In light of the recent mainstream media interest in one of our little pasquinades (including from some people one doesn’t necessarily want on one’s side), I’ve decided to publish here my final contribution to Woroni, which was actually a letter to the editors responding to some of the complaints and criticisms we received for the piece. Views are my own and not necessarily those of my co-authors, the editors, or God.
I won’t make any comments about freedom of the press or censorship: they’re issues for the editors. I want to respond to criticisms of the piece and explain why I think it’s right to respect people, but not their religion.
The Koran mentions houris: large bosomed virgins who are apparently a reward in paradise (55:56, 56:22, 78:33). Admittedly, the phrase “rape fantasies” may be going too far in describing the enticement of these figments, but the houris are surely for sexual gratification, otherwise why would The Koran’s authors emphasise their sexual characteristics and the fact that they have “not been touched by other men or jinns”? And what do women get in paradise? Unmentioned male equivalents? Are only lesbian women gratified in paradise? Do women even get to paradise? Exactly what are jinns? These speculations can be dismissed as absurd, but only if the idea of the inerrancy of The Koran is as well.
The Islam piece was not our best work but it wasn’t racist or about discriminating against minorities; rather it was about that ever present discrimination against one half of humanity in the form of misogyny and how misogyny is present in The Koran. Some will say that interpreting The Koran is a mistake and solely the purview of Muslim clerics or scholars of Islam. But I think that discouraging ordinary people from critically reading and interpreting a book which purports to tell over a billion people how to live, is a mistake. I encourage people to read The Koran for themselves and to decide whether the explicit and implicit derogations of women therein, which are not satirical but earnest, are more or less offensive than what we’ve written (not to mention passages extolling atrocities, anti-semitism, homophobia, etc. — 2:191, 3:10, 4:91 8:67, 10:13, 16:26, 17:17, 17:58, 18:58, 19:98, 21:6, 21:17, 22:45, 26:120, 28:58, 33:64, 36:31, 37:136, 38:3, 38:33, 42:34, 46:27, 54:34, 54:51, 71:26, 77:16, 91:15; 5:65, 7:166, 16:118; 4:16, 26:166, 27:56, 29:28; and countless passages threatening eternal torture for anyone who doesn’t believe).
But the most important point is that people are blithely using things that don’t exist to influence and affect a reality that does. I think that’s fine for important abstract concepts, but not for imagined beings, the fabricated orders of whom people cite when telling us what we can and can’t do. When a second-hand reproduction of an oral story, of dubious veracity, from over a thousand years ago is used as a justification for being sexist towards women here and now — well, that idea is not only open to criticism, but is almost ostentatiously asking for it.
Although it’s highly unsettling and confronting for believers to have their faith mocked, that is not a reason to have a special standard for established religions that we would never conscience for any secular group, political party or new religious movement. And while some may argue that it’s arrogant to presume other people’s beliefs are misguided, I think it’s disastrous to concede that people should never have their beliefs challenged. It’s also hugely condescending to assume that other people are so fragile that they can’t handle an opposing view. To say that Muslims, Christians or Hindus can’t cope with subtle or blunt refutations of their beliefs, is a calumny against humanity and people’s innate talent for thinking.
I find myself slightly at variance here with popular opinion, so naturally I’ve questioned my own immensely fallible thoughts on this matter and reread parts of The Koran. But I can’t seem to get away from the superseding problem posed by all religions and totalitarian ideologies of all kinds, namely their professed infallibility. “This book is not to be doubted” — this phrase of doubtful virtue opens The Koran. My favourite thinker, Jacob Bronowski, was surely more accurate when he said, “There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.”
I’ve decided to make this my last contribution to Woroni. Over the years I’ve had loads of fun and met many brilliant people. Thanks to all of my editors and collaborators and to the literally several readers who have kindly said they enjoyed my stuff.
This letter was published in Woroni on May 16th 2013.