Monthly Archives: January 2015

Free Speech and Islam

Recently, some ads critical of Islam went up on buses in San Francisco, courtesy of controversial blogger Pamela Geller.  Not long after that, it appeared several of these ads had been defaced.  The graffiti artist covered up the message with one of their own, as well as the image of Muslim superhero Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel introduced a year ago by Marvel Comics.  The book’s muslim writer, G. Willow Wilson, approved of the graffiti on twitter.

I first heard about all this through Gawker’s io9 blog, which wasn’t very helpful because it didn’t even give any description of the content that it dismissed as “Islamophobic.”  Since their editors lacked either the journalistic integrity or the courage to print that, I’ll have to do it myself.  Next to a photo of Adolf Hitler with Muslim leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, it reads: “Islamic Jew-hatred: It’s in the Quran. Two-thirds of all US aid goes to Islamic countries. Stop the hate. End all aid to Islamic countries.”

msmarvel

The messages being sent by the vandals were confusing to say the least.  One says, “Stamp out racism”, the honor brigade‘s usual method of shutting out critics of Islam by calling them racists, even though Islam is not a race.  Another reads, “Free speech isn’t a license to spread hate”, the typical Muslim concession to a vague idea of free speech as long it doesn’t protect anything they object to.  Of course, Muslim leaders never seem to be as concerned with stopping their own from saying or doing things that other religions might find offensive.

It’s a threat to free speech whenever a group or individual believes they alone have the authority to determine what criticisms about their ideology can be seen by the public, let alone to enforce that interpretation through criminal acts.  In this case the vandals could have bought their own rival ads, or swayed public opinion through a protest or a boycott.  They could have easily taken a free picture, defaced the ads in photoshop, and then posted it on the internet and that wouldn’t have been illegal.  But regrettably, this exemplifies the disturbing trend of Muslims breaking the law whenever they don’t like something somebody says about their religion.  A few weeks ago, Muslim terrorists killed a dozen innocent people in Paris over a silly cartoon.  The government of Saudi Arabia condemned those terrorists, but then proceeded to flog blogger Raif Badawi the very next week.  And now, a manufactured representative of moderate Islam is being used to shut out another critical message with her creator’s blessing.  While they don’t all resort to physical violence (aside from property damage, of course), all of these from moderate to extremists are nevertheless examples of opposition to free speech by force.  The only discernible difference is not their level of tolerance for opposing speech, just the level of force they’re willing to exert to silence it.  It’s par for the course that a Muslim superhero is the champion of suppressing free speech.

Of course, Kamala Khan doesn’t speak for all Muslims, or even all moderate Muslims, but where are the voices of moderate Islam standing up for all free speech, not just sharia approved speech?  After the Charlie Hebdo attacks Alternet was quick to compile a list of 45 Islamic organizations denouncing the terrorism, yet this list seems less reassuring when put under scrutiny.  For starters, one of the examples (#18) is the brutal Saudi dictatorship which actively suppresses dissent with violence.  Another three are Ahmadi organizations (#’s 2, 7, and 15).  Although Ahmadiyya is the only sect of Islam that totally rejects violence as a matter of doctrine, they are at most only 1% of the worldwide Muslim population and generally considered heretics and persecuted by the greater Muslim majority, to the extent that it’s practically illegal to be an Ahmadi Muslim in several countries.  While their denunciation of violence is greatly appreciated, it not really statistically relevant because we could always count on this 1% to denounce violence, the other 99% of Muslims are the more important question.  It’s rather dishonest of Alternet to have such a small minority disproportionately representative of 6% of their sampling.  Even including Saudi Arabia, if the percentage of extremists truly were as tiny as Muslim apologists claim, then we could optimistically expect more than 90 responses for every Ahmadiyya organization that Alternet can find.  For 1 Ahmadi statement, there should theoretically be 99 statements representing the Ummah, but what we see instead is a huge blind spot of more than half the Muslim population.  This is why it’s important for Muslims everywhere to denounce violence and extremism as loudly and often as possible, because the world really has no clue where the majority stands.

G. Willow Wilson mistakenly believes the graffiti is also free speech, saying on twitter:  “To me, the graffiti is part of the back-and-forth of the free speech conversation. Call and response. Argument, counterargument.”  Some of her supporters have argued the mantra that the response to free speech is more speech, but anybody who can do basic math can see that the ads started with one message and ended with still only a single message.

Unfortunately, many misguided Western liberals have been swayed by the apologist’s “hate speech” argument.  Even if the media didn’t publish the content of the original message, they took their word that it must have been “Islamophobic”.  But while it should have mattered to those defending the censorship, the content really doesn’t matter to those who believe in the principle of freedom of speech.  One doesn’t have to approve of the message, but if you approve of it being suppressed, then you don’t really believe in free speech.  Like it or not, so-called hate speech is still free speech, and the idea of free speech exists for no reason other than to protect speech that somebody doesn’t like.  You’re not really a liberal if you support an oppressive religion silencing free speech.

