New Atheists Are Not Islamophobes

An article by Nathan Lean is making the rounds on the internet and it seems like everybody is jumping on the atheist-bashing bandwagon. Lean recently wrote an article for Salon – the title: Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens: New Atheists flirt with Islamophobia. Many anti-Islamophobia crusaders quickly shared it with comments like “Dawkins’ idiot brigade”. To be fair, many liberals, atheists and Christians shared it too. But Lean’s article is currently a hot favourite in circles that dislike atheists in general because of their atheist views.

If you’ve read Lean’s article, you probably already know who he is. But if you haven’t, let me fill you in.  Nathan Lean is the editor-in-chief of the non-profit organisation Aslan Media, an aggressive pro-Islamic, self-proclaimed opponent of Israel of which some members – including Lean himself – hold a reputation for making anti-Israel comments on Twitter. Aslan Media is supposedly an anti-Islamophobia crusader, taking cheap shots at Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller in the past, and been called out by Jihad Watch on more than one occasion. It is also ‘supported’ by Loonwatch, a group of anonymous people who smear almost every critic of Islam while also outing anti-Muslim bigots.  Lean is also the author of the book The Islamophobia Industry, which received a critical review by Jonathan Schanzer for the Wall Street Journal, and elicited a petulant and defensive response piece viciously attacking Schanzer by Loonwatch. As well as writing books, Lean also endorses cyber terrorism:    

A criticism of 'new atheism' is that this type of non-believer is the 'mean' and ‘in-your-face’.  Lean puts new atheists like Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens in the ranks of Pamela Geller and anti-Muslim bigots, calling new atheists ‘the new Islamophobes’. This is a little disturbing and so over the top that it sounds almost absurd.  Anyone who has read the works of 'new atheists' such as Dawkins and Harris knows that their ‘invectives’ are directed against Islam as a religion, and not Muslims. If Lean should be criticising anyone, it should be those who engage in destructive acts of terror, those who make the lives of people hell on earth by giving fatwas, those Muslims who kill Muslims and then go on to whine about Islamophobia.

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Dangers posed to atheists in Pakistan

Imagine living with the constant fear that an angry mob would torture you to death if they found out you are a free thinking person.

That’s how many agnostics and atheists live in Pakistan. Being Pakistani and an atheist is undoubtedly a dangerous combination. This does not even begin to make sense until you bring the context into the picture, which is a religious verdict about apostates being punishable by death.  So much for 'thinking freely or differently’. This religious ruling is the prime factor that puts the life of Pakistani atheists in danger. In fact ‘thinking’ is just as big of a sin in Pakistan as thinking differently. You are doomed if you decide to use your so-called god-given mental faculties and engage in critical thinking because thinking in matters of faith is a sin in itself.

Despite the fact that revealing yourself as an atheist in Pakistan is like having a death wish, some are brave enough to publicise their atheism. Yet most atheists living in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have no choice but to live in disguise as Muslims. They are often called ‘in-closet atheists’ which is not far from reality. The constant dread, dismay and the pressures have taken a significant mental toll on atheists in Pakistan as religion takes hold on the majority of Muslims in the country.

Another significant factor jeopardising the life of atheists living in Pakistan is the Penal code of Pakistan, which has laws decreeing the death penalty for various religious offences. This may or may not come as a surprise to free thinking people all over the world, but the famous ‘Blasphemy Law’ proposes death penalty for merely defiling the ‘sacred’ name of Holy Prophet Muhammad. So far many innocent people have fallen prey to the draconian law of blasphemy:

”An estimated number of 1,274 people have been charged under the stringent blasphemy laws of Pakistan between 1986, from when they were included in the Constitution by General Zia ul Haq, until 2010.” (Source: Dawn News)

The exhaustive list of people accused, jailed and even killed by radical Islamists ‘in the name of Allah’ can be accessed here.

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Suspension of Responsible Parenthood in the Philippines

Image: Protesters rally at the Philippines’ Supreme Court in Manila to protest the four-month suspension.  Source: Kalatas

On Tuesday 19 March, the Philippines’ Supreme Court issued a four-month suspension of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act. The new law would have required government health centres to provide free contraceptives and schools to teach sex education.

