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Updated: 3 hours 28 min ago

On Jeremy Corbyn and those nukes

4 October, 2015 - 13:15

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

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

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

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

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

27 September, 2015 - 13:08

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

26 September, 2015 - 11:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image source: Tell MAMA.

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Saudi Arabia minimising civilian casualties?

12 September, 2015 - 20:50

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Name the problem: White Bigotry

7 September, 2015 - 21:00

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

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

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

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

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Jeremy Corbyn, ‘Islamists’ and women-only carriages

29 August, 2015 - 10:45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 August, 2015 - 19:23

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The World’s Worst Place to be Disabled

23 August, 2015 - 10:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fear-free healthcare, revisited

22 August, 2015 - 18:16

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

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

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

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

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

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Why does Amnesty need a policy on prostitution?

16 August, 2015 - 14:35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review of Wanted: A Very Personal Assistant

8 August, 2015 - 19:47

Wanted: A Very Personal Assistant is another part of BBC Three’s ongoing season of programmes about disability, Defying the Label. In this two-part series, four young people with mobility impairments of differing severity were matched with carers by another disabled man who apparently specialises in matching carers to disabled people. This programme sought to get unemployed and inexperienced young people into caring jobs under the premise that there were all these unemployed young people and all these disabled people who needed carers or assistants. The result, as you might imagine, was that some of the recruits were very poorly matched indeed. (If you’re in the UK, you can watch episode 1 here for the next two weeks, and episode 2 here for the next three.)

Picture of Jasmine, a young white woman wearing a dress with flowers on a black background, sitting in a wheelchairThe disabled people featured were Jasmine (right), a young woman with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA); Josh, who is a survivor of a brain injury from a cycling accident when he was 12; Rupy, who has cerebral palsy; and finally Michael, who is a quadriplegic following a diving accident while at university. With the exception of Josh, all of them are power-wheelchair users who are fairly successful; Josh, who can walk but has impaired arm function,. is a comedian who does a routine in comedy clubs styling himself “the disabled gangsta” and cracking jokes about disability. Josh is seeking to break away from having his parents do his personal care for him by having an assistant his own age, and believes having his father around when he is socialising is getting in the way of ‘pulling’ girls; the other three have no such concerns, but need the assistant to do cook, clean, wash and dress them and in some cases help them in their work.

The carer matched to Michael thought she could stomach emptying his bladder and bowels manually, but despite having done it to a dummy while in training, could not bring herself to do it for Michael, which resulted in his having to call an agency carer. (This job cannot just be left, as an overfull bowel or bladder can result in a life-threatening complication called autonomic dysreflexia or AD in a person with a high-level spinal cord injury.) The next day, she emptied his bladder, but was so disgusted when she got splashed with his urine (they did not say whether it went on her skin or her clothes — and she was wearing long sleeves) that she resigned. She eventually got a job as a legal secretary, then moved to Bahrain according to the closing captions; this rather suggested that she had no intention of pursuing a career in care (and let’s face it, it’s not well-paid, something this programme didn’t mention at any point).

The best match was that of Jasmine with Emily, and crucially she was the carer who was most like the person she was caring for: same sex, same age, looks so similar they could be cousins at least, and a similar cultural outlook. Emily and Jasmine got on extremely well and Jasmine had no complaints about how Emily washed and dressed her, but both did worry about how her lifestyle and lack of cooking and cleaning skills would impact on Jasmine’s health; Jasmine at one point revealed that a friend of hers had died just weeks ago because of an infection. Fortunately, one day while Jasmine was out doing something or other, Emily cleaned her flat from top to bottom, much to Jasmine’s satisfaction. Emily was the only one to keep the job.

A still in dim light of Josh and Francesca in an art gallery, Francesca explaining a Van Gogh painting to JoshThe most interesting story was that of Josh and Francesca, a rather prim, middle-class arts student who described herself as a committed feminist. Josh obviously came from a working-class background, liked his drink and called himself “the mong with the big dong”. He was rather obsessed with ‘getting laid’ and believed that all the other young lads were doing it, and that he wasn’t only because of his disability. Josh wanted Francesca to help him ‘pull’, but she was clearly uncomfortable in his world and was not much help. Then he decides to go on a trip to Amsterdam, which she is thrilled by, only she has ideas of visiting all the museums and art galleries and he wants to go to the Red Light district and, perferably, sleep with a prostitute. (She liked the idea of going to one of Amsterdam’s cafés but neither of them mentioned stronger chemicals than caffeine.) She has strong moral objections to this, regarding it as exploitation, and said she would resign if he actually did this. They agreed to both visit the galleries and tour the red light area, but he would not avail himself of their services.

In the event, he is nonplussed by the art (when Francesca explains that the bright colours in one painting were the result of the painter’s emotions colouring his view of something, Josh replied “maybe he was just colourblind”) although he says he loves Francesca’s company; Francesca is made profoundly uncomfortable by the women on display and men leering at them in the RLD. The pair meet with a dominatrix who explains that many of the girls are in fact in the ‘trade’ by choice, but Francesca feels that she and Josh have ganged up on her. In the end, Francesca insists on going back to the hotel early, which gives Josh a major disappointment as he had agreed to “do Francesca’s shit” and that she would do his. However, the next morning, they are both in a better mood, and Francesca suggests that they build an online dating profile for Josh and he accepts that his manner may be putting women off. In the end, the two stay friends but Francesca ceases to be his carer, as the two don’t want a “job” getting in the way of a beautiful friendship.

The premise of the programme — that the multitudes of unemployed should mean it’s easy to find assistants for all those disabled people who need them — was really not sound at all. While I’m very well aware that there are too many jobs out there where employers demand experience when it is not really needed, providing personal care or assistance to a severely disabled person is not something to do just because you need a job. It did not appear that any of these candidates had ever provided personal care for anyone, and they were not asked whether they had assisted in the care of an elderly relative or a baby. The issue of whether some of the disabled participants wanted a male or female carer was not asked, and they all got women (which nobody objected to here although it’s not always appropriate); a disabled female friend who advertised for a female PA a few months ago told me when I tweeted about this aspect that she had received a number of applications from men. It was possible, she agreed, that some of these had applied just to apply for as many jobs as possible to please their JSA “advisor”. And a good many of my disabled friends who have employed PAs or carers for themselves or relatives (for a variety of impairments from autism to motor neurone disease) have complained of incompetence, lateness, no-shows and in one case, theft.

I was on Job Seekers’ Allowance for two years (2008 to 2010) and although my interest in disability issues only really started halfway through that, the idea of inflicting myself on a quadriplegic when I couldn’t stomach emptying their bowels or changing another adult’s dirty nappies never occurred to me, nor was it suggested. If anyone is suggesting this to an unemployed person with no care experience, they should be stopped immediately. This series demonstrated, if inadvertantly as the issue really wasn’t discussed, that the job of providing intimate day-to-day care for a person with a severe mobility impairment is not a job to be left to anyone who walks in off the street: they need to be professional and not squeamish. If an agency provided too many carers like the one Michael got in this series, they would not last long in the business.

