Notes and Comment Blog


More lefthand dreck

Jun 20th, 2007 11:19 am | By

Next round of sinister crap. (Who is this Michael White? Why have I never heard of him before? Why have none of you pointed him out to me before? He certainly seems obvious enough.)

So who is to blame for the latest blow to the fragile relations between Britain and two key Muslim states 19 years after The Satanic Verses earned its author that fatwa from Iran?

Isn’t that cute? Isn’t that just adorable? Someone is to blame for Rushdie’s gong; it is blow to the fragile relations between Britain and two key Muslim states; Rushdie’s novel earned its author that fatwa. That’s a lot of nasty stuff for one sentence.



Bunglawala

Jun 20th, 2007 11:05 am | By

Man, there’s a lot of sinister crap out there today. From Bunglawala for instance, on his way to disavowing book-burning.

The Thatcher government had banned Peter Wright’s Spycatcher and had gone to court to prevent its distribution. Surely, Rushdie’s novel, which had caused such offence to hundreds of millions of believers, deserved a similar fate?

The Thatcher government didn’t ban Spycatcher because it ’caused such offence’ to anyone. That’s not to say it had good reasons, it’s just to say it had different ones. Much more to the point, what on earth does he mean, ’caused such offence to hundreds of millions of believers’? ‘Such’ as what, exactly? What ‘such’ does he have in mind? He must know perfectly well that the hundreds of millions of believers (if that many were offended; I’m not sure anyone made an actual count) didn’t all read the book, that in fact it’s probably a very small percentage that did. So what kind of ‘offence’ are we talking about exactly? What is it about that kind of offence that deserves the honorific intensifier ‘such’? In what way, exactly, does Bunglawala take the hundreds of millions of believers to have been offended? They were told that Badman Rushdie had written something blasphemous about the Prophet – is that the kind of offended he means? Well, if so, it’s a tad remote and third-hand and abstract, and it’s also highly dubious to say that Rushdie’s novel caused that. Rushdie didn’t go on a book tour beseeching imams to tell ‘believers’ that his book was blasphemous – did he? Not that I recall! And surely it would have come out if he had.

No, what Bunglawala is doing there is basically just a trick. A form of persuasion. He’s claiming that Rushdie’s novel caused ‘such offence’ to hundreds of millions of believers, in a bid for sympathy and respect and solidarity and concern, even though his claim is fundamentally flawed and manipulative. He sees the point of free speech now, good, but he’s still determined to revile Rushdie.

I remember being rather puzzled as to why Rushdie’s defenders were so vigorous in arguing for the right to offend Muslims. Muslims were not writing books making fun of Christ and other revered religious figures. It seemed to be a deliberate attempt to mock deeply held beliefs.

Did anyone argue anything so stupid? I don’t think so. I think Rushdie’s defenders argued for the right to offend anyone, including religious believers, including Muslims – I don’t think anyone argued for the right to offend Muslims in particular. But Bunglawala gets to plant his nasty little barb.

So on February 14 1989, when the Iranian Islamic leader, Imam Khomeini delivered his fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie’s death, I was truly elated. It was a very welcome reminder that British Muslims did not have to regard themselves just as a small, vulnerable minority; they were part of a truly global and powerful movement. If we were not treated with respect then we were capable of forcing others to respect us.

That’s not respect, Mr Bunglawala, that’s contempt. All you wretched deluded fools have succeeded in doing is forcing others to have contempt for you. The attitude of reasonable people toward a cleric who demands the murder of a citizen of a distant country (or his own for that matter) for writing a novel is profound, astonished, repelled contempt.



Rushdie sparked calls for his own execution – right?

Jun 19th, 2007 4:51 pm | By

The flattering descriptions continue. The BBC says Rushdie’s book ‘sparked worldwide protests’. The Guardian says ‘The Satanic Verses provoked the ire of many Muslims and led to the issuing of a fatwa,’ and still talks of a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s ‘execution,’ still says the book was ‘immediately condemned by the Islamic world’ (it’s hard to know what that last phrase even means – it sounds quite surreal). On BBC World News last night a reporter said Rushdie ‘affronted Muslim values’ by writing the book. Horrible, toadying stuff.

Lisa Appignanesi gives Priyamvada Gopal one in the eye though.

During the dark years of the Fatwa, Rushdie lent his fame to help less well-known writers around the world who suffered similar fates or found themselves persecuted either by states or religious hierarchies for their work. As a vice-president of English Pen, the world association of writers, and for some years president of American Pen, he worked indefatigably for the cause of free expression, joining with us here to combat the worst excesses of the government’s “religious hatred” legislation. Perhaps in awarding him this honour, the government has also come to recognise the crucial importance of a freedom which underpins so many others. Rushdie’s “services to literature” also extend to a singular generosity in helping young, and particularly Asian, writers make their way in what is often a difficult literary marketplace.

Universal values, universal liberal values, not western, not European, not white. Universal. Think about it, Priyamvada Gopal.



Haram or halal?

