Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Fear of Causing Offence

The case of Sherry Jones and her novel The Jewel of Medina has reawakened memories of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie 20 years ago. As books, of course, the two have very little in common. Rushdie is a major writer and The Satanic Verses was an important novel. Jones is a previously unknown author, and on the evidence of those parts of Jewel that have been released online, deserves to remain so. Rushdie was published, despite serious riots, actual violence (the Japanese translator of his book was murdered) and the involvement at the highest level of the Iranian state. Jones's book was withdrawn because of fears of what might happen if some Muslims didn't like it.

This week, the saga got rather more serious, with a handful of extremists arrested in the course of a fire-bomb attack on the small London-based publisher who had agreed to bring out Jones's novel. But the only Muslim voice the BBC found to lend any kind of support to the campaign against Jewel belonged to Anjem Chaudhury, loudmouth sidekick of deported extremist preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed, he of the pole-dancing daughter. "It is clearly stipulated in Muslim law that any kind of attack on his honour carries the death penalty," said Chaudhury. But there's no evidence that the widespread disorder and public book-burings that were so memorable a feature of the Satanic Verses imbroglio - or indeed the Danish cartoons - would be repeated this time. The withdrawal of the book by publishers Random House still looks like a grotesque overreaction.

To many who deplore Random House's decision, their attitude is, in itself, one of the biggest dangers to free speech currently existing. On Comment is Free, Jo Glanville of Index on Censorship had this to say:

Random House's actions show just how far we have lost our way in this debate over free expression and Islam: the level of intimidation, fear and self-censorship is such that one of the biggest publishers in the world no longer felt able to publish a work of creative imagination without some kind of dispensation. Jones's book does not claim to be a piece of history - it's a work of invention.

It was also disingenuous of Random House to suggest that the novel might incite violence. Certain members of the population might choose to commit an act of violence, but that is not the same as the book itself inciting violence. To pass the responsibility in this way to the novel was a betrayal of the author and of free speech.

Her view echoed some comments made by Kenan Malik in The Times:

What the differing responses to the two novels reveal is how Rushdie's critics lost the battle but won the war. They never prevented the publication of his novel. But the argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie case - that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures - is now widely accepted. In the 20 years between the publication of The Satanic Verses and the withdrawal of The Jewel of Medina, the fatwa has in effect become internalised.

...In the past, free speech was viewed as an inherent good, to be restricted only in exceptional cases. Today it is seen as an inherent problem, because it can offend as well as harm, and so has to be restrained by custom, especially in diverse societies. These days not only do publishers drop books deemed offensive, but theatres mutilate plays, opera houses cut productions, art galleries censor shows, all in the name of cultural sensitivity.

I heartily agree with both these sentiments. I wonder, though, to what extent "cultural sensitivity" or internalised censorship of the type imputed to lily-livered Western appeasers is the main culprit. Fear of "causing offence" is real - but does it derive from a sincere desire not to cause offence, or from a fear of the consequences that causing offence may bring? The end result - non-publication - may be the same, but the psychology is very different, and so, perhaps, is the resulting atmosphere. If you believe, as some politically correct "left-liberals" undoubtedly do, that causing offence to someone's deeply held convictions is wrong in itself, then you have already committed cultural suicide in your heart.

Ironically, Sherry Jones herself would seem to be of that tendency. In hand-wringing interviews, she has protested that she holds both Mohammed and his child-bride Aisha in the highest possible esteem, and that her intention was only to bring home to readers in the west what remarkable people they were. Her detractors, Muslim and otherwise, may have thought that her book amounts to tawdry, pseudo-historical soft porn, but she would seem to regard "causing offence" just as dimly as they do. She doesn't strike me as a stout defender of free speech - which means, if it is to mean anything at all - the freedom to be offensive, satirical, rude and disrespectful.

Actually Jones doesn't remind me of Rushdie so much as of Gillian Gibbons, the well-meaning British teacher who got into so much trouble in Sudan last year for naming a teddy bear "Mohammed".

Salman Rushdie was playing a very different game. For a start, he wasn't really writing about Islam at all. He was writing, rather, about the immigrant experience: the controversial passages in the Satanic Verses were dream sequences. If you haven't read it, you may have heard it described as unreadable tosh. It isn't. It has a rather complex narrative structure, but the story comes through clearly enough and Rushdie is, whatever else you may think of him, a wonderful storyteller. On the other hand, the Mohammed-like character "Mahound" - a fantasy in another character's head - is depicted as a con-man, and the passages in which he features were plainly intended by Rushdie as a satire on the origins of Islam. Mahound has highly convenient revelations and ruthlessly organises a massacre.

To Muslims brought up from the cradle to regard the character of Mohammed as sacrosanct, as a model and pattern, such thoughts are by their very nature offensive. That, however, is their problem, not the West's (and not Rushdie's). It could even be argued that in their insistence on resisting any slight on their prophet, or any description of him beyond the crawlingly reverential, some Muslims come close to the idolatry that they are supposed to shun. In any case, the battle over The Satanic Verses was an important one.

So are Malik and Glanville right? Self-censorship there undoubtedly is: in Britain especially. No major British newspaper had the balls to run the Danish cartoons, even while they were being republished everywhere else in Europe. Publishers cited prudence - not wishing to "inflame opinion". They sometimes even cited cultural sensitivity. Few had the honesty to admit the real reason: fear. Random House at least came clean on that one. They pulled The Jewel of Medina, they said, because, according to an official statement, they had received "credible" reports that the book "could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment". They cited protection of their staff, and the author herself, as grounds for their decision. Since they also publish The Satanic Verses - a bright new edition came out earlier this year - I see no particular reason to disbelieve them.

Another reason for their apparent cowardice, however, may be more nakedly commercial. One change over the 20 years since the Satanic Verses fatwa is that protest against perceived slights on Islam is no longer the preserve of spontaneous grassroots campaigners, even abetted by elderly ayatollahs from rogue states like revolutionary Iran. Respectable Muslim governments have also become involved. There were widespread boycotts of Danish products in response to the cartoons. While much lip-service is paid to the sanctity of free speech in the West, the only truly sacred principle in the US and Europe is the bottom line.

For governments in the West, trade is also an issue. There is even fear of the power of oil states. There are votes at stake, too. A government may not want to distance itself too clearly from the deep pain felt by religious believers, especially if it is of a party that traditionally relies on votes from that community. Hence the mixed messages about the need to balance competing "rights" we sometimes here from ministers.

Certainly no-one seems happy at the moment. The easily offended are as angry as ever. Defenders of free expression feel let down. Inayat Bunglawala, who seems to have recanted his former antipathy towards free speech and now even claims that "Rushdie was right", is surely accurate in his belief that the Rushdie case did untold damage to the image of Islam in the west:

Some months back I had dinner with a well-known British columnist who has some rather strident views about immigration and Islam. I asked him outright what it was that so annoyed him about Islam and he said it was what he viewed as the seemingly constant attempts by Muslims to try and restrict freedoms.

And regrettably, like it or not, that is the image too many people now have of Muslims.

But Bunglawala lives in Britain. His claim that many British Muslims now agree with him is of limited significance when set against ongoing attempts by the 57 member Organisation of Islamic Conference (with the tacit and cynical support of Russia and China) to re-write international law and make "defamation of religion" something akin to a war-crime.

The forces ranged against freedom of expression in this area are greater than they were twenty years ago: more subtle, better organised, richer. Some well-intentioned but intellectually lazy Western liberals are too willing to listen to their arguments. But the real betrayals stem from a less principled combination of fear and self-interest. Call it "Islamophobia", if you like: many people are just scared of Islam.
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Sunday, 28 September 2008

A comedy of terrors

It was reported the other week that Chris Morris's plans for a TV spoof of the Islamic terrorist "threat" have been vetoed by worried Channel 4 bosses. Perhaps the executives are right (if cowardly) to be concerned. Today we learned of a fire-bomb attack on the London publisher of Jewel of Medina, the saccharine novel about Mohammed's child bride whose cloying prose I struggled through on behalf of HC readers some weeks ago. And Morris has a reputation for fearlessness, even recklessness, in the cause of purposeful comedy. This time, we are assured (disappointingly) that Morris had pulled his punches and made the whole project "fatwa-proof". But you can never be too careful. If the terrorists don't get you, there's still the dreaded charge of "Islamophobia".

In an interview about the project that he gave to the Sunday Times back in January, Morris said that he intended to show up the would-be terrorists as "scary but also ridiculous". "There is this Dad's Army side of terrorism and that's what this film is exploring," he said. "It will hopefully get over that terrorists do what we all do. They discuss the mundane, and plan things that sometimes then go wrong. People, that is viewers, are longing to laugh at terrorism."

