Sunday, 31 August 2008

Nasty People, Nasty Party

In Saturday's Telegraph, Vicki Woods asked what to many confused and disappointed people will have seemed a pertinent question. When did Labour, she wondered, become the Nasty Party?

Was it before the invasion of Iraq or after? I am beyond sick of the corrosion of my freedoms and the extent of invasion into my privacy by this Government. I liked Britain better when I knew what was allowed and what was not.

She goes on to complain about the numbers of "council jobsworths or private security workers" being given quasi-police powers, about the confusing tangle of new laws and the ever extending databases. She was particularly "stunned" to find out about ContactPoint, a data disaster waiting to happen, which will contain the details of all eleven million children in England and to which an estimated 330,000 "relevant professionals" will have access. Her reaction is part of the problem, of course. ContactPoint has been in preparation for four years; there has been almost no public consultation or debate (and why should there be, since parents are not going to be asked to give their permission, or even be permitted to opt out); and if Vicki Woods, a professional journalist, has only just heard about it, you can bet there'll be millions of parents out there who are even more in the dark.

(The database, incidentally, has just been postponed yet again while some minor security "glitches" are ironed out. But the government are still determined to press ahead. Officially, it has been introduced because of the incompetence of social workers which led to the tragic death of Victoria Climbié. I find this explanation somewhat unconvincing.)

But - to return to Vicki Woods's question - when did Labour first become the Nasty Party?

That wouldn't be my question. More to the point, what people should be asking themselves is this: When did I first notice that Labour was the Nasty Party?

So many people voted for them, so many other people were delighted by their victory in 1997, so many more even than that bought into the myth of the Tories as cold-hearted crypto-fascists, that it feels difficult to be able to say - as I certainly can - that I saw it all coming, that it was always obvious to anyone prepared to stand back from the hype and look at New Labour in the clear light of day, that they were always going to be bullies, that they were never nice people, and that our liberties were always going to be sacrificed on the twin altars of headline obsession and love of state power.

It should have been blindingly clear from the beginning to anyone who listened to what Blair and his minions actually said, rather than what they appeared to say, to what they proposed to do, rather than the sweet reasonableness with which they explained it, that they would be the greatest peacetime threat to liberty the country had faced in two hundred years. But, of course, there was very little willingness to listen other than selectively, to hope for the best, to look at the warmth of Tony Blair's smile rather than the coldness of his eyes.

The reasons for this lie partly in political mythology. John Major, one of the most inoffensive politicians of recent times, was always an implausible Mr Nasty, yet even in under his leadership the Conservative failed to rebut the presumption that the Tories were the Bad guys and Labour the party of caring. By 1997, for perfectly good reasons, the country wanted a change of government. There were already some doubts - mainly on the far left - about Tony Blair; but most people didn't want to listen to the doubts. They wanted to believe in all the guff about New Dawns and "24 hours to save the NHS". This isn't surprising, though it is surprising that the assumption of basic Labour niceness persisted so long, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, and persists yet in some quarters.

Yet the basic facts were always available. When did I notice all was not right with New Labour? Perhaps it was when Jack Straw, in opposition, began suggesting child curfews as a good idea. Or when Blair, in Labour conference speeches, began using religious words like "covenant". I well remember what really gave me the creeps, though: it was a phrase in the 1997 manifesto which ran, "Our aim is to make New Labour nothing other than the political arm of the British people as a whole". That was not the language of democratic accountability; that was the language of dictatorship, of the One Party State. It should have been seen either as a colossal act of hubris or a sign of dangerous powerlust. But, such was the unquestioning atmosphere at the times, if it was mentioned at all it was merely as a generous-sounding exposition of the Big Tent strategy.

We must define our terms clearly and precisely. It isn't Labour that was always the nasty party, though like all parties it has always had nasty people in it. One can argue that envy and bitterness permeate socialistic thinking and corrupt anyone involved; yet for all its economic incompetence and mad attachment to nationalisation, the old Labour party was basically an honourable and decent one. It was New Labour, which presented itself to the electorate in 1997 as soft-focus, cuddly and moderate, which has nastiness running through its DNA. Nastiness towards individuals: think Dr David Kelly, hounded to his death because he threatened the government's news management, 94 year old Rose Addis, smeared as a racist for daring to find the NHS of less than platonic perfection. Nastiness towards groups who can safely be cast in the role of scapegoat: smokers, fox-hunters, children. Nastiness towards anyone who dares question. All this combined with a cringing attitude towards multinational corporations and unpleasant foreign regimes and a nest-feathering instinct that would not disgrace an arctic eider
points to one thing: New Labour nastiness is the nastiness of the bully.

New Labour is nasty, above all, because it is insecure. And it is insecure because it has a pessimistic view of human nature. It believes that people are basically bad: selfish and stupid in equal measure, but above all incompetent. And so it can only achieve its aims (which it believes are good and noble aims) by a combination of coercion and lies. Paranoid and mistrustful, it is forever lashing out.

The big mistake for many opponents of this government's anti-liberty measures has to assume that a basically benign regime has been led astray by various events that have occurred, from the terror attacks of 9/11 to the periodic newspaper campaigns of moral panic (this summer it's knives) into introducing ill-considered measures. This is rather akin to the old line that the king had been mislead by evil counsellors. Time and again, however, the position is seen to be reversed: the government announces a repressive or illiberal measure and the outside event that is seen to have triggered it comes along later.

The clearest case of this is the Terrorism Act 2000, passed during the period when the IRA had gone more or less out of business and the government was still happy to let London be the playground for Islamist loonies of all types. But there are others. ASBOs, for example. Anti-social behaviour seemed to be much less of a problem before there were ASBOs to deal with it, possibly because the human rights culture and the national obsession with paedophiles had not yet made it dangerous for adults to discipline children in their own neighbourhoods. Likewise the National Identity Register is sold as a means of dealing with indentity fraud; but identity fraud was scarcely a problem until the government started demanding ever more elaborate proofs of identity for all sorts of daily activities.

There's another, contrary pattern, in which the "problem" was apparent all along, but the government only decides to crack down on it after it has already been more-or-less solved. Smokers, for example, have seen their right to smoke in public progressively restricted; 16 year olds lost their decades old right to buy cigarettes; there is now talk of forcing smokers to obtain licences or to buy tobacco under humiliating conditions as though it were a controlled drug. Anyone might think, seeing these tough measures, that smoking was an increasing menace. Yet the proportion of the public who smoke regularly has been falling for years, and would have continued to fall at much the same rate regardless of these new laws and restrictions. It's difficult to resist the impression that the government is going after smokers because there are no longer enough of them to resist.

Well, that's bullies for you.
Read the rest of this article

Friday, 29 August 2008

First Lady?

No, I hadn't heard of Sarah Palin either; or at least not until yesterday, when I read on some blog somewhere that hers was one of the names in the frame. But, if I were John McCain, she is the one who I would have chosen as my running-mate. In fact, she strikes me as not only the right choice, but the only plausible contender - unless there were another 40ish, relatively independent, middle-of-the-road woman available. She isn't black, but you can't have everything, I suppose.

To counteract McCain's negatives, she had to be relatively young, and she probably had to be a woman (though he might have got away with a man who was black or Latino). In a campaign likely to be dominated by visuals as well as visions, it also helps that Palin has the looks of a former beauty-queen.

Amazingly, some commentators have compared this surprise appointment to George Bush I's choice of Dan Quayle as his vice-president. Dan Quayle, as I recall, had two claims to fame. As a young man, he used his family connections to avoid being sent to Vietnam (a war from which John McCain returned home a hero); and in front of a class of schoolchildren he misspelled the word "potato". Sarah Palin, by contrast, has a son who is serving in Iraq, would appear to have an exemplary (if short) record as a Mrs Clean and, if she is little-known outside Alaska, that is doubtless Alaska's fault for being frozen and remote. She certainly looks to me like a woman who can spell "potato".

One of the main dangers for Barack Obama, it has become evident, lies in the existence of unreconciled Hillaryites threatening to defect to the McCain camp. They've been little in evidence these past few days, as the Clintons (Bill more convincingly than Hillary, it must be said) declared for the winning candidate. Obama's big speech, oddly described in some quarters as workmanlike and underwhelming, went a long way towards answering the concerns of those, Hillary supporters above all, who thought he was full of hot air. It was one of the most impressive orations I've heard in years. Anything more rhetorical would have sounded overblown and corny, to say nothing of the open goal it would have presented to McCain.

But then came this masterstroke. No wonder John McCain's video response to the Obama speech today was so unexpectedly generous: with the ace up his sleeve, the Republican could afford to overlook Obama's rather harsh criticisms. Sarah Palin is everything Joe Biden isn't: not experienced (but why does she need to be?), not a Washington insider, not an old white guy. To Hillary's army of female supporters, who yesterday said "Yes, we can (just about)" when asked whether they could, after all, swallow their disappointment and lend Obama their vote, Sarah Palin presents an interesting dilemma. Do they vote for the candidate who promises many of the policies they want to see, or do they vote for the woman? A no-brainer, you might think, especially since Palin's traditionalist stance on abortion (thank you, Master Cranmer) is unlikely to be to the taste of many ardent feminists. But then there's the complicating factor of John McCain's age.

