Knowing better

Feb 12th, 2008 11:06 am | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other item is Johann’s article.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No exceptions

Feb 11th, 2008 6:05 pm | By

The archbishop issued a clarification on Friday. He

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

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

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

Sharia for toddlers

Feb 11th, 2008 5:58 pm | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You bet; perfectly fair.

The postmodernist archbishop

Feb 11th, 2008 10:51 am | By

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s just making it worse

Feb 11th, 2008 9:38 am | By

He just doesn’t get it.

Part of the “burden and the privilege of being the Church” in the UK meant, Dr Williams said, the clergy needed “some coherent voice on behalf of all the faith communities living here”…The relationship between law and religion was a subject on which “Christians and people of other faiths ought to be doing some reflecting together”, he added.

No it isn’t, because there shouldn’t be any such relationship, for reasons which the Archbish himself mentions in the speech – without, of course, perceiving them as reasons.

[A]s any Muslim commentator will insist, what is in view is the eternal and absolute will of God for the universe and for its human inhabitants in particular…[S]haria depends for its legitimacy not on any human decision, not on votes or preferences, but on the conviction that it represents the mind of God…To recognise sharia is to recognise a method of jurisprudence governed by revealed texts rather than a single system…There is a recognition that our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging – even if one of those sets is regarded as relating to the most fundamental and non-negotiable level of reality, as established by a ‘covenant’ between the divine and the human.

Religion is about what believers consider the eternal and absolute will of God for the universe and for its human inhabitants, without having any reliable way of knowing that, or testing it, or falsifying it. It’s eternal and absolute, yet humans know nothing whatever about it – yet they claim that they do. This is an abysmal epistemic situation from which to make laws. That is why Arch should shut up about the relationship between law and religion, because there shouldn’t be one. Humans can’t make decent laws by ‘relating to the most fundamental and non-negotiable level of reality, as established by a ‘covenant’ between the divine and the human’ – because there is no such covenant, or if there is, it’s odd that we have no real evidence of it (no, a very old story does not count as evidence). The archbishop comes right out and admits that his side of the aisle deals in the non-negotiable, and yet he wants the rest of us to let his crowd help shape the law. Forget it. The combination of the unknown-unknowable and the non-negotiable is poisonous. That’s why law should be secular; that’s why theocracies are nightmare places; it’s appalling that Rowan Williams doesn’t get that.

There is nothing woolly-liberal about communitarianism

Feb 10th, 2008 1:59 pm | By

Matthew Parris considers the archbishop dangerous.

It is not useful, it is not even interesting, to begin an argument on whether Sharia should be given some kind of status within British law, unless you think there are otherwise potential conflicts…Unless, therefore, Dr Williams is proposing that elements of Sharia should be tolerated even though they appear to conflict with the general law, he is saying nothing interesting. They do conflict. And what happens when they do? The moment a private law appears to defy the general law, one question, and one alone, becomes central. It is the question of consent…Of group members, of course – and first – we must ask: is consent real, unanimous, complete? Is there duress? Is there undue influence? How about children? Who truly speaks for the group? What opportunities are offered to opt out?

And boy did the archbishop skate gracefully over that.

A religion, properly understood, makes profound claims on an individual and community, quite unlike the demands of a golf club. It involves the…subordination of the individual’s will; and may demand that he subordinate his spouse’s and children’s wills too. Hence our unease about duress, and the completeness of “consent”. Dr Williams, in a welter of words, makes no serious attempt to resolve this. Those who read his speech properly will see that his entire argument turns upon the freedom of the group member to “opt out” of the “supplementary jurisdiction” and choose British law instead. But repressive faith groups make it culturally difficult – sometimes well-nigh impossible – for a member to opt out.

Pre-cisely. He pretended he was taking consent into account without actually doing so. He simply waved at it as he skated past, he didn’t engage with it.

As Parris points out, this is not progressive or pc gone mad, it’s profoundly conservative.

