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Small towns, small islands, small minds

Indigo Jo Blogs - 30 May, 2019 - 17:53

Yesterday this tweet was posted by the comedian and actor John Cleese, which (not for the first time I might add) gave rise to the widespread suspicion that Basil Fawlty, much as he may have been based on a real Devon hotelier, was not entirely an act after all:

I’ve lived in (outer) London all my life, except for periods spent at boarding school (in Ipswich, not a posh one) and university (Aberystwyth). There are some nine million of us and for most of us it’s the only England we have ever known except for brief trips out for holidays and the like. It’s a city in England and most people speak English. It’s also the capital of the United Kingdom, not just of England.

London is also a major world city, a financial centre, a city with several major universities where people come from the world over to learn and to teach. It also has several important hospitals which attract both staff and patients from all over the country and the world. It has world-famous shops and restaurants and, currently six Premier League football teams, three of which have fans around the world. It has, for decades if not centuries, been a place people want to live and has attracted people from all over the country, as well as migrants from around the world. Some stay for a while, some settle here.

Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) recoiling from a Black man in a white coat with a stethoscope round his neck, in the 1970s comedy Fawlty Towers

A major world city is not like a small town. London is not Market Harborough much as Paris is not a rural small town in the Midi or one of its many other regions and New York is not “Middle America” or a small town in, say, Missouri. It is metropolitan and not provincial, which some capitals are: small and fairly homogeneous in population. You want to live in one of those places, they are there. Living in a big city offers variety; have you seen the range of food on offer in a small Co-op in a place like Tywyn? In a big city you can get fruit and vegetables from all over the world and eat a variety of cuisines in any of the numerous restaurants. OK, most people do not have the money to eat out every day and most would not want to if they did, but most can eat out once in a while and they do not need to go to the same place twice, although they can if they find a good one, of course. Diversity gives richness and variety to people’s lives as well as the landscape.

In response to replies to his tweet, Cleese, who has moved to the Caribbean island of Nevis which is a major tax haven, has said he is glad to be living in a place which is “Murdoch-free” and which is not a centre for Russian money laundering. Yet, every small town in ‘real’ England has access to Murdoch papers (and Murdoch-owned Sky TV) as does London. The money laundering and its effect on the property market affects everyone, not just the ‘English’ (white) people in London. The increased costs of living makes everyone except landlords and the older generation, who bought their houses in the 60s and 70s and have long since paid off their mortgages, poorer whether they are ‘English’ or not. It’s also true that much of London has become a building site in the last twenty years or so and that visiting the central area has become a lot less pleasant in part because of this, but again, this has nothing to do with its diversity, and if anything, it is harmful to it.

Cleese links the supposed ‘un-Englishness’ of London with the ‘fact’ that it showed the highest vote to remain in the EU of all British cities. In fact, a number of British cities scored higher Remain votes, including Liverpool (though not all of Merseyside), Aberdeen, Oxford and Bristol. Birmingham, which also has a high ‘ethnic’ population, voted to leave as did a number of the towns around Manchester which also have high non-white populations (Manchester proper voted to remain). Many rural districts in the south, notably in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, voted to remain. Most EU nationals were not allowed to vote in the referendum; only British, Irish, Maltese and Cypriot nationals were, so even in London, the results reflect what the British people in these areas think. However, many of us have family members from other EU countries and so it’s natural that these people will have voted to stay in, the better to maintain links to those families. If you have friends and family who are of a different background to your own, you are less likely to have an insular mentality.

London’s a great city. It’s a world city, with a lot of England and a lot of the rest of the world. Its diversity makes it interesting and fun to live in. I can’t say I would never want to live anywhere else, but if I did, I would want to live somewhere fairly close to it, not on a small island or in a small village with other ‘refugees’ from the diversity that makes London what it is.

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You are what you Eid: Ramadan for vegans

The Guardian World news: Islam - 30 May, 2019 - 10:00

Muslims are coming to the end of a month of fasting, which in Britain often means evening meals featuring heaps of meat. But there is a plant-based option

The final days of Islam’s month of fasting are with us. And as Ramadan draws to a close, so does “Veganadan”, in which a growing number of Muslims adopt a plant-based diet for four weeks. I am keen to eat less meat in Ramadan, but it can be a challenge when you are invited to iftar, the meal with which Muslims break their day-long fast, and there is only meat on the table. After 18 hours without food (an extra 40 minutes if you are in Scotland), hosts like to lay on a generous banquet, and a typical iftar spread includes an array of lamb samosas, kebabs and roast chicken.

When I am at home, iftar tends to be a more vegan affair: a fresh fruit salad of mangoes, raspberries, blueberries and honeydew melon sprinkled with chopped dates, for example, along with a platter of peas fried lightly with cumin seeds, followed by yellow dal and aubergine curry.

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Alastair Campbell and the Labour loyalty rules

Indigo Jo Blogs - 29 May, 2019 - 19:07
Three white men (including Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and a third whose face is obscured) wearing suits and ties sitting at a large wooden table with papers in hand. A marble fireplace is behind Tony Blair and the third man.Alastair Campbell with Tony Blair during the latter’s years in power

Yesterday the former Downing Street communications director under Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, was expelled from the Labour Party for openly declaring that he had voted for the Liberal Democrats in last week’s European elections. This provoked a huge reaction from Labour supporters of the Blair/Brown tradition who see it as another example of Corbynites securing a stranglehold on the party and purging it of ideological ‘undesirables’, as well as people complaining that nobody accused of anti-Semitism had faced instant expulsion from the party (which is, in fact, inaccurate). Others have noted that this has been the rule for decades, that it was enforced during Blair’s years in power and that Alastair Campbell must have known about it.

