Seyran Ates

Sep 7th, 2006 7:37 pm | By

This is horrible news.

Seyran Ates, lawyer, writer, and human rights activist was attacked at the beginning of June…by the screaming husband of one of her clients. “You whore”, the man shouted. “What ideas have you been putting into my wife’s head?” No one intervened when Mehmet O. lashed out at Ates, her client and another woman. Now Ates is facing the consequences. She has handed in her law licence and also her membership of the women’s rights organisation Terre de femmes. “This acutely threatening situation has brought home to me once more how dangerous my work as a lawyer is, and how little protection I have had and have as an individual,” Ates explains.

Great. The bullies win, the human rights activists lose. Spiffy.

The “ideas” to which the jealous husband was referring form part of the biographical adventures that bind the writer Seyran Ates with her colleagues Necla Kelek, Serap Cileli and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Long before she used the term “feminism” to describe the thing that so preoccupied her, she had had an urge for freedom that was nothing less than a small miracle. Who can explain why of all the girls from Anatolia who headed off to the Eldorado of Germany with their mothers and fathers, this one would decide to throw overboard everything she knew and had learned? Suddenly becoming appalled by things that had been utterly normal for generations – boys’ circumcision and wedding nights with blood-soaked sheets which were endured by all involved with fear and horror, beatings, sadistic excesses, forced marriages, humiliations and bad jokes? How does individuality suddenly awaken out of a collective?

How indeed. A question I’ve been pondering for a long time. What does it take for people to push away the carapace of habituation just a little, just enough to look at things a little bit slant?

Her gratitude towards German society in which one can become a student rep, write essays and then go on to study law, even against the wishes of one’s parents, was construed by the politically correct as betrayal. “Aren’t you frightened,” Ates was asked in an interview with die Tageszeitung, “of being cited by conservative politicians as the chief witness for repressive measures?” No she was not. She answered that it was essential to think about sanctions against forced marriages, and that she had nothing against the questionnaire (compiled by the state of Baden-Württenberg for Muslims applying for German citizenship) in which 17 of the 30 questions concerned women’s rights…

It takes nerves of steel not to be frightened of that.

Ates, like her fellow fighters, gets furious with people who romanticise immigrants and are willing to pass off their brutality as a “cultural feature.” “Kreuzberg…is colourful because the Germans there are colourful; the Turkish culture there is grey. No one looks upwards. That’s where the women are who are not allowed to participate at any cost, they look out from behind the curtains. Women who sometimes don’t even know where they are, locked away.” And the Green party, which could have got the Turkish feminists on board as the “true patriots” also preferred at their “Future Congress” on September 1 to stick with female immigrants keen to talk about German racism. German courts have long passed only manslaughter sentences for honour killings – because cultural influences qualify as mitigating circumstances.

And now German courts have lost Ates. Bad, very bad.

Do come in, the door is wide open

Sep 6th, 2006 5:01 pm | By

So what is the British Association for the Advancement of Science up to?

Organisers of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA) were accused of lending credibility to maverick theories on the paranormal by allowing the highly controversial research to be aired unchallenged. Leading members of the science establishment criticised the BA’s decision to showcase papers purporting to demonstrate telepathy and the survival of human consciousness after someone dies. They said that such ideas, which are widely rejected by experts, had no place in the festival without challenge from sceptics…Critics including Lord Winston and Sir Walter Bodmer, both former presidents of the BA, expressed particular alarm that the three speakers were allowed to hold a promotional press conference.

So what did the organizers have in mind? Were they just trying to get more media attention? Were they trying to be more “fair”? Or what? It would be interesting to know.

Other scientists said that while discussion of the subject was acceptable, the panel’s lack of balance was like inviting creationists to address the prestigious meeting without an opposing view from evolutionary biologists. Several members of the BA said that they would raise the matter with its ruling council…Lord Winston, the fertility specialist, said: “It is perfectly reasonable to have a session like this, but it should be robustly challenged by scientists who work in accredited psychological fields. It’s something the BA should consider, whether a session like this should go unchallenged by regular scientists.”

It should be peer-reviewed, in other words. Other researchers should try to replicate Sheldrake’s results. Inquiry should be properly conducted. You know – the usual boring routine.

The Indy gives a suggestive comment by one of the organizers of the panel.

Helen Haste, a psychologist at the University of Sussex and the organiser of the paranormal session, said:”We at the British Association feel we should be open to discussions and debates which are seen as valid by people generally inside and outside the scientific community.”

Ah. Ah yes. Do you. Notice all the wiggle language there – feel, open, seen, as valid, outside, community. In other words, the issue is not cognitive but emotive; it’s political and moral, about being open and inclusive as opposed to closed and excluding; it wants to include what people see “as valid” as opposed to, say, what they legitimately consider valid; it (again) wants to be open and inclusive to people outside the “scientific community” as well as inside it; and it wants to treat the whole thing as an exercise in community-building or expansion or cohesion as opposed to an epistemic one. “We at the British Association feel we should be open to fuzzy woolly wishful ideas that are seen as valid by people outside the cold excluding rejecting overintellectual elitist scientific community, and we want to join their community and make it bigger and more accepting and democratic and warmer and better.” That’s what that sounds like. More of the old “science excludes ideas that millions of people see as valid and that is fascism” routine. No wonder Atkins and Winston and the others are furious.

The overwhelming majority

Sep 5th, 2006 10:36 pm | By

A little more on that BBC article about attitudes to ‘honour’ killing and its evasiveness about who exactly gets killed in such killings.

