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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shamima Begum: should she be allowed back?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How effective will the ULEZ be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mail’s Corbyn exposé is pathetic

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

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

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

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

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

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Two fundraisers: a well and a mosque

9 February, 2019 - 23:42

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

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

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

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

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Why aren’t more young women feminists?

8 February, 2019 - 23:57

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Should we cut ties with Saudi Arabia?

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Skipping School (Dispatches, Channel 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What is racism, and what isn’t?

3 February, 2019 - 23:25

Recently I came across the podcast by In the Days of Noor, presented by sister Noor (right), an Islamic studies teacher from New Jersey (she also has a YouTube channel). In a recent episode she interviewed the imam Dawud Walid, who works for the CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) on the subject of racism and how far Muslims can engage with ‘woke’ culture when their ideologies often conflict with Islam. Both are African Americans. As long as I’ve been Muslim, there has been ample discussion on the role of race and racism within the community: the reluctance of some Muslims of immigrant Muslims to allow their daughter to marry people not from their background, the use of foreign languages that not everyone in the community speak, as well as downright racist attitudes such as that converts are not as good as them and, if young, are probably not virgins (and not for the want of trying if they are). It’s generally understood that while these issues affect converts to Islam generally, Black converts have a worse deal.

Most of the time I had been Muslim, racism was defined as prejudice alone and in particular the notion of regarding one as superior to another on that basis. This is actually the official definition here; racial discrimination is racial discrimination no matter who is doing it and against whom and the use of racially derogatory terms in public is illegal regardless of who is targeted; to give one example, a Black local councillor in Bristol was prosecuted and received a conditional discharge in 2011 for calling an Asian councillor a “coconut” (i.e. brown on the outside, white on the inside). More recently the idea that racism is “prejudice plus power” and that only white people can be racist because whites are dominant has gained popularity. According to this doctrine, the same is true of hostility to men by women; because men “have the power”, there can by definition be no such thing as misandry. The doctrine seems to have originated in the USA where, in regards to race at least, it has a certain validity: very often, complaints of reverse racial discrimination are founded on prejudice or downright malice; it is assumed that a Black person who was given a job when a White person was not could not possibly be qualified and must have got it through Affirmative Action or to fulfil a quota, while states use tricks to obstruct Black people from exercising their right to vote.

Imam Dawud Walid, Toronto, 2007

In this interview, Dawud Walid reasserts the “prejudice model” of racism, noting that in the Qur’an, the first individual to think himself superior to another was Iblees, the Devil, when ordered to prostrate before Adam (‘alaihi as-salaam). When trying to confront racism, imams in the USA have long had to confront the claims of the so-called Nation of Islam, which uses hateful rhetoric to bolster the standing of its leader, as well as the more conventionally racist attitudes of Arabs against Blacks or Whites against others. It is about building brotherhood and solidarity amongst Muslims and warning people that they may not consider themselves superior to anyone else because arrogance is a sin and because it sows discord. In the context of the Muslim community, the most pressing issue is not who is most oppressed but the need for people to feel comfortable and welcome in any mosque or indeed among Muslims generally. This cannot happen if some people are led to believe they have a licence to be prejudiced against others, regardless of what they have experienced in wider society.

In any case, whether Black people can or cannot be racist is not all that relevant, because in general I have not seen these sorts of attitudes displayed by Black people; aside from Whites, it tends to be other people of colour such as Arabs and Asians. However, we now have some Muslims over-emphasising the racial hierarchy of wider society as if the same hierarchy existed in the Muslim community when it does not. I have seen some Muslims say that the idea of brotherhood amongst Muslims across racial boundaries was just empty rhetoric, but there are still some of us who believe in it — it is not just a dream of an older generation but an obligation on all of us, especially those of us who live in multi-racial societies where getting on with each other is what we need to do to survive as a community.

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The EU is not slavery

2 February, 2019 - 23:37

So, poorer Brexiters voted to be worse off? There’s nothing wrong in that by Gary Younge (the Guardian, Friday)

Monochrome drawing from a magic lantern series based on Uncle Tom's Cabin,of a white man, Simon Legree, assaulting Uncle Tom, who has been knocked to the ground.Uncle Tom is assaulted by Simon Legree, the man he is sold to after Augustine St Clare dies.

