The Islamic State as a Curse of Humanity




One of the joys of being in London is the easy access to its magnificent free museums and their fabulous treasures. Here one can wander about leisurely and gently allow your spirit to soar as you marvel at the historical artefacts that have been collected assiduously from all parts of the world.

In the British Library, there is a Qur’an dating back to the early 8th century and it always gives me goose bumps when I compare it to a modern Qur’an and can identify the very same passage there.

A few years back, the Director of the British Museum, Neil McGregor, published a glorious book called “A History of the World in 100 Objects” in which he selected 100 pieces from the Museum’s unrivalled collection of artefacts to help tell the story of humanity. It also featured as a major BBC Radio 4 series (which can still be heard at the link provided).

So, what are we to make of the news over the past couple of weeks that followers of the self-styled Islamic State have been proudly showing off video footage of their destruction of pre-Islamic objects and monuments in Mosul Museum and the ancient city of Nimrud?

The actions of these cultural vandals raises so many questions.

The early Islamic civilisation was renowned for its patronage for learning and science. In his landmark 1973 book and BBC TV series, The Ascent of Man, Dr Jacob Bronowski, commented that those early Muslims had built:

“…an empire of spectacular strength and grace, while Europe lapsed in the Dark Ages. In this proselytising religion, the science of the conquered nations was gathered with a kleptomaniac zest…The Masjid-I-Jami (The Friday Mosque) in Isfahan is one of the statuesque monuments of early Islam. In centres like these, the knowledge of Greece and of the East was treasured, absorbed and diversified…It may be a quality in Islam as a religion, which, although it strove to convert people, did not despise their knowledge.”

The contrast with what is happening today in parts of Iraq and Syria is quite depressing. Whereas those early Muslims were builders and gathered and expanded existing knowledge and in the process left a legacy that has benefited humanity as a whole, these modern followers are enthusiastically seeking to destroy the knowledge of our past.

And it is to this “Islamic state” that so many young British Muslims are travelling to give their allegiance. Sometimes there just are no words.

Posted in Extremism, Islam | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Prophet Muhammad Should Not Be Off Limits for Satire


Salman Rushdie is right.

Those who perpetrated today’s brutal attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo may perhaps have thought that they were acting to defend Islam from gratuitous insult. However, in practice, they were defending a narrow-minded interpretation of religion that is well-nigh suffocating much of the Muslim world.

Everyone must have the right to satirise religions and religious figures – without exception. And that includes Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The freedom that makes it a pre-requisite to be allowed to satirise others is the very same freedom that protects fearless scientific inquiry and progress. It is the very same freedom that acts as a painful thorn in the backside of dictators and autocrats and two-faced politicians everywhere.

Now it could well be that today’s attackers – who are still on the loose and have not been captured at the time of writing – wanted to further inflame tensions in France and elsewhere with a view to increasing the polarisation and suspicion between Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Last year, the British killers of the soldier Lee Rigby openly proclaimed how they wanted “to start a war in London tonight.” Fortunately, they failed in their ignominious aim and are currently cooling their heels in prison.

Just this week we have seen 18,000 people turn out for an anti-Muslim rally in Dresden, Germany. Today’s attack is a gift for such xenophobes.

Ultimately, freedom is very much in the interests of Islam and those Muslims who crave genuine progress.

The price of that freedom is that some people may sometimes say things you do not like and will find offensive. It is in reality a very small price to pay.

Posted in Extremism, Islam | Tagged | 28 Comments

Hamza Tzortzis, Evolution and the Epistemology Argument


An email popped up in my inbox last week and caught my interest. “Science explains everything…doesn’t it?” – it read. Now this was a bit odd as I have yet to come across a science book where the scientist has claimed that science explains everything. Science by its very nature is a continuous work in progress.

Nevermind, I thought, I’ll bite, and read the rest of the email which appeared to be an invitation to attend a forthcoming talk by a Muslim speaker called Hamza Tzortzis. A quick check on Google revealed that this chap had written a lengthy 2013 article entitled “Has Evolution Been Misunderstood? Revelation, Science and Certainty.”

