On Koran burning and the (not) Ground Zero (not) Mosque

September 11, 2010

As I’m sure readers will now be aware, two issues have come together in the last few months over the building of a so-called Ground Zero Mosque which is actually neither a mosque, nor at Ground Zero. I first read about this online when I was in Portugal in about May or June. The simple story was that a panel of city planning executives or someone similar had refused to deny planning permission for the building of what the story called an ‘islamic centre’ near the WTC. I just thought it was two religious groups being arseholes as usual and carried on with my day. Since then it’s spun completely out of control, and it’s been dubbed the ‘ground zero mosque’, even though it’s not a mosque and it’s not at ground zero. It’s a community centre including a basketball court, a kitchen, a memorial to the 9/11 victims, and a prayer space. There has been an awful lot of punditry about the ridiculousness of the whole thing. The first piece I saw in the British press was this comment piece from Charlie Brooker in late August, but the issue’s been going in the states for ages, to the extent that when I saw the following video from Keith Olbermann I thought he was a bit late into the game, to be quite frank, even though that was still a month ago (and yet people are still talking about a ‘ground zero mosque’). It is the most thorough rebuttal of the claims I’ve seen though, and Olbermann’s a bit of a hero of mine after he pwned Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh, so here’s the video:

Of course Fox News’ coverage has been hysterical, and has drawn fire from several different sources. They repeatedly lied that Park 51’s opening day was supposed to be on September 11th, and implied that the funding for the project was coming from radical islamic sources such as the Kingdom Foundation. Jon Stewart was very quick to point out that actually the owner of the Kingdom Foundation is a very large shareholder in New Corp., the parent company of Fox News itself. The ignorance, it burns.

The Young Turks have also been pretty vocal on this issue, pointing out the hypocrisy in the position of many on the right who are against this mosque. I disagree with libertarians on a hell of a lot of things, but I at least respect them when they’re consistent, like Ron Paul in this clip. The political right in the US at the moment want a small state, and for private enterprise to step in and boost the economy, and yet when a private group wants to develop a piece of real estate in a run-down area 4 blocks away from ground-zero, they oppose it! They want the government to keep away from people’s private lives and respect individual rights, and yet now on this occasion they want the government to step in and tell a group what to do with their own private property! And they want the government to step in again and incur on people’s religious freedoms by telling them where and when they can pray! I usually consider the Amazing Atheist a bit of an arsehole, but on this occasion he is absolutely right:

Now I do think it’s missing the point slightly to keep repeating ‘This is America’ and keep referring to the First Amendment. Pieces of paper are easily changed. The reason this community centre should be allowed to be built is not because that’s what the law says, but because freedom of religion is a good idea. That argument transcends borders, time, and politics.

Then of course some nutjob pastor in Florida says he going to burn a load of copies of the Koran on September 11th. At first I didn’t think it had anything to do with this not ground zero not mosque, but the two stories have become inextricably linked now that he claims he won’t do it if the ground zero mosque moves. Is that not just blackmail? Why the hell should they move the centre, they live in that area, they own the land, there’s another centre a couple of blocks further away, there are strip joints and churches and all kinds of other things in that area that aren’t considered insults to the victims of 9/11, but of course as we all know Muslims=Evil.

So how’s the best way to deal with morons like this Terry Jones? Ridicule? That’s one possibility, and one taken by DC Douglas:

I started thinking about this in the context of Everybody Draw Muhammed Day, and why I thought differently about this burn a koran day than I did about drawing Muhammed, and it’s pretty obvious really. There are two main reasons.¬†Firstly, this is (as far as Pastor Jones is concerned) a tit for tat between Muslims and Christians, and reeks of escalation, giving it the image of a holy war between two religions. That’s not at all what EDMD was about, it was showing that the rest of us don’t have to follow the rules set by Islam or another religion.

Perhaps more importantly, EDMD was designed to show Islam as an intolerant group, many of whom will get offended at the slightest opportunity. It wasn’t just setting out to offend muslims. In contrast, lots of religious groups would also get offended by their holy books being burned. I myself find it very distasteful, and it stinks of cowardice, because instead of dealing with a piece of work, you just destroy it. EDMD was constructive, not destructive. What message does it send out to other Muslims in America? Probably that they’re not wanted there, that they’ve been set aside as different. Thunderf00t hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that book burning just has bad connotations for all of us. It’s not necessary to do something as drastic as burning books. So whilst I agree that Pastor Jones has the right to burn the Koran, I don’t support it and I think it’s in bad taste. I would have no problem, however, with something like ‘use the Koran as a doorstop day’.

Everybody Draw Muhammed Day!

