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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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‘Normalisation’ is real and has consequences

21 October, 2018 - 22:47

An old white man points to himself (saying "I belong here!") while racially abusing a black security guard in a Sainsbury's shop. The tobacco counter is visible behind him.‘Normalisation’ is the idea that if the media gives too much exposure to extreme views or those without any basis in fact or science, they become the political mainstream and will come to be widely accepted as fact, or people will feel obliged to accommodate them despite disagreeing with them or knowing that they are baseless. I have heard this word used a lot in recent years, mainly by the left who are rightly concerned about the effect of the rise of the “alt-right” on things such as women’s rights, the right of minorities to live in peace and in some cases the rule of law itself. Peter Hurst, who writes mainly on Medium as “Post Liberal Bot”, calls the “normalisation narrative” an example of left-wing authoritarianism in which we lament the “loss of traditional gatekeepers to news and information, due to the decline of old media and the advent of social media”. He cites calls by politicians for bans on anonymous accounts and closed forums on social media and for a social media regulator.

In my experience, the normalisation narrative is not so much that people are getting their news and views through alternative means; most of us think that is no bad thing. In the last month or so, for example, I have seen a lot of tweets from Scots advocating a refusal to pay the British TV licence fee on the grounds that it funds the BBC which they see as a biased, English-establishment broadcaster which gives too much airtime to English Brexiteers and too little to Scottish, pro-EU progressive or nationalist viewpoints. I also know many people on the Left who firmly reject any ban on anonymity because it allows people such as abuse survivors (or people currently suffering abuse) to talk about their situation without fear of retaliation from their abusers or of being exposed to friends and relatives who do not know about their situation. Most of us use social media. It allows us to keep in touch, to make friends, to announce things such as events and blog postings, to share writing and other content we like.

The chief complaint is that traditional ‘gatekeepers’ allow fringe voices airtime out of proportion to either their popular support, their respect for truth or how well-founded their argument is. A classic example is the regular slots on programmes such as Question Time given to Nigel Farage despite the fact that his party had never persuaded a single constituency to give him a plurality of votes (as well as burnishing his “man of the people” image by showing him drinking beer in a pub, then calling it a “Kent village pub” when in fact it was in an expensive corner of a wealthy London borough). They may justify this with the result of the 2016 referendum and the party’s better (though not overwhelming) showing in European elections, but one has to ask whether his access to the media is a cause or a consequence of the popularity of his party, which produced no other politicians of note (Douglas Carswell was a Tory for most of his parliamentary career).

Often the reason for amplifying extreme voices is that they treat news and discussion as entertainment and deliberately bring on people with inflammatory views so that they can have a row on air. In other cases, an insistence on ‘balance’ means that an ‘expert’ who denies the science that points to the fact of man-made global warming will be brought on to argue with a real expert when in fact there is no great debate among climate scientists that it is a fact; the ‘sceptics’ are often funded by the oil industry or other moneyed interests and sometimes use a scientific background as a justification when their specialisation is not climate. They present other industry-funded lobby groups as grassroots affairs (e.g. Forest, which is funded by the tobacco industry, presented as a “smokers’ group”) and think-tank spokespeople get regular slots on news and analysis programmes without any question about their qualifications or funding.

This has consequences. The media regularly allowed Omar Bakri Muhammad and Anjum Choudary, the leaders of the Muslim extremist group originally called Al-Muhajiroun, to promote their ideas on local and national news on TV and radio, allowing people to think that the group had support among Muslims whereas in fact they were tiny and dwindling and were fond of gate-crashing other Muslims’ demonstrations (they were openly contemptuous of the groups that organised the demos they invaded — they claimed that Cage, then Cage Prisoners, was “close to becoming munaafiqeen”, i.e. not really Muslims). A lot of Muslims thought they were agents provocateurs retained by someone or other’s secret services. It was their demonstration (attended by about 20 people) at a procession by returning soldiers in Luton, and the sensationalist media coverage of it, that led to the formation of the English Defence League. The EDL itself has peaked (though the hooligans reformed as the “Democratic Football Lads’ Alliance”), but we now have Steven Yaxley-Lennon being made a martyr while interfering in the legal process and being dishonestly promoted by racists and other malefactors as a defender of western values against “Muslim extremism” and/or cowardice when he is in fact an ignorant thug with a criminal record. We have not heard the end of this and if the media had not hyped the Muhajiroun throughout the 2000s his ‘career’ may never have got off the ground.

The fact is that if you have access to the media, you have a greater degree of freedom of speech in this country than if you only have access to the Internet, as laws that ban ‘offensive’ or ‘malicious’ communications using the phone system (which have more recently been extended to the Internet) do not apply to newspapers or to things said on a stage, such that people have been convicted for taunting football supporters about a plane crash decades ago, inducing a dog to give a Nazi salute and denying the Holocaust on online videos which they would not have been if they had done it in a mainstream newspaper or on TV. The thing that gets someone prosecuted does not even have to be illegal in itself, just judged (after the event) to cause offence. The mainstream media are not governed by any such laws; they are free to print lies as long as they are not against an individual, and even then the penalties are civil, not criminal. It is even legal for political campaign ads to contain obvious falsehoods.

Social media does present avenues for the promotion of extremism. People can very easily circulate images which are doctored or which do not reflect what they say they do — they may be taken at a different time in a different country, for example, but any footage of brown-skinned people celebrating could be misrepresented as Palestinians celebrating the 9/11 attacks, for example. It is an ideal forum for circulating fake news, i.e. false stories on fake newspaper websites or fake clippings (an older method). The Right accuses the Left of existing in a Twitter-based echo chamber (as does Hurst’s article), but racists often use social media to spread misinformation far more cheaply and easily than they could when they had to actually put together and run off fliers or mini-newspapers and distribute them. And racists and fascists have been complaining about being shut out of the mainstream media for a lot longer then the mainstream Left have been complaining about ‘normalisation’ — in some cases it was almost a boast, that the “Jewish controlled media” would not touch them.

But nobody wants social media to disappear. As already stated, most of us use it for both personal and political reasons. It’s actually quite easy to rebut misinformation on social media as an image can be reverse-searched and a newspaper can be contacted to see if they really printed a given story, or if they exist. The same is not true of mainstream media; it takes months to even get a complaint examined and even then, the correction will be nowhere near as prominent as the original story, which many people will continue to believe. It is easier to get an account shut down or a story taken down because it is false or offensive than a newspaper story, even on their website. How many times has a newspaper been closed because a story they printed caused offence? Just once — the News of the World in 2011, because of outrage over a murdered teenage girl’s voice mails being illegally accessed, which it was thought might have delayed finding her or her body — and its owner promptly launched another Sunday paper based on its own weekday title.

But ultimately, what the likes of Peter Hurst calls ‘populism’, the rest of us calls racism, and the reason why we want to see racism suppressed rather than ‘debated’ is because it has consequences: people discriminated against, harassed or abused in the street or as they do their job, made to feel unable to live in the country they had been led to believe was their own, or unjustly expelled from it and separated from their families. You may think “Is rising ethnic diversity a threat to the West?” is a worthy or necessary ‘debate’ that the “metropolitan élite” has been shirking for too long — despite it having been on the front pages of tabloids in one form or another on a regular basis for decades — but it’s their life. And when racist attitudes are normalised by being exposed on the radio or in the papers (this includes whinges about immigration, health/benefit tourism etc., particularly when they take liberties with the facts), especially if unchallenged, it makes life difficult for anyone who is, or may be mistaken for an immigrant, or has personal connections with them. This is not academic. It’s not the university debating society. It’s not a nice bit of entertainment on a Friday evening. It’s people’s lives.

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Truckers blocking London? Get real.

20 October, 2018 - 15:31

Two trucks travelling side by side in the two leftmost lanes on a British motorway.This morning I saw a longish interview on the BBC Breakfast show with some guy called Richard Tice, who was identified only as a spokesman for “Leave Means Leave”. I didn’t hear most of it as I was having a haircut and the electric shaver started up almost as soon as he opened his mouth, but I did catch him call the marchers “losers” who should “get behind us Brexiteers” instead of trying to undermine the government’s negotiations. However, on a truck drivers’ Facebook forum, someone quoted him as saying that a trucker had said to him that he could just give him the word and he would block London. This is baloney and whether he knows it or not, his alleged friend does.

Most of us truck drivers do not own a vehicle other than private car or maybe a motorbike. We drive our bosses’ trucks and often those bosses are big companies such as DHL which are based abroad, often in mainland Europe, and often they are involved in moving freight to and from the mainland. I happen to know that my boss supports Brexit, but he’s a subcontractor to a major contractor to a big online ordering company and most of the journeys his vehicles make are to pull that company’s trailers. Said big company is based in a mainland European tax haven. He will not be using his vehicles to stop his client from doing their business, regardless of politics. Nobody will thank him for doing that and they might remember it the next time he needs some business. Besides, those of us who have Saturday off will often have spent all week working and will be spending Saturday doing a mixture of house chores and relaxation and then preparation for the week ahead. Brexit is not enough to get anyone blockading roads (unlike the fuel price crisis of 2000 or so, which really was impacting on business even though prices were much lower than they are now).

As I write this I’m on the way to the demonstration; not everyone who opposes Brexit is a comfortably-off academic or financier.

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What really lies behind Trump, Brexit and “national populism”?

14 October, 2018 - 21:27

 UK loses three out of four human rights cases, damning report reveals"During the post Iraq War days (when Iraq was effectively if not in name under occupation), the pro-war blogger Norman Geras ran an article on what it called the Single Transferable Article About Iraq or STAI. The easy way to spot a STAI, according to him, was silence on one date, that of the first democratic elections in Iraq in history or since God knows when (30th Jan 2005). They were always written by anti-war leftists who, they believed, could not bring themselves to accept that the outcome of the invasion was good (as we now know, it really was not, despite some glimmers of hope such as that occasion). In the post-2016 era, a common feature in the media and blogosphere is what I have come to call the STAB: the Single Transferable Article about Brexit. STABs are typically all about why the Brexit vote was perfectly legitimate, represents a lasting shift in public opinion and that the liberal Remainer elite consoles itself with myths (such as that voters were deceived by Russian-sponsored propaganda) and stereotypes (such as that most retainers were racists or old white bigots). What defines the STAB is silence on the role of the mass media in fomenting the attitudes and beliefs that led to the 2016 result. The latest example was in last Sunday’s Sunday Times, an extract from a book by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, which sought to debunk a number of the comforting myths and stereotypes that Remainers use to discredit the 2016 referendum result and that liberal intellectuals use to explain the popularity of Donald Trump and various ‘national populist’ movements across Europe. (Article is paywalled; you need to register to read it.)

My first action when reviewing these sorts of articles is to do a simple text search for words such as ‘news’, ‘media’, ‘papers’ and ‘tabloid’. Usually the hit count is tiny and in this case it’s zero for all of them, except for ‘media’ which in this case occurs once, as part of the word ‘median’. To give them due credit, they mention that the fears about the threat to people’s way of life “may not be grounded in objective reality” but do not explain this any further. I do not believe any study of why people voted for Brexit in particular is valid without examining the role of the mass media, which has been dominated by right-wing corporate players since the 1980s, some of the largest of which have been running a campaign of propaganda and misinformation against the EU and the EEC before it since the 1980s and the European Convention on Human Rights since the late 1990s when it was incorporated into British law. This is a major reason why the tide of revelations about Russian involvement in and funding for the Leave campaign have not had the results that the Remain side believe they should.

