Other people far away

Dec 5th, 2008 12:22 pm | By

Norm makes a very sharp and telling point.

Periodically, the Guardian newspaper carries an op-ed piece on how somebody or other, typically a Western government, is sowing fear for some nefarious purpose. If the piece isn’t by Madeleine Bunting, then it’s likely to be by Simon Jenkins. And so it is today. He’s talking ‘scaremongering’, ‘politics of fear’, ‘fear politics’, ‘the pervasiveness of fear’…

Yes isn’t he just:

The media’s fondness for describing any explosion as “al-Qaeda-linked” has turned what was a tiny, if efficient, cabal of fanatics into a global menace, ridiculously on a par with Hitler and postwar communism…At least organised crime and communism posed genuine threats to American liberties. Al-Qaida does not, yet it has become the ruling obsession of Bush’s courtiers.

Norm retorts –

As long as the squads are only kidnapping, torturing and murdering people, you see, law and liberties remain intact – even if not the liberties of those particular people happening to be now dead or horribly injured.

There is something deeply contemptible about this section of Western liberal opinion and its most consistent organ, The Guardian. Its spokespeople can assimilate everything done by Islamist enemies of the rule of law and of the liberties of the not-yet-murdered…[O]nly let there be blood on the streets caused by groups openly proclaiming their hatred of secular law and liberty, and the Simon Jenkinses and the rest of his Guardianista ilk can’t wait to impress upon you how very relaxed you ought to be about it.

Let me zero in on the stupidity of ‘At least organised crime and communism posed genuine threats to American liberties. Al-Qaida does not, yet it has become the ruling obsession of Bush’s courtiers.’ Let me zero in on the stupidity and callous brutality of those two sentences. Here’s the thing: ‘American liberties’ are not the only issue here. It is entirely possible to think that al-Qaeda is no threat at all to American liberties or American anything else and still think that al-Qaida is a very horrible phenomenon, on a par with Nazism morally if not in its power (so far) to murder millions. It is entirely possible to think that we in the US can get along just fine even if al-Qaeda flourishes like the green bay tree in South Asia – and to think that our ability to get along just fine is not the only issue, is not the point here, is not the deciding factor. It is entirely possible to think that what happened in Mumbai was appalling and worth being very shocked and worried about because of the people of Mumbai. It is entirely possible to think that the spread of Islamism in much of the developing world could well leave the US almost untouched and still think it’s an absolute nightmare because of what it will do to the people who live under its crushing punitive rule.

This isn’t a very subtle or sophisticated thought, surely. It’s obvious enough, surely. It’s simple enough. Bad things are bad even if they happen to other people far away. That applies to DR Congo, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Burma, Saudi Arabia – it applies to more places than one likes to contemplate – and it applies to Mumbai and Kabul, too, even if New York and Washington remain unmussed forever.

The sleep of reason begets monsters

Dec 4th, 2008 10:48 am | By

We’ve finished the book. Don’t say what book – the book we’ve been writing – Does God Hate Women? It’s finished.

It’s full of nightmares – but the nightmares are only a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of the nightmares there are. Nicholas Kristof has been finding some.

[A]longside the brutal public terrorism that fills the television screens, there is an equally cruel form of terrorism that gets almost no attention and thrives as a result: flinging acid on a woman’s face to leave her hideously deformed. Here in Pakistan, I’ve been investigating such acid attacks, which are commonly used to terrorize and subjugate women and girls in a swath of Asia from Afghanistan through Cambodia (men are almost never attacked with acid). Because women usually don’t matter in this part of the world, their attackers are rarely prosecuted and acid sales are usually not controlled. It’s a kind of terrorism that becomes accepted as part of the background noise in the region.

Because women don’t matter. They’re worth having, but only the way a hamburger or a hammer is worth having; they’re not important or significant or worth a fuss, so once they’re not worth having any more, it’s okay to wreck them.

Ms. Azar had earned a good income and was supporting her three small children when she decided to divorce her husband, Azar Jamsheed, a fruit seller who rarely brought money home. He agreed to end the (arranged) marriage because he had his eye on another woman. After the divorce was final, Mr. Jamsheed came to say goodbye to the children, and then pulled out a bottle and poured acid on his wife’s face, according to her account and that of their son.

He was never arrested.

Acid attacks and wife burnings are common in parts of Asia because the victims are the most voiceless in these societies: they are poor and female. The first step is simply for the world to take note, to give voice to these women. Since 1994, Ms. Bukhari has documented 7,800 cases of women who were deliberately burned, scalded or subjected to acid attacks, just in the Islamabad area. In only 2 percent of those cases was anyone convicted.

Okay, world: take note. 7,800 known cases in 14 years in just one city. That’s a lot of burned women.

For the last two years, Senators Joe Biden and Richard Lugar have co-sponsored an International Violence Against Women Act, which would adopt a range of measures to spotlight such brutality and nudge foreign governments to pay heed to it. Let’s hope that with Mr. Biden’s new influence the bill will pass in the next Congress. That might help end the silence and culture of impunity surrounding this kind of terrorism.

Yeah let’s. Well done, Senators. Way to go Joe. Get that baby passed.

