Friday, 30 January 2009

Religion and free speech: a couple of links

Two powerful articles on the threat to freedom of expression from political Islam:

Johann Hari on the shameful UN vote against 'defamation' of religion (I know it's only a non-binding resolution, but why isn't there some kind of campaign against this?)

and Christopher Hitchens , writing two decades after the Rushdie affair, on the West's self-imposed 'cultural fatwa'.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Iranian fist remains clenched

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect...we will extend a hand if you are unwilling to unclench your fist.
- Barack Obama, January 20th

Those who say they want to make change, this is the change they should make: they should apologise to the Iranian nation and try to make up for their dark background and the crimes they have committed against the Iranian nation.
- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, January 28th

Maybe the Iranian president should take note of some other words in Obama's inaugural speech:

To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not on what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Women's rights in Iraq and anti-imperialist double-think

Interviewed in today's Guardian about her new book, Nadje Al-Ali bemoans the lamentable state of women's rights in post-liberation Iraq (which I discussed here and here). Although she describes herself as 'anti-imperialist and anti-war', Al-Ali has attracted opprobrium from the anti-war movement for daring to criticise the Iraqi 'resistance':

A significant proportion of Iraqi groups engaged in armed resistance against the occupation are also harassing, intimidating and even murdering ordinary Iraqis, particularly women and vulnerable groups. 

(In their craven indulgence of the fundamentalist militias, the 'anti-war' movement demonstrate that they were not, in fact, against the war: they just wanted the other side to win.) Even interviewer Sara Wajid can't escape the double-think of the stoppists. She writes: 'Her use of the slippery term "Islamists" at time seems interchangeable with "terrorist insurgents", and progressives are invariably tagged with the approving "secular" but never "Muslim". (Well, duh...)

But Al-Ali is caught in a mental double-bind of her own. She derides as 'imperialist feminists' those western women who criticise the misogynist culture of Muslim countries, apparently unable to make up her mind whether she really wants their solidarity (we've been here before), and disagrees with 'fundamentalist secular groups' who think the problem in Iraq is Islam (well it sure isn't an excess of secularism...). Finally, she lays the ultimate blame for the setback in women's rights on the US invasion and argues that Iraqi women cannot be liberated by military intervention. For anti-imperialists, the West is always the real culprit.

Failing to halt the rise of militant fundamentalism has certainly been one of the signal failures of the Iraq campaign, particularly in the south. But it was a failure that might have been avoided, given a different strategy and sufficient manpower, and it wasn't an inevitable consequence of toppling Saddam. At the same time, the end of the Ba'athist tyranny, however it came about (and it's hard to see how it would have happened without military intervention), was bound to let loose all kinds of dark political forces that had been repressed for decades. Moreover, surely the government of Iran (not mentioned in the Guardian piece) should be accorded at least some of the blame  for arming and funding the misogynist Shia militias?

Despite her entanglement in anti-imperialist rhetoric, western progressives should pay attention to Nadje Al-Ali's compelling account of women's experience in Iraq - and support organisations like this one

Tuesday, 27 January 2009


Human memory is a marvelous but fallacious instrument...The memories which lie within us are not carved in stone; not only do they tend to become erased as the years go by, but often they change, or even increase by incorporating extraneous features.
 - Primo Levi

Today is the 64th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Holocaust Memorial Day. 

Monday, 26 January 2009

Iranian regime tries to cover up its crimes

Imagine, if the Israelis decided to mass execute the Palestinian prisoners they hold, 5000 to 10000 prisoners over two months, then dumped their bodies in meat trucks and buried them somewhere unknown. What would be the international outcry?

That's more or less what the Islamic Republic of Iran did in 1988, according to Azarmehr, killing thousands of its political opponents in a wave of mass executions. Now the Iranian authorities want to demolish the mass burial site at Khavaran, apparently to stop relatives of the dead from commemorating their loved ones and to prevent the regime's crimes from being investigated.

