On obscene generalisations

Indigo Jo Blogs - 20 November, 2019 - 19:57
Five young Black women wearing different coloured long dresses and headscarves.

Last week a video circulated of a Canadian-based Somali imam making some ugly generalisations about African-American people, claiming that most of them were products of one-night stands and did not know who their fathers were, and that he had met a man who said that Islam limited him to four wives instead of the twenty women he had previously kept on the go. After much outcry it appears the imam apologised although some were not satisfied with the wording of his apology, and another imam then circulated a sermon making equally obscene generalisations about Somali women. What was depressing about this was that I saw some Black American Muslims defending the first imam on the grounds that there is indeed a very large illegitimacy rate among African-Americans and that at worst he was exaggerating a bit. I don’t believe this is a good reason to make statements like this in a khutba.

One of the people defending the original shaikh is a student of Shaikh Nuh Keller, the translator and compiler of the English version of the Reliance of the Traveller and a Sufi shaikh who lives and teaches in Jordan, so I am going to quote a couple of extracts from his tariqa literature to explain why what the Somali imam said was not becoming of an imam. That shaikh seems to be a ‘salafi’, judging by the list of his shaikhs, but these things are matters of Shari’ah and not the Sufi path as such. Part of the path as he teaches it is an exercise called muraqaba or vigilance in which the student is expected to refrain from seven sins, all of them sins of the tongue such as lying, tale-bearing, backbiting, boasting, showing-off and, the one relevant to this incident, conversing about the immoral which the shaikh observed was “a hobby among religious people” which they do to “make themselves feel more religious”:

They tell what the fornicators do in such-and-such a street, or what the drinkers are doing up town in such-and-such a bar, and all of this is completely haraam. Mentioning an act of disobedience to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala is an act of disobedience to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.

He explained that sometimes it was necessary to warn people of evil, such as telling travellers to and students in Syria (before the civil war) what the Assad regime did to anyone who got on the wrong side of it, but there was no excuse to talk about “how bad the times we are living in are” because everyone knows that already. This part of the sermon falls straight into that definition. (The quote is from his 1998 Virginia lectures, which can be downloaded here and the relevant section can be found by searching for “seven things we need to avoid”.)

A second thing he warned against (in a book for people coming to study with him in Jordan) was making generalisations about people based on their national origins. This is also something I have seen Muslims do a lot over the years, often imagining themselves fully justified in their prejudices and in expressing them openly:

One cannot put oneself up by putting others down, but only by worshipping Allah, and it is absolutely haram to make derogatory ethnic observations about individuals or countries. To say, “Iraqis act like such and such,” or “Egyptians have such and such an attitude” or “Pakistanis do such and such” or “Women from Upper Volta” or “Moroccan children” or whoever it may be, unless warning someone actually travelling somewhere of something that may harm him, is of the antics of the nafs, an attempt to feel superior by telling about faults one does not have.

It doesn’t matter in the slightest if one thinks it is true. It is forbidden by Allah Himself in the Qur’an with the words, “O you who believe: let no group of men mock another: for they might well be better than they are. And let no group of women mock another, for they might well be better than they are” (Qur’an 49:11). And the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) told his Companions: “Allah Mighty and Majestic has rid you of the arrogance of the Period of Ignorance and its pride in forefathers. Godfearing believer or hapless sinner: all people are the sons of Adam, and Adam was from the soil. Let peoples cease priding themselves in men, or they will matter less to Allah than the scarab beetle that pushes excrement about with its nose” (Ahmad , 2.361. h). This suffices as to how much merit the practice has. If tempted, one should just put one’s lips together and keep them that way. (As A Rule, Wakeel Books, Amman, 2002.)

Any Muslim public speaker should be trying to warm people’s hearts when they speak. They should never assume, regardless of appearances, that they are only addressing Muslims or only addressing their own people, least of all if they know their words are being recorded. We know that the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, used wise and kind words and had excellent manners with everyone, Muslims or otherwise. He forbade the Sahaba from, for example, addressing non-Muslims as kaafir, ordering us to call people by their names and their father’s names, as was the Arab custom. He told people not to insult Abu Jahl in front of Ikrimah, radhi Allahu ‘anhu, when he came to Islam after the conquest of Makkah; he prayed for the guidance of the Daws tribe when Abu Hurayrah, radhi Allahu ‘anhu, complained that they were impervious to his attempts to persuade them to become Muslims. Crucially, he condemned those who cursed their own parents, which he explained as meaning cursing someone else’s, leading to the other person responding in kind. In the Qur’an, Allah Almighty tells us not to curse others’ idols, lest they revile Allah in their ignorance. There are so many injunctions and examples of the importance of kindness and good manners in the Qur’an and the Sunnah and going to a foreign country and insulting the people will never win anybody over.

It’s true that there is a high illegitimacy rate among Black Americans; there is a high rate also among White Americans, White British people and many other groups in the West. The rate may be higher or lower but it is still high. It is a fact that many couples live together and have children before marriage, or in some cases never marry. This is not a one-night stand and a child born in this situation knows who their father is. As far as illegitimacy goes, the pendulum has swung a long way from a point where a woman pregnant before marriage would have to spend months in a “mother and baby home” away from her family and give her baby up for adoption or even be consigned to an institution for life to a point where nobody really talks of illegitimacy anymore. I am not saying this is a good thing (though the closure of those institutions definitely is), but it does not justify any claim that “they’re all at it like rabbits” or some other suggestion that everyone is promiscuous, because that just is not true.

As a western convert myself, I am well aware that there are stereotypes among Muslims from both Muslim countries and places like India about westerners and many of us have encountered them when we approach ‘ethnic’ Muslim families about marriage. There is an assumption that nobody from a western background is a virgin by the time their teens are out and if they are, it’s not for want of trying, which is truer than it used to be but still an exaggeration. It’s also not the sort of thing any imam should be telling his congregation, least of all in great detail in a khutba, and they should not imagine that it will hurt or offend less if you think you are only talking about non-Muslims — you may well be talking about their family and saying things you would not dare say about someone’s mother or sister to their face.

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It’s not all about Brexit

Indigo Jo Blogs - 17 November, 2019 - 22:43
A Labour party logo showing a red rose with a green stalk and leaves.

