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Jews, Muslims, the left and “anti-Semitism”

2 May, 2016 - 16:06

Picture of Malia Bouattia, a young woman of North African appearance with long hair, a necklace with three leaf-like charms visible, and a black T-shirtSince I wrote my last piece on the left and claims of “anti-Semitism” against Labour students and the Left more generally, a spate of claims of anti-Semitism against various Labour politicians, two of them Muslims, have been made, resulting in the suspension from the Labour party of Ken Livingstone and the MP for Bradford West, Naseem “Naz” Shah. Also, following the election of Malia Bouattia as NUS President, a number of local student unions threatened to disaffiliate, claiming she was an anti-Semite and had refused to support a motion condemning ISIS and complaining that her election was undemocratic because it was carried out by conference delegates, not through a ballot of all students. While I agree that the remarks that got Ken Livingstone suspended were crass and historically inaccurate, I suspect they would not have resulted in suspension if said about any other minority or for that matter any other genocide. The row about Naz Shah’s remarks from 2014 fail to take into account the fact that most Muslims feel the same way, and that their stance is not a matter of racism but of being on the opposite side of a conflict.

Malia Bouattia

To take Malia Bouattia first, the complainers are simply bad losers. The election of an NUS President has always been at conference, by delegates (who have to vote as instructed by their unions, which are accountable to the students — at least, those who take an interest in the union) and we did not hear them complaining when right-wing Labour careerists such as Jim Murphy were elected as President for year after year in the 1990s. When I attended as a delegate from Aberystwyth in 1996, Labour students even had people sitting with visitors in the balcony telling delegates how to vote. If they want a directly-elected President, they need to make the case for that at conference rather than disaffiliating. The Union of Jewish Students was prominent then as now, and organised a main-hall speech by a Searchlight activist who insisted that anti-Semitism was the “one abiding hatred” among neo-Nazis and that all their other hatreds were as nothing compared to the “paranoid hatred” they had for “the Jew”. He specifically named anti-Zionism as a cover for “naked anti-Semitism”, comparing it to someone saying “I’ve nothing against the Irish or the Belgians, but I don’t think they deserve a state”, ignoring the fact that Ireland and Belgium are not settler states and that they do not displace and oppress a native population.

I read the motion that Malia Bouattia refused to support, and while the motion itself does not appear Islamophobic, it also did not condemn Islamophobia or the politics of suspicion against British Muslim students; it did not even mention Islam or Muslims other than in connection with the so-called Islamic State. So, Ms Bouattia resisted a demand to condemn on cue and was smeared as a result. In addition, what does it matter if the NUS does or doesn’t condemn ISIS? It will have no difference in the field. The NUS passes an awful lot of resolutions on things that have nothing to do with students in the UK and on which they have no power, perhaps rejoicing in the glory days when union buildings were named after Nelson Mandela and students were part of the (vast) international movement that brought down Apartheid.

In the controversy over her election, the president of Birmingham University’s Jewish society, Daniel Clemens, was quoted as saying:

I think that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are two and the same thing. Zionism is the belief that Jewish people should have a homeland to live in without threat of annihilation or war. This stems from a Jewish belief. So when someone attacks Zionism they’re indirectly attacking Judaism as a religion, because the two go hand in hand.

The problem is that the “Jewish belief” is in conflict with the right of the Arabs who are the native people of Palestine to live in their country without the same threats. There is simply no defence of this position or of the status quo that does not lend itself to racism or to blaming the victims of Israeli oppression, something that in a student union context would not be tolerated of any other kind of oppression or violence. Furthermore, Muslims have been convicted of inciting racial hatred in this country for quoting hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallm) which foretold a war with Jews, and the judge dismissed his defence by saying, “words created 1,400 years ago are equally capable of containing race hate as words created today”. So, if Islam is no defence, Judaism is no defence either.

Naz Shah

 Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0Moving on to Naz Shah, her remarks were made in 2014 and were made in the context of the Israeli bombings in Gaza, which as reported at the time, caused widespread civilian death and the destruction of homes, schools, hospitals etc. We don’t regard this as self-defence, regardless of its disproportionality compared to Hamas rocket attacks. It is murder and destruction in defence of injustice, namely the state of Israel, which as amply documented elsewhere, already oppresses the population of the West Bank through settlements, checkpoints, the wall, theft of water, arbitrary imprisonment of civilians for acts of resistance, and so on, while keeping the population of Gaza under seige (in collaboration with the dictatorship in Egypt). The fact that all this is deemed necessary to “maintain Israel’s security” (although the water theft is really to enable them to maintain a western lifestyle) is enough to demonstrate that the state of Israel is morally untenable.

Naz Shah shouldn’t have apologised. Most Muslims felt the same way she did. She should have stuck by her words rather than grovel to the Israel lobby’s smear and fake-outrage tactics. If the political classes can tolerate the Jewish community’s loyalty to a racist foreign state, it should be able to tolerate Muslims’ opposition to it and the odd intemperate remark, particularly when it is clearly aimed at the foreign power itself and not at everyone who shares their race and religion.

Ken Livingstone

As for Ken Livingstone, his foray into being an amateur historian made him look pretty stupid. It’s a fact that early Zionists (such as Vladimir AKA Ze’ev Jabotinski) collaborated with anti-Semites who, for example, would prefer to relocate Jews to Palestine rather than tolerate them at home, or accept a wave of Jewish immigration from eastern Europe. Hitler did indeed tolerate Zionism, and did make an agreement with the German Zionist Federation, but this doesn’t prove that Hitler and his associates did not have murder in mind when they took power; the Zionists misjudged his intentions, as their leader later acknowledged (note: that link does work), much as those who stayed in Germany (or returned in the early days of his regime, attracted by the restoration of order) did, believing the surge in anti-Semitism would “all blow over”. To suggest that he only massacred the Jews because he was thwarted in his intention to deport Jews to Palestine or Madagascar rather suggests that his hand was forced, when it was a deliberate decision. The Jews of Europe did not have to be expelled or killed.

However, people calling him to be suspended or expelled from the Labour party overestimate the effect this would have on him. He probably does not care; he is 70 years old and has no intention of becoming an MP or running for mayor of London again, and it should be remembered that he has in the past beaten a Labour candidate as an independent.

What is anti-Semitism, and who gets to define it?

There have been a few stupid articles about this in the media. There are plenty of “sky is falling” articles by authors of Jewish origin: this one by Nick Cohen (complete with a shockingly ignorant remark about false rape accusations — in fact, attempts to talk about rape often are diverted onto talk of false accusations) and this one by Stephen Pollard, for example. But there are two others that make claims that I want to examine in more detail. One is by Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian last Friday, and the other is by Jonathan Freedland in last Saturday’s Guardian. They deserve closer examination because they compare the situation of Israel and related anti-Semitism or claims thereof to other tyrannies, and other minorities.

Hinsliff concludes:

Here’s a clue, for those confused about how to champion Palestinian rights or condemn an oppressive regime without overstepping the line: just treat Israel as you would any other country guilty of human rights abuses.

There’s nothing inherently antisemitic about seeking economic sanctions against Israel, supporting an oppressed minority’s right to self determination, condemning a government, or anything else you’d do if this was Burma.

But calling for its people to be swept into the sea, or forcibly transplanted somewhere else, or in any other way denying Israel’s right to exist, is crossing a line because that simply doesn’t happen to other countries no matter how oppressive their regime. No other nation state on the planet is constantly asked to prove itself morally worthy merely of being allowed to exist.

The thing is that this isn’t Burma. Burma was until recently, and to some minds still is, a country which is ruled by an oppressive military élite which controlled the economy and ruined the country’s education system, among other things. It also persecutes some minorities, particularly the Muslim Rohingya whom no other government in the region wants to admit. It is, therefore, a straightforward tyranny in which the population as a whole are oppressed by a powerful class. We do not always support sanctions against tyrannical régimes; many people did in the case of Burma, because tourism would have benefited only the military élite which exploited the general population, not the people. Israel’s tyranny presents itself as democracy, and it is commonly justified as the “only democracy in the region”, and the army which perpetrates the abuses is drawn from the dominant population — the Jews, the vast majority of whose ancestors did not live in the country until at least the late 19th century and most of them much more recently — and there is every sign that this dominant population supports the status quo, given that it elects hardline parties and the likes of the war criminal Ariel Sharon to govern them. So, the problem with Israel is not an elite, but the population.

The comments about how it’s OK to support “an oppressed minority’s right to self-determination” reflect the usual naivety of the white liberal about this situation. Israel is not willing to tolerate self-determination because it wants to provide scope for settlement expansion, to hold onto religiously significant sites and to provide a western lifestyle for Israelis and especially those relocated from the developed world. It cannot do this by allowing the native people equal access to resources and to control over their homeland. The reason we usually do not say of a tyranny that the state and its people should be driven into the sea is because the population is the victim (sometimes of land-grabs by members of the elite, as has become common in East Africa in recent years) rather than the perpetrator. The situation is more like that of Apartheid or of American segregation, where the state was of one section of the population and the enemy of another. (Nick Cohen talks of a ‘darkness’ where the police guard synagogues and Jewish schools here while ‘fascistic reactionaries’ attack them in France; real persecution is where the police and the fascistic reactionaries are one and the same, or at least, the police look the other way, as in the case of Kristallnacht or when Muslims were attacked in Gujarat in 2002. Of course, the governor whose police looked the other way now shares a platform with the Prime Minister and is feted by MPs of both main parties.)

In her penultimate paragraph, she alleges:

We don’t argue that the civilian population of Syria, or 1930s Germany for that matter, should have been forcibly removed from their homes and their nation states obliterated because of abuses committed by governments and condoned by some if not all of their citizens.

In fact, in the 1940s, millions of Germans were deported from the former eastern territories of Germany so that Russia could keep the parts of Poland it had occupied in 1939 and compensate Poland while resettling Poles from the east to the territories vacated by the Germans. In the same decade, millions of Hindus and Muslims in northern India had to leave their homes as a result of Partition. These were not recent settlers, unlike the Jews of Israel.

Freedland compares the left’s attitude to Israel to committed anti-racists hating a hypothetical country that is the only Black-ruled state in the world. In fact, one African country has a history much like that of Israel, namely Liberia, a country ‘founded’ by resettled freed slaves from the USA, who for a century dominated the country’s politics despite making up only 2.5% of the population. According to Wikipedia (which cites the US State Department for this):

The Americo-Liberian settlers did not identify with the indigenous peoples they encountered, especially those in communities of the more isolated “bush.” They knew nothing of their cultures, languages or animist religion. Encounters with tribal Africans in the bush often developed as violent confrontations. The colonial settlements were raided by the Kru and Grebo people from their inland chiefdoms. Because of feeling set apart and superior by their culture and education to the indigenous peoples, the Americo-Liberians developed as a small elite that held on to political power. It excluded the indigenous tribesmen from birthright citizenship in their own lands until 1904, in a repetition of the United States’ treatment of Native Americans. Because of the cultural gap between the groups and assumption of superiority of western culture, the Americo-Liberians envisioned creating a western-style state to which the tribesmen should assimilate. They encouraged religious organizations to set up missions and schools to educate the indigenous peoples … Their passage of the 1865 Ports of Entry Act prohibited foreign commerce with the inland tribes, ostensibly to “encourage the growth of civilized values” before such trade was allowed.

I should add that, although many Black-ruled countries nowadays exist, there is no state for Black British or African-Americans specifically, despite the many decades of racism and discrimination they have suffered. There are many minorities, with or without an acknowledged land of their own, who do not have a state. Nobody is suggesting they get one at another people’s expense. Nor is anyone suggesting, even those who would open the doors to all the refugees from Syria, that there should be a bit of England that is forever Syria.