The rule in question was indeed enforced, sometimes very rigidly, during the Blair years when many Labour members (as well as long-standing Labour voters) expressed dissatisfaction with Labour MPs and candidates, often in safe Labour seats, who had supported the Iraq war or other Blair policies which were seen as counter to either socialism or ideas of social justice. There were, in addition, candidates imposed on certain constituencies who were quite unlike those the local party would have chosen; there was some discontent about Shaun Woodward, an ex-Tory defector from the Major years, being imposed on or ‘parachuted’ into a safe Labour seat on Merseyside, for example. I recall seeing a letter in a newspaper that a member in South Wales had received a letter informing them of being expelled from the party for writing a letter to a local newspaper suggesting that people consult a tactical voting website. One can understand the rule that one be expelled or suspended for standing against an official Labour candidate or actively campaigning for a rival in an election, especially a Parliamentary one where “first past the post” applies, but for merely publicly suggesting that someone not vote for a particular Labour candidate, the threat of expulsion is contrary to freedom of speech.

This, frankly, is why I never renewed my membership when it lapsed after a year in 1995; I saw Tony Blair taking the party in a completely different direction in which appearance and ‘spin’ seemed to matter more than actual policy. Contrary to what seems to be the case in other parties, you do not enjoy free speech as a Labour party member; anything you say or write can be used against you if it is seen to be prejudicial to party interests. During the Blair years this was generally used against pesky Lefties who wanted a Labour party to reflect their values rather than the need for power at any cost; people wanted to change the politics and policies rather than just the faces and the rosette colours. I would never support a political party for its own sake, whether they call themselves Labour or anything else, and it is unreasonable to expect the discipline one might expect in a revolutionary socialist movement, from socialists, to further the interests of a capitalist party.

I support remaining in the EU and as I said in my previous entry, I voted Green to make that stance known. I might have voted Labour had they come out in support of a further referendum. I can do that from outside the Labour party; if Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair and others in that tendency do not like the rules, they had many years to change them.

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A few notes on the European election results

Indigo Jo Blogs - 28 May, 2019 - 18:17
The back of a church with stained-glass windows, and the entrance to a church hall with the words "St James Church Hall" on a rectangular white sign in blue Swiss type. The words "POLLING STATION" are on a sign in black bold type with a plastic chair in front. An old lady wearing a turquoise top and grey trousers is walking through the doors which also have a sign saying "POLLING STATION" and giving the opening times.Polling station, New Malden

So, last night we finally found out the results of the European parliamentary election result, in which we in Britain had voted on Thursday but whose results we could not be told until all polls had closed at 10pm British time (11pm Central European Time) last night. They were being treated by quite a large segment of voters as an indicative referendum for Brexit itself; one of the main parties, which won the single biggest share of the votes, was the Brexit party led by Nigel Farage, the former leader of UKIP, and several of its candidates are former Tories (such as Ann Widdecombe) and others not previously associated with UKIP. The UKIP vote itself collapsed, mostly transferring to the Brexit Party, which won the single biggest share of the votes in most districts in England outside London and south-central England; Labour and the Liberal Democrats dominated in London, the Lib Dems had a strong showing in Remain areas of the provincial south which included a number of former safe Tory seats, while the Tories were not the single biggest party in a single district. Nigel Farage threatened a repeat of these results at a future general election if the Tories fail to deliver Brexit, though this threat is dubious for reasons I will get on to.

First, the law that dictates that we cannot be told the results until all polls closed, as opposed to all in the UK, should change. In the hours before polls closed in some parts of Europe I was seeing results from France and Germany on social media yet the British polls, which had closed days ago, were still secret. In this country we are used to being told the results of elections the night after they happen. We also should really get rid of our insistence on holding elections on a Thursday, which is a work day; most countries in the EU held the election on a Sunday. This might anger some hardline Protestants in Scotland and Northern Ireland but a better idea would be to make any election day a public holiday, and preferably a Friday, which is nobody’s religious rest day (including for Muslims who can and often do work on a Friday), so that it would result in a long weekend. The present system has an inbuilt bias in favour of people who are not in work, in particular retirees who are more likely to vote conservatively.

Second, electoral districts for European elections and referendums are local authority districts (London or metropolitan boroughs, unitary authorities or county districts), not parliamentary constituencies. This means that you cannot use the result for almost any area to exactly predict a parliamentary result as not only do boundaries vary but populations vary widely between districts while constituencies have roughly equal populations.

 The Independent Group. For a People's Vote, For Remain, Vote Change UK" followed by an X in a black box. In the foreground is a red-brick pavement and a sign pointing to a car park and "all routes".Change UK’s “battle bus”

Third, this was a woeful result for Change UK. They did not get a single MEP elected; they gained 3.4% of the vote nationwide, only slightly more than the rump of UKIP and slightly less than that of the SNP which only operates in Scotland. In Lambeth, in which lies the seat of one of its founders, Chuka Ummuna, they came fifth with just 8.1% of the vote; in South Cambridgeshire, which includes the constituency of their MP Heidi Allen, they came fifth with 7.1% of the vote. In many places they came 6th or 7th behind the rump UKIP. The newness of Change UK should not be an excuse given the success of the Brexit Party which is also very new and has no MPs. Their shambolic campaign may have had a lot of bearing on this, including a logo they could not register and a “battle bus” with a ‘livery’ looking like a few slogans typed into a word processor, but really the reason was that despite much media hype, they failed to inspire, coming over as a collection of ex-Labour backstabbers and some old Tories who had always supported the austerity that fed the Brexit vote. Despite having cited the anti-Semitism issue in the Labour party as a reason for leaving, they became embroiled in a race row in their first week of existence and again when nominating candidates for the European elections, so they failed to inspire on that issue and a few of them come across as unprincipled or as having a sense of entitlement to the leadership (or dominance) of the Labour Party. I predict that many of their MPs will join the Lib Dems although some might drift back to Labour, depending on who is strongest in their local area.

