On relativism and being unable to condemn stoning

I am writing this before the OFSTED reports into the Birmingham schools involved in the “Trojan Horse” inquiries are published because that’s not really what this piece is about. While I am very concerned about the spread of Islamism in this country, I have to say I have some sympathy for the schools concerned. OFSTED said they were outstanding a couple of years ago and it seems they are about to be labelled inadequate. The letter that started it all off is widely regarded as a fake and, if the leaks are to be believed, the schools look to be guilty of nothing too different from what the more, dare I say extreme, Catholic or Jewish schools do. I agree with Catherine Bennet who wrote “Forget these ‘Trojan horses’ the real issue is faith schools”

This affair has however thrown up a few more interesting cases of the “failure to condemn”

On Newsnight for instance Maajid Nawas asked Ibrahim Hewitt to condemn stoning you can see the video here as you can see he completely failed to do so. He refused to answer the direct question and said it was “complex” and it wasn’t “black and white”

Maryam Namazie and the CEMB Forum have been having a prolonged twitter discussion with the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) over the same thing with the same result. Evasion and a complete refusal to answer a direct question.

I also had a shorter discussion with a tweeter who calls himself ISLAM IS PERFECT with the same results. At one point he asked why he should condemn stoning to please someone as ignorant of Islam as I was. I said he shouldn’t, he should condemn it because it was brutal, barbaric, and wrong. Eventually, though he wouldn’t explicitly condone stoning he said that he agreed with every single word in the Quran.

I can understand why ordinary Muslims would get fed-up with being constantly asked to condemn or condone this or that. But these are people and organisations that put themselves into the public domain, and as such have a responsibility to answer simple direct questions.

The other thing that sometimes holds people back is a kind of cultural relativism. A reluctance to condemn practices which might be considered normal in other cultures because it implies that you consider yourself superior to them.

Well I don’t suffer from cultural relativism. I am happy to explicitly condemn what I think is wrong, and what’s more if you disagree I think that does, on that issue, make me superior to you. So, just to prove that these issues can be “black and white” and even though they may be “complex” . . . . . . . .

I think protecting priests from the law when they rape children is wrong – and if you don’t, I’m better than you.

I think telling a woman she must cover herself from head to toe, even her face, because you think men can’t control their libido is wrong – and if you don’t, I’m better than you.

I think refusing people entry or employment in a state funded school because of their religion is wrong – and if you don’t, I’m better than you.

I think passing a death sentence on a woman because she says she is a Christian is wrong – and if you don’t, I’m better than you.

I think bulldozing people’s home to build your own on land you occupied in a war is wrong – and if you don’t, I’m better than you.

I think telling people in a land ravaged by aids that using condoms is a sin is wrong – and if you don’t, I’m better than you

I think asking people to kill a man because he wrote a book you don’t like is wrong – and if you don’t, I’m better than you.

I think passing laws against people who love people who are of the same sex is wrong – and if you don’t, I’m better than you.

And, above all, unequivocally, without ifs or buts, under any circumstances, in any country, I think throwing rocks at a human being till they die because they have changed their mind about God is wrong – and IF YOU DON’T, I’M BETTER THAN YOU

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Mehdi & Mo – The silence is deafening

A follow-up to my previous post What Mehdi and Mo haven’t learned from the West Wing

Well I have been tweeting to Mehdi and Mo on a daily basis for the whole of February. (Actually I lay off Mo mid-month as he was off twitter for a while) and the silence has been deafening.

The text of the tweet I have been sending is “Dear @mehdirhasan & @MoAnsar Are you literalists? No? What, in the Quran, is not literally true?” along with a link to my previous post.

At the end of my last post I asked Mehdi or Mo to coment or reply. I conceded that they had much busier time-lines than me, which I’m sure they have, but I honestly don’t think even they can have missed a tweet-a-day for a month.

It’s not as if they’ve been in hiding. Over the last few days Mehdi has managed to tweet about Piers Morgan, House of Cards, and his head-to-head with Mona Eltahawy (which is excellent by the way – catch it here) and Mo has covered internet throttling, Philip Hollobone MP, immigration, Piers Morgan and “mixed lentils, roasted vegetables, garlic parsley sauce”. Yet neither of them has seen fit to comment in any way on their literalism, or non-literalism despite their belief that it is “the bane of every religion

So, assuming they have seen the tweets, and are not going to reply or comment, I consider myself free to comment.

If you can’t point to something in your Holy book and say “Actually that bit isn’t literally true” then YOU ARE A LITERALIST. That’s what the word means. It’s not complicated. Nuance and context don’t come into it, they only come into play if you are NOT a literalist.

In his original article Mehdi attacked “Islam-Bashers” for making the same mistake as Islamists. That is, believing that there is only one, rigidly literal, interpretation of Islam and The Koran. I think he’s right and it was a good article, but to write that article but not be prepared to publically say whether or not he himself is a literalist seems at best disingenuous, and at worst hypocritical and cowardly.

