Friday, 30 November 2007

If it had happened here

It's the incongruity that really hits home. A court in the dusty midst of the Sudan sentencing a mild-mannered fiftysomething woman teacher from Liverpool for insulting Islam, after naming a teddy bear? It's not what we're used to from that part of the world, is it? Mass rapes, yes. Genocide, certainly. Floggings and amputations and all the other atavisms of Sharia law. Civil War. Hunger. Angry, hate-filled mobs. We're inured to that.

But Political Correctness? That's what we do. Only yesterday, an Irishman was given a suspended sentence for calling his English neighbour "a Welsh bitch". The offence was "racially motivated", the court decided.

Imagine if the Mo Bear saga had happened here.

If a white teacher, working at an inner city primary school with an 80% Muslim intake, decided as way of encouraging cultural awareness to let her class name a teddy bear. And, being mainly Muslim, the children voted overwhelmingly for "Mohammed". Though a white girl, already feeling isolated without her hijab, had suggested the non-discriminatory Pudsy.

The teacher was pleased. And in an attempt to demonstrate her right-on credentials, she sent a letter to all the childrens' parents letting them now that "Mohammed will be joining all our lessons during Eid".

Ahh, how sweet, thought most of the parents. A sign of respect in our multicultural society. Peace Bear Upon Him.

One of the parents, a father who had once briefly been a member of Hizb Ut Tahrir, was less amused. This is no way to treat our beloved Prophet, he decided. So he wrote a letter to the school governors, demanding an apology, compensation for his hurt feelings, and for the teacher to be dismissed.

The governors, frightened, summoned the teacher. They issued her with a humiliating apology and demanded she sign. "I am truly sorry that I have inadvertently offended the faith and Prophet of Islam," it ran. "While it was an innocent mistake, I realise now that the respect with which Mohammed is regarded in Islam can only be undermined by associating him with a child's toy. It is wrong to depict the holy Prophet in any form; to conceive of him in ursine terms can only be construed as insulting."

The governors hoped this would settle the matter. The teacher, being a sensitive, culturally-aware lady who had been on all the relevant training courses, was mortified and truly contrite. The father, however, complained to the police. The bear is not only disrespectful, he told them, but racist. It implies that Muslims are fluffy, cuddly, and dumb.

The police went to see the teacher. "We received a complaint about a possible offence under the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act, and also the Race Relations Act 1965," Chief Supt Andy Plod said in a statement released to the Daily Mail, which had got hold of the story. "We interviewed her under caution, and have sent a file to the Crown Prosecution Service. The police service is very conscious of its responsibility to a diverse and multicultural population, and minority communities should be aware that we take a zero-tolerance approach to Islamophobia and to hate crime generally."

"As mayor of London I take great pride in the city's tolerance and rich mix of faiths," said Ken Livingstone, although the incident had actually occurred in Bradford. "Insensitivity like this can only undermine community cohesion."

"This is yet another example of Political Correctness Gone Mad" railed Melanie Philips. "A few months ago a school banned the song Three Little Pigs because of supposed Muslim senstivities, and now the police are wasting valuable time and resources pandering to these totally unjustified sensibilities. Meanwhile the Government persists in propping up unrepresentative Muslim organisations with openly extremist and anti-semitic agendas, and fails to condemn Hamas sufficiently strong terms. The police wouldn't have investigated if the stuffed toy had been called Moses."

Trevor Phillips called for "calm".

Meanwhile, a preacher at the complainant's local mosque had denounced the school's action in his Friday sermon. "This is yet another indication of the lack of respect that British society feels for Islam," he thundered. "We Muslims have sat silently and accepted humiliation for too long." A group from Hizb Ut Tahrir picketed the school. "Behead those who insult Islam" said one placard. "Bear Blasphemy must cease" ran another.

Amid mounting tension, politicians and community leaders called for calm. "Clearly, there has been a mistake here," said Inayat Bunglawala of the Muslim Council of Britain. "This teacher was clearly at fault. However, it was an innocent mistake. We Muslims should be demonstrating the same tolerance we demand from others. We should accept the teacher's apology and the school's assurance that it will not be repeated. What this case does underline, however, is the need for a clear understanding of Islam and more far-reaching laws against religious hatred, so that the community will have confidence and not feel it has to take the law into its own hands."

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears was more circumspect. "This government treats good relations between all our communities very seriously," she said. "In this instance, the school clearly acted against best practice, in that naming the teddy bear Mohammed was culturally insensitive. However, the school has apologised and the bear has now been withdrawn. I would call on the local community to not let this incident be blown out of proportion."

"I think that we as a society often forget the very real feelings stirred up by perceived slights to Islam in the Muslim community," said Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. "Obviously it can be uncomfortable to be confronted by the strength of the reaction these incidents arouse. But there is also something to be learned, I think, from the obvious devotion to the person of Muhammad shown by all Muslims. For us Christians, Jesus is the Son of God, God incarnate; yet often our attitude, even that of professed Christians, is curiously casual. While I hope this incident is resolved speedily, I think we should be more understanding of our Muslims friends and, indeed, other religions generally."

Stephen Green, of the pressure group Christian Voice, said this: "Every day, in newspapers, in schools, even on the BBC, Christianity is vilified and the Word of God in the Bible ignored. Why do the police do nothing about far worse forms of abuse yet take the trouble to investigate this trivial story?"

"I'm embarrassed for myself and my religion," lamented Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Independent. "There are those who will see this as yet another opportunity to misrepresent Muslims as medievalist, woman-hating extremists who want to kill everyone who disagrees with them. There are many women in the Muslim community who would love to give their child a Mohammed teddy. My daughter had a cuddly camel called Fatimah, after the Prophet's daughter. This can only be a good thing."

Plausible, isn't it? Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

The Sun Says

From Anila Baig, writing in the Sun:

But the truth is Muslims are not offended by a teddy being called Mohammed — they’re offended that this story has got so much publicity.

Most people are offended by the fact that the unfortunate Gillian Smith is facing an horrendous punishment for an entirely innocent and harmless act.

Anila Baig also wonders why Sharia law "gets a bad press".

In a related development, a spokesman for the Toys Defence Institute ("Teddy") has criticised the Liverpudlian teacher for her "insensitivity and implied insult to cuddly toys worldwide" for naming the bear after a "notorious medieval warlord". Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Why Free Speech Matters

There were some ugly scenes in Oxford yesterday as protesters tried to disrupt a debate at the Union about free speech. They almost succeeded. Police not only failed to stop activists invading the debating chamber, they also kept out many genuine ticket holders. A typical triumph from the boys in blue. As it was, the event went ahead, in a reduced format, after a delay of over an hour and a half. The controversial speakers, BNP leader Nick Griffin, and David Irving, best known for his admiration for Adolf Hitler, made their points and were duly challenged. It is unlikely that anybody's mind was changed. But that wasn't really the point. The point was that the debate took place at all.

Union President Luke Tryl has been accused of merely seeking publicity for himself and his organisation, and of providing a platform to two men whose views have brought them into trouble with the law. This was, say opponents ranging from Michael Howard (Peterhouse, Cambridge, ex-president) to former NUS president and new equality supremo Trevor Phillips, irresponsible. It compromised security and gave a platform to extremists. It was little more than a stunt.

Irresponsible? We're talking about students. What do people expect? I could tell you stories about "irresponsible" students who are now on the front bench.

Noted activist Peter Tatchell has been taking a similar line at Harry's Place.

Support for free speech does not oblige the Oxford Union to reward these men with a prestigious public platform, which will give them an air of respectability, raise their public profile and allow them to espouse their intolerant views. It is helping them propagate their bigotry. Not offering hate-mongers a platform is not the same as banning them. Hundreds of topical public speakers and first-rate debaters never get invited to address the Oxford Union. They are not being censored.

Not offering hate-mongers a platform is not the same as banning them? In other words, free speech is all very well just so long as we don't allow people to speak freely.

Of course the Oxford Union were under no obligation to invite Irving and Griffin. But they had every right to do so. They're entitled to free speech too.

Like them or not, Griffin and Irving have a high public profile. And at least a large part of that profile is due, paradoxically, to the attempts both legal and institutional to silence them. They are able to present themselves as martyrs for free speech only because that is what they are. If events like last night's at Oxford weren't so rare, so controversial, or so guaranteed to require a heavy police presence, then maybe, just maybe, fewer people would be interested in hearing these wearisome individuals.

