Notes and Comment Blog

They should have the right to live as human beings

Apr 6th, 2009 5:58 pm | By

Pervez Kambaksh is hanging on to his hopes.

“I want an Afghanistan where the mothers of this country and the daughters of this country have the same rights that you and I have as men,” he said in an interview inside the Walayat prison where he has languished since June. “They should have the right to education. They should have the right to work in any organisation they want, and they should have the right to live as human beings in this society.”

They should have the right to live as human beings. Yes they should.

Back atcha, Pervez (if I may – I think of you as a friend). We want an Afghanistan where you have the right to live as a human being too.

The epithet question

Apr 6th, 2009 11:26 am | By

I’m curious about something. To the best of my knowledge, a sexist epithet is a sexist epithet. There’s not generally a lot of ambiguity about it, although there’s always room for ironic uses in private conversation and so on. In public discourse, a sexist epithet is what it is. Yet – I keep encountering people who dispute that, in places where I wouldn’t expect to, such as comments on Jesus and Mo. So I’m curious about what other people think.

A commenter said ‘the god of Islam is such a pussy. He is unable to do a thing to protect himself or his reputation and must rely on his minions to do his dirty work.’ I took exception, and someone replied by quoting one of Julian’s Bad Moves from here, on the fact that many words have multiple meanings. True enough, but is there more than one way to understand ‘pussy’ in that comment? Not that I know of.

What’s interesting is that I think that’s pretty widely understood, even by people who pretend or believe otherwise. One reason I think that is that I don’t know anyone who uses the word that way in conversation or correspondence with me. I don’t think that’s an accident; I think it’s because no one who knows me thinks it would be welcome – and for all I know this includes people who do use the word in conversation with other people. The point is that if people avoid the word with (at least) certain audiences, then the meaning is probably pretty clear. Am I wrong?

Certain epithets just are not really ambiguous; they can’t be. ‘Nigger’ is the best known in the US and maybe elsewhere; kike, raghead, kaffir are a few more. Queer and dyke have been reclaimed, and there is a school of thought that ‘bitch’ has but I think on the contrary, ‘bitch’ is more viciously misogynist than ever. And so are, as far as I know, pussy, twat and cunt. It is my considered opinion that no one who comments on Jesus and Mo would have the gall to call the barmaid any of those things, and that if I’m right about that, they should stop using them at all.

‘New’ atheism chapter 27,439

Apr 6th, 2009 11:05 am | By

Madeleine Bunting takes a minute to remind us how stunningly predictable, how jaw-droppingly selective, how risibly but irritatingly woolly she can be and pretty much always is.

Increasingly, one hears a distaste for the polemics of the New Atheist debate and its foghorn volume, and how it has drowned out any other kind of conversation about religion.

Does one? Does one not rather rush about attempting to create such a distaste one’s very own self? Much of this putative distaste comes from Bunting herself, so it’s a little sick-making to see her pretending to be too modest to mention her own energetic campaign. And then of course the drowning out is completely ridiculous – witness Bunting herself, and all the people she quotes, and Tony Faith Foundation Blair, and the archbishops and bishops filling the Telegraph with their complaints and the apologists of Islam filling the Guardian with their rationalizations – ‘drowned out’ indeed! Apparently she confuses addition with drowning out, and not being silenced and closeted any more with ‘foghorn volume.’ Apparently she thinks that religious conversation about religion should have undisputed monopoly of the discussion and thus interprets any disagreement as Much Too Loud and Drowning Out. Excuse my bluntness, but that is stupid.

Ask a philosopher like John Gray or a historian of religion like Karen Armstrong and they are simply not interested in the debate; they bin the invitations to speak on platforms alongside New Atheists. Gray dismisses them as offering “intoxicating simplicity”; Armstrong is appalled by their “display of egotism and arrogance”.

So she doesn’t mean a philosopher like John Gray or a historian of religion like Karen Armstrong, she means John Gray and Karen Armstrong – but putting it the way she did conveys an impression that there are lots of philosophers like John Gray and historians of religion like Karen Armstrong, without having to offer any. But the views of John Gray and Karen Armstrong are highly contested; neither is typical, and both are considered exceptionally tendentious.