He concludes by demanding that Jews be allowed to define what constitutes anti-Semitism, much as other minorites are ‘usually’ allowed to, without being told “they’re wrong, that they are exaggerating or lying or using it as a decoy tactic [and then treated] to a long lecture on what anti-Jewish racism really is”. But racism against every other minority is normally directed at them, not at a group of people of the same religion who are the dominant class in another country. And most minorities are not White, powerful and prosperous, and cannot kick up a storm in the media (or rely on others to do so) any time a politician makes a disparaging remark about them, or their friends abroad. It’s dangerous to allow such a minority a free rein to allege racism for things that bear no relation to the racism or discrimination other minorities suffer, and be indulged; they will use it to silence or smear critics, as they are already doing. Additionally, spurious accusations of ‘mansplaining’ to mean a man telling a woman something she doesn’t want to hear are pretty common in my observation, and even some feminists warn that it can be used as a simple ad hominem attack.

Conclusion

Picture of Sadiq Khan, a clean-shaven South Asian man with short, grey hair, wearing a pink shirt and red tie with a dark grey jacket.I do believe that this scandal has been orchestrated so as to damage the Labour party’s prospects in the coming local elections, perhaps because the Tories feared that the now-forgotten smears against Sadiq Khan had failed to do so. There is a group of embittered Blairites who really would rather the Tories won than even a moderate mayoral candidate, so as to give them a pretext to remove Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership. That doesn’t excuse Livingstone’s crass remarks about Hitler, but the truth is that this “anti-Semitism” controversy started with a witch hunt against prominent Muslims, starting with Malia Bouattia, moving on to Sadiq Khan and finally Naz Shah, and that over something she posted before she became an MP. In the Guardian last week Iman Amrani noted that Muslims come under special scrutiny when running for public office; they are judged not only everything they have ever said but also everyone they have ever come into contact with, as we have seen also with Sadiq Khan.

It will be galling to many Muslims that their support for Palestinians’ rights to their own land, control of their lives and freedom from harassment and oppression is branded anti-Semitic by a privileged minority and their media friends here at the same time as an openly Islamophobic campaign is being run in support of a Tory mayoral candidate named Goldsmith. Muslims will know that however integrated they are, and whatever compromises they make to appear integrated, they will still be held under suspicion because of whom they know or (as in Sadiq Khan’s case) simply for doing their job. We also know that the reason “the Left” is considered tainted with anti-Semitism is not because of Ken Livingstone but because of us. Whether they like it or not, the Labour Party depends in large parts of London not on Jewish votes but on non-white ethnic votes, including Muslims’, and demonising Muslims over spurious claims of anti-Semitism will lose them votes — whole seats in places like east London and Bradford. Labour has to accommodate both, and should not let itself be dictated to by a group that can make a lot of noise but is much smaller in number, heavily concentrated in a few areas, for socio-economic reasons less likely to vote Labour anyway and does not even represent much of the ethnic group it claims to speak for.

Image sources: Media Diversified, goodadvice.com via Wikipedia, National Archives via Wikipedia.

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BADD 2016: Break the silence

1 May, 2016 - 19:19

An image featuring the words "Blogging Against Disablism", with a variety of stick figures of different colours on different coloured backgrounds, one holding a stick, and a wheelchair in one of the spaces.This post is part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2016.

Last month we saw the Seven Days of Action campaign, to highlight the cases of people with learning disabilities, mostly autism, who are being held for prolonged periods in Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) when they could or should be at home, or in a care home environment near their family. For last year’s BADD I also blogged on this issue; some of the people I mentioned are still trapped; Josh Wills has been happily resettled (after many bureaucratic hurdles) in his own home in Cornwall, Claire Dyer is still free, while Thomas Rawnsley’s inquest has yet to begin (a pre-inquest hearing was adjourned last week at the request of the “other parties”). I decided to link this year’s BADD post to Seven Days of Action so as to attract the wider disability activist community’s attention.

Here’s a run-down of the cases featured during the Seven Days. One story had to be changed, as although the young man had recently been discharged from an ATU into a local placement similar to Josh Wills’s, the placement had “hit some snags” and the local authority were talking of putting him back in the ATU.

Kara from Who By Fire wrote an excellent post in conclusion, summarising the issues which had been raised by the seven stories. Mark Neary is expected to post an entry tomorrow about some developments which have followed from this event: one young lad (Robert) was approved for funding for a placement in a local care home, but others have faced retaliation, including parents threatened with a gagging order, extended detention and even one assault.

There are a number of petitions addressed to various local authorities, demanding that they secure placements for the young people (mostly boys and men) who are trapped in these units. In one case (Robert’s), the ATU staff even signed the petitions themselves. However, some of them have had to be closed down when staff warned the parents that they were monitoring their online activities and that they could affect their loved ones’ treatment or keep them detained for longer. This is obviously a dreadful abuse of power, and it’s a power they would not have if psychiatrists were not able to detain people under the Mental Health Act when they are not mentally ill but rather are displaying distress behaviour which is normal for their learning disability when they are simply anxious, or struggling to deal with a sudden change in their life, or with uncertainty (as has been observed elsewhere, such crises often happen at age 17 or 18 when school ends and a well-established routine suddenly ends). However, some of the same behaviour is provoked by the treatment they receive once in, as such units often make no attempt to fit the needs of the individual patients and the staff may have no clue how to address them. (There are reports of such behaviour being provoked deliberately, as well.)

Psychiatrists have too much power. They are not fully accountable. They can make decisions that affect the quality of people’s lives, everything from suspending someone’s driving licence without notice to sectioning someone and then transferring them to another unit, perhaps hundreds of miles away, without their or their family’s consent and without any serious opportunity to challenge. Add the ability to threaten or intimidate families into silence and you have the potential for an awful lot of abuse.

Silence is often justified in terms of protecting vulnerable people; this is particularly so when children in care are concerned; parents are prohibited from disclosing what went on in a family court session, for example. In some cases, not naming a child involved in care proceedings or who has been a victim of a sexual assault is entirely appropriate for their protection (and I have defended it on one previous occasion, where Panorama were forbidden from naming a boy who had been taken into care after, among other things, setting fire to his room, after a legal challenge from the local authority). However, it can also undermine a parent’s position and their child’s trust in them — I read an article recently by a mother who had had to lie to her daughter so as to conceal the fact that her parents were in the family courts, which ordered that she not disclose the fact to her daughter. But worst of all, it can stop a parent or relative seeking advice in a semi-public forum such as Facebook or MumsNet about dangers their relative is facing, let alone taking it to the media. This is likely to be the case if someone is in a care home under the orders of the Court of Protection, for example (as Thomas Rawnsley was at the end of his life).

However, injustice, abuse and cruelty thrive when people cannot talk about it. So many victims of sexual abuse reported that their abusers told them not to tell as it would break up their family, break their mother’s hearts, or they wouldn’t be believed (and they were often right on the last of these things). We talk about justice being done and seen to be done; we have the Freedom of Information Act so that government departments cannot conceal waste or corruption. Publicity is vital for ensuring that people who have power over others’ lives cannot abuse it with impunity. I believe that the fact that Claire Dyer’s case was known locally in South Wales and was being widely discussed in the disability blogging community, including on this site, and that the commercially-run unit which took her despite not being equipped to do so knew this, was a major factor in ensuring that she was released early. The family of Robert Stillman, whose placement was approved days after his story was highlighted on Seven Days of Action, are convinced that this is what made the difference.

We cannot discuss the reasons why ATUs and the Mental Health Act they rely on to detain people are inadequate, sometimes lethally so, if the lives of the people affected are shrouded in secrecy. We must campaign to end the secrecy of the Court of Protection where it is not necessary (the judiciary is already moving in this direction). Trusts and corporations must know that their names will become public knowledge if a disabled person dies or is seriously injured in their care. Secrecy benefits nobody except the abusers, the foot-draggers and the companies that profit from disabled people’s misery and their families’ grief. It must be fought at every turn.

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Seven Days of Action

18 April, 2016 - 22:20

A picture of Eden Norris, a chubby young white man wearing a black jacket and a purple shirt underneath, holding a small dog, standing in front of a wooden fence.This week the learning disability blogging crowd are putting on Seven Days of Action, with a blog featuring seven stories of young people who have spent time trapped in the ATU (Assessment and Treatment Unit) system, one of whom (Thomas Rawnsley) has died. Eden Norris’s story is featured today; he is 24 and has spent seven years in two separate units after being admitted voluntarily, which was expected only to be for a short time. He is from west London and is currently being held in a unit in rural Norfolk. His story was featured on BBC News last Friday. The full list of stories is to be found here. Eden’s story has a feature which occurs time and again with so many people who have fallen under the ‘care’ of the ATU system: the long-term use of anti-psychotics as sedatives, leading to massive weight gain and other health problems.

I follow a YouTube channel run by Tamera Weeks, the mother of a young woman named Micah who has cerebral palsy and, it appears, a learning disability. They live in Nebraska. She is able to steer her powered wheelchair by herself, but has limited communication; she can say a few words, not very clearly, and indicate choices, but has shown no interest in learning to use a communication device. Her mother’s videos feature explanations of her family life, her care, the nurses and care assistants who come in, and Micah doing her various activities and Tamera talking to her and, usually, Micah laughing. Recently, Tamera explained that Micah had had outbursts in which she became uncontrollably upset and had to go into another room to calm down. These often happened when her two younger brothers, aged 14 and 16, entered the room and appeared unprovoked. She posted another video in which she said Micah had become excessively clingy to one particular member of staff at her day centre, as a result of which the management were considering moving either Micah or the staff member as she could not do her other duties. This followed the departure in quick succession of several other long-standing member of staff including the man who drove the bus she rode on.

Tamera asked her YouTube viewers for help and many people made suggestions. I suggested that her reaction to her younger brothers could be that she wasn’t used to having men around as mostly women feature in the videos (actually, she had two other younger brothers), or that men at her day activities could have been harassing her (it turned out that wasn’t the case). I also suggested that the brothers had just turned from boys into men (or were in the process) and thus were less familiar to Micah than others, and perhaps interacted with her very differently from most other people she knew. As for the behaviour at the day centre, perhaps the staff member she was clinging to could do some of her administrative duties elsewhere, or before she made her presence known to Micah, so that she would not be distressed by her going away. I also told her that Micah’s behaviour is the only way she can communicate her distress because of her limited communication. Although she doesn’t have autism, she has some learning impairment, but also has no control over who comes into or goes out of her life, and the sudden departure of four familiar faces must make her feel very insecure.

A couple of weeks ago Micah saw a neurologist, who suggested among other things putting her on risperidone, an anti-psychotic. There is no suggestion that Micah is experiencing psychosis, but it’s commonly used on people with learning disabilities as a sedative, to control difficult behaviour. Luckily Tamera refused, but it seems it was not explained that an anti-psychotic could have dangerous side effects, including enormous weight gain, a significant health impact in itself but which in some cases has also led to liver damage, as had happened to the son of “someone I know” (Mark Neary) and it was only relieved by weaning him off the anti-psychotics he’d been put on while detained against his will in 2010. Micah uses a wheelchair for nearly all her mobility; she cannot walk unaided. Getting any weight off would be that much more difficult for her than it was for Steven Neary.

I was appalled that this neurologist, having been presented this problem for the first time, suggested anti-psychotics. Again, here is a young woman with both a physical impairment and a learning disability, who cannot care for herself, who cannot control who comes into her life and who goes out, and who cannot communicate adequately in words, who is faced with a sudden change in her circumstances and with behaviours from others, even though they may not mean it, which cause her repeated annoyance. Drugs should not be the first thing anyone thinks of when trying to help someone in that situation. Rather, they should work to address the situations that were causing the distress first, which is what Tamera is trying to do with both her family and the day centre management. But if Micah wasn’t living at home with her family but in a ‘home’, the management might not have been able (or willing) to put her needs first and might have gone for the drugs as it’s easier than changing their own and others’ behaviour (or just waiting out a temporary blip caused by a change in her circumstances that she doesn’t understand).