This piece makes the case that working-class Leave voters were voted by ‘values’ rather than self-interest and that this should be seen as a valid political choice, comparable to well-off liberals voting for policies that would raise their taxes to pay for services or welfare for others. He starts out by citing a moment in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in which Tom tells his owner, Augustine St Clare, who had told him that he could never have earned the comforts he provided, that he would rather have a poor house and clothes than the best when the best belonged to someone else. This echoes previous comparisons I saw in which the EU took the place of a violent relationship and that someone might be justified in leaving even though it results in hardship for them and even their children as well. However neither of these comparisons stack up.

Frankly, if it was a white man making this analogy with slavery, he would be ridiculed and rightly so (the editor is a white woman). We are not slaves; we are not owned by Europe; we are not oppressed by Europe. We do not have EU police or soldiers walking our streets. Usually, when we see signs of the EU’s presence, it is because they have contributed money to a major project which could be anything from a major road to an arts centre. In other cases, it is a document that allows us to travel freely in Europe, or drive anywhere in Europe, or in another way access services (such as healthcare) anywhere in Europe. These benefits are not the EU’s financial largesse; they are not things Europe provides for us so as to buy our servitude. They are things agreed mutually between our government and other countries’, such that Spanish, German or Lithuanian citizens might have the same rights here as we have there. It’s a mutual arrangement between various elected governments, sometimes backed by referendums and sometimes not; it was not imposed on anyone by force. We are still a sovereign nation; we have a seat on the UN Security Council in our own right, as does France. We still control our borders, as anyone who has had to pass through them will know.

The other problem with the comparison is that it is not only a vote to make oneself poorer; it is to make others poorer as well, sometimes disastrously so. This is, frankly, why the “it’s the people’s will” argument does not stack up: where does that argument end? If the people vote to start a war of aggression or to annihilate a whole bunch of their neighbours because of their race or religion, does a referendum or a prior manifesto commitment justify that? I think it does not. Given the widespread reports that people voted Leave because they believed that making the country poorer was a price worth paying to get rid of immigrants, or even just out of spite for people who have jobs (not necessarily immigrants) when they do not, there really is a need for the adults in the room to act their age. People may know what they want, or think they do, but it is not only they who will feel the consequences of their vote; it is everyone, and the same people pontificating who said they voted for ‘sovereignty’ or because they want “Britain to be British again” will not be so confident when the cost of basic food goes through the roof or they cannot get treated for a preventable or at least survivable illness for lack of medicine or healthcare staff.

And — not for the first time of saying this — the real stumbling block in the way of stopping this calamity is not the public. Everything that is said about public opinion is speculation, often influenced by the bias of the person saying it; as Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying, “there is no such thing as public opinion, only published opinion”. There are still strong arguments for at least a further referendum, especially once any deal is agreed, because its terms were entirely unknown when the 2016 vote took place. The real stumbling block is Brexiteers in parliament who have been empowered and emboldened by the referendum result and have taken to misrepresenting the 51% vote, 2½ years ago, in favour of leaving the EU as a decisive vote in favour of a clean break and to trading with the world on WTO terms when we are not even a member of the WTO in our own right. They have had the prospect of untrammelled power dangled in front of them — repealing the Human Rights Act is the next step for them — and are loath to see it snatched away. The simple maths are that 51% is not equal or equivalent to 100%. This situation where the 51% take away the rights of the 49% is a classic argument against pure democracy.

And yes, as Younge acknowledges in his article, the political class have been active in forging the myths of a golden past; but it was not only the political class but also the media which had been fomenting hostility to the European project since the 1980s, which makes the revelations about Vote Leave overspending, Russian money or Cambridge Analytica less relevant than many people think they are. Regardless of whether impoverished ex-miners in Yorkshire thought they were voting for a revolution or sticking it to the Establishment by voting to leave the EU, the reality is that the same ruling class will still be in power afterwards, and be more powerful than ever before because of lack of regulations or even human rights, if they get their way over that as well. This is what makes the capitulation of so much of the Left to that prospect incomprehensible; as a minor member of the WTO, we will be much less free to pass laws to ensure the public good than we are now, where they impact on international trade. I have a feeling that people smell defeat in the air, and that they have been betrayed by the leaders they trusted, do not want to admit they were wrong and want to recast it as a victory.

