Wednesday 31 October 2007

Hugo tries to ban Hallowe'en

9.30 on Hallowe'en and still no trick-or-treaters. Ah well, those chocolate bars won't go to waste. At least we were spared a visit from the teenagers I saw coming out of Tesco laden with eggs earlier this evening: can't believe they were looking forward to an evening of omelette-making.

I mentioned here that I'm no great fan of Hallowe'en. But if there's one thing that could change my mind, it's hearing that Hugo Chavez wants to ban it. The Venezuelan autocrat has described the festival as part of the US culture of 'putting fear into other nations, putting fear into their own people'. As the BBC report slyly adds: 'He did not refer to incidents earlier this month when lanterns made from hollowed pumpkins carrying anti-government messages appeared in several places in the capital, Caracas.'

It's enough to renew your faith in the subversive power of this pagan festival of mischiefmaking.

Cherie's cautious criticism of religious discrimination against women

Further to this post, Cherie Booth (Blair) today restated her belief that 'culture and religion cannot be used as an excuse for discriminating against women'. In many parts of the world, she argued, 'proclaimed adherence to a specific religion or system of belief or culture is intimately tied to women's continuing discrimation and abuse'. Moreover, she rejected the view that human rights could not be exported to some countries because of religious or cultural differences, saying 'human rights are universal'.

Perhaps mindful of her husband's new role as a Middle East peace envoy, Booth wouldn't be drawn into supporting protests against the visit to the UK of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. And some will think she was too cautious in her criticism of specific religious practices. Comparing the Islamic veil with the headgear of Catholic nuns, she said she had 'no problem' with women covering their heads. But on the niqab she was more forthright:

I think ... that if you get to the stage where a woman is not able to express her personality because we cannot see her face, then we do have to ask whether this is something that is actually acknowledging the woman's right to be a person.

Booth stopped short of identifying religion as such, or even a particular religion, as patriarchal or misognynist. Instead, she fell back on the well-worn formula of blaming 'fallible human beings, mainly men' for misinterpreting the 'true precepts' of their faith. She 'rejected the notion that Islam was innately discriminatory towards women by suggesting that the use of Sharia law in some Muslim countries went against the true precepts of the faith.'

This is reminiscent of her husband's claim after 9/11: 'There is nothing in Islam which excuses such an all-encompassing massacre of innocent people, nor is there anything in the teachings of Islam that allows the killing of civilians, of women and children, of those who are not engaged in war or fighting', and George Bush's 'The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.' These claims, which some would argue are based on a misreading of Islam through a western, christian prism (in which a perceived dichotomy between 'true' and 'false' religion has been a persistent dialectic), are discussed - and challenged - in an excellent article by Malise Ruthven in the current edition of the New York Review of Books.

Iran to execute boy for gay sex

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.
(President Ahmadinejad)

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.
(Columbia Queer Alliance)

Child offender Makwan Moloudzadeh, an Iranian Kurd, is believed to be at risk of imminent execution. He has reportedly been convicted of lavat-e iqabi (anal sex) for the alleged rape of a 13-year-old boy. Makwan Moloudzadeh was aged 13 at the time of the alleged offence. His death sentence has been passed to the Office for the Implementation of Sentences and he is due to be executed in public, near his home. He was reportedly arrested on 1 October 2006 in Paveh, in the western province of Kermanshah. He was detained in Paveh Prison and later transferred to Kermanshah Central Prison. Following interrogations in Paveh during which he was reportedly ill-treated, he was tried by Branch 1 of the Kermanshah Criminal Court and on 7 June 2007 he was sentenced to death. The witnesses and the two people who had pressed charges against him withdrew their claims after the trial. Under Iranian law, children (boys of up to 14.7 years) are to be flogged for lavat ("homosexual acts"). However, the judge relied on ‘elm-e qazi, the "knowledge of the judge" to determine that penetration had taken place and that Makwan Moloudzadeh could be sentenced to death. Makwan Moloudzadeh lodged an appeal on 5 July, which the Supreme Court rejected on 1 August. Several witnesses have withdrawn their testimonies and signed notarized written statements to that effect. During his trial, Makwan Moloudzadeh reportedly maintained his innocence. Previously, however, he was reportedly ill-treated during interrogation and "confessed" during interrogation that he had had a sexual relationship with a boy in 1999. He is reported to have gone on hunger strike for 10 days to protest against his ill-treatment in detention. Prior to his trial and conviction, on or around 7 October 2006 Makwan Moloudzadeh was reportedly paraded through the streets of Paveh riding on a donkey, with his head shaved. People in the street shouted abuse and threw things at him.
(Amnesty International)

What does it mean to say 'I believe'?

Two brief insights into the nature of belief, and the unreliability of surveys that ask about people's faith. First, Stephen Pinker:

When people are asked a question, they don't just turn a flashlight into their data bank of beliefs and read out what they see. When people say, "Yes, I believe in God and the Bible," they're kind of saying, "I'm a moral person. I have solidarity with the community of churchgoers that I was brought up in and that I currently belong to."

(via Snarksmith)

Second, J.K.Rowling:

The truth is that, like Graham Greene, my faith is sometimes that my faith will return. It's something I struggle with a lot. On any given moment if you asked me [if] I believe in life after death, I think if you polled me regularly through the week, I think I would come down on the side of yes — that I do believe in life after death. [But] it's something that I wrestle with a lot.

Tuesday 30 October 2007

Red carpet treatment for leader of vicious dictatorship

Praising Liberal Democrats is not something that comes naturally to me, but all credit to acting leader Vince Cable for refusing to attend the official reception for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. As Johann Hari wrote in yesteday's Independent:

This week, Gordon Brown and David Cameron will welcome the leader of one of the world's most vicious dictatorships to Britain. Both men will embrace King Abdullah al-Saud, who heads a regime in which, according to Amnesty International, "Fear and secrecy permeate every aspect of life. Every day the most fundamental human rights of people in Saudi Arabia are being violated."

You can read the full Amnesty report on Saudi Arabia here. The kingdom's abuses of human rights include detention without trial, curtailment of free speech, drastic restrictions on women's freedom, torture of prisoners and death sentences imposed after unfair trials. In other words, the Saudi regime's human rights record is on a par with that of Iran, or the Taliban, both of whom are our opponents rather than our allies in the 'war on terror'.

One of the most shameful things I ever heard on the BBC was a discussion on Radio 4's Start the Week, at the time of the furore over the drama-documentary Death of a Princess. The film's director was excoriated by all the other studio guests without exception, and by the presenter Richard Baker, for offending our Saudi allies and putting British jobs and business at risk. It was one of the earliest examples of the argument about 'giving offence' trumping concerns about free speech and human rights.

The red carpet rolled out this week for King Abdullah shows that little has changed.

Monday 29 October 2007

Some TV trivia for Aaron Sorkin devotees

Some time ago I mentioned the eager anticipation with which grieving West Wing fans were awaiting the arrival in the UK of Aaron Sorkin's latest production, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Well, we're now about half-way through the first (and only) series on More4, and the whole thing has just re-started from Episode One on Channel 4, at some godawful hour of the night.

The verdict so far? Well, for Sorkin fans it's unmissable, since it has many of the features that we loved about The West Wing: the snappy dialogue that you have to replay to catch in full, the 'walk and talk' extended camera shots, the layered relationships built around a fast-moving workplace. Hell, it even has 'Josh' from The WW in a starring role, not to mention compelling performances from Matthew Perry, Amanda Peet and Sarah Paulson.

However...despite all this, the show isn't as immediately appealing as Sorkin's presidential drama, and you can kind-of see why the ratings fell away and it got canned after one series. Despite the frequent moments of comedy (it is, after all, about the production of a weekly comedy show), there's a darkness and intensity about Studio 60 that wasn't there in The West Wing. It may simply be the fact that most of it takes place in the enclosed space of a badly-lit theatre, but Sorkin also seems more unremittingly concerned with darker themes of relationship breakdown, miscommunication and (ironically/appropriately) the unrelenting pressures on creative artists from ratings-obsessed networks and narrow-minded religious and cultural conservatives.

