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Hagia Sophia: Mosque or Museum?

Inayat's Corner - 11 July, 2020 - 00:04

One of the most memorable highlights of all my visits to Istanbul over the years has always been the time spent in the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) museum. First founded as a Christian cathedral in 537 CE by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, it was converted into a mosque when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Muhammad al-Fatih in 1453. In 1934, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire some years earlier and the establishment of the modern Republic of Turkey, President Ataturk issued a decree reclassifying Hagia Sophia as a museum. Alongside the Topkapi Museum, the Hagia Sophia has been the most visited and top rated tourist attraction in Istanbul for many years now.

But what will happen now that President Erdogan has reversed that 1934 decree and restored Hagia Sophia’s status to being a mosque? Will people from all backgrounds still be able to visit Hagia Sophia and gaze upon its beauty and many historical treasures?

The official spokesperson for President Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, tried to reassure the world, saying “all are welcome to visit this beautiful house of worship and magnificent cultural site.”

This does not directly address concerns about what those visitors will actually still be able to see – and perhaps more importantly – no longer see when they visit the Hagia Sophia.

For example, will the below 10th century Byzantine mosaic of Christ Pantocrator still be on display or will it now be covered up?

Will the below Apse mosaic of Mary with the infant Jesus on her lap which adorns the central dome in Hagia Sophia still be on display?

The Hagia Sophia abounds in many such historical riches and it would be a tragedy if people were no longer allowed to directly see and study them.

Judging by the remarks on social media, the decision earlier today in Turkey to restore the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque has divided many Muslims living in the West.

When I last visited Istanbul in May 2019, I stayed in the Sultan Ahmet quarter, less than a two minute walk away from the Hagia Sophia. It was Ramadan at the time and early every morning I was woken by the call to prayer and went to the stunning Sultan Ahmet mosque (Blue Mosque) which is situated directly opposite the Hagia Sophia – it was also a two minute walk away from my hotel.

Istanbul is a city of many such glorious mosques. However, there is only one Hagia Sophia.

At a time when the world desperately needs to take steps towards more freedom and greater tolerance, it would be a shame if Turkey took a step in the opposite direction. We will have to wait and see.

Use the justice that’s there

Indigo Jo Blogs - 7 July, 2020 - 23:24
A white woman holding a mobile phone with a small yellowish dog standing up against her, wearing a white face mask, standing on a wood-chip clearing next to a path in a wooded area of a park.Amy Cooper

This morning it was revealed that the woman who was videoed making a malicious phonecall to New York police earlier this year after a Black bird-watcher videoed her with her dog off the leash in an area of Central Park where this was banned, had been charged with filing a false report, which is a category A misdemeanour which carries a maximum sentence of a year in jail (this would be a local jail in New York City, not a state or federal prison). The incident happened on 25th May, a few days before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis which led to the widespread Black Lives Matter protests. The news was greeted with dismay by a number of ‘abolitionists’ who are against using the ‘carceral’ justice system to achieve redress in a case involving racism. These included a Twitter thread from Josie Duffy Rice (of The Appeal and the Justice Podcast) who said, “I do not believe those consequences should be criminal charges, because I do not think this system has the legitimacy or value to address her wrongdoing”. In response to another thread from Marc Lamont Hill, I responded that the system was the only one there is. This produced a reaction from Dr Usaama al-Azami:

I don’t think using the law to punish a racist who tried to use the police to get a Black man at best roughed up and at worst killed amounts to condoning slavery or Jim Crow on the grounds that it’s the law. Making malicious reports to the police is a crime pretty much everywhere, although it’s called different names, and it should be. That it rarely results in punishment does not mean that when it is done obviously and caught on video, that it should be. Rape, in many parts of the world, is difficult to prosecute, especially where the victim knew the attacker, but when evidence is sufficient (or it’s caught on video, as in the case of Reynhard Sinaga in Manchester last year), nobody sensible would argue not prosecuting and locking up. There’s no restorative justice that can make a serial rapist safe to be on the streets. Sometimes testifying to a crime is more traumatic than it is worth, but this may not prove to be the case here as the evidence is all on video and it is the City that is bringing the charge, not the victim (Christian Cooper).

