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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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Why is age discrimination in housing allowed?

6 hours 38 min ago

Someone holding up a poster featuring phrases commonly found in house/flat rental ads, including 'No DSS', 'DSS welcomed', 'Friendly warm house', 'Non-Smoker', 'No fix, no fee! Affordable rates' and many others in large and small lettering.This blog entry is by a friend of mine who is being evicted from her father’s flat where she has been living for some time. She has long-running mental health problems and is a wheelchair user and was told in December to find a new place to live within three months. She has appealed on Twitter for help finding accessible places to live which will take Housing Benefit in the London area but, despite the tweets being retweeted hundreds of times, has received no leads to suitable places, much less offers; she has also found none on the websites which specialise in accessible and DSS-accepting properties. It’s painful to read of this struggle as there are in fact plenty of suitable properties, but they are reserved for older people.

It’s not the first time I’ve read of young disabled people searching for an accessible property and finding none, and finding such properties which are subject to age discrimination is something friends have told me about in the past. I was thinking of bungalows and properties that are accessible to wheelchair users, but Mark Neary, who is well-known for his legal battle to get his autistic son, Steven, out of an unwanted and unsuitable care home placement in 2010, mentioned this afternoon that when looking for flats for himself and Steven last year after the council earmarked his old council house for demolition, that “each week there were several over 55s flats available but nothing else”. Besides level access, young disabled people would benefit from the same advantages these places offer elderly people (precisely because of their physical infirmity), such as staff on duty to assist in the event of falls and so on.

Worse, although new business premises are required to offer wheelchair access, new multiple residential buildings are not. I used to know someone who lived in Poundbury, Prince Charles’s showpiece village outside Dorchester, Dorset, in a first-floor flat in a purpose-built small block. Charles’s estate does accept housing benefit recipients as tenants (which almost no other private landlord in the area does) but, I was told, did not allow lifts to be installed at the Duchy’s insistence. This lady recently became disabled, and will now have to move out of her flat, most likely into a care home, or even out of the area; but not being able to visit friends’ houses freely is a way disabled people are excluded from mainstream society, and new buildings should allow them access.

The law should be changed so that accessible properties that any disabled person could live in cannot be reserved purely based on age (I accept that specific impairments, such as dementia, could be grounds for reservation) and if they are, it should be for old people, over 70 or 75 perhaps, rather than merely those at or nearing retirement age, given that we are mostly living longer and age 60 is considered quite young for an old person, and not an age at which people die of old age anymore; 55 is what most people consider middle-aged, not elderly. This is something that major disability charities and campaign groups should be fighting for; while nobody doubts that the over-55s have “paid their dues”, disabled people have the right to independence and family life and cannot even hope to start a productive life if they are trapped in an unsuitable home or with abusive or hostile relatives. There’s no justification for this discrimination; the over-55s are not more important than disabled people of any other age.

Image credit: Alison Barnes.

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Blair not the man to lead Brexit fightback

17 February, 2017 - 22:45

Picture of Tony Blair wearing a dark suit with a pinkish/purple tie with a microphone attached, standing in front of a blue backgroundThe former British prime minister, Tony Blair, today gave a speech in the City of London in which he declared that Brexit could be defeated if the people who opposed it “rise up” (the BBC have a video of part of the speech here). In the speech, hosted by Open Britain (the successor to Britain Stronger In Europe), in keeping with his previous positions on the subject, he is expected to say that “the people voted without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit” and while “the will of the people” should be respected, that opinion might change when the true costs of leaving the EU become clear:

Our challenge is to expose relentlessly the actual cost, to show how this decision was based on imperfect knowledge which will now become informed knowledge, to calculate in easy-to-understand ways how proceeding will cause real damage to the country and its citizens and to build support for finding a way out from the present rush over the cliff’s edge.

The problematic part of Blair’s speech concerns immigration. The Guardian notes that “many of his critics have accused him of presiding over a wave of immigration from eastern European countries without being straight with the electorate about its likely magnitude”. Yet instead of taking on the anti-immigrant argument head-on, he seeks to divert it towards what he sees as less desirable immigrants:

There is in some parts of the country a genuine concern about numbers from Europe – real pressures on services and wages. But for many people, the core of the immigration question – and one which I fully accept is a substantial issue – is immigration from non-European countries, especially when from different cultures in which assimilation and potential security threats can be an issue.

“Nonetheless, we have moved in a few months from a debate about what sort of Brexit, involving a balanced consideration of all the different possibilities, to the primacy of one consideration – namely controlling immigration from the EU – without any real discussion as to why and when Brexit doesn’t affect the immigration people most care about.

This goes to the heart of his policy towards east European immigration during the mid-2000s. The first set of east European countries (other than former East Germany) to join the EU did so in 2004, a year before the July 2005 London bombings, but it was three years into the “War on Terror” and three years after the Oldham riots. Muslim immigration was already being blamed for causing a breakdown of “social cohesion”, for fostering inward-looking communities which bred extremism. In the immediate aftermath of Oldham the problem of ‘segregated’ neighbourhoods and schools was raised, but “bringing brides from the village back home” (and the fact that the spouses rarely spoke good English) was widely blamed for the problems of ‘segregation’ — racism and discrimination in the job market was generally overlooked. Yet it was generally accepted that the country needed workers; few British people wanted to do low-skilled jobs that did not pay much.

Blair calculated that the labour shortage caused by shutting off the flow of south Asian immigrants could be plugged by allowing unrestricted immigration from the new EU countries of Eastern Europe, which it should be remembered that the rest of Europe did not, and which also had not been allowed immediately when Spain and Portugal joined the then EEC. He may have underestimated the numbers who would come, but I believe he also calculated that they would not provoke much opposition because they were white and Christian and would “blend in”, and likely be quickly assimilated into the local populations (doubtless he approved of the idea of them filling up empty churches, particularly Catholic ones, as well). This speech demonstrates that he has not moved on from his thinking then and not realised his mistake. He believes in the EU as a union of Christian nations, effectively a “fortress Europe”. (I actually dispute that “many people” were that concerned about Muslim immigration; the numbers were much smaller than the flood of migrants from eastern Europe, who went to different parts of the country and did entirely different jobs from the Asian immigrants. The opposition was much greater from the outset.)

Some people are saying we should not concentrate too much on the messenger but focus on the message. While I am not going to abandon the campaign to stop Brexit just because Blair is part of it — I always knew he was pro-EU, both while in power and during the referendum campaign — he is not the right person to lead it. Apart from being discredited for taking this country into war on false grounds against public opposition, his policies both electorally and in office are the reason we are in the mess we are in now. We don’t need the fightback against Brexit to feature side-swipes against groups of immigrants (including eastern Europeans, as they are here now and have children born here, some of them with British partners) or minorities. We should not be fighting for a white, monocultural fortress Europe; we need to rise above the bigotry and fear that characterises the Brexit campaign.

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On the “Muslim Luther” fallacy that won’t die

15 February, 2017 - 19:58

TV still of Graeme Wood facing from the side, with the words "Many have called for a 'reformation in Islam'" at the bottom, and the BBC Newsnight logo in the top leftLast night on BBC’s Newsnight, there was a two-minute slot by a Canadian journalist called Graeme Wood, who claimed that the rise of the “Islamic State” was equivalent to the Christian Reformation spearheaded by Martin Luther. There is meant to be a counter-argument from Tariq Ramadan on tonight’s programme (BBC2, 10:30pm). He says:

It’s part of a convulsion within Islam no smaller than the Reformation was in Christianity. When historians write about what happened, they won’t see it as a narrow local movement but as a global intellectual movement that remade the Muslim world. In the 16th Century, Martin Luther’s Reformation harnessed the power of the printing press and rising literacy. He told Christians to read and interpret scriptures for themselves, without the mediation of a priestly class that was obedient to Rome. Today’s radical Islamic movements are telling their followers to read the Qur’an for themselves and to ignore the voices of mainstream clergy. The result is a movement of power to the people.

For these Islamic Protestants, the power of liberation is not the printing press but the Internet. They follow their new authorities on YouTube. These new authorities are less, not more, inclined to live harmoniously in the modern world. This isn’t new. Remember, Martin Luther was radical too and the Reformation he started was a bloodbath. Many have called for a “Reformation in Islam”, hoping to make it more compatible with Western norms. But these calls are at least a decade too late. The reformation is already here and it’s called the rise of the Islamic State.

His own theory comes at least a year too late, as the “Islamic State” has been losing territory for the past year or so and has been chased out of several of its former strongholds, especially in Iraq. But the Islamic State movement has no real parallel with Luther’s theologically-based reforms. Luther was not, at least initially, interested in statecraft; he already lived in a state (the Holy Roman Empire) which was Catholic in affiliation and which enforced Church doctrines, including trying and executing heretics. His protest (not initially intended as a schism) was against what he saw as corruption in the Church, particularly the sale of indulgences to fund construction projects, such as the Basilica in Rome. He never served in, much less led, an army in his life. Lutheran kingdoms emerged as German dukes adopted the new faith in order to challenge the power of the Holy Roman Emperor, leading to its loss of power in northern Germany.

ISIL does not lead a theological protest; its priority is establishing an Islamic state which cuts across the colonial boundaries. This aspect of it alone makes it appealing to many Muslims who had become disenchanted with al-Qa’ida whose tactics of terrorism had achieved nothing in 20 years; the idea of a Caliphate, of one political leader for the Muslims, can be found in any classical Islamic textbook even if there was rarely unity in reality, and has been a goal of Muslim activists of all stripes for decades. ISIL’s theological heritage is “salafi-jihadi”, the same as al-Qa’ida, yet it is well-known that the business of running a modern state was left to former Ba’athists; its leaders are known not to be scholars, even within the “salafi”, i.e. Wahhabi, movement they emerged from. There have been comparisons of this movement with Protestantism going back years, but even there the parallels are limited.

It is well-known that in the Mediaeval Catholic church, the Bible was not available in vernacular languages such as English or German. It was only available in Latin and ancient Greek, neither of which were spoken languages by Luther’s time. The average Catholic was not literate; religious learning was restricted to ‘religious’, who were celibate. This had never been the case in the Muslim world; Muslims were encouraged to read and memorise the Qur’an for themselves and to learn and memorise the sayings of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), called Hadith, and this was the case before and after Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, and it is the case in Baghdad and the case in Raqqa. No Muslims regard it as acceptable for ordinary Muslims to simply read the Qur’an or whatever Hadith are available to them and derive a ruling about the Sacred Law from them, especially in regard to acts of worship where the rulings are already settled. The challenges to some such rulings that have come from Wahhabis are the work of scholars, not ordinary people. And neither movement moved “power to the people”; both led to the formation of absolute monarchies which in the case of Saudi Arabia still exist.

