Mary Beard and the defence of low expectations

Indigo Jo Blogs - 17 February, 2018 - 18:56

Two men dispensing rice and curry of some sort out of large tubs into small plastic containers. There is a queue of women in black niqaabs waiting.Earlier today Mary Beard, the Cambridge historian well-known for championing the role of women in academia as well as for her TV series, posted tweet defending aid workers accused of sexual abuse in disaster zones such as Haiti. She said,

Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in to help out, where most of us [would] not tread.

In response to people who criticised that tweet, she elaborated that, for example, “disaster zones are regions that none who have not been there understand” and that “from what I have read it involves the breakdown of fundamental values”. The original tweet and her defence of it was roundly condemned as colonialist and racist, defending white men who “gave into temptation” while stuck in parts of the world most people, including Beard herself, would not venture into, some of which are often given stereotypically as examples of places that are not very civilised at the best of times (for this critique see Anaïs Duong-Pedica; Priyamvada Gopal has called it “the progressive end of the institutional culture I have to survive day in day out”). I find the argument objectionable for another reason: it is a very common defence of abuse in institutions and by soldiers, and is no more valid there than here.

Firstly, disaster zones are not marked by the “breakdown of fundamental values” but by the breakdown of bricks and mortar: the destruction of homes, schools, roads, bridges, water treatment plants, hospitals and the like. In that situation, some people will do things they would not do otherwise, such as beg or steal, because their home, property and workplace have been destroyed and they have no other way of feeding themselves. Criminals may also find their activities disrupted but they have the ‘advantage’ of not being bound by the normal rules that everyone else lives by; they will often have no problem exploiting other people’s distress and desperation even though they have suffered losses themselves. But desperation is an excuse for theft; it is not an excuse for rape, because that has nothing to do with feeding oneself but only harms another. Disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes happen in places with every culture and belief system and every degree of technological advancement. Historians such as Beard are fascinated with Italy — ancient and early modern, in particular — and that’s an earthquake zone.

Second, this is not even about the “breakdown of values” among a disaster-afflicted human community but people who go there willingly, usually as part of a job for which they are paid, and do not live in broken-down houses or packed refugee centres but in fairly basic but clean workers’ accommodation. Unless they are there for the first time, they will have had this experience before and known what to expect. There are also aid staff based permanently in major cities such as Nairobi whose standard of living is equal to what they enjoy back home, if not better because they are paid in “hard” currency rather than, say, Kenyan shillings. We do not know if all of the people accused of sexual abuse and exploitation were there for the short or long term. For many of them it’s a job that involves frequent ‘adventures’ and requires hard work and doing without creature comforts for a while but pays well and adds to their CV. Again, no excuse to sexually abuse anyone else.

The argument that “work stress”, being in a hostile or less-than-civilised environment full of people you wouldn’t want to rub shoulders with unless you were paid is one that I have heard before to justify all kinds of abuses. To give an example, when I was at Kesgrave Hall, a special boarding school (now closed) with a violent and destructive culture, in the early 1990s I heard of an incident in which a British soldier stationed in Northern Ireland had harassed a local man on a regular basis for several weeks, then ordered him to stop and when he ran away, shot him dead. I mentioned this to a teacher who was known for assaulting boys and dragging them around rooms and down corridors, and he made some excuse about how I’d never been in such a stressful job with bombs going off and where you don’t know who’s a terrorist/murderer or whatever and how I’d behave in that situation. On another occasion, where a care worker also known for his foul language and violent behaviour was sacked for drinking with a group of fifth-form (year 11) boys at the Black Tiles pub in Martlesham, he made the same excuse about how stressful the man’s job was. I have heard variations on this excuse made for mental health staff who over-restrain or humilitate or otherwise abuse the people forced to suffer their ‘care’. I once saw an interview with a former mental health worker who had witnessed a colleague whack a patient over the head with a bedpan, and gave the excuse that “if you live among shit, you become shit”. But it’s not an excuse; the man who did that had no compassion for the people he was meant to be caring for and one wonders if he had developed that attitude through interacting with other members of staff rather than through dealing with the patients or residents. And whether he had gone into the job because he loved people and enjoyed caring or because it was “a job”, ultimately he had power over another human being and chose to hurt them for his own gratification.

And that’s even before we get to the subject of people who seek out caring jobs where they have direct power over others because it gives them access to vulnerable people: those who physically cannot fight back or would be punished if they did, or who cannot tell or would not be believed if they did. Doubtless a few of these aid workers had heard from their friends of opportunities to “get laid” in exotic locations with women who are ‘willing’ (read desperate) much as institutional abusers seek out homes and hospitals with easy targets and lax vetting of personnel; others come with pre-existing prejudices against the people they will be looking after, especially if the institution is a prison (or is called some euphemism for prison). Was it really the ‘stress’ of being away from home and in basic living conditions and having to deal with desperate people or violence in the streets that turned them into sexual abusers or was it the fact that law and order had broken down somewhat, the police were loath to hold to account aid workers (or forbidden to) and they could get away with it?

