Notes and Comment Blog


Smile When You Call Me That

Jul 14th, 2006 5:50 pm | By

Hey I feel marginalized and neglected and I yearn – I yearn, I tell you, I yearn and burn and pine – to be understood as a community. Won’t someone please understand me as a community? It would make me so happy. Just once in awhile? On weekends maybe? Or during the World Cup?

Hindus…feel neglected and marginalised and yearn to be understood as a community…[They] do not want to be described as “Asian”, according to a big study of the community…The report, Connecting British Hindus, to be published in the Commons today, was funded by the Government and carried out by the Runnymede Trust and the Hindu Forum.

Connecting British Hindus. Connecting them to the community. The Hindu community – not the Asian community – no no – Asian community right out, not to be connected to. The community in ‘the community’ is the Hindu community and not some other kind, else there will be yearning and feelings of neglect. See – if it were called the Asian community, then no one would call it The Community in that thrilling way, whereas if it’s called The Hindu Community, people will. See?

Note the funding by the Hindu Forum. That’s those nice people who got the Husain exhibition closed down. Another reactionary religious ‘forum’ claiming to speak for the whole ‘community’ and being taken at face value by a major newspaper.

Sunny at Pickled Politics notes some bad methodology in that ‘study’:

The survey was carried out through people in focus groups that the Hindu Forum personally invited and an online survey only promoted through their website. The report does not acknowledge there might be a bias towards more religious Hindus than simply cultural Hindus because of this. Not only that, the survey doesn’t actually ask if respondents prefer a Hindu identity over an Asian identity. It asks vaguely interconnected questions and does not pose the question – Do you prefer being described as Hindu or Asian? The Hindu Forum has an obvious interest in promoting this viewpoint because, like the MCB and other religious organisations, they want people to be identified by religion rather than race. That would mean more government/media attention (and money) would go to faith than race groups. Of course, being ‘Asian’ is a very, very vague label that totally ignores the diversity of Asians. But that is a good thing in my opinion because it means less people can speak on our behalf. In fact why not just refer to us as Britons and do away with “community leaders”?

Gosh, there’s a radical idea!



Back Page

Jul 14th, 2006 5:20 pm | By

The Front Page ‘discussion’ with Norm and Nick is hilarious in a sad sort of way – sad if only because of the waste of time and effort and attention. Norm and Nick might as well have conversed with two nice four-foot lengths of solid brick wall, for all the good it did them.

Here’s FP’s Jamie Glazov starting things off, for instance:

The Left has a long, depressing, ugly and blood-stained record of worshipping the most vile and barbaric tyrannies of the 20th century, including Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam and Castro’s Cuba…But if you are on the Left, are you not part of an ideology that holds that human redemption, accompanied by human equality and a classless society, is possible and that it can be engendered through social engineering?

No. Why? Because the left covers a lot more ground than that, as both Nick and Norm patiently explain over and over again. But…

After everything that the Western Left has perpetrated in the 20th Century, including the facilitation of the bloodbath in Indochina after forcing an American withdrawal from Vietnam, that you would represent the Left with a reference to an effort in a free society to improve the quality of public schools . . . . leaves me somewhat speechless. Stalin’s, Mao’s and Pol Pot’s killing fields were spawned by the notion of the possibility of earthly redemption. Those who believe that earthly redemption is possible and work towards such a reality, having learned nothing from the past, are complicit in the earthly incarnations of their ideal. I remained somewhat puzzled as to what is so complicated about this.

Nick tried gently and sweetly to explain it to him.

Here you are up against a psychopathic totalitarian ideology. You ought to have the sympathy of democrats around the world. But if you, like the Bush administration, refuse to understand that there are different currents in democratic thinking and say with no self-consciousness of what a fool you sound that ‘the Left has been totalitarian throughout its history’ you alienate your potential allies. Democracy is a little more than one notion of the free market from America, which in practice America follows more in theory than in practice. Now get a grip and read some history.

Then another round of the same thing, then Horowitz, amusingly, plays the religion card.

Your refusal to answer my question as to why you choose to belong to a movement in which the views you represent have been consistently marginal for a hundred years suggests that your commitment to the left has a religious rather than a rational basis.

Norm offers another gentle retort:

If I want an exchange with someone who tells me that my commitments have “a religious rather than a rational basis,” and puts the word “explanation” in scare-quotes to refer to a view I’ve expressed, I can drop into some rabid comments box somewhere. But I have better ways of spending my time.

See? This business of charging that someone’s commitments have ‘a religious rather than a rational basis’ is a rhetorical ploy used by some unpleasing characters; Philip Johnson springs to mind (because I’ve just been reading an article by Robert Pennock disputing just such accusations). So it’s a little puzzling when people who have no great fondness for the Horowitzes and IDers of the world say the same thing. There’s a mystery here, and some day I will get to the bottom of it.



Secular Religion

Jul 14th, 2006 2:50 pm | By

I was discussing religion and related subjects with an acquaintance yesterday, and he said I have a lot of secular religious or quasi-religious beliefs. I was skeptical of this claim, and we wrangled a bit, but didn’t have time to wrangle thoroughly. So I’ll talk to myself on the subject here, and you can listen in.

