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Christchurch: Reckoning for the Right

16 March, 2019 - 23:47
A picture of three of the automatic rifle magazines used in the Christchurch massacre. They have English and Serbian writing on them, including "For Rotherham" and the names of mass shooters Alexandre Bissonette and Luca Traini.

Last Friday, in the early hours of the morning UK time but in the early afternoon local time, a far-right terrorist entered two mosques in Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand, with automatic rifles emblazoned with the names of various people Muslims had wronged and various people who had committed atrocities against Muslims, and shot around 100 people in total of whom at this moment 50 have died. The dead included men, women and children though, as he targeted a Friday noon prayer, the majority of the casualties were men and boys. The attacker had discussed his plans on one of the criminal websites commonly associated with misogynist abuse, racism and website cracking; he live-streamed the massacre on various social media sites and although the sites involved took the footage down, some newspaper websites reissued extracts from it. The footage, shot from a headcam, shows him playing a tune from a pro-Karadzic propaganda video from the Bosnia genocide before walking into the mosque and shooting people dead in the corridor and in the main prayer hall; the impression is of a first-person video game. The massacre naturally drew condemnation from around the world, though just as rightly, the sincerity of some of the statements was questioned by many Muslims and our sympathisers.

The attacker published a manifesto, which can be read in full (in image form, no accessibility) here. He describes himself as an eco-fascist, though claims that the country most in keeping with his views is the People’s Republic of China (which is one of the most polluted countries on earth); in answer to what he wants, parrots the “14 Words”; he bemoans the falling birth-rates in western countries and rails against what he calls the “great replacement” of white westerners with “invaders”, principally Muslims. He claims not to hate Muslims as long as they remain in ‘their’ countries; the only Muslims he hates are converts (though most of those he killed were those he called ‘invaders’, from Asia and Africa). He professes admiration for Luca Traini (an Italian mass shooter), Dylan Roof (the racist who carried out the Charleston church massacre), Anders Breivik (the perpetrator of the Utoya massacre in Norway) and Darren Osbourne, who drove a van into a group of Muslims outside Finsbury Park mosque in London in 2017. He calls Breivik “Knight Jusiticiar Breivik” and claims to have had “brief contact” with him and approval for his attack from “fellow knights”. He expects to serve 27 years, the same as Nelson Mandela, and ultimately receive a Nobel Peace Prize.

There are 46,149 Muslims in New Zealand; 1% of the population of 4.7 million. This means that more than 1 in 1,000 of the total Muslim population died in the massacres, and one in 500 is either dead or injured.

Although the ideas expressed in the New Zealand shooter’s manifesto are mostly sourced from the far right, it has been the mainstream Right’s contribution to fostering Islamophobic attitudes that has received the most scrutiny since the massacre, and rightly so as such attitudes expressed in the mainstream media, on the front pages of tabloids, by hosts of radio phone-ins on major local and national radio stations, by columnists in magazines and newspapers who regularly get slots on TV and radio panel shows, help to generate the culture on which the far right’s grievances thrive. Some of the news coverage was downright hypocritical: the Times, for example, hit all the right buttons (calling the attacker a terrorist, for example), yet their reporting has missed no opportunity to stir hostility to Muslims, notably including the false story about a Muslim foster family where a child could not eat pork under their roof, in mid-2017. The Daily Mail attacked Facebook for being the means the murderer used to broadcast live footage of the massacre, yet the paper’s own website published clips of it. Politicians the world over gave the standard condemnations, yet few actually mentioned Muslims or Islamophobia and they were promptly reminded of their policies which had helped to foment hostility or which were themselves xenophobic or Islamophobic, such as Theresa May’s “go home vans” and her boast of a “really hostile environment” for people remaining in the UK illegally, which has led to people being deported having lived here most or all of their lives, in some cases wrongfully.

Sarah Joseph, the BBC radio contributor and founder of Emel magazine, tweeted:

My response was that we would see whether these narratives had some justice or not in light of the Christchurch massacres by the behaviour of politicians and media figures. Would we see a clamping down on xenophobic and intolerant attitudes in the mainstream media or a few days of condemnations followed by a return to the usual bigoted business? Sadly the people being criticised for having been repeatedly bigoted in the years before this, despite their condemnations, have been on the defensive and have in some cases accused their accusers of being the spreaders of hate rather than themselves (Melanie Phillips has done this repeatedly over the last couple of days while Julia Hartley-Brewer, the LBC presenter who had complained in her Daily Express column that the British people were “tired of having Islam thrust in our faces day in, day out”, published an image of the article these words were taken from). Nesrine Malik tweeted several hypocritical condemnations from right-wing politicians or writers, linking to statements or articles containing bigotry or claiming that Islamophobia was a fiction. One might hope that this atrocity will have discredited the current media trope that Islamophobia is a myth, or that it is an invention to muzzle “criticism of the Muslim community” or Islamist politics or terrorism, particularly when everyone accepts that anti-Semitism is real, and that those that point the finger at very mild (real or alleged) prejudice towards Jews should be held to account themselves if they are stoking bigotry against Muslims or anyone else.

We also must understand that the Far Right should not be considered morally or practically equivalent at all to some of the more excitable figures on the Left, particularly the Corbynite wing of the Labour party. To take an example, a couple of weeks ago a Corbyn supporter known as Rachael Swindon had her Twitter account briefly suspended, leading Paul Bernal to write a piece in the Independent warning that people who advocate banning Nazis should beware of having their own freedom of speech jeopardised. The same rules that could be used to chase Nazis off Twitter could just as easily be used, including by Nazis, to silence anyone else and they could probably find a rule that their enemy had broken. Up to a certain point I agree, and my understanding is that people have been suspended for merely swearing at a verified user and for various other acts that could not possibly be deemed abusive. However, Rachael Swindon is not equivalent to “Tommy Robinson” (Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) who is a convicted violent criminal whose demonstrations regularly ended in violence and who, although not a racist as such, whips up hostility to Muslims both through his books and his public speeches; he also intimidates his opponents by doorstepping them in the middle of the night with a bunch of his ‘mates’. In one of his videoed speeches, he pointed to a row of houses near a mosque and claimed that “enemy combatants” lived in them. It needs to be understood that people can be killed as a result of these sorts of false claims.

Finally, there must be an examination of the role of white feminism in spreading the stereotypes which feed Islamophobia: the stereotypes of Muslims as stubbornly backward and of Muslim men in particular as being sex-crazed and liable to assault a white woman in the street. These are particularly prevalent in Europe and gained momentum after the Cologne New Year incident a few years ago in which a number of women were sexually assaulted in a public square and the incident was blamed on Arabs and although this was shown to be inaccurate, the claims have been repeated again and again, including by some prominent feminists, and have become a staple of far-right agitation in Germany and elsewhere. White feminists insistently and dogmatically repeat such narratives as that the hijab worn by Muslim women are a ‘symbol’ of women’s inferiority to men, so as to justify discriminating against women who wear the hijab and to force them to remove it at work, in public places or school; they refuse to listen to what Muslim women say about their own religion and the way they dress, insisting that the “white way” of doing anything must be the rational or enlightened way. I have a term for this mentality: “enwhitenment”. The stereotypes about sex-crazed Arab men echo older stereotypes about Black men, as some readers may have already noted. The protection of white women has been a routine justification for violence against non-white people since the time of slavery; the Christchurch terrorist had “for Rotherham” and the name of a young girl killed in a terrorist attack in Sweden written in white on his rifle or his magazines.

We must not forget that his motive was hatred. A prominent British white feminist, hours after the massacres (Friday morning, UK time) tweeted: “Please let there come a time when male violence is recognised as the single biggest threat to peace and tackled accordingly”. This is not the first time I have seen a white woman try to divert discussion of a male-on-male racist murder onto “male violence” when the root of this violence is a racist ideology which white women are heavily involved in spreading, especially where Muslims are the targets; white women have also been keen participants in far right groups, notably Britain First, often using feminist justifications. When a white man sprays bullets at a group of mostly male members of a minority, some of whom defend themselves and their friends by throwing objects at him and attempting to use his discarded weapons, to leap to bemoaning “male violence” smacks of the victim blaming feminists spend much of their time railing against; the victims are lumped in with the perpetrator. I had a feminist lecture me that “it’s hugely inappropriate for men to tell women when they’re allowed to talk about male violence” but it’s more inappropriate for a white person to divert discussion of racism onto their pet issue, especially when the news of an atrocity is just breaking in most of the world.

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Good manners won’t save us from hate

13 March, 2019 - 17:22

Yesterday a Muslim YouTuber who goes by the Scottish Revert Teacher published a video saying that Muslims really were not really doing enough to improve the image of Islam in terms of the way they behave when going about their business and that if we were all our own best character witnesses, if we were helping our neighbours, smiling to people when we meet them, bringing them soup when they were sick and if our mosque leaders were taking the initiative in engaging with non-Muslims in their local community, the far-right’s message would be irrelevant. I think this is the wrong message, because it ignores the history both of Islam and of racism in this country. Prejudice exists independently of the character of the people who are the focus of it.

If we look at the Sira or the biography of the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, we see that he was known as al-Amin or the most trustworthy by his community in Mecca and was looked to to settle disputes between people. He was involved in the Hilf al-Fudool which was an agreement to secure justice for those with no powerful tribal friends, a number of whose members never became Muslim. Some of the same Meccan tribesmen said that they never accused him of being a liar and that they called him al-Amin, but they simply did not believe in this message he was spreading. Yet they still violently abused him, his family and those of his followers who did not have powerful friends while they were still living in Mecca until they were forced to emigrate, and after they did, they attempted to undermine the new community first by appealing to their Ethiopian hosts, then by using military force. Allah tells us in the Qur’an that these are people who are blind and deaf to truth, and the same is true of those who hate us in this day and age.

She also misunderstands racism by imagining that if we were just a bit more friendly towards others on a daily basis, those others would not recognise the things the Far Right say about us. The truth is that racism occurs for all manner of reasons unrelated to people’s manners or character. Many people will have friends of another race or religion but still believe that there are lots of Muslims they do not know who are not like those they do know. Some people will even campaign to stop their neighbours being deported when they are claiming asylum, but then vote for a party which boasts of taking a tough line on immigration and passes laws which split families up for that reason. If you live in a diverse neighbourhood then your neighbours are already less likely to be prejudiced against you because they already know that you are the same as them, that you go about your business, take your children to school, go to your job and so on; the people most likely to be prejudiced are those who live in separate neighbourhoods in divided towns or who live in a mostly white provincial town and rarely meet a Muslim, or indeed any member of any minority. They are more likely to believe what a right-wing tabloid or a far-right agitator like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon say, because all they know is what they have heard, not what they have seen. In addition, there have been many occasions in history where people turned against their neighbours when the forces of hate gained the upper hand: many of those murdered or raped in Bosnia and Rwanda were attacked by people they had thought were their friends.

Of course, it’s true that many people have been attracted to Islam by the characters of its most righteous people — Khwaja Moinuddeen Chishti, the anniversary of whose death is today, is a good example as his influence led to many conversions in India and is still felt to this day. It’s true that we do not have such luminaries as that in our community nowadays. But let us not fool ourselves; it is not the fault of a Muslim who does not smile or is rude to someone on the bus that there are far-right hoodlums threatening Muslims and tabloids spewing hate on a regular basis. There are some people who simply hate religion altogether and some who want theirs to be dominant; some people want Britain to be “white again”. There are some who see profit in spreading falsehood and some who make a career out of exploiting it. We also have Muslims who make their living airing the community’s dirty linen, and some of them add extra dirt before they put it on the line.

