Women should be neither seen nor heard

Apr 3rd, 2009 4:51 pm | By

And then there are the reactionary Orthodox newspapers in Israel which can’t stand to show any of those harlot women in positions of power, so they just erase them and replace them with men.

Limor Livnat and Sofa Landver were grouped with the rest of the 30-member cabinet for their inaugural photo. But Yated Neeman newspaper digitally changed the picture by replacing them with two men. The Shaa Tova newspaper blacked the women out.

Couldn’t they just have put little digital bags over their heads? Wouldn’t that do the job?

Welcome to Swat

Apr 3rd, 2009 4:44 pm | By

So here’s how it went down in Swat.

The burka-clad [girl] is heard crying throughout the two-minute flogging and at one point swears on her father that she will not do it again. Relatives of the man involved in the incident told the BBC he had gone to the house of the girl in the village of Kala Kalay to do repairs as an electrician, but militants accused him of having a relationship with her. They dragged him from the house and flogged him before punishing the girl, his relatives said. The Taleban made the girl’s brother hold her down during the flogging, they said. After the incident, the Taleban forced the couple to marry and instructed the man not to divorce his wife.

The Taleban forced ‘the couple’ to marry – except that there was no couple, there was an electrician doing some work in a house and a girl who happened to live there. Now there are three people stuck in a revolting nightmare, with (no doubt) the Taleban balefully peering at them all the time so that they can’t escape. Allah is wise, merciful.

Islamists’ ‘devotion to social justice’

Apr 3rd, 2009 11:23 am | By

The Guardian pulls our chain again.

In recent weeks an unnecessary schism has been created between government and British Islamists…Taken together these incidents reinforce concerns that British Islamists are uniquely held out for political attack, and illustrate the power of key anti-Islamist lobbying groups.

Why is it assumed to be wrong for a particular political group to be ‘uniquely held out for political attack’? It is perfectly possible for a particular political group to be uniquely wrong and bad and harmful, so why would it be inherently wrong to single out such a group for special attention and opprobrium? In other words, why shouldn’t British Islamists be ‘uniquely held out for political attack’?

Well because they are such nice idealistic social activists, according to Lambert and Githens-Mazer.

While British Islamists are as diverse as British socialists, the interviews do reveal important unifying characteristics, most notably a devotion to social justice and a concern for community needs over individual or corporate ambitions. British Islamists are typified by a sense of moral obligation to confront injustice, and they strive, in their own ways, to try to make the world a better place. These are messages which have more power than ever in modern Britain.

That makes me want to hit Lambert and Githens-Mazer violently over the head. A devotion to social justice nothing; a devotion to social justice is not compatible with a devotion to ferocious segregation of women, gender inequality, and homophobia.

Our interviews with British Islamists have demonstrated a sense of an Islamic imperative that is strikingly similar to Tony Benn’s interpretation of Jesus’ call to active citizenship on behalf of the politically oppressed….[M]ainstream British Islamist organisations, like the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain, the British Muslim Initiative, Islamic Forum Europe and many more, do not represent the entirety of British Muslim opinion, any more than Methodists represent all of Protestantism.

Active citizenship on behalf of the politically oppressed? On behalf of the politically oppressed? Including women? Gays? Jews? Apostates? Non-Muslims? Unbelievers? Atheists? Not that I know of. Do correct me if I’m wrong, but to the best of my knowledge ‘mainstream’ Islamist organizations do not oppose the political oppression of any of those groups. And then of course the idea that the MAB is ‘mainstream’ is a horrifying joke – but this is Overton window stuff: throw in the MAB so that the inclusion of the MCB will seem reasonable in comparison.

Anyway – yet again – the Guardian covers itself in ordure. They don’t give Fred Phelps a platform, why do they give one to this kind of thing?


Apr 2nd, 2009 6:38 pm | By

Here’s a news flash: Arabs are preferred over other nations.

The fact that Allah Most High has chosen the Arabs over other nations is affirmed in rigorously authenticated hadiths of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and give him peace; related by Bukhari and Muslim in their “Sahih” in the beginning of the chapter of merits, 5897, on the authority of Wathilah ibn al-Asqa` who said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, say, ‘Verily Allah has chosen Kinanah from the son of Isma`il, and He has chosen Quraysh from among Kinanah and He has chosen Hashim from among Quraysh and He has chosen me from the Bani Hashim.'”

So that’s that, isn’t it. A guy said he heard Mo say that Allah chose him and some other guys, so that (obviously) makes it so. Therefore, Arabs are Topp.

Therefore the preference of Arabs over other nations, and the preference of some Arabs over other Arabs is affirmed in the Sacred Law. Allah has even preferred some months over other months and some days and nights of over others, as well as places. So in the same way, Allah Glorious and Exalted is He, has chosen some men over others, such as the prophets over others and even some prophets over other prophets. Muslims should not have any objection to this, because all of this returns to the wisdom of the Most Wise, Glorious is He, who is not asked about what He does, but rather, they are the ones who are asked.

