TAG | UK
Comments off · Posted by Andrew Stuttaford in politics
“We need a counter-narrative.” How often have we heard that since 7/7? We need to tell a better story to those young British Muslims for whom bombs and beheadings hold a greater allure than anything we have to offer. Someone’s seducing them away with a narrative of lies, so we must seduce them back again with a narrative of truth.
There’s a problem with narratives. Most that spring to mind are fictional. And while we like to think it’s stories as subtle as Ulysses or humane as Middlemarch that drive civilisation along, in fact what quickens the popular imagination are simpler tales of goodies and baddies, in which the baddies are always someone else. Artless fairy stories enchant us in our first years and retain their hold on us until our last.
The Government’s proposed hymn to British values is equally naiive. Man wakes up, kisses wife (but not in a homophobic sort of way), reads chapter of Magna Carta aloud to family, goes bareheaded to work, eats humanely killed pork sandwich, practises sundry acts of tolerance, returns home to gin and tonic, prays unfanatically to secular god, and goes to sleep thinking of the Royal Family. Indubitably, there are worse ways of getting through the tedium of existence, but as a narrative this one’s unlikely to prevail against millenarian fantasy and a plentiful supply of virgins. In a battle of facile narratives, the one with more action wins.
But why must it be a choice, anyway, between blowing people up on buses and a docile embrace of British values to which very few Britons of any faith or temper subscribe? Extreme views can kill, but disagreement is the breath of life. Non-conformity has always been one of the great British virtues, and that includes non-conformity to things British. The terrorist isn’t a problem because he doesn’t conform; he’s a problem because he does. It’s what he conforms to that makes him dangerous…..
The writer Mehdi Hasan similarly sprays guilt around and, for good measure, suffering as well. If we think 7/7 was a terrible time for the victims, he wants us to remember who else got it in the neck. When the bombers were identified as British men with names like his, “a knot tightened at the pit of my stomach”, he wrote in The Guardian. “We’re screwed,” he told a Muslim friend. Beware the grammar of narrative. Self-concern appears to come too quickly here, trumping the horror of the moment. You’re screwed, Mr Hasan? There are dozens dead and hundreds injured and bereaved, and you’re screwed?
Read the whole thing.
The presence of British Prime Minister David Cameron, no friend of free speech, at the march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo killings was, in the scheme of things, a comparatively minor moment of hypocrisy.
Nevertheless, it’s always helpful to have reminders of where his government really stands.
Writing in The Independent, Francis Wheen:
Three years ago today, Saudi Arabian police arrested Raif Badawi for the crime of running a website “that propagates liberal thought”. His blog had put the case for secularism in observations such as this: “States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear.”
As if to prove his point, a Sharia court hauled Badawi back into the fearful circle, sentencing him to 600 lashes and seven years in jail for “going beyond the realm of obedience”. Last year, deciding that he had been let off too lightly, a judge upped the punishment to 1,000 lashes and 10 years’ imprisonment plus a fine of one million riyal (about £170,000).
What does our government think of this?
Asked about the flogging and jailing of Badawi, the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay said in the Lords last week: “We maintain our view that freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression are core rights that lead to long-term stability and good governance.”
But? Yes, of course there was a but, and one to take the breath away: “My Lords, I think we have to recognise that the actions of the Saudi government in these respects have the support of the vast majority of the Saudi population.”
Do they? Last Friday I asked the Foreign Office how the minister could be so sure. No answer has yet been forthcoming. Perhaps the “vast majority” of Saudis are indeed fanatical sadists who rejoice to see liberal bloggers whipped. Or, then again, perhaps they aren’t. No one knows: this is an absolute monarchy, not a marginal in the West Midlands being polled by Lord Ashcroft.
If I had to guess, the grotesque treatment of Badawi probably worries few in Saudi Arabia, but why Anelay had to say what she did, well…
At the Financial Times, Europe editor Tony Barber’s initial response to the atrocity in Paris included this:
Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting and needling French Muslims. If the magazine stops just short of outright insults, it is nevertheless not the most convincing champion of the principle of freedom of speech. France is the land of Voltaire, but too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo.
