Tag Archives: Saudi Arabia

Boris Johnson’s recent comments about Saudi Arabia.

Boris Johnson has done only two really worthwhile things during his political career, sustain a decent public transport system in London and tell some truths about Saudi Arabia, so I cannot understand why he has been “slapped down” for recent comments made about that dire Middle Eastern nation state with whom we should sever all relations for as long as the place is ruled by Wahhabi Muslims. As it is, Boris Johnson only said what everyone knows, that Saudi Arabia engages in overt and covert warfare in many parts of the Middle East, largely to murder vast numbers of Shia Muslims. There is a growing body of evidence to confirm that Wahhabi Muslims want to exterminate Shia Muslims.

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

Just be grateful Boris Johnson did not say a lot more about what a dreadful nation state Saudi Arabia is (Saudi Arabia is such a rubbish nation state it makes even the Disunited Kingdom look reasonably civilised). Think of how Saudi Arabia funds mosques all round the globe that spread the dire Wahhabi message, a message which so often morphs into extremism claiming the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Think of how sharia law in Saudi Arabia disadvantages women, non-Muslims and Shia and Sufi Muslims, and how it leads to the public beheading, lashing and stoning of people who have rarely done anything that other nation states regard as seriously wrong. Think of how the Saudi regime persecutes its own Shia and Sufi minorities. Think of how people who say they are atheist or humanist risk being killed because the authorities do not provide such courageous individuals with the protection they require. Think of how even Sunni Muslim women are denied the most basic rights that women enjoy in almost every other nation state on the planet. Think of how there is not one church, synagogue, mandir, gurdwara or Buddhist temple anywhere in the country, and how non-Muslims cannot engage in worship on Saudi soil, other than in the most exceptional or rarest of circumstances. Think of how a Muslim converting to a religion other than Islam is considered an apostate and that apostasy is a crime punishable by death. And think of how all non-Muslims are banned from visiting Makkah. Add to all this that Saudi Arabian support for extremist/jihadist/Salafist groups around the globe has caused death and destruction on a scale that no other religious group currently engages in, and you have to ask the following. Is any nation state on the planet responsible for more terrorism, conflict, war and/or attempted genocide than Saudi Arabia? Is any nation state on the planet more contemptible? Is any nation state (with the possible exception of North Korea) more worthy of complete isolation within the international community? I would answer “No” to each of the questions just posed.

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

There is, of course, yet another reason why we should distance ourselves from Saudi Arabia. Other than in its commitment to the rule of law (but most of the laws that Saudi Arabia commits to so slavishly are as terrible as they are contemptible and should be overturned tomorrow), the Wahhabi regime has absolutely no time for the so-called “British” values of democracy, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for people with different religions and beliefs. Nor does it have any time for what are slowly emerging as equally important “British” values, equality, social justice and freedom of expression. We fall short in relation to all the values just identified, but at least we commit to them rhetorically. Saudi Arabia has nothing but contempt for them all.

So: don’t knock Boris Johnson for what he recently said about Saudi Arabia. Encourage him to speak with even more frankness about a nation state that is the antithesis of everything we should stand for.

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Islamist Extremism.

Whether we like to admit it or not, at present Islamist extremism is the biggest extremist threat globally. Consequently, please bear in mind the following.

Although it is clear that an alarmingly large number of Muslims, especially young Muslims, appear drawn to extremist/Islamist/Salafist/ jihadist agendas, such Muslims still constitute a very small percentage of the whole Muslim population (which exceeds a billion people).

To the best of my knowledge, no UK Muslim who is Shia, Sufi, Ismaeli or Ahmadiyya has been implicated in any way with extremist agendas.

Almost every known or suspected Muslim extremist in the UK, and the vast majority globally, are Sunni Muslims. Moreover, among the Sunni Muslims who incline toward extremism, the vast majority are male, not female  – and most Muslims who have fled from, say, the Islamic State, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram or the dozens of other extremist Sunni groups – there are some Shia extremist groups, but they are far fewer in number – are female. Most Muslim women know that such expressions of Islam are detrimental, not beneficial, to the interests of girls and women. As for non-Muslims, and Muslims who do not fully endorse the extremist narratives, death awaits most of them  – or, possibly, sexual slavery if you are female and attractive. Look, for example, at the case of the peace-loving Yazidis of Syria and Iraq.

