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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
Updated: 6 hours 52 min ago

Don’t call us haters

9 June, 2019 - 23:33
A picture of the new moon in the red evening sky above London; St Paul's cathedral, Tower Bridge and other buildings are lit up below.The new moon sighted in London on 4th June. (Source: New Crescent Society, Facebook)

This past Eid, the recurring problem of spurious moon sighting reports emanating from Saudi Arabia and Muslim institutions overseas declaring ‘Eid’ the following day on the basis of them reared its head yet again. As so often happens, people in Saudi Arabia itself and in the surrounding countries attempted to sight the new moon the same day; they all failed. Astronomical data indicated that the new moon would not be visible in any part of the Old World and only with an optical aid, if at all, in parts of North and South America and the Caribbean; in the event, as the relevant page on the Moonsighting website shows, no positive sighting occurred on 3rd June even there. Many of us were hoping for a unified start and end to Eid and the charts seemed to indicate that everyone would celebrate Eid on Wednesday, 5th June. But we didn’t; many of our mosques followed the announcement from Saudi Arabia and held it on the 4th.

The other day, someone shared an article on Facebook from Muslim Matters pleading to the “Religious” to stop attacking imams and religious institutions for following what he considered valid scholarly positions such as following global moon sighting or calculations and sightings using telescopes. He compared this to people griping about mosques holding a taraweeh just for women, with a female imam, also considered by most scholars to be quite valid. There is a long divergence into the etiquettes of disagreement (adab al-ikhtilaaf) in Islam, that scholars have different methodologies and thus may come to a different conclusion about the meaning of a given verse in the Qur’an on the basis of them. Near the start of this piece, the shaikh suggests that people might advise him to “let the haters hate”, which is an astonishingly disrespectful way to talk about Muslims who are trying to practise their religion properly and follow the Sunnah with regard to a pillar of the faith, and to establish a situation where everyone can do this, even if it is not the most convenient way of doing it because the exact day is not always known.

We are not ‘haters’; we are well aware of the issue of different opinions around scholars. We follow all four (well, mostly three of the four) schools of thought (madhahib). We do not even all follow the same position about moon sighting; some of us follow a position of local or at least in-country sighting, while others follow reliable easterly sightings. The watchword here is reliable. We have mosques up and down the UK, but particularly the so-called major mosques which are the most famous mosques which often have the most extensive community facilities besides the prayer space and often have links to governments in the Middle East, such that they can get imams from the two Holy Cities to recite the Qur’an or occasionally lead prayers, following announcements from Saudi Arabia year after year which are based on demonstrably spurious reports of the moon having been sighted. This is not, at least ostensibly, about the use of calculations (very few mosques in the UK use calculations alone); the scholarly position is that the moon has to be sighted. But sighting reports are being manufactured when the moon could not have, and has not, been seen.

In North America it appears that some major Muslim organisations have settled on calculations so as to be able to predict when Eid will be so as to make it easier to book days off work and the such-like. The Americas and Caribbean are where the new moon is visible first, so that position is a stronger one there than it is here in Europe. Some Muslims feel that having unpredictable festival dates makes Islam look backward compared to Christianity, which has festivals on set or predictable dates every year. Even, although it relays reports about human moon sightings around the world, is run by people who endorse the calculation method; many of us rely on calculations to filter out spurious sightings. But the fact remains that for most of Muslim history we relied on our eyes to tell us when the new months were upon us, much as we relied on them to know when to offer each prayer, and that some communities would be celebrating Eid the same day as others were still fasting because the new moon had been sighted in one place but not another. In some parts of the world which have rainy seasons, it will be impossible to sight the new moon for several months at a time, so this would make the use of calculations necessary, but we are seeing false Eids foisted on the community in places where it is usually possible to tell whether the new moon is visible or not. It was possible in the UK this year, for example.

So, please don’t call us haters. We know about and respect differences of opinion. This is not about fiqh; it’s about fact, and the fact is that the community has been lied to again and again, and some of us are not willing to stand by and say nothing. There has been a real grassroots effort to revive the Sunnah of human moon sighting and to correct the misinformation spread through official channels and through satellite TV every year. If Muslim leaders want respect from ordinary Muslims, they should behave likewise towards us. And Allah knows best.

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Muslims, Eid and the sanctimonious vegan

8 June, 2019 - 23:31
A picture of a sheep or goat being dragged along the floor with its lamb or kid running after it. Above is the slogan "She's not meat -- she's my mother".A still from the video attached to PETA’s Eid tweet

This past Eid, the American-based Vegan advocacy group that calls itself People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) posted a series of tweets suggesting that Muslims should have a “vegan holiday” because “animals don’t need to die for you to celebrate Eid al-Fitr”, accompanied by a video of a sheep being dragged along by a group of men while its lamb runs along behind it, with the slogan “she’s not meat — she’s my mother”. The tweet attracted widespread scorn for having confused Eid al-Fitr, which follows the end of Ramadan, with Eid al-Adha, which is the feast of the sacrifice and this is when the sacrifice of a sheep or cow by every head of household is mandatory. (In practice, we usually pay for one to be carried out in a place where it is needed because of poverty.) There were some Muslims who seemed to have taken on board the idea that we shouldn’t eat meat and the fact that it is permitted in Islam was not a good enough reason to do it.

Over the years, I have found animal rights activists and vegans to be among the most extreme, irrational and sanctimonious types of activists out there. Often they seem unconnected to the real world, in which human beings depend on animals for survival. It is not just a protest against the widespread suffering and unhealthy practices in commercial farming; it is based on a belief that animals are not on this earth to be our food, shelter and medicine. A brief look through the PETA Twitter feed will reveal that this is their world-view. Someone on my Twitter feed suggested that PETA might really be seeking to make the cause of veganism look bad, but in fact such behaviour is par for the course for what is an inherently extremist and non-reality-based movement. They are merely the ‘cuddly’, publicity-seeking, ‘acceptable’ face of it; the more extreme in the sect harass and abuse families whose farms supply animals for testing, vandalise their property, dig up their relatives’ graves and more. As we all know, some of them will resort to racism when they hear that a particular nation enjoys a lot of meat and especially that of dogs, for some reason; they are also notorious for misogyny, comparing the hunting of animals to violence against women, having women parade naked but for the banner “I’d rather go naked than wear fur”, comparing them to dumb animals and depicting them in cages.

Every so often, a post will come up on our social media feeds with a title like “10 Excuses for not becoming vegan”. I’ve never read them because in truth we do not need an excuse. I eat meat because I enjoy it. I’ve tried to cut down recently, but that’s more for my own health reasons than because I am opposed to it. When I go out, I always eat meat; at home, I do not eat meat every day although I do drink milk every day. Humans have always eaten meat and the only exceptions are members of one or two religious groups and, more often, monastics who embrace vegetarianism or veganism for ascetic reasons. The same with drinking milk, eating cheese and eggs, wearing leather and wool, and using animal skins and fleeces for warmth. We have always got most of the protein in our diet from meat, milk and eggs. True, in other countries, soya and pulses are plentiful, but they are much less so here. In many parts of the UK, the soil is not much use for anything except pasture for sheep.

A picture of three young women walking along a road in London, past the doors of Somerset House, with a slogan "We'd rather go naked than wear fur" covering their breasts and private parts though their upper chests and most of their legs are exposed. They are wearing white gloves and high-heeled shoes.A PETA anti-fur demonstration. (Source: PETA)

A plant-based diet has the potential to be just as harmful, cruel and otherwise unethical as one that uses animal products. Do you check on how far your vegetables have had to travel, burning up fossil fuel on the way from Spain, India or South Africa? Do you check on how well the farmers paid those who picked the fruit, or what conditions they were expected to live in, or whether they were well-treated? Do you not run an electric fridge, requiring more energy likely derived from fossil fuel? Do you check on where the cotton in your clothes comes from, how much water was used in growing it, whether it came from a country where people are subjected to forced labour to grow it, whether its irrigation caused an entire inland sea to dry up, or whether the dyeing of the garment (cotton or otherwise) was done in a factory where labour conditions are good and which does not pollute the local air or waterways? Or is human health and welfare no concern of yours?

For us Muslims, there is no escaping the fact that it is the Sunnah to eat at least some meat on at least some occasions. It is a fact that the Sahaba did not eat meat every day, though they did eat it from time to time. They did not eat as much of it as we do today, but eat it they did. They ate the meat of sheep, goats, cattle and camels, and drank the milk of all four. The slaughtering of an animal as a sacrifice is part of one of our Eids; much of the meat is given to the poor. Many families have been too poor to eat meat a lot; Eid is the occasion, once or twice a year, when they may get to eat some. There are certain criteria for what makes meat (other than fish) halal, or permitted to eat by Muslims; the major one is that it has to be slaughtered in the name of Allah, and Allah Alone. Many scholars, though not all, prohibit stunning on the grounds that the animal must be healthy before slaughter; all stipulate that the slaughter be done by hand, and not by machine, and that the blessing be read by a human voice, not played from a tape.

Some Muslims point to the Qur’anic verse that tells us to “eat of what is halal (lawful) and tayyib (wholesome) on the Earth” and draw from it the idea that we should not eat meat from farms which feed the animals unnatural food or keep them in unhealthy conditions, among other things. But if we are to be this scrupulous about meat, why are we much less so about the source of our grain, fruit and vegetables, many of which require the extensive use of pesticides, irrigation from precious water sources and so on, followed by fuel-intensive transportation?

And we must be aware that for some of us, meat in our diet is important. Growing children require high levels of protein; lack of it results in a malnourished child with a swollen belly (kwashiorkor), as seen in many a war zone in recent years. Many women require it because they lose much blood at every period; if they do not eat meat, they will become anaemic and vegan fake meats, leafy vegetables and iron supplements are no substitute. Some scholars say that young people, men in particular, should refrain from meat and milk to lessen sexual desire or build up one’s restraint to it, but this has to be balanced against one’s physical health needs.

Islam is not an ascetic religion; it does not demand that we renounce all pleasures in this life, but that we be scrupulous about making sure our food is lawful to us, both in nature and in how we acquired it. Vegetarianism or veganism as a way of life is a form of asceticism which is found in other religions but not ours; it tends to be associated with Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, while celibacy (as a way of life) is associated with Christianity. In mediaeval Christian Europe, the only intellectuals were celibate priests and monks; in the Muslim world, our scholars married. Islam is meant for the whole world, including parts of the world where meat is plentiful and chickpeas and lentils are not. If you are concerned about unhealthy, unnatural or cruel farming practices, feel free not to eat meat yourself, or to seek out organic meat and (especially) milk, which is likely to be expensive enough that you will consume less of it. Eat less meat; the early Muslims ate much less than we do. But there is no room to make veganism the way of life for Muslims. To them be their way of life; to us, ours.

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What do the anti-Corbynites even want?