The universality of the UDHR

Dec 3rd, 2008 5:07 pm | By

Anthony Grayling is doing a series on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It is easy now, as it always has been, to think that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a fine-sounding efflation of rhetoric, or, conversely, to think that it is a piece of Eurocentric Enlightenment imperialism whose highminded pronouncements – for example, about the equality of men and women – do not please all members of all cultures.

Indeed. Highminded pronouncements about rights and equality of anyone are bound to fail to please some members of all cultures because there are always some members of cultures who want to be able to exploit and dominate other people. The UDHR is intended to be an obstacle in the way of that project.

Grayling says as much in the next installment.

[T]he aim of the first three articles is to erect a presumption of rights as a stockade around individuals to shield them from arbitrary depredation. It is to guard them against becoming prey to the unscrupulous and the more powerful, against hostile majorities, and against tyrannical government. To the sceptic who asks, “Who says that individuals have these rights?” the argument of experience about the minimum required for a chance of human flourishing, and the vividly recent history of circumstances in which millions were regarded as not having any such rights, is a definitive reply.

I don’t say that indivduals actually have the rights, but I do say that we should all act as if they do – which is much the same thing as ‘a presumption of rights as a stockade around individuals to shield them from arbitrary depredation.’ A presumption of rights; that’s all; the sceptic can relax.

The UDHR was devised as an exhortatory document, a statement of aspirations; its preamble says that it is a proclamation of “a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations”, and enjoins UN members states and their citizens to “strive … to promote respect” for them. So although the emphatic rhetoric of the articles makes them sound legalistic and marmoreal, their force is primarily moral.

Sure. A declaration of intent – and one that we had all better adhere to.

But there are dissenters.

One of the standard objections to the UDHR is that it is a western Enlightenment invention, and that its claim to universality is spurious. Few things refute this allegation so swiftly as thoughts of torture and slavery…Doubts about the UDHR’s universality were voiced early, and not at first by people in colonised and developing countries, who welcomed the UDHR with open arms (it was the big powers who were suspicious of it, as threatening to interfere with the exercise of their hegemony), but rather by bien pensants in the western world itself. In 1947 the American Anthropological Association voiced concern that ideas of human rights are ethnocentric…

Because of course highminded pronouncements – for example, about the equality of men and women – do not please all members of all cultures. Good that anthropologists were and are alert to the injustice of expecting unpleased members of cultures to treat other people as rights-bearers, isn’t it.

In any case, cultural bias is not always a bad thing. Those cultures that condemn genital mutilation of girls are justified in condemning the cultures that practice it, because they can make a case that members of the latter cultures would be bound to accept in other respects…[S]o much for relativism. And that is an important point, because Articles 4 and 5 are an explication of Article 3’s “life, liberty and security”, and show that it applies without borders.

I wonder if we can make a deal – we’ll give up SUVs if you give up FGM. A win-win situation.

The Vatican lives up to itself

Dec 2nd, 2008 5:00 pm | By

Good old Vatican – it makes sure we won’t relax our guard and start thinking they’re a nice bunch of fellas there. It makes sure to keep reminding us that no, they’re a nasty bigoted punitive set of dogmatists who insist on their obligation to mistreat people for no good reason.

The Vatican has said it opposes a European Union proposal for a United Nations declaration formally condemning discrimination against homosexuals, which it claims would “de-criminalise” same sex unions.

So apparently it thinks same sex unions are and should remain crimes. That’s nice. Of course, if priests fiddle with children, that should be protected and kept secret, but if gay adults want to pair off, oh my no, that must be called a crime. No poxy secular EU is going to mess around with that.

Access of evil

Dec 1st, 2008 1:14 am | By

What a foul ruthless disgusting privileged shameless contemptible bastard George Bush is. Not that this is a news flash…but new instances of it can still cause the jaw to drop with revulsion and loathing.

The Labor Department is racing to complete a new rule, strenuously opposed by President-elect Barack Obama, that would make it much harder for the government to regulate toxic substances and hazardous chemicals to which workers are exposed on the job. The rule, which has strong support from business groups, says that in assessing the risk from a particular substance, federal agencies should gather and analyze “industry-by-industry evidence” of employees’ exposure to it during their working lives. The proposal would, in many cases, add a step to the lengthy process of developing standards to protect workers’ health.

Bastard. Evil smirking selfish protected shameless little bastard. He’s never had to work around toxic substances and hazardous chemicals, his children will never have to work around toxic substances and hazardous chemicals, none of his friends and relations will ever have to work around toxic substances and hazardous chemicals – so what is it to him if other people do have to? So their lungs get seared – so their GI tracts get abraded – so they get cancer – so what? That’s their problem. They should have been born to rich parents if they wanted to work in safe conditions.

Scum. The man is scum. It’s not possible to despise him enough.

Ways of knowing

Dec 1st, 2008 1:00 am | By

I trust you read Tom Clark’s terrific article on epistemology. I’m going to comment on just one section, ‘Misplaced concessions to non-empiricism.’

