Friday 29 June 2007

Anarchy at the Guggenheim

The Edward Carpenter anniversary provides me with an extremely tangential excuse for yet another mention of our recent visit to New York. If you own the Gay Men’s Press edition of Carpenter’s prose poem Towards Democracy, you may have wondered about the provenance of this painting on the cover:

It’s ‘Il Quarto Stato’ (The Fourth Estate) by Italian painter Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo (not da Volpe, as it says on the book). While in New York we visited the Guggenheim and saw the exhibition 'Arcadia and Anarchy: Divisionism and Neo-Impressionism'. Apparently the Divisionists (who included da Volpedo) were mostly northern Italian painters, working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many of whom espoused anarchist and socialist ideas. The exhibition, which runs until 9th August, offers a fascinating insight into way in which politics, ideas and art came together during that turbulent period.
The exhibition is one of the few things you can actually see right now at the Guggenheim: the usually stunning exterior of the building is covered up for renovation, while most of the panels on the famous sloping walkways inside are empty.

Thursday 28 June 2007

Remembering a socialist hero

I conceive a millenium on earth - a millenium not of riches, nor of mechanical facilities, nor of intellectual facilities, nor absolutely of immunity from disease, nor absolutely of immunity from pain; but a time when men and women from all over the earth shall ascend and enter into relation with their bodies - shall attain freedom and joy....

Of that which exists in the Soul, political freedom and institutions of equality, and so forth, are but the shadows (necessarily thrown); and Democracy in States and Constitutions but the shadow of that which first expresses itself in the glance of the eye or the appearance of the skin...

The words of Edward Carpenter - poet, socialist, gay rights champion, pacifist, environmentalist - and Victorian - who died 78 years ago today (via Virtual Stoa's Dead Socialist Watch).

See here for more information Carpenter, his works and ideas.

The lost consonants of David Miliband

Norm celebrates the appointment of the first blogging Foreign Secretary. I'm a huge admirer of young Miliband and think he has the potential to be a great Labour leader when Gordon eventually retires to Kirkcaldy.

There's only one thing I find irritating about him, and that's his habit (copied from his mentor Tony Blair) of affecting an Estuarian tinge to his otherwise copybook RP/Oxbridge accent. This manifests itself most obviously in what we might call 'the nob's glottal stop.' Some years ago, The New Statesman ran a regular feature on 'the nob's pronoun': public figures saying things like 'He told my wife and I' - which were intended to sound extremely correct but were in fact deeply ungrammatical.

The nob's glottal stop has the opposite intention: of making middle-class speakers sound like 'ordinary' folk. So we get hyper-educated politicans like Blair and Miliband talking about the repor' they've just read - all righ'? I think it irritates me because I find middle-class people pretending to be working-class affected and patronising, and perhaps because (coming from a working-class background) I spent my childhood being told not to speak like that, if I wanted to get on. If I had to try hard to speak proper, why shouldn't they?

It's interesting how different forms of 'slang' have political connotations. In left-wing circles, if you want to come over as sufficiently grassroots, you just have to talk about the Labour Par'y (middle consonant absolutely forbidden). The Tory equivalent is the saloon bar slurring of the 't' into something like a 'd' sound, as in 'Thadd'll teach Blair a lesson'.

A long time ago Private Eye ran a spoof campaign to restore the missing 'n' in Roald Dahl's name. I think we need a campaign to restore David Miliband's lost consonants.

Wednesday 27 June 2007

Arcade Fire wake up Glastonbury for one ageing rock fan

I didn't watch much of the BBC's Glastonbury coverage last weekend. I don't think I'm part of the intended demographic (but then again: I'm about the same age as Paul Weller, ten years younger than the surviving members of The Who, and Shirley Bassey's only a few years younger than my Mum...)

But I did see (most of) the Arcade Fire's set. I thought they struggled to recreate the richness and breadth of their usual sound against the backdrop of mud and rain, but the finale version of 'Wake Up' (which I missed, but caught up with later thanks to Youtube) was tremendous.

Watch and be amazed:

Which 'West Wing' character are you?

No West Wing obsessive will be able to resist this quiz, which assesses your similarity to characters from the much-missed show. And I can't resist sharing my result with you:

(Via the DSTs)

Thank you Tony dot com

So that's it then, he's gone. Perhaps the ex-PM can take comfort from the fact that, despite the mostly grudging farewells here at home, he'll be sorely missed on the other side of the pond. The BBC's Matt Frei reports on US dismay at his departure - 'America simply cannot get its head around the fratricide of Brother Tony in his own country' - and links to, a website dedicated to the great man which is petitioning for him to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Tuesday 26 June 2007

An unwillingness to call things by their true name

The Drink Soaked Trots offer a useful analysis of Ian Buruma's article in today's Guardian, in which he uses sweeping generalisations to dismiss those who voice concerns about the threat posed by Islamism.

In one of my first posts on this blog, I explored the curious tendency among some 'liberal' Christian commentators (Bunting, Armstrong, Dalrymple, Odone et al) to offer apologies for Islamic fundamentalism. I saw this habit as rooted in a combination of 'post-missionary' guilt, misguided ecumenism, solidarity in the face of perceived secularist pressure, and an unconscious fascination with and envy of the 'Other' of Islam.

Buruma's article is an example of a parallel tendency among some faux-liberal secular commentators. They'll go to any lengths to avoid direct criticism of Islam or Islamism: this usually means the old trick of changing the subject to western foreign policy or (as in Buruma's piece) the shortcomings of the neoconservatives. As with their liberal Christian counterparts, it's as though head-on criticism of Islamism would be such a huge challenge to the deep structures of their worldview, that it's got to be avoided at all costs. Buruma's column today can be seen as part of this strategy of avoidance: you can almost hear the sighs of relief as Guardian readers come to the end - 'Phew! That means we don't have to be critical of Islam and can go on condemning the west instead.'

Coincidentally, David Thompson today provides an extract from a recent lecture by Salman Rushdie in which he describes the climate of intimidation that surrounded the Danish cartoons affair. Rushdie talks about the 'curious climate that we’re living in, where people are falling over backwards not to name the phenomenon that’s taking place, which is a progressive intimidation of the world in which we live' and the way in which 'things that we value a great deal are being eroded by this kind of intimidation and cowardice, and by an unwillingness to call things by their true name.'

Extremist groups linked to 'honour' killings

There are links between some cases of 'honour' killing in Britain and extreme Islamist groups, according to a BBC investigation. No great surprise there. What's worrying is that such crimes can't be dismissed as the last vestiges of a dying 'traditional' culture. Nazir Afzal, the Crown Prosecution Service's national lead on honour crime told the BBC that violence of this kind was not confined to father and grandfathers but was also carried out by younger relations:

'You have a second generation youth who have an exaggerated concept of what home is like,' he said. 'They get their identity and their ethnicity from these traditions. We know they are bizarre and outdated but they get their identity from those traditions and they feel very strongly that how you treat your women is a demonstration of your commitment to radicalism and extremist thought.'

I'm waiting for the first person to blame it all on British foreign policy.

Monday 25 June 2007

We don't need no...subjects?

