Sunday, 11 December 2011

The future is fundamentalist?

These past couple of days have been a jolting experience that has left me feeling somewhat disillusioned and pessimistic …

An internet newspaper in Pakistan that I read occasionally published an article in which the author called for reconciliation between the Sunni and Shia sects within Islam and a re-examination by Shia of some of their practices – not beliefs, mind you, just practices.  As the author pointed out, in all other cultures and religions, the start of a new year is celebrated with joy, but in Islam the Shia’s commemoration of the battle at Kerbala (in which the Prophet’s grandson was killed) involves not just mournful gatherings recounting the events of the episode, but elaborate and unsightly processions with a very public and bloody display of self-flagellation.  On occasion, these gatherings are also known to hurl insults at figures the Sunnis revere.  The author suggested that perhaps it was time to adopt more dignified forms of remembrance and to build bridges. 
I do not want to dwell on these rituals - which, by the way, are not stipulated by the religion, but added, by definition, since the battle took place several decades after the said Prophet’s demise.  What does concern me is the reaction that the article prompted.  (In case any one thinks I have an axe to grind, a quick browse through my blog will tell you what I think of religion and the Abrahamic religions in particular.)
Bear in mind that the article was written in English by an American university professor of Pakistani descent; and that it was published in a newspaper affiliated with the International Herald Tribune.  It was not a sermon bellowed by a mullah to a horde of supine congregants at a religious gathering.  I mention these facts so that one gets a measure of the potential audience – supposedly literate, educated, English-speaking and economically able to afford a newspaper or a computer, electricity and access to the internet!  Given the state of literacy, poverty and infrastructure in Pakistan (and the Muslim world in general), this does not amount to a large number.
The web-based edition of the newspaper allows for comment and had scarcely received sixteen over several hours when the storm clouds began rumbling on Twitter.  There were expressions of outrage, dubbing the article as a hate speech and accusing it of inciting hatred.  Remember, the man was talking about reconciliation!  Others were scornful of the author and of the newspaper for publishing the article.  There were calls for a boycott of the newspaper, an immediate apology from the author and editor and demands that the article be removed from the website post-haste (I think someone actually did use these very terms!). 
It seemed that those protesting were predominantly Shia, but I can’t be sure.  (Traditionally, names are a good indication.)  However, looking at the profiles of those protesting, I was astonished that they included university professors in America teaching science based subjects; journalists in Pakistan and elsewhere, who write for well-known national and international English newspapers; and so-called human rights activists – all people who should be used to and indeed encourage inquiry and debate.  Moreover, normally they like to portray themselves as secular, erudite and cultured, tweeting couplets by Ghalib and Sufi poets like Hafiz and Rumi (as light relief or to display their cultural credentials, who knows now).  Several are even followers of Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, both, of course, accused by Muslim fundamentalists of blasphemy and for offending Islam.  (Perhaps following them is another badge to display?)
However, the feverish twittering of these ‘offended’, supposedly educated people reminded me more of bearded mullahs and imams barking and stirring up illiterate mobs into frenzy over some alleged slight.  Admittedly, there was no flag or effigy burning, but there might just as well have been.  There was the same sloganeering, the same calls for boycotts and the same expressions of being outraged.  For me, it seemed a visceral primitive reaction had torn through the usual veneer of urbanity, to expose a less attractive underbelly which was no different from that seen in fist waving crowds, fulminating and frothing at the mouth like rabid dogs. 
But there was another side too: that of a group mindset that thought that only it had the right to decide what could and would be discussed – and by whom.  The so-called sophisticated and educated had shown their true mentality, and it was of the school playground: bullying, tribal and fascist, something one would, in fact, normally associate with the religious extremists and fundamentalists.
I went to sleep troubled with the following random thoughts racing through my mind:
mafia, bullying, mob, ayatullahs, Lord of the Flies, hypocrisy, a Sikh play in Birmingham that had come under fire a few years ago with calls for it to be banned for causing offence, the stirring up and mobilising of anger by mullahs during the Danish cartoon episode, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, Taliban, fundamentalism, Catholic church, secularism and public space, enlightenment, female genital mutilation, Sati, caste system, Mary Whitehouse and the Pink Paper, Life of Brian ….
The next day I was shocked to find that the newspaper had given in to pressure and taken the article off its website.  Later, an editor’s apology went up.  So much for its liberal credentials!  This morning I woke to find an apology that the author had, no doubt, been forced to issue and to learn that he had received death threats and been offered police protection.  On checking the time lines of those who had been so vocal in their protest, I was disgusted to find that some had calmly moved on to talk about other topics, others dismissed the author’s apology as mealy-mouthed and dishonest, and still others regarded the outcome as a job well done.
As I said, I am less concerned with the issue of Shia beliefs and more with issues of free speech, inquiry and debate and ultimately of intellectual honesty – and the old chestnuts of ‘causing offence’ and ‘inciting hate’ routinely brought up to stifle such debate. 
What do these professors teach their students?  How do they teach them if they can’t tolerate any dissent, any questioning?  Indeed, they should first be setting an example by responding in a mature, civilised manner; and second, encouraging just such debate and discussion.  If people like journalists, human rights activists and university professors can’t stomach and encourage a little debate and get offended by a mere article, how do they expect those practicing honour killings or female genital mutilation to consider their ways?  After all, many cultures believe these are required by their god and which to question would be blasphemous and deeply offensive.  Or do they think talking about and criticising such issues too should remain unmentioned because it too might cause offence and be an incitement to hatred?  And what of the notorious blasphemy laws in Pakistan that are supported by just such people who get prickly about any perceived insult to what they regard as sacred?  Do they think the mullahs and imams were right to call for the banning and withdrawing of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses because it was insensitive and “caused offence”?  Do they think the Danish cartoon protests were justified, again because it “caused offence”?  Do they think the authorities should have capitulated to protests and stopped a play exposing and exploring exploitation within Sikh culture because it “caused offence”? 
How do we progress, how do we improve if we are to refuse to examine our beliefs, lay them open to see how well they stand up to scrutiny?  If they do, so much the better, but what is the harm and why get so defensive, even hysterical?   And if so-called educated people show themselves to be so thin skinned and react with emotion rather than reason, what hope is there of tackling the ingrained attitudes, beliefs and prejudices of the illiterate masses?  Given the rise of fundamentalism in the Muslim world, how are we to bring about reform if even the educated are not prepared to examine their beliefs?  (In any case, my confidence in their education is now severely dented and I will never be able to read another missive from them without adding the proverbial pinch of salt.)
And so, I fear that the future in Pakistan will be with superstition and ultimately with the extremists and fundamentalists.  The educated can only pretend, for they have lost credibility and have shown themselves to be just what the fundamentalists accuse them of being – intellectually dishonest, hypocrites and cowards.   The extremist uses death as his weapon and is prepared to die for his belief.  Thankfully, education, the Enlightenment and liberalism teach another, better way and one that does not require violence.  Instead, the educated use reason and courage to examine their own beliefs and then have the integrity to change if necessary and so progress.

