Sunday, June 29, 2008

Long Time No Post

Wow, it's been almost a week since my last post. I just haven't been able to get around to it, though I have been mulling some topics. I have not been completely idle in the atheist blogosphere though, as I have been participating vigorously in a back and forth with a couple of Christian commenters in the comments thread at this post on Vjack's Atheist Revolution site. I encourage you all to join in.

I do have a post in the works that I hope to put up soon inspired by my remarks there, particularly expanding on my point that the vast universe we live in makes the god of the Bible improbable.

I'm too tired to put it together tonight though, as I am still fatigued from last night's outing with my wife. Empire Kayaks in Island Park hosted a kayak trip to see the fireworks display at Point Lookout. I took some pictures, but unfortunately none of them came out well enough to make it worth putting them up here. The trip was decent and something different from the ordinary. My left arm is really sore though and in need of occasional applications of Ben Gay® ointment from all that paddling.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hooray! We Finally Got Our Stimulus Check!

It finally arrived in the mail today. My wife was starting to doubt that we would ever receive it. The reason it took so long is that we filed our income taxes by paper a few days before the April 15 deadline. I filed by paper because we owed money to both the Feds and New York State, so I wasn't going to pay the fee for filing electronically through TurboTax.

As happy as I am to have received it, to be honest, it's just going to go into our savings account to replenish what I took out of it to pay off a credit card bill. I try to maintain at least a $5,000 balance in the savings account linked to the checking account as an emergency fund. So yeah, our stimulus check is serving a useful purpose, even if it is not what President Bush had in mind.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Lost Tribe That Wasn't

They are the amazing pictures that were beamed around the globe: a handful of warriors from an 'undiscovered tribe' in the rainforest on the Brazilian-Peruvian border brandishing bows and arrows at the aircraft that photographed them.

Or so the story was told and sold. But it has now emerged that, far from being unknown, the tribe's existence has been noted since 1910 and the mission to photograph them was undertaken in order to prove that 'uncontacted' tribes still existed in an area endangered by the menace of the logging industry.

While I didn't write about it when this story first surfaced, I did have some doubts about it. They were spawned by the now famous picture with the red painted warriors firing their bows and arrows up at the plane. It didn't strike me as authentic.

As for whether or not there are still "uncontacted" tribes in the Amazon, I guess it is possible there are isolated pockets of them here and there who have never met outsiders before, but they surely know that they are not alone. I am sure some of them have spoken with people in other tribes and found out about visitors to the forest and this can't have been the first time they ever saw an airplane.

Another thought I had was "Oh shit, now some Christian missionaries are going to try to find them so that they can 'save' them."

Jeebus Folk At My Door

It's Saturday morning and barely a half hour ago I was laying in bed with my beautiful wife cuddling and talking, when the door bell rings.

"Oh shit!" I grumbled as I got up and made my way to the front door. I peeped through the door and saw two ladies and knew immediately what I was in for.

I opened the door, and on my stoop was an Indian looking woman and a couple of steps down stood a black woman leaning on the hand rail.

"I hope you are having a good morning" the Indian woman greeted me. By her accent, I surmised she might be Guyanese, as most of these Jehovah Witness types who haunt my neighborhood tend to be of Caribbean origin.

"Well, I was," I replied.

The Indian lady started to go into her spiel. She reached into her shoulder bag to pull out a pamphlet and says something along the lines of, "A lot of people are full of despair with the way things are going in the world these days and they are afraid for the future."

"Well, I'm actually quite optimistic about the future," I interjected. She started to say something, but I didn't pay much attention and continued, "Because I am an atheist."

If memory serves, she started to say something about, "Well, the Bible says there is hope..."

I shot back, "Listen lady, the Bible talks about the destruction of the world. That doesn't sound too optimistic to me."

"Well, the Bible says there will be some survivors," she replied somewhat meekly. I got a chuckle out of that. Some survivors?

I decided to wrap things up with the we're gonna have to agree to disagree spiel. I was satisfied with the kick in the ass I had just given to her telling her that her religious belief requires war and destruction. But as she and her companion were turning away and heading down my walkway to the sidewalk, I fired off one last parting shot: "It's all a bunch of mythology and nonsense!"

And then it was back to the bed to tell my wife what had just happened.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Those Darn Morals!

I meant to do this post earlier, but it got sidelined by other things.

A couple of weeks ago I stepped out of the office for a few minutes to make a Starbucks® run. The girl behind the counter took my order and a few minutes later I had my iced mocha in hand. And no one had rung me up! Usually, the person who takes the order rings it up and another barista prepares it. But this time, no one had bothered asking me to pay.

I stood there for a few seconds pondering what I should do. I was a little ticked that they were out of soy milk and had to make my iced mocha with skim milk instead. Not to mention that Starbucks is a very profitable company, and they wouldn't notice the missing four dollars and change.

"Screw em!" I thought and walked out the door into the Rockefeller Concourse. I had gotten away with it! There was no one to stop me.

And then I stopped.

"I can't do this," I said to myself. "This is stealing and I am not a thief."

I turned around, walked back into the Starbucks, and walked up to the person manning the register to pay for my iced mocha.