That doesn't sound much like Morris's usual work. But perhaps no-holds-barred, foul-mouthed satire of the type he specialises in wouldn't be the most appropriate vehicle for lampooning the world of Islamist extremism. A gentle sitcom of the Dad's Army or Citizen Smith variety could be, if anything, more damning, pointing up the chasm between the delusions of worldwide Jihad, which wannabe terrorists share with the security experts and the tabloid whippers-up of paranoia, and the bathetic reality of their amateurish bumbling and low-rent views.

In any case, could any satire hope to match up to the tale the Sun presented us last week of Yasmin Fostok, pole-dancing daughter of alleged terror supremo Omar Bakri Mohammed?

Bakri, a bearded Syrian rentaquote whose British residency was revoked after allegations of closeness to the London tube bombers, has long been the British press's second favourite "mad mullah" (after the hook-waving Abu Hamza). Bakri was the "spiritual leader", first of Hizb'ut Tahrir and later of the banned Al Muhajiroun. With his sidekick Anjem Choudary, he could always be relied upon to come up with some blood-curdling soundbite about the 9/11 hijackers ("the magnificent 19"), or Israel ("a cancer.. which must be eradicated") or the Bush/Blair axis and western foreign policy in general. Earlier this year he was one of the few prominent Muslims publicly unshocked by Geert Wilder's provocative film Fitna, the content of which he found reassuringly similar to material on Jihadist websites.

Just over a decade ago, Bakri was the subject of an amusing documentary by Jon Ronson, The Tottenham Ayatollah. Filmed over the course of a year, the film depicted Bakri's Islamic revolution as entirely farcical, and the cleric himself as an almost loveable buffoon. Bakri is seen handing out leaflets against homosexuality (it's bad for your tummy!) and declaring that the Spice Girls would be among the first to be arrested under the new Islamic dispensation. There's a strange disjunct between the undoubted extremity of his views and the humorous, oddly charming personality that he projects.

Ronson himself described Bakri as "likeably clownish" and his campaign as being "like a Carry On film". "Has the government gone after a very silly man because it's easy to do so?" he asked years later, after the cleric had been expelled from Britain. Perhaps. But perhaps, too, Bakri's bonhomie is part of a well-crafted act, masking (or trying to mask) his truly evil intentions behind the persona of the Jolly Jihadist. And perhaps he so much enjoys the thought of all the fornicators and drinkers and Jews getting their come-uppance that he just can't help smiling.

In conversation with Ronson, Bakri was open about his plans to "place London on the map as a world centre for Islamic militancy". And according to French anti-terrorism expert Roland Jacquard, quoted in Time, "every al-Qaeda operative recently arrested or identified in Europe had come into contact with Bakri at some time or other." He preached inside and outside mosques, he rattled tins for Hamas, he spoke in certain terms of the coming world Islamic caliphate. When he was barred from Britain, then Home Secretary Charles Clarke said that his presence was "no longer conducive to the public good" (which implies, strangely, that it ever had been). Perhaps Bakri's worst crime in the eyes of the tabloids, though, was that for much of his nearly twenty years in Britain he subsisted on state benefits. An immigrant, a hate preacher, and a dole cheat to boot: how the Sun must have longed to bring him down.

So it was with evident glee (and who am I to begrudge them their delight?) that on Friday the paper was able to announce that Bakri's daughter had swapped her chador for sequins and was pursuing an unlikely career as an exotic dancer:

Busty Yasmin Fostok, 27, leads a secret life after rebelling against her fanatical Muslim dad — who rants against Western “depravity”.

She has performed in London pole dancing bars and gyrated half-naked in cages at club nights.

And she admitted: “I’m willing to go topless if the venue is right.”

The reporter tracked her down to Catford, where she was living (on benefits, oh joy!) with her three year old son in "a dingy ground-floor flat" and "currently dating a 26-year-old satellite TV installer". Door-stepped by the hack, Yasmin was defensive about her background. "I don't get on with him [Bakri]" she said. "His views are nothing to do with me".

The whole story is a tabloid hack's wet dream. It's difficult to imagine a concatenation of events more perfectly fitted to the Sun's unique brand of paranoia and prurience, or one more deliciously ironic. "Busty Yasmin has turned her BACK on her father’s fundamentalist teachings to flash her FRONT in men’s clubs," the paper chortled (just in case anyone hadn't got the point). Although she appears at least to be a fairly high-class performer - she has worked with a touring troupe by the name of Ibiza Untouched and incorporates fire-eating into her act.

(The Sun missed an obvious opening here, so I'll supply it: While dad Omar inflames his followers with his fire-breathing sermons denouncing Infidels, Yasmin swallows fire as part of her HOT dance routine.)

The source of the story would appear to be the usual mercenary "friend" (unless it was the woman herself, of course) who told The Sun that Yasmin "has been leading a wild double life thrashing about on stage in pole dancing clubs and drinking and partying like there’s no tomorrow". Her mother is said to be in denial. The paper (also? or is it the same person?) spoke to an ex-lover who described her as "very adventurous in bed" and spoke of her enthusiasm for dressing up as a policewoman or in "various office clothes". How disappointingly tame: I was hoping for a belly-dancing costume at least.

So is Yasmin's downfall (if such it is) yet more evidence of the corrosive influence of western decadence? If even the daughter of someone as devout as Bakri can be led astray, perhaps his fears aren't so misplaced after all. Or perhaps it was because, rather than despite, her background, that Yasmin ended up dancing on tables. The tale certainly isn't a great testament to the moral superiority of Islamic cultural traditions. Yasmin, (born Youssra) was, we learn, taken out of school at sixteen and married off to some Turkish man chosen for her: a submissive future of babies and burkhas beckoned. It didn't last. A second marriage didn't last very long either.

Ultra-religious families, in fact, are far from uncommon in the backgrounds of strippers and porn-stars. Being stifled by conformity and rigid traditional values often produces rebellion, which can take the extreme form of involvement in the sex industry. The reverse is also true, of course; it's not unheard of for young people to rebel against liberal backgrounds by embracing hardline religion. But then again she could be just another single mother trying to make a living. Without much in the way of qualifications (see above) pole-dancing may have been the only reasonably lucrative career open to her.

The story got even better on Saturday, when it was revealed that Bakri had paid for his daughter to have a boob-job. Indeed, he had even accompanied her to the surgery. It was, claimed the Sun, "a revelation that will spark further public outrage against the fanatical Muslim cleric". (Huh?) Allegedly Yasmin convinced him that the operation would help her while breast feeding. "The rest of the family were set against it, but he insisted she should have her way if it would make her a better mother." (Huh? again.)

It's hard to know what's more hilarious: Bakri's astonishing naiveté or the thought that money raised by rattling tins in the name of global Jihad actually went towards paying for this woman's silicone tits.

But there may be more to it than that. For if the Sun's source is to be trusted Yasmin's boob job was the turning point:

It backfired disastrously because her new figure encouraged her to go out and flaunt her body. She was flattered by the attention of men and her new confidence led directly to her work dancing half naked in clubs full of leering men. She’d never have done it if it wasn’t for those boobs — which were paid for by her father. It’s all his fault.

Once you've quit savouring the irony, a picture emerges of a girl growing up amid the repressive atmosphere of a strict Islamic home, drilled into submission, taught that her body was a source of temptation that must be concealed, walking around with her eyes cast down. Yet at the same time, her relatively small breasts became a source of shame. Perhaps they were insufficiently pleasing to her husband, or she felt unable to live up to a model of ideal womanhood, chaste but buxom. Something of an Islamic theme, this. In The Erotic Review's anthology Sex, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has this to say:

In East Africa where I grew up, Zanzibari Muslim women were thought of as sophisticated lovers who could weave invisible bonds around a man and keep him intoxicated mostly by never giving him the whole of themselves. But you never saw them. They were always completely covered up in black robes, yet their eyes were animated in ways which cannot be described.

No pressure, then.

By the Sun's account, it was a dramatic transformation: from A cup all the way up to double-D. Which suggests to me that an image of immaculate motherhood was not the only thing on Yasmin Fostok's mind when she decided to have the implants. Quite what Bakri was thinking of when he agreed to stump up the money is rather more of a mystery. But, given his record of clownish behaviour, the revelation is not, perhaps, quite as incongruous as it might at first appear. If nothing else it shows how much it is to be regretted that Chris Morris's television project will not now be realised. Given the right interpreter (Alexei Sayle, perhaps) Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed's alter ego might well have joined Basil Fawlty, Alf Garnett and Edina Monsoon as one of the great comedic archetypes.
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Friday, 26 September 2008

Blogging without a licence

El Reg today offers a disquieting story from Italy, where a little-noticed ruling by a Sicilian judge has potentially made all Italian blogs illegal.

