Indigo Jo Blogs

Subscribe to Indigo Jo Blogs feed
Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
Updated: 8 hours 47 min ago

Review: Britain’s ISIS Supporters

27 November, 2015 - 18:35

Poppy Begum and her friend 'Aisha', wearing a long black coat and face veil, in a London cafe at nightISIS: The British Women Supporters Unveiled from Channel 4 (available for 26 days as of this writing)

On Monday night Channel 4 broadcast what purported to be an investigation into a group of British Muslim women who supported ISIS and who ran stalls and study circles around London, as well as using social media (principally Twitter) to raise support for ISIS. What it actually found was nothing the women’s section of the remnants of al-Muhajiroun, a dwindling and banned group known for disruptive and provocative rallies and posters. They added some interviews with Sara Khan of Inspire, a woman from the Henry Jackson society (a neo-conservative think tank) and Crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal, as well as footage of the Paris terrorist attacks, all of which, along with the suggestive voiceovers about the sinister implications of what the subjects were saying, seemed intended to make the findings look scarier than they actually were.

The programme opens with library footage of the Paris attacks, followed by tweets posted by various ISIS sympathisers (it didn’t say where) praising the attacks. The ‘investigator’, one Poppy Begum, interviewed Sara Khan of Inspire, who claimed that Muslim communities had not woken up to the dangers of “non-violent interpretations” of Islam that promote an “us versus them narrative”. The programme gives no evidence that this particular group are using mosques or any other facilities owned by the “Muslim community”; rather they use the street or hired community halls, and all research shows that ISIS supporters in the west are not recruited in mosques. Begum then reads out some tweets she was receiving when she opened an account and pretended to be an extremist. They came from three women, all using Arabic “Umm” nicknames (meaning mother of so-and-so) and all followers of a ‘hate preacher’ she said the programme could not name for legal reasons, although I suspect most people who know about al-Muhajiroun knew who she meant. The tweets were mostly remarks supportive of ISIS and their claim to be the Khilafah or Islamic State, using a few of their slogans such as “die in your rage”, a taunt frequently seen in their videos and social media postings. The nearest thing to practical support for ISIS that appeared in the programme was the suggestion that she “start saving for a plane ticket and don’t tell anyone” and use her mother’s bank card; hardly in-depth practical advice on how to reach ISIS territory and what to bring, etc.

Poppy doesn’t do the undercover work herself; she gets an anonymous friend, known only as Aisha and wearing the full veil, to do that. Aisha meets one of her new Twitter pals on a stall in Lewisham (which Poppy calls “east London”, a term that refers to the area north of the Thames, when Lewisham is to the south). One of the three “mothers” invites her to a ‘secret’ study circle which is held in a community centre (which looks like a converted church or chapel) in Walthamstow. Poppy makes much of the ‘secrecy’ but if it was that secret, it would have been held in a more private venue. The ‘circle’ itself consisted of pretty much the same lecture each time from one of the leaders about how non-Muslims conspired against and oppress Muslims and are plotting to destroy the ‘Islamic State’. Again, no evidence of any material support, fundraising or advice on how to join it. They were just pep talks for extremists and the audience consisted of no more than ten adults, if that, each time.

Two women, both in full black robes and veils, standing in a food stop with a small girl in between them. One of the women is holding an assault rifle. The shelves are full of bottles of cooking oil.After Aisha attended two of these talks, Umm L pulled her aside and asked to search her bag, explaining that they did not know her and they had had people spying on them and recording things in the past. Aisha then turned on the waterworks and begged to be let go, which Umm L initially refused to but then expelled her from the venue, calling her a spy (which, of course, she was). Shortly afterwards, her account was deleted and Poppy told us that shortly afterwards, ISIS attacked Paris, as if there was any connection between the two. I thought her performance was pathetic; she’d certainly never make it onto Rogue Traders where old ladies are sometimes employed to trap persistent, burly male crooks. The woman wasn’t armed and her crying made her look guilty; if a simple bag search would have turned up the recording device, the investigation was a pretty amateur affair.

Poppy Begum claimed that “Aisha” worked undercover for a year. They do not have much to show for it. This looks like an investigation that was meant to find a lot more than it did. It looked like they intended to find a cell of women dedicated to supporting or channelling funds, resources or people to ISIS. What it found was a small group of women who meet in study circles to express extreme views about the West and Islam — the same ones they have been sharing amongst themselves for years. I am not a huge fan of al-Muhajiroun, but this programme vastly overstates their threat; their influence has been dwindling for years and they are distrusted by other Muslim activists whose demonstrations they have disrupted on quite a few occasions. The programme purported to give some background details about two of the three women, but this only consisted of the fact that one was a careers advisor and another was married to a prominent male member of the group. There’s a surprise. They did not speak to anyone who is actually in ISIS territory or reveal any close connections between these women and anyone over there. Perhaps they expected to carry on the investigation a bit longer but Channel 4 decided the programme had to go out quickly because of the Paris attacks. The result was one of the shallowest pieces of ‘investigative journalism’ I have ever seen, revealing absolutely nothing of substance.

Possibly Related Posts:

The Paris attacks: what kind of “game changer” are they?

24 November, 2015 - 12:08

So, a week and a half after the attacks on civilian targets in central Paris, including a stadium, a concert hall and several restaurants on Friday night supposedly by ISIS (or rather, a group of local supporters), the nonsense in the mainstream media is in full flow, with various pundits and so-called experts proclaiming it a “game changer” and others resorting to the tired clichés about blaming Sunni/Shi’a tensions, “Wahhabis” or the Saudis. Several newspapers led with ill-informed speculation that some of the terrorists came into Europe as “fake refugees” and the discovery of Syrian and Egyptian passports near the sites of the attacks immediately raised suspicion (the Egyptian government claimed that the Egyptian passport belonged to a victim, not an attacker). The attacks happened the same night as someone you might better expect to be a target spoke to an audience of 60,000 at Wembley stadium in London, including the Leicester MP Keith Vaz who donated his pay rise to fund the event: Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, who was governor of the state of Gujarat when thousands of his fellow Hindu extremists went on the rampage, killing thousands of Muslims, raping others and burning houses and businesses in an obviously orchestrated pogrom. His event passed off without so much as a stone thrown.

The British Parliament before the Paris attacks, with an image of a swastika and the slogan "Modi Not Welcome" and the web address of Awaaz UKI would not want Modi assassinated; there are plenty of others where he came from who could take his place, and if he were killed in an accident, let alone assassinated, it would lead to a re-run of Rwanda on a much larger scale. I want him put on trial and punished, as difficult as this might be given that many of the eyewitnesses to the crimes of 2002 were on his side. But I also think he should not have been allowed into the country, not to meet with politicians or royalty and not to address a crowd. He is reasonably suspected of involvement and while he may be innocent until proven guilty in a criminal context, when members of a movement he has been part of all his life commit murder, rape, arson and assault on a grand scale while he is in charge, this should cast a pall over any attempt he makes to appear respectable. Worse still, the broadcast media has displayed its usual cowardice about calling the pogrom what it was, using euphemisms such as “communal violence” which cast a shadow over his time in office. Broadcasters here would not be so mealy-mouthed when talking about Hamas violence, which has been on a much smaller scale than Gujarat and certainly does not match what the Hindu nationalists are capable of in the event of a real or imagined provocation while in power. I suspect the reason has less to do with Islamophobia than with the fact that he is in political favour here right now. He’s good for business (which means his country can provide cheap labour and destroy British jobs). But I’m sure some of the journalists parroting these phrases remember reporting on the pogrom when it happened.

The targeting of Paris on that of all nights is consistent with al-Qa’ida’s and ISIS’s history of hitting neutral or friendly targets rather than hostile ones. It also suggests that the grievances that got them involved in this activity in the first place are local and that their horizons are not that wide. Initially it appeared that the perpetrators were Syrian or Egyptian, on the basis of passports found near the scenes of the attacks, but so far, the perpetrators that have been identified are French or Belgian nationals. The widespread speculation that the terrorists were Syrians and other Arab nationals who entered Europe as ‘refugees’ has led to widespread calls for much tighter controls on Syrian refugees being allowed into Europe, or for a total ban on them. A number of US states (mostly with Republican governors) have said they will not accept any, but they do not have the power to refuse.

The tone of the editorials last weekend, especially in the right-wing press, was that this attack was a “game changer” and that nobody should now be standing in the way of military action against ISIS and enhanced powers for the security forces. In the British context, they are wrong on the second count especially. The attacks are a dramatic increase in scale from previous ISIS attacks in France, but they do not represent a widening of their horizons beyond France — the former colonial power in Syria. This doesn’t actually prove that they have the intention (as opposed to just the wish) to strike anywhere else: Britain does not have a large Arabic-speaking community, and more of it is affluent than is the case in France where there is a large community of impoverished, ghettoised people of North and West African descent in their notorious out-of-town slums. (We don’t have out-of-town slums to anything like the same extent and, at least in the case of the two I’m aware of near London, their inhabitants are mostly white.) The extremist ‘salafis’ were clamped down on in 2003 and their leaders arrested and in some cases imprisoned and deported (e.g. Abdullah Faisal, Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada), much to the relief of the other Muslims who lived in their areas and attended the same mosques (such as Finsbury Park and Regent’s Park).

Front page of the Sun, 22nd Nov 2015. Headline reads "1 in 5 Brit Muslims' sympathy for jihadis"The press here have also ran a series of inflammatory cartoons and front-page stories, including the Daily Mail’s cartoon showing rats coming into the UK alongside women in burqas, and the story on the front of the Sun today claiming that 1 in 5 British Muslims support “jihadis”. As the Independent points out, the headline is based on a question that asks if they have sympathy for people going abroad to fight in Syria — that is a category that is not limited to jihadis (some are joining the Kurdish forces); the poll asked if the respondents had some or a lot of sympathy, and the headline bundled the “some” and “a lot” categories into one; and it also failed to consider that “sympathy” does not mean that they condone it outright, or would do the same or encourage others to do the same; and the figure among non-Muslims was 14% when Sky News ran a poll in March. As the Independent points out, hate crime figures against Muslims have increased 300% since the Paris attacks and the majority of the 115 victims have been women. (The Guardian also notes that it is not known how the Muslims were sourced for the poll or how representative they are and that YouGov, the paper’s usual source for polls, refused to carry it out as “it could not be confident that it could accurately represent the British Muslim population within the timeframe and budget set by the paper”.) As with Modi, I have never heard of ISIS- or al-Qa’ida-affiliated terrorists attacking newspapers that publish mendacious junk that foments hatred of Muslims, nor their individual columnists and editors, which demonstrates that their agenda has nothing to do with the welfare of Muslims here any more than in France. Nobody is talking about Modi now, or his degree of culpability for the riots, or what he and his thugs might do while in power in India. It’s no longer important.

Michael Burleigh had an article published in the Mail on Sunday the Sunday after the attacks, in which he called for “forging a grand alliance with Iran and Russia in the manner of the Second World War” and for postponing a “reckoning with the ‘butcher’ Assad” if necessary as he “is not the main threat”. He made the standard call for an end to multiculturalism and “telling British Muslims that they are not neutral bystanders when their young people join or support IS or equivalent groups … better some plain speaking than the usual evasive multicultural garbage”. First, it is doubtful whether Russia and Iran are reliable allies in any fight against ISIS. Russia joined World War II because Germany invaded; its own interests were threatened and it gained enormously in terms of expanded influence by the result. ISIS are not a direct threat to Russia, right now. They are on Assad”s side, but have not translated this support into action against ISIS, as opposed to against other anti-Assad groups. Putting Assad back in power across Syria is not an answer, as his clan will want revenge against those who challenged their authority, much as was the case after the Hama uprising in 1982. A return to the status quo ante in Syria is impossible.

His article also makes the oft-repeated claim that Muslims’ stance on ISIS is unclear. This is very far from the truth. Muslims’ condemnation of ISIS has been very thorough and unequivocal and has come from across the religious spectrum, including from quarters which were slow to accept that al-Qa’ida were responsible for 9/11 and promoted conspiracy theories (and sometimes, the more outlandish the better) for years. Muslims here cannot stop individuals running off to join ISIS, especially adults, because we have no power to stop them other than by informing the authorities or hiding or destroying their passports (the latter is illegal). The authorities have convinced themselves that British Muslims who join ISIS intend to come back and stage a terrorist attack, when in fact they may simply intend to emigrate, and evidence shows that they are not religious Muslims being radicalised in mosques, but people with family problems and criminal involvement and that their radicalisation occurs in clandestine online forums (it was reported that one of them had ordered the book Islam for Dummies off Amazon shortly before leaving!).

Like Burleigh, Jon Snow also makes the common mistake of blaming “Wahhabis” for just about all the violence that goes on in the Muslim world. In fact, the ‘mainstream’ of that sect has opposed al-Qa’ida from the beginning; as it is closely linked to the Saudi religious establishment, it opposes any kind of political agitation or rebellion against established authority, and even scholars not linked closely to the Saudi establishment (such as Yasir Qadhi) have widely attacked ISIS as ignorant and deviant. Snow also brings in the Sunni/Shi’a conflict “fought between Iran and Iraq in the eighties”. This argument rather sounds like the claim that is made about a lot of civil wars: that the two groups involved have been fighting each other for centuries and the hatreds are deeply-rooted and never far from the surface; it was said about the former Yugoslavia and it was said about Northern Ireland. It wasn’t true of either of those conflicts and it is not true here either. Sunnis and Shi’ites have not always been in conflict and are not always destined to be in conflict whenever they find themselves in the same space, and during the Iran-Iraq war, Shi’ites served in the Iraqi army.

 Les Beguines".It was initially supposed (on the basis of some passports found in the vicinity of the attacks, now known to have been fakes) that some of the attackers were people who had come in among the refugees from the Syrian civil war. I immediately believed that this was unlikely, as ISIS surely would want to make sure their operatives and weaponry made it to their target, rather than getting stuck in a refugee camp in Hungary or drowning when an overloaded boat capsized in the Aegean Sea. All but one of the attackers are known now to have been French or Belgian citizens, with another having used a fake Syrian passport and an identity that another man also uses, suggesting that they bought documents from the same counterfeiter. It’s also known now that several of them were not religious, two of them owning a bar in Brussels until shortly before the attacks and some of them were petty criminals. A woman killed in a raid on a flat in Saint-Denis last week was claimed to be Europe’s first female suicide bomber (and various details of her lifestyle were broadcast, including a picture of her in the bath), but we now know that she was killed by the police after making what they insist was a false attempt at surrender (something they were supposedly certain of because of prior intelligence).

