Notes and Comment Blog

The possibility of such disputes is endless

Feb 22nd, 2009 12:52 pm | By

Salil Tripathi takes a different view from that of Leicester Library in asking why the Statesman caved in to demonstrations by the ‘offended’ in Kolkata.

Two reasons explain this. One is the ridiculous section of the Indian Penal Code S 295 (A) — which allows anyone offended by anything to demand that what offends him should be banned…India is a multi-everything country with a billion people, and the possibility of such disputes is endless. And that’s where the second reason comes in: the failure of the state to protect rights. Muslims protesting against the Statesman are able to get away with it because of this failure. Anyone who can take umbrage, does; and his hurt feelings take precedence over others’ right to express themselves freely. Instead of protecting the right of free expression, the state defends the offended, thus circumscribing meaningful debate.

And that is a bad thing, not a good one. It is an interference with meaningful debate, not a glowing opportunity to show yet more ‘respect’ for all ‘faiths’ (and total disrespect for the absence of ‘faith’). It is not something to cheer or pat each other on the back for, it is a groveling craven surrender and an encouragement of ever more unreasonable demands.

The scriptures of all the major faiths are given respect in this way

Feb 22nd, 2009 12:27 pm | By

Crawl crawl crawl crawl crawl.

[S]ome Muslims in Leicester had moved copies of the Koran to the top shelves of libraries, because they believe it is an insult to display it in a low position. The city’s librarians consulted the Federation of Muslim Organisations and were advised that all religious texts should be kept on the top shelf to ensure equality…“This meant that no offence is caused, as the scriptures of all the major faiths are given respect in this way, but none is higher than any other.”

So libraries shift from being secular public institutions that make books easily available to everyone, to ones that make displays of ‘respect’ to all of the ‘major faiths’ and whose officials creep around on their stomachs in the effort not to ‘insult’ anyone or anything including a book and not to ’cause offence’ to anyone including the most neurotically hypervigilant offence-sniffing hair-trigger mewling whining sniveling bed-wetters within the city limits.

So what are they going to say when the same people decide it would be a good wheeze to get offended and insulted about all the books written by atheists and apostates and unbelievers and women and gays? What are they going to say when it becomes apparent that once you let people dictate public policy by claiming to be religiously ‘offended’ and ‘insulted’ there is no place to stop? What are they going to say when a gang shows up and tells them to have the Koran on a high shelf and no other books at all?

I suppose they will say ‘Wait just a moment while we consult the Federation of Muslim Organisations.’

Women and fundamentalism

Feb 21st, 2009 12:22 pm | By

Rahila Gupta points out the horrible ironies and tensions:

The fallout from the Rushdie affair was the widespread growth of religious identities at the expense of racial and gender identities. Secular anti-racists began to declaim, even reclaim, their Muslim identity. Muslim women increasingly adopted the hijab as a symbol of pride in their religious identity, not recognising or even accepting the fact that it set women back by placing the onus on women’s safety on their modest dress and behaviour rather than male aggression. The left displayed a reluctance to challenge reactionary forces within our communities because it might be seen as racist.

And goes on displaying – so we get people defending the archbishop of Canterbury’s reactionary embrace of sharia as something with great (if elusive) potential for…liberalizing sharia. In some other universe.

The state’s response has been divided to say the least: the “fighting extremism” agenda after 7/7 has seen the active wooing of so-called “moderates” (often linked to extremist organisations overseas) who may be moderate on the question of public order but certainly not on the question of women. This has led, for instance, to an explosion of religious schools and the growing acceptance that some form of sharia law should be accommodated within the legal system.

Exactly. It’s a dismayingly common trope to identify extremism with terrorism and moderation with non-terrorism, completely ignoring the ‘extremism’ of reactionary rules and punishments for women, gays, ‘apostates’ and unbelievers. Ian Buruma does this regularly. It’s a bad mistake. Just ask the women of Swat.

Fold the tents

Feb 21st, 2009 11:47 am | By

Volunteers no longer needed; volunteers can pack up blankets and canteens and waterproof hats and go home; cache is made; many thanks.