This is not in the slightest to condone the murderers, who must be caught and punished, or to suggest that freedom of expression should not extend to satirical portrayals of religion. It is merely to say that some common sense would be useful at publications such as Charlie Hebdo, and Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten, which purport to strike a blow for freedom when they provoke Muslims, but are actually just being stupid.
That text was later changed to (amongst other things) remove the words I have highlighted, but the stink of the suggestion (no, more than a suggestion) of self-censorship remains.
Meanwhile the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, “unequivocally condemned” the murders, but in a piece headed “Muslims Are Right To Be Angry”, he also attacked Charlie Hebdo’s sometimes very crude treatment of religious figures:
Stephane Charbonnier, the paper’s publisher, was killed today in the slaughter. It is too bad that he didn’t understand the role he played in his tragic death. In 2012, when asked why he insults Muslims, he said, “Muhammad isn’t sacred to me.” Had he not been so narcissistic, he may still be alive. Muhammad isn’t sacred to me, either, but it would never occur to me to deliberately insult Muslims by trashing him.
For the most part though, the response to the slaughter in Paris has been impressive, moving beyond hashtags, to large demonstrations, to the republication of ‘offensive’ images, the latter vital if the point is to be made—as it must be—that, to quote again those words from Jyllands-Posten (sorry, Mr. Butler) all those years ago, “Free speech is free speech is free speech. There is no but.”
But the real test will be to see if anything changes. Will the creeping reintroduction of blasphemy laws (dressed up in modern clothes, of course, ‘hate speech’, mustn’t give offense, that sort of thing) go into reverse, let alone the self-censorship that is (Butler must approve) such a feature of our times?
Writing in Time, Walter Olson had this to say:
The danger is not that there will be too little outpouring of solidarity, grief, and outrage in coming days. Of course there will be that. Demonstrations are already underway across France. The danger comes afterward, once the story passes and intellectuals and those who discuss and distribute their work decide how and whether to adjust themselves to a more intense climate of fear. At media outlets, among conference planners, at universities, there will be certain lawyers and risk managers and compliance experts and insurance buyers ready to advise the safer course, the course of silence.
And then there are the lawmakers. After years in which blasphemy laws were assumed to be a relic of the past, laws accomplishing much of the same effect are once again on the march in Europe, banning “defamation of religion,” insult to religious beliefs, or overly vigorous criticism of other people’s religions when defined as “hate speech.” This must go no further. One way we can honor Charb, Cabu, Wolinski, Tignous, and the others who were killed Wednesday is by lifting legal constraints on what their successors tomorrow can draw and write.
If I had to guess, those legal constraints will—after the briefest of pauses to honor those murdered for daring to express themselves—continue to tighten.
To take one example of the way things have been going in Europe, let’s look at what Britain’s Theresa May has planned for her countrymen should the Tories win the next election. Reason’s Brendan O’Neill (writing in November) can be our guide:
May wants to introduce “extremism disruption orders”, which, yes, are as terrifyingly authoritarian as they sound. Last month, May unveiled her ambition to “eliminate extremism in all its forms.” Whether you’re a neo-Nazi or an Islamist, or just someone who says things which betray, in May’s words, a lack of “respect for the rule of law” and “respect for minorities”, then you could be served with an extremism disruption order (EDO).
Strikingly, EDOs will target even individuals who do not espouse or promote violence, which is already a crime in the U.K. As May says, “The problem that we have had is this distinction of saying we will only go after you if you are an extremist that directly supports violence. [This] has left the field open for extremists who know how not to step over the line.” How telling that a leading British politician should be snotty about “this distinction” between speech and violence, between words and actions, which isn’t actually some glitch in the legal system, as she seems to think, but rather is the foundation stone on which every free, democratic society ought to be built.