7 June, 2019 - 22:22
Picture of Lisa Forbes, a white woman with shoulder-length blonde hair, wearing a black jacket over a white top, next to Amir Khan, a young South Asian man with a short moustache and beard wearing a black T-shirt and, over it, a black jacket with red swirly patterns on it.Lisa Forbes with boxer Amir Khan, at a Peterborough iftar event

So, last night there was a by-election in Peterborough following the recall of a Labour MP who spent time in prison after a conviction for lying about a speeding ticket, and it was widely expected, as this was an area which voted 60.9% in favour of leaving the EU in 2019 and where the Brexit Party scored the highest plurality of votes in last month’s European elections (38.3%), that the Brexit Party would win their first seat in Parliament. But no: Lisa Forbes, the Labour candidate, won 31% of the vote while the Brexit Party’s Mike Greene won 29%; the difference was just 683 votes. The candidate had been ‘exposed’ as having ‘liked’ a Facebook post by which was deemed anti-Semitic; the post consisted of a video about a group of high-school students who organised a Friday prayer in their school playground in England, but concluded, “Unfortunately our leader Theresa May feeds off this rhetoric [of hate] to keep her Zionist Slave Masters agenda alive”. The upshot was that instead of celebrating a Labour party victory this morning, some people inside the Labour party and some who have recently left were bemoaning a victory for anti-Semitism instead, and some of them were indulging in race-baiting of their own:

Any Muslim reading the offensive post by the Evoca drinks company manager Ismail ibn Saeed would notice that the word used was Zionist, not Jewish, and would know that he was not talking entirely or even mostly about Jews but about people who uphold the current world order in which there is a “free world” and a “third world” which is either mired in poverty and debt or dominated by dictatorships supported by countries in the “free world”. One aspect of this world order is that the interests of Israel are held to be paramount, such that it is supplied with massive military aid and the abuses it inflicts on its occupied Palestinian native population are overlooked; at most, there will be bland statements about condemning violence on all sides and a two-state solution but the elephant in the room, namely that Israel intends to preserve the status quo as it is very convenient for them, is conveniently overlooked. Although the ‘mainstream’ Jewish community organisations support this position, when Muslims talk about Zionists, they do not always mean Jews and the same was true here. Many of us notice a strong overlap between supporters of Israeli policy and hostility to Muslims or Islam and Jewish Zionists often fail to realise that anti-Zionism today is often inspired by revulsion at Israeli military or settler behaviour, not hostility to the idea of a Jewish state or to Jews per se. So, the accusation that this was anti-Semitic is at most dubious. It was a Muslim calling out injustice.

Let us look at who Lisa Forbes’s major opponent was: not only a representative of a party with no other policies than leaving the EU albeit one led (and indeed owned) by a man known to be committed to an “insurance-based” model of healthcare and is also notorious for diverting a discussion on almost any issue onto immigration, but an ignorant representative at that. Oli Dugmore from JOE interviewed Greene and pressed him to name a single area in which the EU had imposed anything related to education policy on Britain. He claimed, “education is affected by what we’ve got to teach, how we’ve got to teach, when we’ve got to teach”, but anyone who has travelled in Europe or done the most basic research knows that this is not true: school curricula, school structures such as selectivity or comprehensivity, school rules, examinations, dress policies such as uniforms and restrictions on cultural dress, school hours, attendance policies such as the legality or otherwise of home education and the required qualifications for teachers all differ from country to country and indeed within countries. He is either woefully ignorant or lying.

If you support remaining in the EU, why would you hope for even a small victory for a party dedicated to ensuring we leave, with or without a deal, or not be glad that frankly any party except the BNP (or similar) won the seat instead? The simple answer is that you might be so obsessed with the idea of removing Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership that any setback is welcome, even if it is also bad for everyone. If you call the Labour leadership “unfit for public office” on the grounds of the “anti-Semitism” so far displayed, it is inconsistent to behave in such a way that someone as obviously unfit and obviously, repeatedly, overtly racist as Boris Johnson might gain, or retain, the office of Prime Minister, to say nothing of the underbelly of racism and Islamophobia in the same party. If you believe, as some openly say, that one prejudice is not morally equivalent to the other, what you are really saying is that some ethnic groups deserve racist treatment and others do not.

On a related issue, the Guardian printed an article by Keith Kahn-Harris last week, calling for what he called a “radical new form of anti-racism” to be adopted so as to resolve the ‘impasse’ over anti-Semitism in the Labour Party:

The only way out of this impasse is to recast anti-racist solidarity so that it is completely decoupled from political solidarity. Anti-racism must become unconditional, absolute, and not requiring reciprocity. Anti-racism must be explicitly understood as fighting for the right of minorities to pursue their own political agendas, even if they are abhorrent to you. Anti-racism requires being scrupulous in how one talks or acts around those one might politically despise.

This isn’t just an issue that applies to Jews and antisemitism. We are beginning to see the strains in other forms of anti-racism too, when minorities start becoming politically awkward. The opposition from some British Muslim groups to teaching LGBT issues in school is one example of this. Yet opposition to Islamophobia is as vital as opposition to homophobia and one must not be sacrificed on the altar of the other.

The problem here is that a lot of the accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour party relate to political stances, not to any display of prejudice or hostility towards Jews as such. There are those who demand that support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel not be tolerated, for example, and indeed one of the accusations against Lisa Forbes is that she signed a letter (along with a number of other Labour constituency party representatives) that among other things supported BDS and called Israel undemocratic and racist. Palestinian rights advocates bend over backwards to avoid actual anti-Semitism and when someone they thought was one of them displays such attitudes (even if he is Israeli, as with Gilad Atzmon) they are ostracised. Israel’s partisans, call them what you will, are not satisfied; they want the total silencing of independent advocacy for Palestinians and total submission by the Palestinians themselves to permanent Israeli domination. Anyone who has worked for enough time in the mainstream media will be aware of the letter bombardment campaigns that can ensue when a newspaper or broadcasting station fails to treat the Palestinians’ rights with the same contempt they have.

It’s not about anti-racism. Anti-racism is already largely independent of demands on people’s political stances, except, increasingly, those of Muslims and it’s no coincidence that the ‘issue’ with Lisa Forbes was agreeing with a Muslim who is not polite enough for their liking. It’s precisely about censorship.

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Rwanda and radicalism (and a little geography lesson)

1 June, 2019 - 19:31
A still from a video showing Muslim men in various Islamic attires such as long robes, keffiyehs and topis coming out of a mosque into a street.Muslims coming out of a mosque on Eid al Fitr. (Source: New Times.)

Yesterday the Spectator, a British conservative-leaning political journal (which was formerly edited by Boris Johnson and printed a series of very prejudicial articles about Islam and Muslims during that time) published an article on Islam in Rwanda by Qanta Ahmed, a British-Pakistani writer noted for her hostility to ‘Islamism’ and who has recently praised Boris Johnson in the same magazine, gushing praise on the mufti of Rwanda, a Sheikh Salim Hitimana. This is the first time I’ve heard of Sheikh Salim so I have no idea what his reputation is or whether he really has the influence Qanta Ahmed claims (the community, although it has grown since the mid-1990s, is still quite small and Rwanda is a small country). She does, however, make some claims about him and about Islam that reveal some quite basic ignorance about Islam and about the geography of the Muslim world.

First, he claims that Sheikh Salim was “trained in Libya by scholars in the Shafi’i tradition”. Libya is not the place to go to learn the Shafi’i tradition. Like most of north and west Africa, Libya is Maliki and, because of the influence of Colonel Qaddafi, was for most of the last several decades not a place favoured by students of Islamic law or any other Islamic science. Although hostile to Islamism because it would have been a challenge to Qaddafi’s regime, Libya was not a country noted for friendliness towards western powers or Israel; it is hard to imagine him picking up the views on Israel expressed in this article in Qaddafi’s Libya (of which more in a minute, in sha Allah). The places to go to learn the Shafi’i fiqh or understanding of Islamic law are Egypt, Syria and the regions around the Indian Ocean which include most of east Africa (as well as Yemen, Sri Lanka and south-east Asia), which explains why Rwanda follows that tradition as it is close to Uganda and Tanzania.

She claims:

Rwandan Islam has followed the Shafi’i school of Islamic thought, which differs greatly from the harsher Hanafi, found in Pakistan, and Hanbali, found in Saudi Arabia. To understand Islam, it’s crucial to understand these distinctions.

This is nonsense. Shafi’i fiqh is harsher in some aspects than the Hanafi or Hanbali (or Maliki) schools and less so in others. They all have differing opinions, especially about issues which have arisen in modern times. In fact, it is the Hanafi school which has acquired a reputation for liberalism, although this is not particularly well deserved. Schools differ in how they derive rulings from the original sources; the Maliki school, for example, regarded the practice of the people of Madinah as a source of Islamic law.

The Mufti wants to preserve an Islam that adheres to scripture, without the new politicised elements of sartorial — and therefore social — control. ‘I introduced a religious fatwa against the niqab in 2016,’ he says proudly. ‘We saw that niqab abroad, but in Rwanda we have stopped it. Everything you have to practice here must be mentioned in the Quran.’ There’s nothing Islamic, he says, about the niqab — and Rwandan Muslims, he believes, do not have to look radically different from the rest of the population.

In fact, the mainstream position of the Shafi’i school is that the covering of the face is mandatory when in public, and anyone who has travelled to some coastal areas in east Africa, such as Lamu and Zanzibar, will know that many women still wear it there, although it is a local, wrap-around veil called the bui-bui rather than the niqaab which is popular in the Gulf region and abroad. The niqaab is popular because it attaches around the forehead, not above the nose, and can be pulled up easily. The claim that “everything you have to practice here must be mentioned in the Qur’an” conflicts with the idea that he is a Shafi’i, because the Shafi’i school is based on the Qur’an, the hadith, consensus of scholars and analogical reasoning from the Qur’an and hadith; no scholar of any school believes that something is only compulsory if mentioned in the Qur’an. Even the specifics of the ritual prayer or the fast of Ramadan are not spelled out in the Qur’an.

The Shafi’i school is also the only one that regards female circumcision (the removal of the hood of the clitoris, rather than anything else as one finds elsewhere in Africa) as mandatory.

The Mufti himself was trained in Libya by scholars in the Shafi’i tradition, and realised that this more liberal model of Islam needs muscular protection. ‘In Rwanda, we learned that the result of division is genocide. That’s why we have set up these systems. We don’t allow any kind of thinking which can enter our society and divide us. That is why we don’t allow anyone to come to our country and teach about Islam without consulting the Rwandan Muslim community.’

What led to the genocide in Rwanda is very well-documented; it had its roots in the Belgian colonials’ pitting Hutus against Tutsis, imposing a spurious race science on what had been a class system, and subsequent racial rabble-rousing by Hutu leaders after independence. Wahhabis have not at any time ever been implicated in genocide and it was Muslims’ resistance to the 1994 genocide that inspired a large number of conversions in the years after. There is nothing ‘liberal’ about a form of religion that is dictated by a central committee which tells local imams what they can or cannot talk about regardless of the circumstances of their community. The word ‘liberal’ means ‘free’.

In Britain, there has been much talk about ‘preachers of hate’ whom the government has struggled to deport. In Rwanda, any deviation from Shafi’i principles and clerics are immediately barred, and their minbars shut down until they fall into line.

Some of the preachers in question were British citizens who had every right to be here, and as long as they were not directly encouraging violence, they could preach what they like because Britain is a free country. Some of the others came from countries which were dictatorships without the rule of law, and where anyone deported could be imprisoned for no reason and tortured. We also have Muslims from all over the world, so enforcing one school of thought would be impractical, to say the least. As mentioned earlier, the Shafi’i school has nothing to do with politics; it is a set of principles for deriving rulings in law.

Anti-Semitism is banned, the Mufti tells me, because ‘our basic Islam does not allow anyone to discriminate against other people.’ It’s often said that Islam’s problem is the lack of a hierarchy — no bishops, no excommunication — leaving it open to extremist infiltration. In Rwanda, there is a strict hierarchy, and it works.

Israel’s right to exist, he says, is defended in the Quran. ‘We have our land: Rwanda. God created Arabs, they have their land. He has created Pakistan, [he] has created Israel, and Jews must have their land. When you interpret the Quran — “ya bani Isra’il” — what does it mean?’ The children of Israel, I say. ‘Yes! He has named them for their nation, a name related to their land.’

The “strict hierarchy” probably works in the particular environment of Rwanda which does not have a tradition of democracy (Paul Kagame has been in power for the whole 25 years since the end of the civil war and genocide) and where the smoothing-over of divisions has been a priority since the end of the genocide. It does not mean it would work anywhere else; in the Catholic church, the hierarchy has colluded in the abuse of children by moving priests around and silencing victims and this has caused the whole church a lot of discredit. In Islam, the lack of a formal hierarchy is a strength; it means the religion is not discredited if a group of its leaders is. The religion is independent of any organisation.

A crowd of Black Muslim women wearing colourful headwraps and dresses in an open area among trees and bushes.Muslim women on Eid day in Rwanda. Source: New Times.

