Society for the Prevention of Kindness

Aug 23rd, 2005 8:33 pm | By

Jesus Christ. There is just no limit to human disgustingness, is there.

I am here to talk about her catastrophic childhood in an industrial school — a euphemism for workhouse — in Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s, and as anyone who survived this experience will confirm, it is a painful subject. There, incarcerated by 6ft walls and under the tutelage of the Sisters of Mercy nuns, Kathleen was beaten, starved and humiliated to a point where she felt worthless and wanted only to be invisible. Her education was scant; instead she was put to work scrubbing floors, in the laundry and, barefoot and dressed in rags, in the surrounding fields…Denied water between what passed for meals, she drank from toilets.

Denied water between meals. For what? For what purpose? For what monstrous purpose? Is it the Jane Eyre thing again, Catholic version instead of Protestant? You’re poor therefore you have to be given especially bad treatment, treatment that goes beyond mere neglect to outright sadism, so that – so that what? So that you’ll know ‘God’ hates poor people?

…the quality of their mother’s care counted for nothing when the NSPCC charged her with being “destitute” — ie, unmarried — and sent her daughters to St Vincent’s Goldenbridge, an Industrial School. Kathleen was 5. There she was put to work threading rosary beads on to wire that cut into her hands, and she was beaten…By the time Kathleen and her sister escaped a year later, they had scabies and ringworm and were painfully thin.

She was allowed to stay home for awhile but then she was raped by a neighbour and her mother tried to push for a prosecution –

unwittingly giving the NSPCC the proof it needed that she was an unfit mother and that her children needed “protection”. This time her daughters — there were now three — were committed to Mount Carmel Industrial School in Moate, Co Westmeath, until their 16th birthdays…But as she describes the eight years of persistent neglect and abuse that she endured, it is the emotional deprivation that is most disturbing. The girls were not allowed to talk to each other, which meant that there was no friendship or solidarity between them, no care for each other, no way of expressing how they felt — indeed they learnt not to express their feelings. Kathleen felt lost and alone and as she cried herself to sleep each night (and then invariably wet the bed), she could only conclude that she was a very bad girl.

It’s the NSPCC that got her sent there. Funny way to prevent cruelty to children.

We had no rights. We were fortunate that the nuns gave us a roof over our heads or we’d be walking the streets of Dublin. They had such power. When people visited we were threatened to within an inch of our lives. We had to say, ‘I’m very well, thank you, I’m very happy, thank you, we have lovely food, thank you’. You did it because you were within 6ft walls, there was no one to talk to and if you talked, you knew what you would get.

Sounds exactly, to the letter, like Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. If you haven’t read it – lose no time.

Thousands of children in Ireland were tortured, robbed of their childhoods, by the religious…How could they call themselves religious and treat children in this manner?…How could they have thought that they were doing good by beating us? Well, if you’re obsessed by the Devil, you need it beaten out of you, and that is what we were told. They were evil, sadistic people.

Also sounds exactly, to the letter, like that account of ‘exorcists’ and ‘witchcraft’ in small villages in Kinshasa. It seems safe to assume that immense numbers of children are treated this way around the globe.

Pat’s a Sweetie

Aug 23rd, 2005 7:33 pm | By

Pat Robertson’s a funny guy. He has his own ideas about things. Kind of deranged ideas.

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson has suggested that American agents assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to stop his country from becoming ‘a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism.”

For what? Muslim extremism? Er – why would Venezuela be that, especially? Is the Patster maybe a little confused?

We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don’t need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator…You know, I don’t know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war … and I don’t think any oil shipments will stop.

True, true, very true – assassination is a whole lot cheaper than starting a war – let alone continuing one! I tell you what, that can get really expensive. Can cost even more than filling up the gas tank on the SUV, hahaha. On the other hand, the consequences – what nowadays we like to call ‘blowback’ – of assassination can turn out to run up the tab quite a bit. Considerably more than the cost of the assassination or ‘take-out’ itself. Like the assassination of that one measly archduke and his wife, for instance – golly, that ended up being expensive. If you count the cost of the whole rest of the 20th century, which you kind of have to – whoo-ee. We’re talking serious money here. Plus body count. The body count, once all the numbers were in, was really quite high.

But, hey, so Mr R thinks a little short-term – nobody’s perfect.

Robertson has made controversial statements in the past. In October 2003, he suggested that the State Department be blown up with a nuclear device. He has also said that feminism encourages women to ‘kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

Oh, is that controversial? People are so picky.

A helpful Pat-watcher collected a few more pungent remarks of his so I’ll share a few with you. A little Tuesday treat.

If the widespread practice of homosexuality will bring about the destruction of your nation, if it will bring about terrorist bombs, if it’ll bring about earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor, it isn’t necessarily something we ought to open our arms to.

No indeed! Very true. And if the widespread listening to Pat Robertson will bring about volcanic eruptions, floods, traffic jams, tsunamis and possibly the sun veering off course and crashing into the earth – well then. ‘If’ is such a useful little word.

Many of those people involved with Adolph Hitler were Satanists, many of them were homosexuals — the two things seem to go together.

The three. That’s three things – the three things seem to go together – Hitler, homosexuals, and Satanism. ‘Seem’ is another useful little word.

God’s pattern is for men to be the leaders, both in the church and in the family…I know this is painful for the ladies to hear, but if you get married, you have accepted the headship of a man, your husband. Christ is the head of the household and the husband is the head of the wife, and that’s the way it is, period.

Poor ladies. But if they will listen to Pat Robertson…

The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.

And to make fun of Pat Robertson. Yup. Send me in, coach.

We Have a Problem

Aug 23rd, 2005 2:20 am | By

So there’s a transcript of Panorama – very useful for those of us too far away to watch it.

Much food for thought. John Ware:

Extremism feeds off a conviction that Islam is a superior faith and culture which Christians and Jews in the West are conspiring to undermine. My journey through Muslim communities since the London bombings suggests their leaders have not acknowledged the extent to which these views are held in Britain.

He talks to Dr Taj Hargey, who runs a centre for what he calls ‘progressive inclusive Islam.’ Good luck, Dr Hargey, then.

Ad infinitum and ad nauseum, it’s there, it’s with us. We see it from the time you’re a child, you’re given this idea that those people they are Kaafir, they’re unbelievers. They are not equal to you, they are different to you. You are superior to them because you have the truth, they don’t have the truth. You will go to heaven, they will go to hell. So we have this from a very young age.

Ware asks Iqbal Sacranie if he would still expect the government of the day to put pressure on the publishers to withdraw it.

There is no law at the moment, sadly, that would enable me to pursue with a legal course of.. of seeking its withdrawal.

Ah yes, that is sad. Sacranie goes on:

We respect the freedom of expression but we expect freedom of expression to be exercised with responsibility.

Which means, we feel obliged to say we respect the freedom of expression but in reality we’re dead against it. Except for ourselves of course. To express our grievance when books like that get published.

