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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
Updated: 5 hours 40 min ago

Plastic bags are not “single use”

29 November, 2019 - 23:21
A collection of jute and orange plastic bags in two pink plastic crates.

It was reported yesterday (Thursday) that since the tax on plastic bags was introduced under the Coalition government (where, you may recall, the Liberal Democrats got this introduced in return for supporting a Tory benefit cut) plastic use by supermarkets has gone up rather than down and that many of the reusable bags, often branded “bags for life” or similar, are in fact only being used once as were the old thin bags. An environmental group whose spokesman was interviewed on today’s You and Yours programme on Radio 4 called for a 70p charge to be introduced, a similar rate to that charged in the republic of Ireland. They also noted an increase in the sale of ready meals which also invariably come in plastic packaging. I can think of a few explanations for these trends; plastic use may well have increased by even more than is being suggested.

First, carrier bags never were really “single use”. Many people did reuse them for shopping or for carrying personal effects; they also got reused as bin bags, especially in cars and the like, and for the disposal of food-related waste, nappies and other waste that might make an environment smell. They also got used as temporary covers for things (e.g. bicycle saddles when covered with bird poo — or to protect them from the same). People now have to find new ways to dispose of these things, which means buying bin bags from the same supermarket that would previously have given them a branded carrier bag for free. No doubt some of the “bags for life” are also being used as makeshift bins and disposed of before they can be reused for shopping. Since carrier bags got expensive, some of us started using the clear plastic bags they supplied for loose vegetables for some of these purposes but some supermarkets have withdrawn these as well. Sainsbury’s asks customers to buy their special netting bags or just to bring our own, but continues to supply bulk vegetables in plastic packaging. I could, therefore, buy three courgettes in a plastic package and end up throwing two of them away because I don’t get through them that quickly, or just source them elsewhere, but it’s very convenient, profitable and ‘woke’ for Sainsbury’s.

I always doubted that banning carrier bags would greatly reduce plastic consumption or plastic-based pollution. People forget to bring their bags and have to buy new ones; many people were not in the habit of bringing their used bags with them. The latter was a serious environmental problem but much of the plastic in the oceans comes from fishing nets and from plastic beads used in cosmetics that is washed down drains; it was treated as if it followed that because sea life was being choked with discarded plastic, everyone had to stop using plastic everywhere and this principally meant plastic bags and straws. Yet, while shopping can be done with reusable bags made of other materials (jute is a favourite), plastic has other purposes and people will have to continue sourcing plastic, and usually paying for it. The netting bags that Sainsbury’s now expect us to buy for the loose veg is imported from China, which increases the food miles of vegetables grown in Britain or Europe considerably (assuming the plastic bags weren’t imported from there too).

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What “royalty loyalty”?

22 November, 2019 - 17:13
Black and white pictures of a row of tables with many men, women and children of all ages sat at them, with plates and cups and food on the tables. Flags are hung from the red-brick houses which open directly onto the streets.Street party in Wolverton, Buckinghamshire to celebrate Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding, 1981. (Source: Talk About Wolverton.)

In an article posted yesterday on UnHerd, Paul Embery (a self-proclaimed “Blue Labour thinker” and fire-fighter) claims that a recent poll for the site by FocalData on support for the continuation of the monarchy underlines the schism in British society between “our big urban centres, populated by large numbers of students and the liberal cosmopolitan middle-classes with their globalist outlook” on one hand and an alliance of the old industrial working class and the conservative shires on the other: the former, which tended towards Remain in the 2016 referendum, is less supportive of the monarchy while the latter tends to be more so. A brief look at the map generated by the poll, however, shows no evidence of this alliance; quite the opposite in fact, and nor any correlation with the results of the 2016 referendum. (Note: the sample size of the poll is 21,119, which across 632 constituencies in mainland Britain means 33 to 34 people per constituency — judge for yourself how representative that sample could be. The results they published today from the question about gender identity very clearly show artefacts of the small sample.)

The map shows areas with the strongest support for the monarchy in green and the least in pink, and is rather misleading because some of the lighter-pink areas have greater than 50% support for retaining the monarchy. The general areas with the strongest support include south Essex, Lincolnshire, East Yorkshire, parts of Kent and Sussex, most of Hampshire and Dorset, and the outer suburbs and outlying towns of the West Midlands. The areas with least support are most of Scotland (almost no constituency polls 50% or more support), west and south Wales, plus all of the major and minor cities (by that I mean cities with six-figure populations, not small towns with cathedrals) and university towns (e.g. Oxford, Cambridge, Norwich, Brighton). While much of the prosperous south shows in deep green, other areas show more tepid support (e.g. Henley, Banbury) as well as the south-west of England. As with the prosperous south, the industrial and ex-industrial north and north Midlands are divided; much of northern Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire polls well above 55% in favour, but areas around Newcastle poll slightly above or below 50%. Those figures from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, however, are still well below the figures recorded in the south-east and Lincolnshire, which are often well above 60%, so this hardly indicates an ‘alliance’ of the shires and working class.

While the top and bottom constituencies in the table mostly coincide with Leave and Remain votes in 2016, in other areas the correlation breaks down. Coventry, Nottingham, Sheffield and Peterborough, for example, all of which voted to leave in 2016, show in deep pink on the map, all of which had a below 50% showing for support. Remain-voting Witney and Newbury both poll well over 50% in favour; Remain-voting Maidenhead and Beaconsfield both show over 60%. In Scotland only one constituency (Banff and Buchan, north of Aberdeen) has greater than 50% for retention; even in most of the border regions where there has been the strongest Tory resurgence, support is at most 50% and mostly lower. While both Birmingham and Wolverhampton voted to leave in 2016, Birmingham shows in this poll as mostly anti-monarchist while Wolverhampton and the Black Country are mostly in favour.

As might be expected, the areas with the biggest show of support for the monarchy are the areas which are provincial, prosperous, mostly white or all three. The areas of England with the weakest tend to be urban areas, particularly those with large minority-ethnic populations, and university towns. The colours on the map are somewhat misleading, because many constituencies with very different shades of green show similar approval rates but different (although only slightly different) disapproval rates but are still, say, 60% in favour of the monarchy, while some of the areas shown as light pink are in fact more than 50% in favour. What the map appears to show is in fact that most of England, with the exception of inner-city London and most of the other major cities, continues to support the retention of the monarchy — nowhere is the ‘disagree’ rate higher than 36% — but in fact there is no answer to this question that allows the person polled to state that they support the monarchy’s dissolution; it only asks whether they are “a strong supporter of the continued reign of the Royal Family”. Those who answered negatively are not necessarily supporters of republicanism; they may simply see no reason to change it now, or find no existing system of republican government satisfactory. The poll does not ask why people do or do not favour the retention of the monarchy, or what (or whom) they do or do not like about it. Support for remaining a monarchy does not equate to loyalty as such.

In short it’s an attempt to reinforce stereotypes of a patriotic, provincial, white heartland that supports the monarchy regardless of class versus a rootless, cosmopolitan, educated metropolitan elite and diverse inner-city that does not. The actual data (for what the data is worth) does not bear this out; far from demonstrating that “we have tipped into a very real cultural war, with competing values and priorities vying for ascendancy”, it shows general support for the monarchy across England and little for change with a few isolated pockets of dissent, with the strongest support in prosperous non-urban areas. There is actually nothing inherently patriotic or British about supporting the monarchy anyway, given that the family has its roots in two German royal families, that many countries in Europe remain monarchies, and that many countries more openly patriotic than the UK are republics. Supporting a republic does not mean being anti-British.

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On obscene generalisations

20 November, 2019 - 19:57
Five young Black women wearing different coloured long dresses and headscarves.

Last week a video circulated of a Canadian-based Somali imam making some ugly generalisations about African-American people, claiming that most of them were products of one-night stands and did not know who their fathers were, and that he had met a man who said that Islam limited him to four wives instead of the twenty women he had previously kept on the go. After much outcry it appears the imam apologised although some were not satisfied with the wording of his apology, and another imam then circulated a sermon making equally obscene generalisations about Somali women. What was depressing about this was that I saw some Black American Muslims defending the first imam on the grounds that there is indeed a very large illegitimacy rate among African-Americans and that at worst he was exaggerating a bit. I don’t believe this is a good reason to make statements like this in a khutba.

One of the people defending the original shaikh is a student of Shaikh Nuh Keller, the translator and compiler of the English version of the Reliance of the Traveller and a Sufi shaikh who lives and teaches in Jordan, so I am going to quote a couple of extracts from his tariqa literature to explain why what the Somali imam said was not becoming of an imam. That shaikh seems to be a ‘salafi’, judging by the list of his shaikhs, but these things are matters of Shari’ah and not the Sufi path as such. Part of the path as he teaches it is an exercise called muraqaba or vigilance in which the student is expected to refrain from seven sins, all of them sins of the tongue such as lying, tale-bearing, backbiting, boasting, showing-off and, the one relevant to this incident, conversing about the immoral which the shaikh observed was “a hobby among religious people” which they do to “make themselves feel more religious”:

They tell what the fornicators do in such-and-such a street, or what the drinkers are doing up town in such-and-such a bar, and all of this is completely haraam. Mentioning an act of disobedience to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala is an act of disobedience to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.

He explained that sometimes it was necessary to warn people of evil, such as telling travellers to and students in Syria (before the civil war) what the Assad regime did to anyone who got on the wrong side of it, but there was no excuse to talk about “how bad the times we are living in are” because everyone knows that already. This part of the sermon falls straight into that definition. (The quote is from his 1998 Virginia lectures, which can be downloaded here and the relevant section can be found by searching for “seven things we need to avoid”.)

A second thing he warned against (in a book for people coming to study with him in Jordan) was making generalisations about people based on their national origins. This is also something I have seen Muslims do a lot over the years, often imagining themselves fully justified in their prejudices and in expressing them openly:

One cannot put oneself up by putting others down, but only by worshipping Allah, and it is absolutely haram to make derogatory ethnic observations about individuals or countries. To say, “Iraqis act like such and such,” or “Egyptians have such and such an attitude” or “Pakistanis do such and such” or “Women from Upper Volta” or “Moroccan children” or whoever it may be, unless warning someone actually travelling somewhere of something that may harm him, is of the antics of the nafs, an attempt to feel superior by telling about faults one does not have.

