Notes and Comment Blog

How to be respectful

Feb 29th, 2008 10:13 am | By

The discussion of my hostile and flippant comment on the Secretary General’s advice to ‘respect all religious beliefs’ last week got diverted into irrelevance right at the beginning with talk of laughing at people who pray before dinner, which had nothing at all to do with the subject under discussion; and it went on the way it began, irrelevance piled on irrelevance. Commenters insisted that the Secretary General didn’t really mean what he had said, he meant something else; I kept replying that I was talking about what he had in fact said, only to get more assertions about what he really meant. Commenters insisted that the only alternative to ‘respect’ was laughing at people, ignoring the vast middle ground between those two possibilities. As an example of some of that middle ground I mentioned Katha Pollitt and suggested that she doesn’t pause to ask herself if every thought might cause some reader to feel disrespected, only to be told (with mystifying confidence) that Katha Pollitt doesn’t want people to feel disrespected. How ‘Serafina’ knows that is a question for the annals of The Journal of Other Minds, but be that as it may, I had a look through Pollitt’s Subject to Debate and found plenty of comments that (note that I say this with energetic approval) could be seen by the hypervigilant as failing to worry about whether or not some readers might feel disrespected.

[C]ommunitarianism offers a particular social ministratum – middleaged white academics with children and fading memories of once having been happier and more liberal – a way to see themselves as political actors without having to do much that is difficult, boring, scary or expensive…What is communitarianism, finally, but Republicanism for Democrats – Reaganism with a human face? It’s the perfect philosophy for our emerging one-party state…[‘Communitarianism No’ The Nation 1994; Subject to Debate pp 15-6]

Mostly, though, chapel made me loathe religion…I know believers too who don’t trouble themselves over the outmoded or bloodthirsty bits of their faith; they just take what they want and leave the rest. Not me. For me, religion is serious business – a farrago of authoritarian nonsense, misogyny and humble pie, the eternal enemy of human happiness and freedom. My family may have made me a nonbeliever, but it took chapel to make me an atheist. [‘School Prayer? By All Means’ The Nation 1994; Subject to Debate p. 29]

The state-backed religions of Western Europe are pallid affairs compared with our robust industry of Virgin-spotters, tongues-speakers and Mitzvah-mobilers. Where is the English Jimmy Swaggart, the French billboard in whose depicted bowl of spaghetti thousands claim to discern the face of Christ?…[Y]ou could say that when the state underwrites religion the buried links between these two forms of social control stand too clearly revealed for modern, let alone postmodern, people to accept…It’s never too early for the young to take the measure of the forces arrayed against those who would think for themselves…Prayer in the schools will rid us of the bland no-offense ecumenism that is so infuriating to us anticlericals: Oh, so now you say Jews didn’t kill Christ – a little on the late side, isn’t it? [Ibid]

Better a panhandler than the Hare Krishna costumed like Bozo the Clown, who is louder than any panhandler and much more obnoxious, or that beautiful black nun, doomed to spend her rapidly fading youth silently holding her bowl near the Times Square token booth. At least with panhandlers, you know your money isn’t going to build ashrams or convert the heathen. [‘Beggar’s Opera’ The Nation 1994; Subject to Debate p 33]

See what I mean? It’s not what you’d call gentle, or respectful of religious beliefs, or noticeably concerned about the possibility of making believers or Hare Krishnas or nuns or communitarians or fans of Jimmy Swaggart or anyone else feel “disrespected”. And what a good thing it’s not!

So what was all the huffing and puffing about? It wasn’t (we were assured) about the kind of thing Katha Pollitt writes – good heavens no – so what was it about then? If (as we were assured) Pollitt is fine, Pollitt is okay, Pollitt is not the kind of writer we are to understand as the kind who is disrespectful – then there is no disagreement, and all those hymns to respect and not laughing at people praying were a complete waste of time, because we’re all on the same page. I’m defending everyone’s right – moral as well as legal – to write this kind of thing, not the BNP or God Hates Fags kind of thing. So what was everyone else defending? Beats the hell out of me.

Iran’s parliament gets down to work

Feb 28th, 2008 12:24 pm | By

More exciting news from Iran.

The Iranian parliament is discussing a new penal code, under which citizens who convert [to] another religion will face execution…Besides apostates, the code also [include?]s the death penalty for a[n]yone who ‘insults the Prophet’.

Ah. Well…perhaps this idea that people should be allowed to leave a religion without having their heads separated from their shoulders is just some old hegemonic notion of western Orientalists, or something.

Dr Nazila Ghanea, lecturer in human rights law at Oxford university and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Religion and Human Rights, said: ‘The laws will give the Iranian government legal grounds to resort to taking the lives of any of its citizens who choose to adopt a religion other than Islam. The code is a gross violation by the Islamic Republic of Iran of its obligations as a party to a number of international human rights instruments, particularly those relating to freedom of religion or belief.’