As it was, they were the hottest ticket in town.

And the rumpus only succeeded in confirming Griffin's and Irving's self-image as free speech martyrs. Griffin's jibe, that the protesters would have made "perfectly good Nazis", was in typically poor taste, yet not without a certain force. A mob is a mob, however good or pure its intentions. And a mob puffed up with a sense of its own moral self-righteousness is possibly the most dangerous mob of all. Some in the crowd even shouted "Kill Tryl". I'm sure they did so with Tarentino-inflected irony, but even so the Voltairean principle was neatly inverted. I disagree with what you say, and will threaten to kill you if you assert your right to say it.

The sight of George Galloway, who now leads a rump of his former Respect party dominated by radical Islamists, didn't exactly redound to the protesters' advantage either, I wouldn't have thought. Galloway knows a thing or two about intimidation. He's a champion of free speech only so long as it's his own, as anyone who's ever tuned in to his self-glorifying "phone-in" show on TalkSport will recognise.

We care about freedom of speech, don't we? It's one of the "British values" that Gordon Brown wants us to celebrate, part of the great liberal western inheritance of the enlightenment. It separates us from all those North Koreas and pre-conquest Iraqs and (say it sotto voce) Saudi Arabias. It's what our forefathers spilled their blood for. Even Trevor Phillips agrees with that:

People have died for freedom of speech," he told the BBC on sunday. "They didn't fight and die for it so it could be used as a silly parlour game."

So freedom of speech only matters if you're being responsible, does it?

Free speech is free speech is free speech. The freedom to make uncontroversial remarks is no freedom at all. Nor is the freedom merely to make serious, measured, careful-not-to-offend remarks in sensible, controlled settings. Satire, abuse, ridicule, rudeness, provocation: these things are the true, and often uncomfortable, essence of free speech.

Anyone who says, "I believe in free speech, but..." doesn't believe in free speech.

A Voltairean defence to the death of free speech is asking a lot these days, of course. But it would be nice to have it defended at all. Politicians pay lip service to free speech as an ideal even while seeking to hedge it around with ever more restrictions. The present government has legislated against incitement to "religious hatred", "glorifying" terrorism, and now seeks to add incitement on grounds of sexual orientation to the list. Samina Malik was prosecuted for poems celebrating suicide bombers. 82 year old Walter Wolfgang was ejected from the Labour conference and questioned by the police - under the Terrorism Act - for shouting "rubbish" at Jack Straw. Author Lynette Burrows was questioned under "hate crime" legislation for publically doubting the desirability of adoption by gay couples. A controversial opinion, in that it offends against the canons of political correctness, but so a few decades ago have been its opposite.

The right to speak freely has been replaced, surreptitiously but almost entirely, with the right not to be offended. And "offence" can't be objectively defined; it is (as the law recognises) purely in the mind of the offendee. And as the government increasingly polices public utterance, it polices thought.

And so the chill factor seeps in. People are afraid to speak. Ideas fester and turn bitter, unchallenged (because unmentioned) in public debate. Lies flourish in the dark. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 26 November 2007

Inayat Speaks

Inayat Bunglawala, chief spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, has left the following statement on the Guardian's "Comment is Free" website:

This is a revolting case and unfortunately there are several like these that occur every year. The Saudi regime is a truly awful one. I hope that the Saudi citizens are able to overthrow their extraordinarily corrupt royal family and usher in a more democratic and honest form of government. It is a shame that the US/UK governments prefer to support dictators rather than democratic forces in many Muslim countries.

I hope this statement receives the wide publicity it deserves. And I hope it is treated as an official statement of the MCB, which until now has been deathly silent of the fate of the unnamed Saudi rape victim threatened with being flogged. No news yet on their website, however.

There's actually an opportunity here for British Islam. The Saudi case plays into all the negative stereotypes about Islam: the barbarism of its legal codes, its obsession with female "virtue" which frequently seems to override humanity, the tendency of Muslims to criticise everyone else but never themselves. A high-profile campaign to overturn the sentence by the MCB or other, more representative, Muslim organisations (do any exist) would not only help to isolate the Saudi regime internationally, it would do much to boost the religion's public image. It might even undo some of the damage done by MCB chairman Abdul ("it depends on the stoning") Bari in his recent ill-advised interview.

It might also help to dispel lingering suspicions that the MCB and major British mosques are somehow in hock to the Saudi Wahhabite fanatics who have given them so much money.

Muslim groups are good at organising demos, we all know that. If someone's drawn a cartoon featuring their beloved prophet, or written a book, or put out a film they don't like, there's never any difficulty rustling up an angry mob complete with slogans, placards and a TV crew. A group of Bunglawala's boys outside the Saudi embassy calling for justice for this woman shouldn't be too much of a stretch. They could even persuade Salman Rushdie to join in: that would make a few headlines. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Saudi Justice

The wheels of justice move swiftly in Saudi Arabia. Just a couple of days ago the ministry of justice in that bastion of democracy and human rights promised, amid mounting international outrage, to review the sentence of 6 months in jail and 200 lashes with a bamboo cane handed down to an unnamed 19 year old rape victim. And today, they have reported back. Sentence confirmed.

Far from acknowledging international concern, indeed, the Saudis are positively bullish. The sentence was perfectly in order, they said, since it followed "the book of God and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad."

Far from being an innocent victim of a brutal gang-rape (a crime barely alluded to in the statement) the girl was in fact a brazen hussy who had plotted to meet a former boyfriend "in a dark place" and had been discovered (presumably by her abductors) insufficiently dressed.

Although she was not married at the time, she is now being described as "a married woman who confessed to having an affair with the man she was caught with."

That last part might even be true. People confess to anything after a few days in the company of the Saudi police.

Since the young woman's husband has given her his full support (which in Saudi terms makes him something of a hero), one might think it little or no business of the authorities what she got up to. But that would be to underestimate the devotion to morality and virtue in that righteous land.

Many of Saudi Arabia's princely elite, after all, are forced to visit Europe if they want to guzzle champagne at casinos in the company of expensive whores, as they often do. The rest of the young male population, bereft of the female company many would doubtless prefer, are reduced to cruising for gay sex on the streets of Riyadh.

"The Saudi justice minister expressed his regret about the media reports over the role of the women in this case which put out false information and wrongly defend her," the statement continued.

No regret about the appalling rape she suffered, then.

Shared values, indeed. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Gordon the Grim

For some time now, Blairite malcontents have been gleefully (but quietly) dripping the leprous distillment of doubt into the ears of friendly hacks. Gordon's a disaster, they say. And with the events of the past couple of weeks, the whispering has been getting louder. This wouldn't have happened under Tony, they say. Tony would have smiled and everyone would have felt kind of bad for ever having doubted him. Whereas Gordon Brown attracts trouble like the human rain-god in one of Douglas Adams' Hitch-hiker novels.

And now it's official. Gordon is a disaster.

According to an ICM poll in today's Guardian, support for the government has slumped to an eight-month low of 31%. It hasn't been this bad since the dog days of the Blair regime.

That's right. The last time the government was this unpopular, Tony Blair was in power.

Proof, if proof were needed, that getting rid of Tony was the craziest thing Labour ever did.

And another poll in the Mail on Sunday seems to confirm it. According to this survey, the Conservative lead over Labour would disappear if Blair were still around.

All it actually proves, of course, is that the honeymoon is over. The brief period of buoyancy in the summer and early autumn was entirely due to the great relief of the British public that they'd finally seen the back of the Poseur-in-Chief. When the illusionist finally quit the stage, his tawdry tricks at last exposed, how little he was missed. How quickly he vanished, as in a puff of smoke. How long ago it all seems.

But now we have forgotten him; so completely, that many seem to believe that if he were still around he could have worked his magic once again. Perhaps he could. Perhaps if he were suddenly to re-emerge into the political spotlight, people on mass would think: Who's that distinguished looking chappie, greying around the temples, who talks so fluently and exudes such charm? I hear he does something in the Middle East. What a pity people like that don't enter politics.

We have entered an era of rainclouds and misery. A massive global recession is on the way. Gordon Brown incarnates this sombre time as completely as Blair embodied the bloated superficiality of the last decade, its vaunted dreams, its overblown rhetoric, its monstrous world-devouring ambition.

