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.”

“Why Do You Care?” – The Roadblock of Social Progress

Why do you care?”

If I haven’t been asked this question enough lately, I could definitely do without for the remainder of this year.

Depending on the context of the situation, the question can be asked defensively or it can be phrased offensively. In the specific context of my situation- and more specifically in the situation of millions of other people  also- it was a mixture of both.

A couple of weeks back when the news that the SCOTUS (that’s Supreme Court of the U.S.) declared that marriage in the United States was to be allowed for all persons of legal age regardless of gender, race, or creed, I, like millions of Americans and millions of people around the world, was ecstatic! Before that day, America was slowly moving in the right track toward social equality, city by city and state by state. However, I’m sure that like me, a lot of people never anticipated that it would come this soon and this fast. In my mind this was a process that would drag on for years to come only to culminate in some far away date no one would predict. Imagine our surprise. But once it came, as you know, the wave of euphoria spread throughout the land. There wasn’t a news channel, newspaper, or social media platform in the United States where the decision did not make news, and those who did not support it made their voices known only to be drowned out that day by those who did. A major part of that wave of positivism was the product of progressive social media campaigns, sometimes pushed by social media giants themselves such as Facebook and Twitter. That day, for example, millions of Americans from celebrities to politicians to regular people alike all took to Facebook and Twitter to show their support by either Tweeting about it or by adding the rainbow flag as a background on their profile pictures.

A few days later, a friend of mine asked me in earnest curiosity why I- a straight man- was celebrating something that clearly did not affect me in the least bit. The question was funny to me for several reasons and at that point I was thinking that perhaps he meant marriage in general, since aside from being straight, I also don’t wish to ever be married. But I understood the point as I understand it now.

That’s when it dawned on me that when it comes to civil rights issues- or many other everyday issues for that matter- there is still a very deep disconnect in our understanding of other people’s suffering; but also that we often do not question the things that truly matter and we do the things that don’t.

With utmost sincerity I explained to my friend that this huge change that had just happened in America had to be celebrated by everyone because essentially it pertains to everyone’s interests in the way that the Civil Rights Movement of last century pertained not just to African-Americans (or rather just Americans) but to humans. In effect, this was a victory for humans, not just for some humans.

If you are offended by the comparison I suggest you get your head out of your ass. I am well aware that the suffering for both black Americans and the LGBT community has been different in many ways, as well as their respective socio-political movements have been. But there is no doubt that where we are concerned they are both social issues where people have suffered as a consequence of other people’s ignorance and indifference, and therefore they should be addressed.

The problem I see regarding social and political movements nowadays is that people have taken too much trouble to compare one to another. The bigger issue here is learning to realize that a social movement that aims to create progress is never over and it’s continually progressing. In fact, it’s in any social movement’s ethos to continue that progress essentially forever.

To know the history of the LGBT movement in America we really don’t have to go that far back, merely a few decades- almost a hundred years to come to an honest timeline proximity.  However, if we wind back the clock a bit further we find that even though the attitudes towards homosexuality and hemophilia are dependent on specific historical settings, we see that in general, homosexuality has been frowned upon by more societies than we can count.

One could make the case that unlike the suffering of black people throughout history, LGBT members of any society have been less marginalized simply for their ability to blend into that society easier, having no discernible exterior features that give away their innate condition other than their sexuality. But playing devil’s advocate for a second, are we not wrong in making such distinctions, or even dismissing the suffering of one group by comparing it to the suffering of another?

Although tolerance lies in the objective mind, there is no doubt that it is also a subjective experience. It’s then that we begin to see that social change is not so much going in circles as it is spiraling upwards as far as progress is concerned. To compare one progressive movement to another is to denigrate the very meaning of social progress, precisely because it’s social, meaning it affects society as a whole, and it’s progress, meaning it moves society forward.