The chief reason they hate strong international institutions is that they are a threat to the power of British politicians, whom they can normally expect to react quickly to media-generated outrages with panic legislation (which they can tear apart at a later date, e.g. the Dangerous Dogs Act) or a crackdown (e.g. the 2006 “foreign criminals scandal”). Politicians hate them for the same reason: until very recently, power meant power. Unlike American politicians, they were not used to the idea that the laws they passed could be scrutinised by judges or that they could be told “you can’t do that”; they made the rules, others obeyed them.

In addition to the mainstream media, social media plays a major role today in circulating myths which feed hostility to immigrants, refugees and other newcomers. This has been particularly recorded in developing countries where Facebook is the biggest source of ‘news’; people have been lynched and houses and businesses burned because a rumour circulated that members of a particular community were responsible for a rape, or similar. In the case of Germany, social media, blogs and pseudo-news sites circulated rumours of a mass sexual assault by Arabs at a public event in Cologne two years ago, but closer examination revealed that the ‘Arab’ element to the story was spurious. This past summer, the New York Times revealed that hostility to and violence against refugees in Germany was spread through Facebook and that communities where Facebook use was high also had higher rates of racial violence. There is no mention of Facebook (or Twitter) in this article, either, yet it should be considered when evaluating the reasons for the rise of Alternative für Deutschland. (Social media rumours played a large part in mustering the support among ethnic minorities for Brexit; among them the claim that the European Parliament would ban halal slaughter and that reducing eastern European immigration would mean more of their people would be allowed to move from South Asia again. One of these is baseless; the other is wishful thinking.)

Eatwell and Goodwin are, in my opinion, in error when treating Brexit, Trump and the rise of so-called national populism in Europe as the same trend or phenomenon. Brexit is a single issue; the other two are political parties or its leader in the case of Trump. In the UK and USA, it has been the mainstream Right that has benefited, if only temporarily, and in the USA been radicalised; in Europe, not only the centre-left but mainstream Right parties such as the Christian Democrats in Germany are facing challenge as well — Angela Merkel, it should be remembered, is a Christian Democrat who was compared to Margaret Thatcher when she was on the rise. In the USA, white supremacism has always been closer to mainstream politics than in the UK (openly race-based political appeals are banned in much of Europe) as parts of the country were legally white-supremacist within living memory — not in the sense that there was racism and discrimination, but that there was legally mandatory discrimination in which Black people could not vote, could not use the same facilities or go to the same schools, etc. as Whites. A major part of the political Right’s campaigns has been to challenge the legal rulings that held racial discrimination and voter suppression to be unconstitutional, hence the struggle to get ‘conservative’ judges like Brett Kavanaugh nominated to the Supreme Court.

In both the cases of Brexit and Trump, there is no single reason why these two things happened. They note that support for Brexit is strong in many parts of provincial England, some of it affluent and some of it depressed from the decline of heavy industry and not all of it white-dominated. There is also no getting away from the fact that outside some major cities where the Remain vote was strongest, the rural areas that supported Remain were in the south. In the North, the old mining and steel-working areas voted to leave, with the exception of the big cities (Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle) which have substantial student populations. Dissatisfaction at how Britain engages with Europe must play a big role: we have tended to engage with Europe to the benefit of business, not ordinary people — witness how we refused passport-free travel and still allowed the price of a passport to increase considerably during the 2000s. It was the then pro-EEC Tory party that presided over the destruction of industry in the 1980s and early 90s and the pro-EU Labour party which treated the ex-industrial north as a group with “nowhere else to go” in the late 90s and 2000s. So, the whole thing cannot be put down to a movement preoccupied with national identity (though the issue of immigration from eastern Europe was a major factor). Economic dissatisfaction fed into it as well.

In the case of Trump, it has to be remembered that he got 3 million fewer votes than Clinton and won because the electoral college arrangement is weighted in favour of small, rural (and predominantly White) states; the Republican Party is also notorious for voter suppression at every level, targeted at citizens judged likely to vote against them. He won in the key northern states by attacking the trading agreements many Americans blame for the loss of manufacturing jobs in states like Pennsylvania. He ran on a protectionist, “America first” platform and whether he takes them again in 2020 (if he runs, which he intends to) depends on whether he can deliver on these appeals. However, he also benefited from mounting anger at the fact of a Black president and from that president’s sympathy for campaigns against the murder of Black civilians by police and for accountability for said police; Americans were either willing to overlook his clearly expressed racism and the incidents of violence at his rallies, as well as his associations with certain neo-Nazis, or they approved.

As for Europe, Goodwin informs us that “it was actually in the 1980s that the most significant national populists in postwar Europe showed up”, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France and Jörg Haider in Austria. Well, anti-fascists like myself don’t like euphemisms like ‘populism’ to describe those people; we prefer terms like ‘fascist’, ‘Neo-Nazi’ or just ‘Nazi’. They had clear roots in mid-20th century fascism, often denied the Holocaust and otherwise openly espoused anti-Semitism as well as hatred of immigrants and their native-born children; the parties were typically the subject of cordon sanitaire arrangements whereby parties would coalesce with each other to make sure they did not achieve power, and when that rule was broken in Austria, the country was the subject of sanctions by the EU. Today, the AfD uses such slogans in its literature as “protect our wives and daughters”, referring to the stereotypes and rumours of Arab male refugees as sexual predators. The idea of a racial other as a threat to your women is a classic racist trope, and we should call it by its name rather than use euphemisms. Again, the view is fed by rumours, not facts. (I word-searched this article for the word ‘racist’ and it appeared once, and not in reference to parties which use this sort of rhetoric.)

Map showing the largest party in each constituency (left) and municipality (right) in Sweden in the 2018 parliamentary election; yellow represents the Sweden Democrats (concentrated around three cities in the south), blue the Moderate party (concentrated near Stockholm) and red represents the Social Democrats (everywhere else)And the success of the new far right is being exaggerated here; it has certainly increased its share of the vote from 4.7% and no seats in 2013 to 12.6% and 94 seats in 2017, but that is still not enough to secure power, and the Free Democratic Party also increased its vote substantially from 4.8% of the vote and no seats in 2013 to 10.7% and 80 seats in 2017. In the recent elections in Sweden, the far-right Sweden Democrats increased its share of the vote to 12.86%, which is certainly worrying but given that other parties will not touch it (and have other options as proportional representation gives the Green and Left parties greater representation than they would have in the UK), it also means they are far from power (and in any case, they are localised to two cities in the south, Malmö and to a lesser extent Jonköping and Gothenburg). In the case of Germany, their strongest showings (where they actually won constituency seats, i.e. came first in a first-past-the-post poll) was in the east where democracy has only been firmly established since 1990; before that, it had been a dictatorship under first Hitler and then the Communists since 1933. That part of the country has always been where far-right parties have done better and where racial violence has been worst, and the constituencies they won were in eastern Saxony, known during Communist times as the “Valley of the Clueless”, which was for geographical reasons beyond the reach of western radio broadcasts. In the most recent state elections in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (the Bavarian equivalent of the Christian Democrats), lost ground to both left and right, with the Greens the second biggest party with 18% of the vote to the CSU’s 37%; this is the first time since 1957 that the party has lost control of the Bavarian state legislature.

In addition, the article errs in lumping in swing voters who voted for those he classes as ‘populists’ with those who would have voted for them anyway — they lump in “what’s changed” with “what hasn’t”. They remind us that “more than 62m people voted for Trump” but this includes those in the outer and lower Midwest and the Rocky Mountain states who have voted for them since the 19th century as well as the South which has done since GW Bush’s time. They voted Republican even when its candidate was John McCain (whose bid for the presidency in 2000 was partly derailed by racist push-polling in the South and who was widely vilified by the right-wing media during Bush’s term) and then the Mormon former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. They will, in short, vote for very unlikely presidential candidates if they can be made out to be conservatives, and even though the Republican party passes over conservative Southerners such as Mike Huckabee.

Lastly, they refer to the stereotypes entertained by the “comfortable elites” for the groups of people who voted for these three things — “irrational bigots, jobless losers, Rust Belt rejects, voters who were hit hard by the great recession and angry old white men who will soon die and be replaced by tolerant millennials” — and then gives statistics that show that younger voters, voters in prosperous areas and ethnic minorities voted for them as well. However, being young or prosperous does not stop someone from being racist or from being vulnerable to being influenced by propaganda, especially if it is delivered on a regular basis for many years and presented as news. The issue is not really that relevant, because the people who have control of the situation now are a few hundred politicians, many of whom support Brexit for quite different reasons to the supporters in the populace: desire for power, vested financial interests, ideological commitments such as to large-scale privatisation, etc. It is no coincidence that they resist demands to give the people another ballot, either a further referendum or a general election, and will do so until they reach absolute deadlock, because a repeat of the narrow 2016 referendum result is not a guarantee. The MPs talking about “going down fighting”, as Morley and Outwood MP Andrea Jenkyns proclaimed this morning, are usually not those who will have to suffer the consequences of a disorderly Brexit personally.

Finally, the matter of “what the people want” is not the be-all-and-end-all with either Brexit or Trump, or racist nationalism in Europe for that matter. When such ideology last achieved power in a European country, it was brought down by force. Regardless of whether they are a minority or not, Black Americans cannot be expected to tolerate indefinitely a racist police which harasses them on a regular basis and kills on the basis of prejudice and suspicion and a political system which is set up to deny them a fair vote. Whether people really know what they want think they know, or they are voting as a protest or whatever, if leaving the European Union will result in an economic collapse leading to mass job losses and no food on the shelves, it has to be resisted and politicians who shout about “going down fighting” are betraying their voters, not serving them.

In a “long read” opinion piece for the Guardian last week, James Miller quoted American founding father John Adams as saying “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide”. Today, conservative opinion writers proclaim that western democracies are committing suicide by opening themselves up to ‘incompatibles’ (usually meaning Muslims) or that the Left does the same by concentrating too much on minorities and forgetting the interests of their White base. However, the real fatal flaw of modern liberal democracy, especially in the English-speaking world, is the enormous amount of leeway it gives the commercial media to present propaganda as news and for the political classes to lie outright, without fear of sanction, as long as the lies were not against an individual. In the case of Brexit, while the turning point was undoubtedly the admission of hundreds of thousands of workers from eastern Europe in 2004, a decades-long campaign of propaganda from the commercial press and a few barefaced lies from Leave campaigners in 2016, unpunishable because lying for political ends is legal, sowed the seeds for what could be a self-inflicted national disaster. Future generations will condemn our society for allowing the media barons this much power, and may well conclude that free speech and profit do not mix.

