Philip the Spy

Nov 21st, 2005 10:50 pm | By

Philip Pullman is eloquent on identity and related subjects. He makes the point that ‘What we do is morally significant. What we are is not.’ Which relates to what I (and other people) keep saying about the religious hatred bill: that religion is not the same kind of thing as race, because it’s not what you are, it’s what you do (and doing includes thinking). Yes, it’s not always easily voluntary, but it’s still not as unchosen as ‘race’ is.

At its extreme, it can lead to a sort of cognitive dissonance, when people claim an inner “identity” that has nothing to do with their actions: “Yes, I murdered my wife and children, but I’m a good person.”…So “being”, in the eyes of many people, apparently has its own moral quality, which may be good or bad, but which is resistant to any form of change except the miraculous (being born again). “Being” trumps “doing”.

Probably that guy in Herat thinks he’s a good person.

It’s hard to convey the sheer bafflement and distaste I feel for this attitude towards “identity”. I feel with some passion that what we truly are is private, and almost infinitely complex, and ambiguous, and both external and internal, and double- or triple- or multiply natured, and largely mysterious even to ourselves; and furthermore that what we are is only part of us, because identity, unlike “identity”, must include what we do. And I think that to find oneself and every aspect of this complexity reduced in the public mind to one property that apparently subsumes all the rest (“gay”, “black”, “Muslim”, whatever) is to be the victim of a piece of extraordinary intellectual vulgarity. Literally vulgar: from vulgus. It’s crowd-thought.

That’s exactly what it is – in more than one way. It’s a crowd way to think, and it’s about thinking of oneself as part of a crowd.

For myself, I like it best when I have no such simple and public “identity”. I don’t know what I “am”, and I don’t especially want to. But I know full well that I am free to feel anonymous and invisible, which I like feeling…

Oh, yeah. Same here. I like to go out in the world, to walk to and fro in it, like a spy. Unnoticed, unseen, unwatched.

There’s a great deal more – it’s a long piece, and very good. I have to go, I have some spying to do.

Dead Poets Society

Nov 21st, 2005 10:20 pm | By

This is an absolutely horrible story.

She risked torture, imprisonment, perhaps even death to study literature and write poetry in secret under the Taliban. Last week, when she should have been celebrating the success of her first book, Nadia Anjuman was beaten to death in Herat, apparently murdered by her husband…“She was a great poet and intellectual but, like so many Afghan women, she had to follow orders from her husband,” said Nahid Baqi, her best friend at Herat University…Herat, in particular, has seen a number of women burn themselves to death rather than succumb to forced marriages. Anjuman’s movements were being limited by her husband, her friends believe. She had been invited to a ceremony celebrating the return to Herat of Amir Jan Sabouri, an Afghan singer, but failed to attend. Her poetry alluded to an acute sense of confinement. “I am caged in this corner, full of melancholy and sorrow,” she wrote in one “ghazal”, or lyrical poem, adding: “My wings are closed and I cannot fly.” Afghan human rights groups condemned Anjuman’s death as evidence that the government of President Hamid Karzai has failed to address the issue of domestic violence.

I don’t think domestic violence is really the right term for it. It doesn’t really cover it. It suggests (to me anyway) mostly sporadic, exceptional violence against a background of at least some basic rights and freedoms. What women like Nadia Anjuman face is more systematic institutionalized coercion and subordination against a background of no rights at all. Of being forcibly married, then told what to do and kept in confinement by a man who owns her whom she didn’t want to marry, and then murdered by him.

Women were banned from working or studying by the Taliban, whose repressive edicts forbade women to laugh out loud or wear shoes that clicked. Female writers belonging to Herat’s Literary Circle realised that one of the few things that women were still allowed to do was to sew. So three times a week groups of women in burqas would arrive at a doorway marked Golden Needle Sewing School…Once inside the school, a brave professor of literature from Herat University would talk to them about Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and other banned writers. Under a regime where even teaching a daughter to read was a crime, they might have been hanged if they had been caught.

Teaching a daughter to read was a crime. Because…? What? Because if a daughter knows how to read she might pick up a book or newspaper that has some semen on it and it would accidentally fall into her and get her pregnant? What?

One of them, Leila, said that she stayed up till the early hours doing calculus because she so feared that her brain would atrophy. “Life for women under the Taliban was no more than being cows in sheds,” she said.

Well, I guess that’s why. Because a woman with an atrophied brain is like a cow in a shed. She doesn’t rebel, she doesn’t talk back, she doesn’t run away. Makes life easy.

His Majesty’s Dog at Kew

Nov 21st, 2005 9:35 pm | By

I saw about fifteen minutes of a thing on tv last night about the Chihuly glass exhibition at Kew. It made me long to be in London and be able to go see it. Really long. Any of you been?

I love – really love – the Palm House and the Temperate House anyway. And with – well, look.

And look. You can see why I want to go.

All of you who can, go, and take pictures, and send them to me for Xmas. Have fun, now.

More Straw

Nov 20th, 2005 11:45 pm | By

Nicholas Buxton. Why don’t I beat up on Nicholas Buxton a little. I’ve never heard of him before, but I think he’s silly, or else slyly rhetorical (it can be so hard to tell which). More of the same old gabble – why atheism is wrong and confused and befuddled.

It is a secularist article of faith to maintain that religion will soon be eliminated as a by-product of “progress”.

No it isn’t. Next?

No but really – how stupid. Of course it isn’t!

Atheists complain that religion proposes unprovable accounts of life and death. But this is uninteresting.

No we don’t.

What a berk. We criticise religion for not proposing but dogmatically asserting and shoving in all our faces accounts of various things that are not supported by evidence and are highly implausible. That’s quite a different matter from ‘complaining’ about ‘unprovable’ accounts of anything.

Death is obviously a fact, but how we make sense of that fact is not the sort of question that could be subject to “proof” any more than a painting could be judged “wrong”. Insights into human nature derived from the plays of Shakespeare may be equally “unprovable”, but that doesn’t mean they’re not meaningful, useful or true. The atheist’s first mistake, then, like the fundamentalists they often object to, is that they completely miss the point.

Oh, Christ. No kidding, no kidding, and no we don’t, because we know all that, you fool. God I hate it when people put quotation marks on their own wildly erroneous versions of what other people say or think. He’s the one who says we say ‘unprovable’ when we don’t and then he drops in all these bogus citations of ‘unprovable’ with the quotation marks as if he’d gotten that from somewhere other than his own stupid assertion! What a mess of an ‘argument’.

Faith has nothing to do with certainty: it is not a set of closed answers, but rather a series of open questions with which to engage.

Oh really. Maybe in the circles you hang out in, but not in all circles where ‘faith’ is considered a virtue. To put it mildly.

