Israel doesn’t have a race problem

Okay, this one is admittedly stretching it a bit

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has criticised rabbis who issued a statement saying it is a “sin” for Jews to rent or sell property to non-Jews. About 40 rabbis, many employed by the state, signed the statement, citing concerns about potential mixed marriages and falling property values.

I have purposefully avoided commenting on the situation in Israel/Palestine. Setting one foot in that conflict is opening myself up to a whole host of criticism, which I do not have enough factual background to defend myself against. There exists in that region a maelstrom of political, historical, religious, and racial narratives that are so intertwined that I find it impossible to come down on one side or another of an issue. However, in this case I am happy to suspend my cautious equipoise and dive into this one as a clear-cut situation where there is a clear right and clear wrong.

Any time anyone uses the word “sin” in an argument, they’re wrong. The concept of “sin” makes a whole host of assumptions for which there can be no evidence whatsoever:

  1. That there is a supreme being
  2. That the supreme being is consciously aware of human activity
  3. That the supreme being cares about human activity
  4. That the supreme being has a list of “naughty” and “nice” human activities
  5. That this list is available to humans
  6. That your particular list is the correct one

None of those assumptions can be demonstrated with any kind of compelling evidence. To an independent observer, there is no good reason to assume the truth of any of those claims, let alone all six of them in succession. While it may be overwhelmingly true that the speaker doesn’t like the activity in question (whether that’s buttsecks or pork or renting to people of a slightly different ethnicity), it does not necessarily follow that partaking in the activity in question is wrong in and of itself. What is required is a discussion of the necessary consequences of that action; I make that specification to separate it from people who make ridiculous claims like “homosex is wrong because some gay men are promiscuous”.

This one hits home for me particularly, since race-based housing discrimination is one of the primary reasons (in my opinion) that racism persists today. The problem with the conservative approach to race is that it wants to skip right to the end. To be sure, the liberal approach to race skips a bunch of intermediate steps too, but in a different way. Conservatives make the assumption that once you remove legal barriers to access, then all the work is done; consequently, any continuing problems experienced by a formerly-oppressed group are their own fault. After all, once you take your foot off of someone’s neck, it’s his own fault if he doesn’t immediately leap to his feet. Or, to put it another way:

“You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, `You are free to compete with an the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” – Lyndon Johnson

Of course conservatives disagree with the idea that a) human beings should be in the business of creating fairness, or that b) there is any unfairness to begin with. However, when we look at the consequences of housing disparity, we see that de facto segregation necessarily has negative consequences in terms of income inequalities and a persistent attitude of “us” and “them” that starts in the schools and lasts through generations.

This seems to be what is happening in this Israeli case. These rabbis have a hate-on for Arabs (for reasons that I’m sure don’t stretch credulity) and have cobbled together some post-hoc justification for their hatred, branding the practice as “sin”. Unlike yesterday’s example, however, these religious leaders don’t have much influence outside their own conservative community, and cannot claim any sway over state power:

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has called on Mr Netanyahu to take disciplinary action against the chief municipal rabbis on the list, whose salaries are publicly funded. Religious edicts are often ignored in predominantly secular Israel.

However, this edict is perhaps a useful red flag for the simmering racial climate that defines much of Israel’s domestic policy (and a great deal of its foreign policy too). It also serves an example of how a country that is essentially founded on religious grounds can still model secularism and restraint from going full-on God crazy.

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Oklahoma does right thing for wrong reason

I can’t tell you how depressed I was after the last US mid-term elections. I likened it at the time to watching a good friend go back to her alcoholic, abusive ex-boyfriend because the new guy wasn’t enough of a “bad boy”. The Republican party in the United States has completely shed any air of credibility as a party interested in the long-term good of the United States. They’ve completely devolved into politicking, abrogating any responsibility they have to act as leaders, grabbing after power instead by ramping up the fear and hatred of an uneducated populace.

Rome is falling, my friends, and it is doing so to the clamoring approval of the mindless horde.