Under a law dating to 1948, it is an offence to publish a newspaper without a licence from the authorities. In May this year, a blogger and local historian Carlo Ruta was fined and his website taken down after a judge decided that a blog was equivalent to a newspaper - on the bizarre grounds that both have headlines. More pertinently, perhaps, a law of 2001 extended regulation of the press to the Net. At the time, ministers were quick to reassure the public that the new provisions would only apply to commercial media organisations. But, as we should have learned to expect, such assurances are generally worthless since laws, once passed, tend to take on a life of their own.

One Italian politician has gone so far as to claim that "current logic means that almost the entire Italian internet, by its very nature, could be considered illegal – stampa clandestina – which is a complete contravention of the democratic rulebook". Not to mention the principle of free expression.

Quite why Ruta was singled out from among an estimated 5 million Italian blogs is unclear, though it has been suggested that he had shown rather too much interest in the links between local politicians and the Mafia. Since then, a Calabrian blogger has apparently fallen foul of the same law, "suggesting the genie is well and truly out of the bottle". Unless the ruling is overturned or the law changed, it would seem that any blogger voicing controversial or inconvenient opinions risks being taken to court.

As for Carlo Ruta himself, he has moved his material to a new site, which continues to host a number of Mafia-themed articles (though none of them strike me as particularly controversial or politically sensitive). There's also a statement, in English as well as Italian, and signed by numerous journalists and writers, on the "Freedom Emergency in Italy". The English version is clumsily literal ("the reasons are heavy as stones") but makes an impassioned plea for free expression, which "being representative of all other liberties, and a defining feature of a democratic state, is a vital aspect of the Italian constitution."

The statement goes on to denounce the Italian government as "increasingly illiberal" and warn that "the wave of indignation will not stop soon". The future of the Internet, last frontier of democracy, is at stake, as is the constitution itself, which we learn, in wonderfully florid language, "was not born in drawing rooms, nor in the corridors of power, but in the mountains, alongside the bodies of murdered heroes, and among the fires of cities in revolt." I assume that Ruta means World War II. After hymning the Net as "the cardinal place of our age, where democracy gains body and voice", and comparing the situation in Italy to Burma and Iran, it concludes in suitably ringing tones (and here again I substitute my own translation):

The sentence of the Sicilian court, wrote one blogger, may be seen as one of the last pearls of a legal necklace which day by day is turning into a garotte. We must do everything possible to avoid this happening. We must prevent them lighting the funeral pyre of free expression in Italy, and remember that such pyres often clear the way for repressive government.

Fortunately (for the rest of us) this law only applies to Italy. Technically, any blog visible in Italy is "published" there, but I think Tim Worstall goes too far when he claims, in the Spectator, that under the terms of the European Arrest Warrant, "if a warrant is issued for my arrest for this heinous crime, the British police are duty bound to deliver me up to the Italians without extradition hearings or even the presentation of any evidence." Since there is no equivalent in English law to the crime of stampa clandestina (and it doesn't come within the specified EAW categories), British bloggers are (for the moment) safe.

But it isn't only in Italy that the authorities go after inconvenient bloggers. Dizzy today pointed the way to the strange story of a Tameside blogger who was investigated by the police after allegedly upsetting local councillor Sean Parker-Perry. Parker-Perry turns out to be a aide to Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell - though he has recently resigned. Dizzy wonders if Purnell is clearing any skeletons from his closet in advance of a possible leadership bid. Tameside certainly sounds a little like Alaska.

There have also been moves afoot recently in the European parliament to consider some sort of regulation or registration scheme for blogs. A report by Estonian Socialist MEP Marianne Mikko - adopted in a vote this week - complained about "undetermined and unindicated status of authors and publishers of weblogs" and suggested that the appropriate authorities ought to know "who is writing and why". The EU seems to be particularly concerned that unregulated blogs may have helped the "No" campaign in the Irish referendum. Fortunately, the final resolution was watered down somewhat, instead calling for "an open discussion on all issues relating to the status of weblogs". Acknowledging the huge opposition her report had attracted from bloggers, Mikko said she wanted "to make it clear now that nobody is interested in regulating the internet".

Which is reassuring. Except that many people are all too obviously interested in regulating the Internet.
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Thursday, 25 September 2008

Identity Crisis

It was rather a forlorn-looking Jacqui Smith who presided over today's low-key unveiling of the new ID card. The official press release claimed that the scheme was "building momentum" and Smith rattled off the well-worn list of problems the cards will allegedly solve: crime, terrorism, identity fraud and so on. She even claimed that it would "crack down on those trying to abuse positions of trust". That's usually code for paedophiles. They must be really desperate. Invoking child protection is a sure sign of a politician running out of arguments.

In any case today's launch was something of a fraud. The card Smith waved around might look like the planned national ID card, but it's really just a revamping of the existing scheme of residence permits. It has nothing to do with the plans for a national identity register. It will only effect foreign workers, students and marriage partners. The Home Secretary managed to enunciate the words "foreign nationals" with enough of a sneer to underline the message that they will only apply to immigrant scum anyway. Something of a hostage to fortune, this. Today's launch is widely seen as part of a softening up exercise for the wider population, but if people come to see the cards as something designed to keep a watch on those untrustworthy foreigners they may be seen as even more of an imposition on freeborn British men and women.

The scheme for a comprehensive system, based on an Orwellian National Register, looks to be in deep trouble anyway, with technical problems, delays, losses of confidential information, ever-rising costs and public indifference, if not yet widespread horror. Most importantly, of course, the Conservatives are pledged to scrap the scheme if (when) they come to power. The near certainty (at least at the moment) of a Conservative victory is a powerful incentive to private companies not to invest too many resources in a scheme that will probably be aborted anyway. At a fringe meeting at the Labour conference a few ago, home office minister Meg Hillier tried to claim that the Tories would find it difficult to dismantle. "There isn't an easy way to unpick this scheme," she claimed. It's far from certain, though, that there will be that much for the Conservatives to undo.

Today Jacqui Smith clarified the planned timetable, and it was much as expected: first foreign nationals, then airport workers, then students, then passport applicants. That will not come until 2011 at the earliest (and probably 2012), well beyond the latest date for the next election. Originally, it was supposed to be 2008. The interim stages are just as unlikely to go smoothly.

According to the Telegraph, there is "deadlock" in talks between the Government, airlines and unions over the introduction of the cards. Robert Siddall, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, was quoted as expressing widespread fears that airport staff were being treated as guinea pigs. The British Airline Pilots Association has threatened legal action, and unions representing other airport workers are equally unimpressed. Said Siddall, "At the moment the government plan to force the ID cards on the industry is not going anywhere, that's for sure," he said. "You cannot run a pilot scheme in a sector where so many parts of it are opposed to it."

The claim that these workers need to be registered with a national database is hollow in any case, with even Jacqui Smith conceding today that airport staff already face more security checks than those that would be required for the national scheme. If this proposal isn't dropped altogether, it will be watered down into something case-specific. We'll be told instead that the scheme for airport workers represents a successful demonstation of what a national ID card scheme "would be like". And then we'll here no more.

As for the students, last month the Times reported widespread opposition to ID cards. The NUS, fearing that it would soon become in effect compulsory, has signalled that it would not co-operate. A website set up by the government to enthuse young people with love of Big Brother instead attracted overwhelmingly negative comments. According to the report, "anyone browsing the discussions on the site would be hard pushed to find a single positive comment, with contributors branding the controversial scheme as creepy, dirty and illegal and the website itself as an 'online propaganda machine'. "

The other day Meg Hillier claimed that the ID cards were "full steam ahead". "In fact the prime minister wanted me to do it quicker than it was possible," she added. I bet he did. He knows he's not long for the political world. And though it was originally Blair's baby, the ID scheme would be a fitting monument to Brown's doctrine of statist control. Clumsy, intrusive, overpriced, over-elaborate, unclear in purpose and ultimately unworkable, they have already become an irrelevance. At least, I hope so.
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Wednesday, 24 September 2008

A Popish Plot

The resignation of Ruth Kelly is a murky business. Supposedly, of course, she merely wants to spend more time with her family. But no-one really believes this. After all, when her children were very small she didn't seem to spend that much time with them. It could be, of course, that she realised her career wasn't likely to go very far in the future and decided to get out before she was sacked. But still, the timing was very bad for all concerned. If she did resign in the middle of the night on the instructions of Downing Street insiders, then things in Gordon's bunker are clearly very bad indeed. The Mail reports open warfare in the government. Bendedict Brogan has been speaking to a minister who said "Downing street must be stopped". "This has the potential for disaster for Brown", thinks Brogan. Michael White agrees:

I have no knowledge of how the story came out. But if you ask the "cui bono?" test, it is Brown who is most damaged by it. It bigfoots the aftermath of The Big Speech and it messes up his on/off reshuffle, pencilled in for next weekend

Cui bono? indeed.