Unfortunately, the events of the past few days have shown that this appears to be lacking amongst some of the more vocal educated of that country; and that is why I think the extremists and fundamentalists will win: they are prepared to practice what they preach (however mad) and die if necessary.  Meanwhile, the educated suffer from cognitive dissonance.  They are happy to tell others what to do but unwilling to apply those same principles to themselves; ready to judge others beliefs, but unwilling to have the spotlight turned on their own beliefs; happy to pretend to subscribe to a liberal and rational way of thinking, while holding on to a mindset more common to fundamentalists.  And it is this moral and intellectual dishonesty that will be their undoing, for all their pretensions to culture, poetry and talk of human rights.
More worryingly, the educated, like the fundamentalists, have shown themselves to possess fascist tendencies, making themselves the sole arbiters of what can and can’t be questioned and discussed, how and by whom.  The extremist appeals to god and revelation.  The educated, for all their intellectual posturing, have shown that they too are chained to similar shibboleths - as well as pretension.  That being the case, I’m afraid my money is on the fundamentalists.  They at least have guts and integrity, whereas the educated have neither.  As the saying goes, I wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire!

PS.  Just as I was finishing this piece, I received the following tweet:

I am truly concerned for our youth...they seem to have no tolerance for difference of opinion …


(My response was that it was not just the youth that I was concerned about.)

And as I post this, I have just received this from Richard Dawkins:

Journal axes gene research on Jews and Palestinians

Apparently, people complained.  Were they too offended by the results?  Is there any hope for the future?

Note: I have not mentioned the newspaper or the author in question because I do not want to risk endangering the poor man, but believe me, this all did actually happen!  And yes, these people are teaching and working in universities in the west.  Oh dear!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

More queer bedfellows: Bankers, rioters, tax evaders and …

"Irresponsibility, selfishness, behaving as if your choices have no consequences, children without fathers; schools without discipline; reward without effort; crime without punishment; rights without responsibilities; communities without control; some of the worst aspects of human nature tolerated, indulged - sometimes even incentivised - by a state and its agencies that in parts have become literally de-moralised.  The question is: do we have the determination to put it right?

"Do we have the determination to confront the slow-motion collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations?"

(The Scotsman, 15 August 2011)

So David Cameron, PM, is reported to have said on this summer’s riots in England.  Forceful stuff, but take out the reference to fathers and schools, and the same could easily be said about another group that has caused far more havoc.  Yes, the bankers - and I think substituting ‘workplace’ for ‘schools’ works equally well!  After all, why should the burden of upholding such noble virtues as discipline, responsibility and morality fall on just one section of the population?  And it can be argued that those in positions of power, influence and authority have a greater duty to set an example by exercising these virtues even more.

Yet there are those on the right who are quick to excuse the bankers and oppose any regulation of their activities.  Bankers, they argue, create wealth and opportunity and so must be left free from what they see as overzealous supervision.  Moreover, they deserve the incentives of a huge salary and bonus – even, it seems, when their organisations fail and they in turn leave countless people destitute.  Attempts at curtailing their activities and their remuneration packages will, we are told, drive ‘talent’ abroad.  Talent - and said without a trace of irony! 

Sadly, the rioters’ camp is no better, and has its own band of apologists.  Racism and poverty, those old stalwarts, are blithely raised to compare (and so excuse, even justify) the orgy of looting, hooliganism, vandalism and gratuitous murder to the legitimate uprisings against genuine political oppression in the Middle East. (see, for example, Darcus Howe's interview on the BBC – the clip is on YouTube). 

However, supporters in both camps seem to me to be displaying a misguided and blind loyalty commonly associated with patriotism and religion viz. ‘my country, right or wrong’.  Of course, the likes of Angela Knight (spokesperson for the British Bankers Association) is only doing her job by defending her paymasters, but that is all the more reason to dismiss her views as nothing more than lobbyist’s propaganda.  It is to Mr Cable’s credit that he did just that, calling Mrs Knight’s arguments ‘disingenuous’. 

In a similar vein, David Starkey attempted to offer a blunter interpretation of the rioters’ behaviour, but this jarred with many peoples’ (politically correct) sensibilities.  Here is an excerpt of what Dr Starkey said:

 “…The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion," he said.

"Black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together. This language, which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has intruded in England.”

Perhaps it was the use of “whites” and “blacks” that triggered the hysteria.  Perhaps if Dr Starkey had not explicitly referred to colour and had instead restricted his remark to behaviour, his view might have been heard and considered instead of being shouted down by alleged outrage, calmly disregarding his use of "particular sort of" in the very next sentence. But has political correctness now clouded our own thinking so much that we are incapable of recognising and differentiating a subculture, regardless of its colour, from the larger society within which it operates?  Or are we just as guilty of the very racist generalisations we seek to condemn?  And is this paranoia or forced tolerance to be allowed to prevent any expression of opinion or criticism of certain groups and behaviour for fear of being seen as racist, sexist, anti-Semitic or Islamophobic?  Must we, instead, accept all and any standards of behaviour?

