Archive for the ‘Religion/Human Rights’ Category


Keep Your Children Out of Your Politics

April 24, 2017

The US is trying to come to terms with the fact that it has been taken over by a mediocre crime family, which is currently in the messy process of grafting an oligarchic rulership clan onto the organs of state.

While I applaud those who have campaigned to prevent this from happening, I must also say that I find some aspects of political activism in general quite disturbing.

For example, Senator Elizabeth Warren (with whom I would probably broadly agree on most issues), proclaimed how inspired she felt recently, when she saw a man at the Women’s Rally, carrying his little daughter on his shoulders:

…And she was holding this carefully hand-lettered sign, and it said: I fight like a girl….

This little girl was clearly of no age to be actively involved in such a horrid political fight as this. Children are certainly capable of figuring out what they think is right and wrong, and certainly capable of recognizing a creepy, disgusting or absurd adult when they see one, but they should not be roped into a political fight against such an adult. Even if the child doesn’t immediately experience it so, this is far too much of an emotional strain for a small child. Elizabeth Warren should not be celebrating such (ab)use of children for (her) political purposes.

There might be understandable reasons for taking a child to a political rally — no babysitter, or maybe as an educational experience, if you have good reason to think your child might find it interesting to see a crowd of people marching about holding sticks in the air. But it is unethical to use your child as a political prop for your political purposes.

Despite what Elizabeth Warren thinks, a small child is too young to have developed a reasoned position about how the country should be run. What’s more, it is impossible for a child to grasp how complicated politics is. Worse, a child will almost inevitably become emotionally attached to the idea of your side “winning”.
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There is No “Western Paradigm”

October 4, 2015

The argument that there is an inherently exploitive “Western” way of perceiving the world, reflects justifiable concerns about neo-colonialist oppression and bigotry. But while it is perfectly valid to criticize lazy or demeaning assumptions about other cultures, the term “Western paradigm” can also be used in a similarly lazy manner, to discredit a particular line of inquiry.

There are other problems with the use of such terminology, too. Often, characteristics that are labeled “Western” are in fact universal. Racism, greed, and colonialism are not exclusively Western; nor, on the positive side, are curiosity and reason. 

It’s neither Western, nor inherently oppressive, to ask straight forward questions about matters of fact. Yet, as we shall see below, such questioning is often dismissed as part of the Western paradigm that tries to subjugate everything to the standard of reason.

The historian Tom Holland made a documentary film a few years ago. in which he asked whether or not the early accounts of the Prophet Mohammed’s life and the development of Islam are really true.

Holland, of course, was aware that the questions he was asking (as well as the evidence he found) were likely to upset some people. He was not merely concerned for his own safety, but also aware that he occupied a privileged position of some academic power, far removed from the people whose history and traditions he was studying. Of course he also comes from a culture that has often exploited and oppressed many predominantly Muslim countries.  

At one point in the film, Holland asked a professor of Islamic Studies if he thought that this line of inquiry was “complicit with the brute fact of Western imperialism”. The professor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr responded:

No, not necessarily, as long as you remain aware of what you are doing. If you come as a western scholar or historian and in all honesty present what your world view is, and say, “When I look at the Islamic world from this paradigm, this is what I see”, and bring out why this is different from how Muslims see themselves, then I think it’s a very honest effort…

This is an intelligent and reasonable answer — an invitation for Holland to do his research and present his results. It is a stark contrast to those who screamed abuse and Holland and made death threats. But Nasr also makes some highly questionable assumptions.

He continues:

Gradually in the West, for the intellectual elite, the sense of the sacred was lost. A tribal person in Africa or in the Amazon has a natural sense of the sacred, whereas a graduate student at Oxford probably doesn’t….. It is from the West that this kind of history came up: that reason is the ultimate decider and judge of the truth…

But “this kind of history” — checking stated facts against available evidence — did not arise “in the West”. It arises pretty much all by itself from human nature. To ascribe it purely to “the West” does a disservice to everyone who has ever asked the simple question, “Is that really true?”

In the 9th Century in Persia, the celebrated physician Al-Razi considered the scriptures of his own culture and started a discussion for which he clearly was not celebrated. He noted that the various prophets contradicted each other and therefore cannot possibly all be right; nor can revelation — varying so wildly between the divine authorities — be trusted as reliable.


Prophets are impostors, at best misled by demonic shades of restless and envious spirits. But ordinary folk are fully capable of thinking for themselves and in no need of guidance from another….

