Monday, 29 August 2011

What to do about Megrahi?

Even now that his protector and former boss has been ousted from power - the man who may have ordered him to commit mass murder and then, some years later, calmly handed him over to the Scottish legal system for a show trial, only years afterwards to welcome him home as a hero - the "Lockerbie bomber" Abdulbaset Ali Al-Megrahi, remains still stubbonly and tenuously alive. Few could have predicted that he would live to see the collapse of the regime he served at such personal cost, or that there would be demands to return him to prison two years after his controversial release and twenty-one months after the predicted date of his death.

So what to do about him? He is, it is said, close to death. For real, this time - though that, too, has been said often enough in the past. The new Libyan authorities (if they can yet be thus described) are said to be loath to return to his erstwhile jailers. Apart from poetic justice and better medical care for Megrahi, it's hard to see what would be achieved by any such move, even if a legal basis could be discovered for it. And what, precisely, would that be? The release was not conditional on his dying within a set period. He did not lie about his illness, even if the doctors were wrong about how long he had left. Does being wheeled out, on a stretcher and wearing an oxygen mask, at a pro-Gaddafi rally represent a breach of his parole conditions? I doubt it.

It is a mess, though. At the time of his release, I argued that the decision was the right one - not just because he was dying, but because there was sufficient doubt about his guilt to make it a real possibility that an innocent man would die in prison. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime does not change that. Various defectors are said to have admitted Libyan involvement in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103, but as yet these remain unsubstantiated rumours. Shortly before Megrahi's release in 2009, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission had raised serious questions over some of the key evidence and approved a new appeal. The case against Megrahi was, in any case, weak and over-reliant on the evidence of single, probably compromised, witness.

This doesn't mean that Megrahi was necessarily innocent. He was, after all, an agent of a government notorious at the time for its sponsorship of terrorism and revealed today (for those who hadn't already noticed) as a murderous tyranny. The leading alternative theory is that the plot was masterminded by Syria, another and rather more efficient tyranny whose leader is still clinging onto power: the final truth may only emerge when both regimes are toppled, and perhaps not even then. Whichever is the case, Megrahi was either a patsy or a fall guy. The true culprit was the government that gave the orders.

Officially, the decision to release Megrahi was taken purely by the Scottish justice minister, purely on medical advice, and solely on grounds of compassion. But his release was at the very least connived at by a UK government keen to improve trade links with a then-rehabilitated Gaddafi regime. It was a murky and somewhat disreputable deal, even if the release itself was defensible. Megrahi's survival and Gaddafi's collapse have destroyed both the release's rationale and whatever moral basis it may once have possessed.

The best solution would have been to have continued the appeal process, expedited if at all possible. We now know that Megrahi would have lived to see its conclusion and would today be either legitimately free or else legitimately dying in jail. It was never entirely clear why the appeal had to be abandoned as a condition of Megrahi's release, or why it could not have been heard sooner. Perhaps the appeal would have been too embarrassing for everyone concerned, especially the US authorities, but this is speculation.

If Abdulbaset Ali Al-Megrahi were to be returned to a Scottish jail, it would be as little more than a macabre trophy. Perhaps some would like to see him paraded, Roman-style, in triumph through the streets of Edinburgh, with David Cameron following behind in a gold-plated chariot (and Nick Clegg, no doubt, whispering in his ear, "remember thou art mortal!") But it is perhaps sufficient punishment for Megrahi that he should have lived to see the destruction of the regime that employed him and, at the end of his life, accorded him the status of a hero.
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Thursday, 25 August 2011

Twitter safe after all

It appears that the government has abandoned plans - if indeed it had any plans - to blockTwitter and Facebook during times of riot and civil strife. Theresa May met representatives of both companies earlier today, but "government plans to shut down social media sites during emergencies" (as one, now edited, report had it) were not even on the agenda. Instead, the Home office is now stressing that "the government and police have not sought any new powers." Instead there was much talk of extending existing co-operation. A facebook representative described the meeting as "a dialogue about working together to keep people safe rather than about imposing new restrictions on internet services."

So that's all right then. Louise Mensch will be disappointed, but few other people. In time-honoured fashion, the government is finessing a U-turn by claiming that it never intended to do what it strongly implied it was on the point of doing, and that the change of heart (but then there was no change of heart) had nothing to do with the overwhelmingly negative reaction. Or, perhaps, the Chinese government's ironic support for the idea. Well, that's politics. We can just pretend that David Cameron never said anything to suggest that he thought it a practical suggestion.

More sensible members of the government must have been fully aware that giving the police power to turn off Twitter would be chillingly authoritarian, pointless, counterproductive and send out all the wrong messages. That it would destroy, at a stroke, any moral standing Britain possessed to criticise China or Iran for engaging in similar cyber-censorship. That it would inconvenience the overwhelming majority of social media users whose sharing of jokes and gossip, status updates and timewasting banter continued as usual throughout the period of the riots. That it would rob the police of a significant source of information, as well as of easy arrests of people stupid enough to boast about their plans (real or imagined). That it would do almost nothing to prevent the spread of disorder at the price of causing widespread irritation. That it wouldn't work anyway (does anything the government does with IT ever work?)

Or if they weren't so aware, they very quickly became so.

I'm prepared to believe that the authoritarian tosspots who infest the Home Office bureaucracy, the people who gave us X-ray scanners and still pine for ID cards, would enjoy the erotic power rush of turning off a major communications network at the flick of a switch. They'd probably like to turn off the telephones, interrupt the mail and shoot carrier pigeons, if it seemed to them that any potential looters might thereby rendered ignorant of the location of disturbances. But then what about the TV news coverage? If anything encouraged people to come from afar to join in the disturbances or bag themselves a pair of unpaid-for Primark shorts it was surely the dramatic images of burning buildings and smashed windows, not the largely middle-class ruminations of Twitter users.