Unanswerable, innit. Allah prefers various things over various other things, because somebody said so, and don’t bother objecting to it, because Allah doesn’t take questions, though he damn well does dish them out if he feels like it, so don’t say another word.

That’s the way to cultivate critical thinking and independence of mind and healthy skepticism and the urge to look behind the curtain.

It also sheds a harsh and unpleasant light on Darfur, and the treatment of domestic workers from the Philippines in Saudi Arabia, and what Saudi textbooks say about Jews.

A crowd of men stands by, watching silently

Apr 2nd, 2009 1:41 pm | By

Sometimes the red mist of rage just overpowers the ability to say anything judicious or coherent – and one is reduced to impotent vindictive quivering.

Muslim Khan is beginning to do that to me. He’s the Taliban ‘spokesman’ in Swat, and he’s been doing a lot of talking lately. Every fucking word out of his mouth is disgusting bullying crap. (See what I mean? I can’t characterize it any more eloquently than that.)

The two-minute video, shot using a mobile phone, shows a burka-clad woman face down on the ground. Two men hold her arms and feet while a third, a black-turbaned fighter with a flowing beard, whips her repeatedly. “Please stop it,” she begs, alternately whimpering or screaming in pain with each blow to the backside. “Either kill me or stop it now.” A crowd of men stands by, watching silently. Off camera a voice issues instructions. “Hold her legs tightly,” he says as she squirms and yelps. After 34 lashes the punishment stops and the wailing woman is led into a stone building, trailed by a Kalashnikov-carrying militant. Reached by phone, Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan claimed responsibility for the flogging. “She came out of her house with another guy who was not her husband, so we must punish her. There are boundaries you cannot cross,” he said. He defended the Taliban’s right to thrash women shoppers who were inappropriately dressed, saying it was permitted under Islamic law.

Look…even if you think that the girl did something wrong (which of course I don’t), even if you think she should be punished in some way (which of course I don’t) – even then these guys are a pack of disgusting bullying ruthless mindless bastards. Even if you accept their stupid reactionary stultifying premises, they still come out as utterly disgusting men who see nothing wrong with exercising their strength on people weaker than they are.

I am so sick of reading about groups of men collaborating in violence against a single unarmed woman. I am so sick of hearing about men who can’t see anything wrong with bullying people who are in their power. I’m so sick of it that I can’t say anything sensible about it – I can only swear and rant and fume. They make me want to vomit.

Bishops say Reiki is totally bogus

Mar 31st, 2009 4:01 pm | By

Look, if you’re going to use spiritual tools for medial purposes, do it right. It’s just silly to use the wrong kind. Any fule kno that.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has warned Roman Catholics to shun the eastern healing art of Reiki because it lacks scientific credibility and is dangerous to Christian spiritual health. “Reiki therapy finds no support either in the findings of natural science or in Christian belief,” said the USCCB doctrine committee in a document issued Thursday…”There is a radical difference between Reiki therapy and the healing by divine power in which Christians believe: for Christians the access to divine healing is by prayer to Christ as Lord and Savior, while the essence of Reiki is not a prayer but a technique,” the bishops said in a statement.

Right. So if you’re a Christian and you have an abscess or cholera or a broken arm, the thing you do is you pray to Christ as Lord and Savior, and that will save you all the trouble and expense of taking medications or wearing a cast. This advice has all the scientific credibility anyone could possibly need; it is well known that prayer has a 100% success rate in the cure of all manner of illness and injury.

To use Reiki is to operate “in the realm of superstition, the no-man’s-land that is neither faith nor science,” the bishops warned, urging Catholic healthcare institutions, retreats and chaplains to ditch the therapy.

Catholic healthcare institutions. There are such things? With doctors and medications and all? So they don’t use just prayer then? But I don’t understand – why not? If Christians believe in the healing by divine power, then why do they have sciencey healthcare institutions too? Why do they use both? Isn’t that going against God’s will? If the prayers don’t work, isn’t that because God doesn’t want them to work, for God’s good reasons? So why do Catholics have healthcare institutions?

I don’t understand this stuff at all. It’s seriously confusing.

Sucking Up 101

Mar 31st, 2009 11:41 am | By

The odd thing about Mr Framing is that he ‘frames’ everything as though we were all engaged in some form of marketing or public relations. He seems to see all of life, or at least all of discourse, in the terms of a US presidential campaign, with all its manipulation and distortion and expensive beside the pointery. He seems not to realize that some people are in fact free to think as critically as they like and to write and speak as honestly as they can.