The Republican candidate is said to be in good health, although he has suffered from skin cancer in the past (he has had four malignant melanomas surgically removed in the past 15 years). At 72 today, with a mother still living, he might reasonably expect to see out at least one term in office. But you never know. One report I found stated that he was diagnosed with stage IIA melanoma in 2000, and "a third of all Stage IIA melanoma victims die within 10 years." A few months ago, indeed, there was a wild speculation on some blogs that McCain would be forced to withdraw on health grounds before the election. That's not going to happen. Nevertheless, no-one would claim that Palin's chances of becoming president through the natural death of the incumbent are not substantially greater than Joe Biden's.

Which brings me to my speculation. Not that John McCain is likely to die in office - that is unknowable - but, rather, that the Republican candidate, by selecting Sarah Palin as his running-mate, in consciously invoking that possibility. He is saying to those Hillary supporters who were flirting with abandoning the Democrats that voting for him would give them the best chance they may ever have (the older ones, especially) of seeing a woman as president. While publicly stressing his good health, he is holding out his possible death as an electoral inducement.

This election will be fascinating.
Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Whipping up a storm

Religious fervour can have some strange manifestations. At the ancient Spartan festival of Artemis Orthia, for example, it was customary to severely beat teenage boys. It probably originated as a rite of passage, an ordeal proving the boy's incipient manhood, important for a warrior society. But the decline of Sparta as an independent city-state didn't end the practice, and by Roman times it had become a tourist attraction. Pausanias described it thus:

They claim that this (the statue of Artemis Orthia) is the idol that Orestes and Iphigenia stole from the Taurians...Astrabacos and Alopecos, the sons of Irbos, suddenly went mad when they found the statue, and when the Spartans sacrificed to Artemis she cursed them through this statue with quarrels and then with murders; many of them died at her altar and disease devoured the rest. This is the reason why they bloody the altar with human blood. They used to slaughter a human sacrifice chosen by lot; Lycurgus substituted the whipping of adolescent boys, and the altar still gets its fill of human blood. The priestess with the idol stands beside them; it is small and light, except that if ever the scourgers pull their strokes because of a boy's beauty or his rank, then the woman finds the idol heavy and hard to carry; she blames the scourgers and says they are hurting her, such is the taste for human blood that has survived in that statue from the time of the Taurian sacrifices.

I thought about this passage when I heard about the case of Syed Mustafa Zaidi, who has been convicted for coercing two teenage boys to whip themselves raw using a zanjeer zani - a wooden-handled implement containing five curved blades - during the Shi'ite festival of Ashura, which commemorates the 7th century martyrdom of Husain, grandson of Mohammed and spiritual lodestar of Shia Islam.

According to one report:

Manchester crown court heard how Zaidi, 44, flagellated himself at an event held in January in Manchester until his back was bloody and cut. Others at the event also flogged themselves. Some of those present, fearing Zaidi would seriously harm himself, asked him to calm down. Zaidi agreed, only to turn his attention to the two boys.

The 14-year-old, who was 13 at the time, told the jury that neither he nor the other boy wanted to injure themselves. He said Zaidi was insistent with the older boy, "pulling him and pushing him, 'keep doing it', telling people 'this is a sad moment and look, he's not doing it'.

"He goes, 'I don't want to do it, I don't want to do it'. He kept pressuring him, make him do the knife thing, pulling him, trying to get his T-shirt off, pulling and pushing him. He was saying, 'just do it, just do it'." He said the 15-year-old "swung it once or twice and said 'I don't want to do it any more'." The older boy was then pulled away by another man.

After the ceremony, the boys went home to their mother, who noticed several deep wounds on their backs and multiple slash wounds. She took them to Manchester Royal infirmary and the matter was reported to the police.

A disturbing, not to say horrifying case. Yet it would seem that, apart from the involvement of children, there is little we are meant to be shocked by. Beating oneself into a bloody pulp might not bear much superficial similarity to Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral, but it's still religion. The man's culture. We're supposed to respect that. Indeed, it's the sort of diversity we're supposed to celebrate in this vibrant multi-faith society of ours. As Riazat Butt's report continues:

Carol Jackson, for the Crown Prosecution Service, said the prosecution was not an attack upon the practices or ceremonies of Shia Muslims, adding that the prosecution relied partly on evidence given by the president of the local Shia community centre.

So why not put the alternative point of view? Let's hear it for the flagellants.

In case you've missed it, the Guardian have decided - presumably in the cause of mutual understanding, though in that case it has backfired somewhat spectacularly - to open their floor to Nadeem Kazmi, who would appear to be an out and out enthusiast for Shi'ite rituals of flagellation.

Kazmi writes
that he was "disheartened" to hear about Zaidi's conviction. As were most people who learned that children in 21st century Britain were being made to participate in bloody, violent and barbaric rituals in the name of religion. But that wasn't quite what Kazmi means, of course. No: what he finds most disheartening is that the case may cause some people to think negatively of Ashura. As he writes, "the danger of this case is that the ritual of self-flagellation itself is demonised." Indeed it is.

Kazmi is most anxious that everyone reading should realise just how normal the whole flagellation business is. It will "sound familiar", he writes, to anyone who has grown up in a Shia household (though some Shi'ites came on the thread to disagree). "There is nothing odd in the father of the household engaging in this particular practice," he claims. What he means of course, is that to anyone who has been brainwashed by - sorry, "brought up in" - this crazy practice it will seem normal. Just as someone who has spent his entire life in a sewer is unlikely to realise that he smells.

I have personally never seen anybody coerced into it, although coercion can, admittedly, take many indirect forms. There is also nothing strange in seeing participants who, immersed in what appears to be a spiritual ecstasy, are made to calm down, often to prevent further injury to themselves.

Before they actually kill themselves, you mean? Allah forbid.

Kazmi is good enough to point out that "Zaidi's actions crossed the boundaries of what is acceptable"; it's unclear whether he means by this the involvement of children, or the element of coercion, or both. But his description of the ritual is so lyrical that it seems unlikely that he really believes encouraging children to whip themselves with chains and knife-blades constitutes abuse. Certainly, the evidence from Iran, the heartland of this practice, would tend to suggest otherwise. Even young children - like this boy here - are permitted, even enjoined to take part. Babies are baptised in blood, and thus the tradition is handed down from father to son. As the Jesuits liked to say, give us the boy and we will give you the man. In Britain, of course, it doesn't do to involve children - as the Zaidi case shows. But don't pretend it doesn't happen.

This passage is revealing:

Those adults who engage in self-flagellation with knives, chains or blades, do so with a consciousness of the ceremonial nature of the act, keenly watched by onlookers, children and adults alike, who, though they have seen it all before, continue to be mesmerised by the sheer spectacle of it – the display. This excitement is, for most, mixed with an actual sense of profound identification with the suffering of Imam Hussain

Ah yes, group of men flaying the skin from their own backs. Seen it all before. In Kazmi's parallel universe, there's nothing whatever wrong with encouraging children to watch this bloodthirsty spectacle. It's probably essential. After all, if they're not inured to the sight of all that blood and ecstasy from an early age they might find the whole spectacle revolting. And that would never do, would it?

Zaidi claims that the Ashura ritual "paradoxically, provides an antithesis to extremism and violence." How? "The point about the apparent extreme self-violence is that extremism and violence in and of themselves are condemnable. Thus, without the essential dramatic immediacy that the practice conveys to both participant as well as audience, the rituals that comprise the passion of Hussain would be rendered meaningless." That is tantamount to saying that the only way for Christians to find meaning in the death of Christ would be to crucify themselves - like a few enthusiasts (always attended, and possibly egged on, by camera crews) do every Easter in the Philippines. As an explanation for the Ashura, it isn't very convincing.

But what was that word again? Excitement. Dr Freud, awaken from your slumbers. Watching bloodshed can be exciting, no doubt about it. Ask any fan of the Corrida. Ask one of those Romans who were unwillingly caught up in the fervour of the gladiatorial games - Seneca, for example, who wrote that "nothing is more ruinous to character as sitting in the arena". Or St Augustine, who has this tale to tell of his friend Alypius:

Although he had been utterly opposed to such spectacles and detested them, one day he met by chance a company of his acquaintances and fellow students returning from dinner; and, with a friendly violence, they drew him, resisting and objecting vehemently, into the amphitheater, on a day of those cruel and murderous shows....When they got to the arena, and had taken what seats they could get, the whole place became a tumult of inhuman frenzy. But Alypius kept his eyes closed and forbade his mind to roam abroad after such wickedness. Would that he had shut his ears also! For when one of the combatants fell in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirred him so strongly that, overcome by curiosity and still prepared (as he thought) to despise and rise superior to it no matter what it was, he opened his eyes and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the victim whom he desired to see had been in his body. Thus he fell more miserably than the one whose fall had raised that mighty clamor. For, as soon as he saw the blood, he drank in with it a savage temper, and he did not turn away, but fixed his eyes on the bloody pastime, unwittingly drinking in the madness -- delighted with the wicked contest and drunk with blood lust. He was now no longer the same man who came in, but was one of the mob he came into, a true companion of those who had brought him thither. Why need I say more? He looked, he shouted, he was excited, and he took away with him the madness that would stimulate him to come again: not only with those who first enticed him, but even without them; indeed, dragging in others besides.