I recognise that life’s potential for meaninglessness requires us to give it a meaning it would not otherwise have. This is the function of religion.

No it isn’t. One, it may be one of the functions of religion, but it’s not the function of religion, and two, it’s not the function or a function of religion alone. Other ways of thinking also give life a meaning it would not otherwise have.

The alternative is nihilism. If we truly believed that life was meaningless, we would have no reason to get up in the morning – ultimately, the most rational thing to do would be to jump over the edge of a cliff.

Oh, please. Why would that be rational? ‘Hey ho, life is meaningless. Whaddya know. Well, here I am, I’ve just finished writing this book, I’m going to Italy tomorrow, next year I’m going to China, I’m learning to play the cello, a friend is coming over for dinner tonight and afterwards we’re going to the theatre, this afternoon I’m going to go for a walk in the mountains, I have a bowl of fresh peaches for breakfast, the coffee smells good, the Trout Quintet is playing on the radio, it’s a gorgeous day, oh look, there goes a bald eagle – but life is meaningless, so obviously the most rational thing to do is go jump over the edge of a cliff.’

Without religion’s insight that human beings are essentially flawed, we lose all checks on our hubristic pride, and risk making a false god of our own scientific genius, even though there is no evidence to support the belief that society advances in tandem with science.

Oh? That depends on what you mean by ‘society advances’, I suppose. If you want to live in a world without antibiotics, anaesthetic, dentistry, electric light, efficient heating, sewer systems, public transport, efficient agriculture, abundant cheap books and music – well, go ahead, but I think of all those things as social advances. That does not however mean that I make a ‘false god’ (whatever that means) of our own (our own? certainly not mine!) scientific genius.

Can religious arguments really be as deeply unimpressive as the ones we keep seeing in the newspapers? Can they really not do any better than this? Surely that’s not right. Surely they can say something persuasive and somewhat sensible. Surely…

The Community Community

Nov 20th, 2005 7:45 pm | By

I said it first, I said it first. Okay no I didn’t, because people don’t write Observer columns in ten minutes – but I said it before I saw this.

…and so, it was reported, there was great excitement in ‘the HIV community’, just as a subsequent debunking of the claim led to equal disappointment, also in ‘the HIV community’. Now, given that there are 40 million people in the world with HIV infection, you might think it improbable that, for instance, an orphaned baby in Malawi is doing a lot of communing with a drag queen in Chelsea or a junkie on the streets of Chicago. But never mind; the merry shorthand that parcels them together went unchallenged, as it always does.

This is what I’m saying.

Not an eyebrow was raised when a recent BBC broadcast, reflecting upon violence in Birmingham, included three phrases used within the same minute: ‘the black community’, ‘the Asian community’ and – or should we say but? – ‘white people who live in the area’.

Yes it was, yes it was – my eyebrow shoots up and down like an elevator at lunch hour. I did do some eyebrow-lifting about ‘community’ talk and the Birmingham riots.

The word trips lightly off the tongues of politicians, police and media. We have ‘the Muslim community’, ‘the gay community’, ‘the international community’ (fabulous oxymoron that it is, but it was used twice on yesterday’s Today programme)…If there is any rational intent behind the abuse of the term, it’s probably that it’s meant to sound warm, cuddly and inclusive…In fact, it is the antithesis of inclusive; it is the wholly artificial creation of a single entity by those who, almost by definition, live outside it.

Yes, but it’s then picked up by the people who live inside it. It works as a kind of crowbar or grappling hook to extract ‘respect’ and unctuous attention from those who live outside it.

By the same token, I suggest that there might be a man or a woman, somewhere in, say, Bradford, with four drops of two-generations-old Pakistani blood in their veins and whose self-perception is that they are, first and foremost, superb doctors or great golfers or even – imagine the thought! – British. But if they live within a stone’s throw of the murder of a police officer, and any among this weekend’s vox-popping cameras catches them in the street, you can bet your last rupee that their broadcast views will be introduced with: ‘Members of the Asian community are concerned…’ Thus are brown citizens categorised, with the gabbiest among them – often with no other discernible qualification, let alone election to office – equally carelessly branded ‘community leaders’.

Well exactly, exactly, exactly. People can be (and are) first and foremost anything and everything, and they don’t always feel like being grabbed and bundled into the ‘Asian community’ box. And as for the unelected unqualified ‘community leaders’ – well, we know. We’ve discussed this quite a lot.

Officials, reporters and commentators would, no doubt, feel uncomfortable with stark words like ‘black’ or ‘brown’ which, in truth, are often all they really know of their subjects (although, as noted, there seems to be no difficulty with ‘white people who live in the area’). Nevertheless, they need to find a better way to ease their discomfort than by enrolling complete strangers into ‘communities’ to which they may have no wish to belong and which might not, even, exist.

Well said.

One Eye is Enough for Anyone

Nov 20th, 2005 7:09 pm | By

Andrew Anthony has a piece on the niqab, a female face-covering that leaves only the eyes uncovered (presumably so that the woman wearing it doesn’t need an expensive trained dog in order to grope her way around).

Just a decade ago, this form of enshrouding was seen as an unambiguous sign of female oppression and feudal custom, but now it is frequently referred to as an expression of religious identity, individual rights and even, in some cases, female emancipation.

Yes but emancipation from what.

She says that she deliberated for a whole year before finally deciding to wear the niqab. ‘I think the main thing that was holding me back was my university degree. I was doing a lot of course work, a lot of group work, and so I was constantly thinking, “How am I going to do group work with all these people?” Then one day, I just woke up and thought, “Why am I letting people stop me? I’m not doing it for other people.”‘ Both as a student and a teacher, Chowdhury clearly placed her own right to conceal herself above the group’s right to see her.

Well, presumably, the reason she was letting people stop her was that she had chosen a kind of work that necessarily involves interacting with ‘all these people’. She doesn’t have to be deciding to wear the niqab ‘for other people’ in order to have an affect on other people by doing so – the two things are separate. We can do all sorts of things for our own reasons that nevertheless do have an impact on other people as a byproduct. We may listen to Bruce Springsteen at top volume at 3 a.m. with all the windows open, for our very own reasons (we’re awake at 3 a.m., we like Springsteen, we like fresh air) that have nothing to do with other people, but our activity may affect other people all the same. So the thought she one day just woke up and thought was a stupid thought, because incomplete and irrelevant.

