Switzerland has moved a step closer to imposing a nationwide burqa ban after politicians approved a draft bill by just one vote.
A new law proposed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) received 88 votes, with 87 against and 10 abstentions in the country’s lower house of parliament on Tuesday. But the plans remain far from coming into force after a previous proposal for a ban on Muslim veils that cover the face was voted down by state representatives at a commission in January.
Walter Wobmann, an SVP politician leading the campaign, claimed the law would “maintain public order and respect for the dignity of women”.
Known for his anti-immigration stance, he has previously said it was “unacceptable” for women to wear headscarves in passport photos and vowed to “stop further Islamisation in Switzerland” while supporting the 2009 ban on mosque minarets.
Writing in support of the “Yes to veil ban” campaign, Mr Wobmann claimed veils violate Swiss values and said the law would also prevent vandals and criminals concealing their identity.
“Veils are an attack on integration in a free society,” he continued. “The ban of religiously motivated coverings in public is proportionate and violates neither freedom of religion nor expression. It does not constitute discrimination.”
The proposed law would see paragraphs written into Switzerland’s federal constitution against the “concealing of one’s face” in public places, other than religious sites, with exceptions for health and safety, the climate and unspecified local customs.
The issue could now be decided by the Swiss Council of States or by a public vote, if supporters gain the 100,000 signatures needed to trigger a referendum.
Even if the petition succeeds and the public gave a “yes” vote, the proposals would still need to be made into law through approval in parliament.
Switzerland is one of several European countries currently debating similar issues, with burkini bans brought in by some French Riviera resorts provoking outrage.
France and Belgium enforce nationwide bans on full-face veils, while Germany and the Netherlands are considering similar laws. Regions of Italy, Spain, Russia and Switzerland also regulate religious attire.
The hijab goes haute: Dolce & Gabbana’s Middle Eastern collection – The fashion industry has embraced hijabs and abayas. For the first time, in 2015, Dolce & Gabbana released a collection of hijabs and abayas targeting Muslim shoppers in the Middle East.
Writer shot dead for sharing cartoon “offensive” to Islam.
A prominent Jordanian writer, who was on trial for sharing a cartoon deemed offensive to Islam, has been shot dead outside a court in Amman where he was due to appear.
Nahed Hattar, 56, was charged with inciting sectarian strife and insulting Islam after posting the cartoon on Facebook this year.
The cartoon, entitled The God of Daesh (Isis), depicted an Isis militant sitting next to two women and asking God to bring him a drink.
Hattar was arrested in August and released on bail early this month. On Sunday, he was shot in the head three times as he arrived for a hearing.
According to the Jordanian state news agency Petra, a man was arrested at the scene of the shooting in the Abdali district. The government denounced the killing as a “heinous” crime.
Two witnesses said the gunman, bearded and in his 50s, was wearing a traditional Arab dishdasha, or long robe.
“He was standing at a short distance of about one metre in front of Nahed on the stairs of the supreme court,” a witness told the Associated Press.
Saad Hattar, a cousin of the victim, said: “Nahed was accompanied with two brothers and a friend when he was shot. The brothers and the friend chased the killer and caught him and handed him over to the police.”
He said the family held Jordan’s prime minister, Hani al-Mulki, responsible for Hattar’s death. “The prime minister was the first one who incited against Nahed when he ordered his arrest and put him on trial for sharing the cartoon, and that ignited the public against him and led to his killing.”
In a statement, the family called on the government to hold accountable all those who had incited violence against Hattar. “Many fanatics wrote on social media calling for his killing and lynching, and the government did nothing against them,” they said.
A government spokesman, Mohammad Momani, who condemned the killing as a heinous crime, said: “The government will strike with an iron hand all those who exploit this crime to broadcast speeches of hatred to our community.”
Hattar had insisted that he had not meant to insult Islam by posting the cartoon, but wanted to expose how Isis “envisions God and heaven”. He accused his Islamist opponents of using the cartoon to settle scores with him.
A controversial figure on the left of Jordanian politics, Hattar has faced charges before, including for insulting the country’s king, Abdullah II. He has also been a prominent supporter of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and advocated depriving Jordanians of Palestinian origin of their legal and civil rights.
Hattar’s murder is the latest in a series of recent violent incidents in Jordan, which until recently had avoided the worst of the jihadi-related violence that has affected some other Middle Eastern states even though several thousand of its citizens have crossed into neighbouring Syria to join Isis.
