Bloody Fools

UPDATE:

It has been amazing and distressing to me that responses to this blog from a cadre of readers have focused only on the twin lunacies of Islamic extremism and Christian triumphalism.  Some of them want to vindicate Terry Jones as a kind of litmus test for their belief that a butterfly is enough to ignite the Muslim world–so why worry about an ox?  If there is logic there, it must be part of the initiation ritual.

Some have even taken the “What would you expect?” line, as though Mr Jones’s actions necessarily excited the “Muslim animals” and renders him, therefore, innocent.  From what tank is that slimy conclusion fished?  The further logic is that Islam is all about violence anyway, so a a little more (what’s the difference) can hardly be laid at the door of a Florida fundagelical.

Some respondents think that there is a moral equivalence, such that Terry Jones and the Afghan and Pakistani responders are cut from the same cloth. How that renders Jones innocent or raises the dead I am not sure. I find that kind of response both uninformed and worrying. Very worrying coming from nonbelievers, and maybe because it raises in my mind questions about whether a certain level of atheism isn’t also an impediment to moral reasoning–specifically that kind that finds all religions “naturally” guilty of atrocity and hence no one at fault and no one innocent of crimes.

Yet one wonders if Mr Myers–who also figures in this story–had been approached by NSS agents and told that his act of “desecration” would lead to the loss of life,  would have gone through with it.  Something tells me that the redoubtable Dr Myers would have relented. Because he knew his was a stunt.

Terry Jones’s acts were not a stunt: they were intended to light fires and kill innocent people.  Indeed they were done to prove that innocent people would be killed.  “For some of them,” he said, “it [the torching of the Qur’an] could be an awakening.”

…The world was reminded of the 30-person Christian congregation at Dove World Outreach Center on Friday, when a mob incited by the burning of the Koran attacked a U.N. compound in Mazar-e Sharif, killing seven U.N. employees. On Saturday, related protests in Kandahar left nine dead and more than 90 injured.

Jones, 59, had considered the possibility that burning the text might elicit a violent response and that innocent people might be killed. In his characteristic drawl — a slow-motion delivery that seems incongruous with the church’s fiery rhetoric — the pastor said the church also debated whether to shred the book, shoot it or dunk it in water instead of burning it. But in the end, his desire to shed light on what he calls a “dangerous book” won out. The Koran was burned in a spectacle streamed live on the Internet. To reach out to Muslims overseas, Jones included Arabic subtitles….”

As if we needed evidence. That, thankfully is the difference between an atheist Koran hater and a fundamentalist Koran hater: and if ever there were a clear bisection of the “rules” for blasphemy, this should be it–because people are dead as part of the definition.  Jones now plans to move house so to speak and put Muhammad on trial next month.

To my atheist colleagues, I say: please, before you snipe, try to understand.  We are not yet at the point where atheism is the “cure” for anything, least of all for the kinds of violence these acts have made manifest.  I know that it’s tempting to think that unbelief is the silver bullet cure for all the atrocities of religion [Imagine], and that a world free of it would be world in which neither Terry Jones nor Afghan extremists would hold sway.  Arguably that would be a more peaceful, reasonable, less violent world.

That is not the world we live in, so the question of what to do does not only involve the meager 1.6% of the population of America willing to identify as atheists, who have their answer and are sure it’s the right one, but the 1.66 billion Muslims in the world who want to differ.  The choice, frankly isn’t about No God or Your God; it’s about moving beyond the short-sighted religion-bashing of some atheists to a realistic position where criticism of religion can be effective.  That is the only business plan worth discussing.

Ultimately, the way forward is going to be a matter of tone and technique, not the outcome of the work of a few commando God-bashers writing from the safe haven of first world democracies telling the majority how foolish they are.

_______________________

What do Professor P.Z. Myers and the Revd Terry Jones have in common?  Not very much, except both have desecrated the Koran.  Is it important that they did what they did for different reasons, and with different results? Do such distinctions matter when we’re talking about a book that neither man finds particularly–attractive?  Yes.