Clearly Kelly's resignation is part of a wider Catholic conspiracy to destabilise the government. Not only is she herself famously a member of Opus Dei, a sinister cult whose inner workings were memorably exposed by Dan Brown a few years ago, but several other conspirators have papist affiliations also. There was Siobhain McDonagh, whose resignation the other week kicked off the latest round in the long miserable death of the Brown government. She's a Catholic. Her longstanding political friend David Cairns, who resigned a few days later, used to be a priest. Perhaps, secretly, he still is. Both are protegés of John Reid, Catholic chairman of that notorious hotbed of Fenianism in days gone by, Celtic football club. Reid is said by some to be weighing up whether he can topple Broon himself.

Moreover, as Jim Pickard pointed out on the FT's blog last week (milling over Kelly's possible departure),

Is it just a co-incidence that two other Catholic cabinet ministers with misgivings over the bill - Paul Murphy and Des Browne - are also rumoured to be for the chop?

Well, is it? Remember, too, that behind all these papistical plotters (one of whom is even called Greg Pope) stands the eminense grise and lost leader Tony Blair. Every so often a hint is dropped that Tony is disappointed with Gordon's performance, or had predicted it; or he is seen deep in conspiratorial conversation with David Miliband; or some ancient memo is leaked in which Tony is revealed to have described Gordon as "vacuous".

Remember this picture?

Was he receiving Instruction? Or instructions?

Superficially, there's much for Ratzinger and his creatures to feel annoyed about in Brown's political programme. There's the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, for a start, which Scottish Cardinal Keith O'Brian described as "monstrous". There's the failure to toughen the abortion laws. Not to mention the new Papilloma jab, the none-too-secret purpose of which is to encourage teenage girls to sleep around by removing the fear of early death from cervical cancer. No more can the horrible example of Jade Goody be set before them to inculcate habits of nunly chastity. According to leading Catholic blogger Damian Thompson, there was also "the sustained attack on faith schools by Ed Balls, who has effectively accused the Catholic Church of going against the teachings of Christ by seeking to exclude disadvantaged pupils". And (Thompson again) it doesn't stop there:

One of the Prime Minister's first decisions last year was to shelve plans to repeal the 1701 Act of Settlement, which allows the heir to the throne to marry a member of any religion except Roman Catholicism.

Thompson wrote that back in March, in a post which claimed that Gordon Brown was "turning into the most anti-Catholic Prime Minister of modern times." Strangely, it is now being reported that the government is looking at changing the Act of Settlement after all. Can the timing be purely coincidental? Or is it a last, desperate attempt to contain the rebellion? Thompson went on:

Not since the reign of Queen Victoria has a Government harassed the Church on so many fronts, to the extent that it becoming impossible for a devout Catholic to hold office in this administration....

The noses of Scottish Catholics, in particular, have been twitching: they wonder whether, as the son of a Presbyterian minister, Mr Brown has been influenced by the ancient prejudices of his community.

More than enough reason for a well-placed Catholic cabal in government to want to undermine Gordon Brown. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the Pope's dastardly plan goes further still. With Brown deposed and Labour humiliated in England and Scotland, can the final destruction of the United Kingdom be far behind? Will the British state, ancestral foe of popes since the 16th century, finally be toppled, the remnants to be enfolded within a new Catholic empire of Europe? Will the great work of Edmund Campion, Guy Fawkes, the Old and Young Pretenders, the Bourbons and the Bonapartes finally be achieved in this generation?

You have been warned.


I wrote this yesterday in a spirit of irony. Yet Damian Thompson has also noticed the strange timing of the plan to amend the Act of Settlement. He thinks it is a blatant attempt to buy Catholic votes - though he also notes that, fine though the plan sounds, a "fourth term Labour government" isn't going to be around to implement it.

Damian also says this:

I'm convinced that Ms Kelly's conscience no longer allows her to serve in a government that attacks faith schools and forces Catholic adoption agencies to close. She may even have been given a nudge in this direction by Opus Dei.

Titus Oates, you should be living at this hour.
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Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Gordon's New World

Gordon Brown's speech in Manchester was predictably leaden and uninspiring. It resembled nothing so much as a report to shareholders, perhaps by the chairman of one of the banks that has gone under recently. Equally predictably, early reaction has been dominated by those section of the speech which ostensibly attacked the Conservatives but were transparently aimed at David Miliband. "Everyone knows that I'm all in favour of apprenticeships, but let me tell you this is no time for a novice."

Another thing struck me. Several sections of the speech were a blatant rip-off of Tony Blair's speech to the party faithful a few weeks after 9/11. Compare and contrast:

Blair, Oct 2, 2001:

In retrospect, the Millennium marked only a moment in time. It was the events of September 11 that marked a turning point in history, where we confront the dangers of the future and assess the choices facing humankind.

It is that out of the shadow of this evil, should emerge lasting good: destruction of the machinery of terrorism wherever it is found; hope amongst all nations of a new beginning where we seek to resolve differences in a calm and ordered way; greater understanding between nations and between faiths; and above all justice and prosperity for the poor and dispossessed, so that people everywhere can see the chance of a better future through the hard work and creative power of the free citizen, not the violence and savagery of the fanatic.

Brown, Sept 08:

You know, each generation believes it is living through changes their parents could never have imagined - but the collapse of banks, the credit crunch, the trebling of oil prices, the speed of technology, and the rise of Asia - nobody now can be in any doubt that we are in a different world and it's now a global age.

In truth, we haven't seen anything this big since the industrial revolution. This last week will be studied by our children - as the week the world was spun on its axis - and old certainties were turned on their heads.

And in these uncertain times, we must be, we will be, the rock of stability and fairness upon which people stand.


Round the world, 11 September is bringing Governments and people to reflect, consider and change. And in this process, amidst all the talk of war and action, there is another dimension appearing.

There is a coming together. The power of community is asserting itself. We are realising how fragile are our frontiers in the face of the world's new challenges.

Today conflicts rarely stay within national boundaries.

Today a tremor in one financial market is repeated in the markets of the world.

Today confidence is global; either its presence or its absence.


And so it falls to this party and to this government, with its commitment both to fairness and to business, to propose and deliver what after recent events everyone should now be willing to accept - that we do all it takes to stabilise the still turbulent financial markets and then in the months ahead we rebuild the world financial system around clear principles. And friends the work begins tomorrow.

...global standards and supervision because the flows of capital are global, then supervision can no longer just be national but has to be global.

And we know that the challenges we face in this new global age didn't begin in the last week, or in the last months, but in fact reflect deeper changes in our world.


This is a moment to seize. The Kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us.

And here's Gordon:

And this week at Britain's request the United Nations has summoned the leaders of the world to a special summit on what we know is a global poverty emergency.

Blair's 2001 speech, in retrospect, was a monumental piece of hubris that foreshadowed the disastrous foreign policy on which he was about to embark, and whose consequences are still with us. Brown today was less obviously deranged, but he still betrayed signs of over-confidence in his ability to change the world to his liking. "I and then Alistair will meet financial and government leaders in New York to make these proposals," he said, before listing them. A five point plan for more regulation, including apparently of bonuses: "removing conflicts of interest so that bonuses should not be based on short term speculative deals but on hard work, effort and enterprise", drew predictable enthusiasm from the hall but it's far from clear how he will achieve full financial control and regulation at a global level. Especially since he has spent the past decade resisting - with some success - such regulation at the European level.

Of course, as Brown pointed out, "each generation" believes that it's living through unprecedented changes. Or perhaps that should be "each prime minister". As I mentioned the other day, though, Gordon is convinced that he has found his theme, his project and his purpose. And while he didn't explicitly compare his situation today with Blair's in 2001, it's hard to escape the conclusion that he regards it as far more serious.

For example: while Blair used to talk of terrorism as some great existential evil, the "greatest threat" facing humanity (except for the short period when that role was occupied by Saddam Hussein), Brown today mentioned terrorism only once, and that was in the past tense:

This country wasn't broken by fascism, by the cold war, by terrorists.

Which terrorists? The IRA? Al Qaeda? Both?

The "new" world whose pivotal moment came last week, with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing meltdown of the world's stock markets, is not one in which terrorism seems to be much of a priority. Instead Brown talked of a "great and historic endeavour to end the dictatorship of oil and to avert catastrophic climate change, a transformation in our use of energy" and set a new, surely unobtainable, goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by the middle of the century. He talked of rising populations and migration. He mentioned the word "economy" nine times and "global" twelve. And while he Gordon Brown did, it's true, make some Blair-like noises about saving Africa and ending global poverty; but while Blair linked these things to the greater fight against extremism Brown merely saw them as an extension of the "fairness" agenda he was concentrating on at home.