Jun 19th, 2007 4:28 pm | By

A terrible moment in Shiv Malik’s Prospect article on Siddique Khan. He’s talking to Khan’s brother, as he has several times before.

For some reason, I translated my usual question of whether he thought what his brother had done was “good” or “bad”—he had said that it was a terrible thing several times—and instead asked him whether he thought 7/7 was halal (permitted) or haram (forbidden) in Islam. Only when a look of stunned surprise come over Gultasab’s face did I realise that I must have been asking him an entirely different question. After a brief pause, he replied. “No comment.”

Here, it seemed, was the perfect example of the division between two worldviews—secular ethics and an embattled Islamic faith. How long had Gultasab managed to function with these two conflicting positions fighting within him? Everyday morality told him that his brother had committed a cold-blooded act of terror, while his own Islamic theology told him that there was no clear answer and maybe his brother was a hero. How many thousands of young British Muslims are similarly conflicted?

How’s that for a crystal-clear illustration of why secularism is essential? On the one hand, everyday morality: murdering a lot of random people and injuring a lot of others is a bad thing to do; on the other hand, Islamic theology: hmmmmmmmaybe not so bad. That other hand won’t do. That other hand has got to go. If Islamic theology says maybe maybe maybe mass murder is halal – then Islamic theology is dead wrong and must not be obeyed. It’s only if everyone accepts secularism – believers as well as non-believers, theists as well as atheists – that that principle can hold. If people reject secularism, then ‘theology’ can be permitted to trump both law and morality – and welcome to hell on earth.

There’s a choice bit in Siddique Khan’s horrible video that is another crystal-clear illustration.

Part two, which makes up three quarters of Khan’s speech, is addressed to Muslims in Britain. Here is an excerpt: “Our so-called scholars today are content with their Toyotas and semi-detached houses. They seem to think that their responsibilities lie in pleasing the kufr instead of Allah. So they tell us ludicrous things, like you must obey the law of the land. Praise be God! How did we ever conquer lands in the past if we were to obey this law?”

There’s another unpleasant example from Stop Honour Killings:

A man who raped a Muslim woman because she showed an interest in Christianity has been jailed for at least five years by a Sydney court…Al-Shawany’s trial was told that he visited the woman, an acquaintance, at Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre with another man. The woman had been reading the Bible and Al-Shawany noted her contact with Christians. The men told her they were “infidel people” and if she went with them, her killing “would be halal” – meaning her killer would go to heaven.

Oh yes, and where would she go?

Not a good way to think. Stupid, of course, but also dangerous, ruthless, murderous, immoral – just no good. A kufr thing to say, but there you go.



How dare you knight the man we want killed?

Jun 18th, 2007 4:01 pm | By

I felt very close to losing my temper when reading this.

Also today, Muhammad Abdul Bari, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said many Muslims would regard the knighthood as the final insult from Tony Blair before he leaves office next week. “Salman Rushdie earned notoriety amongst Muslims for the highly insulting and blasphemous manner in which he portrayed early Islamic figures,” Dr Bari said. “The granting of a knighthood to him can only do harm to the image of our country in the eyes of hundreds of millions of Muslims across the world. Many will interpret the knighthood as a final contemptuous parting gift from Tony Blair to the Muslim world.”

Insult is it. Rushdie earned notoriety is it. Harm to our image is it. Contemptuous is it. What about the serious and dedicated effort to get the novelist murdered merely for writing a story about ‘early Islamic figures’ you contemptible apologist for theocratic tyranny? What about that? Eh? Eh? Why are you so worried about an award given to a novelist and so unworried by murder and attempted murder? Why do you have such a pathetic, ludicrous, immoral, twisted sense of priorities? What is the matter with you?

The Guardian does the vocabulary thing, of course. ‘The comments follow other condemnation of the award for Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses provoked worldwide protests over allegations that it insulted Islam.’ The novel ‘provoked’ protests. Bad novel, naughty Rushdie, provoking and insulting dear kind caring Dr Bari and his hundreds of millions of friends.



What they’ve assented to

Jun 18th, 2007 3:20 pm | By

Wrong.

Sir Salman, on the other hand, is partly the creation of the fatwa…The Sir Salman recognised for his services to literature is certainly no neocon but is iconic of a more pernicous trend: liberal literati who have assented to the notion that humane values, tolerance and freedom are fundamentally western ideas that have to be defended as such.

No he isn’t, no he doesn’t, no they haven’t. That’s crap. What they’ve assented to (the liberal ones – if they haven’t they’re not liberal) is the opposite: that humane values, tolerance and freedom are universal ideas that have to be defended as such, and that claiming they are a monopoly of any one region or nation or ethnic group is highly illiberal as well as dangerous.



Straw phrase? Broken-backed emollient?

