So what's with Islamic intolerance? I could guess, but instead I asked a local Imam!

On Sunday, I and another member of CVAAS attended a small meeting with Dr. Ramadan, the Imam of the Masjid Fresno Islamic Center.  Masjid is the Arabic word for "Mosque".

Dr. Ramadan is a very impressive person.  Born in Egypt, he memorized the Qur'an by the age of 14. (But he told us that his son memorized it by the age of 8!)  He's a native speaker of Arabic, and his second language is English - which he speaks fluently with very little accent.  He also took 5 years of German, but says he's not very fluent in that language.  He's worked as a High School English teacher, and in varying capacities as an English / Arabic translator.  He's been an Imam at both Stockton and Modesto, and has been the Imam at Fresno for over 12 years now.

Dr. Ramadan is of the Sunni tradition, as is the Mosque.  He didn't know the overall affiliation of his congregation.

So, let's get down to the real purpose of this talk.

I asked what he though of the violence in the name of Islam in the Charlie Hebdo murders?

Dr. Ramadan replied that he categorically condemned these killings, and that the murderers were not practicing Islam.  Ramadan quoted Sūrah 5:32:

 Because of that, We decreed upon the
Children of Israel that whoever kills a
soul unless for a soul or for corruption
[done] in the land - it is as if he
had slain mankind entirely.
  • Soul for a soul - in other words, in legal retribution for a murder
  • Corruption done in the land - a crime that legally requires the death penalty

As a side note - I see a possible loophole here.  An Islamic government could possible declare something to be a "crime that requires the death penalty" - crimes that we in America would not consider to be a crime.

From the Bukhari collection of the Hadith, (Volume 9, Book 83, Number 37), we see that Muhammad said there are 3 legal reasons to kill a person.

  1. A person who killed someone unjustly.  
  2. A married person who committed illegal sexual intercourse.  
  3. A man who fought against Allah and His Apostle and deserted Islam and became an apostate

Well, item number 3 explains somewhat the very harsh punishment of Saudi Arabia Blogger Raif Badawi for merely criticizing Islam and the Saudi leaders.  It also means that Islamic countries who execute atheists could be following the Qur'an.  Especially if the atheist in question is an Islamic apostate who speaks out against Islam!

I very much appreciate living in a country with (mostly) secular laws that will not execute me for being a Christian apostate!

But let's get back on topic.

We asked Dr. Ramadan about satire, and images or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad.  

He turned it around, and asked if we found it disrespectful if our prophets were objects of ridicule.  Like Moses, or Jesus.  We pointed out that an artist won an award for his scatological depiction of Christ, and no one ended up dead because of it.  We did mention that many people were upset.  We then pointed out that Theo Van Gogh was murdered for his film, "Submission", which criticized Islam's treatment of women.  We said this to point out the difference in reaction to perceived insult.

Dr. Ramadan said that wasn't a proper Islamic response, and took us back to Sūrah 5:32.

We next asked about Islam's ability to get along with non-Islamic religions.  We pointed out that several religious groups in America were considered heinous,  (we used Westboro Baptist Church as low-hanging fruit as an example).  We pointed out that the correct method of combating words was more words.

Ramadan replied by quoting Sūrah 109:

  1. Say, “O disbelievers,
  2. I do not worship what you worship.
  3. Nor are you worshippers of what I worship.
  4. Nor will I be a worshipper of what you worship.
  5. Nor will you be worshippers of what I worship.
  6. For you is your religion, and for me is my religion."

He interpreted this to mean that Muslims should not criticize other religions.  I would think that this also means that they expect the same courtesy in return - and frankly that is not something I'm prepared to do. No idea is above criticism.  None at all.

Also Dr. Ramadan quoted Sūrah 2, 256 to say that, "there is no compulsion in religion".  To him, this means that Islam must not compel believers of other religions to Islam.

 There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion. The right course has become clear from the wrong. So whoever disbelieves in tāghūt and believes in God has grasped the most trustworthy handhold with no break in it. And God is Hearing and Knowing tāghūt - False objects of worship, such as idols, heavenly bodies, spirits, human beings, etc. 

Click for larger!

But this seems to be a verse that is taken out of context, and the idea that there is no compulsion to belief in Islam is certainly in dispute!  But we didn't know about this at the time, and we let this go unremarked.

