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In which I interview myself about American Atheists Con 2018

Who are you, and what’s your history re: religion and stuff?

  • Raised Lutheran (ELCA) in Wichita, Kansas.
  • Became an atheist in 1997/1998 (holy crap, 20+ years ago)
  • Got my BA in religious studies in 2000 (Texas Christian University). MA in religion and culture (University of Manchester, UK) in 2002, and PhD in cognitive science of religion (Aarhus University, Denmark) in 2009.
  • First skepticism/atheism conference: Skepticon 3, 2010 (I had mixed feelings, but as it turned out, I would go on to attend Skepticons 5, 9, and 10).  I’ve also attended Skeptics of Oz conferences in Wichita. I will be attending the Secular Women Work conference in Minneapolis this August.

Why did you go to American Atheists Con this year?

  • It was in Oklahoma City, which is only about two and a half hours’ drive away.
  • Curiosity. Never been.
  • Some interesting talks to listen to, new perspectives to hear, new ideas to ponder.
  • A chance to meet some people with whom I’ve only corresponded online thus far, see some old friends again, and make new friends.
  • The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, made a statement following the trainwreck of Mythcon last year that impressed me. He said, in part:

We can’t tolerate intolerance. We can’t abide elevating those who spend their time trolling, and harassing, and alienating the very people who we’re in this fight to help. We have serious work to do and we need serious conversations about how to do that. I don’t have time to waste on people whose only interest seems to be provocation for provocation’s sake and not on making the lives of our fellow atheists better.

Our convention next year is March 29 to April 1 in Oklahoma City. Like every year, we’re going to have new people you’ve never heard from. We’re going to talk about tough subjects. But we’re going to do it without making people feel unsafe at our event. We’re going to have a great time celebrating our community and the people in it. And we’re going to do it while working to help people.

Can you give me a quick overview of the issues with sexism and sexual harassment in atheism/secularism/skepticism (hereafter referred to simply as “atheism”)?

AA Con took place in the aftermath of multiple allegations of sexual harassment coming out against Lawrence Krauss, which you can read about here.  Krauss is a well-known and highly-sought-after speaker at atheist conferences and other speaking engagements, and has continued to be even though rumors of his behavior have been circling for years prior to the Buzzfeed article. The allegations against him are only the most recent in atheism’s long history of big name male figures being accused of sexual misconduct often at conferences, which includes one of them suing an entire blog network along with specific people for publishing allegations against him.

In the face of these revelations, individual atheists have had to divest themselves of hero worship and tribalism…or have not done so, and decided to instead just double-down on those things in defense of figure being accused. At the conference level, Mythcon basically picked up the pro-sexual-harasser/misogyny banner and ran with it, which is what prompted Silverman’s Facebook comment that I quoted above, and which brings us back full circle.

So atheism is a hotbed of sexual harassment, and you went to AA Con because you thought you’d get harassed at some other atheist con?

No. Atheism probably isn’t any more of a hotbed of sexual harassment than any other movement or group, actually.  If sexual harassment is a disease, then people speaking up about it and holding each other accountable is the treatment.  An organization or movement that is led largely by men (as atheism still is) that isn’t having a #metoo kind of reckoning probably isn’t that way because it has no disease, but because it hasn’t been diagnosed yet. 

Okay, then how about you get around to actually describing AA Con?

Righto. Well, the number I heard a few times was 850 attendees, which meant that they had to sell overflow tickets because that many people wouldn’t be able to fit into the Century Ballroom at the downtown Sheraton in Oklahoma City when it was time for the keynote conversation between David Silverman and Hugh Laurie.

Hugh Laurie? You mean House?

Yup. The keynote conversation turned out to be Hugh Laurie doing a bit of stand-up and then being basically interviewed by David Silverman about his atheism. It was enjoyable and actually reminded me of why it took me so long to get involved in movement atheism. Laurie’s British, as you know, and he described the culture shock in going from England to America in terms of rampant religiosity. He noted that Tony Blair is a Catholic, and described how that was actually a liability in getting elected in the UK as a “god botherer.” “God botherer” is a pretty common, benign term of ribbing in the UK for a devout Christian of any sort, perhaps a devout religious person of any sort.

It is not, I would note, Hugh Laurie’s personal insult of choice for Christians, something misunderstood by a preacher who apparently attended AA Con and wrote this charming review of the experience. Which you should read, because it’s kind of amazing. I’ll wait.

Okay, I’m back. Wow. So, how did Hugh Laurie remind you why you didn’t get involved in movement atheism forever?

He said that there’s not really anything like American Atheists in the UK– not just because it’s the UK, but because religion isn’t nearly as pervasive in politics and social life, meaning that it’s not such a big deal to not participate in it, meaning that movement atheism isn’t really a “thing.” If nobody’s trying to pass laws requiring you to follow their religious rules and generally applying social pressure to be religious, then getting all gung-ho about not being religious can seem kind of pointless.  When I was studying religion in grad school in the UK and then in Denmark, practically everyone around me was some form of non-religious, but the idea of joining an atheist movement seemed ridiculous and rather…petulant.

I absorbed this view so thoroughly that when I got back to the States, I brought it with me.  If you read the post I wrote after attending Skepticon for the first time in 2010, shortly after moving back to the US, you’ll see that my main objection was that it was just too…..atheisty.  I saw Skepticon as a big party for atheists, which it was in part, but I missed that if you live in the United States, particularly in a place like the South or the Midwest (like Missouri or Oklahoma), a big party for atheists that happens once a year might be the only time you actually feel comfortable being an atheist. That’s important.

And Skepticon isn’t, and AA Con isn’t, just a party for atheists. The focus on church and state issues, which now includes social justice issues, that comes with both conferences carries the premise that atheists should be engaged in areas where an injustice is being committed and in which religion plays a role. That encompasses myriad issues– LGBTQIA rights, Black Lives Matter and institutional racism generally, reproductive rights, sexual harassment and misogyny, immigration issues, sex workers’ rights, the drug war, and so on.