Image credits: map of Sweden by AvopeasValmyndigheten, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

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Stacey Dooley and the environmental impact of fashion

9 October, 2018 - 18:58

Stacey Dooley, a young white woman with blonde hair wearing a white top with a dark blue or black sleeveless top over it, in conversation with a south-east Asian man with very short hair. A tree is out of focus in the background. The words "There is a CCTV over there" can be seen at the bottom.I haven’t watched any Stacey Dooley for about five years, since I watched her programme on drug smuggling through Ukraine in 2013 and gave it this scathing review. In tonight’s BBC Three documentary (shown on BBC1; BBC Three is now online only), she tries to expose the environmental impact of the fashion industry and to test and try and raise people’s awareness of it. She visits Kazakhstan, where almost an entire inland sea, the Aral Sea, was lost because the rivers that fed it were diverted to irrigate cotton fields in what it now Uzbekistan, and then to Indonesia where textile factories were shown dumping large quantities of chemicals in a river that locals used to drink, wash and irrigate crops with. She interviews the head of a local textile manufacturers’ association and tries to get answers out of big fashion bosses and the UK government, all to no avail.

In her opening sequence, she asks people on a British high street to rank six industries known for causing heavy pollution (coal/oil, beef, tourism, transport, fracking and fashion) in reverse order of cleanliness, i.e the biggest polluter at the top. Most people put oil and coal (which she grouped together for some reason; putting fracking separately is also puzzling as it produces oil) at the top (correctly) and fashion as number six, when in fact it is number two. She gets a delivery of dozens of huge industrial water tanks to demonstrate the huge quantities of water that it takes to grow cotton — a man’s jeans, supposedly, took over 15,000 litres. I found this comparison dubious, because fashion is after all a globalised industry in which fabrics are either grown (like cotton) or synthesised (like polyester), transported to countries like Indonesia where they are spun, dyed, woven and then cut into a garment before being transported again to its markets such as here in the UK. The ships and trucks used in each stage of the transportation process, as well as the factories themselves, all either burn oil or use electricity which is often generated from coal or oil, so all these forms of pollution are interlinked. And that amount of water was probably used to produce the whole batch of cotton from which the cotton used in those jeans came from, not just the cotton in the jeans.

As an example of the environmental impact of cotton, Stacey is taken to see the Aral Sea on the Kazakh/Uzbek border, where both of its main water sources were diverted during Soviet times to irrigate cotton farms in Uzbekistan which turned the sea bed into a desert and destroyed a thriving local fishing industry on the Kazakh side. She mentions that these projects started in the 1960s but does not mention that the Soviet Union was still in existence then and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were Soviet republics; this decision would have been made in Moscow. She does not mention that in fact many western clothing companies try to avoid using cotton sourced from Uzbekistan because the state uses forced labour on its cotton farms, including child labour, although the boycott may well be less than 100% effective. In addition, water loss was greater because the channels were poorly constructed and leak, though even if that were not so, it still would likely have reduced the size of the Aral Sea considerably. She does not address the politics of this at all and does not explain why she does not attempt to visit the cotton farms or talk to Uzbek officials (Uzbekistan is still a dictatorship and people critical of the regime disappear). Furthermore, overuse of water is a major problem everywhere cotton is produced and the usual issue is the use of water from aquifers such as in the USA and India which will not last forever; at least if the over-irrigation from the Amu Darya river in Uzbekistan is reduced, the Aral Sea could recover.

She also visits a part of Indonesia where there are textile plants which pollute local waterways considerably, especially the Citaram (pronounced Chitaram) river which is used by local people for all the usual purposes, causing major health problems. She talks to local environmental activists who say they have been threatened by thugs employed by the textile companies; they also say that if people are seen filming, the companies close the outflow pipes until they have passed on, although we did see a large amount of coloured liquid being discharged straight into the river. She arranges an interview with the head of the local textile manufacturers’ association who says all the right things, telling her that there are standards and all that and he’d like to see there be no pollution from the industry but that he has no power to force companies to stop polluting; she seems convinced that his explanation is genuine, when it struck me as straightforward PR talk.

Stacey Dooley, facing away from the camera wearing a blue cardigan and loose, light blue jeans, standing in front of a row of industrial water containers made of plastic inside a metal cage, each with a sign on them saying "13,000 LITRES", "14,000 LITRES" or whatever, talking to a balding white man in a white shirt and blue jeans, holding a shopping bag in his hand.Later on she interviews a group of fashion vloggers or ‘influencers’ who seemed unaware of the pollution caused by the fashion industry; she opens a bottle of the river water from the polluted area in Indonesia and they all say how foul the smell is. It’s assumed that their clothes are all from the factories implicated in her programme, but they may or may not be and finding clothes that are not from developing countries is extremely difficult nowadays; all the major stores, including upmarket ones, sell clothes made in China or South Asia. She lectures us that we should shop less, but nothing is said about alternative fabrics other than recycled cotton; she only briefly mentions the fact that the oceans are being polluted by microplastics which includes fibres detached from polyester clothing during washing, and does not mention that a lot of ‘fashion’ clothing, especially for women, is made of these materials and not cotton.

She also attends a summit on sustainability in Copenhagen and tries to talk to a number of bosses of fashion companies, such as ASOS, but none of them will speak to her and she starts plaintively asking why they will not speak to her when they’re here to talk about sustainability. In response to another refusal, she professes bafflement that someone paid to communicate will not communicate (with her). She has much the same response when the environment secretary, Michael Gove, refuses her an interview and instead gets his secretary to send her a very brief statement. Of course, any serious investigative journalist would have had much the same response, but whining about it seems a bit unprofessional and they may have been briefed about her because she has a history of inappropriate and juvenile conduct in her programmes.

I have to say that her presenting style has not changed much since 2013 when I last watched enough of one of her shows to review it. The gushing emotion, the banal observations presented as if they were deep insights, the inappropriate touchy-feely behaviour are all still there. The only countries she visits are the ones where it is easy to film, namely relatively open places where there is no danger of her or her crew coming to harm, and while the environmental impacts are important, so is the prevalence of sweatshops and dangerous working conditions, which she does not touch on at all in this programme. And she does not really get to the bottom of why fashion is such a destructive industry, which is that the industry dictates that fashions will change each season and that the things people (again, especially women) bought last season will go off the shelves and “out of fashion” and completely different things will be sold now, much of it poorly made so that it will not last. To change this needs more than just for people to “shop less”; it requires organised boycotts and political action to force up the quality of clothing being sold.

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Is Britain really the most tolerant country in Europe?

7 October, 2018 - 22:00

A young white man wearing an open-collared black shirt, with hands moving as he talks, sitting in a TV studio audience. A South Asian man is sitting in front of him.Last Thursday, on the BBC’s Question Time programme (a weekly late-night political panel show in which a panel of politicians and an academic, writer or other lay ‘expert’), there was a contribution from an audience member who claimed that Britain is “one of the least racist societies across Europe” and that one of the supposed benefits of Brexit would be that it would end preferential treatment for (white) European immigrants and allow more people to come from places like Malaysia and Singapore. One panel member (who was Black) countered that he had been stopped by police while just sitting on his mother’s front porch while a Muslim woman (wearing a headscarf) argued that he was a white man and that he wasn’t the person experiencing racism, such as being screamed at while in hijab or being stopped by police while walking across the street. I saw a Twitter thread explaining various measures by which Britain could be considered the least racist or most tolerant country in Europe, in terms of things like positive attitudes to Muslims or other minorities as expressed in opinion polls. But that does not tell the whole story.

As a Muslim, I’m well aware that none of the laws which restrict the observance of Islam by ordinary people in some European countries apply here. We have no bans on hijab in school (although individual schools can ban them or impose “hijab uniforms” which many Muslims consider not to constitute hijab), no bans on wearing niqaab in the street or anywhere else, no ban or restriction on halal slaughter and no requirement to register religious observance. There are enough of us that businesses will take our needs into account in designing things like staff uniforms, which is not the case in some places in Europe where no legal discrimination exists. Unlike in some Muslim countries, mosques can remain open all day and night and you will not face arrest or intimidation for growing your beard or praying the dawn prayer in the mosque. That’s the good news.

A young South Asian woman wearing a black headscarf and black glasses, sitting in a TV studio audience.The bad news is that there is a commercial press which regularly demonises minorities, in some cases explicitly (e.g. Muslims) and sometimes implicitly; we have politicians who make threatening noises at Muslims and send vans into areas with a high non-White population with “GO HOME” printed on them in big letters; we have police who stop and search Black men for no real reason, and immigration officers who accost anyone who “looks foreign” demanding papers that they are not obliged to carry; we have ordinary members of the public who harass and abuse Muslim women in the street because all they know about Muslims is stories about terrorism (mostly by men); we have many stories from people working in the NHS and elsewhere of being told they do not want to be served or treated by them, or that they should go home. It does not matter if the situation is better or worse in France or anywhere else; Britain is the only home most of us have and we cannot up sticks and move to France where we know nobody and do not speak the language. Black and Asian people moved here in the 50s and 60s because their countries were or had been part of the British empire, not the French or Portuguese one.

And as a white man who has no relatives in any of the groups that regularly suffer harassment, even though as a Muslim I find the media coverage and political noises threatening, I am not in the “front line” as it were. The young man in the Question Time audience clearly has no idea; frankly he sounds like he comes from a posh background and went to a “nice school” and probably thinks Britain is a country where success is based on merit, not privilege, and that if you get into trouble it is your fault. I wonder if he actually works for a political party or a think-tank. But whether he does or not, it’s offensive to counter stories of real racism with claims of how tolerant we as a country are, because laws and opinion poll results do not always reflect people’s everyday experiences, and comparisons with other countries are irrelevant.

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High-tech barbarism

7 October, 2018 - 18:00

A picture of a very wide Victorian building, with a central three-storey block with two-storey extensions to the side. In the foreground is an extensive green. The sky is cloudy and grey in parts.

Last Tuesday evening there was a 45-minute programme on Radio 4 (part of its File on 4 slot) exposing the abusive treatment of an autistic teenage girl at the St Andrew’s hospital in Northampton, an institution which has been the focus of at least one other documentary exposing its treatment of adolescents, particularly those with autism, and adults as well as a number of inadequate CQC reports. My last entry was a commentary on the programme (which also exposed the failure of councils to protect people in care homes from abuse or to bring negligent management to book, which is why I recommend listening to it in full), but since then I have heard from Bethany’s father Jeremy on Twitter who answered some of the questions about her treatment the documentary raised.

One positive outcome of the programme was that the bits of a ballpoint pen which had become embedded in Bethany’s arm as a result of self-harm have been removed (this was after they had left it in for two weeks because it was supposedly too dangerous to take her out of her isolation room to do it). However, Walsall council — the same council who vetoed a community placement earlier this year — have also attempted to take out an injunction against Jeremy for displaying a picture of Bethany as the cover photo on his Twitter account. It seems they believe they are a better judge of her best interests than her own father, despite having nothing to offer her themselves. (Naming a living victim of rape or sexual abuse without their crime, or at all if they are under 18, is a crime, but parents of children in care, whether the care is the result of a question over the parents’ adequacy as parents or, as in this case, the child’s special needs often face demands not to identify their children; supposedly this is to protect their privacy but the presumption should be that the parents know best, as there is normally no prohibition on sharing information about one’s children’s lives and some parents overshare.)