Faster than you can cry “no true Scotsman!” I will argue that free speech is inseparable from liberty and liberalism–it’s a defining characteristic.  A compromising liberal accepting an ideology’s own limits of what critics can say about it is self-defeating, like a pro-lifer having an abortion or a vegan eating a cheeseburger.  Doing certain things that go completely against a professed ideology can exclude oneself from that identity.  And make no mistake, giving authoritarian religions control back over their own narratives is in effect neutering the progress of the Enlightenment and taking civilization back to the Dark Ages.  While you may freely agree with the Muslims that the criticism in question is incorrect or inappropriate, everybody should be ashamed of these lawless bullying tactics to take away another person’s right to speech.  Muslims will eventually have to start catching up to the 21st century, and Islam will have to stop being both the most easily offended religion in the world and also the most offensive.

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When Joseph Met Pliny

While studying the book of Acts, I stumbled upon an interesting piece of historical context surrounding the Candace of Ethiopia mentioned in Acts 8:26.  According to Pliny the Elder’s (23-79 AD) Natural History book VI, chapter 35:

“They stated that a female, whose name was Candace, ruled over the district, that name having passed from queen to queen for many years.”

This struck me as rather similar to a pivotal passage in the Book of Mormon:

Now Nephi began to be old, and he saw that he must soon die; wherefore, he anointed a man to be a king and a ruler over his people now, according to the reigns of the kings.  The people having loved Nephi exceedingly, he having been a great protector for them, having wielded the sword of Laban in their defence, and having labored in all his days for their welfare—Wherefore, the people were desirous to retain in remembrance his name. And whoso should reign in his stead were called by the people, second Nephi, third Nephi, and so forth, according to the reigns of the kings; and thus they were called by the people, let them be of whatever name they would.  Jacob 1:9-11

This passage is crucial because it is the visible point where Joseph Smith grafts the 116 lost pages into the finished Book of Mormon.  Joseph Smith had creatively avoided having to retell the stories that had been lost by simply re-writing the prophet Isaiah for most of 2 Nephi, but at some point he would have to resume his fabricated history.  No doubt, the lost pages included detailed genealogies which would be impossible for him to duplicate from memory–the retelling of the lost pages is noticeably sparse in names compared to the rest of Mormon’s book.  Calling each successive king “Nephi” was certainly a brilliant idea to avoid that embarrassment, but could Joseph Smith have received this inspiration from Pliny?

I can already hear the Mormon apologists combating with the usual defense that Joseph Smith was an uneducated man and this theory requires an academic level beyond the reach of a poor farmer.  First of all, this theory is not essential to proving the Book of Mormon a fraud, the lost pages alone are sufficiently incriminating for that.  This theory is merely further ammunition against a fraud, but even if this theory were proved false it wouldn’t make the Book of Mormon true.

Mormons will typically say that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known Pliny’s Natural History, but that’s rather impossible to prove.  It could logically be argued that Joseph Smith couldn’t possibly have known the Great Gatsby or 50 Shades of Grey, but the works of Pliny chronologically precede Joseph Smith and had been available in English for over 200 years at that time.  If an idea existed in print anywhere in the world at a certain time, then we can conclude that anyone could have known it at that time; to argue that somebody could not have is futile.  I don’t have to prove that a copy was available at his local library.  Of course, Mormonism is handicapped in this sort of logic considering how they explain away anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, like quoting the Sermon on the Mount verbatim, through divine inspiration.

Was Pliny unknown in Joseph Smith’s immediate community?  Unlike today, even unlearned, nominal Christians were more Biblically literate, and educated Christians were more familiar with other ancient works.  Josephus was the most frequently owned book by Christians after the Bible.  Given that the name Candace appears in the Bible, this historical background from Pliny could have easily been communicated by a knowledgable preacher to a congregation, and from there absorbed by an avid churchgoer like Joseph Smith.

Curiously, Joseph Smith had practically given up his golden plates project after the loss of the 116 pages, but he resumed after meeting his second scribe: Oliver H. P. Cowdery, the “P” standing for “Pliny”.  Even curiouser, Oliver Cowdery discontinued using his middle initials right after the Book of Mormon was published.  While I’m usually not given to conspiracy theories, this seems to suggest Cowdery could have provided Joseph Smith the catalyst to complete his book and then covered their tracks after it was published.

Olivercowdery-sm

Mormon scribe Oliver Hervy Pliny Cowdery

 

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