How can anyone think philosophically while committed to these old fairy tales founded on contradictions, obdurate ignorance and dogmatism?

Reason, he argued, unlike revelation, is available to all.

Persian_Scholar_pavilion_in_Viena_UN_(Rhazes)Muhammad Zakariyā Rāzī (Al-Razi/Rhazes)

Al-Razi’s genius and importance as a physician no doubt protected him from serious persecution. (His heretical writings, however, were destroyed and are known only from quotations by those who argued against him.) Obviously, anyone daring to speak like that in Iran today would be in grave danger. 

Moreover, if someone speaks like that today in the West, they will probably be accused of letting their imperialist Western paradigm get the better of them. Or, that label’s big brother would be applied and they’d be called an Islamophobe. And, of course, the accusers would remain baffled by the issues raised, and meekly capitulate before their own ignorance for a few centuries more.

Naturally, bigots find it easy enough to doubt the religions of others too — but never their own. (One You-tube user who uploaded a copy of Holland’s documentary used the name martyr4Jesus!)

If there is a peculiarly “Western paradigm”, it would involve the use of the term paradigm.

This idea of a paradigm is quintessentially Western. Of course, the complete package includes the notion of a paradigm shift — which for some reason is only ever predicted to be awaiting those who supposedly hold a “Western” or “materialistic” paradigm. I can’t imagine Professor Nasr predicting that the Amazonian natives will have a revelation and drop their supposed “sense of the sacred” in favor of a materialistic paradigm.

Similarly, the “sense of the sacred” is a vague notion whose only clearly defined quality is a fence that divides it from the “materialistic West”.  The whole of Western scholarship is deemed to be an inherently exploitive paradigm that ethnocentrically distorts and demeans its subject matter, simply to avoid the uncomfortable truth that some stories are myths rather than factual history.

One non-Western academic who took issue with this over-simplification is Ibn Warraq. His book Defending the West identified three aspects of Western culture that are overlooked by those who see Western scholarship as inherently colonialist.

Here is Warraq’s list:

1. Universalism, i.e. recognition that the rights granted to oneself must be granted equally to others.
2. Curiosity and learning for learning’s
sake. (Edward Said had claimed that all knowledge of the Orient was acquired merely to enable colonialist exploitation. Warraq refuted this by pointing to the vast German scholarship of the 19th Century that was carried out in countries where Germany had no colonial interests.)
3. Self criticism.
(I would place the awareness of various paradigms in this category!)

To sum up, it is certainly easier to practice free inquiry in the West. But this should make us want to try to spread this freedom to non-Western countries, not do the opposite: to hinder and devalue it with pejorative labels and lazy judgments. It is ironic, and potentially disastrous, that the only truly Western idea that might ever spread to the Orient is that reason is not a universal quality, but part of an exploitive Western paradigm.

Posted by Yakaru


Rudolf Steiner, Racism, Nazis & why Anthroposophy doesn’t grow up

August 24, 2015

Anthroposophy was developed by Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) in the early part of last century. It is best known for Waldorf Schools and Biodynamic farming. I studied it quite deeply for several years in my youth. I read a mountain of books, attended training courses and a national conference, and taught at their schools. (This was in the late 1980s and early 90s.) I seriously considered a career as a teacher in the Waldorf School system, and became a member of the Anthroposophical Society. I even went to their head quarters in Switzerland, a visit I still happily remember.

Goetheanum_im_Winter_von_Südwesten2The Goetheanum: designed by Rudolf Steiner

Several things troubled me however, most especially that some aspects of Anthroposophy appeared surprisingly racist. I put up with it for a while, believing that it only sounded racist because of the culture Steiner came from. My tolerance level was also raised because, as I was frequently told, the Nazis had closed the Waldorf schools. I accepted the implication that Anthroposophy must be the very antithesis of Nazism.

It is indeed true that Waldorf schools in Germany were ordered to close by Heinrich Himmler. But here’s a word of advice to Anthroposophists: if you tell people that your movement was persecuted by the Nazis, you also need to tell the rest of the story. Like the fact that Rudolf Hess supported Anthroposophy and wanted to keep the schools open. Why wasn’t I told that?