Jeremy also filled us in as to why he is forced to talk to her through a hole in a door rather than being allowed in the same room as his daughter. The answer is that when he has the opportunity to visit, at weekends and in the evenings, regular staff are off duty and agency staff cover, and they are under strict instructions not to open the door no matter how calm Bethany has been during the day or whether it has been open all day or not. In other words, it is a case of cost-cutting and staff convenience taking precedence over the needs and rights of the patients; it is just easier for the institution to hire agency staff to cover periods where there are fewer activities such as education and therapy and the wards are winding down for the night or most people are asleep. The fact that this is the only time when some people’s parents can visit doesn’t get in the way of this institution-centred thinking or behaviour.

Jeremy also reported in a tweet earlier today (Sunday) that, shortly before Beth was transferred to St Andrew’s (when she was in a unit in Preston), the two of them had spent time on a nearby beach together without any staff present; yet now, they are not even allowed to be in the same room together? It does not make sense.

These people are not trying, and should not be in any kind of healthcare.

On many occasions I have seen media exposés of primitive mental health care abroad; one that got a large amount of media coverage was the spectacle of mentally ill people in Indonesia being chained to beds for extended periods (Human Rights Watch did a 75-page report on this [PDF] in 2016, complete with numerous pictures of people shackled to wooden platforms or metal bars, often in a state of undress); another was a girl in the Palestinian territories being kept in a cage in her parents’ back garden. These stories often have somewhat racist overtones, particularly when they are about peoples who have been campaigning for freedom but who, so goes the stories, keep intellectually disabled or mentally ill people locked up in cages. However, the abuses in some western psychiatric institutions often has a calculated cruelty to them and it is backed up with security that money and technological advancement can buy — high walls and fences, multiple locked doors, air-locks, cameras everywhere. In fact, keeping a mentally ill relative locked up at home (with a hired nurse to guard and look after them) used to be regarded as a more humane way of caring for them than submitting them to an asylum, which in the era of ‘Bedlam’ was likely to be a hellhole full of restraining devices and crackpot ‘treatments’, all for public spectacle. The story of Bertha and Grace Poole in the book Jane Eyre is based on this practice, which was common amongst the well-off (poorer people did not have the money or space). This is nowadays in theory illegal, although I have heard of some families doing this, but I do not see how it is any more cruel than keeping someone in a high-security institution hundreds of miles from home for years and not even letting them hug their visiting relatives or talk to them without it being listened in on.

Our system is as barbaric as anyone’s. It’s just that it’s high-tech barbarism.

There is now a fundraising appeal for a new placement for Bethany. The goal is only £1,000 which will not fund a whole new placement on its own but might, for example, contribute towards legal action to improve her situation. You can find it here.

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Transforming care? More like history repeating itself

3 October, 2018 - 18:35

Stephanie BincliffeLast night BBC’s File on 4 programme was dedicated to how well the government’s declared intention to get people with learning disabilities out of short-term mental health care and into the community where they belong was progressing, seven years after it was announced following the Panorama expose of physical abuse at the privately-run (but NHS-contracted) unit near Bristol, Winterbourne View. Since then there have been a number of deaths in such care that were related to neglect, most famously that of Connor Sparrowhawk but also Nico Reed (in Oxfordshire like Connor), Stephanie Bincliffe (right) and Thomas Rawnsley (both in Yorkshire). Yesterday it featured an interview with the father of a teenage girl who was being held in the St Andrew’s hospital in Northampton, in conditions that sounded a lot like those that led to the death of Stephanie Bincliffe but are also somewhat reminiscent of how convicted criminals are treated in some American (though not British) prisons. It also touched on the excessive use of restraint, and finding out how prevalent that was took a lot of detective work on their part as it was not readily available under the Freedom of Information Act. (More: Mark Neary.)

The young lady in St Andrew’s is named Bethany, is 17 and from Walsall in the West Midlands. She has been held in ‘seclusion’ in that hospital for 21 months, so likely since she was 15. The room is bare and has only a chair and a bed, which itself consists of a mattress covered in plastic. She is fed through a hatch in the metal door, she talks to him over the phone through it while someone standing on the other side holds it, and when her father visits, he has to talk to her through it. They do not explain why they cannot let him into the same room as his daughter, but they did say that she had been outside it only a few times in the last year and three quarters, which indicates that she is not let out to wash on a regular basis. They mentioned that she is prone to self-harm and had embedded bits of a biro pen in her arm, which it was supposedly too dangerous to take her to hospital to get removed; she has also become clinically obese during her time locked up. Her father says that on the phone, they talk about what they could do if she was somewhere else, meaning a suitable placement in the community; she used to love going to the circus, but he has been unable to do that (or anything else) with her since she has been there. The hospital do not take her out for activities because they are short of staff.

Earlier this year, she was supposed to be moving to a community placement but at the last minute, Walsall borough council pulled out, claiming that her needs were too specialised for it to be suitable. Her father, Jeremy, says that every three months he attends meetings at which institution staff say that it’s all terrible but nothing changes. As she is detained under the Mental Health Act (or ‘sectioned’), he is powerless to remove her from this situation; it is in the power of the responsible clinician.

The programme exposed a number of conflicts, one of them being that local authorities are resistant to funding bespoke support arrangements because they cost money; they prefer to keep people with complex needs in the mental health system because the NHS pays for that. Local authorities have been a prime target for government cutbacks since the 2010-15 coalition came to power, because the ‘glamorous’ state services have been taken over by bureaucracies which answer to central government — in particular, health and the academy school system. Local authorities run non-academy schools (which are unfavoured), social services (which have been cut to the bone) and services such as bin collection which can be privatised.

However, it really failed to ask why private institutions such as St Andrew’s and the private units run by companies such as Cygnet and Priory do not have the staff to offer a humanly dignified standard of care to people like Bethany. The likely reason is that the prices they charge do not allow them to hire enough staff for that purpose, and behind that lies a competitive tendering system that means there is a drive to bring costs down. There is also a history of ‘soft’ inquests that are reluctant to find neglect or wrongdoing where a disabled person has been killed as a result of doctors’ or commissioners’ decisions (e.g. Stephanie Bincliffe and, earlier this year, Oliver MacGowan); bosses know that the legal system will take their side even when, to any outsider, someone’s death appears to be an obvious result of arrogance, carelessness or incompetence. To combat this there must be some minimum standard of care; mental health patients who are detained for more than, say, a certain number of weeks must be taken out at least a certain number of times, have activities available, have access to a shower on a regular basis and so on. Bethany’s care is costing £12,000 per week; there is simply no excuse for someone’s care to cost that much and be so poor.

We do not know the full details of how Bethany came to be in the seclusion room; we were given a brief telling of her life story by her father. But she has been in this situation for 21 months and if it were possible for her to be in a community placement and go to the circus, it is possible for a hospital to provide decent care in the interim. We heard her speak and she is able to do so coherently; she sounded calm on the phone and likes to sing her favourite song (Three Little Birds by Bob Marley) to him. If the people running this hospital do not have the wit to work out how to accommodate her dignity and her need for fresh air, human contact and stimulation in all that time, they are in the wrong job, and if they cannot get the staff, their financial model is all wrong. There’s just no excuse.

To me, statistics only have so much impact and the finances are of less relevance than the human suffering involved, especially when the treatment in question killed someone a lot like Bethany only a couple of years ago. Clearly the standards are not tough enough and some of the people making decisions that affect people’s lives for years to come are in the wrong jobs.

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A bridge to Ireland?

30 September, 2018 - 18:41

A picture of some fields in undulating high ground with a white lighthouse at the back, with the sea at the back behind a cliff.In an interview with the Sunday Times, which is paywalled, Boris Johnson, the former British foreign secretary recently notorious for his derogatory remarks about Muslim women, attacked the prime minister’s plans for Brexit, boasting that unlike her, he campaigned for Brexit and believes it is best for Britain (by the way: we all know he actually wrote pro- and anti-Brexit opinion pieces in the run-up to the 2016 referendum and was undecided until almost the last minute). He called for a bridge to be built between Britain and Ireland and the HS2 rail project to be shelved in favour of a high-speed link across northern England. The latter is a fairly reasonable demand because east-west links in the north are notoriously bad, particularly Trans-Pennine links between Manchester and Yorkshire. The first, however, although possible, is preposterous.

If you look at any map of the British Isles, you will notice that the only place you could reasonably build a bridge between the two islands is between the north Antrim coast of Ireland and the Kintyre peninsula in Scotland. However, to get to any major population centre, you would then need to build several other bridges to link that peninsula to Glasgow. The shortest route would be from near Wemyss Bay on the mainland (west of Glasgow), across the Cowal peninsula and the Isle of Bute to Kintyre, then along a presumably upgraded A83 (or a newly-built dual carriageway) to the Mull of Kintyre (the southern end of that peninsula) then over to near Runabay Head, east of Ballycastle, on the Antrim Coast. This would require four or five new bridges or tunnels to do a round-about route between Glasgow and Belfast.

Alternatively, a major new tunnel could be bored between Portpatrick near Stranraer in south-western Scotland to near Black Head, south of Larne on the east Antrim coast. This tunnel would serve the needs of English travellers to Northern Ireland but not the south (ferries from Fishguard and Holyhead would still be more viable for accessing south and central Ireland from most of England), and would need to be about 40km long, which would be about the same length as the Channel Tunnel between England and France (this is 50.45km or just over 31 miles long) which connects London and Paris, both cities of about 10 million population, to say nothing of all the other major cities in northern Europe such as Brussels, Amsterdam, Cologne and so on. It would also require a major upgrade to roads linking Galloway to Glasgow and Carlisle, both of which are currently single carriageway.

Picture of hills sloping down towards a small bay, with trees near the sea in the background and rocks poking through the grass in the foreground.These things could be done. But Boris Johnson shows his ignorance of the geography by suggesting bridges. In the winter months, these stretches of water are exposed to Atlantic winds meaning that they would have to be closed very frequently; tunnels, although more expensive, would mean they could remain open in all weathers and not interfere with shipping. However, as experience at Dartford shows, tunnels would have to be closed regularly to escort tankers through (unless they are to be banned from it) which is a major cause of traffic congestion. Another option would be a rail tunnel with a shuttle train to take vehicles, but this would mean frequent queueing especially if the Cambelltown route were chosen, and Ireland uses a different gauge from the British mainland (and western Europe).

He also shows a marked ignorance of the political reasons why a link does not already exist. A set of bridges or tunnels from Glasgow via Campbelltown would lead to unprecedented development in those areas, but it would also destroy the attraction of the area to tourists (both from within Scotland and from further afield) as a place of solitude, tranquility and natural beauty. The landscape is rocky, and would need to be smoothed out with embankments and cuttings to build a fast highway, which would cut a scar through the landscape. Views, both on land and at the coast, enjoyed for generations would be no more if large bridges were built to carry traffic, and this traffic mostly would not stop on the islands or peninsulas they crossed and thus bring no economic benefit. Transport in Scotland is also devolved and all the tolls on road bridges in Scotland were removed soon after the Scottish Parliament started operating; a major new road link that involved tolls would be unlikely to be accepted in Scotland.

