Do something about Tredennick and raise policy standards

David Tredennick MP has apparently “spent 20 years studying astrology and healthcare and is convinced it could work.” This is nothing new for David, he has in the past championed homeopathy and suggested that surgeons should avoid certain operations at the time of the full moon.

tredennick

It’s funny isn’t it?  – No it bloody well isn’t.

The voters of Bosworth made David an MP (please voters – sort that out next year) and, worse, his fellow MPs put him on the commons health committee and the science and technology committee.

This kind of thing is the very reason I write this blog, and the reason I started the Geek Manifesto Pledge. But there is something much more practical that I have done and I would urge you to do the same.

A group of academics including Chris Chambers of Cardiff university, who did a Geek Manifesto pledge for Welsh Assembly Members, are creating what they call an Evidence Information Service (EIS) to give evidence based advice to politicians both on demand, and as proactive briefing notes. And they need your help to make it work.

They are looking for “local champions” to interview their local MP to find out what would make them welcome and use the service. I have interviewed mine, and I was pleased by his enthusiasm for the project. he seemed convinced it would be both useful and used. They have 100 volunteers and 35 interviews “in the bag” so far, which is good, but they need more. If this service is well designed it could make a real contribution to improving political policy making in the future, and these interviews are important to get the service right from the start.

The commons has broken for the summer recess and this means a lot of MPs will be spending a lot of time back in their constituencies which means they are much more likely to have time for an interview.

Please help – this is a chance to make a real, practical, difference. It probably won’t stop Tredennick being a total clown, but it will help all the others who are not, and it will mean he has no excuse.

Use the links below to find out how you can make a real difference.

UPDATE APRIL 2017

Things have moved on, Chris and the team are no longer looking for local champions, they are now “seeking your confidential views as an academic on your attitude to and experiences of evidence-based policymaking, the usefulness of the EIS and your potential contribution.” from “Academic/Researcher/Professional” s

You can contribute here https://t.co/39dw69GaXJ

 

 

 

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Why calling values British (or Islamic) is nonsense. Don’t wrap values in a flag.

I have written before about how religious people sometimes condemn other people, or behaviour for what I think are the wrong reasons, you can read about it here, but I think I have to revisit this issue because of the whole “British Values” thing. I think allowing gay people to get married if they want to is liberal, tolerant, and morally right. But until last year it was forbidden by British law, and guess what, it is STILL un-Islamic, un-Anglican, un-Catholic, un-Judaic, and many people would still say un-British.

I am a Humanist but when I was arguing in support of equal marriage I didn’t argue that to be a good Humanist you have to support it. Humanism describes (most of) my values it does not determine them. The BHA supports an opt-out system for organ donation, I think they are wrong on this, that doesn’t stop me being a Humanist or, indeed, a member of the BHA. The trouble with allowing beliefs to hide, in groups, behind labels is that people are taught to belive the labels rather than the values. This can have disastrous consequences.

Imagine a very religious Muslim boy growing up in Birmingham. He believes, because all Muslim authority figures tell him so, that Islam and the Koran are perfect, not good, perfect. It is impossible for Islam or the Koran to be wrong in any way. If I want to convince this boy that beheading, stoning, wife-beating, and going to butcher people in Syria and/or Iraq are right I don’t have to convince him that any of these things, individually, is morally justifiable. I just have to convince him that they are Islamic. If I want him to despise democracy and free-speech, I only have to convince that they are un-Islamic. If his Imam is worried about him and tries to change his mind he cannot argue about the unfairness, suffering, or brutality because he, the Imam, also believes that Islam and the Koran are perfect. All he can do is try to convince him that these actions are un-Islamic.

Then along comes David Cameron, worried about what might, or might not, be being taught in the lad’s school. Does he say what they are teaching is wrong? No he says it’s not British.

So the voice in this lad’s ear is now saying “See. If you are going to be British you have to be less of a Muslim. You may have been born here but they will never accept you as one of them. And if your Imam, or Maajid Nawaaz, says different that’s because he has sold out – he’s not a proper Muslim”

Both the Islamist and the PM are playing identity politics in this poor kids head. By wrapping their beliefs or values in a black flag, or a union jack, they both avoid having to actually justify any of the beliefs and values they are peddling in terms that actually say something about the beliefs themselves rather than the identity they are wrapped in. This kind of argument is know as the “No true Scotsman” falacy. it is a favourite of many religions and is the very essence of blind patriotism.

The young lad in Birmingham isn’t allowed to decide about things on their merits, he has to be “truly” British, or a “proper” Muslim.

One of the things Maajid Nawaaz consitantly argues is that people should think for themselves and get into real politics rather than Identity politics. That’s why he can condemn stoning people to death without refering to the Koran. He is a Muslim, but he can condemn stoning because it is wrong, not because it is or is not Islamic.

This kind of thinking is by no means confined to religion it can be seen in all kinds of identity politics Stalinism, Nazism, the french Front National, and many others but is is particularly found in religion because they can claim to be absolutely perfect as they are obeying the laws of God. This is why faith schools are so wrong. No matter how good some of them are. Not because they teach people to behave badly but because, by definition, they have already decided the answers to questions that people should be free to decide for themselves.

In extremes this can mean the denial of evolution and presenting nonsense as scientific fact, or that people who love others of their own sex deserve to be killed. not because of evidence or logical argument, but because that is what WE believe.

So give the young lad in Birmingham a break. Don’t tell him a 1400 year old book is perfect and don’t tell him that British values are the best despite years of religious buchery and the slave-trade because . . . well . . . Magna Carta.

Tell him there are many opinions on just about everything and that he is free to make up his own mind. He can be his own kind of Muslim, his own kind of British, or even his own kind of Humanist

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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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