Friday, 27 February 2009

Last chance to vote for change at UCU

If you're a member of the University and College Union, you've only got a few days left in which to register your vote in the election for members of the National Executive Committee. Once again, if you want to end the dominance of the pro-boycott far left, and see genuine representation of the membership in the formation of policy, then please give your support to the candidates recommended here.

If you're in the South, you might want to consider voting for Dennis Hayes, founder of Academics for Academic Freedom, campaigner for free expression and outspoken opponent of the proposed boycott of Israeli universities. Dennis has also written about the 'therapeutic turn' in education, which I discussed here.

Any doubts about the need for a change in direction at UCU can be laid to rest by visiting its campaigns page. Naturally, there are some worthy and uncontentious names among the organisations supported by the union. But supporters of academic freedom might wonder how a higher education union, which ought to be fighting for freedom and pluralism in education, can endorse the pro-Castro Cuba Solidarity Campaign, or Hands Off Venezuela, which gives 'full support' to the Bolivarian revolution of demagogue Hugo Chavez. The UCU is also affiliated to the mis-named Stop the War Coalition, which recently sent a delegate to a pro-Hezbollah 'anti-imperialist' conference in Beirut.

To borrow a phrase: not in my name.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

'Statesman' seeks to draft Miliband

I had a long train journey yesterday and, for the first time in ages, I actually bought a copy of the New Statesman. If you could overlook the odd bit of pilgering, there were one or two quite good things in it, including a reasonable feature on 'Red Tory' guru Philip Blond, whom I wrote about here. 

More significantly, the current issue carries a major interview with David Miliband, whom the NS seems (perhaps surprisingly, given the way he's been wrongly pigeonholed as a cardboard-cutout Blairite) to be endorsing as a candidate for the Labour leadership. With Gordon once again hitting a low in the opinion polls, can another round of leadership speculation be upon us?

Monday, 23 February 2009

Food for thought

I'm grateful to Bob for providing some excellent food for thought recently...

Firstly, for providing the link to this article by Roger Scruton on secularism, forgiveness, and irony.

And secondly for this post, drawing together a number of responses to the BNP's recent victory in Swanley.

When I get time, I'll try to post about both.

Giving science and secularism a bad name

One of the constant themes of this blog has been the misguided efforts of some religionists to construct a straw man, bearing labels such as 'militant atheism' and 'aggressive secularism', when much of the militancy and aggression in recent controversies has actually come from the faith camp. 

At the same time, I'm an admirer of neurobiologist Colin Blakemore, not only for his pioneering brain research and contributions to the public understanding of science, but also for his bravery in standing up to animal rights extremists. However, his article on science and religion in yesterday's Observer was a rather crude and superficial piece of polemic.

Arguing that religious faith may simply be a false model of reality, implanted in our brains, that has outgrown its evolutionary usefulness, Blakemore foresees a day when science makes religion redundant. He writes:

I'm dubious about those 'why' questions: why are we here? Why do we have a sense of right and wrong? Either they make no sense or they can be recast as the kind of 'how' questions that science answers so well.

Thus, in a couple of sentences, Blakemore not only abolishes religion, but does away with the need for philosophy, ethics, and probably the social sciences and humanities too. This kind of reductionism and determinism gives science - and secularism - a bad name.

More on this from Norm here.

Friday, 20 February 2009

From revolution to revelation

Because it's Friday, because they won the Outstanding Contribution to Music Award at the Brits the other night, and because the lyrics are kind of relevant to my recent posts about religion, the left, etc:

Lessons in terror

'Now children, for today's lesson on the Holocaust, I'd like you to put yourself in the position of a Nazi concentration camp guard and imagine his feelings as he sets off for another day's work in the gas chambers...'

Unthinkable? In the worst possible taste? I made it up, of course: but it's not much different from this, reported in today's Guardian:

Pupils are being asked to put themselves inside the minds of the 7/7 bombers to understand the motives of terrorists.

A government-endorsed teaching pack suggests the secondary schools ask pupils to do a presentation on the 7 July London terror attacks from the bombers' perspective.

The teaching pack, put together by the borough of Calderdale in West Yorkshire and displayed on the website of the Department for Children, Schools and Families, has now been withdrawn, thankfully. But what were they thinking?

Of course schools should encourage students to examine why historical events occur, but this exercise assumes that the 7/7 terrorists had motives that are susceptible to rational analysis. It seems designed to lead to the conclusion that there were 'understandable' reasons - whether poverty, discrimination or British foreign policy - behind their actions. It makes no allowance for the influence of irrational elements, such as fanatical devotion to a fundamentalist faith, or personal pathology, which will be outside the knowledge and understanding of most pupils.

The best response to being asked to 'understand' the feelings of fascists and terrorists remains that of air stewardess Gabriele von Lutzau (whom I quoted here), when asked if she would like to meet one of her former Baader-Meinhof captors:

I'm not interested in the background, in her history or in understanding her. This woman acted without a single moment of humanity. Her attitude was 'we are better than you. We're going the righteous way against Western imperialism.' Her distorted view of reality is not one I ever want to face again.

