City of Brass

City of Brass

Can atheism drive someone to murder? #muslimlivesmatter #chapelhillshooting

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

Like everyone else, I am in shock at the horrible tragedy in North Carolina last night, where three young Muslim Americans were brutally executed. The police are investigating and the murderer is in custody and cooperating. The family of the victims will hold a press conference soon, until then I am withholding judgement.

The fact that the murderer was an avowed “anti-Theist” (a form of militant atheism) has led the atheist community to face the same kind of questions that Muslims have to face when violence is committed by one of our own. Condemnations, self-examinations, and of course a fair measure of “no true Scotsman” type denial. The meta question of whether Islam or atheism contain the seed for violence is one that atheists are being forced to confront, from the opposite side of the fence for once. Normally, atheist forums such as /r/atheism at Reddit are full of judgement about Islam, but there is genuine soul-searching going on there today that I am heartened to see.


Of course there are those who insist on drawing a distinction without a difference between Islam and atheism in this regard. Here is a comment from reddit that is representative:

On the (non-)beliefs of the perpetrator: I agree, this is going to be a cudgel with which atheists will be beaten. And we could respond with counter-examples of how religious people have perpetrated the same or worse.

However, that sort of blame game is old hat, and could be interpreted as a sort of parity between religion and atheism. My plan is to respond by pointing out that there is no belief structure in atheism which could even theoretically have driven him to murder.


I left a terse reply saying in effect that the above was a cowardly statement. To their credit, they replied asking me to explain. Here is my elaboration:

I took issue with the assertion that there is no belief structure in atheism that could, theoretically, drive someone to murder. True, atheism by definition has no belief structures, but it does have ideological structure, that can and does serve the same purpose as belief in terms of providing a framework for extremism.

Stalin and Mao proved that effectively. I’ve read Dawkin’s attempt at “excommunicating” Stalin’s motives from atheism, but Stalin’s treatment of deist communities under his rule shows the a natural outcome of asserting religion to be a “delusion” and analogous to a “virus”, one that should by force of law be excluded from the public sphere.


I do not believe that Atheism by itself is sufficient to animate violence (as in NC) or genocide (Stalin) or anything in between. It does take a mixture of atheism with other ideas – such as racism, fascist politics, geopolitics, parking spaces – to add depth of motivation. The same, however, is true of Islam. If you assert that atheism alone is not sufficient to explain violence, I will agree. If you agree that Islam alone is sufficient to explain violence, I will disagree, and further it means you are showing less courage than I am asked to demonstrate as a practicing Muslim when I not only condemn violence by my putative coreligionists, but accept that there is an element of Islam in their motivations. I can not deny that jihadis are Muslim and I do not deny that they invoke religious language in their actions’ justification. I do, however, strenuously pushback against the idea that their interpretation of Islam has merit, solely because of their actions of violence. How can their violence legitimize their extremism? That is incredibly perverse, yet that is the dynamic. It takes courage to embrace that dynamic and argue that yes, Islam can be misused and no, Islam is not the cause. Atheists must not shy away from the analogous statement and try to pretend that their ideology is somehow pure and impossible to misappropriate.


Like Islam, atheism is not sufficient for violence. Like Islam, atheism is not necessary for violence, either.

Muslims do not need to condemn, and neither do atheists.

I’d also like to praise another Redditor at /r/atheism who had this comment:

The organized atheist community is constantly complaining that there are not enough visible Muslims actively involved in doing charitable humanitarian work and generally making the world a better place to live. This guy managed to murder three Muslims who were doing exactly that, the kind of Muslims that we hold up as examples of the direction Islam needs to move in globally.


Bravo. I left a reply pointing him to the fact that in fact, these three Muslims were hardly outliers. Musims prevent terrorism every day by just living their lives, as well as cooperating with the FBI.


Halal Italian and Mexican catering in Chicago

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

halal meatballs

This is a guest post by Whitney Gaspar.

I am not Muslim. I am not any religion, really. I was baptized as a Catholic to please my grandma and raised as an atheist by my mother. I am spiritual and I believe in God. But that is not why I eat halal. I eat halal because it is logical. It simply makes sense.

One of my dearest friends is a Bohra Muslim. One Monday while we were having chai at her kitchen table, she told me that her family was eating halal. I knew she didn’t eat pork or drink alcohol, but now halal? What did that mean?