But also, Younge engages in the typical sneering at the “liberal elite” which consists of people who “think that they know what’s better for working-class people than working-class people themselves do”. There have been many analyses of the failures of well-educated liberal politicians (often not as liberal as they made out) who failed to convince the population with facts, and indeed their more ignorant contender used their education against them and won (Al Gore, for example). Quite apart from the stereotype that leave voters were poor, that poor or working-class voters are ignorant and that not being ignorant is a sign of being part of the elite, which are all far from the truth, sometimes a minority does know better than the majority. The matters at stake here are too big to leave to public opinion: the whole economy, the health service, peace in Northern Ireland, even peace on the Mainland given the threat from the Far Right which would be heightened in a situation of high unemployment. Our politicians must have the courage to tell the public that Brexit is a dangerous and unnecessary course, that there is no Brexit deal that is better than the one we have now and that all the problems commonly attributed to the EU are matters of British policy and can be solved without leaving. And if there is no major party willing to say this at a general election, they will have betrayed the public instead of serving them.

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Yes, he is a thug

1 February, 2019 - 22:08
A Facebook post with the caption "Same newspaper 2 pages apart ... the black boy kicked a policewoman and is a thug ... the white boy is on trial for murder and is a teen ... its all in the wording ... surely raheem was right about the media...?" There follow two clippings from the Metro, one featuring the headline "Thug who kicked woman cop under bus gets 3 years" with a red circle round the word 'thug' with an arrow pointing to the picture of the 'thug' who is Black. The second has the headline "Teen in court charged with stab murder of Jaden, 14" with the red circle and arrow linking to a picture of the young, white, male defendant.

There’s an image which has been circulated on Facebook which compares two articles about violent crimes in London. One refers to a ‘thug’ named Kersan Euell who kicked a female police officer into the path of a bus and, along with an accomplice (Martin Payne), was jailed for a total of six years on the 21st of January. Another refers to the ongoing trial of one of the men involved in the murder of Jaden Moodie, a 14-year-old boy who was knocked off a moped in east London and then stabbed to death; a young man named Ayoub Majdouline has been charged with the murder and remanded in custody. The newspaper headline calls the first defendant a ‘thug’ and the second just a ‘teen’. The lines drawn on the clip imply that the word ‘thug’ was used of Kersan Euell because he was black and the more neutral ‘teen’ used of Ayoub Majdouline because he was not. There are, in fact, other reasons why these terms would have been used.

In this country newspapers have to avoid prejudicing ongoing trials: the fact that Ayoub Majdouline has only been charged, not convicted, of the crime means that the matter is said to be sub judice and press have to be very careful of what they say or they could end up in court themselves. These laws no longer exist in the United States as they were struck down on First Amendment grounds, but they are very much still alive in the UK. This is why they cannot call him a thug; that word implies a propensity for violence. The two men who kicked the police officer have been convicted of a violent offence; that means that reporting restrictions are lifted, assuming there is no other trial that could be prejudiced and the people convicted are adults, not minors (if they are, the judge may or may not allow the press to name them, depending on the seriousness of the crime, their age and whether it he believes it is in the public interest).

In the USA the term ‘thug’ has come to be understood as a racial slur, associated with negative stereotypes of Black people being aggressive or violent; it’s also associated with gangsta rap and the culture surrounding it, and the rapper Tupac Shakur called his group Thug Life. Notoriously, a white man who killed a Black teenager in a car at a filling station in Florida in 2012 because he disliked the music they were playing had told his girlfriend, “I hate that thug music”. In this country, there are no such racial connotations. It means a habitually or professionally violent person and is used, in the media and elsewhere, of such people of any race, including white racists, football hooligans and sometimes police officers. When I was growing up, the phrase “teenage thugs” appeared in the media on a regular basis as it railed against the out-of-control youth.

This guy wasn’t called a thug because of his clothing or his taste for rap music. He kicked a woman in the street, putting her life in danger because it was a busy main road, because he was annoyed that he and his friend had been pulled over for driving a car without insurance which, as is well-known, is illegal. That is a fairly good example of thuggish behaviour. The originator, who is in the UK, clearly saw the word ‘thug’ linked to a Black man and assumed it was racially biased, but it really is not, and there are good reasons why the other man (who, incidentally, is charged with killing a Black teenage boy) was not called that.

