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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
Updated: 5 hours 22 min ago

A waste of a life

22 October, 2016 - 23:29

Nicky Reilly with a bloodied face, being led away by two police officers, one male (off picture) and one female, after the 2008 Exeter bomb blastLast Wednesday, Nicky Reilly, who attempted to blow up a restaurant in Exeter with a home-made bomb which exploded in the toilet, injuring only himself, died in Manchester prison (otherwise known as Strangeways) where he was serving a life sentence for the attack, having been recently been moved from the Broadmoor secure hospital in Berkshire. The circumstances of his death have not been revealed, but we can assume it was not murder as this would have been made public. According to local press reports, Reilly converted to Islam at age 16 and was, according to his mother, a “peaceful follower of Islam” for several years before he was radicalised over a period of weeks in his early 20s by two so-called friends believed to have been in Pakistan and changed his name to Mohammad Abdul-Aziz Rashid Said-Alim, supposedly in reference to the 9/11 attackers (although all but the last are very common Muslim names); the two men apparently went through every last detail to make sure he got it ‘right’, which he of course didn’t.

I never had any contact with Reilly, so I don’t know how he presented to those he chatted to online and those he met in the kebab shop who encouraged him to carry out the bombing, but he had Asperger’s syndrome (note: that is not a condition people ‘suffer’ from) and was reported to have an IQ of 83, and I think it unlikely that they were entirely unaware of his impairments; he had been in contact with mental health services since the age of nine because of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and multiple suicide attempts and had been sectioned after one such attempt, and had had a difficult school and family life as a child. People in his condition are easy prey for various types of exploitation; besides the well-documented “mate crimes” in which people pretend to be friends to an individual with learning disabilities and then abuse or even kill them, there are cases of criminals using their eagerness to please others, their need for friendship and approval, to induce or coerce them into helping with criminal activities (e.g. letting their flat be used to store drugs). Whoever encouraged him to carry out the bombing played on his vulnerabilities.

I thought at the time that his sentence was unduly harsh, given his fragile mental state and the fact that he was not part of any major terrorist organisation, the device was crude and the bombing did not injure, let alone kill, anyone. The starting point for a tariff (that is, the minimum amount of time that must be served in prison) for an actual murder, a deliberate act in which someone was killed, is 12 years; his was 18 years. This was three years longer than that received by Roshonara Choudary, a young woman not thought to have learning difficulties, for stabbing the MP Stephen Timms in May 2010, two years later. Such inconsistencies are not uncommon in English sentencing for serious crimes; consider the fact that Adam Johnson, a footballer, received six years for sexual acts (not intercourse) with a 15-year-old girl, while Jeremy Forrest, a teacher, received a five-year sentence for running off to France with a 15-year-old girl who was his pupil and, as he later admitted, having sex with her. Much as with the sentences passed during the 2011 riots, often savagely harsh in response to trivial thefts that did not involve violence, the judge appears to have ignored usual mitigating factors (using his clean record against him, for example) and his disability.

Since we do not know the cause of his death other than that it was not murder, there is a distinct possibility that it was suicide. Reilly had recently been transferred from Broadmoor hospital, where his mother had said he had been treated very well (and where she had been allowed to see his room, very rare now even in low-security units for people with learning disabilities), to HMP Manchester, formerly Strangeways, which a recent inspection (PDF) had noted was overcrowded, where black, minority-ethnic and Muslim prisoners were much more negative about their relations with staff than other prisoners, and facilities for prisoners with disabilities were inadequate. The transfer may have been in response to his and another Muslim patient’s attack on a member of staff in a dispute over changes to Muslim prayer arrangements; however, it seems odd to transfer a vulnerable patient to a far-away prison over an offence much less than the one that got him sent there. His learning disabilities had, after all, not changed. It would also not be the first time a learning disabled offender was housed among a general prison population, male or female, and such prisoners are common targets for bullies.

This was a tragic waste of a life, of course partly by Reilly himself but also by those who bullied him as a child, those who exploited him after he became Muslim and by those who punished him out of proportion to the effects and the background behind the crime, treating him as a competent and sophisticated terrorist when he was neither. His imprisonment or treatment should have been aimed at rehabilitating him to a purposeful life in the community well within 10 years, rather than keeping him locked up indefinitely and thereby destroying him. This should be the same for all offenders with learning disabilities who, alongside those with challenging behaviour that leads them into the mental health system, are being failed with lethal consequences.

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What is the real “education gap” in politics?

16 October, 2016 - 18:39

A front page from the Daily Mail with a lead to their editorial, proclaiming "Damn the unpatriotic Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people". Other headlines include "Full steam ahead for HS2", a plan for a high-speed railway across England, and a picture of Rod Stewart and his family.How the education gap is tearing politics apart | David Runciman | Politics | The Guardian

This was the Guardian’s “long read” Wednesday before last, and it explores how education levels are becoming a dividing line in politics, with the better-educated being more likely to vote for broadly liberal or left-wing parties while the less well-educated being more likely to vote rightwards (i.e. Republican in the USA, Tory or UKIP here). This has changed a lot since the early 1980s when the less well-educated were more likely to vote Labour, but that’s because Labour still represented unionised manual workers and degrees were only a possibility for either those from well-off families or those who benefited from selective education.

It mentions that there have been doubts about democracy itself going back to ancient Greek times, where Athens was (for a time) ruled by public meetings of citizens (which did not include women and slaves) and Plato, who envisaged an “aristocratic” state ruled by an élite of “philosopher kings”, condemned it:

For Plato, democracy suffered from the basic defect of putting decision-making in the hands of people who were not competent to decide. Politics was a skill – and most people were simply clueless. Worse, that made them prey for hucksters and demagogues who would promise the earth and get away with it. Democracy was fertile ground for fantasists with a taste for power. If you tell the people that up is down, and the people believe you, then who is going to let them know that they are wrong?

I read the Republic in sixth form and the theory is a bit more complicated than that. Plato did not only believe the masses were “clueless”, he believed that mankind could be divided into people with gold, silver and bronze souls; the first were to be trained to be philosophers, the second were for the army and civil service so as to enforce the rulings of the philosopher class, and the third were the rest of the population whose thoughts were dominated by “base instincts”; this class was allowed to own property, but had to support the two upper classes through their work. He identified five types of régimes, namely ‘aristocracy’ (the rule of philosopher kings), timocracy or timarchy (effectively military rule, as found in ancient Sparta), oligarchy (rule by merchants), democracy (rule by the masses) and tyranny (rule by a lawless dictator).

What this article doesn’t examine is the influence of the mass media in shaping public opinion. (It mentions ‘media’ only once, in regard to Donald Trump, and ‘social media’ two more times, and ‘press’ and ‘papers’ not at all.) Future critiques of modern democracy are surely not going to focus on the school- and college-based education of the populace as much as on where the public got its information from, namely the corporate mass media which prominently contained propaganda, often on the front page (with unbiased reporting reserved for unimportant stories several pages inside the paper, if it is present at all), which encourages mistrust of people who are different, people who can be seen as getting something for nothing, some wealthy or prestigious people (e.g. lawyers, commonly presented as parasites, and academics, commonly presented as thinking they know better than the target audience) but not others, and encourages people towards irrationality and fear on a wide range of issues from drugs to immigration and foreign policy.

I believe it’s irrelevant whether someone has a degree or not; I have a degree in politics and history, but I took that in the 1990s and it wasn’t an in-depth examination of the politics of the time, and of course it could not examine the politics of future times. Schools should teach young people the basics of the British constitution, including the European institutions we belong to such as the Council of Europe and the EU so that people are not easily swayed by misinformation (e.g. linking the European Convention on Human Rights and the Court that rules on it with the EU, when in fact they are part of the Council of Europe). Only a tiny minority who came of age before the 1990s have degrees (including those with professional qualifications, some of which were later re-classified as degrees), and political education is not a mandatory part of any degree other than those related to politics.

It’s hugely insulting, and wrong, to suggest that people without degrees necessarily lack critical awareness or are ‘sheeple’. Neither of my parents had degrees when I was a child, but they were still able to see through media propaganda, most of which was pro-Thatcher and more generally pro-Tory then. Others are more credulous, particularly when what is claimed in a newspaper appears to match what they see or what their friends tell them they see (e.g. immigrants taking jobs or council houses), and people believe that “newspapers full of propaganda” are a thing you find in dictatorships, not democracies, and that newspapers do not simply make things up, which they in fact do, in both details and whole stories as revealed during the Leveson inquiry. And it is often observed that emotion matters more than reason in politics, as if this were a fact of life rather than the consequence of manipulation and propaganda.

The real “education gap” is between those able and willing to think critically, to educate themselves about politics and the issues involved, and those willing to believe propaganda and gossip. There are people with degrees in both groups and those without, although the Right currently fosters and trades on resentment and a sense of persecution among those without. There is no way of identifying who falls into which group without a test which could be manipulated to discriminate against some ethnic or class-based group, so the only way to stop democracy degenerating into tyranny — if not outright tyranny, then certainly the tyranny of the unthinking majority — is to target the corporations which manipulate and fabricate “public opinion” with stiff laws that require the segregation of opinion and fact, especially in prominent parts of newspapers, and punish distortions and untruths, not just personal libels. Policy and politics should not be dictated by what sells papers, as it is obvious that what sells papers is titillation and the confirmation of prejudice.

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Cure or accommodate? It’s not an either-or

13 October, 2016 - 23:01

A picture of a woman in a wheelchair using a ramp to board a red London busYesterday I saw an advert for a free public lecture at the University of Melbourne (won’t be going; bit too far for me to travel) on the subject “Persons with Disabilities: Cure or Accommodate?” (HT: Carly Findlay). Part of the advertising blurb for the event reads:

“Where should scarce governmental resources be channelled: to improving function and finding cures or making reasonable adjustments to ensure persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in society?”

It then says that “it is the voices of people with disabilities themselves that must guide this debate” and three of the speakers have a disability (blindness in two cases, deafness in one); the other two are an audiologist, who runs an institution that fits cochlear implants, and a psychiatrist. Including a panel member with another type of impairment — say, a wheelchair user, or someone with a chronic illness — would make the panel rather more representative of the disabled community.

I’m not familiar with the Australian disability scene beyond a few big names (e.g. Stella Young) or with the five speakers named, so this event could prove to be very positive. However, the synopsis reflects some quite disturbing attitudes towards the matter of disability accommodation. One is that it’s about how to spend “scarce” resources; i.e. if you want accommodations, you will be spending other people’s money or depriving someone else of something. Living in the UK, I remember how the previous government justified cutting benefits and social care that allowed disabled people mobility and dignity (as well as a host of other public services, such as libraries) on the grounds that “the cupboard was bare” after the 2008 crash and the Labour government’s bailouts, yet when it came to repairing damage caused by the 2013/14 floods in parts of the country that had voted for the two coalition parties — when “the effluent hit the affluent” as commentators put it at the time — David Cameron suddenly boasted that “we’re a rich country; we can afford it”. Resources often aren’t as scarce as is made out, and the root of the scarcity is often people’s reluctance to pay their taxes.

The other is that “cure or accommodation” is an either-or, or a choice at all in most cases. For the vast majority of disabled people, it is not a choice; there simply is no ‘cure’, although this term is not even accurate as they are not ill. It has proven that much easier to find ways of eliminating pathogens or growths that cause loss of life or ongoing sickness than to repair or replace body parts that are damaged or missing. The cochlear implant is one important success story, but it cannot remedy all forms of deafness. Bionic eyes (the blind woman on the Melbourne panel has one) are in an early stage of development, but even they would not be able to remedy blindness which is neurological. Corneas can be transplanted, but they can also be rejected. It’s possible, in some cases, to implant electrodes into the spinal cord to allow a paraplegic to stand up, but that’s only a small return of function. Research into a cure for spinal cord injury progresses slowly, and seems to have modest goals in terms of what function it can restore, especially to someone with a high-level injury. The majority of impairments just have to be lived with.

