September 2015

“The Satanic Verses” – What Was the Problem?

I found myself incensed last January when the editors and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were murdered by Islamists in Paris, and the patrons of a kosher grocery slaughtered. It immediately struck me that the goal of the Islamist movement has always been global political power, and insults to Islam are just convenient excuses used to justify the movement’s violence. This aspiration to power has been the goal of fundamentalist movements since even the early days of Judaism, when the Jewish priesthood fabricated the stories of Genesis and Exodus to legitimize their political influence and the rule of the Davidic line. The use of violence to suppress dissent is a political tool employed throughout recorded history by the Romans, the Roman Catholic Church, and more recently by Stalin, Hitler, and the Saudi monarchy today.

I also remembered that Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses was the first piece of fiction published in the West to bring down the wrath of the fundamentalist Muslim clergy, in this case the Shi’ite cleric and political leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. There were demonstrations and book-burnings in Britain, and the Ayatollah issued an assassination order, not unlike a Mafia murder contract, calling for the death of Rushdie. I wanted to see what it was about the book that was so offensive, so I purchased a copy.

First let me say that Salman Rushdie is a brilliant writer. His masterly use of English and extensive knowledge of both western and Indian idiom presents a flowing, lyrical, soaring, and often poetic prose that entertains and entrances

The Satanic Verses is a story that revolves around two characters, both Muslims of Indian descent. One is a film star in India, the other a voice actor in England. On a trip to London, their plane is destroyed in flight by terrorists and the two of them somehow survive the 30,000 foot fall back to Earth. This fall starts their dream life as the film star, Gibreel, begins to fancy himself an incarnation of the angel Gibreel (Gabriel), and the other, Salahudin, changes physically into a manifestation of Satan complete with cloven hooves, tail, horns, and hellish breath. Their stories are entwined as Gibreel soars into dream and hallucination, and Salahudin falls into despair trying to deal with his devilish visage. A third plot line is introduced in the form of Ayesha, a saintly namesake of Mohammed’s favorite wife, who leads a starving village on a dreamy, miraculous, and disastrous pilgrimage to Mecca.

It is the dreams and hallucinations of Gibreel that are so offensive to Islam. He dreams he is an angel present during the lifetime of the Prophet and then later under the command of an Imam closely modeled on the Ayatollah Khomeini. His dream narratives question the transmission of God’s word, the intellectual honesty of Mohammed, the early history of Islam, and the motives and humanity of the Ayatollah himself. The dreams are a whimsical and irreverent “what if” presented as dim and vague recollections of a delusional misfit sinking into madness.

Even though these “insults” to Islam and its clergy are presented as the dreams and delusions of an obviously deranged fictional character en route to an ignominious end, their irreverent whimsy cannot be tolerated by the religious power structure. They encourage the reader to think and question the faith. Even this hypothetical questioning is an intolerable threat to power, and defending power is the real motivation for the Ayatollah’s murderous fatwa, the real reason for the attacks in Paris last January, the real impetus behind the Mohammed cartoon riots of 2008, and even the shootings in Texas last spring at the “Draw Mohammed” contest. The average Muslim isn’t affected one way or another by a work like The Satanic Verses or the low-brow lampooning of Charlie Hebdo. And I cannot imagine an almighty God, creator of this vast and splendid universe, who would demand such a bloody response to a work of artistic fiction. But any even perceived threat to the authority claimed by the violent men driving the wars in the Middle East cannot stand and must be met with violent suppression.

And before we blame the victims of violence for offending people of faith, as some in the media have, we must ask ourselves a question. Stephanne Charbonnier, the editor of Charlie Hebdo, after the 2006 Mohammed Cartoon riots and years before he was murdered by those deluded morons asked “What kind of civilization is this if we cannot mock and satirize those who murder innocents in the name of religion?”

—Steve Hanka

President’s Report

A number of years ago we started what was to be an annual Thomas Paine Day. Originally we wanted honor him for his role in revolution with his writings. Plus I also didn’t like the way he had been, (as I termed it,) “shelved” because of his views on religion. But later we changed it to Founder’s Day and then kind of trailed off in doing this as one of our annual events or subjects. This month we are endeavoring to revive this idea. So please join us for some enlightenment by our featured speaker and refreshments including one of those yummy cakes we get from granite bakery.