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WordPress 5.0

31 January, 2019 - 22:30
A screenshot of the "most used" blocks in the new WordPress editor

So, a few weeks ago the new version of WordPress, the content management system I use to run this site, came out. Its major (if only) new feature was the new block-based editor, developed under the name Gutenberg (oddly named after the editor of movable type, which as well as an early-modern printing technology is also the name of an early blog management system, now gone commercial and very expensive). This basically divides the content into ‘blocks’ which can include paragraphs, quotes, images, embedded videos and even things like tweets. You can then move these around or save them for use in future entries. This produced quite a bit of discontent and a forked version of WordPress, called ClassicPress, has been launched by a team which complain that WordPress itself “is no longer a community led project (instead, it’s an Automattic led project)”, i.e. run by Matt Mullenweg’s (the lead developer’s) company; one of their supporters told me that WordPress’s direction is to be more like WIX. ClassicPress, which calls itself “the business-focussed CMS”, has yet to release version 1.0, however.

Installing that did occur to me as I was reluctant to use anything that looked like a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor to edit blog pages; I wanted to edit plain text and insert formatting as I need, mainly using Markdown. My experience is that they tend to produce over-formatted text; if you’ve ever seen a blog page with fonts and text sizes that change halfway through or several times in the course of the article, that’s down to a visual editor. As some readers may know, I maintain my own desktop blog editing software which can run on both the Mac OS and Linux (and Windows, although I do not have a computer that runs Windows at the moment). However, I did not want to switch to a new system which offered no guarantees that it will be updated consistently or remain compatible with WordPress, especially as I use a large number of plugins on this site. I installed the Classic Editor plugin, which includes both the WYSIWYG editor and the plain-text editor I normally use. However, I was interested to see what block editing was like, but any time I tried to use it, it would not let me add blocks; it would just give me a single block and no formatting buttons. I asked around, including in comments on the WordPress Facebook page, and some people suggested that I should disable or delete the Classic Editor plugin. I did not want to delete it, so I carried on using that until I found a solution. Finally, I found a page that explained that the problem was the option to disable the visual editor, which I had checked. When I turned that option off (i.e. enabled the visual editor), the block editor was restored to full functionality.

A screenshot of the "embeds" menu in the WordPress 5.0 block selector.The embeds menu

And I find it exceedingly convenient. Formatting options are minimal, unlike in previous versions; just italic, bold, links, strike-through and alignment options. If you want to make a paragraph a quote, you insert a quote block. Inserting images has become a lot simpler, and you can resize them by just clicking and dragging on the image’s outer frame; gone are the days of having to resize before uploading or use a plugin to give you the right size thumbnails. There is a considerable array of types of blocks to choose from, including all the types you’d use in a web document, such as headings, lists, preformatted text and so on, and the biggest selection is in the “embed” section; every social media and streaming service you can think of is there. If you wrote a previous entry in the classic editor and use the block editor to edit it, it can easily be converted into blocks (although I have not tried it).

I’ve found a few niggling problems; one of them is that sometimes, when you click on the link that lets you set the publishing time (to schedule the entry for the future or to back-date it), it switches to the block settings tab instead. This will go away if you move the mouse around and open a menu and close it again or something, but really needs fixing. Also, I find that the “publish/update” button at the top will not activate, and this is a particular problem when you try to publish an edit after publishing (if you open the published entry from the Dashboard, this doesn’t happen). However, this isn’t an issue with the block system, it’s a general user interface issue. As a lifelong (well, blogging career-long) sceptic of visual editors, this one is a winner and I’m going to keep using it. I may even retire my blogging app, as it only works on platforms where I can just use a web browser to blog.

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Is it really so difficult to track down this rapist?

30 January, 2019 - 14:10
A view of Wembley Stadium (in the borough of Brent, London, where this incident took place), which has a large metal arch over it, as seen from Brent reservoir. A number of small boats are visible in the foreground.Wembley Stadium, in the borough of Brent, London.