Norm and Shuggy have fun with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's plans to 'scrap the traditional timetable in favour of cross-curricular topics'. It's difficult to take seriously educationalists, such as Mick Waters, the QCA's curriculum director, who use this kind of language: 'The challenge for schools is to create a nourishing and appetising feast that will sustain learners and meet their needs.' Rule of thumb: never trust anyone who uses the term 'learners' when they mean students or pupils.

The agenda behind this kind of talk, and behind all schemes to do away with the so-called tyranny of subjects, is ultimately anti-educational. Why is it always left to right-wing commentators (in the case of the Times article, a professor from the private Buckingham University) to criticise this kind of thing, when the outcome will almost certainly be pupils in private schools (unhindered by this kind of experimentation) continuing to soar ahead of their state school counterparts, imprisoned in a cycle of low academic aspirations? As I've said before, the radical case for education as a process of enabling students to engage with the breadth of human knowledge and culture needs to be restated: Antonio Gramsci, thou shouldst be living at this hour.

Studio 60: slight delay

Looks like West Wing/Aaron Sorkin fans in the UK will have to wait just a little bit longer for new series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Wikipedia no longer has 30 June as the start date (it has 'TBC' instead), while the website for More 4 (where the series seems to have migrated from its originally-intended home on E4) continues to frustrate by including lots of nice cast photos but no transmission dates. Be thankful then for the Cult TV website, which 'exclusively' announces that the first episode will be broadcast at 10 pm on Thursday 26 July.

Further to this post: not all reviewers have been as enthusiastic as I was about that other new US import, Brothers and Sisters. Kathryn Flett in The Observer thought it felt too much like 'return to thirtysomething'. But that's exactly why we Sorkin aficionados love it. Talking of which: yesterday's paper also ran an interview with Ken Olin and a 'where are they now' feature on the thirtysomething cast. Has it really been twenty years...?

Farewell Tony Blair from your friends at The Guardian

So, imagine you edit the Comment & Debate pages of the UK's leading left-of-centre newspaper, and it's the day after Labour's most successful Prime Minister has stepped down from 13 years as party leader. Who do you call on to write the balanced and in-depth analysis of his time in office that you need for your main column? Why, of course: a cantankerous Tory journalist whose book on the man is subtitled 'Blair's disastrous premiership' and who can't find a positive word to say about him. But then, if your past editorial choices have included asking a notorious Islamist and Hamas spokesman to write about Iraq, and an apologist for the Iranian regime to comment on the kidnapped British sailors, this is par for the course. Perish the thought that you might ask genuinely liberal or progressive writers to contribute: that would be far too predictable.

And while we're on the subject of grudging reactions to Blair's departure, I see that even the man's private religious beliefs have aroused the ire of some Guardian readers. Among the mean-spirited comments on today's letters pages are the claim that his conversion to Catholicism 'will certainly harm relations with Muslims' and even the suggestion that 'if Tony Blair really wanted to do good, he would convert to Islam' . Whaaaa?

Rushdie: tide turning (or maybe not)

Making a refreshing change from the mean-spirited reactions in last week's Guardian, yesterday's edition of its sister paper, The Observer contained two incisive articles on the affair, one by Nick Cohen and the other by Andrew Anthony. Cohen condemns 'the unholy alliance that damns Rushdie' while Anthony believes Sir Salman is 'a godsend to literature and free speech'. Perhaps, as Mick Hartley suggests with regard to another Nick Cohen piece, the message is getting through and the tide is turning.

Or then again, perhaps not. The Drink Soaked Trots report an appalling interview given by the ludicrous Lord Ahmed to French television, in which he compares Rushdie to Holocaust denier David Irving. Ahmed is quoted as saying: 'Say for instance, the man who was refusing to acknowledge Holocaust in Austria and who was sentenced to prison, say if he was knighted, just tell me how our Jewish friends would feel?' There's a distasteful echo here of the 'holocaust cartoon' campaign run by an Iranian newspaper as a reaction to the publication of the Danish cartoons. How often does it have to be pointed out that poking fun at someone's beliefs isn't quite on the same scale as denying genocide? Lord Ahmed is a one-man argument (if one were needed) for abolishing the unelected House of Lords.

In praise of Radio 5 Live

A word of praise for Radio 5 Live's coverage of the Labour leadership handover yesterday. Julian Worricker was based in Manchester for the event and his programme moved effortlessly from intelligent discussion of the deputy leadership contest, to an absorbing report on the regeneration of Manchester city centre, and then to the current uncertainties over the ownership/management of Manchester City.

The programme, like much of Radio 5's output, demonstrated that continuous news coverage doesn't have to consist of inane timefilling and repetition (BBC News 24 take note), and that a regionally-based show needn't be patronising or superficial about life outside London. It's worth singling out the channel for praise, as there's often a residual snobbery towards it: I remember hearing Jenni Murray on Radio 4 wondering whether it represented a 'dumbing down' of current affairs coverage. I don't think she can have been listening properly. Personally, I've usually found Radio 5's coverage of key political events serious, professional and well-informed, in contrast to the often tendentious, whimsical and summary treatment they receive on Radio 4 programmes like Today.

And I think Simon Mayo is arguably the best presenter and interviewer the UK has right now. Thank goodness for his weekday afternoon show, which has rescued me from the wasteland that is Radio 4 drama on many a car journey. Mayo's Friday afternoon film review slot with Mark Kermode is a regular highlight, and his book and TV shows also manage to be both intelligent and popular. That's the other advantage that Radio 5 has over Radio 4: it understands popular culture and takes it seriously. The Today programme's recent forays into covering contemporary music, by contrast, have been generally embarrassing.

I write all this as someone who was brought up on Radio 4 and still has his radio tuned by default to 198 long wave. But whenever it's time for Thought for the Day, the Daily Service or The Archers, or the announcer proclaims those words to make the heart sink - 'And now for a brand new Radio 4 comedy series..' (see Pootergeek on this), I give thanks for Radio 5 Live.

Friday 22 June 2007

Chastity band banned

Following last year's furore over British Airways staff being forbidden to wear crucifixes, it seems a 16 year old Christian girl is taking her school to court for not letting her wear a 'purity' or chastity ring. Apparently the rings look like this:

(via Wikipedia).

It seems like a lot of fuss over not very much, and you wonder whether the school couldn't have saved itself some unnecessary bother by being just a bit more laid back about its uniform policy. And you can't help thinking that this is a case in which liberal-minded teachers might have been a tad influenced by their own beliefs. Would they have been quite so hostile if a pupil had come into school wearing a 'Make Poverty History' bracelet? As Shuggy said the other day about teachers calling for a ban on army recruitment in schools, even if it's true that most teachers are pacifists 'it isn't our job to make the pupils replicas of ourselves.'

The worst thing about cases like these is that they fuel a sense of victimhood among religious groups and feed their delusions about creeping secularism. Apparently the young woman in question is arguing that the ban breaches her right to express her religious beliefs under Article 9 of the Human Rights Act, and her father is quoted as saying: 'I think an important principle is at stake here, I think Christians should be respected for their views and beliefs' (see here and here on the question of faith groups demanding 'respect').