Luckily (or perhaps tragically, since it prolongs the fall) there is a system of checks and balances present in the United States that places limits on the ability of the people to be the authors of their own destruction:

A US federal judge has stopped Oklahoma putting into effect a constitutional amendment to bar courts from considering Islamic law in judgements. Judge Vicky Miles-Lagrange granted an injunction against the certification of the results of State Question 755.

To provide a bit of background, there was a ballot amendment during the midterm election that was passed, banning the recognition of Sharia law or any international law in Oklahoma courts. Of course there was nobody actually proposing that Sharia law be recognized, and the courts already ignore international law (on jurisdictional grounds), but if you whip people into a xenophobic frenzy, they’ll pass whatever law they want as long as it makes them feel safer.

But then… then the stupid sets in:

“Plaintiff has sufficiently set forth a personal stake in this action by alleging that he lives in Oklahoma, is a Muslim, that the amendment conveys an official government message of disapproval and hostility toward his religious beliefs, that sends a clear message he is an outsider, not a full member of the political community, thereby chilling his access to the government and forcing him to curtail his political and religious activities,” she explained.

That’s the shakiest possible grounds for a legal decision I’ve ever heard. Basically because the law would hurt people’s feelings, it’s therefore invalid? I’m not a soothsayer, but I can certainly see this ruling (if it isn’t kicked on appeal) being used as precedent to protect some crybaby Christian group saying that failing to teach Creationism in schools “conveys an official government message of disapproval and hostility” towards their belief in a 10,000 year-old planet.

The real reason this law should be off the books? Because it’s stupid. It’s an entirely redundant law that solves exactly zero problems. The inclusion of any religious law would violate the US Constitution (and likely the Oklahoma state constitution), and would not survive a court challenge. There is absolutely no need to pass a law specifically against Sharia law.

Seriously, America… dump the Republicans. They only end up hurting you in the end.

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Oregon mosque burned in arson

In my mind, Oregon is known for two things: hipster Mecca (formerly known as Portland), and being the place you get to only after your entire family dies of dysentery. Well, I guess now it’s known for three things:

A fire at an Islamic centre in the western US state of Oregon was started intentionally, US police say. They say the blaze gutted one room of the Salman Alfarisi Islamic Center in Corvallis. No-one was injured. The centre had been attended by Somali-born teenager Mohamed Osman Mohamud, 19, who was held on Friday for plotting to detonate a bomb at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in nearby Portland.

I’d like to be able to pretend that I can understand the desire for retribution after someone tries to kill you, but I don’t. Partially because nobody has ever tried to kill me, but also partially because I’m not a fucking lunatic. If the KKK had a chapter headquarters in my neighbourhood, or the Hell’s Angels had a club down the street, while I might feel threatened, there’s no circumstance under which I would burn the place to the ground.

Ah, but of course this is a religious thing, so all bets are off. The perverse reality of such an attack is that it will further disenfranchise and polarize the Muslim community in Oregon (all 9 members) and make them even less likely to see themselves as part of the community.

I’m not saying that people should just roll over and give up when they’ve been attacked, but unless your plan is to kill everyone who disagrees with you, your options for reducing the risk of being attacked are somewhat limited. Burning down a community access point may not be the best choice.

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Movie Friday: NiqaBITCH

Satire has never looked so good:

The fundamental difficulty I have with the niqab is that it’s impossible to completely tease out the coercion and brainwashing that goes into religious and cultural education. I can’t understand why anyone would want to cover themselves with a thick cloth, but does that give me the right to pronounce it ethically wrong?

At least these women are showing that the debate shouldn’t be taken too seriously. There’s a bit more background to be found in The Guardian, but there’s not much more to be said about it.

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Is this “The African Way”?

The cliché goes “what you don’t know can’t hurt you.”

