Charlie Hebdo, un an après

Charlie Hebdo cover, Jan. 4, 2016. The caption reads, “One year later, the assassin is still at large.” Image from l’Est Républicain

One year after the shootings at Charlie Hebdo that claimed the lives of its top staff, the magazine has released a double-length special edition issue with the cover above.

Is ISIS’s popularity low? Hard to Tell

The Washington Post reported on a Pew survey of countries with a significant Muslim population, asking whether people there have a positive or negative view of ISIS:

Pew survey of countries with a significant Muslim population, spring 2015.

As the graph shows, in every country, ISIS is unpopular, by huge margins (and I find it interesting that according to the same survey, attitudes vary more from country to country and between religions; but I’m not sure that’s important right now).

But there’s low, and then there’s low. I wouldn’t drink water that was “only” 1% arsenic (the EPA limit is a million times smaller than that), and if there were “only” a 1% chance of crashing every time I got on the Beltway, I’d likely be dead within a year. So there’s small and then there’s small.

If the KKK enjoyed the same level of popularity in Alabama as ISIS does in Turkey, above, it wouldn’t be reported as “KKK only has minority support”. It would be reported as “One in 13 Alabamans still supports KKK”.

So I’d like to see some figures for comparison: how popular is ISIS compared to, say, the Lord’s Resistance Army, or Nazis, or the Tutsi army? Maybe they have comparable levels of popularity, and the double-digit favorability numbers are statistical artifacts. And in fact, it seems that the fact that its popularity varies more from country to country, than from religion to religion within the same country, points at this explanation.

But my fear is that ISIS really does enjoy insufficiently-low popularity.

Late Ramadan

The AP reports:

Muslims living in the world’s tallest tower will have to wait even longer to break their fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

Mohammed al-Qubaisi, Dubai’s top Muslim cleric, said Sunday that Burj Khalifa residents living above the 80th floor should wait two additional minutes to break their dawn-to-dusk fast while those above the 150th floor must wait three extra minutes because they will be able to see the sun longer than those on the ground.

The article goes on to say that there is a similar rule for people living in mountains (who, presumably, see the sun set later than people living in the plains) and people traveling in planes (who might be chasing the sun or running away from it).

It doesn’t say anything about Muslims living close to the poles. Do Muslims in Antarctica have to fast for months if Ramadan falls in the summer? Or do they get to skip the fasting altogether if it falls in the winter?

Or astronauts in low-earth orbit, e.g., on the International Space Station. That orbits every 91 minutes. Does a devout Muslim have to fast during the, let’s say, 50 minutes that the sun is visible and eat during the 41 minutes when it’s hidden by the Earth? What about a Muslim on the moon? Would he have to wait for a lunar eclipse during Ramadan? Or maybe a portable IV drip would be enough to fool Allah.

And yes, I’m sure there are books, magazines, and web sites in which Quite Serious clerics, with furrowed brows and concerned looks, have already analyzed these and other issues to death, and come up with some interpretation that’s somehow compatible with the Koran, the hadith, and the non-negotiable parts of real life. My point is that religion tends to encourage this sort of literalism. We see it with Jews who don’t use electricity on Saturday as well.

Life is complicated, and we’d all like things to be simpler and more manageable. We follow rules of thumb because it’s easier than working out the optimal solution. But at the same time, there has to be some sort of reality check, to see whether the rules of thumb you’re following make sense or whether they need to be revisited. And when you find yourself wondering when, to the minute, you can have dinner based on which floor you live on, I’d say you’re well past that point. But what religion does is to rope certain statements off and declare them to be unquestionable. And that leads to absurdity.

Let’s Ban Churches Next to Other Churches

It occurs to me that I haven’t weighed in on the hot topic du jour, the question of whether there should be mosque at Ground Zero.

The argument seems to be: it’s outrageous and offensive that members of a religion be allowed to erect a center of worship right next to where other members of their religion carried out a horrendous and religiously-motivated act of terrorism.

If this logic holds, then presumably it’s not okay to build a Catholic church near Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, since Eric Rudolph is Catholic.

Scott Roeder’s assassination of George Tiller was a religiously-inspired act of terrorism. So should there be an outcry every time someone tries to build a right-wing church next to a Lutheran one? Or next to a medical facility, given the history of religiously-motivated anti-abortion terrorism?

But wait. Why am I distinguishing between Catholics, Lutherans, etc.? As far as I can recall, I haven’t heard word one about whether the people who want to build the Ground Zero mosque Cordoba House Park 51 are Sunni, Shiite, or something else. As far as the outragees are concerned, they’re just Muslims. Or possibly just foreign.

So let’s forbid churches from building too close to other churches. Or libraries, for that matter, since Hypatia was killed by a Christian mob.

Wait, what’s that? It’s unfair to lump disparate people together, just because they all have the same holy book? Okay, then demonstrate that the people behind Park 51 are in some way connected to, or supporters or sympathizers of, the fanatics behind 9/11. And before you go digging up verses in the Koran where Allah commands war, reread Joshua, Judges, Samuel, etc. where the god of Abraham commands genocide.

I think we can recognize that how a religion is practiced is at least as important as what its book preaches. After all, most or all Christians manage to reinterpret, explain away, or just plain ignore the unsavory parts of the Bible to allow them to square it with 21st-century morality. And if Christians can do it, why not Muslims?

Assuming that the people who’d go to Park 51 are just ordinary, non-murderous New Yorkers with a bunch of silly customs, what’s the harm? Silly isn’t a bad thing: line dancing is silly; Renaissance Faires are silly; science fiction conventions are extremely silly; and coitus is positively ridiculous.

(Update, Sep. 1: typo)

Everybody Draw Mohammed!

Here’s my contribution to Everybody Draw Mohammed Day:


It’s a good thing there aren’t any talent requirements. The only way you can tell that this is actually the prophet Mohammed venerated in Islam is that I’m telling you so.