It's unlikely that Gordon Brown will lead Britain during much of the new era whose dawn he has been greeting these past few days. If he isn't turfed out by his own party, he will be swept away at the next election. But that doesn't mean he is wrong to see the huge changes that the financial crisis has wrought. Only time will tell, but it could well be that the events of last week will mark the end of one era - the short seven-year decade of the War on Terror - and the true beginning of the 21st century. The Tony years are over.
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Monday, 22 September 2008

Taking stock of Stockwell

The inquest into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes will be important for a number of reasons. In the first place, it may provide some answers for his family - although, given the exhaustive airing the killing of this entirely innocent man has had over the past three years there can be little left to discover. It will test, and perhaps serve to correct, the excessively generous findings of the "Independent" Police Complaints Authority, which managed to blame both everyone and no-one. It may seal the fate of the unloved and already hopelessly compromised Sir Ian Blair. Most importantly, however, it is likely to influence the nature of policing in the capital, and elsewhere in Britain, for years to come.

If the inquest jury finds that the killing of de Menezes was lawful - despite the Brazilian's patent innocence - then the police will have something close to carte blanche to do the same thing again. We will have advanced a further giant stride towards remote, unaccountable, take-no-prisoners, Robocop-style policing. Extra-judicial execution, without benefit of trial, without testing of evidence, will have been vindicated, or at least excused, despite its tragic consequences in this case. Lessons that need to be learned will be forgotten. And sooner or later, perhaps in the feverish aftermath of another terrorist strike or attempted strike, another such shooting will occur. The dead man this time might or might not have been correctly identified, but he is just as unlikely to be carrying a bomb.

Operation Kratos, the ill-thought-out protocol under which Jean Charles de Menezes was gunned down, was not only ill-executed in practice, it was based on a severely flawed premise. In the spider-silk spin of official euphemism, it was explained to the public, not as "shoot to kill", but as "shoot to protect". The implication being that, if there is a possibility that the suspect is carrying a bomb then the "safe" thing to do is to kill him. After all, he might have detonated the bomb he might have been carrying, and the consequences might have been devastating. But that is to devalue the life of the individual: to choose the certain death of one above the speculative deaths of many. It also greatly overestimates the possibility that there will, in fact, be a bomb.

The policy is said to have been based on Israeli practice. But the situation in Jerusalem, where at one time suicide bombs were an almost daily occurence, bears no comparison with that in Britain. If you shoot someone on the streets of London who might be a bomber, the overwhelming probability will always be that an innocent man dies. Given the large number of people who look a bit like suicide bombers, and the vanishingly small number who actually are, the most likely result is always a false positive.

Much will be made in the inquest of the cock-ups and misjudgements that led to Jean Charles de Menezes being incorrectly identified as a terrorist suspect. But that is only half the problem. What if he had been the suspect? Is that sufficient reason to kill him? He was not, by all reliable accounts, behaving in a suspicious manner. He was not carrying anything that appeared to conceal a bomb. He was being held pinned to a seat, unable to move, let alone to set off a bomb. He was not resisting. He was, in short, under restraint and under arrest.
There was no need to shoot him. There are, of course, circumstances in which lethal force would be immediately required to stop someone in the process of setting off a bomb; but under no interpretation of the facts was such a test even remotely met at Stockwell.

Expect to hear a great deal of evasion and special pleading. We will be told how brave the firearms officers were to tackle a potentially dangerous suspect. We will be told that De Menezes's fate was sealed when he was incorrectly identified. We will be told that the men who fired seven bullets into the back of his unresisting neck (and whose identity is protected) deserve no criticism, because they believed they were acting under orders. Where have we heard that one before?

The Stockwell shooting was a failure of command. It was a failure of process, of leadership, and of policy. It was a failure of nerve. It was also a symptom of a police and security apparatus that has, faced with a limited (if not insubstantial) terrorist threat, lost a sense of proportion and forgotten that "protecting the public" means, above all, protecting individual human beings. But it was, more than anything else, a failure of personal responsibility. The officers who carried out the killing knew at the moment they fired their guns that Jean Charles de Menezes was no longer an immediate danger to the public, even if they sincerely believed that he had been. Yet still he died. No wonder conspiracy theories collect around this case like flies around a carcase. It was a pointless, unnecessary death; not because the intelligence failed but because the firearms officers themselves failed the ultimate moral test: to do what was patently the right thing, even if it was not their instructions, or to "follow orders", safe in the knowledge that they would not be held personally accountable.
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Sunday, 21 September 2008

Saved by a dead horse

It was recorded by Francis Galton that during Napoleon's retreat from Moscow many a soldier saved his life by creeping inside the warm and reeking carcase of a horse that had died along the way. It is so, perhaps, with Gordon Brown. The once galloping economy, which he has ridden (if not exactly controlled) these past eleven years, has collapsed and expired beneath him. But within its suppurating bowels he might at least find some respite from the chill and bitter winds that swirl round about.

Certainly on the Andrew Marr show this morning the PM looked happier than he has all year. He repeatedly broke out in that slightly creepy, mistimed smile of his as he explained how the apparent collapse of the world financial system shows how important it was for the country, and indeed for the world, that he remains in charge. He even managed to claim that he had laid up reserves against the current catastrophe by paying off debt, conveniently forgetting that he has presided over the biggest spending splurge in history, a tax-funded bonanza that will go down in the records as not merely the most lavish but also the most ill-directed and wasteful that has ever been seen.

For every pound that has gone towards improving public services at least two have been frittered away, in quangoes and regulators, in managers, in phony "public consultations", in preserving and extending public sector pensions while the private pension funds were destroyed by stealth taxes, in diversity tsars and seminars and training courses, in "awareness" campaigns, in PFI contracts that will drown generations yet unborn in debt, in absurdly complex a paper-consuming rules for "tax credits" (where raising tax thresholds could have done the same job with far more efficiency and fairness), in unworkable IT schemes and databases, in unwinnable foreign wars, in cronyism and feather-bedding, and in decimating the British rebate. Among other things. All of which has given Britain the highest budget deficit of any major economy.

And this from a man who used to go on about Prudence.

The Sunday Times today reports that, now cash needs to be found to bail out the banks - not to mention paying for the unemployment that will be the inevitable consequence of the downturn - taxes will soar. A deficit in excess of £100 billion is forecast. It would be nice to think that some of the profligacy of the past decade could simply be reversed, that some of the more obviously unnecessary schemes (ID cards for a start) could be abandoned. And perhaps, if nothing else, the increased demands on the Treasury in the next few years will serve to slow down the inexorable expansion of the state into private life and voluntary associations. All the state snoopers need to be paid, after all, and where is the money going to come from?

And yet if all this represents the failure of the Blair-Brown years, it also provides Brown with his only hope of survival. Not just because the global meltdown makes the plotting and rivalry at the top of the Labour party look petty, squalid and suddenly irrelevant. Not just because, as Brown's people have been assiduously spinning, this is no time to "drop the pilot", or because, for all his miscalculations, the prime minister retains a grip on the detail of economic policy that no-one else in the Cabinet comes close to approaching. Though that does matter. The sudden disappearance of a leader that the financial markets know and, to an extent, trust would have potentially catastrophic consequences for the government's (and the country's) ability to survive in the weeks and months ahead. Even the Conservatives, enjoying a deserved and commanding lead in the polls, need time to develop and present a coherent economic plan, time of which they would be robbed by the snap election which would inevitably follow a Labour putsch. They would almost certainly win such an election, but at the worst possible time and with an uncertain political outlook.

More straightforwardly, though, the present crisis plays to Gordon Brown's strengths. The Independent on Sunday reports a halving in the Tories' poll lead over Labour. Much of this seems to be due to an improvement in the Liberal Democrats' fortunes following their (largely overlooked) conference last week, but the report is surely accurate in identifying a "Brown bounce". A year ago, Brown was enjoying a similar bounce. A series of small-scale crises - floods, a ludicrous incident at Glasgow airport caused by an inept would-be terrorist, the collapse of Northern Rock, handled by Brown and Alastair Darling in full dither mode - made the new prime minister's dull sobriety seem reassuring. Someone to cling to as the ship went down. It evaporated with suddenness, of course, as it became apparent that Brown lacked much in the way of solutions; but for a brief period, it seemed to many of the British public that he might be able to banish problems merely by glowering at them.

Well, the problems (the financial ones at least) didn't go away. Even the bad weather returned (that's global warming, for you). But as the long slow build-up of gloom has turned to panic, Gordon Brown again, for the time being, seems to be the proverbial safe pair of hands. And he knows it.

