Friday 28 September 2007

The BBC's Bin Laden for Beginners

The way America has got involved in conflicts in regions like the Middle East has made some people very angry, including a group called al-Qaeda – who are widely thought to have been behind the attacks.

In the past, al-Qaeda leaders have declared a holy war – called a jihad – against the US. As part of this jihad, al-Qaeda members believe attacking US targets is something they should do.

When the attacks happened in 2001, there were a number of US troops in a country called Saudi Arabia, and the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, said he wanted them to leave.

What's this? Could it be an extract from a Saudi school textbook - 'Bin Laden for Beginners' perhaps? Or part of a talk at a 'Stop the War' summer camp? Unfortunately not. It's a page from the website of the BBC's Newsround - a current affairs programme for children. It's from their coverage of the anniversary of 9/11 and it's headed 'Why did they do it?'

It gets worse:

A lot of countries don't like the way America gets involved with arguments in the Middle East.

They think that the US unfairly helps Israel in its conflict with Palestine. Israel and Palestine have been arguing for many years over who owns what land.

America is seen to be sympathetic towards Jewish Israelis, so some Arabs and Muslims think America does not like or understand them.

Now, some might argue that there's nothing amiss here: surely Newsround is simply reporting what the terrorists have said about the reasons for their actions. But that's the point: in claiming to explain 'why they did it', the website acts as a straightforward mouthpiece for the perpetrators. With no scare quotes, no 'according to their supporters...' or 'the terrorists claimed that...' to frame these statements, the impression is given that these are the 'real' root causes of the attacks, rather than excuses or pretexts put about by mass murderers. There's no balancing information here about the politics of al Qaeda, its aim of a worldwide caliphate, or its hostility not only to the US but to all 'infidels', whether they're to be found in Bali, Mombassa or Tel Aviv.

As I've said before, I'm normally reluctant to join in with the chorus of 'BBC bias' - it's often code for right-wing liberal-bashing - and having grown up with John Craven's original Newsround, and watched my children learn about the world via the current version, it pains me to criticise it.

But this example of one-sided root-cause rhetoric appearing on a BBC site is inexcusable.

Needless to say, the content has now been changed to something less 'offensive', as a result of all the fuss. But the damage to the BBC's reputation for fair and balanced coverage has already been done.

(via Roy Greenslade)

Thursday 27 September 2007

The perils of googling yourself

Sitemeter’s a wonderful thing - but it’s also a tease. It sort-of tells you who’s been visiting your blog: you can find out whether they’re in Milton Keynes or the Midwest, and whether their service provider is AOL or Verizon. But it won’t tell you their name. And you can find out how they landed on your blog – for example, which words they entered in Google. But frustratingly, you can’t find out why they were searching - or whether they found what they were looking for when they reached your blog.

For me, as a relative newcomer to all of this, the visitors I want to know more about are those who google a name. Sometimes, you just know it’s the person themselves, desperate to find out what others are saying about them – especially writers and journalists who have just published something. OK, we’re all guilty of this from time to time. But some people do it repeatedly, obsessively.

For example, there’s a certain religious commentator whose name keeps cropping up in my Sitemeter details. As these searches are posted from all over the world, either he has a lot of fans (seems unlikely, as he's only moderately well-known), or he’s forever on the move and obsessively googling himself from wherever he happens to be.

The sad thing is, although this visitor returns regularly to my blog, the only thing to be found there is my rather dismissive review of this person's ‘Thought for the Day’ appearance. I tried googling his name myself, and discovered that my review was one of only two references to his name on the web (the other was a brief mention in a syndicated news report from 1993). Think how depressing that must be: you (or one of your admirers) keep googling your name, and all it throws up is a put-down from some petty secularist blogger.

Bunting on Buddhism and Burma

Madeleine Bunting suggests that events in Burma might 'help challenge the generalisation that religious belief can never play a positive role in politics'. She writes:

It's a welcome and inspiring contrast to the last few years of religiously inspired violence. After several years in which we have seen faith used to justify and legitimise violence across the globe, this offers the other side of the story - how faith can be a powerfully positive force in political life.

And then the inevitable twisting of the knife:

So one cannot help but wonder quite how the batch of critics of religion will interpret the role of the Buddhist monks. Christopher Hitchens has recently argued that religion poisons everything and goes on to insist that no progressive political movement has had any religious influence. He insists that a figure like Martin Luther King Jr was in no real sense a Christian. How will he explain the Burmese monks? Will Richard Dawkins accuse these monks of child abuse for encouraging young boys to join their monasteries?

Actually, Dawkins is on record as believing that Buddhism is better regarded as an ethical system or philosophy of life than as a religion: but Bunting has anticipated him there, declaring this to be 'an old and tired debate'. But is it? Buddhism is qualitatively different from the religions that Dawkins attacks in The God Delusion, because it isn't based on belief in a personal, creator god - which for Dawkins, is the root of religion's problems.

Not that Buddhism doesn't have a less attractive, superstitious side. In a footnote to his book, Dawkins quotes a report by Julia Sweeney of her conversation with a woman caring for a disabled boy in Thailand, in which the latter suggests that sympathy for the child is uncalled for since 'he must have done something terrible in a past life to be born this way'. As for Bunting's throwaway line about boy monks and child abuse: surely it's at least debatable whether removing children from their parents at a very young age and raising them in a closed institutional environment is entirely a good thing?

And without denying the bravery of the Burmese protestors, let's not get all starry-eyed about the political role played by Buddhist monks. As Sunny reported here, some Buddhist monks are non-violent, others violent and pro-war. And the support of Zen Buddhist monks for Japanese militarism and imperialism is a matter of record.

But hang on: hasn't Bunting used a straw man to trick us into arguing on her own ground? Who has ever denied that religion can sometimes play a positive role in politics? Far from being the 'generalisation' that Bunting claims, this is surely a minority view, even among secularists and atheists. As is usual with straw man arguments, there are no quotes to back it up, no references for us to check.

In fact, what secularists and atheists like Dawkins argue is not that religion has no role to play in political or public life (unlike many religious believers, secularists tend to be rather passionate about freedom of expression). Rather, they maintain that religion should not be accorded a privileged role - of the kind that it enjoys in Britain, where bishops sit in the upper legislative chamber, schools inculcating belief (but not those promoting secular openmindedness) enjoy government funding, religious representatives are routinely invited onto policy commissions, and religious commentators have guaranteed slots on TV and radio.

As one commenter at CiF has pointed out, being on the right side in a political struggle doesn't make a movement intrinsically virtuous (apparently even drug barons have opposed the regime in Burma), and it certainly doesn't give it a monopoly on virtue. There are believers and unbelievers on both sides in most political contests (another commenter reminds us that Burma is officially Buddhist and therefore it's likely that some regime members are as 'religious' as those who oppose them). Nor does a single virtuous action necessarily mean that the entire religion is, of itself, a good thing. It certainly doesn't make its beliefs 'true' - and as I've argued before, when it comes to religion, this (rather than whether it is positive, useful, life-enhancing, etc) is the only question that ultimately matters.