There's more on the campaign to preserve the site here and here, and background information on the mass killings here.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Reclaiming Rabbie the radical

Sunday marks the 250th birthday of Robert Burns who, according to a new biography, was a staunch republican and admirer of the French Revolution. And one of Scotland's finest contemporary poets, Jackie Kay, claims that Burns was 'a sophisticated political thinker about representation, the origin and limits of political authority, and the need for liberty and equality', whose most famous poem, sung at the opening of the Scottish parliament in 1999, 'could just as easily have been sung on 20 January 2009 in Washington'.

My ties to Scotland are rather remote - my ancestors were Jacobite Aberdeenshire farmers who migrated to England in the early nineteenth century  - and I probably shan't be lured by the Scottish government's appeal to 'come home' this year. But I'm tempted to pour a glass of Glenmorangie on Sunday to toast, not the kitsch shortbread-and-tartan image of popular memory, but a great radical poet and son of the Enlightenment.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Reflections on The Speech

Looking back on the Big Speech, a couple of days after the event, I'd probably agree with Michael Tomasky's verdict that it was 'mildly underwhelming'. The new president may have calculated that celebratory oratory would be out of keeping with the seriousness of the times. Nevertheless, the thousands of people who had waited for hours in the cold deserved their moment of poetry and jubilation. However, Tomasky adds:

There were many times during the campaign when I, and other political junkies of my acquaintance, thought Obama was screwing something up. A week or a month later, we almost invariably saw that maybe he was right after all. So maybe he thought, let's put the poetry on the shelf. It's time now to get to work. He's got a lot of that ahead of him, so it's understandable I suppose if that, not rhetoric, is what is foremost in his mind.

As if to support Tomasky's point, Obama's words are still being avidly dissected all over media, and nuggets of poetry (I'm thinking particularly of the bits I quoted the other day, which formed the emotional heart of the speech) are beginning to emerge from the layers of prose. Norm obviously thought it was a good performance, and I recommend his line-by-line analysis.

For British republicans (in the lower-case sense), the echoes of Tom Paine in the speech (discussed by Ben MacIntyre here) were particularly welcome, reminding us once again that this great Englishman is a prophet more honoured abroad than in his own country. And at the risk of sounding unpatriotic - wasn't it great to hear the tune that we know as 'God Save The Queen' used to praise the 'sweet land of liberty', rather than an unelected monarch? Let freedom ring indeed...

Welcome Lego lovers

If Sitemeter is to be believed, the number of visitors to this blog has nearly doubled in the last few days. Were these new readers seeking my breathless coverage of the Inauguration, my incisive critique of the Christian Left, or perhaps my lambasting of New Labour's paternalism? None of the above, unfortunately: most of them were more interested in a pile of bricks. Yes, 'Legobama' has become the most popular search term among those finding their way to this site since 'Obama Santos'  - that's if  you don't count that strangely persistent band of web-surfers whose googling of 'boy sex iran' leads them, perhaps disappointingly and certainly soberingly, to this post.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

'We are ready to lead once more'

The section of the speech that gave hope to those who believe that it is equally important for America to remain resolute in the fight against militant fundamentalism, and to stay true to its values of liberty and justice (via):

We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.

And so to all other people and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more. Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humanity and restraint. We are the keepers of this legacy.

Should have added this bit (via Norm):

We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

Live-blogging the Inauguration (continued)

2.15 pm (9.15 am ET)

The pictures of the unprecedented crowds arriving for the Inauguration are incredibly impressive. Some people will have been waiting for eight or nine hours in freezing temperatures for a distant view of a tiny figure taking the oath of office. It's an over-used phrase, but this really is the people's Inauguration. The number of black faces is particularly striking. C-SPAN and the BBC have interviewed people not only from neighbouring southern states, but from across the US, from the Caribbean, from Africa even. It's impossible not to be moved - and the ceremony hasn't even started yet.

