Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Obama's greatest speech

At the UN yesterday Barack Obama delivered what might turn out to have been his greatest ever speech.  He does a mean bit of oratory, of course: not quite up there with Bill Clinton at his schmaltziest, but streets ahead of anything that any British politician has to offer (sorry, Nick).  And any Obama speech is a reminder of what we'll miss if, despite his best efforts to sabotage his own campaign, Mitt Romney gets elected in November.  Yesterday, however, saw something far better than the president's over-praised and apologetic speech in Cairo a few years ago, to say nothing of the hopey-changey vacuities that got him to the Whitehouse.  It had real substance. 

It's worth reading in full, especially for the moving tribute to murdered ambassador Chris Stevens that frames it.  The whole speech was celebration of his life and the values that he embodied, and included a stronger defence of those values than I've ever heard Obama make before.  Large parts of it could easily have been delivered by Tony Blair or even George W Bush, except that Obama still has a credibility in much of the world, especially the Middle East, that those two gentleman lack.  Indeed, in its optimistic interpretation of the Arab Spring as a triumph of democracy and progress it sounded more like a Neo-Con prophecy circa 2002 than a description of actual events.  Nevertheless, it dared to tackle head-on the big issue that everyone has been trying to avoid recently, which is the outrageous double standard exhibited by countries such as Pakistan when it comes to issues of religious offence.

Here's a key passage:

Americans have fought and died around the globe to protect the right of all people to express their views, even views that we profoundly disagree with. We do not do so because we support hateful speech, but because our founders understood that without such protections, the capacity of each individual to express their own views and practice their own faith may be threatened. We do so because in a diverse society, efforts to restrict speech can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.

We do so because given the power of faith in our lives, and the passion that religious differences can inflame, the strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression; it is more speech -- the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.

And a bit later:

There is no speech that justifies mindless violence. There are no words that excuse the killing of innocents. There’s no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There’s no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan.

In this modern world with modern technologies, for us to respond in that way to hateful speech empowers any individual who engages in such speech to create chaos around the world. We empower the worst of us if that’s how we respond.

Obama pointed out the obvious but often overlooked fact that it is Muslims who have suffered the most at the hands of extremism, and continue to do so.  His assertion that "the future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam" upset some of the Christian right back home, but it was only preliminary to his main point, which was that "to be credible, those who condemn that slander must also condemn the hate we see in the images of Jesus Christ that are desecrated, or churches that are destroyed, or the Holocaust that is denied." 

Of course he might have gone further.  He might have wondered about the "credibility" of a country where a Christian housewife can be thrown into prison under sentence of death for alleged "blasphemy" after an argument with neighbours, where a politician who speaks out about her treatment is murdered, while another politician who offers money for the murder of a foreign citizen keeps his job.  He might have mentioned Rimsha, the young girl with learning disabilities held for three weeks in a squalid jail while angry mobs demand her blood and that of her family.  He might have asked how Pakistan can presume to lecture the rest of the world about respect for religion when it shows so little respect for the religious rights and basic human freedoms of its own people.  Or Saudi Arabia or Iran, for that matter. 

But I suppose he went about as far as he could have done.  And at least he left his audience in no doubt about what he was talking about.  Some might find the onwards-and-upwards rhetoric a tad over-optimistic ("history is on our side, and... a rising tide of liberty will never be reversed").  But it was good to hear such a resounding celebration and defence of core democratic values, especially at a time like this, and especially coming from him.

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Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Andrew Mitchell and our rude new rulers

Why has Andrew Mitchell's altercation with a policeman become such a massive story?  Obviously, he has handled the situation badly, which never helps.  But it must also be in someone's interest to keep it going.  It's striking that so much information about the incident, including the supposedly confidential police report, has come into the public domain - mostly via the Sun.  This in itself shows that the auld alliance between News International and the Metropolitan Police is still in full working order, Leveson or no Leveson.  And it shows that, despite everything that has been revealed about the propensity of the police to embroider reality - including very recently with the Hillsborough report - police reports, even improperly leaked ones, still count as an authoritative source.

There's something odd about this aspect of the verbatim police report:

There were several members of public present as is the norm opposite the pedestrian gate and as we neared it, Mr MITCHELL said: "Best you learn your f------ don’t run this f------ government...You’re f------ plebs." The members of public looked visibly shocked and I was somewhat taken aback by the language used and the view expressed by a senior government official.

Peter Hitchens wonders why none of the "visibly shocked" members of the public have come forward.  I had the same thought.  It is strange, isn't it?  One would have expected them by now to have had their faces and stories splashed across the Sun and to have given interviews to major news channels - and to have collected the hefty fee that they would have earned for sealing the Chief Whip's fate.  It can't be because they are material witnesses to a case that is still sub judice, since Mitchell wasn't arrested (proof perhaps that the police do "know their place" after all) and there doesn't seem to be any prospect of charges.

