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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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Muslimander TV: Are Asian lads lost, or is Mehreen Baig?

19 August, 2018 - 18:28

A picture of Mehreen Baig, a young South Asian woman wearing a black top with a jacket of uncertain colour over it, walking along a fence, with a low sun to the side.Lost Boys? What’s Going Wrong for Asian Men (BBC iPlayer, available in UK only until about 12th September)

Last Sunday there was an hour-long programme on BBC2 purported to be about the problems facing young British Asian men in the UK. It was presented by one Mehreen Baig, a former teacher who previously took part in BBC2’s two-part documentary Muslims Like Us and has been a presenter on the BBC’s Sunday Morning Live. Despite good reviews in the secular press, a number of my Muslim friends were deeply dissatisfied with the programme: Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan in a review on Al-Jazeera called it “a lazy reproduction of racist, culturally essentialist stereotypes approved by an ‘insider’” while Ahmed Hankir offers a perspective from an actual British Asian Muslim man. To their credit, the Daily Telegraph also published a critical review from a Muslim, Hussein Kesvani, which is paywalled but the headline summarises it: ‘Young Asian men’ are facing the same problem as other men: a crisis of masculinity. I recommend reading all these reviews.

My immediate response was similar to Kesvani’s: the first part of the programme focussed on an ethnic community which has suffered a similar fate to many white communities in the same part of the country, namely seeing the industries their men worked in (for generations, in the case of the mostly white coal mining and steel working communities, and came here to work in, in this case) destroyed since the 1980s because of a combination of globalisation and politically-motivated privatisation and industry rundown. The problems in some of those places are similar to those in the northern Asian communities — men who were brought up expecting to go into a particular job and are now at a loose end, often living in towns and villages which lack any other industry or meaningful work opportunities. Not every section of the Pakistani or even Mirpuri community in the UK has this sort of challenge, any more than all white men, so it is an unrepresentative group to base a documentary about “Asian men” on. Boys falling behind girls in academic achievement is a found in some of these other parts of society as well where boys were traditionally brought up expecting to go straight into manual work.

Baig compares two very particular sub-sections of the British Asian community, the other being Ugandan Asians which she generalises as being of Gujarati origin, when in fact there is an actual Gujarati community in the UK which is made up of both Muslims and Hindus. East African Asians (who are not all Ugandan) are a mixture of Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians and offshoot sects from Islam such as Isma’ilis (the Damjis, the family Yasmin Alibhai-Brown comes from, are Isma’ilis). She presents the Ugandans as being somewhat less reverent than the Bradford Mirpuris, showing them drinking beer and a male comic dressing as a woman to make fun of Asian women. The implication is clearly that Ugandans are better integrated because they are less religious than Mirpuri Muslims, but there are other factors. Many of them were merchants in Africa who maintained contacts with each other when they moved here; Mirpuris were farmers who moved to the UK to work in textile mills, and this lack of entrepreneurial background and acumen may explain why so many are attracted to the multi-level marketing (MLM) ‘businesses’ Baig shows them involved in and does not make any attempt to investigate — they are, in fact, a scam with much in common with Ponzi or pyramid schemes, as they rely on attracting new participants rather than selling products or services, and any such scheme will collapse when there is nobody new to attract. There must, in other words, be many more losers than winners.

A picture of Mehreen Baig and two Asian men looking at a view of Bradford through a fence.Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan calls Mehreen Baig a native informant; her stance puts her firmly in the “Muslimander” tendency I mentioned in a post about the Boris Johnson affair — the type that ‘justifies’ the nonsense they talk about Muslims or Islam by saying “I’m a Muslim, and …”. She is relying on outsiders taking her word because she is “one of” the people she is peddling broad-brush stereotypes of. Her Twitter feed in the days after the programme aired illustrates this: it was full of retweets of positive reviews and well-wishing from various media friends and thank-yous from her. She was not interested in engaging with Muslim critics of her work, and in fact she blocked some of them including Suhaiymah. This was not a very representative picture of British Asians or the problems they face, and it did not even begin to consider racism or media and public hostility focussed on terrorism, which has been a given in discussion of “the Asian problem” since at least the 2001 riots: the problem is always Asian failure to integrate, brides from the village back home, sons treated like princes and girls like domestic skivvies, Asian-majority schools; it’s never racism, the fact that discrimination in the job market is rife, that some of the schools are just no good, not that they’re majority Asian.

The programme also had an irritatingly Dooleyesque quality: too much of it was focussed on Baig’s own reactions to what she saw, many of them banal — she once noted, for example, that the young people she met were fond of looking at the view, which showed only Bradford; it is actually quite a striking view and the city is set in a lot of the kind of natural beauty that people travel from all over the country to Yorkshire to see. A good documentary maker lets the subject matter do the talking rather than stamping their face and opinions all over it. I don’t think Asian Bradford boys are any more lost than any other group of boys from low-income backgrounds in England, and particularly the north of England, but they are certainly more stigmatised and this programme did not even begin to explore that.

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Why did I just lose 25 followers?

17 August, 2018 - 13:41

A male linnet, a small brown bird with a patch of red on its breast, sitting on a twig.The other day I logged onto an unfollower tracker and discovered that I’d lost 19 followers, which is rather unusual (I often lose a few over the average week, often suspended accounts — which are not named — or people who had followed me expecting me to follow back, then unfollowed when I did not, and sometimes people who had unfollowed because of a disagreement or blocked me). I checked who the unfollowers were and many of them were names I recognised from years ago: two in particular belonged to one person who has used various accounts and blogs over the years to blog particular aspects of her experience of spinal cord injury; others were just people who had fallen off Twitter and not bothered to close their accounts. I posted to both Twitter and Facebook asking why this had all happened and got a reply to the effect that people had just found better things to do with their lives than tweet or had pruned their social circle to get rid of the dead wood. But judging by which accounts these were, this could not have been the case.

A lot of people lost a large number of followers at the same time and a lot of people are asking why — some obviously think they annoyed someone or that a whole bunch of people have decided they don’t want them in their lives anymore. No. Twitter, for some reason, removed a whole bunch of moribund accounts from your followers list but for some reason did not just suspend them, which is what you might expect them to do. They really need to inform their users when they do something like this, as it may coincide with an argument, relationship break-up or some other event and some people have mental health problems that make them sensitive to these sorts of things. A lot of people think it’s ‘sad’ to use an unfollower tracker but in this case knowing who unfollowed me and being able to tell others is quite useful.

(And this would be a good place to announce that I am trying to get off Twitter and migrate to the open-source social media platform Mastodon. This is because, apart from the well-documented problems of Twitter suspending people for no real reason while allowing Nazis to prosper unchecked, they have also decided to cripple third-party Twitter clients such as Tweetbot and Tweetings which offered a straightforward chronological timeline rather than Twitter’s ‘curated’ one with numerous interpolations. I can be found as ij@knzk.me and you can join any Mastodon server and follow me. My Twitter account is, however, going to remain active for the foreseeable future.)

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Who wears the burqa?

15 August, 2018 - 15:13

A woman walking along a mud road wearing a blue full-length burqa which covers the whole of her body from head to foot. There are bushes behind her and mountains in the background.In an earlier entry I discussed the unhelpful ‘defence’ of niqaab that only a few thousand women wear the garment. However, a side argument is that only a few hundred wear the burqa, the garment best known from Afghanistan which covers the whole body including the eyes and face. I saw Miqdaad Versi of the Muslim Council of Britain make this argument on Twitter this morning. I find this a very dubious claim. I would imagine that the number wearing the Afghan burqa in the UK is closer to zero, if not actually zero. The burqa is a garment specific to rural Pashtuns in Afghanistan and Pakistan; only a minority of British Asian Muslims are Pashtun. The garment is not widely available here, it is not the Sunnah, and it is not practical. The niqaab is widely available both in shops and online and is practical in the sense that it can easily be flipped up when the wearer needs to show her face (there is also a layer that can cover the eyes which can also be flipped up or down; if you see a woman with her whole face covered, this is probably also a niqaab).

There is another garment called the burqa; this is worn in the United Arab Emirates and covers parts of the face. It consists of a cloth veil stretched over a metal frame. There are parts of London where there are lots of Muslims from wealthy parts of the Gulf and I’ve walked around those places very frequently; I’ve never seen an Emirati burqa either.

Also, the Evening Standard website yesterday published a piece about a study which claimed that British Asians received worse treatment after terrorist attacks: some 40% of British Asian Muslims said they experienced a “rise in negative treatment” and 26% of Sikhs, and just under a third said people had been abusive to them while 11% said they had been excluded from events. The picture they use to illustrate the report is of a woman in niqaab, and stock images of women in black niqaabs have been used to illustrate reports of ‘trouble’ involving Muslims for years (whether it’s terrorism, the spread of “radical ideologies” or whatever discontent of any kind). This insistence on linking niqaab to extremism of any sort is part of what generates hatred towards Muslim women in particular and the number of women wearing it declined after media campaigns targeted at it, not immediately after major terrorist attacks.

The impact on Sikhs has been widely observed both here and in the United States; Muslims in some parts of the world wear turbans and pictures of well-known terrorists wearing them have appeared in the media often. I have come across Muslims who wear a certain type of turban, but the majority of people who wear them in western countries (albeit a different style without a cap underneath) are Sikhs and there have been many violent attacks on Sikhs by people who mistook them for Muslims.

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Rex Bob Lowenstein would make a bad politician

14 August, 2018 - 16:33

Boris Johnson, a middle-aged white man with scruffy white hair wearing a blue sweat-shirt with the name "Xchanging" on the front, approaching journalists from his house along a cobbled path with a tray of cups of tea in his hands.As I mentioned two posts back about the niqaab controversy, Boris Johnson found an ally in the former (and possibly future) UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who made a comment on BBC London radio to the effect that the people in “the country” were behind Johnson and that it would increase rather than decrease his popularity. This notion that the “real England” consists of its small towns and villages is a common trope of Brexiteers because it its strongest support is in some (though actually not all) of these places: while a lot of urban areas outside London (Birmingham for one) voted by a majority for leaving the EU, the strongest support was in areas surrounding the Wash on the east coast, Boston in Lincolnshire in particular. A few weeks ago a Twitter acquaintance pointed me towards this article by Matthew Goodwin on Quillette, which describes itself as “a platform for free thought” and whose associate editor is Toby Young. The article traces British “scepticism” towards Europe back to traditional English anti-Catholicism, citing Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation (which I studied at university).

Goodwin notes that the debate over Brexit has been “utterly dry, sterile, and completely lacking in imagination” and overly focussed on such things as the overspending of the Leave campaign, and which shows “no engagement whatsoever with the growing pile of evidence that we now have on why people actually voted for Brexit”. Most Leave voters had, he says, “a clear and coherent outlook and had formed their views long before the campaign even began”. He said he hoped that there would be a “long-overdue debate” about the “divides, inequalities, and grievances that had led to this moment”, but nobody wants such a debate “because conversations require a reply”; their focus has been simply on overturning the result. In this he has a point; putting aside the Tory Brexiteer voters in places like Lincolnshire, a good many working-class voters voted to leave the EU because of long-standing neglect of their parts of the country which coincide with our being a member of the EU or its predecessors, and Labour also made the enormous mistake of opening the doors to hundreds of thousands of workers from eastern Europe, after both Labour and Tory governments had spent years cultivating and appeasing anti-immigration sentiment, perhaps assuming nobody would mind because they were white.

Neither of these issues has been addressed. The idea of rebuilding industry devastated in the 1980s is still dismissed as backward-looking stupidity or inward-looking economic nationalism. Admittedly, the iron and coal deposits which made some of these industries profitable in the past are no longer there, but some of the destruction happened because Tory governments preferred to sell off national assets than turn them around. This is significant because a large proportion of the pro-Remain vote in England came from the southern shires, a tract from Gloucestershire through Oxfordshire and down into Surrey and Hampshire, much of which consists of safe Tory seats, and these are some of the people who should be contemplating the effects of the policies they supported throughout the 80s. Goodwin notes that the tendency to simply oppose Brexit rather than engage with it is “particularly strong in the academy” whose teachers tend to vote for left-wing and ultra-liberal parties. This sounds like a stereotype — I graduated 20 years ago — but it rings true to the attitudes I have encountered on Twitter: ordinary people’s perceptions of the effect of immigration on their wages and jobs are dismissed as fallacies with references to economic theories. No matter if the explanation is not nearly as simple as “immigrants drive down wages” or “immigrants take jobs so British people cannot get them”, people are instinctively resistant to any theory that frames immigration as anything other than a positive.

To be clear, immigration is not the only reason why working-class people’s jobs, wages and conditions are under threat: another is the casualisation of a number of lines of work and the resulting weakness of unions. In many industries, including mine (transport), a lot of the labour is sourced from agencies — many companies do not hire frontline staff (e.g. truck drivers) themselves but get everyone from an agency. Staff do not know each other very well (perhaps inevitable with single-man truck driving). However, with an unregulated labour market, employers are dissuaded from investing in new talent because they have a ready supply of experienced workers from abroad: many transport bosses here will not take someone on who has less than two years’ entitlement as to do so would increase their insurance premiums.

However, it is not only Remainers who are often impervious to the facts. Speaking to a group of fellow drivers and a minor transport boss a few weeks ago, I found that many were firmly pro-Brexit; when I pointed out that it would mean isolation from the huge trading bloc on our doorstep, they pointed out that there were still lots of foreign trucks on the road bringing things in and taking them out — proof, they said, that the economy was not collapsing (this is a lot like those who say “global warming, what global warming — look, it’s snowing!”). I pointed out that we were still in the EU and the problems would begin when we actually left, particularly if it was without a favourable deal. They then accused me of being ‘negative’, as if positive thinking could affect the outcome of anything that is independent of one’s behaviour. And this says nothing about the very wealthy Tory Brexiteers who are well known to be too rich to personally lose out much if the economy collapses as a result of our falling into isolation, yet continue to push for a hardline Brexit. Some of them are known to be shifting money abroad already.