It’s true that for years, people have been insisting that Islam “needs a reformation”, when in fact the Christian reformation did not lead to modern secularism but to years of conflict (much of the bloodshed committed by the Catholics trying to maintain their power, and later expand it in Africa and South America), although it did make room for the expansion of literacy, including in the Catholic world where the church did come round to the idea of vernacular Bibles. And as for the suggestion that a reformation of Islam would make it more acceptable to Western norms — Luther was not looking to make Christianity more acceptable to anyone else; he was looking to reform Christian practice for the sake of truth to please God, much as any sincere Muslim who advocated any kind of reform would be.

All in all, I found his slot to be a rather uninformed and dated argument. The “Islamic State” has its roots in a puritanical reform movement, yes, but it is not that movement itself, and it is not similar to the early Lutheran reformation either in its aims or its behaviour.

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How prevalent is FGM in the UK really?

13 February, 2017 - 14:02

A poster showing a young white girl with a black sweatshirt with a red and orange triangle badge, saying "Wear the Red Triangle, Help End FGM. We are the generation to end FGM, Forced Marriage, Dishonour Based Violence".Last Monday was apparently FGM Awareness Day, and that means there were a lot of FGM stories in the media with vain attempts to interpret figures in a new way to make a story out of them despite their lack of statistical significance. This year it was the ‘news’ that a charity revealed that FGM victims present to the medical services every hour, or rather that a case of FGM was either discovered or needed treatment 8,656 times between April 2015 and March 2016. The BBC headlined this as “FGM victims need medical attention ‘every hour’ says charity”, when in fact the figures do not indicate that at all. The BBC mentions that no successful prosecutions for FGM have ever occurred in the UK, which the Home Affairs Select Committee (a parliamentary committee) has called “a national disgrace” in a report last October, but nobody appears to be considering why this might be the case.

To take the statistics mentioned in last Monday’s reports, the figures state that “there were 8,656 times when women or girls attended doctors’ surgeries or hospitals and the problem was assessed”, according to ITV News, and a new case is recorded on average every 92 minutes. However, this simply means that a woman who has undergone FGM needed any medical treatment and the fact of genital alteration was observed; it did not mean she had a complication specifically arising from FGM. News reports, which all seem to be rewrites of the same press release or wire copy, do not mention what type of medical treatment the women had sought or whether the treatment would have been ramified by the FGM or whether a doctor had asked as a matter of routine (e.g. when a woman or girl registered at a doctor’s practice). A new case being discovered does not mean it happened in the UK, of course; the cutting would have been done years earlier, most likely in the woman’s home country. It is possible that the figures include multiple presentations by the same woman.

As for the lack of any prosecutions in the UK, it is always assumed that there is some sort of conspiracy not to prosecute, the usual claim being that teachers, social workers and other professionals are afraid of being branded racist. I find this difficult to believe in 2017 given that it is a stereotype of Somalis, even though it is found across east and west Africa among Muslims and others, and since 9/11 there has been a barrage of material in the media identifying Muslims as problems, as people who will not integrate, and attacking multiculturalism as the cause of backwardness and terrorism. FGM is not a taboo subject; it has been in the news every few months, at least, since the 1980s. If there is a lack of aggression in reporting suspected cases of FGM, it may well be because it may lead to the break-up of settled families where no other abuse is taking place and the necessity of taking some of the children into care when the care system does not have good outcomes and its places are needed by children whose parents cannot look after them or those who are in further danger. FGM can only be carried out on the same victim once; other forms of abuse can be repeated.

I have always been sceptical that FGM is prevalent in the UK. Rumours abound of girls going on holidays to places like Kenya during the summer break and show signs of FGM afterwards (e.g. always spending a long time in the toilet), but the zero conviction rate is significant. When one considers other forms of abuse, it is widely acknowledged that the conviction rate is a fraction of the total incidence, but nonetheless there is that fraction. There are good reasons why the conviction rate is different; other forms of abuse are carried out for the perpetrator’s gratification, while FGM is thought to be beneficial, at least socially within their cultures; the family members who arranged for it may still be providing for the victims, even paying to put them through university; the children who had been mutilated still love them. However, surely there should be at least a few cases where none of these things is the case, where someone who arranged FGM for their daughter or niece was otherwise abusive, where someone had become estranged from their family and had no difficulty reporting them. Given the large diasporas of people from the regions where FGM is or has been the norm, if there were enough cases of it that were traceable to the UK, surely some cases could have been brought.

Last year, the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) published statistics on the 5,700 newly recorded cases from April 2015 to March 2016. They said that they could identify 43 cases (self-reported) in which the victim was born in the UK, and 18 cases where the cutting took place in the UK, and roughly ten of these consisted of genital piercings rather than cuttings. Such figures are available for only a minority of the total, but it does not indicate that the instance of FGM among girls born in the UK is that high, and crucially it is not high enough to overcome the impediments to successful prosecutions. People point to other factors indicative of the practice remaining part of people’s cultures, such as women coming to shelters with their daughters or of FGM Prevention Orders being taken out, but even where there was genuine risk of FGM and not mere suspicion (or other motives for seeking the order), it indicates prevention, not actual FGM. Avon and Somerset Police have applied for 10 such orders in the 18 months since they were introduced, in an area with a high Somali population; hardly a sign that all the Somali families are looking into this for their daughters.

It’s significant that a clinic in west London for women who have experienced FGM, offering trauma support and deinfibulation (re-opening of a closed vulva) is being closed as a result of the local council withdrawing funding (local councils have had their funding cut for all services over recent years; pressure on social care is the best-known consequence). FGM is a gift that keeps on giving for politicians; they can use it as a stick to beat immigrants with, persistently exaggerating the incidence and communities’ devotion to it, raising alarming but spurious statistics every few months, while knowing they cannot stop it all because the actions necessary would cause more harm than good, yet they withdraw help from actual victims.

I find the media coverage of FGM thoroughly unsatisfactory also, even in papers like the Guardian. It is prurient, sensationalist, often borderline racist, too willing to believe the worst of the communities involved and impervious to facts that contradict their cultural biases — continuing to claim, for example, that FGM is demanded by men, when all evidence is that it is older women who carry it out, often against the wishes of the girls’ parents; in west Africa, FGM is the ritual for initiation to the “Bondo society” which consists entirely of women; the practices and the societies are generally accepted and openly defended; the western media never contemplate reasons for FGM’s decline other than western influence (e.g. in the case of Muslims, contact with other Muslims from regions where FGM is not practised and never has been), and habitually quote out-of-date statistics which, if still true, would mean that all their campaigning had had no effect. FGM seems to give white liberals a chance to exercise their inner racist, to feel superior, to make assumptions about others they would not otherwise make and adopt a “white man’s burden” attitude that has otherwise gone out of fashion. Until someone brings hard evidence (rather than rumours and hearsay) of British girls being subjected to this on a significant scale, I will continue to treat the scare stories and massaged statistics about FGM in the British media as foreigner-bashing.

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Who are ‘Liberty GB’ anyway?

11 February, 2017 - 15:17

Picture of Barbara Ntumy, a Black lady with long, braided red hair extensions wearing a shirt showing large white flowers on an orange backgroundYesterday Channel 4 News broadcast a conversation involving Jack Buckby, the “outreach officer” and former parliamentary candidate for ‘Liberty GB’, and Barbara Ntumy, deputy president of the London Metropolitan University students’ union and a member of the NUS’s Black students’ campaign, in which Buckby handed Ntumy an application form for resettling a Syrian refugee and told her, “put your money where your mouth is … take in a Syrian refugee; I hope you don’t get raped”. The suggestion stunned her into silence for a few seconds before she told him she lived in a one-bedroom house and didn’t have the financial means to do so, but he probably did. But the question remains: what was he doing there?

Liberty GB, formed by former members of UKIP, the British Freedom Party and the BNP and whose main founder is said to believe that there would be a war between immigrants and the white working class (though his wfie is Romanian), is not a big organisation; it was registered with the Electoral Commission in 2013 and according to Wikipedia, its membership is 400. Its candidates in the south-east constituency for the 2014 European parliamentary election received only 0.11 of the vote (2,494 actual votes); they came 14th, after “An Independence from Europe”, the Roman Party and “YOURvoice”. In the Batley and Spen by-election, triggered by the assassination of the previous Labour MP by a local far-right extremist, Buckby polled just over 1% (220 votes) and lost his deposit; they have never polled more than 0.6% in any other parliamentary election. So, given his lack of expertise, qualifications or public office (even UKIP have MEPs), what was he doing on the programme? The only explanation, as with so many previous instances in the British media, is that C4 invited him because a good barney would make “good telly”.

It’s despicable that this man should be allowed to suggest on national TV that a woman having contact with a Syrian refugee would likely result in her being raped. It’s simply racist, even taking into consideration the sex attacks in Cologne last year, which were assumed to be by Syrian refugees despite lack of evidence that they were anything other than men with (in some cases) foreign accents, which gave racist mischief makers the green light to accuse the Syrians. But in any case, a woman who agreed to take in a Syrian refugee would probably be assigned a woman, perhaps one with a young child, so there is no risk of her being raped. I subscribe to a video channel by a young woman in south London who has hosted refugees; if you are interested, you can see her videos on the subject here.

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Citizenship is not just a visa

9 February, 2017 - 23:02

A picture of Simon Danczuk, a middle-aged, balding white man wearing a white shirt, dark blue tie and grey jacket with his lips turned down, standing in front of some old brick housesToday three members of the notorious ‘grooming gangs’ who raped and sexually abused girls in the Rochdale area lost an appeal against deportation to Pakistan. Two of the men, who were jailed in 2012, have been released on licence after serving part of their sentences; a third received a 22-year sentence and will remain in prison. All were born in Pakistan and were naturalised as British citizens; one of them came to the UK in 1967, aged 14, and has four children (presumably adults given his age) in the UK. His appeal includes the claim that his conviction is unsound because it was a “conspiracy” of all involved, that the jury was all white and that it was “fashionable to blame everything on Muslims these days”, a defence that was unsurprisingly rejected. The local MP, Simon Danczuk, has demanded that “foreign-born criminals should not be able to hide behind human rights laws to avoid deportation”.

There was a previous occasion in which I saw a tweet linking to a case in which a man, born in the UK but not a citizen because of his parents’ immigration status at the time of his birth, who was facing deportation to their home country of Jamaica. I immediately lost all sympathy when I read of his lengthy criminal record which dated back to his teenage years. However, I am also against first-world countries expelling criminals who had been there since childhood back to their countries of origin, usually third-world countries. Such policies caused devastation in Latin America, where thousands of criminals were deported from the USA; those deported for making one mistake were lost in their countries of birth where they had no remaining connections, while the gangsters re-formed their gangs and got back to business. It’s not ethical to deport someone who, while not born here, was ‘made’ as a criminal here. These three men were very likely not rapists when they left Pakistan; it was in their particular circle of British Asians in the fast-food and minicab industries that this happened. Pakistan is not to blame for their crimes and should not have to pay for or accommodate them; we may think we are protecting women and girls by deporting him but Pakistan has quite a high female population of its own.