Just from common sense alone you might infer that every “race” as we know them today (and even every race within a race) has been, at some point in human history, victimized by another. Take a look at the history of military conflicts and you will see that it is always the losing side that gets pulled down to the bottom of the social scale. This even happens in modern times. Where in the 1800s and early 1900s Chinese, Italians, and Irish immigrants were the “flavor of the month” as far as the most persecuted races in America, now Hispanic immigrants are. Of course there are a few groups that throughout history have been more hated than others, Jews for example who have had to endure antisemitism for over two thousand years. But to say that because Jews have had a hard time throughout history to really care about any other group of humans, would not only be a blatant disregard of social order, it undermines the kind of morality we are trying to instill in future generations and it is exactly the kind of potentially harmful learned social behavior that breeds ignorance, hatred, racism and the propagandist vitriol that disseminates it.

Do we have to be one race or another to ONLY understand their suffering?

Granted, most educated people in the world now don’t see it this way. But there are still those that make the comparison with a certain degree of animosity.

It seems to me that the reasoning behind the alienation of supporting cooperative social progress is flawed, and in fact it is downright illogical.

Saying that a group or a person should only offer their support for one of the things they believe advances social well-being, and adhere to what it is only their concern due to race or creed- or any other self-serving reason really- is discrimination at its finest. That mentality narrows conversations and excludes others who are of a different race or creed or sex to be part of a positive change that’s being created for the world and for the future of the human race as a whole.

Imagine for example if the hatred of Jews had evaporated just as soon as it began, there is no doubt we would have different problems in the world right now, but not that specific problem to try to fix. In fact, imagine if hatred of any race had never existed in the first place, where would we be?

It is a waste of time to study history in the hopes of “what would’ve been,” so instead we should study history in the hopes of understanding how we can, once and for all, eradicate hatred now that we have a deeper understanding of the social structures that we create and the tolerance that we have come to acquire through much pain and suffering.

 

Selective Urgency/Selective Tolerance

Sometime before the SCOTUS announced equality in marriage I announced in some social site or other that equality in marriage is basically, or should be, a non-issue and that more urgent matters required our attention.

Of course from everything you read in the sections above it might sound hypocritical of me to even say that there are more important things to think about than gay rights, or ridding our world of racism, sexism, classism, etc.

By this I did not want people to confuse the intention- I don’t believe we as an entire nation should be discussing something that is so foreign to our national priorities. But I also don’t want people to confuse the underlying message- the fact that we are discussing these matters effectively proves that we have been ready for quite some time to move past the kind of social roadblocks that prevent us from creating a near-perfect society.

At first reading it sounds as though I don’t consider human rights to be part an urgent matter to discuss. I’m saying that given how much we’ve known about ourselves historically, the issue of human rights is one that in today’s day and age should take no longer than a coffee break. It is imperative that we force each other to recognize that human rights is for all humans- not for some, not for the best, but for all. And it is something that, in brutal honesty, should have been resolved by now.

One of the reasons why this moment hadn’t arrived sooner is because of selective tolerance.

We as individuals do not devote all of our attention to one unbelievably huge problem, one that seems to be out of our reach (e.g. the imminent death of our galaxy, the existing threat of nuclear war, or even global warming) especially when our lives are already buried beneath an avalanche of problems of our own that we must worry about. Instead we limit the laundry list of problems to what we can carry individually and devote decreasing slices of our time to those problems that seem to be out of our reach (e.g. gay rights, and within that bracket, gay marriage; drugs, etc…) Unfortunately in this case the problem comes about when in the interest of self-preservation we often run contrary to the benefit of the whole “colony” to benefit ourselves, in smaller and smaller numbers.

A little thought experiment.

Whether you are poor, middle-class, or filthy rich- provided you have had some kind of education- you know it’s a fact that mass poverty is something that affects millions around the world everyday, and that in some countries poverty is so extreme that people die by the millions because of it and because of the slew of social consequences it produces. You are aware that poverty affects some percentage of the total global population, and depending on the country we’re talking about you know that some areas are more affected than others, maybe even in your own town. Of course you know this.

But when TV ads about the poor, dying kids comes on television do you jump to the chance to donate money to sustain a child in some poor faraway nation?

Congratulations to those who said they do/would. But how many of you asked yourselves in this hypothetical scenario what their own financial situation was before donating- or even whether you should? Doubtless there’s a moral echo going off in the back of your head while you guiltily check your bank account. But don’t worry, I would- and have- asked myself the same thing. The point is that the majority of us have done it practically on cue. While intrinsically altruistic people do exist in the world, they don’t by any means constitute any majority- intrinsically selfless people being an even smaller circle.