Dr Williams’s ideas really represent the wilder fringes of a bigger idea: communitarianism. Communitarianism can come in a surplice, a yarmulka or from a minaret and is all the more dangerous because armed with a divine rather than a local loyalty. It almost always proves a repressive and reactionary force, fearful of competitors, often anti-science, sometimes sceptical of knowledge itself, and grudging towards the State. There is absolutely nothing “left-wing” or woolly-liberal about empowering it. A Britain in which Muslim communities policed themselves would be more ruthlessly policed, and probably more law-abiding than today. But it would be a Britain in which the individual Muslim – maybe female, maybe ambitious, maybe gay, maybe a religious doubter – would lose their chances of rescue from his or her family or community by the State.

A hell on earth, in short.

When Yasmin met Archy

Feb 9th, 2008 11:46 am | By

Yasmin A-B explains what Archy doesn’t get. Too bad he didn’t ask her before he jotted down the speech.

What Rowan Williams wishes upon us is an abomination…He would not want his own girls and women, I am sure, to “choose” to be governed by these laws he breezily endorses. And he is naive to the point of folly if he imagines it is possible to pick and choose the bits that are relatively nice to the girls…Look around the Islamic world where sharia rules and, in every single country, these ordinances reduce our human value to less than half that is accorded a male; homosexuals are imprisoned or killed, children have no free voice or autonomy, authoritarianism rules and infantilises populations.

Apart from that, it was quite a good idea. Or maybe not.

There is no agreed body of sharia, it is all drafted by males and the most cruel is now claiming absolute authority…The morality police hound women and girls, beat them up, imprison them for showing an ankle, walking too provocatively or singing in the streets. They fight back but are ground down eventually…Go to Afghanistan if you fancy a 12-year-old bride – a practice approved by the mullahs. That’s sharia for you. Many women, gay men and dissidents came to Britain to escape Islamic tyrants and their laws.

Only to encounter Rowan Williams. What an unpleasant surprise.

No women are allowed to be imams or serious jurists, so cannot help make their own fair and free set of female-friendly sharia. All the systems insist on ultimate truths, hard certainties.

Which the Archbishop himself points out several times in his speech (I’ve read the whole thing now) but without being dissuaded from his absurd idea. But then of course he’s part of a system of ultimate truths himself.

Taj Hargey, a historian and Islamic theologian, runs the Muslim Education Centre in Oxford. He, with me, is a trustee of British Muslims For Secular Democracy which is attempting to educate Muslims out of authorised obscurantism…He is incandescent that Dr Williams backs a perilous Islamic conservatism, already too powerful in Britain.

Well the thing about that is that Archy isn’t all that keen on secular democracy. He thinks it ought to ‘overlap’ with the theocratic kind.

Bravo is it?

Feb 8th, 2008 9:40 am | By

Bravo, Rowan, says Jeevan Vasagar breezily. Well, he’s a man; easy for him to say.

In Tanzania, for example, Muslim family law applies to Muslim citizens. When it comes to questions of divorce, custody and inheritance, Muslim families settle their disputes at courts unique to their communities.

Yes we know, and Muslim family law treats women and men unequally. That is the problem.

There’s an interesting clash here – a classic liberal dilemma. Do you promote the rights of a minority community or do you worry more about the rights of Muslim women, who may get treated less generously under sharia than under secular law?

It’s not really a dilemma once you think about it hard enough. Just for one thing, the rights in question are not that starkly opposed, for the blindingly obvious reason that that ‘minority community’ includes women, so if the rights of women are a priority then at least half of that ‘minority community’ will not be losing any rights for the sake of the rights of women, because they will be women themselves. But in fact no one will be losing rights, because the goal is equality and equal justice under the law, not more rights for some and fewer for others. That’s why it’s not really a dilemma; it’s a pseudo-dilemma. That ‘minority community’ is not losing any rights unless you take unequal rights to be a right in themselves. Does a ‘minority community’ have rights to deprive some (half, most) of its members of rights arbitrarily? Well, you can declare that it does, but if you do you’re abandoning a meaningful idea of rights.