The rhetoric of evasion, or the art of changing the subject

Trying to make sense of articles like this one often makes me wish I’d studied rhetoric (for once I’m in agreement with Terry Eagleton, who has suggested that the study of rhetoric should be reintroduced into schools, to help children develop skills in decoding media messages and political propaganda).

But even without any rhetorical training, I’ve begun to detect a number of familiar strategies turning up in the writings of those we might loosely group together as root-causers, blowback theorists or po-mo leftists – well, you know who I mean: the Milnes, Steeles, Buntings and Pryamvada Gopals of this world.

Here’s a quick guide to some of their favourite rhetorical tricks:

1. Invent a straw man
The idea here is to concoct a totally fictitious opposing argument and then score points by knocking it down - before your readers have a chance to notice that nobody was actually arguing for it in the first place. A good example was Pryamvada Gopal’s invention yesterday of mythical ‘self-proclaimed liberals’ who think women’s equality is a western concept. Andrew at Wongablog quotes an even better example from Ahmadinejad’s Columbia speech: ‘Maybe you think that being a woman is a crime. It’s not a crime to be a woman.’ This manages to compress both the set-up and the knock-down response into two short sentences: obviously a master of the art.

2. Taint your opponents by associating them with a universal bogeyman
Labelling your enemy’s argument ‘neoconservative’ will usually do the trick. You need to get across the idea that anybody who supports your opponent’s view is either a paid-up neocon, or is unwittingly serving their interests. Thus William Dalrymple here and here, and Seamus Milne here (and just about everywhere). This device will save you from actually having to deal with your opponent’s arguments. So if you want to avoid criticising Ahmedinejad, Chavez or whoever, simply imply that anyone who does so is probably a closet Bush supporter.

3. Suggest that your opponents are just as extreme as those they criticise
Otherwise known as the all-purpose ‘moral equivalence’ device, equally useful for religious types who want to create the impression that secularists are as fundamentalist as the faith-based extremists they oppose, and for political types like Pryamvada Gopal who advances the bizarre thesis that ‘self-proclaimed liberals’ who campaign for equality are ‘useful collaborators’ for ( = just as bad as) ‘authoritarian chauvinists from outside the west’ who oppress women.

4. If in doubt, blame the West
Also known as the strategy of looking in the opposite direction, or ignoring the bleedin’ obvious. This avoidance tactic is especially useful in the aftermath of terrorist outrages, when the aim is to direct attention away from the actual perpetrators and on to the usual suspects – Britain, America – even if they happen to be the victims. Best-known example: the New Statesman rebranding the 7/7 attacks as ‘Blair’s Bombs’. Echoed the other day by William Dalrymple: ‘As long as the west interferes in the Muslim world, bombs will go off’. See also BBC reporter Martin Asser here, castigating the Israeli government for failing to protect the people of Sderot against terrorist attack, with not a word of reproach for the jihadists who actually fired the rockets.

5. Always treat non-westerners as passive victims
Also known as the ‘denial of agency’ strategy. Suggest that the only people who have any power are westerners and that everybody else just ‘reacts’ to their policies. Useful for analysing the ‘root causes’ behind terror attacks, or the ‘provocation’ that leads to riots over cartoons, etc.

6. Attribute the characteristics of your own side to your opponents
Or, get your retaliation in first. Are atheists raising concerns about the role of religion in public life after violent protests over cartoons? Then label them as ‘aggressive’ or ‘militant’. Secularists daring to stand up for basic freedoms in the face of campaigns against ‘offending’ religion? Describe them as fundamentalist. Then sit back and watch as these terms become the accepted way of describing your opponents (as in ‘the new aggressive secularism’, ‘the new militant atheism’, ‘Enlightenment fundamentalists’, ‘muscular liberals’, etc.).

It’s interesting how many of these rhetorical tricks are really avoidance strategies. They make it possible for the author to avoid having to state where s/he stands on specific issues, such as freedom of speech, religious and political pluralism, or whether terrorist violence can ever be justified. In other words, the characteristic response of these commentators, when faced with a thorny political issue is always the same: don’t answer the question, and change the subject.

To be continued!

Wednesday 26 September 2007

Women's equality is a universal not a 'western' principle

Pryamvada Gopal seems confused. She criticises 'British liberals' who highlight the subjugation of women in non-western cultures for their apparent 'insistence that equality is a western concept to be defended against the incursions of others'. According to Gopal (whom I took to task earlier this year for her ungenerous response to Rushdie's knighthood), this makes 'the self-proclaimed liberals who insist on this useful collaborators for authoritarian chauvinists from outside the west.' How so? 'For they are all in curious agreement that women's equality is a western concept and call for it, accordingly, to be either enforced (that's why we sent in the troops) or rejected (by keeping women secluded). '

Let me see if I understand what she's saying here. So western liberals who draw attention to the oppression of women in (say) Iraq or Iran are somehow as guilty as those who do the oppressing? Hmm. And who are these 'self-proclaimed liberals' of whom she writes? Gopal's article is conveniently free of any references or examples, leaving the impression that she's creating a straw man to advance her own rather odd line of argument. I'd challenge her to name one mainstream liberal commentator (apart from the odd unrepresentative neocon) who argues for women's equality in the Middle East or Asia on the grounds that it's a western, rather than a universal principle.

But like those reflexive anti-western leftists who damn all criticism of Middle Eastern authoritarianism as 'neoconservative', Gopal allows no space for a western liberal critique of oppressive cultural practices that is neither patronising or colonialist. Rather than calling for greater critical solidarity from western progressives, she seems to be telling them to keep quiet until they've put their own house in order: 'Apart from the simple hypocrisy of people whose own societies have yet to fully address gender, race and class inequalities, there is a long, dismal history of using the subjection of women to justify cultural condescension and colonial occupation.'

Gopal 's argument reinforces the kind of po-mo 'you can't criticise them, it's their culture' attitude that I mentioned in the update to this post yesterday, with reference to the response of some gay campaigners to Ahmadinejad's speech. This seems surprising from someone who positions herself as part of a non-western movement for women's rights. She claims: 'No "moral relativists", we have successfully countered Hindu chauvinists, Islamists, Sikh zealots and Catholic fundamentalists, not to mention sundry secular manifestations of sexism. ' But Gopal's 'hands off' warning to western liberals will have precisely the effect of reinforcing cultural relativism, rather than the critical international solidarity that feminist campaigners in the Middle East and Asia desperately need.


