Thursday 20 December 2007

My 10 best books of 2007

I've listed my ten best books of the year down the right-hand side of this page, using one of those Amazon widget things. I've cheated a bit, as some of these were published in paperback this year but came out in hardcover earlier, and the collection of Vasily Grossman's war journalism sneaks in even though the book appeared towards the end of 2006.

In fact, some of the best books I've read this year were published some time ago. They include Jean Bethke Elshtain's Just War Against Terror (which I mentioned here), Afary and Anderson's Foucault and the Iranian Revolution (see here) and Ian Thomson's superb biography of Primo Levi.

My Christmas wish list includes Marshall Berman's New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg, Philip Roth's latest, and Orhan Pamuk's new collection of essays.

In my ideal world, the next two weeks would be spent doing very little except eating, drinking and reading, reading, reading...

Tuesday 18 December 2007

He's forty. She's eleven. And they are a couple.

This is the UNICEF Photo of the Year:

And this is the caption:

He’s forty, she’s eleven. And they are a couple – the Afghan man Mohammed F.* and the child Ghulam H.*. “We needed the money”, Ghulam’s parents said. Faiz claims he is going to send her to school. But the women of Damarda village in Afghanistan’s Ghor province know better: “Our men don’t want educated women.” They predict that Ghulam will be married within a few weeks after her engagement in 2006, so as to bear children for Faiz.

The picture, by American photographer Stephanie Sinclair, makes an eloquent statement - perhaps more powerful than any number of wordy articles - about women's rights, children's rights, and the ways in which they continue to be traduced in many conservative religious cultures. According to UNICEF:

During her stay in Afghanistan, it consistently struck American photographer Stephanie Sinclair how many young girls are married to much older men. She decided to raise awareness about this topic with her pictures. Particularly as the official minimum age for brides in Afghanistan is sixteen and it is therefore illegal to marry children.

Early marriages are not only a problem in Afghanistan: worldwide there are about 51 million girls aged between 15 and 19 years who are forced into marriage. The youngest brides live in the Indian state of Rajasthan, where 15% of all wives are not even 10 years old when they are married. Child marriages are a reaction to extreme poverty and mainly take place in Asian and African regions where poor families see their daughters as a burden and as second-class citizens. Already in their younger years, girls are given into the “care” of a husband, a tradition that often leads to exploitation. Many girls become victims of domestic violence. In an Egyptian survey, about one-third of the interviewed child brides stated that they were beaten by their husbands. The young brides are under pressure to prove their fertility as soon as possible. But the risk for girls between the ages of 10 and 14 not to survive pregnancy is five times higher than for adult women. Every year, about 150,000 pregnant teenagers die due to complications – in particular due to a lack of medical care, let alone sex education.

Yes, of course, poverty helps to create the contexts in which child marriages persist, but the influence of powerful religious discourses, in which women are regarded as inferior beings, should not be overlooked. Still, it's good to see UNICEF making this bold choice for its photo of the year and not being held back by fear of offending particular religious or cultural groups (though I'm curious as to why I couldn't find any reference to the award on their main English-language website: when I googled this I was directed to their German site). Women's rights, children's rights, human rights - are universal and indivisible.

It's a deserving choice - and a heartbreaking image. You can see more examples of Sinclair's work on this topic here.


The Afghan Women's Network have kindly linked to this post. According to their website:

AWN is a non-partisan Network of women and women’s NGOs working to empower Afghan women and ensure their equal participation in Afghan society. The members of the Network also recognize the value and role of children as the future of Afghanistan and, as such, regard the empowerment and protection of children as fundamental to their work.

Friday 14 December 2007

In praise of Jean Bethke Elshtain

One of the (many) good things, for me, about the online review Democratiya is the way it has introduced me to writers I wouldn't otherwise have come across. The Summer issue included the text of a speech on 'Defending American values at home and abroad' by political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain. On the strength of this, and having looked up 'What we're fighting for: a letter from America', of which Elshtain was one of the signatories, I bought her book Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World, which was first published in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and updated in 2004 to include a chapter on the Iraq war. OK, so I'm a few years late in making this discovery, but better late than never.

I'm only part-way through the book, but already there's much to praise. Anyone who has ever despaired of the parlous state of the academic Left and its reflexive oppositionism and anti-Americanism should read the chapter headed 'The academy responds to terror', while Elshtain's analysis of 'What happened on September 11' is a cool and methodical deconstruction of blowback theory. And at a time of increasingly shrill anti-secularism among religious commentators, it's refreshing to read a defence of the separation of church and state from a progressive Christian perspective.

