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Monday, September 18, 2006

MOHAMMED FIDDLES WHILE MECCA BURNS

Pope Benedict XVI has unwittingly sparked controversy with a speech last week at the University of Regensburg, where he once taught theology. The Pope, who spoke on the subject of "faith and reason," apparently stumbled by daring to quote a 600-year-old scholarly debate that, in one passage, criticizes what most of the cowardly world considers to be the infallible religion of Islam. At times, the Pope's speech warned against religious extremism. Reacting as expected, the Islamic community is proving his point -- extremism is dangerous, breeds hatred and does nothing to further a substantive and reasonable debate of mutual respect.

Effigies are being burned, riots and protests are being held, and demands for repentance are echoing across the Middle East and other Muslim nations. So-called peaceful and learned Muslim clerics are denouncing Benedict XVI, all the while fanning the flames of violence that are bound to ignite yet another powderkeg of Islamic violence, extremism and hate. And all because of a few words. You'll recall that a handful of cartoons sparked riots, lootings and murders across Europe and the Middle East just over a year ago. It's very true that extremists hate American and Western freedom, simply because it gives us the right to express ideas that don't fall in line with their beliefs.

Shortly after Benedict's remarks, Muslims began demanding that the Vatican address the issue. They did, expressing regret over the misunderstanding. Then Muslims demanded an apology from the Pope. They got one yesterday. Now they're demanding an even further apology. These extremists won't be happy until they've killed in retaliation -- such "expression" has already begun, with a 65-year-old Catholic nun being shot in the back in Somolia today.

It's only a matter of time before the protesters put down their signs and strap on bombs. Just as the Pope warned, religious fanaticism is dangerous. I think we're all about to see, once again, how deadly it can be.

Despite my obvious disdain for Islam, I don't blame the majority of Muslims for the reaction we're seeing so heavily publicized right now. At the very most, "average" Muslims are a little disgusted with the Pope's comments, but they're not going to declare war on the West because of it. However, the "average" Muslim is not in control of his religion -- the fanatics are. Fanatics so often put public faces on larger groups, much to the chagrin of the rest of the crowd.

But as long as the "silent majority" allows a few fanatics to get away with it, groups of many will continue to be controlled by the ideas of a few. All the PR campaigns and public service announcements in the world can't change what many Americans think of when they hear "Islam" -- they think of Osama bin Laden, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, radical Muslim clerics declaring "death to Westerners," and suicide bombers killing innocent civilians. I certainly don't think of a peaceful, quiet Muslim family when I think of Islam, even though that's not only the image that's pushed by modern political correctness, but it's likely closer to reality as well.

No, Islam as a whole shouldn't be denounced for the violent overreaction we're seeing; however, Muslims should be denounced for not speaking out against the extremism within their ranks.

Catholicism and, more recently, Protestantism have certainly had their bouts of extremism. The Crusades, which lasted from the late 11th century until 1270 (and, in some form or another, into the 17th century), are blights on the history of the Catholic Church, in which fanatical Christians attempted hostile takeovers of the Holy Land, endorsed the murder of Muslims and Jews simply due to religious differences, and tortured many captives in attempts to force conversion. Though it would be great if humanity could safely say that we've moved past the ancient days of butchering each other for practicing different faiths, compare the spirit of the Crusades with this statement to the Pope, released today by the Mujahedeen Shura Council, an ally of al Qaeda:

"You and the West are doomed as you can see from the defeat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere. ... We will break up the cross, spill the liquor and impose head tax, then the only thing acceptable is a conversion (to Islam) or (killed by) the sword."

A peaceful, enlightened religion indeed! I would have exponentially more respect for Islam as a whole if those who make such threatening and hostile statements were called out and denounced. But once again, Mohammed fiddles while Mecca burns. Silence, as they say, is acquiescence.