H. and I have had more moments of pure pleasure from our recent discovery - via the wonder of DVD boxed sets - of a much earlier Sorkin production: Sports Night. We were put off buying this for a long time by its ostensible subject (neither H. nor I being great sports fans), but we needn't have been. It's only available in Region 1 / NTSC format at the moment, so we've taken to watching episodes in bed, after the children have gone to sleep, on the portable multi-region player that I bought H. for Christmas.

The comedy is much broader than in Sorkin's later work, but the writing, acting and interweaving of personal relationships and social/political concerns are classic Sorkin. And there's the added pleasure of watching future WW stars such as Joshua Malina ('Will' in The WW who has a key role as a nerdy producer), Janel Maloney ('Donna' in The WW, in a minor role here) and Teri Polo (later the wife of president-elect Matt Santos in the final WW series), as well as Peter Krause who went on to star in Six Feet Under and Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives fame. The show's production team - Sorkin as main writer, producer Thomas Schlamme and theme-music composer W.G.Snuffy Walden - came together again for The West Wing and Studio 60.

Enough TV trivia. Back to the politics.

A mealy-mouthed attempt at censorship

I somehow managed to miss this editorial in Saturday's Guardian, about the film version of Monica Ali's novel Brick Lane. The leader writer acknowledges that 'like any other community, the Bangladeshis of London's East End cannot have the right of veto over how they are portrayed'. But s/he goes on to censure both Ali and her adaptors for being insensitive to the community's 'concerns', arguing: 'A film or a book that sets out to be a contemporary record of a particular community living in a well-known area cannot ignore them'.

What's more, the writer imposes strictures on any author daring to cover such communities, demanding that they show 'a greater sense of responsibility'. I detected an inverted snobbery, not to say indirect racism, in the dismissal of Ali's capacity as 'a mixed-race Oxford graduate' to depict the inhabitants of Brick Lane. I can't imagine a white writer being the target of such patronising advice. The editorial concludes:

The artists are responding to a public hunger for some insights into British-Bangladeshi life. They are providing reportage from an under-reported community. There is a price for that, and it comes in treating one's subjects with greater care than if they were made up.

Thank goodness that this mealy-mouthed attempt at censorship was roundedly condemned today by a number of contributors to the newspaper's letters pages. They included the novelist Hari Kunzru, whose withering riposte is so good it's worth reproducing in full:

As a mixed-race novelist (hell, just as a novelist), I would like to say to your leader writer that I reserve the right to imagine anyone and anything I damn well please. If I want to write about Jewish people, or paedophiles or Patagonians or witches in 12th-century Finland, then I will do so, despite being "authentically" none of these things. I also give notice that if I choose, I intend to imagine what your muddled writer quaintly terms "real people" living in "real communities". My work may convince or it may not. However, I will not accept that I have any a priori responsibility to anyone - white, black or brown, let alone any "community" - to represent them in any particular way.

If Monica Ali isn't brown enough or working-class enough or Sylheti enough for you, then, well, that's your weird little identity-political screw-up. Presumably she's not white enough for someone else. I'm sick of all this cant about cultural authenticity, and sick of the duty (imposed only on "minority" writers) to represent in some quasi-political fashion. Art isn't about promoting social cohesion, or cementing community relations. It's about telling the truth as you see it, even if it annoys or offends some people. That's called freedom of expression, and last time I checked we all thought it was quite a good idea.

Sunday 28 October 2007

Materialism and the mystical

Nick Cohen takes aim at the 'pseudo-science' of homeopathy here, and his opinions tend to be shared by bloggers whose views I normally find sympathetic. If my own attitude is more equivocal, it's partly because (as I reported here and here) I've recently turned to homeopathy in pursuit of a non-invasive cure for a persistent health problem. Has it worked? Well, my homeopath would say it's too soon to tell. There have been some positive signs, but sceptics would probably attribute these to the placebo effect.

I've been surprised, though, by how many acquaintances whom I had categorised as progressive, materialist types (and with whom I had been shy about admitting my own indulgence in alternative medicine) have confessed to using homeopathy, and to believing in its efficacy. In other words, a rational, scientific world-view doesn't necessarily translate into scepticism about alternative therapies.

It's a reminder that the materialist and the mystical have always been curious bedfellows in the history of the contemporary left. The 'moment' that gave birth to the New Left - the events of 1968 or thereabouts - also gave rise to the New Age, and the two have been closely intertwined ever since, with rational political currents not easily disentangled from more mystical, spiritual trends. (All of this is dealt with brilliantly in Sheila Rowbotham's memoir of the Sixties, Promise of a Dream.)

Does the current argument over alternative therapies bear any relation to the renewed debate about 'faith' on the left? Is there a connexion between those progressives who have a new-found respect for belief - and a tolerance of new age therapies? Conversely, does scepticism about 'pseudo-science' coincide with a suspicion of renascent religiosity and a robust secularism?

I'm not sure it's quite so simple. Even among those of us of a secular cast of mind, there's a longing for therapies that offer a more holistic view of mind and body, self and the world, to be 'true', even as our scepticism nags away at us to dismiss them, as Cohen and others do, as mere quackery.

Women's rights can't be watered down by claims of cultural difference

In today's Observer Cherie Booth argues that the fight for women's rights should not simply be subsumed into 'the bigger battle for human rights for everyone.' She accepts that 'the denial of human rights hits both men and women':

But while both sexes suffer, it's still women who suffer most. Two out of three children denied education are girls. Women own just 1 per cent of the world's titled land, a fact that makes it very difficult for women entrepreneurs to get bank loans, because they have no collateral. Even in the UK, where there has been huge progress, women in full-time work still take home 83p for every pound that men get paid and the glass ceiling at the top is as unbreakable as ever.

And, importantly, these barriers and discrimination are not an accidental byproduct of gender. They exist simply because of it.

They rest on the idea, spoken or unspoken, that women are somehow not the equal of men, that their rights, views and interests don't carry the same weight. It is this assumption that underpins and links the pay gap in developed countries, the denial in some developing countries of a woman's right to own property, the practice of abortion or infanticide because the child is a girl, and that allows rape or honour killings to go unpunished. It is the belief that women are worth less than men.

Booth has no time for those who maintain that women's rights, or human rights generally, are a western construct:

There are those who, while appalled at such prejudice in our societies, attempt to excuse it elsewhere as a result of different cultures. They argue that it is wrong to impose our standards across the world, casting doubt on the concept of universal human rights in a world of diverse cultural and religious standards.

I believe this is both wrong and patronising. As Rosalyn Higgins, the first female judge on the International Court of Justice, noted, it's an argument advanced by states or by liberal scholars but rarely by the oppressed groups themselves. It's often based, too, on a false belief that the idea of universal human rights, and the UN declaration that made them concrete, is a construct of a few Western democracies foisted on a reluctant world.

The declaration was drafted, in fact, by experts from every background and improved by contributions from all the UN's founding members from across the world. It was an express statement that the same human rights belong to each and every one of us, whatever our race, gender, religion or background.

They are a recognition of our essential dignity as human beings, something that, I would argue, has its roots deep in all our great faiths. As such, they can't be ignored or watered down simply because of claims of cultural difference.

She strikes a hopeful note, drawing attention to the advances in women's political and economic equality that are being made, often in the unlikeliest of places:

Across the Gulf, women, with the support of men, are winning the right to vote and are increasingly filling important ministerial positions. They are also taking a bigger role in the economy.

In Tanzania and across the developing world, innovative credit schemes are springing up to tackle the reluctance of the banks to lend to women despite their better record of repaying loans than men. In Bangladesh, micro-credit schemes are also educating women about their rights and training women in the fundamentals of the Muslim law of property to help them argue their case. Economic empowerment and education are making a difference.

As Booth concludes, this is not the time to retreat from the fight for women's equality: 'It's the time, with sensitivity but also firmness, to step it up wherever we find prejudice. The prize is not just a better world for women. It is a better world for all.'