3.00 (10.00 am ET)

The Obamas have just arrived at the White House, to be greeted by the Bushes, who were as warm and welcoming as at previous meetings. Dubya seems to have been quite gracious, at a personal level, during the transition, whatever else you think of him. Nothing in his presidency quite became him like the leaving of it, so to speak - if you overlook all those last-minute presidential orders, that is...

3.25 (10.25 ET)

One of C-SPAN's live feeds is currently pointed at the White House entrance, as we wait for the president and president-in-waiting to emerge. The mikes are turned up so high you can hear the rather indiscreet chatter of the bored journos, and even the odd word from one of the waiting agents. It's like watching unedited footage from The West Wing. A little tedious, but at the same time strangely fascinating...

3.55 (10.55 ET)

They're on their way: an almighty cavalcade of black limousines and SUVs has left the White House and is moving towards the Capitol. C-SPAN reception's getting a bit sticky (it froze as I was trying to catch what Bush said to Obama as he left the White House for the last time), so I'm moving over to BBC News 24, which has some pretty good pictures, even if the commentary leaves something to be desired. What a bright and glorious morning on Pennsylvania Avenue...

4.10 (11.10 ET)

Live coverage has started over on MSNBC. Commentary from Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Eugene Robinson, which knocks Huw Edwards and Matt Frei into a cocked hat - though the latter have got presidential historian Robert Dallek alongside them. The great and the good are just taking their seats. Olbermann: 'I wonder what Al Gore is thinking at this point?'

4.35 (11.35 ET)
Some booing as George Bush arrives, criticised as 'bad form' by the MSNBC panel, who switched mikes to the military band. Excitement builds as the crowd awaits the announcement of the arrival of the man who will be president in just over 20 minutes.

5.20 (12.20 ET)
So that's it: America has its 44th president. President Obama is still speaking - he's drawn a clear line in the sand over torture and human rights, reminded us that some Americans are non-believers (someone tell Rick Warren), and is currently telling hostile nations that the US will 'lend a hand if you will unclench your fist'. No instantly memorable lines yet, but a pretty tough-minded performance all the same. Now he's talking about recovering a spirit of service in the nation....

5.45 (12.45 ET)
Commentators heard snatches of scripture and echoes of King, Roosevelt and Lincoln in the speech. Among the phrases that stood out: Obama's refusal to make a choice between the country's safety and its ideals.

Now President Obama (how good it feels to type that) is watching former President Bush (and that feels even better) take his leave of the capital. Wonder what Bush is saying to his replacement as they stand on the steps of the Capitol, waiting for the helicopter...

Bush positively leaps up the steps, seemingly eager to be gone. And so the Bush era comes to an end...

Live-blogging the Inauguration: an early start

For those unable to be there in person (including those of us 3,000 miles away), C-SPAN are running live video feeds from various points on the Inauguration route. It's 11.00 here in England, only 6 a.m. in Washington but, despite the darkness and the extreme cold, already the crowds are gathering...

Good morning America

Have a great day. Wish I could be there.

One last fond farewell

In the interests of balance (and because he was kind enough to leave a comment on my last post), here's Chas Newkey-Burden bidding a rather fonder farewell to Dubya. Also, check out Chas' recent posts on Gaza.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Thank God it's nearly over

From MSNBC's gloriously partisan Keith Olbermann, eight years of the Bush presidency in eight minutes:


Still three more days of the Bush era to go, but in Legoland the inauguration of Barack Obama has already taken place.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Partial prelates pronounce on Gaza

Catholic bishops in Britain have encouraged their flock to 'protest against the Israeli assault on Gaza', according to the Tablet (subscription required). Bishop William Kenney of Birmingham told the Catholic weekly that he 'approved of a prominent Catholic presence at demonstrations held in London last weekend'. 

All well and good, you might think, and it's surely healthy for the Church to be fostering engagement in the political process. But given the unusual nature of this intervention, one wonders why the bishops singled out this particular issue - and whether they will follow it with a call for Catholics to join protests against Hamas' rocket attacks on Israeli civilians? Given Hamas' record of church-burning and forced conversions in Gaza, surely Christian self-interest, as much as anything, might prompt the bishops to be a little more even-handed? 