Most organizations in the U.S. that champion science take the politically safe route of conceding a certain respect to their biggest epistemic competition, traditional faith-based institutional religions such as Christianity. A popular rationale for such respect is that science and religion don’t conflict since science can’t evaluate religious claims about the supernatural; it’s only concerned with the natural, material world. This suggests that religions have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural.

Indeed it does, and, annoyingly and unhelpfully (not to say harmfully), it does it without actually explicitly saying it. As Tom says, it suggests it, but it doesn’t spell it out. This is not surprising because of course there is no reason to think it’s true. There is no reason to think religions do have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural – but if it’s suggested, perhaps they’ll calm down a little and let science get on with things. They never do seem to calm down though, and the suggestion is harmful to onlookers who could end up believing that religions do have epistemic authority when it comes to the supernatural.

In the examples Tom quotes I think the worst bit of phrasing comes from the National Academy of Science –

At the root of the apparent conflict between some religions and evolution is a misunderstanding of the critical difference between religious and scientific ways of knowing.

That comes much too close to saying explicitly that religion has a way of knowing, but that’s the very thing religion doesn’t have. It has lots of ways of claiming to know, of pretending to know, of performing an imitation of knowing; but it has no way of actually legitimately knowing. (Tom says exactly that in the paragraph following the quoted passages. I just felt like saying it too.)

By implying non-empiricism might have some epistemic merit as a route to objectivity in certain realms, the NAS and other science-promoting organizations miss the biggest selling point for science, or more broadly, intersubjective empiricism: it has no rival when it comes to modeling reality in any domain that’s claimed to exist. The reason is simple but needs to be made explicit: religious and other non-empirical ways of knowing don’t sufficiently respect the distinction between appearance and reality, between subjectivity and objectivity. They are not sufficiently on guard against the possibility that one’s model of the world is biased by perceptual limitations, wishful thinking, uncorroborated intuition, conventional wisdom, cultural tradition, and other influences that may not be responsive to the way the world actually is.

Just so – along with the rest of what Tom says about it; it’s hard to excerpt because it’s all so admirably clear and compelling. At any rate – all this is obvious enough and yet it’s kept tactfully veiled in much public discourse simply in order to appease people who are not sufficiently on guard against the possibility that one’s model of the world is biased by wishful thinking among other things. It’s all very unfortunate. The very people who most need to learn to guard against cognitive bias are the ones who are being appeased lest they get ‘offended’ at discovering that. It’s an endless circle of epistemic disability.

Faith-based religions and other non-empirically based worldviews routinely make factual assertions about the existence of god, paranormal abilities, astrological influences, the power of prayer, etc. So they are inevitably in the business of representing reality, of describing what they purport to be objective truths, some of which concern the supernatural. But having signed on to the cognitive project of supplying an accurate model of the world, they routinely violate basic epistemic standards of reliable cognition. There’s consequently no reason to grant them any domain of cognitive competence. Although this might sound arrogant, it’s a judgment reached from the standpoint of epistemic humility.

The real arrogance is the routine violation of epistemic standards of reliable cognition. There’s something so vain, so self-centered, about doing that – as if it’s appropriate to think that our hopes and wishes get to decide what reality is. It’s just decent humility to realize that reality is what it is and that we are not so important or powerful that we can create it or change it with the power of thought.

A few young men out on a spree

Nov 28th, 2008 4:23 pm | By

It’s hard to read it without feeling sick – sick with loathing and disgust. With hatred of what people can be at their most horrible – and of what makes them be like that.

[T]he Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus, previously known as the Victoria terminus, a world heritage site and one of India’s busiest stations, was the scene of mayhem, with blood spattered across the station forecourt and platforms. Gunmen shot up the reservation counter of the station, randomly sprayed passengers, believed to be entirely composed of Indian travellers and commuters, and fled. “They just fired randomly at people and then ran away. In seconds, people fell to the ground,” said Nasim Inam, a witness. Cafe worker Pappu Mishra said two men dressed in black walked into the station pulling guns from their bags and shooting commuters. “Their audaciousness was breathtaking,” he said. “One man loaded the magazine into the gun, the other kept shooting. They appeared calm and composed. They were not in the slightest hurry. They didn’t seem to be afraid at all.” At least 10 people were killed.

Just calmly, tranquilly, cheerfully strolling around killing and maiming people, as one might stroll around a big city taking in the sights.

While guests in both hotels spoke of some gunmen asking for Americans and Britons, the death toll made it clear that, by a vast majority, the main victims were Indians and that any foreigner was regarded as a suitable target. Among the dead are Japanese, Italians, Germans and Australians and among the guests rounded up were Yemenis, Spaniards, New Zealanders, Turks and Israelis.

Whatever. Whoever. It doesn’t matter. It never has. Anybody, everybody – everybody is the enemy. They’re all either infidels, or consumers, or Westerners, or Indians, or foreign, or in the way, or not pure enough, or not waging jihad, or something – they all have something about them that makes it quite all right to kill them or maim them. Why not? Al Qaeda tells us it appeals ‘to the “weak and oppressed” around the world so why not shoot up train stations and hospitals?