The excuses reflect a certain type of low expectations some people have towards men: they believe some men “can’t help” but take advantage of any sex on offer and if they’re under any kind of stress, God help them. The truth is that men can and do restrain themselves all the time, whether they are in a stressful job or work situation or not. The same goes for using other forms of violence: those of us who weren’t at the top of the pile, or even the middle, got used to keeping our heads down, to keeping away from trouble and to turning our anger on ourselves and our property rather than people who were bigger than us (one very frequently hears of women using the first two of these behaviours to avoid or defuse interactions with aggressive men). I strongly suspect that many of those who commit abuses (and it is worth remembering that some of the abuses are against colleagues, especially women, as well as locals) in the countries they have been sent to help rebuild after disasters are dominant characters who have become used to being at the top of a hierarchy, who bullied and got away with it, who was never in the position of needing to learn self-restraint. Shaista Aziz, who has worked at Oxfam (one of the major charities implicated) has linked it to the “bro culture” of organisations dominated by white men from the top down and aid-worker teams which are also male-dominated in themselves; to “a culture where bullying was rife, women were frequently belittled and racism was casual” and where people who tried to draw attention to the problem were made into the problem. It’s ridiculous to defend these sorts of people as having succumbed to temptation while doing a job a lot of people would not touch; there are plenty of jobs many people would not want to do, but we would not excuse this from a bin man or toilet cleaner and we mustn’t when it’s white western aid workers who are getting paid, went out of their own accord2 and will go home again.

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The Guardian view on religious education: teach humanism too | Editorial

The Guardian World news: Islam - 16 February, 2018 - 16:59
Religion is growing in importance, for good and ill. Studying it teaches us about ourselves – even if we don’t believe

Why should anyone wish to learn about religion? Religion is, in the phrase of the sociologist Linda Woodhead, “a toxic brand”. In the public imagination the word summons up images of violence, patriarchy and irrationalism. The facile confidence of the “New Atheist” movement in the early years of this century was pushing at an open door. Religious studies nevertheless remains a surprisingly popular A-level subject, although this may owe something to its reputation as an easy one. A recent YouGov poll found that the British public thinks that RE is a subject scarcely more important than Latin, which the public, wrongly, does not care about at all. The National Association of Teachers of Religious Education has just launched an appeal for more teachers.

The association is quite right: religious education matters a great deal. At the very least it can function as a kind of ethnography, teaching people about the customs and beliefs of different religious cultures – something that is obviously desirable in a multicultural society. To know that Muslims and Jews won’t eat pork, or that Hindus regard cows as sacred, is really just a part of civics. There is nothing specifically religious about such teaching, even if it is by convention part of religious education. It could just as well be taught under geography or history, subjects profoundly influenced by the beliefs and actions of religious people. The real task of RE is much more ambitious.

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Walsall council ban on cemetery borders and flowerbeds challenged

The Guardian World news: Islam - 15 February, 2018 - 18:11

Muslim man claims ban on edging around father’s grave breaches right to freedom of religion

A Muslim man is mounting a legal challenge over a prohibition on edging, or borders, around individual graves in his local cemetery, saying that the ban breaches his right to freedom of religion.

Atta Ul-Haq has been granted permission for a judicial review of Walsall council’s policy on the basis that it is a matter of public interest.

Related: Defying gravity

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A lesson they’ll never forget

Indigo Jo Blogs - 15 February, 2018 - 13:19

A cover of a book, Collected Poems, by Roger McGough, a drawing of whom -- a white man in his 60s bald in the middle with white hair on the sides, wearing glasses, a blue shirt with no tie and a black jacket, standing against what looks like a kitchen with plants and flowers on the worktopEvery time there’s a mass shooting in the United States, the anti-gun-control lobby insist that the right way to stop such incidents is for there to be more guns rather than less; that the best defence against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. If the massacre is at a school, as with yesterday’s atrocity in Florida, the same people will call for teachers to be armed. The fact that no other country in the world has such massacres on a regular basis, and most other developed countries have none at all (or at least one or so every decade or two) does not occur to them. We last had such a massacre here more than 20 years ago, at Dunblane in Scotland, and the result was that the government introduced legislation to ban the keeping of handguns and automatic weapons by private individuals; only single-shot rifles are allowed, and then only by vetted and authorised individuals who need them for a lawful purpose such as hunting. When the founding fathers of the USA passed the Second Amendment, the weapons that they had access to were much less powerful than some of these.

