Pews give way to the saddle

The congregation stands at the door of the chapel, hands clenched around bottles of water, feet balancing on horseshoe clips soon to mount pedals.

“Is it like spinning?” a woman behind me asks her uninitiated companion. “No,” she replies. “This is Soul Cycle.”

The priest, a young man with a tailored beard and a defined physique, beckons the worshippers in. The pews are freshly wiped; white towels decorate the handlebars. Each bike is occupied; hopefuls on the waiting list are turned away.

The priest sits by the altar choosing a hymnal from a computer perched on a table protruding from the wall. Under the music, the noise of locking machinery vies with chatter.

Riders select their bike before the class ensuring a demarcation of devotion — skeptics at the rear, fanatics at the front. The bikes immediately facing the priest are reserved by the most loyal — booked in the hope of receiving a look of favor or a nod of recognition from the leader. Some congregants attend church daily, some more than once a day.

It’s a ’90s nightclub, an ’80s aerobics video, a self-help convention and a liturgy. It’s a mass of steam pipe-sweaty believers all moving in primal groupishness — forward, back, left, right, always on the beat, always on the beat, always on the beat.

The riders mirror the movements of the priest at the altar, each motion choreographed immaculately with the music.

Across the notes, the priest shouts mantras of mindfulness, mutterings shorn from self-help cards and as opaque as the horoscope: “We ride, we struggle, we change, we grow, we conquer.”

The message condensed is that fitness means confidence and confidence means happiness, all delivered in fortune cookie prose: “Ride from the soul and find the happiest, fittest, most confident you in every aspect of your life.”

Through moving as one, individuals experience “self-transcendent emotions,” feelings of something greater than themselves; tribal and uplifting, the same euphoria derived from amphetamines and EDM or singing in a choir.

The priest finally reveals why we are all there: “Together we will escape the difficulties of our lives and become a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

It’s an easy sell. In a world in which corporations reduce individuals to a daily function, the church provides more. It says you are greater than your role, more than a number on a spreadsheet vying for a few additional dollars at the end of the year, more than a hungry dog snarling over scraps at the corporate feeding bowl.

You are more than a reluctant psychopath, forced to compete for approval from above whilst treading on those below lest they move ahead at your expense. You are a human. You are more.

Candles surround the priest like Anglican evensong while scripture ornaments the wall — “Athlete, Legend, Warrior, Renegade, Rockstar.”

Throughout the service God is praised, praised by the priest in branded shorts, the human God, you, the rider, all the riders, the congregation and the collective endeavor it submits — all praised by the priest in branded shorts.

The service ends and the pews empty. The congregants leave weary, fitter and closer to happiness. “Tough class” a man says to a woman removing her shoes. “Yes, he really pushed us today,” she replies. “It was like a different world in there.”

The hope is that conviction bleeds from ritual into the real world. Riders just have to keep coming back. Founding a church, it seems, is as easy as riding a bike.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

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Nigel Farage delivers barnstorming speech to some empty chairs

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Nigel Farage delivered a barnstorming speech to an empty room on Thursday, telling several banks of chairs the West must “stand firm” and defend its “Judeo-Christian culture.”

The Ukip leader, in America to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference some 20 miles from a frosty Washington D.C., told attendees that had Britain and the US not stood together during the Second World War, “much of the world would not be free.” He then reaffirmed both nations’ shared heritage in “common law, not Sharia law.”

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Farage told some seats that ‘ISIS is the greatest threat to the free world’

“We must stand up and fight for liberty, freedom and democracy and not be cowed by political correctness,” he thundered to a deserted ballroom, adding: “We have all in the West mistakenly and in a cowardly manner pursued a policy of multiculturalism, rather than pursuing a policy in which we all come together.”

Explaining Ukip’s success in the UK, the prospective parliamentary candidate for South Thanet said that his party had come to “represent a group of people completely left behind,” blaming corporatism for the disenfranchisement of a great swathe of the UK electorate.

“We [Ukip] have become the party that stands for aspiration,” he told the vacated space. “Over-regulation and big global politics aren’t working… Ukip has crossed the class divide of UK politics.”

Daring to dip his toe in the piranha-infested waters of American politics, Farage chided the current Republican leadership for failing to appeal to the type of “patriotic” and “aspirational” voters that Ronald Reagan once inspired.