It doesn’t matter in the slightest if one thinks it is true. It is forbidden by Allah Himself in the Qur’an with the words, “O you who believe: let no group of men mock another: for they might well be better than they are. And let no group of women mock another, for they might well be better than they are” (Qur’an 49:11). And the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) told his Companions: “Allah Mighty and Majestic has rid you of the arrogance of the Period of Ignorance and its pride in forefathers. Godfearing believer or hapless sinner: all people are the sons of Adam, and Adam was from the soil. Let peoples cease priding themselves in men, or they will matter less to Allah than the scarab beetle that pushes excrement about with its nose” (Ahmad , 2.361. h). This suffices as to how much merit the practice has. If tempted, one should just put one’s lips together and keep them that way. (As A Rule, Wakeel Books, Amman, 2002.)

Any Muslim public speaker should be trying to warm people’s hearts when they speak. They should never assume, regardless of appearances, that they are only addressing Muslims or only addressing their own people, least of all if they know their words are being recorded. We know that the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, used wise and kind words and had excellent manners with everyone, Muslims or otherwise. He forbade the Sahaba from, for example, addressing non-Muslims as kaafir, ordering us to call people by their names and their father’s names, as was the Arab custom. He told people not to insult Abu Jahl in front of Ikrimah, radhi Allahu ‘anhu, when he came to Islam after the conquest of Makkah; he prayed for the guidance of the Daws tribe when Abu Hurayrah, radhi Allahu ‘anhu, complained that they were impervious to his attempts to persuade them to become Muslims. Crucially, he condemned those who cursed their own parents, which he explained as meaning cursing someone else’s, leading to the other person responding in kind. In the Qur’an, Allah Almighty tells us not to curse others’ idols, lest they revile Allah in their ignorance. There are so many injunctions and examples of the importance of kindness and good manners in the Qur’an and the Sunnah and going to a foreign country and insulting the people will never win anybody over.

It’s true that there is a high illegitimacy rate among Black Americans; there is a high rate also among White Americans, White British people and many other groups in the West. The rate may be higher or lower but it is still high. It is a fact that many couples live together and have children before marriage, or in some cases never marry. This is not a one-night stand and a child born in this situation knows who their father is. As far as illegitimacy goes, the pendulum has swung a long way from a point where a woman pregnant before marriage would have to spend months in a “mother and baby home” away from her family and give her baby up for adoption or even be consigned to an institution for life to a point where nobody really talks of illegitimacy anymore. I am not saying this is a good thing (though the closure of those institutions definitely is), but it does not justify any claim that “they’re all at it like rabbits” or some other suggestion that everyone is promiscuous, because that just is not true.

As a western convert myself, I am well aware that there are stereotypes among Muslims from both Muslim countries and places like India about westerners and many of us have encountered them when we approach ‘ethnic’ Muslim families about marriage. There is an assumption that nobody from a western background is a virgin by the time their teens are out and if they are, it’s not for want of trying, which is truer than it used to be but still an exaggeration. It’s also not the sort of thing any imam should be telling his congregation, least of all in great detail in a khutba, and they should not imagine that it will hurt or offend less if you think you are only talking about non-Muslims — you may well be talking about their family and saying things you would not dare say about someone’s mother or sister to their face.

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It’s not all about Brexit

17 November, 2019 - 22:43
A Labour party logo showing a red rose with a green stalk and leaves.

Last Friday the Guardian printed a letter from a number of famous people who informed us that because of ‘concerns’ about anti-Semitism, they would be ‘unable’ to vote Labour in the forthcoming (12th December) election. These ‘dignitaries’ or ‘luminaries’ include the novelists Fay Weldon, Frederick Forsyth and John Le Carré, actress (and family friend of Boris Johnson) Joanna Lumley, Blair-appointed equalities chief and the right-wing media’s favourite model minoritarian Trevor Phillips, and everyone’s but the Muslims’ favourite Muslims, Ed Husain, Fiyaz Mughal and Maajid Nawaz. Many of them are Tories or Liberal Democrats of long standing that it would have been difficult to imagine voting Labour, regardless of who leads it. According to them, we are all under pressure to disregard this matter in the name of stopping Brexit:

We listen to our Jewish friends and see how their pain has been relegated as an issue, pushed aside by arguments about Britain’s European future. For those who insist that Labour is the only alternative to Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit, now, it seems, is not the time for Jewish anxiety.

But antisemitism is central to a wider debate about the kind of country we want to be. To ignore it because Brexit looms larger is to declare that anti-Jewish prejudice is a price worth paying for a Labour government. Which other community’s concerns are disposable in this way? Who would be next?

Sadly, I live in an area where the nearest thing to an opposition to the Tories is a Liberal Democrat and that’s who I will be voting for next month. To do otherwise would split the anti-Tory and anti-Brexit vote. However, I urge anyone who lives in an area where there is a Labour candidate who can win to vote for them. Much as Brexit will have a devastating effect on the economy which could easily lead to serious unrest, the reasons have to do with so much more than Brexit: they are to do with ending the culture of austerity with its harassment of disabled people and destruction of public services, the run-down of the health system (to say nothing of the threat of its privatisation) and education system, the racist culture of disbelief in the immigration system and so much more besides. All this seems to have been forgotten because the public discourse has been dominated by Brexit and the internal wrangling of political parties including the issue of anti-Semitism in the Labour party (and any attempt to discuss any other issue of racism is dismissed as whataboutery).

In answer to the question, “which other community’s concerns are disposable in the way?”, unlike these concerns and fears which have been front page news practically every week for the past several years now, every other marginalised and vulnerable group of people’s concerns are deemed disposable by the present government and much of the press and broadcast media. People have died because the supports they would have depended on to get back on their feet have been kicked away in the name of deficit reduction. People live in fear of the “brown envelope” which tells them that their disability benefits are due for reassessment, which likely means an encounter with someone prejudiced against them who will lie about their condition and abilities. A disabled friend of mine wrote on Twitter yesterday:

I’m scared that once the protection of being a parent is over in 5 yrs when my boys all reach adulthood, I will be homeless. As a disabled person, the line between life and death for me lies in the hands of Tory bureaucrats who hate welfare. To say the election is about Brexit is yet another sign that people aren’t seeing our pain, suffering, fear and deaths.

Jeremy Corbyn’s record as an MP does not justify any suggestion that he would harass or discriminate against Jews if he was prime minister; on the contrary, he has been supportive of his Jewish constituents as an MP and Geoffrey Alderman, writing on the Spectator website earlier this year, said that despite the fact that Corbyn had acted unwisely on occasions, he could fill an entire article with the philo-Semitic Early Day Motions (EDMs) Corbyn has supported while an MP, including one to facilitate the settlement of Jews from Yemen in the UK. He also noted that Corbyn had supported Jewish objections to relocating Jewish graves to make way for property development while the council, led by Margaret Hodge, had approved the planning application. Meanwhile, in the huge volume of ‘incidents’ and accusations of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party (the volume is being treated as evidence in itself), the signal-to-noise ratio is very low, and of the minority of genuine incidents, many have led to expulsions, including of councillors, MPs and candidates for Parliament. It is not true that the party has “not dealt with it”.

Very many of the signatories to last Friday’s letter are well-known people with long careers in the arts and media who must be fairly wealthy. They will not have been personally affected by the ravages of austerity. I have heard it claimed that many Jews regard a Corbyn government is a worse prospect than a no-deal Brexit; clearly whoever thinks this does not fear for their job or the security of their home. In a letter published today among a set of responses to the letter (printed Monday), it is noted that there are three historians among the signatories and all are privately educated. None of them are Jewish, and they gloss over the fact that many Jews (albeit mostly secular ones) disagree with the calls not to vote Labour; they believe they should dictate whom the public should treat as the voice of “real Jews”. I have heard the group referred to as ‘dignitaries’, but fame does not confer authority. They complain that two Jewish MPs have been “bullied out of the party” but Jewish dissenters have been the victim of bullying and doxing on- and offline and their families have been targeted.

Racism should not be a price worth paying to avoid more serious political outcomes. But that is not the case here; five years of a majority government led by Boris Johnson means five years of austerity, racism, economic decline and isolation for everyone. The alternative is a chance to reverse Brexit and rebuild what the Tories and their coalition partners destroyed. 

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Tu quoque

14 November, 2019 - 22:53
A cartoon from a Russian magazine showing a Black man hanging from the Statue of Liberty. Two winged figures hold the US flag aloft above it and a book shows a Russian translation of "come unto me, ye that labor and are heavy laden".Image from Soviet magazine Bezbozhnik, 1930

Tu quoque (you too) is a type of argument that is classified as a logical fallacy, that is, an argument that does not offer evidence of the point the arguer is trying to make but rather plays some kind of rhetorical trick, in this case by throwing the accusation back at the accuser by saying he is guilty of the same thing or something morally equivalent. It is sometimes called whataboutery and was a favourite line of argument by the USSR’s propaganda whenever its human rights record was criticised, particularly by the USA’s State Department. A favourite argument of theirs, as illustrated in the picture on the right, was “and you lynch negroes”. I came across an undated article on this fallacy today on the Merriam-Webster dictionary website after a friend shared it on Twitter. I see this fallacy being appealed to a lot in political debate, and the accusations of it are often problematic because they ignore why the argument is being made. Very often, the accusers are just as guilty as the accused, and it matters.

I call this “the bully’s fallacy”. A school or workplace bully will often justify his behaviour by attacking his victim’s character. I remember a conversation I witnessed between a bully at my school and someone he was harassing, in which he accused his victim of, among other things, “polluting the atmosphere” by smoking. His victim responded that many of the bully’s friends also smoked, to which the bully responded, “but we’re not talking about them; we’re talking about you”. He no doubt got this argument from a teacher. It’s true that if you smoke in a confined space, around other people, you risk making them ill, but at my school, some boys smoked round the back of the building and others (the ones who weren’t allowed to smoke) in an isolated spot in the grounds, so nobody who didn’t want to be there was affected. The key thing was that the criticism was not sincere and was not intended to encourage him to change his behaviour; it was intended as harassment. And the intention behind an argument is sometimes important.

Very often in political arguments, one side is accused of some vice of which the other side are just as guilty, or if not, then guilty of something similar. When we hear the present leadership of the Labour party accused of anti-Semitism, for example, a common response is to point out the numerous examples of racism on the Tory benches, where various Tory figures have been suspended and then sometimes reinstated after making openly racist or Islamophobic remarks. On some occasions, Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised for statements which condemned both anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, rather than anti-Semitism alone as his critics demand. However, the guilt of the accusing side is relevant, because it is not an academic argument but a contest between two political parties for power, and if one party says to the other “you are racist”, really they are saying to the public “these people are racist; don’t vote for them”. If the accusing side is just as racist, if not more so, the public need to be aware of that.