Or rather, that is one odd thing about him; another odd thing about him is of course that this kink in his mind is entirely asymmetrical; it applies to all atheists and to no theists. He thinks all atheists are trying to market something and therefore must take infinite pains not to antagonize anyone by having anything resembling a particular view or a strong argument; and he thinks all theists are blameless passive receivers of the discourse of others, who play no role other than to be wounded and alienated and thus refuse to Buy the Product.

A third odd thing is (also of course) that he is a putative expert in communication and he persuades almost no one.

Cat escapes bag, flees the scene

Mar 30th, 2009 12:03 pm | By

Ah, so they admit it.

Members of something called ‘One Mind Ministries’

denied a 16-month-old boy food and water because he did not say “Amen” at mealtimes. After he died, they prayed over his body for days, expecting a resurrection, then packed it into a suitcase with mothballs. They left it in a shed in Philadelphia, where it remained for a year before detectives found it last spring.

The baby’s mother is going on trial for murder.

Psychiatrists who evaluated Ramkissoon at the request of a judge concluded that she was not criminally insane. Her attorney, Steven Silverman, said the doctors found that her beliefs were indistinguishable from religious beliefs, in part because they were shared by those around her. “She wasn’t delusional, because she was following a religion,” Silverman said, describing the findings of the doctors’ psychiatric evaluation…Silverman said he and prosecutors think Ramkissoon was brainwashed and should have been found not criminally responsible; prosecutors declined to comment. Although an inability to think critically can be a sign of brainwashing, experts said, the line between that and some religious beliefs can be difficult to discern. “At times there can be an overlap between extreme religious conviction and delusion,” said Robert Jay Lifton.

Well quite. This is what we keep saying.

NGOs out, polio in

Mar 29th, 2009 5:15 pm | By

The dear dear Taliban – so wise, so reasonable, so helpful.

In a recent broadcast on his illegal FM radio station, Taliban commander Maulana Fazlullah said, “All NGOs should leave Swat because they are creating problems for peace.” Fazlullah has also described all Pakistanis working for NGOs as “enemies of the country”. “They come and tell us how to make latrines in mosques and homes. I’m sure we can do it ourselves. There is no need for foreigners to tell us this,” Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said.

He went on to explain in more depth:

Muslim Khan told IRIN, a news network run by the United Nations, that “NGO is another name for vulgarity and obscenity. They don’t want us to remain Muslims and want to take away the veil from our women.” Khan claimed NGOs hire women who work alongside men in the fields and in offices. “That is totally un-Islamic and unacceptable,” he said.

Sound fella. He’s a medical expert, too.

Taliban militants in the former tourist destination of Swat Valley have obstructed officials from vaccinating over 300,000 children…Extremist clerics have used mosque loudspeakers and illegal radio stations to spread the idea that the vaccinations cause infertility and are part of a US-sponsored anti-Muslim plot…“It’s a US tool to cut the population of the Muslims. It is against Islam that you take a medicine before the disease”, said Muslim Khan, Swat’s Taliban spokesman, speaking by telephone.

You see? He knows how to make latrines, he knows it is unacceptable to let women work alongside men, he knows vaccinations are against Islam. Soon under the wise and benevolent rule of the Taliban, Swat will be full of illiterate shrouded women, contaminated water supplies, crippled children, and corpses. Ain’t regression grand?

The archbishop gives the BBC a damn good scolding

Mar 29th, 2009 12:46 pm | By

This seems rather bossy.

Dr Rowan Williams warned Mark Thompson at a meeting at Lambeth Palace that the broadcaster must not ignore its Christian audience. His intervention comes amid mounting concern among senior members of the Church of England that the BBC is downgrading its religious output and giving preferential treatment to minority faiths.

Warned? Must not? Intervention? Well, those are all the Telegraph’s words, to be sure, not the archbishop’s. But all the same, it seems somewhat peculiar (to me anyway) for an archbishop to be attempting to tell the BBC what to do. Where in the bible does it say what proportion of time the BBC has to give to Christianity?

As a public service broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to provide religious programmes. But Dr Williams challenged the director general during their meeting earlier this month over the decline in religious broadcasting on the BBC World Service.

Huh? As a public service broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to provide religious programmes? Does it? Why? That seems like a complete non-sequitur to me. How does public service impose a duty to provide religious anything? They’re two different things. It’s not clear if the Telegraph means a moral duty or a statutory one; if it’s the former the claim is absurd.

A BBC spokeswoman argued that changes that have been made to the department were intended to strengthen the BBC’s offering. “The BBC’s commitment to Religion and Ethics is unequivocal and entirely safe,” she said, adding that the BBC had stressed this to bishops who had expressed concerns.