Now, I have read many articles by Muslims about evolution. The vast majority of them have been disappointingly poor and I have written elsewhere about the misinformation I have come across about evolution from Muslims and have also debated the issue with Harun Yahya (a prolific Muslim author of anti-evolution polemics). Would Hamza Tzortzis prove different and discuss the topic of evolution sensibly? The title of the email did not inspire much hope in that direction but who knew? So I read his article…

Well, it was almost 8000 words long. 8000 words of tedious mind-numbing waffle. Scrape away the bullshit and the argument that he appeared to be making was that the topic of evolution should be discussed from an “epistemic approach. We believe that this approach exposes the false assumption that the theory of evolution is a fact, or is certain.”

Tzortzis criticised the way the discussion around evolution has usually been framed and said that “… there is a hidden premise. This premise is that science produces certainty, evolution is fact and science is the only way to establish or verify truth claims.”

Just like the title of the email, this passage was misleading. I have yet to come across a scientist that claims that science produces certainty. Every decent book I have read says that the scientific method produces only approximations to truth and that as our theories improve over time, so should our understanding of reality or truth, but that we can never achieve 100% certainty (and there is a reason for this as we will see in a minute or two).

Now, as it happens, evolution is a fact. It is also a theory. I could try and explain this but why bother when the Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould explains it so much more clearly in an extract on the Talk Origins website (the full article “Evolution is a Fact and a Theory” at the above link is a must read – just compare it with the one from Tzortzis and the difference is between day and night).

In the American vernacular, “theory” often means “imperfect fact”–part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact to theory to hypothesis to guess. Thus the power of the creationist argument: evolution is “only” a theory and intense debate now rages about many aspects of the theory. If evolution is worse than a fact, and scientists can’t even make up their minds about the theory, then what confidence can we have in it? Indeed, President Reagan echoed this argument before an evangelical group in Dallas when he said (in what I devoutly hope was campaign rhetoric): “Well, it is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science–that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.”

Well evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts don’t go away when scientists debate rival theories to explain them. Einstein’s theory of gravitation replaced Newton’s in this century, but apples didn’t suspend themselves in midair, pending the outcome. And humans evolved from ape-like ancestors whether they did so by Darwin’s proposed mechanism or by some other yet to be discovered.

Moreover, “fact” doesn’t mean “absolute certainty”; there ain’t no such animal in an exciting and complex world. The final proofs of logic and mathematics flow deductively from stated premises and achieve certainty only because they are not about the empirical world. Evolutionists make no claim for perpetual truth, though creationists often do (and then attack us falsely for a style of argument that they themselves favor). In science “fact” can only mean “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional consent.” I suppose that apples might start to rise tomorrow, but the possibility does not merit equal time in physics classrooms.

Evolutionists have been very clear about this distinction of fact and theory from the very beginning, if only because we have always acknowledged how far we are from completely understanding the mechanisms (theory) by which evolution (fact) occurred. Darwin continually emphasized the difference between his two great and separate accomplishments: establishing the fact of evolution, and proposing a theory–natural selection–to explain the mechanism of evolution.

So, to return to Tzortzis’s epistemology argument – that evolution cannot be proven with 100% certainty, this is a familiar trope and every bit as misleading as the argument about “facts”. Here is H.J. Muller as quoted in Talk Origins:

The honest scientist, like the philosopher, will tell you that nothing whatever can be or has been proved with fully 100% certainty, not even that you or I exist, nor anyone except himself, since he might be dreaming the whole thing. Thus there is no sharp line between speculation, hypothesis, theory, principle, and fact, but only a difference along a sliding scale, in the degree of probability of the idea. When we say a thing is a fact, then, we only mean that its probability is an extremely high one: so high that we are not bothered by doubt about it and are ready to act accordingly. Now in this use of the term fact, the only proper one, evolution is a fact. For the evidence in favor of it is as voluminous, diverse, and convincing as in the case of any other well established fact of science concerning the existence of things that cannot be directly seen, such as atoms, neutrons, or solar gravitation ….