As for Mo, well, he praised the article as “excellent” but, he too refuses to declare whether or not he is a literalist.

So, lets recap:

  • if I assume that all Muslims are literalists I am being Islamophobic.
  • But if I ask the two prominent Muslims who make that assertion to clarify their own status I am ignored.
  • They both claim to be commentators but suddenly neither of them wants to comment!

I think the trouble is that in some ways Mehdi and Mo are both “professional” Muslims. This means they have to appear to be liberal and progressive to get the work. But they also cannot afford to take the chance of upsetting some of their more literalist supporters or they might lose their “authenticity”

Hence they write, and praise, seemingly liberal articles, then sometimes go quiet when asked a straight question about the very same issue.

I think this is a great shame. I think Mehdi’s article is right, Muslims are not homogeneous. There is a wide variety of opinions and differing interpretations of the Koran. As  Mehdi says “Throughout Islamic history, interpretations (tafsir) have differed from scholar to scholar and this intra-Islamic pluralism and diversity of thought should be celebrated, not condemned or ignored.”

Unfortunately the more liberal, progressive, non-literal interpretations often come under strong, attack from the more illiberal, regressive, literal ones. Sometimes including threats of physical violence.

That’s why I think it is important that people like Mehdi and Mo should answer straight questions and not go quiet on this issue. Which is why I have banged on about it for a month. This my last try.

Mehdi, Mo I would genuinely love it if  you proved me wrong and it would not be difficult. All you have to do is answer two straight questions. They are not trick questions. I can answer them quite easily, look . . .

  • Q1 – Are you a literalist?
  • A1 – No
  • Q2 – If not, what in the holy book is not literally true?
  • A2 – Garden of Eden, Noah’s Ark, Parting of the red sea, etc . . . .

Why can’t you?

Mehdi, Mo, Please – prove me wrong!

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What Mehdi and Mo haven’t learned from the West Wing

Mehdi Hasan, (@mehdirhasan)  the Huffington Post UK’s political director, wrote a very interesting piece in the New Statesman a few days ago, You can read it here. The title of the piece was “What Islam-bashers can learn from The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin” and in it he quotes Baroness Warsi (@SayeedaWarsi) who in turn quotes a bit from the West Wing where President Jed Bartlet takes on a Christian evangelical radio presenter by quoting back at him some of the more ridiculous sins and punishements from Exodus. It is a great bit of TV which I urge you to watch it, which you can here.

Mehdi uses this to argue, rightly in my view, that as he puts it “Rigid, context-free literalism is the bane of every religion, not just of Islam” and further that “both the Islamophobes and the Islamists are guilty of a literal reading of the Quran“. He also with commendable honesty admits that “it would be disingenuous of me to deny that, these days, Muslims are more prone to literalist interpretations of their holy scripture than most“. I have to say I thought it was a pretty good piece and I was pleasantly surprised by it.

Later, on twitter I was also pleasantly surprised to see Mo Ansar  (@MoAnsar) also praising the piece, calling it excellent in fact.

So why was I surprised? Well prior to this I had not seen anything from either of them that would indicate that they did not take the Koran to be the literal truth, so I was kind of surprised but very pleased. I, rather rudely, butted into their conversation to ask them to clarify, or as I put it “I liked the article too. Are you both saying that the Bible and Koran should not be considered literally true?“. I didn’t get a reply from Mehdi but Mo replied “Even that is too B&W. Some parts yes, some no. It is about deep thinking, context, understanding, scholarship” Oh dear I thought, the dreaded context word had appeared, but he did say yes and no so I tried again “Fair point but you would agree some parts are factually incorrect. Yes?” – silence fell. I made a couple more comments and gave up.

Now I’m sure Mehdi and Mo are very busy people and their timelines will be much busier than mine so they might just not have had time to reply, or maybe they just didn’t want to, or any of many other reasons.

Sadly though, I think there may be another reason. While both of them are happy to criticise literalism in Christians and “Islamophobes” they are somewhat more reluctant to declare themselves as non literalists in public.

The point is if you are not willing to say publically that there are parts of the Koran that are not literally true then you ARE a literalist and part of the problem rather than the solution. And, by the way liberal use of the words “context”, “nuance”, and “scholarship” don’t help they just disguise the fact that you are not willing to say something is factually incorrect.

Later still someone else joined the conversation, they told me there was no “no midway in Islam” its all or nothing. I suggested that many may not agree with him. He replied that “there is a word in Quran for them ‘hypocrites‘ “. I suggested that maybe we should agree to differ on this.

You can see the whole twitter exchange here.

Now I don’t know if that last tweeter is or is not a literalist but I suspect it is because of his, and others, disapproval that Mehdi and Mo will not explicitly say that they are not. I also think that as long as people with their influence wont “come out” as it were other progressive, non-literalist Muslims will be reluctant to do so.

To read more about these kind of problems try reading this great piece about Evolution and Islam and this.