I fully approve of removing people who committed crimes shortly after coming to the UK, and more so those who came here for that purpose. However, the whole idea of citizenship is that this is your country now, for better or worse, which is why it is not given out to just anyone. It is about belonging, not merely the right to live somewhere. Naturalisation is only revoked when it is found to have been obtained dishonestly, such as by lying about one’s parentage or concealing a criminal record or one’s conduct during a war; it may be revoked for treason or espionage, but not for common crimes or because the government believes that someone’s presence is not “conducive to the public good”, a phrase used as a justification for excluding foreign visitors because, for example, they are hate preachers.

One may not sympathise with these three men (I certainly do not) or any other individual affected. I am more concerned with the fact that it is getting easier and easier to throw people out of the country; anyone the government wants to throw out who has connections to another country, they can, and I suspect it will not stop with naturalised citizens, much as it did not stop with people who were not citizens but had been in the country for all their adult lives and had a spouse and children here (or, as has been documented in the USA, adoptees who were brought as babies or small children but whose adoptive parents neglected to naturalise them). If citizenship can be revoked after decades for committing a crime, or because a politician decides the country would be better off without you, it’s not citizenship at all; it’s just a kind of enhanced visa.

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Trump has no business in any parliament

8 February, 2017 - 17:08

 Refugees Welcome'The speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, has made himself unpopular (again) with a number of Tory MPs for announcing that he will not allow Donald Trump to address the Commons if and when he makes a state visit to the UK later this year. That he is has been invited as soon as he took office is a scandal; previous US presidents who made state visits did so after years in office. But Tory MPs insist that he has broken with convention by taking a ‘partisan’ view rather than maintaining neutrality or (as where there is a tie) voting with the government, and that maintaining relations with the “democratically elected leader of our closest ally” is vital.

The fear in the line the Tories are taking in cosying up to Trump is obvious: Britain is about to take a leap in the dark and once we have isolated ourselves from Europe, Trump and Putin become the nearest things we will have to friends in the world. Ever since 9/11, British leaders have treated angry and volatile US presidents like angry gods to be appeased at all costs. It is clear that they are doing this as a display of subservience, not because they really want to honour him. And I would dispute the suggestion that the Americans are really our ‘closest ally’ anyway; that title should surely go to our neighbours, who allow British citizens to freely live and work there. The US does not.

Many are calling Bercow a hypocrite for refusing to allow Trump to address Parliament but allowing some outright dictators such as the Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The difference is that Xi never claimed to be anything other than the leader of a Communist state; he governs as part of the system he inherited from his predecessors. Trump is introducing the characteristics of fascism and tyranny to what was previously a representative democracy with at least nominal respect for the rule of law (though some citizens did not enjoy it fully). A ruler who threatens a democracy is not comparable to one who never claimed to believe in or practise democracy, at least as it is known of here.

The issue which should prevent Trump from addressing Parliament is not his view on the Trans-Pacific Partnership or even immigration. It is his attitude to — his contempt for — the rule of law both before and after his election; his attack on law-abiding legal immigrants designed to appeal to his ignorant voter base, and the threatening language he used towards the judiciary when they frustrated him. Surely, the idea of the rule of law is what peace as we know it is founded on; people’s freedom from capricious expulsion or imprisonment. Until Trump learns to respect this, he has no business addressing any parliament in any democracy.

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Trump’s election is no ‘rejection of elites’

6 February, 2017 - 20:25

Picture of Donald Trump with an angry look on his face, raising his middle fingerIn yesterday’s Observer, there is a piece by one John Daniel Davidson, identified as “a senior correspondent for the Federalist” who lives in Austin, Texas, defending Donald Trump from claims that he is a fascist and offering the standard defence that his election represents “a rejection of the elites” and that the real divide in America today is not between “fascists and Democrats” but between “the elites and everybody else”. He claims that Trump’s supporters cheer at such actions as ripping up trade deals, threatening Mexico with invasion and withdrawing from a deal to accept refugees Australia refuses, alleges that “For years, millions of voters have felt left behind by an economic recovery that largely excluded them, a culture that scoffed at their beliefs and a government that promised change but failed to deliver”, and alleges that the protesters and the “elites” do not understand why Trump and his policies are popular. It’s a familiar argument, also articulated on this side of the Atlantic by the Daily Telegraph columnist Charles Moore who claimed on the BBC Radio 4 Media Show the other week that BBC news programming is characterised by ‘groupthink’ on issues such as climate change (!) and immigration which blinded it to the popularity of Trump and Brexit and the reasons behind it, and a staple of the Right going back at least as far as the Bush years, and it’s wrong.

To start with, Donald Trump may not identify as a fascist as such, but the manner of his campaigning and his behaviour since certainly have some of the characteristics, much as have some genuine dictators who also do not identify as such, or are commonly called fascist — Assad of Syria being a classic example, more than some straightforward autocrats such as Pinochet. In any case, very few people identify as fascist; even the likes of the National Front (and its successor, the British National Party) have used terms like “nationalist” as the word ‘fascist’ has rightly become toxic. What’s not a secret is the violence that accompanied his rallies, which is not a characteristic of a politician who intends to govern as part of a democratic system, nor the wave of police and vigilante violence against minorities that marked Barack Obama’s second term, nor the appointment of unqualified men with clearly stated opinions consistent with fascism to positions of great importance. And the fact that he is popular with “heartland” Americans does not mean he is not a fascist; it may just mean he represents fascism in terms and behaviour that is familiar and acceptable to them.

Second, there is the claim that he is a “champion for the forgotten millions”. It is true that he won votes in some mid-western “rust belt” states that had previously voted Democrat (in some cases right throughout the Bush and Obama eras) with promises to tear up trade agreements that destroy American industry and bring jobs back. However, he is not previously known as a businessman who supports American manufacturing himself, as a Daily Mirror reporter found when he stayed in one of Trump’s hotels recently; it has also been observed that Trump campaign paraphernalia, such as hats and ties, were not made in the USA but in Far Eastern countries. In trying to restore manufacturing to places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, Trump will be ham-strung by Republican opposition in Congress, politicians who have their base in southern “right-to-work” states where unions are weak and companies were attracted by more “liberal” (for them) labour markets (ironically, Democrats are more likely to support him here). Davidson notes that Trump has promised a “border tax” to hit companies that move American jobs abroad and try to import the goods made there; he will not be able to do that by executive order. He will need congressional support.

Trump is, in addition, not one of the “forgotten millions”. He is a billionaire who did not build his empire from scratch, but developed it from his father’s. This fits a pattern with the sort of people the pissed-off American provincial middle class turn to to “save them” from the “liberal elite”; they are always extremely wealthy, though they will put on a common touch when out campaigning, and generally support reducing the tax burdens on the wealthiest and on business, reducing environmental regulations that stop companies polluting the environment that everyone else has to live in (though rarely do they pollute their own), cutting public services that benefit everyone so as to facilitate tax cuts, while focussing public discussion away from economics and onto moral issues like abortion. As Thomas Frank described it in his book, What’s the Matter With Kansas? (reviewed here; published in the UK as What’s the Matter With America?):

The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistably against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privelege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills [a suburb of Kansas City], hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. “We are here,” they scream, “to cut your taxes.”

It is tempting to compare the invocation by Trump’s supporters of the angry, overlooked millions, combined with anti-intellectualism and anti-Semitism (and other open bigotry) with Poujadism, the populist movement of 1950s France, but Poujade was a small shopkeeper from southern France, not a big-city property magnate. Trump is from New York; the Bush family, although both the Bush presidents had been governor of Texas, actually originates from Massachusetts. Trump, therefore, is not one of the “forgotten millions” and is a poor champion for them.

It was not, of course, only the “rust belt” that voted for Trump. All the states that had supported Republicans since 2008 supported Trump, both in the South and the midwestern “heartland”. In the South especially, voters had to overlook Trump’s manifest foulness of character and his lack of any previous interest in their politics (he had supported Hilary Clinton’s previous presidential campaigns, for example) as well as Hilary Clinton’s personal connections to Arkansas. One can only assume that many voted for Trump out of blind partisanship, having been persuaded by 20 years of propaganda from the church and media that the Democrats were godless liberals who would not protect the unborn and would raise taxes — and they did not let the displays of thuggery, Trump’s contempt for women or the obvious shallowness and undeliverability of Trump’s promises deter them.

Davidson alleges that “the crowds of demonstrators share something in common with our political and media elites: they still don’t understand how Trump got elected, or why millions of Americans continue to support him”. Actually, they know why Trump was ‘elected’ despite losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes: because an electoral college system originating in the time of slavery reduces the voting strength of populous states while inflating that of smaller ones, allocates block votes regardless of turnout which usually all go to the single biggest candidate in the state, and so on. Trump ‘won’ an election that was biased in his favour, although it is true that Trump’s and Gary Johnson’s votes combined outnumbered Clinton’s, so perhaps a more credible Republican might have beaten Clinton, especially in the (unlikely) event of his embracing Trump’s trade policies. I’m sure most of them are well aware of why millions voted for Trump, but it was really not that significant; what mattered was that the misogyny, xenophobia, contempt for disabled people and contempt for the rule of law that Trump and his movement represented (and continue to represent) was not going to be accepted and would be resisted, and that the now-dominant faction knew they had a fight on their hands. Disabled people are not the élite; they are a generally impoverished group which had difficulty getting healthcare until Obama’s healthcare reforms, are often institutionalised even as mentally-competent adults, something that Obama actively opposed and which Trump’s allies have not, and are widely treated with contempt and abused, especially if they look or sound ‘odd’. Why should these people expend time on understanding why people voted to impoverish them?

Finally, there is the usual narrative of a “liberal metropolitan élite”, based in the USA’s case on the two coasts (the upper Midwest always getting left out), who looks on the rest of the country with snooty contempt; it has been a regular trope of the conservative persecution narrative since the Clinton years. Trevor Phillips, in his 2015 documentary “Things We Won’t Say About Race That Are True” (reviewed here), makes the same claim about that so-called élite when depicting a man refusing to talk to him at a UKIP conference, suggesting that he was typical of the “ordinary white people” that vote UKIP. In fact, the ruling class of this country was not ‘metropolitan’ but based in the suburbs and south shires and its voting base was in rural and provincial England, and it was ‘liberal’ only on gay rights. Phillips was also praised by the Daily Mail for saying “things that nobody will say” about race, yet such claims had been the Mail’s stock in trade for decades. The same is true of conservatives in the US; they have ample access to the media via TV, talk radio and many newspapers, even if the New York Times, Washington Post, and other ‘establishment’ big-city papers don’t give their views priority. In the case of the recent election, where the mainstream media largely did not anticipate Trump’s nomination, let alone victory, one could say that they gave Middle America some credit by imagining that they would not vote for an openly racist, vulgar lout, possibly a criminal, with no political experience. It was once observed during the Civil Rights era by the first Black student in a hitherto all-white university in South Carolina that “if you can’t appeal to the morals of a South Carolinian, you can appeal to his manners”; whose manners could Trump possibly have appealed to?