This has not stopped politicians in both the UK and USA, where there is a Presidential election next year and the front-runners for the Republican nomination are two moronic outsiders, Ben Carson and Donald Trump, from competing to prove who will will be tougher on not only Syrian refugees but also on American Muslims. Trump in particular proposed a register of all American Muslims, something nobody seems to have pointed out is against the First Amendment (Bush’s register worked because it was targeted at non-citizens from specific countries, regardless of religion). Others (including British retired General Richard Dannatt) have suggested transporting male Syrian refugees to Syria or Iraq to form some sort of army to fight ISIS. The reason this is a dangerous idea is that many of the refugees have said that they are fleeing Assad, not ISIS, and there is no guarantee that some of those sent back after making a perilous journey across Europe will not simply defect, or that the ‘army’ will not become simply another faction, and nobody seems to have considered the possible impact of a large group of men separated from their families on local women and girls. Why should we expect Syrian refugees to help us fight our enemy, when we betrayed them when they tried to fight theirs?

Another example of a stupid response to the Paris atrocities came from the feminist writer Victoria Brownworth, who claimed in an article for the lesbian magazine Curve that “not all men are terrorists, but all terrorists are men”. She also said that she had received a number of hate messages after posting tweets defending Muslims, all of which came from men. In other words, the attacks were another example of “male violence” which is something nobody is saying (except herself and others like her). The problem is that not all terrorists are in fact men. Women have functioned as terrorists and as helpers to terrorists in almost every conflict in the last century, including Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Chechnya and Palestine. They have fought, held hostages, been suicide bombers, and helped behind the scenes by storing and smuggling weapons and by producing and presenting propaganda. The leaders are, it’s true, nearly always men. But there are no shortage of women agreeing with them, even when their views might strike anyone else as profoundly inhumane or misogynistic (the presence of women in extreme animal rights activity is another example). Al-Qa’ida and ISIS are rare among terrorist groups in not using women in front-line roles. And men do not have a monopoly on bigotry and hate either; women have been filmed abusing people of ‘foreign’ appearance on British public transport and have been active in all the major racist groups and parties, including the EDL.

A map of US states showing those that have "surrendered to ISIS" by refusing to take ISIS's victims and those who have "told ISIS to fuck off" (California, Washington, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Connecticut).The attacks have led to some positive responses. One of the attempted hate attacks, on a Muslim woman on a Metro train in Newcastle, ended when other passengers intervened on the victim’s behalf and the aggressor was forcibly ejected from the carriage. In response to calls to pull up the drawbridge on refugees, it was pointed out that ISIS may have in fact intended to close off emigration routes to the west by planting fake Syrian passports and making the attackers look like refugees, and shutting out refugees was just what they wanted; a map was then circulated showing US states who have “told ISIS to go f**k themselves” or “surrendered to ISIS” by welcoming or excluding refugees, respectively. The best analysis so far, in my opinion, came from Haroon Moghul on the website Quartz, which put the attacks down to ISIS’s strategy in which they “find a major fault line, seek to undertake an attack that will widen this fissure, and reap the whirlwind as people in divided societies run in opposite directions”. So the ghettoised, impoverished and stigmatised condition of France’s Muslim minority “help explain why France is so repeatedly targeted” by ISIS-affiliated terrorists, but they are not the ultimate reason.

Politicians and press in the UK are acting as if Britain must be next in line for an ISIS attack. This is a misplaced assumption. The same cells carrying out the attacks in Paris know the city well; they may not have the same knowledge of London or the required connections. The community here is different; it does not even speak the same languages as the Muslim community in France. It is better integrated and not subject to open official harassment or discrimination. The number of people radicalised by exposure to civil war or to secular state tyranny (Algeria, Egypt) is much lower here. Britain’s Muslims are also more religious: the traditions are stronger and the power of mainstream Islam, the four madhhabs (or rather, one of them) and Sufism (rather than the mixture of modernism and ‘salafism’ which predominates in many Arab countries) persists. The scholars and religious schools are not compromised by their connections to government, as is the case in much of the Arab world. Mosques are open, not clandestine as with many mosques in France. Britain’s Muslim community has also had a debate about terrorism since 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings; France is quite new to this kind of terrorism and the evidence suggests that it does not come from religious Muslims who could be persuaded by moderate, mainstream religious scholars.

 Some fans picked pockets of victims; Some fans urinated on the brave cops; Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life". These accusations were false.I started writing this the Sunday after the attacks. At the time, I believed the talk of the attacks being a “game changer” was hype. The attacks were not a major departure from the existing behaviour of ISIS in France and while the death toll was twice that of London 2005, they were a fraction of those of 9/11. Now it appears that the attacks have strengthened the most bigoted, ignorant and power-hungry factions in western society, as perhaps they were intended to, so as to make life more difficult for Muslims already here, to make society less free and the state more intrusive, and to shut off the escape route for the refugees who flee from Assad away from ISIS rather than towards it. ISIS has, for most of its short history, been about taking territory in Syria and Iraq and building a state, which is why it attracted people who might previously have supported al-Qa’ida. Now that it is losing territory, it resorts to the old al-Qa’ida tactics of causing outrage by attacking unsuspecting civilians so as to provoke the apocalyptic global conflict they crave and force Muslims to choose sides. Barring a minority with family problems or a history of petty crime, most of us don’t support ISIS and have no wish to join them. It seems bigotry sells more papers than pulling people together to fight it on all fronts, but newspapers with a dubious respect for the truth (left) who turn their ill-educated readership against innocent Muslims in this country are doing ISIS’s work for them. Their role, and their ability to influence society in this way, must come under serious scrutiny.

Possibly Related Posts:

Who’s a waste of space, then?

21 November, 2015 - 18:16

A letter to … My godson, with whom I’ve decided to sever ties | Life and style | The Guardian

When I used to read the print edition of the Guardian, the paper I’ve read for most of my adolescent and adult life, a pet hate of mine in the last few years was the wastage of space, particularly after it moved to the Berliner format. As a standard part of their ‘style’, there were almost whole columns of empty space and on one occasion, a four-page feature on Syria (early in the civil war) featured a headline that spanned the top half of two pages, along with a small picture and some empty space. I wrote to complain, because the cover price had just gone up and I was annoyed at having to pay extra for blank paper. The wastage would have meant that another whole feature had to be cut.

But actual features can be a waste of space too. Back in the days of Q-News, the Muslim youth magazine that ran through most of the 90s and early 2000s, I once wrote them a fairly constructive letter, I thought, and it was never published — but a foully-worded letter, calling the writers “vermin” and “sewar (sic) rats Wahabi/Salafi” was. In the Family section of today’s Guardian, there’s an anonymous letter from an uncle who says he has cut ties with his godson/nephew because he won’t communicate promptly or warmly enough after the author cut ties with his parents.

This is the second anonymous letter slagging off a child the paper has published in about a month. The first featured a mother, whose 10-year-old son had been rude when she told him to tidy his room, lecturing him on all she had done, including the difficult pregnancy and birth. I thought it a bit pointless to lecture a 10-year-old girl, let alone a boy, on their mother’s pregnancy sickness and labour pains (an adult, maybe), but I also thought that the aggression he displayed was the same as he had to deal with a lot of the time at school. There are a lot of adults who do not think a child, particularly a “difficult” one (i.e. one who disagrees or argues) deserves good manners or civility, and he will be meeting a lot of other children whose manners are poor. That will only get worse when he enters secondary school. (More: Looking for Blue Sky.)

In today’s letter, the uncle/godparent complains that the most his nephew has ever said to him is a brief text thanking him for Christmas and birthday money. The main source of his dislike is the boy’s father, who he says never forgave him for turning his back on his working-class background and going to college (“Actually, not just college, university”) rather than getting “a safe, comfortable job with a nice pension in the local council”. I presume these people are old enough to have been able to get such a job without a degree. As for the boy’s mother, “he found the perfect partner: she doesn’t think out of the box either”. The boy had an ambition to go to the same college and follow the same career as the uncle, but failed to get in, and the uncle texted and suggested they meet up. The boy did not reply for a week. The uncle was hurt, but reminded himself that his nephew was “just 17: stupid and selfish, just like every other teenager”. Then he offered help a second time:

You took 24 hours to text that you did not reply earlier because you had been “out all day”. How many times a year do you get a message from your estranged uncle? And this is how you respond? You showed no enthusiasm for my help, but your text had the same polite formality and cold-blooded insincerity that I always associate with your father. Then I realised that, for better or worse, you have, in fact, become another version of your father.

This man is an adult, and knows that 17-year-olds are often stupid and selfish (they are, actually, not all). He should also know that his 17-year-old nephew is still under his parents’ care and is probably more sensitive to their needs than he is to his uncle’s, when that uncle is estranged and does not see them. His parents have probably told him a thing or two about his uncle’s behaviour (which, of course, he was free not to mention in this letter), and no doubt he didn’t like what he heard and believed them, because he has no reason not to (maybe he got the impression that his uncle is a petty-minded, immature jerk, the impression I get from this letter). He is under their influence, and no doubt absorbed some of their personality traits. Until he has got a job and some space and a family of his own, that is only to be expected.

Perhaps, in a few years time, he might be able to agree to talk to you or meet his uncle. Perhaps he might have grown up a bit. But the uncle will have to as well, because he sounds like a quite unpleasant person from this letter. A lot of people think the teenager is well rid of him.

And why is the Guardian wasting space on such drivel written by adults who think and behave like children, or worse?

(Yes, I’ve got a piece on Paris in preparation. I’m busy these days.)

Possibly Related Posts:

Germaine Greer’s views are extreme, but so are her critics’

6 November, 2015 - 14:54

Black and white picture of Germaine Greer, an elderly white woman with glasses, holding a glass of drink.The Goldfish last week posted an entry in which she examined the complaints of ‘silencing’ and ‘censorship’ regarding the petition to prevent Germaine Greer from speaking at Cardiff University on the grounds of having transphobic views, as well as picking apart an article by Roger Scruton, on the BBC News website, in which he complained that freedom of speech was being infringed by recent laws banning the incitement of hatred and by politicians seeking to introduce more such bans. Neither can claim to be suffering silencing or censorship, she says, because both have platforms in the mainstream press and on TV which far outstretch the audience they might reach at some university auditorium, and that some of the other claims of harassment against people who have expressed sexist, anti-gay or transphobic views (e.g. Tim Hunt) have been wildly exaggerated, while some of those affected by the views in question have suffered real social costs.

It’s true that Greer (along with many of the feminists who signed the letter in the Observer complaining about censorship by pro-trans feminists earlier this year) gets a much bigger audience than the activists campaigning against her. However, the argument that one cannot be experiencing censorship if one has articles published in the mainstream press or appears on TV while being denied publication in smaller-circulation publications or denied university appearances is flawed. First, not everyone with the views that might attract a banning petition on a university campus has access to the mainstream media; Julie Bindel, for example, has a much lower profile than Greer and others have even less access. But the ‘niche’ platforms may be where you need to be appearing to work successfully or effectively in your field, and in some cases the ‘lay’ media may be shunned because it is not peer-reviewed, for example, or just not run by the “right people”.

The reason could be that you believe that a disease many of your colleagues believe doesn’t exist, in fact does; it could be because you are trying to speak out against domestic violence or some widespread unhealthy practice such as FGM or vaccine refusal in a religious community. The journals and platforms you need to be seen and heard on to get your work done may be controlled by the faction that opposes your view. Getting such material published in the Guardian, on Newsnight or at a TED talk will not get it noticed with your target audience; it may well increase their arrogance, intransigence and sense of self-righteousness and persecution. (In some cases, though, specialist media refuse to publish certain views because they are known to be wrong, while the mainstream media picks them up because they offer a story, or because of a perceived need for ‘balance’, as with climate change or, in the past, cancer and AIDS deniers.) So it is not only bigotry that is stifled by the censorship of smaller-circulation journals and niche and minority platforms.

For me, the biggest reason why these petitions should not succeed is that well-organised and vocal lobby groups should not be able to dictate who can speak where and whom the rest of us can see and listen to. I’m opposed to that whether it’s the Zionist lobby, who have long been able to intimidate the media and academia with co-ordinated letter-writing campaigns and prevent public appearances and appointments with money or a “word in the ear” of powerful people, or the trans lobby. If one looks at the messages left by people who signed the petition to keep out Germaine Greer, one finds that many of them are not from Cardiff or even south Wales at all; in fact, a fair number are from the USA and Australia. It’s an international campaign, not a local one, and not a very substantial one. A similar petition to bar “the TERF Julie Bindel” from speaking at the university of Essex last year (see earlier entry) gained only 296 signatures, again, many of them not local.

Germaine Greer’s views on the status of trans and intersex women are extreme, even by the standards of the radical feminists, but unlike some of them she has never threatened anyone or been associated with any group that uses violence. (When I say violence, I mean actual violence, as in physically assaulting people, threatening people with such treatment or smashing things up. I point this out because certain trans activists like to use it to mean wronging anyone, as they see it.) That is the key difference between most radical feminists, with one or two exceptions, and the racists who were the subject of “no platform” policies in the past — the latter were heavily associated with violence and criminal behaviour, and still are. What she has done is express an opinion, one that some people (but not actually most people) find offensive because it does not validate their view of themselves.

In some areas her views were demonstrably wrong from the beginning (such as where she suggested that if it became possible to transplant a working female reproductive system, demand for sex reassignment surgery would collapse; womb transplants have become available, though not yet to trans women, and there is demand, despite the difficulties having one can sometimes bring) but in other areas, she has been proved right: she criticised the practice of reassigning intersex babies as female because they would not develop full male organs or function as a male, as in the case reported in the media in 1998 of Joel (then known as Joella) Holliday (as well as a number of other incidences that were used as case studies), a practice which has become discredited (and as reported over the summer, Holliday was never content as a girl and began living as a male as an adult).

The Goldfish notes that on the issue of homosexuality, “our society had an argument and the argument was won”. The problem here is that there can be the appearance of a debate, when in fact some voices are excluded or shouted down — the ‘debate’ over headscarves in schools in France being a classic example as Joan Wallach-Scott’s research has shown. It’s possible to ‘win’ a public debate (and thereby help to cause or block change) by using fallacious arguments, which it is less easy to do in an intellectual debate where establishing facts is the aim. In this country, the ‘argument’ was won when Labour won power in 1997, for a whole host of reasons which had nothing to do with homosexuality (and anti-gay causes tend to weaken themselves in this country because they are usually closely associated with other anti-minority causes). But in the case of the status of trans women and the issues of what gender is or isn’t, and who is or isn’t a woman, the debate is nowhere near being settled, and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise.

It’s possible that the debate will be settled at some point, but it is no more likely to be on the wild and baseless claims and demands of the trans lobby than on the opinions of Germaine Greer or Sheila Jeffreys. The trans lobby demand not only that people who have transitioned, physically, from one sex to (as far as is possible) the other be accepted; they also insist, and demand that the rest of us accept, that people who haven’t, and have no intention of doing so, but who proclaim themselves to be another gender on the basis of ‘identity’ are what they say they are or be branded as ‘bigots’. They insist that physical sex should not matter, that not only are manhood and womanhood ‘social constructs’ but that male and female are as well, a plainly nonsensical claim. We see them interject into conversations about serious female medical concerns as well as FGM, claiming that referring to the people who usually experience these things as girls and women is “cissexist” and insisting that “cis” be prepended whenever we talk about girls and women as if they were female and as if they were subject to the medical realities (periods, childbirth, gynaecological disorders, FGM in some places) that come with that.