Sometimes it is men; Dsquared provided the link to this nightmare.

A university student was murdered to “vindicate a family’s honour” after he fell in love with their daughter and made her pregnant, a court was told yesterday.

Student was Iranian, daughter and family were Bangladeshi, father disapproved of student, said there was already a marriage arranged for daughter; she was forbidden to see student, confined to house, phone taken away; they met anyway, she got pregnant, they planned to marry.

On November 20 Mr Ghorbani-Zarin was found dead in his car, a green Renault, in Spencer Crescent, Oxford, which is close to his home…He was found with 46 stab wounds, mainly to the chest, the trial was told. His head had been tied to the headrest of the car following his death.

Sometimes it is gay men: Jeremy talked about one such case on Little Atoms last month. Sometimes it is children. But it’s usually women. The BBC should have said all that, instead of just vaguely saying ‘people’. As for instance Rajeshree Sisodia did in this article:

A family’s reputation is considered paramount in several cultures. And ‘honor killing’ is a centuries-old practice by which people – predominantly women – are murdered by relatives for behaving in a way that is perceived to destroy the family’s honor within the wider community.

That’s easy enough isn’t it? Just say it’s predominantly women. Or, go into more detail, as Sanchita Hosali does in this interview at AWID, Association for Women’s Rights in Development:

Research in the UK and elsewhere has shown that the overwhelming
majority of victims of ‘honour killings’ and ‘crimes of honour’ in general,
are women and girls, and the greater proportion of perpetrators are male.
The ‘Honour Crimes’ Project works from the basis that ‘crimes of honour’
encompass a variety of manifestations of violence against women including
‘honour killings’, assault, confinement, imprisonment, and forced marriage,
where the claimed motivation, justification or mitigation for the violence
is attributed to notions of ‘honour’ (related to family (natal), conjugal or
community ‘honour’) requiring the preservation of male control of women,
particularly women’s sexual conduct whether real or perceived.

There, that’s not so difficult. That’s how the BBC should have done it.

Resistance is Futile

Sep 5th, 2006 6:09 pm | By

More Bruce Hood.

Religion and other forms of magical thinking continue to thrive — despite the lack of evidence and advance of science — because people are naturally biased to accept a role for the irrational, said Bruce Hood…This evolved credulity suggests that it would be impossible to root out belief in ideas such as creationism and paranormal phenomena, even though they have been countered by evidence and are held as a matter of faith alone.

No, it doesn’t suggest that. It may suggest it would be difficult, but it doesn’t suggest it would be impossible. Just for one thing, if it suggested that, then the existence of any skeptics would be ruled out.

People ultimately believe in these ideas for the same reasons that they attach sentimental value to inanimate objects such as wedding rings or Teddy bears…Similar beliefs, which are held even among the most sceptical scientists, explain why few people would agree to swap their wedding rings for replicas. The difference between attaching significance to sentimental objects and believing in religion, magic or the paranormal is only one of degree, Professor Hood said.

Well I think that’s quite wrong: I think the difference is one of kind, not of degree.

This innate tendency means it is futile to expect that such beliefs will die out even as our scientific understanding of the world improves, he said…“No amount of evidence is going to get people to take it on board and abandon these ideas.”

Well, that’s obviously not true of all people (unless one accepts his equation of sentiment about rings* with belief in the existence of a deity), so that statement is much too sweeping.

“I want to challenge recent claims by Richard Dawkins, among others, that supernaturalism is primarily attributable to religions spreading beliefs among the gullible minds of the young. Rather, religions may simply capitalise on a natural bias to assume the existence of supernatural forces.”

It’s both (and more). Why not just say it’s both? Why try to claim that it’s all one and that that one rules out any change of mind?

Compare Hood’s claim with this look at ‘Jesus Camp’.

Through Kids In Ministry International, she conducts conferences and operates a summer camp for children and teens designed to instill a deeper devotion to God and their brand of Evangelical Christianity, in addition to unleashing a call to activism. Scenes of children proselytizing and learning about creationism in addition to a host of conservative principles engendered some unease amongst the generally liberal New York audiences during the Tribeca Film Festival…

I’d love to think that that’s a futile endeavor and that those children don’t become one bit more evangelical-fundamentalist than they would have been without all this training, but I can’t quite manage it.

A particularly inflammatory scene that heightens the political overtones for viewers takes place at a revival meeting lead by Fischer and her associates, in front of well over 100 children. In the scene, Fischer takes a life-size standup photo of President George W. Bush to the stage, and with a large American flag in the background, asks the crowd to raise their hands towards him in prayer. “I didn’t realize how the secular world viewed what we were doing,” Fischer said…

That’s not particularly relevant; I just threw it in because it’s so grotesque. She didn’t realize how the ‘secular world’ viewed the activity of praying to a life-size picture of Bush. She didn’t realize how we funny secularists view the deification of George W Bush. That’s quite funny, in a terrifying way.

*What kind of evidence could there be that would falsify sentimental attachment to a ring or a Teddy Bear?

Some People

Sep 5th, 2006 2:09 am | By

About this survey that says 1 in 10 Asians think ‘honour’ killings can be justified. Did you notice something peculiar? The article left something out. It left a few things out, but there was one huge thing. And it so obviously matters that you’d think it wouldn’t have, but it did.