As it happens, someone (the Guardian, actually) has gone and done the research. An analysis of more than 2.5m Twitter messages relating to the riots - that's a fairly small proportion of all the messages flying around the network - revealed that the vast majority were reactive: warnings of places to avoid, general commentary, re-tweeting of police messages and the like. No surprise there. If Twitter and Facebook did play a part, it was in inspiring and co-ordinating the voluntary clean-up operation afterwards. There's more circumstantial evidence that some users of Blackberry Messaging used that closed network to arrange nefarious acts. But is anyone suggesting that, were it not for BBM, there would have been no riots? I don't think so.

The original announcement, like much of the reaction to the riots, was a knee-jerk. It had not been thought through. Unfortunately, even a throwaway remark can be construed as a pledge. Politics often comes down to a choice between an embarrassing U-turn and continuing with a bad policy. I'm glad they chose the U-turn.

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Monday, 22 August 2011

What we can learn from gay finches

A "science" story from last week illustrates that peculiar facet of early 21st century morality, the heteronormalization - if you will permit me to use such an ugly piece of jargon - of gay relationships. Like most "science" stories that feature in the press, it says more about our modern culture than it does about the abstract realm of knowledge, from the strangeness of the conceit that lies behind it to the anthropomorphizing conclusions that we are encouraged to draw.

The tale - sorry, "research" - concerns zebra finches. But not any old zebra finches. Thanks to the manipulations of scientists rather than (I assume) to any innate dispostions, these are gay zebra finches.

Julie Elie, who led the reasearch at Berkeley, California, "found when young male finches were raised in same-sex groups, more than half of them paired up with another male. When females were introduced to their group the males ignored them in favour of their current partner."

This apparently shows that "relationships in animals can be more complicated than just a male and a female who meet and reproduce, even in birds." If you were being politically incorrect (as well as being anthropomorphizing), you might think it shows that sexuality can be moulded by the environment. There's no suggestion here that the finches have a "gay gene". Only the lack of females made them turn to each other for company. Think of it as being a bit like an old-fashioned public school.

Of course, that couldn't possibly apply to humans. Instead the story concentrates on the romantic possibilities of pair-bonding among the finches.

Bonded birds, Dr Elie explained, perch side by side, nestled together. They also greet each other by "nuzzling" beaks.

How sweeeet.

When finally introduced to girls, the lads just weren't interested:

Out of eight males that were engaged in same-sex pair-bonds, five ignored the females completely and continued to interact with their male partner.

According to Julie, "A pair-bond in socially monogamous species represents a cooperative partnership that may give advantages for survival," said Dr Elie. "Finding a social partner, whatever its sex, could be a priority." And just to make sure we get the message, the BBC report opened with the bald statement that "Same-sex pairs of monogamous birds are just as attached and faithful to each other as those paired with a member of the opposite sex."

Of course, if you know birds at all well (even "monogamous" birds) you'll realise that that probably isn't saying much. There's more sly adultery in your average hedgerow than in and around the Premier League or some of the posher areas of London. But still, the ideal is there. At the centre of the relationship is the couple, rather than the possibility of offspring, which even for zebra finches (at least, for male zebra finches) isn't much of a priority. They just want some other finch to preen and sing to. That's what we're supposed to think, anyway.

As I wrote recently elsewhere, the gay civil partnership doesn't just (or even mainly) represent the extension of rights traditionally enjoyed only by heterosexuals. It also represents the apotheosis of coupledom, the clearest possible demonstration of official faith in the moral superiority of the two-person relationship. The moralisation of the couple - a unit both erotic and companionate - might (if you want to go back that far) be traced to Plato's Symposium, but the more immediate source is the Protestant Reformation, which held it out as an alternative ideal to the Catholic cult of virginity. Marriage, in the Catholic view, was mainly intended for procreation, hence the ban on contraception and the preference for large families.

But we shouldn't really be imposing such ideas on finches. Clearly they have a strong instinct to pair up, strong enough to override the normal preference (in the wild) for a finch of the opposite sex (or possibly - here's a suggested further experiment - of the same species). But it's speculative to assume that this has anything to do with "a cooperative partnership that may give advantages for survival" rather than as a reproductive strategy. Perhaps some of these finches are just too stupid to notice that they're sharing a nest with another bloke.

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Thursday, 18 August 2011

Is disproportionate punishment ever justified?

Magistrates and crown court judges have been handing out tough custodial sentences to people arrested during the recent riots. Offences that would normally have attracted community service orders, sometimes no more than a police caution, have seen people sent to prison for months or even years. A mother is sent down for five months for wearing a pair of shorts that someone else had looted. A young man is given a four year sentence for creating a facebook page which may been part of a drunken prank. An eight-year-old girl may be made homeless because her previously law-abiding brother managed to get himself arrested within the borough of Wandsworth.

Whether or not you think these sentences are just and proportionate, and whether they represent just deserts, will depend on your view of appropriate punishment. Many will be glad to see the end, temporarily at least, of soft sentences, at least in these circumstances. Others worry about the effect on hitherto law-abiding people of being sent to prison where they will be held alongside sociopaths and drug-addicts. My own primary concern is with the enormous cost of all these extra prisoners at a time when the government is supposed to be reducing the deficit. But then I'm like that.

But whether good or bad, these sentences are certainly different. The normal sentencing guidelines are being stretched to the limit, or even (it has been rumoured) thrown out entirely. Suggestions of directives being issued from on high have been denied, but perhaps the judges and magistrates don't need to be explicitly told. The political steer coming from leading politicians, especially David Cameron, was obvious. So, if newspaper coverage or the first opinion polls were anything to go by, was the public mood. Savage sentences are always going to be popular. As Ken Clarke recently found, it's always dangerous for a politician to appear to be advocating lower sentences, either out of liberal principle or a desire for parsimony.