No society has ever done without a criminal justice system. No civilisation has relied purely on restorative justice for serious crimes; they used physical punishments and the death penalty. Islam’s criminal justice system makes little use of prison; the standard punishments consist of the death penalty, floggings, amputations, retaliation in the case of personal injury and financial penalties although of course the Muslim world has always had them except in the very early days. Western justice systems have prison as a standard punishment for most serious crimes as a replacement for the physical punishments it used in pre-modern times (in fact, the birch — flogging — remained part of British justice until the mid-20th century and the death penalty persists in the USA to this day) along with preventative measures such as banning someone from running a company or having custody of a child. In the US specifically, punishment is often disproportionate as a result of racism, poverty and resulting disparities in the quality of legal advice and representation and because of lobbying from the prison industry (in such guises as victims’ rights groups) and demands from the right-wing media. People are in jail for long periods, in some cases life, for sometimes very trivial offences. But that doesn’t mean imprisonment is wrong in itself.

No oppressed group should martyr itself and sacrifice its right to justice or safety on the grounds that the system itself is corrupt or the hope of a better one some day and it’s irresponsible for activists and commentators to encourage them to. The options are to use the system there is, to resort to illegal and violent means to punish people who threaten your community, or put up with the threat. Campaigning for a better system or against corruption does not mean abstaining from using the system where someone has committed what is justly a crime. And sure, jail might not make her any more racist, but it might teach her (and others like her) to think before they reach for their phone and call the police any time a Black person annoys them. Such people already know that Amy Cooper has a court case hanging over her (she is not expected to be arraigned until October) and this already may have a chilling effect on them. This may not deal with the underlying problem, but it will have some benefit at least in that immediate area.

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Book Review: Darwin’s Notebook

Inayat's Corner - 5 July, 2020 - 10:28

In September 2019 BC (Before Covid-19) I undertook a long cherished trip to Down House, the former residence of Charles Darwin. The pictures below were all taken at Down House. It is located approximately 15 miles south-east of London and is now a Museum under the care of English Heritage. Whilst there I purchased “Darwin’s Notebook”, a biography of Charles Darwin by Jonathan Clements. Clements’ biography was published in 2009 – the bicentennial anniversary of Darwin’s birth.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection has been described by the philosopher Daniel Dennett as “the single best idea anyone has ever had.” When you consider some of the other scientific giants of recent centuries: Newton, Faraday, Clerk Maxwell and Einstein – that is high praise indeed.

First publicly explained in Darwin’s landmark 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, natural selection is today viewed as unquestionably the most important theory in Biology. Clements writes that Darwin’s theory “fundamentally changed our concept of who we are and where we come from.”

Darwin argued that all of us, human beings, apes, pigs, fish, plants – indeed all forms of life – were all related and descendants of common ancestors if we went back far enough in time. Species were not static, they changed over time. This idea was not new, but Darwin provided a mechanism for how it had occurred: Natural Selection.

Creatures that possessed traits that helped them to adapt more successfully to changes in their environment were more likely to survive and pass on those traits than those that did not. This process – natural selection –  causes species to change and diverge over time.

This was anathema to many religious leaders who argued that each species had been individually created by God and were unchanged. They bitterly resented Darwin’s theory, and in the case of a number of evangelical Christian groups and many Muslim “scholars”, they still do.

For over 160 years they have been trying – and failing – to undermine Darwin’s great insight. Rather than being undermined, Darwin’s theory only continued to gain further credibility with the discovery of dominant and recessive genes in pea plants by Gregor Mendel – now viewed as the father of Genetics. Mendel’s experiments with pea plants resulted in him finding the mechanism for heredity (how traits are passed on from one generation to another) – a topic that Darwin had struggled to find answers for. Mendel found that traits were passed on by genes. And almost a century after Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species, Crick and Watson discovered the structure of the DNA molecule and provided forensic molecular evidence for evolution by natural selection. All life forms that we know of are made of DNA and it is the random changes in the DNA molecule that provide the raw material for evolution to occur. No wonder that more thoughtful religious leaders have now made their peace with Darwin.

Darwin’s Notebook covers Darwin’s privileged upbringing (he was the son of a wealthy doctor), his meticulous observations and careful accumulation of data during the five year sea voyage aboard the HMS Beagle and the subsequent development of his ideas once he was back in England in 1836. The book is attractively laid out with every two-page spread being on a particular topic and this makes for very easy reading.

It should be remembered that prior to setting out on his sea voyage, Darwin had believed in the literal truth of the Bible and was intent on becoming a Christian clergyman when he returned from the voyage. It was what he saw with his own eyes during the voyage that made him question his beliefs and the teachings of the Bible.

During his voyage around South America he noticed how the fauna on islands off the coast of South America would often resemble but not be exactly the same as the fauna on the mainland. Why would this be and was there a natural process that could account for the differences?

Back in England and now married and living the life of a virtual recluse at Down House, Darwin corresponded by letter with amateur field workers around the world to gather additional data. He was determined to try and make sense of what he had seen during his sea voyage.