It’s understandable that women should resist the incursion of males who bear only a passing resemblance to women and who in some cases have no intention of removing their male characteristics into women’s spaces. Men are generally bigger and stronger than women, and men have been known to hurt and indeed rape women. Some trans women, especially those who retain male characteristics, are also known for violence, and violent men (even rapists) who have become transgender have secured the support of this lobby. I am not sure how representative of women victims of rape and domestic (and other male) violence the radical feminists who claim to speak for them are; I know many who disagree with them. But I have not seen any research done on where women, or these specific groups of them, stand on these issues. All we have are two sets of loud voices expressing extreme opinions, some of whom have gained the favour of people of influence or gained control over certain key organisations (e.g. university women’s or feminist societies). That no more makes them authoritative than any other factional group gaining control of any other organisation. The idea that the body does not determine gender is not a settled fact. It’s an opinion of one group, and in my opinion (and I’m sure many others’, and not just radical feminists and conservative religoius people) an extreme, self-serving, false doctrine.

There are many writers and thinkers who hold all manner of repugnant views, including those who support bombing other countries on dubious grounds, who support oppressive regimes, who support the occupation in Palestine and demonise its victims, apologists for police brutality, climate change deniers, apologists for the bombing of Hiroshima who support nuclear expansion, and so on, who regularly get broadcast in the mainstream media and if they ever give university lectures or other public appearances off the TV, we never hear about it because nobody raises any great objection. Usually, when I hear objections being raised to someone being invited to give a public lecture or take part in a panel or debate on the grounds that they are a bigot, the usual target is a Muslim (often on the grounds of views expressed over something unrelated to the topic, or someone they have shared a platform with) or a feminist who insists you have to be female to be a woman. Just because these views aggravate a vocal minority, it doesn’t make them morally equivalent to racism or fascism and we should not entertain the idea of refusing a platform to such a speaker unless strong evidence of a threat of violence or some other nefarious behaviour can be shown. We should not be treating a small group with contentious views as if they represented the truth and those who disagree with them as bigots equivalent to racists, and ceding control of public and intellectual spaces to those who shout the loudest.

Image source: walnut whippet, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

Possibly Related Posts:

About that “only disability in life” meme

3 November, 2015 - 14:59

A picture of Oscar Pistorius running alongside a little girl in a yellow dress with prosthetic legs similar to hisYou can’t be on social media for more than a few weeks at a time, especially in any group with any disability connection whatever, without someone posting that infuriating meme that says “The only disability in life is a bad attitude!” at least once. This morning someone posted it on an Asperger’s syndrome page I follow on Facebook, with the caption “like if you agree”. I posted a comment saying I didn’t agree, that some disability was the result of others’ attitudes and barriers placed by society, and of chronic pain and other symptoms which might prevent someone getting out of bed, let alone going to work or to do sports or whatever. Still, it seems I was in the minority, as 216 people, at the time of this writing, have “liked” it.

Why is the meme a load of old rubbish? Typically it appears pasted onto an “inspirational” picture, in this case (not the one accompanying this entry) of a girl with Down’s syndrome with both thumbs up. The girl looks about six, so perhaps she’s not long started school, and has a loving family and goes to a school where she’s got friends (perhaps because children have yet to notice she’s different) and teachers that are helpful. She’s got a few years of school ahead of her and perhaps she’s yet to get to the point where teachers decide her presence is holding back the other children, or maybe the point where the children do notice she’s different and start bullying her about it. Perhaps her parents will be able to protect her. Perhaps she won’t even be able to understand the cruel remarks made by adults — perhaps nobody has mentioned in front of her that the majority of foetuses with Down’s syndrome are aborted, and that maybe it would have been kinder all round if she had been among them.

I don’t know what country the girl lives in. Perhaps it’s the USA. Perhaps she comes from quite a well-off family which will be able to cushion the blows life (and people) typically deliver to a young person with a learning disability. Perhaps her parents will be willing and able to fight to keep her in a local school, rather than sending her away to boarding school, or to a special school miles away that requires a two-hour daily bus commute. Perhaps when she grows up, they will be willing and able to allow her to live at home, and perhaps her family will have friends that can take her out swimming, to sports, to the zoo, maybe even to run a business. Or perhaps the local social services will provide carers to do this, or to help. Perhaps as she gets older, her parents won’t grow old and frail too quickly, and perhaps her brothers and sisters (if she has any) will be able to provide the care her parents do now. Maybe even her nephews and nieces.

I don’t know if she has had to have heart surgery. I don’t know if she required a tracheotomy to breathe for many years. (Her neck is covered by her collar.) I presume she hasn’t yet developed the dementia that people with Down’s syndrome are very prone to. Maybe she will or won’t have a relationship; one hopes she won’t be one of the very large percentage of disabled women who are victims of domestic violence (disabled men don’t fare much better). Perhaps she will have friends, and not people who pretend to be friends so as to exploit or abuse her. Perhaps she’ll be able to live in her own home; will that be in a pleasant neighbourhood where people treat her as one of them, or one with a lot of delinquents who harass her when she steps out? I presume she isn’t also autistic. Perhaps, if she is, she won’t be in and out of the mental health system when she gets older and has one meltdown too many when she’s too big to manage. Perhaps they’ll be kind to her. Perhaps the authorities won’t shunt her from place to place, far from home, full of unfamiliar and unfriendly faces, full of locked doors and staff that don’t understand her and whom she doesn’t understand. Perhaps her family will be able to make the journey of hundreds of miles to see her often. Perhaps they won’t. Perhaps she will be allowed to be visited by her brothers and sisters, and maybe her dog; perhaps people will decide the institution is not safe for the younger ones and that the dog is a health hazard. Perhaps the people running the place will see it’s not the right place; perhaps not. Perhaps they will allow her home for Christmas or her birthday; perhaps they will think it’s too much trouble and she won’t come back. Perhaps her family will be able to fight, and have supporters. Perhaps they won’t.

Perhaps, if her health is fragile, she will be able to spend her last days surrounded by her family, whether at home, or in a hospital or hospice. Or perhaps their last view of her will be in a coma, after suffering a heart attack, with unexplained carpet burns, or having drowned in the bath, or choked on her own vomit in bed, or eaten herself to death because she was locked in a room for years and unstimulated?

It’s ironic that this appeared on a group that’s meant to spread “awareness” of Asperger’s syndrome (and I’m not even going to get into the discussion of whether that term is still appropriate), because young people with that condition are very likely to be impacted by others’ attitudes — people’s judgements about their stimming, or repetitve habits, or lack of social graces, or failure to appreciate others’ body language, or whatever. Many of us get teased or bullied, and then told it’s our fault or to “just ignore it”. I’m well aware that schools are more aware of autistic spectrum disorders now than they were in the 90s (when children affected were considered naughty, disruptive, or just weird), but some children still get badly bullied (especially in secondary school) and some teachers are still not understanding. I know two families whose daughters suffered mental health crises as a result of this. One of them has been in hospital, on and off, for three years. (Her 16th birthday is tomorrow, and she’ll get three hours at home.) Mental health units are not equipped to deal with autism, even though they see a lot of autistic patients. I spent much of my school life being blamed for things I couldn’t help, and situations largely of others’ making. I was disruptive, yes, but very little of it was unprovoked and my behaviour was trivial compared to what I experienced in the boarding school I was sent to after the local teaching profession washed its hands of me.

And of course, we should consider the barriers that those with physical impairments face: buildings and public transport they cannot access, books they cannot read, conversations they cannot hear, people who refuse to make any accommodations for any of these things because it’s too much effort, and too expensive, and they can find someone else to do the job that won’t need any of it, and less obvious barriers such as medical staff who cannot see past their preconceived ideas. None of this has anything to do with the disabled person’s attitude.

A cartoon showing a person in a wheelchair being pulled up by a hot air balloon, with the words "The only disability in life is a bad attitude" scribbed out, with "Tell that to my body!" and "The greatest barrier to a happy life is a bad attitude" written above and below.Hannah Ensor, the cartoonist who has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, reacted to this meme by scribbling over it and writing “Tell that to my body!”, but adding “the greatest barrier to a happy life is a bad attitude”. She has a point: a bad attitude can stop you seeing the good things in life, of making the best of one’s situation, of finding solutions and ways round barriers. But it’s not the only disability in life, except perhaps if you have an uncomplicated impairment and, crucially, lots of money, as that’s what living with disability requires. You could otherwise be the sweetest, sunniest disabled person around, but if you are forced to exist in miserable conditions or abused again and again, you are not going to have a good life. (Every eventuality I have mentioned in this article has happened, most of them to people I know or their friends and relatives.)

Possibly Related Posts:

Girls, careers and posh schools

1 November, 2015 - 11:27

Picture of Vivienne Durham, a late middle-aged, blonde white woman wearing a white jacket with a white top underneath and necklace of large white and orange beads.Girls must choose career or motherhood, says top head - Telegraph

The Telegraph has interviewed the ‘headmistress’ of a London private girls’ school, Francis Holland in Regent’s Park, who says that she’s “not a feminist” and that teachers should make it clear to girls that there is a “glass ceiling” and not deceive them otherwise, and that they have to “plan for a biological fact, i.e. motherhood”. The headline claims that she said that girls faced a choice — career or motherhood — but she doesn’t quite say that, or at least the article doesn’t say she does. What she does say is that women shouldn’t be judged harshly for choosing “the road less taken”. I am not sure whether she means having children and no career, or a career and no children, or either rather than trying to do both.

I looked up Francis Holland on Google and an anonymous review came up from Yelp, which noted that the school taught London’s ‘elite’, had an intensive interview process and managed to make sure there were no unattractive girls there. That may be a bit of an exaggeration but the girls she teaches will be well-placed to choose one or the other, and if they choose both, they will likely not find the cost of childcare much of a burden. The chances are, none of them will need to entertain a man who earns less than £100,000 per year and will, if they so choose, get places at prestigious universities themselves. I don’t know if someone told this lady, but the cost of living in London is sky-high and a single salary that would have been considered quite respectable not that long ago (and that of any teacher, nurse, social worker etc) will not meet the cost of a family home, at least not without a lot of family support, state benefits or a mountain of debt. That’s why a lot of women who would rather be bringing up children work, or at least work longer hours than they would like to, and not necessarily in professional jobs.

I know it’s the Telegraph, but why on earth is the head of a private school that caters to the wealthy always considered a “top” head? While they may throw a few crumbs down to clever children from ordinary families in the form of bursaries (though these often don’t cover all the costs, such as those of overpriced uniforms, special bus passes and the technology the school assumes all children have access to, and don’t change the fact that the ‘poor girl’ might be made to feel an outsider), they won’t be teaching any challenging pupils, any from broken families, any who are in care, any recently arrived from war-torn parts of the world who have missed large parts of their education, and they can expel pupils not only for their own real or alleged misbehaviour but also that of their parents. It is a vastly less challenging job than being the head of an urban secondary (or even primary) school that has to deal with the complex problems of the neighbourhood it serves, yet when we hear of a “top” headmaster or mistress’s opinion, it’s never one of these heads, even if they achieve very respectable results in terms of qualifications gained and pupils going on to get good degrees. It’s always a head of a school that teaches rich kids (very occasionally a grammar school or academy head who is in political favour).

And it’s notable that she only talks about the women’s propspects, whether their choice to have or not have children will impact on their careers. The benefit to the child of having one of their parents available most of the time before they start school, of having home-made rather than convenience foods, of them being there when the child comes home from school, of them being available in the event of illness or them being unable to go into school because of bullying or something similar, is not considered, because these issues tend to affect families that cannot afford nannies, or easily afford childcare, or are on incomes that require two incomes, at least, to keep their heads above water. I’m no feminist either and I believe having their mother around in the early years is better for a child than being put in group childcare at age two. But years of government policy driving up the cost of housing for ordinary people has made that impossible, there are no plans to change any of it, and “top heads” like Vivienne Durham are not the ones dealing with the consequences.

Possibly Related Posts:

Iraq: We were right all along

25 October, 2015 - 17:19

Picture of Tony Blair surrounded by a group of soldiers in army fatigues, some standing and some kneeling.So, today Tony Blair finally admitted in an interview on CNN (more here) that his action in following the Americans into war in Iraq in 2003 may have helped allow the rise of ISIS, that he received faulty intelligence and that he thought he had more sway with the Americans than he really did. These are things the anti-war movement were saying in 2003, not only about Blair himself but also his cheerleaders in the blogosphere, who believed they could use the war to bring about democracy in Iraq. Harry’s Place, one of the most prominent cheerleaders for the war (and later on in the 2000s, a regular source of anti-Muslim news stories), has yet to even mention the news at the time of this writing.

The fact that British troops were in Iraq for years after the initial invasion, when they might have expected to be withdrawn after the deposition of Saddam Hussain and an orderly transfer of power to a new government, already made many people who were sympathetic to “removing Saddam” feel that it had been a big mistake. Other occupations that result from the removal of a dictator or aggressor have not lasted as long; West Germany had a functioning government four years after the end of World War II, and the occupation continued because of the perceived need to contain German aggression, and to protect western Europe from Soviet aggression, not because of instability. Japan adopted its present constitution in 1947, although the occupation did not formally end until 1952. Iraq was not a major aggressive power under Saddam Hussain and there should not have been a need for a military presence there for anything like as long as there was. The reason there was is that, as predicted, extremist elements would take advantage of the power vacuum.

I was never comfortable with some of the “realist” antis’ arguments that the Saddam régime’s repressive apparatus was beneficial in that it ensured stability and suppressed extremism. They believe that some nations, some races, need an iron fist to keep them under control. We don’t, of course. Iraq is an artificial country that makes sense only from a British colonial point of view, with a shape that almost looks like that of a European country, despite having three population groups who would never have been content to be ruled by the others. But America invaded Iraq to finish business and satisfy American demands to punish Arabs for 9/11 despite it being known that Iraq had nothing to do with that attack and that, in fact, the perpetrators were Saddam Hussain’s enemies as much as the west’s. It was not concerned about the long-term consequences; if anything, a long-term occupation and instability might have been seen as good for business for arms manufacturers and security contractors, and possibly good for the Republicans’ electoral prospects (which only worked for one election, of course). Those of us who had read the American right-wing blogosphere and seen how Arabs and Muslims were spoken of, as well as noticed the behaviour of some US servicemen and the reports that some had signed up in order to “kill Arabs” knew that it was a racist war, not a war of liberation, and not one that liberals of any sort should be involved in.