As for his comments on Jews, he must surely be aware that there are many nations across Africa that do not have their own land, and that most countries there are based on colonial boundaries, not ethnic or linguistic ones. Nowhere in any Islamic source is the idea of a land for Jews countenanced and the early Muslims, when they conquered the land known as Israel, did not establish one. Rather, Jews could live in any part of the Muslim empire except the Arabian peninsula, and did so. Some Jews continued to live in the area but the majority population were Christian and, increasingly, Muslim. The name Israel refers to the prophet Jacob or Ya’qoob, peace be upon him; the kingdom was at one point in history called Israel because all of the tribes descended from him lived there; at other times, the kingdom around Jerusalem was called Judah, after one of his sons, and subsequently Judaea (Israel uses this term nowadays for part of the West Bank). So this shows ignorance both of Islamic law and practice and of history.

I came here as part of a delegation from the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation and Visual History Archive. The idea was to hear from genocide survivors, and to document and learn from their testimony. I ended up learning about my own religion, and how liberal Islam — or, as millions of Muslims would put it, normal Islam — can flourish if the right protections are put in place by the right leaders. Protections enforced by Muslims themselves.

At a time when many European countries are struggling to protect both liberalism and religious tolerance, Rwanda’s achievement offers hope.

The biggest threats to liberalism and religious tolerance in Europe come from the state, the commercial media and the Far Right, not from Muslims; whatever Muslims do is used as an excuse. Rwanda is not a liberal country and never has been, before or after the colonial era or the genocide. In the period after, the Rwandan army has been involved in the civil war in the eastern Congo and has been involved in atrocities. The model depicted in this article may (or may not) work in Rwanda but cannot simply be lifted to any western or other country where there is a diversity of thought among the Muslims and an expectation of religious and intellectual freedom.

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Small towns, small islands, small minds

30 May, 2019 - 17:53

Yesterday this tweet was posted by the comedian and actor John Cleese, which (not for the first time I might add) gave rise to the widespread suspicion that Basil Fawlty, much as he may have been based on a real Devon hotelier, was not entirely an act after all:

I’ve lived in (outer) London all my life, except for periods spent at boarding school (in Ipswich, not a posh one) and university (Aberystwyth). There are some nine million of us and for most of us it’s the only England we have ever known except for brief trips out for holidays and the like. It’s a city in England and most people speak English. It’s also the capital of the United Kingdom, not just of England.

London is also a major world city, a financial centre, a city with several major universities where people come from the world over to learn and to teach. It also has several important hospitals which attract both staff and patients from all over the country and the world. It has world-famous shops and restaurants and, currently six Premier League football teams, three of which have fans around the world. It has, for decades if not centuries, been a place people want to live and has attracted people from all over the country, as well as migrants from around the world. Some stay for a while, some settle here.

Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) recoiling from a Black man in a white coat with a stethoscope round his neck, in the 1970s comedy Fawlty Towers

A major world city is not like a small town. London is not Market Harborough much as Paris is not a rural small town in the Midi or one of its many other regions and New York is not “Middle America” or a small town in, say, Missouri. It is metropolitan and not provincial, which some capitals are: small and fairly homogeneous in population. You want to live in one of those places, they are there. Living in a big city offers variety; have you seen the range of food on offer in a small Co-op in a place like Tywyn? In a big city you can get fruit and vegetables from all over the world and eat a variety of cuisines in any of the numerous restaurants. OK, most people do not have the money to eat out every day and most would not want to if they did, but most can eat out once in a while and they do not need to go to the same place twice, although they can if they find a good one, of course. Diversity gives richness and variety to people’s lives as well as the landscape.

In response to replies to his tweet, Cleese, who has moved to the Caribbean island of Nevis which is a major tax haven, has said he is glad to be living in a place which is “Murdoch-free” and which is not a centre for Russian money laundering. Yet, every small town in ‘real’ England has access to Murdoch papers (and Murdoch-owned Sky TV) as does London. The money laundering and its effect on the property market affects everyone, not just the ‘English’ (white) people in London. The increased costs of living makes everyone except landlords and the older generation, who bought their houses in the 60s and 70s and have long since paid off their mortgages, poorer whether they are ‘English’ or not. It’s also true that much of London has become a building site in the last twenty years or so and that visiting the central area has become a lot less pleasant in part because of this, but again, this has nothing to do with its diversity, and if anything, it is harmful to it.

Cleese links the supposed ‘un-Englishness’ of London with the ‘fact’ that it showed the highest vote to remain in the EU of all British cities. In fact, a number of British cities scored higher Remain votes, including Liverpool (though not all of Merseyside), Aberdeen, Oxford and Bristol. Birmingham, which also has a high ‘ethnic’ population, voted to leave as did a number of the towns around Manchester which also have high non-white populations (Manchester proper voted to remain). Many rural districts in the south, notably in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, voted to remain. Most EU nationals were not allowed to vote in the referendum; only British, Irish, Maltese and Cypriot nationals were, so even in London, the results reflect what the British people in these areas think. However, many of us have family members from other EU countries and so it’s natural that these people will have voted to stay in, the better to maintain links to those families. If you have friends and family who are of a different background to your own, you are less likely to have an insular mentality.

London’s a great city. It’s a world city, with a lot of England and a lot of the rest of the world. Its diversity makes it interesting and fun to live in. I can’t say I would never want to live anywhere else, but if I did, I would want to live somewhere fairly close to it, not on a small island or in a small village with other ‘refugees’ from the diversity that makes London what it is.

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Alastair Campbell and the Labour loyalty rules

29 May, 2019 - 19:07
Three white men (including Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and a third whose face is obscured) wearing suits and ties sitting at a large wooden table with papers in hand. A marble fireplace is behind Tony Blair and the third man.Alastair Campbell with Tony Blair during the latter’s years in power

Yesterday the former Downing Street communications director under Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, was expelled from the Labour Party for openly declaring that he had voted for the Liberal Democrats in last week’s European elections. This provoked a huge reaction from Labour supporters of the Blair/Brown tradition who see it as another example of Corbynites securing a stranglehold on the party and purging it of ideological ‘undesirables’, as well as people complaining that nobody accused of anti-Semitism had faced instant expulsion from the party (which is, in fact, inaccurate). Others have noted that this has been the rule for decades, that it was enforced during Blair’s years in power and that Alastair Campbell must have known about it.

The rule in question was indeed enforced, sometimes very rigidly, during the Blair years when many Labour members (as well as long-standing Labour voters) expressed dissatisfaction with Labour MPs and candidates, often in safe Labour seats, who had supported the Iraq war or other Blair policies which were seen as counter to either socialism or ideas of social justice. There were, in addition, candidates imposed on certain constituencies who were quite unlike those the local party would have chosen; there was some discontent about Shaun Woodward, an ex-Tory defector from the Major years, being imposed on or ‘parachuted’ into a safe Labour seat on Merseyside, for example. I recall seeing a letter in a newspaper that a member in South Wales had received a letter informing them of being expelled from the party for writing a letter to a local newspaper suggesting that people consult a tactical voting website. One can understand the rule that one be expelled or suspended for standing against an official Labour candidate or actively campaigning for a rival in an election, especially a Parliamentary one where “first past the post” applies, but for merely publicly suggesting that someone not vote for a particular Labour candidate, the threat of expulsion is contrary to freedom of speech.

This, frankly, is why I never renewed my membership when it lapsed after a year in 1995; I saw Tony Blair taking the party in a completely different direction in which appearance and ‘spin’ seemed to matter more than actual policy. Contrary to what seems to be the case in other parties, you do not enjoy free speech as a Labour party member; anything you say or write can be used against you if it is seen to be prejudicial to party interests. During the Blair years this was generally used against pesky Lefties who wanted a Labour party to reflect their values rather than the need for power at any cost; people wanted to change the politics and policies rather than just the faces and the rosette colours. I would never support a political party for its own sake, whether they call themselves Labour or anything else, and it is unreasonable to expect the discipline one might expect in a revolutionary socialist movement, from socialists, to further the interests of a capitalist party.

I support remaining in the EU and as I said in my previous entry, I voted Green to make that stance known. I might have voted Labour had they come out in support of a further referendum. I can do that from outside the Labour party; if Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair and others in that tendency do not like the rules, they had many years to change them.

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A few notes on the European election results

28 May, 2019 - 18:17
The back of a church with stained-glass windows, and the entrance to a church hall with the words "St James Church Hall" on a rectangular white sign in blue Swiss type. The words "POLLING STATION" are on a sign in black bold type with a plastic chair in front. An old lady wearing a turquoise top and grey trousers is walking through the doors which also have a sign saying "POLLING STATION" and giving the opening times.Polling station, New Malden

So, last night we finally found out the results of the European parliamentary election result, in which we in Britain had voted on Thursday but whose results we could not be told until all polls had closed at 10pm British time (11pm Central European Time) last night. They were being treated by quite a large segment of voters as an indicative referendum for Brexit itself; one of the main parties, which won the single biggest share of the votes, was the Brexit party led by Nigel Farage, the former leader of UKIP, and several of its candidates are former Tories (such as Ann Widdecombe) and others not previously associated with UKIP. The UKIP vote itself collapsed, mostly transferring to the Brexit Party, which won the single biggest share of the votes in most districts in England outside London and south-central England; Labour and the Liberal Democrats dominated in London, the Lib Dems had a strong showing in Remain areas of the provincial south which included a number of former safe Tory seats, while the Tories were not the single biggest party in a single district. Nigel Farage threatened a repeat of these results at a future general election if the Tories fail to deliver Brexit, though this threat is dubious for reasons I will get on to.

First, the law that dictates that we cannot be told the results until all polls closed, as opposed to all in the UK, should change. In the hours before polls closed in some parts of Europe I was seeing results from France and Germany on social media yet the British polls, which had closed days ago, were still secret. In this country we are used to being told the results of elections the night after they happen. We also should really get rid of our insistence on holding elections on a Thursday, which is a work day; most countries in the EU held the election on a Sunday. This might anger some hardline Protestants in Scotland and Northern Ireland but a better idea would be to make any election day a public holiday, and preferably a Friday, which is nobody’s religious rest day (including for Muslims who can and often do work on a Friday), so that it would result in a long weekend. The present system has an inbuilt bias in favour of people who are not in work, in particular retirees who are more likely to vote conservatively.

Second, electoral districts for European elections and referendums are local authority districts (London or metropolitan boroughs, unitary authorities or county districts), not parliamentary constituencies. This means that you cannot use the result for almost any area to exactly predict a parliamentary result as not only do boundaries vary but populations vary widely between districts while constituencies have roughly equal populations.

 The Independent Group. For a People's Vote, For Remain, Vote Change UK" followed by an X in a black box. In the foreground is a red-brick pavement and a sign pointing to a car park and "all routes".Change UK’s “battle bus”

Third, this was a woeful result for Change UK. They did not get a single MEP elected; they gained 3.4% of the vote nationwide, only slightly more than the rump of UKIP and slightly less than that of the SNP which only operates in Scotland. In Lambeth, in which lies the seat of one of its founders, Chuka Ummuna, they came fifth with just 8.1% of the vote; in South Cambridgeshire, which includes the constituency of their MP Heidi Allen, they came fifth with 7.1% of the vote. In many places they came 6th or 7th behind the rump UKIP. The newness of Change UK should not be an excuse given the success of the Brexit Party which is also very new and has no MPs. Their shambolic campaign may have had a lot of bearing on this, including a logo they could not register and a “battle bus” with a ‘livery’ looking like a few slogans typed into a word processor, but really the reason was that despite much media hype, they failed to inspire, coming over as a collection of ex-Labour backstabbers and some old Tories who had always supported the austerity that fed the Brexit vote. Despite having cited the anti-Semitism issue in the Labour party as a reason for leaving, they became embroiled in a race row in their first week of existence and again when nominating candidates for the European elections, so they failed to inspire on that issue and a few of them come across as unprincipled or as having a sense of entitlement to the leadership (or dominance) of the Labour Party. I predict that many of their MPs will join the Lib Dems although some might drift back to Labour, depending on who is strongest in their local area.