The argument was that I (and most people – it’s a general point) hold certain beliefs in a quasi-religious way: moral beliefs for instance. I think murder is wrong, and I believe it’s true that murder is wrong, and that is a commitment without reasons, hence religious. But I dispute all of that. All of it. For one thing, I don’t really think it is factually true that murder is wrong; not in the sense of being true throughout the universe. I think it’s factually true in the sense that it’s factually true that it’s wrong for humans, and that (or because) humans generally consider it wrong, for good reasons; but that’s a limited, parochial, contingent sort of truth, so not like religious beliefs, which tend not to be limited to this earth and this species, but to take in everything. Then, the commitment isn’t without reasons; it’s not a logical truth, but it’s not based on nothing, either. There are good reasons for saying that murder is wrong that do not rely on any supernatural beliefs. Then, I don’t think all beliefs that are short of logically necessary are religious or quasi-religious – unless one defines religion in some special or tricksy way, and that is just what I won’t do. I refuse. I’ve refused before, many times, and I’m going to go on refusing.

The other example of one of my secular religious beliefs is that Shakespeare is better than Enid Blyton. I don’t buy it. I do believe that, yes, but I also know perfectly well that that idea is a purely human idea, that relies on all sorts of contingent products of the development of language and what words have resonance; it’s the very opposite of something inscribed in the nature of the universe. It has no meaning at all even to other species on this planet (unlike murder perhaps, which could at least be argued to mean something for some non-human species), let alone anyone anywhere else. So I fail to see what is religious about it. I can see calling it something else, including something pejorative, but not religious. Unless, again, religion is re-defined in a tricksy way.

If I understand the thought, it is that all beliefs (or commitments) that are not completely grounded are religious, or quasi-religious. But what is it that is religious about them? It seems to me rather that they share one feature with religion, the ungroundedness; but just ungroundedness is not enough to characterize or define religion. You need more than that. You need the supernatural, you need a deity. (Of course one can always say ‘No I don’t’ and define religion as ungrounded beliefs; but then it covers a huge amount of territory, and isn’t what most people mean by religion, so the discussion becomes idiosyncratic and somewhat confusing.) Many promoters of religion of course like to define religion as just a feeling of benevolence, or an attitude toward the universe, or a heightened sense of compassion, for the purpose of promoting religion, reverting to the much narrower theistic meaning when the coast is clear. But that’s a ploy to entice people to join the flock, and I refuse to go along with it, because if we do that we acquiesce in the bait and switch.

This is the distinction between onto-religion and expressive religion; I have no quarrel with expressive religion, but I do have a quarrel with the ontological kind, especially when it gets aggressive, as it so often does these days.

The matter interests and concerns me because I dislike credulity: on a very gut level, I dislike it (so there’s another quasi-religious belief, perhaps). That means I really don’t want to have mindless or uncritical or unthinking or unexamined or superstitious or taboo beliefs. But I don’t think I do – not in principle anyway, not that I would refuse to examine or think about if challenged. I no doubt have lots that I haven’t noticed, but not any that I’ve carefully placed inside a shrine.



No Really, You’re Too Kind

Jul 13th, 2006 6:45 pm | By

What a lovely morning. I woke up far too early (anxiety, no doubt), I spent most of an hour deleting spam from the comments database, then I got an email from a helpful reader (it is just barely possible that some of you can guess which one) who was worried that I might not realize that the signatories of the letter about ‘Christianophobia’ in the Telegraph were loopy. Apparently this reader, who reads B&W regularly and often and has done so for a longish time, thought that perhaps I posted that link because I approved of the letter and the signatories, or that while I might be a little doubtful about their stance I was perhaps not doubtful enough – that I didn’t grasp quite how loopy they actually are. Thus worried, this helpful reader kindly and helpfully told me that they are, in fact, seriously loopy, and dangerous nutters. Ah. Oh. I had no idea. I’m all of a heap. I thought they were quite sound and sensible, of course. Obviously. Naturally. What else would I think? It must be obvious in every word on B&W that I go in for a credulous trusting sentimental attitude toward all religious believers, and particularly ones who are writing letters to newspapers advertising their indignation at not being allowed to persecute gays.

So I was terrifically grateful to have it explained to me (in easy words) that no, these were naughty silly loopy dangerous people. I do love being helped and guided, I do love having my tottering steps carefully steered away from the precipice. So I shot back a grateful reply. And the dear faithful perceptive reader replied in turn, saying that the reader realized I probably knew at least some of their insanities, but was still not sure if I do realise just how insidious these people are (hence the kind assistance), and suggesting that I should save my sarcasm for the believers. So I shot back another reply, a less sarcastic and more literal one this time, laced with a swear word or two. It’s hilarious, in a way, but it’s also very irritating, and I’m in a foul temper today, so in a mood to mix sarcasm with violence and bad language. So watch it.