An interesting statement of the new mood was made by Judge Andrew Gilbart QC, honorary Recorder of Manchester, before he sentenced a group of rioters the other day. He denied that he was acting under orders from the government or the Courts Service: "I have received no advice... Had I done so, I would have ignored it." Instead, he offered his own rationale for treating those involved in the disturbances with unusual severity:

Any participation whatsoever of whatever duration in the criminal activities of that night in Manchester City Centre or in Salford, irrespective of its precise form, derives its gravity because it was carried on by one of those who by sheer weight of numbers subjected the commercial areas to a sustained onslaught of burglary, robbery, theft, disorder and other related offences. Anyone on the streets that night who took part in crime added to the effects of the overall criminality, and hampered the efforts of the Police to bring it under control, and of the owners and operators of those businesses trying to protect them.

In other words, offenders are not being punished just for their own crimes, but for the fact that they were part of a riot. It scarcely matters whether they normally exhibit criminal tendencies or were simply swept up in a moment of madness. They were part of a crime much bigger, and more serious, than the window-smashing or looting of trainers for which they came before the court.

Now is this approach to sentencing a good one? One justification is that these exemplary punishments will serve as a deterrent, and that preventing further riots and disorders is, in itself, a valid use of sentencing for particular minor crimes. Judge Gilbart again:

Those who choose to take part in activities of this type must understand that they do so at their peril. It must be made equally clear, both to those who are apprehended and to those who might be tempted to behave in this way in the future, that the court will have no hesitation in marking the seriousness of what has occurred and it will act in such a way in the present case as will, I hope, send out a clear and unambiguous message as to the consequences to the individual. It is a message which I trust will deter others from engaging in this type of behaviour in the future.

Gilbart added that it would be "wholly unreal" for him "to have regard only to the specific acts ... as if they had been committed in isolation". One consequence of this, though, is to throw normal sentencing policy into sharp relief. On the one hand, Jonnie Marbles' four weeks for glouping Rupert Murdoch suddenly doesn't seem quite so outrageously harsh - or even Charlie Gilmour's 16 months for swinging on the Cenotaph, come to that. On the other, what about this?

A drunk student who partially blinded a man in a savage attack has avoided jail. Ben Redman, 22, from Basildon, punched his 53-year-old victim to the floor after being challenged by Stephen Hails for pushing a girl on to a car bonnet.

The victim has now completely lost vision in his left eye. He was also left with a fractured thumb and eye socket during the attack in Ipswich, where Redman studies at University Campus Suffolk.

Ipswich Crown Court heard witness statements describing Redman as having a “wild look in his eye” in the lead up to the assault on Mr Hails last December.

He intimidated and goaded his victim by asking: “What are you going to do about it, old man?” Redman drew his arm back behind his shoulder and landed a blow below Mr Hails’s eye. It caused him to fall to the floor, hitting his head and losing consciousness.

The business and marketing undergraduate admitted causing grievous bodily harm. Judge David Goodin sentenced him to 12 months in prison, suspended for two years, and ordered him to carry out 250 hours of unpaid work. Redman must also keep to a two-month night-time curfew at his mother’s house in Basildon.

A suspended sentence for a crime which the judge, passing sentence described as "a savage, brutal and mindless attack."

Perhaps there were special circumstances that didn't get reported; there often are. On the face of it, though, this punishment is as disproportionately lenient as the five months' jail for wearing stolen shorts is disproportionately harsh. Placed side by side, the sentences seem manifestly absurd. Any well-ordered justice system should treat the savage and unprovoked beating of an innocent man, leaving him permanently disabled, as deserving greater punishment than handling a low-value item of shoplifted property. One or other of these sentences must be wrong. I would argue that they both are.

There may be a distinction to be made, though, between pragmatism and abstract justice. To put the matter starkly, there might be good reasons to treat the spontaneous loss of control of a normally law-abiding person, swept up in the Dionysiac exhilaration of a riot, more seriously than a crime committed by an individual acting entirely alone, someone who did something wicked all by himself.

Of course there is no excuse for violence or looting. That others are rioting doesn't give you carte blanche to riot. You always have a choice. One might argue, then, that one's moral culpability is the same whether you are acting alone or as part of a crowd. I agree. Yet psychology has repeatedly demonstrated that group behaviour is very powerful, exercising an almost coercive effect on most individuals.

People are like sheep. They do things in groups that they would never do alone, that they would be horrified even by the thought of. Indeed, some of the outliers brought before the court demonstrate just how diverse were the rioting crowds. There was even a student from Exeter University whose background looks to have been indistinguishable from that of Kate Middleton. Being in a large group can inspire a coward to revolt against a tyrannical government. But it can also inspire a decent person to form part of a lynch mob. It's part of how people function collectively.

That being the case, is it really fair to hand out exemplary sentences to rioters who were merely acting in accordance with human nature, who are not actually violent criminals? And is such sentencing policy good either for them or for society?

Perhaps it is.

The rioters and looters are being punished, I suspect, neither for the particular crimes they committed nor for their part in the greater criminality of the riot, but as an attempt to deal with this very dangerous tendency of human psychology. If people in groups are particularly susceptible to peer pressure and may therefore behave with uncharacteristic violence and lawlessness, then a disproportionate sentencing regime may be justified. Blatant unfairness may be justified. It is about "sending a message", after all. The message must be strong enough to deter someone caught up in a crowd, someone tempted almost beyond bearing to join in the orgasmic ecstasy of mass misbehaviour. Something must be available to activate their normal mechanism of restraint, which under such circumstances is severely compromised. Fear of going to jail for a long stretch may just do the trick.

The criminal justice system does not just exist to promote fairness. Part of its job is to preserve public order by instilling fear. And long experience shows that it is the normally law-abiding who are most easily intimidated.

But I do still worry about the cost.

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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Can TV shorten your life?

Watching TV can take years off your life, warns the Telegraph. Indeed, every hour you spend slumped in front of the box reduces your life expectancy by 22 minutes. That's in addition to the hour of useful life you've just lost. That works out as a full five years if you watch six hours a day.

How, precisely? Does the box emit carcinogenic rays? Does a diet of reality TV and gameshows induce slow brain deterioration that ends up with you just losing the will to live? (Which, if you are watching six hours a day, would scarcely be a surprise.) Should you be messing about on Twitter instead, like I do?