Jun 17th, 2007 9:33 am | By

You know those phrases that are notoriously unconvincing and self-serving – so much so that they form a category, which people recognize? Phrases that are meant to reassure but don’t because they are so transparent? You know the ones I mean. The one I’ve been pondering is ‘It’s not personal’ – used about an obvious, blatant insult or rejection or exclusion or other bit of invidious treatment. The others I’ve been able to think of are ‘The check is in the mail.’ ‘Don’t worry, I’ll pull out in time.’ ‘It’s okay, I’ve had a vasectomy.’ ‘The donation in no way influences my vote.’ ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’

Does that genre have a name? And what are some others? There must be others, but I don’t seem to know of any.



Who offended whom?

Jun 17th, 2007 9:12 am | By

The BBC keeps doing things like this.

Iran has criticised the British government for its decision to give a knighthood to author Salman Rushdie. His book The Satanic Verses offended Muslims worldwide and led to Iran issuing a fatwa in 1989, ordering Sir Salman’s execution.

It’s terribly misleading to say that Rushdie’s novel ‘offended Muslims worldwide’ without qualification. There’s an enormous amount wrong with that offhand statement. One, many and probably most people who were ‘offended’ by Rushdie’s novel never read it, so the simple and active phrasing there – his book offended Muslims – is just inaccurate. An accurate version would be something more like ‘some Muslims were offended by what they heard or were told about Rushdie’s novel and by the fact that he had written it.’ Yes but they don’t have the space to say that in the second sentence. Okay, but if they don’t have the space, they shouldn’t say anything – they shouldn’t say something grossly and tendentiously misleading instead, especially not about someone who is under a standing death threat for doing the very thing they described so ineptly and inaccurately. What they do by phrasing it that way is half-endorse the attitude of the people who issued the fatwa, and they really ought not to do that on the basis of bad sloppy inaccurate phrasing.

How I wish I were their editor. How I wish I could sub their pieces; I would take stuff like that out.

Two, they also shouldn’t say the book offended Muslims in that straightforward way: the offense, like the offense over the Danish cartoons, was not spontaneous or instantaneous, it was worked up; it was decidedly not a matter of Muslims in general taking one look and swelling with outrage. Third, they really shouldn’t say the book ‘led to Iran issuing a fatwa’ as if Rushdie had brought the fatwa on himself and as if Khomeini had no choice in the matter. (Have I quarreled with them for this before? I think so.) And they shouldn’t say ‘execution’ as if Iran had some judicial right to ‘order’ it! The word is murder, not execution.

Frances Harrison did something similar in a World Service report on the same subject – she referred to ‘the Danish cartoons that insulted the prophet’ – as if that were the commonplace and straightforward description of the cartoons. Well it’s not! The cartoons were of the prophet, but they were far from all insulting, in fact none of them were really except possibly the bomb in the turban one, which can also be read as about the hijacking of the prophet by bomb-lovers. Yet there is Harrison reinforcing the outrage by being inaccurate.

They keep, keep, keep doing this. Why? Just sucking up? Just not wanting to piss off Tariq Ramadan any further? Not wanting to seem ‘Islamophobic’? Who knows.

There’s this familiar little bit of icing at the end, too – ‘in 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s spiritual leader, issued a fatwa.’ ‘Spiritual leader’ – you mean theocratic dictator. I wish they would stop with that spiritual leader crap. I’m tired of hearing about the ‘spiritual leader’ of Hamas and the ‘spiritual leader’ of Hizbollah and the ‘spiritual leader’ of the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m sick of all this wretched slavish prettying-up. It’s not pretty. Homicidal rage at novels and novelists is not pretty, fatwas ordering murder are not pretty, theocratic thugs are not pretty.



Save poor Denmark

Jun 16th, 2007 1:25 pm | By

So missionaries from the Third World are coming to Europe to convert the heathen to Christianity. Very droll.

Denmark is a wealthy nation of 5.5 million people that always scores near the top of surveys of the world’s happiest nations. To Johansen, the problem is clear: “We’re just too well-off in Europe.”…Johansen’s work takes him all over the world, he said, and he has noticed much stronger religious faith in poorer societies…”We’re basically rich and spoiled.”

So…religious ‘faith’ correlates with poverty and the absence of it correlates with prosperity and happiness – and that’s a problem for the people who are prosperous and happy? I wonder if it occurs to Johansen that one could interpret the correlation in another way – that poor people need the consolations of ‘faith’ more than prosperous and happy people do, and that the absence of ‘faith’ is not in fact a problem at all.



Do me a favour

Jun 14th, 2007 2:23 pm | By

Good old Vatican. Not that there’s anything surprising about it, but good old Vatican all the same. Grown women, who cares; pre-conscious insentient fetuses, all-important. So the woman was raped, so what; she has to have that baby!

A thought experiment. Not the kidney one, a different (though similar) one. A woman is newly pregnant against her will; she doesn’t approve of abortion and isn’t going to have one. She discovers the fetus has a very rare disease which is quickly fatal unless the fetus can be removed and implanted in a compatible host; such hosts are very rare but can be found via a computer search of a medical database. A compatible host is found. Is it murder if she refuses to be an actual host? Not just that – would anyone even think she had a very strong duty to be a host? Would anyone even think she had a weak duty?

