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Entries in Islam (16)


Islam in central Asia

Both Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have overwhelming Muslim majorities - around 90% of the population in each country. Just like Azerbaijan, however, they are no more "Muslim countries" than American is a "Christian country". We visited the most holy shrines, mosques and mausoleums in both countries, and most were empty apart from a couple of pilgrams sitting outside with palms upraised or a few groups of women walking around. Certainly there were no scenes of lines of Muslims praying on prayer carpets, and in the few places where a call to prayer was sounded it was ignored by every person in sight. 

Most of the strictures of Islam are ignored with a bit of slight-of-hand. In Turkmenistan it is illegal to eat camels or horses (camels because they were holy under Zoroasterism and horses because the Turkmen idolise their Akhal-Teke horses). Pig is okay though, and widely eaten, although it is polite to refer to it as "white lamb" to Muslims so they can at least pretend to be obeying the injuction against pork. In Uzbekistan our guide described his religion by saying "my family are Muslim Tartars, but it isn't a big part of our life. We've never read the Koran and don't go and pray, but if there is a birth or death we ask an Imam to come out and give an Islamic ceremony". Sounds pretty much like Catholics in Western Europe.

I wish the Islamophobes would visit countries like Albania, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan before assuming that all Muslims are like the Taliban. It is just like assuming all Christians are like the LRA. It is only when the religious really get a chance to turn the youth into radicals that you get nutjobs like the Taliban or LRA. Otherwise, once religion is pushed out to be merely an option, most people absorb a few harmful habits but manage to shrug off the most insane aspects - whether of Christianity, Judiasm or Islam. Interestingly, the ex-Communist countries seem to have done particularly well in this regard, the generation of a secular state seems to have broken the default acceptance of religion, so people feel free to pick up as much or as little religion now as they want. It would be very difficult to argue that America did the right thing in promoting an Islamic uprising in Afghanistan to force the USSR out. An independent Afghanistan that had gone through the Soviet religious circuitbreaker would almost certainly be a much saner place than it is today.

Asghabat, Turkmenistan. The cult of Turkmenbashi tried to coopt Islam. The central mosque is covered in scripture from both the Koran and the Ruhnama, painting the two books as equals. Walking inside it was empty apart from guards and sweepers, and our guide saw nothing wrong with standing in the centre and proclaiming in a loud voice that echoed throughout the building "Turkmenistan isn't an Islamic Republic, we don't really care about that type of thing". 

Anau, Turkmenistan. The social agreement between men and women is one of the major drivers of pilgrimages. Like many conservative societies, women are expected to stay home and look after men their whole lives. For many, the only socially acceptible escape is for religious purposes, so typically women form a friendship group and go on pilgrimage together to a couple of different sites, which can take up to two weeks to visit all the sites in Turkmenistan. From what we saw, very little praying goes on, with large gaggles of women and children sitting under a nearby tree, cooking, eating and laughing. The holiday aspect is no secret, but the men are party to the deal, taking the chance to have "men's nights out" while the women are gone.

Hayden quite likes mosques. Unlike Christian churches, with the hard stone floors, mosques give him all this lovely carpet to crawl around. He also delights in the acoustics, finding a spot with the best echoes and then loudly grunting. Sure, he manages to break nearly all the rules on this list, but everyone else ignores them too.


Registan Madrassa, Tashkent. The founder of this madrassa saw no problem with picturing animals on the main portal, usually a big no-no in Islam. The Nodir Divanbegi madrassa in Bukhara even more strikingly pictured animals that were either pigs or dogs on their main portal, showing a dedication to art above the Islamic injunction of "unclean" animals.


In shaa'Allah

So I was having beer and pizza with a friend and we go up to pay. The guy who works there (a Muslim immigrant to Belgium who speaks better Dutch than English) says "that was two pizzas and two beers, right?". I reply, "no, seven beers".

"Seven beers!" he exclaims with a smile. "Wow". *

"Next time we'll make it ten", I reply.

"Ten beers! In shaa'Allah!".


So, I repeat this exchange for two reasons:

1) I find it amusing that he thinks James and I need the aid of a sky god to finish ten beers together.

2) It is a nice example of how religion has been moderated in secular countries. In countries where religion still has real power, whether it is Islam, Christianity or Judaism, they ram their "morals' down the throats of everyone else. In countries where they have been pushed out of power, many religious people punish themselves with silly rules, but if you want to drink ten beers - In shaa'Allah. **

As far as I am concerned, the religious can do whatever they want to themselves, no harm to me. *** We just need to remember what they do when they are in power, and be careful to keep the law absolutely secular with religion a free choice for only those who want it.



