The Aftermath of Terror: Understanding ISIS and the Future of Our World

Last weekend France’s Prime Minister François Hollande declared a state of emergency and made the unprecedented decision to close off all of France’s borders after a large-scale terrorist attack was perpetrated in several spots in Paris leaving scores of dead and wounded.

As expected, soon after, a rush of condolences started pouring in from many heads of state and citizens from around the world who also expressed their rage at the situation and offered support for the victims.

In social media, many others whose countries had also been victimized by terrorism, sympathized with the French people by showing their support in different ways. And even hacktivist group Anonymous did its part by taking down Twitter accounts of people who sympathized with ISIS, including many of people who took to the social platform to hail Friday’s attacks as a great victory.

French Flag waving atop Caen Memorial- Nov 15th 2015 French Flag waving atop Caen Memorial- Nov 15th 2015 for the Nov-13th victims.  (Author: Benoit-Caen. Artist does not endorse this work. Creative Commons License. commons/wikimedia.org)

With the painful memory of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January still fresh in our memory, it seems France, and possibly other European countries, is now experiencing another wave of terrorism as leaders of those nations ramp up efforts to combat extremism in their own countries and abroad. Now it’s apparent that these tactics are having an adverse effect in European cities. ISIS for one isn’t having it.

But are we correct to say that these attacks are simply a balancing act of retaliation on the part of ISIS for France’s meddling in Middle Eastern affairs? Or is there something else that many, including progressive-leftists and moderates (including Muslim moderates) seem to be missing?

From the many reports circulating about the identities of the attackers and their motives, what happened in France this past Friday was neither an isolated incident nor amateur hour. It was a highly-coordinated, deliberate attack in response to, once again, not one or two things, but a myriad of events that coalesce to form a situation that can only be described here as a clusterfuck of global proportions.

It’s important to understand that some of these reasons carry more weight than others in determining the motives behind these vicious attacks which, as always, kill more civilians than they do elements of the infrastructure of the target group or country–and to be perfectly fair here, that goes for both sides.

But we also cannot ignore another important fact that most people often overlook, and that is that the repercussions from these attacks–meaning the rain of bombs that will continue to rain on ISIS strongholds–are as coldly calculated into the model of the act of terrorism as the act itself. Meaning that ISIS, who has already claimed responsibility, not only expects vengeance but they in fact welcome it.

Why, you may ask, would they want retaliation.

As far as I–in my limited knowledge–can see, there are a few valid reasons that perhaps you may not be aware of.

Off the Fringe

It’s quite easy to label ISIS as murderous lunatics. And it’s equally simple to say that ISIS is just a bi-product of geopolitics gone wrong. However, while you may be right about one, or both, the facts actually point us in the other direction.

Ever since ISIS (initially an offshoot of Al-Qaeda) stemmed away from the root organization in the early 2000s, it has worked hard to establish “legitimacy” among the local players in the region. At times, this has not been easy. But with the escalation of war activity by the US-led coalition in the Middle East, the civil war in Syria that left entire regions ungoverned, and the abundance of civilian sympathizers both events created, ISIS, under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has not wasted any time in recruiting a large force for the purpose of creating the Caliphate he said he would build. By taking full advantage of the governance vacuum in Syria, ISIS under the replenished leadership–including many who had served under Saddam Hussein, including generals and commanders who now oversee military operations–began successful offensives in Iraq and Syria and very quickly began to gain ground.

Of course this is a very simplified explanation of the ISIS-AL-Qaeda alliance, but for the purpose of this post, it’s more than enough.

Although this all sounds like clockwork we cannot ignore the sad reality that the main motivation behind what can only be described as openly-clandestine acts of war (a terribly ambiguous term) has turned out to be more religious than political at this point. So, once again, while you may be right that ISIS is the product of foreign affairs as the United States and our allies armed and disarmed insurgencies in the Middle East during and after the Cold War, and that they truly are murderous lunatics, at this point the religious radicalism in this organization has become so pronounced that the political reasons have effectively ceased to exist.

Unlike their Muslim counterparts in other areas of the Middle East such as Hamas and Hezbollah, who have clear goals in mind, such as the liberation of Palestine and the eradication of Israel, and even Al-Qaeda, who is more theologically-based, although still political–ISIS is unique in that more than anything it seeks to establish a Caliphate (essentially an absolute theocracy) that will follow the exact model of ancient Caliphates dictated by the literal interpretation of the Quran.

So for us to say that ISIS’s motives are purely political, it makes liars out of all of us.

ISIS has for some time now, worked very hard to establish themselves as even more extreme than all other groups cataloged as terrorist organizations by the U.S., the U.N., the E.U., and others. The strategy here, if there ever was one, is to play into people’s fears and emotions, and up until now it seems to be working wonderfully.

"Escenas de la Guerra contra ISIS"- Trans. "Scenes of war against ISIS." Leopoldo Christie. Creative Commons License. commons/wikipedia.org

“Escenas de la Guerra contra ISIS”- Trans. “Scenes of war against ISIS.” Leopoldo Christie. Creative Commons License. commons/wikipedia.org

Since before the Charlie Hebdo attacks, countries and individuals started censoring themselves and each other for fear of offending an invisible enemy that could strike anytime, anywhere. Many of us have made it our business to condemn those who point out the faults in Islam and Islamic extremists by labeling them Islamophobes or “racists” (a term that wouldn’t even be applied correctly), but what those so-called “progressives” don’t seem to realize is that this is perhaps the biggest disservice we could be doing for our communities and our way of life. There is, after all, a way to discuss bad ideas without alluding towards derogatory or hateful undertones regarding a whole population (Islam as opposed to Muslims).

At the same time we give the bad guys a free pass on our freedom of speech. Emphasis on the “our” because of the history of our own societies and our acceptance that speech should indeed be free. This is precisely what ISIS and other terrorist organizations are working towards: a collective psychology molded by fear.

But they also play into people’s emotions  by making use of something so elemental in people’s hearts and minds that it transcends politics, alliances, and even reason: religion.

Other groups with specific goals in mind operating in different parts of the region, groups like Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, et al., are the products of history and of very specific circumstances derived from foreign policy blunders. They are also good PR firms in their own right, and they have only gotten better and better at it. These yahoos are not only crazy, they are also highly organized and very adept at manipulating social media to recruit members, which has worked very well for them in recent years. But while these other groups use religion as a lightning rod to attract extremists, even if they believe what they profess, ISIS seems to take the religious rhetoric to heart, leaving all the political baggage that defines all other groups among the rubble of their conquests. This makes ISIS unique. They have taken the Al-Qaeda model and perfected it.

ISIS is peculiar in that they are not an organization so much as they are the embodiment of an ideology. Its leadership not only understands the endless power religion has, but knows how to tap into that well, and the reason is simple: they believe every word they say to their very core.

There’s a movie called “The Siege” (very apropos in this situation) where one of the characters, a C.I.A. officer investigating terrorist cells in the U.S. along with an F.B.I. agent, tells her partner, “In this game, the most committed wins.” That rings true every time you hear the news.

When al-Baghdadi announced that there would be a new Caliphate on Earth, most dismissed the claim as nothing more than extremist mumbo-jumbo. What people at that time did not realize was that their radicalism was so beyond what we had seen before, something so ingrained into their very psychology, that they truly believed–whether the leaders knew otherwise or not–that they were the messengers of god sent to Earth to bring about an apocalypse, and that only as the Earth was engulfed in fire, could every “innocent and moral” being ascend to heaven.