Goodwin bemoans the lack of debate about the long-term causes of the Brexit vote. However, the date for leaving is getting closer and closer day by day and there is no longer a long enough term to have such a debate; it is becoming increasingly obvious that a favourable deal other than remaining in the European Economic Area (EEA) is not available to us. The EU will not agree to it because some of the demands Britain makes is not conducive to their security (e.g. allowing a non-member to collect tariffs) and also because of the fear of other states seceding in Britain’s wake. It has to be remembered that the move towards European integration began after World War II because politicians realised that if goods were able to cross borders, armies usually did not: trade barriers caused poverty and discontent, which at different times made both fascism and communism popular. I have seen younger Tories boast that their generation are no longer affected by the fear of war in Europe and the idea that European integration is key to making sure we do not slide back into the past. Personally, with only the UK isolated outside the European Union, I am more afraid of the civil unrest that might erupt here, or the ease with which anger at the loss of jobs or the rise in food prices (or its unavailability) might be deflected towards a visible minority.

A common test I do when reviewing pro-Brexit articles, or those highly sceptical of the media’s role in fomenting the pro-Brexit sentiment, is to search the article for mentions of the press, papers or media (a previous article to this effect scored zero). This one mentions a “jingoistic press” in the paragraph about Linda Colley’s book, and ‘media’ a few times, often in reference to social media. This is, in my opinion, a major weakness of that argument: the debate about the legitimacy of the Brexit vote has been focussed on Russian interference and the Leave campaign’s overspend, but rarely touches on the bias in the commercial print media which is known to have circulated a number of falsehoods about the EEC and EU over the decades since European integration became the watchword in the late 1980s (rather than the EEC as being good for business). The right-wing press have particularly campaigned against the European Convention on Human Rights, enshrined into British law as the Human Rights Act of 1998, which it portrays as giving unwarranted rights to illegal immigrants, terrorists and people in both categories with often mendacious claims (e.g. that somebody could claim a right to a family life on the basis that being deported would mean leaving his cat). The benefits to ordinary people (e.g. a person with a learning disability securing rights not to be detained indefinitely on the say-so of one doctor) are never mentioned. Admittedly, the ECHR is an instrument of the Council of Europe, not the EU, but referring to it as coming out of “Europe” blurs the distinction.

The issue of the extent to which the electorate “knew what they were voting for” is only of limited relevance given that we are a representative democracy, not a plebiscitary one, and Parliament is meant to weigh public opinion against the greater good. A memorable passage from Linda Colley’s book was the section on the Catholic Emancipation Act, which attracted a record volume of petitions in opposition which has yet to be broken. Parliament had behaved, she wrote, as neither a conservative oligarchy nor a representative assembly. It could do this because it knew that the views of the general public about Catholics — that they were a fifth column, loyal only to Rome, regarded Protestants as heretics and would persecute them given half a chance — were based on myth and propaganda. More recently, Parliament has resisted public and press demands for the reintroduction of hanging, aware that innocent people had been hanged and would have been (e.g. Stefan Kiszko, the Guildford Four) if it had been retained.

Very much the same is true of many of the public’s beliefs about the EU and the difference here is that some of the Brexiteers in Parliament who are leading the charge are those who have been peddling the myths about the EU in the press for years — Boris Johnson being the most notable example. Goodwin mentions the ethnic minority vote for Brexit; I can state that myths were behind some of this too. Some believed the European Parliament was going to ban halal slaughter; some believed that shutting off migration from the EU would lead to the gates being opened to migration from South Asia again; some simply believed that the EU was hostile to Muslims and that Muslims were safer in a Britain that is outside Europe.

Goodwin does not really address the issue of the narrowness of the vote either. 48% of those who voted, voted to remain in the EU and this is considerably greater than the share of the vote traditionally required to win a general election. Put a specific deal on the table which does not make it easy for British people to holiday in France or Spain and does not guarantee low food prices and easy availability and it is unlikely to garner the 52% of the vote that went to Leave in 2016. Divide the vote up as you would a general election vote and Remain comes out the winner. Now that people are more aware that Brexit is unlikely to be a simple process and that the politicians charged with it are incompetent and in some cases venal, evidence is showing that support for Brexit is ebbing away, especially in Labour-voting constituencies — the ‘true English’ in the provinces are hardening in their support for it, perhaps perceiving a “stab in the back”, but small towns in Lincolnshire are no more or less the “real England” than inner-city London and Birmingham or the old mining towns of Yorkshire.

There is a song, Rex Bob Lowenstein, about a fictional radio DJ who resisted his company’s demands to implement playlists and went to jail for his efforts; in the last verse, the singer and songwriter Marc Germino sang that his efforts were “just to find what the people W.A.N.T.” (which was also conveniently the station’s call sign). The song is often played as a tribute to DJs who play “real music” rather than pop, but when I heard this final verse I could not help but be struck by how banal and anticlimatic it was. This is real life, not a radio request show, and whatever the merits of Rex Bob Lowenstein’s approach, it does not translate well into politics. What the people W.A.N.T. does not always mean the greater good and a majority, especially a very slim one, and however well-distributed, does not have the right to destroy the prosperity that is vital for everyone’s well-being. As the Rolling Stones (and, I suspect, your mother) said — you can’t always get what you want.

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Another lesson in diplomacy

11 August, 2018 - 22:29

A black-and-white image of three members of the Ku Klux Klan, two women and one man, in white sheets and masks, standing by a burning cross.As Muslims face the consequences of Britain’s one-time “top diplomat” insulting an ethnic minority (and, by extension, the women of a number of the countries where Britain could do with having friendly relations) and provoking a ‘debate’ on Muslim women’s dress which served to distract from the cliff-edge Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiteer wingnuts are dragging us towards, I came across a tweet this morning from Christine Hamilton, media ‘butterfly’ and wife of UKIP Welsh assembly member Neil “cash in brown envelopes” Hamilton, comparing the niqaab to the white hoods and sheets worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Hamilton is “ambassador” for the Muscular Dystrophy campaign and Balls to Cancer (though she has removed references both from her profile to avoid embarrassment to them) and has posted pictures of her trekking through the Andes in Peru in aid of the former. “If the #burka is acceptable then presumably this is too?” the tweet asked, accompanied by a picture of some Klansmen in full pointy-hat and white sheet regalia (not the image accompanying this entry). For their part, the MD campaign has been tweeting the same statement all day to those who complained: “Christine Hamilton’s tweet was made in a personal capacity and does not reflect the views of Muscular Dystrophy UK. We believe in a diverse and equal society, and are firmly against any form of discrimination.”

In case anyone needed an answer: no, because when the KKK were still strong and had the support of the powers that were, they used to ride into areas where Black people lived in order to terrorise them and they would kill Black people who were accused of a crime or who “stepped out of line” by getting into an argument with a White person or demanded such things as the right to vote. In some areas, in fact, they were powerful enough not to have to wear sheets; members of the KKK were police officers, judges and politicians. In her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou recalled how a local policeman had told her grandmother that her son (Maya’s uncle) Willie should “lie low” because “a crazy n***er messed with a white lady today” and that some of “the boys” would be down to teach the Black people in the town a lesson. The family buried Willie under a pile of potatoes, and in the event he made so much noise that they would have found him anyway, but they called off the ‘demonstration’.

A front cover from Melanie Phillips's book Londonistan, with the sub-heading "How Britain is creating a terror state within". The picture shows three women, all wearing niqaabs, one of them pushing a child in a buggy with the clear plastic rain shield pulled down, and the one on the left is giving a V-sign to the person who is taking the picture.If Muslim women who wear niqaab ever did anything like this, the comparison would be justified. As they do nothing more threatening to anyone than buy groceries and take their children to the park, it’s grotesque. (In the US, laws aimed at the KKK have been used by police in some states to try to prevent women wearing niqaab in public, but it has always been put down by the courts on First Amendment grounds.) And yes, there has been the occasional story about the family of a terrorist getting a nice town house in Notting Hill on housing benefit and the Mum usually wears niqaab, but that’s not the majority of them, and there’s that picture of three women in niqaab and one of them appeared to be giving society a big V-sign (it’s been on the front of the Daily Express at least once and was the cover image for one edition of Melanie Phillips’s Londonistan), but actually, she was giving the V-sign to some journalists and/or paparazzi. These women have taken far more abuse from the public, in large part because of malicious press reporting, than they have caused anyone.

An ambassador is obviously meant to be an asset to a charity in upholding their reputation. I do not honestly see why anyone would want Christine Hamilton as an ambassador (even if they have several) given that her own reputation is not exactly spotless. Besides his corrupt history (he was the MP toppled from a Tory safe seat by Martin Bell back in 1977), her husband Neil Hamilton now sits for UKIP, a party noted for its flirtation with xenophobia and Islamophobia. A disability charity is there to serve those with the disability in question, and muscular dystrophies affect people of every ethnicity, both sexes and every religion. I used to know a Muslim man who had a severe form of MD, was a power-chair user, and was dependent on others for his every need; he experienced all the usual problems of being a wheelchair user such as taxis driving off at the sight of him, and wondered whether it was because of his disability or his Islamic appearance. Only this past week there was a report of a Muslim lady who wears niqaab and walks with a walking stick being attacked by three white youths in an east London street who urinated on her. Being disabled, especially if visibly so, makes anyone from a visible minority additionally vulnerable to abuse or harassment targeted at their race as well as at their condition and this increases if they need personal care; they may also need dietary needs met when in their own home or in hospital. Every disability charity needs to be race-aware and aware to the religious issues facing the people they serve, and should not be associated with people whose behaviour might inflame prejudice towards them.

Of course, a charity needs the money and they should not refuse money raised independently of them by people with controversial opinions, but the status of ‘ambassador’ should be special and reserved for people with major fundraising potential and an unblemished reputation. If Christine Hamilton ever had one, she doesn’t now, and she should have the status removed.

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Niqaab row brings out the ‘Muslimanders’

9 August, 2018 - 21:48

A woman in niqaab standing next to a red British postboxTwo days after the controversy over Boris Johnson comparing Muslim women who wear the niqaab to letterboxes and bank-robbers became big news, the party is facing calls to demand an apology from him (which he has refused) and to withdraw the whip from him (which the party currently shows no signs of doing). The former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, has said he will leave the party altogether if he becomes leader; it has been suggested that this announcement from a Remainer will increase his popularity among the pro-Leave base. The issue of Brexit is not really related to this; a lot of the districts outside London where there is a strong Muslim population voted to leave the EU, but a lot of white Leave voters are also white provincials and this includes a lot of racists, as well as those who get their views about Islam and Muslims from tabloids rather than from actually knowing any. On BBC London last night, it was Nigel Farage they turned to for a quote, who said that Johnson’s stance would increase his popularity and that “the country” agreed with him — meaning, of course, small-town provincial England. But there’s more to England, let alone Britain, than small-town provincial England.

A thing that has been quite noticeable this time as always when the issue of Muslim women’s dress is being discussed on the radio and in the newspapers is whose voices are allowed to be raised and whose are not. The voices of those actually affected by the ‘debate’ — Muslim women who wear the veil — are almost absent, and those we hear are, in roughly descending order, non-Muslims, Muslim women who do not wear the veil of any kind, and those who wear the hijab but not niqaab. Worse, some newspapers invariably turn to a kind of self-publicist I like to call the ‘Muslimander’: the person who says “I’m a Muslim and …” followed by a statement which is at complete variance with what Islamic texts actually say on the subject or what Muslims actually believe or do. Maajid Nawaz has already posted a tweet thread calling the niqaab “the uniform of medieval patriarchal tyranny” complete with a picture of a woman wearing a shapeless all-over garment with a veil that leaves her eyes partially visible, but that’s just on Twitter. On the Times’s front page, there is an interview with Taj Hargey, who they claim is a “leading imam”, alleging that the niqaab has “no Koranic legitimacy” and is “a nefarious component of a trendy gateway theology for religious extremism and militant Islam”.

Taj Hargey is no stranger to readers of this blog; he’s the guy Jeremy Vine wheeled out on Radio 2’s midday chat show a few years ago to tell listeners that Muslims sexually abused young white girls because Muslims in general believe that white women are immodest, pieces of meat and trash. Vine played on the ignorance of both listeners and his other guest (John Brown of the NSPCC) by reminding the latter that Hargey was an imam; the truth is that he is not the imam of an actual mosque but a self-appointed shepherd without a flock who specialises in hostile publicity stunts calculated to embarrass Muslims. His comment about the niqaab having “no Koranic legitimacy” gives him away to any actual Muslim; Islamic practice is based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the words and actions of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), on the practice of the Companions and on the other upright early Muslims, on consensus, on reason; even the details of the ritual prayer are not in the Qur’an. “It’s not in the Qur’an” is just not an argument a Muslim would use. (As it happens, the requirement of covering the hair and neck is in the Qur’an, but the majority of the rulings in the Shari’ah are not.)

An unhelpful argument that keeps being raised in opposition to Johnson (and to people who advocate banning the niqaab altogether) is the supposedly tiny numbers of women in the UK who wear it — the argument goes “let’s focus on something that matters”. To give one example, someone reposted a thread from 2016 in which she said she could walk for two hours from where she lived in London and not see anyone wearing it. My answer was that if she had done the same walk ten years earlier, she would likely have seen at least one or two. In the early 2000s, virtually every Muslim group had a few ladies who wore it, at least for some time, precisely because it was a Sunnah they wanted to fulfil even if they did not wear it all their lives; after that, the numbers declined precipitously. I do not have any statistics but I remember seeing women wearing it around Kingston all the time, particularly students at the university, and after that affair it disappeared from the streets. Some may think that is a good thing, but the only explanation is that it was the result of hostility and even threats and violence. Such violence against women who are harming nobody, especially from men, can never be tolerated or justified.

Finally, I dispute the constant suggestion that there has to be “a debate” on whether to ban the niqaab or not. The only debate is about who is harmed by it, and in the vast majority of cases, the answer is nobody; the women who wear it are just going about their day and minding their own business. Generally we ban something because it causes harm; the chief objections to niqaab are flimsy — people say they cannot read a woman’s expression, for example, but the same is true when you talk on the phone. The simple explanation is that people just do not like it, and very many of the people complaining do not know any Muslims and live in areas where there are few Muslims anyway; they regard Muslims as people who live in “foreign” enclaves in big cities. The general trend in official attitudes towards Muslims has been to foster ignorance rather than knowledge; I have been told by white Muslim female converts to Islam, for example, that they have been asked by healthcare professionals if they have undergone FGM, which is a practice confined largely to parts of Africa when they have no African ancestry.