And ultimately this is what is in question: standards of behaviour - whether that of bankers or rioters – and their underlying motivation.  To my mind, that motivation is a combination of greed and an indifference to the rest of society in satisfying that greed - nothing more noble, no matter what M/s Knight and Howe and their acolytes say. 

But amid all the attention directed towards bankers, one can easily forget another group - the tax evaders - who squirrel away their profits and wealth abroad in so-called tax havens, either in their own name, the name of their spouse or other family member(s) or even artificial companies all to avoid paying any tax. Here again we are told that this group must not be aggravated for fear of running away abroad, so conveniently ignoring the fact that it is in fact this country that gives them their wealth in the first place.  If any mention is made of taxes, they argue they have created jobs which generate taxes, so neatly side-stepping why they themselves should not pay any.  They too have no (further) obligation to the larger society, preferring to spend their time away in their tax haven playpens.  If they do live here, it is usually within secluded, gated properties that keep them quarantined and protected from the masses.  As for companies, they blatantly bully and woo a supine HMRC, as evidenced by several high profile cases recently.

In all three instances there lurks Greed, displayed so shockingly by the rioters, but equally prevalent in the more socialised forms practiced by bankers and tax dodgers (individuals and companies).  All three groups have, in one way or another, separated themselves from the larger society; and once conveniently removed, feel no obligation towards it.  They are, in effect, a subculture.  In fact, a subculture just like Jamaican gangster (sub)-culture and like it, seek to bully and threaten to get their own way.

But before the rest of us feel virtuous, Greed is, of course, not a monopoly of just a few groups or classes.  All of us are guilty of it, even if on a smaller scale.  We obsess about how much our properties have gone up in value, want higher and higher returns on our savings and pension fund investment, and more and more goods at ever cheaper prices.  But to achieve this, have we too not insulated ourselves by exporting production somewhere faraway, so that we are conveniently not confronted by the resulting poverty and misery that our greed must inevitably generate?  That same greed that motivates the rioters, the bankers and the tax evaders …

I hope to explore this further in future posts.  In the meantime, I will leave you with what I regard as one of Carl Jung’s most insightful ‘discoveries’ – that of the Shadow.  The Shadow is that aspect of one’s personality that one does not wish to accept (for whatever reason).  However, this ‘rejection’ does not make this aspect of our personality conveniently disappear.  Instead, we tend to project it onto others, seeing in them what we refuse to accept in ourself.  However, it also remains active within our unconscious.  In both instances, it wreaks havoc, either in the form of prejudice and rage or crime, cruelty and neurosis.  Part of maturing (what Jung called Individuation) is to recognise this rejected side of one’s personality and seek to incorporate its positive aspects into our daily life - for it does have a positive side.  That is the first step towards developing a healthy personality - and by extension (to my mind) a healthy society, especially at this time of worldwide protests against "Wall Street" greed.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

On Top of Famine, Unspeakable Violence - my comment on a NY Times article by Nicholas D.Kristof

Nicholas D. Kristof has been covering the current famine in Somalia for The New York Times and on Sunday, 25 September wrote an article titled "On Top of Famine, Unspeakable Violence".  The article can be found by following this link:
The article spoke of the incidence of systematic mass rape along a corridor from the Somali border to a refugee camp in Kenya.  Ironically, the rapes were conducted by Somali men, too afraid of the Islamist group al-Shabab in Somalia itself, but strangely emboldened to act with impunity knowing they were operating in an area outside the organisation's reach.
I found the article depressing and was moved to leave the following (uneditted) comment on Mr Kristof's/The New York Times blog:
A disturbing article that raises many issues about human behaviour and inhumanity - regardless of race or economic status.

However, like Mr HIll, I find it difficult to agree with your optimism regarding family sizes. I have been working with Somali women here in London for a number of years now and there appears to be no change in their attitude to family size. Several of the women proudly announce that they have had 4,5,6 children since they came to London (and their sisters in another part of Europe have done likewise)! I think it is just as important to consider a woman's status and role within their culture - and Muslim culture in general. And not just women, but that of men too. (Large families are a sign of fertility with all that entails.)Until that changes, I suspect that family size will not be affected. I think this will change for the next generation who will have more opportunity and be less willing to be restricted by cultural norms. However, in Somalia itself this is a long way off.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Queer bedfellows - the Murdoch press, the Saudis and their bum chums!

As I was writing my post about the Saudis, the Rupert Murdoch/News of the World story broke and I was struck by the parallels between the two.  Beneath what I regard as superficial differences, lies the same exercising of an unhealthy influence in a country in which neither reside nor pay any taxes and through means that gives their message a false authority and legitimacy. 

Both seek to take control of powerful symbols of authority: for Murdoch it is the media, for the Saudis it is religion.  Both then seek to consolidate their authority by appealing to the importance of what it represents and how this must not be questioned: Murdoch by claiming to uphold the freedom of the press and the process of accountability, and dismissing any control or limits as a devious ploy by the powerful to protect their own interests; the Saudis by making themselves the self-appointed guardians and only legitimate interpreters of Islam, and branding any questioning or alternative interpretations as blasphemous – a claim guaranteed to stir adherents into blind ignorant rage.

Of course, people have to invest these symbols with importance for this charade to work and this they readily do.  In the case of Murdoch, it is with the sacred cows of Freedom of the Press and The Right to Know (with all the prurience that it entails); with the Saudis it is fundamental existential questions: fear of the unknown, belief in a god, the uncertainty of death and beyond and with hope of an afterlife and Heaven.  (Morality is only relevant it seems insofar as it aids in pleasing a god who will then secure one a place in his heaven.)

Having captured their audience, both use their substantial wealth to extend their influence: Murdoch through takeovers or majority stake holdings in media outlets, direct approaches to political parties and outright support of one or the other party during elections; the Saudis by financing so called religious education. The Saudis also fund some Islamic centres in universities, but these I think are merely to deflect attention from their orthodox religious activity rather than any genuine belief in these centres’ work. 