‘There is no place in the Koran,’ he said, sounding like the schoolmaster he once was, ‘that says she must wear the burqa. No place.’ In fact, the burqa, the grilled mask that is popular in Afghanistan, is a relatively modern item, but it’s true that there is no mention of the hijab, much less the niqab in the Koran. There are two key passages that deal with the correctness of women’s clothing…Over the centuries, various Islamic scholars have come to interpret these words as directives to cover the ‘pudendal’ nature of women in its entirety, which, they argue, is everything, including, in the most strict rulings, at least one eye.

There you go – that’s it, you see. Every bit of women (including that one eye – it’s just that seeing-eye dogs are expensive) is pudendal. They’re just big, walking, throbbing, wet genitalia. They may pretend they’re not – they may pretend to be thinking about something else – they may pretend they can talk and walk and think and laugh and eat and look at the birds and flowers and just generally be human, but it’s a pretense, a disguise, a trap. They’re like those horrible women in The Faerie Queen or Orlando Furioso or Jerusalem Delivered or Paradise Lost or The Shining – gorgeous, sexy, welcoming, smiling – until you touch them and then bam! out comes the hideous witch who devours you. Women are just disguised as people with brains and hands and legs and purposes and capacities; in reality they’re just big old ambulatory pudenda. Help me Jesus.

I was keen to hear a woman explain in her own words her reasons for covering herself. This was proving very difficult…The main aim of the niqab is to deter contact between women and men who are not married or related…I checked the etiquette on a Muslim website that detailed the requirements of a woman wearing a niqab. ‘Do not engage in social conversation with persons of the opposite sex,’ it instructed. ‘This is simple, just don’t do it. When a kaffir [infidel] of the opposite sex asks you, “Did you have a good weekend”, look down and say nothing in return.’

Yes, that is simple. Of course it is – it’s all simple. That’s the point. Women are nothing but pudenda, and they are entirely pudenda; therefore, they have to be concealed and confined as far as possible and even farther – but if a seeing-eye dog is not affordable then one eye can remain uncovered (though it’s risky). Simple. Don’t talk to people of the opposite sex. Any of them, ever, for any reason. Simple. A radically impoverished, constricted, narrow, suffocating life – simple. Enjoy.

I did try one couple…I then asked permission to speak to his wife. He looked at me as if I were mad and referred me to the Central Mosque. Would I be able to speak to a woman there? I asked. ‘No, of course not,’ the man said. ‘But there will be men there who will be able to tell you why it is best for Muslim women to be covered.’ His wife remained silent.

Ah – yes, no doubt there will. And if human rights inspectors go to Guantanamo, of course they won’t be able to speak to the prisoners, but there will be guards there who will be able to tell them why it is best for prisoners to be at Guantanamo. If investigators go the house of an exorcist, of course they won’t be able to speak to the devil-possessed children there, but there will be exorcists there who will be able to tell them why it is best for the possessed children to be beaten and starved and shouted at. And so on. Nice racket. Good wheeze.

Robert rejects the idea that if the niqab causes social unease, it undermines its purpose of creating calm. For her, being veiled is all about maintaining the private zone of her faith. But you could equally argue that it is just another way of making public the private. For what is this privacy but a public announcement of the sexually provocative nature of women? It does not challenge the idea of woman as sex object; it simply confirms it.

Just so. It simply confirms it, and puts all the work and deprivation of avoiding the provocation on the women.

I asked Robert at what age she thought a girl should start wearing the hijab in preparation for the niqab. She said that it was not necessary until puberty but as a matter of practice, it’s best to start at seven or eight. In its own way, this premature recognition of female sexuality is every bit as significant, and disturbing, as dressing a child in a high-street approximation of Britney Spears, all bare midriff and attitude.

Not to mention the life-long deprivation for both sexes of simple ordinary routine interaction. All because women have the bad taste and bad judgment to be walking pudenda. Sad.

You Do All Think Alike, Don’t You?

Nov 19th, 2005 11:58 pm | By

So The Independent tells us Blair went to Leeds ‘to appease the Muslim community.’ Meaning what? He went to Leeds and found all the Muslims in the world gathered in one place so that he could appease them? He went to Leeds and found all the Muslims in the UK gathered in one place so that he could appease them? No, apparently not. He went to Leeds to take part in ‘a consultation exercise with young Muslims in the city’ so that he could – appease all the Muslims in the world or the UK by so doing. How does that work? Why does a consultation exercise with young Muslims in one city appease ‘the Muslim community’? What is this chronic synechdoche thing? This assumption that any random assortment of ‘members’ of some ‘community’ or other can stand in for all the other ‘members’ of that ‘community’? How does anyone know that that happens, and who keeps track? Let’s see – what ‘community’ am I part of – atheists? Atheists will do, as a parallel to Muslims. Okay – if Bush went to Wichita for a consultation exercise with young atheists there, would that appease me? Would I feel somehow magically soothed or comforted or mollified? Well, no. If the vibrant young Wichita atheists managed to persuade him to reverse some of his policies, that would be good – but if they just talked to him and gave him some advice on atheist holidays, that wouldn’t do much to my opinion of Bush. So whence is this idea that by talking to some (unspecified number of) young Muslims in Leeds, Blair is appeasing ‘the Muslim community’?

And why do people buy it? And why do they accept the idea that they belong to one community and not bother with all the myriad other communities they could decide they belong to? Why don’t students belong to the student community? Why are Muslims – all Muslims – assumed to put their Muslimness before everything else? Why is everyone (nearly everyone) so intent on telling them over and over and over again that they are theMuslimcommunity? Why doesn’t anyone stop to think that it’s all rather patronizing and cloying and confining? Why do they keep hammering on it? I seriously wonder.

Blair himself, for instance.

“If I am asked to see the Muslim community, what I will get is the same great and the good of the community,” Mr Blair conceded. “That means we are [not] getting down to people in the community.”

The community, the community, the community – gee, do you think he used the magic word often enough?

Rushdie said it in that ‘Today’ interview a month or two ago: even to talk about ‘the Muslim community’ is to go down the road of a kind of communalism. Just so. Too bad no one listened.

Another interesting thing. At the beginning of the piece:

“We’re losing confidence and trust in you,” Mr Khan told him, unflinchingly. “With this foreign policy Muslims feel you are attacking them. We all used to vote Labour but not any more. You need to row back and take us with you.”

Toward the end:

Someone helping to divorce the concepts of terrorism and Islam would be a step forward, Ms Mather told the Prime Minister. “Every time there is a picture of the suicide bombers on the television, it is followed by people praying at a mosque.” Divorcing nationality from religion would also help, added another. “I’m Muslim but that has nothing to do with my Britishness, which is about being free to go out for a drink and to dance.”