The media have helped keep the pot on the boil, meanwhile, by turning it into a story about class, which is something that the British press can never talk about too much.

Once upon a time, Mitchell's repeated and inelegant use of the word "fucking" would have caused a scandal, back in the day when the f-word was for the plebs and a gentleman would only utter it in the exclusive company of other gentleman and when he could be sure of no being overheard.  But constant swearing is what we expect of politicians these days, partly because of the demotic affectations with which our rulers seek to disguise their distance from the ordinary people who pay their wages and vote them into power but mainly because of The Thick of It.  A politician who didn't swear at colleagues or underlings when in  a state of high emotion would look distinctly odd and, no doubt, attract some degree of suspicion.

Focusing on the word "plebs" helps to frame the story as one of an arrogant, public-school toff showing his contempt for the lower orders.   Yet the disdainful attitude would have been equally apparent even without that piece of schoolyard Latin. It's in the swearing.  Swearing is a signifier of social distance: like the pronoun tu in Romance languages, it is a word used between intimates and to subordinates (though not, preferably, to children) but not to a social superior.  By calling the copper a "fucking" anything Mitchell was indulging in class condescension; "pleb" was just the gravy.  It's also misleadingly old-fashioned.  Class consciousness has always been with us, but what not for decades has there been quite so much naked revelling in power and money.

The incident would appear to have released a lot of pent-up dislike for our current rulers from across the political spectrum.  Polly Toynbee one would expect:

"Pleb" says not just how Cameron and co think, but it defines with deadly accuracy who they govern for. This stamps them as a Mitt Romney regime – not bothering with the plebs, not with the bottom half. This crystallises how they ignore those who are not their voters, not their leafy shire constituents. They govern for those who their class sometimes calls PLUs – "people like us". The social class of Cameron's crew hardly matters: what counts is whose side they are on. Without a shadow of a doubt, they rule for their own ruling class.

But Janet Daley is both more surprising and more to the point:

While most of us who associate with Conservatives do not get sworn at or described at "plebs", we (by which I mean those not included in a small circle of either known-since-childhood social intimates or devoted sycophants whose uncritical loyalty is beyond question) have been variously snubbed, dismissed, or found ourselves becoming pointedly invisible in the presence of people to whom we are no longer of use. Over the years, I have had Tory politicians with whom I have had dinner (sometimes in their own homes) look through me without recognition. Others who have been my guests for lunch, or with whom I have shared broadcasting panels, have apparently forgotten our many previous meetings when we encountered one another not long after. And oddly enough, this never, ever happens with Labour politicians – even though we are clearly in genial disagreement over major issues...

And again oddly, it is the Tory modernisers – perhaps because they are more likely to  be "toffs" than striving achievers from ordinary backgrounds – who are the worst. It is not the Thatcherite, aspirational, state school-educated Tories who look over your shoulder when they are talking to you: it is the snotty, condescending "one nation" paternalists for whom you are only of interest so long as you are being "supportive" (ie as faithful as a Labrador). No names, no pack drill, but you know who you are.

This chimes with what Damian Thompson (no pleb he) wrote about David Cameron not so long ago:

To put it bluntly, Dave is rude. More specifically, he exhibits the calculated rudeness of people with very nice manners.

That isn’t a contradiction in terms. Dave is one of those people who turns his good manners up and down like a dimmer switch. He uses them as a weapon. This is a speciality of the upper classes – and the black belts of the art, in my experience, are Old Etonians

...Cameron reminds me so much of certain Etonians I’ve met over the years. The moment they lost the upper hand in conversation, there would be a sudden pulling of rank, a deliberate glazing of the eyes, or a neatly aimed belittling joke of the sort that Dave employs at PMQs. As I say, these weren’t typical OEs: what marked them out was that going to Eton was the defining experience of their lives.

Andrew Mitchell was at Rugby, but that might be even worse.  At least Etonians have style.
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Monday, 24 September 2012

Who should pay for the news?

Journalists are like politicians.  They serve a vital function in a democracy (at least it's hard to imagine how our system of government could work without them) but no-one seems to like them and, increasingly, no-one wants to pay for them either.  Newspaper sales have been falling for years and in many cases seem now to be at the point of collapse - just as membership of political parties is far, far smaller than it was.  Many politicians want to institutionalise their parasitical relationship with the voters through a system of state funding. So how about state funding of newspapers?

Here's the Guardian's veteran investigative journalist David Leigh:

According to conventional wisdom, print is doomed.... Yet when the day comes that the newspapers are forced to stop printing altogether, it will be a disaster for democracy. The lean pickings from web advertising on a free newspaper site will only pay for a fraction of the high-quality investigative journalism that commercial newspapers generate. We'll just get the timid BBC on the one hand, and superficial junk on the other.