It’s actually possible to understand why millions of Americans voted for Trump without justifying it: they are racist, blindly partisan, ignorant and resentful of people who know better than them. So he boasts that more Americans support than oppose Trump’s orders on immigration; what this demonstrates is that these people are racist ignoramuses, given that the order targeted the law-abiding and had no justification in security, terrorism prevention or anything else and was struck down by the courts almost immediately (pending appeal), resulting in Trump throwing one of his many Twitter tantrums and showing outright contempt to the judiciary. The contempt for the law, the use of the language of enmity and betrayal, the use of violence in political campaigning, as well as vicious and libellous verbal assaults on other nations, are characteristics of fascism, of tyranny, not of democracy or statesmanship. Whether “the people love him” or not is irrelevant, and in any case, they will not be so happy when Trump’s caprices result in companies moving their money or whole departments abroad — though whether they take it out on the government or on their fellow citizens, or immigrants, time may well tell if he does not learn his lesson nor is deposed quickly.

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Time for Europhiles to divide and rule

2 February, 2017 - 13:33

Black and white picture of Jeremy Corbyn taken from the right, standing in front of a lectern with a microphone, with a camera pointing towards the audience from his left.So, in the last few weeks Jeremy Corbyn has shown his true Euro-Sceptic colours, issuing a three-line whip to order his MPs to vote in favour of the government’s bill to trigger Article 50 (which, of course, he knows a large section of his MPs will simply ignore) while a number of Labour MPs and Labour-associated columnists (most recently Mark Seddon in the Guardian) running scared of the working-class Brexit vote in the North, which in places voted heavily for leaving the EU (he cites Easington, County Durham, which voted 57.5% to leave), which it fears could turn towards UKIP, much as working-class Americans voted for Trump even as their leaders (e.g. union shop stewards) advised them to vote for Hilary Clinton. He puts this down to yet another campaign to undermine and remove Corbyn. I’m not convinced.

For a start, why would anyone want to undermine Corbyn — apart from the fact that he’s the least effective opposition leader in recent history, unable to command a majority of MPs despite his support among ordinary party members, and the fact that being part of the EU was a key plank in the platform that kept Labour in power for 13 years and one that Corbyn always opposed, except during his lukewarm pre-referendum performance? But really, I very much doubt that these MPs want to sabotage Article 50 in order to undermine Corbyn; it is more likely to be the other way round, since they believe passionately in British membership of the EU and what it represents, and believe that leaving will leave Britain isolated, attempting to strike trade deals singly with other major powers, all of them thousands of miles away from British shores, rather than being part of a ready-made bloc of several of the world’s strongest economies which is on our doorstep.

But there is more to the EU than just the economics. Barack Obama was still president of the US when the referendum was held seven months ago and the smart money appeared to be on Hilary Clinton winning the election to succeed him. Today, an incompetent, racist buffoon is in charge and has made protectionist noises, put fascists in key national security positions and has threatened everyone’s security by killing a small girl in the Yemen while targeting the house of someone the US had a grudge against, and sparked a constitutional crisis and possibly the revival of the mostly moribund al-Qa’ida by deliberately barring and harassing legal immigrants from several Muslim countries on completely spurious grounds and then openly defying court orders to desist. Are we going to choose to tag along with this goon, or be a bit-part player in a US-Russian axis, or remain in a bloc with 27 other stable democratic countries? The choice should be obvious; if we leave, our ‘closest ally’ will soon be somewhere that British citizens cannot guarantee being able to do business because of lawlessness and state harassment.

Paul Nuttall, a white man with a short beard, wearing a yellow and purple tartan cloth cap and jacket and a yellow and purple striped UKIP tie, standing next to Richard Gibbins, a shorter white man with glasses, wearing a black rimmed hat, cream jacket and a black and white tuxedo and bow tie underneath; both wearing UKIP rosettes, standing outside a converted shop unit on a corner with 'Paul Nuttall' displayed in big letters above the doorway along with posters showing UKIP promises.Labour MPs are being asked to disregard their London voters (characterised as students, ethnic minorities and the “loony left”) so as to shore up their votes in the Midlands and North, where there is a substantial anti-EU Labour vote. This is exactly what they did in the 90s, disregard those very people so as to chase after middle-class votes in the Midlands and the Suburbs; now they fear losing their votes to UKIP. For this to happen, however, UKIP would have to put up some credible candidates. It is a sign of their lack of talent that their leader, Paul Nuttall, is being parachuted in from Merseyside to stand in Stoke-on-Trent in the forthcoming by-election where he does not know such facts as which six towns make up Stoke; if they were a well-organised party with a strong working-class base, they could have found someone local in a city that voted 70% to leave the EU. Labour should be countering the threat from UKIP the same way as they countered the BNP: by exposing their lack of any concern or commitment to working-class people, their incompetence, their hypocrisy, not by leading us into a damaging action because “it’s what people want”. Whatever they think they want now, if the Brexiteers’ promises are not met, people’s anger will be channelled towards ‘immigrants’, including ethnic minorities, both in political distractions and in outright violence. Labour has a duty to protect its loyal supporters from this, not just give white working-class voters “what they want”.

Labour must, of course, work out ways of reviving areas of the North that were destroyed by Thatcher, but this cannot be done by poleaxing the entire economy through self-imposed political and economic isolation. If it does this, we might no longer have an immigration ‘problem’, but this would be because there is no reason to immigrate, much as you don’t get people from all over the country moving to places like Middlesbrough. In the past, when people have demanded things of government that are undesirable (such as restoring capital punishment) or impossible (such as removing VAT on domestic fuel or menstrual hygiene products), politicians say “we can’t”. Labour must say this to its base: we cannot jeopardise the British economy, the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland, even the United Kingdom itself, just to honour a referendum held seven months ago when the world was a different place and the campaign for which was based on outright lies, promises that have since been ripped up or which fell apart within days of the referendum, and years of propaganda from the commercial right-wing media (and as a politician has been removed from office in this country on the basis of “undue spiritual influence” over Bangladeshi Muslims, i.e. local imams had supported him, the influence of the gutter press over this referendum should count as a reason to set it aside).

Let us not forget that the result was narrow and that the proportion of people who voted to Remain was higher than that which usually wins elections. UK-wide, it was 48.1%; in England alone, it was 46.6%. Chuka Umunna, a south London Labour MP, has said that Labour cannot cast itself as the party of the 48%, but parties have secured majorities in Parliament on the back of the votes of the 43% (as with Labour after the 1997 landslide) or even less (such as 35.2% in the case of Labour’s last government). If anti-Brexit candidates form an alliance at the next election, particularly if one is called before 2020 as some have suggested it might be, enough MPs could be elected to defeat this reckless proposal even in England (we would not have to form any such alliance in Scotland). Even in the areas of the north which voted in favour of leaving the EU, a large enough Remain minority exists to divide two or three pro-Leave candidates. If the Labour leadership will not defend the greater good, it is time for the rest of us to use divide and rule tactics: leave the Labour party to the Marxist dreamboats and unprincipled, careerist bully-boys. The Daily Mail can throw around accusations of unpatriotism all they like, but a Britain on its own outside the EU in the near future will not be a country worth living in, much less fighting for.

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Life isn’t fair?

27 January, 2017 - 23:28

Two children, a girl with a white cloth draped over her head representing the Virgin Mary, holding a doll, and a bigger child of indeterminate gender with a large fake beard and a beige Middle Eastern-style headscarf representing Joseph, standing over a straw crib filled with what looks like cotton wool, in a school nativity playThe other day I came across a discussion on the forum MumsNet about a boy at primary school who had been, for the umpteenth time, given a trivial role in his school play while the same children who always got major roles got them. The boy was obviously upset and the mother was asking whether to pull him out of the play altogether, as he got the impression that it was not worth trying. Other parents commented that this is how it always is at schools, in their experience — nepotism rules, merit means little. Others argued that minor roles should not be dismissed as trivial as the play depends on them as much as on the big players, that the teachers may have been picking the children who showed the most talent, while others gave variations of the “life isn’t fair” theme, that the mother shouldn’t pull his son out as he had to learn that he couldn’t get his way all the time and that if he really wanted to be in plays, he ought to join a theatre group out of school hours. (The thread has been removed as it was “causing the OP [original poster] some real-life problems”.)

I find the “life isn’t fair” attitude to be the most problematic of these responses. Schools are institutions, run by trained, supposedly professional, adults who are paid to educate the children. Among their duties is to teach children right from wrong. If their behaviour is persistently unfair, handing out favours to the children they like the best while making no effort to develop other children’s talents, this cannot be dismissed as just one of the vicissitudes of life. A primary school play is not a grand production but a group activity in which all the children should be made to feel included, and while not all children can have big parts all the time, they should make some effort to rotate the major roles so that it’s not always the same children getting starring roles and the same children feeling left out. (For what it’s worth, not all schools do this. I got a big role in my last primary school’s nativity play, despite being a part-time non-pupil on special needs grounds. That was back in 1987, but I’m sure other schools make an effort to include children who are keen but aren’t members of the in-crowd.)

I am going to make clear that I work from the starting point of believing what the original poster says; unlike some of the contributors to the thread, I am not going to imagine that she is twisting this or exaggerating that. Ben Goldacre, I think it was, once quoted the Times’ foreign correspondent Louis P Heren as saying ‘When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself “why is this lying bastard lying to me?”’, but said that you cannot conduct a scientific debate on the basis that those that disagree with you are lying bastards, and I am not going to assume that of anyone who says they or their child has been the victim of an injustice either. On occasions here I’ve helped people who had been in difficulties with social services, or similar, and did so on the basis that their story could be true because, you know, it happens. On at least one of them, I later discovered that the parent had not been entirely truthful with me (and her other supporters), and backed out. I’m not in contact with this parent; I’m just going on what I read on MumsNet the other night.

A lot of the observations about this being a learning experience are quite valid, as long as the lessons are taught to all the children. The lesson that you cannot expect adults to sort all your problems out for you, as one day you will be an adult yourself and those you once called adults will be old and unable to help you — that’s fine as long as all the children learn that. The lesson that supporting roles are important — fine, as long as they all get to learn that (especially as such roles often involve a lot of waiting backstage rather than watching the play; the “better actors” in the class should get this experience too); the suggestion was that the children getting the big roles had never had to do the small roles. The lesson that you cannot give up any time you fail an audition or an interview, as you will have many such experiences in the ‘real world’ — fine, except that this is not a single incident, as the original poster said, but one of many where he will only have so many opportunities as you only get seven years at primary school. You do not only get seven opportunities to get a job and then bang, you’re on the dole for life.