(Confessions, Book 6, Ch8)
But what of the excitement of those actually involved? Many have compared and contrasted this case - in which the "extreme" rituals of a religion are treated indulgently in press accounts - with the less polite hearing that BDSM practitioners typically receive when, as with Max Mosley and his four delightful female companions, they find themselves under public scrutiny. But there's a big difference, isn't there, between undergoing painful self-flagellation in the interest of religious piety, and just doing it for kicks. Isn't there?

Of course not.

Physical self-abuse can be found in many religious traditions, though rarely in so extreme a form as Ashura. Flagellation was a common form of penance in Christianity in the middle ages and beyond. But it isn't just organised religions that tend this way. Shamanic forms of spirituality frequently use pain - as they use drugs, dancing, and sometimes sex - as a means to achieve a trance-like state of mystical communion with the spirit world. And the reason is not hard to find. Sex, pain, and intense emotional or religious experiences are all associated with the release of the body's natural analgesics, endorphins.

Whether you're engaging in masochistic practices like self-flagellation for religious reasons, or for those of "sexual" gratification matters less, at a physiological level, than the endorphin rush that these intense experiences generate. Subjectively, the experiences will have much in common; they will produce the same high, the same emotional release. And they will be similarly addictive. With a ritual such as Ashura, however, the private mystical experience of the flagellant is allied to a powerful group dynamic. According to professor Robin Dunbar of Durham University,

In the classic case of Bushman trance dances, they are very much designed to bond everybody to the common project of the group. They are very experiential, of the person. There is no grand theology - it's very much a religion of "doing" and "being". And it's this ecstatic element that I think cues us in to what's going on, because something seems to happen when you engage in these ecstatic activities that makes you feel more part of the community. It gets everyone signed up to the group project once again, especially if relationships within the community have become rather tense and fractured. I put it all down to endorphins myself, but you can argue a case there are other neuro-endocrines such as oxytocins. The rituals of religion seem to be especially good at triggering a cascade of neuro-endocrines, and it is these that are responsible for that "kapow" effect we get in ecstatic experiences. But in my view, what's really underpinning it in the end is the endorphins. It seems to be the endorphins that create this sense of communal belonging, of being a member of the group, when you engage in these activities with others.
There's little doubt, too, that such rituals, over time, tend to become more extreme, just as a heroin addict needs increasingly large fixes to satisfy his need to get high. In his notes on the passage from Pausanias quoted at the beginning of this article, Peter Levi writes as follows:

What Pausanias says about human sacrifice is nonsense based on Euripides. This primitive ritual beating had in the classical period the character of a very rough initiation; in the Roman period the ancient disciplines of Sparta were not only revived by exaggerated to a horrifying degree. The disgusting 3rd century AD addition of an amphitheatre for tourists to watch boys being savagely beaten can reasonably be related to other entertainments of that age.

Those sadistic Romans would certainly have enjoyed Ashura.
Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The Veil Unveiled

The Guardian's religion correspondent Riazat Butt has certainly stirred up the proverbial hornets' nest with her article about the abusive remarks her sister has encountered while wearing a full-face veil. She was out and about in Southampton recently when someone was heard to call her "ninja woman".

We challenged the man who made the remark, he denied saying it, even though he said it as I was passing him. My sister called him "a lying bigot", which is all she could muster on a Sunday afternoon in Primark, en route to Clark's to have her children fitted for new shoes, but she delivered it rather splendidly, to the bemusement of shoppers who, if they hadn't noticed her before, suddenly found her rather interesting. Her children asked why mummy was shouting at a man.

She left Primark in a foul mood, and sitting in Clark's with three children who kept complaining about being bored/tired/hungry was not the best way for her to calm down.

Riazat wondered how her sister ought to respond, "next time someone calls her a name."

A predictably lively thread followed. Here was my initial reaction, in a comment that by the early evening had attracted 160 "recommends", a record for me (I don't know who holds the all-time record: if any Cif nerd is able to discover, I'd love to know):

How should she respond? By taking it off.

I'm sorry your sister has been abused, but the veil not only gives many people the creeps (and that is only natural, given that it is utterly alien, not just to western culture, but to western conceptions of human dignity) it is also extremely rude. So it's something your sister wants to do? I might want to walk down the street stark naked. I don't, as it happens, but I might. If I did, I would run the risk of being arrested; but even if walking around naked were not illegal, it would still be an act of selfishness, even self-absorption, displaying a complete lack of regard for other people and the common proprieties. Wearing a face veil is exactly the same.

If your sister wishes to go about her business like everyone else, then she should prepared to meet society at least half-way. She should accept that, far from being "modest" (it is, surely, as immodest a garment as it is possible to imagine) the veil is a proclamation of difference, even of superiority. It is (in an unveiled society) an assertion of not wanting to belong. Well, that is her right in a free society. But it would be wrong for her to imagine that it is or should be cost-free. If your sister has a right to passive-aggressively insult the culture in which she lives, then, sadly, rude ill-bred people have an equal right to be rude to her. Most people will be silently pitying her.

I half-expected that comment to get "moderated". Perhaps it will be. It was, however, one of the milder expressions of unease, distaste, or opposition. As Jack Straw discovered a couple of years ago, the veil stands proxy for much about Islam that non-Muslims (not just westerners) find disorientating or even threatening. Most people are too polite openly to abuse a woman wearing a Niqab; the strange mixture of pity and anger it arouses cannot, however, be simply dissipated by calling for "respect". What is to be respected? The woman, certainly. But an interpretation of religion that has such a perverse view of "modesty"? Might respecting the veil - historically, and in some cultures today, an instrument of oppression - risk piling pressure on the unwilling to adopt it themselves?

After the fold, a thought-provoking and well-informed critique posted by Noor Aza Othman of the Women for Justice Support Group Project, Malaysia. It was, perhaps inevitably, "deleted by Moderator". But fortunately I'd saved it. It's well worth a read.

The Veil and Violence against Women in Islamist Societies by Maryam Namazie (born in Iran, which her family left after the Iranian revolution. She now lives in the West, where she has worked ceaselessly for human rights, particularly on behalf of refugees. She was recently involved in setting up the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain).

7 August, 2007 - 09:17.

Recent reports on the Islamic regime of Irans crackdown on women who are ‘badly veiled (bad-hejab) and their resistance to the regimes campaign of arrest and harassment has been reported quite extensively in comparison to other similar events over the years. This is partly due to amateur video footage taken via mobile phones by passers-by uploaded on YouTube for the world to see.

There are two pieces of footage that everyone should take a look at. One is of an unveiled woman shouting ‘we dont want the veil; we want freedom. The other is of a young girl who is being questioned by security agents for being ‘badly veiled; she pulls off her veil in front of them and is kicked into a waiting car to be driven away.

Given that veiling is compulsory in Iran, these acts of defiance are all the more heroic.

This ongoing battle between the Islamic authorities and women over the veil clearly reveals why it has become a symbol like no other of the violence women face under Islam and why ‘improper or ‘bad veiling and unveiling have become a symbol of resistance to Islam in power and its violence against women. It is for this very reason that the slogan ‘neither veil nor submission has become a rallying cry ever since the regime imposed compulsory veiling on women after expropriating and crushing the revolution to consolidate its rule.

With the myriad examples of violence against women in Islamist societies – from stoning to legally sanctioned domestic violence – the ‘fuss over veiling may seem overboard for those who have heard about the ‘right to veil and ‘freedom of clothing from Islamists who deceptively use rights language in an effort to make the veil palatable to a western audience.

But the veil is anything but a piece of cloth or clothing. Just as the straight-jacket or body bag are anything but pieces of clothing. Just as the chastity belt was not a piece of clothing. Just as the Star of David pinned on Jews during the holocaust was not just a bit of cloth.

The veil is a tool for the suppression and oppression of women. It is meant to segregate. It is representative of how women are viewed in Islam: sub-human, ‘deficient, ‘inferior, without rights, and despised. Trapped in a mobile prison not to be heard from or seen.

The veiled woman is veiled to prevent her from being seen or touched by anyone other than those who have some form of ownership over her – her father, husband or brother.