Yeah don’t worry, the BBC is quite determined to go on treating religion and ethics as if they were indissolubly joined when in fact they are in strong conflict. No problem, the BBC will go right on confusing people by pretending you can’t have ethics without religion. No doubt that is their duty as a public service broadcaster.

The way of saying something is part of what is said

Mar 28th, 2009 5:31 pm | By

Kenan Malik makes a crucial point about this vexed issue of style and tone and manner.

Anticipating the arguments of Rushdie’s critics that there is a difference between legitimate criticism and unacceptable abuse, the Law Commission pointed out that ‘one person’s incisive comment (and indeed seemingly innocuous comment) may be another’s “blasphemy” and to forbid the use of the strongest language in relation, for example, to practices which some may rightly regard as not in the best interests of society as a whole would, it seems to us, be altogether unacceptable’. In other words, the way of saying something is part of what is said. To say that you must write differently is in practice to say that you must write about different things.

Exactly. The way of saying something is part of what is said, so all this heavy pressure on atheists to be bashful and circumspect and euphemistic and evasive about their atheism is simply a way of telling them to say something different. So vocal atheists say ‘What ho, atheists have been shoved into the closet over the past few decades and theists have been taking over the stage, let’s barge out of the closet now and grab our share of the limelight’; so theists and their protectors give a great cry and say ‘Nononono, you vocal atheists are too vocal, we will not take your atheism away from you, but you must get out of the limelight and off the stage and oh look, there’s a nice big closet right here, with plenty of room to sit down and even turn around, in you go.’ You do see that that rather defeats the whole purpose. Telling us to write differently is in practice to say that we must write about different things, but we want to write about these things, not different ones, so kindly let us get on with it.

How thoughtful?

Mar 27th, 2009 10:11 am | By

Norm commented on Julian’s atheism piece a couple of days ago, and when I read it my attention snagged on another claim in Julian’s article.

For me, atheism’s roots are in a sober and modest assessment of where reason and evidence lead us. That means the real enemy is not religion as such, but any kind of system of belief that does not respect these limits on our thinking. For that reason, I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent believers…

Hmm. I’m not sure what that means. Are thoughtful, intelligent believers ones who respect the limits on our thinking set by soberly assessing where reason and evidence lead us? But if they are, then are they really believers? If they’re not, are they really thoughtful and intelligent?

I think there’s a lurking and unacknowledged oxymoron there – or maybe it’s an elision. Believers can be thoughtful and intelligent but with an exception carved out for their belief. Believers, as such, aren’t thoughtful and intelligent all the way down. That’s in the nature of the word. It would sound odd to say ‘I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent, credulous people,’ but believers are by definition credulous. To the extent that they are credulous – they’re not thoughtful and intelligent enough.

This is perhaps another case where the special status of religion confuses things. It would sound odd to say ‘I want to engage with thoughtful, intelligent astrologers’ – or homeopaths or Wiccans or Holocaust deniers. In those cases we would recognize from the outset that there had to be a big hole in the thoughtfulness and intelligence in question, but we’re more reluctant to see it in the case of religion.

The background idea seems to be that the two are in balance – that thoughtful intelligent believers and unbelievers are much the same, they just happen to differ on this one point. But that’s wrong. Believers are making a mistake that non-believers don’t make. They’re making a mistake even if there is a god, because we have no real evidence that there is a god, so it’s a mistake to take anyone’s word for it on the basis of nothing.

Irshad Manji is an example of the thoughtful intelligent believer who is nonetheless not thoughtful enough, because she says proudly that her faith in Allah is unshakeable. That’s not thoughtful, it’s the reverse of thoughtful. I think Manji is terrific in a lot of ways – but that does nothing to patch over the hole in her thinking.

In return for peace the Taleban can stop girls going to school

Mar 26th, 2009 5:56 pm | By

Not to worry – sharia is lovely once you get used to it.

“Swat is the start and it is a test of the religion and the system and the law. It is a step forward. Give it time and you will see this is what people want,” Muslim Khan, a charismatic English-speaking Taleban leader tells me.

Will you? How much time? And which people? Does he really mean people? Or just men.

In return for peace the Taleban can administer the region, run Sharia courts, ban women from marketplaces, outlaw music shops and stop girls older than 13 going to school.

And ‘people’ will like that as long as you give it enough time. Let’s say about five centuries; by then all memory of freedom and rights will be stone dead, and ‘like’ will mean the same thing as ‘know no alternative to’ and then the prediction will be true.

It is hard to gauge support for the movement in Swat. Dissent has been suppressed but a population disillusioned by years of fighting and ineffectual government can at least get on with their lives.

No, they can’t. Not if they’re girls over the age of 13 they can’t. Not if they’re women they can’t – unless you think it’s possible to get on with one’s life when one is not allowed to go to the market or much of anywhere else. They can (perhaps) get on with small impoverished parts of their lives, but they certainly can’t ‘get on with their lives’ in any sense we would recognize.