Last Friday the Guardian printed a letter from a number of famous people who informed us that because of ‘concerns’ about anti-Semitism, they would be ‘unable’ to vote Labour in the forthcoming (12th December) election. These ‘dignitaries’ or ‘luminaries’ include the novelists Fay Weldon, Frederick Forsyth and John Le Carré, actress (and family friend of Boris Johnson) Joanna Lumley, Blair-appointed equalities chief and the right-wing media’s favourite model minoritarian Trevor Phillips, and everyone’s but the Muslims’ favourite Muslims, Ed Husain, Fiyaz Mughal and Maajid Nawaz. Many of them are Tories or Liberal Democrats of long standing that it would have been difficult to imagine voting Labour, regardless of who leads it. According to them, we are all under pressure to disregard this matter in the name of stopping Brexit:

We listen to our Jewish friends and see how their pain has been relegated as an issue, pushed aside by arguments about Britain’s European future. For those who insist that Labour is the only alternative to Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit, now, it seems, is not the time for Jewish anxiety.

But antisemitism is central to a wider debate about the kind of country we want to be. To ignore it because Brexit looms larger is to declare that anti-Jewish prejudice is a price worth paying for a Labour government. Which other community’s concerns are disposable in this way? Who would be next?

Sadly, I live in an area where the nearest thing to an opposition to the Tories is a Liberal Democrat and that’s who I will be voting for next month. To do otherwise would split the anti-Tory and anti-Brexit vote. However, I urge anyone who lives in an area where there is a Labour candidate who can win to vote for them. Much as Brexit will have a devastating effect on the economy which could easily lead to serious unrest, the reasons have to do with so much more than Brexit: they are to do with ending the culture of austerity with its harassment of disabled people and destruction of public services, the run-down of the health system (to say nothing of the threat of its privatisation) and education system, the racist culture of disbelief in the immigration system and so much more besides. All this seems to have been forgotten because the public discourse has been dominated by Brexit and the internal wrangling of political parties including the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour party (and any attempt to discuss any other issue of racism is dismissed as whataboutery).

In answer to the question, “which other community’s concerns are disposable in the way?”, unlike these concerns and fears which have been front page news practically every week for the past several years now, every other marginalised and vulnerable group of people’s concerns are deemed disposable by the present government and much of the press and broadcast media. People have died because the supports they would have depended on to get back on their feet have been kicked away in the name of deficit reduction. People live in fear of the “brown envelope” which tells them that their disability benefits are due for reassessment, which likely means an encounter with someone prejudiced against them who will lie about their condition and abilities. A disabled friend of mine wrote on Twitter yesterday:

I’m scared that once the protection of being a parent is over in 5 yrs when my boys all reach adulthood, I will be homeless. As a disabled person, the line between life and death for me lies in the hands of Tory bureaucrats who hate welfare. To say the election is about Brexit is yet another sign that people aren’t seeing our pain, suffering, fear and deaths.

Jeremy Corbyn’s record as an MP does not justify any suggestion that he would harass or discriminate against Jews if he was prime minister; on the contrary, he has been supportive of his Jewish constituents as an MP and Geoffrey Alderman, writing on the Spectator website earlier this year, said that despite the fact that Corbyn had acted unwisely on occasions, he could fill an entire article with the philo-Semitic Early Day Motions (EDMs) Corbyn has supported while an MP, including one to facilitate the settlement of Jews from Yemen in the UK. He also noted that Corbyn had supported Jewish objections to relocating Jewish graves to make way for property development while the council, led by Margaret Hodge, had approved the planning application. Meanwhile, in the huge volume of ‘incidents’ and accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party (the volume is being treated as evidence in itself), the signal-to-noise ratio is very low, and of the minority of genuine incidents, many have led to expulsions, including of councillors, MPs and candidates for Parliament. It is not true that the party has “not dealt with it”.

Very many of the signatories to last Friday’s letter are well-known people with long careers in the arts and media who must be fairly wealthy. They will not have been personally affected by the ravages of austerity. I have heard it claimed that many Jews regard a Corbyn government is a worse prospect than a no-deal Brexit; clearly whoever thinks this does not fear for their job or the security of their home. In a letter published today among a set of responses to the letter (printed Monday), it is noted that there are three historians among the signatories and all are privately educated. None of them are Jewish, and they gloss over the fact that many Jews (albeit mostly secular ones) disagree with the calls not to vote Labour; they believe they should dictate whom the public should treat as the voice of “real Jews”. I have heard the group referred to as ‘dignitaries’, but fame does not confer authority. They complain that two Jewish MPs have been “bullied out of the party” but Jewish dissenters have been the victim of bullying and doxing on- and offline and their families have been targeted.

Racism should not be a price worth paying to avoid more serious political outcomes. But that is not the case here; five years of a majority government led by Boris Johnson means five years of austerity, racism, economic decline and isolation for everyone. The alternative is a chance to reverse Brexit and rebuild what the Tories and their coalition partners destroyed. 

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Tu quoque

Indigo Jo Blogs - 14 November, 2019 - 22:53
A cartoon from a Russian magazine showing a Black man hanging from the Statue of Liberty. Two winged figures hold the US flag aloft above it and a book shows a Russian translation of "come unto me, ye that labor and are heavy laden".Image from Soviet magazine Bezbozhnik, 1930

Tu quoque (you too) is a type of argument that is classified as a logical fallacy, that is, an argument that does not offer evidence of the point the arguer is trying to make but rather plays some kind of rhetorical trick, in this case by throwing the accusation back at the accuser by saying he is guilty of the same thing or something morally equivalent. It is sometimes called whataboutery and was a favourite line of argument by the USSR’s propaganda whenever its human rights record was criticised, particularly by the USA’s State Department. A favourite argument of theirs, as illustrated in the picture on the right, was “and you lynch negroes”. I came across an undated article on this fallacy today on the Merriam-Webster dictionary website after a friend shared it on Twitter. I see this fallacy being appealed to a lot in political debate, and the accusations of it are often problematic because they ignore why the argument is being made. Very often, the accusers are just as guilty as the accused, and it matters.