Once served with an EDO, you will be banned from publishing on the Internet, speaking in a public forum, or appearing on TV. To say something online, including just tweeting or posting on Facebook, you will need the permission of the police…..What sort of people might find themselves branded “extremists” and thus forbidden from speaking in public? Anyone, really. The definition of extremist being bandied about by May and her colleagues is so sweeping that pretty much all individuals with outré or edgy views could potentially find themselves served with an EDO and no longer allowed to make any public utterance without government approval.
Both secularists and Christians understand where this could lead.
The Daily Telegraph reported:
Keith Porteous Wood, director of the [National Secular Society], said secularists might have to think twice before criticising Christianity or Islam. He said secularists risk being branded Islamophobic and racist because of their high profile campaigns against the advance of Sharia law in the UK….
Simon Calvert, Deputy Director of the Christian Institute, said traditionalist evangelicals who criticise gay marriage or even argue that all religions are not the same could find themselves accused of extremism….
“Hand a judge a file of a thousand Twitter postings accusing this atheist or that evangelical of ‘spreading hatred’ and they could easily rule that an EDO is needed….”
Freedom of expression is no longer a ‘European value’, not even in Britain, a nation where that right was once a source of pride. That’s not going to change. There will be more ‘blasphemy’ laws, not fewer. In fact, I would not be surprised if there is a politician somewhere already preparing the argument that the murders in Paris could have been prevented if only Charlie Hebdo had been kept under a tighter rein.
Well, this is a piece of stupidity. The Daily Mail (of course!) has the details (my emphasis added):
One of Britain’s biggest hotel chains has removed Bibles from its rooms to avoid upsetting non-Christians. The decision by Travelodge has been condemned as ‘tragic and bizarre’ by the Church of England, which says Bibles in hotel rooms are important to provide hope, comfort and inspiration to travellers. But the chain, which runs 500 hotels, said the country was becoming increasingly multicultural and it had taken the action for ‘diversity reasons’.
It said the policy was implemented ‘in order not to discriminate against any religion’ – despite having had no complaints from guests. Bibles were taken away at the same time as a refurbishment of its rooms, removing drawers where they were kept. The Bibles, which were provided free by the Gideon Society, have been retained and are stored behind reception for guests to borrow on request, the company says.
A Church of England spokesman said: ‘It seems both tragic and bizarre that hotels would remove the word of God for the sake of ergonomic design, economic incentive or a spurious definition of the word “diversity”.’
It seems not all Travelodges even have Bibles available on request. At the branch in Battersea, south London, there was no Bible in the room or behind reception.
When requested, the receptionist could not find a copy and said no one had ever asked him for one in his four months of working there.Instead, he suggested using the hotel’s free wifi to ‘Google it and read it online’.
When pushed for a hard copy, he rang his manager who told him they used to have them in rooms, but hadn’t had any at the hotel since refurbishment last year….
Oh good grief.
Travelodge is a private company, it has the right to put whatever books it wants within its guests’ rooms, but the decision it has taken shows the barrenness at the heart of so much of modern multiculturalism. Lest anyone take ‘offense’, more must mean less. So out goes the Gideon Bible, another small scrap of what makes up Britain’s common culture torn away leaving, well, what behind.
The irony of this is that, by taking this step, Travelodge is sacralizing the Bible. To those of different faiths or none, the Bible is just another book, its presence neither offensive nor inconvenient or, usually, even noticed.
And yet Travelodge has chosen to make an idol of it. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
A Conservative MP has spoken of his belief in astrology and his desire to incorporate it into medicine. David Tredinnick said he had spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and was convinced it could work….Explaining his beliefs to BBC News, Mr Tredinnick said he had been right about herbal remedies and healing, which he said were now becoming accepted in parts of the NHS [National Health Service], and he now wanted to promote astrology, which was not just predicting the future but gaining an insight into personal problems.
He stopped short of suggesting astrological readings on the NHS, but said he wanted to raise awareness of it as an alternative among patients and clinicians.
“I think it’s something that people should be aware of as an option they have if they are confused about themselves.”