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Yes, we do get rid of ‘hate preachers’

2 August, 2015 - 22:26

A picture of a group of migrants or refugees standing or sitting on a ramp behind a metal fench, behind which are several lanes of queueing cars, approaching the Calais ferry port‘If you hate the migrants in Calais, you hate yourself’ | Nick Cohen (in today’s Observer)

People have been sharing this feature by Nick Cohen since it first appeared online yesterday (and I had a hard job getting to it on the Guardian’s website, eventually having to scroll through all the contributors with C surnames before finding his among the Cohens which weren’t in alphabetical order). Someone pointed out that Cohen has been publishing Islamophobic, warmongering posts for years, and people forget this as soon as he writes something “right-on”. But actually, there’s nothing much right-on about this piece. It follows a very typical pattern for him.

His technique, which I exposed in a previous entry, is to write a long article full of fairly uncontroversial, “right-on” lefty opinions, before getting a dig at one of his pet hates in towards the end. In this case, he fills the first two thirds of the article with righteous indignation at the racism directed at the migrants in Calais, the ugly language used by David Cameron (“swarms” etc) and the abandonment of the pretense that we accept genuine refugees but not economic migrants. However, towards the end he tells us why we’re shutting out real refugees:

Meanwhile – and I accept that this may be hard for readers to take – liberals ought to realise that the inability of the state to deport Islamist preachers and foreign criminals has made life immeasurably harder for refugees who threaten no one. In the past, there was no question that they could go. The 1951 UN Convention on Refugees states that a country could deport a refugee if “there are reasonable grounds for regarding [him] as a danger to security” or if a court found him guilty of “a particularly serious crime”.

Over the succeeding decades, judges and further treaties have watered down that unambiguous statement. They have often acted from the best of motives, to save people from torture most obviously.

But the road to hell is paved with human rights lawyers’ briefs, and the liberal attempt to stop the deportations of Islamists and common criminals has had the profoundly illiberal effect of destroying what public support there was for welcoming refugees.

First, he is referencing tabloid myths about criminals being allowed to stay because of their “family life” rights, when in fact these are often tabloid distortions. Second, he is suggesting (a common theme on the xenophobic “muscular” liberal right) that human rights only be applied to cuddly and friendly figures, not people whose opinions might cause offence or who don’t agree that you can always defeat tyranny by standing in front of a tank.

I have nothing against getting rid of foreign criminals if they are people who came here for the purpose of committing a crime, or committed a serious crime without having built particularly strong family connections in the UK. The reason the deportation of foreign criminals has attracted significant human rights challenge is that some of the people affected had spouses and children in the UK and were not career criminals but had done one or two things wrong. In some cases (particularly after the tabloids made an issue of this in 2006), the convictions were years in the past and time had already been served. Besides, this country always objects when other countries (usually white Commonwealth countries) deports people who emigrated there as children and turned to crime (particularly sexual crime) as adults, then justifies such deportations on such grounds as that if a rapist had been deported to Poland, say, after his last crime, he would not have committed the latest one — a plainly false justification.

As for “Islamists”, the fact is that this country has deported several, in some cases despite lengthy human rights challenges. After Abdullah Faisal completed his sentence for inciting murder, he was deported, and was further deported from at least one other country (Nigeria). We also locked up and later deported Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada and others, and have refused entry to other preachers deemed to be ‘hate preachers’ including Louis Farrakhan, and there have been occasions where Cohen’s fans (and friends) at Harry’s Place have made a fuss because a Muslim preacher or imam they disapprove of because his opinions conflict with modish liberal values has been granted a visa, or a platform to speak somewhere, and it has been withdrawn. But also, ‘liberals’ tried to stop people being deported because the ‘evidence’ against them was obtained through torture, or because the supposed offences they had committed were carried out in this country, which has perfectly good laws under which they could have been prosecuted, but did not carry the wildly disproportionate sentences the same offences attracted in the USA.

I am not convinced that the supposed difficulty in getting rid of a few rabble-rousers is the reason it is difficult to accept more refugees, anyway. The public’s view of these issues, much as on so much else, is framed by how the commercial Tory press reports them, which in turn feeds into the “public opinion” found on radio phone-ins and below-line comments. The idea that policy on accepting genuine refugees should be formed on the basis of a handful of troublesome public figures is simply ludicrous; the blame should not be on those who did their jobs and fought for the human rights of those they were intended for, but those who make money or political capital out of stoking hostility towards the weakest in society, be they refugees, poor people, disabled people or whoever.

Image source: Calais Migrant Solidarity.

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There’s more to the Binladins than OBL

1 August, 2015 - 17:32

The main building and control tower of Blackbushe AirportYesterday a light aircraft crashed when attempting to land at Blackbushe airfield near Farnborough. The airfield is a former RAF base which has also been a passenger airport, but these days is used for executive jets and for pilots’ training. More significantly, there is a big car auction site next to it, which has an auction house as well as acres and acres of car park used to store the goods (cars). The aircraft came down in the middle of one of these car lots and destroyed several cars. I’ve delivered there (during a three-week period driving cars to and from that site for British Car Auctions) and my first thought was that the plane might have hit the auction house, which would have caused far more casualties, but which it did not. Anyway, the three passengers all belonged to the Saudi Binladin family, a large and wealthy Saudi family which owns, among other things, a large construction company, but whose most famous member over here was Osama, who is better known for demolition.

You may notice that I have spelled “Binladin” differently to how the name is usually spelled in the media. That is how the family spells it when they write in English. Media reports about this crash, such as this one in the Guardian and this one in the Daily Mail, said that the four people killed were relatives of Osama bin Laden, giving their relation to him rather than to his father Mohammed, who had more than one wife (I am not sure how many) and plenty of descendants. Although many Saudis sympathised with (and helped finance) the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in which Osama bin Laden was active, after the Gulf War when the latter turned to terrorism and attacked western targets instead of Russian ones, both the Binladin family (who have substantial western connections and business interests) and the Saudi government turned against him. While any Google search for any of the Binladins will return lots of references to (and pictures of) Osama, the men are often shown in suits and ties and the women without hijab or with pretty floral headscarves, hardly a sign of a fanatically religious Muslim family, especially in Saudi Arabia.