I call this “the bully’s fallacy”. A school or workplace bully will often justify his behaviour by attacking his victim’s character. I remember a conversation I witnessed between a bully at my school and someone he was harassing, in which he accused his victim of, among other things, “polluting the atmosphere” by smoking. His victim responded that many of the bully’s friends also smoked, to which the bully responded, “but we’re not talking about them; we’re talking about you”. He no doubt got this argument from a teacher. It’s true that if you smoke in a confined space, around other people, you risk making them ill, but at my school, some boys smoked round the back of the building and others (the ones who weren’t allowed to smoke) in an isolated spot in the grounds, so nobody who didn’t want to be there was affected. The key thing was that the criticism was not sincere and was not intended to encourage him to change his behaviour; it was intended as harassment. And the intention behind an argument is sometimes important.

Very often in political arguments, one side is accused of some vice of which the other side are just as guilty, or if not, then guilty of something similar. When we hear the present leadership of the Labour party accused of anti-Semitism, for example, a common response is to point out the numerous examples of racism on the Tory benches, where various Tory figures have been suspended and then sometimes reinstated after making openly racist or Islamophobic remarks. On some occasions, Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for statements which condemned both anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, rather than anti-Semitism alone as his critics demand. However, the guilt of the accusing side is relevant, because it is not an academic argument but a contest between two political parties for power, and if one party says to the other “you are racist”, really they are saying to the public “these people are racist; don’t vote for them”. If the accusing side is just as racist, if not more so, the public need to be aware of that.

Arguments with real consequences cannot always be treated as academic debates. When women say to men who try to engage them in debates about abortion, “no womb, no opinion”, they might be accused of an ad hominem argument, another logical fallacy, but it does not matter because the arguments have been had many times before and the consequences of a ban on abortion are very serious, not only for those with unwanted pregnancies but also for those who suffer miscarriages, who would then be liable to be investigated for evidence of abortion as been noted in many Latin American countries. As for the US v Soviet whataboutery, although the observation about lynching was by that time outdated, the US was no friend of freedom for most of the world; it was a notorious exporter of poverty and oppression and supported dictatorships almost everywhere outside Europe. This is no defence of the Soviet record of human rights or political or intellectual freedom, nor of people who reflexively assume anyone who is against the USA must be good, but for anyone outside the USA asked to “pick a side” during that time, it would not have been as simple as it would be for those of us in countries the US favoured.

I don’t believe there is any comparison between the Labour anti-Semitism controversy and the very real problem of racism in the Tory party. Most of the former consists of people’s words being twisted and often the thing that was said was true or at least arguable; the definition of anti-Semitism being deployed is ideological and the definition of a Jew is sectarian, overtly excluding many people of partial Jewish ancestry as well as dissenting and non-religious Jews; very often the accusations are aimed at silencing critics of Israel’s treatment of native Palestinians. The racism displayed in the Tory party, on the other hand, is often firmly aimed at ordinary people who are members of visible minorities who have rarely had the mass media on their side. So, if Jeremy Corbyn is indeed a racist (which I believe he is not), it is no defence of him to call Boris Johnson one, even if he is. But for Johnson and his supporters to make the claim is hypocrisy, and because this is politics and not an academic debate, that matters: a man who points the finger at others rather than address his own failings is not a good leader and a man who demonises minorities in print as a journalist is liable to do the same, when he sees it as necessary, as a political leader.

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As election nears, the witch-hunt steps up

Indigo Jo Blogs - 10 November, 2019 - 22:55
On Piccadilly outside Green Park, London. A picture of a middle-aged white man wearing a blue rimmed hat with a yellow ribbon round it which says "Stop Brexit", and next to him someone is holding up a banner that says "Get your Johnson our of our democracy". Several EU and British flags are on display.An anti-Brexit demonstrator in London, November 2019.

So, the week before last, the date for a forthcoming general election — 12th December — was finally announced and parliament was prorogued (dissolved) for real, after months of wrangling so as to stop Boris Johnson using an election season as an opportunity to crash the country out of the EU without a deal. Since then, a number of MPs on both sides of the House have announced they are standing down, in some cases in response to persistent abuse (e.g. Heidi Allen, a former Tory who defected to the Independents/Change group and then the Lib Dems) but in some a clear attempt to undermine the Labour Party’s chances of winning a parliamentary majority while Jeremy Corbyn remains leader. The Liberal Democrats have secured defections from both main parties and are contesting all seats, aggressively targeting some seats which have pro-Remain Labour MPs (e.g. Emma Dent-Coad in Kensington, who secured a tiny majority in the 2017 election shortly before the Grenfell disaster). I have also seen a ratcheting up of the witch-hunt against Labour candidates, sitting MPs or otherwise, for opinions on Israel that could be deemed, particularly by partisans of Israel, to be antisemitic; one of the candidates involved stood down on Friday.

I was unable to find the blog post by Kate Ramsden, the Unison union official who was standing in the Gordon constituency in Aberdeenshire in Scotland; maybe it has been deleted, or maybe it was not on her blog but on another. However, she was quoted as comparing Israel to an abused child (referring to the Holocaust and perhaps other persecutions Jews suffered in the past) who becomes an abusive adult and the Labour party apparently said she could keep her candidacy if she deleted the post, which it appears she did. The Jewish Chronicle quoted Jonathan Goldstein of the self-appointed “Jewish Leadership Council” as saying that this was “evidence of a deliberate cover up by Labour to hide the open antisemitism of a candidate”, yet there is no evidence of any anti-Semitic content at all; she was calling for international action to force Israel to cease its abuses of the native Palestinian population. If anything, the comparison was too soft on the abusers, many of whom are not Holocaust survivors or their descendants; the attitudes underpinning Israel’s harassment and intimidation of Palestinians are taught in Israel’s schools, media and army. Much as we cannot excuse a real abusive adult because he was abused (by someone else) as a child, we cannot excuse Israel’s oppressions on the grounds that some of the oppressors’ great-grandparents suffered in Auschwitz (and we also cannot justify an ongoing occupation on the grounds of a war by Israel’s other Arab neighbours, two of whom are now at peace with Israel, 50 years ago).