He said he had compiled astrological charts for his fellow MPs – he declined to reveal names – adding: “If you look at the charts I have done for people I have certainly made their lives easier.”
Oh yes, there’s this:
The MP for Bosworth [is] a member of the [House of Commons] health committee and… science and technology committee
The Daily Mail has the details:
A baptist church was at the centre of a police probe after a sign which suggested non-Christians would ‘burn in hell’ was investigated as a ‘hate incident’. The offending sign at Attleborough Baptist Church in Norfolk, pictured burning flames below words which read: ‘If you think there is no God you better be right!!’.
Now the church has been forced to remove the sign after a passer-by complained to police that it could ‘not be further’ from the Christian phrase, love thy neighbour. Robert Gladwin, 20, said: ‘It is my basic understanding that Christianity is inclusive and loving in nature. ‘The message being displayed outside of the church could not be further from the often uttered phrase ‘love thy neighbour’.’
Mr Gladwin said he was ‘astounded’ when he spotted the poster by chance as he was walking home. He said: ‘I was just astounded really. We live in the 21st century and they have put that message – that non-Christians will burn in hell – up to try and scare people into joining their mentality.’
The strongly-worded sign – which was put up next to a notice board which promises that visitors ‘can always be sure of a very warm welcome’ – was taken down by Pastor John Rose, 69, after police launched an investigation into the complaint.
Mr Rose said he ‘regretted’ how the poster could have been interpreted. He said: ‘Attleborough Baptist Church offers a variety of ways in which people are able to engage with the Christian message…Jesus encourages us to love God and to love our neighbour and we therefore regret that the poster has been seen as inciting hatred.
The Eastern Daily Press has more:
A spokesperson for the police said: “Norfolk Constabulary received a report regarding a poster outside a church in Attleborough which was deemed offensive by the complainant.
“National guidance required us to investigate the circumstances and the matter has been recorded as a hate incident. Having spoken to the pastor of the church, it has been agreed the poster will be taken down.”
This is, of course, a ludicrous story, not least the presumption on the part of Gladwin that his understanding of Christianity is superior to that of the pastor. It might be, it might not be (Christianity takes many different forms).
But it is also a sinister story. It is sinister that Gladwin’s response to seeing this poster was to turn to the police. It is sinister that the police chose to investigate the matter on the basis of one complaint (it would have also been sinister had they chosen to investigate after receiving five thousand complaints). It is sinister that this decision was based on (unspecified) “national guidelines”. “Obeying orders”, it seems is no longer enough. It is sinister that there are “national guidelines”. It is sinister that the police then labeled the posting of this entirely unobjectionable poster as a “hate incident”. And it is sinister that the pastor has “agreed” to take down the poster.
A friend who is a Roman Catholic priest once told me that there are more references to Hell in the gospels than to Heaven. If that’s so, let’s hope that Jesus doesn’t show up in Norfolk any time soon. Because if He does, the moment that He starts talking about, oh, the “furnace of fire” or, say, “the fire [that ] is not quenched,” He will probably have to start looking for a very good lawyer.
For some relief from this nasty tale…
A poster which replaced the image of God from the Sistine Chapel with a picture of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has been removed after with a row with a London University.
The South Bank University Atheism society created the graphics for their freshers’ fair stall last week, but returning to the pre-prepared stall on the University campus for the first day of the fair, they allege the posters were removed by union representatives.
Cloe Ansari, president of the Atheist society, alleges she was told initially that the Michelangelo Sistine chapel ceiling was offensive in itself, because it included a “naked man”. But she claims she was later told, having offered to blur the image, that the issue was that ‘The Creation of Adam’ is a religious painting.
Pause to consider the absurdity of the fact that Michelangelo’s depiction of Adam could be considered “offensive”.
And then there’s the whole business about religion.
Ansari claims the stall was removed entirely the following day and says she has lodged an official complaint, though a union representative told HuffPost UK that any such complaint had yet to be seen by officers.
