November 18, 2015
As an atheist I am also careful not to paint all religions with the same broad strokes, but the only way out of Islamic or indeed all religious extremism and its fallouts and collateral damage is to fight for secular societies and universal humanistic values. Only then can we guarantee pluralism and religious freedom. As an atheist I believe that we must arrive at a critical mass of the world population accepting that lives can be had free of illusion (or delusion), that ethical lives can be had free of religious dogma, that we can develop a code of conduct that is essentially humane. We must not run away from engaging Islam, for fear of reprisal. We must also not become apologists for it. We must support the moderate Muslim, whom I classify regretfully as deviant or apostate, whose worldview is gradually less fundamentalistically Islamic and more universal. Only then do we have hope for peace for most of humanity.
As an atheist I will not pray to the same God as the terrorists for Paris, but je suis parisien today
January 8, 2015
On facebook he wrote; So the news that apparently I have to break to you is that you–especially if you work in media–are not Charlie. Charlie said what you were afraid to say and because there was nobody to stand with him, he paid with his life. Very few have the right to say that they are Charlie tonight.
When as a response to Hillary Clinton’s call for governments in Arab countries to defend foreign embassies from the mob, the Prime Minister of Egypt called on the US to do all it can to stop insults against Islam, I wondered which forms of offense were the ones that he was referring to? Prime Minister Qandil’s request happens to echoe a strong move by several Middle Eastern countries that, over the past few years, have lobbied European governments for the promulgation of blasphemy laws. Insulting a god—any god, we should assume—would become in some manner or other, illegal.
In the context of what has apparently been the reaction to Sam Bacile’s The Innocense of Muslims, one would be excused for taking this plea as an exculpation of the mob. Sure enough, the words of Mr. Qandil were nuanced by asserting the guilt of perpetrators and by appeals to moderation and balance on both sides. That is, the side that in the name of free speech supposedly slandered the Muslim god and his prophet and the Muslim gangs that protecting the honor of their scriptural prophet went on a wild rampage. Yet, the basic idea that the Prime Minister was conveying was that even if these people torching buildings and killing diplomats are criminals, the blame lies ultimately with those who provoked them.
But what type of provocation are we talking about here? YouTube movies? Koran burning? At first blush, these seemed to be the offending acts which we would be safer avoiding. But then if these almost laughable exertions by amateurs theologians and high-school artistes were to be the target of the demand for silent respect to one or other god, what was to be of my offending interest in religion, my secularism and cosmopolitanism, my Facebook postings, my gay friends and my Jewish parents? In fact, we should take stock of what constitute offense to religious sensibilities, since that is what we are being asked to forestall and possibly even legislate. Let me give you a quick list of things that have been taken to offend god and for which people have paid with their lives:
Worshipping a god other than the one your neighbors worship, for instance a golden calf. Producing a semblance of the god who your neighbors like. Saying the word ‘god’ or swearing by it. Claiming that your god had a human body. Claiming that your god did not have a human body (Refer to the Christological disputes from the 1st century onwards and their toll in blood). Denying that a god is three and one at the same time. Affirming that a god is more than one (as in the Trinitarian controversies). Denying that there is a god at all. Affirming that the god has being. Protesting clerical hierarchy (Protestants in catholic territories). Defending clerical hierarchies (as it happened to members of the counterreformation). Not ceasing all activities the day of the week that your neighbors cease all activities. Ceasing all activities the day your neighbors work. Eating meat the day your neighbors don’t eat meat. Not burning a bull the day that your neighbors burn a bull. Eating pork. Not eating pork. Burning books. Not burning books.
Observing astronomical phenomena as did Galileo Galilei. Observing biological phenomena as did Darwin. Doing anatomical research and not finding a soul. Describing a psychiatric condition as related to the body. Having a psychiatric condition which was previously taken to be a demonic possession. Having metaphysical disagreements with Aristotle. Not reading the books your neighbors read. Reading the books your neighbors read without their authorization. Translating books which your neighbors don’t like as it was the case with the Song of Songs taken by the inquisition to be a judeizing book. Philosophizing and Reasoning. Engaging in the unauthorized practice of theology.