A scene from the 1979 British film 'Scum', set in a juvenile detention centre, in which the lead character (Ray Winstone) pins another inmate to the wall and knees him between the legs (among other assaults).The worrying thing in seeing parents take a fatalistic attitude towards persistent unfairness is that the same rules might be applied to bullying as well. I saw this a lot at school myself where bullies were quite openly favoured by staff (and some later made prefects, despite involvement in multiple violent incidents, so they could carry on their thuggery with explicit staff approval), staff took their side whenever their victims complained, and they (and certain others who were supposed to care) brushed it off by saying it was just the way of the world or that it was my fault. I was even told that making them prefects was appropriate because bullying can be a sign of having ‘leadership skills’, when even if this is true, such skills should not be developed by using other children as props, and in any case the school had a history of indulging bullies while openly humiliating their victims. And as with the previous examples, it’s only some children — in this case, those at the bottom of the pile — who have to learn these ‘lessons’, while others learn that they can use violence to get their own way, a lesson they will carry on into adult life, with all the consequences that involves for those who may work for them, or those with the misfortune of being their partners in life. Worse, girls are being told similar things about sexual harassment in schools and in public, with such excuses as “boys will be boys”, “he only does it because he likes you”, “it’s the price you pay for being a woman” and a host of similar nonsense. Boys learn that they will get away with it; girls learn that they just have to put up with it, or that all men are like this and they cannot expect any better.

There is a saying I learned when studying Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood, about the murder of a family in Kansas in the 1950s by two drifters who thought they must have a safe full of money. The sister of one of the murderers, in one of many letters she wrote to persuade him to turn his life around, told him “there is no shame in having a dirty face; the shame comes when you keep it dirty”. We can overlook the odd incident of unfairness and the odd incident of bullying, as long as it is robustly dealt with by the school, does not make a school a bad school. But we mustn’t respond to these things when they happen persistently with a fatalistic, or lazy, “life isn’t fair” attitude. Children only get one childhood and it isn’t what they make it, it’s what we (adults) make it, and while we can’t always make life fair, we can be fair ourselves. (In the particular case of the child given a token role in the school play, I’d advise getting together with some other parents with similar experiences to work things out with the teacher if possible. If not, I see nothing wrong with quietly withdrawing the boy if he really doesn’t want to do it.)

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Why couldn’t Dean Saunders get a secure hospital place?

22 January, 2017 - 21:31

Picture of Dean Saunders, a young white man with a short beard and moustache, wearing a two-tone grey sweatshirt, holding a young childLast Friday an inquest jury gave its verdict in the case of Dean Saunders, who killed himself in Chelmsford Prison in January 2016 having been remanded there having injured his father who tried to stop him self-harming during a mental health crisis in December 2015. The charity Inquest has published the full verdict on its website including statements from the family and their lawyers. The jury concluded that he took his own life while the balance of his mind was disturbed and that his death was contributed to by neglect. The jury criticised the police, the prison service and the private contractor (Care UK) which provided mental health care at the prison. The inquest heard much evidence, and found, that decisions made about Saunders’ care were made with a view to minimising cost, a claim strenuously denied by the head of healthcare.

As Deborah Coles of Inquest says in the charity’s statement, Saunders should not have been in prison at all, but in a secure mental health unit, but no beds were available (it is not clear how far afield the search went) until the day he died. This, of course, is a common problem: people have to be transferred hundreds of miles from their homes because no beds are available locally, because they have been closed because of funding or bureaucratic reasons, often when they are in fact well-run and well-regarded. The worst problems seem to be faced by adolescents and those with learning disabilities, but it goes on throughout mental health services. Only this past week, a women’s inpatient unit was closed in Purley, south London, after the local NHS trust decided it no longer represented value for money (the local paper also reported on this). The Independent notes that the closure will only save the trust £500 per year; it does not mention whether this includes the sale of the property, which is in a very desirable and expensive area.

A less obvious aspect of why Dean Saunders could not get a secure unit place quickly is who is in the units already. They are equipped to house forensic mental health patients under hospital orders, but also hold sectioned patients who may not need the security they provide (patients are not allowed internet access, mobile phones or recording devices of any sort, in contrast to the usual regime in most adult mental health units) but need therapies which are not available, or at least not immediately available, anywhere else. Some of them are plainly unsuited: a medium-secure forensic unit in Sussex (run by Partnerships in Care, now part of the Priory Group) took Claire Dyer in 2014, despite her having a learning disability outside their expertise and coming from 250 miles away in Wales, although it discharged her three months later; more recently, a forensic unit in Wales, Ty Catrin, run by the same profit-making chain, admitted a young lady with a personality disorder and an eating disorder last May and allowed her weight to drop dangerously before transferring her to a general hospital in her home area just before Christmas. Judging by the leave both were allowed before transfer to the secure unit (documented by them or their family on social media), neither needed secure conditions when in their previous hospital setting, so why are they being subjected to secure conditions in institutions that do not even come close to meeting their needs? It is cruel to them, and it shuts out people who really do need their services. (Of course, neither of these units could have taken Dean Saunders, but no doubt a place he needed was occupied by a man who should have been in a non-secure therapeutic placement.)

It is encouraging that this inquest looked at the wider issues of Saunders’ detention rather than, say, merely the decision to downgrade his observation from constant watch to every 30 minutes; previous inquests of people who died in NHS carem such as Nico Reed and Stephanie Bincliffe, did not look at the matter of why they were in the institution which neglected them and in the latter case found no neglect, despite the wretched conditions of her captivity over seven years. However, the reason he was unable to access the care he urgently needed was political: we provide secure units, because they are needed to contain the type of patients that scare the public and make headlines (the Christopher Clunises of this world) but other inpatient mental healthcare is an easy target for cost-cutting, yet lives depend on both types of care.

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Treaty rights versus legal rights

21 January, 2017 - 11:21

The emblem of the United Nations, showing a map of the world centred on the North Pole (i.e. a polar azimuth projection), with olive branches around itA couple of days ago there was a demonstration in Dublin to pressure the government there to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD), which Ireland has signed but not yet ratified (Britain has ratified the Convention and the Optional Protocol). At the UN’s site you will find a map of which countries have signed or ratified the convention and protocol; you might notice that they include a large number of countries where disabled people are still held in institutions for much of their lives and otherwise denied what most of us consider essential rights including the right to life itself. A mother of a son with Asperger’s syndrome, and some unrelated physical impairments, made a blog post and some tweets claiming that “people with intellectual disabilities are not allowed a sexual relationship apparently”. Her son believes this, so someone must have told him. It is misinformation.

The rights of disabled people in any country are dependent not on international treaties but on national laws and (where they exist) constitutions. Ratifying a treaty does not change or annul existing law in any country, not least because they are usually framed in general terms while laws deal with specifics. Even in the case of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is enshrined in UK law as the Human Rights Act, a court judgement that a law violates the convention does not strike it down, but by convention the government then moves to amend the law accordingly. Unlike with a written constitution, where the court’s judgement strikes the law down, the law remains in place until amended.

A disabled person is not banned from having a sexual relationship just because the legislature has not ratified the CRPD. The lack of an explicit, stated right is not the same as a prohibition, as things are permitted unless prohibited by a law or a court order. If this woman’s son is not under guardianship, he has the same legal rights as anyone else; if he is, he may be allowed or not allowed as his guardian sees fit. In the UK, which has ratified the Convention, such things are governed by the Mental Capacity Act and people (usually those living in care homes) and people have been barred from having sexual relationships on grounds such as that they do not understand the principles of consent, or of the risk of sexually-transmitted infections, or that sex may lead to pregnancy. In a well-known case in Scotland, a couple were prevented from marrying because social workers regarded the 17-year-old bride as incapable of understanding what marriage entailed; those with learning difficulties, particularly single mothers, often have their children removed because of real or alleged incapability to look after them. All this in a country which has ratified the CPRD. I’m sure Ireland has equivalent legislation and none of this would change if it ratified the CPRD.

So, it’s not true that a person with Asperger’s syndrome cannot have a sexual relationship. I know many who have, and some who have married and/or had children. Men and women. They do not necessarily even face questions about their competence. It is misleading to claim that they are not allowed a sexual relationship just because their country has not ratified a treaty, and it is cruel for anyone to suggest to them that this is the case.

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How to make sure wheelchair users can ride the bus

18 January, 2017 - 22:15

Doug Paulley, with part of a Transport for All banner behind him‘Wheelchair v buggy’: Disabled man wins Supreme Court case — BBC News

Today the Supreme Court gave its ruling on whether FirstBus, a major provider of bus services throughout the UK, discriminated against a man who was unable to travel on one of its buses in West Yorkshire because a mother with a sleeping baby refused to fold her buggy, claiming it wouldn’t fold. The man, Doug Paulley, originally won his case but the company appealed; the Court of Appeal supported the company, while the Supreme Court has delivered what disability campaigners are calling a partial victory, finding that drivers must do more than just ask a parent to fold their buggy, stopping short of insisting that they eject the parent from the bus. It therefore doesn’t amount to a guarantee that disabled travellers will be able to travel on what is often the only form of transport available to them. (More: Doug Paulley.) 

It strikes me as odd that this conflict has been allowed to go on this long. In London, you cannot take non-folding bicycles on trains at peak times, or on deep sections of the London Underground at any time. The policy was brought in five years ago or so because rigid frame bicycles took up too much space and caused obstructions when people were trying to get off. There was a publicity campaign leading up to the rules being introduced, so people had plenty of notice. The same should be true for parents who wish to bring buggies on board buses, where space is much more limited than on a train: they have to use a simple, easy-fold buggy which, for anyone who was around in the early 80s, used to be simply called a buggy. They fold it up before they sit down, ensuring that no conflict with a wheelchair user can arise; I’m told that before accessible buses, which wheelchair users fought for, buggies and prams had to be folded down before the bus arrived. If for some reason the buggy does get into the wheelchair space unfolded, the buggy moves as soon as a wheelchair user needs the space, and the bus doesn’t move until that happens. He can radio his company if the parent still refuses, as they do if passengers refuse to pay, for example.

One objection to insisting that wheelchair users always have priority is that it puts too much responsibility on the driver. However, drivers can be, if necessary, protected by a glass or tough plastic screen which only they can open, so it does not put them in any danger. They are adults and already have responsibility for the takings (such as they are now that most bus passengers use Oyster or contactless debit cards) and for ensuring passenger safety. Other drivers are held responsible for ensuring that disabled people can travel; cab drivers cannot refuse guide dogs and have been prosecuted for refusing (it’s telling that small operators, often self-employed people using their own cars, are punished while large operators are protected). There are also parents with physical impairments that do not make them wheelchair dependant, but might make folding a buggy and carrying a child difficult; there could perhaps be a permit system for these people who do have a strong case for using the wheelchair space.