Belief came to be understood in western Christianity as a proposition at which you arrive intellectually, but Armstrong argues that this has been a profound misunderstanding that, in recent decades, has also infected other faiths…”We need to get away from the endless discussion about wretched beliefs; religion is about doing – and what every faith makes clear is that the doing is about compassion,” she argues. To try and shift the debate about faith into more fruitful territory, Armstrong came up with the idea of a global Charter on Compassion for all faiths (and none), which she is drafting and planning to launch later in the year.

Yes, she argues that, and thus we can see how and why her views are so contested. That would be because it is nonsense, and vicious nonsense at that, to say that ‘what every faith makes clear is that the doing is about compassion.’ She can’t say that without simply blowing off what is happening in (you know the dreary list) Swat and Afghanistan and Brazil and Iraq and Nicaragua and Somalia and the list goes on. It’s just not true that every faith makes clear that the doing is about compassion.

At times of crisis – such as the economic recession – the brittleness of a value system built on wealth and a particular conception of autonomy becomes all too apparent, leaving people without the sustaining reserves of a faith to fall back on.

That’s interesting – she talks a lot of wool about compassion but when it comes to practice she resorts to insult, claiming that non-believers build their value system on wealth. That is both stupid and rude.

Review of reviews

Apr 5th, 2009 11:34 am | By

And then there’s Karzai – he says he’ll ‘review’ the new law that says women can’t leave the house without a damn good reason. But his idea of ‘reviewing’ is not quite that of, say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Western media have either mistranslated or taken incorrect information and then published it. If there is anything in contradiction with our Constitution or Shariah, or freedoms granted by the Constitution, we will take action in close consultation with the clerics of the country.”

Ah. So the law will stay as it is then. There won’t be anything ‘in contradiction with’ Shariah, and close consultation with the clerics of the country will of course issue in warm approval of the Shariah-compliant law, not in pesky changes that would leave women with a few shaky ghosts of rights to move around freely and say no to sex with their husbands even when not deathly ill. Shariah and the clerics of the country are the way to get woman-subordinating theocratic laws, not rights-respecting secular universal laws. So much for that.

The abyss of hatred

Apr 5th, 2009 11:17 am | By

Tarek Fatah pointed out (at Facebook) a speech by a Kuwaiti professor daydreaming about an anthrax attack in the US that would kill 300,000 people in a few minutes. I did some googling, and found a MEMRI follow-up item quoting ‘a number of prominent liberals: Kuwait University professor Ahmad Al-Baghdadi and columnist Ahmad Al-Sarraf, both of whom are Kuwaiti, and the Jordanian-American author Shaker Al-Nabulsi.’ They all think Professor Anthrax’s views are disgusting.

The guy is actually Dr. ‘Abdallah Al-Nafisi, a prominent Islamist. Depressingly, his doctorate is from Cambridge. Salman Rushdie is another alumnus of Cambridge. They seem to have taken away different things.

Kuwait University professor Ahmad Al-Baghdadi had this to say:

Frankly, I am very happy with Dr. Al-Nafisi’s lecture, since it makes clear to all the terrorist orientation of the [Islamist] religious organizations, and affirms what I and other liberals have written about this terrorism, and which everyone says is an exaggeration. Here is their ‘Dr.,’ publicly and without fear delivering threats about killing Americans…It is clear that membership in an [Islamist] religious organization leads to the continual deepening of the abyss of hatred for others – even if this member holds 50 doctorates.

That’s exactly it you know. That’s why the thugs in Swat (and the thugs in Somalia and the thugs in Iraq and so on and so on) are so horrible to contemplate – it’s this wallowing in hatred. It’s this enthusiastic embrace of hatred, and its consequent luxuriation in violence. If there’s anything we know about human beings, it’s that – that hatred and a love of violence are the worst thing, and are not to be embraced. That is not what we hope for from reformist or moral or inspirational people. It is the very opposite of what we hope for.

Intelligently designed to close minds

Apr 4th, 2009 5:13 pm | By

Thought for the day, from Niall Shanks in God, the Devil, and Darwin: a Critique of Intelligent Design Theory.

[T]he dark side of the wedge strategy, lurking at the fat end of the wedge, lies in the way that it is intelligently designed to close minds to critical, rational scrutiny of the world we live in. The wedge strategy describes very well the very process whereby, beginning with mild intellectual sedatives, religion becomes the true opiate of the masses. As [Philip] Johnson makes clear, once the wedge is driven home, even the rules of reasoning and logic will have to be adjusted to sit on theological foundations. In this way, critical thinking and opposition will not just be hard but literally unthinkable.