And don’t forget to take care of yourselves, and stay alive. Seriously now. I’m not kidding.


Feb 21st, 2009 11:40 am | By

Here’s some horrible news. Elliott Grasett died of a heart attack on Tuesday. I was in his address book so a relative very kindly let me know.

I checked, and – he commented here that day. On Indulge me for a moment. There’s always something so poignant about that – you know – ‘Why I was just talking to him yesterday…’

Very sad. I always enjoyed his comments; they seemed to bespeak a sterling guy.

Christian Jago died more than a year ago. And I suspect that something major – death or disability or kidnapping or something – happened to Karl, who used to comment regularly and often (and amusingly) and who also emailed me a lot, and then stopped abruptly – and then his email address stopped working.

So take care of yourselves. Button up your overcoats. Stay alive.

Volunteers needed

Feb 20th, 2009 10:39 am | By

You know how you’re always wondering how you can help B&W? I have a way. I need volunteers. I have a big job, and doing it all myself is 1) massively tedious and 2) an impediment to doing anything else, like updating B&W and going for long health-giving walks and eating chocolate.

The job is just backing up B&W. I need to archive it, and there are a lot of pages. Nearly 400 articles, about 75 months of Notes and Comment, lots of In Focus, In the Library, Bad Moves, Quotations, the Guide to Rhetoric – and so on. If we divide it up it won’t be so bad. If lots and lots of you step forward it will be hardly anything at all. Email me, and I’ll give you an assignment. Love ya, mean it.

When God says jump

Feb 20th, 2009 10:31 am | By

What’s the problem with theocratic law? Why shouldn’t we clap our hands and dance around the room when archbishops and imams suggest or insist that we should or must make our pesky secular system of law conform to God’s will or a Holy Book or ‘divine justice’? Why would we not want to do that and why is it illegitimate to try to force us to?

Because, whatever they may tell you, nobody knows what God’s will is, nobody knows that there is such a thing as a Holy Book, nobody knows what the divine will is. There is no reason to think there is a ‘God’ – even if there is a ‘God’ there still is no reason to think so, and no way to know what it thinks is justice, or if its idea of justice bears any resemblance to ours or rather looks much more like injustice, or wanton cruelty for the sake of it. We don’t know, we have no way to know, there is no reason to think we do know, there are only claims, which are indistinguishable from claims that could be made by any con artist. If there is no way to tell such claims apart, then there is no reason to believe any of them, and certainly no reason to demand that anyone else believe them, much less to mix them up with the law. Law has to be transparent and on the record, not hidden and mysterious and attributed to a supernatural realm that we can’t get at, or to allegedly divine or prophetic or holy people who died many centuries ago.

Lee Smolin made a helpful point in his Edge comment on Jerry Coyne’s ‘Seeing and Believing’:

The basic ethics of an open and free society are to be prepared to defend what you believe with reasoned argument from public evidence, be prepared to change your mind, and be tolerant of diverse views on questions the evidence does not suffice to decide. Religious faith that promises great gifts in a mythical hereafter as the reward for adherence to unverifiable claims contradicts these ethics.

Law belongs in the realm where we defend our claims with reasoned argument from public evidence and are prepared to change our minds, not the realm where we are bribed and threatened by means of unverifiable claims.

It is a sin to brush crumbs onto the floor

Feb 19th, 2009 12:30 pm | By

Oh the vacancy of the religious mind.

Women are prouder than men, but men are more lustful, according to a Vatican report which states that the two sexes sin differently…”Men and women sin in different ways,” Msgr Wojciech Giertych, theologian to the papal household, wrote in L’Osservatore Romano…Msgr Giertych said the most difficult sin for men to face was lust, followed by gluttony, sloth, anger, pride, envy and greed. For women, the most dangerous sins were pride, envy, anger, lust, and sloth, he added.