Fourth, the Brexit Party’s dominance across England and Wales, in both Labour and Tory areas, is a worrying prospect for any general election in the near future and the Tories’ poor showing (they came fifth, with 9.1% of the vote, down from 15% in 2014, with only four MEPs, down from 19 previously) would act as a deterrent to them holding another general election this year. If, and it is a very big if, they find people to stand as MPs in a parliamentary election, they could take a very large number of seats on the basis of a percentage of the vote in the low 30s (or even less than 30%, as in Leeds, Bradford and Wirral, or 21.2% as in Cardiff) while other candidates have 15-20% of the vote or even slightly less than them who all oppose leaving or support a second referendum. This must not be allowed to happen; if this state of affairs persists, at least the next parliamentary election must be held using a preferential voting system so that nobody can win a seat when they are rejected by two thirds, or more, of voters.

A map showing the percentage of the vote received by the Labour Party in each district. Shades of red represent 0-10%, 10-20%, 20-30% and 30%+.A graph showing Labour’s share of the vote in each district. Source: BBC

This has prompted Jeremy Corbyn and his close ally and shadow chancellor John McDonnell to endorse holding another referendum; their failure to do this saw votes lost in huge numbers to the Greens and Lib Dems (although they came third and lost fewer votes than the Tories) because people who opposed leaving the EU did not want a repeat of the 2017 election in which their votes were later presented by the prime minister as an endorsement of “respecting the referendum result” (even if this was a lie; many Labour MPs are openly against leaving), but it may well have come too late as the Tories are unlikely to hold a general election just after losing most of their MEPs to the Brexit Party. Again, we see the cultishness of Corbyn’s supporters on social media singing about how his judgement has been proven right time and again, with the usual bad habits of mistaking a lesser loss (than the Tories’) for a victory, which this most certainly was not. The party is now facing a statutory investigation for anti-Semitism, most of which I remain highly sceptical about (Simon Maginn has a piece on Medium about the absurd nature of some of the claims and the atmosphere of persecution that has ensued), but a general election defeat followed by major losses in two mid-term elections against a failing Tory government really should persuade the leadership to change their direction or the membership to think again about Corbyn’s leadership. It is quite clear that they are not pleasing anyone with their current stance, either Leave voters in the provinces or Remain voters in the cities. They polled more than 50% in only one district (Newham in east London); the majority of their wins, like the Brexit Party’s, were on much less than 40% of the vote. They need to stop blaming voters and start looking at their own policies and leadership.

However, they also need to beware of “compromise Leavers” on the party’s Right. For example, Stephen Kinnock was seen on BBC TV on Sunday night and claimed that the result gave a mandate for a soft Brexit, of “moving house, but staying in the neighbourhood”. The ‘neighbourhood’ consists of EFTA, membership of which (if we were even allowed to join, which is doubtful as Norway regards Britain as a potential source of discord) would mean accepting the Four Freedoms, including freedom of movement by people, which has been deemed the cause of the Brexit vote. The alternatives are economic isolation, at least for the first several months after we leave.

I live in the London region and voted Green, and I’m satisfied that we got a Green MEP elected. They are pro-EU, generally progressive, anti-racist and, of course, in support of measures to protect the environment at a time when we are at a critical juncture as regards global warming. I cannot remember how I voted in previous European elections but I have voted Liberal Democrat in Parliamentary elections since moving to this area where Labour are a distant third; however, their enabling of Tory austerity has meant holding one’s nose, so to speak, when voting for them since 2015 and so it was good to have an alternative. I have no qualms in saying that my vote had to be for an anti-Brexit party and one with no truck with Islamophobia (which ruled out Change UK which had Nora Mulready on its list of candidates for London) and which was free of association with austerity. I would have voted Labour if its position on Brexit or at least a second referendum had been clear; it was not. Brexit is really the biggest issue facing us now; any Brexit that leaves us outside the Single Market will cost jobs, narrow everyone’s horizons, destroy the health service and potentially lead to civil unrest as the cost of imported fresh food (which is an awful lot of our food) skyrockets or the food itself fails to materialise, and all the genuine grievances which contributed to the vote to leave can be addressed without leaving; they are all matters of British, not EU, policy.

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On disability and the laying-on of unwanted hands

24 May, 2019 - 00:43
A black and white picture of a group of white men laying their hands on the head of a white woman or girl who is wearing a vertically striped dress and facing away from the camera. A man in the right of the picture is holding an acoustic guitar.A “laying-on of hands” in a Pentecostal church in Kentucky, 1946

I saw this article by Damon Rose, whose podcast (I think before the term was invented) BlindKiss I used to listen to back in the early 2000s, about disability and the urge of some religious people, particularly Christians, to ‘heal’ them when they are going about their business is a common annoyance for many disabled people, seemingly regardless of impairment as long as it is visible, such as anything requiring wheelchair use, blindness (in Damon’s case) or a visible skin condition as the Australian activist Carly Findlay has written about from time to time. He mentions a story told by an Anglican vicar who is a wheelchair user, who has had similar encounters with parishioners who expected to be able to heal her:

Reverend Zoe Hemming, vicar of St Andrews Church in the village of Aston in Shropshire, is a part-time wheelchair user who lives with chronic pain. She’s had her own encounters with strangers offering healing prayer and says she finds this approach can be “spiritually abusive”.

“I’ve been in situations where I’ve been talking to another wheelchair user in church and somebody was so determined to pray for us and we just kept ignoring them because we were in the middle of a conversation. In the end he just put his arms on both our shoulders and just prayed. It was really annoying and very disempowering. I was furious.”

The reason being, of course, that in the Bible Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) cured many sick or disabled people and in one case brought a man, Lazarus, back from the dead, and commanded his disciples to do the same. Damon Rose talked to Lyndall Bywater, “a Christian who writes and teaches about prayer and is herself blind”, who puts it in a context in which being disabled meant being unemployable and poor and in some cases barred from worshipping at the temple. She believes that if Jesus was preaching now, he would not regard disabled people as needing pity or instant cures as they did at that time.

As a Muslim I have an alternative explanation: these were miracles intended to prove Jesus’ authority as a prophet and Messiah. They were also examples of karama, or manifestations of God’s grace at the hands of a holy man. If Jesus (peace be upon him) told his disciples that they might do the same, this applied to them alone, not to any Christian at any time. We do not believe that Jesus healed the sick or brought back a dead man to life: Almighty God did. He does this at the hands of His prophets in order to prove that they are genuine and to strengthen the faith of believers. On other occasions, people are not simply healed in an instant at the hands of prophets. There is a story involving the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) that a woman came to him asking him to pray that she be healed of her seizures, which were causing her to become uncovered. The Prophet offered to pray for her healing, but offered her a promise of Paradise if she would endure them. She agreed to do so but asked that he pray that she not become uncovered, which he did. These conditions are not curses but tests; if we are patient in the face of them and maintain our faith, we are promised a great reward in the Hereafter. And throughout the history of Islam, there have been many blind people who have been greatly valued as scholars, including a few who are numbered among the great imams known as renewers.

I was brought up Catholic and also attended Anglican church services as a child. I do not remember ever being told that I could perform miracles if only I believed enough, or if only the person I met did. The Christians who behave in this way are often “low church”, members of charismatic or ‘Evangelical’ churches. All too often, the people they insist on trying to heal were not looking to be healed that day; they were going about their business when someone got in their face, and when they were understandably annoyed at being disturbed by a total stranger, the stranger called them ungrateful or faulted their lack of faith. Church leaders really should be telling their flocks that they should not be annoying disabled people in this way and that if they want to pray, they can do so quietly anywhere, because God can see and hear them, and pray for people who are obviously suffering or want prayers, and if it’s someone who is getting on fine, then pray for their general betterment and not for an undesired ‘healing’ of an impairment they may have come to accept.

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Are ‘Led By Donkeys’ making asses of themselves?

18 May, 2019 - 19:28
 Floorings for your home". In front of the poster, a woman wearing a light grey jumper and blue jeans pushes a baby in a buggy across a road.A poster for the Brexit Party with a statement by Nigel Farage: “The European Parliament, in their foolishness, have voted for increased maternity pay”.

Last week, after having a few weeks’ break, the crowd-funded anti-Brexit poster campaign “Led By Donkeys” (a reference to the alleged saying by a German general in the First World War about the British army, “lions led by donkeys”) have been putting up posters containing sayings by leading figures in the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage which has refused to issue a manifesto before the upcoming European elections (23rd May) and whose candidate lists include former communists as well as the more traditional former Ukippers and Tories. Their aim is to present the Brexit Party as a reactionary party which intends to profit from economic decline while tearing apart public services such as the NHS. However, I think some of their quotes may be a bit obscure for a lot of people.

There is no dispute that Nigel Farage did give a speech during his “Common Sense tour” in which he advocates a move to an American-style insurance-based healthcare ‘system’, saying:

Frankly, I would feel more comfortable that my money would return value if I was able to do that through the marketplace of an insurance company (sic) than just us trustingly giving £100m a year to central government and expecting them to organise the healthcare service from cradle to grave for us.

A lot of us are well aware that in the USA, healthcare premiums for those whose workplace does not provide insurance are sky-high, they are more so for people who have pre-existing conditions, they are as selective as the NHS about which medications they will provide, that people go bankrupt as a result of medical bills and will sometimes refuse emergency treatment to avoid a five-figure hospital bill. Most of this is unheard-of to us here in the UK because we have a healthcare system that is funded out of public taxation. The thing is that a lot of people do not know a lot about American healthcare or indeed any healthcare except ours; some may be aware of people flown to the USA for treatment unavailable here and they do know that we have a thing called National Insurance which was supposed to pay for social security but in fact is spent on pensions, so the idea of insurance is not entirely foreign to people who mostly pay for car and home content insurance and the quote would not have given them the ‘chills’ LBD might have thought they did.

LBD have already withdrawn another poster, the one featuring Ann Widdecombe (the former Tory cabinet minister from the John Major era) saying “homosexual acts are wrongful”, because “just because we’re outraged at her views it doesn’t mean everyone will be, and more importantly there will be some who’ll take her words at face value”. However, their general campaign is based on the idea that everyone will agree with them that the attitudes of Farage, Widdecombe and others are outdated and ridiculous, when in fact not everyone will. In their previous ‘tweet’ campaign they were accused similarly of addressing the public as if they were addressing a group of like-minded friends rather than a general public with a diverse body of opinions. That campaign exposed the double standards of some of the major Brexiteer politicians, some of whom were on record as opposing leaving the EU as recently as 2012, but in the choice of attitudes they choose to ‘expose’ here, they are counting on a public that agrees with them when it might not always. Exposure sometimes works (as in the 1970s when the National Front were exposed as being actual Nazis rather than simply opponents of mass immigration), but only when the thing exposed is unacceptable to everyone, rather than just to many or some.

Image source: Led By Donkeys.

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It’s the communications, dummy

16 May, 2019 - 23:16
A picture of a crescent (new) moon in a red sky over two small trees, with the lights of a city behind them.Crescent moon over Manama, Bahrain, marking the start of Ramadan

I follow a few Kashmir activists on Twitter and a theme that has been coming up a lot lately is Indian Hindus and secularist Muslims lecturing Indian Muslims (and Muslims in the Indo-Pak diaspora) that they should stop calling Ramadan ‘Ramadan’ and use the Indo-Persian rendering, ‘Ramazan’ or ‘Ramzan’ which has been what the sacred month has traditionally been called in India. This is usually accompanied by a moan about Arabisation of Indian Muslim culture and the effect of Gulf finance and supposed Wahhabi sectarianism. Others accuse Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistani dictator from the early 1980s, of imposing “Arab culture” in Pakistan, as if this could have had significant impact on India which is a much bigger country which no longer has significant traffic with Pakistan due to political hostility. Here’s an example from an Indian Washington Post columnist:

One wonders why people care about how followers of a religion they do not believe in pronounce names from their religion, but the answers lie in control and purity. If Indian Muslims are practising Islam in a way more influenced by Arab than Indian custom (even though they already regard Islam itself as an alien imposition), it gives the impression that they are not really committed to Indianness, to Indian culture, to loyalty to India rather than to Muslims around the world. To ‘liberal’ Hindus it represents the rise of youthful radicalism; to reactionary ones it proves what they believed all along: that Muslims really do not identify with India and have no place in India.