Leigh wants to see a monthly levy of £2 on every broadband subscriber or internet-enabled mobile phone contract, which would be distributed between the major newspaper groups on the basis of how many hits their websites attract.  After all, he argues, "people willingly pay this money to a handful of telecommunications companies, but pay nothing for the news content they receive as a result, whose continued survival is generally agreed to be a fundamental plank of democracy."

What Leigh can't explain is why an increasingly obsolete technology should be cross-subsidised by a licence-fee style charge on digital services that people actually want to use, or, indeed, why his lament for the decline of print represents anything other than nostalgia.  Printed newspapers will inevitably die when they cease to be financially viable.  That will be a shame for those few dinosaurs who still relish the feel and smell of actual newsprint, including me, but I don't see how it represents a kind of disaster for democracy, any more than the replacement of town criers by newspapers during the 18th century was a disaster for democracy.  As a way of engaging the public with current affairs, the internet has obvious advantages over print.  It's faster, instantly updateable, more interactive, can incorporate video and - unlike a physical newspaper - permanently archived for anyone who wants it.  In almost every sense an improvement.

The real question, of course, is about content rather than medium; and Leigh has a point when he notes that there is something odd about a set-up where members of the public pay quite substantially for the infrastructure but expect to receive the content for free. Obviously, it's great that you can get everything for free on the internet, but it's also kind of appalling.   Anything of quality - whether music, or journalism, or films, or even (God help us) porn - takes time and effort and heart and soul to produce.  It doesn't, or shouldn't, come free, because unless you're sustained by inherited wealth everyone has to earn a living. 

Before the days of commercial publishing no writers except a few playwrights could be professional.  If not independently wealthy, they had to find a rich patron to subsidise them, or else make time to write amid the hustle and bustle of normal life.  Recent years have seen a move back towards such as system, with newsroom internships dominated by rich kids with trust-funds or generous parents and more journalists now employed in press offices and PR firms than by newspapers (the equivalent, in some ways, of the court poets of yesteryear).  And, of course, much original investigative work is being done by largely unpaid bloggers.

If everyone with a broadband connection used it primarily to access the online versions of newspapers - and if the internet were predominantly a newspaper-delivery system - then Leigh's idea, crude though it is, might have more to recommend it.  But neither is true: national newspapers are just one among many services available online.  Newspapers are actually in a much stronger position than record labels or film producers (to say nothing of pornographers) in that they have much less piracy to contend with: the free competition comes mainly from each other, though it is true that people can get basic news from sources such as Yahoo and, in Britain, the BBC.  Ultimately, the Guardian puts its content on the web for nothing through its own choice.  If that choice isn't working out for it, then it should put up a paywall; and if not enough people want to pay to read the Guardian, that's the Guardian's problem and no-one else's.

Leigh's scheme is the product of a Guardian mindset that sees itself as being rather like the BBC, only better, and is understandably jealous of the licence fee.  Especially after that £76 million loss.  There are genuine problems, though, with suggested schemes of monetisation.  An obvious one involves the way in which news is consumed in the digital age.  In the old days, people would have their daily paper and stick to it: whether they were a Guardian reader, a Telegraph reader or a Sun reader, almost everyone was a something reader, seeking their daily fix of news, opinion, sport, gossip, horoscopes and (for Sun readers) breasts from the same source.  No longer.  Online, one surfs between the news outlets (and the blogs), picking up views and information, comparing and contrasting treatments of the same subject, or following up friends' suggestions on Twitter or Facebook.  Paywalls don't really work.  Micropayments - individual payment for each item viewed - might be a solution, but could prove annoying and the privacy implications, with each item of your daily viewing tracked and appearing itemised on your credit card statement, are scary.

My preferred solution would be a mutual paywall, with all the major news outlets clubbing together and charging a set fee for access to the whole network, funds being shared out on the basis of hits.  This would be opt-in: no-one who wanted to read online journalism would have to, while those who did would be able to read anything they liked.  And anyone could join it, from News International to the humblest blogger, should any so desire though the amount of money going to most small-timers might not even cover the membership fee. 

Outside the paywall, there would be very little quality journalism, whether quality is judged in terms of investigative content or literary merit.  People who didn't pay would be excluded, but then people who preferred not to buy a daily newspaper have always been excluded; and they could always visit a library.  But inside the paywall, the situation would be much more egalitarian, with content rather than price making the difference between the Guardian and the Daily Mirror.  The cost would be affordable to most pockets - perhaps more affordable than a daily paper, with its attendant production costs - but only people who actually wanted to consume journalism would be forced to pay for it.  It is a solution both democratic and competitive; and certainly preferable to David Leigh's proposed Guardian tax.
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Thursday, 20 September 2012

Mohammed in the 18th century

Given sexually explicit character of the cartoon published by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, apparently borne of a selfless desire to take some of the heat off the Americans by spreading the outrage, I thought I'd share with you one of Gibbon's footnotes - translated from the learned Latin in which the ever-cautious historian veiled it.