Oh for godsake, who cares. Gluttony, sloth, lust, pride – mind your own business, why don’t you, and while you’re at it, why don’t you worry about moral failings that actually matter? How’s that for an idea? Why don’t you leave sloth and gluttony up to everybody’s mummy and daddy and turn your attention to cruelty and oppression and exploitation instead? Why don’t you stop straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel? Eh? Eh? Why don’t you work on your priorities? Why don’t you improve your moral sensitivities?

The Apostolic Penitentiary, one of the Vatican’s most secretive departments, which fixes the punishments and indulgences handed down to sinners, last year updated its list of deadly sins to include more modern ones. The revised list included seven modern sins it said were becoming prevalent during an era of “unstoppable globalisation”. These included: genetic modification, experiments on the person, environmental pollution, taking or selling illegal drugs, social injustice, causing poverty and financial greed.

Taking drugs! Genetic modification! Mixed in with social injustice and causing poverty. They’re hopelessly confused.

Rowan Williams pipes up again

Feb 17th, 2009 11:07 am | By

The archbishop of Canterbury seems to be incapable of taking in new information that is inimical to what he already wants to believe. Perhaps this is not even worth pointing out, in an archbishop – except of course it is, however obvious it may be, because archbishops in the UK unfortunately have a huge amount of temporal power and also a considerable amount of influence.

On the anniversary of the interview in which Dr Rowan Williams said it “seems inevitable” that some parts of sharia would be enshrined in this country’s legal code, he claimed “a number of fairly senior people” now take the same view. He added that there is a “drift of understanding” towards what he was saying, and that the public sees the difference between letting Muslim courts decide divorces and wills, and allowing them to rule on criminal cases and impose harsh punishments.

Yes of course there’s a ‘difference’ but that does not mean, and it is not the case, that the difference in question is between harmful and harmless or cruel and benign or harsh and mild or irrationally fundamentalist and sweetly reasonable. There is a ‘difference’ but it remains the case that letting Muslim courts decide divorces and wills is a way to treat women grossly unequally.

The odd thing is that Williams must have been told this. He must have been told it a thousand times, in the strongest possible terms. So why can’t he take it in? What is the matter with the man? Apart from the fact that he’s an archbishop, of course. What is wrong with him? Why is he so determined to persuade the great British public that unequal rights for women is quite all right as long as the women in question are ‘members of the Muslim community’?

However critics insist that family disputes must be dealt with by civil law rather than according to religious principles, and claim the Archbishop’s comments have only helped the case of extremists while making Muslim women worse off, because they do not have equal rights under Islamic law.

Well duh. So how does Williams manage to ignore what critics say for a period of twelve months? Has he eaten of the multicultural lotus, or what?

Douglas Murray, the director of the Centre for Social Cohesion, said: “He has started a process which is deeply dangerous, damaging to Britain and to Muslim women in Britain. It was a wicked move because it undermines the progressives and gives succour to the extremists. How does the Archbishop of Canterbury know, sitting in Lambeth Palace, that a woman in Bolton has volunteered to give up half her inheritance to her brother?”

I would love to know, but I doubt that the archbish will be explaining any time soon.

Indulge me for a moment

Feb 16th, 2009 5:24 pm | By

Well I needed something really ridiculous, I was getting worn down by the smug giggling defenders of religious censorship.

In recent months, dioceses around the world have been offering Catholics a spiritual benefit that fell out of favor decades ago — the indulgence, a sort of amnesty from punishment in the afterlife — and reminding them of the church’s clout in mitigating the wages of sin…According to church teaching, even after sinners are absolved in the confessional and say their Our Fathers or Hail Marys as penance, they still face punishment after death, in Purgatory, before they can enter heaven. In exchange for certain prayers, devotions or pilgrimages in special years, a Catholic can receive an indulgence, which reduces or erases that punishment instantly, with no formal ceremony or sacrament.