I am writing about this little incident, because it serves as a rebuke to all those theists who claim that atheists have no morals. I wanted to walk away without paying. I did walk away without paying. But in the end I went back and did pay. Not because I feared what some sky daddy would think of me. I went back and paid for my drink because I recognized the value of not stealing. If everyone did what I did, then it would have a negative impact. A civilization worthy of the name cannot survive in the absence of trust and honor.

And now I anticipate comments from everyone telling me what an idiot I am for going back and paying for my drink!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Gay Marriage Is Destroying America

Seriously, I wonder how long it will take before some Bible belt pastor blames this on this.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Red Cross Needs Your Help

The Red Cross has issued an appeal for donations to help it provide necessary services to our fellow Americans who have lost so much from the devastating floods that have hit the Midwest. See this article from CNN to get a sense of how serious this situation is.

Because of a shortfall in donations, the Red Cross is in the unenviable position right now of having to borrow funds in order to meet the needs of so many. The online donation page is here. I urge you all to give what you can and give America a demonstration of the generosity of the atheist and humanist community!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

My New Letter to the Afghan Embassy re: Pervez Kambaksh

Mr. Said T. Jawad
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Afghanistan
Embassy of Afghanistan

2341 Wyoming Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20008

Dear Ambassador Jawad,

I am writing to convey my dismay and disappointment that the charges against Mr. Pervez Kambaksh for the supposed crime of blasphemy have not been dropped and that he still faces the possibility of the death penalty.

From what I have read, Mr. Kambaksh was originally convicted in a "trial" that lasted for only a few minutes where he was denied the right to counsel to challenge the charges brought against him. He also apparently is still unable to find legal counsel because fundamentalist thugs have threatened to kill anyone who takes his case.

With all due respect Mister Ambassador, blasphemy laws are an anachronism and have no place in a civilized society. The case of Mister Kambaksh demonstrates that such laws can be used to persecute innocent people and suppress the free exchange of ideas. I submit that blasphemy laws have the effect of retarding the growth and development of society when certain topics are considered off limits from discussing even as a hypothetical situation. It creates a repressive climate where one group with access to or influence over the levers of power can use such laws to limit criticism or target its political and intellectual opponents.

I call on the courts and elected government of the people of Afghanistan to abolish the death penalty for blasphemy and free Pervez Kambaksh. You know it is the right thing to do. Your President, the Honorable Hamid Karzai, knows it is the right thing to do. Find some technicality, some loophole, anything that will work, and let Pervez Kambaksh go free and be kept safe from narrow minded fanatics and bigots who would seek to do him harm.

I thank you for your consideration and look forward to hearing from you.

Respectfully yours,

Save Pervez Kambaksh

One of the things I have noticed about the blogosphere, as well as the media in general, is the outrage du jour. We read about something or see something on the television that outrages us at that particular moment, and then after the brief passage of time, it gets forgotten, to be replaced by a new outrage du jour.

One case that received a lot of attention in the atheist blogosphere at the beginning of the year was Pervez Kambaksh, a journalism student in Afghanistan who was charged with the crime of blasphemy for disseminating articles that were deemed insulting to Islam. (As an aside, I think I insult Islam just by waking up and getting out of bed every morning!)

I did a couple of posts about Pervez Kambaksh (by the way, his name has different spellings, but I will stick with the one I have been using) here and here. Since then, his name seems to have faded from the public consciousness. Wondering what had happened to him, I did some searching on Google.

From a May 18, 2008 article from the UK publication The Independent Online:

Pervez Kambaksh, the Afghan student sentenced to death after being accused of downloading internet reports on women's rights, yesterday pleaded innocent to charges of blasphemy. He told an appeal court in Kabul that he had been tortured into confessing.

Mr Kambaksh, 24, vehemently denied that he had been responsible for producing anti-Islamic literature. He insisted the prosecution had been motivated by personal malice of two members of staff and their student supporters at the university in Balkh, where he was studying journalism.

The head of the panel of three judges at Kabul, Abdul Salaam Qazizada, adjourned the trial until next Sunday to allow Mr Kambaksh further attempts to find a lawyer. As of last night they had not succeeded. The original trial took place in January. Mr Kambaksh's appeal was moved to Kabul at his own request, amid fears for his safety in Mazar after international outrage at the sentence. A petition by The Independent to secure justice for him has attracted more than 100,000 signatures.

In an open letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai dated June 11, 2008 by the organization Reporters Without Borders, the case of Pervez Kambaksh was raised:

"You must of course be aware, Mr. President, of the case of the young journalist Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, which has shocked the entire world. The death sentence passed on him by a court in Mazar-i-Sharif triggered a wave of legitimate outrage. More than a million people have already signed a petition launched by the British newspaper The Independent calling for his release. The recent revelation that he was tortured by members of the security services casts doubt on your government’s ability to respect the relevant international standards.

How, Mr. President, can you ask for greater support from western countries when, at the same time, judges, prosecutors, political leaders and some clerics are targeting Afghan journalists with such virulence in your country?

Kambakhsh’s release and the quashing of his death sentence would be a positive signal in an otherwise sombre panorama."

I urge everyone who reads this post to contact the Embassy of Afghanistan in their respective countries and demand that the charges against Pervez Kambaksh be dropped and his life spared. Of course, be forceful but also respectful. The idea here is to persuade, not to condemn.