It isn't his fault: well, not entirely. All bubbles burst in the end. It is his misfortune, though, to look so much like the man holding the pin. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 22 November 2007

How to get on in Society

First it was the Christians, demanding the withdrawal of Monty Python's Life of Brian and Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ.

Then it was the Muslims, burning copies of The Satanic Verses and proclaiming death to Salman Rushdie.

Then it was the Sikhs, threatening a riot outside Birmingham Rep where a play, written by a Sikh woman, was deemed "offensive" because it dealt with sensitive issues. Such as institutionalised violence against women.

Then it was the Christians again, in the person of the absurd Stephen Green, a.k.a. "Christian Voice", this time seeking to prosecute the BBC for broadcasting Jerry Springer the Opera.

Then it was the Hindus, demanding (and getting) the withdrawal of some Christmas stamps because they featured Nativity scenes done in an Indian style and were thus "insulting" to Hinduism.

Then it was the Muslims, again, murdering Dutch film-maker Theo Van Gogh and demonstrating against the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mo, on the grounds that if Muslims choose not to depict him, no-one else should be allowed to either.

Then it was the Buddhists, or at any rate well-meaning local busybodies acting on behalf of presumed Buddhists, objecting to the naming of a restaurant in Durham "The Fat Buddha".

And now it's the turn of...

...The pagans!!!

What sacrilege and profonation are they complaining of, then? Who are the blasphemers?

Trinny and Susannah, the condescending fashion dictators.

In their latest stunt, they got 100 women to dress in white and take up carefully-chosen positions on the Long Man of Wilmington, the (allegedly) ancient 227ft long chalk figure on the Sussex Downs.

As a result, the male figure (though his masculinity suffers in comparison with the better known Cerne Abbas Giant) was transformed, briefly, into a woman with breasts, cellulite and curly hair.

When the scene was filmed in July, pagans staged a protest against what they saw as the "disrespectful" treatment of their sacred heritage. The Sussex Archaeological society issued what read like a grovelling apology. Chief executive John Manley said,

It was not the society’s intention to cause offence. The society is proud of its curation of the Long Man. In future the society will consult representatives of the Pagan community and other interested parties before sanctioning any significant activities.

Not that this placated the protestors. One Newell Fisher set up a campaign group to put pressure on ITV to drop the item. Notwithstanding his efforts, and those of others, the offending footage was broadcast on Tuesday.

On the ITV forum , "Laura W" complained,

This site is sacred, part of our heritage, and needs to be protected, not disturbed and descecrated just for a TV Show!

I've watched the programme in the past, loved it, like the girls etc, but no longer will I, my friends or family watch their work due to this disrespect being shown to the pagan community and our land.

They would not do it to a mosque or a church, so why do it to our sacred sites!
Absolutely shocking behaviour. I will be putting in complaints to Ofcom.

Perhaps she should get the backing of her local police force. That always goes down well with Ofcom.

"Herbmoon" added,

Pagans would not in their wildest dreams consider putting female breasts and clothing on effigies of any of the Holy Prophets, be it Jesus Christ, Buddha or any other revered figure of another faith.

Why then does ITV commission Trinny and Susannah to do so at the Long Man of Wilmington? If this was a Christian or Muslim site there would be all kinds of trouble, and they wouldn't even consider going there at all.

One can see their point. The beliefs of pagans are no more daft than those of mainstream religious believers. Considerably less so, in fact. No virgin birth for them (they celebrate sex in all its forms). No miraculous resurrections. No Holy Book dictated by God to an illiterate trader who went on to lead armies, ordain massacres and have sex with a girl of nine. No inquisitions, no jihads, no suicide bombers, no misogynistic hang-ups. Just a bunch of folks dancing round bonfires and doing their bit for the environment. Sometimes by not bothering to wash.

And, with the concession from the Sussex Archaeologist, they are officially "the pagan community". As we all know, being "a community" opens the door to special treatment. There's even now a minister for communities, Opus Dei enthusiast Ruth Kelly. But how to become a community? That's easy. Complain.

Finding something offensive. Demanding "respect". Suggesting that anyone who stands in your way is a bigot ("Racist!") or suffering from some sort of disease ("homophobia!"). That has become, in Britain, the royal road to the cherished "community" status, and the power that goes with it. Identity is forged in the fire of oppression; and if there isn't any real oppression, make some up. It's what the gay "community" did. It's what the Muslim Council of Britain have been doing with their absurd concept of Islamophobia, by which anyone bringing up awkward issues such as the widespread abuse of women by Islamic males is made to feel like a racist. It's what some claiming to be acting for the Hindus are now trying to do.

And how well do the pagans appropriate the language of the tsars of multiculturalism. The perennial Christian complaint - "You wouldn't say that about Islam" - is neatly turned on its head by the likes of Laura and Herbmoon. It's almost as if they are afraid that by not upping the ante in the discrimination stakes they would cease to exist, at least as "a community". I whinge, therefore I am.

Fortunately, not all pagans have bought into the respect agenda. Here, for example, is Keziah writing a couple of days ago:

I’d like to register my disgust at the arrogance of my fellow practitioners who seem frankly delighted at this opportunity for a bit of a moan. Look guys, just cause the other ‘religions’ (amongst which I wish we were not counted it is a ludicrous term) feel the need to be all high and mighty to define themselves, doesn’t mean we have to.

She even enjoyed the programme:

What the program did with the long man was great. It was perfectly respectful and in keeping, even worshipful if u get really in-depth. A celebration of the feminine with the help of the masculine, aspects of male and female in cooperation. Just what’s needed in today’s social atmosphere of self degradation, isolation and fear.

Hear hear. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Hillary Lashes Out

The appalling case of the 19-year old Saudi girl whose vicious gang rape at the hands of a seven strong armed gang earned her a prison sentence and 200 lashes has gone virtually unreported in Britain. In the USA, however, it has been quietly bubbling away for the past week, as an increasing chorus of outraged feminists, human rights activists and commentators digested the full horrors of the story.

And horror it undoubtedly is, even by the none-too-civilised standards of the medievalist Saudi despotism.

The young woman's crime was to have been sitting in a car with a man who was returning a photograph; she had become engaged to another man to whom she is now married. This, according to the "legal system" current in the country, was a criminal offence; and the fact that she was kidnapped at knife-point and subjected to an attack of savage brutality in no way mitigated the outrageousness of her conduct. If women start sitting in cars, sooner or later they might want to drive them. They might want to go out alone. Heavens, they might even want to show their hair.

She was sentenced to receive 90 lashes, while her attackers were let off with token jail terms. When her lawyer appealed, he was struck off and her sentence was more than doubled. Apparently she, her husband and the lawyer had drawn public attention to the case, which, the judges felt, threatened to bring the revered system of Sharia courts into disrepute. I wonder why. It was for this, rather than her initial flouting of Islamic righteousness, that led to the increased sentence.

The girl's husband has been speaking to the media. He said his wife is "a crushed human being," and that he believed one judge had a personal vendetta against the lawyer.

"From the outset, my wife was dealt with as a guilty person who committed a crime," he said. "She was not given any chance to prove her innocence or describe how she was a victim of multiple brutal rapes."

The attack, trial and sentencing have taken a heavy toll on her already poor health, he added.

"Since the attack, she's been suffering from severe depression."

The US administration has said little publicly. This is Saudi Arabia, after all, the West's vital ally in the war against terrorism, a country whose rulers are close personal friends of the Bush family. According to the State Department's official spokesman, "These kinds of decisions are going to have to be decisions that the people of that country -- in this case, Saudi Arabia -- are going to have to take for themselves." That's telling them.

Tonight, however, Hillary Clinton has entered the fray. She called the sentence an "outrage", criticised the administration for not speaking out, and demanded that President Bush tell King Abdullah to do something about it. She also promised to put international human rights at the centre of her presidency. Unfortunately for Hillary, Barak Obama beat her to it, writing a concerned letter to Condoleeza Rice on Monday. Fellow Democrat contenders John Edwards and Joe Biden have also joined the rush. This now has all the makings of a significant international incident.

Will these interventions do any good? The Saudis are notoriously chippy, and are unlikely to relish being told what to do by a woman, even one as expensively groomed as Hillary. It may even play into the hands of the hardliners: incredibly, Saudi watchers count King Abdullah as a reformer.