So enormous, ramifying, and consistent has the evidence for evolution become that if anyone could now disprove it, I should have my conception of the orderliness of the universe so shaken as to lead me to doubt even my own existence. If you like, then, I will grant you that in an absolute sense evolution is not a fact, or rather, that it is no more a fact than that you are hearing or reading these words.

It is always depressing to hear Muslims such as Tzortzis offer such breathtakingly poor arguments against evolution. It reminds you of the terrible contemporary state of much of Muslim civilisation. Tzortzis claims in his article that Islam is “pro-science” and I do agree with that. It is just that I am not convinced that most Muslims (including Tzortzis) are pro-science. And that is a tragedy.



Posted in Islam, Science & Evolution | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Review: Human Universe


It is almost two years ago now, that Professor Brian Cox, treated us to his splendid series The Wonders of Life, which I raved about here at the time. So, it was with a real sense of excitement that I watched the first episode of his brand new series Human Universe.

He began by asking us to consider the significance of the International Space Station. We are the only species on Earth that has managed to leave the ground and head out into space. It is a wondrous technological achievement. What made this possible?

Cox goes to the Ethiopian Highlands and visits a group of Geladas. Science has established that these primates are evolutionary cousins of ours. Around 250,000 years ago, our ancestors first began making spears out of Obsidian – black stone that forms as a result of volcanic activity. Yet why have the Geladas remained in that part of Africa while we humans – who also emerged in Africa – have gone on to colonise the world and even reach out into space?

The key difference, says Cox, is language and writing. Writing meant that knowledge could now be transferred much more simply and widely. It “freed the acquisition of knowledge from the limits of the human memory…[and]… created a cultural ratchet, an exponentiation of the known which ultimately led us to the stars”.

Cox’s lyricism here about writing is surely justified and will surely cause many Muslims to pause for thought, for the very first words of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in Surah al-Alaq drew the attention of humankind to this very phenomenon:

Recite in the name of your Lord who created –
Created man from a clinging substance.
Recite, and your Lord is the most Generous –
Who taught by the pen –
Taught man that which he knew not.

(Qur’an 96:1-5)

Cox moves swiftly from the construction of spears to agriculture and the building of the earliest cities to space travel. It is a giddying journey. He finishes back with the astronauts of the International Space Station. While waiting in Kazakhstan for them to arrive back on Earth in their Soyuz module, Cox calculates mathematically exactly how the Soyuz module will first slow its entry into Earth’s atmosphere and then let gravity do its work.  It is all based on two equations that we owe to Sir Isaac Newton.

Newton was one of humankind’s true geniuses. Cox reminds us that when Newton was asked about his outstanding contribution to our store of knowledge, he famously said he had not done this by himself but had stood “on the shoulders of giants”. People like Galileo, Descartes and others all the way back to Euclid and the Ancient Greeks.

The first episode was entitled “Apeman, Spaceman” and is available to watch on the BBC iPlayer for another 29 days.




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An Enviable Legacy…


For the first time in months I have a weekend off work and have been looking through some of my book collection for inspiration and to stave off boredom.

Back in 1985, the physicist Freeman Dyson was invited to Aberdeen University to deliver the Gifford Lectures. The Gifford Lectures had been established almost a hundred years previously in 1888 by the jurist Adam Lord Gifford.

Freeman Dyson’s lectures from 1985 were soon after compiled together and published under the title “Infinite In All Directions” and as the author states in the preface, they were his excuse to “talk about everything in the universe.”

At the beginning of the book, Dyson introduces the readers to this awesome passage from the Last Will and Testament of Adam Gifford (1887) in which he talks about who should be invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures:

“The Lecturers appointed shall be subjected to no test of any kind, and may be of any denomination whatever or of no denomination, of any religion or way of thinking, or as is sometimes said, they may be of no religion, or they may be so-called sceptics or agnostics or free-thinkers, provided only that they be reverent men, true thinkers, sincere lovers of and earnest inquirers after truth.”

Aside from the usual Victorian bias towards ‘men’, this is such a marvellous aspiration and legacy to have left behind in a Will. The Gifford Lectures website contains an archive of the lectures delivered going all the way back to 1888, with many of them being available to be read online for free in their entirety.