Oh. Well, maybe Iran has changed its mind since it signed up to those instruments. Can’t people change their minds around here? Not apostates of course! They can’t! But governments that are party to international human rights instruments – they can. It’s their human right.

It’s all carefully spelled out. They can’t say fairer than that, can they.

Article 225-1: Any Muslim who clearly announces that he/she has left Islam and declares blasphemy is an Apostate…Article 225-7: Punishment for an Innate Apostate is death. Article 225-8: Punishment for a Parental Apostate is death, but after the final sentencing for three days he/she would be guided to the right path and encouraged to recant his/her belief and if he/she refused, the death penalty would be carried out…Article 225-11: Whoever claims to be a Prophet is sentenced to death, and any Muslim who invents a heresy in the religion and creates a sect based on that which is contrary to the obligations and necessities of Islam, is considered an apostate.

And don’t you forget it.

The uses of polemic

Feb 26th, 2008 10:27 am | By

Some further thoughts on ‘offensive’ writing and cartoons and such. One issue is whether or not we know in advance that people will be outraged. I claimed, sweepingly, in comments, that we can’t know, and Jerry S prodded me into acknowledging that sometimes we can. Fair point. It’s easy (he demonstrated!) to come up with something we can be quite confident will outrage some people. True; and I also agreed that I don’t like or value mere abuse, and feel no need to make a principled defense of it. But I do value polemic, including polemic that can be considered harsh or mocking and that thus can be considered very likely to outrage at least some people. The further thoughts are about why I value it and think it can be worth the risk of offending some people.

I value it because even though we can know that polemic X will (almost certainly) offend some people, we can’t know how many, and we also can’t know how many people in the group or ‘community’ likely to be offended will be not offended but amused, surprised, startled, even shocked, without being offended. We can’t know how many people might be surprised or shocked into thinking in a new way, a way which would be beneficial to them. People do change their minds, after all; people do learn new things, and move, and adapt, and grow (or shrink). That does happen, and it seems to me that it is lively, sharp, combative writing or cartooning that is likely to spark such change. I don’t think it is inherently bad for people to have their settled ideas challenged; on the contrary, I think it’s good. I think writers like Dawkins wake people up in a way that politer, more mollifying writers don’t. I think a certain amount of bluntness and even scorn (for ideas or beliefs, not for people) wakes people up in a way that respect doesn’t.

In other words, scorn and mockery can be liberating. They can be and they very often are. We can suddenly realize ‘Oh – we can laugh at that!’ That’s a huge relief for some people. For others it’s an outrage. That’s the difficulty. I suppose one reason the prior restraint by respect idea makes me bristle is that it is biased toward the people who will be outraged, at the expense of the people who will be liberated. And that’s where not knowing comes in – we really don’t know how many there will be of either. I think the respect idea tends to push us in the direction of assuming there will be lots of people outraged and hurt, while forgetting the possibility of other people being liberated. Even more insidiously, perhaps, I think it pushes us in the direction of worrying more about the potentially outraged than we do about the potentially liberated. I’m not sure that’s the right way to allot our concern. It’s bad to hurt people, so it is right to take the risk into account – but then if when taking it into account it seems to us that 1) the people who are hurt are hurt for dubious reasons and 2) the potentially liberated need concern just as much as the potentially hurt do, then – you get the drift.


Feb 25th, 2008 5:05 pm | By

Our Mutual Friend, Book 1 Chapter 11: ‘Podsnappery’.

A certain institution in Mr Podsnap’s mind which he called ‘the young person’ may be considered to have been embodied in Miss Podsnap, his daughter. It was an inconvenient and exacting institution, as requiring everything in the universe to be filed down and fitted to it. The question about everything was, would it bring a blush into the cheek of the young person? And the inconvenience of the young person was, that, according to Mr Podsnap, she seemed always liable to burst into blushes when there was no need at all. There appeared to be no line of demarcation between the young person’s excessive innocence, and another person’s guiltiest knowledge. Take Mr Podsnap’s word for it, and the soberest tints of drab, white, lilac, and grey, were all flaming red to this troublesome Bull of a young person.

Remind you of anything?

The norms are different

Feb 24th, 2008 6:21 pm | By

Nigel Warburton comments on the Secretary General’s advice.

If all those who speak, write, express their views have to respect all religious sensitivities, then what can anyone say? Some religious group is likely to be offended by almost any expression of a view. Does the UN want to stop us watching The Life of Brian, Jerry Springer the Opera, etc? Will atheists have to keep quiet about their beliefs for fear of offending religious sensitivities?

