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Today, 25 December 2021, all of humanity is again united in pride and awe at how far we have come since our long, frightening days and nights at the mercy of nature, be it thunder, disease, fire or peckish predators looking for a snack. Today, we launched the James Webb Space Telescope. Millions of people around the world are excited about it, not because they're American, or Congolese, or Buddhist, or white, of Dhalit, or disabled, or mathematicians, or female, or black, or vegan, or working class, but because they are human, because this is something our species pulled off. And it is something that only the species can pull off. In the words of Stéphane Israël, CEO of Arianespace SAS, the European company that so flawlessly delivered the James Webb Space Telescope into space:
We launch for humanity.
In Bertolt Brecht's The Life of Galileo, the playwright imagines the moment the Pope's emissary confronts the astronomer over his haram discoveries. The emissary finds Galileo Galilei in his makeshift observatory and informs him that what he has discovered about the Heavens is untrue. By peering through his telescope, he had proven what many scientists and philosophers before him had speculated and theorised: the earth is not the centre of the universe. Gesturing towards the telescope by the open window, Galileo responds with, "All you have to do is take a look!" The papal emissary did not look. There was no need. He already knew the truth. Galileo was arrested and put on trial for heresy.
Millions of people around the world want to take a look. 10,000 of them made common cause for twenty years to make that happen. They got together from twenty countries and, instead of opening a Qur'an, they built a telescope.
Over the millennia, we have come to understand more and more, and through doing so, have made ourselves less and less vulnerable. We have had to fight the forces of nature arrayed against us. One of those forces is none other than ourselves. Lions, fire and smallpox do not kill us anymore, unless by misadventure, accident or malicious intent. The remaining big killer of humans... is humans.
Dear Muslim, do you notice that there is not a single Muslim country amongst the twenty that built the telescope? Maybe you think that's a good thing. But let us take a look at the one common project that Muslims from all times and all climes have readily united around: jihad, waging war against non-Muslims, that is, killing them. Over the last twenty years, thousands have joined their brethren to kill in the cause of Allah. In such killing, many more than twenty Muslim countries participate. Let us look at just the twenty top-performing Muslims countries:
We no longer need to kill one another over food, shelter or sex, yet we still do it. And when that happens, it is usually the outcome of a severe deformation of the human spirit in thousands or millions of people: those who will plan the killing, those who will do the killing, those who will support the killing, and those who will believe that such killing is the right thing to do. All of them, in one way or another, celebrate killing. Most of us, thankfully, far from celebrating killing, are horrified by it, are repulsed by it.
Most of us, we who do not celebrate killing, are celebrating today. We find ourselves at one of those all too rare moments when the oneness of humanity rises like a colossus and shines across all its family. Lost in the mists of time is that profound moment when a frightened, vulnerable human reached out to grab a burning branch and wielded it against a drooling predator. "Not today," one can imagine the human grunting, "Today you're finding you meal somewhere else," and hurled the flaming projectile at the terrified predator. And now, I am here to write this and your are here to read it.
We can remind ourselves of a few such moments in recent history, when being human outshone anything else we might have been, when any desire to kill one another presented itself as the most anti-human that it is possible to be. One such moment occurred in 1967, when South African surgeon Professor Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful heart transplant on a human, Louis Washkansky, at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. Wow! We can do that. We can bring a dead man back to life! That was how people described it. I was in primary school at the time, and I saw all the praise and admiration in the newspapers and magazines, and heard the excitement in the voices on the radio. It was a thing of wonder that had the educated and the illiterate alike, jabbering away to complete strangers.
I also heard about it in madrassa. What we knew, at least from our parents' conversations, was that a new heart had been put into a dead man and he lived again. In the madrassa, Dr Barnard's achievement, humanity's achievement, was not admired. It was condemned, and Allah was going to send down a punishment. To be fair, many Christians, too, feared the Wrath of God for our arrogance in "playing God," a phrase we heard a lot. Our 'alim cursed Dr Barnard along with the "dead man" and everyone who praised what they did. That included me. My child's mind did not understand this reaction; it also did not accept it.
Two years later, humanity "played God" again! This time by daring to go the moon and "mess around up there." In July 1969 I already knew about the rivalry between the "Russians" and the Americans, but the run-up to the moon landing was heady stuff, and my parents were kind enough to buy me an enormous scrapbook into which I pasted clippings from newspapers and magazines. My scrapbook had pictures of Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova, John Glenn, Belka and Strelka (I couldn't help thinking of them as plucky cartoon characters)... ...and Neil Armstrong, and a newspaper headline: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."
In madrassa it took some effort to quieten us down. We had all heard the news: a man had walked on the moon. The raging argument had been over whether that was actually possible, or whether it had been a trick. Our 'alim's anger, as it turned out, was not directed at us for raising such a ruckus in a mosque, but at the gross sin of trying to go to Jannah when you're not yet dead! Allah had created the earth for us, not the moon. We have no business going there and trespassing on the domain of Heaven. The angels may go there, but not us. For this arrogance, Allah will send down a punishment. As it would happen, just two months later, an earthquake struck South Africa. I don't need to tell you how our 'alim lost his mind.
Today, 25 December 2021, all of humanity is again united in pride and awe at another of those accomplishments. We've just sent the incredible James Webb Space Telescope to take a look at how the universe began. Dear Muslim, your children's 'alim will soon be out of a job. What are you going to say to them?
From the Murtadd to Human website, massive, massive, MASSIVE CONGRATULATIONS!!! to the more than 10,000 people in twenty countries who worked together for over two decades to make this happen.
It's a great day for planet earth.