I have always had unpopular opinions, and argued for them forthrightly, vigorously and–I like to think–honestly. I have sought out the weaknesses of my own positions and done my best to modify them in the face of new evidence. I’ve learned a lot as the years have passed, and changed my mind about many things. Some propositions I argued for passionately in my youth I now believe to be quite wrong.
I have learned.
I am the only person on Earth to ever admit he was wrong on the Internet, and in fact may be the only person on Earth to have ever been wrong about anything.
This has never won me friendship, respect or admiration. I have lost friends, been subject to denigration, insult and anger. I have been told I am a fool, and given simple-minded lectures on banal trivialities as if I’d never heard them before. Maybe I’m just not a very nice person. But I have learned.
The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were members of my tribe, or at least a tribe in the next valley to mine, who my people didn’t go to war with very often.
They lived, by all accounts, pretty lonely, marginal lives, Charb most of all: “I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit. It may sound a bit pompous, but I’d rather die standing than live on my knees.”
His colleague Ris: “”We do not want to be afraid, but to laugh, to take life lightly. We’re just trying to make something funny. Humor is a language that fundamentalists do not understand… no. They rely on fear.”
And Charb again: “I don’t think I harm anyone with a pen. I do not put lives in danger. When activists need excuses to justify their violence, they always find them.”
I’ve lived a life more about knowledge than humour, but by the same token, I don’t think I harm anyone with ideas. I do not put lives at risk.
And I know the difference between words and killing.
I am by education and experience both an engineer and an experimental and computational physicist. I have worked in pure physics and in medical physics in various capacities, as well as robotics and embedded systems. I have deliberately stayed away from anything that will kill people. But I know about such things. In my business they are part of the landscape. I’ve turned down jobs, left money on the table, because it would have meant building machines that kill people. And I have had come unbidden in the night ideas, thoughts, designs for machines whose primary use would be killing people. I have let them quietly pass away in the silence of my mind, undeveloped, unborn.
I know what killing is.
And I know what words are. Mocking, caring, angry, loving, silly, stupid, thoughtful, beautiful words. Words in all shapes, sizes and uses. Words for every occasion.
Words do not kill.
Anyone who suggests otherwise has never actually done the job and seen the body.
But there are hundreds of millions of people alive today, mostly Muslims but some unreconstructed Soviets as well, plus the odd Maoist here and there, and certainly a Christian, Sikh and Hindu or two, who are so afraid of words that they support laws that impose the death penalty for speaking them.
This is not a slur against Muslims but rather a statement of perfectly ordinary fact: most Muslims world-wide support Sharia law and many forms of Sharia law in practice include the death penalty for blasphemy or the closely-related crime of apostasy.
I am aware that there are many Muslim scholars who argue Sharia should not contain the death penalty for blasphemy, or any penalty at all. I am also aware that Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, amongst others, have the death penalty for blasphemy under various forms of Sharia, so scholarly insistence to the contrary, this is a real thing.
Saying “not all Muslims” are in favour of the death penalty for blasphemers does not change the fact that hundreds of millions of Muslims are. If you want to argue against the point I am making here it will not do to say–truthfully–that something like 70% of Muslims are perfectly fine with me calling the Prophet an ignorant psychopath. The fact remains that the other 30% or so are more-or-less supportive of a legal system that would make me a criminal for saying that, and likely on the order of 10%–still comfortably over a hundred million people–would be quite happy with the penalty being death.
Pakistan alone has almost 200 million people, a corrupt but still sort-of functional democratic government, 84% support for Sharia law, and a blasphemy clause in its criminal code that is very broad. Beyond lesser forms of blasphemy such as hurting anyone’s religious feelings (including non-Muslims), any utterance or writing that directly or indirectly defiles the name of Muhammad, upon conviction, carries an automatic death penalty. There are 17 people on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan right now.
They are being killed for speaking words. For expressing opinions. For being of the wrong religious persuasion, or none at all.
Just like Charb.
So it is not wrong to say that there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are in favour of the death penalty for blasphemy, and again: pointing to any number of Muslims who are not does nothing to change this fact.
And that’s a problem, because when people like Charb blaspheme, some Muslims decide to take the law into their own hands.
The distance between “this is an act that ought to be illegal and punishable by death” and “it is right to kill a person committing this act even in the absence of such a law” is not as large as one might like.
We have seen this with fundamentalist Christians in the US who bomb abortion clinics, and those actions make anyone who believes that abortion is a crime deserving of the death penalty rightly suspect as a potential murderer or arsonist, and the whole pro-life movement is routinely treated as suspect: “Yet every time that happens we instantly have congressional investigations, Justice Department press conferences, Presidential denunciations, round-ups of pro-life activists, new federal laws passed, non-violent pro-life groups investigated, United States Marshals assigned to protect abortion clinics, and front-page coverage in every newspaper in America.”
Anyone writing against the kind of commentary I am making on Muslims here: please point me to your comparable writings against the vilification of all conservative Christians as potential murderers, because the two are based on precisely the same logic and I see no reason why anyone would defend Muslims but not conservative Christians in this regard.
I find it quite reasonable to question any American Christian with regard to their support for clinic bombers and killers, and I’ve done so. For the same reason I find it quite reasonable to question any Muslim–certainly any Muslim outside of Canada–with regard to their support for killing blasphemers. There is a significant minority within each group who believe such killings are, if not precisely justified, only wrong because they were not carried out under the auspices of a properly constituted religious court.
Outside of the US, Christians are much less conservative, so the question is less reasonable there. Inside Canada Muslims are pretty liberal, although I’ve met ones whose views on homosexuality disgust me, and even “pretty liberal” Muslims are frequently my enemies when it comes to blasphemy laws.
Just as homophobia is widespread within the Muslim community, so is blasphemophobia: fear of blasphemers. Fear of words. Fear of ideas.
I am a blasphemer.
Always have been, always will be.
Name your religion, I will denigrate it.
Identify your god, your prophet, your holy scriptures, I will question them, poke fun at their implausibility, ridicule their inconsistencies, impossibilities, idiocies. I will do it carefully, thoughtfully, annoyingly and thoroughly. I will learn more about your religion just so I can criticize it–and you–more deeply and accurately.
I will treat nothing–absolutely nothing–as sacred, or above and beyond questioning, investigation and publicly testing by systematic observation, controlled experiment and Bayesian inference.
I even wrote a book that posits the Christian God is an evolved non-human entity bent on using us for its own ends–because I think that’s not a bad metaphor–and includes an evil villain who is a Christian fundamentalist. He has a Biblical-literalist minion who understands that on a literal reading the Bible contains, amongst other things, a manual for how to properly rape your prisoners of war. Is saying that blasphemy, or blasphemous libel?
I’m not always particularly nice about my criticism of faith because I am not a particularly nice person, and haven’t always been treated particularly nicely by religious people–or non-religious people for that matter. Maybe I was just born this way. But “not being a particularly nice person” is not a crime, and certainly not a crime worthy of the death penalty.
I am a blasphemer, and I’m fed up with people like me being killed by people who are afraid of us.
It’s time to talk about blasphemophobia.
[Edited slightly for clarity and shilling my book, and additional link from my friend Scott on what a bunch of marvelously cantankerous bastards Charlie Hebdo was constituted by.]