Pub Philosopher does the same.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that freedom of expression should be exercised in a way that respects religious beliefs. But then it wouldn’t be free speech, would it?

The Thinking Man also speaks up.

Why should religion be off limits? On what basis is someone going to say: don’t speak bad about my religion? Does this mean that Mr. Ki-moon accepts and respects, the right of countries where sharia law is the norm, to kill anyone who tries to convert to Christianity? He must! He obviously can’t speak against it, since that would amount to not respecting the religious beliefs of those people.

I haven’t found anyone talking about not being rude to people at the dinner table. Perhaps they don’t think that’s relevant.

Good, because it’s not. It’s a category mistake to think it is. The norms are different; the customs are different. Ban Ki-moon wasn’t talking about the dinner table, he was talking about free expression, which means public discourse: books, journalism, media, debate, political campaigning. If a friend rebukes another friend for being rude, it is nonsensical to reply ‘I have a right to free expression!’ Of course you do, but that’s not the point. By the same token, if someone writes a book, it is nonsensical for a reader to complain that the book is impolite. Readers don’t get to demand that all books (and all newspapers, all magazines, all tv shows, all songs, all cartoons, all everything) be polite to them personally. That’s not what books are for. It is what personal relations are for (broadly speaking); it is not what books are for.

‘You have to respect’ 2006 version

Feb 24th, 2008 10:59 am | By

We’ve been arguing over the Secretary General and his advice to temper free expression with ‘respect for all religious beliefs.’ This advice is not new – as the news item said, he ‘reaffirmed his predecessor’s line on cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.’ Let’s revisit some other people in high places who said the same thing back in 2006. There was Jack Straw:

Speaking after talks with the Sudanese foreign minister, Mr Straw said: “There is freedom of speech, we all respect that. But there is not any obligation to insult or to be gratuitously inflammatory. I believe that the republication of these cartoons has been insulting, it has been insensitive, it has been disrespectful and it has been wrong. There are taboos in every religion…We have to be very careful about showing the proper respect in this situation.”

There’s a leader-writer at the Guardian:

The Guardian believes uncompromisingly in freedom of expression, but not in any duty to gratuitously offend…To directly associate the founder of one of the world’s three great monotheistic religions with terrorist violence – the unmistakable meaning of the most explicit of these cartoons – is wrong, even if the intention was satirical rather than blasphemous.

There’s the Vatican:

“The right of freedom of thought and of expression, as contained in the Declaration of Human Rights, cannot imply the right to offend the religious feelings of believers,” Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls said.

There’s the student union at the University of Cardiff:

A student union spokeswoman said Tom Wellingham, the editor of the paper, which won newspaper of the year at last year’s Guardian’s Student Media Awards, had been suspended alongside three other journalists. “The editorial team enjoy the normal freedoms and independence associated with the press in the UK, and are expected to exercise those freedoms with responsibility, due care and judgment,” she said…The students’ union very much regrets any upset caused or disrespect shown by the publication of the controversial cartoon and has taken immediate action by promptly withdrawing all copies of this week’s edition of Gair Rhydd at the earliest moment possible. The students’ union has launched an investigation into how the images came to be published in the paper, which has a potential readership of more than 21,000 students.

There is Franco Frattini:

Europe’s justice commissioner Franco Frattini has confirmed that voluntary rules are to be drawn up after talks with media bosses, journalists and religious leaders. He told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper that there was a “very real problem” in the EU of balancing “two fundamental freedoms, the freedom of expression and the freedom of religion”…Frattini is appealing for the European media to agree to “self-regulate”. “The press will give the Muslim world the message: we are aware of the consequences of exercising the right of free expression, we can and we are ready to self-regulate that right,” he said.

There is State Department spokesman Sean McCormack:

Anti-Muslim images are as unacceptable as anti-Semitic images, as anti-Christian images or any other religious belief. But it is important that we also support the rights of individuals to express their freely held views.

And there is, just as we were told, Kofia Annan:

Annan said he defends free speech, but insisted “it has to come with some sense of responsibility and judgment and limits. There are times when you have to challenge taboos,” he said. “But you don’t fool around with other people’s religions and you have to respect what is sacred to other people.”

I collected all these from the February 2006 page of Notes and Comment, where they’re all discussed with some heat. They make a pretty sickening display.

Oh grow up

Feb 22nd, 2008 12:03 pm | By

The Secretary-General

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reaffirmed his predecessor’s line on cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad on Wednesday, saying free speech should respect religious sensitivities. “The Secretary-General strongly believes that freedom of expression should be exercised responsibly and in a way that respects all religious beliefs,” his spokeswoman Marie Okabe told reporters.