It goes to show that anyone who does not accept the narrative of Israel and its apologists overseas is vulnerable to being accused of anti-Semitism if they are not Jewish, or of being a “self-hating Jew” or “not really Jewish” if they are Jewish. In either case, they are the targets for the new witch hunts against anyone seeking to become a Labour councillor or MP. Muslims have always known this, of course, as has anyone who has been active on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement over the years, but it appears that Labour has been wrong-footed and cowed by an aggressive campaign by a group of pro-Israel bullies and dirt-diggers which does not tolerate dissent. Also last week the JC dredged up an old Facebook post by Zarah Sultana, standing in Coventry South to replace a retiring Labour MP, which accused the Labour Right of ‘weaponising’ anti-Semitism to silence or get rid of their political enemies (which is true); more recently, like Naz Shah in Bradford, she has made a grovelling about-turn, claiming that anyone who uses that term today is contributing to the problem.

The biggest issue in this election is Brexit; make no mistake. It will be the last time we get to vote in an election which will determine whether we get a further vote on the matter. Of the three major parties standing in England, one (itself threatened by a party that favours withdrawing without a deal) favours a bad deal which isolates the British mainland and splits the UK, one favours a further referendum and the third favours annulling the results of the 2016 referendum and revoking Article 50. Yet the two parties which do not have hard Brexit as party policy refuse to form any sort of pact, and the Liberal Democrats insist on not only standing candidates in constituencies with pro-Remain Labour MPs but on standing well-known candidates, including prominent Labour and Tory defectors such as Sam Gyimah who is contesting Kensington. This has led to suggestions that the party is really angling for a coalition with the Tories and is willing to risk a hard Brexit to that end; an alternative explanation is that it has become a refuge for those whose hatred for Jeremy Corbyn is greater than their love for anything or anyone. They proclaim that they will not form a coalition with “an anti-Semite” yet forget that they formed a coalition with the Tories when Boris Johnson was in the cabinet and do not rule out doing so again. Johnson’s very obvious racism, sometimes casual and sometimes studied as exemplified during his years as Spectator editor, is written off as nothing serious when any racism can have lethal consequences.

Not only have I seen letters published on Twitter addressed to Labour MPs telling them the authors will not vote for them because of their association with Corbyn, even though those MPs are innocent of any involvement in the scandal and in some cases are Jewish, I have heard people proclaim that they will vote Tory to avoid helping to elect anyone who might form a coalition with Corbyn. They propose to throw the whole country under the bus, expose us to a hard Brexit with an unfavourable trade deal with both the EU and the USA, all because they can tolerate the stench of numerous racisms against visible minorities that are the target of much official and unofficial hostility but not the whiff of another, towards people they see as “like them”. It is a coalition of wickedness and insanity.

I’ve been critical of Jeremy Corbyn in the past, mainly regarding his ambiguous stance on Brexit and his party’s insistence for too long on “honouring the referendum result” despite the narrow result (the Remain share was greater than many general election wins) and mounting evidence that the Leave campaign lied, employed overt racism and broke the law. I live in a Tory/Lib Dem marginal and will be voting Lib Dem because Labour has no chance of winning, which is one reason I’ve never rejoined the party. However, I’m not going to be loudly criticising Corbyn in the few weeks up to this election, because I want the Tories out and his is the biggest opposition party and the one with the best chance of securing, if not a majority, then at least a large proportion of seats; the Lib Dems have always been a small party and remain a small party which lost the trust of most of its voter base in the 2010-15 coalition. The Labour party has committed itself to a further referendum on Brexit; it’s not my preferred option, but it gives us another chance and that is immeasurably preferable to isolating ourselves with a bad Brexit deal (or none), with the strife and misery that could result from that. However, Labour must face down the bullies, racists and McCarthyites who use false claims of anti-Semitism to silence dissent to a pro-Western and pro-status quo narrative and intend to tolerate no dissent to that narrative; otherwise, they could face challenges from independents in key constituencies. It used to be the party that sang, “though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the Red Flag flying here”; a party dominated by those cowering before racists does not deserve to win any election.

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Homesickness and nostalgia, and why they make bad politics

Indigo Jo Blogs - 2 November, 2019 - 20:17
Constitution Hill, Aberystwyth
(Photo: Lyn Davis).

I’ve lived away from home for two prolonged periods in my childhood and young adulthood. The first was boarding school, near Ipswich. The second was university, in Aberystwyth. The first was two hours from home along mostly motorway; the second was six hours by any route, at least partly along slow, two-lane roads or a slow, single-track rural railway. At the first, I missed home terribly, I spent every journey there looking back and while there, counted down the days until my next trip out or home. At the second, I looked forward as much to going back as I did to going home. I’ve read about homesickness in the context of Roald Dahl’s boarding school memoirs from the 1920s and there was another example by Giles Fraser published on Unherd last Thursday. But I hate the term.

Fraser compares homesickness to nostalgia, which actually means that in Greek although in modern English, it is used to mean longing for a former time rather than another place. He accuses Remainers of using the term as an insult and of implying that it is a sign of weakness (in the sense that a homesick soldier on a tour of duty or child at a boarding school might be), when it is more of a criticism and has strong justification. The nostalgia referred to in the criticism is an unhealthy fixation on a bygone era, usually the time of one’s youth but sometimes even before that, only remembering or even imagining its good points while ignoring or denying the bad and failing to appreciate why the era is bygone and had to change. We often see this in people who hark back to an old age when they believe families were still strong, when children knew their place, when schools had ‘discipline’ and everyone had a home-cooked meal on the table when they came home. Some of this was true but it concealed unhappy marriages which women in particular found it difficult to escape from, outright child abuse and economic and political circumstances which are no longer true. People sometimes talk of the country falling apart because certain categories of people gained rights, but these rights are what stop those people being abused.

The Baby Boomers are the last generation who remember when Britain was the “mother country” of a global empire with large possessions in different parts of the world, all of which it had lost by the start of the 70s. They also remember the cultural “glory days” of Swinging London when British musicians came to be appreciated around the world, even if they were often heavily influenced by American musical forms such as the Blues; this may explain the stance of some ageing celebrity Brexiteers such as Ringo Starr and Roy Wood. Some also remember when “Britain was still white”. What they forget is that the Empire consisted of other people’s countries and was costly to maintain; as for the music, such fashions come and go and many of those musicians (and some who came along after we joined the EEC) have had long and varied careers; those that did not are those who ran out of ideas or who did not develop their musical ability. As for whiteness, the country had a labour shortage which is why it invited people over from the colonies we had occupied, and none of those people came from countries which are now in the EU anyway.