I am not saying you cannot make a difference to others’ perceptions of us by being friendly with others you meet on a daily basis. But your impact is going to be limited because there are a lot more ignorant people out there and some well-placed people who do not want to see Muslims get on in this country, at least not on anyone’s terms but theirs (i.e. without giving up our religion in all but name). Muslims are not to blame for the hatred the far right stokes; they themselves are.

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Autism, driving, and changes to British notification rules

4 March, 2019 - 18:28

Last weekend, by chance, some of us found out that people with autism spectrum disorders (principally Asperger’s syndrome) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) were required to notify the DVLA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) of their condition, something they had not been previously required to do unless it affected their driving. This guidance appeared to have been issued recently without any consultation or indeed any notification, leaving many of us worried that we would have to choose between risking incurring large fines by not notifying or insurance refusals or dealing with both bureaucrats and medical professionals who are either ignorant of our condition or influenced by prejudice. People I follow online who know about autism are horrified and regarded this as both discriminatory and based on ignorance. There seemed to be evidence that the DVLA did not know what they are doing, and different people who have approached the DVLA had different responses. (The guidance was reverted while I was writing this article, but the matter is likely to still be under consideration.)

A boarded-up, two-storey, red-brick building with concrete blocks and metal fencing in front of it. In the foreground is a blue sign that says "Welcome to Roselands Clinic", and above it, on a white background, the logos "Your Healthcare, providing services for the NHS" and "Kingston NHS Primary Care Trust".Roselands Clinic, New Malden, where my diagnosis took place.

For one thing, the form people are expected to use to notify the DVLA (the M1 form, available in PDF form here) is outdated and geared towards conditions which dictate regular medical attention, which this does not. It asks you to state your GP’s name and address, and your consultant’s name and address and the last time you saw them for this condition. The problem is that not everyone has seen the consultant who diagnosed them since the day of diagnosis; after this is done, people are usually referred to services such as those which help with finding employment and securing benefits, if they are available, which is the reason many of us sought a diagnosis (or why our relatives encouraged us to do so). Does a consultant mean only a medical consultant, or will a consultant psychologist (such as the one who diagnosed me) do? The consultant may have moved on, as mine did in 2017, and the clinic in question closed, as mine (pictured) has been. The form assumes we have a single GP; this has not been the case for many of us for many years, as we are registered with large clinics and see whichever GP is available, which may change from appointment to appointment. The form should really be updated to take this into account.

Different people who approached the DVLA had different responses. One person on Twitter said that their son’s condition had been notified to the DVLA by the police last year, but they were not interested. Another person who contacted the DVLA was also told that people who had been driving for years before their diagnosis without incident were of no interest to them. Yet others who contacted the DVLA by phone were told that their phone-call had ‘flagged’ them and they should therefore get their M1 form in within two weeks. However, we do not yet know what they will do with the form and many of us are worried about over-reaction or prejudice, particularly those (like me) who drive for a living or could not get to work without our cars (or motorcycles) because of where we live or work. In 2016, an investigation by the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO) found that disabled people and those with various medical conditions were being refused licences or having their licence restorations delayed for unacceptably and unnecessarily long periods, sometimes leading to them losing their jobs or businesses. People I know who, for example, had seizures on one occasion while ill were kept waiting years to have their licences restored, simply becuase the DVLA did not know what to do. This is a new issue; how do we know that we will not suffer the same treatment despite having driven without incident for years before diagnosis?

 The DVLA Autism Test, Explained (Picture of young woman holding L-plate.) Here is Sam. Sam is autistic. Sam has been autistic all of their life.
Sam took driving lessons while autistic.
Sam took a theory test and passed it.
Sam took a practical driving test and passed it.
This is Sam as a safe, qualified driver, driving for years afterwards.

(Picture of a middle-aged woman in a flourescent yellow jacket, holding a clipboard.) This is a highly experienced Driving Examiner. They test every element of a driver's safety. If someone is not safe, they don't pass them.

(Picture of a man in late middle age with a stethoscope round his neck.) This is a Doctor. The DVLA want the Doctor to say if Sam is a good driver. The DVLA do not believe the Driving Examiner. The DVLA do not want to know if Sam is already a safe, good driver with years of experience.
The Doctor has never seen Sam drive.
The Doctor does not know if Sam is a good driver.
The Doctor has hundreds of actual patients to see, and is already overworked. The Doctor is not happy.

The National Autistic Society made an inquiry with the DVLA who told them that previous guidance had been wrong and that autism had always been a notifiable condition; the NAS say they believe that this guidance should be changed as they “don’t believe that the DVLA guidance reflects the potential impact of autism on driving properly”. An autistic blogger named Kat Williams contacted the DVLA and was passed from pillar to post while on the phone (see thread) but got a call back from a manager who told them that it was the General Medical Council who told them that all autistic drivers needed to be “looked into” (she has put in a Freedom of Information request for clarification on this). There was also suspicion voiced that this was an information gathering exercise prompted by the Department for Work and Pensions, seeking to find out who was claiming disability benefits and free public transport passes (which were issued to people with ASDs in some districts, including mine, until recently) when they could drive.

The NAS advised that people should notify, but again, there was no guarantee that the disclosure will be dealt with appropriately and the DVLA’s website really does not give much reassurance. They tell us that they might contact our GP or consultant, arrange for us to be examined, or expect us to take a further driving assessment; we really need more specific information on what they will do with a disclosure of an autism diagnosis. Again, some of us have not seen our consultant for years, but many GPs are not well-trained on autism and even psychiatrists, as many an inpatient with an ASD has discovered to their cost, are often woefully ignorant of the subject. (When I saw one of the GPs at my clinic to ask for referral for diagnosis, he left the request on his desk for months until I called to remind him!) And as has been noted, doctors who have plenty of patients to see will not be happy about having these requests dumped on them when they have never seen the individuals driving. The DVLA do, after all, already have driving examiners for this and the people concerned have already passed their tests (often more than one test, if they are bus or truck drivers).

As it happened, the DVLA today reverted the guidance on their website to its previous wording: “You must tell DVLA if your autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) affects your ability to drive safely”. Had they not done this, I would have waited for reports from other drivers who notified the DVLA about this issue before I did so myself. I currently have no other way of making a living and have been driving without any serious incident since 1995, have passed three driving tests and a HIAB (loading crane) equipment operation course, have held a Certificate of Professional Competency (CQC) since 2014 (when it became compulsory) and have no personal doubts about being safe to drive. I have no confidence that the DVLA would handle my disclosure appropriately and would have waited to hear exactly what their criteria are for allowing a person with a diagnosed autistic spectrum disorder to drive or continue driving.

I do have a suspicion that this is the result of Asperger’s syndrome being merged with autism in the recent diagnostic manual or DSM, something that many disability activists supported; they called the opponents of this change such insults as “Aspie snobs”. The reason was that the main criteria for the distinction of Asperger’s syndrome was that someone’s speech was not delayed; without that identifier, someone would always have been diagnosed with autism, not Asperger’s syndrome. It’s true that the name has fallen out of favour since it was discovered that Johann Asperger was a more committed Nazi than had previously been thought. However, as autism is generally considered a severe disability while Asperger’s syndrome was not, I feared that people previously diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome would be subject to the same legal and official disabilities as those with more severe autism, such as being refused the right to settle in another country on the grounds of being a potential “drain on the system”. If this is the reason, my fears about this have been confirmed, and people are likely to be subjected to unnecessary hardships and scrutiny because their condition is no longer considered distinct from a similar but more severe one. As a community, we should think very carefully before welcoming or celebrating such changes in future.

(It is, of course, true that there are often co-morbid mental health issues with autism and some autistic people have required mental health treatment for these or for the after-effects of trauma. However, these conditions have names and are diagnoses in their own right; autism on its own is not a psychiatric disorder and should not be treated as such.)

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Policing the boundaries

3 March, 2019 - 18:11
Tom Bower and Mike Segalov on Good Morning Britain

During the launch of the Independent Group, while it was still a breakaway faction from the Labour party, there was an exchange on a morning TV show between Tom Bowers, the author of book on which the Mail on Sunday’s parade of irrelevances about Jeremy Corbyn is based, and Mike Segalov, a Jewish Labour party member who is generally supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, which ended in Bowers calling Segalov a “self-hating Jew”. This was widely condemned on social media but did not really receive much censure on TV or the mainstream print media. The phrase is an insult commonly used on dissenters within the Jewish community such as those who condemn Israeli abuses of the Palestinians or indeed Zionism itself. Meanwhile, as Mahershala Ali won a second Oscar this week, people have been sharing The Atlantic’s piece from 2017 on why “some Muslims” were not celebrating, i.e. because he is an “Ahmadi Muslim” or Qadiani to us, a sect that mainstream Islam does not accept as Islam because it accepts a recent claimant to prophethood.

To take another example: Wednesday before last, there was a letter in the Guardian signed by over 200 members and supporters of the Labour party defending its leader from accusations of tolerating anti-Semitism, citing his “lifetime record of campaigning for equality and human rights, including consistent support for initiatives against antisemitism, is formidable”. There was a letter in reply to that published a few days later which alleged that the signatories to the earlier letter “plainly feel the need to rely on their Judaism to bolster its content” when it is irrelevant because the “vast majority” fo the British Jewish community do not trust him on the issue. On Twitter the sentiment has been more bluntly expressed: that a lot of Corbyn’s Jewish supporters are in fact not Jewish and often rely on having a Jewish ancestor generations back to back up that claim when they otherwise have no connection to the Jewish community, are not Jewish according to Jewish law because their Jewish ancestry is on the wrong side, and are certainly not practising. (When non-Jews do it, identifying ‘good’ from ‘bad’ Jews is regarded as anti-Semitic, but in this case ‘mainstream’ Jews insist that they are the Jews to be listened to rather than “those others”.)

In our community, on the other hand, we have always had numerous people claiming to speak for us or for Islam itself whose purchase on Islam is extremely weak, at best. Some are members of sects which diverged from Islam even longer ago than the sect Mahershala Ali belongs to but still regard themselves as more Muslim than they regard us, and the feeling is mutual; others are secularists who use their Muslim heritage to cast slurs on the Muslim community in general or promote policies which are against our interests. I have a name for these sorts of people: Muslimanders, relating to their tendency to say “I’m a Muslim, and …”, and when challenged from within the community, they will usually turn back to their non-Muslim friends in the media and claim that it justifies their position because the Muslims are just showing the backwardness they were generalising about (the case of Usama Hasan losing his imam’s job in east London for believing in human evolution is a good example). If they are people with Real Media Jobs, they will not deign to address criticism from mere bloggers or social media chatterers. They’ve made it and we haven’t, and we’re just jealous.

And the worst thing that any Muslim can do in these situations is to say that the person who has a Muslim name (or claims to be a Muslim) but is spouting outrageous nonsense that is completely opposed to Islam or to Muslims’ interests on any level is not actually Muslim despite their name. This has been posited as a “litmus test” of moderate or extremist Muslim attitudes recently and calling a person with a Muslim name an unbeliever is deemed equivalent to signing someone’s death warrant, even if you know, and the person accusing you knows, that you do not have the kind of followers who would do that sort of thing (or indeed followers at all, as opposed to mere readers), but the intention may have nothing to do with wanting harm to come to that person but simply to make it clear that the person’s views are anti-Islamic, that they have no connection with the Muslim community at all and no right to speak for us. Supposedly someone may hear or read your words and take the Shari’ah into their own hands — we are held to be responsible for what anyone who reads them might do, even if we do not say “go and do this”. I’ve had to deal with non-Muslims sanctimoniously lecturing me about this from a position of ignorance in the past, as well as when an imam made very valid observations about the behaviour of Shi’ites and I commented that they resonated with my experiences of some of them.