The freedom to change your mind

Imagine a woman – let's call her Beth – who has been an unthinking atheist all her life, just because her family and her friends are, too. One day, she decides to convert to Islam. As soon as she dons the hijab, her neighbours start to swear and spit at her in the street. A brick is thrown through her window; while she is sleeping, her car is torched.

When she speaks out publicly, the death threats come. She is a "whore" who will be "raped to death". All the other converts to Islam are receiving the same threats. Some have been beaten. Some are on the run. When they approach the police, they are wary-to-hostile. The officers ask suspiciously: what have you been doing to anger these Muslim-bashers?

If this was happening this way, it would – rightly – be a national scandal. There would be Panorama specials, front-page fury and government inquiries into Islamophobia. But it is happening – only in the reverse direction. All over Europe, there are Muslims who are exercising their right in a free society to change their religion, or to become atheists. And they are regularly being threatened, beaten and burned-out, while the police largely stand by, inert.

That's the opening of Johann Hari's powerful piece in Thursday's Independent, on the plight of Muslims who wish to renounce their religion. He describes the experience of Maryam Namazie, founder of the British Council of ex-Muslims:

She was immediately flooded with calls from frightened people who wanted to join but were too intimidated. Endless phone threats inform her that she will soon be beheaded – but she has learned that the police just aren't interested. "They have never been very helpful," she says. "They act as if it's your fault for 'provoking' these people, when in fact the Islamist movement uses threats and intimidation as a tool to silence their critics."

Hari also mentions Mina Ahadi, who leads a similar organisation in Germany:

Women such as Mina expose a hole in the stale logic of multiculturalism. She shows that secularism is not a "Western" value: she thought of it all by herself, in a rural village in Iran. Yet the attitudes that lead to the persecution of apostates are widespread even within British Islam, because we patronisingly assume it is "their culture" and do not challenge it. Some 36 per cent of British Muslims between the ages of 18 and 24 think apostates should be murdered. The younger British Muslims are, the more they believe it – a bad sign for the future, unless we start arguing back. This isn't just kids sounding off. Some act on it: a Despatches documentary this year, Unholy War, found dozens of cases of apostates having their cars blown up, their kids threatened and even being beaten and left for dead, on British streets.

Freedom of belief must include the freedom not to believe. And faith that depends on fear to keep it in line is not real faith. Surely that's something that all of us, believers and sceptics, can agree on. Secularists will certainly echo Hari's support for Muslims (and Christians, and those brought up in other faiths) who wish to change their beliefs, just as they support the right of individuals to espouse whichever form of religious belief they choose, however outlandish. Will liberal-minded Christian and Muslims join them?

Thursday 25 October 2007

What happens when democracy means voting for authoritarianism?

I've written before about the difficulties that arise when a newly-democratic country makes a democratic choice, the consequence of which is to exclude or oppress significant sections of the population. The example I discussed in these earlier posts is southern Iraq, where the democratic election of conservative religious parties threatens the rights and freedoms of religious and political minorities, women and homosexuals. Some blame may be attached to the Coalition Provisional Authority, for the way it encouraged a communalist politics in the south and lent credibility to sectarian forces such as the Sadrists. However, the popular vote for the religious parties in the 2005 election appears to have been overwhelming.

So is this democracy? And where does it leave the strategy of encouraging the development of democratic reform in the Middle East, if the result is to install Islamist regimes which then proceed to limit democratic freedoms? I remember seeing a quote from a liberal Saudi woman who was emphatically against democratic change in her country, since she feared it would mean the election of an even more oppressively Islamist government. But does this mean that the west should revert to its discredited strategy of shoring up corrupt Middle Eastern dictators, for fear that their removal would lead to something much worse?

It's an issue that's been exercising Paulie over at Never Trust A Hippy. He writes:

A few times over the past year or so, I've noticed Dave Osler saying something along the lines of (and I paraphrase)...

"The problem with those who advocate democracy in the middle east have to face is that the people will vote for authoritarian Islamicist governments given the chance."... and each time I see it, I promise myself that I'll write a long post pointing out the holes in that argument: That it fundamentally misrepresents what democracy means - and reduces it to the simple process of voting.

He goes on to give a more nuanced definition of democracy:

Democracy is about a robust civil society, entrenched liberties and other important factors as much as it is about voting. A state is not a democracy if a vote results in the election of an authoritarian regime. If it is possible to win an election and then abolish - say - freedom of conscience / subsequent elections / press freedom etc, then the election has not taken place in a democratic state.

I think that's about right: in a true democracy, it shouldn't be possible for any government, however popular or democratic its mandate, to take any actions that limit democracy. This is as true of Chavez' Venezuela as it is of southern Iraq. The trouble is, I'm not sure how you guarantee this without a written constitution as a reference point: something that Paulie argued against in another post yesterday.

All of this raises a further difficult question: should political parties whose election would lead to the restriction of democratic freedoms be excluded from the democratic process? This is what an anonymous commenter called for, in response to my earlier post about southern Iraq: 'Reflection would make one realise that the political order of a free society has to be exclusive of at least some people.' But if groupings such as the Sadrists should have been excluded from the Iraqi elections because of the threat their programme posed to the rights of women, does that mean that the BNP shouldn't be allowed to stand in British general elections, since their coming to power would inevitably curtail the rights of black and Asian Britons? It's a tough one: and again, I'm not sure how you can resolve issues of this nature without a constitution setting out what those fundamental and irreducible rights and liberties are.

However, like Paulie (and as I've said before) I have some misgivings about the process of actually drafting a constitution:

All of us (even supporters of the idea) will be driven insane by having to watch the drafting of a constitution. I will personally be convicted of mass murder after a few days watching it. Pressure groups. Political correspondents. Picture the scene? You know I'm right about this?

And (as I wrote here) I have some sympathy with his argument that 'it would not be possible to introduce a constitution in this country without us first having some seismic structural change (war / inflation / revolution)'. Or at the very least, the institution of a republic.

My mention of Venezuela in this context was timely. Chavez is a democratically-elected autocrat who is pushing through constitutional reforms that would severely limit democracy. Now it seems his government is attempting to restrict the right to protest against those 'reforms' (via Harry's Place).

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Partition the best hope for Iraq?

Former US diplomat Peter Galbraith has provided some of the more insightful analysis of the current situation in Iraq. In today's New York Times he repeats his assertion that the best hope for the country lies in partition, or at the very least the loose federation envisaged in its constitution:

Iraq’s minimalist Constitution is a reflection of a country without a common identity. The Shiites believe their majority entitles them to rule, and a vast majority of them support religious parties that would define Iraq as a Shiite state. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs cannot accept their country being defined by a rival branch of Islam and ruled by parties they see as aligned with Iran. And the Kurdish vision of Iraq is of a country that does not include them.

As before, Galbraith's main hope rests on the emergence of a stable, independent and democratic Kurdistan. To those who fear that this week's events might have undermined that hope, he counters that, for all its anger over attacks by the PKK, Turkey 'has adopted a pragmatic attitude toward the emergence of a de facto independent Kurdistan, in part by supporting the Turkish companies that now provide 80 percent of the foreign investment in Iraqi Kurdistan.'

Galbraith believes that some kind of partition of Iraq is now 'unavoidable' and that those with an interest in the region need to start facing up to the practical consequences. He concludes:

Let’s face it: partition is a better outcome than a Sunni-Shiite civil war. There is, in any event, little alternative to partition. Iraq cannot be reconstructed as a unitary state, and the sooner we face up to this reality, the better.

I find Galbraith's argument broadly sympathetic. However, it's important not to idealise Kurdistan as some kind of paradise of liberal democracy - not while honour killings and other instances of religiously-motivated violence against women are still rife there.

