War on Christmas meets War on Terror

Before the end of 2010, one last story on the craziness involved with the so-called “War on Christmas,” which has apparently now started to overlap with the “War on Terror.”

From AlterNet comes an article by the Nashville City Paper describing how a letter sent by the Tennessee branch of the ACLU was placed on a Homeland Security map as “terrorism events and other suspicious activity.”

The ACLU had the audacity to remind schools that during the end of the year, public schools should not be celebrating Christmas to the exclusion of other religious observances because the First Amendment prohibits the government from endorsing religion. Tennessee Homeland Security’s website’s explanation for why it was placed in that category was exactly that: “ACLU cautions Tennessee schools about observing ‘one religious holiday’.”

So the ACLU reminding schools about what the Supreme Court has found in terms of state-church separation apparently puts them with Bin Laden and the shoe bomber. Browning, a spokesperson for Tennessee’s Department of Homeland Security, said it was a “mistake” to label the ACLU letter as a “suspicious activity”. When contacted about it, the spokesperson claimed that it had been reclassified into their website’s “general information category.”

The story doesn’t end there. The Nashville City Paper checked up on this though and found out the ACLU’s letter had now been classified as “general terrorism news.” The Homeland Security spokesperson explained that “That’s the general news category. It doesn’t have anything to do with terrorism.” (Why not just take the darn thing off the website, then?!)

So at first the ACLU sending out a letter about schools respecting the First Amendment was first described on Tennessee’s Homeland Security site as “terrorism events and other suspicious activity” and is now described as “general terrorism news.” Scary times we live in, especially since being associated with terrorist activity can get you on no-fly lists, among other things.

Hopefully 2011 will be a better year for freethought, atheism, and just all-around. Happy New Year!!

Selective ban of certain religions, atheism, LGBT from Indianapolis schools’ Internet

Indiana_In_God_We_TrustIndiana Licence Plate — Source wikipedia

Indianapolis public schools, in a clear breach of church-state separation, are banning students from viewing the websites of only certain religions, as well as atheist and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) sites.

According to a Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) press release, Indianapolis public schools are illegally discriminating against certain religious views, banning students from seeing sites containing what they term as “mysticism“, which apparently includes atheism. Here are some key quotes from a pdf copy provided by FFRF of the offending (and offensive) guidelines. “Blocked” categories include:

“Sites that promote and provide information on religions such as Wicca, Witchcraft or Satanism.  Occult Practices, atheistic views, voodoo rituals or other forms of mysticism, […] the use of spells, incantations, curses, and magic powers. This category includes sites which discuss or deal with paranormal or unexplained events.”

Notably absent is reference to Abrahamic religions (Judeo-Christian, Muslim), of course. Not content with just banning information on non-mainstream religious views, Indianapolis public schools have also deemed LGBT sites as off-limits as well.

The people setting up these guidelines don’t realize just how ironic they are, however. The policy also details what types of sites are to be blocked, and their site arguably fails their own test. Under Violence/Hate/Racism (p. 3 of the pdf provided by FFRF), it says that included in sites that should be blocked are

“sites that advocate, depict hostility or aggression toward, or denigrate an individual or group on the basis of race, religion, gender, nationality, ethnic origin, or other involuntary characteristics.”

Wouldn’t a site advocating (and implementing) the banning only resources related to certain religions be “hostility or aggression” or “denigrating” towards those religions?!? Never fear, though. Perhaps they realized this contradiction, since the section on exceptions to the blocked sites includes ones “that are sponsored by schools, educational facilities”. So they are allowed to denigrate other religious viewpoints through their policy as much as they want.

The ban of LGBT sites also says that sites can’t “cater to one’s one’s sexual orientation or gender identity including, but not limited to, lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender sites“. Since it’s not limited to those for, it would logicially including heterosexuality as well. Any sites promoting heterosexual marriage would have to be banned according to the word here. So this document would end up banning a whole lot more than they bargained for.

In fact, I just realized that the site actually does address the Abrahamic religions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Mormonism, and Islam. Looking again at the requirements for sites that are blocked, it says:

“This category includes sites which discuss or deal with paranormal or unexplained events.”

Wouldn’t Moses’ parting of the Red Sea in the Torah be considered an “unexplain event”? Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible? God turning the skin of Native Americans dark in the Book of Mormon? An angel appearing to Muhammad in the Koran? These all sound pretty unexplained to me. Maybe they have unwittingly banned students from viewing any religious content.