As with all good books, you find yourself wanting to quote whole sections. Here, as a taster, is part of Elshtain's dismissal of those who 'insist that America brought the horrors of September 11, 2001, on herself':

Conducted within the boundary of reasonable political debate...are those arguments that an international 'war on poverty and despair', or a change in the direction of U.S. Middle Eastern policy, or a different U.S. policy towards Iraq will stay the hands of murderous terrorists in the future. Certainly those arguments deserve a hearing. Pushing more programs that deal with poverty and despair or rethinking American foreign policy, including our approach to Iraq, may have desirable outcomes. But no such change, either singly or together, will deter Osama bin Laden and those like him [... ] We could do everything demanded of us by those who are critical of America, both inside and outside our boundaries, but Islamist fundamentalism and the threat it poses would not be deterred.


When I claim that changes in our policies would not satisfy Islamists, the reason is quite basic: They loathe us because of who were are and what our society represents [...] bin Laden and his followers mean it when they call us 'infidels'. To Islamists, infidels are those who believe in separation of church and state. Infidels profess the wrong religion, or the wrong version of a religion, or no religion at all. Infidels believe in civic and personal freedom. Infidels educate women and give them a public presence and role. Infidels intermarry across lines of religion. Infidels believe that all people have human rights. Whatever else the United States might do on the world scene to allay the concerns of its opponents, it cannot repeal its founding constitutional principles, which condemn it in the eyes of such fundamentalism.

Thursday 13 December 2007

More depressing news about violence against women in Iraq

Mark Lattimer provides a horrific account of routine violence against women in Iraqi Kurdistan:

They lie in the Sulaimaniyah hospital morgue in Iraqi Kurdistan, set out on white-tiled slabs. A few have been shot or strangled, some beaten to death, but most have been burned. One girl, a lock of hair falling across her half-closed eyes, could almost be on the point of falling asleep. Burns have stretched the skin on another young woman's face into a fixed look of surprise.

These women are not casualties of battle. In fact, the cause of death is generally recorded as "accidental", although their bodies often lie unclaimed by their families.

"It is getting worse, especially the burnings," says Khanim Rahim Latif, the manager of Asuda, an Iraqi organisation based in Kurdistan that works to combat violence against women. "Just here in Sulaimaniyah, there were 400 cases of the burning of women last year." Lack of electricity means that every house has a plentiful supply of oil, and she accepts that some cases may be accidents. But the nature and scale of the injuries suggest that most were deliberate, she says, handing me the morgue photographs of one young woman after another. Many of the bodies bear the unmistakable signs of having been subjected to intense heat.

"In many cases the woman is accused of adultery, or of a relationship before she is married, or the marriage is not sanctioned by the family," Khanim says. Her husband, brother or another relative will kill her to restore their "honour". "If he is poor the man might be arrested; if he is important, he won't be. And in most cases, it is hidden. The body might be dumped miles away and when it is found the family says, 'We don't have a daughter.'" In other cases, disputes over such murders are resolved between families or tribes by the payment of a forfeit, or the gift of another woman. "The authorities say such agreements are necessary for social stability, to prevent revenge killings," says Khanim.

As I've said before, the fact that these 'honour' killings are happening in Kurdistan, in many ways the part of Iraq which stands the best chance of developing into a stable democracy, is profoundly depressing. Though as Lattimer notes, the situation is even worse elsewhere in the country, especially in the increasingly theocratic and Iranian-influenced south.

Lattimer's report is worth reading in full, despite his attempt to pin the blame on the US invasion and to make tendentious links between localised abuses by American soldiers and this widespread, institutionalised misogyny. He may be right that the general climate of disorder and lawlessness that followed Saddam's removal has created the conditions in which unchecked oppression of women can flourish. However, to my mind Lattimer's article, in common with many Guardian reports, seems reluctant to attach sufficient blame to the reactionary, anti-feminist politics of the Islamist militias, or to the conservative religious forces that have been allowed to flourish in the wake of Saddam's demise.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Refreshingly direct language from Pryamvada Gopal

I've criticised Cambridge academic and Guardian columnist Pryamvada Gopal on a number of occasions for her circumlocutory root-cause cultural-relativist outbursts. So it's good to see her using uncharacteristically direct language to excoriate those western leftists (such as Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali) who have defended the brutal policies of the regional communist government in West Bengal (see here and here for details). She also criticises the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its western supporters for failing to defend feminist and human rights activist Taslima Nasrin in her continuing battles with religious fundamentalists. Gopal's defence in this piece of the admirable principle 'Never solidarity before criticism' is curiously at odds with this Guardian article, in which she appeared to argue that western liberals had no right to criticise the oppression of women in Asia and the Middle East.