Meanwhile, Rory Stewart, another writer whose work has offered useful insights into the Iraqi situation, provides some clues as to how we got where we are. He's reviewing books about Gertrude Bell - 'the wealthy Oxford-educated amateur with no academic training in international affairs and no experience of government, policy, or management' who found herself playing a key role in the construction of the new state of Iraq under the British Mandate following World War One.

Stewart finds striking parallels between Bell's experience and his own time as a political officer with the CPA in southern Iraq in 2003. While he's understanding of the competing pressures on Bell and her colleagues, he's severely critical of her most far-reaching decision:

Bell should never have acquiesced in the inclusion of the Kurdish-dominated province of Mosul in Iraq. Rivalry between the Sunnis and Kurds was inevitable but the decision to include the Kurds was determined by British, not Iraqi, interests and in particular by oil; and it has proved of little benefit to either Iraq or the Kurds, 90 percent or more of whom want independence. It continues, moreover, to threaten the integrity of the state.

Supporting the Iranian resistance: beyond placards and megaphones

Further to this post, there's news here that leading Iranian human rights and prisoners' rights advocate Emadeddin Baghi has been detained in Tehran's notorious Evin prison on the ludicrous charge of 'acting against national security', which appears to relate to his writings about the suspicious murders of a number of Iranian intellectuals (via Butterflies and Wheels).

And there's an excellent article here by Terry Glavin, describing the Iranian dissident movement and questioning the western left's failure to offer it adequate support. Glavin quotes Iranian-Canadian left-wing writer, feminist and human rights activist Samira Mohyeddin as saying that she has often been accused of being an orientalist and a neo-con, simply because of her opposition to Ahmadinejad's repressive religious regime.

Mohyeddin offers this explanation:

There's a 1960s-era protest culture of "placards and megaphones" that lingers on the left, and it expects nothing more of its cadres than opposition to America. The prevailing leftist mindset continues to "exoticize" Iranian culture and clings to a naive and mistaken assumption that the Islamic Republic is somehow "culturally authentic." Many liberals and leftists tend to be infatuated with a shallow anti-imperialism that wrongly equates human rights and freedom with "western" values.

Glavin's piece includes a useful description of the Iranian pro-democracy movement and its politics, drawing on Danny Postel's groundbreaking work on the influence of liberal thinkers on the new generation of Iranian reformists. The article also tackles the difficult question of whether official US support for the Iranian resistance might actually be counterproductive.

(via Drinked Soaked Trots)

And via the University and College Union website (good to see them backing a genuine solidarity campaign):

A new film has been posted on Youtube, telling the story of Mansour Osanloo, the president of the Iranian bus workers union, who was abducted by Iranian intelligence services and is now being held in Iran's notorious Evin prison for constituting a 'threat to national security'. Mansour has been detained in Evin previously, where he was tortured and beaten. The International Transport Workers' Federation has now posted the new film Freedom Will Come - The Story of Mansour Osanloo on Youtube and you can watch it here:

Anti-secular fundamentalism fundamentalists

The 'moral equivalence' argument - the tactic used by some anti-secularists to suggest that critics of religion are as 'fundamentalist' as those they oppose - is something that I've often posted about. Now Max Dunbar has written a fine piece which collects together some of the more outrageous of these slurs and offers a robust rebuttal:

What to make of these writers (who appear in popular liberal newspapers and magazines) who say that critics of religious fundamentalism are no different from religious fundamentalists…just because they are quite passionate in their views? These pundits (shall we call them ‘anti-secular fundamentalism fundamentalists’?) are telling us, in essence, that people who are for free speech and human rights are the exact same as people who are against these things.


When people discuss religious fundamentalism and ‘atheist fundamentalism’ it is always the secular fundamentalist that comes off worst. It is always the critics of religion, not its followers, who have the explaining to do.

And that makes a kind of sense. If you write something bad about Christopher Hitchens, he may be annoyed but he won’t actually kill you. Write something critical of Islam (or Christianity or Hinduism) and there is a good chance that you may be attacked, threatened, your name and details put on some Redwatch equivalent somewhere. Atheism is a safe target.

Dunbar makes a connexion with the left's changing attitude to religion, picking up on the liberal disillusionment with modernity that I mentioned in a recent post. He writes:

In classical Marxist theory, faith was both a comfort to the oppressed and an illusion that had to fall before true happiness could be obtained. Now, faith is seen as a more spiritual alternative to our decadent consumerist society. Hence, dissidents of Muslim background such as Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are slandered as neocons and Uncle Toms for criticising Islam.

Pryamvada Gopal, Ian Buruma , Timothy Garton Ash, Madeleine Bunting, Karen Armstrong et al: take note.

(via Butterflies and Wheels)

Friday 19 October 2007

Blair tells it like it is

Tony Blair was on top form last night, in his first major speech since leaving office, addressing a charity fundraiser in New York. Warning that the war on extremism and terror was 'far from over', he unapologetically compared radical Islam to Nazism and outlined the danger arising from the fact that this ideology 'now has a state - Iran'.

And Blair had no time for the argument that the answer to Islamist extremism is to avoid any further actions that might 'provoke' its wrath:

There is a tendency even now, even in some of our own circles, to believe that they are as they are because we have provoked them and if we left them alone they would leave us alone. I fear this is mistaken. They have no intention of leaving us alone.

Welcome back, Tony. We've missed you.

Where this blog leads, others follow. Read Oliver Kamm over at CiF, arguing that 'far from sabre-rattling, Tony Blair's speech about the threat of a nuclear-capable Iran was simply telling it like it is'.

Libeskind documentary on BBC4

Last night I watched part of a fascinating BBC4 documentary about Daniel Libeskind, the architect whose design has been selected for the Ground Zero site in New York. The programme traced Libeskind's life from his childhood in postwar Poland, via Israel, to New York, and the trajectory of his career from academic architect, by way of his triumphant design for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, to his plans for Ground Zero.

What made the programme compelling was not only Libeskind's personal charm, and the strange beauty and dynamism of his designs, but also the understated connexions it made: for example, between the memory of the Holocaust that haunted his childhood and his response to that other massacre of the innocents on 9/11.

Libeskind's unabashed faith in liberty and social justice also shone through: he described the terrorist attack on New York as an attack on the values that the city represents, and his design for Ground Zero as the response of a democratic city to an assault on its very being.

I hope that Libeskind's plans for the WTC site become reality, and that one day we see his elegant, spiralling tower mirroring the outline of the Statue of Liberty across the bay. And I hope the BBC4 documentary gets repeated. Yesterday's news was dominated by budget cuts at the BBC, with John Humphrys harrumphing that the corporation should consider withdrawing from the 'unwatched' BBCs 3 and 4. But the Libeskind documentary was a reminder of what those channels are for, and of the kind of thing that the BBC does best.

Thursday 18 October 2007

Iran imprisons student leaders

I wrote here and here about the serious threats to academic freedom in Ahmadinejad's Iran. Now it seems that three Iranian student leaders have been beaten, arrested and jailed on vague and probably trumped-up charges of 'insulting Islam'. Majid Tavakoli, Ahmed Ghassaban and Ehsan Mansouri belong to the Office for Fostering Unity, a reformist student organisation. They deserve the support of academics and liberals in the west. There's more information over at Harry's Place.

Mottos, monarchy and muddling along

Having chastised Tristram Hunt here for his sneering at the 'new atheist orthodoxy' and his quivering excitement at the 'radical energy' of religious faith, I'm surprised to find myself agreeing with most of what he has to say about the search for a 'national motto'. It certainly seems like a cart-before-the-horse way of bolstering British identity. As I said here, I agree with Jonathan Freedland that national identities tend to crystallise around moments of political and constitutional change and can't be imposed from above.

At the same time, I don't accept Hunt's claim that the monarchy and 'muddling along' are somehow essential to any notion of British identity. Nor do I like his sneering at the US constitutional model, or his inevitable poke at current foreign policy: 'Britain has been gripped periodically by an evangelising impulse to stuff religion, empire, free trade, and now democracy and human rights down the throats of foreigners.' We can all agree that imperialism was a bad thing, Tristram, but do you really think democracy and human rights should be confined to our own shores?