Theocrats all sound alike

Mar 26th, 2009 12:07 pm | By

Not good.

For the first four decades of Israel’s existence, the army — like many of the country’s institutions — was dominated by kibbutz members who saw themselves as secular, Western and educated. In the past decade or two, religious nationalists, including many from the settler movement in the West Bank, have moved into more and more positions of military responsibility…“The officer corps of the elite Golani Brigade is now heavily populated by religious right-wing graduates of the preparatory academies,” noted Moshe Halbertal, a Jewish philosophy professor…Those who oppose the religious right have been especially concerned about the influence of the military’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, who is himself a West Bank settler…He took a quotation from a classical Hebrew text and turned it into a slogan during the war: “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.”

Well that’s an interesting bit of casuistry. To more rational people it seems more likely that people who are cruel to the cruel will end up being cruel in general.

Rabbi Rontzki’s numerous sayings and writings have been making the rounds among leftist intellectuals. He has written, for example, that what others call “humanistic values” are simply subjective feelings that should be subordinate to following the law of the Torah. He has also said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath, when work is prohibited but treating the sick and injured is expected, is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred.

Pretty stuff.

Mr. Halbertal, the Jewish philosopher who opposes the attitude of Rabbi Rontzki, said the divide that is growing in Israel is not only between religious and secular Jews but among the religious themselves…The religious left also rejects the messianic nature of the right’s Zionist discourse, and it argues that Jewish tradition values all life, not primarily Jewish life. “The right tends to make an equation between authenticity and brutality, as if the idea of humanism were a Western and alien implant to Judaism,” he said. “They seem not to know that nationalism and fascism are also Western ideas and that hypernationalism is not Jewish at all.”

Sounds unpleasantly familiar, doesn’t it – as if Hamas and Rontzki deserve each other.

In some sense divine

Mar 25th, 2009 6:28 pm | By

Right so the French physicist Bernard d’Espagnat has won ‘the Templeton Prize’ which is awarded annually to someone who contributes to something called ‘affirming life’s spiritual dimension.’ What does that mean? I haven’t the slightest fucking clue. I don’t think anyone has. I think it just means something like ‘not being mean and boring like those horrible atheists’ – or ‘not saying people are made entirely of metal’ – or ‘liking the pretty rainbows.’ But that of course still doesn’t mean I have a clue what it means, because meaning something like something isn’t the same as actually meaning something, and I don’t suppose the Templeton Foundation stands up in all its pomp and hands a prize worth many dollars to someone actually for liking the pretty rainbows, in so many words – so I still don’t know what it actually, really, when you nail it down, means by it.

Neither, it would appear, does Mark Vernon. He’s remarkably careful to avoid saying anything precise about it.

The bizarre nature of quantum physics has attracted some speculations that are wacky but the theory suggests to some serious scientists that reality, at its most basic, is perfectly compatible with what might be called a spiritual view of things…For [D’Espagnat], quantum physics shows us that reality is ultimately “veiled” from us. The equations and predictions of the science, super-accurate though they are, offer us only a glimpse behind that veil. Moreover, that hidden reality is, in some sense, divine.

See what I mean? Not exactly anything you can hold him to. The theory suggests to some serious scientists that reality, at its most basic, is perfectly compatible with what might be called a spiritual view of things. That’s a lot of hedges – five in one clause, and then ending up with the perfectly meaningless ‘a spiritual view of things.’ Oooooooooh, really? The theory suggests that reality might be compatible with what might be called a spiritual view of things? Ooooooh, wow, that changes my whole view of everything, which has been turned upside down and inside out and every which way and is now unrecognizable. Or to put it another way, big woop – anything might be compatible with ‘a spiritual view of things.’ Unless of course Mark Vernon really does mean something precise and (say) falsifiable by ‘a spiritual view of things,’ but I think if he had he would have said so.

But no matter, because after some more pious waffle about a veil and a glimpse, we get to the nub of the thing, which is that ‘that hidden reality is, in some sense, divine.’ Ah. Ah yes. Quite. But – in what sense, exactly? ‘In some sense, divine’ really covers an awful lot of territory. It covers rum raisin ice cream, just for one thing. But surely the Templeton Foundation wouldn’t go giving some French physicist large amounts of dollars just for saying rum raisin (or cassis or abricot or noisette) ice cream is divine. Would it? But it would give them to him for saying something that boils down to ‘that hidden reality is, in some sense, divine,’ only with equations. Do you sense a certain amount of obscurantism here? A whiff of the old hocus pocus? Because I do. I think they’re conning us – or themselves, or both. I think they think d’Espagnat said something really deep, and spiritual, without having any idea what it is. But that’s okay, because whatever it is, it’s compatible with something else, so no worries.