Fourth, the Brexit Party’s dominance across England and Wales, in both Labour and Tory areas, is a worrying prospect for any general election in the near future and the Tories’ poor showing (they came fifth, with 9.1% of the vote, down from 15% in 2014, with only four MEPs, down from 19 previously) would act as a deterrent to them holding another general election this year. If, and it is a very big if, they find people to stand as MPs in a parliamentary election, they could take a very large number of seats on the basis of a percentage of the vote in the low 30s (or even less than 30%, as in Leeds, Bradford and Wirral, or 21.2% as in Cardiff) while other candidates have 15-20% of the vote or even slightly less than them who all oppose leaving or support a second referendum. This must not be allowed to happen; if this state of affairs persists, at least the next parliamentary election must be held using a preferential voting system so that nobody can win a seat when they are rejected by two thirds, or more, of voters.

A map showing the percentage of the vote received by the Labour Party in each district. Shades of red represent 0-10%, 10-20%, 20-30% and 30%+.A graph showing Labour’s share of the vote in each district. Source: BBC

This has prompted Jeremy Corbyn and his close ally and shadow chancellor John McDonnell to endorse holding another referendum; their failure to do this saw votes lost in huge numbers to the Greens and Lib Dems (although they came third and lost fewer votes than the Tories) because people who opposed leaving the EU did not want a repeat of the 2017 election in which their votes were later presented by the prime minister as an endorsement of “respecting the referendum result” (even if this was a lie; many Labour MPs are openly against leaving), but it may well have come too late as the Tories are unlikely to hold a general election just after losing most of their MEPs to the Brexit Party. Again, we see the cultishness of Corbyn’s supporters on social media singing about how his judgement has been proven right time and again, with the usual bad habits of mistaking a lesser loss (than the Tories’) for a victory, which this most certainly was not. The party is now facing a statutory investigation for anti-Semitism, most of which I remain highly sceptical about (Simon Maginn has a piece on Medium about the absurd nature of some of the claims and the atmosphere of persecution that has ensued), but a general election defeat followed by major losses in two mid-term elections against a failing Tory government really should persuade the leadership to change their direction or the membership to think again about Corbyn’s leadership. It is quite clear that they are not pleasing anyone with their current stance, either Leave voters in the provinces or Remain voters in the cities. They polled more than 50% in only one district (Newham in east London); the majority of their wins, like the Brexit Party’s, were on much less than 40% of the vote. They need to stop blaming voters and start looking at their own policies and leadership.

However, they also need to beware of “compromise Leavers” on the party’s Right. For example, Stephen Kinnock was seen on BBC TV on Sunday night and claimed that the result gave a mandate for a soft Brexit, of “moving house, but staying in the neighbourhood”. The ‘neighbourhood’ consists of EFTA, membership of which (if we were even allowed to join, which is doubtful as Norway regards Britain as a potential source of discord) would mean accepting the Four Freedoms, including freedom of movement by people, which has been deemed the cause of the Brexit vote. The alternatives are economic isolation, at least for the first several months after we leave.

I live in the London region and voted Green, and I’m satisfied that we got a Green MEP elected. They are pro-EU, generally progressive, anti-racist and, of course, in support of measures to protect the environment at a time when we are at a critical juncture as regards global warming. I cannot remember how I voted in previous European elections but I have voted Liberal Democrat in Parliamentary elections since moving to this area where Labour are a distant third; however, their enabling of Tory austerity has meant holding one’s nose, so to speak, when voting for them since 2015 and so it was good to have an alternative. I have no qualms in saying that my vote had to be for an anti-Brexit party and one with no truck with Islamophobia (which ruled out Change UK which had Nora Mulready on its list of candidates for London) and which was free of association with austerity. I would have voted Labour if its position on Brexit or at least a second referendum had been clear; it was not. Brexit is really the biggest issue facing us now; any Brexit that leaves us outside the Single Market will cost jobs, narrow everyone’s horizons, destroy the health service and potentially lead to civil unrest as the cost of imported fresh food (which is an awful lot of our food) skyrockets or the food itself fails to materialise, and all the genuine grievances which contributed to the vote to leave can be addressed without leaving; they are all matters of British, not EU, policy.