A picture of some cliffs with the sea behind, and a rock rising sharply from the sea.The “bridge to Ireland” idea is fairly typical of Boris Johnson’s fondness for vast infrastructure projects; while his opposition to Heathrow airport expansion is well-known, he actually favours a new airport on a new island in the Thames estuary, a concept which has been referred to as “Boris Island” but ridiculed because it takes no account of the geography of the area with planes very vulnerable to bird-strike. This is the sort of project which would be easy for a dictatorship to pull off — or perhaps a government which had no need to secure votes in the areas affected — but very difficult in a democracy where planning processes meant that local objections and concerns about tourism, the environment, the impact on local people and wildlife and so on, as well as the cost-benefit analysis, have to be taken into account.

So a bridge or tunnel across the strait between Scotland and Ireland is a physical possibility, but it would be the easy part — the onward transport links would be an enormous undertaking and politically very difficult. Ironically, it would be more viable in the event of both a united Ireland and an independent Scotland within the EU; as a means of cementing links between post-Brexit England and Northern Ireland, its intention would be seen through very easily and would meet considerable resistance on both sides of the water. Short of a separate act of Parliament to overrule the Scottish Parliament on this issue, or to scrap the Scottish Parliament altogether, it is difficult to see how it could be achieved politically.

Images: Mull of Kintyre lighthouse by Patrick Mackie; Loughan Bay by Willie Duffin; North Witch Rock by Dave Sands, all licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 (BY-SA 2.0) licence.

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Want justice? Tell us your whole life story first

27 September, 2018 - 21:49

A stack of papers, including a ring binder at the bottomYesterday it was reported that the police in some parts of the UK, notably London and Merseyside, demand that women reporting rape submit both medical records and an extraordinary array of electronic data to them which can then be handed over to the Defence. Complainants are being asked to hand over all of their counselling notes and school health and social services records as well as all data from their electronic devices such as text messages, social media postings, documents and web browsing history; this data can then be kept for up to 100 years. People are being advised that if they fail to disclose what is demanded, the prosecution cannot go ahead; meanwhile, suspects cannot be forced to hand over this amount of information and police are complaining that they are inundated with data.

The obvious problem is that victims — as most complainants are — are being asked to submit virtually everything they have written down and everything anyone has written about them in the past several years, possibly their whole adult and adolescent lives, in order that the defence be furnished with a raft of mostly irrelevant information they can use to discredit the case against their client with baseless suggestions about the complainant’s history or character. This perhaps indicates that defence lawyers are having to get more sophisticated than simply making the complainant out to be a harlot (by, for example, getting a few of the accused’s friends to testify that they had sex with her) — they can portray her instead as mentally ill, or reveal that a teacher once said (ten years ago) that she was the kind of girl that made up stories or that she “had a fertile imagination”. In one particular case (in which a woman was attacked by a stranger in public), the prosecution service obtained a woman’s mental health records that revealed that she had an illness that sometimes made people prone to risky or unusual sexual behaviour and dropped the case, fearing that if the defence became aware of this it would fatally undermine the case; the rapist proceeded to rape another woman.

Such enormous demands for disclosure can only feature as a deterrent for women seeking to report anything but the most stereotypical of sexual assaults — the situation of the respectable librarian attacked out of a bush on her way home. However, what must also be feared is what else might be done with this information. It would no doubt give clues to a woman’s immigration status and that of a number of her friends, along with their whereabouts, as well as a whole raft of other information that might be used to incriminate her or her friends, particularly if they are involved in any kind of organised protest movement or a political movement that the security forces consider to be “of interest” (which may or may not be rational — see MI6’s obsession with Michael Foot’s supposed Russian connections). In other words, it’s an enormous database of information that the police could use to do anything they want with; let’s not be deceived by their complaints about being inundated. If the victim is someone they are interested in anyway, or associated with them, they will know what to do with the data.

We may think the police are there to serve us, the public; in fact, they serve the Queen, or in other words, the State. It should be no surprise that they make extraordinary demands for information which can be used for their own purposes as well as for making prosecuting rape more difficult (thus cutting costs) in all but the easiest cases. It does appear to be pandering to stereotypes about an awful lot of reports of rape being false and complainants being liars (currently it is only in cases of rape or sexual assault where such disclosures are required) but it still means that justice is not for all: it is only for those who have nothing to hide and no foibles or peccadilloes. It has to end.

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Show some respect

26 September, 2018 - 18:17

A view through an archway into the courtyard of the Qayrawiyyin mosque in Fes, Morocco. There is a tiled marble floor and a fountain in the middle, with a portico at the rear and a Moroccan type square minaret behind it.Yesterday I came across a tweet on Twitter which made some unpleasant generalisations about Muslim women and Islamic knowledge. It claimed that when men study the Shari’ah, it leads to “More ibadah > more humility > teaching others > dawah > serving the community” while when women do the same, they end up becoming hijabi fashion bloggers, then eventually taking off the hijab and dating non-Muslim men. I became aware of this because someone quoted him and noted that they were disgusted with his remarks, but I also discovered that a few of the people I follow also follow him. The man is not noted as a scholar or speaker on Islam but is a business copyrighter and branding consultant of some sort based in Dubai, and his website consists of endorsements by various customers. When this comment was challenged, another individual said that it was not all Muslim women who studied Islam that were described but just “SOAS students”, which is also a slur on a great many of them.

SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, is part of the University of London, England, and as the name implies, attracts a large ethnic minority student base, including Muslims, a lot of whom are politically engaged. The comment seems to be based on the example of one woman on Twitter who studied Islamic studies at SOAS, wore hijab until a year or so ago then stopped. That doesn’t mean she is dating non-Muslims (or indeed anyone) and certainly not that all Muslim women who study there and are practising Muslims on arrival, or graduation, stop practising or start doing things well-known to be haraam (forbidden in Islam) shortly after. Some students are Muslim, some are not, some are practising to one degree or another, some are not, just like in any British university.

The tweet mentioned in my introduction shows great ignorance about the importance for Muslims of gaining Islamic knowledge. In this day and age, the great majority of Islamic scholars are men, and the majority of Islamic colleges of learning only take men and boys. Typically when a community decides to establish a centre of learning it will be to teach imams and they are male, and a college for girls will be an afterthought. The reasons typically are that separate facilities are needed for boys and girls (or men and women) so that they mix as little as possible if at all, and it is a lot easier to just take one sex and that usually means males. This puts women at a great disadvantage in the community because, among other things, you will have a whole generation of teachers of Islam teaching about matters of physical purity who have little idea of what it is like to be a woman or how the female body works, or arbitrating a Muslim divorce case having never discussed the issues at stake with women — they may, however, have imbibed prejudices against women from hearing complaints from men over cups of tea or dinner over many years. A further reason why it is important for women to have access to Islamic learning is that they will be able to teach their children, which is important as they are likely to spend more time with them than their fathers who, regardless of their level of knowledge, will probably be out working when the mother might not be, especially when the children are very young. These are just a few of the many reasons. All in all, a community in which everyone has knowledge is of greater quality than one in which only 50% of the population do.

There are, of course, cases in which it is blameworthy to seek Islamic knowledge — anyone who does so in order to compete with scholars or argue with fools, according to a hadith, will go to Hell, as will someone who became a scholar to gain fame and admiration. However, we do not presume that this is the reason why anyone studied the religion. Early Islamic history is full of examples of very worthy female scholars, some of whom were the wives of well-known male scholars and some of whom gave public lectures attended by men and women, and some of whose students were well-known imams such as al-Shafi’i. They were particularly renowned as transmitters of hadith and it has been observed that none of them were liars, of which there were a large number among male hadith transmitters, for various reasons (e.g. sectarianism, raconteurs who used hadith as entertainment). Some of these are scholars of the salaf, and excepting the Sahabiyyat (whose knowledge of the deen came from living with the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, and his Companions rather than from studying in a school), they are the best of women in Islam, yet according to this copywriter chap in Dubai, they should be considered the worst! How so?

There is a marked tendency nowadays among Muslim men on the Internet towards imbibing ideas from the alt-right and blaming ‘uppity’ women for their failures or the fact that they cannot get married or find a ‘good’ submissive wife. This is not entirely new; a few years ago articles from the “Save the Males” site (run by Henry Makow, inventor of the game Scruples) appeared on Muslim bulletin boards on a regular basis and nowadays Jordan Peterson is the favoured reactionary misogynist. They extol the virtues of patriarchy which they say is the Islamic model for the family and for how men and women should relate to each other, yet they do not ask if they are the sort of patriarch anyone would want in charge of their affairs. They are similar in mentality to the so-called hoteps among the Black community, men who hark back to a past in which men were kings and women were their willing and obedient servants. (They often idealise ancient Egypt, hence the name.)

And when vulgarity and misogyny meet, you get men who show no respect to women, however religious or chaste they might be. Every woman is a whore except their mother; there is always some reason to doubt that she is worthy, no matter if she does all her prayers, knows the Qur’an by heart and wears the requisite loose dress and headscarf or even covers her face. If she’s not corrupt now, she will be in the future; they all are. They will fault a woman if she is ignorant or if she has knowledge. Since we are expected in Islam to think the best of people, especially other Muslims, and not entertain undue suspicion or the claims of backbiters and gossips, we should not be listening to or chatting with a misogynist of this type who does not think of the implications of the things he says. If you are a man, how do you think your wife would feel if she found you bantering with a man who shows open disrespect for her and others like her? How would you feel if a white (non-Muslim) co-worker you thought was a friend kept an online feed that was full of material portraying your people as drug-dealers or child-molesters? Show her, and your sisters, mother, and other women some respect, and cut these men out of your circle.

Image source: Abdel Hassouni, sourced from Wikimedia, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 (BY-SA 4.0) licence.

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Karanbir Cheema case: intention matters

23 September, 2018 - 16:11

Picture of Karanbir Cheema, a young South Asian boy wearing thin, black-rimmed spectacles. He has a blue school uniform jumper on with a logo of two hands holding the world, with "Perivale Primary School" in white capital letters around the top, and an open-necked white shirt underneath.Last week an inquest opened on the case of a 13-year-old boy with a severe allergy to dairy products who died in a London school playground after allegedly having cheese put down his shirt. People were sharing the story on Twitter and saying “they killed him” and accusing the other children (allegedly) involved of murder. I pointed out that whether it was murder would depend on whether they intended to cause him serious harm and whether they knew about his allergy at all or whether it could cause such serious harm especially from mere skin contact (as opposed to ingesting the foods concerned). As a result of this I was deluged with tweets from people telling me that everyone will have known about his allergy, that it was at the very least manslaughter but that they probably did it deliberately because children are cruel to each other. I (and the lady who retweeted the story into my timeline) got a two-day flood of mentions and notifications as people all around the world reacted to the story.

