Friday, 27 February 2009

Government banning policy faces test with visit of controverisal Lebanese journalist

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In the wake of the bans on Geert Wilders and the Westboro Baptist Church, the government is now facing calls to apply the same rules to Ibrahim Moussawi, a Lebanese journalist with links to Hezbollah who has been invited to speak at a course on political Islam at London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

Moussawi is due here on 25 March, but the Conservative Party have urged the government to show consistency and prevent him from entering. In a letter to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, the shadow security minster Pauline Neville-Jones said:

"In October last year you introduced what you described as 'tough new measures' to deny entry to extremists. These measures included 'creating a presumption in favour of exclusion in respect of all those who have engaged in fostering, encouraging or spreading extremism and hatred'. Mr Moussawi has so engaged. In line with your 'tough new measures', I trust that if Mr Moussawi applies for entry, you will use your powers to exclude him."

The story doesn't seem to have made it into most of today's papers, with the exception of the Daily Mail, who have wholeheartedly joined in with the Conservative appeal to ban Moussawi. Incidentally both have previously appealed to the government, unsuccessfully, to have him barred from entering the UK (he was last here in February 2008). The Mail and the Tories have also been joined in their opposition by the right-leaning think tank Centre for Social Cohesion, who announced the news in a press release:

"The Centre for Social Cohesion (CSC) can reveal that SOAS, which is part of the University of London, is planning to pay Islamist extremists to teach a course on political Islam between 23 and 27 March 2009. The CSC has been informed by SOAS that the course is aimed at educating Government officials and the Police."
So what are the charges against Moussawi? If you're applying the same logic the government applied with Wilders, then it's hard to disagree with the Tories. He is editor of the newspaper Al-Intiqad, which has strong links to Hezbollah, and was previously a senior employee at the official Hezbollah TV station Al-Manar. In explaining why Al-Manar doesn't carry interviews and statements from Israeli officials, Moussawi has stated that "It is an enemy state ... why would you put spokesmen for an enemy state on the air?", and has been quoted by the New Yorker as saying that Jews are "a lesion on the forehead of history".

So, if the new measures the government introduced in November are designed to exclude those "who have engaged in fostering, encouraging or spreading extremism and hatred", then Moussawi, given the words attributed to him on Jews, certainly fits the bill. And Hezbollah, albeit its military wing, is listed as a "proscribed terrorist group" by the British government. If you ban Geert Wilders, then it's hard to argue that you shouldn't ban Moussawi.

Which of course brings me back to the worrying implications of these new regulations. We are in danger of banning anyone coming into the country who holds controversial views. I don't think Moussawi should be banned any more than I thought Geert Wilders should be banned. I didn't think the Westboro Baptist Church should be banned either, but their exclusion was less worrying because they were going to disrupt the streets of Basingstoke with one of their offensive and preposterous pickets, with implications for policing. If we're only keeping idiots like them out, then fine. But banning people like Wilders and Moussawi have greater implications for our democracy.

In the case of Wilders, a member of our legislature should be free to invite a member of a fellow EU country's legislature to speak, even if they hold highly controversial views on religion, and in the case of Moussawi a British univeristy should be free to invite whoever it likes to address one of its courses. Moussawi has been invited to SOAS as part of a one-week course on "Political Islam: Global and Local Manifestations and Challenges" which, as the course information explains, will address the implications of political Islam in both its violent and non-violent forms. A look at the programme shows that, as part of the five day course, Moussawi will be taking a session on "Hizbullah II: Current politics and prospects". In a course directly addressing the issues surrounding Hezbollah that, as the programme shows, will offer many perspectives, it would surely be fascinating to hear from someone on the inside. This is not a case of a preacher being allowed to indoctrinate children with extremist views in an unregulated environment. This would be a case of an individual, as part of a university course, challenging a group of adults with a controversial perspective on the issues at hand. Which is surely what universities are for? We can't allow the government to dictate who is allowed to come to Britain to speak at our universities, in the same way that we can't allow them to dictate the opinions that make it acceptable for a foreign politician to come here.

But, if you do have a rule in place for excluding those "who have engaged in fostering, encouraging or spreading extremism and hatred", then you must apply it to Moussawi in the same way as it was applied to Wilders. In introducing this rule and using it as it has, the government has set itself up for exactly the kind of accusations of double standards ("one rule for those who criticise Islam, another for proponents of extremist Islam") it now faces from the Conservatives and the right-wing press.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

The perfect forum for Geert Wilders

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The latest on Geert Wilders is that he's currently in the US promoting his vile film Fitna at the invitation of Republican senator Jon Kyl (yes, they let him in, which shows up our government's decision not to even more). And where better for Wilders and his ridiculous hair to peddle his right-wing propaganda than on Fox News in an interview with Bill O'Reilly, who immediately seizes the opportunity to tell Wilders how badly he thinks he was treated by us Brits and proclaim that the US is a "much more open-minded country".