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‘Over-regulation and big global politics aren’t working’

His warm-up act was erstwhile vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. It was ironic quirk of the schedule; the Englishman offered an unsubtle warning against the extremism that has come to characterise much of the American conservative movement over the past decade: “If the Republican party is to win the next presidential election, it needs to get the people voting for it that were doing so 30 years ago… and I don’t think the Republican Party is attracting those kind of people.”

He also took issue with foreign policy decisions made by Washington and London, governments he lamented were “joined at the hip.” Farage said: “We’ve been engaged in an endless series of overseas wars and it’s time to asses whether that has been successful.”

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Farage is the man in the grey suit in the background

The Ukip leader told the desolate hall: “Every time we invade [a country], we’re told it is to make the streets of London and New York safe. Far from doing that, we’ve actually stoked the flames of militant Islamism.” He then assured the small American crowd that he wasn’t blaming them, calling the Islamic State the “greatest threat to the free world today.”

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Palin warmed up the crowd… who all left after she finished speaking

Farage said that defeating IS militants would not be done with American or British troops, but by regional armies with “boots on the ground.”

The Ukip chief left the conference destined for the less savage temperatures of Margate and his own party conference ahead of May’s crucial vote. Farage earlier indicated that he had come to America to learn how to win elections. Yet at a convention that prominently featured Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, the Ukip leader may well have taken a wrong turn somewhere over the Atlantic.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Why some American politicians deny basic science

NEW YORK — During a foreign policy think tank discussion in London on Wednesday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a likely presidential candidate for 2016, was asked whether he believed in evolution.

To a British audience, it might seem an odd question to pose to a sitting governor of a US state – akin to asking whether the Earth was round, or if he believed apples fall to the ground because of gravity.

Yet the Republican demurred, unable to answer – much to the delight of the journalists in the room, who not only had a story but one that could be duly soaked in a dye of cultural snobbery.

In his defence, it was not that the governor didn’t have the correct answer. Like everyone in the room, he knew full well that evolution is a watertight scientific theory. However, it is precisely because Walker has presidential ambitions that he found himself unwilling to answer, forced to look preposterous in front of the mocking crowd.

But what witchcraft is at work that requires a man bent on becoming leader of one of the most scientifically advanced nations in the world to deny a theory so universally accepted?

Put simply, politics.

A Pew poll in 2009 found a majority (54%) of Republican voters believed in evolution.Similar polling in 2013 found far fewer Republicans (43%) believed in evolution. In just four years, disbelieving Republican voters had switched from a minority to a majority.

That’s not to say more Americans had come to question evolution. The overall percentage of disbelievers remained that same – a still staggering 40%. It was that more people that reject evolution had come to identify with the Republican brand.

But why? Pew found that older Americans are far more likely to reject Darwin’s teachings, as are white evangelicals. In recent years the Republican Party has increasingly come to rely on these twin demographics – older voters and evangelical Christians.

Most Americans still believe in evolution. It’s likely most Republican politicians believe in evolution, albeit quietly. But increasingly the party’s base, those that turn out to vote in presidential and midterm elections, do not. To remain in power, some politicians must pander to this base, regardless of how discordant it makes them look to the rest of America or indeed the Western world.

The increasing polarisation of American politics is also at play. A general mistrust of science has come to represent the default position of many Republican voters, hence similar obfuscation on matters of climate change. The longer this persists, the more entrenched these views become.

Which leads us back to Walker, forced to sit on a London stage and embarrassingly “punt” on a question, knowing that delivering an honest answer would alienate him with the very supporters he needs to corral for a White House bid.

Walker’s party has compromised on truth to retain power. It won’t last; relying on an ageing vote is unsustainable. Yet until the party itself evolves, Republican politicians will continue to be laughed at around the world.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

London – the place Republicans go to die

London has become the elephant’s graveyard. It’s the place where Republicans go to die.

In less than a month, three of the GOP’s main presidential hopefuls have sojourned in the British capital for what should have been rudimentary exercises in statesmanship.

All three have subsequently left having soiled their credentials.

In January, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal gave a speech to a British think tank in London in which he echoed discredited Fox News reporting that said Muslims have been allowed to establish autonomous neighbourhoods in British cities run under Sharia.

He then repeated the claim on CNN, insisting he was “speaking the truth”.

Next up was Chris Christie, whose burlesque three-day trade visit to the UK peaked when the New Jersey governor said parents should have “some measure of choice” in whether their children are vaccinated (thus undercutting the entire edifice that has proved so effective in eradicating childhood diseases).