Wednesday 17 October 2007

In support of 'Muslim secularism'

Here's Ali Eteraz setting out a manifesto for the 'Muslim left' (follow the links to his earlier CiF articles on the need for reform within Islam, and take a look at his blog). Eteraz's call for a 'Muslim secularism' may seem like a contradiction in terms to those who wilfully misunderstand the meaning of secularism - interpreting it as an attack on religion per se, rather than simply a belief in the separation of church/mosque and state. Seen in this light, 'Christian secularism' is not an impossibility either: indeed, as I've suggested before, Arab Christians have often been the most ardent supporters of secularism, viewing it as their best protection as a religious minority in majority-Muslim countries.

Of course, those of us on the secular left who are neither Muslims or Christians would prefer it if our fellow-leftists in the majority-Muslim world didn't feel the need to prefix their political identity with a religious label. But Muslim and Christian progressives who are committed to secularist principles should be welcomed as allies in the fight to defend liberal values.

Monday 15 October 2007

Dalrymple's straw debate

William Dalrymple is at it again. In yesterday's Sunday Times he built himself a straw man - the absurd notion that western values are superior to eastern ones - and then had some easy fun knocking it down. Dalrymple painted his usual picture of a tolerant Muslim east devoted to learning, as compared to the west's record of inquisition, imperialism and genocide. As before, he was keen to draw ahistorical parallels with current western foreign policy, especially in Iraq.

Dalrymple perpetuates the specious and simplistic 'west-good-east-bad' argument by simply reversing its terms. As always, such tilting at windmills is a way of avoiding coming clean about where you stand on key issues. So, William, can we have done with these artificial arguments and agree that pluralism, freedom of speech and gender equality are universal rather than 'western' or 'eastern' values - and that intolerance, oppression of women and political violence are unacceptable, wherever they occur? We Western liberals are only too keen to point out the failings of our own political systems: will western Islamophiles like Dalrymple be as critical of their new-found eastern 'Other'?

More tragedy for Armenians

While Turkey and the US Congress were arguing last week over whether it was OK to describe the murder of one and a half million Armenians as 'genocide', Armenians themselves were mourning the killing of two of their number by private security guards in Baghdad.

The fact that the two women shot dead in their car by agents of Unity Resources Group, an Australian-run security contractor, were members of Iraq's minority Armenian Christian community, received little publicity at the time. According to the New York Times, there was shock and anger among Armenians around the world:

For the family of at least one of the women killed, a taxi driver who was shot in the head as her car was struck with bullets while approaching a security convoy on Tuesday, the grief extended well beyond the borders of Iraq.

The woman, Marany Awanees, was the youngest of nine children in the Mamook family, including three brothers who are part of the Armenian diaspora in Europe and the United States.

The Mamook family, like so many other Armenian families, now straddles the boundaries between the West and the family’s Middle Eastern roots.

“She was a lovely sister, my younger sister, a lovely, lovely sister,” a brother, Paul Mamook, an electrical engineer in Belfast, Northern Ireland, said in a telephone interview.

Relatives in Iraq described her as a quiet woman with few friends or interests other than her church and her siblings. She started working as a taxi driver for Armenians two years ago, after her husband died, to support two of her daughters, who are in college. A third is in high school.

Security contractors are immune from prosecution under Iraqi law.

Iraq's Minister for Human Rights, Wijdan Salim, has called for an end to the immunity from prosecution of security firms operating in Iraq. Mrs. Salim was elected to the national assembly as part of Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List. As a secular, female politician in a patriarchal and increasingly theocratic political culture, as a member of a minority (she's an Assyrian) in a country where ethnic and religious pluralism are under threat, and as an advocate for women's rights, she deserves the support of all those who want to see Iraq develop as a liberal, pluralist democracy. Whatever our attitude to the war, if we believe that human rights are indivisible, then we should endorse her campaign to bring private security guards within the ambit of the rule of law.

A critical Arab perspective on political Islam

I've had a nice email from Khalil El-Anani, a Middle East political analyst who specialises in the dynamics of political Islam. As well as being deputy managing editor of Al-Siyassa Al-Dawlyia , a quarterly journal issued by the Al-Ahram Foundation, Khalil also blogs at Political Islam in the Middle East. Worth checking out.

Wednesday 10 October 2007

Foucault and Iran: lessons for today's Left

I've been reading Janet Afary and Kevin B. Anderson's excellent book about Michel Foucault and the Iranian revolution. It's a fascinating dissection of the process by which a secular, gay, leftist philosopher ended up offering virtually uncritical support to Khomeini's repressive Islamist regime.

Athough it describes events that took place nearly thirty years ago, the book provides several pointers to understanding the deformations of today's Left. There's no doubt that the French theorist's uncritical enthusiasm for the Islamic revolution was partly due to a stunning intellectual naivety, which preferred to trust ideological rhetoric over political reality, even when presented with overwhelming evidence that actually existing Islamism didn't quite measure up to its radical claims. It's also clear that Foucault's postmodernist theorizing created a framework of cultural relativism which inhibited him from applying the same critical analysis to the Muslim world as he had to western political structures.

But beyond this, there are other elements in Foucault's intellectual volte-face which he shares with the wider western Left, and which Afary's and Anderson's book highlights well. A key factor is a loss of faith in radical, secular change and a deep disillusionment with the socialist project. Running alongside this is a current of anti-modernism, which has always been present in western radicalism (think of the romantic medievalism of William Morris et al) and which tends to resurface whenever the hope of future change is blocked. To quote Gramsci: 'The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.'

We can see contemporary manifestations of this disillusionment with the modern in the writings of a number of liberal-left journalists: Guardian commentator Madeleine Bunting's reductive characterisation of western secular culture as little more than sex, celebrity and consumerism is but one example. Afary and Anderson point to the way in which, in this climate of revulsion from modern society, religion can come to seem like the last bulwark of decent values, even for secular leftists who are not explicitly religious and in other contexts would be keen opponents of religion.

This helps to explain the continuing unwillingness to criticise Islam among many western liberals, as well as the new-found 'belief in belief' among many on the hitherto secular Left. In Foucault's case, the spiritual anti-modernism of Khomeini came to seem like a radical and exciting alternative to what he perceived as the debased values of western capitalism. In fact, what the Iranian revolutionaries were offering was a return to a pre-modern world in which many of the gains of the Enlightenment, which Foucault affected to despise, were overturned.

If anti-totalitarian progressives want to go beyond mere condemnation of the postmodern leftists who are Foucault's intellectual descendants, and to persuade them of the errors of their ways, then we need to understand the wellsprings of their ideological contortions. More than this, we need to rediscover our own faith in the possibility of progressive change, which includes a renewed faith in Enlightenment principles and the progressive tradition, to counter the nostalgic, seductive appeal of 'spiritual' movements which promise only a return to prejudice and repression.

Monday 8 October 2007

Halloween under threat

I'm not a great fan of Halloween. It wasn't part of my 1960s middle-of-the-road English Methodist upbringing, and I'd never even heard of it until a Scottish schoolfriend invited me to a party and I was inducted into the delights of pumpkin-carving and apple-bobbing. In those days it was strictly a Scottish celebration: a hangover from their Calvinist obsession with the devil and all his works.

The whole trick or treat business is a much more recent US importation, and one suspects that its inexorable advance has something to do with the need for the greetings card and related industries to expand their commercial reach (the invention of Grandparents' Day and Carers' Day being other examples). And like any other grumpy middle-aged man, I resent having to get up from watching the Channel 4 News to answer the door to a gaggle of children in shop-bought witch costumes demanding chocolate.

Still, I reckon if you're going to have Halloween, you may as well do it properly. But it seems the festival is under threat from the good old C of E:

A Church of England bishop campaigning to rebrand Halloween as a "triumph of good over evil" claimed victory yesterday after two supermarkets agreed to stock less sinister alternatives to the usual monster masks and devil costumes.

