…but considerably better by the end of the post!
Ashin Wirathu, a Buddhist monk in Myanmar, called a United Nations envoy a “bitch” and a “whore” when he spoke at a rally. A leading UN human rights’ envoy said such comments incited hatred and called on Myanmar’s leaders to condemn the monk’s “abhorrent” language.
They were among the most powerful women on the planet, but that has not spared them from being airbrushed out of a picture of world leaders at the 11th January 2015 Paris march against terror and in favour of freedom of expression. Angela Merkel (the German chancellor), Helle Thorning-Schmidt (the Danish prime minister), Anne Hidalgo (the mayor of Paris) and other politically influential women at the head of the march were removed from the picture so “The Announcer”, an Israeli newspaper, would not “offend” its devout Orthodox Jewish readers (hmmm: the limits of freedom of expression. Do we laugh or cry? Do we laugh or cry given that almost everyone that Sunday was marching in support of freedom of expression?).
A few days after jihadi militants murdered seventeen people in Paris and Boko Haram murdered about two thousand people in north-east Nigeria, a Muslim religious leader in Saudi Arabia issued a fatwa. You would think that the fatwa would have been issued to condemn the murder of innocent people in Paris and north-east Nigeria, but, instead, the fatwa forbade Muslims from making “anti-Islamic” snowmen because, by making snowmen, Muslims ran the risk of engaging in acts indistinguishable from idolatry. Yes, it’s 2015. Yes, I am avoiding all substances that might distort my mind.
Amazingly, snow had fallen on the mountains of northern Saudi Arabia and a father had asked the religious leader if it was permitted to build a snowman for his children. The religious leader said in no uncertain terms that it was not permitted (religious leaders are often very good at saying what you cannot do. Ask them what you can do and they have much less to say): “It is not permitted to make a statue out of snow, even by way of play or fun.” To build a snowman is to create an image of a human being, an action considered sinful under the Saudi kingdom’s strict interpretation of sharia in its Sunni guise.
Worryingly, one Muslim wrote on Twitter to support the religious leader: “Building snowmen is imitating the infidels (that’s me and many of you, of course, and, according to many Muslims, infidels deserve death. In fact, there are qur’anic verses that recommend death for people who might be defined as infidels). It (building snowmen) promotes lustiness and eroticism.” Yes, the latter is true. Every time I’ve made a snowman I’ve wanted to have sex with it. This is one of my many reprehensible vices.
In Saudi Arabia in 2014, Raif Badawi was sentenced to ten years imprisonment and a thousand lashes (for assisting Boko Haram during one of its murderous assaults on innocent people in Nigeria? For beheading hostages in the Islamic State?) for setting up a website that championed free speech and criticised leading clerics (fifty of the lashings were administered in mid-January 2015). According to the trial judge, Badawi had “insulted Islam”. In 2014, Badawi’s wife and children fled from Saudi Arabia when confronted with death threats and they now live as refugees in Canada.
My goodness: I’d “insult Islam” if Islam is capable of such brutal, inhuman and disproportionate reactions to an individual seeking merely to express his views (which, as his blog confirms, are very sound and sensible views in a liberal sort of way).
Aren’t you proud that our government in the UK calls Saudi Arabia a valued ally?
A French-born Muslim refused to take down a “Je suis Charlie” sign at his London café despite receiving death threats. Adel Defilaux told how a “raving Islamic fanatic” demanded he remove the sign, which is a show of support for the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoonists recently murdered in Paris.
Five people are killed and six churches attacked amid new protests against the “Charlie Hebdo” magazine… in Niger!!!!!
More than eighty people, fifty of them children, are kidnapped by Boko Haram in cross-border raids in Cameroon.
A young boy aged about ten is shown shooting dead two Russian “spies” in a new film posted by Islamic State militants.
Jihadi attacks caused more than 5,000 deaths in December 2014. There were 664 terrorist acts in fourteen countries, with Iraq, Nigeria, Syria and Afghanistan the worst four countries affected (these four countries suffered 80% of the deaths).
I’ll be honest: Pope Francis is a considerable improvement on the two popes who preceded him (perhaps especially because of a sincere desire to see the poorest and most marginalised in the world have lives characterised by comfort, dignity and the same opportunities as everyone else), but he made a mistake in relation to freedom of expression when he said, “You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” In so doing Pope Francis came dangerously close to justifying the murder of the “Charlie Hebdo” cartoonists, sanctioning the persecution of other cartoonists who have “insulted” Islam or Muhammad, and supporting the fatwa issued many years ago against Salman Rushdie following publication of his magnificent novel “The Satanic Verses”.
This does not often happen, I assure you, but, for once, I found myself agreeing with David Cameron when he said, “In a free society there is a right to cause offence about someone’s religion. I’m a Christian. If someone says something offensive about Jesus I might find that offensive, but I don’t have a right to… wreak my vengeance on them.”
And why does David Cameron not have a right to “wreak” his “vengeance on them”? For me, the following explains why. Because all religions are mere human constructs in exactly the same way that ideologies of a political nature are, we should treat religious/sacred beliefs with respect only when they deserve respect. When religious beliefs encourage people to behave in contemptible (or worse) ways, both the beliefs and the people are worthy of contempt. If religious beliefs offend us (by, for example, encouraging prejudice, stereotyping, racism or religious intolerance), or the actions of religious people incline us toward fear and loathing (because such people engage in torture, other acts of wanton brutality, the abuse of children, the sexual exploitation of women, murder, genocide or the persecution of the most vulnerable in society), we have every right to (at the very least) offend in return, perhaps precisely BECAUSE people are motivated by religious beliefs. And why do I say this? Because religion is so often privileged and protected, even in allegedly secular societies. It is therefore necessary to sometimes offend to, among other things, expose the lies, the misconceptions or the inconsistencies that people subscribe to (and lies, misconceptions and inconsistencies are far too frequently encountered in world views defined as religions).
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia presided over a brutal Islamist theocracy which denied girls and women many of the same opportunities as boys and men and persecuted Shia and Sufi Muslims. Moreover, the public practice of any religion other than Islam was unlawful. Conversion of a Muslim to another religion was considered apostasy (which, if sharia was interpreted rigidly, was punishable by death). Nothing substantive is expected to change with Abdullah’s death.
Yes: Saudi Arabia is a nation state very far removed from even the most elastic interpretation of inclusiveness. And the only so-called fundamental “British” value that Saudi Arabia would recognise is, unfortunately, the rule of law!
But now for some good news.
Two male witches have tied the knot in the UK’s first Pagan same-sex marriage. Tom Lanting and Iain Robertson, who have been together for twelve years, were married in a ceremony in the 16th century vaulted cellars of Marlin’s Wynd in Edinburgh.
And, to conclude, some wise words from Tahir Selby, the imam at Hartlepool’s Ahmadiyya mosque:
We have the wonderful right of free speech in our country, a right which I sometimes feel British people take for granted, but I believe in totally… So yes, we (Muslims) are offended by these images (in “Charlie Hebdo” and elsewhere). But what I want to stress is that ordinary, decent Muslims, true to their religion, would never react to that offence by hurting anybody… The Islamic way of reacting to offence is simply to approach the people causing it and explain, talk and discuss peacefully. This is what the vast majority of Muslims believe: the way of peace… The community I represent… believes very strongly in free speech and we are totally against any blasphemy laws… For us, the liberties and freedoms in this country are a great blessing, and I gave a sermon on 7th January stating that we cannot afford to lose these precious freedoms in this country, especially given what is happening in Pakistan (where blasphemy laws are often invoked to intimidate, persecute and sometimes execute members of minority faith groups, Ahmadiyya Muslims included).