Category Archives: Politics & Society


2013-06-23

Terrorism Facts #4: Personal Motives of Palestinian Suicide Bombers

by Neil Godfrey

manufacturing-human-bombsPalestinian suicide bombing operations are now (hopefully) history. The last one was five years ago. It is still good (even if painful) to understand them, however. (I have certainly found much of the reading preparation for this post to be painful; sometimes I could not bring myself to repeat certain details of what I learned.)

Having said that, let me say now that I am vain enough to think that Vridar readers are in some respects like me and share an interest in learning facts about terrorism and suicide bombings (along with any related role of Islam) from investigative journalists and in particular from scholarly researchers who specialize in the relevant fields: anthropology, sociology, political science, Islamist studies among them. To this end my reading list to date consists of Amin Saikal, Ghassan Hage, Jason Burke, Robert Pape, John Esposito, Riaz Hassan, Greg Barton, Scott Atran, Mohammed Hafez, Zaki Chehab, Lily Zubaidah Rahim, Amin Saikal, Tariq Ali and Tom Holland.

I am interested in studying the data these researchers gather in support of their conclusions. That’s what these posts have been attempting to do ever since November 2006: to present some sound and verifiable research data and tried and tested explanatory models of human behaviour to counter the pop polemics from public figures (think Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne) who clearly have no more specialist understanding or knowledge of this area than a twelve year old madrassah pupil has about evolutionary biology or neurology.

It is also disturbing to learn through some of the rhetoric of critics of these posts (and the writings of Harris, Dawkins and Coyne) how very little they know about the “facts on the ground” and the history of the Middle East. I am dismayed that one such figure, Sam Harris, even publicly ridicules and blatantly misrepresents the findings of one of the most prominent and politically influential anthropologists who has risked his life to learn first-hand, in field research, how terrorists think.

In what other area would a public intellectual think to ridicule his intellectual peers while at the same time promoting the popular prejudices and CNN sound-bytes and Fox News stories as reliable and responsible datasets and founts of wisdom?

So far I have posted thoughts and research from publications by

  • Ghassan Hage — anthropologist with interesting insights, though some of his views relating to suicide terrorist motivations have been superseded by subsequent researchers
  • Robert Pape — political scientist responsible for a landmark study of all suicide terrorist attacks from 1980 to 2003.
  • John Esposito — professor of religion and Islamist studies; draws upon Gallup polling
  • Riaz Hassan — sociologist drawing upon a Flinders University Database 0f terrorist actions as well as other polling studies
  • Scott Atran — anthropologist who has been advisor and confidante to many governments and government bodies. (Have also posted on another book of his on the evolutionary basis of religion, “In Gods We Trust”.)
  • Mohammed Hafez — political scientist specializing in studies of Muslim societies in Middle East
  • Tom Holland — historian who has raised controversial questions about the origins of Islam

Also by

And yes, I’ve also read Sam Harris (two books), Chris Hitchens (four books), Richard Dawkins (six or seven books plus interviews), Daniel Dennett (one book) and even Jerry Coyne (one book and lots of blog posts) and what they have had to pontificate against their perceptions of Islam.

For the benefit of newer readers who have been upset by my posts on this theme, note that these posts began in the first month of the creation of this blog. This is not some new-found interest of mine. The by-line of this blog from the beginning has been, Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science. Only this year have some readers seen fit to complain that they do not think that these posts meet Vridar standards of presenting reliable scholarly research and sound argument.

Mohammed_M_Hafez

Mohammed M Hafez

I have since had an opportunity to read two more books by Mohammed Hafez: one exploring the phenomenon of suicide attacks in Iraq (up to 2006) and the other Palestinian suicide bombers from 1993 to 2005.

I was prompted to obtain a copy of Hafez’s study of the terrorist attacks in Iraq after hearing of yet one more horrific spate of bombings that once again killed dozens of Iraqis. (Why are they targeting fellow Muslims? Especially now that the U.S. has left? It turns out that there is a strong motivation among a good number of people to maintain Iraq as a failed state.)

This post primarily addresses Hafez’s findings about the motives of individual Palestinian suicide bombers. I conclude with a few related explanations from Scott Atran. (Sorry, that was my intention when I began this post, but the post turned out way much longer than I anticipated. More on Scott Atran’s views later.)