Perhaps the incontinence of Mahomet may be palliated by the tradition of his natural or preternatural gift. He claimed to have the sexual capacity of thirty men, and to be able to satisfy eleven women in the space of one hour...Al Jannabi records his own testimony, that he surpassed all men in conjugal vigour; and Abulfeda mentions the exclamation of Ali, who washed his body after death, "O prophet, truly your penis stretches up to heaven" (certe penis tuus caelum versus erectus est)

By "the incontinence of Mahomet", Gibbon is referring not to any urinary problems but to his sexual appetites.  Like many before and since, Gibbon was fascinated by the soap-opera character of the prophet's private life as recorded in the Hadith and other early sources.  Pious Muslims are apt to explain Mohammed's polygamy as a way of cementing alliances between tribes and providing security for widows who would otherwise have had no-one to look after them; but there are obviously more salacious interpretations of the facts.  Gibbon's study of Mohammed and the birth of Islam makes up the fiftieth chapter of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and while he says much about Mohammed the prophet, Mohammed the lawgiver and statesman and Mohammed the warrior, Mohammed the lover is awarded some of the most memorable passages.

The bachelor Gibbon offers some criticism of Mohammed's domestic arrangements.  Perhaps he was jealous.  He tells a couple of scandalous stories.  One involves Zeineb, the wife of Zeid, his ex-slave and adopted son.  The prophet  "beheld, in a loose undress, the beauty of Zeinib, and burst forth into an ejaculation of devotion and desire. The servile, or grateful, freedman understood the hint, and yielded without hesitation to the love of his benefactor."  Any scandal was avoided by a convenient revelation, courtesy of the archangel Gabriel, of a new Koranic verse.  Gabriel was equally obliging when one of Mohammed's wives found him in bed with an Egyptian slave-girl called Maiy. 

I gather these incidents were dramatised in a controversial recent film, excerpts from which can still be seen on YouTube.

Gibbon is, however, full of praise for Mohammed's fidelity to his first wife Khadija, and generally respectful, though he does suggest that later in life success may have gone to his head.   "From enthusiasm to imposture," he writes, "the step is perilous and slippery."  In a fascinating footnote with many modern resonances, he is critical of a play by Voltaire that portrayed Mohammed as a war criminal:

After the conquest of Mecca, the Mahomet of Voltaire imagines and perpetrates the most horrid crimes. The poet confesses that he is not supported by the truth of history, and can only allege, que celui qui fait la guerre à sa patrie au nom de Dieu est capable de tout [anyone who makes war on his own country in the name of God is capable of anything]. The maxim is neither charitable nor philosophic; and some reverence is surely due to the fame of heroes and the religion of nations. I am informed that the Turkish ambassador at Paris was much scandalised at the representation of this tragedy.

The ambassadorial protest is familiar, though there are no records of riots on the streets of Constantinople demanding for Voltaire to be beheaded.  Familiar, too, is the contrast between a French secularist claiming his right to artistic criticism of religion and an English liberal intellectual concerned about showing "respect".  Ironically, Voltaire's play was banned shortly after its first performance in 1742; not because of Muslim anger, but because the French censors viewed it as a veiled attack on Catholicism, which of course it was.  That wouldn't happen today.
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Monday, 17 September 2012

In defending Christian England, Eric Pickles is the modern Disraeli

This is a guest post by Rev Julian Mann

Eric Pickles is clearly not ashamed to be a Conservative. In defending the public role of Christianity generally, and of the Church of England in particular, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is upholding democratic Conservatism as it developed in the 19th Century under the leadership of Benjamin Disraeli.

Writing in Friday's Daily Telegraph, Mr Pickles could not have been clearer in articulating the Disraelian commitment to preserving the influence of the Church by law established:

Christians continue to be positively involved in public life, from the role of Anglican bishops in scrutinising legislation in the House of Lords, through the moral leadership offered by Christian leaders, to the contribution of thousands of churches and Christian charities to the social fabric of our neighbourhoods with their volunteering and sacrifice. Religion is the foundation of the modern British nation: the Reformation is entwined with British political liberty and freedoms, the King James Bible is embedded in our language and literature, and the popular celebrations of the Royal Wedding and Diamond Jubilee placed the Church side by side with our constitutional monarchy.

Disraeli may seem an odd figure to invoke in an argument about Conservatism and Christianity. He pursued a dissolute, Byronic youth and had a tendency to mendacity in his political life. It would be foolish to present him as a proto Ann Widdecombe.

But he would have been appalled at the fact that the Strictly Come Dancing star has not been elevated to the House of Lords because she has been too vociferous in upholding historic Christianity and opposing political correctness.