There are also some Muslims who have internalised this fear of being seen as an extremist to such an extent that they will condemn Muslims for pointing out kufr (unbelief) when they see it, or for stating the fact that a member of a sect which has been acknowledged to be un-Islamic for decades or even centuries is not a Muslim, despite their also having used their media platform to spread obvious falsehoods about Islam or Muslims or to make claims that put Muslims in jeopardy. And yes, it is unacceptable in the Shari’ah to make careless accusations of unbelief in the context of disagreements (even if someone is in the wrong) or because someone commits a sin, even a public one; those are not the circumstances I am referring to. (There are categories of unbelief where anyone who denies it falls into unbelief; this is when people show obvious disdain for Islam, Almighty Allah or His Messenger, or deny things everybody knows such as that alcohol is prohibited. One must not be so afraid to be called an extremist — and I do believe this was the motive, in the incident I am referring to — as to deny that clear unbelief is what it is, or to defend an open enemy of the community when someone says they are not Muslim.)

Every minority has had to deal with well-known figures who go beyond being conciliatory into being disloyal, who often pose as spokespeople for the group. There are a number of expressions for these sorts of people: in the African-American context they are sometimes called Uncle Toms or House Negroes, British Asians sometimes call them coconuts (brown on the outside, white on the inside), while in Wales the term “Dic Siôn Dafydd” refers to a Welshman who “despises his language and who imitates the English”, after a fictional character by a 19th-century pamphleteer who pretended not to understand Welsh and refused to speak to even his mother in their native language. It’s no surprise that we have real or purported Muslims who behave in the same way or that the media or politicians prefer to hear from them than from people who challenge them, but it is important that we be able to point these people out without being called an extremist or having accusations of sympathy with terrorism made against us. The opinions of a small clique with access to the media cannot be assumed to be the true voice of the Muslim community, or to be more enlightened than the community they may have left behind.

Much as the traditional definition of a Jew may exclude some people with traditional Jewish surnames, the traditional definition of a Muslim, to Muslims, is not “someone who looks like a Muslim to the untutored eye”. Of course, Jews are defined as much by ancestry as by religion; a Muslim is defined by belief and affirmation, not by ancestry at all. Some of the people of Jewish ancestry defending Jeremy Corbyn are practising Jews (particularly certain groups of Haredim) and some are Jewish enough by ancestry to have been put in the gas chambers had they been around 70 years ago; some are not. Given that you don’t have to be practising to be Jewish to a racial anti-Semite, the opinions of those Jews who are part of modern Orthodox synagogue communities or have connections to Israel should not be the only ones taken into account when assessing the “Jewish view” of whether the Labour party has become anti-Semitic or not. And if Jews’ views on who is a Jew and who is not are to be respected, ours about who is a Muslim and who is not should be as well, and those with no loyalty to the community or who make their living confirming others’ prejudices should have their media platform lowered somewhat.

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Dump him!

25 February, 2019 - 17:04
Picture of Pamela Stephenson Connolly, an older white woman wearing a dress with bright patterns in purple, green, red, orange and other colours with a gold-colour handbag over her right shoulder and holding a bottle-green scarf in her left hand. Behind her the wall has logos that read "Kiyomi" and "Jupiters hotel & casino, Gold Coast".Pamela Stephenson Connolly

This is about a letter to Pamela Stephenson Connolly, the Guardian’s agony aunt for all things sexual. The letter is from a 27-year-old woman who had developed an eating disorder as a result of a previous boyfriend’s porn use; she used her current boyfriend’s phone and found a pornographic video open as well as searches for material about very young or skinny women. Rather than telling the woman to reconsider her position, she tells her to confront her boyfriend about it in a “non-combative” manner and apologise for “snooping”.

It’s not the first time the Guardian has failed to tell someone who wrote in with a story of what was obviously abuse that this is what was going on: recall Annalisa Barbieri and the young lady whose mother called her fat and ugly and constantly compared her to models on the TV. The paper really needs to educate some of its columnists about this issue. In this case, the columnist could have told the author of the letter that maybe she ought to think of whether she really wanted to be in a relationship with this man who is unfaithful, obviously not satisfied with her and unlikely to change regardless of whether the relationship progresses. The letter does not say how long this relationship has lasted so far but it is better to get out of it early than allow it to awaken a dormant mental illness.

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What good will splitting the Labour party do?

24 February, 2019 - 23:03
A group of 11 people (4 male, all but one white) standing at the bottom of a flight of steps inside a building.The (so far) 11 members of the Independent Group.

So, last week it finally happened, the split that had been rumoured for several months: seven Labour MPs, initially, resigned the whip. Rather than forming a new party or just joining the Liberal Democrats, they decided to form an “independent group” which has been incorporated as a company rather than a political party, which it has been pointed out absolves them from disclosing the sources of their funding. The MPs who initially took part were:

  • Luciana Berger (Liverpool Wavertree)
  • Ann Coffee (Stockport)
  • Mike Gapes (Ilford South)
  • Chris Leslie (Nottingham East; before 2007, Shipley)
  • Angela Smith (Penistone & Stocksbridge)
  • Gavin Shuker (Luton South)
  • Chuka Umunna (Streatham, south London)

The two principal reasons given were Brexit and anti-Semitism but the MPs are clearly on the right of the party and cited reasons such as Jeremy Corbyn being a threat to national security and his hostility to the private sector. Since then, another Labour MP (Joan Ryan, for Enfield North) and three Conservative MPs (Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston), all noted opponents of Brexit, have joined them. Ian Austin has also resigned the Labour whip but not joined the new group; it has also been noted that Nicholas Soames’s Twitter profile has lost any reference to the Conservative party, although his website is still a sea of blue and there are two links to Tory party websites on it.

Even before they offered to replace the DUP in a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Tories and promised to support them in any no-confidence vote, the impeccable right-wing credentials of all the Labour MPs who defected have been detailed in a number of Twitter threads. Quite simply they seem to represent the illiberal instincts of New Labour without the moderating influence of the Left. One of them, Angela Smith, made a remark on Politics Live on Tuesday morning that being a member of an ethnic minority is not just a matter of being Black or “having a funny tinge” — the point being that you could be white and Jewish — which immediately provoked widespread scorn. Smith is also on record as having accepted gifts from a construction firm linked to the privatised water industry and also opposes renationalisation of said industry; she unsuccessfully tried in 2007 to keep the details of her expenses private. In her initial speech at the group’s launch, she claimed that real working-class people did not like being “patronised by left-wing intellectuals and told that being working-class and poor is a state of grace”, a classic right-wing trope and a straw man as far as the mainstream Left is concerned nowadays.

All of them who were in parliament in the mid-2000s voted for the Iraq war. Those who came after voted against investigations into it. None of them voted against the 2015 welfare bill. Like most of the Labour defectors, Joan Ryan has talked of the anti-Semitism issue being a major reason for her defection, but she is in fact strongly partisan towards the state of Israel; such people, Jewish or otherwise, are not the people most qualified to dictate what constitutes anti-Semitism. Chuka Umunna has not been consistently anti-Brexit in his stance, despite this alliance being prompted largely by Corbyn’s ambiguous stance regarding Brexit; in September 2016, he told the Huffington Post that he would support Theresa May in sacrificing access to the Single Market so as to enable restrictions on freedom of movement (he later ‘clarified’, claiming that he had “always been totally consistent in saying that Britain must be a member of the Single Market, on which thousands of jobs and rules protecting workers’ rights rely”). Umunna also played the “more British than thou” game against the Muslim community in 2013 when he purported to be ‘horrified’ that the head of Universities UK had voiced approval of religious societies allowing the separation of men and women at their events on campus, claiming it “offends basic norms in our society”. Whose society is that, Chuka?

As for the Tory defectors, all of them voted for the Coalition austerity programme and at least two of them have defended their position and said it was worth it. Soubry has voted in favour of repealing the Human Rights Act, against making caste discrimination illegal, against strengthening the military covenant (in other words, providing decent accommodation and conditions for military personnel), in favour of cuts to funding of local government, against measures to combat climate change, in favour of reducing the scope of legal aid and in favour of secret evidence in court. Heidi Allen has also opposed investigations into the Iraq war and voted against retaining the Human Rights Act. These are not progressive MPs by any stretch, despite Heidi Allen’s display of tears at food banks (accompanied by the least Labour of Labour MPs, Frank Field).

In my opinion, the defections prove that adopting the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism last summer was a mistake: despite the lack of any serious new incident, the ‘issue’ is still a huge bone of discontent for the right-wing of the party who will never be satisfied unless anyone who has voiced anything but the most polite criticism of Israel and its rampant disregard for Palestinian human rights is forced into humiliating apologies and/or expelled. Much of the “anti-Semitism” otherwise alleged bears no resemblance to anything that would be considered racism if said about any other group (and if some said it did, they would be told “tough luck”) but centres on statements that trigger “anti-Semitic tropes”, such as their controlling the media or international finance, which are interpreted so loosely that any suggestion that they (or groups of them) have undue influence can lead to an accusation and once accused, defence constitutes offence. For this reason I’m always inclined to doubt any claim that the problem is ‘widespread’; the figure, if there is one, will be inflated by over-detecting ‘tropes’. Much as with the issue of FGM in the UK, it’s nowadays automatically assumed that the problem is major and anyone who doubts it is “in denial”.

The policy also means that no active Muslim can have a role in the party as anything they say on the matter will be held up to hostile scrutiny, which I strongly suspect is part of the motive for some of the agitators even though they do not say it openly. Muslims are expected to be grateful clients rather than play an active role in the party that they have long seen as best representing their interests. The irony is that we are accused of being racist for refusing to accept a racist demand that Palestinians should suffer so that Jews do not have to — and today, this refers not to suffering oppression, but suffering any impingement on their lifestyle (hence such things as water theft). While Muslims are not the only victims of racist Tory policies, of course, many of us find it galling that current or former Labour MPs and their friends in the media froth about anti-Semitism while declaring that they will vote to keep the Tories in power when their record on racism is far worse.

This is a major reason why I have not rejoined the Labour party at any time since I left in 1995; it is not a free speech zone on this or any other issue. It demands Leninist levels of loyalty even when delivering only slightly watered-down free-market capitalism. If you’re caught even talking about tactical voting or suggesting that people vote for someone else besides their “red prince” or Blairite war hawk, you’re out. You can get expelled by local party apparatchiks for any statement they deem disloyal, and this policy gives them another avenue to silence dissenting voices. The defectors are, of course, not people silenced by the party’s compliance regime but people who want it enforced more and more rigidly. There is a reason they did not simply defect to the Liberal Democrats, and it’s not just because their stock tumbled at the 2015 election and has not recovered greatly: the Lib Dems are a democratic party with none of the control-freakery and stage-management of the Labour and Tory parties.

Sadly, despite the huge media interest (Owen Jones commented that the target demographic appeared to be senior journalists), I suspect that this will only entrench the Corbynites in control of the Labour party. If Corbyn is defeated at a subsequent general election, it is likely that they will support him if he insists on remaining in position and if he does not, they will support his anointed successor and can now more easily resort to the stab-in-the-back narrative much as Labour supporters often do about the 1983 defeat, blaming the SDP rather than the Falklands war victory or their own manifesto. It also allows their former local parties to find a replacement before the next general election and thus there may be no way back for them. If Labour had contested another election and lost before this split, his supporters would have realised — if that were indeed the case — that the electorate would not vote for Corbyn and would have had to assess why, much as was the case after the 1983 election. However, some of his policies are popular with Labour members and not as unpopular with the electorate as the right-wing separatists think; they conveniently forget that the membership decisively rejected the functionaries who stood for leadership in 2015 and this was before Corbyn’s victory triggered the influx of new members or “£3 supporters”. I know many Labour voters who are dissatisfied with Corbyn to some extent but are desperate to get rid of the Tories is vital and would be devastated if their concerns were hijacked to secure another Tory victory.