Painting nudes, singing loudly and dancing in just about any form. Drinking alcohol. Not drinking alcohol. Eating bread from the hands of a cleric. Not eating bread from the hands of a cleric. Having sex without the approval and certification of a cleric, that is, having sex without being married. Having sex with someone other than your spouse. Desiring someone of your own gender. Having sex with someone of your own gender. Having anal sex with someone of any gender. Falling in love. Dating.
Working or studying while having a vagina. Enjoying sex while having a vagina. Engaging in political activity or military campaigns while having a vagina. Dancing in a wedding party while having a vagina. Wearing ‘modern’ clothing while having a vagina. Sporting a modern hairstyle while having a vagina. Exposing your legs while having a vagina. Exposing your arms while having a vagina. Exposing your shoulders while having a vagina. Exposing your neck while having a vagina. Exposing your face while having a vagina. Exposing any part of your body whatsoever while having a vagina. Thinking while having a vagina.
The list, actually, goes on. And these are only a few of the activities that have been earnestly taken to insult someone’s god and for whom people have paid with stoning, stabbing, decapitation, shooting, hanging, burning or quartering. In this light, the ultimate responsibility for the murder of Theo VanGogh in Amsterdam was his own, the blame for the attack of Danish diplomatic missions was the Danish government’s and the blame for the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban and the destruction of the mausoleums in Timbuktu by members of Ansar Dine were, well, the builders and designers of these monuments who offended some or other god.
It is indeed at this very juncture where we can see with glaring clarity the importance of the right to blaspheme. Or perhaps we should explain this right in terms that those who are inclined to defend theological concepts with theological categories can understand: it is here where we should see with complete clarity the sanctity of the right to blaspheme in a democratic society.
The respect that is demanded from us under threat of extreme violence is the pious abandonment of our right to reason. This right is incompatible with religious respect because reason offends belief and rational deliberation is incompatible with irrational conviction. It is by reason that we assert the rights of women to bare their arms and legs, to study and to work as autonomous human beings. It is by reason that we assert the right of dancers to dance and painters to paint and it is by reason that we assert the right of the members of our society to believe what they may chose to believe irrespective of whom that may offend by thought or expression. It is by reason that we assert the right to reason and understanding and this right we take to be fundamental. That is to say, the right to think and express offensive thoughts is for us members of cosmopolitan societies, inheritors of the enlightenment the fundamental right to express our reasons against the demands of belief. And this has to mean being free and thus protected from violence against the expression of our reasons. It is the zealot who will have to find a better way to deal with discomfort. Just as all adults learn to do.
December 31, 2014
As I sit here in 2014, I ponder the weight of the world as countdowns begin everywhere. 250,000 of my fellow countrymen have been displaced through the worst floods in years, and the first bodies are being recovered from that fateful airasia flight as I write, and the most poignant image if there will be one, will be that there were 2 found reportedly still holding hands.
Sometime tonight, my relatives in Fukushima will be celebrating their 3rd radioactive new year’s party. As I contemplate going out to mine, my phone has been ringing with congratulatory whatsapp messages from friends around the world.
I know that it is all deeply personal, but my concern has always been one of self-analysis or reflection. What is my reaction to things that matter? How do I reconcile myself with the world? How do I attain peace of mind? A new friend points out I’m particularly purposeful, but can I not be? I know not of any other way to live.
September 22, 2014
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
August 15, 2014
Wrote this when I was 18?
Like a flower
but like a flower
when we are apart
it would wither and die
when we should meet again
a new seed would have taken over its place
and with hope
August 1, 2014
Perhaps because I live faraway I feel immune and thus less invested in the war in Gaza. Perhaps because I am an atheist I am nonplussed to the numinous claiming that they have god’s mandate and perhaps I think they are all fools. With the internet and social media and 150 channels on cable I am of a generation desensitized to bombings and maimings and dead babies and falling planes. Sometimes I feel it is not easy to be human, or indeed be humane, in that our daily lives are mundane and routine and we are barely surviving for its own sake.
And so being human is something I remind myself to do everyday in different manifestations, and they are not always automatic. In gestures as simple as smiling at somebody or saying thank you or holding the elevator door, to forging more meaningful friendships, to involving in local communities, to being part of nation building, to contributing to a pluralistic society – are deeds, though not automatic, always in my mind whenever I make a decision, an effort to feel not so detached. Sometimes empathy needs to be coaxed.