However, there are obvious evolutionary advantages for that kind of selfish attitude, and we have done well to translate them to our modern times; we just cannot help but weigh out how helping others will shortfall us in some way. This is something we all do regardless of anything. We are, to a certain point, selfish. Of course the situation is not as black-and-white as it sounds, and you are not selfish as I made you seem. Perhaps you donate to Amnesty International, or you devote your time to recycling programs, or you anonymously bought the next table over their meal. Maybe you’re even more selfless and you donate time and money to a cause- and maybe religion is a big part of that course of action. But the fact remains that there are degrees of selfishness and reasons to be so. For example we are selfish enough not to give to those faraway starving children, but selfless in that we would provide for our own children before we provide for ourselves. Our altruistic motives only go as far as we allow them to.

Coming back “to the gay thing,” it appears that logically we cannot all care about all the issues that happen so we select those that affect us in closer social proximity. It is a logical step to take and it would make sense that most people would consider equal-rights as being something more important that something that appears extraordinarily complicated and long- something like global warming per se. But ask a starving person if they consider global warming a pressing issue, or gay rights for that matter. I’m quite sure they would disagree with you while trying to instill enough urgency in you to feed them.

It is important that you as the reader understand that by this I am neither shaming you, nor pushing a hidden agenda here- I actually do believe global warming is the more important issue here-but people would benefit greatly by understanding the ridiculous comparison between one issue of overdue resolve to one of yet-greater potential damage to us as a species and for the planet itself.

Think of it this way, if homophobia (and sexism and classism and cynicism) suddenly vanished from the human condition- think how much could be accomplished. Without straying far from the context, the amount of time humanity has been talking about sexuality- or people’s personal lives for that matter- is far too long for us to have conceived any honest notions of planet colonization a thousand years sooner.

Perhaps, the pats in the back we give ourselves for our great achievement of finally advancing social reform  will show us just how capable we are, as a thoughtful, tolerant society, of moving past ignorance while at last revealing just how tedious the subject actually is.

Of course not talking about it isn’t as easy as it sounds, after all entire ad campaigns have been formed around issues that shouldn’t be pressing and not enough time is being devoted to issues that truly are a matter of life and death for all of us (but that’s for another blog). However, until our collective understanding of social equality catches up to this future we’re living in, talking about human rights for that matter is one of the most important thing to think about. Ironically if we want to fix the world we inhabit we must first fix ourselves.

 

The Role of Religion

Think hard about the following question: How does gay marriage affect me?

The short answer is that it doesn’t.

The long one is that you want it too. And over time it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that you have made it affect you. Am I not talking about it now?

The fact is that same-sex attraction exists within all species of living creatures in the planet. It’s natural because we are part of nature itself. And it’s not abominable because sexuality- even if it’s practiced responsibly- will always carry some kind of risk no matter what, homosexual sex is not exclusive. Think how slower AIDS would have spread had we as a society been more tolerant. Instead of shaming our kids for being who they are, we could’ve informed them to practice sex and love, safely.

This is where our other prejudice comes from, and in this case it is deeply rooted not in our DNA but rather in our voluntary convictions- something much more terrifying.

If we haven’t presented a voice to speak for those we alienate in society, we might get away with it by putting it on our very own intrinsic selfishness. But if the human race is already alienating towards those we don’t’ like, there is one thing I can think of that puts those doubts into overdrive- voluntary conviction, and nothing does a better job at it than religion.

Just in the same, but opposite, way that we are selfish not to give to those children in Africa, sometimes it is to our advantage to make other people’s lives miserable. If you don’t believe that, read up on… pretty much every single war ever.

Even if you consider yourself a good person, it serves some purpose to enslave people, or at the very least deny them the same rights that you’d grant yourself. In the case of financial motivation I can at least understand its nefariously logical ways to make us be a bit more selfish with others and a bit more selfless with ourselves or our own.