It just says ‘young Asians’ and ‘the 16 to 34-year-old age group interviewed.’ See it? It doesn’t say what the gender breakdown was! Duh. It doesn’t even say whether or not it was all one gender. Now, you might think that surely the BBC wouldn’t be as silly as that, it wouldn’t say ‘young Muslims’ if the interviewees were absolutely all male. But it would. Just the other day I listened to a rather interesting show on Radio 4 called Taking the Cricket Test, which was described on the A-Z page as ‘Sarfraz Mansoor gets into the mind of young British Muslims’. It was interesting, as I say, but it was about a cricket team, and there were absolutely no women or girls from start to finish. So Sarfraz Mansoor didn’t get into the mind of young British Muslims, he got into the mind of (a few) young British Muslim men. So I don’t feel a bit confident that that survey included any women at all, let alone that it included at least half. And on a subject like this…gender probably makes a fairly large difference. In fact I would say it makes such a large difference (on account of how, to put it bluntly, only one gender is subject to the ‘honour’ killing under discussion) that any survey on the subject really needs to separate the genders in order to be informative.

The whole article is in fact bizarrely and rather annoyingly evasive about the very subject it’s talking about. If you don’t already know what ‘honour’ killing is and how it tends to play out, you don’t find out much from this article.

What constitutes dishonour can range from wearing clothes thought unsuitable or choosing a career which the family disapprove of, to marrying outside of the wider community.

Who? Who? Who? Who wearing clothes thought unsuitable, who choosing a career, who marrying out? What a conspicuous absence of subjects in that sentence. Lots of verbs, but no one performing them; all action and no agents. Why so damn evasive? If the BBC is nervous of the subject, why did it report on the survey? And it’s all like that. ‘Kidnaps, beatings and rapes have also been committed in the name of “honour”.’ Of whom?

Figures show 13 people die every year in honour killings, but police and support groups believe it is many more…Honour killing is a brutal reaction within a family – predominantly Asian and Middle Eastern – to someone perceived to have brought “shame” upon relatives.

People. Someone. (Many more than) 13 women die; honour killing is a brutal reaction to a woman perceived to have brought “shame”. Come on, Beeb, do it right.


Sep 5th, 2006 1:42 am | By

And besides (she went on), what’s really irrational is to think that sentiment is irrational. It’s irrational because unrealistic, unobservant, extraterrestrial. It’s not irrational to have feelings of attachment or repugnance to things or places or people because of certain associations and memories, even if there is no possibility of material physical benefit or harm. It’s bizarrely literal-minded to think it is. The wedding ring example for instance: if it made any sense to think it’s irrational to want to keep the same one in preference to a duplicate, then nobody would ever want a wedding ring at all; the custom would never have gotten started. If it made sense to think that, then wedding rings wouldn’t mean anything, they’d just be bits of detritus like bottle caps and buttons and those plastic loops that hold sixpacks together, and nobody would bother with them. But people do bother with them, the custom did get started, wedding rings get inherited or buried with their owners, not thrown out with the tub the cottage cheese came in. Why? Because they stand for something. And valuing things because they stand for something is a common human habit, and not necessarily irrational (although in the case of flags, I have to say, it can go off the deep end). If signs and symbols are irrational then it’s irrational to value anything that’s not 100% utilitarian and necessary for survival; it’s irrational to look at sunsets, to listen to music, to read poetry, to tell jokes, to fly kites. But it’s not irrational to do any of those things. They’re extra, but extra is good. It’s irrational to think it isn’t. It’s also irrational to confuse feelings to which rationality is simply irrelevant with ones which are irrational.

And besides again, Hood has something else wrong. Even if humans tend to be irrational (which I wouldn’t dream of denying) it doesn’t follow that it’s hopeless or pointless to keep offering rational arguments about public questions, to keep saying what’s wrong with creationism (even though the Guardian said Hood said the ‘battle by scientists against “irrational” beliefs such as creationism is ultimately futile’), to keep pointing out evidence that creationism is wrong, and the like. To think it is is again unobservant and extraterrestrial. It’s not as if no one ever listens to anyone or learns anything. It’s not as if all arguments fall on deaf ears, as if all evidence gets ignored. People aren’t interchangeable units, after all (they’re like wedding rings that way); some of them listen better than others, and most of them listen better at one time than at another. Religion and superstition ebb and flow, and they vary greatly with geography, history, and culture, as do reason and science and thinking clearly. So it’s not futile to go on arguing against irrational beliefs, and doing so does not entail thinking everyone ought to abandon sentiment. So there.

Not so fast

Sep 4th, 2006 7:21 pm | By

Wait. Something wrong here

The battle by scientists against “irrational” beliefs such as creationism is ultimately futile, a leading experimental psychologist said today. The work of Bruce Hood, a professor at Bristol University, suggests that magical and supernatural beliefs are hardwired into our brains from birth, and that religions are therefore tapping into a powerful psychological force.

He told a science conference in Norwich that it’s simplistic to divide people into those who believe in the supernatural and those who don’t, and adds “But almost everyone entertains some form of irrational beliefs even if they are not religious.” That seems fair enough. But then he backs up the point in what I think is an odd way: “For example, many people would be reluctant to part with a wedding ring for an identical ring because of the personal significance it holds.”