As Rushdie said a couple of weeks ago, ‘If Sir Iqbal Sacranie is the best Blair can offer in the way of a good Muslim, we have a problem.’

Peering into the Gap

Aug 22nd, 2005 2:24 am | By

I’m reading Chris Mooney’s new book The Republican War on Science. It’s pretty enthralling. Infuriating too, of course, but mostly enthralling. It’s so…so B&W. Consider this item from B&W’s ‘About’ page, the last in a list of what B&W was set up to oppose: ‘Those disciplines or schools of thought whose truth claims are prompted by the political, ideological and moral commitments of their adherents, and the general tendency to judge the veracity of claims about the world in terms of such commitments.’ Now consider this item from the book: ‘At a time when more political choices than ever before hinge upon the scientific and technical competence of our elected leaders, the disregard for scientific consensus and expertise – and the substitution of ideological allegiance for careful assessment – can have disastrous consequences.’

See what I mean? And that is – naturally enough – a central issue in the book. There are also closely related issues, such as the way protecting profits can (gosh, really? surely not! surely the market is never wrong!) conflict with the pursuit of truth.

Pharyngula has a comment on the book from last week.

Chris Mooney is trying to kill me.

It’s true. He sent me this book, The Republican War on Science, that he knew would send my blood pressure skyrocketing, give me apoplexy, and cause me to stroke out and die, gasping, clawing in futile spasms at the floor.

Don’t worry, be happy.

Good science needs to be independent of and unfiltered by desired outcomes; it aims to describe the world as it is, not how we wish it would be.

There’s that issue again – that pesky is-ought gap again. Chris’ book could have been called The Republicans Try to Throw a Bridge Across the Is-Ought Gap and Fall In, Pulling All of Us In After Them.

More on this subject later.

The Wrong Socks

Aug 21st, 2005 11:13 pm | By

More discussion of multiculturalism:

Multiculturalism has encouraged the politicisation of identity in ethnic or religious terms…[T]he children of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent or the Middle East have little option but to adopt the label of Muslim, which is thrust upon them by British society as much as by their own parents. If young Muslim women have embraced the hijab as a badge of identity in a way their mothers never did, as a public political symbol, this is more a result of the demands of British multiculturalism than a spontaneous assertion of allegiance.

Thrust upon them by the British media as well as by British society. The default assumption seems to be that if you look as if you come from the Indian subcontinent and you’re not actually wearing a sari, then you’re a Muslim. Secularism and atheism are not on the menu.

The elevation of victimhood has a corrupting and infantilising effect: it encourages members of ethnic minorities to exaggerate and parade their sufferings as a means towards personal and communal advancement. The result is to unleash a sense of grievance that is unlikely to be assuaged by the meagre offerings of the state to the local mosque or temple…When in 1989 Islamic fundamentalists issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie over his allegedly blasphemous book The Satanic Verses, the first instinct of the advocates of multiculturalism was to criticise Rushdie for his insensitivity towards the devout Muslims who took offence at his book…The potent forces unleashed by multiculturalism provide the context for the lurch towards narcissistic violence among second-generation immigrants in British society.

I feel a bit squirmy agreeing with all that. It has a depressing, blimpish, ‘pull your socks up’ ring to it. But – it seems to be true, that does seem to be what has happened, so it’s cognitively difficult not to agree. It’s really hard not to think that that ‘lurch towards narcissistic violence’ was indeed rooted in a worked-up sense of grievance that does indeed have a lot to do with the identity-massaging and victimhood-brandishing of multiculturalism.

In the past, second-generation immigrants often found new sources of identity through the trade unions, socialist and communist movements (which would have scarcely existed in Britain without Irish, Jewish and other immigrants). The disappearance of such sources of collective identification and aspiration is another factor that has encouraged the retreat of some young people into the mindset that culminated in the London bombings.

Yes. Nick Cohen talked about that on ‘Talking Politics’ the other day. Sources of collective aspiration other than religious or ethnic identities would be a good idea, it seems reasonable to think.

They Don’t Get Out Much, You See

Aug 20th, 2005 2:18 am | By

North West Frontier Province – what a fun place that must be.

Hundreds of thousands of women in various NWFP union councils (UCs) will be stopped from voting in the upcoming local council elections despite pressure by the Election Commission and government on jirgas to allow women to participate in the polls, Geo news channel reported on Tuesday. Tribal elder Haji Rahat Hussain said agreements to bar women from contesting and voting in the local council elections were signed by male candidates including nazims and naib nazims with a view to maintain law and order, the channel reported. “Traditionally, our women have always stayed away from elections and they are not even ready to step out of their homes,” he told Geo.

Isn’t that just a pip? Agreements to bar women were signed by male candidates – oh well that’s all right then. As long as the people not disenfranchised by this high-handed decision signed an agreement then everything is on the up and up – all legal and aboveboard. Swell. In the same manner, perhaps, the white candidates in elections in the Mississippi Delta in the early ’60s could have ‘signed agreements’ to bar blacks from voting, and then all that fuss and ruckus, and all those tiresome murders, wouldn’t have happened. And the reason of course would have been exactly the same (it always is) – a view to maintain law and order. You betcha.

And the loving concern is so touching, too. ‘Our women’ (as one might say our dogs or our sheep) ‘have always stayed away from elections’ – well yes I daresay they have, because you have always seen to it. Naturally they have. And ‘they are not even ready to step out of their homes’ – there again: yes, no doubt, because you have seen to it that they wouldn’t be. Keep people confined and locked up, uneducated and inexperienced, and what do you know, you end up with people who are a little shaky on their pins and a bit bashful around strangers. Therefore it follows that they must always stay that way. Of course.

The BBC has more.

The Chief Minister of North West Frontier (NWFP) Province, Akram Durrani, denied that tribal elders had prevented women from voting in some parts of the province. Tribal elders had banned women from voting in three councils in the province, but the government had persuaded local jirgas – or tribal councils – to lift the ban late on Wednesday. Nonetheless, reports from the area suggested that women were not turning out to vote in large numbers. In one women’s polling station in a suburb of Peshawar, capital of NWFP, not a single vote was cast in the first five hours of polling, the BBC’s Haroon Rashid in Peshawar says. Human rights activists are demanding the cancellation of election results in such districts.

Adam Tjaavk tells me the World Service reported that ‘women in NWFP had been asked (by men) not to vote as the weather is too warm for them – standing a long time in long queues would cause them to remove clothing that would cause a public disturbance!’ Right – so they’ll have to hope for cooler weather some other year then. But not too cool, or they might shiver, which would cause minor riots. And not raining, or their clothes would get wet, and you know what ah ah ah ah pant pant pant. And not too dark because in the dark women ah ah ah ah puff puff puff sweat.