If people on the side of injustice, whatever it is, are claiming that God’s on their side, then there’s a natural place for atheists to fight for justice. In David Silverman’s talk entitled How the Mighty Get Back Up, he outlined how American Atheists would back initiatives in these areas, none of which are specifically about atheism, if the people involved in them self-identify as atheists. That’s a big deal. The community charity event that took place at the end of the conference on Sunday afternoon, packing up 30,000 meals for the hungry in Oklahoma City, is a big deal.

Says who?

Well, says Brian Fields of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers (American Atheists affiliate), with whom I spent quite a bit of time talking. Brian’s one of the people I’ve known on Facebook for quite a while, and seemed like an excellent person, and proved to be equally so in person. He was excited about the meal-packing event because it was a chance to do activism/charity work at the conference, instead of just talking about it.

Who else did you meet? 

Lots of people. Russell Glasser (The Atheist Experience), Thomas Smith (Opening Arguments, Serious Inquiries Only, Philosophers in Space….he has other podcasts, but those are the ones I listen to), Bridgett “Bria” Crutchfield, Victor Harris (emcee for the conference), Jamie (Talk Heathen, a new call-in TV show out of Austin), Aron Ra, Andrew Hall (Laughing in Disbelief blog on Patheos)…..

I got to see Mandisa Lateefah Thomas (founder/director of Black Nonbelievers) again, and she gave a killer talk on Saturday called Who Says Community is Dead? reminding everyone how incredibly important community is, and how standards for appropriate behavior within that community are not only permissible but critical to avoid pushing out good people by holding onto the trolls. I got to meet a bunch of people from Wichita Oasis for *cough* the first time, and promised to attend a meetup soon. Josiah Mannion was on duty taking photos for the conference most of the time, but it was nice to see him again. Other people too, whose names are not occurring to me right now– apologies.

(Oh, also I was giving out freeze peaches. Everybody listed above got one. If you don’t have one, you should totally buy one. No pressure or anything though.)

What was your favorite talk?

That’s difficult to answer as there were many very good ones, so I’ll name three that stood out:

  • Gavin Grimm gave an amazing talk on how his Christian upbringing impacted his process of coming out as a trans man called Losing Religion and Finding Myself.
  • Brooke Binkowski, managing editor at Snopes, talked about the need for skepticism in journalism and everyday life in a talk called, appropriately, Be Skeptical About Everything, Including Skepticism.
  • Andre Salais, a political analyst, described his work on campaigning for atheist candidates for office in Arizona in a talk called Atheist Candidates Project: Meeting America’s Demand for Non-Religious Representation.

Were there any talks that made you cringe?

Yes.

I looked ahead in the program on Friday, and saw that on Saturday morning there would be a talk called Islamophobe delivered by Mohammed Alkhadra. Note: The title was what caught my attention; I’d never heard of Alkhandra before. I enjoyed myself at the comedy show the night before (Leighann Lord, Andy Wood, and Victor Harris), but made sure not to have too much fun so that I’d be equipped to listen to Alkhadra the next morning.

Alkhadra was born in the US but lived in Jordan most of his life, and founded the Jordanian Atheist Community when he deconverted. According to his profile on the American Atheists web site, “after giving a speech in the United Kingdom about Islam, Mohammed faced arrest and even death at the hands of the government and Islamic extremists, prompting him to move to the United States.”  I am guessing this is that speech:


The talk he gave at AA Con was kind of an extended version of this speech, and the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end. I didn’t blame them. He described the horrors of criminalizing apostasy and blasphemy eloquently and passionately, and left no doubt concerning the value of free exchange of information (he credits learning about evolution from Richard Dawkins via Youtube for his deconversion).

So what made me cringe about his talk? Well, his conclusion was basically that if speaking out against the barbarism of an Islamic theocratic government is Islamophobia, then dammit he’s an Islamophobe and we all should be as well.

But he said this in Oklahoma, where voters approved a ballot measure to amend the state constitution to ban Sharia law from state courts in 2010.  He said this while three white men from a Kansas militia are on trial for plotting to bomb a building housing Somali Muslim refugees and a mosque. He said this in a country whose president campaigned on, and then tried to make good on, a promise to ban Muslims from entering the country altogether.

I don’t actually care if “Islamophobia” is the term of choice for hatred of and discrimination against Muslims. But we need to have some term for it, because it isn’t collapsible into racism, although bigotry is messy (hence intersectionality) and the two frequently bleed into each other.

To be as clear as possible, I feel like I need to return to bullet points:

  • Hatred of and discrimination against Muslims needs to be distinguished from criticism– however vehement– of Islam. The former is bigotry (whatever you call it); the latter is not.
  • Discrimination against Muslims is and should be illegal, but bigotry against Muslims, while reprehensible, should not. You don’t need to concede that hatred of Muslims for being Muslims should be illegal in order to call it bigotry.
  • The necessity of keeping even bigoted speech legal, even when it’s bigoted speech against a minority in one country, is underscored by the need to speak out against abuses committed by that minority when it is a majority elsewhere. Supporting Ahed Tamimi does not make one anti-Semitic. Supporting ex-Muslim organizations, especially in Muslim-dominated countries, does not make one an Islamophobe.
  • Real Islamophobia– real hatred of and a desire to discriminate against Muslims– belongs to the alt-right in America. American atheists should not flirt with the alt-right, much less shack up with it, by catering to its anti-Muslim sentiments.

I understand why the audience at AA Con gave Alkhandra a standing ovation. I hope that whoever reads this can understand why I was conflicted throughout his talk.

Well…..okay then. Any other thoughts?

I’m really glad I went. So much to chew on, so much to be inspired by, such friendly and excellent people. Thanks, AA Con.

What feminists make noise about

In reply to my previous post, “Jokuvaan” made the following comment:

What you are missing here is the current double standard of european mainstream feminists treating rapes differently depending of the ethnical background of the perpetrators. So far feminists have made more noise about one man comparing women to cars than about taharrush jamai or taharrush gamae in europe. Just recently a all women college in Germany decided to shut down for the time of the carnival so that the students wouldn’t get raped if they left their homes. Some feminists go even as far as victim blaming like women shouldn’t dress so revealingly to agitate the muslim men to rape. No I’m not shitting you. Sure this cartoon is a exaggeration but its not without a hint of truth. Though I’m not blaming you as it seems you are on the other side of the Atlantic and likely have to rely on english news on the subject and frankly most european countries are not native english speaking. 