In this respect, both seem content at adopting a curiously schizophrenic (and contradictory) approach, depending on their ‘client’.  Thus, Murdoch’s media empire incorporates smut and ‘sophistication’, pictures of topless models and sexually lurid stories as well as more highbrow and ‘intellectual’ organs.  Similarly, the Saudis see no contradiction in financing Islamic centres in western universities to celebrate the achievements of Islamic civilization in the past while simultaneously funding orthodox religious schools that renders the kind of inquiry that led to those same achievements almost impossible.  As one imam said on his blog when discussing evolution, anything that contradicts the Quran must be rejected as false.  So much for inquiry!

In seeking to get a large chunk of the market share, both become the voice of the many which gets easily mistaken for the Truth.  In Murdoch’s case, owning tabloids (rags), broadsheets (more serious) and tv channels makes it easier to claim to be ‘speaking’ for a ‘cross section’ of the population, while also creating the illusion of a majority opinion.  The Saudis too are involved in publishing and the media by producing materials for their ‘schools’ and evangelising in general. Here, they tend to force their view by stocking their Islamic bookshops with their propaganda, so again creating the illusion of the dominant view.  Nonetheless, both achieve the same objective, i.e. appealing to the herd instinct that drowns out dissenting opinions and through sheer pressure lures people into adopting the ‘majority’ view.  Peer pressure, acceptance and fear of rejection are powerful incentives, after all. 

This is not quite so far fetched as it may seem and one has only to remember the role of the media in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia and indeed the role of cultural attaches of both Communist Russia and China. There are also examples of other media barons in British history from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who had an unhealthy and some would say undemocratic influence on the political process.  For people still not convinced and preferring more ‘benign’ examples of misleading the public, I recommend William Boyd’s excellent novel Restless.  (I use ‘benign’ reservedly here.) 

More recently, I am reminded of a magazine that I came across that has as its stated aim the defence of western civilization and Israel (though I fail to see why the two should be inextricably linked).  Still, at least it is explicit in its aim.   Published on heavy, matt finished paper with suitably ‘aristocratic’ font to match, it is littered with advertisements for fine wines and expensive holidays while carrying unquestioning features in favour of Israel, rabid attacks on Islam and Muslim immigrants in Europe and North America, then reviews on literature and high brow cultural events all in the same issue.  As is rightly said, the medium is the message and when packaged in a sophisticated format, it becomes difficult to disentangle the propaganda from serious analysis.  Indeed, the ‘sophisticated’ content and format is a subtle guise to lend weight to what is nothing more than propaganda.

But why do they do it?  What have they to gain? 

These are questions that unfortunately are not asked or not asked often enough, most being too trusting of the medium, or too preoccupied in following the latest strand of salacious gossip or eager to watch their wretched football (another exploitative venture) on the one hand, or too afraid to question for being branded a doubter or blasphemer on the other.

Reflecting on these parallels, I was reminded again of lifelong learning and constructive recreation - themes that I have written about in previous posts - and wondered if, over the years, these two had not been entirely neglected in one context and steadily eroded in the other, whether the Saudis or Rupert Murdoch would have been able to wield quite the influence they do.  Both, you see, rely on an audience of dullards and morons to whom they can ‘sell’ their wares. 

Underlying the issue is the question of authority, its power and how it is defined.  More importantly, there is the issue of people’s ability to question, deconstruct, challenge and if necessary reject this authority.  But if people have been numbed – whether by religious mumbo-jumbo, unchallenging fodder such as salacious gossip or propaganda dressed up as sophisticated intellectual analysis – can they really pose a threat?  More importantly, do these people even realise how they have been duped – or are they content in delusional, self-congratulatory piety, delusions of cultural or intellectual superiority, or false claims to freedom of the press and freedom more generally?

It is with good reason that literacy curriculums aim to teach that not everything in print is to be believed – or more broadly, to look behind appearances and question the veracity of what is being presented. 

The issue of authority is not one to be underestimated, nor the power of symbols.  One has only to look at advertising: the choice of voice, the dress, the language used – the use of spectacles, a stethoscope, a doctor’s white gown for example, all potent symbols without even a word needing to be said.   It is no wonder that one manufacturer of baby food had its representatives dressed in just such garb to coax mothers in third world countries to abandon breastfeeding in favour of their unsuitable and expensive product.  

However, that Murdoch has been able to get away with wielding his influence is puzzling.  For his audience is the so-called educated, enlightened West – the people and civilisation that the magazine I referred to above seeks to preserve against outside, backward influences.  Yet, it is within this very civilization that Murdochs rags are so popular, so that even our politicians and so-called educated and intellectual journalists are content to write for them.  And then there are the millions who are prepared to read the filth and gossip.  Do they have nothing to do in, and with, their own lives that they delight in prying and reading about the more prurient details of other peoples’ lives?  And then to excuse this by appealing to the public interest and the right to know?  Meanwhile, having had our senses titillated and our brains numbed, we blindly allow our political processes to be manipulated and then pretend that we still elect our leaders!  And our leaders themselves see nothing wrong with all this, shamelessly fawning over Murdoch and his henchwoman and henchmen!  But perhaps that is the game – get the majority plebs on side with filth and gossip, the better to hold those in power hostage?  The recent exposure of phone hacking appears to have put the spotlight on Murdoch and his shenanigans.  But as one head of an advertising agency in the UK astutely commented:  “The public is fickle.  People forget and move on.” (

The Saudi influence, on the other hand, is equally curious.  In the third world, it can perhaps be explained by the lack of affordable education, which makes religious schools (madressas) the only option. In the west, meanwhile, these religious schools offer a sanctuary from the corruption that surrounds them (Why don’t they just go to their parents’ countries in that case?), or a false identity to a clientele who see themselves as ‘lost’ or discriminated against - couched with all the authority of religion.  But this is what makes the chameleon like behaviour of the Saudis all the more reprehensible – they are happy to open grand centres at universities, yet seem incapable or reluctant to divert their money into schools that will educate children, especially in the third world, to think and contribute fruitfully to the benefit of themselves and their country.  And, I suspect, it is just these schools that have groomed young minds towards a narrow, orthodox and fundamentalist view of their religion which has had such disastrous consequences – on the one hand, preventing the countries in question from developing and progressing; and on the other, serving as nurseries that provide ready and fertile minds for more militant tendencies.  It will be ironic if it is this very process that will turn and bite the Saudis and their Gulf Arab chums on the backside one day!

