Notes and Comment Blog

It Takes a Sentence

Apr 6th, 2006 7:49 pm | By

There’s a lot of kack in this piece on religion in the New Statesman. This particular sentence especially caught my eye, for sheer quantity of kack in one sentence.

“So far, the response of the government has been mostly correct: dismissing the crude secularism of the French ban on the hijab, allowing for the establishment of Muslim schools and working closely with the leaders of the Muslim community.”

One, the word ‘correct’, as if political decisions were as clear-cut as arithmetic. Two, that much-recycled bit of obfuscation: the French ban on the hijab is not a French ban on the hijab, it’s a French ban on the hijab (and other conspicuous religious symbols and garments) in state schools. It is stacking the deck in one’s own favour to call a state school uniform code a ‘ban’ without qualification. Three, ‘the leaders.’ In what sense are they leaders? Are they elected? Are they accountable? Are they self-appointed leaders? Four, ‘the Muslim community.’ Is there such a thing? Five, the combination, ‘the leaders of the Muslim community,’ which more than doubles the effect of making it sound as if all Muslims think as a block and as a block appoint leaders. The whole sentence is a throbbing example of the kind of covert thought-herding that communitarians go in for. Pure operant conditioning. Pure kack.

Explaining and Understanding

Apr 6th, 2006 7:21 pm | By

I posted a comment on Dennett’s reply to Ruse and Bunting this morning – and since the idea I was commenting on is (I think) a fairly pervasive one, and related to this whole question of ‘shut up about your atheism, they might hear you,’ I thought I might as well post it here too. The first para, in italics, is someone else commenting.

on the subject of Dawkins getting up ones nose, it would be all well and good if he was just another academic. He does however hold a position called ‘The Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University’ (according to wikipedia) which means he has the task of communicating his subject to us, the unwashed masses. If people feel he’s getting up your nose, then he’s not doing this right is he.

But having the task of communicating his subject to us is not quite the same thing as not getting up anyone’s nose. It may be that communicating a particular subject is of the very essence of getting up people’s noses – or at least some people’s noses. That’s just how it is, surely. It’s not possible or reasonable to assume that increased understanding of anything will automatically or necessarily pleasing to absolutely everyone. Increased understanding of anything may lead to feelings of displeasure and consequent hostility. In short, understanding is one thing, and liking is another. So it’s just not necessarily true that Dawkins isn’t doing his job right if he irritates some people (we know he doesn’t irritate all people, since he has a good many admirers).

And I think that his arguing that science and religion are in fact not as compatible as ‘let’s all get along’ people like to claim they are, is part of explaining science. The reasons he gives for thinking they are not compatible (in the first part of ‘The Root of All Evil?’ for instance) make part of an explanation of what science is. The fact that science is always in principle revisable and that religion is not is an important difference between them, and understanding that is, surely, part of understanding science.

That’s what I said at Comment is Free. It has since occurred to me that the whole thought is also part of the understanding of science. The understanding that there is a difference between understanding and being pleased is part of the understanding of science, and perhaps the reason science is not compatible with religion. Science by definition doesn’t adjust its findings to make them more pleasing – to make them less likely to get up anyone’s nose; if it does that, it’s not science. Arguably that’s one of the first things one has to get a firm grip on in order to have an Understanding of Science: that it is not and cannot be a popularity contest. Other systems of thought can be, but science can’t.

Mind you – to be fair – the commenter probably meant merely that irritating people can make it difficult to communicate with them, which is a reasonable point. But it also relates to the whole question of tactics, and I think it’s fair to point out that Dawkins is not being perverse in thinking that explaining how science and religion are incompatible is part of increasing public understanding of science.

Cultural Relativism and its Enemies

Apr 6th, 2006 1:26 am | By

Phyllis Chesler and Maryam Namazie are (you should pardon the expression) singing out of the same hymnbook.


Chesler’s experiences in Afghanistan have helped shape her thoughts about the failure of feminism to engage with what she sees as the oppression of women in Islamic countries…looking at mainstream feminism in the west – in the universities, in the media, among academics and the socalled intelligentsia – there is a moral failure, a moral bankruptcy, a refusal to take on, in particular, Muslim gender apartheid. So you have many contemporary feminists who say, ‘We have to be multiculturally relativist. We cannot uphold a single, or absolute, standard of human rights. And, therefore, we can’t condemn Islamic culture, because their countries have been previously colonised. By us.’


For her commitment to a Marxism that values human rights above paper selling she has become the bane of those ‘right-thinking, left-leaning people’ who Nick Cohen in the Observer claims have backed away from her because she is just as willing to tackle their tolerance of oppression as the oppressors themselves…Her stance on cultural relativism is equally uncompromising, which she has lambasted as ‘this era’s fascism.’ ‘It promotes tolerance and respect for so-called minority opinions and beliefs, rather than respect for human beings. Human beings are worthy of the highest respect, but not all opinions and beliefs are worthy of respect and tolerance. There are some who believe in fascism, white supremacy, the inferiority of women. Must they be respected?’