But a more curious- and hopelessly lost situation- is when we enslave others, or deny them rights, with the inviolable conviction that what we are doing is a good thing. There is no moral ambiguity here, the only way any human will adhere to morally reprehensible ideas while keeping a clean conscience, is either by being medically psychopathic or by being devotedly religious. You can see for yourself when you ask a question like: should gays be allowed to marry?

If you were one of the few who said no, I would challenge you to think of a valid reason why they couldn’t that was not based on religion. Without wasting anyone’s time I will say that outside of religion there is no valid reason for why gay people shouldn’t marry or form relationships, and those who insist on quoting scripture should do well in reminding themselves why they have just denied a human the right to love.

Once on Facebook I debated a person who believed that without a doubt all human life should be respected and that all humans should have the right to live free and happy lives. The caveat here was that as long as they weren’t gay they should be.

I can think of only one way in which an obviously intelligent and decent person would get it into their heads that happiness is not deservedly equal unless blank.

The simple fact is that religion has taken too much of our time in idiocies that not enough people would believe had it not offered some kind of reward that is “too big to fail.” Or in fact, too big for us not to take notice. Something so large that it can only be received in the one life we are not even sure exists- go figure.

So it seems that religion while in some contexts is benevolent, at the root it is just as selfish as our natures can go, and then some.

Global warming- yes again with that- is a problem that is significantly more urgent, although more distant, in scope if not in time. This is one of those pressing issues that if we fuck up, has the potential to annihilate not just the human race but pretty much everything else. And yet, we approach it with the same patronizing urgency we show kids.

In the subject of religion, decency, like public discourse, seems to go only as far as the word of god allows, it appears. Whereas in any other context the diminishing bubble of religious influence allows our decency to go much further, even if it’s not as far as it should be.

John Lennon once said, “Imagine all the people living life in peace…”

Lennon used to beat his wife. And while some have elevated him to near mythical status, Lennism isn’t a religion- that I know of. That should tell you something about the fanaticism of some, while reminding you of the objectivity of most.

Lennon was truthfully an incredible human being- but he was no god and in fact he was very flawed . And the rest of us, like sheep, are smart, and perhaps a bit selfish as a few, but very idiotic and corruptible as a flock. The moment we realize that we are betraying our own humanity for ideas people had about how to live two thousand years ago, the faster we can start talking about the things that will take us, quite literally, to the stars.

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Instead, check this out:

 

The Crusaders of Reason (?)

 As you may remember, a few weeks ago, Bill Maher and Ben Affleck had a little spat on Maher’s show Real Time with Bill Maher, where Maher denounced Islam for its anti-progressive, sometimes brutal, nature and where Affleck got all 5-year-old on Maher for being- as he (in)famously put it- a racist. Now, there was a player in there that most people (who are not atheists) don’t recognize but who has for some time been making some serious waves in the public discourse about why we need a more secular America, and indeed a more secular world for that matter, and that man was the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris.

During the debate, which you have probably already seen on YouTube, Harris sides with Maher and denounces Islam as basically a modern 14th Century Christianity, in reference to the ways the Catholic Church brutally and greedily maintained the status quo and wanted to convert  everyone to the faith Inquisition style. During the debate, Harris makes some pretty incendiary, but true, claims about Islam and about Muslims  who cowardly hide behind the Koran and its texts to justify bloodbaths and acts of terrorism. As it went on, Harris remained completely cool and collected while he talked about the punishment for apostasy in Muslim countries, the treatment of women and homosexuals, and the overall thinking of the majority of Muslims outside the Middle Age… East. Outside the Middle East, excuse me.

For the most part, the other invited guests, contributed little to the discussion although they made one or two good points worth remembering but not worth mentioning here. The whole exchange was mostly between Affleck and Harris, where Mr. Harris said something along the lines of Islam is bad for women, progressives and people wanting to leave the religion and where Affleck usually cut him off or sneered at him without contributing much of weight to the conversation beyond calling him a racist or a bigot. I’m sure that Affleck was speaking out of the kindness of his heart having never heard of Sam and his extensive work and history on the eternal battle between reason and religion. And if you are also not familiar with Harris’ work then maybe it is also reasonable to you take the position Affleck took, after all, outside of context, what Sam Harris and Bill Maher were saying does sound a bit bigoted. But again, put in context what they were advocating was that Liberals have not taken enough responsibility to denounce Islam for its failures as they have done with other religions like Christianity and Judaism.