So, we need to know what the Labour defectors hoped to achieve. Do they really want to stop Brexit, or force changes in the Labour party, or simply stop Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister by any means necessary? How far down that road will they go, and still say it is worth it?

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Yes, we do talk about the family

22 February, 2019 - 17:41
A black and white picture of two white women, an elderly, white-haired one with glasses wearing a large necklace with large beads hanging from it, and a younger one with dark hair standing behind her but bending down to look at her from the side.

Why won’t Remainers talk about family? (Giles Fraser, Unherd)

In this article the Anglican bishop talks about how modern British society has palmed off the duty of caring for its elderly on to paid workers and relies chiefly on imported labour, particularly from eastern Europe, to do it. Care chiefs and pro-EU politicians have warned of a care crisis as these staff leave or are unable to get visas to come here at the same time as the number of people needing elderly care is predicted to double. Fraser dismisses this as “Remain-inspired end-of-the-world fearmongering” and says that freedom of movement has enabled young people to cut ties with their families, to go and work wherever the work is or wherever the pay or the lifestyle is best. “All this,” he says, “is a philosophy that could not have been better designed to spread misery and unhappiness”:

This is what happens when that much over praised value of social mobility becomes the way we think about dealing with social inequality. Social mobility is very much a young person’s value, of course. Get on. Get out of your community. Find a job anywhere you please. Undo the ties that bind you. The world is your oyster.

This is the philosophy that preaches freedom of movement, the Remainers’ golden cow. And it is this same philosophy that encourages bright working-class children to leave their communities to become rootless Rōnin, loyal to nothing but the capitalist dream of individual acquisition and self-advancement.

He starts with an anecdote about a woman who rang a doctors’ surgery because her elderly father had soiled himself. The doctor, allegedly, asked her if she had children and if so, had she ever called the doctor because their nappy needed changing? She had no answer to that. He heard this from his friend who is a GP. I really wonder how many people ring doctors’ surgeries and get to speak to a doctor over the phone, especially about a problem such as this. In reality, you would speak to a receptionist, and they are more likely to just say “sorry, we can’t provide that service” and refer them to social services if she needs someone to care for her father. But Fraser tells us that it’s our duty to look after our elderly parents rather than to “subcontract” it. “It is the daughter of the elderly gentleman that should be wiping his bottom.” I don’t know if he just meant daughters but that is what lots of people have taken away.

Fraser may not have noticed, but sometimes there are reasons why someone might not be able to be their elderly parents’ sole carer and sometimes good reasons why they might not want to. Maybe they were abused, exposed to harm or neglected by the parent as children and found themselves living with their parents as adults; maybe they spent their childhood caring for another relative and never got a break; maybe the elderly parent has dementia and is impossible to live with. Maybe the adult child is disabled and cannot do the job on their own, or maybe they have other children or other relatives to look after, perhaps including a disabled one. Caring for an elderly relative can be more taxing than caring for a baby because babies are small and light and elderly people are full adult size and need lifting, which many people do not have the training to do properly. It is not a good thing if the social care system is suddenly deprived of thousands of workers.

He assumes that it is freedom of movement that drains young people out of small towns, leaving them to “become ghost towns of hopelessness”. However, young people do not have to go elsewhere in Europe to get away from such places and before industries and then such facilities as youth clubs and even libraries were destroyed to satisfy the demands of ideology, union-busting and cost-cutting, most of the young people stayed in their home towns as they had no reason to leave. The minority who got university placements always left. Fraser supports a no-deal Brexit and believes that this will shock us back to looking after our families as he thinks we did in the past, a past which, he told us on Twitter this morning, was “better; much better”. Well, it was better if you were white, not disabled and had the good fortune to be part of a happy family. If you weren’t all of these things, it was likely to have been miserable: divorce was difficult, spousal abuse was widely tolerated and marital rape deemed legal, people turned a blind eye to child abuse and disabled children spent most or all of their childhoods in institutions and for some disabled people it was their whole lives. That’s right; we didn’t always look after our families in the days before capitalism, Thatcher and the EEC.

Bobby Sutliff’s cover of Richard Thompson’s
Small Town Romance (could not find the original).

And the irony is in the headline: the claim that Remainers never think of the family. Well, we do, because the immigration regime since the days of the Coalition is notorious for splitting up families because the British spouse does not have the required income, and if we leave the EU, the same will apply to British/European couples who are already facing uncertainty about whether they will be able to stay together or easily visit each other’s countries. Maybe Fraser thinks that this is also a good thing, because people will have to find partners among the people they know rather than, say, people they find though the Internet; but that actually is not possible for many people because their home community is dysfunctional in some way or because everyone knows the rumours about that went around about you when you were at school (the song Small Town Romance by Richard Thompson springs to mind), so if the Internet offers a chance of a relationship or a marriage that is free from the baggage of the past, surely it can only be a good thing.

It used to be said that Tories loved the family so much, one was not enough for them. It’s a long time since we heard any Tory preach about family values; people might just point out that they only care about families if they’re the right sort, preferably rich and white. It’s sad that today, a churchman that was thought to be reasonable and compassionate has started demanding that we narrow people’s horizons and restrict their opportunities to find not only work and prosperity but also love and family life.

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George Galloway should not be readmitted to the Labour party

20 February, 2019 - 22:31
Two white men in close-fitting all-in-one bodysuits. George Galloway, the older of the two, has a red one on which has a very large scooped neckline, and Burns is (apparently) younger, has a face that looks like a woman's and has a turquoise suit which leaves his left shoulder and part of his torso bare. Two doors are behind them with "Toilet" and "Shower" on them.George Galloway (then MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, east London) and Pete Burns on Celebrity Big Brother, January 2006

A longer post on the new ‘independent group’ formed by breakaway Labour and Tory MPs is in the works but I heard something today which has disturbed a lot of people that I know which is that George Galloway, who was expelled from the Labour party in 2003 and then formed the Respect Coalition in collaboration with the Socialist Workers’ Party, has applied to be readmitted to the party. I disagreed with his expulsion at the time — one of the charges was that he encouraged British soldiers to disobey orders, which in the context of that particular (illegal, racist, ill-motivated) war was not unreasonable — but in subsequent years he has proved himself a quite disreputable character, having served two terms as an MP for the Respect party and in both of them being more interested in publicity stunts than in doing his job. The most egregious of these was appearing in Celebrity Big Brother, which goes on for several weeks in January (which is parliamentary time) if one is not voted off the show.

He was always notorious for cosying up to any dictator who wasn’t a US client, most famously Saddam Hussein, but he finally burned his bridges with anyone who had continued to defend him by calling someone a “window-licker” (a derogatory term for someone with a learning disability) on Twitter and then making a video in which he defended Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder credibly accused of rape in Sweden, by saying that it could not have been rape because the woman was “in the sex game”. I know a few women who are very upset at the prospect of his readmission and such a move will lose them a lot of goodwill among people who hang on because they still have hopes about Corbyn as a progressive leader with a strong anti-austerity stance even if, say, they disagree with his stance on Brexit. Frankly, the hashtag used by some fringe feminists “#LabourLosingWomen” might become a reality.

At the moment, he has only reapplied; however, this week the party briefly readmitted the Liverpool council leader Derek Hatton whose antics plunged the city into huge debt in the mid-1980s as he made a vain attempt to defy Thatcher; the debt was not paid off until 2001 while he personally swanned around in expensive cars while running his Cyprus-based property empire. In the event he was suspended again after two days (for tweets from 2012 calling for Jews to “start speaking out publicly against the ruthless murdering being carried out by Israel”, a demand that will be familiar to any Muslim reading this), but it makes a lot of people worried about the reaction of the same committee to any readmission application from someone like Galloway. It must be resisted. The party’s name will be mud otherwise.

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Grenfell: who failed, really?

18 February, 2019 - 22:13

This evening there was a half-hour Channel 4 Dispatches programme about the role of the fire brigade in the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017, in which more than 70 people died when the tower block they lived in went up in flames. In the build-up to this I saw a number of comments on social media that they should be criticising the council or tenant management organisation for allowing the flammable cladding blocks to be put on the tower rather than the ‘heroic’ fire brigade who tried to fight it. One comment was that the failings of the fire brigade were being investigated much sooner than the decisions surrounding the renovation and the use of the cladding which accelerated the fire beyond the block where the fire should have been contained.

Yet, the programme revealed that after the Lakanal House tower block fire in 2009, the coroner recommended that the fire brigade invest in new training so that advice to residents to stay in their flats in the event of a fire not be given if there is risk that it might spread, but the service decided that its present training was sufficient. This was not a decision taken by individual fire-fighters or call handlers but by the top-ranking officials. A call handler is blameless because after all, they do not have a live video feed of what is going on at the tower; they would not know that the fire had already spread beyond the 4th floor and was climbing up the building. However, there should not be a blanket policy of “stay put” which does not change when residents report over the phone that the fire is coming up the building, and certainly call handlers should not still be under the impression that they were dealing with a fire on the 4th floor when it had in fact spread much further.

Worse, towards the end, we saw the commissioner hide behind the heroism of her officers to dodge questions about decisions taken by the top brass. According to Matt Wrack, the Fire Brigades Union’s general secretary, his union warned the House of Commons about the risk of cladding fires as far back as 1999. Nobody doubts that fire-fighters who risk their lives to protect and save members of the public are heroes, but it is quite right that their superiors be held to account for their much less heroic decisions when a major, fatal fire leads to recommendations that are ignored, leading to a much bigger disaster.

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Report: The importance of ethnography in FGM storytelling, SOAS, London

16 February, 2019 - 23:19
A group of demonstrators in the street holding placards with slogans in various languages against FGM.Demonstration against FGM, Bristol

This event took place at SOAS, part of the University of London, last night (15th February) and was organised by the university’s “Fem Soc”. It brought together some long-standing anti-FGM campaigners along with a prominent sceptic and two women who had worked in women’s healthcare which involved caring for women who had undergone FGM. It was chaired by Mary Harper, a former BBC Africa editor who had a special interest in the Horn of Africa; the panellists were:

  • Zaynab Nur, a Somali anti-FGM campaigner
  • Nasra Ayub of Integrate UK, based in Bristol
  • Bríd Hehir of Shifting Sands (which has republished a couple of my articles on this subject) who has also written for Spiked Online 
  • Alison MacFarlane, perinatal epidemiologist and statistician
  • Dr Brenda Kelly of the Rose Clinic, Oxford; consultant obstetrician and clinical lead for women with FGM in Oxfordshire.

The event started off with the showing of a BBC report about the treatment of women in Wales who were presumed to have experienced FGM and to intend to inflict it on their daughters. One woman whose daughter had special needs was referred to social services; another with a newborn daughter was taken into foster care with her for six months because of a supposed risk of FGM and trafficking despite her having no intention of doing this. The NHS in Wales treats a child merely having ancestry from countries with a major FGM rate as evidence that a child is at risk.