Getting the sentence rescinded must be the priority, but this is unlikely to be achieved by pussy-footing around the issues involved. Human rights are universal. This young woman grew up in a culture that treats women like chattels, where the prevailing Wahhabite interpretation of Islam shows its "respect" for half the human race by imprisoning them behind walls and veils. But that does not mean she is actually a lesser being, nor that the system that has so scandalously failed her deserves the dignity of the word "law".

See also: Saudi: Why we punished rape victim (CNN)
And Videos Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Unlucky for some

I was interested to read in Saturday's Telegraph that the lottery ball least likely to be drawn is number 13. That the story was part of a stunt to publicise the 13th anniversary of the National Lottery shouldn't distract from this remarkable statistic, for it surely provides some of the strongest evidence so far for the existence of the paranormal.

Since the lottery was launched, the 13 ball has consistently underperformed; it once failed to be drawn for 49 weeks in a row. Why should 13 be so unlucky? Chance is one possibility, of course: a one in 50 chance. Alternatively it may not be a coincidence. Among those who are influenced by superstition in their choice of numbers, 13's reputation is likely to make it less popular. So few people will be willing it to come up on the weekly draw.

I don't believe in that sort of rubbish, of course. That's why I've never once bought a ticket.

Also on the subject of luck, it is reported that Gordon Brown is to stop attending sporting events because English and Scottish teams always seem to lose when he is there. When the England football team lost 2-1 to Germany in August he was sitting next to Angela Merkel. Brown also saw England beaten by South Africa in the rugby, and Scotland lose to Italy at Hampden Park.

"Some people had argued that the Prime Minister had not necessarily been the best of omens so far," said his official spokesman.

Indeed. Whether it's losing football matches or the personal data of twenty six million people, Gordon is officially a harbinger of doom. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 19 November 2007

Dispatches 3, Police 0

We should, perhaps, feel grateful to West Midlands Police, whose complaint to Ofcom regarding Channel 4's documentary Undercover Mosque has resulted in a stinging rebuke. Their dunderheaded decision to go after the makers of an important documentary provided further evidence of just how perverse the police have become in their attachment to multiculturalism and "community cohesion". But it also gave Ofcom an opportunity to reiterate the role of independent television journalism in the uncovering of uncomfortable truth. And in a magnificently worded judgement, they have done so.

The police complaint clearly had no validity. Dispatches raised important issues about the radicalisation of British mosques, about how several institutions had been infiltrated and even commandeered by Saudi-financed extremists, and how messages rich in misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitic paranoia were being preached from pulpits. Even though the subsequent police investigation failed to provide sufficient evidence for a prosecution on the grounds of inciting murder or racial hatred, the programmed still launched a much-needed debate both within and outside the Muslim community.

Evidence continues to emerge of the poison being pedalled inside many mosques. The recent survey by Policy Exchange, for example, found extremist literature on sale at venues including the East London mosque, an institution which doubles up as the headquarters of the Muslim Council of Britain and whose chairman, Abdul Bari, is MCB chairman. It was Bari who, the other day, notably failed to condemn the barbaric punishment of stoning ("It depends on what type of stoning and what circumstances") even while denouncing sex outside marriage, homosexuality, bikinis and the presence of alcohol in pubs.

So it's clear that there is a problem, even if, in the words of the Crown Prosecution Service, the Dispatches documentary had mainly featured extracts from "speeches, which, in their totality, could never provide a realistic prospect of any convictions". At which point the police should have let the matter rest. Instead, they went after the journalists.

Explaining the decision by West Midlands police to call for an Ofcom inquiry, Assistant Chief Constable Anil Patani said in August: "The priority for police has been to investigate the documentary and its making with as much rigour as the extremism the programme sought to portray."

So television reporters deserve the same treatment as potential terrorists and terrorist sympathisers, do they?

That it should be Channel 4 that was the target of this sinister attempt to undermine journalistic freedom was particularly notable. Although it has a reputation for left-liberal bias no less institutionalised than that of the BBC, the channel retains a sense of the importance of real reporting. It carries out genuine investigations that set out to seek the truth rather than the mere repetition of PR statements that passes for reportage these days on most of the BBC. In these ever more dumbed-down times, and despite Big Brother, Channel 4 maintains a precious devotion to quality whose loss would impoverish us all. The stakes here were very high. Had Channel 4 lost, independent and fearless television journalism would have been all but dead in this country.

Ofcom's decision that the programme makers had no case to answer came as little surprise. Yet it exceeded all expectations. After all, the complaint came from the police, a serious institution charged with fighting crime and upholding law and order in our society, not from a dodgy businessman or an absurd outfit such as "Christian Voice" (currently to be found trying to revive ancient blasphemy laws). This fact alone sent a chill through broadcasters everywhere. Worse, the police were backed in their complaints by Saudi Arabia, source of most of the trouble, whose London embassy complained first to the Foreign Office before submitting its own dossier to Ofcom.

It would have been easy for Ofcom to produce a mealy-mouthed report which, while dismissing the substance of the claim, acknowledged at least part of the police case and thus gave encouragement for further meddling.

Instead of which, they said this:

Investigative journalism plays an essential role in public service broadcasting and is clearly in the public interest. Ofcom considers it of paramount importance that broadcasters, such as Channel 4, continue to explore controversial subject matter. While such programmes can make for uncomfortable viewing, they are essential to our understanding of the world around us. It is inevitable such programmes which tackle highly sensitive subjects will have a high profile. Such controversial programmes may inevitably lead to a large number of complaints. However, investigative programming is amongst some of the most important content that broadcasters produce.

And this:

The allegations made by the programme regarding the covertly recorded speeches were clearly identified by the programme as concerning a particular form of radical Islamic ideology which was contrasted with the views of the representatives of mainstream Islam also featured. In accordance with generally accepted standards, the extremist views put forward by some speakers were put within the context of a fuller understanding of the Muslim religion and there was no ‘bias’ in the programme against Islam.

And, having considered and rejected in detail three separate complains, they say this:

Undercover Mosque was a legitimate investigation, uncovering matters of important public interest. Ofcom found no evidence that the broadcaster had misled the audience or that the programme was likely to encourage or incite criminal activity. On the evidence (including untransmitted footage and scripts), Ofcom found that the broadcaster had accurately represented the material it had gathered and dealt with the subject matter responsibly and in context.

One hopes the police will think twice before wasting Ofcom's time, and their own, again.

Read the full report here. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Cyprus Egg-witch case cracked open

What are we to make of reports from Cyprus concerning the court appearance of a 69 year old woman on charges of sorcery?

According to last Friday's Cyprus Mail, Hariye Rezvanoglu allegedly charged a 35 year old man £500 for a "marital harmony" spell that included cracking an egg into a pair of his underpants before adding nail clippings and pubic hair.

The man told a court in Nicosia that Ms Rezvanoglu had managed to persuade him that his former wife and stepmother had cast a spell on him and that she would rid him of the hex for a fee. On a previous occasion he had paid her £20 for a psychic reading.

At first, I believed her because she predicted most things about my life correctly. The first time I met her, she placed her hand on my head and told me about my wife and stepmother putting a curse on me. I gave her £20 because I felt sorry for her.

In the second meeting, she told him that she needed £500.

I wasn’t happy about it but I paid her… When she asked me for £5,000, I went to the police.

The eggs-in-underwear angle has ensured that the story has swiftly gone global. But, behind the obvious puns - "Egg spell is no yoke", said the Mirror - a serious (kind of) story might be lurking.

Sorcery is illegal on Cyprus, which is one of the newer members of the E.U. Section 304 of the island's criminal code states: “Any person who profits from or earns rewards from the practice of magic, witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration, or undertakes to tell fortunes or uses skills or knowledge of the occult sciences to discover where or in what manner anything supposed to have been stolen or lost may be found, is guilty of a misdemeanour and is liable to prison of one year.”

This does not stop adverts for psychics, astrologers and healers appearing in local newspapers. But it would be a mistake to think that the law is treated as no more than a quaint anomaly, like the Witchcraft Act which lasted in Britain until 1951 and saw the fraudulent Scottish Medium Helen Duncan (here she is materialising some "ectoplasm") go on trial at the Old Bailey in 1944.

Police investigations into sorcery on Cyprus are actually far from uncommon. In another recent case, Nicosia CID arrested 39-year-old Vera Georgiou on suspicion of fraud, sorcery and intention to conceal a crime. She is alleged to have defrauded £496,000 from a female bank clerk between May 2005 and July 2006, telling her she was cursed and that the curse had spread to her two children.