With this foreign policy Muslims feel you are attacking them, and divorcing nationality from religion would also help, because I’m Muslim but that has nothing to do with my Britishness. Well there’s a coherent message for you. Which is not surprising – why should it be coherent? Why should any of these (unspecified number of) people agree with each other? No reason; they shouldn’t; but all this calling them ‘the Muslim community’ is a way of pretending or unconsciously assuming they should. (This kind of thing reminds me of an uncle of mine, who was a big noise in the public opinion polling business, who was always asking me what ‘my generation’ thought about various things. How the fuck should I know! What am I, an oracle? I know about three people, in a geographic radius of about two hundred yards; is that supposed to be a useful sample of our entire age group?)

Maybe none of that is the point anyway, maybe the point is just being seen to be listening, or something. But then – the newspapers really ought to report that Blair talked to some young people in Leeds, and let it go at that.

It Really Matters What is True

Nov 19th, 2005 2:37 am | By

Did you listen to that In Our Time with Julian and Anthony Grayling and Miranda Fricker? There was one bit near the end where it seemed to me Julian kind of pulled a fast one. I transcribed it. See what you think.

The thing about Rorty is that he does reject this idea of Truth with a capital T, as all the pragmatists do, and – but the thing is it’s not so much that he thinks it’s a philosophical mistake to think we can have that kind of truth, which represents the world – he does think that’s a mistake – but I think more importantly, he thinks it’s just not that important or relevant. And his attitude to philosophers who are very preoccupied with it like a lot of his British critics like Simon Blackburn and the late Bernard Williams is that these people really need to kind of grow up, and this preoccupation is irrelevant, because what matters for the spreading of liberal values, broadly liberal values, is not fundamentally whether or not we can show their truth value, as it were, in a traditional philosophical sense, it’s whether or not we can gain the kind of social solidarity and agreement which allows people to take them up and to share them and to live together – so again it’s that idea of trying to create political values – based on sharing – and truth is irrelevant. Who’s going to persuade someone to adopt, say, broadly western liberalism on the basis that ‘it is the Truth’? No one. Who’s going to get someone to share them on the basis that ‘look, this is how we can live together, this is how we can work, this is how we can get respect – maybe that stands a better chance.

No one, but calling western liberalism the Truth isn’t really the issue, is it? Liberalism is a set of political ideas; it’s a set of values; it’s not a set of facts. The question is not so much who is going to persuade someone to adopt liberalism by saying ‘it is the Truth’ as it is who is going to persuade someone that the Holocaust really did happen and that the gas chambers really were gas chambers, or who is going to persuade someone that the scientific evidence does not support ‘Intelligent Design’. It’s the is-ought gap, the facts-values gap, again. Miranda Fricker indicated that:

In a funny sort of way Rorty, who many – many fans and followers of the original pragmatists are pretty angry with Rorty for his co-opting pragmatism into a very relativistic-sounding programme – many defenders of liberal values, the same values as Rorty espouses, want to say ‘well hang on a minute, it may not be that we persuade others of liberal values by talking about truth, but my goodness, if you’re living in an oppressed state, you really care whether it was true that you were a spy or not when you’re sitting in prison, it really matters what is true and what is not.’ And so there is an unfortunate relativistic drift in Rorty’s co-option of pragmatism, and yet, he is partly responsible for bringing it all back to our attention, and bringing people to read it again, and I think it’s now being taught much more than it was for awhile. And if you pick up a reader on truth you’re much more likely to find something by James or Peirce than you were a few years ago.

It really matters what is true and what is not.

And that’s good because there’s this book coming out in a few months about exactly that – the fact that it matters what is true. Why Truth Matters, it’s called.

Beady Eye for the Murdering Guy

Nov 18th, 2005 6:38 pm | By

So, it seems to be a good day for out-there pronouncements by bloodthirsty authoritarian men. For horrible glimpses into the nasty fetid power-ravenous controlfreak minds of tyrannical shits.

Osama’s pious little wet-dream is not much of a surprise, of course. No surprise at all really. But still worth a passing kick.

Osama bin Laden wants the United States to convert to Islam, ditch its constitution, abolish banks, jail homosexuals and sign the Kyoto climate change treaty…Alcohol and gambling would be barred and there would be an end to women’s photos in newspapers or advertising. Any woman serving “passengers, visitors and strangers”, presumably anyone from air stewardesses to waitresses, would also be out of a job.

From air stewardesses to waitresses isn’t all that far – presumably that would also include doctors, nurses, dentists, teachers, many lawyers, checkout clerks, bus drivers – quite a range of jobs.

In the book the terrorist responsible for the deaths of 3,000 civilians in September 2001 says that killing the innocent is wrong.

Of course he does. Nothing easier – you just define the people you want to kill as ‘not innocent’ and the job is done. No problem, no cognitive dissonance. ‘If I hate them, they must be wicked, because I am good, so I wouldn’t hate them unless they were not good, so if they are wicked naturally they are not innocent, and besides I am good, so my killing them must be right, because I am good, so it can’t be not good, therefore, logically, they must be wicked. If they are chosen by (good) me to be killed, then necessarily they must be wicked, or otherwise I (good as I am) would not have chosen them.’ Airtight, you see.

And clearly so Pinochet thinks – with a pretty, devout, humble, spiritual thought.

Augusto Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator, has declared that God will pardon him for human rights abuses committed during his 17-year rule, according to newly released court documents. Asked by Chilean judge Victor Montiglio about the killing of 3,000 Chilean civilians during the military government, Mr Pinochet, 89, said: “I suffer for these losses, but God does the deeds; he will pardon me if I exceeded in some, which I don’t think.”

Heads I win tails you lose, you see. God does the deeds, so it’s none of me, but I suffer for these losses (note how compassionate I am, how sensitive, how good), but it’s that God fella wot done them, blame him. Anyhow he’ll pardon me if I went just a teeny tiny bit overboard in some – not all, mind you! No indeed, not all! Only some. He’ll pardon me if I went just a little bit mad with the fun – even though he’s the one who does the deeds. You see what I mean?

His logic isn’t quite as strong as Osama’s, but it has that touch of compassion that makes it so moving.

Everything that I did, all that I carried out, all the problems I had, I dedicate to God, all this I dedicate to Chile because this permitted that the country was not communist and arose as it is today.

Ah well – you see. Who can blame him now, after a generous gesture like that? Everything he did, he dedicates it to God. How very, very sweet. That would be the God that murders tens of thousands of people in Kashmir to give a message to Musharraf, I take it, and the God who kills hundreds of people in New Orleans and Mississippi to – what was it? Give the US a message about Darwin, was it? Or was it lesbians? Disobedient women? Something like that.