The first speaker was Zaynab Nur, a Somali woman from Cardiff who had been active in campaigning against FGM in her community since the 1980s. She said that when she started out campaigning it was for her daughters’ sake as she knew that the community had to be persuaded to stop this for their sake. She said that when she started out, she did not receive any funding; she went to both the women and the religious leaders in the Somali community and relied on her connections with them. However, nowadays, Somalis are being stigmatised and government policies are having a huge impact: women are going for routine gynaecological treatment and being referred elsewhere because of having had FGM done. They report not being believed when they say they have no intention of doing it to their daughters. She also said that there are stereotypes about women who have had FGM such as that they have sexual dysfunction, which are often erroneous. She also said she was in the room when the term FGM was coined.

Nasra Ayub spoke next. She said she agreed with Zaynab Nur to a certain extent but that girls were at risk and that their safety should be at the heart of FGM activism. The conviction of the Ugandan woman earlier this month was not something to celebrate. She underlined the importance of educating the communities in question not to carry on with FGM. With regard to one of the cases in Bristol, she claimed that “one of their young people” had engaged a taxi driver in a discussion about FGM when in his cab, and the driver had told them that he had had his daughter cut which, she claimed, triggered mandatory reporting laws (which I find dubious as he was not there in a professional capacity; he was a customer getting a ride).

Next to speak was Alison MacFarlane. She had worked in the midwifery department at City University in London since the early 2000s and they were closely involved with Somali populations in inner east London as their staff and students worked in the inner east London boroughs (Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Newham) and the issue was a major subject for students’ dissertations. She said that early attempts at statistics about who had experienced FGM and who was at risk were based on the percentages affected in their countries of origin adjusted for age (since younger women were less likely to have had it done) and these indicated that the communities were moving away from FGM. As for estimating the numbers at risk, this was a very sensitive issue and early reports from about 2007 over-estimated those numbers. A report published in 2011 stated that it was important that midwifery services were aware of FGM and able to provide appropriate care at such times as when the women came to give birth, and that because the affected people were dispersed across the country, professionals might meet them anywhere; over-50s with FGM were likely to be experiencing gynaecological problems.

She then said that she was now aware of campaigners who had learned about FGM from Wikipedia while doing school homework and statistics which claimed that girls were “at risk” simply because their mothers had had FGM or came from a country where it was a custom. There was a lot of bias in the statistics and they ignored the fact that younger immigrant women in recent years are more likely to be educated and less likely to be inclined towards continuing with FGM.

After that, Brid Hehir spoke. She said that she had been involved in FGM research for about five to seven years since being made redundant from the NHS and had been inundated with material claiming that there was a “silent epidemic” which health professionals were missing, that certain parents were known to practise it and professionals needed to “wake up”. She could not believe it as she had never met a child who had experienced FGM during her time working in the NHS, only mothers, and colleagues she spoke to had never seen a child affected either. She saw suspicion was being cast on all sorts of people, that professionals were being expected to act as spies, to betray patient confidentiality in order to collect data. She said that the data were crude and were being presented as “new cases” when in fact they were merely newly reported. She is convinced that there is little or no FGM in Britain.

Finally, there was Dr Brenda Kelly. She mentioned four laws that in her opinion were causing damage to people from the communities affected by FGM. There was an “enhanced data set” that was based on Alison MacFarlane’s work, but since 2014 the reports were no longer anonymised; more recently, the rules were changed so that women could object to their information being used in building this data, but women were rarely told they were entitled to object. The data indicates that most victims were cut before they came to the UK and a number of the newer cases were white girls who had undergone genital piercings or labiaplasties in a medical setting, with their consent. The mandatory reporting system breaks down trust between doctors and patients; if a girl was asked about FGM when she came for something like the contraceptive pill, and was then told that this data would be passed on to the police who were duty-bound to investigate, it was likely that she would never visit that doctor again and would be reticent about visiting doctors generally. (Later on in the evening, she disagreed with Brid Hehir that there were no cases in the UK; she had known of girls who were at risk but it was much less than an epidemic.)

Nasra Ayub then said that FGM victims were being treated differently from other victims of abuse, and that the emphasis was on prosecution rather than on prevention and support and the policies infantilised women of colour. Mandatory reporting makes criminals fo women who are in fact victims. She said that anti-FGM campaigns had been important and that awareness could not have been raised without them. When her mother was young, girls used to beg them to be cut for fear of being ostracised. When the campaigns began, communities told them to be quiet but they responded by being louder.

The floor was then opened up for questions. Many of the questioners were women from Somali backgrounds and said that the way in which girls were educated about FGM was stigmatising and had been leading to bullying. One example was that a French teacher gave a presentation about the subject to a class which contained several Somalis, with the assumption that they were also victims when in fact they were not. They then had to answer questions from schoolmates about a subject they knew nothing about. (This undermines parents’ efforts to protect their daughters from FGM by not telling them about it, given that they are aware that girls would ask to have it done if their friends had, or would stop speaking to them if they failed to get it done.) Another audience member, a man named Solomon who was active in the charity Forward, said that speaking to men he was aware that many were offended by the use of stigmatising language such as ‘barbaric’, which they complained was not used in regard to white men who murder their wives or whatever; it was only used of things Black people did.

Two women from the audience spoke in defence of the practice. One was a woman from Sierra Leone whose name I did not catch. She insisted on calling it female circumcision, not FGM, and said it took place strictly within the bounds of the Bondo (also called Sande) society involved. She said that stigma over the practice was resulting in domestic violence as men came to regard them as second-class women who cannot have sex or have children, neither of which were true. At 15, when she had the procedure done, she looked forward to her initiation. She had been involved in efforts to set a minimum age of 18 in Sierra Leone, but this had been undermined by western campaigners who knew little about her country or its culture and used disrespectful language. She compared female circumcision to labiaplasty which white girls can get but African girls cannot despite it being part of their culture. It was against their human rights to deny a young woman her rites of passage. In Sierra Leone, nobody could become president, including a woman, unless they had undergone circumcision. She said that Somali women’s experiences were entirely different from theirs.

The second ‘pro’ voice was a woman from the Bohra community in India who said that her research among women who had undergone “type 1” or Sunnah circumcision was that they were not traumatised and were not sexually dysfunctional. The custom is very much part of their religion and if it is banned, people would not be able to fulfil their religious duties. She said that people could not be Muslims without being circumcised. This caused a lot of consternation in the room as others said it was not required by Islam. The chair had to quiet people down and remind them that they had to show each other respect and let each other speak.

Towards the end, a woman (who had been in healthcare since the 70s but whose specialism I’ve forgotten) responded to comparisons with male circumcision by saying that we should ban both practices not because they are harmful, but because they are wrong. She also said that her father had been circumcised as a boy in the 1920s but did not have his sons circumcised because he believed that it did not have the benefits associated with it. She said it was dangerous to get into a discourse of “harm reduction” and that if a procedure was medicalised, doctors could do a lot more harm when a patient is anaesthetised than a cutter could. I find this argument unconvincing: the whole reason FGM is banned is not just because we do not like it but because it causes extreme pain and has the risks of infection, haemorrhage and long-term complications. The cosmetic improvements some people say it brings is not worth exposing a child to the pain and risk. Neither of these things is the case with circumcision; there have been a small number of accidents or complications and where it is known to be dangerous (e.g. in families with a history of haemophilia), it is not done. It has been linked to improved hygiene and reduced risk of spreading certain diseases, including HIV/AIDS, in some parts of the world. Even though it may have been abandoned in the UK, it is still common for American boys, regardless of their religion, to be circumcised (although it has declined somewhat).

No, it’s not — for most people — medically necessary. But that is not why we, Muslims, do it. We do it because it is Sunnah, because the Prophets since the time of Abraham (peace be upon him) have all had it done and then had it done to their sons, because it is a sign of the Believers. That may strike an atheist medic as a weak reason to carry on something that causes a bit of pain and carries a slight risk, but our logic is not always the same as theirs. And this is also why there is no justification for Muslims not to carry it on; just because you know people who have had a negative experience (with a related but different procedure), or you have yourself, does not mean your sons, if you have them, should not have it done. It is one of the things you do as a parent; they are not always pleasant, like disciplining them when they are naughty, making them go to school when they would rather play, or having them vaccinated. Many authorities in Islam regard it as compulsory unless there is a strong medical reason not to. We are told to “let the Sunnah go forth and do not let opinions get in its way” and this looks like a typical example of people doing just that. It should not matter to us what other people think.

The event, although it was a low-key event in a small lecture theatre, was a very useful event in counterweighting the hysterical and biased “single narrative” about FGM that predominates in our media. Many people do not realise that there is a difference between campaigning against FGM by persuading people to stop and criminalising communities associated with it or casting suspicion on everyone in a given ethnicity without proof, splitting families without good cause, preventing people from travelling for no reason. Many people are completely unaware that a grassroots effort to educate people about the dangers of FGM and the lack of any religious basis for it (which is important) has been underway for years and largely successful, to the extent that granddaughters of women who were subject to infibulation in the 1950s and 60s now reach their teens unaware it ever went on. Mainstream media anti-FGM campaigners do not want to hear this; they want to hear that changes are down to them, and they will only listen to those from the backgrounds affected by FGM who tell them what they want to hear and who reinforce the myths and prejudices they hold.

The issue of the poor standard of education young people receive about FGM in this country was new to me. The young women who spoke were often very angry about it. I was reminded of the feminist psychologist Jessica Eaton’s work on education about child sexual exploitation, in which videos were shown to children (also see here), some of whom had already suffered sexual abuse and were traumatised by seeing their experiences depicted in film, often with the message that they could somehow have prevented the situation. Children who refused to sit though them were deemed unco-operative; meanwhile, some professionals could not sit through them because they were upset or triggered (perhaps for the same reason as some of the children). Zaynab Nur told me personally that she was approached by a headteacher after some of her pupils walked out of an anti-FGM video that stigmatised them, but many would not be willing to listen to young people who challenge them — they are, after all, not willing to listen to adults who do either.

When Safeguarding Becomes Stigmatising, a report on the experiences of Somalis in Bristol with anti-FGM safeguarding policies, is to be released on 6th March in Bristol. You can register to attend free at EventBrite.

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Shamima Begum: should she be allowed back?

14 February, 2019 - 18:01
Photograph of Shamima Begum, a young South Asian woman wearing a black head-covering with a face veil which has been flipped up over her head.Shamima Begum, photographed by The Times

In this morning’s Times there is an interview with Shamima Begum, one of three girls from east London who ran away from their families to join ISIS, or at least live in ISIS territory (also known as ISIL, Da’esh, Islamic State Group and various other names) in 2015, who has fled along with her husband and is now in a Kurdish-run refugee camp in Syria. She was 15 years old when she left the UK; she is now 19 and pregnant and has lost two children to disease and malnutrition as the Iraqi, Syrian and Kurdish forces closed in on their former territory. The government have said they will not risk British soldiers’ lives to try to rescue British citizens who are trapped in Syria as a result of having deliberately joined ISIS and people who have previously gone out there and returned of their own volition have been jailed, both for joining and for participating in their propaganda. There is widespread sympathy for her from people who claim that she was 15 years old at the time and must have been ‘groomed’ into doing what she did, while others say she was old enough to know better, that she knowingly joined a terrorist army and “made her bed and should lie in it”.

<!—more—>Aside from claiming she must have been groomed or brainwashed, her sympathisers say that young White people who had got themselves involved in Christian cults are not prosecuted, including in cases such as the Branch Davidians. However, in that situation the children did not join as teenagers; they were brought up in the religion by parents who had in some cases been involved longer than David Koresh, the leader who provoked the siege, had. Nobody who left the camp in the period immediately before the fire was simply allowed to go free; parents and children were split up and the children taken into care and the parents often detained as material witnesses. Nobody who joined the Branch Davidians joined with the intention of fighting the government and would not have heard of them massacring civilians or taking slaves, because no such thing had been taking place. A more apt comparison would be with child soldiers in Africa (who are not white), who are rehabilitated into society rather than being imprisoned for years or killed. However, these were often taken from their homes by force at a much younger age than 15.