There's a genuine debate to be had, though, about the school as a secular space and how this should be expressed. In France, as the recent headscarf row demonstrated, the position is clear: it means a complete ban on all religious clothing and insignia. In the UK, with our policy of 'multi-faith' (rather than genuinely secular or faith-neutral) education, we're more confused. It appears that the school in this case 'allows Muslim and Sikh students to wear headscarves and religious bracelets'.

It needs to be one thing or the other: either allow the physical expression of any religious (or non-religious) belief, or ban the lot.

More tunnel vision from The Guardian

They're at it again. Today's Guardian has Jonathan Steele in full-blown conspiracy-theory mode, suggesting the recent Hamas revolt was (what else?) a US plot. His headline runs: 'Hamas acted on a very real fear of a US-sponsored coup' , followed by this subheading: 'Washington's fingerprints are all over the chaos that has hit Palestinians.'

For an alternative account, see Michael Hirst's article in this week's Tablet, in which he sees recent events as part of a strategy by al-Qaeda, Syria and Iran to destabilize Israel. According to Hirst:

Hamas, which signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran last June, makes no secret of the fact that it now receives most of its financial (some £400 million, analysts suggest) and military support from Tehran. Colonel Bahaa Balusha, the Fatah-loyal head of Palestinian intelligence in Gaza who fled to Ramallah as war raged across the strip, believes the takeover by Hamas last week was carried out under orders from Iran. He said that Fatah's forces had been outgunned with Iranian-supplied state-of-the-art artillery supplied by Hamas fighters, who were working on 'an Iranian agenda' that involved a wider conflict in the region.

Hirst also describes the part played by Iran and Syria in the arming and training of Hezbollah , as well as the infiltration of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon by al-Qaeda-linked groups associated with the Iraqi insurgency.

Of course, you won't read about any of this in Steele's article, or anywhere else in The Guardian, which seems stuck in the pseudo-leftist mindset described so well by Danny Postel, in which all events are viewed through the prism of anti-imperialism and, whatever happens, America must be to blame. As Postel says:

Anti-imperialism can turn into a kind of tunnel vision, its own form of fundamentalism. Cases that fall outside its scheme simply get left out, and our solidarity with struggles around the world is determined by George Bush, rather than by our principles.

Thursday 21 June 2007

Implicit racism in talk of 'provoking' Muslims

Apologies for posting about the Sir Salman affair yet again, but it's turning into one of those issues that throw some worrying trends in current political 'commonsense' into sharp relief.

Following on from this post, Ophelia Benson is also rightly contemptuous of Bunglawala's half-hearted retraction. I came across this via Shuggy who also links to some other useful stuff, including Richard Chappell's philosophical take on how all the talk about 'provoking' Muslims disrespects them by denying them agency. This is something I've posted about before (here and here for example), but whereas I've been cautious about analysing the mindset behind this tendency, Chappell has no qualms about describing it as 'soft bigotry' while Shuggy calls it 'soft racism'.

I think they're right - and it's only 'soft' in the sense that it's implicit rather than openly stated. It's ironic that those who see the outrages of political Islam simply as a 'reaction' to the sins of western imperialism are themselves guilty of a patronising attitude to Muslims that reeks of colonialism.

Yet another predictable Guardian column

The Guardian's comment columns now follow such a predictable pattern, you could almost write them yourself. Iran kidnaps British sailors? It's our own fault for supporting the Shah three decades ago. Sectarian gangs are murdering each other in Iraq? Washington must be encouraging them. Insurgency in Afghanistan? Blame the British empire.

So, after the bloody Hamas coup in Gaza, it was probably foolish to hope for a comment column that actually attributed responsibility to any of the main parties involved, or to their backers in neighbouring Arab and Islamic states. Instead we get this wearily predictable headline over today's article by Soumaya Ghannoushi - 'The west has created fertile ground for al-Qaida's growth' - followed by the usual attempt to pin the blame for events in Gaza on America and Europe and to sidestep any condemnation of the ideas or methods of fundamentalist political Islam.

As with these negative columns on the Rushdie knighthood, The Guardian probably thinks it's being terribly radical in commissioning this kind of thing, enabling marginalised voices to challenge received wisdom, etc. The problem is: these views are not marginal but part of a stale pseudo-left orthodoxy that is rarely challenged in the newspaper's pages.

New US TV show passes first episode test

We watched the first episode of latest US import Brothers and Sisters last night (second episode recorded for later). It was an impressive opening: the interwoven lives and relationships of the main characters were introduced skilfully and without too much directorial sleight of hand. The cast is impressive too. In an ensemble performance such as this, it's invidious to single out individual actors, but I thought Rachel Griffiths' performance as 'working mum' Sarah was particularly striking. At times her character and story brought back memories of that other icon of fraught domesticity, Hope in thirtysomething - but that's not surprising, considering that Ken Olin, who played Hope's husband Michael in that series, is an executive producer for the new show. The complex mother-daughter relationship between Sally Field's and Calista Flockhart's characters was also well set up.

This was genuinely 'grown up' television, managing to interweave personal dramas with contemporary political issues (9/11, Afghanistan, conservative chat-shows) in a way that wasn't tokenistic or clunkingly obvious.

Wednesday 20 June 2007

I'm beginning to see the light...

Despite the many statements in support of Salman Rushdie's knighthood elsewhere in the media, The Guardian is obviously having great difficulty finding a columnist who's generous enough to wholeheartedly welcome the move. After Priyamvada Gopal's mean-spirited response the other day, today sees Inayat 'I-was-a-teenage-bookburner' Bunglawala sort-of-retracting his former hostility to Rushdie (background info: Bunglawala is Assistant Secretary-General at the Muslim Council of Britain).

The change of heart expressed here is obviously welcome, if long overdue:

Looking back now on those events I will readily acknowledge that we were wrong to have called for the book to be banned. Today I can certainly better appreciate the concerns and fear generated by the images of book-burning in Bradford and the calls for the author to be killed....

In the intervening years I have managed to travel to Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey and elsewhere and it is always with a sense of warmth that I return to the UK. Our detractors had been right. The freedom to offend is a necessary freedom. Moreover, Islam has flourished wherever there has been a free atmosphere. I continue to strongly disagree with the way Rushdie caricatured early Islamic heroes of mine, but banning the book was not the answer.

The trouble is, this retraction appears in the context of a nostalgic recollection of those days of youthful protest, which at times verges on retrospective self-justification:

We were a tiny minority and in the mainstream British newspapers had no voice whatsoever, while our detractors had column after column of newsprint to disparage us and our 'backward' ways. We were utterly powerless.

So on February 14 1989, when the Iranian Islamic leader, Imam Khomeini delivered his fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie's death, I was truly elated. It was a very welcome reminder that British Muslims did not have to regard themselves just as a small, vulnerable minority; they were part of a truly global and powerful movement. If we were not treated with respect then we were capable of forcing others to respect us. I remember taking part in the large demonstration in Hyde Park that summer. It was an amazing day. There was an increasing realisation that by giving greater importance to our Islamic identity we could transcend and overcome the narrow sectarian and tribal divides that were widespread among us.