Earlier this week there was a story in the Daily Mail, among other places, about an autistic woman who contracted HIV while living in a care home in north-west London some time between 2006 and 2016. The woman, who is Black, in her 50s and a veteran of the long-stay hospital system, was diagnosed after she collapsed in 2016 and had to be admitted to hospital although she had been sick for some time. As with the woman in Arizona who gave birth this month after having been in a ‘vegetative’ state for decades since a drowning accident, it seems that the cause of her health problems was not considered because of her impairment. Police have told the family that it would be impossible to find the culprit as the length of time during which the rape could have happened is so long. A lot of people in the disability community are not convinced and believe that more effort would have been made to find the rapist had the victim not been disabled.

A friend who knows a thing or two about HIV told me this: that penetrative sex on just one occasion is not a reliable method of passing on the virus, which leads to the suspicion that the woman was raped more than once and therefore that the attacker was not there on just one occasion but was a regular staff member. It is also possible to identify different strains of HIV which would show whether the virus was the strain common in sub-Saharan Africa or in Europe and America. It is also no longer as common as it once was because anti-retroviral drugs make people less infectious; this means that few of the former staff members would be infected. Although it was confirmed that the infection was sexually transmitted, it is not clear whether the lady, given the pseudonym Cassie in the borough’s Safeguarding Adults Board report (PDF), had been tested for which strain of HIV she has.

In previous occasions, such as when there has been a rape or murder, everyone who could possibly be the perpetrator (e.g. every man) has been DNA tested and either one of them is matched to DNA found on the victim or the inquiry is narrowed to those who refuse or someone who flees the area. According to the victim’s mother, quoted in the report, police will not issue a reward because nobody in that line of work will speak against a colleague because they do not want to be seen as a ‘grass’; it is not clear whether the police have asked former staff members for tests and been refused or whether it is just their impression or assumption. The body of staff are also described as “a service”, as if this was the fire or ambulance service where there is a bond formed by being in adverse situations together, but it really is not; the providers are companies, the staff are simply employees; they come and go, and some of them may be friends outside work but many are not. I detect defeatism here.

The Safeguarding Adults Board’s response (PDF) tells us that Cassie is now living in a new home and “has settled well into her new living environment and she appears well and happy”. The board is also apparently satisfied that all the other residents of the former home (which is no longer used by Brent social services) “have been protected, with their healthcare and their support needs fully met”. Many parents and friends of autistic children and adults will think this is too good to be true, especially as the perpetrator’s identity is unknown and could still be working in the care industry with disabled people who, like Cassie, cannot tell people if they have been hurt. I know of other parents whose adult children had inappropriate encounters with both staff and other patients while in hospital or a care home. In one case, a young woman was surprised at night by a male resident coming into her room with nothing on, and was so distressed that she had to leave. The dignity of women residents and patients in particular is not adequately safeguarded and in some cases, particularly in the mental health sector, the affronts come from policy: open or supervised toileting and bathing as blanket policy, denial of underwear or sanitary protection (supposedly to prevent self-harm), for example.

Of course, finding someone who has HIV, or even the right strain of it, might not prove that this was the perpetrator. The perpetrator might not have known about their status or might have died in an unrelated incident. However, a DNA sample from them might also link them to other crimes as rapists often rape multiple victims. Whether he was employed directly by the company that ran the home or by an agency, there will (or should) be records of who worked there and when. It is not acceptable to just say “it could have happened at any time”. Many women, many Black people and many disabled people feel that their lives and their rights are regarded as being of no importance by the powers that be and when a Black, disabled woman is raped, most likely repeatedly, leaving her with a lifelong medical condition that needs ongoing treatment, and the police decide that it is too complex to even investigate, it’s inevitable that people will draw this conclusion.

Image source: Andrew Self, via Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence.

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Who is the philistine here?