It’s the experience of the parents and relatives of people with learning disabilities caught in the British psychiatric system that psychiatrists are too quick to prescribe this sort of medication to control behaviour. The effect is young people putting on enormous amounts of weight, becoming lethargic and, as noted in the piece on Eden Norris, becoming unable to express themselves properly. As Kara Chrome put it, “if you’re a hammer, everything else looks like a nail”. When the cause of their challenging behaviour was not psychosis or other organic mental imbalance but uncertainty about their future, a sudden change of circumstances such as confinement, new unfamiliar rules, housemates and staff that are difficult to get on with and don’t respect their privacy, the solution might be to change these things — for the staff to modify their behaviour, to ensure that the person can go home or to a more suitable setting as soon as possible — rather than put them on drugs that will cost that person their long-term health.

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Trevor Phillips: race-baiting again

17 April, 2016 - 15:57

Note: I started writing this last Tuesday and finished today (Sunday) as work made it impossible to complete during the week.

A front page from the Daily Mail, with the headlines "Warning on 'UK Muslim Ghettoes'".I’d rather not be writing this entry. Last week there were two important documentaries: a Channel 4 Dispatches on disabled people being humiliated by benefits assessors, and a BBC Panorama about young mentally-ill people being held hundreds of miles from home and in some cases dying for lack of decent mental health care anywhere near home (the Humber region comes up yet again). But Trevor Phillips has been out race-baiting again, saying “things you can’t say” about race and race relations in a mass-circulation daily newspaper and on a prime-time TV documentary, as he was in March last year. This time, on the basis of a dubious interpretation of a tiny study (PDF) of British Muslims, he’s telling everyone else “what we really think” and scaremongering about the “dangers” of allowing Muslim “ghettoes”, or “a nation within a nation”, to exist.

Trevor Phillips (and his publishers) repeatedly stress his authority as the head of a racial equality watchdog and more recently the head of the pan-equality watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, set up under the last Labour government. He also repeatedly stresses that he was the chair of the Runnymede Trust when it commissioned its groundbreaking report into Islamophobia (summary here; PDF) in 1997. Khalida Khan of the An-Nisa Society published a blog article which noted that Phillips’s role in that was minor, that he was not chair when it was published, that it was Robin Richardson and Khaushika Amin who initiated the report and took it forward and that he is believed to have lobbied against the report with the Labour government behind the scenes. This incident is presented so as to give Phillips’s new stance greater authority — that “one of the Muslims’ biggest supporters” has done a big U-turn — but in fact he was never a great advocate for Muslims.

His article for the Daily Mail contains a number of plainly inaccurate, scaremongering claims. He alleges that “we have recently seen the murder of a leading Scottish Muslim, the killer citing ‘disrespect’ of the faith”. Asad Shah was not “a leading Scottish Muslim”; he was a shopkeeper who had broken away from a sect that was already rejected by Muslims by claiming to be a new prophet and Messiah. He was a crank and may have been mentally ill. This does not justify his murder by any means, but being famous and having a Muslim name does not make you a “leading Muslim”. He claims that a fifth of Muslims have not entered a non-Muslim house in the past year; how many white people have never entered a Muslim’s house in their lifetime? In some places I would wager it was much greater than a fifth. Allegedly 4%, “the equivalent of more than 100,000 British Muslims”, reported sympathy for suicide bombers; except that the equivalence is false, because that 4% is only 40 people (you may recall similar tricks in the ThinkProgress study of converts in the USA in February). And there is the broad claim that “all the while, girls are shipped off to have their genitals mutilated, young women and men are being pressured into marriages they do not want, and teenagers are being seduced into donning suicide vests or becoming jihadi brides”, without a shred of evidence to back it up. FGM is principally an African problem that does not only affect Muslims.

Others (such as Miqdad Versi and Abdul-Azim Ahmed) have picked apart the findings of the survey and what Phillips has done with the results. Only 1,081 people were asked, 405 whom were in London. That’s an astonishing bias. Only 144 people were in the north-west (this includes Manchester and all the towns of Lancashire), 120 in the Yorkshire/Humber region — that includes Leeds, Bradford, Dewsbury, Keighley, Sheffield — and only 56 in the East Midlands, where the populations are indeed smaller but it includes strong Muslim minorities. If one takes a survey of Muslim attitudes in Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Loughborough (an important university town) and asks only 56 people, this would be dismissed as entirely worthless and unscientific, yet these tiny numbers are being judged as representative of Muslim attitudes in that and every other region. The sub-groups of sub-groups dwarf the total size of the survey and no amount of ‘weighting’ will change that.

A major flaw in the study was that the control group consisted of generic “non-Muslims”, rather than specific groups of them, in particular practising followers of other religions, and people with familial or cultural links to conflict zones: Jews, Tamils and north Indian Hindus for example. This is because questions were asked about Muslim views on homosexuality and about whether they agreed with the use of suicide bombings or other acts of violence to pursue political goals, and during the documentary Phillips remarked that Hindus and Sikhs were better integrated than Muslims. The survey found that a large proportion of the Muslims asked said homosexuality should be illegal, but hostility to homosexuality can be found among other strongly religious people, including whites, and significantly all the court cases related to discrimination against gays have involved white and African Christians, not Muslims, and as I have mentioned here in the past, the websites which support the Christians involved in those cases (and even one who wanted to get out of caring for disabled children on a Sunday) also promote Islamophobia by complaining of and overstating concessions to Muslims. (Phillips’s survey found that 35% of the Muslims asked believed Jews had too much power; he did not ask his control group whether they believed that Muslims got special treatment as regards hijab, removals of offensive material etc., which is commonly alleged in the mass media.)

Similarly, the questions about support for terrorism or suicide bombings were fallaciously compared with a generic “non-Muslim” control group which would have consisted mostly of white people with no particular reason to sympathise with Hamas or Tamil Tiger suicide bombers. In other conflict zones where there are links to the diaspora here, the government or paramilitary groups with popular support have committed atrocities against civilians or used typical terrorist methods such as bombings or suicide bombings against civilians. It’s well-known that there is widespread (though not universal) support among the three minorities mentioned for the perpetrators of abuses in Palestine, Sri Lanka and Gujarat (and elsewhere in northern India); there has also been fundraising for the Hindu far right and the Tamil Tigers here. Phillips presents it as particularly worrying that Muslims who favour living separate lives from non-Muslims are more likely to support terrorism or political violence than those who favour integration, but the other three minorities mentioned do not live scattered among the general population either. They live in areas with heavy concentrations which are easily identified from the shops.

This is not a matter of “what about” or “tu quoque”. Phillips is presenting the Muslims as particularly unintegrated, particularly prone to reactionary attitudes and particularly given to support for violence, yet he chooses to shine no light on similar attitudes among other minorities or, indeed, equivalent views among the white population. If you ask whether it is acceptable to bomb civilian areas of countries during a war situation where there is an indirect benefit to the war effort, a good percentage will answer yes. It’s been part of the western way of winning wars for the past century. The majority of people are not pacifists, for the simple reason that lying down in front of tanks does not win wars or end oppression (they tried it in Tiananmen Square, you may remember). Pacifism had a brief flowering in Britain in the inter-war years and was discredited by the rise of Hitler. Non-violent ‘resistance’ is the method favoured for groups one would like to see defeated; this is why Zionist sympathisers from Michael Moore to Charles Moore have recommended it to the Palestinians.

Phillips also brings out his familiar complaint about Muslims forming “ghettoes”. He uses this term (along with “segregation”) a lot. Never mind that ghettoes are districts either legally designated or socially engineered to consist entirely of a given minority, and that segregation was a legal régime that dictated where Black people could live, shop and eat, who they could marry and so on. Diasporas have always lived together; they do so for protection in numbers against racism and so as to be close to their food shops and places of worship, neither of which would be sustainable if they scattered themselves among the general population. Such assimilation occurs where a minority is similar in both appearance and culture to the majority, such as the various north European migrants to the USA; it rarely occurs when there are even minor differences that could encourage prejudice (e.g. Italians in the USA). His solutions are imperialist, casting over-powerful minorities as a problem. He suggests “ensuring that schools … are not taken over by any single minority group”; a white-controlled school is no problem. He demands “strict monitoring of the ethnic composition of housing estates to prevent them becoming ‘ghetto villages’, little islands separate from the rest of their districts”. That boat has already sailed; no new council estates are being built, at least not in the south-east; all we are seeing built is exclusive flats and expensive “starter homes”. Newcomers now simply have to live where there are homes to live in.

Why is Phillips so hostile to Muslims? After all, there are enough problems in his own community for him to have made at least two hour-long documentaries about: gangs, territorialism, street stabbings, violence against women. Is he trying to deflect public attention away from those problems? Perhaps, but he’s also part of an “old guard” of secular race relations politicians who were challenged in the 1990s by Muslims who were seeking to revive a Muslim way of life and to challenge specific prejudices and discrimination against them on grounds of religion, which the old race industry would not concern itself with unless there were clear racial overtones to it. Much as is the case with white feminists in Europe, the likes of Trevor Phillips are single-minority, ‘respectable’ figures who believe they have a right to leadership over all minority ethnic people, and resent anyone who challenges or rejects their presumed authority. This sense of entitlement, and his political connections (Tony Blair, for example, favoured him to be mayor of London in 2000), has never won him elective office; he has had to settle for being a quangocrat. “What British Muslims Really Think” is an unnecessary, inflammatory and dishonest programme based on a survey so tiny as to be worthless from a man who has spent the past ten years since his mayoral ambitions were thwarted using his media connections and the right-wing tabloids to foment hatred against a minority that challenged his authority.

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High Valour?

10 April, 2016 - 12:02

A drawing of a knight in armour about to be projected head first off his horse, while a young girl watches.A number of years ago I heard a play on Radio 4 whose title I can’t remember but I suspect it was called High Valour. It was about a couple who emigrated to Australia where the husband hoped to work for his elder brother’s business. The business had some sort of initiation for ‘serious’ employees called High Valour, the details of which I can’t remember but it involved long hours, time away, a lot of drinking and not much family time. Needless to say, the wife didn’t approve, especially when the older brother’s wife told his wife that she tolerated his use of prostitutes while working away: “he uses a clean whore, and always tells me he loves me”. The elder brother told the husband to adopt the same practice of telling his wife he loved her when going out without her, and towards the end of the play, his wife confronted him and reminded him that the last thing he had said to her was that he loved her: “when you tell me you love me, I don’t want to have to wonder why”.

“I love you” can mean exactly what it says. It can also hide other intentions, in certain contexts. Until last Sunday I had an acquaintance on Twitter who has bipolar disorder and some other health problems. Earlier in the day she’d posted that she felt the worst she’d done for ages and that it would take a miracle to get through that day. Just before 6pm she posted a tweet saying “I love you all <3” and then nothing for several hours. After three hours I called the police; I knew her name from publicity about the 2014 campaign for beds for women at the local psychiatric unit, and roughly where she lived, and told them she was known to the local mental health services. They called and it seems she was fine, although for some reason they also sent an ambulance to her house a few hours later. Looking at her timeline the last couple of days, it appears she did take an overdose and was at the hospital some time that day or night.

However, she was furious about someone having called the police, saying “So I guess I can’t be honest on Twitter now either. I didn’t even say I was unsafe”. Three days later someone messaged her to tell her it had been me, and she and others began tweeting that I had called the police on several other people in the past and that I also sent the ambulance around. This wasn’t true. I did not call the ambulance; the police must have done this. I called the police regarding a Twitter acquaintance on one previous occasion in 2014, when someone posted very clear suicidal intent. It turned out that they had been using a pseudonym so my call had no effect, but the person (who was a psych inpatient) took advice from other online friends and told the staff how she was feeling; her leave was cancelled and she was still alive to make accusations against me on Twitter last Wednesday. I made a blog post about it (without mentioning any names, of course) at the time and, when the woman involved saw it, she told me she was blocking me as she wanted to be able to “be honest” with her Twitter friends.

