Religious Diets and Freedom of Expression

There are people who would be angry if I put spiders in their food. Why? Plenty of cultures eat them. They are a good snack, why should you consider that an insult? Or a prank?

There are people who will feel angry and violated that there are spiders in their food. I am using spiders as an example because Tarantulas are a delicacy in Khmer culture. The reason? 

Is completely irrational. I assure you that people eat it. I assure you that there is nothing wrong with it. But you are completely irrational in your dislike for this food. It is a cultural issue. The same applies to a lot of “weird” food. Be it things like Haggis and Black Pudding or things like Fish head curries. These are normal things eaten around the globe that we cannot fathom eating because they are so outside our cultural norm.

But put yourself in my place. I think black pudding is normal as is haggis. In fact? I have quite the taste for both after I swapped to a carnivorous diet. So it is puzzling to me when I hear Americans go “Ewww Haggis” or “Ewww blood pudding”.

But more than that? Islam and Hinduism have restrictions on what you eat. They have taboo foods. Pork and Beef. To consume it is to risk damnation. It is foolish and makes no sense, but the Muslims believe in it.

You are born into a religion. Your parents teach it to you because that is what they think is right. You have no more choice over it than the language you speak as a first language. And that includes dietary restrictions. You grow up thinking Beef is a terrible thing to be in contact with. Same with pork. But then as you wise up you realise it is no different from chicken or fish in terms of its special powers. Particularly if you are an atheist.

But if you believe? Then you believe that your very soul is tarnished by contact. Imagine pushing this on someone whose only crime is a superstition? It isn’t kind. It is just a dickish thing to do. It is bullying. But now imagine if you are doing it to an entire group of people. It is a discriminatory practice. It is a callous attack on a group of people solely for their beliefs.

If you don’t quite understand the difference. If you threw bacon at a Hassidic Jew it would be considered a hate crime. No one would say “Stupid Jews and their stupid ideas”. Why?

Because we like Jews. Muslims though can go rot. When we discuss Christianity we turn into Bible Scholars. When we discuss Islam? We quote Fox News and Ann Coulter.

The usage of bacon to desecrate the handles of doors isn’t a criticism of religion. This has NOTHING To do with the criticism of religion. This was an act of hate, designed to spread fear and loathing in the Muslim community. It was someone entering a designated safe space for Muslims in order to make it unsafe. At its core it is a dick move. But it has far wider repercussions. It is another crime in a long series of hate crimes against Muslims and indeed Asians as a whole since the anti-Muslim brigade generally identify Muslims by the colour of skin and the jump between Islamophobic acts and racism is oh so small.

And to those who say it is a Innocent and Victimless Crime?

The Crime is only Innocent and Victimless because you are actually refusing to listen to a victim of a similar crime. I repeat. I have had bacon sandwiches thrown at me because I am “a fucking paki”. There are similar crimes to this endured by Asians in the UK every day.

For fuck sake man. If an African American told you that fried chicken + watermelon = Racist you would fucking take him seriously. What the fuck does an Indian have to do to be taken seriously? You don’t think we have racism? The Revolt of 1857 in India was precipitated by a general distrust of British rifles as they used a greased cartridge which had to be torn open with the teeth of the soldier. However? It was believed that the grease used to keep it dry was from pigs and cows and the lack of assurances from the British and lack of understanding of the dietary restrictions caused widespread alienation of Hindu and Muslim troops. I just pointed out that the “event” where Indians died due to Beef and Pork fat beliefs cost 3 to 10 MILLION people. It is a fuck tonne of people. And it was portrayed as “Justice”. The reprisals to the revolt were not manifest destiny but justice.

Note? The public in the UK lauded the massacres. In fact? So many people died that no one kept count. The tragedy is that since India was mainly feudal there were no records. What we do know was that the British Labour pool was noted to have dropped by a third. Imagine a third of all able bodied workers vanishing? The entire city of Delhi was put to the sword. Delhi alone had a population of a million people back then so the fatalities would have been huge. The estimated toll is between 3 to 10 million people. A huge number of dead no matter what.

These were atrocity upon atrocity. The fact remains that this is something a lot of South Asians remember in the same way that Americans remember the Tea Party.

So when you have a bacon sandwich thrown at you, you see it differently because it never meant anything harmless to you.

Can you even comprehend that an Indian is telling you that these sort of crimes DO have victims. Painting Swastikas on the Synagogues is also victimless, but the meaning means something to the Jews within.

We understand how bad that is because we are aware of why it is a bad thing. We don’t wish to listen to the people saying that this is an act of hate. Mainly because we are ignoring the victims of the crime by saying “they are prissy”.