In 1851, Darwin witnessed the illness and death of his beloved ten year old daughter Annie from scarlet fever. Darwin later wrote:

“We have lost the joy of our household and the solace of our old age…she was my favourite child; her cordiality, openness, buoyant joyousness and strong affections made her most loveable.”

Darwin stopped attending church following the death of Annie. Even though he could not bring himself to believe any longer in the doctrines of the Christian church, he did not regard himself as an atheist.

People often wrote to Darwin to ask about his religious opinions and asked whether it was possible to both believe in his theory of evolution by means of natural selection and also believe in God. Darwin replied:

“It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man can be an ardent theist and an evolutionist…I may state that my judgment often fluctuates…in my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an Atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (and more and more as I grow older), but not always, that an Agnostic would be the more correct description of my state of mind.”

You cannot read Darwin’s Notebook without being impressed with Darwin’s gentle, considerate nature and thoughtfulness. And by showing us how all life forms are related to each other, Darwin provided us with a wonderfully unified vision of the history of life on earth.

If seeking to understand the truth about ourselves, the world around us and how it came to be is to be regarded as a virtue, then Charles Darwin will surely be amongst the best of us.

Hong Kong migrants: where will they live?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 3 July, 2020 - 23:39
Hong Kong protests, 2019

In reaction to the new security law the Chinese government have imposed on Hong Kong, a former British territory returned in 1997 which in theory enjoys autonomy from China under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”, the government has promised to provide a path to citizenship for the British Overseas nationals living in the territory. This would consist of leave to remain for five years, at the end of which one could apply for citizenship. There are about 350,000 such nationals in Hong Kong who are entitled to enter the UK for six months without a visa but may not remain here longer; according to the BBC, about 2.6 million others are eligible for the status; this would amount to nearly half Hong Kong’s total population of 7.5 million. (Wikipedia, quoting British Foreign Office figures from 2014, estimate that 3.4 million British Overseas Nationals live in Hong Kong.)

Under the government’s plans, all British Overseas Nationals and their dependants will be given right to remain in the UK, including the right to work and study, for five years. At this point, they will be able to apply for settled status, and after a further year, seek citizenship.

Updating MPs on the details, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said there would be no limit on numbers or quotas and the application process would be simple.

“This is a special, bespoke, set of arrangements developed for the unique circumstances we face and in light of our historic commitment to the people of Hong Kong,” he said.

Raab conceded, however, that there was little the British government could do to “cohesively force” the Chinese government to allow British passport holders to leave the country. Labour supported the government’s action, but insisted that there be no discrimination on grounds of income or anything else; Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, also said that the UK had a responsibility to those unable to leave or who wished to remain in Hong Kong. I find this to be a hugely irresponsible stance on both sides. Under pressure to free itself from the perception of antisemitism, Labour fears being accused of racism again here as well as having turned 180 degrees to become an anti-immigrant party. But this scheme must be resisted, not least for the sake of existing ethnic minority populations here.

First, although I suspect that the government are gambling on most eligible people in Hong Kong not taking up the offer and that many may choose to move to Australia, the US, Canada or elsewhere (which they will be able to if they are rich), let’s be clear that 2.9 million is a huge number of people who will all need to live somewhere. This is the entire population of the West Midlands metropolitan county (which includes Birmingham, Coventry, Solihull, Wolverhampton, Walsall and the Black Country). If only a quarter or a third of the eligible people take up the offer, we will still need a whole new large city — the size of Leeds or Sheffield, say — to accommodate them. Despite the enthusiasm of the political classes and doubtless the jingoistic right-wing media, there is no guarantee that the sudden influx of this many people will meet the acceptance of the general population; it is as if they have said “of course they will” on our behalf. The last time we had such an influx, in the 2000s, it set the ball rolling on Brexit and this was also the result of a political miscalculation: that a few thousand, maybe tens of thousands, of good white workers would not cause any social disruption or resentment.

It’s possible that the government assumes that the new arrivals will take places vacated by departing European Union nationals. This is a big assumption; many of those EU nationals have families, lives, jobs and businesses here and will not be able to just up and leave. Have the government given any thought to what skills the migrants will bring and what the people departing to the EU will take with them? Hong Kong is an almost entirely urban territory. How many people from Hong Kong go to China for labouring work on farms? Another trick up the government’s sleeve might be to do with the position of the existing ‘immigrant’, i.e. non-white, population: we have already seen people who were nationalised being stripped of their nationality and sent ‘home’, as well as dual nationals (or presumed dual nationals, as many in fact have no other citizenship) being stripped after being deemed undesirable (admittedly sometimes for proven criminal acts, but sometimes not), so a stepping up of this policy might be the government’s intention.