The suspension, which is intended to allow opponents until 18 June to present their arguments, was issued after petitions were received from religious and pro-life groups seeking to overturn the law, who are now claiming the move as a ‘partial victory’

The law came as a result of disturbing statistics in the Philippines, which revealed increased rates of teenage pregnancies and the maternal and child death rate. The maternal death rate alone has increased by almost 40% since 2006. These statistics have been linked to poor knowledge of sexual health and little or no available family planning advice. The President of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino, has thrown his support behind the law: ‘Items like sex education for instance, how can anyone argue that there is such a need, it shouldn't be deriving your knowledge from your peer group who are actually as ignorant as you.’ The President’s office reported that despite the suspension, there is confidence that the law will be retained.

Even if it is retained, opposition to the law will likely remain. 80% of the Philippines’ population of 100 million identify as Catholic and as yet the Catholic Church in the Philippines and elsewhere has vociferously opposed any reproductive health law. There is hope, however. On the day the suspension was announced, protesters gathered at the Philippines’ Supreme Court in Manila, claiming that the Supreme Court should be held “accountable to the 15 women and children who will die each day” until the law is reinstated. 

Thoughts of an ex-Catholic on Pope Frankie and his Church

On the night of 13 March, white smoke and chiming bells alerted the world that we had a new Pope. I waited, somewhat impatiently, to see who the new leader of the world’s largest religious institution was going to be. Part of me wished I could have been in the Vatican to witness the revelation for myself. Strange as it may seem for an atheist to express such a desire, it is true. As a Catholic I had once listened to Pope John Paul II speak in the Vatican and I wondered what it would be like to once again listen to a pope speak in the same location but as a non-believer. Furthermore, the revelation of the new leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics was a significant moment in history. One moment that happened to be going on just twenty minutes from my old home.

Once Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, stepped out onto the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, it quickly became clear that he would have more mass appeal than his predecessor. News contributors have talked at length of the significance of the name Francis but I realised its significance as soon as I heard the name. For eight years I attended a Catholic school named after St Francis of Assisi and I was well aware of his legacy. He was a man who was born into a wealthy family but chose to live a life of poverty. 

In his hometown of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio famously rejected the perks that came with his high rank in the Argentine church. However, it seems that religious leaders are held to a low standard when people determine whether or not they are good people. A church official taking public transport or rejecting a palatial home should not make international headlines. After all, when priests begin their ‘careers’ they take a vow of poverty. All too often though, once a priest climbs a few notches up the church hierarchy those vows are forgotten. I recall when the news broke that Pope Benedict’s butler had leaked private Vatican documents; my first thought was, ‘Why on earth does a man who took a vow of poverty have a butler anyway?’

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Racist preacher elected president of Brazil's Human Rights Commission

Tweets from Marcos Feliciano in 2011: "Africans are descendants of an ancestor cursed by Noah. This is fact. The reason for the curse is polemic." and "The rottenness of homosexual feelings brings hate, crime and rejection.

7 March 2013 was not a day to be remembered by minorities in Brazil as Marcos Feliciano, a known racist and homophobic preacher, was elected president of the Human Rights Commission by Brazil’s House of Representatives. Originally planned to take place on the 6th, the voting process had to be transferred to the 7th due to protests and rows among the voting deputies.

The Social Christian Party minister is currently being investigated for accusations of homophobia and embezzlement. He became famous in 2011 for his offensive Twitter posts, which he insists are simply biblical quotations and are just being misinterpreted.

Public demonstrations against Feliciano took place in various cities, among them 10 state capitals: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Florianópolis, Porto Alegre, Maceió, Curitiba, Vitória, Fortaleza and Salvador. But since little attention was given by politicians to demonstrations against the election of Renan Calheiros to President of the Senate despite reports of corruption – including 1.6 million signatures collected via the web platform Avaaz and 250 people gathering in São Paulo – Brazilians have little hope for any immediate result. 