Well of course they bloody would, in fact I would guess that not “many” but pretty much all people would, but that’s not irrational, and it’s also not a belief. It’s arational, if you like, but it’s not irrational. It’s sentiment, but that’s a different thing. Sentiment doesn’t have to be rational, and it mostly doesn’t matter that it isn’t. (Yes, yes, I can think of exceptions, but it mostly doesn’t matter.) Personal significance, memory, association, are all a different kind of thing from beliefs, and all the more so from supernatural beliefs. Most people probably don’t believe their wedding rings are magic, but they value them for other reasons. I’ll tell you something. Prepare for a shock. I have quite a few objects that I value above their intrinsic worth because of who gave them to me or whom they once belonged to. Imagine that. I have my grandmother’s gold watch, given to her by her father for her 21st birthday. I wouldn’t want to swap it for an identical one with an identical inscription; I want the one my grandmother actually owned and had and used and (I assume) treasured. I don’t consider that in the least irrational. Sorry; I just don’t. I have a wooden writing desk my mother gave me, and a smaller wooden writing desk my brother and sister-in-law gave me, and a wooden figure of a monk holding a cross my brother gave me when he was in the Navy and found himself in Barcelona. I like having all of them, and I would be “reluctant” to trade them for exact replicas – very reluctant indeed, as a matter of fact. I don’t consider that the smallest bit irrational.

The idea that such attachments and sentiments are irrational sets way too high a standard for human, possible rationality, and by doing so, sets too low a standard. It’s a sort of bait and switch. Humans are not rational, they like to keep things that loved people give them, therefore they are hardwired to believe in supernatural entities. No. Sentimental attachment to inanimate objects, from teddy bears to blankies to rings to writing desks, is not the same thing as belief in the esistence of supernatural entities; in fact it’s pretty dang different.

Prof Hood produces a rather boring-looking blue cardigan with large brown buttons and invites people in the audience to put it on, for a £10 reward. As you may expect, there is invariably a sea of raised hands. He then reveals that the notorious murderer Fred West wore the cardigan. Nearly everyone puts their hand down…Another experiment involves asking subjects to cut up a photograph. When his team then measures their galvanic skin response – ie sweat production, which is what lie-detector tests monitors – there is a jump in the reading. This does not occur when a person destroys an object of less sentimental significance.

Same thing. Interesting, sure; not particularly rational, fine; the same thing or even the same kind of thing as believing in the god of religion, no. Unless the Guardian left a huge amount out, Bruce Hood didn’t make his case there.

Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt

Sep 3rd, 2006 7:11 pm | By

This is rather inspiring. There’s audio and also a full transcript.

MAATHAI: I realized part of the problems that we have in the rural areas or in the country generally is that a lot of our people are not free to think, they are not free to create, and, therefore, they become very unproductive. They may have knowledge. They may have gone to school but they are trained to be directed. They are trained to be told what to do. And that is some of the unmasking that the Green Belt Movement tries to do, is to empower people, to encourage them, to tell them it’s okay to dream, it’s okay to think, it’s okay to change your minds, it’s okay to think on your own, it’s okay to decide this is what you want to do. You don’t have to wait for someone else to tell you.

It’s okay to dream, it’s okay to think. Try it, you’ll like it.

MAATHAI: In the beginning I was intrigued because it’s such a benign activity. It’s development, exactly what every leader speaks about and so I thought that we would be celebrated and we would be supported by the system. But what I did not realize then is that in many situations, leaders, especially leaders in undemocratic countries, have not been keen to inform their people to empower their people to help them solve their problems. They almost want them to remain needy, to remain poor, to remain dis-empowered so that they can look up to them, almost like gods and adore them and worship them and hope that they will solve their problems. Now, I couldn’t stand that.

I love you, Wangari Maathai.

MAN: An assistant minister, Mr. John Keene, said his great respect for women had been greatly eroded by her utterances. Mr Keene asked her and her clique of women to tread cautiously, adding “I don’t see the sense at all in a bunch of divorcees coming out to criticize such a complex.”

MAATHAI: That’s when they reminded me who I am in terms of gender and what I am in terms of social status. And I was described in several adjectives which were very unflattering. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for them, that did not deter me and I did not get intimidated.

LOBET: A few years earlier her husband had divorced her, saying publicly she was too stubborn and too hard to control. She had transgressed when she became more educated than he was. She transgressed when she did not retreat after divorce and now she was criticizing the president.

Clearly she is too stubborn and hard to control; hurrah!

This is the bit I remember from more than a year ago (I didn’t actually hear the whole show, or would have remembered more of it, and probably commented on it and linked to it):

VOICEOVER: Before, I worked in the farm compound and looked after my children. I couldn’t stand up amongst people, or give them my views about things. I was not able to do even the smallest thing in this respect.


VOICEOVER: Professor came here and she showed us that a woman has the right to speak, and when she speaks, she can make things advance. A woman has a right to speak. And now I feel if I speak, things can move forward.

That’s it, you see. That statement transfixed me (probably with a mouth full of toothpaste) when I first heard it, and it still does. Kagiithi was unable to do the smallest thing, and now she feels if she speaks, things can move forward. Would she be equally happy to reverse direction? I do not think so. I think the move from less to more is (generally, other things being equal, etc) experienced as a great good, and the move from more to less is experienced as deprivation. I’m going to go right out on a limb here: I think that’s a human universal. I don’t know that it is, but that’s my guess.

Foucault’s Oscillation

Sep 3rd, 2006 6:22 pm | By

Richard Wolin on Foucault’s shift.

In American academe, that’s the gist of the Foucault story. He has been venerated and canonized as the messiah of French antihumanism: a harsh critic of the Enlightenment, a dedicated foe of liberalism’s covert normalizing tendencies, an intrepid prophet of the “death of man.”…Considerable evidence suggests that, later in life, Foucault himself became frustrated with the antihumanist credo. He underwent what one might describe as a learning process. He came to realize that much of what French structuralism had during the 1960s rejected as humanist pap retained considerable ethical and political value.