Finally, as the government admits that this may result in British Overseas Nationals being barred from leaving Hong Kong or at least China, the possibility arises that some of them may join overland refugee or migrant smuggling routes across Asia and Europe. This is obviously a hazardous journey and opens them up to exploitation. They may also try to reach Vietnam by boat in the hope of being able to travel to the UK from there.

I have nothing against the UK accepting people genuinely in danger from Hong Kong or anywhere else as refugees. That’s our duty. We simply cannot accommodate hundreds of thousands, let alone millions, from Hong Kong just because there is a new security law any more than we can accommodate any other whole, large population when there is a downturn in their political situation. We knew we were handing Hong Kong back to a communist-run one-party state for decades before it happened (China was not a democracy when we acquired Hong Kong, though neither was the UK then as women and the working class did not have the vote). We knew that any agreement we made to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy would be unenforceable once we left and that the danger would grow the longer we had been away. As a former imperial power that is now a mere medium-sized country, we simply cannot save the world. We have no territory or base anywhere near Hong Kong anymore.

It would, of course, be advantageous to the Tory party to have a large number of new citizens indebted to them for their citizenship who regard socialism as a dirty word given what it means in China. As Hong Kong has one of the most liberal economies (in the sense of free markets and low tax), this would strengthen the hand of those who seek to privatise or do away with public services and those whose vision of a post-Brexit Britain is that of a “rainy Dubai” though with fewer Muslims. As Hong Kong has a substantial finance industry and the second-highest number of billionaires in the world, they will no doubt be appreciated by anyone who needs to sell a house though not necessarily by those looking to buy one (though not all Hong Kongers are rich and there are significant inequalities). Given the current housing situation and recent policy, the likely result is that London and maybe other major cities become even more out of reach to ordinary people, let alone poor people.

If we were staying in the EU, of course, we could just give them British passports which would allow them to settle anywhere in Europe they liked. If we were, however, the matter of EU nationals leaving would not arise. As it is, anyone newly acquiring British nationality can only settle here. The government talks about its responsibility to overseas nationals in Hong Kong, but they have no sense of responsibility towards their own people in their own country, as quite amply demonstrated during the recent crisis. This policy is intended, I believe, not to enrich but to displace. Short of building a whole new city, displacement would be the only way to accommodate this many people.

Image source: Studio Incendo, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

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How do we solve a problem like the police?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 30 June, 2020 - 19:12
A police recruitment ad from the Metropolitan Police which shows two officers, one a white woman and the other Asian and probably male. The text reads "Do the job where you look out for each other. Do something real. Become a police officer."Police recruitment ad in London. According to Nazir Afzal, a former British Crown prosecutor, police officers frequently refuse to testify against other officers in the event of a civilian death, in contrast to civilian behaviour.

Since the killing by four Minneapolis police officers of George Floyd, a former work colleague of one of them, there have been worldwide street protests and a revival of the Black Lives Matter movement that grew up after the murder by a Neighbourhood Watch vigilante of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American boy. This has led to a revived interest in the ideas of abolishing or defunding the police, which seems to mean different things depending on who is advocating it; to some it simply means abolishing it altogether, while to others it means drastically reducing the departments’ funding and using the balance to improve funding for other public services which might help to reduce crime, especially crime that stems from poverty. Others regard the idea as dangerous naivety, much as with the idea of prison abolition (often in favour of restorative justice, even for serious crimes such as rape); a major objection is that abolishing police departments in favour of “community solutions” would result in a proliferation of vigilantes a lot like George Zimmerman.

Some white Americans seem to have reacted with fury to any suggestion that the police or policing in general are to blame for the widespread harassment and violence against minorities and African-Americans in particular. A while ago I followed a lady in South Carolina for updates on the progress of her disabled (as of 2018) daughter; in recent weeks, the feed has changed to constant cop-worship and demands that anyone who disagrees should just unfollow or unfriend her, which I did. More generally I have seen a sneering response that characterises the supporters of defunding as white college-educated extremists such as anarchists with their heads in the clouds, and ignores that much of the pressure comes from the minorities who endure the persistent harassment and who learn to fear the police from a very young age because, especially in the United States, a simple interaction can lead to summary death.