Dr. Ramadan did arrange a press release with the Fresno Bee, condemning the Charlie Hebdo attacks.  I've included that here.  You can click on this image to see it separately, in a bigger more readable format.


All in all, I enjoyed my talk with Dr. Ramadan.  He is a very cheerful, pleasant person.  His knowledge of Islam is impressive.  From our meeting with him, I get the feeling that he is a moderate, and I could hope that Islam was more like him.  However, there are definite cultural differences, and he didn't seem to understand that freethought requires the acceptance of distasteful speech.  

We have been invited to meet again at any time, or to invite Dr. Ramadan to speak at any upcoming CVAAS meeting.  I'll update if and when that happens!

Won's cremation

The first post

Within an hour of my arrival at the morgue in Saedaemun, I - along with my mother-in-law, her pastor, and Won's friends - prepared to take Won's body to the crematorium at Seoul Memorial Park.  The park wasn't complete yet, there were still buildings under construction.  But the crematorium was operational and in business.

Her cremation was one of the two most surreal experiences of my life.

First, we traveled there by bus.  The bus belonged to the church that Won's mother attends, and is used for funerals and other things.  It's like a tour bus, or a privately owned Greyhound bus.  

Won's casket was placed in the baggage area under the bus.  I sat at the very front of the bus, holding her picture in a frame draped with black ribbons.  At the crematorium, her casket was removed by several attendants, and placed on a special gurney, with somber colored cloth draped around it.  We followed it in, and then were separated from her casket for a moment, and directed into a room. 

Her simple wooden casket was placed in the crematorium, and our room was across the hall from the crematorium door.  Our room had a little window in it, and from there I could look out and see the crematorium door.  That door was open and her casket was wheeled in and placed on a stone pedestal.  The doors were then shut, and the crematorium was turned on.  The lights next to the door turned red.  

The attendants who did all this performed their tasks with military precision, and bowed to us all in the mourning room.  Won's mother cried.

After a period of time, maybe one or two hours (I don't really know how long - we spent that time alternating between crying and talking), the lights changed to green and an attendant opened them.  He again bowed to us, went inside to the slab, and using a large metal dustpan and something like a fancy whisk broom, swept Won's remains into the pan.  I could see that her femurs were broken into pieces due to the cremation process.  I could see that much of her skull was still intact.

The attendant then walked the remains to a different room.  We were ushered out of our room, and followed.  We came to the same room as the attendant, and entered through a different door.  

This room was divided into two sections by a counter - just like the kind of counter you might find at a bank.  The counter was just over waist high.  Above the counter was a large piece of glass that further divided the room from counter top to ceiling, from wall to wall, again like a bank.  On our side of the counter was a table that butted up against the counter.  That section of the counter had something like a large doggie door.

The attendant's side of the counter was very different.  There was a marble counter top to our right, next to the door, just a little below the counter that divided the room.  This counter top was about 6 feet long, with a large machine to the left side on the marble top.  The machine looked vaguely familiar, but I didn't catch that right away.  Toward the middle of the room was a large, box-like thing that was against the dividing counter and glass wall.  The doggie door seemed to lead to that box.

The attendant took out a large sheet of brown paper - almost like the brown paper you would use to wrap a box in, before posting it in the mail.  He set the paper down on the marble top, and then dumped Won's remains onto it.  He then picked up something that looked a like a brick made of dark metal attached to a handle.  Holding it by the handle, he used the metal brick to crush Won's bones.  I watched as her skull, femurs, and mandible were crushed.  I could see where her radius and ulna joined the humerus.  After the attendant did this a few times, he pulled several bits of metal from the brick - which I now realize was magnetic.  He got a couple bits of twisted metal, which I guess could have been her hair pins.  He also found her heart valve, which was surgical steel, and not magnetic.  

With the metal removed, he then carefully gathered up the corners of the paper, and lifted everything up, and then dumped it all into the top of the machine on his table.  He put a lid on the machine, and then he hit a button that might have been labeled, "puree".

The machine made lots of grinding noises.

When the machine was done, the attendant collected Won's ashes from a chute at the bottom of the machine.  The chute deposited the ashes back on the marble counter top, onto the same piece of paper he had used earlier, and placed there to catch the ashes.

