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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.”


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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Mormonism: The Other Brand X

In 1981, the Book of Mormon was printed in the edition currently in circulation today.  Under the radar of most non-Mormons, even its title was revised, to the now familiar “Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”  This edition was to usher in a new public relations-driven mission which would effectively change the Latter-day Saint image and double the church’s size outside the U.S. in the next few decades.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been fond of the LDS church’s version of the Book of Mormon.  Although it has a plethora of useful cross-references and footnotes (usually, but I could write another entry on some of the references that are deliberately and suspiciously left uncited), its double-column format and tiny margins don’t leave enough space for my hands-on method of analysis.  That’s not surprising, really, most other religions I’ve encountered aren’t as accommodating with their sacred texts as I’m accustomed to with the Bible.  I just may have outgrown my wide margin NIV, but it looks like Zondervan discontinued that model anyway, in favor of an edition with a full blank page for note taking.  On the other end of the spectrum, Muslims discourage writing anything in the Qur’an, which I believe is a major impediment to Islamic scholarship.  Baha’i publications are serviceable but limited to a single edition of each, many times just a cherry-picked anthology.  The ISKCON edition of the Bhavagad Gita is useful in that it has Hindi, English, and Swami Prabhupada’s commentary for each verse, but it doesn’t leave much room  for anything but his concentrated focus.  The Bible has been subject to much more extensive critical analysis than any other sacred text on earth, yet even when other religions seem to promote study, their publications have confined parameters outside of which the faithful do not venture.

On a recent visit to the local temple’s visitor’s center to ask some questions, I brought my own copy of the Book of Mormon that I use for research.  I had found a reader-friendly edition online which is exactly the same text, just in single-column paragraph form; it still doesn’t meet my needs, but the version that would doesn’t exist in print (I hope to change that someday).  Despite my having been flipping through this edition to read passages, and even using its fore edge to demonstrate my Biblical analog theory, after we’d been discussing for a half hour the sister interrupted me to inquire what book I was using.  She was noticeably surprised when I told her it was the Book of Mormon.

At that moment, I was suddenly aware of how foreign this was to them, and how much of an outsider it made me.  Go to most churches and (aside from pew Bibles) you’ll see people carrying diverse translations of the Bible in a wide range of editions from various publishers; it’s unusual for two people to have the exact same Bible by coincidence.  You couldn’t tell people in your church to turn to 1 Chronicles 1 and expect any of them to be on the same page number.  At the temple, however, one is surrounded by translations of the Book of Mormon in dozens of languages, yet they still

the Book of Mormon's trademark look is instantly recognizable in any language

look uniform.  The text is different for each language, but the fonts and formats are all the same.  In fact, the primary differences in the versions carried by the missionaries and visiting Mormons seem to be symbols of status.  Only prospective converts ever use the cheap, free copies.  Initiated members have at the very least the hardcover edition, but more likely a “triple” combination (Book of Mormon+Doctrines & Coventants+Pearl of Great Price), and others a “quad” (the triple with the Bible).  The most well-to-do, of course, have the deluxe leather bound quad with their name engraved.  Even though the shape and size may vary, their configurations are homogenous, with identical typeset and printing common to all of them.  Every page is alike in every one of them, so that Ether chapter 8 is always on page 500.  Every English Book of Mormon was the same, except mine of course.

When the title was changed in the 80’s, the LDS church began a campaign to re-brand themselves and their sacred texts, so that Mormons now have a cultic loyalty to their brand that borders on fetishism.   The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now a corporate logo with worldwide recognition, displayed prominently on employee elder name tags, publications, and buildings.  The Book of Mormon is no longer a book in the traditional sense: words transmitted through a physical medium, that could exist hypothetically in print, in speech, or even in memory.  Instead, the Book of Mormon is a household name product, and its loyal customers refuse any generic facsimile, no matter that all the contents inside are the same.

Mormons certainly aren’t the only ones who do this, of course.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are as fanatically loyal to their Awake! and Watchtower magazines, not to mention their own branded translation of the Bible.  Hare Krishnas visibly recoil if I mention the Gandhi or Vivekananda translations of the Bhagavad Gita.  Baha’i scriptures are published with a uniform trade dress in ersatz King James English, and even though none of the Bab’s major works have been translated or printed in full in any language (not even the original Arabic or Farsi), Baha’is I’ve encountered are hesitant if not reluctant to read unofficial, provisional or modernized translations available online because they are lacking the Universal House of Justice “stamp” of approval.  And while translations of the Qur’an are abundant in English, every self-respecting Muslim knows that the only real version is the standardized Arabic text.