Just so. And that’s why Mr Framing is so entirely wrong.

Knowing theocracy when you see it

Apr 4th, 2009 1:04 pm | By

Shiraz Maher gets it – much better than Robert Lambert does. This could be because (or notwithstanding or both) he was once in Hizb ut-Tahrir.

The British state has traditionally predicated its policy on the premise that ostensibly nonviolent Islamists can be part of the solution to al Qaeda violence…The practical effect of this has been to engage and empower nonviolent exponents of Islamism who, while expressing opposition to the terrorism of Osama bin Laden and his cohorts, hold values and views that are antithetical to mainstream British society. This has often meant turning a blind eye to preachers who advocate the killing of homosexuals, the oppression of women and the subjugation of nonbelievers.

Precisely; I’ve been carping at them about this for years; I’ve also been carping at people like Ian Buruma (and at Ian Buruma) for making the same stupid mistake.

This tendency is exemplified by the term “Preventing Violent Extremism,” the banner under which the government’s flagship counterterrorism strategy continues to operate…The result is that Islamists have routinely been enlisted as official, public partners in the hope that their cooperation might reduce the terrorist threat…[I]s it right that liberal societies should endorse those whose values we would otherwise find abhorrent?

No it damn well is not right, which is why I’ve been carping (and why other people have too).

[W]hen government now talks about ideology, it does so in only the narrowest possible terms: the bloodcurdling doctrine of al Qaeda. By refusing to cast the net further, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its sprawling network of “front groups” continue unchallenged. Yet the Brotherhood is a movement whose views, including its desire to establish a pan-Islamic theocracy, are fundamentally irreconcilable with those of a liberal society.

In exactly the same way that the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam is fundamentally irreconcilable with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Who are the real bulwarks against radicalization and who are the bogus ones? And by what criteria should those partners be chosen? For starters, the state should draw a line against any group or individual opposed to those inalienable and nonnegotiable values – such as not discriminating on the basis of religion, race, sexual orientation or gender – which define the British public sphere in the 21st century. These values are universal and applicable to all communities. Government should use them to create a robust, values-led initiative that makes clear exactly what the state stands for.

Hear hear. Out of the mouths of repentant Islamists…

Women should be neither seen nor heard

Apr 3rd, 2009 4:51 pm | By

And then there are the reactionary Orthodox newspapers in Israel which can’t stand to show any of those harlot women in positions of power, so they just erase them and replace them with men.

Limor Livnat and Sofa Landver were grouped with the rest of the 30-member cabinet for their inaugural photo. But Yated Neeman newspaper digitally changed the picture by replacing them with two men. The Shaa Tova newspaper blacked the women out.

Couldn’t they just have put little digital bags over their heads? Wouldn’t that do the job?

Welcome to Swat

Apr 3rd, 2009 4:44 pm | By

So here’s how it went down in Swat.

The burka-clad [girl] is heard crying throughout the two-minute flogging and at one point swears on her father that she will not do it again. Relatives of the man involved in the incident told the BBC he had gone to the house of the girl in the village of Kala Kalay to do repairs as an electrician, but militants accused him of having a relationship with her. They dragged him from the house and flogged him before punishing the girl, his relatives said. The Taleban made the girl’s brother hold her down during the flogging, they said. After the incident, the Taleban forced the couple to marry and instructed the man not to divorce his wife.

The Taleban forced ‘the couple’ to marry – except that there was no couple, there was an electrician doing some work in a house and a girl who happened to live there. Now there are three people stuck in a revolting nightmare, with (no doubt) the Taleban balefully peering at them all the time so that they can’t escape. Allah is wise, merciful.

Islamists’ ‘devotion to social justice’

Apr 3rd, 2009 11:23 am | By

The Guardian pulls our chain again.

In recent weeks an unnecessary schism has been created between government and British Islamists…Taken together these incidents reinforce concerns that British Islamists are uniquely held out for political attack, and illustrate the power of key anti-Islamist lobbying groups.