And by the way the goal is not to treat women ‘generously’ but to treat them equally. The goal is not to demand extra, it’s just to demand the same. Patronage not required, mere equality is both minimum and maximum – we want neither more nor less.

The problem is that the right, and their fellow-travellers on the Muslim-bashing left, will seize on this. For them, it’s a case of mediaeval misogyny versus western enlightenment. Suddenly, papers that oppose abortion and believe career women will always be unhappy start cross-dressing as feminists. Don’t believe this ruse – they’re just using feminism as a stick to beat Muslims with.

Bullshit. Some papers may do that, but papers don’t exhaust the category of people on the left who dislike Sharia – or as Jeevan Vasagar so elegantly calls us, the right’s fellow-travellers on the Muslim-bashing left. There are lots of us fellow-travellers on the Muslim-bashing left who do not oppose abortion (hello Jimmy Doyle!), and we don’t use feminism as a stick to beat anything. I don’t use feminism, I am a feminist.

Sharia already plays a role in devout Muslim lives, and has to be accepted and understood. But there also has to be a right of appeal. In Muslim countries that practice sharia, it is not a static entity but a living body of rules – just like secular law…

And? There’s a right of appeal, is there? So those Iranian women who get sentenced to being stoned to death for being in the company of men can appeal to be tried under secular law instead? And in any case, what use is a ‘right of appeal’ to women who are dominated, bullied, perhaps beaten? Like religion in general, sharia might be relatively harmless in the case of decent people who don’t bully others; but not all people are like that. Not all husbands would give their wives the chance to ‘appeal,’ and who else would enforce such a right? But as I said – Vasagar is a man, and it’s easy for him.

Forced or arranged

Feb 7th, 2008 1:39 pm | By

There’s that report on Honour-based violence in the UK. It starts off by discussing forced marriage – and right away I got snagged by an obstacle.

According to most definitions, a marriage becomes forced if any coercion, physical or psychological, [is] used against either spouses [sic] in order to force them to consent. A forced marriage is not the same as an arranged marriage which occurs with the full consent of both parties.

No the obstacle isn’t how desperately the report needs copy-editing; it’s full of mistakes and typos, but that’s not the obstacle. The obstacle is that item about the full consent. What is full consent? Under what conditions is it possible? How prevalent are such conditions? All that needs spelling out, and it’s a mistake to declare roundly that all arranged marriages by definition occur with the full consent of both. In other words there are arranged marriages, that are considered and called such by all parties, that are not completely freely consented to.

How could it possibly be otherwise? When children are raised with the idea that they will have marriages arranged for them, and that this is the right way to do things, and that to do things otherwise is risky or stupid or defiant or Western or dirty or all those – how freely do they consent when an arranged marriage is offered to them? Or at least, how freely is it safe to assume they consent? It may well be that many people who enter arranged marriages are entirely happy to do so, but is it safe or reasonable to assume that, given the circumstances? I don’t think it is. That’s not to say the police should be called out for every arranged marriage, just that the distinction between forced and arranged should not be seen as clear-cut and dependable.

An important pillar of our social identity hem hem

Feb 7th, 2008 1:04 pm | By

I transcribed something the Archbishop said just before the ‘bit of a danger’ remark.

A lot of what’s written suggests that the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody. Now, that principle, that there’s one law for everybody, is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it’s a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties, which shape and dictate how they behave in society – and that the law needs to take some account of that. An approach to law which simply said ‘There’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said’ – I think that’s a bit of a danger.

Very waffly, that. Of course people have ‘other affiliations, other loyalties, which shape and dictate how they behave in society’ – of course the law does not exhaust what shapes and dictates how people behave in society. Who thinks it does?! But it doesn’t follow from that that there should be one law for one group or ‘community’ and a different law for another. It doesn’t follow that it’s ‘a bit of a danger’ to take an approach to law that says there is one law for everybody, period – it’s much more dangerous to take any other approach!