I say no. Hardly anyone would think that. (Perhaps I’m underestimating the obsession with the fetus.) So the difference must be that in the usual case, the fetus exists because its mother had sex with a man. Why is that a kind of difference that makes a difference?

Okay put it more charitably, and emotively. The difference is because the fetus belongs to the person whose uterus it is in. But she’s the one who doesn’t want it. The Vatican perhaps thinks she ought to want it. But – is it really the Vatican’s business who loves whom, who wants whom? If the objects of the loving or wanting are not the kind of entities we otherwise think are owed occupancy of our bodies?



Family values

Jun 14th, 2007 10:56 am | By

Brian Whitaker on ‘family values’.

I always find it strange that when President Bush talks about spreading freedom in the Middle East he automatically focuses on authoritarian regimes…Yes, the regimes are a problem but families are the most basic unit of government in the region; at a day-to-day level, they are also the main instrument of tyranny and the biggest obstacle to personal liberty. I have lost count of the times I have sat in cafes – in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and similar places – listening to complaints about the suffocating influence, not of the government, but of fathers, uncles, brothers and cousins.

Whitaker notes that Bush skips lightly over authoritarian regimes that are US-friendly, though he doesn’t actually spell out the words S-a-u-d-i A-r-a-b-i-a. But anyway, too right about families (not that Bush would ever say so, of course, being a family values kind of guy, as well he might be, since without family connections he would be the affable local drunk, not the most powerful man in the world). Families are indeed the bedrock sources of tyranny and obstacles to freedom, especially (obviously) for women. In many ways, blocking the freedom of women is what families are for.

The MCB condemned ‘honour’ killing in 2003. It said a couple of, um, interesting things in the process though.

In various countries throughout the world, particularly in the Middle East and parts of South Asia, women who bring dishonor to their families because of sexual indiscretions are forced to pay a terrible price at the hands of male family members.

Note the assumption that women do in fact bring dishonor to their families because of sexual indiscretions; note the assumption that what women do sexually is their families’ business – without any stipulation or limit, so that it applies not just to married women but to all women, so that it could include adult single women living on their own. Note the assumption that, like Islam, a family is something you’re not allowed to opt out of or leave or even be slightly independent of; note the assumption that women belong to their families and that what they do ‘brings’ things to their families. Note the claustrophobia, note the complete absence of freedom and autonomy, note the prison bars.

Islam is clear on its prohibition of sexual relationships outside of marriage. This prohibition does not distinguish between men and women…In order for a case to even be brought before a Muslim court, several strict criteria must be met. The most important is that any accusation of illicit sexual behavior must have been seen by four witnesses; and they must have been witness to the act of sexual intercourse itself.

And that applies to rape too – which of course means that women bound by these laws can’t ever prosecute a rapist. (What rapist would be insane enough ever to allow the number of spectators to swell to four?! They never ever invite more than three people to watch; if one brings along a buddy from work, no use, he can’t stay, no matter how hard he begs.) That’s not such a ‘progressive’ or compassionate rule as the MCB makes it sound.



Inspector Plod

Jun 12th, 2007 10:10 am | By

Oh dear – they messed that up.

Banaz Mahmod made no secret of her belief that her father wanted to kill her. She was in hospital, nursing wounds incurred in an escape from him, when her boyfriend recorded a video of her…Ms Mahmod also told police, four times, that she feared for her life and produced a list of three men she believed would murder her – but all to no avail…It emerged during the trial that a female police officer concluded Ms Mahmod had made up her story to get her boyfriend’s attention.

Oh well, we all make mistakes.

The campaign of intimidation against Ms Mahmod began when she met the man who was to become her boyfriend, Rahmat Sulemani, after fleeing an abusive, two-year arranged marriage, which had been punctuated by beatings and sexual violence…When word of the affair started getting back to Mahmod’s “controlling, powerful” brother Ari that the couple had been seen out together, a family “council of war” was held. But the decision about what to do had apparently already been taken. A day before, Ari telephoned Amir Abbas Ibrahim, an associate in Birmingham, to arrange for the burial of Banaz’s body.

Quick off the mark, aren’t they. ‘Hey look, there’s Banaz with a man – right, we’ll have to kill her; phone Amir to fix the burial.’

Mahmod tried to kill his daughter first on New Year’s Eve 2005, when he lured her to her grandmother’s house and forced her to drink brandy, but she ran away. Afterwards she collapsed and was taken to hospital. She refused to leave the ambulance at first, insisting her father was trying to kill her and, once in hospital, recorded the message. When asked to investigate, PC Cornes was more concerned with a window broken as Ms Mahmod escaped from the house, and wanted to charge her with criminal damage.

Well hey, what’s more important, a woman’s life, or a window?

Ms Mahmod thought she would be safe at home because her mother was there. The next day, when her parents went out, the men were able to come to the family home and murder her…The campaign group the Southall Black Sisters has demanded an investigation by the IPCC…One Metropolitan Police officer said last night the initial handling of the case had set back by 25 years the Met’s efforts to encourage victims of crime to come forward.

