Tag Archives: Reza Aslan

PA: Charlie Hebdo — Nothing to do with religion

÷ Religion had nothing to do with the Paris attacks ÷

A commonly issued qualification following the IS beheadings and the Paris attacks was that they were not about religion. President Hollande, for example, said of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket: “These attacks have nothing to do with Islam.” The warning is presumably an admirable example at trying to militate against xenophobic or bigoted reactions to the crimes. Based on past experience, such fears are clearly warranted, especially in France — but is the statement actually true?

The public debate surrounding the above incident displays a fishy mix of attributions of motive, such that the original offence taken by the gunmen was religiously motivated, whereas their dispensation of vengeance was not. Thus it seems that religion was present as a motivating factor on both sides of the incident (cartoonists and gunmen) until the moment of shooting, just as the gunmen were yelling: “God is great!”. Translation errors aside, this statement contains a strong religious overtone, but it is at this point that God left the scene and was replaced by an atheistic ideology. Then, in the aftermath, God returned in a veritable parousia of blame, as the defining feature of the group being targeted by bigotry i.e., devout Muslims.

Others say that it’s not really a religion that these attackers have, it’s an ideology and they are under its sway. A reading of the ideology in question reveals that it has the following features: belief in an afterlife, a deity, a prophet, a set of moralistic preachings, a demand for others to comply, an apocalyptic vision of the future, a warrant for killing non-believers, a holy text and a mission of bringing about an Islamic religious state, the Caliphate. Despite the scent of religion in these elements, the ideology is still defined as secular. Perhaps this is an inversion of the familiar case of Catholics in Western countries, whose lives are exclusively composed of secular elements but who nevertheless insist their lives are, according to census forms, religious.

Some commentators also claim that we wouldn’t blame religion if the attackers were not Muslims, but of some other faith. We can test this case by substituting in another religion to see if there is some inconsistency. If a Christian went on a rampage and killed people in the name of God, and indeed said he was doing it in the name of Dog, would we say it was religiously motivated? It’s an interesting hypothetical and for it we would need an example of Christians undertaking some kind of violent crusade against non-believers or believers in rival sects. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation (see Foxe’s Book of Martyrs), conflict in Northern Ireland, massacres in the former Yugoslavia, or indeed Buddhist violence in Burma, the Sikh violence in India, or the self-inflicted violence of the Heaven’s Gate cult —  are any of these violent episodes standardly attributed to religion? What about The Wars of Religion of the 16th and 17 centuries? Were they about religion?

A weaker version of the hypothesis is that the attacks are not only about religion. Many scholars, after decades of theological studies, believe that religions are not separable as a cause of strife and violence. A proponent of this view, Reza Aslan, defends it by saying that he doesn’t feel prominent public atheists are qualified to talk about religion, because they have not studied theology to the doctoral level that he has. Such a proposition also implies that 99% of the world’s faithful are also debarred from the privilege of talking about their own religion and Aslan is debarred from talking about the 99% of topics on which he doesn’t have a PhD; such ideas lead to absurd logical conclusions redolent of the very stuff of this column, but do at least confirm Wittgenstein’s notion that even if a lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him.

If we think that religion is a shroud for the actual causes of events, then we also need to be sceptical of other actions taken, allegedly in the name of religion, such as praying in a church or mosque. The same degree of incredulity should be levelled at anyone attempting to depict the Prophet Muhammad — is it really about religion? Possibly not. Is this satire of satires about religion, about religion?

Ultimately we find something attractive in not attributing the cause of anything to religion, as it leads to the inescapable deduction that religion was not the cause of Muhammad dictating the The Quran÷ and the ultimate conclusion that God cannot have caused the world to exist: atheistic pronouncements that, ironically, would anger religiously motivated extremists — if there were any.

PA: Charlie Hebdo – Sufficient Context

÷I fully condemn the murder of the the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, but we need to consider the wider context.÷

While a great number of people lined up passionately behind the freedom of speech hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, a significant fraction limited their support, adding the caveat that the satire was clumsily messing with a volatile menagerie of political and religious anger and that therefore the violent response may have been understandable when put in context. We here attempt to understand this caveat of context and determine its validity.

We are actually free to expand our context continuously so let’s explore the effect of modifying our scale. Firstly, on the everyday timescale and spatial scale an observer (say, one of the casualties) would experience, the event is an absurd slaughter without cause and should be fully condemned. If we zoom out to a world-wide reach and all-of-history timescale we find thousands of years of horrific, religiously inspired autocracies which we can contrast with our own time and place: a veritable oasis consisting of a few hundred years and a handful of countries safe from the stranglehold religious ideology has had over human dignity. This scale of context actually supports the cartoonists and would convert the “but we need to” to an “especially when we” in the original claim.

