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#HangAyazNizami is what comes of caving in to clerical rule

This article can also be read at Asia Times

What do you suppose is the correct response to angry religious people seeking to avenge injury visited on them by words (and sometimes cartoons)?

The Christian faith has its injunction to non-violence: “Unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.” Jesus’ advice is variously interpreted as a call for meek submission or provocative defiance – which means that, like a great deal of what is found in religious texts, it can be used to support any number of courses of action, or non-action. There’s also the old “eye for an eye” passage, of course.

For its part, the secular West has tended to react to violence occasioned by members of its Muslim minority populations with a distinctly accommodating passivity. No, we will not re-publish drawings that are deemed offensive, even if by doing so we enlighten our readers. Yes, we will tread very carefully in what we say with regard to Islam and its prophet. And yes, we will continue to agree that it is “the religion of peace.” The brandishing of cheeks seems an altogether reckless business.

Last week, Canada passed a motion to criminalize Islamophobia. Critics say it reframes blasphemy as hate speech and enshrines the kind of clerical oversight of public discourse that prevails in the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – a pact that has long campaigned against the “defamation of religion” in non-Muslim countries. (Several of those states, incidentally, uphold a mandatory death sentence for blasphemers and apostates.)

What, though, if an erosion of the commitment to free speech in the West actually made life worse for Muslim, or erstwhile Muslim, critics of Islam? That’s certainly the view taken by the activist and commentator Maryam Namazie, who – as an Iranian-born secularist – belongs to a minority within a minority in her adopted UK. In her newsletter for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain this week, she wrote that: “The normalization of de jure or de facto blasphemy laws and accusations of Islamophobia when religion is criticized have created a climate where Islamic states feel free to persecute freethinkers with impunity … It’s crucial that we defend blasphemers and apostates unequivocally and ensure that freedom of conscience and expression are upheld for all – believers and nonbelievers alike.”

She was, in fact, referring to the case of Ayaz Nizami, a Pakistani scholar of Islam and blogger who happens to have renounced religion and is now suffering for it: on March 24 he was arrested and charged with blasphemy. In a country that is a signatory to all manner of bons mots about human rights and freedom of conscience, but where some 30,000 gathered last year to mourn the murderer of a governor who had called for the pardoning of a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad, he also now faces the death penalty.

Nizami’s plight has, ironically enough, been brought to global attention partly on account of a trending Twitter hashtag (#HangAyazNizami) about him. Ironic why? Because the Pakistani government earlier in March requested that Twitter and Facebook assist it in identifying and weeding out those suspected of blasphemy online. Twitter’s rules, meanwhile, state that users “may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm toward others …” Accounts have, in the past, been suspended over remarks considered Islamophobic; as yet, however, no Pakistanis have been banned for tweeting their encouragement to Nizami’s jailers.

The Pakistani government’s entreaties to American social media companies are just one strand of its recent assault on atheism. Since the turn of the year, it has arrested or abducted, and tortured, multiple writers and activists and called for citizens to become informants on the “enemies of Islam.”

It has curtailed freedom of speech and expression offline and on, and – at a time when the country’s elites are worried about Pakistan’s image abroad and reputation as a sponsor of jihad – it has worked itself into a froth against “liberal secular extremism,” branding atheists as terrorists.

In most functioning countries, the right to religion generally comes, as Namazie puts it, with “a corresponding right to be free from religion.” When confronted by it, one is free to turn the other cheek, or worse. Perhaps it’s time we showed those trying to win that freedom in the Muslim world a little more respect. Without more of them, there’s going to be a lot more avenging of injury.

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Review: The Celtic Revolution, by Simon Young

The Celtic Revolution: In Search of 2000 Forgotten Years that Changed Our World

MANY in Scotland like to think of themselves as being “Celtic” without necessarily having a coherent idea of what that means. Cambridge historian Simon Young’s the Celtic Revolution has little or nothing to tell us about the Scottish Gaels, nor indeed anything about “the Celts” into modern times other than that from the Middle Ages they retreated into insignificance in the pan-European story. In short, Young is not interested in mysticism, revivalism or the elevation of history’s losers.