A matter of convention

You can read my cautious reservations about next week's Convention on Modern Liberty here. Olly and Will  are rather less tentative...

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Signs of hate

In any competition to find the most loathsome family in America, the Phelps family who run Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, would be hard to beat. They regularly picket the funerals of gay victims of hate crimes wielding signs that read 'God Hates Fags', and in 2006 turned up at the memorial for victims of a mining disaster, which they claimed was divine vengeance for America's tolerance of homosexuality, bearing placards declaring 'Thank God For Dead Miners'.

But as Paul says: 'Loathsome (and nutty) as they are, I don't remember ever reading about Westboro members physically assaulting anyone or calling for their death.' Yet, like Geert Wilders, and unlike some apologists for terrorism, they have been banned from entering Britain. To quote Paul again: the UK, where people can march down the street carrying banners supporting terrorist organizatons like Hamas, where they can throw bollards at police and shout 'wipe out Israel', you would think there would be room for a small bunch of nutjobs waving placards reading 'God hates Fags'.

It's a difficult one, though. The Westboro placards don't explicitly advocate violence, in the way that (say) 'Behead those who insult Islam' clearly does (the Phelps family prefer to ask the Almighty to do the killing for them). But if I were gay I might feel more than a little threatened by religious loons chanting 'Homosexuality = Death' or 'Fags Die - God Laughs' (two further examples of their subtle sloganising). 

There are certainly stronger grounds for excluding the Westboro Baptists than there were for banning Wilders. But Jacqui Smith needs to make much clearer the rationale for banning or not banning people: the present situation is a confused mess.

Strange as it may seem, the Phelps family and their hangers-on were planning to travel to Britain to picket a play being presented at a sixth-form college in Basingstoke.' The Laramie Project' tells the story of gay student Matthew Shephard who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998. Apparently the drama has been used to teach personal, social and health education and citizenship in schools.

As is always the case with such protests, the hostility of these truly nasty fundamentalists has only served to give additional publicity to the production, and to draw further attention to the awfulness of hate crime - which I'm sure isn't what they intended.

My funny Valentine

File this under 'things that are hard to believe'. Is it really possible that a certain TV comedy writer and atheist campaigner didn't receive a Valentine's card this year? What's wrong with all these younger non-believing fellas? If I were twenty years younger, etc etc...

This is a bit out of date now, but still worth watching as an illustration of how to stand up to silly religious spokespeople, using reason and humour:

Your reading list for today...

Some quick recommendations:
  • Taking up Kenan Malik's theme here, and kind of related to this post, a great article by Thierry Chervel on the legacy of the Rushdie fatwa. Left-wing intellectuals, and post-modernists in particular, don't come out of it too well.
  • Reviewing Charles Taylor's recent tome (which I'm still struggling through), Andrew Koppelman comes up with one of the most thoughtful articulations of the secularism vs faith debate that I've read in some time.
  • Marko Attila Hoare produces a detailed and magisterial refutation of Richard Seymour's Liberal Defence of Murder. Unlike his adversary, Hoare knows whereof he speaks, and doesn't rely on dubious quotes from known conspiracy theorists and Milosevic apologists.
  • Finally, George Szirtes quotes from Howard Jacobson's powerful piece on the new antisemitism and adds a few telling points of his own.

Euston departure

Noticed that strange blue question mark, down in the bottom right-hand corner of this page, just above all the other widget thingys? That's where my Euston Manifesto sign should be, but in the last few days it seems to have disappeared. Damian explains the likely cause here.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Shelving the sacred

Here's a wonderful illustration of the knots that secular authorities can tie themselves in when they try to appease the sensibilities of religionists...

Muslims in Leicester claimed it was offensive for local libraries to display the Koran on lower shelves, since they believe their holy book should always be placed above 'commonplace things'.

So what did library officials do? Did they reply that libraries are neutral spaces in which books are treated as human creations rather than sacred objects, and that the only workable rationale for the shelving of books is the Dewey Decimal system? Did they argue that, if they were to give into this demand, there would be no end of it, with Hindus, Mormons and Scientologists all submitting their requests for how they wanted their precious texts displayed? 

No, they consulted the Federation of Muslim Organisations, who, with their best multi-faith hats on, suggested that the best solution was to adopt a policy of placing all holy books on the top shelf. 

But that hasn't pleased everybody. Some Christians are upset that putting the Bible out of reach goes against the Reformation spirit of making God's Word easily accessible. (They might also have been put off by the popular connotations of 'top shelf' literature.) The ubiquitous Inayat Bunglawala has weighed in, arguing against a 'one size fits all' approach: in other words, if Muslims want the Koran to be displayed on a higher shelf, they should get their way, while the Bible should be placed lower down, if that's what Christians want.