I am also not convinced by the claims about grooming, let alone brainwashing. This is a stock argument by anyone who wants to explain away a person’s actions if they committed them before age 16 or 18; it’s also common for people to use arguments relating to conditioning, brainwashing, “false consciousness” or similar to explain away people’s actions that they do not understand, even if they are adults (such as any group of ‘oppressed’ people failing to jump behind people purporting to ‘liberate’ them). The level of propaganda in the Muslim community in support of ISIS was not high; there were few Muslims who publicly supported ISIS and as for ISIS atrocities, there none of the culture of disbelief about Muslim involvement that followed 9/11. I was actually surprised by the volume of material condemning them from people who would have been equivocal about Al-Qa’ida ten years earlier. You had to really know where to look to get ‘groomed’ into supporting ISIS.

The age of criminal responsibility in this country is 10; in most of Europe it is slightly higher (in Belgium 18). True, the age of consent for sex is 16, but people are rarely prosecuted if the older person is only a couple of years older or is also underage. People get tried for serious crimes if they are between 10 and 18; if it is a minor offence, it is in juvenile court and if it is a serious one, such as involvement in terrorism, it is in a Crown Court with some modifications to take account of someone’s young age. The issue of grooming is taken into account but is not a total defence because it is recognised that young people do have some ability to make their own decisions and cannot blame anyone else if they choose to believe propaganda, or the claims of someone on an Internet chat room, and run away to join an outfit widely reported as having perpetrated war crimes. The age of both consent and responsibility in Islamic law, for most people, is puberty; this is why she was able to marry in Raqqa at age 15 and why, as a Muslim, I consider her decision to join them as her responsibility alone.

Some people are claiming she is unrepentant; others that she is a psychopath for saying that she was not fazed by seeing a human head in a bin because he may well have been a spy. However, in the interview she says that she now believes that they did not deserve to succeed because of their oppressions, including executing some foreign fighters on the pretext that they were spies, so clearly she has changed her views even if she does not regret going. If she was allowed to resettle in the UK, she would not be the first to be allowed to do so: in 1996 Britain allowed the former dictator of Sierra Leone, Valentine Strasser, into the UK to study, although he left after his fellow students found him out; we also allow British citizens who have served in the Israeli army or lived in illegal settlements to live freely here without asking if they were involved in human rights abuses or breaches of international law, or if they had imbibed any of the extremist attitudes from the army or the settler communities. People live in this country who would justify all sorts of things — Communists who would justify the invasion of Hungary (and numerous other atrocities), Assad supporters who spread his propaganda, Zionists who excuse Israeli oppression and abuse their victims. That isn’t a crime.

Ultimately, she has to live somewhere. Shiraz Maher posted a tweet thread that suggested that the foreign fighters (Muslims from many western countries among them) might be turned over to the custody of the Syrian or Iraqi governments, but we have to prepare for the possibility that they may simply be repatriated as they are not Syrian or Iraqi citizens and have no right to reside there; she may not have the citizenship of her parents’ or grandparents’ home country. We cannot imprison her indefinitely unless she has actually done something that merits it, such as commit a murder. There does not seem to be any evidence that she was personally involved in any atrocity; it was the men who did that and the women who served them and bore their children. That isn’t a crime either. I do not dispute that she should be punished according to the law for deliberately joining ISIS given what was known about it, but she will have to be allowed to walk the streets eventually.

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How effective will the ULEZ be?

13 February, 2019 - 23:03
A map showing levels of nitrous oxide. They are high almost everywhere, particularly in central London, around Heathrow airport and along the North Circular Road and other major dual carriageways.London’s nitrous oxide levels today

This April a new low-emission zone, the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), will take effect in central London. This will mean that drivers or owners will have to pay a charge to drive a vehicle over a certain age into the area; the charge will apply to any diesel car, van, truck or bus with older than Euro 6 emission ratings (which started to be sold in early 2014) and any petrol car with older than Euro 4 ratings (which were the norm from early 2005 although they had been available since 2001). From 2021, the zone will expand to include the area bounded by the North and South Circular Roads, which is a much larger area, especially north of the river. Today, Labour councillor and assembly member Tom Copley published maps showing London’s air quality today and its predicted quality by 2025, which suggests that nitrous oxide levels in inner London will fall to levels currently only seen right on the edge of town (Euro 6, unlike previous revisions to European emissions criteria, is particularly concerned with filtering nitrous oxides). I am a bit sceptical.

Currently, London has a low emission zone (LEZ) which bars vans and trucks from entering most of Greater London unless they have an emission rating of Euro 4 or better; the vehicle can be driven in but the owner must pay a £200 charge per day. The upshot is that few companies anywhere near London still operate these trucks and, obviously, instruct drivers never to drive them into London and do not allocate them to London runs if they do. The new zones will have a £100 daily charge for trucks and a £12.50 charge for cars and vans. Clearly, this will mean very much fewer trucks with high nitrous oxide emissions being driven into inner London, although the price may well be worth it for operators of vans of up to 3.5T. However, the map suggests a very much reduced NOx emission level in outer parts of London, which I suggest is exaggerated.

This is for two reasons. First, the North Circular Road is a very good quality road, mostly dual carriageway and three lanes in each direction for most of its length, apart from some poor quality sections around Ealing, Golders Green and Wood Green where it has not been upgraded and there are currently no plans to do this. It remains a more direct route to use this road to get from east to west London than the M25 and the time saved is even greater if the M25 is also congested. In such circumstances, people may drive in as far as the North Circular as many of the roads in are fast dual carriageways (e.g. the A13 and A40) or motorways (such as the M11 and M1) and the distance to the M25 is often quite short, especially on the north side.

A map showing predicted nitrous oxide levels in 2025. Levels have fallen to about a third of today's, though central London and Heathrow airport still have higher levels than elsewhere.Predicted nitrous oxide (NOx) levels in London in 2025, after the ULEZ has expanded to the North & South Circular Roads

Second, the area bounded by the South Circular is very much smaller than that bounded by the North Circular; there is a very large area of what is generally considered as inner London such as Streatham, Tooting (Sadiq Khan’s old constituency) and Crystal Palace which lie away from the South Circular Road as well as the traditional old Surrey and Kent suburbs. Similarly, there are large tracts on the east and west sides of London which are outside the circular roads. The South Circular Road is a slow, very congested road that passes through several shopping areas (Sheen, Putney, Wandsworth, Catford) and has low bridges and other hazards. Unlike the North Circular Road, it was not built as a by-pass but is a series of local main roads that were renumbered and that explains the twists and turns, the numerous local names and the odd shape. Companies will still use older trucks to make deliveries in the outer areas as there is plenty of industry there, and as companies with both types of vehicles redeploy their vehicles to take account of the new charges, more older trucks will be used for outer-suburban deliveries while the newer ones are sent further into town, which may mitigate the reductions for a few years (over time, companies renew their fleets anyway, but smaller companies still using Euro 4 and 5 trucks will not want to trade them in for Euro 6 trucks as they have lower payloads and higher maintenance costs).

This is not to say the new rules are a bad thing, as Euro 6 has been around for a few years now, most manufacturers have produced a second generation of trucks which ironed out the reliability problems of the first, and early Euro 6 models have come down in price after coming off lease. But the benefits to those of us in the outer suburbs are rather overstated, in my opinion, as not all the traffic which thunders through every day is going to inner London, much less the central area; a lot of it stops and starts locally, and none of that will be affected by the new zone.

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Books aren’t clutter and a cactus is just a plant

11 February, 2019 - 21:42
Picture of Liz Hoggard, a white woman in early middle age with brown hair wearing a bright yellow pleated skirt and a black high-necked top with black leaf or flower motifs on it, with her arms folded in front of her, in front of a wall with paper showing flowers, animals and other images on a black background. Above her to the left is a portrait of her cradling a black cat, against the same wallpaper.

Today my social media was abuzz with people, mainly women, laughing uproariously at a picture sourced form the Daily Mail in which an “interiors therapist” with a background in feng shui, named Suzanne Roynon, gave advice to Liz Hoggard, a London-based arts writer whose columns have been published in the Guardian, the Independent and the Evening Standard as well as the Mail group, on how to make her flat less of a “man-repeller”. (The image was the one with the flat with Hoggard and Roynon with little bits of advice in patches around the picture.) Among other bits of advice were that a cactus was ‘unwelcoming’, that portraits of ‘single’ women (including one of herself cradling a cat, painted by a friend) gave the impression that she was quite content to be single, that she should not have too many books in her bedroom and few “gloomy titles”, and that a Buddha was a “sign of poverty and isolation”. She also declared one of her shelves to be ‘clutter’, which “increases irritability”, although it seems to be a shelf full of books to me.

My feeling about Roynon’s analysis was that it was too heavy on symbolism and on speculations about what a man might think about something, and too little of seeing things for what they are. To take the cactus: perhaps if someone has a prickly personality, someone might see a cactus in their house and be reminded of it. But if they don’t, it’s just a plant. She calls the women in the portraits on Hoggard’s wall “single women”, although there is no way of telling whether they are single or not; they are just pictures (or in some cases figures) of women (Roynon thinks she should hang pictures of couples instead of some of them). I’d have thought the cat symbolised contented singleness more than the women. She tells Hoggard to get rid of a piece of art she was given by a friend who is now no longer a friend because “every time you see it, it’s bringing you down subconsciously”. But it might be beautiful in itself, or she might be hoping to rekindle the friendship, or it might feel mean to get rid of something that the artist put a lot of effort into; there are all sorts of reasons. She tells her to get rid of a T-shirt with another woman’s face on it because “why would you wear another woman’s face?”. Well, maybe she bought it at a concert and the face belongs to the performer. You have something like that for a reason.

I have lots of books. My parents have lots of books. Anyone of intellect and culture who goes into someone else’s house expects to find books. I rarely read mine nowadays; I read very few novels, mostly non-fiction, and most of what I read is online or in magazines or newspapers rather than books. However, apart from some obsolete computer books (which are the most expensive books I’ve bought over the years) I would not dream of getting rid of them. Some of them I bought when at college and others because I had seen reviews or they were otherwise recommended to me. To simply throw them out just because someone deems them ‘clutter’ or thinks the subject matter ‘gloomy’ is to deprive oneself of the opportunity to learn something. And of course some books are gloomy; some things in life are. But really, someone reading books or listening to music of a gloomy nature is not that much of a turn-off as long as they do not force it down their partner’s throat. My mum likes Leonard Cohen and my dad can’t stand him, but he bought her one of his books early on in their relationship and they’ve not let it come between them all these years.

She is very confident in her knowledge of what men think or how they would react to a woman’s style or decor, but is often wide of the mark. She forgets that the thing most noticed by anyone who visits someone’s flat is the person who lives there. Unless the flat is particularly garish or otherwise weird, which this one is not, the visitor (especially a boyfriend or girlfriend) will have got some sense of the owner’s personality before they arrive. Liz Hoggard as seen in that picture is a nice-looking lady. She is well-dressed, feminine, colourful, has a pleasant expression on her face. Perhaps the pictures give her inspiration for her style, and adding Diego Rivera to one of Frida Kahlo would not really serve that purpose (and as for that boyfriend, what does it tell him?). It’s a single woman’s flat; it reflects the owner’s personality. If she were living with someone else, their flat or house would come to reflect both of their personalities over time.