He has a mellifluous voice, the Archbishop (well he would, wouldn’t he, he’d need it in his line of work), and a nicely timed way with a banality (he pauses thoughtfully and then comes out with the most obvious word possible), which make him sound reflective and reasonable – but it’s all either waffle or nonsense. The window-dressing is deceptive.

A bit of a danger

Feb 7th, 2008 12:17 pm | By

I got a record number of email messages alerting me to the Archbishop’s fun new ideas on the subject of law and religion, which seems to hint that they may not be as sound as they are exciting.

Dr Rowan Williams told Radio 4’s World at One that the UK has to “face up to the fact” that some of its citizens do not relate to the British legal system.

Quite so. UK murderers, rapists, extortionists, batterers – they do not relate to the British legal system. Good idea to face up to that fact, if one hasn’t already. But is it a good idea to actually adopt ‘certain aspects’ of murderers’, rapists’, extortionists’, batterers’ law? I would say no.

He says Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.

Really? Why not? Everyone has to choose between those alternatives. Why make exceptions? Because the cultural loyalty of Muslims is somehow special? Well, how, then?

Dr Williams said an approach to law which simply said “there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts – I think that’s a bit of a danger”.

Uh…do you really, Dr Williams? That’s a little scary. You think it’s a danger to say there is one law for everybody? You think it’s safer to say there are multiple laws for different people or you probably mean ‘communities’? Have you thought this through?

Dr Williams added: “What we don’t want either, is I think, a stand-off, where the law squares up to people’s religious consciences.”

Ah yes – so that’s what it’s all about. Religious consciences. The ones that make people want to treat gay people unequally, for instance – those religious consciences. Well my atheist and secular conscience tells me that laws should be universal. So how are you going to resolve that conflict?

Oh well, Doc W is in quite a lot of hot water already, I probably shouldn’t tease a fallen giant, even if he did trip his own self.

Not one speech can be taken on trust

Feb 6th, 2008 5:14 pm | By

Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial is a fascinating book. And it’s highly relevant to the question of whether or not it’s a good idea to debate Irving. Holocaust Denial on Trial has Evans’s report for the trial; see for instance his General Conclusion.

Irving is a particularly dangerous spokesperson for Holocaust denial because over the years he has consistently portrayed himself as a scrupulous historian with an unrivalled knowledge of the archival sources and an unerring eye for forgeries and falsifications. As we saw in Part I, he has repeatedly claimed that he is waging a ‘campaign for real history’ against legend and myth, truth against falsehood. ‘Real history’, he says, is based on the archives, not on copying other historians’ work, which is how academic, university-based historians in his opinion proceed. Many reviewers, and still more journalists, have been at least partly taken in by this ceaselessly propagated self-promotion and have paid tribute to Irving’s skill and energy as a researcher.

That’s the thing about all this – people are taken in by what people say. If someone confidently and firmly asserts something, we’re likely to believe it unless we have some existing reason to be suspicious. That’s one very compelling reason not to debate Irving, even apart from all the other reasons.

Reputable and professional historians do not suppress parts of quotations from documents that go against their own case, but take them into account and if necessary amend their own case accordingly. They do not present as genuine documents which they know to be forged just because these forgeries happen to back up what they are saying. They do not invent ingenious but implausible and utterly unsupported reasons for distrusting genuine documents because these documents run counter to their arguments; again, they amend their arguments if this is the case, or indeed abandon them altogether. They do not consciously attribute their own conclusions to books and other sources which in fact, on closer inspection, actually say the opposite…At least, they do not do any of these things if they wish to retain any kind of reputable status as historian. Irving has done all of these things from the very beginning of his career. Not one of his books, speeches or articles, not one paragraph, not one sentence in any of them, can be taken on trust as an accurate representation of its historical subject. All of them are completely worthless as history, because Irving cannot be trusted anywhere, in any of them, to give a reliable account of what he is talking or writing about.

