Notes and Comment Blog

Let’s not make the concept vacuous

Sep 1st, 2008 12:41 am | By

Nigel Warburton talks to Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association. I particularly liked this bit –

I think it is more coherent to call Christians, for example, ‘Christians’ rather than ‘Christian humanists’ and Humanists ‘Humanists’ rather than ‘secular humanists’. If we try to call any and every philosophy that in some way has something to do with people ‘humanist’ then we make the concept itself vacuous. There is a recent book in the Teach Yourself series by the agnostic Mark Vernon which runs into this sort of difficulty. Thankfully, this is not a very prominent debate within Humanism and I think the common usage of ‘Humanism’ is still that of a non-religious philosophy.

That’s why so much of what Mark Vernon writes seems wrong-headed, at least to me. He’s so intent on, on the one hand, portraying atheists as dogmatic and fanatical and impoverished, and on the other hand, portraying religion as reasonable and rational and humanist. He seems to be on a mission to defend religion and denigrate atheism, despite (he always insists) no longer being religious himself. There’s a whole crowd of atheists and agnostics now making a career of rebuking atheists while flattering theists; Vernon’s one of the standard bearers of that crowd. They’re very tedious (and in Matthew Nisbet’s case, worse than tedious).

O my holy sleeves!

Sep 1st, 2008 12:39 am | By

When should ‘religious beliefs’ trump medical precautions? Hmm, let’s see. Never.

Many Muslim women all over the UK could be at risk of losing their jobs after the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Johnson, introduced the “bare below the elbow” policy. This policy was first introduced in January 2008 and stated that, when any member of staff is in contact with a patient, they must have their full arm from the elbow and below completely bare.

That doesn’t put Muslim women at risk of losing their jobs; it puts them at risk of having to bare their arms below the elbow when in contact with patients. In other words it presents them with a not very onerous job requirement that is in place in an attempt to prevent lethal infections. In other words, big fucking deal. Some jobs come with requirements of that kind; that’s just a fact of life. You can’t dress any old way you want to when you’re working with food, for example. Religion doesn’t give people the right to endanger the health of other people. You can’t be a surgeon and say your religion forbids you to scrub your hands, and that’s all there is to it. There is no human right to ignore hygiene regulations in a hospital. Suck it up.

Ayesha believed the dismissal was unethical as it violated her equality and diversity human rights…Ayesha described the “continuous nightmares” she suffered regarding the situation and upon her dismissal how she was “emotionally torn apart”. She feels viciously discriminated against, and this incident has left her seriously doubting any future job security. Ayesha feels shocked that she was forced to choose between her religious beliefs and her livelihood. She hopes to “prevent the policy from being universally applied, so other Muslim women do not experience the same trauma.”

Trauma nothing. If you work in a hospital, you are inevitably going to have various dress and hygiene requirements. Period. Grow up, enter the real world, have some sense, deal with it. And bag the self-pity, too.

The most evil, filthy things

Aug 31st, 2008 7:04 am | By

The reporter for Channel 4 is filming undercover as the woman preacher gives her talk.

What should be done to a Muslim who converts to another faith? “We kill him,” she says, “kill him, kill, kill…You have to kill him, you understand?” Adulterers, she says, are to be stoned to death – and as for homosexuals, and women who “make themselves like a man, a woman like a man … the punishment is kill, kill them, throw them from the highest place”. These punishments, the preacher says, are to be implemented in a future Islamic state. “This is not to tell you to start killing people,” she continues. “There must be a Muslim leader, when the Muslim army becomes stronger, when Islam has grown enough.”

What can you say? What is there to say? This is fascism; fascism of the worst kind; the kind that not only thinks whole large sets of people should be summarily killed, but also feels perfectly happy to say so in public (though highly exclusive and sectarian and carefully non-integrated) places. This is the worst possible nightmare – the worst possible kind of human being, and the worst possible vision of society. This is a utopia in which all the best kinds of people are ‘thrown from the highest place’ by a set of malevolent narrow mindless death-loving ignorant shits. This is hell on earth. Everything good wiped out, everything bad given power to tyrannize and control and destroy.

The mosque is meant to promote moderation and integration. But although the circle does preach against terrorism and does not incite Muslims to break British laws, it teaches Muslims to “keep away” and segregate themselves from disbelievers: “Islam is keeping away from disbelief and from the disbelievers, the people who disbelieve.” Friendship with non-Muslims is discouraged because “loyalty is only to the Muslim, not to the kaffir [disbeliever]”. A woman who was friendly with a non-Muslim woman was heavily criticised: “It’s part of Islam, of the correct belief, that you love those who love Allah and that you hate those who hate Allah.”

As Saudi textbooks teach children – in those words.