The past is gone; it is no longer real. To be homesick is to be consumed with longing for another real place. It is only really a sickness when it causes actual distress, and this is usually because one’s current place is an unpleasant one because, for example, of abuse or because the standard of living or the behaviour one encounters is nothing like what one is used to and one cannot leave easily if at all. The distress of an abused child in an institution is not like the mild longing someone has for home when they are away on business or studying. I actually don’t like the term homesickness for the abused child; it allows the adults who have placed the child there to evade responsibility for the child’s distress. He doesn’t just “miss his mum”; he misses being loved and cared for as a valued, individual member of a family rather than just another unimportant inmate in an impersonal and uncaring institution, he misses home-cooked (or indeed decent) food, he misses being spoken to with civility, he may miss having quiet and privacy.

As a member of the EU, Britain has generally had a very good deal. We still have our home (and unfettered access to 27 other countries), we still have our own parliament, we still have control of our borders, we have been allowed opt-outs to major European projects. It is grotesque to compare the misguided nostalgia for the Britain of 50 or 60 years ago, of the youth of today’s old or ageing people, with the genuine distress of a child separated from their family and suffering mistreatment. The EU is not an oppressive entity; if it were, we would be facing a military invasion for even holding the 2016 referendum, as two of the nominally independent states of the Warsaw Pact did when they asserted their independence. We have had a say in all the policies which gave rise to the discontent behind the 2016 referendum; we are still not discussing the matter of what of it had anything to do with the EU and could be resolved without leaving. This comparison of the EU to an oppressive regime or to an abusive relationship is a product of privileged ignorance and an insult to anyone who has suffered either. Brexiteers are not homesick; they have their home. They are nostalgic for an era that has gone for good, could not have lasted and had to change, and our media should be honest with them about these things.

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What is leadership?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 29 October, 2019 - 22:58

The other day a friend shared this meme on Facebook: it reads “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills”. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a teacher I know many years ago when I told her that my old school (the abusive one) had appointed the ‘dominant’ boys (i.e. bullies) in three successive year groups, including mine, as prefects and she told me that some aspects of ‘bullying’ behaviour could be interpreted as ‘leadership’. In both cases it could easily be the kind of ‘leadership’ nobody needs to have inflicted on them.

There is a common belief nowadays that ‘bossy’ is a term that is only ever used to describe girls and it is used to “knock down” girls who are forthright, who know their own minds, who have ideas of their own. Things may have changed since I was at school 30 years ago but I remember it being used to describe any child who had a tendency to tell others what to do when they had no right, as well as someone who may have been in a position of authority but dictated rather than listened or who told people what they thought was what without necessarily knowing what they were talking about. Anybody who has been to school will have encountered teachers who shouted for no good reason and who thought that listening was something others did when they spoke, and the majority of teachers at primary level are women. If the term is more commonly used of girls, it may be because boys are less likely to do it unless they can back up their demands with the threat of violence, and therefore words like ‘thug’ or ‘bully’ are more likely to come into play. Bossiness in a girl is thus seen more as an annoyance than a threat.

The issue of bossiness versus leadership carries on into the workplace, but in the context of school, it is the duty of teachers to make sure that dominant or domineering pupils do not ‘shine’ at the expense of others. Having ideas and being forthright with them is not a bad thing, but those who do not have the confidence might have ideas just as good and should be allowed a chance to make them known and have them discussed, and being forthright or more assertive than someone else does not always mean one might be the best leader. A leader is not just someone who is good at making others do what they want; they are people who inspire, who bring people together, who bring out the best in others. A liking for being in charge, for telling others what to do, is not necessarily a sign that someone is equipped to be a leader because they may not have all the other skills necessary. Perhaps it might be useful to teach them these things, but others should be as well, as they might need them in adult life, not least as a parent.

At worst, interpreting bossiness (or worse, bullying) as “leadership skills” absolves teachers of the responsibility to combat unjust power structures and hierarchies among the children and young people they have charge of. It harnesses existing hierarchies for the teachers’ own convenience. Those at the top of the pile sometimes need to be taken down a peg or two for the good of everyone. If a child is not at the top of the pile or forthright with their opinions, it is not their duty to act as a prop for the development of a bigger or louder child’s ‘leadership’ potential, especially one who has harmed them, and they should not be expected to. It’s disturbing to see feminists claiming that a negative personality trait, a behaviour that causes aggravation to others, is something to celebrate and potentially reward with authority over others, when it could just be a sign that someone is a bully.

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The Guardian view on Baghdadi’s death: not enough to destroy Islamic State | Editorial

The Guardian World news: Islam - 28 October, 2019 - 18:19
The sociology of violence espoused by Isis will only be defeated by a political project that transcends the religious, nationalist and ethnic schisms in the region

At the end of June 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was announced as a caliph of all Muslims in a declaration that not only proclaimed a new “caliphate”, but also warned fellow believers in Islam that they must “pledge allegiance and support”. Baghdadi, the latest leader of so-called Islamic State, had made a name for his group with a murderous reign of terror culminating in the shock fall of the city of Mosul into his hands a fortnight earlier. His claims about “crushing the idol of democracy” and defeating “agents of the crusaders and atheists, and the guards of the Jews” were followed by a campaign of genocide, slavery, rape and ultra-violence against Muslims primarily. Baghdadi’s empire-building came to nothing when the “caliphate” collapsed in March this year. The world’s most-wanted terrorist ended his life as a fugitive who decided that he would kill himself rather than surrender to justice. He came to an ignominious end; reportedly cornered by US special forces, Baghdadi blew himself up in a tunnel in Syria, killing three of his children as well.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump could not resist the opportunity to make a series of questionable statements and promote himself. His claim that Baghdadi “died like a dog” was unpleasant, unnecessary and will cause unintended problems for the United States that will require undoing, especially in the Muslim world where canines are considered unclean. It would help first to get the facts straight, instead of shrouding them in the “fog of war”. When Osama bin Laden was killed under the Obama administration in 2011, days after the event it had to offer an account that contradicted its previous assertions. There’s good reason to expect that the Trump White House might have to correct a few self-serving myths in the coming days. The fact that Baghdadi took his own life means that the policy of killing members of terrorist groups as part of America’s war on terror continues without the necessary and long overdue debate about the ethics and legality of targeted assassinations.