And triumphantly reinvented the wheel. Okay, I know, cheap shot, but still – bobbing about as we are these days on a frothing sea of irrationalism, it is hard not to wish Foucault had figured that out a lot sooner.

It would not be a misnomer to suggest that in fact the later Foucault became a human-rights activist, a political posture that stands in stark contrast with his North American canonization as the progenitor of “identity politics.” The major difference between the two standpoints may be explained as follows: Whereas human rights stress our formal and inviolable prerogatives as people (equality before the law, freedom of speech, habeas corpus, and so forth), identity politics emphasize the particularity of group belonging. The problem is that the two positions often conflict…Thus identity politics risks regressing to an ideology of “groupthink.”

The two positions often conflict very drastically. If you put ‘the group’ (or the community, or the culture) first, then if it is the group’s custom to subjugate all the women in the group, there is no recourse, whereas if you put rights first, it is possible to argue that gender subjugation is a violation of rights.

French critics have long pointed to the central paradox of the North American Foucault reception: that a thinker who was so fastidious about hazarding positive political prescriptions, and who viewed affirmations of identity as a trap or as a form of normalization, could be lionized as the progenitor of the “identity politics” movement…

Yeah, well, we North Americans don’t do fastidious. It’s not part of our identity.

Women don’t want rights anyway

Sep 3rd, 2006 1:52 am | By

Lila Abu-Lughod has some questions.

What images do we, in the United States or Europe, have of Muslim women, or women from the region known as the Middle East? Our lives are saturated with images, images that are strangely confined to a very limited set of tropes or themes. The oppressed Muslim woman. The veiled Muslim woman. The Muslim woman who does not have the same freedoms we have. The woman ruled by her religion. The woman ruled by her men.

And now for a round of spot the irony – inadvertent irony on this occasion. Or you might call it spot the pratfall.

As the late Edward Said pointed out in his famous book, Orientalism, a transformative and critical study of the relationship between the Western study of the Middle East and the Muslim world and the larger projects of dominating or colonizing these regions, one of the most distinctive qualities of representations – literary and scholarly – of the Muslim “East” has been their citationary nature. What he meant by this is that later works gain authority by citing earlier ones…

Ohhh, later works gain authority by citing earlier ones do they? Perhaps by mentioning that the works being cited are famous? Well how very shocking and naughty; good of you to tell us about it, or rather of Said to tell us about it and you to tell us again.

There are several problems with these uniform and ubiquitous images of veiled women. First, they make it hard to think about the Muslim world without thinking about women, creating a seemingly huge divide between “us” and “them” based on the treatment or positions of women. This prevents us from thinking about the connections between our various parts of the world, helping setting up a civilizational divide.

Well…that’s a wretched thing to say. Is the treatment of women such a trivial minor frivolous matter that we shouldn’t think about it? The treatment of women is the treatment of half the people in ‘the Muslim world,’ after all.

It seems obvious to me that one of the most dangerous functions of these images of Middle Eastern or Muslim women is to enable many of us to imagine that these women need rescuing by us or by our governments.

So therefore let’s forget all about them, instead. Let’s throw Persepolis in the bin, let’s ignore Azam Kamguian and Maryam Namazie and Homa Arjomand and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and all the other women, let’s just hope it will all blow over.

One need only think of the American organization the Feminist Majority, with their campaign for the women in Afghanistan, or the wider discourse about women’s human rights. Like the missionaries, these liberal feminists feel the need to speak for and on behalf of Afghan or other Muslim women in a language of women’s rights or human rights…If one constructs some women as being in need of pity or saving, one implies that one not only wants to save them from something but wants to save them for something – a different kind of world and set of arrangements. What violences might be entailed in this transformation? And what presumptions are being made about the superiority of what you are saving them for? Projects to save other women, of whatever kind, depend on and reinforce Westerners’ sense of superiority. They also smack of a form of patronizing arrogance that, as an anthropologist who is sensitive to other ways of living, makes me feel uncomfortable.

Oh. Well we wouldn’t want you to feel uncomfortable, especially as you’re sensitive. Naturally you not feeling uncomfortable is the decisive issue here. Of course, in a way, there’s something interesting about how comfortable you seem to feel in attributing patronizing arrogance and a sense of superiority and a need to speak on behalf of other people to – well, to other people – but that’s because you’re talking about liberal feminists, Western feminists, Westerners. No need for sensitivity to other ways of living when it comes to them, of course, or for feelings of being uncomfortable about all this sinister innuendo. ‘What violences might be entailed in this transformation?’ Oh, I don’t know – let’s see – how about we send fifty million soldiers to Afghanistan where they will kidnap all the women, strip them naked, stuff them into bikinis, and make them parade up and down Fifth Avenue at gunpoint. That’s probably the violences those bad liberal feminist have in mind, right? Must be.

And beyond this, is liberation or freedom even a goal for which all women or people strive? Are emancipation, equality, and rights part of a universal language? Might other desires be more meaningful for different groups of people? Such as living in close families? Such as living in a godly way? Such as living without war or violence?

Guess where she lives and teaches. Go on, guess.

It was all taken away from me

Sep 2nd, 2006 1:27 am | By

Johann Hari talks to the stand-up comic Shazia Mirza.