Picture of Sana bin Laden, a middle-aged Arab woman in a floral headscarfOsama bin Laden is dead now, the organisation he ran is well-known to have lost so much ground to ISIS that its leaders are free men in some Arab countries. The other Binladins are not that well-known in the west but the fact that they are uninvolved in their late brother’s activities has been well-known for years. I don’t intend this as an advert for their corporation, which has been involved in all the religious building projects in Saudi Arabia (and the Saudis are notorious for demolishing historic buildings, including libraries, in the name of religious purism or to make way for vanity projects), though the woman killed in the crash (Sana, left) was a philanthropist known in Saudi as the “mother of orphans”, but it was not necessary to prominently report the relation of the dead in this crash to Osama bin Laden. It was newsworthy in itself that a passenger plane crashed near London with the loss of four lives, and in naming those killed, the fact that they were related to Osama bin Laden could have been mentioned in passing.

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On Jeremy Corbyn: no, it’s not about purity

27 July, 2015 - 22:03

Black and white picture of Jeremy Corbyn, standing in front of a lectern addressing the 2014 People's AssemblyThe Labour Party are currently holding their leadership election following the resignation of Ed Miliband after he lost the general election in May. The four candidates are Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Jeremy Corbyn, the last being the only left-wing candidate who has been widely ridiculed as a throwback to the early 80s and a certain election loser. Meanwhile, the others are being condemned as closet Tories at worst and uninspiring Blairite functionaries at best. As Corbyn is deemed the most likely candidate to lose the 2020 election, there has been a campaign to encourage Tories to join the party as “supporters” so as to get a vote in the leadership election. That the party’s rules allow this is pretty stupid; most parties (including, for example, the Tories at the time David Cameron was elected leader) do not allow new members to vote.

One of the themes that has been constantly repeated in the criticism of Corbyn and his supporters is that he represents a retreat to idealism, to the ‘freedom’ of being a principled opposition rather than having to make compromises to win and keep power, and a “delusion” that the party lost because it was not left-wing enough. Examples include Saturday’s piece in the Guardian by Jonathan Freedland, in which he claims that the Corbyn ‘tribe’ cares about “identity, not power” and about being true to themselves; Andrew Rawnsley in Sunday’s Observer suggests that the current debate reflects a party which has already resigned itself to losing the next election. Much as in the coverage of Lib Dem party members who opposed their MPs’ caving-in to the Tories’ coalition demands in the last parliament, we have the same language of maturity and of ‘sensible’, ‘realistic’ compromises versus ‘protest’ — a dirty word — and opposition. Freedland even talks of Blair and others who “tried to sit the kids down” and persuade them that Corbyn will never get elected.

Both raise the spectre of the 1980s, with Rawnsley opining that although 1983 was “a mathematically more severe defeat, in some ways Labour’s predicament is worse today”. How is it? In the 1980s Labour faced an infiltration from Militant; there is no such threat today; Militant are a spent force even on the hard left and even Socialist Worker are a shadow of what they were in 2005, let alone the 1980s, as a result of the rape scandal. There are still a few Marxists knocking around, but they are not regarded as the threat that they once were because the USSR no longer exists and cannot fund Marxist entryist groups abroad. So, the press can throw around a few insults but they cannot make left-wingers in the Labour party out to be a threat as they could in the 1980s; and as nobody under 40 remembers the early 1980s (or anything of the Cold War) anyway, the insults have much less resonance than they used to. The world is a totally different place, and it is not Corbyn’s supporters who are living in the past.

Rawnsley accuses Miliband of taking the party to the left “on the basis that the party’s 13 years in office were essentially a terrible mistake” while conceding that Blairites are “not being more vigorous or persuasive in defending their record”. But that’s the whole point. The Blairites have not learned the lessons of the mistakes of Blair’s time in office and in some cases regard them as Blair’s good points. Thatcher and Major fought two wars between them, both of which were popular and generally considered to be just wars. Blair (and Brown) also fought two, both of them (Iraq in particular) unpopular affairs which dragged on for years and did not achieve much. Blair scraped a win in the 2005 election, having won a landslide in 1997 and a respectable majority in 2001. The tendency to centralise everything and to slap down local leaders who make too much noise was already in evidence in the mid-1990s, and is what lost the confidence of Scottish voters in Labour (and in turn, costing the confidence of many English ones).

But by far the biggest New Labour flaw is its timidity, which is what led us into the Iraq war and into accepting humiliations like the 2003 extradition treaty, and it is really what stops the supposed Blairites from defending Blair’s own legacy. Let’s remember that when Blair was in office, there was no serious criticism of his and Brown’s handling of the economy except from people who were regarded as cranks. (The New Statesman carried adverts for books like Gordon is a Moron which predicted a dire economic future, but I don’t recall these books ever getting a review.) It’s generally understood that the deregulation of the banking industry both here and in the USA is what led to the failures of major banks that led to the 2008 crash or “credit crunch”, but despite a change of government, there has been no move to seriously reform the finance industry to prevent another crash. Now, we hear supporters of Liz Kendall, as on the BBC Breakfast programme the other day, claim that Labour have to convince the public that they can be trusted with the economy, which means going along with every ideological Tory benefit ‘reform’ and never challenging the lie, repeated so often in the media that people assume it is true, that Blair and Brown governed as socialist spendthrifts.

The neo-Blairites are very inventive in thinking for reasons why Labour supporters might want a leader who stands for social justice rather than just getting into power. It must be about purity, or identity, or about reducing one’s role in evil rather than reducing evil (which requires power, and thus compromise). Labour supporters usually did not join the party to change the colour of the government or to put some particular individual in office for its own sake. Red does not equal socialism. In the USA a “red state” is one that voted for Bush and then McCain, and in China the ruling party calls itself Communist (and flies a red flag) but implements capitalism, albeit in some respects state capitalism. They joined the party to fight for social justice, for people to have an opportunity to better themselves, for workers’ rights, for better education and healthcare. With three of the four current leadership candidates, people see these things slipping further out of reach as they refuse to defend even their former leader’s legacy and oppose Tory plans to shrink the state. The best we can hope for from them is that they will mind the shop for the Tories when they are down, maybe for ten or fifteen years or so, until the Tories regroup, as they did in the last term of Blair and Brown’s government. And it’s not much to hope for.

It could be true that Corbyn is unelectable. It could be that by 2020, the Tories might be discredited enough for any donkey with a red ribbon to win the election; this is, after all, why governments usually change (those elections in the 1980s were not only Labour losses; the Tories won, because enough people were satisfied with them — something critics of Labour so often fail to take account of). But if the so-called modernisers (who aren’t really all that modern, as Paul Bernal notes) fear Corbyn, they had better start offering a serious alternative. Much like the Liberal Democrats, they need to stop blaming voters and start looking at what they are doing wrong. They may win back a few extra votes in Middle England now, but their supporter base is drifting off in favour of disaffection or UKIP.