Religious Fanaticism

A popular Western view is that the Muslim world has a fatal enchantment with martyrdom. Religious fanaticism is one of the most common explanations of why individuals volunteer to become human bombs. (Suicide Bombers in Iraq, p. 218)

In his earlier book, Manufacturing Human Bombs, Hafez singled out several problems with this explanation: read more »


2013-06-04

What is Happenning in Istanbul?

by Neil Godfrey

2013-05-11

Latest News from the Middle East — PEACE just for the recognition of International Law

by Neil Godfrey

The caption that originally displayed beneath the Vridar title of this blog was

Musings on biblical studies, politics, religion, ethics, human nature, tidbits from science

Unfortunately I was unable to salvage that detail when I moved to the current WordPress theme. Nonetheless, it encapsulates the original intent of this blog. Even I need the odd breather from posts relating to biblical studies.

I don’t know how many Westerners were exposed to the latest news from the Middle East but, since the overwhelming majority of this blog’s readers are in affluent Western nations, I would like to bring to the notice of any reader with an interest in Israeli affairs the following news item that has emerged within the past 24 hours. It’s the sort of news item that tends to pop up at least once a year and then gets buried before anyone has time to notice it. Just as well. Otherwise the myths about Arab intransigence over the Israel-Palestine situation would be seriously threatened by an eroding of general public credibility.

Missing from the Arab Peace Plan: an Israeli Partner

Yep, once again, the Arab states are offering Israel a peace agreement. You never heard of any such thing before? Read on, and watch the video at the end. (I know, the Arabs really should lift their game and hire Western Public Relations firms to assist them with how they come across to the public. But I know Vridar readers are smart enough to read the core and dismiss the fluff.)

For reasons best left for another post (though addressed in previous comments here), most Westerners have been exposed to a constant barrage of “news” that depicts the Israeli government as bending over backwards, giving up land and all sorts of concessions, all for the sake of peace — yet in vain! The Arabs and Palestinians, our news media and official channels regularly inform us, are hate-filled war-mongers who want nothing but the complete eradication of Israel from the map.

This week, however, has seen the repeat of an annual event that this time has come with an added punch.

Every year since 2002 the Arab states have re-endorsed their offer to Israel for complete and full recognition of the State of Israel, an end to all hostilities and affirmation of peace, if Israel agrees to accept the borders still legally binding by the United Nations — the borders that existed before the Israeli attack on Arab states in June 1967.

A quick aside here. A few people old enough still cling to the propaganda that was fed to the Western media at the outbreak of the June 1967 attack by Israel on its neighbours and quaintly think David-Israel itself was being threatened with annihilation by Goliath-Arabs at the time and was thus fighting for its very survival. For the benefit of any Westerner still enamoured with that illusion, I present the following:

Israel Air Force Commander General Ezer Weitzman: Israel “faced no threat of destruction” but the attack on her Arab neighbours was justified so that Israel could “exist according the scale, spirit, and quality she now embodies.”

Menahem Begin: “In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”

Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s Chief of Staff: “I do not think Nasser wanted war. The two divisions he sent to The Sinai would not have been sufficient to launch an offensive war. He knew it and we knew it.”

New York Times, 1997: “Moshe Dayan, the celebrated commander who, as Defense Minister in 1967, gave the order to conquer the Golan . . . [said] many of the firefights with the Syrians were deliberately provoked by Israel, and the kibbutz residents who pressed the Government to take the Golan Heights did so less for security than for the farmland . . . [Dayan stated] ‘They didn’t even try to hide their greed for the land . . . We would send a tractor to plow some area where it wasn’t possible to do anything, in the demilitarized area, and knew in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance further, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot.

And then we would use artillery and later the air force also, and that’s how it was . . . The Syrians, on the fourth day of the war, were not a threat to us.’”

At the time of the 1967 war, or at least in its immediate aftermath, the Israeli government declared that the territories that it had conquered in June 1967 were “a bargaining chip”. That is, at the time of their conquest, the Israeli state knew that it lacked any legitimacy to hold on to its conquered territories. It hoped to gain further concessions in the wake of the 1967 war of aggression through the territories it had conquered.

But this year, 2013, the Arab states have gone a step further. They have allowed Israelis living in the West Bank’ densest settlements to remain there!!!!!