Well, that's all right then: the protests may have led to the murder of a translator and a British author spending years in hiding, but at least they brought people together. And while he's in a retracting mood, does Bunglawala still think it's OK to 'force others to respect us' with threats and fatwas ? Finally, Bunglawala expresses 'gratitude' to Rushdie for 'bringing me closer to faith': I'm sure Sir Salman will be chuffed.

[On the subject of 'respect', see this post from Oliver Kamm. Here's a taster: 'I do not respect Islam (or any religious faith). All I will insist upon as a matter of right for Muslims (or Christians, Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists) is religious liberty. Beyond that, they have no claim. They are not entitled to my respect. As a mere lobby group, they have no right to be listened to, let alone taken seriously, on matters of public policy.']

Like Gopal, Bunglawala can't resist a final dig at Rushdie for his stand in the war on terror: 'For the record, Rushdie's support for Bush's invasion of Iraq only helped underline why I think he is pompous, heartless and self-regarding.' At the risk of repeating myself, let me quote again from Lisa Appignanesi's Guardian letter:

During the dark years of the Fatwa, Rushdie lent his fame to help less well-known writers around the world who suffered similar fates or found themselves persecuted either by states or religious hierarchies for their work...Rushdie's 'services to literature' also extend to a singular generosity in helping young, and particularly Asian, writers make their way in what is often a difficult literary marketplace.

Pompous? Heartless? Self-regarding? To whom do you think these epithets better apply: an author who despite real threats to his life and liberty has continued to take a public stand in support of freedom of expression, or a half-repentant Islamist whose 'faith' was forged in a violent movement aimed at restricting that freedom?

Genuine radicals versus poseur leftists

Following on from this post about leftist excuses for authoritarian regimes (by the way, I see Tariq Ali is at it again in the latest London Review of Books - subscription required for full article - ludicrously comparing Chavez' closure of RCTV to the sacking of Greg Dyke from the BBC), Michael Weiss compares three 'faux-cialists' or poseur Marxists - Chavez, Galloway and Ali - with 'three world leaders who are actually literate in radical politics and willing to put their knowledge to good use' - Lula da Silva, Bernard Kouchner and Deputy Iraqi Prime Minister (and Kurdish socialist) Barham Salih. Weiss concludes:

Chavez, Galloway and Ali claim to stand for 'people’s democracy,' but have yet to meet an authoritarian ideal they couldn’t excuse. Thankfully, there are still those on the left around to tell them 'Not in our names.'

Michael's blog - Snarksmith ('New York gossip, art, politics, pop culture') - is also worth checking out (via Harry's Place).

Tuesday 19 June 2007

The freedom not to believe

Maryam Namazie has announced the formation of a British Council of Ex-Muslims. I'm neither pro- nor anti-Islam, but any organisation with this list of principles gets my support:

1. Universal rights and equal citizenship for all. We are opposed to cultural relativism and the tolerance of inhuman beliefs, discrimination and abuse in the name of respecting religion or culture.

2. Freedom to criticise religion. Prohibition of restrictions on unconditional freedom of criticism and expression using so-called religious 'sanctities'.

3. Freedom of religion and atheism.

4. Separation of religion from the state and legal and educational system.

5. Prohibition of religious customs, rules, ceremonies or activities that are incompatible with or infringe people's rights and freedoms.

6. Abolition of all restrictive and repressive cultural and religious customs which hinder and contradict woman's independence, free will and equality. Prohibition of segregation of sexes.

7. Prohibition of interference by any authority, family members or relatives, or official authorities in the private lives of women and men and their personal, emotional and sexual relationships and sexuality.

8. Protection of children from manipulation and abuse by religion and religious institutions.

9. Prohibition of any kind of financial, material or moral support by the state or state institutions to religion and religious activities and institutions.

10. Prohibition of all forms of religious intimidation and threats.

Some of the comments on Maryam's blog seem to suggest there's no need for the new organisation (which is based on similar groupings in other European countries), but the events of the last couple of days appear to prove otherwise. As long as individuals are afraid of the consequences if they renounce, or even dare to criticise, the religion in which they were raised, and as long as leading politicans (yes, you Lord Ahmed) and community leaders (step forward Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari) encourage a climate of intolerance, so-called 'apostates' need and deserve support.

Monday 18 June 2007

An excuse to blog about Lisbon and Portuguese culture

I've just taken delivery of the DVD of Mariza's Concerto em Lisboa, which gives me an excuse to blog about my love for Lisbon and Portuguese culture. For those who don't know, Mariza (born in Mozambique but raised in Portugal) is perhaps the leading contemporary exponent of fado, the Portuguese folk music genre characterised by mournful tunes and nostalgic lyrics. I've owned a couple of Mariza's albums for a while, but I've admired rather than felt passionately about her music: until now. I'd always heard that she was better 'live' and, though a video is not quite the same thing, you do get a sense of the power of her voice and the charm of her personality that isn't quite captured on disc. The open-air concert in Belem, with Mariza and her fado musicians supported by the swirling strings of the Sinfonietta de Lisboa, and the twinkling lights of the hills of Lisbon in the background, is spellbinding.

It brought back warm memories of our visit to Lisbon around this time last year. It's a city I'd wanted to visit since I read Jose Saramago's The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, which I still rate as one of the best novels I've ever read. Thanks to Saramago I found my way to the work of Fernando Pessoa (Ricardo Reis was one of his many 'heteronyms' ), perhaps the greatest Portuguese literary figure of the last century. Pessoa's Book of Disquiet ranks alongside Joyce's Ulysses and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past as one of the seminal works of modern fiction and, like them, one that completely re-invents the genre. Last year its English translator Robert Zenith brought out a collection of Pessoa's poetry which was a fresh revelation to non-Portuguese speakers. Also worth a mention in this context are the novels of Antonio Tabuchi, an Italian writer who has lived in Portugal for many years and writes in both Italian and Portuguese: like Saramago's book, Tabuchi's Requiem: a Hallucination imagines a ghostly Pessoa haunting the streets of Lisbon, while his detective novel Pereira Declares conjures up the claustrophobia of the city under the Salazar dictatorship.

Mention of Salazar is a reminder that Portugal suffered under a semi-fascist system for much of the twentieth century and only acquired a democratic constitution in 1976. All the more remarkable that this relatively small nation, hanging on by its fingernails to the edge of Europe and isolated from its neighbours for so many decades, should have such a rich and dynamic cultural life. To return to where I started: besides the fado revival, Lisbon has also become a vibrant musical centre where influences from Cape Verde (exemplified by the songs of Cesaria Evora and Sara Tavares) and Brazil meet and cross-pollinate with local traditions.

Lisbon didn't disappoint. Though it doesn't have the obvious attractions of some other southern European cities - no outstanding galleries or modern architectural gems, for example - it has a faded beauty which is completely captivating. It's a city that seems designed for lingering, as the locals seem to endlessly, over a coffee and a book or newspaper, whether in Pessoa's favourite Martinho da Arcada cafe or under the trees in the peaceful Largo do Carmo.