In spite of these possible loopholes and logical extensions of their hate-filled bans, I am still against the closing of students’ minds on religion, atheism, and sexual orientation and identity. Schools should not promote a religion or sexual orientation, but they also shouldn’t single out sites as worthy of being banned just because they mention viewpoints or orientations that aren’t in the mainstream.

Burkas — religious / cultural freedom vs. women’s rights / dignity

The big religious news in Europe the past few weeks has been French President Nicolas Sarkozy ‘s recent address to the French Parliament, in which he declared that burkas "won’t be welcome" in France. Well, he said it in French obviously, but that’s the translation.

I see the Pat Condell has recently posted a video on this as well. If you’re stateside or just haven’t read much about it, you may have a few questions: what the heck does a burka look like, and why would the French President seemingly attack women who are just practicing their religion?

Well, here’s a photo montage from the French daily newspaper Le Monde showing different types of veils often associated with Islam. People in the West have a tendency to call them all veils or burkas, but there are differences.

Les différents types de voiles

In a nutshell, the hijab in the 1st picture s the headdress that is described in the Quran, although according to Le Monde what exactly it is supposed to cover is "subject to interpretation".

The niqab (photo 2) has two veils, one to cover the hair, and the other to cover everything but the eyes. Le Monde says it’s "mainly worn in Persian Gulf countries."

The burka itself (photo 3)  is the one that has a "grill" on it, basically netting with small holes so that you can’t even see the woman’s eyes. Le Monde says they are normally worn in Afghanistan and some regions of Pakistan.

The last photo shows the chador , worn in Iran says Le Monde, which shows the entire fact but has no place for one’s hands.

So Sarkozy specifically singled out burkas apparently because they, according to him, "deprived women of identity" and are a "sign of subservience" (translations by BBC News ; the full video and part of the original text in French is here; note that the speech dealt with many issues, not just the burka).

Sounds like an attack on Islam, right? Well, as hinted at earlier in the descriptions of the different veils, an attack on burkas is not necessarily an attack on religion. Burkas aren’t mentioned in the Quran. So Nicolas Sarkozy emphasized this non-religious aspect, saying:

C’est un problème de liberté, de dignité de la femme. Ce n’est pas un signe religieux, c’est un signe d’asservissement, c’est un signe d’abaissement. ["It’s a question of a woman’s freedom, of her dignity. It’s not a religious sign, it’s a sign of subservience; it’s a sign of humiliation." Translation mine, "abaissement" can also mean "degradation/being degraded".]

A distinction is apparently being made by Sarkozy between the hijab, which shows the face and is mentioned in the Quran, and the burka, which hides it and is not. The burka, as stated in Wikipedia and elsewhere, comes from a cultural tradition that predates Islam and is not observed everywhere Islam is practiced.

Since it’s not seen as a religious practice but as a tradition, there will  be a parliamentary commission to investigate whether burkas should be outlawed in France. They already controversially outlaw veils in schools (as well as other overt religious symbols, in theory at least).

I agree that it is degrading to women to be completely covered and faceless to the world when men don’t have to. Despite the lack of mention in the Quran (absence of a doctrine in one’s Holy Book often doesn’t stop zealots from any religion), some women are coerced or forced to do so by their husbands or their mosques. This is clearly against individual freedoms guaranteed in most Western societies. But some women actually choose to wear burkas, as crazy as it may seem. What about those who say they willingly wear a burka or other garment which covers their face?

The issue of security comes up (you can hide stuff under burkas and since no one can see your face, apprehension and prosecution of law-breakers would be difficult. But then, one could say the same thing for Mardi Gras and Halloween costumes and masks in France. Are those to be outlawed, too?

It’s a growing issue in Europe, where more and more immigrants and 2nd- and 3rd- generation followers of Islam want to show their religious and cultural heritage. How much should people be allowed to follow the customs, rights, and laws of the country they’re in, and how much should they follow those of their religion or ancestors’ culture?

The issue in my mind is less with security and more this: if a woman says she is okay with degrading herself by becoming faceless because she thinks her God wants it, should society let her?

I really don’t know. I believe people have the right to choose their beliefs, but many of these women are coerced or forced into this degrading practice. I used to be more of a "let it be" type of atheist like Jon Stewart appears to be .  I just wish that these women wearing or wanting to wear a burka would realize that a God or anyone who tells you you have to hide your face in public does not give you the dignity or  respect that you deserve, and is not one that you should love and respect.

EDIT: Here’s a YouTube video of a British show discussing the issue, which Quit Your Apathy posted.