Okay, good. Great. I can do that too. I’ll dedicate some stuff to God. Here you go, God. Every single person killed or horribly injured by terrorists this year; every single person killed or horribly injured by terrorists throughout history (that’s a highish number, I should think); every person killed or horribly injured in every war; every person who dies in pain; every animal that dies in pain; every person and animal who suffers pain while alive –

Gosh, that seems to be a rather long list. God is frantically signalling that he can’t write that fast, and isn’t altogether sure he wants the dedication anyway.

He’s a funny guy though, isn’t he. Can’t stand poofters, but is terrifically fond of mass murdering thugs and tyrants. How odd. Me, I prefer queers.

Anguished Archbishops

Nov 17th, 2005 8:04 pm | By

Okay so these seventeen archbishops. All tied up in knots they are. All frantic and agitated and unhappy. Tearing their episcopal hair, rending their purple robes, chewing their anglican nails. And for why? For because that the Archbish of C isn’t being harsh enough toward non-heterosexuality. That’s why. Okay – why? Why is that a reason? Why are they so agitated about non-heterosexuality? Why does it upset them? Why does it worry them? Why do they think it’s so terrible?

They don’t really say. Maybe it’s too much to expect them to, in a letter to the Archbish, since they probably expect him to know. But still – since religious types never do seem to manage to come up with real – rational, universalizable, non-theist, non-authoritarian – reasons for the worry, it’s too bad they don’t.

They do make some attempt

The Second Letter of Peter, which you quoted in terms of our participation in the divine nature (1.4) describes division in the church uncannily like the false leaders in our Communion today: “For, uttering loud boasts of folly, they entice with licentious passions of the flesh men who have barely escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved.” (II Peter 2.18-19)

So presumably they are there saying that sexuality is slavery because of its power? But that won’t do as a reason, obviously, because it’s not as if same-sex sex is overpowering while other-sex sex is not. So that doesn’t really amount to a reason. People who get all tied up in knots about non-heterosexuality do have such a hard time coming up with real reasons – they always just end up with ‘God says,’ and that is not a reason, it’s simply a command. Basic vocabulary: a command is not the same thing as a reason, a reason is not the same thing as a command.

We appreciated your acknowledgement of the “overwhelming consensus” of the Church in time and space in believing that sex is intended by God for married couples only and therefore that same-sex sex is unacceptable and cannot be described as “holy and blessed”. You stated that you as Archbishop must stand with this consensus. We are most grateful for your unequivocal words. We wonder, however, whether your personal dissent from this consensus prevents you from taking the necessary steps to confront those churches that have embraced teaching contrary to the overwhelming testimony of the Anglican Communion and the church catholic. We urge you to rethink your personal view and embrace the Church’s consensus and to act on it, based as it is on the clear witness of Scripture.

Similar (though not identical) problem. ‘Intended by God’ – apart from all the other problems with that, some of which are of doubtful relevance here since the letter is addressed to an archbishop, it assumes that the writers of the letter know what is intended by ‘God’. Tricky. Very tricky. The evidence is contradictory and patchy.

In short it’s hard to escape the conclusion that all this kind of thing is just more Amplification, as Simon Blackburn says [pdf].

But equally perhaps ‘God exists’ functions largely as a license to demand respect creep. It turns up an amplifier, and what it amplifies is often the meanest and most miserable side of human nature. I want your land, and it enables me to throw bigger and better tantrums, ones that you just have to listen to, if I find myself saying that God wants me to want your land. A tribe wants to enforce the chastity of its women, and the words of the supernatural work to terrify them into compliance.

Or I don’t like poofters, and I can throw bigger and better tantrums – I can tell the Archbishop of Canterbury what’s what – if I claim to know what’s intended by God. It’s hard not to think that the Global South archbishops just don’t like people who go in for ‘same-sex sex’ and use God as an enforcer. And this is one of the many many reasons religion is such a regressive, narrow, stifling way to think. In any other context, a two or three thousand year old book is judged on its merits. It may well be taken to be full of wisdom, to have much to teach us, to be well worth reading and learning from – but for secular, rational, communicable, universalizable reasons, not for magical or ineffable or supernatural ones. For discussion-continuing reasons, not for discussion-ending reasons. What an airless, parched, small, blank little world the world of Authority is.

More and Better Religion

Nov 16th, 2005 10:29 pm | By

I saw this distatsteful item at Normblog. Guy called Faisal Bodi, news editor of the Islam Channel. He says things I disagree with. He also says things that strike me as incomplete, in an evasive way.

The working groups’ reports on extremism published last week have a sting in their tail that few in the Home Office could have expected…It says elements of the battered terrorism bill currently stuttering through parliament such as “glorifying terrorism” or banning nonviolent groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir will have little impact in the fight against criminal extremist violence and only further alienate Muslims.

People who read such things in a hasty way (as surely nearly everyone does – we don’t study newspaper columns as if they were great poetry or recipes for chocolate decadence cake) will get the impression that Hizb ut-Tahrir is a non-violent group in the sense of being a peace-loving gentle flower-sniffing innocent kindly group – a group that is about non-violence, in the way that peace marchers are. But as Ziauddin Sardar pointed out the other day and we discussed here, that’s not right.

The bearded and elegantly attired supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), the fundamentalist Muslim group, like to emphasise the non-violent nature of their party. As a recent press release put it, they “have never resorted to armed struggle or violence”. This is correct as far as it goes. While HT has openly engaged in the politics of hatred, particularly towards the Jews, it has not, strictly speaking, advocated violence. But this does not mean that it is not a violent organisation…In fact, violence is central to HT’s goals. Its primary objective is to establish a caliphate…Their ideology argues that there is only one way Muslims can or should be ruled, that those who form this caliphate have the right to rule, that all others must submit unconditionally and that only this political interpretation of Islam is valid and legitimate. In other words, the caliphate of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s vision can be established only by doing violence to all other interpretations of Islam and all Muslims who do not agree with it – not to mention the violence it must do to the rest of the world, which also must eventually succumb.

Faisal Bodi sees things differently:

There is a big difference between someone with a strict approach to matters of faith and someone who uses indiscriminate violence for political ends: bushy beards and burkas do not a terrorist make.

Not nearly big enough, I would say. And what does he mean ‘strict’? And does he mean strict toward one’s own ‘faith’ – or does he mean strict toward, say, other people’s clothes and right to leave the house and items like that? That’s another ‘big difference’ that matters quite a lot – the big difference between a zealot who himself refrains from alcohol, kite-flying, music, image-making, whatever it may be, and a zealot who forces all those stupid prohibitions (and more, much more) on other people and whips them if they disobey. A big, big difference.

In fact the solution lies in more, and better, religion. The resort to indiscriminate violence against the homeland is often a reaction to a national disconnect, a lack of identification with a country that is persecuting fellow Muslims abroad and whose institutions remain pregnant with Islamophobic attitudes cultivated by orientalists over centuries.