Especially if they have the bad luck to break a window when escaping.



All the hornets

Jun 12th, 2007 9:15 am | By

Anthony Grayling considers the squawks of the offended believers.

To the annoyance of many, the alarm of some, and the satisfaction of others, the half dozen books recently published that powerfully set out the case against religion and religious beliefs – books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Michel Onfray – have all sold in large numbers…The appearance of these books shows that the immunity of religion to forthright questioning and challenge is over, and with it its claim to automatic respect, privilege, sensitive handling and a place at the high table of politics and public life….The hard truths spoken about it in these books and the public debate surrounding them are as genies freed from the bottle: they cannot be put back.

I do hope he’s right about that – and it does seem like the kind of thing that’s hard to put back. Once it’s out, well, it’s out. It’s hard to unknow it.

A trawl along the shelves of any major bookstore is enough to reveal the vast output of every conceivable specimen of religious view, though admittedly much of it consists of saccharine would-be uplift merely. There they are in their dozens and score and hundreds, where is the outrage, the condemnation, the complaining about this? Non-religious people simply ignore such books…Yet a mere half dozen anti-religious tomes have stirred up all the hornets in their nests, have offended and outraged the devout, and between them have exposed religious claims and beliefs for what they are.

It is quite funny when you think about it. It’s not as if Dawkins and Dennett and Grayling himself have been pitching huge fits in the Guardian for decades at every single religious book that is published. It’s not as if they’ve been screeching that theists are cowardly and pretentious and jowly and ageing all this time. But six measly anti-theist books, and my god you’d think they were advocating child porn spiced up with a spot of priest-murder. In short, there’s a major double standard in operation here. The books packed full of bullshit get a free pass, the ones pointing out that it’s all bullshit are treated to a chorus of screams and imprecations. Uh – it should be the other way around, you know?



What happened to secularism?

Jun 10th, 2007 1:33 pm | By

Sue Blackmore is right.

“Religious faith is not inconsistent with reason.” I nearly choked on my breakfast when I heard this on the Today programme. These words were spoken by Mr Blair, in his inimitably sincere style. He was addressing an Islamic conference in London, on June 4…But religious faith is inconsistent with reason (and much more that we value as well)…Faith is corrosive to the human mind. If someone genuinely believes that it is right to believe things without reason or evidence then they are open to every kind of dogma, whim, coercion, or dangerous infectious idea that’s around. If someone is convinced that it is acceptable to base their beliefs on what is written in an ancient book, or what some teacher tells them they must believe, then they will have no true freedom of thought; they will be trapped by their faith into inconsistency and untruths because they are unable to throw out false ideas when evidence against them comes along.

The usual reply to that (along with a lot of abuse and random insult about aging and fundamentalism and jowls) is that there are plenty of rational people who have religious faith. The reply to that, I think, is ‘Yes, maybe, but only to the extent that they don’t allow the ‘faith’ to transfer to anything other than religion, which condition itself means that faith is not consistent with reason.’ The two have to be kept firmly separated for reason to be reason (and faith to be faith), and that surely means that they’re not compatible, not that they are.

[U]niversities should be teaching people how to think, question, and understand these things, not to have faith in “truths” proclaimed without reason or evidence. Tony Blair pronounces the word “faith” with just that touch of special reverence in his voice, as though it were something to respect, something we should admire in others and grant them licence to believe whatever they want on its account. Indeed he proclaimed that the conference was “an opportunity to listen; to hear Islam’s true voice; to welcome and appreciate them; and in doing so, to join up with all those who believe in a world where religious faith is respected”. How despicable. How creepy. How frightening when we see the dire consequences of faith-based actions all around us…I, for one, do not want to live in a world where religious faith is respected…[O]ur great universities should continue to teach people to think for themselves, to respect the truth, and to take nothing on faith.

Exactly, about that touch of special reverence in the voice. That’s what the word ‘faith’ is for, really: to summon up that creepy tone of voice. The hell with that.

Blair says some very dubious things in that speech.

We have successful Muslims in all areas of our national life – business, sport, media, culture, the professions. We have our first Muslim MPs, first Muslim Members of the House of Lords; hopefully the next election will bring more and hopefully also the first women Muslim MPs.

That’s a bizarre thing to hope. Does he hope the next election will bring more Sikh MPs? More Hindus? More Jains? More Shintoists? Mormons? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Baptists? Mennonites? Dukhobors? Orthodox Jews? Catholics? Christians?

Probably not. But then why more Muslims? Because he’s treating them as a minority group, excuse me a minority community, rather than (or as well as) adherents of a religion. But he shouldn’t do that, because that causes him to say there should be more adherents of a particular religion in Parliament, and that’s an anti-secular suggestion if I ever heard one.