I may have got this all wrong and if Mehdi or Mo want to comment or indeed a full right of reply that would be great.

But I have to say. If you can’t point to something , somewhere, in the Koran and say

“That is not literally true”

then you are a literalist. And as we know “literalism is the bane of every religion

Added 06-01-2014

Many people have pointed out to me that Mehdi, in a debate with Richard Dawkins, appeared to say that he believed that Muhammed had literally split the moon in two and ridden on a winged horse which doesn’t really square with an attack on literalism. You can see that bit of the debate here and the whole debate here. It is worth listening to.

Added 04-02-2014

Neither Mehdi nor Mo have so-far broken their silence. I would normally just let it drop, but not this time. The bit of “The WestWing” quoted ridicules literalism, and  Mehdi’s original piece (praised by Mo) calls literalism “the bane of every religion” and also attacks “Islamophobes” for assuming that Muslims were literalists. That’s a bit rich if you can’t point to a single bit of the Koran which you don’t consider literally true!

So I’m going to keep nagging. I’m going to tweet them every day asking for a responce. It probably won’t work but hey, we’ll give it a go.So long as I change the date at the end Twitter will let me send it forever!

If you want to joint in – the text of the tweet I’m sending is this:

Dear @mehdirhasan @MoAnsar Are you literalists? No? – What, in the Quran, is not literally true? http://wp.me/p2VFXw-5L  #DailyNag 03/02/14

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My Afterlife and Tim Minchin’s Christmas

If you have read any of my other posts you will probably not be surprised to find out that I am a big fan of Tim Minchin. If by any chance you aren’t familiar with his stuff check out some videos from his website here and here is a link to White Wine in the Sun, the song that prompted this particular blog post. This song always, but always, makes me cry. People who know me won’t be too surprised by this, I am a bit of a blubber, the end of ET always works too.

But there is a slightly odd reason why this song by Tim gets me going. Not only does it plug into my love of Christmas and family it is also a pretty good description of my idea of heaven. Bear with me on this. . . . .

The lyrics talk about going home for Christmas where “I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum”. He also talks about showing off his daughter and how, when she grows up she can always come home to “Your brothers and sisters and me and your Mum”. Of course, being Australian, Christmas for Tim means “Drinking white wine in the sun” which, in a British December, sounds pretty good doesn’t it.

When we went to visit my mum and dad we would occasionally see them on the high street or sitting outside the Royal Oak before we got to the house. We would park up the car, get a beer and maybe a sandwich, and sit and chew the fat, us bringing them up to date about what we, and the kids, had been up to and them telling us how the last bowling match had gone and the village gossip. Then we would go back to the house. The kids would go off to climb the tree on the green and we would carry on gossiping. After tea we would usually have a political argument of some kind and sort out all the problems of the world. then we would pack the kids off to bed, open the wine & whisky, get the cards out and play bridge till about 2am.

When we visited the in-laws the kids would always hold their breath as we used to drive under the canal on the way. Then when we got there we would chew the fat about what we had been up to and where they were planning on taking the boat next, while the kids pretended to fish off the back of the boat at the bottom of the garden. Then me and my father-in-law would often have a political argument and sort out the worlds problems, along with a drink or two. (You may be noticing a theme here).

Both sets of parents/grandparents have been dead for several years now and I still miss them all very much.

After they died, whenever something happened I would think how much they would enjoy hearing about it when we visited next. Like most people, when their parents die, I thought about life and death and heaven and hell. I was, and am, an atheist, I know it is all fantasy, but I started thinking what my idea of heaven would be. Then, years later, I hear “White Wine in the Sun” and think – yeah, that’s it.

The thing is, my idea of the perfect afterlife is a kind of cross between visiting mum and dad and Tim Minchin’s Christmas. I imagine dying, doing the tunnel of light and all that and then, Dad would meet me at heaven’s gate and say “Bit of a rollercoaster isn’t it son? Come on, I’ll buy you a beer, then me and your mum will show you around”
And then later, much later, much much later, when one of my kids died, I would meet them – with exactly the same line.

Heaven would just be spending some more time with the family and some very close friends. The kind you you are completely relaxed with even if you haven’t seen them for ages. There would be a few improvements of course . . .

  • Beer and wine free – gets you tiddly but not falling down drunk – with no hangovers.
  • Nobody ever suffers, or gets ill, or dies. Unless they’ve had enough and they want to.
  • You are, physically, whatever age you want to be.
  • With eternity available you can learn to play the piano, or fly a plane, or anything.
  • Weather is such that you can have both a “White Christmas” and “White wine in the sun”.

OK so that’s heaven sorted, what about hell? There won’t be one.

Eternal torture is not a proportional response to anything.

So Hitler, Stalin, and the rest would just die. No punishment – just an end, and no going to heaven with the rest of us.

If there was a religion that had this kind of afterlife maybe I wouldn’t be an atheist – no that’s rubbish – of course I would. But if I can dream up a heaven like this how come religion makes such a hash of it?