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The Hour of Lynching: vigilante violence against Muslims in India – video

The Guardian World news: Islam - 24 May, 2019 - 13:01

Rakbar, a Muslim dairy farmer, was murdered by a Hindu mob who thought he was taking a cow to be slaughtered for meat. His wife, Asmeena, must undergo an intense iddat (mourning in purdah) and their daughter, Sahila, is forced to abandon school to take care of the household. While the family falls apart, the hate machinery of rightwing Hindu nationalists – politicians and lynch mobs – works overtime to legitimise the killing. Set in a remote village in India, The Hour of Lynching sheds light on a global problem: communities turning on ‘the other’ – sometimes with extreme violence

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On disability and the laying-on of unwanted hands

Indigo Jo Blogs - 24 May, 2019 - 00:43
A black and white picture of a group of white men laying their hands on the head of a white woman or girl who is wearing a vertically striped dress and facing away from the camera. A man in the right of the picture is holding an acoustic guitar.A “laying-on of hands” in a Pentecostal church in Kentucky, 1946

I saw this article by Damon Rose, whose podcast (I think before the term was invented) BlindKiss I used to listen to back in the early 2000s, about disability and the urge of some religious people, particularly Christians, to ‘heal’ them when they are going about their business is a common annoyance for many disabled people, seemingly regardless of impairment as long as it is visible, such as anything requiring wheelchair use, blindness (in Damon’s case) or a visible skin condition as the Australian activist Carly Findlay has written about from time to time. He mentions a story told by an Anglican vicar who is a wheelchair user, who has had similar encounters with parishioners who expected to be able to heal her:

Reverend Zoe Hemming, vicar of St Andrews Church in the village of Aston in Shropshire, is a part-time wheelchair user who lives with chronic pain. She’s had her own encounters with strangers offering healing prayer and says she finds this approach can be “spiritually abusive”.

“I’ve been in situations where I’ve been talking to another wheelchair user in church and somebody was so determined to pray for us and we just kept ignoring them because we were in the middle of a conversation. In the end he just put his arms on both our shoulders and just prayed. It was really annoying and very disempowering. I was furious.”

The reason being, of course, that in the Bible Jesus Christ (peace be upon him) cured many sick or disabled people and in one case brought a man, Lazarus, back from the dead, and commanded his disciples to do the same. Damon Rose talked to Lyndall Bywater, “a Christian who writes and teaches about prayer and is herself blind”, who puts it in a context in which being disabled meant being unemployable and poor and in some cases barred from worshipping at the temple. She believes that if Jesus was preaching now, he would not regard disabled people as needing pity or instant cures as they did at that time.

As a Muslim I have an alternative explanation: these were miracles intended to prove Jesus’ authority as a prophet and Messiah. They were also examples of karama, or manifestations of God’s grace at the hands of a holy man. If Jesus (peace be upon him) told his disciples that they might do the same, this applied to them alone, not to any Christian at any time. We do not believe that Jesus healed the sick or brought back a dead man to life: Almighty God did. He does this at the hands of His prophets in order to prove that they are genuine and to strengthen the faith of believers. On other occasions, people are not simply healed in an instant at the hands of prophets. There is a story involving the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) that a woman came to him asking him to pray that she be healed of her seizures, which were causing her to become uncovered. The Prophet offered to pray for her healing, but offered her a promise of Paradise if she would endure them. She agreed to do so but asked that he pray that she not become uncovered, which he did. These conditions are not curses but tests; if we are patient in the face of them and maintain our faith, we are promised a great reward in the Hereafter. And throughout the history of Islam, there have been many blind people who have been greatly valued as scholars, including a few who are numbered among the great imams known as renewers.

I was brought up Catholic and also attended Anglican church services as a child. I do not remember ever being told that I could perform miracles if only I believed enough, or if only the person I met did. The Christians who behave in this way are often “low church”, members of charismatic or ‘Evangelical’ churches. All too often, the people they insist on trying to heal were not looking to be healed that day; they were going about their business when someone got in their face, and when they were understandably annoyed at being disturbed by a total stranger, the stranger called them ungrateful or faulted their lack of faith. Church leaders really should be telling their flocks that they should not be annoying disabled people in this way and that if they want to pray, they can do so quietly anywhere, because God can see and hear them, and pray for people who are obviously suffering or want prayers, and if it’s someone who is getting on fine, then pray for their general betterment and not for an undesired ‘healing’ of an impairment they may have come to accept.

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What happened when I met my Islamophobic troll

The Guardian World news: Islam - 23 May, 2019 - 06:00

In 2017, I started getting regular messages from an anonymous Twitter user telling me my religion was ‘evil’. Eventually I responded – and he agreed to meet face to face. By Hussein Kesvani

In 2017, I started to receive messages from a Twitter user who called themself True Brit, telling me that my religion was “Satanic”, “barbaric” and “evil”. Bearing a profile image of the St George’s cross and a biography that simply read “Anti-Islam, stop Islamic immigration now”, True Brit often spammed me with pictures taken from anti-Muslim websites, blogs and Facebook groups. Sometimes they would be cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad as a sexual deviant. Other times, I would be sent memes I had seen circulating in rightwing communities online, depicting groups of south Asian men who had been arrested for child sexual grooming, or alleged Syrian refugees who were, supposedly, secret members of Isis. One meme showed a man with a long beard, in battle camouflage, brandishing a pistol in one hand and holding the hand of a woman wearing niqab. In bold white writing below the image were the words “EUROPE IN 2020”.