Disraeli was assiduous in promoting the influence of the Church of the nation. He passionately believed that a strong national Church was an essential safeguard against governmental tyranny. One of his last acts as Prime Minister was to appoint the evangelical JC Ryle to be bishop in the then new See of Liverpool in 1880.

Though he could be accused of some political manoevering in that appointment, Disraeli knew full well that Ryle would pro-actively proclaim Jesus Christ across Merseyside and appoint frontline clergy who would do the same.

Disraeli's famous 1864 saying about Darwin's theory of evolution - "Is man an ape or an angel? I, my lord, am on the side of the angels" - was not a scientific statement; it was a witty denunciation of the spiritual and moral aridity of atheism.

Significantly in the light of the contemporary debate, the mature Disraeli honoured the God-created institution of heterosexual marriage. In relation to the Seventh Commandment ("Thou shalt not commit adultery"), he was conspicuously unlike William Gladstone who sailed very close to the wind in that department.

With the modern party membership falling and political indifferentism prevailing amongst young people, Disraeli, if he were here now, would be thoroughly supportive of Mr Pickles's inspiring reminder of the spiritual and moral roots of Conservatism.

He would agree that Conservatives who harbour a 'whatever' attitude towards Christianity in our public life are not only ducking a vital issue for our identity and cohesion as a country; they are betraying themselves.
Julian Mann is vicar of the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge in South Yorkshire.
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Thursday, 13 September 2012

Bill Clinton thought about becoming a Mormon

Is Bill Clinton trying to get the Mormon vote away from Mitt Romney? A story in the Salt Lake City Tribune reveals that, in his youth, the 42nd President "thought about" becoming a Mormon. Approached one day by two missionaries in Hot Springs, Arkansas (as most of us are at some point, even on this this side of the Atlantic) he was "impressed... with the young preachers’ effort as they explained Mormon teachings about heaven."

As Clinton recalled, they described the afterlife as "a pyramid with many levels that put Hitler and Stalin at the very bottom, faithful Mormons on top, and everyone else in between."

That had a certain appeal, he said, but for Clinton, a Baptist, "the sticking point" was any system that left his loved ones "out of the top level."

He couldn’t get with any program, he said, that would "leave all these other people behind."

That's not really what Mormons believe. As I understand it, no-one gets "left behind" (not even Hilter or Stalin, theoretically) because they can always be re-baptised after their death. Millions of people who never heard of the Latter Day Saints have been postumously Mormonised. What it shows, though, is how instinctively political Bill Clinton still is. He says some nice things about Mormons (praising their plausibility, a subject in which he could give lessons to Tony Blair, and possibly did). But he manages to get in a subtle dig at Mitt Romney's elitism - hence the pyramid reference - contrasting it with his own wish not to leave people behind.

In truth, there can't have been much in Mormonism that appealed to Bill Clinton. No beer, no premarital sex. It might have been a different story if the Latter Day Saints still practised polygamy, though. Bill would have liked that. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Tom Holland: In the shadow of a sword?

Channel 4 said today that it had cancelled a special screening planned for this Thursday of Islam: the Untold Story, its documentary of last month written and presented by Tom Holland and based on his latest book In The Shadow of the Sword.

The whole thing is slightly mysterious, the station saying merely that the event was cancelled on "security advice". There are suggestions that Tom Holland was threatened. He was certainly the target of much abuse on Twitter in the days following the programme's broadcast. But the screening itself, which was to have been presented by Cathy Newman and featured a Q and A with the author, was a small-scale event for journalists and interested parties (including representatives of Muslim groups) and may have been intended partly as an opportunity for Holland and the programme-makers to dispel any misconceptions. It was not well-publicised; I was only aware that it was taking place because the people at Channel 4 had been kind enough to invite me along.

Whatever prompted it, the cancellation has surely caused a much bigger stir than the event itself would have done had it gone ahead. It will no doubt fortify the bullies and threat-makers in their conviction that they are able (and entitled) to intimidate anyone who questions their religious dogmas. And it may make it harder for other writers and film-makers to broach even mildly controversial subject-matter about Islamic history in future, to the intellectual detriment of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The last time I wrote about Tom Holland's researches into the obscure origins of Islam I said - and hoped - that suggestions that he was brave even to broach the subject were unhelpful, alarmist, even (in the literal meaning of the word) Islamophobic and, worst of all, risked becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you put it about, after all, that a book or film is "offensive" about or even critical of Islam, you are practically inviting the crazies to come out with death threats. Then there is the self-censorship that comes either from fear or from a misplaced desire to show "respect" and that results in important debates not being had, voices (both internal and external to Islam) being silenced and widely-held prejudices being reaffirmed about Islam being a uniquely intolerant religion whose followers exist in a state of constant irascibility, ever on the lookout for a new infidel or apostate on whom to rain curses and death-threats.