Monday 10 December 2007

Post Office plot to destroy Christmas shock horror

My parents, who are active Methodists, were visiting us yesterday. We were discussing the designs for this year's Christmas stamps, assuming they would be pleased with their religious theme. They were - but they told us about an email circulating among their local congregation, claiming that Royal Mail staff were under instructions not to issue the more overtly Christian 'Madonna and Child' stamps unless customers explicitly asked for them. Apparently, this was part of a plot to massage the demand for religious stamps downwards, so that the Post Office could get away with producing only secular images in future years.

A little bit of internet searching today revealed that this rumour is not confined to Nonconformists. The 'Anglican Mainstream' website reproduces the email circular in full:

Royal Mail has traditionally alternated between sacred and secular designs for their Christmas stamps and this year it is the turn for a religious image. Royal Mail has issued two sets of designs this year.

The main set of designs, available in all the main denominations is of angels, which is vaguely Christian but not explicitly so and certainly not specifically Christmassy. They have also issued a ‘Madonna and Child’ design for first and second class only. Post Office staff have been instructed to only sell this design if people specifically request it, but obviously people can’t request it if they don’t know it exists!

If people don’t buy these stamps, Royal Mail will claim there is no demand for religious Christmas stamps and not produce them in future.

Please therefore ask for ‘Madonna and Child’ stamps when you do your Christmas posting and also tell your friends, contacts etc. to do the same. Thank You.

I have it on very good authority that Royal Mail have issued no such instructions to their staff. And as for people not knowing the 'Madonna and Child' stamp exists: all of this year's designs are on display on the Royal Mail website.

Don't you just love the way these urban myths spread? Before you know where we are, this fake Post Office plot will be an established 'fact', like the 'Winterval' stories that circulated last year. You get the impression that some believers enjoy feeling persecuted, don't you?

The Royal Mail has issued the following statement:

We have become aware of an incorrect assertion being made about the motives behind the sales of our Christmas stamps. There is absolutely no intention on our part to suppress sales of the Madonna and Child stamps in order to be able to claim there is low demand for religious stamps in future years. Indeed, we have produced tens of millions of them, and we want to sell them!! We have given publicity to both types of Christmas stamps, and the availability of both has been widely covered in the national and local press. Furthermore we plan to have the Madonna and Child stamps available every Christmas in future, alongside each year's "special" set, which will continue to alternate between religious and secular themes.


It's been nice to see some of the more sensible Christian websites taking a lead in scotching the myth.

Friday 7 December 2007


Last Friday saw yours truly being profiled by Norm. This week it's the turn of Paul Berger, who blogs at Englishman in New York, a blog that I read regularly with a mixture of pleasure and (as a confirmed NYophile) thinly-disguised envy. Mind you, any blog with a picture of NYC at the top of the page is OK by me (Paul's is of a subway train): especially views of the Manhattan skyline, like the one that adorns Snarksmith's excellent blog and used to be found atop New Centrist's site, before it was replaced with a more edible scene.

All this talk of New York, plus the fact that this week saw both the celebration of Hanukkah and the beginning of Advent, and it being a Friday, is excuse enough to feature this photo of the festive tree lights being switched on outside the Rockefeller Center a week or so ago (via the New York Times). I've only ever been to NYC in the summer and would love to be there right now. Happy Holidays.

In praise of Democratiya

The winter issue of the online review Democratiya is now available here. As always, it's packed with good things. So far, I've only had time to skim through a few of the articles, but among the highlights is Nick Cohen's new postscript to What's Left, which includes an attempt to understand the causes of the Left's current deformations (rather than simply catalogue them) in a way that the book itself didn't quite manage.

Also worth looking at is Ophelia Benson's review of Ibn Warraq's new book on the perils of 'leaving Islam', which Norm links to here: as he says, 'to insist on fixity of belief is, indeed, a most appalling betrayal of the human spirit, of the genius that belongs to our species.'

Fred Siegel's review of new books on religious extremism is also interesting: it's made me want to seek out one of them, Matthias Kunzel's Jihad and Jew-Hatred, which joins the dots between Nazism and Islamism (but which doesn't seem to be available via Amazon UK at the moment).

And finally, thanks to Democratiya for reproducing the whole of Tony Blair's recent speech to the Al Smith Dinner in New York. Among the many reasons for being disappointed with Gordon Brown is the realisation that it's impossible to imagine him making a speech as direct, impassioned and downright eloquent as this.