“This incident is just one of a catalogue of attempts to censor our society,” Ansari said in a statement. “I never expected to face such blatant censorship and fragile sensibilities at university, I thought this would be an institution where I could challenge beliefs and in turn be challenged.
Good grief, Cloe, where have you been living all these yours? I thought atheists were meant to see the world as it is….
In any event, the university has now apologized.
We are writing in response to a package presented by news correspondent Katie Razzall, on Tuesday 28 January 2014, which looked at the controversy surrounding Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate, Maajid Nawaz, and his recent tweeting of a Jesus & Mo cartoon.
We were surprised and extremely disappointed to see that Channel 4 News took the decision to cover up the image of Mohammed when showing the Jesus & Mo cartoon, and we are thus keen to elicit the rationale behind that particular editorial decision.
During the report, it was noted that this decision was taken so as not to cause offence to some viewers; however we would like to point out that by your making this decision you have effectively taken a side in a debate where a Muslim man has suffered violent death threats after he explicitly said he did not find the cartoons offensive. You have taken the side of the reactionaries – the side of people who bully and violently threaten Muslims, such as Mr Nawaz, online.
By redacting the picture of ‘Mo’, you have contributed to a climate of censorship brought on by the unreasonable and reactionary views of some religious extremists. Rather than defending free expression, one of the most precious pillars of our liberal democratic society, you have chosen instead to listen to extremists and patronise British Muslims by assuming they will take offence at an irreverent and satirical cartoon. By taking the decision you did, not only did you betray the fundamental journalistic principle of free speech, but you have become complicit in a trend that seeks to insidiously stereotype all Muslim people as reacting in one uniform way (generally presented as overly sensitive and potentially violent).
Given that your editorial decision seems to be have been weighted by a concern with offence, we might also note that you ended up with a report that was, in fact, very offensive to many; offensive to those who take seriously and cherish our basic freedom to speak and question, and offensive to many Muslims, whose voices you do not hear because you insist on placating the reactionary voices of people claiming to represent what it is to be an ‘authentic Muslim’…
Writing in the Guardian, Nick Cohen, with more grim news about the state of multiculturalist Britain:
Extremists are menacing the career and life of a Liberal Democrat politician and respectable society hardly considers these authentically scandalous threats to be a scandal at all. The scandal, in short, is that there is no scandal.
The reasons for the attacks on Maajid Nawaz are so bland, it makes me yearn to live in a grown-up country where I could shrug them off. But we don’t live in a grown-up country and I had better explain. The BBC asked the executive director of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist thinktank, on to a discussion show. Two atheist members of the audience wore T-shirts showing Jesus saying: “Hey” and Muhammad saying: “How ya doing?” I beg you to keep the innocuous nature of the cartoon at the front of your mind as we descend into a modern Bedlam.
The BBC decided that extreme Wahhabi and Salafi Muslims, who would ban all images of Muhammad, represented all Muslims. It ordered its producers not to show the offending T-shirts.
A few days ago Theotory blogger Cranmer weighed in on just this point:
Setting aside the irrefutable historic fact that Shia Muslims have a centuries-old tradition of depicting Mohammed, and this sort of strict censorship being principally a Sunni assertion of belief (including the malignant Wahhabi-Salafi strain), it is surely not for the state broadcaster to take a dogmatic view of the deeply-held sensitivities of one religious denomination, or to impose a moral view of religious blasphemy when Parliament has abolished the concept.
Back to Cohen:
Nawaz left the studio in some disgust. He tweeted the cartoon of Jesus saying: “Hey” and Muhammad saying: “How ya doing?” and added: “This is not offensive & I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it.” God may not have felt threatened, but his supporters did. A Liberal Democrat activist called Muhammad Shafiq took it upon himself to organise a national and international campaign against Nawaz. At the time we went to press, about 20,000 people had signed Shafiq’s petition to Nick Clegg, saying that the tweet had caused an “extreme amount of insult, hurt and anguish”. The Lib Dems must stop Nawaz standing as their candidate in Hampstead and Kilburn at the next general election, they demanded. Nawaz told his critics he had merely said that he did not think the BBC should censor a mild cartoon. He then went to the core of what is wrong with extremist religion and Britain’s thoughtless multiculturalism which, in the name of “diversity”, spatchcock people into ethnic and religious blocks that deny their individuality. If you want to ban inoffensive images of the prophet, Nawaz said, then I am sorry, I am not that type of literalist Muslim.