May 25, 2010

Just a bit of a ramble from me. I think the best context to put this in is the 2005 cartoons controversy, where some cartoons were published in a magazine that depicted the prophet Muhammed, most memorably the one with a bomb in his turban (which actually wasn’t depicting Muhammed for all you trivia-lovers out there, it was just some Muslim and everyone got carried away with it), and subsequently embassies got attacked, people died and there was that infamous protest in London where some muslims carried signs saying ‘death to those who insult Islam’ and ‘UK you will pay’ (if that’s not inciting terrorism I don’t know what is – no arrests though as far as I know).

Let’s just recap at this point. Some people drew cartoons… and in response some muslims killed people.

Now there was also the thing more recently where Comedy Central decided to self-censor and depict Muhammed in a bear suit instead of as himself or something like that in an episode of South Park, but that was really just the straw that broke the camel’s back and seeing as I don’t watch South Park I wasn’t too bothered about that. I don’t blame them to be honest, they have a responsibility to their employees and I wouldn’t be prepared to put someone else’s life at risk of attack. It does seem a little bit hypocritical to attack pretty much every religion except Islam, but that’s something I can understand. The important this is that where South Park failed, the internet took over. You see muslim extremists can attack Danish embassies and Viacom’s studios, but how are they going to attack the internet? You may think that’s a stupid question, that of course they couldn’t attack the internet, but Pakistan actually tried! A judge ordered Facebook, YouTube, and about 500 other websites blocked in Pakistan, which is stupid for several reasons. It’s pretty simple to get around that kind of block but more than that, it put Everybody Draw Muhammed Day into the mainstream media where it can be noticed, instead of just on a few people’s YouTube channels and a Facebook group that people wouldn’t see, particularly if they don’t use Facebook or YouTube. Everywhere I’ve seen mainstream coverage, it’s been saying it was a ‘facebook competition’, which isn’t strictly true, but anything else wouldn’t fit into the media’s long-established narrative that Facebook=Evil.

If you take a look at that BBC story just above, there’s a strange comment which illustrates a weird contradiction in how I feel about this:

I feel that the court should not have blocked facebook and instead let Pakistani muslims use the website as a forum to protest what they felt was wrong and blasphemous. However, I do believe that Facebook should monitor content published on the website and control the formation of potentially volatile groups that could be offensive to certain religions. It is a commonly known fact that muslims feel strongly about pictorial depictions of prophet Mohammad and Allah (God) and, therefore, people should be respectful of that instead of trying to irk muslims and create controversies just to prove that ‘muslims’ in general are a fundamentalist and unreasonable people who do not believe in freedom of speech.
Ansareen, Karachi

The last line tries to make out that muslims do believe in freedom of speech, and yet earlier in the comment they say that facebook should control the formation of potentially volatile groups. The thing about freedom of speech is that you can’t just allow what you personally agree with. Now I actually did take part, here’s my little crappy attempt:

Hopefully you can see it. Why did I do it? Because I support freedom of speech and I wanted to show that, and I also wanted to make clear that I don’t have to follow islamic rules about drawing the prophet, and that people making death threats isn’t going to scare the whole western world into compliance. I didn’t do it to be offensive, in fact as you can see the picture is deliberately not offensive, just a little picture of a guy with a beard. Ordinarily I wouldn’t go out of my way to draw Muhammed, but when people are making death threats because they’re used to having others follow their rules, and suddenly people decide they’re not going to do it anymore, then I think sometimes a demonstration is in order to stand up for freedom of speech and expression, even if other people find what you’re saying offensive. Noone has a right not to be offended.

I know what you’re thinking and I know, I am usually the last one to tar all muslims with the same brush. That’s not what I’m doing here. If you’re a ‘moderate muslim’, someone who doesn’t threaten violence at the drop of a hat, then this is not against you. I’ll even apologise for any offence I’ve caused. I mean people like British Muslims for Secular Democracy, who late last year held a protest holding signs saying things like “Debate those who insult Islam”. The people I don’t mind offending are the ones who want to shut down debate, the ones who threaten violence to get their way (a form of terrorism in itself), the hypersensitive ones who’ll get offended at the drawing of a cartoon. They can go screw themselves, freedom of speech is here to stay, to help protect the rights of everyone.