Unfortunately, even Western media sources have bowed to the immense political pressure and threat of violence created by a few Muslim radicals, as evidenced by a New York Times editorial which condemns the Pope's speech and calls for an apology. Instead of taking the opportunity to call for calm and understanding in the Islamic world, the Times chastises one of the most educated men in the world for exercising free speech. Instead of urging the majority of the Muslim community to condemn those who will use this as an opportunity for violence and hatred, an organization which claims to pride itself on free speech instead lamely asks that words condemning extremism be retracted.

The collective majority of the Muslim world has never had a backbone, and it's very likely that we've lost ours.

The Pope should be applauded for a speech that attempted to further a scholarly and academic debate about faith, reason and extremism, and for speaking freely on the subject in the first place.

Muslims everywhere should condemn extremists in their own religion who would seek to use a few words quoted from scholars centuries-dead to riot, loot, maim, torture, kill and otherwise further their hate-filled agenda. Only when real Muslims speak out against the few who put the terrorist face on Islam will the religion gain more worldwide respect and be welcomed into the 21st century.

And Americans, Westerners and anyone who loves and respects freedom of speech and expression should never fear reprisals. Political correctness and the retaliation of a few fanatics be damned; our rights define us. We know they are right, and we'd better continue to exercise them. We cannot -- must not -- let the hatred of a few define life for the rest of us.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, STAR TREK

I used to hate Star Trek. Then I was a closet Trekkie. Now I'm rather tickled that I share a birthday with one of the most influential television shows in history.

I remember hating the very idea of watching Star Trek when I was younger, simply because it was unpopular with a whole slew of other kids. And I certainly didn't want to be unpopular, too.

But then one day, I got hooked. I remember the night -- it was in 1995, a year after Star Trek's second incarnation, The Next Generation, had gone off the air. Despite my presumed hatred of all things Trek, I did have a fascination with astronomy. Being curious about what may or may not lie outside of our immediate galactic vicinity, I had to watch out FOX's Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? This now-forgotten bit of garbage that FOX cranked out in the mid-1990s still managed to give me the creeps, enough so that I thought I'd better stay up from 9:00pm to 10:00pm and watch some more TV to get my mind off of that bug-eyed alien being chopped to bits.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was still in syndication in 1995 and ran regularly on FOX for several years, and it happened to be on from 9:00pm to 10:00pm. I rolled my eyes but thought, "I guess I'll watch this. What harm can it do? After all, I'm in a alien kind-of mood now, anyway."

And the rest is history. That particular episode happened to be the first of two parts. I absolutely had to tune in the next night to see the conclusion of what turned out to be a thought-provoking story. Star Trek managed to blend drama, mystery, excellent character interaction and a bit of hard science all into an imaginative future setting. I was hooked, and at that time, an entirely new world of stories was waiting for me -- there were three seasons of the original Star Trek and a full seven seasons of The Next Generation to watch, not to mention seven movies and the newer spin-off series Deep Space Nine.

However, I wasn't publicly proclaiming the merits of Star Trek just yet.

Trek, as with many things that are slightly out of the mainstream, is popularly derided, as are its fans. (To be honest, there are some Trekkies out there who certainly don't help gain the series any acceptance ... but every group has its fringes.) I didn't want to be a target for such easy ridicule, so my love of the series was kept under the table for years. But no longer -- as Trek turns 40 years old, it's time to realize that it has a very important, very "American" place in our history. Those original 69 episodes, seemingly innocent, a bit hokey and celebrated by a core group of "weirdos" changed the world.

While the original Star Trek took place in the 2260s (and The Next Generation-era 100 years later), the outrageous technology shown on the series spurred inventors to their drawing boards, making sure we didn't have to wait 300 years for some of the gadgets Captain Kirk used.

Before NBC launched the series, no one imagined small, portable wireless forms of communications or non-invasive medical scanning technology. Desktop, user-friendly computers were unheard of, and certainly an idea as wild as "warping" space lay strictly in the realm of impossibilities.