There’s a bit in Persepolis 2 like that. (No doubt there were some four million bits in Marjane Satrapie’s life in Iran that were like that.) Marjane is running to catch a bus one afternoon and some uniformed berk shouts at her to stop running. She doesn’t even pay attention at first, because why would he be shouting at her. After the third or fourth time, she stops, bewildered – and he earnestly explains that she must not run because when she runs – and he gestures helpfully with both hands, to illustrate the way her bum moves. ‘Well don’t look at me then!!’ she shouts in his face, enraged.

Same for those lines outside the polling places. Look away, take a cold shower, get a nice hobby; whatever; but leave the damn women alone.

Eternal Recurrence

Aug 19th, 2005 8:53 pm | By

Not again.

Atheism, like religion, is an act of faith: evidence for the existence of God may be entirely anecdotal, but evidence for His absence is even more tenuous.

Oy, oy, oy – will that stupid trope never die? It ought to – it is so lame. Yeah right, atheism is an act of faith, and not collecting stamps is a hobby, and not playing squash is a sport, and not eating lentils is vegetarianism, and not taking a train is travel.

I don’t know if you listed to that Radio One series of philosophical chats, but one of the funnier moments was on the last one, when a Christian philosopher – a philosopher who is also a Christian, not a philosopher of Christianity – said just that – ‘atheism is a religion’ – and Stephen Law gave a protracted whine of indignation. I’m laughing again thinking of it. “I hate it when people say that,” he said tearfully.

But really – why do people keep saying that? Why don’t they realize how absurd it is, and stop? They don’t consider themselves believers in the ‘religion’ of atheism for not believing in Poseidon, or Loki, or the angel Moroni. So why do they say it of people who don’t subscribe to their own particular religion? Especially grown-up people, philosophers, people who write articles in the Guardian. Because they get away with it, no doubt, but that’s a crap reason. As the guy said, ‘Have you no shame?’

Surplus to Requirements

Aug 19th, 2005 2:18 am | By

Norm makes a good point, one that I’ve been vaguely wanting to make for awhile. He’s commenting on Michael Howard’s piece in the Guardian yesterday. Howard:

What do I mean by being proud to be British? At its core is a profound respect for, and allegiance to, the institutions that make Britain what it is, and the values that underpin those institutions.


The point I want to make is simply that it’s not because the values Howard mentions are British values that we owe them allegiance, but because they’re good ones – democratic, liberal, universally defensible. They are superior to those values which, for example, countenance the treatment of some people as inferior to others, or the silencing of dissenting voices, or the murder of the innocent. No one, however, need be loyal to such British values or traditions as cannot be upheld on a morally principled basis. The idea that something is to be supported just because it is British is defenceless in face of the counter-suggestion that other values and traditions are… whatever in fact they are, but in any case not British and preferred by the person who is asserting them. There’s no avoiding the discussion of the merits and demerits of the values or traditions themselves.

Exactly. Obviously, and exactly. That’s why I’ve been wanting to make the point for awhile: because there has been a lot of what seemed to me fairly muddled talk along those lines – talk about Britishness, and allegiance to Britishness, and allegiance to British values, as if they were all the same idea. But it doesn’t matter whether those values are British or not. That’s not the point. The point is whether they’re any good or not, not what nationality they are. If they’re crap values, then allegiance to them is a bad thing, not a good thing, and the fact that they’re British, or Samoan, or Peruvian, is irrelevant.

People need to pay more attention to what’s irrelevant and what isn’t, when they talk – and when they think. It’s clear enough that Howard’s real subject in that piece is – as it should be – the values in question, not their provenance. What he says would make more sense and might well be more persuasive if he kept that in mind.

This is exactly the same point I’ve been making about the stipulation – that women’s rights are okay and acceptable and permissible and a good thing – as long as they don’t contradict Islam. As long as they are on the right side of the divide between what (according to someone or other) pleases Allah and what angers Allah. Or God, or Jesus, or Athena – it doesn’t matter. The problem is the same. That’s beside the point. It’s irrelevant. It’s extraneous – utterly and completely extraneous. It’s the wrong question, the wrong criterion, the wrong standard. It’s like saying ‘You mustn’t put garlic in the gazpacho because the bishop can only move diagonally.’

It’s just a really really bad idea to try to talk about centrally basically important human subjects like values – like how we are going to treat each other and be treated – on the basis of criteria that have nothing whatever to do with the merits of the values themselves. You know? It’s just stupid. It may well be that the intelligent beings who live on a planet that orbits Alpha Centauri would consider our values – justice, equality, freedom, peace, prosperity – to be terrible, contemptible, evil, rebarbative values. But so what? We’re the ones who have to live with and according to them. Not people from Remulac, not Allah, not Jesus, not anyone who doesn’t live on planet earth – just us. We have to live here, and we have to do our best to do it in ways that minimize suffering and misery and horror instead of maximising it. We don’t accomplish that by blowing people to bits on tubes and buses, or by leaving small bombs all over Bangladesh, or by torturing children who are accused of witchcraft, even if (some people think) a deity thinks we do. If the deity thinks we do, the deity is wrong, and that’s that. So all those irrelevant adjectives need to be thrown out. British, Islamic, Christian, whatever – they add nothing to the equation. There’s no avoiding the discussion of the merits and demerits of the values or traditions themselves.

What a Racket

Aug 18th, 2005 2:24 am | By

Some more on this stipulation problem. On why ‘this pleases Allah’ and ‘this angers Allah’ are not the best criteria for what should go in a constitution – any more than ‘what would Jesus do’ is the best question for a 21st century polititian to ask himself.

Because it all depends on one’s conception of Allah or Jesus, for one thing. And guess what – people (my, what a suprise) have a tendency to conceptualize Jesus and Allah according to their own existing wants and opinions and deficits. If they don’t score all that well on the altruism or fairness or humility scale, well, their god is going to have a tendency to arrange things so that they get what they want and people who are in their power get screwed – and then they will call that outcome ‘what pleases Allah’ thus making it not just the way powerful men have arranged things to their own advantage, but Holy and Sacred and Right – so that not only will it never change, but everyone will respect it and worship it and revile anyone who criticizes or questions it. Quite a nice little racket.

And there’s no appeal, which is another reason those are not the best criteria, and why religion should be kept firmly out of government and politics. Because there is no one to file a grievance with and no way to second-guess the results. That’s how it works when you have a Book written 1500 years ago and a god who is never around to ask for updates. Very damn convenient, isn’t it!

‘Sorry – we’d love to let you have basic rights, like being allowed to walk around in the world without asking anyone’s permission, but it would anger Allah, so it’s out.’ ‘Oh yeah? You sure that’s not just your idea? Let’s ask Allah.’ ‘No can do. He’s not here. We can ask the imam.’ ‘I don’t care what the imam says, the imam will just say what you said, you probably asked the imam before you said it – you guys are all in this together. I want to take it to the top!’ ‘Not possible. Unless you want to get yourself one of those rucksacks, of course…’

Very very convenient. He makes the rules, according to what pleases him or pisses him off – but he’s never around to corroborate. There really is a serious design flaw with this whole arrangement. It’s just not the way to do things. You don’t set up a rule-system with a yes-no, on-off mechanism involving one guy when the one guy in question is someone who is never available for consultation – do you! Not in the real world you don’t. Dickens novels sometimes work that way, but other than that, it doesn’t fly.