Is the concept of cultural appropriation a passing fad?
I hate to disappoint you folks, but unless we stretch the topic to breaking point this address will not be about “community and belonging.” In fact, you have to hand it to this festival’s organizers: inviting a renowned iconoclast to speak about “community and belonging” is like expecting a great white shark to balance a beach ball on its nose.
The topic I had submitted instead was “fiction and identity politics,” which may sound on its face equally dreary.
But I’m afraid the bramble of thorny issues that cluster around “identity politics” has got all too interesting, particularly for people pursuing the occupation I share with many gathered in this hall: fiction writing. Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.
Let’s start with a tempest-in-a-teacup at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Earlier this year, two students, both members of student government, threw a tequila-themed birthday party for a friend. The hosts provided attendees with miniature sombreros, which—the horror— numerous partygoers wore.
When photos of the party circulated on social media, campus-wide outrage ensued. Administrators sent multiple emails to the “culprits” threatening an investigation into an “act of ethnic stereotyping.” Partygoers were placed on “social probation,” while the two hosts were ejected from their dorm and later impeached. Bowdoin’s student newspaper decried the attendees’ lack of “basic empathy.”
The student government issued a “statement of solidarity” with “all the students who were injured and affected by the incident,” and demanded that administrators “create a safe space for those students who have been or feel specifically targeted.” The tequila party, the statement specified, was just the sort of occasion that “creates an environment where students of colour, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, feel unsafe.” In sum, the party-favour hats constituted – wait for it – “cultural appropriation.”
Curiously, across my country Mexican restaurants, often owned and run by Mexicans, are festooned with sombreros – if perhaps not for long. At the UK’s University of East Anglia, the student union has banned a Mexican restaurant from giving out sombreros, deemed once more an act of “cultural appropriation” that was also racist.
Now, I am a little at a loss to explain what’s so insulting about a sombrero – a practical piece of headgear for a hot climate that keeps out the sun with a wide brim. My parents went to Mexico when I was small, and brought a sombrero back from their travels, the better for my brothers and I to unashamedly appropriate the souvenir to play dress-up. For my part, as a German-American on both sides, I’m more than happy for anyone who doesn’t share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some leiderhosen, pour themselves a weisbier, and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song.
But what does this have to do with writing fiction? The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.
In the latest ethos, which has spun well beyond college campuses in short order, any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch. Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.
Yet were their authors honouring the new rules against helping yourself to what doesn’t belong to you, we would not have Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. We wouldn’t have most of Graham Greene’s novels, many of which are set in what for the author were foreign countries, and which therefore have Real Foreigners in them, who speak and act like foreigners, too.
In his masterwork English Passengers, Matthew Kneale would have restrained himself from including chapters written in an Aboriginal’s voice – though these are some of the richest, most compelling passages in that novel. If Dalton Trumbo had been scared off of describing being trapped in a body with no arms, legs, or face because he was not personally disabled – because he had not been through a World War I maiming himself and therefore had no right to “appropriate” the isolation of a paraplegic – we wouldn’t have the haunting 1938 classic, Johnny Got His Gun.
We wouldn’t have Maria McCann’s erotic masterpiece, As Meat Loves Salt – in which a straight woman writes about gay men in the English Civil War. Though the book is nonfiction, it’s worth noting that we also wouldn’t have 1961’s Black Like Me, for which John Howard Griffin committed the now unpardonable sin of “blackface.” Having his skin darkened – Michael Jackson in reverse – Griffin found out what it was like to live as a black man in the segregated American South. He’d be excoriated today, yet that book made a powerful social impact at the time.
The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”
What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?
I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.
But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.
So far, the majority of these farcical cases of “appropriation” have concentrated on fashion, dance, and music: At the American Music Awards 2013, Katy Perry got it in the neck for dressing like a geisha. According to the Arab-American writer Randa Jarrar, for someone like me to practice belly dancing is “white appropriation of Eastern dance,” while according to the Daily Beast Iggy Azalea committed “cultural crimes” by imitating African rap and speaking in a “blaccent.”