However, after a recent demonstration in the city of Franca where the preacher was attending a meeting, Feliciano’s official website no longer posts his daily agenda. This is a small impact, but shows to all activists that maybe he is starting to doubt God is on his side.

New US Poll Shows New High of Religiously Unaffiliated Americans

new poll released this week by the University of California, Berkeley, and Duke University has disclosed that more Americans than ever now consider themselves to be religiously unaffiliated.

The report, released on 12 March, indicates that the percentage of Americans who do not claim any religious affiliation has reached a new high of 20 percent, the highest recorded since US religious affiliation began to be tracked in the 1930s.  This new number is more than double the percentage reported in 1990 when only 8 percent of Americans polled did not identify with an organized faith, and constitutes a steady and accelerating rise in the Unaffiliated since the 1930s when only 3 percent of Americans identified as such.

It is important to note that the research did not measure the percentage of Americans who self-identify as atheists or agnostics. Responses in the survey were to the question, “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?”

Other interesting aspects of the survey include a heavy skewing to the younger generation, with over one-third of 18-to-24 year olds claiming no religious affiliation, compared to only 7 percent of those 75 or older. Also some 40 percent of progressives and liberals claimed no religious affiliation, compared to only 9 percent of conservatives. And more men (24 percent) versus women (16 percent), and more whites (21 percent) compared to other minorities.

Some analysts attribute the trend to the heavy influence that Christian conservatives have had as of late in US politics, particularly in dominating the issues of the US Republican Party.  They describe the rise as "blowback" to the mingling of church and state in the US.

In the 2012 US Presidential election, over 70% of the religiously unaffiliated voted for President Obama, a higher percentage than any other constituency.  With this new report, it seems that the religiously affiliated will only become a more powerful and important constituency in future US elections.

While one form of discrimination is stopped, another begins...

Recently the Australian Government acted to ban the discrimination practices of churches that run aged care facilities. In a great step towards equality for older gay couples who have been rejected from such facilities, this new bill would allow churches to be sued for discriminatory practices against patients within their institutions. However, in one giant leap backwards, the bill still allows religiously-run facilities to use discriminatory hiring policies.

While the current finely-balanced federal parliament supports these measures overall, the opposition Coalition party rejects the bill, stating that it is a “back-door attempt” at allowing a human rights bill into parliament. There has also been opposition from bishops and religious institutions, claiming that the bill restrains their freedom of religion.

It has now emerged that the committee behind the bill attempted to add clauses that would make it unlawful to ‘offend’ or ‘insult’ a person (these clauses have been removed after a backlash) and the exemption that permits religious institutions to use discriminatory hiring practices has been subject to criticism. These aspects of the bill have worried several human rights groups within Australia, which have noted that several sections of the bill may contravene international human rights law.

That this bill has been drafted without consideration to its compatibility with international human rights principles is concerning.  This bill is intended to consolidate five pieces of current anti-discrimination legislation, but it does not appear that it will adequately protect our population from discrimination within both public and religious institutions.

The Catholic Church and women's health: Will a new Pope bring change?

With the resignation of Pope Benedict, does that mean there will be real change in areas where the Catholic Church is seen to be at odds even with its own people?  Paedophile priests aside, I wish to focus on the attitude of the church toward women, their health needs, and in particular contraception and abortion. There have been recent events in Europe regarding these issues which are worth discussing.

Jackie Jones, writing for the Irish Times, wrote of her disapproval of a custom in Ireland, a country with strong Catholic traditions, where medical professionals address women patients as “mother”. Catholic bishops have spoken about their “two-patient model” regarding maternity services in which mother and child are treated as one unit.  Jones’ objection is that referring to a woman as “mother” means treating that woman as a role rather than as a person; it implies that women are for breeding, and cannot be considered in separation from that role. Such a stance skews any possible discussion on abortion: “Women have the right to be treated as equal, responsible, capable human beings, independent of any roles they may assume. Women are entitled to medical services in their own right, including abortion.”