Like many of the other women at the circle, I was soon invited to private sessions in houses around London, to “learn more” about Islam – or their version of Islam. Um Saleem was also at some of these sessions. Here, the women were given strict restrictions on their lives: it is reiterated that British Muslim women cannot travel far without a male guardian, cannot mix with men, and have to remain fully covered up at all times. One woman in the audience queried the strict rulings that she cannot travel without a mahram – a male member of the family – escorting her. She asked: “Sister, if me and my husband, we can’t go together, what do I do if I want to go?” She was told she cannot travel by herself. She asked again: “So what do I do?” “You go with your husband,” Um Saleem replied. There were also restrictions on education or work opportunities. One woman, who works for the NHS, was told she should leave her job as it meant mixing with men and not wearing a full Islamic garment. “You know that working in an environment that is not Islamic, working with the kuffaar, all this takes you away from the religion and hardens your heart and it would be lying to you if I say it’s OK,” Um Saleem explained. Um Saleem also criticised Muslim women who integrate into society – a view that is counter to the aims of the Regent’s Park Mosque. “You see Muslims in every sphere of everyday life in this country, I see Muslims, it breaks my heart when I see them working in banks, short sleeves, tight scarf like this, make-up, being with the kuffaar all the time, even speaking their language,” she said.

Yeah, terrible, isn’t it, women out in the world doing ordinary work in ordinary places and being around people just as if they were people, even speaking their language – it’s shocking, isn’t it.

The Mosque’s official bookshop was another focus for the Dispatches film last year when our reporters discovered intolerant and fundamentalist DVDs…I found the same fundamentalist preachers’ works still openly displayed and sold there. DVDs preaching that disbelievers are “evil, wicked, mischievous people … they do the most evil, filthy things”; that men are in charge of women and should control them…Darussalam International Publications told me that the bookshop sells a wide range of material which they “do not necessarily agree with”. It said: “We try to represent a variety of…opinions through the products we sell…in order to spread peace, respect, tolerance and understanding.”

Ah yes of course! Peace respect tolerance and understanding! Of course selling ‘products’ that preach hatred of ‘disbelievers’ and subordination of women is just the way to spread peace respect tolerance and understanding.

This stuff is so bottomlessly disgusting. It makes me want to move to another planet, or become another species, or build myself a fortified bunker. It makes me despair of human beings.

Worship of violence

Aug 30th, 2008 2:45 pm | By

No, it’s not just another ‘choice’.

It may be an unusual case, but it’s hardly the first time that extreme religious belief has resulted in cruelty to children. Now that the “misery memoir” has become a cliché of contemporary publishing, it’s worth remembering that many of the most significant accounts of childhood misery have been associated with religious repression…[I]n Memoir, one of hundreds of books chronicling brutal Irish Catholic childhoods, John McGahern writes of a life in which sudden physical blows were followed by sudden instructions to bow down in front of a crucifix (a fetishisation of extreme violence if ever there was one) and pray. “Authority’s writ ran from God the Father down and could not be questioned,” he says. “Violence reigned… in the homes as well.”

It’s a violent God. The crucifix itself (as Christina Patterson notes) is a symbol of violence. It’s one of the weirdest and most repulsive things about Christianity, that it uses an execution device as a pervasive symbol. Don’t tell me about atonement; the cross has no more to do with atonement than does the gallows or the guillotine or the electric chair or the lethal injection. People don’t walk around with little gallows around their necks – but crosses, oh, that’s a different matter. It isn’t though – it’s an ancient form of execution by torture. It was common as mud – it wasn’t special to Jesus, it was just what the Romans did with anyone poor and obscure and non-Roman who misbehaved, and that was a lot of people. It wasn’t glamorous, it was as squalid as possible. One might as well walk around with a photo of someone being waterboarded as a decoration.

We live in a country in which the proliferation of schools established only to impose particular sets of religious prejudices on young children unable to know, or seek, better is encouraged. Like everything else, it’s about “choice”…No, it isn’t. In this country – whose state religion, incidentally, rarely did anyone any harm, except a bit of boredom on a Sunday morning – we should do better. If parents have the right to believe what they like, their children have the right to an education that teaches them that certain things are wrong, and that, as Edmund Gosse says in Father and Son, it is “a human being’s privilege to fashion his inner life for himself”.

And to say no when the man with the knives comes around.

Trying to comprehend the significance of it all

Aug 30th, 2008 2:05 pm | By

Self-flagellation is a good thing.

There are elements of the Zaidi case that will sound familiar to those who grew up in a Punjabi Shia household. There is nothing odd in the father of the household engaging in this particular practice. But I have personally never seen anybody coerced into it, although coercion can, admittedly, take many indirect forms.

Nothing odd, that is, in the father of the household engaging in self-flagellation. Well that depends on what you mean by ‘odd.’ It may be something one has seen before, but that doesn’t mean it’s not odd. I’m going to go right out on a limb here and say that whipping one’s back with knives is, indeed, odd, also stupid and undesirable, especially when done in front of other people, especially when some of them are children. The Dinonysian is not something to be messed with.