Sainsbury's has written to the Rt Rev David Gillett, Bishop of Bolton, saying it will now also sell glowsticks, hair braids and face paints. Its chief executive, Justin King, said he could understand the bishop's worries about the antisocial effects of Halloween products.

Andy Bond, president and chief executive of Asda, said it too would stock costumes and accessories with a "lighter" feel than previous years.

Surely the whole point of Halloween, as with its Catholic counterparts such as the Mexican Day of the Dead, and pre-christian versions such as the Celtic Samhain, is to provide a collective, cathartic opportunity to face up to life's darker side - and indeed to remember its ultimate end. Turning it into a 'positive' celebration, as the bishop wants to, somehow misses the point. Sometimes it seems as though some parts of the Church of England have forgotten the value of ritual and want to reduce religion to a kind of feelgood happy-clappy therapy.

Hallowe'en is also under attack from other religious groups. Labour Humanist reports that 'A primary school is considering plans to abandon its Hallowe'en celebration' (Why? You guessed it) ' in case it offends religious parents' , and are planning to rebrand it as an 'Autumn Festival'. I suspect that the offended parents come from the fundamentalist evangelical end of the Christian spectrum, where literal belief in Satan is alive and well, and magic and witchcraft are not things to joke about.

If this had been a church school, I could just about understand their actions. But it sounds as though it's a mainstream state school, presumably with the usual diversity of religious believers and unbelievers represented. So why should the opinions of one religious group trump all others? I know for a fact that evangelicals of this stripe also abhor Harry Potter and all his works, for similar reasons, and won't let their children read the books. So what if this same group of 'religious parents' asks the school to stop reading Ms Rowling's books in class, or for them to be removed from the school library, so as not to cause them further 'offence'? And what if other religious groups decide to join in, with Sikh or Muslim parents claiming that they are 'offended' by the annual nativity play, perhaps - will they also be appeased?

Karen and Maddy have a cosy chat

Karen Armstrong interviewed by Madeleine Bunting? Sounds like the pretext for a cosy fireside chat rather than an incisive interrogation. And so it turned out to be, as these two like-minded religious commentators came together in the book pages of Saturday's Guardian. No uncomfortable questions here about why Armstrong is so liberal and critical when it comes to examining her own faith of origin, as in her new book on the Bible, but so uncritical and defensive in her writings about Islam. But then Bunting's own columns on these issues have often been a mirror image of Armstrong's opinions.

As always, Armstrong is greatly exercised about the place of Islam in the modern world. But she has little to say about the wave of fundamentalism sweeping through the Middle East or the political Islam inspiring terrorist violence in the west. Instead, she adopts the classic root-causer strategy of blaming the west:

our rhetoric about Muslims reflects a blind anxiety about our own behaviour - anxieties about our own capacity for violence are projected onto Muslims, similarly our attitudes towards women.

This really is taking a postmodern attitude to 'reality' too far, and it's surely the height of patronising Orientalism to see Arab and Muslim attitudes as nothing more than a 'projection' of our own. Heaven knows 'our' (presumably she means western) attitudes towards women are not perfect - but it's stretching it a bit to compare them with the suffocating oppression of women in Saudia Arabia or southern Iraq.

In a similar denial of the agency of non-westerners, Armstrong repeats the argument she deployed in a recent article, to the effect that we shouldn't criticise Muslim fundamentalism for fear of making it worse:

Armstrong has a sense of urgency - "we should all be worried sick"; "there is so little time" - because, she argues, the history of religious fundamentalism over the past century shows, time and again, that when under attack such movements become more extreme. It was true of Christian fundamentalism in the 20th century as it withdrew from the mainstream into a hostile right-wing movement; it was true of the Muslim Brotherhood under persecution in Egypt in the 1960s. The danger now, Armstrong explains, is of more - and worse - incidents of terrorism involving perhaps nuclear devices; and yet western policies are only making such events more likely.

So the solution is - what? Keep quiet and fundamentalism and extremism will somehow go away?

Then there's the obligatory dig at critics of religion:

Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have set up a caricature of religion. This kind of aggressive secular fundamentalism feeds disdain which - as the Buddha might say - is not skilful. The test of any set of ideas must be whether they increase charity; do they help to create better understanding? - we don't need any more polarity.

I'm all for being nice to people, but surely the real 'test of any set of ideas' is actually whether it's true. On which note, it seems that although Armstrong no longer calls herself a Christian - she describes herself as a 'person of faith' - she now sees her mission as promoting the virtues of belief: apparently her next book will argue that 'we still need religion'. Thus Armstrong has become one of those people described by Richard Dawkins who, while not formally religious themselves, still 'believe in belief' and, having given up on persuading us of the truth of religion, are reduced to peddling its social usefulness, as a kind of superior therapy. 'All religions', she says, 'are designed to teach us how to live, joyfully, serenely, and kindly, in the midst of suffering.' To which the sceptic might reply: they might be designed that way, but they appear to teach many of their adherents the exact opposite.

Another classic avoidance strategy

Further to this post about the rhetoric of evasion in the discourse of root-causers and blowback theorists, here's Nick Cohen drawing attention to a strategy that I missed:

Almost everyone discusses the second Iraq war in the passive voice. It's as if a censor in the head clips out every mention of the crimes of Baathists and Islamists from their prose. So we read that an interpreter for the British army was assassinated; Iraqi Christians are the victims of a pogrom; British soldiers have been killed by roadside bombs.

Schoolchildren learn that they must always say who is doing what to whom. In the case of Iraq, many find it impossible to declare who is killing interpreters, Christians and soldiers, and why. Clear English might threaten preconceptions, and that would never do.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is proving a master of the evasive style. Returning from visiting Iraqi refugees in Syria last week, he declared: 'Women in Christian communities were regularly forced to wear the hijab and were followed as they went to church.'

Yes, yes, Your Grace, but who is forcing and threatening them? He couldn't speak plainly, because if he admitted that al-Qaeda in Iraq kill Arab Christians for being Christians, he would have to accept that their persecution isn't the responsibility of Britain and America, but of the psychopathic adherents of theocratic ideology.

And it's not just about Iraq: much of the coverage of Iran seems to suffer from the same failure to identify the subject of a sentence. On the day after Ahmadinejad's hilarious denial of the existence of homosexuals in Iran, the Guardian's Robert Tait wrote this: 'According to campaigners, several gay men have been caught up in a wave of hangings over the summer, although the claims are hard to verify.' The phrase 'caught up in' makes the murderous government-backed persecution of suspected homosexuals sound like an unavoidable force of nature, and it's not helped by being book-ended by other phrases - 'According to campaigners', 'hard to verify' - that further soften the blow and let the Iranian regime off the hook.

Iran, Iraq, Israel

There's an interesting piece in the NYRB by Peter Galbraith (whose book I praised here) on the ways in which Iran has benefited from the Iraq war. Galbraith gives a detailed account of Iran's backing for the Iraqi Shiite militias, including the Badr Organization, who are widely believed to dominate government forces in the south of the country. The actions of the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority, appointing Badr leaders to key positions in the new army and police forces, seem to have made things worse.

Bremer's CPA further cemented Iranian influence when it appointed officials from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) as governors and members of governorate councils throughout southern Iraq (for more on this, see Rory Stewart's account of his time working for the CPA, which I reviewed here). As Galbraith reminds us, 'SCIRI, recently renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), was founded at the Ayatollah Khomeini's direction in Tehran in 1982. The Badr Organization is the militia associated with SCIRI.' He continues:

In the January 2005 elections, SCIRI became the most important component of Iraq's ruling Shiite coalition. In exchange for not taking the prime minister's slot, SCIRI won the right to name key ministers, including the minister of the interior. From that ministry, SCIRI placed Badr militiamen throughout Iraq's national police.

Galbraith concludes:

In short, George W. Bush had from the first facilitated the very event he warned would be a disastrous consequence of a US withdrawal from Iraq: the takeover of a large part of the country by an Iranian-backed militia. And while the President contrasts the promise of democracy in Iraq with the tyranny in Iran, there is now substantially more personal freedom in Iran than in southern Iraq.