There's "research", of course, to back up this patently absurd finding. But it doesn't reveal how an hour's television can reduce your life by that suspiciously exact 22 minutes. Nothing so dramatic. The research - from the University of Queensland - merely compared the mortality rates of Aussies who spent their lives on a sofa watching Neighbours (or perhaps the cricket) and those who had "more active lifestyles" (perhaps playing cricket). TV watching was an example of "sedentary behaviour". After doing some sums, the researchers "worked out that every hour spent glued to the screen shortened life by 21.8 minutes."

For those in the top 1 per cent of the population who watch six hours of programmes a day, they “can expect to live 4.8 years less than a person who does not watch TV”.

The "top" 1 per cent of the population?

So TV doesn't kill you, or even reduce your life expectancy. It's just that more active people tend to live longer. This might be because they take more exercise. Or it might be because the sort of people who don't have time for TV are healthier in other ways. Television watching is a class signifier, because it's cheaper than going to the theatre in the evening; and wealth is positively correlated with life expectancy, even in Australia. Of course, exercise is probably good for you. But it is only one factor.

Anyone who spends six hours a day watching television is likely to have an unhealthy lifestyle, or to be unemployed. Perhaps couch potatoes smoke and drink more than compulsive joggers. On the other hand, a report on the same page claims that "as little as 15 minutes a day of physical activity can reduce the risk of dying by 14 per cent and increase lifespan by three years." Three years! That's equivalent to 3.6 hours less telly.

Easy, then. Just do five minutes exercise for every hour's TV, and you've gained (not counting the time taken up by the exercise) 17 extra minutes of life to do whatever you want with. Except watch the TV, of course.

That'll work, won't it? That's Science. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 12 August 2011

What caused the riots?

Criminality; police inaction; police overreaction; not enough police; police bureaucracy; police holidays; multicuturalism; "ultra-feminism"; the decline in religious observance; knife culture; gang culture; the class divide; left-wing socialist dogma; right-wing free-market dogma; Blackberry messaging; parents' unwillingness to discipline unruly children; adults' fear of children; comprehensive education; absent fathers;

Twitter; urban stress; the breakdown of respect; lack of suitable role-models; inherent lawlessness of youth; boredom; hopelessness; emotional impoverishment; hand-wringing Guardianistas; unemployment; racism; the withdrawal of educational maintenance allowances; social inequality; opportunism; police turning a blind eye to petty crime and vandalism; social exclusion; Harriet Harman; English culture; feral youth;

official undermining of adult authority; tax avoidance by the rich; "moral anarchy"; decades of posturing by liberal elites; television coverage; the herd mentality; brain chemistry; mirror neurons; poor nutrition; unrealistic expectations; no expectations; lack of self-esteem; too much reliance on CCTV; not enough CCTV; stop and search; the Human Rights Act; Facebook; alienation; ineffectual social services; lack of police access to rubber bullets, tear-gas and water-cannon; single motherhood; teenage pregnancy; "polygamy"; mindlessness; "lives of absolute futility"; political disengagement; greedy bankers; pyromania; inadequate supervision; reality TV; police budget cutbacks; political correctness;

New Labour's record in office; the Coalition; the Sixties; welfare dependency; welfare cuts; the abolition of caning; inadequate housing; homelessness; fecklessness; crime-ridden housing estates; the school holidays; rap music; consumerism; inability to distinguish between right and wrong; MPs' expense claims; hereditary joblessness; testosterone; ADHD; lack of anger-management teaching in schools; lack of discipline in schools; "horribly feminised" schools; truancy; soft sentences; ASBOs; hoodies; hugging hoodies; the weather; face-coverings; the exhilaration of crowds; envy; greed; sexual frustration; the condition of England; Ken Livingstone; Boris Johnson; footballers' salaries; footballers' behaviour; shit happens; somewhere in Texas, a butterfly flapped its wings.

Have I missed anything?

P.S. I had reckoned without Dr David Starkey's remarkable suggestion on Newsnight that it was all to do with the adoption of "black culture" and Jamaican patois by white working-class chavs.Truly, the possibilities are endless.

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Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Baying for broken glass

Late last year, in response to the student protests that saw Charlie Gilmour swinging from the centotaph (16 months) and a Rolls Royce carrying Charles and Camilla nearly everted, I wrote a parody of John Betjeman's Varsity Rag which contained the following lines:

It was almost like the Bullingdon as we bayed for broken glass,
For the rioting student nowadays is a better sort of class,

It seems I wasn't the only one to see a parallel between those events and the non-political boisterousness indulged in by members of Oxford University's Bullingdon Club, a fraternity in which both David Cameron and Boris Johnson were enthusiastic participants. Tom Scorza in his blog A Short Introduction to Cycling offered the following quote, attributed to Cameron and said to come from the "Oxford Book of Quotations":

"Things got a bit out of hand & we’d had a few drinks. We smashed the place up and Boris set fire to the toilets." David Cameron, 7th June 1986.

Over the past couple of days this pseudo-quote has been Tweeted and re-Tweeted. Shorn of its tell-tale reference to the non-existent Oxford Book of Quotations, it has a certain superficial plausibility, perhaps, if you don't think about it too closely (is it actually possible to set fire to a toilet? Apart from the loo-paper, there's nothing to burn and quite a lot of water). Alerted, he writes, by a Telegraph journalist (presumably Tom Chivers, whose comment appears below the line) Scorza has updated the post with an explanation:

Perhaps I should feel flattered that what I wrote as satire back in December is still being argued over. However, I am now more than happy to kill the joke.

The “quote” written above is not true. I wrote it at the time to poke a bit of fun at the PM and Boris when they were condemning the student riots. It was not supposed to be anything more than that. Whilst I was aware that a few people might retweet what I wrote, I did not realise that it would be repeated thousands of times, be requoted on Facebook and spread to blogs.

There's a lesson here about not believing everything you see on Twitter (or anywhere else), especially if it fits into your preconceived notions. The true story of that notorious Oxford party is told by Jim Pickard of the FT:

The evening had ended with a pot being sent crashing through a restaurant window – sending some of the revellers, including Johnson, the future mayor of London, scurrying for safety while their less fortunate friends earned themselves a night in the cells at Cowley police station.

