Happy Birthday, Mr. Prophet
I cannot imagine what it must be like for twenty-three-year-old Hamza Kashgari right now. It’s one thing to be Salman Rushdie, already a Booker Prize-winning novelist when the fatwa was issued against him by the ayatollahs in Iran after he willfully went against everyone’s advice and published The Satanic Verses, but quite another to tweet a series of messages addressed to Mohammed on his birthday that the Prophet himself might have approved of.
There is no existing iconography of Mohammed—or there shouldn’t be— because he explicitly forbade it. He didn’t want to be worshipped and deplored any form of idolatry. As we in the West often imagine what Christ would think if he came back and saw the sorry state of what his teachings have wrought over two thousand years, the same would apply to Mohammed.
Kashgari’s tweets were actually quite affectionate. He says he admires many of Mohammed’s aspects—most tellingly about Kashgari himself, “I have loved the rebel in you”—but says if he met him on his birthday he would shake his hand as an equal, would not pray for him, would not kiss his hand. “I will say that I have loved aspects of you, hated others, and could not understand many more,” he tweeted, which sounds a lot like any relationship a normal person would have with a close friend or family member.
For those not in the loop, last week Kashgari had to flee the epicenter of all the medieval Islamic tyrannies we support, Saudi Arabia, trying to seek asylum in New Zealand after stopping in Malaysia. He was detained at Kuala Lumpur airport, presumably at the behest of the Saudi government because Malaysia is at the very tip of the Islamic crescent that sweeps across North Africa and Asia. Despite calls from Amnesty International, yesterday he was extradited back to Saudi Arabia.
We deal with fundamentalism in the States on a continuous basis; we are a nation settled by religious zealots, who informed our national culture, and we must deal with them still. But we forget what it would be like if there were no separation between church and state, if we had such laws against apostasy as they do in Saudi Arabia, for which the punishment is death.
No doubt terrified for his life, Kashgari has since apologized profusely for his tweets. Saudi officials have said that while he will face “severe punishment”—presumably some form of whipping, not the loss of a limb—he is unlikely to face the death penalty if he repents in court. He has already, at his young age, been banned from writing for any Saudi publication. This, according to Saudi Arabia, is the “face of moderate Islam.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to envision a world where the likes of Rick Santorum had the power of life and death over the likes of me. If I weren’t already dead, I’d be waiting in some dank dungeon for his beloved guillotine to drop at any moment for the heresy I have written in these posts, for the blasphemy of my sexuality.
The Islamic world isn’t some alternate universe. We engage with it every time we fill our tanks with gasoline, every time we get on a plane; Saudi Arabia and the Islamic crescent flows into us and moves us along paths that are inextricably entwined with theirs. We continue to allow their crimes against humanity to rage unfettered because they feed our addiction to our lifestyles.
It’s a beastly compromise. Whenever I admire at our latest gadgets, surf the wonders of internet, marvel at medical technologies that are extending our lives and battling disease, I also keep in mind these savage vestiges of medieval thinking that so encumber mankind.
I am preaching to the converted when I say to readers of this blog that we don’t need religion in any form to provide guidelines for our lives, to resolve legal issues, to provide “spiritual” solace. Charities do not need to operate in the name of the founder of a religion or a saint from some bygone era, who had he lived today would probably have been labeled with a major personality disorder and locked away.
Whenever I go on about this, when I say that all religion is evil and should be if not outlawed then heavily regulated (and definitely taxed), it’s always Tibetan Buddhism that is thrown back at me as this sort of benign ideal that works and is beneficial. This is because the Tibetans lucked out and chose for themselves in that delirious selection process of theirs a toddler who grew up to become the present Dalai Lama, a smart, charismatic man with a quick, seemingly plausible answer to everything.
In an interview a few years ago with Bill Moyers, the Dalai Lama was questioned about reincarnation, specifically his as the fourteenth of a single being that has ruled the Tibetan people since 1391 C.E. “So you are the same person who in the seventeenth century was one of the most bloodthirsty rulers in central Asia,” Moyers said. “In light of what is happening right now to your own people, how do you justify that?”
“Different circumstances,” the Dalai Lama replied.
Indeed. Now that the great theocracy, which has governed Tibet via magical thinking and endless superstitious rituals for centuries, is in exile those circumstances have turned it from victimizer into victim, and therefore the recipient of that most famed of Buddhist attributes: compassion.