As I've mentioned before, the replacement of Ba'athist tyranny with an oppressive theocracy in southern Iraq is one of the most depressing consequences of the war, and simpy shrugging our shoulders and saying it's the democratic will of the people is a betrayal of those - particularly women, minority groups and secular forces - who will suffer as a result.

This is not an argument against the original decision to go to war, though I believe there were powerful strategic (rather than moral) arguments for not doing so. But it is a further indictment of the conduct of the war and the administration of its aftermath. The encouragement and appeasement of conservative religious parties by the CPA was either breathtakingly naive, or motivated (as I've argued before) by a communalist politics that smacks of colonial rule rather than modern democracy-building. This isn't, of course, to let the Iranian government off the hook for their malign interference in the political affairs of a neighbouring country.

Galbraith also provides an assessment of current relations between the US and Iran, which includes an insightful account of the nuclear issue. He argues that the Bush government's funding for certain Iranian opposition groups could backfire and reminds us that some of these groups are as unsavoury as the regime they oppose. He concludes that, right now, 'the US is in the worst possible position. It is identified with the most discredited part of the Iranian opposition and unwanted by the reformers who have the most appeal to Iranians.' However, I'm not sure that this merits his drastic conclusion: 'If Congress wants to help the Iranian opposition, it should cut off funding for Iranian democracy programs.' This seems to me like a counsel of despair. However, the question of how best to offer solidarity to liberal and reforming groups in Iran remains a difficult one for those elements of the western Left not given to culturally relativist apologias for Ahmadinejad's repressive regime.

Along similar lines, Anthony Mahoney offers a mostly fair and balanced account of the current state of relations between Iran and Israel in this week's Tablet (available free online due to the postal strike). I have only one small criticism of Mahoney. At one point he states: 'Recent conferences in Iran on the Holocaust have witnessed a conjoining of Middle Eastern political anti-Zionism and forms of European anti-Semitism.' This fails to acknowledge the virulent antisemitism inherent in political Islam (as evidenced in Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial) by reducing it to a foreign importation, and thus risks disguising the racism of the Islamic regime as political principle.

Friday 5 October 2007

No to discriminatory boycotts, yes to genuine solidarity

I was about to get hot under the collar about Pryamvada Gopal's article on the UCU boycott in today's Guardian, but Bob from Brockley has got in first and provided an excellent critique of the 'inaccuracies and objectionable statements' in the piece. He nails once and for all the lie that the union's move somehow suppresses open debate on the Israel/Palestine issue. It's a bit rich of Gopal and others to claim that the UCU has shut down discussion, when this is precisely what a boycott of Israeli academics would have done. And as for Gopal's accusation of 'exceptionalism': isn't that precisely what the boycott's advocates were guilty of, in singling out Israel for this unique action and overlooking the suppression of academic freedom in countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia or China?

For a full and authoritative account of the boycott affair, and for a decent, progressive call for genuine solidarity with Palestinian and Israeli academics working for peace and justice, see Jon Pike here (via Norm). Jon sees the end of the boycott affair as an opportunity for the Left to take a look at itself:

This is the question for those on the left who supported an academic boycott left. How did you manage to mistake a campaign of discriminatory exclusions for a campaign of solidarity?

It’s only when we can get an answer to that question that we will be able to establish a properly anti-racist culture on the left, a properly democratic trade union movement – and a movement in the UK for a lasting peace and justice between two nations – two states: Palestine and Israel.

A final note: Pryamvada Gopal seems to have been taken on as a regular contributor to the Guardian's comment pages. Given that her pieces to date have all echoed the standard Milne/Steele/Gott/Bunting line (America the source of all evil, terrorism and extremism due to 'root causes' in western policy, condemning authoritarianism and misogyny in non-western countries is culturally imperialist, etc), this prompts the question: doesn't a liberal newspaper have a duty to seek out a diversity of opinions rather than promote a party line? Where are the comment pieces on Islamism or Venezuela by anti-totalitarian leftist writers, or the articles on religion by secularists? As I've said before, I suspect the Guardian editors think they're being terribly provocative in their choice of writers, when in fact they're peddling a staid pseudo-left orthodoxy and lazily pandering to the prejudices of one section of their readership.

There's more on the Gopal piece over at Normblog.

Jumping in with both feet

I had some fun in this post with Theo Hobson’s ludicrous over-reaction to Richard Dawkins’ call for an end to the religious indoctrination of children. But Dawkins’ campaign has also been the target of criticism from more thoughtful commentators. Norm, for example, detects a sinister undertone in his suggestion that freeing children from religious indoctrination should be a matter of public policy:

Apart from the fact that this has been tried, somewhere, without terribly good results, one might have thought that a secular rationalist would be unwilling to entertain such a notion. In any case, it isn't compatible with democratic liberalism to turn atheism into an official truth.

I'm not sure that Dawkins' actual words merit this kind of interpretation. Here's what he's quoted as saying in the article that Norm links to: 'I would free children from being indoctrinated with the religion of their parents or their community.' Maybe it's because I've just read his book, but I'm pretty sure that what Dawkins is referring to here is religious indoctrination in the education system, and specifically faith schools. I understand him as meaning that education should be faith-neutral and should introduce children to different ways of looking at the world rather than schooling them solely in the faith of their parents. Unlike Hobson, I don't think Dawkins is planning to interfere in some Orwellian way in the way that parents bring up their children, and unlike Norm I don't interpret him as calling for atheism to be take the place of religion as some kind of official public 'faith'.

However, I don't hold any particular brief for Dawkins and would suggest that he needs to be clearer about what he means, so as not to give fuel to the 'atheists-are-just-as-fundamentalist-as-those-they-oppose' lobby. Along similar lines, fellow-atheist Sam Harris has had this to say about the dangers inherent in promoting 'atheism':

Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn't really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as "non-racism" is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves.

Another problem is that in accepting a label, particularly the label of "atheist," it seems to me that we are consenting to be viewed as a cranky sub-culture. We are consenting to be viewed as a marginal interest group that meets in hotel ballrooms. I'm not saying that meetings like this aren't important. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it was important. But I am saying that as a matter of philosophy we are guilty of confusion, and as a matter of strategy, we have walked into a trap. It is a trap that has been, in many cases, deliberately set for us. And we have jumped into it with both feet.

I'm not sure if this was meant as a criticism of Dawkins' current atheist crusade in the US, but the point he makes is a good one.

Finally, I'm one hundred per cent with Norm, and with Bob, in their distaste for the kneejerk conspiracy-theory leftism in this extract from Dawkins' Guardian interview:

When you think about how fantastically successful the Jewish lobby has been, though, in fact, they are less numerous I am told - religious Jews anyway - than atheists and [yet they] more or less monopolise American foreign policy as far as many people can see. So if atheists could achieve a small fraction of that influence, the world would be a better place.

If Dawkins wants to win acceptance for an open debate about the role of religion in public life, he needs to be more precise in his use of language, and to avoid crowd-pleasing remarks that risk alienating many of the atheists and secularists who should be his natural allies.

And see this post by Eve Garrard over at Normblog.

Thursday 4 October 2007

Causing religious offence is not a crime

After the deluge of justifiable praise for the brave Burmese monks (and attempts by some commentators to deploy them in support of their argument for religion playing a greater role in politics), it's only healthy to be reminded that followers of the Dharma can be as narrow-minded and petty as adherents of other faiths - even if only rarely. As Catherine Bennett reminds us: 'Alone among practitioners of world religions active in this country, Buddhists enjoyed, until this week, the distinction of not having tried to ban anything.'


This week, police in Norwich were called after local Buddhists spotted a Buddha in a gallery window, whose lap area had been disrespectfully customised by the artist, Colin Self, with genitals composed of a pair of shining eggs and a vertical golden banana. Anyone who visited the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition this year will probably remember it. "We have had a complaint in respect of the prominent exhibition of this statue on the basis that it causes religious offence," reported a police officer. "We have liaised with the management of the gallery in order to reach a solution which both upholds the principles of freedom of artistic expression but also prevents any offence being caused to any general member of the public or faith group."