And there’s a video presentation on The Real News network presenting the same recent event within a deeper historical context: read more »


2013-05-02

Islamophobia, the word’s origin and meaning

by Neil Godfrey

I’m no longer desirous of defending myself, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or other public atheists against the charge of “Islamophobia.” It’s been widespread on the Internet these past two weeks, but I’ve ignored it. In the end, I’ve concluded that those charges come from borderline racists themselves: people who think that bad ideas, threats of violence, or religious oppression should be ignored, but only when they come from people with brown or yellow skin. Jerry Coyne fantasizing over what he wishes the source of the ‘Islamophobia’ charge to be. A little effort and he could have learned the facts but, like anything associated with Muslims, he appears much more comfortable rolling around in one-sided media bytes and ignorance.

This post explains the real origins — and meaning — of the word. Scholarly authority on Islam, John Esposito, almost gets it right with the following passage in The Future of Islam (the same source that was the basis of my previous post; formatting and bolding emphasis are mine):

summary“Islamophobia” is a new term for a now widespread phenomenon. We are all very familiar with “anti-Semitism” or “racism,” but there was no comparable term to describe the hostility, prejudice, and discrimination directed toward Islam and the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world.

In 1997, an independent think tank on ethnicity and cultural diversity, the Runnymede Trust, coined the term “Islamophobia” to describe what they saw as a prejudice rooted in the “different” physical appearance of Muslims as well as an intolerance of their religious and cultural beliefs.

Origin of the word

Before I comment on the above (as I said, John Esposito only “almost gets it right”), let’s continue with another prominent user of the term and ask how well Jerry Coyne’s fantasy coincides with reality:

Like other forms of group prejudice, it thrives on ignorance and fear of the unknown, which is spreading throughout much of the non-Muslim world. At a 2004 UN conference, “Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding,” Kofi Annan addressed the international scope of the problem:

annanWhen the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry — that is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with “Islamophobia.” . . . There is a need to unlearn stereotypes that have become so entrenched in so many minds and so much of the media. Islam is often seen as a monolith . . . [and] Muslims as opposed to the West. . . . The pressures of living together with people of different cultures and different beliefs from one’s own are real. . . . But that cannot justify demonization, or the deliberate use of fear for political purposes. That only deepens the spiral of suspicion and alienation.

The literature of the Runnymede Trust itself is not so willing to claim originality for the term, however. In the 1997 report to which Esposito refers, there is a Foreword by Chair of the Commission, Professor Gordon Conway. There Conway explains: read more »


2013-04-30

The Awesome Power of Self-Selection

by Tim Widowfield

Why I never became a journalist

In my first two years of college, I wandered from major to major — theatre, undecided, political science. One muggy day in the summer of 1979, I realized I was going nowhere. I was working in Columbus, Ohio, for a guy whose business model had something to do with selling frozen meat door to door. My meals consisted mainly of bread, peanut butter, and orange soda (or “pop”).

I was flat broke, with no options. So I decided to join the U.S. Air Force, following in my dad’s footsteps. To make a long story short, my language aptitude scores landed me in Russian language school at Monterey, then on to an overseas assignment. The job was interesting, and living in Berlin was a great experience, but I knew from the outset I was going to stay in only for the minimum four-years stint, and then head back to school.

lardner-typewriter

Ring Lardner

This time I knew exactly which I degree I wanted to pursue: a bachelor of arts in journalism. At the University of Maryland, I bided my time, waiting for seats in the first upper-level journalism class to open up. In the intervening period, I took lots of history courses as electives.

At last I found myself on the first day of my first journalism class. The professor greeted us all and then asked us to go around the room, give a short introduction, and say which kind of journalism we were focused on. Everybody except me and one other guy said, “Radio and Television.” We, the two dinosaurs, had indicated we were interested only in print journalism.

At that very moment, I knew I couldn’t stay. Journalism was now a job for the shallow, pretty people. The beat reporter stabbing away at his typewriter with his index fingers trying to meet a deadline was a figment of my imagination, the ghost of a bygone era.

The power of self-selection

I selected myself out of my chosen field of study. I dropped my classes, switched to history, and never looked back. Since that time, mainstream journalism has gotten much, much worse. Had I stayed, I alone couldn’t have changed anything. But together, the large numbers of people who took themselves out of the mix — who decided not to stick it out and try to stem the tide — might have. Or perhaps not.

The power of self-selection often goes unnoticed. It’s a kind of opportunity cost. What would have happened if such-and-such had not happened? Who gives up? What sorts of people remain? Do they represent a broad section of society, or have the pressures of the system ensured that only certain people who think “the right way” have a voice?

read more »


2013-04-27

Flawed and Dangerous: The Popular Notion of “Religious Terrorism”

by Neil Godfrey
otago029995

Richard Jackson is currently Deputy Director at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS).