Guess what? I am an atheist and I know why the practice is done. The belief is that if pork touches a Muslim they will be unclean and punished for eternity. HAHAHA Let us make the stupid Mussie think he goes to hell.

Guess what? Muslims don’t have such a rule. It’s an insult but it isn’t their fault. They tried to avoid it to the best of their ability but could not due to the actions of others.

Hindus do. Do you know how much panic my parents had when someone made me eat beef for a joke? I had to go to Varnasi to wash away my uncleanliness. My parents grew past that but I remember the fear they had.

I repeat. If this is such an acceptable thing to do then I suggest you yourself pick up a strip of bacon and do the same to Jews. Use the same excuses being made. You know as well as I do that these excuses would not stand up. You  would be roundly be called a bigot and treated as such.

Muslims are an acceptable target because South Asians have long been acceptable targets because they are heavily under represented in Atheism. We don’t kick up a fuss. We aren’t common and so people don’t realise why things like this can be seen as products of hate.

I repeat.

A minority is telling you that a specific thing is a hate crime and you are insisting it is not. It isn’t just me listing the various times similar instances have taken place including historical and personal accounts. If we ignore all of this then yes this is nothing but a storm in a tea cup. But that requires ignoring voices who are so rarely heard and who desperately are trying to tell you that what we are doing as atheists is siding with bigots and racists solely to yell at Islam.

Newsflash? That isn’t helping.


  1. Pen says

    I think part of the problem is that there has been widespread support in atheist communities for acts that involve annoying and upsetting people because of their ‘silly superstitions’.

    There was the desecrated cracker thing. There is Draw a Stick Figure and Call it Mohammed Day. I saw somebody here once complain about some tourists being arrested for disrespecting an active Buddhist shrine.

    For me, the proper boundary has a lot to do with whether the action is done gratuitously to upset or annoy religious people. Or does it really express an idea other than ‘I think you’re stupid and/or I hate you/want to piss you off.’ Take Jesus and Mo. I find some minor comic value in the ideas it expresses and I don’t think it should be banned per se. However, I would think flaunting it in the face of Muslims just to get a rise out of them is obnoxious, hateful, potentially victimising. Even if I felt I had to discuss the concept with them, I wouldn’t shove the product under their noses without their consent.

    I also know our speech laws differ in Europe and America and so do our attitudes to them. If I wanted to stay friends with someone like JT, I think I might try to have this conversation in the most general terms possible: Are hate speech laws ever justified and why?

  2. says

    I think there’s a big difference between the things you describe and the things Avi describes.
    Don’t get me wrong, I find “draw Mohamed Day” really counterproductive, especially since it causes a lot of splash damage and pushes people who could be our allies against the fundamentalists into the arms of the fundamentalists.
    But the pork/beef/whathaveyougot thing is something that is done to people in their own space. If you post a stupid drawing on your own website people can easily stay away. They can’t if it is violently shoved at them

  3. Robert Smythson says

    This isn’t hate speech. Damaging others’ property isn’t speech. It’s not a criticism of religion so much as harassment designed to make it unpleasant for brown people to live here through a horrid kind of territory marking. I don’t understand how anyone could argue this was nothing to take seriously.

  4. Pen says

    Hi Gilliell – just to clarify, I was talking about things like posting Jesus and Mo on the office wall deliberately to show my Muslim co-workers that I can.. or sketching Mohammed on the pavement at the University, when I know damn well many of the students are Muslim.

  5. cartomancer says

    I think the big problem here is the notion that this is merely a religious or cultural issue. It isn’t – it’s an issue of psychological cruelty and basic human respect. Yes, the particular form this incident took involved the manipulation of religious and cultural sensibilities, but being harassed and tormented in this way is not something that is unique to religious people, or people strongly committed to a culture or ethnicity.

    I think the comparison with jewish people doesn’t really get to the heart of why this is not a harmless prank. My suspicion is that the people who do not see the problem in tormenting muslims with bacon would also consider tormenting jews with bacon or hindus with beef as a similar sort of “oh, grow up and get over yourselves” type prank. The thinking here is that irrational food taboos are objectively silly cries for attention – something people only do to say “I’m special, look at me”, and the appropriate response is scorn and the calling out of such pretended fatuousness.

    Likewise, the comparison with Khymer cuisine and putting spiders in people’s food doesn’t really do this issue justice either. People would be offended if you did that, but most would not be deeply hurt. It would cause the victim minor distress and make people think you were an arsehole, but it wouldn’t penetrate to the heart of deeply held cultural beliefs. Not eating insects is a cultural irrationality that most people who have it, I think, are not so deeply wedded to that it forms a central pillar of their self-definition. Also, I very much doubt that it would incur criminal prosecution as a hate crime – or even criminal proceedings at all. Going to the police and saying “he put spiders in my food” would probably make everyone feel a bit silly. Which is how the defenders of the bacon bombing seem to think that should be treated.