And why wasn’t I told that although Himmler didn’t like the schools, he did like Biodynamic agriculture? Even more importantly there was a Biodynamic farm at Dachau concentration camp. Weleda, (the Anthroposophical company well known today for cosmetics), provided doctors at Dachau with chemical supplies for experiments on prisoners. But I never heard anything about that when I was told about the closing of the schools.

[CORRECTION: it was SS Chief Reinhard Heydrich, not Himmler, who closed Waldorf Schools (in 1938 and 1941).]

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How Aspects of “moderate” religion morph into dangerous politics

August 11, 2015

Religious leaders are routinely invited to participate in the running of the state, and to enter public discourse on matters about which they haven’t a clue. Their ideas are often totally absurd and transparently self-interested, yet it is widely considered impolite to remark on the worthlessness of their contributions.

Curiously, it is not just religious types who enforce this blanket of politeness. It is often non-believers (especially those inhabiting the “liberal left“) who are quick to tell critics of religion to shut up. “Religion”, they feel, must not be treated as a single category. We must distinguish, they say, between religious “moderates” (who can be indulged as harmless or as potential allies), and extremists (about whom it is frequently asserted are not even religious at all).

Society gains little or nothing from this meek politeness. But worse,  extremists — whether “truly religious” or not — use this welcoming and non-judgmental climate, as a context for gaining access to the hearts and minds of the young.

Below, I outline numerous elements of “moderate” religion that are routinely indulged by democratic societies. These elements themselves may be more or less harmless, but refusing to contest their obvious (if at times trivial) flaws, we are effectively abandoning our first line of defense against extremists.

Problematic Aspects of “Moderate” Religion


While religion does build communities, it also inevitably creates outsiders and heretics. Due to the arbitrary nature of religious beliefs and practices, there is no way to engage rationally with others about doctrinal matters. Agreeing to disagree is the only peaceful option. But there can be no resolution. The differences will remain, ticking away like a time bomb for generations. They can at any time be invoked as a means to divide people for political ends. (Mussolini cited the monophysite heresy of the Abyssinians, dating back to the 5th Century, as a justification for his invasion of Ethiopia in 1936!)

Ownership and Personal Identity

Religious people identify deeply with their religion or sect. This is no doubt partly a consequence of human nature, but it also involves a calculated strategy on the part of religions to effectively own people. A child is declared to “belong” to some strain of belief, before they can even speak or run away.

To illustrate the extent of this “moderate” presumptuousness, allow me to share that the Church Tax Office in Germany (where I live) is currently checking the records of the Catholic Church in Australia (where I was born) to see if I was baptized. Were they to find my name I would be legally forced to pay an 8% tax on my income for the last 15 years. 

Despite having failed to realize that Nazism is unethical, the Church in Germany is still taken seriously enough to be granted legal access to people’s earnings — on the grounds that they know the mind of God and represent His financial interests.

St Bernhard Hitler Gruß St Bernhard still gives the Nazi salute from a 1936 church tower in Berlin (author photo)

Special Status for the Priesthood

In a healthy society, any special status a person might be granted is attached to the special role that person plays, not to the person themselves. A police officer is only allowed to boss people around under strictly defined circumstances when on duty. Otherwise they have no special rights. Priests, however, claim that they are themselves special — that they belong to an elite class with divinely ordained privileges. 

Obviously, when religious fanatics start recruiting, or when crooks have seized government, this special status immediately gives them swift access to people’s private lives and instinctive submissive impulses. The hierarchical nature of this power structure conditions people, whether they are religious or not, to accept political and religious overlords as a fact of life. (Christopher Hitchens makes this point cogently in the latter chapters of God is Not Great.)

Reward and Punishment

Closely related to this is the fact that priests promise their subjects that god will reward temporal obedience with eternal life in paradise. Priestly authority is built squarely on this foundation — and they don’t have to lift a finger to reward anyone. 

They also invented hell of course, (the most repellent and immoral idea ever formulated). But while they entrust God with rewarding people, they have always happily accepted the burden of punishing sinners themselves. For some reason they don’t want to leave sinners in peace and trust God to deal with them later.

False Ideals and Denial of Human Nature

By creating impossible ideals, religions set people up for guilt, failure, and fear of punishment. It is also psychologically unhealthy to believe that some people (saints, prophets and priests) are holy and have no shadow.


This pernicious nonsense is damaging even at its most moderate, yet it is routinely tolerated. In the hands of religious fanatics with power, it becomes perhaps the most invidious tool of oppression and misery. With barely a stricture needing to be altered, it can form an ostensibly credible basis for arbitrary persecution.