No comment.

Taking Seriously Vacuous Antimonies I Mean Antinomies

Nov 16th, 2005 7:32 pm | By

Just a small thing. I wanted to extract and keep a couple of comments by Frederick Crews from a longish piece on Philip Rieff because I think they’re interesting.

“The question ‘What can Freud teach us about the relation between our impulses and civilization?’ ceases to be interesting if it transpires that Freud didn’t actually make the discoveries he claimed to have made about the psyche,” says Frederick C. Crews, a professor emeritus of English at the University of California at Berkeley and a leading Freud skeptic.

Of course – oddly – a lot of people – well actually not a lot of people, but a sizable proportion of people in certain disciplines – think questions about what Freud can teach us about relations between various things don’t cease to be interesting no matter how clear it becomes that Freud didn’t actually make the discoveries he claimed to have made about the psyche. Their fixed idea (one might even call it an idée fixe) of Freud’s insight and profundity and originality seems to float completely free of any actual ontological status for his ‘discoveries’ about the psyche. There’s something puzzling and disconcerting about that.

“Rieff was brilliant in assessing the schismatics’ more simplistic visions of liberation, and he left us with the sense that Freud’s tough-mindedness, while hardly sufficient as a replacement for actual supernatural belief, deserved our sympathy and respect.” But Mr. Crews continues: “My feeling today is that those books of Rieff’s were period pieces, in three senses: In the intellectual style of the era, they overrated the extent to which social stability depends on the ideas of literary intellectuals; they overrated Freud’s permanent interest as a scientific pioneer; and as a result, they took seriously the vacuous antinomies of Civilization and Its Discontents, whereby a measure of ‘repression,’ causing personal unhappiness, is deemed requisite to the preservation of culture.”

Eloquent, isn’t it. That’s why I wanted to pull it out.

Whither Satire?

Nov 16th, 2005 6:51 pm | By

Amusing thing about the (as it were) Theory of satirical dictionary writing. I took careful notes, just in case I ever need to write another.

In conducting this assault, Donaldson and Eyre are making an important point not only about the nature of modern celebrity but also about the nature of satire. The textbook definition of satire is that it flourishes in an age of clearly defined moral standards, or one in which those standards are only just beginning to break down. If you are trying to be funny about other people’s moral failings, in other words, there must be some broad agreement between you and your audience as to what a moral failing actually consists of.

Ah. Well, fortunately, we didn’t have that problem, or limitation, or requirement, because we weren’t trying to be funny about moral failings, but rather about intellectual or cognitive or epistemic ones. Different thing. Or not. Actually maybe not, because the tricky bit of what D J Taylor says there is ‘your audience’. All depends what you mean by ‘your audience,’ doesn’t it. If you have wild hopes of writing a book that everyone over the age of three will want to read, then that’s one kind of ‘broad agreement’ you’re after, whereas if you sanely expect to amuse the kind of people who are amused by the kind of thing you are writing, and no one else, then that’s another kind. Though actually we did argue about this quite a lot during the writing. One of the writers kept urging that we ought to have a few very obvious jokes so as not to turn off people who don’t get the other kind; the other never saw the point of that, because who is going to buy or read a book on the grounds that it has ten good jokes in it and 490 duds? Who is even going to find the obvious jokes among all the others? I still don’t see it. Isn’t Theory interesting.

Here in the age of Big Brother and Celebrity Love Island, alternatively, the satirist is faced with three disabling drawbacks. The first is that so many satirical targets, from John Prescott to Robbie Williams, are, as Craig Brown once despairingly put it, “beyond parody”.

Yup. That is indeed a disabling drawback. I know, because that’s why the publisher didn’t want a satirical guidebook to angels and pagans and Celtic wisdom and all that good stuff – because it parodies itself. Sad, isn’t it – there are people out there walking around and driving cars and working at jobs (none of them in medical or dental fields, let us devoutly hope) who are so silly that they can’t be parodied, they’ve already done it for you. Sad, but also very funny.

The second, at a time when formal yardsticks of human behaviour are snapping all around us like celery stalks, is that many people, served up with something that labels itself “satire”, are simply unaware that a joke is being made. Extraordinary as it may seem, a fair proportion of the populace probably imagines that reality TV is aspirational, or that Vanessa Feltz is a very interesting woman of whom a whole lot more should be heard.

Well…yes. Admittedly – the stuff Sylvia Browne writes is so bottomlessly ridiculous and hilarious and absurd, it would be very hard indeed to write anything that was even more so. So naturally it does become difficult to perceive that a joke is being made.

That’s almost tragic, in a way. The really ludicrous people and ‘movements’ are so extremely risible that they can’t be mocked – there is simply no room left – so only the more moderately ridiculous people and movements can be made fun of. That does seem like a terrible waste. Ah well.

The third drawback was recently identified by Clive James in his essay Save Us From Celebrity…What was the best way to stem the tide of rubbish in which the average TV watcher or newspaper reader is constantly deluged, he wondered. “Satire is one way, but the satirists become celebrities too.” Don’t they just? And so Mr James found himself on Parkinson, reciting one of his amusing poems to Posh Spice and David Bowie. The emasculated satirist, in fact, is one of the commonest sights in literary history. In later life Thackeray, famously, never produced any social critique quite so devastating as Vanity Fair, largely because its success brought him fame and dinner invitations from the Duke of Devonshire.

Ah – now that one is not a worry. That difficulty has been grandly, even regally surmounted. Success shall not spoil wosname. No. Fame and dinner invitations to Chatsworth will not emasculate this satirist, thank you very much, because the problem doesn’t arise. I don’t get dinner invitations from the people who sleep under Waterloo Bridge, let alone the Duke of Devonshire. And the one time I got the chance, when I was on that radio thing with nice Philip Adams, well, I didn’t sell out, did I. Not a bit of it. I was just as sarky and parodic and mocking as ever. So! My social critique will go on being just as devastating as it was last year, Dukes or no Dukes, I assure you. There’s integrity for you.

Speaking of fame and dinner invitations and radio and amusing poems, Julian is on ‘In Our Time’ tomorrow, so have a listen.

From Stockholm

Nov 15th, 2005 6:38 pm | By

More (I know, but there are a lot of good items today, and I want to quote from them). From the always-rewarding Ishtiaq Ahmed – who teaches political science in Stockholm.

Are human beings united or estranged in their essence? Tragedies such as the October 8 earthquake in Pakistan bring out the best and the worst in human beings. We have heard how people volunteered to help, sometimes risking their own lives, when involved in rescue operations…Everyday we see foreigners engaged in providing medical aid, food, blankets and other help. They too represent the best qualities in human beings. We should never forget their sense of duty to fellow human beings.