The result is a clear-sighted view, supported by burgeoning linguistic scholarship and archeological evidence, of who the ancient Celts and their Dark Age successors were. They may not have been empire-builders but they inhabited much of Europe and, the author asserts emphatically, they matter, “as the Greeks or Romans, the Etruscans or Carthaginians matter”.

To the novice Celticist there are plenty of juicy surprises along the way: the Iron Age Celts wore trousers but had a less refined penchant for human sacrifice and would often flay and boil the heads of captured enemies before turning them into candle-holders; in the early centuries BC, Celtic tribes sacked Rome, had successful military campaigns in Macedonia and Greece, and for a time terrorised modern-day Turkey, where they established a kingdom, Galatia; and the Dark Age Christian Celts of Ireland, into all sorts of self-harm and abnegation, originated the practice of lying out on beds with naked girls in order to “test themselves”.

The ancient Celts are often lumped in with the other “barbarians” in antiquity and it is true that they do not conform to the traditional yardsticks of civilisation: they were illiterate, they were nomadic, and they glorified invasions and conflict where southern European writers of the time agonised over whether their wars were “just”. Yet what is clear is that, in the Iron Ages, tribes who spoke Celtic tongues, shared the same style of possessions and art and had broadly similar spiritual traditions, covered enormous swathes of Europe, from Britain and Ireland to Gaul, the Iberian Peninsula, Austria, Switzerland, and parts of Germany and the Lowlands.

In 500BC they appear in Italy; in 390BC we have the first recorded military campaign involving the Senone tribe, who sacked the Etruscan city of Chiusi before going on to humble Rome. Celtic warbands then spread eastward along the Danube corridor into the Balkans, Bulgaria, Transylvania, even reaching Ukraine and Kazakhstan. In 280BC, mere decades after the death of Alexander the Great, they routed the Macedonians, then sacked Thermopylae in Greece before being stopped at Delphi.

A century or so later the Romans arrived in Asia Minor to crush the Galatians and so began the Celtic retreat. Harried out of southern Europe they were pushed towards extinction until, by 500AD, they existed only in Britain, Ireland and Brittany. What Young cogently argues, however, is that the Celts’ military successes paved the way for Rome’s ultimate domination by weakening other states and kingdoms in the region; and having shown that they changed the course of European history once, he turns to the Dark Age Celts of Ireland to prove that they did so again by helping to preserve “the universal faith” after the fall of the Christian Empire.

This episode is well-rehearsed, but it is worth reminding ourselves the extent to which Christianity teetered on the brink in Europe as the Goths, Franks and Vandals overran it and other parts of Christendom fell to Islam. To the early Irish monks, exile was another form of self-flagellation, and when they left their homeland it was to set up monasteries and exist in Godly solitude. Within a generation of arriving in Iona in 563AD, however, Collum Cille (Columba) was the most feted holy man in the British Isles. In France, Columbanus – before he angered the local king Theuderich by refusing to bless his royal bastards and had to leave – was similiarly revered, and, slightly later, Aidan Christianised much of Anglo-Saxon England. Young shows that these men did not so much alter Christianity – Celtic Christianity was later subsumed within Roman Christianity – but preserved it, injecting the faith with a zealous intellectual energy at a crucial moment.

The third part of Young’s book is given over to an explanation of how the Celts – posthumously – begat the secular, modern western mindset. Once Arthurian legend -which for the Dark Age British-Celts told of a messiah-like figure who would, some day, restore their lands – was altered out of all recognition by the courts of Europe, giving rise to the cults of chivalry and Courtly Love, the feudal aristocracies emerged with a code and a non-Christian language of their own, which in turn, Young hypothesizes, enshrined the early modern idea of separating Church and State. It’s speculative, perhaps fanciful, stuff, but in the context of a book that so painstakingly sifts fact from fiction, reality from myth, Young earns the right to so indulge.

This review appeared in the Sunday Herald