Well there you go. How could one debate him when not one of his speeches, not one paragraph, not one sentence in any of them can be taken on trust? How could one debate him when he cannot be trusted to give a reliable account of what he is talking or writing about? One couldn’t. It would be like doing a clog dance on thin ice.

[I]f we mean by historian someone who is concerned to discover the truth about the past, and to give as accurate a representation of it as possible, then Irving is not a historian. Those in the know, indeed, are accustomed to avoid the term altogether when referring to him and use some circumlocution such as ‘historical writer’ instead. Irving is essentially an ideologue who uses history for his own political purposes; he is not primarily concerned with discovering and interpreting what happened in the past, he is concerned merely to give a selective and tendentious account of it in order to further his own ideological ends in the present. The true historian’s primary concern, however, is with the past. That is why, in the end, Irving is not a historian.

I quoted that last part in the Talking Philosophy discussion on Saturday. That was one of the points I didn’t want to get lost.

Nasim Fekrat

Feb 6th, 2008 11:30 am | By

Sometimes you happen on interesting sites by accident and you want to point them out. I want to point out this one, belonging to Nasim Fekrat.

My name is Nasim Fekrat and I’m 25 years old. I born in the land of pain and injustice. Whatever I want for myself, I wish for the others. I write from Kabul. I write what I see and what I hear. I am the winner of the in 2005 Freedom of Expression Blog Awards of RSF (Reporters without Borders) – France among seven Bloggers throughout the world. I am obviously a defender of freedom of expression and independent media free of threats and intimidation. I want to highlight the problems of my society in an independent manner, without fear and in a non-partisan manner in regards any group or political interest in Afghanistan.

Go, Nasim. Best of luck.

The novelists

Feb 6th, 2008 11:22 am | By

Norm’s favourite English-language novels vote is in. I was very pleased to see Austen lead the pack by a wide margin. So she should. There is no one who can touch her for what I can only call perfection – for ruthless avoidance of flab, gas, wind, padding, self-indulgence; of bad writing; of sentimentality; of sententiousness; of overt lecturing; of sloppiness. There’s a power, a muscularity, a cold authority to her writing that makes a lot of male writers look feeble indeed. She’s widely supposed to be a narrow genteel nostalgic peddler of romances; well, Dickens and Thackeray and Hardy should only have been so lucky to have the force and strength of pen that she had. She and Emily Bronte could outdo them all.

Thus I was sorry not to see Emily Bronte until 32. Also not to see Willa Cather at all (meaning she got eight votes or fewer or none). I think Cather is under-rated. Some of her stuff is brilliant, and unlike other novels. The first half of The Song of the Lark is staggeringly good, I think.

I was glad Rohinton Mistry made the near-miss list but I wish he’d done better. I’m surprised to see Orwell there at all – he was a godawful novelist. I suppose he’s there on the strength of the last two, but really, as novels…they’re not very good. And two novels that I recommend strongly: Rebecca Goldstein’s The Mind-body Problem and J G Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur.

While he was away

Feb 4th, 2008 2:25 pm | By

Let me get this straight – a guy has some video evidence that his wife and her sister were in the company of some men when he wasn’t there, and so they’re going to be executed? That’s the deal? Yes, that’s the deal.

Two Iranian sisters convicted of adultery face being stoned to death after the supreme court upheld the death sentences against them, the Etemad newspaper reported. The two sisters were found guilty of adultery – a capital crime in Islamic Iran – after the husband of one of the pair presented video evidence showing them in the company of other men while he was away.