Western feminism’s failure to confront the problems raised by Islam, Chesler believes, is a result of the creation of a hierarchy of sins, “an intellectual culture in which racism trumps gender concerns”…The result, she argues, is that “instead of telling the truth about Islam and demanding that the Muslim world observes certain standards, you have westerners beating their breasts and saying, ‘We can’t judge you, we can’t expose you, we can’t challenge you.’ And here in the west you have a dangerous misuse of western concepts such as religious tolerance and cultural sensitivity so that one kind of hate speech is seen as something that must be rigorously protected…Chesler will not accept the Islamophobe label. She claims it is a blanket term used to silence those who portray Islam accurately…


She flags up a range of practices that reveal a nefarious dimension to cultural relativism…’Cultural relativism serves these crimes. It legitimizes and maintains savagery. It says that people’s rights are dependent on their nationality, religion, and culture. It says that the human rights of someone born in Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan are different from those of someone born in the United States, Canada or Sweden.’…She ridicules those cultural relativists who seek to conceal their tolerance for oppression by arguing that universal human rights are a western concept. ‘How come when it comes to using the telephone or a car, the mullah does not say it is western and incompatible with an Islamist society?’…Namazie also sees political Islam attempting to impose restrictions on the rights of women in Western societies…’Here the Islamists are generally more ‘civilised’…[T]hey demand the ‘right’ to veil for women and children in France when in the Middle East they impose compulsory veiling by throwing acid in the faces of those who refuse and resist. In Britain, they cry racism and Islamophobia against anyone who speaks out against Islam and its political movement, whilst in Iran and its likes they hang ‘apostates’ and ‘Kafirs’ from trees and cranes…In Europe, they call for tolerance and respect of their beliefs, when it is they who have issued fatwas and death threats against anyone who they deem disrespectful and intolerable.

That should keep Islamophobia watch busy for a day or two.

All-purpose Tool Going Cheap

Apr 5th, 2006 5:31 pm | By

It’s good to know that whatever happens, whatever the conditions, whether it rains or sizzles, at midnight and at noon, whether things are going well or badly, in peace and war, in poverty and plenty, whether there are too few women or too many, the result is always the same – women are treated like dirt. Women are grabbed, pushed around, sold and bought, beaten and killed, raped and enslaved, exploited and used, thrown away and swapped around. Women are treated like livestock, like farm machinery, like incubators, like any old possession except worse because they have to be broken and forced and violently bent to the will of other people. Incubators and ploughs don’t argue, but women – well, you never know. However hard you’ve hit them, for however long, you just never know when they’re going to open their mouths.

They have a good system going in India, don’t they. First step: devalue women; second step: create a dowry system and then keep making it more and more exorbitant, so that every female born means her parents will have to spend more money than they have for her dowry; third step, selective abortion of females; fourth step, drastic decline in the female population and imbalance between females and males so that males have a much harder time finding mates. And bob’s your uncle! You’ve set up a new hell on earth for women. Kaloo kalay.

Anwari Khatoon came visiting a relative in the northern Indian state of Haryana eight months ago, but ended up getting married against her will to a local man with six children from a previous marriage. A man from her village in eastern Jharkhand state had accompanied the 22-year-old woman on her journey to Haryana. When she arrived in the village, Anwari found the man and her relative pressuring her to marry the man with six children, a middle-aged truck driver. Her new husband paid 10,000 rupees ($220) to the man who brought her to the village. “Can a young, single girl get married to a father of six willingly?” asks Anwari.

Well that’s an interesting way to make a living. Accompany a woman from your village to another village, and when you get there sell her (though she isn’t actually yours to sell, but no matter) to some guy and pocket ten thousand rupees. Not bad. Money for jam. You get a nice trip to a distant village as well – what larks!

Since there aren’t enough local women to marry, Haryana’s men pay touts to bring women for them to marry and to work on their farms. Social activists reckon most of these women end up being used as sex slaves and then resold to other men in what looks like a flourishing market in trafficking of women…Social activists say Haryana exemplifies the vicious cycle of exploitation of women and represents a society which does not respect women.

Yeah, that sounds right. Paying kidnappers to bring women for them ‘to marry and to work on their farms’ does sound like a sign of a society which does not respect women. It’s pretty clear what those women are for – sex, and farm work. It’s quite a good deal, isn’t it – a twofer. You pay ten thousand rupees and you get a thing you can poke whenever you want to, and when you’re not poking her, she’ll work on your farm. What a tool! It puts the Veg-O-Matic to shame. Talk about design – it’s just the right length, it’s about the right temperature, it has two legs with a hole between, and it has arms and hands that can do farm work. Cheap at the price! Too bad it has a part that can talk, of course, but a good punch will usually fix that.


Apr 5th, 2006 12:02 am | By

However, despite Sutherland’s inexplicable resort to Islamophobiawatch as a source, it was pleasing to see Daniel Dennett reply to Bunting and Brown. I replied to them myself here and here but I was just filling in the time until Dennett got around to it.

I find it amusing that two Brits – Madeleine Bunting and Michael Ruse – have fallen for a version of one of the most famous scams in American folklore. When Brer Rabbit gets caught by the fox, he pleads with him: “Oh, please, please, Brer Fox, whatever you do, don’t throw me in that awful briar patch!” – where he ends up safe and sound after the fox does just that. When the American propagandist William Dembski writes tauntingly to Richard Dawkins, telling him to keep up the good work on behalf of intelligent design, Bunting and Ruse fall for it!

Yes, well, Bunting isn’t famous for staying upright for these things – but what caused Ruse’s pratfall, is an interesting and puzzling question.

A few evolutionists, such as Ruse and Eugenie Scott, the director of the national centre for science education, favour the tactic of insisting that evolutionary biology doesn’t deny the existence of a divine creator…Many others, such as Dawkins and myself, fear that the evasiveness of this gambit fuels suspicion and so contributes to ongoing confusion in the US.

And anyway this whole notion that tactics and gambits and evasion are a good idea (or, in Ruse’s apparent view, more like mandatory) depends on the idea that whatever the tactic is supposed to further is more important than whatever the tactic puts second or last. But maybe it isn’t. Teaching science instead of religion in science class is very important, but it’s not automatically or self-evidently more important than, say, telling the truth, or resisting the general idea that atheism is shameful and something to be hidden or apologized for.