There's something else, too, and that has to do with the huge difference (presentationally, at least) between Gordon Brown and his predecessor. Tony Blair was a motivator, a magician, a creator of political narratives. The narratives themselves were largely illusory, whether he was conjuring up a "young country" or exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, but they took on sufficient life of their own to produce measurable effects. It was only with his departure that the essential emptiness of the Blair project became readily apparent. Brown, it need hardly be said, lacks this rhetorical ability. He is a manager, a details man, a Muggle; there is about him no air of creativity. He cannot invent his own narrative, nor convincingly enunciate an inspiring programme. He needs an externally provided framework to function. For years, Blair's lofty pronouncements provided that framework, which goes some way towards explaining why he became so lost when he was left on his own. But the collapse of the global economy has a strong, an unavoidable, narrative of its own. For the first time since he took office, Gordon Brown doesn't need to come up with a vision. No wonder he looks so much more relaxed.

I was struck, in this morning's interview, by the number of times Brown said "the world has changed", "this is a new world", or variations thereon. It reminded me of Tony Blair in the wake of 9/11. That, of course, was his moment, when his messianic ambitions ran free and he could speak without irony of re-ordering the world around him. Seven years of folly ensued. But the age of Blair (and Bush) is now, finally, over. A duller, more realistic age has now begun. It's unlikely, in the long term, to be the age of Gordon Brown. But that has, at least, become a possibility.
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Friday, 19 September 2008

Everybody Hates the Jews

Tony Blair is at Yale today, beginning his "faith and globalisation" course, the latest part of his campaign to (as Private Eye has it) Draw All Faiths Together (DAFT). He seems, if nothing else, to have caught the zeitgeist. Even in secular Britain, the profile of religion is higher than it has been for decades. Who'd have thought that the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species would see a row about creationism?

In preparation for the advent of the Great Tony, Yale students were treated last week to a talk by Walter Russell Mead, who hold the exalted position of Henry Kissinger fellow in US foreign policy and international studies. Mead spoke of the current global situation as embodying the "triumph of Abraham". He argued,

The Abrahamic world is more ideological, universal, and has given rise to more quarrels over religion than any other faith. And as ideas about ideology become more influential, we see an increase in ideological and religious conflicts.

Mead also predicts that US-style religous entrepreneurialism will spread and that the "world will soon be soon be filled with television preachers". Yikes.

Among Mead's explanations for the modern resurgence in "faith" is the increase in literacy in the third world. In countries emerging from poverty and ignorance, he said, the Koran or the Bible was the first, and sometimes only, text taught. I find that quite convincing: after all, it was the invention of printing that made possible the Reformation in Europe, and the Reformation, in turn, led to almost two centuries of brutal religious wars. It's not a happy thought. Blair, however, still seems convinced that religion is uniquely capable of overcoming ancient hatreds and getting everyone to sit around together singing Kum Bah Yah.

Tony's Yale gig comes at the same time as a fascinating report on global religious attitudes is published by the fortuitously-named Pew Research Foundation, an American body specialising in wide-ranging cross-cultural surveys. Among its findings was confirmation of the widely-held ideas that women are more religious than men, older people more religious than younger, and people in poorer countries much more religious than those in richer, more developed ones. With one predictable exception, the USA.

In terms of religiosity, indeed, the US was closest to its Latin American neighbours and to India, with over 80% declaring themselves religious. But even American godfearing paled by comparison with the almost universal observance reported in Muslim countries. In Indonesia and Pakistan, 95% of those questioned said that they were "very religious". Only 55% of Americans were equally devout.

At the other end of the scale came Western Europe (especially France and Britain), Australia, and East Asia. The Japanese, indeed, are almost as irreligious as the French. They are also, it occurs to me, the two countries in the survey with the fastest and best-developed train and broadband networks. Coincidence?

The report also covered - and foregrounded - the prevalence of religiously-based hatred. With typically parochial self-laceration, the Guardian chose to lead its coverage - indeed, virtually confine its coverage - to the news that prejudice against both Muslims and Jews (but especially against Jews) was growing in continental Europe. That was not, in fact, the case in either Britain or the US (something the commentary seemed oddly unwilling to celebrate). To be fair, the same findings were stressed in the preamble to the report itself. The discovery also gave an opening for a typical piece of special pleading by Inayat Bunglawala, who chose to blame "regular and quite deliberate attempts on the part of some of our national newspapers to incite anti-Muslim prejudice." The hand-wringing Rabbi Jonathan Romain, meanwhile, took the opportunity to demand "zero tolerance and cracking down on even mild prejudice, be it in the classroom, office or on the street."

Reading through the report, however, what I found most striking had little to do with Islamophobia in continental Europe. What it actually laid bare was an extraordinary, worldwide, and apparently growing hostility towards the Jews.

In Turkey, for example, 76% of those questioned were willing to admit anti-Jewish sentiment: up more than 50% since the last time. In other Muslim countries, already strong antisemitism persisted. It was 95% in Egypt, 96% in Jordan, 76% in Pakistan, 66% in Indonesia. In Lebanon, which is religiously mixed, Jew-hatred reached 97%: presumably that means that Christian and Muslim Lebanese are equally bigoted. In general, levels of anti-Jewish sentiment were lowest in the English-speaking countries and, after that, in Western Europe (except, for some reason, Spain, where anti-Jewish sentiment has rocketed in the past year to an extraordinary 46%).

Interestingly, in Muslim countries the level of hostility towards Jews was strongly correlated with two other factors: religiosity, and enthusiasm for Saudi Arabia. Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan all scored unusually highly for all three.

Negative feelings about Jews also existed at a fairly high level in non-Islamic countries in Asia, South America and Africa, averaging around 40%. It was particularly marked in China, with about 55% anti-Jewish (though, to be fair, the Chinese were equally unimpressed with Muslims and Christians). In China, Japan and Korea, a few expatriate bankers aside, there are no Jews, so it's unclear why they should inspire such hostility. Poland and Russia were next: around a third expressing such sentiments. In France, a figure of 20% hostile to Jews might seem alarming; yet almost 80% of French expressed the opposite feeling, the highest level of philo-semitism in the world. Only in the three English-speaking countries of the USA, Britain and Australia were anti-Jewish sentiments below 10%; in all three countries, pro-Jewish feelings were above 70%.

The report claims that there is a strong correlation, in continental Europe, between anti-semitism and hostility towards Muslims, which tends to be even higher but is exhibited by similar sorts of people (the old, the ill-educated). Yet there were other correlations, too. In secular Asian countries (China, Japan and Korea) negative feelings about Jews existed alongside similar feelings about both Christians and Muslims. The latter reached 61% in Japan. Perhaps the Japanese just despise foreigners. In Pakistan and Turkey, anti-Jewish sentiment went together with anti-Christian sentiment. In other parts of the Muslim world, however, there was much less hostility towards Christians. In Egypt 46% were anti-Christian, but 52% were positive. In Jordan the anti-Christian figure was just 23%.

The following, then, might be taken as approximately (very approximately) the current state of inter-religious loathing:

Americans, Australians, British and French: like Christians and Jews, don't have much problem with Muslims.

Germans, Russians and Poles: Not so keen on Jews and Muslims; quite like Christians.

Spanish and Mexicans: Don't like Muslims or Jews; growing numbers also dislike Christians

South Americans: don't like Muslims or Jews

Africans: love Christians and Muslims; don't like Jews

Muslims: hate or don't mind Christians; really hate Jews.

Indians and Pakistanis: dislike Christians and Jews. Many Indians don't like Muslims much, either; Pakistani views of Hindus not canvassed, but unlikely to be positive.

East Asians: don't like Christians; hate Muslims; also hate Jews.

Or, as Tom Lehrer put it more than 40 years ago:

Oh, the Protestants hate the Catholics
And the Catholics hate the Protestants,
And the Hindus hate the Moslems,
And everybody hates the Jews.

The Protestant/Catholic enmity seems a bit old-fashioned nowadays, but otherwise little has changed.

Something for Tony Blair to consider as he embarks on the next stage in his attempt to persuade the world that faith is a force for tolerance and harmony in the world.
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Thursday, 18 September 2008

Out of the body again

I had a strange sense of déjà vu this morning. Radio 4's Today programme was interviewing Dr Sam Parnia, of Southampton University. Parnia, together with colleague Dr Peter Fenwick of the Institute of Psychiatry, is about to embark on a "major study" into Out of Body Experiences, we were told. As the Telegraph (also taking an interest in this ever-fascinating subject) describes it,

Doctors in hospitals in Britain and the US will study 1,500 heart attack patients to see if people with no heartbeat or brain activity can have "out of body" experiences...

The study at 25 UK and US hospitals will include doctors placing images on shelves that are only visible from the ceiling to test the theory.

Dr Sam Parnia, an intensive care doctor who is heading the study, said: "If you can demonstrate that consciousness continues after the brain switches off, it allows for the possibility that the consciousness is a separate entity.

"It is unlikely that we will find many cases where this happens, but we have to be open-minded. And if no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories. This is a mystery that we can now subject to scientific study."