But my impulses and ideas of humanity and of morality are not religion based, nor do I believe that religion sets the moral compass in which humanity aspires to. I do not subscribe to claims that only God holds the key to moral values, and certainly not one that condones or even advocates genital mutilations, slavery, the subjugation of women, of homosexuals and so much more.
And so it plays out, and this time the theater is in Gaza, acted out by representatives of 2 of the great monotheistic faiths, whose motivations are utterly irreconcilable, and millions are caught in the crossfire. On one side, a chosen people will only rest when they have fully claimed their promised land, and on the other, interpretations of their holy scripture ranges from the mild ‘can never be friends” to dictating that “they are to be wiped out” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_and_antisemitism. The Hamas charter is a genocidal document http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/hamas.asp incompatible to peace.
As the death toll rises, and the gruesome images increase, and i get updated mainly through my newsfeed on facebook. My friends or friends of friends would take sides, and overwhelmingly against Israel. In so much as I want to condemn the parochial view that many have taken to reach this conclusion, such as “I am muslim so I have to support the muslims”, they are oblivious to the fact that the blame lies both ways. Hamas fires missiles from densely populated areas, from schools and buildings, they use human shields as they see people either as collateral damage or as sacrificial martyrs. The Israelis build bomb shelters to shelter their people, the Hamas do not, instead uses their limited funds to build tunnels to try to kill more people. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ali-a-rizvi/picking-a-side-in-israel-palestine_b_5602701.html
As it were, I sit in the anti-Israel camp, but not before weighing that Israel’s leadership are only slightly more evil.
But also from where I stand, ISIS and Al-Qaeda and Hamas are not extremists groups, but mainstream adherents to teachings of the scriptures. They are conservatives and traditionalists so eager to die and along the way drag as many people with them as they can to reach paradise.
When so many of the conflicts in the world and throughout its history spring from ideologies based on religious faith, why do we not attack religion as the root cause? Can we say to one to not take everything as offences to his religion but if he truly believes in the almighty that let Him mete out the punishments in the afterlife? Can we say to the other that two wrongs does not make a right? That you do not get to your heaven by killing other people?
Will there ever be a time when this God could be relegated to Poseidon, Zeus and Ra?
June 17, 2014
My mother bought an electronic organ for me when I was young, and sent me twice a week to a nice Christian lady for piano lessons. I preferred cycling around Johor Bahru with reckless abandon, and playing video games with equal recklessness, and so it transpired that I wasn’t paying much attention in piano class, nor did I practise a lot at home.
But I did come away classically trained, interspersed with Christian hymns and melodies, and the occasional choral performances from my yet unbroken voice.
By the beginning of secondary school, I had already pledged my soul to Simon le Bon, Boy George and David Bowie, but then I began to start to practise some form of musical elitism. I would be discovering relatively unknown bands (at least to my schoolmates), and discarding them as soon as they became more popular. Nothing was more grating than to have some uncool kid coming up to me saying, “have you heard the new single by Depeche Mode? It’s awesome!”. Yikes!
As with all teenagers, this desire to set yourself apart only lasted through some of those formative years. By the time I reached university, I had taken with me to the states the stalwarts of my music collection; David Sylvian and Sakamoto Ryuichi, The Cure, and the Smiths. By then, I believed that the music helped shaped the man I would become, in the way I thought, the way I expressed myself, from words of the heroes I aspired to and emulated.
But much more than this was the music itself. If the literature of a particularly precocious childhood were works from Paz, Mishima, Marquez, Kundera, Rilke, Kafka and Calvino, then I was already in the hands of great masters and poets. But music was more liberating, and certainly its limits were only constrained by my imagination.
And with Jazz, in particular when you hear it live, with its improvisations and different interpretations, is an art form that is attractive beguilingly because, and at once in spite of, its flaws. There is a moment of inflection when momentum builds up, and at its zenith; perfection is reached. One could not simply bottle up this singular moment, with its limitless contributing factors – and then in an instant it vanishes.
Now, as an avowed anti-theist, I see deep spirituality in the natural world; the beauty & awe of the night skies through the telescopes, the realisation that we began as stardust; the marvel and wonder of our physical world, of biological evolution, of mathematical truths & constants, of symmetry & chaos. Of boundless knowledge, of serendipitous discoveries, the human inventions, and the human spirit.
And the validation of our ingenuity and imagination that we are capable of producing such works of art, such beautiful music.
Perfection, however fleeting.