    The comparison with painting a swastika on the side of the synagogue is better, because that does put this in the realm of racially or culturally motivated hate crime. But the statement that makes and the psychology behind it is somewhat different. A swastika is not a symbol that has any specifically religious significance to jewish people – it is not considered impure or unlucky or insulting to jewish culture, but rather a marker of the identity of people directly opposed to jewish culture. Usually violent, well-armed people who plaster it over buildings as a mark of deliberate threat and menace. The swastika is not saying “ha ha, silly jews with your beards and your candlesticks and your kosher laws – none of that is important”, it’s saying “we’re here, we hate you, be afraid”. The swastika isn’t mocking or belittling jewish culture, or manipulating its symbolism to cause hurt and offence, it’s declaring war. It’s mafia-style bullying, plain and simple, and as a symbol it has just that effect on LGBT communities, black communities, Romany communities, communists and others. In fact, it probably has the same effect on most people in Europe and America.

    I think the best analogy is with phobias. With personal, psychological fears and anxieties. That, I think, is the core of this issue – that if you do something deliberately or recklessly calculated to cause psychological harm to another person then you are torturing them, plain and simple. If you know that someone has a crippling fear of spiders then locking them in a room full of spiders is torturing them. If you know that someone is a severe agoraphobic then dumping them in the middle of Oxford Street is needless cruelty. You don’t cure a trypanophobe by surrounding her with needles, or a sociophobe by bombarding him with the attentions of strangers, and most people would acknowledge that as harmful. You wouldn’t torment a rape victim by jokingly threatening him with rape, or a sufferer of PTSD by maliciously bringing up the things that triggered it in her all the time. I think even the defenders of bacon bombing would agree with that.

    But the people who would defend bacon bombing do not see religious taboos as deeply held and very real psychological conditions – like phobias or PTSD – but as mild, cantankerous and childishly petulant attempts to seem special – on a par with a child refusing to eat up all his vegetables or making a scene in public when she doesn’t want to go home. Which is somewhat peculiar from people who also go on at length about how religious indoctrination can cause very real psychological harm, actually. I can only suggest that they are seeing this in the light of genuine attempts by religious people to dominate the public sphere and claim special, unwarranted privileges in secular society.

  6. smrnda says

    What (to me) distinguishes something which might offend the sensibilities of some person which I’m okay with and what I think is going too far is the extent to which it’s being shoved in someone’s face. One can choose not to look at a blasphemous comic which is online, it’s a bit different when it’s bacon on your door handle. (Of course, I will admit that one is going to have to get used to seeing things in public that we might find offensive, just that too *in your face* is a bit much.)

    I mean, I’ve seen the stick figures of Mohammad drawn on the draw Mohammad day – yes, freedom of expression must include freedom for blasphemous expression, but drawing a stick figure of Mohammad in front of a mosque strikes me as more *wow it’s so cool to piss off Muslims!* particularly within a US context.

  7. says

    I think that there are a couple of big pieces of the context that are very important to emphasize and can’t be left out.

    1) The meaning of the object to the different individuals and groups (pork, consecrated host, swastika and individuals from the various cultures).
    2) The history that produced that meaning.
    3) The difference in power between the groups in different contexts.
    4) The specific use of the object in a situation.

    Each of those elements is important.

    The meaning and the emotions tied to the objects are facts of reality, produced by experience and history. Anyone that does not take this into account has no grounds for asking anyone to accept their experience as opinion. The explanations for the meanings might be bullshit, but the emotions are going to be very real and will make people react and respond accordingly. How we choose to deal with this reality is what is most important, but “It’s not a big deal” is just as much bullshit as bacon actually being contaminating, or a cracker being god. “It’s not a big deal” translates to “It’s not a big deal to me and it should not be a bid deal to you.” People don’t change their emotional responses that casually.

    PZ “desecrating” the consecrated host is not comparable to this situation. Here in the US PZ was standing at a place of privilege and he choose to use that privilege in a challenge to the dominant culture as a political activist. The situation with the violent vandals is the reverse of this and is a majority using the emotions attached to the objects to suppress and harass a minority. It’s “keeping them in their place” as a social instinct directed at a minority, where PZ was pointing out how similar feelings about objects can create harassment of others in a similar “keeping them in their place” by people on the opposite side of the power imbalance.
    Similar objects of strong feelings, “keeping others in their place” was a social factor, but PZ was not trying to keep a person without power in their place while the violent vandals were.


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