I’m not making shit up here. These guys have taken the most literal interpretation of the Quran and applied it to the real world. Scary isn’t?

If we have learned anything from history is that literal interpretations of holy books usually lead to disastrous consequences. Google “Holy Wars,” if you don’t believe me. But their plans go further than that and I’ll explain what I mean in the next section.

ISIS knows that it doesn’t have the capabilities, yet, to fight a large-scale war with any country, especially countries who have powerful allies on their side (think the EU), which initially was the reason why they limited their aims only to the local chapters they created as they opened way inside Iraq and Syria. Unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIS did not plan to engage their fighters in foreign soil. Note that this doesn’t mean they did not support stand-alone acts of terrorism by home-grown extremists who were loyal to their ideals. But instead it seemed less-than-clear that they would devote all of their energy towards expanding their hold in that region before operating abroad.

It is more than evident now that they have radically shifted course.

Now, as the world braces for what seems to be a new type of warfare, we are finally beginning to understand how ISIS operates and what they have in mind.

Three major outcomes will stem from deliberate acts of violence and terrorism, which in some countries will converge and feed off of each other in a symbiotic relationship that will centralize gubernatorial power and strip away citizen rights. Not to mention radicalizing the other side.

Retribution and Endless War

The first of these outcomes is that retribution will envelop the Middle East in conflicts for decades. These conflicts will spread, as they already have, into quasi-guerrilla wars that will be taken to the streets of the places we deemed “safe” at one time, which is exactly what groups like ISIS want.

As France vamps up military action, and its allies join in, the world will begin a second wave of wars that will go on for the rest of our lifetimes. Atrocities and injustices will happen on both sides as defenses and attacks are passed back and forth, with civilian populations bearing most of the casualties.

ISIS will undoubtedly continue its attacks on the world’s cities in order to provoke a self-fulling prophecy of apocalypse as dictated on their holy book. And as more attacks and threats unfold, future leaders will inevitably be forced to protect their own populations by any means necessary. This will follow the second outcome which has been happening for some time now.

Totalitarianism: The All-Seeing Eye

As the world becomes engulfed in obscure conflicts with irrational actors, governments will find in a scared and willing population the means to tighten their grip of control with the valid excuse of protecting their countries and their citizens. Valid to a very limited extent.

As 9/11 has proven, clandestine government programs designed with the aim of gathering intelligence at the global level will effortlessly expand to monstrous sizes, giving these governments the tools to police their own citizens faster and easier. These are not sensationalist claims, it is already happening as we have seen with the PRISM and MUSCULAR programs run by the American N.S.A. and the British G.C.H.Q. agencies, not to mention all other intelligence agencies around the world, and with help from major tech corporations like Google, Facebook, and others. With some luck, a portion of these programs will be monitored (although the chances are slim). In reality most of these clandestine surveillance programs will be so secretive that in the future–as it is today–they will not even be known by lawmakers and the general public.

Eventually, fear will work just as good for this side as it does for the other side, and most nations will enter a new era of governance where most central governments will hold immense power and sway over their own populations. But why convince your own people that what you’re doing is for their own good if the enemy can show them more effectively? This is the beginning of the third outcome.

Radicalizing the Other Side

It’s already happening. As I type this, scores of lawmakers around the world have vowed to end the radicalization of Islamism. A few others have vowed to do this the only way they know how, with “good old Christian values” and their own brand of crazy.

One of the (un)intended consequences of what ISIS is doing is radicalizing the other side in hopes that this will bring about the last holy war, where the soldiers of god (which one?) will fight the final battle against the infidels and defeat them. I’ll admit to you that I’m not sure which side I’m talking about here.

Not to make a direct comparison between these two parties, but more and more Greece’s Golden Dawn Party, an ultra-right fascist organization that openly calls for the rejection of immigrants, non-whites, and non-Christians–and the American Republican Party are starting to sound very much alike. And what’s more, people are listening.

These, and many other, organizations advocate for the eradication of Muslims. At the same time, they build up and spread the idea that only Christianity can end this evil. To these people it has never occurred that they are only the other side of that coin.

Even friends of mine have expressed their humble opinions that “their god is a false god, and ours is the only true god.” Please take a moment to understand that logical dilemma.

Racism, bigotry, and xenophobia will increase to exorbitant levels–unfortunately it’s not only the religious who will be turned, but even the fragile moderate base will begin to collapse as fear sets in. We can already see it in our own countries and communities as people often conflate the terms “Muslim” or “refugee” with “terrorist”, and reject these people fleeing war-torn areas where many of them have been victims themselves of atrocities by ISIS or even their own governments.

There have already been reports that terrorist sympathizers might have infiltrated the refugee wave that landed on Europe a few weeks ago and even ISIS has said as much. So it’s not a baseless fear that governments and people have that at some point in the future their cities will be attacked. Unfortunately, many people whose homes and lives have been ruined by war will once again be the victims of hatred and discrimination in a whole new land, all because it plays well into ISIS’s plans that the infidels fear and hate Muslims, whether they are their Muslims or not.

Damages

While it is true that Islamism is at the forefront of these recent troubles, it would be unfair to paint all Muslims with the same brush. However, to dismiss this as an entirely extremist problem is also not accurate either, after all, the tenets of Islam do support the literal interpretation given by ISIS, even if most Muslims don’t. The problem is not Muslims, the problem is extremists and our failure to speak out against them for fear of offending or being labelled as bigots or Islamophobes. As far as the refugees who flee war-torn nations in the M.E. and North Africa, they are hardly to blame for these terrible events.

The world stands united with France in this terrible moment. But before the bombs rain and we unanimously decide that all Muslims are evil and we are the good guys, a few things to ask ourselves: Where is the compassion for the victims of other terrorist attacks throughout the world and why hasn’t there been an outcry for victims of similar atrocities like the ones in Beirut and Kenya? Where are the flags on Facebook and the hash-tags? What are we as individuals doing to combat extremism of all kinds?

One essential question to ask is whether strong nations only support strong nations; whether we only support our allies; or whether we are prepared to repudiate acts of terrorism wherever we find them.

As far as France goes–our oldest ally–we stand with them. We shed the same blood and the same tears. We have similar values and similar views. And at this terrible time, we are all French just as they were Americans on 9/11. But if there’s anything that I can leave you with today is that we are also all Kenyans. And Beirutians. Hell, we’re all humans! So when will we start acting like it?

Speak out, and encourage others to speak out, against extremism of all kinds, otherwise our future might be a lot shorter than we thought, and the apocalypse the other guys are striving for might come sooner than we would want.

It’s a good thing that you show support for the victims of these terrible tragedies. It’s good that you pray, but… Well, I will let the Dalai Lama end this with some words he said following this tragedy, words that are wiser than any I could conjure:

“We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

Politically Incorrect: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Political Correctness

Oscar night, a few days ago, incendiary actor Sean Penn and good friend of the corpse of Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, presented the Oscar for Best Director to Mexican-born Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu for his new film “Birdman.” While presenting the award he shouted into the mic: “Who gave this son of a bitch his greencard?” something which, predictably, caused an uproar all over social media. Of course when you read it dry, it sounds like he said something terrible, or at least inappropriate. For most people even in the audience, the (lighthearted) insult felt flat. But before you, yourself, gasp in horror at just how Penn reduced the Mexican director to just another illegal, perhaps the situation calls for some context.