Mar 25th, 2009 12:38 pm | By

So the penny finally dropped.

In the wake of the London bombings of July 2005, the Government invited the MCB to Downing Street for discussions on how to respond to the growth of extremism among young British Muslims. Public money was channelled to the organisation to help it turn the young away from terror. But it turned out that, despite its name, the MCB was not actually representative of British Muslims…

Well it didn’t really ‘turn out’ that the MCB was not actually representative, or that it was not the ideal organization to ‘respond to’ the growth of ‘extremism’ – unless ‘respond to’ means something other than, say, ‘discourage.’ It didn’t really ‘turn out’ because both of those facts were already well known to anyone who was paying attention. It was no secret, after all, that the MCB was founded ‘in response to’ Salman Rushdie’s naughty novel; or that it was run almost entirely by men; or that the men who ran it could be relied on to say very reactionary things whenever the BBC phoned for a comment. None of this was a new discovery in July 2005.

But at least the Independent seems to get the point now – although it certainly does get into a tangle when it tries to think about the fact that different people have different views.

The problem is that British Muslims are a diverse and fragmented community. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Iraqis and Nigerians living in Britain all have different cultures, outlooks and economic circumstances.

I beg your pardon, but that’s a really stupid pair of sentences. On the one hand they’re all ‘a community’ but on the other hand they’re a ‘diverse and fragmented’ one. They come from all over the place and have different all sorts of things. So why go on calling them a community then? Because they have being Muslim in common. But why is that one commonality enough to make a community when other commonalities are not? Because – er – religion is privileged. Or it’s a habit. Or something. But it doesn’t make for a coherent editorial.

[I]t would be better for the Government to decentralise its approach to dealing with British Muslims, rather than trying to communicate through a single umbrella organisation of doubtful authority such as the MCB.

It would, but the government has been pushing the silly ‘umbrella organisation’ idea all along, thus giving the MCB far more clout and more credibility as the single umbrella organisation than it would have had otherwise. All a bit of a dog’s breakfast, if you ask me.

Brian Whitaker sees the matter completely differently.

The MCB is not a government body and can appoint whoever it wants as its deputy secretary general.

Not really, at least not unless it’s content to have a purely figurehead deputy secretary general. If it appointed for instance a convicted génocidaire to the post, it wouldn’t have a very active or useful deputy secretary general. But more to the point, one, the MCB has been a quasi-government body because Blair’s government stupidly lavished attention and authority on it, and two, the fact that the MCB can appoint almost anyone it wants to as its deputy secretary general does not mean that the government can’t cut ties with the organization.

Whitaker kind of admits that much, but only kind of.

Of course, the government can choose whether or not to talk to the MCB but, by choosing not to, it will seriously undermine its own policy of engaging with the British Muslim community.

Oh? Why? The bits of ‘the British Muslim community’ I know (the liberal secularist feminist liberal human rights fans bits) despise the MCB and have been urging the government to talk to people other than the MCB for years. Is Whitaker assuming that ‘the British Muslim community’ is entirely composed of theocrats and reactionaries? If so, why?

The MCB is an umbrella organisation that claims the support of more than 500 affiliated national, regional and local organisations, mosques, charities and schools. By definition it needs to include as many strands of British Muslim opinion as possible. In the past it has been criticised for not being representative enough, and now Blears seems determined to make it less representative as a condition of being recognised by the government.

But it’s a self-appointed ‘umbrella organisation,’ and always has been, which is one reason so many British Muslims find it so irritating – it always puts itself forward as representing British Muslims in general, but it in fact represents only conservative British Muslims; it repels the other kind by the things it says and the positions it takes. It can’t ‘include as many strands of British Muslim opinion as possible’ because it already does include one strand of opinion which many people want nothing to do with. Suppose there were an organization with ‘women’ in its name – the American Council of Women, say – which began in opposition to feminism and all its works, and carried on that way for twenty years. I wouldn’t join such an organization, and neither would other feminists. Thus such a group could not be an ‘umbrella organization’ nor could it aspire to represent all women or include as many strands of female opinion as possible. It would be too late for that. That’s how it is with the MCB. It isn’t just some general neutral group that represents all Muslims; it’s a particular group with a particular ideology. Whitaker’s whole piece talks about it as if it were another kind of group altogether.

Kindly remove the exhibition

Mar 24th, 2009 4:11 pm | By

It’s not forbidden to think…except of course when it is.