Shazia used to be a teacher in Tower Hamlets, where I live, and she would see Muslim girls rebelling against the chafing medieval codes of their fathers every day…Come 3.30 they put the hijab back on and they’re carted off to the mosque to rote-learn the Koran for three hours. They would come in the next day exhausted, having not done their homework, and they would say, ‘My parents say the Koran comes before homework.’” Shazia understands this better than most: her parents are, she says, “fanatics.” She was forbidden to leave the house throughout her teenage years except to go to school. “I’m a woman, and I couldn’t stand the repression. I wanted to go swimming, do ballet, ride horses, tell jokes. I was allowed to do all those things until I went through puberty and then it was all taken away from me, and I couldn’t stand it. I looked at the beautiful, intelligent women like my mother and my aunties who were basically turned into prisoners in their own homes, and I thought – I can’t live that life.” Her mother had been a university lecturer until, at the age of 22, she was married off and turned into a housebound baby-machine.

No comment necessary.

While the truth is putting its boots on

Sep 2nd, 2006 1:24 am | By

Eric Alterman looks at what happens when people don’t think truth matters.

It’s a truism that once an accusation is leveled, it’s impossible to erase entirely from the public memory. This is doubly true when it comes to the deceased, and doubly dangerous in our political world, in which debate is driven by cable news networks that show little interest in quaint questions involving what’s actually true…Given the fact that most casual news consumers cannot be expected to sift through competing claims of evidence and the like, the media’s disregard for traditional standards of verification is one of the right wing’s most potent weapons.

Alterman cites a story (originally based on a mistake) that I F Stone was a Soviet spy, and the fact that it keeps being trotted out despite the lack of any evidence to support it.

Stone died in 1989 at age 81, but the smear never has. The leaders of this campaign have been the professionally paranoid red-hunter Herbert Romerstein, the comically misnamed “Accuracy in Media,” wind-up shrieking doll Ann Coulter and, most tellingly, Robert Novak…Novak has been peddling the phony Stone story for more than a decade now. When I appeared on CNN’s Crossfire with him fourteen years ago, he raised it in order to smear my work and my reputation (Stone was my friend and journalistic mentor during his last decade). Following the show, I wrote a letter to then-CNN president Tom Johnson asking for the record to be corrected but received no response. I’ve tried a few more times to force the issue with Novak, but he has run away from every appearance. And the slander continues. When John Edwards spoke of Stone’s Trial of Socrates during the 2004 presidential campaign, Novak fulminated on CNN that this was an outrage, as “Stone received secret payments from the Kremlin.” Again, CNN did not bother with a rebuttal, much less a correction.

Which is bad, because it ought to be an important part of CNN’s job not to get things wrong. It’s bad that the CNN president didn’t even answer Alterman. It’s bad that PBS has yet to respond to Allen Esterson’s complaint ‘complaint about the numerous errors and misconceptions that permeate the PBS Einstein’s Wife website material and associated Lesson Plans.’

False information circulating and the gatekeepers refusing to do anything about it; bad, bad, very bad.


Sep 1st, 2006 8:39 pm | By

Further update on Birmingham museum story. A commenter pointed out the statement by Artists Circle. It seems fairly reasonable, actually. Debatable, but reasonable – not a mere taboo-invocation or shut up woman incident.

The individual was concerned by an image entitled: ‘Waiting’ which showed a couple of male bystanders looking at a partially dressed woman lying on the ground. The information available regarding the picture read along the lines of ‘This photograph was taken at the bus point.’ There was no other contextual information accompanying the photograph[,] which caused further concern.

The museum also mentioned the lack of contextual information in its email to Andy Gilmour. Miah said in the Guardian article, however:

The partially dressed figure in the image was actually a mentally ill woman who had made a home of a bus shelter. She was looked after by locals who made sure she was out of danger and fed. I think this shows a compassionate view of Islamic society.

But without contextual information (which the museum says Miah specifically did not want included), viewers have no way to know that the woman was mentally ill or that she was looked after by locals who made sure she was out of danger and fed, so they are not in a position to tell whether or not it’s a compassionate view of Islamic society. It could, from the description, look like the exact opposite. Pictures very often require background knowledge in order to understand their meaning, even their basic content (are those people playing? fighting? performing?). I pointed that out once in a discussion of pictures and language, and an opponent (so to speak) said nonsense and cited the famous picture of the children running down a road after a napalm attack during the Vietnam war. But of course that makes my point, not the opponent’s; he’d simply forgotten (apparently) that we already know what the picture is about, we have the background knowledge, but if we didn’t, we would have no idea what was going on in that picture except that the children were in anguish and probably fleeing.

Pictures can be enigmatic, of course; there’s no law that says they all have to be put in context; but it’s not self-evidently absurd to want a context for certain pictures in particular exhibitions. And in any case, if Miah’s argument is the one quoted, it’s not compatible with refusing to supply a context. She’s offering a substantive claim about the meaning of the picture, while at the same time making sure viewers won’t be able to discern that meaning. Those two things don’t mesh very well.

Andy has emailed Miah, and the museum again; it will be interesting to learn what, if anything, they say.

Update of update: the photograph in question and more discussion here; thanks to Don.

That Book

Sep 1st, 2006 1:12 am | By


Dan at Muscular Liberals cites Why Truth.

Considering the response of some to what can only only be described as Hezbollah propaganda dressed up as reporting called to mind a passage in Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom’s “Why Truth Matters”, a great book I read whilst on my travels a couple of weeks ago.

Well – that’s pleasing, because I suppose that was the idea. That generally is the idea in books of the ‘let’s all try to think just a little bit carefully’ variety: the hope is that things will link up that way, so that the abundant examples of propaganda dressed up as reporting the world is blessed with will seem not like bizarre one-offs but like examples of a nameable phenomenon such as propaganda dressed up as reporting. Sometimes patterns are illusory but other times they’re very useful; sometimes connections are merely paranoiac imaginings but other times they make sense of apparently random mistakes.