Going to School

Jul 12th, 2006 10:50 pm | By

What life is like when there is no rule of law, no security, no strong-enough central government, no one able to keep the strong and cruel and violent and selfish from preying on everyone else. Thrasymachus world. Thug world, warlord world, Mafia world, feudal world, give me that world, extortion world. Do what I say or I’ll hit you with a stick or cut you with a knife or shoot you world. Nightmare world.

Escalating attacks by the Taliban and other armed groups on teachers, students and schools in Afghanistan are shutting down schools and depriving another generation of an education, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Schools for girls have been hit particularly hard, threatening to undo advances in education since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001…Human Rights Watch found entire districts in Afghanistan where attacks had closed all schools and driven out the teachers and non-governmental organizations providing education…Afghanistan’s rapidly growing criminal networks, many involved in the production and trade of narcotics, also target schools because in many areas they are the only symbol of government authority.

How we take education for granted. I certainly did when I was a child; I would have preferred to stay home to read fairy tales and wander the fields and woods all day. But then I’d never had men with knives and sticks and guns telling me I couldn’t go, or beating me up or throwing acid in my face if I did go, or murdering my teacher. I think of my teachers…and I just imagine that experience.

Well, at least the contrast is stark; at least we know what side we’re on; even the most infatuated, the hand-wringers about consumerism or alienation or other crimes of modernity, know what side they’re on. On the one hand thugs, bullies, crime, violence, preventing people from teaching and learning. On the other hand education. Learning, growing, expanding, thinking, discovering the world. But the thugs are winning.



Logic

Jul 11th, 2006 8:45 pm | By

This is an interesting bit of reasoning.

The letter pinned overnight to the wall of the mosque in Kandahar was succinct. “Girls going to school need to be careful for their safety. If we put acid on their faces or they are murdered then the blame will be on their parents.”

That’s good, isn’t it? If we put acid on their faces, the blame will be on their parents. Well of course it will – if it hadn’t been for their parents, the girls wouldn’t be there to have faces that Talibanists can put acid on. Furthermore, if the parents hadn’t fed them all those years, again the girls wouldn’t be there to have faces. If the parents hadn’t neglected to slice the girls’ faces off with a sharp knife or sword or farming implement, again, the faces would not exist. If the parents hadn’t ignored their obvious duty to behead their daughters, how could the Talibanists have found any girls’ faces to put acid on? They couldn’t; so you see; the blame is on the parents. That’s called ‘determinism’ and it means that the Talibanists are simply bowing to the inevitable.



Bob and Kenan Say It

Jul 11th, 2006 1:34 am | By

Bob from Brockley tells us of a good item on Radio 4’s The World This Weekend. I haven’t listened yet but I’m going to, as well as to Ayaan Hirsi Ali on Start the Week, which Nick S mentioned. (Time! I have no time!)

a very interesting segment on Radio 4’s World This Weekend about who represents British Muslisms…A number of British Muslims forcefully argued that the Muslim Council of Britain completely fails to represent the perdominantly Sufi Sunni British Muslims, who do not have a Muslim Brotherhood worldview, but rather have a much more theologically open perspective…A new organisation is needed to better represent them…Particularly daming was the testimony with Haras Rafiq from the Sufi Muslim Council on the way post-9/11 (and especially post-7/7) the MCB has used the war on terror to channel funds to their corrupt, reactionary affiliates.

I hope the subject of the over-reliance of the BBC itself on the MCB was part of the discussion.

For me, the deeper issue is the ideology – central to the New Labour version of multiculturalism – that ethnic groups constitute homogeneous “communities” who can be “represented” by “community leaders”. French republicans call this ideology “communautarisme”…I am sick of hearing politicians say “The Muslim community wants X”, “The gay community is Y”, “The Asian community feels Z”. These definite articles imprison us, over-emphasising differences between “communities”, under-emphasising differences within “communities”, hiding the oppressive nature of “community leaders” who define what each “community” thinks, feels, is. We need to escape from this foolish and dangerous notion!

Just so. Well said Bob from Brockley.

Kenan Malik in the Times the other day, too.

The starting point in any discussion about terrorism and extremism seems to be that Muslims constitute a community with a distinct set of views and beliefs, and that, for them, real political authority must come from within their community.

Exactly. And what a bizarrely patronizing and stultifying starting point that is.

But the trouble is the bargain itself. Not only is it rooted in a picture of the Muslim community and its relationship with the wider British society that is false, but also the cosy relationship between the Government and Muslim leaders exacerbates the problem it was meant to solve…The Government has long since abandoned its responsibility for engaging directly with Muslim communities. Instead it has effectively subcontracted its responsibilities to so-called community leaders. When the Prime Minister wants to find out what Muslims think about a particular issue he invites the Muslim Council of Britain to No 10…Rather than appealing to Muslims as British citizens and attempting to draw them into the mainstream political process, politicians of all hues prefer to see them as people whose primarily loyalty is to their faith and who can be politically engaged only by other Muslims.

Patronizingly and stultifyingly.

The policy of subcontracting political responsibility allows…self-appointed community leaders with no democratic mandate to gain power both within Muslim communities and the wider society. But it does the rest of us — Muslim and non-Muslim — no favours. It is time that politicians dropped the pretence that there is a single Muslim community and started taking seriously the issue of political engagement with their constituents, whatever their religious faith.