Dr. Gopal's article has certainly provoked a lively response over at CiF, and it's heartening to see many commenters supporting my point about her 'straw man' - those imaginary liberals who view equality as a purely western concept. Some of her defenders generously attribute the feelings of bewilderment felt by many readers to poor copy-editing. One has even gone so far as to post up the 'original' pre-edited article. Unfortunately, this only adds to the confusion, as in this excerpt:

The insistence that human rights, equality and freedom are Western concepts to be defended against the incursions of Others or somehow bestowed on them (as suggested, for instance, by the Euston manifesto) relies, apart from double standards on colonialism and occupation, on a continued and convenient deafness to resistant voices from outside Judaeo-Christian contexts. (Except when the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali concoct a suitable story of oppression and liberatory flight to the West).

Here Gopal manages to combine a straightforward falsehood about the Euston Manifesto - once again, can we have specific references please? - with a nasty put-down (which surely Gopal would condemn as patronising and colonialist if it came from a western commentator) of those non-westerners - here, the brave Ayaan Hirsi Ali - who dare to depart from the po-mo/cultural relativism narrative.

Tuesday 25 September 2007

No gays in Iran: it's official

In Iran we don't have homosexuals like in your country.... In Iran we don't have this phenomenon, I don't know who told you this.

So said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during his controversial speech at Columbia University yesterday.

To which the obvious response is: then why do you need these laws:

Iranian law punishes all penetrative sexual acts between adult men with the death penalty. Non-penetrative sexual acts between men are punished with lashes until the fourth offense, when they are punished with death. Sexual acts between women, which are defined differently, are punished with lashes until the fourth offense, when they are also punished with death.

And if there are no homosexuals in your country, then what was going on here:

On Sunday, November 13 [2005], the semi-official Tehran daily Kayhan reported that the Iranian government publicly hung two men, Mokhtar N. (24 years old) and Ali A. (25 years old), in the Shahid Bahonar Square of the northern town of Gorgan. The government reportedly executed the two men for the crime of "lavat." Iran’s shari`a-based penal code defines lavat as penetrative and non-penetrative sexual acts between men.

Maybe that's it, Mr. President. You weren't making a statement of fact - but of intention.

See also here and here.


Ahmadinejad's reality-denying outburst creates a dilemma for po-mo leftists who back gay rights but don't want to condemn him for fear of seeming to, you know, impose 'our' values on another culture. Andrew Sullivan has fun with an example of po-mo circle-squaring:

This is an email sent out by the Columbia Queer Alliance. It beggars belief. Here's the throat clearer:

"We condemn the human rights violations perpetrated by the Iranian government under the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We admonish the policies that make same-sex practices punishable by torture and death, as well as those that restrict the freedoms and self-determination of women."

That's a relief. But then the pomo knee jerk kicks in:

"We stand in solidarity with our peers in Iran, but we do not presume to speak for them. We cannot possibly claim to understand the multiple and diverse experiences of living with same-sex desires in Iran. Our cultural values and experiences are distinct, but the stakes are one and the same: the essential human right to express our desires freely.

Moreover, we would like to strongly caution media and campus organizations against the use of such words as "gay", "lesbian", or "homosexual" to describe people in Iran who engage in same-sex practices and feel same-sex desire. The construction of sexual orientation as a social and political identity and all of the vocabulary therein is a Western cultural idiom. As such, scholars of sexuality in the Middle East generally use the terms "same-sex practices" and "same-sex desire" in recognition of the inadequacy of Western terminology.

President Ahmadinejad's presence on campus has provided an impetus for us all to examine a number of issues, but most relevant to our concerns are the complexities of how sexual identity is constructed and understood in different parts of the world."

Ahmadinejad was right, you see? There are no gays in Iran.

Religion and education: Part 4

...And see here for a report on one headteacher's frustrated attempt to run his school along secular lines. It's 'politically impossible', apparently, in the Britain of Gordon 'son of the Manse' Brown (nice speech, though, yesterday...).
(via Wongablog)

Monday 24 September 2007

Religion and education: Part 3

I may have got a little hot under the collar here and here about religion in British schools, but at least we can console ourselves that things are much worse in Russia. According to a report in the New York Times:

One of the most discordant debates in Russian society is playing out in public schools like those in this city not far from Moscow, where the other day a teacher named Irina Donshina set aside her textbooks, strode before her second graders and, as if speaking from a pulpit, posed a simple question:

“Whom should we learn to do good from?”

“From God!” the children said.

“Right!” Ms. Donshina said. “Because people he created crucified him. But did he accuse them or curse them or hate them? Of course not! He continued loving and feeling pity for them, though he could have eliminated all of us and the whole world in a fraction of a second.”

Nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the return of religion to public life, localities in Russia are increasingly decreeing that to receive a proper public school education, children should be steeped in the ways of the Russian Orthodox Church, including its traditions, liturgy and historic figures.

Even this pales into insignificance beside the Saudi government's policy of inculcating wahhabist Islam - with its demonisation of Christians, Jews and 'unbelievers' - via that country's school system, as revealed here.

Mind you, there's no room for complacency here at home, as the Saudis have been known to export their model of religious education to Islamic schools in Britain. And as Nick Cohen reported in the Observer on Sunday, their influence extends to British mosques, as part of what Cohen describes as 'the Saudi attempt to convert Europe's Muslims to wahhabhism and its sister creeds'. According to Cohen, both mosque-goers and government officials are too intimidated to speak out:

One prominent figure, who is occasionally allowed on to the airwaves to balance the Muslim Council of Britain, told me he never used the words 'Saudi Arabia' or 'Wahhabism'.
When he wanted to discuss either, he referred fuzzily to 'foreign funding for extremist doctrines'. He knows that if he speaks out, he will be banned from Saudi Arabia. Blacklisting is a formidable sanction for him and others as he has a religious duty to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.

He is also frightened of being sued - as is everyone else. Britain's repressive libel laws are becoming a threat to security and racial harmony. 'Saudi money is now a major source of income for London libel firms,' one lawyer told me. 'School fees and second homes depend on it.'

On reading Richard Dawkins

Some thoughts on The God Delusion, which I've just finished reading.

It's a highly enjoyable, wonderfully-written piece of iconoclastic, rationalist polemic. The first third of the book - in which Dawkins smashes a path through a variety of religious totems - is probably the best, despite being scatter-gun rather than systematic in its choice of targets. I also enjoyed the riotous deconstruction of scripture and the tirade against religious education in later chapters.

Dawkins' demolition job on the philosophical grounds for belief is more cursory and less satisfying than the more scientifically-based chapters. And the attempt to explain the persistence of religion in evolutionary terms didn't quite convince me. It may be because I'm not a scientist (and generally, the book made me painfully aware of the deficiencies of my scientific education) and come from a humanities/social sciences background, but I found this account quite reductive. I'm not sure evolutionary biology can adequately explain religion any more than it can account for Marxism, or painting, or cricket. Some reviewers (like Terry Eagleton) have criticised Dawkins for a lack of familiarity with theology: I wanted more sociology, social psychology and politics.