[T]he danger of this case is that the ritual of self-flagellation itself is demonised. Those adults who engage in self-flagellation with knives, chains or blades, do so with a consciousness of the ceremonial nature of the act, keenly watched by onlookers, children and adults alike, who, though they have seen it all before, continue to be mesmerised by the sheer spectacle of it – the display.

Exactly; hence the danger and the lack of desirability. It’s not a good (a humane, a responsible, a fair, a decent) idea to stage mezmerizing spectacles of severe self-injury in front of children, or anyone else either. There are things one ought not to mesmerize other people into wanting to do themselves; self-injury is one of those.

This excitement is, for most, mixed with an actual sense of profound identification with the suffering of Imam Hussain…[I]n an age where Muslim communities appear to be in a state of flux, it is this very sacrifice of Hussain that, paradoxically, provides an antithesis to extremism and violence. How? Because it gives a powerful sense of meaningful identification to those, especially among the younger generations, who see beyond the self-inflicted scars and the rituals themselves, and who in some way try and comprehend the significance of it all.

Paradoxically indeed; so paradoxically that it makes no sense. A sense of meaningful identification for those who see beyond the self-inflicted injuries and who in some way try and comprehend the significance of it all. Yes but in what way? And what is the significance of it all? And whatever it is why can’t it be comprehended without the blades hitting the back? If there’s something to be comprehended why can’t it be comprehended in a literal direct explicit rational way? And where – really, where – does the antithesis to extremism and violence come in?

Wondering if

Aug 27th, 2008 4:59 pm | By

I’m wondering, because of a discussion with Don in the comments, if there is a valid distinction between saying ‘there is no good evidence that “God” (as commonly understood) exists’ and affirmatively claiming that ‘God’ doesn’t exist. I think there is, but I’m wondering if I’m cheating in thinking that.

Surely not, though. Not least because it is perfectly possible to know there is no evidence for something without taking that as evidence for not-something. There is no evidence for an infinite number of things (that someone had a particular thought a year ago, for instance) that may well be true just the same.

God of course is somewhat different, since given the usual definition of God, we know that there would be evidence if a God so defined wanted there to be evidence. An omnipotent God must be able to produce evidence of itself – so in the case of a God so defined, the lack of evidence is a little suspicious. Either it’s playing silly games, or it doesn’t exist; both possibilities are disconcerting for believers.

Yes it is too so a question for science

Aug 26th, 2008 5:41 pm | By

In a high school biology class.

“Can anybody think of a question science can’t answer?”

“Is there a God?” shot back a boy near the window.

“Good,” said Mr. Campbell, an Anglican who attends church most Sundays. “Can’t test it. Can’t prove it, can’t disprove it. It’s not a question for science.”

Can test it if it’s the kind of God that pokes around in our world. Is a question for science if it causes people to win sprints and get sick and get well and survive hurricanes.

PZ is on the case.

I despise that chicken-hearted answer. There are two reasonable ways to address that. One is to accept the usual open-ended, undefined vagueness of the god entity and point out that the reason it can’t be answered is that it is a bad question — it’s not even wrong. Science doesn’t answer it, but then no discipline can, because it’s a garbage question like “what color are invisible elephants?” If that’s what window-boy intends with his petty little gotcha, he deserves to have the inanity of his idea disparaged.

The other approach is to pin the question down. What god? What actions has it taken in the natural world? How does it influence us specifically? Then you can tackle that god with science by testing the purported effects it has. A potentially falsifiable or verifiable god is a legitimate target of scientific investigation…of course, that kind of god seems to vanish as soon as it is scrutinized, and its advocates rapidly fall back on the not-even-wrong version of a deity.

Just so.

I do wish – forlornly – there weren’t such a torrent of goddy nonsense in the US presidential campaign. I know that’s asking for the moon, but I do wish. I wish Obama didn’t have to ‘reach out’ to the godbotherers.

Russell Blackford is putting together a book of essays on not believing in God. I’m one of the contributors and I sent my essay off today.

Listen, she kept pestering us about her son

Aug 25th, 2008 12:29 pm | By

Life is exciting in Afghanistan, too.

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has pardoned three men who had been found guilty of gang raping a woman in the northern province of Samangan. The woman, Sara, and her family found out about the pardon only when they saw the rapists back in their village.

What a surprise that must have been.

“It was evening, around the time for the last prayer, when armed men came and took my son, Islamuddin, by force. I have eye-witness statements from nine people that he was there. From that night until now, my son has never been seen.” Dilawar said his wife publicly harangued the commander twice about their missing son. After the second time, he said, they came for her. “The commander and three of his fighters came and took my wife out of our home and took her to their house about 200 metres away and, in front of these witnesses, raped her.” Dilawar has a sheaf of legal papers, including a doctors’ report, which said she had a 17mm wound in her private parts cut with a bayonet. Sara was left to stumble home, bleeding and without her trousers.

Yes but they didn’t bury her alive. Afghanistan is making progress.