I decided to do some research, and what I found changed my eating drastically. First, I eliminated pork from my diet altogether. I learned that pigs are scavengers by nature. This means that they will eat almost anything, including rotten food and carcasses. And their bodies are incapable of effectively removing these toxins. If I am what I eat, I definitely don’t want to be a pig.

Animals raised for halal meat are treated humanely. They must have room to roam freely, be given clean water to drink, and never be fed other animals or animal byproducts.

The fact that resonates with me the most however, is the method of slaughter (zabiha). The act is performed with respect and compassion for the animal and the blood is drained immediately. This is important because the blood carries toxins, germs, and bacteria. The longer it remains in the animal after slaughter, the higher the potential for the meat to cause illness.


Inspired by what I learned, I started my own halal catering company in the south suburbs of Chicago. We specialize in Italian and Mexican cuisine. Our food is fresh and flavorful. I’m proud of the food I serve. Not only is it delicious (seriously… you should try it!), it is 100% halal. It’s feel-good fare, inside and out.

Whitney Gaspar is the owner of GG’s Catering in Chicago.


the State of the Ummah, 2014/1436

posted by Aziz Poonawalla
"You are the best nation produced as an example for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah ." - Quran 3:10

“You are the best nation produced as an example for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah .” – Quran 3:10

I tuned into President Obama’s 2014 SOTU for a while last week – mainly because my daughter was tasked to watch 15min minimum for school, a limit to which she adhered to precisely – and was struck by how futile the speech seemed. It isn’t Obama’s fault any more than it was Bush’s fault during the previous Administration that these things are only watchable by diehard fans or diehard opponents. To someone like myself who voted for Obama and strongly supported him, am still genuinely in admiration and excited about him being in office, but is basically a realist about the limits of Presidential power, the SOTU is an empty shell – a COTUS-required exercise wherethe President defends his policies and lays the groundwork for his agenda in the upcoming year. Obama being who he is, he still tried to appeal to the unity of the American people, a theme he has consistently sounded ever since he burst onto the national stage with that incredible, unforgettable keynote at the DNC convention in 2004. The problem is that Obama’s ideas can not survive our political process. There’s something truly broken with our politics, and I found an incredibly insightful analogy for why it is broken this morning, in a essay about What Obama would say at the State of the Union if he were being brutally honest – namely that politics isn’t like a family, or like a business, but rather it is like football:


Government, or at least the political system, is like a football game. You ever think about why football games are they way they are? You have all these guys hitting each other so hard they cause each other permanent brain damage. So why do they do it? …

They do it because that’s how the game works. They do it because the rules are you line up in front of the other team and then you hit them as hard as you can. They do it because, for one side to win, the other has to lose. And they do it because, if they don’t do it, they’re off the team. Football has no place for conscientious objectors.

The honest truth is that that’s how politics works, too. We’ve got two teams. And only one of them can win the election. So they line up and they hit each other as hard as they can. They don’t cooperate because the rules don’t let them cooperate. They don’t agree because agreeing means losing — and losing is political death. Losing means you can’t help the people you came here to help.


If this was just about policy, we could come to agreement. I promise you we could. When you’re just talking about policy there are lots of ways to make both sides happy. But this isn’t just about policy. It’s about power. It’s about who will win the next election and govern the country. And while policy questions have answers that can make both sides happy, elections only return answers that make one side happy.

This might sound like we’re all soulless, power-hungry careerists just trying to grab power, but we’re not. Everyone in this room believes their ideas will make this country a better place. Everyone here believes the best thing that can happen is that their side gets the power to put those ideas in play and make people’s lives better … This is a room of honorable men and women who entered public service for the right reasons. Most of us are still in it for the right reasons. But even if our motivations are noble, the game we’re playing is ugly, and more than it’s ugly, it’s getting dangerous. And that’s because, even though we can’t agree, even though the rules of the game make it career suicide for us to agree, the political system is built to require our agreement. It needs us to do the thing it makes impossible. If we can’t agree, the country often can’t move forward, and sometimes, it will get pushed backward.


Put more succinctly, American politics is a zero-sum game between two teams, and the score of that game (elections) has nothing to do with the health of the spectators, and everything to do with the job security of the coaches and franchise players. As the essay says, elections don’t change this – they only swap out the players, not the rules of the game.