Growing up in the 1980s, a staple of children’s verse that we all read was the work of Roger McGough, a Liverpool poet best known right now for presenting the Radio 4 show Poetry Please. One of the most memorable is called The Lesson in which a teacher, angered by struggling yet again to make his voice heard above the din of the “nooligans”, uses a sword, a shotgun and his bare hands to slaughter the lot of them. Mid-way through, the headmaster put his head through the doorway and on seeing what was going on, “nodded understandingly, then tossed in a grenade”. Given that state school teachers are not the best-paid profession in most western countries and in some schools have to deal with threatening or abusive situations on a regular basis from children and adolescents that are bigger than them but with whom they are required absolutely never to transgress the limits of reasonable force, as well as having family crises, mental health problems (diagnosed or otherwise) or grudges and embitterments of their own, the chances of a teacher with an automatic weapon perpetrating a McGough-style “Lesson” are probably greater than one becoming the proverbial “good guy with a gun”. And that’s if teachers even want to carry guns into lessons.

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Sam Dastyari's far-right abuser guilty of contempt over footage

The Guardian World news: Islam - 15 February, 2018 - 03:54

Neil Erikson found guilty of posting footage where he is seen wearing a Toll uniform while ambushing the former senator

Far-right activist Neil Erikson has been found guilty of contempt after posting online an inflammatory video in which former senator Sam Dastyari was called a “terrorist” and a “monkey”.

The convicted stalker and racial vilifier was on Thursday found in contempt for publishing the video footage and also posting photos on his Twitter page, defying previous court orders.

Related: Sam Dastyari abused by rightwing group in Melbourne bar

Related: Stan takes legal action against Dastyari's abusers over use of name Patriot Blue

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‘I wanted to channel the anger’: Europe's fearless political playwrights

The Guardian World news: Islam - 12 February, 2018 - 07:00

They’ve stormed the Reichstag, turned terrorism into absurd comedy and asked their audiences for answers. Meet five theatre-makers grappling with crises across the continent.

By Daniel Boffey, Constanze Letsch, Philip Oltermann, Helena Smith and Kit Gillet

People laugh a lot – and at the end they cry

Art is not for cowards

I search for trauma in individuals – and in a country

Everyone wanted to understand what was going on

We haven’t dealt with the past in a normal way

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Ofsted head to be questioned over backing for hijab ban

The Guardian World news: Islam - 9 February, 2018 - 19:13

Amanda Spielman to appear before MPs after giving her ‘full support’ to primary school headteacher

MPs are to quiz Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools in England, about her controversial backing for a ban on girls wearing the hijab, following complaints from Muslim community leaders.

Parliament’s education select committee will question Spielman, the head of Ofsted, next month over her vocal support for a primary school in east London that barred girls under eight from wearing the headscarf – a move the school’s headteacher swiftly reversed after complaints from parents.

Related: Senior Ofsted official backs headteacher over hijab ban for under eights

Related: Schoolgirls wearing a hijab is a path to extremism? Now that’s a leap | Samira Shackle

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How to stop a mosque: the new playbook of the right

The Guardian World news: Islam - 8 February, 2018 - 06:00

A bitter legal row in an affluent New Jersey town shows the new face of Islamophobia in the age of Trump. By Andrew Rice

Forty years ago, Mohammad Ali Chaudry, a Pakistani-born economist, made his home outside New York City. He came for an executive job at the telecoms company AT&T, and ended up working there for decades. Like many immigrants to the US, Chaudry came to wholeheartedly believe – perhaps more fervently than his native-born neighbours – in the triumphal story that Americans tell about their nation: how it was always growing stronger through change, melding the many into one through the process of assimilation. Chaudry was a devout Muslim. But to him, it always seemed the things that made him different mattered less than the ways in which he had proved he was the same.

Chaudry and his wife, who is from Italy, raised three children on a street called Manor Drive, in the town of Basking Ridge, in the centre of the state of New Jersey. This is not the “Jersey” of popular imagination – the land of belching smokestacks immortalised in Bruce Springsteen’s working-class anthems. Basking Ridge is out in horse country, an area of rolling green hills and white-steepled churches, not far from Bedminster, where Donald Trump has his summer estate. In keeping with the values of his adopted community, Chaudry became an active member of the local Republican party and a conspicuous civic presence, running for various elected boards. In 2004, at the height of George W Bush’s war in Iraq, Chaudry became the first Pakistani-American to serve as mayor of a municipality in the US.

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Mashal Khan: death sentence for Pakistan blasphemy murder

The Guardian World news: Islam - 7 February, 2018 - 18:09

Student was beaten and shot by mob in attack that was posted online and widely condemned

A Pakistani court has sentenced one person to death and five others to life imprisonment for lynching a student accused of blasphemy, a crime which sent shockwaves through the conservative Muslim country.