Why is it assumed to be wrong for a particular political group to be ‘uniquely held out for political attack’? It is perfectly possible for a particular political group to be uniquely wrong and bad and harmful, so why would it be inherently wrong to single out such a group for special attention and opprobrium? In other words, why shouldn’t British Islamists be ‘uniquely held out for political attack’?

Well because they are such nice idealistic social activists, according to Lambert and Githens-Mazer.

While British Islamists are as diverse as British socialists, the interviews do reveal important unifying characteristics, most notably a devotion to social justice and a concern for community needs over individual or corporate ambitions. British Islamists are typified by a sense of moral obligation to confront injustice, and they strive, in their own ways, to try to make the world a better place. These are messages which have more power than ever in modern Britain.

That makes me want to hit Lambert and Githens-Mazer violently over the head. A devotion to social justice nothing; a devotion to social justice is not compatible with a devotion to ferocious segregation of women, gender inequality, and homophobia.

Our interviews with British Islamists have demonstrated a sense of an Islamic imperative that is strikingly similar to Tony Benn’s interpretation of Jesus’ call to active citizenship on behalf of the politically oppressed….[M]ainstream British Islamist organisations, like the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain, the British Muslim Initiative, Islamic Forum Europe and many more, do not represent the entirety of British Muslim opinion, any more than Methodists represent all of Protestantism.

Active citizenship on behalf of the politically oppressed? On behalf of the politically oppressed? Including women? Gays? Jews? Apostates? Non-Muslims? Unbelievers? Atheists? Not that I know of. Do correct me if I’m wrong, but to the best of my knowledge ‘mainstream’ Islamist organizations do not oppose the political oppression of any of those groups. And then of course the idea that the MAB is ‘mainstream’ is a horrifying joke – but this is Overton window stuff: throw in the MAB so that the inclusion of the MCB will seem reasonable in comparison.

Anyway – yet again – the Guardian covers itself in ordure. They don’t give Fred Phelps a platform, why do they give one to this kind of thing?


Apr 2nd, 2009 6:38 pm | By

Here’s a news flash: Arabs are preferred over other nations.

The fact that Allah Most High has chosen the Arabs over other nations is affirmed in rigorously authenticated hadiths of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and give him peace; related by Bukhari and Muslim in their “Sahih” in the beginning of the chapter of merits, 5897, on the authority of Wathilah ibn al-Asqa` who said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, say, ‘Verily Allah has chosen Kinanah from the son of Isma`il, and He has chosen Quraysh from among Kinanah and He has chosen Hashim from among Quraysh and He has chosen me from the Bani Hashim.'”

So that’s that, isn’t it. A guy said he heard Mo say that Allah chose him and some other guys, so that (obviously) makes it so. Therefore, Arabs are Topp.

Therefore the preference of Arabs over other nations, and the preference of some Arabs over other Arabs is affirmed in the Sacred Law. Allah has even preferred some months over other months and some days and nights of over others, as well as places. So in the same way, Allah Glorious and Exalted is He, has chosen some men over others, such as the prophets over others and even some prophets over other prophets. Muslims should not have any objection to this, because all of this returns to the wisdom of the Most Wise, Glorious is He, who is not asked about what He does, but rather, they are the ones who are asked.

Unanswerable, innit. Allah prefers various things over various other things, because somebody said so, and don’t bother objecting to it, because Allah doesn’t take questions, though he damn well does dish them out if he feels like it, so don’t say another word.

That’s the way to cultivate critical thinking and independence of mind and healthy skepticism and the urge to look behind the curtain.

It also sheds a harsh and unpleasant light on Darfur, and the treatment of domestic workers from the Philippines in Saudi Arabia, and what Saudi textbooks say about Jews.

A crowd of men stands by, watching silently

Apr 2nd, 2009 1:41 pm | By

Sometimes the red mist of rage just overpowers the ability to say anything judicious or coherent – and one is reduced to impotent vindictive quivering.

Muslim Khan is beginning to do that to me. He’s the Taliban ‘spokesman’ in Swat, and he’s been doing a lot of talking lately. Every fucking word out of his mouth is disgusting bullying crap. (See what I mean? I can’t characterize it any more eloquently than that.)