Feeling peevish

Aug 25th, 2008 12:17 pm | By

In Balochistan, Pakistan, three teenage schoolgirls planned ‘to marry men of their own choice through a civil court by defying the centuries-old tribal traditions.’

When the fuming elders of Umrani tribe came to know about the intentions of these girls to appear before a local court, they picked them up from their homes along with two of their elderly women relatives. The crying girls were pushed into official cars and driven to a deserted area. There they were pushed out of the cars, made to stand in a queue and volleys of shots fired at them. As the bleeding girls fell on the sand, the tribesmen dragged them into a nearby ditch and levelled it with earth and stones before the girls could breathe their last. As the two shocked elderly women tried to rescue the hapless girls, they too were gunned down and buried in the same manner. The killers after burying these women returned to their tribe like conquerors without any action against them. The step taken was to send a loud message to the rest of the tribe’s girls.

Romantic, isn’t it. Life as it used to be – passionate, vivid, exciting, turbulent, heroic.

Personal and religious views

Aug 23rd, 2008 4:53 pm | By

No that’s not right.

The ACLU sued in January, and Smoak ruled this summer that Davis violated Heather Gillman’s rights. “I emphasize that Davis’s personal and religious views about homosexuality are not issues in this case. Indeed, Davis’s opinions and views are consistent with the beliefs of many in Holmes County, in Florida, and in the country,” Smoak wrote in an opinion released last month. “Where Davis went wrong was when he endeavoured to silence the opinions of his dissenters.”

But that doesn’t work. Davis’s personal and religious views about homosexuality are issues in this case. They’re an issue because they’re not sufficiently convincing or justified or universal or defensible to justify his actions. If they had been, they would be. If the student had been violent, or threatening, or a cheater, then the principle would be both permitted and right to discipline her. The reason he doesn’t get to discipline her for being gay is that the law has evolved in response to general societal acceptance of the idea that homosexuality doesn’t actually harm anyone and shouldn’t be treated as a crime. Davis’s personal and religious views are that homosexuality does do harm (though it’s never very clear to whom, when Christians get in a lather about the subject) and should be treated as a crime. So his views are an issue and they are being set aside. As they should be – and it’s no good pretending they aren’t.

Christian feminist is an oxymoron

Aug 22nd, 2008 11:18 am | By

Oi! Catherine Elliott is writing our book.

[T]he term “Christian feminist” is an oxymoron; it’s a glaring contradiction in terms on a par with “compassionate conservative” and “pro-life anti-abortionist”. Christianity is and always has been antithetical to women’s freedom and equality, but it’s certainly not alone in this. Whether it’s one of the world’s major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It’s the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.

You’ll have noticed that male clerics like to say that they’re terribly sorry but it’s an absolute rule of their outfit that women can’t be clerics because you see it has always been that way and therefore it is heresy to change it now. Convenient but not convincing.

Since men first conceived of the notion of a single omnipotent creator, that divine being has taken the form of a man: no matter what name he answers to, be it Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, or just plain God, what’s not in doubt is that he’s a he. His teachings and his various holy books reinforce the message that this life exists for men, while the best women can hope for is some kind of reward in the next one; as long as we do as we’re told of course, without questioning our lords and masters, and as long as we manage to remain pure of heart and mind while we prostrate ourselves at their feet.

And crank out the babies and cook the food and grow the crops – don’t forget that part. Oh and close the legs or open them as commanded by their owner.

It’s in the name of social cohesion that the Archbishop of Canterbury now expects us to quietly accept the inevitability of Sharia law in this country: one rule for us and another for our Muslim sisters. Well I’m sorry archbishop but no, there should be no ifs or buts on this one; we’re either equal under the law or we’re not. We should be no more prepared to sell out Muslim women in the name of religious tolerance than we are Christian women.

Quite. See Chapter 6, passim.

She’s 77 – and nearly blind! That’s a good one.

Aug 20th, 2008 2:34 pm | By

Well that’s nice – not just suppression and punishment of protest, not just breaking promises to citizens and the rest of the world alike, but a sadistic bait and switch into the bargain. ‘We’re having the Olympics; we’re in a cheerful and generous mood, so you can protest; here, we’ve even allocated three parks for the purpose, where you can protest. Have fun. We love you.’

At least a half dozen people have been detained by the authorities after they responded to a government announcement late last month designating venues in three city parks as “protest zones” during the Olympics. So far, no demonstrations have taken place.

Ah. Three parks. The Olympics almost two weeks old now. Half a dozen people or more ‘detained’ for taking the bait – and so far no demonstrations at all. Hmmm. Why that almost begins to sound as if the authorities don’t actually mean to allow any demonstrations to take place after all. It even begins to sound just a little bit as if all they ever intended was to lure people into applying for permission to demonstrate so that they could then exclaim ‘We didn’t mean you!’ and arrest them while laughing themselves into fits.

Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that 77 people had submitted protest applications, none of which had been approved. Xinhua, quoting a Public Security spokesperson, said all but three applicants had dropped their requests after their complaints had been “properly addressed by relevant authorities or departments through consultations.” The last three applications were rejected as incomplete or violating Chinese law.

Ah. 77 applications – and not one approved. Violating Chinese law – the one against protesting, no doubt. That announcement about the protest zones seems to have forgotten to mention that the law against protests is still in effect. Hahahahahahahaha – they’re a funny bunch, those Public Security jokers.

Gao Chuancai, a farmer from northeast China who was hoping to publicize government corruption, was forcibly escorted back to his hometown last week and remains in custody. Relatives of Zhang Wei, a Beijing resident who was also seeking to protest the demolition of her home, were told she would be kept at a detention center for a month. Two rights advocates from southern China have not been heard from since they were seized at the Public Security Bureau’s protest application office last week.

Suckers! Hahahahahahahahaha.

Two women in their late 70s have been sentenced to a year of “re-education through labor” after they repeatedly sought a permit to demonstrate in one of the official Olympic protest areas, according to family members and human rights advocates. The women, Wu Dianyuan, 79, and Wang Xiuying, 77, had made five visits to the police this month in an effort to obtain permission to protest what they contended was inadequate compensation for the demolition of their homes in Beijing. During their final visit, on Monday, Public Security officials informed them that they had been given administrative sentences for “disturbing the public order,” according to Li Xuehui, Wu’s son. Li said his mother and Wang, a former neighbor who is nearly blind, were allowed to return home but were told they could be sent to a detention center at any moment. “Can you imagine two old ladies in their 70s being re-educated through labor?” he asked.

No, I can’t! Stop with the jokes, you’re slaying me.

Catholic church decides sluts deserve cancer

Aug 20th, 2008 11:53 am | By

Religion is outdoing itself this week. The good old Catholic Church for instance, always vigilant for the well-being of humanity.

A vaccine against cervical cancer will be given to schoolgirls without them receiving any safe sex advice as a result of a controversial deal struck between the Catholic Church and health officials [in Scotland]…The Catholic Church originally raised objections to the jab on the grounds it could encourage promiscuity, but has made a U-turn after reaching an agreement with health and education bosses. The deal means girls getting the HPV jab will not receive any accompanying advice on the need to use condoms to protect themselves from other sexually transmitted diseases.

Typical. A bogus worry about a bogus guessed-at possibility of a non-problem motivates the church to object to a measure that would protect women against a fatal disease. Healthy sense of priorities they have; sensible view of what matters and what doesn’t. What is ‘promiscuity’ anyway? And what business is it of theirs? What if the vaccine did ‘encourage’ women to have sex with more than one person – so what? Why does it matter? Why does it matter enough to warrant risking their lives by preventing them from getting a vaccination? And why is it up to the Catholic church to intervene? Why do health officials in Scotland have to bargain with the Catholic church at all? Why do they have to ‘strike a deal’?

Health campaigners and parents’ groups last night reacted angrily to the deal, warning that the sexual health of thousands of young Scottish women was being put at risk to avoid a moral backlash from the Catholic Church. Many sexual health experts believe it is essential to give out safe sex advice alongside the jab to make it clear they will remain at risk from other STIs including HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhea. More than half of the 5,000 female chlamydia patients in Scotland last year were under the age of 20.

Well it serves them right you see. The Catholic church wouldn’t want them to just get away with it.

The Catholic Church has now decided it will back the programme, with the jabs being available in its own schools. Spokesman Ronnie Convery revealed: “We have been in fruitful discussion with the health and education authorities, and we are satisfied that the programme to be rolled out across the country now is a responsible and ethically appropriate one.”

That’s disgusting. Immoral, presumptuous, intrusive, reckless, and disgusting. Having sex is not of itself irresponsible (unintended conception is irresponsible, but that’s a different matter); obstructing measures to prevent diseases is grotesquely irresponsible. The smugness of this kind of thing becomes unendurable…’we are satsfied’ indeed! Who cares whether they are satisfied or not! It’s not about them, it’s about the girls. Ronnie Convery isn’t going to get cervical cancer, is he, because he doesn’t have a cervix, and neither do any of the other bastards who decide this stuff.

La vie en rose

Aug 18th, 2008 3:55 pm | By

Life in Afghanistan.

Asked why she was serving seven years in jail alongside hardened insurgents and criminals, the 15-year-old giggled and buried her head in her friend’s shoulder. “She is shy,” apologised fellow inmate Zirdana, explaining that the teenager had been married at a young age to an abusive husband and ran away with a boy from her neighbourhood…Ostracised from her family and village, Saliha was convicted of escaping from home and illegal sexual relations. The first carries a maximum penalty of 10 years, the second 20.

‘Escaping’ from home. Escaping from ‘home.’ It was a home she was put into as if she were a parcel, or a prisoner; and in sane parts of the world, people are allowed to ‘escape’ from home if they’re miserable there. But in Afghanistan, you get up to ten years in the slammer for it. And of course twenty years for having sex with someone other than the man you were given to in childhood as if you were a parcel. Women in Afghanistan are treated like livestock.