On our recent trip to New York we fell in love with the metropolis all over again and imagined what it would be like to live there...but, for all our fascination with America, visiting cities such as Lisbon reminds us that we are still, at heart, Europeans.

Obrigado, Lisboa. Ate logo.

Warm and not-so-warm welcomes for 'Sir Salman'

OK, so as a lifelong republican I'm not a great fan of our archaic honours system, but if you're going to give people knighthoods, then Sir Salman certainly deserves his. In the past Britain has been slow to honour writers, as compared to producers and directors, so I think the 'literary world' was right to welcome this development. Not everyone's happy, of course. Predictably, the Iranian government (that great friend of free, creative expression) has condemned the decision as (what else) 'Islamophobic'.

But even Priyamvada Gopal, who teaches English at Cambridge, can't bring herself to be wholeheartedly enthusiastic about this recognition for one of our leading literary figures. While acknowledging the early Rushdie's anti-colonialist credentials, Gopal believes the knighthood is the establishment's reward for the author's recent support for British and US foreign policy:

Vociferously supporting the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq on 'humane' grounds, condemning criticism of the war on terror as 'petulant anti-Americanism' and above all, aligning tyranny and violence solely with Islam, Rushdie has abdicated his own understanding of the novelist's task as 'giving the lie to official facts'.

Note the scare quotes, which close down any possibility that support for the campaign to depose the fascist Saddam or the fundamentalist Taliban might have been inspired by humanitarian motives, and note also the crude misrepresentation of Rushdie's brave stand (given the personal costs) against Islamic fundamentalism. What Gopal's blinkered view fails to grasp is the fundamental continuity between the liberal, progressive values that inspired Rushdie's early tirades against empire and his later opposition to the authoritarianism of the Islamists.


The perfect riposte to Gopal's partisan and ungenerous column is provided by this letter to The Guardian from Lisa Appignanesi:

Your front-page article on Salman Rushdie's knighthood rightly applauded his great fiction. What it failed to mention were his other 'services to literature'. During the dark years of the Fatwa, Rushdie lent his fame to help less well-known writers around the world who suffered similar fates or found themselves persecuted either by states or religious hierarchies for their work. As a vice-president of English Pen, the world association of writers, and for some years president of American Pen, he worked indefatigably for the cause of free expression, joining with us here to combat the worst excesses of the government's 'religious hatred' legislation. Perhaps in awarding him this honour, the government has also come to recognise the crucial importance of a freedom which underpins so many others.

Rushdie's 'services to literature' also extend to a singular generosity in helping young, and particularly Asian, writers make their way in what is often a difficult literary marketplace.

Further update

Now that other bastion of cultural free expression, the lower house of the Pakistani parliament, has joined in, passing a resolution condeming the award of a knighthood to Rushdie. According to no less a personage than the country's religious affairs minister, Mohammed Ijaz ul-Haq, has said: 'This is an occasion for the (world's) 1.5 billion Muslims to look at the seriousness of this decision.' After last year's furore over the Danish cartoons, I think we know what that means. In case there's any doubt, the minister went on:

The West is accusing Muslims of extremism and terrorism. If someone exploded a bomb on his body, he would be right to do so unless the British government apologizes and withdraws the 'sir' title.

If people like ul-Haq and the government of Iran are against this honour for Rushdie, then it must be right.

Final update (I promise)

Both Norman Geras and David Thompson have incisive things to say about this whole business.

Saturday 16 June 2007

Is the West 'Christianophobic'?

I'm usually a great supporter of the work of the United Nations, but for the second time this week I find myself irritated by a UN spokesman's tendency to shift the blame and ignore the obvious. This time it's Dr. Doudou Diena, who according to The Tablet (subscription required), is the UN's Special Rapporteur on 'contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.' In a speech this week he warned of the alarming spread of something called 'Christianophobia' .

While he acknowledged that Christians in non-western countries, such as Nigeria, were facing hostility, Dr. Diena (who is Senegalese) argued that anti-Christian feeling had achieved its 'deepest ideological expression' in the west: 'It’s here in Europe that there’s suspicion towards religious practices, as well as a rise in intolerance expressed by the slow marginalisation of citizens who confess any faith'. Like others before him, Diena appears to blame the onward march of 'secularism' for this problem.

Now, if you had to name the countries in the world where it's most dangerous to be a practising Christian, would you automatically think of Europe and America? Surely not: in addition to Nigeria, you'd probably come up with Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan. And if you were asked in which countries Christians - and believers of other faiths - enjoy the greatest freedom of belief and practice, you'd have to include the US, and probably most of the countries of western Europe. Now ask yourself what the former have in common (answer: a political system that privileges one religion - Islam - and tends towards intolerance of others) and then what the latter nations share (answer: mostly secular constitutions and some degree of separation of church and state).

As well as ignoring the real persecution of Christians - and other minority faiths - in non-western states, Dr. Diena is also guilty of a fundamental confusion between intolerance and open debate. That's the problem with concepts like 'Christianophobia' and 'Islamophobia': they suggest that religious believers not only have the right to freedom of belief (which they do) but also to freedom from criticism.

'Enlightenment fundamentalism' and moral equivalence

There's a nice piece by Julie Szego in The Age about Ayaan Hirsi Ali's recent visit to Australia, which deftly skewers the hypocrisy of many on the left in their reaction to Ali's critique of Islam. Szego is especially critical of Timothy Garton Ash's dismissal of Ali as ' a brave, outspoken, slightly simplistic Enlightenment fundamentalist'. I like Szego's response:

The term 'enlightenment fundamentalist' has a chilling quality. It makes everything — reason, tolerance, the entire 18th-century legacy — seem negotiable. The logic seemed to imply that Ali, who pursues her cause through reason alone, is the moral equivalent of those who seek to kill her.

I came across this article on another blog, but unfortunately I've forgotten which one, so can't give credit. Apologies for this lapse in blogging manners.

Friday 15 June 2007

Not just for some, but for everyone

There's a worrying trend emerging among leftist apologists for authoritarian regimes and movements. Apparently it's OK to limit basic freedoms if you can show that those freedoms are enjoyed mainly by an 'elite'.

Richard Gott used this argument the other day in The Guardian, suggesting that it was all right for Venezualan leader Hugo Chavez to close down a TV station because it not only supported anti-Chavez forces but was also apparently unrepresentative of the class and ethnic make-up of the country (hmm...perhaps there's case for getting rid of Radio 4 then...?). In today's Guardian, Jonathan Steele accuses Turkey's secularist movement of representing the middle and upper classes and of demonstrating 'class prejudice' in their fears of creeping Islamisation.

These appeals to class interest are a neat way of dismissing concerns about infringements of human rights, without having to engage with the substance of those concerns. It's becoming a familiar side-step, which enables commentators to avoid committing themselves. Does Gott believe in the freedom of the media to express views that might be uncomfortable for the government, even if that government is 'progressive'? And does Steele support the campaign to keep Turkey a secular and pluralist society? I think we should be told.