The Surrender of Reason

To steal a few lines from Christopher Hitchens, religion — moderate or extreme — involves deciding that the deepest questions about the nature of reality and of our personal existence are to be decided without recourse to rational inquiry. There is of course a long religious tradition debating the role of reason in relation to revelation, but reason has always come out second best.

How can the young be expected to see through the ravings of a religious extremist, when they have never seriously encountered the idea that God does not exist in the first place? As Al Razi pointed out in the Tenth Century, the revelations of the prophets are contradictory, irrational and divisive; but reason is equally accessible to all. (Had he said that today in Iran, he would certainly be persecuted. In the West he would no doubt be called intolerant by the left, or an Islamophobe!)

Closing Thoughts

Religious freedom is a civil and human right. In a secular society people must be free to practice their religion and identify themselves as a member of any peaceful religious group without fear of persecution or discrimination. Strangely, (or maybe not so strangely) many religious people don’t like this idea at all. Ensuring the religious freedom of others necessarily involves curtailing one’s own proselytizing ambitions. This potential loss of power is, no doubt, what religious leaders find so threatening. Public criticism of religion doesn’t “upset the moderates” as much as liberals claim, as open debate should hold no danger for sincere and sensible believers. It does however, undermine the status and influence of a privileged and useless elite.

Let us stop meekly and politely pretending that the elements listed above are useful or necessary for a productive or creative life. They are the accumulated mistakes of history, kept alive for oppressive and parasitic purposes. We need to see them for what they are, and to allow the young access to an antidote for their poisons.

Posted by Yakaru


Easter Post: Random Thoughts on Religious Literalism

April 3, 2015

I appreciate the idea that Jesus’ crucifixion is a symbol for how we all “have a cross to bear”. And that those in an unbearable situation can take some solace from the thought that a higher being shares their suffering. That’s what myths are for. We all need fictions, because life is unbearable without them.

And I can understand that sometimes we even need to consciously let ourselves believe that our fictions are true… However, if you do this openly or in public, you risk looking silly. It also destroys the initial feelings behind it, because you have to become bullish enough to withstand ridicule or your own fears and self-judgments. This destroys one’s sensibilities and turns the original feelings into parodies of themselves.

I don’t know exactly where the image below comes from — it’s from an Australian newspaper. It’s one of the few occasions when Jesus and the Easter Bunny have been photographed together in the same habitat.

easter bunny jesus

Some guy has tipped ketchup all over himself, imagined that despite the hideous thrashings and beatings that a crucifee would have gone through, he would still have been able to keep his loincloth (or diapers?) neatly in place, and then stood on a post and pretended to be miserable….

…..While children walk by and receive chocolates from the Easter Bunny.

Folks, there’s a better way to do this metaphorical stuff.

Below are some (poor quality) pics I took inside one of the most extraordinary buildings I’ve ever seen, the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba. It’s a huge mosque with — incredibly — a cathedral stuck in the middle of it.

The contrast between the two approaches to the “sacred” is striking. First the (Andalusian) Islamic approach — no images of humans or animals, just color and designs, forms and empty space; and then suddenly in the middle of it, we’re confronted with torture scenes and bleeding Jesus.

The site was originally a Roman style Visigoth church. Then with the rise of the Umayyad caliphate-in-exile in the 8th Century, it was turned into a stunningly beautiful mosque, using some of the remaining Roman columns; dual arches inspired by the magnificent Roman aqueducts, blended with Islamic architecture and some new innovations.


Double arches on top of Roman columns, with red brick alternating with limestone — brick giving strength, limestone flexibility. It is impossible to adequately describe the visual effect of all this. The columns in this enormous area, stretching off into the darkness, give a sense of space and meditative stillness; while the red and white double arches are buzz for the senses. Really, it’s like an architectural acid trip with a vision of eternity.

The hall used to hold 20,000 people for Friday prayers. From inside an alcove (see below), the imam would preach.



Muslim rule eventually collapsed, due partly to in-fighitng among Muslim leaders, the rise of Christianity as a military and political force, and of course, the random cycles of history. (See Maria Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World for an engaging history of the period.)

King Ferdinand II destroyed the center of the hall in the 11th Century and inserted a cathedral in it. The mosque became a glorified entrance hall. (Horrendous as this was, it probably saved the building from later destruction.)