Tweets from me and Charlotte Walker screenshotted from TweetDeck.One of the people who attacked me on Twitter last Wednesday for calling the police was Charlotte Walker, AKA the Bipolar Blogger. In between the day I called the police and the blog entry that led to me falling out with her and her friend, I told her on Twitter that I had called the police but had got nowhere and that is when I discovered that the name she was using was fake. Walker told me that she had previously called the emergency services on another Twitter friend. So she didn’t object when I told her I’d called the police, as the screenshot on the right demonstrates. However, after I was told I was blocked after posting that blog entry, I tweeted that she was “one less (sic) needy stranger to feel responsible for”, thinking she was no longer reading my tweets, which is the whole idea when you block someone. However, she hadn’t, and brought the tweet to her friends’ attention, which is when Walker first had a go at me about that and about my blog post. It was an unkind thing to say, but I didn’t know her (I thought I knew her name, but was wrong about even that) and had made me worried about her without there being anything I could do. Of course, being friends with someone means you might sometimes be in that situation, but it was she who decided to block me and I thought “good riddance to her and her drama”.

I looked at the the tweets last Wednesday in response to the revelation that I called the police. Amid a few generic insults some people were saying I must have “white knight” or “hero syndrome”, that my blog and timeline are full of my campaigning for others’ rights. Actually, most of my campaigning is in some way connected to abuse in residential care environments, which I have personal experience of, and I consider a lot of the people I’ve met or become acquainted with online through campaigning as friends (I had disabled friends before I started seriously campaigning on disability issues — not just through this blog, I hasten to add — in 2010). But getting help for someone in danger, which includes someone in a mental health crisis who posts what looks like a threat of suicide, is not being a hero (it doesn’t put you in danger or take much effort to make a phonecall); it’s just what you do and one of the people who joined in criticising me for it last week has done so herself. Other people may have judged differently and some weren’t glued to Twitter all evening, but I’d like to think most people wouldn’t do nothing if they thought someone was in danger and they could do something.

Image source: The Victorian Web.

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Does the Left really have an anti-Semitism problem?

5 April, 2016 - 23:16

Recently accusations have started flying that the Left, including the Labour party, has a ‘problem’ with anti-Semitism and that Jeremy Corbyn, the party’s leader, hasn’t been doing enough to combat it. The accusations include that the Oxford University Labour society is a hostile environment for Jews, that various members and leaders of local Labour groups and affiliated organisations have made anti-Semitic remarks online, and that the Left in general has turned against Israel and that human rights campaigns that target Israel have become a “new front” in European anti-Semitism and a “new blood libel”. This type of rhetoric aimed at silencing criticism of Israel based on human rights principles is not new, but while anti-Semitism in far-left fringe groups has been known of for decades, the flurry of claims about anti-Semitism within the Labour party has only happened in the last few months.

An image of two men spliced together, with the slogan "ISIS is the only terrorist org (sic) that travels 2000 miles from Syria to attack Paris but can't travel 52 miles to attack Israel. Why? Because the dog doesn't bite its own tail".It goes without saying that the Labour party shouldn’t tolerate racism of any kind in the party. Apart from the fact that racism breeds discrimination and violence, it is a political dead end: it allows people to blame others for their problems rather than identify solutions. The problem is that the number of incidents has been tiny — a literal handful, if that — and those involved are an ordinary member who had written some conspiracy-minded material on a leftist website, the leader of a Momentum group in Thurrock, and the leader of the local party in Woking, a no-hope constituency for Labour (whose comments, similar to those in the image on the right, were utterly crass and ignorant; the reason ISIS hasn’t attacked Israel can easily be identified by looking at a map). All the people concerned have been expelled, and when someone was re-instated recently, a protest led to him being removed again. As is well-known, the leader of the party cannot unilaterally remove someone from the party, so it is unfair to blame Corbyn for failing to do so, or because he has brought these people in or they are his supporters, or whatever other reason.

The situation at Oxford university is rather more complicated, since it seems to consist of hostility to Israel being openly expressed and, in some cases, taken out indiscriminately on Jews here, rather than anti-Semitism in the traditional sense. Aaron Simons, a former president of the university’s Jewish society, alleged that “a committee member stated that all Jews should be expected to publicly denounce Zionism and the state of Israel, and that we should not associate with any Jew who fails to do so”, which is plainly unacceptable, much as it is when Muslims are expected to condemn ISIS or al-Qa’ida, which has happened frequently. He also alleges that “one OULC member argued that Hamas was justified in its killing of Jewish civilians and claimed all Jews were legitimate targets”, a heinous suggestion one might think before one considers that (a) this is one ordinary member of the society, not an office holder and (b) Israeli apologists routinely excuse the killing of Palestinian civilians with such claims as that Hamas works and launches rockets from civilian areas.

Simons traces the upsurge in “anti-Semitism” at Oxford to the left’s theory of racial oppression and white privilege in which Jews are treated as white. Well, that’s because they are — at least, the vast majority of Jews (especially if we mean practising ones) in western countries are. True, Ethiopian Jews aren’t, but they do not live here in any large number. He suggests that this theory erases Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews, who migrated from the Middle East rather than Europe, but in fact the theory acknowledges that anyone can be part of a privileged and/or oppressor group (whites, for example) while simultaneously being part of a disadvantaged one (e.g. women, disabled people) but still benefiting from the power and privilege of the first group. Throughout the recent history of the white world, there have been ‘lesser whites’ (e.g. Irish and Italian Americans) who have nonetheless benefited from white privilege. Mizrahi Jews may not be the Ashkenazi elite but they are not the downtrodden of Israel by any means; Palestinians and African immigrants are.

He claims that when the theory of racial oppression is applied to Jews “it becomes a quagmire of prejudice” and “the consequence of seeing Jews as white is in effect antisemitic”. But they just are. This is no longer the 1940s in which Britain (the mother country, that is) was almost entirely White and the only significant minorities were Jews, Gypsies and the Irish. America always made an underclass of its Black population, even when white minorities such as Jews were subject to discrimination as well. It is not anti-Semitic to say that Jews are not a powerless and impoverished minority in the UK. They are not the Gypsies or Travellers who cannot be sure when their homes will be torn down, for example. They may not “control the media”, but there are a variety of Jewish voices in all the major British media, including some bigoted and reactionary ones (e.g. Melanie Phillips) as well as some fairly moderate ones (e.g. Jonathan Freedland). And the pro-Israel lobby in the USA has power far beyond its power here: it has been known to block or obstruct appointments of people who take a pro-Palestinian position, for example.

It suits the Zionist agenda to keep race relations, as well as ideas of what constitutes progressive politics, stuck in the pre-immigration 1940s when Zionism was seen as a liberal, progressive cause. People forget that progress meant a lot of different things then; progressive figures of that time endorsed eugenics and previous generations of liberals had supported other misguided resettlement schemes, such as Liberia which resulted in more than a century of tyranny followed by a brutal civil war starting in the late 20th century. At that time building roads and industry was considered progressive; even the highly racist Mississippi senator, Theodore Bilbo, was considered to be a progressive in that sense. Needless to say, the ethnic composition of the progressive left has changed during this period, and you could not expect them to insistently repeat the mistakes of previous generations of white, middle- and upper-class (mostly male) progressives. It stands to reason that people who endorse a misguided liberal project of a bygone era that turned a blind eye to its inherent racism, or at least conduciveness to racism, should not feel comfortable among progressives now, who see anti-racism as fundamental to their beliefs.

On a similar note was the article on Newsweek by Jonathan Sacks, the former British chief rabbi (that is, chief rabbi of the United Synagogues, the Modern Orthodox branch of Judaism), titled “Anti-Zionism is the New Anti-Semitism”. He concedes that that criticism of the Israeli government and even the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are not “inherently anti-Semitic” but that much of the intimidation that occurs is related to “Israeli Apartheid Weeks” and BDS events which “have become what Easter was in the Middle Ages, a time for attacks against Jews”.

He describes anti-Semitism as “a virus that survives by mutating”: that Jews were hated in different ages because of a different religion or because of their race, and “today … because of their nation state, Israel”:

The legitimization has also changed. Throughout history, when people have sought to justify anti-Semitism, they have done so by recourse to the highest source of authority available within the culture. In the Middle Ages, it was religion. In post-Enlightenment Europe it was science. Today it is human rights. It is why Israel—the only fully functioning democracy in the Middle East with a free press and independent judiciary—is regularly accused of the five crimes against human rights: racism, apartheid, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and attempted genocide. This is the blood libel of our time.

The term anti-Semitism was not actually coined until the 19th century when race started entering into European perceptions of Jews, rather than religion. Even up until that time in Russia, Jews who converted to Christianity were accepted as Christians. But to compare a false accusation originating in the superstitious Middle Ages with facts that are well-attested to about Israel’s human rights record is grotesque. Israel is not the only country that has ever been criticised on the basis of its human rights record, including among democracies. Israel is not the only country which elected a man connected to a massacre as its prime minister (India did very recently, and as is the case with Israel, he is being feted by politicians around the world). Israel is dominated by white Europeans, so it stands to reason that its form of government should be one based on what is usual in Europe, and the surrounding countries have dictatorships which were often supported by foreign powers, such as the USA or Russia, and some of which are friendly to Israel (Egypt and Jordan, for example). It’s not only because of anti-Semitism that western human rights activists attack Israel’s appalling treatment of the native population of the land it occupies; Jews who are oppressors should be subject to the same accountability as any other oppressors.

Of course, it was wrong to blame poor Jews in inter-war Poland for whatever the misdeeds of wealthy Jewish families like the Rothschilds (not all of whom remain Jewish by religion in any case). But that was then; the Jewish diaspora in the UK and USA is fairly prosperous, privileged, powerful and vocal, and despite the fact that we all know there are Jews who oppose its policies rigorously, or even its existence, as we see them in the BDS movement, support for Israel regardless of its human rights record is a mainstream position. Given that Muslims are regarded with enormous suspicion right now on the basis of a few acts of terrorism and a terrorist quasi-state entity that all the evidence suggests most of us do not support, and which all Muslim figures of any repute who have ever been asked have condemned, a few harsh words here and there is a small price to pay for openly supporting a state which has a history of terrorism both against foreign targets and the people under its occupation.

So, it may well be that some skeletons from the old sectarian Left that have joined Labour as a result of Corbyn’s victory (or who joined in the rush to vote for him) may be spreading their old ideas, but there isn’t much evidence of it beyond a bit of chatter on social media. (One tweep who kept remarking on “the Left and their anti-Semitism” linked to a blog entry and the offending comments were by someone in Germany.) But the mainstream progressive Left have moved on from the 1940s and will no longer indulge an obviously oppressive state in the Middle East on the grounds that it was founded as a result of a genocide in Europe, and will not indulge its supporters here either. Labour and other organisations which fight for social justice should make sure there is no intimidation or racism, but should not change this basic position. It’s not racist to oppose oppression wherever it comes from; what is racist is making an exception because the oppressor is special, and the victims particularly deserving.

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Who needs Autism Awareness?

2 April, 2016 - 22:55

Today is World Autism Awareness Day, an event organised by the United Nations since 2008 to “encourage member states … to take measures to raise awareness about children with autism throughout the world”. It’s become best known recently for Light It Up Blue, in which people are encouraged to wear blue, turn their websites blue and shine blue light on their buildings so as to “raise awareness” and to raise money for the genetic research funded by Autism Speaks, which is also notorious for scaremongering about the condition and, by extension, people affected by it. Not much talk is heard about the matter of how aware our professionals are of the needs of people, and particularly children, on the autism spectrum, despite the ample evidence, in the UK at least, that people empowered to make professional decisions about the lives and living arrangements of people with autism and other learning disabilities are woefully ignorant of them, and that people have died as a result.