But today, the very geeks who were inspired by television writers (who, by the way, were clueless about science) have made Trek a reality. Push-to-talk communications on cell phones rival Captain Kirk's communicator. Laptops, ultra-mobile PCs and immense storage on tiny hard drives trump the bulky computers on board the U.S.S. Enterprise. Even warp drive is a theoretical possibility, given enough geeks and enough calculators to crunch the numbers.

Astronauts, CEOs of technology companies and inventors the world over regularly cite Star Trek as a major inspiration for their success. Keep that in mind the next time you flip open your cell phone ... communications devices didn't "flip" open before Star Trek writers made them that way.

In spite of the nifty gadgets and space combat, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry had a much deeper vision. No doubt if Roddenberry were alive today, he would tell those celebrating the 40th anniversary that the importance of Star Trek was in its underlying message -- its social commentary -- and not the technology.

Roddenberry's vision of the future was revolutionary for the mid-1960s. His Eden-like vision of Earth led to groundbreaking television that featured the first prominent black actress in a lead role. Not only was Nichelle Nichols a main part of the cast as Lieutenant Uhura, but her character was an officer, a member of the space ship's senior staff and a valued member of the bridge crew. She was an equal ... no more, no less. In fact, equality was a striking theme across the crews of all Star Trek series, as the characters never paid one bit of attention to the physical, racial, religious or ethnic differences between themselves.

Star Trek featured countless stories like Nichols' which made for powerful short-term societal commentary. But it was Roddenberry's lasting vision that has endured Trek fans to the more intangible side of his universe. Roddenberry created a futuristic world without poverty, hunger, racism or war ... at least between humans.

The world of Star Trek is one where personal responsibility is emphasized. Each and every individual contributes to society, making use of his or her talents not for want of money or reward, but to better both themselves and the world around them. If more people today took that extra step for the good of their communities, we'd be just one step closer to Gene Roddenberry's vision for a great and productive future.

Trek's spinoffs of the late-1980s and 1990s took surprisingly hard-hitting looks at many different elements of the "human condition," including war, poverty, oppression, torture, exploration, when to interfere with another culture, faith and religion, loyalty, responsibility and making the right choice under difficult conditions. Almost all of these topics are as relevant today as they were ten, 20 and 40 years ago. Certainly not every episode of Star Trek amounts to such heavy socio-political commentary, but many of the stories contain elements which make as much sense in the 21st century as they would in the 24th.

Not everything in the future was perfect, as my personal favorite series Deep Space Nine points out often. People still have very human problems; greed and corruption still plague the galaxy, and wars kill not just millions, but billions of people. But even in the bleakest of times, Star Trek held a message of optimism; a message of hope for the future. There are people who care about morality, about being ethical and just. While the galaxy at large has its problems, there is a core group of people who know better, and they will prevail in the end. And as far as mankind was concerned, a new philosophy of charity, personal and community betterment had replaced wars, corruption and greed.

Everyone had a part to play in bringing that "perfect society" about. Such a world in the 1960s looked impossible. And though reality has adopted and improved upon the outlandish technological ideas that came from Roddenberry's vision, we're no closer to his idea of a perfect society than we were 40 years ago.

Just take a look at how utterly stupid people can be today. Warlords hoard food aid from foreign countries, starving their own people. Governments imprison, torture and kill civilians for thinking differently. Wars are fought over material possessions, while the freedom of ideas goes undefended by most of the world.

For the time being, American society (and the world community) does not have the drive, determination or want to embrace a world of personal responsibility, unimportance of possessions and charity to each other. But there's no reason why we have to be afraid to start injecting these ideas into our communities and our governments on a smaller scale. These ideas aren't just the result of a dead man's science fiction universe -- they're real and they're right.

In fact, I believe that Star Trek will grow more relevant, not less, as it ages. It's about vision, it's about hope for mankind and it's about respect for each other. And it's damn good television, to boot.



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