The felony of cultural sticky fingers even extends to exercise: at the University of Ottawa in Canada, a yoga teacher was shamed into suspending her class, “because yoga originally comes from India.” She offered to re-title the course, “Mindful Stretching.” And get this: the purism has also reached the world of food. Supported by no less than Lena Dunham, students at Oberlin College in Ohio have protested “culturally appropriated food” like sushi in their dining hall (lucky cusses— in my day, we never had sushi in our dining hall), whose inauthenticity is “insensitive” to the Japanese.
Seriously, we have people questioning whether it’s appropriate for white people to eat pad Thai. Turnabout, then: I guess that means that as a native of North Carolina, I can ban the Thais from eating barbecue. (I bet they’d swap.)
This same sensibility is coming to a bookstore near you. Because who is the appropriator par excellence, really? Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves? Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnapper? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes take notes the better to purloin whole worlds? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts?
The fiction writer, that’s who.
This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best. When Truman Capote wrote from the perspective of condemned murderers from a lower economic class than his own, he had some gall. But writing fiction takes gall.
As for the culture police’s obsession with “authenticity,” fiction is inherently inauthentic. It’s fake. It’s self-confessedly fake; that is the nature of the form, which is about people who don’t exist and events that didn’t happen. The name of the game is not whether your novel honours reality; it’s all about what you can get away with.
In his 2009 novel Little Bee, Chris Cleave, who as it happens is participating in this festival, dared to write from the point of view of a 14-year-old Nigerian girl, though he is male, white, and British. I’ll remain neutral on whether he “got away with it” in literary terms, because I haven’t read the book yet.
But in principle, I admire his courage – if only because he invited this kind of ethical forensics in a review out of San Francisco: “When a white male author writes as a young Nigerian girl, is it an act of empathy, or identity theft?” the reviewer asked. “When an author pretends to be someone he is not, he does it to tell a story outside of his own experiential range. But he has to in turn be careful that he is representing his characters, not using them for his plot.”
Hold it. OK, he’s necessarily “representing” his characters, by portraying them on the page. But of course he’s using them for his plot! How could he not? They are his characters, to be manipulated at his whim, to fulfill whatever purpose he cares to put them to.
This same reviewer recapitulated Cleave’s obligation “to show that he’s representing [the girl], rather than exploiting her.” Again, a false dichotomy.
Of course he’s exploiting her. It’s his book, and he made her up. The character is his creature, to be exploited up a storm. Yet the reviewer chides that “special care should be taken with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell” and worries that “Cleave pushes his own boundaries maybe further than they were meant to go.”
What stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.
I’m hoping that crime writers, for example, don’t all have personal experience of committing murder. Me, I’ve depicted a high school killing spree, and I hate to break it to you: I’ve never shot fatal arrows through seven kids, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker, either. We make things up, we chance our arms, sometimes we do a little research, but in the end it’s still about what we can get away with – what we can put over on our readers.
Because the ultimate endpoint of keeping out mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction. Someone like me only permits herself to write from the perspective of a straight white female born in North Carolina, closing on sixty, able-bodied but with bad knees, skint for years but finally able to buy the odd new shirt. All that’s left is memoir.
And here’s the bugbear, here’s where we really can’t win. At the same time that we’re to write about only the few toys that landed in our playpen, we’re also upbraided for failing to portray in our fiction a population that is sufficiently various.
My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is “straight and white”. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga – about a white family. I wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.
You do indeed see just this brand of tokenism in television. There was a point in the latter 1990s at which suddenly every sitcom and drama in sight had to have a gay or lesbian character or couple. That was good news as a voucher of the success of the gay rights movement, but it still grew a bit tiresome: look at us, our show is so hip, one of the characters is homosexual!
We’re now going through the same fashionable exercise in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black.
Fine. But I still would like to reserve the right as a novelist to use only the characters that pertain to my story.
Besides: which is it to be? We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?
For it can be dangerous these days to go the diversity route. Especially since there seems to be a consensus on the notion that San Francisco reviewer put forward that “special care should be taken with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.”
In The Mandibles, I have one secondary character, Luella, who’s black. She’s married to a more central character, Douglas, the Mandible family’s 97-year-old patriarch. I reasoned that Douglas, a liberal New Yorker, would credibly have left his wife for a beautiful, stately African American because arm candy of color would reflect well on him in his circle, and keep his progressive kids’ objections to a minimum. But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research. As the novel reaches its climax and the family is reduced to the street, they’re obliged to put the addled, disoriented Luella on a leash, to keep her from wandering off.