Available online is a Political Studies Review 2009 article “The Study of Terrorism after 11 September 2001: Problems, Challenges and Future Developments” by Richard Jackson “of Aberystwyth University”. (Professor Richard Jackson has since moved to the University of Otago so is not to be confused with the current Richard Jackson at Aberystwyth University who is Professor of Accounting and Finance.)

I am copying an extract from that article here, having changed some of its formatting and added highlighting for easier reading. This section is a damning indictment on the popular notion of “religious terrorism” so I should first quote the far more optimistic abstract of the entire article.

Terrorism studies is one of the fastest-growing areas of social scientific research in the English-speaking world. This article examines some of the main challenges, problems and future developments facing the wider terrorism studies field through a review of seven recently published books. It argues that while a great deal of the current research is characterised by a persistent set of weaknesses, an increasing number of theoretically rigorous and critically oriented studies that challenge established views suggest genuine reasons for optimism about the future of terrorism research.

So there is hope beyond the travesty addressed in the following extract. (I have copied the details of the cited works at the end.)

The Rise of ‘Islamic Terrorism’ Studies

Predicated on the popular notion of ‘religious terrorism’ first articulated by David Rapoport (1984) and galvanised by the identities of the 11 September 2001 attackers and the massive media coverage given to al-Qa’eda, an extremely large literature on ‘Islamic terrorism’ has developed in the past six years (Jackson, 2007a). Silke’s analysis of articles published in the leading terrorism studies journals demonstrates that studies on al-Qa’eda and affiliated groups grew significantly after 1995 and now make up a significant proportion of all terrorism studies published in the core journals (Silke, 2004b).

With a few notable exceptions (see Gerges, 2005; Gunning,2007b; Halliday, 2002), the vast majority of this literature can be criticised for

  • its orientalist outlook,
  • its political biases
  • and its descriptive over-generalisations,
  • misconceptions
  • and lack of empirically grounded knowledge (see Jackson, 2007a).

Rooted in an uncritical and simple-minded acceptance of the notion of a ‘new’ kind of ‘religious terrorism’, this literature

  • typically adopts an undifferentiated and highly exaggerated view of the threat posed by ‘Islamism’,
  • traces a causal link between Islamic doctrine and terrorist violence,
  • attributes religious as opposed to political motives to ‘Islamic terrorists’,
  • fails to differentiate between local political struggles and a global anti-Western movement
  • and assumes that the religious motivations of ‘Islamic terrorism’ rule out all possibilities for dialogue and diplomacy
  • – among others.

Shmuel Bar’s (2006) Warrant for Terror is in many ways emblematic of this popular literature. Based on an analysis of a large number of recent fatwas, or the legal opinions of Islamic jurists that deal with the permissibility or prohibition of actions (Bar, 2006, p. x), Bar’s aim is to explore the role fatwas play in ‘Islam-motivated terrorism’ (p. xiii). read more »


2013-04-22

Orientalism, Us, and Islam

by Neil Godfrey
Orientalism (book)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the most influential publications of the twentieth century was Orientalism [link is to the Wikipedia article on the book] by Palestinian born American scholar Edward Said. The book has been translated into 36 languages and said to have revolutionized Middle Eastern studies in the U.S. Naturally, as with any major revolutionary work that challenges conventional ways of thinking, it has had its critics. I single out here some of Said’s commentary on Western attitudes towards Islam that I believe stand as valid today as they were when first published in 1978 and expanded in 1994. My own comments are in blue italics.

The principle dogmas of Orientalism:

  1. The absolute and systematic difference between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant, underdeveloped, inferior.
  2. Abstractions about the Orient, particularly those based on texts representing a “classical” Oriental civilization, are always preferable to direct evidence drawn from modern Oriental realities.
  3. The Orient is eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself, therefore it is assumed that a highly generalized and systematic vocabulary for describing the Orient from a Western standpoint is inevitable and even scientifically “objective.”
  4. The Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominion) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible).

Every one of those dogmas has come through loud and clear in the the writings of Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and others, as well, of course, in many recent comments on this blog. We do not have to get to know or learn about Muslims from their own writings or history; we only need to pick up the Koran to see our suspicions and fears confirmed.

Islamic Orientalism accordingly believes there are still things such as “an Islamic society, an Arab mind, an Oriental psyche.”

It makes no difference whether we are talking about a situation in Bangladesh or events in Egypt, Palestine, Afghanistan or Bedford. The world is facing a threat from a singular religious belief system that threatens Western civilization.