That’s the problem with the whole supernatural thing. It’s such a perfect alibi, such an excuse, such a cop-out. Imagine other people trying that. The boss, the landlord, the merchant. ‘Hey! Where’s my paycheck? My roof just collapsed! Where’s that shipment of éclairs?’ Silence. ‘Hey!! Where do we go to file a grievance? How do we re-negotiate the contract?’ Some guy in a mitre strolls up. ‘You don’t, of course. The CEO is transcendent, the CEO is supernatural, the CEO is ineffable, and dwells in a region apart. Obviously you can’t re-negotiate anything. Have a nice day.’ Guy in mitre strolls away again. You’re screwed.

And people sign up to this arrangement voluntarily. It’s staggering. ‘Yes, please be the boss of me and tell me what to do based on outdated oppressive rules and hierarchies and never let me think rationally about any of it because that would be Displeasing to The Great Absent One. Thank you so much, now would you please kick me as hard as possible? Thank you and come back soon.’

Transcendence is a beautiful thing.

One Tiny Stipulation

Aug 17th, 2005 11:15 pm | By

So ‘Iraqis back women’s rights’ – with a stipulation. A stipulation that renders the whole idea pretty much worthless.

A survey conducted by Iraq’s constitution drafting committee showed that 69 per cent of respondents support full rights for women – as long as the freedoms don’t contradict Islam…

The survey I think is not all that reliable because of the methodology, but never mind, because what I want to look at, and poke with a stick, is the basic idea: that women’s rights are okay as long as they [why does the article shift without notice from rights to freedoms? they’re not interchangeable] don’t contradict Islam.

That’s a problem. That’s a big problem. Imagine if you were told – ‘Yes you are entitled to human rights – provided they don’t contradict Christianity/Taoism/Wicca.’ You’d feel pretty anxious and worried about what does and what does not contradict whichever religion was in question, wouldn’t you. Does your allotment of rights include the right not to be sacrificed to the gods without written consent of the sacrificee, or not?

That’s why it’s a problem when religion is allowed to trump ‘rights’ – because you just can’t trust religions to come up with rights-compatible systems, or Books. Especially not religions that were started a good few years ago, before notions like women’s rights had gotten much of a foothold. It’s really not such a great idea to tie modern legislation and constitutional protections to a set of ideas worked up two or three or five thousand years ago.

You can get an idea of the kind of thing from the Hizb ut-Tahrir site.

The work of Hizb ut-Tahrir is to carry the Islamic da’wah in order to change the situation of the corrupt society so that it is transformed into an Islamic society. It aims to do this by firstly changing the society’s existing thoughts to Islamic thoughts so that such thoughts become the public opinion among the people, who are then driven to implement and act upon them. Secondly the Party works to change the emotions in the society until they become Islamic emotions that accept only that which pleases Allah (swt) and rebel against and detest anything which angers Allah (swt).

That’s the basic framework – what pleases Allah is good and acceptable, what angers Allah is bad and detestable. Only – how do you know? Or how do they – the people in charge – know? By consulting the Book. But – sometimes there are conflicting interpretations. What do you do then? Oh – whatever. You ask the approved ‘scholars’. But then how can you be sure the scholars are right? How can you be sure you actually know what does please or anger Allah? Doesn’t it look as if there’s room for error or trickery or both here? How can you tell that someone somewhere along the line has not simply written down what he wants and called it the word of Allah? Put it this way – if someone had done that – how would you know? What would you accept as evidence that someone had in fact done that? Anything?

Well, we know the answer to that question, which is the point Irshad Manji has been making. Let’s hope she makes headway. But meanwhile, women’s rights in Iraq look to be headed for the memory hole.

Defiantly Obscure Texts

Aug 16th, 2005 11:39 pm | By

Look, if you’re going to talk about bullshit, you should at least be thorough about it, am I right?

In a paper published a few years ago, “Deeper Into Bullshit,” G. A. Cohen, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, protested that Frankfurt excludes an entire category of bullshit: the kind that appears in academic works. If the bullshit of ordinary life arises from indifference to truth, Cohen says, the bullshit of the academy arises from indifference to meaning. It may be perfectly sincere, but it is nevertheless nonsensical. Cohen, a specialist in Marxism, complains of having been grossly victimized by this kind of bullshit as a young man back in the nineteen-sixties, when he did a lot of reading in the French school of Marxism inspired by Louis Althusser. So traumatized was he by his struggle to make some sense of these defiantly obscure texts that he went on to found, at the end of the nineteen-seventies, a Marxist discussion group that took as its motto Marxismus sine stercore tauri—“Marxism without the shit of the bull.”

I do so sympathize. I’ve read a good many defiantly obscure texts myself, and it can indeed be traumatizing. It’s kind of like getting on the slow train from Bangor to Ketchikan via Amarillo and discovering that your assigned seat mate (No Exchanges, No Refunds, No Alterations, No Seat Re-assignments) is a talkative semi-deaf Baptist with 427 great-grandchildren and a wealth of anecdotes. That of course is why the Dictionary was written – to get revenge on all those talkative anecdotal Baptists. So I do sympathize with G. A. Cohen. There’s even a poltergeist who haunts the corridors of B&W topping up our supply of defiantly obscure texts by depositing turgidly opaque comments back here at odd intervals, apparently worried that we might run short. So I do sympathize.

Simon Blackburn’s Truth is one of the books reviewed in this article. It’s about relativism, among other things.

In its simplest form, relativism is easy to refute. Take the version of it that Richard Rorty, a philosopher who teaches at Stanford, once lightheartedly offered: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.” The problem is that contemporary Americans and Europeans won’t let you get away with that characterization of truth; so, by its own standard, it cannot be true. (The late Sidney Morgenbesser’s gripe about pragmatism—which, broadly speaking, equates truth with usefulness—was in the same spirit: “The trouble with pragmatism is that it’s completely useless.”)

Blackburn put the joke a little differently.

Rorty…has a robust debunking attitude to the norms of truth and reason. Indeed, he once wrote that ‘truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with’. That is a shocking thing to say, outlandish even by philosophers’ standards. In fact, it is shocking enough to be something Rorty’s contemporaries wouldn’t let him get away with (and unsurprisingly, they didn’t). So again, if it is true then it is false – by its own lights it is false.

That made me laugh when I read it this morning.

Time to Admit

Aug 16th, 2005 2:20 am | By

Let’s everybody say this kind of thing more and more often, okay? More and more and more and more. Because there’s so much of the other kind of thing. And the more there is of the other kind of thing, and the less there is of this kind of thing, the more the other kind thinks it’s right, it’s the mainstream, it’s common knowledge, it’s conventional wisdom, it’s obvious, it’s the default position. The only way to resist is by resisting.