Gunmen also attacked Cama and Albless hospital and GT hospital, causing fresh panic. The hospital is known as a place where women and the children of the poor are treated and there was puzzlement as to why it had been added to the target list of the attackers.

Because they’re horrible horrible horrible people who like hurting and killing people, that’s why! They blew up the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania all those years ago, killing mostly Africans! And women aren’t supposed to go to hospitals, remember? And children are just future women or infidels or consumers…so why spare them? Why spare anyone? No reason.

Allah the Merciful. You have got to be kidding.

How humanists are like the Taliban

Nov 26th, 2008 11:23 am | By

The British Humanist Association got a grant from the Equality and Human Rights Commission to hold a series of debates about the place of religion in public life.

The four events will include speakers from faith groups but one of the keynote addresses is being delivered by the prominent atheist Professor AC Grayling…

But? Why but? What do they mean ‘but’? That a series of debates about the place of religion in public life should include nothing but ‘speakers from faith groups’? But that would be kind of a stupid ‘debate,’ wouldn’t it? More like a prayer meeting, or a preaching to the choir session? More like a complete waste of time in fact? Why would a series of debates about the place of religion in public life not include atheists, even prominent atheists?

Critics say it is wrong for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to give taxpayers’ money to a controversial organisation whose stance would be found objectionable by many members of the public. Neil Addison, a Roman Catholic barrister who specialises in religious discrimination, said: “It’s a bit like paying the Taliban to lecture on women’s rights.”

Oh is it. Is it really. Because the British Humanist Association has so much in common with the Taliban? Or simply because in both cases the idea is that the thing discussed is not such a good idea. But the equivalency of course is 1) absurd and 2) vicious. You might as well say that abolitionists holding debates on slavery is a bit like the Taliban lecturing on women’s rights. In both cases the parties are opposed to the thing under discussion, but the morality of each position is hardly equivalent. Of course Neil Addison the Catholic barrister knows that perfectly well, but he also knows that his outrageous comment will leave the desired impression. Very Catholic, that is; downright Jesuit, that is.

No actually Mr Addison the Catholic church has a hell of a lot more in common with the Taliban than any humanist group does. Both tell women what to do, both tell women they are subordinate to men, both try to keep women pregnant and dependent. Both hate women unless they are meek and ‘devout’ and mostly out of sight. There’s some ecumenical ‘religious discrimination’ for you. Go tell the UN on me.

How constitutions differ

Nov 25th, 2008 3:49 pm | By

How Bangladesh went wrong.

Bangladesh began sliding slowly towards Islamism following the assassination of Rahman in 1975. In 1977, references to secularism were deleted from the constitution and the phrase “Bismillah-Ar-Rahiman-Ar Rahim” (“In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful”) was inserted. Five years later, General Ershad…introduced the Eighth Amendment, making Islam the state religion. The constitution now states that “absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah shall be the basis of all actions.”

Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful, who (according to them) wants men to treat women like dirt, and treacherous disobedient dirt at that.

I was on a bus yesterday that had an ad inside with that saying on it, along with an injunction to ‘Learn More About Islam.’ It’s a ridiculous saying – which is what makes it so irritating to see. The Beneficient, the Merciful, when actual life for most Muslims around the world is so shitty, and getting so much shittier, largely thanks to people who want to ratify all their bullying rules and restrictions with ‘In the name of Allah, the Beneficient, the Merciful.’ If Allah is so beneficent and merciful, why are the rules and restrictions so harsh and cruel?

Ridiculous being ordered to have absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah when the human interpreters are so untrustworthy.

One sees why Mary Kenny gets grumpy mail

Nov 25th, 2008 11:20 am | By

Mary Kenny must be somewhat impervious to criticism – she’s saying the same absurd things she said last time we took this ride – minus the hilarious gripe about gloomy atheist funerals, to be sure.

‘Atheist bus’* – blah blah –

I found the atheists’ coda “so relax and enjoy life” ludicrously implausible. I’ve never yet met an atheist with a sense of joie-de-vivre (unless, in the case of one well-known public atheist, a certain drunken cordiality) most of them seem to be miserable blighters. Read GK Chesterton’s great poem ‘The Ballad of the Sad Athiest’. It perfectly describes this kind of dreary and austere puritan.

I think I said this last time, but ho hum, I know my duty, I’ll just say it all over again – but in a high squeaky voice this time, by way of variety. What or whom Mary Kenny has or has not met is supremely beside the point. Mary Kenny does not get to conclude from whatever sample she personally has encountered, what all atheists are like. Besides which, Kenny so obviously has no sense of the need to check one’s own perceptions and biases that I don’t even trust her to know what kind of atheists she’s met – I don’t trust her to avoid the obvious error of remembering the glum atheists and forgetting the cheerful ones; in short, selection bias. One can’t even trust her to punctuate her own sentences (what happened after that parenthesis? a blackout?) so why should one trust her to sort her own memories with caution?

I still believe in freedom of speech and freedom of debate: although it is clear that if the militant atheists had their way, there would be no space whatsoever for Christians or other believers in the public realm.