Mashal Khan, 23, was stripped, beaten and shot by a gang made up mostly of students last April before being thrown from the second floor of his dormitory at Abdul Wali Khan university in the north-western city of Mardan.

Related: Student's lynching sparks rare uproar in Pakistan over blasphemy killings

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Mosque in east London to be demolished after high court ruling

The Guardian World news: Islam - 7 February, 2018 - 13:51

Islamic group Tablighi Jamaat sought permission to build larger building for 9,000 worshippers

A temporary east London mosque that has been refused planning permission faces demolition after a high court ruling.

The Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat had sought permission to build a permanent mosque on a 17-acre site near the Olympic Park in Stratford. Its plans to provide a place of worship for around 9,000 people were opposed by Newham council in 2012.

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Why Aditya Chakrabortty (may have) called himself Paul

Indigo Jo Blogs - 7 February, 2018 - 12:47

A 'Welcome to Haringey' sign outside a shop on a road in Wood GreenThis morning I saw a Twitter thread (starts here, ends here) from Haringey councillor Joe Goldberg, purporting to expose the middle-classness and inauthenticity of the pro-little-people and anti-establishment stance of the Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty, who has been a strong critic of the Labour council’s “Haringey Development Vehicle” (HDV), which involves selling off whole tracts of public property, including housing and a library, to a private developer which is expected to demolish most of it. This has led to a local revolt with a number of pro-HDV councillors deselected from the forthcoming local election and the (female) council chair resigning, blaming bullying and intimidation. The thread claims that on a previous occasion, Mr Chakrabortty took a similar “David versus Goliath” position on a major redevelopment project, championing the opponents as “David” and conveniently ignoring an ‘elected’ chair of a local residents’ association (I have not investigated this myself so I do not know how representative this “residents’ association” was) which supported the project. The Twitter thread claimed that Chakrabortty claimed to have been brought up in Edmonton, a deprived part of neighbouring Enfield borough, but in fact was brought up in well-heeled Winchmore Hill and went to a grammar school there.

Other people have condemned the thread as stalkerish behaviour unfitting of a local councillor. One tweet stuck out for me, though, the one where Goldberg claims that Aditya was called Paul when at school, though this may be a case of mistaken identity (e.g. another Aditya Chakrabortty). Perhaps he wants us to think that his real first name is Paul and Aditya is some sort of affectation. I can think of a simpler explanation, namely that he wanted to stave off racism from white peers who would have wilfully mispronounced his first name or at least not bothered to pronounce it correctly.

At my first secondary school I had a half-Polish friend. His first name was James and his second Władysław. His dad was known as Bob, and I never found out his real name but it was longer than that and it wasn’t Robert (he had a business refitting old pianos, or “shitty pianos” as he called them). His surname was also one that has a direct English equivalent but the Polish version was always mispronounced. James and I and a third boy had a conversation once, in which the third boy told me James’s middle name was what sounded like “Wuddiswuff”. I repeated this to James later and the other boy said, “no, it’s Vwuddiswuff!”. I thought this was even more absurd and laughed out loud. It was only years later that I saw the name written down and it kind of made sense — a lot of Eastern European names begin with “Vlad” (we’d had a Vladimir in my junior school, who wasn’t Russian) or have “slav” in them (like Miroslav) and this was just the Polish rendering of it.

And I didn’t make fun of James’s middle name but others might have done. So, you can understand why Bob, James and Paul didn’t want to use their names from back home in front of white English peers who would have mocked or at least mangled them, and if Joe Goldberg knows a thing or two about life in the multicultural but deprived inner London borough whose council he sits on, he should know this.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons, released under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 4.0 International licence.

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If you don’t like trucks, don’t buy stuff

Indigo Jo Blogs - 6 February, 2018 - 22:05

A picture of a main road through a village which is not wide enough for two cars to pass or to justify putting a line down the centre. A four-storey red-brick house is to the left of the road with a pharmacy on the ground level. A car is making its way up the road (on the left side) and other cars are parked on the pavements on each side.A member of Kent County Council has called for trucks to be banned from roads in Kent, claiming they cause “more damage than 10,000 cars” driving through his village. Seán Holden, council member for the rural ward of Cranbrook, called for Kent to follow Leicestershire’s example and restrict truck access to roads in Kent, claiming that 87% of the lorry traffic through Kent is not going to Kent:

“When you see a lorry going down the roads, like I do, between Cranbrook and Benenden knocking down the hedges on both sides with its wing mirrors, that’s doing the equivalent to, if you have half a dozen of those down there over a day, around a year’s worth of cars.

“Those roads are not built for that. The potholes, that are the bane of the lives of everybody, costs us millions of pounds.

“This is a direct consequence of heavy vehicles using those roads. I want to see a strategy come into place because people’s lives are being ruined.”