The two-minute video, shot using a mobile phone, shows a burka-clad woman face down on the ground. Two men hold her arms and feet while a third, a black-turbaned fighter with a flowing beard, whips her repeatedly. “Please stop it,” she begs, alternately whimpering or screaming in pain with each blow to the backside. “Either kill me or stop it now.” A crowd of men stands by, watching silently. Off camera a voice issues instructions. “Hold her legs tightly,” he says as she squirms and yelps. After 34 lashes the punishment stops and the wailing woman is led into a stone building, trailed by a Kalashnikov-carrying militant. Reached by phone, Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan claimed responsibility for the flogging. “She came out of her house with another guy who was not her husband, so we must punish her. There are boundaries you cannot cross,” he said. He defended the Taliban’s right to thrash women shoppers who were inappropriately dressed, saying it was permitted under Islamic law.

Look…even if you think that the girl did something wrong (which of course I don’t), even if you think she should be punished in some way (which of course I don’t) – even then these guys are a pack of disgusting bullying ruthless mindless bastards. Even if you accept their stupid reactionary stultifying premises, they still come out as utterly disgusting men who see nothing wrong with exercising their strength on people weaker than they are.

I am so sick of reading about groups of men collaborating in violence against a single unarmed woman. I am so sick of hearing about men who can’t see anything wrong with bullying people who are in their power. I’m so sick of it that I can’t say anything sensible about it – I can only swear and rant and fume. They make me want to vomit.

Bishops say Reiki is totally bogus

Mar 31st, 2009 4:01 pm | By

Look, if you’re going to use spiritual tools for medial purposes, do it right. It’s just silly to use the wrong kind. Any fule kno that.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has warned Roman Catholics to shun the eastern healing art of Reiki because it lacks scientific credibility and is dangerous to Christian spiritual health. “Reiki therapy finds no support either in the findings of natural science or in Christian belief,” said the USCCB doctrine committee in a document issued Thursday…”There is a radical difference between Reiki therapy and the healing by divine power in which Christians believe: for Christians the access to divine healing is by prayer to Christ as Lord and Savior, while the essence of Reiki is not a prayer but a technique,” the bishops said in a statement.

Right. So if you’re a Christian and you have an abscess or cholera or a broken arm, the thing you do is you pray to Christ as Lord and Savior, and that will save you all the trouble and expense of taking medications or wearing a cast. This advice has all the scientific credibility anyone could possibly need; it is well known that prayer has a 100% success rate in the cure of all manner of illness and injury.

To use Reiki is to operate “in the realm of superstition, the no-man’s-land that is neither faith nor science,” the bishops warned, urging Catholic healthcare institutions, retreats and chaplains to ditch the therapy.

Catholic healthcare institutions. There are such things? With doctors and medications and all? So they don’t use just prayer then? But I don’t understand – why not? If Christians believe in the healing by divine power, then why do they have sciencey healthcare institutions too? Why do they use both? Isn’t that going against God’s will? If the prayers don’t work, isn’t that because God doesn’t want them to work, for God’s good reasons? So why do Catholics have healthcare institutions?

I don’t understand this stuff at all. It’s seriously confusing.

Sucking Up 101

Mar 31st, 2009 11:41 am | By

The odd thing about Mr Framing is that he ‘frames’ everything as though we were all engaged in some form of marketing or public relations. He seems to see all of life, or at least all of discourse, in the terms of a US presidential campaign, with all its manipulation and distortion and expensive beside the pointery. He seems not to realize that some people are in fact free to think as critically as they like and to write and speak as honestly as they can.

Or rather, that is one odd thing about him; another odd thing about him is of course that this kink in his mind is entirely asymmetrical; it applies to all atheists and to no theists. He thinks all atheists are trying to market something and therefore must take infinite pains not to antagonize anyone by having anything resembling a particular view or a strong argument; and he thinks all theists are blameless passive receivers of the discourse of others, who play no role other than to be wounded and alienated and thus refuse to Buy the Product.

A third odd thing is (also of course) that he is a putative expert in communication and he persuades almost no one.

Cat escapes bag, flees the scene

Mar 30th, 2009 12:03 pm | By

Ah, so they admit it.

Members of something called ‘One Mind Ministries’

denied a 16-month-old boy food and water because he did not say “Amen” at mealtimes. After he died, they prayed over his body for days, expecting a resurrection, then packed it into a suitcase with mothballs. They left it in a shed in Philadelphia, where it remained for a year before detectives found it last spring.

The baby’s mother is going on trial for murder.