Every facet of societies in the modern Islamic world is anachronistically interpreted through texts like the Koran. read more »


2013-04-13

Damned Lies, Statistics, and Muslims

by Neil Godfrey

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Recently a commenter posted a raft of figures supposedly establishing as fact that large segments of followers of the Muslim faith are supporters of terrorist violence. The commenter took the figures from an anti-Islamic hate website. The figures themselves are compiled on Muslim Opinion Polls: A Tiny Minority of Extremists?

muslimOpinPolls

I quote here the figures used to support some dire claims about Muslims along with the results of my own cross-checking of the sources for these figures.

Claim

Almost half of Muslims polled in 2006 supported Osama bin Laden (49.9%).

Fact

This claim is a loaded one. We will see that polling indicates that most Muslims in the Middle East refused to believe that bin Laden was responsible for 9/11. That surely is a significant factor that is important for Westerners to understand. More on this later. Meanwhile . . . .

The poll is no longer available online so we cannot check the source and evaluate the figure against the questions asked and how they were framed and what audiences were targeted. But it does appear that the poll was an online one. That is, people check a tick box online. We don’t know if internet users were able to click multiple times from the one computer. Online polls are inevitably problematic in that we have little way to knowing how representative of wider society the respondents are. read more »


2013-04-10

Jerry Coyne’s reply, Bangladeshi Muslim Demonstrators, and Atheist Bloggers

by Neil Godfrey

I was disappointed, and for some reason even a little surprised, to read Jerry Coyne’s response, Islamophobia again, to my recent post and see that he chose not to deal with the key points I raised. In fact, he merely repeated his own arguments as if my own rebuttal of them was nowhere on record. What was most disappointing was his upfront declaration that he had no interest in engaging with contrary views, even referring readers to a Christopher Hitchens quotation expressing a disdain for any opinions but his own and inviting anyone who wishes to challenge those opinions to kiss his arse.

So there is clearly no interest on Jerry’s side to seriously debate the issue. His mind is made up and has no room for anything new when it comes to the question of Islam.

Much of his post is elaborating on the recent events in Bangladesh. At least a hundred thousand demonstrators (estimates vary between 100,000 and 500,000 in the news sources) have come out into the streets calling for the deaths of atheist bloggers. That is how the news has been filtered into the Western media and that’s all there is to the story as far as Jerry and others are concerned. Presumably anyone who has any further information that might change that view of theirs will be invited to kiss Jerry’s arse.

This blog is all about sharing information and inviting readers to look deeper behind what is most commonly presented to the public. Concerning what is going on in Bangladesh, I really did expect intelligent and thoughtful sceptics to be a little more astute and diligent with checking sources before swallowing what they see on mainstream TV news.

So at the end of this post I will present a few facts — facts easily obtainable by anyone with unfettered access to the internet — that Jerry and others presumably do not think are relevant.

Jerry writes:

Can you imagine Catholics, for example, rallying by the hundreds of thousands to call for the death of anti-Catholic bloggers? Or murdering them?

Not in this day and age, no. But I do know of some ugly moments in history . . . And that’s Jerry’s problem here. He has assumed a situation in Bangladesh needs absolutely no reference to history there, or to the different religious groups and political roles they have played in recent decades and months, is validly comparable to a Catholic area in the United States. This is the danger of people not knowing or understanding, or not even being interested in understanding, another people on their own terms. Now Jerry has quickly added that what is happening in Bangladesh has nothing to do with colonialism or politics because the demonstrators are clearly saying “Death to the atheist bloggers” in the name of Islam.

That’s it. End of story. Kiss his arse if you want to actually understand some context and background to what has brought those demonstrators out to the streets with those cries, or suggest that this is worth a serious comparison with how Catholics in twenty-first century America behave.

Jerry completely avoids my argument when he repeats this nonsense:

I still can’t quite understand why it’s sort of okay for atheists to level strong criticisms at other religions (Sam, after all, wrote Letter to a Christian Nation, and I spent an entire week on this site documenting the immorality of the Catholic Church [e.g., here and here]), so long as that religion is not Islam. We’re not accused of Catholicphobia or Baptistphobia, but only Islamophobia. I think this reflects a double standard, for such accusations hold Muslims to lower standards

Rubbish. I have criticized Islam. (Not often, I admit, because my experience is mostly with Christianity.) I have no problems with anyone, not even Muslims, criticizing Islam. There is a lot to criticize, especially given that they have not had the history of Reformations (plural) and Enlightenment challenges that Christianity has experienced. They have a lot of catching up to do.