In many instances it is a matter of life and death. In Iran just recently paramedics were denied access to two sisters who needed emergency assistance because their brother deemed it sinful for the paramedics to touch them. They died as a result. And we have all heard of the example of Saudi Arabia where girls schools are locked as usual practice to ensure the segregation of the sexes. In 2002 when a fire broke out at a school in Mecca, the guards would not unlock the gates and religious police prevented girls from escaping – to the point of even beating them back into the school – because they were not properly veiled; moreover they stopped men who tried to help, warning the men that it was sinful to touch the girls. Fifteen girls died as a result and more than fifty were wounded.

As I said – a matter of life and death.

Moreover, the veil imposes sexual apartheid and the segregation of the sexes very much like racial apartheid in the former South Africa. But in this instance, in addition to the segregation that is carried out in society, such as separate entrances for women in certain government offices, separate areas for womens seating on buses, the banning of women from certain public arenas like sport stadiums, a curtain dividing the Caspian sea for segregated swimming and so on, woman are forced to carry the divide on their very own backs.

And dont forget the more subtle aspects to it, though just as detrimental, like the sun never touching a womans hair or body and the adverse health effects of that. And how depressing it must be to be deemed so vile and dangerous as to need constant cover…

And imagine the effects of the veil on girl children. Sexualized from age nine, kept segregated from boys, taught that they are different and unequal, restricted from playing, swimming and in general doing things children must do – nothing short of child abuse.

At least in Iran, there is mass resistance in the form of a social protest movement. The veil is also imposed on many women in Europe via threats and intimidation. But because of the respect the veil and religion are granted due to racist cultural relativism, women and girls are often left to the mercy of regressive Islamic organisations and parasitical imams.

A mullah in Green Lane mosque in Birmingham has said, for example: 'Allah has created the woman deficient' and a satellite broadcast from the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, beamed into the mosque suggested that children should be hit if they don't pray and don’t wear the hijab. Then there is Australia’s senior Islamic cleric, Sheik Taj Aldin al-Hilali, who has compared unveiled women to ‘uncovered meat’ implying that they invite rape and sexual assault. ‘If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside ... without cover, and the cats come to eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats' or the uncovered meat's? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.’

That women transgress the veil daily is a testimony to their humanity and not the laws, states or groups that impose it by force or intimidation.

No apology, justification, appeasement or cultural relativism can deny the indignity and violence that the veil is and represents.

Another somewhat overwrought post which didn't stay up for very long came from "Clare London" (I presume that's Clare in London). Clare had posted a strongly-worded comment in which she finished up by saying, "I don't care even if she is verbally abused, frankly. She deserves it." This prompted a pithy response from Ms Butt ("fuck off") and a longer, somewhat sarcastic aside during which it emerged that the sister's husband had in fact died. At this, Clare went slightly off the handle:

I find your comment extremely stupid.

By using the term 'husband' I obviously intended it to be taken in the generic sense. My comment described some of the commonly-held views from 'our side' as to why women like your sister shroud themselves in an offensively extreme way. The exact personal circumstances of your sister's life are not, of course, known to me. The specifics are irrelevant.

If your brother-in-law has died, I'm sorry to hear it.

I'm a committed reader of these pages and I have the right to my views. I pity your poor sister for the lifestyle which she, in her delusion, and you, in your delusion, thinks is a 'legitimate choice'. Your high irritation at my stance proves to me you are a thorough bigot - not only FOR prejudiced behaviour but AGAINST the free assertion of contrary ideas.

I am hardly going to take such sarcastic abuse from you without demur. I realise you are writing a 'problem letter' and not a serious piece of journalism. However, what on earth are you doing, as a Guardian contributor, stooping to write such a sarcastic, emotionally illiterate response to me? You are SO steeped in the in your religious habits of thinking that you lash out in an immature way at me. Are you not embarrassed? What has been your training as a journalist?

I note you have written pieces which fall into the category of 'journalism' before now and I would have thought the Guardian has standards of objectivity to which it requires its writers to mor eor less adhere. I wonder when you write about mediaeval customs in the name of 'religion' whether it might be better keeping a civil tongue in your head when replying to people like me who don't like your stuff.

Because, as I said, I don't LIKE seeing women like your sister shrouded from head to toe. I don't like it very much indeed. And I'm going to say so without any effort to restrain from causing you offence. Because god is not real and your cultural past includes enough savage repression of women for me to find it a mind fuck to see it in evidence in 2008 in Central London, where I encounter it every day.

Let's put this more succintly in the time-honoured phrase: if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

Don't write in girlish, wide-eyed Elizabeth- Violet Botts-like innocence, pretending the problem to be the fact your sister was verbally abused "Oooh, someone spoke nastily to my poor sister, what on earth should she do" - without acknowledging that your sister's choices are literally brain-damaged so it's pretty amazing when people DON'T abuse her.

You're been got at thoroughly by your religious culture and social customs from a too early age. That you aren't willing to acknowledge this only goes to show you're brain damaged as well.

Poor chick. So sorry. Maybe journalism is not the trade for you if you can't face not continuing in your childish fantasies.

Oh yeah - shroud a woman from head to foot in black so only her eyes are showing and then she is 'liberated'.

And I'm a purple 20 foot high octopus.

Well, no surprise that this was deleted. But it does go to show just what strong passions can be aroused by a woman who chooses to hide herself from public gaze and, by so doing, ensure that she is in fact extremely visible.

Read the rest of this article

Monday, 25 August 2008

Icon of Evil

Like one of Poe's vampiric antiheroines exerting a malign influence from beyond the grave, Myra - or rather the picture of Myra - is back. Sunday's embarrassing incident, in which a short tourist promo, featuring the briefest glipse of Marcus Harvey's infamous artwork, was played during Gordon Brown's platitude-laden Olympic speech in Beijing, shows, if nothing else, how much the tabloids still need Hindley. Leading the outrage, the Sun had the obligatory quote from Winnie Johnson, mother of one of the victims of the Moors Murderers, who was apparently "stunned", yet somehow managed to come up with a neat soundbite: "Hindley is the symbol of evil — not a beacon of everything that’s good about Britain." I'm guessing the reporter put that in her mouth.

It was, of course, an unfortunate piece of clumsiness, which could have been avoided if anyone in charge - Gordon Brown's people, Boris Johnson's people, the British Olympic Association, the 2012 organising committee, anyone - had sat down to watch the film, advertising the many cultural delights of London, before giving it the all clear. That, in itself - like the frankly embarrassing "London bus" vignette during the closing ceremony - rather shows up the difference between the chilling efficiency of the Chinese and the under-rehearsed amateurism which some of 2012's spin-doctors would appear to be promoting as a British virtue. My Granny, after watching Boris shamble into the Olympic stadium, his jacket undone and seemingly unsure where to put his hands, opined that he had "let Britain down". Personally, I thought the mayor's speech about "Ping Pong coming home" was little short of brilliant: funny, gently subversive, even educative (did you know ping-pong was originally known as "whiff-whaff?") and full of bumptious patriotism. But I can see her point.

This is the real choker: the film hadn't even been specially shot, or edited, for the occasion. It was just a corporate video. Some PR, delegated to explain the Myra mistake, put it as follows:

The video is not for general public use and has been used many times over the last few years to show to the tourism trade. There has never been a complaint made about the video up until this point. However, if any offence has been caused, we will withdraw it from use with immediate effect.

Of course, there's a difference between showing the film to tourism insiders and broadcasting it in a roomful of newspaper hacks and TV cameras. But it's true enough that the film's an old one. The Myra picture - in which a child's hand prints go to make up the image - was first shown in London as part of the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition in 1997. The show was picketed and the picture itself vandalised, such was the hostility it evoked. Afterwards, its owner Charles Saatchi displayed it in his eponymous gallery. But you won't see it there now. In 2004, Saatchi flogged the painting to a New York commodities broker.

It's worth pondering how Harvey's picture came to be seen as a fitting image for modern London. It's newsworthy, controversial, crowd-drawing. But it's also more than ten years old, and draws on a crime that took place more than 40 years ago. "It's an example of how there's no censorship in the UK", the PR was quoted as saying; though it might equally be seen as an example of how lucrative the manipulation of public outrage can be for everyone concerned. Whether Harvey's intention was to gain easy publicity, or to ask troubling questions about the nature of evil, I don't pretend to know. It was probably some combination. But the work is powerful and troubling.

It recalls Warhol in its manipulation of mass-media kitsch. Marina Warner thought that "by literally [?] branding her face with her victims' touch, the painter was making a classic example of a pittura infamante, an image intended to defame... For the indignant viewers, however, the Myra summoned her presence and, in continuing to make her visible to all, seemed to celebrate her crimes". Warner compared the picture to one she attributed to Arcimbaldo, in which the face of King Herod is created from the bodies of dead babies.