They all seem to feel a sense of comfort and familiarity from their preferred brand, the same way I can flip through a bargain box of comic books and stop every time I see the DC comics logo while paying little attention to Marvel or other companies.  DC knew the power of their brand recognition, which is why they retained the DC “bullet” logo for nearly 30 years, only changing it for a major event; and why they’ve almost never altered the Superman logo, except for minor tweaks.  As a comic collector, I can completely understand the psychological propensity to want to accumulate a line of books of uniform design, which is essentially a cult, or religious following.  But preferring a religion isn’t like buying DC over Marvel or Coke over Pepsi; loyalty of this extent not only prevents the consumer from examining any alternatives, it also prevents them from any serious inquiry into their own faith.  Like a faithful customer who eats a certain food brand because that company tells them it’s good for them, but never independently researches a consumer report or outside nutritional information, these fetishists don’t approach their sacred books with the same critical questions that have long been standard to Biblical scholarship.

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The New Orientalism

the snake charmer

Jean Léone Gérôme's "The Snake Charmer"

In the 19th Century, the first Orientalists ventured to the Middle East from the West.  European artists and photographers like Jean-Léon Gérôme and Félix Bonfils went to the Holy Land looking to find inspiration from Biblical scenery.  What they found instead were cities approaching modernity and bearing little resemblance to the first century ideal in their imagination.  So instead, they painted the mosques and towns as they envisioned they would have been unchanged for centuries, not as they actually were.  They narrowed the focus of their camera lenses, shooting outside the bustling cities for more exotic scenery in the countryside: a shepherd tending sheep, a woman at a well, a poor fisherman.  Personal subjects were limited to those in traditional dress of scarves, veils, and robes.  They obsessed with the foreignness of the culture, emphasizing the barbarity of stoning, beheading, the washing rituals, the call to prayer, mosaics, snake charmers, and the Circassian beauties.  The Orientalists sought to capture the East not as is or even was, but as it was in their minds.  The Orientalists had seen the bigger picture beyond the camera’s romanticized reach, but their audience in the West who would largely never travel there themselves depended on this limited focus for their picture of the Muslim world.  While it was known on varying levels that this was not the extent of Islamic culture, it was the predominant impression, nonetheless.

In 1978, Edward Said published his seminal work, Orientalism, which redefined the term to refer to a postcolonial Western bias towards Arab culture.  The Islamic landscape was altered within a year of its publication, when the Ayatollah conquered Iran and Wahabism took over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  Said’s impact on Western attitudes has only increased exponentially since 9/11, even though most people affected by this paradigm shift have never even read his book.  But without it, it’s unlikely that we would have the term “Islamophobia” in our lexicon, or that that “religion of peace” would be a euphemism for Islam.  Respect to Muslim sensibilities are at the forefront of US domestic and foreign policy, perhaps demonstrated no better than in the respectful way the military disposed of Osama Bin Laden’s corpse.  Criticism of Islam is quickly becoming unacceptable, as Americans are increasingly asked to become tolerant of intolerant values in conflict with universal human rights.  Cultural relativism has made us helpless to judge the oppression of women and minorities, not even in Afghanistan where the Taliban was overthrown, only to be replaced by a government that is, in everything but name, essentially the Taliban.  Everywhere in the media, from news coverage, to DC Comics’ joint publication of a Kuwaiti superteam, to Turner Classic Movies’ Arab Images in Film series this summer, there’s a concerted effort to re-educate the public about Islam, shatter the old prejudices, and create a new identity for Muslims.  As a nation, we seem to be apologizing for stereotypical attitudes and colonial transgressions, past and present.  We will probably have to apologize for a long time, in light of the mail bombs sent from Yemen last year addressed to historical figures from the Inquisition and the Crusades if that’s any indication of how long Muslim grudges last.