It’s time that we acknowledged honestly what most people believe, that religion is at bottom nonsense…[W]hat I think we should acknowledge is that religion contains a massive falsehood, namely that there is a God who determines our actions and responds to our plight…The hypocritical respect now being accorded to Muslim “scholars”, people who believe that the Qur’an was dictated word for word by God, is just one example of the mess we have got ourselves into by pretending to take religion seriously. Disagreements about society can only be resolved in the here and now on liberal principles of discussion and compromise. You cannot have a sensible discussion with fundamentalists, be they Christian, Jewish or Muslim, because they start from a different point.

They start from a different point, and they also stay there, no matter what, no matter what the evidence or what the argument – in fact that is the different point they start from: that evidence and argument are entirely irrelevant. That is not a good point from which to start a sensible discussion.

By pandering to the credulous while cracking down on “extremists”, we are trying to maintain the fiction that we are semi-religious in a harmless, Hobbity sort of fashion…We should make it absolutely clear that there are no special political or religious crimes, and we should make it clear that we do not tacitly promote religion in government or in schools. What we have to promote above all else is the liberal society, and this is best done by observing scrupulously the principles of that society. And that demands that we acknowledge that religion is, at base, nonsense. The sooner we eliminate the idea that life has “some cosmic, all-embracing libretto”, the better.


At Last

Aug 14th, 2005 9:05 pm | By

Well it’s about time. Hooray for the Observer. It is about damn time.

The Muslim Council of Britain is officially the moderate face of Islam. Its pronouncements condemning the London bombings have been welcomed by the government as a model response for mainstream Muslims. The MCB’s secretary general, Iqbal Sacranie, has recently been knighted and senior figures within the organisation have the ear of ministers. But an Observer investigation can reveal that, far from being moderate, the Muslim Council of Britain has its origins in the extreme orthodox politics in Pakistan.

Oh yes? Tell us more.

Far from representing the more progressive or spiritual traditions within Islam, the leadership of the Muslim Council of Britain and some of its affiliates sympathise with and have links to conservative Islamist movements in the Muslim world and in particular Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami, a radical party committed to the establishment of an Islamic state in Pakistan ruled by sharia law…The organisation’s founder, Maulana Maududi, was a fierce opponent of feminism who believed that women should be kept in purdah – seclusion from male company. Although the MCB’s leadership distances itself from some of these teachings, it has been criticised for having no women prominently involved in the organisation.

One of the things it’s about time for is the realization and articulation of the possibility that opposition to terrorism is not the only issue, and not the best possible dividing line. It’s the same thing with Hizb ut-Tahrir – we keep being told that it’s non-violent, as if that’s all that needs to be said. Well non-violent is better than violent, to be sure, but there is a lot more to the subject than that. (And then, given the very real coerciveness of Islamism when it has power, coerciveness that involves beatings, acid attacks, and executions, it is not really all that non-violent anyway.) There are issues about attitudes to human rights, women’s rights, ‘apostasy’ and the like.

Last week, Salman Rushdie warned in an article in the Times that Sacranie had been a prominent critic during the Satanic Verses affair and advised that the MCB leader should not be viewed as a moderate. In 1989, Sacranie said ‘death was perhaps too easy’ for the writer. Rushdie also criticised Sacranie for boycotting January’s Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony. ‘If Sir Iqbal Sacranie is the best Mr Blair can offer in the way of a good Muslim, we have a problem,’ said Rushdie. A Panorama documentary to be screened next Sunday will also be highly critical.

Yeah! Take that, World Service and Jane Little! Strident yourself. ‘Hardly a respected figure’ yourself. Yaboosucks.

The origins of the Muslim Council of Britain can be traced to the storm around the publication of the Satanic Verses in 1988. India was the first country to ban the book and many Muslim countries followed suit. Opposition to the book in Britain united people committed to a traditionalist view of Islam, of which the founders of the Muslim Council of Britain was a part.

A worthy origin.

The MCB was officially founded in November 1997, shortly after Tony Blair came to power, and has had a close relationship with the Labour government ever since…It remains particularly influential within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has a little-known outreach department which works with Britain’s Muslims. The FCO pamphlet Muslims in Britain is essentially an MCB publication and the official ministerial celebration of the Muslim festival of Eid is organised jointly with the MCB.

As Rushdie said – we have a problem.

There is no suggestion that Sacranie and other prominent figures in the Muslim Council of Britain are anything but genuine in their condemnation of the terrorist bombings of the 7 July. But their claims to represent a moderate or progressive tendency in Islam are becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.

Exactly. That’s just it. Merely condemning terrorist bombings is hardly enough to qualify an organization as progressive. Well done, Observer; well done, Panorama. It’s about time.

Tradition and Honour

Aug 13th, 2005 4:03 am | By

You want tradition? Here’s some tradition.

In this quiet northern valley, tucked into the Himalayan foothills, tradition and threats have forced Shad into an electoral profile so low it is almost invisible. She will never leave this high-walled compound to canvass votes, never knock on a single door…And even if Shad wins a seat in Lower Dir, an arch-conservative corner of North West Frontier Province, there is no guarantee the local Pashtun men will allow her to occupy it.

They don’t like the idea, you see. It’s not the tradition.

Since 2001 four women councillors have been killed in Frontier province. The latest victim died in June. Zubeida Begum, a veteran women’s rights campaigner, was shot nine times at her home in Upper Dir, close to Shad Begum’s home. The gunmen, who included one of her own relatives, also killed her 19-year-old daughter.


Hostility has been stoked by tribal and religious leaders who view women politicians as an insult to Pashtun custom and an unforgivable affront to Islam. “There is no place for a woman’s authority under sharia law,” says Maulana Hifz ur-Rehman, a cleric and former jihadi fighter who runs a madrasa on a mountain slope outside Ziarat Talash.

No, of course not, for obvious reasons – because men’s authority is so much more wise, and just, and compassionate.

Still, intimidation and social pressure is rife. Shad Begum says she has been tarred as a “Jewish conspirator” in a whispering campaign against her family because her aid agency receives help from western donors. “They say we are brazen people without honour,” says her brother, Shad Muhammad, whose pharmacy in Ziarat Talash has been attacked. “They say you want to take your women into the streets, and take ours with them.” Shad says the struggle is worth it. In the cloistered, tradition-bound world of Lower Dir, where women hardly dare step on the street, access to health and education is woeful. The district has just three female doctors for a population of more than 800,000; hardly any girls attend school; and so-called “honour killings” are common.

Honour. What a joke.

Roy Hattersley

Aug 12th, 2005 8:40 pm | By

Roy Hattersley in the Guardian.

At one level, the attack on multiculturalism is no more than a refined, middle-class version of “Paki-bashing”. Yet people who ought to know better have joined in the chorus of intolerance. To demand that Muslims abandon their way of life – what they eat, how they dress, which way they choose their husbands and wives – is to make a frontal assault upon their faith. Islam is a total religion. People who go to church on Christmas Eve and think that makes them Christians may not realise that devout Muslims believe that the Qur’an should inform their whole lives.