Be honest, wouldn’t you choose my version of heaven?, rather than spending eternity endlessly worshiping the God that dreamed up Hell?

Ah well

May you have family, friends, white wine, sun, snow, and a very . . . .

Happy Christmas.

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Is it even possible to peacefully transition to democracy, and can the UN do anything to help

Iraq, Syria, Libya, Zimbabwe, Egypt. I think we can all agree that these countries have had a less than perfect transition from either dictatorship or colonial rule to democracy. The “Arab Spring” saw great hopes that previously authoritarian states might find a non-violent way to become democracies. So far, most of these hopes remain unfulfilled. Syria shows us how truly horribly it can go wrong when the existing power refuses to give up without a fight, but what about Egypt. Mubarak didn’t exactly go willingly but at least he didn’t precipitate a civil war. He left the army in charge and, seemingly, all parties wanting to peacefully create a genuine democracy. Although there is still hope that it may end well in Egypt, the path is already more twisted and bloody than everyone hoped. See this article from the Telegraph to remind yourself of the sequence of recent events, and this one from the BBC that goes back a bit further.

I am very, very far from being an expert but hey, fools rush in and all that. I think that the process in Egypt had one very basic flaw, and thinking about, and expanding on, that flaw, has led me to some thoughts about the UN might be able to offer some practical help in similar circumstances in the future. As I said, I am speaking from some ignorance, so I would welcome comments on whether this has any merit or is just naïve and stupid.

The basic mistake I think was to have the elections BEFORE writing the constitution.

With no constitution, people tend to vote defensively, they vote whoever they think will protect them, they vote for whoever Mubarak didn’t like, they vote for whoever is relatively well organised. So whoever wins the election gets power and, again because there is no constitution, they go about making changes to try to keep themselves in power by rigging the system so that either there is no next election, or they are the only party with a chance to win.

This is the “one man – one vote – once” system favoured by many, including the Nazis.

If, however, the constitution is drawn up by all the interested parties before the elections then they all know that they may not be in power after the elections, so they have a powerful, selfish, interest in designing a constitution which will limit the power of those who win and protect the interests of minorities, because they might be one. So whoever wins the election, because there is a constitution, will find it harder to rig the system, so they will try to do the right thing by the country, because they want to win the next election too. It’s rather like a political version of the phylosophical idea of the “Veil of Ignorance”

I discussed these ideas with my son, and he pointed out that you need more than a constitution for a stable democracy. Independent judiciary, free press, some kind of civil service etc. etc. That got me thinking . . . . This might seem like a digression but stick with me.

When there is a natural disaster the international teams that go in to help are much more effective than they used to be because they are basically professionals. They have learned lessons from previous disasters and are not forced to re-invent the wheel every time. Because they are so professional, the local people are not suspicious of them and they are much more successful than they used to be.

I think the UN should put together a team of experts to help countries which are trying to become democracies. This team could be called in by the various interested parties to help and advise on the transition. All the parties would have to agree, with this “Democracy Squad”, the remit and timescales and agree to abide by their rulings. A bit like agreeing prior to taking a dispute to arbitration.

The team could act as a kind of temporary government and civil service which can keep the country functioning but which, because of it’s very nature, could be trusted by the local population, not try to grab and retain power. Crucially it could have the power needed to keep day-to-day society functioning while the constitution and other institutions of democracy are created. In many cases the path to democracy fails because of failures in the economy which lead people to rush to put power in the hands of anyone who promises to give them work and food.

This of course would cost an enormous amount of money, but lets be honest, the  costs when it all goes wrong are greater both in treasure and lives.

Ok it’s all a bit half-baked but I honestly think that if something along these lines had been available Egypt would not have elected the Muslim Brotherhood and things might be very different there today.

And I think the Egyptians might have welcomed it.

Please let me know what you think.

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Personal thoughts on Burkas, religious freedom, religious privilege, and offence


All the people in the picture above have dressed to make a point about their beliefs. Their deeply held beliefs. But the first two are different. For them making their point at a demonstration or in a poster is not enough. They want to wear this visible statement all the time, and they want us to allow them to do so. Should we?

Shirley Chaplin is a nurse. Her hospital had a dress-code which banned necklaces. Shirley said her necklace (a cross) was special and should be an exception because it was an expression of her Christian beliefs. The hospital tried various compromises like a badge rather than a necklace but Shirley decided to take her case to the European Court of Human Rights. She lost.

The lady in the Burka is currently facing charges of intimidating a witness. The dress-code in court is that the defendant’s face be visible. The lady, however, refused to remove her full face veil in front of any men. A sort of compromise appears to have been reached where she will be allowed to wear the veil except when she is actually giving her evidence.

So what do these two have in common?