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Expel Keith Vaz

Indigo Jo Blogs - 28 October, 2019 - 17:28
Keith Vaz, a middle-aged, clean-shaven south Asian man.Keith Vaz - UK Parliament official portraits 2017

Today the Labour MP Keith Vaz was suspended from the House of Commons for six months for offering to buy cocaine for male prostitutes in August 2016 in an encounter at his flat recorded by one of the men involved and passed to the tabloid Sunday Mirror. The Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, whose complaint triggered the investigation by the Commons standards committee, said he hoped that this would be the “end of the line for Keith Vaz”: “I don’t think he’s fit to be representing anywhere in this place, I think he’s been a malign influence on local and national politics for too long”. If Parliament rubber-stamps the committee’s decision, it could lead to a recall petition and a by-election,

Personally and as a Muslim I find it disappointing that it took a sex and drug scandal to bring Vaz down. Vaz is one of the MPs who supported the event at Wembley Stadium addressed by Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India and former chief minister of Gujarat under whose leadership hundreds of Muslims and others were killed in an organised pogrom - essentially a latter-day Kristallnacht - in 2002 and many others were raped, otherwise injured or had their houses and shops destroyed by mobs. Modi also represents a fascistic ideology that envisages India as a fundamentally (rather than just predominantly) Hindu society or rashtra; under his premiership, lynchings of Muslims by Hindu fanatics have soared in number, the state has stepped up its oppressions against the people of Kashmir with curfews that have lasted days at a time and sought to expel Muslim residents of Assam by assuming anyone without the right paperwork (which few people in India have) is an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh.

The long-running campaign to purge the party of real or alleged antisemitism has seen people at all levels expelled or suspended, the criteria for which is often an ideological or sectarian definition of antisemitism which many people do not know exists, let alone understand, and which is often strained through the needle’s eye. It has been proclaimed antisemitic for someone to merely cast doubt on any claim by a Jewish individual that something is antisemitic. If the Labour party will expel or suspend long-standing activists on such flimsy grounds then open and warm approval for a fascist politician with a record of public mob violence against a minority also threatened in the UK should be a guarantee of expulsion. There should not be acceptable forms of bigotry or racism and certainly the whiff of one prejudice should not be deemed less tolerable than the stench of another.

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Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi obituary

The Guardian World news: Islam - 27 October, 2019 - 16:47
Islamic State leader whose legacy is one of destruction, division, fear and unrelenting chaos

From the moment in July 2014 when he ascended the minbar (pulpit) in a mosque in Mosul, clad in black robes, to claim the title of caliph of the Muslim world, until his death on Sunday during a raid by US forces, Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri, better known by his nom de guerre, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was the most wanted and feared man on the planet.

In less time than it had taken any terrorist leader before him, he and his organisation, Islamic State (Isis), had successfully provoked upheaval across the Middle East and stirred trepidation around the globe. To many, Baghdadi was the sum of all fears, a man who had been transported straight from the savage early wars of Islamic history to the modern battlefields of the region nearly 1,500 years later.

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Essex truck tragedy: why the driver is probably innocent

Indigo Jo Blogs - 24 October, 2019 - 19:57
A maroon Scania V8 tractor unit with ten added headlights and bull-bars. The tractor has a long wheelbase and a rear tag (lifting) axle. It is pulling an unmarked white refrigerated trailer with a Thermo King fridge device. The truck is photographed mid-turn on a large expanse of tarmac on an industrial estate.The tractor unit belonging to the driver involved in yesterday’s tragedy (not the same trailer).

Yesterday 39 people, now known to be of Chinese origin, were found dead in a refrigerated trailer on an industrial estate in Grays, Essex (to the east of London). The driver, a self-employed man from Northern Ireland named Mo Robinson, has been arrested on suspicion of murder and police have raided properties in the province to investigate whether the gang that smuggled the people into the country are based or have operations there. Initially, the story was being reported in terms of a truck which had carried the migrants into the UK via Ireland, through the port of Holyhead, a route which would arouse immediate suspicion, but it has now been revealed that the trailer in fact came into the UK on a ferry from Zeebrugge, Belgium, and was picked up by Mo Robinson about an hour and a half before the bodies were discovered. The victims either froze to death or suffocated inside the trailer, which can be used to transport either chilled or frozen foodstuffs, and were probably dead long before Robinson, who it is reported discovered the bodies when checking for paperwork inside and alerted the emergency services himself, became involved. This incident is likely to result in changes to how drivers and hauliers handle sealed trailers, as currently they are often picked up on trust and only the exterior is examined.

Yesterday, very many media reports described the vehicle as a shipping container. A shipping container is in fact a demountable box which is carried on a ship on a stack of other containers and then lowered mechanically onto a special trailer called a skeleton or ‘skellie’ (or a rail carriage) and secured with special locks called twist locks. I have carried shipping containers a few times and if you pick one up from a port, the box will be sealed with a metal bolt which can only be opened with a large bolt cutter. Drivers never look inside them so they could contain people, drugs, guns or anything else for all they know. If any of these things are found inside, the driver is almost certainly completely innocent. This vehicle was a ferry trailer, which is dropped off by one truck on one side of the Channel and then removed by another on this side (in fact, it would be dropped at and removed from a trailer park and loaded on and off the ferry itself by a shunter employed by the ship operator). It’s highly likely that the driver would have simply been told which trailer to pick up and where to deliver it, and done so, assuming, given that it is a fridge, that it contained foodstuffs. He would have done his usual checks to make sure the trailer was roadworthy (e.g. the light, wheels, door security, exterior condition and that the fridge worked) and then pulled it away. Such trailers may be sealed so as to give the recipient assurance that the goods had not been tampered with en route; they are entitled to refuse the goods if the seal is broken, so the driver does not open the cargo compartment. In this case, the driver was expected to open the trailer and retrieve paperwork himself, so it clearly was not sealed; drivers will, I suspect, be doing this at the port in the near future. (When we pick up goods at source, we look inside the trailer to make sure the goods are as described and that the load is secure before we close the door and, if necessary, apply the seal. However, even then, we cannot do more than take a look inside if the trailer is fully laden, so depending on the size and shape of the items, it might still be possible to conceal people behind goods.)