Police deny that they are on a witch-hunt. According to a spokeswoman, only cases which involve fraud or deception are taken seriously. "It would be impossible for police to go around arresting psychics on suspicion of profiting from their trade because it would be so difficult to obtain the evidence. If it’s being done for fun it’s not a crime," she said.

Nevertheless there has been a steady stream of cases in recent years in which psychics have been busted for activities no more sinister than those undertaken by any number of Glastonbury-based healers or suburban shamans in this country.

In 2004, a woman described as a "hard working single mother" and astrologer was fined for conducting a series of spells and counter-spells for which she had charged a mere £10 or £20 a time. Her books on astrology and magic were destroyed by order of the court.

In June of this year, police arrested three members of a "sorcery ring", including a self-described African medium, after a sting operation in which an undercover police officer posed as someone seeking a cure. The police also seized money, accounts and supposed magical equipment including seashells, rosary beads, wooden bowls and bottles covered with leather. The Guinean voodooist at the centre of the scam, Toura Gassama, was jailed for two months.

The rationalist in me has no problem with going after obvious fraudsters who prey on the vulnerable. But such people can be dealt with quite satisfactorily by charging them with extortion. By retaining a specific offence of "sorcery" not only illiberally restricts the activities of patently honest (if foolish) mediums and their clients, it also institutionalises superstition. That magic is serious enough to merit police investigation and even undercover "sting" operations implies that there is something in it.

A get-tough policy on witchcraft, moreover, is rarely a sign of a healthy and functioning democracy. Saudi Arabia, that progressive country with which we have so many "shared values", beheaded a man for sorcery just the other week, while Robert Mugabe has recently introduced new laws against witchcraft in Zimbabwe.

I wonder, too, what our masters in Brussels have to say about these cases. Don't they stand in the way of free competition? Hasn't a Cypriot witch got as much right to summon up the supernatural powers as one based in Surrey? Or perhaps the new-found enthusiasm of the island's police for pursuing diviners will see an influx of Cyprian sorceresses to these shores, hot on the heels of all those Polish builders and Lithuanian lapdancers.

In which case Hariye Rezvanoglu may not be the only one to end up with egg on her face. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 16 November 2007

Unhuggable Hoodie

Good news from Oxford. Vice Chancellor Dr John Hood is to go at the end of his first term in office. Bad news: that's not until September 2009.

Hood is the man who attempted to destroy hundreds of years of academic independence by replacing traditional structures with a board dominated by external directors with backgrounds in politics and finance. Such a body would in all probability have had no more independence than Ratzinger's curia.

Fortunately, Congregation (the "parliament" of Oxford's dons) threw the measures out late last year.

Hood has had a hard time since it became clear that his aim was to turn the ancient university into a sausage-machine the principal purpose of which was to implement government policies and meet arbitrary performance-criteria. Several of his opponents have been elected to the University Council and the atmosphere has turned a (presumably dark) shade of blue.

Meanwhile the current issue of Oxford Today magazine offers readers a chance to put questions to Hoodie in time for an interview to be published early next year. Dr Hood says, "I look forward very much to hearing from readers all over the world and to sharing some thoughts on the issues uppermost in their minds about our great university."

Should be interesting. But perhaps not too interesting. The authorities at Wellington Square are well-versed in the dark arts of spin.

In June 2007 it was even revealed that the University press office had been monitoring and editing comments in Hood's Wikipedia article in an attempt to protect his reputation.

As if anyone believed Wikepedia anyway. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Friends like these

Here's a nice story from Saudi Arabia, a land with which, according to New Labour minister Kim Howells, we have many "shared values".

An appeal court has just sentenced a nineteen year-old victim of gang rape to 200 lashes and six months in one of the country's famously salubrious jails. Originally they were only going to flog her 90 times but the court considered this far too lenient. The six men who abducted and raped her at gunpoint got off with relatively light prison sentences.

Her crime? "Being in the car of an unrelated male at the time of the rape". The fact that they were holding a gun to her throat was clearly no excuse.

Meanwhile the unnamed girl's lawyer has had his licence to practise law suspended for daring to challenge the initial verdict.

Makes you wonder what King Abdullah and the Queen were talking about over the canapés.
Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Way out West

Never appoint a non-politician to do a politician's job. They might end up doing something really embarrassing, like telling the truth.

The appointment of Admiral Sir Alan West as security minister must have seemed like a great idea at the time. Here was someone independent and respected, who could be relied upon (and be seen) to put the national interest ahead of narrow party advantage. A man all people could trust. What better example of Gordon Brown, statesman and father of the nation, showing how serious he was about protecting Britain from the terrorists?

Lord West was given the job of drawing up plans to protect the national infrastructure from possible attack. And remarkably, this independent man has come up with a whole host of sensible, moderate, practical proposals. Like installing window glass that doesn't shatter into dangerous splinters when a bomb goes off. Or installing roadblocks in the approaches to prominent public buildings.

"We don't want to do the terrorists' job for them" he said today. "We want to live our lives normally, to go about our business normally."

All very uncontroversial. Unfortunately, the Today programme doesn't do uncontroversial, so John Humphreys this morning asked him about some of the government's more eye-catching proposals. Such as extending the period of pre-charge detention from the already doubled, doubled and doubled-again 28 days.

Lord West didn't see the need for it. And, shock horror, he said so.

I want to have absolute evidence that we actually need longer than 28 days. I want to be totally convinced because I am not going to go and push for something that actually affects the liberty of the individual unless there is a real necessity for it.

But surely classified intelligence reports proved the case for a higher time limit? After all, that is what the government keeps telling us.

I still need to be fully convinced that we absolutely need more than 28 days and I also need to be convinced what is the best way of doing that.

Of course, this is no more than most independent people have been saying for some time. It's true that some suspects have already been detained for close to the maximum period. But that's only an instance of Parkinson's Law proving its veracity. The police will detain suspects for as long as they can, and it will take them that much time to gather their evidence. The more time they have, the longer they will need. And all that time the suspect will be deprived of liberty for reasons that may well turn out (and often have) to be entirely spurious.

Unfortunately, Lord West's rational and balanced approach is not what the government wants us to hear. They want us to believe that the country is under permanent siege from legions of technologically advanced and almost undetectable terrorist masterminds, whose Dr Evil-style sophistication leaves our puny security services struggling to catch up.

Otherwise, we might be less willing to give up, one by one, all the civil rights we used to take for granted.

So a couple of hours later, the Home Office issued a "clarification", apparently in the admiral's own words.

I am quite clear that the greater complexities of terrorist plots will mean that we will need the power to detain certain individuals for more than 28 days...
I am convinced that we need to legislate now so that we have the necessary powers when we need them. The Government would be failing in its responsibility to protect national security if we waited until we needed more than 28 days to act.

So what new evidence has suddenly been made available to Lord West, who has been studying the terrorist threat closely for the last three months, to make him change his mind so quickly?

I was stating this morning that there will need to be scrutiny in the system, and robust evidence against individuals, to safeguard their rights.

No you weren't, Westy. You were saying that you weren't convinced there was any need for an extended time limit.

"I'm just a simple sailor," he added at lunchtime.

Of course, Lord West was this morning giving us the benefit of his considered opinion. And when he got back from the studio he was presented with a statement denying his considered opinion and told to sign it. Everyone knows this, but of course no one in the broadcast media would be so ill-educated as to actually say it out loud. It would be bad form.

Far better perpetuate the fiction that everybody "out there" in the real world is too stupid to notice.

UPDATE: Home Secretary Jacqui Smith now says (5.10 pm) that the reason for extending the period of detention is that "some time in the future there might come a time when 28 days isn't long enough". If that's the best justification the government can come up with they really are losing it. She also tied herself up in the most extraordinary knots when Eddie Mair asked her if she believed that women should be allowed into mosques. After waffling for a bit about it "not being a question for me" she eventually allowed that it was something about which Muslims might like to "start a debate". I wonder what she'd have said if it had been a question about golf clubs. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

All the nice girls love Osama

A great deal has already been written about the soi-disant Lyrical Terrorist (terrible lyricist, more like) Samina Malik, whose poems in praise of beheadings and martyrdom have earned her the dubious distinction of becoming the first woman in Britain to be convicted of terrorism-related offences. And yes, there are important debates to be had about the restrictions on free expression posed by laws which make the writing of ill-advised verse and the possession of "terrorist materials" easily available online an offence punishable by up to ten years in jail. Clearly, this confused and angry young woman was no danger to anyone, and by making a martyr of her the authorities are hardly likely to do much to break down the mistrust felt by many young British Muslims.