From time to time since starting this blog I have had a few Muslims (not all!) take great offence at some of my comments or posts. Jerry did not notice or understand my explicit comparison of the sorts of criticisms that are leveled against other religions and those that are lately leveled against Muslims by our leading lights of new Atheism.

He then reprises the accusations he says he regularly hears against new Atheism and its association with Islamophobia. I don’t know if he really hears all of these arguments, because his first point, “it’s racism”, fails to grasp what is actually being said about Islamophobia. Islamophobia is not racism in the normal sense of the word, but it does take negative racist stereotypes and imputes them into a whole religion, and inevitably that implies all adherents of that religion. That’s a neat way of enabling one to claim the odd Muslim (or Jew or black man) that one knows really is a nice person without detracting from the general collective demonization or dehumanization.

Is this dehumanization?

When anyone imputes to other groups the potential to act in a way that is not normally ‘human’ — e.g. on the mere say-so of an authority, and for no other reason or unusual conditioning, go out and kill others; or believe that parents en masse threatened to kill their children in order to gain entrance into a first world country (we once had a Prime Minister here who had much/most of the nation believing just this about some Muslim refugees!) — then one is dehumanizing them.

Jerry also says his critics argue that Islam is no worse than any other religion. I don’t know what others say, but there is no doubt Islam has some major problems that are not faced by Christianity today, and that has to do with history as mentioned above. But let’s stop using abstractions for people. Let’s talk about adherents of religions. That’s where the conflict and any future solution lies. It’s the adherents who define the religion in real terms. And critics of Islam need to know a lot more about Islamic populations than they glean from mainstream media soundbytes.

And Jerry misses the point completely about the question of “not all Muslims being violent”. Jerry is not listening — he tells people to take a ticket and go and . . . . — so he keeps repeating the same old the same old the same old. I don’t know how I could have made the point any clearer in my previous post but (or therefore?) he ignores the real argument completely.

POWER_OF_LIGHT

2013 Shahbag protesters opposing Jamaat-e-Islami — Wikipedia photo

Bangladeshi Demonstrators Calling for the Deaths of Atheist Bloggers

No doubt anyone with his or her mind made up will only find in what follows validation for their Islamophobia. But for others . . . .

An Agence France Presse release:

There has been vociferous debate between staunch atheists and fundamentalists in Bangladesh’s social media for years, but it took a deadly turn in February when an anti-Islam blogger was murdered. read more »


2013-04-06

Islamophobia and (some?) New Atheists

by Neil Godfrey

Disclaimer: this post expresses my own view entirely. Others who also have posted on this blog may or may not think quite differently.

.

Time to get dirty hands and write about something important. Something unhealthy has been happening in the name of criticizing “tenets of religious belief . . . bad ideas and behaviors.” Prominent public intellectuals, in the name criticizing harmful religious beliefs, have become mouthpieces for ignorance and intolerance.

Just as it is incumbent upon Muslims to marginalise their own violent extremists, mainstream atheists must work to disavow those such as Harris who would tarnish their movement by associating it with a virulently racist, violent and exploitative worldview.Murtaza Hussain

Jerry Coyne, who has written probably one of the best books for generalists arguing the case for evolution, and whose blog I check from time to time for updates in the sciences, also from time to time posts disturbingly ignorant articles about Islam or Palestinians. Richard Dawkins, whom I respect and love as much as anyone does for his publications explaining evolution, was not very long ago interviewed by a Muslim on Al Jazeera and unashamedly threw off all his scientific training by relying entirely on anecdotal and media portrayals of Muslims. I have previously criticized Sam Harris for doing worse. Chris Hitchens, as much as I admire his works on Kissinger and Mother Teresa and his all-round wit, was guilty, too.

Over the last few days Jerry Coyne has been posting his disapproval of anyone suggesting his views on Islam (shared by the other names above) are Islamophobic. See Nasty atheist-bashing in Salon, Playing the Islamophobic Card and New Attacks on New Atheists (and one defense). He accuses such critics of quoting the likes of Harris out of context, of not defining what they mean by Islamophobia, of fallaciously accusing them of guilt by association with neo-fascists, and worst of all, of failing to address any of their actual criticisms of the Muslim religion.