Image credit: “The People’s Assembly National Demonstration Jeremy Corbyn MP 21 June 2014 124” by DAVID HOLT from London, England - The People’s Assembly National Demonstration Jeremy Corbyn MP 21 June 2014 124. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Review: Don’t Take My Baby

24 July, 2015 - 09:00

Picture of Anna, a young white woman in a wheelchair, played by Ruth MadeleyDon’t Take My Baby is an hour-long BBC drama, broadcast on BBC Three (which is likely to be removed from digital TV and only shown online as of next year, something one review says this programme helps make the case against) as part of a series of programmes titled Defying the Label, challenging popular stereotypes about disability. It tells the story of Anna, a wheelchair user with a muscle-wasting condition, and Tom, a man with a hereditary visual impairment that gets worse as the programme goes on. Anna and Tom have a baby, Danielle (Dani), who becomes the subject of a “child in need investigation” in which Anna (played by Ruth Madeley, who is a wheelchair user, albeit with spina bifida rather than muscular dystrophy) and Tom have to prove that they are fit parents before they are even allowed to take Dani home. The couple’s relationships with their parents, who clearly disapprove of their relationship and their decision to have the child, is explored and they have some rows, but eventually work through their difficulties and their fears. Eventually the couple are allowed to keep Dani.

I must say that when I first heard about the premise of the programme, I was a bit disturbed and wondered if this still went on. I was well aware of couples where there is a history of mental illness or a learning disability, even when the former is well in the past or the latter is mild, having their children threatened or even taken away and adopted, but was unaware that this was still going on when it came to otherwise competent, physically disabled parents. (Disability is sometimes used in custody disputes, particularly in the USA — the case of Kaney O’Neill in 2009 [see earlier entry] and the ongoing case of Jessie Lorenz and her daughter are examples — and even though the argument that a parent is less than ideal because of disability is rejected often, it keeps coming back.) The programme is said to be inspired by real stories, which would suggest that the characters are composites, but the scriptwriter, in his BBC blog, says that the story is loosely based on a real couple’s story. The follow-up notes at the end of the programme, saying that Dani had inherited Tom’s condition but not Anna’s and that Anna’s life expectancy remained uncertain, only added to the confusion.

The programme often left me confused as to the time frames involved. It was not clear, for example, how many days elapsed between Dani’s Caeasarian birth and Anna’s discharge — I would have thought it would have taken a few days, given that it was a high-risk birth and that if it was not guaranteed that Anna would survive the birth, there could have been complications. Those few days would have been an ideal time to make sure she and Tom were able to manage, and do any assessments, rather than discharging Anna without Dani. I’m well aware that people are discharged from hospital early a lot of the time, whether after childbirth or surgery, often resulting in readmission, but discharging someone at such high risk this early in these circumstances seems like a pointlessly high risk to me. I also wondered why the question of breast-feeding was never even raised — they didn’t, they were never encouraged to breast-feed or even for Anna to express milk, and it was never discussed why this was. While women with high-level spinal cord injuries who bear children often cannot breast-feed after a few months, Anna did not have a SCI. And on that subject, when Tom asked her how much of ‘that’ she could feel (after they had sex early on in their relationship), Anna said she could feel all of it but did not explain that her impairment was not an SCI — a common assumption of healthy-looking young people in wheelchairs which Anna would likely have encountered. Neither of these things altered the course of the story, but they seemed like curious omissions to me.

Tom is understandably hostile to the social workers and regards their intervention as an insult. At one point a support worker turns up and makes them watch a video explaining how to cook, something they already knew very well how to do. However, after bathing Dani in the family centre (which he did quite competently, with Anna and the social worker, Belinda, watching), he slipped on a wet floor and fell backwards with Dani in his arms. Dani is uninjured, but he panics and accuses the social workers of wetting the floor deliberately so as to make him look bad. Despite this, after a few wordless scenes of Belinda having a pained phone conversation in her car, the next day (or at least, in the next scene at Anna and Tom’s house), Tom is told that they can bring Dani home as they are moving the assessment to their house. We do not find out why this decision is made so quickly after the bath incident which clearly unnerves Belinda.

Picture of Belinda, a black woman in her mid-30s, standing behind Tom and AnnaAfter Dani goes home, although the couple are clearly overjoyed, they find it extremely difficult. Caring for Dani takes up all their time and Tom soon complains that he is doing all the work while Anna does nothing other than hold her. The floor gets cluttered as a result, and at one point Tom falls over and hits his head just as the social worker turns up for one of her unannounced visits (several of which they delay answering or entirely refuse). Three of their parents (Anna’s mother left when Anna was young, not long after her diagnosis) come to dinner and Tom casts aspersions on Anna’s mother’s support and asks why she was not at the birth and did not come for weeks afterwards; the mother responded that she feared Anna would die and did not want to meet the baby who might kill her. It comes to a head when Anna demands that Tom bathe her as she has not been bathed for days, and smells; when Tom refuses, insisting he has had a long day and wants a beer, Anna throws herself off the chair and onto the floor. Tom tells her he already has one baby to look after and does not need another. He ends up walking out and walking to the social services offices, where he meets Belinda coming out, and pours his heart out to her before saying he does not want her help, he just wants to be left alone to be a Dad. However, after this, the two settle their differences and admit that they are both afraid of what the future might bring for both them and Dani.

Towards the end, the couple go to the social work offices to address the panel which will decide if Dani can stay with them or not. When Belinda comes to tell them that they are ready for them, Tom takes out a folding white cane and uses it to navigate his way to the room, the first we learn that his sight impediment has got worse (he has not used a cane before) and something that is not remarked on. The two make an emotional appeal and Tom in particular stresses that his love and commitment should not have been in question, as he had gone into a relationship with a girl that “he sometimes had to help to shit” and that other parents who had faults, including his and Anna’s, and quite possibly the members of the team, did not have to prove themselves. He also said he was willing to accept more help parenting.

They then left, the panel continuing their deliberations without them. Belinda and the male social worker stressed that the two were competent, had accepted more help and had parented their daughter for four months without incident, but a third person, a woman we had not previously seen, said she was “not convinced” as they had failed to answer visits on more than one occasion, that Dani was likely to have to care for Anna if she even lived that long, and that she had previously had to remove a daughter from a disabled mother because she was living in absolute squalor. The fact that these arguments have been thrown out of court in cases in the past when social workers attempted to remove children from single parents far more disabled than Tom and Anna was not pointed out.) However, the panel decide to ‘downgrade’ Dani, which when Belinda breaks the news makes Tom furious and he threatens to sue them; it actually means that they have decided she is not at risk.