Penn and Iñarritu are both good friends in real life ever since their collaboration in the film 21-Grams, and like all good friends they would rather show their camaraderie by hurling insults at each other rather than expressing mushy feelings of brotherly love. Iñarritu himself said that he found the joke hilarious and that him and Penn were cracking jokes backstage where the director himself was saying some pretty terrible stuff not camera-appropriate.

As I watched Penn say the words, from the tone of voice alone I knew that Penn was not only joking, but that he must know the man personally. Later on I confirmed it from several news reports who cashed in on the racial slight while ironically explaining that they are in fact good friends. I particularly didn’t find anything wrong with the comment, and it’s not because I am a Mexican that immigrated to the U.S. at 13 (a Latino endorsing that kind of insult doesn’t mean it’s okay to say it), but rather because I honestly didn’t find anything particularly offensive, or amusing. It was a lighthearted jab at a friend and I understood it as such. The situation is in fact so ridiculous that all anybody can talk about is what Sean Penn said instead of focusing on the politically charged speech that Iñarritu delivered about equality in our native Mexico.

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If there’s a lesson to be learned here is that while it may not be appropriate to joke the same way you would with your friends at a gala party, even one full of liberals as Hollywood parties clearly are, it’s an even worse thing to take such trivial things out of context. What if Penn had been at an office party? There’s no doubt in hell he would’ve faced disciplinary action or been labelled a racist, a career-destroying allegation, all because the man cracked a joke.

It seems that nowadays it’s all about political correctness. But if we can find the distinction between respect and political correctness, soon we see that what we do is all for the wrong reasons. Most people know that we live in a diverse world that has had a historically tarnished reputation with minorities (and by minorities I mean EVERYONE, including white people), and that most of the time saying the wrong thing- or even the right thing to the wrong person- can land you in hot water. So in order to avoid the discomfort of dealing with other people or awkward situations, we often resort to not saying anything at all, or saying something that might be insincere but pleasant. In effect we’re being nice, not to not be assholes as it should be, but for fear of the repercussions. Some will undoubtedly say “Well, but you’re being nice and that’s what counts,” but that is not what counts. Not only are people avoiding talking about real things, their fears, their prejudices, etc, things that need to be discussed precisely to avoid repeating this shameful past, but they are actually avoiding conversations altogether! And that surely cannot be good.

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that political correctness is a good thing. It is. It’s a safeguard from running our mouths amok at family dinner parties and from saying things that shouldn’t ever be said out loud. In a way, political correctness has helped with the bullying problem that we have in our schools and it has also done its part in the acceptance of immigrants and different racial groups into this melting pot that is America. So yes, political correctness is something that this country needs to keep. But how far is too far? The question then becomes (and there’s always a question): Where do we draw the line?

 

The Good

 

Ever since the first person on Earth articulated intelligible words that were understood by others, that person surely said something that somewhere down the road began the first war between humans. Of course language did not magically appear one day, it evolved through gradual changes in human psychology and physiology that spread over seas of time and land; and of course it would also be stupid to attribute all our problems to language, for even in the animal world there is wordless conflict. This doesn’t mean that mother nature hasn’t devised her own form of language, but the kind of language that we devised for ourselves has not only put us at a perhaps unfair advantage over most other creatures on Earth, but with the power to express anything we want, it has also created conflict, an unfortunate but inevitable byproduct of language itself.

Let’s consider for a moment if everyone actually expressed what was going through their heads and said exactly what they meant to say. If humanity had somehow made it this far, it would still be total chaos! At best, diplomatic relations between countries wouldn’t be as widespread as they are, you would have a lot less friends than you do, and everyone would be living like characters out of the movie “Liar Liar”. At worse, I can assure you there would be a lot more laws against violence. Congress would seriously consider changing the Second Amendment.

In a world where you’re not the only one around, political correctness exists mainly to keep our mouths in check. Whoever claims that they always speak the truth no matter how uncomfortable it is for people to hear it is either lying or they have made a lot of enemies over the years. It just simply isn’t viable to tell people exactly what one thinks. That’s what children are for. If it doesn’t work in close tight-knit families with people you’ve known your entire life, don’t expect that little experiment to fare any better with the other people you haven’t known all your life.

As I mentioned earlier, the United States has a rather embarrassing history of treatment to other human beings who are not white and Christian. But even whites have been discriminated in the United States since always. At one point or another, Germans were considered the inferior race, then the Irish, then the Italians, and so on. Xenophobia in the United States is a rather particular phenomenon. It’s not so much that we expressly hate one race or another, rather the hatred seems to be not only transferable but rather brief until the next group sets foot onto this land. And then there’s slavery. Embarrassingly still in place until a little over a hundred years ago, the separation of people for the color of their skin was still happening at a time when mankind was already peering into the depths of the universe, a time when incredible scientific advancements were already under way.

Why is any of this relevant you may ask. Because it forces a perspective on us. Racism, sexism, classism and other forms of discrimination form part of our history. But in truthful consideration, no one alive today (save for people who still hold such ignorant positions) can truly be blamed for the crimes of those who came before us. Political correctness has done its small part integrating different races and different ideologies into our communities, and in providing our children the rules of decorum. Integration is perhaps one of the best things a society can do to ensure its survival and prosperity.

While it’s a wonderful thing to teach our children to be tolerant of others as it forms the necessary base for clearheaded adults, it seems that we often forget to also teach them to think critically about its adverse effects, and there are adverse effects to being too tolerant, remember that everything in excess is bad. This is the part where being politically correct gets tricky.

 

The Bad

 

But does political correctness really protect against hate speech, or does it merely cover up the smell of shit with the smell of roses? As cynical as it might sound, does it really matter?

When we’re condemned to talk about the obvious and sometimes not-so-obvious problems facing our societies today and identify those problems when and where we see them, then political correctness is actually harming honest conversation in lieu of tact and politeness.

Let me offer a few examples where political correctness is doing more harm than good.

The military is one of those subjects in people’s minds that should be left out of the conversation for respect of those who fight to protect our freedoms, including that of allowing me to write this article without the fear of getting flogged 100 times, or getting executed for heresy or treason. In fact I could bash each and every member of the armed forces and I shouldn’t expect any real punishment from the government- I would from each and every member of the military but that’s another story.

Over the years the military has almost achieved a level of mysticism comparable to some religions, and to talk about the military in the wrong context can turn you in people’s eyes into anti-American, a traitor, or if you’re a politician it can even mean political suicide. There is a lot of interest in keeping the integrity of the military pristine, and yet it wouldn’t be wrong to say that there are a lot of visible problems in the ranks. These range from the trivial like lying about personal history, or minor drug offenses, to serious issues that have irreversibly harmed the reputation of some of those in charge, problems like sexual harassment, credible allegations of abuse not only against civilians but within the military itself, corruption, etc. I’m not talking about a soldier or a marine getting yelled at during basic training or boot camp, I’m talking alarming levels of abuse and severe incompetence on part of the leadership, not to mention of course cover-ups that make politicians and civilians lose trust.

We have avoided talking about such things because the fear of offending one of the most sacred institutions in our country overpowers the necessity to enforce a little oversight.

What about race-relations? Although we have come a long way since the Civil Rights Movements of the 60s, race-relations in America do not seem to be any better than they were in the 90s, and in fact if it’s possible they seem to be deteriorating in light of recent events (I would post a link but I don’t think it’s necessary). While its fair to say that our police forces share some of the blame, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that a lot of the blame also lies with a population who thrives on keeping this fire alive- opportunism at its worse. For what purpose though? It’s a never-ending cycle that is self-replenishing. Police forces militarize to keep protesters in check and as a consequence the number of protesters balloon and soon you have a time bomb waiting to go off. As a defense against this fear, the police become even more aggressive. There’s no end to it. This problem does not originate in either side, it’s an issue that goes deeper than that. But until we have an honest conversation, we are just dogs chasing our own tails.