Before the new policy was implemented in Leicester, it seems that some Muslims were going round libraries moving the Koran to higher shelves. OK, confession time. Some time ago, I heard that a high street chain - I forget which one, probably Smiths or Waterstones - had adopted a similar policy of only displaying the Koran on higher shelves (I think they've stopped it now, thank goodness). When I noticed this happening in our local branch, I admit there were one or two occasions when I took it on myself to - ahem - reverse the policy. Not that I've got anything against the Koran, compared to any other supposedly sacred text. I simply believed that, in a plural, secular society, a retail outlet should not surrender to the demands of one particular faith-group. Yes, folks, my secular sensibilities were well and truly offended, and like the shelf-stalking Muslims of Leicester, I was indulging in a bit of direct action as a protest...

Perhaps it was Borders I was thinking of. Interesting that they implemented the policy for 'the safety and security of our customers and employees'. 

Snow business

Today is the first day in two and a half weeks that snow hasn't been visible from my window. Just thought you'd like to know. Can spring be far behind....?

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Against 'culturalism'

There is scarcely a more important task in contemporary politics and political philosophy than giving full consideration to developing universal enlightenment and with the greatest possible force turning against both prevailing right and leftwing forms of culturalism and their enslavement of the individual in his or her own 'culture'.

From an excellent critique of the 'culturalism' of left and right that has overtaken European political debate, by Danish writers Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt. Do read the whole thing - it's in the online journal eurozine, which I hadn't come across before.

Eriksen and Stjernfelt have recently published a book whose title translates as The Politics of Segregation. Multiculturalism - Ideology and Reality. If anyone has come across an English translation, please let me know - it sounds good.

Bush, Bartlet and last-minute pardons

Regular readers - and non West Wing fans - should feel free to yawn at this point. This blog has charted with dogged (some would say tedious) regularity the parallels between Aaron Sorkin's classic TV drama and the Obama campaign: start here and follow the links, if you're interested. But I never thought I'd come across any similarities between Presidents Bartlet and Bush....until today.

Those familiar with the final series of the programme will recall that Bartlet leaves it until the very last moments of his administration (just before he departs the Oval Office for the final time, to attend the inauguration of Matt Santos) to sign the pardon for his former communications director, Toby Ziegler, indicted for leaking government secrets (but for the best of reasons, naturally). Considerable tension is created during the episode by the efforts of other staff members, notably chief of staff C. J. Cregg, to persuade Bartlet to do the right thing.

Now it turns out that something very similar happened in the dying days of the Bush administration. Apparently Vice-President Dick Cheney repeatedly urged his boss to pardon his former chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, widely believed to have carried the can for others' misdeeds over the disgraceful outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame.  Bush had kept Libby out of jail by commuting his prison sentence, but Cheney wanted a full pardon. 'He tried to make it happen right up until the very end', an associate claims.

This being real life, rather than television, Bush didn't do 'the right thing' and resisted Cheney's overtures. Or rather, given that Libby, unlike the fictional Ziegler, was acting out of base motives, perhaps that should be 'the wrong thing'. Then again, if Libby was actually covering up for Rove, and possibly Cheney and Bush too, then it would have been 'the right thing' to let him off the hook. But then the truth about the whole affair might have come out....

Oh well. Just goes to show once again that truth is stranger than fiction, and real life is a lot messier than The West Wing...

Monday, 16 February 2009

Falling out with the Religious Right

Do the Republicans actually want President Obama's economic stimulus package to fail, so they can say, 'We told you so'? And if so, is there any point in the President continuing to make bi-partisan overtures to the party he defeated back in November? That's certainly a theme gaining momentum in some quarters, fuelled by speculation that Judd Gregg's withdrawal from his recent appointment as Commerce Secretary wasn't the result of policy differences, but of pressure from his local GOP to toe a party line of non-cooperation with the new administration. And last week Florida governor Charlie Crist took a lot of flak from fellow Republicans just for hosting a town hall meeting for the President...

Now Frank Schaeffer, a former scion of the Religious Right, has written an open letter to Obama, arguing that there's no 'decent' Republican party left to cooperate with. Schaeffer claims that today's GOP is controlled by two ideological groups, the Religious Right and the neoconservatives:

Both groups share one thing in common: they are driven by fear and paranoia. Between them there is no Republican 'center' for you to appeal to, just two versions of hate-filled extremes.

From this transatlantic distance, it's difficult to tell whether he's right. But you can't help thinking that those Republicans who argue for cold-shouldering the White House are making a serious electoral miscalculation. When the economy's going down the pan, voters will support any sufficiently bold measure that has a chance of putting things right, whatever its party colours. If the stimulus works, they'll reward the Democrats and punish the Republicans who tried to undermine it. If it fails, they'll probably fall out love with Obama, but they won't thank those who simply shouted 'No' and refused to come up with an alternative.

I hadn't come across Frank Schaeffer's work before, but his name immediately rang bells. It turns out he's the son of the evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer. Now, when I was a teenage evangelical, back in the 1970s, books like Schaeffer's Church at the End of the Twentieth Century were the kind of thing you displayed on your shelves if you wanted to show you were a Christian, but thoughtful with it: this man actually quoted non-Christian thinkers and had footnotes that weren't references to Scripture! Later on, though, it seems Schaeffer senior became mixed up with the Religious Right, giving the movement a kind of spurious intellectual credibility. However, his son claims that it was solely the issue of abortion that led to this alliance with fraudulent celebrity preachers like Pat Robertson, and that in other circumstances and other times Francis Schaeffer would have been a man of the Christian Left.