One can perhaps forgive Bishop Kenney, who was speaking by phone from Bethlehem, for a certain ignorance of the precise nature of the London demonstrations that he was urging Catholics to join. Not so Bruce Kent, vice president of Catholic peace organisation Pax Christi, who spoke at the Hyde Park rally, where he claimed that any 'genuine religious person' would regard the actions of the Israelis in Gaza as 'barbaric and illegal', or Nottingham justice and peace worker Paul Scola, who felt compelled to attend the demonstration to show 'solidarity with the Palestinian people' (again: just the Palestinian people? aren't the people of Sderot worth just a little solidarity from 'justice and peace' workers too?).

How to explain the partial nature of this Catholic response to the current conflict? Some may not find it surprising, given the long history of Catholic antisemitism, which was certainly rumbling below the surface in Vatican Cardinal Renato Martino's recent tasteless comparison of Gaza to a 'big concentration camp'. My own view is that it reflects a naive understanding of 'peace' by many on the Christian left, one which they share with many secular 'peace' activists. On this view, a state of peace is worth preserving at all costs, however unjust or oppressive, and those who disturb that 'peace' are to be condemned. This is odd, given the rhetoric of organisations such as Pax Christi (of which I was a member in my  far-off liberal-Catholic youth), which has always argued that genuine peace must be rooted in justice. Surely genuine 'peace' activists should condemn both the racist rhetoric and terrorist tactics of one side, and the excessive use of force by the other, rather than reducing a complex conflict to a one-sided morality play?

Previous posts on the 'Christian left' here, here, here and here.

Signs of a new left fascism?

Not much time for blogging this week, but I've tried to keep up with what others are writing, particularly on the fallout from events in Gaza. The situation is increasingly depressing, principally because of the loss of so much innocent life, but also because of its wider impact, including a hardening of Arab support for Hamas, an increase in antisemitic vitriol and violence (regularly catalogued over at Harry's Place), and deepening hostility to Israel on the political left.

It's not that Israel is somehow 'responsible' for these developments or that its recent actions have unilaterally 'caused' them: after all, there was plenty of Arab antisemitism, Muslim victim-psychology and left-wing anti-Israel feeling around before all of this happened. But there's little doubt that, whatever its moral justification, the military campaign in Gaza has probably made the emergence of a viable two-state solution, with a secure Israel living alongside a peaceable Palestine, less rather than more likely, as well as dampening hopes that the forces of liberal, secular democracy would win out against clerical obscurantism and jihadist militancy in the Arab world (not to mention among the western left).

As other bloggers have documented in detail, many of the protests in the West against Israel's actions have been notably soft on Hamas and have often provided a platform for antisemites and clerical fascists. Anti-Zionist outrage has too often slipped into virulent antisemitism, making it no exaggeration to speak, as Johnny does in this post, of the re-emergence of a kind of left-wing fascism. Along similar lines, see this post over at The New Centrist, which links to an article by Ernest Sternberg on the 'revivified corpse' of left fascism.

The work of anti-totalitarian leftists is certainly going to be harder, but arguably even more urgent, after recent events.

Friday, 9 January 2009

New blog links

Added to the blogroll: 

For her sterling work on the atheist bus campaign, and for being funny to boot, Ariane Sherine.

And for his tireless agitation for a democratic secular Iran, Azarmehr.

Nice diary, shame about the politics

Extracts from Alan Bennett's diary of the preceding year have become a regular feature of the New Year issue of the London Review of Books. It would be easy to send up these edited extracts, with their luvvy name-dropping and predictably Bennettian observations on the minutiae of daily life, if Bennett and the LRB didn't do it so well themselves: the front page byline for this year's diary is 'Alan Bennett eats his lunch'. 