Many of us were not sympathisers with Saddam Hussain and would have supported his removal in other circumstances. It was widely observed that Muslim Brotherhood elements were prominent in the opposition to the war, particularly in the Muslim Association of Britain, and this was often mentioned so as to discredit it. That this movement, which was repressed by Saddam Hussain and would have had their ability to operate restored, along with a whole raft of other Islamist movements, strongly opposed the invasion to remove him should have made people sit up and take notice rather than dismiss it with contempt. While Britain may not have been able to prevent the invasion, it did not need to and should not have got involved, not only for reasons of keeping the moral high ground but because it cost money and lives and may well have led to us becoming a target for terrorists, as we did on several occasions in the years following the invasion.

In his interview, Blair says we should be careful about attributing the rise of ISIS to the invasion given that ISIS appeared several years after. He claims that “ISIS actually came to prominence from a base in Syria and not in Iraq”. In fact, ISIS originated as the Islamic State of Iraq, an offshoot of the local al-Qa’ida outfit, and moved into Syria. We do not know what the history of Iraq would have been like without the invasion; whether Saddam Hussain would still be in power, or whether he would have died or been replaced with one of his sons, or something else entirely. But the Arab Spring began in Tunisia and that country had plenty of reasons to want to throw off its dictatorship, regardless of what happened in Iraq. And it is entirely possible that the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad could have been achieved much more quickly without the rise of ISIS from Iraq, and that nobody would now be suggesting that it might be better for Assad to win so as to crush ISIS.

So, we now know that Tony Blair intended to support whatever Bush did (despite his fans insisting for years that he joined in because “he believed the intelligence”), and we have heard from David Blunkett that Blair “just decided to trust Cheney and Rumsfeld” — men referred to by previous US administrations as “the crazies” — and that Blair’s inner circle, including Blunkett, “were all collectively to blame for deluding ourselves into believing that we had much greater sway over Washington”. Even the host, Fareed Zakaria, apologised to viewers for supporting the war initially. When are we going to get an apology from the media and blogosphere cheerleaders who similarly deluded themselves that they were in on a great liberal project of democratisation? As of now, Harry’s Place is still silent on it.

Possibly Related Posts:

It’s official: Connor Sparrowhawk died of neglect

17 October, 2015 - 14:56

A black and white picture of Connor Sparrowhawk, a young white man with dark hair with a dark grey jacket, white shirt with no tie, while on the right is a part of his drawing of a red London bus.Yesterday, the verdict was delivered in the inquest into the death of Connor Sparrowhawk, known as Laughing Boy or LB, in the NHS learning disability unit at Slade House, Oxford, in July 2013. The jury’s narrative verdict was of death by drowning following an epileptic seizure in the bath, contributed to by neglect. Contributary factors included lack of clinical leadership on the unit, lack of adequate training or guidance regarding epilepsy, and “a very serious failing” in relation to Connor’s bathing arrangements. The Justice for LB website has published the full jury findings here and a statement from the family here. Channel 4 News featured him last night and the report was posted on YouTube; the report notes that the Southern Health NHS trust issued an apology (seconds after the verdict, almost as if it had been written in advance) but did not deliver it to the family, instead releasing it to the media and their website; the family only heard when a reporter told them. (More: Uncounted, Mark Neary [1], [2].)

Connor died on 4th July 2013 after 107 days in the Short Term Assessment and Treatment Team (STATT) unit in Oxford, his home town. He had been placed there in March 2013 after he became “became withdrawn, distressed and eventually aggressive”, attacking staff who worked with him, and after a “town trip with [two of his regular support workers] was cut short through agitation it was obvious that LB was moving into a space that was becoming increasingly small. And pretty much unworkable”. Connor spent his first month there on a section 2 (a 28-day ‘assessment’ detention) and despite initial positive signs (such as a nurse discussing him going back to school), it became obvious that the care was not up to much — they were allowing him to spend hours in bed or in the bath because that was “his choice”, obstructing family visits (not even allowing his teenage younger brother to visit at all), and not involving his family in meetings or taking on board what they told him about their condition, in particular his epilepsy. As revealed at the inquest and in reports before that, the trust that ran Slade House were excessively concerned about publicity, in particular his mother’s blog, on which reports about his care appeared (this one got them particularly worked up) but which was always anonymous (we did not even know Connor’s name until after his death).

When I read of Connor’s death in 2013, I immediately knew the people responsible were going to be in big trouble, because a death in the bath from a seizure reflects such basic neglect. Anyone who knows a thing about epilepsy knows that people with active epilepsy cannot bathe alone, if at all; you don’t have to be a doctor to know this. His mother thought it so obvious that she did not remind them of this; at the inquest she compared it to telling teachers not to let the kids loose on a motorway during a school trip. The usual way of ensuring safety is to sit with your back to the person bathing and talk to them; popping in every 10 minutes is not enough, as it is possible to drown in that time. In many ways this was a simpler inquest than that of others who have died of neglect in NHS care, like Stephanie Bincliffe, Nico Reed and probably also Thomas Rawnsley, whose inquest is expected next year: while the inquest found failures of leadership and training, the neglect consisted of things that happened minutes before he drowned, not months. It was not a question of long-term neglect, of being in the wrong place altogether, such as the denial of physiotherapy which had kept Nico Reed healthy, of being shut in a room for seven years as in the case of Stephanie Bincliffe because the staff did not know what to do with her.

Inquests should, in my opinion, be allowed to consider these wider issues so that all human error that contributed to someone’s death in any kind of care or treatment context can be considered, not just what took place up to an hour or so before. Anyone, particularly professionals, involved in making major decisions about a disabled person’s care or living arrangements needs to understand that their life may depend on this decision, and that they may not have long to live in any case. There is also a need to provide Legal Aid to families at inquests where a cause of death is contested and neglect evident, especially as counsel is provided to not only the health trust but also the individuals involved in the care of the deceased. Currently, they have to pay for legal representation themselves, or raise money from supporters, because of the doctrine that an inquest is not an adversarial process. As Alex Cobham points out, parties accused of neglect will treat them as just that:

Southern Health’s legal team sought a set of directions to make it less likely the jury could return a verdict on neglect – including by arguing for a dictionary rather than a legal definition, which is an interesting court approach to say the least. The family’s QC, Paul Bowen, told the coroner, “so you would be directing the jury unlawfully Sir, that would benefit no-one”.

Of course, as the government has been cutting back legal aid even in adversarial areas of justice such as the family courts, it is unlikely that it will be provided for inquests under the present government. That funding is raised for legal representation in Thomas Rawnsley’s inquest is vital, because it is known that he suffered injury while in the unit where he suffered his last, fatal illness. There is still an appeal to cover legal fees which has raised only a quarter of its target; please donate if you can.

The charity Scope issued a press release yesterday, which was rather a bland bit of PR which entirely missed the point. Mark Atkinson, its chief executive, said:

Too many disabled people are still being admitted to hospitals and institutions and kept there too long - a shocking average of five years.

To avoid future tragedies like this we need to invest in first-rate social care that ensures people have the right, personalised support to live full and fulfilled lives within their local community.

This rather shows that they did not read about this case in much detail. Yes, many disabled people have been held in such units for years, but Connor had been there less than four months. The cases of long-term detention do not usually result in death, even if they result in prolonged separation from family and familiar surroundings, loss of liberty (often greater than their condition justifies), and the causes are sometimes down to the attitudes of those caring for them (psychiatrists in particular), but also to bureaucratic obstacles. This month we heard the third announcement this year that Josh Wills from Cornwall, who has been in a hospital unit in Birmingham for nearly three years, will be going home (to a bespoke placement with full-time carers) soon; he has missed two dates this year already, to the heartbreak of his family. They have no complaints about the care he has received in Birmingham, only the distance. Other relatives I speak to tell me of clinicians refusing contact for weeks, over-medicating, making promises of leave and then breaking them (in one case suggesting a weekend home visit for an event she wanted to go to, then deciding to change her medication instead, thereby cancelling the leave), and of apparently trying to provoke their relatives into meltdowns so as to extend their detention. Responsible clinicians have too much power and are not accountable; this is why such legislation as the LB Bill is needed. But LB’s death was down to simple neglect, which could have happened in any badly-run unit or hospital although neglect of a psychiatric patient’s physical health needs is a common problem (as a friend with bipolar disorder, asthma and hereditary breast cancer found out when she was a voluntary patient in Burnley last year and had an asthma attack).

It might be hoped that Southern Health might be forced to face up to its responsibility for Connor’s death, now that a CQC report, an independent report into Connor’s death and now an inquest has found that his death was preventable and contributed to by neglect, and exposed the poor leadership and communication that followed its takeover of the Ridgeway Partnership in 2013. We know that they have been more concerned about their reputation than about taking responsibility, initially claiming internally that Connor’s death was natural when it could not possibly have been, as well as obsessively monitoring Sara Ryan’s blog, describing her as “toxic” even while Connor was in the unit and as “intimidating” at the inquest, and using one delaying tactic after another to avoid exposure and accountability. The fact is that they took over a small NHS trust which had had its problems (including a similar death in 2006) and improved, and under their leadership things deteriorated again, leading to a wholly avoidable death. We must have no more evasive guff from their two vacuous talking heads, Katrina Percy and Lesley Stevens; no more lily-livered PR-mediated pre-written apologies, and no more boasting of what great care they offer. We need resignations, or sackings, and there must be serious career consequences for the management and clinicians whose incompetence led to Connor’s death. While nursing staff spoke highly of Connor and some apologised for their role in his death, their psychiatrist, Valerie Murphy, was observed blaming everyone but herself. That she was able to walk straight into another position, in Ireland, deserves investigation. She clearly got a good reference from Southern Health, despite being connected to a preventable death.

A graphic titled "The 3Dimensions of care and diagnostic overshadowing", showing a building called "Sloven Towers", a windy road leading to it, and three figures holding signs saying "Deny, Deceive, Delay".

As for what must change in care, there must be improvement in quality, not mere quantity. There is a danger of falling into “stable-door logic”, taking actions to prevent a precise repeat of a given disaster without considering its necessity or the consequences for people’s quality of life. After Nico Reed’s death, the inquest ruled that he could have been saved with 20-minute observations while he slept. This might have prevented him getting a good night’s sleep and does not address the matter that he needed physiotherapy to maintain his swallowing reflexes and prevent him choking, and had been receiving it in a previous setting but not where he was living when he died. After Connor’s death, the remaining patients at Slade House were banned from taking baths at all, including those who did not have epilepsy. We must not have needlessly restrictive changes that impair inpatients’ quality of life with increased intrusion and reduced liberty; we must have proper training for staff and person-centred care for all. In a unit with only five or ten patients, there can be no excuse not to provide that.

The proceedings of the inquest were live-tweeted by George Julian and compiled and posted on this blog. They are as follows:

Possibly Related Posts:

You were warned

16 October, 2015 - 11:23

A white woman wearing a grey suit and blouse, with an upset expression.I rarely watch Question Time, the late-night show on BBC1 in which an audience gets to ask questions of a panel of politicians and journalists, because it’s on too late (I usually start work at 7am). However, last night the talk of Twitter was a woman who attacked the Tories for cutting working tax credits after promising not to before the General Election. She said she had voted Tory at the last election because she thought they offered the “best chance” for her family, but wailed that they were now taking that away from her. She shouted that she worked “bloody hard” and cannot pay her rent or bills. The Daily Mirror’s report has a one-minute clip of the exchange in which they say Amber Rudd, the Tory Energy minister, “looked away in silence”. The Mirror’s headline claimed that the woman “totally nails” Rudd. She does no such thing. Complaints of this sort, that “I voted Tory and now my benefits are being cut / local hospital is closing”, go back to the 1980s and usually reflect astonishment that Tory attacks on waste, scroungers and the like won’t affect them. (You can view the programme here in the UK for the next year.)

As someone who spent five years campaigning against most of the coalition government’s policies, I can say that I don’t believe anyone could have been tricked into voting Tory. With their supine Lib Dem coalition partners, they spent that time cutting services and benefits for the less well-off, initially on the pretext of cutting public debt (falsely claiming Labour ran it up in “good times”, rather than during a crisis while bailing out banks that held everyone’s money), and then justifying them with platitudes about morality, self-reliance and dignity. When we told you that disabled people need money because disability makes life expensive, because not all can work and those that can face discrimination, and that the fraud rate was tiny, you believed them when they told you they needed to reduce ‘error’ and you believed their press when they said people were getting benefits for ‘trivial’ mental health issues or ‘blisters’. When we told you that people were being thrown out on the streets and having to junk all their property because of rent rises caused by the Bedroom Tax, they told you that you shouldn’t have to pay to subsidise another’s “spare room”, and you believed them. You listened to their moralising and their sniggering with their posh boy accents, and you still believed them.

The political Right has always existed to serve the rich. It is based in both “old money”, the aristocracy and other major landowners (more here), and big business (more in the USA). The Tories do not have a mass membership; the party is supported by donations from the wealthy, and buttressed by a commercial mass media owned by the wealthy, and by broadcasters of the same class, from the same schools, echoing their propaganda with ‘authoritative’ voices on the radio and TV. In the 1980s the Tories kept themselves in power by bribing the lower middle class with cheap council house sales and tax cuts; the American right used morality and patriotism to get the same class to vote against their own economic interests. Now that the state has run out of decent council houses, the Tories keep up the bribery by selling other people’s property instead, while moving to the American model to buy votes using fear of immigration, Europe, Scotland, and “Labour’s economic chaos”.

As a Muslim I’ll always remember the two times when Muslims supported the political Right in a general election and ended up getting dumped on (Chirac and Bush jr). The Right’s strategy is to appeal to White middle-class voters, while ignoring or demonising (and in some cases disenfranchising) minority, poor and working-class voters. I knew the Tories were bad news well before the 2010 election, well before they tore their “compassionate conservative” masks off and threw aside the “big society” rhetoric in coalition, when they promoted Boris Johnson, the much-published Islamophobic scaremonger and bigot, to the shadow cabinet and allowed him to become their candidate for mayor of London. If you were a provincial lower-middle-class white woman with a head full of Daily Mail stories about Muslims banning Christmas and piggy banks, you probably didn’t care about this in 2010. But if you voted for them after they attacked disabled and poor people during the coalition years, all the while using ‘benefits’ and ‘welfare’ as dirty words, because you didn’t think they would come for your benefits, you only have yourself to blame now. We warned you, and they warned you.

(As Owen Jones points out in his Guardian column, for Labour itself to say “I told you so” to Tory voters being hit by Tory tax credit cuts is political suicide and the party needs to reach out to them. I’m not a member of the Labour party and live in a constituency where the party makes no effort. I think that if people vote for a party of bigotry and public service cuts because they’re swayed by fear- and hate-based propaganda and don’t think it will affect them, they ought to be told that their choice was a stupid and immoral one.)