Dawkins didn't quite make a (de?)convert of me. After reading his book, I'm probably at No.5 on his 10-point scale between strong atheism and strong theism - 'Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism' - where I might have been at 3 or 4 before. But what the book has definitely done is renew my belief in secularism and provided it with some powerful ammunition. Here's Dawkins' reply to those who say we should automatically 'respect' religion:

I am not in favour of offending or hurting anyone just for the sake of it. But I am mystified by the disproportionate privileging of religion in our otherwise secular societies. All politicians must get used to disrespectful cartoons of their faces, and nobody riots in their defence. What is so special about religion that we grant it such uniquely privileged respect?

Oh - and the book has left me with a desire to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of evolutionary theory - probably by reading more books by Dawkins.

Friday 21 September 2007

Learning to live with Islamism?

William Dalrymple floats a new, improved version of Blowback Theory here. Not only is western foreign policy directly responsible for Islamist terrorism - 'As long as the west interferes in the Muslim world, bombs will go off' says Dalrymple with astonishing crudity - but it must also bear the blame for the rise of political Islam throughout the Middle East. Apparently the successes of religious parties in Egypt, Pakistan and Gaza are all the west's fault. In classic 'root cause' style, there's no sense that Islamists might have motives and purposes of their own, or indeed any agency beyond simply 'reacting' to western initiatives (an assumption that some might describe as implicitly racist).

Dalrymple writes about 'legitimate Muslim anger' behind the rise of Islamism. I know the Nazi analogy is overworked, but this is like using 'legitimate' German anger over the Versailles Treaty to excuse Nazism. It may (partly) explain it, but it doesn't justify it. The Nazi analogy is also useful in countering Dalrymple's plea that the west should learn to live and work with elected Islamists, simply because they have a democratic mandate. Should Britain have tolerated Nazism because Hitler had won a general election? At least one critical commenter on Dalrymple's piece has made the comparison with Chamberlain: I think they have a point.

I've written elsewhere about the chimera of 'moderate' Islamism. Dalrymple doesn't explain his reasons for defining the Islamists of Hamas or the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood as more 'moderate' than (say) those of al-Qaida. Perhaps they're a tad less anti-semitic, or marginally less likely to execute adulterers or homosexuals, or less inclined to lock up followers of other faiths? I think we should be told.

As in his previous Guardian piece, Dalrymple uses the lazy tactic of labelling all western hostility to political Islam as 'neoconservative': as if there could be no liberal or leftist critique of this intolerant and patriarchal ideology. He mentions that Arab populations have turned in their 'anger' to religious rather than 'liberal secular' parties, but he doesn't appear to lament the fact. Nowhere in his article is there the slightest criticism of Islamism (all his venom is reserved for the west - again, in classic 'blowback' style). This, coming from a supposed western liberal, is a betrayal not only of progressive, secular forces in the Arab and majority-Muslim world, but also of those - women, gays, religious minorities, political opponents - who will suffer under the repressive heel of political Islam.

Thursday 20 September 2007

Neighbourhoods don't have a religion

And along similar lines...

Just as children shouldn't be defined by religious labels, nor should neighbourhoods.

In Small Heath, Birmingham, a group calling itself 'Clean Medina' is organising what it calls 'a jihad on litter'. According to their website:

Clean Medina says that Muslim neighbourhoods in the city are far too messy and they want to change that. So they’ve launched a “struggle’ against rubbish and waste, and whilst they’re at it they want to reclaim Jihad as a positive force.

There's a podcast in which campaigners 'explain why they’re so fed up with the dirty streets that give Muslim neighbourhoods a bad reputation'.

Sunny believes this is 'one jihad we can all support'. And who could possibly object to a drive to clean up dirty streets, or a move to reclaim religious language from the extremists?

What makes me really uncomfortable, though, is the repeated reference to 'Muslim' neighbourhoods - the identification of a geographical area with a particular religion. It's something we've grown used to - and lamented - in Northern Ireland, with its 'Protestant estates' and 'Catholic enclaves', but thankfully avoided elsewhere in the UK (well, apart for a few estates in Glasgow and Liverpool).

It's qualitatively different from describing a neighbourhood as 'Asian' or 'white' (problematic though that may be in other ways). All you're doing there is making a statement of fact: the majority in this area belong to a particular ethnic group. With religion, you're going further and identifying a place with a set of ideas - giving it a religious character. Once you do that, the tendency is to accept that those ideas should be allowed to influence the life of the neighbourhood and govern how it's run. People in the area who don't espouse those ideas -including those from a 'Muslim' background who wish to define themselves differently - can soon begin to feel marginalised and threatened.

To paraphrase Richard Dawkins: There is no such thing as a 'Muslim' neighbourhood, or a 'Christian' neighbourhood (or there shouldn't be). There are only neighbourhoods, lived in by people each with their own private beliefs, none of which should be allowed to dominate the public ('secular' in the true sense of the word) space that they all share.

(via Pickled Politics)

Religion and education: Part 2

And another thing...

This doesn't link to anything in the news, but reading these articles and finally getting round to reading Dawkins' book, has reminded me of something else I've been wanting to say about religion and education.

As a parent, and an erstwhile school governor, it's irked me the way that multi-cultural education often gets translated, especially in primary schools, into multi-faith education. Learning about 'other cultures' is reduced to finding out about the religious beliefs and customs of different groups. Non-white, non-indigenous groups are characterised as unchanging, homogenous cultures defined mainly by faith. Schools think if they've 'done' Diwali, Ramadan and Passsover, then they've fulfilled their multicultural obligations. In my experience, there's very little sense (at least at the primary level) of migrant communities as diverse, living entities, shaped by historical events, and very little sense of the secular and political forces at work within communities.

Defining non-white children primarily in terms of a nominal faith privileges that aspect of their identity above others, including loyalties based on nation, locality or cultural tastes. It also makes it more difficult for children to put any distance between themselves and their faith-of-origin, or to experience school as a neutral, secular space in which they might explore alternatives to the beliefs they were brought up in. And it has a spin-off for 'indigenous' children: they get categorised, by default, as 'Christian'. This subtle re-introduction of sectarian identities is ludicrous, in a nation where a majority are not active believers in any religion.

To quote Dawkins:

Just as feminists wince when they hear 'he' rather than 'he or she', or 'man' rather than 'human', I want everybody to flinch whenever we hear a phrase such as 'Catholic child' or 'Muslim child'...That is not a Muslim child, but a child of Muslim parents. That child is too young to know whether it is a Muslim or not. There is no such thing as a Muslim child. There is no such thing as a Christian child.

In place of multi-faith education, let's argue for a genuinely multicultural education that is secular, pluralist and internationalist, that views people as historical actors rather than members of unchanging 'cultures', and allows children to explore alternatives to the faith of their parents.

Religion in education: are we really happy to pay for this?