Arguments with real consequences cannot always be treated as academic debates. When women say to men who try to engage them in debates about abortion, “no womb, no opinion”, they might be accused of an ad hominem argument, another logical fallacy, but it does not matter because the arguments have been had many times before and the consequences of a ban on abortion are very serious, not only for those with unwanted pregnancies but also for those who suffer miscarriages, who would then be liable to be investigated for evidence of abortion as been noted in many Latin American countries. As for the US v Soviet whataboutery, although the observation about lynching was by that time outdated, the US was no friend of freedom for most of the world; it was a notorious exporter of poverty and oppression and supported dictatorships almost everywhere outside Europe. This is no defence of the Soviet record of human rights or political or intellectual freedom, nor of people who reflexively assume anyone who is against the USA must be good, but for anyone outside the USA asked to “pick a side” during that time, it would not have been as simple as it would be for those of us in countries the US favoured.

I don’t believe there is any comparison between the Labour anti-Semitism controversy and the very real problem of racism in the Tory party. Most of the former consists of people’s words being twisted and often the thing that was said was true or at least arguable; the definition of anti-Semitism being deployed is ideological and the definition of a Jew is sectarian, overtly excluding many people of partial Jewish ancestry as well as dissenting and non-religious Jews; very often the accusations are aimed at silencing critics of Israel’s treatment of native Palestinians. The racism displayed in the Tory party, on the other hand, is often firmly aimed at ordinary people who are members of visible minorities who have rarely had the mass media on their side. So, if Jeremy Corbyn is indeed a racist (which I believe he is not), it is no defence of him to call Boris Johnson one, even if he is. But for Johnson and his supporters to make the claim is hypocrisy, and because this is politics and not an academic debate, that matters: a man who points the finger at others rather than address his own failings is not a good leader and a man who demonises minorities in print as a journalist is liable to do the same, when he sees it as necessary, as a political leader.

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As election nears, the witch-hunt steps up

10 November, 2019 - 22:55
On Piccadilly outside Green Park, London. A picture of a middle-aged white man wearing a blue rimmed hat with a yellow ribbon round it which says "Stop Brexit", and next to him someone is holding up a banner that says "Get your Johnson our of our democracy". Several EU and British flags are on display.An anti-Brexit demonstrator in London, November 2019.

So, the week before last, the date for a forthcoming general election — 12th December — was finally announced and parliament was prorogued (dissolved) for real, after months of wrangling so as to stop Boris Johnson using an election season as an opportunity to crash the country out of the EU without a deal. Since then, a number of MPs on both sides of the House have announced they are standing down, in some cases in response to persistent abuse (e.g. Heidi Allen, a former Tory who defected to the Independents/Change group and then the Lib Dems) but in some a clear attempt to undermine the Labour Party’s chances of winning a parliamentary majority while Jeremy Corbyn remains leader. The Liberal Democrats have secured defections from both main parties and are contesting all seats, aggressively targeting some seats which have pro-Remain Labour MPs (e.g. Emma Dent-Coad in Kensington, who secured a tiny majority in the 2017 election shortly before the Grenfell disaster). I have also seen a ratcheting up of the witch-hunt against Labour candidates, sitting MPs or otherwise, for opinions on Israel that could be deemed, particularly by partisans of Israel, to be antisemitic; one of the candidates involved stood down on Friday.

I was unable to find the blog post by Kate Ramsden, the Unison union official who was standing in the Gordon constituency in Aberdeenshire in Scotland; maybe it has been deleted, or maybe it was not on her blog but on another. However, she was quoted as comparing Israel to an abused child (referring to the Holocaust and perhaps other persecutions Jews suffered in the past) who becomes an abusive adult and the Labour party apparently said she could keep her candidacy if she deleted the post, which it appears she did. The Jewish Chronicle quoted Jonathan Goldstein of the self-appointed “Jewish Leadership Council” as saying that this was “evidence of a deliberate cover up by Labour to hide the open antisemitism of a candidate”, yet there is no evidence of any anti-Semitic content at all; she was calling for international action to force Israel to cease its abuses of the native Palestinian population. If anything, the comparison was too soft on the abusers, many of whom are not Holocaust survivors or their descendants; the attitudes underpinning Israel’s harassment and intimidation of Palestinians are taught in Israel’s schools, media and army. Much as we cannot excuse a real abusive adult because he was abused (by someone else) as a child, we cannot excuse Israel’s oppressions on the grounds that some of the oppressors’ great-grandparents suffered in Auschwitz (and we also cannot justify an ongoing occupation on the grounds of a war by Israel’s other Arab neighbours, two of whom are now at peace with Israel, 50 years ago).

It goes to show that anyone who does not accept the narrative of Israel and its apologists overseas is vulnerable to being accused of anti-Semitism if they are not Jewish, or of being a “self-hating Jew” or “not really Jewish” if they are Jewish. In either case, they are the targets for the new witch hunts against anyone seeking to become a Labour councillor or MP. Muslims have always known this, of course, as has anyone who has been active on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement over the years, but it appears that Labour has been wrong-footed and cowed by an aggressive campaign by a group of pro-Israel bullies and dirt-diggers which does not tolerate dissent. Also last week the JC dredged up an old Facebook post by Zarah Sultana, standing in Coventry South to replace a retiring Labour MP, which accused the Labour Right of ‘weaponising’ anti-Semitism to silence or get rid of their political enemies (which is true); more recently, like Naz Shah in Bradford, she has made a grovelling about-turn, claiming that anyone who uses that term today is contributing to the problem.

The biggest issue in this election is Brexit; make no mistake. It will be the last time we get to vote in an election which will determine whether we get a further vote on the matter. Of the three major parties standing in England, one (itself threatened by a party that favours withdrawing without a deal) favours a bad deal which isolates the British mainland and splits the UK, one favours a further referendum and the third favours annulling the results of the 2016 referendum and revoking Article 50. Yet the two parties which do not have hard Brexit as party policy refuse to form any sort of pact, and the Liberal Democrats insist on not only standing candidates in constituencies with pro-Remain Labour MPs but on standing well-known candidates, including prominent Labour and Tory defectors such as Sam Gyimah who is contesting Kensington. This has led to suggestions that the party is really angling for a coalition with the Tories and is willing to risk a hard Brexit to that end; an alternative explanation is that it has become a refuge for those whose hatred for Jeremy Corbyn is greater than their love for anything or anyone. They proclaim that they will not form a coalition with “an anti-Semite” yet forget that they formed a coalition with the Tories when Boris Johnson was in the cabinet and do not rule out doing so again. Johnson’s very obvious racism, sometimes casual and sometimes studied as exemplified during his years as Spectator editor, is written off as nothing serious when any racism can have lethal consequences.

Not only have I seen letters published on Twitter addressed to Labour MPs telling them the authors will not vote for them because of their association with Corbyn, even though those MPs are innocent of any involvement in the scandal and in some cases are Jewish, I have heard people proclaim that they will vote Tory to avoid helping to elect anyone who might form a coalition with Corbyn. They propose to throw the whole country under the bus, expose us to a hard Brexit with an unfavourable trade deal with both the EU and the USA, all because they can tolerate the stench of numerous racisms against visible minorities that are the target of much official and unofficial hostility but not the whiff of another, towards people they see as “like them”. It is a coalition of wickedness and insanity.

I’ve been critical of Jeremy Corbyn in the past, mainly regarding his ambiguous stance on Brexit and his party’s insistence for too long on “honouring the referendum result” despite the narrow result (the Remain share was greater than many general election wins) and mounting evidence that the Leave campaign lied, employed overt racism and broke the law. I live in a Tory/Lib Dem marginal and will be voting Lib Dem because Labour has no chance of winning, which is one reason I’ve never rejoined the party. However, I’m not going to be loudly criticising Corbyn in the few weeks up to this election, because I want the Tories out and his is the biggest opposition party and the one with the best chance of securing, if not a majority, then at least a large proportion of seats; the Lib Dems have always been a small party and remain a small party which lost the trust of most of its voter base in the 2010-15 coalition. The Labour party has committed itself to a further referendum on Brexit; it’s not my preferred option, but it gives us another chance and that is immeasurably preferable to isolating ourselves with a bad Brexit deal (or none), with the strife and misery that could result from that. However, Labour must face down the bullies, racists and McCarthyites who use false claims of anti-Semitism to silence dissent to a pro-Western and pro-status quo narrative and intend to tolerate no dissent to that narrative; otherwise, they could face challenges from independents in key constituencies. It used to be the party that sang, “though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the Red Flag flying here”; a party dominated by those cowering before racists does not deserve to win any election.

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Homesickness and nostalgia, and why they make bad politics

2 November, 2019 - 20:17
Constitution Hill, Aberystwyth
(Photo: Lyn Davis).

I’ve lived away from home for two prolonged periods in my childhood and young adulthood. The first was boarding school, near Ipswich. The second was university, in Aberystwyth. The first was two hours from home along mostly motorway; the second was six hours by any route, at least partly along slow, two-lane roads or a slow, single-track rural railway. At the first, I missed home terribly, I spent every journey there looking back and while there, counted down the days until my next trip out or home. At the second, I looked forward as much to going back as I did to going home. I’ve read about homesickness in the context of Roald Dahl’s boarding school memoirs from the 1920s and there was another example by Giles Fraser published on Unherd last Thursday. But I hate the term.

Fraser compares homesickness to nostalgia, which actually means that in Greek although in modern English, it is used to mean longing for a former time rather than another place. He accuses Remainers of using the term as an insult and of implying that it is a sign of weakness (in the sense that a homesick soldier on a tour of duty or child at a boarding school might be), when it is more of a criticism and has strong justification. The nostalgia referred to in the criticism is an unhealthy fixation on a bygone era, usually the time of one’s youth but sometimes even before that, only remembering or even imagining its good points while ignoring or denying the bad and failing to appreciate why the era is bygone and had to change. We often see this in people who hark back to an old age when they believe families were still strong, when children knew their place, when schools had ‘discipline’ and everyone had a home-cooked meal on the table when they came home. Some of this was true but it concealed unhappy marriages which women in particular found it difficult to escape from, outright child abuse and economic and political circumstances which are no longer true. People sometimes talk of the country falling apart because certain categories of people gained rights, but these rights are what stop those people being abused.

The Baby Boomers are the last generation who remember when Britain was the “mother country” of a global empire with large possessions in different parts of the world, all of which it had lost by the start of the 70s. They also remember the cultural “glory days” of Swinging London when British musicians came to be appreciated around the world, even if they were often heavily influenced by American musical forms such as the Blues; this may explain the stance of some ageing celebrity Brexiteers such as Ringo Starr and Roy Wood. Some also remember when “Britain was still white”. What they forget is that the Empire consisted of other people’s countries and was costly to maintain; as for the music, such fashions come and go and many of those musicians (and some who came along after we joined the EEC) have had long and varied careers; those that did not are those who ran out of ideas or who did not develop their musical ability. As for whiteness, the country had a labour shortage which is why it invited people over from the colonies we had occupied, and none of those people came from countries which are now in the EU anyway.