Now there was an element of this event that I didn’t like. Thunderf00t used completely militant language as if he were fighting a war, talking about waking sleeping giants:

Others used their pictures to be really offensive, showing Muhammed being screwed up the arse for example. I really don’t think there was any need for that. The point was to show Islam as an intolerant religion, many of whose members will get offended at next-to-nothing. If you showed pictures of Jesus getting shagged (or getting sucked off for that matter), Christians would get offended too, so you’ve proved nothing. Other comments bordered on racism, which I really didn’t like. But of course I’m no better than the people trying to censor debate if I try to stop people doing something that I personally found distasteful. So what did I do about it? I left comments on a few pictures saying what they were doing was unnecessary. I made this blogpost explaining why. I used my words to try and persuade. I used my own freedom of speech. That’s how civilised people solve their disputes. No petrol bombs, no death threats. When we have freedom of speech, there’s no need for that kind of primitive behaviour.

Rowan Williams and Sharia Law

February 11, 2008

There are 2 things I’d like to blog on today but I think I’ll do the other one tomorrow. I’m on a reading week in 2 of my subjects so I’ll have a bit of time.

Anyway there’s been a lot of controversy across the UK this week because the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has said that Sharia Law is ‘unavoidable‘ in Britain, and that he would encourage parts of it to be incorporated into British Law in order to aid social cohesion. This is rather difficult for me because I’m going to defend his position from the attacks I’ve heard most commonly on online forums discussing the issue.

First of all, a lot of people have been saying things like “why should we follow Sharia Law when it oppresses women and has lots of other human rights issues associated with it?” That’s the very definition of straw-man argument. Dr Williams hasn’t said that we should oppress women or cut off people’s hands or whatever, he’s merely suggested incorporating certain aspects of it. Presumably that would mean taking the good bits rather than the bad, so we shouldn’t think about what he’s asking for as bringing Sharia Law, intact, to Britain.

The next one I’ve noticed is something like “if they want to come to this country they should stop trying to change Britain and abide by British Law”. There is a general widespread assumption which associates Islam with a geographical region in the Middle East. There are plenty of Muslims who are British, they’re not all immigrants. Just because Sharia Law might be active in places in the Middle East, doesn’t mean that British Muslims have all come here from there. To take this thinking further, now that it’s clear that many Muslims are British, would people who make this assertion also deny British people of other ethnic or social groups the right to request changes in legislation?

For example, last year gay people in Britain won the right to civil partnerships. Was this wrong? Should they have just accepted their lot and “abided by British Law”, and stopped trying to change Britain? No, I don’t think so. Just as British homosexuals have the right to request changes in legislation to accommodate themselves better, so do British Muslims have the right to request legislation to accommodate themselves better. If everyone stopped trying to change Britain, then we’d still be in an absolute monarchy stuck with slavery and strict blasphemy laws, and only landowners would have the vote.

When I first heard the news, my first concern was for the rule of law, and I’ve heard many people making similar statements. You can’t have one system of law for some people and another for others. Everyone within British jurisdiction should live by the same laws, otherwise the system becomes unworkable. 2 legal systems would also fail to aid social cohesion, because it could only be a divisive force. I think I was remembering the similar situation they have in Ontario, Canada, whereby in order to save on court time, two individuals may agree to arbitrate a civil dispute using any form of authority that they both recognise, most commonly religious law.

But we’re being unfair here. Dr Williams has said nothing about having 2 parallel systems of law, merely incorporating aspects of Sharia Law into our own system. There would be no such problem and the rule of law would remain intact. Our law is fluid and it would just be a change in legislation, just like any other.

So it sounds like I’m all for it, doesn’t it? Not exactly, I just think the arguments that are being used against him are characteristic of editorials in The Sun and really 2 dimensional. I have no objection to what he’s saying, but I don’t see the point in suggesting it. Surely the aspects of Sharia Law that would be desirable in our system are things that we’ve already thought of and are already part of our law? So we’re either taking positive aspects that we’ve already got legislation on, or we’re taking negative aspects that are undesirable.

The way he thinks it would aid social cohesion tells me that he thinks the mere fact that it would be taken from Sharia would tell Muslims that we’re listening to them, so in effect all he’s suggesting is that we take our existing laws and point a big arrow at it, saying “look, this is the same as this in Sharia Law! We value our Muslim citizens”, thereby Islamifying our laws to make them look more appealing. Which isn’t really doing anything, so why’s he suggesting it?

In any case I think he was pretty stupid to bring this up. He’s fully aware how many racists and xenophobes there are in this country, and he’s bringing a giant hammer down on his own head. The suggestion is just going to fuel hatred for Muslims in anti-Muslim groups, and possibly allow them to gain support. It was a stupid thing to say.

Afterthought: As a related aside, I’d like to make it clear that just because a piece of moral guidance comes from a religious source, doesn’t mean that I’m going to disagree with it. I personally agree with many of the teachings of Jesus, and I’m sure I would with many of Mohammed’s if I took the time to read them, but I will make up my own mind in each individual instance and won’t take guidance merely on authority.