For a while it looked as though Tom would get away with suggesting that the traditional story of Mohammed and the birth of Islam is supported by no historical evidence and might, indeed, conceal a more complex sequence of events. Criticism of the book by Muslim intellectuals, while trenchant and in some cases savage (Ziahuddin Sardar in the New Statesman was especially uncharitable) at least seemed to acknowledge that rational debate, rather than the issuing of fatwas or the carrying-out of mob "justice", was the proper response.

The commonest charge against Holland from Muslim critics was not blasphemy but "orientalism" - the idea, popularised by the late Edward Said, that any discussion by Western academics of Islamic history or culture is by its very nature presumptuous and imperialist. In other words, the criticism was political. While accusations of orientalism are, in some ways, only a more sophisticated version of the "How dare you!" favoured by angry mobs stirred by religious passions and feelings of offence, and the attempt to close down debate scarcely more disguised (or less pernicious), they do not amount to a security risk.

Holland himself has been almost painfully concerned to stress his respectful attitude and good intentions. He has agonised in public, though robustly defending his conclusions, and on Twitter has politely, and repeatedly, responded to many of his critics. This is no surprise: he is surely one of the nicest people on Twitter. But it does make the torrent of abuse that has greeted Islam: The Untold Story all the more depressing. Unlike the book, the film concentrated on the origins of Islam. It also featured interviews with controversial scholars, notably Princeton's Patricia Crone, whose work Holland drew on in reaching his apparently radical conclusions. But it was far from bombastic. Holland is no David Starkey (Starkey on Islam - there's a suggestion for Channel 4 commissioners if you think you're hard enough).

Nevertheless, it drew well over a thousand complaints (no doubt some of them were "organised") and a strongly-worded press-release from the Ramadhan Foundation, a group that presents itself as a moderate voice for Muslim youth in Britain and claims "to promote tolerance and peaceful co-existence." Mohammed Shafiq, the organisation's chief executive, claimed that the film "makes a mockery of impartial and objective broadcasting" and "broadcast lies." He called on Channel 4 to withdraw the documentary and apologise. The statement included a paragraph that read disturbingly like a threat:

There is a desire amongst some people trying to change or discredit Islam whether its politicians, commentators or broadcasters like Channel 4. The British Muslim community will not allow Channel 4 to distort our faith and our history.

Such reactions (or that of the Muslim Council of Britain, which called Holland "a pop historian" who had a "total lack of understanding of both Islam and its Prophet") oddly combine dismissiveness with fear, as though the programme's assertions were at one and the same time obviously untrue - indeed ridiculous - yet likely to be widely believed by an ignorant and easily-led public. I find this a bit odd.

If Tom Holland is wrong, believing Muslims have nothing to fear from him. Actually, they have nothing to fear in any event, since his whole argument rests on the idea that the traditional accounts of Mohammed's life are not reliable as historical sources, dating as they do (at least in written form) to many years after the prophet's death. To say that is not to prove that they are inaccurate, merely to show that they might be inaccurate and that the creation and rapid spread of Islam might be explained in other ways. This sort of revisionist history is unlikely to be of any interest to committed believers except for use as target-practice.

The idea that the accepted story of Mohammed's career or even Islam itself will be destroyed because Tom Holland has written a book pointing out omissions in the historical record is, apart from anything else, inherently ludicrous. Christianity, after all, has quite happily coped with two centuries or more of critical scholars poring over the Gospels and finding them inadequate as historical documents. Scarcely an Easter goes by without some new revisionist TV documentary suggesting that Jesus never existed, or went to live in India, or that the Gospels were pieced together from bits of the Old Testament and bear little-or-not relation to reality. One of the most popular novels of recent years (the most popular, until 50 Shades of Grey came along) was based on the premise (not altogether ridiculous in itself) that Jesus married Mary Magdalene. Such speculations pose surprisingly little threat to the accepted Christian story, which for most people still starts in a stable at Bethlehem.

There may be no external proof that Mohammed ever lived in Mecca, or emigrated to Medina, or for any of the events of his life recorded in the Hadith and resolutely believed in by devout Muslims. But they are internally consistent, and supply a context for the Koran which would otherwise be lacking. That is enough; if not enough for historians then enough for believers. Holland's critics complain that his film "lacks balance", by which they mean that not enough time was devoted to interviews with Muslim scholars offering a more orthodox view. But that is to misunderstand the whole point of the film, which was to offer an alternative perspective. The traditional narrative - of the Meccan camel-trader turned prophet turned lawgiver turned military leader, who united the tribes of Arabia with a message that seemed to have come from thin air - is, even in the west, incredibly (and increasingly) familiar. The BBC gave it a whole three-part series last year, presented by Rageh Omaar and containing very little in the way of sceptical "balance".