Making sure disabled people can ride the public buses is not an indulgence. It is vital for them not only to go shopping and get their hair cut or nails done, but to go to work (so they do not become the benefit scroungers so many people have been taught to despise), to get to activities so that they are not stuck at home all day, and to attend appointments which are vital to their health and well-being. It is not right that someone is forced to miss hospital appointments and find that their condition deteriorates because nobody could be persuaded to fold a buggy and pick up a child. Although this may seem a minor inconvenience in a major city where the next bus might be along in five minutes, in a rural or small-town setting, the next one might not be along for an hour, and a friend told me she once waited for three hours only to be refused carriage by six consecutive buses, eventually giving up and going home. All this because the able-bodied cannot be bothered to make room. With a bit of organisation and not much time, bus companies and local authorities can make sure wheelchair users can use what is sometimes the only transport available to them. It is not just a point of principle, although it’s a very important principle; it’s a matter of people’s jobs, people’s social lives, and people’s health.

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Stonehenge, and the A303, really need that tunnel

13 January, 2017 - 22:26

A picture of Stonehenge, a collection of standing stones, some with stone lintels on top, on a plain with a path leading behind it to a car park.Stonehenge Tunnel plan finalised by government — BBC News

So, the government have finally agreed on plans to build a tunnel to the south of the ancient stone circle, Stonehenge, outside Amesbury in Wiltshire. The site is currently one of several bottlenecks on a major route from London to the south west of England, a two-lane stretch in between two sections of good-quality dual carriageway, one of which links to the M3 motorway from London; however, a lot of the delays are caused by people slowing down to look at the stones as they drive past. The scheme will also include a by-pass around the village of Winterbourne Stoke, also affected by the slow and heavy traffic along the A303.

Stonehenge is not the only famous landmark to fade from public view as a result of a bypass. When I was a child, we went to Portsmouth for the day, and the main road there, until 2011, ran past a formation called the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a “natural amphitheatre” overlooking Hindhead Common in Surrey. On the way out, you drove out of the village of Milford, along one of the A3’s many “silly little bits of dual carriageway”, as my Mum called them (all now either by-passed or linked together), which soon ended, the road climbing for several miles through thick woods which then opened to show this dramatic hollow on the right-hand side. As an adult when I started driving lorries, I relished trips to Portsmouth because — despite the inevitable traffic jams — I got a glimpse of the Devil’s Punch Bowl. That ended when the Hindhead Tunnel was opened in 2011 (there was a serious proposal to simply by-pass it through the common, but the landmarks’s Site of Special Scientific Interest status, as well as public opposition, scuppered that plan) and the original road was mostly removed. The upshot is that you can explore and see all the areas of the landscape in peace now, but few people get to see it on their way past and so it is probably less well-known now than it was until 2011.

Stonehenge had no such effect on me; we stopped there once on the way back from Devon, and I remember being bored to tears, especially as I had not been expecting to stop anywhere other than perhaps a service station. I still find it rather underwhelming, but those who want to enjoy the stones will be able to do so in peace once the passing traffic has been re-routed underground, while those who just need to get to and from the south-west will be able to do so without getting stuck behind farm tractors or people slowing down to have a look at the stones — although, it has to be said, the traffic delays have eased considerably since the A344, which ran to the north of Stonehenge, was demolished (people wanting to visit Stonehenge now have to turn off at the roundabout to the west and approach it from the Salisbury-Devizes road). I suspect they will rebuild that, and remove the existing A303 (or at least whatever of it isn’t required for farm access).

Building the tunnel will be good for Stonehenge. Not only will the noise of the passing traffic be gone; the pollution it emits, which no doubt has discoloured the stones as traffic pollution once discoloured Buckingham Palace in London, will also disappear. A place doesn’t have to be right on a major highway for people to appreciate it; when we went to the Lake District or North Wales on holiday, we would stop at Stratford or Ironbridge on the way there or back, neither of which are right by the motorway, and Stratford has prospered since being taken off the A34 trunk road from Birmingham to Southampton, which used to choke it with heavy goods traffic. Stonehenge is still quite well-known, people know what it looks like, and people who are interested and have time will still visit it.

I’m not in favour of building huge new roads for the sake of it, but there are places where they need to get built, because bottlenecks cause not only inconvenience but also extra pollution. The Hindhead tunnel needed to get built, the Tonbridge-Pembury upgrade on the A21 (in progress) needed to get built, and so does this. Stonehenge will be all the better for it, and I’ll be admiring the scenery further down.

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Jill Saward, the Press and civil liberties

10 January, 2017 - 19:54

Last week Jill Saward (pronounced Say-ward), best known for having been the victim of the notorious “Ealing Vicarage” rape attack in 1986 in which she was raped and subjected to other sexual assaults and her father and boyfriend were beaten up and suffered head injuries during a burglary, died of a brain haemorrhage. In the 31 years since the attack she had become known as a campaigner on issues surrounding rape, at one point supporting the introduction of a kind of second-degree rape as found in the USA and perhaps other places, more recently for better education of jurors in rape trials. In the early 90s she testified about the intrusion her family had suffered from the press after the attack; more recently, she stood in a by-election in Yorkshire, in which the sitting MP had resigned in protest at extended detention for terrorist suspects; her platform was in favour of all of these things and of making the national DNA database universal; however, she made very little impact and lost her deposit.

Jill Saward is the person who first really made me aware of rape and the impact it has on victims with a programme she was featured in, titled No Great Trauma?, which I saw in late 1992; in the couple of years following that, when rape was used very widely as a weapon of war in Bosnia, with the perpetrators often people who knew the victims’ families before the war and there had been no previous hostility between them, there was much discussion in the press as to why men rape and whether “all men were potential rapists”, which the pattern of behaviour in Bosnia suggested to some that they are. At the same time there was a series of controversies about media intrusion, particularly into the lives of politicians and the royal family but crime victims, including the Sawards, were also affected. She gave evidence to the National Heritage Select Committee that year:

Ms Saward described how she and her family were besieged in the vicarage by the press after the attack. She told the committee that the press had hired a room in a pub across the road from the vicarage and used long-range cameras to take photographs. ‘The first thing the press wanted was to photograph me continually. They photographed anything that moved anywhere near the house. I had to leave the house covered by a blanket in a policewoman’s car so that the press could not photograph me,’ she said.

The law forbids the identification of rape victims, but she was offered large sums of money to sell her story exclusively to some newspapers. Ms Saward said the News of the World used a cartoon inaccurately depicting the attack, which she found ‘totally offensive’, and the Sun published a photograph of Ms Saward with her eyes blacked out, which she said was a ‘major invasion’ of her privacy.

A Tory MP asked her whether she preferred to see legal regulations of the Press or self-regulation; she answered that she preferred the latter, but did not trust the press to regulate themselves. The scandal disappeared, nothing much was done until 2011 when another scandal involving press intrusion into the lives of crime victims triggered the Leveson inquiry, at which Baroness Hollins, whose daughter Abigail Witchalls was attacked by a stranger in her home village in Surrey, leaving her permanently severely disabled, told a similar story of relentless intrusion and inaccurate or fabricated stories (particularly when the family refused to provide the Press with material), but as in 1992, despite a new corporate self-regulation body being set up, the state of the Press has not improved. It’s worth noting that the Daily Mail opined on its front page on Saturday that Jill Saward should have been given an honour, and that paper was sympathetic to her, but Hollins named them as the worst offender in the intrusion against her family. (Members of Jill’s family wrote two blog pieces on the press intrusion they suffered in the last week: here and here.)

She took a rather more reactionary turn during the “war on terror”, when she stood in the 2008 Haltemprice and Howden by-election on an explictly anti-civil liberties, “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” platform. The by-election was triggered by the resignation of David Davis (a long-time Tory outsider, though now secretary of state for leaving the EU) as a protest against the erosions of civil liberties represented by the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which extended the period of detention for people arrested on suspicion of terrorism to 42 days. (Extended periods of arrest had been a factor in previous miscarriages of justice; it gives the police time to pressure confessions out of arrestees, for example.)

I wrote about Saward’s position (and her earlier remarks about rape victims of lesser virtue than her own, which outraged feminists in the late 1990s) in an entry in 2008. She was interviewed by Julie Bindel and I quoted these two paragraphs:

Isn’t she worried that she’s deflecting debate from the important issue of detention? “I know that some people who support Davis’s stance on the 42-day issue will criticise me, but the reality is that terrorists are using increasingly clever methods to escape detention, and the investigation into these crimes are always complex. If the police say they need more time to work on these cases, then I support them. I want to be safe from terrorism.”

And what about the effect of the 42-day change on the Asian community? “It will target people who are seen to be a threat to our nation’s freedom. At the moment, that might be some Muslim men, 10 years ago it was the IRA - so people with Irish accents were the target - and soon it could be Mugabe’s men.” In this case, her sympathies tend towards victims of terror attacks and those who enforce the law, rather than potential victims of the detention policy.

42-day detention was not the only civil liberties issue affecting Muslims at that time; control orders (seemingly copied from the “banning orders” of Apartheid-era South Africa) and internment of foreign suspects (then extended to British citizens when reserving them for foreign nationals was ruled discriminatory and thus unlawful), often on the basis of mere association or dubious ‘intelligence’ from Arab governments, were also in force and although those directly affected were all men, as far as I remember, their families — women, children and men — were left to deal with the hardships they caused, visiting them in prison and dealing with the restrictions placed on their lives, such as curfews, seizure of assets, restrictions on who they could have at their house and on their Internet access, which was increasingly necessary for schoolwork. I concluded:

Her stance is a selfish one, buttressed by a spurious “victim’s licence”; perhaps she really expects a constituency of people like her - provincial, middle-class whites, unlikely to be caught up in the “war on terror” - to kick out a long-standing MP for her, at a time when the Tories are in the ascendant. It would be interesting to see if they fall for it.

In the event, Davis comfortably won with 71.6% of the vote; Saward came sixth, polling only 492 votes (2.1%); Labour and the Lib Dems did not stand, the Greens came second with 7.4% of the vote, and the English Democrats and National Front were behind them. (She was still peddling myths about short skirts and rape as recently as that, as the interview with Julie Bindel demonstrates.)

In recent years, she had begun a campaign with feminist Alison Boydell to educate potential jurors about common myths about rape and was involved in fundraising for research into Ehlers-Danlos syndrome ([1], [2]), which she had been diagnosed with in 2012. She had written a book about the rape (which appears to be out of print, but there are second-hand copies on Amazon — note that the music that link brings up is by a different Jill Saward), and was working on a follow-up at the time of her death.

In short, Jill Saward was a hero of mine when I was a teenager but became somewhat tarnished by reactionary stances on matters of importance to me and my fellow Muslims later on. However rare false accusations of rape are, false accusations of terrorism have blighted many lives during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and I do not favour giving the police ammunition to blight more during the “war on terror” (during which the threat to life and limb in this country has proven to be much less serious) when they, not ordinary people, are the main source of them. She supported these policies because they would not affect her; there are many women, including some rape victims no doubt, who didn’t have the privilege of being able to trust the police and security forces as readily as Jill Saward did.