Is it? Is that clear? Not to me, and Kenny (you won’t be surprised to learn) offers not a shred of a ghost of a reason to think it is. She just announces it, that’s all. She doesn’t remember meeting any sanguine atheists therefore all atheists are miserable blighters therefore they want to expel all believers from the public realm. QED.

I am convinced that this injection of atheism into the culture is directly responsible for the increase in drug-abuse, in crime and, most specifically, in the five-fold increase in suicide that we have seen in these islands over the last 25 years.

Kenny is convinced of a lot of things, on no apparent grounds whatever. She shouldn’t make a boast of it though.

A life without a spiritual sense of purpose, or the moral parameters set by the Ten Commandments — is a living hell.

Jesus god – the ten commandments. Please. Three about crawling to god; sabbath; parents; adultery; and four blindingly obvious minimal prohibitions: murder, lying, theft, and envy. Big fucking deal. Life without that stupid little list, more than half of which is either dead wrong or debatable, is a living hell? There’s not a word about cruelty; nothing about being generous or kind or (Karen Armstrong please note) compassionate; nothing about justice or rights or equality. Yet life without that narrow jejune superstitious unimaginative impoverished piece of crap is a living hell? It seems much more likely to me that a life limited to that grocery list as the sum total of morality would be – not necessarily a living hell but certainly a small airless thing.

Then she goes on to say – pleasantly – that atheists are the cause of parents who torture their babies to death. Back atcha, hon.

*Atheist bus? It’s a bus with an atheist ad on the side. Is it a theist bus when it has a theist ad on it? You don’t seem to see that phrase, so probably not. Yet another case of Special Rules for Atheism.

The pope says more than he meant to

Nov 24th, 2008 11:55 am | By

The pope perhaps spilled the beans even more than the Vatican realizes.

[T]he pope said the book “explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.” In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.”…To some scholars, the pope’s remarks seemed aimed at pushing more theoretical interreligious conversations into the practical realm. “He’s trying to get the Catholic-Islamic dialogue out of the clouds of theory and down to brass tacks: how can we know the truth about how we ought to live together justly, despite basic creedal differences?”

How indeed. By thinking about the subject in secular, rational, human-based terms, that’s how. By bracketing ‘creedal’ matters altogether and thinking about this world and these humans and these issues. But the pope of course won’t have intended to say that…

Forget Joan Didion, ask the Delphic oracle instead

Nov 24th, 2008 11:12 am | By

Oh gee – there might be an irony gap developing. How horrifying, how shocking, how alarming.

Its ill health was noted by, among others, no less an ironist than Joan Didion, the nation’s poet laureate of disillusion. The week after the election, in a talk at the New York Public Library, Ms. Didion lamented that the United States in the era of Barack Obama had become an “irony-free zone,” a vast Kool-Aid tank where “naïveté, translated into ‘hope,’ was now in” and where “innocence, even when it looked like ignorance, was now prized.”

Did she. Well that strikes me as quite a stupid thing to say. Is that ironic?

But Ms. Didion might be on to something. A Nexis search found that the incidence of the words “irony,” “ironic” and “ironically” in major American newspapers during the two-week period beginning Nov. 6 slipped 19 percent from the same period last year.

Really? Well hooray – there is nothing more unironic than constantly belaboring the notion of irony. Irony turns deadly earnest the instant you lay claim to it.

Some sometime cynics bristled at the suggestion that they had gone soft or lost their edge. “To me, it’s a false choice to say we’re either going to be running our own little ‘Daily Show’ of the mind 24/7 or we’re going to be completely earnest,” said Kurt Andersen…“One can maintain one’s ironic armor and arsenal where one needs it.”

Well quite. One can be not particularly ‘ironic’ about Obama without being earnest or literal or flat-footed about everything. Does anyone – even Joan Didion – really need to be told this?

But it is at times like these, Ms. Didion seemed to argue, when a distanced perspective is needed most. (Not that she was willing to elaborate on her talk. “Basically,” she said on the phone Tuesday, “I don’t like to talk about anything I’ve written or that I’m writing. What you write down, there it is and you’ve done it.”)

Could that be because it doesn’t mean anything? How ‘ironic’ is Joan Didion anyway? What does it mean to call her ironic? Is there any substance to anything she says or is it just style, just a tic, just an attitude, just a get-me-I’m-hip pose? Is there less there than meets the eye? In other words could it be that she was not willing to elaborate on her talk because she was not able to, because it was just some word-spinning as opposed to an actual thought or argument? I think it could. And I say that without a trace of irony.

‘I would rather die for the dignity of women than die for nothing’

Nov 23rd, 2008 1:02 pm | By

Afghanistan at war with Afghan women.

For women and girls across Afghanistan, conditions are worsening – and those women who dare to publicly oppose the traditional order now live in fear for their lives. The Afghan MP Shukria Barakzai receives regular death threats for speaking out on women’s issues. Talking at her home in central Kabul, she closed the living room door as her three young daughters played in the hall. “You can’t imagine what it feels like as a mother to leave the house each day and not know if you will come back again,” she said, her eyes welling up as she spoke. “But there is no choice. I would rather die for the dignity of women than die for nothing. Should I stop my work because there is a chance I might be killed? I must go on, and if it happens it happens.”