Three interesting pieces on religion and education from The Guardian:

Here's Connor Birch writing about incurring the Church of England's wrath after he expressed concerns about the 'distinctive Christian ethos' of a planned state-funded academy in his local area. The Church told Birch that his views on the proposal were no longer welcome, after it emerged that he had links with the National Secular Society. Not only was the NSS opposed to faith schools on principle (shock horror) but its website also carried a report on the case of a gay youth worker whose appointment was blocked by the Bishop of Hereford. Seems the dear old C of E can fight as dirty as those nasty 'aggressive secularists'.

And here's The Guardian's man-in-the-classroom, the always readable Philip Beadle (look up his columns on private sponsorship of schools and the myth of personalised learning ) taking the government to task for the pro-faith bias in its Standards for religious education:

The Standards Site for teachers features schemes of work for key stage 3 that could have been written by Billy Graham. Creationism on the curriculum is not happening only in the American Bible belt or outposts on Teesside: the government recommends it as a topic for study in every school. The suggested learning outcomes say that all year 9 pupils should be able to "explain the nature and meanings of the Genesis creation story for theists, creationists and others". The intent is that children "understand that science leaves questions of ultimate meaning and purpose unanswered".


The aim of this scheme of work is that children "understand that historians of science now view the conflict account as misleading". Let me unpack this disgracefully disingenuous phrase for you: the government's desired final outcome of religious studies teaching in British schools is that children realise there is no conflict between religious belief and the evidence of science. This is a lie, the extent of which hits the three criteria for a mortal sin: it is grave, committed in full knowledge of the sin and deliberate.

Finally, the decision of the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland to ban Amnesty International from its schools, after its move to support abortion rights, has got Zoe Williams wondering why tax-payers are funding this sort of thing:

It's worthwhile to stop for a minute, here, and consider all this in the context of faith schooling. We all - all we feminists, I mean - have the odd qualm here and there about Islamic schools, and whether they invest proper rigour in the propagation of gender equality, but Christians, we think ... now they're different. They provide a sound education, they don't discriminate on the basis of class, they're not exclusive, they've been doing this for years. They can have as much taxpayer money as they want.

It's balderdash. For a start, they are cherrypicking middle-class children (the Institute of Education at London University just produced this finding, after the most extensive research yet undertaken) and, much more important, in many cases they are prosecuting an agenda that is repugnant. Are we really happy to sit back and pay for this?

Tuesday 18 September 2007

A Eustonian in a po-mo world

Spare a thought for the poor Eustonian academic trying to get by in a world still governed by po-mo certainties. The other day I received an invitation to this event:

Sexual Politics: the limits of secularism, the time of coalition

Tuesday, 30 October 2007 at 6.30 in the Old Theatre, LSE, Houghton St.
London, WC2A 2AE

This lecture considers the conditions for coalition that might exist
between religious and sexual minorities focusing on different forms
of state coercion.

Speaker: Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor, University of California, Berkeley

Now I can't be sure, but I'd hazard a guess that the 'religious minorities' Judith Butler wants to coalesce with are not Mormons or evangelical Christians. And it seems unlikely that (feminist though she is) the seminar will find Butler lending support to 'sexual minorities' in Muslim countries who fear -rather than seek alliances with - the forces of religion. After all, she's on record as saying that she's 'not sure that the burka states identity any more definitively than an excellent dress by Christian Dior' and that it's simply a 'means through which cultural belongings are signified or, rather, means through which that signification is attempted' - rather than an instrument of women's oppression. Butler is one of those 'well-meaning' Europeans and Americans criticised by Marieme Marie Lucas 'who imagine that they are paying respect to "Muslims" by adapting to such a uniform,' but who in doing so 'simply bow to modern far right forces working under the cover of religion and that manipulate Islam to their political benefit.'

(And I forgot to mention: Butler thinks Hamas and Hizbollah are 'part of the global Left')

Po-mo cultural criticism, of the kind represented by Judith Butler, having long ago grown tired of class, and having been fascinated in turn by ethnicity, then gender and sexuality, is now in love with the new kid on the block - religion. Religious zealots - especially if they come across as radical and anti-western - represent a new kind of mysterious 'Other' that can make a certain kind of cultural critic go weak at the knees (just as Islamism possesses a dangerous attraction for some far left political activists). Never mind that the 'religious minorities' that Butler seeks to court are aggressively, not to say violently hostile to the feminist and gay rights agenda that she has espoused in the past: I'm sure that little contradiction can be glossed over with a bit of po-mo theorising.

So what to do? Of course, one should really go along to seminars like this in a spirit of open-mindedness, prepared to listen and then ask difficult questions, even if you're the only one doing so. But do you really want to put yourself in that position (again), and isn't it easier to keep your head down? And then, it happens so often: last year I received an invitation to what promised to be an interesting lecture at the LSE by Tariq Modood - until I noticed that the event was to be chaired by...Madeleine Bunting.

Monday 17 September 2007

Three contributions to the Israel-Palestine debate

Saturday's Guardian contained three contributions on Israel-Palestine and related issues.

Author David Grossman's account of growing up in Israel in the 1950s in the shadow of the Holocaust, and his reflection on the capacity of literature to address the horrors of history, was powerful and moving. He writes:

The world we live in today may not be as overtly and unequivocally cruel as the one created by the Nazis, but there are certain mechanisms at work that have similar underlying principles. Mechanisms that blur human uniqueness and evade responsibility for the destiny of others. A world in which fanatic, fundamentalist forces seem to increase day by day, while others gradually despair of any hope for change.

Meanwhile, Ed Pilkington's article on the Walt-Mearsheimer affair made some attempt to be evenhanded but it was clear where the author's sympathies lay, and the article ended with the inflated claim that the episode 'bears eloquent witness to the state of affairs in America today, where thoughts considered unremarkable elsewhere are deemed beyond the pale.'

Finally, Martin Woollacott's review of Ghada Karmi's new book was a completely uncritical summary of the latter's argument for a one-state solution in Israel-Palestine (which would mean, effectively, the abolition of the world's only Jewish state). Woollacott swallows wholesale Karmi's claim that it was the Israelis rather than the Palestinians who were to blame for the failure of the Oslo peace process, flying in the face of accounts given by Bill Clinton and others of Arafat's stubborn rejectionism. Remarkably, 60 years after the country's foundation and recognition by the United Nations, it is the very fact of Israel's existence that appears to be the main problem for Woollacott, as for Karmi.

Friday 14 September 2007

Normal service resumes at Guardian

After Timothy Garton Ash's refreshingly realistic assessment of the terrorist threat in yesterday's Guardian, a more wearily familiar note is struck in today's paper by Simon Jenkins, who would have us believe that 'the biggest threat to our freedoms comes not from al-Qaida but from the security bureaucrats and their cronies'.

Jenkins thinks that 'sinister forces' are exaggerating the terror threat for their own purposes (try telling that to the victims of 7/7 and the near-victims of this summer's foiled attacks) and that 'while arming against communism helped defeat communism, arming against terrorism only feeds the beast.' And his alternative strategy is....? When it comes to combating Islamist terror, Jenkins appears to belong to the 'keep quiet and they might just go away' school of thought.