On top of this, not all disabled people want to be cured, or should be expected to take whatever ‘cure’ is presented to them. Some deaf people cannot adjust to a cochlear implant; some blind people have forgotten what seeing is like, what colours and people look like (and may not know, for example, what their spouse looks like). They may have tried an operation to remedy their impairment in the past, perhaps more than once, and found that it failed, and do not want to go through it all again with the risk of having to re-adjust to, say, being blind all over again. The ‘cure’ may well be surgical, requiring a lengthy recovery (and the risks inherent in general anaesthetic), and cause an enormous amount of pain. It may have side effects that are worse than the condition they were meant to remedy. And some purported cures are not cures at all, but ineffective or harmful potions peddled by quacks and con men (bleach and anti-androgens for autism spring to mind). It’s not fair to expect anyone to submit themselves to pain and risk so as to save others some degree of expense, or hassle, or being disturbed by looking at them.

So, the question of “cure or accommodate” does not really arise. If you are called upon to accommodate someone who is disabled by providing some sort of assistive technology, or a modification to a building, or perhaps a member of staff to interpret or otherwise assist someone, or to educate your staff so as to change their behaviour or attitudes regarding disability, you are almost certainly not in a position to cure their impairment. The choice is between accommodation and exclusion. The resources that might be used for this are a fraction of the cost of research into cures, which requires manpower (and highly-paid manpower at that), laboratory time, tests, the upkeep of all the buildings used, and so on, over a period of years, during which many people might have lost out on education or on employment opportunities, or may have spent the time confined in an institution because someone preferred “researching a cure” to facilitating them having a life in the community, and the research might not bear fruit anyway. Research also attracts private funding from trusts and individuals, so it need not take away resources that could be used to benefit disabled people now. Between certain gain in the short, medium and long terms and uncertain long-term gain (accompanied by certain losses for those affected), if it’s really a competition for resources, there’s just no contest.

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A few weeks back on Android

25 September, 2016 - 21:16

A white Nexus 5X seen from front and back. The back has the light sensor, camera, fingerprint sensor, and Nexus and LG logos. The front has the speakers, and the screen which shows an aerial view of a beach with houses fronting it, with various application icons.Over the summer, my iPhone broke down. The charging point initially stopped charging when the Lightning plug was not plugged in at exactly the right angle, but one morning while I was out driving and needed to charge, it just wouldn’t. I took my phone to the local Apple Store in the afternoon after work, and they told me they couldn’t fit me in that afternoon and that I’d have to come in first thing Saturday morning. As I needed a phone and couldn’t guarantee that they’d be able to fix my iPhone, which was out of warranty, I went and bought a Nexus 5X from the local Carphone Warehouse. It’s a 32Gb in, I think, aqua blue (which was the only colour they had left). The next morning, I went into the Apple Store and they did manage to get my iPhone charging again, and I put the Nexus back in its case intending to sell it.

About a month ago, the new version of Android, v7 Nougat, came out and I decided to give it a go on the Nexus. While using the Nexus (which came with version 6, Marshmallow) briefly, I had a taste of my former frustrations at the quality of the Twitter apps, which may seem trivial but it’s a large part of what I use my mobile phone for. I wasn’t willing to use the official app because of certain limitations (I wanted traditional Mentions and Retweets columns, not “Interactions”) and the competition all has serious drawbacks including infrequent updates and bugs (e.g. timeline updates and streaming which leave gaps which won’t fill). But I was also reminded of the flexibility: being able to install direct dial buttons and other widgets on the home screen, which you just can’t do on iOS (though the process for doing this on Android really needs to be simplified). To access any contact, you have to go into the dialler (where you can add them to the Favourites list) or the Contacts app.

So, once my iPhone was repaired, I put the Nexus back in its box and into my cupboard and contemplated selling it on eBay. But then along came Nougat which the reviews told us was a major release, and I got it out again and upgraded it (after installing several sets of monthly security updates, which Google should really make available in one download so that the user only has to go through the process once). The Nougat update itself was fairly quick (much quicker than an iOS upgrade) and once it was over I went through the usual set-up routine (you use your Google account for the Play Store which supplies the apps but not, unlike its equivalent on the Mac, OS updates and upgrades).

I decided to give my Nexus a few weeks’ proper use as my regular phone and put the iPhone away, so I put my SIM into the Nexus and added my regular contacts (relatives and job agency offices) to my home screen. I also transferred all my audio files over to the device (which was easy as Apple now stores iTunes files as MP3, not AAC, so it’s just a question of finding the files and using Android File Transfer to transfer them folder by folder). I paired the phone with my car and with the sat-nav I use when driving trucks. The sat-nav paired without much effort, but the car took a lot more effort, failing several times, telling me it was already paired when it wasn’t. When I finally managed it, however, I found the Nexus vastly more reliable in its Bluetooth pairing than the iPhone. In particular, it reconnects very quickly when a connection goes down. With the iPhone, when it first meets a device it’s paired with, it pairs automatically, but you have to manually reconnect whenever the connection goes down (e.g. when you turn the car engine off). That doesn’t happen with the Nexus, which automatically reconnects.

Android has offered interchangeable keypads since its inception (or at least since I first started using it in 2009) and the default offering, although a bit clunky for my liking, still excels far beyond Apple’s stock keypad (which has offered multiple-choice predictive text only since 2014), which remains slow, largely because the choices appear with a sort of animation rather than just appearing, as on every other keypad. I installed SwiftKey, my preferred keypad both before and after I bought my iPad and iPhone, which on Android is far more flexible than its iOS equivalent; you can resize the keypad, you can long-press to get numbers and symbols, you have more options for speed typing and avenues for personalisation. On top of this, I’ve never had a keypad fail to appear when I need to type (e.g. when a text entry field appears or is activated by my touching it on the screen), which is a regular occurrence on iOS and is only solved by force-quitting the app. On Android, there is always an on-screen button that lets you swap keypads; there isn’t on iOS, where it is more needed. The iOS version of Swype is an even more limited, cut-down version of the Android equivalent, although it offers long-press symbols, unlike SwiftKey.

The user interface in general is a lot brighter than iOS’s. The Nexus’s resolution has improved a lot over the last few versions and the naked eye (mine at least) can’t tell the difference between it and Apple’s Retina screens. Both systems have moved towards a flatter interface, getting rid of button shadings and “skeuomorphic” designs (e.g. a note-taking app expecting you to write on a picture of a notebook) and third-party apps have mostly followed suit, but Google’s “Material Design” has used colour a lot more in all its stock apps (its headers are usually white on a coloured background) while Apple’s use mostly black on white or light grey. None of this is new to Nougat or recent versions of iOS, of course. Both recent iPhones and the Nexus 5X (based on an LG phone) have fingerprint sensors to unlock the device, and the Nexus’s is much more reliable — Apple’s fails if I don’t have absolutely clean hands, while the Nexus’s almost never fails (and if you think yours is failing, make sure that your finger is on the sensor, not the camera which is above it). The Nexus is bigger, and is thus a bit more difficult to operate one-handed; the iPhone lets you tap twice to access content at the top of the screen (it drops everything on the screen halfway down, with the bottom content disappearing), which isn’t the case on Android as far as I can tell. Android has the usual three buttons at the bottom, with “Back” on the left and “Home” in the middle; much less use is made of swiping on Android than on iOS. It took a bit of getting used to. The back button at the bottom is far more convenient than on iOS, where apps usually have the Back button at the top left.

That leaves apps. Android has access to one important and really useful app, namely the AquaMail email client, which offers nearly all the options you get on a decent desktop email client, which no iOS email client that I’ve found does. For example, you can’t choose where to put the quoted text in a reply on any iOS client (it was customary to put it at the top, and delete and interpolate as necessary). A lot of other Android apps leave a lot to be desired, however. Most are perfectly adequate but lack the polish of their equivalent on iOS, if there is even an Android version. There is no equivalent of TweetBot, and there are a lot of Twitter clients which have fallen into neglect largely because of Twitter’s token limit (TweetCaster being a good example). The Facebook client is not quite as polished as the iOS version, with some bugs and peculiar features in the user interface, although when I reported one of them, it was fixed a few days later. A common iOS problem is apps that are designed for older devices and the text and keypad are scaled up, which looks pretty ugly; Android had different form factors from the start, so apps aren’t built for fixed screen sizes. Android also features a contactless payment system which you have to link to your debit card, but my bank supports Apple Pay but not Android Pay (it has said it will in the last quarter of 2016; we shall see).

So, do I intend to carry on using Android? Yes. I much prefer its flexibility, its superior user interface and its vastly better Bluetooth handling. Although you can replace some stock Apple apps on iOS, you can’t set them as the default app for certain functions. Would I recommend that everyone switch? Not necessarily, as Nexus devices (which all but my first two Androids have been, and are the ones that get the regular updates straight from Google) are often in short supply and aren’t as powerful as, say, the Samsung G-series, yet the latter gets Android updates late if at all. The Nexus is a superb phone at just over half the price of the roughly equivalent iPhone, which in my opinion is poor value for money despite recent improvements. If Nexus was as readily available as the iPhone, it could easily give the iPhone a run for its money.

Image source: Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

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“Sunnis condemn the Saudis” isn’t news

24 September, 2016 - 12:46

A group of imams in turbans and robes, with a small minaret with crescent and star symbols behindThe Independent carried a story last Thursday in which Robert Fisk claimed that “for the first time”, Saudi Arabia was under attack from both Sunni and Shi’ite scholars as some two hundred scholars, including the mufti of al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayyib and mufti of Syria Ahmad Hassoun, as well as representatives from Kuwait, Libya, Jordan and Sudan, had met in late August in Grozny, Chechnya at a conference hosted by Putin’s infamous puppet-thug Ramazan Kadyrov and opened by Putin himself, issuing a statement that condemns Wahhabism as a “dangerous deformation” of Islamic belief and calling for “a return to the schools of great knowledge”, presumably meaning the four schools of law. Fisk claims:

Although they did not mention the Kingdom by name, the declaration was a stunning affront to a country which spends millions of dollars every year on thousands of Wahhabi mosques, schools and clerics around the world.

Wahhabism’s most dangerous deviation, in the eyes of the Sunnis who met in Chechenya, is that it sanctions violence against non-believers, including Muslims who reject Wahhabi interpretation. Isis, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are the principal foreign adherents to this creed outside Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Fisk claims that this story was ignored by the world’s media, with the exception of one Benjamin Barthe at Le Monde in France and “the former senior associate at St Antony’s College, Sharmine Narwani”, who wrote a piece on Russia Today about it. In fact, the world’s media have covered it, with the Wall Street Journal claiming that it reflects “a new fracture”, when in fact it represents an old one. Both Fisk and the WSJ’s Yaroslav Trofimov give the conference a historical importance that it doesn’t really have. Scholarly works condemning Wahhabism have been around for as long as the sect itself. There is a wealth of literature available in English, both translated works from Arabic (and other languages) and some written in English, criticising different aspects of Wahhabism: the rejection of the four maddhabs and Sufism, the misguided literalism about the attributes of Allah ta’ala, the odd positions in fiqh they adopt, and their attitudes towards people outside the sect — not always unbelievers, but always “astray”. The article Advice to Our Brothers, the Scholars of Najd is a good example of the former by a Kuwaiti scholar, and the articles by Abdul-Hakim Murad and Shaikh Nuh Keller on Mas’ud Khan’s website, mostly written in the 90s but the website is still maintained, are fine examples of the latter.