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Most of my Muslim friends come from within the Sunni tradition and, to the best of my knowledge, not one of them is an extremist, but many of them tell me that many Sunni Muslims incline toward extremism because of how they interpret the Qur’an (they interpret it literally) and how they seek guidance from the Sunnah (the example of Muhammad. The Sunnah helps shape the “ideal” lifestyle for Muslims, especially for male Muslims). Sunni friends tell me that Sunni Muslims are discouraged (sometimes with death threats) from doing what in most religious traditions is now deemed normal, right, proper and necessary: they are discouraged from critically evaluating/questioning the “truths”, traditions, routines and conventions that have evolved over time within the Muslim world view. In other words, many expressions of Sunni Islam have become resistant to long-needed critical evaluation, above all by Muslims themselves.

One of my best Muslim friends is of the opinion that “the problem of Islamic extremism” (his words) will never end “until Muslims themselves engage in the critical evaluation of scripture and tradition that so many other expressions of religious faith have benefited from since the Enlightenment”. What he says makes a lot of sense.

An Alevi Muslim recently said to me in Turkey, “The sickness that has taken over the minds and the hearts and the souls of so many Sunni Muslims in recent years will not end if the West stops intervening in the Muslim world, or if Israel grants to the Palestinians a land of their own, or if in Muslim-majority nation states extremist Sunni groups are allowed to establish oppressive regimes based on the imposition of sharia (Muslim religious law). The sickness will end only when Muslims distance themselves from the many quotes in the Qur’an that call for the murder of infidels and unbelievers, or that call for the death of Jews and Christians. It will end only when Muslims distance themselves from actions ascribed to Muhammad such as the murder of opponents, or when they distance themselves from actions ascribed to Muhammad that civilised people today think are questionable or, in some cases, wholly unacceptable.”

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

A Sunni friend recently said to me, “Until you in the West realise that the extremists want to destroy your way of life, you will never confront the challenge with sufficient conviction. And Islam will never rid itself of the elephant in its midst until the vast majority of sensible, pragmatic and peace-loving Muslims worldwide unite to reveal that Islam need not be hostile to democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for people with different religions and beliefs – and, even, that Islam need not be hostile to freedom of speech. In other words, such Muslims must confront the shortcomings that exist in the very foundations on which the faith is based, the Qur’an and the example of the prophet Muhammad.” These sound words are immense challenges to many ordinary and conventionally pious Muslims, but the fact that such words derive from someone within the global community of the Muslim faithful is not without importance.

Aman (in Arabic, etc. the name means “security”), a North-East England-based organisation, is notable in that it seeks to weed out extremism among ALL people, but among Muslims in particular, and to combat Islamophobia by, among other things, confirming that Islam is NOT hostile to the “British” values identified above. I am currently re-reading the Quran, albeit in translation, and the more I study it the more I think Aman’s greatest challenge lies in relation to confirming that Islam IS in sympathy with the “British” values.

Allow me to take one such value as an example. My understanding of democracy is that the will of the people takes precedent over the will, real or imagined, of any thing (e.g. God or gods) or any individual or any group of people that does not constitute a majority. The will of the people is determined by a secret ballot and access to such a ballot must be on a regular basis.

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Islam means “submission”, and submission to the will of Allah alone. What Allah requires of humankind must be conformed with. The Qur’an is replete with requirements said to derive from Allah and, because they are said to derive from Allah, humankind cannot change them, even if it is self-evidently the case that the requirements are unjust and detrimental to the well-being of vast numbers of people (e.g., witness the requirements said to derive from Allah that shape the treatment of women, or those that relate to how non-Muslims must necessarily be discriminated against if they live in Muslim lands where sharia prevails). Anyone committed to, say, equality for all or just treatment for all people before the law will necessarily wish to amend these requirements to enhance human rights for groups suffering disadvantage and/or discrimination. However, if you subscribe to the idea that anything said to derive from Allah cannot be changed, you are condemning certain people to disadvantage, discrimination, injustice and a lot worse, potentially for all time. In this respect, therefore, Islam is antithetical to democracy. Democracy is NOT an ideal political system, perhaps especially as it manifests itself today in the UK, but it is superior to any political system predicated on laws and/or conventions based on religious principles.

Luis Bunuel, the great Spanish film-maker, once said something very relevant in relation to all that we are discussing here (and I paraphrase): “I have always been on the side of those who seek the truth, but I part ways with them when they think they have found it” (the same idea has been attributed to many wise people including Vaclav Havel – “Seek the company of those who search for truth, but run from those who find it ” – and Andre Gide – “Love those who seek the truth, but doubt those who find it”). Perhaps what we need to fear most is people who believe they have found the “truth” because they invariably seek to impose the “truth” on everyone else. Does this desire to impose the “truth” confirm a commitment to democracy or individual liberty? Of course not.