Hear hear.



The Seen Unseen

Jul 11th, 2006 1:05 am | By

Bill Moyers also talked to Mary Gordon in that installment of his ‘faith and reason’ series. Gordon said a lot of interesting things, as she generally does; I like her, she’s shrewd, self-mocking, funny, and a believer in the non-triumphalist and non-accusatory (why don’t you believe too?) way that seems so out of fashion in the US. But I wanted to take exception to one thing she said because I think it relies on equivocation (though not necessarily deliberately), and it’s an equivocation that does a lot of work for believers of the triumphalist and accusatory variety.

Without faith we would be paralyzed. We believe that all men are created equal. That our mothers, or at least our dogs, love us. That the number four bus will eventually come, all these represent a belief in the unseen.

A belief in the unseen, yes, but that’s not how the word ‘faith’ is generally used right now. ‘Faith’ is used to mean either religion, in a flat substitution, as in ‘faith-based initiative’ or ‘faith school’, or pious ardent belief of a religious kind that is an antonym of empirical or evidence-based belief. So Gordon’s examples are tricksy; all of them. 1) We don’t exactly ‘believe’ or have faith that all men are, factually, created equal; we believe, in the sense of think (not really in the sense of have faith) that all people ought to be treated as equal before the law (and in some other ways, but not in all ways). That’s not really the same as having ‘faith’ that they are in fact created equal. 2) We believe or have faith that our mothers or dogs love us, for reasons. If our mothers or our dogs show every sign that they hate us rather than loving us, we tend to heed those signs, and think something is amiss with their love; that in fact it may have turned to hate. We don’t really have faith in a completely ‘unseen’ love of our mothers or dogs; signs of that love are seen. If the signs are not seen – if the smiles are replaced by frowns or stony glares, if the wagging tail is replaced by bared teeth (at the other end) – we don’t go on having faith in the unseen love, we conclude it has diminished or gone away. 3) The belief that the number four bus will eventually come is least of all like ‘faith’ as commonly understood. We believe the bus will come solely because of prior knowledge: we know there is a schedule, there are bus drivers, there is a bus barn, it has come before, it is supposed to come, people rely on it; and with all that we know perfectly well that it might not this time, it might have broken down or gotten stuck in traffic or even been driven off a high bridge onto the roof of an apartment building after a crazed gunman shot the driver. So the implication (if it is an implication – Gordon may have made the same point in the rest of what she said, for all I know) that religious faith is the same kind of faith as the faith that the bus will come, is a spurious implication.



What Inayat Said

Jul 9th, 2006 11:07 pm | By

Did you see Inayat’s comment on Nick’s article? Maybe not, because most of the comments at Talk is Cheap are so blathery and time-wasting you didn’t even want to look. So I’ll save you the trouble, because it’s worth seeing.

Nick’s article, in case you didn’t read that either (I have to do everything around here…) is about the Foreign Office’s courtship of Islamists:

On Friday at 7.30pm, Channel 4 will screen a documentary by Bright, Who Speaks for Muslims, which shows how the Foreign Office views the Islamist far right as potential allies. To accompany the programme, the Policy Exchange think-tank will publish ‘When Progressives Treat with Reactionaries: the British State’s Flirtation with Radical Islamism’…They describe the FO’s attempts to woo the Arab Muslim Brotherhood, whose closest allies in Britain are the Muslim Association of Britain, and its south Asian counterpart, Jamaat-e-Islami, whose supporters are at the top of the Muslim Council of Britain. The mandarins reason that these groups are not part of al-Qaeda, which is true; that they are growing in power, which is regrettably true as well; and that they are composed of reasonable men with whom Britain can do business, which is palpable nonsense.

Read the rest. Including this part:

Sir Derek Plumbly, the British ambassador to Egypt and the only diplomat to emerge with credit from the affair, noted that there is no reason to expect that the Muslim Brotherhood will moderate its views because Britain appeases it. His masters confused ‘engaging with the Islamic world’ with ‘engaging with Islamism’, and ignored the policies of the Islamist far right as they did it. In doing so, they abandoned all the Muslims in Britain and the Islamic world who believe in the very values of ‘democracy, freedom of expression, respect for human rights’ Her Majesty’s government is meant to uphold.

Then read Bunglawala’s reaction.

Hi Nick, you sly warmonger you. Not content with having been a cheerleader for Bush’s war which has killed over 100,000 Iraqis to date, you now want to also stop any dialogue with democratic Islamic groups in the Muslim world.

Your articles routinely display the imperialism you accuse your opponents of. Your position seems to be that of the typical condescending colonialist. Let’s support democracy overseas as long the wogs vote for the people we want them to.

The Muslim Council of Britain is an umbrella body which tries to bring together the many diverse schools of thought that make up British Islam. This includes various sunni and shi’a trends. As long as they all believe in the fundamental tenets of Islam and are committed to obeying British law, we are happy for them to affiliate to us. Should we exclude some just because they displease you?

To see Martin Bright (the author of a New Statesman cover story called ‘The Great Koran Con Trick’) and you both targeting a Muslim civil servant is also revealing. I wonder how you would react if a Jewish civil servant was so publicly vilified?