Well no wonder dioceses want to remind Catholics of the church’s clout when it means the talent to do magic like that – it can give out a thing called ‘an indulgence’ which when cashed at the other end actually slices a bunch of time off a person’s sentence in Purgatory. Is that cool or what?! (Yeah I know Luther didn’t think so, but he hasn’t been around for a long time.) It’s like magic. You do certain ‘devotions’ and in exchange, just as if you’d handed over $19.27 at Target, instantly X of days or years vanish from your punishment.

How do they do it, exactly? Don’t you wonder? Or is it all automatic, and they don’t have to do anything, it’s all arranged somewhere else? The Times doesn’t say. Dud journalism, I call it.

There are partial indulgences, which reduce purgatorial time by a certain number of days or years, and plenary indulgences, which eliminate all of it, until another sin is committed. You can get one for yourself, or for someone who is dead. You cannot buy one — the church outlawed the sale of indulgences in 1567 — but charitable contributions, combined with other acts, can help you earn one. There is a limit of one plenary indulgence per sinner per day.

They really have the details figured out, don’t they. They’re not amateurs – they don’t leave any loose ends. I admire that. It’s funny about the limit to one a day on plenary ones though – if you can do such a red-hot devotion that you can get rid of all your time in Purgatory in one shot, why can’t you just do it again an hour later after you’ve re-sinned? Why do they make you wait until midnight? (Or is it the next morning? Do they make you have a night’s sleep first? So if you have insomnia do you have to wait another day? Or will a nap do?) Don’t they care that you might get hit by a bus first? And what’s it to them anyway? If they don’t mind letting you have one a day, why can’t they let you have one an hour, or all you want? What’s the big deal? They have the exchange system all worked out, and it’s not as if they’re going to run out, so why not just hand them out as needed and earned? Bastards. They’re so fussy.

“Confessions have been down for years and the church is very worried about it,” said the Rev. Tom Reese…In a secularized culture of pop psychology and self-help, he said, “the church wants the idea of personal sin back in the equation. Indulgences are a way of reminding people of the importance of penance. The good news is we’re not selling them anymore.”

Ah, I see – the culture is too secular, so people aren’t going into little boxes to tell a priest about their sex lives, so the church wants people to start thinking everything is a sin again. Yeah, that will be useful, and healthy. And great that they’re not selling them, they’re just giving them out in exchange for some magic rituals. Much better.

The latest offers de-emphasize the years-in-Purgatory formulations of old in favor of a less specific accounting, with more focus on ways in which people can help themselves — and one another — come to terms with sin. “It’s more about praying for the benefit of others, doing good deeds, acts of charity,” said the Rev. Kieran Harrington, spokesman for the Brooklyn diocese.

Really? Then why not just do that instead of talking about indulgences? Make up your mind, dude. (I suppose he remembered he was talking to the New York Times. Once the reporter is gone it’s back to the ‘five years for ten hail-marys.’)

If you can’t say something nice, shut up

Feb 15th, 2009 12:24 pm | By

Minette Marin on New Labour and Geert Wilders and Fitna.

Admittedly the film does not try to distinguish between Islamist terrorists and ordinary law-abiding Muslims, or to show how Muslims have lived together peacefully with others all over the world for centuries. So Fitna is extremely unbalanced and, in that sense, misleading. However, what the film does show are precisely the things, I believe, that deeply worry a lot of non-Muslims. Again and again we are told that Islam is a religion of peace and equality; how does that tally with some of what the Koran says?


What makes such anxieties really toxic is the feeling that they are suppressed and ignored by our government. Critics of Islam, however reasonable, know they are likely to fall foul of the many new Labour laws against freedom of expression, in particular against incitement to religious hatred, which was enacted under Muslim pressure.

Precisely. Critics of Islam, however reasonable, also know they are likely to fall foul of people who have, as Kenan Malik says, internalized this idea that criticism of Islam is 1) taboo and 2) in and of itself ‘defamation.’ As I mentioned, the copy editor for Does God Hate Women? flagged up ‘possible defamation’ in eight places. What I didn’t spell out (but you probably guessed) is that all the items cited were simply criticism, with arguments and evidence, of a kind that is utterly taken for granted in ordinary public discourse. They were not in any normal sense ‘defamation’ – it’s just that they were not flattering. The copy editor seems to have made exactly the leap that some protectors of religion would like everyone to make, and equated frank criticism of religious ideas and practices with ‘defamation.’ The copy editor seems to have drawn the conclusion that frank criticism of Islam (as I noted, there were no such queries about other religions, which got their share of criticism) is somehow illegitimate.