The situation reminded me of an earlier case in which a young man, Steven Simpson, was doused with tanning oil and set alight by a group of ‘friends’ who also wrote anti-gay insults on his body at his 18th birthday party, resulting in his death. Simpson had what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome as well as a speech impediment and epilepsy. The man who poured the oil and lit the match, Jordan Sheard, got 3 1/2 years in prison for manslaughter. At the time, I wrote an open letter and asked others to sign it, and sent it to the then attorney general, Dominic Grieve, asking him to appeal his sentence as it seemed appallingly lenient given that they had poured an accelerant on his body and set him alight, causing him a prolonged and painful death. It appeared to me to be a classic case of “mate crime” in which a person with learning difficulties is subjected to cruelty by people they mistake for friends and continue to endure it either because they are unable to distinguish this behaviour from genuine affection or because they are so desperate for friendship that they prefer the friendship of abusers to that of nobody. I reminded Dr Grieve that causing someone grievous bodily harm resulting in death was murder, and that surely pouring what one believes to be an accelerant onto someone and then setting it alight constitutes causing GBH. However, Sheard’s sentence was not increased on appeal (see ruling in PDF format here).

This case is slightly different as both the victim, Karanbir Cheema (Karan), and the alleged assailants are children — we do not know what age they are because all we have is a paramedic’s word based on what unnamed school staff told him. We do not know how many there were or what was said. We do not know what exactly they knew about Karan’s allergy or how severely or how easily it could affect him. Most adults are aware nowadays that eating something you are allergic to could kill them, but not everyone is so aware that contact between the skin and a solid allergen could have the same effect. We do not know why they were chasing him or why they had the cheese in their hands (perhaps it was just their lunch). What criminal offence the other children involved are guilty of, if any, depends on how much they knew and what they intended; if they knew their actions could cause a severe and potentially fatal allergic reaction and did so deliberately, it could be murder. If they thought it could just bring him out in a bit of a rash, it’s likely to be manslaughter.

But I’m not going to sit in judgement on a group of teenagers and call them murderers without knowing the full facts, which we are likely to once the full inquest and police investigation have taken place. It’s sad how many people are willing to do this in response to a report about a situation they know nothing about, early on in an investigation.

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Who gets believed?

22 September, 2018 - 23:13

Recently a lot of people have been retweeting a tweet by one Amanda Brown Lierman, “political & Organizing Director for @theDemocrats” (not sure if she means the whole party or a local branch of it), which moans:

A lot of people retweeting it don’t stop to think because if they did, they might realise how factually wrong, inappropriate and offensive it is.

A small walled garden with a stone wall at the front, broken by a metal gate with a large cross mounted on its grille. At the back of the garden is a shrine. Behind the garden's rear stone walls are two pairs of semi-detached houses.To begin with, it’s not a competition; one should not complain about one group of victims being believed when another isn’t. Second, it was not only men who accused priests and other churchpeople of abusing them; particularly in Catholic countries, boys and girls, and some adults (particularly women) suffered abuse of many different kinds from all kinds of religious (priests and members of religious orders) and the facts, although they were widely known of at the time, came to be talked of openly years later. It was not just men complaining of being molested as boys by priests: it was girls being sexually abused and even raped, children being exploited in church-run industrial schools and beaten and otherwise physically abused in schools, children’s homes and other institutions. One of the scandals being exposed now involves babies who died in a Catholic mother and baby home in Ireland whose bodies were disposed of in a septic tank.

There has been a long history of young people of both sexes not being believed when they complained. In one case, young men who told the police that they had been sexually abused in a young offenders’ institution were told that it was a criminal offence to make such accusations against prison officers and roughly expelled from the station. When they were finally believed, the perpetrators were in most cases no longer in charge of children and in some cases were very old or dead and very few have been brought to justice — a few bishops have had their chances of becoming pope derailed but that’s about it. In the highest-profile abuse scandal in the UK, in which a celebrity gained access to hospitals, prisons and other establishments and sexually abused people (one of these places was a spinal injury rehabilitaiton centre), accusations were not made public until after he had died. Despite his fame having waned considerably, he was still very wealthy and the media feared litigation if they made any of it public. One or two of the accusers’ stories has not stood up and, although they have not been named, they have been characterised in the media as fantasists and the media have reverted to effusive sympathy for the well-heeled accused.

I spent four years in a ‘special’ all-boys boarding school in England. Physical abuse was rampant, particularly in the first year or so but throughout, staff used inappropriate restraint methods and overlooked physical violence among boys and some used violence in response to trivial personal slights or when shouted at. Complaints were made early on, but were not acted on despite police involvement in 1992. Nobody was prosecuted until 2006 and that was for sexual abuse early on in the history of the school; there was no serious investigation until after the celebrity scandal I mentioned earlier, which was nearly 20 years after the school closed and, crucially, nobody had a vested interest in keeping anyone at the school and even then nobody high-up in the school’s management was prosecuted, only a few old teachers and care staff. If we had been listened to then and the school had been closed, as it should have been, local authorities and parents would have had the headache of finding new schools when they thought the children affected were ‘settled’.

My point is that it’s not whether the complainer is a man or a woman that determines whether they are believed or not. It’s whether the person complained of is still powerful and whether acting on the complaint will be costly or inconvenient. In the case of Christine Blasey Ford, who accuses the US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault when he was 17 and she was 15, whether people believe or not seems to divide mostly along partisan lines. There is a huge difference between those situations and this: these were children, their abusers were their adult carers or people they were forced to live with, the abuse went on for years and was not a single assault at a party, people had lost years of their lives in some cases. So it’s unfair and distasteful to show resentment that people abused over years as children are believed, often without consequences for the abusers, just because a single accusation against a person running for high office is being questioned.

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Teenage boys do know rape is wrong

20 September, 2018 - 22:13

The seal of the US Supreme Court, consisting of a stylised eagle holding out arrows in one foot and an olive branch in the other, the slogan "E pluribus unum" on a banner round the back of its neck and the words "Seal of the Supreme Court of the United States" in all caps round the outside.In the debate over whether the conservative American judge Bret Kavanaugh is fit to serve as a Supreme Court judge, an accusation has emerged that when in high school, he held down and groped a female schoolmate, now a professor, named Christine Blasey Ford. One of the defences that has been used for him is that the incident happened years ago when he was a high school student and that it was just juvenile high jinks, and some are suggesting that teenage boys are too immature to understand issues of consent. A female high school student who identifies with the conservative Future Female Leader movement has tweeted that this is “probably one of the most unsettling things [she has] ever witnessed” despite having supported Kavanaugh before the accusations emerged. As someone who remembers my mid-teens rather well, I can say that we did in fact know that this sort of thing was wrong, and was illegal.

In most western countries, the age of criminal responsibility is around ten or twelve. In the USA, there are teenagers and adults serving life sentences with a minimum of 40 years or more for murders committed when they were 14 or even less, often people who did not kill anyone personally but took part in a robbery in which someone was killed. Only recently did the Supreme Court strike down laws which mandated life without parole sentences for anyone convicted of felony murder. Often their participation was not motivated by malice or avarice; they participated because their friends were doing so, because they demanded they prove themselves and may not have revealed that they were armed. Young people know that rape is a crime and that sexual assault is a crime. They may not know the technicalities but they know the basics.

There is bullying in a lot of schools, particularly secondary and high schools. This behaviour is not often brought to the attention of the authorities unless it results in serious injuries, even when it consists of physical assaults or sexual harassment, but very often the perpetrators do it because they seek to hurt or humiliate their victim and the same is true of the kind of assault Kavanaugh is accused of perpetrating. They do it because it hurts or because their pleasure is of greater importance in that moment than the comfort or dignity of the person assaulted. Such bullies often get away with it not only because victims are afraid to report it, or do not want to relive the incident in the police station and in court, but also becuase they know that the attacker is seen by society as more valuable than they are: they may be an athlete who brings prestige and funding to their school, or a “high flyer” whose degree might improve the schools’ or college’s statistics, whose later success in life would improve their reputation, and who might well donate money.

His supporters say that his life should not be ‘ruined’ over this (alleged) youthful indiscretion. The problem is that young lives are ruined over such ‘indiscretions’ all the time, as long as they are not white, middle-class or academically or athletically promising. In this case, however, his accuser is not calling for him to be prosecuted, just for him not to be appointed for life to the most powerful judicial office in the land, a member a panel of judges who sit in judgement not only on people but on laws. It’s only to be expected that, at a time when male executives in the entertainment industry in particular are being called to account for sexual harassment and discrimination (this being largely the result of a man who bragged of sexually assaulting women being elected president) that a putative Supreme Court judge will face the same scrutiny.

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What is a garment of liberty, really?

18 September, 2018 - 23:29

Two women in a clothing shop, one of which is trying on a long, black, sleeveless dress with a fitted bodice and a full skirt.A couple of years ago there was a sketch on a Canadian comedy show (starts at 01:26), the Baroness Von Sketch Show, in which a woman walks into a clothing store and tries on a long, sleeveless black dress. She was, she said, “not feeling it” though it fit well, until she discovered it had pockets. “This dress has pockets?” she exclaimed. “Yes,” said the shopkeeper, “it is a garment of liberty”. The lady ecstatically reeled off the list of things she could put in those pockets, that she could go out “like a dude” without the tyranny of a ‘purse’ (handbag), and in her excitement walked straight out of the shop in it without paying, presumably leaving all her existing clothes behind. The sketch was brought to mind by an article on Quartz I read last weekend (published February 2017) in which Lucy Rycroft-Smith described how she liberated herself from the tyranny of modern women’s clothing by switching to men’s clothing. The experiment showed her, she said, that female fashion is a sign that “the world does not want women to get too comfortable”. (She posted an earlier article on the same subject at The F Word.)

Women’s clothing, she said, always left a mark — bra straps on her shoulders, shoes on her heels, tights around her waist; she would always strip off everything tight when she got home from work; her clothing never quite fit and she was always fidgeting and adjusting, and having switched to shirts and men’s trousers, she is aware of other women doing the same. In the earlier article, where she explains that her initial month in menswear was partly inspired by a challenge called “Octieber”, of wearing ties for a month, she noted that for women formal dress often meant things that caused her discomfort — showing more flesh, wearing tighter and more uncomfortable clothes and foundations, while the suit she borrowed from her boyfriend was her idea of a garment of liberty:

My boyfriend appears from the loft with a three-piece subtle black pinstripe from French Connection he has grown out of. I try it on and it’s magic. It’s one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given, and on no particular occasion. Happy Birth-of-A-New-Freedom-Day to me. This suit does not make me uncomfortable or pained in any way.

It looks smart and stylish but does not dig in, does not cling, pinch or make me frown at my reflection where it could be a little looser, a little longer and a little higher. It just is.

And they have pockets:

The clothes I’m wearing now have bountiful, multifaceted, capacious pockets. I have nine of them today. I counted ’em. On a typical day of wearing womenswear, I have NONE. Another realisation like a wet herring to the face: the ‘handbag vs pockets’ thing is huge confidence-underminer, another terribly effective, if inadvertent way, to hold women down. I remember being crouched over my handbag, furiously ferreting for a business card while my male colleague coolly produced one from his manly chest-cavity as though he lactated them to order.