Terry Jones

As readers of this blog will know, I think the use of blasphemy to draw crowds and win followers is probably on a moral par with Jesus’exorcisms in the New Testament: you find something or someone that will grab people’s attention–a man possessed by 6000 demons will do– then you let fly, do the hocus pocus,  and hope the nasties will go into the pigs (like the trick requires) and not into the audience. When the pigs go shrieking in agony over the cliff and the “demoniac” is still in one piece, the crowd applauds wildly and proclaims you the messiah.  That is sort of what happened for both Myers and Jones.  But with different results.

Myers, simply an atheist showman, wrote a pretty nifty article about blasphemy on his site in 2008.  In it he documented the insidious reverence in which Catholics held to the doctrine of the “real presence of Jesus” in the eucharist in the Middle Ages and the violence shown to disbelievers, especially Jews, who were always getting on the wrong side of Catholics and always being accused of desecrating the communion host, or “cracker” as Myers snarkily likes to call the matzah used at Mass.

“That is the true power of the cracker, this silly symbol of superstition. Fortunately, Catholicism has mellowed with age — the last time a Catholic nation rose up to slaughter its non-Christian citizenry was a whole 70 years ago, after all — but the sentiment still lingers.”

Had he performed his oblation a couple of years later after the results of the 2010 Pew Forum Poll on Religious Knowledge in America, he could also have added that 45% of Catholics do not know their Church’s teaching on the Eucharist, though they like the Spaghetti suppers on Friday night.

Never was there a “mellower” target then than Catholics, who in the main seemed not to care very much when Myers drove a rusty spike through the cracker, some garbage (a banana peel and coffee grounds) and–importantly–pages of the Koran.  Of course, as soon as he did this, the eyes of the superstitious religious blind were opened, and the lame man leapt as an hart.

Crackers and Korans and peels, O My.

Myers’ antics made him the dark darling of full frontal atheists, those who hold to the curious view that the angrier you make people who believe in sacred books and objects, the likelier you are to win over people who hold a weak or no opinion on the subject.

Desecration, confrontation, Yo-mama style insult and blasphemy are tangible blows for reason, the commandos believe.

Though their training manual is being revised.  The Center for Inquiry, in its regular confusion over what fund-raising gimmick to try on next, made 2009 its first international Blasphemy Day and invited people to send in cartoons, jokes, slogans, and anything else to show just how lucky we all are to live in a country that cherishes free expression and where Nothing and No-one is sacred. The small difference between an inside joke that like-minded people think is funny and real blasphemy, which can only occur among people who take religion pretty seriously, and which might get your head blown off, escaped the organizers who soon enough put Blasphemy Day in the bottom drawer and rolled out Blasphemy Rights Day.

But, predictably, no one died as a consequence of Mr Myers’ brainstormium.  And an unclimaxed Myers was reduced to pasting letters from a few lost souls who wrote almost pathetically of their upset:  “As a Christian it is an insult for anyone to call my beliefs stupid shit. I have respected every religion and every idea for years.” To which Myers felt obliged to respond in derisive detail, defending himself against a volley of feathers by saying: “They [the pages of the Koran and the Bible] are just paper. Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet.”

He observed that in addition to pages of the Koran he also used a few pages of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which as far as I know is not yet considered sacred scripture by any group, and whose spiking would not likely ignite a revolt–especially since it was well known that the sympathies of the spiker were pro-Dawkins anyway.  The point was half-clever, but the whole incident was tasteless, and (as I’ve said before)  cowardly: to be effective, try it again, only this time in downtown Lahore after you send the memo.

Tried, convicted, soaked in kerosense, ignited

Which brings us roundabout to Pakistan and the Reverend Jones.  Jones is the intellectual Omega and pastor of the sixty member Dove World Outreach Center in Lake City, Florida, who threatened to burn the Qur’an in August 2010.

His reason for doing so was to bring the book to justice  for the violence and murder “it [sic] had perpetrated.” Unlike Myers, who began with the view that no book is sacred, Jones is of the opinion that Islam’s holy book and Islam itself is “of the devil.”