Moreover, did you hear the story about the Palestinian poet in Saudi Arabia who has been condemned to death for renouncing Islam? In other words, the poet is condemned to death for apostasy. Square this with sura 2 verse 256 of the Qur’an which says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Is critical evaluation of the Qur’an required by Muslims? Yes, and now. And I am sure some of you will join me in assisting our Muslim friends and neighbours with the task of such critical evaluation.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

Islam and the consumption of alcohol.

In a rare instance of the dictatorial and brutally oppressive regime in Saudi Arabia manifesting some compassion and common sense, a British grandfather called Karl Andree (no relation, I promise) has been released from prison without having to suffer 350 lashes for making wine in a nation state where the consumption of alcohol is forbidden. That thousands of Saudi Muslims (the great majority of whom are male) consume alcohol (and illegal recreational drugs) when living or holidaying outside Saudi Arabia is another matter altogether, of course, but that they do consume alcohol (and illegal recreational drugs) suggests hypocrisy, at the very least.

The case of Karl Andree inevitably raises the question, “What does the Qur’an actually say about alcohol consumption?” Mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims insist that the Qur’an forbids the consumption of alcohol, and this assumption about the Qur’an underscores the punitive line that many nation states with Muslim majorities take in relation to the manufacture and consumption of intoxicating drinks. It will surprise no one that what the Qur’an says is far more interesting and sophisticated than this, thereby confirming once again that Muslims have a very shaky grasp of what the Qur’an actually says.

Below is one of the best analyses of the (most) relevant qur’anic verses that I have found in recent times. I have slightly edited it, but only in the most cosmetic manner to ensure it is accessible to a literate audience, or to emphasise a point that the original fails to do.

Spain.

Spain.

Does Islam really define alcohol as haram, or forbidden? Let us examine the evidence in the Qur’an and keep the Hadith out of the equation (this is sensible, given that the content of the Qur’an always takes precedent over the content of the Hadith).

Things identified as haram (forbidden or prohibited) in the Qur’an usually begin with the expression “forbidden for/unto you”. Sometimes the Qur’an warns that those who ignore such injunctions will suffer in hell or hellfire. Consequently, in relation to the injunction not to consume pig meat, the Quran says, “Forbidden unto you are carrion and blood and swine flesh (5:3),” and in relation to the injunction not to murder the Qur’an says, “Whosoever slayeth a believer of set purpose, his reward is hell (or hellfire) forever (4:93).” I assume the phrase “a believer of set purpose” refers to Muslims alone.

There are five qur’anic verses (I have found a sixth and refer to it later) that deal directly or indirectly with alcohol. Selected in the order in which they appear in the Qur’an, the first verse probably contains the most interesting ideas, but it will be addressed at the end of the commentary.

The second verse (4:43) advises Muslims not to engage in prayer when they are under the influence of alcohol. The verse says, “O you who believe! Draw not near unto prayer when you are drunken, till you know that which you utter.” The expression “forbidden for/unto you” is not found anywhere in or near the verse; nor is the threat of hell or hellfire. You are told merely to avoid prayer when intoxicated because, when intoxicated, you may not know what you are saying. 

Lithuania.

Lithuania.

The third verse (5:90) defines alcohol as “an infamy of Satan’s handiwork” and indicates to the believer that, to succeed in life, it is advisable to stay away from it. The verse says, “O you who believe! Strong drink and games of chance and idols and divining arrows are only an infamy of Satan’s handiwork. Leave it (? them?) aside in order that you may succeed.”

Again, the verse does not say that alcohol is forbidden or that those who consume it will endure hell or hellfire. More to the point, the advice to “leave it aside” is provided to ensure nothing more ambitious than success in this life. In other words, the Qur’an suggests that a thing such as career success will be impaired or impeded because of the consumption of “strong drink (I interpret “strong drink” to mean wines or spirits)”. This, of course, is something most people would agree with (scripture so often deals with the obvious and fails to tell us anything we did not already know). But the verse can hardly be quoted as evidence that alcohol is haram, that it is forbidden, that it will lead to hell or hellfire, or that it should never be consumed (I sense here a warning that regular and excessive consumption of “strong drink” will impair or impede success, but the occasional glass of whisky or rum will do little or no harm). Moreover, what of weak drink, or drink with low alcohol content such as most beers? Consumption of such drink would appear to be acceptable, if the verse is interpreted simply as it is written.  