I went on at great length this morning about why we must intervene when we see superstition hurting people – that our fear of appearing paternalistic has overpowered our reason and paralyzed us into inactivity. Maybe this will illustrate what I mean:

The dismembered body of a young albino boy has been found in a river on the Burundi-Tanzania border, reports say. The boy, aged nine, was taken from Makamba province in Burundi by a gang that crossed the border, the head of Burundi’s albino association said. Albino body parts are prized in parts of Africa, with witch-doctors claiming they have special powers. In Tanzania, the body parts of people living with albinism are used by witch-doctors for potions which they tell clients will help make them rich or healthy. Dozens of albinos have been killed, and the killings have spread to neighbouring Burundi.

Albinism, as anyone who has taken a high school science course knows, is the result of a single-gene mutation. When two recessive alleles are expressed in one individual, the skin does not produce melanin – the substance that gives skin its colour. Albinism among Europeans is rare enough, but not so dramatic when it happens. Among the dark-skinned population of southern Africa, an albino person is a stark contrast.

There is nothing at all in the recessive allele that grants any particular properties to the body parts of albino people. It regulates the expression of a particular protein sequence, that’s it. The same kind of properties that make my hair curly and black, whereas my neighbour’s is wavy and blonde, are the kinds of differences we are talking about. There’s no magic in it at all – certainly not anything that will affect your wealth or physical function.

The only real tangible side-effect of albinism that goes beyond simple difference in colour is that albinos are a target for kidnappers and murderers. This isn’t as a product of their skin, but as a product of a specific set of beliefs about their skin. Here’s a challenge for you readers: read a simple article on Mendelian genetic theory (like this one from the University of Arizona) until you feel like you have a general grasp of the idea. Now talk to a friend or family member who is not particularly “sciency”, and teach them the theory. I’d be surprised if it takes longer than 15 minutes for them to grasp the basics. Then, ask them if albinos are magic.

My point is that it is superficially easy to arm someone with enough basic scientific knowledge to know about single-gene mutations, and that they don’t grant magic powers. Trivially easy. Why are we not doing this in Africa, where what they don’t know is literally killing people?

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Superstition is not culture

I’m not sure where this blog is going. To be honest this started as a way to organize some of my thoughts on some issues that I think are important, and a way to comment on some of the stuff I saw going on around me. It always blows me away whenever a friend or acquaintance says to me “I read your blog” – I never really imagined that anyone would bother to read the random cognitive ejaculations that I put up on the internet on a regular basis, at least not beyond my Facebook friends who creep my profile in the morning. However, a handful of people who are complete strangers to me read this stuff, which is a head trip for me.

Another way you know that you’re making it as a blogger is when people start sending you links to blog about. So I must give a hat tip to Fred Bremmer (who is certainly not a stranger to me) for bringing this article to my attention:

There is a great thudding taboo in any discussion of Africa. Western journalists and aid workers see it everywhere, yet it is nowhere in our coverage back home. We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t know how to. We smother it in silence, even though it is one of the most vivid and vibrant and violent parts of African life. We are afraid—of being misunderstood, or of sounding like our own ugliest ancestors. The suppressed topic? The African belief in spirits and spells and ancestors and black magic.

What follows is a dissection and examination of a serious problem in any culture, but one that is particularly pronounced in the continent of Africa – the role that belief in spirits plays in the quality of life of the people there. Those of us who are aware of European and Western bias and colonial arrogance are often loath to criticize the practices in other countries. After all, who is to say our ways are better than theirs? Isn’t it sheer paternalism on our part to presume to criticize another culture’s practices? Maybe we have something to learn from other ways of doing things!

Unfortunately, this line of thinking has paralyzed into a kind of arch-liberal refusal to even appear to criticize dangerous practices:

Soothsayers demand money for their “powers,” like the one who tells Naipaul that there are curses preventing his daughter from getting married and if he wants them lifted he’ll have to pay. It licenses bigotry. A community can announce that a malaria outbreak is due to the old women of the village waging witchcraft, and slaughter them. It licenses some deranged delusions. During the war in Congo, a soothsayer announced that you could be cured of HIV if you ate a pygmy. I visited a pygmy village where several men had “disappeared” as a result.