A brave woman. There is a choice of course – but she’s refusing to make it. An extremely brave woman.

Barakzai receives frequent but cryptic warnings about planned suicide attacks on her car, but no help from the government. Officials advise her to stay at home and not go to work, but offer nothing in the way of security assistance, despite her requests. She said warlords in parliament who received similar threats were immediately provided with armoured vehicles, armed guards and a safe house by the government.

Really. Male warlords get massive protection, women who work for women’s rights are left hanging out there with no protection. Bastards, bastards, bastards.

Afghan women are feeling increasingly vulnerable as the security situation worsens and a growing number of western and Afghan officials call for the Taliban to join the government. “We are very worried that, now the government is talking with the Taliban, our rights will be compromised,” said Shinkai Karokhail, an outspoken MP for Kabul. “We must not be the sacrifice by which peace with the Taliban is made.”

Really. I’ve been flinching for weeks as people talk about negotiating with the Taliban – pointing out cheerily that the Taliban is not Al Qaeda. No, it’s not, but it’s not a cocker spaniel puppy, either!

Afghan women who defy traditional gender roles and speak out against the oppression of women are routinely subject to threats, intimidation and assassination. An increasingly powerful Taliban regularly attacks projects, schools and businesses run by women…Talking to the Guardian at a safe house on the outskirts of Kabul, Mullah Zubiallah Akhond, a Taliban commander from the southern province of Uruzgan, said the group’s attacks on women were always political and not based on any desire to target or punish women specifically.

Oh right, no of course not, certainly not, no indeed those ‘political’ attacks on women obviously have nothing to do with any desire to target or punish women specifically – they’re just based on a desire to keep women confined, invisible, helpless, and enslaved, and to kill or burn any woman who resists.

[T]here had also been a sharp increase in rapes by men who claimed they could not afford to pay the dowry needed to marry. After the public shame of an attack, the victim is usually outcast and the rapist is then the only man who will have the woman as his wife. It is crimes like this that make many Afghans nostalgic for the harsh justice of Taliban rule. Barakzai countered: “Women were safe, in one sense, under the Taliban – but they were kept as slaves, they were not allowed to do what they wanted even in their own home.”

Here’s a daring ambition – for Afghan women to be both safe and free. Imagine that.

Al Qaeda ingratiates itself

Nov 22nd, 2008 4:16 pm | By

Al Qaeda sets us all straight about that Obama fella.

In a propaganda salvo by Al Qaeda aimed at undercutting the enthusiasm of Muslims worldwide about the American election, Osama bin Laden’s top deputy condemned President-elect Barack Obama as a “house Negro” who would continue a campaign against Islam…Appealing to the “weak and oppressed” around the world…

Al Qaeda, appealing to the weak and oppressed around the world – that is truly rich. Al Qaeda thinks the weak and oppressed around the world should be kept out of school, out of hospitals, out of the police forces, out of all jobs, off the streets, locked up in windowless houses. Al Qaeda thinks that any weak and oppressed who struggle against such rules should have acid thrown in their faces, or their heads cut off. Al Qaeda pretending to be the defender of the weak and oppressed is one of the most disgusting jokes I know of.

“And in you and in Colin Powell, Rice and your likes, the words of Malcolm X (may Allah have mercy on him) concerning ‘house Negroes’ are confirmed,” Mr. Zawahri said, according to an English-language transcript…In the original Arabic, according to SITE, the words used are “house slave.”

Well that sounds about right. Ayaan Hirsi Ali spent some time in Saudi Arabia as a child, and she says her teacher called her Aswa Abda: black slave girl. ‘I hated Saudi Arabia,’ she concludes. (Infidel, p. 49) Here’s al Qaeda covering itself in glory by doing the same thing. They’re racist sexist murderous thugs – yes that’s appealing all right.

Permitted and forbidden

Nov 21st, 2008 3:59 pm | By

I saw a segment on Deutsche Welle’s European Journal the other day about a new Swedish tv show, rebarbatively named ‘Halal-TV,’ that is hosted by three women wearing hijab and calling themselves (of course) ‘devout’ Muslims. The DW item included a woman of Muslim background saying state tv had no business telling us all we have to love Islam. Good, but it also had one of the hijab-wearing hosts informing us that ‘halal’ means ‘right’ and ‘haram’ means ‘wrong.’ That’s sugar-coating the pill with a vengeance, and it’s bullshit. Halal means ‘permitted,’ not ‘right,’ and haram means ‘forbidden,’ not ‘wrong.’ There’s a major difference. There’s a huge difference, and a difference that could hardly be more important. What is ‘permitted’ can be profoundly wrong and cruel and wicked; what is ‘forbidden’ can be entirely harmless or enormously beneficial. To many people, girls going to school is haram, and stoning girls to death for being raped is halal. Confusing the concept ‘permitted’ with the concept ‘right’ is a recipe for the worst kind of moral blindness and stupidity. By the same token, being ‘devout’ is not the same thing as being good, or kind, or compassionate, or generous. In the case of a vicious misogynist thuggish god, it has no chance of being any of those things.

A Swedish news source in English has more.