So, it’s heartening that the Tory party has at least been shaken by this attempt to appeal to ignorant provincialism and racism, but they need to understand that this is not a one-off for Boris Johnson. He has a long history of both racist and Islamophobic writing, some of it of a conspiratorial nature that would be condemned outright if it were about certain other minorities. If they want to prove that they are not just a “white people’s party”, they should make sure he can never run as a Tory for any office again, including his present Parliamentary seat.

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Boris Johnson’s latest insult (and the Muslims who unwittingly side with him)

7 August, 2018 - 20:33

Two women wearing the niqaab or Muslim face-covering walking in the streets of The Hague; one is wearing a dark blue scarf and veil, the other a purple scarf and veil and a lighter purple jacket, and both are wearing long black skirts or dresses. A woman is pointing a large video camera at them.Yesterday, in one of Boris Johnson’s new columns for the Telegraph (which you may recall the paper made a big announcement of after he resigned as foreign secretary), he registered his half-hearted opposition to Denmark’s ban on the face-covering worn by some Muslim women, but then spent more time informing us of how much he disliked it, comparing the women’s appearance to those of letter-boxes and bank-robbers. The article was immediately condemned by Muslims and the Labour party; the condemnation from the Tories has taken rather longer to start appearing; Alistair Burt criticised it on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning and party chairman Brandon Lewis has now said he asked Johnson to apologise in a tweet posted after midday today. His comments have naturally received support from other Tories, including the bane of the posh boys Nadine Dorries, who tweeted that “any clothing a woman is forced to wear that hides both her beauty and her bruises should be banned and have no place in our liberal, progressive country”, joining between illiberalism and racism with the assumption that it generally hides bruises. Presumably she also thinks a stab victim should go topless and a rape victim should go naked.

As ever, there is the lazy insistence on calling the face veil women wear a “burka”. There are two different garments which are called this and neither of them are worn by women here; they tend to wear the niqaab which is a simple veil which ties round the back of the head and covers the face, and can be flipped up when necessary. What is generally thought of as a burka is only worn in Afghanistan and neighbouring regions of Pakistan, and is sometimes called the “shuttlecock” (even there) because of its appearance, and is an all-over garment with a grille for the eyes. To suggest anything Muslim women wear resembles the dress of bank robbers, who are usually men, is highly insulting as well as inaccurate; bank robbers wear motorcycle helmets or balaclavas which look nothing like the niqaab.

But Boris’s rant is not the point of this article. My focus is on the response of Nazir Afzal, who posted a tweet yesterday which claimed that “there is no religious reason for wearing Burka (it’s not allowed in Mecca pilgrimage … I don’t like it either” before adding the proviso that “it’s also wrong for me or politician (sic) to belittle whatever a woman chooses to wear”. Nazir Afzal is the media’s idea of a “good Muslim”, a clean-shaven man who made his name prosecuting Muslim child sex abusers. He is not a religious scholar and his comment shows his ignorance. What people wear on the Hajj is not a guide for what they should wear at any other time, and the rule that a woman should not wear a veil across the face does not apply at any other time. Besides, when did you ever see a man wear anything remotely resembling the ihraam, the rough two-piece white garment worn for Hajj, at any other time? Even in the Hajj, some scholars have allowed a woman to wear a veil over their face as long as it does not actually touch the face, and some have said it was compulsory.

As for wearing it at any other time, a large proportion of religiously observant women at most times in Muslim history before the colonial era covered their face, often by pulling their head covering around their face as is found in parts of East Africa and Indonesia today. The niqaab is a modern invention, but it serves the same purpose. This tradition dates back to the time of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and is not a Byzantine or Persian import as some academics insist; the majority of scholars have said that the commandment for women to cover their beauty applies to the face although there is a specific hadeeth that indicates that showing the face and hands is acceptable. In this day and age, when the majority of women do not even cover their hair and the niqaab is commonly (though wrongly) associated with extremism, I would not go round telling women that they must cover their faces if they do not feel safe doing so. Wearing the headscarf, which actually is compulsory in Islam, is enough of a struggle for many women, especially those new to Islam.

At times when Islam and the Muslims are being attacked by an open and public racist, half-hearted or partial criticisms from Muslim public figures attached to ill-informed opinions about what Islam says do not help; they in fact offer the enemy in the press, Parliament and the street ammunition, since they can tell Muslims that this or that famous Muslim in fact agrees with them and not with their fellow Muslims. You cannot slap a racist down by agreeing with his opinions but disagreeing with his tone; you condemn him absolutely, while saving discussions about the virtues of the niqaab or whatever for another day.

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Corbyn and Anti-Semitism versus Brexit

5 August, 2018 - 20:18

 "This is the pig's ear Ed made of a bacon sarnie. In 48 hours he could be doing the same to Britain. SAVE OUR BACON. Don't swallow his porkies and keep him OUT."The Labour anti-Semitism crisis has not disappeared from the headlines after yet another week. It is noticeable now that the issue has moved on from any specific incident of anti-Semitism by any Labour politician or activist to the mere refusal of Jeremy Corbyn to accept the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism to the letter, including the problematic examples, despite the problems with it being clearly spelled out. On Friday evening the Guardian published a piece attributed to Corbyn, which some are suggesting he did not in fact write, that tried to reassure Jewish voters that anti-Semitism had no place in the party, but it was condemned for being released on the eve of the Sabbath on which observant Jews are not allowed to use electricity or buy or carry things (which would rule out reading it online or buying the paper until Saturday evening, at which point it is likely to have sold out). In today’s Observer, the deputy leader Tom Watson is interviewed and calls for the unaltered IHRA definition to be adopted without delay and to drop investigations of abuse or bullying into two MPs, Margaret Hodge and Ian Austin, who the article claims both lost family members in the Holocaust (Austin, in fact, was born in 1965; his father was a Jewish refugee as a result of the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia), or it might “disappear into a vortex of eternal shame and embarrassment”.

As I’ve said before, I have a world of differences with Jeremy Corbyn and his fan club. The fans seem blind to his faults; many of them are the young people who will lose out most from Brexit, which he is committed to. They paint defeats as victories and small advances (such as local by-election victories) as great victories. They share stories from junk news sites such as Skwawkbox and The Canary which are often careless with the facts, as if the content was never at all problematic (I’ve dealt with this in a previous post). They are convinced that the last general election result was a victory for him, which it was not, and are convinced that with just a few more months to prepare, he might just win; in particular, they believe that fluke wins such as in Kensington and Canterbury indicate that he can overturn large Tory majorities elsewhere, even as the party loses heartland seats in places like the East Midlands and Yorkshire. Corbyn’s and his inner circle’s commitment to Brexit and their delusion of a “workers’ Brexit” are dangerous, because apart from the (rejected) Norway option, there is no such thing as a good Brexit deal and there is a strong danger of civil unrest if the economy collapses, or there are shortages or food price rises as a result of a bad-deal Brexit. His opponents should be treating this as an open goal, since Remainers were 48% of the vote at the referendum and that figure may have increased as the reality has set in. But they do not.

The attacks from inside and outside the party make me more sympathetic to Corbyn, not less. As a Muslim, I am torn between wanting to head off the ruin caused by Brexit and wanting to preserve the diversity of the Labour party, which it will not be if it outlaws the expression of the usual Muslim view of Israel, and of the racist, colonial attitudes behind its foundation. It will make the party one based on a white view of history, with a definition of racism based on white guilt about a genocide that only Europeans had any role in, and one in which everyone, including non-white members, will have to watch what they say around whites in case they turn out to be Jewish. Adopting this policy will mean muzzling all but the most polite criticism of Israeli policy (and as previously discussed, the “whataboutery” clause will make any such criticism difficult) and will legitimise attempts to silence pro-Palestinian rights activism on campuses where Labour students dominate (which they do in many places). We already have too little Muslim representation in the party which represents the seats where the majority of our community live; we have no visible Muslim MPs at all, only Asian ones, and this situation will get worse if this policy is adopted.

The rhetoric being used by his enemies is not that of a community that fears persecution. It is the language of threat, from a group of people confident enough in their power, or at least their connections, to make threats to an elected party leader. To give one example, a Jewish Chronicle journalist named Daniel Sugarman posted a thread on Twitter last Friday in which he claimed:

One never hears Muslim organisations talk of anything being “non-negotiable” in their dealings with the media or political parties; they do not have the ability to back up any such threat. How will they back this threat up? By using their media connections to make sure that smears are printed about Corbyn and the Labour party in the run-up to any forthcoming election, of course. They do not have to own papers to do this; they simply have to have friends and people sympathetic to their position — liberal editors with a definition of racism that is stuck in the past and right-wing editors who regard support for Israel as a pro-western standpoint. It’s worth noting that it was the Guardian’s decision to print Corbyn’s article on the eve of the Sabbath and in the Saturday edition; it would have been written some time last week and could have been delayed until today (for the Observer) or Monday. The Guardian’s editor could have spoken to any number of its own staff (Jonathan Freedland and Hadley Freeman, both of whom regularly appear in the Saturday edition, spring to mind) who could have pointed out this oversight; they chose not to, and it is Corbyn who takes the blame.

Of course, they and their allies still use the language of victimhood. Take this thread, posted by Victoria Freeman yesterday morning:

Gaslighting is when an abuser (usually a domestic abuser or bully of some sort) plays tricks on his victim with the intention of making them look silly, mad or otherwise less then credible; they back this up by telling the victim (or others) that they are imagining what they are seeing. It is commonly abused to mean disagreeing with someone who has been, or feels, wronged. An abuser is not, needless to say, someone who disagrees with you or calls your second cousin a racist thug if that is what he is. I am seeing the most ludicrous expressions of victimhood on Twitter, Jews talking as if the world is ending for them, complaining that the Labour leadership shows “no empathy” and should really hear what they say amongst themselves at their Shabbat meetings, all as if Corbyn was sanctioning open discrimination or violence rather than just not accepting demands; a Muslim friend said to me privately that “if Muslim families were raising their kids with such a massive persecution complex there would be social services involvement and PREVENT referrals”. My instinctive reaction in reading this is to tell the people concerned to get over themselves and stop being such crybabies; it is much less than what more visible minorities have had to put up with on a daily basis for years in this country.

It’s worth pointing out that the support among mainstream Jewish voters for Labour did not start declining when Corbyn became leader; it had been declining since Ed Miliband’s time as leader, during which support for Labour among Jewish voters slumped, according to polls, to just 14%. Turning points include his decision to whip Labour MPs in a vote to recognise Palestine and his statement to Labour’s National Policy Forum attacking Israel for “the horrifying deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, including children and innocent civilians” during “Operation Protective Edge” in mid-2014, which led to a former director of Labour Friends of Israel quitting the party and the Jewish Chronicle attacking him for “knee-jerk criticism of a nation defending itself from terrorism”. This should leave nobody in any doubt that treating the Palestinians’ claims to their own country and to basic human rights will cost Labour votes among north London’s Jews; it cannot secure the support of that community or the approval of its leadership without uncritical support for Israel. Many of the people attacking Corbyn from this camp do not care about the success of the Labour party; they care about ensuring that no British government takes a hostile stance towards Israel.

I have heard it alleged recently that Corbyn’s centrist Labour opponents have a single policy, namely remaining in the EU. (In fact, some of them, such as Chuka Umunna, have adopted a “respect the referendum” position, citing polls that found that immigration was a major motivating factor.) My opinion is that they are motivated by a contempt for Corbyn that pre-dates the emergence of the anti-Semitism issue and that their strategy is to continue throwing mud until he loses another general election, hopefully by a larger margin than in 2017, which they believe might persuade his supporters that he is toxic and cannot win. I suspect that some of them would rather form a new party (possibly a coalition with pro-Remain Conservatives and/or Lib Dems) but are put off by the enormous difficulties in setting up a new major party and by the example of the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s. Nonetheless, I think this is both an ineffective and immoral strategy; ineffective because his supporters will blame his loss on media bias and cannot be relied on to support someone other than (or at least opposed to) Corbyn, and immoral because it would condemn Britain to several more years of gutting of public services, the NHS and so on, allied to the ruinous Brexit of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove. Corbyn won in large part because neither Miliband nor his intending Blairite successors were willing to even defend Blair’s legacy, being cowed by the media’s obsession with the deficit during the 2010-15 term; their successors still fail to do that, only crowing about the importance of ‘power’ without explaining what they plan to do with it. They sell no policy to either the membership or the general public.

It’s significant that nobody today is talking about the incidents which led to the demands for the adoption of this definition of anti-Semitism as part of Labour policy. Most of the people involved have since left the party, been expelled or apologised and none of the incidents involved prejudice towards Jews living in this country or any threat to their well-being. It is all about the definition, the adoption of which would have a chilling effect on freedom of speech within the Labour party which already has a poor record on that (note how it expels members for even suggesting tactical voting in public). Corbyn needs to hold firm on this, regardless of the smears that might be directed his way in the mass media. This is not about racism, otherwise the people making the most fuss would have been outraged at the much more prejudicial anti-Muslim and anti-Gypsy front pages that have appeared on national tabloids; it is about shoring up a pro-western policy and silencing dissent to it. As for the Labour plotters, they need to stop throwing mud and show their hand before the Tories (remember them?) drag this country off the edge of a cliff.

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Why don’t they call it rape?

29 July, 2018 - 20:47

 2018 report on child victims of trafficking and exploitation in Italy).Yesterday some of the papers reported that, according to a report by the charity Save the Children, child migrants mostly from sub-Saharan Africa were “being sexually exploited” or in earlier versions “selling sex” in order to finance their passage from Italy to France. According to the report (in Italian), titled Little Invisible Slaves: 2018 report on child victims of trafficking and exploitation in Italy, the minors were being asked to perform sex acts if they could not afford to pay drivers between €50 and €150 for a lift across the border. It also mentions that French police have been abusive to some of the children who cross the border, citing such acts as “detaining children as young as 12 in cells without food or water, cutting the soles off their shoes so they did not try to attempt the journey again, and stealing Sim cards from their mobile phones”. A lot of the Twitter responses consisted of complaints that the word ‘rape’ should have been used because the victims were children and thus should not be said to have “sold sex”. There are, in fact, good reasons why they do not, and should not.