The fact that this even comes up is, it seems to me, a very bad sign. Even if nothing comes of it, even if everyone concerned decides ‘no problem,’ there’s still something dreadfully thought-stifling in this queasy anxious nit-picking readiness to make criticism and defamation the same thing.

(It’s also, of course, a very funny joke that this readiness, this internalized censorship, is precisely part of the subject of the book. It is very funny that the copy editor read the book and nevertheless proceeded to enact the very kind of befuddled censoriousness that is under discussion. ‘Defamation,’ indeed! Give me a break!

Clarence Center

Feb 14th, 2009 10:52 am | By

Terrible about Alison Des Forges.

The court trying alleged perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide was stunned Saturday at the death in an air crash of the top expert on the 1994 massacres, Alison Des Forges. Des Forges, 66, an expert advisor to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and human rights groups, was among the 50 victims of Thursday’s plane crash near Buffalo, New York. “It is with deep shock that the tribunal has learned of the tragic disappearance of Alison des Forges, “a spokesman for the UN tribunal based in Arusha, Tanzania, told AFP. “It is a great loss for the world of human rights, international justice and all humanity,” Roland Amoussouga said. “Alison was not only an expert but also a very committed militant.”

I was just re-reading Samantha Power’s A Problem From Hell a week or two ago, including this passage:

America’s best-informed Rwanda observer was not a government official but a private citizen, Alison Des Forges, a historian and a board member of Human Rights Watch, who lived in Buffalo, New York. Des Forges had been visiting Rwanda since 1963…Half an hour after the plane crash [that killed Habyarimana] Des Forges got a phone call from a close friend in Kigali, the human-rights activist Monique Mujawamariya. Des Forges had been worried about Mujawamariya for weeks because the hate-propagating Radio Mille Collines had branded her “a bad patriot who deserves to die.”…Now Habyarimana was dead, and Mujawamariya knew instandtly that the hard-line Hutu would use the incident as a pretext to begin mass killing. “This is it,” she told Des Forges on the phone. For the next twenty four hours, Des Forges called her friend’s home every half hour. With each conversation Des Forges could hear the gunfire growing louder as the Hutu militia drew closer. Finally the gunmen entered Mujawamariya’s home. “I don’t want you to hear this,” Mujawamariya said softly. “Take care of my children.” She hung up the phone.

She survived, though, and escaped Kigali, and she and Des Forges did their best to get the Clinton administration to act – to no avail.

Des Forges appeared as an expert witness in 11 trials for genocide at the ICTR, three trials in Belgium, and at trials in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada. Her book “No Witness Must Survive” is regarded as the reference work on the Rwandan genocide…Des Forges was also a senior adviser to Human Rights Watch, whose boss Kenneth Roth called her “truly wonderful, the epitome of the human rights activist – principled, dispassionate, committed to the truth and to using that truth to protect ordinary people. She was among the first to highlight the ethnic tensions that led to the genocide, and when it happened and the world stood by and watched, Alison did everything humanly possible to save people.”

Stop right there

Feb 13th, 2009 12:49 pm | By

What was that we were saying about free speech? About internalized censorship? About the idea that laws against ‘blasphemy’ and ‘defamation’ of religion make genuine free speech impossible?

I am in receipt of notes from the copy-editor of Does God Hate Women? on the subject of “possible defamation/points of contention that could cause offence.” There are eight items; all but two ask about ‘defamation’ of or ‘inflammatory’ statements about Islam; none are about the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the FLDS, Hindutva, Orthodox Judaism, or any other religious outfit or religion discussed in the book. The passages questioned, like the book as a whole, is heavily referenced, while ‘defamation’ refers to false statements. In short – internalized censorship is alive and well and flourishing.