A theocracy like Tibet’s or Saudi Arabia’s permeates throughout its culture. It enslaves, and young men like Kashgari try to break the shackles of that enslavement. The Tibetans are lucky to some degree that theirs is a high-minded, esoteric religion, unlike the exoteric aspects of Islam that Kashgari is now facing. Otherwise, it still has its injustices.
I was on a photo shoot in India in the 90s when I went to my first real Tibetan monastery, located over the border from Tibet in Rumtek, near Gantok in the northeast state of Sikkim. We had already travelled for three months around India in a diesel-fumed van, setting up and photographing the different aspects of India through the faces and costumes of her people. I wanted to photograph the wild demon-headed masks that the monks trotted out once a year for some festival or other, probably to propitiate the gods for a good harvest. As everyone knows, if you want success in life, just don a wicked Halloween mask and dance a mighty jig. God is bound to favor you.
I was told by the guide assigned to us by the government of India that it would be impossible to get the rinpoche, or bishop, in charge of Rumtek to agree to get out the masks and have the monks dance on cue for us. It wasn’t the sacred time of year. No amount of cajoling or offers of a donation would change this, she insisted. But I am nothing if not absolutely convinced of my own divine, messianic powers of persuasion; if I can’t get what I want, then I will martyr myself trying.
My attitude didn’t sit well with the guide, and as our rickety van trudged up the Himalayan foothills, the tension between us grew. She couldn’t convince me that enormous dragon party masks were so sacred they could only be brought out one day of the year, and I couldn’t make her see how ridiculous that was.
As far as monasteries go, and having grown up in Italy I have been to a few, Rumtek was nothing much. It was still under renovation, and all of the work was being done by white Western disciples trudging stones, working off some kind of karma or other. The Tibetan monks, most of them young men, stood around and watched, presumably on a break from one ritual or other that involved the blowing of big horns, that wonderfully hypnotic deep chanting (so great for Tree of Life-like soundtracks), and the clanging of cymbals to keep everyone awake and focused on the nonsense at hand.
Of course, the guide was right: my divine powers of persuasion failed me completely over tea with the holiness or eminence or whatever he was, reincarnated over lifetimes from another holiness or eminence. My strident, irreverent attitude got us nowhere: we managed to capture a few shots, not even of grown monks, just the novices. By the time we piled back in the van to go back to town, the guide was barely speaking to me; apparently my blasphemies against Buddhism had transcended Kashgari’s against Islam.
Trying to break the ice, I commented on a stack of five letters she had collected while she was up there. “The younger monks give them to me to post in town,” she said. I noticed that they were all addressed to different Western women who had visited the monastery to work off bad karma or seek spiritual solace in a religion with little context to their own, and therefore mysterious enough to obscure how intellectually ridiculous the whole charade was.
To me those letters were symbolic of human rights abuses that are carried out everywhere, at every moment around the world in the name of religion, no matter how seemingly benign or enlightened. That the second son, or sometimes only son, of a Tibetan family is given over to the monasteries to lead a life of celibacy—chanting and blowing horns and clanging cymbals and dancing around in masks—is absolutely outrageous. But he must do it to support the culture, to remain a part of his tribe and not be outcast. But if Richard Gere says it’s good, then apparently it must be.
As Kashgari faces the ire of his own tribe back in Saudi Arabia, with his neck literally on the line, this week the fundamentalist Rick Santorum—who has equated the forcing of contraception on religious organizations to the use of the guillotine during the French Revolution—surges ahead in the polls, seeming to trample the former Mormon bishop Mitt Romney. That we hope that Romney, who converted his own atheist father-in-law to Mormonism posthumously, triumphs in the end is the usual choosing of a lesser of two evils, which you always hear about during election time in the States.
Of course, in the 2008 election with the Democratic primary we had the choice between the better of two goods, relatively speaking: Clinton and Obama. Would that we could level the playing field somehow between the Republicans and the Democrats in the same way, so that the discourse and rhetoric was rational and devoid of this pandering to religious, “moral” ideologies. If I were to engineer this, the first steps would be to remove these boulders called God that obstruct the progress of civilization. But despite how much I rant and chant and dance for it, I don’t think it’s happening within my lifetime.