As Norm notes, Democratiya's 'record of quality and consistency' is remarkable. Since launching in 2005 it's become required reading for the anti-totalitarian social-democratic Left on this side of the Atlantic - in much the same way that Dissent is across the pond. But much as I love the ease of access that the review's free, online format allows, I sometimes wonder whether it renders it less than visible in wider UK political discourse. There's something about having a physical presence on the shelves that means your views get noticed by the mainstream media. Or maybe it's just that I'm nostalgic for the sense of excitement I used to feel when my weekly copy of the (now unreadable) New Statesman dropped through the letterbox, or more recently when the latest London Review of Books (increasingly going the same way, politically at least) arrived.

Thursday 6 December 2007

A small victory in the fight to repeal blasphemy laws

Christian Voice director Stephen Green got more than he bargained for when he tried to have the BBC prosecuted for blasphemy over their screening of Jerry Springer - The Opera. Not only has the High Court rejected this particular case, but judges have ruled that broadcasters and theatres staging live productions should be immune from prosecution for blasphemy.

So, a small victory for free speech and common sense. But it's not enough, of course. The implication of the ruling is that it's still possible for those working in other media - writers, print journalists, maybe even bloggers - to be charged under this law. In the words of Anna Fairclough, legal officer for Liberty: 'Today's ruling is a blow to bigotry. The obvious next step is to repeal this outdated offence.'

Wednesday 5 December 2007

An atheist's experience of teaching in a faith school

In the very recent past, I worked in a place where I wasn't able to apply for a more senior post because I don't believe in God.

That's Gordon Cairns describing his experience teaching in a state-funded Catholic school in Scotland. He catalogues the discrimination he and other atheist teachers experience in faith schools, which include being prevented from teaching religious education and biology and from applying for headships. To which one response might be: what did you expect? If you choose to work for an organisation whose mission you don't fully endorse, how can you expect equal treatment? Isn't it rather like those nominally christian parents who push for their children to get into church schools, then complain about the amount of RE and religious services?

Of course, the situation is complicated by the issue of state funding. As Cairns explains, since Catholic schools were incorporated into the state system a century ago, they became part of mainstream provision and their teaching posts theoretically open to all those working that system. He adds:

Scottish teachers don't have a lot of influence on which school they work in. Where you pitch up by chance as a supply teacher is often where you end up working permanently, as most jobs go to the sitting candidate.

If faith schools (whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or whatever) are going to accept state funding, it could be argued that they should be subject to the same employment practices as other public bodies. Cairns notes that the Catholic Church has always managed to wangle certain exemptions: 'One practice the church demanded was the right to be able to approve of teachers in certain jobs by means of a certificate signed by the local priest and renewed every few years, and known unofficially as the teacher's MOT. '

At the same time, Cairns feels no hostility to the school he worked in. On the contrary, he found it to be a 'warm, supportive community' and he was sorry to leave. And he acknowledges that faith schools have strengths that might be lacking in secular institutions:

I suppose in any environment it is when we encounter death that religion comes into its own. A popular former teacher died suddenly and a mass was held for him one lunchtime. The crowd overspilled into the playground from the chapel as pupils and teachers came together to pay their respects. I can't think of any secular ritual or act that could so successfully allow a community to come together and mourn.

Here, Cairns pinpoints to a dilemma familiar to uneasy secularists like myself: secularism might be necessary (indeed increasingly necessary, and needing to be defended, in times of revived fundamentalism and irrationalism such as these) - but is it sufficient?

Despite his criticisms of the discriminatory practices that he experienced, Cairns ends his piece by articulating a decidedly ambivalent attitude - as an atheist - to faith schools:

I am against the role religion has in education in a country where these old practices are dying away, never mind being the central tenet of the school. I think if parents want their children to have a religious education they should do it themselves, with the support of their church. But my experience is of a faith school system that is working. In general, the children identify with their school far more strongly than I ever did with my non-denominational school. Although it is a myth that Catholic schools are more academically successful than non-denominational schools in Scotland, recent school inspections have given them excellent reports, particularly praising community and ethos. It is difficult to say whether these successes are down to the schools having faith as a unifying factor or because they are truly comprehensive, but they succeed, so why break up something successful?


Three brief items for Lusophiles...

Here's singer Sara Tavares, born in Lisbon but of Cape Verdean extraction, being interviewed in the Guardian. Tavares' music exemplifies what she herself describes as Cape Verde's 'metisse culture', in which African and Portuguese influences combine, while her lyrics reflect the multilingual argot of Lisbon's younger generation. 'I think anthropologists will study the slang because it speaks a lot about our social evolution and the identity of cities,' she says. I first came across her music via a compilation album that featured her paeon to her home city, 'Lisboa' - the standout track on her album Balancé. There must be something in the Cape Verdean air. Despite its tiny population, it continues to produce amazing - mostly female - singers: first Cesaria Evora, and now Tavares and other rising stars such as Lura and Mayra Andrade.