The RT article goes into much more detail than Fisk, but no more demonstrates the statement’s historical significance. The conference’s conclusion, for example states that “Ash’arites and the Maturidi are the people of Sunnism and those who belong to the Sunni community, both at the level of the doctrine and of the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence (Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi’i, Maliki), as well as Sufis, both in terms of knowledge and moral ethics” — statements like this have been appearing in scholarly texts and articles for decades — on which Sharwani commented:

In one fell swoop, Wahhabism, the official state religion of only two Muslim countries -Saudi Arabia and Qatar - was not part of the majority Muslim agenda any longer.

But is it? Saudi Arabia still has oil money and is still able to finance the publication of books, to pay imams, to finance mosque construction and maintenance the world over, while mainstream Sunnis have struggled to do a lot of these things. Imams in many mosques in the west are still underpaid, mosques themselves are often architecturally underwhelming, translations and printing often of poor quality, and publishing houses for high-quality original books and translations have come and go over the years I’ve been Muslim. She notes that the Muslim Brotherhood, “bank-rolled” by Qatar, was also specifically excluded, yet they also still command the loyalty of millions of Muslims worldwide and their figures still run Muslim organisations and are often trusted as leaders (they issued this statement which accused the conference of “igniting fires of discord among Muslims around the world”). One conference isn’t going to change that, especially when it says nothing that has not seen said many times before and it’s financed and hosted by an ally of the Assad regime. (According to the Italian-based site AsiaNews, the conference also resolved to open a new TV station to counter al-Jazeera; there are plenty of Muslim satellite TV stations already, so what makes them think this will have any more credibility than those, or al-Jazeera, just because it’s linked to Putin, Kadyrov or Assad?)

The media often make a big deal when an Islamic scholar issues a “fatwa against terrorism”, and ignores the fact that many other scholars had done the same many times before. A good example was the fatwa (or article or speech, as a fatwa is a legal opinion given in response to a question about a specific situation) condemning suicide bombings issued by Dr Muhammad Tahir al-Qadri, the leader of a group called Minhaj al-Qur’an which is based in Pakistan, which was trumpeted by the London Evening Standard in 2010 despite many such opinions having been given in the past (including by Wahhabis, such as the Saudi scholar Ibn Uthaymeen but also mainstream scholars such as in this example [PDF] from 2005) and despite Qadri’s influence being much less than the Standard made out. It gives the impression that Muslims had taken that long to condemn suicide bombings or terrorism more generally, when in fact they had not and the non-Muslim media had simply not listened or done their jobs properly, or had been invested in furthering a story that Muslims were complicit.

So, even though some of the scholars have a big international following, the conference and its communiqué are tainted by being hosted and financed by mass-murderers and their allies. Many Muslims the world over shy away from scholars who are closely linked to governments, both secular and religious, which bomb and starve Muslims, which bomb aid convoys, which reduce whole ancient Muslim cities to rubble, and which persecute Muslims for openly practising their religion. Many Wahhabis are apolitical, and they are not going to be convinced to change their beliefs on the names and attributes of Allah by a religious edict issued by people with these sorts of connections. For the rest of us, we knew all this anyway. Maybe the media did not fall over themselves to report this, but then, it’s not news.

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On safety around trucks and mobiles

19 September, 2016 - 12:00

A blue curtain-sided trailer halfway round a tight corner on a road. Part of this is a public service announcement. I was involved in a minor collision a couple of weeks ago. The scene is in the photograph on the right.

I was taking this bend in the large articulated lorry you can see. It’s a minor road in Edenbridge, Kent which serves some industrial premises as well as some housing. The tractor unit is on its side of the road but the back of the trailer is not. That’s normal when a long articulated vehicle turns a sharp corner. You will notice that it’s not wide enough for a car to get through. Yet, someone tried to drive one through that gap, and the driver’s side of her car ended up against my trailer’s wheels. I stopped when I heard her shouting and honking, and she managed to reverse her car back.

Much of the publicity surrounding truck safety is about cyclists getting crushed when they attempt to overtake a truck, usually an eight-wheel tipper truck, on the left as the tipper is just about to turn left. The problem has to do with poor visibility; there is a blind spot immediately below a truck’s nearside window, which is only partly alleviated by a down-facing mirror above the window. Very little education is given to other road users about how to stay safe around big trucks; you only learn of the dangers when you learn to drive a truck, it seems. I commonly find car drivers sneaking round me, or trying to, when I’m attempting to negotiate a busy junction, often impatient with the fact that a truck is wider than a car and much longer and that the lanes are not wide enough to accommodate the vehicle. I need more than one lane, which is why I straddle both.

The back of an articulated lorry consisting of a low-height, white Iveco tractor unit coupled to a long, 15ft 3in high trailer with blue curtain sides. The truck is on a bend, the tractor is over to the left while the back of the trailer is about halfway over the other side of the road.Another thing to be aware of is that a truck driver cannot see all around him all the time. We have no rear-view mirror (some trucks have back cameras, but they are only used when reversing). We have three mirrors and, between them, six mirrors (sometimes we may have CCTV screens showing what’s in various blind spots as well). Add the dials on the dashboard and there are ten places we could be lookng at any one time. So in a short space of time, if you appear alongside a truck, there is a very strong chance that the driver will not see you immediately. If he is driving slowly, that might well give you time to get into a dangerous position, as was the case with the lady in this crash, who told me that she was on her side of the road and I wasn’t on mine and “never dreamed that I wouldn’t stop”. In fact, my tractor unit was on the correct side, but the trailer does not follow the same course as the tractor when turning a bend. Unless it has a rear-steer axle, which most do not (a few supermarket trailers and the new ultra-long ones do), it takes a bend more widely, especially if the bend is sharp, like this one. So even if the gap had appeared wide enough when I began taking this bend, it would not have been when I was halfway round it, or more.

The key to staying safe around trucks is to stay away. If a truck (especially an articulated one) is taking a sharp bend and you’re going the other way, stop until it’s finished. If there’s one straddling two lanes in a narrow one-way system or roundabout, stay back and don’t try to sneak up its side. Stay away from the back of a large rigid (single) truck, as on most of them the back will swing the other way when it turns (more so if it has rear steer). Don’t walk close to it on the road if its engine is running (don’t, for example, cross immediately in front of it; if you’re just below the windscreen, the driver will not see you unless he looks in the down-facing mirror, and trucks built before about 2006 don’t have them). Many lorries nowadays have stickers on the back saying “if you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you”, but there are many places that a driver might not see straight away. Just stay right back.

The past week or so, there has been a lot of discussion about raising the penalties for using mobiles at the wheel, after a man was jailed for nine years for killing a cyclist by hitting him at 65mph in his van, while sending a text message; the man was a repeat offender who had received five fixed penalty notices and attended two “awareness courses” for the same offence. This was clearly a recidivist, reckless driver with no regard for others’ safety or the law, and if he had been banned from driving, would have driven anyway. Deborah Orr, in yesterday’s Guardian, noted that convictions for using mobiles while driving fell by half between 2010 and 2014 and that this had been “blamed on cuts in traffic policing” (rather than that fewer people were doing it, largely because cars and sat-navs came to double as hands-free kits and because smartphones developed better voice-control) and suggested that “if fewer people are getting caught, the sensible thing would be to beef up the consequences when they are”. Apparently, from next year, the penalty for using a mobile while driving goes up to six points (meaning two such offences results in a ban) from the current three.

A hands-free kit consisting of a wire with a plug similar to a headphone jack, two earpieces, a microphone with a button, and a clip.I started driving commercially in 2000 and back then, mobile use while at the wheel was at the norm. Hands-free kits were not very reliable, often consisting of a wire with an earpiece, a microphone and a button or two (see picture). They often came bundled with the phone, but I rarely used mine because they were unconfortable and liable to get tangled up. I often took calls when driving and when I had to make a manoeuvre that really did require two hands (even changing gear), I’d say “hold on a minute”, put the phone down, do whatever I had to do and then picked it up again. That said, I was somewhat relieved when the ban came in, as I always realised it was dangerous and not being able to use the phone meant the boss couldn’t bother you. The advantage of this became more obvious years later when one of my regular employers fitted their trucks with trackers, and would call me to demand explanations for why I’d stopped (usual response was “to use the loo”) or taken the route I’d taken.

If they do increase the penalties, the new penalties should only apply when a mobile is used when actually driving, not when stationary. Many people know that it is illegal to hold a phone while driving, but they do not realise that you are breaking the law by doing so when stopped at the side of the road if the engine is running. Sometimes there is no choice; the engine needs to be running to pair the phone to the car’s hands-free, as the connection will cut when the engine is switched on (which usually cuts power to the electronics) and some cars and some phones will not automatically reconnect. Smartphones are often used as maps, sat-navs and music players these days, not just as phones or social media clients. The danger is not in the phone being used when the engine is running, but in the phone being held by the driver who should have two hands on the controls, and the law should reflect this.

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No, we do not need to act on that referendum

18 September, 2016 - 14:55

The border along the main Dublin-Belfast road during the Troubles. There is a queue of cars and trucks, with signs saying things like 'Please wait, security check in progress, remain in vehicleIn the months since the referendum on leaving the EU, opinion seems to have hardened on the matter of whether there should be any question of leaving, given the 51.9% vote in favour. In the days following, when the value of the pound had dropped to a long-term low, David Lammy suggested that we should “stop this madness” given the very slim majority, the rapid exposure of the premises of the Brexit campaign as lies, the economic shock and the rise of racially-motivated violence. More than two months later, with favourable trade deals with any other country nowhere on the horizon and hardline anti-Europe Tories in key cabinet positions (such as Liam Fox who favours withdrawal from the EU customs union and a hard border with Ireland, which will make scenes like that in the accompanying picture a reality again), with the new PM insisting there will be no new referendum, no Parliamentary vote and no general election before her government takes the UK out of the EU as a matter of prerogative, the mainstream Left has developed a fatalism over the matter, with both Jeremy Corbyn and Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, stating over the past few days that we “have to respect democracy”; only Owen Smith, the Labour party leadership challenger, advocating a new referendum on whatever deal the Tories are able to strike.

First, as has been pointed out many times (most recently by Kenneth Clarke, the Tory MP and former minister in both John Major’s and David Cameron’s governments), a referendum is by definition advisory and not legally binding. Parliament is the law-making body and we do not have the ‘initiatives’ found in some democratic countries such as Switzerland and parts of the USA. There are many reasons why there is a separation between public opinion and the legislative process; it ensures that moral panics and passing outrages cannot, in general, result in lasting unjust law. The anti-Europe sentiment that led to the recent referendum was not, of course, sudden; it had been building for years, in large part because of repeated media misinformation, much of it now known to have been sourced from Boris Johnson but eagerly repeated by the same commercial press that for years repeated myths about “Winterval” and “banning Christmas”. Politicians had resented the checks on their power that membership of the EU imposes, as they do in the case of the Human Rights Act, and the Press, catering to a middle-class, white, provincial readership that sees itself not in need of human rights, eagerly assisted them.