The website for the Embassy of Afghanistan in the United States is here. A man's life hangs in the balance here, and if the Afghan government catches enough heat from this, they might find some face saving way of letting Pervez Kambaksh go free.

Atheist 13 Meme and My 400th Post!

Michael Dorian of the New York City Atheists blog has tagged me with this meme, which, as the title above indicates, also happens to be my 400th post. Though I still haven't achieved the level of readership I had hoped for, Exercise in Futility has managed to stand the test of time, and I believe the best is yet to come.

Anyway, here it goes!

Q1. How would you define “atheism”?

I would define it simply as the absence of belief in a god. Personally, I cannot rule out 100% that there is no higher power that created our universe. But if there is such a being, I don't see how anyone can claim to know what it wants or indeed that it wants or needs anything from us puny humans.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

I was raised Roman Catholic. For the most part, I hated it. I had to go through catechism and attend mass every Sunday. But around New Years of 1984, when I was in the middle of 9th grade, I was inspired by the priest's sermon to take my religion seriously. I read the Bible from start to finish three times in a row, I went to mass voluntarily, pestered my friends about the need to believe, and even slept with a Bible in my bed!

Q3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?

I can't. So I will just go ahead and say what I want to say about it. The ID movement is an attempt by some in the belief community to have a "scientific" hook on which to hang their religious faith.

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

Space exploration. One of the things that turned me away from Christianity was the realization of how small we are in this vast universe. For me, the god of the Bible is the god of a very small universe where humans are the reason for the universe having been created. Back then, people didn't know that ours was one of a number of planets orbiting the sun in our solar system, and that our sun was one of millions which were orbited by planets of their own in the Milky Way, which itself was one of millions of galaxies each filled with millions of their own suns with their own planets orbiting them. When you look at it that way, it is hard to believe that our actions here on this planet have any cosmic significance.

But to get back to the main point of the question, I am intrigued about the possibility of finding life, even at the microbial level, on another planet or body in the solar system. We would realize that we are indeed not alone in the universe, and that if we can find microbial life in a place like Jupiter's moon Europa, to take one possible candidate, then there is a greater possibility that intelligent life may exist somewhere as well.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

Well, the "atheist community" is not a monolith, so I don't know what I would change about it. One thing I would argue is that what we should strive for is not an atheist world, but to promote pluralism and tolerance, even for religious people. When you have a country where one group tries to impose its dogma on everyone else, it requires an apparatus to enforce it, which results in a totalitarian society, whether it be Stalin's USSR or Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

I would ask him/her what the motivation was. Ultimately, I would have to respect my son or daughter's position if there was no changing his or her mind.

Q7. What’s your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

It amuses me when they ask me "Well, then how did the universe get here?" My response to that is, "Even if the universe was designed by someone, it doesn't mean it was your god."

Q8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

I don't know. I am pretty moderate as far as atheists go. From the perspective of other atheists, I guess maybe my advocacy for the rights of religious minorities to be free of persecution. The reason why it matters to me is that if persecution of a minority is tolerated, then you are contributing to a climate that makes it okay to persecute you.

Q9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

Oh, I don't know. Each of them has something positive to offer.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

That's easy, my wife! She is a lapsed Catholic, but does not seem to have it in her to embrace atheism.

Now name three other atheist blogs that you’d like to see take up the Atheist Thirteen gauntlet:

Okay, I choose Stardust, the Jolly Nihilist, and Tina.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Pledge Project - My Video

I am pleased with the feedback I have received so far about my idea for modelling the Blasphemy Challenge by having those of us who support removing "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance post videos of ourselves reciting the Pledge without those two words.

I think that having videos of atheist Americans pledging allegiance to their country, besides generating interest and support for the project, helps to put a human face on the issue. When you actually hear people reciting the Pledge the way it was before Congress changed it in the 1950's, it doesn't sound so alien. And as I remarked at the end of my video below, I think the Pledge flows a lot more smoothly without "under God" in it.

I had originally shot a longer video with an intro that was about one and a half minutes, but I did not like the way it turned out and decided to go with the shorter video above.

Friday, June 13, 2008

What Would He Know About the Authenticity of Marriage?

In his column for The Long Island Catholic, Bishop William Murphy condemns New York Governor David Paterson's recent order that state agencies recognize same-sex marriages performed outside of New York State. The governor's order came in the wake of the decision legalizing gay marriage (at least for now) in the state of California.

And what are the bishop's reasons for opposing gay marriage?

"Sexual relationships are essentially private matters until they are made public by public action. Then they have to be scrutinized to see if they correspond to what is good and right and true for the common good of society. In all these levels, sexual intimacy between persons of the same sex does not pass muster. They do not serve the common good. They cannot do so because they contradict biological teleology and the natural law."

Like so many other gay marriage opponents, Bishop Murphy assumes that same-gender relations are all about sex. What does he think, same gender couples spend all of their free time giving each other reach arounds? Has it ever occurred to the good bishop that a same gender couple can have a mutually fulfilling relationship in the same way that those of us who are in heterosexual marriages experience?

