politics

The recent Dispatches, Undercover Mosque (see Youtube or Google Video), has stirred up a lot of debate. Channel 4’s reporter went into what was considered a moderate mosque and discovered it not so moderate after all. I know you can do a lot with selective editing, but it’s hard to see how context would make some of the statements in the programme sound any better. Indeed, the video response from Abu Usamah where he explains what he actually meant doesn’t really help his case.

Channel 4 has given both evangelical Christians and atheists a hard time in the not too distant past, so it doesn’t seem likely they’ve singled Muslims out for special treatment. What’s more interesting was whether these preachers are representative of “moderate” Islam. The forum of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (whoever they may be) has some interesting discussion on the topic, with many Muslims chiming in.

Martin Amis writes on Islam and Islamism in The Observer:

It has been seriously suggested, by serious commentators, that suicide-mass murderers are searching for the simplest means of getting a girlfriend. It may be, too, that some of them are searching for the simplest means of getting a drink. Although alcohol, like extramarital sex, may be strictly forbidden in life, there is, in death, no shortage of either. As well as the Koranic virgins, ‘as chaste’, for the time being, ‘as the sheltered eggs of ostriches’, there is also a ‘gushing fountain’ of white wine (wine ‘that will neither pain their heads nor take away their reason’).

He refers to Philip Larkin’s Aubade and Church Going, neither of which I’d read before, both of which are well worth reading.

Amis thinks that Islamism is best tackled by raising the consciousness of Muslim women, which sounds like a good idea, but I’m not sure how you’d go about it. One can imagine that attempts to imitate Lysistrata will result in more women being on the receiving end of the belt he speaks of.

He ends with yet another call for people to take on the Invisible Friend followers:

Even so, the time has come for a measure of impatience in our dealings with those who would take an innocent personal pronoun, which was just minding its own business, and exalt it with a capital letter. Opposition to religion already occupies the high ground, intellectually and morally. People of independent mind should now start to claim the spiritual high ground, too.

Amen to that.

Edited to add: Steven Scholl takes issue with Amis’s generalisations.

Bruce Schneier rightly points out that defending against what happened last time isn’t a good way to make yourself secure against an enemy that can easily switch tactics. That said, I think I’ve got the answer. iPods, liquids and shoes don’t blow up airliners; theists do. Rather than attempting to second-guess what tactic they might try next, theists themselves should either face an outright ban on flying or more stringent searches and restrictions, depending on the current threat level. You might argue that this discriminates against the majority of theists who don’t want to blow up airplanes. However, we must remember that all this means is that they don’t want to blow up airplanes at the moment. Once a person begins to believe that they have an infallible invisible friend who tells them what to do, they might do anything. As Winston Churchill said, “We’ve already established what kind of woman you are. Now, we are merely haggling about the price”. Anyway, inspired by this, I give you: <lj-cut text=”Theists On A Plane”>

Edited to add: for the benefit of the huge influx of new readers I expect to get real soon now, I’d better point out that this is a wind-up, or “troll” as we say on the internets. My real feelings are more like these, although I’ll probably mutter something about theists to myself the next time I’m parched on some budget airline flight.

Row erupts over insults to Freedom of Speech:


A row erupted yesterday after newspapers were accused of portraying Freedom of Speech in a manner which might be offensive to Europeans.

โ€œIt is totally unacceptable to us what has been happening,โ€ said Mr Handybandy of the Freedom of Speech Action Committee. โ€œFreedom of Speech is very important to Europeans, and the constant barrage of attacks on it over the last two weeks has been very offensive.โ€



Yep, it’s those Drink-soaked Trotsykite Popinjays For WAR again. In further, slightly more serious, news, We Are All Danes Now.

I also found an interesting interview with Robert Baer, a former CIA agent, on the situation in Iran and Iraq. Pessimistic but informative.

YHBT. YHL. HTH. HAND.

The cartoons were part of a debate on artistic self-censorship in the face of fears of violence from Muslims. They were designed to provoke a reaction. Imagining it from a Muslim point of view, we might say they were trolling Muslims. A troll wants you to respond. Some Muslims have done so in spades, proving exactly the point that the original Danish newspaper article was making.