There is plenty of precedent in the UK and other representative democracies for the majority not always getting their own way. No government since the Second World War received an outright majority of the popular vote; most received a share far lower than 48.1%, the share of the population that voted against leaving the EU. (The combined Tory/Lib Dem share of the vote in 2010 was 59.1%, though the combination itself did not have a popular mandate; a Tory/Labour coalition would have had a combined vote-share of 65.1%.) There are numerous examples of parties receiving shares of seats wildly out of proportion to their share of the vote because of how their votes were distributed (e.g. the Liberal/SDP alliance in 1983 and UKIP in 2015). The incumbent Labour government received more votes than the Conservatives in 1951, yet lost the election for the same reason. In the USA, George W Bush won the presidential election in 2000 despite receiving fewer votes nationally than his Democrat opponent, Al Gore, again because of where his votes were cast. There is also a long history of Parliament voting for what it sees as the greater good in spite of perceived public opinion. There has long been public and media support for the reintroduction of the death penalty; it has remained off the statute books because Parliament, even under Thatcher, was aware of a long history of miscarriages of justice both before and after abolition. Some polls put the support for the death penalty at over 70%, far higher than in the case of the recent vote to leave the EU. The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 produced a flood of petitions opposing the law unmatched in volume before or since; the law, however, remains and has been strengthened.

As I said in my previous entry on this subject, nearly all the dissatisfaction with the EU is rooted in British government policy and economic orthodoxies, not in EU diktats, and those orthodoxies are not being challenged by the present Tory government or its media. In some conditions, sovereignty and ‘freedom’ are more important than jobs and economics; much as a woman might flee an abusive marriage into poverty, a nation might well justify exiting a union whose forces were shooting people in the street or torturing people in its prisons. That is not the case here. The public does not know the economic consequences of leaving the EU, as nobody has shown willingness to put their cards on the table until we trigger Article 50 and formally begin negotiations. It is not acceptable that the government should isolate this country politically, at the expense of thousands if not millions of jobs, on the basis of a vote of slightly over 50% driven by false promises and outright lies, when the facts about leaving were not known and the vote might go differently once they are.

The MP and philosopher Edmund Burke famously said to the electors of Bristol (who were, at the time, a small subset of the population of Bristol), “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”. The political classes, who sometimes do know better than the electorate, in this case betrayed their trust dramatically, failing to subject the referendum to a threshold of, say, 60% of the vote or the basis of our exit from the EU to a further referendum or even a Parliamentary vote. In any other situation, a proportion of 51.9% would be called “about half” and the fact that the faction in power belongs to that about-half does not change that fact. To honour the result of the June referendum regardless of the consequences would prove all the worst stereotypes about democracy — “two wolves and a sheep deciding who’s for dinner”, “mob rule in which 51% can deprive 49% of their rights”, etc. It must not be allowed to happen, least of all as a result of fatalism or subservience on the part of Labour or the trade unions, who represent those with the most to lose from leaving, especially in the absence of a very favourable agreement.

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Modi should have been Keith Vaz’s undoing

11 September, 2016 - 17:29

A picture of Narendra Modi, an elderly South Asian man with a white beard wearing a long black jacket, and Keith Vaz, a middle-aged, bald South Asian man with glasses, wearing a white shirt and an orange/brown patterned tie, with a black jacket over the top, in the Palace of Westminster.Last Sunday some of the tabloids led with a story about Keith Vaz, the Labour MP for Leicester East, paying male prostitutes, asking them to bring ‘poppers’ and offering to cover the cost of cocaine. As a result of this he has resigned from his chairmanship of the Home Affairs select committee, a position he has held since 2007. On blogs and social media there has been widespread condemnation of the story for being an intrusion into his private life and for the ‘whorephobic’ judgement against his use of ‘sex workers’ and their occupation. Some feminists have countered that his role on the select committee included overseeing an inquiry into how the law on prostitution should be reformed; an interim report recommended that soliciting and brothel-keeping be decriminalised. I believe his downfall should have come sooner, and that there is an element of hypocrisy in this issue also.

A little over two weeks ago, I heard Vaz on BBC London (available for the next 12 days) talking about how social media and other online hosting companies like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc should do their bit to “root out” terrorist radicalisation, and should ensure that any time a video that encourages support for terrorism or “radicalism” appears on their site, it should disappear immediately. This demand presents obvious difficulties; it would require YouTube to watch every video, or at least every video uploaded to any supposedly suspicious account, and even then, new accounts are easily set up and can be notified to the intended audience through forums over which YouTube has no control. However, Vaz is no stranger to radicalisation, as he attended and helped to finance an event at which the star attraction was a political extremist from a movement which is associated with mob violence and mass murder. That man is Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India and former chief minister of the state of Gujarat.

A reminder: in February 2002, with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in power in Gujarat, in response to a fire on a train in which 59 people, mostly Hindu pilgrims coming back from the disputed temple in Ayodhya (the one for which a Hindu mob destroyed a mosque in 1992), were killed, there were three days of violence in which, according to official figures, 790 Muslims and 250 Hindus died; there have been estimates of the Muslim death toll that are up to 2,500, however. The violence continued sporadically for months afterwards and targeted Muslim women and children in particular, with hundreds being raped and/or burned to death. Muslim homes and businesses were targeted in a way that indicates they must have had state help, as they included businesses with names suggestive of Hindu ownership. There was widespread destruction of mosques and Muslim shrines; 230 mosques and 274 dargahs are thought to have been destroyed.

Although Modi has never been charged with involvement in the massacre, it is widely acknowledged that there was state complicity and also that there was involvement by members of the government in fanning the flames of violence. Modi himself had proclaimed that the fire on the train had been an act of terrorism rather than communal violence; local newspapers and members of the government had claimed that it was carried out by the Pakistani intelligence services with local Muslim complicity, and also that Muslims had kidnapped and raped Hindu women. A senior local police officer made a sworn statement that Modi, during a meeting the night before the riots, had said that Hindus should be allowed to vent their anger and that the Muslims needed to be taught a lesson; a Gujarat government spokesman, Bharat Pandya, “told the BBC that the rioting was a spontaneous Hindu backlash fuelled by widespread anger against Muslims”, such as in Kashmir and “other parts of India”. In December 2002, there were elections in which BJP candidates won in all the constitutencies affected by the riots, including some implicated in the violence, and their election won them immunity from prosecution.

In the years following the riots when Modi was still governor of Gujarat, he was prevented from travelling to a number of countries, including the UK and the USA, until 2012 because of suspicions over his involvement in the violence. Following his election as prime minister of India in 2014, it seems his record has been forgotten as economics trumps human rights. For example, Sky News made the following remarks last November, just before his visit:

Mr Modi was the was the chief minister of the progressive state of Gujarat for 13 years.

But his term was marred by one of the worst communal riots - in 2002 more than a 1,000 people were killed - mainly Muslims.

Tens of thousands more were made homeless.

Mr Modi is criticised for not doing enough to prevent the pogrom and although he has not been indicted by any court his role is furiously debated.

Gujarat is a ‘progressive state’ in the sense that it has followed free-market orthodoxy rather than the state capitalism that dominated India’s politics until the 1980s. This term really doesn’t mean much; in the past it meant building industry and infrastructure rather than reinforcing human rights and equality (some segregationist leaders in the Deep South in the mid-20th century were progressives in that sense). There has been widespread discrimination against Muslims in Gujarat in the years since the riots, starting with the firing of thousands of Muslims after the riots and the boycotts against those who tried to return home. Muslim neighbourhoods have been designated “disrupted areas” and denied amenities and subject to harsher policing; there are documented incidents of local police referring to Muslim neighbourhoods as Pakistan and claiming that Muslims “identify themselves as residents of Pakistan”. As of 2014, tens of thousands of Muslims displaced by the riots were still living in “relief colonies”, i.e. refugee camps. Gujarat is India’s equivalent of Mississippi or Alabama and Modi is its George Wallace, Theodore Bilbo or Strom Thurmond.

This man held a rally at Wembley Stadium in November 2015 (technically: “the Europe India Forum (EIF) [hosted] a reception in honour of Prime Minister Modi at Wembley Stadium connected by EE on Friday 13 November 2015”). There was a crowd of 60,157 and Modi was introduced by then PM David Cameron, whose wife Samantha was dressed in a scarlet sari; the programme contained an introduction by Lance Price, a former speechwriter to Tony Blair, which according to the Telegraph likened Modi’s “superstar quality” to that of Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton and Blair himself. Keith Vaz, a Labour MP, was also in attendance, and boasted in an article for the Guardian that he was “proud to contribute [his] pay rise for the month of November” to help finance the event, including to help people to attend as “it is important that nobody should miss out”. His article did not mention the 2002 pogroms once. (The Guardian also printed a an article by Aditya Chakraborty opposing the visit.)

Most self-respecting British mainstream politicians would not even consider sharing a platform with a foreign politician with a strong link to political or communal violence, to fascism and to hatred. Many ordinary Muslims would not dare attend, yet tens of thousands of Hindus board coaches from all over the country to hear this Nazi and still have their jobs and freedom. There would be widespread condemnation if any MP had boasted of helping to bring the likes of David Duke or the Hamas leaders in Gaza to this country or of financing their rally. More to the point, the venue might well refuse their custom, as Muslim organisations that tried to book such things as halal days at popular tourist resorts have discovered. I appreciate that we have economic ties with India that we cannot afford to simply break, but to enthusiastically endorse a politician on whose watch hundreds or thousands of people were murdered and raped and had their businesses, homes and places of worship destroyed is taking realpolitik too far, to put it mildly. Just meet him in Downing Street and talk business.

Vaz demanded that Internet companies root out radicalisation, by which he meant Muslim radicalisation, yet he rides the wave of Hindu extremism, no doubt among thousands of his constituents, and says nothing about the major sporting venue that hosted him and were paid for it. Modi is part of a movement that is violent, fascist and totalitarian and uses mob violence targeted at civilians, actions every bit as heinous as those of the “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria, even if he manages to remain at arm’s length from the ‘action’. It will take only one real or imagined provocation from Muslims to provoke another, much more serious wave of violence as his government now rules India, not just one state, and the adulation of British politicians gives him credibility. It is therefore with some satisfaction that I witness the downfall of Keith Vaz. If hobnobbing with fascists was enough to bring down a politician, nobody would have cared about his carrying on with male escorts.

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Welcome home and happy birthday

10 September, 2016 - 22:18

Josh Offer-Simon, a young white boy with short hair, cuddling a small brown dog.Back in February, I featured the story of Joshua Offer-Simon, who was at the time being held in a hospital unit in Birmingham. He had been under section for two years as a result of challenging behaviour stemming from a mixture of ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome and a mild learning disability, during a time when his father was in hospital following a life-changing injury. He was first held in Manchester, where he ended up not leaving his room for several months, and was then transferred to the same unit in Birmingham where Josh Wills had spent three years. He did make progress in Birmingham, but there were safeguarding issues and the management attempted to transfer him to a secure unit in Norfolk, which refused to accept him. Three weeks ago, after attempts to find a residential placement for him failed, he was released from his section and returned to his family; today is his 14th birthday, his first in three years that he has spent at home, with his family, instead of in an institution.

Also in the last month or so, one of the young people featured in last April’s Seven Days of Action, Jack (day 2), has been released home, this time more by accident than by design. Jack was in the same hospital as Josh and had been spending three nights a week at home with his mother, ostensibly in preparation for release. He was released in early June, to a placement fairly near his mother’s home; however, the placement and the company which ran it turned out to be entirely unsuitable. Quite apart from the fact that he wanted to be at home and felt as if he was in another hospital, and it was run like one, down to things like electricity being turned off overnight (and his three nights at home a week had ended), staff also allowed him to spend much of his money on drink and on electronic gadgets, such as phones, that he did not need; his mother often found him drunk when she visited, and often could not take him out. The placement broke down in late July when the service provider pulled out. Initially he was found temporary accommodation but when social services failed to find him another placement, they asked his mother if she would have him at home. Of course, the answer was yes.