Two-thirds of the women in Lashkar Gah’s medieval-looking jail have been convicted of illegal sexual relations, but most are simply rape victims – mirroring the situation nationwide. The system does not distinguish between those who have been attacked and those who have chosen to run off with a man…Colonel Ghulam Ali, a high-ranking regional security officer, explained sternly that he supported the authorities’ right to convict victims of rape. “In Afghanistan whether it is forced or not forced it is a crime because the Islamic rules say that it is,” he claimed. “I think it is good. There are many diseases that can be created in today’s world, such as HIV, through illegal sexual relations.”

Yes indeed, and punishing women for being raped is just the way to put a stop to that. Because that of course will discourage men from raping women, because – because – because if they keep doing it eventually all the women will be in prison and there will be no one left to rape? Yeah that must be it. Anyway, note the stupidity of ‘whether it is forced or not forced it is a crime because the Islamic rules say that it is.’

Pushing her five-year-old son’s arm forward imploringly, Zirdana, 25, pointed to the festering wound buzzing with flies. The little boy was just two months old when his mother was convicted of murdering her husband, his father. Zirdana had been handed over to him at the age of seven, as part payment in a financial dispute. She gave birth to the first of her children when she was 11 and was pregnant with her fourth when her husband disappeared and she was accused of killing him. Her three older children were taken from her by her brother-in-law. “When I first came to jail I cried so much blood was coming out of my mouth. My husband’s brother told me he would give my children back when I came out of jail but he has become a Talib.”

She was married to a guy who tooks her as a form of currency, and who fucked her when she was ten if not sooner.

Earlier this year a report by Womankind, Taking Stock: Afghan Women and Girls Seven Years On, revealed that violent attacks against women, usually in a domestic setting, are at epidemic proportions – 87 per cent of women complain of such abuse, and half of it is sexual. More than 60 per cent of marriages are forced and, despite laws banning the practice, 57 per cent of brides are under 16. Many of these girls are offered as restitution for a crime or as debt settlement.

So for women Afghanistan is pretty much one big prison, run by sadistic rapist guards. How nice.

Innocent times

Aug 15th, 2008 5:53 pm | By

Simon Blackburn makes an interesting point (several actually, but this one in particular got my attention) in discussing Alan Sokal’s Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy and Culture.

Relativism can certainly go along with complacency, and I think it is fair to say that even philosophers more serious than Rorty were tainted by that…[C]onsider in this connection also “political liberalism,” the heading under which John Rawls could imagine the peoples of the world willingly leaving their ideological and cultural differences at the door and coming into the political arena carrying only that which they hold in common. What they had in common turned out to be a birthright of reason sufficient all by itself to enchant them with a nice liberal democratic constitution, amazingly like that of the United States, or perhaps western Europe. Conflict could be talked through and violence abated. When the philosophers explained the right way to live, everyone would fall happily into line. Innocent times.

Precisely. This was my complaint about Martha Nussbaum last April when she said to Bill Moyers in an interview –

[W]hat our whole history has shown is…that people can get along together and respect one another, even though they have differences about religion, because they can recognize a common moral ground to stand on. They can recognize values like honesty, social justice, and so on.

And I said that’s too easy, and why I thought so, and Nussbaum replied (to Moyers, but I pretended she was replying to me) –

George Washington wrote a letter to the Quakers saying, “I assure you that the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with the greatest delicacy and tenderness.” And what he meant is you’re not going to have to serve in the military. And I respect that. And unless there’s a public emergency, we’re just not going to do that kind of violence to your conscience. So, I think we have understood that lesson.

And I said Not so fast; that’s still too easy, much too easy; that’s a cheat, because that example won’t do because it’s an easy one, and the problems come in not with the easy ones, but the hard ones.

The problem is, the Quaker scruple is much too easy to ‘respect.’ Most people do understand and respect and sympathize with conscientious scruples about killing people, even if they don’t agree with particular instantiations of them. But that is not the case with all religious ‘scruples’, to put it mildly.

I take that to be exactly what Simon Blackburn has in mind there. Innocent times, indeed.

Ignorance as a basis for policy

Aug 14th, 2008 12:31 pm | By

Good; let’s everybody pile on Charles. He needs to be told his status doesn’t substitute for scientific training.

The heir to the throne may wish to use his privileged position to promote his organic produce while denigrating those of us who wish to use science to help feed the world. But he should at least do so from a position of scientific evidence rather than ideological dogma. He shows a common misunderstanding of how agricultural science works. What’s worse, though, is that his comments risk reinforcing the mistrust felt by much of the public about how their food is produced.

Because of who he is – which is exactly why he should be more cautious about mouthing off instead of less so. His irresponsibility is shocking to behold.