Today the Guardian carried a long interview with Sara Ryan, the mother of Connor Sparrowhawk who died in an NHS learning disability inpatient unit in Oxford in 2013, in its Weekend supplement. He was known as Laughing Boy or LB and he drowned in a bath in the Slade House unit, having been left to bathe unsupervised despite his known epilepsy. His inquest last year found that his death was the result of neglect and the inquest and the reports surrounding it exposed the hideously inadequate nature of the care that unit provided. It also exposed the fact that NHS trusts are often more interested in protecting their reputations than with patients’ well-being and with doing the decent thing when they have failed them. It’s ironic that the same paper gave a whole page in the previous edition of the same supplement to a mother who had despatched a daughter to a private WWASP boot camp where she was held against her will for six weeks (others are held for years) with the help of private ‘escorts’ and some sleeping pills (see earlier entry; as of this writing, they have not responded to my letter to their Reader’s Editor). Two things make this ironic in the light of today’s feature. First, given that the behaviours which led to some of the young people being incarcerated in these camps consisted of skipping school and listening to ‘dark’ music, one wonders how many of them were on the spectrum but undiagnosed, and what effect the regime of the camps had on them. Second, it bears a close resemblance to how some of our autistic children and young people are treated: taken by force from home, sectioned in mental health units, moved miles from home for lack of facilities near home or the failure of the treating clinicians to understand that they are the reason the autistic person’s health and behaviour is deteriorating.

In this country, we still have people, children and adults, held in entirely unsuitable units miles (even hundreds of miles) from home, many of whom could live with their families with some support, or in their own homes if the care were made available. There is plenty of evidence that the psychiatric profession, which holds the power in these units, does not receive training in autism and does not understand the condition. Yet these people have the power to hold autistic people under sections 2 or 3 of the Mental Health Act for normal and manageable challenging behaviour, to control when they see their families and when or if they can go out, and to transfer them to other facilities if they decide they do not want to treat (or house) them any longer. In some cases, it appears that people have been sectioned on pretexts so as to make it possible to transfer them. It has been known for units to take autistic people in, knowing that they are not suited and bear no resemblance to their normal patient profile.

Connor’s has not been the only death in recent years. Thomas Rawnsley died in a private care home, where he was held under a Deprivation of Liberty order made under the Mental Capacity Act, in February 2015. His mother had been trying desperately to secure support for him so that he could live in the community with support, but the Court of Protection preferred to send him to this care home instead (where he was for a time the only resident). He died of a heart attack, and the injuries he had suffered in the weeks before his death remain unexplained. There was also the case of Stephanie Bincliffe, who died after spending seven years locked in a room at a Huntercombe hospital in Yorkshire; her weight gain, which led to her death by ventricular hypertrophy and obstructive sleep apnoea in mid-2013 was blamed on her self-mutilation and distress reaction when food wasn’t how she liked it rather than on the conditions of her confinement. That they failed to address this behaviour, the distress caused by her incarceration, or find somewhere that these things could be addressed in seven years is damnable, and the inquest did not question why she was in a unit for so long that did not know how to treat her properly.

Following some ongoing campaigns to get young people out of these units and into their own communities, two families have withdrawn from public view following threats from the staff holding their relatives; one had his leave cancelled over Easter just as his mother arrived to pick him up, and another nearly had his cancelled at short notice for spurious “risk assessment” reasons by a stand-in consultant. One might recall that the home where Thomas Rawnsley was held tried to cancel what would turn out to be his last Christmas leave as well. The need to avoid a difficult return always seems to trump his need, and his right, to be at home with his family (this has been used as an excuse to deny children in institutions family visits and outings and home leave for generations; it was suggested that my family visits at boarding school were bad for me as well). These ‘responsible clincians’ have such power to affect their patients’ lives and family relations at a moment’s notice, yet they have no obligation to understand their condition.

Picture of Maisie Shaw, a girl with autism from Hull who has been in psychiatric units miles from home because of the closure of her local unitWe may think we have moved on from the days when autistic people were called psychotic, retarded, naughty or just “little shits” rather than having an identifiable underlying condition, but autistic young people, whether they have a learning disability or not, still face a lack of understanding from staff in many schools, considerable difficulty and delay in getting diagnosed (especially girls) which is made worse by resistance by local authorities who would have to foot the bill for assistance or special education, a lack of a clear pathway after 18 for those with learning disabilities (the cause of a lot of crises in autistic people that age), difficulty and delay in arranging the appropriate care (which often takes years, as we have seen in the Josh Wills case and many others), a shortage or outright absence of inpatient facilities in the local area or even the same region (a result of it being fashionable to close them, as nobody who has no family connection to mental illness will mourn the closure of a psychiatric unit, even if it is really due to budget cuts, intractable maintenance problems or stupid bureaucratic reasons), and finally, cruelty and neglect in hospital, accompanied by separation from home and family and a long stay.

Autism awareness should not mean making the public scared of a ‘disease’ that isn’t. It should be about making sure our teaching, nursing, medical and allied professions know about autism, so that delayed diagnosis, crises and suffering can be avoided.

For more detail on the inadequacy of how autistic people are treated in our society, please read the following:

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Review: Happy Valley, The A Word

26 March, 2016 - 21:32

Picture of Sgt Cawood, a middle-aged white woman with blonde hair wearing a police uniform with a yellow flourescent jacket, approaching John Wadsworth, an older, balding white man wearing a dark-coloured suit, from behind in the corridor of a police stationLast Tuesday, The A Word started at 9pm on Tuesday, the slot that had been occupied by the second series of Happy Valley, the Yorkshire-based six-part police drama starring Sarah Lancashire as a police sergeant in Hebden Bridge. The A Word, which a number of my friends with children on the autism spectrum said they couldn’t watch for fear of it being too upsetting, is about a young autistic boy (or perhaps a boy with Asperger’s syndrome, although that distinction is no longer made) in a family full of squabbling adults, or maybe it’s about a family of squabbling adults who have an autistic son; that will presumably be revealed later in the series. I found that Happy Valley was nowhere near as dramatic as the original series, with neither of the murderers involved being apprehended, and in some important aspects unconvincing; The A Word’s depiction of autism itself has been described elsewhere as uncharacteristic and the diagnostic process ludicrously optimistic.

Happy Valley originally showed in 2014 and featured Sarah Lancashire as Sergeant Catherine Cawood investigating the disappearance of a local businessman’s daughter, who was kidnapped and her father blackmailed. One of the captors turned out to be Tommy Lee Royce (played by James Norton) who had raped the sergeant’s daughter eight years earlier and thereby fathered her son, who was presenting with behavioural problems and although Cawood was bringing her grandson up, she clearly had trouble forming an attachment with him. It ended with the businessman’s daughter being freed from a cellar where she had been raped and Royce being arrested after trying to murder his son. In this series, Royce grooms a middle-aged woman to influence Cawood’s grandson; a local misfit who lives with his mother and may have learning difficulties supposedly murders five women who are in prostitution, while a male colleague of Cawood’s, John Wadsworth (played by Kevin Doyle), murders a woman who has been blackmailing him. The misfit is shot dead by his mother when he confesses to her (it’s later revealed that she had been raped by her father and he was the result), while Wadsworth is found out when other victims of the same blackmailer come forward; he jumps from a railway bridge.

I was unconvinced by some aspects of the plot this time. To begin with, Karen Ingala-Smith on Twitter pointed out these dubious plot elements:

Frances, a middle-aged white woman wearing a top patterned with small flowers with glasses on, facing Tommy Lee Royce, a young white man with very short hair wearing a maroon red top, with an angry expression on his face.I pointed out that Wadsworth could have simply brought up the matter with his superiors if he was being blackmailed; the fact that she had the incriminating matter on her mobile phone is something they could easily have ascertained after arresting her. For whatever reason, the two other male victims of this blackmailer only came forward towards the end, around the same time as the other murderer was himself murdered and the crime was revealed as being unconnected to the others. I found it disappointing that the murderer of the prostitutes was revealed as the local misfit; men with learning disabilities are often falsely accused of crimes including rape, and such accusations have been factors in disability hate crimes. If he really had been guilty, surely his DNA would have been taken after he was arrested for attacking with a hammer some local youths who had been harassing him, and matched with DNA found at the crime scenes. It was also odd that the police readily believed his mother’s story about his confession after she was arrested for killing him, and declared the cases of the five women solved. Finally, Wadsworth jumped from a bridge onto a car which was emerging from underneath; the cops had failed to block off the bridge, and this oversight was never remarked on.

The last episode ends with Cawood bemoaning the “shit week” she’d had, and it had the feel of an episode of The Bill ending, ready for a new one to begin, rather than the conclusion of a dramatic murder plot. Of course, the series cannot go on like the Midsomer Murders with improbably large numbers of murders happening in small communities, but it can’t turn into a soap opera either. The scriptwriter, Sally Wainwright, has said she would like to write a third series but that it would take time as she would hate to make a series which people said wasn’t as good — which would be very easy to do. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t hear some of the dialogue properly, although the criticism of “mumbling” was said to have mystified the production team as a programme has to be perfect when it leaves the editing suite, and they said it was, or so they thought.

Joe, a young white boy with brown hair, wearing a red jacket over a blue and white striped top, wearing light blue headphones and holding a figure of some sort in his hands.The A Word had its first episode last week. It featured a middle-class family in Cumbria whose five-year-old son Joe was obviously autistic (some characteristic features, such as being unable to make friends, while others not so characteristic — the scene where he silently drops to the floor during a meltdown at a party struck one mother as very unlike her experience). He has taken on his father’s love of 80s rock and pop lock, stock and barrel, and can recite lyrics to songs most kids his age have never heard of (e.g. “Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League, which I thought a bit disturbing until I realised that this song was a hit when I was about his age). He is also surrounded by adults who argue an awful lot, particularly as his uncle is recently reconciled with his wife, who is a doctor, and they are shown noisily making love and then noisily arguing; his grandfather aggressively interferes and finds fault with both his father and his uncle. He wears headphones and listens to music most of the time, and is seen putting them on when his parents start arguing in his presence. The idea that his behaviour might be influenced by that of the adults around him is never mentioned.

The process of diagnosing him was condensed into the last 20 minutes of the programme, but even so, it was improbably quick and easy. Through the aforementioned doctor, the family get him seen by an autism specialist of some sort in a very short time, and despite the fact that his parents present incomplete documentation (no school reports, which they “don’t bother” with) and play down his difficulties, she diagnoses him with ASD in one sitting. This is, of course, extremely unlikely. It took about five sittings to get my diagnosis, but even so, it takes years for many families (even if they get a diagnosis in childhood at all) to even get seen by the right type of professional, and an uphill battle to get the accommodations they need for their child at school, for example. Of course, not all families are as wealthy as those in this series and don’t have the sort of family connections available to these people, and the fact that they got such easy access to specialists living in Cumbria makes it all the more unrealistic. (See a critique of this aspect from a mother who’s been there here.)

So, even for a middle-class family (and trust the BBC not to complicate a middle-of-the-road drama by setting this on a council estate somewhere), this is a really unrealistic portrayal of both autism and the process of getting a diagnosis. The acting of the other characters can’t be faulted, but Joe is a humourless cardboard cut-out displaying all the stereotypes in the book. I hope this drama doesn’t repeat the awful ending of a serial about a boy with ADHD a few years ago, which ended with him being sent to boarding school as if that was a happy ending. (Simon Hattenstone and his daughter Maya review it for the Guardian here.)