What we talk about when we talk about riots

Feb 12th, 2009 6:38 pm | By

Johann responds to the riots. He apologizes humbly; he explains that he only meant that free speech is a good idea in general but not of course if it offends anyone, or risks offending anyone, or might offend anyone if the wind were from the north, or could conceivably offend a very touchy person who hadn’t eaten in four days and had a hangover; he says it has always been his view that writers and journalists and thinkers and polemicists should always first consult with the community, and the leaders of the community, and the spiritual guides of the community, and every cleric within a five thousand mile radius, and Wall Street, and the tide tables, and a homeopath, before writing anything longer than a shopping list or more substantive than a signature on a check. He says he doesn’t know what got into him when he wrote that article that so offended some very nice people (men mostly, or entirely) in Kolkata that they rioted so enthusiastically that the central city was shut down. He says it must have been something he et. He says from now on he will write only friendly, indeed affectionate things about religion.

No he doesn’t. He does the other thing.

What should an honest defender of free speech say in this position? Every word I wrote was true. I believe the right to openly discuss religion, and follow the facts wherever they lead us, is one of the most precious on earth — especially in a democracy of a billion people rivven with streaks of fanaticism from a minority of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. So I cannot and will not apologize.

Attaboy. Not that it so much as occurred to me that he would say anything else.

It’s also worth going through the arguments of the Western defenders of these protesters, because they too aren’t going away. Already I have had e-mails and bloggers saying I was “asking for it” by writing a “needlessly provocative” article. When there is a disagreement and one side uses violence, it is a reassuring rhetorical stance to claim both sides are in the wrong, and you take a happy position somewhere in the middle. But is this true? I wrote an article defending human rights, and stating simple facts. Fanatics want to arrest or kill me for it. Is there equivalence here?

Uh – no. We need to defend human rights, and we need to defend our right to defend human rights, as people rioting and arresting and threatening make all too horribly clear. It’s bottomlessly depressing that anyone thinks Johann did anything conceivably remotely wrong, any more than Sayed Pervez Kambaksh did, as Johann points out:

[C]ompare my experience to that of journalists living under religious-Islamist regimes. Because generations of people sought to create a secular space, when I went to the police, they offered total protection. When they go to the police, they are handed over to the fanatics — or charged for their “crimes.” They are people like Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the young Afghan journalism student who was sentenced to death for downloading a report on women’s rights. They are people like the staff of Zanan, one of Iran’s leading reform-minded women’s magazines, who have been told they will be jailed if they carry on publishing. They are people like the 27-year old Muslim blogger Abdel Rahman who has been seized, jailed and tortured in Egypt for arguing for a reformed Islam that does not enforce shariah law.


At the end of the piece, as at the end of the Indy piece that so outraged the rioters, Johann urges people to read B&W. If I had a flag I would wave it.

Eight is nowhere near enough

Feb 11th, 2009 4:42 pm | By

Dear zany madcap Nadya Suleman was on tv again last night, in a nice extensive interview that she gave away for free. Like so many of my fellow Murkans, I find her morbidly fascinating. Her peculiar air of warm, even patronizing confidence is especially intriguing. I get the distinct impression that she thinks of herself as deeply wise, even wiser than Angelina Jolie. She was asked, right out in the open, if she had had a lip job, and she said no. I don’t believe her, and neither does anyone else. Of course she bloody did; she wasn’t born with those things! The mystery is why she thinks they’re attractive.