Any driver who transports these trailers will be thinking twice about his occupation in the light of yesterday’s disaster, at least until the status of Mo Robinson and his employer or client is clarified and he is either released or charged, and similarly hauliers will be rethinking their training and procedures. Going forward, there is likely to be a demand for changes to how drivers handle sealed trailers. As an air-freight driver or “cargo operative” (this status used to be known as Level D), we are given training in security and in procedures to ensure that cargo remains secure in between the screening station and the airport or outlying cargo terminal; this is mostly to ensure awareness of threats to aircraft security such as explosives rather than human cargo. We also require a criminal record check and five years of employment references. We carry plastic seals with us and when we open the doors to load or offload freight, we apply a new one and record the number on the paperwork, and we only open the doors at bonded premises such as the screening station (an approved cargo handling company) or the terminal, and if we leave the vehicle unattended for any reason, we check the seal for tampering on return. Drivers who use cross-channel ferries are told not to stop anywhere near the port to avoid their vehicles being accessed by stowaways, and there is now a secure area where their trailers can be checked before boarding.

If and when we leave the EU, and particularly if, as expected, we leave the customs union area as well as the union itself, customs checks are going to be required on goods coming in and out of the UK which they are not now; as this would otherwise lead to impossible delays at the ports, we are likely to see goods being inspected at source and hauled to the seaport in a sealed trailer, as is the case with air freight now, as well as greater use of ferry trailers as port delays make it impracticable for one driver to handle the entire journey and stay within their driving and working time limits. If ports such as Purfleet do not provide a secure area for drivers to inspect the inside of their trailers before re-sealing, they should provide one, and all new ferry trailer terminals should make sure there is one. This way, if Mo Robinson turns out to be innocent as I strongly suspect he is, anyone still alive can be saved and drivers can avoid being caught up in a terrible tragedy like yesterday’s and facing a possible prison sentence. I should add that the newspapers which printed the pictures of Mo Robinson, mostly taken from his Facebook account, before any facts were known about his degree of involvement or culpability have behaved extremely irresponsibly and disreputably; if they had spoken to anyone with any knowledge of the industry, they would have known that it is quite possible and indeed highly likely, given normal practice, that he is innocent.

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The Guardian view on Xinjiang, China: forced labour and fashion shows | Editorial

The Guardian World news: Islam - 20 October, 2019 - 18:25

Repression in the north-western region takes many forms. They all deserve scrutiny

When a million Uighurs and other Muslims have been locked up in Xinjiang’s detention camps, and as documentation of forced labour mounts, it might seem perverse to pay attention to fashion shows, beauty salons and a park. Yet these developments are not trivial. They form part of China’s efforts to erase Uighur culture. Recent research details official efforts to change Uighur women’s style, which began with 2011’s “Project Beauty” initiative, encouraging them to shun the niqab and jilbab, and has recently has seen the establishment of hair salons and beauty parlours. These, explained an official, would transform women’s body image, then their way of life, and finally their way of thinking.

Meanwhile, satellite photos have revealed that dozens of cemeteries in the north-western region have been destroyed in the last two years. In Aksu, at the graveyard where a prominent Uighur poet was buried, tombs were moved and the land turned into Happiness Park, with panda models and a children’s ride. Similar evidence has already shown the demolition of Islamic religious sites. Like the attempts to coerce Uighurs into celebrating Chinese new year and to discourage the use of the Uighur language, these developments represent the hollowing out of a culture. Writers, entertainers and academics have all fallen foul of authorities. The family of Tashpolat Tiyip, president of Xinjiang University until his disappearance in 2017, believe he has been convicted of separatism and sentenced to death. The crackdown on Muslim cultural practices is also spreading to Hui Muslims in Ningxia. Beijing portrays its camps as “vocational centres” and part of a necessary campaign to root out extremism following violent attacks. But far from being a targeted response to terrorism, China’s draconian detentions, surveillance and broader repression amount to treating an entire population and its way of life as a potential threat.

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Guardian Daily: nice new app, shame about the upgrade

Indigo Jo Blogs - 17 October, 2019 - 20:25
Screenshot from the Guardian's new Daily app on an iPhone.

Yesterday The Guardian published the new version of its “daily” app (which delivers the digital version of the printed Guardian and Observer newspapers, as opposed to the news app which delivers most of that and other online content including breaking news), which I’ve subscribed to for several years and which is the most economical way of getting hold of their content now given the rising costs of the print edition and the waste involved. The old app had warned of the forthcoming upgrade and offered me the chance to join their beta testing programme, which I considered but backed off from. The old iOS app only ran on the iPad; the Android version was similarly limited to tablet-sized devices rather than phones. This version will run on any iOS device and you can install it on all the devices you have. (More: Design Week, Press Gazette, the Guardian itself.)

Unfortunately, when I upgraded, I was locked out of my subscription: when I opened any article and tried to scroll down, it opened up a box inviting me to subscribe, and one of the options was “restore App Store subscription”. However, when I pressed that, nothing happened for a second or so and then it popped up a message saying there was a “verification error” and inviting me to try again; when I did, the same thing happened. I tried contacting the Guardian’s subscribers’ helpline but all I got was a voice menu system which did not include an option for problems with the app. There was a way to email a message to the developers, but it opened in Apple Mail, which I don’t use (I use MyMail) and so I could not send a message because there was no account set up. In the event I copied the address and the text into a new message on MyMail and sent it, but got no reply.

In the end, I had to cancel my existing subscription and open a new one using their new digital subscription service, which costs the same and allows me access to premium content on their website as well as the app, and there is also a “free trial” and a reduction for the first three months, which perhaps was not intended for existing subscribers but hey, if they had make sure their app worked before they published it, I’d still be paying full price and as it is my old subscription was meant to be valid until the end of this month.

So what of the new app? Well, instead of having the content in sections accessible either from a front page or a menu, all the content is off one big page and you can scroll down to get to different sections, or across to get to content within one section. I’d quite like an easier way to get to other sections than having to scroll down past every section in between; there is a bar on the left (at the top on a smartphone) which could be used for this purpose, but it’s used for a short-range weather forecast instead, and on my phone it’s for Cambridge (I’m in London) and there is no apparent way of changing this (tapping on any part of the forecast does nothing). The Share button seems to have disappeared; on the old app it was a source of intractable bugs (it was supposed to appear when there was an Internet connection, but in practice it often did not, especially if you launched the app without a connection and then connected; the article you were reading would never have the Share button), but I actually liked being able to share articles. Now, there seems to be no access to the article’s web location which means I have to open the separate Guardian News app to share. I’ve emailed them, but am not holding my breath for a response.