Thursday 13 September 2007

Buruma on 'neoleftism', Garton Ash on the terror threat

Ian Buruma uses his review of Norman Podhoretz's new book in the latest NYRB to reply to those 'neoleftists' (he means anti-totalitarian leftists: the 'neo' is of course meant to suggest a link with the neocons) who have accused him of a less-than-wholehearted defence of liberal values in the war of ideas with radical Islam. He specifically mentions Paul Berman's piece on Tariq Ramadan in The New Republic and the back-and-forth spat between Buruma, Timothy Garton Ash and Pascal Bruckner that's exhaustively documented at

Buruma, whose review contains some reassuring clarifications regarding his positions on fundamentalism and liberalism, seems to think that 'neoleftists' are denying his right to criticise figures such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In fact, what irritated Bruckner, Berman and others was the way both Buruma and Garton Ash accused Hirsi Ali of exchanging one fanatical creed -fundamentalist Islam - for another -'Enlightenment fundamentalism' -as if there were some kind of equivalence between the two.

Coincidentally, Garton Ash also demonstrates today that he's really on the side of the (liberal) angels, in a Guardian article which is refreshingly realistic about the continuing threat from jihadist terrorism. Drawing comparisons with the threat posed by the Red Army Faction and their ilk in the 1970s, Ash warns that the real front line in the war against terror is not in Iraq or Afghanistan but here, at home, in Europe:

The larger part of this struggle, and the more important in the longer term, is the battle for the hearts and minds of young European Muslims - usually men - who are not yet fanatical violent jihadists, but could become so. All over our continent, and around its edges, there are hundreds of thousands of young Muslim men who could go either way. They could become tomorrow's bombers; or they could become good citizens, funders of our faltering state pension schemes, tomorrow's Europeans.

Garton Ash offers no easy solutions for luring these potential jihadists away from extremism, but he is encouraged by the recent high-profile conversions from Islamism of people like Ed Husain and Maajid Nawaz. His article is refreshingly free (for a Guardian 'Comment' piece) of attempts to locate the 'causes' of terrorism in our old friend British foreign policy. The only slightly Milne-ish / Bunting-esque note is struck in this sentence, which the sub-editor chooses to highlight in bold alongside the piece:

The returning soldier may do more to reduce the threat of terrorism in Britain by his off-duty attitude to British Muslims in his home town than by anything he did, gun in hand, in Basra.

It's not clear exactly what Garton Ash means by this, but I don't like the implication either that hostility to Islam (rather than the influence of a malign extremist cult) might 'explain' terrorism, or that mollifying potential terrorists might somehow persuade them to be good citizens. Still, it's only one sentence in an otherwise welcome piece. Buruma ends on this sombre but cautiously optimistic note:

If we are calm, clear sighted and resolute, we will eventually win this struggle and remain free. A continent that has rid itself of the horrors of imperialism, fascism and communism will see off this lesser menace too. But it will take many years and we had better shape up to it.

Wednesday 12 September 2007

'The radical energy of religious faith'

Tristram Hunt makes one or two reasonable points in his critique of the so-called 'new atheism' in today's Guardian. Like John Cornwell in his riposte to Dawkins last week, Hunt's response to Christopher Hitchens argues that religious faith can serve progressive as well as reactionary causes, and his point about the Protestant roots of the Enlightenment is a fair one.

But what might have been a reasonable contribution to the debate is undermined by Hunt's unnecessarily accusatory language. He casts religion as the victim of a 'new atheist orthodoxy', as if we were dealing with an organised conspiracy to abolish religion, rather than a couple of polemical books. Hunt accuses atheists of 'needlessly belittling our public discourse' and 'infantilising public debate', but his own use of terms such as 'stupid', 'ignorance' and 'arrogance' to describe Hitchens and Dawkins hardly helps.

Hunt concludes by claiming that these authors represent 'a milquetoast, left-liberal consensus unnerved by the radical energy of religious faith'. Leave aside the fact that one or two writers don't equate to a consensus: but yes, Tristram, atheists and secularists are certainly 'unnerved' by the 'radical energy' of some contemporary believers. 'Radical' faith can of course mean the kind that inspired Martin Luther King, but it can also mean the less benign variety that motivated those behind 9/11, 7/7 and recent murderous threats against novelists and cartoonists. If liberal believers were quicker to condemn rather than find explanations for these manifestations of 'radical energy', then progressive secularists might be more willing to see them as allies rather than antagonists.

Tuesday 11 September 2007

No to 'new politics', yes to revitalising representative democracy

George Monbiot is not a writer I normally have much time for (on most days I skim quickly past his over-long, windbaggy articles in The Guardian) but today he has some useful things to say about Gordon Brown's 'new politics', including this:

His proposals for a new participatory democracy carry grave democratic dangers. Citizens' juries are an excellent tool for direct decision-making: when a small group of people needs to make a decision that affects only that group. If everybody joined one and the results were collated on a national scale, they could also be an excellent tool for democratising national decision-making. But this is not what Brown proposes. He speaks of a "citizens' summit, composed of a representative sample of the British people", which will be asked to formulate a British statement of values; and "a nationwide set of citizens' juries", in which "representatives assembled from every constituency" will help to shape policies on crime, immigration, education, health, transport and public services. In what sense will these samples be representative? Will we be allowed to vote for these people? It looks like an opaque amalgam of representative and participatory processes, selecting the most dangerous aspects of both.

I agree with Monbiot that 'grassroots mobilisation' can't be created from on high and that instead Brown's aim should be 'redemocratisation of the representative system'. See my own thoughts on this issue here , here and here.

Martin Amis on the Islamist cult of death

On the anniversary of 9/11 Martin Amis offers a riposte to the root-causers and a reminder of the real motivation behind Islamist terrorism:

Was Ladies’ Night at the Tiger Tiger discotheque a legitimate target for Dr Ahmed’s 'anger' about Iraq? Were the morose North Africans of July 21 'desperate' about Palestine? And what do all the UK jihadis have in common, these brain surgeons and jailbirds, these keen cricketers and footballers, these sex offenders, community workers, former boozers and drug addicts, primary-school teachers, sneak thieves, and fast-food restaurateurs, with their six-litre plastic tubs of hairdressing bleach and nail-polish remover, their crystalline triacetone triperoxide and chapati flour, and their 'dockyard confetti' (bolts and nuts and nails)? And the answer to that question seems to be slowly dawning. What they have in common is this: they are all abnormally interested in violent death.


The equivalence line always anticipates the usual counter-argument, which it considers to be an orientalist smear: that the Islamists are fanatics and nihilists who, in their mad quest for world domination, have created a cult of death. With each passing day, however, the counter-argument is sounding like an increasingly sober description of reality. With the 20th century so fresh in our mind, you might think that human beings would be quick to identify an organised passion for carnage. But we aren’t quick to do that – of course we aren’t; we are impeded by a combination of naivete, decency, and a kind of recurrent incredulity. The death cult always benefits, initially at least, from its capacity to astonish and stupefy.