Picture of Tom, a young white man holding a small baby in a blanketThe programme left me wondering how common the scenario facing Tom and Anna is for disabled parents. Does this happen everywhere, or do different children’s services departments in different areas have different approaches? If it is common for loving, stable couples to be treated as if under suspicion and presumed incompetent until they prove otherwise, then this really is a scandal as I’m sure it would result in a proportion of such couples losing children to adoption; however, I am aware that some departments have a more relaxed and confident attitude towards even learning disabled parents, as was seen in the case of Steve and Tricia McHale, featured in One Born Every Minute in 2012, where social workers saw no danger despite Tricia’s worries (see earlier entry). That this happens to parents with learning difficulties and mental health issues is already well-known; that parents with purely physical impairments are being threatened in this way as well is not. If it is, the public should know about it, and there should be some anger, and a lot of debate. The question is, is there?

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Anti-FGM crusade brings out the busybodies

23 July, 2015 - 11:53

Picture of Jenny TongeThe crusade against FGM is out of control - Spectator Blogs

Brendan O’Neill wrote the above article on the incident reported recently in the British press, in which Baroness Jenny Tonge took a flight to Addis Ababa that was full of what appeared to her to be British-Somali families, including a lot of women and girls, and immediately formed the suspicion that they, or at least some of them, were going for the purpose of undergoing FGM. She said she “chickened out” of actually talking to them and asking, but informed the police on return who are apparently going to “check the passenger list”. (I checked Tonge’s FB page and it is either private or has been removed.) O’Neill mentions a few of the other problems that arise from the “crusade” against FGM:

There is a new raft of anti-FGM measures that could have a seriously detrimental impact on community relations. As of this month, anyone — literally anyone — can apply for an FGM Protection Order to prevent people from travelling abroad if there’s any reason to think they might be going for FGM. Are your Somalian neighbours planning a six-week trip abroad? Do they have daughters? Are their daughters a bit moody? Quick, get an FGM Protection Order.

Starting in Autumn, all teachers and health workers will be legally required to report cases of FGM to the authorities. According to the NSPCC, signs of FGM can include girls ‘spending longer than normal in the bathroom’ or talking about being ‘taken “home” to visit family’. Is this for real? Every girl going though puberty takes long trips to the loo. And loads of children of immigrants spend their summers abroad (as I did). To become suspicious of girls who start to feel embarrassed around the age of 12 and who talk about going on holiday to Africa is to be suspicious of virtually every pubescent African girl in Britain.

Tonge said her suspicion was raised because there were more girls than boys and “all just about pubescent”. Mutilation of girls at or around puberty happens in some parts of Africa but in Somalia it happens around six or seven. The idea that in this day and age, a large group of ‘pubescent’ (i.e. aged around 12) girls might be seen travelling to a place where they suspect they might have their bits cut off without anaesthetic, and none of them appear to be unhappy, is a bit unlikely. Africans do talk amongst themselves about FGM and girls that age may well know what it involves, especially if they know girls who have been through it. As for why there were more girls than boys, perhaps the families decided that because of the political situation it might be better not to take the boys. A whole Muslim family travelling to a country where there is still al-Qa’ida activity (and who knows where they might travel to afterwards) might arouse a lot more suspicion than just the women and girls going.

O’Neill also mentions the persistent suggestion that girls be subject to intimate examinations on leaving and entering the country if they come from a background where FGM is common. What these people do not consider is that if they are determined to carry out the procedure, they will find ways to circumvent the inspection (e.g. by flying back into Dublin and crossing back into the UK overland), and if they did not intend mutilation when they left but were unable to prevent it (and it is common for parents to resist FGM but for aunts or grandparents to insist on it), they might just not bring the girls back but keep them living with relatives in Kenya, Dubai or another surrounding country — or even Somalia, if they come from a part where there is no longer war. Being subjected to FGM does not actually prevent a girl going on to higher education and a career; living in a country where access to education is very limited, especially for girls, and where early marriage is expected, might do that.

Such inspections also undermine efforts to teach children how to protect themselves from abuse, namely that they know that their bodies are their own and their private parts are private. Anyone in authority who wishes to “take a look” after such an encounter only need compare themselves to the person at the airport, even though they may be of the other sex, particularly if the girl is too young to know what they were being inspected for. And there’s always the risk that the inspections will be traumatic in themselves, particularly if a girl has already been a victim of sexual abuse (or has had it drilled into her never to show her body to anyone), and there is no guarantee that every inspection will be done sensitively, particularly if there are dozens of girls to inspect before a plane can leave for Addis Ababa. And if a girl comes from a family where FGM is not practised, this intrusion from an ignorant official with a supicious mind will be entirely unnecessary (and they will use their ignorance as an excuse to carry out unnecessary inspections).

There is an obsession with FGM in this country and any findings on the matter are reported as sensationally as people can manage. For example, back in February it was reported that 500 “new cases” of FGM were reported at hospitals in England and that “campaigners” had warned that this was the “tip of the iceberg”. However, the new cases consisted of doctors becoming aware of women who had undergone FGM, not of girls undergoing FGM, yet this detail was buried in the stories. In David Cameron’s speech in Birmingham last Monday, he claimed that “too often we have lacked the confidence to enforce our values, for fear of causing offence”, specifically mentioning FGM and forced marriage, alleging that “there were nearly 4,000 cases of FGM reported in our country last year alone”, which appears to refer to a statistic that nearly 4,000 women were treated for effects of FGM in the UK since 2009; there is no evidence of how many of these cases were inflicted in the UK. The fact that not a single case has ever been successfully prosecuted should be instructive, given that it’s well-known that the majority of sexual assaults go unreported, yet there have always been reports, and convictions.

This persistent exaggeration and sensationalising of FGM and its supposed prevalence in this country is used to fuel another debate, namely about integration and the supposed refusal of Muslim minorities in particular to “fit in”. The truth is that it’s widespread in Africa, not just in Muslim countries, and when a London radio station held a phone-in on the issue a few years ago, the majority of callers were Nigerians, not Somalis, yet we never hear Nigeria mentioned as a place where FGM is common. The fact is that it is being debated among the communities which traditionally practised it, that many families have abandoned it, that some groups did not traditionally practise it, that many adult women from the communities involved have not had it done, and that it is declining for reasons that are not entirely to do with western influence, including exposure to Muslim cultures where FGM is unheard-of — yet these campaigners, and all the well-connected ignorant busybodies like Jenny Tonge, remain convinced that only they know what is in girls’ best interests when they often know very little about the cultures involved, and appear to believe they do not need to.

Image credit: “Baroness Tonge Liverpool” by Keith Edkins - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons.