Bishop Murphy continues, "I fail to understand how this can be called marriage, no matter how many people want to call it that. No matter how much some may wish to apply the term “marriage,” it does not fit because it fails the test of truth and authenticity."

The test of truth and authenticity? What the fuck are you talking about, Bishop Murphy? This is an example of the biased mindset inherent in the anti-gay marriage crowd, the assumption that a marriage between a man and a woman is considered automatically to be "authentic". I would be interested to know how many of the marriages that Bishop Murphy presided over ended up in divorce. How many of them were marriages of convenience? How many of them are now stale, loveless marriages where the couples stay together merely for the sake of the children or because a divorce is simply too much of a bother? Is a marriage between an older rich man and his young trophy wife really authentic? Does it really serve a societal good?

How about a marriage between a man and a woman where there is no intention of producing children from the union? My uncle, who lost his first wife to cancer eight years ago, is getting married to the woman with whom he has been in a relationship with for the last seven years. They are both in their mid-sixties, and clearly they do not plan to have children. I am happy for the both of them and look forward to attending their wedding this fall. But let's be honest, there is no societal benefit to their marriage. Why then should it be legal for them to get married but two people of the same gender in a monogamous relationship for the same amount of time or longer does not meet the bishop's "test of truth and authenticity"? And what would a celibate old man know what an authentic marriage feels like anyway?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Unrest in Indonesia

For those who have been following this story in the news in Indonesia:

"On June 9, 2008, Religious Affairs Minister Maftuh Basyuni, Home Minister Mardiyanto, and Attorney General Hendarman Supanji signed a decree ordering the Ahmadiyah community to “stop spreading interpretations and activities which deviate from the principal teachings of Islam,” including “the spreading of the belief that there is another prophet with his own teachings after Prophet Mohammed.” Violations of the decree are subject to up to five years of imprisonment."

From the same press release from Human Rights Watch:

"The Ahmadiyah faith was founded in what is now Pakistan in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. The Ahmadiyah community is banned in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and has come under attack in Bangladesh. There are approximately 200,000 Ahmadis in Indonesia."

The Ahmadiyah community also has its own web site here. In a press release issued by the sect, they lament that, "[t]his decree belligerently violates the human rights of every Ahmadi Muslim in Indonesia and ignores the principles of religious freedom enshrined in the country’s Constitution."

To their credit, not all Muslims in Indonesia support the decree. From Al Jazeera English, "[a]n Indonesian Muslim group is planning to file a lawsuit against the government saying it is undermining religious freedoms by deciding to impose special curbs on a minority religious sect condemned as "deviant" by some protesters."

Sadly though, "a demonstration in support of religious freedom was attacked by supporters of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) wielding bamboo sticks – injuring a dozen people."

From the aforementioned Human Rights Watch press release:

“The Indonesian government needs to show it takes attacks on religious minorities seriously by prosecuting those responsible,” said Adams. “If Munarman remains at large it will fuel suspicion of support in some government quarters for his aims. The government has a duty to protect Ahmadis and other religious minorities – that’s a bedrock principle of modern Indonesia.”

"Indonesia ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in February 2006. In doing so, it agreed to comply with all the provisions of that treaty, including that, “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice” (Article 18(2)), and “persons belonging to ... minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion” (Article 27)."

According to the web site for the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia to the United States:

"Six world religions are formally recognized in Indonesia: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Confucianism, Hinduism and Buddhism. Nevertheless, other faiths can be found, especially in isolated societies. These religions, called traditional faiths, are also accepted. According to recent counts, approximately 85 percent of the population is Muslim, 11 percent is Christian (Protestants and Catholics), and 4 percent is Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, or traditional."

The official philosophical foundation for the Indonesian state is Pancasila, which translates into "Five Principles". The first principle of Pancasila, much to the chagrin of those of us who are atheists, stresses belief in a one and only supreme God. However, when you look at the six formally recognized religions listed above, you might notice that one very well known religion is missing. If you haven't figured it out yet, I will give you a hint: it starts with the letter "J"!

The second principle is much more admirable, proclaiming a just and civilized humanity, while the fifth principle calls for social justice for all of Indonesia's people. Surely, the treatment of the Ahmadiyah sect by the government and by the extremist radicals who commit violence against them goes against the second and fifth principles of Pancasila.

Now why is an atheist like me blogging about the persecution of a marginal Muslim sect in Indonesia? Well, I for one believe that pluralism and tolerance is something worth defending, even if it means standing up for the right of followers of a religious minority to practice their faith free from persecution in a country on the other side of the world. Extremists are bullies who must be fought and defeated wherever they raise their head, because if they are allowed to win, it strikes another blow to the principle of secular government. While those of us who are atheists probably wish all religious people would become atheists too, just as Christians and Muslims wish all people would follow their creeds, it's just not going to happen. Therefore, the best society one can reasonably expect to have is one like we have here in the United States where all can exercise freedom of religion or freedom of no religion. It might not be perfect, but it sure as hell beats the alternative.

If you are all not tired of my advocacy and activism yet, I plan to post a letter I will be sending to the Indonesian Embassy regarding the Ahmadiyah sect. I also sent an e-mail to the address provided on the Ahmadiyah web site offering my support. I am interested to see if they reply, especially since I mentioned in my e-mail that I am an atheist.