This year there are the usual entertaining glimpses into the world of the London literati, including an account of Ned Sherrin's memorial service ('The best speech, regrettably, is David Frost's') and of meeting the Prime Minister at a Downing Street reception ('We're...astonished at how different Brown is from the dour figure he presents in the Commons' 'Andy Burnham...looks as if he's strayed out of an early Pasolini movie'). And only Bennett, writing about encountering Marxist literary academic Arnold Kettle and his wife at a protest meeting when he was a schoolboy, would think it important to note that they were 'customers at our butcher's shop'. This year Bennett has included quotations collected in the notebooks that he has been keeping for the past forty years, such as this from his mother: 'I wouldn't want to be as bald as that. You'd never know where to stop washing your face'.

But to enjoy these nuggets of humorous observation, you have to put up with an awful lot of predictable pseudo-leftish political comment, such as this entry for 14 March:

Every day practically I bike past the two bored policemen who, armed and bullet-proofed, guard the house of the foreign secretary. I could give the address, and were I a Muslim and even had it in my possession, it would be enough to land me in custody. Passing the policemen so often, my natural inclination would be to smile. I never do because though I know they're bored and it's not their fault, I feel to smile condones a state of affairs (and a foreign policy) which necessitates ministers of the crown being under armed guard. 

From a writer whose best work demonstrates a mature sagacity, this is disappointingly juvenile. Attributing the terrorist threat (which means that some of his fellow-writers, as well as politicians, have to live under armed guard, and could do with solidarity not scorn from the likes of Bennett) to our old friend the BFP (British foreign policy), thus letting off the hook the theocratic ideology that inspires it (and would tear down everything that Bennett stands for), aligns Bennett with the shallow politics of the Galloways, Pilgers and Milnes of this world - poor company for a writer of such wisdom and wit. But you can see  why  the LRB loves  him.

The first blogger?

I spent much of the holiday period reading Duncan Wu's biography of William Hazlitt. For anyone interested in the Romantic period, and in early nineteenth-century English radicalism, it's a fascinating read. Not everyone will be enamoured of Wu's occasional dramatisation of scenes from Hazlitt's life, though the prologue, which reconstructs the writer's life-changing meeting as a young man with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is a tour de force.

Wu's account is fiercely partisan and combative, tirelessly refuting both contemporary and more recent critics of his subject with a defensiveness that must have alienated even some of his fellow Hazlittians. Nevertheless, the book makes a compelling case for Wu's thesis that Hazlitt was, in the words of his subtitle 'the first modern man'. (His suggestion that one of Hazlitt's boxing reports was responsible for the invention of the phrase 'they think it's all over' is more tenuous: I can't imagine that Kenneth Wolstenhome was paying homage to a 19th century essayist when he uttered those immortal words.)

It also occurred to me that an argument could be made for Hazlitt as a prototype of the blogger: Wu's description of him composing theatre reviews in his head as he ran back to the newspaper office to dictate them made me think how much he would have thrived on the immediacy of the internet.

I've now moved on to a radical writer of a later era: I've started reading Sheila Rowbotham's new biography of Edward Carpenter (another Christmas present). It will be interesting to compare the two.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Finding new ways to be infuriated

A couple of bracing secularist counter-blasts to see in the New Year:

Here's the increasingly indispensable Stephen Harrington skewering the patronising cant in all those pre-Christmas episcopal moans about the UK government's economic policy. Stephen is surely right to suspect that these bishops would prefer the poor to remain virtuously poor, rather than improve their lives through material consumption, and right also to point out the oddity of the Church arguing it's the government's job to impose Christian virtue on the populace.