Psychiatrists who evaluated Ramkissoon at the request of a judge concluded that she was not criminally insane. Her attorney, Steven Silverman, said the doctors found that her beliefs were indistinguishable from religious beliefs, in part because they were shared by those around her. “She wasn’t delusional, because she was following a religion,” Silverman said, describing the findings of the doctors’ psychiatric evaluation…Silverman said he and prosecutors think Ramkissoon was brainwashed and should have been found not criminally responsible; prosecutors declined to comment. Although an inability to think critically can be a sign of brainwashing, experts said, the line between that and some religious beliefs can be difficult to discern. “At times there can be an overlap between extreme religious conviction and delusion,” said Robert Jay Lifton.

Well quite. This is what we keep saying.

NGOs out, polio in

Mar 29th, 2009 5:15 pm | By

The dear dear Taliban – so wise, so reasonable, so helpful.

In a recent broadcast on his illegal FM radio station, Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah said, “All NGOs should leave Swat because they are creating problems for peace.” Fazlullah has also described all Pakistanis working for NGOs as “enemies of the country”. “They come and tell us how to make latrines in mosques and homes. I’m sure we can do it ourselves. There is no need for foreigners to tell us this,” Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said.

He went on to explain in more depth:

Muslim Khan told IRIN, a news network run by the United Nations, that “NGO is another name for vulgarity and obscenity. They don’t want us to remain Muslims and want to take away the veil from our women.” Khan claimed NGOs hire women who work alongside men in the fields and in offices. “That is totally un-Islamic and unacceptable,” he said.

Sound fella. He’s a medical expert, too.

Taliban militants in the former tourist destination of Swat Valley have obstructed officials from vaccinating over 300,000 children…Extremist clerics have used mosque loudspeakers and illegal radio stations to spread the idea that the vaccinations cause infertility and are part of a US-sponsored anti-Muslim plot…“It’s a US tool to cut the population of the Muslims. It is against Islam that you take a medicine before the disease”, said Muslim Khan, Swat’s Taliban spokesman, speaking by telephone.

You see? He knows how to make latrines, he knows it is unacceptable to let women work alongside men, he knows vaccinations are against Islam. Soon under the wise and benevolent rule of the Taliban, Swat will be full of illiterate shrouded women, contaminated water supplies, crippled children, and corpses. Ain’t regression grand?

The archbishop gives the BBC a damn good scolding

Mar 29th, 2009 12:46 pm | By

This seems rather bossy.

Dr Rowan Williams warned Mark Thompson at a meeting at Lambeth Palace that the broadcaster must not ignore its Christian audience. His intervention comes amid mounting concern among senior members of the Church of England that the BBC is downgrading its religious output and giving preferential treatment to minority faiths.

Warned? Must not? Intervention? Well, those are all the Telegraph’s words, to be sure, not the archbishop’s. But all the same, it seems somewhat peculiar (to me anyway) for an archbishop to be attempting to tell the BBC what to do. Where in the bible does it say what proportion of time the BBC has to give to Christianity?

As a public service broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to provide religious programmes. But Dr Williams challenged the director general during their meeting earlier this month over the decline in religious broadcasting on the BBC World Service.

Huh? As a public service broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to provide religious programmes? Does it? Why? That seems like a complete non-sequitur to me. How does public service impose a duty to provide religious anything? They’re two different things. It’s not clear if the Telegraph means a moral duty or a statutory one; if it’s the former the claim is absurd.

A BBC spokeswoman argued that changes that have been made to the department were intended to strengthen the BBC’s offering. “The BBC’s commitment to Religion and Ethics is unequivocal and entirely safe,” she said, adding that the BBC had stressed this to bishops who had expressed concerns.

Yeah don’t worry, the BBC is quite determined to go on treating religion and ethics as if they were indissolubly joined when in fact they are in strong conflict. No problem, the BBC will go right on confusing people by pretending you can’t have ethics without religion. No doubt that is their duty as a public service broadcaster.

The way of saying something is part of what is said

Mar 28th, 2009 5:31 pm | By

Kenan Malik makes a crucial point about this vexed issue of style and tone and manner.