Heightened security and nearly 18,000 deadly terror attacks in the last ten years are a heavy reminder that an unquantified block of Muslims around the world hate the West.  But instead of responding to this fact, the West’s reaction has been to ask “why do they hate us?” with the rhetorical assumption that it must be something we have done.  Regardless of the answer we supply (occupation, blasphemy, capitalism, freedom, democracy, etc.), we have not only accepted the Muslim grievance without any critical analysis, we have also resorted to victim blaming.  In the extreme effort not to base assumptions about Islam on a narrow stereotype, the West’s new apologists for Islam have simply chosen a different narrow scope to point their camera.  In presenting a limited, romanticized ideal of Islam, they are following the same pattern as the Orientalists before them.  They don’t want us to see the whole picture, only the one they imagine.

These New Orientalists have isolated their picture of Islam through the West’s individualism, constantly reminding us that not all Muslims can be judged by the actions of a few.  While that premise is true, their agenda surfaces when their conclusions about Islam are based on a converse that Muslims can in fact be judged on a sampling of their own selection.  Overlooking the deplorable treatment of women, gays, and minority religions throughout the Muslim world, their favored perception of Islam is double-weighted on the minority of Westernized Muslims.  It matters little to them that Muslim countries are the most homogeneous in the world, with many countries comprised of 99-100% Muslim.  They have parsed “radical” Muslims from “moderate” Muslims, and no matter how small the latter may be, that romantic ideal is what they hold must be true Islam.  Of course, they have to then overlook the fact that all the identified assault rapes in Sweden last year were committed by Muslims, or that Amsterdam, birthplace of gay marriage, has become the gay-bashing capital of the world thanks to Muslim immigration.  They condemn a lone preacher in Florida who burns a Qur’an for the actions of Muslims a continent away who murder people who had nothing to do with the incident.  To the New Orientalist, the West bears the responsibility for the bad behavior of Muslims.

The problem with this view is that it’s actually more condescending than the Orientalism of the 19th Century.  Treating Muslims more delicately because we don’t expect the same good behavior from them as from the general public really degrades Islam.  For instance, the South Park episode that “incited” Faisal Shahzad to attempt to bomb Times Square also depicted Jesus Christ, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, and Joseph Smith in even more unflattering depictions than Muhammad, who was never actually shown.  Islam, however, was the only offended religion that inspired terrorist attacks.  The belief that our behavior must change to accommodate the lowest common denominator religion presumes an unspoken barbarity that’s not shared by all the other faiths.  Similarly, when Muslims force women to dress in extreme modesty, it’s actually an insult to Muslim men to treat them as if they’re handicapped by a lack of sexual self control that’s not present among non-Muslim adult males.  If we believed that Islam were truly civilized, or even just that it had the potential for civilized co-existance, we would not be excusing behavior that we normally wouldn’t.  Their common false equivalency is to compare Islam’s development to being as young as Christianity in the Middle Ages.  This ignores the history of Islam in the Middle Ages and how little has changed since then, or that Mormonism, the Baha’i Faith, and virtually every religion that has appeared since then has grown up faster in less than 200 years than Islam has in 1,400.  It would be absurd to believe that a religion started tomorrow would have a license for a thousand years of abuses, and so accepting this behavior from Islam hints at an inferior perception of Muslims, whereas expecting more from Muslims is actually showing them dignity and respect.

Yet these same apologists simultaneously treat Islam as though it can’t be changed.    They decry critics of Islam as “racists”, even though Islam is not even a race.  Western women donned headscarfs in solidarity for the “Today I am a Muslim too” rally, as if the hijab is an unalterable characteristic like skin color.  Their failure to treat Islam as a multi-racial, supra-cultural religion lowers it to a degrading stereotype.  The impression they give is that they really think Islam is a primitive culture endangered by modernism and in need of special protection.

The 19th Century Orientalists impeded the impression of Muslim development to preserve images of a bygone era, while today’s Orientalists have inhibited advancement to create an equally fictitious narrative.   Instead of pretending that gender apartheid is acceptable in Muslim countries, it would be more respectful to call for reform; not doing so does nothing to advance the status of women in Islam, and only gives the impression that Islam cannot be reformed.  Killing people over cartoons is childish, savage behavior, but continuing to reward this behavior by not treating Muslims as adults in the 21st Century will never change anything.  Restraining our criticism of the religion has only emboldened the more radical Muslims, who see non-Muslim respect of Islam as a validation of Islamic supremacy.  Some ex-Muslim critics, like Wafa Sultan and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, may argue that Islam cannot be reformed, but the apologists are not helping their own case by not even enabling an environment for it.  Only the future can say whether reform is really possible or not, but first we need to get beyond calling critics “Islamophobes”, to stop tolerating intolerance, and to start condemning inexcusable behavior.