It’s usually feminists (not just radical feminists, but often) who complain loudly when children (usually meaning people in their early teens or younger) are described as having sex; they will insist that it must be rape regardless of their apparent consent. In British law, since 2003, sex with someone aged 12 or younger is classed as rape, regardless of whether the older party claimed that they mistook them for someone older, a common defence when the younger (usually female) person involved is, say, 14 or 15. Many of them are under the mistaken impression that the threshold is in fact 13, which led to a lot of the wailing when the Guardian printed a letter from a man who said he had been falsely accused of rape when aged 15, after having consensual sex with a girl aged 13. Aged 13 to 15 is a window in which sex is not legal, but not rape, and having heard the debates at the time, the idea was that it would be overlooked where both parties were young and similar in age (as was the case here), but not when one party was much older. Perhaps the reasoning in setting the boundary at the 13th birthday was that a 12-year-old was much less likely to be genuinely mistaken for a 16-year-old than a 14-year-old would be. Having read the law, though, it does not appear to make any allowance for a similar age gap between a 12-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, if there is a prosecution.

Personally, I think making such laws accompanied by guidance towards tolerance in certain circumstances is a bad idea; the laws could be enforced if there is sensitivity as to whom the boy is and whom the girl is — if the girl’s father is powerful, for example, or the boy is from a despised minority (e.g. Travellers) and the girl is not. Sooner or later, someone in authority (possibly someone influenced by these feminists, or possibly a racist) will decide to prosecute in circumstances nobody has done for the many years this law has been active. If we don’t want people, especially children, prosecuted for something, it should be legal.

There is a commonly-understood definition of rape, which is when force or deception is used to gain sex from someone who has refused or would not otherwise have consented, or when one party does not know what is going on, usually because they are drunk (very drunk, not just a little bit drunk) or cognitively impaired. Some countries classify sex with someone below a legal age of consent as “statutory rape”, such as parts of the USA, others call it simply “sex with a minor” or something similar. A major newspaper publishes in many countries and reaches online to many others; it cannot afford to use a word like rape to describe something happening in another country which may not meet that country’s legal definition of rape. In this particular case, the legal consequences of doing so would likely have been negligible because the men involved were not rich or powerful and the moral difference would have been too little to make a viable libel case, but it would be dangerous to get into the habit of using emotive language because somebody eventually might sue.

On top of this, and the reason I do not believe newspapers should capitulate to demands to use emotive activist language, is that journalists should be reporting facts and separating facts from opinions. If we generally agree that certain newspapers using their front pages for propaganda which they present as news is a bad thing and has had negative consequences (such as the Brexit crisis), we need to understand that they should not echo our opinions as fact either and this includes using activist definitions, often based on misunderstandings of the law, rather than legal or commonly-understood ones. There are many other situations in which an act is seen by some as morally tantamount to a crime (e.g. murder) but is not legally the same thing or, indeed, factually the same thing. There are more appropriate ways of describing this phenomenon than saying the children are “selling sex”, but factual reporting does not mean calling something rape which might not be.

Admittedly, in this particular case this may be as tantamount to rape as it’s possible to get, and some incidences might actually be rape. But as a lot of the people clamouring to call all sex involving underage people ‘rape’ regardless of the facts would put away 15-year-old boys for having sex with their girl peers as well as men who exploit desperate refugee children, reporting this issue factually is very important.

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Does polygamy cause violence?

28 July, 2018 - 18:55

A still from a video produced by the Economist, showing African child soldiers, one of them (a boy aged about 10 or 11) holding an assault rifle, with the words "Polygamy is practiced in all of the 20 most unstable countries in the world" in capital letters at the bottom, and the Economist's logo in the top left hand cornerA few months ago The Economist put out a video on its Facebook page which tried to make the case that polygamy made a society more violent and prone to civil war. I noticed at the time that the video was very weak in its arguments and relied on presenting correlation (and a dubious correlation at that) as causation and making generalisations about the cultures where polygamy occurs. Last week they reposted the video, titled What’s Wrong with Having More Than One Wife?, and have not changed it at all; there is no link to any article which would flesh out some of the claims made in the video, though the Economist did actually publish one last November, which hilariously claims:

This is one of the reasons why the Arab Spring erupted, why the jihadists of Boko Haram and Islamic State were able to conquer swathes of Nigeria, Iraq and Syria, and why the polygamous parts of Indonesia and Haiti are so turbulent. Polygamous societies are bloodier, more likely to invade their neighbours and more prone to collapse than others are. The taking of multiple wives is a feature of life in all of the 20 most unstable countries on the Fragile States Index compiled by the Fund for Peace, an NGO.

(Note: the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, where polygamy had been illegal since the 1950s, and was motivated by political corruption, tyranny and impoverishment in all the countries affected.)

The video starts out by claiming:

Countries in which men can have more than one wife are more violent. How does polygamy destabilise society? If the richest and most powerful 10% of men have four wives each, the bottom 30% of men cannot marry. Young men will take desperate measures to avoid this fate.

This claim makes enormous assumptions about societies in which polygamy is legal. It assumes that whenever polygamy is legal, most men will seek to marry polygamously, particularly the richest and most powerful. It assumes that women will not marry for love but simply for money and prestige, or that she will have no say in the matter at all but will be married off for these reasons by her family. In fact, not all men want the complications of having more than one wife; they do not want to deal with wives who are jealous of each other or families who resent what it means for their daughter or sister to be her husband’s number two, or be ‘replaced’ by a number two (or more). In some societies, polygamy is a social imperative for men and having more wives is a sign of social status and wealth; in others, it is not, even if it is legal.

The limit of four wives is specific to Islam; this video’s example of South Sudan (see below) is not a Muslim country and there are countries where chiefs and other powerful men have many more wives than that while polygamy is rare in wider society (e.g. Swaziland). In the most extreme example, the leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints in the USA and Canada (where polygamy is illegal but tolerated if done unofficially) expelled young men from their community because they were a rival to them for wives. But these are rare, extreme examples.

Polygamy is banned in all western societies, but it’s common in the Islamic world, parts of Asia and Africa.

Polygamy was banned in Europe (before the notion of “the west”, including the Americas, became known of) well before it became a well-developed civilisation; when it was a set of impoverished, warring kingdoms dominated to one extent or another by the Pope where learning was restricted to the religious orders and thus most people could not read or write, polygamy was banned then as well. Many of the most vicious wars of the 20th century took place or had their origins in Europe or in other places where polygamy was banned.

In South Sudan, more than 40% of marriages are polygamous, so there is a shortage of brides. It can cost 100 cows to get married. Poor young men cannot afford this, so some of them are tempted to pick up a gun and steal cows from neighbouring villages. Thousands of people are killed in cattle raids every year. This is one reason why South Sudan is blighted by civil war. For many young men the alternative to war is celibacy.

South Sudan is also a country which lacks any cultural, linguistic or ethnic coherence. It has no major native language; the various groups which came together to secure independence from Sudan have only the fact that they are not Arabs and Muslims in common. The name of the country (which is of Arabic origin) rather gives this away. There being a large number of men unable to marry is of course a destabilising factor but there can be other causes for this in different countries — a shortage of women as a result of son preference, unreasonably high bride-prices or dowries — but polygamy features in societies with both these features and neither. The solution is to make marriage easier for young men so there are fewer of them hanging around and “sowing their wild oats” when they could be married and helping with their domestic responsibilities.

Polygamous societies are bloodier and more prone to collapse. Polygamy is practiced in all of the 20 most unstable countries in the world.

This claim is based on the Fragile States Index, published by the Fund for Peace; there is a map here and a table on Wikipedia here. The twenty most unstable countries from the most unstable are: South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Central African Republic, DR Congo, Sudan, Chad, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Iraq, Haiti, Guinea, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Burundi, Eritrea and Pakistan. On the other hand, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait are all countries where polygamy is widely practised and are all in the ‘stable’ category although Qatar’s stability rating has worsened from 2017 as a result of the sanctions imposed by its neighbours.

It is very clear that polygamy is not a major cause of the instability in many of the most unstable countries. Many of them are former colonies whose borders were imposed on them by European powers in the 19th century and bear no relation to linguistic or cultural boundaries but were simply a way for European powers to divide up Africa’s resources between themselves. Anyone who has studied African politics will know that this has been a major cause of political strife and war since many of the former colonies became independent. In others, there are religious conflicts (Yemen, Afghanistan, CAR), strongmen who refuse to let go of power and who hold grudges (Syria, Zimbabwe, Eritrea), debts imposed by foreign powers (most of the list but particularly Haiti), and foreign interference, particularly as a result of the post-2001 “war on terror” and by powers that regard the countries concerned as part of their “sphere of influence” (Syria, Iraq). One cannot blame polygamy in Yemen for Saudis bombing the country with munitions brought from the UK and USA, or the fact that the United States invaded Iraq and was subsequently so incompetent and brutal that they allowed another violent Islamist movement to emerge out of the ashes of the one they had tried to destroy. Polygamy has nothing to do with the conflicts in most of these countries and in some of them there are whole groups that do not practise it.

This is not to say that as a Muslim I believe all men should have four wives if they can afford it, but it is ridiculous to blame polygamy for the instability in a number of countries which have suffered colonialism, the debt burden and foreign invasion. There are often good reasons to allow polygamy; when a society needs to rebuild itself after the death of a large number of marriageable young men after a war, plural marriage allows this to happen more quickly rather than does the western approach of leaving some women unmarried (which some would prefer, but others would not) while others were expected to spend their entire adult life pregnant or nursing children. There are some women who might not want to spend their most of their time in their husband’s house, or who are in a demanding profession that means their time for raising children is limited (e.g. medicine), or who do not want to have children but still want the companionship that marriage brings. So, it is not just about men enhancing their status or finding outlets for their sexual desires.

How can a respected magazine, read by people with university degrees who are upwardly mobile and work in big finance houses and have aspirations to run major British companies, put out a video with an argument totally based on a textbook logical fallacy and which completely ignores every other factor in the instability of the countries they are talking about, including western interference? It rather reminds me of something an old headmaster of a school I went to used to say in his morning assembly lectures: “so much for so-called intelligentsia”. Polygamy does not make societies prone to collapse and monogamy is not a great guarantor of stability.

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Existential threat? What?

26 July, 2018 - 16:09

A front page from the Jewish Chronicle, with the paper's logo ('The JC' in white on a blue background) in the top left corner, and underneath it the words "United We Stand", with the mastheads of the JC, Jewish Telegraph and Jewish News and the text of an article which is blurred, on the background of a black and white picture of a demonstration against Labour anti-Semitism in London.In the latest chapter of the Labour anti-Semitism row, three British Jewish newspapers have published a similar front page and editorial condemning the Labour leadership for refusing their demand to adopt an international definition of anti-Semitism that includes a clause that could be used to label any impolite criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. The three papers are the Jewish Chronicle, the Jewish News (whose website is part of the Times of Israel) and the Jewish Telegraph, and the leader threatens that if they do not adopt the IHRA definition in full at an emergency conference on 5th September they will “be seen by all decent people as an institutionally racist, antisemitic party”. The editorial in the JC claims that the papers have done this “because of the existential threat to Jewish life in this country that would be posed by a Jeremy Corbyn-led government”.

This statement is something they should be pressed to explain. What on earth does it mean? An “existential threat to Jewish life” means that they fear Jews will no longer be able to live in the UK, or live freely, which means either a threat to Jewish life and limb or to the Jewish way of life. Nothing Corbyn or anyone around him has said or done suggests that they condone violent racism of any sort, that they propose any form of discrimination against Jews or that they support laws that would make normal Jewish customs (e.g. kosher slaughtering) illegal. We have seen various media commentators (e.g. Robert Peston) sanctimoniously condemn Corbyn and present this statement as both big news in itself and as proof in itself that Corbyn is wrong, but it contains an obvious falsehood that they should be questioning. It’s potentially libellous.

The JC alleges that Labour are reluctant to endorse the IHRA definition in full because “had the full IHRA definition with examples relating to Israel been approved, hundreds, if not thousands, of Labour and Momentum members would need to be expelled”. The fact is that it would not be Momentum members who would be the major target for expulsion but Muslims, who would be subject to an inquisition as to their opinions about Israel and to dirt-digging about any campaigning they had done if they became known as members of Labour, let alone sought to be selected as candidates in elections. They allege:

Under its adapted guidelines, a Labour Party member is free to claim Israel’s existence is a racist endeavour and compare Israeli policies to those of Nazi Germany, unless “intent” — whatever that means — can be proved. “Dirty Jew” is wrong, “Zionist bitch” fair game?

In so doing, Labour makes a distinction between racial antisemitism targeting Jews (unacceptable) and political antisemitism targeting Israel (acceptable).

But it would go far beyond making rules against personal abuse which could be read as racist (like “Zionist bitch”); it allows Zionists to use “whataboutery”, drawing attention to the human rights abuses of Hamas or Arab rulers (or any other actor they might claim that Palestinian supporters could be campaigning against but aren’t) to not only deflect criticism of Israel but to brand it as anti-Semitic. This tactic is usually dismissed as a textbook logical fallacy; here it would enable them to shut down the debate and declare themselves the winners and have their opponents thrown out. The aim is to assure Israel that a future Labour government would not be able to recognise Palestine or to press for an end to the occupation and a solution that guarantees meaningful rights for Palestinians. Activism in support of Palestinian rights would be curtailed in places like universities as Labour-run student unions would be expected to enforce the doctrine that anti-Zionism was anti-Semitism; this is already starting to happen in some British universities, on the pretext of curbing ‘extremism’.

There is much on which I disagree with Jeremy Corbyn; he is not opposing the government’s dash to Brexit and is taking refuge in economic nationalism. However, the stance of the Labour ‘moderates’ who are taking the side of the Jewish leadership is not about anti-racism but about silencing dissent and using this as a pretext to bring down Corbyn, even though it will fatally damage Labour’s status as a “broad church” for both the moderate and activist Left and impair both the ethnic and the intellectual diversity of the party. The Jewish leadership must be pressed on what they mean by an ‘existential threat’ and their demands must be resisted, regardless of the outrage whipped up by their friends in the mainstream media.