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Saudi Menace: an abuse of wealth and authority

I want to write about the pernicious international influence of Saudi Arabia that threatens the lives of people not just in Muslim countries but also here in the West.  The Saudi influence is particularly worrying for three reasons:

-    first, it is brain washing on an industrial scale and with negative consequences, especially for developing countries which need investment in decent education, not 7th century propaganda; in the West, it is encouraging Muslim immigrants and their children to adopt a counter subculture that in many respects is not only opposed to western values, but seeks to replace them with Saudi-interpreted Islamic ones;

-    second, it is backed not just by huge financial resources, but comes laden with religious symbolism and self-proclaimed religious authority which gives it a false legitimacy; and

-    third, it is curiously schizophrenic and contradictory: within a western environment, it claims to celebrate  the achievements of Islamic, usually Arab, civilization (although it is not as if the Gulf Arabs are renowned for their enlightened views or respect for human rights); however, in Muslim communities (even within western countries) it is directed at projects that preach a narrow, fundamentalist and orthodox interpretation of Islam that is intolerant and brooks no opposition or debate.   Moreover, it seeks to enforce itself through the use of force. 

The latter view, unsurprisingly, is the obnoxious Saudi invented view of Islam called Wahabism and dominates the teaching in Quran schools, Islamic centres and madressas that the Saudis fund across the world. While in the Muslim third world this propaganda and brainwashing goes unchallenged, in the west it plays out under the guise of cultural institutions or charities.  In both instances, these projects are funded by Saudi financed cultural ministries.

The investment operates rather differently within a western environment, however.  The Saudis, and the Gulf Arabs, are a very insecure lot culturally, given their sparse contributions to world civilization compared to other nations and cultures.  (Even the 1001 nights are not really Arabian, but a compilation of stories from various other cultures.)  The Gulf Arabs reserve their most fervent insecurity for their old enemy, the Persians, who of course far surpass anything the desert Bedouins have ever come up with.  (No, I am not Persian, a Shia or from a Shia background!)  It is perhaps for this reason they are so keen to project themselves as ‘cultured’ to the West and eager to invest in centres such as the one in Oxford University.

While much was made of Libyan gifts to the LSE, Saudi donations towards the Islamic Centre in Oxford University have gone largely unnoticed.  No one has stopped to ask why if that civilization is worth promoting, the Saudis don’t invest in such projects in their own country or why they choose to support financially and ideologically religious schools that preach intolerance, fundamentalism, the disregard of human rights and any debate or investigation.  If the Saudis brown nose the Brits, the Brits are equally good at brown nosing the Saudis.  Money and oil lubricates this sordid mutual flattery.

I feel that these projects, whether in the Muslim world or in the West, need to be seen for what they are: an unwelcome interference and a cynical manipulation of what people within those communities think.  Ultimately, this impacts on all our lives and in a negative way.  This is especially the case in the third world, where education is grossly neglected by corrupt governments.  Here, it is not a case of a modern/progressive versus an orthodox/backward looking Islam, but rather two competing orthodox backward looking ideologies (the Saudis and Al-Qaeeda) – although sometimes I think they are two sides of the same coin.  In one respect, I think, the Saudi madressas provide the necessary mental preparation that makes its graduates so vulnerable to Al-Qaeeda/Taliban overtures.  In the West, this orthodox, backward ideology is trumpeted as a religious revival, a reclaiming of lost or stolen identity – and worse, political power. 

Unfortunately, Saudi authority rests on potent symbols: religion and wealth.  They (the Saudis) have successfully usurped religious authority through a mix of historical, cultural and geographical coincidence: they come from the same region as the Prophet Muhammed and so the cradle of Islam; are ethnically and culturally of the same stock as  the Prophet and have, within their borders, two of the holiest places of worship in Islam- Mecca and Medina.

In the eyes of many, therefore, they represent an embodiment of Islam and so to be Muslim is to be Arab, specifically Saudi Arab.  Arabic is the language of the Quran and any discourse on Islam is littered with Arabic phrases as if to couch them in local vernacular is being sacrilegious.  The most poignant example of this for me is the virtual eradication of a beautiful greeting that I grew up with: khuda hafiz (God protect you). Instead, in the narrow minds of many now it is more Islamic and more correct to say Allah hafiz, something that even an Arab wouldn’t dream of saying.  But Khuda is Persian, Allah is Arabic and god you see is – you guessed it - an Arab it seems! 

In this context, it is hard not to view as anything but cynical the adoption of an overtly religious flag with its Islamic declaration of faith, and more recently the adoption by their king of the title of “The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”, a title historically associated with the Caliph in Islam (and one ironically adopted by the very Ottoman Sultans that the Saudis disliked so much and helped bring down).

I think for some these associations and symbols make criticism of the Saudis synonymous with criticism of the religion – and so blasphemous.  This keeps the Saudis safe, while the power they wield through oil keeps any criticism from the West at bay.  They like to play the great mediators, when in fact they are part of the problem not the solution.  It is noteworthy how they are always at the ready to offer support or give refuge to vile dictators or corrupt politicians from Uganda to Pakistan – and strangely silent over crises such as Darfur to name just one. 

Of course, what the Saudis do in their own time is their business – it is the negative effects of their interference and their hypocrisy that irks me.  Under the guise of education, they are spreading a narrow, rigid and fundamentalist ideology that comes close to being fascist in its outlook and forced implementation, easily degenerating into terrorism.  Of course, for the Saudis this matters not a jot – it is not they who are being killed.  In the meantime, while they support the preaching of a strict, puritanical Islam, they themselves escape to the West to indulge in the very decadence that their brand of Islam condemns. 