The attendant then folded the edges of the paper over, making a neat little bundle.  He then put that bundle into what looked like a Mylar bag.  He then attached that bag to another machine on a table behind him, and we watched as that machine vacuumed out all the air, and heat sealed the bag.  Just like a "Foodsaver" from Walmart.

He stamped the bag with a Han stamp, and then he put it into an inexpensive wooden box.  He used a silk scarf, and wrapped the box with that, and tied it.  He then put an adhesive paper ribbon with Won's name, date of death, and other information, over the top of the box, over the silk.

Then he walked over to the larger box, which turned out to be a sort of airlock.  He placed Won's box of ashes in it, closed the door, and hit a button.  There was the sound of a fan, and then the box of ashes came trundling out on a little treadmill, to stop on top of the table on our side of the counter top.

I picked it up, and we walked outside into the sunny, but freezing Seoul afternoon.

The box was very warm with her ashes.  I hugged it close to me against the cold January breeze.

We walked to the bottom of the hill at Seoul Memorial Park, where there was a small shop that sold cremation urns.  I already knew I didn't want one.  But we needed another service the store provided, a sort of Notary to indicate that the documents from the crematorium were valid and correct.  I used these documents over the following days, along with a translation service, to get Won's death registered in Korea, and to get permission from the US Consulate to transport Won's remains with me back to the USA.

The process took several days.  

I left Korea on January 14, just after noon.  Or about 7 PM on the 13th back in California.  You gain that day back when you fly from Seoul to California.  I landed in California LAX just before noon, on January 14th.

On leaving Korea, Korean Customs stamped Won's passport and VISA.  On entering Los Angeles, US Customs checked her green card, then stamped her passport and VISA again.  Then they asked me if I would like to surrender those documents now, or wait until a later date.  I surrendered them.  And that was the second most surreal experience of my life.

Oh, the urn.  I didn't want one because I planned to make my own.  I still haven't done so.  But with my wood shop nearing completion, I think I will be able to create one soon. 

It's been 5 years

Five years ago today, I got a phone call early in the morning from one of Won's friends in Korea.  The words were brief, and high impact.

"Hello?  Mark?  Won Chong is dead!"

Those words threw my life into an immediate whirlwind.  I didn't have time to absorb the shock.  I didn't grieve - I was just numb.

It was early morning, Sunday, January 3rd.  (Just after Midnight, January 4th in Seoul)  I spent the day arranging flights, finding a sitter for my pets, and telling my apartment manager to not expect rent until I got back.  I borrowed some money from a friend.  The next morning, January 4th, I went into work, and took emergency time off.  I was on the plane out of Fresno to LAX before 10 AM.

When you fly from California to Seoul, you lose a day.  I landed in Seoul on the morning of the 6th, and took a shuttle bus from the Inchon Airport to the hospital and morgue in Saedaemoon, Seoul.

That was a long, cold, bus ride.  South Korea had been hit hard by snow over the weekend.  Seoul was literally digging its way out - people on the street with shovels were following garbage trucks with chains on their tires, shoveling in ice so it could be hauled away.  The highways were clear though, snow plows had cleared the snow from them continuously.

A lot has happened since then.  I've mourned, I've remembered, and I started healing.

And I fell in love again.  I got married.  I bought a house.  I started my life over.  And on 10 December 2014, my company laid me off, along with a lot of other engineers, in a bid to staunch their flow of red ink.

I think being laid off, and the recent very cold weather here in Fresno has brought back my haunted memories.  My life in late 2009 was very different from my life today.  I've grown so much since then.  If I had been laid off in 2009, it would have been an epic emergency.  Instead, now it is a nuisance, a mere inconvenience.

My... how things have changed!

I think it is time to tell the story of Won's cremation.

Attorney Sue Basko and more Internet insanity

Sue BaskoJust a followup from an earlier post about Susan Basko.

Apparently she's pissed off some REAL attorneys, who are attempting to have her disbarred for her antics.  For some reason, they've linked to me.  So I'm linking back to them as a courtesy.

And if you happen to speak with Ms. Basko on any form of social media, make darned sure you screen capture every part of the conversation.  She's known to re-write history in her favor, as I've experienced myself.

Psychiatrists and psychologists are just people. They can be just as religious as anyone else.

Over a decade ago I was having lots of problems with my marriage, my job, and of course my school. So I went to speak with the school psychologist to see what was wrong. My school’s psychiatrist said that she thought I had severe depression – something that I know runs in my family. But unlike my father or his sisters, I could do something about it with medication and treatment.