Bunting says: “All protagonists in a debate have a moral responsibility to ensure that the hot air they are expending generates light, not just heat.” I agree, but Bunting goes on: “It’s a point that escapes Dawkins” – and I wonder how she cannot see that it is not Dawkins but Ruse, whom she justly describes as reckless, whose hot air ought to be allowed to vent harmlessly in the shadows, not featured in a major newspaper. I tried to do just that with my private reply, “I doubt you mean all the things you say”, to Ruse’s email. Bunting calls this “an opaque one line”. Could she not see that I was trying to bring Michael to his senses in private, before he made an ass of himself in public?

No, clearly she couldn’t – because she was too busy making common cause with the brave atheist-challenger. She couldn’t be bothered to read carefully – hence the failure to remain upright. Splat. And note what Dennet said there, twice – ‘private’. You may remember (probably not, but you may) that I have always said ‘as far as I know’ he didn’t give Ruse permission to send their correspondence to Dembski – but that ‘in private’ seems like a pretty clear sign that he didn’t give permission and wouldn’t have if he’d been asked. Not that I had any doubt on the subject, but I didn’t want to claim to know when I didn’t.

It didn’t work, but I’m glad I tried. I wish she, and Andrew Brown (When evolutionists attack, March 6), had followed my example, but I suppose that once Ruse went public, the spectacle of him calling Dawkins and me names was irresistible. It is not just the protagonists who have a moral responsibility; those who report on them have a moral responsibility to direct the public’s attention to real issues, and to avoid being complicit in publicity stunts by the likes of Dembski. If Bunting and Brown get emails from Dembski saying “Keep up the good work!”, they should search their souls.

A hit, a very palpable hit.

Watch It

Apr 4th, 2006 8:50 pm | By

John Sutherland is a little worried that Phyllis Chesler may have an Islamophobia problem. He cites a very weighty and authoritative source to back this up:

The blog Islamophobia Watch suggested that this signalled “the point of total dementia”.

The blog Islamophobia Watch? Has he read it much? It equates any criticism of or dissent from Islam at all with ‘Islamophobia’ and (of course) it equates ‘Islamophobia’ with hatred of Muslims which it equates with or simply considers identical to racism – so, criticism of Islam (including of course by people from Iran, Pakistan, and other ‘brown’ countries) amounts to racism. That’s stupid, and it works to stifle criticism and dissent, and it works to stifle them in advance of consideration of the substance of the criticism or dissent – it stifles them sight unseen, as racism. This is not intelligent or thoughtful stuff, and it seems peculiar that someone as clever as Sutherland would refer to it in that breezily uncritical way.


Apr 3rd, 2006 11:11 pm | By

Consider monism. The Ethics of Identity page 143-4.

Many theorists – among them William Galston, John Gray, Bhikhu Parekh, and Uday Singh Meta – hold the great enemy to be monism, and, in particular, the philosophical monism they associate with the classic texts of liberalism, not excluding Mill himself. The monist tradition that Parekh has painstakingly traced, in his Rethinking Multiculturalism, starts with Plato and haunts us still; it is characterized by a belief in the universality of human nature…Raz is faulted for his bigoted insistence on autonomy; Kymlicka is faulted for the requirement that national minorities must, at least in some measure, respect liberal principles of individual liberty. The trail of the monist serpent is over them all.

But the trail of the monist serpent is over a lot of things, including a lot of identity-thought. We’re never just one thing – and the things we are are never just identity. The categories we label ‘identity’ always have some sort of content or meaning (which is why they’re not just identities – if they were, they wouldn’t be, because who wants an empty identity?). The categories have some kind of aboutness, and they are always, because of this aboutness, multiple and in competition or conversation with others. We have more than one interest, more than one thought, more than one idea, more than one desire, even more than one project, so we can’t sum ourselves up in one word. We are women or men, American or Indian, Muslim or atheist – but we’re also poet, runner, walker, friend, knitter, hang-glider, cook, wit (Appiah says that’s not an available identity now, but I’m not so sure), gardener, movie buff, expert on sitcoms, musician, birder – and so on. We’re plaid, or paisley, not red or blue.

And identity is both internal and external, which complicates it further. In that sense one could say that nearly everything, or everything that matters to us, is an identity claim of sorts. Take truth for instance. Truth matters to me – because it matters outside me. I take it to matter in the world, and therefore it matters to me: I don’t want to be the kind of person who assents to a lie. Internal and external are all mixed up in that thought. What we think matters in the world, what we think is good or bad, feeds into how we think of ourselves, and how we want to think of ourselves. Truth or compassion matter to us, we care about them, we think they matter – but that is because we do think they do matter externally, independent of us. The two are hooked up.

So – identity matters, but it’s not a pure thing or a single thing or a clear unmixed uncontaminated limpid crystalline thing. It’s something like the back of a rug, with all the knots sticking out.

The Raven Itself is Hoarse

Apr 3rd, 2006 6:59 pm | By

Well there I was thinking the restored update thing was going just swimmingly, and then I had a horrible experience yesterday evening when I sent the third one. I got emails back saying it didn’t work: people clicked on the links and got nothing. All my hair stood on end, the glass shivered in the windows, the milk turned sour in the fridge, and the barometer fell. So I howled, and flung myself back and forth in a passion, and threw things, and then I sent a new update to myself and tested it and then sent it to the list, with an apology. But it’s very annoying. I have no idea why it didn’t work, and don’t like having it mysteriously pointlessly arbitrarily malfunction on me. I don’t like irritating the people on the mailing list by sending them big dud updates that don’t work.

On the other hand, I like the side benefit of the group that it gives links to similar groups, which in turn (I finally realized when I finally bothered to look at one) link to B&W. It’s – erm – kind of like a Community. An Identity Group. I feel all warm and cozy and secure, and I’ll just wander around murmuring ‘there’s no place like home’ for the rest of my life and never think foolish thoughts about freedom or escape or adventure ever again. No but seriously, I do quite like that feature. I like Massimo Pigliucci’s work, for one thing.

And I’ve had a lot of emails from people saying they’re glad the update is back and they think highly of B&W, so as long as I can manage not to send out a dud update every week (or in fact ever again), it still seems to be worth it.