But the police solution - to turn the figure round, so that the banana and eggs could offend only those faith groups actually in the gallery - did not satisfy the gallery owner with whom he had liaised, David Koppel. He said an officer told him, "in no uncertain terms, that if I turned the sculpture around again to face the window he would be coming to arrest me and the sculpture may be destroyed".

One is left wondering precisely which law had been infringed here, and by what authority the police felt able to insist on the statue being moved. Apparently the officer quoted in Bennett's piece was from Norwich's Hate Crime Unit, but it takes a huge stretch of the imagination to equate a humorous send-up of the ubiquitous Buddha with daubing swastikas on synagogues or beating up gays. It's a little worrying that the police in this instance class 'causing religious offence' as a criminal act, since the amendment to the Racial and Religious Hatred Act specifically required that there must be a clear intention to stir up hatred.

If this looser interpretation of the law is adopted, Catherine Bennett wonders whether the police will be able to cope:

It is debatable, however, whether our overstretched police have the manpower, even with their new hand-held computers, for the kind of intensive artistic supervision that is rapidly becoming necessary, as religious communities outdo one another with claims to special protection. What happens when Norwich's Hindus see Self's Ganesh? Even if complaints from religious groups are already leading to widespread self-censorship by individuals and organisations who prefer to avoid persecution, and thus help save police time, there will always be some inadvertently offensive work, or more deliberate piece of mischief requiring investigation, prior to the issue of a ban, or special guidance, which as the Norfolk Inquisition puts it, "upholds the principles of freedom of artistic expression but also prevents any offence being caused ..."

If this enforced prevention of offence is not to be the monopoly of large religious groups, particularly those able to support their demands with the threat of violence, or yet more effectively, a global death sentence, the time has surely come to formalise arrangements with the appointment of some sort of official censor, tasked with extending rights of artistic suppression impartially, to all. Something like the old lord chamberlains, but much more so. Though diligent enemies of artistic freedom, the activities of those busybodies, stipulating when a character should keep his vest on, and so on, seem feeble, looking back, compared with the unpredictable demands of our various faith groups backed, where necessary, by officers from the local hate-crime unit.

Wednesday 3 October 2007

'Moderate' Islamism poses threat to women's rights in Turkey

There are signs that Turkey's 'moderate' Islamist government may not be as benign as some western liberals had predicted, and that Turkish secularists were right to be concerned. A new draft constitution has become the focus of feminist protest in the country:

More than 80 women's groups have come together to voice strong opposition to the draft constitution, calling it a major step backwards for equal rights.

The current constitution in Turkey obliges the government to ensure equality for all - a clause that women's groups fought hard to include.

The new draft removes that, describing women instead as a vulnerable group in need of special protection.

Can Turkish secularists and feminists now expect the support of western 'liberals' like Jonathan Steele, who previously dismissed their concerns as middle-class and elitist?

But this, even if it's done for reasons of political expediency, is more encouraging.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

Dawkins in call for ban on bedtime prayers shock horror!

The Guardian has really got it in for atheists.

After Bunting's dig at Dawkins last week, yesterday saw Pankaj Mishra produce an almost identical argument, to the effect that the Burmese monk-protestors have 'proved' that religion has a role in politics after all. There were the same put-downs of 'militant atheists' with their 'salon wisdom', and the same sneering at 'devotees of science and rationality' who 'call for a religion-free politics'. At least Mishra's paeon to the political virtues of Buddhism, unlike Bunting's, acknowledged its role in bolstering militarism and reactionary nationalism in Japan and Sri Lanka. But both articles gave the same impression of tilting at windmills: in this case the fiction that atheists and secularists want to exclude religion from public life, rather than simply maintain a healthy separation between politics and belief, and a level playing-field for belief and unbelief in a plural society.

There was more straw-man construction going on today over at Comment is Free, where Theo Hobson was laying into Richard Dawkins' campaign to coax American atheists out of the closet. Hobson seemed keen to show that his recent thoughtful assessment of secular liberalism in The Tablet was a momentary aberration, and that he'd returned to his former pugnacious pseudo-tabloid style. Absurdly, Hobson caricatures Dawkins' call for atheists to form themselves into a political lobby as a wish for 'non-believers to gain disproportionate influence over political affairs.' (An example of the rhetorical strategy that I described in this post as attributing the characteristics of your own side to your opponent, or getting your retaliation in first: who do you think is more likely to have a disproportionate influence on US politics, atheists or believers?)

Then there's Hobson's hysterical, not to say hilarious misreading of Dawkins' call for end to the religious indoctrination of children in the education system:

Atheists reply that there is nothing dangerous or sinister in the desire to see more rationality, less superstition. Really? Dawkins was asked what he hoped an atheist bloc in the US might achieve, and this is the first part of the answer he gave: "I would free children of being indoctrinated with the religion of their parents or their community." Is this not amazing? I have seldom read a sentence that has induced such a sharp shiver of revulsion. This man evidently dreams of a state in which it is illegal to take one's children to a place of worship, or to say prayers with them as one puts them to bed.

Do I overreact? What else does he mean by wanting to "free" children from a parent's ability to "indoctrinate" them? He wants a culture in which saying bedtime prayers is considered child abuse. Presumably in this bravely rationalised new world, atheist teachers will encourage children to inform on their parents.

Of course, Dawkins never said any such thing: he was talking about faith schools, stupid. This Orwellian nightmare is the product of Hobson's own fevered imagination. At this point his rhetoric shifts from straw-man building to irrational scare tactics.

Monday 1 October 2007

A culture of low aspirations

Last week a study showed that just 200 elite schools accounted for one third of admissions to the top dozen universities and half of all places at Oxford and Cambridge. The remaining 3,500 schools and colleges account for the other half. It is neither fair nor sensible.

While others are tempted to pin the blame on biased universities, I believe there is something more deep-rooted at work - a culture of low aspirations shared not just by students, but in many cases by their parents and teachers, too. There are many excellent teachers doing their best for the students, but it is a disturbing fact that some bright pupils are actively discouraged from reaching for the top.

That's Peter Lampl, writing in yesterday's Sunday Times. He believes that a low-aspirations mindset is reinforcing entrenched class divisions:

It is no wonder that social mobility has declined in Britain and we languish at the bottom of the international league table. Also, the relationship between children's educational performance and their family background is stronger here than anywhere else in the developed world. If you are born poor, your qualifications will reflect the fact and you will remain poor.

I think he has a point. As I've said before, as a parent I've been disappointed by the limited horizons that many state secondary schools set for their pupils, and by the tacit acceptance of an apartheid of outcomes between students at private and state schools. (This isn't to decry the dedication of many individual teachers - it's more of a systemic thing.) As someone from a working-class background for whom grammar school was a passport to Cambridge, I'm saddened to think that children from similar backgrounds today may actually have fewer opportunities than I had.

I've got some sympathy for Nick Cohen's argument that the real beneficiaries of the abolition of grammar schools were private schools, as it destroyed the competition. As Cohen wrote a couple of years back:

In public we deplore elitism. In practice everyone knows that the grammar schools, which at least selected by ability, have been replaced with private and comprehensive schools which select by parental wealth.

The dilemma: I want grammar schools (well, the best bits anyway - I'm not nostalgic for the silly uniforms or corporal punishment), but I hate the idea of selection. The solution? The original comprehensive vision of a grammar school education for every child who wants it (i.e. every comprehensive to be at least as good as a grammar) - rather than the 'universal system of secondary moderns' that Cohen rightly says exists in some inner cities. The difficulty? Besides the boost in funding, you'd need an army of highly-trained, properly-paid teachers who shared that original - socialist - vision that all children, from whatever background, have the potential to reach the heights of achievement - and that includes Oxbridge, if that's what they want.

Is this kind of thing even on Ed Balls' agenda?