Googling Schaeffer junior, I discovered that he's a published novelist, with a line in military fiction (he's the father of a marine). In fact, it was Republican conservatives' trashing of the reputation of two war heroes - first Jim Webb and later John McCain - that led to Schaeffer falling out with the Religious Right. As a result of betraying his political and religious roots, he's become something of a hate figure for theo-conservatives, whose faith doesn't appear to include much sense of Christian forgiveness.

I was also interested to read that the younger Schaeffer has retained his Christian faith, converting from Protestant evangelicalism to Greek Orthodoxy, in search of a faith that 'embraces paradox and mystery'. That's certainly something I can identify with: I lost my evangelical faith within months of arriving at university, only to be drawn to Catholicism a couple of years later (though for me, this turned out to be a staging-post en route to agnosticism). During the election, Schaeffer attracted further ire from his former co-religionists by writing an article headed 'Why I'm Pro-Life and Pro-Obama'.

Schaeffer's latest book is a memoir entitled Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back (these American authors love their long subtitles, don't they?). You can hear him speaking about it here. In the course of the talk, he reads a couple of passages from the book, one a wickedly funny description of going 'on tour' with Pat Robertson, the other a moving story about his aged mother. Now in her '90s, losing her sight and her memory, Edith Schaeffer has rediscovered the passion for dance and for old jazz tunes that she suppressed for most of her life, out of fundamentalist scruples. As Frank Schaeffer says, he can now see the person that his mother might have been, if it hadn't been for the choking dogma that dominated her life. A book to look out for, I think...

Iranian lesbian granted asylum in Britain

This is great news. For more on the background to the story, see here and here. As the man said, 'In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country.' No, because they've all been executed, or fled the country.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Times' top blogs

Congratulations to Norm and Chris Dillow on making the Sunday Times  '100 best blogs' list. OK, so the list is a little arbitrary (sour grapes, moi?), and could more accurately be described as 'the best blogs that some of our staff writers happen to know about, plus a few of their friends'.  But even so...

Like all attempts by the print media to keep up with the online world, the feature is out of date as soon as it's published. For example, the writers wonder why John Prescott's blog has gone quiet since Christmas. That's because (as I reported the other day) he's no longer there, he's here. They're right, though, about the authenticity of Prezzer's posts being confirmed by the typos and grammatical errors. In last Friday's post, he described the 'strong sense of misjustice' produced by bankers' bonuses.  Of course, these could be deliberate mistakes, cleverly inserted to make us think  that the hitherto technophobic Prescott writes his own posts...

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Internalising intolerance

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Read Christopher Hitchens on the impact of Khomeini's decree, and Kenan Malik on its legacy. And here's Malik talking about the 'internalised fatwa':

Friday, 13 February 2009

Fair and balanced

Lest anyone accuse this blog of being biased against one particular religion, here are links to two forthcoming demonstrations:
  • one against Vatican interference in European politics
  • and the other against Sharia law in Britain
And if you've got any time and energy left over, consider answering David T's call to protest against this event - or at the very least, write to Jacqui Smith and ask her why she banned Geert Wilders but hasn't (yet) moved to exclude some of the apologists for Islamist terrorism who will be speaking at it.

UCU elections

If you're a member of the UCU, and you're fed up with the pro-boycott SWP 'left' dominating the union, then follow this link and consider voting for the candidates on the list in the NEC election. We want change...

Old school self defence

After all the fulminating of my last few posts, here's something a bit more light-hearted for a Friday: a demonstration of jujitsu for women from the 1930s (via). That Miss May Whitley is quite something....

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Wilders latest

Earlier this afternoon Radio 5 Live interrupted its regular book review slot to bring us a brief interview with Geert Wilders - I think he was at the airport, having just been refused entry to the country. The Dutch MP repeated his view that, if people disliked what he said about Islam, they should have a debate about it, rather than attempt to silence him.

After the interview, one of the two authors being featured on Simon Mayo's programme said he wished he had the freedom to ban this bigot's freedom of speech, while the other described Wilders as a 'wanker' whom he wished would shut up. So much for open debate.

It's a sad day when a far right politician comes across as more liberal than the liberal literati - or for that matter, than a Labour government.

Wilders' political orientation makes it easy for liberals to justify their support for the ban. In fact, there's nothing 'right wing' about his critique of Islam - similar arguments  have been put forward from the left. Would those who endorse the government's move against Wilders be happy to see Maryam Namazie or Ibn Warraq treated in the same way?

Conventional wisdom

There are ads all over the place for this Convention on Modern Liberty thing. Anything that seeks to defend 'our fundamental rights and freedoms' is OK by me, and I've been as critical as anyone of some of the illiberal tendencies of the current government. However, I notice that posters for the event highlight the threats to liberty from 'counter-terrorism, financial breakdown and the database state'. Now, counter-terrorism and the database state I can understand (NO2ID is one of the main sponsors of the event). But 'financial breakdown' ? That seems a bit weak and speculative, and looks like it's been thrown in to pad out the list and broaden the appeal. 