That is not, of course, to dismiss lightly the unpleasantness of her verses. Here's Samina on "How to Behead", for example:

It's not as messy or as hard as some may think
It's all about the flow of the wrist
Sharpen the knife to its maximum

And before you begin to cut the flesh

Tilt the fools head to its left

Saw the knife back and forth

No doubt that the punk will twitch and scream

But ignore the donkey's ass

And continue to slice back and forth

You'll feel the knife hit the wind and food pipe

- But Don't Stop -

Continue with all your might

About now you should feel the knife vibrate

You can feel the warm heat being given off

But this is due to the friction being caused

Strong stuff. But hardly more than a lot of the doomy, sex-and-death obsessed outpourings of adolescent goths. Indeed, take away the Islam and Samina Malik is hardly distinguishable from any number angst-ridden, alienated, solipsistic teenagers. Alright, she's 23 and might perhaps be considered a bit old for this sort of thing. But people grow up at different rates. Before she discovered radical Islam, Samina was into gangsta rap and found her inspiration in the likes of Tupac Shakur and 50 cent. Plenty of violence, misogyny and homophobia in rap lyrics, of course: some campaigners would want those to be banned. But we're hardly talking about terrorist masterminds.

In her defence, Samina Malik claimed that she adopted her Lyrical Terrorist moniker because it "sounded cool", and that her expressed desire for martyrdom wasn't meant seriously. Moreover, she had only posted her attempts at poetry (which her defence counsel ludicrously compared with the works of Wilfred Owen) on the web to attract prospective bridegrooms. Now there's a thought. There's a word for people like Samina. But it isn't terrorist, or even wannabe terrorist. It's groupie.

Samina might have looked like the picture of Islamic modesty in her hijab, but beneath the demure exterior her hormones were clearly raging. And what better catch, for a girl dreaming of global jihad ("The desire within me increases every day to go for martyrdom," she scrawled on one piece of paper unearthed by the police) than a real live (for the moment) suicide bomber. Clad, as she was in court, in figure-hugging jeans to go with her designer hijab, Samina was a vision of top terror totty. Similtaneously submissive and filled with passion for the cause, she's a jihadi's wet dream. No need to wait till the afterlife for the promised 72 virgins.

I wonder how many more Saminas there are out there, thinking impure thoughts about Osama bin Laden or Rage Boy, looking forward to loosening their veil for a guy with a beard and half a pound of semtex. The rappers who stirred Samina's loins in the days before she found Religion are never short of gorgeous young women to join their cocaine-and-sex parties: why should the heroes of the Islamic revolution fare any worse?

Soldiers have always been attractive to women. In wartime, moreover, women have often been expected to keep the home fires burning while the men go off to fight. What's the difference, after all, between Samina's beheading fantasy and this real-life momento mori which appeared in the pages of American Life Magazine on May 22, 1944? The woman, Natalie Nickerson, was the proud recipient of the skull of a defeated Japanese soldier thoughtfully sent by her fiancé. "I said I'd get her a dead Jap and I'm as good as my word", he explained. She certainly looks pleased. Read the rest of this article

Quote of the day

I don't live my life avoiding relationships because they might cause a stir in the press
- Ulrika Jonsson Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Hug a Jihadi

While it may not be the New Labour frotting partner it used to be, the Muslim Council of Britain still likes to present itself as the Voice of mainstream, moderate Islam in this country. So it was interesting, if a little disconcerting, to take (courtesy of today's Telegraph) a peek inside the brain of its current chairman, Dr Abdul Bari. And what a strange place that turns out to be.

Muslim "community leaders" like Dr Bari are frequently accused of not really getting modern Britain. And indeed some of his responses seem almost laughably out of touch. He suggests, for example, that the government could tackle the problem of binge-drinking by banning alcohol in public places, as it has already done with smoking. I can't imagine even this government legislating for alcohol-free pubs, somehow. He also believes that we should all adopt the Islamic practice of arranged marriages, for the apparent reason that young people are too headstrong and ill-informed to make their own choice of life partner.

Young people are emotional, they want idealism. Older people have gone through all sorts of things and become a bit more experienced. A child will always want to eat chocolate but if he does then he will become fat. He needs to be given things that are good for him too.

It's unclear what he means when he says that young people "want" idealism. Does he mean that they lack it? Or that they desire it, and it is bad for them? Whichever, it's a strange mentality that compares wanting to marry the person you love, instead of some cousin you've never met but who you've been promised to from birth, with a craving for an extra handful of Ferrero Rocher.

Does he get all this from Islam? Or has he been watching too much Trisha? For if there's one thing Dr Bari does seem to have absorbed from his years in Britain, it's a certain fluency in therapy-speak.

Why, for example, do some young people see the need to perpetrate violence in the name of Islam? He blames the usual suspects, of course, Western foreign policy and the alleged targeting of Muslims by recent anti-terror legislation (which was introduced why?). And needless to say, it's nothing to do with Islam. Even to call them Muslim terrorists "stigmatises the whole community." Thus far, thus predictable: the usual leftish analysis as seen recently on Channel 4's Britz, in which an educated female student viewed becoming a suicide bomber as a kind of superior protest-march. But then comes a sideways lurch into psychobabble:

Muslim young people are as vulnerable as any others. Under this climate of fear they will begin to feel victimised...

I deal with emotionally damaged children. Children come to hate when they don't get enough care and love. They are probably bullied, it makes a young person angry and vulnerable.
The extreme case could be suicide bombers, it is all they have … The people who become suicide bombers are really vulnerable....Criminal people have used that as a weapon to encourage young people, those who don't have any anchor in themselves.

So it's Hug a Jihadi, then. After all, as he explains later on,

Children are like plants, if you don't look after them they will grow wild and weeds can come in.

This sentimentalisation of the suicide bomber as alienated teen may have some resonance in the light of the case of the Lyrical Terrorist, whose execrable verses recording her reactions to the beheading videos she watched online landed her (most unfairly, in my view) with a conviction for terrorist-related offences. But it scarcely applies to the 7/7 ringleader Mohammed Siddiq Khan, a 30-year old married man with a career and a young baby; nor to Mohammed Atta and his colleagues who brought down the Twin Towers.

Dr Who?

So who is Dr Bari to be pontificating in this way? Among other things, he is chairman of the East London Mosque, which doubles up as the MCB headquarters. The mosque was one of several places of worship exposed in the recent report from Policy Exchange as stocking extremist literature, a fact which Bari glosses over with the practised "not me guv" insouciance of Sir Ian Blair:

The bookshops are independent businesses. We can't just go in and tell them what to sell … I will see what books they keep, if they have one book which looks like it is inciting hatred, do they have counter books on the same shelf?

So that's official, then. It's OK to stock one how-to guides on stoning homosexuals and massacring Jews if it's balanced by other books reminding the faithful that Islam is actually a religion of peace.

If he won't lift a finger to prevent the sale of Islamist rants, he claims to be much more careful about who he allows to preach. "If I hear of a specific preacher who is inciting hatred I will ban him from preaching but I cannot disallow him from praying," he says. Yet in 2004 Bari's mosque played host to Sheikh Abdur-Rahman al-Sudais, a prominent Saudi cleric who in his sermons has described Jews as ‘scum of the earth’ and ‘monkeys and pigs’, Hindus as ‘idol worshippers’ , and Christians as ‘blasphemous worshippers of the cross’.

Challenged by John Ware on Panorama to justify inviting Sudais, Bari disputed the quotes (which are widely available and easily-checked) and commented that it was a "very dangerous thing, that character assassination of Muslim scholars and leaders are getting very widespread."

Dr Bari appears to be a moderate. He is softly-spoken and diplomatic. Yet when gently probed he reveals attitudes at least as reactionary and at odds with most British society as those of his predecessor "Sir" Iqbal Sacranie. (He was the one who said that death was "too easy" for Salman Rushdie.) He tells the Telegraph that The Satanic Verses should have been "pulped", because it "caused a huge amount of distress and discordance". On morality he says that "religion has principles that can help society"

For example, …

Sex before marriage is unacceptable in Islam …

On adultery and living together we should try to go back to the religiously informed style of life that helps society...