In the face of so much high profile accorded to religious extremism, to schism, and to confrontation, it is important to show that religious faith is not inconsistent with reason, or progress, or the celebration of diversity. Religious faith has much to contribute to the public sphere; is still a thriving part of what makes a cohesive community; is a crucial motivator of millions of citizens around the world; and is an essential if non-governmental way of helping to make society work. To lose that contribution would not just be a pity; it would be a huge backward step.

Another anti-secular suggestion, to put it mildly.

There is also a clear move across the world to assert strongly the moderate and true authority of Islam. In Jordan, in 2004, under the leadership of HM King Abdullah, a statement, the Amman Message was released seeking to declare what Islam is and what it is not, and how it should be manifested. I was deeply impressed when, the next year, the King convened 200 leading scholars from no less than 50 countries, who unanimously – unanimously – issued a Declaration on 3 basic issues: the validity of different Islamic schools of thought and theology; the forbidding of declarations of apostasy between Muslims; and criteria for the issuing of fatwas – religious edicts – to pre-empt the spawning of illegitimate versions.

What does he mean the true authority of Islam? Why is he talking admiringly about the authority of a religion? Why is he impressed by that Declaration? What about declarations of apostasy between Muslims and non-Muslims or ex-Muslims? Why is he validating the idea of fatwas at all, however criteria-bound they are?

Also in 2005, the summit meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference issued a declaration and a 10-year action plan. The summit reaffirmed Islam as a religion of moderation and modernity. It rejected bigotry and extremism. It supported work to establish the values of Islam as those of understanding, tolerance, dialogue and multilateralism.

That’s not all the OIC did in 2005. Furthermore – Blair neglects to mention the little matter of the Islamic Declaration of Human Rights. Well he ought to. The whole damn speech is evasive that way. Flattering, obsequious, and evasive. He ought not to do that.



Hansa

Jun 9th, 2007 10:35 am | By

A personal note for once. Irony-free; soppy; mawkish, even. A side of me you don’t know. Never mind – this is both public and personal, so I want to go with it.

Bad. Ashes on head department. Sniffing; closing throat; more sniffing; eyes filling; another kleenex gone. Bad, bad, bad news. Horrible news. (I let out such an outraged pained ‘No!’ when I heard it…)

At the Woodland Park Zoo, it was like a death in the family. Plainly distraught, even barely able to speak at times for choking back tears, zoo administrators announced the death of 6 ½-year-old elephant Hansa, who was found dead in her stall Friday, her mother standing by her side.

I watched them on the local news last night, and it’s true: they could barely talk, they kept losing it, I’m losing it in remembering them losing it. Don’t laugh – elephants are like that. Elephants are like that, and as for a six-year-old elephant you saw being born and taking her first steps and going for her first swim – well.

And her mother was standing by her side when the keeper found her. I wondered where Chai was; now I know: standing next to her. [pause to get another kleenex]

The thing is, I know Chai; I used to be one of her keepers, when she was younger than Hansa was yesterday. Chai was one of my babies, so I was very caught up in the whole exciting (and quite dangerous) adventure of her trip to Dickerson Park Zoo in St Louis to breed, and her long gestation, and the birth, and Hansa’s adorable infancy. Elephant breeding is very difficult; we used to discuss it a lot when I was there, when the new facility was being planned; it was very worrying having four cows and not breeding any of them. So Hansa’s birth was a colossal triumph, in all sorts of ways – for conservation, for good zoo practice, for the survival of both Chai and Hansa. So it’s a terrible, heartbreaking, shattering disappointment.

But it’s also just plain personal. Elephants are like that. Elephants are special – that’s not news. They’re complicated, they’re affectionate, they’re tall; you bond with them. Take my word for it. I’ve worked with them – I’ve given them baths, taken them for walks, ridden on their backs, scratched their tongues (they like that), played hide and seek with them. You bond with them.

Chai was a great kid. A bit of a knot-head: she had a habit of bolting when we took her for walks, which was very bad and worrying, because of course it’s terribly dangerous, and if we couldn’t get her out of the habit she wouldn’t be able to leave the yard for walks, and that would not be good. But she was a great kid all the same, and she turned out to be a great adult. Now she’s lost her Hansa. Elephants are very, very devoted. It’s just horrible.

I hate to think of the keepers. I know most of them, and I hate to think of them. I used to creep myself out occasionally, imagining being the first one into the barn in the morning (as I usually was) and finding one of the ‘phants dead. Yesterday one of the keepers had that experience. I keep imagining it. You’d know right away – you never ever ever come in to find any elephants asleep on the floor; not ever; they’re always up and milling around and when you come in they rumble and trumpet. (Rumbling is a sound they make up inside their heads, a little like purring; strangers think it’s growling but it’s not, it’s pleasure and greeting.) To come into the barn and find an elephant lying still on the floor – well there would be little room for doubt.

I heard of a headstone inscription on the radio once: ‘It is a fearful thing to love that which death can touch.’ It is.



Hey, that man made disparaging remarks

Jun 8th, 2007 1:34 pm | By

Is this funny, or alarming? Or is it both?