The comments ignited a firestorm in the US, which was suffering a measles outbreak, and left Christie snapping at journalists for the remainder of his trip.

Then there was Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, who was roundly mocked on Wednesday for choosing to “punt” rather than answer a question on evolution. Speaking at a British foreign policy think tank, Walker was asked: “Are you comfortable with the idea of evolution? Do you believe in it?”

For me, I am going to punt on that one as well,” he said. “That’s a question politicians shouldn’t be involved in one way or another. I am going to leave that up to you. I’m here to talk about trade, not to pontificate about evolution.”

This was greeted by mocking laughs from the assembled press corps, and subsequent headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

And let’s not forget Mitt Romney, who travelled to the capital in 2012 to attend the Olympic games, an event for which he questioned the host’s preparedness. Romney was savaged in the British press; the London curse had struck again…

It’s 18 months before Americans go to the polls, so more prospective Republican candidates are likely to make the trip across the water. As such, the HuffPost UK has put together the following handy cheat sheet of questions and answers for any GOP candidate visiting our shores.

REPUBLICAN CHEAT SHEET:

  • What are dinosaurs?

Correct answer: A diverse group of animals that first appeared during the Triassic period and lived for around 135 million years.

Incorrect answer: Big lizards created by God that lived around the time of King Arthur.

  • Do childhood vaccinations work?

Correct answer: Yes.

Incorrect answer: Vaccines are dangerous. The government and the media have conspired to cover this up.

  • How old is Earth?

Correct answer: 4.54 billion-years-old.

Incorrect answer: By adding up the genealogies of the Bible, we know the world was made 6,000 years ago.

  • What happens if you keep sailing west?

Correct answer: You’ll eventually hit land. If you sail around it and repeat the process you’ll end up back where you started.

Incorrect answer: You’ll fall off the edge of the world or be eaten by sea beasts.

  • Is the average temperature of Earth’s climate system rising?

Correct answer: Yes.

Incorrect answer: If the climate is warming, where is all this snow coming from?

  • What’s the best way to stimulate an economy?

Correct answer: Increase government spending and cut taxes on the middle class.

Incorrect answer: Huge tax breaks for the wealthy.

  • What would be your advise to the parents of a sick child?

Correct answer: Take the child to see a trained medical professional.

Incorrect answer: Fall to your knees, singing ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross’.

  • What should you do if a tooth falls out?

Correct answer: Put it in the bin and make a dental appointment.

Incorrect answer: Put it in my pocket until nighttime, and then leave it under my pillow for the fairy.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.

Muslim Congressman Andre Carson on the Bible Belt, equal marriage, madrassas and an LGBT President

Representing Indiana’s 7th district, Andre Carson is only the second Muslim to be elected to serve in the United States Congress following Minnesotan Keith Ellison, who was elected in 2006.

Carson won a special election in early 2008 to succeed his late grandmother, Congresswoman Julia Carson. He then retained his seat at the general election later that year, and won re-election in 2010 against Republican candidate Marvin Scott, a man roundly criticised during the campaign for, as the Indianapolis Star put it, “resorting to attacks on Carson’s Muslim religion“. Carson was again re-elected in the recent midterm elections, beating Republican and libertarian candidates.

Born to a Baptist family in 1974, Carson converted to Islam when he was “16 or 17-years-old “having been “greatly impacted” by the Muslims in his community who were “pushing back on crime and protecting the neighborhood”. He also found within the Quran and the teachings of the faith answers to theological questions that had been “stirring his intellectual curiosity”during his teenage years.

His childhood was initially difficult, with his mother suffering from mental illness, a condition that led her and her young son to be briefly homeless. His grandmother, a “liberal woman” who benefited from an “appreciation and fondness for Islam”, raised Carson, providing him “space to grow and study”.

Having graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University with a Master in business management, Carson became a police officer, transferring to a counter terrorism unit in Homeland Security after nine years working the beat, a posting that taught him the futility of trying to “fight the threat of global terror without Muslims”.

Before his election to Congress, Carson served in local politics on a Democratic Party Committee in Indianapolis. After winning the special election, he continued his work on the national stage, becoming a vocal advocate for improving education and health care reform. He has been critical of the US role in Iraq but supportive of US military efforts in Afghanistan.