True Brit never said anything directly to me to begin with. I had seen social media profiles like this one, and much worse, for years. Like those accounts, True Brit had few followers – 65 in total. Their activity on Twitter predominantly consisted of retweets from rightwing news sites such as Breitbart and Fox News. They frequently posted videos of online celebrities who were popular on anti-Muslim forums and Facebook groups, including Milo Yiannopoulos, a rightwing “provocateur” who has referred to Islam as “the real rape culture”, and Paul Joseph Watson, a UK-based YouTuber and editor of the conspiracy-theory website Infowars.com, who produces weekly videos about the “dangers of Islam” in the west, with titles such as The Truth About Islamophobia and Dear Gays: The Left Betrayed You For Islam. True Brit was also a fan of the British rightwing commentator Katie Hopkins, who in 2015 likened Syrian refugees to cockroaches, and who until recently produced anti-Islam videos for Canadian far-right outlet The Rebel Media.

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Ilhan Omar breaks Ramadan fast with Democrats in historic first for Congress

The Guardian World news: Islam - 21 May, 2019 - 19:09

The breaking of the fast was the first to be organized by three Muslim members of Congress and be attended by party leadership

US congresswoman Ilhan Omar had just won her primary in Minnesota last year, putting her on track to make history, when she found herself in a meeting with Nancy Pelosi.

Pelosi, then the House minority leader, pointed out that Omar had a smooth path to victory in the reliably Democratic district. She then asked Omar to name the one thing that worried her, to which the Somali refugee turned politician responded: her headscarf.

Omar recounted her exchange with Pelosi at the first ever congressional Iftar on Monday before roughly 100 Muslim Americans who had gathered for the event – a moment of history for Congress.

Omar was joined by the two other Muslim members of Congress – representatives Rashida Tlaib and André Carson – who all shared some of the challenges they faced on the basis of their identity as part of an institution still struggling with diversity.

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Five more years of Narendra Modi will take India to a dark place | Kapil Komireddi

The Guardian World news: Islam - 21 May, 2019 - 05:00

If the Indian prime minister is returned to office, his sectarian politics will make bigotry the defining ideal of the republic

Indian elections are a marvel to behold. The rules stipulate that no citizen should have to travel more than 2km to vote. So the state goes to the voters. Carrying oxygen tanks, election officials scaled the Himalayas to erect a voting booth in a village in Ladakh, 4,500 metres above sea level. In western India, a polling station was set up for the lone human inhabitant of a wildlife sanctuary. In eastern India, officials trekked for an entire day to reach the sole registered voter, an elderly woman, in a remote village. By the time voting closed on Sunday, some 600 million people had cast their ballots, 10 million of them for the first time.

The refrain from Hindu voters has been identical: Modi has failed us, yes, but he's at least put Muslims in their place

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Are ‘Led By Donkeys’ making asses of themselves?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 18 May, 2019 - 19:28
 Floorings for your home". In front of the poster, a woman wearing a light grey jumper and blue jeans pushes a baby in a buggy across a road.A poster for the Brexit Party with a statement by Nigel Farage: “The European Parliament, in their foolishness, have voted for increased maternity pay”.

Last week, after having a few weeks’ break, the crowd-funded anti-Brexit poster campaign “Led By Donkeys” (a reference to the alleged saying by a German general in the First World War about the British army, “lions led by donkeys”) have been putting up posters containing sayings by leading figures in the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage which has refused to issue a manifesto before the upcoming European elections (23rd May) and whose candidate lists include former communists as well as the more traditional former Ukippers and Tories. Their aim is to present the Brexit Party as a reactionary party which intends to profit from economic decline while tearing apart public services such as the NHS. However, I think some of their quotes may be a bit obscure for a lot of people.

There is no dispute that Nigel Farage did give a speech during his “Common Sense tour” in which he advocates a move to an American-style insurance-based healthcare ‘system’, saying:

Frankly, I would feel more comfortable that my money would return value if I was able to do that through the marketplace of an insurance company (sic) than just us trustingly giving £100m a year to central government and expecting them to organise the healthcare service from cradle to grave for us.

A lot of us are well aware that in the USA, healthcare premiums for those whose workplace does not provide insurance are sky-high, they are more so for people who have pre-existing conditions, they are as selective as the NHS about which medications they will provide, that people go bankrupt as a result of medical bills and will sometimes refuse emergency treatment to avoid a five-figure hospital bill. Most of this is unheard-of to us here in the UK because we have a healthcare system that is funded out of public taxation. The thing is that a lot of people do not know a lot about American healthcare or indeed any healthcare except ours; some may be aware of people flown to the USA for treatment unavailable here and they do know that we have a thing called National Insurance which was supposed to pay for social security but in fact is spent on pensions, so the idea of insurance is not entirely foreign to people who mostly pay for car and home content insurance and the quote would not have given them the ‘chills’ LBD might have thought they did.

LBD have already withdrawn another poster, the one featuring Ann Widdecombe (the former Tory cabinet minister from the John Major era) saying “homosexual acts are wrongful”, because “just because we’re outraged at her views it doesn’t mean everyone will be, and more importantly there will be some who’ll take her words at face value”. However, their general campaign is based on the idea that everyone will agree with them that the attitudes of Farage, Widdecombe and others are outdated and ridiculous, when in fact not everyone will. In their previous ‘tweet’ campaign they were accused similarly of addressing the public as if they were addressing a group of like-minded friends rather than a general public with a diverse body of opinions. That campaign exposed the double standards of some of the major Brexiteer politicians, some of whom were on record as opposing leaving the EU as recently as 2012, but in the choice of attitudes they choose to ‘expose’ here, they are counting on a public that agrees with them when it might not always. Exposure sometimes works (as in the 1970s when the National Front were exposed as being actual Nazis rather than simply opponents of mass immigration), but only when the thing exposed is unacceptable to everyone, rather than just to many or some.