After reading the several articles and related links to which Coyne and Harris have been responding (Scientific racism, militarism, and the new atheists; Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia) I believe that Coyne’s rebuttals do not stand. Coyne, Harris and Dawkins, for all their intellectual magnificence in other fields, are fanning social attitudes that facilitate bigotry and popular support for war.

Why are their criticisms of the Muslim religion wrong?

I am an atheist. I have experienced some of the best and worst of religion. I wish for a world where humanity has discovered that religion is long past its “use by” date. I believe that the Abrahamic religions in particular are responsible for immeasurable sufferings and torments among societies and individuals. I have no time for their belief systems. The sooner we all outgrow our awe of our holy books the better. (None of this means I believe in attacking individuals for their beliefs. There is a difference between criticizing belief systems and targeting individuals over their personal faith.)

I have compared different varieties of Christianity today with the various drugs on the market. Vapid Anglicanism is a mild aspirin. Happy Pentecostals are the happy marijuanas. I know of a few cults that are the deadly heroins. (They really do reduce addicts to ill health, poverty, anti-social life-styles and death, literally. Suicides, untreated illness, ignorance within and without the cults.)

I would not be surprised if I ever learned that I could do the same with the faiths of Judaism and Islam. read more »


2012-07-13

The Fanboy Defense — An Excuse for Doing Nothing While the World Burns

by Tim Widowfield

I smoke because Picasso smoked. And because Hitler didn’t.

– Albert Finney

Pablo Picasso 1962

Pablo Picasso 1962 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’re all for evolution, but . . .

Robert Wright, a senior editor at The Atlantic, in his recent piece called “Creationists vs. Evolutionists: An American Story,” explains why the U.S. has seen a recent uptick in the number of people who believe in Young-Earth Creationism (YEC). Is it because of the endless hammering by the holy hucksters on TV? Is it because of the 24-hour, nonstop Right-wing noise machine? Is it because of politicians who pander to ignorance and supernatural mumbo-jumbo?  Of course not. It’s because of those mean old “new atheists.”

Jerry Coyne’s response over at Why Evolution Is True effectively debunks Wright’s distressingly poor thesis, especially the part where we were supposed to have been in the middle of a truce between science and superstition until extremely rude people like Richard Dawkins forced people to choose. I can add very little to Coyne’s remarks.

What intrigues me is this idea that people would choose to support or not support a given scientific theory based on the people associated with it. Over at the HuffPo, Michael Zimmerman, the founder of the Clergy Project, asks: “Who’s Responsible for the Evolution/Creation Controversy?” You know the kind of article it’s going to be from the start when he adds, “It’s Not As Simple as Some Would Have You Believe.” Ah yes, the old “plenty-of-blame-to-go-around” piece, as predictable as earwigs after a hard rain. But catch what he says about men (and women, we suppose) of the cloth and their role in the debate:

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2012-05-17

If Human Rights Aren’t Your Highest Priority, What Does That Say about You?

by Tim Widowfield

The Bush Junior years — 2000 to 2008 — were interesting times, politically, here in the U.S. When Dubya’s positive polling percentage hit 29%, some of my conservative friends came out of the closet, so to speak. “Tim,” they told me, “I’m really more of a libertarian than a conservative or a Republican.”

“Don’t lump me in with those Neocons.”

Of course the realization that they no longer identified with the national G.O.P. (Grand Old Party) had more to do with the disenchantment with the Neocons than anything else. Specifically, it had become apparent that the Iraq War had been a tragic mistake — what kind of mistake exactly depends on whom you ask. Was it ill-conceived from the beginning and based on fabricated intelligence, or was it simply poorly executed? Either way, lots of weary Republicans all over the country were distancing themselves from a very unpopular president.

So now when I read news stories about the ballot initiative against gay marriage in North Carolina last week, or yesterday’s disgusting vote in the Virginia House of Delegates, I wonder what all those self-styled libertarians think. I know many libertarian-leaning people are appalled by government intrusion into citizens’ personal lives, and I wouldn’t doubt most Republicans I have known (the ones with university degrees and most of their teeth) aren’t homophobic. Will they distance themselves from this madness, too? read more »


2012-04-04

The Ehrman Debacle and Our “Post-Truth” World

by Tim Widowfield

Alternate history, alternate reality

aChrist before Pontius Pilate, Mihály Munkácsy,...