Fumblings in the Dark

Apr 3rd, 2006 6:03 pm | By

A thought for the day or two.

Sam Harris doing a spot of the ever-popular ‘religion-bashing’:

It is worth noting that no one ever needs to identify himself as a non-astrologer or a non-alchemist.

Ben Goldacre getting cross with pseudoscientific burbling:

I’m waiting to be very impressed by any kid who can stimulate his carotid arteries inside his ribcage, but it’s going to involve dissection with the sharp scissors that only mummy can use…Children listen to what you tell them: that’s the point of being a child, that’s the reason why you don’t come out fully-formed, speaking English with a favourite album…I’ve just kicked the Brain Gym Teacher’s Edition around the room for two minutes and I’m feeling minty fresh.

Ben Goldacre a week later getting cross with mindless reactions to his strictures on pseudoscientific burbling:

Nothing prepared me for the outpouring of jaw-dropping stupidity that vomited forth from teachers when I wrote about Brain Gym last week. To recap: Brain Gym is an incredibly popular technique, in at least hundreds of British state schools, promoted all over government websites, and with a scientific explanatory framework that is barkingly out to lunch…So I attacked the stupid underlying science of Brain Gym – I even said I actively agree with exercise breaks – and in return I got a whole load of angry, abusive emails from teachers defending exercise breaks.

And for dessert, one that Chris Whiley sent me last month:

From Diderot, lifted from Philipp Blom’s ‘Encyclopedie’; “Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: ‘My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly’. This stranger is a theologian.”

Blow out your candle, stimulate your carotid arteries by massaging your rib cage, and have a nice day.

Freedom or Unity

Apr 1st, 2006 8:49 pm | By

Some more from The Ethics of Identity. Appiah cites on page 124 a term (via Kymlicka via Margalit and Raz) ‘decayed cultures’:

If what we have is a troubled period of cultural transition, though, it isn’t obvious that such conditions diminish our liberty or autonomy – our ability to choose among a wider range of options. Indeed, as John Tomasi suggests, a greater degree of personal autonomy may be afforded by a less rigid “choosing context,” where there are fewer constraints on what counts as an acceptable life plan than there would be in a more stable cultural community.

That’s pretty much what drives my interest in this whole subject, I think – the idea (and the possibility, the possible fact) that the more stable and rooted and unchanging a culture or identity is, the less liberty and autonomy there is, and the more constraints there are on what counts as an acceptable life plan. Now…I can certainly see that the value of liberty and autonomy and a wider range of options does not automatically or self-evidently trump the value of stability and rootedness, of security and familiarity. But then neither does the value of stability and rootedness self-evidently trump the value of liberty and autonomy. The rhetoric of community and identity too often seems to assume that it does.

And even if the value of liberty doesn’t automatically trump the value of stability, it does seem to be an empirical fact that once people get a taste of freedom and choice and the possibility of a range of options, they tend to like them, and to be upset when they are taken away. Literature and history are full of stories of people escaping from tyrannical parents, masters, owners, bosses, small towns; there are relatively few stories of people escaping from freedom to go back to tyranny. I don’t think that’s just some random fact; I think it reflects human desires and longings.

I think the deeply obscured, masked, disguised fact about the longing for community and stability that communitarians and communalists urge on us is that what is longed for is the confinement and limitation of other people – but not of the self. In other words, it may be that community and tradition and stable cultural communities appeal a great deal more to people who are in a position of power over other people in such communities than they do to the underlings. Brahmins like the old ways better than dalits do. It was slaveowners who were nostalgic for The Old South, it wasn’t slaves. I think that’s worth at least keeping in mind when we muse on community and identity.

Liberals tend to be sympathetic to a Millian notion of experimentation and social progress; the prospect of freezing existing prejudices and inequities and bigotries – the edict that “whatever is, is right” – is hardly a palatable one.

Page 125, we’re on now.

Raz, in a 1994 essay on multiculturalism, seems to be upholding something unexceptionable when he states, “It is in the interest of every person to be fully integrated in a cultural group.”…Much depends on how you construe this requirement. Was Rimbaud – scandalizing tout le monde before he went hopscotching through Africa – fully integrated into a cultural group? What about the Sudanese Islamic scholar Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, who was executed for heresy in 1985 because of his opposition to traditional sharia? Some people, it appears, actively resist being fully integrated into a group, so that they may gain some measure of distance from its reflexive assumptions; to them, “integration” can sound like regulation, even restraint – especially to liberals who, by tradition, favor Freiheit over Einheit.

Exactly. I’m one of those – I favor Freiheit over Einheit. And the thing about that is, freedom leaves you free to choose unity (though only for yourself, not for your slaves), but unity doesn’t necessarily leave you free to choose freedom. So if there is a forced choice between the two, it seems considerably fairer to go with Huck and Jim than to try to find our way back to Tara.

Rigid Boxes

Apr 1st, 2006 2:56 am | By

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading a lot of good sense in Anthony Appiah’s book, and here’s some related good sense from Amartya Sen. The identity two-step.

What we ought to take very seriously is the way Islamic identity, in this sort of depiction, is assumed to drown, if only implicitly, all other affiliations, priorities, and pursuits that a Muslim person may have. A person belongs to many different groups, of which a religious affiliation is only one…[T]o give an automatic priority to the Islamic identity of a Muslim person in order to understand his or her role in the civil society, or in the literary world, or in creative work in arts and science, can result in profound misunderstanding.

Or to the Catholic identity of a Catholic person or the Hindu identity of a Hindu person, and so on. But it’s such a common move. We could call it the Bunting move. (But that would be unkind. Only she’s been so chatty lately.)