The original photograph of Myra Hindley is undoubtedly iconic (an anti-icon, in fact - inviting hatred instead of worship). It is probably the most memorable picture ever taken by a non-professional photographer; among police mugshots, only that of Charles Manson even comes close to matching its power. It played no small part in keeping her locked up, and in fixing her - rather than her accomplice Ian Brady, who seems to have been the prime mover in the murders - as the archetype of evil. Hindley spent most of her life as a prisoner: a prisoner of the state, of the media, of her past, of her ineradicable crimes, but above all the prisoner of that image.

The trial judge assumed that Hindley would eventually be released. "Though I believe Brady is wicked beyond belief without hope of redemption," he said when pronouncing sentence, "I cannot feel that the same is necessarily true of Hindley once she is removed from his influence." But he reckoned without That Picture.

Above all, of course, it was a gift to the tabloids. The manipulation of horror for commercial ends is something that the popular press does better than any Hollywood studio. When she died, still unreleased, in 2002, they must have been among her only mourners.
Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 24 August 2008

A Battle Lost

If you read anything this weekend, let it be this wonderful piece by A.A. Gill on the Battle of Towton - the bloodiest, but probably the least well-known, battle in English history. Gill gives a vivid sense of both the horror and ultimate pointlessness of the battle. He also administers a much-needed history lesson. The Wars of the Roses aren't much taught in schools, despite a catchy nickname, and it's not hard to see why; doubtless they seemed immensely important at the time, but from this historical distance they stand revealed as a largely irrelevant struggle between two groups of aristocratic psychopaths with improbably romantic names. It was, as Gill memorably puts it, "a hissy fit that stuttered and smouldered through the exhausted fag end of the Middle Ages like a gang feud."

Many would regard the obscurity into which Towton has fallen as yet more evidence of the poor state of history teaching in modern Britain, with its excessive concentration on World War II. But it's doubtful if the period has ever been properly taught or remembered. Simon Schama passed over the whole of the Wars of the Roses in a single sentence in his romp through the History of Britain on television a few years ago. The book version concedes the period a couple of pages, only to admit that "the endless chronicle of battles...of hasty shipboard departures and even hastier coronations... leaves the reader slightly numbed."

The Wars of the Roses are not especially memorable, I suppose, because they weren't really about anything. The other English civil war, the one called the Civil War, can be seen as a clash of competing ideologies - though it was just as much a contest between two sections of the ruling class. Ideas emerged during the 17th century conflict, and its result diverted the course of British history. Arguably the whole of our subsequent national story - and that of the wider English-speaking world - has been a continuation of the struggle between the Cavaliers and the Roundheads. The entire bloody struggle was even re-run twice, across the Atlantic, in the American War of Independence and 1861-65 Civil War. The Roundheads won both times. Roundheads generally do. But can anyone tell the difference between the Lancastrians and the Yorkists?

The anarchy and the confusion, of course, were the whole point: central authority had collapsed, or at least become hollow. Possession of the crown did not provide the source power so much as reflect it. The king was dependent on a shifting coalition of magnates; legally, he was everything, but in fact he was only as strong as his army, which is to say as his allies. The common people didn't really come into it, unless, as at Towton, they were killing and being killed in massive numbers.

Even as he downplays the battle's significance as history, Gill exaggerates its importance as literature. Shakespeare's history plays, he tells us, "can be seen as our nation’s Iliad". Shakespeare didn't really do warfare, though: he did psychology, and there's precious little psychology in a pitched battle. It's not a coincidence that the most popular of his history plays deal with the periods before the Wars of the Roses (Henry V) and their coda (Richard III). And while the Trojan War was ever-present in Greek minds, Henry VI, Edward IV, Warwick and the rest of the protagonists in the fifteenth century struggle mean less to most modern Britons than Achilles or Priam. Which is to say, absolutely nothing.

A similar period of anarchy occurred 150 years later in Russia, between the death of Ivan the Terrible and the eventual victory of the Romanovs. As in the Wars of the Roses, the authority of the Tsars haemorrhaged to clans of powerful, mutually suspicious nobles; and with its dynastic struggles and improbably pretenders the saga was at least as confusing. Yet that "time of troubles" was not forgotten; it has remained a central theme in the Russian national story, and the lesson that was drawn - that the country thrives on authoritarian central control - continues to influence events. Putin is its latest beneficiary. But then Russia is so large and unwieldy that central authority is always inherently vulnerable. In England the Wars of the Roses look like an aberration, and the centralism of the succeeding Tudors appears much more like the natural order of things.

Perhaps, though, there's more contemporary relevance than first appears in the confusing battles of the mid fifteenth century. Today, as then, politics has become little more than a battle about possession the symbols of power, fought between largely indistinguishable members of a ruling elite. It is too much to say that it doesn't matter who wins, but the larger decisions are taken elsewhere, in supra-national institutions like the EU, by global corporations and banks, or by the impersonal forces of international capital. Both within parties and between them, politicians use high-sounding language of passion and principle to veil their jockeying for power. But will future generations have a clue what it was that they were arguing about?
Read the rest of this article

Friday, 22 August 2008

Going for Gold

Great Britain's performance in the Olympics has been astonishing, little short of stupendous. Even hardened cynics have been moved to bring out the red white and blue, and God Save the Queen can't have been heard quite so often since they stopped playing it in cinemas. As I write Britain is maintaining a slim lead over Russia in the number of golds (though not in the number of medals per se) and has a comfortable lead over traditional sporting superpowers Germany and Australia. Japan, with twice Britain's population, has a mere nine gold medals. The French are languishing in eleventh place with five - which is approximately where Britain used to be. By any stretch of the imagination, and despite a number of disappointments, Britain has hugely overperformed in this Olympics.

And yet...while China's even bigger medal haul looks like a symbol of its new-found confidence and global reach, Britain's looks ever so slightly like a con-trick. It's not that the improvement since Athens and Sydney (to say nothing of the embarrassing 36th place in Atlanta twelve years ago) has been so dramatic, or that it's less than obvious why Britain should be performing so much better than comparable nations such as Italy. No: it's the identity of the medals themselves. Although the medals table treats all golds equally, intuitively they are not the same; and this year the athletics track - where the real medals are won - has seen thin pickings for Team GB. Note, too, that Christine Ohuruogu, who won the 400 metres, only got to Beijing after overturning the British Olympic Association's attempt to ban her. If the BOA had had its way there would have been no British golds in the athletics at all. By contrast, the vast majority of the British medals have come from watersports of various kinds and, most strikingly, cycling.

That Britain should dominate sailing is only right and proper, given our history. Rowing, too, is a pedigree British sport. Cowes and Henley, the University Boat Race and the Admiral's Cup: these are internationally famous (but then so is Wimbledon). It's less easy to see why no fewer than seven of our gold medals have been won in the velodrome, in events such as the team pursuit and the points race. Of course, there's an explanation: the sport has been the recipient of vast quantities of Lottery money. But that only points up the artificial nature of the success. Track cycling would appear to have been chosen cynically by a committee for the sole purpose of winning Olympic medals.

Watching groups of men (or even women) on expensively constructed bikes whizzing round and round and round and round is not just bad for the health of one's inner ear, it's also brain-numbingly tedious. Few countries compete, because it is expensive and pointless and has almost no following. And while I was delighted to hear that Chris Hoy had won three gold medals in the velodrome, I'm equally pleased that I didn't have to watch him doing it. On the road, meanwhile, Britain's cyclists picked up only a single gold medal. But then road racing is a proper sport, which is exciting to watch, has a large international following and is, thus, properly competitive.

Britain's medal haul is a perfect expression of the target culture that has so blighted many aspects of our national life during the New Labour years. Just like the steadily rising A-level results that mask (not very effectively) a catastrophic decline in the ability of university entrants to construct an argument or master the hard mathematics needed for traditional science, just as police performance is measured in the successful prosecution of minor crimes while major criminals go free and museums are graded by visitor numbers rather than the quality of the exhibits, so Olympic success has become another box-ticking exercise. What matters is not participation in sport, or public enthusiasm for watching it. The important thing is to achieve an arbitrarily defined numerical target or to look impressive in league tables. In schools, this has produced a situation in which this week's record GCSE pass-rate combined with another fall in the numbers taking a foreign language. In the Olympics, it may well lift the national mood for a few days. It doesn't, though, ultimately mean very much.

The British Olympic effort has become an exercise in statist managerialism. A top-down funding council funnels money into selected sports; those that produce results get more, others are left struggling. In best New Labour fashion, delivery is via a supposedly arms-length quango; yet the result is almost as state-managed as used to be the case in the Soviet Union, or East Germany, which regularly finished third or fourth yet remained a nasty totalitarian dump. Meanwhile, the government continues to permit the selling off of school playing fields, without which Britain's performance in the real Olympic sports, the track and field events, will continue to decline.