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Watership Down: the significance of Cowslip

30 December, 2016 - 23:09

A yellowish book cover with the words "Watership Down" and the author's name "Richard Adams" on it, with a drawing of two rabbits among some bushes.In today’s Guardian, there is a piece by Giles Fraser about what might be the significance of the book Watership Down, whose author Richard Adams died earlier this week. Focusing on the part of the story where the migrant rabbits are briefly taken into Cowslip’s warren, where the rabbits had ready supply of vegetables (flayrah), are uninterested in the old stories of El-Ahrairah, the “prince of a thousand enemies”, that they knew and regularly were caught in snares, Fraser cites an American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, who opined that story “contained an important message about the relationship between stories and moral values; that Adams’ rabbits – like human beings – are shaped into a community by the power of the stories they tell each other. And these stories are the bearers of our moral values”. This leads me to wonder how closely he or Fraser read the book.

Cowslip’s warren was essentially a supply of wild rabbit meat for a nearby farmer; farmers normally apply pesticides to keep rabbits from eating their crops (and it’s quite legal to shoot them also), but he wanted well-fed rabbits. As they no longer had to stray far from the warren to find food - far enough to attract foxes or badgers, or to take a risk crossing a road, the stories Adams had the wild rabbits telling each other no longer had any meaning, though they had a statue (or ‘shape’) of El-Ahrairah on the wall of the warren. However, the rabbits were aware of the danger but lived in denial, which is why anyone who asked where another rabbit was was quickly interrupted - the likely answer was that the rabbit in question was lunch. The Cowslip rabbits did in fact have poets, “beautiful and sick” like the others as Fiver, the runt rabbit who had persuaded the migrants to leave the original warren which was about to be destroyed for a housing development, called them, but they were not telling stories that were about survival. So, the lack of interest in storytelling was not the cause of their situation but a symptom; the refusal to help Bigwig when he was caught in a snare was another.

Is there a political message in Watership Down? Adams always said there wasn’t, that it was a book intended to entertain his daughters. A lot of kids’ books are set in real places, but Watership Down is written in very adult language (complete with swear words) and most books aimed purely at children don’t come with a detailed map and aren’t based on serious research into the habits of the animals featured. The most important encounter the migrant rabbits had was not with the Cowslip warren but with Efrafa, the overcrowded police-state warren where most rabbits never saw daylight but were more likely to die of old age than of predation or disease. It was the 70s and comparisons with communism are inevitable, but the idea that a heavily controlled environment might make someone safer but might result in them having not much of a life is applicable to a lot of other situations - the lot of disabled or mentally-ill people in institutions, for example - whether or not Adams was thinking of you. It would also be easy to read a very conservative message into the book, that nature is as it is, “red in tooth and claw” and that the same applies to humans; whatever we do to improve life for everyone, if it means people can’t do what they want and when, is the start of a slippery slope to totalitarianism, the start of a “road to serfdom”.

I don’t think Watership Down is a political fable like Animal Farm. It’s more of a celebration of freedom in general, and of the “great outdoors”, of nature, of wildlife, and no doubt the stories would have brought the scenery to life on a long, slow journey to the West Country but it would also have encouraged people to get out there more and to take more notice of what they saw when they did. Like rabbits, people (and children especially) need to have the freedom to run around and play, to imagine, to live life, and being cooped up is no life.

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On Hamza Yusuf, BLM and Muslim participation

26 December, 2016 - 23:22

Picture of Hamza YusufOn Friday evening Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, in an interview with the British journalist Mehdi Hasan at the Reviving the Islamic Spirit (RIS) 2016 conference in Toronto, made some offensive and inaccurate remarks about racism both in American society and within the Muslim community. This has caused outrage online, with African-American Muslims particularly hurt and his traditional supporters closing ranks, claiming he said nothing wrong, disimissing it as social media gossip and emphasising his greatness compared to those criticising him. Although the video was initially deleted from the RIS website, two eight-minute clips of his interview were eventually posted on YouTube and there is no getting away from the offensive nature of some of his comments.

Just to clarify, I became Muslim in 1998 and the teachings of that group of English-speaking scholars and speakers formed the backbone of my Islamic education: Shaikh Nuh Keller, Abdul-Hakim Murad (also known as Timothy Winter; he has also used the pseudonym Kerim Fenari), Zaid Shakir, Abdullah Hakim Quick. Theologically I haven’t moved from that position. Politically, I’ve become more disenchanted by how conservative and pro-establishment the movement has become since 9/11 and especially since the Arab Spring, although not all the speakers mentioned are implicated. In the past I’ve defended Shaikh Hamza in particular from accusations that he was a sell-out and worse. I’ve noticed that the most eager to condemn him in this case were those who have hated him since 9/11 or even before that, when he was on the same side as Shaikh Nuh (during the “Literalism and the Attributes of Allah” period of the 90s) but not all of these people are particularly active in fighting social or racial injustice other than where it affects Muslims. A few of the attacks were personal, vulgar and appeared motivated by envy.

There were several fallacious aspects of Shaikh Hamza’s response to Mehdi Hasan’s questions. One was to compare unjust police shootings, mostly of unarmed Black people but of some others as well, with “black-on-black” crime. Regardless of the statistics, which others have addressed better than I can, the comparison isn’t valid because common crime isn’t committed, usually, by people paid by the public to keep the public safe. As they carry arms in public and may be called on to use them, they should be expected to be calm in the face of provocation. It’s true that not every police officer who shoots a Black person does so because he is a racist, but a disproportionate number of unjustified shootings or killings of unarmed Black people who were seen on camera not giving the officer any cause to use lethal force, followed by the officers invariably being let off by the law, has prompted widespread protests. It should be pointed out that other victims include disabled and mentally ill people; in one case, an officer shot a man during a crisis after declaring, “I don’t have time for this shit”. It’s well known that Black parents give their children, sons especially, a “talk” on what to do if they are accosted by aggressive police demanding to search them; families of the mentally ill are commonly advised never to call the police when their relatives have a crisis. Both of these are signs that the police are aggressive, out of control and unaccountable.

The comparison is rather like the observation that Muslims only demonstrate against wars against Muslim countries and not against terrorism; the simple answer is that those wars are perpetrated with public money, including taxes levied on Muslims, while terrorist attacks are not. We are not responsible for what al-Qa’ida or ISIS do as they finance their activities themselves, through donors (and, no doubt, criminal activity).

Shaikh Hamza also claimed that the US has some of the world’s best anti-discrimination laws, which has some truth to it (although some of these laws have been eaten away at both by legislation and by the Supreme Court), but it also has some of the most unjust criminal laws (e.g. mandating life sentences for sometimes trivial offences, making non-citizens liable for deportation, despite having family in the US and no remaining connections to their home country, often for misdemeanours committed long in the past), a judicial system in some states where “due process” is considered to be of greater importance than the facts, such that innocence is not enough to get someone released from prison, an education system which fast-tracks poor youth into the prison system from their teenage years and a constitution which has, among other things, twice in recent history handed the country’s, and the world’s, most powerful office to a moron despite his losing the popular vote, substantially in the most recent case. If you’re white and middle-class, you can generally expect rational and unprejudiced treatment from the law — as, for example, happened to a mother in Irvine, California, who had drugs planted in her car by a local couple with a grudge against her. A poor woman from a Black or Latino background might have had a very different experience. Shaikh Hamza can say this only because he comes from the race that is most favoured by the American political and judicial systems.

Finally, he tries to divert discussion of American racism against Blacks by bringing up Muslim racism against Jews — the whites’ favourite ‘minority’ — and racism against Pakistanis or southern Indians in some Arab countries (and notably not Arab anti-Black attitudes which are rife throughout the Arab world and in the USA). He tells us that his shaikh, Abdullah bin Bayyah, has never said a bad word about Jews; the shaikh is from Mauritania, a country where Jewish settlers are not harassing native Arabs going about their daily business, building fences between them and their land, stealing their water and so on. Hostility to Jews is only to be expected in a population facing these abuses, or an immigrant population with a high percentage from that country or its neighbours, particularly where Jewish Americans are heavily involved in supporting Zionism, lobbying for military aid to Israel and punishment of anyone choosing not to do business with them, and agitating against Muslim (and particularly Arab) participation in society and in favour of wars against Muslims and attacks on Muslims’ civil rights. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the mainstream of Jewish society, both in the UK and the USA, is pro-Zionist; those Jews (or people of Jewish ancestry) who are sympathetic to Palestinian rights are a fringe group, many of them not religious.

He also mentions the racism (and appalling working conditions, etc) facing Pakistani and Indian workers in places like the United Arab Emirates. The fact is that, apart from watching Qatari TV news channels, most of us have no connection with the UAE, Qatar or any other Gulf country. Most of us don’t have the money to take holidays or attend Islamic conferences there. The UAE isn’t a democracy and doesn’t give permanent residency, much less citizenship, to other than its natives, so why on earth should Muslims with no right to live there, or even go there in some cases, be held responsible for what goes on there? Besides, Muslims (many of those in the UK are of Pakistani origin) talk about such things and share stories about it among themselves and on social media, but racism in the west, where we live, affects us, now.

He also made some remarks about whether racism or the breakdown of the Black American family was a greater contributor to the current status of African Americans. All I will say to that is: there is no record of the police asking questions about whether anyone’s parents are married or ever were before shooting them, and bullets do not discriminate on such grounds.

The US is not a country founded on justice. It’s a country with legislators and judges for whom injustice comes as naturally as mother’s milk, who hate anything most of us would think of as justice. Clive Stafford Smith, the British lawyer who worked for years getting people freed from Death Row in various southern states, said that the US is “a society that is so full of hatred of people” and blamed politicians, who constantly encourage Americans to hate and despise others. I’m not going to speculate on why he thought American Muslims should not be involved in a cause like Black Lives Matter, but Muslims of any ethnicity born in the USA are not going to turn a blind eye to injustice in the way that an Arab immigrant grateful for refuge from other oppression or poverty might do. He didn’t offer any reason why they shouldn’t — no Islamic critique of the ideas peddled on the BLM website, or call to concentrate on Islamic knowledge or their spiritual development — only a diversion onto things that are irrelevant to American Muslims. I’m not justifying anyone hating him; he’s a scholar who has invested years of his life in gaining and transmitting Islamic knowledge and his translations are of immense value — but these remarks are ignorant and damaging, and whether he changes his views in response to the community’s feedback or not, they needed challenging.

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CyanogenMod knocked on head

25 December, 2016 - 00:00

A screenshot of an Android phone, showing an analogue clock and various app iconsAs if 2016 couldn’t get any worse, I read today that the Android distribution CyanogenMod was being closed down; the parent company, whose founder (and founder of CyanogenMod) has left, will be turning off the servers at the end of the month. The developers have renamed the project Lineage and are currently being hosted at GitHub, but that currently doesn’t appear to include binaries that you can install on a phone. This isn’t the disaster that losing Alan Rickman or Leonard Cohen was, but is a pretty sad development, as CyanogenMod brought a lot of old phones to life, especially those whose manufacturers refused to provide further Android updates for them.