A Pentecostal teaching assistant who quit her job at a foundation primary school after she was disciplined for refusing to hear a child read a Harry Potter book is seeking compensation for religious discrimination. She claimed that the book glorified witchcraft. Sariya Allen…claims Durand primary school in Stockwell discriminated against her as a born-again Christian and put her at a disadvantage compared with teaching assistants who were not of her faith.

The child needed a more demanding book, she got a Harry Potter out, ‘but Ms Allen refused to listen to her reading it because God had stated in the Bible that witchcraft was “an abomination”.’

She claims that at a subsequent meeting, the first assistant headteacher, Mark McLaughlin, criticised her as “obstructive” for refusing to hear the child read the book. She also claims he “rubbished” her faith and made disparaging remarks about Christian assemblies in schools. “He was saying it’s just my interpretation of the Bible and my view. He said ‘these are your views and you’re a minority because of these’. He thought I was quite extreme because I’m a born-again Christian. I’m a committed Christian,” she said…She is being represented at the tribunal by Andrew Otchie, a barrister who was a candidate for the Christian Peoples Alliance in the 2005 general election. He said her “novel and interesting” case was one of a very few to allege religious discrimination against a Christian since the regulations banning discrimination on faith grounds came into force in 2003.

Well, it’s alarming if it has any traction. If it’s ‘discrimination’ to refuse to take the Bible as a valid and ungainsayable guide to conduct, then that’s alarming. Let’s hope the south London employment tribunal in Croydon has better sense than that.



Barmaid gets Jesus

Jun 8th, 2007 1:16 pm | By

The barmaid is starting to get to Jesus, it seems.

She was talking about the problem of suffering and the existence of an omnipotent and loving God. If God can’t stop the suffering, then he isn’t omnipotent. If he can but doesn’t, he isn’t very loving.

So Jesus gets on the Internet to look for some arguments. He finds Richard Swinburne. He has mixed feelings. He thinks Swinburne’s view is kind of disgusting. I know what he means!

A reader pointed out, giggling gently, that either the barmaid or Jesus has apparently been reading B&W again. Don’t I feel useful.



Men only

Jun 8th, 2007 10:41 am | By

So she goes into Starbucks in Riyadh, the first Starbucks she’s seen in months; she ignores the flickering eyes of the man behind the counter, the stares of the men in the cafe, she sits down in an armchair – only to have the counter man hiss in her ear “You can’t sit here. Men only.” Oh right – of course; how stupid of me. Men only. Not men only in men’s toilets, but men only everywhere. Men only in the world. Women shoved into nasty little boxes round the back; women shouted at; women told to get out, get out, get out. Women treated like filthy foul sluts for merely existing. Women monitored, watched, glared at, chased, bullied, threatened.

I spent my days in Saudi Arabia struggling unhappily between a lifetime of being taught to respect foreign cultures and the realization that this culture judged me a lesser being…The rules are different here. The same U.S. government that heightened public outrage against the Taliban by decrying the mistreatment of Afghan women prizes the oil-slicked Saudi friendship and even offers wan praise for Saudi elections in which women are banned from voting. All U.S. fast-food franchises operating here, not just Starbucks, make women stand in separate lines. U.S.-owned hotels don’t let women check in without a letter from a company vouching for her ability to pay; women checking into hotels alone have long been regarded as prostitutes.

Why is Saudi Arabia considered ‘moderate’? I keep wondering that. Only yesterday, during some BBC discussion of the kickback matter, the official voice called SA ‘moderate’. What’s moderate about it? It funds global fundamentalism and it treats women like dirt – what exactly is moderate about it? Just a kind of alliance with the US? Is that all? Is that enough? (Answer: no. If that’s all that’s meant, ‘moderate’ is the wrong word. Perhaps more is meant? But what? No direct links with Hizbollah? Is that enough?)



Leave? Of course you can’t leave

Jun 7th, 2007 9:17 am | By

The forces of progressivism cover themselves in glory again.

Labour (PvdA) has been trying to muzzle a young PvdA member who is fighting for the rights and safety of Muslim apostates. An internal memo shows that the party fears the campaign of Ehsan Jami will cause it electoral damage and enrage Muslims.

The party fears the campaign of Ehsan Jami to protect the rights and safety of people who don’t want to be Muslims will enrage Muslims, and therefore they try to silence it or adjust it or make it not quite so – er. Because…because a ‘community’ has every right to prevent people from leaving their ‘community’ and therefore people who do leave or try to leave should have no rights and no safety. Is that it? So if you’re a Baptist, you have to stay a Baptist; if you’re a Tory, you don’t get to stop being a Tory; if you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’re not allowed to grow out of it. Is that it? No; but that is it when it comes to ‘Muslim apostates’; and a left-wing party is trying to prevent one of its members from improving the situation. It (apparently) wants Muslims to go on being forced to be Muslims for life whether they want to or not; it wants Muslims alone among the peoples of the earth to have zero choice of beliefs and allegiances; it wants Muslims and only Muslims to be permanently trapped in a religion that will kill them rather than let them simply unjoin. A pretty drastic abridgement of freedom, yet the PvdA doesn’t want it messed with. Well, solidarity forever, that’s all I can say.