Most of the debate has been around the issue of ‘defunding’ and what it means than about abolishing it. In the UK, the police (as well as the fire service and other public services) have had substantial funding cuts over the years, especially since the Tories came back into power in 2010, and have had to sell police stations; in many places, the only physical police presence is a small office for the community policing team which cannot be used to report a crime (or seek refuge). In the USA, in many localities (since police departments are specific to the city or county) police funding has increased astronomically and in some places gets more funding than a whole host of other public services combined. Police have acquired military hardware such as armoured vehicles which really have no place in any civilian situation. They escort mental health patients to hospital and between hospitals, often handcuffing and shackling them like felons (though this has been reduced as a result of public campaigning). They go armed to wellness checks for people suffering mental health crisis, in some cases leading to the unwell person being shot dead. They are present in schools, as a result of which children have been arrested, handcuffed, and received criminal records for mere classroom disruption.

The contemptuous responses include this:

Facebook post containing an image which reads "Send in the SWAT -- social workers and therapists -- because violent criminals just need to be held close, not held accountable." There is a heart in the middle of the A in SWAT. Above the image is the caption that simply reads "Yep" and below, the page name Cop Humor which posted this.

There is another thread about the ‘defund’ slogan being misleading and alienating here. Yet I cannot think of a snappier slogan. It doesn’t mean cut their funding altogether; it means only funding them up to what is necessary rather than so as to acquire unnecessarily grandiose hardware and to stick their fingers into every pie, and reallocate funding to other services, some of which can respond to things like mental health crises appropriately and some of which may help alleviate poverty and other causes of crime. The meme on the left misses the point; it’s not violent criminals that need therapy or a hug, but people in crisis who may currently be sent a cop with a gun rather than a mental health professional who knows how to calm them down. I suspect that the quibbles about the phrase are sometimes being made in bad faith by people who know exactly what it means.

I do agree that not only defunding is required but stiff new laws to make sure that police behave professionally, are trained to de-escalate situations and not to escalate them (especially trivial ones such as routine traffic stops), do not use undue force, do not racially discriminate (and are trained not to make assumptions) and that police officers who use excessive force, who terrorise innocent members of the public let alone kill them, are dismissed rather than protected. Another important step to eliminating harassment is to abolish the laws which provide pretexts for it, such as anti-jaywalking laws (we do not have these here) and licence plate renewal (again, we do without them here; police can check from a database if a number plate does not match the vehicle it’s on and if duty has been paid to keep it on the road). Yet I am sure many people will think I am hopelessly naive for even imagining that the police will actually implement any of these things, or that legislatures will force them to in most jurisdictions.

The people laughing at the suggestion seem to be White or at least not Black. The police, while some complain that they are ineffective or aggressive, are not a serious menace to them. They are not the ones who have had to sit their sons down for a talk about what to do when confronted by police who will be armed and probably aggressive and prejudiced. They are not the ones who fear calling the emergency services in the event of a crisis in case the person having the crisis is shot dead, possibly because the officer in attendance decides he “doesn’t have time for this” (the officer responsible in this case was acquitted in a judge-only trial). They don’t put forward any ideas for how to change these situations, and police themselves have the support of the white majority, of the legal system, and of each other and their unions. They are notorious for lying in court to support each other or refusing to testify against each other, even when a civilian has been killed in their custody. They resist reform and demonstrate contempt on the occasions when elected politicians propose reform (such as in France recently, where the use of choke-holds was recently banned and then allowed again after police protests). Someone had better think up some solutions pretty soon as we cannot expect people to tolerate this situation of lawless, violent, racist police terrorising it with total impunity forever.

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Book Review: Islam – An Illustrated Journey

Inayat's Corner - 27 June, 2020 - 20:09

Earlier this year, it was with a sense of some excitement that I found out that a new book “Islam: An Illustrated Journey” had been recently published (in 2018) by the Institute of Ismaili Studies to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of the Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of Ismaili Muslims. The book specifically sets out to be an illustrated version and it looks utterly gorgeous.

It is a very large book – see the photograph below where I contrast it with two other large books on Islamic history that I possess. You will need a large bookshelf to house it.

This large size allows the reader to much better appreciate the pictures inside – just make sure you are seated comfortably when you read the book: it is quite literally not to be taken lightly as it weighs quite a bit.

The account of the life of the Prophet Muhammad and revelation of the Qur’an is narrated well and the differences between the mainstream Sunni and Shi’i interpretations of the succession to the prophet are represented fairly. So, the book serves as a useful introduction to Islam itself in addition to describing the subsequent growth and spread of Muslim civilisations across the world.

Among the history covered in the book we learn about Late Antiquity in the centuries immediately prior to the emergence of the Prophet Muhammad, and then the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Fatimids (who were Ismaili Muslims), the Mamluks, the impact of the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Safawis, the Mughals, and the modern era. There is a fabulous two-page spread about the travels of Ibn Battuta which graphically charts his multiple journeys across the Muslim world.