As for the ties, however, she explains in her more recent article that “I never do it up to the point where I can feel it”. Which is the rub, so to speak. Because if you’re a man, and more so if you’re a schoolboy, you will be expected to do it up that far, and do up your top button so that it constricts your neck. This was an enormous source of discomfort for me at secondary school, and the source of numerous arguments with teachers and prefects who saw that I had left it undone and demanded that I do it up again. Girls at my first secondary school could wear blouses, which freed them from having to wear ties (though they did have to wear a skirt, with tights underneath; this, I’m sure, some found uncomfortable, though not all). So her going to work (or wherever) with her tie at “half mast”, as this used to be called when I was at school, is simply a case of her exercising the dress choices she has as a woman. (Admittedly, in some schools, the same is required of girls.)

When reviewing the various “privilege checklists” that did the rounds a number of years ago, I noticed that in some cases the privileges listed were in fact trade-offs, not straightforward advantages. In Barry Deutsch’s male privilege checklist, for example, he claimed:

My clothing is typically less expensive and better-constructed than women’s clothing for the same social status. While I have fewer options, my clothes will probably fit better than a woman’s without tailoring.

“Fewer options” is often presented as an advantage — that a burdensome decision is taken off one’s hands and life is simpler — and this is often given as an advantage for school uniform, that the child does not have to decide what clothes to wear, it’s already decided for them; but in the case of clothing, it’s only an advantage if the clothing is neither ridiculous nor uncomfortable, which a lot of school uniforms in fact are. Rycroft-Smith herself names “simpler dressing decisions” as an advantage of wearing men’s clothes; in the case of office work, you don’t have to choose whether to wear a suit or something else; it’s just a question of which suit. But if you find suits and ties inherently uncomfortable or they bring back unpleasant memories, both of which are the case for me, that simplicity is no advantage at all. And much as a lot of ladies’ fashions are nowadays made of artificial fabrics (some form of polyester, usually) which is not as cooling as cotton, the same is true of a lot of men’s suits (T-shirts, however, are more likely to be cotton).

Rycroft-Smith describes the male clothing she has started wearing as being “looser, more flowing, and cut for comfort, without sacrificing formality and professionalism”. As far as tops go, she’s right. As for trousers, I’d like to know where she gets her loose and flowing men’s trousers. I’ve mostly worn chinos since I was in my early 20s and have had real difficulty in recent years finding trousers that have both enough backside room and fit around the waist. I did put on weight for a while a couple of years ago and found that chinos in my old size no longer fitted me, but also that I could not find chinos in slightly larger sizes that fit well either. In addition, I find that many of them are poorly cut and do not come up far enough, especially at the back, meaning that a T-shirt which is not quite long enough might come untucked. They are just not generous enough. I suppose I could go ‘ethnic’ and wear something like a shalwar-kameez, but they don’t have trouser pockets, though some do have hip pockets on the shirt (and forget wearing an Indonesian-style sarong, comfortable though it may be). If skirts for men ever take off, I’d be first in line.

Two white women in a clothing store; the woman wearing the black dress now has her hands in the dress's pockets and is holding the skirt out with an excited look on her face.In theory, having access to multiple dress formats such as trousers and skirts should mean that being able to find clothes that are comfortable is twice as likely. In practice, feminine and practical are treated in the fashion world as if they were mutually incompatible. (I even once saw an item of underwear being marketed as “practical, feminine, sophisticated” and it was an all-in-one bodystocking that you had to take off, along with anything on top, if you needed the loo.) ‘Feminine’ clothes such as skirts and dresses are often designed with the assumption that you wear them to look pretty rather than for comfort or convenience, and that maintaining the ‘line’ is so important that a bulge for cash, cards and a mobile phone would ruin the look. They are designed with the assumption that the wearer will keep all her belongings in a handbag which, unlike pockets which are sewn into one’s clothes, can easily be forgotten or stolen. While most women haven’t gone to the extreme of wearing mostly men’s clothing, this likely accounts for the fact that the long skirt, which was ubiquitous in the UK the 1980s and early 1990s, has become something only a minority of women wear when they do not have to today, which is sad because, regardless of the politics of it, there is so much more one can do with a skirt from a design point of view — they can be decorated with flowers, patterns, any colour one likes or not at all. Trousers, by and large, are pretty dull.

When I shared Lucy Rycroft-Smith’s article last weekend, I had responses from female friends saying that they had worn a lot of men’s clothing over the years because it fitted better and often because it was baggy and comfortable rather than fitted, though perhaps this was partly because it was built for bigger bodies than theirs, and had pockets. That said, if it’s what you wear all the time and it’s what you’re expected to wear, it’s not as confidence-building and empowering as if it’s a choice, and her solution is not going to appeal to all women who might find a skirt more comfortable or like the simplicity of a dress, which as the name implies, you can put on and be dressed, or find that putting on pretty clothes livens up their day a little, or for whom dress is an important part of “feeling like a woman”. There needs to be clothing which is practical, convenient, comfortable and, as most people see it, feminine.

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On mental health care and staying connected

15 September, 2018 - 19:46

A still image from the BBC documentary Don't Call Me Crazy, showing a girl sitting on the floor with her legs raised and her arm wrapped round her face.A few years ago I wrote a post on here (The Importance of Staying Connected) about how the Internet had changed from being a niche service which few people outside academia had access to, and which was a very definite luxury, to a mass medium which was a lifeline for very many people including disabled people. A friend who was a mental health inpatient had been transferred to a clinic in a remote part of Germany and had her phone and computer confiscated as the institution catered to people with dual diagnoses, including addictions, who could have used them to order drugs; after a few days, she jumped from a balcony. In that and other countries in Europe, including the UK, people receiving standard mental health inpatient care are allowed mobile phones and Internet access (though not provided with it) but not those in ‘secure’ units which house people who have been sent there on court orders as well as those detained under the Mental Health Act (which only needs two doctors) or in most adolescent units. In the USA, though, it appears to be different; people on mental health wards routinely have their phones taken away and a friend of mine who was recently admitted said she would not be able to keep in touch with us (or do the work she relies on the Internet to do) while in hospital.

Another friend of mine was recently discharged from an acute mental health unit in England. She had her phone with her all the time and kept in contact with me and other friends throughout this and a previous admission earlier this year. Wards can be stressful places with patients coming and going making it difficult to form friendships and some of them are difficult to get on with — this was a mixed ward and one of the male patients made threatening sexual advances and she needed advice as to what to do (in the end, the police were called and the man was transferred to the adjacent locked unit). She was able to arrange visits and meet-ups with friends locally during leave. Being able to keep in touch with friends staves off boredom and gives people distraction from their own thoughts which is important if those thoughts are distressing and often, because of lack of funds, mental health units are unable to provide any other adequate distraction. (This unit had a garden, for example, but patients were rarely allowed access to it.) However, a few years ago an acquaintance who had been in many different hospitals said that a previous ward she had been admitted to for more than a year had a strict no-phones and no-Internet policy and that confidentiality was given as the reason (nowadays, the policy is that patients are not allowed to photograph staff or other patients, but are allowed to keep their phones).

A while ago I read a question and answer on a medical website; the questioner was a doctor who was also a mother of a teenaged son with both Tourettes and co-morbid depression who had to be admitted to hospital from time to time to deal with the latter. One of his Tourette’s tics was to push at his teeth, which had over the years led to losing most of them; his usual way of keeping himself busy and his hands occupied was to play his electric guitar and to talk to his friends online, but the hospital had a policy of not allowing internet access because of concerns about privacy, and presumably the electric guitar would have caused disturbance to others. To avoid causing further damage to his teeth while being prevented from doing anything to distract him, he asked for restraints to be applied and he and his mother had had to persuade staff to apply them as the unit had an anti-restraint policy — as a lot of wards do, because they’re demeaning, often applied as punishments and almost never without alternatives. Worse, they set a time limit which was before the anxiety that led him to ask for the restraints had worn off. The person answering (another mental health professional) agreed with the decision to request restraints, but sensibly suggested that the hospital should reconsider its policy on electronics as this was clearly counter-therapeutic: someone who needed to be active was instead forced to lie idle in bed for hours or days.

That’s not to say that removing someone’s Internet access for a few days (or longer) isn’t sometimes beneficial; in some cases someone’s mental illness may be contributed to by online bullying, for example, and there are such things as “pro-ana” sites which encourage people with anorexia to continue slimming and resist treatment. Sometimes a person’s treatment requires them having a break from the stress of daily life and taking them away from the Internet is the only way of achieving this. But these issues do not apply to everyone who needs mental health inpatient treatment; many need to be able to talk to their friends, to get advice from someone who isn’t a mental health professional (or in some cases, other professionals who aren’t of the same mindset as those in charge of their ward) or to get help when there is danger on the ward and they may need to talk to outsiders without anyone on the ward hearing. It’s about time the people who still insist on cutting people off from the world for days or weeks a time when they need mental health treatment, regardless of individual circumstance, learned that it’s not necessary and can in fact be harmful.

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Why Muslims should protest public insults to the Prophet

3 September, 2018 - 14:56

A photograph of a rally in Pakistan, showing South Asian men in a variety of headwear including turbans, holding aloft a sign that reads "Stop blasphemers at social media, blasphemous sketches contest in Holland".Geert Wilders (or Geert Hitlers as I call him), a far-right Dutch opposition politician, has cancelled an event he had been planning (or claimed to have been planning) this coming November, a contest for cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam. He claimed he had cancelled the contest as a result of having received death threats and because he did not want others to become the “victims of Islamic violence”. According to Al-Jazeera, around 10,000 people had taken part in a protest organised by the Tehreek-i-Labbaik party in Islamabad, Pakistan, against the event and to call on prime minister Imran Khan to cut diplomatic ties with the Netherlands (and there have been others elsewhere, though often organised by certain Islamic schools). AJ quotes a Dutch political analyst in London, Stijn van Kessel, as saying that the event was “a way for him to generate media attention; he hopes that will eventually translate to votes”. A 26-year-old man, reportedly also from Pakistan, was arrested in the Hague for making a threat against Wilders. Unlike in the case of the Danish cartoons ten years ago, there have not been widespread Muslim protests in Europe against the event.

Kessel’s analysis is key to why Muslims should object to and protest against public insults to the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) and the public demeaning of Islam or Muslims. While I do not believe Muslims should turn into irrational raging mobs or lose our composure, we should raise our voices and use all legal means to ensure that such events are shut down and that, if a politician like Wilders wants to come to our country, he is refused a visa on “public good” grounds as has been the case with racist speakers of all stripes in the past, including Muslims accused of supporting anti-Semitism or terrorism. This goes far beyond the threat posed by The Satanic Verses, a novel by a writer beloved on the UK’s literary scene which would have sold few copies if it had not been for the protests and the infamous ‘fatwa’ from the Iranian leader who sought to bolster his prestige and power. Cartoons or literature insulting any religious figure, still living or otherwise, are quite legal in the UK but material intended to foster hatred against a minority is on much more shaky legal ground.