The increasing tendency to overlook the many identities that any human being has and to try to classify individuals according to a single allegedly pre-eminent religious identity is an intellectual confusion that can animate dangerous divisiveness. An Islamist instigator of violence against infidels may want Muslims to forget that they have any identity other than being Islamic. What is surprising is that those who would like to quell that violence promote, in effect, the same intellectual disorientation by seeing Muslims primarily as members of an Islamic world. The world is made much more incendiary by the advocacy and popularity of single-dimensional categorization of human beings, which combines haziness of vision with increased scope for the exploitation of that haze by the champions of violence.

Could not possibly agree more. So why is it such a common move, one wonders. Habit? Partly. People seem to be in the habit of thinking that’s a ‘progressive’ and kind and sympathetic way of looking at things. It’s time to break that habit, folks.

In fact, of course, the people of the world can be classified according to many other partitions, each of which has some—often far-reaching—relevance in our lives: nationalities, locations, classes, occupations, social status, languages, politics, and many others. While religious categories have received much airing in recent years, they cannot be presumed to obliterate other distinctions, and even less can they be seen as the only relevant system of classifying people across the globe. In partitioning the population of the world into those belonging to “the Islamic world,” “the Western world,” “the Hindu world,” “the Buddhist world,” the divisive power of classificatory priority is implicitly used to place people firmly inside a unique set of rigid boxes. Other divisions (say, between the rich and the poor, between members of different classes and occupations, between people of different politics, between distinct nationalities and residential locations, between language groups, etc.) are all submerged by this allegedly primal way of seeing the differences between people.

Those rigid boxes – how I hate those rigid boxes. How I hate the way we all keep being shoved into them.

To focus just on the grand religious classification is not only to miss other significant concerns and ideas that move people. It also has the effect of generally magnifying the voice of religious authority. The Muslim clerics, for example, are then treated as the ex officio spokesmen for the so-called Islamic world, even though a great many people who happen to be Muslim by religion have profound differences with what is proposed by one mullah or another.

Oh, just read the article. It’s one of those ones where I want to quote great chunks, and that’s copyright violation, and you can just read it anyway. It’s great stuff.

Reza Moradi Update

Apr 1st, 2006 2:54 am | By

Maryam has an update today.

Thanks to all those who have asked about Reza Moradi and how they can help. We are now in the process of finding a solicitor and organising a campaign in his defence. We’ll need loads of help then. If you want to know a little bit more about what happened, see the upcoming TV International English programme (broadcast Sunday) where I interview him and also show my speech at the March 25 demo for free expression. We’ll keep everyone posted on any new developments as soon as possible.

Here is a photo of two cops in conversation with Moradi. He looks exactly how I would feel and look in such a situation. One can almost see the words ‘what the hell are you hassling me for, I haven’t done anything wrong!’ floating in the air.

A blogger gives pictures and eyewitness accounts here. There’s what appears to be a picture of the guy who complained to the police about Moradi doing just that while Maryam speaks to the crowd. A sinister moment with a baffling and infuriating aftermath. There’s no law against the cartoons, there’s no law against the demonstration, but the Crown Prosecution service is looking into Moradi’s ‘case’ all the same. Why bother having any laws at all, if you can just be prosecuted any old time for ‘offending’ people? At that rate, it’s a miracle I’m not a lifer!

Free Will and Identity

Mar 31st, 2006 3:21 am | By

That Sen interview in the Bangladeshi paper.

Sen remains a strong exponent of free will as expressed in terms of freedom of choice, even if influenced by circumstances and constrained by what’s permissible and what one is capable of. By way of identity, for instance, he chooses to assert the identity of an economist or a philosopher (among other things) depending on what is relevant for that particular discussion. “These are choices, among others, open to me, as are similarly relevant choices for anyone else.” As are the positions he takes on issues of politics, parties, ideologies and so on. “When choices exist, and not to recognise they exist is an epistemic mistake and also a root of irresponsibility – if we attribute our choices to others.”

It’s the kind of epistemic mistake that can distort whole large territories of thought – such as assuming that people of certain kinds have no choice about what will matter to them most; such as assuming for instance that for all Muslims, being a Muslim is what matters most, and that there is no choice about it. That’s a strange thing to assume. We all know plenty of tepid-to-cool and nominal Catholics and Protestants and plenty of secular and atheist Jews; why assume that all Muslims are as if another species and unable to make similar choices? Why assume that all Muslims are ‘devout’ Muslims? Because to do otherwise seems assimilationist and oppressive and Eurocentric? Probably, but the overcorrection is pretty oppressive too.

If Sen’s book makes a proposition to the individual reader, it’s with a similar sense of clarity: choose your identity of your own free will. But it also says something to the current world order, as it were: don’t slap single-identity labels on people. As Sen elaborates, he may think it very important in some specific context to assert the identity of an economist, a professor and of somebody left-of-centre…but anyone trying to predict his choices on the basis of any one single description to the exclusion of others would be making an error. Further, “Nor is every moral argument an identity-based idea.” And trying to squeeze him into any of those discrete boxes would thus be futile, both because there are many identities a person has and also because a person is not guided only by identity. But even civilisations are being put into boxes these days, with scientific rationality itself coming to be portrayed as something of an “immaculate Western conception”, to use a term from the book.

A person is not guided only by identity – that’s such a crucial idea to hang onto, I think. Without it we’re just – stuck; we don’t get to change or expand or experiment or escape or learn or explore novelty.

To be continued.