My reply:

I have a few disparate points to make in response to that so I’m going to just number them for clarity:

  1. Your working definition of “feminist” seems to be “person who makes noise about crimes against women in proportion to what I, Jokuvaan, consider to be their severity.” This is not the definition of feminism. A quick and easy definition of feminism would be “opposition to sexism and enforcement of gender roles.” Being a feminist does not mean one has an obligation to make noise about anything at all, let alone make more noise about some things than others. To say otherwise is to commit a form of moral equivalence fallacy often referred to as “Dear Muslima” after Richard Dawkins famously used those words to commit said fallacy in 2011. You can read more about the fallacy here. You can also read Dawkins’s limp apology for committing it here, though I’d note that he seemed to have forgotten about it completely by the very next day.
  2. Following from #1, a feminist’s failure to “make noise” about something cannot be construed as agreement with it, much less advocacy of it. It’s possible to care about more than one thing at a time, and it’s possible to care about something without “making noise” about it. If you declared yourself to be an animal rights activist, and I noticed that you weren’t protesting the fact that an endangered species of animal is being driven further to the brink of extinction, I don’t get to declare that you share a common ideology with trophy hunters. That would be grossly dishonest of me, especially if I wasn’t an animal rights activist myself. I don’t get to tell you how to do your activism, and I don’t get to claim you side with your enemy because you’re not doing activism in the way I’d prefer.
  3. I cannot verify your claims about what “some feminists” have or haven’t done regarding victim-blaming or reasons for shutting down carnivals, but I do wonder– if it’s the behavior of these feminist that supposedly lends a “hint of truth” to a video which claims that feminism generally has “much in common” with Islamism, isn’t it rather odd that the person chosen to represent feminism in the video is a Canadian feminist? A person who has absolutely nothing to do with any of what you’re talking about? Doesn’t that seem rather odd, that they picked a woman who has been harassed for years for the “crime” of just yelling at some MRAs, rather than one of these people whom you say are engaging in victim-blaming? 

The cartoon is not an exaggeration– it’s a bald-faced lie. It was created by anti-feminists to claim that feminists are just like Islamists if they do not…I don’t know what. Talk about Islamic misogyny all day, every day? Roam the streets trying to attack Muslim men as punishment for Islamic misogyny? Maybe just become anti-Muslim terrorists?

It’s not clear what kind or amount of opposition to Islamic misogyny would convince an anti-feminist that feminists don’t “share essentially the same ideology” as Islamists, and that’s because anti-feminists don’t actually give a shit about Islamic misogyny. They just hate both Muslims and feminists, and so it’s awfully convenient to pretend that two of your enemies are in league with each other so you can swing the same club and hit them both.

In actuality, Islamophobes and Islamic misogynists are both enemies of mine, because I oppose both religion-based and sex-based bigotry. And if you think I’m not shouting about one loudly enough, it doesn’t mean I agree with the other. It means you should do your own shouting.

Dawkins insults feminists, complains when feminists feel insulted

Last Tuesday (Jan. 26th), Richard Dawkins made the following tweet:

Text: “Obviously doesn’t apply to vast majority of feminists, among whom I count myself.
But the minority are pernicious.” 

Here’s a summary of what happened next:

Lindy West began a Twitter conversation with Dawkins, informing him that the woman caricatured in the video is a real person called Chanty Binx. Binx was recorded shouting at a group of Mens’ Rights Activists (MRAs) outside of an event at the University of Toronto in 2013, and the video made her the object of ridicule and harassment, including death threats, by anti-feminists who refer to her as “Big Red.”

Dawkins expressed surprise to learn that Binx is a real person and eventually deleted the tweet with the video, stating that death threats are never acceptable—but not before hedging on the deletion and implying that after having watched the original video of Binx, she might’ve deserved them. Even after deleting the tweet, Dawkins affirmed that Binx is “nasty” and “vile,” that she did deserve “ridicule” and “abundant mockery,” suggested that she might be mentally ill, and implied that she made up the threats against her.

The Northwest Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) had recently invited Dawkins as a speaker in spite of his known tendency to, as Adam Lee put it, “post a horrible misogynist meme, get called out on it, get defensive, go back and delete tweets, repeat.” However, as a result of this particular Twitter dust-up, the NECSS rethought their decision and uninvited Dawkins on the 27th. Steven Novella, a member of NECSS’s executive committee, made a post on his blog Neurologica yesterday detailing the thinking behind this decision.

Considering that the Center for Inquiry (CFI) made an announcement on the 21st that the skeptic organization would be merging with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science (RDFRS), Stephanie Zvan wrote an open letter to CFI’s board of directors urging them to reconsider that merger in light of Dawkins “embracing denialism of harassment.”

Dawkins, you will probably not be surprised to hear, still believes he did nothing wrong.

Text: “Now I’ve heard it all. Now I’m the one accused of generalising about ‘all’ feminists!
What can you do?
Text: “Yes, of course many feminists care passionately about Islamic misogyny. They’re
the ones NOT satirised in the ‘offensive’ joke cartoon.”

He apparently believes that because #NotAllFeminists, because he stated in the original tweet that feminists who love Islamists are the “pernicious minority” of feminists, those feminists in the “vast majority” should not be offended by a video which equates feminism with Islamism.

And let’s mince no words—that is absolutely what it does.

It was made by “Sargon of Akkad,” who I’d never heard of before. Rebecca Watson, however, describes him as a “longtime harasser of me and other women” and Zoë Quinn described Dawkins’s tweet as “promoting a guy who built a career of a stalking and harassing my family.”

Here’s a link to the video, but if it you don’t want to watch it I don’t blame you in the slightest. I didn’t want to watch it either, but did so that I could provide this transcript:

The animated video depicts Chanty Binx sitting at a grand piano, playing it. Next to her stands a man with a long nose and a beard, dressed in jeans, a jacket, and a baseball cap with a picture of what looks like an AK-47 on it. Since I don’t know if this man is supposed to represent a real person or not, I will refer to him simply as “Islamist.”

Their singing is done by a man (“Sargon of Akkad,” I assume), using an a vaguely Arabic accent (which later changes to British) for the Islamist and a whining, nasal tone for Chanty Binx.    