There is some parallel with the way women who wore the modern headscarf were treated in some Arab secular regimes and by writers hostile to Islam or ‘Islamism’. The new headscarf was seen as a symbol of Islamist ideology; it was not the association with patriarchy that was objected to but the sign of dissent to the ideology of the state. In Tunisia, where from the 1980s onwards the government repressed the wearing of hijab because they deemed it a symbol of ‘backwardness’ and of opposition to the regime, the traditional veil known as the safsari was permitted, yet this was a more restrictive garment that had to be held in place by hand. Patriarchy and restrictions on women’s liberty were fine by them as long as they were by themselves.

In truth, the spread of Arab pronunciations of words like ‘Ramadan’ has more to do with improved communications than with any ideology or religious movement. Indian Muslims until the 19th century rarely met an Arab Muslim until they went to Hajj which the majority were never able to do; Arabs came as traders and sometimes visiting scholars but rarely otherwise. Today, many Muslims (as well as others) go to work in the Gulf as well as in Europe and America where Persianisms such as ‘Namaz’ and ‘Ramazan’ are not normal. They gained their knowledge from local scholars who were not native Arabic speakers. Today, Muslims all over the world (at least the middle class and up) have access to satellite TV, the Internet, books and magazines published in their own language as well as English and Arabic and are aware of ways of practising Islam that are not the same way they do, and sometimes they learn that the way they do things is not the right way or at least not the only way. For example, it is surely no coincidence that the decline of practices such as FGM in parts of Africa where most people are Muslims has followed the opening-up of those countries to communication with Muslims outside who do not do these things and never have done. Before that, as in India, nobody except scholars and itinerant traders had contact with the outside world.

The irony is that ‘Ramazan’ is not the only ‘native’ way of pronouncing ‘Ramadan’ in India. In many places (such as in Bengal) it is pronounced ‘Ramajan’ (and the salaat or ritual prayer, known as namaz elsewhere in India, is ‘namaj’). ‘Ramazan’ is the north-east Indian Persian ‘court’ term. To anyone literate in Arabic, the idea that four Arabic letters with different pronunciations might all be rendered as ‘Z’ does not make sense, especially in a country where other Arabic sounds that are also not native there, such as qaf and ghayn, are prounounced more or less correctly; if you are praying with Arabs who are not of the Hanafi school of thought, they will regard your prayer as invalid if you mangle words like “dhaalleen” in the Fatiha. So, while it’s only to be expected that Hindu nationalists will carp at Muslims for embracing correct Arabic pronunciations (or something close to it), I do not see an honest reason for Muslims to do so. Why would you not want Muslims to embrace the language of the Qur’an and our Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam?

Image source: Ahmad Rabea, via Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 2.0 licence.

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Some of my recent photography

12 May, 2019 - 23:25

Besides blogging, amateur landscape photography is an interest of mine and I recently joined the National Trust, a charity which manages a large body of stately homes, gardens and places of natural beauty across the UK. In the couple of weeks before Ramadan started, I visited four of their properties that are fairly close to me: Petworth House and Nymans in Sussex, Polesden Lacey in Surrey and Ham House in south-west London. My photos (going back to 2006) are all on my Flickr account, but here are a selection of the photos I took at the four houses I recently visited. At Nyman’s, the major attraction is the garden; at the others, it is the houses.

IMG_6841 Nyman’s, near Crawley, West Sussex IMG_6637 Ham House, south-west London IMG_6533 Polesden Lacey, Surrey IMG_6401 Petworth House, West Sussex

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Does London need an official Holocaust memorial?

12 May, 2019 - 01:16
A picture of the Buxton Memorial in the Victoria Tower Gardens; the Houses of Parliament and the Tower itself are in the background. The memorial is a single-storey, octagonal structure with arches on each sides with marble columns. It has a tall, conical roof with coloured stained glass and a gold-coloured cross at the top.The Buxton Memorial fountain in the Victoria Tower Gardens

Last week the prime minister, Theresa May, joined her four living predecessors to make a video promoting a project to build a permanent Holocaust memorial and education centre in Victoria Tower Gardens, a small park next to the River Thames immediately south of the Houses of Parliament. The plan has led to serious opposition, with the Royal Parks charity, which manages the park, having publicly opposed it back in February and a campaign launched, Save Victoria Tower Gardens, which is “concerned that this plan will change forever the use of a much loved and well-used local park into a sombre, security patrolled civic space” and suggests the grounds of the Imperial War Museum, across the river in Lambeth, as a better place for the memorial than the gardens which remain the only riverside park in central London. In Thursday’s Guardian there was a letter from a former chief executive of Royal Parks, William Weston, who linked it to the extinction crisis headlined in the Guardian earlier in the week:

Do politicians not get it? This threat is not only about the loss of rainforest. It’s also about the loss of green space where we live. Londoners are suffering from illegal levels of pollution, yet still another memorial bites into our precious green space.

I am not opposed to the idea of a Holocaust memorial or education centre in London, but VTG does seem very much the wrong place to do it; I suspect that it was chosen because it was less expensive than buying up an existing building in Westminster for the purpose and perhaps because some MPs really do want the last bit of open space that is open to the public around Parliament to become, as the campaign put it, a security-patrolled civic space (this installation will cut the park in half). As Rowan Moore noted back in February, there are already a number of memorials to oppression in the park, such as the Buxton memorial to the abolition of slavery, but this will dwarf all of them; it will take up the entire width of the park right next to the Buxton memorial fountain which will be fenced off from this site while it is currently easily visible across the whole park. There is already a Holocaust memorial in Hyde Park, opened in 1983 and funded by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and remembrance services are held there every year; it consists of a set of granite boulders set in a copse of beech trees, with an extract from the Biblical book of Lamentations on one of the stones in Hebrew and English. There is also a National Holocaust Centre and Museum, but its location in Nottinghamshire presumably makes it too insignificant for British politicians’ liking (admittedly its accessibility is poor with no public transport to the venue).

Besides the location, I question the concept behind the design of the memorial, designed by a team consisting of Adjaye Associates, Ron Arad Architects and Gustafson Porter + Bowman, which consists of 22 brass fins each representing a country whose Jewish community was destroyed in the Holocaust. The problem is that the specific countries they came from are of less significance than the numbers murdered; many of them had only been in existence for some 20 years at the time of the Nazi invasion (since the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire), and why should one ‘fin’ represent the 3 million Jews that lived in pre-war Poland while another represents the much smaller number from another country? Why fins, anyway? The European part of World War II was fought mostly over land, not sea; many of the countries affected were and are landlocked. Yes, there are fish in rivers, obviously, but fins are generally not part of the landscape of central Europe.

An image of how the new memorial will look, with the metal 'fins' arranged side by side behind a paved courtyard across which people are walking. The Buxton memorial is to the right, behind a new metal fence, and the Victoria Tower can be seen in the background (the memorial obscures most of the rest of Parliament).Architects’ image of the new memorial next to the Buxton Memorial.

And finally, I take issue with a lot of the political rhetoric being used to advance this project. Theresa May describes the memorial on the Holocaust memorial section of the British government website as a “sacred, national mission”: “in the face of despicable Holocaust denial, this Memorial will stand to preserve the truth forever”. Really? Britain played a major role in defeating the country whose forces perpetrated the Holocaust, and I have not heard a huge amount of public debate about this, so who decided it was a “sacred national mission”? Clearly a lot of those who do not want to sacrifice precious public park space do not agree. People convinced of untruth will not change their minds just because the government builds a memorial and museum in a public space; they will just call it propaganda, much as they call all the evidence to the Holocaust that already exists. There is a lot of talk of the memorial serving as a reminder to guard against hatred and prejudice, but politicians, including those in May’s party, are quite happy to exploit prejudice against so-called “enemies within” and “economic migrants” to score political points and the mass media are content to do the same to make money, much as we have war memorials in every town listing the names of every local who died in the First World War (and the Second, if there is space), yet our politicians will still drag us into wars on dubious grounds when it suits them, including one of the former prime ministers who appeared in a video to support this scheme. The Holocaust ended more than 70 years ago; a memorial to a crime that is well in the past and in another country that we were at war with gives the message that these sorts of things happen elsewhere and in the past — much like, for example, the books set in the USA during the time of segregation from which so many young British students learn about racism in school and college. The proposal refers to the exhibition space as an “education centre”, but you cannot build much of an education centre in that space.

It’s a huge act of hypocrisy for the four former prime ministers to take part in this video (it is not really an appeal, as it seems to be a case of the government telling us what it intends to do and Blair and Brown gave it a ‘bipartisan’ appearance). John Major, when prime minister, sat on his hands for three years while a genocidal war raged in Bosnia, and did not allow Bosnian refugees to travel to the UK. There is no reference to this here; the only specific prejudice discussed is anti-Semitism. Blair made specific reference to the ‘poison’ of “anti-Semitism and hate” being “back from the political fringe to parts of the political mainstream”, an unmistakeable reference to Jeremy Corbyn and the fact that his faction are no longer in charge of the Labour Party. During his administration, the tabloid press abused and vilified minorities on a regular basis, in some cases resulting in physical abuse against their members in the street and their having to make changes to how they dress just to feel safe, or safer; rather than tackle them, he bowed to them, in one case locking up people who had lived here for years and had got into trouble years ago and served their sentences to sate tabloid demands to deport “foreign criminals”. I am not sure what lessons from the Holocaust any of them learned, to be honest. For decades anti-fascists have been calling for there to be no platform for fascists and for their propaganda to be rebutted rather than for them to be appeased, yet today politicians do deals with fascists or their allies: Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro.

The government tell us that the exhibition will “set the Holocaust within the British narrative”. It does rather seem like a national pat-on-the-back, a sign of how good we are as a nation. The truth is that most of those who visit will be tourists; it will not be big enough to provide enough material for schoolchildren, and if it is then only schoolchildren from around the London area will visit as London is in the far south-east of the country. That it will be “in the shadow of Parliament” will make it less accessible as the area is choked with traffic and prone to security alerts and the like; a repeat of the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack will deter schools from sending parties there, while the Imperial War Museum, let alone the existing museum in Nottinghamshire, has no such issue. That educating children about the Holocaust is vital is not in dispute — a recent poll found that one in twenty British adults did not believe it had happened — but it must reach the whole country and not require a visit to a park in Westminster, and it must be about hate in general and all recent genocides, not just anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We must not let ourselves be deluded that anti-Semitism is a hate apart, that it is ‘primal’ while other prejudices are in some way grounded in fact or have some rational basis to them: they all feel ‘rational’ to the person who is prejudiced. The dangers of hateful propaganda, the politician who fosters false grievances against people or channels real grievances into hatred towards a minority rather than towards positive change, are universal, and in many countries, including many western countries, the danger has not for a long time been as real as it is now.

Image source: Patche99z. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 Unported licence.

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Why I defend Jeremy Corbyn on anti-Semitism

7 May, 2019 - 17:17
 Introduced by Nathaniel Mehr, with a foreword by Jeremy Corbyn MP.Cover of a recent edition of JA Hobson’s Imperialism

Two things happened last week which gave rise to a lot of opinionating on the current state and future of the Labour party. One was another ‘revelation’ about Jeremy Corbyn displaying anti-Semitism, in this case writing a foreword to a 2011 edition of a book with a few anti-Semitic passages. The other was a round of local elections, mostly for district councils in England though with a few unitary authorities, in which Labour lost 84 council seats and suffered a net loss of control of six councils (in practice, they lost one to the Tories and ten to no overall control, while gaining two from the Tories and three from NOC) while the Tories lost 44 councils and 1,330 council seats. In the same elections, the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats gained 10 councils and 704 seats and the anti-Brexit Green Party gained 194 seats while UKIP suffered a net loss of 145 council seats, being left with only 31. (The ‘Independent Group’ and Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party were not running.) While this could be easily interpreted as evidence of widespread repudiation of Brexit, politicians have as ever interpreted them to mean what they want them to mean, with Theresa May claiming that it is a message from “the people” to politicians to get on with Brexit. Labour supporters, as ever, have taken to spinning a loss as a victory.