The only gripe I had about the history was what appeared to be a rather grudging and cursory reference to Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi. Although he is referred to as being “arguably the most legendary character of…Crusader lore…” he merits only one paragraph on page 206. As a great unifier and the inspiring mujahid who restored al-Quds to Muslim rule, Salah ad-Din – who died with his sword as almost his only remaining possession after having given away his wealth to the poor, Salah ad-Din surely deserves more than one paragraph in any retelling of Islamic history. The cynic in me wonders whether this might not be unrelated to the fact that Salah ad-Din was responsible for ending Ismaili rule in Egypt.

Still, aside from that, this is without question a formidable and fascinating look at Muslim history. Coming to the troubles of the modern era and the rise of nihilist groups such as al-Qa’ida and ISIS, the book makes a very important and wholly accurate observation, noting that they both “arose in the context of foreign conflict and invasion…”. It is often conveniently forgotten – and the UK government would very much like us all to forget – that al-Qa’ida was only founded following the controversial stationing of tens of thousands of US troops in the Arabian peninsula in the 1990s and ISIS did not exist at all until after the illegal and devastating invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the US and UK authorities.

In conclusion, Islam: An Illustrated Journey is quite possibly the best one volume introduction to Islam and Islamic history that I have yet encountered. It is quite certainly the most beautiful.

Nothing brave about Starmer’s cave-in

Indigo Jo Blogs - 25 June, 2020 - 22:47
Picture of Maxine Peake, a middle-aged white woman with curly fair hair, wearing a yellow and white striped T-shirt with a sticker saying "My union, our strength; proud to be a member of Equity" (the actors' union). There is a crowd of people behind her.Maxine Peake

Today Keir Starmer, the Labour leader elected earlier this year, caved in to pressure from the Board of Deputies of British Jews to sack the shadow education secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, who had shared an interview with the British actress Maxine Peake in which the actress repeated a well-known claim that the police behaviour which led to the death of George Floyd last month was influenced by seminars delivered by the Israeli police or ‘defence’ forces. The decision was widely praised by both the party’s right wing and by right-wing figures in the media generally as a sign that Starmer is ‘finally’ taking steps to “rid the party of antisemitism”. To others, it is a thin pretext for getting rid of someone who has sided with teachers’ unions in urging a delay in reopening schools for the sake of the health of teachers, pupils and the families of both. I have seen many tweets this afternoon from people who said they intended to resign from the Labour Party and not all of them are committed Corbynites.

The interview, which she discusses a number of her recent film roles and her politics, includes a widely-circulated claim that the police tactic of kneeling on someone’s neck, which was what killed George Floyd, had been “learned from seminars with Israeli secret services”, which the latter denied. Her defenders have pointed to a blog post on Amnesty International’s website from 2016, in which it is claimed that Baltimore’s police had received training on “crowd control, use of force and surveillance” from Israeli police, and a number of other cities had received Israeli training. It does not, however, say that this particular tactic was learned from those seminars. Jose Lopez, a former police chief in Durham, North Carolina, who received training from Israel, said his training was not about ‘militarization’ but rather, “it was about leadership, it was learning about terrorism and then learning about how to interact with people who are involved in mass casualty situations and how to manage mass casualty situations”.

I saw a thread on Twitter which claimed that the allegation about Israeli influence on US police forces was antisemitic because it was based on a ‘trope’ that Jews always had to be behind any disaster or other. Like a lot of the “antisemitic trope” claims that were thrown at various people in the Labour party every week or so under Corbyn’s leadership, this strikes me as straining the definition through the needle’s eye but frankly, I believe that people drew the connection, or made the assumption that if American police forces were getting training from Israel it had to be at the detriment of their human rights record not because Israelis are Jewish but because Israel’s human rights record was already atrocious and their contempt for Palestinians’ general rights, their rights to go about their business without harassment and violence, their rights to be unmolested in their homes, their rights to their own land’s water and so on are well-documented and not even concealed. This is why, if someone is wrong about Israel on such a matter, it does not constitute evidence that they are antisemitic. The same goes for an incident in which a Corbyn supporter shared a video which she claimed showed Israeli police or soldiers abusing young people somewhere in Palestine; in fact, it was shot in Guatemala. However, when similar abuses are amply documented, to believe someone who tells you this is from Palestine and share it as such when you do not speak Spanish, Arabic or Hebrew is not antisemitic. One does a serial violent criminal no great injustice by attributing to him one particular crime that he did not commit, when he committed many like it.