That’s asking a great deal too much, even as a ‘should.’ Freedom of expression should be exercised in a way that respects all religious beliefs? If that advice were heeded there wouldn’t be any free expression at all. How can we respect all religious beliefs when we don’t even know what they are? We would miss that slightly mildewed guy in Toadback, Arkansas who believes a can of peaches he bought at the Piggly Wiggly in 1957 is the Messiah. And then of course how can we respect all religious beliefs when they don’t respect each other? How can we respect all religious beliefs when they contradict each other? And then apart from all that, why the fuck should we? Why should our freedom to say things depend on our respect for particular kinds of beliefs without regard to whether they are well founded or not? Why, in fact, should our freedom to say things depend on our respect for beliefs that are by definition not well founded? Why do people keep singling out religion as an entity to which we all owe unconditional respect? When in fact religion is the set of ideas that does the least to earn respect? Is that perhaps why? Religion is the spoiled child of the world, whining and pitching fits and demanding everything in sight because no one has ever summoned up quite enough gumption to tell it to grow up and get its own damn dinner? Other, grown up, low maintenance beliefs are expected to take care of themselves; only religion gets to demand the baby treatment. Well, the hell with that. I don’t respect beliefs more the more unwarranted they are; I don’t believe in affirmative action for beliefs; religion should just wipe its nose and pull up its horrible dirty shorts and go compete with all the other beliefs like an adult.

Science can’t

Feb 21st, 2008 5:52 pm | By

John Polkinghorne…

[S]cience tends to look at the world and treat it as an ‘it’, as an object; something you can kick around, pull apart and find out what it’s made of – that’s the experimental method, which is science’s great secret weapon. But we also know there is a whole swath of encounters with reality, where we meet it not as an object, as an ‘it’, but as a person. Above all, we encounter God in that way and when we move to that realm, testing has to give way to trusting. If we set traps to see if you are my friend, I’ll destroy the possibility of friendship between us.

Not so fast. Sometimes, when we meet an object as a person, testing does not have to give way to trusting; on the contrary, trusting is the wrong move. I’m sure we can all think of examples without help. Of course we don’t want to set traps for someone who is already a friend, but we don’t make friends with everyone we ever encounter, either. It’s not the case that in every encounter with an object that is not an it but a person, trust is invariably the only right response. And a second point: the analogy is silly, because we don’t ‘encounter God’ the way we encounter other persons. It’s not at all obvious that when we ‘encounter’ something that we consider God (and what is that something, exactly?) then testing has to give way to trusting – especially not on the risible grounds that God won’t be our friend if we test it instead of trusting it. If God is that huffy, God can go find someone else to play with.

In Polkinghorne’s opinion, while it can show how things fit together, science can’t explain where the structure comes from: “Religion offers a broader and deeper understanding.” He asserts that what may normally appear as a happy accident becomes intelligible if it is seen as “reflective of the mind and the will of the creator. It just explains more”.

What does ‘explains’ mean there? ‘Explains more’ in what sense? It doesn’t explain, for instance, the mind and will of the creator, or the creator. So in what sense does religion offer a broader and deeper understanding? I’m guessing that Polkinghorne means in the sense that he finds it more congenial and comforting, more emotionally satisfying. I say that because it isn’t really intellectually satisfying (because of the infinite regress), yet believers always claim that religion ‘explains better.’ ‘Better’ must mean something like in a more friendly or anthropocentric or familiar way.

Doing God’s will

Feb 21st, 2008 12:39 pm | By

The archbishop lets us know he gets it.

Addressing an audience of more than 1,200 people, he condemned the way Islamic law discriminated against women in some Muslim countries. “In some of the ways it has been codified and practised across the world, it has been appalling. In some of the ways it has been applied to women in places like Saudi Arabia, it is grim.”

Yes. So why put in a good word for it in the first place?

Despite acknowledging the concerns raised over some aspects of sharia law, he repeated his assertion that it was “rooted in the sense of doing God’s will in the ordinary things of life”.

Ah; that’s why. Because something that is rooted in the sense of doing God’s will in the ordinary things of life must be good way down deep inside where we can’t quite get at it but how nice to know it’s there. Of course, if this God person is actually a sadistic shit, maybe the archbishop is wrong about that, but never mind. It will all come out all right in the end.

No, the chin is wrong

Feb 18th, 2008 12:00 pm | By

People never seem to notice the joke in this.

Wikipedia…is refusing to remove medieval artistic depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, despite being flooded with complaints from Muslims demanding the images be deleted. More than 180,000 worldwide have joined an online protest claiming the images, shown on European-language pages and taken from Persian and Ottoman miniatures dating from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, are offensive to Islam…On two of the images, Muhammad’s face is veiled, a practice followed in Islamic art since the 16th century. But on two others, one from 1315, which is the earliest surviving depiction of the prophet, and the other from the 15th century, his face is shown.