The Pledge of Allegiance Project

Since May 15, Alonzo Fyfe has been posting exclusively about the Pledge of Allegiance and the need to remove the words "under God" from it. He calls it The Pledge Project.

In his opening salvo, titled "The Pledge Project: Acting Against Anti-Atheist Bigotry", Alonzo declares:

I consider 'under God' in the pledge, and the national motto of "In God We Trust" to be the most significant cause of the deteriorating political situation that atheists in specific and secularists in general are facing in the United States, and I want to see these practices ended.

He goes on to write:

Let's be honest – these policies were adopted, and they continue to be enthusiastically supported – because they serve as a way of keeping political power out of the hands of any person who will not pledge allegiance to 'one nation under God'. They are loved (by those who love them the most) because they endorse a religious barrier to public office that only allows those who are willing to express a belief in God can pass through.

I won't reproduce any more of it here. Some of you may have already read it, and for those of you have not, you can just click on the link above.

To be honest, fighting to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance was never something that resonated with me. While I agree in principle that the Pledge should be restored to what it was before those two words were added in the mid-Fifties, I always felt that it would amount to expending a lot of time and effort on something of symbolic value when there were more substantive issues that demanded attention. My thoughts on the issue are pretty much summed up in one of my first posts on this blog, "One Nation Under Zeus".

Still, reading one of Alonzo's posts recently got me to thinking about the Blasphemy Challenge that drew a lot of interest last year. As you may recall, the Blasphemy Challenge involved people filming short videos of themselves "denying" the Holy Spirit and posting them on Youtube. Well, I figured, why not adopt the same idea for The Pledge Project? How about we make videos of ourselves and others saying the Pledge of Allegiance sans the words "under God"?

I left my suggestion in the comments section of one of Alonzo's posts, but thus far he has not responded.

Well, at any rate, I have decided to take the first step, and have filmed my two children saying the Pledge of Allegiance without the words "under God." It seemed appropriate, because they have to say the Pledge every day in school, whereas most of us grownups are rarely ever in situations where we are required to recite it.

Here is the video for your viewing enjoyment:

I expect to add my own recital of the Pledge too either today or later this week. I don't know if this will catch on with the rest of the atheist blogosphere (at least for those of us here in the United States), but let's see what happens!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why Lose Trillions, When We Can Lose...Billions?

Read all about it, as the BBC uncovers lost Iraq billions.

What's The Beef?

Tens of thousands of Koreans have been protesting their government's proposal to relax the ban on U.S. beef imports. Call me cynical, but I suspect that there is something else at work here. I haven't followed Korean domestic opinion, but it wouldn't surprise me if Korean people are just sour on America in general and the beef issue is merely the catalyst for expressing some deep seated anger. After all, there are a lot of Korean immigrants living in the United States and eating the beef here and they haven't come down with mad cow disease. Besides, it's not like we're trying to get the Koreans to eat our tomatoes.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Matthew 5:27-28

"You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.' But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

This is one of many famous passages from the Sermon on the Mount attributed to Jesus.

What Jesus appears to be saying is that thinking about sex with a woman who is not one's wife is the same in the eyes of God as actually engaging in the physical act of adultery.

Well, if that is indeed the case, then I must admit that I am guilty of adultery many times over! And if thinking about adulterous sex is enough to send a man to hell, then why not just actually go ahead and do the deed? After all, one might as well experience the pleasure if punishment for the mere thought of it is a foregone conclusion.

To take it further, if thinking about committing adultery with someone is the same as committing adultery, does the same rule apply to other thoughts? If I think about stealing something, have I already stolen it in my heart? If I contemplate bludgeoning someone with a baseball bat because I saw that person littering, am I already guilty of physically harming that person?

And what about good deeds? If I spend all day in the confines of my home imagining that I am helping elderly people who have fallen on the sidewalk or providing food and shelter to scores of poor people, is that the same in the eyes of God as going out and actually helping these people? If not, then why are sinful thoughts given the same weight as sinful acts, while charitable thoughts are not given equal weight to charitable deeds?

The way I look at it, a conscious act that is harmful to oneself or to others, that is an act that inflicts physical and/or mental damage or injury, is unlikely to occur without the person carrying out the act having first thought about it. A person is not likely to steal, commit adultery, or commit murder, for example, unless that person has first thought about committing these acts in his or her mind. In summary, all harmful deeds are a product of thought. But on the other hand, not all thoughts about these deeds will lead to people actually carrying out the deeds.

Going back to the adulterous thoughts which Jesus spoke of, a married person, whether man or woman, can contemplate committing adultery with someone, be it a co-worker, acquaintance or friend, and then realize upon further consideration that a few moments of sexual pleasure is not worth the possibility of wrecking a marriage or friendship, or possibly contracting a sexually transmitted disease. The adulterous thoughts are then discarded.

And this is where I argue that Jesus, the alleged son and one third part of the god who supposedly created our universe, gets it horribly wrong. Our minds function as laboratories where we can contemplate possible scenarios and their possible consequences. Thus, as I mentioned above, a married person can seriously contemplate the possibility of committing adultery but then come to the conclusion that he or she would prefer not to go through with it. But according to Jesus, that person is already guilty of adultery simply for having considered the possibility. Since the human mind is incredibly difficult to control, the god of the Bible has established a standard that turns all of us into a race of Winston Smiths engaging in thought crimes.