Just as with the Jerry Springer the Opera uproar, the test of the tolerance practised by a group of believers is how they respond to someone attempting to troll them. The right way to deal with trolls is to ignore them: they hate that. The wrong thing to do is respond with cries of “help! help! I’m being oppressed!”, or with threats of violence. I’m glad to see some British Muslims have realised that such threats are counter-productive, and that a moderate Muslim group has formed in Denmark to try to calm things down.

As for the rest, we must not have a society where people (or at least, people above the age of 5) who think they have an invisible friend are able to stop certain kinds of speech merely by saying that they’re offended on that friend’s behalf. We do not extend such protection to any other opinion a person might hold. We should not extend it to religion, whether the religion is Christianity or Islam or anything else. Jack Straw’s weasel words are frankly vile (although perhaps not surprising from the government which attempted to quash freedom of speech itself with the Religious Hatred bill).

A few links: The Times has a sensible editorial on the whole business. jnala, commenting on ladysiyphus‘s LJ, writes against self-censorship. Wikipedia has an excellent article on the controversy.

There’s been some interesting stuff out there on the Intarweb over the past week or so.

Andrew Rilstone writes about whether C. S. Lewis was against his character Susan becoming sexually mature, as is often alleged by Philip Pullman. I don’t quite agree with Rilstone, for the reasons that some other people mention in the comments to his posting: at the very least, Lewis choice of the particular obsession which keeps Susan from Heaven shows that he had some odd attitudes to women. Abigail Nussbaum (whose blog I’d recommend) has some more thoughts on Susan. Meanwhile, atreic once again examines the God Hates Hair question in the light of Screwtape’s odd statement that the Devil wants beards to be unfashionable.

Metafilter had a piece on Howard Bloom, speaking about Jesus, Yahweh, whether the phrase “Judeo-Christian” is meaningful. I’m still meaning to listen to and read the linked material.

There was a brief but interesting discussion on mr_ricarno‘s journal about Christians and courtship. He later clarifies the intent of the original posting.

<lj-cut text=”Cut for discussion of the recent posts about rape”>There’s been much discussion on LJ recently about the Welsh rape case and the recent Amnesty survey where many respondants said that, in some cases, women were partly responsible if a man raped them. Much of that discussion has been internecine warfare between people who have far more in common with each other than with rapists, or indeed with those people who think that women who wear short skirts are asking for it. Those people, by and large, aren’t the ones having carefully worded discussions on LJ and don’t care if they’re regarded as anti-feminist or as apologists. The people on my friendslist are oases of sanity in the middle of all this (that’s why they’re the ones on my friendslist, right?).

shreena talks about the muddling of cause and responsibility which makes it difficult to know quite what the opinions of those questioned were. livredor argues against the notion that women can and should deter rapists by doing certain things. The comments on livredor‘s entry also discuss the Welsh case, so if you want to know what I think, my comments are there.

A couple of the Cantabs linked to an article by Giles Fraser in the Guardian which says that atheists should be less arrogant.

I think we all agree that arrogance is a bad thing. These people, for example, are frightful oiks, as I’ve said before. It’s one of those irregular verbs, though, isn’t it? I am forthright, you are outspoken, he is arrogant. Are the objects of Fraser’s criticism arrogant?

We read two specific examples of the sort of thing he’s against. Fraser is shocked and slightly embarrassed at the sight of people who have gone to the trouble of joining secularist organisations actually saying that they want a secular world. Who’d have thought it?

This misses the point, though, as does the injunction that atheism should be more critical of itself. The point is that atheism is not a thing in the same way that a religion is. As Fraser has himself said elsewhere, atheism is strictly defined in contrast to theistic religion. Not all atheists would describe themselves as humanists, for example, though Fraser conflates the two. Most atheists wouldn’t trouble themselves to join an atheist group. They don’t feel a fraternity with other atheists, the substitute family and InstaFriendsTM which are such an attraction of religion. They don’t feel the need to indulge in critique from within, because there’s no border to turn inwards from. I might think that some of the outspoken atheists are arrogant, but I don’t feel the need to say that they’re Not True Atheists.

So, given that atheists are not by nature gregarious, those who do form groups or speak out in public probably have their reasons. Fraser picks out an atheist living in Texas, who you’d imagine might not have such an easy time of it; and Maryam Namazie, who certainly has her reasons for making the statement to which Fraser objects.

