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Post 405a: Je Susi Charlie [Posted 8th January 2014]

As you’re no doubt aware, on Wednesday 7th of January at the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, masked gunmen slaughtered ten members of the editorial team and two French police officers. The reason for this barbaric attack, it would seem, was a reaction to the publication, on several occasions, of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. On a personal note, I didn’t find the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to be particularly amusing, or informative, but any verbal assault on humour, politics or religious beliefs should surely lead to dialogue, not death. Sadly, this isn’t the first such deadly response to criticism, satirical or otherwise, of Islam and its envoy on earth, and I’m not referring to the previously published Danish cartoons or even Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses.

For the first example of such a violent response to criticism of the Prophet, we must travel back to 7th century Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad. Asma bint Marwan – daughter of Marwan – was a local poet who openly mocked Muhammad’s claim to be the Slave of Allah, Allah being the Arabic word for God. Vexed by the content of her verse, Muhammad had asked “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?” That evening, one of Muhammad’s followers murdered Asma while she slept, and upon hearing the news Muhammad exclaimed “you have helped both God and His messenger”. If Islam is a religion of peace, then as with most other religions, it didn't get off to a very good start.
So, is it right that we, society, should be openly critical of religion? Many believers will say 'No', especially I suspect when it relates to their own chosen belief system, but on any logical basis, the answer must surely be 'Yes'. Religions, both monotheistic and polytheistic, are by their very nature expansionist, and in this respect Islam seems more determined than most. Religions are like political movements, without national borders, and their manifestos are their sacred books; Bible, Quran, Torah. As Islam’s ultimate and undisguised goal is to attract the remaining five-billion of the world’s non-believers to its fold, by all means necessary, then society has a moral obligation to review, dissect, question, and where necessary, even openly mock its policies and actions.

But, the free thinking world has become an amazingly sensitive beast, especially when it comes to discussing Islam. It’s a beast burdened by the weight of political correctness, and for this deafening silence in the face of mounting sickness, we must all accept a degree of personal responsibility. Since the birth of electronic media, the rise of Islamic violence has monopolised the limelight, but, although Islam has stolen the headlines, none of the faith based movements have been totally free from sin. Charlie Hebdo might not be funny, in my eyes at least, but at least they don’t discriminate. When it comes to being critical of faith, Charlie Hebdo are certainly advocates for equality.

No faith escaped the cartoonist’s pen, but only one movement reacted against them with violent and deadly force. Of course, the artists knew that their cartoons would be controversial, and that was precisely their point, they were a catalyst to conversation, debate and hopefully, enlightenment. They were fully aware of the risks to themselves, but they didn’t fear the wrath of Allah, to them Allah was as real as a Unicorn, what they feared, justifiably, was the reaction of individuals who’d been poisoned by his brutal manifesto.
Some will take exception to my choice of words, brutal manifesto, but as with the books of other religions, many of which are reflected in the Quran, the suras of the Quran and Hadith are no strangers to the glorification of violence. 'If they turn their backs, [on Islam] take them, and slay them wherever you find them'.

The editorial staff and cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo paid the ultimate price for fulfilling their obligation to the world. But, hopefully, from their martyrdom will rise a movement, a new generation of critical thinkers who will detect the true scent of religion and identify it for exactly what it is.

Post 404: Why Thailand? My Thailand - [Posted 7th January 2015]

When strangers ask “where do you live?”, and I reply “Thailand”, their reactions are often quite predictable. Most are too polite to tell me what they’re actually thinking, but their knowing smiles are the perfect windows to their thoughts - A rustic home on the beach, evenings on a bar stool, cold beer in hand and bikini clad maidens tending to his every desire ... The lucky bastard!

  The paradise beaches of Koh Phi Phi
I can understand why they think that, just as I can understand why many Thais, and probably quite a few Americans, firmly believe that every Englishman lives in Downton Abbey, but the truth, for me at least, is far removed from their perception. 2014 was probably an average year for me, and I spent just five evenings attached to various bar stools across Thailand. Three of those evenings were at a travellers meeting in Chiang Mai where I was speaking, and the other two were in Bangkok with a good friend; writer and adventurer, Dr Greg Frazier. In each of those bars I was seen, and probably photographed, with a cold beer in my hand, but to the best of my knowledge there were no bikini clad maidens tending to my every desire or anything else for that matter. Sure, I do have a Thai girlfriend, but if I ever asked her to tend to even the mildest of my actual desires, well, I’d become a eunuch and she’d be out of my life in a flash. As for living close to a beach, well, I’m at least 200 miles from any beach that any sane person would ever want to visit. I live in Bangkok, a little area called Lak Si. Ever heard of it? No, nor had I until I moved here four years ago. It’s certainly not a slum, but neither is it gentrified, but at £70 per month the rent on my studio apartment is slightly more attractive than the view from the balcony.
  The early morning haze of Lak Si
So, if I’m not here for the beaches, the booze or the bikini clad beauties, then what the hell am I doing in Thailand? Well, it basically comes down to a combination of economics and laziness, something that I’ll try to explain.
After riding around the world, settling back into my normal life was impossible. That's not just because my house had burned down while I'd been crossing Siberia, but because a year without working had become an impossible habit to break. What I really wanted was a gentle middle-class lifestyle, the UK definition of middle-class not the lower income American version, and I figured that the annual income of a teacher would be a really good starting point. In England, that would mean earning around £40,000 per year, which sounded like an awful lot of Monday morning feelings and a decent amount of hard work, but in places such as Thailand, a local teacher earns around £5,000 per year. I guessed that with my messy writing, and with a few additional irons in the financial fire, I could earn £5,000 a year without having to sacrifice too many hours of idleness. So, if I could do that while living in Thailand, and Thailand would allow me to stay there, then I’d be laughing.
The economics of teachers
Of course, I could have easily chosen Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos or even somewhere in Africa, but I didn’t. I already spoke a little Thai and, well, in the interest of full disclosure, I already had a few female friends here in the Land of Smiles. [Don’t shoot me, I’m only human and I thought you might appreciate the honesty]
Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to live life with a cold beer in my hand and the warm ocean lapping at my feet, and even to occupy more bar stools, but when you’re living on £5,000 a year, paradise looks nothing like the marketing material that brought you here in the first place.