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Guardian promotes child abuse

25 March, 2016 - 22:52

A picture of a derelict two-storey red-brick building set behind a broken-down white fence, with weeds growing in between.Experience: I paid to have my daughter kidnapped | Life and style | The Guardian

This article was published today and appears to be due for publication in the “Experience” slot in the Weekend supplement of tomorrow’s Guardian. It allows a woman, using a pseudonym, to tell how she hired two ‘escorts’ to take her daughter to Utah to go on a seven-week “boot camp” course after she decided she wanted to be a hairdresser rather than do whatever high-end career her mother wanted her to do, and after her 14-year-old brother got caught with drugs. The camp appears to be one run by the so-called World Wide Association of Speciality Programs and Schools (WWASPS), an organisation that runs (or ran) a chain of boot camp type institutions in parts of the USA as well as Jamaica and Mexico:

I had paid $16,000 (£11,380) for seven weeks of gruelling physical and mental challenges. The other kids were in desperate situations: young offenders, drug addicts, some were suicidal. I was aware my daughter didn’t share their circumstances. They lived like cavemen: they didn’t see a roof the whole time, took care of their sanitary waste, learned survival skills and did physical labour; some cut off their hair because they couldn’t bathe.

They had daily therapy and wrote letters to their parents. My daughter’s were full of apology: how she had made mistakes, wanted to be forgiven, how she loved me. Sure, she was angry at first when she didn’t know what was going on, but she soon understood why I’d sent her there and was embarrassed.

The woman goes on to describe how her daughter finished high school with straight A’s, got a degree and then a master’s, and now works “in the legal system”. Readers may remember that the BBC (among other British media outlets) promoted this organisation in 2003 and 2004 by running a series of features ([1], [2], [3]) on Susie el Madawi from Halifax, who was tricked into going to “Casa by the Sea” in Mexico. The features made much of the improvement in Susie’s behaviour while at the facility, and ironically given today’s story, at the time of writing she was attending a beauty therapy course at a local college. However, CBTS was shut down by Mexican child protectiion services in September 2004, just months after these stories aired, for among other reasons that the school’s employees lacked the relevant qualifications and that out-of-date medications were in use.

Parents and young people interviewed by the NY Times in 2003 tell of outright abuse, including being held in solitary confinement for days for trivial infractions of harsh rules. One girl was ‘demoted’ for giving another girl a hug; more advanced ‘pupils’ were allowed to punish junior ones. The victims were often kidnapped and shackled in order to take them there, and some were guilty of nothing more than skipping school or listening to ‘dark’ music. The camps were promoted as fostering educational achievement and that students supposedly graduated with high-school diplomas, but in fact ‘students’ were just expected to study by themselves from textbooks and many have been unable to access their records as adults.

It’s shocking that the BBC and others who picked up this story did not bother to do basic research about the abuses perpetrated by WWASPS institutions in the Americas before publishing uncritical stories that portrayed it as harsh but effective. The fact is that the ends do not justify the means — the improvements in behaviour of some of the victims do not justify the abuses, particularly when the behaviour that led to them being sent there was not even close to being a crime. These abuses would be a scandal in a detention centre that took genuine convicted criminals; almost none of the individuals sent to WWASPS institutions were sent under court order, rather they were forced there by their families. Of course, abuses do happen in state-run or state-authorised institutions, but we don’t see these places, and their methods, openly promoted.

Kidnapping and false imprisonment are crimes, and they are crimes for a reason. That these things happen reflects a contempt for young people’s rights and a lack of the rule of law. There is no excuse for ‘respectable’ media organisations like the BBC and the Guardian to be promoting this outfit or its institutions or the criminal parents who fed them victims. A bit of research would have shown that the camp where this woman sent her daughter was run by an organisation with a long history of proven incidents of abuse and may well have been one of the camps implicated; most of them were shut down in the late 2000s. It’s utter, inexcusable negligence.

Image source: Al-Jazeera, which sourced it from a former resident of the WWASP Ivy Ridge institution in New York.

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About the Leicester Mencap picture

12 March, 2016 - 10:55

A picture of a young white woman wearing a black jumper and blue jeans, smoking while holding a mobile phone in her right hand. Next to her is an elderly man in a wheelchair wearing a blue jacket, with shopping hanging from the handles and more on his lap tray, one of the bags pressing into his face. They are in a recess in a building in front of two fire exits. In the foreground is a red brick pavement and a road. Both are wet.Last week, someone posted a picture to the Mencap Facebook page, and the picture has been widely shared on social media and has found its way into the mainstream press. It shows a young woman standing next to an elderly man in a wheelchair, in a small recess outside two fire exits. The woman is smoking and is talking on a mobile phone. The man has shopping hanging from the handles of his wheelchair and three bags piled on his lap tray, one of which is pressing into his face. Mencap responded by telling the original poster they were “appalled” and had suspended the support worker in the picture and reported it to the relevant local authority safeguarding team; the picture has generated outrage in the learning disability blogging community; Neil Crowther and Mark Neary both posted articles which took apart Mencap’s response to the picture. Personally, while I agree with the criticism of Mencap, I think we are jumping to too many conclusions about the woman’s behaviour. (I’ve not named the woman or her home town in this article.)

The original poster knew the name of the care worker and where she came from. She also knew she worked for Mencap, despite there being no Mencap logos on display. We have to ask how she knew this. A second person on the Facebook thread attached to the image claims that she has also been sharing details about the man and his care and that she has “evidence”; again, one must ask where she gets this “evidence” from (I did a search on Facebook for someone by that name and from that location; it returned no results). People on Facebook weren’t satisfied with Mencap’s assurances that they have suspended the woman; they said she should have been sacked immediately, despite there being laws to protect workers from summary dismissal on the basis of flimsy or specious evidence, such as assumptions made about a photo.

The Sun and Daily Mail both ran versions of the story, with the Sun’s in particular uncritically giving the original poster’s version of the story, claiming that the woman was “supposed to take him on a trip out of the home to give him fresh air and a break” but instead “went shopping and piled her bags all over him”. The support worker refused to comment in both versions; the Mail has invited readers to contact them via a named email address if they know the support worker or the service user, while the Sun quotes an anonymous neighbour of hers in her home town saying she “only seems to care about herself” and is “clearly not suited to caring at all”. I am not sure if the “businesswoman” who took the picture had been following the pair or just happened to see her as she walked by. But looking at the picture, the ground is wet and it may have been raining, so the alternative to putting the shopping on the man’s lap tray would have been to put it on the ground which, as it is in paper bags, would have got it wet. We are invited to assume that the shopping is all hers; there is no evidence of that and we cannot see any logos on two of the three bags (TK Maxx do stock men’s as well as women’s clothing, by the way).

The woman may be bad at her job, but as there is no evidence of her using violence against him, treating him roughly or being verbally abusive (and if the “businesswoman” had acquired any such evidence, she would surely have posted it with the woman’s name attached), I really don’t believe that exposing her by name on social media and in the national press is necessary or appropriate. There are possible explanations to this picture which are not abusive; that some of the shopping might have been his, or for him; that the phonecall might have been to or from her Mencap bosses, or to whoever was looking after her child about some urgent matter; that they’d taken shelter from rain in the recess and weren’t there long and there might have been nowhere else to stop that wasn’t wet or crowded; that she may have been calling a cab. The woman’s face and name have been made public, but whoever took her on, whoever may be responsible for recruiting “idiots on minimum wage”, as someone on social media referred to her and others like her, whoever sets her workload, hasn’t been.

Of course, if she really did do a personal shopping trip while she was meant to be taking the man out for “some fresh air”, then pile her shopping on top of his chair while having a cigarette and a natter on the phone, that’s clearly unacceptable, but we’re being asked to assume the worst about her by someone who seems to know a lot about her and may have a personal grudge against her. She could easily have posted the picture to Mencap and to social services privately, rather than post it straight onto a public Facebook page with identifying information. As for the “minimum wage idiots”, we’ll continue to get bad care from some of the large number of poorly-paid carers as long as we aren’t willing to fund good care by giving carers proper training and paying them accordingly. The tabloids that gleefully shame a young woman for not being a good enough carer have spent years cheering on cuts to disability benefits, to the local governments who provide these sorts of services, to the legal profession that fights for people’s rights, and will be the first to attack any proposal to raise the taxes necessary to raise care standards by training and paying decent carers.

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Against this Brexit now

26 February, 2016 - 11:12

The flag of the EU, showing 12 yellow stars in a circle on a blue backgroundSo, the date for the referendum on Britain’s exit from the European Union has been set (23rd June) and politicians on both sides are coming out with their position on the matter. Unusually, David Cameron has allowed members of his cabinet freedom to support either side in this (he and George Osborne support staying in; Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and London mayor Boris Johnson support leaving). On the Labour side, all but 7 support remaining, as well as all 54 from the SNP, and all members from the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. The Remain side point to the fact that the EU countries are our closest neighours and that as a member of the EU we get a say in writing the rules of the ‘club’. The Leave side claim that we could have a mutual trading agreement similar to that ‘enjoyed’ by Norway and Switzerland, and that we could build up closer trading relationships with ‘emerging economies’ such as India and China. If things in Europe in June are as they are now, I will be voting to stay in. Whatever the faults of the European Union, I do not trust the people who are trying to drag us out and to leave now would give them untrammelled power.

In 2003, I was “anti this war now”, as were most opponents of the invasion of Iraq. This situation is comparable to the dilemma many of us faced at that time; many of us had desired the removal of Saddam Hussain since the Gulf War and believed he should have been removed then. However, the invasion was led by a rather stupid and unhinged US president and a bunch of clever but extreme advisers, all of whom sought to capitalise on anti-Arab and anti-Muslim anger following 9/11 (irrespective of the fact that Saddam Hussain had nothing to do with 9/11). We all know that the EU is a neoliberal institution with a less than democratic decision-making process which favours a model in which ordinary people pay for the crimes or mistakes of the financial élite, much as is the case with the present UK government, especially ordinary people in poorer countries on the fringes of Europe. But we won’t get a change from that reality if we vote to leave the EU under the present government. For decades, these people have led a drum-beat campaign against what they see as “nuisance” legislation and against anything which acts as a check on the power of the state to stick the boot into powerless and unpopular people; we will see more of that without any advantage for ordinary people’s jobs or standard of living if we leave now.

The front page of "The European", with the headline "One money for Europe" and a smaller piece headed "West Germans to fund Soviet occupation costs"My views on Europe have changed over the years. As a teenager I remember eagerly reading the Guardian’s Europe supplement every Friday and getting the European (an accessible and brightly presented broadsheet owned by Robert Maxwell) on the way home from boarding school. (However, the European changed its format, coming to resemble the Times somewhat, and became rather dull and I stopped buying it.) I was a firm believer in the European project, thought opponents were narrow-minded, backward-looking bigots, was aware that it meant I could move to any country in western Europe and live and work for as long as I liked, and imagined myself doing so. Things didn’t work out like that for me, of course. I became Muslim in 1998 and gradually became more aware that Europe, despite having very substantial Muslim minorities in some countries, was turning against Islam, that politicians came to power on explicitly anti-Muslim platforms and saw legislation passed that outlawed normal Muslim dress and behaviour. However, voting to leave the EU will not change anything for Muslims in this country; the present government is hardly known for being friendly to Muslims (I suspect halal slaughter remains legal only because banning it would affect Jews as well) and we have a press which has spent the last fifteen years ranting against “multiculturalism” and blaming every problem on Muslims or government or business being too soft on Muslims.