Many details of the evening have been kept a closely-guarded secret by the group of old friends, who have remained tight-lipped about Cameron’s involvement in the escapade.

But one former Bullingdon member recalled how the arrests took place in Oxford’s botanical gardens where – silhouetted by the lights of the police cars – the students, who had been hiding on the ground, stood up one by one.

At that point, however, Cameron had sprinted off down a side street towards St John’s Lane to make good his escape, according to the person. He said the idea that the future Tory leader was not part of the original escapade was ludicrous.

The source thinks that in retrospect it was "extraordinary" that Cameron was so determined not to be caught. The rogue quote would seem to capture the spirit of that memorable occasion, if not the actuality of David Cameron's words. What he actually said was "Nothing to do with me, guv. I just posed for the photo."
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Monday, 8 August 2011

Guest Post: Can’t see the trees for the wood

This is a book review by LibertyPhile
of Islamophobia by Dr Chris Allen

You would expect a book grandly entitled “Islamophobia” to mention the causes of Islamophobia if not discuss them at length. This book does neither.

The book’s index gives the first sign that it will greatly disappoint. If you look for key words and phrases, “sharia”, “sex equality”, “marriage”, “polygamy”, “halal”, “politics”, “freedom of speech”, “secularism” ……. you won’t find them.

These topics are missing. They surely provide many of the foremost reasons why non-Muslims are critical of Islam and why it is disliked and mistrusted by so many.

To be fair to Dr Allen he devotes several pages to the Satanic Verses fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for blasphemy. He mentions that the Satanic Verses affair is seen as “…. one of the formative, defining events in shaping how Muslims and Islam have since been known and understood” (p41).

Though he tries to be neutral Dr Allen’s account leaves the impression that the western horror and disgust at the Khomeini fatwa and the deaths and riots that followed were unjustified. It was simply what Muslims did. No call for criticism there.

He even takes the trouble to mention in apparent mitigation the story that some riots were staged (by Muslims) and amateurishly recorded by them for the benefit of the western media. He reports “Despite being poorly produced, within hours images of Muslims burning books on the streets of England were broadcast all around the world” (p42).

He also mentions the burqa once (p101)

The target audience

The book needs a sub-title. Something like “A discussion of existing definitions of Islamophobia and a proposal for a new and improved definition” would be a fair indication of what the book is about.

To which might be added “…. by an academic for academics”. Large chunks of the book and many passages are impenetrable.

The publicity is also misleading. The front cover is a dramatic close up photo of a young Muslim’s bearded face stamped all over with stickers saying “muslim”, “terrorist”, “fanatics”, “radical”, “militant”, etc., giving the impression the book is aimed at a popular audience.

A back cover testimonial says “There are insights in Allen’s work that deserve to be appreciated by students from a variety of disciplines, as well as a more general readership”. This book is certainly not a popular work or suited in any way to a general readership (as you will see below).

What does the book achieve?

Dr Allen starts with the definition of Islamophobia from the Runnymede report Islamophobia: a challenge for us all: report of the Runnymede Trust Commission on British Muslims and islamophobia (1997).

“The shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam - and, therefore, to fear or dislike all or most Muslims”.(p15)

And ends up with his new improved definition 180 pages later (p194)

"Islamophobia is an ideology, similar in theory, function and purpose to racism and other similar phenomena, that sustains and perpetuates negatively evaluated meaning about Muslims and Islam in the contemporary setting in similar ways to that which it has historically, although not necessarily as a continuum, subsequently pertaining, influencing and impacting upon social action, interaction, response and so on, shaping and determining understanding, perceptions and attitudes in the social consensus - the shared languages and conceptual maps - that inform and construct thinking about Muslims and Islam as Other.

Neither restricted to explicit nor direct relationships of power and domination but instead, and possibly even more importantly, in the less explicit and everyday relationships of power that we contemporarily encounter, identified both in that which is real and that which is clearly not, both of which can be extremely difficult to differentiate between. As a consequence of this, exclusionary practices - practices that disadvantage, prejudice or discriminate against Muslims and Islam in social, economic and political spheres ensue, including the subjection to violence - are in evidence. For such to be Islamophobia however, an acknowledged 'Muslim' or 'Islamic' element - either explicit or implicit, overtly expressed or covertly hidden, or merely even nuanced through meanings that are 'theological', 'social', 'cultural', 'racial' and so on, that at times never even necessarily name or identify 'Muslims' or 'Islam' - must be present." (p194)

The Runnymede definition has its limitations. What would you call someone who thinks Islam is a load of nonsense, most of it quite harmless though some of it in certain heads, very dangerous? And he doesn’t dislike or hate Muslims, just thinks the harmless nonsense believers are misguided or foolish.

Dr Allen’s new definition despite being over ten times longer is equally deficient (and you can see why the book is not suited to a popular or general readership).

And what about those who hold critical views on Islam regarding the topics that Dr Allen fails to mention. For example:

Sharia courts: Sharia “courts” are divisive encouraging further segregation. Muslim women are pressured to use a sharia system totally biased in favour of men in divorce, distribution of assets, financial support, and the custody of children.

It is easy for a Muslim man to divorce his wife, but very difficult for a wife to divorce her husband. Muslim women who seek divorce are subjected to an interview process, pressured to remain married and risk losing quite possibly their only financial wealth by being forced to return their dower.

There is growing evidence that these “courts” impinge on cases of domestic violence, a criminal matter, and are forcing Muslim woman to live within violent husbands.

The men, and they are all men, who oversee these sharia courts are often uneducated foreign imams who have little understanding of Britain and wish to retain their power over Muslim communities by making them even more isolated.

Marriage: UK places of worship and other establishments that perform religious marriages can register to perform civil weddings and thus provide the civil marriage recognised in English law, at the same time as the religious marriage.

It is believed considerably less than 20% of mosques have registered to have their marriages recognised. Thus the great majority of Muslim marriages have no legal validity in English law which is something the wives frequently only find out when their “marriage” breaks up and the wife has no legal rights to property or inheritance.