The hypocrisy of ‘converts’ or born again Muslims in the West is no better.  While enjoying the economic and social benefits of a liberal, enlightened society they see fit to not only criticise and mock it, but then to lecture on the virtues and benefits of Islamic societies, societies that their parents fled from and which these critics are welcome to return to if they consider the West so awful.  They see it as their human right to adopt their odious (and in my opinion, ignorant) views which in turn seek to deprive those same rights to others.  The contradiction is beyond their intellectual competence – or perhaps neatly pushed to one side by their hypocrisy. 
It reminds me of a silly Asian schoolgirl in London who took her school to court for not allowing her to wear ‘Islamic’ dress to school.  The school had allowed her to wear the shalwar-kameez common throughout the Indian subcontinent, but the misguided girl insisted the dress was not modest enough for Islam!  She wanted to dress like an Arab – the hallmark of a true observant Muslim in her eyes.  Who had put these silly notions into her head, I wonder?  Rightly, she lost her case. 

But it is time to stop tolerating such behaviour.  Enough is enough!

In a very small way I think this is beginning to be realised by the Pakistanis in London at least.  In a previous post I recounted my visit to a London mosque financed and run by Pakistanis.  At the time, I chose to emphasise a different aspect of this effort (an aspect that I think is still valid), but now I also see it as an attempt to take control of their religion rather than remain beholden to Saudi paymasters with their pernicious agenda.  I congratulate the Pakistanis on this awakening and wish them well. 

I admit I am not enthusiastic about their religion-focussed outlook - and while there I noticed that several of the men folk and children were attired in the Middle-eastern jalabiyah – a garment foreign to the Indian subcontinent, but no doubt worn in the mistaken belief that it is somehow more religious. But at least it's a start. 

And then, just this week I heard about a case in Pakistan where a woman had taken on two jobs - both menial - to pay for her children's schooling rather than send them to the free madressas on offer.    

But these are isolated incidents.  More is needed and on a bigger scale.  Until people, and the Muslims specifically, realise this and begin to see the wood for the trees, they will continue to be locked in a downward spiral of ignorance and servitude.  And until the West continues to turn a blind eye to the Saudis because it suits them they will be seen as colluders and hypocrites.  Worse, if they choose to ignore it through a misguided definition of and blind allegiance to plurality/multi-culturalism, they will have allowed the rot to set in their own societies.

Friday, 10 June 2011

"Pakistani children out of school due to malnutrition"

My response to an article by Musa Mussadaq in Pakistan's Express Tribune:

When will the government learn – and when will the people realise their own folly? The government is happy to spend billions on arms that only help the western economies and massage the egos of army generals. The argument of defence is rubbish – if it’s India we’re worried about, we needn’t be. India is far too sensible to want to be lumbered with Pakistan’s population. If it’s Afghanistan, then perhaps we should stop meddling and thinking we’re a ‘player’ in the region. We’re not and acting as if we are has only encouraged gangsters and crime within Pakistan. With even a fraction of the defence budget, we could have – and still can – provide a decent education and credible opportunities to the next generation. Perhaps then we could also tell the sodding Saudis where to stick their money and not have the problem of madrassas and rampant fundamentalism within our borders.

Come on, we’re a happy, tolerant and reasonably clever people – let’s not waste our most important resource, our people. Never mind the government, what are the more affluent within the population doing? Buying property around the world? Shopping? Is anyone interested in setting up schools? Where are our own Rowntrees and Shaftesburys?

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Charitable giving & education - Islam and an investment model of morality

Call it synchronicity, call it mere coincidence, call it an over-active imagination, but - 

Not long after my recent post on lifelong learning, I went to a Quran reading for a friend’s deceased parents held at a London mosque.  The mosque was  frequented mostly by Pakistanis, was an impressive structure and, given the leaflets and notices on display, seemed popular and well run. 

I assumed that it had been funded by money from Saudi Arabia, but a lady assured me that it had, in fact, been built through donations from the local community.  She went on to explain how her husband, a veteran fundraiser, had discovered over the years that money was always forthcoming for mosques, cemeteries and Quran schools.  However, when he had tried to raise money to build ‘ordinary’ schools 'back home', few seemed interested.  This struck me as strange – and depressing. 

Later, I reflected on the short sermon given by the imam at the end of the reading.  Apparently, according to the Prophet, such Quran readings generated extra credit in the deceased’s ‘good deeds account’ on Judgement Day - or in common parlance, brownie points to aid entry into Paradise.  Sweet.  (So, if your parents end up in hell, it'll be your fault for not holding enough Quran readings on their behalf!)  This triggered a chain of thoughts:

-> hadiths quite often link the doing of a particular deed to benefits on Judgement Day –do this and X sins will be forgiven, do that and you will receive so many good deeds, recite this so many times ... ->

-> The religion appeared to have a rather low opinion of its adherents if it felt that moral behaviour could only be induced by offering these ‘bribes’ – as if there was no other reason for doing good.  (Granted, Islam is not alone in this and it is common to most religions.)  ->

-> I remembered a saying I had heard quite often as a child: paradise lay at the feet of your mother.(No, I was not horrid to my mother nor particulary naughty!)  Thinking about this now, I find it shocking – what kind of people need to be bribed (with heaven or anything) to love their own mother? 

More generally, how might this trade in good deeds shape their view of morality?  And what does this say about the religion’s ability to win the moral argument? (Some would argue that it had long since lost it by the morally dubious if not plain ridiculous 'pricing' of martyrdom at 72 virgins, but we will leave that for another post!)

Of course, the Prophet was a trader by profession, so perhaps the metaphors of bargaining, pricing and returns came naturally to his thinking.  Perhaps the people he was preaching to also had trader mentalities, although this dents somewhat the much-trumpeted claim that Islam is a universal religion for all time.  Moreover, given that Islam was a new movement, spreading the word and bringing more people into the ‘fold’ were no doubt important.  (There are several hadiths regarding the benefits of building mosques, with one even promising an equivalent house in paradise.) 