Some of the Danish cartoons (which were solicited by and published in a mainstream, right-wing newspaper, a bit like the Daily Mail) show what the cartoons that might have won a competition organised by Geert Wilders might have looked like: essentially they were stereotypes of a nasty Arab or Muslim — a man with a bomb in his turban, for example, or a man with an unkempt beard holding a dagger with two veiled wives behind him. The message was, “look at the kind of man these Moozlums aspire to be like”. In other words, it is a slur on all Muslims; the suggestion is that if we weren’t restrained by western norms or western-backed dictatorships, we would all be like the dirty, deranged-looking man in the cartoons; we are only feigning civilisation out of necessity or engaging in taqiyya or concealing our true beliefs or nature. The target is us. In addition, such events serve to embolden bigots and to chip away at inhibitions about what may be said about, and ultimately done to, Muslims. It gets people used to expressing hate, to shouting vile slogans, to repeating untruths without a second thought, and the next stage is violence.

A Muslim friend was asking why we only protest when it is our own Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) who is insulted rather than, say, Jesus (peace be upon him) or another prophet. The answer is that most of the people who would insult Jesus Christ are people of Christian background striking back at their own upbringings and, while it does offend us, it is no threat to us and additionally, most of what goes on in this country that we consider blasphemy against Jesus Christ is intended as reverence by those involved. On the rare occasions we hear earlier prophets insulted or condemned, it is based on very harsh descriptions of their behaviour from the Bible, which may or may not be accurate and are in some cases misunderstood (the story of prophet Solomon, peace be upon him, and the baby being a classic example). We do not have the resources to be every nation’s conscience and police about all these things.

Insisting on drawing cartoons or other pictures of the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) is a tell-tale sign of someone with bad intentions towards Muslims or Islam. It’s widely known and understood that we do not do that in Islam (much as we do not play-act him or his Companions — despite its popularity, The Message remains banned in many Muslim countries), and we do not appreciate seeing others do it. Those who respect us, respect that tradition; only those who do not will go to the effort of drawing or painting such images — unlike with other mannerisms which can easily trap those who are unaware, it’s not a difficult taboo to observe. As for why, the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) forbade the drawing of pictures and making of statues in general, and we have always used the word rather than the image to inform and educate. Our aim in Islam is to know and please Allah, God, and not to confuse Him with His creation, even the best of creation. Even the flag of Islam contained the shahada, not a pictorial symbol (the battle flag also includes a sword). None of us knows what the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) looked like, although we have descriptions, but we have a lot of details about his behaviour, how he treated and interacted with people, right down to how he ate. We can all aspire to be like him in these traits; particularly as we are a multi-racial community, we cannot all look like him.

Some Muslims on Facebook have said that the best response to hate towards the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) is to celebrate him with gatherings in which we remind ourselves of his life and his nature and read poems such as the Burda and the many mawlid (birthday) poetic suites, and that we should strive to educate the public on the truth about these matters. I agree. But we must remember that the true targets of these insults is the Muslims who live in the same lands as the people issuing them — namely, ourselves, and our rights and liberties and in the most extreme cases, our lives and our loved ones’ lives. This, and not our hurt feelings, is why we must fight them.

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Why “Jewish fears”, even if genuine, are misplaced

31 August, 2018 - 19:02

A man standing on grass holding a sign bearing the words "For the many, not the Jew" in white on a red background.Last week I saw two blog articles published by self-described left-wing Zionists, one of whom I know through disability activist circles, about why they are concerned about the “rising tide” of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party which they accuse Jeremy Corbyn of encouraging or condoning. Both of them spoke of their past; the father of one of the authors came to the UK in one of the pre-war Kindertransports from Nazi Germany, the other grew up in the Anglo-Jewish community which she fell away from in adulthood, but the state of the Labour Party since Corbyn’s rise has reminded her of her Jewishness and of the fear Jews traditionally felt, i.e. that however integrated they felt they were, they would always be reminded of being outsiders after a generation or two and had always lived in fear of having to pack their bags (or grab the one they had kept packed just in case) and run. One of the pieces is by Andrew Gilbert and titled The Stolen Pen: the resonance of anti-Semitism; the other is by ‘Ermintrude’, a social worker I know on Twitter, titled On Zionism, Anti-semitism and Racism — A personal response.

In other news, Frank Field yesterday (Thursday) resigned the Labour whip in the Commons citing the issue as the major reason, though there is also a campaign to deselect him in his constituency party; the New Statesman carried an interview with former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and an editorial demanding that the Labour Party adopt the full IHRA definition of anti-Semitism including the disputed examples. I have made clear my objection to this demand and what it would mean, namely that there would effectively be no place for Muslims in the party.

Ermintrude explains Zionism thus:

Zionism for me, and many like me is not an ideology based on destruction and expansion, it is based on a complex history of a persecuted race who desire a homeland to exist. This does not mean this land has to exclude others who live there although the current government is oppressive, without doubt. To me, the inability to humanise ‘Zionists’ and to understand this definition is a blind spot for Corbyn and his ilk. I can desperately strive for peace in the Middle East while still fundamentally supporting the existence of an Israeli state, albeit a very, very different one to the one that exists now.

I don’t disagree that the idea of a homeland or state for the Jews is not in itself racist; however, the demand for a state in a place where another people lives, a people who were not significantly responsible for the Jews’ persecutions, where they would be forced to “budge up” or leave to make way for Jewish incomers, makes way for racism very readily. Zionists used such slogans as “land without people for people without land”. This can be interpreted in one of two ways: either that the land was actually empty, which it was not (and is thus either extremely ignorant or mendacious), or that Arabs are less than people, which is racist. Zionists do not like hearing their beliefs likened to imperialism or colonialism; however, it exploited the fact that, at the time, Palestine was under the control of a sympathetic white colonial power which allowed large numbers of them to settle and build militias. Furthermore, European Jews were further up the European racial hierarchy than native Arabs were: they were Europeans, whites, not colonial subjects.

And as for wanting “a very different [Israeli state] to the one that exists now”, that one exists now because of the people who live there: the people who elected a war criminal as prime minister, who elect leaders that expand settlements and expand a segregation infrastructure to support them, who maintain military service to support an army that, now that two of their four former enemies have signed peace treaties, a third is in the throes of civil war and the fourth is currently more engaged in propping up the regime in that country, serves only to harass ordinary Palestinians going about their business. It’s this sort of behaviour, not the perpetrators’ religion or ethnic background, that is the cause of Palestinian resistance and movements like Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) abroad, including here.

Regarding the Jews’ sense of endangerment and persecution, Ermintrude explains:

It was a lesson that was taught every hour of every day as we saw the tattooed numbers on the arms of our neighbours and family members. I don’t remember ‘learning’ about the Holocaust or the centuries of having to run because it just ‘was’. These were the stories discussed on Friday nights and Saturday lunches, the ones that just lived with us.

I remember my grandparents telling me that all ‘host’ countries turn against the Jews eventually. We are a race that can’t ever ‘settle’ beyond a couple of generations and nowhere will be safe, because eventually, eventually they will turn on the Jews.

But Jews have been living in the UK now for many more than two generations — more like four or five, at least — without any official persecution or any movement that makes anti-Semitism part of its platform having gained any significant traction. Even when the National Front made a certain amount of headway in the 1970s, its main targets were Commonwealth immigrants; even then, despite the demonstrably Nazi beliefs of the people at its centre, they knew they could not win votes by targeting Jews. This is not to say that no prejudice exists or that nobody is aware of Jewish stereotypes; there were Jewish boys at my boarding school and all of them were the target of racialised insults and, in some cases, violence (by contrast, I never heard of ‘Jew’ or Jewish stereotypes used as insults in three south London schools up until then). But the idea that Jews have no place living here, should “go home”, are not British or should not have the same rights as everyone else has no currency and has not had for a very long time, which is more than can be said for attitudes towards the more visible minorities that arrived after the War; it allows no-stun kosher slaughter which is banned in many countries in Europe and does not interfere in mainstream orthodox Jewish schooling, both of which benefit Muslims as well. To put it simply, Britain has been good to the Jews and the fact that Jews “feel threatened” does not mean they actually are.

And the substance of the claims of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party does not equate to any real threat, in my opinion. Many of them bear no resemblance to anything that would be classed as racism if the ‘target’ was any other minority; few of them relate to British Jews in any case, but to Israel or Israelis and often in response to actual violence from Israel itself (e.g. bombing civilian targets in Gaza or Lebanon). The majority of the reports are not about new incidents (“Corbyn said X about Jews today”) but old incidents from before he became leader, all of which were known of in 2015 and could have been brought up then (or when Owen Smith challenged him a year later), but his opponents have chosen to draw attention to them one by one. And absolutely none of them involve the use of racial slurs, threats of violence or other threats to British Jews or to their rights or citizenship, things other minorities face on a routine basis and do not always result in a media-led outcry — in fact, as with Boris Johnson earlier in August, there are open suggestions that it may increase their popularity.

Lastly, both articles plead that Jews be allowed to “define their own oppression”, which echoes the demands that have been made both on Twitter and in the mainstream media by other so-called community leaders (none of them, incidentally, elected by the whole Jewish-origin community and some of them not at all), as other minorities are supposedly allowed to. I’ve covered this in the past, but to reiterate: other minorities define their ‘oppression’ in terms of violence, threats, discrimination, policies supporting these things and racial slurs, not someone’s stance on a conflict in a foreign country that they take a different side in. I have yet to hear Hindu leaders in the UK, for example, condemn anyone as racist for their stance on the situation in Kashmir, Gujarat or anything else in the Indian Subcontinent that Hindus or Hindu nationalists are implicated in. I have sometimes heard Black people allude to racism in media coverage of, say, Robert Mugabe’s farm seizures (often with some justice: I have indeed heard White people say “Black people can’t farm!”), but never to the extent of demanding the resignation of a politician for that reason. The things which trigger accusations of anti-Semitism are often much more obscure than in other alleged incidents of racism and often do not target the Jewish community here at all. In some cases there seems to have been no basis to the claims at all.

The Labour NEC meets next week to debate whether to adopt in full the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism or the modified version favoured by Corbyn and his supporters. Much as I oppose Corbyn’s stance on Brexit (and would gladly see him removed as there needs to be a major party in opposition to this disastrous policy), adopting this would silence any but the most polite criticism of Israel or Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories (and filter down to places like student unions which are often dominated by Labour party organisations) and must not pass, regardless of the threats of right-wing MPs to resign or defect. However genuine some Jews’ fears are about Corbyn’s leadership, this is a campaign manufactured in bad faith by his opponents — a mixture of Tories, who have largely been silent about more obvious racism in their own party, and Labour centrists — who have dredged up old news and presented it as new time and again.

It isn’t racist to support the Palestinians’ right to their country, and to a vote in the affairs of the country that rules them, or to arrange boycotts of their oppressors, and it isn’t racist to be angry when innocent people are killed in bombings or otherwise suffer. What would be racist — at least discriminatory — would be to adopt a policy that would mean an entire religious community in this country were shut out of the party or subjected to an inquisition about their views on Jews or Israel if they joined or tried to run for office. We are already under-represented enough as a community and it would be unjust of Labour to adopt a policy to make this worse, just to assuage some people’s baseless fears. The legality of it should also be under question.

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Muslimander TV: Are Asian lads lost, or is Mehreen Baig?

19 August, 2018 - 18:28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why did I just lose 25 followers?

17 August, 2018 - 13:41

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

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

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

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Who wears the burqa?

15 August, 2018 - 15:13

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

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

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

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

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