On an essay for the Today website, Parnia enthuses further about his revolutionary new study, even comparing it with the multi-billion dollar Large Hadron Collider whose switch-on was the subject of such hype last week. Both projects, he writes, "are scientific endeavours that may alter the way we understand and think of ourselves."

"The former aims to study what happened during the first few moments after existence began - but the latter explores what happens after existence and human life as we know it ceases to be....

If there are hundreds of positive reports, then we will have to redefine our understanding of the mind and brain during clinical death.

Well, it certainly would be revolutionary if consciousness outside the body could be proved in this way. But that's a pretty big if.

Especially as Parnia's research sounded rather familiar. Which isn't surprising given that he has done the rounds of the radio studios before. In Jan 2004 there was a remarkably similar flurry of stories concerning his OBE research. Radio 4 broadcast a half-hour documentary on the subject, and in a write-up producer Amanda Hancox wrote the following:

In March Dr Sam Parnia and Professor Peter Fenwick will begin a year-long study, looking at patients who have had cardiac arrests to find out if they have had any experiences or memories whilst their heart stopped beating.

In particular they are interested in those who report an out-of-body experience (OBE), when the "experiencer" looks down on their body and surroundings from a height.

At Hammersmith Hospital and 12 other hospitals across the UK, symbols will be placed in strategic places so that only those who have an OBE will be able to see them.

"If these claims are verified" says Dr Sam Parnia, "then this will have a huge implication for science because what it would indicate for us is that our current understanding of mind, body and brain isn't sufficient and that it is possible for the mind/consciousness to separate from the brain at the end of life."

Déjà vu all over again.

Hancox also mentioned a preliminary study at a hospital in Swansea, which she described as "inconclusive". Of 39 cardiac arrest patients who were questioned, only two reported an out-of-body experence, and neither saw the hidden symbols. Absolutely no evidence of astral projection, then. In this sort of research, though, negative results are always "inconclusive".

I've no idea what results were produced by the twelve-hospital study Parnia and his colleagues launched four and a half years ago. In fact, I've found no reference to it whatever following the high-profile launch. I did, however, discover that Parnia has written a book, What happens when we die?, which was published in late 2005. From what I can gather, the cover pages's promise of "a ground-breaking study" was not borne out by the content. Presumably if anything of consequence had been discovered during the 2004 research project Parnia would have been trumpeting the fact this morning. Instead, there was no suggestion, either in the interview or in Parnia's essay, that he had ever looked into the subject before.

In fact, Parnia has been plugging his "research" for years. In June 2001, the Telegraph reported that "two eminent doctors" (Parnia and Fenwick) had "found new evidence to suggest that consciousness or the soul can continue to exist after the brain has ceased to function." The evidence, however, turned out to be entirely anecdotal and scientifically worthless. Out of 63 recovered heart-attack victims, seven reported some sort of experience while they were unconscious, and four of them had had the full package: light at the end of a tunnel, feelings of peace, meetings with "spiritual beings", and so on.

While Fenwick and Parnia have been sticking their pictures to hospital ceilings, more serious research into out-of-body experiences has gone some way towards explaining the phenomenon. At UCL and in Lausanne, Switzerland, psychologists used virtual-reality goggles to simulate the feeling of being outside the body. They were able to trick a volunteer's brain into thinking that a holgraphic image of a person's body, "located" some distance away, was really theirs. When the virtual body was threatened with a hammer, for example, the volunteer's real body experienced a physiological reaction. The researchers speculated that the sensory deprivation and bodily trauma experienced by near-death patients might have a similar "displacing" effect on consciousness.

"This experiment suggests that the first-person visual perspective is critically important for the in-body experience," said Dr Henrik Ehrsson, who led the UCL team. "In other words, we feel that our self is located where the eyes are."

Not only do these studies suggest a mechanism the might lie behind the OBE - that it's possible subjectively to experience one's consciousness as being located somewhere else - they also raise exciting possibilities. It could inspire a new generation of computer games, enabling players to feel as if they are actually inside the game. "Clinically, surgeons might also be able to perform operations on patients thousands of miles away by controlling a robotic virtual self."

But then that's the difference between proper scientific research and mystery mongering. The latter is good for a spot on the radio - and will doubtless attract much interest - but it never really leads anywhere. Science not only increases the realm of knowledge, it produces practical spin-offs as well.
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Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Palin and Paleontology: the story evolves

Via New Humanist, I discover what might or might not be the smoking gun in the Sarah Palin/ Creationism mystery. Anti-Palin blogger Philip Munger, who calls himself the Progressive Alaskan (he's far from alone up there, incidentally) recalls having a conversation with her in June 1997, when she was Mayor of the important (for Alaska) but tiny (for anywhere else) town of Wasilla. It was at a "graduation ceremony for home-schoolers" which may be relevant: there's a considerable overlap in the US between home-schooling and creationism. The ceremony, moreover, was being held at Wasilla Assembly of God church, which Palin then attended. According to Munger:

As the ceremony concluded, I bumped into her in a hall away from other people. I congratulated her on her victory, and took her aside to ask about her faith. Among other things, she declared that she was a young earth creationist, accepting both that the world was about 6,000-plus years old, and that humans and dinosaurs walked the earth at the same time.

I asked how she felt about the second coming and the end times. She responded that she fully believed that the signs of Jesus returning soon "during MY lifetime," were obvious. "I can see that, maybe you can't - but it guides me every day."

It's not clear what prompted Munger to bring up the subject, since Palin was not at that time a major political figure. I don't tend to ask people I've just been introduced to what they think about the Book of Genesis. Perhaps she alluded to it in her speech. Nevertheless, this at first seems to be solid evidence that Sarah Palin is, indeed, a creationist. Or at least, she was.
Fast forward a few years:

Our next discussion about religion was after she had switched to the less strict Wasilla Bible Church. She was speaking at, I was performing bugle, at a Veterans ceremony between Wasilla and Palmer. At this time, people were beginning to encourage her to run for Governor.

Once again, we found ourselves being able to talk privately. I reminded her of the earlier conversation, asking her if her views had changed. She was no longer "necessarily" a young earth creationist, she told me. But she strongly reiterated her belief that "The Lord is coming soon." I was trying to get her to tell me what she felt the signs were, when she had to move on.

In her much discussed comments during and after a televised debate in 2006, Palin seemed at first to suggest that creationism and evolution should be given something like equal billing. She referred to it as "healthy debate". She later backtracked and stated that she believed merely that creationism might be discussed if it is "brought up" in class, which is more or less the line taken by Prof. Michael Reiss, who has been forced to resign his position in the Royal Society as a result. Either position might be taken by someone who is not, themselves, a creationist: for political reasons, for example, or from the mistaken belief that a science class is an appropriate venue for such a discussion.

In an interview she also recalled childhood conversations with her father, a science teacher, about "his theories of evolution" and stressed her belief in "a creator"; but she came close to denying being a convinced creationist when she said, "I'm not going to pretend I know how all this came to be". A real creationist does know: it says so, after all, in the Bible.

Munger's suggestion that Palin may have changed her opinion along with her church is an interesting one. A couple of weeks ago the New York Times ran an article about Palin's religious background. The Assembly of God church would seem to be rather hardline. It was to that congregation that she delivered a much-discussed address back in June, in which she expressed the belief (or was in merely the hope?) that the US soldiers in Iraq were on a "mission from God". It has even emerged that an African evangelist, who is a regular guest preacher at the Assembly and who prayed over Palin in 2005 while she contemplated running for governor, also has a successful career as a witchfinder.

The New York Times quoted Palin's long-time colleague Janet Kincaid as saying that "The churches that Sarah has attended all believe in a literal translation of the Bible" - including Wasilla Bible Church (well, the clue's in the name). However, the report continues,

One of the musical directors at the church, Adele Morgan, who has known Ms. Palin since the third grade, said the Palins moved to the nondenominational Wasilla Bible Church in 2002, in part because its ministry is less extreme than Pentecostal churches like the Assemblies of God, which practice speaking in tongues and miraculous healings. She added: “A lot of churches are about music and media and having a big profile,” Ms. Morgan said. “We are against that. That is why it is so attractive to politicians because they can just sit there and be safe.”

It seems likely, then, that Palin went through a creationist "phase" when she became a born-again Christian, but has modified her position in recent years.

Does it actually matter what Palin believes about the dinosaurs? In a word, yes. Richard Dawkins turned up on Horizon last night, as one of a number of scientific talking heads giving "advice" to the next US president. People who believed in creationism, he declared, were "either ignorant, stupid or mad". Having learned about nature at her father's knee, Palin has no excuse for ignorance, and she doesn't strike me as either stupid or mad. There's another possibility, though: that creationists are deluded, caught up in an all-encompassing mental trap that makes them unable to see reality. Not something to be desired in someone in a position where mental flexibility ought to be a prerequisite.