Ireland is not the only country in Europe where Catholic views have conflicted with the health needs of women. As reported by Der Spiegel in January of this year, certain Catholic hospitals in Germany refused to examine a rape victim. The case was reported by an emergency centre doctor who treated a 25-year-old woman suspected of being the victim of a date-rape drug.  After prescribing the ‘morning after pill’, the doctor contacted two Catholic hospitals, and both hospitals refused to provide the gynaecological examination requested by the doctor and the woman. This refusal was given because Catholic hospitals do not want to be in the position of having to advise victims of rape regarding possible unwanted pregnancies. The case caused uproar in the community, and a defensive reaction by the Catholic Church at the time.

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Secular Bangladeshi Youths Organise Their Own “Bangladeshi Spring”

Photo: Reuters

Outside of the “Arab Spring” movement and unbeknownst to most of the atheist community in the West, there has been an equally forceful effort in East Asia to throw off Islamist domination since its establishment as an independent country in 1971.

Bangladesh - A country that was initially created as part of Muslim-dominated Pakistan in the movement of Indian independence in 1947, and later separated from Pakistan in 1971 as an independent country - has had a schizophrenic identity since then. Having been the ruling seat of British-ruled India, the Bengal region has had a strong heritage with the British Enlightenment. The region played a major part in the Indian Independence movement. But the region is also strongly Muslim and was the birthplace of the separationist Muslim League which led to the partitioning of India and the creation of Pakistan, which included East Bengal, later renamed East Pakistan, as a nation and a society focused on strict Sharia (Islamic law).

Politics have always been complex in Bangladesh. Since its separation from India, Bangladesh has endured a series of corruption scandals, assassinations and coups that left the country mired as one of the poorest for decades and eventually led to its own war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Much of that war was driven between conservative Islamists (supported by Pakistan) and moderate-minded Muslim and secular progressives (supported by India). The Islamists formed a military faction, the Jammat-e-Islami, which later transformed itself into a political party that led the state for the first decades after independence. 

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How many knots for your problems?

During the first two Arabic months, Moharram and Safar (most recently mid-Nov 2012 to mid-Jan 2013 on the Western calendar), Shia Muslims go into a mourning period and the colour black comes into prominence. People wear black clothes. Arabic sentences written on black pieces of cloth are seen in streets, in the entrance doors of shops, and especially in mosques. During this two-month holy period, Shia Muslims attempt to find solutions for their problems. One of their solutions has always been quite strange to me.

It was the beginning of Moharram when I went as usual to the Afghan Student Union (in Mashhad City, Iran) to take part in a weekly English-discussion class. In the yard, there was a tree which had several pieces of cloth tied to it. Some of the cloths had two or three knots in them and some had many. While I have seen the green pieces of cloth tied onto the door handles of mosques or holy places before, this time it was different for me: this time, I was at a place where university students gathered. I have decided to write something about this tradition because it has found its way into a place where the younger generation is educated.

How many serious problems do you have in your life? An Islamic traditional solution recommends you to take a piece of cloth (green is preferred) and begin tying.

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In The Name of Honour

While those concerned with the negatives of atheism often concentrate on moral “ideals” that they perceive atheists could not have, they seem to forget that their own ideals give less validation to this life we have now, allowing finite time to be taken up by demonstrably petty mythical tales.

In recent times we have seen an upsurge in honour killings in the large up-and-coming powerhouse of the world, India, and from it, a greater acceptance of honour killings from the communities within these regions. While this is not an issue confined to the South Asian continent, it is an issue strongly linked to religion (and, in India, specifically, the caste system), with the ideology of these murders spreading through several doctrines of faith.

Now, with more emigration around the world (which is not a bad thing in itself), some of these strange ideologies have spread into western societies, hiding in plain sight as we wear our politically correct tinted glasses and ignore that an essential issue behind these numerous human rights abuses is religion. Proving a ‘higher’ set of morality provides justification in some people’s minds for what is simply a crime.  While when the judicial system is involved the right outcome can be achieved many people are sympathetic to the notion of allowing immigrants to keep their ‘culture’. A lot of people feel like it is too much of a messy issue to deal with.

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