Possibly Related Posts:

On Jeremy Corbyn and those nukes

4 October, 2015 - 13:15

A missile being launched from the sea, with fire projecting from its rear and much water thrown up in the airLast week Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour leader, said in an interview that if he were Prime Minister, he would not use nuclear weapons under any circumstances, which provoked a storm of controversy with some commentators declaring that he had in effect disarmed the country. He is also known to be against commissioning a replacement for Trident, Britain’s nuclear submarines which carry American missiles and warheads. On this position he is not supported by a lot of Labour MPs who regard opposition to Trident as being a major factor in Labour’s unpopularity in the 1980s. Others have noted that Corbyn’s opposition to nuclear weapons is long established, that it was part of his platform while campaigning for the leadership, and that Trident is a 1980s answer to a 1980s situation, i.e. the Cold War, which is no longer going on.

I have two separate problems with our renewing our nuclear capability along the same lines as Trident. The first is that Trident is not independent; the missiles are American and although the warheads are built at Aldermaston, Berkshire, they share technology with US warheads. While the agreement with the USA states that they have no veto over the use of British nuclear weapons, their maintenance means that they may be able to insert “back doors” into the system in the event that our most likely target is a country the USA is favourable to — or if the US president simply decides he does not want Britain using nuclear weapons on anyone. If we are to spend billions developing and running a nuclear deterrent, it ought to be of entirely British design and manufacture; otherwise, it is a display of blind faith in and subservience to America.

The main problem, however, is that nuclear weapons have almost no legitimate uses. If used against a city, it is simply a massacre of civilians (very likely mostly women and children, as the men will be away fighting) and a war crime, whatever the “good intentions” or the supposition that it might bring a war to a quicker conclusion. It could be used against a military installation, but these are rarely the size of whole cities and there are usually civilians’ homes surrounding them (as you’ll find in garrison towns in the UK, like Aldershot). If we use them on a country with no nuclear weapons, this will immediately open us up to international criticism and possible war crimes trials; we would not use them on a country with nuclear weapons (and the capability to deliver them to the UK) as this would be a provocation. What, then, is the use of them? Faced with the Russian invasion that they were originally intended to prevent, do we launch missiles at Russian cities? They have enough to destroy most of our cities and garrisons (and everyone knows where those are); they have many more cities than we have. We end up with most of our cities and military capability destroyed, and the Russians can walk right in a few months later after the radiation has dissipated.

I’m not an anti-nuclear zealot, and I do not believe that renewable energy sources such as wind are a viable alternative to fossil fuels; but nuclear weapons are a threat to peace in themselves, as there is always the possibility that one could be launched rashly, possibly by un unhinged leader (and it is foolish to think this could not happen here) or in response to spurious ‘intelligence’, to say nothing of the possibility of radiation leaks due to poor maintenance and so on. The same risks from a technology that makes the modern way of life possible are more acceptable than from a weapons system that has only very limited use and will cause immense loss of life and environmental damage if used. That we can’t just get rid of nukes overnight is clear; they will have to be reduced by agreement, not only between the USA and Russia but also China, India, Pakistan and Israel (and I would not want Modi’s and Netanyahu’s fingers to be the only ones on the nuclear button); but Britain should not sink billions more into another lot of American nuclear missiles. It’s a very expensive way to delude ourselves that we are still a great power.

Possibly Related Posts:

No, meat is not murder (and other reflections on Corbyn)

27 September, 2015 - 13:08

Picture of Kerry McCarthy, a white woman with a rounded face and shoulder-length hair wearing a black jumper with a "tweet for Labour" badge.Last week it was revealed (or we were reminded) that the new shadow cabinet member for agriculture and the environment, Kerry McCarthy, was a vegan who gave an interview with the vegan magazine Viva!Life, published March 2015, in which she called for meat-eating to be treated like smoking, with public campaigns to encourage people to stop eating it, because of its environmental impact. She said, “Progress on animal welfare is being made at the EU level and I feel it is best left to those campaigning groups working there but in the end it comes down to not eating meat and dairy. … The constant challenging of the environmental impact of livestock farming is making me more and more militant, not least that CAP [common agricultural policy] payments are available for grouse shooting, controlling buzzards and forestry”.

The papers, oddly, turned to the Countryside Alliance, an organisation representing the hunting lobby rather than farmers as such, for a response. They called her ideas “verging on the cranky” and would only “make it more difficult for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party to reconnect with rural Britain”. Sadly, these words are more relevant than we might think, because where Labour has rural support, it tends to be in upland areas of Wales and northern England which are best suited to livestock farming (especially sheep) on hills, rather than the intensive crop growing found in lowland regions like Lincolnshire, which are Tory heartlands which only returned Labour MPs in the early Blair years. It’s preposterous to compare meat to tobacco; tobacco is a pure waste of time and money, which is addictive without yielding a high, produces foul smells, damages the user’s health and endangers that of those around them. Meat is food; to most people it tastes pleasant; it’s been a standard part of the human diet from the beginning, it converts material inedible to humans (like grass) to something edible, and is a source of needed iron and protein, especially for children. It turns out that Corbyn did not even know about McCarthy’s views before appointing her, which if it does not reflect poor judgement, certainly shows he has limited choices.

I didn’t get a vote in the leadership election because I let my membership lapse in 1995 and never renewed it because I did not like what Blair was doing to the party (not just in terms of policy, but also things like crushing dissent in organisations like student unions, which I first became aware of when I went to university that year). I’ve lived in New Malden since 2001, an area the party has been content to leave to the Liberal Democrats to oppose the Tories, which meant there seemed little point joining a party I could not vote for in my constituency and vote for without risking letting a Tory in. I also didn’t rejoin because Labour do not tolerate public dissent; if you publicly express support for another candidate, they expel you. I still voted for Ed Davey in 2015. However, it is clear to me that Jeremy Corbyn won because the other three candidates were uninspiring and did not offer any change from the status quo, some of them parroting Tory rhetoric about aspiration and “wealth creators” while taking their core vote for granted. Corbyn won a landslide, even when the £3 supporters were taken out of the picture. A lot of people perhaps wish there was a more credible candidate than Corbyn who had the backbone to challenge the Tory political and press narrative on such things as “economic competency”, but the New Labour machine had made sure that there wasn’t.

There has been a lot of over-analysing of Labour’s defeat in 2015, particularly from New Labourites who crow that Labour lost because it diverged from their policies, and others are accusing Labour members of harbouring the “delusions of the defeated” and failing to face up to the “real reasons” Labour lost. The Liberal Democrats also do not accept that their behaviour while in coalition was a major reason why they lost, and Tim Farron last week refused to rule out another Tory coalition, claiming that there was “nothing grubby or unprincipled about wanting to win, nothing noble about defeat”. The Liberal Democrats did not ‘win’ the 2010 election; they lost seats and came third, and got into office by means of a back-room deal. The coalition was not the only reason why they lost such a huge number of seats, but it was a very important one. And they deserved to lose.

The over-analysing of Labour’s defeat is as much the product of trauma as might account for some of the rush to the Left. The scale of the defeat is being exaggerated: it wasn’t 1983 all over again and except in Scotland, it wasn’t a rout. It is a common trait of defeated people to think they were defeated because they were not, on a very deep level, more like the victors, rather than because of other factors. In the case of a military force, this can often mean superior weaponry and discipline, rather than a religious difference, but it is not unknown for the defeated nation to imagine that “their gods were conquered” or otherwise that their core beliefs are discredited. Labour’s core beliefs were not discredited by last May’s election defeat. Labour did not win because the Tories were not doing too badly, as they were in 1997. They were not mired in scandal, they were not openly divided, and there was no crisis. Those are the reasons governing parties lose elections. This is the chief reason why Labour lost in 2010: there was an economic crisis which discredited Brown’s (essentially right-wing) economic policies (such as deregulating the banks), and the man himself reeked of frustrated entitlement (something that should have disqualified him from the job on its own) and the parallels with John Major from 1992-7 were too obvious.

New Labour also fail to appreciate that their behaviour in and out of office cost them votes. Like the Lib Dems, they prefer to simply blame the voters for costing them an election. The facts are that Blair won a landslide in 1997 and a respectable victory in 2001, then won by the skin of his teeth in 2005 and the remains of his movement lost in 2010. He lost support because he dragged this country into an unwinnable war because he was unwilling to say no to a powerful, angry man, and because he upset a large body of voters who care about civil liberties and social justice with such acts as agreeing to an extradition treaty with the USA that offered UK citizens no protection, and curtailing individuals’ rights (often on spurious grounds) with control orders. They then told us that we had to agree to it or we would get a Tory government, and see how we liked that. They were like the pigs in Animal Farm: give us what we want or “Jones will come back”. They also failed to keep their working-class vote on side by, for example, re-investing in run-down areas of the north, which is why that has been threatened by UKIP. They also lost ethnic votes, especially young Muslims, and it also caused vote-rigging scandals.

New Labour seem to be clinging to their strategy of targeting the same “C2” swing voters they targeted successfully in 1997 and forgetting that they cannot take all their other voters for granted. This has been stated openly in the media on a number of occasions: that your core vote will vote for you anyway, so there’s no point pitching your campaign to them. More recent evidence is that the core vote is leaking to UKIP because of fears of immigration, especially eastern European immigration, which has been bolstered by continual suggestions in the media that British workers are lazy and stupid (these kinds of sneers are circulated on social media too; a good example being the meme “if all you’ve got is two GCSE’s and an STI, a foreign doctor doesn’t threaten your job”). Immigration could be accommodated with less impact on native people’s jobs and living standards if politicians required business to invest in native talent, but they don’t, because that would be interfering with the market. (An example that affects me personally is the requirement for two years’ entitlement before being even considered for many truck driving jobs, which gets them more favourable insurance premiums; they could not do this if they did not have a ready supply of foreign drivers who do meet that requirement.)

Another major cause of why Labour were at a disadvantage is the press. To point this out is to invite accusations of whining that the rules of the game aren’t fair, but the fact is that the press is a moneyed interest in its own right, and is biased against notions of social justice because it is owned by rich people, and because harsh, easy answers sell papers to people who do not have the time (and have not been encouraged at any time since they were at school or college, if even then) to sit down and think about things, and calmness, rationality and compassion don’t. We then find the BBC following the same agenda set by the commercial press, largely out of fear of being branded a “liberal elite” institution existing on involuntary public subscription. Labour have to stop pretending it can win clean against a Tory party that plays dirty, attacking the funding it gets from its union base. The papers are part of the Tories’ corporate base; they are a powerful tool for propaganda because they have access to newsstands and bulk distribution, and they present propaganda, prominently, as news and fact. They must be curbed. No semblance of progress is achievable when public opinion is formed by these unaccountable and amoral corporate papers and when elected governments are cowed by them.

New Labour, in any case, has not even defended its own legacy. It allows the press to portray the last Labour government as one of spendthrift socialism, which it never was. It hollowed out the party so that there was no credible successor to Tony Blair who could have won the 2010 election. This is why none of the three uninspiring functionary politicians who stood in the last leadership election came within a mile of defeating Corbyn. Like many, I’m worried that he might have too little support from his fellow Labour MPs (as shown in his choice of environment spokesperson) and that his message will be rejected by the electorate, but the party will give him a couple of years to prove himself, or choose someone else, but he will have the benefit of an energised activist base who will get out and campaign for him in a way that fewer of them would have done for Burnham or Kendall. Hopefully other Labour politicians will realise that you cannot expect people who joined the party believing in social justice to put in time and effort campaigning for someone who just wants power and offers little more than a change of colour.

Image source: Wikipedia, originally by Paul Simpson. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licence.

Possibly Related Posts:

‘House Muslims’, whatever we call them, are a thing

26 September, 2015 - 11:00

A word cloud consisting of words used in hate crimes reported to Tell MAMA; prominent ones include terrorism, beheading, rape, Rotherham, ISIS, scum, rape, UKIP and Paki. It also includes more common racial slurs, swear words, terrorism references, and misspellings of all of the above.The other day Tell MAMA, which monitors hate crimes against Muslims, published an anonymous article claiming that certain unnamed “moral guardians of the Internet”, mainly aged between 20 and 35 “who spend their time on Twitter railing against prejudice and Islamophobia” and “shout Islamophobia at the slightest drop of a hat”, are in the habit of calling Muslims they disagree with on matters like extremism or Prevent “house Muslims”, “equivalent to the House Slaves who kept the machinery of oppression through slavery going” and “who ensured that the South’s policy of slavery continued on longer since they had sold their labour just to receive some basic privileges”. They continue:

Why are these statements problematic? They are problematic since those making them leave themselves open to the charge that they have no moral mandate in countering intolerance and prejudice, when they themselves are promoting a form of bigotry. They have no mandate since tackling racism and prejudice, speaks to power. These individuals do not speak to power, they simply re-enforce a mob-like mentality that bays, taunts and attempts to humiliate the individual, thereby re-enforcing power structures. This statement is also problematic, since it shows the hypocrisy in some who claim to be part of the anti-racist movement and who are nothing but charlatans and snake-skin salespeople playing to a mob mentality. Underneath the facade, they have slightly more in common with the plantation owner who sought to keep his slaves subjugated and controlled; boxed off and easy to understand. Well, we will have no part of it.

Anyone who uses the term ‘House Muslim’ should be regarded as being akin in his/her views to those who promote the false narrative that Muslims cannot be trusted and that they are secret Sharia or taqiyya peddlers. Both narratives are toxic and we simply should reject both with all of our energies.

My experience of monitoring the coverage of Muslims in the British media for over ten years is that whatever we want to call them, “house Muslims” are a reality, they are popular with the media and appear frequently, and they fall into a number of categories. Among them are members of sects that look a bit like Islam but are not (e.g. Ismailism, Qadianism, Quran-aloneism), telling the media that they are the true Muslims and that everyone else is doing Islam wrong. Others include sectarians who accuse their rivals of being extremists or terrorists in interviews with the mainstream media (Brelvis and some so-called Sufis being the most common offenders of this type). There are also some individuals who want to build a name or career for themselves, either within the community or in the media.

Someone does not become a “house Muslim” by dissenting from popular Muslim opinion. They do so by speaking to the media about Muslims or Islam in a way which is treacherous, which confirms others’ prejudices, which undermines campaigns for Muslims’ civil or religious rights (for example, by claiming that Muslim civil rights organisations are fronts for Hamas), which makes broad and unsubstantiated claims about terrorism or support for terrorism, support for specific groups, extremism or extremist attitudes, attitudes to women, attitudes to non-Muslims, FGM or forced marriages, and a variety of other issues. Any time there is a public controversy about Muslim practice or behaviour, or a scandal involving people of Muslim background, the media seeks the views of these people despite them often having no standing in the community whatsoever. For example, after the convictions of various groups of men of Muslim heritage for grooming and raping young girls, the BBC mid-day presenter Jeremy Vine hosted a debate between a man from the NSPCC and Taj Hargey, who was presented as offering an insider’s perspective (which he is not), told Vine what he wanted to hear, i.e. that Muslim attitudes were to blame and it was all the imams’ fault. (A week later, Hargey also claimed on the same show that the murderers of Lee Rigby got their ideas from “the mullahs”, an entirely false and baseless claim.) One also recalls Yasmin Alibhai-Brown screeching over Omar Ali of FOSIS during a Newsnight feature on the separation of men and women at Islamic events two years ago, telling Muslims to start their own universities rather than imposing their “Saudi Arabian practices” on anyone else.