In other words, neither “community leaders” nor multicultural bureaucrats could talk of “the Muslim community” whose taboos must be observed. There were many “Muslim communities” and ex-Muslims, too, and they should be free to argue without fear.
As for the “Liberal Democrat” activist objecting to Nawaz:
…Shafiq is not your standard Liberal Democrat. He is in charge of the Ramadhan Foundation, which has hosted speakers whose attitudes towards gay people and Jews are anything but liberal.
The keeper (allegedly) of Britain’s liberal flame (and David Cameron’s partner in coalition government) has, it seems, ‘evolved’, and it will be interesting to see how the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg responds. To their credit, Nawaz’s local party branch, at least, is standing behind him.
Adapted from a post at Ricochet:
Theotory blogger (and martyred Archbishop!) Cranmer’s response to the decision (discussed here earlier) by retailer M&S to accomodate members of staff who, for religious reasons, do not want to handle pork, alcohol is too good not to share here.
Here, by the way, is what M&S has to say for itself:
“We recognise that some of our employees practise religions that restrict the food or drink they can handle, or that mean they cannot work at certain times. M&S promotes an environment free from discrimination and so, where specific requests are made, we will always make reasonable adjustments to accommodate them, whilst ensuring high levels of customer service.”
Over to Cranmer:
An environment free from discrimination? Have they considered that their customers don’t wish to be discriminated against and made to feel morally deficient or ‘unclean’? How is inconveniencing customers by forcing them to queue at non-Muslim checkouts consistent with “high levels of customer service”?
The main problem with this is that it plays to a certain Muslim stereotype: it affirms an utterly myopic interpretation of sharia law and so perpetuates prejudice against all Muslims. The Qur’an exhorts Muslims not to eat pork products or drink alcohol: it does not say they may not handle glass bottles or pass a plastic packet of bacon over a scanner.
But, no matter. Some M&S equality aficionado has determined the orthodox tenets of each religion, and is prepared to bend over backwards to accommodate them: they have confirmed – in true anti-discrimination style – that Jewish employees are also permitted to decline to serve customers alcohol and pork, notwithstanding that no Jewish employee has ever refused to do this in the store’s 129-year history.
But why stop at alcohol and pork?
Are they also permitted to decline to scan a packet of prawns? May they refuse to sell garments made of wool and cotton? Or meat mixed with dairy? Is a Muslim employee permitted to decline to sell you a bikini or a lipstick? And what about M&S finance? Is a Muslim employee who objects to charging interest on debt going to be permitted to administer an interest-free credit card?
And why restrict this to the point of sale? Don’t these products require handling throughout the logistical chain? Are Muslim (and Jewish) employees going to be exempt from placing orders for certain products? Are they going to be exempt from handling certain boxes in the warehouse?
Are Christians going to be permitted to decline to handle halal meat, since it has been “offered to idols” (1Cor 8)? Or has the M&S equality aficionado decreed that this is not a fundamental requirement of the faith? If so, on what theological basis?
As far as His Grace is aware, M&S don’t sell condoms. But if they did, would a Roman Catholic employee be permitted to decline to serve the customer, thereby compounding their embarrassment?
This is not “reasonable accommodation”: it is not the same as permitting holy days off or the wearing of certain religious symbols over a uniform. It is manifestly unreasonable when customers are inconvenienced by i) having to queue at a non-sharia checkout, or ii) waiting for a member of staff to arrive who is prepared to serve you.
Oh yes, it seems that the Church of England thinks the whole thing is fine. #sigh, as they say over in Twitterland.