Staying with Lisbon: the New York Times has a feature describing the city's emergence as a 'serious design destination', highlighting the transformation of the waterfront Santos district. As the paper says: 'Overshadowed by larger, wealthier and more flashy European countries with world-renowned design specialties — Italian lighting, Scandinavian furniture, French fashion — Portugal has long hid on the Continent's margin both geographically and creatively.' But all of that may be changing. It seems there are controversial plans for a Norman Foster-designed 'futuristic tower and commercial complex' on the waterfront, the goal being a project that 'promotes the worlds of design and the arts', but which some argue will ruin Lisbon's historic skyline. When we were in Lisbon last year, we stayed in the Santos quarter, close to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga - Portugal's national gallery. It's an attractive area, but rather spoilt by the noisy expressway connecting central Lisbon to Belem in the west, which cuts it off from the Tagus. And it has interesting literary associations: not only did Antonio Tabucchi feature the Museu in Requiem, his hallucinatory fictional tour of Lisbon, but the nearby York House hotel is a key location in Dutch author Cees Nooteboom's experimental The Following Story and (more popularly) in John le Carré's The Russia House.

And finally: BBC4 screened the second in the Brasil, Brasil series last Friday. The focus was on the Sixties, when the country languished under a military dictatorship and the Left was divided as to whether the proper cultural response was serious, nationalistic folk music or the western-influenced hedonism of the Tropicália movement. As in the first programme, there was some fantastic archive footage. The final episode, which explores the Brazilian music scene today, will be broadcast this Friday.

Monday 3 December 2007

Contrasting views in the religion vs secularism debate

Who said this?

The Church portrays itself as the victim of an aggressive secularism. It looks to me, rather, as if the Church is itself in danger of adopting an aggressive fundamentalism and that the secular societies it excoriates demonstrate a tolerance that is often closer to the ideal of Christian charity.

No, not a spokesperson for the National Secular Society, but Stephen Wall, a self-proclaimed 'lifelong Catholic' and former adviser to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor. In an article in The Tablet which is a breath of fresh air in the religion vs secularism debate, Wall criticises the Catholic Church for 'giving pre-eminence to its concept of law and disregarding its duty of love' in recent controversies over abortion, IVF and gay adoption. He concludes:

Above all, the Church's approach should be rooted not in power, authority and threat, but in love and understanding and, dare I say it, in acknowledging that it can be wrong or that many of life's most poignant problems raise issues of right and wrong, love and duty, pain and suffering that are not susceptible to simple answers.

Wall's thoughtful article is in contrast to a hysterical piece by Chris Hedges in the same magazine. Hedges is reviewing Tina Beattie's book The New Atheists. Here's a taste:

The agenda of the new atheists is disturbing: they embrace a belief system as intolerant, chauvinist and bigoted as that of religious fundamentalists, proposing a route to the moral advancement of the human species through science and reason....Those who believe in the
possibility of this perfection often call for the silencing or eradication of human beings who are impediments to human progress...

These new atheists are a secular version of the religious Right ... They too are anti-intellectual. And while the atheists do not have much power and are not a threat to the democratic state as they are in the United States, they engage in the same chauvinism and call for the same violent utopianism of the fundamentalist Christian Right. They sell this under secular banners, but this does not excuse it. ...They argue, like these Christian fundamentalists, that some human beings, maybe many human beings, have to be eradicated to achieve this better world ...They urge us forward into an unreal world, where force and violence, selfexaltation and blind nationalism are an unquestioned good. ...They use this fear to justify cruelty and war.

Phew! Now, I've read one or two of these 'new atheist' books and, though I don't agree with everything in them, I don't recall Dawkins or Hitchens calling for the 'silencing' or 'eradication' of anyone, or advancing 'violence' or 'blind nationalism' as good things. Like all attempts to find moral equivalence, this one is laughably short of evidence and quickly descends into bluster and hyperbole.

Chris Hedges is described by The Tablet as 'a Pullitzer Prize-winning writer' and a former staff member at the New York Times. Apparently his book American Fascists has been acclaimed for pointing to the threat to democracy from the Christian Right. It's disturbing that a writer with such a track record can confuse the rationalist critiques of a handful of atheist authors with the irrational bigotry and violence of religious fundamentalism.