"What is Truth?" -- Christ before Pontius Pilate, Mihály Munkácsy, 1881 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)s

Several years ago, I was listening to the Thom Hartmann Program, a liberal talk radio show that runs in the United States. Naturally, I was listening to a podcast, since here in the Midwest only conservative talk radio is permitted on the public airwaves. At any rate, it was before the last presidential election, and Thom was musing about candidates and their public image. He said Democrats needed to be careful not to do something silly like Clinton did — namely, getting a haircut on the tarmac aboard Air Force One, delaying air traffic around the country until he was ready to go.

Hartmann’s heart was in the right place. Dee Dee Myers recalls that the high-priced haircut that stopped traffic was a blow to Clinton’s image. The story, which dominated the news cycle for at least three days, “became a metaphor for a populist president who had gotten drunk with the perks of his own power and was sort of not sensitive to what people wanted.”

Except the story isn’t true. Oh, he did get a haircut on Air Force One, but it didn’t stop traffic. Somebody had to call Thom over the commercial break and remind him. Of course, Thom remembered then that the story was false, but here’s the power of perception in a post-truth world: Reality has become nothing but a shared media experience, and whoever controls that media creates reality.

Media Truth: Bart Ehrman has disproved mythicism

Here in the U.S., there’s a cottage industry that employs a handful authors dedicated to debunking the lies, half-truths, and misrepresentations spewed out by hate radio hosts and right-wing media pundits. In the vacant space created by a delinquent press (sometimes indifferent, often complicit), these authors plug away and dutifully point out each error in an effort to set the record straight.

But it doesn’t do any good. By that I mean the conventional narrative doesn’t change. The record never gets set straight. Whoever tells the story first and loudest gets first dibs on constructing reality. It helps, of course, if the new bit of information confirms peoples’ biases. It’s even better if the details are titillating and salacious.

This is why so many people, even educated people who should know better, think that climate change is a hoax, that Gore said he “invented the Internet,” or that Obama is an atheist-Muslim-Marxist. They’re plugged into media outlets that tell them what they want to hear, and even if they should accidentally flip the channel, mainstream media is too busy telling stories about murders, mayhem, and missing persons to do its job.

Similarly, Dr. Richard Carrier, Acharya S, Earl Doherty, and my buddy Neil have been diligently cataloging the errors in Bart’s Myth-bashing opus. I’m glad. We need to try to set the record straight. However, I don’t expect it to do much good — at least in the popular media — and certainly not within the guild. We won’t be able to change the media narrative that Dr. Ehrman has “dispelled the myth of mythicism.read more »


2012-03-05

Three Votes Away

by Tim Widowfield

The parable of the burning trees

English: Park County, CO, June 27, 2008 -- Saw...

Image via Wikipedia

Once there was a man who lived in the woods. His cabin was surrounded by 51 trees, one of them, a large oak so close that its spreading branches shaded the roof. He lived there happily for many years. Eventually, there came a season so hot and so dry that when the sparks from a nearby campfire flew in and touched them, the trees practically exploded into flames. The man watched in horror from his kitchen window as the trees were consumed, one by one. Finally, the firemen arrived and put out the conflagration, but not until 48 trees had been destroyed.

Relieved, the man wiped his forehead and vowed to take preventive measures immediately. So the next morning he called his insurance agent. “I need to protect myself and my property,” he said. “How much will it cost for full flood insurance?”

Religious privilege over personal rights

This past week the U.S. Senate barely voted down an amendment to a highway bill that would have allowed employers to opt out of paying for their workers’ insurance for any medical service they believe is “contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer or other entity offering the plan.” (For those who aren’t familiar with the crazy American system, the most common way we get health coverage here is as a benefit from our employers. The recently passed Affordable Health Care act mandates coverage, which has brought the issue to the forefront.) In the media, it was mostly framed as a debate about birth control, with the right wing calling it a freedom-of-religion issue.

But the truth is the law was so vaguely worded that it would have permitted an employer to deny funding for any procedure, any drug, anything at all if he or she has religious qualms. If your boss is a Jehovah’s Witness, he might opt not to pay for your husband’s blood transfusion. If he’s a Christian Scientist, he might not want to help pay for your children’s vaccinations. Does he have moral objections about your upcoming heart transplant? Then maybe you should pay for it out of pocket. His “conscience” trumps your health.

The meaning of the parable

The 51 trees represent the smallest majority vote possible in the Senate. The 48 burned trees are the Senators (3 Democrats and 45 Republicans) who voted to privilege religious beliefs over personal human rights. The cabin is our secular republic. So who is the man in the cabin? That would be Dr. Robert M. Price, aka The Bible Geek.

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