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Everything I Need to Know about Islam I Learned from Comic Books

I originally wrote this about Islam, but the same principles are evident in Mormonism as well.

Super heroes, like all mythology, have always shared similarities with religion. I don’t just mean similarities in the narrative, like the Judeo-Christian undertones of Superman (sent by his father from the heavens to earth to perform miracles, die, and be resurrected), the Greco-Roman mythology intertwined in the Wonder Woman mythos, or the Norse mythology in the Mighty Thor. In a monthly, serialized format, super hero comic books demonstrate an accelerated model of the evolution of all myths and religious figures, doing in less than 75 years of the medium’s history what normally takes centuries of scriptural and parabolic evolution. The way comics are written, edited, and even interpreted is analogous to the formation of new religious traditions. A fundamental continuity device in serialized fiction is retroactive continuity, or retcon for short. Retconning is absolutely necessary in long-running comics like Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman, who have been in continuous publication since the 1930’s and 40’s. Wonder Woman, for example, had a consistent history until the death of her creator in 1947, after which subsequent writers disregarded her established continuity to varying degrees. The combination of these textual discrepancies and the passage of too much time since the World War II origin required a full reboot of the series in 1986, in which writers and editors attempted to recognize an official canon and reconcile the contradictions into a single, coherent narrative. One of the major retcons in this process was changing Wonder Woman’s primary antagonist from the more popular name Mars of the Roman pantheon to the more historically accurate Greek version, Ares. This is remarkable not only as a retcon in the Wonder Woman comics, but also because the transition from the Greek gods to the Roman gods is itself an obvious example of a retcon in a religion. Religious retcons result more or less from the same causes that affect serialized fiction: over the passage of time, as new works are in production, there is a departure from the original source material that persists until some event causes an editor to reboot and/or reconcile the narrative. There is no better example of this process than in Islam, which purports to be based on its predecessors Judaism and Christianity, while agreeing with very little in either religion, not even in details of the narratives. If anybody thought the teachings of Christ were a departure from Judaism, Islam would prove the two are completely compatible by comparison. The characteristic effects of the passage of time in serialized fiction are imprinted in the utter lack of chronological definition: Jesus’ mother Mary is the sister of Aaron, the brother of Moses, who encounters Hamaan (from the book of Esther) in Pharaoh’s court. Muhammad’s revision of the Bible is essentially 2,000 compressed years of Jewish history all taking place simultaneously. When looking at the retcon of Judeo-Christian history in the Qur’an, it is first important to understand that the earlier Biblical stories of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were constantly being retold and embellished in the centuries after Christ, just like serialized fiction. Along the trade routes on the Arabian peninsula, far removed from the epicenter of Christian orthodoxy, Muhammad would most likely encounter the exiled heretics and rejected theologians traveling in caravans. This limited exposure to Christianity would be comparable to developing a religion based solely on what one overheard at truck stops. When looking at the Qur’an’s source material, then, it is less insightful to look at the original canon of Scriptures, that remain intact and unchanged, and instead focus on the writings that followed, like the pseudepigrapha, Jewish commentaries and traditions, heretical Christian writings, and even Zoroastrian sacred texts, all of which have more in common with the Qur’an than the Qur’an has with the Biblical accounts. Just like in a comic book retcon, there was no problem with the first edition of the stories, the inconsistencies came about later from writers with either little knowledge of or little regard for the original books, which polluted the overall continuity. Thus, when it came time to make a reboot in the form of the Qur’an, it was flawed from the start because it was weighted with source material that was flawed. Sometimes retcons are received favorably by the fans, but other times they are rejected even if they succeed in their goal to reconcile conflicting stories together. In a business sense, however, a retcon can be considered commercially successful if it attracts new readers. When this happens, fan communities split into two camps: the newbies, who will never read the original stories and don’t know or care about the changes; and the purists, fans of the original stories who, for whatever reasons, dislike the changes. Ultimately, the Qur’an is symptomatic of a commercially successful yet largely unpopular retcon, where purists can rightfully argue that no change was ever needed except to abandon the stories that were unfaithful to the narrative in the first place. The newbies, on the other hand, just don’t care.

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