A few of these statements are factual errors that can easily be refuted. Potholes are not always caused by trucks using the roads but by a mixture of poor maintenance and bad weather conditions such as heavy rain or snow. There are already weight restrictions on local roads in Kent; I’ve seen them when travelling around areas like Pembury and Paddock Wood where trucks have to use the main roads unless they’re delivering to villages along the restricted minor roads. There are also signs warning truck drivers that the road through Goudhurst (see image), where the road is narrow there are overhanging buildings, is unsuitable and it is true that there are no weight limits near Cranbrook and Benenden but there could be good reasons for that — one may be that there is no real need, as the road through Benenden is not a major cut-through and even if you take the trucks off that road, they would have to go along other narrow roads through other villages.

The overwhelming majority of the traffic passing through Kent on the way to other places goes nowhere near these places, which are on the Sussex border; the traffic going to and from the Channel Tunnel and the three seaports (Dover, Ramsgate and Sheerness) use the M2 and M20 and a few connecting roads. Traffic passing through that area would mostly be going from London or Kent to the East Sussex coast, places like Rye, Hastings, Bexhill and Lewes. All the roads in that area are narrow and windy, including the A21 (the trunk road from London, bits of which have been upgraded but not most of it) and the A229 from Maidstone. The A259, which runs from Folkestone to Hastings and along the Sussex coast, is also a slow two-lane road, complete with a switchback outside Rye. There is no way of avoiding villages if you need to deliver things to anywhere in that part of the country and if they proposed to build dual carriageways to replace the current roads, it would provoke a flood of complaints, not only from environmentalists but from local NIMBYs as well.

And really, before anyone complains about the noise of trucks coming through their village, they might consider that everything they buy comes on the back of a truck, whether it’s manufactured goods or food. Kent is an agricultural area; the milk, meat and crops needs either a truck or a tractor to haul it away (and they would soon be complaining if they were being held up by tractors on main roads) and more trucks are needed to get them to the local shops. I as a city-dweller have to put up with trucks using roads near my house every day, so I don’t see why someone who lives in a leafy Kent village should have a better right to a quiet life than I do, and why do people choose to live in villages in Kent and commute by car to nearby large towns and cities, clogging all the villages up for several hours a day? Rules banning trucks from roads should be reserved for where they are too narrow or there is a risk of damage to buildings, or where they have been superseded by a by-pass. Otherwise, public roads are public and truck drivers are part of that same public as car drivers.

Image source: Ron Strutt, via Wikimedia. Released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence.

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Danish government proposes ban on full-face veils

The Guardian World news: Islam - 6 February, 2018 - 16:36

Justice minister says wearing of Islamic face coverings is incompatible with Danish values

The Danish government has proposed a ban on Islamic full-face coverings in public spaces.

“It is incompatible with the values in Danish society and disrespectful to the community to keep one’s face hidden when meeting each other in public spaces,” said the justice minister, Søren Pape Poulsen.

Related: Europe's right hails EU court's workplace headscarf ban ruling

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Schoolgirls wearing a hijab is a path to extremism? Now that’s a leap | Samira Shackle

The Guardian World news: Islam - 6 February, 2018 - 14:34

The Ofsted chief is just the latest public official to distort and oversimplify the role of conservative Islam in schools

St Stephen’s primary school in Newham, east London hit the headlines last month, after headteacher Neena Lall banned the wearing of hijabs for girls under the age of eight. There was a backlash; 19,000 people signed a petition protesting against the decision and the school governors overturned the ban.

Then Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, made an unusual intervention, publicly supporting Lall. Speaking at a Church of England schools conference on Thursday, she said that headteachers should have the right to set rules on uniform. This was a fair comment – but from there on in, her comments deviated wildly from talking about the hijab for children.

Related: I didn’t want to wear my hijab, and don’t believe very young girls should wear them today | Iman Amrani

We see it repeatedly: any policy question that relates to Muslims is framed as an issue of terrorism, fundamentalism or a failure to integrate

Related: Ofsted head: ‘The last thing a chief inspector should be is a crusader’. Oh really?

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Turnbull backs Jim Molan in anti-Muslim video row: 'Not a racist bone in his body'

The Guardian World news: Islam - 6 February, 2018 - 05:22

PM says it is ‘deplorable’ and ‘disgusting’ that Bill Shorten would describe senator as racist

Malcolm Turnbull has strongly backed Jim Molan after the new Liberal senator reposted videos from the far-right group Britain First, telling parliament his colleague “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body”.

With the opposition and the Greens targeting Molan for refusing to apologise for the videos on his Facebook page, the prime minister said it was “deplorable” and “disgusting” that Bill Shorten would describe the former major general as a racist.