No it isn’t. Of course it isn’t. A face is shown. That’s all. It’s just a generic face. (See?) It could hardly be any more generic. It’s just a kind of symbol of A Face. What makes it Muhammad’s face? Nothing. The caption under the picture, that says ‘depicting Muhammad preaching the Qur’ān in Mecca.’ That’s not much to go on. It could be a volley ball with eyes and a mouth drawn on it, that’s just labeled ‘Muhammad.’ Yet apparently 180,000 people take its genuine faceness seriously enough to fret about its presence on Wikipedia. They should find a more interesting hobby, if you ask me.

Upholding the right to intellectual freedom

Feb 17th, 2008 12:11 pm | By

The Vancouver Public Library composed a Q and A to explain its decision to invite one Greg Felton to read from his new book at the library’s Freedom to Read week.

Intellectual freedom is a core tenet of public libraries even though some subjects may be considered unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. Upholding the right to intellectual freedom may put you in the position of appearing to support controversial views. The role of the public library, however, is to provide a forum for an open and public exchange of contradictory views and to make materials available that represent all points of view.

Well, making materials available is one thing, and providing a forum for an exchange of views is another. Is it really the library’s role to provide a forum for an exchange of views? And does the library take that to mean any and all views no matter what? Apparently not, because the memo goes on to say that Felton’s book ‘has not been identified as hate speech,’ apparently implying that if it had been, then things would have been different. Then does the library think its role is to provide a forum for exchange of any and all views provided they are not identified as hate speech? It looks that way – at least it looks as if the library is assuming that being identified as hate speech is the only known or clear or obvious disqualifier. Then does the library think its role is to provide a forum for exchange of any and all views no matter how uninformed, wrong, baseless, distorted, incompetent they are? Does it think its role is to provide a forum for people who have whacked-out ‘views’ on geography, astronomy, engineering, nutrition, epidemiology? Does the library, in short, have any kind of filter to prevent it from wasting its own resources and the public’s time and attention on views that are at best worthless and at worst disinformative?

Who knows. Maybe not. Maybe it thinks ‘upholding the right to intellectual freedom’ entails providing a forum for everyone who has a book to read out of from which. Except it appears that it does actually choose some people; it appears that it gets a lot of offers from writers and their publishers, and accepts only some of them.

But even more urgent is the question whether the library thinks upholding the right to intellectual freedom requires it to give a platform to people because they are wrong and worse than wrong. Does the Vancouver Public Library, in short, really see no difference between upholding the right to intellectual freedom and affirmatively providing a platform for people to purvey, for instance, inaccurate history? If it doesn’t, it ought to.

It is not just in the west

Feb 16th, 2008 11:31 am | By

Ziauddin Sardar sets the archbishop straight.

It is not just in the west, as the archbishop suggests, that the sharia is misunderstood, or where it conjures up instant images of oppression and brutality. It is also misunderstood by most Muslims in countries other than Britain, countries where it is seen as a total system of divine origin, and where it sometimes leads to oppression and brutality…The sharia needs to be reformed totally before it can be implemented anywhere – among the Muslim minorities in liberal democracies or in the Muslim-majority states. Giving the sharia as it stands legal sanction in Britain, even in limited areas, will replicate all the problems of gender inequality that it has produced in Muslim countries.

It would be nice if the archbishop could write that clearly and forthrightly (and succinctly).

How’s that again?

Feb 16th, 2008 11:27 am | By

I don’t understand this. I must (as so often) be missing something. Roger Scruton says we we owe to ‘the Christian legacy’ the idea that law is and ought to be a secular institution, then he says we owe it to Roman law, but he goes on saying it’s a Christian legacy.

[O]ne of the things that we owe to [the Christian] legacy is the idea that law is and ought to be a secular institution, whose authority is founded in human decisions and is independent of, and in an important respect takes precedence over, divine commands…The privatisation of religious law was clearly a part of Jesus’s mission…His striking pronouncement in the story of the tribute money, that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s, has served for many centuries as authority for the view that, in public matters, it is human and not divine government that should be obeyed. This idea gained credibility through St Paul’s letters, influenced as they were by Roman law and by the knowledge that the early church enjoyed the protection of a developed system of law.

In other words there was an existing system of secular law which influenced Paul, and one catchy phrase is attributed to Jesus – and that makes secular law a Christian legacy? It looks to me much more like a Roman legacy (and an Athenian legacy before that). What am I missing?

Human rights in Bangladesh (there aren’t any)

Feb 15th, 2008 10:27 am | By

More on Tasneem. From the Guardian.