Well, I don’t go to church on Christmas eve and I don’t aspire either to be or to think of myself as a Christian – so I do indeed realise that ‘devout’ (there it is again) Muslims believe that the Qur’an should inform their whole lives. But so what? That’s the problem, not an explanation that causes the problem to disappear. By the same token, ‘devout’ Southern Baptists believe that (their selective reading of) the Bible should govern their whole lives, too, and that therefore God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve and all the rest of the nonsense. That doesn’t make it okay – that doesn’t make it not a problem that they want to impose their religious views on other people. Nor does it with other holy books. Or any other books. ‘Devout’ Nazis could believe that The Passing of the Great Race should inform their whole lives, too, but I doubt Hattersley would urge us to respect that. So surely the mere fact that a group believes that a book should inform their whole lives is not automatically a reason to agree with them.

And then, Hattersley’s gloss on ‘their way of life’ is a tad inadequate. ‘what they eat, how they dress, which way they choose their husbands and wives’ – that leaves out a few items – such as ‘honour’ killing, female subordination, ‘which way they choose’ their underage daughters’ husbands. Even that ‘what they eat’ is evasive and euphemistic, because the issue there is a form of animal slaughter that is considered cruel to the animals. It is simply not self-evident that ‘devoutness’ should trump concern with animal suffering, and the issue should not be concealed by the choice of words.

Britain has to decide if the freedom that we so value is consistent with attempts to suppress the religious practices of the country’s fastest-growing faith. The fact that most of us do not share their beliefs (and some of us have no beliefs at all) is irrelevant. Only primitive people want to destroy everything they do not like or understand. The civilised, and sensible, approach is to welcome diversity as a stimulus to renewed vitality.

Oy veh. Here we go again. (Seriously. This kind of thing is so stale. Is that really the best they can do?) Which ‘religious practices’ does he mean? Does he in fact even really mean ‘religious practices’ or does he mean social customs. And as for beliefs and sharing or not sharing them – that’s just silly. The issue is not beliefs, it is indeed practices. What is done to people. And then destroying everything they do not like or understand – again, that’s just an empty, beside the point bit of abuse. And ‘welcome diversity’ – another evasive formula, as I said a few days ago about Canon Chris Chivers’ ‘It is to be hoped the proposed commission will identify ways grudging tolerance can now be transcended by genuine acceptance, understanding and respect, which turns neighbours into friends because it accords difference the dignity it always deserves.’ Not all difference does deserve respect, and neither should all diversity be welcomed. Some norms are desirable and necessary. One assumes that in other contexts, MPs are pretty well aware of that. It may be ‘different’ or ‘diverse’ to demand the death of a novelist or playwright for writing something that ‘offends’ our ‘beliefs’ – but that doesn’t make it worthy of respect or welcoming. So blanket endorsements of diversity and difference are worthless, and confusion-producing.

But it is the assault on Islam – its culture as well as its theology – that has alienated some Muslim youths to the point at which they will not condemn anyone who champions their religion…Assaults on their habits as well as their faith will alienate them still further.

Maybe so. But what can be done about it? What is the alternative? Huh? Just to give up and endorse all the ‘habits’ of ‘Muslim youths’ without further examination? What if those ‘habits’ include pushing women around and telling them what to do and what to wear, and calling them whores if they don’t obey? Does Hattersley expect everyone to smile placatingly and keep silent about situations like that?

But the laid-back British still failed to recognise the passion with which British Muslims support their culture and their religion. At the beginning of the row over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, I told worshippers at the Birmingham central mosque that they should be as calm about their faith as most Christians are about theirs. A man called Saed Moghul told me: “You may not care about your religion, but that is no reason why we should not care about ours.” His logic was irrefutable.

His what? His what was irrefutable? His logic was what?

Anyway – that was no ‘row’ – that was a very literal, serious, intended death threat. For writing a novel. Gore Vidal wrote a novel about Jesus – should passionate Christians (and there are some) be approved if they (caring about their religion as they do) put out a fatwa of their own?

The sensible alternative to that take-it-or-leave-it nonsense is acceptance that most Muslims will live Islamic lives and still accept the laws and conventions that hold Britain together…They were taught at school that free men and women are entitled to live as they choose as long as their habits do not imperil the tranquillity of the nation.

As long as their ‘habits’ do not imperil the tranquillity of the nation. Well what if their habits do imperil the flourishing of the girls and women among them? What if the phrase ‘free women’ has a slightly ironic ring in light of some of those ‘habits’? Or to put it another way, once the fine-sounding empty phrases are set aside, what exactly does Hattersley mean? Which differences and conventions and habits and practices are we talking about, exactly?

Strident Shmident

Aug 11th, 2005 4:28 pm | By

Well, we’re doomed anyway. There are Pakistan’s nukes, and Iran’s potential nukes, and, Karl tells me, Saudi Arabia’s potential nukes – my head hurts. And that’s not to mention North Korea whose nukes are probably pointed directly at my desk. And never even mind all that because with that Siberian peat bog the size of Germany and France combined melting and releasing billions of tons of methane – warming will be drastically speeded up and there is nothing we can do about it. Floods, droughts, crop failures, famines, migrations of peoples, food wars…(And there’s that pandemic lurking, don’t forget that.)

So maybe it would make sense to just shrug and start eating a lot of ice cream while awaiting the end. Maybe it would. But – but who knows, maybe there will be a Miracle and the human species will turn some sort of corner and start acting as if it has a shred of sense. So maybe it’s worthwhile to keep trying to help direct traffic. Anyway it’s less boring than waiting.

Right, so what’s the first thing I heard when I turned on the radio this morning? (I wonder if I’m always going to wake up at 4 a.m. on Thursdays now. I happened to do that five weeks ago, and got such a shock when I turned on the radio that it probably imprinted a little atomic clock in my brain.) I’ll tell you what it was – a piece on the World Service about Salman Rushdie’s article in the Times about the need for a reform movement in Islam. The religion correspondent Jane Little called it ‘strident’ and then without pausing to draw breath, rushed to say ‘But we have to put it in context’ and then rushed on to explain what she meant by ‘in context’: Rushdie is ‘hardly a respected figure in the Muslim world,’ so Muslims won’t be much impressed by what he has to say, they’ll just say he’s just showing his liberal secular values.

In other words, it was disgusting, contemptible, anti-rational, hostile, slavish garbage. What does she mean ‘strident’? Read the article – what’s ‘strident’ about it? Unless you just start from the default position that religious fundamentalism is a fine thing and any kind of rational questioning of it is bad and ‘strident.’ But what is a BBC journalist doing starting from a default position like that?