The fourth verse (5:93) relates to food and drink in general and assures believers that they should not to be too concerned about what they consume provided they do “good works”. The verse says, “There shall be no sin unto those who believe and do good works for what they may have consumed in the past. So be mindful of your duty and do good works; and again: be mindful of your duty, and believe; and once again: be mindful of your duty, and do right. Allah loveth the good.” Yet again, the suggestion that alcohol is forbidden, or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it, does not exist. More to the point, those who do “good works” can consume whatever they wish (carrion, blood and pig meat excepted, I would imagine) without being regarded as sinful.

Romania.

Romania.

Because the fifth verse (16:67) says that alcohol provides “good nourishment” or “wholesome drink”, it is difficult to interpret alcohol in any way other than being beneficial. Yusuf Ali translates the verse as, “And from the fruit of the palm and the grapes, you get out wholesome drink and food: behold, in this also is a sign for those who are wise.” Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall translates the verse as, “And of the fruits of the date palm and grapes, whence you derive strong drink and good nourishment. Lo! Therein is indeed a portent for people who have sense.” I suspect that this verse must have been a major inspiration for Omar Khayyam’s eternally popular “Rubaiyat”.  

Now we come to the verse (2:219) that we skipped at the beginning. Here, Allah speaks to Muhammad and says, “They question you about strong drink and games of chance. Say: In both is great abuse and usefulness for humankind; but the abusive side of them is greater than their usefulness.” In this verse the Qur’an acknowledges (the very obvious point) that alcohol has detrimental as well as beneficial characteristics, but that the detrimental outweigh the beneficial, which is something that most people would immediately agree with. Nonetheless, yet again there is no indication that alcohol is haram or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it.            

There have been occasions when Muslims have translated the above to read, “In both is great sin and usefulness for humankind”, but “abuse” and “usefulness” are intended as opposites and “sin” is not a word that comes to mind as the opposite to “usefulness”. Pickthall falls into this trap when he renders this part of the verse as, “In both is great sin and utility for men; but the sin of them is greater than their usefulness.”  

Conclusion? Although the Qur’an recognises that alcohol in general, and “strong drink” in particular, can have detrimental effects on those who consume it, there is nothing that conclusively says it is haram or that it will result in those who consume it suffering forever in hell or hellfire. Moreover, if people have consumed alcohol in the past but engage in “good works”, the consumption of alcohol is not regarded as sinful. We also have the problem that weak drink with low alcohol content such as most beers does not seem to cause as much anxiety as “strong drink” with high alcohol content. Such ambiguity may help to explain why so many mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims (and probably a majority of other Muslims) consume alcohol at home and abroad. But such scriptural ambiguity makes it utterly ridiculous that a nation state such as Saudi Arabia should co-opt the Qur’an as justification for outlawing the consumption of alcohol. Because the Qur’an is as confused as most people today about the consumption of alcohol, decisions about the legal framework as it applies to alcohol should be shaped by scientific and medical knowledge alone, and not by the ambiguous and contradictory ramblings ascribed to a god called Allah.

Spain.

Spain.

Prohibitions on the consumption of alcohol have more to do with traditions that have emerged within Islam than injunctions deriving from the Qur’an, and more to do with people who acquire leadership roles in Muslim societies misleading Muslims less well-educated than they are about the content of the Qur’an. However, given that every Muslim is urged to engage regularly with the content of the Qur’an, one is compelled to ask, Why have millions of ordinary Muslims not questioned the traditions that have grown up around the issue of alcohol consumption? And why do millions of ordinary Muslims not celebrate more enthusiastically one of the world’s most famous pieces of literature, Omar Khayyam”s “Rubaiyat”, which, among other things, explores the pleasures associated with responsible consumption of alcohol?