Behold, the reviewer in the Washington Post, who groundlessly accused this book of being “racist” because it doesn’t toe a strict Democratic Party line in its political outlook, described the scene thus: “The Mandibles are white. Luella, the single African American in the family, arrives in Brooklyn incontinent and demented. She needs to be physically restrained. As their fortunes become ever more dire and the family assembles for a perilous trek through the streets of lawless New York, she’s held at the end of a leash. If The Mandibles is ever made into a film, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.”
Your author, by implication, yearns to bring back slavery.
Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.
In fact, I’m reminded of a letter I received in relation to my seventh novel from an Armenian-American who objected – why did I have to make the narrator of We Need to Talk About Kevin Armenian? He didn’t like my narrator, and felt that her ethnicity disparaged his community. I took pains to explain that I knew something about Armenian heritage, because my best friend in the States was Armenian, and I also thought there was something dark and aggrieved in the culture of the Armenian diaspora that was atmospherically germane to that book. Besides, I despaired, everyone in the US has an ethnic background of some sort, and she had to be something!
Especially for writers from traditionally privileged demographics, the message seems to be that it’s a whole lot safer just to make all your characters from that same demographic, so you can be as hard on them as you care to be, and do with them what you like. Availing yourself of a diverse cast, you are not free; you have inadvertently invited a host of regulations upon your head, as if just having joined the EU. Use different races, ethnicities, and minority gender identities, and you are being watched.
I confess that this climate of scrutiny has got under my skin. When I was first starting out as a novelist, I didn’t hesitate to write black characters, for example, or to avail myself of black dialects, for which, having grown up in the American South, I had a pretty good ear. I am now much more anxious about depicting characters of different races, and accents make me nervous.
In describing a second-generation Mexican American who’s married to one of my main characters in The Mandibles, I took care to write his dialogue in standard American English, to specify that he spoke without an accent, and to explain that he only dropped Spanish expressions tongue-in-cheek. I would certainly think twice – more than twice – about ever writing a whole novel, or even a goodly chunk of one, from the perspective of a character whose race is different from my own – because I may sell myself as an iconoclast, but I’m as anxious as the next person about attracting vitriol. But I think that’s a loss. I think that indicates a contraction of my fictional universe that is not good for the books, and not good for my soul.
Writing under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser on Vox, the author of the essay “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Scare Me” describes higher education’s “current climate of fear” and its “heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity” – and I am concerned that this touchy ethos, in which offendedness is used as a weapon, has spread far beyond academia, in part thanks to social media.
Why, it’s largely in order to keep from losing my fictional mojo that I stay off Facebook and Twitter, which could surely install an instinctive self-censorship out of fear of attack. Ten years ago, I gave the opening address of this same festival, in which I maintained that fiction writers have a vested interest in protecting everyone’s right to offend others – because if hurting someone else’s feelings even inadvertently is sufficient justification for muzzling, there will always be someone out there who is miffed by what you say, and freedom of speech is dead. With the rise of identity politics, which privileges a subjective sense of injury as actionable basis for prosecution, that is a battle that in the decade since I last spoke in Brisbane we’ve been losing.
Worse: the left’s embrace of gotcha hypersensitivity inevitably invites backlash. Donald Trump appeals to people who have had it up to their eyeballs with being told what they can and cannot say. Pushing back against a mainstream culture of speak-no-evil suppression, they lash out in defiance, and then what they say is pretty appalling.
Regarding identity politics, what’s especially saddened me in my recent career is a trend toward rejecting the advocacy of anyone who does not belong to the group. In 2013, I published Big Brother, a novel that grew out of my loss of my own older brother, who in 2009 died from the complications of morbid obesity. I was moved to write the book not only from grief, but also sympathy: in the years before his death, as my brother grew heavier, I saw how dreadfully other people treated him – how he would be seated off in a corner of a restaurant, how the staff would roll their eyes at each other after he’d ordered, though he hadn’t requested more food than anyone else.
I was wildly impatient with the way we assess people’s characters these days in accordance with their weight, and tried to get on the page my dismay at how much energy people waste on this matter, sometimes anguishing for years over a few excess pounds. Both author and book were on the side of the angels, or so you would think.