The past is gone; it is no longer real. To be homesick is to be consumed with longing for another real place. It is only really a sickness when it causes actual distress, and this is usually because one’s current place is an unpleasant one because, for example, of abuse or because the standard of living or the behaviour one encounters is nothing like what one is used to and one cannot leave easily if at all. The distress of an abused child in an institution is not like the mild longing someone has for home when they are away on business or studying. I actually don’t like the term homesickness for the abused child; it allows the adults who have placed the child there to evade responsibility for the child’s distress. He doesn’t just “miss his mum”; he misses being loved and cared for as a valued, individual member of a family rather than just another unimportant inmate in an impersonal and uncaring institution, he misses home-cooked (or indeed decent) food, he misses being spoken to with civility, he may miss having quiet and privacy.

As a member of the EU, Britain has generally had a very good deal. We still have our home (and unfettered access to 27 other countries), we still have our own parliament, we still have control of our borders, we have been allowed opt-outs to major European projects. It is grotesque to compare the misguided nostalgia for the Britain of 50 or 60 years ago, of the youth of today’s old or ageing people, with the genuine distress of a child separated from their family and suffering mistreatment. The EU is not an oppressive entity; if it were, we would be facing a military invasion for even holding the 2016 referendum, as two of the nominally independent states of the Warsaw Pact did when they asserted their independence. We have had a say in all the policies which gave rise to the discontent behind the 2016 referendum; we are still not discussing the matter of what of it had anything to do with the EU and could be resolved without leaving. This comparison of the EU to an oppressive regime or to an abusive relationship is a product of privileged ignorance and an insult to anyone who has suffered either. Brexiteers are not homesick; they have their home. They are nostalgic for an era that has gone for good, could not have lasted and had to change, and our media should be honest with them about these things.

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What is leadership?

29 October, 2019 - 22:58

The other day a friend shared this meme on Facebook: it reads “I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy to be told instead that she has leadership skills”. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a teacher I know many years ago when I told her that my old school (the abusive one) had appointed the ‘dominant’ boys (i.e. bullies) in three successive year groups, including mine, as prefects and she told me that some aspects of ‘bullying’ behaviour could be interpreted as ‘leadership’. In both cases it could easily be the kind of ‘leadership’ nobody needs to have inflicted on them.

There is a common belief nowadays that ‘bossy’ is a term that is only ever used to describe girls and it is used to “knock down” girls who are forthright, who know their own minds, who have ideas of their own. Things may have changed since I was at school 30 years ago but I remember it being used to describe any child who had a tendency to tell others what to do when they had no right, as well as someone who may have been in a position of authority but dictated rather than listened or who told people what they thought was what without necessarily knowing what they were talking about. Anybody who has been to school will have encountered teachers who shouted for no good reason and who thought that listening was something others did when they spoke, and the majority of teachers at primary level are women. If the term is more commonly used of girls, it may be because boys are less likely to do it unless they can back up their demands with the threat of violence, and therefore words like ‘thug’ or ‘bully’ are more likely to come into play. Bossiness in a girl is thus seen more as an annoyance than a threat.

The issue of bossiness versus leadership carries on into the workplace, but in the context of school, it is the duty of teachers to make sure that dominant or domineering pupils do not ‘shine’ at the expense of others. Having ideas and being forthright with them is not a bad thing, but those who do not have the confidence might have ideas just as good and should be allowed a chance to make them known and have them discussed, and being forthright or more assertive than someone else does not always mean one might be the best leader. A leader is not just someone who is good at making others do what they want; they are people who inspire, who bring people together, who bring out the best in others. A liking for being in charge, for telling others what to do, is not necessarily a sign that someone is equipped to be a leader because they may not have all the other skills necessary. Perhaps it might be useful to teach them these things, but others should be as well, as they might need them in adult life, not least as a parent.

At worst, interpreting bossiness (or worse, bullying) as “leadership skills” absolves teachers of the responsibility to combat unjust power structures and hierarchies among the children and young people they have charge of. It harnesses existing hierarchies for the teachers’ own convenience. Those at the top of the pile sometimes need to be taken down a peg or two for the good of everyone. If a child is not at the top of the pile or forthright with their opinions, it is not their duty to act as a prop for the development of a bigger or louder child’s ‘leadership’ potential, especially one who has harmed them, and they should not be expected to. It’s disturbing to see feminists claiming that a negative personality trait, a behaviour that causes aggravation to others, is something to celebrate and potentially reward with authority over others, when it could just be a sign that someone is a bully.

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Expel Keith Vaz

28 October, 2019 - 17:28
Keith Vaz, a middle-aged, clean-shaven south Asian man.Keith Vaz - UK Parliament official portraits 2017

Today the Labour MP Keith Vaz was suspended from the House of Commons for six months for offering to buy cocaine for male prostitutes in August 2016 in an encounter at his flat recorded by one of the men involved and passed to the tabloid Sunday Mirror. The Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, whose complaint triggered the investigation by the Commons standards committee, said he hoped that this would be the “end of the line for Keith Vaz”: “I don’t think he’s fit to be representing anywhere in this place, I think he’s been a malign influence on local and national politics for too long”. If Parliament rubber-stamps the committee’s decision, it could lead to a recall petition and a by-election,

Personally and as a Muslim I find it disappointing that it took a sex and drug scandal to bring Vaz down. Vaz is one of the MPs who supported the event at Wembley Stadium addressed by Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India and former chief minister of Gujarat under whose leadership hundreds of Muslims and others were killed in an organised pogrom - essentially a latter-day Kristallnacht - in 2002 and many others were raped, otherwise injured or had their houses and shops destroyed by mobs. Modi also represents a fascistic ideology that envisages India as a fundamentally (rather than just predominantly) Hindu society or rashtra; under his premiership, lynchings of Muslims by Hindu fanatics have soared in number, the state has stepped up its oppressions against the people of Kashmir with curfews that have lasted days at a time and sought to expel Muslim residents of Assam by assuming anyone without the right paperwork (which few people in India have) is an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh.

The long-running campaign to purge the party of real or alleged antisemitism has seen people at all levels expelled or suspended, the criteria for which is often an ideological or sectarian definition of antisemitism which many people do not know exists, let alone understand, and which is often strained through the needle’s eye. It has been proclaimed antisemitic for someone to merely cast doubt on any claim by a Jewish individual that something is antisemitic. If the Labour party will expel or suspend long-standing activists on such flimsy grounds then open and warm approval for a fascist politician with a record of public mob violence against a minority also threatened in the UK should be a guarantee of expulsion. There should not be acceptable forms of bigotry or racism and certainly the whiff of one prejudice should not be deemed less tolerable than the stench of another.

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Essex truck tragedy: why the driver is probably innocent

24 October, 2019 - 19:57
A maroon Scania V8 tractor unit with ten added headlights and bull-bars. The tractor has a long wheelbase and a rear tag (lifting) axle. It is pulling an unmarked white refrigerated trailer with a Thermo King fridge device. The truck is photographed mid-turn on a large expanse of tarmac on an industrial estate.The tractor unit belonging to the driver involved in yesterday’s tragedy (not the same trailer).

Yesterday 39 people, now known to be of Chinese origin, were found dead in a refrigerated trailer on an industrial estate in Grays, Essex (to the east of London). The driver, a self-employed man from Northern Ireland named Mo Robinson, has been arrested on suspicion of murder and police have raided properties in the province to investigate whether the gang that smuggled the people into the country are based or have operations there. Initially, the story was being reported in terms of a truck which had carried the migrants into the UK via Ireland, through the port of Holyhead, a route which would arouse immediate suspicion, but it has now been revealed that the trailer in fact came into the UK on a ferry from Zeebrugge, Belgium, and was picked up by Mo Robinson about an hour and a half before the bodies were discovered. The victims either froze to death or suffocated inside the trailer, which can be used to transport either chilled or frozen foodstuffs, and were probably dead long before Robinson, who it is reported discovered the bodies when checking for paperwork inside and alerted the emergency services himself, became involved. This incident is likely to result in changes to how drivers and hauliers handle sealed trailers, as currently they are often picked up on trust and only the exterior is examined.

Yesterday, very many media reports described the vehicle as a shipping container. A shipping container is in fact a demountable box which is carried on a ship on a stack of other containers and then lowered mechanically onto a special trailer called a skeleton or ‘skellie’ (or a rail carriage) and secured with special locks called twist locks. I have carried shipping containers a few times and if you pick one up from a port, the box will be sealed with a metal bolt which can only be opened with a large bolt cutter. Drivers never look inside them so they could contain people, drugs, guns or anything else for all they know. If any of these things are found inside, the driver is almost certainly completely innocent. This vehicle was a ferry trailer, which is dropped off by one truck on one side of the Channel and then removed by another on this side (in fact, it would be dropped at and removed from a trailer park and loaded on and off the ferry itself by a shunter employed by the ship operator). It’s highly likely that the driver would have simply been told which trailer to pick up and where to deliver it, and done so, assuming, given that it is a fridge, that it contained foodstuffs. He would have done his usual checks to make sure the trailer was roadworthy (e.g. the light, wheels, door security, exterior condition and that the fridge worked) and then pulled it away. Such trailers may be sealed so as to give the recipient assurance that the goods had not been tampered with en route; they are entitled to refuse the goods if the seal is broken, so the driver does not open the cargo compartment. In this case, the driver was expected to open the trailer and retrieve paperwork himself, so it clearly was not sealed; drivers will, I suspect, be doing this at the port in the near future. (When we pick up goods at source, we look inside the trailer to make sure the goods are as described and that the load is secure before we close the door and, if necessary, apply the seal. However, even then, we cannot do more than take a look inside if the trailer is fully laden, so depending on the size and shape of the items, it might still be possible to conceal people behind goods.)

Any driver who transports these trailers will be thinking twice about his occupation in the light of yesterday’s disaster, at least until the status of Mo Robinson and his employer or client is clarified and he is either released or charged, and similarly hauliers will be rethinking their training and procedures. Going forward, there is likely to be a demand for changes to how drivers handle sealed trailers. As an air-freight driver or “cargo operative” (this status used to be known as Level D), we are given training in security and in procedures to ensure that cargo remains secure in between the screening station and the airport or outlying cargo terminal; this is mostly to ensure awareness of threats to aircraft security such as explosives rather than human cargo. We also require a criminal record check and five years of employment references. We carry plastic seals with us and when we open the doors to load or offload freight, we apply a new one and record the number on the paperwork, and we only open the doors at bonded premises such as the screening station (an approved cargo handling company) or the terminal, and if we leave the vehicle unattended for any reason, we check the seal for tampering on return. Drivers who use cross-channel ferries are told not to stop anywhere near the port to avoid their vehicles being accessed by stowaways, and there is now a secure area where their trailers can be checked before boarding.