Homosexuality is unacceptable from the religious point of view....

You shouldn't be revealing your body so much that it can be tempting to other people.

That last point was addressed to two female journalists, so it might have been intended personally.

Invited to at least condemn stoning to death, he equivocates,

It depends what sort of stoning and what circumstances. When our prophet talked about stoning for adultery he said there should be four [witnesses] - in realistic terms that's impossible. It's a metaphor for disapproval.

A metaphor for disapproval, eh? Tell that to the victims of this barbaric practice in places like Iran. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 9 November 2007

Coffee as cure-all

Good news for caffeine addicts: coffee is good for you. According to a new study by a team led by Dr Ernest Abel of Detroit, drinking large amounts of the stuff can cut the risk of developing skin cancer by up to a third. The only drawback is that you need at least six cups a day - and none of that wimpish decaff either. So you'll probably end up a twitching, paranoid, insomniac wreck.

This is just the latest of many studies to big up caffeine as some sort of wonder-drug. Earlier tests have shown it to cut the risk of colon cancer, Parkinson's disease and type-two diabetes. It's even been suggested that it could improve digestion, although that's the opposite of my experience. Oh well. It keeps me blogging on, at least.

All these findings would have been useful to Sweden's 18th century king Gustav III, who was so convinced that coffee was poisonous that he sentenced a convicted murderer to drink a large cup every day until it killed him. As a control, a second condemned man was forced to drink tea. The king appointed two doctors to carry out the experiment. Needless to say, both died before either prisoner; as did the king, who was assassinated. The coffee-drinker lasted longest, by the way, although the tea-drinker made it to the very respectable (especially then) age of 83. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Strange Bedfellows

The Hampshire W.I.'s campaign for licensed brothels is surprising in itself. (Prime mover Jean Johnson wants to see regular health-checks and "mandatory condom use", which irresistibly brings to mind the image of undercover policemen attempting to have unprotected sex with the government-approved hookers, before whipping out the handcuffs at the last moment. Kinky.) More surprising still, the matrons' calls for a radical liberalisation of the law has gained the support of the Roman Catholic Church.

The R.C. Bishop of Portsmouth, Crispian Hollis, told the Portsmouth News:

If you are going to take a pragmatic view and say prostitution happens, I think there's a need to make sure it's as well- regulated as possible for the health of people involved and for the safety of the ladies themselves... I would be very much happier if there was no prostitution in Portsmouth or anywhere else because I do regard those involved in any way as involved in some form of immorality. But it's going to be there whatever we do – it has been from time immemorial, so I think that's something we have to be realistic about.

"It's surprising sometimes where support comes from," commented Rachel Frost from the International Union of Sex Workers, welcoming the episcopal intervention. But is it that surprising, really? The Church in fact has a longstanding involvement in the sex industry.

Medieval Catholic theologians, like Mgr Hollis today, deplored prostitution in theory while tolerating, or even encouraging, it in practice. St Augustine warned of the perils of trying to eliminate commercial sex: "Suppress prostitution and capricious lusts will overthrow society." St Thomas Aquinas, meanwhile, believed that "prostitution in the town is like the cesspool in the palace; take away the cesspool and the palace will become an unclean and evil-smelling place."

And the Church authorities certainly practised what they preached. In Medieval Southwark, the brothels operated on land owned by the Bishop of Winchester, who was quite happy to collect the rent. The nuns of Stratford established a brothel in 1337, the proceeds going to support the convent, while a similar operation was set up a decade later in the papal enclave of Avignon. The Church authorities in Paris accepted donations from the Guild of Prostitutes, especially on the feast day of their patron saint, Mary Magdalene, while whores in Rome took part in religious processions led by priests.

It has also been estimated that clergy made up between a quarter and a third of a medieval prostitute's clientele.

Of course, a church which always tended to divide women into virgins and whores nourished the hope that prostitutes might, in the fullness of time and once their earning capacity had dwindled, repent their life of sin. Several saints, in fact, started out on the game. Saint Mary of Egypt (a.k.a. St Mary the Harlot) funded her pilgrimmage to Jerusalem by providing the passengers and crew of the ship she sailed in with sexual services, which certainly showed a properly devout nature if not a deep understanding of the finer points of Christian moral teaching. Having reached the holy city she repented and spent the next 47 years praying in a cave. Artistic depictions of the story sadly tend to concentrate on this part of her life, generally showing her as a wizened old crone.

More fun is to be had with that archetypal scarlet woman, Mary Magdalene (or Mrs J.H. Christ, if you're into conspiracy theory). This picture is by Titian. Of course there's no more evidence that she was actually a lady of the night than that she was married to the Messiah. Still, it made for a good moral tale. In the 13th century Pope Gregory IX set up the Order of the Magdalenes, which was supposed to provide refuge and redemption for ex-prostitutes. To symbolise their born-again virgin status, the Magdalene nuns wore white habits, which would certainly have made them stand out from the general run of nuns.

Unfortunately old habits (sorry) occasionally died hard. In one notorious incident in Vienna in 1480 a Magdalene convent had to be closed down when it was discovered that the sisters were doing it for themselves. They were trying to raise money to support the convent, of course, in the only way they knew how, but still.

The good bishop's support for legalised brothels, then, might be less an outbreak of clerical permissiveness than a return to traditional Catholic Values. One aspect worries me slightly, though. The W.I. proposals, after all, laid great stress on the need for enforced safe sex. So how does Mgr Hollis square that with his church's absolute prohibition on condoms? Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Bangle Bungle

Here we go again. A teenager has been sent home from school for insisting on wearing a symbol of her faith. This time, it's a Sikh, 14 year old Sarika Singh, and the offending article is an iron bangle, or Kara, which Sikhs are supposed to wear as a visual reminder not to commit sins. As such, it might be compared to the "purity ring" which 16-year old Lydia Playfoot from Horsham wanted to wear as part of a campaign to discourage others, and presumably herself, from engaging in sex. She took her case to the High Court, you may remember, where she lost. Equally unsuccessful was Shabina Begum, whose campaign to wear an all-enveloping "jilbab" was backed by Hiz b'ut Tahrir. Sarika and her parents hope to do better.

Sarika, who is half-Welsh, has become increasingly devout over the last six months. She says, "The Kara is a very important Sikh symbol and a constant reminder to me to do good, and that God is One. I am very disappointed that my school does not recognise my right to wear the Kara."

She has the support of Welsh equality supremo Ron Davies (yes, that Ron Davies) who believes that the school is in breach of the 1976 Race Relations Act - Sikhs, even half-Welsh ones, belong to an acknowledged ethnic group - as well as more recent human rights legislation.

Meanwhile the following ominous statement issues forth from Cardiff: "The Welsh Assembly Government will shortly be issuing guidance on a range of issues associated with school uniform policies and the wearing of school uniform including equality, health and safety and discrimination issues."

At least Aberdare Girls School in South Wales, which Sarika attends (or rather doesn't), is consistent. It bans religious symbols of any kind, including crosses, turbans and (with more courage, perhaps) the hijab. Headmistress Jane Rosser, said, "We have a strict and clear code of conduct that has been in place for many years... We use this established code of conduct to ensure equality between all pupils."

Lydia Playfoot's school, by contrast, permitted both hijabs and Sikh bangles, while having a zero tolerance policy on all other jewellery. The judge upheld this on the grounds that the act of wearing the ring was not "intimately linked" to her religious belief.

These cases are tiresome. Normally, I would be with the school in its desire to create an equal and secular space - but a bangle? What's so wrong with a piece of jewellery anyway? Worst of all is the way school boards invariably take refuge in arguments about "health and safety" to prohibit utterly inoffensive items. It wasn't so long ago that teachers used to encourage boys to bring a penknife to school to help in craft lessons. Rings and bangles never did anyone any harm.

Rather than back down on a small point of principle for the sake of harmony, and concentrating on what really matters, which is this girl's education, the school insists robotically on the to-the-letter application of rules simply because they are rules. Even if a rule is, like this one, completely irrational. And they refuse to back down even in the face of a legal battle which will not only leave Sarika's education potentially damaged but waste thousands of pounds on a battle that will only serve to enrich lawyers. Of course, Sarika and her parents aren't blameless either. But wearing the bangle clearly matters to Sarika far more than it could conceivably mean to the school.