In 2011, Carson courted controversy by suggesting US public schools should be modeled after Madrassas, or Islamic schools that are built on the foundations of the Quran, words he said were “taken out of context.”

HuffPost UK spoke to the 40-year-old Congressman about his faith, the role it plays in his politics and the wider role of religion in American society.

How did your difficult childhood shape your life and politics?

My mother suffered from schizophrenia so my grandmother raised me. My mother was a brilliant woman – she had a doctorate degree and was a devout Christian – but of course the illness impacted her judgment. But going through that difficult experience deepened my sensitivity to the less fortunate, to those who don’t have home or shelter. Later on this complimented my Islamic belief in relation to almsgiving and helping the poor. That kind of experience should only shape a person to become a better humanitarian. It made me want to give back and make the world a better place.

Was there any kind of pushback from your Baptist family after you revealed you were converting to Islam?

Absolutely. There were some relatives who were told not to associate with me. However, my grandmother had a fondness and an appreciation for the religion, and she was wise enough to give me the space to grow and study, even though I was living under her roof. It’s easy to be revolutionary when you don’t have a mortgage.

Your grandmother encouraged your move towards the faith?

She definitely encouraged me because she knew for me as a young African American male that as long as I was in the faith I was not getting in trouble, the kind of trouble that would have left me incarcerated.

Still, some relatives were deeply disappointed. We laugh about it now but at the time where they were spiritually did not compliment my spiritual journey. It was good preparation though; rejection from loved ones hurts, especially as a teenager but I fell in love with the faith; it just answered questions for me.

Who inspired you to go into public office?

My grandmother again was a cheerleader but the late Congressman Andy Jacobs [a Democrat from Indiana who served in the House of Representatives for more than 30 years] also influenced me. He was like a dad to me, my Obi-wan-Kenobi. He was very liberally minded and encouraged my religious exploration. Judge David Shaheed, who is now my father-in-law and was the first elected Muslim judge in the United States, also influenced me.

Islam is often associated with helping the oppressed or giving to the poor. How do these religious tenets carry over into your support for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), or your work trying to improve standards of education?

It was the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, who stated explicitly in the Hadith that a man who educates his daughters is granted paradise. I think that has figurative implications and political implications. In the prophet’s last sermon he said there is no superiority – white over black, Arab over non-Arab – words that were quite visionary and also applicable to our times today.

On the Affordable Care Act, one of the Islamic tenets is charity and giving to the less fortunate. The United States is arguably the wealthiest nation in recorded history, a country whose healthcare is a large part its GDP. Solving the problem of healthcare relieves a lot of those budgetary issues, but also sees the less fortunate in my community get help. Though it was complicated, people now – Republicans and Democrats – are appreciating the fact we were bold enough to take on the issue in 2010.

Do American Muslims need to become more entrenched in American society, particularly civil society and law enforcement? How do you encourage that?

It was a challenge for me. At 17, after I had started studying the religion, I was arrested because police officers tried to go into a mosque without probable cause. That arrest fuelled me into wanting to become a police officer, which I did. I managed to do that and I was assigned to homeland security, terrorism and counter-intelligence. What I learned is that in the US, as in the UK, it is impossible to fight the threat of global terror without help from Muslims.

But there is a problem with institutional bigotry. We have a tradition of COINTELPRO [an acronym for the controversial counter intelligence program started in the 1950s by the FBI under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover that targeted civil rights groups, black nationalists and equality movements], which had a horrible impact, sowing deep levels of suspicion that have solidified over the years.

Also, xenophobia has become exacerbated because of extremist elements [within Islam], but I still say that Muslims have to take control of our own destiny and to reclaim our destiny we have to engage in a political process. Is it corrupt? Yes, in many aspects. Can we help remedy some of the corruption that’s pervasive, or correct some of the misconceptions about Muslims locally and internationally? Yes.

The question becomes how do we leverage our voting blocks to become precinct committee persons, become ward chairs, members of school boards, or members of zoning boards? Every time we try and build a school or a mosque there are impediments because of local zoning boards [these provide planning permission for buildings, similar to local planning authorities in the UK]. If we increase our presence we can change that.

There are numerous Muslim men and women who are not only starting businesses but they are running successful businesses. They are putting Americans back to work. We should have that same type of management in the governmental space in governor’s offices and in mayoral races. It’s time to have Muslim mayors of major cities.

Are you seeing more engagement from Muslims in local politics, where all the decision tends to get made?