So, in the middle of that extraordinary space, we suddenly get hit with bleeding tortured Jesus. From the profoundly evocative metaphorical to the crass and literal. For my taste, the shock of this change of style is extremely jarring, and accompanied by a great sense of loss.


In dark alcoves all around the walls tortured and bleeding saints join with dozens of bleeding Jesuses. (It must have been fashionable at that time to emphasize how horribly chapped and grazed Jesus’ knees must have been. This one’s knees are only a bit grubby in comparison with the others in there. I think I counted about two dozen Jesuses, nearly all with horribly scraped knees. In some cases you could see the bone.)

So to Christians I say, you guys lost something when you removed old Judaic prohibition on images. It destroys all mystical or intuitive feeling. It enforces a particular way of experiencing and imagining things and inhibits others, and generally cheapens everything. Art is one thing, literalism, in my opinion, is another.

22A parrot would have been just as appropriate

Literalism is the death of spiritual feeling, in my opinion, and is always present in oppressive religious systems. There is only one way to interpret the literal, and that’s which ever way the most powerful priest says it is. For Christianity, the Inquisition followed the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Andalusia. Islam saw the triumph of the literalists over the philosophers, and a general stagnation of Islamic culture.

Posted by Yakaru


Everyone has the right to question Islam and draw whatever they want

January 13, 2015

I don’t want to be told by some cartoonist at the Guardian that I should not draw any pictures of the Prophet Mohammed. And I don’t want to be told that it is — or “might be” — racist to do so.

moonNope. Racist cartoons are hate speech, not free speech. Getting firebombed or killed by fanatics does not automatically mean you’re a racist either. But assuming that a billion people will all react identically to a drawing, well that quite probably is racist.

It’s okay, I know I can avoid it by not reading the Guardian. I’m not complaining.

But I do hear this demand not to draw the Prophet from elsewhere too, including from some Muslims. Okay, I can accept it a little more easily from them, but I’m only prepared to take it seriously if I’m offered some very good reasons. And that’s where the trouble starts. No reasons are offered at all. So, of course — and this will shock some people — I have some questions.

Why was it not “offensive to Muslims” to depict Mohammed in the 15th Century?

0_01The Prophet Mohammed — not offensive in 1489

What changed? It looks to me like historically the censors won, and now they are even instructing me to comply. The order has been relayed to me through the pious pages of their craven and unwitting representatives at the Guardian, and secondly, of course, through generalized threats of violence.

And if I don’t comply, I’m a racist, and possibly a dead one. Well I’m sorry, I don’t respect people who talk to me like that.

It is entirely human to want to depict things. It’s human nature. The only reason to order people to stop being human is to get power over them. And that is what’s behind this insane and pathetic edict about not depicting the Prophet.

And are there really no Muslims today who would wish to depict Mohammed in their art, or see religious art depicting him? (And how does anyone at the Guardian know there isn’t?) Christians and Hindus do it all over the place. Every human civilization ever known does this kind of thing. Are all 1.5 billion Muslims different to the rest of humanity in this regard?

Usually people who make absurd generalizations about enormous groups of people are called racists. But here, that term is reserved specifically for those who do not talk in this stupid and ugly manner.

And what would happen to a Muslim who did just that — depicted the Prophet? For a start, they would be called culturally insensitive by the Guardian, and hounded by the same idiots on the left who call Ayaan Hirsi Ali “intolerant” and Maajid Nawaz a “neocon”. I assume I don’t need to say what would happen to such a Muslim if they lived in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.

…….But luckily absolutely no Muslim would even dream of depicting the Prophet in their art, or of wondering about the veracity of the stories about Mohammed. Of course they wouldn’t — that’s just the way those fellows tick. They’re kinda different and exotic. They don’t even notice the censor’s rules. In fact, they love having the censors there to protect them from thinking the wrong thoughts. They need it, the poor darlings. And any neo-colonialist Westerner who speaks out against the censors is endangering the blissful insularity of the 1.5 billion Muslims who flourish under their protection…….

I’m sorry, I’m not buying it. None of it. It’s not wrong to draw pictures or to ask questions. It’s human nature. I cannot believe that all 1.5 billion Muslims have en masse given up this aspect of their humanity. Not all of them. Look in the jails for a start; read Amnesty’s list of political prisoners locked up, tortured, executed for asking questions.