If and when we leave the EU, and particularly if, as expected, we leave the customs union area as well as the union itself, customs checks are going to be required on goods coming in and out of the UK which they are not now; as this would otherwise lead to impossible delays at the ports, we are likely to see goods being inspected at source and hauled to the seaport in a sealed trailer, as is the case with air freight now, as well as greater use of ferry trailers as port delays make it impracticable for one driver to handle the entire journey and stay within their driving and working time limits. If ports such as Purfleet do not provide a secure area for drivers to inspect the inside of their trailers before re-sealing, they should provide one, and all new ferry trailer terminals should make sure there is one. This way, if Mo Robinson turns out to be innocent as I strongly suspect he is, anyone still alive can be saved and drivers can avoid being caught up in a terrible tragedy like yesterday’s and facing a possible prison sentence. I should add that the newspapers which printed the pictures of Mo Robinson, mostly taken from his Facebook account, before any facts were known about his degree of involvement or culpability have behaved extremely irresponsibly and disreputably; if they had spoken to anyone with any knowledge of the industry, they would have known that it is quite possible and indeed highly likely, given normal practice, that he is innocent.

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Guardian Daily: nice new app, shame about the upgrade

17 October, 2019 - 20:25
Screenshot from the Guardian's new Daily app on an iPhone.

Yesterday The Guardian published the new version of its “daily” app (which delivers the digital version of the printed Guardian and Observer newspapers, as opposed to the news app which delivers most of that and other online content including breaking news), which I’ve subscribed to for several years and which is the most economical way of getting hold of their content now given the rising costs of the print edition and the waste involved. The old app had warned of the forthcoming upgrade and offered me the chance to join their beta testing programme, which I considered but backed off from. The old iOS app only ran on the iPad; the Android version was similarly limited to tablet-sized devices rather than phones. This version will run on any iOS device and you can install it on all the devices you have. (More: Design Week, Press Gazette, the Guardian itself.)

Unfortunately, when I upgraded, I was locked out of my subscription: when I opened any article and tried to scroll down, it opened up a box inviting me to subscribe, and one of the options was “restore App Store subscription”. However, when I pressed that, nothing happened for a second or so and then it popped up a message saying there was a “verification error” and inviting me to try again; when I did, the same thing happened. I tried contacting the Guardian’s subscribers’ helpline but all I got was a voice menu system which did not include an option for problems with the app. There was a way to email a message to the developers, but it opened in Apple Mail, which I don’t use (I use MyMail) and so I could not send a message because there was no account set up. In the event I copied the address and the text into a new message on MyMail and sent it, but got no reply.

In the end, I had to cancel my existing subscription and open a new one using their new digital subscription service, which costs the same and allows me access to premium content on their website as well as the app, and there is also a “free trial” and a reduction for the first three months, which perhaps was not intended for existing subscribers but hey, if they had make sure their app worked before they published it, I’d still be paying full price and as it is my old subscription was meant to be valid until the end of this month.

So what of the new app? Well, instead of having the content in sections accessible either from a front page or a menu, all the content is off one big page and you can scroll down to get to different sections, or across to get to content within one section. I’d quite like an easier way to get to other sections than having to scroll down past every section in between; there is a bar on the left (at the top on a smartphone) which could be used for this purpose, but it’s used for a short-range weather forecast instead, and on my phone it’s for Cambridge (I’m in London) and there is no apparent way of changing this (tapping on any part of the forecast does nothing). The Share button seems to have disappeared; on the old app it was a source of intractable bugs (it was supposed to appear when there was an Internet connection, but in practice it often did not, especially if you launched the app without a connection and then connected; the article you were reading would never have the Share button), but I actually liked being able to share articles. Now, there seems to be no access to the article’s web location which means I have to open the separate Guardian News app to share. I’ve emailed them, but am not holding my breath for a response.

It’s nice-looking and seems quite smooth in operation. It’s only day two but the old app frequently failed to load new editions when the tablet was switched off; both my devices have loaded both yesterday’s and today’s editions without me needing to switch on or open the app, which is a great improvement. Also much appreciated is the fact that the Guardian’s website will stop bugging me to ‘contribute’ by subscribing when I already had done; I suspect those who waited until the updated version (published within hours) to get their restored subscriptions (I didn’t, so I don’t know if that bug was fixed) will still not have access to premium web content and still be getting this request when they use the website.

Also this week, I upgraded my New Statesman subscription to a paper and digital offering after the PDF version was simply discontinued without warning last month, something I had to email them to find out. The new subscription costs £12/month (rather than £10 as before) and allows me unlimited website access, which I appreciate, but I had been using the PDF almost exclusively to read the magazine before as it was much more convenient than carting around a paper edition. To be honest, I find that their customer service leaves a lot to be desired; emails I wrote them took until the end of the day in question to be responded to which lengthened by several days the time it took to get the problem sorted. Also, the subscription helpline numbers quoted on their website (020 7936 6459 and 0800 731 8496) were never answered; I had to call them to get my access to the website and app activated, which it wasn’t when I paid because my current subscription runs until the end of the month, as I found out when I found the correct number; the person on the end of the line activated it immediately which was very nice of them. So, now I have two subscriptions I can read on both my phone and my tablet, which is very convenient, although I won’t be leaving my iPad behind as it’s much easier to read a long article on that than on a phone of any size.

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Photography update

11 October, 2019 - 19:52
The Water Gardens, Cliveden, Buckinghamshire

Since I’ve not had much time to write this week, here are some pictures I took on recent trips to gardens in southern England (all National Trust properties):

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire: a vast estate with numerous different gardens including the water gardens (pictured), riverside walks and vast acres of woodland. This is at least a day trip and possibly two.

Nymans, West Sussex: a garden I first visited in April (just before Ramadan) and revisited last week to see what it would look like in the autumn.

Claremont, Surrey: A garden very near me that was partly designed by ‘Capability’ Brown. Features an amphitheatre and a big ornamental lake.

Osterley Park, west London: a big estate with a part-Tudor, part-18th century red-brick manor house where the lady volunteers dress in period costume on certain days. These pictures were taken in the house and the gardens.

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What was a ‘Bantustan’?

7 October, 2019 - 18:42
A map of South Africa and Namibia showing the locations of the former Black 'homeland' statelets known as Bantustans.Map of the ‘Bantustans’ or Black ‘homelands’ in the 1980s. All these areas have been re-incorporated into South Africa and Namibia since the end of Apartheid. Source: Wikipedia.

Last week it was revealed that the Australian politician Alexander Downer, who had been foreign secretary and high commissioner to the UK, had made a speech to an audience in Europe which advocated that refugees not be allowed to settle permanently in Australia (or, presumably, any other host country) and accused those who settled in Australia of living “a kind of Bantustan-style life totally separate from the rest of the mainstream of Australia (sic)” and setting up “separate ghettoes”. The conference was hosted in Hungary and was also addressed by Victor Orban (somewhat euphemistically described as “ultra-conservative”), former Czech leader Vaclav Havel and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, i.e. a who’s who of European bigots and reactionaries who have achieved power. The use of the term ‘Bantustan’ as if it were a synonym of ‘ghetto’ shows appalling ignorance.

‘Bantustans’ were the statelets set up by the Apartheid regime in South Africa where Black people were expected to live: they were deemed to be citizens of these statelets, not of South Africa itself, and many people were forcibly relocated from their homes in other parts of South Africa to these statelets, much as many other non-whites were forcibly relocated to slums from old districts of cities like Cape Town. They were nominally independent, but were recognised by no country other than South Africa. The ostensible idea was that this was “self-government” for native people, but in fact the regimes were often dictatorships and in some cases allies of the Apartheid regime. The statelets were invariably either tiny (e.g. Ciskei, QwaQwa, KwaNdebele), discontiguous (e.g. Boputhatswana, KwaZulu) or both (e.g. KaNgwane) and very often wholly surrounded by South Africa. The closest modern parallel is the Palestinian territories which, despite having self-government, are surrounded by Israel or Israeli-occupied territory and so their economies are dependent on the whims of Israel and its military.

Even ‘ghettoes’ did not originally mean areas with a large population of one ethnic minority or other: they were enclosed areas of cities in Europe where Jews had to live; they could not live in the rest of the city and usually had to be back in them after dark. These areas were protected and had a certain amount of self-government, but were also overcrowded and could not expand and the chiefs of the ghettoes were expected to serve the kings and tsars with such things as furnishing them with young conscripts for the army. While they did allow Jews to run their own affairs to a certain extent and maintain their own customs, they were also a product of a Europe which was intolerant of difference; Jews could be Jews as long as they remained out of sight and out of mind, behind walls.

Neither of these terms should be used to simply mean any area where anyone can enter or leave, and anyone can live or work, but which has a high concentration of members of a particular minority (or, as is often the case in so-called ghettoes in the UK, several) and of shops and restaurants catering to that minority. This is often accompanied by myths of “no-go areas”, circulated by liars and ignoramuses to similarly-minded followers on slanted websites. Just because people feel safe living there, and would not elsewhere because of racism, does not make it a ghetto, let alone a ‘Bantustan’. Just because people maintain their religion, don’t start drinking and will not eat meat unless it is slaughtered a certain way does not mean they expect to “change the culture” or to set up a state within a state; they just expect tolerance.

And as for his expectation that refugees will “peacefully go home” after their persecution has abated, history shows that this rarely happens. People get new lives in their new home, they get married, they have children who never knew their old home and may not even speak the language. Britain took in some Jewish refugees in the lead-up to the Second World War and many of them are still here and their ancestors never considered themselves to be the nationality their parents or grandparents had at birth, though some are now trying to claim it in response to Brexit. Much the same is true of the many Spanish people who came to the UK to escape from Franco’s repression, and the Polish who settled in the UK in the early to mid 20th century. When people move, they tend to stay moved unless whatever caused their movement is dealt with quickly.

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Romanticising the bad old days

6 October, 2019 - 22:59
A 1950s cigarette advert featuring a white man smoking a cigarette, wearing a white coat with a dark tie, with the slogan "According to a recent nationwide survey, More Doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette".Cigarette ads of the time claimed they were healthy (this was American, but similarly misleading adverts were found here too.)