P.S. There is one additional qur’anic verse that relates to the matter. 5:91 says, “Satan seeketh only to cast among you enmity and hatred by means of strong drink and games of chance, and to turn you from remembrance of Allah and from worship. Will you then have done?” As always, there is no indication that alcohol is haram or that hell or hellfire awaits those who consume it, and, as always, the problem seems to lie with “strong drink” alone. Moreover, there is a lot of evidence that many Muslims have extreme levels of “enmity and hatred”, not least for fellow Muslims, even without “strong drink” or “games of chance” contributing to both. Note how Muslims engaged in war with fellow Muslims has caused the death of 200,000 Syrians, the displacement from their homes of millions of other Syrians, and the destruction of substantial areas of almost every major and many minor Syrian population centre. Muslim “enmity and hatred” for fellow Muslims in Syria has destroyed vast swathes of what was once perhaps the Middle East’s most interesting and beautiful nation state. As for the uncounted millions who have been murdered past and present because of the ludicrous division between Sunni and Shia Muslims, one can only ask, How is it that Muslims can allege that Islam is, at its heart, a religion of peace? A substantial body of evidence past and present suggests that Islam is more akin to a religion of war and conflict, and, without question, a religion that discriminates against and persecutes people who differ from the Muslim group that dominates power. In other words, it is a religion inspired more by the lesser than the greater jihad.

Poland.

Poland.

But I stray from the main thrust of the post, which is to establish why Islam prohibits the consumption of alcohol. Clearly, the prohibition is not predicated on the content of the Qur’an. Instead, the prohibition is predicated on particular Hadith (statements or stories attributed to Muhammad and his closest companions, but statements or stories attributed to Muhammad and his companions long after their death, which makes them of doubtful reliability) and, more specifically, particular Sunnah (practices attributed to Muhammad, again, invariably long after his death, said to have found favour among his closest companions). The Hadith and the Sunnah are therefore at best attempts by mere human beings who lived long ago to give expression to what they believed Allah required of them. But we are constantly told by Muslims that everything Allah requires of humankind is to be found in the Qur’an. We are also told by informed Muslims that the Hadith and the Sunnah can never be more than mere interpretations of what Allah wants. Such interpretations can never usurp the primacy of the Qur’an itself.

In Islam, the prohibition on the consumption of alcohol is at best nothing more than a tradition associated with Muhammad and his closest companions. Allah does not prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Alcohol can be harmful, of that there is no question, but under certain circumstances the Qur’an indicates that its consumption is acceptable and beneficial.

My thanks to some of the many Muslims who have written about this matter in an informed and informative manner. I have found their discussions invaluable while completing the post.

Religious people still behaving badly (and far, far worse), four.

One.

A halal abattoir at the centre of horrific animal cruelty allegations has gone into administration, six months after covert footage of practices in the slaughterhouse were revealed. The move came as the UK’s Food Standards Agency announced it was close to concluding an inquiry into how animals were treated, an inquiry which will be handed to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider launching criminal charges.

An international furore erupted and protests were held outside the abattoir in Thirsk after film obtained by Animal Aid was released showing a worker hacking and sawing at animals’ throats, in direct contravention of Islamic practice. It took workers up to five attempts to sever blood vessels. Other film included sheep being kicked in the face; lifted by their ears, fleeces or legs; thrown into solid structures; and a worker standing on the neck of a conscious sheep and jumping up and down. Also, staff are shown laughing while a sheep was bleeding to death with green spectacles painted around its eyes.

The film drew widespread condemnation because the law requires abattoirs to stun animals before slaughter to prevent unnecessary suffering, although there are exemptions for meat producers supplying the Jewish and the Muslim markets. Under the halal code of practice, animals are supposed to be killed quickly with a single sweep of a surgically sharp knife.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

Two.

The Sikh Federation UK, said by some to be the leading Sikh lobbying organisation in Britain, has so far failed to condemn the actions of a group of Sikhs who disrupted a wedding between a Sikh and a non-Sikh in a gurdwara in Southall, west London.

A group of about twenty Sikhs arrived at the gurdwara on Friday 9th August while final preparations were taking place for the wedding of a Sikh woman and a white, non-Sikh man. The couple were forced to cancel their wedding after the gang stormed into the gurdwara.

Sohan Singh Sumra, vice-president of the Sri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara, told a leading UK newspaper that the men “were all thugs” who objected to the ceremony simply because it was a “mixed marriage”. Mr. Sumra said the group wanted to “intimidate” the bride and groom and that the police had to be called.

The journalist Sunny Hundal later confronted the Sikh Federation UK on Twitter about the incident and asked it to condemn the actions of the gang, but representatives of the federation refused, stating only that what happened at the gurdwara “should be avoided”. A representative of the federation said that those who “understand” and “respect” the Anand Karaj (the Sikh marriage ceremony) will “realise it is more important” than the couples’ “‘big day'”.

Mr. Hundal warned that “gang-mentality puritanism” would lead to a “Sikh version of the Taliban”. He also posted comments made against him by “fundamentalist Sikhs” who objected to his criticism of the Sikh Federation UK. He went on to allege that instances of “hypocritical and fanatical thugs” arriving to disrupt “interfaith weddings” are becoming more common.