Image source: Led By Donkeys.

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It’s the communications, dummy

Indigo Jo Blogs - 16 May, 2019 - 23:16
A picture of a crescent (new) moon in a red sky over two small trees, with the lights of a city behind them.Crescent moon over Manama, Bahrain, marking the start of Ramadan

I follow a few Kashmir activists on Twitter and a theme that has been coming up a lot lately is Indian Hindus and secularist Muslims lecturing Indian Muslims (and Muslims in the Indo-Pak diaspora) that they should stop calling Ramadan ‘Ramadan’ and use the Indo-Persian rendering, ‘Ramazan’ or ‘Ramzan’ which has been what the sacred month has traditionally been called in India. This is usually accompanied by a moan about Arabisation of Indian Muslim culture and the effect of Gulf finance and supposed Wahhabi sectarianism. Others accuse Zia-ul-Haq, the Pakistani dictator from the early 1980s, of imposing “Arab culture” in Pakistan, as if this could have had significant impact on India which is a much bigger country which no longer has significant traffic with Pakistan due to political hostility. Here’s an example from an Indian Washington Post columnist:

One wonders why people care about how followers of a religion they do not believe in pronounce names from their religion, but the answers lie in control and purity. If Indian Muslims are practising Islam in a way more influenced by Arab than Indian custom (even though they already regard Islam itself as an alien imposition), it gives the impression that they are not really committed to Indianness, to Indian culture, to loyalty to India rather than to Muslims around the world. To ‘liberal’ Hindus it represents the rise of youthful radicalism; to reactionary ones it proves what they believed all along: that Muslims really do not identify with India and have no place in India.

There is some parallel with the way women who wore the modern headscarf were treated in some Arab secular regimes and by writers hostile to Islam or ‘Islamism’. The new headscarf was seen as a symbol of Islamist ideology; it was not the association with patriarchy that was objected to but the sign of dissent to the ideology of the state. In Tunisia, where from the 1980s onwards the government repressed the wearing of hijab because they deemed it a symbol of ‘backwardness’ and of opposition to the regime, the traditional veil known as the safsari was permitted, yet this was a more restrictive garment that had to be held in place by hand. Patriarchy and restrictions on women’s liberty were fine by them as long as they were by themselves.

In truth, the spread of Arab pronunciations of words like ‘Ramadan’ has more to do with improved communications than with any ideology or religious movement. Indian Muslims until the 19th century rarely met an Arab Muslim until they went to Hajj which the majority were never able to do; Arabs came as traders and sometimes visiting scholars but rarely otherwise. Today, many Muslims (as well as others) go to work in the Gulf as well as in Europe and America where Persianisms such as ‘Namaz’ and ‘Ramazan’ are not normal. They gained their knowledge from local scholars who were not native Arabic speakers. Today, Muslims all over the world (at least the middle class and up) have access to satellite TV, the Internet, books and magazines published in their own language as well as English and Arabic and are aware of ways of practising Islam that are not the same way they do, and sometimes they learn that the way they do things is not the right way or at least not the only way. For example, it is surely no coincidence that the decline of practices such as FGM in parts of Africa where most people are Muslims has followed the opening-up of those countries to communication with Muslims outside who do not do these things and never have done. Before that, as in India, nobody except scholars and itinerant traders had contact with the outside world.

The irony is that ‘Ramazan’ is not the only ‘native’ way of pronouncing ‘Ramadan’ in India. In many places (such as in Bengal) it is pronounced ‘Ramajan’ (and the salaat or ritual prayer, known as namaz elsewhere in India, is ‘namaj’). ‘Ramazan’ is the north-east Indian Persian ‘court’ term. To anyone literate in Arabic, the idea that four Arabic letters with different pronunciations might all be rendered as ‘Z’ does not make sense, especially in a country where other Arabic sounds that are also not native there, such as qaf and ghayn, are prounounced more or less correctly; if you are praying with Arabs who are not of the Hanafi school of thought, they will regard your prayer as invalid if you mangle words like “dhaalleen” in the Fatiha. So, while it’s only to be expected that Hindu nationalists will carp at Muslims for embracing correct Arabic pronunciations (or something close to it), I do not see an honest reason for Muslims to do so. Why would you not want Muslims to embrace the language of the Qur’an and our Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam?

Image source: Ahmad Rabea, via Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 2.0 licence.

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Austria approves headscarf ban in primary schools

The Guardian World news: Islam - 16 May, 2019 - 01:24

Law refers to ‘ideologically or religiously influenced clothing’ but Sikh and Jewish headwear not affected

Austrian MPs on Wednesday approved a law aimed at banning the headscarf in primary schools, a measure proposed by the ruling right-wing government.

The text refers to any “ideologically or religiously influenced clothing which is associated with the covering of the head”.

Related: Austrian full-face veil ban condemned as a failure by police

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Yes, Islamophobia is a type of racism. Here’s why | Wes Streeting

The Guardian World news: Islam - 15 May, 2019 - 16:22
Contrary to myth, the definition I helped devise isn’t a threat to free speech. Theresa May’s government must adopt it

On 15 March, a gunman walked into the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand and opened fire. During the course of his killing spree there, and at the Linwood Islamic Centre, 51 people were slaughtered in their place of worship for no other reason than their killer had decided that their faith meant that they deserved to die.

Hatred against Muslims does not begin with the sound of gunfire breaking through the peaceful calm of a place of prayer. It begins with simple prejudice in our schools, our workplaces and our communities. More than 20 years since the Runnymede Trust published its seminal report, Islamophobia: a challenge for us all, it is on the rise.