And what about religion? I don’t really have to tell you that one of the most destructive things I see today, and one of the most threatening things to our future free societies, is the radicalization of religion- okay, I guess I just did. The case of religion is a peculiar one though because it is the only subject that even groups who are not associated with it, will defend. And it is not a defense based on the freedom to profess or to believe or even to speak out, but rather it is a defense to censor those who speak out against it. Somehow someone decided that it’s against the rules to inconvenience non-adherents of a specific religion- or of no religion at all- by talking badly about them. But defending censorship (including self-censorship) is nothing more than cowardice dressed up as valor. Again, it’s an action based on fear.

If we were having this conversation in the 17th century, I’d be talking about the perils of Christianity. But as it happens it seems that Islam has now taken its place suppressing knowledge and ideas and at its most radical, it has become the placeholder of barbarism and backwardness. We often fail to recognize that the radicalization of Muslims around the world is a serious problem that has to be dealt with, but for some illogical delusion, even the would-be victims of its intolerance defend it, quite literally to the death.

Islam in its most pure and unadulterated form is practiced in the Middle East right now, and especially in the territory controlled by those nice guys from ISIS. And just in case you haven’t been watching the news lately, the Middle East is still not the best place to live at the moment. Or to be a woman in, or a child, or to like music, or color, or to be gay, or to think differently. Basically if you’re not a man willing to follow the most barbaric edicts of the Quran, you have absolutely no business in the Middle East. Right now, ISIS is basically the Arab equivalent of the Khmer Rouge, and yet there are groups even here in America that defend its right to declare open war against any Westerner that dares oppose the divine rule of Islam. At this, the leaders of many free-world nations, including our own, have the tenacity to say that religion is not the motivator for these crimes and these people are not true Muslims. Try explaining that to them, provided you don’t get beheaded first.

Political correctness in this context is so extremely dangerous to contemplate that it seems like a given to get rid of it altogether. It wouldn’t be such a far off idea to have people in street corners challenging others to open discussions where nothing is off the table and where literally anything can be said about this or any other controversial subject. If you think that this will not bring about any benefit, it surely cannot be any worse than what we’re doing now. It appears that some of my fellow liberals would rather see the heads of children roll down the mosques of ISIS on television rather than ask about the religious convictions or those who did the beheading. This is not racism and it certainly isn’t the fault of moderate Muslims. I wouldn’t dare blame all the problems of the Middle East on religion,  that would be ridiculous, unfair and untrue. After all, we don’t have the right to pretend that industrialized nations’ interest in a fruitless desert that we wouldn’t otherwise occupy if it weren’t for its resources is just an accident. But the problem of radicalization has already eclipsed the issue of occupation and even imperialism, it has in fact become the bigger problem to deal with.

Religious radicalization is just another form of political ideology run amok, gone completely haywire and infecting everyone in its sight. And you may ask yourself, why do we protect religion the way we do? What special privilege does it have that whatever rules dictate that any religion is to be unspoken of?

People often make the case that we have a responsibility to be respectful of people’s beliefs. But the question stands, where is it written that beliefs- anyone’s beliefs- are unquestionable?

In most other aspects of our lives we often question things to find out cost versus reward, and we rely on the power of observation, rationalization, and careful thought to arrive at the beneficial element. Yet we omit this process when we start on to specific paths that predate our formal educations, those that were- through no choice of our own- taught since birth. As a means of their survival, along with those unsubstantiated rules, we are also taught to refrain from questioning those rules- politics, religion, and even prejudices enter into this category. And of course, they are protected with a Kevlar-strong argument that persists to this day: political correctness.

Perhaps you have seen the following argument somewhere, but would you say that you respect Hitler’s beliefs just because he’s entitled to them, even after knowing that Nazi Germany sparked a war that took more than 60 million lives? Can we be as callous and irresponsible as to not ask why the Catholic Church incinerated thousands of women alive simply because doing so would be infringing on the beliefs of the few? What about slavery? Substantial evidence exists to prove that slavery in the United States was justified and rationalized by religious reasons more than any others. Of course we’ve all heard the religious adopt the very boring position that “those people were not real Christians,” but the fact is that they were real Christians in accordance to their times, and the fact that Christianity has evolved- yes evolved- to survive in our present environment doesn’t take away from the fact that some of most religious people back then were bigots.

How about the recent waves of extremism in the world? People’s religions and political ideologies should be put into question, they need to be put into question, and we need to stop pretending that beliefs, as sacred and ancient as they are, don’t cause real-world harm because they do. A side asterisk. Doesn’t the fact that those were ancient beliefs and thus not fit for our current model of the world ring any bells?

We have made it politically incorrect to question people’s beliefs, and as a consequence public discourse seems to be diminishing in some forums and increasing in others. Make no mistake, I do not advocate for people’s right to believe anything they want, just what they actually believe.

And this is the ugly part of political correctness, a grey area that no one seems to understand.

 

The Ugly

 

After the murders at Charlie Hebdo in January, many people who had no connection to Islam or to radicalism sided with the terrorists saying that the people at the magazine had it coming (the bad of political correctness) because they had insulted something so dear and personal for Muslims, one of those being the pope. A lot of them were fellow liberals who had an erroneous idea about what the questioning and criticizing of a person’s religion meant. While many others simply refused to talk about it (something possibly even worse).

If you keep up with this blog, you might actually be tired of me quoting author Sam Harris, but in his podcast shining light on the hypocrisy and fear of Western liberals Harris said: “…here’s one sign a person, whether he’s on the left or the right politically, has completely lost the plot here. The moment he begins to ask ‘what was in those cartoons? Were those cartoons racist? Was that a negative portrayal of Muhammad?’ To ask such questions is obscene. People have been murdered over cartoons! End of moral analysis.” The man is absolutely right. Political correctness has led us astray in the road to enlightenment. We have gotten to a junction where we can no longer recognize what our priorities are for fear of offending one party or another. A lot of people have allowed fear to take over the rational parts of their brain and make irrational decisions.

But this isn’t the only area where people call for a drawback to freedom of speech.

Some say that freedom of speech does not- and should not- protect hateful speech. The problem as I see it is that with a couple of lawyers and a few pages full of legal jargon, any speech can be turned into hate speech, not just the words every foreigner learns first- curse words.

The ugly truth about political correctness is that it has such a broad definition that it can, and does, include ideas and thoughts to censor speech. Laws have been drafted in order to limit just what and how much a person can say and about what. In fact that’s what classified documents are about, state secrets that no one is allowed to divulge, and to do so can mean severe penalties.

No speech should ever be sanctioned, including hate speech. People should know that they have the right to say whatever it is they want to say, with the full knowledge that consequences will arise from exercising that right. However, no human in any society (especially in a free society) should ever fear for his/her life for speaking out.

To quote Harris again, later in the conversation in that same podcast he speaks of Germany’s law against denying the holocaust. Every rational person would agree that anyone who denies the holocaust is at best ignorant of the facts and at worse a bigot, but Harris notices the flaw in that logic quickly. At this he says that “A person should be absolutely free to deny the holocaust, which is to say he should be free to destroy his reputation. And others should be free to ridicule him and to boycott his business. There shouldn’t be a law against this kind of idiocy…” Again, he is right in that speech should never be hindered in any way, but people should also be aware that there are always real-life consequences to what their mouths spew out.