A jittery National Association of Evangelicals disowned him, local Florida fundagelical groups (some of them militia) distanced themselves from him, and condemned his statements.  In the War Zone, General David Petraeus explained that soldiers “will be killed if this event happens.”  Jones demured, hedged, tried to stretch out his fifteen minutes to thirty six hours of fame (longer than a news cycle), then “postponed ” the trial and burning of the book while he “negotiated with the planners of the Ground Zero Mosque.”

The media being a fickle lover, lost interest in the story and almost missed more recent developments when Jones announced that the trial and sentencing would take place on March 20, 2011.  Funnily enough, the Interior Ministry in Pakistan was watching developments closely after a spate of incidents involving charges that Christians (about 3,000,000 in a country of 170,000,000) were secretly desecrating Korans and a spate of church-burnings and murders.

The trial was held, the sentence rendered by a Jury of 12 church elders, and a Dallas imam, according to reports, acted as a defense attorney. The book was soaked in kerosene for two hours,and was then ignited by Jones’s assistant pastor Wayne Sapp.  Further events are planned for Good Friday (April 22, 2011) in Michigan.  One thing that comes through clearly is that religious zealots know a thing or two about lighting fires. The Catholics Jones also despises are satisfied to light a Paschal candle on the night before Easter.

Reaction has been slow, because media attention has been erratic, but  in Afghanistan, thousands of outraged protesters stormed a U.N. compound killing at least 20 people, including eight foreigners–this at a critical moment in the Afghan war when America is trying to “win hearts and minds.” The demonstration in Mazar-i-Sharif turned violent when some protesters grabbed weapons from the U.N. guards and opened fire, then mobbed buildings and set fires on the compound. Demonstrators were also massed in Kabul and the western city of Herat.

So far, three attempts to burn churches have been thwarted by Pakistani security forces, but it is just a matter of time before death and destruction, related to the imbecility of a small-time Christian publicity whore, rears its snake-maned head.  Predictable but terrifying right-wing approval for Jones’s action is also beginning its viral crawl across the internet.

As to Myers, despite the development of a blasphemy fan club and admiration for the cowardly use of free expression rights in the safe haven of Morris, Minnesota, the only serious “threat” came from Catholic League president Bill Donahue.  The League (like B’nai B’rith) was founded as an anti-defamation society at a time when discrimination against Catholic immigrants was on a par with discrimination against Jews.  Donahue filed a complaint with the University of Minnesota Board of Regents, offering that Myers’ actions violated the University’s anti-discrimination policy: ‘Expressions of disrespectful bias, hate, harassment or hostility against an individual, group or their property because of the individual or group’s actual or perceived race, color, creed, religion…can be forms of discrimination. Expressions vary, and can be in the form of language, words, signs, symbols, threats, or actions that could potentially cause alarm, anger, fear, or resentment against others.”

It was a far-fetched complaint both in terms of accusation and in terms of consequences; Myers’ action only succeeded in cementing his hard-crafted persona as a jerk.  And even as a one-off expression of jerkiness, the actions of 2008 did not rise to the standard of blasphemy, which is usually understood as an interreligious act designed to malign or humiliate a religious opposite.  Secular “blasphemy” against religion is more problematical, and Myers’ showpiece proved it. That is because there was no real conviction behind the act.  “Religion is sooooooo stupid” is not an impressive bumper sticker.  The defense of free speech is only relevant and brave when free speech is actually abridged, not when threats to its exercise are manufactured.

Jones is a different story.  A more dangerous one.  He is the ugly Id unchained from the soul of an America I’d hoped had died.  It is moronic, armed, and dangerous.  It does not question the ontological correctness of its religious and political views.  It burns a book in Lake City, Florida, and Muslims (and others) die in Afghanistan and soon Pakistan and elsewhere.  Jones does this knowing they will die, praying to his defective God that they will die, in order to prove his belief that the devil is with us.  He is with us, and he needs to be charged with and convicted of murder.  His name is Terry Jones.