29 January, 2019 - 17:35
A section of the former Pimlico comprehensive school, a concrete building with large and prominent glass sections, with the rubble of demolition and a large red waste container next to it and the new red brick school building in the background.The former Pimlico comprehensive school during demolition

There’s a letter in today’s Guardian in response to a debate about the virtues of Pimlico comprehensive school, a concrete-and-glass building designed by the architectural team at the then Greater London Council which was demolished in 2010. The letter calls the demolition “arguably the most philistine architectural destruction since the demolition of the Euston Arch” and argues that the very real environmental problems that plagued the school, in which temperatures regularly reached 35ºC in the summer and where the internal layout contributed to bad behaviour, should have been tolerated, as they were at Beth Shalom, a glass synagogue in Pennsylvania designed by Frank Lloyd Wright:

Designed barely a decade before Pimlico school, the glass pyramid pushed contemporary technology to the limits. The commissioning rabbi, Mortimer Cohen, and his successors have tolerated the inconveniences in the knowledge that they were guardians of an architectural treasure. How different the petty, visionless attitude of the “guardians” of Pimlico school, an architectural triumph that attracted international critical acclaim and huge numbers of admiring visitors from around the world.

Over the past couple of decades, a number of notoriously ugly ‘Brutalist’ buildings from the post-war era have been torn down, among them a shopping centre in Portsmouth and a shopping centre and car park in Gateshead that was used as the scene for a murder in the gangster film Get Carter. Some, however, can’t be got rid of, among them a Catholic seminary in Scotland which fell out of use due to lack of recruits to the priesthood and has turned into a modern ruin which cannot be demolished due to its supposed architectural significance and category A listed status. A school, however, cannot be allowed to stand if its architecture makes it an oppressive environment in which to learn, let alone if it contributes to violence; they only have five to seven years to gain the qualifications that can make all the difference to what they might be able to do as adults. On top of this, a school day lasts seven hours, a lot longer than a religious service in almost any religion, so what might be tolerable in a synagogue will not be in a school. These are children and young people who were not around when a group of people who are now very old or dead decided to use their education as an experiment (and the school serves an area with a high proportion of social housing). They are not “guardians of an architectural treasure” but innocent victims of someone else’s failed scheme.

Who is the philistine: someone who wants young people to be able to learn in comfort, or those who want to preserve the thing that prevents them from doing so? If architects want to preserve a building that has proven unpractical for what it was designed for, perhaps it could be dismantled, brick by brick, and moved to a suitable site to use as a museum or for their architectural practice. At their expense, of course.

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A law unto themselves

28 January, 2019 - 23:43
A young girl sits on a black, leather (or faux leather) sofa behind a partially open door. She has her knees raised to her face and her arm covering the rest of her face. She is wearing a white and pink jumper and light blue jeans or tracksuit bottoms.

The past few weeks I’ve been in contact with the mother of an autistic teenage girl who was admitted (initially informally) to an adolescent mental health unit last July. She had been bullied at school, was not diagnosed until her problems had been building up for some time, the school had not dealt with the situation properly and she was suicidal or had attempted suicide. The unit has proven no more competent, particularly in dealing with autism; they have not allowed her out more than a few occasions including on her 16th birthday last November, and when she had a meltdown after that incident, she was sectioned. Near the end of last year her mother was told that she was expected to be transferred to a unit that supposedly specialises in autism which is 70 miles from home (a similar distance to the other unit), but when it turned out earlier this month there would not be a place, the unit put measures into place to deal with her condition better and these included taking her for walks. However, last week she was assessed for a low-secure unit in south-east London run by the infamous Priory company and today she was transferred.

Being aware of other examples of terrible treatment received by patients in various Priory units around the country (Claire Dyer, Claire Greaves, Stephen Andrade, two of the Hull cases), including those formerly run by Partnerships in Care, I was apprehensive about her being transferred into one of these places; however, I said nothing because none of them involved this particular unit (I knew of a family whose daughter was in this one, a few years ago, but this girl’s mother did not contact them because she did not want to bias her opinion of the unit). The girl was looking forward to moving because the representative who met her was nice and the place has a gym. However, on arrival she discovered that the unit was stricter than was led to believe, that the “en-suite” toilets in the rooms have no doors and that she would not be allowed her bra as it was underwired. Her mother also discovered that she would not be allowed to meet her daughter at the unit as she believed she could.