Talking to God

I got a kick out of this column by a T. Sima Gunawan in The Jakarta Post titled "By The Way: FPI too busy talking to God".

Here are some excerpts from the column, though I recommend you read the whole thing:

"Christians are so close to God that they call Him "father" in prayer, while Muslims are so far away from Allah that they need loudspeakers to talk to Him."

"The Muslim call to prayer, and prayer itself, can be heard in every corner of the city. It would seem it is a case of the louder, the better, so that everyone in the neighborhood can hear it. It doesn't matter if it is still dawn or if it's during school hours and the mosque is right next to a school. If one mosque is next to another, they may even compete to be loudest."

"Indonesia is indeed one of the most religious nations in the world, a fact confirmed by last year's religion monitoring study conducted in 21 countries by the German-based Bertelsmann Foundation.

Ironically, Indonesia is also notorious for being among the world's most corrupt countries.

Being religious, corruptors must pray first before stealing state money, or perhaps they set aside a little of the corrupted money to build mosques or churches."

"Not only FPI members, but it seems many other Muslims, Christians and other deeply religious people are often too busy talking to God in one-way conversations, praising and worshiping God, reading the Koran, the Bible and other holy books, while turning their backs on fellow human beings.

Of course, talking to God is important, but if they think praying five times a day or going to Church every Sunday, or even everyday, is enough to allow them climb the stairway to heaven, maybe they should think again.

By the way, if you find the opening of this piece offensive, please accept my apology. I don't mean to upset anyone, let alone God, who must be sad enough seeing the violence and frequent religious conflicts within this so-called religious nation."

Reason Number 143 Why Islamic Fundamentalism Sucks

Banned under Islam.

From the English language Daily News Egypt:

One hundred years after it was founded, Cairo's School of Fine Arts seeks to train Egypt's artists but has to make do without nude "life" drawing classes so as not to offend Islam.

Full article available here.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Some Changes to Exercise in Futility

I have recently added some new blogrolls and links to my sidebar. The largest by far is a roll of links to English language news publications from countries around the world (International Media), including a number of Islamic countries. I have also added a blogroll titled Policy and Global Issues that has some interesting educational sites such as The Brookings Insitute and Stratfor. The Human Rights/Human Trafficking roll has some additional links added to it as well.

Besides being a forum to express my thoughts and opinions, I also envision my blog as a portal for accessing sites to educate myself and broaden my perspective, and I hope that regular readers and occasional visitors to my blog will benefit from this as well. And of course, if any of you have any interesting or useful sites to recommend, please feel free to do so. For my International Media roll, I would especially like to add links to English language publications from Latin America and continental Europe, preferably those that do not require a paid subscription. For example, I wanted to add the South China News Daily from Hong Kong and the Straits Times from Singapore, but one must have paid subscriptions in order to access full articles on their sites.

Future blogrolls I plan to add will include Muslim reform organizations and worthwhile Long Island charities.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Jury Duty on the Horizon

This week I received a most unwelcome piece of mail, a jury questionnaire form from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Once I mail it in, I know it is only a matter of time before I receive an actual summons for jury duty.

The irony in all of this is that for a couple of years in the mid-Nineties, I was the jury clerk for the Eastern District's branch court in Uniondale. Because the Eastern District comprised Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk counties, eligible jurors in any one of those counties could be summoned to either of the District's three courts in Uniondale, Hauppauge, and the main court in Brooklyn. I remember having to deal with exasperated and angry jurors who sometimes travelled for several hours to make their way to the Uniondale court in Nassau County.

The reason for having some jurors from Staten Island, Brooklyn and eastern Suffolk travel all the way to Uniondale was to ensure that a racially diverse jury pool. This also meant that some Nassau County and Suffolk County jurors would be summoned to Brooklyn. I felt really bad for the Staten Island and Brooklyn residents who had to schlep all the way to the Hauppauge courthouse in Suffolk County.

The bad news is that where there were once three courthouses in the Eastern District, there are now only two. Uniondale and Hauppauge were shut down following the construction of a new Federal court complex in Islip. That means that if I am selected to be a juror (and you know I will be), Uniondale won't even be a possibility for me. Personally, I would prefer Brooklyn over Islip, because Brooklyn is more accessible for me via public transportation, whereas the Islip courthouse would require that I drive my car, which I am not anxious to do in these times of 4.22 per gallon gasoline. On the other hand, I am curious to see if any of my former co-workers at Uniondale are working at the Islip courthouse.

I do have some interesting moments from my time as the jury clerk at the Uniondale courthouse. In perhaps one of the most bizarre coincidences in human history, one man who was summoned to appear as a juror there one day also was a plaintiff in a case in the same courthouse that was scheduled to pick a jury for his case that same day. He actually showed up for jury duty that morning. It would have been even funnier if he was called to be in the jury pool for his own case.