I am not going to pretend that Josh’s and Jack’s lives at home have been plain sailing since they came home. Jack, in particular, has health problems stemming from poor care and overuse of drugs when he was in the unit, and had to do community service because the police were called about an altercation with another resident while at the placement. Josh’s father wrote the week after he was released that Josh kept asking why he had no friends and saying he just wanted to be normal. Both families will need support; it is often lack of support in the community that leads to people ending up back in hospital, including difficulty finding schools or refusal to accept them, in the case of adolescents (I know of two teenage girls who ended up being sectioned in the last year or so as a result), and lack of activities outside the home in the case of adults.

It’s particularly disturbing to me that someone can be sectioned because a school finds them difficult to handle, or because they cannot be found a school. Many children with autism find school to be stressful places, especially with the noise and unpredictability of large numbers of children and the low level of adult attention. How someone behaves in that environment, much as with how they behave in the unfamiliar environment of a hospital, is no reflection on how they will behave at home. What happened to Josh could have happened to any child with behavioural difficulties of any sort. It is why the mental health laws need to be changed so that the manageable behaviour of someone with a learning disability do not lead to them being institutionalised for years.

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“Not exactly Mother Teresa”

4 September, 2016 - 17:12

Mother Teresa, an elderly white woman wearing a white headscarf with blue stripes at the front, with an Indian woman wearing glasses and a white headscarf to her right.So, today the Pope led a ceremony in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican to canonise Mother Teresa, the nun who ran a chain of institutions for the sick, dying and destitute around the world, most famously in Kolkata, India, on the basis that two miraculous cures of sick people have been attributed to her intercession since her death in 1997. Teresa, born Agnese Gonxha Bojaxhiu in Skopje, now in Macedonia but then part of the Ottoman Empire, had worked in India since 1929 when she joined the Irish-based Loreto order and was sent to teach in Darjeeling in northern Bengal (now West Bengal). She moved to Kolkata in 1946 and founded her Missionaries of Charity in 1950.

Growing up in the 80s, especially growing up Catholic, Mother Teresa was seen as the epitome of selflessness and charity. It was common to hear it said of someone — especially a man — that they “aren’t exactly Mother Teresa”, meaning their motives are partly or wholly selfish. I once heard someone in a TV sitcom remark that someone “made Noriega look like Mother Teresa”. There were, of course, tens if not hundreds of thousands of Catholic men and women teaching or nursing as part of religious orders at that time, although the number was in steep decline but Teresa’s order had a glamour that orders that ran Catholic schools in England did not. At that time, nobody seemed to be asking questions about the conditions in her institutions, or about the backstory about Kolkata being a wretched city full of slums, or about the idea that she worked with “untouchables” that nobody else would touch.

I remember mentioning this on a mailing list about a band I was into in the 90s, and this was after Christopher Hitchens exposed what was really going on in Teresa’s homes both in Kolkata and in New York. Someone responded, “when was the last time you healed an ‘untouchable’ in India?”. Well, I’ve never been to India and I’m not a doctor or a nurse (neither was he, or Teresa). But ‘untouchables’, despite the religious doctrines surrounding their status — that they are people who sinned in previous lives and so were punished with a lowly status in this life — are simply poor people who do dirty menial jobs, although members of these castes can nowadays be in high-paying jobs but are still treated as unclean by higher castes. There is no taboo in western countries about contact with bin men or toilet cleaners, be it shaking hands, sharing crockery or cutlery, caring for them or treating them when sick, and Mother Teresa would have had no such hang-ups, so it is difficult to see why this makes her more of a saint than any other Catholic religious who lived a life of service or for that matter any nurse or carer, religious or otherwise.

Teresa’s reactionary politics, which were shared with the pope she served under, have been adequately discussed elsewhere, but I was astonished that anyone defended her, and continued to propagate her reputation as a living saint in particular, when the conditions in her facilities were exposed. There is simply no excuse for an institution run by the Catholic church to lack basic hygiene and to be reusing syringes, or for a hospital for the dying run by an arm of a very wealthy organisation to fail to provide pain relief, and for this state of affairs to be carrying on for years. It is well-known that the Catholic church are quite capable of running schools, hospitals and care homes which observe good standards of hygiene, both in the developed and developing worlds, yet they allowed this mess to carry on for decades until it was exposed by outsiders.

Mother Teresa was not solely responsible for the sorry state of her homes in the mid-1990s and before. The Catholic church hierarchy, both in Europe and in India, were. So were the media who spread her fame without asking questions, accepting stereotypes about India and Indian people (especially in cities) being dirty, poor and caste-ridden so as to accept a clinic or ‘home’ for poor, “untouchable” Indians being dirty or lacking basic amenities. But it leaves her as the executive of a chain of inadequate if not abusive institutions — a bit like, say, Katrina Percy with added Christian piety and with ready access to the media for her opinions on things that had nothing to do with caring for the poor (who can forget her advice to the victims of the Bhopal chemical disaster — “forgive, forgive”?).

But the inescapable conclusion remains that Teresa was canonised today because she was famous, while others who did far better jobs in caring for poor or sick people or educating children, and who were far better ambassadors for their faith than Teresa (not that I share it) ended up being, remain unrecognised. The people who still venerate her, and who turn out to watch and cheer as Pope Francis makes the declaration, have chosen to ignore the facts and celebrate the myth of Mother Teresa.

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Listen to women — but which women?

29 August, 2016 - 11:45

Two women wearing all-over swimsuits. The one on the left has a black suit with pink sleeves and a pink floral motif on the chest. The one on the right is a lifeguard and has a yellow and red uniform suit with "Surf Rescue" and the DHL logo on the front. She is holding a red metal pole.Last Friday the highest court in France, the Council of State (Conseil d’État), struck down the ban on full-body swimsuits or so-called burkinis which had been imposed by some 30 municipalities in southern France on various pretexts such as morality, public order and security, ruling that it “seriously, and clearly illegally, breached the fundamental freedoms to come and go, the freedom of beliefs and individual freedom”. This followed incidents in which women were arrested and fined for wearing the garment in public, and one woman was surrounded by four armed police on a beach and ordered to remove her headscarf (she was not wearing a “burkini”); in similar incidents, sunbathers in the vicinity shouted “go home” and “we are Catholics here”. The BBC carried two important interviews, one of them on BBC London with a female human rights scholar in Toulouse who debunked some of the myths being peddled by supporters of the ban (e.g. that the women approached by police on beaches had gone there to seek out trouble), and another on Radio 4 at lunchtime in which a spokesman from the Human Rights League accused local politicians of fomenting trouble that had not previously existed and dismissed a ruling from the local administrative court in which wearing the ‘burkini’ was compared to allegiance with terrorism, saying, “if someone can think that without being drunk, we might as well quit any reasonable discussion in a democracy”.

One of the annoying features of any debate on French attitudes towards Muslims (and Muslim women’s dress in particular) is the recurrent attempts to “explain” why the French keep doing such things, informing us about the “strict separation of church and state” and the “struggle against authoritarian Catholicism” that preceded the 1905 law on the status of religion. This piece in the Economist (“The Economist Explains”) is one example. Similar insistences were made in response to criticism of the obvious bigotry of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that led to several of its team being murdered last year. This ‘understanding’ is not extended to Muslims; if anything, the term ‘understand’ is spat out as a term of abuse when someone mentions the role of poverty and ghettoisation in terrorism. In 2005 a pro-war British blogger, Norman Geras, coined the term “mbunderstanding” to refer to “understanding” which is “plainly of a blame-focusing or blame-shifting kind”, the “mb” referring to Madeleine Bunting, a writer for the Guardian at the time who sought to explain such incidents as the 2005 London bombings in terms more nuanced than “a bunch of guys who hated us tried to kill us” and to identify root causes other than “Islamist ideology”. The term was picked up by the Islamophobic, pro-war, Zionist blog Harry’s Place and used regularly as a pejorative.

The “understanders” want us to accept that France is different from Britain or the US and that its campaign against Muslim women has a strong historical backing in France’s so-called battle against clerical supremacy. The truth is that France is not that different from other countries where politicians use witch-hunts against weak and unpopular minorities to secure votes, or where such campaigns are aimed at soft targets including women. The idea that a struggle against a powerful Church 100 years ago should inspire hostility towards young girls in headscarves and women in unusual bathing costumes now is preposterous. The clergy that were struggled against sought to control education, not simply receive it, and to dictate what people could wear, not enjoy a swim on a public beach. And the Church was dominated by men, as it still is; France’s present attacks on the Muslim minority target women and children, and ignore men.

People exhort us to “understand” the French because they are White, and perhaps because of a lingering inferiority complex in the English-speaking world where the ‘higher’ (i.e. longer) words come from the French-speaking Norman former ruling class, and therefore their peculiarities and bigotries must have deep roots and rigorous intellectual justifications despite the justifications being stated openly and being plainly irrational. They themselves feel no need to listen to Muslim women and understand them before telling them what is best for them and comparing any who refuse to “negroes defending slavery” or similar. We hear the word “ideology” used as an insult, and even women who wear the hijab or who swim in all-over bathing suits are accused of being in thrall to an “Islamist ideology”, yet the nationalist ideology is indulged despite relying on the molestation of women and girls and is not named; the “need” for France to maintain its “national identity” is explained to us again and again as if we were children and as if it had entirely escaped our imaginations. No, France isn’t different. It isn’t special. It isn’t exceptional. Its bigotry is like any other.

Another common trope in this ‘debate’ is the demand that people must adhere to the law, as they would in Saudi Arabia where the law bans the wearing of bikinis. The fact is that the majority of Muslims in France are of North and West African origin, and there is no ban on bikinis in many of these countries; western holidaymakers go to resorts in Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and the Gambia every year and lie on beaches in bikinis and ‘body’-type swimming costumes; the same is true of Egypt and one or two of the smaller Gulf states. Most Muslims have no connection to Saudi Arabia other than being required to visit two of its cities for the pilgrimage once in a lifetime (and the Saudi régime does not originate from those cities, but from the interior, where it remains based to this day), so if you use this argument you are showing your ignorance. Muslim countries, with one or two exceptions, do not force western women to wear veils or long coats when visiting, so there is no excuse for western countries to do this. It is not a question of reciprocity.

Finally, there are the suggestions on social media that Muslim men make way for Muslim women in these debates. To an extent I agree, because Muslim men have been very forthright in encouraging women to wear the hijab (as, to be fair, have women on public forums, blogs etc, although they do not have the clout as scholars) while rarely lifting a finger when Muslim women in hijab are attacked in public or harassed by the state, as in France. However, a look at the British print and broadcast media reveals no shortage of Muslim women who do not wear hijab getting columns in newspapers and broadcast slots, while those in hijab are rarely seen and when they are, it is met with widespread derision (as with Nadiya Hussain) or protest (as with the news presenter Fatima Manji on Channel 4). Indeed, when the media wants to talk to a “Muslim woman” about issues that affect a lot of Muslim women, be it hijab or FGM, or about “back home” politics, the go-to person will be one without hijab with clear secularist leanings who speaks their language rather than that of Islam (e.g. Nimco Ali, Sara Khan), and who have a tendency to exaggerate problems while downplaying Muslims’ efforts to remedy them.  Every defence of the right to wear hijab that is accompanied by a photo of a Muslim woman without, or is heavily ridered with denunciations of the “patriarchal intent” behind it or suggestions that banning it makes it more popular (implying that this is a bad thing), is ammunition for those who seek to ban or restrict it, and the women and girls who wear it. The cause needs firm, unconditional advocacy, with the images and voices of wearers seen and heard prominently, not mealy-mouthed, half-hearted defences from those who despise the hijab in reality. With the exception of some very conservative figures, most religious Muslim men are happy for the voices of religious Muslim women to be heard. Will the hijabless women who are (or were until recently) the sole representatives of Muslim womanhood in some mainstream newspapers and on the TV step aside too?