An enviable legacy indeed.

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Sayeeda Warsi and the Selling Out of Palestine


Lady Warsi was asked yesterday about the exact moment she made up her mind to resign from the Tory-led government over its policy (or perhaps more accurately, non-policy) on Gaza. She replied:

“There were many moments. Every time a school was bombed. Every time you saw a picture of Gaza with no lights at night. Every time a child about the age of my own children was killed. The moment when young boys playing football on the beach were suddenly there no longer.”

It was a heartfelt and powerful response from a gutsy lady who has repeatedly shown over the years that she is nobody’s poodle.

I first met Sayeeda Warsi in 2006, just a year after she had very narrowly failed to win the Dewsbury seat in the 2005 General Election. She had come down to East London to attend a Muslim event. Sitting next to her for dinner I was impressed at how outspoken she was in her comments. She came across as bright and sassy.

The last time I saw her was just a few months ago. I was on a train to Reading on my way to fix an issue with a Cisco switch there (we had lost management access to it so I couldn’t do it remotely). While on the train I heard an unmistakeable Yorkshire accent just behind me across the aisle. I peered over, and sure enough, it was Lady Warsi chatting away with a civil servant. She motioned me over and explained that she was on her way (to Bristol I think) to talk about women and faith. It was part of her brief as a Minister in the Foreign Office. We chatted for a bit. I expressed sympathy for the attacks she had suffered a couple of years ago when some Tory big guns were clearly out to boot her off her then position as the Co-Chair of the Conservative Party. I wrote about those attacks here on this blog at the time. She said that those attacks had now died down after they had managed to get her demoted. We then discussed some personal matters we had in common.

So, it was heartening to see her speak out so clearly and forcefully yesterday saying that the government’s position on Gaza was “morally indefensible.” It is absolutely inconceivable that the Prime Minister David Cameron would have responded in the mealy mouthed way he has to date about the horror in Gaza if it had been over two thousand Israelis that had been killed instead of Palestinians. The government’s response to the situation in Gaza has been transparently racist.

The good news is that Lady Warsi’s resignation has led to other politicians now coming out much more vocally to distance themselves from Cameron’s shameful response to Gaza. The Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, has called for an arms embargo on Israel. Closer to London, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, has sided with Lady Warsi, and has said he agrees with her call to ban arms licenses to Israel.

Lady Warsi was arguably able to stand up to the government because she is not dependent on the government for her career. Prior to being ennobled in 2007, she was a successful solicitor.

The contrast with some of today’s Muslim organisations is clear. I mentioned here a couple of years ago how some Muslim organisations had effectively sold out their independence in exchange for grants from the government. They had full-time ‘Chief Executives’ whose salaries were being paid by the government. Some of their leading figures sent messages to their members about how excited they were about meeting the Queen. One of them even posted a twitter message just two weeks ago (now apparently deleted) asking why Hamas were firing rockets at Israel. It could have been straight out of an Israeli propaganda manual: do not focus on actions of the oppressor but ask ridiculous questions of the oppressed. Others have re-branded themselves as ‘Counter Extremist’ specialists and have begun launching unfair attacks on the MCB. How desperately sad.

They should take a leaf out of Lady Warsi’s book and go and get themselves a real career so that they do not need to debase themselves in such a shameful way.

On a more positive note, the demonstrations for Gaza over the past few weeks have been incredible. It has been so inspiring to see a younger generation of Muslims actively using social media to rally others and demand that the government adopt a more even-handed and just policy.

After Britain so disgracefully signed away the land of the Palestinians to the Jews in the infamous Balfour Declaration – it is the very least that we could do.

Posted in Extremism, Islam, islamophobia, Zionism | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Is Judaism The Most Racist of the World’s Great Monotheistic Religions?

Richard Dawkins famously said that:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

A lot of the world’s religions have some extremely unpleasant characteristics (in addition to many very pleasant ones I should hasten to add).

Is Judaism the most racist of the world’s three great monotheistic religions?

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