Creationism doesn't come on its own. In that respect at least Michael Reiss was right: it's part of an entire world view. It is merely one part of a much larger structure of fundamentalist belief. Belief in the literal truth of the Bible underpins it, of course: but so, too, does the whole scheme of salvation. Jesus died for the sins of mankind, goes the theory. This belief entails others: for example, that mankind is in a state of sin. Sin exists because of the Fall: Adam and Eve sinned, and that Original Sin has been transmitted to all succeeding generations. No Adam and Eve, no Garden of Eden, no Original Sin: no need for Jesus. Similarly with the "young earth". Given that the creation, fall and redemption of man is (according to traditional doctrine) the whole point of the universe, then the idea that it is around 15 billion years old, whereas modern human beings have been around for about one hundred and fifty thousandth of that time, leads to problems of scale. Of course God, who can do all things, could have spent those billions of years twiddling his divine thumbs waiting for man to arrive; but contemplating the immensities of time and space tends to make the traditional religious narrative seem rather parochial.

"Young earth" creationism exists in a closed system, and leads directly onto the apocalyptic pre-millennial beliefs that Palin also appears to subscribe to. That said, it has more rather more intellectual coherence than "intelligent design", which in most of its manifestations attempts both to accept the findings of science regarding the age of the earth while picking holes in Darwinian evolution by seeking out "hard to explain" cases. It thus tries to import the notion of individual divine creation of species from a paradigm in which it makes sense - "Bible-based" fundamentalist Christianity - into another, modern science, where it has no place.

The result is neither scientifically nor religiously satisfying: which is why most Christians who accept the findings of science when it comes to the age of the universe have no problem with evolution. That goes, not just for ever-liberal Anglicanism but for the Roman Catholic Church, too. They are organising their own events to celebrate next year's Darwin anniversaries. Asked whether an apology would be forthcoming, the Vatican's Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi commented that Darwin was "never condemned by the Catholic Church nor was his book ever banned".

Clearly the Catholic Church had learned some lessons from the Galileo business.
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Monday, 15 September 2008

Christians for Darwin

The idea that the Church of England wants to "apologise to Darwin" seems calculated - and perhaps it was - to annoy the Daily Mail. Certainly, the Mail on Sunday rose to the bait, claiming that the church was planning "officially" to apologise to the great biologist and rounding up some usual suspects - Ann Widdecombe among them - to "greet with derision" a move which the paper described as "bizarre". "Church officials" were deemed to have compared the move with the Catholic Church's decision a few years ago to pardon Galileo (allegedly despite the reservations of one Cardinal Ratzinger). Even Terry Sanderson of the NSS was quoted as saying that it seemed "rather crazy" to apologise to someone so long after his death.

On the face of it the Church of England doesn't have much to apologise for. Indeed, if you take the view that Darwinian evolution strikes at the root of the traditional Christian world view, it must be admitted that the Church of England, at least in its official capacity, treated Darwin with remarkable forbearance. He was even buried in Westminster Abbey. Of course many Christians, at the time and since, have denounced Darwin's theory as the work of the devil. But they have not tended to be Anglican Christians. There's certainly no comparison with Galileo, who was officially denounced, condemned as a heretic, and forced to recant his outrageous suggestion that the earth revolved around the sun.

If many Anglicans of Darwin's time resisted natural selection, it was less because of a perceived conflict with the Book of Genesis - unlike today's "Young Earth" creationists, most had already come to terms with the findings of geology - than because the theory threatened man's position as God's special and unique creation. Among Darwin's clerical opponents, the most prominent was the Bishop of Oxford, Sam Wilberforce, who famously took on Thomas Huxley in debate (he lost) and less famously, but more maliciously, intervened to prevent Darwin receiving a knighthood. Perhaps this is what the C of E wishes to apologise for. Not getting a knighthood, though, is not quite in the same league as what befell Galileo. And when he died, Darwin was eulogised from pulpits and in church magazines. In a sermon at Westminster Abbey, Canon Alfred Barry described natural selection as "by no means alien to the Christian religion" - as long as it was understood as operating "under the Divine Intelligence".

Of course, the "apology" turns out to be no such thing. There's no ex cathedra statement from Rowan Williams. Instead, it takes the form of an apostrophe to Darwin's shade at the end of an essay by Revd Malcolm Brown on the C of E's website:

Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of 'faith seeking understanding' and hope that makes some amends.

Apart from the misleading suggestion that there was such a thing as a "first reaction" from the C of E this seems fairly unexceptionable, and certainly doesn't merit the excited reaction from the press. Though Brown, who is the church's "director of mission and public affairs" (I suppose that's churchspeak for spin-doctor) will no doubt be delighted by the attention. What, then, is really going on?

The answer comes in the next sentence:

But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests.

Brown would seem to have two major aims. The first is to distance his church - and mainstream Christianity generally - from the manifest absurdity of creationism. The second is more ambitious, to reclaim Darwinism for God. As he also says, "if Darwin’s ideas once needed rescuing from religious defensiveness, they may also now need rescuing from some of the enthusiasts for his ideas."

He mentions no names, but I think we all know who he has in mind. Nor is Brown above the old smear that Darwinism, when combined with atheism, has unfortunate consequences:

It may just be that Wilberforce and others glimpsed a murky image of how Darwin’s theories might be misappropriated and the harm they could do...From the social misapplication of Darwin’s theories has sprung insidious forms of racism and other forms of discrimination which are more horribly potent for having the appearance of scientific “truth” behind them. Darwin’s immense achievement was to develop a big theory which went a long way to explaining aspects of the world around us. But to treat it as an all-embracing theory of everything is to travesty Darwin’s work.

Note the subtle implication towards the end of this extract. To treat Darwin's theory as "all-embracing" - in that it is capable of shedding light on many different phenomena - is not the same thing as using a crude notion of "survival of the fittest" as a blueprint for society. As he made plain in his recent TV series on the Genius of Darwin, Richard Dawkins is as opposed to "social Darwinism" as any Anglican bishop. What Brown's argument amounts here to is the usual claim that religion is essential for morality.

Brown's essay forms only one of a number of articles and resources posted on the church's website to mark next year's Darwin anniversaries. There's also a statement from the Bishop of Swindon, a biologist and member of the Association of Ordained Scientists, who writes of his "conviction that scientific insights and Christian belief are meant to be companions not competitors". He notes that "anniversaries associated with the life, discoveries and writing of Charles Darwin will no doubt prompt many to take a different view." Many creationists, but also many atheists.

The Church of England, now as ever committed to the via media, imagines its position as being a kind of third way between the Biblical literalism of the creationists and the hard-boiled atheism of Richard Dawkins. As such it can find itself assailed by both sides, and accused of inconsistency and doublethink. This leads to defensiveness, but also to frustration. One of my religious readers, Weeping Cross, complains in a comment that he finds it "absolutely infuriating" that media voices "expect Christians to be creationists, or at least to have some sort of intellectual sympathy with them." It's a widespread lament among Anglicans.

One reason for the over-representation of creationism in public debate may be the peripheral place that Christianity now occupies in society: for those who don't know, and don't care, about the precise doctrines of the church, Christians can seem strange and baffling. And so creationism can sound like the sort of thing Christians ought to believe in. Added to that is the high profile of the American religious right, many members of which either believe in a six-day creation or at least allow themselves to be represented by ministers who do. Also, though - as Michael Reiss said the other day - creationism seems to be growing. In some ways the rise of creationism parallels the rise of the evangelical wing of the Church. Most evangelicals may not be creationists, but all creationists are evangelical. So, in a shrinking religious market, the church risks becoming a bolt-hole for fundamentalists in retreat from the modern world, stuck in a defiantly pre-scientific view of the world.

The "Christians for Darwin" (counterparts, perhaps, to "Atheists for Jesus") are part of a long tradition of Anglican triangulation. Charles Kingsley, the Victorian novelist, was among the first devout Christians to take Darwin's discoveries on board. It was "just as noble a conception of the Deity, to believe that He created primal forms capable of self-development as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which He himself had made." The Revd Thomas Burnet, a Restoration divine who wrote The Sacred Theory of Earth - an early (and recognisably Anglican) attempt to reconcile a religious world-view with emerging ideas about the age of the earth - made the same point in 1680:

Tis a dangerous thing to engage the authority of scripture in disputes about the natural world, in opposition to reason; lest time, which brings all things to light, should discover that to be evidently false which we had made scripture to assert... We are not to suppose that any truth concerning the natural world can be an enemy to religion, for truth cannot be an enemy to truth. God is not divided against himself.

It's a lesson which the Church of England has had to re-learn many times. Creationists, on the other hand, still seem impervious to it.

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