This is a problem unique to Islam in this country. Sikh Gurdwaras and Hindu Temples have all registered under the Marriage Act so as to ensure that their marriage ceremonies are valid in English law.

Also concerning marriage, surveys show that over half of Muslims would not marry a non-Muslim, thus encouraging segregation and the troubles that segregation inevitably brings.

Polygamy: Polygamy is illegal in the UK, yet polygamous marriages are recognised and supported by the UK social services if they did not take place in the UK. A harem, it appears is legal and, indeed, subsidizable by the UK taxpayer.

Halal: The toleration of halal slaughter without stunning makes a mockery of democratic processes. A lot of people might not be too bothered, some may have strong feelings, but a regulation, a law, exists for a reason. What is the point of having it if a large part of the population can simply ignore it?

Secularism: Many Muslims believe Islam provides a complete political system. A conscientious Christian might say that Christianity is the basis of his politics but when a Muslim says the equivalent an alarm bell goes off. Christians, as do many others, want to bring a certain morality to politics, they don’t want to take it over.

It really is very simple. The key to true democracy and the progress it brings is that people can peacefully get rid of governments they don’t like. Can you imagine any government or ruling class believing it is the party of God peacefully giving up the reins of power? Just look at Iran.

And there is the daily flow of news from societies dominated by Islam such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

* Saudi Arabia's religion police step up crackdown on women drivers;
* A woman should not report rape unless she has four witnesses;
* Fears grow for lawyer of woman in Iran stoning case;
* Iran: Supreme Court upholds death sentence for Christian priest;
* Necklace ban for men as Tehran's 'moral police' enforce dress code;
* Fatwa body bans mingling of sexes;
* Pakistani Muslims demand a ban on the Bible;
* Female Saudi doctor appeals to top court for right to choose a husband;
* Iran to blind criminal with acid in 'eye for an eye' justice;
* Iran to make university courses more Islamic;
* The Latest Enemies of Iran: Dogs and Their Owners;
* Pakistan's blasphemy vigilantes kill exonerated man;
* Muslims told to ignore calls for change because 'democracy goes against Islam';
* Women’s Suffrage Movement Is a ‘Machination’ of the Enemies of Islam;
* Man sentenced to death, boy arrested for blasphemy.

And we have the regular output of Islamic scholars and spokespersons. For example:

“…. the call for secularism among Muslims is atheism and a rejection of Islam. Its acceptance as a basis for rule in place of Shari’ah is downright apostasy.” (Yusuf Al-Qaradawi)

and a remarkable admission that the “Religion of Peace” hasn’t always been so.
“Islamic experts assure me there is no prohibition of warfare during Ramadan. …. War for the furtherance of Islam and against non-believers is considered ethically acceptable by scholars, even during the month of fasting and prayer.” (Abdel al-Bari Atwan is the editor-in chief of the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi)

There is more than enough here to give rise to plenty of rational criticism of Islam.

Perhaps Dr Allen should write another book (a more readable one) about how to describe the attitude of these critics that doesn’t mean or imply they are hateful or racist, that recognises they are fair-minded and well-informed, and they are far more significant than “Islamophobes”, and there are possibly many things wrong with Islam.

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Friday, 5 August 2011

Do they want us to live forever?

Yesterday, most news outlets picked up on a press release from the Department of Work and Pensions warning of the huge social and economic costs of everyone living to be a hundred. The purpose of the story, no doubt, is to soften up the population for a century of increased retirement ages and falling pensions. The "new analysis" - based on ONS statistics - suggested that by 2066 there will be "at least half a million" centenarians. A girl born today has a one in three chance of reaching the milestone, whereas if you've already made it to eighty you've only a six per cent chance of staggering on for another twenty years. (After the mid eighties, your chances get slightly better, though you have to be ninety-seven before your odds of getting to a hundred catch up with the baby's.)

So the younger you are, the longer you'll live, unless you happen to by Amy Winehouse. For each year you've already clocked up, you're a little bit less likely to live to be a hundred than someone slightly younger. Which seems slightly unfair. The figures are based on past and current trends, of course. They assume that advances in medical care, health and general vitality will continue indefinitely and at much the same rate into the foreseeable future. That's what the government assumes, and what it is using as the basis for its calculations. The official analysis is available in pdf format here.

But hang on a minute. What about the obesity "timebomb" we're always being warned about. Take this story from 2008:

Today's children could live shorter lives than their parents due to the obesity epidemic, it has been warned.

If trends continue as expected, average life expectancy could fall for the first time in hundreds of years, said health specialists.

A quarter of five-year-olds and more than a third of 10-year-olds are overweight or obese and numbers are predicted to rise steeply over the next few decades.

By 2050 it is estimated that half of the British population will be clinically obese. The resultant surge in health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, will affect life expectancy.

Dr Peter Bradley, the director of public health in Suffolk, said: "If you become obese when you are young then your life expectancy will be considerably less."

This doesn't compute. Either there's no such thing as the "obesity epidemic", or the government is leaving it out of its calculations. Yet other parts of government, such as the Department of Health, are extremely worried about obesity, as well as about other "lifestyle" factors that can shorten life expectancy, such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, insufficient exercise, or not having regular diagnostic checks. The Department of Health spends millions of pounds each year instructing us all to eat five portions a day, get out of the car and take statins, just so that we can all live longer, avoid heart attacks and cancer, and thus endure a miserable, impoverished old age, bankrupting the country with increased pensions and care bills in the process.

Not exactly joined-up government, is it? Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 4 August 2011

E-petitions - Sorry, something went wrong

The government's new e-petitons website has the look of a hasty, ill-thought-out gimmick. It keeps crashing. Some users report log-in problems. It's hard enough to navigate even when it isn't crashing - you have to scrawl down through a long list of petitions, randomly arranged, most of which seem to revolve around a handful of predictable topics, the small change of radio phone-ins and green-ink letters. A high proportion of them seem to be either for or against the restoration of hanging.