Related: Liberal senator Jim Molan shared anti-Muslim videos from far-right group

Related: Turnbull says Jim Molan 'doesn't have a racist bone in his body' – politics live

Very sad to see @MathiasCormann join @TurnbullMalcolm in refusing to condemn Senator Molan over his offensive Facebook posts. Hateful and divisive messages do nothing to protect us, they only divide us. They have no place in our society, and no place in our parliament. #senateqt

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Zac Goldsmith, an authority on FGM?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 5 February, 2018 - 22:39

Two girls with their faces painted white, both wearing blue caps and a skirt made of strings hanging from the waist over other clothing, take part in a dance.Earlier today, BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour featured a 6-minute segment on FGM, tomorrow apparently being “International Zero Tolerance on FGM Day” and who better to invite on than the co-chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on FGM, Jess Phillips (Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley) and Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP for Richmond Park who was returned to Parliament last year after being unseated when he called a by-election over the expansion of Heathrow airport; many of us associate him with the Islamophobic smear campaign he ran while running for mayor against Sadiq Khan in collusion with the Australian race-baiter Lynton Crosby. You may notice a curious omission: all the three participants were white (the presenter being Jane Garvey) and therefore nobody is from a country where FGM is or has been commonplace. In fact, given that it was Woman’s Hour, you’d think they’d have found a survivor (they’re all women) or at least a woman who works with survivors. But no.

Woman’s Hour has a long history of sycophantic interviews with powerful people and especially powerful women; Madeleine Albright wasn’t asked about all the Iraqi children who had died as a result of sanctions, or about birth defects caused by depleted uranium and more recently Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, was not asked about the woman who killed herself after the man she accused of rape launched a private prosecution of her and Saunders’ department, despite the police not having charged her themselves, took it over. I suspect that its presenters (mostly if not all white) would rather spend a few minutes talking about something that affects only people of other cultures with two white, middle-class people she doesn’t have to worry about offending.

To give Goldsmith his due, he did mention the fact that, unlike other forms of abuse, children at risk of FGM are often at risk of no other abuse; this is an answer to those who claim that FGM is not being prosecuted because the police are afraid of being called racist or otherwise antagonising immigrant communities. The foster care placements that would be required when parents are locked up are already needed for children at risk of other forms of abuse or neglect. But neither of them challenged the myth that FGM is still widely practised in this country; despite the long history of settlement of people from Somalia, Sierra Leone and other FGM-endemic countries in the UK and despite endless series of statistics showing “new cases” of FGM that become known to the authorities, not one person has successfully been prosecuted. FGM is a killer and if the practice was going on on any significant scale in the UK, girls would be dying. The communities concerned would not be able to conceal it for very long.

Last week I saw someone tweet a letter he had received from Ivan Balhatchet of the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) in response to two letters he had sent. The letter partly read:

May I apologise for the tardiness in my response, you can appreciate that as the National Policing Lead for this portfolio the need to prioritise resources to tackle all forms of Honour-Based Abuse, including Female Genital Mutilation. This includes working wtih both statutory and non-governmental organisations, in ways to prevent FGM and protect girls and women.

There are many nuances to this crime type, which even third-sector charitable organisations, do not claim to share a nexus with your rationale of concerns for the lack of successful prosecutions.

The letter gives no suggestion of any doubt that FGM is really going on in this country. The conviction rate of zero and the prosecution rate of just three in 33 years (since FGM was made a specific offence in 1985; two cases are ongoing, one has already resulted in acquittal) reflect a lack of cases, as it is inconceivable that not a single victim (as opposed to a minority) would have come forward in all that time with a credible case and a known perpetrator. Most of the communities involved are not closed; they do have contacts with outsiders, both of their own religion and others. The idea that these people are implacably set on continuing one part of their culture while changing many others (such as their language and ways of dressing) and hugely clever in concealing it is simply preposterous as well as racist.

Ava Vidal, the Black British comedian and writer, commented when I told her about the Goldsmith/Phillips interview, “I’ve noticed how the only issue that affects predominantly WOC (women of colour) certain feminists like to latch onto is FGM”. FGM is an ideal issue for a certain type of white imperialist as there are always a new lot of statistics they can put a newsworthy and alarming spin on and the fact that it involves a community they really do not know much about and do not want to means that the lack of evidence of it actually happen does not matter. Of course it’s happening, and anyone who denies it is just “in denial”. It allows white feminists to form alliances with the political Right, it gives them an excuse to throw off the pretence of intersectionality, to rant against multiculturalism, to feel superior to someone. There are those who want an ‘interventionist’ form of feminism, as is dominant in France, where white people assume they know what is best for everyone, and white women are assumed to know what is best for other women. It also allows the government to extend the surveillance of minority communities.