Those are two of the more extreme examples — some actual Muslims have been known to make damaging statements to the media whenever extremism is under discussion, blaming “Wahhabis”, Saudi influence, “radical ideology”, a “them and us attitude”, anything but racism, Islamophobia, official harassment, media demonisation, and a host of other real challenges that Muslims and particularly young Muslims face in western societies. This is what the media, of left and right, want to hear because they are part of the establishment and run by a class of journalists who are mostly white, mostly middle-class, often products of private schools (when challenged on Twitter about this in the case of the Observer, Nick Cohen responded that it was in fact a “grammar school paper”!), and their main target audience is much the same, only with a wider class selection. The only Muslims they really want to hear from are the most westernised.

To call someone a “house nigger”, particularly if you are not Black and the person you are referring to is, is unacceptable because it contains a racial slur, but the phenomenon of a member of a minority speaking or acting treacherously about their own people in order to gain fame or leadership for themselves, or for other reasons, is well-known through the ages and not just among Muslims. Tell MAMA argue that the unnamed individuals they criticise “have no mandate since tackling racism and prejudice, speaks to power”, but when these people “speak to power”, they do so in a way that reinforces prejudice and suspicion about ordinary Muslims. It is they who “reinforce power structures” because they do not challenge dominant narratives; they enforce white power and keep Muslims powerless. In most ways, they are worse than the “house slaves” of the 19th century and before, since they were only trying to better their lives at a time when freedom was not on offer to them. They did not do it to make money or become famous on the backs of poorer or less powerful people of their own kind.

The situation we live in today is not slavery, and neither is it Apartheid or racial segregation. But we live in a continent which has perpetrated two genocides against religious minorities within living memory, a continent which in places is turning in on itself, reasserting itself as a white secular or Christian society and telling others that they have to get like the white majority or get out, banning religious dress, religious slaughter and circumcision, interfering in marriages, denying citizenship on the grounds of religious views, prosecuting people for offending popular sensibilities. One only has to look at the debate over allowing Syrian refugees to enter Europe to see that hatred of Islam and Muslims is never far from the surface. In this context, Muslim public speakers have a duty not to expose their communities to hostility or hatred by making rash claims or exposing more of their community’s problems than is necessary; if they do, then they can expect to be condemned for it, all the more so when they are doing it for personal gain. Call them what you will, but untrustworthy and disloyal, or just self-seeking, Muslim public figures running their mouths off to the media with half-true or irrelevant tittle-tattle about Muslims are a fact, and they feed public hostility, including the hate crimes Tell MAMA monitor. We’ll stop talking about them when they stop talking about us.

Image source: Tell MAMA.

Possibly Related Posts:

Saudi Arabia minimising civilian casualties?

12 September, 2015 - 20:50

Gabriel Gatehouse, a white male TV reporter wearing a blue shirt and black trousers, walking through a mosque with a red carpet strewn with debris left by a suicide bombingI was rather surprised to hear the ongoing war in Yemen being described as the “forgotten war” on BBC’s Newsnight, as I’ve been hearing about it almost non-stop on my social media feeds; but then, I don’t watch the TV news much anymore (although do listen to the radio news and I admit I haven’t heard much about it there). Newsnight featured the war in Yemen Thursday and Friday nights last week, showing the aftermath of a suicide bombing in a mosque and the bombing by the “Saudi-led coalition” of what they claimed was a training centre for African jihadists, but whose owners said it was a water bottling plant; the TV crew found no evidence for the Saudis’ claims. O’Brien interviewed a Saudi brigadier general, Ahmad Assiri, and a Tory MP, Daniel Kawczynski, a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

The interview with Brig Gen Assiri was not very helpful as he appeared (or pretended) not to know which incident O’Brien was talking about when he mentioned the bottling plant bombing. To that end, Newsnight could have sourced from the TV crew in Yemen the name of the plant, or the town where it happened. O’Brien tried to change the subject when he decided he wasn’t making much progress in getting an answer out of the general, and asked him about whether his armed forces were using British weapons, at which the general demanded to be allowed to finish answering the original question.

So, he then moved on to Kawczynski, alleging that a different set of rules seemed to apply to Saudi Arabia and asking if any investigation into war crimes would occur. Kawczynski responded by accusing Newsnight of one-sided coverage and of ignoring the atrocities committed by the Houthis, which O’Brien had mentioned in passing as having taken place in the Aden area, and the fact that the Houthis had been firing mortars into Saudi Arabia itself (the standard excuse of the Israelis when they bomb civilian targets in Gaza, of course). After O’Brien had repeated the question about an investigation yet again, Kawczynski accused him of talking constantly about Saudi Arabia, when this was in fact a coalition of 10 states, including several Gulf states, Egypt and Sudan; O’Brien repeated his question again, and said he had “all the time in the world to answer that question”. Kawczyski alleged that the war crimes were being committed by the “Houthi tribes”, not by Saudi Arabia.

O’Brien repeated the question yet again, and Kawczynski said, “you have an agenda against the Gulf States coalition”, seeking to “peddle the myth that only one side is responsible for atrocities”. Kawczynski asked why the BBC was not investigating Houthi war crimes, and O’Brien responded that the investigation was into whether the coalition was using British-made weapons to commit war crimes, which the Houthis, who are not our allies, are not. Kawczynski alleged that the ten countries involved were doing everything possible to limit civilian casualties. He said that Newsnight’s coverage was very different from that being shown on Arabic TV channels including Al-Jazeera; O’Brien responded that this is what could be expected from a channel partly funded by one of the members of the coalition. (According to al-Jazeera, the “German news agency DPA also quoted medical officials as saying the target in Abas was a drinking water factory”.)

O’Brien then repeated his question yet again, and Kaczynski made his accusation of bias yet again, and claimed that the bottling plant was in the middle of the desert and that the evidence of a military training centre that the TV crew could not find would have been removed from the scene before the TV crew got there. Kawczynski continued on his rant against the BBC, suggesting that they would never agree to a real impartial investigation as they were “omnipotent”, “supreme” and never made mistakes. O’Brien thanked him for his time and moved onto another story.

I think both Kawczynski’s central claims — that the BBC are biased against Saudi Arabia or its coalition and that they have striven to minimise civilian casualties — are laughable. Why on earth would the BBC be biased against the Saudis? Perhaps because it’s an absolute monarchy, one which has put a series of increasingly aged brothers on the throne for the past six decades? Perhaps because it has a history of egregious human rights abuses, in one well-known case torturing a group of western ex-pats into confessing to terrorist acts which were in fact committed by al-Qa’ida, which they did not want to admit were operating in their country? Perhaps because a western news agency doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for a country which does not allow women to drive, and requires women to get their husbands’ permission for pretty much anything, including medical treatment? Even if they spend billions on British weapons.

The claims that the ‘coalition’ has sought to minimise innocent casualties are disputed by pretty much anyone I have seen that has reported from the country, and from numerous people in Yemen who have managed to publish what they see on Twitter. In August, Amnesty International published a report (PDF) detailing the effects on civilians of eight particular air strikes, but the executive summary reads as follows:

The conflict has been raging in 20 out of the country’s 22 governorates and has killed close to 4,000 people, half of them civilians including hundreds of children, and displaced over one million since 25 March 2015. All the parties involved in the conflict have displayed a flagrant disregard for civilian lives and fundamental principles of international humanitarian law. They have killed and injured hundreds of civilians not involved in the conflict, many of them children and women, in unlawful (disproportionate and indiscriminate) ground and air attacks.

In the southern region of the country, Huthi and anti-Huthi armed groups battling for control of Yemen’s second and third largest cities, Aden and Ta’iz, and surrounding areas have routinely launched attacks into densely populated residential neighbourhoods, using imprecise weapons which cannot be aimed at specific targets and which should never be used in residential areas, killing and maiming scores of civilians.

Fighters on both sides have been operating in the midst of residential neighbourhoods, launching attacks from or near homes, schools and hospitals, endangering civilians in those areas by exposing them to the risk of reprisal attacks (and at times putting them in the line of fire of their own malfunctioning weapons). In addition to large numbers of civilian casualties resulting from indiscriminate attacks, dozens of civilians returning home after the end of the fighting in the Aden region have been killed and injured from landmines laid by the warring parties.

The Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces have killed and wounded civilians, in unlawful airstrikes which failed to distinguish between military targets and civilian objects in Huthi-controlled areas.

As is generally agreed, both sides are responsible for atrocities and civilian casualties: the Houthis’ anti-aircraft fire, when it does not hit aircraft, explodes on the ground, often in populated areas; Ali Abdullah Saleh, the former president, was known to site military bases in civilian areas and these include weapons stores which have been hit by air strikes in this war. The Amnesty report contains examples of air strikes which hit civilian targets which showed no evidence of military use, including schools, mosques, markets and private homes, including of displaced people who had no connection to the Houthis.

It beggars belief that a western parliamentarian should expect his audience to join him in assuming that a coalition of régimes with mostly appalling human rights records, which use torture, which employ secret police to spy on their people, which massacre demonstrators, which treat workers employed from poor countries like dirt, housing them in cramped and insanitary conditions, withholding their passports, not paying them on time or at all, which have poor workplace health and safety records and as we saw last week, failed to stabilise or secure a crane properly to stop it collapsing on worshippers at the Ka’ba when it rained, would have either the inclination or the competence to minimise civilian casualties while bombing a country inhabited by poor Muslims. Only blind partisanship or vested interests could possibly lead someone to always assume the best of despots.

Possibly Related Posts:

Name the problem: White Bigotry

7 September, 2015 - 21:00

Still of a woman wearing a black headscarf and niqaab, with only her eyes showing, on the left and a white woman with her hair clipped at the back, wearing a black jacket, on the rightThere are some themes which will be familiar to anyone who follows or is involved in feminist discourses about rape and other violence against women and children: that the perpetrators often go unnamed while victims are blamed; that the crimes are treated as if they were inevitable or natural occurrences, rather than the choice of some men to hurt women; that the attitudes which lead to male violence are not being tackled; that reporting or discussion of violent or sexual crime does not “name the problem” which is male violence. I was reminded of these arguments while listening to the reporting on both Radio 4 and BBC London this morning about hate attacks against Muslims, which according to Metropolitan Police statistics rose by 70% in the past year and which Tell MAMA claims mostly target visible Muslim women, during which someone from Tell MAMA, the organisation set up to “monitor anti-Muslim attacks”, claimed that the spike in attacks followed terrorist attacks by ISIS such as the shooting in Tunisia. This analysis fails to acknowledge contributing factors closer to home. The issue was also featured on the BBC’s Inside Out London programme this evening.

This morning’s Today programme and BBC London’s breakfast programme (with Paul Ross and Penny Smith) featured an interview with a woman who had been attacked in the street by a woman who later turned out to have a knife, while others walked by or turned away from her rather than come to her aid (they did not name the woman who attacked her, but they said she had been prosecuted). They also interviewed a white convert lady who was in the process of moving from Penge, south-east London, to Whitechapel, which is where it is most common to see Muslim women in veils, to escape the constant abuse she receives when out in public, even with her children. (Both these women, and another who wears the hijab, are interviewed here.) They interviewed someone from the Jan Trust, who also confirmed that visible Muslim women were the most common victims.

A front page from the UK Daily Mail, with the headline 'Sharia Lessons for Pupils, Six'None of the reporting, however, examined the reasons behind why these attacks are taking place beyond linking them to ISIS attacks. This rather suggests that hate attacks on ordinary people in London somehow follow terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world as inevitably as night follows day, rather than being a choice some people make to attack someone in the street who is minding their own business and not threatening them in any way. The source of the attacks is mostly white British people who have been fed a diet of propaganda over the last decade and a half by media controlled by white, usually British (Rupert Murdoch being the obvious exception) people, occasionally fed into by mostly white British politicians, most notoriously Jack Straw in the case of the niqaab but most recently David Cameron. This has taken the form of repeated stories about Muslims demanding or getting special treatment (bans on piggy banks, Christmas being renamed, swimming pools having “Muslim sessions”, a mixture of the trivial and the twisted), opinion polls (always tiny) suggesting that Muslims support terrorism or turning Britain into an Islamic state, some Muslim leader or other being filmed giving unfashionable opinions, front-page articles in tabloids calling for a ban on the veil (on the basis of their poll), Muslims refusing to integrate in one way or another or establishing ghettoes or mini-Pakistans, and the hyping of fringe groups like al-Muhajiroun, the use of stock images of ordinary Muslims to illustrate stories about unrest or terrorism, and obsessive media coverage of child marriage and FGM with a heavy focus on Muslims (last year, there was even an attempt to blame Muslims for large-scale abortions of baby girls!). The BBC has not been above peddling these scare stories: in 2006, as I wrote here at the time, Vanessa Feltz (the London station’s morning talk show presenter) recycled a story from the Daily Star about a “Muslim swimming session” in Croydon that was in fact a paid-for private session. The Inside Out programme examined anti-Muslim hate on social media and among the Far Right, but also did not take the media to task or seriously question the “link” between foreign atrocities and British hate crime. They even called it the “ISIS effect”.

When Muslims kill people, of course, white western politicians are always quick to condemn the “grievance culture” and exclaim that war and oppression are not the root causes; rather, a “fascistic fundamentalist ideology” must be. The same was true of such explanations for the 2005 London bombings; to suggest that the bombings were the result of British and American warmongering was compared by Norman Geras to saying that a murder or rape victim was foolish to behave in the way they did before the attack on them (his article here). So why then is it assumed that there is a causal link between Muslim atrocities abroad and attacks on innocent Muslims independent of any influence from politicians or the media? The attacks need to be put in the context of the society they come out of, the attitudes within that society, the influences that society is subject to. Those in power talk of challenging extremist attitudes and the “us and them” mentality which they claim feeds them, but attitudes that feed Islamophobia and anti-Muslim violence need to be challenged: that it is OK to attack someone for the actions of someone they do not know; that women can be blamed and should be punished for the wrongdoings of men they do not know; that a woman in niqaab “poses a threat” (a claim frequently made in the media and on phone-ins) when she is in fact actually threatening nobody. We need to look at who is attacking people on the streets of London and other major cities; it is not ISIS. We need to look at where they get their attitudes from: it’s not the ISIS YouTube or social media channel. We must name the problem rather than dancing around it: bigotry in mainstream, white British society and its lazy, amoral media.