One of my favorite episodes from that time was when I was in a room filled with people who had arrived for jury duty that morning. One of them, a 50 something woman with an Italian last name, was trying to convince me to excuse her from jury duty. She threw several lame excuses at me, which I shot down. Finally, she dropped the bomb on me. "I'm not proud to say it, but I'm prejudiced against certain kinds of people." I knew exactly what kind of people she meant, as did the young African-American woman who sat in the front row behind this lady as she rolled her eyes and sighed.

"Well, Mrs. B_______," I said, as I prepared to deliver the hammer blow to her, "the name of the defendant in this case is [Italian-American man's name], so unless you are biased against your fellow Italian-Americans, I don't think that should be a problem!" Practically everyone in the room burst out laughing, and the lady said to me sheepishly, "I have to serve then?"

"Yes, you do," I replied with a barely concealed grin. After she walked out of the room, I called out, "Is anyone here biased against Italians?"

If I end up getting picked for a case, I just hope it won't be a lengthy trial. That would really suck.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

My Letter to Iraq's Ambassador to the United States re: Rand Abdel-Qader and Leila Hussein

Below is the letter I am mailing to the Iraqi Embassy here in the United States. I will also try calling them tomorrow, and as with Paula Dobriansky at the State Department, attempt to get a fax number. To echo the title of my blog, this is probably all an 'exercise in futility,' but I feel compelled to at least try do what I can.

His Excellency Samir Sumaida'ie
Embassy of the Republic of Iraq
3421 Massachusetts Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20007

Dear Ambassador Sumaida'ie,

As you may have read, several months ago a 17 year old girl in Basra named Rand Abdel-Qader was murdered by her father and two brothers for the "crime" of chatting in public with a British soldier. To date, the girl's murderous father Abdel-Qader Ali and two brothers Hassan and Haydar remain free, and incredibly, it appears that the father is still collecting his salary from his government job, in spite of the fact that he openly boasts of his crime.

To add to the tragedy of the situation, just a couple of weeks ago, Leila Hussein, the mother of Rand Abdel-Qader, was killed in a hail of gunfire as she was being escorted from a safe house after having left her husband. Enclosed are two articles detailing these events.

I am writing to you Ambassador Sumaida'ie, because I respectfully insist that Abdel-Qader Ali and his two sons Hassan and Haydar be brought to justice for the murder of Rand Abdel-Qader. While I am not a member of the Muslim faith, it is my understanding that Rand's murder by her father and brother is in violation of the tenets of Islam.

According to Article 2 of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, (a) life is a God-given gift and the right to life is guaranteed to every human being. It is the duty of individuals, societies and states to safeguard this right against any violation, and it is prohibited to take away life except for a shari'ah prescribed reason, and (d) safety from bodily harm is a guaranteed right. It is the duty of the state to safeguard it, and it is prohibited to breach it without a shari'ah-prescribed reason.

Since Rand Abdel-Qader was not engaged in an illicit sexual affair, her father and brothers did not have a shari'ah prescribed reason for murdering her. Furthermore, as set forth in the Cairo Declaration referred to above, Rand Abdel-Qader's family, as well as the state of Iraq, have failed to protect her from bodily harm.

Now I understand that people are killed in Iraq every day and that the level of violence there is absolutely appalling. But Rand Abdel-Qader did not die due to a car bomb or some other incidence of random violence. She was murdered by her father and her two brothers. These men freely admit of their crime and yet they are still free today. The failure to prosecute these men for their crime sends a message to Iraqi society that it is acceptable to murder their daughters and wives virtually on a whim with the knowledge that these crimes will go unpunished. Abdel-Qader Ali and his sons must be punished for their crime in order to send a message that such atrocities will not be tolerated in the Republic of Iraq.

I understand that the situation in the city of Basra is rather volatile. That being the case, I urge the Iraqi government to do everything in its power to arrest and prosecute Abdel-Qader Ali and his sons, even if it means striking some kind of deal with whatever militia controls the Al-Fursi district in Basra. If justice is not served in this case, then Iraqi women will continue to be treated as disposable objects who can be discarded at will if they "do not know their place."

Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to your reply.

Malika El Aroud - The Belgian Embassy Replies

Last week I did a post on Malika El Aroud titled "The Veiled Face of Evil". Regular readers may recall one passage I quoted from The New York Times article on her mentioned that El Aroud was collecting some $1,100 per month in unemployment benefits. As I wrote in my post, I e-mailed the Belgian Embassy asking how and why this princess of Jihad was permitted to live at the expense of Belgian taxpayers.

To my surprise, I received a reply from the person I e-mailed at the Belgian Embassy. His reply is as follows:

Thank you for your e-mail of 28 May regarding the article in the New York Times about Malika El Aroud.

We understand that this article may contain disturbing elements. However, like the United States Constitution’s First Amendment, the Belgian Constitution provides wide ranging freedom of speech rights. While the Government may monitor these activities, only the Courts can decide whether citizens operate outside the borders of the law.

As for the social benefits you referred to: the Belgian Government does provide to its citizens a number of social benefits (such as unemployment benefits, health insurance, etc), depending on specific criteria, laid down in the laws concerned. All citizens who meet the criteria are entitled to these allowances. The Government does not have discretionary powers to take away these rights.