Starmer’s action is in my opinion cowardly — typical, in fact, of the New Labour right demonstrated again and again while they were in power: they would do the bidding of the powerful (the commercial media, in particular) by sticking the boot into the powerless. The suggestion that Jews or Jewish interests or lobby groups have undue influence over the media is commonly dismissed as an antisemitic trope, yet Starmer clearly thinks they do otherwise he would not have sacked one of his shadow cabinet for sharing an interview with a well-respected cultural figure. Despite all the flattery, it does not give the impression that Starmer is an independent leader, but rather that he gives in to pressure very easily and is easily cowed when confronted with a display of power.

Image source: Rwendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) licence v4.0, via Wikimedia

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Cruelty over shielding

Indigo Jo Blogs - 1 June, 2020 - 23:46
Picture of two young white women with a young white girl standing in front of them. The image is framed by an orange and red pattern with the BBC logo at top left.Isolation Diary: Kate Monaghan, Holly Cocker
and daughter Scout

At the weekend the government announced that the rules for people who are under medical advice to stay indoors to avoid catching Covid-19 at all costs as they are likely to become severely ill if they contract it, mostly those with immune systems compromised by their condition or medication they are taking for it, or with impaired lung function (e.g. asthma), were changing as of today (Monday): they were to be allowed outside once a day, either with someone they live with, or with someone else if they live alone. At the same time, it was reported that a large number of people had been removed from the shielding list with the support withdrawn. I follow a lot of disabled people on Twitter and many of them reacted with incredulity to the announcement. The BBC interviewed some people who had been shielding and they said that they intended to remain inside for a few weeks to make sure that the infection rate continued to drop, as the government was claiming.

I’ve been listening to the BBC Ouch podcast for some time and during the lockdown period it has featured contributions from Kate Monaghan and her partner, Holly, who has been shielding because she is on anti-rejection drugs following a kidney transplant. At one point the couple go for a walk in a rural area so as to get out of the house with minimal risk; being shut in the flat with minimal exercise has also had effects on Kate’s physical health as well as the stresses of being shut in together with a small child. I asked another disabled friend whether she would be “taking advantage” of the new rules and she told me that this was the most she would do — go to an isolated area such as a secluded woodland once in a while so as not to bump into anyone — but would not be getting back to normal for some time. In fact, this is what many people who are supposed to be staying indoors all the time have been doing already: the advice to stay indoors was always just advice, while the lockdown (requiring people to stay at home other than when working, exercising etc. and abstain from social visits and travelling for pleasure) was a legal requirement. Both government and media have been conflating these two things routinely — this may well partly explain the continual breaches of the regulations by members of the public throughout the initial lockdown — and we see the same in the coverage of the new ‘rules’ for shielders.

Personally, I find it cruel for the government to make this sort of announcement at a time when trust in anything they say is at such a low as a result of the Cummings affair, when in many places people have abandoned all pretence of social distancing (see the pictures of crowded beaches this past weekend, which were not compressed pictures unlike the ones of ‘covidiots’ in parks circulated in March) and public spaces are increasingly crowded, and when in many places admission rates appear to be going up again, likely to be the result of infections which occurred during the VE-Day festivities in early May. It will get increasingly difficult to find those places that are free of crowds. In Spain, after they first released their lockdown (a real lockdown, where factories were closed and nobody was allowed out other than for grocery shopping and medical necessities for weeks and children only for the latter), an hour or so was set aside each day for the medically vulnerable to exercise and get fresh air and others had to be off the streets. Here, it could be possible to set aside certain parks for that purpose, but we see no sign of that happening and people will have to get to the parks somehow. It is particularly cruel to children who are shielding who may not fully understand the necessity and who see their friends playing outside and hear that adults in their position can go outside, but whose parents say they can’t.

It is widely understood that government announcements about easing lockdown restrictions bear no relation to what scientists say about infection rates: they are mostly concerned with getting the economy working again, hence the reopening of schools this week and the talk of reopening a lot of retail businesses this month. They are only interested in money and have a pathological aversion to public spending on pretty much anything except war. Daily newspapers have come to be full of propaganda, joyfully heralding the latest relaxation of restrictions on economic life while ignoring scientific evidence that it is not safe. I am hearing rumours that both companies and the NHS are preparing for another spike in infections next month. Some aspects of lockdown do need to be reconsidered: the elderly people deprived of family visits or even social contact with other residents in their homes by stringent internal lockdowns and whose health is suffering greatly (many of them have dementia, which has been exacerbated) as well as the mental health patients who have lost all visits and trips out as well as seeing plans for their moving to more open environments put on hold. As for shielders, some have been going out already and they could not all have been expected to have the patience to never leave home, let alone never go outside, for an indefinite period. However, this is really the wrong time to make an announcement that they can do this now when they could not before. It is not safer than it was a week or two ago; that much is obvious.