To conclude, the ugly truth about political correctness is that there is no discernible line between politeness and ignorance, it is a matter of common sense in a realm that belongs to the analytic mind to determine if what we’re talking about is more dangerous than not talking about it, or vice versa.

 

To be or not to be… politically correct?

 

To be politically correct you first have to acknowledge that there is essentially a culture of previous political incorrectness. When a society has gotten used to throwing around words that denigrate and offend individuals or groups of people, then it’s important to see that something has to change. In our everyday vernacular words like “nigger” (and its variants), “gay”, “fag”, “retard”, “geek”, “whore”, etc.- these are all hateful words that are used to put down others not based on ideology but on things none of us have any control over. But who gets to decide where and when to draw that line? Why is it okay for actors in a funny movie to say these words but not okay for someone in a social situation to do the same? Who decides what’s permissible and what’s not between a Comedy Central Roast and the White House Correspondents Dinner? When do we acknowledge when the situation calls for a joke and when it is a serious issue we need to pay attention to? Are religion, politics, or people protected from verbal critique? How can we remain objective and recognize when something is merely humor and when it isn’t. What about using humor (as in the case of Charlie Hebdo) to talk about real-world issues? And what do we do when the definitions become muddled?

It seems that the questions outnumber the answers but as I mentioned in the beginning, political correctness has a lot to do with how you say things and not merely what things are being said. People need to acknowledge that certain situations call for political correctness to be suspended, while others call for it to be recognized, but above all we should remember that even horrible things said in a nice way are still horrible things.

 

More than anything else we should make use of a little device more important than political correctness, common sense. We should exercise common sense in all situations in life, I cannot stress this point hard enough. If logic and common sense formed part of our everyday lives, perhaps there would be absolutely no need to be politically correct in the first place.

True story.

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Interesting articles to check out:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bj-gallagher/the-problem-political-correctness_b_2746663.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/24/science/new-light-on-the-roots-of-english.html?_r=0

Religio Ad Verbum: How Literal Interpretations of Holy Books are Destroying Our World, Pt. 2

Churches and religions pride themselves in having compiled in volumes all the rules by which humanity is supposed to live by and what our roles in society should be. However, what little morality can be found in the Quran can also be found in the cheapest crime novel you can find at your local gas station. The rest of it can be derived simply from common sense and from the connection people form with their fellow human beings. Unless a serious mental illness is preventing someone from acting rationally, there is no way to miss simple moral acts that enrich human experience, i.e. being kind to others, helping those in need, minding others’ fears and feelings, etc. Why? Because we can relate to all these things solely by our own experience of being alive.

Unfortunately, there are those who don’t see it this way and for them, their own interpretation of things is the only interpretation. Belief, based on these interpretations, becomes a dangerous tool to wield. Ideas can be molded into anything, and detrimentally to everyone, in the minds of those whom religion already provides a preemptive answer to everything, interpretation is not born out of logic of differentiating patterns, but rather it is the mental equivalent of muscle memory, a learned behavior with only one intended consequence- hegemony.

In religion, mainly the monotheistic Abrahamic religions, when a bad idea is sanctioned by the text from which it comes from, it is standard procedure not to question it or its origin, but rather accept it and love it as having providence in the mysteriousness of a deity almost as obscure and unknown as the people who claim to have been the messengers of it. When does it become inconvenient for us to question it or outright reject it? How far must things go before we realize that the things we are made to believe really cause pain to people? Certainly not far enough if people truly believe in this day and age that the actions of Abraham were appropriate and warranted simply because it was god’s word. How far can we go if people will be made to believe that subservience is the way to heaven? After all, not more than half a century ago people still believed that the separation between races was divinely mandated. This is an example of how diluted our common sense can become when we are made to believe things that many generations before us could not concretely explain. Must we destroy the entire world before we start to question things?

Christianity has “evolved” over thousands of years from a small insignificant rebellion to the leading form of organized “consciousness” (for lack of a better word in this context) that humanity has ever participated in. It is essentially the most deadly self-imposed psychological experiment that in one way or another has changed the world, sometimes for the worse. In its infancy Christianity was harmless, just another cult, but as its numbers inflated violently for the very first centuries, Christians were known as terrorists, rebels, and racially inferior beings (sound familiar?). They were despised, persecuted, tortured and executed. It should be funny to note that during those first centuries, the desperation of pagans seeing their gods being replaced by a foreign one must have been quite a culture shock.

Following the Constantine decree that Christianity was to become the official religion of the Roman Empire, the cult then sought to infect nations and radicalize them either by “the word” or by the sword. Early Christians experienced a sort of either-you’re-with-us-or-against-us attitude and committed atrocities in the name of unreason. Of course I can’t say this is exclusive to Christians, for earlier religions much did the same, imposing their own mythologies onto other groups of people. This new mythical thing of incredible proportions became faith. Faith then turned out to be the invisible lighthouse in the shores of reason, a place where all sailors wanted to be drawn to but that clad in obscurity it took an enormous amount of effort to find. Not surprisingly, over the centuries many ships have capsized in this place.

Star and crescent icon

Much in the same way that Christianity spread its message by blood, and occasionally by peace, Islam and radicalized Muslims do the same today. Historically speaking, the spread of Islamism was much quicker and much more brutal than Christianity ever was, at least in the first centuries of its creation. Compared within the same time period, no doubt Islam would have been far more effective at indoctrinating the masses. But that is only possible admitting that Islam was born out of the sword of an illiterate warlord who sought to conquer over his oppressors come what may.

The thought that Islam under the caliphates was at one point the better of all evils, and that it advanced mathematical and scientific advancement, is one of the most recycled untruths (not lies) that we tell ourselves during our time. It is no more true than saying that we now have a deep knowledge of the universe because of Christianity. People of science and logic can be found anywhere and everywhere, it only takes the right incentive to provoke them to share their curiosity with the world. However, I cannot overlook the fact that indeed thinkers under ancient Islam were not as restricted under the banner as Christians were under Christianity. Sadly, I can’t say that about “modern” Islam. The brutality with which purely Muslim governments enforce Shari’a Law is the same with which Inquisitors enforced the canon of the Catholic church, and as a result what we have is a new inquisition period, the new Dark Ages. What’s so surprising is that heads are still rolling for imaginary crimes in an age when we can peer into the darkest spots of the known universe. Seeing the events unfold, we have the responsibility to ask ourselves and each other, “How can this possibly still be going on?”

Under the current modus operandi of Islamic nations it seems that the Quran is not taken out of context, as some might believe, but something much worse, it is understood by the most literal interpretation it can be given. If at some point we thought it was a hypocritical thing to cherry-pick the Bible to find passages that conveniently suited our moral needs, then I suggest we go back to that and try to convince our Muslim brethren to do the same. At our demise, the phrase “Beware what you wish for” comes to mind. Then again wishing that it wasn’t so is basically the secular equivalent to praying it wasn’t so.

Islam it seems has inherited the proverbial scepter of unreason. But let me clarify before I start receiving hate-mail. It is not Islam that I have a problem with, but rather literal Islam that I hate. Before we begin to convince ourselves of the fairy-tale illusion that there are many moral passages in the Quran to constitute a moral rule-book to follow, let me tell you that often in the same passages of the hadith where a moral passage can be found, an equally immoral one can also be found. The greatest problem we come across it seems is recognizing what is moral?