And if you were listing the main threats to our fundamental rights and freedoms right now, wouldn't you want to include a couple of other things, before you mentioned the credit crunch?How about the attacks on freedom of speech by religious militants who threaten authors, publishers and programme-makers who offend them? And what about the threat to our freedom from terrorism itself? It looks like the organisers of the convention have been selective in their cataloguing of threats to liberty, and can only see danger from one direction - the British state.

Among the many issues to be debated at the main London event on 28th February, I couldn't find anything about freedom of expression. There's a session on press freedom, but that's not quite the same thing. A vast array of the liberal-left great and good are slated to appear, and it was reassuring to see Nick Cohen's name there (in the press freedom slot). But why invite the Muslim Safety Forum to lead the session on 'xenophobia'? I'm all in favour of a big tent approach, but what is a convention on liberty doing providing a platform to a group that acts as an umbrella for organisations hostile to many of the 'fundamental rights and freedoms' that the event is seeking to defend?

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Theatre of war

The Tricycle Theatre in north London has commissioned a series of plays about Afghanistan 'in the belief that the history of the country is not well known in the UK, even though thousands of British troops are there in operations against the Taliban.' Artist director Nicholas Kent stated: 'It's a history project, without being in the least dry'.

Sounds like a worthy initiative, in the best traditions of theatre as public education. But what kind of history lesson are theatre-goers likely to get? Here's Nicholas Kent again: 'We have a lot to learn about the historical backdrop: about how British and Russian self-interest caused so many of the problems in the country.' 

A lot to learn? Seems like Kent has made up his mind already. You'll notice he doesn't mention the damage caused to Afghanistan by feuding warlords or the oppressive Taliban regime. But perhaps he shares the dominant pseudo-left belief that these 'problems' were 'caused' by western 'self-interest' and that Afghans are simply passive pawns of outside forces, rather than having any agency of their own.

I hope the dramas commissioned by Tricycle end up challenging, rather than merely confirming, the political prejudices of the north London theatre-going classes.

Blaming the messenger?

The decision to ban Dutch MP and film-maker Geert Wilders from visiting Britain is another example of the government's 'don't frighten the horses' approach to social cohesion, in which fear of angry fundamentalist mobs trumps human rights and freedom of expression. 

I hold no brief for Wilders and suspect that I would disagree with most of the policies of the right-wing Dutch Freedom Party that he leads. However, he's an elected politician in a neighbouring European democracy and has never been convicted of any criminal offence. The justification for his ban appears to be that he is a vocal critic of Islam and has articulated many of his objections to the religion in his film, Fitna, which overlays images of Islamist atrocities with quotations from the Koran.

You may dislike the film, and you may disagree strongly with Wilders' view of Islam, but that's no reason to censor him. As he said when interviewed on BBC Radio today, if you disagree with what I say, then let's have a debate. The government has fallen back on the argument that it is acting to stop 'those who want to spread extremism, hatred and violent messages in our communities from coming to our country'. Of course it has the right to do so, and perhaps should do so more often: one wonders, for example, why a known spokesperson for Hamas, considered a terrorist organisation by the EU, is permitted to speak freely at events in Britain. 

I heard a Muslim peer who has campaigned against Wilders' visit speaking on the radio at lunchtime. Cataloguing the many angry letters and emails that he has received about the planned visit, he gave a clue as to what really lies behind the government ban. It's clear that the 'extremism, hatred and violence' that they imagine would be stirred up by Wilders' arrival on these shores would come not from Wilders or his supporters - but from the religious fundamentalists who oppose him. And it's ironic that Wilders' film is actually seeking to address the causes of extremist violence - even if you disagree with its analysis. There are echoes here of the Panorama 'Undercover Mosque' affair, when it was the programme-makers who publicised religious extremism, rather than the extremists themselves, who were targeted by the authorities and accused of undermining community cohesion.

The government should overturn the ban, let Wilders come, and encourage an open debate about the relationship between religion and terrorism. If his arguments are weak, then his opponents have nothing to fear. We shouldn't allow the threats of extremists to determine who gets to express their views in a free society. Criticising religion, even in a manner designed to shock, is not (yet) an offence.

More on the Wilders affair from David T and Peter Tatchell, both of whom have plenty of suggestions as to the real hate-mongers that Jacqui Smith should think about banning.

A threat to freedom of belief

The story of the foster carer who was apparently struck off after a Muslim girl (sorry, girl from a Muslim background) in her charge converted to Christianity, could have been written as a case study in conflicting rights. I say 'apparently' because the report appears in the Telegraph, and one needs to be wary of stories that fit too easily into the Tory papers' narrative of cultural decline.

The carer, a churchgoer in her fifties, was reprimanded by the local authority for preventing the young woman from getting baptised, even though the latter was 16 and decided on the change of religion for herself. Now the poor woman, who has fostered more than 80 children, has lost the farmhouse that she rented to take care of vulnerable teenagers, due to the loss of income.