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Let’s be clear: the French swimsuit ban is about hate

22 August, 2016 - 20:05

A woman sitting on the edge of a swimming pool, wearing a black two-piece black swimsuit consisting of a tunic and trousers with pink decorative lines, with a black and pink hood over her head of similar material.In the past couple of weeks several coastal regions of France, including the districts that include Cannes, Nice and Menton, have banned women from wearing the full-body swimsuits known as ‘burkinis’ that are popular with Muslim women on their beaches. The mayor of Cannes justified it on the grounds of “security”, claiming that the swimsuits do not represent “good morals and secularism” and claiming, “manifesting religious affiliation in an ostentatious way, while France and its religious sites are currently the target of terrorist attacks, could create risks of trouble to public order”. In other words, they do not want to see anything that looks like Islam when “Islam” had just attacked them. (More: Aishah Schwartz.)

Full-body swimsuits have been around for a few years. They consist of a tunic with a hood (or a separate hood), and a pair of trousers made of similar material to swimsuits. They are more like the shalwar-kameez which is the standard dress in South Asia (not just for Muslims), and similar dress exists for men and women in other parts of the world. They were meant to (and do) enable Muslim women to swim, rather than stop them doing anything. Ever since they first appeared, I found the term “burkini” irksome, and Muslims’ insistence on using the term even more so. They do not resemble bikinis and, more importantly, look nothing like any garment called a burka, a term almost always used pejoratively. What they more resemble is a divers’ wetsuit, something there is no talk of banning because it is not Muslims who wear it.

There are two garments commonly called burkas or burqas worn around the Muslim world; one is the all-in-one “shuttlecock” body, head and face covering worn in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the other is a partial face covering made of cloth over a metal frame, worn by older women in the Emirates. I have never seen either in the West (and until about 10 years ago in the UK I saw women with faces covered all the time; these days you only see them in “Muslim areas” such as Whitechapel); the veil worn in the west is usually detachable, made of fabric, often in layers so that the wearer can cover her eyes and/or the fastening at the back if she chooses, and is known as a niqaab. I’ve never seen a swimsuit with a face covering.

Muslim women always swam. Before the full-body swimsuit, women who wore abayas swam in their abayas. That meant swimming (and then walking) against layers of wet fabric, which can be cumbersome. Swimming in any modern western swimming costume is out of the question for any observant Muslim woman, and probably most who do not cover their hair would not even think of it, even in all-female company. Even for men, swimming shorts (let alone Speedos) are not sufficiently concealing. This is why, in areas with a high Muslim population here, Muslims book single-sex modest swimming sessions at some public pools.

In response to some of the French politicians’ justification for the bans when they had been challenged, some people took this to be about the western ruling classes’ obsession with “saving” Muslim women, which has been used to justify some (but not all) previous attacks on Muslim dress in France. For example, a female member of the French National Assembly called the garment a “gender prison” and the so-called minister for women’s rights alleged that it “is the beach version of the burqa and it has the same logic: hide women’s bodies in order to better control them”. Pina Sadar, a Durham PhD candidate writing at The Conversation, says that both politicians “enunciate a highly patronising notion: the concept of Muslim women needing to be saved”. But it was clear that the politicians who imposed the ban in the first place did not care about “saving” Muslim women; they cared about banishing a garment they associated with Islam from a public space in response to an atrocity that was carried out by (male) Muslims and had nothing to do with swimming or dress.

Her article also alludes to the “ideologies” that Islamic or Islam-inspired dress is supposed to represent; distinctive dress is often assumed to be the result of adherence to an “ideology” rather than a mainstream religion which, it is assumed, doesn’t really impose such rules because the one they are familiar with does not. As with the hijab, the emphasis is on what it “symbolises”, the symbolism always being in those people’s imagination. The truth is that very strict Muslims would not think the full-body swimsuit is acceptable, especially in mixed company, becuase the material clings to the body and it is not fully concealing anyway. It is ordinary practising Muslims who wear it, and as media reports have suggested, an increasing number of non-Muslim women who want protection from the sun and from skin cancer, or to hide scars or lumps and bumps, or just to keep men’s eyes off their bodies, have been buying them as well. Ironically, the Lebanese-Australian designer of the suit has said that some 40% of her buyers are not Muslim.

Widad Ketfi, on Middle East Eye, calls the ban the latest example of the “French paradox” in which the French state demands that Islam itself be invisible while Muslim women be visible by showing their bodies:

The country calls itself a guarantor of freedom of expression only when it is not claimed by Muslims. The contradiction lies in wanting to render women’s bodies visible and at the same time to discredit and isolate and make the Muslim man invisible.

This is all hypocritical. They do not want to set Muslim women free. Instead, they want to undress them because in reality the purpose is not, never was, and never will be the emancipation of women, but only control of their bodies.

She also notes that France lags behind a number of other countries in gender parity, having never had a female leader in its history and only one female prime minister; only 10% of CEOs, fewer than 30% of parliamentarians and only 13% of mayors are women. The demand for control and exposure of women’s bodies is not really confined to Muslim women, though; during the school hijab “debate” in 2004, a psychoanalyst named Elisabeth Roudinesco asserted that the veil was a denial of women as an object of desire and, according to Joan Wallach-Scott in her book The Politics of the Veil (see earlier entry), that “the visual appreciation of women’s bodies by men brought women’s femininity into being”, an idea that would not strike many women, Muslim or otherwise, as particularly feminist. I have long held the suspicion that French women feel threatened by displays of femininity other than their own, and ones that are in some respects easier; Muslim women are less subject to guilt-ridden attitudes to food, in particular. Yes, we have dietary restrictions, but what we can eat, we (men and women) can eat plenty of.

The ban on full-body swimsuits therefore has nothing to do with protecting Muslim women from anything. It has to do with responding to a terrorist attack with hate against the entire religious community the attackers were associated with, despite evidence that the attackers were not even religious. Much as what passes for feminism in France is essentially a white-supremacist ideology that happily aligns with male politicians and uses male state violence to suppress the aspirations of women outside the mainstream and sees no need to listen to Muslim women’s voices, but these actions were on the initiative of men and reflect the hostility in French society as a whole towards Islam and Muslims. Let’s not pretend there were any good intentions behind these bans. The ‘feminist’ and ‘secularist’ justifications behind the hijab ban may have been an “excuse for prejudice”, but this is, no pun intended, naked prejudice.

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Schools should provide books, not require iPads

9 August, 2016 - 22:26

A young white boy wearing a bright red school jumper with a school emblem consisting of a cross inside a diamond with the letters S, A, S and M around the cross. He is holding an iPad and a young child wearing a light grey and white baby suit is sitting looking at it.Back to school bill: pencil case, pens, rubber … and a £785 iPad (from today’s Guardian)

This is about how state schools (private schools have been doing this for a while) have started asking parents to send children into school equipped with an iPad “as a result of a lack of proper government funding for technology equipment”. The schools involved justify the policy by saying such things as “embedding technology in the classroom, alongside traditional learning, has been shown to enhance learning”, which is a dubious claim when applied to iPads, but the devices are being sold for up to £785 in installments when basic iPads are available from £219 from Apple. There are a whole host of reasons why pressuring parents to pay for this device is a bad idea.

First, they are expensive and easy to break. School textbooks may be bulky, but a torn page can just be taped back together and a book dropped in a puddle can be dried out; a broken screen has to be repaired professionally, if it even can be, and a phone or tablet immersed in water could be rendered useless. There are so many ways such devices can get broken in a school — if a child holding one trips and falls, or if someone knocks it out of someone’s hands by accident or as a prank, or if someone who is angry throws it at someone, for example — that are less of a problem in a home or office. They are easy to steal, and children walking to or from school alone would be an easy target.

Second, they are unnecessary. Generations of children learned without each having a tablet or computer to themselves; we learned from books or from the teacher, and sometimes from a presentation on an overhead projector (they got more sophisticated; more recently they are linked to computers rather then relying on slides) or from a TV programme. In fact, computers can be a distraction, even in a computer science class, as I found when I went back to college (unsuccessfully) in 2003; people could, and did, do things on them during the class that had nothing to do with the class, or any other class, like watching videos like this:

Third, as they are expensive, they produce a divide between those who can afford them (and afford high-end, expensive ones) and those who can’t. Kids will always notice who’s borrowing an iPad from the teacher or from someone else, much as they notice who is on free school meals unless the school manages to hide it (they don’t always), and in an affluent area this could lead to the child whose parents are unable to provide the devices being stigmatised or even bullied. Less well-off parents will consider this expense when choosing a secondary school (if there’s a choice), making this a means of subtly discriminating against their children. Schools often justify uniforms on the basis that they mask social divisions, so making learning dependent on expensive tablets supplied by parents rather defeats the object.

(Private schools have been doing this for some time, as noted in a BBC Four programme about a girl who won a scholarship to the local private grammar school in Leeds and found that the school required pupils to have their own tablets, which she had to borrow from another girl. Because this and other factors made her feel “like an outsider”, she left after just one year, despite the debts her mother had ran up to get her in.)

In the particular case of iPads, their educational value is compromised because they do not allow you to program them, making them only useful for receiving information and using existing services such as email and social media. A recent criticism of school IT lessons is that they teach how to use popular applications like Microsoft Word but do not touch on programming, but all programming of tablets is done through PCs (Macs, in the case of iPads). In addition, programs have to be supplied through the App Store (except on jailbroken devices) and this adds expense and difficulty for the developers (and thus the user); for Android devices, it is fairly simple to allow the installation of non-Store programs; it requires no change at all on most PCs. So these devices are either to be used for browsing electronic textbooks or for some custom educational software that delivers information that could just as easily be projected onto a single screen, except for those with visual impairments. The devices could easily be used to give demonstrations of things (particularly in science) that avoid doing them in practice, making lessons ‘safer’ and more sedentary but less hands-on and, frankly, less interesting.

However much the schools (and the schemes they participate in) sweeten the pill with instalment paying and hardship schemes, this potentially puts the onus on parents to provide the delivery method for both books and lessons. It’s a money spinner for the developers of the software, who will sell site licences to schools to allow pupils to use them on their devices. And it raises the cost of state school education for parents by hundreds of pounds per year, which of course is multiplied by the number of children they have. It assumes, of course, that parents will buy these devices anyway, but not all parents have the money to buy even one, let alone more, and let alone allow their children to take them to school. It’s unnecessary, it’s of limited educational benefit, it’s expensive, it’s discriminatory. It should be banned in all state schools.

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Yes, Black lives matter. But so do other people’s journeys

7 August, 2016 - 23:02

Image of a protest at a roundabout outside Heathrow Airport, in the background of which is a sign saying "Welcome to Heathrow". There is a banner saying "Black Lives Matter" and in the foreground is the stationary traffic held up by the protest, including cars, a tipper truck and two buses.Last week I was working at a site just north of Heathrow airport, the quickest route to which is down the Heathrow spur and off at the bottom. On Friday morning I was returning from a delivery run to Neasden and turned off the M4 at junction 4, to find a queue of stationary traffic in the spur road. After a couple of changes of the lights I was able to get back on the M4 and got to my workplace via the Colnbrook junction instead. By the time I left the site for my next run, the traffic had built up back to the Hayes exit and into secondary roads around the airport (like Sipson Road, which runs alongside the spur). It transpired that the road was closed because a group of “Black Lives Matter” protesters had blocked the bottom of the spur by lying down on the road and unfurling a banner reading “This is a crisis”. Although police opened one lane, the blockage of that road remained in place for several hours and traffic was still being diverted via Hayes in the late morning.