And here's Max Dunbar taking down pro-faith commentator Andrew Brown for his disingenuous posturing against 'New Atheism'. Incidentally, 'New Atheist' is fast becoming the put-down of choice among the anti-secularist commentariat - I think its first coining was in Tina Beattie's book, reviewed by Max here, and it's since been appropriated by (who else?) Madeleine Bunting. (After all, 'aggressive secularist' is so last year, and 'Enlightenment fundamentalist' positively screams 2007. )

You kind of know there's a sneer behind the use of the term, but it's difficult to be sure what it's getting at. Is calling something 'new' meant to make us think it's callow and untested, not quite as respectable as the 'old' atheism (whatever that was)? Trouble is, as Jonathan West has pointed out, there's really nothing new about the points made by the so-called New Atheists:

Most of them have existed in one form or another for a couple of hundred years or more. As far as I can tell, the only thing distinguishing New Atheists from any others is that the New Atheists are speaking and writing today and infuriating present-day believers, whereas the old atheists annoyed the believers of past times.

And don't some of those believers just love finding news ways to be infuriated...

Infatuated teacher jailed, branded as sex offender

There was a story in our local paper this week about a teacher who had an affair with a sixth former. He was in his twenties, she was over sixteen, so their relationship would have been perfectly legal - if he hadn't been her teacher. When the matter came to light, not only was he sacked, but following a court case he has been banned for life from working with children, told he must register as a sex offender for 10 years - and given a 10 month prison sentence.

There's no denying that this young teacher was foolish and unprofessional, and that his actions were unethical and exploitative, but should he be branded a criminal - and a sex offender, to boot? Does it really make sense to put him in the same category as rapists and child-molesters? And is it fair to conclude from a single, misjudged infatuation with someone who was, after all, legally an adult, that he is unfit to work with children of any age?

I've often felt that the legislation under which this teacher was convicted was motivated as much by a prudish fear of young people having sex, as it was by a desire to protect children from predatory professionals. Yet another example of nannying New Labour perhaps? Or perhaps I'm overreacting...?

Interestingly, Jeremy Stangroom has a couple of posts up that discuss issues germane to this case.

A roadmap to our souls

Join the dots?

Two British missionaries have been sentenced to one year in prison with hard labour after pleading guilty to sedition charges in a Gambian court. David Fulton, 60, a former army major, and his wife Fiona, 46, were arrested last month at their home outside the west African country's capital after sending an email to individuals and groups allegedly criticising Gambia's government. The couple, who have spent 12 years in Gambia, pleading guilty on Christmas Eve to making seditious comments 'with intent to bring hatred or contempt against the president or the government'.

(The Guardian, 30 December)

The private sector will be asked to manage and run a communications database that will keep track of everyone's calls, emails, texts and internet use under a key option contained in a consultation paper to be published next month by Jacqui Smith, the home secretary.

(The Guardian, 31 December)

I'm not saying you can draw a straight line from spying on people's mails to locking them up for criticising the government - though I find myself in agreement with former director of public prosecutions Sir Ken MacDonald:

It is a process which can save lives and bring criminals to justice. But no other country is considering such a drastic step. This database would be an unimaginable hell-house of personal private information. It would be a complete readout of every citizen's life in the most intimate and demeaning detail. No government of any colour is to be trusted with such a roadmap to our souls.

Looks like 'Nanny' Smith is keen to show she can be just as paternalist as 'Parson' Brown.

Gaza catch-up

'If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same.' - Barack Obama, on a visit to Sderot, Israel, July, 2008.

My self-imposed blogging silence over Christmas has meant absenting myself from the heated debate about Israel's military response to Hamas' shelling of its civilian population. In brief, my feelings about the situation (for what they're worth) can be summed up as: certainty about Israel's moral right to defend itself against terrorism, exasperation at the unthinking one-sidedness of much media and 'progressive' comment on events, horror at the loss of innocent life, and acute anxiety that the longer the campaign goes on the greater the danger to Israel's interests and to hopes for peace in the region.

Here are some contributions to the debate that I've found helpful (which isn't to say I agree with every word):

- Norm and George Szirtes on the definition of a 'proportional' response

- the Contentious Centrist on the cynicism of Hamas

- Eric Lee on the predictable response of the pseudo-Left

- David Aaronovitch and Jonathan Freedland on concerns about the longterm impact of Israel's actions

- and this response to Freedland's piece by Eric Lee