Predictably, some Christian groups have taken up the foster carer's cause, citing it as another instance (like the recent case of the nurse ticked off for offering to pray for patients) of discrimination against their faith. But rather than this being an example of the secular state crushing the rights of believers, it actually shows the authorities bowing to the irrational demands of a religion - in this case, Islam.

If the Telegraph's report is to be believed, social services attempted to prevent the conversion, advising the girl to stop attending Christian meetings, concerned that she was in danger of betraying her Muslim roots by committing apostasy. If this is true, then those concerned may have been guilty of breaching Article 9 of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees freedom of religion. Of course, the story is complicated by the fact that this was a vulnerable young woman, probably in search of affection and a sense of belonging, who one imagines was easily seduced by the warm emotionality of evangelical Christianity. Nevertheless, it should have been her decision.

Let's be clear. Foster carers have no business trying to influence or change the religious beliefs of those in their care (though that doesn't seem to have happened in this case). Social services and other state authorities have no business deciding the religious or cultural orientation of the young people for whom they are responsible. And individuals, whatever their background or age, should be free to believe whatever they wish, and not be trapped by the fixed cultural identities imposed on them by others.

Like the school assembly case reported yesterday, this looks like another example of a local authority interpreting 'promoting social cohesion' as 'avoiding conflict by not upsetting religious extremists'.


Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Tories see red

These are strange times indeed, when David Cameron's latest policy guru is an advocate of 'red Toryism' who criticises Thatcherism and advocates policies based on social justice. Philip Blond is an academic theologian whose work (which is also scathing about Labour's managerial welfarism) has deliberate echoes of the 'third way' between socialism and capitalism advocated by early 20th century Catholic thinkers such as G.K. Chesteron and Hilaire Belloc. Interestingly, the 'distributism' that these writers advocated was as influential on the left (influencing Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement) as it was on the right.

Credit where it's due: the oft-derided Madeleine Bunting has written a fair and balanced article about Blond's ideas, and the interest they are currently stirring up on the left as well as the right of British politics (Jon Cruddas is apparently a fan). She even anticipates the objection that many liberals will have to this revival of conservative communitarianism - that it has a tendency to mutate into authoritarianism (Chesterton and Belloc were both admirers of Mussolini) - suggesting that Blond needs to sharpen up his thinking in this area.

I'd never heard of Blond before, but after reading Bunting's piece I looked him up. It was refreshing, in these bland multi-faith times, to discover that he has produced a thoughtful critique of Islam which many secularists would agree with, and can't be dismissed as simply a product of inter-faith rivalry. Rather less appealingly, he has also argued that only 'real' faith, rather than secularism, can combat the rise of religious fundamentalism.

The combination of faith, conservatism and communitarianism offers a heady mix that could prove very appealing in a time of economic uncertainty and political disillusionment. But the hostility to liberalism, secularism and individualism that goes along with it should be cause for concern. As Bunting suggests, we've been here before. When you add in the tendency of the original distributists to reject modern civilisation (leading distributist Fr. Vincent McNabb believed that 'The city is the graveyard of religion and the machine age is the doom of mankind'), then you have a beguiling but dangerous cocktail. I note that Bunting's fellow anti-modern pessimist, John Gray, is also a Blond fan...

Blond on Blond: the man of the moment has written a letter to the Guardian, pointing out what he regards as a few inaccuracies in Bunting's article. He argues that the localism he advocates is the enemy of fascism, and claims that Chesterton and Belloc were 'Edwardian liberals' rather than conservatives, and refutes suggestions that both were antisemites. And he denies that his emphasis on community overrides a belief in individual freedom: 'I am utterly opposed to any kind of social authoritarianism'.

Freedom of assembly

A primary school headteacher in Sheffield has resigned, following parental protests at her decision to end separate assemblies for Muslim children (or rather, following Richard Dawkins, perhaps we should say 'children of Muslim parents'). Apparently Julia Robinson believed that holding a single assembly for all pupils was a better way to achieve integration and cohesion within the school.

The law requires schools in England to hold a daily act of worship that is 'wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character'. Parents of other faiths or none have the right to withdraw their children from these events, but not to demand that the school provides an alternative tailored to their own beliefs. Clearly, the school should not have conceded so much to Muslim parents in the first place: Ms. Robinson was simply correcting a mistake that should never have been made.

Discussing the affair on the World at One this lunchtime, a teaching union spokesperson argued that the legal requirement for a broadly Christian act of worship is in conflict with other measures aimed at achieving social cohesion, and urged the government to review the policy as a matter of urgency. Talk to most teachers in state (non-faith) schools and they will tell you the same thing: the current law, which requires mostly non-believing teachers to lead mostly non-believing pupils in an act of religious worship is a farce, and in most schools produces a dishonest fudge. 

Also interviewed on the programme was the Labour MP for the constituency, Meg Munn, who indulged in a fair amount of fudging herself. Clearly anxious not to offend any of the parties to the affair, she argued that decisions about separate assemblies should be left to schools. But she did make the extraordinary claim that it was part of the school's business to introduce children to faith - and she didn't mean in an objective, RE kind of way. In this, she is plainly wrong. If Muslim parents, or parents of any other religion, want their children to be initiated into their beliefs, they should do it themselves, or send their offspring to a faith school. The mission of a state school should be to expose children to a wide range of beliefs, and to familiarise them with the common values that are shared across society, not to provide facilities for them to be indoctrinated exclusively in the beliefs of one group or sect. 

Just as there is no place for Muslim assemblies in state schools, so there is no longer any justification for Christian worship, however much it's hedged around with qualifying adverbs like 'broadly' or 'mainly'. Julia Robinson was right, and it's a shame she's had to resign her post.

Seems there may be more to this story than meets the eye. Edmund Standing quotes the Sheffield Telegraph report which reveals that Julia Robinson was accused of racism by some parents after her attempts to foster inclusiveness at the school. Remember that her proposal was to offer a single assembly that embraced all faiths - does that sound like racism to you? Although Ms Robinson's resignation wasn't explicitly linked to this episode, other teachers say that she was under pressure because of the affair and was 'absent through ill health' for most of last year.

Monday, 9 February 2009

On our own terms

Listening to Tony Blair's speech to last week's National Prayer Breakfast in Washington was not for the squeamishly secular. Sure, he began by charming the audience with one or two good jokes, like the old pro that he is. But then, no longer constrained by advisers telling him 'we don't do God', Tony went into full-on sermonising mode. Making highly selective use of quotes from various holy books, he suggested that all religious faiths are really about love and peace, and needed to band together to roll back the tides of 'an increasingly aggressive secularism', which he argued was the mirror image of extreme belief (no examples or evidence given, of course). Blair was careful not to 'decry the work of humanists', but this felt like something of an after-thought, as though humanists and secularists were being graciously conceded a place at the table by believers - but it was emphatically the believers' table, and we were there on their terms.

I had a similar feeling when I read Giles Fraser's piece arguing that there's no place for atheists on Thought for the Day. Fraser claims that atheism is 'defined by what it's against', and this 'againstness' is contrary to the programme's character. But as Norm comments, atheists are just as capable as believers of expressing their beliefs without attacking others, and simply by articulating their faith religious commentators could themselves be construed as attacking non-believers. 

The real problem is that, just like the multi-faith big tent that Tony Blair wants to construct, Thought for the Day is set up on believers' terms - it's their game, and others have to fit in with it, under sufferance. When, once in a blue moon, non-believers are given a 'guest' slot on the programme, they feel a need to define themselves - negatively - in terms of its faith-bound perameters, rather than positively articulating an alternative. 

I've long felt that the format of the slot, with its roots in the breezy wordiness of Anglican protestantism, is awkward and ill-fitting for speakers from other faiths, let alone for secularists. The whole notion of a slick, three-minute 'comment' on the day's news is grounded in a cosy established-churchiness at which the C of E excels (think Alan Bennett's vicar in Beyond the Fringe, or Spike Milligan's 'Epilogue' on the football results), but which is alien to many other traditions.

As I've mentioned before, Lisa Jardine's Sunday morning Point of View pieces on Radio 4 have demonstrated that it's possible to produce brief but intelligent commentary on current affairs without ever mentioning the f-word (faith, I mean) - or atheism, for that matter. And with David Attenborough set to take over Alistair Cooke's old slot, we might be in for more of the same. If secularists and humanists are to get a fair hearing in the media, this has to be the way forward - doing it on their own terms, and not getting caught up in the sterile old belief versus unbelief debate.

Finally - I'm not a great Steve Bell fan, but I quite liked his cartoon of the prayer breakfast, inspired by da Vinci's 'Last Supper'. I may be mistaken - but isn't that a pictorial representation of a certain unrepresentable religious figure in the left-hand corner (the animal is saying, 'Don't have a cow, Mo')? Has the Guardian, usually nervous about offending the faithful, become uncharacteristically emboldened, or is this a sub-editorial oversight?

Another response to Giles Fraser from Tim Stephenson here. I still think it's a waste of time arguing for greater humanist representation on a slot that's designed for quick, bland sermonising. Better to abolish it and start over.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

The 'anti' party

Across the Channel there's a lot of excitement about a new far let party, led by photogenic postman Olivier Besancenot. Formed out of the ashes of the Revolutionary Communist League, the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) has attracted support from young anti-globalisation protestors as well as some older communists.

By constructing its identity around a rejection of capitalism, but explicitly not adopting a communist programme, the new party has made clear what it is against but is rather more vague about what it's for. I suppose we should be grateful that the French far left is no longer advocating Stalinist democratic centralism. But reading about the NPA reminded me of all those interviews in the NME during the punk era, when bands defined themselves by listing what they hated (disco, heavy metal, western civilisation...).

In other words, like the anti-globalisation movement itself, the New Anticapitalist Party sounds a tiny bit adolescent. If you're going to offer yourself as an alternative government (not that there's much chance of the NPA coming to power any time soon), you need to let people know what you'd put in place of all those nasty things that you're 'anti'. Juvenile oppositionism has long been the bane of left politics: it doesn't sound like Besancenot's new party has broken free of it. 