Controversy about Halal-TV erupted even before the first episode aired on Monday night when author and commentator Dilsa Demirbag-Sten, a Kurdish immigrant from Turkey who moved to Sweden at the age of six, pointed out that one of the show’s hosts had previously said she thought that stoning a woman to death was an appropriate punishment for adultery.

See? They care about what’s ‘permitted,’ and can’t even figure out what is ‘right.’ They’re misguided, and deluded, and dangerous – yet the show (from what I saw of it) portrays them (as such shows so often do) as hip and happenin’ hijab-chicks.

“There are many ways for public broadcasting to use high standards of journalism to address the diversity issues which affect the Muslim part of the population without reducing the group to deeply faithful, headscarf bearing, homophobic teetotalers who believe that women should be virgins until they are married and support stoning for adultery,” Demirbag-Sten wrote in a column published last week in the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) newspaper.

Yeah. Hooray for Dilsa Demirbag-Sten.

In one of the segments, Awad and El Khabiry refuse to shake the hand of Aftonbladet newspaper columnist Carl Hamilton, electing instead to greet the guest by putting their hands on their chests, leaving Hamilton’s extended hand hanging in the air and prompting a sharp exchange.

Halal, you see. Rude, degrading, insulting, slavish, but halal. And devout.

Where this kind of thinking gets you is well illustrated by a story from Australia.

Some Muslim religious leaders are condoning rape within marriage, domestic violence, polygamy, welfare fraud and the exploitation of women, a report on imam training has found…The report says the 24-man board ignored or did not directly answer many of the questions. It says women, community and legal workers and police were particularly concerned about domestic violence and suggested that imams aimed to preserve the family at the cost of women. It says the husbands of some women who were legally separated but not religiously divorced entered their houses, demanded sexual intercourse and took it by force. “Workers who have assisted women in this situation said that the advice women received from the imams was that it was halal – permitted – because there was a valid nikah – marriage,” the report says.

See? It’s halal. It’s wrong, it’s shitty, it’s brutal, it’s greedy, it tramples on the woman’s wishes and her dignity and her right to her own body and self, but so what? It’s halal. Spread your legs.

It was very unsettling, very jarring

Nov 21st, 2008 3:28 pm | By

Well after all, atheism is illegal, you know. I mean to say. What do they expect?

An Ontario billboard company is removing a controversial Rancho Cucamonga billboard promoting atheism after receiving complaints, according to the group that paid for the advertisement. The billboard…says “Imagine No Religion” in large letters on a stained-glass background. Underneath is the name of the group, “Freedom From Religion Foundation,” and the group’s Web address.

Well quite. That’s bound to be illegal. You can’t have people saying ‘Imagine no religion’ in a freedom-loving liberal democracy, now can you. I mean to say.

Judy Rooze, administrator of First Baptist Church of Rancho Cucamonga, which is two blocks from the billboard, was relieved it was coming down. Rooze said it was unsettling. “I understand people have freedom of speech, but this is taking it too far,” she said. “It’s very jarring.”

Well this is what I’m saying. You can’t have people saying things that are unsettling. Dear god no. I’m all in favour of free speech but obviously that doesn’t include things that are unsettling. Have some common sense. You can’t yell ‘fire’ in a crowded unemployment office and you can’t say things that are jarring, either. I don’t know what gets into some people.

Johann does a bit of lèsing the majesté

Nov 20th, 2008 12:44 pm | By

Johann don’t want no activist King Chuck, for very good and compelling reasons.

Charles says the “responsibility and authority of his position” – and the “wisdom” it entails – requires him to “speak out” and “pressure” our elected representatives. A bevy of fawning pundits have responded by crying – yes!…Charles’s position stems from one thing and one thing only: he emerged from Elizabeth Windsor’s womb 60 years ago. That’s it. He has no “responsibility.” He has no legitimate “authority.” He has no more right to “speak for the nation and to the nation” – and pocket £7m a year for the bother – than you, me, or the next person you see at the bus stop.

Well exactly, and obviously; yet the man seems to be weirdly oblivious to this glaring fact. One can see how he would get to be that way, of course, what with all the ridiculous ‘specialness’ that surrounds royals – but if he were actually as clever as he thinks he is, he would have been able to figure it out at some point before age 60.

If not for that fortuitous journey through a royal womb, Charles Windsor’s “wise” arguments would be gathering dust in the reject bin at certain newspapers’ letters pages. If his advocates didn’t keep praising him as “a public intellectual” I wouldn’t be rude enough to point it out, but Charles Windsor is a strikingly stupid man. Every time he has been put into a competitive situation where he is judged according to objective criteria, he has been a disaster…And what of his arguments? They are garbled, uninformed, cliché-ridden repetitions of what the last person who spoke to him said. His very sympathetic biographer Dimbleby admits that his staff “were uncomfortable with his tendency to reach instant conclusions on the basis of insufficient thought”…What do these “interventions” really consist of? Charles Windsor scorns modern science, attacking it for its “lack of soul” and for “playing God”. So he uses his position to attack qualified life-saving professionals who earned their position, like the General Medical Council – and says he knows better.