However, between these vantage points there are a select few decades of horrible events including wars, terrorism, Western intervention, decolonisation and secular–Islamic conflict that act as juicy, context-rich ingredients for left-wing commentators to muddle together to make the comic absurdity of satire the bad guy. This isn’t possible at any other level, for if we zoom out to the scale of the anthropocene, it becomes difficult to see any meaning at all. Zooming out still further to infinity we reach a limit of perfect apathy as we stare down, doe-eyed and awed at the meaninglessness and the absurdity of our very existence across the infinitude of space and time.

Figure 1 | Widening context changes the meaning of the event in a nonlinear way.
Figure 1 | Widening context changes the meaning of
the event in a nonlinear way.

Rather than slide down this slope to nihilism, the strange dip between the local and historical scale is the range that allows one to reduce condemnation; what we have dubbed the “Aslan zone”, named after not the discoverer but the current chief capitaliser of the effect. (Editor’s note: we have censored the beak-shaped dip). Applying mathematical real analysis, provided the curve is continuous there must be at least two zero-points each representing pure apathy. If time is the only variable the first zero-point must be some moment between the immediate shock of the news and the next university tutorial where the event can be abstracted to obfuscation. If space is the only variable, the first zero-point is somewhere between Paris and University of California, Riverside. Unfortunately it is most likely to be some complex, untenable combination of space and time; we may search forever for the dependence and never find it, however the uncertainty will allow us to talk in circles in news interviews while making zero points.

The choice of scale of context is clearly arbitrary, so we should obviously select our scale to match that of God’s omniscience where all true causes are known. A God’s eye perspective can presumably be accessed through the word of God, via a book that was well studied by the attackers, making The Quran the ultimate con text.

PA: Charlie Hebdo — Be the Bigger Person

÷“Regardless of freedom of speech, can’t we just be respectful
and not draw Muhammad?”÷

For those who aren’t so attached to the concept of freedom of speech, avoiding drawing cartoons of Muhammad seems a small price to pay for a more harmonious world. However, those who hold freedom of speech to be one of the keys to harmony see it not just as a betrayal of their beliefs, but as a bad precedent of voluntary submission to violence.

Ostensibly it looks like a good trade: the modern world removes only one thing from its artistic repertoire, dogmatic Muslims have one less thing to make them feel alienated and, to top it all off, Westerners can pat themselves on the back for trading lambs for lions.

However, the trade becomes less attractive when certain aspects are scaled. For instance, if it was a bigger cost, would we consider giving it up? If a band of murderous Jainists appeared who believed that the competitive nature of sport offended them deeply, would we kowtow to them? Those members of secular society without the constitution for sport (nerds, your humble authors) would probably be willing to trade, however we have the feeling that others in the West (jocks, normal people) would not budge on the important issue of throwing balls around, especially if such a game doesn’t even make a political point. Playing political football with football would be merely vulgar.

We must also ask if it is even possible to not draw Muhammad. For example, if one were to draw something that represents all men or even all humans — categories into which Muhammad falls — then you have drawn something that represents Muhammad implicitly. Immediately we realise that much of our previously innocuous symbolism becomes dangerous. Take the innocent toilet door whose standard, inclusive decal welcomes all men. Such a representation could be offensive, unless it’s edited to exclude the Prophet, placing the placating placard “*Not pictured: Muhammad”.

If this toilet door example is bad, the ultimate embarrassment is still out there. If such caveats existed in the 1970s, our kitsch, embossed message intended for aliens on board the Voyager 2 probe would have been blighted by an asterisk and disclaimer. The gold-plated, permanent message to other intelligences shows our alien brethren an effigy that “represents all men and women united in their humanity”*. *Not pictured: Muhammad. Even worse, the caveat would only prove to confuse the beings whose very existence disproves the divinity upon which the concern is based.

Such mappings of representation lead to interesting logical combinations. If, rather than an inclusive AND (drawing something that represents all men and so includes Muhammad as a consequence), what if we used an exclusive OR? This would mean drawing an image and mentioning that it is either the Prophet Muhammad or someone else very specific (say, Reza Aslan of University of California, Riverside). Then there is a 50/50 chance that Muhammad has been drawn. If this drawing is placed in a sufficiently obscured context, then would the author†? be both dead and alive? This big version of the famous physics gedankenexperiment we call Schrödinger’s Aslan.

Perhaps the West should give in and observe total aniconism. Some sects won’t even draw humans or animals, let alone Muhammad, which is likely to mean human/animal hybrids such as fauns and satyrs would be off the table. This would also take anthropomorphic satire off the table, sating those who fawn to humans acting like animals, although you wouldn’t know because they couldn’t be drawn as such.

Banning images of Muhammad puts his image, along with swastikas, in the same, small category of images the West proscribes. The ban on swastikas is to suppress the belief that encourages violence, though with the Prophet it’s to suppress the violence that belief encourages. Unfortunately, the only other proscribed image in the West is that of a sexualised child. Grouping Muhammad with child pornography may have some Internet filtering advantages, but doesn’t seem to offer much to those seeking respect, or the defenders of freedom of speech and least of all devout Muslims.÷