  • In both cases the people concerned say that the way they dress is an expression of their religious faith, I have no doubt this is true. It is also true however, that the (for want of a better word) orthodox versions of Islam and Christianity do not require the wearing of a cross or the covering of the face. The people concerned have made a free, personal choice, not responded to a religious obligation.
  • The dress-codes that are being opposed are not in any way anti-religious. The rules apply to all colours, creeds, nationalities, sexes etc. equally. In each case it is being said that their necklace/veil is different because it is religious. If the other people in that picture went to work/court/school, dressed as they are in the picture, this would not be acceptable, and rightly so.
  • These people have all made free, personal choices, but only those two expect the rest of society to protect them from the consequences of their choices. I repeat this has nothing to do with equality and everything to do with religious privilege.
  • If you have read any of my stuff you will know that I am opposed to any form of special privilege, including religious privilege.

So what are the differences between the cross and the burka?

  • A lot has been said about how the burka is both symbolically and literally oppressive of women. I’m sure you can guess my opinion on this, but for now I want to look at it from a different point of view.
  • When a person wears a cross, or a skull cap, or headscarf, it says something about them. When someone wears a burka, it also says something about me. Leaving aside the slur on my sexual self control, it says I am allowed to see you but you are not allowed to see me. 
  • The burka introduces a fundamental asymmetry into a relationship which is, in my opinion, insulting to the person not wearing the burka.

I’ll be honest, I hate the burka, I think it is oppressive of women. I think it is an insult to men and I am offended by it. I think many women do consciously choose it but I think many others are also bullied into it by men. I have lived in Bradford and Halifax for the last 30+ years and  20 years ago it was almost never seen. I believe it is an indicator of the rise of Islamism which is an ideology which is opposed to every concept of liberalism and freedom that I hold dear. So I will be a big fan of a ban right? –

Absolutely not.

It is precisely because I believe in liberalism and freedom that I am completely opposed to a blanket ban. I don’t think that something should be banned because I disagree with it and  I don’t think something should be banned because I find it offensive and I don’t think something should be suppressed because it doesn’t fit with my culture. I just wish that some (not all) of those who are so keen on the burka felt the same.

Allowing these to be special cases however, to grant them religious privilege, to give in to demands that the rest of society should make special exceptions to protect them from the consequences of their own free choices is not equality. It is appeasement. So wear the burka, the anonymous mask, the cross, the pink hot-pants, and anything else to make your point, and I will defend your right to do so.  But don’t expect to wear them at work/school/court etc. with impunity or immunity.

I am lucky, and so are you  Shirley, and so are you Burka Lady. we all live in a country that (for the moment) still genuinely values freedom. That’s why I am free to condemn Islamism and the burka, and you are free to wear it. It’s also why I really hope we do not ban-the-burka.

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Why, if I was an MP, I would vote against this unnecessary motion

I find myself very disturbed by the reaction of the government to the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria. I can’t see what the motion, that parliament is to debate and vote on, is for. Except perhaps to make it harder for MPs to vote against a motion to actually launch military strikes later.

I honestly don’t know if military strikes would be a good or bad thing but I can’t help thinking that we are being railroaded. Surely if some kind of intervention is to be made it can be more genuinely “humanitarian” that missile strikes!

Below is the text of the Government’s motion about Syria and chemical weapons with my comments after each paragraph.

This House:

  • Deplores the use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August 2013 by the Assad regime, which caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries of Syrian civilians;
    • We all deplore the use of chemical weapons but the evidence that the rest of this sentence is true has not been made public
  • Recalls the importance of upholding the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons under international law;
    • Fair enough, but see later comments about “the principle of humanitarian intervention”
  • Agrees that a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on savings lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons;
    • Can military action ever really be a humanitarian response?
  • Notes the failure of the United Nations Security Council over the last two years to take united action in response to the Syrian crisis;
    • Fair enough
  • Notes that the use of chemical weapons is a war crime under customary law and a crime against humanity – and that the principle of humanitarian intervention provides a sound legal basis for taking action;
    • Many would dispute this but the reason for this will be clear later
  • Notes the wide international support for such a response, including the statement from the Arab League on 27 August which calls on the international community, represented in the United Nations Security Council, to “overcome internal disagreements and take action against those who committed this crime, for which the Syrian regime is responsible”;
    • The Arab League wanting the UN to do something is NOT widespread support for non-UN military action
  • Believes, in spite of the difficulties at the United Nations, that a United Nations process must be followed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any such action;
    • But we know there won’t be a UN resolution – that’s the reason for the bit about the “principle of humanitarian intervention” earlier
  • Therefore welcomes the work of the United Nations investigating team currently in Damascus. Whilst noting that the team’s mandate is to confirm whether chemical weapons were used and not to apportion blame, agrees that the United Nations Secretary General should ensure a briefing to the United Nations Security Council immediately upon the completion of the team’s initial mission;
    • But we aren’t going to wait to hear from them before we vote on this motion
  • Believes that the United Nations Security Council must have the opportunity immediately to consider that briefing and that every effort should be made to secure a Security Council Resolution backing military action before any such action is taken. Before any direct British involvement in such action a further vote of the House of Commons will take place.
    • But we aren’t going to wait to hear from them before we vote on this motion
  • Notes that this motion relates solely to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives.
    • So, so long as the regime continues to slaughter people with conventional weapons that’s fine. We only care about the emotive use of chemicals.