Possibly Related Posts:

Jeremy Corbyn, ‘Islamists’ and women-only carriages

29 August, 2015 - 10:45

Picture of Jeremy Corbyn, a middle-aged white man with white hair, wearing a cream shirt with a pen in its pocket, standing in front of a microphone in front of a London buildingEarlier this week Jeremy Corbyn (right) gave his support to considering reintroducing women-only carriages on trains, which were found in the UK until the 1970s and still in a number of other countries, particularly Japan. He actually did not come up with the idea himself, but in a policy document noted that he had been asked to consider it by women and was open to the idea:

“Some women have raised with me that a solution to the rise in assault and harassment on public transport could be to introduce women-only carriages. My intention would be to make public transport safer for everyone from the train platform to the bus stop to the mode of transport itself,” he said. “However, I would consult with women and hear their views on whether women-only carriages would be welcome – and also if piloting this at times and on modes of transport where harassment is reported most frequently would be of interest.”

This has provoked a mixed response, being rejected by the other three candidates (two of them women). Liz Kendall said that ‘gender segregation’ would be like ‘admitting defeat’ while Yvette Cooper said it would amount to “turning the clock back, not tackling the problem”. (Two Labour mayoral candidates, Gareth Thomas and Diane Abbott, said they were open to the idea, however.) Many feminists (and indeed many women) on my social media feeds like the idea, but a particular group claims it would open the door to ‘victim blaming’ against women attacked or harassed while using a mixed carriage. There has also been the suggestion that Corbyn got the idea from his ‘Islamist friends’, and attempts to compare the idea to segregation, as if men and women were to be forcibly separated. Some people clearly see this in the same light as the ‘university segregation’ issue.

There are some clear practical problems with the suggestion, and some political ones. The biggest of the former is the very reason why they were abolished in the first place: the introduction of corridor trains on suburban routes, which is now happening on the London Underground with the new stock being introduced on the Metropolitan/District network and Victoria line. The authorities will surely not introduce all-female carriages knowing they will have to abolish them when new rolling stock is introduced. Second, they will only work on long trains with (at least) six or more carriages, which are only found on some suburban and long-distance trunk routes. London Underground rejected the idea in 1997 as too expensive, because its trains are driver-only and “the logistics of turning each train into one with a carriage reserved for women would be a nightmare”. Many areas of the north are stuck with two- or three-carriage trains and they cannot reserve a third of the space for women. Politically, this could lead to Corbyn himself, the member for Islington, being seen as a metropolitan, middle-class leftie candidate, if he isn’t already (though short trains are found on many routes around London as well, particularly the London Overground) and it won’t win back any northern working-class votes that have been lost to UKIP. Of course, it won’t benefit women in places where buses or trams are the only transport available, either.

A blog post on the “Everyday Victim Blaming” website (run by radical feminist Louise Pennington; the article is reproduced here) took the position that the idea would contribute to victim-blaming (by giving the impression that women had to use the carriages to avoid harassment) rather than dealing with “the root causes of harassment: male entitlement to women’s time and sexual access to women’s bodies”, although it did say that in their Twitter poll, while many of their respondents said that the idea was wrong as it “held women accountable for the criminal behaviour of men”, they also said they would use the carriages if they were available. I’m not sure this argument stacks up particularly well: it’s a question of giving women choice, and while nobody is suggesting that it’s a surefire way of avoiding any unwelcome male attention while on the train (the policy would need to be aggressively enforced for that to be the case), it would make some women feel safer. There are many reasons why some women wouldn’t use the all-women carriage: it might be full, or dirty, or have a bunch of the bullies from their old school in it; perhaps they started their journey in a mixed group, or a group of women that did not feel the need for the safety of the all-women carriage; perhaps the exit at their station is nowhere near where the all-women carriage stops (likely to be a common problem as suburban platforms that take 8- or 12-carriage trains are necessarily long).

Victim-blaming happens everywhere, and I don’t think it’s reasonable to deny women the choice to do avoid situations where they would be vulnerable to harassment — we do not force women to do any of the other things that are deemed ‘risky’ — just because to do the other might be seen as inviting trouble. And if the author supports the right to an abortion up to 40 weeks (that is, for the entire pregnancy), as Louise Pennington does, where is the logic in opposing a woman having the right to choose here? This is not to say that we shouldn’t educate people that women have a right to go about their business without harassment from men, but if something needs to be done now then something needs to be done now. We shouldn’t refuse to take an action that might make people’s lives better now because we imagine the revolution might happen some time soon.

Other parts of the opposition to this idea are coloured with bigotry and particularly Islamophobia. The word ‘segregation’ has been used a lot, as if trains were going to be divided up between men and women with four men’s carriages and four women’s, as found in places like Iran (the majority of the Muslim world does not segregate public transport, although there are women-only carriages on some train and metro systems, though less strictly enforced than in Japan). In fact, there would be one all-women carriage and the remainder would be mixed. There was a comment on an Independent article about the subject in which one ‘lucyhilt’ claimed, “I don’t suppose any connection will be made between the increase coinciding with the arrival of large groups of single males supposedly fleeing countries where women are treated like property and are second-class citizens?”. In fact, harassment is something that men of all races are involved in and I have not heard any suggestion that it has increased recently or that more non-white men are involved.

The Tory MP Sarah Wollaston claimed that “in countries where women are segregated on public transport, this is a marker for disempowerment not safety”. This statement is a classic example of correlation being confused with causation; the women-only carriages are a recognition that women face particular dangers when travelling and is intended to allow them to travel in peace rather than fight a battle for equality when trying to get to work. But what is really disturbing is the continual references to Islam, to the situation in Muslim countries and the assumption that they are all segregated when they are not, or that this is only otherwise done in Muslim countries when in fact Japan and India are not Muslim countries; that we cannot do something to help women feel safe from harassment in public because it would make us a bit less western and a bit more Islamic, and that politicians hasten to disassociate themselves from anything that might associate them from Islam or Muslims. It’s worth remembering that the people who made separate spaces for women an ‘issue’ in British universities a couple of years ago included a group of men who invaded the women’s section during a talk, while secularist forums and events are notorious for the kind of harassment women might be seeking to avoid by going into an all-female space. By contrast, I’ve never seen a man on DeenPort respond to a woman who criticised him with a sexual innuendo.

Almost every article about this subject which accepts comments has a flood of comments from men complaining that it discriminates against men, that men are victims of violence more than women, that “not all men” harass women, and that ‘drunken louts’ bother everyone. The last is a fair point, and in such circumstances, where a women-only carriage is usually available, it might be an idea to remove it so as to segregate the drunks so as to allow peace and quiet for everyone else. But really, nobody is saying all men do it, but the fact is that it only takes a few and the harassment goes on at quiet times as well as busy ones. (However, I suspect some of the men flooding comment boxes with “not all men” remarks are organised groups of trolls that are involved in other online harassment, and some of them are the guilty parties as regards public harassment as well.) And sexual harassment of women is only one type of public harassment; all-female carriages will not offer much protection, even to women, from harassment related to disability or other visible differences.

So, the idea of all-female carriages might be impractical (and as Christian Wolmar suggested, more staff and CCTV might be more effective) but the response has been full of untruth, exaggeration and bigotry. I don’t believe it is a serious imposition on men that they stay out of one carriage in an eight-car train, for a half-hour journey (unlike the really stupid suggestion of a one-night 10pm curfew for men, which I have seen passed round on social media in the past couple of weeks; there is no reason why the innocent majority should be inconvenienced because they cannot be told apart from the harassers, and this idea would have unintended negative consequences for women as well). They are something that were accepted until the introduction of walk-through trains made them impracticable; they were not abolished because anyone imagined that public sexual harassment was a thing of the past. Most men would rather their wives, daughters, sisters and even female colleagues were safe from men who might annoy or threaten them on the way home, which is why women-only carriages were accepted for a century, but it seems some want other women to be available to them at any time and others bridle at making a tiny sacrifice, or at a space being closed to them, so that women might feel safe — something their fathers and grandfathers would have done gladly. Bringing back the women’s carriage might strike some as “turning the clock back”, but if progress means that “white knight” is used as a derogatory term for men who are sensitive to women’s needs, if it means we would rather women of all races and creeds were denied the opportunity to travel in peace so we don’t look like Muslims, if it means a fairly moderate idea encounters a barrage of derision from misogynists and the smut-peddling popular press (which has spent the last half century selling women’s bodies as a commodity), then what do we mean by progress and what is it really worth?

Image source: Garry Knight, via Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

Possibly Related Posts:

No, we can’t hold all air shows by the sea

24 August, 2015 - 19:23

A picture of a Hawker Hunter jet in mid-air. The plane has been painted mostly blue with red, white and blue target symbols.I heard the most extraordinary and ridiculous interview on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. John Humphrys was interviewing John Turner from the British Air Display Association about the accident outside Shoreham, West Sussex on Saturday in which a 1950s fighter jet (a Hawker Hunter, right) crashed onto a highway, the A27, killing up to 20 people. In an interview with people around Shoreham, the last thing said was that local people wanted to make sure ‘something was done’ so that the annual air show could continue but that there were no future disasters. Humphrys started by asking him if he agreed with the sentiment that “something must be done”, and Turner responded by saying that his association had had 63 years of accident-free shows and that it was important not to speculate until proper investigations had been done.

Humphrys responded that he was not asking him to speculate, but rather if he agreed that the rules should be changed such that if another accident of this nature were to happen during a stunt, the plane would crash not onto a busy highway but into the sea. He said that air shows are important and that people love them, but they are entertainment and “don’t have to happen”, and accused Turner of not addressing his question as to why a pilot needs to be carrying out a stunt over a “built-up area” (which this was not; it was outside town). He kept repeating the point that the stunt should have taken place over the sea, especially as Shoreham is by the sea. Turner responded that “after 63 years of safe operation, this is a question of balance, I think”, that air shows are visited by millions every year, with an audience approaching that of football, and that they generated £79m last year for charities. Humphrys said that the long safety record is “in one sense” irrelevant, because when other aviation disasters happen, even after a long record of accident-free operation, the matter is investigated thoroughly and changes are made, and that it was “patently right” that if stunts happen over the sea, the number of casualties would be infinitely smaller.

Humphrys conducted all this with intermittent smirks and ‘patient reminders’ to his guest that he was not addressing the point he wanted him to address. Turner took time to respond each time, sometimes perhaps because the interview was “down the line” but also because he was perplexed at being expected to justify why air shows were not held to this stricture that nobody had ever considered before. Is Humphrys really suggesting that all air shows take place by the sea? We are not that small an island and most of our airfields are not near enough to the sea as to make this possible, and many of those do not have good rail or road links (Lydd in Kent springs to mind). Some airports that have long RAF histories (e.g. Farnborough) are used for air shows; Farnborough is a good 30 miles from the nearest sea. Even Shoreham’s airfield is not right by the sea; there is a railway line and another busy road (the A259), as well as some housing, in between. On the north side, there is the A27, a flood plain (through which runs another busy road, the A283) and one large building (Lancing College). It would arguably be less safe to have conducted that stunt on the south side of the airfield than it was on the north. And an air show does not have to be by the sea to avoid a plane crashing into a built-up area or onto a main road; it just has to be away from such hazards.

Google Map of Shoreham airfield areaAs it happens, there are new restrictions being imposed on air shows, with ‘vintage’ jets being restricted to flypasts with no stunts being performed over land, and all planes of the type involved (the Hawker Hunter) being grounded. But insisting that all such stunts happen over the sea is not only an unnecessarily draconian overraction but is classic “stable-door logic”, changing the rules to prevent a repetition of one particular disaster without considering how it might enable other types of disasters to happen in the future. The sea, especially near land, is not empty; a fighter plane crashing into the sea could come down on or near swimmers, boats or a pier, and could still cause loss of life and spill fuel; the explosion and materials projected could injure people on land. And there would be no point paying to go to an airfield to watch a flying show when you can sit on the beach and watch it for free.

But my real beef with this show was Humphrys’ manner. He sounded utterly sure that his solution was the obvious answer, and could not understand why the man who knew about air shows, having run their industry association for years, could not see that he was right. He treated his guest as an evasive politician trying to squirm off the hook when asked a difficult or potentially revealing question rather than someone dealing with an unprecedented situation, perhaps grieving, being presented with presumptuous demands to agree to an ‘obvious’ solution that had never occurred to anyone in 63 years of running air shows and being too polite to tell him that this was a ridiculous idea that would destroy the whole industry. John Humphrys may have a posher accent than BBC London’s old bully boy host Jon Gaunt, but he’s no less of a bully and in more than one case that I can think of, no less inappropriate. He should receive a stern dressing-down, but the BBC should be considering retiring him.

Possibly Related Posts:

Review: The World’s Worst Place to be Disabled

23 August, 2015 - 10:00

The World’s Worst Place… is a documentary featuring Sophie Morgan, a British model and TV presenter who has been a wheelchair user since being paralysed in a car accident twelve years ago, travelling to Ghana to investigate the situation facing disabled people there. She had been told by Shantha Rau Barriga, director of disability rights at Human Rights Watch, that Ghana was the world’s worst place to be disabled and that she would have to see it herself to believe it. So off she went, with her brother, to see various examples of poverty and discrimination facing disabled people, including children, around the country. I’m late reviewing this, so it’s only available for the next week here; the presenter has written a piece for the Huffington Post about the investigation.

Sophie Morgan, a young white woman in a wheelchair, facing Adamson, a young black man in a wheelchair with one of his legs bent over the other.She starts off interviewing Adamson, a homeless wheelchair user in the capital, Accra, who sleeps in a market (where he cannot remain during the day) and begs from motorists on a busy highway during the day, making not enough money to pay for a lift back home, meaning he has to wheel himself. He had been begging for ten years, originally hoping to go back to school, and said nobody had come to ask how they were doing or appeared to care. Sophie then takes him to where the city’s minibuses pick up passengers, but none of them would even consider taking her or Adamson despite their being able to dismantle their wheelchairs (Adamson appears to have a modern, lightweight chair; others have quite sophisticated wheelchairs but others use skateboards or crawl on their hands; this will have caught the eye of many disabled people watching, and in a lot of developing countries, poor people who need wheelchairs have to make do with wheelbarrows, or nothing). Sophie asks Adamson why he remains begging in Accra, and he tells her that things are far worse in the countryside where he comes from. So, off she and her brother go to investigate.

In the countryside, she finds one or two places where disabled people are being rehabilitated and taught life and work skills, mostly run by private philanthropy or foreign religious organisations, but there are a huge number of ‘prayer camps’ around the country which claim to be able to heal people’s impairments through prayer and by casting out demons. At one of the charity-run centres, an American nun told her that people often take their disabled relatives to her centre last because they go to a prayer camp or traditional healer first, and in a case she saw, this delay meant that a child needed an operation that could have been avoided by earlier medical treatment. She met one young man named Francis who had been kept in a dark room for years because he had some kind of mobility impairment; he initially claimed that his friends sometimes came to visit, but when someone who had been standing at the door telling him what to say was found out and left, he revealed that he only had his mother for company. Since the programme was made, Francis has died, and questions should be asked as to why, as he did not appear to be emaciated or ill.