Friday, 6 February 2009

Go fourth!

Who woulda thunk it. Two of New Labour's swaggering big hitters reborn as cuddly bloggers. I've had some harsh words for Gordon Brown over the past year, but I hate the creeping apathy that thinks it's 'time for a change' and the other lot 'couldn't be any worse'. You think? So support John's and Alastair's campaign, and have fun following Prezzer on Twitter.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Misinterpreting Obama's overture to Muslims

Chas quotes Charles Krauthammer on why President Obama shouldn't apologise to the Muslim world. I agree with much of what Krauthammer says, including his assertion that, in the past 20 years, the US 'has done more for suffering and oppressed Muslims than any nation, Muslim or non-Muslim, anywhere on earth': even if we leave to one side the liberation of Iraq and Afghanistan, think Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait. Not to mention Americans' general spirit of restraint and tolerance after the events of September 11th 2001:

George Bush went to the Islamic Center in Washington six days after 9/11, when the fires of Ground Zero were still smoldering, to declare 'Islam is peace', to extend fellowship and friendship to Muslims, to insist that Americans treat them with respect and generosity of spirit.

And America listened. In these seven years since 9/11 - seven years during which thousands of Muslims rioted all over the world (resulting in the death of more than 100) to avenge a bunch of cartoons - there's not been a single anti-Muslim riot in the United States to avenge the greatest massacre in US history. On the contrary, in its aftermath, we elected our first Muslim member of Congress and our first president of Muslim parentage.

But I disagree with Krauthammer's (and Chas') claim that Obama's overture to the Muslim world has been 'defensive and apologetic'. It was Ahmadinejad who demanded an apology from America: what the new US president actually offered in his inaugural speech was 'a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect'. And he coupled it with this:

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.

This should be enough to puncture Krauthammer's criticism of Obama's 'self-inflation as redeemer of US-Muslim relations' as well as his sneer that the president is engaging in 'gratuitous disparagement of the country he is now privileged to lead'.

Like other anti-totalitarian progressives, I'm still waiting nervously to see how Obama's foreign policy will shape up. At this early stage, and given the deliberate pragmatism and centrism of his statements so far, I'm prepared to give the President the benefit of the doubt. But after less than two weeks of the new administration, it sounds like some conservatives have already made up their minds...

Attenborough on Darwin

I've just taken Oliver's advice and watched David Attenborough's film about Darwin, which I missed at the weekend, via the BBC iPlayer. It's a great piece of television, culminating in an explanation of the theory of evolution that even scientific ignoramuses like me can understand. 

Like Oliver, I've been frustrated by the way that arguments about 'intelligent design' have dominated coverage of the Darwin anniversary. I heard Attenborough interviewed twice on BBC radio about the programme, and on both occasions the interviewer seemed more concerned with his (lack of) religious beliefs than with the content of the film. Taken together with recent suggestions that schools should teach creationism alongside evolution, it makes you wonder how far we've really progressed in the 150 years since The Origin of Species was published...


If you liked this (and I know you did) and you like this place, then you'll love this.

Mixed picture for women in Iraqi elections

Following on from this post about the dire state of women's rights in Iraq, some accounts of last week's provincial elections have suggested a more hopeful picture, with religious parties losing ground, and more women candidates standing than ever before. This report from MSNBC was one of many to put a generally upbeat slant on the prospects for Iraqi women:

A more complex picture is presented by this Guardian report, which cites threats to female candidates and suggests that some women were pressurised to stand in order to fulfil a quota. And it's pretty depressing that women running for office in these elections felt they had to wear a veil in order to gain acceptance: though even that, it seems, was not enough to prevent many of them having their campaign posters torn down or defaced.

More optimism - from Max. I hope he's right.

Lowering the tone

Is that your stimulus package or are you just pleased to see me?

Monday, 2 February 2009

So sorry

Remember that demand from Ahmadinejad, that America should apologise for its 'crimes' against Iran before normal relations could be re-established between the two countries? Well, apparently it's been tried before -  twice (via) .President Obama might want to reflect on how productive those earlier exercises in national self-abasement were, before composing his 'sorry' letter to Mahmoud. No word yet on whether the Iranian regime plans to apologise for the US embassy hostages, subverting the new democracy in Iraq, or its many crimes against its own people...

A forgotten hero?

A belated link to a Holocaust Memorial Day tribute , over at Cafe Turco, to Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, who in 1940 saved the lives of more than 10,000 Jews fleeing the Nazis, by arranging their safe passage to his home country, at great personal cost. I hadn't heard of Mendes before, and I would think his story is little known in the English-speaking world. Sarah's post includes a clip from a dramatisation of the Mendes story, which lifts the spirits, as well as being a salutary reminder, especially in these days of renascent antisemitism

I seem to remember reading in a Paul Auster story that Portugal was something of a safe haven for Jews escaping Nazi persecution, but this doesn't quite compute with my mental image of Salazar's regime. Perhaps someone who knows more about these things can enlighten me.