I’m not sure if this vote will be “whipped” but if it is then I have a message for MPs

Please think for yourself – don’t pave the way for killing people just to protect your political career.

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The Sochi Salute – Gestures can make a difference

I was 13 years old when the demonstration pictured here took place. Before it, while I was aware of the struggle for black human rights in the USA, I unthinkingly kind of accepted the standard ideas.

  • Martin Luther King = good, peaceful.
  • Black Power = bad, violent.

The quiet power and dignity of this protest by American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos had a big effect on me. The criticism and treatment they received when they got home also made me think. It was one of many steps that made me the wishy-washy liberal lefty you see before you. But I want to write a little about the third man on the podium and make some comments about the upcoming Russian Olympics.

That third man was Australian silver medallist Peter Norman. Before the medal ceremony Smith and Carlos told Peter Norman what they were planning and asked his opinion. He said he would stand with them and even donned a badge on the podium in support of their cause, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR).

Norman was reprimanded by the Australian Olympic authorities and ostracised by the Australian media and, despite running many qualifying times for both the 100m and 200m did not go to the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

When the Olympics came to Sydney in 2000 Norman, despite still being the 200m Australian record holder, was not involved in any way by the Australian authorities. Ironically things had changed in America and they invited him to be part of the event on hearing that the Australians hadn’t. When Norman died in 2006 both Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at his funeral a gave eulogies.

I find this a moving story about a man who did his bit to support the dignified protest of others in support of human rights. An unsung hero who paid a high price in his sporting career but played his part in changing the minds of many all over the world. Including a 13 year old schoolboy long-jumper in Manchester.

So, we come to the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia.

An unholy alliance of the Orthodox Church and a macho, reactionary government has lead to the enactment of appalling ant-gay laws in Russia. Officially the laws are not anti-gay, they merely outlaw the “propaganda of non traditional sexual relations”. This is so vaguely defined that it could be applied to anything from a full-on gay pride march to just holding hands, or just saying “yes I’m gay” in public. There is also evidence that the authorities are turning a blind-eye to anti-gay violence.

Because of this there is talk of a boycott of the games or moving them to a more LGBT friendly location. Get real, this is not going to happen.

If a boycott or relocation are out what about some kind of protest or symbol of solidarity and support for LGBT Russians. The IOC is making warning noises about athletes not making “political statements or demonstrations”. and seem to be specifically outlawing things like the rainbow flag or pin. Stephen Fry has floated the idea of what is being called the Sochi Salute. This would take the form of a gesture made by athletes when they are, for instance, collecting medals.

I love this idea, you can’t search anyone and confiscate a gesture, and the IOC and police would just make themselves look ridiculous if they tried to penalise people for making a gesture. Some have suggested that the gesture should be rude, or outrageously camp, but I think this is not the way to go. It should be very un-flamboyant, but unmistakable. This way there is a just a chance that many athletes, gay and straight, from many nations might be persuaded be like Peter Martin. To support their fellow human beings and to do their bit for human rights.

So please make it happen and keep it dignified.

After hearing about the Same Sex Hand Holding thing (see comment below) I think it would be great if the medallists just held hands on the podium. Perfect.

It wont change anything overnight but it might cause a few 13 year olds, in Russia and maybe in Uganda, Ethiopia, Gambia, Libya or any of the 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal, to think again, and later, if there are enough of them, they will change the world.

To see what others think use twitter hash-tags #SochiSalute and #Sochi2014

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An alternative to BBC Question Time

In the last two weeks, BBC Question Time has treated us to the delights of Boris Johnson, Russell Brand, George Galloway, Melanie Phillips, and the inevitable Nigel Farage (I think he’s on more often than Dimbleby) and I think my addiction may be finally be cured, I may finally be an ex-question timer. There are many reasons I am sick of QT. The fact that most party hacks just try to stay on-message, the “independents” just seem to be on an ego-trip, and the audience just seem to want to get their sound-bites in, but one of the main reasons is the complete lack of panellists with expertise in the likely subjects, and the fact that they are still expected to behave like experts on everything else that might come up.

Martin Robins (@mjrobbins) in this excellent Guardian piece says it all much better than I could.

As I read his piece I started thinking about the kind of TV discussion program I would like.

I think I would like to hear something more like a conversational Q&A between two people who have real expertise in different fields who are interested in learning, or possibly challenging, the expertise of the other. It could be formalised, maybe each participant could have 3 questions to ask the other, but the important thing would be that each would be committed to honestly, and concisely actually answering the questions asked of them, while allowing the other participant to honestly and concisely answer theirs. Some other possible rules:

  1. No audience, or rather, no audience questions.
  2. No panel, just two people.
  3. No interviewer, the two people are both active participants.
  4. Straight questions, straight answers.
  5. The two people can be “opponents” but not necessarily. But they must be . . .
  6. Interested in the answers of the other, not just in making their own point.