In terms of the presentation of Mohammed and of Islamic history in the British media as a whole, representatives of the "Muslim community" have very little to complain about.

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Friday, 7 September 2012

Prince Harry goes back to war

Prince Harry has returned to Afghanistan, which is obviously great news for him, PR-wise. Unlike last time, when he deployment was seen as such a security risk that the entire UK media acquiesced in a news blackout, this time, we learn, the Palace sent out a team from the PA to provide pictures of Harry giving a thumbs-up sign and carefully-chosen quotes while MoD sources went into considerable detail about what his job will be.

[Photo John Stillwell/PA]

His job will be to sit in a helicopter shooting at suspected Taliban fighters. As the Telegraph says baldly, "his role will be to kill insurgents as he operates the aircraft's weapon systems, which include Hellfire missiles and a 30mm chain gun." This, of course, makes a nice change from his recent trip to Las Vegas, where his role was to drink a lot of beer and get naked in the company of attractive young women (although one who claimed to have stayed behind for private snogging session later turned out to be 40 and wanted for fraud).

Last time, he was fighting on the ground. Officially, it's said that he's less of a target in a helicopter, which is why it's now safe to risk publicising his presence in the country. I note that they're not saying he's safer now because the situation in Afghanistan, after eleven years of Western led peace-keeping and nation-building, is safer. It manifestly isn't, although the danger to ISAF troops these days comes less from crude roadside bombs than from rogue Afghan soldiers and police, who must even now be working out how they can get to meet Prince Harry.

Far from disguising the lethal nature of his job in Afghanistan, the prince's handlers seem to be revelling in it - and in Harry's enthusiasm for combat. As the puff-piece in the Telegraph tells us, Harry "graduated from his training course as Top Gun among more than 20 other co-pilot gunners in his class, will be part of the unit with the greatest kill rate of any in Afghanistan, currently averaging around two Taliban killed every week." (Presumably he's a better shot with a 30mm chain gun than he is with a pool cue.) His spokesman assured reporters that killing people was "not an issue at all" for the prince, since "he's a soldier" and that's what soldiers do. Which is obviously the case, though the MoD has tended in past briefings about Afghanistan to concentrate on the supposedly humanitarian, nation-building aspects of the deployment.

During his last tour of duty in Helmand province, almost five years ago, press silence was bought in exchange for promises of extensive film-footage and interviews with the young prince. The tales of royal derring-do that emerged when the embargo was finally broken (by the Drudge Report) doubled up as unquestioning puff-pieces for the MoD and for the Afghanistan mission. There was even a tear-jerking interview in which Harry speculated that his mother, a noted campaigner against all forms of military action in her later years, would be proudly looking down from heaven, "having a giggle" as he occasionally took a wrong turning in the desert. Aaaah.

The footage did wonders for Prince Harry's own reputation, of course. Then, as now, the prince had an image as an inveterate party animal to live down, but unlike today there was precious little else for the public to go on beyond tales of teenage drug-taking and a picture taken at a fancy dress party of Harry with a Nazi armband. Less attention was paid to the PR boost Harry gave to the Afghan war itself, which then as now was going nowhere and to which there was as yet no end in sight.

Film of the fighting prince was presented like something out of an Army recruitment video, with Harry in the role of all-action hero but also down-to-earth, ordinary Joe. "This is about as normal as it gets," he was heard to say, in between shots of His Royal Highness blasting away at "Terry Taliban" and calling down airstrikes. Completely lacking was any sense of context, any analysis of what the campaign in Helmand was designed to achieve and whether it was doing so. It was war as entertainment.

This was no coincidence. In media terms, royals are not hard news. Their role is that of decorative space-filler. Even when the coverage is critical, as it often is, it is rarely serious: the public is supposed to gawp at their clothes, titter at their jokes (or, in Prince Philip's case, gaffes), need to hear details about their medical conditions, indulge their eccentricities (such as Prince Charles's enthusiasm for homeopathy) and feel some vague swell of patriotic pride at the fact that they even exist. With very few exceptions, royal stories are ultimately trivial. So when a member of the royal family gets involved in something that is serious, such as a war, the royal personage may gain an ounce or two of gravitas but the main consequence is that the serious news sinks to the level of trivia.

So don't expect this deployment to lead to much discussion of how things are going in Afghanistan, a subject no-one really wants to talk about. Obama in yesterday's speech to the Democratic convention at gave the Afghanistan mission the briefest of mentions, promising that it would be over by 2014 (that's two more years!). Mitt Romney didn't mention it at all. But then what is there to say? That the Taliban are probably stronger now than at any time since the US troops led by John Simpson kicked them out of Kabul a few weeks after 9/11? That the country remains mired in poverty, backwardness and lawlessness, a place where people can be beheaded for dancing at a wedding? That last week a senior US commander suspended the training of new Afghan Local Police recruits for at least a month because so many of them had links to the "insurgency"?