This is all old-news to you, but here’s where it gets interesting. In the aftermath of the debate, weird things in the political circle started happening. Many News shows, some of them Fox “news” programs- came to the aid of Harris and Maher, known secularists and liberals whom Conservatives and its subsidiaries (Fox) often view with untrusting eyes.

Panelist Greg Gufeld- a self-described agnostic and Libertarian- and part of the the Fox News chain program “The Five” said during a recent airing of the show, “What you see is the crises that takes hold when liberal orthodoxy faces off with real attacks on liberal orthodoxy.” Which I find odd, since it is hardly liberal orthodoxy to want a society that is reasonable and devoid of bad ideas. He goes on to say, “Yes, we get that it’s wrong to stereotype but then we study the facts…” He then ends his segment with a rather funny and contemptuous remark about Maher saying, “…and in a shock to even himself, Maher becomes the sanest man in the room, how’s that?”

Bill O’Reilly in his own Fox News Show “The O’Reilly Factor” also remarked Islam’s isolated ideology, but not because of the dangerous  influence a literal interpretation can cause but rather because he still holds an outdated, crusade mentality that Christianity is the right answer in this whole conflict. “Islam is  a destructive force in the world…”, he says without offering a better alternative other than his own religion. Surprisingly, O’Reilly turns a bit more objective and logical even though the evangelist message, although subtle, continues to be implied.

Not only did all these guys side with Harris, but they went so far to denounce Affleck- a known liberal- as stupid or as someone who didn’t know what he was talking about. It was hilarious for me to see that because in virtually NO other context but to denounce Islam as a religion for which war and death is the path to eternal salvation would they have sided with Harris on that matter. And while the debate between the movie star and the scholar was clearly lopsided in the direction of Harris, it was entertaining and informative to see the way that secularists think about the different angles of religious freedom not just here in the U.S. but abroad, and especially in the Middle East.

While Affleck is a smart guy and very knowledgeable and entitled to his opinion- as Sam Harris himself put it in an essay he wrote days after the exchange- he is no authority or an expert on religious fundamentalism, freedom of religion, or rather lack of, especially regarding Islam and Islamophobia and the history and rise of militarized Islam and its influence on the modern world. It seems Affleck sees the argument through the eyes of a romantic defending a bunch of misled young boys. He was obviously not interested with anything Harris had to say or even familiar with his work which, I’m sure, he would have agreed with a lot of it had he given it a page-through.

But this is exactly where the fabric of time seems to disintegrate as logic dissolves. If you know anything about Sam Harris, he is one of the men some Christians call one of the “Four Horsemen”, this of course in reference to the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The brilliant Christopher Hitchens famously mocked the eponym by saying they were in fact “The Four Horsemen of the non-apocalypse.” Harris, as was Hitchens, is a man who is an atheist to his very core going so far as to even hating the word itself for its presumption that to be anti something, it must exist.

photo credit: jurvetson via photopin cc

photo credit: jurvetson via photopin cc

Over the years, Dr. Harris has written many books about the uselessness of religion in today’s society and other philosophical concepts. He has also debated with dozens of religious apologists from different religions and various politicians from either side, using honest and verifiable rebuttals, while also making his point. But it’s not all Dr. Harris has managed to do since he wrote the New York Time’s Best Seller “The End of Faith”, in his books he not only takes the path of the rank atheist, he steps up the game and proposes alternatives to religious doctrine, something which many before him wouldn’t do. Sam Harris has openly declared that the way towards true equality is not religion, but reason. This is where Fox, Republicans and most serious Christians come in.