The other day I saw a meme which consisted of a list of what British food was like in the 1950s, presumably when the author was young, and it claimed that much of the food we eat now had either not been invented, had a completely different use or the word used for it meant something completely different. Pasta had not been invented, Curry was a surname, pizza was “something to do with a leaning tower”, prunes were medicinal, Indian restaurants were only found in India, sugar was thought of as “white gold” and cubes were posh, and muesli was readily available and called cattle feed. The last thing on the list is “the one thing we never had on our tables: our elbows”. This is clearly an attempt to romanticise the 50s as a time when things were simpler and people had better manners than they have today. However, these things aren’t true, and most of this list is not either.

To begin with: in the 50s, Britain was already changing and people had already started to move here from what was still mostly the Empire (the Indian part was already independent, but Britain still had its African and Caribbean colonies). We already had large Jewish, Irish and Italian populations. Pasta had, of course, been invented; it just wasn’t popular in the UK, other than, presumably, in the Italian community. Rationing, which had been imposed during the War, persisted through the Attlee years and was only abolished by the Tory government in the early 1950s, so the national diet was still somewhat restricted and the supply of things like fat was still very controlled and nobody wasted anything; my mother remembers her mother scraping every last bit of butter off the packet; sugar was only starting to become available again, hence its “white gold” reputation, and the negative effects of too much of it were not really considered (smoking was, of course, not thought harmful either, and both tobacco and alcohol were marketed as being healthy when they in fact were not). “Oil was for lubricating; fat was for cooking” the list says, as if we cook our food in the same oil we put in our car (though these days, we are starting to put cooking fat in our cars).

These days, we have a choice of ingredients and a choice of cuisines both to cook at home and to dine out on. Part of this is because we have a large population which came from the former colonies, and from Europe, and brought their cuisines with them, for their benefit rather than ours. They were not the first people to bring new foods with them, of course; such things as potatoes, peppers and tomatoes, things we could not think of living without today, were brought from the Americas by the Spanish colonists and spread throughout the world — we associate many Indian foods with hot chillis, but these vegetables are not native to India. And as wartime and post-war austerity faded from people’s memories and the country diversified and opened up, people found they liked the variety, and why wouldn’t they? People generally like variety, they like colour, they like things to be tasty and not bland. True, there’s an environmental impact to bringing exotic fruits like bananas and oranges to this country all year round, and we produce plenty of good fruit here, but this list doesn’t mention the environment; it just looks back to when “we never had any of this and we were strong” etc.

Britain was not a utopia in the 1950s. True, there was full employment because of the post-war settlement and if you were middle-class or ‘solidly’ working class, you would have had quite a comfortable life by the standards of that time. But if you were a woman, you were expected to stop work after you married (hence the home-cooked food and absence of ‘convenience’ foods); if you were Black, you could be discriminated against and had no redress; if you were disabled, you might well have spent decades in an institution and at best faced a world that made no effort to accommodate you; if you were mentally ill, you could also be locked up for years and suffer experimental treatments that might leave you brain-damaged. Why would anyone romanticise this era on the basis of what the average person did not have access to, what was bad about that time? Ultimately the message seems to be that Britain was better when it was a whiter and more homogeneous country and that the variety we enjoy now is the product of immigration and of the ‘softening-up’ of the population. Before you share a meme like this, please remember that it is essentially a racist message.

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Riots don’t start; people start them

4 October, 2019 - 23:41
Picture of Tulsi Gabbard, a woman of South Asian appearance with light brown skin and shoulder-length black hair, wearing a fitted white jacket over a black skirt or pair of trousers, standing in front of a small sign saying "Tulsi 2020" with an American flag hanging from a pole next to her.Tulsi Gabbard

There is a video going round on Twitter of the American senator Tulsi Gabbard responding to a question about the Indian prime minister’s role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, in which hundreds or possibly thousands of people were killed in three days of violence instigated by Hindu nationalists in response to a fire on a train in which 59 people were killed. The woman observed that she had served as “one of the major rehabilitations (sic) of Modi’s perception here [in the US]”, then proceeded to say that Modi had been accused of complicity in the 2002 violence. Gabbard responded by asking “do you know what instigated those riots?”, which the woman did not appear to know the answer to. The Indian section of Yahoo News has an account of the incident illustrated by a few tweets supportive of Gabbard and Modi and in some cases insulting to the questioner.

As anyone who remembers the violence (which was 17 years ago, which means a young adult who was not there will not) will also remember, the pogrom followed the train fire which at the time was blamed on Muslim vendors at Godhra train station (an official story was that it was done under orders from Pakistan, which has been described as baseless) who had been subject to abuse and harassment from the temple pilgrims on the train (the temple in question being the one in Ayodhya, on the site of a mosque which was torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992), but more recent inquiries suggest that it was started by someone on the train by accident. However, many Hindus still seem to believe that it was started by Muslims in revenge for the destruction of the mosque, and when I mention Modi’s responsibility for the pogrom, I have had Hindus in my mentions telling me that the violence was in response to the train fire, as if this justifies it. Today, when I told one of them that the riots took place all over Gujarat rather than being targeted at the supposed train attackers, I was told that the victims of the train fire came from all over Gujarat. Now we have an American senator repeating the same line of argument when a member of the public draws attention to Modi’s record.

A few facts about the pogrom should be stated here. One is that there is significant evidence of the violence being premeditated and well-planned: for example, businesses were attacked whose names were suggestive of Hindu ownership when the actual owners were Muslim. So, at best the planners did their research and at worst, they were assisted by people in the government who knew who owned which properties. Another is the extreme savagery and brutality of it: some 250 women and girls were gang-raped and then burned to death; in other cases, pregnant women had their babies cut out of them, families were electrocuted inside houses the attackers had flooded, children were speared and then held up. Local media have described the violence as “state terrorism”, citing politicians’ utterances (including Modi’s) which stoked tensions in the aftermath of the Godhra fire, and the fact that in many incidents, police looked on and did nothing (including where the station was next door to a site being attacked) or even joined in; the state took no action to prevent a strike called by Hindu nationalists after the fire, which was illegal and such strikes had commonly been associated with communal violence in the past.

Using this logic, we could blame almost any atrocity or any act of terrorism on something done by people with some connection to the victims and thereby justify it. Yet, we do not do this; in fact, we protest loudly when someone tries to in regard to terrorism, even when the perpetrators are oppressed people. Hindus in Gujarat were not oppressed, at least not by Muslims; yes, many live in poverty, but they are the majority and their aspirations to dominance are supported by the state, even when the Congress party are in charge, let alone when Hindu nationalists are. This was not a people spontaneously reacting to an atrocity committed against them; it was not an intifada. It was a planned atrocity by a majority population seeking to put an ‘uppity’ minority in its place, and the same movement, now in charge of the Indian federal government, permits a regime like that of the old American South in which Muslims can be lynched for imagined offences against cows. These riots did not just start; people started them. Anyone who cannot see this has no place in any respectable political party or any party which purports to stand for social justice, let alone running as a presidential candidate.

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Ignorance and poverty, not religion, lie behind abuse

28 September, 2019 - 18:32
Picture of a pink painted building with what looks like a metal double door guarded by two policemen. The name of the school, "Daru Imam Ahmad bun Hambal" with an Arabic inscription, is displayed above the door.Daru Imam Ahmad Bun Hambal (sic), the school at the centre of this scandal

Yesterday the Mail Online website published a story about a “Qur’an school” in Kaduna, northern Nigeria, from which 300 boys and men were rescued last week having been held in chains in squalid conditions (the article is based on this Reuters piece which has more background). The school was named after Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal, ironically as he was subject to torture himself for refusing to accept innovated beliefs the Abbasid rulers were trying to impose on the people at the time. The inmates had been sent to the school by their parents from other countries besides Nigeria, including Mali and Burkina Faso and alleged that as well as being chained up and whipped, they had been subject to sexual abuse by their captors, who claimed that only those who had attempted to run away were chained. A western Muslim scholar posted a link to a Reddit discussion of the story which had a few digs at Islam itself or religion in general, and someone else commented on the same thread that “Muslims lack a sense of justice”. This is unfair, and inaccurate.

Institutions like this exist in a lot of African countries. In 2015, a British TV presenter called Sophie Morgan made a documentary about the treatment of disabled children in Ghana, which she had heard was possibly the worst place in the world to be disabled (see earlier entry). What she found was that in many rural areas there were “prayer camps” run by cranks operating under the guise of religion (Islam and Christianity as well as local religions) keeping inmates chained to the furniture and “fetish priests” feeding disabled children poisoned alcohol and then chucking them in rivers. Parents would sometimes shun proper rehabilitation facilities, some of them run by western charities, in favour of these prayer camps because they had been taught to believe that prayer would cure their relatives. Politicians were aware of the problem, but blamed it on people not following the law rather than the government not enforcing it.

In many of the countries of the world, the mentally ill are treated abominably, locked up and chained up rather than treated, often because their illness is blamed on spirit possession rather than physical illness or trauma. In Africa and Asia the use of physical restraints such as chains is often widespread and unconcealed; in many western countries with their sophisticated, scientific mental healthcare system, drugs are the restraint of choice and the environment is prettier and makes more use of technology such as surveillance cameras and electronic locks (though it often does not allow patients to use their own mobile phones or anything with Internet access), but it is just as much a prison as those makeshift camps in Nigeria or anywhere else, and reports of cruelty and abuse, of soulless regimes, of needless blanket restrictions on people’s activities and what possessions they can have with them, make headlines every week or so. In the US there is a well-documented network of private “boot camps” which hold children with parental consent but against their will and without access to any legal redress, supposedly because they were “out of control”, and anyone tempted to condemn “barbaric Muslims” for similar places in (as has been reported) Somalia should take this into account.

In many countries in Africa and Asia, education and healthcare are not free and are often beyond the reach of people who are not very rich unless they can access charitable schools or clinics, which leaves ignorance and superstitious beliefs unchallenged and the field open to abusive cranks and witch-doctor types to exploit vulnerable and desperate people. Many of the countries are burdened with debt, or their wealth is held in foreign banks. Yes, corruption is often a problem, even in ostensibly democratic countries like Ghana and Nigeria. These are not the product of religion; these are political and social problems. Bigots will, of course, take one look at a story about abuse at any Muslim school and go to their preferred forum and spout nonsense, but Muslims who have no links to the country where this happened, who have no influence there, have no reason to apologise for every abuse that goes on everywhere in the name of Islam.