It’s not even video evidence that they were having sex with the men – which, to be perfectly honest, shouldn’t be a capital crime in any case – it’s just evidence that they were in the company of other men. And that’s a capital crime. Well why am I surprised; the penalty for allowing one’s hijab to slip half an inch back from one’s forehead is 80 lashes. Don’t skip over that, now – consider it. For allowing a tiny strip of hair to show at the edge of a hijab a woman is handcuffed facedown to a wooden bed and whipped with a cane 80 times. Pretty, isn’t it.

Oh what’s a few germs between friends

Feb 4th, 2008 1:53 pm | By

There’s just no end to the joys of fundamentalism, is there. Health, hygiene, avoidance of untreatable illness and death, adherence to established rational medical norms? As nothing in the balance compared to what is said to be ‘a basic tenet of Islam’ – no matter how stupid, trivial, pettifogging, mindless, exaggerated, plain bloody absurd the ‘basic tenet’ is. This should (again) be something out of The Onion but apparently isn’t.

Muslim medical students are refusing to obey hygiene rules brought in to stop the spread of deadly superbugs, because they say it is against their religion. Women training in several hospitals in England have raised objections to removing their arm coverings in theatre and to rolling up their sleeves when washing their hands, because it is regarded as immodest in Islam.

Right. Those things between the wrists and the elbows – they’re obscene and sexual and smutty, on women, so they have to be kept wrapped up at all times or else men will run amok and start trying to copulate with them. (Never mind how, they just will.) This is a basic tenet of Islam.

Universities and NHS trusts fear many more will refuse to co-operate with new Department of Health guidance, introduced this month, which stipulates that all doctors must be “bare below the elbow”. The measure is deemed necessary to stop the spread of infections such as MRSA and Clostridium difficile, which have killed hundreds.

Yes but stopping the spread of lethal infections is not a basic tenet of Islam. So there.

[T]he Islamic Medical Association insisted that covering all the body in public, except the face and hands, was a basic tenet of Islam. “No practising Muslim woman – doctor, medical student, nurse or patient – should be forced to bare her arms below the elbow,” it said.

A thoughtful, careful, reasonable, sensible response. Never mind the health and safety of the patients (some of whom are Muslim, don’t forget), no practising Muslim doctor or nurse should be required to obey the medically necessary rules. Well done Islamic Medical Association. (Is there an alternative? A Sensible Islamic Medical Association? A Not Quite So Deranged Islamic Medical Association? A Quasi-rational Islamic Medical Association?)

A qualitative difference

Feb 4th, 2008 1:36 am | By

Irritated readers of Talking Philosophy are emailing me to scold me about the removed post on debating David Irving, so just to make things clear: I have nothing to do with TP, I can’t post there, I have no access to the equipment, I don’t make decisions; it’s nothing to do with me. I didn’t take the post down. I work for the magazine, but I have no connection with the blog.

The deniers have the post here.)

I went to the central library today (Sunday) to get Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust and Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler. Lipstadt says something very apposite to Julian’s question (‘Should I debate a Holocaust denier?) on page 26.

There is a qualitative difference between barring someone’s right to speech and providing him or her with a platform from which to deliver a message.

And it’s a difference that a lot of people, probably especially in the US, have a hard time keeping in mind.

Don’t encourage it

Feb 2nd, 2008 4:53 pm | By

Oh, lordy, lordy, lordy, children – I’ve spent too much of today arguing with a ‘Holocaust denier,’ or perhaps just a brainless troll pretending to be a Holocaust denier. I knew I shouldn’t, I knew it was as futile an enterprise as cooking rice one grain at a time or shoveling snow with a teaspoon, but I couldn’t stop myself. The troll kept answering and answering and answering, and I just couldn’t leave it alone. I’m such a fool!

But, I don’t know, perhaps it was inevitable. It kept saying ‘there’s no evidence’ so how could I not go fetch some evidence to show it that there is? It would be expecting too much. Or maybe it wouldn’t, but anyway, that’s what I did. But of course the stupid troll couldn’t be bothered to look at the evidence, it was having much too much fun doing nothing at all apart from repeating over and over that there was no evidence. It only does it to annoy, because it knows it teases – I know that, I know that perfectly well, it’s like those people in the playground, you don’t argue with them, you just walk away. But – well, I’m not that sane, that’s all; I never have been.