That’s exactly what I meant the other day when I said that the guy who kicked Reginald Denny in the head might on a different day have rushed to rescue people from danger after an earthquake. I think that’s true. Disasters (can) bring out the best in people. We’re moody, we’re labile, we’re flighty and changeable and unsettled; we can hate people one minute and run into danger to save them the next. Or we can live peaceably next door to them for decades and then after listening to the radio for awhile decide to kill them all.

The most shameful and disgraceful reaction was that of Islamic obscurants who – even before the full tragedy had unfolded – had in their enthusiasm to score cheap and vulgar points against the Musharraf regime, opined that those hit by the earthquake were facing divine punishment because they had done nothing to prevent the Pakistan government from allying itself with the Americans against fellow Muslims such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda and being soft on India and Israel. I have, in subsequent exchanges with such utterly despicable custodians of Islam, demanded an explanation as to how schoolchildren and those several hundred pupils at a Quran school who also perished while reciting the sacred scriptures could do anything to change Pakistan’s foreign policy. There is, of course, no answer to give but we are told that we mortals do not understand how God works in human societies.

Yes, the Pat Robertson school of thought. If it ever rains hard in Dover, Pennsylvania, well – it’s all up with the people there because God won’t lift a finger. He’s too pissed off.

Why inflict so much pain and suffering on ordinary creatures, many of whom barely managed to stay alive even under normal circumstances? The answer one gets is silence or prevarication but never an admission that when they make such a statement they start playing God themselves and that is wrong. I have yet to meet an obscurantist who ever admits having made a mistake in interpreting the will of God.

And they not only start playing God themselves, they cheer on a God who inflicts pain and suffering on innocent impoverished people in order to make an unrelated point.

Consequently all philosophy and religious beliefs should be judged as benign or malevolent on the basis of how ideas are used to either advance the notion of a common humankind with the same needs for respect, love and security or to preach permanent war and hatred deriving from differences of faith and colour and so on. We can also safely assume that although each individual is unique, our survival as a species has been possible because of our ability to cooperate. We are united in our essence and not estranged.

Yes. Just say no to those who preach permanent war and hatred – no matter how passionate their grievance, no matter how intense their conviction, no matter how strong their feeling, no matter authentic their tradition. Just, No.

Fight the Power

Nov 15th, 2005 5:53 pm | By

Slavoj Zizek says something interesting in the Voice.

“I am a mastodon,” he says. “I still believe in the big theories popular back in the ’70s. This distrust in big universal theory is the most dangerous ideology today. Look at all totalitarians, the really bad guys, Hitler, Stalin. Sorry, but none of them believed in big theory. Hitler was a historicist-relativist and so was Stalin! Often a reference to some absolute truth is necessary to resist totalitarian political power, so you can not lose hope.”

Right on. Good mastodon. Pat pat pat.

Cheap Copies

Nov 15th, 2005 5:39 pm | By

This is good. Not least because it cites a philosopher of science who has written several articles for B&W. A ‘holy man’ shows up in a village in India and performs some conjuring tricks – then unmasks himself. Score one for rationalism.

“We are rationalists” declares the intruder, Sanal Edamaruku, secretary general of the Indian Rationalist Association. “We have come here to show you how sadhus and god-men are using simple tricks to cheat you.” The sadhu himself is divested of wig and beard and revealed as a completely ungodly rationalist volunteer. He’s no guru – just very skilled at conjuring…The miracle is that the spell has been broken. Once the crowd have absorbed the shock, and broken into laughter, this poor, remote village has been liberated from superstition. Perhaps for ever.

Dear Indian Rationalist Association. Dear Indian rationalism – long may it flourish. Forever, in fact.

Despite a tenacious western orientalism which overemphasises and overvalues Indian religiosity, reinforced by the homegrown ‘Hindutva’ movement propagated by the BJP (anatomised by Meera Nanda in New Humanist Jan/Feb 2005), India has a long and distinguished rationalist tradition which is considerably older than that of the west. According to Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, the seeds of rationalism were planted many thousands of years before the Enlightenment.

It’s actually both orientalism and occidentalism (that is, anti-orientalism) that overemphasise and overvalue Indian religiosity. Kind of a lose-lose situation. People with silly dopy romantic exotic fantasies about India and anti-romantic postcolonialists join forces in declaring rationalism an inauthentic hegemonic import, a stalking horse for imperialism, a mere tool of capitalist efficiency, a disguised form of tyranny. Which is unfortunate.

Professor Desai is clear that while the forms of Indian activism can be an inspiration for a renewed practical western rationalist project, western traditions of rationalist and humanist thought remain an essential model for India: “Our entire enlightenment depends on the west, and we have a lot more to learn.” In his speech at the conference in 1999 which celebrated 100 years of the Rationalist Press Association (RPA), Sanal Edamaruku was explicit about the vital role played by the availability of cheap copies of classic western humanist texts, printed by the RPA, publishers of the journal you are reading now.

Dear RPA. Floreat.

All the Appropriate Emotions

Nov 14th, 2005 10:36 pm | By

I read something this morning in Frank Cioffi’s essay* ‘Was Freud a Liar?’ that grabbed my attention. It reminded me of something. I knew what, too.

Freud did not fall into the seduction error through believing his patients’ stories; he did not fall into it through ignorance of the fact that persons sexually molested in infancy may, nevertheless, not succumb to neurosis; he did not fall into it through underestimating the frequency of seduction in the general population. Freud fell into the seduction error through the use of a procedure which to this day remains the basis of the psychoanalytic reconstruction of infantile life: the attribution to patients of certain infantile experiences because they appear to the analyst to be living “through them with all the appropriate emotions.”

What did that remind me of? John Mack. You know John Mack? I’ve talked about him a little, but not enough, not yet. I’ve had it in mind to talk about him more though. He’s the Harvard psychologist who thought there was something to the whole alien abduction thing – not ‘something to’ it in the sense of as cultural phenomenon or symptom of mass lunacy, but in the sense of maybe real aliens really abducting real people and taking them onto real alienships and really impregnating them and doing medical exams on them. For real. And why did he think this? His main reason was that they had such strong emotions when they talked about it. They seemed (they appeared to the analyst) really really really frightened, upset, disturbed, traumatized.