More on Reza Moradi

Mar 29th, 2006 12:11 am | By

Harry’s Place reports that Reza Moradi is being (will be, I think) prosecuted for holding a Motoon poster. I don’t know if that’s based on what Maryam said in a bracket in her speech or whether it’s new information, but ‘Pangloss’ from the New Humanist says in the second comment, “Funny, have just been speaking to Maryam about this. Yes, he has been charged. As regards the bloke who complained – I haven’t a clue who he is, but the WPI have their suspicions.” He has been charged – with what? With carrying a cartoon with a poster on it. Commenters at Harry’s figure he’ll be charged with something under the public order act. I remember my shock when I found out – quite recently it was – that there is such a thing as the public order act. It came up here around the time of the guy who told a cop his horse was gay, and a woman was questioned by the police for saying on the radio that gays shouldn’t adopt children – that was only a few months ago. And then dear Sacranie was questioned for saying on the radio that gays shouldn’t do anything at all because disease bad ew – which serves him right in one way, but is still outrageous; and now this. Bad stuff.

Later – at 4:00 p.m. – Pangloss said:

What irritates me about this is the fact that this guy (who may or may not be an agent of a certain state which would have an interest in making life uncomfortable for the WPI)can actively seek out offence, and then have his complaint taken seriously by the police. I attended both the al-Muhajiroun and Hizb cartoon protests. Didn’t occur to me to tell the police that I found them offensive, but hey, maybe I should have.

Oh, great. And Moradi is being prosecuted as a result! David of mediawatchwatch said at 12:37:

I was a steward at the march and I was standing right in front of the bloke in the pictures. I heard and saw him make his complaint to the policewoman. Our head steward intervened and offered to personally protect the man, but the complainer was adamant. He also did a fair bit of video-ing of the speakers and crowd.

As I said on Sunday – start embroidering those ‘Free Reza Moradi’ banners. Start penning those notes to the Home Office.

That Pesky Enlightenment Thing

Mar 28th, 2006 11:42 pm | By

And then there’s more Bunting (more Bunting? more Bunting?!) on the – well, on some ridiculous brainworm she has that she thinks is called ‘the Enlightenment’.

I need some help. I’ve been getting increasingly disturbed at the way in which the Enlightenment gets invoked by the self styled ‘hard liberals’ as if it amounts to their tablets of stone. Something didn’t seem to be adding up to me when they waxed lyrical about the Enlightenment legacy of rationality, secularism, belief in progress, the rule of law and the basis of all we know and love in western democracy and individual human rights.

Invoked? Self-styled? Hard liberals? Tablets? Of stone? Waxed lyrical? Belief in progress? All we know and love? Do you think she packed enough silly sarky jeer-words into that one paragraph? Can you tell that she thinks the Enlightenment is probably a load of old kack?

Then I began bumping into the subject with Muslim intellectuals who were acutely aware of how this legacy was being used (implicitly or explicitly) against Islam.

Ah – did you. Well that would explain it. So would the ‘implicitly or explicitly’ bit – that pretty much covers all the possibilities, doesn’t it: if the legacy isn’t used (by whom, exactly? who is the subject omitted by this passive construction? this passive-aggressive passive construction?) explicitly, well, you can be damn sure it is being used implicitly – there they go now, don’t let them escape, after them, run! And then of course there are the decisive final two words – ‘against Islam’. Well then – we know something very very very wrong and wicked is afoot. We don’t know what, exactly, but we know it’s bad. Somebody is using something (albeit perhaps implicitly) Against Islam. Nobody must ever use anything Against Islam, because Islam must be beyond reproach or criticism of any kind. Therefore no form of rhetoric is too silly or too manipulative.

These Muslims then argue that the Enlightenment was a process of European definition in the face of the Ottoman Empire; it was shaped in opposition to Islam and hence has an inbuilt anti-Islamic bias. Montesquieu’s ‘Persian Letters’ is a good example of this.

Uh – no it isn’t. Try reading it, Madders.

The bit which most intrigues me is whether a new understanding about rationality emerged in the eighteenth century and if so, how was it then positioned vis a vis religious belief? Since then, we’ve had Freud, Foucault and Nietzsche – all of whom have contributed to the understanding that we are profoundly irrational and that rationality is a social construction – a way of reasoning which we believe to be objective, but never can be. I’m no philosopher – hence the need for help – but I have a few questions: a) why do people think an understanding of rationality which is over 200 years old is useful now?

Oh, gosh, I don’t know! What a good question. Isn’t that odd? People can be so funny – thinking an understanding of anything at all which is over 200 years old (imagine it! in this day and age!) is any good at all, let alone useful now! Well – wait, wait – except religion of course. Except religion, and Catholicism, and Islam, and religion. I don’t mean them of course. But an Enlightenment understanding of rationality which is over 200 years old? Pee-ew! Might as well keep a 200-year-old fish around.


Mar 28th, 2006 8:36 pm | By

And then there’s Faisal Bodi.

Nobody likes a turncoat. Whether it’s a scab crossing a picket line, or a footballer joining his club’s arch rivals, the consequences of defection will usually haunt them for life. It’s a cross that Abdul Rahman, the Afghan convert to Christianity, is currently having to bear. Charged with apostasy for abandoning Islam, a crime that carries the death penalty in Afghanistan, he was handed a reprieve at the weekend while judges examine the validity of the case against him.

That’s an interesting way to put it – ‘nobody likes a turncoat.’ That is in fact a very tendentious way of putting it. It’s also not true even in Bodi’s terms, since at least some of the people in the group the ‘turncoat’ joins will like the turncoat, because they won’t think of the ‘turncoat’ as a turncoat but as someone who has seen the light or become sane at last or developed good taste or come along to help or found a conscience. But never mind about in Bodi’s terms, because those terms are stupid and bullying. Ideas are not the same kind of thing as, for instance, having or adopting children, where one has taken on responsibilities that one cannot abandon without harming people. Ideas aren’t dependent or needy, ideas don’t feel abandoned or forlorn, ideas don’t grow up to be depressed or fearful; ideas don’t require our blind unthinking unchanging allegiance, and it’s a terrible way of thinking to pretend they do: it’s a loathsome form of mental imprisonment and extortion. Changing religions is not the same kind of thing as crossing a picket line, and it’s intellectual bullying to pretend it is.