If your neighbour is about to feed his kids cyanide to “cleanse” them of “toxins”, is there really a virtue in standing aside and allowing him to do so out of some kind of misguided respect for his beliefs and his right to decide what is best for his kids? Should our oh-so-tolerant sensibilities extend to idly abetting murder? Of course not, and I can’t imagine any rational person suggesting otherwise. The debate is not, or at least should not be, about whether to intervene; it should be about how to intervene. Again from the article, contrast this approach:

Juliana Bernard is an ordinary young African woman who knew, from childhood, that claims of black magic and witchcraft were false and could be debunked. She told me: “If I can understand [germ theory], so can everybody else in this country. They are no different to me.” So she set up a group who traveled from village to village, offering the people a deal: For just one month, take these medicines and these vaccinations, and leave the “witches” alone to do whatever they want without persecution. See what happens. If people stop getting sick, you’ll know my theories about germs are right, and you can forget about the evil spirits.

Just this small dose of rationality—offered by one African to another—had revolutionary effects. Of course the superstitions didn’t vanish, but now they were contested, and the rationalist alternative had acquired passionate defenders in every community. I watched as village after village had vigorous debates, with the soothsayers suddenly having to justify themselves for the first time and facing accusations of being frauds and liars.

And this one:

On a trip to Tanzania, I saw one governmental campaign to stamp out the old beliefs in action when I went to visit a soothsayer deep in the forest. Eager to steer people toward real doctors for proper treatment—a good idea, but there are almost none in the area—the army had turned up that morning and smashed up her temple until it was rubble. She was sobbing and wailing in the wreckage. “My ancestors lived here, but now their spirits have been released into the air! They are homeless! They are lost!” she cried.

Once again, there is a clear right and wrong here – one of these approaches works and the other does not. If we, with the best of intentions, rush in to places and smash superstition to bits, we remove the symptom without addressing the cause. However, when rational discussion is allowed to take place, the dialogue and cultural understanding of these superstitions can change. This is not to say that we shouldn’t vigorously oppose superstition in its various guises or speak out against it whenever possible, but that mandating disbelief is just as dangerous as mandating belief.

This article is about Africa, but of course my response to it is not really. While I am concerned for my African brothers and sisters, I am not from Africa. I am from Canada, where our own particular brand of superstition rages apace. We can look to the African struggle against superstition as a model for our own (albeit down-scaled) problems here. Destroying the religious infrastructure is not only unethical, it is unproductive. What has to happen is that people are encouraged to think critically about all topics, and that the privilege that religion currently enjoys be removed.

Returning to Africa for a moment, I’m sure there are some bleeding hearts among my readers who are happy to decry my paternalism – who am I to pass judgment on another culture? I encourage you to read the following:

The final time I saw Juliana, she told me, “When I go to a village where an old woman has been hacked to pieces, should I say, ‘This is the African way, forget about it?’ I am an African. The murdered woman was an African. It is not our way. If you ignore this fact, you ignore us, and you ignore our struggle.”

It is equally paternalistic to say “well rationality and science are all well and good for us, but Africans should have to deal with superstition.” We have a moral duty to promote the truth as best we know it, and to instruct others in the use of tools that have been observed to work.

TL/DR: Those who fear being overly paternalistic when it comes to the superstitions present in other individuals and cultures risk being equally paternalistic on the other side when they ignore the consequences of doing nothing.

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Canada taking steps forward in race discussion

Every now and then I spot a news item that makes me optimistic that my vision of Canada as a model of multiculturalism might actually come to pass. As I’ve said, I think that Canada is in a unique position to host people from all over the world without forcing them to comply to an overwhelming and jealously-guarded national identity. And things like this are maybe a step in that direction:

A shared concern to preserve their distinct languages and culture by first nations in British Columbia and minority ethnic groups in China have brought representatives from the two groups together. Following discussions between the groups, aboriginal people here feel there is a need for language protection legislation, which is already in place in China. The Chinese delegation learned new ideas on how to implement projects within smaller communities, said Tracey Herbert, the executive director of the First Peoples’ Heritage, Language and Cultural Council.