The work to which Jeremy Corbyn wrote a foreword, Imperialism by J. A. Hobson, is not one I am familiar with, but on hearing the claims, it seemed obvious that the book was written a long time ago when most people, including some whose ideas are still influential or whose legacy is widely celebrated or whose foundations are still in existence, had views that would be condemned now. It’s well-known, for example, that some thinkers who are regarded as progressives were strong supporters of eugenics, the idea that certain categories of human beings should be discouraged or actively prevented from having children, including disabled people whose impairments were, or were thought to be, hereditary but also including a host of other people presumed to be genetically inferior. This was ultimately discredited by association with Nazi eugenics (though it persisted in law in some countries into the 1970s) and the same can be said about anti-Semitism; however, casual expressions of anti-Semitism can be found in a lot of classic works of English literature, many of which are still taught in schools and colleges around the world including here. When we were taught philosophy at sixth form in the 1990s, the obvious racism in Friedrich Nietzsche’s comments about the Jews (“a people ‘born for slavery’, as Tacitus and the entire ancient world said”) was remarked on but when we saw it in Jane Eyre (“Do you think I am a Jew-usurer, seeking good investment in land?”), as I recall, it was not. There is currently a campaign to tear down statues of men who committed crimes in the service of Empire and who profited from the slave trade from public spaces and the grounds of major colleges, which has been resisted by many pro-establishment writers with jibes about snowflakes trying to make academia a “safe space” and barely concealed resentment about ‘ingratitude’ or ‘uppityness’.

I have not read the book, so I do not know how much of the book’s content consisted of anti-Semitic statements; a letter in the Guardian last week from Donald Sassoon, emeritus professor at Queen Mary, University of London, claimed it was ten lines out of some 400 pages while Jonathan Freedland claimed that there were “pages and pages” of it. The Morning Star noted that Gordon Brown had cited the book in a Chatham House speech in 2005 and that Tony Blair had noted his importance in the early history of the Labour party by saying that he was “probably the most famous Liberal convert to what was then literally ‘new Labour’”. That others are racist is no excuse to be racist, of course, but it is odd that people have suddenly noticed the anti-Semitism in Hobson’s books when it provides a stick to beat Jeremy Corbyn with, and if you are willing to vote Tory (or at least in a way that lets a Tory in) despite the racism from some of their senior figures, including one tipped to be leader or prime minister, you need to ask why you care about this type of racism but not that. A common complaint is that people on the Left who are keen opponents of other racism have a “blind spot” about anti-Semitism and would not excuse the same comments being made about Black people, but as Prof Sassoon points out in his letter, nobody seems to have noticed other racist material in the same Hobson book: musings on the “lower races” (Black Africans) and what to do with them.

In the headline to Freedland’s article, he or his editor wail that Corbyn either does not understand anti-Semitism or he does not care. But the answer is more likely to be a third possibility, which is that he does not accept the definition of it that is in vogue right now: that it involves anything which diminishes the standing of the state of Israel, which diverges from Israeli narratives about their conflict with (i.e. oppression of) the Palestinian people, which does not accept Israelis’ right to dominance over them, as well as any questioning of claims from Jews that something is anti-Semitic or (in the light of dissent from secular Jews or people of Jewish origin) the right of the ‘mainstream’ pro-Israel religious Jewish establishment to dictate who we consider a Jew (a right not extended to other minorities, including Muslims as I have previously explained). We sometimes see demands that we show enormous sensitivity to their feelings because of things their teachers and parents and grandparents taught them about persecutions Jews experienced in other countries decades or centuries ago, such as that they always had a bag packed in case the majority population turned on them; one article demanded that we not use the term ‘bloodthirsty’ to describe Israeli treatment of Palestinians, especially children, since this ‘echoes’ the blood libel of Jews killing Christian children (this originated in England, but most people here have never heard of it; I only learned about it as an adult). Yet they demand that Palestinians (it ceased to be an Arab-Israeli conflict a long time ago) be expected to continue suffering so that Jews can dominate somewhere, regardless of the fact that Israel keeps electing governments that support settlement expansion, protect abusive settlers, harass Palestinians in the West Bank on a day-to-day basis and oppose a just peace.

Picture of a white woman wearing a green headwrap putting her face up to the window of a home, which has been reinforced with a metal wire fence, repeating the word "sharmoota" (whore) to the female Palestinian occupant.An Israeli settler woman abuses a Palestinian woman in her home by calling her “sharmoota” (whore) repeatedly. (Source: B’Tselem.)

I should add that non-Jewish Zionists are every bit as self-righteous and dogmatic about policing how other people talk about Israel or Israelis as Jewish ones are. The other day, the Corbynite activist known as Rachael Swindon tweeted a video of what were claimed to be Israeli police abusing Palestinian schoolchildren; the video had actually been shot in Guatemala. If such a mistake had been made about any other country, it would simply have been pointed out; with this, there were demands for apologies because it was assumed that the intention must have been anti-Semitic, or it was deemed racist because it was about Israel. Given that there is plenty of real footage about Israeli soldiers and settlers abusing Palestinians, including children, why are people professing to be outraged that someone circulated one by mistake?

This is not to say that there is nothing to criticise Jeremy Corbyn or his followers for, but most of the anti-Semitism claims are exaggerated or wilfully misinterpreted and unlike in the Conservative party, they concern low-ranking officials rather than MPs or anyone with leadership or ministerial prospects. My experience of them is that they are at worst cult-like, and at best too devoted to him to see any wrong in his actions and, coming back to these elections, they cannot call a spade a spade. They will present a trivial gain (such as in a parish council election) as if it were a great triumph and will present losses, especially if they are smaller than expected or smaller than someone else’s, as gains. There is a kind of “magical thinking” that holds that words or ‘attitudes’ can turn defeats into victories or make victories more likely if people only believe. For example, I saw Aaron Bastani hype up a result in Christchurch, Dorset, in which two Labour candidates won less than half the number of votes as the winning independent candidates, and claim “Labour will get that into four figures next time”. Although Labour did gain seats in areas they had not previously done (e.g. on some councils in West Sussex), they scored a net loss even though it was a smaller one than the Tories’ who are taking the blame for the ongoing Brexit debacle. The only parties to gain were the Liberal Democrats and Greens, both unequivocally anti-Brexit while Labour sits on the fence. As these were district council elections (districts are responsible for housing, planning and refuse collection; counties cover education, libraries, transport and social care) turnout was low and these are an easy target for protest votes. In general elections, people are more likely to vote for candidates who can win, which is usually the Tories, Labour or a smaller party with a strong local or regional base. Sadly, one thing Remainers may not foresee is people who voted to stay in 2016 changing their minds out of faith in Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed plans for, and ability to deliver, socialism outside the EU, despite no such plans having been made available for public scrutiny.

However, the agitators within the Labour Party, those who have left and those sniping from outside do not simply want to remove Corbyn from the leadership; they want to make it impossible for anyone to express a view about the state of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinian native people that is inconvenient or damaging to the standing of Israel. The “exposes” have been targeted at people at every level of the Labour party for making statements which, if they were about any other country, would not be classed as racist and rarely called for the state of Israel to be abolished or destroyed but accused it of meddling in other countries’ affairs or used ‘intemperate’ language to describe the violence they saw on TV or in videos. There is also an ongoing movement to demonise the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement as anti-Semitic and people have had visas withdrawn in some countries or been threatened with losing their jobs for participating, or for refusing to sign agreements not to participate. Again, BDS is not aimed at destroying Israel; it is aimed at forcing Israel to the negotiating table to secure a just peace, not a Bantustan surrounded on all sides by a hostile Israel. This is not about combating racism; it is about protecting an oppressive, racist regime which is regarded as a western ally. It is no surprise that partisans of Tony Blair, of the Labour party of the Iraq war, compulsory ID cards, the “foreign criminals scandal”, of Jack Straw of “get rid of the squeegie merchants and winos” and the niqab ‘controversy’ fame, are the ones pushing this agenda. I saw the campaign being described on Twitter as an attempt “by racists to smear anti-racists as ‘racists’” and it is hard to disagree with that, whether they all realise their attitudes are racist or not.

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Dear Muslims, stop cringing

2 May, 2019 - 23:17
A graphic showing a table with jugs of water and plates of food under a crescent moon and four hanging lanterns; underneath the table is the slogan "No, not even water".

Ramadan starts next week, and for the first time in a long while, the fasting days will be getting longer as the month progresses; most of the days will be long, starting (depending on your point of view) just after 1pm or some time around 2:30am and finishing just before 9pm and, towards the end, well after 9:30pm. Most Muslims will be working or studying during this time and most of us in the UK will not be working only around other Muslims. Every so often someone decides to make it a little bit easier for us by asking people not to eat right in front of us, especially food which smells, and it seems that some Muslims are over-anxious to tell them that in fact, we’re not offended and others really do not need to consider their feelings before they stuff their faces in front of fasting workmates or schoolmates.

A few years ago I had a conversation about this on BBC Radio London when the Daily Express (or Daily Spew as I called it at the time) made a story out of the fact that staff at Tower Hamlets council in east London, an area where there is a very high concentration of Muslims, not to eat during meetings or otherwise in front of fasting Muslim workmates. Back then, Ramadan was in September and the days were getting noticeably longer and more difficult, although (unlike today) they got shorter as the month progressed. The paper, you may recall, published a number of stories about things being ‘banned’ because Muslims complained or because council staff were afraid of offending Muslims, and often it was utter baloney: Christmas being renamed (tabloids repeated the story about ‘Winterval’ numerous times over the years, when in fact this was a promotion for a refurbished shopping centre which ran for two years and Christmas was part of it), piggy banks being removed and other nonsense like that. After the Leveson report, they had to come clean on the falsity of some of these stories and stop repeating them. But it seems the fear of them has never gone away for many of us.

Some of us have legitimate reasons not to fast at least some of Ramadan: periods, travel, illness or the threat of it (as with type 1 diabetics and long spring/summer fasts) and a few others. If any of these apply to us, we don’t eat in front of people who are fasting if we can avoid it. It’s basic consideration. Of course, contact with food is unavoidable for some people, such as restaurant workers or those with small children, and we have to prepare food in the last hour or so before iftar, and yes, as a Twitter acquaintance pointed out, you get Muslim food companies (like the sweet producer Ambala) making Ramadan prayer timetables that advertise their food. But for the most part, we do not want to go through the day being reminded of food any time we have a free moment and we don’t do that to each other.

So really we should not rush to tell non-Muslims that they really can feel free to stuff their faces in front of us at work and we really don’t mind, really. Do we really think that people who do not want us around, or do not want to see our headscarves or abayas or, where applicable, our brown skin will hate us any less because we don’t object to their stinking the office out with their cooked food during a working day and eating it in front of us when we are trying to concentrate on our work, or read, or whatever when we are hungry? Of course they will not. I do not see Muslims making this request, only non-Muslims trying to be considerate so please, do not throw it back in their faces! The people objecting are not those who need to eat at regular intervals or people with learning disabilities with no understanding of religion; we understand that. They are people who do not want us around, however much we tone our religion or our practice down. This is our country, many of us were born here and indeed even many Asian people are third or fourth generation; we are not unwelcome guests but are here to stay, so let’s not cringe in front of bigots.

Image source: TeePublic.

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Why are St Andrew’s passing the buck?

1 May, 2019 - 23:57

Yesterday it was reported that Katie Fisher, the chief executive of St Andrew’s Healthcare, a charity which runs four hospitals including a large psychiatric institution in Northampton, had “spoken out” after an internal review found that they had 36 patients who should not be in hospital but were there only because of the lack of suitable community placements or funding to allow them to go to one. She is quoted as saying:

The system is in crisis. There are people who have life-long needs who require life-long support, but those who recover or are assessed as fit to leave but then cannot are not gaining any clinical benefit from being here. It is potentially damaging, especially if they don’t know when or where they will be discharged. This is their life and not being able to move to a more suitable place or home is just wrong, unnecessarily restrictive and hugely expensive.