Islamists seize Gaza: West to blame

What's happening in Gaza and the West Bank is appalling, not only for the Palestinians caught in the middle of the fighting, but also for any hopes of a stable, secular Palestinian state. Apportioning blame for the current mess is complicated, but some think it's simple: it's all the fault of America and the west. Although UN diplomat Alvoro de Soto did mention Hamas' 'abominable' charter, its links to Iran and its policy of suicide attacks on civilians, it was American policy that he highlighted in his recent report, and it was this that yesterday's Guardian leader chose to focus on, as did the same day's Channel 4 News.

Undoubtedly the current US administration (unlike its predecessor) has made little effort to advance Middle East peace, but is that laziness really the main cause of the current bloodshed between Fatah and Hamas? The Guardian blamed the boycott of Hamas by western nations, and Jon Snow on Channel 4 trotted out the familiar line about America and Europe ignoring the democratic will of the Palestinian people. But what were they supposed to do, faced with the election of a faction that spouts racist rhetoric and directly sponsors mass murder? I know the Nazi-Islamist analogy has been overused, but isn't this rather like saying that Britain should have had dealings with Hitler as this would have been honouring the democratic wishes of the German people?

Once again, this eagerness to blame the west, rather than the actual perpetrators of violence, is a denial of the agency of forces in the Arab and Muslim world: in this instance, the active encouragement of Islamist movements such as Hamas by countries like Iran and Syria.

Update: Saturday 16 June

Now the BBC has joined in. I've just heard the 10 a.m. news headlines on Radio 4. After a brief report on the current situation in Gaza, a British MEP (Chris Smith - who he? some kind of Middle East expert?) was given space to blame the whole thing on the EU, the 'Quartet' and Israel. No challenge, no dissenting voices, and once again absolute silence on the responsibility of the actual warring parties, or those countries that have armed and encouraged at least one of them.

Misery lit: I just don't get it

I was in our local branch of W.H.Smiths this morning and noticed that they now have three whole shelves devoted to the genre of 'Tragic life stories'. Coincidentally, today's Guardian has a feature by Esther Addley on the rise of 'misery lit'. This is one cultural phenomenon that I really don't get. Who reads this stuff - and what kind of pleasure or stimulation do they derive from these tales of unrelenting childhood suffering?

Even more astonishing than seeing row after row of these books, with their pale covers and pictures of wide-eyed tearful children, was noticing that John Cornwell's Seminary Boy and Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel had been shelved under this new category. Are these really 'tragic life stories'?

Homeopathy update

I promised to provide regular updates on my encounter with homeopathy. Well, I had my first appointment this week and apparently I'm a 'phosphorus' personality. Normally I'm extremely sceptical of any talk of psychological types - whether astrological or pseudo-scientific, as in Myers-Briggs and the like - but some of this is perhaps just a little bit like me:

Tall, slender persons, narrow chested, with thin, transparent skin, weakened by loss of animal fluids, with great nervous debility, emaciation, amative tendencies, seem to be under the special influence of Phosphorus. Great susceptibility to external impressions, to light, sound, odors, touch, electrical changes, thunder-storms.

Or maybe I'm fooling myself. Anyway, I've taken my first dose of phosphorus and await results...

Thursday 14 June 2007

Two new TV series with 'West Wing' connexions

Following on from these posts, it seems that the arrival of Aaron Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on UK television may be a mere fortnight away. Getting reliable information from the Channel 4 website about anything other than Big Brother is extremely frustrating (try typing 'Studio 60' into their search box and you'll get zilch), but Wikipedia has the first episode airing on Saturday 30th June at 9 pm.

As mentioned before, the new programme will provide some consolation for grieving West Wing fans - not only is the show written by Sorkin, but it stars WW regulars Bradley Whitford and Timothy Busfield. There might be further cause for celebration in the UK debut of another US series, Brothers and Sisters, which features WW star Rob Lowe (alongside other star names such as Calista Flockhart and Sally Field) and also seems to have something of a political theme. And Sorkin aficionados will be pleased to see Patricia Wettig - 'Nancy' (and Timothy Busfield's 'husband') in Sorkin's much-missed '80s drama thirtysomething - making regular appearances. (Incidentally: it seems Wettig is married to Ken Olin, another thirtysomething veteran and occasional WW episode director - and apparently their son Cliff has written episodes for the series). Once again Wikipedia has the (seemingly reliable?) details: the first episode airs on Channel 4 (though another source says E4?) next Wednesday 20th June at 8.30 pm, with a second episode following at 10 after the ubiquitous Big Brother.

Watch this space for reviews.

Academic freedom under threat in Iran

A 'relentless campaign by the leaders of the Islamic Republic against the most basic principles of human rights'. That's what is exemplified by the detention of Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, according to the 139 academics (including many from Iran and the Middle East) who have put their names to a statement in the latest New York Review of Books. As the statement says, Esfandiari's imprisonment is not an isolated incident, but a symptom of a worrying trend in Ahmadinejad's Iran:

In recent weeks, scores of women's rights activists have been harassed, physically attacked, and detained for no greater a crime than demonstrating peacefully and circulating petitions calling for the elimination of discriminatory laws and practices. University students across the country have faced expulsion, arrest, and imprisonment for peacefully protesting the erosion of the administrative and academic independence of their universities.

As I've noted before, the growing restrictions on academic (and other kinds of) freedom under authoritarian regimes such as that in Iran should be an urgent cause for concern and solidarity among western scholars - rather than the organisation of boycotts against countries such as Israel where academic life is arguably the most unconstrained in the Middle East. Note, however, that the scholars writing to the NYRB refrain - rightly, in my view - from calling for a boycott of Iran, presumably because they sense that this would restrict the very freedoms which they seek to defend.

Find out more about the campaign to free Haleh here. Support the campaign to stop the UCU boycott here.

Tuesday 12 June 2007

Solidarity with 'authentic liberals' in the Arab and Muslim world

The latest issue of Democratiya is now available online and, as always, is packed with good things - among them an interview with Iranian exile Ladan Boroumand. Some time ago I recommended Danny Postel's excellent book on the renascence of interest in liberal thought among Iranian intellectuals (which Boroumand reviewed in an earlier issue of Democratiya), and the other day I quoted this from Paul Berman's recent Dissent article:

Our role should be to offer solidarity to the authentic liberals of the Arab and Muslim world, who have been horribly betrayed by American and other Western governments and even by the left-wing and liberal intellectuals of the West. How bland this program of mine sounds, when I lay the words out across the page! But this bland program of speaking about ideas and ideologies and championing the liberal thinkers has always been crucially important for the Middle East, far more important in the long run than anything achievable by military or even by diplomatic means.

One small way in which bloggers can offer this kind of solidarity is to link to the websites of 'authentic liberals', so I'll be adding a link from this blog to the excellent Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy in Iran which maintains an online record of human rights abuses in the Islamic Republic.

A composer for the New Age?

There's been a lot in the press recently about John Tavener, probably because his new piece, 'The Beautiful Names', a setting of the 99 names for Allah from the Qu'ran, is due to be performed for the first time next week in Westminster Cathedral. Charlotte Higgins interviewed the composer, whom she describes as a 'tall, etiolated, sunbaked 63-year-old with lanky shoulder-length blond hair, dressed in white linen trousers and shirt', in yesterday's Guardian.