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On feminists and girls’ school uniforms

20 July, 2015 - 21:46

Picture of Sarah Pashley, a middle-aged white woman with reddish hair, wearing a dark grey jacket over a white blouse.Last Thursday Woman’s Hour, the 10am slot on BBC Radio 4, had a feature on the growing trend in the UK for schools to ban girls from wearing skirts (it starts at 32:25, not where the dividing line is), after teachers have got sick of sending girls home or into isolation for wearing their skirts too short. Most recently this has included Bridlington School in Hull, whose headteacher Sarah Pashley (right) said that the behaviour of some girls was causing incidents that had made male teachers uncomfortable. Over the years schools have moved from making skirts compulsory for girls to allowing trousers and the ban on skirts has come more recently. The first I remember was Kesgrave High near Ipswich, which banned skirts in 2004 because the (female) chair of governors said she did not like girls cycling to school in short skirts which gave them what she called a “come hither” look. (The ban remains in place.) These days such bans are often justified in terms of preventing girls’ dress becoming a distraction for both boys and male teachers, and the same is true of similar rules in non-uniform dress codes in other schools, particularly in the USA. The Woman’s Hour feature included two male teachers (Vic Goddard, who has featured in Educating Essex, and Francis Gilbert), oddly given that some of those who have introduced these rules are themselves women, and a female gender studies academic, Jessica Ringrose of University College London.

Nearly all the schools I attended had uniforms, and in the 80s and early 90s it was usual for them to be sharply differentiated by sex — the boys were expected to wear shirts and ties, and the girls, blouses (sometimes shirts and ties) with a skirt that came well below the knee. The top button and tie rule was a persistent source of conflict for me as I found it (though not the tie itself) uncomfortable. A lot of schools now have abandoned these rules, making them more gender-neutral, though the more prestigious ones (including grammars, Catholic schools and many of the new academies) have retained them or even reintroduced them. It’s actually difficult to buy long school skirts for girls now (I can find only one, in fact), unless it’s a bespoke uniform item for a specific school.

In this feature, one of the teachers made reference to what he called the “magic walk” that girls have that causes their skirts to be long when they leave home and short when they reach school. He also mentioned that policing skirt lengths is a problem that comes up often because although they specify a grey uniform skirt that can be bought at Asda (a WalMart-owned British supermarket chain), it comes in different lengths and one girl was 6ft tall, resulting it being too short on her. Francis Gilbert said that his school expects teachers to measure skirt length with a ruler, but he finds this uncomfortable and tends not to do it; however, girls play up to a TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex) culture and come to school dressed like they are going to a nightclub. Prof Ringrose said that the claims of ‘distraction’ was deeply sexist, objectifying of girls’ bodies and insulting to men, and that objectification of girls’ bodies should be addressed in the curriculum rather than making out that girls’ bodies are sexually inappropriate.

The presenter asked Francis Gilbert how often boys were told off for having their trousers down around their waists; he said that they did this quite often, particularly with boys’ haircuts. Ringrose interrupted to say that he was not branding boys’ bodies as inappropriate and that it represented a sexual double standard which she found ‘distressing’. She also said that making girls wear trousers was not an answer, because girls were often told off for having trousers that were too tight and that girls had reported to her that the school trousers were often ill-fitting and uncomfortable. Towards the end, she said that schools should be addressing sexism and sexual harassment and that a uniform policy “does not get to the root of the problem, which is sexual violence against girls and women”.

Personally, I find the “distraction” argument fairly flimsy, but if the dress is distracting then it should be understood that it is not the girl’s body that is distracting but the particular way she displays it. Nobody, after all, makes the same claims about women in swimsuits, which display far more flesh than a school uniform. It’s not only the girl’s appearance itself that is a distraction; it is also the time taken out of teaching to tell off a pupil who openly breaches a rule. But to say men and boys (especially boys who are going through puberty and really do think about girls and sex a lot) are distracted by a girl dressed in an obviously sexualising manner is not the same as suggesting that they will not be able to control their behaviour; rather, it means just that: that it will distract him from thinking about other things. It can also lead to compromising situations, such as when a woman wears a skirt above the knee then sits on a low chair, putting the ‘opening’ (and possibly her underwear) right below where the man would look to talk to her, such that the man or boy need only cast his eyes down briefly to appear to be looking up her skirt. This is illustrated by what happened when a male teacher told a girl to lengthen her skirt at a school in Yorkshire a few years ago: she told him he should not be looking at her legs, despite their being on clear display and it being his job to enforce the school rules. I should add that it is not just schoolgirls who do this; the female police officer who interviewed me about abuse at my boarding school last year did precisely this.

Picture of Chris Whitehead, a 12-year-old white boy with blond hair, wearing a light blue school T-shirt and a dark grey school skirtIt is not true that girls’ bodies are being policed more than boys’. This attitude is rather typical of feminist attitudes that scorn any notion that women and girls should be ascribed personal responsibility for their behaviour, particularly where it has any connection with sex or sexuality. Boys’ uniforms are almost always heavier and more concealing than girls’. In many schools girls are still allowed to wear a skirt in the summer while boys are required to wear long trousers; there have been a few incidents of boys wearing skirts to get around this problem (which it turned out was not against the rules). Boys’ haircuts are a common source of uniform conflicts for boys, and a boy cannot vary his haircut in and out of school; a girl can wear what she likes when out of uniform. The rules offer more choice to girls and are easier to follow for them, yet they break the rules more often, because some girls know their bodies, particularly when decorated a certain way, are visually appealing to boys, while others do not, and dress as their friends do to fit in without knowing the messages their dress sends out. And if girls cannot, or will not, obey a rule that is hardly onerous and does not impose discomfort, that choice is going to be withdrawn.

I’m not in favour of uniforms; the majority of the arguments in their favour (such as masking social class differences) are spurious. But if a school is meant to be a learning environment (and I’m well aware that they often are not, especially at secondary level), it is not unreasonable to ask pupils to dress in a way that looks appropriate for one, and which shows good taste. We can argue as long as we like over how distracting a girl in an “extended belt”, as the BBC presenter told us her mother used to call a very short school, is, and in what way, but the biggest objection to it is that it doesn’t look very nice. Schools are (meant to be) places to broaden the mind, not to reduce young people to their bodies before they’ve even begun trying to do that.

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‘Hadith 38′ isn’t about war

19 July, 2015 - 12:54

Picture of a young man of Arab appearance, with dark hair and a large dark beard and moustache, with an orange shirt.The BBC reported today that Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez (right), the gunman of Kuwaiti origin who murdered five US marines in Chattanooga, Tennessee, last week, had sent what it called a “war text” to a friend the day before the shooting. The text quoted what the BBC calls “hadith 38”, which the friend “said he thought nothing of the text at the time, but now wonders if it was a hint at the attack to come”. Other friends (also not named) said that he “spoke of his anger about conflicts in the Middle East, including Israeli bombing campaigns in Gaza and the civil war in Syria, after returning from a trip to Jordan last year”, and that “his level of understanding and awareness really rose after he came back”.