I’ve been writing these messages for quite some time now and I enjoy doing so. But sometimes I feel like I’m always complaining about someone or something. Not that complaining is always a bad thing, but just not all the time. It’s hard not to be critical and even derisive in cases like the County Clerk in Kentucky, who still will not do her job and issue marriage licenses to LGBT couples, even after the Supreme Court refused to intervene in the execution of the court order against her. But I would rather write about something else. So I’m going to talk about my garden. (So you think,” that sounds boring.”)

It may be boring, but I’m mentioning it to also advocate the ideas of grow local and buy local when you can and for me also having a home garden. The advantages of the “going local” are several and obvious, like keeping the money close to home and also being able to buy fruit and veggies that are Not picked way to early. You know, ripe, with flavor. The open markets around the valley are a good way to buy and a fun outing. Next year I plan to look into a community garden somewhere close to where I live.

Something else I would like to propose is to find a way to save some of the fruit that goes to waste each year. There are so many trees in this valley that are, shall we say unutilized. This year I canned peaches and pears at about a hundred bucks for the fruit. It seems a shame to me when I see trees that with a little care can produce a fair amount of fruit. So maybe next year I’ll see if any of you humanists want to share your fruit trees. I’m always looking for apples, apricots, peaches, pears and plums.

I know that canning isn’t for everyone, but homemade applesauce, canned peaches and pears, apricot and plum jams are worth the effort.

One humorous note about my garden is the amount cucumbers I have harvested and continue to harvest. We’ve eaten them, given them away and I’ve made sixteen quarts of dill pickles and about the same amount of mustard pickles. Plus right now there are about twenty pounds down in the kitchen challenging me to do something with them while out in the garden is about a hundred pounds of Hubbard squash waiting to be dealt with. I guess I better get busy.

—Robert Lane
President, HoU

Dear Minister Elaine

Dear Minister Elaine: I found these three intriguing books relating to the founding years of Christianity that you might be interested in reading … I’d love to hear what you think of them: The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls and The First Christian – A Study of St. Paul and Christian Origins, both by A. Powell Davies (1956 & 57); and Religion Without Revelation by Julian Huxley (1957)—Y.J.

Dear Y.J., Thank you for these fascinating reads! I’ve finished The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls and am well into The First Christian. I have to say that I haven’t read a great deal relating to Christian religious history over the past few years, having been more interested in humanist philosophy, and eastern religious views (the Tao and Buddhist texts, for example). But I have been deeply engrossed by these informative and rather brief works relating to Christian history, so thank you!

I thought there may be others in our group who may be interested in a brief overview of The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, so without further ado: A. Powell Davies was a pastor of the All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. in the 1950s and was well-versed in Biblical scholarship. He wasn’t afraid, as many clergy of his time, to delve deep into the historical questions relating to the beginnings of Christianity as a religious tradition, and was passionate about sharing scholarly findings with lay-people, who he felt had every right to know about the historical beginnings of their faith, as well.

What Davies shares with the reader of Dead Sea Scrolls is an astonishing account of the scrolls found in 1947 by Ta’amire Bedouins near the Dead Sea, manuscripts that had been hidden by an early-pre-Christian community called the Qumrân sect. The scrolls were soon dated by Biblical scholars and archeologists and were found to have been hidden in the caves near the Dead Sea around 67-70 A.D. One of the eventual “effects of the Qumrân discoveries has been the need to re-date documents which were formerly thought to belong in the Christian era.”

The most fascinating aspect of Davies’ book, for me, was learning about what we now know about the early Essenic community of elite Jewish sectarians who eventually hid these manuscripts when they had to flee the area because of political upheaval / persecution. It was like watching a play about the beginnings of Judeo-Christian worshipers, learning about where in the world they lived, what their days may have been like, who their neighbors were, etc. I loved learning about how interconnected were the beliefs of early Jews and eventual Christians, and how Christianity as a movement was a natural evolution of Jewish beliefs and practices.

I look forward to reviewing The First Christian, and Religion Without Revelation in the coming months!

Please submit questions relating to humanism, ethical living, complicated life decisions, etc. to Minister Elaine Stehel at ministerelaine@gmail.com

Elaine Stehel