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Labour and the IHRA: Listening does not mean submitting

21 July, 2018 - 18:05

 Furious Jewish MP confronts Corbyn amid hate code outrage".This past week, the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee adopted a modified version of a definition of anti-Semitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, modified in the sense that four ‘specific’ examples of anti-Semitism were excluded, including calling Israel a racist state, comparing its policies to those of the Nazis and “requiring higher standards of behaviour from Israel than other nations”. This has led to condemnation from a whole lot of the usual suspects (i.e. right-wing Labour MPs who hate Jeremy Corbyn), including Margaret Hodge who called Corbyn a “f**king racist and an anti-Semite” in the Commons, about which Labour says it will “take action”, as well as a letter published in the Guardian earlier this week by a group of rabbis who accused the Labour party of having “chosen to act in the most insulting and arrogant way” and claiming that it was “not the Labour party’s place” to amend the IHRA’s definition when it was accepted by many other public bodies and other large organisations as well as “the vast majority of Jewish people in Britain and globally”. I wrote a letter to the Observer following a whinge from Nick Cohen, printed 8th July, and (needless to say) it wasn’t printed. I will expand on that letter here, in sha Allah.

There is a big difference between listening to the Jewish community and accepting the word of representatives of mainstream religious Jewry without question. Jews are both an ethnicity and a religious group; not everyone who is of Jewish origin is Jewish by faith. So, anyone who is saying that (ethnic) Jewish groups such as Jews for Justice for Palestinians are not Jewish enough, not representative or whatever is deploying the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, because the fact is that not everyone of Jewish origin agrees with what rabbis have to say on this matter or any other. Much as some people will assume that anyone with a Muslim name is a supporter of terrorism, whether or not he is even a believer or indeed whether his name actually is a Muslim name or, say, a Hindu one, if you have a Jewish name or Jewish grandparents, you are Jewish enough for some racists so your view on what anti-Semitism is or isn’t cannot be lightly dismissed. Many people who are this Jewish have no connection to or sympathy with Israel and are appalled at the idea that calls to boycott Israel because of the stranglehold of settlements and the wall on native Palestinian communities is in any way equivalent to what they understand as anti-Semitism, which is hatred of Jews because they are Jews. (There are more letters published in Thursday’s edition, including one questioning the use of the “Macpherson principle” by the Jewish Labour Movement and one criticising the IHRA defintion itself as a “clumsily drafted and ambiguous effort” which is being treated “with the reverence more usually accorded a religious text”.)

If a group of imams published or endorsed a definition of Islamophobia and a quick Google search for the imams’ names revealed that many of them had links to the Muslim Brotherhood or Jama’at-e-Islami, or that one of them had ever made disparaging remarks about white people, non-Muslims or any other group or shared a platform with anyone deemed “linked to terrorism” or branded an “unindicted co-conspirator” by the FBI, the definition would not be taken the least bit seriously. A definition of anti-Semitism endorsed by supporters of Israel which includes the rather subjective and unspecific demand that Israel not be held to a higher standard than other nations should not be adopted lock, stock and barrel either: when Israel’s closest ally and biggest donor of military aid signed a treaty with a native people that allowed them their land as long as the buffalo roam, then dealt with that inconvenience by slaughtering all the buffalo, and expelled twelve other nations from their lands in direct defiance of its own supreme court, pretty much any condemnation of Israeli policy could be deemed anti-Semitic by that standard.

The fact is that Israel’s actions — monopolising Palestine’s water supply, destroying natives’ farmlands, settling its own population in their lands, imposing curfews on natives to ‘protect’ settlers as in Hebron, building walls to obstruct natives’ passage across their own lands, throwing children into prison for months for throwing stones, among numerous other abuses — inspire hatred; oppression does that, not only against the perpetrators but also against their supporters and those who blame victims. It’s only natural. No other minority demands a definition of racism that includes condemning violence and oppression abroad that they have sympathy with. Many of us want to see a comprehensive solution to the situation in Palestine, one which gives Palestinians a voice in the government of the country which dominates their lives, which is Israel and will, for the foreseeable future (permanently if the likes of Trump and Netanyahu have their way), remain Israel.

 relocate Israel into United States". Underneath are 'highlights' such as that Israelis are well-loved by Americans, that America has enough land to accommodate it, that "Israel can have a safe Jewish state surrounded by friendly states".Israel and its apologists prefer the status quo; their response is to cite historical details such as the 1967 war (two of whose participants have since signed peace treaties with Israel and others have shown no hostilities for years) which become less and less relevant as the occupation continues for decade after decade, to blame Palestinians, other Arab states or anyone but Israel and their ‘solution’ involves total surrender by the natives to permanent Israeli domination. For many years I have seen western Palestinian sympathisers bend over backwards to avoid implicating Jews in general in Israeli abuses while the right-wing Zionist blogosphere (which includes some columnists published in the mainstream media both here and in the US) has for years included some of the worst racism in the whole of the western media. The (private) Facebook status that led to the Bradford Labour MP Naz Shah being suspended and then expected to make a grovelling apology (the one with the graphic that suggested that Israel be relocated to Missouri) echoes something Zionists have been saying for decades: that “the Arabs” have all this land from Morocco to Muscat; why can’t the Palestinians just go and live somewhere else in that land?

To accept a definition of anti-Semitism which includes such vague ‘examples’ as “holding Israel to a higher standard” risks establishing a test for party activists and aspiring MPs that they have to accept the right of Israel to do what they deem necessary in the name of ‘security’, and such a test would be put to any party entrant from certain minorities and particularly, of course, Muslims; anything they had previously said in public would be scrutinised for breaches of this rule. This would mean Muslims are frozen out of the party which has been the main political representative of visible minorities for most of the post-Windrush era. The Labour party does not exist purely — or indeed at all — to represent fashionable white middle-class opinion. And one must ask why the Labour party are under pressure to accept a definition of anti-Semitism now when they did not do so before, including during the 13 years they were in power; there have always been stirrings of anti-Semitism within the small factions of the far left (usually in the form of conspiracy theories about Jewish or Zionist power or control of the media), though they have never approached the violent intensity of the anti-Semitism of the far right.

Some of the people professing to be disgusted by Labour’s failure to accept the dictates of Israel’s supporters on the definition of anti-Semitism clearly display tolerance towards other prejudices. Yesterday, the Times columnist Jane Merrick published a column saying she was broken-heartedly leaving the Labour party because she could not tolerate the anti-Semitism. A quick look through her Twitter back pages revealed that she had in fact only joined in 2016 so as to support Angela Eagle’s leadership bid; when these things were revealed, she accused the people who revealed them of … being men (she has since made her account private). More incriminating, though, is the fact that she did not let the malicious story the Times published about a Muslim foster carer refusing to let a child eat pork under her roof (something an observant Jew would also have done), a story containing several other claims subsequently debunked in a court ruling, motivate her to seek another publisher for her writings. Obviously you pay for Labour membership while you get paid for writing for the Times, but it’s very clear that some middle-class white people think some people are more deserving of racist treatment than others — so when you hear people complain that Jeremy Corbyn will not condemn anti-Semitism without mentioning other prejudices, this is why.

If you think some ethnic or religious groups are more or less worthy of racist or prejudiced treatment than others, this does not mean you are not racist, much less anti-racist; it just makes you a different kind of racist. Similarly, if you think one nation should have to suffer so that another (that it has not harmed) does not have to, you are also a racist. Generally Labour is expected to rise above racism and not pander to racist sentiment in places like Stoke-on-Trent or Barking; it should not do so when the racism is found among white middle-class people in Barnet (or their sympathisers in the media) either. Of course, the Labour leadership should listen to the Jewish religious community’s representatives, but it should listen to all the groups traditionally represented by the party and this does not mean accepting pro-Israel religious leaders’ demands in their entirety.

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No “vive la France” from me, sorry

16 July, 2018 - 19:58

Didier Deschamps, a clean-shaven white man wearing a navy blue suit with a white shirt underneath, is raised into the air by a group of football players of mostly African and Arab appearance. The names Areola and Dembele are visible on the backs of two of the players in the foreground. Blurred, the crowd can be seen in the background.Yesterday, France won the World Cup and the day before, England lost the third-place play-off match to Belgium after losing a semi-final to Croatia last Wednesday. I had not been following the matches all that closely — I’m not that interested in football, and haven’t been since I was a child — although I listened to the last half-hour or so of the semi-final, but it was the first time England had reached the semi-final since 1990 (when we also lost the third-place match to Italy) and the improved quality of England’s game has been widely noted. I noticed a lot of Muslims, including many in Britain, cheering on any team but England and, once we had been knocked out, cheering on France, pointing out that the majority of its players are either immigrants or descended from immigrants, usually from Africa. I am not sure there was much to choose between them and Croatia in this regard (the latter being the country which, at times during the Bosnian war, helped to suppress the Muslims who were fighting the genocidal Serb army) but why on earth would Muslims support a country where people of immigrant descent are ghettoised in the suburbs and Muslim women are being harassed as a matter of state policy?

France is Europe, not America; like many places in Europe, it is considered a good place for African-American ex-pats to live and work, where they are less likely to get profiled and summarily shot dead in the street. This does not mean racism does not exist; ethnic minorities in France are mostly ghettoised in out-of-town slum suburbs whose occupants are an easy hate target for right-wing politicians and police harassment has been enough to provoke riots on more than one occasion, but middle-class Black people living in the inner cities (which are not ghettoes, unlike in the USA) are less likely to experience it than they are in a place like the USA or even the UK. This is where a lot of Black American jazz and blues musicians found an appreciative audience once American musical tastes changed in the 1950s, after all. However, even in the United States, sport (along with music) is a traditional escape route from poverty for Black people; it’s an area where sheer ability is what counts, and workplace politics, and the prejudices they allow room for, are less likely to impede the progress of an obvious performer.

Europe is a continent with a history of marginalising minorities who are different and who insist on remaining different. This is why Jews were persecuted in many places and treated with suspicion in many others until the early 20th century; it is a large part of why Gypsies and other travelling peoples remain the focus of open hostility to this day. Skin colour is of lesser importance than cultural and religious differences. France openly discriminates against Muslim women by attacking their dress: girls are not allowed to wear the mandatory headscarf to school and have also been expelled for wearing skirts deemed too long (others for challenging teachers’ claims about French civilisations during lessons); mothers are not allowed to accompany their children on school trips wearing the clothes they wear, face coverings have been banned in public places and more recently, women wearing modest bathing suits have been ejected from swimming pools with local politicians encouraging this sort of behaviour. Women have also been refused entry to some commercial buildings, such as banks, while wearing the hijab.

So, pardon me for not being very impressed that France allows a squad of immigrant men to represent them in an international sports tournament; they can be praised for showing their ‘diversity’ when the major focus of their hatred is women and girls (and let’s not forget that a football kit includes shorts which leave the thigh, which Muslim men are supposed to cover, exposed). I suspect some of the people cheering on France only care that a number of the players are Black, while many (actually not all) of the women being discriminated against while trying to get an education so they can have a proper career that they will not have to retire from in their 30s are white or nearly-white North Africans. Seriously, brothers and sisters, where’s your solidarity? Let’s not cheer on a country that harasses and abuses its Muslim minority because you see men of colour, some of them Muslim, representing them at football! And while they may have an ethnically diverse team of players, both its head coach (Didier Deschamps) and its captain (Hugo Lloris) are white, so the orders are still coming from the white men (although Zineddine Zidane has previously held the role). It’s one thing to gloat that France won the World Cup with the help of a lot of muscle from its former colonies (with talent honed at other European football clubs, including some in the UK), but let’s not ‘celebrate’ a victory for diversity or a breakthrough for ethnic minorities in France when this plainly is neither.

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Racism, not fascism

15 July, 2018 - 19:29

A front page of the Daily Mail, with the headline "The pomp ... and the pygmy". There is a large picture showing Donald Trump and his wife, with the queen (much shorter and dressed in a bright blue dress) between them; at the bottom is a picture of Jeremy Corbyn with a crowd behind him in a London street, with a few banners with slogans such as "Dump Trump, fight bigotry".As the depredations of Donald Trump’s immigration forces continue in the USA and his visit to the UK is supported by nakedly mendacious propaganda in the Daily Mail (see right), it is fashionable to make dire warnings of the rise of fascism both here and there. There is a quote from George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier which I saw posted on Twitter yesterday:

When I speak of Fascism in England, I am not necessarily thinking of Mosley and his pimpled followers. English Fascism, when it arrives, is likely to be of a sedate and subtle kind (presumably, at any rate, it won’t be called Fascism), and it is doubtful whether a Gilbert and Sullivan heavy dragoon of Mosley’s stamp would ever be more than a joke to the majority of English.

Last month the Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole wrote in the Irish Times of the treatment of child detainees in American immigration detention as a “trial run” for fascism as, in an established democracy, “it is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility”; people’s moral scruples need to be worn down and their boundaries pushed back again and again.

I think it is dangerous to over-emphasise the danger of fascism as such in the rise of Trump or the machinations of Britain’s Brexiteers. It is a distraction from much more immediate dangers. Yes, one of the features of a fascist regime is the controlled media which is used as a vehicle for propaganda by the state and the ruling party, and seeing the Daily Mail use its front page to lionise the government and its widely loathed and ridiculed foreign guest while portraying the leader of the Opposition as a “pygmy”, using a crude bit of photo cropping to make Jeremy Corbyn look small, does rather look like the behaviour of a sycophantic newspaper in a dictatorial state rather than part of the free press in a democracy. But we are still a democracy, parliament is still active and still sovereign and there are no odd greetings, larger-than-life statues or pictures of Theresa May in every public place and no uniformed militias marching down streets.