Higgins confesses to a certain scepticism towards Tavener and all his works, which certainly colours her report. But it's difficult not to share her view of a man who seems to embody many of the most irritating features of contemporary 'faith-ism'. To begin with, there's the 'Any dream will do' approach with which we've become so familiar. Although a convert to Orthodox Christianity, Tavener now propounds 'the inner transcendent unity' of all religions, and as well as his fascination with the Sufi strain of Islam also claims to have seen visions after visiting an Apache medicine man. Then just as inevitably there's the Bunting-esque belief that the Enlightenment was a bad idea and that it's all been downhill ever since. Finally there's the secondhand Jungianism (and gender essentialism) in his declarations of faith in the 'eternal feminine' and dislike for 'masculine-oriented' modernism. Oh - and wouldn't you know it - he's a good friend of Prince Charles.

Like many others with an interest in religion and seeking an authentic contemporary spirituality, I was initially seduced by the translucent beauty of Tavener's music. But after a while I began to find its repetitive simplicity deeply unsatisfying. The one CD of his work that I own pairs his 'Protecting Veil' with a Britten cello suite. Now I'm not a great Britten fan either (though his Ceremony of Carols is always the first CD we put on in the weeks leading up to Christmas). But after the grand emotional gestures of the Tavener piece, Britten's is refreshingly unshowy and mentally engaging. What's missing from Tavener's work, but present in composers like Britten who manage somehow to be both spiritual and modern, is any engagement with the contemporary or the everyday: there's no sense of doubt or struggle. Without that, it seems to me that any hope of producing a revival of religious art (or religious belief), rather than a 'timeless' New Agey escapism, is vacuous.

Monday 11 June 2007

Republicanism: an idea whose time has come?

Following on from my last post - and Jonathan Freedland's suggestion that Britain needs a republican revolution before we can be sort out what we mean by 'Britishness' - I see that Stuart White is suggesting (in the latest Renewal) that republicanism may be the Left's 'big idea'. Though not starry-eyed about the history of actually existing republics, White argues that:

an adequate social democratic philosophy of the state should incorporate some basic republican ideas. These include the value of procedural goods in political life; the need for a wide participation of citizens in public decision-making; the importance of attending to inequality of wealth (as well as income); and a way of thinking about national identity based on republican values rather than ethnicity, religion or imperial history...the idea of grounding social democracy in a republican conception of citizenship and the state is one we urgently need to rehabilitate.

Amen to that.

Wednesday 6 June 2007

Anyone for a British Republic Day?

Government ministers trying to encourage a sense of 'Britishness' make me deeply uncomfortable (with one or two exceptions), for many of the same reasons as government ministers meddling in religion. So yesterday's proposals from Liam Byrne and Ruth Kelly for a tougher citizenship test and a 'national British day' were calculated to make me squirm.

As with the religion issue, I'm sympathetic to the underlying intentions: in this case, to reduce alienation among some migrant groups and encourage them to identify with shared national values. But there are a number of problems. Shuggy suggests a couple: that celebrating Britishness is actually rather unBritish - and that the suggestions for a national day of celebration have a predominantly English rather than UK-wide flavour. Jonathan Freedland identifies another: that the proposed citizenship test expects more of incoming migrants than we do of native-born Britons.

I'd add to this my own sense that national identity is not something that can be imposed from above, and certainly not by ministerial fiat. As Freedland says, countries that successfully celebrate their national identities, such as the US and France, tend to focus their festivities on momentous political events. I like his suggestion here:

July 4 and Bastille day are celebrated because they mark great political upheavals. We can't just skip that awkward bit and jump straight to the barbecue and bunting. No, first we have to have a political change of our own. That doesn't mean bringing out the guillotine. It could be the bloodless drafting, at long last, of our own written constitution. If such a document established a British republic, so much the better. We could even pass it into law on June 15, the same day Magna Carta was enshrined in 1215. Then make June 15 British Day - and make sure we're all invited.

A British Republic day: I'd support that.

One further point: Kelly and Byrne want to make 'volunteering' part of the package both for intending citizens, and for the populace more generally. They even suggest that student loan repayments could be reduced in return for volunteer work. This is in line with other recent trends in New Labour policy, particularly youth policy, which has shown a similar desire to micro-manage citizens' lives and encourage young people especially to be what Nikolas Rose calls 'entrepreneurs of themselves'. Questions: how can 'volunteering' be compulsory, and doesn't 'incentivising' pro-social behaviour in this way deprive it of its very essence...?

Tuesday 5 June 2007

More thoughts on governments and 'true religion'

I suppose someone reading this post on the state and religion might ask: So what do you think the state should do - nothing? I've thought a bit about this, and this is what I think governments should be saying to 'faith groups' (don't you just hate that term?):

'We don't care what you believe - that's none of our business. You're free to believe that God appeared in a burning bush, or was embodied in a man who came back from the grave, or that he gave his final revelation to a seventh-century nomad, or even that he presented the truth in a set of golden plates to a 19th century American. You're also free to believe in atheism, vegetarianism, crystals or Star Trek. We won't interfere to argue that one faith, or one version of a particular faith, is better than any other.

'All we require as your government is that you, as individuals and organisations, abide by the laws of the land, which embody the underlying principles on which our society is founded and which apply to all its members, whatever their beliefs or lack of them. So we insist that you don't preach or stir up hatred or violence, that you don't infringe the freedom of others to express their opinions even if these contradict your own, that you don't discriminate against people, for example on the basis of their gender or sexuality, and that you don't exploit or abuse the children and vulnerable people in your care. We will only intervene in your religious affairs if you contravene these laws - otherwise your faith is your own private affair.'

Of course, there are a couple of problems for any government taking this position - in Britain. One is that the state is already compromised - it already interferes in religion, showing preference to Anglicanism by allowing its bishops (but not, say, Catholic ones) to sit in the House of Lords as of right, and by funding schools run by Christians, Jews and Muslims, but not those run by Sikhs, Scientologists or socialists. The other problem is that, unlike the United States, we don't have a clear and explicit set of agreed principles on which our society is founded, and around which to unite, whatever our private religious or other beliefs. If we had a written Constitution and Bill of Rights, it would be the job of government actively to promote the principles enshrined in them, and not to go around promoting religion, however well-intentioned their efforts.

Monday 4 June 2007

A clarion call for the left

Speaking of Paul Berman, there's an excellent symposium in the latest Dissent on what can be learned from the Iraq war, and Berman's contribution is the highlight. Here, from his closing paragraphs, is one of the key lessons he draws, which I make no apology for quoting in full:

The intellectuals and the liberal left should defend and promote the liberals and freethinkers of the Arab and Muslim world, the outright liberals and not just the people who are described, not always accurately, as 'moderates.' We should do this in the same fashion that some of us used to do during the cold war, when it was common for intellectuals in the West to defend the dissidents of the East bloc. This, too, doesn’t happen much today.