As if it wasn’t enough to see women clad in black and knowing that they have been genitally mutilated as children (prominent practice in some Muslim countries and also in some Christian ones), it has become the job of some cynics to declare that the people doing this sort of thing are just radicals and misunderstand and twist the word of the Quran and the Bible. What they continually fail to realize is that these “radicals” are not a band of illiterate sheepherders as they sued to be, or warriors as Mohammad himself was, but rather people of broad-reaching influence such as heads of state and religious leaders. It is not the ignorant who dictate policy, it is the learned. The radicals that we mention command armies and lead nations, these are not gangs, these are people who truly believe every word they read down to the last punctuation mark and they use it to maintain a strict control upon their populations. Whether or not this oppression exists solely for the purpose of near-total hegemonic social control, such as in the case of societies like Saudi Arabia, is something that changes from country to country, from tribe to tribe, and even within the same religion (i.e. Shia Muslims vs. Sunni Muslims, Catholics vs. Protestants, etc.) The fear that we have is not with moderate Muslims, although we should be cautious of their beliefs much in the same way that we are cautious of the beliefs of others such as Christians, Jews, and indeed my fellow atheists- our fear should be grounded in the radicalizing of these moderates as ISIL and other warring factions have effectively managed to do by spreading propaganda with the message that to wage holy war against infidels (everyone who is not a Muslim) is glorious. And what’s more, that to die is immensely better than to live. This is a highly dangerous position to take and defend. As philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris has said, “These people love death more than we love life.”

 

And if none of this convinces you of the severity of the problem then perhaps you will be more sympathetic when you realize that ISIS tortures and kills children, and all we can do is impotently watch in our computer and television screens as it happens. Does any reasonable person dare say that this is not the work of Muslims but rather the work of psychopaths misled to think this is the path to heaven?

This oppression that exists, not only of the body but mainly of the mind then becomes like a poison that kills the fertile ground of thought, and lets nothing grow. The most passive verses of the Quran are continually ignored while those which spell out in detail how to punish and control people are followed to the letter, and they work very effectively. If you thought Communism was bad, theocracy is much worse. Children are brought up thinking that this sort of behavior should be tolerated, celebrated, and repeated. In consequence we have generations upon generations and waves upon waves of faith-fighters willing to die as martyrs in defense of their twisted ideals. Teaching kids that infidels are only good for killing, or that the opinion of a woman is only half of that of a man, does not make children moral, it makes them immoral, or if anything it makes them amoral. To push the envelope a little bit further (perhaps not exaggerating), whole generations are being indoctrinated and groomed as reserves for some future holy war that some are praying, and praying hard, that will one day come. How can we hope to win a war against those who willingly walk to their deaths to defend nothing more than the right to die gloriously as we fight to defend life? It seems almost impossible. Within those circles, the interpretation that is given for men to follow has perpetuated an endless war with the perfect breed of warriors willing to die happily.

Much like the Roman Catholic Church in the Dark Ages, these Muslim theocracies appear to be highly organized even in the face of auto-radicalism. Is there a shred of doubt that they would all wish to see Israel, or the U.S., or the E.U. in ashes rather than form a peaceful world? Of course not. And it seems that money is basically the only thing keeping some of these societies at bay from erupting into war. But how long will this strategy of showering these countries with gold last? When the oil dries up and there is nothing more to sell, what will happen then? If greed fails, what other cards do we have to play?

Even within our nations it seems that the squalling within misinformed liberal groups is giving the enemy the advantage of ideological warfare. While we question what constitutes criticism of religion and indeed freedom of speech, radical Muslims have no problem using social platforms created by Western countries such as Facebook and Twitter to shamelessly (and cowardly) recruit among our own populations. For now it seems their strength lies solely in pushing propaganda, not in their numbers or even in the hope to fight established nation. But for how long? Can we allow this to change? These are questions that must be asked now.

Morality is a tricky thing sometimes. Occasionally it’s difficult to assert correctly what is moral, after all not all moral decisions are good and not all good decisions are moral. But in order to enjoy the benefits of living in a society where its citizens are happy, the freedom to speak one’s mind is paramount to the contribution of that happiness and the cornerstone in building that type of nation. Although I believe that morality is rooted in what we find pleasurable and good without the need to affect others, I also believe that it is corruptible. Some moral things that were considered good and moral before are not any longer and so we have to be able to make that distinction correctly. In that sense, morality has to derive at least in part to the freedom to let your mind be known, for only then can people be aware of other people’s true intentions. And when that right is infringed upon, it creates a domino effect that is very hard to get away from unscathed.

Before the European Enlightenment brought reason back into the minds of people, awakening them from a long slumber, nations had to fight each other for ideological supremacy but also for freedom from oppression which they themselves created. History became a vicious cycle hard to break away from, and men perpetuated this cycle by fueling it with ideas that did not benefit the group en masse, but that only satisfied their own desires. It would be unfair to say that collective reason was completely absent during these times, for even during the Dark Ages there were people who dared to think. If that sounds surprising to read it’s because it is. Yet, from the heap of garbage that myth and unreason originate, sometimes we can find something of great value there.

But while we waste our time looking for these scattered moral passages, ISIL (or ISIS or IS) will have already executed several thousand people, most of them innocent, most of them Muslim, and some of them foreign nationals. ISIS will have also brutally  killed thousands of children and tortured many more people for crimes that should only be judged in an Inquisition court. All of it done in the name of Islam and to defend the honor of a “prophet” long gone. We can go on and on how Islam is a religion of peace, but until we get our hands dirty and dig into these passages ourselves will we know just what exactly is being taken out, or read into, context. And if you are religious, I urge that you do not make comparisons between your religion and Islam, for if taken literally, the Bible is just as violent and damaging as the Quran, and perhaps even more.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking at a conference.  photo credit: RA_Sun_286 via photopin (license)

Ayaan Hirsi Ali speaking at a conference.
photo credit: RA_Sun_286 via photopin (license)

It is true enough that we must not blame the wrong people for these atrocities, and it is equally true that only those who commit these crimes must be held accountable. I believe we can all understand that no person wants to be blamed for the crimes of another- even if they subscribe to remotely the same beliefs. But what is imperative for us to realize is that these crimes are not perpetuated in defense of reasons that are beyond their control (race, nationality), instead they are the deliberate result of manufactured beliefs that unfortunately are also shared by those whom are affected most by them, innocent people who also read the Quran or the Bible whose innate morality leads them to reject the obvious immoral passages of these books. The most effective way for moderate Muslims to distance themselves from those who use their religion as a scaffold to greater crimes is simply to weed them out. I admit, it is only simple in theory. The responsibility falls on the moderates to reform Islam, as Ayaan Hirsi Ali has declared, or to edit the Koran itself to reflect 21st century views. Muslims should not fear for that portion of history to be lost, like the Magna Carta- another very important ancient text, and one of the many documents from which the Constitution is based on- the original Quran will never be lost, but it can be updated.

And it is the job of reasonable people to collectively denounce injustice wherever we see it. We should speak out the truth in defense of reason and common sense and be fearless in our resolute goal of condemning censorship of any kind. Admittedly, there will be times when there is little we can do in the adversity, but when we prove to them and ourselves that we are united in this goal, we can surely make some kind of change, even if it’s in our own communities.

Like Christianity, Islam will eventually be reformed. One should hope that it happens by “the word” and not by “the sword,” as religions have done to spread their message. But that, it seems, for now at least, that is our of our control.