I am reminded of the suggestion made some time ago by Professor Steve Jones of University College London that the best thing the prince could do would be to take an A-level in biology: it would help him to understand the irrationality of his position.

Yes but that would be so plebeian. One isn’t just anyone, after all.

He also blames various ills on modern agriculture more generally – yet fails to see that GM technology could be the solution. He is worried, for instance, about the huge salination problems faced by farmers in many parts of the world. Soil becoming too salty is indeed a problem in places – but GM technology offers us the chance to develop crop varieties that will not just survive but thrive in such conditions.

Yes but you see – hem hem hem, excuse me I’m due at polo just now.

Not so fast Sir.

The Prince is as entitled to his views as anyone. What he is not entitled to do is share them with us. This has nothing to do with whatever merit they might or might not have. It has everything to do with the fact that one day he will be King…The attacks on further GM experiments – which, by definition, are designed to further our knowledge – expose the ignorance behind Prince Charles’s remarks. There is not a shred of evidence – not a jot, not a hint, not a fraction – that there is any risk from GM crops.

Yet his privileged position as next king means that his ignorant views get more exposure than those of people who know something about the subject. That’s bad, and the fact that he doesn’t seem to grasp this makes it worse. It doesn’t seem to cross his mind at all that he could be genuinely harming millions of people (could if his views are ever acted on, at least) and that he therefore ought to…shut up.

I’ve yet to hear Prince Charles decry the use of insulin for diabetics as a “real disaster”. But if he rejects, on principle, the idea of GM crops, he should, because the insulin used is genetically engineered – the human gene that codes for insulin has been transferred into bacteria and yeast, a process that involves crossing the species barrier. But then ignorance need not be consistent and when the Prince opens his mouth he serves only to advance the cause of an unthinking, irrational, ignorance as a basis for policy.

And that cause carries the risk of harming millions of people.

Charles and Bush should form a tiny little book group or something; they have a lot in common.

Let them eat profiteroles

Aug 13th, 2008 2:01 pm | By

Charles is misusing his wealth and status again, taking advantage of his privileged position to lay down the law on subjects he knows nothing about.

Des Turner, a Labour MP and member of the Commons science committee, said: “Prince Charles has got a way of getting things absolutely wrong.
It’s an entirely Luddite attitude to simply reject them out of hand. In some developing countries where for instance there is a problem with drought or salinity, if you can develop salt or drought-resistant crops there are great benefits.”

Oh well you see that would require thinking about specifics, and Charles doesn’t want to do that, he just wants to use his unearned unmerited authority to make sweeping unsupported evidence-free Grand Statements. He should subscribe to the WMST list, he’d feel right at home.

In a statement setting the Prince against politicians who believe GM foods will be crucial to feeding under-nourished populations in the developing world, he said: “What we should be talking about is food security, not food production – that is what matters and that is what people will not understand.”

Horrible man. ‘What people will not understand’ indeed – spoken like a true royal. He has no expertise in this subject, he’s not a trained agronomist or economist or biologist, he’s not a scientist of any kind, yet he thinks he’s perfectly qualified to tell the world what ‘people’ obstinately ‘will not understand’ no matter how many times he orders them to. What we should be talking about is not food production – no matter how many people starve while Charles cuddles his fantasies about small farms and bijou apples.

Phil Willis, a Liberal Democrat MP and the chairman of the Commons science committee, said the Prince’s “lack of scientific understanding” would “condemn millions of people to starvation in areas like sub-Saharan Africa. The reality is that without the development of science in farming, we would not be able to feed a tenth of the world population, which will exceed nine billion by 2050.”

Yes but you see that’s specifics again and Charles is your grand generalization man. He wears expensive suits, he must be right.

Ian Gibson, a Labour MP and former lecturer in Biology, said: “Prince Charles should stick to his royal role rather than spout off about something which he has clearly got wrong.”

Trouble is, Charles thinks he’s a powerful thinker, and he acts on that mistaken view.

Mark Henderson does a good job of saying how Charles gets it all wrong.

A wealth of implication

Aug 12th, 2008 6:10 pm | By

Not exactly.

Of course, the novel will be published sooner or later. Writing about Muhammad has become the shortest cut to media attention in the west. And of course semi-employed young men and women from religious Muslim backgrounds will be out on the streets, shouting.

Women? No they won’t. You don’t see them out there much – which is not surprising, since in ‘religious Muslim’ countries they’re not always encouraged to join in, if you get my drift. But they also, quite possibly, have better sense. It tends to be the young men who work themselves into stupid frenzies about this kind of thing. Rage boy, remember? Rage girl not so much.

[E]ven very religious Muslims cannot ignore the west any more, and – unfortunately – the west, it appears, cannot ignore them either.

Well there are those tugs on the sleeve every now and then, you know. The exploding bus, the exploding airplane, the exploding building – they’re hard to ignore.