Read the whole thing here.

Monday 10 September 2007

Lest we forget

Tomorrow is the sixth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
It's timely that Butterflies & Wheels has just posted up Daphne Patai's 'Letter to a Friend: on Islamic Fundamentalism', written on September 11th last year, which criticises those on the Left whose response to the attacks was 'an orgy of "blame America first"' and argues for a progressive, feminist battle of ideas against Islamism.

Also worth a look on this anniversary is Jean Bethke Elshtain's 'Defending American values at home and abroad', which is included in the latest issue of Democratiya. Elshtain was one of the signatories to 'What We're Fighting For: A Letter from America' , a reminder that there were some on the Left who understood what was under attack on 9/11.

But perhaps the best way to mark the anniversary is simply to take a moment to remember those who died.

To see an enlarged version of this photomontage, click here.

Happiness classes make children unhappy

I argued here that plans to give schoolchildren classes in 'happiness' were anti-educational. Now it turns out they don't even work. According to the Sunday Times:

Classes in happiness and emotional wellbeing, intended to tackle ill-discipline and improve social skills, may instead leave children depressed and self-obsessed, according to a new report.

The research, which draws on the findings of more than 20 international academic studies, describes the government programme in secondary schools as a 'large-scale psychological experiment'.

It finds little evidence that the classes, which encourage children to express feelings openly and empathise with others, lead to any long-term improvement in emotional wellbeing or academic success.

Carol Craig, the psychologist who led the research, concludes: 'A focus on the self can create an obsession with how you feel and can lead in some kids to depression'. Now there's a surprise.

Let's hope the report gives Ed Balls pause for thought and stems the tide of initiatives that risk replacing education with feel-good therapy.

(via Norm)

Sunday 9 September 2007

Is gender mere disguise?

To Stratford yesterday afternoon, to see the RSC in Neil Bartlett's production of Twelfth Night. It's attracted publicity due to Bartlett's decision to contribute his own layer of gender confusion to Shakespeare's drama of cross-dressed mistaken identity. Not only is the part of Viola given to a male actor (as, of course, would have been the case in Shakespeare's day), but a number of the secondary male characters - notably Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek - are played by women. Michael Billington, for one, was unimpressed, giving the production only two stars in his Guardian review earlier this week.

I thought the production got off to a faltering start, with neither the 'straight' leads nor the comic characters succeeding in grabbing the audience's attention for the first few scenes. Things livened up when Malvolio, played by veteran US actor John Lithgow, appeared, and his performance was one of the delights of the production. (The presence of the star of Third Rock from the Sun and the voice of Lord Farquaad from Shrek was also a bonus as far as our children were concerned.)

Chris New turned in a charming performance as Viola/Cesario, making you want to suspend disbelief and imagine that this really was a girl disguised as a boy, rather than a boy disguised as a girl disguised as a boy (if you see what I mean). He's certainly a young talent to watch, and his performance as one of the two Dromios - the other being Iain McKee who played Sebastian here - in the forthcoming revival of Nancy Meckler's outstanding Comedy of Errors, should be worth seeing - though Jonathan Slinger's original characterisation will be hard to beat). The audience also enjoyed James Clyde as Feste the fool, played as a louche piano-playing MC with more than a hint of Bill Nighy in Love Actually in his voice and mannerisms. And Siobhan Redmond as Maria the housekeeper was delightful, managing to make even a black Victorian bustle seem alluring.

Overall, though, I agree with Billington that the additional cross-dressing didn't add much to our understanding of the play. I take it that the general gender-swapping, together with the final gesture of the actors handing their costumes to a parlourmaid as they left the stage, was meant to convey a sense that gender roles are little more than disguises. If so, this was quite a facile and hackneyed point on which to hang so much. I'm not sure it added much to the comedy and at times I felt it definitely detracted from it.

The play was staged in the Courtyard, the RSC's temporary home while the main theatre undergoes its huge refurbishment. It's a foretaste of what the new theatre will look like, with its thrust stage and tiered seating offering seemingly excellent views from wherever you're sitting. The children thought it smelled like IKEA.

Going to the theatre in Stratford is a more intimate experience than in London or other big cities. You run the risk of bumping into actors you've just seen on stage in the street afterwards: we came across 'Sebastian' shopping for his tea in M&S not half an hour after the matinee. Oh, and John Woodvine was in the audience: we saw him queuing up for the gents in the interval.

Friday 7 September 2007

Against consensus politics

Hot on the heels of Gordon Brown's plan for citizen's juries come Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell's own proposals for overcoming voter apathy. Ming's big idea is a written constitution, which I wholeheartedly support, but he wants it to be ' the public'. And how exactly will this work? 'We propose a constitutional convention, at least 50% of which would be composed of members of the public, drawn by lot.' As with citizen's juries, the aim - to revive democracy - is laudable, but the proposed method would have precisely the opposite effect.

So, Ming: imagine that your selection of random members of the public turns out (as is entirely possible) to consist of a fair smattering of vocal BNP supporters, Islamic fundamentalists, animal rights extremists, Fathers for Justice campaigners, Catholic anti-abortionists, and so on. How are you going to deal with their demands that the constitution should include - for example - equal rights for pets, the right for local communities to practise sharia law - and exclude rights to abortion or immigration? Will you listen 'respectfully' to these diverse views, as is the custom in consultative processes of this kind, and try to be 'inclusive' of all shades of opinion, however eccentric? And on what grounds will your convention opt for one opinion over another? It can't be on the normal democratic principle that it represents a majority view, since your convention members, being randomly chosen, will represent no one but themselves.

This scenario points to the flaw in all attempts to develop a 'new politics' based on a bland and elusive consensus. There's a post by Rumbold at Pickled Politics, defending party politics and suggesting that conflict and disagreement are essential to the political process: s/he is arguing from a Conservative standpoint, but as a democratic socialist, I agree. In a plural society with a multitude of diverse opinions and interest groups, politics is about argument and persuasion. Ideas have to be fought for, and at the end of the day, some will win, some will lose. To choose a topical example: between those who believe that freedom of expression is a fundamental constitutional principle, and those who argue that religious believers should have special legal protection against being 'offended', there can be no consensus.

Ming's proposal is not only anti-democratic, it's also anti-intellectual. Behind it is the reasonable-sounding assumption that we need to get away from reliance on an elite of 'experts' and listen to the opinions of 'ordinary' people. But why should a randomly-selected group of people who have never thought about the issue come up with a better constitution than those who have been arguing and debating about the issues for years? Choosing people by lots not only excludes unelected experts, it also undermines all the finely-tuned structures and processes of civil, democratic society - trade unions, local councils, voluntary organisations, campaign groups - who not only have some claim to be representative of and accountable to the people, but might actually have coherent ideas about the issues involved.