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On Labour’s private school dissolution policy

22 September, 2019 - 22:23
Eton College, Berkshire

This evening, the Labour party’s national conference passed a motion to make the party committed to the dissolution of Britain’s private schools. The three-clause motion commits the party to include in its next general election manifesto a commitment to “integrate all private schools into the state sector”, which includes removing their charitable status, requiring that universities admit no more private school pupils than their proportion in the general population, and to redistribute “endowments, investments and properties held by private schools … democratically and fairly across the country’s educational institutions”. It is this third clause which is likely to provoke the most controversy.

When some Labour front-benchers (e.g. Clare Short) broached the idea of abolishing private schools’ charitable status in the 90s when Tony Blair was party leader, the idea provoked outrage from the Tory press and was quickly slapped down by Blair. This goes a lot further, and it reflects the emboldening of the anti-private school lobby that has resulted from two charming but incompetent Old Etonian prime ministers and years of scandals involving abuse at British boarding schools, including some very prestigious ones (though not Eton). The notion that boarding school, particularly at primary school age, robs people of the ability to empathise by separating them from parental love and family ties at an early age has grown more and more popular, as has the awareness that much of our media, in particular, has become saturated with private school products as has popular culture; while there have always been pop stars who attended private schools (the early members of Genesis, for example, were Charterhouse boys), the numbers seem to have increased in the last 20 years or so.

Removing the charitable status of schools which overwhelmingly educate the children of the rich for a hefty fee might strike many as a good thing; however, there must be some accounting for what services these schools provide. Many schools provide full or partial scholarships or bursaries, but even ‘full’ bursaries often only cover fees, not on-costs such as uniforms. Some of these schools require pupils to have equipment that families in poverty often cannot afford, such as computer tablets; some also remind the scholarship child of their status as a recipient of charity. The appalling story of the young girl who obtained a bursary to “The Grammar School At Leeds” a few years ago and left after just a year because she was “made to feel unwelcome”, with her mother having acquired debts to pay for the uniform and special bus pass, is a good example of the kind of ‘charity’ which gives the concept a bad name. Cold charity, delivered with a razor blade in the hand.

I have heard it suggested that the policy would contravene the European Convention on Human Rights, specifically protocol 1, article 2 which states: “The State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions”. The problem is that, while many private schools do provide for religious education not provided in the state system, many are based in churches such as the Anglican and Catholic churches already well-represented by state schools; they just provide an elitist education for children whose parents can afford it. Many religious private schools have accepted integration into the state school system, particularly through the grant-maintained system favoured by the Thatcher/Major Conservative governments (subsequently abolished), such as some Muslim and Greek Orthodox schools. Similarly, some private schools offer alternative modes of education such as Steiner schools, but many do not: many are simply grammar schools. The state already interferes in private religious school provision by trying to force them to provide sexual and relationship education which contravenes their religious teaching; abolishing private schools would mostly affect the education of the rich.

As for ‘redistributing’ the endowments of private schools, this is simply theft. Besides being simply immoral, it will send a clear message that any private asset belonging to an individual or organisation that the state finds disagreeable can simply be seized when they feel like it. It is clearly tempting to many people on the Left but it will not fly with the electorate. It is a very different proposition from nationalising a business that has received enormous amounts of state aid which has enriched its owners while delivering poor service, or which is on the verge of bankruptcy and this bankruptcy would cause widespread hardship or unrest. It is far better to legislate that assets such as land held by charities be used for charitable purposes, not merely to better the interests of wealthy fee-payers and their children — a good example being that sports facilities and the like be available for use by local schools a certain proportion of the time.

While reducing the influence of the privately-educated in British society is not a bad thing in itself, Labour in office should be dedicated to making sure state schools are funded properly, at ending the flight of teachers from the profession, at stabilising the curriculum and ending fragmentation, and at ending the undemocratic academy regime and recovering those schools which were converted against the wishes of the community (since these were public assets to begin with, not legitimate private ones such as bequests). The state should also assist home-educating families, especially where a child was unable to attend mainstream school because of disability. I support the idea of private schools having to justify their charitable status to retain it, and boarding before secondary age (and possibly even before about age 13 or 14) being banned. However, we cannot simply go down the route of seizing private assets where there was no criminality involved in obtaining them. It’s theft, it’s tyranny; it’s Henry VIII meets Stalin, and it will leave Labour in the wilderness.

Image source: Julian Osley, from Geograph. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence.

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The Stallman affair and what it means for Open Source

21 September, 2019 - 12:31
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Last week the founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard M Stallman, who was also a visiting professor at MIT (right), resigned from both of those roles after remarks he had made on an MIT email list about one of the people implicated in the Epstein affair were made public, first on Medium and then through the Vice news site. The remarks were to the effect that the 17-year-old that this individual may have had sex with (at one of Epstein’s ‘retreats’ in the Virgin Islands) may have appeared willing, and that her being technically under the age of consent does not make it rape. Some of his comments were arguably true; there is a tendency to refer to any breach of age-of-consent laws as rape, regardless of whether the age in that particular state or country is above average (e.g. 18 rather than 16), whether the law even calls it “statutory rape”, whether force was used or whether the ‘victim’ was in fact quite willing, whether the two participants were close in age or indeed whether the ‘perpetrator’ was also under the age of consent, and if these comments were the only issue, I would regard his firing from his positions as an injustice. However, in the wake of this revelation, a whole lot of Stallman’s past writings about such things as paedophilia and people with Down’s syndrome (i.e. that they should be aborted) but also about his long history of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour with women at MIT and the conferences he attends came to light which I am sure many people in tech but outside MIT, or the US tech scene, were unaware of. It also led to calls to shut the Free Software Foundation he founded down and to abandon the whole concept of Free Software or Open Source and to stop using software such as Linux. These calls are misguided, in my opinion.

I’ve been on the fringes of the tech community for some time as a one-time Linux user and occasional application developer. I’ve attended a few Linux events here in the UK and read interviews with Stallman as well as other pioneering but controversial figures such as Eric Raymond (who has also come under criticism this past week for a past blog entry in which he stated, correctly, that sexual activity with someone in their teens was not paedophilia and that the distinction matters). Stallman is well-known as a divisive figure in the tech community. He originated the idea of “free software”, which meant software which was free to redistribute and modify. Later on, a younger group of developers coined the term “open source”, which in terms of the licences under which the software is distributed is identical but is based on a different philosophy: that openness means more scrutiny, which means better software. Stallman despised this concept and, although he could not change the fact that this became dominant in the tech scene, insisted that his organisations did not use the term “open source” or that community’s coinages except when criticising them. The upshot is that we hear phrases like “FOSS” (free and open source software) used in community publications as authors and editors seek to dance around Stallman’s and his fans’ preoccupations and resentments and minimise emails from the electronic equivalent of the “green ink brigade”.

One of the articles about Stallman’s fall from grace claimed that he regarded his life’s work as a failure: his operating system, which he called GNU (GNU’s Not Unix, a reference to the system it was meant to replace), has never been completed although large parts of it are used in Linux-based operating systems daily. (He insists on calling these systems GNU/Linux, another of the stipulations he makes to anyone who works with him or uses the FSF’s facilities.) It is more true to say that he achieved something other than what he set out to, a little bit like Upton Sinclair who said that his book, The Jungle, about conditions in the Chicago meat industry was aimed at the nation’s heart, but hit it in the stomach instead; it was intended to prompt a movement for workers’ rights and conditions, but instead resulted in improvements in food hygiene and safety. Stallman’s ideas were about the right to share code, the right to know how the computer you own and the software that runs on it works, and to change it if you like, or if necessary, but the majority of computer users now, even if not in the 1970s or early 80s, have neither the time nor the inclination to do any of this or to learn how; they just want to get things done. The “right to share code” is not an ideal that would inspire many young people to join a campaign when there are human rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights and the environment to consider. Stallman has never accepted this, but the fact that his work has made software development much more accessible to many people (and certainly cheaper) and has made it a lot easier to develop better programs is hardly a failure.

However, as many of us found out last week, his attitude and behaviour, and that of a number of others in the industry, actively put women off entering. Women at MIT had strategies to deter advances from him, often based on exploiting his eccentric dislikes (e.g. of plants, water, and rival software to his) while women visiting were advised to avoid the floor where he worked if possible. He was on a number of conferences’ “do not invite” lists partly for this reason (and, no doubt, partly because of his divisiveness). He was known to shower rarely and to have other disgusting personal habits which he did not hide; he preferred to stay with hosts rather than in hotels when attending conferences, and imposed on them to a ridiculous extent, issuing a rider which was pages long. A number of people who worked with him tried to make him see that the way he treated people, especially women, was inappropriate, but to no avail. It might anger or upset some people to see people on Twitter demand that the whole edifice be torn down, that the FSF be closed, that the open-source or Free Software concepts be abandoned, but one can hardly blame them if they had been kept out of a career in something they had previously enjoyed because the industry and academia tolerated obvious sexual harassment just because the perpetrator was a major innovator. However, this does not mean we should tear it down.

As for abandoning Linux or anything else licensed under the FSF’s General Public Licence: to do this is to cut off your nose to spite your face. Neither Stallman nor the FSF benefits at all materially from you using a piece of software licensed that way; nobody pays royalties on the use of the licence. The FSF and GNU project are more than just Stallman; he contributed to some of the software but not all, and some aspects of the system have nothing to do with GNU, including the Linux kernel, the X-Window system and KDE desktop. Get hold of any Linux distribution (e.g. Ubuntu) or any other open-source package (e.g. LibreOffice) and you can install it on as many PCs as you like. The alternative is software developed on a closed basis that you may pay hundreds of pounds for, which you then may use only one copy of, and which comes out of a company whose internal culture you know nothing about; it may have a sexual harassment problem at least as bad as anything Stallman has been involved with, or a bullying problem, or it may pay its cleaners a pittance and employ them on zero-hours contracts.

One of the first and loudest voices advocating for Stallman’s dismissal and discredit works for Salesforce, a company accused of facilitating sex trafficking through one of its clients (a website called Backpage, closed by US federal officials in 2018); the lawsuit from women victims of this practice was dismissed yesterday on a technicality though the plaintiffs are appealing. I saw a tweet yesterday that read, “If someone would have told me in the 2000s that Bill Gates would be the hero and Richard Stallman would be the villain…..”, but Bill Gates’s foundation has announced that it is giving a humanitarian award (for sanitation improvements) to Narendra Modi, the Hindu chauvinist Indian prime minister, whose terms as both Gujarat state governor and prime minister have been marked by Hindu nationalist violence against religious minorities: a pogrom in Gujarat, lynchings of Muslims by “cow protection” vigilantes in the north-west, state atrocities in Kashmir, an ongoing campaign to expel Muslims from Assam. Gates’s association with this man makes Stallman’s defence of his friend look mild by comparison and he made his money peddling sub-standard, buggy closed software in the 90s and 2000s (his operating system had no major update for seven years); he helped water the swamp that Stallman operated in.