When we speak of fascism, we generally mean an authoritarian or totalitarian state with a pervasive personality cult or state ideology, widespread censorship and propaganda, heavy government hand in the economy, no functioning democratic institutions (or none at all), a militaristic culture and a police state. The best examples of such states in recent times were the Baathist states (Iraq and Syria) and Iran, and to a lesser extent Egypt. The chief crime of fascism most people can name off the top of their head is the Holocaust, the genocide of the Jews of Europe through an apparatus of death and slave-labour camps before and during World War II. Yet there were other countries at the time with regimes that called themselves or could be called fascist — Italy, Spain, Portugal, Argentina — and none pursued policies of genocide. They were often racist, but they were principally authoriarian. While a genocide on the same scale as the Holocaust would probably take a dictatorship and a police state, it does not take a full-blown fascist state to perpetrate mass murder or extreme violence against people on the basis of their race, ethnicity, religion or any other aspect of their status or identity.

There have been cases throughout history of countries with representative systems of government denying rights to some of their subjects. Many US states denied Black people the vote for several decades in the late 19th and early 20th century, using such tricks as literacy tests (which could be manipulated to ensure they failed, if all else failed by asking an unanswerable question), grandfather clauses (such that only people descended from Confederate veterans could vote, which for obvious reasons almost no Black person was) and straightforward violence and intimidation. Members of the Ku Klux Klan occupied positions of state such as police officers, representatives and judges; Black people could find themselves thrown in jail or murdered as a result of any confrontation with a white person, or because a white person coveted their property; lynchings were public occasions and photographs were taken and some remain; areas of Black prosperity were destroyed by mob violence on numerous occasions.

Today, the largest democracy is India whose prime minister is Narendra Modi, who rose to power through a Hindu supremacist movement which is widely identified as fascist by its opponents and even some of its supporters will proudly call themselves that. During its time governing India, Muslims have been murdered on suspicion of such things as keeping or slaughtering cows, which are sacred according to the majority Hindus from whom the support for the supremacist party mostly comes. In 2002, while Modi was first minister of the state of Gujarat in north-western India, members and supporters of the same supremacist movement went on the rampage in the state, killing Muslims, raping Muslim women, destroying their homes, businesses and places of worship. While Modi was cleared of personal involvement in the attacks, he has been alleged to have made such remarks as that Hindus should be allowed to “vent their anger” (after an attack on a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, known for harassing other passengers and station vendors, which killed 58 people; Modi immediately pointed the finger at Pakistani intelligence, without evidence) and that Muslims needed to be “taught a lesson”. Modi went on to win two further elections and is now prime minister of India; in the decade or so after the violence, he was banned from visiting western countries but since becoming prime minister, he has been welcomed with open arms by politicians in Europe and the USA, with an audience at Wembley stadium for which a Labour MP, Keith Vaz, boasted of donating his bonus to help finance.

The country is still a parliamentary democracy and Muslims have not lost the vote. But politicians can openly justify or threaten violence against a minority and win; having been in power when three days of rioting killed hundreds or thousands of people should ensure that a politician is never elected again but in modern India is no black mark on a Hindu politician’s record. This is the thing we should be looking out for in the West and particularly in Trump’s America. There is not the support in the country for the outright suspension of the democratic process; why would they when they are already able to gerrymander electoral districts and suppress minority voters to ensure that their side wins key seats, when they can stack the Supreme Court with judges who will rule that their abuse of prisoners, immigration detainees or whoever is not cruel or unusual or torture (we are still seeing courts rule that using electric shocks on autistic people who are not even prisoners for various disability-related acts of trivial disobedience is not torture, for example; that hasn’t got to the Supreme Court yet), when pardons can be used to free their people on the off-chance that they are convicted, when police officers can kill unarmed Black civilians, even children, and know with 99% certainty that they will not be indicted, let alone convicted, and when the existing constitution (prior to amendment) sanctioned slavery and then the Jim Crow régime for nearly 200 years?

Fascism in the sense of a party committed to authoritarian rule and the destruction of democracy which is the actual hallmark of fascism is not a major threat in the western world now. In fact, in the entire period since World War II, parties commonly called fascist in the UK have been principally racist rather than fascist — yes, they praise or defend Hitler, deny the Holocaust and the thug outfits like Combat 18 use Nazi salutes, but they capitalised on public fears about mass immigration and were about keeping Britain white rather than attacking the idea of democracy. In countries that have known parliamentary rule for centuries, or since their foundation, the majority are unwilling to give up their democratic rights for the “glory of the Nation”, for a thousand-year Empire, or any other nationalist cause even if they will deny them to minorities.

Yes, the far-right or alt-right — the likes of Steve Bannon — have some things in common with fascists; their disregard for the truth when it suits their purposes (note his description of the serial criminal Steven Yaxley-Lennon, AKA Tommy Robinson, as the “backbone of this country” today, as noted by the political editor of the mostly right-wing British radio station LBC) being an important one. However, the major danger we face from the White right is racist violence, both from below (mobs and possibly militias in the US) and from above (police, immigration services etc) as well as openly or covertly discriminatory policy and the legal and judicial persecution of prominent members of minorities, some of which, as already demonstrated both under Bush’s and Trump’s presidencies, courts will sanction and the popular media will justify. The US is further down that road than we are here, but the economic instability that will inevitably follow if Brexit goes ahead opens up the risk of racially-targeted violence as people look for others to blame when their jobs disappear and the prices of food, fuel and other essentials go up.

We need to stop pretending that there is a threat of fascism as such. We need to talk about the rise of racism and of intolerance and prejudice against any minority and under whatever pretext. A democracy can be oppressive — even liberal opinion in the west, to say nothing of white conservative opinion, continues to indulge Israel’s occupation and denial of rights to Palestinians two generations after the 1967 war, which in my opinion conditions westerners to accept such things here, especially when the minorities concerned here are linked in one way or another to the occupied there — and can tolerate mob violence, pogroms and other extreme violence, even when people with fascist heritage never win so much as 5% of the vote. So let’s not talk of the clothes English or American fascism will wear when it appears, or the manner of their marching. The more likely scenario is that it will wear the same flag as the state already uses, the one everyone swears allegiance to each morning in the American case, and there will be elections after the massacre, the party supported by the perpetrators will contest it and they will perform healthily or even win, while the press blames the victims for provoking it. Call this the 21st century version of fascism if you like but it will not be very familiar to anyone who experienced, or even studied, the original version.

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One big no, many small yeses

13 July, 2018 - 12:42

 US deal is off!". Below that are the sub-headings "Boris would be a great PM, migration is killing Europe, terror is [Sadiq] Khan's fault".This week two cabinet ministers (David Davis, for Brexit, and Boris Johnson, foreign secretary) resigned, and a handful of junior ministers and parliamentary private secretaries also resigned over the government’s “Chequers” Brexit plan formulated last week at the prime minister’s country retreat in Buckinghamshire which the “hard Brexiteers” say is a proposal for a half-Brexit which still leaves us subject to a number of EU rules without a say in making them, or as Johnson says, with the status of a ‘colony’. There has been talk, according to the BBC’s Robert Peston, of a split in the Tory party over the issue (with some responding that it cannot come too soon, or words to that effect), while a number of right-wing Labour MPs have talked of supporting the prime minister, Theresa May, to achieve a ‘good’ Brexit deal (as if there could be such a thing) and even talk of some sort of government of national unity. This has angered a lot of Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, which account for the bulk of Labour members but of only a minority of MPs, and amplified calls for the introduction of mandatory re-selection of parliamentary candidates.

To reiterate what I’ve said many times here and on Twitter: Boris Johnson should never have been appointed; he has a long history of racist remarks and inflammatory untruths about various minorities, particularly as editor of the Spectator, which were allowed to pass because of his status as a “figure of fun”, because of his wealth and because the people he demeaned were unfavoured minorities, particularly Muslims. Apart from his regular embarrassing gaffes, the position he expressed on Brexit in his resignation is inconsistent with the one he expressed in the run-up to the referendum in which he said he would vote for the UK to remain in the Single Market; he also made some false claims in his resignation letter about truck design and cycle safety, drawing attention to his campaigning while mayor of London for improvements in the design of trucks for that purpose, but conveniently omitting that the proposals were adopted by the European Parliament and later the European Council but opposed by the British government. It is alarming that so many articles have been published on Johnson’s shortcomings, usually mentioning his diplomatic gaffes and his better-known racist remarks, without mentioning his pages and pages of slurs on Muslims.

There have been some crass remarks made on Twitter by other Tory politicians indifferent to the ideas of either democracy or the public good. One Tory MP claimed that ‘democracy’ means that the people vote once — in other words, it’s against his version of democracy for there to be another referendum now that his wing of the Tory party appears to have the upper hand (however, despite the fact that general elections are supposed to be held every five years by law, his leader held one in 2017, just two years after the previous one). Meanwhile, the MP for Witham in Essex, Priti Patel, claimed:

This is no longer an argument about whether Brexit was a good idea but is about democracy & standing by the democratic decision made by the people. The public want to know that their political leaders will stay true to the promise made to them that Brexit means Brexit.

But actually, in a Parliamentary democracy, the matter of whether a policy which has enormous consequences for everyone, which could easily result in food and fuel shortages and economic ruin, is a good idea is something they should be debating regardless of whether one poll two years ago revealed that people want it, especially when they voted without knowing what it would mean; as noted earlier, many Brexiteers then favoured joining the European Economic Area, like Norway, while now they are talking about a bespoke deal which they still cannot agree on after two years and less than a year before we are due to leave.

So, Brexiteer Tories do not like the idea of the people having their say again. More depressing is the attitude of Labour MPs which stretches from defeatism on Brexit itself to collusion with the government and not even to the end of stopping Brexit but simply to defeat Jeremy Corbyn. From a number of them we have heard statements of mysterious and convenient ‘maturity’ and ‘statesmanlikeness’, calling for Labour not to oppose but to support the government on getting the “best Brexit deal” as if there could be such a thing. If the idea was a temporary alliance with Tory Remainers, that would be a good thing, but not to stick the knife into Corbyn while pushing forward a ‘deal’ which is a sub-Norway option fudge. I have a feeling that their defeatism stems more from the aggression of right-wing Brexiteers than from actual deference to the referendum result; they should know that any violence is more likely to be the result of the ill consequences of Brexit itself than of reneging on the referendum result, especially as there is large-scale popular support for the latter.

Of course, Corbyn’s allies indulge in vain talk about a “jobs-first Brexit” when a number of major employers have suggested that they might not be able to do business here if we do not get a deal that is very good for them — despite the British roots of some of the industries, they are now based overseas and have many other countries where they can make the things they make here. Party chair Ian Lavery claimed that his party was ready to take over negotiations now because “Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party have a much higher standing in Europe than the Conservatives. The Conservative Party, Theresa May, David Davis, Boris Johnson, they are a laughing stock.” Yet Corbyn’s cabinet is likely to consist of people who have never held high office, even under a Labour government, while Labour in office were always known for a strongly pro-EU position (as were the Tories until recently) — this is the party which won a landslide in 1997 on a pro-Maastricht platform while the Tories were divided. They have no more credibility on this issue than the Tories and the EU27 leaders will know that they lack the support of many of their MPs.

Besides the fact that Brexit will have tremendous disadvantages for British citizens and none for European ones, who will still have the rest of Europe in which to travel, work, holiday without visa hassles and broaden their horizons, another thing we should consider is who our closest allies will be once we are out of the EU. The only other large countries in Europe outside the EU will be Russia, currently strongly suspected of an assassination attempt which killed a member of the public and may yet kill more, and Ukraine which is partly occupied by Russia; our so-called closest ally in the world is the United States whose president — as well as making some demonstrably untrue accusations against his NATO allies in mainland Europe — has given an interview to the Sun in which he endorses Boris Johnson for PM, blames Theresa May for “wrecking” Brexit, blames Sadiq Khan (mayor of London) for ‘terror’ and claims that migration is “killing Europe” and that’s just the blurbs on the front page. The EU right now remains a bloc of mostly stable democracies; outside it we will become more and more vulnerable to interference from both the already corrupt and authoritarian Russia and an increasingly violent, fascistic US ruled by a deranged ignoramus surrounded by liars.

I have said many times that politics cannot return to the pre-2016 status quo, whichever way the Brexit negotiations go (or stop). Regardless of whether people gave immigration as the reason for how they voted, the places most affected by Thatcherite industrial decline and subsequent Blairite neglect were among the places most likely to vote to leave, and the discontent will continue unless the areas affected receive substantial investment, and in proper industry rather than infrastructure projects, but right now, stopping the carnage that Brexit will lead us to is the most important thing that needs doing. 48% of people voted to remain in the EU; to paraphrase Paul Kingsnorth, that’s one big no and, as has been revealed since the vote, many small yeses. None of the unsatisfactory Brexit deals that have ever been suggested would in themselves attract 40%, let alone 52%, of the public vote. The Brexiteer Tories thump their chests and proclaim that they represent the “will of the people”, yet none of their factions commands a majority.

Let us look at the different camps on Brexit as parties in the tradition of British party politics; usually, the biggest single plurality wins. This may not (and usually is not) an outright majority or even as high as 48.2% — usually in the low 40s, sometimes much less as in 2005 — but it carries enough weight to gain a majority in Parliament because of the divisions among their opponents. This was the same reason why the vote to abolish the (British) monarchy in Australia was defeated; none of the options for a republic could attract a majority and this issue was debated before rather than after the vote. We need to look past the aggressive triumphalist rhetoric of the hard Brexiteers because their demands do not have the support of the majority of the population and supporters of the Norway option could be brought around by letting them know that it has all the disadvantages of full EU membership without a seat at the table when the rules are drawn up. Ultimately we cannot inflict enormous harm on both the economy and the constitution of this country just because some people think they want it. As everyone learns when they are a child, you cannot always get what you want, especially when this requires the sacrifice of others.

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Who says the Left hates the white working class?

4 July, 2018 - 23:45

 Snob Labour MP's Twitter dig at White Van Man's England flags"I saw a post on Medium last weekend, “Burning Down the House: Identity Politics and its Discontents”, which posited that white working-class voters who had voted for politicians like Donald Trump had faced “a double-bind”, a choice between a left-wing party that believes that they are ‘privileged’ for having white skin and which sometimes appears to love everyone but them, or a right-wing party that holds that they are poor because they deserve to be. It also gives a few examples of progressive hostility to expressions of white working-class culture or whiteness itself (e.g. ‘snobbish’ bans or sneers about displays of British or English flags, reference to whiteness as a pathology or ‘psychosis’ or to white people as evil) as if to demonstrate why white people might not choose to vote for the party which was historically based on their vote. The article, however, fails to acknowledge the reason for why white working-class voters may perceive the progressive left as despising them: there is simply no mention of the words ‘media’, ‘press’ or ‘tabloid’ anywhere in the article and I believe more people in that demographic read tabloid newspapers and listen to radio phone-ins than have any exposure to the sort of activism that portrays white people or whiteness as evil, other than what the media chooses to tell them.