This isn’t religion or spirituality. This is crass, blatant and ugly politics. And remarkably stupid and unrefined politics, at that. Anyone who’s fallen for it should be ashamed of themselves.

I don’t doubt that many Muslims feel upset about those Charlie Hebdo cartoons, especially if they don’t understand them. And they have every right to complain if they wish. But they also have worse things to worry about — like the dark age that has suddenly descended upon the culture they identify with.

You say that Islam deserves respect? How can I respect something — anything — if I’m not allowed to find out what the heck it is? Asking a few polite questions about it, as historian Tom Holland found out, leads to death threats from fanatics and censure from non-Muslims.

You say that Islam has a good model for how to run a modern state, but don’t want to answer any questions or have it criticized? This is why it’s called Islamo-fascism. It’s the very definition of totalitarianism. We can stop it there. You’ve disqualified yourself from being taken seriously. And don’t switch back to saying your feelings have been hurt or that I’m a racist if I question it.

If you want to say that the killers are not the “real” Muslims, well I can understand why Muslims would feel like that, but it’s still no reason for not being allowed to ask questions. In fact it makes it even more important. These lunatics are roaming around using the Qur’an as a recruiting tool. That is where this war started — on the battleground of propaganda. Keeping publicly important ideas like Islam away from public scrutiny gifts political leaders a free hand in shaping, interpreting, and blatantly lying about those ideas to maintain power.

You idiots have no arguments at all. And you either resort to violence, or, in the case of the Guardian, to pious lectures about racism. This is damaging to human beings, regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.

The liberal left still hasn’t properly woken up to this. And on the political right, some church groups are waiting to pounce on the next opportunity to introduce their own anti-blasphemy laws. (Fine by me guys — if you like this medieval stuff, it was blasphemous to translate the Bible into English. You can start by banning that.)

I keep hearing this has nothing to do with religion, and I kinda agree in a way. Religion is being used as a political tool, and uses the cloak of piety to avoid scrutiny and avoid losing its persuasive power. So by questioning it; by pointing and laughing at it when its conceits are revealed, we are not insulting anybody’s religion, just their politics. It’s their own stupid fault if they don’t understand the distinction, not mine. And their politics in this case needs to be opposed right now with everything we’ve got.

Posted by Yakaru


Why does the Left oppose criticism of religion?

August 17, 2014

It seems to me that the political left has generally got its thinking about religion badly muddled. Too often people on the left adopt the role of religious apologist, both attacking critics of religion and defending religion itself. I think they have misunderstood the nature of religious criticism; misunderstood the aim of religious criticism (namely a secular state in this case); and probably misunderstood the nature of religion itself along with it.


It is indeed necessary when criticizing religion to emphasize that freedom of religion is a basic human right. It’s abhorrent, stupid and self-defeating to see all Muslims as potential terrorists. But the left seems to be so fearful of even appearing to make this mistake, that it ascribes any negative aspects of religion to fanatics alone, as if their religion had little or nothing to do with it.

This approach stifles an important debate about secularism: the separation of religion from the power of the state.

Such a broad accusation like the one I make here is in danger of being too vague, so for the sake of clarity and brevity I’ll focus on one example of what I’m talking about.

This article from Jonathan Freedland, a senior editor at the Guardian newspaper, deals with the Islamo-fascist group ISIS, (now calling itself the Islamic State). The headline and sub-heading explain Freedland’s intentions:

This Islamic State nightmare is not a holy war but an unholy mess

It isn’t religious zeal but the collapse of state power that makes the clash in Iraq feel like a return to the dark ages

It is a typical and convoluted piece of religious apologetics from the Guardian. And typical for the left in being swift to blame all conflict in the Middle East on the US and neo-colonialism, while denying that religion plays any role much at all. Rather than making excuses here, they should step back for a moment and look at the phenomenon of religion as a whole.

All the main religions of the world are a system of ideas that grant special status to some people, and negate the rights of others. While the majority of religious believers may not always abuse the powers their system implicitly grants them, it is still a readymade system that can be swiftly utilized by those who seek power over others

The sudden rise of ISIS is an obvious example of this. Cutting off hands, stoning adulterers, declaring war on Shiites, Jews and Infidels… Although their success has clearly been enabled by a power vacuum, they are religious in character from start to finish.  

Freedland, however, sees it differently:

Yet neat though it is to see return to holy war as the motif of our age, it might be wrongAccording to Toby Dodge [scholar of Iraqi politics], what’s driving IS, or at least making its phenomenal success possible, is not pre-modern religious zeal so much as a pre-modern absence of state power.