Being part of Europe nowadays is about trade only. The ‘European project’ was meant to be about preventing another outbreak of war by making sure countries traded freely with each other and, later, by allowing cultural exchange. I have heard younger Tories say that the fear of war was something that drove the older generation; the younger generation do not think like that. The problem is that Britain has never been a strong, independent country. Never. It was a feudal kingdom on the edge of Europe, then it founded colonies and tricked its way into ruling other countries and became the ‘mother country’ of an Empire, then it was country within the European Community and later Union. Apart from a brief period in the late 60s and early 70s, it has never stood on its own two feet without other countries (and slaves) to exploit or a free trade area to provide ready markets and cheap labour. Leaving the EU now is a leap into the dark of a sort nobody is facing up to. Tories talk of making our own agreements with countries like India and China; there is no guarantee that they will be interested in doing so on terms favourable to us when there remains a trading bloc of hundreds of millions of people next door, countries which retain manufacturing capacities when we have got rid of most of ours. In any case, these countries, like the Old Commonwealth countries which share a language and cultural similarities with us, are all thousands of miles away and in the event of conflict or oil shortages, we could not guarantee getting the goods or people here (or there); Europe (obviously excepting Ireland) is only 21 miles away from Britain’s shores. We could not guarantee that companies which provide employment here but which trade with the Continent would not simply move there, and similarly with foreign-owned manufacturing plants such as own most of our motor industry.

A sign which originally said "Welcome to Hereford, historic city of the Marches, twinned with Dillenburg, Germany [and] Vierzon, France". Hereford has been scrubbed out and replaced with "Poland".I believe that some of the arguments being used to justify exiting (regarding benefits in particular) are manufactured, but some of the anger is well-founded and the Remain side refuses to face up to them, particularly those whose jobs (such as people in secure, public-sector, professional jobs, even if they are not highly paid) are not under any threat. I am not convinced by the argument that the influx of eastern Europeans in 2004 does not depress wages (my wages hardly went up in the time I was driving vans and small trucks before 2013), but there are less obvious disadvantages: employers can easily recruit skilled workers from abroad and do not have to invest in or take risks with new native talent, and can demand “two years’ experience” (or more) without worrying about not being able to fill posts (common in the transport industry). However, this was the decision of the Blair government; it was not forced on us by the EU, and most other countries did not allow the influx, which resulted in more eastern Europeans moving here. The damage has already been done, and fewer migrants from eastern Europe are moving here now as there are more jobs in their home countries. The Blair government did this because it was too sensitive to the demands of business, and leaving the EU will not change the fact that unions are weak and that the rich look after each other in this country. When Thatcher wanted to break the miners in the 1980s, she imported coal from communist Poland.

In short, I do not think leaving the EU will change things for the better for ordinary people. It is possible that in the near future the EU will collapse, either because of the refugee crisis, the collapse of one or other country’s economy, or something else, but it is not close to collapse now. The EU has allowed the UK considerable leeway over the years, allowing opt-outs from the Social Chapter in 1992 and not forcing us to join the Euro or the Schengen accord, and now bending over backwards to accommodate David Cameron’s demands (it is noticeable that the status quo is not an option in the coming referendum). It is not true that we are being walked over by Europe, or that we do not “control our own borders”. I am particularly concerned about left-wingers in England who support the Leave campaign knowing that it will pitch us into an isolated Tory England without the benefits of devolved government, as in Scotland (which may demand another referendum on independence if the UK leaves). Europe is white-dominated, anti-multicultural and increasingly racist; so is Britain. The EU has a democratic deficit; so does Britain, and the present government intends to increase it. The EU is neoliberal; Britain is more so. We will not gain anything in these regards by leaving, and (as with repealing the ‘hated’ Human Rights Act, another bit of dissent manufactured by the Tory press) it will leave the Tories without any restrictions on their power, at least in England. I may support leaving the EU in the future if it is no longer worth us being part of it. Right now, that is not the case.

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Converts more liable to become terrorists? Really?

12 February, 2016 - 17:53

Picture of Beenish Ahmed, a young Asian woman wearing a dark blue and black top (or dress), standing at a lectern with a microphoneThinkProgress, a site some of us had taken for a progressive opinion site, recently published a piece titled “Why Converts To Islam Are So Susceptible To Becoming Terrorists”, by one Beenish Ahmed (right). That this is true was news to some of us who are converts to Islam and have been quietly getting on with our lives for years, or decades, some of us quite successfully and some of us struggling a bit. The article claims, on the basis of a report from George Washington University titled ISIS in America (PDF), that 40% of “those arrested on terrorism-related charges” in 2015 were Muslim converts; 23% of American Muslims, it claims, are converts. The article is long on “illustrative examples”, some of which have nothing to do with terrorism at all, and uses a picture of a woman in niqaab to illustrate the point, when in fact the majority of terrorists are men and the majority of women who wear it, even if they belong to puritanical groups within Islam (which not all do), are not terrorists.

I had a brief look at the GWU report as I suspected that the 40% figure must be based on a very small sample, and was right: it’s not 40% of terrorists as a whole but of people charged with ISIS-related activity, and the total number is 71. That’s an extremely small number of people and cannot be treated as representative of the American Muslim convert population. (It is not clear whether they distinguish between actual converts and Muslims descended from them.) Not all the cases involved plotting terrorist acts as such, but were related to affiliation or planning to emigrate to ISIS-controlled parts of Syria and Iraq. And not all “terrorist plots” uncovered by the FBI originate with the arrestee; many of them are fabricated by the agents themselves. Eliminate those from the statistics, and the number of American Muslim converts charged with ISIS-related terrorist activity becomes even less significant.

The article gives the example of Elton Simpson, one of three men (one Pakistani and another convert from Philadelphia) who attacked the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, in May 2015 which was hosting an exhibition of cartoons purportedly of the Prophet Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). The second convert might have been a better example, as he was a recent convert who had a long police record and convictions for drunken driving and assault. Elton Simpson had been Muslim since his school days and his jihadist sympathies were of long standing; in 2007 an FBI investigation received recordings of him stating his intention to travel to Somalia, and although he avoided imprisonment, he was later sentenced to three years’ probation and a $600 fine for making false statements about domestic terrorism. So, this was not a vulnerable convert radicalised over the Internet but a convinced extremist. Furthermore, mass shootings are not a type of terrorist attack introduced to the USA by ISIS. They are a regular occurrence because of the wide availability of automatic weapons; they usually have nothing to do with Islam or religion of any sort, and the usual perpetrators are not Muslims.

There are also two long examples of women who joined or tried to join ISIS. One was a young woman from an Evangelical Christian background from Tennessee, who converted because of a love interest but became a fanatic, marrying an Iraqi refugee living in Sweden and moving to Syria to live with him. Another was a Sunday school teacher from rural Washington who also converted, and talked to ISIS recruiters and a British-Bangladeshi charity boss with a conviction for firearms possession until her family intervened. The second did not have connections to the local (small) Muslim community and her pro-ISIS friends discouraged her from contacting them, knowing full well that they would either turn her against them or inform the police. But much as these two cases make good stories, they are just two isolated women and are part of a statistically insignificant group. Plenty of people become Muslim through researching it through books or online (I did) rather than through knowing Muslims or marrying one, and the vast majority don’t become terrorists.

The author claims that converts’ supposed susceptibility to extremist teachings is partly down to a “lack of grounding” in Islam’s scripture or history: “if converts were better informed of the Islamic teachings on forgiveness, patience, mercy — or, for that matter, its very detailed rules of war — they would be able to differentiate between Islamist propaganda and the Islamic faith, according to Celene Ayat Ibrahim-Lizzio of the Andover Newton Theological School”. The fact is that most born Muslims are not taught Islamic law in detail unless they pursue formal Islamic studies, and this includes the law of war. This may explain why organisations like Hamas, Gama’a al-Islamia of Egypt, al-Shabab etc, very few of whose members are western converts, commit acts that many scholars say are anti-Islamic such as suicide bombing and killing civilians. They’ve all heard many a lecture about patience and forgiveness, but their leaders teach them that they don’t apply to those they kill (and they carry much less weight when delivered by an imam employed by an oppressive ruler such as Mubarak or Sisi).

Even in western countries, converts are not the only people deprived of access to traditional Islamic teaching; much of it is delivered in foreign languages, particularly Urdu, which not only is not spoken by most converts (other than those from a Hindi-speaking background), but also not by other immigrant Muslims such as Somalis, or many younger Asians or those from a Sri Lankan, Gujarati or Bengali background; it is generally delivered in boarding schools rather than colleges for adults. Many mosques even have lectures given in Urdu at Friday prayers “for the old folk”, irrespective of the fact that many people cannot understand it. However, although moneyed sectarians often fill the gap left by the lack of teaching in languages other than Urdu, these do not preach violent extremism either, often telling Muslims that the state of the world Muslim community is down to its failure to follow the “way of the Salaf”.

The author then claims that converts tend to seek out a “purer” version of Islam than that on offer from established Muslim communities, to which end “they might eschew centuries of cultural and social shifts that have created hybridized, and often more human, versions of the faith”. In fact, the practice of Islam itself the world over is very similar, but the “human” additions to the faith the convert may have heard about may not be things he or she might want to embrace: the widespread misogyny manifested in everything from the preference to sons to honour killings and everyday discrimination against girls and women, for example, or the caste-ism, tribal chauvinism or biraderism, whatever it’s called, and open racism that is beneath the surface of many an immigrant Muslim community. We do not hear of many female converts living among Somali communities volunteering to undergo FGM either, or subjecting their daughters to it. In fact, their interest in Islam may have been stimulated by someone saying that it is really different from what they have heard about in the media. Many converts are attracted by idealised versions of Islam presented in glossy pamphlets; who can blame them for wanting to embrace a version of Islam without these features? They are more likely, judging by the number of converts I’ve known over the years, to try to accommodate their new faith with their own culture.

The article is written on the basis of a false premise; the vast majority of the world’s Muslim terrorists are not converts, and their road to extremism is generally paved with political oppression (including torture and the disappearance and murder of relatives or political comrades), poverty and powerlessness. As with other crime, it is a huge temptation to ignore these facts and just look for explanations centred on the terrorist’s misguidance or simply their bad character. People who convert to Islam have minds of their own and are capable of reading and asking people things and making decisions about how to live their lives and practise their religion and you can only take explanations that someone didn’t have a Muslim family or community to guide them, etc., so far. The fact is that the number of converts to Islam who have become involved in terrorism over the years has been small, but always tend to get reported as it makes a good story; the “zeal of the convert” is a handy stereotype. But the vast majority of us are not terrorists, and to claim that we are “so susceptible to becoming terrorists”, based on a sample of 71, is plain irresponsible scaremongering and casts a pall of suspicion that has no justification. There is enough of that kind of junk being peddled in the popular tabloids without a supposedly progressive analysis site jumping on the bandwagon.

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Why was Sarah Reed in prison, not hospital?

5 February, 2016 - 16:49

Image of Sarah Reed, a light-skinned Black woman wearing a cream coloured fleece top.Sarah Reed told family of alleged sexual assault in hospital, from the Guardian

It has been revealed that Sarah Reed, the woman who was found dead in her cell at Holloway Prison in London last month, having supposedly strangled herself, had been remanded following an incident in a secure ward at the Maudsley psychiatric unit in south London. Ms Reed wrote to her parents to tell them that an old white man had sexually assaulted her while in the unit and she fought back, resulting in her being charged with causing grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent. Rather than being released back to that or another unit, she was remanded in custody. This would have been the decision of a medical ‘expert’ from the local health authority, rather than a judge or prison service official. Reed was the victim in 2012 of an assault by a police officer, who was later dismissed from the Metropolitan Police and sentenced to community service.

The incident should raise the question of why secure mental health wards exist that treat both men and women; many women with mental health problems are victims of sexual abuse and rape. We do not imprison men and women together; we should not do the same in the mental health system. (By the way, nearly all mental health wards are locked as sectioned and informal patients are treated on the same ward. Theoretically, an informal patient is allowed to leave; in practice, staff often refuse to allow them to, or threaten to section them if they demand to be allowed to leave.) The experiment with mixed wards led to a number of incidents of sexual harassment of female patients, many of which were dealt with inadequately by staff, and it has often led to women feeling unsafe simply by being confined in the same space as men. It simply should not happen.