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Mail’s Corbyn exposé is pathetic

10 February, 2019 - 22:14
 astonishing story of his two ex-wives that reveals the REAL Jeremy Corbyn".

Today, the Mail on Sunday devoted more than a dozen pages to a new ‘exposé’ of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, in a feature which declares him “unfit for office”, most of it culled from a new biography, Dangerous Hero by the investigative reporter Tom Bowen, to be published on 21st February. Labour’s press office have already dismissed the material in the Mail today as a “poorly researched and tawdry hatchet job … packed with obvious falsehoods and laughable claims: from events that never took place to invented conversations and elementary errors of fact” which reminded me of the saying of the actor Hugh Grant after he won a libel suit against various British newspapers including the Mail: that the “close friends” and “close sources” referred to in these exposés almost never exist.

In this case, though, the people quoted by name do exist. However, all the material I’ve read concentrates on his marriages in the 1970s and 80s and portrays him as a bit of a wet blanket, more interested in politics than his private life and a bit socially inept. It’s no secret that he is on his third wife and had affairs in the 1980s. So what? The ‘fact’ that he appeared uninterested in his first wife is presented as if it may be assumed that this was the cause of the relationship breaking down rather than the symptom; he may have just fallen out of love with her and used politics to give himself a bit of room. It’s also ironic that the same people who accuse him of basing his economic policies on a “magic money tree” also ridicule him for personal habits that are rather austere and frugal. His politics are also presented as if they could not have changed in 40 years; they say he was uninterested in visiting grand buildings in Vienna because they were ‘royal’; again, even assuming the claim is true, so what? That’s quite mild by European standards, compared to beheading or shooting them.

Very little of the Mail’s exposé is about his politics, at least his politics now. That’s perhaps because he has long been associated with withdrawing from the European Union and the EEC before it, even at times when it was Tory policy to remain in so that business could benefit and Britain could push it in a neoliberal direction. Frankly I can’t think of any policy more likely to cause chaos in this country than a no-deal Brexit, yet this is the direction in which this rudderless Tory government is dragging us. Whoever inherits that mess, especially if it’s held this coming May or June soon after we go over the edge, is likely to be blamed for the consequences especially if they were always suspected of wanting it. But clearly the Mail believes a general election is only months away, which explains why they are ‘frit’ (Lincolnshire slang for afraid, famous for having been used in the Commons by Thatcher in the 80s, and since then used whenever a loss of nerve, especially among the Tories, is perceived).

But really, does anyone care about the unflattering anecdotes about his personality or his love life? No. Theresa May has also been portrayed as a boring, lifeless character (remember her saying that her most outrageous act was running through a field of wheat) and Tony Blair was caricatured as too smooth and polished; the Americans passed over Hilary Clinton, a woman not known to have had any love interests beside her husband since she was at college, despite his infidelities, in favour of a reality TV star known for his vulgar misogyny. An engaging or media-friendly personality does not always translate into a connection with the public or with competence in office. Corbyn is going to have some tough questions to answer in the run-up to any general election (his fondness for nominally socialist dictators or autocrats, and that of some of his associates, among them) but there was really nothing in this apart from some stale old personal anecdotes and some amateur psychology to interpret them. Tories will vote Tory, of course, but if they are hoping to panic people into voting Tory, they will have to come up with something more relevant and more recent than any of this.

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Two fundraisers: a well and a mosque

9 February, 2019 - 23:42

This morning a British rapper, Blaine “Cadet” Johnson, from south London was killed in a car accident on the way to a show at Keele university in Staffordshire. He was 28. Some people I know are raising money to sink a well in his name (the location has not been decided yet; currently it is a case of “wherever needed” unless his family say he would have liked it to be in a particular place). This is a Muslim tradition called sadaqa jariya or “continuing charity” which the deceased benefits for in the Hereafter (yes, he was Muslim). The fundraising page can be found here.

A mosque on a corner, painted in a cream colour with green borders around the windows. To the right is a red-brick, low-rise housing block and a block of flats, approximately 8 storeys, can be found behind the red-brick building.

Also, one of my favourite London mosques is fundraising for a rebuild: the Old Kent Road mosque (run by the Nigerian Muslim community) has been running from a converted pub since the 1990s and has insufficient space for the people who attend, especially on Fridays, but now has planning permission for a brand new building and needs to raise funds. You can find their address, bank details and charity number as well as a donation button on their website (bank transfers should be made with the reference “rebuild”). We were told that there is a deadline for funds to be raised (I will find out what that is tomorrow, in sha Allah).

Image source: Derek Harper, via Geograph. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) licence, version 2.0.

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Why aren’t more young women feminists?

8 February, 2019 - 23:57

Earlier this week I saw a piece on the BBC news website asking why more young women do not identify with feminism or as feminists. According to a 2018 YouGov poll, 34% of women in the UK identify as feminists, up from 27% in 2013; 56% of women in the same poll said there was still a need for feminism while 25% said there was no need. The poll results give a breakdown by age but does not break the male and female results down by age, only the total, but the greatest percentage of those considering themselves to be feminists was in the 18-24 age group (46%) and it was around a quarter for all other age ranges (25-49, 50-64 and 65+). The study did, however, find that much higher proportions of people believed in ideas traditionally associated with feminism, such as that men and women should be equal (around 80%). The researcher found that the association of feminism with stereotypes of lesbianism and lack of or opposition to femininity were a major factor in putting off young women from identifying as feminists.

What the article does not explore is what feminism actually is and how it has developed in the last couple of generations. There is a difference between generic, small-f ‘feminism’ which is identified with equality and rights and the like, and ideological, capital-F Feminism. It is possible to be a generic feminist without being an ideological Feminist but it is possible that many women associate the term with the ideological variety. These days there are two major strands of ideological Feminism: the type which styles itself intersectional feminism, which is concerned with how different types of oppression such as is associated with race, poverty and disability affect women above and beyond the difficulties women face in society, and mostly regards womanhood as stemming from gender identity as well as biology, and so-called Radical Feminism, which identifies women as a globally-oppressed, biologically-defined “sex class”. A major debate in feminism at present is the status of transgender people, particularly male to female transgender people; intersectional feminists support changes in the law to make the legal transition easier and often reject the notion that female biology is necessary to be a woman; radical feminists usually regard it as essential and regard trans women as men. Sometimes, they are vituperative and obsessive about this conviction. They refer to intersectional feminists as ‘liberal’ feminists when really this is an older form of feminism concerned with such things as economic equality and political representation. In their usage it is intended as a barb, along with terms like “fun feminism” and “choosy-choice feminism”. (Some American conservatives use the term “radical feminist” to mean a radical of any sort who is also a feminist of any sort; I have seen articles denouncing Betty Friedan as a radical feminist, when in fact she was an early liberal feminist who had been a Marxist in her youth.)

It is possible that many women, young or old, do not particularly identify with either of these ideologies or find them relevant to their lives. I suspect many have a simpler and more conservative view of gender and of what makes a woman (or a man) than either of them posit: they might not accept that mere identity is enough but would accept someone who was post-operative and no longer had male reproductive organs as a woman, for example. Radical feminists have often treated the customs of femininity as oppressive in themselves (such as in Sheila Jeffreys’ book Gender Hurts, which among other things detail the harms and inconveniences of the female beauty regime); many (though not all) regard these practices as a form of self-expression and most are not required to go to the same extremes detailed in books like Gender Hurts. Having a wider range of ways to express one’s personality in one’s clothing is not a good example of oppression, even if the available clothing changes every few months and entire types of clothes are periodically unavailable. People who have a strong identity with their sex and the gender associated with it are unlikely to identify with an ideology which is strongly associated with rejection of or indifference to it.

That the poll reveals that more people believe in the principle of gender equality than in feminism as such demonstrates that ideas that would have marked someone out as a feminist a generation or two ago would not mark them out at all now. In many parts of the Western world, the battle of ideas has been won; indeed, gender equality has come to be seen as a Western value. The law is generally on the side of women and there are strong anti-discrimination laws in most western countries, even if they have been watered down or are expensive to pursue (e.g. with punitive fees for employment tribunals, as were introduced under the Coalition government although later struck down in court). In the past, there were “low-hanging fruit”, obvious legislative changes that a broad women’s movement campaigned for, but today ensuring that women are not discriminated against is the work of specialists such as lawyers. There are many feminist activists who do valuable work in challenging rape myths or inequality in healthcare, but while these things affect many, if not most, women at some point in their lives, they do not restrict most women’s whole lives.

Finally, to motivate a large group of people to form a mass movement or associate with it, their situation has to be actually bad, not merely less good than it should or could be. Ideological feminists talk of oppression, but they use it in a technical sense to describe a situation which would be better described as general disadvantage; the word oppression connotes suffering. Activists will deal with the women who are suffering, but very many are not: they are well cared-for as children, they receive a rounded education, they are told they can do what they want with their lives if they work for it, they have the freedom to choose their partners or not to have one. Of course, this better describes middle-class women in a Western society but this is a large cohort which cannot really be described as oppressed or suffering. Feminists may look for psychological explanations or stereotypes for why few young women will call themselves feminists nowadays, but the real reason may be because they do not see a need for a generalised feminist movement. Life for them is just not that bad.

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Yes, the severely autistic do need a voice, but …

7 February, 2019 - 23:56
Aerial view of a large Victorian hospital with three courtyards set in fields with banks of trees on the right.Cheadle Royal hospital in Cheshire, England, a hospital run by the Priory Group which has been implicated in the deaths and mistreatment of multiple patients, including some with autism.

Recently a new organisation has been set up in the USA, the National Council on Severe Autism, based in California and run by a combination of parents and academics, a combination which has attracted a lot of criticism as there is not a single person with autism in any form on the board; all but one of the board are parents and/or guardians of someone with severe autism and one is a professor of psychiatry and paediatrics. Critics such as Shannon Des Roches Rosa say that the group’s policies strip autistic people of their autonomy and advocate for parents or guardians to make decisions for them; she takes offence at the “horror stories” the NCSA circulates about parenting autistic children and says they are not “advocating for acceptance or understanding”.

It’s curious that the debate there is so different from the situation here, where parents are fighting to be recognised as their children’s voice in opposition to clinical staff, local authority bureaucrats and charities dependant on local government and NHS contracts. A campaign group to champion the interests of people with autism and learning disabilities is sorely needed because the groups which pose as the “voice of learning disability” or similar are often complicit in their incarceration and abuse. What many parents want is for their children to have as much independence as they can handle, have ready access to their parents, have carers who are well-trained and attuned to their needs, and not be subject to needless medication, restraint or restriction on their liberty. For want of suitable non-restrictive accommodation and care in their local communities, or support to live at home, and sometimes because of hard-set ideas on the part of these clinicians and bureaucrats, autistic people have been detained in mental health units for periods of years, which sometimes are hundreds of miles from home, and subject to the whims of clinicians and bureaucrats who often have no understanding of autism.

This has also happened to young people who have less severe manifestations of autism who have suffered mental health crises, often as the result of bullying or a school culture which does not understand their needs. There needs to be an organisation to fight for the rights of people who are autistic to both autonomy, as much as possible, as well as support and freedom from abuse. There is a role in this for both people on the spectrum as well as parents fighting for their children, but not for parents and others who prefer to overshare the intimate details of their children’s condition or stereotype them with lurid stories of the most extreme behaviour they can sometimes display.

Image source: Mike Pennington, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 2.0 licence.

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Should we cut ties with Saudi Arabia?

6 February, 2019 - 23:27
 6%. Two people, one definitely male and one probably female, are facing each other talking in the foreground.The result of the debate. Source: Mehdi Hasan, Twitter.