Well no wonder the BBC keep phoning him up for his wise views.



Macho Macho Man

Jul 9th, 2006 6:57 pm | By

Ya think?

The driving force behind the devastating 7/7 suicide bomb attacks in London last year was not Islam but a desire by the terrorists to prove their masculinity, academics have claimed. In a controversial paper presented to the British Society of Criminology’s international conference in Glasgow last week, UK researchers argued that a major factor that led four Muslims to bomb the capital was that they thought themselves to be deficient as men…Dr Antony Whitehead, a senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Huddersfield, said: “The bombers have said that they are motivated by loyalty to Allah, which they may entirely believe. But if you are going to start to unpick their motivation, you need to consider their experience as young men as much as their adherence to Islam.”

Oh surely not. Surely it was all purely religious and a concern for ‘justice’. Surely masculinity-fretting had nothing to do with it. That’s just silly – isn’t it?

The audience laughs as Omar Brooks, a British Muslim convert who also uses the name Abu Izzadeen, makes fun of non-Muslims as “animals” and “cowards”…He contrasts the supposed bravery of Khan’s suicide to the “kuffar” (non-Muslims) who are characterised as debauched binge-drinkers who vomit and urinate in the street…The Sunday Times last July tape-recorded him imploring Muslims to “instil terror into the hearts of the kuffar”. On that occasion he told an audience of teenagers and young families that he did not want to go to Allah while sleeping in his bed “like an old woman”. Instead, he said: “I want to be blown into pieces with my hands in one place and my feet in another.”

Yes but that’s not about masculinity, that’s a concern for justice; can’t you tell?



You Call That Justice?

Jul 9th, 2006 5:50 pm | By

Another thing about that Karen Armstrong piece. I touched on it in passing yesterday, but it occurred to me this morning that I needed to make much more of it. She said something really quite disgusting.

…the chief problem for most Muslims is not “the west” per se, but the suffering of Muslims in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Iraq and Palestine. Many Britons share this dismay, but the strong emphasis placed by Islam upon justice and community solidarity makes this a religious issue for Muslims. When they see their brothers and sisters systematically oppressed and humiliated, some feel as wounded as a Christian who sees the Bible spat upon or the eucharistic host violated.

Wait. What? The strong emphasis on justice in Islam makes the suffering of Muslims a special concern, a special source of wounding? What? What does that have to do with justice? What kind of blinkered, narrow, parochial, groupy conception of justice is that? What – the suffering of Muslims is terrible while the suffering of non-Muslims is no biggy? Is that justice? Any more than it’s justice to think the suffering of Americans is unendurable while the suffering of Indonesians or Rwandans or Iraqis is nothing to get in a fret about? Justice is universal or its nothing; that’s part of the meaning of justice; that’s why we think special rules or privileges for one group at the expense of other groups is, precisely, unjust. A concern for suffering that is actually only a concern for the suffering of One’s Own Group is not a real concern for suffering, it’s a concern for One’s Own Group and ultimately oneself.

What on earth was Armstrong thinking when she wrote that?

Update: Norm also has a comment on this. The story of Derek and Elaine is relevant, too.



Colin McGinn

Jul 8th, 2006 10:12 pm | By

Colin McGinn talks to Bill Moyers [link fixed!]:

BILL MOYERS: What do you think is missing in our conversation between faith and reason? You’ve been at this festival of writers for several days now. What’s missing in our conversation between faith and reason?

COLIN MCGINN: Well, I think there’s too much tolerance of faith, and there’s not enough respect for reason. I think there are two sides to what’s happening in contemporary culture. Let’s talk about the reason side first. For the last 30-50 years, reason has been under attack. Subjectivism, relativism, multi-culturalism have been brought in to undermine the enlightenment values of the disinterested search for truth, the belief in objective justification, the belief in objective reality, the belief in science, the belief in history. And so intellectuals and academics have told the world that these are all illusions, these ideas of truth and objectivity and justification, and we ought to accept that people just have different systems and they have their different cultures with different views. So you get an attack on reason. So reason isn’t taken very seriously.

At the same time, faith is flourishing because if there’s no such thing as reason, how will faith ever be criticized. So we get the idea, well, people have different faiths, and since everything’s relative anyway, there’s no point in trying to criticize other people’s faith and point out there’s no evidence for it. It’s internally incoherent. So, you’ve got a sort of resurgence of faith after what seemed to be a gradual wearing away of faith. And then you’ve got this way in which reason seems to be sinking in people’s estimation. So I think those two things are going on. I think we need to reaffirm the values of reason.

OB (in the distance): So do I.



One Eye Closed

Jul 8th, 2006 9:54 pm | By

This piece by Karen Armstrong has a big gaping hole in the middle of it.

[Blair’s rebuke of ‘moderate Muslims’] ignores the fact that the chief problem for most Muslims is not “the west” per se, but the suffering of Muslims in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Iraq and Palestine. Many Britons share this dismay, but the strong emphasis placed by Islam upon justice and community solidarity makes this a religious issue for Muslims. When they see their brothers and sisters systematically oppressed and humiliated, some feel as wounded as a Christian who sees the Bible spat upon or the eucharistic host violated.