To begin with: the displaying of flags and similar trappings of patriotism is not part of working-class culture in the UK. It is something the tabloid press encourages from time to time and which comes and goes around the time of international football tournaments such as the World Cup and European Championships. Similar is the case with poppies: they have always been ubiquitous in the media but there have always been adults who are not in any public-facing role who do not buy or wear them, but it was only when the Sun started preaching to everyone that they should wear them that they started to be seen as a marker of who is really British. There are many expressions of indigenous culture such as music and cuisine which is not generally regarded as ‘white’ even if most of the people who enjoy them are. By and large, white people enjoy foreign food, whether of European or other origin, because they want something more appetising and varied than native food — the “Sunday roast” served at the many carvery restaurants being really the only type of native food we take pride in. I’ve never heard it suggested that someone is racist for liking any of these things, instead of or as well as music or cuisine of overseas origin. It’s not generally accepted that, say, English folk music is an expression of “white pride” and when fascists periodically try to reclaim them as such, the musicians rebuff them.

The author quotes a few examples of (mostly American) Black activists making arguments for such things as Black-only spaces, and questioning whether their children can be friends with White (American) people. He does not question why they may be doing this, and given that he is British, he does not really examine the differences between the American situation and the British one in which there is much greater integration, particularly in the cities. Personally, I have a number of (mostly if not all Muslim) Black American contacts on social media, some of whom formerly took a very conservative position on issues such as the family and attitudes to the law and so on, who have increasingly taken withdrawn from ideas of integration, even with other Muslims, in the few years since the spate of unjust killings that led to the Black Lives Matter movement and then the Trump campaign ramped up. They have become increasingly convinced that Whites hate or despise them and (in the case of the Muslims I know) that immigrant Muslims identify as White or aspire to do so and despise them, and aware that the State does not regard the lives of their Black sons, brothers and husbands as sacred, that they can be killed in short order for no reason, and that some of their white ‘friends’ will assume that they must have done something to provoke that. They are increasingly aware that their White (especially middle-class) friends have no idea what their lives are like, that they are aggressive when reminded of the fact, and expect extreme gratitude for small favours (the “ain’t I always been good to you people?” response as seen in The Color Purple).

“Post-Liberal Bot” does not seem to question whether the White vote for Trump is a cause or an effect of the increasing turning-away of Black people from integration and friendship with Whites. Besides the fact that Republicans have always, since the days of Richard Nixon, relied on racially-coded appeals to White resentment and on tactics aimed at suppressing or corralling the minority vote (gerrymandering, felony disenfranchisement accompanied by over-policing, and so on), Trump combined this with open associations with the white Far Right, with violence at his rallies, with openly racist generalisations about Mexicans being rapists, with threatening rhetoric about “law and order” along with a few vague promises to White voters in the Rust Belt that he might bring jobs back. The sight of people voting for an open, aggressive racist who made promises to restore law and order and economic certainties reminds a lot of people of the rise of Hitler; we have seen a similar thing recently with Narendra Modi’s rise to power in India. People who will not be the main victims of the gas chambers or the machete mobs will feel safe voting for a fascist.

I’ve seen some of the rhetoric about ‘whiteness’ but in all honesty, I doubt that the average White voter in the street, either here or in the USA, has much exposure to it. As a number of White Liberal commentators have abundantly demonstrated, the right-wing media have sought over many years to persuade the provincial White voter that the Democratic party is dominated by the “metropolitan elite” which is only at home on the Atlantic or Pacific coasts and treats the interior as a ‘flyover’, and additionally is in hock to the inner-city welfare-dependent population (i.e. Blacks) and does not care for the self-reliant real American. A less extreme variant of this message is given out by the Tory party and press here; right now, they cannot persuade anyone that getting rid of the NHS is a good thing, but they can persuade people that all manner of undeserving people are getting treatment they aren’t entitled to, or isn’t really necessary, on their readers’ taxes. Really, the people who come into contact at first hand with the rhetoric described in PLB’s article, and are at risk of accusations of inadvertent racism, are activists themselves.

That’s not to say that all of these accusations are justified. There is a tendency in many activist circles for people to claim to be offended on the basis of a theory when the language used (as it is usually about language) could not possibly have hurt them; I call these sorts of people “pro-flakes”, people who make a career, or at least a hobby, of finding things to get offended at. The most recent example was last week in which a number of Black activists on Twitter took umbrage at the use of the term “poorface”, meaning wealthy people trying on poverty for size, in an article for the Independent by the cookery writer Jack Monroe. The term is a reference to “blackface”, in which white performers “blacked up” to perform parodies of Black culture and music to white audiences, and the terms “cripface” and “cripping up” have been used by disabled people to refer to non-disabled actors playing disabled roles in films, TV etc in preference to disabled actors who are passed over for roles they could play. Monroe of course apologised and had the Independent remove the offending language from the piece, but how much could it really have offended anyone? All the people I saw complaining were much too young to remember the Black and White Minstrel Show which ended in the late 70s on British TV, much less the American heyday of the practice. It was not a question of the language causing widespread, genuine offence, but of it triggering a learned offendedness reaction in a small group of people.

Racial activists often do not regard themselves as part of the “progressive left” anyway; they regard it with some degree of suspicion, because they have come across race-blindness and behaviour influenced by white privilege in liberal and left-wing circles as much as anywhere else — but in any case they are one part of a large coalition. They vote Labour or Democrat, including when the candidate is white and relies on but does not reward their vote, often because the alternative is worse. However, I do not see why they should be expected to keep quiet about the way they see the world when they suffer discrimination on a regular basis and risks of violence that white people do not even think of because it might hurt white people’s feelings, or be twisted by people with a hostile agenda. In short, the idea of the progressive left as “hating working-class white culture” is a right-wing commercial media trope which has no real basis in reality; progressives despise the attitudes encouraged and fostered by the vulgar right-wing media rather than actual indigenous culture; the media translates this into hatred or contempt of ordinary working people.

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NHS deaths and “blame culture”

1 July, 2018 - 22:40

A picture of Nico Reed, a young white boy with ginger hair, sitting in a swing designed for a disabled user, with straps and a full seat, holding on to the support ropes with both hands. He is smiling. The swing is in a back garden with white plastic garden chairs on a patio behind, and a rear door to a house behind them.Last week a report was published by the Health and Social Care Advisory Service (HASCAS), commissioned by the NHS Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group, about the death of Nico Reed (right), a young man who died at a residential home run by Southern Health, the same NHS trust whose negligence led to the the deaths of Connor Sparrowhawk and others in its learning disability and mental health units (report in PDF format here). An inquest into Nico’s death found that he had not been observed as often as he should have been, but the family have said that after he was forced to move for financial reasons from the school where he had lived since he was six, the physiotherapy he depended on ceased and the staff ceased trying to communicate with him, which both his family and the school staff had done mainly through a communication book, which they lost. This comes on the heels of revelations about the deaths of hundreds of mostly elderly patients at a hospital in Gosport after they were prescribed doses of diamorphine (heroin) that they did not need through syringe drivers; it has been alleged that the patients given this treatment were the noisy or disruptive ones, not those in most pain. In reaction to this, health secretary Jeremy Hunt called to an end to the “blame culture” within the NHS, which he claimed prevented whistle-blowers from coming forward, as this could have prevented further deaths during this period in Gosport. (More: Alison Cameron.)

As someone who has followed the stories of a number of disabled young people who have died as a result of negligence by both NHS and private health care providers, I do not believe that this comment by Jeremy Hunt is really intended to strengthen the position of whistle-blowers. That needs specific legislation to prevent such people being dismissed or otherwise penalised when they raise concerns, either with their management or with anyone else. As the BBC article linked above says, nurses tried to raise concerns with the management 30 years ago but were ‘silenced’; people have seen their careers ruined for raising concerns about corruption and other issues with people within their own organisation, which is not “whistle-blowing” in the real sense, anymore than informing authority such as the police about wrong-doing is whistle-blowing. I believe it has more to do with reducing the capability of patients and their families to hold healthcare providers and their staff accountable for wrongful deaths or injuries, and is strongly linked to complaints, usually from right-wing tabloids, about “compensation culture”.

Most of the cases I have been following do not hinge on a single negligent action by a single doctor or nurse (the case of Oliver McGowan being a notable exception). They are the result of decisions made by a whole series of people from healthcare bureaucrats and managers to medical staff. Inquests generally look at the immediate circumstances, such that the inquest into Stephanie Bincliffe’s death did not ask why she was in an institution where the staff clearly did not know how to treat her and so left her for seven years in a windowless room where her only comfort was gorging on junk food until she died of obesity-related sleep apnoea, or why nothing had been done to rehabilitate her into the community in all that time, and the inquest into Nico Reed’s death concentrated on the interval of his observations rather than the wider picture: why he was in that institution, why he was denied physiotherapy when it was of clear benefit, and so on. So, identifying human error contributing to a disabled person’s death is difficult as the inquest only looks at the immediate circumstances; as the original coroner in the case of Colette McCulloch (who has now stepped down as a result of complaints by Colette’s family) said, he is there to rule on how she died, not why.

The idea of attacking “blame culture” in the NHS rather smacks of the “no-blame approach” some schools favour when dealing with bullies: they want to get everyone round a table (or in a circle on the floor) and talk about the problem, why the bully wants to hurt someone, what the victim might have been doing that might have contributed to the problem, and so on. It rather assumes that every bullying situation is a “six of one, half-a-dozen of the other” situation and that the victim might actually be frightened to sit in a room and talk about their feelings with a bully, who might well be the dominant person in the class or year group and might then pretend to agree and then betray everything they have been told to their friends in the playground. In the real world, blame is a fact of life. If I shunt another vehicle at 10mph and damage someone’s back bumper, there is blame: either I or my insurer pays for the repair and/or replacement. If I make a mistake and cause a serious accident, I may lose my licence or go to jail. The same is not true of mistakes in medicine; if a doctor thoughtlessly prescribes the wrong medicine, or one they had been advised had caused adverse reactions and which the patient and their family had asked not be prescribed, the chances of their being held accountable are slim even if the patient dies. They are generally given the benefit of the doubt and the bereaved family’s view is regarded as emotional and biased, inferior to the doctor’s authoritative, expert opinion.

Also this past week, it was reported that an Australian gynaecologist, Emil Shawky Gayed, was facing an investigation after mutilating a number of women and performed unnecessary operations on numerous women over a decades-long career, with consequences that could have been fatal for the women or harmful to the babies they were carrying. One of the patients, Vicki Cheadle, was told by another surgeon that Gayed’s treatment of her had been botched and that she would have died if she had waited any longer for treatment, but refused to support her with a statement about Gayed’s errors:

“He threatened me, and told me he would make sure no doctor in [town] would treat my sons or myself if I took legal action against Gayed,” she said. “That he would get on the stand and lie, because I was lucky any doctor operated on me and that I should respect Gayed’s training and experience.”

I saw a tweet by a feminist blogger who claimed that this represented how much Australia values women. It’s more a reflection of the lengths the medical profession will go to back each other up even when they are in the wrong, even with lethal consequences for ordinary mortals. The doctor referred to in this quote clearly had more to gain by retaining Gayed’s friendship and professional support than by protecting other women he might operate on. In the case of the elderly people killed at Gosport, the doctor was a woman and the patients were of both sexes; she was defended by hospital management and even this past week, a former nurse who worked under her defended her, claiming she was a “good woman” who just wanted to make patients comfortable, even though this was the justification given at the time for giving the overdoses.

Of course, whistle-blowers have to be protected and to be able to expose wrongdoing without fear (and the fear might stem from the fact that their own record might not be squeaky clean) and not every family of a person who dies as a result of wrongful actions while in hospital wants a single person to carry the can. They do want what happened to their relative never to happen to anyone else, but sometimes this means the people responsible being out of the profession, or in jail. It’s exceedingly distressing to watch one’s disabled relative — son, daughter, brother, whoever — be treated with callous disregard to their well-being, happiness, family life and liberty over a series of decisions, for them to suffer obvious abuse or neglect and then die, and absolutely nobody held accountable to the point of even taking a pay cut. When those of us in less skilled occupations mess up and people die, there are consequences for us; in healthcare and its management, there is simply too much impunity. If a patient is not photogenic and they or their family are not well-connected, doctors (especially consultants) know that acting according to their prejudices or with indifference to their life and well-being is something they can get away with. Before we even talk about “ending blame”, we must end this.

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Encouraging obesity?

24 June, 2018 - 22:32

 25% off". The shop is set against red brickwork.Yesterday I came across a report in the Daily Telegraph claiming that a study from the University of East Anglia (in England) had suggested that the normalisation of overweight models and “plus-size” clothes ranges were threatening to normalise obesity by encouraging people to underestimate their weight, and that this could undermine efforts to tackle the “obesity epidemic where more than three in five Britons are overweight or obese”. A more detailed summary is available at Science Today but it finds that the numbers misperceiving their weight increased between 1997 and 2015; of the overweight, it increased from 48.4% to 57.9% among men and from 24.5% to 30.6% among women; of obese men, the figure increased from 6.6% to 12% in the same period. As might be expected, the number of overweight people trying to lose weight was much less than the number of those in the obese category (about half, versus more than two thirds).

The author of the study, a Dr Raya Muttarak, a senior lecturer at the university’s School of International Development, claims:

Seeing the huge potential of the fuller-sized fashion market, retailers may have contributed to the normalisation of being overweight and obese. While this type of body positive movement helps reduce stigmatisation of larger-sized bodies, it can potentially undermine the recognition of being overweight and its health consequences. The increase in weight misperception in England is alarming and possibly a result of this normalisation.