* I don't see how this earned a wow, they were just small cans of the weak stuff by Belgian standards

** If Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali was dead he would have rolled over in his grave

*** Unfortunately there appears to be a direct relationship between how religious a person is, and how much they need other people to obey their religion.


Letting fools make anti-terrorism policy

If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy
- US President James Madison

For some unknown reason, much of the world has given utter fools a near monolopy in making anti-terrorism policy. Terrorism is hardly new and we have known how to deal with terrorists for hundreds of years. In Malaysia young men used to "run amok" - they would go psycotic, grab a knife and run around stabbing as many people as they could until they were killed. The solution found by the British colonists was remarkably simple - stop treating the suicide attacks as some type of special class of person, an existential threat that needs to be taken down, and instead disarm them, put them on trial and give them life in prison. After this policy was put in place the number of men "running amok" dropped rapidly. 

The modern equivalent to this solution is also relatively simple:

1. Stop treating terrorists like they are super villians and start treating them like you would any other common murderer. No more of this "oh no, we can't let terrorists be kept in prison on American soil because they will burst out of prison and kill everyone". It is bollocks and it just feeds into their own delusions of grandeur.

2. Actively engage at the political level. Why do issues like Palestine create violent protest? Because non-violent protests are not seen to get anywhere. As long as you use terrorism as an excuse not to engage politically it makes terrorism the only way to protest. As soon as you allow political engagement people rapidly see that political change is more effective and violent protest dies away - just as in Northern Ireland.

3. Do not legitimise hate speech. The dangerous people are the ones who stir up hatred - they are untouchable if the stop slightly short of directing violence, yet they spawn terrorists among those who feed off their words. Whether the spokesman of hate is an extremist Islamic iman or a far-right European politician, we have to reduce the power of their words by condemning their hate. At both the political and public level we can't let them have oxygen, just shut them out of the debate and only deal with moderates.

Instead of this, what do we have? Useless policies at airports, ostracising bans on religious headwear, hate speech directed at moderates, the generation of new terrorist causes through invasion and calls to stop domestic terrorism by increasing spending on tanks. These people are idiots, and yet for some reason we listen to them. If an attack happens on their watch they use it as an excuse to double down on their idiocy, if they go a year without attacks they use it as validation of their policies. These people have their priorities so screwed up that they used a vaccination campaign as cover for their search for Bin Laden. 150 000 children die every year in Pakistan alone from vaccine-preventable diseases, and yet the CIA thought it would be smart to use a fake vaccination program to take DNA samples in a search for Bin Laden. Bravo cold war warriors, you just took away the political neutrality of a program that saves millions of lives a year in a fruitless effort to find a doddering criminal.


Today a new violation of civil liberties begins - in France

As of today, wearing the burqa on the streets of France will land you a fine of €150 and "re-education classes" or a jail term.

Sarkozy has played the race baiting for purely political ends. It is clear that there is no gain to security (there are exceptions for every single face covering that is not Islamic) and that it is a farce to pass this off as feminist. I wonder how the people of France will respond to this disgraceful law when they start seeing French women being dragged into prison for their choice of clothing?


Double-down on that racism

The Dutch department store that fired a shop assistent from its Belgian store because she wore a headscarf has decided to double-down on its racist behaviour. The woman was hired wearing a headscarf and worked in the store for months wearing a headscarf until some racist patrons complained. The company caved and fired her, now under pressure from protestors and the Belgian anti-racism centre they have offered to re-hire. Have they learnt the error of their ways? No, they specified that they wanted to rehire her in a position where she would not be visible to customers. The racist bastards.

Want to understand why the Muslim population of Belgium has vastly higher unemployment and poverty rates? You can't look past the vicious cycle of racism. For every case like this with Hema, thousands of companies simply don't hire Islamic women so they won't have to deal with racist customers complaining. And the government, rather than focusing on rectifying this massive injustice affecting thousands of Belgian women, focuses on penalising the half-dozen women in Belgium who wear a burqa. The thing that makes me angriest is that the bastards who push these women into a ghetto are the same ones who attack them for "not integrating".