There were some funny parts. I just wanted to mention one or two. Frivolous of me, I know, but I like to let my hair down now and then. One was when the reporter asked if she had any income, and she said no except for student loans. She thinks loans are income! There speaks the American financial sense right there: loans are income. No no no no no, sweetheart, loans are minus income, on account of how you have to pay them back – that’s what ‘loan’ means. They’re really really not income in the sense you need income to be when you have 14 small children 8 of whom are in the ICU. Another was when she said proudly that she never used welfare, then when asked, cheerfully agreed that she was on food stamps to the tune of $490 a month. (This is my Reagan moment; this is where I start talking about welfare queens in Cadillacs driving up to their solid gold mansions in Beverly Hills.) Another was when the reporter asked if she didn’t feel at all concerned about depriving her children of a father and she said perkily ‘They have a father – he’s just not around.’ I suspect that being ‘around’ was what the reporter meant by having one. Another was when she said she believed the octuplets were God’s way of telling her to stop having children. Couldn’t he think of a less drastic way of telling her?! Like just messing up the IVF?

Frivolity over.

But only in the sense of tolerance

Feb 11th, 2009 4:05 pm | By

I like Evolving Thoughts but I think John Wilkins got the wrong end of the stick when he read Johann’s article ‘Why should I respect these oppressive religions?’ He quoted a bit on the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights and the UN and then commented:

There’s more, but I wanted only to discuss the UN-bashing here. There has been no such resolution by the UN, either by the General Assembly or the Security Council.

It’s not clear from the quoted passage exactly what resolution he means – it could be the Cairo Declaration, it could be the resolution on ‘defamation of religion,’ it could be the change in the role of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights – or it could be all those, or bits of all of them. But whichever it is, Wilkins is wrong; all three are very real.

Yes, Muslim leaders have asked the UN to ensure respect for religion, but only in the sense of tolerance for all religions, and at the same time they condemned the use of suicide bombers and attacking schools.

But the linked article doesn’t say that at all, it says something quite different.

SPEAKERS at a seminar urged the UN to take stringent measures to ensure respect of every religion and formulate laws to stop blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam (pbuh)…He said Muslims respected West’s freedom of expression but were deeply grieved and angered on the blasphemy of their Prophet (pbuh) and the Holy Quran committed with blatant callousness by the western leaders in the name of freedom of expression. He said freedom of expression had its limits in the West and it must never damage religious feelings of any human being, adding that Muslims would never tolerate the blasphemy of the prophet (pbuh) and other sacred personalities…He asked the UN to legislate to stop blasphemy and disrespect of religions which, he stressed, was essential for world peace. [emphasis added]

That is very far from ‘only in the sense of tolerance for all religions.’ Moreover, it is hardly mollifying that ‘at the same time they condemned the use of suicide bombers and attacking schools’; it’s not as if everything short of suicide bombers and attacking schools is perfectly all right.

Frankly it’s hard to see how anyone could read that passage as asking the UN to ensure respect for religion ‘only in the sense of tolerance for all religions’ when it says quite clearly that the request is for laws to stop blasphemy. Wilkins goes on to say that the UDHR protects religions in Articles 18 and 19 and that this ‘hasn’t changed’ – but the OIC would like it to change, and the Cairo Declaration is in direct opposition to Article 18 in many places. The UDHR protects various rights only as long as it is adhered to, and the OIC has explicitly repudiated it; that is the point of the Cairo Declaration. I think Wilkins perhaps should have looked into the subject a little more. (Most of his readers don’t seem to know the facts either. I keep saying how under-reported this whole subject is.)


Feb 11th, 2009 11:35 am | By

Good news, which so far I can’t find anywhere online apart from Facebook, so I can’t link to it in News, so for now I’ll just say it here. Pegah Emambakhsh has been granted refugee status in the UK.



Feb 10th, 2009 4:43 pm | By

I’ve transcribed a few bits of the Satanic Verses Nightwaves.

Kenan Malik talked about how different things were twenty years ago, and about the myth that all Muslims were offended by The Satanic Verses. Twenty years ago radicals didn’t identify themselves as Muslim or even Asian, they were black, and that was a political term. But that was then.

When people talk about ‘radical’ in the Islamic context now, what they mean is usually somebody who is religiously fundamentalist; twenty years ago, it meant the very opposite, somebody who was militantly secular, somebody like me; so that whole thing has shifted completely now in the past 20 years.