Compare that with sports that people actually want to see: above all, with football, where the spirit of the free market presides. All the ills of the market are visible: over-inflated salaries, costly failures, greed, hubris, vulgarity, sexual excess. The England team, like some medium sized bank, is full of over-hyped stars who consistently underperform and still walk off clutching giant bonuses. As in the City, many of the rewards go to foreign talent, inflating property prices and leaving the national side understrength. E pur se muove. Football requires no publicised subsidies; no government minister has to come up with strategies to encourage participation; however inflated the ticket prices, Premiership stadiums are not characterised, like too many Olympic venues, by rows of empty seats.

As in East Germany, the British government seems to be of the view that national success can be measured in terms of medal tables. So it's bitterly ironic that today, which saw Britain's 18th gold medal, also saw the country's economic growth come to a complete standstill. In foreign policy terms, too, Britain has been utterly sidelined during the recent Georgian crisis, not just by the Russians and the Americans, but by the French and Germans too. Whether the Olympic success will generate enough of a feel-good factor to deflect attention from these and other instances of Gordon Brown's multiple failure I don't know. But I wouldn't bet on it.
Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

What's Boris Playing at?

I've never subscribed to the view of Boris Johnson as a bumbling twerp. Not for a minute. His much-publicised gaffes have generally arisen from two sources: the tendency of an active, socially-communicative mind to do its thinking spontaneously and out loud, and the yearning of a natural writer to avoid empty cliché. These aspects of his personality - both related to his unusual intelligence (unusual for a politician, certainly) - make him one of the most attractive figures in public life, but also one of the most dangerous.

So when, in an article in the Telegraph yesterday, written amid dumbstruck jubilation as the gold medals began piling up in China, he wrote of how such achievement contradicted the claims of "politicians" that Britain was a "broken society", it was natural to file it away as another Boris "gaffe". And this, by and large, is what has happened. For a start, there was rather bigger news happening in Borisland yesterday: the shock resignation of deputy mayor Tim Parker - a Cameron plant - the third such loss since Johnson was elected in May. It took a surprisingly long time before the "gaffe" was even noticed by other journalists. Channel 4 News featured it last night but it was hardly headline news. And, just to seal the approved (and obvious) narrative of gaffery came a statement today in which the suitably chastised mayor denied he was contradicting official Tory policy.

The statement from the mayor's office read that the qualities of ambition, determination and self discipline displayed by the Olympians were "the qualities he is keen to encourage in teenagers across London, where a lack of purpose, discipline and self-esteem lead many to wasted lives and violence." Moreover,

David Cameron is right to highlight that serious and destructive social breakdown. Politicians who pretend there is not a problem are complacent, and should recognise that there is a huge challenge if every teenager is to fulfil their potential as our athletes have managed this week.

This, to coin a phrase, is "piffle".

Consider what Boris Johnson actually said:

If you believe the British press, the youth of today is aimless, feckless and hopeless, addicted to their PlayStations, lacking in respect and lacking in the emotional discipline needed to cope with a big match occasion.

If you believe the politicians, we have a broken society, in which the courage and morals of young people have been sapped by welfarism and political correctness.

And if you look at what is happening at the Beijing Olympics, you can see what piffle that is. Do not adjust your set: that really is a collection of smiling, well-balanced young British people, giving pleasingly self-deprecating accounts of how they have managed to haul in medal after medal after medal.

The clear implication here is that the Olympic athletes are representative of young people in Britain generally. Outstanding role-models they may be, but they are not untypical. Contrast that with the statement then issued in his name. That "lack of purpose, discipline and self-esteem lead many to wasted lives and violence" is precisely the argument that Johnson dismissed as "piffle". The "complacent" politicians who deny that there is a problem would therefore presumably include Boris himself.

That Britain is a "broken society" has been the theme of David Cameron's leadership for more than a year now. He says it as often as the young Tony Blair said "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" or "education, education, education". It was in early July last year, launching a report on social breakdown compiled by Iain Duncan Smith, that Cameron "signalled his intention to shake-up the tax and benefits system to boost marriage as part of his campaign to mend Britain's broken society," in the words of a Conservative press release. Ever since then, he and virtually every other front-bench spokesman have repeated the phrase like a mantra. A few weeks ago, shortly before the Glasgow East by-election, Cameron predicted it would be seen as the "broken society by-election". His mission, he said, was "to repair our broken society - to heal the wounds of poverty, crime, social disorder and deprivation that are steadily making this country a grim and joyless place to live for far too many people."

To describe the main campaign theme of his party's leadership as "piffle" in a national newspaper was more than your usual Boris gaffe, then. It was a deliberate frontal assault. Compare, too, Johnson's dismissal of the politicians who blame the broken society on "welfare and political correctness" to the remarks of David Miliband in his notorious leadership bid Guardian article last month:

What about the social breakdown that causes crime? More single parents dependent on the state? No, employment has risen sharply for lone parents because the state has funded childcare and made work pay. Falling school standards? No, they are rising.

Gordon Brown, too, denied that society was broken at the Edinburgh book fair a couple of weeks ago. Britain was a "decent, compassionate society", he said. "I don't think the British people have ever been broken by anything." And, plugging his book on Courage (coming next, Piers Morgan on Discretion) the prime minister explained why he had chosen to write about his personal heroes: "You celebrate them and you create more as a result of that. If people see people doing great things, then these are role models for young people."

Which is more or less precisely what BoJo was saying about the Olympic medal winners.

This was no off-the-cuff remark: it was written down, thought about, polished, sent off, in the full knowledge that it would be printed in a mass-circulation newspaper. He calculated, I think, that in the political off-season when attention was focussed on the Olympics and on Georgia it would be written off as a gaffe. So what was he up to?

Two things, I think. First of all, he was laying down a marker, establishing (or trying to establish) his own independence. Unlike Ken Livingstone, originally elected as an Independent in opposition to the offical Labour candidate, Boris was supposed to do what he was told. So it may be no coincidence that this declaration of political independence - even when followed by an unconvincing "clarification" - accompanied Parker's resignation. It's not clear why the deputy mayor went; there are suggestions that he was unhappy with the constraints involved in playing a subordinate role to an elected mayor. Part of Parker's brief, however, was undoubtedly to take care of Boris; to make sure he didn't screw up and so ruin Cameron's chances in the general election. As Iain Dale notes, it was "to stop Boris being Boris". Without Parker, Boris will be more Boris.

Calling Cameron's main campaign theme "piffle" would seem to be a particularly extreme way of demonstrating this. But then Boris is now almost beyond Cameron's reach. He has millions of votes behind him; Cameron doesn't, yet. In a sense, the mayor has more democratic legitimacy. He certainly has more power.

But perhaps there's more to it. After all, he's now in power in London. Going on about how "broken" society is is opposition talk. Tony Blair used to say things like that before he was elected, so did Jacque Chirac. Margaret Thatcher arrived in Downing Street promising to bring "harmony" in place of "discord". It's different once you get elected. Leadership is often about motivation and consolation, about making people feel good about themselves. Spreading the feel-bad factor might be good for Cameron's chances, but it's probably the last thing Boris needs right now.
Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

God v the feminists

Cath Elliott, a left-wing feminist activist of a type that is now probably an endangered species, today offered CIF a passionate denunciation of religion as, basically, a tool of patriarchal oppression. God - always a "He", of course, despite recent attempts at gender inclusivity - offers the message that "life exists for men, while the best women can hope for is some kind of reward in the next one, as long as we do as we're told". She has "dabbled" in religion - in her mind, having once had a Rastafarian boyfriend counts as dabbling - but feminism always got in the way. Religion, says Elliott, is responsible for most of the ills that befall women, whether it's honour crimes, or inferior education, or AIDS. Nor is any of this likely to change. Invoking imagery from the prophecies of Isaiah, she concludes, "As the lion is never going to lie down with the lamb, so the church is never going to passively cede any control to women: it's simply not in their interest."

Elliott was responding to a bizarre article by Julie Burchill in which the former journalistic wild child announced that she was now a "Christian Zionist" and "Christian feminist" who believed "literally" in the "God of the Jews and the Protestants" (but not, it seems, the God of the Muslims). For her part, Elliott thinks that "Christian feminist" is an oxymoron, "on a par with compassionate conservative". (Actually, Cath, "compassionate conservative" isn't an oxymoron, it's a tautology. Rather like "champagne socialist".) Also on her mind was the debate on Sharia law instigated by the Archbishop of Canterbury. As she notes, giving official blessing to religious-based systems of law that discriminate against women may sound multicultural and "inclusive" - and thus liberal - but what it actually means is "one rule for us and another for our Muslim sisters."