This makes me wonder about what the community of Islam is like. We also have a concept of unity akin to “united states” – the Ummah. Is the Ummah a zero-sum game? For some of the players, yes – those who have a very strict vision of what Islam is, and seek to impose that idea on everyone else. And there’s the rest of us, who just want to play the game for the love of the game. The problem is that just like politics, those with the zero-sum view have an inherent advantage over the ones who do not – and over time, they exert greater and greater asymmetric influence over the infrastructure. This is as true of gerrymandering districts as it is of funding imams for mosques.


There does need to be a “zero-sum” response to some degree. For example, the rise of the committed political left, an activist class in US politics that was born during the Bush Administration and empowered by blogs and the web. However, without wholesale commitment of the entire Left to this political jihad, the way the Right has, they will always be at a disadvantage. This is why we have seen Republican presidential candidates increasingly pander to their base’s right wing to get the nomination whereas Democratic ones tend to dismiss the Progressive Left and play for the middle. The Tea Party has far more power and influence than the Progressive Caucus. That’s the price we pay for our principles.

What is the lesson for Muslims here? Do we need a “liberal” response to the wahhabist/extremist faction? There isn’t an easy answer here. It’s something we have to consider and discuss, as a community. As an Ummah, if that word is to ever have any true meaning.


je ne suis pas Charlie #IamNotCharlie

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

I am not charlie

I fully support the right, and I also deeply appreciate the sentiment, of the cartoonist Luz, who is one of the survivors of the despicable attack on the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that was attacked by Al Qaeda last week. Here is Luz’s (translated) statement in full:


I invoked all the talents of the magazine, all those who were not there any more, all those were still there, I said to myself, we must do a drawing that above all makes us laugh, and not one on the emotional charge we are victims of.

I had the idea of drawing this character of Mohammed, as it’s my character, because he existed, at least in people’s hearts, and in any case he exists when I draw him.
He is a character that got our offices burned, and a character who at first got us treated as the great white knights of the freedom of the press because the offices had burned down. Then a year later when we redrew the character we were treated as dangerous provocative and irresponsible. So this character led us to be called either white knights or provocateurs, whereas we are above all cartoonists who draw little people like children do.


The terrorists were once kids, they drew like us, like all kids, then one day they perhaps lost their sense of humour, perhaps their child soul able to see the world from a bit of a distance, because that’s Charlie – being able to draw the world from a small distance. So I drew saying to myself: “I am Charlie”. That was my idea but it wasn’t enough.
The only idea left was to draw Mohammed, I am Charlie. Then I looked at him, he was crying. Then above, I wrote: “All is forgiven”, and then cried. We had the front page, we had finally found this bloody front page. This was our front page.

This was not the front page the world wanted us to draw, it was our front page.

This is not the front page that the terrorists want us to draw, as there are no terrorists in it, just a man who cries: it’s Mohammed. I am sorry that we drew him again, but the Mohammed we drew is a Mohammed who is crying above all.


I can’t bring myself to reprint the image of Mohammed (SAW) that Luz has drawn, as is my right and according to my religious values. However. The reason I am appreciative is that the image of the Prophet (SAW) that he has drawn is not the image that the terrorists have in mind. It is not the image that the Islamophobes have in mind. It is, in a real sense, the image of the Prophet (SAW), in emotion, that I have in mind. Qualities of humanity and empathy, of wisdom and of tolerance – the very qualities that hundreds of millions of Muslims celebrate every year on Mawlid al Nabi, as we celebrated last week.

And the terrorists hate that version of Mohammed (SAW) most of all. They hate the version of Mohammed (SAW) that is an inspiration to Muslims, that Muslims love. They want to paint a version of the Prophet (SAW) that is a slave to their needs and goals, political and selfish and hateful.


Which is why, I regret that I can’t join in the viral sentiment of Je suis Charlie (“I am Charlie”) – because the image of the Prophet SAW, though penned by Luz with truly noble intentions, will be and has already been co-opted by those who in action support the terrorists’ interpretations of my religion and my Prophet SAW – the Islamophobes. I support Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech unequivocally – including their right to be tools. And I don’t begrudge or take offense at the mad rush to buy the new issue of Hebdo with Luz’s cartoon on the cover – but I have no illusions that those copies are bought in the name of free speech alone.

Related – muslims in Paris also are not Charlie. In fact, many people are not Charlie, nonmuslims and muslims alike.

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