It was pretty much what I expected. Sounds like someone is going to have to find a way to get her to act outside of the law so that she can get her benefits terminated. Or, barring that, talk her into abandoning her misguided radicalism.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Change I Can Believe In

Well, Barack Obama just about has the Democratic nomination sewn up. Hillary Clinton is expected to formally endorse him this Friday. While I have favored Obama since this past winter, he will still have to earn my vote in November.

UPDATED: My Letter to Paula Dobriansky re: Rand Abdel-Qader and Leila Hussein

UPDATE: Well, I just got back from the Staples across the street from me where I was successful in transmitting the letter below by fax to Under Secretary Dobriansky. In case anyone's interested, the number is 202.647.0753.

Below is a letter I just prepared that I will be mailing to Paula Dobriansky, the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs at the United States Department of State. The State Department's Office of International Women's Issues is one of the branches that she oversees.

I got her telephone number off of the State Department's web site and tomorrow will call to see if I can get a fax number. E-mails, I have come to the conclusion, are essentially worthless. Letters in the mail carry weight, but a fax has a sense of immediacy to it, and the fact that it is printed out on paper means that the recipient has in their hands something of substance. If I get a fax number, I will post it here tomorrow evening for anyone else who wants to join me.

Paula J. Dobriansky, PhD
Under Secretary, Democracy and Global Affairs
United States Department of State

2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Under Secretary Dobriansky,

As you may have read, several months ago a 17 year old girl in Basra named Rand Abdel-Qader was murdered by her father and two brothers for the "crime" of chatting in public with a British soldier. To date, the girl's murderous father Abdel-Qader Ali and two brothers Hassan and Haydar remain free, and incredibly, it appears that the father is still collecting his salary from his government job, in spite of the fact that he openly boasts of his crime.

To add to the tragedy of the situation, just a couple of weeks ago, Leila Hussein, the mother of Rand Abdel-Qader, was killed in a hail of gunfire as she was being escorted from a safe house after having left her husband. Enclosed are two articles detailing these events.

I am writing to you Dr. Dobriansky, because I want, no let me rephrase that, I demand that Abdel-Qader Ali and his two sons Hassan and Haydar be brought to justice for the murder of Rand Abdel-Qader. And I respectfully request that you speak to whomever you need to in our government to speak to whomever they need to in the Iraqi government to make this happen.

With all due respect Dr. Dobriansky, that women can be murdered by their husbands and fathers with impunity in Iraq makes a mockery of President Bush's claim that our presence in that country is advancing the cause of freedom. I ask that you make this your priority.

Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you, either via postal mail or at my daytime telephone number, 212.###.####.

Respectfully yours,

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Was Rand Abdel-Qader's Murder Permissible Under Islamic Law?

That is a question I would like very much to know the answer to, because if the answer is a clear no, then it provides a strong moral case to encourage the Iraqi government to have Rand's father and two brothers prosecuted for her murder.

I have admittedly not dug that deep, but this is what I have found thus far.

Since many Muslims reject the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights because a number of its provisions run counter to Islamic law, an Islamic version was promulgated in response: The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam.

I read through the declaration to see what it had to say that might be relevant to "honor" killings.

For me, the most pertinent section was Article 2. Paragraph (a) of Article 2 reads "Life is a God-given gift and the right to life is guaranteed to every human being. It is the duty of individuals, societies and states to safeguard this right against any violation, and it is prohibited to take away life except for a shari'ah prescribed reason." Paragraph (d) reads "Safety from bodily harm is a guaranteed right. It is the duty of the state to safeguard it, and it is prohibited to breach it without a Shari'ah-prescribed reason."

So, was Rand Abdel-Qader's murder permissible under "a shari'ah prescribed reason"?

In my quick Google search, I came across this article from the Kuwaiti Times, which quotes a "Qais Al-Ameri, a member of the United Iraqi Alliance, [who] argues that honor killings are permitted under sharia law. "Illicit sex is the most dangerous thing in a society, and there should be severe punishments against those who practice it," he said."

Note that Qais Al-Ameri specified illicit sex. Rand Abdel-Qader was a virgin and did not engage in any sexual activity with the British soldier with whom she was infatuated. Unless speaking in public with a man falls under the umbrella of illicit sex in Islam, I would have to say that Abdel-Qader Ali's murder of his daughter was not permissible under Sharia law.

Granted, no woman or man deserves to die for engaging in sexual activity, but if any of us want to make any headway in convincing the Iraqi government to bring Rand's father and brothers to justice, then you have to play ball by their rules. And if a convincing case can be made that Rand's murder was contrary to Islamic law, then that might provide an avenue for prodding the Iraqi government to do the right thing in this case.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

In Memory of Rand Abdel-Qader and Leila Hussein

I'm still in a state of shock over this. I like to use music to convey my feelings and emotions, and picked a couple of songs that fit my mood right now. While the videos for the songs below are not in any way relevant to the situation, the music and vocals are very suitable for this solemn occasion.

The first song, "Gortoz A Ran - J'Attends," is from the soundtrack of the movie Black Hawk Down and can be heard during the film's closing credits. The vocals are by Danez Prigent and Lisa Gerrard. The second song is "Why?" by Enigma.

It would be great if someone could put together a video to one of these songs that showed pictures of the victims of honor killings. They deserve to be remembered and at the very least their deaths should serve as an inspiration to putting a stop to this shit.