To me it reveals a lot about their attitude that they did not warn her or her mother about the rules about bras before she moved; new ones could have been bought at the weekend. It’s also disturbing how quickly the transfer was accomplished and that the old unit went for the secure unit option as soon as they learned that no non-secure, specialist autism unit was available. It underlines how little power people have when they find themselves in the ‘care’ of the psychiatric industry; they are a law unto themselves, can section someone on a pretext and move them across the country and subject them to overly restrictive conditions for no good reason. When someone has a problem with self-harm which stems from bullying and other stress over long periods, the last thing they need is the sudden shock of being moved into a prison-like unit which allows them no privacy or dignity with no idea of when they will be allowed home, yet this is what our mental ‘health’ industry subjects vulnerable and distressed young people to on a regular basis. As the terrible example of Claire Greaves shows, it is not therapeutic but harmful. Currently people have no real rights when dealing with these over-mighty and often arrogant, uncaring professionals. This has to change.

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Holocaust Memorial Day and Muslims boycotting hostile events

27 January, 2019 - 23:00

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, and according a poll published today which was commissioned by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, 8% of people surveyed (roughly 1 in 20) believe that the Holocaust was exaggerated. In addition almost half did not know how many Jews were murdered and a fifth believed that the numbers were killed were vastly fewer than actually were (e.g. less than two million, rather than around six million). The results echo those of a poll conducted across Europe last year which found that ignorance of the Holocaust was widespread; one in five young people in France and 12% in Austria, for example, had never heard of it. Many people seemed disturbed by this news and asked how on earth people could be so ignorant, but the answer is really quite simple: nobody learns about this in school.

It’s true that kids learn a lot about Hitler in history classes; the two major periods people learn about are the Tudors and Stuarts and then Nazi Germany, but not World War II or the Holocaust. I did a Jewish history cause while at university but of course not everybody does a history degree or indeed any. I do not remember being taught about the Holocaust in detail although I do remember learning bits here and there about fascism and Hitler (our school did not offer history GCSE as the teacher left and could not be replaced). There have been films and documentaries about it but nobody is obliged to watch any of these and a lot of people simply will not watch a documentary; they find them boring. As Dr Frances Ryan said on Twitter this morning, “a pro-ignorance anti-facts climate is only going to enable this to grow” which is why it is important that it be taught in schools and before teenagers take their options at 14. However, I would add that other genocides be included (Rwanda and Bosnia, for example) so that young people are aware of how these things build up; they are not always carried out by sophisticated state entities such as the SS, but sometimes by militias and mobs drawn readily from the population.

(Someone else told me that I should know about the Holocaust from “word of mouth, first hand accounts, missing gaps in photo albums, grandparents and great grandparents, those (increasingly fewer now) people in our community with tattooed numbers on their arms, lists and lists of missing names…” but these are things you would be aware of if you are Jewish, which most people in the UK are not.)

The corner of a beige 1930s building with "The Hippodrome" in gold capital letters over the doors. A sign for the new mosque is hanging to the right of the door; the fittings for old lettering from the El-Shaddai Christian Centre can be seen on the side of the building.Golders Green Hippodrome, now home to the Hussainiyat al-Rasool al-Adham centre. Photo: Harry Taylor

Last week there was an HMD event at a mosque in east London which celebrated the efforts of Albanian Muslims to save Jews during the Holocaust. This was put on partly by the Israeli Holocaust memorial organisation, Yad Vashem. Originally it was meant to have been hosted by a mosque in Golders Green which serves the Iraqi Shi’a community, but this was moved as a result of a protest by Muslims after the matter was raised on Twitter by Roshan Salih, a journalist for the Iranian-backed Press TV who also runs the website 5Pillars. This led to outrage in pro-Israel circles with people calling those who protested ‘extremists’ and accusing them of intimidation and claiming that death threats were sent. When the event finally did happen (at what appears to be a Barelvi mosque in Ilford), the attendees were a who’s who of the “Prevent” and “reform” communities: Sara Khan of Inspire, Elizabeth Arif-Fear of Nisa/Nashim, someone from Faith Matters which is behind “Tell MAMA”, the hate-crime monitor which has a habit of blaming Muslims for Islamophobia in the media.

Quite apart from the fact that the “intimidation” consisted simply of a protest and that accusations of “death threats” are made whenever there is any kind of protest and there is never any investigation into their veracity, whoever they are supposedly being sent to — it is easy for the recipients or their friends to fabricate them — and the fact that the mosque leadership cancelled when they found out about the Israeli connection, not because of ‘intimidation’, Muslims have a right to expect that community leaders have some respect for what the community feels and this includes not using the house of Allah for an exhibition linked to a state which harasses and abuses Muslims on a daily basis and many of whose allies in the West encourage harassment and suspicion of Muslims here. They are, after all, paid by the community and the buildings they run were often bought or built with money raised by the community. No organisation associated with any other religion would be expected to host such events.