Islamist: I am an Islamist

Chanty Binx: I am a feminist. You might not think we have very much in common.

Islamist: But we share essentially the same ideology.

Chanty Binx: And Muslims are oppressed just like every woman.

Islamist: I say “haram.”

Chanty Binx: I say “problematic.”

Islamist: You say everything’s “triggering.”

Chanty Binx: And you say everything’s unquaranic cos you are an Islamist.

Islamist: And you are a feminist.

Both: We have so very much in common.

Islamist: I say “Islamophobia.”

Chanty Binx: I say “misogyny.”

Islamist: I blame the Jewish media.

Chanty Binx: And I blame the patriarchy cos I am a feminist.

Islamist: And I am an Islamist.

Both: A whiny pair of little spastics.

Islamist: You know what makes me feel like really marginalized, yeah? Is when ignorant people remind me that the prophet (alayhi as-salām) had sex with a nine year old girl.

Chanty Binx: Mohammed had sex with a child? Oh, that’s awesome! That means that every white sister and heteronormative pedophile here in the West is guilty of cultural appropriation! And that’s the real societal problem!

Islamist: Oh yeah!

Chanty Binx: See? It’s easy when you look at the world through problematic glasses! (laughs) 

Islamist: Oh, who would’ve thought that you and me would get along so well?

Chanty Binx: I say “social justice.”

Islamist: I say “jihad.”

Chanty Binx: I say “Slutwalk.”

Islamist: I say “Whore, where is your hijab?” cos I am an Islamist.

Chanty Binx: And I am a feminist.

Both: We have so very much in common.

Islamist: So do you mind if I rape you now?

Chanty Binx: Oh, don’t be silly. It’s not rape when a Muslim does it! (Both laugh)

Islamist: That is a good one!

Lovely, huh?

So here are a couple of obvious things to note, right off the bat:

The video itself clearly does not consider Islamist feminists to be a “pernicious minority.” Chanty Binx is presented as a feminist– she’s intended to represent feminists generally. The Islamist is, likewise, intended to represent Islamists generally– he’s not merely a “pernicious minority” in Islamism. Actually, Islamism would be better described as a pernicious minority within Islam, and if the Islamist in this video had been described instead as “a Muslim,” then Muslims would be legitimately offended at the generalization. Possibly they should be anyway.

The video mocks concepts that are uncontroversial within feminism:

  • Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold primary power (though intersectional feminists refer to interconnecting systems of power and dominance revolving around race, sexual orientation, class, etc. rather than there being just one type of privilege elevating one group over another). 
  • Misogyny is hatred of and/or ingrained contempt for women.
  • Social justice is the entire body of effort to create a more equitable society. 

The video equates feminist actions and concepts with elements of Muslim extremism that are their exact opposite, such as Slutwalk vs. calling women “whores” because they are not wearing a hijab. Slutwalk is a celebration of womens’ freedom to dress however they choose without being harassed or sexually assaulted, for crying out loud. On what planet does that indicate that the feminist and the Islamist “share essentially the same ideology”?

Likewise “haram” (forbidden) and “problematic” (problematic)?

Likewise “triggering” (eliciting a negative emotional response such as panic or fear) and “unquranic” (apparently “in violation of the Quran”)?

And of course there’s an element of pretty disgusting ableism thrown in (“a whiny pair of little spastics”) so we don’t have to wonder what kind of people this video is made by and for.

Really, based on Dawkins’s previous comments about Muslims on Twitter, including his bizarre tirade against “clock boy” Ahmed Mohamed, it’s easy to see what he was trying to get at– some feminists have the gall to think that there is such a thing as Islamophobia (bigotry against Muslims) and speak out against it, and in Dawkins’s view these feminists are not just wrong but are enabling Islamism. There are even cultural relativist feminists out there who use the term “Islamophobia” to refer to any criticism of Islam in order to stifle it.

I count myself as the former type of feminist– I’ve seen mosques vandalized or destroyed, non-Muslims denying that Islam is even a religion whose practitioners have the equal right to worship as they choose, and worst of all Muslims (and anyone who looks like they could be Muslims, such as Sikhs) being violently attacked by racist and religious bigots.

However, I’m pretty sure of a few things:

  • Islamophobia exists, and it is not criticism of Islam. It’s bigotry against Muslims for being Muslim.
  • Chanty Binx is not known for being an Islamist or agreeing with Islamists.
    And
  • There is not a feminist alive who thinks that rape isn’t rape if it’s committed by a Muslim.

I would imagine that in addition to considering himself a feminist, Richard Dawkins counts himself as a civil rights activist. And yet I’m trying to imagine him tweeting a link to a video created by a white supremacist depicting a black civil rights activist such as Shaun King singing along with an Islamist, laughing about how they “have so much in common,” because there are a “pernicious minority” of civil rights activists who say that some– or even all– criticisms of Islam are racially-based.

Because hey, he’s not talking about all black civil rights activists (even though the video is)! How absurd would it be for black civil rights activists to get upset about this video equating them with violent bigots when clearly it’s “satire”?  When obviously it’s a “joke,” and the joke is not about them? When Dawkins went to the trouble of putting scare quotes around the word “offensive,” to make it clear that only a dimwit would be offended by the comparison?

Dawkins blames Twitter’s “brevity” for the continuing cycle of his stepping in it, over and over again. He says it “forces you straight to the point, which can sound aggressive.”  But his extreme defensiveness for being called out after stepping in it, and apparent eagerness to rush straight back to the cannons to fire another volley of assholery onto the internet before the furor over the last one has died down, give the lie to this claim.

Perhaps he thinks that if you say it on the internet, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps he has too much of an echo chamber– his supporters were in full force while the exchange with Lindy West was going on– to be able to recognize legitimate criticism and learn from it.  I really couldn’t guess.

But I can be grateful to see, with his “de-platforming” from the NECSS, that this behavior at least has consequences.  Finally.

Nothing more spectacular about him

The BBC has a profile on Omar El-Hussein, the man who carried out Saturday’s killings in Copenhagen. He apparently was assisted by two other men, who have since been taken in police custody. They were charged with providing El-Hussein with weapons and helping him escape after the attacks.