And then there was the edge of contempt in her voice and choice of words – ‘Rushdie is hardly a respected figure in the Muslim world’. Meaning – what? Therefore he should shut up about ‘the Muslim world’? Because – ? Because one branch of it wants to kill him? Therefore he has no business voicing criticism of it? It’s hard not to think that’s what she’s saying. But that’s imbecilic – and submissive. Rushdie is more entitled and qualified than most people to criticise Islam, precisely because one branch of it wants to kill him – wants to (and does) shut up people who criticise it. That’s a dead giveaway that there is something badly wrong with it, and that it needs all the criticism it can get, all the more so from people with direct knowledge of its intimidation techniques. Yet Jane Little’s tone and choice of words conveyed the exact opposite. And then note the assumption that the entire ‘Muslim world’ is as obscurantist as the pro-fatwa crowd – which is pretty insulting.

Strident. Let’s hear some stridency.

However, this is the same Sacranie who, in 1989, said that “Death is perhaps too easy” for the author of “The Satanic Verses.” Tony Blair’s decision to knight him and treat him as the acceptable face of “moderate,” “traditional” Islam is either a sign of his government’s penchant for religious appeasement or a demonstration of how limited Blair’s options really are…Two weeks later his organization boycotted a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in London commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz 60 years ago. If Sir Iqbal Sacranie is the best Blair can offer in the way of a good Muslim, we have a problem.

So has Jane Little called Sacranie strident, I wonder? If not, why not? Which of the two is actually strident?

The Sacranie case illustrates the weakness of the Blair government’s strategy of relying on traditional, essentially orthodox Muslims to help eradicate Islamist radicalism. Traditional Islam is a broad church that certainly includes millions of tolerant, civilized men and women but also encompasses many whose views on women’s rights are antediluvian, who think of homosexuality as ungodly, who have little time for real freedom of expression, who routinely express anti-Semitic views and who, in the case of the Muslim diaspora, are — it has to be said — in many ways at odds with the Christian, Hindu, non-believing or Jewish cultures among which they live…What is needed is a move beyond tradition — nothing less than a reform movement to bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age, a Muslim Reformation to combat not only the jihadist ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows to let in much-needed fresh air…It is high time, for starters, that Muslims were able to study the revelation of their religion as an event inside history, not supernaturally above it.

No no. Naughty. That’s strident. Saying the revelation of their religion is supernaturally above it is just perfectly normal, average, steady-state, but saying it isn’t – that’s strident.

However, few Muslims have been permitted to study their religious book in this way. The insistence that the Koranic text is the infallible, uncreated word of God renders analytical, scholarly discourse all but impossible.

That’s exactly what Irshad Manji argues, and has been saying on the BBC among other places lately. Is she strident? If she is, why does Radio 4 keep phoning her up and asking her opinion? If she’s not, why is Rushdie?

The traditionalists’ refusal of history plays right into the hands of the literalist Islamofascists, allowing them to imprison Islam in their iron certainties and unchanging absolutes. If, however, the Koran were seen as a historical document, then it would be legitimate to reinterpret it to suit the new conditions of successive new ages…Will Sir Iqbal Sacranie and his ilk agree that Islam must be modernized? That would make them part of the solution. Otherwise, they’re just the “traditional” part of the problem.

Strident, nothing. Jane Little and the World Service could do with some modernization themselves.

We Know Our Stories

Aug 11th, 2005 3:37 am | By

A reader sent me this infuriating item. It’s all too familiar, but that doesn’t make it any less irritating.

But now scientists want to step around the mythology and tell a different story, using the DNA of Maori and other indigenous people to work out how prehistoric humans spread around the world from the “true” home of Homo sapiens, Africa. Many Maori do not want to hear that story…As soon as the scheme was announced in April, indigenous groups began objecting, and none more loudly than Maori. We already know where we came from, thanks very much, they said, and what’s in it for indigenous people? What is the point of challenging generations of oral history and spiritual belief?

What is the point? Finding out what really happened as opposed to the story. It’s not written in stone anywhere that a story is invariably or necessarily preferable to a more accurate account.

Indigenous people already have their own answers, says Tongan educator Dr Linita Manu’atu, a senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology.
“Stop dominating us. If they flip over to this side of the world, [they will see] we have our own ways of understanding the world. We can do our research in our own ways, and contribute that knowledge to the world,” Manu’atu says. “For Tongans, we were created in Tonga. We have gods, our own gods, which we created the same as the people of Israel. We have our own stories, but we are being told they’re not good enough.”

Says Tongan educator? She has a funny idea of education. Yeah, I know how I got where I am, too: Daffy Duck bought me at Reasonably Honest Dave’s for five cents and a plug of tobacco. That’s my story and better nobody tell me it’s not good enough, especially not some jumped-up geneticist. See? I’m an educator.

Australian Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell agrees. “We didn’t come from anywhere. We know that our Dreamtime stories tell us we were always here, in Australia. Can this be twisted to say we came from Africa and therefore we have fewer rights to our country than white people?”

No, it can only be twisted to say you came from Africa and therefore you have more rights to your country than white people. That makes just as much sense.

Marae worker and caregiver Mere Kepa, also a researcher at Auckland University, doesn’t buy Genographic’s stated hope of improving global understanding of indigenous concerns. “Just because you know you’re related to each other, is that going to stop the Queensland police belting the shit out of Aborigines?” Kepa asks. “This is scientific imperialism. As an academic I’m not opposed to learning, but I’m tired and exhausted of learning from Western scientists that I’m sad, bad and mad and so are all my whanau and hapu and iwi.”

As an academic Kepa is not opposed to learning?? Well you could have fooled me! That sure looks like opposition to learning to me. Blind, stubborn, stupid, ill-informed, catch-phrasey, trendy, dopy, grab-any-complaint-that-comes-to-mindy, head-in-the-sand opposition to learning.

But they’re not all absurd, I’m happy to say. (Postmodernism is everywhere – it’s like mildew. It just creeps in.

Maori Aucklander Mike Stevens, an anthropologist and iwi consultant who is on the board of Nga Pae o te Maramatanga, is happy to volunteer for the project and says many Maori do not accept all oral traditions as literal truth anyway…”But I think it is something that can advance our knowledge. It needn’t destroy our faith.”…More knowledge is always empowering, says Manuka Henare, associate dean of Maori and Pacific Development at Auckland University’s business school…”If you give people the knowledge and understanding, you will find Maori people are as open-minded about these things as any others.”

Good, let’s hope someone gets busy doing that, so that the cries of scientific imperialism can fade away.

Press Release

Aug 10th, 2005 8:03 pm | By

Ayaan Hrsi Ali to speak at Toronto Sharia law conference, August 12th

Press conference begins at 6:30pm.

Together with Theo van Gogh, Ayaan Hrsi Ali made the 2004 film ‘Submission’ about the oppression of women in Islamic cultures. Dutch Muslims criticized the film for being disgraceful and blasphemous. Van Gogh was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri on November, 2nd, 2004. Ayaan now lives under police protection in a safe house in the Netherlands. Time Magazine named Ayaan one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2005. Ayaan has been a Member of Parliament in the Dutch (Liberal) VVD party in the Tweede Kamer (Lower House) since January 30th 2003.