When asked by Sunny Hundal if they “support or condemn these thugs going around disrupting interfaith marriages at gurdwaras?”, a representative of the Sikh Federation UK replied obliquely that they “stand by and defend” the tenets of the “Sikh faith”.

A letter published in “The Times” newspaper on 21st July warned of a “recently placed” ban on gurdwaras “solemnising marriages between Sikh and non-Sikh”. Moreover, advice from 2007 stipulates that the Anand Karaj should only be between two Sikhs.

Guidelines published by the Sikh Council UK in October 2014 state that “Any person wishing to exercise the choice to marry in a Gurdwara Sahib through the Anand Karaj ceremony must sign a declaration” that “he or she is a Sikh, believes in the tenets of the Sikh faith and owes no allegiance to another faith”. Such people must also pledge to “endeavour to bring up any children from his or her marriage as Sikhs”.

National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson said, “This kind of fundamentalism is very dangerous. It may amount only to bullying at the moment, but as fanaticism increases it can escalate to frightening levels of violence. The government should stamp down on this now before it gets out of control. They must learn from the experience with Islamism that ignoring the problem on grounds of political correctness will only allow it to fester and get worse.”

P.S. This is not a new problem. The BBC website has an article dated 11th March 2013 about the disruption of “interfaith” marriages at gurdwaras. The article concludes by mentioning that a documentary called “The Sikh Wedding Crashers” could be heard on the BBC Asian Network on Monday 11th March 2013 at 5.00pm, or listened to thereafter on BBC iPlayer.

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Three.

Despite the growing popularity of secularism and Protestantism in recent decades, the Roman Catholic Church is still a major social influence in Latin America, so much so that the Vatican’s hostility to abortion is enshrined in the legislation of most Latin American nation states. Chile is said to have the legislation that is most hostile to abortion in that it is presently illegal without exception. The Chilean abortion law is therefore considered one of the most restrictive in the world.

However, this dire situation for women may at last be about to change, and it may be about to change because of what follows, a case of sexual abuse that came to light in 2013:

The case of a pregnant girl aged eleven who was raped in Chile by her mother’s partner set off a national debate about abortion in one of the most socially conservative countries in Latin America. Chileans were outraged after state TV reported that the child is fourteen weeks pregnant and was raped repeatedly over two years. Police in the remote southern city of Puerto Montt arrested her mother’s partner, who reportedly confessed to abusing the girl. The case was brought to their attention by the pregnant child’s maternal grandmother.

Doctors say the girl’s life and that of the foetus are at high risk. But in Chile ending the pregnancy is not an option.

Chile allowed abortions for medical reasons until they were outlawed in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. The current government of conservative President Sebastian Pinera has opposed any loosening of the prohibition.

Many Chileans vented their outrage on social media. Some started an online campaign to demand legalisation of abortion in cases of rape or health risks for the mother. “When I heard about this little girl, my first reaction was to support abortion because I think it’s the best option in this case,” said Eduardo Hernandez, a web designer aged thirty. “It’s the first online petition I’ve signed in my life, but I think this case really deserves it,” Mr. Hernandez said. “We should have a change of law. I hope this case serves as a precedent to have a serious discussion about abortion.” The Chilean Senate rejected three bills in 2012 that would have eased the absolute ban on abortions.

“Chile is a country that has modernised when it comes to its economy, but when it comes to its social and political culture, it has become stagnant and this is seen with the abortion issue,” said Marta Lagos, head of the Santiago-based pollster Mori. “It’s a country that is opposed to change, that panics with any change, which is seen as a threat,” Lagos said. “The weight of Catholicism is still a major issue and we also have an indigenous culture that always lived alienated from the rest of world.”

The Roman Catholic Church retains a strong influence over society, although it has lost credibility since 2010 when four men alleged that they were abused by one of Chile’s most revered priests when they were between fourteen and seventeen years-old.

Former president Michelle Bachelet, the frontrunner in the November 2013 presidential election, favours legalising abortion in cases of rape or risks to the health of the mother or the child. She has spent the past two years heading the UN agency for women.

Her opponent, former Economy Minister Pablo Longueira, was close to Pinochet. He opposes the legalisation of abortion and the morning-after pill.

The following is part of a recent article in “The Guardian” newspaper:

The debate about abortion comes as Chile, one of Latin America’s most socially conservative countries, grapples with shifting views on once-taboo issues. The mostly Roman Catholic country began to allow divorce in 2004. This year, Congress recognised civil unions for gay couples and, recently, a pilot programme in Santiago harvested the country’s first legal medical marijuana.