European newspapers compared the deferred novel on Aisha to two recent, and very sad, events: the protests that followed the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and the Danish Muhammad cartoons, in which – wrote the Guardian objectively – “more than 100 people died”. The implication – unintended by the Guardian – is that about 100 people were killed by Islamic fundamentalists or protesters…But the fact remains that on both the occasions at least 80% of the people who died were Muslims protesting against Rushdie’s novel or the Danish cartoons. They were often shot by the police, sometimes in Muslim countries, when the protests got out of hand or were inconvenient.

I don’t think that is the implication. On the contrary. I think the intended implication is that the 100 people died because Rushdie’s novel and the Danish cartoons ‘sparked outrage’. The implication is not that Islamic fundamentalists killed each other, but that offended people were upset and then tragically got killed in the resulting violence, which was ultimately the fault not of the offended people or of the police but of the authors of the works that offended them. The BBC and the Guardian generally (though not this time) say that the novel or the cartoons ‘triggered’ or ’caused’ or ‘set off’ protests and riots – which is not true, and does imply that the novelist and the cartoonists did it on purpose or at least should have known better. So…Tabish Khair and I see the matter differently.

Sisters unite and fight development

Aug 11th, 2008 5:53 pm | By

You know every now and then if you’re very good I give you a jolt from the Women’s Studies mailing list. I have one now, fresh in this morning. Someone wanting material for a course she’s going to teach.

course is a straight-up political science one on “democracy and
development,” but I’m looking to inject some feminism into it. I
think I’ve got some good stuff on the democracy side, but I’m looking

1) articles on women’s/feminist engagement with “development” as a
discourse, or resistance to development projects
2) a film about the conflict between democracy and development–that
is, struggles against state-sponsored development projects that come
from democratic autonomous movements. Off the top of my head, I’m
thinking of action against dams in India, though I’m certain there
are good examples from elsewhere. I also know that women are at the
forefront of many of these struggles, so I’m hoping folks on this
list have some good ideas about where to turn for films on the subject.

I didn’t know resistance to development was feminist, did you? Funny, I thought underdevelopment was not all that good for women. I thought that when there are no schools and no roads and no plumbing that women don’t really thrive all that well. I thought that when there is poverty and resources are scarce, that most of the resources went to men and boys and women and girls got a lot less. I thought schools and books and transport and tools and technology and prosperity were better for women than poverty and backbreaking work and no education. But no – of course – that’s just silly. Development means malls and consumerism and parking lots and consumerism; has to be bad, and imperialist; the feminist thing is to live in a mud wallow and eat fleas for breakfast.

The Guardian lends a hand

Aug 9th, 2008 6:02 pm | By

The Guardian also has a piece on the story, a subtly, covertly snotty one – snotty about Jones, not Spellberg. ‘The Jewel of the Medina, a first book by Sherry Jones, 46, was to have been released on August 12′ – what’s with that ’46’? It doesn’t say how old Spellberg is. The point seems to be that Jones is old for a first novel – which has to be just covert sneering, sneering that’s embarrassed to be overt about it. ‘She claims to have spent two years researching the novel’ – there it is again – she claims? Couldn’t that have been she said? Yes, but apparently that wouldn’t have been snide enough. For some reason, the Guardian had to frame this story as a veiled attack on Jones. Odd. Maybe they think she’s a horrible Islamophobe but they don’t have any evidence for that so they just thought they’d sneer at her in the meantime?

Spellberg told the Guardian yesterday that she had been receiving hate mail accusing her of acting as a censor for Muslim jihadis after the piece in the WSJ, which cast her as the sole academic critic of the novel.

Gee, now why would anyone accuse Spellberg as acting as a censor? I can’t imagine, can you?

Spellberg, however, was horrified by the end product. “It is not just that there were issues with historical accuracy. This was quite deliberately provocative. She objectified the wife of the prophet as a sex object and made her violent as well,” she told the Guardian. The book’s marketing blurb and the prologue, both online, suggest Spellberg had cause for her fears. The novel is a luridly written amalgam of bodice-ripper and historical fiction centred on Aisha, the favourite wife of the prophet Muhammad.

Has Suzanne Goldenberg read the novel? That seems unlikely, since it’s been pulled, and she doesn’t say she has, and she refers to the blurb and the prologue. But then why does she say the novel is luridly written? Is she just taking Spellberg’s word for it? If so, she should have said so. If she’s read the novel, she should have made that clear. At any rate, what does she mean ‘suggest Spellberg had cause for her fears’? So it’s a luridly written historical bodice-ripper, why would that suggest that Spellberg ‘had cause for her fears’ that ‘there is a very real possibility of major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence…it is ”a declaration of war…explosive stuff…a national security issue.”…it will be far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons’? It is not obvious why such a novel would cause ‘major danger for the building and staff and widespread violence’ or be ‘far more controversial than the satanic verses and the Danish cartoons’ – so why is the Guardian agreeing with Spellberg? Because she’s fighting the good fight against Islamophobia? Who knows. It’s all sickening stuff.