An African woman wearing a blue, Muslim-style headscarf and a long pink and turcquoise dress, with chains around her ankleShe attempted to visit one prayer camp, a vast and apparently well-run establishment, but her guides told her that the management had refused to allow her to meet any ‘patients’, so she had to leave. She then went to a more downmarket camp run by a supposedly Muslim female mystic (oddly named Madam Irene) where disabled people were chained by their legs to posts or trees. One man she met had been tricked into coming there by his family some weeks ago and had only been allowed to wash twice, but towards the end of that segment an old lady was shown being chained to a tree without any complaint. The ‘Muslim’ mystic’s employees told Sophie that if parents brought her a child who “doesn’t look human”, i.e. have deformities, she would give them some potion or other and leave the child until he or she “goes back to the spirits”, i.e. dies. Accompanied by a Mr Burima, who works to protect disabled children in Ghana, she visits a bridge over a river where disabled children are given poisoned Schnapps by a “fetish priest” and then dumped in a river. He says that rituals like these are performed every Tuesday and Friday, and the place where this happens is next to a busy road; a Schnapps container has been discarded in the bushes.

An African man wearing a tall hat, a striped grey tunic with red trousers, with his right arm resting on a stone surface next to himShe then visits a “fetish priest” on the pretext of a consultation so he might cure her of her disability. She brings him two bottles of Schnapps and about £40 as a gift, and he sprinkles some seeds on a stone surface so as to “consult the gods” about her disability. He tells her that she was born someone great, but when she tried to be great her efforts came to nothing; that when she was a child her family tried to use witchcraft on her but her “spirit is great” so they could not do this. To heal her would be no problem at all, he said. She then told him that she was in fact injured in a car crash and asked him about the children that parents brought to him. He revealed that he disposed of them in much the same way as described by Mr Burima. After this, she says to the camera that this man murders children and that she does not want to talk to “this lunatic” anymore.

Mr Dennis of the National Council for People with Disabilities, a middle-aged African man wearing a pastel yellow and blue shirtAfter visiting another rehab centre in the countryside, she comes back to Accra and visits a government building (the one place she has been in which has ramps at the entrance) hoping to meet the minister for health, but instead she gets to meet a Mr Dennis, the secretary of the National Council for People with Disabilities, who has no obvious impairment of his own. She asks him what the government is doing, and he tells her that a large part of their work is “awareness raising”, including talking to disabled people, some of whom have accepted the treatment society throws at them, which she criticises for blaming disabled people for others’ neglect. He calls the country’s Disabilities Act a “very nice document”, but says that a lot of the problems are down to its provisions “not being respected”. She then tells him that people are chained up in some prayer camps, and Mr Dennis tells her that they had done nothing about this. As for the “fetish priests” and why they get away with murdering disabled children, he excuses this by saying they could only be prosecuted when there was “clear evidence”, which there often is not. Clearly it seems that the government is not doing much to make sure that fine words are translated into action and to stop the neglect and murders. One suspects that these beliefs are not confined to rural villages but that some people in power might believe them (or at least, are reliant on such people’s votes), but this wasn’t put to him.

A lot was missing from this documentary. She did not look at the sitation for disabled people in Accra itself other than by talking to one homeless man; there are surely disabled people trying to work or attend school, who surely must face some challenges: not only lack of public transport, but lack of accessible buildings, including clinics and perhaps even hospitals, discrimination, old-fashioned education practices such as boarding schools, and so on, and that’s only for the middle classes. In the countryside, she looked at extreme examples of neglect and abuse, but not what everyday life for disabled adults: can they get educated, work, marry? And her manner, and the style of this documentary, grated on my nerves the same way as Stacey Dooley’s documentaries do. There is too much focus on her reactions to what she sees; good documentaries let the facts do the talking.

A light-skinned African man with scars on his face with a blue and white striped T-shirt with his left hand missing and the stump covered in bandages, in a hospital in TanzaniaBut as for the question raised by the programme’s title, surely the answer is no. Ghana cannot be the worst place to be disabled because it is a prosperous country with a fairly free press where there is no war going on. That she was able to take a camera round and interview people without government agents harassing them speaks volumes. That is not the case in many other parts of Africa, and the beliefs that justify the killing of disabled children are not confined to Ghana: the belief that children are capable of witchcraft, may be possessed by demons, or similar, is widespread. In Tanzania, for example, nearly 80 albinos have been killed since 2000 because witch-doctors believe their body parts have medicinal properties (there are numerous pictures available of living albinos with missing limbs, for the same reason); earlier this year more than 200 of these witch-doctors were arrested. In other parts of West Africa, including neighbouring countries to Ghana, there have been civil wars in the past few years. This surely makes life more dangerous for all disabled people, whatever their parents’ beliefs.

But let’s not pretend we need to send a camera crew around a third-world country to find horrific examples of abuse of disabled people. If you’re experiencing long-term severe neglect, is it worse to be kept in a room at home where family can easily see you and bring you the same food they eat, or to be confined to a locked, padded room in a hospital 50 miles from home for seven years? No, we don’t have fetish priests dumping children in rivers, and this may be a fairly good place to be a middle-class person with an uncomplicated disability, but our care of people with complex disabilities, with mental health problems and learning disabilities (particularly if combined), while it may be more technologically advanced, is still often abysmal and they still die unnecessarily young, and unlike Ghana, we do not have the excuse of poverty.

Possibly Related Posts:

Fear-free healthcare, revisited

22 August, 2015 - 18:16

Picture of Emily Collingridge, a young white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a cream colour T-shirt wiht a long necklace of ornaments and a thick braceletBack in 2012, I published on this site a manifesto of sorts, calling for healthcare in the UK to be free of fear. Back then I was heavily involved in ME activism and three people with severe ME had died, notably the author and charity volunteer Emily Collingridge. These days my activism is mostly in the area of learning disability, but the same problems which provoked that article exist in this area too: where people need to go into hospital, neither they nor their family can be confident that they will not encounter prejudice against their condition, hard-set beliefs, abuse, neglect or isolation from their friends and family.

The readmission of Maisie Shaw, the young girl from Hull who was the focus of a campaign to re-open an adolescent unit in Hull earlier this year, who was suddenly released in June, to a hospital in Manchester last week (there are press reports, but I’m not linking them as they give details of precisely what led up to this, which I don’t think should be in the public domain) reminded me of those ideas, as I was immediately apprehensive: would she be bullied? Would she end up there much longer than expected, as has happened to other young people? Two of my friends have been suffering mental health crises in the past couple of weeks and I have had the same fears for them (one of them more than the other).

Picture of Nico Reed, a young white boy with ginger hair wearing a blue jumper and dark blue tracksuit bottoms, standing in a blue standing frame with a brown leather harness on.Today is also the third anniversary of the death of Nico Reed, a young man with severe physical disabilities who died in a supported living ‘home’ run by the NHS trust, Southern Health, which also ran the hospital unit where Connor Sparrowhawk died in 2013. Nico was prone to vomiting at night, and choked to death in bed; he died because he was not checked on in good time (although the physiotherapy which had kept this in check while he was at boarding school had also been discontinued; the inquest did not cast its net as widely as this). When Nico’s mother first told her story last year, she said that when Nico’s therapies stopped and his swallowing and choking problems returned, he became “thin, depressed and frightened”. Professionals were warning that Nico’s life was in danger; one physiotherapist even visited Nico in her own time to perform the therapies he needed, because she was so concerned about his welfare.

Nico’s mother has posted a week of blog entries leading up to the anniversary; today’s features a video in which she talks about how she was treated by the NHS trust after Nico’s death.

When I was involved in ME activism, the Syrian civil war was just starting, and hospitals in Syria were known stamping grounds for the country’s secret police; if you were a dissident, you might not survive an admission to hospital. In this country, along with many an advanced democracy, it is not your political views but a poorly-understood condition or behaviour the staff find challenging (whether it really comes under the category of “challenging behaviour” or not) are what could turn a hospital from a safe place to a frightening and dangerous one. This is because of attitudes among some professionals, and their power and lack of accountability. All these things must change if hospitals are to become genuinely safe places for people with chronic and mental health conditions, places where one need not fear that those who are meant to help you might become your enemy or your tormentor.

Possibly Related Posts:

Why does Amnesty need a policy on prostitution?

16 August, 2015 - 14:35

A group of people, mainly women, holding glasses of what looks like champaigne. One of them is holding a yellow rosette.Last week, Amnesty International adopted a policy supporting the decriminalisation of the sex trade after a debate in which it was subjected to intense lobbying from two groups of feminists (amid renewed mud-slinging between them; the two groups are the same as the pro- and anti-transgender feminist groups), one of which supports it because it claims a large proportion of ‘sex workers’ are in the business out of choice and need safer working conditions, while another regards the trade as inherently exploitative and abusive, questions the ‘choices’ that led to most of the women coming into the industry, and supports a “Nordic model” in which the selling of sex (mostly done by women) is decriminalised but the buying of it (mostly done by men) is a criminal offence. When Amnesty adopted the policy, feminists (those who had opposed it) denounced it as voting “in favour of pimps and johns over women’s human right to safety”; particular distaste was expressed for the spectacle of Amnesty staff sharing a bottle of champagne (!) after the vote was passed. This is how Amnesty justified their new policy.

This is the second time that I’ve noticed Amnesty International straying into areas far beyond what they were set up to address, which is the violation of the political human rights of peaceful people. When I was first introduced to them at school in the 1990s, their two principal activities were campaigning to free people who were imprisoned for the peaceful expression of political or religious views, and the abolition of capital punishment and opposition to the execution of individuals, guilty or otherwise. The latter policy was introduced because, as someone who came to talk to us at college said, it was not evil murderers that got it, but poor and mentally disabled people, often innocent or mentally ill, who could not afford proper legal defence, and often for political reasons. Some of the requests for letters in such cases did provoke anger from members, as in one case where the magazine printed an alert about a murderer in Guatemala who was facing the death penalty, and it was a multiple, sexually aggravated murder; but their reasoning was pretty sound as far as the United States was concerned (and the politically-motivated execution of a mentally disabled offender was a factor in its abolition in the UK).

In the last few years, however, they seem to have morphed into a generic liberal human rights campaign group — the letter-writing campaigns to free political prisoners are no longer prominent on their website — and this tendency has been long in development. In 1992 their British magazine Amnesty carried an extract from the book Princess by Jean Sasson, one of a genre of “first-person female narrative potboilers” about nasty Arab men and powerless Arab female victims, in this case ostensibly based on the diaries of an anonymous Saudi princess. The extract was about the execution of a Saudi 14-year-old girl after she had become pregnant as a result of a gang rape by some of her brothers’ friends; the usual punishment (flogging) had been ‘upgraded’ to the death penalty at the request of her father, who was “never comfortable with daughters”. Amnesty printed this highly dubious story without displaying any doubts as to its authenticity, but went one step further by omitting to mention that this story appeared in Sasson’s book before the assassination of King Faisal, which took place in 1974. It also made no secret of its prejudice against Islam, titling the extract “Surrender to the Will of God”, the translation of “Islam” given by Sasson, when what is described, if it happened at all, is completely against Islam (like the “Woman’s Room” story in the same book).

In 2007 Amnesty changed its policy on abortion from neutrality to supporting it in cases of rape or incest or where the mother’s life is in danger, which they justified with reference to large-scale rape in places like Darfur (a red herring since abortion would never be legalised in such places, nor supported by the population; it was aimed at places like Ireland, the USA and Latin America). This led to some organisations which had supported their work in freeing political prisoners withdrawing it, notably the Catholic church, which may not be able to compel adult supporters to abandon it but can, for example, shut down Amnesty groups in its schools, which were vital in raising support for its main work of freeing political prisoners. At the time, I referred to this as “mission creep”, a term originally coined to refer to military adventures straying well beyond their original purpose, but which often seems to affect campaigning organisations, resulting in the loss of some who supported their original aims. Of course, many of the feminists who condemn them for this latest advance into areas which have nothing to do with freeing prisoners of conscience supported them then.

However, that policy no doubt reflected the views of most of their western supporters. They are quite out of their depth here, and I suspect many who have heard about this on the news or social media will be scratching their heads and thinking “why do Amnesty need to have a policy on this at all?”. Their press release mentions a number of other global organisations which they say have taken a similar line, but as with Amnesty International, these groups may not have developed these policies independently (despite claims of “years of research”) but rather given in to lobbying; and if numerous other groups are campaigning on this issue already, why does Amnesty need to follow the crowd? It reflects a move away from defending basic, political human rights into criticising areas of policy and advancing western liberal ideas while disguising them as universal human rights. The ‘right’ to buy and sell sex is not a universal human right, and the doctrine of ‘consenting adults’ (i.e. that there should be no legal restrictions on what they can and cannot do with their bodies) is a modern liberal value, not a universal human right. Adopting these ideas as policy means Amnesty looks less like a broad movement for universal human rights and can make less headway with governments who do not share them, which the majority across the world do not.

Some of Amnesty’s divergences from campaigning to free political prisoners are wholly consistent with that aim — ending torture, ending the death penalty (although it has most relevance in a western, particularly American, context), controlling the arms trade, corporate accountability for things like forced labour and displacement of populations, for example. If they wanted to extend their reach in ending imprisonment and torture for innocent people, they might embrace the right of mentally ill people not to live in chains and for disabled people not to live their whole lives shut away in institutions, denied basic rights or exploited. These rights are not secure even in western countries, let alone anywhere else. Yet although Amnesty has a few briefings about it on their website (and do emphasise disability in death penalty cases), they do not have a campaign on the issue, despite it being far more consistent with their original aims than supporting the right to abortion or the decriminalisation of prostitution.

I am not saying Amnesty should have listened uncritically to the lobbying from the “Nordic model” campaigners. While I agree with them that prostitution should be ended and the Nordic model seeks to achieve this rather than letting the trade go on in the open, they place all responsibility on the users (mostly men), assuming them to be abusers or even rapists, while assuming that all “sex workers” are victims, which many are but not all. Others enter the trade becuase, despite the inherent degradation and risks, it is more lucrative than working as a cleaner or shop assistant. This model should certainly apply to cases where someone is in prostitution not of their own free will and the user knows it, but the law should not assume that a transaction (or relationship) that could be exploitative necessarily is. But the majority of human societies recognise that prostitution is a bad thing in itself and do not want it carried out in the open, not only because of the risk to sex workers’ health and safety but because they do not want to live next to it or for their children to have to, and because they do not want it influencing their sons’ behaviour or expectations or impacting on their daughters’ relationships. The slogan “sex workers’ rights are human rights” is chosen because it is difficult to disagree with, but their neighbours’ rights, and other women’s and children’s rights, are human rights too. This is why Amnesty should not be getting involved.

Possibly Related Posts: