From Milton to Morsi: The Puritan’s Test for the Islamist

When the Egyptian President Morsi was ousted from office back in July, various commentators assumed that those who denounced him were simple-minded ignoramuses unable to distinguish between political Islam and jihad. Here was a man who had been elected by the popular will; it was undemocratic not to stand with him, it was said. Consistent equivalents were drawn with Western leaders – was Bush never so unpopular, and was the elderly accused Belusconi not in need of expulsion, of a Mussolini if you will?

Morsi overruled the democratic process. Individual freedoms were claimed for the government; it became policy to target those minorities whose unity threatened the Freedom and Justice Party, from Coptic Christians to liberals. He was, in short, the figurehead of a (at the risk of sounding tautological) deeply anti-democratic theocratic movement. His supporters have been sure to carry on his legacy on the streets, however stirred by the coup that has so stupidly and irresponsibly itself pitched against them.

This question of Islamist movements is a worrying one for a democrat. You see, I find anticipation of a coming “Enlightenment” for Islam a little embarrassing, almost – dare I saw – a little Orientalist in its armchair intellectualism. Islamist movements are a reality across the fresh painting on the Arab political world, be they sectarian, moderate or sponsors of terror. There’s Irshad Manji, sure – but it seems to me that it is in the schooling of some very basic, visceral instincts that will be the prerequisite for change in Islamic communities in Africa and the Middle-East, where they are invariably not ruled by a First Amendment or littered with secular schooling. The deeply religious in these places must first come to know a confidence sure enough to grant tolerance and patience: as searches for social movements go, it’s a patronising one – but it does identify something beyond progress’s very modest starting line.

Here, then, is my new test for the Islamist – raised from the voices of English Puritanism. Pass it and you scrape the modern test for what is palatable to a democrat; fail it and my sympathies go.

John Milton. Far from some whitewashed commodity of English Puritanism, to his name being the epic Paradise Lost, Milton nevertheless found himself alienated by the Presbyterian Parliament that rose against Charles I; he remained what we might term a “political Christian”, looking for moral guidance in the inspiration that so readily lay behind his poetry, but he stood firm against the desires of the later republic to forge oppressive laws from the contents of their halo-fashioned minds.

This is the poem with which he eviscerated these Presbyterians:

On the New Forcers of Conscience under the Long Parliament (1646)

Because you have thrown off your Prelate Lord,
And with stiff vows renounced his Liturgy,
To seize the widowed whore Plurality,
From them whose sin ye envied, not abhorred,
Dare ye for this adjure the civil sword
To force our consciences that Christ set free,
And ride us with a Classic Hierarchy,
Taught ye by mere A. S. and Rutherford?
Men whose life, learning, faith, and pure intent,
Would have been held in high esteem with Paul
Must now be named and printed heretics
By shallow Edwards and Scotch What-d’ye-call!
But we do hope to find out all your tricks,
Your plots and packing, worse than those of Trent,
That so the Parliament
May with their wholesome and preventive shears
Clip your phylacteries, though baulk your ears,
And succour our just fears,
When they shall read this clearly in your charge:
New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large.

At Cromwell’s funeral procession, Milton walked blind alongside his fellow Christian poets Dryden and Marvell. I don’t like to call anything inevitable in history; but one has to ask how such an awkward religious tolerance might have appeared in England without that first popular victory over divine rule, the dethroning of Charles I. It happened in France nearly a century and half later, and its failure in Russia after 1917 has allowed the Orthodox Church to fantasise in perspex once again.

Milton represented the germination of secular thought: a consideration of diversity, and uncertainty, pumping through a deeply religious mind. That’s a line that would upset many academics. But the same must surely be true of some of today’s political Islamists.

If they would sympathise with Milton’s poem for freedom of conscience, then they surely become that which is just about tolerable in the 21st century: the morally-charged religious who, though guided in their politics by Islam, will nevertheless prepare themselves to let go of others’ corporeal and spiritual fates. I do not think I will live to see same-sex marriage legalised in Saudi Arabia, but this is a trajectory in which a distant hope, if generations away, might find an ally.

It is the difference, in other words, between deep conservatism and reactionary theocracy. And Morsi was on the wrong side.

Always solidarity with socialists, liberals and those blunt-speaking people struggling for their democratic rights today and who rightly refuse to wait for the decades that I fear they may need; but the result of this has to be that those “Islamists” who respect them, and who hold their stomachs not to pass Medievalist laws, must be tolerated by democrats.

There’s my test. Take it.

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So Students Are “Separate But Equal”

Remember the Laurence Krauss debate at University College London last year? He refused to cooperate with the organisers once he realised that the audience in front of him was segregated by sex. Fortunately, that story concluded with the Islamic group responsible being banned from hosting any further events at UCL; the university staff seem to have come down on the right side.

But apparently it’s much more widespread than we thought:

Student Rights event monitoring programme enables an in-depth analysis of this issue, with 180 events logged in the period March 2012 to March 2013 investigated for evidence of segregation;
46 of these events (25.5%) at 21 separate institutions were found to have either explicitly promoted segregation by gender, or implied that this would be the case, with six of these cancelled before taking place;

So what is this bullshit?

Universities UK (UUK) has issued guidance on external speakers saying that the segregation of the sexes at universities is not discriminatory as long as “both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.”

UUK add that universities should bear in mind that “concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system” and that if “imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.”

We, the undersigned, condemn the endorsement of gender apartheid by Universities UK. Any form of segregation, whether by race, sex or otherwise is discriminatory. Separate is never equal and segregation is never applied to those who are considered equal. By justifying segregation, Universities UK sides with Islamist values at the expense of the many Muslims and others who oppose sex apartheid and demand equality between women and men.

The guidance must be immediately rescinded and sex segregation at universities must come to an end.

Separate but equal? I mean, wasn’t Rosa Parks just as comfortable at the back of the bus?

Universities UK can’t even be spat out for being a group of poseur anti-establishment lefty sorts allying themselves with the Islamist far right. No, this is a sordid collection of university officials, most of whom old and unelected with a constant urge to remind us continually of both of those facts. It has no actual authority; but its “guidance” makes for a useful template for perturbed managerial staff (the current President is the Vice-Chancellor at Bristol) concerned about their “multicultural” reputation. Never mind the fact that most Muslims wouldn’t approve of this.

Sign the petition!


George Orwell Betrayed

Worth sharing:

This week in London, the annual George Orwell Lecture was given by the Islamist writer Tariq Ramadan. Where is one to start?

George Orwell was against religious censorship. Tariq Ramadan campaigned successfully to cancel a production of Voltaire’s play Le fanatisme, ou Mahomet le Prophete in Geneva.

Orwell was a rational man. When Ramadan taught at the College de Saussure he argued in favour of Islamic biology over Darwin.

Orwell risked his life fighting for the Spanish Republic against Franco’s fascists. Ramadan is a coward when it comes to fighting fascism. In November 2003, on French television, the future French president Nicolas Sarkozy invited Ramadan to condemn the practice of stoning women. He would not. Ramadan squirmed: “I have called for — because I know my position is a minority one within the Muslim world today — a moratorium so that there can be a real debate between Muslims.”

Orwell opposed state control and religious indoctrination. Ramadan would like the former to impose the latter. He wants Muslim parents to control the content of state school programmes according to “Islamic values”.

The organisers of the Orwell Lectures ought to be deeply ashamed of themselves. Don’t care about the above? Or, do they find Ramadan’s tongue-twisting political language blurring discourse so merrily that the most blatant distinctions between the two men no longer appear to matter?

Certainly, though, priorities are amiss. Forget Ramadan. If you wish to examine why Orwell still matters, you need only hear the final line of Bertolt Brecht’s parody of Hitler’s rise and fall, Arturo Ui: “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Be it Islamism, NSA or the hysterical out-cries of the reactionary far left, challenges will not be resolved by reactionary celebrities. The Orwell Lecturers should try harder to find new voices:

I hope that Dr Borkenau will write a longer and better book on approximately the same subject. The present one, in spite of some brilliant passages, seems to have been hastily written and has faults of arrangement. Nevertheless Dr Borkenau is one of the most valuable gifts that Hitler has made to England. In a period when nearly all books on current politics have been compounded of lies, or folly, or both, his has been one of the few sane voices heard in the land, and long may it continue.

It’s not just bad politics, it’s lazy.


Dawkins is Right: Call a Barbarian a Barbarian

[Awkward Disclaimer: I didn’t mean this just as a defence of Dawkins. Some New Atheists may or may not have a sectarian obsession with Muslims – but to dismiss every bland generalisation as another instance of racist bigotry is as flippant as it is frivolous.]

Much of the Left, very dazed these days, has turned to the puritanism that Right-wingers seem to have mostly abandoned. With it has come a tendency for the Left to assume that their rivals are driven by the most base, the wickedest, the absolutely worst motivations imaginable: Owen Jones moralising on the Tories is an odd example of this. If one is flippant, he must be callous; if one clarifies his terms only in rhetorical retreat, he is a bigot. Carelessness means racism.

A number of atheists – whose gravitational pull is still mostly liberal – are declaring in chorus their antipathy towards the anti-Muslim bigotry of which they accuse Richard Dawkins. If I might quote Alex Gabriel at the Heresy Club:

The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative. The problem with Islam, as with any religion, is that it makes unknowable claims; the problem with Islamism, as well as relying on those unknowable claims, is that it’s theocratic, violent, oppressive and inhumane. To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion, accepting ahistorically that the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is theocratic by definitive nature, legitimising the U.S.-led militarism which fuels Islamism’s anti-Western appeal, and enforcing the idea those who leave Islam or refuse to practice it hyper-devoutly are cultural and racial traitors – that to be an atheist ex-Muslim or religious moderate is to be a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside but white within.

To illustrate his point he takes Dawkins’ January tweet:

To the inevitable fury, Dawkins clarified on two accounts – first to accusations of selectively targeting Islam:

And second to those who believed he was treating Muslims like an uncivilised homogeneous bloc:

Both are important.

To paraphrase Orwell – I think more democratically – to return to basic principles has become the first duty of all serious men; absolutes therefore mustn’t be relegated to the religious or the Utopian fantasist. Calling out those who exist to suppress and to suffocate the values underpinning decent society is the premise to internationalism – not its enemy.

The Incubation of Defeatism

Children and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

… disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people …

Preamble to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights may one day be ranked as the most powerful expression of liberty ever proclaimed, Eleanor Roosevelt famously dreaming it up to be the Magna Carta “of all men everywhere”. It was never expected to be a permanent guarantee of personal freedom, being neither legally binding nor politically enforceable; in a few short years not a single atrocity of note in Palestine, Egypt, Spain, Portugal or Hungary would be prevented with an invocation from the United Nations. What it neglects cries out for remedy, and its simplicity of statement, though a great strength, consistently struggles with the complexities of application. But at no other point in history have nations gathered together to express, however reluctantly, the unfalsifiable authority of personal dignity before fascists, theocrats, and the mass of blandly clichéd authoritarians floating between.

But the hangover throbbed with regret. Not many years after the UN’s proclamation of the “inalienable” rights of free individuals, intellectual anarchism masquerading as “postmodernism” was looking to undermine it. In an age of decolonisation cultural theorists rushed to denounce “humanitaranism” as imperialism for the mellow-minded, fuelling the isolationist rhetoric, to name but one instance, of the odious Ayatollah Khomeini whose government would dismiss the UDHR as the secularised transcription of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Self-doubt, cynicism, and flagrant sadomasochism blurred into one ungodly polygamous marriage striding over millennia of Western philosophy in the name of “relativism”. Its academia sank into a mid-life crisis.

“Good” and “evil” are great secular words. Their dichotomy has transcended many languages and religions, from village to nation, evolving separately in regions of the world that existed for centuries in isolation. I think it’s a mistake, and a great shame, that many atheists and agnostics have decided that we don’t need this sort of moral certainty; that we ought to leave it to the religious to express emotional outrages – because they might fall silent on crimes of which they approve. Secular space is not created; either it is offered by missionaries or it is fought for and captured.

But this rejection of absolutes has lined the mentality of those academics who believe they know better than the “civilised” – that the only true way of building a society is to accept, ultimately, that there isn’t one.

Perhaps this attitude’s most lasting apologia was Edward Said’s sweeping assault on the orientalist tradition in Western scholarship – it was both a symptom and a cause, he believed, that orientalism now only makes sense as the propagandist machine of the imperial project: in engaging in a conscious effort to misrepresent foreign cultures as backward and inferior, a colonial aggressor felt at liberty to “civilise” them. Everyone in the age of imperialism was a racist Euro-supremacist, Said claimed, which he sought to justify – to the disdain of imperial historian Bernard Porter, who has found little evidence in his Absent-Minded Imperialists – in tenuous literary imagery pre-empting paragraph after paragraph of claustrophobic “analysis” before the final write-off of the author in question as a stooge of foreign aggression. (In Culture and Imperialism there’s a very strange passage accusing Jane Austen – whose novels barely even mentioned the Napoleonic Wars – of promulgating labour exploitation through her silence on empire and the emotional withdrawal it apparently represented. See Unrepentant Jacobin’s blog for a brilliant and much more comprehensive post on Saidism.)

Nonetheless, for the all the deficiencies of post-colonialist thought it might still have seemed very reasonable that the earliest victims of Said’s argument were loaded phrases like “barbarianism”. After all, the horrors of African colonialism that some contemporaries justified in the name of “progress” now seem too absurd for serious scholarship; Rudyard Kipling’s infamous The White Man’s Burden charged the English with the ineluctable duty “to serve your captives’ need” and bring barbaric peoples “towards the light”, a path apparently lit by the intermittent fires of war, genocide, ethnic cleansing and enslavement for those who resisted the imposition of rule by gunboat, diocese, and caste. This so-called “liberal” justification for the atrocities – “civilising the savage” – managed to creep even as far as the socialist Fabians, whom Ramsay MacDonald was compelled to abandon when they refused to condemn the Boer Wars.

Considering the long history of “barbarianism” this should hardly have come as a surprise. It doesn’t come from a very politically correct ancient world: the Proto-Indo-European barbar – which pre-empted the Greek barbaros and Latin barbaria for “foreigner” and “foreign country”, respectively – mimics the unintelligible ramblings of an alien. St Augustine would write the lengthy polemic City of God in order to make sense of the fall of great Roman cities to the murderous Alaric; and though the European humanists swore adoration for Rome they never departed from their Gothic and pagan inheritance, understanding better than their ancient forebears that not all “barbarian” cultures could be dismissed without merit. Consider how the conquistadors – the Pope’s military muscle in the New World – saw it their first duty to conquer the native Americans whose immodesty of clothing apparently revealed an equal poverty of the mind.

Given this history and its tradition of merciless ironies, surely – just surely – we wouldn’t be so stupid as to invent our own savages?

Identifying the Barbarian

“Barbarian” and “savage” have not always been purely racial terms.

The reason that every colonial power got it wrong was because they all shared in the same ridiculous presumption: that an individual’s ethnicity made them a barbarian for the sole reason that they had not produced laws as “advanced” of those in whose judgement they sat. Through the adoption of customs originating in the land of the expansionists, they could they become “civilised”. In the classical world this racial link was only implicit, the Franks merrily absorbed into the Roman Empire while the Saxons continuing to appear to be wintry nomads for failing to see any virtue in Italy’s fading pyres. But by the 19th century technological industrialism had dwarfed whatever instruments the “barbarians” could offer; and with the advent of pseudo-sciences in the likes social Darwinism and phrenology this was codified into an explicitly racist set of assumptions about the genetic foundations of “alien” societies.

But in the 17th century there had been something of a respite to this thinking with John Dryden’s pitying indictment of the “noble savage”; although deeply condescending, only now does the phrase appear to be an oxymoron, contemporaries meaning the word “savage” as an equivalent for what we today would supply “person from another country” (though almost certainly with implications of skin colour). As a romanticism of the foreigner whose relationship with nature endowed him with values equivalent to the “civilised” virtues of England, it made a crucial point: foreign customs may indeed be “noble” but that is not a vindication of times in which they are not. Cultural toleration does not have to mean moral relativism. That points towards what today we would identify as religious and ethnic pluralism under a constitution constrained by moral parameters to human rights, and to the civil liberties they predicate.

It is the tradition around Dryden’s sentiments – which seems to have ended before the African conquest from the 1880s – that we have and will build upon in the modern world. The UDHR rules on “inalienable” rights for the very reason that no individual in the world is foreign to them: they are universal, and people are at liberty to demand them if and when they please.

Anybody who therefore uses violence to deprive people of equality from birth, to suppress and fight freedom and preservation of culture and of thought – and to murder for these ends and without remorse – is a barbarian.

That’s not a racial term; it’s written in the preamble to the UN’s greatest cause on a morality that has no bearing on nationality. It doesn’t mean “un-British” or “un-American” but anti-human. The commitment to internationalism and universality that it makes necessary is the very definition of anti-racism.

Fighting the Barbarian

It’s for this reason that it’s so intensely patronising – and very eurocentric – to presume that it’s only privileged white atheists and Christians in the West who hold especial contempt for acts of Islamic jihad:

That “b” word again – and from a devout Muslim, no less.

The most numerous – and targeted – of all of the victims of Islamic barbarianism are fellow Muslims. It was not a “civilised” person who blew up the al-Askari mosque in 2006, one of the holiest – and most extraordinary – Shi’ah sites in the world:

Massoud’s assassination was an attack, to take but one target, on Afghan women; it would be Muslim Malians who would be deprived of international aid by fanatics objecting to the presence of women in the crowd; it is Syrian and Iraqi Muslims who are currently caught in a conflict all too attractive to clerical fascists leaching on their material poverty and surplus of pessimism. In every case, “barbarian” is the only word that could possibly be used to describe those willing to kill to impose a murderous ideology – one which is alien to fellow Muslims.

“Don’t fuel the fires!”

So why then did Dawkins, unlike Hasan, feel it necessary to add the unnecessary label of “Islamic” to certain acts of cruelty or barbarianism? I would give the following explanation.

It is impossible to imagine how sociology might have developed without the contributions of Max Weber. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit Capitalism posed an historical, and to a degree empirically answerable, question: why was it that Puritan religious countries, rather than their Catholic, Lutheran or Islamic foes, were the first to succeed in developing industrial capitalism? One cannot, he pointed out rather obviously, understand different historical trajectories undergone by societies and their religions without first addressing what distinguished them.

By today’s standards this academic – who wrote lectures stressing the importance of objective scholarship – is a racist.

It has become somewhat fashionable in recent years to dismiss all religions as inherently the same. The atheist sees them all to be false, and therefore always leading to a conviction in man-made ideas which, at their most extreme, can incite believers to commit horrific abuses driven by the presumption that God is on their side.

But are we really to pretend that all religions – and the followers of their respective deities – are the same? That they have neither been shaped nor shaped common social features and shared religious property? Is it racist not to presume that no one religious outlook has anymore tendency to evil than its rivals? Is it possible that the Islamic, or the Judeo-Christian, or the Hindu religions and their respective denominations vary in their general outlooks on the world? In this context, put this tweet:

Is it possible that, in fact, it is partly due to common religious principles that Muslim societies have such poor records in education?

In his post, Alex spends some time talking about Dawkins’ connection – both implicit and acknowledged – with the English Defence League and horrid crackpots like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Geert Wilders and Pat Condell. He writes:

It should be no surprise these people now claim the Dawkins name-brand in their support: a rhetoric which objects to Islam and Islamism as foreign, alien, un-British, at odds with Western values, barbarian and so on plays straight into their hands – and indeed into Islamists’, who trade on the idea democracy, freedom, human rights and secularity are Western notions, and that adopting them constitutes cultural betrayal.

I won’t condone any support for these people – but that is not say that they have never uttered a word of morally-palatable sense. Just because the right-wing press says it’s true doesn’t mean it isn’t, as Orwell said, which he then explained more fully:

Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise “constructively,” which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.

The postmodern assumption that religions are “without fundamentals” is an utterly pointless remark: if the corollary that all of a given religion’s followers therefore share nothing in common – rituals, practices, holy sites, books, parables, folk tales or gods – is not then made, then there remains an imperative to identify what is broadly common. Weber looked for the “ideal-type” – the abstract projection of a religious follower from which every actual believer would deviate it some degree, but which would and can be necessary to make empirical arguments.

And demonstrating how these broadly common factors might or might not condone barbaric actions should not be suffocated in case nationalists seize upon them to denigrate entire communities. One can and should point out that parts of the Koran can lead to “barbaric” acts without then endorsing anti-Muslim (and by implication anti-Islamic) sectarianism. If one rejects every point in Wilders Fitna simply because they were intended to justify racist policies, then one leaves some of the most important moral criticisms of religion in the hands of nationalist thugs. That is how the issue is polarised; that is how one stokes a “clash of civilisations”.

Did foreign criticism of the old Tutsi monopoly on Rwandan government cause the Rwandan genocide? Did our disgust with the small number of atrocities committed by Bosnian Muslims mean that we could not also oppose the ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbian forces? Does the evolving – or devolving, perhaps – of the Free Syrian Army into sectarianism prevent us from sending aid to the civilians there, or mean that we have to support Assad’s government?

Indeed, we are above naming any war a “class of civilisations”. It is to elevate atrocities to a level of which they are undeserving: barbarians would replace a society allowing for freedom of conscience with whatever tyranny might arise from their blood-soaked totalitarian insurgency. Most Muslims are on the right side – and it’s a nakedly perverse paradox to say that this was a war initiated by humanitarian principles.

It was not on Dawkins’ orders that Boko Haram – whose name means “Western education is sinful” – declared war on every manifestation of what they see to be “foreign” philosophy, elements including the rights to education sought by most Nigerians, who in turn become traitors for whom the punishment is murder or detonation. Add to these Islamic imperialists the Malian Ansar Dine whose expansionism under the guise of Sharia has hijacked whatever rights the Tuareg might have ever had to self-determination, adding eschatological justification to the region’s still deeply-ingrained problem with slavery. It was the anti-fundamentalist Ahmad Shah Massoud whose assassination at the hands of the Taliban would occur two days before the fall of the Twin Towers; his support for the rights of Afghan women and cultural freedom would allow Islamists to put him as a stooge to “the West”. They have embraced the status of “alien” since it confers religious exaltation.

Nor would any decent New Atheist claim, just as Dawkins does now, that barbarians are all Islamic. The Christian white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan, torch in hand, murdered and pillaged in aversion to the very first article of the UDHR; the slave labour of High Stalinism was just as evil as that authorised by Tuareg Islamists; say nothing beyond the probable claims of cannibalism within the ranks of the Lord’s Resistance Army; and Orthodox (or perhaps simply highly masculinised) Russians who assault gay pride protesters are, indeed, manifestly wicked. Savagery might be everywhere; but it is not racist to ask whether some religions or non-religious ideologies, more than others, warm to it, and not imperialistic to decry those who embrace it.

“For the union makes us strong!”

So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.
‘Inside the Whale’, George Orwell

I didn’t intend this post to be so long; congratulations if you made it, for thou art a noble savage (and damn you to hell if not). But the problems with New Atheism are not simple-minded instances of bigotry and racism. Dawkins is a clever and eloquent academic who does not need prattling teenagers like me defending him; if he is careless with his language, or if he endorses the bigots rather than whatever few decent points a bigot may have to offer, then he is being provocatively flippant.

It is perfectly possible to conceive of evils as barbarian; it is the first imperative of the internationalist to do so, irrespective of the religions and societies with which he is confronted. The methods of Islamic fanaticism are as alien to the moderates who share their faith. As the clash between Mehdi Hasan and Irshad Manji showed, some Muslims accept that the Koran can incite violence, while others do not; but, as with any decent New Atheist, no moderate would consider extremists “civilised”.

Let’s stop calling legitimate criticism of barbarism – Islamic or not – “racist”. This is very, very important.


Clinging to a Medieval World

In case the origins of Wadjda were found to be inspiring a little too much liberal wish-wash about the present situation in Saudi Arabia, here’s a brief reminder of how its authorities deal with actual dissent:

A Saudi court sentenced on Monday a rights activist to seven years in jail and 600 lashes for setting up a “liberal” network and alleged insults to Islam, activists said.

“Raef Badawi has been sentenced to seven years in jail and 600 lashes,” lawyer Waleed Abualkhair wrote on his Twitter account, adding that the judge ordered the closure of the website of the Saudi Liberal Network.

He said Badawi, a co-founder of the Saudi Liberal Network, was charged with criticizing the religious police, as well as calling for “religious liberalization.”

Change in Saudi Arabia is going to require more courageous activists – and international support for them – like Badawi if they are to succeed in remolding their society, as Al-Mansour implied in the post linked above. Although the process at the grassroots will take longer, an object of protest can very easily be found in the clerics and officials surrounding the monarchy.

Take Salwa al Mutairi, an ex-politician whose abhorrent obsequiousness to the Medieval traditions is fortunately anomalous in Kuwait; her call for men to be free to “purchase” female sex slaves – if necessary, from refugee camps – was, she says, verified by a number of Saudi clerics:

Mutairi said that during a recent visit to Mecca, she asked Saudi muftis – Muslim religious scholars – what the Islamic ruling was on owning sex slaves. They are said to have told her that it is not haram.

The ruling was confirmed by ‘specialized people of the faith’ in Kuwait, she claimed.

‘They said, that’s right, the only solution for a decent man who has the means, who is overpowered by desire and who does not want to commit fornication, is to acquire jawari.’ Jawari is the plural of the Arabic term jariya, meaning ‘concubine’ or ‘sex slave’.

One Saudi mufti supposedly told Mutairi: ‘The context must be that of a Muslim nation conquering a non-Muslim nation, so these jawari have to be prisoners of war.’

Concubines, she argued, would suit Muslim men who fear being ‘seduced or tempted into immoral behaviour by the beauty of their female servants’.

The most hideous evils are, to better eyes, as ludicrous as they are sterile.

Someone should invite King Abdullah in on the joke.


Moses vs the Pharaoh? I don’t think so.

Two equally flippant extremes on the recent violence in Cairo and Alexandria:

Unsurprisingly, neither standpoint is unfounded. On the one hand, we have evidence of unarmed civilians shot by passing Egyptian security forces. Then again, we have pro-Morsi supporters pouring petrol over the entrance to Cairo International airport. Both sides are large, and come both peacefully and with their violent edges. General Sisi’s call for populist rallies to legitimise his coup would, a few days later, stoke further rallies in support of the deposed president.

In any deeply divided society, populism is its greasiest but most dangerous political lubricant. Why, after all, should you bother acting democratically – or even constitutionally – if you can deafen the streets with those chanting your name? The revolution continues; though, it might be said, in two ominously different directions, under two undemocratic banners – each trying desperately to show the least care for the other side.

When in power, the Muslim Brotherhood banned any future president from being either Coptic or female (that’s 60% of the population right there). In a recent interview with Mada Masr, Freedom and Justice advisor and MB spokesman Gehad el-Haddad expressed no regret for this: to the contrary, Morsi’s biggest failing was not to go far enough:

The big mistake that the president made was not to carry the revolutionary spirit into governmental reforms…We literally allowed this coup to happen because he wasn’t as forceful as he should have been…The president made a decision early on to [rule] by the book. Many objected to his decisions, even inside the Brotherhood. He decided to respect the corrupt heritage that was left for him, and that includes a corrupt constitutional court, a corrupt judiciary, and a corrupt set of regulations and laws that are literally designed to trap anyone in office.

For “corrupt”, replace with “secular”. It leads to the same conclusion: that the dreamy air of Muslim Brotherhood HQ would have raced for a Turkish-style army coup in order to prevent them from doing the same. The free election of 2012 had already been subverted beyond recall by 3rd July when Sisi took the reigns. But that does not justify legally questionable methods to remove Morsi’s supporters from the streets, nor his unofficial, unknown detention (nor the raids – none of it).

Last year’s narrow election would realise the undemocratic realities of a majority-ruled democracy for a polarised electorate; it might be hoped that the coming election will not result from the very same failures. Without a solid constitution – guaranteeing the place of the military, basic human rights and a secular framework in which a civil bureaucracy might operate – the realities of those Egyptians who demand a peaceful and economically stable nation will never be met.

Unfortunately, whether this will emerge from a bloody dialectic between Mubarak ghouls and the vainglory of would-be theocrats only time can tell.


“They are afraid of art.”

If you’re looking for insight into Saudi culture – optimism included – you might enjoy this interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the writer and director of Wadjda:

I am really looking forward to watching this film – about a Saudi girl’s determination to buy the bike of which her relatives deprive her. A few things stand out for me:

Al-Mansour states, explicitly, that her objectives were never intended to be political, or even polemical. Although she is conscious of the inevitable stirring she will cause in her home country – once it finally reaches the TV sets, cinemas being illegal – her central image is the innocence of childhood, not its corruption; by its nature it contends with something universal to the memories of all other Saudi women. Why is this significant?

It’s together with Al-Mansour’s rather warm appreciation of the ironic that I think justification for optimism might be found:

The post-9/11 Saudi government – suddenly conscious, as if surprised, that Wahhabi Islam might encourage jihadism – has introduced some token reforms to its systems to appease the White House, which though churned turgid by clerical conservatism might anticipate “giant steps” yet to come. Now, one wouldn’t expect subtle developments in how Saudi women view themselves to be recorded – not if, as she implies herself, women feel as invisible as they are.

But here we have a writer – of a comparatively “liberal” background, admittedly – who sees no real importance to a film exploring instances in which humour stands independent from the primitive, totalitarian background that produces it. Does this point to something wider, something shifting? Al-Mansour’s first film depicted a criminal who wore a burka to escape the law, for example, very much in contrast to the likes of Persepolis in which a girl comes of age under the regressing forces of the Islamic Revolution. Tragedy and satirical detachment arise from pessimism, decline; but comic irony is the signal fire of reformism and the nuance of cultural consciousness.