The changing attitudes mark a generational shift as young people born after the 1973-1990 military dictatorship come of age. The trend has accelerated since a wave of student protests demanding educational reform began in 2011 in the wake of Catholic priest sex abuse scandals that have provoked questioning of Church doctrine.

A recent discussion on abortion at Santiago’s Diego Portales University drew a packed audience with many students forced to sit on the floor.

“As a country we are behind,” said Fernanda Saavedra, a student who attended. “We need to evolve and think more about women.”

Chile legalised abortion for medical reasons in 1931, eighteen years before it allowed women to vote. But during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, abortion was banned under all circumstances. Today, women found guilty of having abortions face prison terms of up to five years.

Still, an estimated 120,000 illegal abortions are performed every year, according to the Miles Group. Most women use the drug misoprostol, buying it on the black market, to end first-trimester pregnancies. Others undergo conventional abortions in secret. Those who can afford to travel seek abortions in neighbouring Argentina or beyond.

And this suggests that change for the better is not far off:

Chileans online are engaging in heated debate over abortion, twenty-six years after the procedure was completely banned in the country. In August 2015, the Chamber of Deputies’ health commission is set to vote on a new bill that will decriminalise abortion under three circumstances: in a case of rape, when a mother’s life is at risk, or when a foetus will not survive the pregnancy. The proposed law is backed by Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Montilla, Spain

Montilla, Spain

Four.

Evidence grows suggesting that the Islamic State has used chemical weapons (mustard gas, in all likelihood) against the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. Chemical weapons have already been used by the Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar Al-Assad that clings to power in parts of Syria. Inevitably, the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds reminds those of us with long memories about how Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime used such weapons against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 killing about 5,000 men, women and children.

Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

A Kurdish family, Battalgazi, near Malatya, Turkey

Five.

In August 2015, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Scotland, Philip Tartaglia, said to the victims of historic child sexual abuse, “The bishops of Scotland are shamed and pained for what you have suffered. We say sorry. We ask for forgiveness. We apologise to those who have found Church reaction slow, unsympathetic or uncaring and we reach out to them as we take up the recommendations of the McLellan Commission.”

Published in August 2015, the report by the McLellan Commission makes for harrowing reading, this despite the fact that It is merely the latest such report to confirm how widespread child sexual abuse has been within the Roman Catholic Church and how inadequate the response of the Church has been when such abuse is confirmed.

Dr. Andrew McLellan was commissioned in November 2013 to undertake a review of all aspects of safeguarding policy, procedures and practice within the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland. 2013 had been a difficult year for Scottish Roman Catholics. Early in 2013, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, had sent shock waves through Scottish congregations when he resigned following inappropriate sexual conduct toward his own priests. A few months later, allegations of historic child sexual abuse were made involving Fort Augustus Abbey School, an exclusive Roman Catholic boarding school in the Scottish Highlands.

Catherine Deveney is one of the many people who provided evidence to the McLellan Commission. In late August 2015 she wrote in the following manner in a national UK newspaper:

What did I tell McLellan? As much as possible, while protecting my sources. The decades of abuse; of cover-up; of moral and financial corruption. The enormous gulf between what the Church said publicly and what it did privately. Its ruthless dismissal of victims and of criticism. The fact that it failed to have coherent, consistent policies because each bishop was deemed autonomous in his own diocese. McLellan had produced reports on the Scottish prison service in the past and was neither delicate nor faint-hearted. “I am shocked,” he told me. “And I am not easily shocked.”

 In the same article Deveney refers to:

Father Patrick Lawson, an Ayrshire priest who had been speaking out against abuse for almost twenty years after exposing a fellow priest, Father Paul Moore, for sexually assaulting him and abusing two altar boys. Father Lawson, who was forcibly removed from his parish and is now involved in an industrial tribunal against the Church, also appeared before the commission and the final report recommends a policy protecting whistleblowers.

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

 Six.

Palmyra in Syria is one of the Middle East’s most remarkable ruined ancient cities, partly for the magnificent ruins that survive, and partly for the magnificent artefacts kept in the nearby museum. However, the Islamic State now (mid-2015) controls the region around Palmyra. In August 2015, Islamic State militants beheaded a renowned antiquities scholar and hung his mutilated body on a column in one of Palmyra’s main squares because the scholar refused to reveal where valuable artefacts had been moved for safekeeping.