I’m a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The show explores some themes that, if they hadn’t been already universal, would have been almost prophetic. One of the characters that I found particularly compelling was that of The Borg – a collectivist civilization that had completely abandoned individual autonomy in favour of a hierarchical regimented existence. It would go from place to place, swallowing up entire civilizations into their hive-mind.

The fear experienced by the crew of The Enterprise when confronting such overwhelming obliteration of individuality is certainly akin to that felt by new immigrant Canadians. In order to prevent traditions that they see as valuable from being completely swallowed up by the lure of conformity, the Chinese community has sought allies in the First Nations community. Amazingly, this was not an example of a post-industrial civilization engaging in one-sided exploitation of a minority group, but an equitable sharing and exchange of ideas.

Now I will be the first to admit that this kind of co-operation threatens me as a rich, English-speaking, privileged male Canadian. I am acutely aware of the fact that the hair on the back of my neck stands up when I see two groups with which I do not identify work together to change the status quo that puts me at the top of the heap, but that’s my own problem to deal with. I can tamp down that fear somewhat by recognizing that whether you were born somewhere else, or your parents were, or it’s been hundreds of generations since your people came to this land, we are all Canadians. As long as our focus is to make this country stronger and more just, I’m fine being knocked down a couple of pegs.

Of course, in order to take steps forward, we need to acknowledge our own history:

Saint John’s black community is appealing directly to the Queen Elizabeth for an apology for a 1785 decree that severely restricted where they could live or fish. Saint John is celebrating the 225th anniversary of the royal charter that created the southern New Brunswick city. But that same charter made white loyalists the only free citizens of the city and black loyalists, who fought for King George III in the American Revolution, with few exceptions, were denied the right to live or set up businesses within city boundaries.

This is an interesting bit of history that I wasn’t aware of. Apparently under the charter that created the city of St. John, its black inhabitants were not granted the rights of citizens. They were barred from living within the city’s walls or fishing in the outlying rivers. Even though they helped build the city, they were disallowed from reaping the fruits of their labour – not because of systematic, subtle racism, but because of an official decree.

Pop quiz time! What is the subtext of the following comments?

“Just think though , if it wasn’t for the British and American slavery practices most of the North American black population would still be living in some oppressive, 3rd world, war torn African country trying to get refugee status to live here in Canada.”

“Why would someone apologize for something they had no control over? Better call Ghosthunters to call the dead.”

“Get a life people of the St. John’s Black Community !!! What happened in 1785 happened. That’s it. And you don’t deserve an apology from someones great great great great great grand daughter for something that happened to your great great great great great grand parents.”

If you guessed “Get over it, black people!”, you’re right!

There’s a pernicious lie that you’ll see pop up in any discussion of immigration or minority civil rights – “the white man built this country, and if you don’t like it you can leave!” At least part of the reason this lie gets repeated so much is because we fail to recognize the history that underlies (and directly causes) our present-day realities. Africa isn’t war-torn because Africans are dispositionally warlike – it’s because it was financially exploited by Europeans, beginning with slavery. The apology is not to appease some ghosts, it’s to force present-day Canadians to own up to our history. We did these things – ignoring them is to lose the lessons they can teach. The white man didn’t build this country, he just wrote the history books and the laws.

If you’re not interested in improving the racial climate in Canada that’s your right. However, sitting on the sidelines and sniping at those who are actually putting in the work makes you look like an asshole at best, and a racist asshole at worst.

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Conservative bloggers call for Campbell soup boycott fearing Islamic terrorism

What would you do if you saw someone homeless, legless, begging for help or at least understanding? Obviously your human compassion would kick in and you’d go to that person’s aid.

Not me – I’d plant a swift kick and walk away laughing.

Well… not really, but sometimes it feels like that.

Conservative bloggers in the United States — the same ones behind opposition to the Islamic centre near Ground Zero in New York — are calling for a boycott of Campbell’s Canadian-made soups, alleging Islamic terrorists are linked to both. Pamela Geller, who runs a widely read anti-Muslim site called Atlas Shrugs, is calling for a boycott of some 15 soups made by the Canadian subsidiary of New Jersey-based Campbell Soup Co.