What does this mean for open source? My prediction is that the whole concept of “free software” will come to be seen as a dinosaur and that the circumlocutions the community uses to avoid offending Stallman and his dwindling group of supporters will be abandoned: we will see no more uses of “GNU/Linux” or “Free/Open Source Software”. It’s true that Stallman is not the only guilty party and there have been controversies about sexist behaviour and underrepresentation of women in other open-source projects, and some Linux events such as expos and conferences have been notable by a laddish culture which does not respond positively to criticism. People who object are often told to toughen up and not be so sensitive, even by women (as I saw in Linux Format after a previous sexism scandal). However, most of this behaviour has been verbal rather than physical. Open source has demonstrable advantages: it not only opens up important software to scrutiny of its source code, allowing the elimination of both bugs and backdoors, but also offers opportunity for developers to better their skills in their own time, to make improvements which, if accepted, become matters of public record, unlike in a closed software company, and just because some people find a community or project unwelcoming does not mean it should be closed down if it is doing good. To destroy all this because of the behaviour of a small number of unpleasant individuals would do everyone a disservice even if not everyone knows it.

Image source: Nick Allen. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 licence.

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Hamza Yusuf was not famous just for being White

17 September, 2019 - 22:07
Black and white picture of Hamza Yusuf, a middle-aged White man wearing a white turban on his head, with a white shirt with no tie, and a dark-coloured jacket over it. He is standing against a wall decorated with small tiles.Hamza Yusuf

In the aftermath of the Hamza Yusuf Syria controversy (see previous entry), a Medium post by Umar Lee, once a fixture on the Muslim blogging scene of the 2000s, has been circulated on social media with many claiming that it is a work of great insight or some such thing. The post has some useful observations on the state of the Muslim community in the USA and in particular the white convert element, but in regard to Hamza Yusuf it reflects the hostility towards him that we saw in his previous writings, including a piece ten years ago (on his old Muslim blog, most of it since deleted) on so-called Rand Institute Muslims of which he called Hamza Yusuf the most prominent. Lee claims in his article that Hamza Yusuf’s fame and status comes from his skin colour, which I dispute.

He claims:

Hamza Yusuf is in the position he’s in because he’s white and he is far from alone. In city after city there are white Muslims on the boards of mosques, occupying key roles within local CAIR chapters, and generally overrepresented in leadership roles. In nearly all of these instances there are better qualified Muslims of color to occupy these positions who’ve been passed over. While many people point to the (South Asian in particular) inferiority -complex in my estimation this overrepresentation is due to other factors. The first being that white Muslims, particularly those that haven’t changed their names, make for good PR props (particularly in the post-911 era where Muslims are obsessed with “reframing the narrative”). The second factor is that white Muslims also make for good props in the machiavellian schemes of Ikhwani political organizations and protests.

Hamza Yusuf converted in 1977 at a time when there were few white converts in America. I have met some from that era for sure including those handful that were in the Dar al Islam: but there’s no doubt a young Mark Hanson was a novelty. What followed was a well-funded and orchestrated rise by various benefactors who wanted to see his white face as the face of Islam in America.

I’m 42 years old, and converted to Islam in 1998, so I caught the tail end of the pre-9/11 era. Any Muslim who is a young adult now would have been born around the time I took the shahada; they would have no memory of the time before 9/11 and would have been around 10 years old or even younger when Barack Obama was elected. Hamza Yusuf being white helped, but it was not the only or even most significant reason why he was widely respected, why people would travel hundreds of miles to attend a conference headlined by him at a big convention centre, and why tapes of his speeches sold very well in Islamic shops in every English-speaking country. Indeed, there were other American preachers at this time, including some African-American ones, who were also very popular on the same circuit and whose tapes sold through the same shops, such as Abdullah Hakim Quick, Muhammad Sharif and Zaid Shakir. As I recall, people of every ethnicity listened to all the speakers; people gained inspiration from stories about Muslim achievements, personalities, reform movements etc everywhere, including Africa. People in the West were introduced to some of the major scholars in the Muslim world through encounters with these western scholars, which was part of their intention.

What made Hamza Yusuf popular, including in countries where being white was nothing like the asset in the Muslim community that it was in the USA, was the quality of his output. He offered a vigorous critique of the modern western media and educational systems and extolled the virtues of the classical Islamic education which was where all the major Islamic scholars learned what they knew, and attacked the modernist response which was to blame Islamic education for the conquest of the Muslim world. He also published books, including translations of classical texts which were of good quality and beautifully presented. Some might find his fondness for connection-drawing to be too close to conspiracy theory for comfort, but he did foster an interest in and a love of knowledge in Islam. In the UK, many young people were looking for an alternative to the very divided religious culture which had come over from South Asia which was heavily based on the Urdu language which many young people did not speak (especially if their parents did not do so either) as well as to the aggressive “Salafi da’wah” which dominated many university Islamic societies at that time. Contrary to Umar Lee’s claim that “it’s unreasonable to believe a converted Catholic from Michigan could advise Punjabi families better than a fellow Punjabi”, many Punjabis here (as well as other South Asians) looked to scholars like him for guidance in preference to scholars of their own background. What has come to be known as the neo-traditional movement filled those gaps. A lot of the intellectual heavy lifting in refuting the claims of the ‘salafis’ was done by Nuh Ha Mim Keller and Abdul-Hakim Murad, but Hamza Yusuf made the world of Islamic knowledge look exciting to many young people back then.

That does not mean he, or any of the others mentioned, is above criticism today, but many of those who criticised him for his remarks about Syria last week, or about other issues arising out of the Arab Spring, are people who would have been in those coach parties back in the 90s and early 2000s and did not go to just see any “white shaikh”, they went to see someone who inspired them and made the deen and religious knowledge accessible. He was not a nobody who was elevated to a prominence he did not deserve because of his colour, even if such people existed in the US Muslim scene (they certainly did not here); he was a scholar who earned his position through his teachings and his service to the community.

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How does any society build civil society?

12 September, 2019 - 22:32
Picture of Hamza Yusuf, a white man with a short, greying beard wearing a white shirt with a grey jacket over it and a red felt cap, with his right index finger raised. He is sitting on a beige sofa with cushions. Against the blue background is written "Samsun, Turkey".Hamza Yusuf

In 2016 the American imam, Hamza Yusuf, gave a lecture in Turkey which was a commentary on certain hadith including the famous hadith of intention (that actions are judged according to intention) in which he made some scathing remarks about the Syrian uprising and claiming that Syrians were now fleeing across the ocean in boats, begging non-Muslims to let them into their countries. He quotes a hadith that says “whoever humiliates a sultan, Allah will humiliate them” and then claimed that some Iraqis had regretted the overthrow of Saddam Hussain and had come to appreciate the wisdom of their being in those positions:

Because we’re not ready. We don’t have civil society. We can’t even wait in line for buses. And this is not because Muslims are inferior to non-Muslims; it’s just circumstances. We’ve been moribund for a long time, we’ve lost a lot of wisdoms that we had; we have terrible treatment of our women, we don’t raise our children properly, we have horrible school systems, we have widespread corruption; these are all the realities of the Muslim world … So how do we change this situation? It’s all there (in the book of hadith he is teaching from), but no; this is just quietism, this is what the Sufis say, just worry about yourself, don’t worry about anybody else.

The whole lecture can be found on YouTube here; the three-minute clip this quote features in starts from about 49:25.

This passage echoes the talking points of people who have supported the repressive regimes of the Muslim world throughout recent history, but also people who have been sceptical about any number of peoples who have been occupied or oppressed over time to rule themselves and run things like farms, industries, the education system and so on. It was thought, for example, that Poles would be unable to run the industries of Silesia which had been largely controlled by Germans until the Second World War (Poland received part of the region after World War I, and the whole of it after WW2), but they proved capable. A number of years ago, an American Arab Republican running an outfit called the “Free Muslims” (which still exists) claimed that the Muslims could not be trusted with democracy because they would invariably vote for Islamists; former president Mubarak of Egypt was reported as claiming his country was not ready for a full democracy yet. Many countries have, in fact, made transitions from dictatorship to democracy, in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, some very successfully, some less so.

It’s true that many Muslim countries lack civil society (which refers to public engagement with politics and public issues in the form of an open media, trade unions, chambers of commerce, pressure groups and so on). The reason is that the governments do not allow it. You cannot build civil society in a police state which demands to control everything. You may have the appearance of democracy, a media which criticises minor decisions or which covers things going on in other countries in great detail, and trade unions but the media is censored and the unions are under party control; it is impossible to organise independently and anyone who tries to faces arbitrary imprisonment under ‘emergency’ laws which have been kept in place for decades. These things can only happen when there is freedom and where people do not fear the consequences of talking about things that affect everyone, where walls don’t have ears and there aren’t spies and party thugs everywhere. These things have happened in other countries after the fall of dictatorships and they can happen in Arab countries as well. There is nothing inevitable about any of this; Arabs are quite literate, and many educated ones have relatives living in the free world so they know how these things work.

Much the same can be said of the situation of women’s rights: it’s difficult to build a movement for women’s rights in a country where nobody has any rights and where you cannot speak freely without fear. In this he is also appealing to stereotypes, as the Arab world is not alone in being a place where women are being oppressed; the truth is that this is going on everywhere to one degree or another. In his own country, it is next to impossible to get justice following rape unless the attacker is someone who is stigmatised on racial or class grounds, or both; misogyny is displayed openly by men aspiring to high office, without it injuring their prospects, while male politicians influenced by male religious leaders interfere with pregnant women’s medical treatment and threaten laws that would criminalise them in the event of a miscarriage (these types of laws already exist in parts of Latin America, with the result that many innocent women have been imprisoned).

Likewise, the education system is a product of the dictatorships, and while it is not geared to producing independent minds and in some places is heavily militarised, it produces doctors, engineers and other skilled professionals who are in demand the world over. Education systems in western countries are often pretty bad, particularly if you are poor, from an ethnic minority, or both.

I’m not going to go into criticisms of his remarks about the Syrian uprising, or engage in speculation about why it has so far not succeeded, except to say that it is actually not over and the Assad regime still does not have control over the whole country. There are territories outside his control and the ‘tide’ can still be turned. But to say that a dictatorship should not be overthrown precisely because of societal ills which are largely a product of that dictatorship is not the soundest of reasonings. These things have been overcome before and there is no reason why, in most countries where there has been oppression over a long period, they cannot be again.

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