This is not to say Muslims should never be involved with HMD. But anyone organising such an event has to remember that the Holocaust is not an important part of the history of the Muslim community; it happened in Europe at a time when most British Muslims’ ancestors lived in Asia or Africa. Muslims have nothing to answer for with regard to it and have every right to object if it is used to justify oppression of Muslims (or others) in Palestine, and not to work with those who justify that oppression. We do not object to this simply because we hate Jews and certainly not because we are paid by or are devoted to the Iranian regime’s leadership.

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Brexit is a matter of life or death

25 January, 2019 - 22:28
A stone building with signs saying "Pharmacy", "Post Office" and "Roche Pharmacy" on the sides. In front of it is a low wall, in front of which is a bench, a litter bin and a bus stop. The road is in the foreground.Roche pharmacy, Cornwall

After my last-but-one post about the behaviour of Corbyn supporters on social media, a long-standing friend cut contact with me as I explained in my previous entry, and I had another exchange with the same friend I had the conversation with that prompted the first entry who told me she had “lost a few longterm followers” because she doesn’t “believe in the mass conversion to Lexit”, i.e. the idea of Brexit as a left-wing policy or one which can have positive outcomes from a socialist perspective. The fact that a large number of traditional Labour constituencies voted in favour of leaving in 2016 and that their demands have to be accommodated has become an article of faith for many Corbyn supporters; it is also rumoured that for him to support a second referendum will mean the resignations of a number of his front bench. This seems to obscure the fact that there are life-or-death consequences for this country leaving the EU at the end of March without a deal, especially given that the deal we have been offered is unacceptable to almost everyone who is not part of the government “payroll vote”.

The reason is that most of the drugs needed to keep this country’s health system running are imported from overseas, including vital drugs such as insulin for people with diabetes and chemotherapy to treat cancer. Our port system has evolved for the current realities of minimal border checks; there are no import or export tariffs for goods coming from or to the EU. Trucks containing drugs will get caught in queues on the other side of the channel, or be held for extended periods at airports while backlogs are cleared. Some of it, no doubt, is perishable and keeping it fresh will require fridges to keep running, which will cost money (which, of course, will be passed onto the taxpayer). People have been told by their doctors or pharmacists that they do not know how or if they will get supplies in after 29th March in the event of there being no deal. This is causing a lot of people intense worry. It is not a case of it ceasing to be available for nothing (it already is not, for most people); it is a case of it not being available at all, except maybe to the very wealthy or those who can pull strings.

It is not just a case of us losing the ability to travel freely and work and study in Europe, though that is bad enough. It is not just about the fact that the economy will shrink, international firms will move abroad, jobs will be lost and this will give the Far Right a much bigger supply of potential recruits, though this is worse. It is not even that the food we have become accustomed to having available (such as vegetables grown in Spain and Italy and trucked in) will become much more rare and expensive. It is that people will die from lack of the medications that we are currently easily able to import but do not produce ourselves (that, of course, is a scandal in itself in a country the size of the UK but cannot be fixed in two months). What I find staggering is that politicians are still arguing over such things as the backstop in Northern Ireland when the consequences of having a hard border around the UK at all are so dire.

I’ve got two family members who are receiving treatment for cancer. I don’t know what the particular situation is surrounding their treatment. But there are many families around the country who do not know if their relative, who has a cancer that is survivable, will be able to get the drugs that make that possible for more than two months. It is ridiculous. This alone should have politicians on all sides saying “it’s too late now; we have to put this on hold”. Perhaps it’s too much to expect from Tories who will lose a lot of face or cannot let go of the idea of a Britain without international standards or human rights (as that is the next step), but for Labour’s leadership to be chasing votes from bigots (who are not Lexiteers but rather people influenced by right-wing tabloids) rather than telling people it cannot be done? It’s unconscionable. This is why I have no quarter with the stupidity of people who support Corbyn whether he is right or wrong.

Pharmacy in Fore Street, Roche, Cornwall, from Geograph © Rod Allday; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 2.0 licence.

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