The exhibition Det er ikke forbudt å tenke (“It’s not forbidden to think”) is a series of 12 graphic images the artist, Ahmed Mashhouri, picked out the most controversial quotes from the Quran…”These laws perhaps fit better in the old days, but today they just seem inhuman. I hope that my works will be a wake-up for my dear coreligionists,” he says. Mashhouri and his wife worked for human rights in Iran. They sought asylum in Norway and now live in Skien…”In discussions people love to hear that such thing aren’t found in the Quran. We want to show that they actually do,” says Mashhouri. On December 9th, the exhibit was assembled at the Telemark library in Ulefoss, but not many hours had passed before there was a racket and two or three Muslim women attacked his images. Afterward he was contacted by the library and asked to remove the exhibition. “I was disappointed, because I thought I was came to a country with freedom,” says Mashhouri.

Think again. Some things are halal and other things are haram and that’s all there is to it. The mature thing is to accept this and get on with your life.

Who sets the tone

Mar 23rd, 2009 6:25 pm | By

Julian pointed out in a comment on Wassup with the new atheism? that a lot of people think that atheists are dogmatic anti-religionists, and that if we now have good reason to believe that this is the impression being created, we should think about altering our tune.

There is something to that, there’s no denying it. It is quite possible that vocal atheists are alienating huge numbers of people who would otherwise be secularists and/or liberal believers, with potentially harmful results. This is of course the drum that Matthew Nisbet never tires of beating, though he does it very aggressively and also very manipulatively (as in repeatedly claiming that Paul Kurtz is not a vocal atheist but a politely bashful one of the type that Nisbet favours – which is just absurd) – but the worry could be real even though Nisbet shares it. But…

But I still think, once we’ve thought about it, we shouldn’t alter our tune. Partly that is because people think atheists are dogmatic and rude and naughty because they keep being told that, endlessly, monotonously, and with wild exaggeration and often just plain invention. This is people thinking atheists are dogmatic the way people think Obama is a Muslim or a socialist or a guy who ‘pals around’ with Bill Ayers. People thought that during the campaign (and some still think it now) because rivals wanted them to think that, and set about to make them think that. Rivals made stuff up. Many theists are very very angry at Dawkins and at overt atheism in general, and as a result, they say things which are not accurate; they make stuff up. Now here’s the deal: I don’t think people should let that kind of thing set the terms of debate. I think we should resist. I think we should resist because that’s a bad corrupt stupid unhelpful way to carry on debate, and I don’t think we should let it win. I think we should deny it a victory.

This is what happens when reformers and innovators hit a nerve – people who don’t want reform and innovation tell whoppers about the reformers. It happened with second-wave feminism, and it hasn’t yet stopped happening – feminists still get called stupid sexist names for the crime of being feminists. That happened to me a few months ago on a blog I used to read, much to my surprise – it was like walking down the street chatting with a friend and suddenly finding myself in a roomfull of very drunk fratboys, covered with beery vomit.

That shouldn’t be what sets the tone, and it shouldn’t be what decides what we can say. It’s bullying, and we shouldn’t give in to it. That’s especially true because the overtness of the atheism is the whole point. It is the being silenced – the deference, as Jean said – that we are objecting to, so if we went right back to being silenced because believers demanded more deference – well, we would be giving up the very thing being disputed. Yes, it’s often good to build coalitions with believers and so on, but not at the price of forever pretending that there’s nothing the slightest bit dubious about religious beliefs. We’re tired of that, just as women are tired of being considered second-class citizens or afterthoughts or property or evil tempting sluts luring men to their doom.

So, no. I take the point, I see what is meant, I understand the risks (some of them anyway); but no.

I hear their hooves in the distance

Mar 21st, 2009 1:07 pm | By

There are a couple of other things that bother me about Julian’s ‘new atheism’ article.

One is that he says his opinions ‘are not so much about these books as the general tone and direction the new atheism they represent has adopted. This is not a function of what exactly these books say, but of how they are perceived, and the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews’ but then he doesn’t provide a very clear account of how the ‘four horsemen’ are perceived and the kind of comments they make. He discusses ‘the new atheism’ without ever really pinning down for the reader what he takes that to be – so we’re left just vaguely assuming we know what he means because it’s probably more or less like what everyone else means…Well you can see that that’s not very satisfactory. Who is everyone else? What does everyone else mean? Is it really what Julian also means? That’s never clear, at least not to me. And since the subject of the article is why the supposed new atheists are wrong, there surely is some responsibility to specify and show what they have said, at least in outline. That’s especially true given the admission that the article is about them and their views but not about their books. I’m not absolutely sure that Julian would like being discussed in such terms himself.

There are a few brief quotations, rather late in the article, but we don’t know where they’re from, and they’re so brief it’s hard to be confident that they’re representative. And then there’s the bit about the title of the tv show…

Richard Dawkins, for example, presented a television programme on religion called The Root of all Evil and has as his website slogan “A clear thinking oasis”. Where is the balance and modesty in such rhetoric?