If Sarika loses, her school will have been vindicated at the price of much avoidable disruption and distress. But if she wins, the result will be a further privileging of religion and group identity at the expense of the secular public space which we all need to see. Especially now, with the Government's absurd enthusiasm for funding centres of superstitious indoctrination otherwise known as "faith schools".

By no stretch of the imagination could wearing a bangle damage Sarika's education or lead to religious or ethnic divisions. The same cannot be said, of course, for the hijab, which is by its very nature divisive (and intended to be so) but which most schools, in the faux-liberal name of "equality" or "diversity", are happy to indulge. The hijab is part magico-religious throwback (arising from belief in the malefic potency of women's hair), part misogynistic hangover, part political provocation. It separates and excludes, it carries with it a vast weight of cultural baggage, it changes the way its wearers perceive themselves and are perceived by others. But to point out these basic facts, in the current climate of officially-sanctioned doublethink, is to invite the inevitable accusations of Islamophobia. Far better to make everyone suffer.

My solution? Everyone should lighten up a bit. Provided an item of jewellery is reasonably unobtrusive and doesn't make its wearer overtly conspicuous, let it be. But not out of "respect" to religion, or culture. If a girl wants to wear a ring that symbolises her virginity, let her. But let the girl sitting next to her wear the ring given to her by her boyfriend for precisely the opposite reason. Let the Sikh girl wear her bangle, let the goth girl wear one decorated with skulls. As for Muslims, they should be invited to come up with an item of jewellery of their own: perhaps a necklace bearing the declaration of faith (shahaadah) in Arabic script. Thus they will be able visually to assert that There is but One God and Mohammed is His Prophet, not that He has a Problem with Women. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Snake Oil works - Official

I'm delighted to learn (courtesy of Scientific American) that snake-oil may have been unfairly maligned. Although synonymous with hucksterism, water-snake oil is in fact an ancient Chinese remedy for arthritis and joint pain. And scientists investigating its properties have found it to be an extremely rich source of omega-3 fatty acids. These are indeed capable of reducing inflammation, such as arthritis pain. More excitingly, they have been linked with improved mental abilities and reduced blood pressure, cholesterol. They might even function as an anti-depressive.

A team of Japanese scientists recently completed a study in (as usual) mice. Creatures nourished on snake oil showed improved maze-learning and swimming abilities. No such success for mice fed on lard. Rodents can be couch potatoes too.

I expect that in the new "fit towns" that Health Secretary Alan Johnson is planning snake-oil extract will be drip-fed into the water supply. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Elizabeth bin Laden

Shekhar Kapur's film Elizabeth: The Golden Age has been extravagantly praised by some critics, ridiculed by others (for example, Peter Bradshaw). The Cate Blanchett vehicle certainly plays fast and loose with history (though less so than its predecessor, The Virgin Queen) and anyone looking for a subtle analysis of the issues at stake in late 16th century Europe should probably look elsewhere. Kapur provides a reassuringly old-fashioned goodies and baddies interpretation of history, with the Spanish firmly in the role of the baddies: it has been described as the most pro-British (for which read English) film since Olivier's Henry V. A paradoxical achievement for an Indian director working with a largely Australian cast. Blanchett appears to be enjoying herself hugely. For the great set-piece oration at Tilbury she seems to be channelling Joan of Arc more than Gloriana, a vision in shining armour and free-flowing red hair. At other times, she serves as a mouthpiece for conventional liberal pieties about freedom of conscience, contrasting here as elsewhere with the fanatical and reactionary power-lust of Jodi Molla's Philip II.

One would expect such a confection to put a few Latin noses out of joint; and sure enough the Florentine professor of history Franco Cardini has been quick to denounce the epic, which recently premiered in Italy at the Rome Film Festival, as a “distorted anti-papal travesty”.

"A film which so profoundly and perversely falsifies history cannot be judged a good film," declared Cardini. Which is a somewhat bizarre principle of cinema criticism: would he apply it to Shakespeare, I wonder? His main beef, though, was not with the film's accuracy per se but with its perceived bias. It had potentially offered “a contribution to the understanding of a moment of vital importance.” Instead, the Virgin Queen was portrayed as “an able politician and courageous sovereign” while King Philip II of Spain was shown as a “ferocious, fanatical Catholic, swinging his rosary like a weapon and roaming the Escorial Palace like a madman, full of impotent fury, dreaming of subjugating the world to the Catholic faith”. And while the defeat of Phiip's armada came across as a "shining victory for free thought against the forces of darkness in the form of the Inquisition", Kapur had ignored the persecution of Catholics in England, the "illegal trial" and execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth's sneaky policy of encouraging Protestant dissenters in France; behaviour in stark contrast, according to Cardini, with Philip's noble and selfless support for the Venetian Republic in its struggle with the Turks.

And then the professor rather lets the cat out the bag:
"Why put out this perverse anti-Catholic propaganda today, just at the moment when we are trying desperately to revive our Western identity in the face of the Islamic threat, presumed or real?"

Cardini was writing in Avvenire, the official organ of the Italian Bishops’ Conference. And while it has been stressed that his opinions were in no sense an official statement of Vatican policy, there's little doubt that the remarks carry the authentic hallmark of Ratzinger's papacy. Ever since his notorious Regensberg speech last October, when he approvingly quoted a Byzantine emperor's belief that Mohammed had brought the world only violence and evil, it has been clear that he sees his mission partly as shoring up Christianity, and in particular Catholicism, as part of the moral armory of the West in its supposed duel to the death with Islam. Cardini is now saying that Catholicism is the "authentic fulcrum" of Christianity, without which there can be no defence against secularism and Islam. In this view, not just secularists but "apocalyptic Christians" form a sort of fifth column opening up the gates of Europe to the Islamic hordes.

Elizabeth's crime, in Cardini's eyes, seems to be that by renouncing Rome and refusing to carry out the will of the King of Spain she was working against the interests of a united Christendom. It's a view which seems to have more to do with a romantic view of the Crusades than any historical reality: it didn't take wars of religion to get the monarchs of Europe fighting it out, after all, they were busily doing that long before the Reformation. It does, on the other hand, carry an interesting echo of Trevor Phillips' recent well-publicised remarks in which he credited the Turks with helping to defeat the Armada by prosecuting their own war with Spain.

Cardini doesn't quite say it, so I will: in this film the Catholics are cast in the role nowadays given to Muslims. As representatives of something foreign, threatening and historically retrogressive, seeking to subvert a free and Protestant England, to "destroy our way of life". A threat on the horizon, but also over here, organised in small treasonous cells. Elizabeth's spymaster Walsingham urges a policy of zero tolerance; Elizabeth herself stresses her attachment to justice even while offing her cousin's head.

This, of course, fits in well with the traditional English narrative. But history is far more complex and subtle. In the sixteenth century, Spain was a transatlantic superpower, dominating the seas and drawing in vast wealth from its American dependencies. And what was England? For all the talk of a golden age, the reality was of a poor and struggling kingdom whose very survival depended on manipulating the balance of power and, where possible, by-passing the Spanish-dominated trade routes. Hence the contacts, which Cardini presumably deplored, with the Islamic Ottoman and Mughal empires, and with Russia, which most of Europe would have regarded as a desert of rude and barbarous heretics. And where forced to share space with the Spaniards, Elizabethans lived where possible by piracy.

Viewed from Rome or Madrid, the Virgin Queen was a usurper, a mercenary, a despot and a terrorist. England was a rogue state, the bastion of an alien and dangerous religion. Elizabeth was denounced in Papal bulls, rather than UN resolutions, but the principle was surely the same. Supporters of regime change, internal critics, were identified; a possible puppet ruler, Mary Queen of Scots, was set up in the hope of fomenting a spontaneous uprising; and when that failed a huge task-force was assembled, a "coalition of the willing" drawn mainly from Spain, with a few co-opted client states making up the numbers.

Shekhar Kapur has vehemently denied that his film is anti-Catholic. "It is anti extreme forms of religion," he said. "It's anti any interpretation of the word of God, which can be singular." That sounds like Catholicism to me; in any case, it's hardly cheerleading for the Ratzinger doctrine. Blanchett's Elizabeth mouths liberal pro-democracy platitudes that George Bush would be proud of, but in the sixteenth century's war on terror she was cast in the role of Osama. Read the rest of this article