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Not our brothers’ keepers

Indigo Jo Blogs - 25 May, 2020 - 23:37
Picture of Ellie Williams, a young white women with injuries to her face and right eyelid, lying on a bed with her head resting on a pillow with a butterfly motif.Ellie Williams

Last week a young woman named Ellie Williams (right) from Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, posted a long message on Facebook describing having been kidnapped by a group of local Pakistani men and taken to an address where she was beaten and raped as a punishment for not attending ‘parties’ in town due to Coronavirus. The post, accompanied by pictures of injuries she had suffered in the incident, was widely shared on social media and commented on by feminists and left-wing commentators among others. Last weekend it transpired that Williams had been charged with making multiple false accusations of rape against several local men between 2017 and 2019 and following the Facebook post had been remanded in custody for breaching bail conditions (her family say that this was in fact a curfew put in place for her own protection which she broke under duress from the gang).

There have been public protests in Barrow in support of Ms Williams, including an assemblage of cars in a retail park with horns blaring. Today, at one such gathering where many people were out of their cars and gathering close together (no social distancing), Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) showed up in his car and was cheered by many of those in attendance before going off in a convoy to Ulverston (see the video attached to this tweet). The claims have led to local Asian restaurants being attacked and forced to close, though the owners condemned and denied any involvement in abuse and said they supported “justice for Ellie”. The Williams family have said they want nothing to do with him and have gained the support of women’s charities. Cumbria Police have issued a video statement claiming that they conducted a year-long peer-reviewed investigation (‘peers’ presumably meaning other police forces; the limitations of that have been demonstrated in police complaints investigations over the decades) that found no evidence of organised abuse of the type described in the Barrow area.

I want to address some of the social media commentary on this alleged incident, as I first found out about it on a Twitter feed run by a particularly obnoxious Leeds-based white feminist:

I want to know what our local institutions, the Council, the Police, are doing, to disrupt the Pakistani/Muslim #GroomingGang network across the North of England. Where are the local Mosques speaking out about this? … As ever, “not all Pakistani/Muslim men are like that”, but there’s a pattern here, and recognising this pattern means we’re forced to act, to protect girls/young women. … I know that the ‘woke’ left thinks all discussion of this is racist. I think that racists will use anything to promote racism. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us can afford to refuse to face the issues with integration, the role of women/girls in the way Islam is promoted.

This issue of “what are the mosques doing?” was raised every time the matter of grooming by groups of Asian men was in the news. It’s assumed that everyone from a Muslim background is religious and that they will automatically listen to what an imam says, and that if Muslims are doing it, they all must know about it — perhaps because it’s assumed, as it often is of minorities, that we all know each other. In actual fact, the criminal activity in some of the towns took place well away from the part of town where most Muslims live, so it is quite possible that most local Muslims knew nothing. Muslims do not have the ability to police members of our own community; there is one law and one police force for everybody in any given county or metropolitan area. An imam can give a sermon but it’s the listener’s choice as to whether he takes any notice; every Muslim knows that everything the grooming gangs are doing is against Islam for numerous reasons and none of the excuses hold any water. And the reason Muslims often live separately from others is because of racism; even when Muslims move into previously mostly white middle-class areas of many northern towns, whites start to move out. (It is not only white feminists making these ridiculous claims about Muslim complicity or inaction; I have seen Muslims on Twitter saying similar things.)

I believed Ellie’s story when I first read it. I don’t know how she got the bruises and other injuries shown in the attached pictures if she is not telling the truth. While no doubt the explanation for them will be made clear during the forthcoming legal process, the police have offered no explanation so far. She is 19 now, which meant that she would have been 16 when she made some of the accusations she is charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice for making. While false accusations of rape or sexual abuse or harassment have been a factor in previous hate crimes, the family do not appear to be racist and have rebuffed “Tommy Robinson”; comments under recent entries say that he “makes it his show”. However, other recent social media posts about this issue have tended towards violent racism, with one I saw saying that genocide is the answer. I have also seen tweets sharing the addresses of businesses whose owners are supposedly involved. There is a danger of a lot of well-meaning people who think they are not racist nevertheless making a lot of racist assumptions about Muslims based on ignorance and commonly-held but false views, and of people who would normally rail against victim blaming when it refers to rape or abuse victims doing exactly that when it concerns innocent Asian victims of mob violence; the fact is that this is a small group of criminals, we are not our brothers’ keepers in law and we have no power over them. It is up to the police to investigate and if Ellie’s supporters are to be believed, they have done a terrible job. The truth will be revealed in the coming months, however.

Image source: Ellie Williams, Facebook.

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