But in my events to promote Big Brother, I started to notice a pattern. Most of the people buying the book in the signing queue were thin. Especially in the US, fat is now one of those issues where you either have to be one of us, or you’re the enemy. I verified this when I had a long email correspondence with a “Healthy at Any Size” activist, who was incensed by the novel, which she hadn’t even read. Which she refused to read. No amount of explaining that the novel was on her side, that it was a book that was terribly pained by the way heavy people are treated and how unfairly they are judged, could overcome the scrawny author’s photo on the flap.
She and her colleagues in the fat rights movement did not want my advocacy. I could not weigh in on this material because I did not belong to the club. I found this an artistic, political, and even commercial disappointment – because in the US and the UK, if only skinny-minnies will buy your book, you’ve evaporated the pool of prospective consumers to a puddle.
I worry that the clamorous world of identity politics is also undermining the very causes its activists claim to back. As a fiction writer, yeah, I do sometimes deem my narrator an Armenian. But that’s only by way of a start. Merely being Armenian is not to have a character as I understand the word.
Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.
I made this same point in relation to gender in Melbourne last week: both as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.
The reading and writing of fiction is obviously driven in part by a desire to look inward, to be self-examining, reflective. But the form is also born of a desperation to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience.
The spirit of good fiction is one of exploration, generosity, curiosity, audacity, and compassion. Writing during the day and reading when I go to bed at night, I find it an enormous relief to escape the confines of my own head. Even if novels and short stories only do so by creating an illusion, fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us, and for a short while allows us to behold the astonishing reality of other people.
The last thing we fiction writers need is restrictions on what belongs to us. In a recent interview, our colleague Chris Cleave conceded, “Do I as an Englishman have any right to write a story of a Nigerian woman? … I completely sympathise with the people who say I have no right to do this. My only excuse is that I do it well.”
Which brings us to my final point. We do not all do it well. So it’s more than possible that we write from the perspective of a one-legged lesbian from Afghanistan and fall flat on our arses. We don’t get the dialogue right, and for insertions of expressions in Pashto we depend on Google Translate.
Halfway through the novel, suddenly the protagonist has lost the right leg instead of the left one. Our idea of lesbian sex is drawn from wooden internet porn. Efforts to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail: that’s a given. But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few points for trying. After all, most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any sort suck. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make anything.
The answer is that modern cliché: to keep trying to fail better. Anything but be obliged to designate my every character an ageing five-foot-two smartass, and having to set every novel in North Carolina.
We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats – including sombreros.
How a new form of atheism can combat jihadists who wish to end the world:
The world isn’t ending, but we face a tremendous problem from people who believe it is. The beliefs of many radicals have become increasingly apocalyptic over the past decade. They’re convinced the end of the world is imminent and that they have a special role in bringing it about. Whether or not you’re interested in the apocalypse, terrorists who believe it’s coming are interested in you.
Solutions are hard to come by. But there is a way to counter extremism that’s potentially as effective as it is unpopular. It’s a social and intellectual strategy that aims to undermine the religious beliefs that motivate jihadists—and one of the most controversial set of ideas to emerge in the West in the last quarter century: New Atheism.
New Atheism emerged in direct response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks executed by al-Qaeda, which demonstrated that acting upon certain religious beliefs could lead to catastrophe. The movement offered a heretofore unwelcomed perspective: That every religion has negative consequences, and that even religious moderates contribute to the problem because, by affirming that faith is a legitimate reason to hold beliefs, they enable religious extremists.
In making this case, the New Atheists famously broke one longstanding taboo against criticizing a person’s faith. But they broke a second taboo as well. Some New Atheists on the Left—including Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer—joined voices with many on the Right by saying there are unique dangers associated with jihad, such as martyrdom. New Atheists argued that focusing on generic religious extremism is a smokescreen, that the specific contents of religious doctrine delimit ways in which extremism plays out and thus some doctrines pose greater threats than others.
New Atheism has already succeeded in shifting the cultural landscape of Western civilization, making it far more acceptable to be openly atheist, giving atheists unprecedented public visibility, buttressing the legal boundaries of secularism and changing the nature of public discourse about faith, belief, God and religion.