Irshad Manji and Homa Arjomand will also speak.

Irshad Manji author of the #1-bestseller, ‘The Trouble with Islam’, is based in Toronto and hosts TVOntario’s “Big Ideas.” Oprah Winfrey honored her with the first annual Chutzpah Award. Ms. magazine named her a Feminist for the 21st Century.

Homa Arjomand is the Coordinator of the International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada. She started her campaign at Toronto in October 2003 with a handful of supporters, and today it has grown to a coalition of 87 organizations from 14 countries with over a thousand activists. Homa is a Toronto based transitional counselor and was a human rights activist in Iran until she was forced to flee in 1989.

About the Conference:

The Toronto Conference on ‘Sharia Law and the Globalization of Political Islam’ will be held August 12, 2005 at 7:30 pm. in the Earth Sciences Centre, University of Toronto, 1050-5 Bancroft Ave. The ten-minute film ‘Submission’ will be shown and a 30-minute question period will follow the speakers.

Tickets may be ordered by calling 416-737-9500 or by email Tickets are $20, seniors and students $12. The conference is produced and sponsored by the International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada.

Errors of Omission

Aug 10th, 2005 12:54 am | By

A little more on that thought. The thought that it’s not very helpful to say that difference always deserves respect, without defining what kind of difference is meant. Evasive language that leaves out the very point that is at issue, is not helpful and is not honest.

There was some of that on the Talking Politics I mentioned. I’ve been meaning to transcribe the comments I had in mind, and I finally got around to it. So – Ann McElvoy. First, on why France is not to be admired on questions of multiculturalism.

The state appropriates to itself, I think entirely wrongly, the right to tell Muslim girls that they may or may not even wear a scarf, let alone the veil on their heads, and that to me is exactly where we wouldn’t want to go.’

Left something rather large out there – making her point seem a lot stronger than it in fact is. The state tells girls they may or may not wear a scarf at state schools – and nowhere else. She neglects to mention that.


What worries me is the more difficult decisions, what do you do about people who want to live separately – I don’t think you can force them, just like pledges of allegiance, to do things they really don’t believe in, if they’re not doing you any harm, and I think that is the very difficult question that we will be faced with, it comes up again with things like the burqa – just because white Britain feels a bit uncomfortable about the burqa is that a reason to ban it.

That one’s a double prize, because there are two large omissions. ‘If they’re not doing you any harm’ – but doing me harm is not the issue. What if they are doing other people harm? What if they are doing harm to their daughters for instance? And ‘just because white Britain feels a bit uncomfortable about the burqa’ – but feeling uncomfortable about the burqa is not the issue – the issue is what harm is the burqa (arguably) doing to other people? Or to put it another way, why would anyone feel ‘a bit uncomfortable about the burqa’? If it were just a difference in dress – some embroidery, or puffy sleeves, or morris bells – would anyone feel uncomfortable? I hardly think so. No, people are ‘uncomfortable’ about the burqa for a reason, and as a matter of fact it’s a good reason, not a bad or stupid one. The damn thing stands for subordination and inferiority, therefore it makes people uncomfortable. Of course it can still be argued that it should nevertheless not be interfered with or even criticised – but it’s cheating to try to do that by ignoring crucial aspects.

Which Side Are You On?

Aug 9th, 2005 8:45 pm | By

Remember that old labor song – ‘Which Side Are You On’? Pete Seeger sang it – that’s the version I know. It’s a strike song, a union song, a solidarity song. Well – get out the banjo and let’s sing a few bars. Which side are we on.

Not this one.

…in northern Afghanistan in May, three women workers at a microcredit organisation (which gives loans to women to start up small businesses) were stoned to death by warlords; in India, a woman social worker in Madhya Pradesh state had her hands chopped off by a man furious because she was counselling villagers against child marriage. In Pakistan, the head of the Human Rights Commission was stripped and beaten in public after she organised a series of sporting marathons in which women could compete. (One marathon was attacked by 900 men from the Islamist alliance, armed with batons and petrol bombs.)…In Iraq, a wave of attacks on women has been carried out by the new insurgent groups. Said a 23-year-old university student: “They dropped acid in my face and on my legs. They cut all my hair off while hitting me in the face many times, telling me it’s the price for not obeying God’s wish in using the veil.”

Nothing new there. In Marjane Satrapie’s Persepolis, Marjane’s mother encounters ‘Two guys…two bearded guys…two fundamentalist bastards…the bastards, the bastards…They said that women like me should be pushed up against a wall and fucked, and then thrown in the garbage…And that if I didn’t want that to happen, I should wear the veil…’ ‘That incident,’ Satrapie comments in the next panel, ‘made my mother sick for several days.’

That was twenty-five years ago. Yet we still hear imbeciles burbling about the veil as a ‘choice.’

Which side are we on? Not this one.

Such meetings have increased as secular women lobby hard to prevent religious Shiite conservatives – the parliament’s majority – from mentioning Islam as the “primary source” of legislation in Iraq’s new constitution…Mona Noor Zazala, a Shia member of the National Assembly at the event who favors the wording, insists there is nothing to fear…Mentioning Islam in the country’s constitution is important because Islam, which most Iraqis follow, emphasizes “motherhood and obliges men to spend money on their families,” she said.

Uh huh. But the secular women weren’t buying it.

In the current social climate, where some of the women at the event had received death threats for their activism, “we are afraid to say what we think,” said the woman, who declined to give her name out of fear of retaliation. “We must fight for our rights now – in the future we might not be able to fight at all,” she said.

Even well-meaning ‘tolerance’ is not always the right side to be on.

It is not the language or aspiration of multiculturalism but of tolerance – a concept much advanced in the past few weeks – which needs to be examined. For to tolerate too often means merely to put up with. This does little justice to the task which faces Britons of every class and creed: a task, confirmed since the events of July 7 by the alarming rise of race- and faith-hatred crimes. It is to be hoped the proposed commission will identify ways grudging tolerance can now be transcended by genuine acceptance, understanding and respect, which turns neighbours into friends because it accords difference the dignity it always deserves.

That’s a Canon – Canon Chris Chivers of Blackburn cathedral. Well – genuine acceptance, understanding and respect of what? What kind of difference? Is it true that difference always deserves dignity? No – of course it’s not. As, surely, the Canon himself would agree as soon as anyone asked him about some blindingly obvious examples of difference. So why do people keep on endlessly recycling unhelpful bromides like that? Because they’re worried about hate-crimes, and they’re right to be worried; but surely evasion of the real difficulties doesn’t help.

There are some differences being argued over here – ‘here’ meaning all over the world, ‘here’ meaning related to this subject of the religious oppression of women and other subordinate groups (dalits for example) – that should not be tolerated, and that’s that. So it’s no good just arm-waving and saying ‘difference’ and ‘dignity’ and ‘respect’ over and over again and thinking that settles the matter – it doesn’t. Unfortunately, there are sides here, and we have to choose one.