It’s ironic that she calls it “hugely expensive” when, of course, it is private operators such as St Andrew’s and profit-making entities such as Cygnet and Priory are making a lot of money out of this situation. It is to the public that it is expensive. St Andrew’s in Northampton is an enormous complex with numerous wards in the old building which have been abandoned as they are old-fashioned and because they have features which make supervision difficult; active wards are mostly in newer buildings. All of these operators take in patients on a regular basis they know to be unsuited to the remit of or the conditions on the ward; they know, for example, that many people admitted are autistic, yet they do not refuse to take them.

None of these organisations is impoverished; St Andrew’s, besides its considerably property portfolio, has enough to pay its chief executives six-figure salaries and big bonuses. They should not be blaming local authorities or “the system” for their practice of taking in people as patients that they know do not need their care or who are unsuited, and then keeping them in conditions which deprive them of fresh air, human contact, everyday comforts (such as an appropriately decorated room) or even essential medical treatment such as the removal of bits of a plastic pen from their arm, or keeping them locked-up or drugged unnecessarily.

Let’s have no more excuses. If St Andrew’s cannot provide appropriate care for the people they take in under the Mental Health Act or otherwise, they should not be taking money to do so. Local authorities would not be able to avoid their duties to autistic people and others with major care needs if there were not charities and businesses looking to take them in but not necessarily to care for them properly.

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On responding to anti-vaxxers

28 April, 2019 - 19:54
Photo of a white child of about a year old with their body covered in a red rash from measles.Child with a classic “day 4” rash with measles.

Today I saw two new articles on the issue of the measles epidemic in the USA which has been caused by the failure of parents, under the influence of anti-vaccine pseudo-science and ideology which feeds off a widely-discredited scare about the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and vaccines more generally. One is by Stephanie Nimmo whose daughter had a lifelong chronic illness that made it dangerous for her to receive live vaccines and is about the importance of the rest of us being vaccinated and making sure our children are. The other is in today’s Observer and is about how the contempt often shown to anti-vaxxers, including for these purposes parents who refuse vaccines for their own children, feeds populist right-wing politics (as it has in Italy) and causes the parents involved to dig in rather than to submit.

I grew up in the years before the MMR vaccine; when I was young, the major scare was about the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine. Neither my sister nor I had it; both of us had the disease, and it got passed on to a friend’s child who also got it. We all survived. I also had the single measles vaccine that was available then (late 70s) and got measles, mildly, and passed it to my Dad, who had it severely (though without lasting effects). Steph Nimmo in her article speaks of her memories of having the disease, “of being terribly ill at home, in a darkened bedroom, unable to bear bright lights”, which is one of her strongest memories of early childhood. It left her deaf in one ear. My mother was not stupid; it was widely reported that the vaccine was linked to brain damage (as she told me) and she wanted to avoid causing her child lasting illness or disability. The same was true of many of the parents who refused the MMR vaccine in the early years of the scare. Neither she nor most of they were opposed to vaccines in general. Today, hard-set belief is more likely to be behind refusals.

Many of us now do not remember the days when measles was a severe illness that left people blind, deaf, brain-damaged or dead. We think of it as an illness that children got, and got over, that made them ill for a few weeks and gave them a rash. Many of us remember being a bit sick and having some time off school, maybe in bed, and having one of our parents or another adult to ourselves for a few days. So it is no surprise that when parents believe that a vaccine is linked to lasting damage, they would rather expose their child to the illness instead. The cure, they think, is probably worse than the disease. In the early years of the Wakefield MMR scare, readers may recall, the then prime minister Tony Blair refused to tell the public whether he had had his young son Leo given the MMR. This immediately gave the impression that the powerful, though they lectured the rest of us to trust the scientists and have our children vaccinated “their way”, did not do this themselves. I believed then, and do now, that the government should have made the single measles and rubella vaccines available free of charge to the public (the latter to pre-teen girls, to prevent congenital rubella syndrome in their children) as they had been pre-MMR.

A common term in the literature of vaccines is “herd immunity”, which is when the incidence of a disease is negligible because the vast majority of the population has been vaccinated. This is what people like Stephanie Nimmo’s daughter, Daisy, relied on to make sure they also will not get the diseases. When I mentioned this to an anti-vaxxer on Facebook a few years ago, however, she told me “and I’m not a heffer (sic) to be herded”. People do not like to be compared to livestock and when the likes of Tony Blair apparently refuse a controversial vaccine for their children, its message is that what’s good for “the herd” is not good for their leaders. A few years ago Mitch Benn, the comedian who appears on BBC panel shows, did a song called “Vaccinate Your Kids” which called the Americans who resisted vaccination “bloody idiots” and also stressed the importance of “herd immunity”. It is unlikely to have changed many minds, however many laughs it got in the BBC studio; people know that politicians and the rich do not regard themselves as part of the ‘herd’.

What people often forget is that fears about vaccines are not just about the MMR and not just about autism. I know of a number of cases where people developed ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis), or a disease a lot like it, after being given routine vaccinations; the best-known case is that of Lynn Gilderdale, who developed it at 14 following the BCG vaccination (for tuberculosis) which was given routintely to teenagers at that time (the early 1990s) and became bedridden the following year, and remained so for the rest of her life. Some similar cases have been linked to the vaccinations for the human papillomavirus (HPV), a major cause of cervical cancer, which is also administered to girls at about the same age. These cases may be very rare but they are also extremely severe and consign a young person to a lifetime of extreme sickness and pain. I have heard theories about why people suffer extreme reactions to vaccines but I have not heard of any research being done into this and to what may be done to minimise the risk.

Neither public health authorities nor the medical profession should rely on their authority, and on the public’s acceptance of it, as a guarantee that people will take their advice and vaccinate during a scare. People know that doctors make mistakes and anyone with experience of chronic illness or disability will most likely have encountered an arrogant or callous doctor who thought they knew what was best when really they did not. People do not have to be prone to conspiracy theories to be suspicious of arrogant-sounding people telling them not to worry their little heads and just take the medicine. Similarly, there are common stereotypes about people in Pakistan and other places like it refusing vaccinations, leading to the return of diseases thought to have been eradicated, because they suspect that the vaccines have an ulterior motive, but a vaccination programme has been used for ‘intelligence’ purposes in the preparation for Osama bin Laden’s assassination. If the health authorities here and in the USA had been a bit more mindful of this in the early 2000s, the resulting epidemics could have been ameliorated significantly. When the aim is to protect health and prevent disease, arrogance in response to dissent can be counter-productive and doubly so if you are in the right.

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Debenhams: another big British chain in trouble

26 April, 2019 - 22:31
 No Vehicles" followed by loading exemptions. The tram lines cross in the foreground and their overhead wires are above.North End, Croydon, in February 2005. The now-closed Allders can be seen on the right; the now-closed Littlewoods is at front left, with the threatened Debenham’s behind it on the left.

Today it was announced that the British department store chain Debenhams was to close 50 of the stores it operates in the UK, leaving it with 116 (in other words, nearly a third of its capacity). 22 of these were named today and they include, for example, a store set up in a refurbished shopping centre in Wolverhampton which was opened with much fanfare in 2017 when it replaced a branch of the collapsed BHS (originally British Home Stores) chain. A large part of the reason is that customers have been switching to online purchasing and the department stores can no longer afford the high rents on ‘prime’ retail locations such as in major shopping centres; Debenhams is seeking to renegotiate rents on all but 39 of the remaining stores, seeking reductions of between 25% and 50%. At the same time, Marks and Spencer plan to close 100 stores this or next year while House of Fraser has been shutting shops after being bought out of administration last year. The rise of online retail is being blamed for the collapse of some of the large retail companies; it is noticeable that the companies with a strong online offering, such as M&S and John Lewis, are in no great financial trouble even though some of the stores themselves are proving unprofitable.

It’s no secret that buying online is a lot easier than buying in a store and often a lot cheaper, as large companies such as Amazon benefit from greater economies of scale, operating a small number of vast warehouses and contracting out the logistics to haulage companies and, at the local level, self-employed couriers. Many a shop owner will tell you that people will come into their shop, look at an item, find it on Amazon using their smartphone and order it there and then, leaving the shop empty-handed. Amazon started as a bookseller, and while they can offer large discounts on often expensive books, they also operate the e-book system Kindle; the upshot is that even large physical booksellers such as Foyle’s in London now sell fewer technical books. The computing section used to fill several rooms; now it barely fills one wall of shelves, much as used to be the case in suburban branches of Waterstone’s. But convenience and low cost is only half the story.

Debenham’s does not have its own brand of clothing. Its clothing sections are grouped according to concession. It is effectively a large mall full of lots of little shops which sell all of the types of clothes they sell in one space. Allder’s, a similar chain which collapsed in 2005 (although one branch was bought out and continued trading until 2012), operated on the same basis, as does John Lewis (although they have a small range of own-brand clothes) and House of Fraser. M&S sells its own products, though it groups them into different brands which have their own areas of the shop. This is particularly the case with ladieswear; menswear, particularly in M&S, is more sensibly grouped together with, say, men’s chinos and jeans in the same area of the store. But if you want a particular type of skirt or dress, for example, you will have to hunt through the entire store because it could be anywhere on more than one floor. Meanwhile, it is fairly easy to search for such an item simply by using the store’s own website or mobile phone app, which can sometimes tell you if a store has it but not where. So, the companies have really done their stores a disservice by providing a much easier way of searching for their own products.

A woman wearing an ankle-length skirt with panels of yellow, beige and light green with flower patterns on the beige and green. There are three bands, two green with yellow in between, at the hem. She is wearing a light green jumper but her head and torso are cropped out.A 2007 Per Una skirt.

And it has to be said that quality has gone down in the past few years, particularly in women’s clothes. It was no surprise to hear, for example, that Monsoon and Accessorize were trying to renegotiate their debts and rents after their parent company had suffered tens of millions of pounds in losses year after year while sales remained flat. This company has also been closing stores all over the place and plans to close more as leases expire. Monsoon clothes used to be exquisite; today, they sell an ever-changing range of colourful but often poor-quality garments for around £100 each. Looking for a birthday present for someone this past week, I found a lot of paper-thin (and unlined) skirts and dresses retailing for around £70 when the quality really could not justify it. (One of them had a nice blue and white pattern with pockets, so could be quite practical, but again, paper-thin and when I came back to have another look after a few days, they were no longer selling it.) M&S’s ladieswear has seen a similar decline in quality in favour of thin clothes often made with polyester, a frequent complaint being that the actual garment was of poorer quality than it appeared in a photograph; its Per Una range was exquisite when first launched (here are some examples from 2007). Meanwhile, this denim skirt, made of good quality fabric by the look of it but plain and not exactly original, is going for £115 in John Lewis.

Is it any surprise that people are looking elsewhere for their clothing, rather than to companies which may think they have a ‘right’ to people’s business because they have been around a long time, or were what people “grew up with”? It really is not, and these dinosaurs who think their mere names can keep them in business when they sell clothing that is barely above rag-trade quality for several times the price need to up their game or they will have to up their sticks very soon.

Image source: Mtiedemann, from Wikimedia; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 licence.

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What ‘lessons’ will be learned from the Amy el-Keria case?

18 April, 2019 - 17:09
Picture of Amy el-Keria, a young white girl with shoulder-length dark hair, wearing white top with black stripes, standing in front of a stage curtain and singing into a microphone.Amy el-Keria

Yesterday the Priory Group, which owns a number of private mental-health units in the UK which treat patients on contracts from the NHS as well as their ‘flagship’ private unit in Roehampton, was fined £300,000 over the death of a 14-year-old girl, Amy el-Keria, in their hospital in Ticehurst, East Sussex, in November 2012. Amy, who had a recent history of self-harm and suicide attempts, was found hanged in her room which was assessed by an untrained staff member to have “medium risks” with a number of ligature points, an assessment which was not followed up. The court heard that staff did not promptly call 999 or a doctor and were not trained in CPR, that the hospital’s lift was too small to accommodate the ambulance service’s stretcher and that nobody from the hospital accompanied Amy in the ambulance. The company had an operating profit of £2m in 2017 and claimed that the most recent Care Quality Commission (CQC) report, published in January, had rated the hospital as ‘good’. Inquest, which supported the family, released this statement. (Jess Thom, AKA Tourettes Hero, has published a number of articles on Amy, whom she knew, starting with this one.)