Burqa ban a reflection of simple racism

I have previously spent a lot of time writing about the attack on women's rights, where progressive language is used to conceal deeply conservative motivations. All the arguments put forward against the burqa, as tenuous as they are, completely fall flat against a headscarf - and yet the same people frequently object against both. Here is a clear example of a woman being fired from her job for wearing a headscarf due to complaints from customers.

I just wish people would be honest about their motivations, so that people could see through the coded and pseudo-reasonable language to the irrational xenophobia that is often the true motivation. Like when people rant and rave against Islam, the Roma and homosexuality - when the same person espouts violent opinions on three such different groups the motivation is almost certainly pure and unadulterated xenophobia. A lot fewer people would listen to the main anti-Muslim demagogues if they also knew the position of the speaker on other (less politically correct) targets.


A new plan for the French Far Right?

Here is an interesting article about Jean-Marie Le Pen trying to pass leadership of the French far right party, the National Front, to his daughter, Marine Le Pen. It is quite an insight to read about the young Le Pen "reforming" the far right - stop talking about holocaust denial and anti-semitism, reduce campaigning against women's rights and homosexuality - and instead campaign against Muslims and immigration. Marine Le Pen sees this as the electable face of the far right in Europe, and I am afraid that I rather think she is right.


Which religion is the odd one out?

I was listening to a talk about Sam Harris on his new book, The Moral Landscape, in which he discusses how morality can be built up from first principles using the scientific method. He spent most of the talk ripping post-modernism to shreds, saying it is absurd to suggest that no cultural practices are right or wrong. Obviously, I agree with him - I don't care if female genital mutilation is passed off as "culture", it is wrong

Where I disagreed with Harris was when he targetted out Islam as an example of a religion which is particularly wrong in its practises. His logic went something like this: 1) Different religions have different cultural practices, such as Jainism and Islam; 2) Those different cultural practices drive different extremism; 3) Extremist Islam creates terrorism while extremist Jains sweep the streets that they walk so they do not accidently kill ants; 4) Since Islam is worse than Jainism, it must be a particularly bad religion. 

I'm not sure that this is a valid sequence of logic. Clearly there are more acts of terrorism inspired by Islam than by Jainism. However, it is worth noting that there are 200 times more Muslims in the world than Jains, and that the majority of the world's Muslims are poor and unempowered while Jains are concentrated among the social and economic elite of the countries where they live. When the Islamic countries were the world's economic powerhouses and centres of learning, the religion was much more civilised than many others. If the world had 1.5 billion Jains living in poverty and oppression would we have terrorist Jains attacking livestock farmers? I don't know, but it is concievable - Zoroastrianism today as a minority religion in India is one of the world's most civilised religions, but in the past as the power behind the Persian throne it was blood-thirsty.

Anyway, perhaps Sam Harris is right. Perhaps Jainism really would be more peaceful than Islam regardless of the social circumstances. It is a reasonable position and my hunch is that it is correct. But my question to Harris is does this mean that Islam is an unusually violent religion, or that Jainism is an unusually passive one? The global religions tend to be the ones that took over the world by force, so it may be no coincidence that Christianity and Islam both have a strong emphasis on violence, retribution, punishment, adherence to authority and hierarchy. Afterall, the religions which emphasised self-determination and mutual respect (if there are any) were hardly likely to mobilise troops and take over the neighbour's land. Rather than spot Islam as the odd one out, I tend to think that most religions degrade human morality, and that the few exceptions like Jainism are the outliers.

The best thing that Sam Harris said was in relation to scientific theory: "It's not magic, it's just complicated when you look at the details". On the subject of Islam, better by far to listen to James Zogby


Conservative terrorism?

Breaking news. We don't know all the details, but we have some known facts. A group seeking to overthrow the elected government has been organising armed meetings across America. The group openly circulated a "hit list" with gun sights on the top twenty officials they wanted to take down. These officials were then the target of threats seeking to influence their vote. Today a gunman opened fire in a public place and shot 18 people, including point-blank shots to the head of Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, one of the officials on the original hit list. The FBI is investigating further.

Admit it, if this scenario included a person of vaguely middle eastern apperance it would be all over the news as an act of "terrorism". Of course, the group that listed Giffords under a rifle site was the Republican Party, the threats came from right-wingers during the health care debate and the shooter was a white army veteran, so the word "terrorism" won't get used and those who incited violence won't be held responsibel for the events. 