This story is just too delicious (or should I say ‘Mmm, mmm, good’) to pass by without mocking. It has all the ingredients for a hilarious level of crapitalism: conservatism, Ayn Rand worship, completely ridiculous accusations of terror links, religion, and underlying the whole thing is soup. To conservatives: when you complain that the “elitist liberals” think that you’re all a bunch of troglodyte morons, this is why we think that. Every time you see a clownish buffoon rail against supposed connections between international terror and a friggin’ soup company, or something equally ludicrous, it’s some “family values” or “small government” nutbag right-wing group.

By the way, for those of you who didn’t read the story – the reason they think Campbell’s is connected to terror isn’t based on any deals with shady companies or foreign sources of funding. No no no, nothing so superficially reasonable:

Sold in Canada, the soups are certified by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which has been certifying halal foods since 1988. But Geller claims ISNA has ties to terrorist groups, including Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The other children on the playground are right to make fun of you, Ms. Geller – you’re a moron.

But my mean-spirited mockery doesn’t stop there; oh no, not even close:

“The Simpsons” just got a blessing from the Vatican. The official Vatican newspaper has declared that beer-swilling, doughnut-loving Homer Simpson and son Bart are Catholics — and what’s more, it says that parents should not be afraid to let their children watch “the adventures of the little guys in yellow.” “Few people know it, and he does everything to hide it. But it’s true: Homer J. Simpson is Catholic”, the Osservatore Romano newspaper said in an article on Sunday headlined “Homer and Bart are Catholics.”

The evidence for the assertion: prayer before meals, believing in God.

The evidence against the assertion: regular attendance at a “Presbylutheran” church, complete lack of Catholic doctrine, open mockery of Catholicism.

Ah yes, I keep forgetting. Using evidence with the Catholic Church is like trying to stop a buffalo stampede with road signs – they don’t understand it, and will completely ignore it. The Osservatore Romano based this on an analysis of a Simpsons episode in which God is discussed, the conclusion of which is that The Simpsons is the only kid’s show that discusses Christian faith and religion. Of course The Simpsons isn’t a kid’s show, it’s a cartoon sitcom for adults. Peter Griffin from Family Guy actually is Catholic, and is another popular cartoon sitcom that discusses Christian faith and religion on a regular basis, but almost never in a positive light. Hmm, wonder how they missed that? It’s the good old fashioned religious way of reasoning – come up with your conclusion first, then back-fill your explanation. Convenient!

Of course these are funny and light-hearted instances of when religious stupidity runs rampant. Sometimes it’s not a joke:

Sikh groups have urged US President Barack Obama not to avoid visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar during his India trip next month, amid reports he is now unlikely to go there. A US official told the BBC there were “logistical” issues. Mr Obama would need to cover his head to enter the temple and there are reported concerns opponents would use this to show he is a closet Muslim.

It’s a sad reflection on all of us when we let the actions of idiots influence foreign policy. I mean, it’s bad enough that we play ‘accommodationist’ with these idiots, elevating their idiocy to the level of reasoned debate in some misguided attempt to appease people who have been left behind by the last century, but to allow people who can’t tell the difference between Sikhism and Islam, or even the difference between showing respect for another culture’s traditions and being a secret member of that culture… to allow these kinds of people to derail diplomacy with a potentially huge trading partner is an unbelievable tragedy.

So yes, I kick the homeless amputee, and walk away laughing. Religion deserves nothing but mockery when it pretentiously draws itself up and masquerades as something deserving of respect. Doing otherwise is to falsely pretend that it has some sort of merit and is above criticism.

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That being said…

Religious people are still capable of committing acts of great kindness:

Rabbis from Jewish settlements have given a box of Korans to a West Bank mosque as a gesture of solidarity after an arson attack blamed on settlers. Palestinians cheered as the rabbis and other settlers arrived at the village of Beit Fajjar in bulletproof cars accompanied by Israeli soldiers. They were welcomed by the local imam.