We know El-Hussein was not an immigrant– he was a native Dane. He first attacked a gathering of people discussing free speech and blasphemy, and then a synagogue, in what looks like a clear attempt to emulate the Charlie Hebdo masscre in Paris in January (Charlie Hebdo offices in that case and then kosher market). Lars Vilks told the AP that he believed the Charlie Hebdo attacks “inspired” the shootings in Copenhagen.

According to the BBC, El-Hussein had in fact just been out of prison for two weeks before Saturday’s attacks. He sounds like a rabble-rouser and anti-Semite:

El-Hussein told psychologists he had a happy childhood and a good relationship with his parents and younger brother, according to a report obtained by Danish broadcaster TV2, but he failed to graduate from school or win a place at university. Classmates who spoke to the Ekstra Bladet newspaper (in Danish) remembered a loner with a hot temper who loved to discuss Islam and the Israel-Palestine conflict. He was not afraid to voice a hatred of Jews, said one. As a young man he was a criminal rather than a radical – reportedly arrested twice for possession of cannabis but let off with a warning. He took up kickboxing and began to smoke cannabis heavily. He was arrested once in a Copenhagen nightclub with a knife, and another time with brass knuckles – earning him a night in custody, according to Ekstra Bladet. But things took a much more serious turn in November 2013 when El-Hussein stabbed a 19-year-old man on a subway train. He evaded capture but was arrested by chance two months later in connection with a burglary, the Politiken newspaper reported (in Danish). He escaped an attempted murder charge, convicted instead of grievous bodily harm and sentenced to two years in prison. 

I’m sure the response by many Americans to this would be that El-Hussein just didn’t sit in prison for long enough, but short prison sentences (compared to in America, that is) are normal in Denmark, and it has worked out pretty well for the country so far.

Rather, some people are arguing that the problem– at least, I hasten to say, concerning last weekend’s killings– may have been that he went to prison at all:

Prison guards in Denmark fear Hussein, 22, was the latest case of prison radicalization — in which criminals become devotees of militant Islam. Union leader Kim Østerbye said that Hussein had been housed in Copenhagen’s Vestre Fængsel alongside extremists including convicted terrorist Said Mansor, who had previously tried to radicalize other inmates. He said many young Muslim inmates at the facility were openly anti-Semitic and cheered in happiness at news of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris in January. He said they often chanted and called for the execution of cartoonists who depict the Prophet Muhammad. The prison service would not comment on the claims when contacted by NBC News. A reporter who covered Hussein’s assault trial told NBC News that the young man had seemed liked “just a hardened criminal” rather than an Islamist extremist before going to prison. “Omar, at the trial, didn’t seem religious at all. Almost the opposite,” Jesper Braarud Larsen said earlier this week. “He just seemed like a callous, hardened criminal … nothing more spectacular about him.”

Interesting phrasing there, when “religious” in this case means “interprets his Muslim faith to justify murdering Jews and blasphemers.” That isn’t the opposite of being a callous, hardened criminal at all, is it? That’s being a callous, hardened criminal whose choices of worthy targets of crime have shifted to focus on perceived enemies of religion.

Or maybe it wasn’t that much of a shift? The passion for Islam was already there. The anti-Semitism was already there. I can’t seem to find any further details about the identify of the 19 year old man El-Hussein was imprisoned for stabbing, but if he had also been a blasphemer or Jewish (or both) it wouldn’t exactly be incongruous with either El-Hussein’s previous character or his post-imprisonment terrorism.

It’s tempting to say that Larsen, the reporter, was valorizing religion– claiming that religious people are somehow by definition not criminals– but I think it’s more likely he meant that they are not petty criminals. That “spectacular” Islamist extremists are a fundamentally different sort of person than thuggish pot smokers who carry brass knuckles to clubs.

I’m afraid– really, this thought frightens me– that they’re not. That’s the banality of evil for you.

Brief summary and context of yesterday’s violence in Copenhagen

Yesterday a symposium to discuss blasphemy and the meaning of free speech was held at a cafe in Copenhagen called Krudttønden.

In attendance at this meeting was Lars Vilks, a 68 year old Swedish man upon whose head the Islamic State placed a $100,000 bounty for his 2007 depictions of Islamic prophet Muhammad as a “roundabout dog” (As a dog, basically. An Invasion of the Body Snatchers-reminiscent creature standing on four legs with a human head, bearded, wearing a keffiyeh).

According to the BBC,

A description of the event asked whether artists could “dare” to be blasphemous in the wake of attacks by Islamist gunmen in Paris last month against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In an indication of the threat faced by the cartoonist, a note was included on the website saying there was always “strict security” whenever he spoke in public.

Inna Shevchenko of the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN was reportedly speaking when the shots were fired. She said later:

I was talking about freedom of speech. I said that sometimes one has the illusion of being able to take advantage of this freedom, but it is an illusion and it is at this moment that we heard a burst of gunfire. 

 According to Jenny Wenhammer, who was in attendance [roughly translated]:

Gunfire when Lars Vilks Committee today held an international meeting in Copenhagen on “Art, blasphemy and freedom of expression”. During the Femen International’s leader Inna Shevchenko’s speech for two hours, then were fired 20-40 shot outside the doors and all started running. The French ambassador was also there to discuss Islam. Vilks was able to escape into a cold room, and Inna fled with others out through the back door.

The French ambassador, Francois Zimeray, tweeted during the attack that he was “still alive in the room.” One attendee, however, was not. The shooter reportedly fled the area in a black Volkswagon Polo while pursued by police, leaving behind one murdered civilian, Finn Norgaard, and three wounded police officers.

The shooter, identified later as 22-year-old native Dane Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein, wasn’t finished.

A few hours later and some miles south in Copenhagen there was another murder outside the Krystalgade Synagogue, of a 37-year-old man called Dan Uzan who was a member of the local Jewish community and was guarding the synagogue while a bat mitzvah was going on inside. Two additional police officers were shot and wounded in their arms and legs.

Copenhagen police reportedly killed el-Hussein last night after he opened fire on them in the Norrebro district. The officers had been staking out the address they had identified as his, and when he returned home he pulled a gun and fired on them. They returned fire and shot him dead.

Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt did not hesitate to call el-Hussein’s acts terrorism, saying

We will defend our democracy. When the Jewish community is attacked, the whole of Denmark is attacked. The Jewish community does not stand alone. We don’t know the motive for the attacks but we know that there are forces that want to harm Denmark, that want to crush our freedom of expression, our belief in liberty. We are not facing a fight between Islam and the West, it is not a fight between Muslims and non-Muslims.

My friend and former colleague Anders Lisdorf, who lives and works in Copenhagen, had this to say:

Our company office is 100 meters away from where the “terrorist” apparently used to live and was shot. I have lived and worked in the area for 10 years. I like the neighbourhood a lot, so first of all I can tell you that most people are not terrorists, but in general very nice and decent people, so I am not afraid to go there tomorrow. I can also tell you that you cannot walk in peace with a jewish Kippa there, because you will be harassed by certain Muslim residents and violently so. The Mosques in the area have been known to preach a less than tolerant agenda. It is a poor neighbourhood with the typical problems of such a neighbourhood. The attacker was also involved in gangs and illegal gun possession. These problems are everywhere. In Norway it was a fundamentalist nationalist who was the terrorist (Breivik). The real issue is not the west versus Islam, I agree, but to protect tolerance and fight racism. We have to take issue with racists no matter whether they are Western Nationalists, Christian, Jewish or Muslim.

Calling it justice doesn’t make it just

Barack Obama shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s new king Salman
Credit: Jim Bourg/Reuters

Apparently in the uproar over beheadings committed by ISIS, some have noticed that America’s ally Saudi Arabia has committed quite a few of them as well:

The escalation of the war against the Islamic State was triggered by widespread revulsion at the gruesome beheading of two American journalists, relayed on YouTube. Since then, two British aid workers have met a similar grisly fate. And another American has been named as next in line by his terrorist captors. Yet, for all the outrage these executions have engendered the world over, decapitations are routine in Saudi Arabia, America’s closest Arab ally, for crimes including political dissent—and the international press hardly seems to notice. In fact, since January, 59 people have had their heads lopped off in the kingdom, where “punishment by the sword” has been practiced for centuries. 

In an article published today, a representative of Saudi government actually attempted a defense of this:

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told NBC News that Saudi criminal punishments were legitimate because they were based on “a decision made by a court” rather than ISIS’ “arbitrary” killings. . . “When we do it in Saudi Arabia we do it as a decision made by a court,” he said. “The killing is a decision, I mean it is not based on arbitrary choices, to kill this and not to kill this.”

ISIS regularly hands down brutal sentences based on Shariah law.

Al-Turki said that “ISIS has no legitimate way to decide to decide to kill people,” adding that “the difference is clear.”

 “When you kill somebody without legitimate basis, without justice system, without court, that is still a crime whether you behead them or kill [them] with a gun,” al-Turki said, referring to ISIS’ killings.

“Arbitrary” means “random, without reason.” If ISIS “regularly hands down brutal sentences based on Shariah law,” then ISIS’s killing are not arbitrary– they are based on Shariah law. When the Islamic State murdered French mountaineer Herve Gourdel in the mountains of Algeria, it was to threaten the French into ceasing airstrikes on the area. That is not arbitrary. When they beheaded beheaded Raad al-Azzawi, a TV Salaheddin cameraman, east of Tikrit in Iraq, it was claimed to be in retaliation for the TV station “distorting the image of Iraq’s Sunni community.” That is not arbitrary.

Is it legitimate? Is it just? No, of course not. It’s barbaric and inhuman. But is that because it doesn’t take place within a “justice system”? Within a court?

Saudi Arabia’s “justice system,” as it happens, is also based on Shariah law. As it happens, it also hands down brutal sentences.

Now, Mansour al-Turki does have a point– when you kill someone without legitimate basis, it’s still a crime regardless of how you kill them. Although in Saudi Arabia, it’s not at all uncommon for people to be killed by the “justice system” without legitimate basis. But for just a moment, let’s look at a case where someone wasn’t killed:

A Saudi Arabian man suspects his five year old daughter of losing her virginity. He forces her to get an examination, then brings her home, where he repeatedly rapes her, and beats her to death with a cane and cables. He crushed her skull, broke her back, ribs and left arm, and burned her in several places. The Saudi royal family prevents him from being released after only a few months in jail and a fine, and a court eventually sentences him to 8 years in prison and 800 lashes. However, he pays her mother blood money ($270,000 – a boy would have been worth double that price), and is released after only a couple of years.

This case is intended to be in contrast to another case of another person who wasn’t killed– at least, not yet– but has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes with a whip, for the “crime” of apostasy. Raif Badawi. According to Philip Luther, Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme,

Badawi – who founded “Saudi Arabian Liberals”, a website for political and social debate – has been in detention since June 2012 on charges including “setting up a website that undermines general security” and ridiculing Islamic religious figures. . . “Raif Badawi’s trial for ‘apostasy’ is a clear case of intimidation against him and others who seek to engage in open debates about the issues that Saudi Arabians face in their daily lives. He is a prisoner of conscience who must be released immediately and unconditionally.”

Barbaric? Yes. Inhuman? Absolutely. Exceptional in any way to Saudi Arabia’s “justice system”? Nope.

Whatever the reason for the timing, the wave of executions at the same time as jihadis in Iraq and Syria were beheading captives has brought new scrutiny to the practices of a country whose values are so different from those of its Western allies. While Saudi Arabia has joined U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State in Syria and has deployed its senior clergy to denounce militant ideology, its public beheading of convicts, particularly for non-violent or victimless crimes like adultery, apostasy and witchcraft, is anathema to Western allies. “Any execution is appalling, but executions for crimes such as drug smuggling or sorcery that result in no loss of life are particularly egregious,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.

So if ISIS were to establish its own courts, and refer to the proceedings of those courts as “justice,” and claim that this makes their own barbarism “legitimate,” could we expect the Major General Mansour al-Turki to agree?  I suspect not.

I suspect that even he knows that.

Maybe somewhere, in the back of his mind, he knows that barbarism is in how you kill someone and what you kill them for.

That torture is barbaric regardless, but especially in judgment of the content of a person’s speech.