But this is always the case, right? You can have people murdered in cold blood because of their sexuality by killers associated with anti-gay Churches, and that is just the actions of a lone kook that only makes local news. Yet if it is a Muslim who slightly injures two people, that is an international media sensation.

Let's be consistent. Either the non-violent members of a cause need to share responsiblity when fringe members act out the threats, or they don't. Choose one or the other, but it has to be applied equally to Islamic churches, anti-gay Christian churches, the Tea Party and the like.


Azerbaijan – an Islamic eye-opener

Among many atheists there is a trend to rank Islam as representing the worst of religious excesses (conversely, Eastern religions tend to get off the lightest, at least among Western atheists). The rationale for this ranking appears rather weak. Clearly, it is very easy to spot abuses of religious power among the Islamic world, but the same can be said of the Christian world. Yes, there are Islamic terrorists, but equally there are many Christian terrorists - terrorism in Northern Ireland (more than 2000 killed), the Ku Klux Klan (a hundred years of terrorism), anti-abortionist terrorists in the US (on average 10 attempted bombings/arsons per year and five murders/assaults every year) and so forth. Historical acts of Christian violence would probably well and truly exceed that of Islamic violence - Crusades, witch burnings and the Spanish Inquisition are just the beginning.

So why does Christianity tend to get let off relatively lightly by many atheists? I think there are two major reasons. The first is that anyone receiving media in the Western world is exposed to what I'll call "the black man" effect. If someone is murdered by a black man, the media will constantly talk about the murder by "a black man", while if someone is murdered by a white man, the media will just talk about the murder by "a man". Likewise the reporting of any attempted bombing by an Islamic man will constantly mention his religion, while an attempted bombing by a Christian man will rarely ever mention his religious identity, even when clearly linked to motivation (such as abortion clinic bombings). The second reason, perhaps, is observer bias. It is all too easy for an atheist living in a post-Christian country to look at the Islamic nations that are most frequently in the press (Iraq and Afghanistan) and say - "sure, religion is causing problems here, but look at what Islam is doing to girls in Afghanistan!" Certainly Islam has much to answer for in Afghanistan, and other countries, but using modern western Europe as the control Christian country is a farce: firstly, the control countries are largely post-Christian with a wall between Church and State; secondly the past record of these countries, when controlled by the Christian church, was appalling (even today, child rape stories are constantly leaking out of the Church); and thirdly the comparison does not take into account development status, stability and other (non-religious) factors that can influence the outcome. Religious abuses show much greater parity at the regional level - Islamic terrorism in Sudan competes with the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda (a major Christian terrorist organisation complete with child soldiers, massacres, mutilation, torture and rape) for the biggest death toll, genital mutilation of girls is practiced by Christians and Muslims across North Africa with equal frequency, Christian Ghana and Islamic Guinea both agree on horrific prison sentences for homosexuality, and so forth.

The other side of the argument is demonstrated by countries like Turkey and Azerbaijan. Turkey is often touted as the modern model of an Islamic country, with highly religious people but a staunchly secular state. To me this makes Turkey analogous to the US, while Azerbaijan is a better example of the modern European model. Both Turkey and Azerbaijan are secular states with largely Islamic populations, but unlike Turkey (which is highly religious), Azerbaijan must be the closest example we have of a post-Islamic state. 95% of the population is Muslim, yet this Islamic population guarantees religious freedom under article 48 of its Constitution and a recent Gallup Poll showed Azerbaijan to be one of the most irreligious countries in the world, with 50% of the population ranking religion as having "little or no importance in their life". Azerbaijan is an eye-opener because it is a country full of people who self-identify as Muslims, but don't let it get in the way of their life - just as western Europe is full of people who self-identify as Christians but don't let it dictate "morality". And this makes a major difference - Azerbaijan was the first democratic secular republic in the Muslim world, and granted women equal voting rights to men in 1918 - before the United Kingdom or the United States. In our week in Azerbaijan I only saw a bare handful of women wearing a headscarf and no men with the traditional Islamic beard. Local restaurants all served alcohol and pig-products, and couples strolling along the boulevard hand-in-hand or sitting down and kissing were commonplace. Azerbaijan is less religious and less conservative than neighbouring Armenia or Georgia, both Christian with a shared history. Perhaps the biggest eye-opener is that Azerbaijan is not exotic. It is just a normal country full of normal people doing normal things, an image I wish more people would see before making religious comparisons.