Priory Group is one of the biggest private healthcare operators in the UK and its units have featured in a number of the cases I have followed over the past few years. These included the stories of Claire Dyer and Claire Greaves, both of whom were in secure units operated by Partnerships in Care before and after Priory took them over in December 2016. The abuses that go on in these places were summarised in a previous post. I currently follow a lady whose teenage daughter, who has Asperger’s-type autism and was admitted informally to another company’s unit last summer, was transferred to a “low-secure” unit in south-east London in February. This essentially has a “lowest common denominator” approach to eliminating self-harm, removing everything that could possibly ever be used for that purpose, right down to pens and pencils (the unit’s school has an art class, but they are only allowed to paint with their fingers!). She has no access to music or any electronics (there is a TV, but they are not allowed to hold the remote control). The bathing and toileting area is open to view by anyone who might peer into the room.

Not all of these things are down to self-harm prevention; some stem from forensic restrictions, although in some cases there is justification for removing someone from the Internet for the benefit of their mental health. But there is no justification in imposing these restrictions on everyone in a unit, not all of whom have committed crimes (if any of them have) and not all of whom are at immediate risk for self-harm or suicide, for months at a time. Some of the things deemed to be “means of self-harm” are also the means of having a life, after all. People write stories, songs, poems, letters. In one case, an iPad was necessary so that the person in the secure unit could talk with her deaf sister using sign language; this was withheld for weeks. Ironically, some of these things are what people do to take their mind off their situation and they may lessen their urges to harm themselves; this case highlights the futility of some of the restrictions these units impose.

The criticism of Priory’s care in the case of Amy el-Keria was that she had the means to harm herself despite the known risks. The danger is that, fearing financial repercussions, the companies that run these units will simply impose restrictions on all their patients which might not be necessary and will make life more miserable for everyone. I noticed a similar thing after the inquest into the death of Nico Reed, who had cerebral palsy and died in an NHS-run care home (the same trust whose negligence led to the death of Connor Sparrowhawk in 2013) and one of the immediate factors was the failure to check on him every 20 minutes; however, his family also said that, when moved to this facility, the physiotherapy which had kept him healthy throughout his childhood disappeared, they mislaid the book that he needed to communicate and when they visited, he appeared withdrawn and scared which he never previously had done. His family were putting plans in place to bring him home when he died. It should not get to the point where it is necessary to check on someone every 20 minutes when they are trying to sleep; how then can someone get uninterrupted rest?

These things are sometimes necessary, at peak crisis points, to protect someone at risk of a medical crisis or self-harm, but they should not be used on a blanket basis for prolonged periods. The regimes in these units are already often miserable and needlessly restrictive; a new tranche of restrictions will make them less effective at resolving people’s mental health problems and act as a deterrent to them from seeking help in the event of a future crisis. The mother of the girl mentioned earlier tweeted the other day that she already regretted asking for help as there is no way of getting her daughter out of the clutches of these people once admitted, even if voluntarily. The way of life (it should not be a ‘regime’, a term generally used to refer to prison or a dictatorship and has associations with oppression) on a ward should not be dictated by a company’s need to minimise its liabilities but should be therapeutic first and foremost.

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Assange should be nobody’s hero

14 April, 2019 - 23:07
 Embajada" around it. Two people are holding cameras pointing at Assange from the left side of the balcony.Julian Assange, 2012

Now that Julian Assange has finally been evicted from his refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, a whole lot of his old admirers seem to have taken a trip back down memory lane to 2011 when he leaked all the American diplomatic cables and briefly made himself a hero, to some. He was shortly afterwards accused of rape by two women in Sweden, leading to an extradition request which was assumed to be a cover for an American extradition demand even though, at the time, there was none. Friends including Vanessa Redgrave put up bail money for him (money bail is unusual in the UK) while he fought the arrest warrant; in an attempt to skip bail, he secured ‘asylum’ from Ecuador and, unable to leave the UK, took refuge in their embassy. Details of the rape accusations were made public and clearly indicated that this was a non-consensual sexual act (or at least that they gave consent to one thing and got quite another), and certain people, notably George Galloway, tarnished their reputation forever by defending him, in his case claiming that the women alleging rape were already “in the sex game”. (Contrary to some of the memories being shared on social media, it was not only men defending him back then; besides Redgrave, Naomi Wolf called for his accusers to be named while the Guardian published two letters from representatives of Women Against Rape, claiming the arrest warrant was politically motivated.) The people defending him have conveniently forgotten that this is only a fraction of his offending, and that most of it involves his conduct as head of WikiLeaks itself.

To put it simply, he began betraying his sources, and some of his sources were in a very vulnerable position. After the redacted versions of the 2011 cables were published, to much applause, he published the cables in full, in an easily searchable form, exposing informants in a number of countries, many of them dictatorships with powerful or unaccountable police forces to danger, including disappearance and torture. He published personal details about pro-democracy activists in Belarus, the last remnant of Communist dictatorship in Europe, which resulted in a number of them disappearing; he published the names of male and female rape victims; when asked about Afghans identified as assisting the American and British forces in their country and the risks to their safety, he responded that they were informants and if they were killed, they had it coming. He is closely associated with Israel Shamir, a Russian anti-Semite who admires both Putin and Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus; he refused to publish a cache of material that could have exposed Russian corruption and international interference as well as the 2016 Panama papers.

It is depressing to see Muslims fall over themselves to excuse this immoral individual who is really no friend of Muslims; we also see figures on the Left make excuses for him when he is no friend of theirs either. This is not someone who has been on the side of good, despite some flaws, and been persecuted by a powerful establishment. Such people exist, but he is not one of them. He is someone who did something we agreed with many years ago, and has since shown that he has no morals to speak of, that he believes he is above the rules that constrain everyone else’s behaviour. Even before the 2011 leaks, we knew that the Iraq war was without sanction in international law, that it was a war of unprovoked aggression, that it was motivated by personal grievances on Bush’s part and drew on a well of hatred among the American people and in their media following the 9/11 attacks; that its result was a disaster was already well-known. Whatever the truth of the rape accusation, he is a scoundrel and an anti-American or anti-British scoundrel is no less a scoundrel than one who is against anything else. If he had gone to Sweden to answer the rape accusations and been convicted, he might well have received a sentence considerably shorter than the time he spent holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy, making a nuisance of himself to his hosts, as we now know, and serving the interests of Vladimir Putin and tyrants the world over. He is a criminal, even if the people demanding his arrest are not seeking justice for the people he has hurt the most.

Image source: Snapperjack. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 2.0 licence.

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Muslim leaders should not serve Israeli propaganda

13 April, 2019 - 00:08
A South Asian imam with a large black beard, wearing a brown turban with a white shawl around his upper chest, lays a wreath of red and white flowers in front of a monument to "the memory of the six million men, women and children who perished" (in the Holocaust). A line of nine or ten people, mostly men, including other imams stand behind him against a wall of large stones. A fire stands behind him with a jagged 'finger' pointing up out of it.An imam lays flowers at Yad Vashem

For a long while, Israeli sympathisers have been trying to nurture a generation of Muslim leaders and influencers who might try to sway Muslim opinion towards, as they see it, a more ‘balanced’ view of Israel than what Muslims in the west have, which mainly consists of stories about Israeli oppression of Palestinians on the West Bank, their bombings of civilian targets in Gaza and increasing intolerance of Arab citizens of Israel itself. In the USA, this has taken the form of the “Muslim Leadership Initiative”; more recently, an outfit called Journey2Jerusalem took a ‘delegation’ of Muslim imams from the UK on an all-expenses-paid tour of Israel and the West Bank, meeting local Muslims both within Israel and in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as well as Christian and Jewish leaders. They also visited Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, the Western Wall in Jerusalem and “villages on the Gaza border”. The group included Dr Musharraf Hussain al-Azhari, the chief executive of the Karimia Institute in Nottinghamshire, armed forces chaplain Asim Hafiz, “Shaykh Ghulam Rabbani, considered one of the world’s most eminent scholars” and Shaykh Mohammad Asrar who “heads the largest mosque in Leeds”.

The tour, as reported in Jewish News (whose website is part of the Times of Israel website), began in Akko (Acre in English; neither that nor the Arabic name, Akka, are given in the report) where the local chief rabbi told them that “there is no need for a legal limitation on noise from muezzin (the Muslim call to prayer) in Israel – unlike the UK – because noise levels are determined by local religious leaders is discussion and dialogue”, as if they deserved a medal for not stopping the Muslims that managed to hang on in Israel after 1948 from issuing the call to prayer in their own city. Muslims do not give the call to prayer in public in much of the UK because we are a minority; in places where the numbers are strong, the call is issued on some occasions such as for Friday prayer.

The article claims that they visited Al-Aqsa and “prayed with large Muslim congregations after being shown around by an imam whose role is to look after mosques in the south of the country”. Most of us know that in fact access to Al-Aqsa is restricted and that Muslims are prevented from coming to pray there on Friday from surrounding Arab towns, and also that Arabs are being driven out of East Jerusalem by Israeli residency and building permit laws. So, this is something of a showpiece for Israel’s “tolerance” while mosques, Muslim graveyards and other sites are destroyed elsewhere in Israel (most recently the mosque in Safed turned into a wine bar, of all things). It goes on:

Speaking to i24 News, Hafiz said: “To come here and actually see that people are going about their daily lives, and people from the Jewish community do interact with the Muslim community here, the Arab community, is absolutely fascinating.”

Of course, rabbis, imams and priests interact with each other in Jerusalem as they do anywhere else there are mixed communities. The same happens in a lot of Muslim countries as well as in the UK. That does not change the power dynamic in Israeli and Palestinian society: that Arab residency in East Jerusalem is restricted and Jewish settlements there and in the West Bank are expanding; that Palestinians are harassed by settlers and soldiers and their business obstructed by checkpoints; that Israel has built a wall which cuts into the West Bank to link settlements and cut off Palestinians’ access to their own land and to other Palestinian towns and villages; that Israel restricts the Palestinians’ water supply; that Palestinians who are not Israeli citizens have no say in the government which rules their lives. Religious leaders having friendly chats do not change the fact that there is oppression.

All of the imams mentioned come from one particular school of thought whose leaders have a recent history of promoting the idea that they are the peaceful, spiritual side of Islam while other Muslims promote violence and segregation (in fact, they are also known to be the most staunch supporters of Pakistan’s blasphemy law and many of them will defend not only that law, and some of the well-documented unjust imprisonments that have resulted, but also the murder of people who oppose it). This sect is also notorious for the extremely harsh condemnations they issue towards Muslims who disagree with them, which have included proclamations that certain scholars are outside Islam, which also impugns the standing of those who follow them and those whose chains of transmission come through them. To illustrate this, I remember once entering a south London curry house to find the TV on, showing a shaikh shouting in Urdu, and I asked for them to turn it down, or off, as it was disturbing me while I was trying to read and eat my dinner. A man told me who the shaikh was, a name I recognised (not one of the men who went on this trip), and said he was “very tolerant of other faiths” — yet they are often extremely harsh towards other Muslims such as so-called Wahhabis (which in their usage does not mean what it means when most Muslims use it).

So, let nobody be in any doubt, even if you can find a group of imams to tour Israel and admire all the co-existence and ‘tolerance’, know that the rest of us are not deceived, that we do not accept the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, the destruction of Muslim sites in the Holy Land and the oppression of our brothers and sisters there and we will continue to expose their propaganda for what it is. We do not respect a Muslim ‘leader’ who is not loyal to the Muslim community and who throws it under the bus for the sake of sectarian point-scoring or political advantage.

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