Fraser moves on to criticise the out-moded philosophy of atheists, which isn’t post-modern enough. Oddly enough, given Fraser’s advocacy of post-modernism, what I know about it is mostly filtered through Christian critique of it. So, if Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult is anything to go by, it’s about moving away from attempts to explain everything (which attempts you should refer to as meta-narratives in discussions with philosophy professors) and towards smaller stories which have meaning to individuals. From The Post-Evangelical we also learn that it’s a good idea, even though no one is very sure what it means (but see Pete Broadbent’s excellent follow-up to that post of mine for a nice description of evangelical sub-culture: Doctrinal Rectitude Trust, indeed! ๐Ÿ™‚

Some Christians are in favour of post-modernity and some are against it. It’s not surprising that atheists are the same. As I’ve said before (bottom few paragraphs), as someone who was educated as a scientist I’m aware of how much we don’t know and where some of our most powerful ideas don’t fit together at the edges. If there is a big story, we don’t have it, and nobody who actually knew anything about it would say otherwise. I personally hope that there is a big story, and the power of scientific methods leads me to think it’s probable, but I don’t know. I don’t think relativism is a practical philosophy to live by, so I suppose I’m Not a True Post-modernist.

Fraser contradicts himself at the end of his argument (although the idea that arguments should not contradict themselves is, I suppose, an out-moded rationalist position). First he points out that that outspoken atheism is Victorian and unfashionably modern (as opposed to post-modern), and is therefore bad. Then he says the opposite, that atheism is not remotely counter-cultural, and is therefore bad. Assuming culture is defined by the views of people who read the Guardian, Fraser’s sort of Christianity is bang alongside it. This is no bad thing: it’s better for Christians to be Guardian readers than members of the Doctrinal Rectitude Trust, but he can’t have it both ways.

In fact, in the UK, both outspoken (by which I mean evangelical and to some extent Catholic) Christianity and outspoken atheism stand as opposites over a large number of people who simply don’t care one way or the other. Both are counter-cultural in way which inclusive, liberal Christianity is not (which is partly why inclusive, liberal Christianity is dying and the evangelicals will eventually own the Church of England). If the one were to cease, the need for the other would also, and we could all go home. As it is, these islands are connected to the rest of the world, and in any case, there are occasionally things to be concerned about here.

Fraser’s final call for atheists to understand religious belief is odd, given that the atheists who bother to talk about religion are often those who have the best sort of understanding possible for an unbeliever, namely that they were once believers themselves. Speaking for myself, I hope I’m only arrogant when I’m returning the favour, although I am sure exasperation gets the better of me sometimes (hint to Christians: don’t try to advertise on my journal ๐Ÿ™‚ I understand more or less what makes believers tick. I just think they’re wrong.

The Guardian worries about the rise of independent evangelical Christian schools (link nicked from greengolux, who is a LJ-friend of the second degree: greengolux‘s own entry on this contains some interesting discussion).

This sort of thing is the Guardian equivalent of the Daily Mail’s “those darkies are taking our jobs while simultaneously being benefit scroungers” story. For example, they ran a story in 1999 telling us how Christian Unions are over-running our universities with trendy stealth Christians, who don’t even have the decency to wear short trousers and cycling helmets so you can avoid them at parties (when I say “you”, I don’t mean me, obviously, as I always make a bee-line for them and show them the error of their ways). Writing back when I was a Christian, I found the Guardian‘s earnestness and condescension faintly ridiculous.

With this in mind, it seems likely we can discount the stuff about how fundamentalist Christian schools are as bad for society than their Muslim equivalents and will eventually turn the UK into America. The Muslim schools are a part of a sub-culture which is currently getting a lot of press because it can draw people in from a significant minority, and hence is able to hold itself aloof from the surrounding culture. The Christian schools are on a smaller scale, and the UK’s culture is much less explicitly Christian than the US’s. It would take more than a few specialist schools to change this.

What is offensive to me is the idea that the National Christian Schools’ Certificate is be acceptable for entrance to nursing training, as “Christian” here means teaching creationism. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem to be sufficient for any sort of university entrance (note christian-education.org site’s careful wording about how UCAS‘s material “includes details” of the NCSC).

Apart from being biological flat-earthers, though, some of the schools are doing well by their pupils: OFSTED points out that at Emmanuel School, Exeter, the pupils at are well behaved and happy and the parents are involved in their children’s education. That’s not to say they’re perfect, as a report of another Christian school failing academically shows, but even there, the inspectors did not criticise the pastoral care given by the school. It’s unlikely that the pupils at this school will have the Hellmouth experience that some large state schools will give their pupils.