Best stick to a good news story about a prince using his kit rather than getting it off. That's all this war is really good for.

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Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Warsi's new job

Time will tell if Baroness Sayeeda Warsi's new job as minister for "faith and communities" is anything more than a sop to compensate her for losing her role as Conservative Party chairman. She will be somewhat oddly situated in the Foreign Office, rather than in the Department for Communities and Local Government, which may limit the potential for damage somewhat. The DCLG is already run by the volubly pro-faith Eric Pickles, so we should perhaps be grateful that the two won't be working in the same office to advance the faith agenda.

The title is one that Warsi might have devised for herself. Perhaps she did. While nominally in charge of the Tory party, with a brief to make it more attractive to women and ethnic minorities without alienating more traditional supporters (she seems to have succeeded at neither) she has carved out a niche for herself as a campaigner for the importance of "faith" in society and for the voice of "faith" to be heard in government. More particularly, and worryingly, she became a leading voice against secularism.

She has repeatedly denounced what she sees as the marginalisation of religion in society. In a speech to Anglican bishops two years ago she accused the last Labour government, which many of us thought was rather too keen on opening new "faith schools" and paying heed to self-appointed religious "community leaders", of having been "too suspicious of faith's potential for contributing to society". The Coalition would "do God", she promised.

In a later speech, she complained about "the rise of unreasonable, unfounded, irrational bigotry," by which she meant not religious fundamentalism (which might, indeed, have been something worth complaining about) but rather the negative way that religion was portrayed in the media. Then earlier this year, on the eve of a visit to the Pope at the head of a government delegation, she became almost hysterical in her denunciation of "this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant" and which "demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes."

In the same article, she proclaimed that "faith has a vital and important role to play in modern society" and (although a Muslim) called for "Europe to become more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity." She expressed her "fear" that "a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies", a "rising tide" that had seen religion "sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere." This, of course, is the same case that is made by campaigners who claim to see evidence of discrimination against Christians, and who by coincidence are arguing four cases at the European Court of Human Rights today, including that of Lillian Ladele, the registrar who refused to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies .

There's irony in the fact that the defendant in the claims, technically at least, is a British government publicly committed to ending the "marginalisation" of Christianity in society. But it's probably lost on the likes of George Carey, who thinks that the complaints are victims of "new heresy trials". The former Archbishop of Canterbury writes today in the Mail that David Cameron "has turned the value of ‘tolerance’ on its head" and that under this government, like its predecessor, "the secular equivalent of the Inquisition will brook no dissent from the reigning orthodoxy of diversity and equality."

I find it quite hard to square such suggestions with a government committed to an expansion of state schools, one that even under the now abandoned proposals to reform the House of Lords wanted to maintain reserved seats for Church of England bishops, one that now boasts a minister with special responsibility for "faith and communities."

Up to now, Warsi's interventions have been largely extra-curricular affairs, in the nature of personal ruminations. In future, she will be speaking within the parameters of her job description. Giving her the title of minister for "faith and communities" is, at the very least, an endorsement of her previous comments and in invitation to carry on speaking in the same vein. While it's not clear what direct influence this will give her over government policy, or how, the mere fact of there being a minister with a "faith" brief is likely to increase the profile of religion in government, and raise the expectations of faith leaders of all kinds.

One of the main dangers of the new appointment is that it may further institutionalise the notion of a "faith community" as a demographic grouping defined by reference to religious belief. The concept is inherently problematic. It assumes that people have common interests because they share a religious label: indeed, it encourages groups to adopt a religious identity for political rather than spiritual reasons, and that is bad both for politics and for religion. And it potentially privileges people who assert a religious identity over those who don't. There's not going to be a minister for secularism.

Any "faith community" will be highly diverse: not just religiously (fundamentalists and liberals, observant and less observant) but also socially and politically. The very idea of a "faith community" is necessarily distorting. A Muslim billionaire and a Muslim welfare claimant may have absolutely nothing in common except their religion, which they may practise in very different ways. To speak of a "Muslim community" masks such distinctions. It also gives power or at least influence to religious leaders, whose grounding is in religion rather than in social or political affairs, and whose priorities are (by the fact that they are religious leaders) distinctively their own.

Or take Christianity. Does Cardinal Keith O'Brien, for whom same sex marriage is a human rights abuse on a par with slavery, speak for most Scottish Catholics, whose "faith leader" he nominally is? What is "the Christian community"? To judge by the press coverage, it consists mainly of people like George Carey, the Christian Institute and evangelical hotel proprietors who want to exclude gay couples from their premises. It's not so much a community as a collection of special pleaders who seem to be principally obsessed with sex.

And now they have their own minister. Great.
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