On top of this, why would anyone imagine that prison is a suitable environment for someone whose mental state does not permit them to live at home or walk the streets without supervision? The fact that prisons are closed institutions does not make them less stressful places to be than home, the street or the shops; this misplaced assumption is commonly made about institutional environments (not only prisons but also boarding schools, hospital units and so on), and is wrong, and dangerously so. A person who is under section is already presumed to need mental health care and to receive it from mental health professionals; prison officers are not mental health professionals and convicts, by nature, are more likely to be violent than other psychiatric patients. Why was she not transferred to a women’s secure mental health unit? There are plenty in the south-east and it would have been a more appropriate use of the resources than sending inappropriately sectioned autistic people there from other parts of the country. Unlike in the mental health system, “no beds” is no impediment to imprisoning someone; they can always make prisoners share with one or two others.

Of course, it’s possible for a mentally-ill person to commit a crime for which their illness is not a defence. But it’s a fact that people in institutions are more likely to be referred to the police for property damage or fights that would result in their arrest if they happened at home, and the atmosphere and person mix of the institution, the reasons why people are there and so on may make more likely. This applies to children’s homes as well, resulting in “looked-after” children being more likely to start their adult life with a criminal record than one who was able to live with their family. Someone who is meant to be receiving treatment for an illness, which may be (as in Sarah Reed’s case) the result of trauma, should not be criminalised for failing to deal with the stresses of (enforced) institutional life as calmly and rationally as a healthy, free person — the proverbial “man on the Clapham Omnibus” — might.

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Another victim of the great British mental health misery-go-round

3 February, 2016 - 10:47


They first sent me to Windsor, and then to Stoke on Trent
In a holding cell in Liverpool three days and nights I spent
My solicitor can’t find me and my family don’t know
I keep telling them I’m innocent; they say “come on son, in you go”.
— Billy Bragg, “Rotting On Remand”, 1988

These words were written about the state of Britain’s prisons in the mid-1980s, when overcrowding was a problem and prisoners were moved frequently, including remand prisoners who were awaiting trial and thus often innocent. Much the same is still true of the treatment of some of our young people in Britain’s mental health system, where someone on section can be moved on the say-so of a consultant psychiatrist who believes that their behaviour has got a bit too much for his staff. This is what enabled the transfer of Claire Dyer, then aged 20, from Swansea to a private medium-secure unit near Brighton in 2014; she was released from there after less than three months. Many people with learning disabilities, particularly autism, and mentally-ill young people are not so lucky and face years in multiple locked or secure units because of lack of funding for home-based care or a community placement, or because the consultant in charge does not understand their condition.

A picture of Joshua, a young white boy with short hair and a black Superdry T-shirt with English and Japanese writing on it, being embraced by his mother, a white woman with brown hair, dark glasses on, a white jumper or cardigan and black track-suit bottoms.Lately I’ve been in contact with the mother of one of these young people. Joshua is a 13-year-old boy from south London who has autism and Tourette’s syndrome, and is prone to tic attacks which particularly (though not only) happen when he is stressed. He had been at a boarding school for children with various types of learning disabilities in Surrey, but was sectioned by CAMHS when his mother was at his father’s bedside following an accident that has left him paralysed, and sent to a unit in Manchester. He remained there for more than a year until he was transferred to a hospital in Birmingham, where his mother has been able to visit him more, take him out into the local area and where it was hoped he would remain until a placement was found in his home area.

However, last week, the consultant told his mother that they were looking at transferring him to a low-secure unit outside Norwich, following an incident in which he hit and later scratched a teacher during a tic (having warned people that this is what would happen if he had a tic at that time). It was claimed that the teacher had refused to continue to teach Joshua as a result, something the family doubt as she had made some effort to build up a rapport with him and his family and had been working with him quite happily in the time after. As a teacher in a children’s mental health unit, it is inconceivable that this was her first experience of this sort of behaviour (his mother believes that her “refusal to teach him” was the management’s invention). After that incident, staff decided to nurse Joshua in his room, claiming that he was free to leave his room any time (something which he would not do; at his previous unit he refused to come out for several months). They are having someone from the unit in Norfolk (run by the same company that runs the unit where Claire was held in 2014) this week.

The situation is not quite as dire as with Claire, as the increased distance from home (Claire lived in a local unit in Swansea most of the period from 2012 to 2014) is not enormous, but it will mean a sudden change of scenery for Joshua and probably a much more confined existence, as he has been allowed out a lot in the local area with his family since moving to Birmingham (an important parallel with Claire Dyer, who had been allowed out with her family nearly every day and had spent weekends at home after being sectioned in 2013, unheard of for sectioned mental health patients) and he is unlikely to even be allowed outdoors for the first several weeks, as was the case with Claire. And all this over some fairly small incidents which the staff of a children’s psychiatric unit should be able to cope with.

A year ago this week, Thomas Rawnsley was on his death-bed from a heart attack following years of abuse and over-medication in various ‘homes’ and hospital units in Yorkshire. Young people and those with learning disabilities who are in the mental health system are still being sent miles from home, sometimes transferred several times in the space of a few months, still receiving dreadfully poor care and remaining stuck in the system for years because their rights and well-being are not paramount: the right of a person who is not a convicted criminal to a place near one’s family and to the least restrictive form of care possible seems not to be a priority, either for clinicians making decisions about patients’ lives or for the bosses who sell NHS local facilities to property developers. There is simply no excuse in a wealthy country for children to be sent out of large cities, especially a city with the population of a small country, for extended periods for mental health care; we do not do this for any other kind of healthcare other than highly specialised surgery. People have a right to family life under the European Convention on Human Rights; any forced separation from their family that is not necessary is an abuse in itself.

Joshua has his assessment for the unit in Norfolk this week. If they decide he is not suitable for them, other arrangements will be made, which could mean a worse unit even further from home. He and his family have no power to prevent this, because he is being held under section. This aspect of mental health law also needs urgent reform: the right of clinicians (not all of whom have a sound understanding of autism) to make huge decisions about a patient’s life, and for them to have no effective appeal and for the clinician to be unaccountable for the consequences. All of this must change. The rights and well-being of children and learning disabled people must come before the convenience of the staff.

Joshua’s mother asked us to share the page for her campaign; it can be found on Facebook here.

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It’s only rape if it’s rape

17 January, 2016 - 23:03

Last weekend David Bowie died, and amid the non-stop media tributes (which have been compared to the relentless coverage of Lady Diana’s death in 1997, although they can’t have really approached that — normal TV programming was stopped for most of that Sunday), there were a few dissenters who called Bowie a ‘rapist’ because he slept with a teenage groupie (or more than one) in LA some time in the 1970s. There is an unusually balanced view from Julie Burchill in the Spectator, who called Bowie’s behaviour ‘creepy’ but criticised feminists for their tendency to “strip women they do not agree with of agency, and seek to paint them as confused poltroons suffering from good old ‘false consciousness’”. A number of feminist blogs have no such qualms, however, with Louise Pennington (referred to in Burchill’s article) writing anoymously on a site called “Everyday Victim Blaming” about her own experience of sexual abuse as a (much younger) child and drawing dubious links between Bowie’s behaviour and that of Bill Cosby and Jimmy Savile. She has published two separate articles on her own blog also ([1], [2]). There have been a number of other articles expressing a similar viewpoint ([1], [2], [3], [4]), as well as a more balanced piece by Mic Wright here.

A cover for a video tape of "Absolute Beginners", showing Bowie, Patsy Kensit and another male actor from the same filmI was never a huge Bowie fan; I was a child in the 80s, not the 70s, and most of the music I heard by him in the 80s was pretty boring (Absolute Beginners, the title track from the flop 1986 film he starred in, excepted) and his later output was even less inspiring to me (the NME in the mid-90s, when I used to read it, called his more recent albums at that time “careericidal” and suggested that many people regarded him as a “cretinous windbag”). Others found him inspirational, called him a hero and said that his songs were their companion at difficult times in their lives, particularly because of his take on sexuality and gender. For me, he was a generic 80s pop star; there are no memories to tarnish. But there is a good reason why the matter hardly came up in the tributes on the radio, which is that for most people, this issue does not overshadow his work.

It’s not an excuse, of course, that other sexual abusers were worse. But others were much worse, even those (like Jimmy Page) who involved themselves with the LA “Baby Groupies”. One could say that Bowie dipped his feet in those waters while others were up to their necks, persistently abusing both adults and children throughout their careers. However, the biggest difference is that the girl he had sex with, Lori Maddix, agreed to do it and expresses no regrets about it as an adult. Feminists often talk about how girls and women can be ‘groomed’ to accept sex with men who are much older than them and are clearly (to them) exploiting them, but it’s difficult to see how a middle-aged woman can still be ‘groomed’ forty years after the event. It’s not Lori Maddix who is calling Bowie a rapist; it’s others.

To call this ‘rape’, whatever the law says, is absurd, because rape clearly refers to sex which is forced or where the victim was not capable of agreeing (because of unconsciousness, intoxication or severe intellectual disability, for example). A law that says someone cannot consent does not mean they cannot in reality. Merely breaking a law, even a well-meaning one, is not the same as sexually assaulting anyone. Even calling it sexual abuse is dubious, because this term can refer to sexual assaults, including rape, but also refers to sex which may be submitted to because the victim is intimidated by their abuser’s power — they may be able to threaten to make their lives difficult, or they may be pretending to be friendly when others (in an institutional setting, for example) are openly (sometimes physically) hostile. It is not agreed to enthusiastically out of desire. It refers to situations where one party has power over the other to begin with.

I believe Louise Pennington about her own experiences, but her comparison of Bowie’s behaviour with those of Savile and Cosby does not carry any weight. Savile’s and Cosby’s victims came forward; they knew they had been raped or assaulted and said so, apparently without needing someone like Louise Pennington to tell them this is what they had experienced; Maddix said she had not been. Maddix sought out Bowie; Savile sought out his victims, some of whom were in an extremely vulnerable situation such as being incapacitated following spinal injury or surgery (or both), and some of whom were in other hospitals or special boarding schools. As is now known, authorities were reluctant to move against Savile because the money he raised was vital to the running of their institutions — in large part because government policy made them dependent on such benefactors. None of this was the case with Bowie.

Radical feminists, in my experience, aren’t capable of discussing these issues rationally, as I have made clear on two previous occasions. In the second of those links, we see a feminist of the same circle as Pennington call a 15-year-old boy a rapist for having sex with a 13-year-old girl (who, as I pointed out, may well have been in the year below him or even the same year at school; the age difference was nearer one full year than two). They expect the rest of us to believe them when they tell us that women do not lie about rape, but they proceed to call things ‘rape’ that are not, and to call women ‘victims’ who are not, and who do not claim to be. In truth, they believe women only when they stick to the script. As derided as expressions like “real rape” and “rape rape” are, no dictionary definition of rape includes “a sexual encounter that someone enjoys until someone who thinks they know better tells them it was rape”.

If David Bowie had really been a serial abuser of women and girls, it’s highly likely that a large number of victims would have come forward in the last ten years or so. He has really not been the all-conquering superstar the tributes last week suggested; as noted in the Observer today, his early shows were played in concert halls and arenas, not stadia, and when his mother criticised his lifestyle, it was the NME that reported it, not the tabloids; the past 20 years or so, he’s been a forgotten has-been and if his music has been played (except shortly after album launches), it’s been his music from the 60s to the early 80s. He is too dead to atone for these actions now, but even when he was alive, his ‘victim’ said she had a great time and had no regrets. I am not saying people should approve of his behaviour, but it was not the pattern of his life and he did not make a career out of it. There would not be this degree of adulatory coverage of his career if that were the case. If Bowie had actually raped someone (adult or child), I would agree that he did not deserve any of this coverage, but as his ‘victim’ did not hold it against him, the public cannot be expected to either.

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