Jami announced in May he was setting up a Committee for Ex-Muslims. The committee wants to break the taboo on lapsing from the Islamic faith. The 22 year old Jami, himself an apostate of Islam, says many Muslims do not dare to renounce Islam for fear of reprisals, including death. Jami…will launch the committee officially in September with an international press conference. He says he has already had hundreds of e-mails from Muslims from throughout the world who support him.

Well yeah but those are the wrong kind of Muslims, the ones who believe people should be able to decide for themselves, the ones who are all freedom-loving and Westernized and inauthentic, so who cares what they think, what matters is what the community thinks.

Jami is supported by philosopher and political commentator Afshin Ellian. NRC Handelsblad quoted MP Wolfsen as saying that Ellian has “a very anti-Islam agenda.” But apart from Ellian, who is an Iranian refugee, Jami is “almost exclusively surrounding himself with whites”, which is unwise, Terstal’s email states.

Well yeah. One non-white who is really a white because of having a very anti-Islam agenda, and all the rest are whites, therefore – well I don’t need to spell it out, do I.

Terstall acknowledged in a reaction that his intervention was to some extend dubious, but necessary in the party’s interests. “I do not want to rein in Jami’s enthusiasm, but he must be effective. There are words that he uses that act like a red rag to a bull in the Muslim community, which already has little self-confidence.”

I knew the community would turn up eventually, if I waited long enough; and there it is – all lacking self-confidence, poor thing, so therefore we mustn’t say that people should be able to leave a religion if they want to without being threatened or killed.

Jami said yesterday…that he is not surprised that his party is trying to ‘guide’ him. “It is typical of the PvdA. They do not seem to be able to deal well with this sort of question.” Jami compares his situation with that of the meanwhile world-famous Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who switched from PvdA to the conservatives (VVD) at the beginning of her career because she was not allowed by PvdA to speak freely about the emancipation of Islamic women. Jami is however for now refusing to leave the PvdA and will carry on with his committee. “I want to change the party from inside.”

It sounds as if the party needs it.



And besides atheism is ugly and stupid and old and fat

Jun 6th, 2007 5:51 pm | By

What was that I was murmuring about cherished beliefs and their not so healthy effect on people’s ability to think and argue? Hardly were the words out of my mouth, it seems, when Theo Hobson was inspired to give a truly showy demonstration of that very thing.

First, by way of warming up, he threw himself down on the floor and gave a really good loud scream. ‘Atheism is pretentious and cowardly,’ he howled, spit flying, ‘and I hate it really really hard!’ Then he got up and took up the serious business of making his case.

How odd that there seems to be an endless appetite for militant atheism. How odd that anyone over 17 admires these angry ageing men, scowling at us indignantly, and competing with each other in tough-talking God knocking. How odd that they get such an easy press, that their (usually female) interviewers are so fawning. Now it is Christopher “Hitch” Hitchens’ turn. Behold the jowly prophet…

Behold the ill-mannered petulant whiner, with his factual errors and his hyperbole and his frank and frankly irrelevant insults. What ‘endless appetite’? Five books, after a period of decades when such books could not find a publisher? What ‘militant’ atheism? Where are the buses and trains that atheists blow up? How odd that Theo Hobson, who (I surmise) thinks of himself as a benevolent Christian type, resorts to the pathetic insult ‘aging’ – does he think he is going in the other direction? Does he think it’s reprehensible to get older? And then there’s the bit about mostly female interviewers – oh yes – those stupid credulous dim-witted women, fawning on all the aging jowly cowardly atheists.

And that’s just the first paragraph. Needless to say, the rest of it is crap too, but I thought it was interesting to note how venomous and unpleasant pious Theo is once his beliefs are challenged.

I’m reminded of Mark Vernon, who is not even a theist but who seems to have a real hatred of atheists – at least I can’t imagine what else inspires him to talk such nonsense about them as he does in the comments on this post.

So here’s a few gently provocative comments in reply – though no doubt, to begin the provocation straight away, you conviction atheists will immediately reject them out of hand as confusion piled upon confusion, because, of course, you conviction atheists have all confusions ironed out by all-conquering reason, with your beliefs flowing cooly in streams of coherent logic…Doubt and belief go together. Let me just offer three reasons why that might be the case (‘Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish!’, I hear you faithful atheists reply – and you have company, with the fundamentalists)…It is only the fundamentalist – religious or atheist – for whom doubt, confusion, complications are seen as automatic failures of belief, opportunities to score points, or rallying calls for the soldiers to march around. Just being gently provocative.

Obnoxious, isn’t it. Inaccurate and sneery – an annoying combination. (I objected, in fact I objected twice, but answer came there none.) What’s the point? What’s the point of railing at the wrong target? Why not dispute real atheism instead of wild-fantasy atheism? I don’t know, but I find this kind of thing unimpressive.