The thing is that Julian wanted readers’ thoughts on whether he should or shouldn’t debate David Irving.

The issue for me is not about whether Irving should be allowed to air his views: I think he should. The serious issue for me is whether it is right to give people with such views a prominent public platform, thereby legitimising them in some way. In theory, it sounds nobler to always fight the truth out in public, but we surely can’t ignore the fact that the attention someone gets has as much, if not more, of an impact than what we actually say when we debate them.

Just so, and in particular in the case of David Irving, because he is a falsifier as well as a denier, so not only is that an excellent reason not to give him the oxygen of publicity, it’s also an excellent reason not to debate him since it’s impossible to trust him to tell the truth. Most people yesterday said Don’t do it – and then today the deniers turned up. There’s a guy called Fredrick Toben, who has a Wikipedia entry. And there’s a troll, who has nothing in particular except the ability to say ‘There is not a shred of evidence’ over and over despite having evidence handed to him on an engraved silver charger with tortoiseshell inlay. He got up my nose, that troll did. So I spent too much time typing words for him to read and then ignore. I’m a fool, a fool!

But maybe not. After all I’m interested in this kind of thing, these cherished and protected delusions (and of course that’s what they think or pretend to think of us – the ‘Holocaust industry’ as they call it), so it’s not such a waste to explore it in depth now and then. Only the stupidity is so exasperating, you know.

Never mind, I spent time exploring Holocaust Denial on Trial, which is certainly well worth doing. An education in history all by itself, for one thing.

Actually I guess the reason it annoys me is not the time but the sense of, how shall I say, contamination. They’re not a crowd I much want to sit around chatting with, frankly.

What am I missing here…

Feb 2nd, 2008 11:52 am | By

Did you read this article at Dissent by Nadia Urbinati? I find it a little baffling…because she’s a professor of political theory at Columbia, but the article seems to me to be just startlingly bad. It reminds me of several I read the other day at Comment is Free. It goes like this: first a lot of straw man stuff, then a lot of pointing out the obvious, then mixing the straw man stuff with the obvious stuff, then it winds up with a resounding contradiction.

Am I missing something?

(Probably not, actually, because Michael Walzer in his reply says much the same thing except far more politely, but then Urbinati is a friend of his.)

[O]n the one hand, there are those who, questioning what they regard as a naive liberal ideal of toleration, acknowledge the existence of cultural and religious differences within a democratic community, but with one exception—Islam. On the other hand, there are those who question this exception insofar as they suggest we should be careful to articulate our judgment on the Islamic culture and think it is a mistake to regard it as a whole, as if it were a homogeneous world with no internal differences.

That’s your strawman stuff, along with a lot more like it. Complete nonsense. Who on the Left thinks it’s not a mistake to regard ‘the Islamic culture’ (whatever that is) as if it were a homogeneous world? No one. Then she makes an inane comparison with the Cold War, then goes on to say how much cleverer about these things European intellectuals were during the Cold War – thus talking about European intellectuals as if they were a whole, and she does the same with other large groups.

As a matter of fact, once the Italian Communists agreed to discuss their doctrinal principles with a liberal theorist according to the method of “arguments and counter-arguments,” they were actually agreeing to put their dogmatic system on trial, and to risk acknowledging its limits and flaws.

‘The’ Italian Communists? Hardly! She’s talking about the leadership there, not all Italian Communists, who of course didn’t agree to any such thing.

Dilip Gaonkar and Charles Taylor…emphasize, correctly, the important implications that [this theoretical contribution] has today in the face of the rebirth of new Manichean attitudes amidst Western reformist intellectuals…[I]t assumes that within each culture there are minorities (which the liberal rights of the “exist” and “voice,” as elucidated by Albert Hirschman, should guarantee)—in other words, that no culture is monolithic.