This is an argument on the Left that, until recently, seemed to have been won by the multiculturalists, with feminists who dared to criticise the desire of some women to drape themselves in burqas risking the dreaded taunt of Islamophobia. Feminism, along with other forms of secularism, when subjected to the mental contortionism demanded by "liberal" ideology, turned out to be just another form of Western triumphalism and intellectual arrogance. If no culture was inherently superior to any other then how can modern European/American notions of female equality be imposed on "communities" who cleave to different value systems? Take the hijab, or even the burqa. Can such garments really be claimed to "oppress" women? Surely, proclaim the pro-Islam feminists, the opposite is the case: it is the desire of women to beautify themselves for male visual delectation that oppresses; the veil is a raiment of liberation.

I detect a few signs of a fightback. One was the recent (seemingly successful) campaign to save the Southall Black Sisters, a feminist activist group whose work among disadvantaged minority women dates back to the days when skin colour mattered more than religion as a source of identity. How long ago that now seems. In an article earlier this month for the New Statesman, SBS leader Pragna Patel faced the problem head on. The prevailing multi-faith approach, she complained, "institutionalises the undemocratic power of so called ‘moderate’ (authoritarian if not fundamentalist) religious leaders at all levels of society." As a result,

Civil society is actively encouraged to organise around exclusive religious identities, and religious bodies are encouraged to take over spaces once occupied by progressive secular groups and, indeed, by a secular welfare state. In the process, a complex web of social, political and cultural processes are reduced by both state and community leaders into purely religious values, while concepts of human rights, equality and discrimination are turned on their head.

It is in this context that Cath Elliott makes her attack on the inherent misogyny of religion. She's careful to point out flaws in Christianity first. But she goes on:

Christianity is and always has been antithetical to women's freedom and equality, but it's certainly not alone in this. Whether it's one of the world's major faiths or an off-the-wall cult, religion means one thing and one thing only for those women unfortunate enough to get caught up in it: oppression. It's the patriarchy made manifest, male-dominated, set up by men to protect and perpetuate their power.

Is it, though? Historically, religious power structures have been dominated by men. Traditionally, too, the image of God has been a male image. Theologians, of course, claim that God is pure spirit, beyond male and female; but it's difficult to read the Bible without getting the distinct impression that the Deity is a bloke. The Bible, indeed, is full of "patriarchal attitudes". Paul calls on women to obey their husbands, "for the husband is head of the wife"; the Book of Proverbs laments that a virtuous woman is a rarity, whose "price is far above rubies". Leviticus has some very strange things to say about menstruation. In the Koran, meanwhile, husbands are allowed to chastise (and probably beat) "disobedient" wives.

There are, of course, significant women in the Bible (though less than there are men): one thinks of both Marys, Rebecca and Rachel from Genesis, heroines like Ruth and Deborah. Harold Bloom even argued that the author of the earliest sections of the Bible might have been a woman, so prominent were they in the story. Yet the most memorable women in the Bible are villainesses, or portrayed as such, names that have come down as shorthands for female treacherousness or depravity: Jezebel, Delilah, Salome, above all Eve. Eve's "sin" kick-starts the entire soteriological machinery of Christianity: it was what Jesus was supposedly come to save us all from. As for Mary the Virgin, while her cult is sometimes held out as an example of Christianity's feminine dimension, she can equally seen as an impossible ideal, her virgin motherhood proof of the Church's horror of female sexuality.

If Christianity is bad, Islam would seem to be a whole lot worse. Apologists may point to rights of inheritance and divorce "given" to women by Mohammed (in fact, they often turn out to reflect the social norms of the society in which the prophet was born, as demonstrated by his independently wealthy first wife Khadija); but however progressive Islam might have seemed in the 7th century, those days are long gone. Women under Sharia law have inferior rights of inheritance and divorce; their testimony is worth less than that of a man; they can only marry with the permission of a male relative. Women under Islam are often kept in a condition of perpetual childhood. Islam also gives cover to patriarchal notions of family honour: arranged marriages, dress codes (in which women are identified as the instruments of male temptation), an obsession with virginity on marriage (female virginity, that is). Even the cruel practice of genital mutilation is given religious sanction.

But then most organised religions can be condemned in similar terms. Hinduism, despite its pantheon of powerful and sexually active goddesses, once promoted widow-burning and still treats widowed women with considerable cruelty. None of the Sikh gurus were female, for all that religion's claims to sexual equality. There's only one female Tibetan lama (and she's a Chinese puppet). Scientology forced poor Katie Holmes to give birth in silence.

And yet, if religion really is nothing more than a mechanism by which men oppress women, how does one account for the apparent fact (consistent in most surveys) that women are generally more religious than men. More women attend church every sunday; women are more likely to pray and to express belief in God. Men are less likely to be interested in religion, and considerably more likely to be atheists. These factors are more pronounced in western, post-Christian societies where faith is no longer required for social conformity, suggesting that whatever it is that religion offers people (solace, community, hope for an afterlife or direct spiritual experience) appeals to women more than it does men. Of course, we're talking of statistical averages rather than any particular individual.

Outside of the male-dominated priesthoods, it's women who traditionally passed on religious devotion within families and who often enforced communal religious norms. Women have collaborated with, indeed instigated, forced marriages and even honour killings; they have mutilated the genitalia of their own daughters; they have climbed willingly onto funeral pyres or denounced their neighbours as witches. Men have often been bystanders in the misogynistic oppression of women, by women, in the name of religion or morality. Feminists such as Cath Elliott also tend to ignore the obvious fact that many of the most vocal and passionate opponents of abortion are religiously motivated women.

It might be added that the moral requirements made by religions on their followers aren't necessarily sexist. There's nothing sexist about the requirement to love your neighbour, to be faithful to your spouse (while religions have often indulged the double standard, they do not, generally, proclaim it) or to pray for guidance to a higher power. Religion imposes duties on men to honour their wives and provide for their families; old-fashioned, patronising duties, perhaps, yet these were moral norms that served to mitigate the worst excesses of male dominance.

And while the preponderance of female churchgoers is a phenomenon of the modern West, female religiosity is certainly nothing new. It was women who sustained the early church and were the most enthusiastic followers of ancient mystery cults such as that of Isis. Throughout the centuries, many girls have been romantically attracted to the life of a nun. Indeed, notwithstanding its exclusively male hierarchy, the Christian church has for most of European history been the only institution (with the possible exception of the brothel) that offered women independence, education, even power. A religious woman could be a scholar, a mystic, a poet, a businesswoman, the absolute ruler (subject only to the Pope) of her order, potentially a saint. A secular woman, unless a queen, could only be a wife.

It would be possible, indeed, to turn Elliot's whole argument upside-down and suggest that exclusively male priesthoods originated as a mechanism for preserving male dominance in an arena that would otherwise have been dominated by women. Something that, given the role of religion in organising society and policing moral norms, could hardly be allowed in a male-dominated culture. Since the opening of the Anglican priesthood to women, numbers of female ordinations have outstripped male; in another few decades the Church of England will probably have become as female dominated as nursing.

Then there's Islam. In its externals, Islam is more clearly male-orientated than any other major religion. It segregates the sexes, and encourages women to conceal their bodies, hair and sometimes even faces for reasons of "modesty". As we have seen, Sharia discriminates in important respects against women. Women are barred from many mosques: in others, they are relegated to peripheral areas or forced to sit behind a curtain - all to prevent their sexuality from polluting the minds of the men present. Young Muslim males openly practise a sexual double standard, demanding virginity from prospective wives while themselves sleeping around. Yet among British converts to Islam, women outnumber men two to one. And, often to their families' horror and shame, they not only submit to wearing the hijab but become vocal and enthusiastic proponents.

Islam often strikes unbelievers as being like other religions, only more so. And what appeals to some women particularly about Islam, it seems to me, may be something inherent in many forms of worship. The word Islam, we're often told, means "submission". An alternative translation is "peace". Perhaps the Latin pax carries a similar tension: the Pax Romana was, after all, the outcome of imperial conquest. Islam is the psychological relief you feel when you hand over responsibility for your life to a higher power. It's the comfortable feeling that comes when someone else is in control.

What I'm suggesting here is that many women have a psychological need to be dominated - even in some cases abused - and that it is this need, above all, that religion supplies. God is the ultimate alpha male, the wise, loving father and strong protector. Religion answers the evolutionary need for security, but also darker urges too. Just as female mosochists outnumber their male equivalents, and women often stay with abusive partners, so even a religion that patronises, marginalises and oppresses women will answer their deeply-felt needs. This is an aspect of female psychology that feminists like Cath Elliott do not understand; or if they do understand, they hate, and because they condemn it they put it all down to social conditioning or immemorial male oppression. Perhaps they are simply disappointed in their God-fearing sisters. Perhaps they are right to be. But in most cases, and certainly in modern Britain, it is not men who are using religion to oppress women. On the contrary, in some cases women who can't find male oppressors are turning instead to God.