And what is so interesting about that – or one thing, at least, that is so interesting about it – is that it seems so obvious that people having very strong emotions about something isn’t necessarily a reason to think that something refers to a real event. It seems so obvious 1) that there are other possible explanations and 2) that the other possible explanations are a great deal less unlikely than the alien abduction [of just a few people who can produce no physical evidence] scenario is. It’s interesting that such a bizarrely faulty bit of reasoning could be perpetrated by a Harvard psychologist. (Harvard thought so too. Harvard blushed. Harvard was not altogether pleased.) Credulity on that scale is surprising in an academic. Well, maybe it’s not. I know several people who would immediately tell me that that’s just the kind of person it’s not surprising in. They could have a point.

*Originally a radio talk for BBC 3 in 1973, published in The Listener, and in 1998 in the Frederick Crews edited collection Unauthorized Freud.

Tidying Up

Nov 14th, 2005 9:48 pm | By

I wanted to make more easily available the useful work Allen Esterson has done on the changes Hizb ut-Tahrir has made on its website, which he posted in comments on the previous N&C.

It is significant that some of the language the organization has had on its website has been removed, or toned down, presumably to make it more amenable for Western consumption. For instance, the statement that “There is no middle position or compromise solution in Islam” used to appear on the website, along with the statement: “The terminology of compromise did not appear amongst Muslims until the modern age. It is a foreign terminology and its source is the West and the Capitalist ideology. This is the ideology whose creed is based upon a compromise solution.”

At the time I accessed this I noted the URL (either earlier this year, or last year). It is now a blank page.

Again, the page “WHAT IS THE CALIPHATE (or KHILAFAH)?” disappeared for a while, and now reappears considerably toned down.

For example, the following about the Khaleefah (Clerical Leader) no longer appears: “These ahadith are clear statements of the fact that Muslims cannot have more than one Khaleefah, and if another person tries to wrest his power it is necessary to kill that person… If anyone disputed with the Khaleefah in order to break up the State or to put himself forward as Khaleefah, he should be killed.”

This is replaced by: “Accountability [of Khaleefah]: – He can also be accounted by individuals, political groups, scholars, and an elected people’s assembly.”

As for Sharia Law, it’s really very benign – most of the time: “The judiciary cannot be influenced by the rulers while investigating a case. Any accusation of criminal offence needs to be investigated and proved, often with a much higher burden of proof than in democratic states. Punishments in Islam are very variable – some more lenient than that in the modern day. However, the hudood punishments for a small number of offences are prohibitively harsh, deterring people from committing these offences.”

Out goes: “The establishment of a Khaleefah is an obligation upon all Muslims in the world. Performing this duty, like any of the duties prescribed by Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’Ala) upon the Muslims, is an urgent obligation in which there can be no choice or complacency. Negligence in performing this duty is one of the greatest sins, for which Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’Ala) punishes severely.”

I think we all know what is meant by a severe punishment under Sharia law.

It Gets in Everywhere

Nov 13th, 2005 11:01 pm | By

It’s funny about this piece by Ziauddin Sardar – it gave me quite a turn when I read it a few days ago, because I’ve been writing an article that talks about exactly, but exactly, an issue he discusses. It’s a rather important one, too, and one in need of as much clarity of thought as possible. Getting it wrong causes suffering all over the place.

The bearded and elegantly attired supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), the fundamentalist Muslim group, like to emphasise the non-violent nature of their party. As a recent press release put it, they “have never resorted to armed struggle or violence”. This is correct as far as it goes. While HT has openly engaged in the politics of hatred, particularly towards the Jews, it has not, strictly speaking, advocated violence. But this does not mean that it is not a violent organisation.

Bingo. That’s an evasive tactic that a lot of groups and individuals resort to: saying a group has never resorted to violence or never injured or harmed anyone – which is true as far as it goes – but is therefore highly misleading. Violence isn’t just clouting someone with a two-by-four; injury isn’t just slicing someone up with a machete; harm isn’t just running over someone with a lawn mower. Therefore, it is not good enough to say that a group is non-violent if, for instance, it doesn’t commit violence itself but does encourage and praise and validate and romanticize it in others; or if it trains other people (who are officially not part of the group in question) to commit violence; or if it writes propaganda for violent groups while not telling the complete truth about those groups’ activities; and so on. It has been deeply exasperating seeing defenses of Hizb ut-Tahrir that insist on the group’s non-violence as if direct literal physical violence were the only possible reason to criticize HT. But there are other reasons. Groups that, for instance, want to take some people’s rights away by peaceful means, may be non-violent but they’re not therefore beneficent.

But this does not mean that it is not a violent organisation. During a recent debate on PTV, the Pakistani satellite channel, a prominent member of HT told me emphatically: “The idea of compromise does not exist in Islam.” This is standard HT rhetoric, and it explains why the group is deemed dangerous and worthy of being proscribed. Intolerance of that kind is a natural precursor of, and invitation to, violence.

Exactly. Well said Mr Sardar. If only more people would see that.

In fact, violence is central to HT’s goals. Its primary objective is to establish a caliphate. It seeks, I have been told on numerous occasions, a “great Islamic state” ruled by a single caliph who would apply Islam “completely to all Islamic lands” and eventually to “the whole world”. What would be applied “completely” is the sharia, Islamic law. No wonder they recognise no compromise. Their ideology argues that there is only one way Muslims can or should be ruled, that those who form this caliphate have the right to rule, that all others must submit unconditionally and that only this political interpretation of Islam is valid and legitimate. In other words, the caliphate of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s vision can be established only by doing violence to all other interpretations of Islam and all Muslims who do not agree with it – not to mention the violence it must do to the rest of the world, which also must eventually succumb.

Violence isn’t just one guy punching you in the face, or even just one guy blowing up the bus you’re riding in. It’s also a bunch of guys enforcing a narrow sexist punitive theocratic law on you and on everyone. That’s a very thorough-going, far-reaching kind of violence – that’s why it’s called totalitarian. It governs everything – ‘completely’ – and permits no escape. That’s real violence.


Nov 13th, 2005 7:56 pm | By

A couple of amusing items sent by readers – by readers who are the creators of said amusing items.

John Emerson has a little rumination on Freud – possibly scurrilous, he says, but surely that’s a good thing.

Read Civilization and its Discontents lately? Remember the part about men peeing on fires to put them out? And why women like to weave? (Hint: it has to do with pubic hairs. Funny old women.)

So John pondered.

I imagined a band of cave men gathered around a fire like the one I saw, incontinently and ecstatically squirting their tiny streams of urine in the futile effort to extinguish the raging fire, while at the same time their resentful, feminist wives tried furiously to weave themselves little fake penises even more useless than the men’s real penises. And became convinced that the human race, deluded as it was, wasn’t going to make it. We are, as a species, like Lewis Carroll’s “bread-and-butterfly”, incapable of survival.

The other item, from Dan Green, is a nice new guru with a happy message for us all. I feel more hopeful already.