That’s the mixture of straw man and obvious. No culture is monolithic – gee, no kidding! Who knew?

The philosophy of dialogue is based on these premises, both of which Manichaeism radically rejects.

No doubt, but there is no such Manichaeism; that’s an invention, a fantasy.

Then she charges Paul Berman with ‘Manichean Occidentalism,’ which is more straw, then she recommends internal criticism and contextual criticism, which is more banging on an open door. Then she identifies two visions of democracy, one being the politics of the will: “ideological, quasi religious in kind, based on a nucleus of values that are identified with the West as an organic whole (it corresponds, more or less, to a Wilsonian conception of democracy as a mission and that not only many American neo-conservatives but also some revisionist liberals such as Berman identify with.”

While it acknowledges democracy as the highest value and peace as its corollary, the politics of the will betrays the democratic principle of self-determination, which is the necessary condition for the creation of democracy, and violates the principle of sovereignty without which neither democracy nor peace can exist…The other vision is identifiable with a politics of judgment. It is better rooted than the other one in the idea that citizens’ consent is the fundamental requirement for a democratic political order.

Well there’s some block thinking for you, and it’s block thinking that makes a complete nonsense of what she seems to want to say. What is this self-determination? What is this sovereignty? The politics of the will is clearly enough another name for liberal interventionism, so the subject is apparently why democracies should not force non-democracies to become democracies. There certainly are arguments for that view (although I think they’re stronger in some cases than in others – she said, stating the obvious herself) – but self-determination and sovereignty? Self-determination of whom, by whom? What does self-determination mean in the case of an authoritarian regime? Not much! If the people aren’t asked, then it’s determination by an elite or an autocrat – in an authoritarian regime, self-determination is a cruel oxymoron. And the same goes for sovereignty. If the ruler is there by force, what’s the sovereignty worth? Not much. Who cares about Hitler’s sovereignty, or Pinochet’s, or Mugabe’s? Yet Urbinati cites them as if they should make us choke up with emotion. Of course it’s true that people generally don’t like being invaded, but that has to be spelled out; just calling it self-determination and sovereignty fails to do that. It’s blocky.

Then in the last para there’s the contradiction. The first sentence says X, the second and last says not-X.

Now, too, we are witnessing perhaps the need to emancipate the individual from the identification with the culture and/or the religion she or he belongs to. The issue here is not a conclusion that culture and religions are fictions and illusions, but the emphasis that culture and religion are expressions of—and originate in—the individual search for meaningful life.

I see. [wanders off, scratching her head]

The pope sets us straight

Feb 1st, 2008 4:24 pm | By

Now it’s the pope’s turn to tell us what’s what. He met with some ‘academics’ at the Vatican and told them “that science is not capable of fully understanding the mystery of human beings.” No doubt implying that the Vatican by contrast is.

[It is important not to ignore anthropological, philosophical and theological research, which highlight and maintain the mystery of human beings, because no science can say who they are, where they come from and where they go.

Theological research? Into…what? And what does it tell us about the mystery of human beings? Well, other than the fact that they believe in peculiar and usually nasty gods.

Man, said the Pope is “characterized by his otherness. He is a being created by God, a being in the image of God, a being who is loved and is made to love. As a human he is never closed within himself. He is always a bearer of otherness and, from his origins, is in interaction with other human beings”. Contrary to the Darwinian concept of man, Pope Benedict said that “man is not the result of mere chance, of converging circumstances, of determinism, of chemical inter-reactions.”

And the Pope knows this how? On the basis of what research?

“In our own time, when the progress of the sciences attracts and seduces for the possibilities it offers, it is more necessary than ever to educate the consciences of our contemporaries to ensure that science does not become the criterion of good, that man is still respected as the centre of creation…”

And that mysterious humans go on thinking the Vatican is as important as they always have so that the pope can go on wearing the embroidered outfits. Sure.