Anticipating the arguments of Rushdie’s critics that there is a difference between legitimate criticism and unacceptable abuse, the Law Commission pointed out that ‘one person’s incisive comment (and indeed seemingly innocuous comment) may be another’s “blasphemy” and to forbid the use of the strongest language in relation, for example, to practices which some may rightly regard as not in the best interests of society as a whole would, it seems to us, be altogether unacceptable’. In other words, the way of saying something is part of what is said. To say that you must write differently is in practice to say that you must write about different things.

Exactly. The way of saying something is part of what is said, so all this heavy pressure on atheists to be bashful and circumspect and euphemistic and evasive about their atheism is simply a way of telling them to say something different. So vocal atheists say ‘What ho, atheists have been shoved into the closet over the past few decades and theists have been taking over the stage, let’s barge out of the closet now and grab our share of the limelight’; so theists and their protectors give a great cry and say ‘Nononono, you vocal atheists are too vocal, we will not take your atheism away from you, but you must get out of the limelight and off the stage and oh look, there’s a nice big closet right here, with plenty of room to sit down and even turn around, in you go.’ You do see that that rather defeats the whole purpose. Telling us to write differently is in practice to say that we must write about different things, but we want to write about these things, not different ones, so kindly let us get on with it.

How thoughtful?

Mar 27th, 2009 10:11 am | By

Norm commented on Julian’s atheism piece a couple of days ago, and when I read it my attention snagged on another claim in Julian’s article.

For me, atheism’s roots are in a sober and modest assessment of where reason and evidence lead us. That means the real enemy is not religion as such, but any kind of system of belief that does not respect these limits on our thinking. For that reason, I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent believers…

Hmm. I’m not sure what that means. Are thoughtful, intelligent believers ones who respect the limits on our thinking set by soberly assessing where reason and evidence lead us? But if they are, then are they really believers? If they’re not, are they really thoughtful and intelligent?

I think there’s a lurking and unacknowledged oxymoron there – or maybe it’s an elision. Believers can be thoughtful and intelligent but with an exception carved out for their belief. Believers, as such, aren’t thoughtful and intelligent all the way down. That’s in the nature of the word. It would sound odd to say ‘I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent, credulous people,’ but believers are by definition credulous. To the extent that they are credulous – they’re not thoughtful and intelligent enough.

This is perhaps another case where the special status of religion confuses things. It would sound odd to say ‘I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent astrologers’ – or homeopaths or Wiccans or Holocaust deniers. In those cases we would recognize from the outset that there had to be a big hole in the thoughtfulness and intelligence in question, but we’re more reluctant to see it in the case of religion.

The background idea seems to be that the two are in balance – that thoughtful intelligent believers and unbelievers are much the same, they just happen to differ on this one point. But that’s wrong. Believers are making a mistake that non-believers don’t make. They’re making a mistake even if there is a god, because we have no real evidence that there is a god, so it’s a mistake to take anyone’s word for it on the basis of nothing.

Irshad Manji is an example of the thoughtful intelligent believer who is nonetheless not thoughtful enough, because she says proudly that her faith in Allah is unshakeable. That’s not thoughtful, it’s the reverse of thoughtful. I think Manji is terrific in a lot of ways – but that does nothing to patch over the hole in her thinking.

In return for peace the Taleban can stop girls going to school

Mar 26th, 2009 5:56 pm | By

Not to worry – sharia is lovely once you get used to it.

“Swat is the start and it is a test of the religion and the system and the law. It is a step forward. Give it time and you will see this is what people want,” Muslim Khan, a charismatic English-speaking Taleban leader tells me.

Will you? How much time? And which people? Does he really mean people? Or just men.

In return for peace the Taleban can administer the region, run Sharia courts, ban women from marketplaces, outlaw music shops and stop girls older than 13 going to school.

And ‘people’ will like that as long as you give it enough time. Let’s say about five centuries; by then all memory of freedom and rights will be stone dead, and ‘like’ will mean the same thing as ‘know no alternative to’ and then the prediction will be true.

It is hard to gauge support for the movement in Swat. Dissent has been suppressed but a population disillusioned by years of fighting and ineffectual government can at least get on with their lives.

No, they can’t. Not if they’re girls over the age of 13 they can’t. Not if they’re women they can’t – unless you think it’s possible to get on with one’s life when one is not allowed to go to the market or much of anywhere else. They can (perhaps) get on with small impoverished parts of their lives, but they certainly can’t ‘get on with their lives’ in any sense we would recognize.