“Rampant illegal detention and torture are clear evidence of Bangladesh’s security forces running amok”, said Brad Adams, [HRW’s] Asia director…Tens of thousands of people were arrested in the weeks that followed the declaration of a state of emergency, and security forces have been accused of flouting standard arrest and detention procedures. Khalil said there was now a culture of “self-censorship” in the country, and people were afraid of the consequences of speaking out. “I am taking a calculated risk in speaking out because I still have family in Bangladesh,” he said. “But I feel it is important that people know what is really going on in my country.”

From CNN (Tasneem has reported for them at times).

Human Rights Watch on Thursday issued a first-person account of the incarceration and torture in Bangladesh of one of its consultants – an outspoken human rights advocate, journalist and blogger…”Tasneem Khalil’s prominence as a critical journalist may have prompted his arrest, but it also may have saved his life. Ordinary Bangladeshis held by the security forces under the emergency rules have no such protections.” Khalil was freed “after tremendous international and national pressure,” the group said.

Tens of thousands of other Bangladeshis aren’t so fortunate. We’ll have to pay attention to Bangladesh. Two, three, many human rights advocates and bloggers – the thing to do is outnumber them. Bastards.

Bangladesh gives itself a free hand

Feb 14th, 2008 11:24 am | By

Remember last year when we heard that Tasneem Khalil had been arrested in the middle of the night? Well now we know what happened to him while he was held. He was violently beaten, threatened, and terrorized, that’s what. He’s safe now – but Bangladesh has successfully gotten rid of a reporter who had been investigating human rights abuses of just the kind perpetrated on him. So Bangladesh can presumably do what it likes without any pesky reporters telling the world what Bangladesh likes to do – not unless those pesky reporters are eager to be beaten up and probably killed.

When was this thing last renewed?

Feb 13th, 2008 5:47 pm | By

Andrew Anthony zeroes in on the problem.

All the subclauses in the world can’t disguise the intention that underpins these positions. In seeking to incorporate a disputed deity’s authority (which, by the way, it is blasphemous to question) into the common law, and by challenging the principle of equality under the law, Dr Williams launched a strategic attack on secularism.

A disputed deity’s authority. Just so. And it’s not only the deity that is disputed, it is also that deity’s authority, and the content of the resulting commands, and above all how and if anyone knows any of this. This is the theist four-step I talked about last year. We tend to think there’s just one step – believe in God or not – but in fact there are at least four, and it’s the whole package that is both so coercive and so weak as a matter of knowledge. It’s coercive because the package is: there is a God, it is all-good and all-powerful, it has told us how to be good, we know those three things beyond a shadow of a doubt. That’s coercive because (if it’s true, which of course it isn’t) it closes off the exits. It’s weak as a matter of knowledge because we don’t know any one of the four, much less all of them – yet that doesn’t get pointed out all that often. The archbishop can talk about a covenant with the divine and no one says like a rude eight-year-old ‘How do you know?’ But it is a real question. How does he know? The answer of course is that he doesn’t – but because no one says so, he gets to go on pretending he does.

The archbishop says says there is a ‘covenant between the divine and the human’. Well, is there? How does he know? There is no evidence of such a covenant. There is no crumbly old bit of parchment in the British Museum with God’s signature on it. There’s no anything – there’s only a chain of assertions going back many hundreds of years. Well that doesn’t count, especially in such a momentous matter as this. If there were a covenant – would this God make it once, five thousand years ago or thereabouts, and then never again? Leaving no trace? Is this God so thick that it doesn’t know that humans can forge documents and invent stories? If God really wanted to make a covenant with the human, wouldn’t it make some arrangement for succeeding generations to have genuine, valid knowledge of said covenant? God didn’t do that. God apparently expected us all to be as credulous as newborn babies about this one thing – and most of us have obliged, but maybe it’s getting to be just about time to stop being quite such easy marks. When the archbishop talks as if he has reliable knowledge of this covenant between the divine and the human, he is playing a con game.

Knowing better

Feb 12th, 2008 11:06 am | By

I had thought I could leave the poor archbishop in peace now…but another item or two has come along to drag me back to his doings. One is the Crooked Timber thread on the subject. Harry B is commenting on a piece by Minette Marin in the Sunday Times.

The comment about wooliness of mind is, presumably, a charge that anyone who recognises complexity is stupid, or something like that.

No, it isn’t. The archbishop’s speech is indeed woolly. I’ve already quoted from it more than enough to illustrate (and demonstrate) that, so I won’t quote any more. Joe Hoffman – who can handle complexity – called the speech badly reasoned mud. The speech is not simply a clever academic recognizing complexity – it’s elegantly but also badly, pompously, tortuously, evasively written.