These schools are doing some right things, but for the wrong reasons. It is good that parents are involved in the children’s education, and that the children are happy, and can work at their own pace. Some of the disagreement expressed in the Guardian article with rote learning is probably directed at the desirable learning of the basics which, if some people are to be believed, has become unfashionable.

But, behind it all, lies an insular Christianity which draws a sharp line between the church and the world, and, as a consequence, wishes to insulate children from opinions with which their Christian parents disagree. Kids ought to learn critical thinking (although I’m not sure how far they do so in the state system), and not just their parents views, because, as one of the Guardian‘s interviewees says, “Nobody owns kids… you hold them on trust”.

It may be that these schools are providing a strong culture of the sort which will actually benefit their children: if so, that culture may well propagate, and maybe I’ll be wrong about how much Christians can accomplish with a handful of private schools. I can’t help feel that the rest of us would deserve it: the happy and safe environment in those schools is something we ought to be able to provide, based on everyone’s desire to get the best for their kids.

What I actually think will happen, though, is that these schools will produce a few of the short-trousers sort of Christian, and a fair few people who will realise they’ve been screwed over and reject evangelical Christianity after they leave home. I do worry about the kids who are sent to these schools, but to be brutal about it, they are few in number, and the state system can do a lot worse. We will not be over-run by Christians if they don’t know basic science and have never had to enter into a debate about their views.

We went to a Proms in the Park concert in Bedford last night. There were the usual favourites, finishing up with singing Jerusalem, Land of Hope and Glory, and then watching a firework display while the orchestra played 633 Squadron and Live and Let Die. Great fun. The people waving flags all over the place gave me an unusual burst of national pride.

Aled Jones was there, much to the delight of the grannies. He has an excellent singing voice: I don’t think I’ve heard him sing since Walking in the Air all those years ago. Among other things, he sang How Great Thou Art, which is apparently the nation’s favourite hymn.

I once sang it on a hillside in Derbyshire, on a CU houseparty. It was night. We could see the lights of the village below (whose residents hopefully couldn’t hear us). There was a cloudless, starry sky. I see the stars, indeed. Aled Jones’s singing, beneath another clear night sky, was fiercely evocative of that moment, one of those echoes which left me feeling strangely dissociated. The music can revive the emotions from that time, but the reason behind them has gone, and, of course, these days any emotional response associated with Christianty is also tinged with something of the pain of loss (although it’s not particularly searing, thankfully, more a sort of nostalgia).

So, I came home and watched the latest episode of season two of Battlestar Galactica, which fell off the back of a lorry and landed at my feet, guv’nor. It’s good stuff, although as some fans have said, I live in fear that the writers don’t actually know where they’re going, and the whole thing will end up like The X-Files. Still, there are some obvious future plotlines being set up, so we live in hope.

Someone on a web page I was reading the other day compared the present unpleasantness to the Idiran-Culture war. I do hope not: the things a highly technological society can do when forced to defend its very existence don’t bear thinking about. With that in mind, and with my Stephenson “some cultures are better than others” hat on, Blair’s latest proposals sound like a good idea.

I got into a discussion on cam.misc (the local newsgroup) on drunks in Cambridge (as it’s on cam.misc, the thread dissolves into local politicians saying it isn’t their fault and a discussion of Cambridge traffic). Apparently, the Mayor gave an interview to the local rag about it, which was picked up by the Torygraph. I also found an interesting article in the Observer, which accuses the Government of being double-minded about drink.

As I said on the group, in the case of the big chain pubs who blight the centre of town by disgorging drunks onto the narrow streets at 11 pm, I’d favour the police being a bit more rigourous in enforcing the law, which says that pubs may not serve someone who’s visibly drunk. Having the chains pay for extra policing also seems like a good plan. While, as the original poster said, it isn’t downtown Detroit, and as someone else said, this is part of a national trend, it’s also an observable fact that the city centre is a less friendly place than it used to be before the arrival of the big chains.

It’ll be interesting to see what effect the forthcoming liberalisation of opening hours has on all this: I’m not particularly optimistic, but I take the point that staggered closing times at least mean all the drunks aren’t on the street at once.

Brits have never been good at handling their drink, of course, but there seems to be frustratingly little official will to actually do anything about this at the moment (doing something about it does not equate to passing new laws, since we have plenty of those already, but rather, seeing them enforced).