At 8:54 this morning Bodi commented on the comments.

As far as the ban on proselytism in Muslim states goes, it is an understandable response from people who cherish the religious basis of their societies to protect them, and its weaker and more vulnerable members, from the damage that an inferior worldview can wreak. May I suggest that a lack of similar conviction in Christianity is what led to liberal secularism coming to hold sway over western European societies.

Sure you may. You bet. It lets us all know what you have in mind, which is useful.

Ruse and Bunting Talk Sinister Nonsense

Mar 28th, 2006 8:09 pm | By

Time to talk about people saying silly things. I know, I know – what an odd activity. What a futile way to spend time. What a bizarre allocation of these golden hours of early 21st century calm and prosperity. I know. One might as well try to give names to all the leaves on the trees (that’s Evelyn, that one’s Marcia, that’s Eric, that’s Deirdre). One might as well try to cook a meal by breathing on it. One might as well dust the living room when it will only get dusty again. I know. But – I can’t explain it somehow, but it seems to call to me – this peculiar avocation of holding public sages up to ridicule and disdain. Oh well what am I saying, of course I can explain it – I’m a petulant rude hypercritical argumentative kibbitzer, and holding public sages up to ridicule is what I do. It is of my essence. What else would I be doing – dusting the living room? Hardly!

There was for instance this irritating mess from Madeleine Bunting via Michael Ruse yesterday.

Michael Ruse, a prominent Darwinian philosopher (and an agnostic) based in the US, with a string of books on the subject, is exasperated: “Dawkins and Dennett are really dangerous, both at a moral and a legal level.” The nub of Ruse’s argument is that Darwinism does not lead ineluctably to atheism, and to claim that it does (as Dawkins does) provides the intelligent-design lobby with a legal loophole: “If Darwinism equals atheism then it can’t be taught in US schools because of the constitutional separation of church and state. It gives the creationists a legal case. Dawkins and Dennett are handing these people a major tool.”

We’ve encountered that part of the mess many times before – but I still don’t understand how Ruse gets there. Dawkins doesn’t claim that, of course, but even if he did, what does atheism have to do with the constitutional separation of church and state? Is Ruse just talking for effect, or what?

Evolution is losing the battle, says Ruse, and it’s the fault of Dawkins and Dennett with their aggressive atheism: they are the creationists’ best recruiting sergeants. Ruse has got to a reckless stage of his career. He prefaced the essay he submitted for Dawkins’s festschrift with the above quote from Dembski and went on to declare that he “felt intensely irritated with Dawkins … It’s bad enough having to fight the enemy without having to watch my back because of my friends.” The editors were horrified and ordered a more deferential rewrite – which Ruse duly provided.

I wouldn’t call that reckless so much as gratuitously aggressive and fight-picking. Ruse seems to be determined to pick fights, and to go about it as unpleasantly as he can.

Even more reckless, Ruse put on the net an email exchange between himself and Dennett in which he accused his adversary of being an “absolute disaster” and of refusing to study Christianity seriously: “It is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil.” Dennett’s reply was an opaque one line: “I doubt you mean all the things you say.”

He didn’t ‘put it on the net’, he sent it to – of all people – Dembski. Without (to the best of my knowledge) permission. Having initiated the exchange himself. And he’s the one who whinges about having to watch his back? But he’s got Madders putting a nice spin on his story.

But Ruse has got a point. Across the US, the battle over evolution in science teaching goes on…At the heart of many of these local controversies is the firmly held belief that Darwinism leads to atheism, indeed that it is atheism. Across the US, a crude and erroneous conflict is being created between science as atheism and religion.

No, he hasn’t got a point. That situation isn’t ‘the fault of Dawkins and Dennett with their aggressive atheism’ – that’s an absurd thing to say. Does Ruse seriously think that if Dawkins and Dennett didn’t exist, there would be no ‘battle over evolution in science teaching’? Does he think most of the soldiers in that battle have ever even heard of Dawkins and Dennett? Because I don’t.

It’s important that Britain avoids the trap that America is falling into, not just because it endangers good science, but also because there is a fascinating debate worth having about what scientific method can reveal about faith, and what theologians have to say about science…This is the kind of conversation we want to have in this country, but we’re not safe from American-style false dichotomies between faith and science yet…

False dichotomies is it. Okay, MB, go on and explain how ‘faith’ and science are not in tension. Non-overlapping magisteria, perhaps? Different levels? Metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism? Worth a try – but not terribly convincing. Even some non-Americans might tell you that.

Update: Dan Jones has an excellent detailed criticism of Bunting’s piece here and PZ has one here.


Mar 27th, 2006 11:31 pm | By

I’m reading Anthony Appiah’s Ethics of Identity. It’s a terrific book. And it keeps startling me by talking about things I’ve been thinking about for years – sometimes down to the smallest detail – such as a particular comment by Martha Nussbaum.

I’ll quote you a bit. Page 40.

The controversy over how to formulate autonomy…immediately lets on to another: whether autonomy…is or ought to be a value in the first place, at least outside the liberal democracies of the West. An availability of options, an endowment with minimal rationality, an absence of coercion: if this is the core of personal autonomy, what could be more anodyne and unexceptionable? And yet…many political theorists write about it as if it were an industrial effluent, something generated by Western modernity and exported, willy-nilly, to hapless denizens of the non-Western world.

Good eh?

For Mill, as we saw, autonomy and diversity were plaited together in his ideal of individuality. For many critics, however, the language of autonomy reflects an arrogant insularity: all that talk of self-fashioning, self-direction, self-authorship suggests a bid to creat the Performance Art Republic, elbowing aside Grandma Walton in order to make the world safe for Karen Finley.

Farther back, on page 26, is where he really startled me.