I agree about the website: that slogan has always made me cringe. (I need to change the subtitle of B&W, too. It has the same whiff of self-congratulation, of thinking nonsense is always the property of someone else.) But the title of the tv show had a question mark at the end, and besides that, Dawkins didn’t choose it and in fact tried to resist it. Julian knows very well that authors don’t always get to choose their titles, because he chooses the titles at TPM! Editor’s privilege. He also knows it because he doesn’t always get to choose his own titles. Why in fact…

Now really, people, there’s no need to be so vitriolic! (Not all of you, but a good many) A little internal dissent is no bad thing, is it? I should say that the headline was not mine and nor did I even see it before publication, and I think it does rather overstate the content.

What’s that, where’s it from? Why, it’s Julian, commenting at the Dawkins site on the reaction to his article. Cough.

The other thing has to do with this bit –

I also think the new atheism tends to get religion wrong. The focus is always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, its belief in personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the religious do indeed believe in such things. Indeed, I’m on the record as accusing liberal theologians of hiding behind their less literalist interpretations, and pretending that matters of creed don’t really matter at all. However, there is much more to religion to the metaphysics.

But the focus is not always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, as he would know if he had read (or even skimmed) the books, and it’s really not very fair to refuse to read the books and then go right ahead and misrepresent ‘the new atheism’ just the same.

It’s not that I completely disagree. There are parts of Hitchens’s book that wearied even me, and Dawkins does occasionally tip over into rudeness (the time he talked about a woman having a stupid face, for instance), and Sam Harris is too fond of the word ‘spiritual’ for my taste. But there is no shortage of people criticizing ‘the new atheists’ (another fact which Julian rather overlooks), for good reasons and bad ones; I think any new work in that field should be at least careful to be accurate.

Wassup with ‘the new atheism’?

Mar 20th, 2009 2:22 pm | By

Julian wrote a piece arguing that the ‘new atheist movement’ is destructive. It got linked at Dawkins’s site where commenters greeted it with intemperate hostility – until Russell Blackford posted a comment informing them that Julian isn’t actually as wicked as all that, which calmed things down a little. Julian later commented too, pointing out with some justice that the intemperate hostility rather bore out his point.

I want to take issue with some things Julian said, however – though I will of course do so in a very reasonable and measured way.

He starts off by saying, with deliberate impudence, that he has an opinion about the four chief Newatheists, despite the fact that he has not read any of their books.

That does not, however, disqualify me from having an opinion about them. Let me defend both apparently intellectually disreputable confessions. Not reading The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith is perfectly reasonable. Why on earth would I devote precious reading hours to books which largely tell me what I already believe?

There’s a problem with that, as I (very civilly) pointed out on the Dawkins site. If Julian hasn’t read the books he can’t know that they largely tell him what he already believes. If he hasn’t read them he really can’t know what they tell him; he can’t know that they don’t tell him about facts or consequences or arguments that he hasn’t thought of. It’s not particularly reasonable simply to assume that they largely tell him what he already believes. That might be the case, but he can’t know that without at least skimming them.

In fact, I think atheists who have read these books have more of a responsibility to account for their actions than I do my inaction…God’s non-existence is a fact atheists live with, not something that they should obsessively read about.

But there may be (and I would say there are) implications to God’s non-existence and/or other people’s belief in God’s existence that are worth reading and thinking about. Just ignoring the whole issue is certainly one option, but it’s not self-evident that it’s the only reasonable option.

Hitchens goes so far as to explicitly say that “I am not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist.” This antitheism is for me a backwards step. It reinforces what I believe is a myth, that an atheist without a bishop to bash is like a fish without water. Worse, it raises the possibility that as a matter of fact, for many atheists, they do indeed need an enemy to give them their identity.

Does it? I don’t see why. It’s possible to be opposed to various things without depending on the things to give one an identity. I’m opposed to corn syrup in pasta sauce, but I don’t get my identity from that. I don’t even think about it, except when I’m looking at the ingredients list on a jar of pasta sauce, which is not very often.

But more important, it is necessary to be opposed to some things, even at the risk of getting part of one’s identity from that opposition. We’re all opposed to some things after all, and if that is part of our identity, well, so what? The issue is the quality, the rightness, of the opposition, not the mere fact of opposition.

The new atheism has also, I think, created an unhelpful climate for atheism to flourish. When people think of atheists now, they think about men who look only to science for answers, are dismissive of religion and over-confident in their own rightness.

Some people do, yes. But much of that is because ‘the new atheism’ gets misreported a lot and also gets scolded a lot, much the way Julian scolds it in this very piece. Furthermore, many other people don’t think of atheists that way but rather as refreshingly honest and unapologetic after years and years of tactful silence. What Julian fails to take into account, I think, is that many people long for a more uninhibited outspoken uncringing discussion of religion, and are pleased to get it. I think he overlooks the sense of liberation many people have gotten from the revival of explicit atheism.