Paul Staines, of course, is responsible for the site getting any attention at all. His campaign for a return of capital punishment for the murderers of children and police officers is partly - many suspect - a Trojan Horse for an anti-EU agenda. The restoration of the death penalty would be incompatible with continued membership of the EU, for the practice is banned under the Charter of Fundamental Rights. And even leaving the EU (a far worthier cause, in my view, than bringing back hanging) wouldn't be sufficient. The country would also have to withdraw wholesale from the European Convention on Human Rights (no derogation is possible from Protocol 13, which permanently and in all circumstances abjures the death penalty); and from the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which also has an anti-capital punishment Protocol to which the UK is fully signed up.

So a return to capital punishment is not going to happen. It's about as likely as the restoration of immersion as a method for detecting witches. Can we just forget about it, please? Can we just stop feeding the uber-troll?

Last time I checked, a rival petition calling for the UK's ban on capital punishment to be retained was leading Staines' pro-hanging petition by a margin of more than two to one. While this is proves that the liberal forces congregated on Twitter are more than a match for Guido Fawkes' media-baiting (they all fell for it) campaign, it says nothing about the actual state of public opinion and even less about the strength of the arguments on either side. And it would be ironic indeed if it was the anti-death penalty petition that reached the magic 100,000 names needed to trigger a Commons debate. It would still mean a pointless, time-wasting debate about capital punishment, however. It would still be a triumph for Staines.

All the same, I'd like to draw attention to other topics that the e-petitions website has to offer, any one of which might (in theory at least) get debated by Parliament. When I last looked, only one of the more than one thousand on the list had attracted anything like the attention - or signatures - of the main pro- and anti- capital punishment petitions. That was a call to keep Formula One on free-to-air TV. With 720 signatures, it was closing in on Guido's pro-hanging one which was on 813. (The opposite proposition was on 1755.) By contrast, most petitions had support in single figures. A high proportion counted a single vote in favour - presumably that of the person who suggested it.

There are a large number concerned with various aspects of motoring and road safety and several regarding that other old standby, the right of homeowners to kill burglars. There are calls to legalise drugs, to create an English parliament, to raise the TV watershed and to ban smoking in prisons (whether that one comes from an anti-smoking fanatic or from someone who simply wants to make prison more punishing is unclear). A call to free Murdoch gloupier Jonnie Marbles had, when I checked on it, attracted (apart from its proposer) no support whatsoever.

There's also a salon des refusés, listing petitions that have been rejected. Many of these concern calls to abolish the BBC licence fee. Is that so much more outrageous a suggestion than restoring capital punishment? The explanation given for the rejection is that "there is already an e-petition about this issue." Yet the only e-petition concerning the licence fee calls for it to be abolished by 2013 - a more more specific (and impractical) proposal than that it should be phased out over a longer period.

Moreover, there are in excess of 30 "live" petitions calling for the return of capital punishment, and no rejected ones. There are also several petitions demanding that capital punishment remain abolished, no fewer than 15 calling for the repeal of the Human Rights Act and/or withdrawal from the European Human Rights Convention, a handful opposing Sharia law, demanding longer prison sentences, calling for higher alcohol prices or for speed limits to be raised (or, alternatively, lowered). There are, it seems, duplicate petitions available on every subject for which people have independently submitted them, except for that of abolishing the TV licence. I find this somewhat suspicious.
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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The humbling of a dictator

It's the most humble day of his life. Once, the octogenarian autocrat (yes, another one) whose wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command terrified the inhabitants of his ancient, populous country. Now look at him. In bed, barely conscious enough to enunciate the words Not Guilty, but still hauled into court and placed inside a caged dock like some dangerous criminal.

If proof were needed that the democratic revolution has a long way to go in Egypt, it's there in that Cairo courtroom. That's not how developed countries treat disgraced former leaders. In proper democracies like ours disgraced former leaders, like disgraced media tycoons, may have to endure the humiliation of being asked awkward questions by a committee, but that's as bad as it gets. Then it's onto a private jet to a speaking engagement and yet another lavish pay cheque or a high-profile international sinecure.

Tony Blair may be facing "a damning verdict" from the Chilcot enquiry - but not the sort of damning verdict that would see him dangling at the end of a rope. It won't stop him preening himself as the global faith czar, or addressing large rooms filled with plutocrats. And he's said to be annoyed that the Mail on Sunday should dare to have leaked the report's conclusions (before he can bring his influence to bear to tone it down, perhaps.) Gordon Brown almost bankrupted the country. He sold off the gold reserves at the bottom of the market, surely one of the stupidest economic decisions ever (the money would come in very handy right now) but do you see him sat in the Iron Cage of Shame? You do not.

In Egypt, bedridden deposed leaders are treated as we might treat a failed asylum seeker. In Britain, a man who throws shaving foam in the face of Rupert Murdoch gets jailed for six weeks by the same judge who acquitted Sgt Delroy Smellie for striking a female protester across the face with a metal baton. That's how things work in an advanced democracy, you see. As Judge Daphne Wickham put it as she jailed Jonny Marbles, we have "a parliamentary process, which ... conducts itself with dignity and in a civilised fashion."

Apart from PMQs, obviously. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Guest post: Spray-painted burkas and religious freedom

Preaching is the best antidote to violent jihadism, says Rev. Julian Mann

Liberal intellectuals are unwise to scoff at Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn. His journalism on Jihadist activity in East London is of the highest quality.

His commentary today on the case of two young Muslims convicted for painting a burka on a bus shelter poster of Kelly Brook shows why anybody committed to liberty as it has developed in Britain should be concerned about the threat to it from radical Islam.

It would be easy to dismiss the individuals responsible for the bus shelter incident, Mohammed Hasnath and Muhammed Tahir, as ‘harmless eccentrics’, he writes, but ‘their actions come against a backdrop of growing militancy among young Muslim men and attempts to impose Sharia law on whole areas of Britain. The most serious incident of religious intolerance in Tower Hamlets came back in April. I brought you the story of a 31-year-old Asian shop assistant in fear of her life because she refused to hear a headscarf’.

