P. access for the annual hajj, and bankrolls ultraconservative Islamic organizations like the Muslim World League and World Assembly of Muslim Youth.

After 9/11, under American pressure, much of this global financial support dried up, but the bastion of Salafism remains strong in the kingdom, enforcing the hard-line application of outdated Shariah punishments long abandoned by a majority of Muslims. Just since Aug. 4, 19 people have been beheaded in Saudi Arabia, nearly half for nonviolent crimes.

We are rightly outraged at the beheading of James Foley by Islamist militants, and by ISIS’ other atrocities, but we overlook the public executions by beheading permitted by Saudi Arabia. By licensing such barbarity, the kingdom normalizes and indirectly encourages such punishments elsewhere. When the country that does so is the birthplace of Islam, that message resonates…

Salafi intolerance has led to the destruction of Islamic heritage in Mecca and Medina. If ISIS is detonating shrines, it learned to do so from the precedent set in 1925 by the House of Saud with the Wahhabi-inspired demolition of 1,400-year-old tombs in the Jannat Al Baqi cemetery in Medina. In the last two years, violent Salafis have carried out similar sectarian vandalism, blowing up shrines from Libya to Pakistan, from Mali to Iraq. Fighters from Hezbollah have even entered Syria to protect holy sites.

Textbooks in Saudi Arabia’s schools and universities teach this brand of Islam. The University of Medina recruits students from around the world, trains them in the bigotry of Salafism and sends them to Muslim communities in places like the Balkans, Africa, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Egypt, where these Saudi-trained hard-liners work to eradicate the local, harmonious forms of Islam.

What is religious extremism but this aim to apply Shariah as state law? This is exactly what ISIS (Islamic State) is attempting do with its caliphate…

Saudi Arabia an ally? No.

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Aug/14

24

Bacon: “Offensive” Apparently

baconFrom WPTZ, Vermont:

WINOOSKI, Vt. —A sign on a lamp post at the bottom of the Winooski Circle displayed the words “Yield Sneakers Bacon” until Friday morning. The bistro owners took it down.

A city program put it in place to keep its flower beds beautiful. If businesses do some gardening they can post an advertisement where they do it, but the word “bacon” on the Sneakers Bistro sign started a discussion about diversity on the Winooski Front Porch Forum.

It started with a post from one woman who wrote that the sign was insensitive to those who do not consume pork. She said as a Muslim she is personally offended by it.

The owners of Sneakers spoke to WPTZ. They say they’ve reached out to the individual who made the post and proactively took the sign down. They also say they regret any harm caused by the sign, and that their goal was never to cause stress or bad feelings.

“It’s nice that they were respectful enough to take it down,” said Caleb Wiley an area resident, “but I also think they shouldn’t have, or had to at any right.”

Other Winooski residents joined the conversation, and online too. One post reads the word “bacon” is not offensive. It’s something that describes food.

Winooski’s city manager spoke on behalf of the city. She said:

“The cool part of living in a diverse community is that it’s not always comfortable. It’s a fascinating place with lots of opportunities for conversation. The City has to pay attention to a lot of factors while acting within what we can regulate,” said Katherine “Deac” Decarreau.

Others recognize it’s a complicated issue, too.

“I respect her religion and her right to believe what she wants but I’m pretty sure the first amendment extends to bacon and the selling of it.”

Sneakers’ owners say their goal is to provide a joyful place for the entire community.

The Winooski Islamic Community Center was not available for comment.

There is so much that’s sad about this squalid little story. There’s the importance that the Muslim woman puts on not being “personally” offended (a hypersensitivity that may be as American as it is genuinely Islamic). There is the cringing desperation to please on the part of Sneakers (“they regret any harm caused by the sign, and that their goal was never to cause stress or bad feelings”) and the refusal to treat this complaint with the contempt that it deserved.

And then there is the simpering PC babble from the city manager (“The cool part of living in a diverse community is that it’s not always comfortable. It’s a fascinating place with lots of opportunities for conversation”) complete with the absence of any recognition that this was not a “conversation” that anyone outside a madhouse should have been having, an absence of recognition shared with those at WPTZ who believe that this is a “complicated” issue.

“Complicated”? Uh, no.

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