Let’s look a little more closely at the wording here. First, he implicitly accuses critics of religion (“enlightenment types” as he calls them) of resorting to “neat” or simplistic explanations. Well, in what way is an openly declared Jihad not a holy war? And the insistence on the term “pre-modern” is also rather curious. Who is Freedland targeting for criticism here? As if these “enlightenment types” are rushing to write off the whole of Islam a mere relic from the dark ages. As if criticism of religion amounts to nothing more.  Also, why not refer to “religious fanaticism” instead of “pre-modern religious zeal”?

But most importantly, it’s a false dichotomy. There is no reason for it to be either religious “zeal” or the break down of the state that has brought about the rise of ISIS. Could it be any more obvious that it’s both? But the whole point of the article to deny the obvious. 

And there is no reason why the collapse of law and order is necessarily “pre-modern” either, so why insist on it? We may find out when we read further:

The state structures of both Iraq and Syria have all but collapsed. The result is a power vacuum of a kind that would have been recognised in the lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago – and which IS has exploited with the ruthless discipline of those long ago baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.

Such is the fear of sounding like a bigot when discussing Islamic fanaticism that ISIS must be compared to “baronial warlords who turned themselves into European princes.” Why “European” specifically? Why not Chinese? Or, for heaven’s sake, the old imperial warlords of the Caliphate, who ISIS are so keen to emulate in word and deed?

And why specifically “lawless Europe of seven or eight centuries ago”? Doesn’t a more recent analogy spring to mind? Like pre-Nazi Germany, with German society standing for Iraq and Syria, and Nazism for ISIS.  The similarities and differences would be revealing if Freedland or Dodge would allow them. 

Nazism was hate-driven, with a racial/religious hierarchy built in to its ideology. The same with the ideology of ISIS. Both of course are deeply anti-semitic and equally committed to the obliteration of their rivals as well as their enemies.

One important difference, however, is that ISIS comes complete with a highly detailed and ferociously strict set of pre-installed rules to govern every aspect of the daily lives of its subjects, carried over directly from the Koran. It was a bit different with Nazism. While being broadly determined by Christian anti-semitism, Nazism was in fact rather vague about most matters of public policy, especially at the start. Hitler often decided policy disputes by letting the various factions fight it out for a while and then simply back the strongest, subordinating policy to political expediency. This would be unthinkable for the ISIS leadership. All the rules are already there in the Koran (more or less), commanded by God, and rolled up and ready to go. This fact is too uncomfortable and inconvenient for Freedland and most of the left. The totalitarian nature of these rules needs to be criticized and openly condemned, regardless of whether or not the left deems Muslims likely to enforce them or not.

The point of all this is not for people like me to smugly gloat over the “pre-modern-ness” of Muslims, as Freedland seems to think. There is an important argument to be had here, about the separation of religion and state. I don’t care how “moderate” or trustworthy any member of any religion is. The most effective way to prevent the spread of ISIS and their followers is to close their door to state power and nail it shut with clearly worded legislation.

There would be no need to decide who is moderate and who not. How absurd. But it would mean reducing the powers of all those who have gained it by virtue of their religion. The only religious “moderates” who are upset by this idea are the ones who are in power (permanently installed in England’s House of Lords, for example), or who benefit in other ways (the state-collected Church Tax in Germany, for example). And of course it would anger those groups who are not currently thus privileged but would like to be — like religious fanatics, for example! 

The left has failed to comprehend this and has thus ceded important ground in the struggle for civil rights. And, incidentally, once you agree to grant “moderate” religious institutions a hand in government, you have simultaneously granted yourself the power to decide what a “moderate” is — a back door to the very kind of neo-colonial arrogance the left is trying to avoid.

Update 18 Aug ’14: Perhaps I should have referred to “many in the secular left” rather than just “the left”. I do know that not every single person on the left shares the perspective of Freedland, but I didn’t feel the need to add other examples because I’m not “accusing” the left holding such views — many hold them quite openly, especially at the Guardian. I am simply arguing with those who do hold such views, and arguing that we can avoid looking like bigots by focusing on separation of religion and state, for all religion. That also allows us to avoid getting tangled up in the question “Is it religion or politics” like Freedland does. If it happens in public and affects others, it’s politics. Religion is often politics.

Posted by Yakaru