Precisely. That’s the bit that really gets up my plebeian nose – the thinking he knows better than people who have actually done the training as opposed to simply reading an article in Quacks’ Gazette.


Nov 20th, 2008 12:19 pm | By

‘This is Islamic justice, British style’.

The woman in black wanted an Islamic divorce. She told the religious judge that her husband hit her, cursed her and wanted her dead. But her husband was opposed, and the Islamic scholar adjudicating the case seemed determined to keep the couple together. So, sensing defeat, she brought our her secret weapon: her father. In walked a bearded man in long robes who described his son-in-law as a hot-tempered man who had duped his daughter, evaded the police and humiliated his family. The judge promptly reversed himself and recommended divorce. This is Islamic justice, British style.

Well obviously ‘justice’ is the wrong word there. Obviously that word should be in scare-quotes, or followed by ‘hahahaha,’ or a headline in The Onion. ‘Justice’ you call it – when men get together and decide a woman’s fate while ignoring the woman herself; when ‘the Islamic scholar’ is determined to ‘keep the couple together’ no matter how disgustingly the man treats the woman; when the woman is doomed to a life of degradation and loathing unless she has her father handy and he sides with her. That’s not justice. That’s a bad cruel joke, that’s what that is.

But Shariah has been rejected in the West as well. The Canadian province of Ontario had allowed rabbinical courts and Christian courts to resolve some civil and family disputes with binding rulings under a 1991 law. But when the Islamic Institute on Civil Justice there tried to create a Shariah court, it was attacked as a violation of the rights of Muslim women. As a result, Ontario changed the entire system in 2006 to strip the rulings of any religious arbitration of legal validity or enforceability.

Yeah – thanks largely to the tireless efforts of our friend Homa Arjomand.

“We always try to keep the marriages together, especially when there are children,” said Hasan’s wife, Shakila Qurashi, who works as an unofficial counselor for women. If the husband beats her, she should go to the police and have a divorce, Qurashi said. “But if he’s slapped her only once or something like that,” she said, “and he admits he has made a mistake and promised not to do it again, then we say, ‘You have to forgive.’ “


Run out and buy a Denali

Nov 18th, 2008 3:10 pm | By

Congress is having fits trying to figure out what to do about the big 3 US carmakers. Let them sink? Give them billions and billions and billions of dollars? Retool them to make buses and repair bridges? No that last one isn’t a real proposal, at least not that I know of. Barbara Mikulski’s is real though.

Mikulski did not call for the $25 billion worth of federally guaranteed loans that Reid is seeking. Instead, she offered her own proposal costing $8 billion: tax breaks for those buying cars between now and the end of next year.

That’s the stupidest thing I’ve heard in – a day or two anyway. What a good idea! Give people tax breaks to encourage them to buy bad dangerous oversized gas-guzzling pedestrian-flattening planet-destroying cars!

Yes I know thousands of jobs are at stake, but other things are at stake too, and as everyone keeps awkwardly noticing, the US car industry is flailing partly because it makes such bad stupid cars. I think we should go all free market on their ass and say the invisible hand has spoken, go make tinker toys.

Herding atheist cats

Nov 18th, 2008 9:47 am | By

You don’t say.

Atheists “are talking to a very small slice of the population,” said Mathew Staver, a leading Christian conservative and law-school dean. “In some ways, they’re really just talking to themselves.”

Well no kidding. And what does Mathew Staver think theists are doing? In some ways, all groups are just talking to themselves; and in other ways not. But at least atheists aren’t also just talking to an imaginary friend, and we’re also not constantly invoking an imaginary friend when talking to other people, unlike some people I could name.

In rural Chambersburg, Pa., one Christian group responded to an “Imagine No Religion” billboard with a giant sign of their own, asking: “Why Do Atheists Hate America?”

Let’s sponsor a giant sign asking: ‘Why do theists ask such stupid questions?’

“Atheists can act very much like Christian fundamentalists from time to time,” said James Webb, president of the Community of Reason in Kansas City, which includes both believers and skeptics. “It’s important not to be in-your-face with people.”

Well, it depends what you mean by ‘in-your-face’; it also depends on how in-your-face theists are being; it also depends on what theists are doing to people. It depends on a lot of things. Sometimes it’s important to be in-your-face with people.

[L]eading activists say nonbelievers tend to be just as wary of organized atheism as they are of organized religion — making it tough to pull together a cohesive movement. “A pastor can say to his flock, ‘All rise,’ and everyone rises. But try that in an atheist meeting,” said Marvin Straus, co-founder of an atheist group in Boulder, Colo. “A third of the people will rise. A third will tell you to go to hell. And a third will start arguing….That’s why it’s hard to say where we’re going as a movement.”

And that’s why atheists are a more fun group. (Plus I don’t think one third will rise; I think none will rise. Who would say ‘all rise’ and apropos of what? The entry of the judge? No. The entry of the Head Atheist? That’s a somewhat anomalous concept, and even if it weren’t, who rises for the Head Atheist? Even if Dawkins parachuted in for a surprise guest visit, I don’t see anyone saying ‘all rise’ – and I can imagine no response to such a suggestion but noisy hoots of laughter.)