Jo Glanville of Index on Censorship talked about The Jewel of Medina, and Denise Spellberg’s intervention, and Random House’s instant capitulation.

One of the extraordinary things in their decision was the reason they gave for not publishing; one was the fear of causing offense, but the other was they said that its publication might incite violence, and I thought that was such an extraordinary statement to make, and to show the mindset of a publisher today; you can compare it with Penguin and the position that they took at the time when they had all sorts of threats being made against themselves – to essentially say, not ‘there might be people who might react with violence’ but ‘this book itself might incite violence’ and I think that whole affair really encapsulated the journey that we’ve been on.

Priyamvada Gopal, while defending free speech for all kinds of writing, also made a distinction between Rushdie’s novel on the one hand and the Motoons and The Jewel of Medina on the other.

There are fundamentalisms of different kinds, and we must think about the relationship between discourses of purity, whether they are Western, race-based discourses of purity or Islamic fundamentalist religious discourses of purity – it’s asking us to think – and I would as a literary critic make a distinction between books that invite us to think in complex ways and works that are in some sense intended to titillate or provoke, although I would stand by the right of all of them to be published.

Jo Glanville made another good point.

I think what I’m most concerned about or disturbed by in this argument about offense is the demand that we respect. That we respect religion and we see the United Nations Human Rights Council calling for it, we saw the UN Secretary General calling for it, and actually the only thing that’s going to work is tolerance, not respect, and I think in a plural society that is what we have to push for.

I want to be Jo Glanville’s new best friend.

Keeping our sense of humour

Feb 10th, 2009 11:55 am | By

The Republican mind is a surprising thing at times. Sarah Palin’s sneer at community organizing, Sarah Palin’s sneer at fruit-fly research…and then their jokes.

‘A member of the Florida state Republican committee sent out an email to 8 people that said this:’

From: Carol Carter Friday, January 30, 9:30 AM Subject: FW: Amazing!

I’m confused.

How can 2,000,000 blacks get into Washington, DC in 1 day in sub zero temps when 200,000 couldn’t get out of New Orleans in 85 degree temps with four days notice?

Carol Carter


Somebody was unamused (so it’s not all Republicans, so I shouldn’t say ‘the Republican mind’ – except that’s obviously not a left-wing ‘joke’) and Carter was told to apologize.

From: Carol Carter January 30, 5:54 PM Subject: Earlier e-mail

I have been asked to send this apology for my earlier e-mail. I am sorry that it was received in a negative manner. I do hope that we are going to be allowed to keep our sense of humor.

As you can now see, it went to very few people. I did add Todd Marks in this apology, as he is in the mix now. I am also sorry to learn that some of these persons are not real team players. There really was no reason for this to go beyond those that I e-mailed (8 people). This was not an e-mail blast as I do not have that capability.

I’m fascinated by that ‘I do hope that we are going to be allowed to keep our sense of humor.’ Our sense of humor…about people who don’t own cars or don’t have enough money for gas or who are too terrified of losing everything to abandon their houses, being trapped by rising flood waters and drowning in their attics or surviving the floods only to die of dehydration and heatstroke two or three days later. This is something people should have a ‘sense of humor’ about? This is funny?

It’s a sick, sick, sick mind that finds that funny.


Feb 10th, 2009 10:52 am | By

As you may have noticed, comments are disabled. I think I know why. They were being bombarded by spammers for a few days, which I didn’t realize until yesterday, at which point I had to waste a vast amount of time deleting all the spam. I told Jeremy about the problem, which is to say I whined about it, without actually asking him to fix it in case it’s not convenient at the moment. I think he may have disabled them pending a less drastic fix (or perhaps, more depressingly, in the absence of a less drastic fix). I hope they’ll be restored eventually; meanwhile you can send comments to me if you like, and I will post them, though obviously there may be a delay.

Update: I spoke too hastily, I should have said I would try to post them; it turns out inserting them directly into the database doesn’t work either. Dratted spammers! Well…I’ll see what can be done, and let you know.