Related: Government criticised for rejecting definition of Islamophobia

Related: Racism in political parties reflects pervasive prejudice in Brexit Britain | Rachel Shabi

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Film based on Christchurch mosque shooting in the works

The Guardian World news: Islam - 15 May, 2019 - 13:09

Hello, Brother – named after a victim’s last words – was announced at Cannes film festival by Egyptian director Moez Masoud

A film about the Christchurch mosque shootings, in which 51 people died, is to be directed by Egyptian film-maker and academic Moez Masoud.

According to Variety the film’s title will be Hello, Brother, the words spoken by 71-year-old victim Hati Mohammed Daoud Nabi, who opened the door to the gunman of Al Noor mosque, where 42 people died. The central characters are “a family facing death and destruction in Afghanistan who escape with their lives”.

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Fasts and late-night protein shakes: how Muslim athletes compete during Ramadan

The Guardian World news: Islam - 15 May, 2019 - 09:18

The holy month began at the start of May this year. While some athletes find blending exercise and fasting tough, others say it helps them focus

For the better part of eight seasons, Hamza Abdullah played defensive back in the NFL. In each one of those seasons, thanks to the vagaries of the lunar calendar (which is roughly 10 or 11 days shorter than the solar year), the Muslim holy month of Ramadan fell either during the season or during training camp. Abdullah is a devout Muslim, which means he gives up both food and water during the sunlight hours of Ramadan. This was not an easy thing for a professional athlete to deal with, particularly during the sweaty grind of August pre-season training or the concentrated intensity of a three-hour game.

But in a way, this personal deprivation also became an opportunity for both Hamza and his brother Husain, who played defensive back for the Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings. Ramadan provided an opening for the Abdullahs to share their knowledge of a religion that is often misunderstood in America. And it’s also how Hamza Abdullah inadvertently convinced one of his teammates to stop eating bacon.

Related: Football while fasting: life in the Ramadan Midnight League | Nick Miller

Related: Ramadan: ‘It will be a test but the peace you get is beautiful’

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Some of my recent photography

Indigo Jo Blogs - 12 May, 2019 - 23:25

Besides blogging, amateur landscape photography is an interest of mine and I recently joined the National Trust, a charity which manages a large body of stately homes, gardens and places of natural beauty across the UK. In the couple of weeks before Ramadan started, I visited four of their properties that are fairly close to me: Petworth House and Nymans in Sussex, Polesden Lacey in Surrey and Ham House in south-west London. My photos (going back to 2006) are all on my Flickr account, but here are a selection of the photos I took at the four houses I recently visited. At Nyman’s, the major attraction is the garden; at the others, it is the houses.

IMG_6841 Nyman’s, near Crawley, West Sussex IMG_6637 Ham House, south-west London IMG_6533 Polesden Lacey, Surrey IMG_6401 Petworth House, West Sussex

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Does London need an official Holocaust memorial?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 12 May, 2019 - 01:16
A picture of the Buxton Memorial in the Victoria Tower Gardens; the Houses of Parliament and the Tower itself are in the background. The memorial is a single-storey, octagonal structure with arches on each sides with marble columns. It has a tall, conical roof with coloured stained glass and a gold-coloured cross at the top.The Buxton Memorial fountain in the Victoria Tower Gardens

Last week the prime minister, Theresa May, joined her four living predecessors to make a video promoting a project to build a permanent Holocaust memorial and education centre in Victoria Tower Gardens, a small park next to the River Thames immediately south of the Houses of Parliament. The plan has led to serious opposition, with the Royal Parks charity, which manages the park, having publicly opposed it back in February and a campaign launched, Save Victoria Tower Gardens, which is “concerned that this plan will change forever the use of a much loved and well-used local park into a sombre, security patrolled civic space” and suggests the grounds of the Imperial War Museum, across the river in Lambeth, as a better place for the memorial than the gardens which remain the only riverside park in central London. In Thursday’s Guardian there was a letter from a former chief executive of Royal Parks, William Weston, who linked it to the extinction crisis headlined in the Guardian earlier in the week:

Do politicians not get it? This threat is not only about the loss of rainforest. It’s also about the loss of green space where we live. Londoners are suffering from illegal levels of pollution, yet still another memorial bites into our precious green space.

I am not opposed to the idea of a Holocaust memorial or education centre in London, but VTG does seem very much the wrong place to do it; I suspect that it was chosen because it was less expensive than buying up an existing building in Westminster for the purpose and perhaps because some MPs really do want the last bit of open space that is open to the public around Parliament to become, as the campaign put it, a security-patrolled civic space (this installation will cut the park in half). As Rowan Moore noted back in February, there are already a number of memorials to oppression in the park, such as the Buxton memorial to the abolition of slavery, but this will dwarf all of them; it will take up the entire width of the park right next to the Buxton memorial fountain which will be fenced off from this site while it is currently easily visible across the whole park. There is already a Holocaust memorial in Hyde Park, opened in 1983 and funded by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and remembrance services are held there every year; it consists of a set of granite boulders set in a copse of beech trees, with an extract from the Biblical book of Lamentations on one of the stones in Hebrew and English. There is also a National Holocaust Centre and Museum, but its location in Nottinghamshire presumably makes it too insignificant for British politicians’ liking (admittedly its accessibility is poor with no public transport to the venue).