The question remains: where is the evidence that FGM is going on here? Not the rumours, not the statistics of “new cases”. The infections, the injuries, the deaths. We would be seeing these things if girls were being cut, or even if they were being brought back shortly after being cut. Where are they?

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Book Review: The Language of God by Francis S. Collins

Inayat's Corner - 5 February, 2018 - 20:14


The year 2006 saw the publication of two very different books about the God hypothesis: the evolutionary zoologist and prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and the physician-geneticist Francis Collins’ The Language of God.

Collins is best known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project which published a first draft of the entire human genome back in 2000. In The Language of God he recounts how he was not brought up in any particular faith by his parents and went on to regard himself as an atheist as he became an adult. In his late twenties, however, he came across the book Mere Christianity by the Oxford academic C.S. Lewis which made a deep impression on Collins and he thereafter became a committed Christian.

Collins was clearly impressed by the Moral Law argument advanced by C.S. Lewis and quotes a passage from Mere Christianity as follows:

“If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?” (p29)

How does Collins seek to reconcile science with religion? In recent years a number of scientists and philosophers – perhaps influenced by evolution denial amongst some evangelical Christian groups along the violent fanaticism of some Muslim groups – have argued for the need to “outgrow” religious beliefs and they ascribe it to an earlier phase of humanity’s development which we need to move on from. This line of argument views religious beliefs as being our first attempt at understanding the world around us but that it has now been superceded by the outstanding success over the past four centuries of science and the scientific method.

As a scientist who has helped map the genetic blueprint of humanity, Collins accepts and welcomes the knowledge and understanding that science has given us, but argues that religion can help provide answers to key questions that all of us have and that science cannot possibly answer.

“Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world, and its tools when properly utilised can generate profound insights into material existence. But science is powerless to answer questions such as “Why did the universe come into being?” “What is the meaning of human existence?” “What happens after we die?” One of the strongest motivations of humankind is to seek answers to profound questions, and we need to bring all the power of both the scientific and spiritual perspectives to bear on understanding what is both seen and unseen.” (p6)

But what about the passages in the Bible in the Book of Genesis about the creation of the world? A literal interpretation of those passages has led many – predominantly American Christians to believe that the earth was created just over six thousand years ago, as opposed to around 4.5 billion years ago as discovered by science. Collins urges Christians not to take a literal approach to those passages and strongly argues for an allegorical/poetic interpretation which lays greater stress on the larger picture i.e. that the universe had a beginning and was willed into being by a Creator. The consequences of the Big Bang theory – which also postulates that the universe came into being at the very start of time – are “electrifying” for believers according to Collins.

“I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.” (p67)

Dawkins would call this the Argument from Personal Incredulity or also a God of the Gaps approach – just because science cannot currently answer a specific question – in this case what brought about the Big Bang – it is tantamount to giving up to just say “Well, God did it.”

In the end it all seems to boil down to whether you think science can in principle discover what caused the Big Bang or whether you think it is – as it currently seems – beyond the limit of what science can discover about the universe?

Collins comes down firmly on the side of believing that there are limits to what science can discover about the universe and argues that faith in science and faith in God can be combined harmoniously to answer our deepest questions.

“The God hypothesis solves some deeply troubling questions about what came before the Big Bang, and why the universe seems to be so exquisitely tuned for us to be here.” (p81)

Interestingly, at the end of 2006, the year of the publication of Collins’ The Language of God and Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Time magazine set up a debate between the two writers and published a special edition entitled “God vs Science”. The debate between the two – which is well worth studying – can be read at this link.

I have not found much useful material in English by contemporary Muslims about science and the God hypothesis and I do wonder what that says about the current state of the Muslim world. Thankfully, there are some thoughtful Christian scientists who have shared their ideas with us and I think the world is a better place because of them.


Review: Silent Witness, “One Day”

Indigo Jo Blogs - 4 February, 2018 - 22:18

A stockily-built white man in a suit walking down a corridor in an institutional building carrying a red folder under his arm, followed by a white woman in a powered wheelchair wearing a grey overcoat and a pair of blue jeans.Silent Witness is a series based on the work of police pathologists: the “witness” refers to the body of a murder victim. It’s been running since 1996 and the stories are always in two parts on two consecutive nights (Monday and Tuesday, currently). It has always prominently featured female characters, notably the star Amanda Burton, who played pathologist Sam Ryan until she left in the 8th series. Early series were set in Cambridge, echoing other British crime dramas that were set in Oxford, but since series four it has been set in London after Ryan relocated to take up an academic position. Since 2013, it has featured the disabled actress (and comedian) Liz Carr as a lab assistant and has been regarded as a model drama in terms of using a disabled actor to play a disabled character without making it all about the disability. Last week, however, the story was about the murder of two women, one of them disabled, and the abuse of elderly and disabled people at two care homes, and her character (Clarissa Mullery) was at the centre of it. (You can watch the two parts here and here for the next five weeks at the time of writing; there is an interview with Liz Carr here.)