Point 5 is particularly important. The program does not have to represent opposing views. It could, an atheist and a theologian or a Labour and a Conservative politician, but it doesn’t have to be. A physicist and a biologist trying to understand each other’s disciplines, a Christian and a Muslim exploring each other’s religion, a footballer and an opera singer, the possibilities are endless.

The important thing is that the two people must be genuinely interested in the other’s answers and be genuinely committed to giving straight answers themselves and, in the case of the politicians, they would have to promise not to just trot out their manifesto.

Some of the questions I would love to hear the answers to:

  • Richard Dawkins – If you are an atheist because of evidence (or the lack of it) what kind of things would you even consider as evidence for the existence of a god?
  • Justin Welby – If I could fully convince you that god did not exists, would you start behaving “immorally”?
  • Sue Blackmore – If free-will is an illusion, what is the point of consciousness, from an evolutionary adaptive point of view?
  • Maradona – if you win a game by cheating, how do you feel the next day?

So, what do you think? leave comments, email me, tweet me. Who would you like to see paired up? What questions would you like to have answered?

Maybe I’ll put all the best ideas together and pitch it to the BBC

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Personal reflections, by a first-timer, on the BHA conference

The British Humanist Association held its Annual Conference 7-9 June. Since it was close-by in Leeds, I decided I had to go. I won’t go into details about the talks, it looked like it was all being filmed & recorded so, hopefully you will be able to see them yourself soon. So here are just some personal thoughts and impressions of the weekend.


I was a little nervous as I arrived at the venue. Would everyone else be in groups? would they all know each other? The usual thing. I needn’t have worried. Just after picking up my name badge I fell into conversation with a lovely lady called Jean.

Jean is a little older than me (and I am no spring chicken) so her conversation rather illustrates how things have changed. She and her boyfriend applied for permission to marry while they were at Oxford. This was refused so they married in secret, but the college found out and Jean was sent down. She had been a member of the Young Communist League (so was I but only lasted a month – that’s another story) and has been an active campaigner for years, especially for Assisted Dying. We reckoned that when she started public opinion was mostly opposed but now the vast majority are in favour and it’s only really a matter of time before the politicians catch up and the churches give up.

Jean decided to skip the evening’s entertainment so I wished her a pleasant dinner, and went into the hall. I was to meet Jean again on the last day too.

The MC for the evening was a marvellous Timberlina (@mstimberlina), the alter-ego of Tim Redfern (@tjredfern). He did a fine job. Introducing, quizzing, giving away prizes, and flannelling while the choir were stuck on the M1. I can also say that, when he gets going, he is the fastest bingo caller I have ever heard!

First up was Helen Arney (@helenarney). I have seen Helen before, she’s great and she even sang my favourite The Sun Has Got His Huff On. What I wasn’t aware of however is that she is actually 18ft tall and plays a full-size guitar!

Then we had the British Humanist Association Choir (@BHAChoir). I think they were a little depleted, some of them still apparently stuck on the M1, but they were very good. The highlight for me was their obviously genuine surprise when we demanded an encore.

The evening was wrapped up by the totally unique Robin Ince (@robinince) Robin describes himself as a science enthusiast who is occasionally rather stupid. Well maybe so but he is also very clever and very very funny. I also wish I had about 10% of his energy.

A beer or two and bed – good start.


We start the day with the keynote and welcome from BHA chief executive Andrew Copson (@andrewcopson). Andrew is amazing. I’ve seen him giving evidence to Commons committees, on the BBC Big Questions, on Newsnight, in fact I’ve seen him sitting with some of the most loud-mouthed, bigoted, aggressive, ignorant idiots in the world. He always talks sense and stays patient, calm, and polite. If he wasn’t an atheist I’d say he had the patience of a saint.

Next up we have author Christopher Priest talking about myth and magic as metaphor in fantastic literature. A brave man Christopher, at a BHA gathering he starts by criticising Isaac Asimov, comparing him badly with JG Ballard. Sure enough the first question is not actually a question but a defence of Asimov. To be honest I loved Asimov when I was younger but his style is more literal than literary. Which might be why he was an OK SF writer and an absolutely brilliant science writer. Christopher’s talk was fascinating but he also said he found Ray Bradbury “a bit twee” ????    I may never forgive him for that.

Lee Cronin (@leecronin) took us up to lunch talking about his work on artificial (even inorganic) life and evolution. He was astonishingly confident that his team would soon create inorganic life in one of the cells of his 3D printed ‘reactionware’. Watch this space.

A pretty good lunch talking to someone who has been coming to these conferences for over 20 years. He thinks the modern ones are better but misses some of the arguing and debating that went on in the older days.