The Lib Dem plans would entrench rather than overcome the perceived divide between the political class and 'the public'. With apologies to The Prisoner, they make me want to shout out: 'I'm not a member of the public, I'm a citizen!' Only in a half-democracy like ours - actually a hybrid between monarchical-hereditary and democratic government - could the majority be conceived of as 'the public', a homogenous mass over against the politicians and the experts, rather than 'the people' whose elected representatives are actually us - the people - (temporarily) in government.

Tuesday 4 September 2007

BBC bias minimises suffering of Israeli terror victims

There's a classic lesson in how to smuggle political bias into an apparently balanced news report, over at the BBC news website. Martin Asser is reporting on the 'anger' of residents of the Israeli town of Sderot at frequent rocket attacks from across the border in Gaza, attacks which particularly threaten their local school.

On the face of it, a sympathetic account of the sufferings of innocent Israeli civilians in the face of terrorism. But the focus of the piece is entirely on the Israeli government's failure to protect its citizens, rather than on the terrorists who target schoolchildren. Asser implictly minimizes the sufferings of the people of Sderot by making a totally gratuitous comparison with those of the Palestinians:

There have been at least six deaths in this 22,000-inhabitant town in the last six years from rocket attacks - few compared with the heavy Palestinian casualties the conflict inflicts on Gaza just a kilometre away.

Then he does the terrorists' work for them, by providing this neat 'explanation' for the attacks:

To the Islamic Jihad militants who fired them, the rockets were pay-back against Israel for the deaths of a number children in Israeli air strikes in Gaza in the past week.

No mention here that these latter deaths, though tragic, were an accidental by-product of an attempt to neutralise militants, while the rocket attacks on Sderot appear to have deliberately targeted the school.

Provocatively (and in case we haven't got the point about the relative suffering of Israelis and Palestinians) Asser describes the residents of Sderot as 'the only civilians in Israel sharing the Palestinian experience of life under siege'. This is, of course, to overlook the countless rocket and suicide bomb attacks throughout Israel in recent years.

Finally, and keeping the focus entirely on the responsibilities of the victims, Asser concludes:

It is hard to see how, given its location, the government can do much to protect Sderot, short of pursuing all-out war with Gaza, or all-out peace.

No mention, of course, of what Hamas or Islamic Jihad could do to rein in militants who aim rockets at schoolchildren.

I'm not normally sympathetic to claims of BBC bias, but it seems Mr. Asser (a British convert to Islam) has form in this area.

Citizens' juries will weaken not strengthen democracy

Gordon Brown continues his efforts to fashion a 'new politics' and to overcome widespread disengagement with the political process. Once again this has included floating the notion of 'citizens' juries' to debate key issues. So far commentators have been sympathetic to the general aim of re-engaging voters, but equivocal about the method proposed. In The Guardian Michael White argues that 'simply to ring around the thinktanks and pressure groups serves to highlight the problem' and that to give real power to such forums 'crosses the line between direct democracy and the traditional representative variety to which party politicians such as Mr Brown still give primacy'. His fellow columnist Polly Toynbee believes Brown 'is right to point to vibrant expressions of civic life in parallel but apart from the political process' and challenges sceptics to 'offer their own solutions', but at the same time thinks his proposals open a 'Pandora's box'. The Times leader is pretty hostile to the whole idea:

This has become an immensely trendy concept in certain circles, despite having been around in various guises for years, with no compelling evidence that they improve the quality of governance. They involve bringing together a number of normal people to look at challenging issues — such as youth crime and the organisation of the NHS — providing them with what is allegedly a neutral assessment of “the facts” and asking them to reach conclusions (which may or may not then be adopted).

Why such people are to be deemed more accountable than politicians is unclear. How they would glean more from “the facts” than senior civil servants is as uncertain. It also seems something of a contradiction to hold a conference designed to encourage more people to vote while suggesting at the same time that glorified focus groups, not Parliament, should shape decisions.

I agree. As I've argued before, citizens' juries weaken rather than strengthen democracy and threaten to replace accountable representation with factionalism and communalism. Here's what I said last time the idea was floated:

Although the idea sounds nice and empowering, it's actually the opposite. As with other experiments in 'direct democracy', it's not really democratic, but populist: government by focus group. Members of citizens' juries speak for no one but themselves, so politicians are able to listen earnestly and then ignore the results. As with government attempts to appeal 'over the heads' of the unions to individual members, it undermines the whole notion of representative democracy.

People who volunteer for things like citizen's juries tend to have an unusually wonkish interest in political meetings, or have an axe to grind, or have a lot of time on their hands: in other words, they tend to be unrepresentative of the majority of the population. That's why representative democracy works: it enables the busy majority to elect others to represent their collective interests. Of course, Brown's proposals are a response to a sense that people are disillusioned with representative politics. But the answer isn't to abandon it in favour of 'government by consultation' that treats people as disaggregated individuals and therefore actually entrenches the power of politicians, but to find ways to reinvigorate it: that's the challenge.

Monday 3 September 2007

Why should Turks settle for anything less than a truly liberal society?

Many words and deeds of the AKP are indeed worrying from a European liberal perspetive. Some in the west may condone them in line with the role they have tailored for Turkey: a role model for the Middle East. But some of us in Turkey still think that we should and can not settle for anything less than a truly liberal society - liberal in the European sense of the word. If that prevents us from being a role model to other Muslim societies in the Middle East, so be it.

That's Mehmet Karli taking western liberals (including a recent Guardian leader) to task for their acquiescence in the growing power of the supposedly 'moderate' Islamist AKP. Karli believes that this betrays 'an Orientalist mindset, an assumption that a Muslim society cannot be as liberal as a European one'. In common with many Turkish secularists, he is equally critical of the military (whose 1980 coup he blames for the rise of 'an authoritarian ideology called the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, a poisonous mix of nationalism and Islamism') and is 'determined to protect not only secularism but democracy'.

While agreeing that there is no immediate danger of an Islamic state in Turkey, Karli maintains that the AKP's influence is pernicious in a more indirect way:

The real danger is the creeping Islamisation of social life, and a rise in societal conservatism which puts pressure on secular Turks. While the AKP does not impose any laws towards the establishment of an Islamic state, it fuels social conservatism through political and economic incentives. Municipalities controlled by the AKP use social policies to promote conservatism, and in the central administration a conservative lifestyle becomes necessary for those who wish to be promoted to key positions.

A recent Radio 4 programme about Turkey highlighted aspects of this creeping Islamisation in AKP-controlled areas, including the introduction of gender segregation in schooling and restrictions on the sale of alcohol.

Karli's article is a timely ripose to those western commentators, such as Jonathan Steele, who patronisingly deride a belief in liberalism and democracy as the province of a 'secular elite' in the Middle East. Read the whole thing here.