[T]here is nothing treacherous about the Archbishop’s comments. He is appealing to the long-established British tradition of muddling through, tinkering with institutions as is needed to achieve goals of stability and rough fairness (he’s the one who is “holding fast to that which is good”). The revolutionaries—or to put it far more harshly than I ever would, the traitors—here are, in fact, the Archbishop’s critics.

Oh really – all of us? Not just Minette Marin but all of us? That’s a large claim – but it will doubtless fall of its own weight. More to the point is that bit about ‘rough fairness’. Fair to whom? To the women who would be forced or intimidated or religiously blackmailed into relying on sharia courts for trivial items like marriage and divorce? Fair to the women who have been saying ‘No thank you!’ in no uncertain terms for several days? Or just fair to the men who like sharia courts for divorce because they are arranged by men for men?

Someone points out in the comments that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown doesn’t see it the way Harry B does; Harry replies, ‘So Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, too, didn’t bother to check what he actually said. Oh well.’ Right. A Muslim woman with experience of sharia and of talking to countless Muslim women with (very unhappy) experience of sharia needs to be set straight by a non-Muslim male academic; she has it wrong and he has it right; and he knows by intuition that she hasn’t ‘checked’ what Williams actually said. So low does the multicultural mindset (I almost said left, but that’s not left, it’s reactionary) stoop.

A lot of the commenters are not having it though. Daniel Davies is flinging the abuse around as usual, but it’s not having much effect.

The other item is Johann’s article.

Last month, a plain, unsensationalist documentary called Divorce: Sharia Style looked at the judgements [British sharia courts] hand down…Irum Shazad, a 26-year-old British woman, travels from her battered women’s refuge to a sharia court in East London. She explains that her husband was so abusive she slashed her wrists with a carving knife. The court tells her this was a sin, making her as bad as him. They tell her to go back to her husband…Then we meet Nasirin Iqbal, a 27-year-old Pakistani woman who was shipped to Britain five years ago to marry…”He tells me I’m stuck with him, and under Islam he can treat me however he wants. ‘I am a man, I can treat you how I want’.” We see how Imran torments her, announcing, “You are a reject. I didn’t want to marry you.” He takes a second wife in Pakistan, and texts her all day in front of Nasirin declaring his love. The sharia court issues a fatwa saying the marriage stands. She doesn’t seem to know this isn’t a court of law. “I can’t ignore what they say,” she cries. “You have to go with what they say.” These are the courts that Rowan Williams would give the stamp of British law. In his lecture, he worries that this could harm women – before serving up a theological gloop, saying that sharia could be reinterpreted in a way compatible with the rights of women. But if that happens, why would you need different courts? What would be the point?

Well exactly. The point of them is that they’re different, and that Williams thinks it’s only fair (since Christians get to claim ‘exceptions,’ at least he claims they do) that people should be able to have their different courts. But the way they are different is that they are unequal and, not to put too fine a point on it, unjust. We’ll make it so that they’re not. But then they’re not different any more – so we’re back where we started. What, indeed, is the point?

In other words Williams has recycled Susan Moller Okin’s argument in Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, but without realizing he’s done so (and pretty obviously without being aware of Okin’s argument).

The argument that women will only have to enter these courts if they freely choose to shows a near-total disconnection from the reality of Muslim women’s lives. Most of the women who will be drawn into “consenting” are, like Nasirin, recent immigrants with little idea of their legal options. Then there are the threats of excommunication – or violence – from some families. As the Muslim feminist Irshad Manji puts it: “When it comes to contemporary sharia, choice is theory; intimidation is the reality.”

Oh, but surely the good clever non-Muslim males at Crooked Timber know better than Irshad Manji. Why would she know anything about it? Or why would Azar Majedi?

As the European-Iranian feminist Azar Majedi puts it: “By creating different laws and judicial systems for each ethnic group, we are not fighting racism. In fact, we are institutionalising it.”

No, that can’t be right. The guys at Crooked Timber must know better.

No exceptions

Feb 11th, 2008 6:05 pm | By

The archbishop issued a clarification on Friday. He

sought carefully to explore the limits of a unitary and secular legal system in the presence of an increasingly plural (including religiously plural) society and to see how such a unitary system might be able to accommodate religious claims. Behind this is the underlying principle that Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds (for instance in situations where Christian doctors might not be compelled to perform abortions), if they are not willing to consider how a unitary system can accommodate other religious consciences.

Fair enough. So here’s how to deal with that: Christians cannot claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds. Problem solved. Nobody can claim exceptions from a secular unitary system on religious grounds. See how simple that is?