I don't think Julie Burchill herself belongs to that category, however. Her new-found Anglican religiosity seems more closely connected with her dislike of Islam or what she likes to call "Roman Catholickism" than a hankering after spirituality. Her desire to be contrarian and politically incorrect makes her sneer at atheists who want to be on "the winning side". She may think that she needs God; she undoubtedly thinks that God needs Julie Burchill.
Read the rest of this article

Monday, 18 August 2008

Britannia Bound

The Telegraph reports that the British Library is to put on an exhibition in conjuction with Liberty on the subject of traditional British freedoms and where they have gone.

Entitled Taking Liberties, it will feature exhibits charting the development of civil liberties and democracy in Britain, from Magna Carta through the Civil War to the suffragettes. But the focus will be on more topical issues such as ID cards and terrorism laws. The show will be assembled in a space shaped like a clenched fist; as visitors pass through, they will experience progressively smaller spaces. The organisers have also lined up a number of guest speakers including Peter Tatchell and Shirley Williams. The effect will no doubt be like being repeatedly hit over the head with a sledgehammer of liberal resistance.

By a rich irony, the original suggestion for the exhibition came from Gordon Brown, ever on the look out for opportunities to bang on about "Britishness". "Downing Street initially suggested a display of iconic British ideas," said a spokesman. "Obviously we listened to the Prime Minister's initial thoughts but we decided in what direction we should go."

Late last year, you may remember, Brown gave a speech celebrating "British liberty" which took in many people who didn't read it properly and who briefly anticipated a change in the authoritarian policies of the Blair years. I wonder if he'll be opening this show; somehow I doubt it.

The threat to freedom is cumulative, and comes from many different pieces of legislation, each of which may have a benign-sounding purpose and, individually, good arguments to support them. Of any new restriction, obligation or database, we are told that is necessary to forestall terrorists, or raise conviction rates, or counteract fraud, or safeguard children, or increase personal security, or reduce crime, or to make things more convenient or transparent, or to ensure equality, or to prevent some freak event that happened once and caused a lot of comment in the tabloids. And the argument centres on the narrow ground of each particular measure. In response to pressure from campaigners or rebel MPs, the government usually comes up with some procedural safeguard which is supposed to mitigate against the worst dangers of whatever it is. In such arguments, the big picture gets lost. The big picture of a society increasingly suffocated by government demands for information and compliance, of a people feeling increasingly bullied and patronised by an impersonal bureaucracy that can't even look after its records properly.

And of course, the ratchet effect soon kicks in. Forty-eight hours' detention becomes seven days' detention, becomes fourteen, becomes twenty-eight, becomes six weeks. When tightening up one law proves ineffective (as it invariably does) in preventing the next high-profile disaster or crime, then another new law has to be brought in. And defenders of traditional liberty, who campaigned against the first law when it was proposed, are reduced to claiming that the first law was adequate. It's only when you step back and marvel at the sheer number of new laws, official powers, databases, identity requirements and forms of surveillance that you realise just how much freedom has been whittled away over the past decade.

It's not a police state. Unless (like Hicham Yezza) you happen to fall into the clutches of the police. Who are, of course, just doing their job. It's also worth remembering that freedom isn't just about not being wrongfully arrested. It's also about being able to bake a cake for the local old folks' home without having your kitchen inspected by Health and Safety.

The biggest change to have come over Britain is in the atmosphere. The constant sense of being watched, of being forced to justify your existence, warps the national psyche. There's a feeling abroad that valuing personal privacy is equivalent to having "something to hide" and that petty offences are created and technologically enforced largely to raise revenue. People who might have protested increasingly feel the need to keep their heads down; others begin to report on their neighbours - after all, "you can't be too careful". There's much talk of citizenship, but the people have never been treated more like subjects.

Sometimes words aren't enough. This video (of a recent performance at Conway Hall) offers a powerful visual parable of what is happening. It's exaggerated, but so what? The soundtrack concentrates on the apparatus of the security state, but the message would apply equally to Brussels directives or the nanny state. It does, after all, feature copious amounts of red tape.

Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Anglican Attitudes

This is a Guest Post by Father James Rattue

Heresy Corner is a place where we are encouraged to look beneath the surface of events for some deeper sort of meaning; to think beyond headlines and to reach further than the first cliché to hand. It’s not the contributors’ fault that the Church of England so often appears determined to confirm clichés about itself. ‘Apologetics’ ought to be about explaining Christianity, not, as it often turns out to be for people like myself who wander incautiously into hostile territory, apologising for Christians and their statements.

I am charged with speaking to groups of English Christians Sunday by Sunday, and feel I have to remind them that, despite what they may think, they aren’t being persecuted. On the contrary, Anglicans, at least, retain a great many privileges which are very useful to the Church even as they are utterly unjustifiable on any other grounds. But Christians like to feel got at, because it reinforces their sense of authenticity as courageous followers of their Lord, speaking the truth and hated by the world. They don’t, in general, like to be reminded that in almost every important respect they are completely indistinguishable from their unbelieving neighbours.

But Christians in Britain are embedded in a great ideological reorientation, a shift in what sort of people hold power and how they think of themselves and their nation. Those people are no longer, in the main, Christians of any description or degree, no matter how far the symbolic discourse of the State – the monarchy and the established Church – expresses Christianity, and in fact one brand of it. Instead an unbelieving polity is struggling to work out how to accommodate believers of different kinds, oscillating between two broad approaches. The first, which might be termed ‘soft secularism’, is relativist in its attitude to religion, and thinks of religions as cultural products which need acknowledgment and protection in the same way a local authority might slap a preservation order on a familiar and picturesque but obsolete building. The second, ‘hard’ form of secularism instead sees religions as rival, and absurd, ideologies which are threatening to its own outlook and which, were they left to express themselves as they would like, would damage the whole peace of society.

The Church of England’s approach in this situation needs to be particularly adroit, not to say acrobatic. Its institutional privileges and control of the symbolic identity of the British State represents the last sense in which Britain can be described as a ‘Christian’ country, but that very position brings it face to face with the nation’s new, mainly non-Christian ruling class. It’s a creative juxtaposition, to say the least.

There doesn’t seem any neat and tidy way of resolving these conflicts. The secularists see the remaining public role of the Anglican Church as offensive. Believers of all kinds think of themselves as being forced to defend signs of their identity (signs of identity, mind, not the thing itself) from petty and ideologically-motivated restriction by businesses and public authorities, and every victory – always couched in the finally self-deluding terms of self-expression – infuriates the secularists even more. What is dangerous to social peace is not the existence of faith schools, nor the defence of a secular public space, nor even the presence of Islam, which is not, pace the Daily Mail, that much of a problem, though one can foresee circumstances in which it might become so. What really is dangerous is that everyone now seems convinced that everyone else is intent on persecuting them, rather than on getting on with them sensibly, and will repress them and their identity if given the chance. A conflict over power can turn the trajectory of a society downward towards legalism and fear; and from fear it’s a small step to violence. Given that the Christian Church maintains that the chief attribute of its God is caritas (translate that as you will) it is not only tragic that Christians are involved in that process, when we should be a major force pulling in the other direction, but close to blasphemous. The instinct Christians continue to exhibit to want to control the lives of those around them shows that the process of purging the Church of its own wille zur macht has a long way to go. Religiously speaking, I suspect that is what God is up to as these great shifts take effect.

Rowan Williams gets his fair share of contempt and derision from the Heresiarch’s heretics, but at least he appears to recognise these trends. The best of his writing focuses not on the demands and commands of power and truth, but on trust, worth, care, perseverance, and receptiveness to the other. These are proper concerns for the pastor of a powerless Church in a secular culture, however much this course enrages the public loudmouths demanding pre-digested headlines (never mind, they still have the Bishop of Rochester).

It may be Fr Williams’s great achievement that the recent Lambeth Conference followed his (very quiet) lead, and left the traditionalists who chose not to attend looking less like the doughty champions of Christian orthodoxy they think themselves, than self-important would-be authoritarians guilty of neglecting the most basic of their Lord’s commands. It also left Bishop Gene Robinson and the radicals as their mirror-image, bleating on the sidelines about how wicked the traditionalists are while the majority got on with the business of praying, listening and thinking together. What ends up being included in the eventual ‘Anglican Covenant’ is less important than the general recognition that common fellowship among the world’s Anglicans is a prize worth some self-sacrifice on everyone’s part. This is striking. For perhaps the first time in history a Church has explicitly begun to realise that if one party within it wins, everyone loses.

But if the Anglican Communion as a whole is more inclined at the moment to listen to its titular head, what about the Church of England itself? The recent debate on the provisions to be made for those of its members opposed to the consecration of women as bishops revealed a progressive majority in the Synod prepared to ignore the advice of its two supreme pastors, the Archbishops, in favour of a winner-take-all approach. The decision curiously reflects within the Church’s own walls the ideological conflict in wider British society, one which Christianity is not strongly placed to win, if ‘winners’ there must be. The internal victors in the Church of England had better hope they get treated more charitably by a secular society than they seem inclined to deal with their own opponents.

The Weeping Cross

Read the rest of this article