Mr Littlejohn argues that Messrs Hasnath and Tahir should have been convicted for ‘religiously aggravated’ damage (the offence they were originally charged with) rather than ‘common or garden criminal damage’ (what they pleaded guilty to).

‘But their actions were religiously motivated,’ he writes. ‘The same philosophy underpins both painting a burka on Kelly Brook and issuing death threats against a woman shop assistant who refuses to wear a headscarf.’

That is true, but the law should only come into play in the criminal damage part of the equation. Prosecuting people for ‘religiously aggravated’ offences not only makes martyrs of extremists but threatens the very liberty the extremists want to undermine.

The same politically-correct culture that produced ‘religiously-aggravated’ offences has also given birth to attempts to impose hate speech legislation where the Attorney-General is left to decide the verbal parameters in which one is allowed to criticise another person's religion.

That is ironic because what is needed to counter the growth of Islamic extremism in the UK is not less free speech for fear of upsetting people but more of it.

The answer to the bad preaching of the Jihadists is good preaching not no preaching.

As a Christian, I would like to see more preaching of Christianity, including the separation of church and state that allows both religious toleration and persuasion to flourish. But a committed secular ideology with a basis for countering Jihadism is better than nothing.

The Jihadists win in a postmodern philosophical culture where ‘tolerance’ spells ‘whatever’. Whatever religion you want to believe, that’s OK - I won’t criticise it because I might upset you.

But religious ideas matter because they lead to actions, so bad religion needs to be argued against.

Jesus Christ argued and he upset people.

A culture that allows his kind of preaching is the surely best defence against violent Jihadism.

Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge, South Yorkshire -
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Monday, 1 August 2011

What a difference a year makes

It's the mid 1960s, and change is in the air. London is swinging, hemlines are up and Harold Wilson has had the Beatles round to Number Ten. Three great liberalising measures are in contemplation: the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the legalisation of abortion and the abolition of capital punishment. The latter, long cherished by penal reformers and now attracting support from MPs of all parties after a series of controversial hangings (for example, that of Derek Bentley), is the first up for debate. The date is set for 1966.

But then something happens, something truly dreadful. Five children have been murdered near Manchester. After a trial in which the horrifying, sadistic details of the crimes are repeated day after day in the press Ian Brady and Myra Hindley are convicted. A shocked nation demands that the Moors murderers pay the ultimate price - and suddenly few Members of Parliament are in a mood to disagree. The vote is delayed for a year. The legalisation of abortion and same-sex relationships gluts the public mood for reform. After a couple of years, a compromise is reached: hanging will no longer be the default sentence for murder, but it will be available, in exceptional circumstances, for the "most heinous" crimes.

The strongest opponents of capital punishment are not satisfied. But most moderates find that they can live with it, especially as over the next few years capital punishment seems to have become vanishingly rare. After Brady and Hindley swing, the next to face the noose is Peter Sutcliffe. Few tears are shed for the Yorkshire Ripper. Times change. In the polarised, economically fraught Seventies most people have other priorities. And then come the Eighties. Margaret Thatcher, a firm supporter of capital punishment, is in Downing Street, and liberalism in all spheres except the economic is out of fashion.

True, a succession of wet home secretaries - Willie Whitelaw, Douglas Hurd - manage to restrain the most enthusiastic hangers and floggers on the backbenches, and even effect an occasional commutation. But with time, analysts notice, judges seem more willing to define a crime as "heinous". A combination of legal precedent and (though this is hard to measure precisely) public mood leads to certain categories of murder being considered heinous all but by default: murders of children, of police officers, serial killings, sex killings, shooting sprees. The number of death sentences edges gradually upwards.

A few years later, after Ken Clarke's unofficial moratorium on the death penalty attracts negative coverage in the Daily Mail a new home secretary, Michael Howard, decides to get tough. "Hanging works" he declares, to cheers, at the Conservative conference. "When murderers are six feet under they aren't out there committing more murders."

Meanwhile, Tony Blair is determined to shed the Labour Party's image as soft on crime. As a young lawyer he had been opposed to capital punishment - perhaps, like his wife, he still secretly is. But like his political mentor and idol Bill Clinton he realises the political dangers of appearing soft on crime. Downing Street, he reasons, is well worth the odd hanging. A new generation of Labour MPs shares his moderate approach. They stand and applaud when he stresses that the People's Party is no friend to murderers - indeed, that he will explore ways of removing what he calls "loopholes" that allow killers to remain indefinitely alive. There will be a new, streamlined, "firm but fair" appeals process, he declares. The Sun is impressed. The paper features Blair's support for capital punishment prominently in the run-up to the 1997 general election.

In 2000, even as it passes the Human Rights Act, Labour reaffirms Britain's opt-out from Protocol 6 (and later Protocol 13) of the European Convention of Human Rights, the first of which restricted the death penalty to wartime emergencies, while the second abolishes it entirely. "The most fundamental human right is the right to life" says Jack Straw, who as home secretary has followed in Howard's footsteps. "But some people have clearly forefeited theirs." In the wake of 9/11, the definition of "heinous" is extended to include acts of terrorism.

So here we are again, in 2011, debating yet another doomed attempt to abolish capital punishment in Britain, this time put forward by some publicity-seeking blogger. It'll never happen. The Sixties are over. Public opinion is too firmly in favour of the death penalty. The focus groups, and the Daily Mail, would never allow it. Abolitionism plays badly in the marginals. Politicians know this - even those (allegedly the majority) who privately believe that hanging has become a national embarrassment.

Besides, our opt-out from Protocol 13, like our opt-out from the Euro, has become a touchstone of national pride. Any prime minister who flirted with removing it would be accused of caving into Brussels, of being undemocratic and elitist, of being un-British. Yes, we might be alone in the Western world, apart from the United States (where liberal courts came close to abolishing the death penalty themselves in the early Seventies) in continuing to execute murderers. But that just shows that the transatlantic special relationship is still in good working order. Just like Pentonville's gallows.
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