Besides the location, I question the concept behind the design of the memorial, designed by a team consisting of Adjaye Associates, Ron Arad Architects and Gustafson Porter + Bowman, which consists of 22 brass fins each representing a country whose Jewish community was destroyed in the Holocaust. The problem is that the specific countries they came from are of less significance than the numbers murdered; many of them had only been in existence for some 20 years at the time of the Nazi invasion (since the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire), and why should one ‘fin’ represent the 3 million Jews that lived in pre-war Poland while another represents the much smaller number from another country? Why fins, anyway? The European part of World War II was fought mostly over land, not sea; many of the countries affected were and are landlocked. Yes, there are fish in rivers, obviously, but fins are generally not part of the landscape of central Europe.

An image of how the new memorial will look, with the metal 'fins' arranged side by side behind a paved courtyard across which people are walking. The Buxton memorial is to the right, behind a new metal fence, and the Victoria Tower can be seen in the background (the memorial obscures most of the rest of Parliament).Architects’ image of the new memorial next to the Buxton Memorial.

And finally, I take issue with a lot of the political rhetoric being used to advance this project. Theresa May describes the memorial on the Holocaust memorial section of the British government website as a “sacred, national mission”: “in the face of despicable Holocaust denial, this Memorial will stand to preserve the truth forever”. Really? Britain played a major role in defeating the country whose forces perpetrated the Holocaust, and I have not heard a huge amount of public debate about this, so who decided it was a “sacred national mission”? Clearly a lot of those who do not want to sacrifice precious public park space do not agree. People convinced of untruth will not change their minds just because the government builds a memorial and museum in a public space; they will just call it propaganda, much as they call all the evidence to the Holocaust that already exists. There is a lot of talk of the memorial serving as a reminder to guard against hatred and prejudice, but politicians, including those in May’s party, are quite happy to exploit prejudice against so-called “enemies within” and “economic migrants” to score political points and the mass media are content to do the same to make money, much as we have war memorials in every town listing the names of every local who died in the First World War (and the Second, if there is space), yet our politicians will still drag us into wars on dubious grounds when it suits them, including one of the former prime ministers who appeared in a video to support this scheme. The Holocaust ended more than 70 years ago; a memorial to a crime that is well in the past and in another country that we were at war with gives the message that these sorts of things happen elsewhere and in the past — much like, for example, the books set in the USA during the time of segregation from which so many young British students learn about racism in school and college. The proposal refers to the exhibition space as an “education centre”, but you cannot build much of an education centre in that space.

It’s a huge act of hypocrisy for the four former prime ministers to take part in this video (it is not really an appeal, as it seems to be a case of the government telling us what it intends to do and Blair and Brown gave it a ‘bipartisan’ appearance). John Major, when prime minister, sat on his hands for three years while a genocidal war raged in Bosnia, and did not allow Bosnian refugees to travel to the UK. There is no reference to this here; the only specific prejudice discussed is anti-Semitism. Blair made specific reference to the ‘poison’ of “anti-Semitism and hate” being “back from the political fringe to parts of the political mainstream”, an unmistakeable reference to Jeremy Corbyn and the fact that his faction are no longer in charge of the Labour Party. During his administration, the tabloid press abused and vilified minorities on a regular basis, in some cases resulting in physical abuse against their members in the street and their having to make changes to how they dress just to feel safe, or safer; rather than tackle them, he bowed to them, in one case locking up people who had lived here for years and had got into trouble years ago and served their sentences to sate tabloid demands to deport “foreign criminals”. I am not sure what lessons from the Holocaust any of them learned, to be honest. For decades anti-fascists have been calling for there to be no platform for fascists and for their propaganda to be rebutted rather than for them to be appeased, yet today politicians do deals with fascists or their allies: Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro.

The government tell us that the exhibition will “set the Holocaust within the British narrative”. It does rather seem like a national pat-on-the-back, a sign of how good we are as a nation. The truth is that most of those who visit will be tourists; it will not be big enough to provide enough material for schoolchildren, and if it is then only schoolchildren from around the London area will visit as London is in the far south-east of the country. That it will be “in the shadow of Parliament” will make it less accessible as the area is choked with traffic and prone to security alerts and the like; a repeat of the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack will deter schools from sending parties there, while the Imperial War Museum, let alone the existing museum in Nottinghamshire, has no such issue. That educating children about the Holocaust is vital is not in dispute — a recent poll found that one in twenty British adults did not believe it had happened — but it must reach the whole country and not require a visit to a park in Westminster, and it must be about hate in general and all recent genocides, not just anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. We must not let ourselves be deluded that anti-Semitism is a hate apart, that it is ‘primal’ while other prejudices are in some way grounded in fact or have some rational basis to them: they all feel ‘rational’ to the person who is prejudiced. The dangers of hateful propaganda, the politician who fosters false grievances against people or channels real grievances into hatred towards a minority rather than towards positive change, are universal, and in many countries, including many western countries, the danger has not for a long time been as real as it is now.

Image source: Patche99z. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 Unported licence.

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Louis Farrakhan denies antisemitism – then refers to 'Satanic Jews'

The Guardian World news: Islam - 11 May, 2019 - 13:52
  • Nation of Islam leader speaks in Chicago after Facebook ban
  • Christian and Jewish leaders in city condemn invitation

In a speech denying allegations of antisemitism, misogyny and homophobia after Facebook banned him from the social media platform, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan referred to “Satanic Jews”.

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