That legality is not morality, and just because an appointed group of human beings in a particular society says that something is wrong, doesn’t mean that it is. That appointed groups of people are not, all things being equal, necessarily any better arbiters of morality than any individual human being on his/her own– and in fact, sometimes they’re worse.

That enforcing religious rules as laws may not inexorably lead to barbarism, but it will always punish apostasy over immorality, and therefore the enemies of that faith rather than those of the state.

Okay, yes, he wouldn’t agree to that. But nevertheless, the contradiction is clear. Don’t even try to defend it, Mansour al-Turki. You cannot.

And neither can we Americans. If Saudi Arabia is our ally, we will be judged by the company we keep.

In the virtue stakes, reverence leaves empathy at the starting line

In France, individual citizens run a satirical magazine, the Charlie Hebdo, which publishes cartoons making fun of Muhammad among countless other current world leaders and historical figures.

In retaliation, terrorists storm the office and murder 12 people at that office, as well as five more at a kosher market. As far away as Sudan, angry mobs attempt to swarm French embassies, and people call upon the government to expel their French ambassador.

In Saudi Arabia, people are imprisoned, tortured, and even beheaded by the government for such victimless offenses as apostasy and “sorcery” on a regular basis. That same government arrests a blogger, Raif Badawi, for blasphemy and he is sentenced to suffer ten years of imprisonment and 1,000 lashes with a whip, at a rate of 50 per week.

In retaliation, Americans trickle out to the Saudi Arabian consulate in Houston and politely wave signs asking for Raif Badawi to be freed. Nobel laureates from various places around the world gather to jointly ask Saudi Arabian academics to join them in vocally condemning Badawi’s imprisonment and torture.

Now, I’m absolutely not saying that we should adopt the tactics of terrorists and ransack and pillage Saudi Arabian embassies, or anything like that. I am, rather, asking the following:

Why the hell can’t the West seem to muster even a fraction of the same outrage concerning the ongoing torture and murder of human beings for exercising their freedom of speech, as some Muslims are able summon concerning the fact that some people, somewhere in the world, feel that the same freedom protects their right to make the occasional joke at the expense of religion?

“Why I can’t celebrate”

Valarie Kaur, a third generation Sikh American film maker, writes about why she isn’t celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death:

The last time a sudden burst of nationalism rallied us against America’s turbaned and bearded enemy, an epidemic of hate crimes swept the country.  In the yearlong aftermath of 9/11, the FBI reported a 1700 percent increase in anti-Muslim violence. At least 19 people were killed in hate murders. In the last decade, we have seen resurgences of hate violence whenever anti-Muslim rhetoric reaches a fever pitch, as it has since the firestorm around the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” last election season confirmed to politicians that they can use anti-Muslim sentiment to win political points.  In the last few months alone, Congressman Peter King held controversial congressional hearings investigating “radicalization” in the Muslim community, Tea Party protesters yelled “Terrorist!” and “Remember 9/11″ at Muslim families at a fundraiser, legislators proposed a flurry of bills banning sharia in more than a dozen states, and Arizona tried to pass a bill that would remove names of victims killed in post-9/11 hate crimes from its 9/11 memorial. It was only a matter of time before we heard news of violence.  Just a few days before the congressional hearings, two turbaned Sikhs were gunned down in likely hate crimes in Elk Grove, CA.  Another was murdered in Las Vegas.  Today, the news of Osama bin Laden’s killing does not bring an end to the hate; it refuels it.  In a decade-long “war” against terror, each time our government decides that some people are so bad that they must be placed outside the reach of law, our national imagination shrinks.  Human beings, in their fullness and complexity, become one-dimensional enemies.  It’s hard to kill people; it’s easy to kill enemies.  Frightened by Islamic fanaticism, we turned Osama bin Laden from a frail sick human being into a mythic super-criminal who embodied pure evil. So, no wonder people are celebrating his destruction.  We would never celebrate the murder of a person.  But thousands are pouring into the streets to rejoice in the death of evil incarnate. And those who “look like” him — especially Sikh men and boys with turbans and beards who have endured a decade of “hey bin Laden!” on our city streets — are waiting and hoping that Americans might change how they see. Update: Breaking News –  5/2/11 at 1PM PST Fears confirmed.  A Portland mosque was vandalized just hours after President Obama announced that the U.S. had killed bin Laden.  The graffiti reads: OSAMA TODAY, ISLAM TOMORROW. 

Will you quit making it about freedom of speech?

No, I won’t. Not when people in positions of power to do so, such as Senators Harry Reid and Lindsey Graham, suggest that perhaps they ought to take some sort of action against people like Terry Jones and his congregation for their blasphemy:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says congressional lawmakers are discussing taking some action in response to the Koran burnings of a Tennessee pastor that led to killings at the U.N. facility in Afghanistan and sparked protests across the Middle East, Politico reports.  “Ten to 20 people have been killed,” Reid said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “We’ll take a look at this of course. As to whether we need hearings or not, I don’t know.”  Sen. Lindsey Graham said Congress might need to explore the need to limit some forms of freedom of speech, in light of Tennessee pastor Terry Jones’ Quran burning, and how such actions result in enabling U.S. enemies.  “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re in a war,” Graham told CBS’ Bob Schieffer on “Face the Nation” Sunday.  

 Andrew Sullivan notes:

And there you have a classic example of how warfare abroad can curtail liberties at home. Koran burning is obviously a disgusting act of disrespect and incivility. But that very kind of act is what the First Amendment is designed to protect. And we should also remember that this war has no end, and that therefore the liberties taken away by wartime are permanently taken away.

The devil in Mr. Jones

I’m not sure it’s actually worthwhile to delve too deeply into the mind of Terry Jones. He’s far from the only Islamophobe in America, and his reasoning behind the Qur’an burning wouldn’t matter too much even if it were abundantly clear– which it isn’t. A valid argument can be made that paying any more attention to him than is absolutely necessary is part of the problem, since people can’t get outraged about that of which they’re unaware in the first place. Still, since my blog is about as far from mainstream media attention as you can get, I’ll note a few things about him.