The brutal murder of Khaled Al-Asaad – he was aged eighty-two – is the latest atrocity perpetrated by the Islamic State, which has captured a third of Syria and neighbouring Iraq and declared a caliphate on the territory it controls. The atrocity has also highlighted the Islamic State’s habit of looting and selling antiquities to fund its activities or destroying them.

Al-Asaad, who had worked at Palmyra for fifty years, had been held for more than a month before being murdered. Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, said he had learned from a Syrian source that the archaeologist had been interrogated by Islamic State militants about the location of treasures from Palmyra and had been executed when he refused to cooperate.

The Islamic State captured Palmyra from government forces in May, but so far has not damaged its monumental Roman-era ruins despite a reputation for destroying artefacts it describes as idolatrous. This said, it is very likely that damage will now be done to the ruins.

Palmyra is one of Syria’s six UNESCO world heritage sites, but five of them have been severely damaged by the war because of airstrikes, mortar attacks and extensive looting. The old city of Aleppo (once, along with the old city in Cairo, the most beautiful and intriguing old city in the Middle East) is largely in ruins. So far the old city of Damascus has been spared, but fierce fighting rages not far away and mortar shells occasionally fall within it. Government airstrikes have turned many of Damascus’s suburbs, once a short minibus ride from the old city’s Roman-era eastern gate, into rubble.

P.S. Just prior to publishing this post, news broke that Islamic State militants have destroyed part or all of the magnificent Baal Shamin Temple at Palmyra, which dates from 17 CE. The reason for destroying the temple? One or more of the following would seem to provide an explanation. Baal Shamin Temple is pre- or non-Islamic. It is a product of pagan piety. It is where people once engaged in practices that mainstream Muslims define as idolatrous. It provides humankind with an insight into the divine that conflicts with the view of the divine thought by mainstream Muslims to be true. Its destruction enrages public opinion globally.

None of the above are reasons that justify the temple’s destruction. Recent events at Palmyra confirm that the Islamic State must be resisted wherever it seeks to gain a foothold.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

Seven. 

Ayoub El-Khazzani, a Moroccan national, had his August 2015 plan to murder passengers on an Amsterdam to Paris high-speed train thwarted by the intervention of two American servicemen, their American civilian friend and a UK businessman. El-Khazzani, known to the authorities for links with jihadi groups, is believed to have travelled through Europe to Turkey between May and July 2015, from where he may have crossed the border to spend time with Islamic State militants. He may also have links with Sid Ahmed Ghlam, an Algerian student who was arrested in April 2015. Sid Ahmed Ghlam is charged with planning to attack churches and other targets in Paris.

But…

The nuclear deal framework with Iran dating from April 2015 has resulted in the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the Islamic Republic on the one hand and nation states such as the US and the UK on the other. Jaw-jaw is always preferable to war-war. How sad, therefore, that those who are most vocal in their opposition to the deal are Israel, Saudi Arabia and a majority of Republicans in the US. As unholy alliances go, the one that (sort of) exists between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans takes some beating. I wonder to what degree religion has influenced Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US Republicans to oppose and/or regret the deal with Iran?

Part of the Republican heartland, Texas, the USA

Part of the Republican heartland, Texas, the USA

Religious people behaving badly (or in ways that have scant regard for current preoccupations).

… but considerably better by the end of the post!

One.

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.

Two.

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?).

When people feel that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain

When people discover that members of a religious group behave in a reprehensible manner (e.g. priests in the Roman Catholic Church sexually abuse children and young people), expressions of outrage can be violent. Malaga, Spain

Three.

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 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 vices.

Four.

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, inhumane 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?

Five.

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.

Six.

Five people are killed and six churches attacked amid new protests against the “Charlie Hebdo” magazine… in Niger!!!!!

Religious people frequently prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

There are times when some religious people prefer to burn, burn rather than build, build

Seven.

More than eighty people, fifty of them children, are kidnapped by Boko Haram in cross-border raids in Cameroon.

Eight.

A young boy aged about ten is shown shooting dead two Russian “spies” in a new film posted by Islamic State militants.

Nine.

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 four countries worst affected (these four countries suffered 80% of the deaths).

Ten.

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 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 contradictions that people subscribe to (and lies, misconceptions and contradictions are far too frequently encountered in world views defined as religions).

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

The two popes before Pope Francis. Gdansk, Poland

Eleven.

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.

One.

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.

Two.

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).

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool, where Tahir Selby is the imam