Hadith 38 (it is the 38th in Imam Nawawi’s Forty Hadith, which although very well-known is not one of the primary collections; it is sourced from the collection by Bukhari) is one of the most famous of all the hadiths, which are sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam). This one is a hadith qudsi or sacred hadith, in which the speech of God is reported (it is also in the collection known as Forty Hadith Qudsi). It reads:

The messenger of Allah said: “Allah the Almighty has said: ‘Whosoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, I shall be at war with him. My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have imposed upon him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of Me, I would surely give it to him and were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant him it.’”

Almost all Muslims have heard or read this hadith. I’m not a scholar and there’s really not much I need to say to explain this. I’m sure whole books have been written about it. It’s about the virtues and enormous rewards of performing religious duties and of other rituals which are not compulsory but meritorious. While most readers will see the “religious duties” referred to as meaning prayers, fasting, paying the zakaat and making the Hajj, as well as the things we are required to do as Muslims in our daily life, religious duties sometimes involve fighting as well. But carrying out a random attack on a military base and killing five people when you are living in a non-Muslim country as an immigrant can in no way be described as a religious duty. In fact, there was at least one case of an early Muslim being excused fighting because he had been allowed to go on to Madinah (which composed almost the entire Muslim world then) after agreeing with the then pagan Meccans not to fight against them.

Among Muslims the term “friend of Allah” (waliullah) is commonly used in the same way as “saint” among Christians, although it can be used of a living person as well, usually of a great scholar or Sufi shaikh, or perhaps of a particularly pious ordinary person. Some scholars have said that the term refers to scholars, others to the Believers (Muslims) in general. But Muslim sectarian fighters and rulers who persecute and kill scholars who speak the truth and who obstruct Muslims in performing prayers and harass them for displaying signs of religiousness such as beards or hijab, would appear to fit into the description. Any Muslim thinking of joining an outfit like ISIS thinking they will be building up a great Islamic state should think of how they will be treating those they are ruling, and not be so certain that those they call deviants aren’t in fact awliyaa’ (the plural of wali).

And if someone sent me a text containing that hadith, the last thing I’d imagine is that they were about to carry out a mass shooting or suicide bombing. It’s a very general hadith and this is the first time I have ever heard it linked to violence. And Allah knows best.

(Some media reports have also noted that his school yearbook entry contained a quote from “Hijabman” which said “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?”. Hijabman is in fact Javed Memon, a Muslim blogger and photographer who has never been linked to extremism or violence of any sort. It indicates, if anything, that his ‘conversion’ is more recent than that. Hijabman issued a statement on this on Friday.)

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Close the units down?

18 July, 2015 - 11:02

Picture of Josh and Phill Wills (a white teenage boy and man) sitting on a park bench, with deep blue sky and trees behind themLast Wednesday the BBC’s Call You and Yours programme on Radio 4 held a feature on the ‘progress’ in getting long-term residents out of assessment and treatment units (ATUs), the type of short-term mental health units for people with learning disabilities that includes Winterbourne View, where abuse was exposed in Panorama in 2011, and the Slade House STATT unit in Oxford in which Connor Sparrowhawk died because of neglect in 2013. The programme featured an interview with Phill Wills, whose son Josh has been in a residential unit in Birmingham since 2012, 260 miles from his family who live in Cornwall, and with Sir Stephen Bubb, who this week published a report which showed that thousands of people were still languishing in ATUs despite ministers’ pledging four years ago to get them out.

The calls didn’t just focus on that immediate issue; they included parents who had had to struggle to get statements of Special Educational Needs for their children in the face of opposition from local authorities. It would have been more useful to hear more calls from relatives of people who have been wrongly deprived of their liberty for extended periods, subject to abusive sectionings or referrals, been transferred a long distance or have died as a result of poor care or abuse. The opening call was from a relative of a young autistic girl who was placed in a hospital unit at age 15 because her school was concerned about deteriorations in her behaviour, but on arrival she was immediately restrained and given medicine by injection, and she remained in her room for most of the next two years, and it was only when the family got help from Mencap and the Challenging Behaviour Foundation that they were able to get her out of the unit, and she has not needed to be restrained or injected since. But she was the only caller from a family in this position; while Phill and Josh’s story is important, they have no qualms with the quality of care their son has received. Some autistic people’s experiences have been very different. (Josh was expected to go to a new home in Cornwall this month, but the latest in a long line of bureaucratic and legal delays has meant there is no longer a date for his return although the home is ready for him.)

There has, in my opinion, been too heavy a focus on the matter of ATUs and not enough on other types of units which are taking in people with learning disabilities in which they do not have expertise. The reaction to the abuse scandal in one institution, which happened to be an ATU, has been “close the ATUs down”, when there are many other types of institutions in which bad care flourishes behind closed doors because carers are hired who are of poor calibre and they are not vetted, trained or monitored — old people’s homes, boarding schools, psychiatric wards, young offenders’ institutions. There is a song doing the rounds called “Close the Units Down”, which names four people as autistics who died in ATUs (Stephanie Bincliffe, Thomas Rawnsley, Nico Reed and Connor Sparrowhawk), when in fact Nico and Thomas were in what were meant to be specialist care homes and Nico was not autistic. Every hospital assesses and treats; that’s what they are for. If we just close ATUs down, people with autism or other learning disabilities who suffer a crisis or actually become mentally ill will end up in other types of equally inappropriate units. Autistic people with challenging behaviour are already being sent to secure psychiatric units and other institiutions which house offenders, in some cases with violent consequences.

Listening to some of the victims’ and their families’ stories and talking to some of the parents, I hear the theme of mental health staff not understanding autism coming up time and again, even in learning disability mental health environments and homes and this affects people with autism at every level of functioning (for example, young people with Asperger’s hospitalised because of a mental health crisis are affected by it too). I would suggest that a better solution to autistic people being the victims of inappropriate treatment is to make sure that all mental health professionals, particularly those dealing with in-patients (and deprivation of liberty is a fact in almost all psychiatric wards, since the vast majority house sectioned and informal patients in the same wards, requiring them to be locked), have training in autism, and this must include mandatory retraining for those already practising. It should be part of every psychiatrist’s and mental health nurse’s university education, and training in dealing with autism and challenging behaviour should be available to other medical staff (so that, for example, the events that led to the death of Kane Gorny in south London need not be repeated). This should ensure that institutions do not trigger the very types of behaviour that may have resulted in the person being sent there, and then punish them for it with denial of ‘privileges’ such as being allowed in the grounds or trips out with family, or escalate confrontations such that a patient is injured or killed in restraint, or assume that they would behave the same everywhere (rather than just in the unfamiliar institutional environment) and therefore keep them there longer than they need to be.