Speaking of ignoring facts – why is the chief problem for most Muslims the suffering of Muslims in Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Iraq and Palestine to the exclusion of the suffering of Muslims in Afghanistan, Saudia Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Indonesia and indeed Iraq as well as many other places, that is caused not by ‘the west’ but by other Muslims? Why do ‘most Muslims’ not have a problem (or if they do, why does Armstrong not think they do, or if she does think they do, why does she not mention it?) with suffering that is caused to Muslims by other Muslims who beat them up, kill them or their friends or relatives, tell them what to do, impose sharia on them against their will, lock them up in their houses for life, tell them what to wear, stone them to death in front of their children, explode them in markets and hotels and buses and other crowded places, frighten them, tyrannize over them, set off civil wars around them, and generally make their lives hell? If most Muslims feel wounded when they see their brothers and sisters systematically oppressed and humiliated, as indeed they might, as might all of us, whether they are our ‘brothers and sisters’ in religion or not, as we all might simply because they are fellow human beings – then why is that feeling supposed to explain the connection between Tony Blair’s foreign policy and the rise of Islamism? Why couldn’t the people who feel wounded at the suffering of their ‘brothers and sisters’ feel justifiable rage at the Islamists instead of feeling inspired to join them in blowing people up? And why does Karen Armstrong, who is no fool, appear not to have asked herself that question?



Leading Nothing

Jul 7th, 2006 8:28 pm | By

Here it is again. Yet again. The BBC declaring the head of the MCB a ‘leading Muslim’. But what makes him a leading Muslim, who says he’s a leading Muslim? The MCB is a self-appointed, very reactionary ‘council’ that gets treated and deferred to as if it represented all UK Muslims in some way, but it doesn’t. It’s very annoying and unhelpful and lazy and obscurantist that the BBC keeps pretending it does, keeps handing it a giant megaphone by rushing to ask its opinion every ten minutes and by refraining from asking non-MCB Muslims and people of Muslim background for their opinion at the same rate. Why does the BBC do that? Why doesn’t it stop doing that? People keep complaining about it, so why doesn’t the BBC pay attention and do better? Surely it’s not that difficult to figure out! The MCB is not elected, not representative, and not the only possible strand of opinion that could be consulted, so why does the BBC treat it as if it were some sort of official body? Just because it’s too much trouble to spin the Rolodex, or what?

Munira Mirza says some good things.

‘I have forsaken everything for what I believe in. Your democratically elected governments continue to perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world.’ So spoke Mohammad Siddique Khan, the 30-year old ringleader of the London bombings, in a video message he recorded before his death…the audacity of Khan’s homemade video diary is breathtaking. First he whines to the viewer that he has sacrificed a lot for his cause, and then he claims to speak on behalf of all Muslims everywhere.

That’s the work all this community-speak does, I think: it hammers home the idea that there is such a thing as ‘the Muslim community’ and that it thinks and feels as one. It’s a small step to decide that that one is best represented by grievance-frotting narcissistic young men, that their worked-up rage about ‘their people’ is the truly authentic One that the ‘Muslim community’ thinks as.

What we see in these videos are not soldiers in a war, but self-righteous young men who believe that their own moral certainty absolves them of the need to explain themselves properly. Nobody elected Khan or Tanweer…Obviously, Khan or Tanweer did not show much interest in trying to win people over to their worldview – they thought that ‘democratically elected governments’ had less claim to act on behalf of people than they did. Khan and Tanweer took a remarkably narcissistic approach to politics, which short-circuited the need actually to engage with the people they claimed to speak for. Yet since 7/7, and straight away following the release of Tanweer’s video yesterday, journalists, politicians and so-called Muslim community leaders have all been duped into taking seriously these loners’ claims to be the voice of ‘the ummah’ and angry Muslims all around the world.

In much the way many journalists and politicians last fall took the rioters in the banlieues weirdly seriously as ardently political revolutionaries with rational grievances, blithely ignoring the obvious possibility that they were just testosterone-addled young males tearing things up.

Khan and Tanweer had no legitimate claim to speak on behalf of Muslims. Their connection to victims abroad was in their minds, created out of a desire to be part of something global. But in a world where any old hack can be called a ‘community leader’, it is hardly surprising that they also thought they were qualified to speak as one. What Khan and Tanweer’s terrible action shows is the price of endless, meaningless community consultation, where some people are rewarded political power for merely being the right skin colour or religion.

And it’s not just a Muslim thing, as Munir points out.

Animal rights extremists in Oxford have felt no inhibitions about using violent tactics against local scientists, feeling that their moral outrage against the building of a new laboratory is sufficient justification…We need to challenge the anti-democratic nature of contemporary politics and stop flattering individuals who have no claim to speak for anyone but themselves.

Listen up, Beeb. Seriously. Cut it out.