The first Android phone I installed CyanogenMod on was my second Android phone, a Samsung Galaxy S (the original from back in 2010 or so). Samsung only maintained that phone up to Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) and its version of Android was customised and contained a lot of junk. I discovered that there was a working version of CyanogenMod based on Android 4.0 and, though it was a bit of a struggle, installed it. It’s no exaggeration to say that it brought the phone back to life, in particular running a lot faster than the old Android, though it consumed battery juice very quickly when mobile data was switched on, which was easily fixed as CyanogenMod allowed you to easily customise the pull-down settings so you could turn off mobile data, or switch it to 2G or 3G, with a flick and a touch. Another feature I found really useful was the configurable ‘buttons’ at the bottom of the screen — I always set it up so that it always showed a search button, which early Android phones came with as standard. When I bought a Galaxy Nexus, which came with stock Android, I was underwhelmed at the lack of these sorts of features.

I put CyanogenMod on the two further Nexus phones I bought (a Nexus 4 and 5), and then in early 2015 moved to iPhone. Despite the added speed and stability, I very much missed the configurability of Android which CyanogenMod took to the max (keep in mind, iOS had only just allowed the use of third-party keypads such as SwiftKey; Android had had these from the beginning). I moved back to Android with a Nexus 5X in mid-2016 and have been using the stock Android it came with. It doesn’t look like there will be a version of CyanogenMod based on the latest Android (Nougat) now.

I don’t know if I’ll try out LineageOS, if it ever gets a Nougat ROM for my handset out. As CyanogenMod was an open-source project, perhaps Google could implement some of its features in stock Android, even if you have to turn them on. Perhaps they could be made available as a sort of ‘advanced’ version of standard Android, but some of these features, like the configurable buttons, surely wouldn’t bamboozle most non-techie users.

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Regarding Brandon Reid

22 December, 2016 - 23:14

A still from a video of Brandon Reid, a young white boy with dark hair with a black waistcoat and trousers and a yellow T-shirt with black writing on underneath, beign escorted down the hallway out of his house by two male police officers.Brandon Reid is a 16-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome whose family home is in Sheffield. He was in the news in November when a local paper and then the Daily Mail reported that the local police had turned up and used excessive force to remove him from his home and force him to go back to his care home in Stoke on Trent after he refused to go back after a family visit. A campaign has been launched to “get Brandon home for Christmas” as well as a petition and a Facebook page in which they encourage supporters to email the head of Sheffield children’s services, but the local authorities concerned are refusing to allow him a Christmas trip home, apparently insisting that his mother come to see him instead and stay in a hotel (perhaps because they fear he will refuse to come back, with similar results to what happened in November). However, there are inconsistencies in the family’s story as represented by the two articles about the case that have appeared in the media.

The campaign page claims that Brandon’s social work team are refusing to allow him home as he is “not ready”. There is no explanation as to why, so it is possible that it pertains to behaviour problems that stem from being in an unfamiliar ‘home’, i.e. an institution. It is not unknown for authorities to claim that such behaviour is a reason for keeping someone in the institution (such was argued in the case of Steven Neary, for example), and if this is the case, the family should be arguing this in any care proceedings. Social services are not allowed to give their side of the story, but the police gave a statement that said that threats of violence were made to the police, that all efforts were made to reason with Brandon and his mother but as “a resolution could not be reached […] a decision was made use police protection legislation to place the boy back into the care of Social Services”. They said Brandon had caused minor injuries to police officers. (A video the family has released, and which appeared on YouTube and on the Daily Mail website, showed him walking calmly out of the house accompanied by two policemen.)

The media reports contradict each other regarding how Brandon ended up in care. The local paper, the Star, reported on 14th November that he had been admitted ‘voluntarily’ in May as his sister had just had a baby and there were doubts as to how he would respond to the situation, but as he proved to behave “fine” with the baby and his sister had moved out, the care arrangement was no longer needed. However, the Daily Mail reported a week later that he had in fact been placed in care a year earlier, in May 2015, after his school placement broke down (we are not told how or why, or whether this was a day or boarding school) and his mother began suffering with depression. He was the subject of a section 31 care order as of June 2015, admitted to a home in Manchester, but his mother brought him home as she said he was ill-treated. She claimed the local authority allowed Brandon to live at home with his mother until 8th August 2016, when he was moved to his current placement in Stoke. There are pictures of him on visits out with his family (e.g. to Chester Zoo), and he has posted to Facebook during this period, so the home does not appear to be a secure unit.

This story does not make much sense. A section 31 care order (referring to section 31 of the 1989 Children Act) is not the same as being in care voluntarily; it is a court order given when the court is satisfied that a child is at risk of harm or out of control. He could have been admitted initially voluntarily and the order issued later, of course. Second, it is odd that he would have been allowed to live at home for nearly a year after being withdrawn from care (and surely, he could not have been withdrawn from care unilaterally by the mother if he was under a section 31 order), and then re-admitted unless a new, serious situation had emerged. Care home placements cost money; they would not put someone into a care home in such circumstances just because a new placement had been found. However, if the care order was somehow still in force and had been acted on at the mother’s request because of the sister’s baby, it is no surprise that the authorities are not willing to allow him to just go home to his mother four months later, because if you elbow a disabled child aside for the sake of an able-bodied adult relative, it does give the impression that the disabled child is not your top priority.

The case appears on the surface to have similarities to other cases where autistic people have been kept in hospital or residential care against their will or their families’, although the usual methods for doing this are the Mental Health Act or the Mental Capacity Act. I’m well aware that social workers, doctors and others overstep the mark and, as with the police, a lot of them are ill-trained in dealing with people with autism. However, I’ve previously tried to help someone in a similar position with an autistic daughter in foster care who had an emotive and seemingly consistent story to begin with, yet as more was revealed about the ongoing legal process, it appeared that there was much more to the story than the mother originally let on, and I pulled out (the daughter was not released from care for more than a year after that). I get the impression that Brandon’s case is not as straightforward as the family and their sympathisers are letting on.

Anyway, their campaign to get Brandon home for Christmas has failed. The local authority and the care home should be trying to help the family spend Christmas with Brandon, even if he cannot go home, rather than expecting them to pay hotel bills. This has been a problem for many families of people with autism who are detained or housed a long way from home. But we do not know the full reason why the local authority believe Brandon needs to be in residential care, and the family’s story and the story given in the sympathetic media coverage are inconsistent. I will not be signing their petition and I urge anyone thinking of signing to think very carefully.

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Some thoughts on the Berlin truck atrocity

21 December, 2016 - 13:05

A black Scania R-type tractor unit with the owner's name 'Ariel Suraski' on its headboard, and a broken windowOn Monday evening, someone hijacked a 40-tonne Scania articulated lorry, murdered the driver, and then drove it into the Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 people. Police arrested a suspect, an asylum seeker from Pakistan, but have since released him, having found no forensic evidence linking him to the truck; latest news is that the police are seeking a Tunisian they have named only as “Anis A”. The truck, which was carrying steel girders on its trailer, is owned by a Polish haulier and the owner’s cousin was the murdered driver. The so-called Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh) claimed responsibility and both they and al-Qa’ida have encouraged Muslims to carry out similar attacks.

As might be expected, the media has been full of talk of protecting public places from similar attacks in the near future. A number of public buildings already have barriers designed to stop trucks from ramming them, but rarely are pedestrian shopping centres so protected. I read this article by Dominic Casciani on the BBC News site, which notes a number of sometimes subtle barriers, such as the letters spelling “ARSENAL” outside the club’s Emirates Stadium in north London. A number of such barriers have been tested to withstand a 7-tonne truck being driven into them, and both the tests depicted on that page show 7.5-tonne trucks, a mainstay of home and shop delivery but actually the smallest type of vehicle recognisable as a truck in Europe. The standard domestic haulage truck in the UK is rated at 44 tonnes; in Europe, as with the truck used in Berlin, 40 tonnes. Standard rigid truck weights are 18, 26 and 32 tonnes (the latter normally used for tippers). Clearly, some of these barriers will not in fact withstand attacks by trucks that are more than double the weight (especially if laden) they were tested for.

The Guardian claimed this morning that Scania had been contacted with questions as to why the truck’s automatic braking system had not prevented the disaster. One might ask why the same did not happen in any number of on-road collisions, such as when a truck whose driver was looking at his mobile phone ploughed into the back of a queue of traffic. Not all trucks have such devices; what they more often have is alarms which beep or buzz when the vehicle goes over a lane marking, or is anywhere near another vehicle or object, which is a huge annoyance to the driver as such situations (especially at slow speeds) do not always equate to danger. The owners probably did not anticipate such a situation as they are in a country where terrorism is rare, and most hauliers do not currently need to consider this situation as a priority. Load, vehicle and diesel thefts and, in the case of drivers going to England, illegal migrants are a bigger problem than hijacking or terrorism.

Third, I do not believe ISIS are really responsible for this. If they were really responsible, they would have mounted more than one attack at more than one location, perhaps at Christmas markets across Germany. Whatever else could be said about ISIS, they are not a rag-tag outfit or a splinter group and if it’s really true that they can smuggle guns or explosives across Europe, it should be asked why they have not used them here. If it really was ISIS, it would not indicate their capability to carry out major destructive attacks, but rather their lack of manpower, organisational capacity and weaponry. Pointing this out would not make for a very sensational story, however, which is why you don’t hear it much from security “experts” in the media.

Fourth, hauliers will have to take a serious look at how they protect their vehicles from this sort of action if there are any more of them. Some hauliers already insist that drivers take their keys out of the vehicle when leaving it, which prevents not only theft but also accidents, as a third party could otherwise move a truck when the driver or other workers are on the back, securing or positioning loads. This would also stop opportunist thefts, for terrorism or any other purpose, but it would not stop a determined terrorist (or gang of them) from killing or expelling the driver. A system which informs the owner if another driver has taken over (e.g. a fingerprint locking system) would offer some protection to the public, but not if the owner is the driver, and it would not protect the driver (who could be retained to activate the fingerprint lock).

Speaking as both a truck driver and a Muslim, I’m appalled by this attack on a country which has welcomed over a million asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere when other countries have shut them out. It will strengthen the hand of the anti-immigrant Right who have already made gains in poorer parts of Germany where there is less exposure to immigrants and diverse cultures, including the regions around Berlin. However, it’s not in the interests of either the Syrian régime or ISIS for Muslims from Syria or anywhere else to be able to find a home in Europe. It’s worrying that I become the terrorist’s first target and also potentially a target of suspicion; I already do my best to hide my religion from employers so as to avoid awkward questions. The further you get from ‘diverse’ areas around London and other big cities, the more open people are about their bigotry, which as their exposure to other cultures is fairly limited, has never been challenged.

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