Although I wasn’t seriously inconvenienced, that was really a matter of luck that I didn’t arrive at junction 4 20 minutes or so earlier (and that delay was because I was late for work). The people who were stuck in that queue were there for hours and some of them, I don’t doubt, missed their flights or were late for work. I looked at my Twitter feed during a spare moment and there were a lot of BLM sympathisers claiming that they did not care about those people’s discomfort, that protest necessarily causes inconvenience, and that if black lives matter less to you than your holiday then they clearly don’t mean much to you at all, making the protest all the more justified, with a few quotes from Martin Luther King thrown in. These included people I know as well as some well-known journalists and writers such as Ava Vidal, Bridget Minamore and Samantha Asumadu of Writers of Colour.

These arguments show ignorance. They assumed that all the people they held up were middle-class white people off on business or their holidays. Some of them were on their way to work. One or two of them might have been late once too many times, perhaps because they had too many childcare issues to make it into work on time consistently. Not all of those who missed their flights could have just jumped on another flight later; that depends on the conditions attached to their tickets, but those who could were probably the wealthier travellers. Some of them who had to come back another day might have missed their last chance to see a dying relative abroad. Some of those caught up in the jams might have missed visiting hours to see a relative in a hospital away from home. Some of the travellers were probably disabled and had assistance booked which might not have been present on any later flight, and some of those probably needed to get to a toilet before the flight they expected to get on. (The same was probably true of some of the children.) A friend told me that her disabled daughter had in the past been hospitalised as a result of being caught up in protest-related delays, and was rounded on when she pointed this out in regard to last Friday’s protest. Not all the travellers were white and not all of them were British citizens.

A few years ago I remember reading a story about a Muslim couple who were on their way to Dubai via Manchester airport. They were held for several hours for a security interview, and were eventually released as there was no grounds to hold them other than their religion and, no doubt, their dress, but they missed their flight — and were not able to reschedule, meaning they missed their holiday all because of a malicious and prejudiced decision by border staff, and did not get a refund. This is what would have happened to at least some of the people held up by the protest on Friday, all because a bunch of people they did not know decided to involve them in something they had nothing to do with, without warning and without their consent.

BLM boasted that they were going to “shut down” London and other major cities on Friday. They did not “shut down” Heathrow. The M4 spur road is the main access to the tunnel leading to terminals 2 and 3 (you can also access it from the A4 or the perimeter roads); terminals 4 and 5 and the cargo terminal, as well as airport maintenance, car rentals etc., are accessed from the M25, A30 and/or the perimeter roads. They did not even block the route leading from the nearby Harmondsworth immigration removal centre to the tunnels. They just held up a bunch of innocent travellers or people who were going to drop off or pick up relatives or friends from the airport.

The BLM sympathisers on Twitter also accused their critics of using the “tone argument”, i.e. that causing inconvenience harms your cause and that you might be a bit more effective if you were a bit “nicer” and less strident — another argument that dates back to the US civil rights movement and is commonly thrown at anyone who takes exception to foul language or other unpleasant behaviour by activists online. But it’s not about the effectiveness of your movement. It’s about the fact that you took an action that could have caused huge losses to people who did not have money to throw down the drain, and who might have saved for the whole year or more, or whose children had been expecting a holiday and who now had to be entertained otherwise, or expecting to see relatives they rarely saw since their family split up, or something. You just had no right to do that. It’s not the same as being stuck in a jam caused by a well-organised protest where, for example, buses are curtailed or diverted temporarily and people are forewarned. People knew there would be a demonstration in east London; nobody knew about this until it happened. The right to protest for everyone is put at risk if people cause vastly disproportionate disruption with a frivolous protest.

And some of the responses from their supporters boiled down to “boo hoo”. Well, if I was stuck in that jam and missed my flight, I might have said the same if the police had arrived mob-handed an, bundled these idiots into vans and drove them away in under a minute, which they could easily have done. The fact that they allowed this drama to go on for hours shows that they are more disciplined and less brutal than they are often thought to be, and certainly much less so than the American police whose actions prompted the real Black Lives Matter movement — not the me-too British version.

To get around the obvious fact that the police killing situation is not quite the same here as in the USA, where the wave of police and vigilante killings of mostly innocent Black men, women, young people and children that prompted the protests that became Black Lives Matter started after the most recent contested police killing in the UK in 2011, sympathisers point to a slew of other racial issues such as the treatment of refugees and the failure of doctors to diagnose skin cancer in Black people (which Ava Vidal tweeted about). I know of many people with chronic or life-threatening conditions, some of whom were misdiagnosed with either trivial or psychological conditions and denied proper treatment or their liberty for months or years on the basis. Most weren’t Black. Most were women and girls. Medical prejudice and misdiagnosis is not principally a race issue.

I support BLM in the USA. The British version seems to be an attempt to dominate the discussion on racial justice (note that they chose Whitechapel, a Bengali area, as the focus for their London protests). They justify themselves with a mixture of historical injustices and modern issues which do not solely affect Black people, including the treatment of refugees and unjust immigration laws. These things do not justify causing serious disruption to travellers in the name of “Black lives matter”, even if you use “Black” to mean any non-white person (which I suspect the African-Americans who coined the term didn’t). In case they haven’t noticed, the British (or rather, English) public voted six weeks ago to leave the EU, jeopardising the right of hundreds of thousands of (mostly White) EU citizens, and particularly those from eastern Europe, to live in this country. Nobody is threatening the same to Black people who are British citizens.

Of all the groups of people who are getting it in the neck right now, Black people per se are quite far down on the list below Muslims, disabled people and other presumed benefit claimants, and immigrants (and anyone who looks or dresses like them), all of whom are routinely the focus of hostile press coverage. There was simply no justification for this action and the people responsible should be held fully accountable for any losses incurred as a result.

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The Investigation that revealed nothing

6 August, 2016 - 20:01

Picture of a girl, a man and a woman (all white) standing in front of a window. The girl (Sam) has curly hair and is wearing a black top with a white or light grey stripe across the upper chest and a red and white tartan knee-length skirt. The man (Russell) has a light-coloured shirt with no tie, and a beige pair of trousers. The woman (Carole) has short blonde hair and is wearing a white, red and black striped dress and a black jacket and is holding a bag in her left hand. The man's arms are round both the other two.Last Thursday night, the last in a four-part series called The Investigator showed on ITV. The series attempted, or purported, to investigate the death of Carole Packman, who disappeared in 1986 after attempting to leave an abusive marriage to the man who killed her, Russell Packman (now Causley), who had moved his girlfriend Patricia Causley (whose surname he took) in with her and their daughter Samantha. Russell was jailed for his murder on circumstantial evidence despite no body ever having been found; he has always proclaimed his innocence, until briefly during the making of this programme. As a result of Causley’s attempts to gain parole, Samantha and her son Neil had asked that he reveal where the body is buried and Mark Williams-Thomas, who boasts that he broke the scandal over Jimmy Savile, offered to help. The result was a series that revealed almost nothing, treating things that were already known as revelations, and appeared to be manipulated by Russell Causley, reading out letters ostensibly from him first confessing to the murder and detailing how he had done it, then changing that story, before finally retracting his confession.

In part 1, Williams-Thomas interviewed Carole’s daughter, Samantha, who told of her stylish and vivacious mother, describing her father as very strict and arrogant but she adored him anyway. Russell was described as a controlling husband who did not allow his wife to have many friends outside the family; neighbours, on the other hand, claimed that she could in fact have disappeared without trace. As Russell brought Patricia into their lives, having sold her flat and given the Packmans the proceeds, her parents made inappropriate demands on Sam, with Russell requiring her to act as look-out while he and Patricia had sex while Carole was in the house. On one incident, Russell dragged Sam out of bed and beat her severely; the next morning, she ran away and spent several weeks in care, but retracted her statement after her father pleaded with her over the phone. Carole attempted to leave the relationship, leaving her wedding ring and a note on a table; she was never seen again. People claiming to be Carole were seen in Germany and in Canada, as well as someone who walked into a police station in the UK with Russell claiming the same. The first two are known to have been Patricia, who used Carole’s passport and Canadian work permit. She denies that the third incident involved her.

Williams-Thomas devotes the second episode to Russell’s attempt to fake his own death, in which Patricia, a solicitor and another friend were to sail his boat from Guernsey to France and then report him missing, when in fact he had travelled back to England and never taken the boat. Williams-Thomas grilled the solicitor about lies he had told about the incident, when in fact he had already been convicted and served time for his role in the fraud. This was the incident that first put Russell in prison, and it was during his time in prison (where he dropped hints about the murder to other prisoners) that police began to suspect that Carole’s disappearance was in fact murder; he was arrested for that on release from his sentence for the fraud.

The last two episodes focus on Russell Causley’s ‘confessions’. He had not communicated with his daughter since being imprisoned for the murder and she did not know where her mother is buried; he started writing letters during the making of this programme, apparently piqued by Patricia’s decision to break off their relationship. He ‘revealed’ in one letter that he had indeed killed Carole, by hitting her over the head and then strangling her, and that he had burned in her body in his back garden on a bed of logs and fuelled also by petrol, that it had taken three days for the body to be reduced to ashes which were then distributed around various sites including a golf course. The police had dismissed the burning story as impossible; Williams-Thomas knew some experts who claimed that it was possible to dispose entirely of a body on a fire in this fashion. They ‘demonstrated’ it by burning a pig’s carcass on an expertly arranged bed of identical pieces of wood (not a heap of logs) in what looked like a warehouse (not a back garden), and it was indeed reduced to ashes and a few bone fragments in a few hours.

This, of course, does not prove that Causley’s explanation was true, as it was in laboratory conditions and conducted by experts; it is nowhere suggested that Russell Causley had ever disposed of any other body, and surely neighbours would not only have noticed a fire burning for three days but also noticed the unusual smell of meat burning. The site was then dug up by another group of experts who used a device that could supposedly identify where a fire had been, and who then analysed what they found in the soil. They did find bone, but it was animal bone.

In the final programme, Russell Causley wrote another letter, changing his story, claiming he buried the body in a ‘beautiful’ location he would not identify, so as not to disturb her peace. He claimed he had done this purely out of love for Patricia, a highly implausible story given that Carole had allowed him to move Patricia into their home. Then, towards the end (after Patricia’s solicitor had told them to expect another ‘significant’ letter from Russell), Russell retracted his confession entirely, claiming that he had no role in Carole’s death and that his only crime was to fall in love, as many men before him have done. Williams-Thomas also claimed to have demonstrated that Patricia was liable to be charged with a number of offences including perverting the course of justice, which he told us more than once had a maximum of life imprisonment; however, although an imprisonable offence, people have received only months for that offence, as it covers such acts as accepting a speeding ticket when someone else was behind the wheel. Dorset Police had said it would make a statement after the programme finished; the statement, in the event, merely said that they had investigated the case many times over the past 30 years, said thanks to ITV and that they could not comment while they considered their new information. Patricia Causley was interviewed under caution, at her own request, and has not been arrested.