The Republican Party- that’s the guys with the elephant- is, as you know, a political organization (1 of 2) that has a very strong Christian base. Ironically, the Republicans want a smaller government in theory but in reality they expand the government  more than Democrats have done, logically from their close attachment to corporations and corporate interests (which tend to favor big government), most staunchly decline the idea of man-induced global warming- or global warming itself- and they are big on weapon rights. I say this is ironic, because according to Christian principles, these do not align with Christianity or the teachings of Jesus. But among their many accomplishments, they have successfully re-branded Christianity over a generation to fit their own agendas. In a sense, they use the name of Christianity and the Bible, sometimes illegally, to justify injustice at the grandest scales to fit an outdated way of thinking. It’s not about traditional American values, it’s about slowing down progress. I’m not saying that Democrats don’t go down the same road also, but statistically speaking, not in the record numbers that Republicans do.

The psychology of the Republican party is led by the status quo. Which is why progress in areas like gay marriage and gay rights, immigration, the integration of minorities into the political scene, global healthcare coverage and the environment, among others- is rather slow.Republican elephant over bright background

America, being the melting pot that it is with its thousands of religions, thousands of languages, and hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, is, in a sense, no place for Republicans. For example, more than freedom itself, most Republicans wish that America was an officially Christian country, which is kind of like saying, “You can have freedom of religion as long as it’s Christianity.” Most also wish to make English the official language of the U.S., and limit the inflow of immigration. And while I am inclined to agree with some of what they propose in these and other areas, most I think should be rejected outright. It is, I think, safe to say that most Republican voters would support a bill to amend the part of the Constitution that grants us all, not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion. I think you can see where this is leading.

So in one corner, we have Sam Harris, a man of reason and science, and in the other we have the Republican Party, staunch defenders of the faith.

I believe that we as Americans, and within a smaller circle we as atheists, are placing the emphasis on the wrong argument. It shouldn’t be whether Affleck or Harris were right, I think the bigger question is whether Harris or the Republicans are right. Ben Affleck is indeed a hothead, but for all practical purposes, partially correct about the things he says. I believe that given all the information, he can be persuaded about this issue, or at least he would reasonably admire its assertive points. But the Reps on the other hand only agree with Harris because the flawless Christian nation they want this country to be should have nothing to do with Islam. In other words, the crusaders in Armani suits wouldn’t really be so against the idea of waging holy war in the name of Christianity. The-enemies-of-my-enemies-are-my-friends sort of thing.

The Republican party is not really in the side of reason, they just hate Islam more than they hate Harris. And in the off-chance that one of ’em rascals reads this blog, I write it with the utmost sincerity, and anybody who is willing to dispute that claim they can certainly make a case for it.

Eventually, the debate will blow over in the political spectrum and something else will take its place. But what we can take from it, is that this has opened the debate among atheists, and people of all faiths, about just how far we are willing to go to protect bad ideas. While you may think that the current form of Islam is just another religion taking its course and that it has been hijacked by psychopaths, I am willing to bet that the Islam from a thousand years ago was in many ways much more tolerant and progressive, while the Christianity from the same era was brutal and imposing. It seems the roles have changed.

This brings us to ask the question of just how tolerant we are willing to be about a religion that advocates mass murder, misogyny, and illiteracy? And no I’m not talking about Christianity, although the shoe also fits. This forces us to ask among ourselves, just how long we are going to tolerate many bad ideas that are comfortable for a few good ones that are uncomfortable. Change is difficult, but is it more difficult than human suffering and injustice?

Maybe one day, Islam will go the way of Christianity and reform itself without the help of the rest of the world. Maybe Christianity one day will become as thousands of religions have become before it, simply an interesting myth. Maybe Ben Affleck will one day read the works of Harris and understand that while it sounds pretty bad to denounce an entire population for their beliefs, it is in fact their beliefs we are criticizing. After all, no, we don’t have to respect everyone’s beliefs. I would not be willing to accept anyone’s personal beliefs that racism is a good thing or that women are not equal to men. This type of acceptance is dangerous for a population. But more than anything, I hope that maybe one day, politicians can take this all in and understand that beliefs are not mere political tools, but actual instruments of liberation or repression used by the sane and the psychotic alike in a dangerous game of chess where people die when nations go to war because of them.

 

 

If you would like to know more about Sam Harris and his website, Project Reason, and his blog, here are the following links to both, respectively.

http://www.project-reason.org/

http://www.samharris.org/blog