Likewise, the higher prevalence of being overweight and obesity among individuals with lower levels of education and income may contribute to visual normalisation, that is, more regular visual exposure to people with excess weight than their counterparts with higher socioeconomic status have.

The problem is that the existence of plus-size ranges is only one of many factors influencing people (and women in particular) in what they do about their weight. For large parts of the period between 1997 and 2015 studied in this paper, fashion shows preferred unnaturally tall and thin models; models of normal and even below normal weight were pressured to lose weight until they ceased to have periods and displayed other signs of poor health — this was the heyday of the “size zero” model. Many major retailers used mannequins which were exceedingly thin with no bosoms to speak of. So, the mere existence of a few plus-size ranges with appealing names (as if they should be called “fatso” or something like that) does not change the fact that there is an overwhelming pressure to get thin; dieting advice in just about every women’s magazine on a regular basis, the repeat suggestion or assumption that any reader will want to lose weight, the use of moralistic language such as the suggestion that food which is hearty or has any noticeable fat content should inspire guilt in the eater. And all this despite the fact that anorexia can be triggered, especially in an adolescent, by the smallest of comments which may not be an insult, or intended as one.

What should be done if the mere presence of models and clothing ranges that acknowledge the existence of overweight people and do not apply pressure on the customers to lose weight encourage obesity? Does the author suggest that people who are overweight or obese face more and more pressure to lose weight, regardless of how their weight gain occurred to begin with? It is also known that certain medications can cause weight gain, particularly those used in psychiatry, and whatever the harms this weight gain causes, coming off it may not be an option. Even if someone is overweight simply because they eat too much, being overweight is not a dire health hazard in the same way that smoking is; smoking smells foul and is detrimental to other people’s health as well as the smoker’s, and it can cause cancer, even in a young person. While being morbidly obese is, as the name implies, a short-term health risk, being a bit fat does not necessarily put you at risk of becoming morbidly obese.

There has to be a balance struck; what must be encouraged is healthy eating, not weight loss or being thin for its own sake. The widespread prominence of the slim or skinny figure combined with messages to be thin or lose weight, or continually watch one’s weight, is a known contributor to eating disorders and remaining excessively underweight because of an eating disorder is a lot less healthy than being a bit overweight — and people with anorexia will also misperceive their weight, seeing a fat person where everyone else sees a painfully thin one. It’s important for people, and especially young people, to know they do not have to let their figure rule their life and that it’s not a disaster to be a bit overweight — it’s a lot easier to remedy than anorexia nervosa — and seeing people who are not thin and having clothes available that acknowledge that not everyone is helps to deliver this message.

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Racist da’wah (and “crazy British Muslims”)

19 June, 2018 - 23:11

A still of Abu Ibraheem Hussnayn, a young South Asian man wearing a white cap and with a long beard wearing a long, dark-coloured robe, talking into a microphone he is holding in his hand, standing in front of an ice-cream van with the slogan "Mind that child" on it.Over the weekend a video surfaced of an Asian Muslim street preacher telling his fellow local Muslims (also mostly Asian) that as well-brought-up people who come from respectable families, they should not be talking as if they were Black or want to be Black. This obviously caused a stir with a number of Black Muslims from various parts of the world, not just the UK, saying it confirmed their belief that the Muslim community was rife with “anti-blackness” but it also seemed to reinforce prejudices among Muslims elsewhere (such as the US and Canada) that British Muslims were wild, extreme and out of ‘control’. The man later posted a video with a partial apology, although he also accused Black Muslims of having a “victim mentality”. The original video (“addressing the gangsters and drug dealers”) can be found here on YouTube and the ‘apology’ here on Facebook.

First, it’s clearly racist to contrast well-brought-up people and respectable families with Black people, to use ‘Black’ as a synonym for riff-raff — he did not mention Muslims or non-Muslims, or gangsters or anyone else. Given that he is a ‘salafi’, a sect which has a very strong Black membership and leadership in this country and in the USA (there is, or was, a ‘salafi’ mosque in Birmingham with an African-American imam), this is particularly astonishing. I’ve met young Asian people who talk with a bit of street slang in their vocabulary who were not drug dealers, they were just young people brought up in places where that sort of language was common. If he really was addressing ‘gangsters’ then whether they talk like they’re from back home in the Punjab or from Compton or wherever, or a bit of both, should be the least of his worries. I’ve also met Black people, including Muslims, who do not act or speak like gangsters and do not want their children mixing with or adopting the habits of those sorts of people. If you want to tell people not to act like gangsters, drug dealers or petty criminals (or their admirers/wannabes), there are ways to express that than telling people not to “sound Black”, because then you are talking about the good and the bad among Black people.

Some of the North American responses to it reflect the prejudices about the Muslim community here which have been taking root there the last couple of years. I’ve seen Twitter profiles saying things like “if you’re from the UK, don’t mention me”, remarks like “I read something disgusting and then looked at his profile, saw ‘UK’ and that explains it” and had lectures from an American Muslim convert telling me not to tell Americans anything about moderation or integration given all the extremism among my community. I suspect this is the effect of several years of right-wing propaganda and scaremongering about “no-go areas” that are a staple of American talk radio in some places. The person whose tweet drew my attention to the talk (and the preacher, whom I had never heard of before then) asked what the Muslim leadership were doing about him or where were they. Well, he was talking in the street, and the “Muslim leadership” consists of mosque committees, school governing boards and a few umbrella bodies and they control what goes on on their own premises but not in the street. It is the local council and the police who are responsible for monitoring and policing what goes on in the street and they could move him on, get a court injunction to stop him doing this or arrest him if he is breaking the law (which he may be). Perhaps these Americans are under the mistaken impression that we really have Shari’ah courts here; we do not, and never have done.

Abu Ibraheem’s apology does not really answer the reason why people criticised his original statement; amid all the side-swipes about Muslims other than ‘salafis’, it consists of the usual accusations of it being taken out of context, when it sounds just as bad in context; that the man who ‘first’ posted the video (who is Black) was in the habit of calling Asians by a derogatory name (which is irrelevant); and that some of “our Black brothers and sisters” have a victim mentality. Well, the reason they may do is because they’ve experienced racism in mosques and particularly from Asians — everything from insisting on giving talks and sermons in Urdu to refusing to allow their daughters to marry them (admittedly, the people responsible for that will do this to anyone who is not Asian or just not from their caste or tribe). What I believe, and have made this point here previously, is that there are people trying to exploit and exaggerate what racial tension there is among British Muslims so as to encourage separatism and manufacture leadership opportunities for themselves, and he has played right into their hands with this speech.

This coming weekend there is an Eid event which is only for Black Muslims; it’s an evening of poetry and political talk and it’s a full week after Eid so it’s not a real Eid event, but it’s disturbing that they think this is appropriate. One of the teachings of Islam is that we are all equal before God and we are all brothers and sisters; this is why it is unacceptable for two people to speak so that a third cannot hear or understand them. White and Black Muslims are both a minority in the British Muslim community; if we exclude Somalis, even together we are a small fraction. As a convert whose only language is English, I often find Asian religious events uncomfortable and isolating, yet imagine that a group of my Muslim friends who also speak English (and not also Urdu) want to spend Eid with only their Black friends — where does that leave me? This is about fostering isolation, fomenting suspicion about others’ attitudes that may be unjustified, and denying solidarity at a time when Muslims are all under suspicion and facing regular attacks from the political classes and the media. Do they think the mobs, or the secret police, will not come for them?

Abu Ibraheem Hussnayn is one man, an obscure street sermoniser of whom many of us had never heard until we saw that clip on Twitter last weekend. Let nobody assume that most Muslims, or even most Asian Muslims, are anything like him or have similar attitudes. There is no justification for using this speech as an excuse to sow further divisions among the Muslims here and to turn Black Muslim against White or Asian or Arab. It is, of course, a good thing for Muslims from West Africa or Somalia, or wherever, to have mosques based in their communities where their culture is reflected in the design and so on (and the manner of prayer, since schools of thought other than the Hanafi school are ill-represented in mosques in the UK), and I have been to the Nigerian-run mosque in Peckham and found it to be a very friendly place and welcoming to non-Nigerians and non-Africans, but there is no reason for exclusivity or for shutting ‘outsiders’ out.

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Christopher Chope, upskirting and Parliamentary games

16 June, 2018 - 18:27

Picture of Gina Martin, a young white woman wearing a pink blouse with white dots and a pair of earrings with a large orange triangle and circle hanging from them.Yesterday a bill was expected to go through Parliament to ban ‘upskirting’ — the taking of pictures under someone’s clothing, usually a woman’s skirt, without their consent — and the bill, a private member’s bill, had the support of MPs from all the main parties and the support of the government, but was blocked by a single MP who shouted “object” before it could be debated. It was put back until July, when it could be debated again or could be blocked again using the same mechanism. Also yesterday, another Tory MP noted for using tricks to block PMBs, Phillip Davies, talked out a bill known as Seni’s Law after Olaseni Lewis, known as Seni, who died after he was restrained by 11 police officers at the Bethlem Royal Hospital in south-east London; the bill would have required police officers to wear body cameras when carrying out restraint and automatically trigger an independent investigation when somebody died after restraint. This bill will be debated again on 6th July, though more of the same trickery cannot be ruled out (if it runs out of parliamentary time, it will not be voted on and will not pass). Theresa May has said she wants to see the bill, or one like it, pass as soon as possible and Victoria Atkins, minister for women, has said the government will allocate time for the bill. (More: Paul Bernal (a guest post which explores the human rights angle of the upskirting issue), Labour MP Jess Phillips.)

Why did Chope object? According to the BBC, he is one of a group of Tory backbenchers who routinely object to “what they see as well-meaning but flabby legislation” being passed on a Friday afternoon when only a small number of MPs are in the House — only about 30 MPs (out of more than 600) were present for the debate yesterday. They believe bills should be properly debated before new laws are passed, especially those which create new offences for which, as in this case, people could be sent to prison for breaking. Gina Martin, who started the campaign to make upskirting illegal, said that Chope had told her that he was not really sure what the term meant; I find that difficult to believe given that (a) he could have just asked someone and (b) the bill would have described in detail what was to be banned, rather than using a colloquialism.

Insisting on proper parliamentary scrutiny of PMBs is a noble enough cause on the face of it, but we have to ask what Chope and his friends have ever done to make sure they are scrutinised properly rather than just block them as the BBC reports that they have been doing for at least the last 20 years. Has they ever tried to get their fellow MPs, Tories or otherwise, to show up and scrutinise them, as is their job, rather than go home? As some of them (including Chope) are barristers, do they read the bills and check them for weaknesses and loopholes? Have they raised the issue of why private members’ bills are relegated to Friday afternoons when there are only a couple of dozen MPs in the chamber, when it is known that there will be MPs who will block them on principle, rather than at a time when it is well attended? Why do MPs think PMBs are so unimportant that fewer than a tenth of MPs turn up to debate them? And is it really only Tories that care that bills be properly scrutinised, or is it that they only care to block bills they don’t like? Chope himself has sponsored 47 PMBs himself, the most recent being a bill to introduce “co-payments” (i.e. payments by patients) for NHS treatments; this was objected to in May and its second reading was supposed to have taken place yesterday. So it appears his objections are at least partly party-political.

Picture of R Kelly, a Black man with a shaven head wearing a black shirt (open to reveal his chest) with handwritten letters on it in white, black trousers, and holiding a stick in his hand with a cycle mirror near the end.Despite the noise being made by Tories in response to Chope’s objection, it has to be remembered that the Tories are heavily linked to tabloid newspapers and magazines that make money out of invasive stories. Not everyone who takes an up-skirt picture is a pervert in a dirty mac; some of them are professional paparazzi who then sell the pictures; a favourite of theirs is to take a picture of a woman in a short skirt getting out of a car, when if she is not careful, she will expose her underwear. It is quite likely that many Tories do not like the idea of restrictions on the ability of these companies, which provide valuable propaganda for and funding to the Tory party, to publish stories and make money in response to pressure from ‘prudish’ or ‘humourless’ people, or on the ‘right’ of men to “act like men” or young men to “act like lads”. There has also been a clueless remark on Twitter by a lawyer who claimed that if women took more care about the way they dress, they would not find themselves “in jeopardy”. Well, short skirts have been common in western society, on and off, since the 1920s. Whether we like them or not, they’re no invitation to look at, let alone take pictures of, what they cover. But with the aid of a selfie stick (a 21st century version of R Kelly’s walking stick and cycle mirror apparatus from the early 90s), even women in long skirts are vulnerable to this.

Coming on the back of my previous article about Tory Islamophobia and their failure to keep bigots out, I feel that this behaviour reflects the viciousness and contempt for justice that is endemic in the Tory party and has been for decades. Essentially, they treat Parliament as an extension of the games they played at boarding school (which both Chope and Philip Davies attended) and any appeal to social justice is seen as a little bit like an 11-year-old boy pleading “it’s not fair” (the appropriate response to which is to repeat it back to them in a mock whining tone). Why would anyone want it to remain legal to take a picture of a woman’s underwear (or sanitary/incontinence pad) without her consent, or for there not to be accountability for deaths by restraint of mentally ill people, or for landlords to be able to evict tenants for complaining about conditions? If there are concerns about scrutiny, there are constructive ways of achieving this rather than using trickery to stop a bill even being considered. And we must ask the people who run local Conservative party associations why they keep selecting candidates who, as MPs, treat the legislative process like a game — we do not know who runs these organisations and there is no accountability for them.

The procedures must be reformed. One or two men should not be able to dominate the process of debating PMBs such that they run out of time if they do not like them (and if they go against those men’s personal interests — Chope and Davies are both private landlords — their abilities should be further restricted). Concerns about inadequate scrutiny or attendance should have to be raised with the Speaker, or there should have to be a threshold to uphold an objection, and that threshold should be in double figures, at least. Normal organisations have quoracy rules to ensure that a handful of members of a representative body cannot pass policy; this should also be the case with Parliament, which would make the justifications for filibustering and objecting redundant. And finally, PMBs should be treated with the seriousness they deserve, and given appropriate debating time if enough MPs register their support, not relegated to Friday afternoon when everyone wants to go home, as the concerns that drive them are often very serious ones where human life or suffering is at stake. They deserve more than schoolboy games and a mock-pitying whine.

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