History and Falsification Again

Jul 6th, 2006 8:31 pm | By

The Ward Churchill matter, as I’ve mentioned before, raises some interesting issues. One issue is that of free speech, which Norm and I along with Eve and, later, Jonathan, kept disagreeing about a few months ago. I still disagree with all of them – but I think the disagreements may have rested on various confusions among terms. The terms kept shifting, I think, back and forth between legal and moral, law and principle, without being nailed down often enough. Still…I think my point stands: there is no free speech right to falsify evidence. There is no free speech principle that protects Churchill’s right to falsify evidence. Falsification of evidence is not always a criminal offence (although it certainly can be), but that doesn’t make it a protected right, or a principle. It’s not usually something that people can or should be punished for (though there are plenty of exceptions), but it is something people can be prevented from doing. Academics who get fired for scholarly malfeasance are not being punished (though it is a punishment in fact), they are being prevented from doing their job the wrong way.

One key instance of “falsification and fabrication” was Churchill’s writing about the Mandan…In an essay titled “An American Holocaust?,” he wrote that the U.S. Army infected the Mandan with smallpox by giving them contaminated blankets in a deliberate effort to “eliminate” them. Churchill footnotes several sources as providing evidence for this claim, including UCLA anthropologist Russell Thornton’s book American Indian Holocaust and Survival. But Thornton’s book says the opposite: the Army did not intentionally give infected blankets to the Mandan. None of Churchill’s other sources provide support for his claim.

There is no free speech principle that protects that. It’s not a crime, but it’s also not protected. It’s neither.

Many of the comments are also very interesting. This one is particularly fascinating:

The committee peremptorily dismisses Churchill’s contention that his interpretation of the epidemic was influenced by the Native American oral tradition. This is treated as no more than an ex post facto defense against the allegation of misconduct. The committee also discounts Native American witnesses who support Churchill’s interpretations as well as his fidelity to oral accounts. The centrality of the oral tradition is evident in many of Churchill’s writings. His acknowledgments frequently include elders, Indian bands, and the American Indian Movement.

His fidelity to oral accounts – oh well then.



A United Majority of Communities

Jul 6th, 2006 8:29 pm | By

Community again. Sometimes the helpless dependence on the word ends up in confusion.

“We are sure that the overwhelming majority of all communities are united in condemning any attempt to justify last year’s terrorist attacks in London,” he went on.

The overwhelming majority of all communities…I’m confused already. Does that mean that some entire ‘communities’ are not united in condemning any attempt to justify last year’s bombs? If so, which ones are they? What are we talking about? Or does it mean that the overwhelming majority of all people are united that way? But then why say ‘communities’? If it is the first, if what is meant is that some ‘communities’ are not united that way, does that mean that what is so very often called (or rather labeled) ‘the Muslim community’ is not united that way? Well, no, probably not, since that doesn’t seem to be the point of what Hayman said. But then why say ‘communities’? Perhaps he meant that within the usual ‘communities’ there are a few ‘communities’ that are not united. But then that’s a confusing way of putting it, isn’t it. He should have said ‘sub-communities’ or some such. But then that would have detracted from the rhetorical force of the majority of communities being united.

“The Muslim community has been very badly affected by [the bombings], particularly in the Beeston and Leeds area,” Mr Chaudhry said. “This will just make life even more difficult, with all the media attention and the rest of the community pointing the finger, which is not justified.”

Okay now I’m really confused. The rest of what community? Pointing what finger? At what, or whom? And why is it not justified, and by what, or whom? Who are all these people, I mean communities? Is this finger-pointing rest of the community the rest of a different community from the antecedent Muslim community, or is it the rest of the very same community? And whose finger are they pointing and why are they pointing it? What does it all mean?

Only the community knows for sure.



God’s Will Be Done

Jul 4th, 2006 10:29 pm | By

There is an alarming thought in this article on Barack Obama and religion.

For the past six years, the most prominent Christian in America has been the president. His belief is not of the “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” sort that fundamentalists embrace. Rather, Bush subscribes to a syllogistic doctrine of presidential infallibility: God works through Christians; I am a Christian; I have decided to do X; therefore, X is God’s will.

For one thing, that sounds like a syllogistic doctrine of infallibility period, never mind the presidential part. But leave that aside. Since it’s Bush who is the subject and Bush is in fact, incredibly enough, the president, it’s the syllogism itself that is so alarming. Does he really think that? If so that’s even worse than what I thought he thought, which was that God spoke to him, but not, like, every second. I thought he thought God gave him guidance on the generalities, but that he had to help himself a little – had to break a sweat now and then at least. But if he just thinks it’s all as simple as that formula – then he thinks that everything he thinks and decides and does is by definition and automatically God’s will and therefore right. And that means he thinks there’s no need to think or consider or judge or ask questions at all, ever. Now I know he pretty much never does any of those things; the failure to ask questions is quite notorious; but I thought he might indulge in them just occasionally. But why would he, if he thinks there’s no need? And if he believes that syllogism, he must think there’s no need.

So that’s what religion gets you. Someone who thinks there is no need to think or consider because God will do it for him; who, unfortunately, is the most powerful human on the planet and in charge of tens of thousands of nukes. Oh how exciting.