(However, autism is not the only thing some mental health staff seem not to understand. Connor Sparrowhawk died not because of a lack of understanding of autism (although that was an issue), but because staff forgot, or were not trained in, basic necessities in caring for someone with epilepsy, i.e. don’t leave them alone in the bath. I also know a woman who was hospitalised in Burnley during the Orchard Beds affair last year who had an asthma attack, and it took about an hour for that to be seen to. You can die of that as well. She also had difficulty attending to other serious physical health problems while in hospital. The poor state and underfunding of mental health services does not only affect people with learning disabilities; children and adolescents, as in the ongoing Hull scandal, are another badly affected group.)

I agree wholeheartedly that people with learning disabilities should not be spending years living in hospital units that were meant to care for short periods for people in crisis when they ought to be receiving care at home or in the community, and certainly that people should not be deprived of their liberty when there is no need. And some units are beyond saving and should be closed (the unit where Stephanie Bincliffe died has been). But not all ATUs are bad and sometimes they deal with problems thrown up by badly-run supported living. Simply closing ATUs down will simply mean there is nowhere to go when someone has a crisis which is too difficult for their family to manage at home, much as closing mainstream adult or paediatric psychiatric beds and units means the same thing, and the upshot will be that more people are transferred to unsuitable units miles from home. We need to see money spent on making sure these people can live in their communities, with their families if possible and if they want, so that they can get out of ATUs and other inpatient units, and a major programme of training for medical and nursing staff, particularly in mental health (although it should be available to others, as they may have to treat autistic people as well), in autism and how to treat people with autism appropriately and effectively, so as to avoid further suffering and needless tragedies.

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Price tags on medication: why it’s a stupid, callous idea

3 July, 2015 - 16:02

 £522.89 at the 5-star Carlton Hotel in Osaka, Japan; £1,147.95 at John Lewis; £3,346 at Searcy's, which has several champagne bars across London; £624.88 in a store specialising in bar equipment and bottle openers; £1,382 at the Hotel Melia in Berlin, 'one of the best in Germany'; £788 at the Miramar luxury hotel and spa in Santa Monica, California; £542.68 in a store which rents out drills, shredders and other toolsYesterday the government announced that labels on drugs prescribed by the NHS in England that cost over £20 will have the cost printed on them along with the words “funded by the UK taxpayer”. According to the BBC report, the decision is part of an effort to reduce medication wastage — medicines prescribed but never used — which allegedly costs £300m a year. Quite a few of my friends online are chronically ill and rely on medications to keep them alive or at least to make some semblance of normal life possible. Personally, I’m on thyroid supplements daily, and have been since age 5, and get free prescriptions, which I suspect many of my friends don’t. The reasons this is a bad idea were obvious.

First, over the past few years there has actually been demand for the state to finance expensive new drugs, particularly for rare diseases and cancer. I have seen more than one petition over the past couple of weeks for a particular drug that is licensed for use on some conditions but not others to be made available for a young girl who has one of the conditions for which it is not licensed, but which evidence suggests could allow her to live a normal life. This week, for example, NHS England refused to license a new drug, Vimizin, which is available in several other countries, to treat Morquio’s syndrome, to people who had already been part of a clinical trial, while NICE investigates its “cost-effectiveness”. Media reports say that people who took the drug found their health improved dramatically and that they were able to work and school and undertake university courses which they would otherwise be unable to. So it is clear that the public is willing to have expensive medications available on the NHS if they work.

Second, the reason prescription charges are set as they are is that cheaper medications are used to partly fund the cost of more expensive ones, yet these cheaper medications would not be subject to these rules as it would be politically impossible, putting the prescription charge scheme in jeopardy.

Third, drugs have side effects and it has been known for drugs to kill rather than cure a patient (especially chemotherapy drugs) or to expose them to an infection that kills them. Admittedly, some of these are likely to be administered by staff rather than given to the patient to administer themselves, so they might not see the label unless the person administering it is obliged to read it out to them. But why lecture a patient about the cost of their medication (based on the assumption that they’re going to waste it) when, even though it may be relieving another health problem, it is destroying their immune system or causing osteoporosis or some other life-altering complaint which costs them an awful lot? And of course we will be reminding them of the cost of all the medication for the side effects as well.

Fourth, whether or not drugs to treat mental health conditions are to be exempted from this, mentally ill people get physically ill, some chronically ill people also have mental health problems and some conditions affect both. Reminding someone with depression that they are a burden on the taxpayer (something many are already keenly aware of) is cruel, and is going to make their condition worse, affecting their decisions about seeing doctors or accepting prescriptions. Some of this will cost ‘the taxpayer’ in treating their future health (perhaps requiring some patients who refuse medication to be sectioned), but the real cost will be to that person, and their family, in suffering and perhaps loss of life.

Fifth, some ‘wastage’ of medication is due to mistakes at the pharmacy, where medication is prescribed but not delivered (or when it cannot be delivered); even if unopened, it cannot be reused. Other ‘wastage’ is due to medication being prescribed on a PRN (pro re nata) basis, to use when necessary. If the necessity never arises, or does not arise enough to use all the medication, or the patient decides to go without, some of it will get poured down the toilet or returned to the pharmacy for disposal.

Picture of a red London brick, with the word "London" and the number 33 etched into itSixth, why the focus on drugs? They are not the only expense the NHS has to cover. Perhaps every nurse, doctor, cleaner, occupational therapist, healthcare assistant, receptionist and whoever else works in a clinic or hospital should carry a name badge saying “Hello, my name is [whoever] and I cost the taxpayer £50,000 a year (or however much) a year”. Perhaps we should price-tag every bit of furniture, every lift, every vehicle, every syringe, tube and cannula.

Seventh, the use of ‘the taxpayer’ makes it sound like a single individual is footing the bill. The whole point of a public health system is that the cost is shared between anyone who might have to use it, so that poor people do not die or suffer lifelong disability (and thus impoverishment) because of an illness which could easily be treated. The individual taxpayer does not feel the cost of any individual drug, let alone any individual prescription.

The fact is that running a good national health service costs money, and if it is going to be free at the point of need, some of it is going to be under-utilised; this has been cited as a reason for closing whole centres down, much to the detriment of the health of the people who needed it (see Beth’s story from the previous entry). I do not really think that reducing drug wastage is the real reason for labelling medications with cost; it is to make people routinely aware of the cost so as to soften us up for cutting public healthcare. As all the evidence shows that the public currently supports maintaining the NHS and providing drugs that improve or save lives, however much they cost, the issue of ‘wastage’ of supposedly expensive drugs is being used as a ‘wedge’ to gradually open up the possibility of restricting medication availability, particularly to people who might be portrayed as less than deserving. Yet it is more likely to reduce legitimate usage than wastage, adding to the cost of treating ongoing and future illness, worsening mental health problems and costing lives.

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