New Atheist ideas like these have percolated into closed, traditional Muslim societies, giving those populations an opportunity to question their beliefs. In Muslim countries, New Atheist writings—which are illegal—have helped sow seeds of doubt and dissent. The Arabic translation of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, for example, has been downloaded ten million times, and pictures of people holding it while overlooking Mecca are remarkably commonplace given the draconian penalties for doing so—ranging from ten years imprisonment to death.
New Atheism may have inched into the Islamic world, but it has not found deep roots. And its current approach isn’t well-suited to further penetrate Muslim societies. The condescending speech of New Atheists—calling religious people delusional, for example—is not an effective cross-cultural strategy for generating change.
The next chapter in New Atheism will require a more nuanced, if not gentler, pen. The Dutch-American Somali-born author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example, has eloquently argued that Islam needs an internal reformation before intellectual and religious pluralism can become commonplace in the Islamic world. Atheism, Ali points out, is a logical step that comes after Enlightenment values like rationalism and tolerance, and the liberties of a free, open and secular society are in place.
To that end, New Atheists have begun reaching out to collaborate with moderate Muslims and, arguably more importantly, ex-Muslims. Many of those former Muslims have become New Atheists and gone back into their communities to advocate for reform. For example, Maajid Nawaz (a liberal Muslim and a former member of a radical Islamist group who became a counter-extremist) and Ali Rizvi (a self-identified “Atheist Muslim”) have been intimately involved in an ongoing Islamic reformation by helping to erode blasphemy laws.
The way ahead requires being able to speak honestly about religion, and New Atheism has been the most effective cultural effort to broker this conversation. Its endeavors going forward, however, must recognize the humanity in religion while maintaining a candid dialogue about deep-rooted conflicts between reason and faith. A matured New Atheism is needed more today than ever before to offer a unique alternative to irreconcilable conflicts of faith, some of which wish to end the world.
Trigger Warnings – A University Declares War on The Concept of Safe Spaces.
Letters sent to the incoming class of 2020 make it clear the University of Chicago isn’t a fan of trigger warnings or safe spaces.
Academics around the country are embracing the relatively new trend of using trigger warnings to shield students from ideas that might be discomforting or trauma-inducing. These ideas often include topics that touch on “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.”
Though there is some debate surrounding how widespread the use of trigger warnings actually is, a survey conducted last year by the National Coalition Against Censorship found that a majority of educators had used trigger warnings at one time or another.
Similarly, many universities are creating “safe spaces” where students can relax free from ideas that might be stressful or anxiety-inducing. Among these is Brown University, which last year created a room “with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies” because a debate on sexual assault was taking place on campus.
Apparently not all universities are on board with this trend. The University of Chicago recently made it clear to its crop of incoming students that academic freedom and inquiry remain pillars at the institution, and that the university does not support “so-called” trigger warnings or offer safe spaces that allow students “to retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own. Here is how the university welcomed its incoming class of 2020:
Welcome and congratulations on your acceptance to the college at the University of Chicago. Earning a place in our community of scholars is no small achievement and we are delighted that you selected Chicago to continue your intellectual journey.
Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. … Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.
And then, the coup de grace:
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
You can read the entire letter below. (CLICK HERE to see how students and alumni responded.)
Researchers say religion may become extinct in nine nations.
A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.
The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.
The team’s mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.
The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.
The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.
Their means of analysing the data invokes what is known as nonlinear dynamics – a mathematical approach that has been used to explain a wide range of physical phenomena in which a number of factors play a part.
One of the team, Daniel Abrams of Northwestern University, put forth a similar model in 2003 to put a numerical basis behind the decline of lesser-spoken world languages.
At its heart is the competition between speakers of different languages, and the “utility” of speaking one instead of another.
“The idea is pretty simple,” said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona.
“It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.
“For example in languages, there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there’s some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not.”
Dr Wiener continued: “In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%.”
The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the “non-religious” category.
They found, in a study published online, that those parameters were similar across all the countries studied, suggesting that similar behaviour drives the mathematics in all of them.
And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.
However, Dr Wiener told the conference that the team was working to update the model with a “network structure” more representative of the one at work in the world.
“Obviously we don’t really believe this is the network structure of a modern society, where each person is influenced equally by all the other people in society,” he said.
However, he told BBC News that he thought it was “a suggestive result”.
“It’s interesting that a fairly simple model captures the data, and if those simple ideas are correct, it suggests where this might be going.
“Obviously much more complicated things are going on with any one individual, but maybe a lot of that averages out.”