You do realize what the archbish means by ‘a secular unitary system,’ right? He means the law. He must not have wanted to say what he said quite that baldly. He must not have wanted to say ‘Christians cannot claim exceptions from the law on religious grounds’ – no, one can see why he wouldn’t want to say that. But that’s what he means, and it’s a brazenly terrible idea. Helpful of him to (apart from the crucial euphemism) spell it out.

Sharia for toddlers

Feb 11th, 2008 5:58 pm | By

It’s kind of the BBC to explain about sharia for us.

Sharia rulings have been developed to help Muslims understand how they should lead every aspect of their lives according to God’s wishes.

Well, not exactly – not according to God’s wishes, because no one knows what those are (or if there are such things); according to what they think are God’s wishes. The BBC tactfully skipped over that rather important difference, but that is what’s at stake here. Not God’s wishes but what believers believe are God’s wishes (and the rest of us don’t).

Apostasy, or leaving the faith, is a very controversial issue in the Muslim world and the majority of scholars believe it is punishable by death…The Koran itself declares there is “no compulsion” in religion.

Uh huh. And Sura 40 says that those who reject the scriptures will have iron collars and chains placed around their necks, be dragged into scalding water and burnt in the fire. The Beeb doesn’t mention that though.

The most amazing item is the last. In reply to the rather gormless question ‘So women have reservations about Sharia?’ Dominic Casciani says:

Some Muslim women in the West would be worried about protection of their rights in Sharia courts where there is discrimination against them because of patriarchal and cultural control in their communities. This does not mean that they are necessarily opposed to Sharia – only there are live concerns about the fairness of its application. It’s fair to say that many leading Muslim women are more concerned about how existing British equality measures and human rights laws can be used to improve their position and voice in society.

You bet; perfectly fair.

The postmodernist archbishop

Feb 11th, 2008 10:51 am | By

I read the whole archepiscopal speech a couple of days ago; that makes two of the archbishop’s speeches I’ve read in their entirety in the last couple of weeks. That’s a lot of waffly Williamsese to get through. I would love to do a really thorough line-by-line fisking, because every line deserves it – but it would take forever, and would be a baroque kind of luxury, because no one is convinced by the archbishop anyway. So I’m not going to do a line-by-line job, but I could give you a few highlights. Would you like that? Okay then.

One item is that it takes him until the bottom of page 3 (of very closely-printed pages) to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

[R]ecognition of ‘supplementary jurisdiction’ in some areas, especially family law, could have the effect of reinforcing in minority communities some of the most repressive or retrograde elements in them, with particularly serious consequences for the role and liberties of women…The problem here is that recognising the authority of a communal religious court to decide finally and authoritatively about such a question would in effect not merely allow an additional layer of legal routes for resolving conflicts and ordering behaviour but would actually deprive members of the minority community of rights and liberties that they were entitled to enjoy as citizens.

How very true! Or to put it another way, no kidding! And what a staggeringly long time it took him to get around to saying so, and what a lot of verbiage he muffles the admission in even when he does manage to get to it.

I mention it partly because of its gravity as an issue in interfaith relations and in discussions of human rights and the treatment of minorities, partly to illustrate how the recognition of what I have been calling membership in different but overlapping sets of social relationship (what others have called ‘multiple affiliations’) can provide a framework for thinking about these neuralgic questions of the status of women and converts.

That – along with the usual verbose opacity – is just one example of an extremely annoying trope he uses throughout, and which he uses again in his self-defense today: he keeps suggesting we need to think about these things, as if no one had been thinking about them until now! Where’s he been? We’ve been thinking about them, for months and years – we don’t need the head of the Church of England to suggest that we do what we’re already doing! And we don’t need his help with the thinking, either.

So the second objection to an increased legal recognition of communal religious identities can be met if we are prepared to think about the basic ground rules that might organise the relationship between jurisdictions, making sure that we do not collude with unexamined systems that have oppressive effect or allow shared public liberties to be decisively taken away by a supplementary jurisdiction.

We are prepared to think, more prepared than the archbishop is, by the looks of it; but the only way to make sure we don’t collude with these unexamined systems (there it is again – what makes him think they’re unexamined? unexamined by whom? him?) is to decline to give them any ‘supplementary jurisdiction.’ All he’s doing is re-inventing the wheel. We know all this, we got here long ago, and that’s exactly why we want no truck with sharia.

And from the final paragraph – where he goes all pomo –

In conclusion, it seems that if we are to think intelligently about the relations between Islam and British law, we need a fair amount of ‘deconstruction’ of crude oppositions and mythologies, whether of the nature of sharia or the nature of the Enlightenment. But as I have hinted, I do not believe this can be done without some thinking also about the very nature of law. It is always easy to take refuge in some form of positivism…

Oh gawd. Has he been reading Tina Beattie? Nadia Urbinati? He should go for more health-giving walks.