Why not? A main reason is that, in the West, an amazing number of people remain biased in one fashion or another against Muslims and especially against Arabs—remain attached to the notion that Arabs cannot reach a level of civilization that is capable of producing democracy. There is a right-wing way of expressing this particular bias, but also a left-wing way, having to do with multiculturalism, which leads people to conclude that if the Arab world is awash in paranoid doctrines and grotesque dictatorships, we mustn’t judge anyone harshly, and who are we to say that liberalism and prosperity are superior to tyranny and poverty, and aren’t some of those paranoias true, and so on? In this manner, left-wing tolerance and right-wing intolerance end up oddly resembling each other. A first component of our effort, then, should be to shed light on the unfair and cruel assumptions that so many people make about the Arab world, and sometimes about other parts of the Muslim world, as well.

We should have been doing this kind of intellectual work all along. Anyway, we should do it now—regardless of what steps the American and allied militaries take or fail to take in the near future, and regardless of what steps are taken by the diplomats. The soldiers and the diplomats may well end up reverting to the previous American and Western policy—the policy that seeks to achieve regional stability through backroom deals with sinister dictators. This is the policy of malign stability, which so many people advocate today in a variety of colorful ways: isolationists on isolationist grounds, pragmatists on pragmatic grounds, anti-imperialists on anti-imperialist grounds, and so forth. But our own role should be to advocate something else. Our role should be to clarify the ideas that influence the region. To demystify the demagogueries of mad ideologies. To explain the principles of liberal thought and, in this way, to help lay an intellectual basis for a democratic future. Our role should be to offer solidarity to the authentic liberals of the Arab and Muslim world, who have been horribly betrayed by American and other Western governments and even by the left-wing and liberal intellectuals of the West. How bland this program of mine sounds, when I lay the words out across the page! But this bland program of speaking about ideas and ideologies and championing the liberal thinkers has always been crucially important for the Middle East, far more important in the long run than anything achievable by military or even by diplomatic means.

This is a clarion call for the antitotalitarian liberal left.

Religion, 'truth' and the state revisited

It seems the government is once again trying to encourage the development of the 'right kind' of religion, backing a 'moderate' conference on Islam and pledging money to academic courses that present the 'authentic voices' of the faith. I've explained in a previous post why this kind of thing makes me extremely uncomfortable, much as I'd like to see fundamentalism sidelined and versions of religion more compatible with liberal modernity gaining ground. There's something very unsettling about government ministers intervening in the internal affairs of a religion they don't believe in. For despite their statements in support of 'true' Islam, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and all the others lining up to speak at this event don't actually think Islam is true - otherwise they'd be Muslims. It's as if the government were to take sides in the current disputes within the Church of England, advancing the ideas of (say) the evangelical wing as more 'authentic' than those of the Anglo-Catholics - and just as much a threat to the separation of religion and the state.

Others are unhappy with the conference for different reasons. Tariq Ramadan is given the top comment slot in today's Guardian to argue that the government is failing to talk to the right kind of Muslims (I suppose he means those who agree with him) and to recycle yet again the hoary old theory that Islamist terrorism is all the fault of western policies. If anyone is taken in for a minute by Ramadan, they should read Paul Berman's magisterial dissection of his ideas in the latest New Republic: free registration required and be warned, it's very long, but absolutely worth reading in full.

Friday 1 June 2007

I've got to be a part of it...Part 2

We arrived back on Thursday morning from a long-overdue trip to New York City, our first in 18 years: a combination of mortgage payments and young children have kept us from returning until now. Now that the children are teenagers, it was time to introduce them to the greatest city in the world.

It's an indication of how much Britain - and especially its cities - has changed in the intervening years that Manhattan didn't seem nearly as strange as it did on our first encounter in the late '80s. Even the book stores now look much the same. Last time, we were struck by the in-your-face bargain-basement approach even in 'good' stores like Barnes and Noble, but this time it was just like being in Waterstone's.

We'd promised ourselves to bring back at least one book each - especially H., who is a US politics nut and had hoped to find something that wasn't yet available here. She liked the look of Robert Dallek's new 'double biography' of Nixon and Kissinger, but in the end there didn't seem much point hauling it back across the Atlantic, when Amazon could ship it for little extra cost in a few days. Online shopping has certainly made the world a smaller place. As for me, the only thing I brought back, apart from a few exhibition brochures, was the latest issue of Dissent, which I found in the Columbus Circle branch of Borders: again, though, I could have waited a couple of weeks until it was on the shelves of Borders here.

As for reading while travelling: before going I had ordered Robert Caro's The Power Broker, about Robert Moses, the architect and planner of much of modern NYC (prompted by reading Marshall Berman's All That is Solid Melts into Air recently, in which he describes Moses' role in the destruction of his home neighbourhood in the Bronx). But the tome turned out to be far too weighty for the handluggage, so it will have to wait for another time. Instead, I packed Ann Douglas' Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, which I picked up for 95p in a secondhand store some time ago: it's a fascinating if rather exhausting account of New York in the Jazz Age. Since returning home, I've started on Russell Shorto's compelling account of how New Amsterdam became New York: The Island at the Centre of the World. While we there, the Rough Guide was, as always, indispensable, but Richard Alleman's New York: The Movie Lover's Guide also helped us (stereotypical tourists that we are) to find the Friends apartment house and the NYPD Blue station house (we did it for the children, you understand).

It was our first visit since 9/11. We didn't deliberately set out to visit Ground Zero, but found ourselves in the vicinity as we walked back up Broadway from Battery Park. The site is a noisy, gaping hole in the heart of lower Manhattan, but on this glorious spring day it was noticeable how the dynamic, pulsing life of New York goes on around it. Small acts of remembrance are everywhere, though: from the names of lost colleagues etched on to the side of fire trucks (each windscreen of which bore the legend 'We Support Our Troops'), to the bright yellow ribbons adorning the fences of downtown churches on this Memorial Day weekend.

God Bless America: I miss you already.

UCU votes for boycott of Israel

This decision by my union, the University and College Union, is deeply disappointing. The only comfort is UCU general secretary Sally Hunt's reassurance that it doesn't actually commit the union to anything. As she has said: 'I do not believe a boycott is supported by a majority of UCU members, nor do I believe that members see it as a priority for the union.'

An academic boycott of Israel would be wrong for precisely the same reasons that the NUJ boycott would have been wrong. What The Guardian said then about a journalistic boycott would also be true of this proposal:

If it were press freedom in the Middle East that truly concerned delegates, Israel - which has a comparatively open and robust domestic press - would hardly be the obvious starting point. One might, for example, rather focus on Iran, Libya or Syria. If, on the other hand, the journalists' union prefers to busy itself with individual governments' foreign policies then, again, there is no shortage of unsavoury regimes around the world which might merit some form of consumer boycott.

For press freedom, read academic freedom. Coincidentally, and ironically, yesterday's Guardian also carried this report on restrictions on academic life in Iran, surely a more pressing concern for progressive western lecturers. However, an academic boycott of Iran would be mistaken for many of the reasons that the proposed Israeli boycott is wrong: it would risk isolating liberal and reformist Iranian academics who need our solidarity and engagement, just as academics working for peace, dialogue and reconciliation in Israel and Palestine do.

Having been away from work for a few days, I'm not sure yet what UCU members who oppose the boycott can do to mitigate the effects of the decision. As always, Engage is the place to keep up with developments and read the best arguments on this issue.