No chance to snooze here as we get stuck into “Living without free will”. I love Sue Blackmore rainbow hair, enthusiasm, Zen, a sense of humour and a mind about as sharp as it gets. She tried to convince us that consciousness and free-will were illusions and was doing a very very good job, but there was a little man in the back of my head, the very homunculus that she said I had to evict from my imaginary Cartesian theatre, who kept screaming “Your argument is very good and I should believe you but nooooooo I’m not buying it!”. Brilliant!

The astronomy of Marek Kukula (@marekkukula) was almost a light relief and the talk, and pictures, were just beautiful. I have never been to the Royal Observatory Greenwich but I will definitely go later this year. “We are made of star stuff” might be a cliché but it is also wonderful, and true.

Last up is Jim  Al-Khalili (@jimalkhalili) or as we now know him, “El Presidenté” who removed any last doubt that free-will is an illusion with a good talk about what relativity and quantum physics have to say about time and determinism.

Catch your breath, change your shirt, off to the Leeds City Museum for the gala dinner, it’s not as if I could choose not to go!

A good meal in good company, though rather too many of us seem to work in IT. The rather poignant highlight being the presentation of the Humanist of the Year award to Terry Pratchett (@terryandrob). Terry was too ill to attend and the video he sent made us quite sad to see how far his Alzheimer’s has progressed. The bit he had written however was clever and funny and well read by Andrew Copson.

Pavan Dhaliwal & Richy Thompson made a good case for taking more money off us for the fair admissions (@FairAdmissions) policy. I favour completely scrapping faith schools myself, but this is a good start, and possibly very good tactics.

Several more beers and back across Leeds to the hotel and bed. Everyone else in Leeds seems to be on a stag or hen night!


I skip breakfast and wander in just before the first talk of the morning. And there is Jean again, I haven’t seen her since Friday and yes, she has had a good weekend too. Before the first talk we get a plug for the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust These people are doing incredible work under conditions we have difficulty imagining. We sometimes forget how lucky we are.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the next speaker. Zoe Margolis (@girlonetrack) is most famous for her blog “Girl with a one track mind” which is basically about her sex life. She started it anonymously but was later named, and very badly treated, by the Sunday Times. She started the blog because of what she saw as hypocrisy and double standards about sex, in society in general and the press and publishing in particular. It was an excellent talk and if you are a bit sceptical, try the Everyday Sexism website or follow @EverydaySexism for a while – it will open your eyes – it did mine.

When the microphone was going round after Zoe’s talk Jean managed to get the last question. I can’t remember it word for word but here is the gist. Jean pointed out that even before Lady Chatterley’s Lover people managed to enjoy sex, she herself had had two husbands and enjoyed them both. While she sympathised with Zoe, she couldn’t think of too much to do which would be of practical help. The Ugandan Humanist Schools, however could be helped, very practically, and if people would each give a pound she, Jean, would match their donations out of her own pocket.

This got a huge cheer and the speaker Zoe said that although it wasn’t really a question her answer was “brilliant – here’s my pound”.  Pretty soon a glass on our table was rapidly filling with money and others were organising a collection box. “Well done Jean” I said, “that’s brilliant.” She just grinned and said “I knew if I talked about sex again everyone would be paying attention, sometimes you just have to grab an opportunity when it comes up”

The last speaker was Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) with a talk based on his new book “Creation: synthetic biology and the origin of life”. He described it as a prequel and a sequel to evolution. Fascinating stuff especially the work being done by the BioBricks Foundation. Creating life as an engineering discipline – Wow!

And that was it – all over. I had a fantastic weekend. The speakers were first class but it was all the delegates like Jean who were the real inspiration. I will now try to get more active and involved. Next year there is no convention because the UK is hosting the World Humanist Congress – even better.

See you there Jean

[ I have just discovered that Jean’s intervention was rather effective. See here http://www.ugandahumanistschoolstrust.org/latest-news/ ]

if you have made it to the end (this got much longer than I was expecting) please bung some money, or time, in the direction of some very worthy, humanist causes. My favourites are:

A very sad post-script

You may have gathered from this piece that Jean made a big impression on me, well she did. I only met her those two times. She befriended me when I looked a bit lost on the first day and impressed me with her sharp mind and sense of humour on the last day.

I never did see her at the 2014 conference, she died on 1st October.

Her death was tragic, she basically starved herself to death because the laws of this country gave her no choice. She couldn’t do anything else without either leaving the country or legally endangering others, both of which she was unable to accept. Jean had spent much of her life campaigning for the voluntary euthanasia society or as it is now known Dignity In Dying. I am sure we will win this battle in the end, I just wish we could have won earlier for Jean.

I only met Jean twice, but she made a big impression on me, and I am very, very, sorry I won’t meet her again.

Please read the BHA obituary for Jean, and this piece in the Guardian. Then go to the Dignity In Dying website and donate.

Another Sad Postscript

Another brave women has starved herself to death this year because she felt the law gave her no choice. I never met Debbie Purdy but in all her interviews and in last nights BBC documentary she came across as very human and very impressive.

I understand some of the fears and reservations some people have, but there has to be a better way than this.  Dignity in Dying

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