But 1400 years later, Islam is a global religion with a significant presence.  The problem for it and Muslims today is not quantity, but quality.  There might be more than a billion Muslims in the world, but the vast majority are illiterate and live in countries that rank as the most dishonest, corrupt and dirty, with appalling human rights - hardly a recommendation for the religion now, is it? 

Schools on the other hand, are more ambiguous.  While the Prophet might have urged his followers to travel as far as China in search of knowledge, as far as I know this didn’t increase one’s chances of getting into Paradise.  So, like canny businessmen, were people merely following earlier advice that offered the best and surest  ‘returns’ in the next life?  And with morality so firmly based on rewards in the afterlife, no wonder the Prophet made such a fuss about the importance of believing in a heaven and the next world!  

Or am I just being cynical? 

But what are the effects of such a view?  Ostensibly, the strategy could be seen as clever – a win-win situation: the donators get into heaven, and the money brings in not just more recruits but hopefully observant Muslims that benefits the rest of society.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way.  I think this is due to a combination of adopting a narrow view of what constitutes religious practice and of education generally.

In his book Desperately Seeking Paradise, Ziauddin Sardar mentions an encounter with a minister for science and research in one of the Gulf states.  Mr Sardar was anxious to discuss the ministry’s research, but always received the same response:  “‘Why bother about it when we can afford to buy it?’” (p120)  (This cavalier attitude hasn't dimmed over the years, it seems.  Amidst the recent Arab Spring of protest against oppressive regimes, the Saudi king announced huge increases in stipends for Saudi citizens - no doubt to buy their loyalty and acquiescence.)  With such an attitude, it might explain why these ‘nations’ import architects to design their hideous and inappropriate buildings (that are built by labourers mainly from the Indian subcontinent and who are treated almost like slaves – not much after-life credit to be gained in being humane to them, I suppose?); and why the tar on roads – developed for a different climate - melts and bubbles in the intense heat.  They couldn't be bothered to use the few brain cells they have to come up with their own solutions to their own problems.

Meanwhile, it is well-known that that same wealth funds a significant (if not major) part of the madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan (and other parts of the world) - in the name of spreading Islam!  However, the issue is not of madrassas, per se - for these establishments can be a force for good.  Rather, it is the narrow notion of education that is limited to a religious context defined by the self-appointed 'clerics' or 'ulema'.

On 4 January 2011, the governor of Punjab in Pakistan, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards for attempting to reform the obnoxious blasphemy laws in the country.  The next day, the BBC World Service’s News Hour featured an interview by Owen Bennett-Jones with Tariq Khattak, the editor of an English daily The Pakistan Observer.  Mr Khattak saw nothing wrong with the murder, thought the governor had it coming to him and appealed to the opinion of certain mullahs in Pakistan to support his outrageous view.  It is worth mentioning that for an editor of an English newspaper, his command of the language was rather poor.

Mr Bennett-Jones questioned both the rationale for killing merely for dissenting, the issue of differing interpretations of texts and the editor’s acceptance of the views of men whose education was limited to a theological framework.  Limited only according to him, the editor replied defiantly, but in their eyes (and presumably the editor’s) these mullahs were sufficiently educated.  And there the matter rested. 

Had it been just the editor, one could have dismissed him as a lone idiot, but there are many in the country who support his view.  More alarmingly, a significant number of lawyers were keen to defend the murderer in court.  One has to question the moral reasoning of such lawyers - to say nothing of the quality of education they received - to want to defend such cold-blooded murder.  What hope is there of building a civil, law-abiding society - something sorely lacking in most Muslim countries. 

Alarmingly, this attitude is not confined to the backstreets of Pakistan, but is alive and kicking in London as well - as is evidenced by the sickening story of a Religious Education teacher beaten up (and almost killed) by four conservative Muslims - who remain unrepentant.  (see )

So, on the one hand it is heartwarming to see Muslims giving so generously to help themselves, even if motivated by self-interest - especially, given the huge amounts of money governments spend on defence compared with education, unaware that their biggest enemy is not India, Israel or Zionists, but the ignorance that festers within their own borders and their own minds. 

However, would it not also be admirable if thought were given to how that generosity is employed?  If morality is to be based on an investment model (and I am not suggesting that it should), is it not advisable for investors to periodically check the performance of their ‘portfolio’?  Is it not incumbent to ask if the enterprise conforms - and continues to conform - to what the religion claims to uphold?  And if the charity benefits the giver, is it not also incumbent that it does likewise to the receiver too?

Or do the givers prefer to remain blissfully unaware of the havoc it wreaks on others?  Is that havoc also part of the credit system and religion they subscribe to? Do they think they get a ‘commission’ on each atrocity committed – the better to secure their entry into paradise?    

But wouldn’t it be ironic if on the Day of Reckoning, their accounts were shown to be swollen by misdeeds – misdeeds generated by the money they gave with Paradise in mind, and now good only to propel them in the opposite direction?  No number of Quran readings, then, would be of any use.  Unfortunately, it would also be too late for the country and of little comfort to those whose lives have been ruined by this sordid trade in ‘good’ deeds.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Lifelong learning and constructive recreation

In my previous post, I talked about how my curiosity in how the earth ‘worked’ led me to buy a dvd and a book on the subject to learn more.  All very laudable, I’m sure – even if I say so myself!  And I concede, that my initial literacy was an important contributory factor in motivating me.  However, there is another point that I would like to explore here and that is the privilege of having the opportunity to learn more.  At the risk of sounding an old fart, I can remember a time, when I would also have had the choice of enrolling in an evening class run by the local council.  Sadly, over the years, that option has become increasingly difficult to find. 