This is the passage he quotes (emphasis his):

There is a frivolity, a lack of responsibility, an indifference to canons of coherence, logic, rationality and relevance – which are reminiscent not of the Left or progressivism, but, as Richard Wolin argues, of counter-Enlightenment and reaction.

That is not an accidental association, it is what counter-Enlightenment and reaction are all about: the rejection of reason, enquiry, logic and evidence, in favour of tradition, religion, instinct, blood and soil, The Nation, The Fatherland. That is the sort of thing that remains standing once canons of coherence and relevance are stripped away. The Left is not well-advised to discredit or undermine reason and respect for truth, because those are ultimately the only tools the Left has against the irrationalist appeals of the Right.

Well, thanks, Dan. I quite like that passage myself.

And it’s pleasantly revelvant to the running argument over cultural relativism and rational argument that’s been going on here lately.

If you don’t like anything, just say

Sep 1st, 2006 1:09 am | By

Another museum caves.

A Bangladeshi-British photographer is complaining that her work has been censored by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. A documentary work made in Bangladesh by Syra Miah and shown as part of the museum’s Art and Islam exhibitions was removed because it contained an image of a semi-naked woman.

Update: See these comments at Mediawatchwatch for more. A reader wrote to the museum, and the museum replied with a different take. It explains the decision, which sounds less loopy than the Guardian account did, and adds “The gallery discussed the matter with Syra Miah, and the photograph was
removed on 18 July with her full agreement. Our understanding following
these discussions was that Syra Miah said that she understood the reasons
for the removal and accepted the decision. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery
had not heard from the artist about this matter since the time the work was
removed 7 weeks ago in July.”

I had amused myself composing a good old fulimination, but since it may have been inaccurate and hence unfair, I snarled gently and then decided that truth matters, so it’s gone.


Sep 1st, 2006 12:00 am | By

The Archive

The Interrogations Archive

Cultural Barriers

Aug 31st, 2006 2:09 am | By

What about healthy invigorating sport?

But is everyone getting excited about sport? Not according to the organisation Sport England which encourages nationwide participation of sporting activities. Its figures show that Muslim women are significantly less likely to take up exercise compared to other groups.

Wait, you said sport first, then you made it exercise. Different thing. But never mind that’s not the part that caught my attention.

In addition, there are cultural barriers involved in the take up of sport as a professional career option for many Muslims, both male and female…Shahid Saleh, a young British Muslim who has five sisters, explains how he does not like the idea of them playing games. “I wouldn’t want them to play sports,” he said. “You’re not allowed to uncover yourself like wearing tracksuit bottoms and all that, and play football or badminton, you have to cover yourself.”

Oh, mind your own business, Shahid. Get your mind out of the gutter and leave your sisters alone; they’re not your property. But that’s not the part that caught my attention either.

Cultural barriers remain in taking up a career in sport. Twelve-year-old Zahir Ahmed says that his parents encourage him to study hard rather than to waste time playing.

That’s the part. Wait – studying hard is a ‘cultural barrier’ to taking up a career in sport? For one thing, careers in sport aren’t just lying around littering the streets ready to be ‘taken up,’ they’re extremely rare, especially at the big money level. But for a more basic thing, studying could be construed as something other than a cultural barrier to sport. It could, actually, be regarded as a good in itself as well as an instrumental good; it could be regarded as both a source of enrichment, expansion, understanding, critical thinking, skill, excitement, and as a tool necessary for a very wide range of jobs, such as for instance being a BBC reporter. So frankly it seems a little twisted to look at it as merely a ‘cultural barrier’ to sport. Some cultural barriers have a lot to be said for them.

Harris on Collins

Aug 29th, 2006 11:32 pm | By

Sam Harris has harsh things to say about Francis Collins’s book. “His book, however, reveals that a stellar career in science offers no guarantee of a scientific frame of mind,” he observes, then he quotes from the book:

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted….

You are “right”? What does he mean? Morally right? To “hold fast” to truths that aren’t truths? To hold fast to certainty? Not much sign of a scientific frame of mind there, all right.

On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains … the majesty and beauty of God’s creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ.

Because…JC put the waterfall there? And froze it? And arranged that it should be a beautiful fall day when this one particular guy saw it? But what about this other time when someone else rounded a corner on a cold rainy windy day and couldn’t see the waterfall at all because she was too wet and miserable and busy wishing she were home with a brandy and some out of season strawberries?

Harris comments:

One would hope that it would be immediately obvious to Collins that there is nothing about seeing a frozen waterfall (no matter how frozen) that offers the slightest corroboration of the doctrine of Christianity. But it was not obvious to him as he “knelt in the dewy grass,” and it is not obvious to him now. Indeed, I fear that it will not be obvious to many of his readers. If the beauty of nature can mean that Jesus really is the son of God, then anything can mean anything.

Collins rhapsodizes:

No, this God, if I was perceiving him at all, must be a theist God, who desires some kind of relationship with those special creatures called human beings, and has therefore instilled this special glimpse of Himself into each one of us. This might be the God of Abraham, but it was certainly not the God of Einstein…. Judging by the incredibly high standards of the Moral Law … this was a God who was holy and righteous. He would have to be the embodiment of goodness…. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.

Oh, right. The special moral goodness of humans shows how specially moral god is, and thinking so is more rational than not thinking so.

The Big Bang cries out for a divine explanation. It forces the conclusion that nature had a defined beginning. I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.