It will be my ongoing struggle as I continue to write this blog (hopefully sticking with it for a while – we’re at 8 months now) to ensure that I maintain a sense of perspective and balance. While my rampant liberal bias is evident from even a casual glance, I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that evidence which may not support my argument entirely. This particular story is a case of true religious tolerance and attempts to reconcile.

“This act does nothing for the settlements; it is morally and religiously wrong and is offensive to its core,” he added. “This is not how we educated our children; Islam is not a hostile religion even if we have a dispute with some of its followers.”

The governor of Bethlehem, Abdel Fatah Hamayel, said: “We welcome the Jews to Beit Fajjar so they can see with their own eyes the crime that was committed in this mosque, which was against humanity and against religion.”

When secularists and anti-theists like myself talk about the evils of religion, we are explicitly not talking about people like this. What we are talking about is the kind of hatred and illogic that spawns the attack in the first place. We are talking about the idea that there can be a ‘crime against religion’, as though religion has rights that go beyond the rights of the human beings that make up their congregations. Ideas don’t have rights. Beliefs don’t have rights. Philosophies don’t have rights. People do.

However, it’s often tempting to gloss over the good things that are done in the name of religion in my zeal to tear down the idea of religion as meriting some kind of special treatment or special rights. It’s especially difficult to bring up the positive things done in the name of religion when there are so many unbelievably evil things done with the same justification. Hopefully my willingness to highlight these kinds of things will lend my words a bit more credibility when I jump up and down on the head of the followers of YahwAlladdha – I’m not just saying this stuff because it’s fun; I’m saying it because it’s real.

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Obama draws fire over ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ (what a stupid name)

I am re-posting this, a post that I wrote about a month ago and posted on Canadian Atheist. Because I am rather proud of it, I’m cross-posting it here for posterity.

I’ve read some depressingly stupid responses to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque“. One came from leading skeptic and atheist Sam Harris:

But the margin between what is legal and what is desirable, or even decent, leaves room for many projects that well-intentioned people might still find offensive. If you can raise the requisite $100 million, you might also build a shrine to Satan on this spot, complete with the names of all the non-believing victims of 9/11 destined to suffer for eternity in Hell.

Nice, Sam. Very nice.

Also flogging the “desirable and decent” horse is Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid:

Spokesman Jim Manley said in a statement that the senator respected that “the First Amendment protects freedom of religion”, but still thought the mosque, planned for a site about two blocks away from the former World Trade Center, should be built in a different location.

Way to stand up for Democratic principles, Harry.

And yet, surrounded by the raging storm of stupid, President Barack Obama has stood up and said that the construction should be allowed to go ahead:

At a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan on Friday, Mr Obama vigorously defended the developers’ right to put the mosque there “in accordance with local laws and ordinances”. Muslims “have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country”, the president said.

As far as his personal feelings on the “desirable and decent” pseudo-argument, President Obama declined to comment, which is his right. His statement, however, reasserted the principles of freedom of religion, tolerance and secular authority that the United States was built on.

That’s really not going to help his poll numbers:

Some 18% said the president was a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009, according to the Pew Research survey of 3,003 Americans. Among Republicans, that number was 34%. Just a third of those quizzed correctly identified Mr Obama as Christian.

Republican critics have accused the President of being out of step with mainstream Americans. If “mainstream Americans” are this stupid and have memories this short (Rev. Wright? Remember that guy?), I’d prefer to be out of step with them. “Mainstream Americans” are in dire need of a civics lesson. So, to help our knowledge-impoverished neighbours to the south (including Sam Harris, apparently), I’ll remind you of three important facts.

1. The “Ground Zero Mosque” is not at Ground Zero

The proposed Cordoba Centre is being built 4 blocks away from the site of the World Trade Centre remains. It is being built in an abandoned coat factory. Opponents of the building have not provided a proposal for how far away it is okay to built a mosque, nor have they provided some rationale for why such a distance is more acceptable than 4 blocks.