Personal interpretation based on our own understanding of the contents of whatever it is we’re reading sometimes is not much more dangerous than blindly following someone else’s interpretation of it. But it is a good place to start. It’s possible we will never rid the world of unreason, of violence and fear, of injustice. But if we shake the foundations of everything we know- or rather everything we think we know- perhaps we can make this one world we have a better place. To question everything should be a mantra to follow.

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In Memory of the victims of Charlie Hebdo and the victims of radicalism.

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For more information please check out the following interesting links:

http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/02/islam-will-not-have-its-own-reformation/

http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/fgm/fgm_reinfibulation_central_Sudan/en/

http://nation.com.pk/blogs/28-Dec-2014/jack-in-a-box

http://www.pewglobal.org/2010/12/02/muslims-around-the-world-divided-on-hamas-and-hezbollah/

Religio Ad Verbum: How Literal Interpretations of Holy Books are Destroying Our World, Pt. 1

It’s very possible I might be murdered over this post, after all, freedom of expression- as we have seen in the case of Charlie Hebdo- is not a bullet-proof blanket that can protect everyone from the injustice and evilness of others. It’s a fragile intangible thing that under severe pressure can have the potential to become as dispersed as ash or as hard as diamond. It is the intangible nature of ideas, and to some degree also of afforded freedoms, that they are at the mercy of the wielder to shape them at his pleasure.

Interpretation, or rather misinterpretation, is perhaps one of the most effective killers in human history. From an evolutionary and behavioral point of view, the way we interpret things can have huge advantages, but interpreted wrong it can also have dire consequences for ourselves, for the people close to us and indeed for the world as a whole, and consequence is not something the universe seems to be lacking, in fact just quite the opposite, it thrives on consequence and it moves forward because of it. How we interpret things can either save our lives or drive us to our own dooms. From a psychological standpoint, interpretation is the recognition of patterns to suit a certain framework in our minds; it is the meaning we give things. And of course, emotional need is one of the driving forces behind how we come to interpret something and what context best to use for it.

But due to the fact that interpretation is a personal thing, not bound by anything other than our own understanding of the input we are receiving, it mostly always lacks a solid base and it is for its lack of rigidity and concreteness that ideas prone to a myriad of meanings are certainly doom to fail one way or another.

To better illustrate how interpretation can have a great impact in our world I will use two different historical documents in comparison to one another and then use different comparisons for the same document.

United States Documents

The Constitution of the United States was written nearly 240 years ago. It is one of the best composed communal documents in the history of mankind put together by philosophers, scientists, politicians, businessmen, religious men, rebels. It is nearly flawless in its dictation of the law that covers not just the rights and freedoms of Americans but comprehensible laws that should be extended to every human. It is the first of its kind to make a clear separation between the church and the government, and in its account of the law is fairly straightforward with little room for interpretation. Yet, being a lawyer in the United States and elsewhere, and perhaps especially a Constitutional lawyer, is one of the most lucrative and competitive careers to graduate from today. It is simply so because even though the laws were written in a manner that is concise and easy to understand, they still depend on the best judgment of those who read them. And sometimes even that is not enough.

In the United States there is still pending litigation over what most people would consider trivial matters simply because there wasn’t a broad enough definition of some specific law. Thousands of lawsuits will arise because different interpretations of the law- at times even by lawmakers- were used in different contexts. Perhaps the most famous example would be the interpretation of the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which dictates that: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The law seems to be straightforward in this regard, and yet an interpretation of the language used has caused more than a fair amount of controversy regarding what exactly the framers had in mind. As explicit and direct as the law is, there is simply no way to know for sure what exactly the different parts of the amendment mean as it applies to today’s society (i.e. “being necessary,” “Security of a free state,” “shall not be infringed”).

Laws such as this last one are substantial throughout the Constitution and the way these laws are interpreted can sometimes lead to what it may seem as different versions of one single document.

Now imagine documents that precede the Constitution that contain language that is no longer used today or historical details that we may find impossible to corroborate. Imagine trying to make sense of documents written by obscure characters from which we know absolutely nothing about and thus have no basis on how to judge them based on their prejudices, unreliable documents such as the Quran or the Bible before it. These books- or rather a collection of books- that have amassed great power and influence over the centuries have, for so long, been given carte blanche over a great many human elements such as how to live, how to behave, what to eat, what to think, how to act towards others, and certainly over the morality that we are supposed to uphold and pass on to future generations, a morality that has been instilled in us and forced upon us from birth. These documents owe their mysticism to fantastical stories retold over several generations from original versions that were doubtless not as fantastical or as mystical- or indeed as interesting- as the versions we know today. It has been the job of of the ghostwriters of history (some of them illiterate as in the case of Mohammad) to add colorful elements to chapters of known history and compile them into volumes, again, long after the culmination of the actual events- if they happened at all. But the documents that we so venerate nowadays seem to have been inscribed metaphorically, or have been given a varied interpretation that is difficult to discern today; or at least one hopes they are, otherwise only a psychopath could believe half of the things that have been written on them.

A good example of this is in the case of the Biblical story of the virgin Mary. As the writer and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins mentions in his book “The God Delusion”, and from discussions with historical scholars before Dawkins’ time, the word used in the Greek translation of the Bible “almah” literally means “young woman,” not “virgin” as it is usually believed. Provided that this was indeed a clerical mistake, then it seems the “young woman” that gave birth to Jesus was indeed not a virgin but simply a young woman. I don’t need to point out that over thousands of years, people have been mistaken to believe that Jesus was born out of a virgin when in fact it is not so for obvious reasons, not to mention that first-century Christians probably did not even believe that themselves.

Now, that is not such a grave mistake. It is indeed stupid of anyone to think that parthenogenesis could actually happen with human beings, stupid but not of grave consequence. From believing such a thing, it appears the only thing people have sacrificed here is their common sense- or at least one would hope. However, there are passages of much graver importance in the Bible and in the Quran that through a mistranslation, misunderstanding or misinterpretation (from the many they have received) have incited conflict among individuals, groups and countries that at one point of another have had severe consequences for the human race sometimes thrusting whole nations into endless wars.

There is an arrogance here to recognize. This arrogance from blind believers to think they perfectly understand the supposed creator of the universe when most of the time they have a difficult time understanding half of the things their politicians tell them, is not only part of the problem, it is the problem. Blind belief it seems is anything but innocuous, in fact it is more like a grenade without a pin, burning in our hands while we happily go about our lives believing its a water balloon, harmless and even beneficial. At no other point in our lives would we trust blind belief to carry us through any process, why then would we trust it to hold the reigns of the most important part of our lives, morality. One wonders why it was that this obviously bipolar, and apparently misanthropic, creator chose such confusing language to dictate his/her laws to humanity? Why do we hold on this arrogance that we know better than the god we have created?

The question begs, if people still have difficulty avoiding the pitfalls of a near-perfect document such as the Constitution of the United States, then what hope could we have of interpreting books that were conceived centuries ago by men whom we know very little about, and what little we know of them cannot be confirmed by anything other than each other’s account of the “events”?

The comparison between these two documents reflects the gap between understanding and interpretation. It is there that we arrive at the logical conclusion that we cannot, and should not, trust with certainty any interpretation. Does it mean that we should disregard them? No, we shouldn’t. But we should look at them with a skeptical eye, indeed a much much more skeptical eye. We should reject illogical arguments, illogical statements, and illogical ideals and embrace what we know in our science to be true, simply because we haven’t seen any different.