The story opens as a woman drives her car along a road through a park in south London. She is struggling to remain awake, swerving to avoid pedestrians and other vehicles and ultimately colliding with an oncoming truck, killing her. The pathology team find that she has a high dose of two drugs in her system and initially believe it was suicide; however, an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease has died and similar drugs are found in her system. The first woman had a son in a local care home — a very grand building, but obviously understaffed and the staff that are there are obstructive — and both homes use the services of a particular doctor. Suspicion falls on the woman’s son, named Kevin, who is autistic and displays challenging behaviour and at one point says he hates her. He also has a girlfriend, Serena, whose impairment is not made clear but it includes a speech impediment, but staff are doing everything they can to keep them apart. One member of staff in particular, Connor, is a bully and uses a stun gun (which is illegal) to subdue the young man when he “steps out of line”. During the first episode it is apparent that he has raped Serena.

An older detective develops a theory that the woman’s son is to blame for her murder and will not consider any other possibility. He tries to arrest Kevin, who lashes out and escapes, injuring the cop. He then escapes from the home, taking Serena (who had previously said she did not want to leave) with him. They go to Kew Gardens, a place Serena had always wanted to visit; when the security guard tells them it is time to leave, he refuses and threatens to shoot him. He and Serena leave and then go to a secluded bench under a tree, but are subsequently surrounded by police who tell him to come out with his hands up and “let Serena go”, it being assumed he has kidnapped her. He refuses, threatens them with a wooden stick which he brandishes as if it were a gun, and is promptly shot dead. The rape is discovered when Serena is examined afterwards, and the prejudiced cop tries to blame this on Kevin as well. He is unwilling to extend the investigation to cover apparent abuses at the care home or to consider the possibility that Kevin was not to blame for his mother’s death, despite evidence that he has suffered abuse (he has burns from the stun gun when examined after his death). Clarissa is convinced that the incidents, and the cop’s attitude, are connected by the victims’ disability and the sense that they are “less than”.

It transpires that Connor and the doctor, Albert Kahari, are killing patients (and their relatives) with overdoses for money; the woman with Alzheimer’s had been killed at the request of their three sons who were alarmed at their inheritance being swallowed up by care home fees while she was unable to do anything, they said, except shit. Clarissa was initially unable to enter the care home where Kevin had been living because she was afraid of going in and never coming out again, being aware that this is what had happened to many other disabled people even though she had had what she considered a lucky escape, but overcame her fear in order to “go undercover” in the home where the lady with Alzheimer’s had died. She discovered that similar methods of ‘control’ were in use (i.e. physical force) on residents with learning disabilities and that Connor was aggressive and had no respect for people’s privacy. He is suspicious of her for asking too many questions and she discovers him in her room; he seizes her phone from her, telling her it “disturbs other residents”. She then raids the dead woman’s room and finds drugs; Connor catches her with them, overpowers her and pushes her to a disused part of the building where he ejects her from the wheelchair onto the floor. He tells her that disabled people are worth nothing and cannot do anything; he attempts to feed her the drugs that had been used to kill the old lady. At this point, however, Clarissa’s colleagues burst in and arrest him.

I know people who know Liz Carr and I know a lot of parents in similar situations to Kevin’s mother’s, i.e. having relatives (particularly children) in care homes or hospitals, often involuntarily. One of them said that she was hurt by a remark made about the relatives by Connor; I didn’t catch it but he wasn’t meant to be sympathetic character and the sentiment was common among institution staff when long-term institutionalising of disabled people was common. I thought the scripting was fairly sensitive and for the most part believable. I did have a qualm about making the main villain of the piece a black African doctor, particularly given that there is a misconduct and manslaughter case against a black African doctor still under appeal (even if the cases are not that similar and the doctor in the real-life case is a woman). I very much doubt that a pathology lab assistant who is not a police officer would go undercover in a real investigation; the police would, if necessary, send a non-disabled person in with a microphone. Although there is violence, the sexual assault which takes place is implied rather than shown and an opportunity for a rape scene towards the end (a common trope in a lot of films and plays nowadays) was passed up (I am talking about where Connor overpowers Clarissa towards the end).

So, this was a well-scripted drama about things that go on in some care homes (and psychiatric units and other closed institutions) and attitudes that are very real. The story is fiction and doctors killing their patients for money isn’t something that goes on every day, but dreadful abuses of people with learning disabilities especially are well-known, neglect is a major problem, a number of people have died who should have been allowed to have a life. The attitudes displayed are prevalent enough even if usually displayed a bit less bluntly. It was a great drama about things that the general public need to be more aware of.

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