Words

Jul 4th, 2006 10:04 pm | By

A few randomly-assorted thoughts for the day.

From Charles McGrath again, Charles McGrath of the pessimistic view of Harry Potter’s geriatric years; this time he’s talking about Beowulf:

Far more entertaining than a lonely troll with grief issues, or one working through identity questions, is the thing from the night who (to adapt Mr. Heaney) bites into your bone lappings, bolts down your blood and gorges on you in lumps.

Yup. Don’t wanna hear about the troll’s identity questions (or why it’s clutching that Volkswagen) or grief issues, wanna hear about the munching thing from the night. Next from PZ commenting on some fundamentalist silliness about why ‘Homosexuality is sin’:

I wish someday someone could explain to me why a vast Cosmic Intelligence, omnipotent and all knowing, is so darned worried about which appendage touches which orifice in a mob of billions of busy, short-lived beings in whom he has imbued a desperate desire to bump appendages/orifices. It seems so petty and futile.

Also from Pharyngula, this time from the sidebar random quotation, from Taslima Nasrin in an interview in Free Inquiry magazine, winter 1998/1999, Vol. 19 No. 1:

I don’t find any difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalists. I believe religion is the root, and from the root fundamentalism grows as a poisonous stem. If we remove fundamentalism and keep religion, then one day or another fundamentalism will grow again. I need to say that because some liberals always defend Islam and blame fundamentalists for creating problems. But Islam itself oppresses women. Islam itself doesn’t permit democracy and it violates human rights.

And a point Stewart made in a comment on ‘Domain, Nothing’:

What Bunglawala doesn’t do is address his completely different standards for evaluating scientific and religious claims. But then, he doesn’t evaluate religious claims, he just accepts them. How many religious people would there be left if they raised the bar as high for the claims of religion as they do for those of science?

Very good question. Not, of course, one that Bunglawala is likely to answer.



Domain, Nothing

Jul 4th, 2006 1:16 am | By

Okay good Bunglawala thinks Muslims should avoid going the “intelligent design” route lest they end up throwing off “their burqas as soon as they set foot on a plane to go overseas” and wrongly blaming Islam rather than the ill-informed interpretation of the Qur’an by some Muslims. Whatever. Of course interpretation of the Qur’an whether informed or ill-informed is beside the point, since the Qur’an isn’t a book about biology or even evolution – but whatever. But I do take issue with this (all too predictable, all too familiar) bit:

Dawkins’ work was forcefully argued and took no prisoners from the creationist camp; however, I did find his militant atheism quite off-putting…Gould on the other hand…gently chided those scientists who made similarly unsupported atheistic claims about what evolution had to say regarding questions of meaning and purpose – questions that have traditionally been the domain of religion.

Yeah, he did, and boy do I wish he hadn’t. Because he was wrong.

It’s not true that questions of meaning and purpose have traditionally been the domain of religion; religion has had much bigger fish to fry for most of its history. But more to the point, questions of meaning and purpose are not and have never been “the domain of religion” in the sense of being a monopoly of religion’s, which is what that claim looks like. Religion does not (whatever it might like to think) get to put up “Keep Out” signs on questions of meaning and purpose. Anybody can address those questions, anybody at all, and that emphatically includes atheists. In fact, of course, atheists are better people to turn to for such discussions, since their versions of purpose and meaning don’t rely on belief in a fictitious being who watches the sparrow and makes babies and animals suffer torments of pain because it’s good for them. I am getting very tired of these grandiose claims by religionists to expertise on questions of meaning and purpose when in fact what they have to say is not merely useless, it’s often monstrous.



Geriatric Harry

Jul 3rd, 2006 10:12 pm | By

Now really. That’s just silly. And yes I know he’s being jokey, but I bet he also means it, and he ought not to.

Would we even remember Little Nell if she hadn’t died in such spectacularly mawkish fashion? Would we prefer that Emma Bovary didn’t swallow the poison and instead became a clochard, cadging francs at the agricultural fair? And do we really want to contemplate Harry, now bald and grizzled, the lightning-shaped scar faded into an age spot, retired from magic and, pint in hand, prattling on about old quidditch matches? Surely it makes more sense to employ the other kind of magic, and go back to Volume 1 and start over.

Little Nell is welcome to die in childhood, I’m with dear Oscar when it comes to Nell, and with Emma B it’s fifty-fifty. The whole novel heads for her clumsy futile death, but on the other hand, it’s not self-evident that she would have been a duller character at fifty or seventy. But what I really take issue with is the look at Harry’s future. Why is that how he would end up? Bald and grizzled, fine, because that’s how it goes, but why would he be retired, and above all why would he be a pub bore prattling on about his childhood? Eh? Eh? Whence the dreary view of old age, eh? Why couldn’t and wouldn’t Harry go on doing magic all his life, why wouldn’t he become more interesting and wise as he got older? Some people do after all. Not everyone turns into a prattling bore in old age. Some people are prattling bores in old age, to be sure; I know some people like that myself; but they were prattling bores before they got old. Some people go on being interesting and curious and mentally active and thoughtful, even into old age. Imagine that! Charles McGrath might be one of those people himself.