Well, bud, I tell you what, if you cannot see how nature could have created itself, I cannot see how a supernatural force could have created itself, so there. I know, the idea is that it did it by being supernatural, but, see, that’s not actually an explanation, it’s just a hand-wave. When you come to something you can’t see how it happened, the right answer is not ‘magic’ or ‘supernatural’ but just ‘I don’t see how.’ That’s because they come to the same thing, but ‘I don’t see how’ is more honest.

There’s more. More recycled bad arguments from Collins and protests from Harris. Worth reading.


Aug 29th, 2006 8:30 pm | By

Salman Rushdie has noticed.

Spiegel asked him, “Leading British Muslims have written a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair claiming that the growing willingness to engage in terrorism is due to Bush’s and Blair’s policies in Iraq and in Lebanon. Are they completely wrong?”

There are always reasons for criticism, also for outrage. But there’s one thing we must all be clear about: terrorism is not the pursuit of legitimate goals by some sort of illegitimate means. Whatever the murderers may be trying to achieve, creating a better world certainly isn’t one of their goals. Instead they are out to murder innocent people.

Spiegel protested a little, “And yet there must be reasons, or at least triggers, for this terrible willingness to wipe out the lives of others — and of oneself.

Well obviously there must be reasons; these things aren’t causeless eruptions; but that doesn’t mean there must be sane or reasonable or sensible or genuine political reasons; that doesn’t mean there must be reasons that anyone is obliged to take at all seriously, much less so seriously as to credit them with being a criticism of UK-US foreign policy. One might as well say football hooliganism is a criticism of UK-US foreign policy, one might as well say gang-rape is a criticism of UK-US foreign policy.

Upbringing certainly plays a major role there, imparting a misconceived sense of mission which pushes people towards “actions.” Added to that there is a herd mentality once you have become integrated in a group and everyone continues to drive everyone else on and on into a forced situation. There’s the type of person who believes his action will make mankind listen to him and turn him into a historic figure. Then there’s the type who simply feels attracted to violence. And yes, I think glamour plays a role too.

Spiegel protests again, even more foolishly. “Do you seriously mean that terrorism is glamorous?” Do you seriously mean you think it isn’t? Come on. All that media attention, those glam “martyrdom videos,” the outfits, the drama, the “courage,” the self-importance? How could it possibly not be glamourous? This is what I meant after 7/7 by saying everyone should make fun of them and call them bedwetters and pathetic attention-seeking dweebs. I mean that.

Yes. Terror is glamour – not only, but also. I am firmly convinced that there’s something like a fascination with death among suicide bombers. Many are influenced by the misdirected image of a kind of magic that is inherent in these insane acts. The suicide bomber’s imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other peoples lives. There’s one thing you mustn’t forget here: the victims terrorized by radical Muslims are mostly other Muslims.

Absolutely. It’s a little scary and depressing that so many people don’t get that and don’t even find it plausible. Look: terrorists are young men: that’s probably the most crucial fact about them. This is young guy stuff; it’s the same stuff that fills prisons with young men; it’s a lot more about young guyism than it is about serious political criticism. The foreign policy is mostly a fig leaf, a smoke screen, a pretext, a pseudo-explanation. It’s the glamour and the herd mentality that really crank thing up. (No, you’re right, I don’t know that for a fact, I’m just saying it as if I do. But like Rushdie, I’m convinced of it.)


Aug 28th, 2006 10:32 pm | By

Time for a little religion-bashing. (A former acquaintance once kindly informed me that he didn’t like B&W because of the religion-bashing. Ruined my day. Or month, or year.) This bishop again. I want to look at what’s worrying him, once more.

The seven “sacraments” of their secular culture are abortion, buggery, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, feminism of the radical type, and genetic experimentation and mutilation…The toleration of sexual perversions among inverts, widespread contraception, easy access to “no fault” divorce, the killing of the elderly, radical feminism, embryonic stem cell research…

I want to look at the remarkable, and rather shameless, distortion of some of those. Especially that “the killing of the elderly.” The…killing of the elderly? Libbruls and Democrats want a new law to mandate the execution of everyone over 80? 70? 60? Funny – I wasn’t aware of that campaign. I read the Nation, The American Prospect, Dissent, Harper’s, the Progressive regularly and I’ve never seen a word about that campaign. That of course would be because it don’t exist. The episcopal bastard means (of course) laws that would permit voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide (with many safeguards) for people who are terminally ill and suffering and want to end it – and for no one else. They have nothing to do with the elderly: here’s why: terminal illnesses are not restricted to elderly people, and not all elderly people get terminal illnesses, and those who do don’t always suffer much, and those who do don’t necessarily want to end it. So – what’s the bishop doing calling voluntary assisted suicide “the killing of the elderly”? He’s violating one of the ten commandments, that’s what. I won’t say which one, in case he’s a litigious bastard as well as a [coughcoughcough] one.

The other striking thing is how agitated he is about embryonic stem cell research and abortion and contraception. Why do bishops and popes and priests get so agitated about cells and leave much of suffering existing human beings unmentioned? Why do they spend so much energy and discourse on cells instead of on actual people? Why the disproportion? Why the fretting over trivia? It’s a top-down thing, I gather; the Vatican sets the tone and the priests and bishops follow, but why is the Vatican so worried about trivia? I don’t know, but I suspect. (What? Oh, that it’s basically about keeping women down. If embryos become all-important, women become incubators; that kind of thing.)

There. Yet another reason to dislike B&W.