Yes, and not only in my own state. As I travel the country I’m speaking to large Muslim groups telling them we can no longer have a mistress relationship with politicians.

They [politicians] come to our communities under the cover of darkness because they don’t want to be seen with us in public. That is unacceptable for a community that is highly educated, and has a large amount of capital that can be leveraged to create our own super PACs [these are organisations that pool campaign contributions and donate those funds to candidates]. But unless we see our own value we will not see significant changes in regards to the treatment we are receiving.

You and Keith Ellison are both from the Midwest. Observers would have probably predicted the first elected Muslims would have come from the more cosmopolitan areas, cities such as New York or LA?

I’m in the Bible Belt but what you’ll find about Midwesterners is that they’re less concerned about what religion a person is and more concerned with their value system and whether they’ll deliver. What you are seeing from Representative Ellison and myself are Muslims that come from the African American experience. we are more concerned with civil and human rights, with education, with the global economy, creating jobs and how to repair broken infrastructure. These are issues Midwesterners relate to.

So Indiana constituents in 2008 didn’t see a Muslim man, or they did but first they saw a former police officer, and then a man that had served in local government?

During the campaign there were a number of YouTube videos posted that tried to discredit me because of my religion. But the polling data we received stated that most people only really cared that I was a police officer and a former city councilor. It speaks to Midwestern sensibilities that folks are not be so wrapped up in a person’s faith. They just want someone they can trust to represent them well in the halls of Congress.

Do you think it would be harder for an American Muslim to win a seat in Congress with a more Middle Eastern name?

This is a debate I often have with my Arab friends, and a very serious one. This is why it’s important to get involved in local races and local communities. It’s about Muslims becoming entrenched in the community over time, then people will see that their local councilor happens to be Muslim and realise it’s not so bad.

But we can take cues from our friends in the Irish community, the Jewish community and the Italian community. Just looks at the years of investment they have made. Many Americans from the Middle East have been focused on becoming doctors or lawyers and that’s fantastic, but if we see significant investment in our local communities we’ll see change within a decade.

Is religion still important in American politics?

We are seeing that people are no longer wedded to organised religion, the kind of religiosity that is burdensome, that is guilt obsessed, that is ritual obsessed. Folks are concerned with a personal relationship with God, a relationship with their family and a relationship with their community, and an intermediary cannot regulate that.

When we remove intermediaries from our connection with God, it frees us from the burden of serving a human being and allows us to serve the Creator. People are becoming more entrenched in faith because it gives us a sense of comfort in our tumultuous times, but folks don’t want to become affiliated with organised religion.

Some Republicans, backed by campaign groups, are sincerely pushing for the US to adopt a more “Christian” worldview. Is this a concern?

I always respect a person’s religion. I had a lot of support from the Christian community when I ran. There was a small group of Christian ministers that didn’t want me to speak in their churches because they thought I was unfit due to my religion, but overwhelmingly more Christian pastors welcomed me into their pulpits and they still do.

The founders [of the United States] were very visionary when they said there should be no religious test to hold public office because there can be a danger when politicians use their public office to proselytise, and to ostracise people who don’t feel the same way as them.

In 2011, you said the American school system should be more like Islamic madrassas. What did you mean by that?

My words were taken out of context. I was speaking to a group of Muslims and talking about pride. Some of the children from our [religious] schools were leaving multi-lingual and going to Ivy League universities. I said we needed to tell that story more, and be proud of our successes.

I used the word madrassas and folks took that out of context. What I was saying is that some traditional American public schools are graduating students that are functionally illiterate. So we should look at different models, not the religious aspect because I believe in the separation of church and state, but extract some of their methodology. What can we learn from some of our religious schools, from our Jewish schools, out Christian-based schools – and take that and put it into the public school setting?

As a Muslim, do you have to watch what you say knowing the far right are ready to pounce?

Sure, but I’m a very passionate person, I get very pumped. Knowing that I’m always being watched, I have to be careful but I also have to be authentic.

You’re a vocal advocate of equal-marriage, an area most traditional religions have a problem with. Does you faith ever clash with your politics?

For me equal marriage is an issue of civil rights. If we believe we are all part of God’s creation we should be careful about making these calls. The LGBT community is making great strides and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a future president coming from that community.

But how can I as an elected official just represent one constituency? We represent all people. Muslims should be mindful that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We should have equality on all fronts.

This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. The original article can be found here.