Yesterday there was a debate at Intelligence Squared in London on whether the West should cut ties with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia because of its use of torture and such crimes as the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their consulate in Turkey. I could not justify the cost of a ticket (£30) but Hafsah Dabiri shared a couple of clips on her Instagram; they showed Mehdi Hasan talking about a young woman jailed for driving her car before the ban on women driving was lifted, then fleeing to the UAE after being release and then being kidnapped and taken back to Saudi Arabia and being imprisoned again. Other speakers included Crispin Blunt who said that Britain has levers of influence in Saudi Arabia and that cutting ties would be harmful to the cause of political reform and to regional stability, increasing the power of Russia and China, and Mamoun Fandy who said that Saudi Arabia was important to the world’s one billion Muslims and “to regional stability and order” and that cutting ties with Cuba did not work and neither will this. As the image shows, the motion was passed with 63% in favour.

As a Muslim I would really dispute that Saudi Arabia was important to Muslims. It is the home of the two holy cities, yes, but the regime does not originate in those cities but in the Najd, the central region which has never produced scholars of any note but has produced a number of schismatic movements throughout the history of Islam, from the false prophets and Kharijites of the early period to the Wahhabis of today. They are notorious for using their petro-dollars to influence Muslim affairs in other countries including supporting the Wahhabi “Salafi da’wah” which is popular with certain communities around the world, including many converts in the UK and USA. Under the current leadership, it is of even lesser importance as it returns to the repression of the King Fahd era without the religious piety.

I do not support cutting off relations with Saudi Arabia entirely; there are too many British and other western citizens living there for one reason or another and thousands perform the Hajj (pilgrimage) every year. However, we really must not treat the regime as a normal nation which has the rule of law and which respects the norms of civilised behaviour. We should not trust intelligence from them, especially about named individuals known to be dissidents as it is likely to be either ideologically biased or tainted with torture. We should restrict their diplomatic activity, and not allow them to assign diplomatic immunity to Saudis living here who are involved with religious foundations (e.g. the Regent’s Park mosque) or anything not strictly diplomatic. We should not honour such conventions as seizing passports they “report missing” (a trick governments use to stop their citizens travelling freely if they are out of favour with the regime).

I don’t really expect the UK to take an ethical foreign policy right now, especially since it is alienating its closest friends with its Brexit policy. However, under both Labour and Tory governments it has been too quick to cosy up to foreign governments whether they are legitimate or not, democratic or not, whether they are repressive or not or whether their legal systems have any semblance of efficiency or not (important when extraditing a British child involved in a custody dispute or a citizen accused of a crime). The government has, for example, confiscated Syrian passports held by dissidents on the demand of the Assad regime even when they lacked control over most of the country and had never held free and fair elections. There is a saying that if you sup with the Devil you had better use a long spoon, yet our government deals with these sorts of rulers as if it were an honour rather than a matter of necessity.

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Review: Skipping School (Dispatches, Channel 4)

5 February, 2019 - 23:51
A young boy wearing a pink T-shirt holding a wooden stick vertically in his hand, playing on a set of wooden logs stood against a tree branch.Kobi, whose parents took him out of school in protest at its all-work, no-play culture.

Last night, at the rather late hour of 10:15pm, Channel 4 broadcast an hour-long Dispatches programme about concerns that home-schooling is being used as a cover for illegal unregistered schools, that families are being forced into home-schooling by schools which “off-roll” their children because they have special needs, and that children have died of neglect unknown to the authorities until after they have died because local authorities have no way of knowing who is being home-schooled, especially if they were never sent to school as opposed to withdrawn. I know a few parents who are home-schooling for different reasons, and many of them have said this was a dreadfully biased programme which did not really show home-schooling as a positive choice but rather as something forced on some parents (unwillingly) by necessity and chosen by others for nefarious reasons, and the very title, a euphemism for truancy, gave the impression of bias from the beginning.

They interviewed a number of home-schooling families, only one of which — a middle-class couple which had withdrawn their son from school because they disapproved of the all-work, no-play culture — appeared to be educating their child successfully. The others included a mother with a son with a variety of health needs who had been accused of making him ill, another with dyslexia who had withdrawn her son because of his own special needs which the school were not meeting, but was struggling to even read herself and was getting no support, and a family of a daughter of secondary school age who, again, they had withdrawn because the school environment was threatening her mental health although she wanted to be in school. They also interviewed a retired headteacher who said that families were being forced into home-schooling because of schools “off-rolling” children, particularly those with special needs, and giving them the choice of finding another school or home-schooling; however, families are very much on their own, with the state providing no support even if it was the schools’ failure that led to their being withdrawn.

The last half of the programme was given over to the matter of abuse: eight-year-old Dylan Seabridge who died of scurvy in a remote village in Wales after local officials failed to investigate his situation, believing they had no right to as his father refused them entry to his home, and the matter of unregistered schools which often pose as home-schooling support centres but where in fact children spend the whole week. The first story was a tragedy but this single case does not outweigh so many situations in which children’s and young people’s physical and, especially, mental health is impacted by mainstream schools. The young autistic people featured in this programme really were in danger at school; some children have killed themselves as a result of bullying and others have had mental health crises so bad that they have needed to be admitted to hospital or sectioned. Children who have been in school have died as a result of parental abuse and sometimes the signs were missed by social services or others. Children in special school or hospital have died as a result of abuse or neglect there. Even if Dylan Seabridge had been on a register of home-schooled children, which is the proposed solution to these sorts of situations, his parents might have found a way to shield him from any inspection.

As for the unregistered schools, clearly Ofsted already have the power to investigate and bring prosecutions for these places whether they masquerade as home-schooling tuition centres or not. As the programme said, there is no way of making sure that the teachers who work in these places are vetted for criminal convictions or that they have any educational qualification. They featured one Muslim school which had been running under this pretence in west London whose owners were prosecuted; they also showed examples of the things which appeared in the school’s textbooks, including the statement that a husband should not have anal sex with his wife which is indeed an Islamic teaching. What age the pupils were given this information is not clear; if they are primary school age then it is clearly unacceptable, but if they are in their teens then this is quite acceptable given that this is a religious school and there is currently pressure to teach young people about sex at a younger and younger age.

The programme was not as bad in some respects as I had feared; there was no speculation about young people in home education being vulnerable to ‘radicalisation’, for example. This is significant as I know of parents who were fearful about moving to home education (in one case after their child experienced racism at school) because it might attract the attention of the police through the Prevent initiative. As it is, children have been interrogated by the police as a result of this system because of opinions they have expressed in class or in their work and some are being advised not to talk about politics at school from anything that could be considered an Islamic viewpoint.

Still, it showed home education in a mostly negative light, implying that it could really only be successful if carried out by middle-class suburban parents. It showed it as a threat to children’s well-being, when in fact for many children school itself is a worse threat. It did mention the lack of support for parents, but did not suggest offering any; the only solution to any of the problems mentioned was a register and it strongly suggested that the lack of any guidance on what children should be learning was a problem. It mentioned that home-schooling was banned in Germany, as if this should make any difference for us (it is not banned in the USA, France, Canada or many other countries), but Germany offers a range of types of school, including Steiner schools, which the UK does not. While the state of mainstream schooling is getting worse — increasing class sizes, political interference such as forced academisation, and curriculums dominated by English and maths and geared towards key stage tests, it should be no surprise that some parents want better and some children need better, especially as some parents have had such an unpleasant experience of school themselves.

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New claims, scant evidence as FGM activists play whack-a-mole

4 February, 2019 - 14:44
A South Asian woman wearing a dark blue dress stands in front of a projector screen next to a poster from the FGM "Freedom Project" in a school auditorium. Teenage boys and girls in school uniforms with grey blazers sit in the ranks of red seats.An anti-FGM presentation by the Freedom Project at a school

Last week the number of successful prosecutions for female genital mutilation (FGM) in Britain went from zero in more than 30 years since a specific FGM law was passed, to one. A Ugandan woman who had subjected her three-year-old daughter to some form of it (and relied on curses to keep police and social services at bay) was remanded in custody and warned of a lengthy prison term when she returns for sentencing in March. Her partner (who is from Ghana) and the doctor alleged to have performed the procedure were acquitted. Jess Phillips, the Birmingham Labour MP, called on Twitter for the conviction to lead to “greater action, education and fear of this brutal crime”. Today, the Victoria Derbyshire programme, which was contacted by the mother who was convicted last week who claimed that social services were “putting lies on her family”, reported new claims by a so-called expert that FGM was increasingly being performed on babies who were too young to go to nursery or school and thus could evade detection. As usual, the story is heavy on emotion and anecdote and light on empirical evidence. (The programme can be seen in the UK here, interspersed with another story about the price of drugs for cystic fibrosis, for the next 29 days; the segment starts about five minutes in.)

Last week’s FGM conviction happened because doctors became aware of the girl’s condition when they were treating her for something or other (they do not say what). It could have been complications from the procedure or it could have come to light when, say, staff had to bathe, change or catheterise her when she was in hospital for an operation and her mother was not present. We would be seeing more situations like this if FGM really were widespread in the UK; quite apart from the fact that some of the procedures carried out on young girls in places like Somalia and Sierra Leone are potentially lethal and even if the cutting was mild, even with the best hygiene in the world, sooner or later someone will develop an infection. It is not something that can be concealed for anything like this long and none of the explanations offered by activists account for why so few cases have come to light in children, only in adults years after the event.

Dr Charlotte Proudman, a barrister and “FGM expert”, claimed that there was “a lot of anecdotal data which shows FGM is now being performed on babies” and, because they were in neither schools nor nurseries, “it’s very difficult for any public authority to become aware”. In one report, in Yorkshire, the child was just a month old and West Yorkshire Police had said, in response to a Freedom of Information request, that a quarter of its FGM reports involved children aged three or under. WYP appear to have refused most FOI requests concerning FGM but did indeed publish some figures (PDF) which indicate that they were aware of cases of FGM in children that age, but most of the cases in the report took place outside of the UK and in one case involving a young child, it was not known whether it took place in the UK. So, this in no way proves that FGM is happening to small children in the UK.

Given the paucity of evidence to support the claim, the rest of the BBC’s report is padded out with old content and follows the familiar pattern of a survivor’s (and well-known activist’s, in this case Hibo Wardere’s) story, a mention of how they do it in France (by subjecting all girls, or is it all girls from families presumed to be that way inclined, to genital examinations on a yearly basis) and an oft-repeated claim about why they have been unable to find any cases, in this case the old saw about “they’re worried about being accused of racism”. FGM has been in the news every couple of months for years, with the reports often lurid and spiced up with racist language such as ‘barbarism’, even in liberal newspapers; the communities affected are often Muslim and are regularly accused in public of all sorts of things from disloyalty to separatism to extremism to terrorism. This is a claim that might have had some truth to it in 1985 but today, it is laughable.

FGM campaigners are playing a game of whack-a-mole; one claim is discredited and they respond with new ones, and as it’s a good human interest story and a good bit of bait for racist politics, the media go along with it every time even when there are obvious holes in the evidence. To reiterate: the idea that several large communities, which are not closed and whose children socialise with others on a daily basis, could continue to uphold a practice like this for 30 years and go undetected for that whole period is preposterous. If it were happening, medical staff would have been dealing with its consequences on a regular basis and there would have been fatalities; we would not be relying on statistics of old cases and on speculation and assumptions. FGM is being used as an excuse to harass and intrude into the lives of minority populations; the obsession is rooted in racism, and it is time for every claim about it from an ‘expert’ not to be considered as news. We do not need greater fear; we need more robust examination of the evidence.

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