And a detail that nobody watching could have failed to notice, but which went entirely unremarked, was that all of Russell Causley’s supposed letters from prison were printed from a computer, not hand-written. The idea that they were indeed from him was never brought into question, and it was never asked why he did not hand-write them, despite the fact that his access to computers would have been limited if he was allowed it at all (pen and paper are allowed in prison cells; computers were not, last I heard). Williams-Thomas mentioned when first revealing the content of Causley’s letters that he had received them through an intermediary whom he could not identify. I hope that when Dorset Police examines the scant evidence that Williams-Thomas’s investigation came up with, they investigate the provenance of those letters as there are people who have a motive for fabricating them. Lying to the police is a criminal offence as is lying in court; lying to a TV crew is not.

All in all, this was a disappointing investigation that revealed nothing of importance. Williams-Thomas allowed himself to be manipulated by Russell Causley more than once, perhaps out of desperation to make a sensational and revelatory programme. I found Williams-Thomas’s manner insensitive, on one occasion while interviewing Sam Gillingham about her father’s behaviour, suddenly breaking off and asking her “do you hate him?”, which clearly took Sam by surprise and which she found it difficult to answer. I don’t believe this is an appropriate way of interviewing an abuse survivor about her experiences; it’s the tactic of someone who wants to make entertainment at their expense. Much as he boasts of his history of exposing celebrity child abusers, he is clearly more interested in sensation than in sensitivity, and in this has allowed himself to be taken for a ride by either Russell Causley or someone else, producing an overlong series that promised much and delivered almost nothing. I know ITV stopped producing documentaries of the calibre of World In Action many years ago but this series should be embarrassing even to them.

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The loser of Sagamihara

31 July, 2016 - 15:26

An aerial shot of a group of buildings, including two large Z-shaped and one smaller L-shaped building, plus a small outdoor swimming pool, some gardens and a car park and surrounding roads.Last Monday a former employee of Tsukui Yamayuri-en, a care centre in Sagamihara, Japan broke into the centre during the night and murdered 19 disabled residents. We do not know the names of the victims and no photographs have yet been published, but they were aged between 19 and 70 and included ten women and nine men; 26 more were injured, 13 of them severely. The murderer had previously sent a letter to the Speaker of the lower house of the Japanese Parliament, claiming that he “may be able to revitalize the world economy and I thought it may be possible to prevent World War III” by euthanasing people with multiple disabilities because they “can only create misery”. He mentioned how he might carry out the killings and then demanded a sentence of no more than two years, a new identity on release, plastic surgery and financial aid of 500M yen ($5M). He was committed to a mental health facility when the letter came to the attention of the police, but was only held for two weeks, until early March.

The incident was the main story on the news here in the UK on Tuesday evening. By the same time the next day, it had dropped off most of the news outlets (such as the BBC News app) and the murder of a priest in Rouen, France, by two self-proclaimed “Islamic State” operatives, had taken its place and the investigation into that is still making headlines while the massacre in Sagamihara has dropped right out of the news; only a few stories have been published anywhere since Tuesday although there is a letter in the Japan Times castigating the “Keystone Koban Kops” for not taking the killer’s threats seriously. There may be more reporting on it in the Japanese-language media; it’s not, unlike English, a language widely spoken outside its home territory. The fact that the murder of a single priest in France can push the murder of 19 disabled people entirely out of the news within 24 hours strikes many people as obvious disablism but also as obvious racism; this was in our back yard, the victim a respected, elderly white man killed in a church; they were foreign, disabled and their names, if published, would not mean anything to people here.

Many disability bloggers were quick to connect this incident to wider disablist attitudes, to films like Me Before You and media stories that romanticise the deaths of disabled people, and to other killings of disabled people where the killer got a lenient sentence. I believe this case should be classed along with other spree killings that targeted particular groups, where the motive is personal to the killer even if they latched onto a wider prejudice or grievance. This is nowhere clearer than in the Orlando shooting, which was initially presumed to be an ISIS terrorist act or at least motivated by homophobia stemming from his Muslim background, but the killer’s personal grudges against other gay men and, it seems, gay Latin men in particular became clear as more details emerged. That process has not happened with this killing; we have not heard a great deal about his online activities, or his record while working at the home (only that he was disciplined once for poor attitude) — in particular, if there was ever inappropriate behaviour. The perpetrator of the Dunblane school massacre in 1996 had run youth clubs where complaints had been made about his behaviour, in particular, taking semi-naked pictures of boys and expecting boys to sleep with him in his van while a Scout leader; he complained in the years before the massacre that such “rumours” had led to the failure of his business. The perpetrator of the Montreal Polytechnic Massacre in 1989, in which fourteen women (one staff member, the rest students) were shot dead, came from an abusive family background, had failed to join the Army or to complete two college courses, and blamed feminists for ruining his life.

This time, the murderer has not shot himself dead afterwards but turned himself in to the police, so he is awaiting trial and perhaps details have been withheld to avoid prejudicing his trial. If we take his letter to the Speaker of Parliament at face value, we may suspect he is mentally ill, given that he believed he could prevent World War III and seriously expected the government to look after him after a very short term in prison. It is reported that he had marijuana in his system when hospitalised in February and the staff treating him believed he had cannabis-related psychosis. But he clearly still held these views up until last week, so perhaps that was a ruse to avoid going to prison (which in Japan are very harsh places) or getting the death penalty. It’s also possible that he wanted to provoke outrage, to make himself infamous because it was easier than making himself famous. In this he succeeded, albeit only for a day before ISIS pushed his act off the front pages (at least outside Japan).

A few months ago I saw a video by one Max Stossel called Stop Making Murderers Famous (it’s designed to be watched on a phone) which called for such killers not to be named and their life stories not to be broadcast in the media in the wake of a spree killing. He suggested simply referring to them as “the dumbass”, so as not to glorify them or give credence to their grievances and thereby encourage anyone else who may have similar ideas. I agree. These men’s ideas are not that important; if they had any coherence, they could have found more productive ways to express them than in a note to be found after a mass shooting and subsequent suicide. They are losers and inadequates; we never hear of people with successful lives, relationships and careers shooting a large number of strangers for no reason. And if the status of disabled people were so much better, if a lot of people didn’t think they would be better off dead, if there weren’t resentment at disability benefits and stories attacking ‘scroungers’ in the popular media, the mass killing genie would still be out of the bottle and there might still be some loser who had a grudge and wanted to “make his mark” because he couldn’t do so by positive means, and chose them as a target.

But he will probably focus on another group of people instead, and the risk to disabled people’s safety would continue to come from the same sources it has always come from — abusive carers and school and neighbourhood bullies, as well as callous officialdom — so the cries of “why wasn’t there tighter security?”, which can be perfectly well answered with “because it wasn’t a prison”, can only lead to institutions throwing up fences and making life more restrictive for their disabled residents, empowering the real abusers while keeping out only the imaginary ones. A lot of people may have shared his prejudices, but the loser of Sagamihara will hang, or at least spend decades in prison; meanwhile, disabled people still suffer harassment and abuse every day and sentences are usually not harsh, and that’s when they are convicted. Whether this is more or less true in Japan than here I do not know, and there has been little in-depth coverage of that situation this week, perhaps because of the drop-off in coverage of the massacre since the Rouen murder. There is a danger of indulging in “stable-door logic”, taking extraordinary measures to prevent a repeat of this atrocity at the expense of people’s quality of life, when it was an isolated event and when disabled people are in danger, it is usually from those they know and who have power over their lives.

There is to be a memorial for the victims of the Sagamihara massacre outside the Japanese embassy in London on Thursday (4th August), from 4pm. The embassy is 101-4 Piccadilly, London W1J 7JT. Nearest Tube station is Green Park, which has lifts to platforms. Organised by Eleanor Lisney and Dennis Queen; see their Facebook page.

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Apricot kernels

23 July, 2016 - 18:54

Image of white apricot flowersEarlier today I was browsing the mentions of Kate Granger, the doctor best known for setting up the “Hello, my name is…” campaign aimed at encouraging doctors, nurses and other health professionals to introduce themselves to patients when they meet them, and who is in a hospice with terminal cancer at the time of this writing, and I came across a series of tweets from someone trying to sell her apricot kernels (organic Himalayan ones, no less) which she claimed had cured an old friend who had stomach and lung cancer that had spread despite surgery (a bit of “spiritual healing” helped also). I didn’t see any responses from Kate (who is clearly too ill to tweet much) or her husband (who is too busy caring and making the most ot his last few days with her), but I do believe this nonsense deserves a response because Dr Granger is obviously not the only person with this disease and there will be other targets for these cranks.

I had a look on Wikipedia for basic facts on apricot kernels. It seems there are two types, bitter and sweet, and the sweet type (grown in Europe and central Asia) are used in cooking oil and as a substitute for almond flavour, while the bitter type is the one thought to be a cure for cancer. The bitter type has a high concentration of amygdalin, a chemical which when ingested causes cyanide poisoning (the sweet type has a much smaller concentration); a pack of the bitter kernels, at one point marketed in health-food shops as a snack, contained at least double the adult lethal dose. As for curing cancer, in 2011 the Cochrane Collaboration (which specialises in meta-analyses, or analyses of groups of clinical trials) concluded that the claims for amygdalin or a synthetic derivative, laetrile “are not currently supported by sound clinical data” and that in light of the risk of cyanide poisoning from oral ingestion, “the risk–benefit balance of laetrile or amygdalin as a treatment for cancer is … unambiguously negative”. They recommended that no further research be conducted into the substances on ethical grounds.

The response from the amygdalin advocates was, predictably, to indulge in conspiracy theories and I’m sure some people will dismiss me as a “sheeple” (not sure what the singular of that is) for accepting “establishment” or “big pharma” science as fact. Readers might consider, however, that if this substance really was a cure for cancer, “big pharma” could have capitalised on it because even if they couldn’t patent it, they could have found more efficient ways to extract it from apricot kernels than small-scale activist producers could — and they could have developed and patented some derivative. They could have found ways to grow it here rather than import it from India or Nepal. They already derive medicines from plants, everything from aspirin from willow bark to the chemo drug vincristine derived from the Madagascar periwinkle, so why anyone thinks they would miss a chance to exploit a chemical found in a common fruit (and in other members of the same family) is beyond me. In countries like the UK where there is a public health system and chemotherapy drugs are funded by the state, it stands to reason that they would not pay for them if fruit seeds did the job better.

It’s obviously why people promote this junk. They don’t like big drug companies, they know that people don’t like taking drugs that make them sick and would use an alternative if one were available, and that people especially do not like allowing their children to be made dreadfully sick, and they prey on this desperation. They often present their ‘cures’ as gentler than the drugs ‘peddled’ by the big companies and the NHS, but in truth they are often poisonous, as with these seeds, or otherwise harmful, as (for example) with the bleach or anti-hormone agents marketed as cures for autism. If you’ve got a friend with a serious or chronic illness and you’ve heard of something that sounds like a miracle cure, think twice before recommending it to them. They’ve probably heard it all before (many, many times, and if the condition is a very visible one, likely from strangers on trains and the like) and if it were as simple as eating a few seeds, they’d have found this out from other people with their condition (yes, they have forums for these things). I know you don’t want your friend to suffer, but if they cease treatment because someone convinced them to try an alternative remedy instead, they could die. It’s happened many times.

It was Kate’s wish to raise £250,000 for her local cancer centre in Leeds before she died. That goal has been exceeded, but the JustGiving page is still open. She has also asked for donations to be made to St Gemma’s Hospice, also in Leeds, where she is being cared for currently. You may also like to donate to a hospice in your area, such as Royal Trinity Hospice in south London.

Image source: Wikimedia, sourced from Marco Almbauer; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.

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