Let’s do a small thought-experiment. Imagine you are playing the telephone game with just one rule to follow, and that is that whatever the person before you says, you have to act out. For example if the game begins with “I like to eat a grilled cheese sandwich with pickles” then that’s what you should do. That’s it, you and the people playing the game simply have to act out what they hear. Now, let the experiment run over thousands of years, over several generations, with dozens of languages, and all across the world. You don’t necessarily have to have psychopaths in the game- or be one yourself- for it to go horribly wrong, the law of probability dictates that it just will.

I admit, it’s a bit hard to believe that an instruction as simple as “Eat grilled cheese sandwich with a pickle” can go wrong, even over thousands of years, but if you factor in people’s prejudices, people’s histories, people’s educations, interpretations, fears, and understandings of what a grilled cheese sandwich is, while they add their own personal twist to the story, it wouldn’t be surprising to see people eating other people, if they are in fact still eating.

This is the same game that we have been playing for centuries only the instructions are a bit more sinister and have perpetuated some of the most heinous crimes humanity has unleashed upon itself (slavery, infanticide, genital mutilation, torture, war, racial extermination, etc.); and what’s more, the texts from which these instructions come from have allowed us to look at ourselves in the mirror remorseless.

Members of the Nazi Party and Vatican Officials doing the traditional Nazi salute. photo credit: tortuga767 via photopin cc

Members of the Nazi Party and Vatican Officials doing the traditional Nazi salute.
photo credit: tortuga767 via photopin cc

From the text alone we can infer as to the frame of mind of these ancient peoples or to their way of life. Written instructions on how to maintain, train, and trade your slave- or your daughter for that matter; how to subjugate your wife while claiming that she’s your equal and getting her to believe it; how to become submissive yourself to another human or to a invisible deity- all these instructions were written to guide these ancient societies and to offer some sort of explanation to the way the world was at the time and to offer a theory (although not written as such) of how the world worked. We could very well say that these people were simply speaking in a metaphorical context reflecting on the views of their times, and perhaps that actually is the way it is. But two problems swiftly arise. First, the alternative is much scarier to contemplate. What if- as history strongly suggests- these were actual instructions on how to live a first-century life, much in the way that modern magazines (loosely) portray the our way of living today. I’m sure that one or two centuries from now our magazines will become absolutely irrelevant to the way future Earthlings live their lives. The second problem we come across is that people in religious nations (principally the United States and those in the Middle East) are happily running to the mouth of the mouth of the lion, trying to follow first century rules, 22 centuries later. I cannot much call that progress. The question is simple, why are people so eager to accommodate their modern lives to the way people lived 2000 years ago?

I could see the case that some people might make by saying that these ancient texts provide some very good moral advice, and they’re right, they do. But the moral advice they provide is no more assertive than what humanity has come up with over time. We should strive to create the best moral framework there is, in part by getting rid of old moral rules that are no longer necessary. It is like writing computer code, in order to have an optimal program that always works as it should the code needs to be updated and bad lines of code have to be deleted.  Unfortunately, books like the Bible or the Quran also offer some terrible advise that is still being taken into account today. It is a good thing then that common sense is not entirely lost and that the majority of people can see the obvious distinction between “Thou shalt not kill” and “Five easy steps on how to train your slave”, but there are always those that don’t, or wish not to. Even worse, there are some who not just blur that distinction but that make dangerous conjectures of their own based on these somewhat-direct-somewhat-abstract rules. Of course killing is bad. I’m sure that early homo-sapiens and even Neanderthals (just a couple among many species of bipedals) realized that going around killing one another was a bad thing to do. Let’s remember that these ancient tribes were nomads and started no bigger than your average small family. Imagine if all they did was kill and rape one another because it was simply a fun activity to engage in. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that they would’ve perished very quickly under their own irresponsibility. We should find it insulting to believe that humanity knew nothing of morality before first century sheep-herders decided to concoct fantastical tales from divine providence to say that killing is wrong and stealing is bad. Has it never occurred to us to think that perhaps early humans understood that killing each other was bad for the tribe, as the number of hunter/gatherers or providers would decrease leaving the tribe to fend for itself? Has it never crossed our minds to think that they too understood emotional and physical pain, or that perhaps they were capable of abstract thought and that they understood morality at least at a basic level? Like Christopher Hitchens once remarked, “…I don’t think humanity would’ve made it that far if they hadn’t known that.” We give ourselves much more undeserved credit by unabashedly believing that because we invented written language that nothing existed before us. This type of Orwellian thinking insults our species and spreads misinformation about our origins, indeed there is more to us than that.

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Credit: Tumblr (origin unknown)

Credit: Tumblr (origin unknown)

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In part two I will delve briefly and broadly into the “evolution” of Christianity and the threat that radical Islamism poses our world today, as well as our fears of what the future might hold for humanity and for reason.

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For more information please check out the following interesting links:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_and_Nazi_Germany

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2014/07/08/there-are-states-where-you-technically-cant-hold-public-office-if-youre-an-atheist/

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2013/08/19/an-incredible-interactive-chart-of-biblical-contradictions/

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/01/16/in-graphic-videos-and-on-twitter-isis-members-record-and-tout-executions-of-gay-men.html?via=desktop&source=facebook

 

Immortel (Je Suis Charlie)

France flag on Crumpled paper texture

Quiet you sleep now,
But the night is boisterous with stars and fire,
As the lights bright and grand keep you company,
In the echo of your voice,
Never gone, never forgotten.

To the quiet you have gone,
While the voices foreign and many shout out,
Angry and together,
As your pen once did, as your paint once shined,
Never gone, never forgotten.

For he who says it once, says it all,
For whose mind is heavier than her blood.
For the brave who risk it small, risk it all,
For whose words are stronger than his flesh.

And should they ever think we are alone,
May they forever be deceived.
For it is not by crowds but by words,
That we reveal ourselves with the feroucous roars we speak.

Things that once spoken can never be unsaid,
Thoughts that once freed can never be enslaved,
From the solitude of one to the eternity of many,
Never gone, never forgotten.

In the paper blotted with our hearts,
Shredded apart with the force of their hands,
Stands an ill reminder of the liberties we gave up,
And the ones we should defend.

What if anything could be said,
about the coward shadows that follow us,
In the enlightenment of our future lived,
To be afraid of what we say?

Could they ever bring about the end with them,
Or will we take your name with us and block their way?
For you and I are just the same.
For you would take up arms and fight,
With your brush, your ink, your pen.

Intolerance they wish to plague the land,
But the beauty of our words sacred will become,
Something they will come to see,
Our noble purpose is that which we defend.

That our lives may be extinguished with a forceful wind,
But the heat it leaves behind will forever spread,
Stretch out to all the corners of the world,
Rekindling the silent candles to bring about the light again.

And the nameless ones who wish to silence what has no form will fail,
They who spill blood have spilled passion in its stead,
For if they wish to fight with swords,
The nations will rise up and take the sword to them,
For if they wish to fight with swords,
With words we will bright the fight to them.

But it is not with swords that we fight this day,
It is not with canyons that we reprise,
But with the slashing power of the mighty pen,
That we bring about their dark demise.

Quiet your voice may never be,
For they silenced your body while your words remain.
Yes, the world is now a little darker with you gone,
But to those who fear you alive should also fear you dead,
As the ink of your pen, down upon them it will rain.

In your light we are seen, Charlie,
In your dark we are heard,
With your courage and bold passion here we stand,
The world with you, not afraid.

Quiet you sleep now,
But the night is boisterous with stars and fire,
As the lights bright and grand keep you company,
In the echo of your voice,
Never gone, never forgotten.

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Dedicated to Charlie. To France. To freedom.
Vive La France!