The temptation is to blame government cuts that were first introduced by the much celebrated Margaret Thatcher, and that have since continued, under both Conservative and Labour governments, eroding away at what was once a great institution – and all that it stood for.  But I think blaming our leaders is too convenient and - worse - lazy.  Certainly, the leaders – especially when they are as influential (I’m reluctant to use the word ‘charismatic’) as Thatcher and Blair- have contributed to the decline, but the wider society must bear some responsibility too.  (Thatcher, of course, famously dismissed the very notion of 'society', which says a lot about her outlook.) 

For those not familiar with adult education, it consisted of courses in a range of subjects that were offered by the local council’s education department and funded by a combination of local council and central government money.  They were usually held in the evening, made use of local council school facilities and the fees set were, I think, affordable.  Crucially, people enrolled out of interest and for pleasure, not to gain a qualification that they could wave in front of existing or prospective employers.  In short, the courses offered constructive recreation in the belief that learning was a good and worthwhile activity in its own right and a tool for improvement in the broadest sense. 

It was Napolean, I believe, who once dismissed the English as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’.  It was an unjust and unkind assessment - in my experience, every nation, including the French, is to some extent a nation of shopkeepers and thank god for it.  Commerce and trade are vital to the successful functioning and growth of any society. Yet, the shopkeeper’s daughter, Thatcher, was also a person with an outlook so narrow and so narrowly defined it scarcely deserves to be called a vision.  She saw everything through the perspective of a provincial, money-minded upstart and it was a viewpoint that shaped the politicians and business leaders, as well as trends within the wider community, for the generation that followed.  In fact, provincialism under her was almost a virtue to be celebrated. 

And so, over time, the catalogues have got thinner, the range of courses more restricted and adult education has been either amputated or grafted onto an altogether different beast called Further Education.  The New Labour/Blair government rebranded this concept as Lifelong Learning, though in a telling example of just how pervasive the Thatcher mindset was, this learning was largely geared towards gaining a qualification that was marketable.  So, whereas before there was a palpable sense of learning for learning’s sake, the priority now is to get a qualification – any qualification, no matter how manufactured or trivial – that is marketable.  Teaching too is judged on ‘progression’, i.e. whether the student progresses on to another course (and another qualification) or gets a job.  The new mantra is ‘value for money’ and value = economic in their eyes.

Putting this in a wider context, both Thatcher and Blair were also keen to extend pub opening hours and Thatcher sold off council owned sports facilities (tennis courts and playing grounds), a trend that Blair’s New Labour did nothing to reverse.  To me, this is a far greater indicator of their priorities than any rhetoric about nation building that they and their media cronies have thrown at us over the decades. 

Sadly, the people have colluded in this decimation so that we are now also faced with library closures.  With more leisure time, the classes, sports fields and libraries symbolised a constructive alternative to easy and lazy options like the mindless watching of TV, getting drunk at the local pub or shopping – and yet, that is precisely what Britain has been reduced to.

I can remember enrolling in classes ranging from woodwork, badminton, sewing and swimming to studying politics, philosophy and psychology.  Moreover, I did so in the company of like minded individuals and going to evening classes was as much a social event as it was educational – in the broader sense.  As an example, having made my own clothes, I am now filled with a mixture of admiration, awe and anger whenever I see how cheaply clothes are priced in London stores – do the people who crave more and more clothes at less and less cost have any idea what skill, time and effort goes into making these garments?  Would they be prepared to get paid a pittance for the same amount of effort?  "There but for Fortune go you and I", as the great poet once said.  It’s the market say some – be that as it may, in the end markets and demand are shaped by people, but what shapes the people? 

I have nothing against people wanting to improve their or their children’s personal economic circumstances.  Indeed, I am a product of just such social mobility.  However, I think it’s important to also ask the why, what and how underlying this desire for social mobility.  What does moving ‘up’ mean exactly?  Why do people want to move ‘up’, and how will you know if you have moved ‘up’?  Unfortunately, for many, ‘more money’ is the answer to all three questions. 

Since Thatcher, there has been a renewed admiration and respect for money; and both Thatcher and Blair encouraged a sort of cult of not only new money, but fast money.  (Mr Blair’s post-prime ministerial pursuits are ample proof, if any were needed, of this!)  It was not investment for the long-term, but profit in the short-term that became the measure of success; and success was always in terms of monetary gain.  With quick profit, came fast and – worse still - conspicuous spending.  I had thought this was a failing peculiar to the third world and a reason for rampant corruption in these countries.  It was certainly true of Pakistan, where I grew up, and the main reason I wanted to escape. 

This gluttony can be seen in the bonuses that people expect (as if salaries were just for turning up to work?) and the wares advertised and written about in weekend newspaper magazines and television, so that shopping is now a recreational activity in its own right.

Yet, I have met people like my local road sweeper, who saved each month in order to buy a season ticket to the BBC Proms music festival every summer; and a security guard who was a Friend of the British Museum and regularly attended their lectures and events.  They had neither wealth nor degrees, but in my eyes, both these men were far more worthy than those normally honoured in society.  It is their approach, I feel, that should be encouraged.  It is on this kind of attitude that a good society is built.  It is this attitude that makes a country great. 

Instead, it is crass footballers, talentless pop stars, gluttonous bankers and wealthy tax dodgers who are honoured and respected.  Their bombast and strutting leaves ordinary folk in thrall and awe and who then buy into this myth of wealth - ordinary folk like the Thatchers and Blairs of this world; upstarts who have never seen anything and are easily overwhelmed at the first sight of wealth.  Moreover, with money and consumption  elevated to objects of envy, application, effort and persistence are demoted in favour of instant gratification.  It is then that the rot sets in.

Admittedly, there is a wider issue here: is it the role of government to mould a country’s people?  They say "Stateways don’t change folkways”, and in any case, people must be free to decide and choose for themselves.  But these concerns lead one to ask: what is the choice, who provides it and how does one choose?    Some would answer: the market; others religion; and yet others happiness.   I hope to pursue these and similar questions in future posts – and how these issues impact not just on the seeming decline of the West, but on the sorry state of the Muslim world, and indeed the third world in general.