2. The “Ground Zero Mosque” is not a mosque

The Cordoba Centre is being built as a Muslim community centre. It does contain a prayer room (which should surprise exactly nobody, since prayer is a part of Muslim life), but it also contains a basketball court, a gym, a book store, and a culinary school. There is a giant Jewish community centre of the same type sitting at the corner of Bloor st. and St. George in Toronto. I’ve been in there, and I’m pretty sure everybody knew I wasn’t Jewish. It’s a community centre, not a synagogue. The proposed Cordoba Centre is exactly the same thing.

3. There’s already a “Ground Zero” mosque

Apparently there’s some confusion about what was there first – the Muslims or the terror. There’s been a mosque (Masjid Manhattan) 2 blocks from the World Trade Centre site since before there was a World Trade Centre. Muslims have been part of the population of Manhattan since far before these critics knew what Islam was.

Now that we know how intellectually bankrupt the arguments against being allowed to construct a mosque in that “holy site” are, let’s look at this risible “desirable and decent” argument of Sam Harris. Sam, you’re an atheist, right? A pretty vocal one, if I remember correctly. You know who might not find your beliefs, or your out-spoken defence and promotion of them, “desirable and decent”? Millions of Christian Americans. That’s right Sam, by your own argument, you should be keeping your damn mouth shut.

I’m not sure how much I want to explore the stupidity of the conservative critics:

“It’s unwise to build a mosque at the site where 3,000 Americans lost their lives as a result of a terrorist attack,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas said on Sunday on Fox News.

This is about as sterotypical as Islamophobia gets. Senator Corwyn is asking us to complete the following logic assignment:

A. Terrorists blew up the World Trade Centre
B. ???
C. Muslims pray at mosques.

Therefore, we shouldn’t have mosques near the World Trade Centre

The solution to that little logic problem up there, incidentally is B: All Muslims are terrorists. I doubt anybody reading this needs me to explain why the proposition is not only offensive, but incorrect.

The main crux of Sam’s piece is that Islam is not merely just another peaceful religion with a few deluded followers – that it, more than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Sikhism (or any number of other -isms) promotes violence and the subjugation of women. I’m not sure I disagree with Sam on this one. In its current incarnation, Islam worldwide is a consistent force for evil (see Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, the Maldives, for evidence of this). I wonder if Sam knows that there is a surefire method to blunt a religion’s influence – secularize it. If Muslims feel cut off from secular America (if you, for example, protest when they try to build a community centre), they will band together under the banner of their religion. This means that the moderate elements are going to feel strong solidarity with the radical elements. No Sam, the answer is to make them feel welcome as possible, and start sending your kids to play basketball and cook with Muslim kids.  It’s harder to draw barriers around yourself when there are people who don’t share your religious beliefs eating at your table or slam-dunking for your team.

Finally, there’s a major flaw in the argument that I haven’t really heard discussed. Even if the mosque was at ground zero. Even if the mosque was a mosque. Even if there was no other mosque there, this thing would still be a good idea. One of the reasons the United States is reviled by the Muslim world is that it is built on the idea that all people are free to believe what they want. In Muslim countries, it is illegal to convert from Islam. Some even require you by law to be a Muslim. They enforce laws that are based on Muslim scripture that supersede secular law. The idea of a place where Muslims aren’t special, where Allah is not even recognized in passing, is offensive to these dictatorial assholes. Putting up a Muslim centre at the site of a terrorist attack sponsored by the Muslim world is essentially a big “fuck you” to those same assholes. It says essentially that not only are we not going to allow your attacks to change our way of life, we’re going to go out of our way to promote those same ideas you find repulsive, and we’re going to use your religion to do it.

This “controversy” is nothing but appeals to what is least-informed and most bigoted in our society, and has no place being defended by thinking people. I’m disappointed in you, Sam.

TL/DR: Sam Harris is kind of a dick, the “Ground Zero Mosque” is neither of those things, and even if it was we should build it anyway.

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