The New York Times, which certainly is mainstream media, did a profile on Jones yesterday describing him as nearly broke, unrepentant, and disliked by his community in Gainesville to the extent that he’s contemplating moving:

“It was intended to stir the pot; if you don’t shake the boat, everyone will stay in their complacency,” Mr. Jones said in an interview at his office in the Dove World Outreach Center. “Emotionally, it’s not all that easy. People have tried to make us responsible for the people who are killed. It’s unfair and somewhat damaging.” . . . “Did our action provoke them?” the pastor asked. “Of course. Is it a provocation that can be justified? Is it a provocation that should lead to death? When lawyers provoke me, when banks provoke me, when reporters provoke me, I can’t kill them. That would not fly.” Mr. Jones, 59, with his white walrus moustache, craggy face and basso profundo voice, seems like a man from a different time. Sitting at his desk in his mostly unadorned office, he keeps a Bible in a worn brown leather cover by his side and a “Braveheart” poster within sight. Both, he said, provide spiritual sustenance for the mission at hand: Spreading the word that Islam and the Koran are instruments of “violence, death and terrorism.” In recent weeks, Mr. Jones said, he had received 300 death threats, mostly via e-mail and telephone, and had been told by the F.B.I. that there was a $2.4 million contract on his life.

The article does not note something discussed last year when Jones initially threatened to celebrate National Burn a Koran Day, which is that he moved to Florida originally from Cologne, Germany, where he had founded the Christian Community of Cologne in 1982.  This Pentecostal church still exists, but Jones was kicked out for reasons which apparently had a lot to do with his personality and leadership. Der Spiegel reported:

Former church members are still undergoing therapy as a result of “spiritual abuse,” Schäfer said. According to Schäfer, Jones urged church members to beat their children with a rod and also taught “a distinctive demonology” and conducted brainwashing. “Terry Jones appears to have a delusional personality,” speculates Schäfer. When he came to Germany in the 1980s, Jones apparently considered Cologne “a city of Hell that was founded by Nero’s mother,” while he thought Germany was “a key country for the supposed Christian revival of Europe,” Schäfer says. Terry Jones used his powers of persuasion to expand the congregation. By the end, Schäfer estimates, it numbered between 800 and 1,000 people. They had to work in the so-called “Lisa Jones Houses,” charitable institutions named after his first wife who has since died, under very poor conditions. Jones became increasingly radical as the years went by, former associates say. At one point he wanted to help a homosexual member to “pray away his sins.” Later he began to increasingly target Islam in his sermons. A congregation member reported that some members were afraid to attend services because they expected to be attacked by Muslims. “Terry Jones has a talent for finding topical social issues and seizing on them for his own cause,” says Schäfer. By the end of 2007, the community had had enough. Members confronted him and tried to change the direction of the church. But Terry Jones refused to make changes, they say. In the end, Jones, his wife and their fellow preachers were expelled from the church and he moved back to the US. “The community imploded,” says Schäfer. It only has some 80 active members today.

The article in the Guardian contains this confusing passage:

After Jones’s dismissal, a new dispute broke out over allegations that he owed the community a five-figure sum of money, Thomas Müller, a community member, told regional newspaper Der Westen. Jones eventually repaid the money, Müller said. The paper said Jones arrived in Cologne at the behest of the US businessman Donald Northrup, the founder of the Dove World Outreach Centre that Jones now leads, in order to establish a branch of the Community of Gainesville.     

So…a US businessman sent Jones to Cologne, from which he was later evicted due to being radical and abusive, so that he could establish a new church in Gainesville Florida? What?  According to Wikipedia,

The Dove World Outreach Center was founded in 1985 by Donald O. Northrup, his wife Delores, and co-pastor Richard H. Wright. The church was initially a branch of the now defunct Maranatha Campus Ministries. Northrup remained with Dove World from its inception until he died in 1996. Dennis Watson then took over as pastor, with Northrop’s wife, Dolores, continuing as Woman’s Pastor until 2004. Between 2001 and 2008, Jones and his wife served as the part-time pastors of the Florida church, and as heads of a church in Cologne, Germany; by 2004 they were senior part-time pastors of Dove World, shuttling back and forth to Germany. Jones assumed full-time duties at Dove World in 2008 after his German church was closed. Delores Northrup subsequently left Dove World, telling a reporter who contacted her regarding Jones’ 2010 proposed Koran burning, “I was not happy with the program. I think this is completely wrong”.In 2004, when Jones took over as senior pastor of Dove World, it had approximately 100 members; by September 2010 it was said to have 50 members, with about 30 members reportedly attending services. As of September 2010, Wayne Sapp was serving as assistant pastor, with Jones’ son serving as youth minister. Associate pastors are ordained within the church by other pastors, with no classes or specific qualifications required. 

An article in the Gainesville Sun substantiates much of this, except that it claims the Dove Outreach Center was founded in 1986, and describes Northrup’s wife’s name as “Elsie.” According to the Sun,

[Terry Jones’s daughter] Emma Jones grew up hearing that, after arriving in Germany in 1981, her father traveled to Cologne and received a message from God to found a church.  For the next two-plus decades, the Jones family – Terry, Lisa, Emma, Jenny and Luke – lived and worked for Terry Jones’ church in Cologne, keeping close contact with its Gainesville origins.  

It goes on to report that the Cologne church disbanded when Jones decamped in 2008, leaving his daughter Emma in Cologne with “nothing. I had no apartment, no car, no income.” About the same time Terry Jones and his wife Sylvia left Cologne, a fledgling church in New Orleans also closed.

What to make of all of this?  Well, my armchair psychologist’s opinion would be that Terry Jones is a bit unhinged. He also seems to have more in common with Fred Phelps than just their shared status as provocateurs. Jones’s views of Islam are as much representative of America as are Phelps’s views of homosexuality and the military.  Both recruited their families to the cause claiming that they were directly serving God. Both are reported to be abusive to children.  Both have been accused of stirring up outrage for the specific purpose of making money. Both receive the attention of the world simply because they have become adept at knowing precisely where to poke it.  I would be interested to know exactly what prompted Northrup to become Jones’s benefactor originally, what the initial goal was, but regardless it seems safe to say that Jones from has diverged from it by this point.  For all we know, had things gone a bit differently Jones could have become another Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. As it is, he’s just an apparently delusional preacher looking for attention. Look away, America. Look away.

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