It’s nice-looking and seems quite smooth in operation. It’s only day two but the old app frequently failed to load new editions when the tablet was switched off; both my devices have loaded both yesterday’s and today’s editions without me needing to switch on or open the app, which is a great improvement. Also much appreciated is the fact that the Guardian’s website will stop bugging me to ‘contribute’ by subscribing when I already had done; I suspect those who waited until the updated version (published within hours) to get their restored subscriptions (I didn’t, so I don’t know if that bug was fixed) will still not have access to premium web content and still be getting this request when they use the website.

Also this week, I upgraded my New Statesman subscription to a paper and digital offering after the PDF version was simply discontinued without warning last month, something I had to email them to find out. The new subscription costs £12/month (rather than £10 as before) and allows me unlimited website access, which I appreciate, but I had been using the PDF almost exclusively to read the magazine before as it was much more convenient than carting around a paper edition. To be honest, I find that their customer service leaves a lot to be desired; emails I wrote them took until the end of the day in question to be responded to which lengthened by several days the time it took to get the problem sorted. Also, the subscription helpline numbers quoted on their website (020 7936 6459 and 0800 731 8496) were never answered; I had to call them to get my access to the website and app activated, which it wasn’t when I paid because my current subscription runs until the end of the month, as I found out when I found the correct number; the person on the end of the line activated it immediately which was very nice of them. So, now I have two subscriptions I can read on both my phone and my tablet, which is very convenient, although I won’t be leaving my iPad behind as it’s much easier to read a long article on that than on a phone of any size.

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Labour candidate accuses Lib Dem rival of dirty campaign tactics

The Guardian World news: Islam - 17 October, 2019 - 18:48

Dr Faiza Shaheen says open letter on Islamic charity aimed to highlight her as a Muslim

A Labour parliamentary candidate has accused her Liberal Democrat rival of using dirty campaigning tactics after he sent her an open letter demanding to know her view on an Islamic charity to which she has no links.

Dr Faiza Shaheen suggested that Dr Geoffrey Seeff wanted her to be publicly highlighted as a Muslim when he wrote to her about the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), an organisation she had not heard of.

This morning I received the below from the Lib Dem Chingford and Woodford Green parliamentary candidate.

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French government resists calls to ban headscarves on school trips

The Guardian World news: Islam - 16 October, 2019 - 16:06

Outrage after far-right politician orders Muslim woman to remove headscarf on trip to parliament

The French government has insisted it will not seek to ban Muslim women who wear headscarves from volunteering to help on school trips after an incident in which mothers accompanying pupils were told to remove them sparked outrage.

One mother said pupils were distressed and traumatised when a far-right politician told her to take off her headscarf in a regional parliament in eastern France, where she was helping out on a primary school outing for her son’s class.

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Photography update

Indigo Jo Blogs - 11 October, 2019 - 19:52
The Water Gardens, Cliveden, Buckinghamshire

Since I’ve not had much time to write this week, here are some pictures I took on recent trips to gardens in southern England (all National Trust properties):

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire: a vast estate with numerous different gardens including the water gardens (pictured), riverside walks and vast acres of woodland. This is at least a day trip and possibly two.

Nymans, West Sussex: a garden I first visited in April (just before Ramadan) and revisited last week to see what it would look like in the autumn.

Claremont, Surrey: A garden very near me that was partly designed by ‘Capability’ Brown. Features an amphitheatre and a big ornamental lake.

Osterley Park, west London: a big estate with a part-Tudor, part-18th century red-brick manor house where the lady volunteers dress in period costume on certain days. These pictures were taken in the house and the gardens.

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Inspired By the East: fertile fascination – or racist pastiche and plunder?

The Guardian World news: Islam - 11 October, 2019 - 11:42

The British Museum show is a bold attempt to look at orientalist art as a cultural exchange that influenced paintings, ceramics, travel books and fashion. Our writer gauges its success

The British Museum’s new exhibition, Inspired By the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art, attempts to present orientalist art as not only one where western artists traded in cliche, but also to show how portrayals of the east in the west were more than just racist pastiches. It attempts to present orientalist art as a sort of cultural exchange, rather than plunder, more of a long-term interaction between east and west that influenced not just paintings but also ceramics, travel books and watercolour illustrations of Ottoman fashion. It also presents orientalism as an effort to understand other cultures at a time when there was not much travel, and perhaps an idealised longing for a life in an Islamic world that had not yet been untethered from the familiar by industrialisation and secularisation.

The exhibition succeeds in achieving some of this. There is little here along the lines of The Snake Charmer, the painting famously used on the cover of the first edition of Edward Said’s Orientalism, which dominates discourse on the topic. In this tasteless depiction, a naked snake-charmer draped in a python entertained turbaned, cloaked men sitting on the ground. There is a mix of the dramatic romanticism of the early orientalists and the more iconoclastic realism of daily life, albeit still restricted broadly to the settings of the bazaar or the street throng.

Related: Inspired by the East review – a glorious show Boris Johnson really ought to see

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The Sultan and the Saint review – the Crusades' real-life bromance

The Guardian World news: Islam - 9 October, 2019 - 16:00

In an unlikely battleground meeting, Francis of Assisi talked war and peace with Ayyubid sultan Al-Kamil, according to this intriguing documentary

Jeremy Irons’ barrel-aged tones narrate this documentary (just shy of an hour long) about a 13th-century bromance: the meeting in 1219 between Francis of Assisi and Ayyubid sultan Al-Kamil. The pacifist friar and Saladin’s erudite nephew, during a prolonged fag break from the siege of Damietta in the Fifth Crusade, compared notes on religion and found much to like.

Director Alexander Kronemer sets the stage confidently, fleshing out the future monk’s errant youth and early papal machinations in the Holy Land in handsome reconstructions that perhaps cover for the film’s achilles heel: the lack of documentation about what exactly happened during the powwow. Only a few contemporary sources exist, none of them Arab; most details are drawn from later Franciscan biographies.

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