So my GP doctor found a psychiatrist for me, and I started doing the research to learn about the mental health profession and to find a psychologist for me. I went to see the psychiatrist my doctor recommended.

The psychiatrist’s office was a standard doctor’s office in a standard doctor’s building with other doctors and mental health professionals around. I didn't think much of it until I actually entered the doctor’s treatment room, where she talked to her patients.

Om symbolIt was designed to be a comfortable room, comfy couch, a nice overstuffed chair, her chair, a desk. But it was decorated in India style, with a Hindu shrine, bright colors, the “Om” symbol, and lots of plants in pots decorated in a matching style. It seemed very exotic, and I love that.

The doctor was an older woman, dressed in India fashion, with a discreet Hindu Bindi on her forehead.

We introduced ourselves, and sat down for a discussion. She was very professional. We discussed what I was experiencing and she asked questions, and finally confirmed that I was experiencing very severe depression. We discussed different medications, and lifestyle changes, and the need of a psychologist. She was happy that I was already searching for a psychologist, and she gave me a little advice in that regard.

Then she asked about my spiritual state.

As background, I grew up in a Christian home. My parents divorced when I was twelve, and then mom stopped going to church. But Dad had us kids on the weekend, and we went to CHURCH! I was active in the youth group, and was baptized at 14, and still have the bible my father presented me on my baptism day. I was required by our church to take a series of classes before my pastor would perform the baptism. Later on in my life, I've been a bible study teacher, a church Deacon, and have worked on the steering committee of my church.

And now I’m an atheist. I became an atheist in my mid to late 30’s, just a couple of years before seeing this psychiatrist.

Protestant reformation leader Martin Luther once said,

“Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has; it never comes to the aid of spiritual things, but more frequently than not struggles against the divine Word, treating with contempt all that emanates from God.”

He was right. My faith could not withstand my questioning, my reasoning, and my skeptical inquiry. I came to atheism unwillingly, but I got there because I couldn’t prove my beliefs to be true.

So when this psychiatrist asked me about my spiritual state, I gave Carl Sagan’s answer to the question of spirituality. That I was filled with awe and wonder at the universe, but that the universe is all there is.

She didn’t like my answer. I explained a little of my background, and she asked me how I could “know” that there is “nothing”. The answer is I don’t know. I also don’t know that humans in the future didn’t use time travel to go into the past and start the first Big Bang in a time paradox worthy of Star Trek.

Not knowing is not a good reason for belief.

This seemed to unsettle my psychiatrist, and she waved at her shrine, and said that it didn’t matter to her which higher power that I chose, only that it would be best for my mental health if I chose one.

I asked her if it bothered her that I could choose a higher power that came with a religion that demanded that I see her as a heathen, a heretic, or worse? She replied that they were all paths to the same destination, and I was free to choose which ever. I again pointed out that I could choose a “path” that condemned her, and that basically required me to witness to her at best, or do her physical harm at worst.

Inside her nice safe office here in America, she didn’t seem nearly as bothered by the chance of physical harm as she did by me not having a deity to worship.

We left the conversation unsettled. I told her I would keep reading about deities and looking for one that is sufficient for me. She wrote a script to an antidepressant.

The antidepressant helped.

And I picked up the habit of collecting many different types of religious “holy” texts and lots of apologetics texts. I keep asking questions, and so far all the answers are the same. Gideon and David Wilkerson are both wrong – as is Judges 6:33-40.

The only answer I’ve found is this: if I want to believe, I must first believe. Unfortunately this is the same answer to every single supernatural religion that humanity believes.

Her response did clue me in to a possible problem during my search for a psychologist. So I interviewed ten different psychologists during my search, and I included as one of my questions, “I’m an atheist. Is this going to be a problem as part of my treatment?”

Out of the ten I interviewed, three said outright that they couldn’t, or wouldn’t feel comfortable in treating an atheist. Two of them gave doubtful answers in the vein of, “I don’t know, I guess it will be okay…” And five of them gave responses that amounted to, “What? Why would that be a problem?”

This was when I learned that psychologists were just people, with different skill sets, and varying levels of competence. Years of education, training, residency and testing just show that a person can jump through the hoops successfully. It is still up to you to find someone who can actually help you.