Mill has been charged with playing favourites among religions, because of his emphasis on the fostering of personal autonomy as an appropriate goal of the state: does this not suggest that strong forms of Calvinism, say, will be contemned?

He startled me there because that is something (as the endnote confirms) that Martha Nussbaum said, that has long puzzled me and that I have talked about here, for instance in this post nearly two years ago. Here’s the mystifying thing she said.

But to claim that freedom of speech promotes truth in metaphysics and morals would be to show disrespect for the idea of reasonable pluralism, and to venture onto a terrain where one is at high risk of showing disrespect to one’s fellow citizens. Mill is totally oblivious to all such considerations. He has none of the delicate regard for other people’s religious doctrines that characterizes the political liberal…In On Liberty he does not hesitate to speak contemptuously of Calvinism as an ‘insidious’ doctrine…One may sympathize…without feeling that he understands the type of mutual respect that is required in a pluralistic society. I agree with Rawls: such respect requires (in the public sphere at least) not showing up the claims of religion as damaging, and not adopting a public conception of truth and objectivity according to which such claims are false.

Well, I don’t agree with Rawls, but I’ve also been trying to get a better grasp on what he meant by it, by for instance throwing caution to the winds and actually reading the relevant part of Political Liberalism. The subject has come up here more than once; George Felis did some helpful explication. But I don’t like it – I don’t see how it can lead to anything other than surrender to the theocrats, who have no truck with ‘delicate regard’ for other people’s religious much less non-religious doctrines. I don’t like it, so I’m pleased to see that Appiah is arguing for another view.


Mar 27th, 2006 8:04 pm | By

There is one complication about this free expression march, at least to my mind. I suppose that’s why I didn’t flag it up beforehand as much as I could have. I flagged it up some, but not as much as I could have. That’s because it wasn’t specific enough – and that I suppose relates to why I wish Peter hadn’t caved in on the cartoon issue. I didn’t particularly want to cheer on a march for free expression in general, I wanted to cheer on a march for free expression as opposed to religious censorship, or as opposed to toonophobia, or instead of bullying by offended taboo-wielders, or as the alternative to charges of blasphemy and apostasy and heresy and violation of the sacred. I wanted to cheer on a particular march for free expression in the context of coercive religious silencing moves – so I found the title inadequate to convey the subject matter. Then once the subject matter became precisely what was given up at the last minute – it all seemed more confused than ever.

You’re wondering what I mean. Here’s what I mean. What if the march had been for free expression for the BNP, or for Hizb ut-Tahrir? Specifically for one (or both) of them, as opposed to free expression in general. I wouldn’t have gone or wanted to go or urged anyone else to go or advertised it, that’s what. Not in a million years. Because I don’t support them, and have no intention of supporting them. I agree that, with the usual (contested) reservations and stipulations, free expression and free speech are basic goods, are as Juan Golblado says part of the infrastructure; but that doesn’t mean that I actively support particular groups I don’t agree with. So my support for the march for free expression was support for it to the extent that it was about a particular issue that I do agree with and do support.

It’s a case where the legal and the moral run together. I think the toonophobes have not only no legal case for making people shut up, but no moral case either; I think Frattini and the pope and Annan and Straw and the State Department and everyone else who says we ought not to offend people’s religious beliefs is wrong, morally wrong, because I think religions cannot, ought not, must not be binding on people who don’t subscribe to them. I actively (and enthusiastically) support the right to mock and criticize Islam (and Christianity and any other religion), I do not actively (let alone enthusiastically) support the right to say a lot of other kinds of things that are and have to be legal. It was the specific context that would have hauled me to Trafalgar Square in the rain on Saturday if I’d been closer than six thousand miles away (well, a lot closer); if it had been just any old generic march for free expression, I wouldn’t have bothered.

Wot’s All This Then?

Mar 27th, 2006 3:44 am | By

Maryam tells us more about what happened to Reza Moradi at the free speech demonstration. The Washington Post, as I mentioned, reported that he was questioned by the police.

“It’s my freedom, everyone’s freedom, to expose these pictures and encourage everyone to do the same,” said Reza Moradi, 29, a protester who identified himself as an Iranian who has lived in Britain for eight years. Moradi was later questioned by police after someone lodged a complaint regarding the “nature of his placard,” which featured a copy of the Danish cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, a London police spokeswoman said. After a brief, heated exchange with officers, Moradi left the protest on his own and then rejoined the demonstration later.

Questioned by the police for what? For doing something perfectly legal, apparently. And now Maryam says ‘Reza Moradi was told he will be summoned to court for “offending” someone because he carried a placard with the Mohammad caricatures at the March 25 free speech rally’.

So we’ll have to keep an eye on that little item. It might be an idea to start embroidering the ‘Free Reza Moradi’ banners.

We don’t want him locked up; he does good work, which the New Humanist pointed out on March 7.

Here’s how the police explained their plans to ‘The World at One’ last Friday:

World at One: ‘What will happen if people turn up with banners displaying these cartoons showing the prophet Muhammed?’

P’lice: ‘Well first of all can I say that we’ve got no evidence to suggest that will happen, but our policing plan will have a number of measures to take into consideration anything that happens during the day, and clearly if people are turning up and doing anything that might cause concern, harrassment or distress then we have provisions to take action against that.’

World at One: ‘Do the police have a view as a result of the rallies that took place a month ago now on whether those images amount to a provocation to public order?’

P’lice: ‘We will deal with anything that arises on any public order event. Clearly we’ll have provision and we’ll have plans to deal with that. It would be wholly inappropriate to suggest that at this stage what our course of action will be; it will depend on the ambient circumstances for each incident. However you can rest assured that we do have provision to deal with anything that will happen on the day.’

It’s that public order act again, I suppose. It’s not illegal to carry cartoons around, but if they might cause someone to feel perturbed or melancholy or homesick or murderous, ohh well now that’s different. Question that bad man, summon him to court.