It's fairly indulgent stuff (although O'Reilly does challenge him at the beginning by saying you could make a 15-minute film about any religion that makes it look bad), and while Wilders claims that he has "nothing against Muslims", he then goes on to state that he would "halt immigration from Muslim countries".

To me, the most telling line from the interview comes when Wilders tries to justify why his film is a true depiction of the nature of Islam:
"I didn't use actors in the film. I used real images combined with certain verses from certain Suras"
"Certain verses from certain Suras". Surely no one could accuse him of cherrypicking?

Extremism and religion in Britain

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This may prove unpopular, but I have to say I agree with much of what communities secretary Hazel Blears had to say in her speech at the LSE last night, in which she outlined changes in the government's approach towards Islamic extremism. Blears used the speech, which you can read in full online, to indicate the government's willingness to engage and debate with a wide range of Muslim groups, with only those advocating violence necessarily excluded from the process. Blears acknowledeges that this would involve engagement with groups holding unacceptable views on other issues such as, say, women and homosexuality, or the value of democracy, but reassures us that these views would be met head on.

This is an issue we've covered in New Humanist several times in the past couple of years, most recently in this piece by Dave Rich, and I think what Blears is outlining here is the right approach. It's clear that engagement with the Muslim community is the only real way in which the government can tackle the spread of extremism in the long term, and you can't carry out that engagement by only talking to those groups you deem to be putting out the correct message. As Blears points out in the speech, Muslims in Britain are not a single community with a single mouthpiece, so it is essential that the government engages with a wide range of groups and communities, including those they hugely disagree with. Yes, there are some Muslim groups, such as the Quilliam Foundation, that actively promote an anti-extremist agenda, but in truth the numbers they directly represent are very few. And as the government found out to its detrement when it favoured with the Muslim Council of Britain after 7/7, engagement with a limited number of organisations risks raising those groups up as self-styled "community leaders, who can then use their position to push their own agendas (which in the case of the MCB turned out to not be quite as savoury as the government hoped). Personally I don't see how you can defeat extremist ideas without tackling them head on, and so I find it encouraging that the government is now displaying a willingness to do this.

The last part of Blears' speech turned to discussion of religion in general in the UK, and her belief that "the quality of debate about religion in contemporary life - and by religion, I mean all faiths - is being sapped by a creeping oversensitivity." It's a little less clear what she was trying to say here. She used the results of a BBC survey to claim that the majority of people think "faith should have a bigger role in the public sphere", and cited classic "PC-gone-mad" cases like the praying nurse and schools "banning" Christmas decorations as examples of "people getting into a panic because someone, somewhere, might get offended."

Blears is right to suggest that these incidents are ridiculous and we could do without them, but she seems to blame those doing the apparent banning, rather than those who often manufature and deliberately inflame the stories, like the Daily Mail or the Christian Legal Centre. Which is a shame, because her next point is a good one – an appeal for robust debate about religion based around traditions of "open debate, rational inquiry, and plain old common sense".

Now that's something we can all support.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Goodies for Stephen Green...

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They love Stephen Green on Twitter - every time I mention him it triggers lots of debate/jokes. Though mostly jokes, to be honest. We've been having a good discussion based around the Christian Voice essay competition for young people I blogged about in the last post. Since Stephen seems to be putting up £300 of his own cash for the essay prize pot, I asked what people would spend £300 of his cash on if they won it. Here's a selection of the answers so far:
"Cheers for the cash Steve. I'm putting towards my production of Jerry Springer:The Opera"

"Erect an enormous neon sign opposite his house saying, Fags hate God enablers."

"How much does it cost to certify a building for weddings/civil ceremonies? Green's place? If it's more I'd pay the difference!"

"I'd buy as many subscriptions as possible to as many gay publications as I could find and have them delivered to his home"

"£300 would get a cheap actor in a God outfit, a smoke machine, some bright lights and a tiny trace of LSD in the communion wine"

"Dry cleaning vouchers - give them back to Stephen to help with his birdshit on suit problems" (see here)

"Bibles. Which I would then burn on his lawn. Not really, I would give it to charity. Some good has to come from that man."

"I would buy a racing pigeon and train it to follow him, constantly hovering above his head"

"I'd donate it to the Terrence Higgins Trust without a shadow of a doubt."

"A cheap pink limo to deposit a dozen drag queens to have a doozy of a street party on the road outside his house, at Easter."
They're still coming in on Twitter, and will add any more good ones to this post. If you're not on Twitter, there's no need to miss out. Just leave your suggestions as comments on this post. Perhaps when we're done we should send them to Stephen Green....

Christian Voice essay prize for kids

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It's time to lock up your children, people – Stephen "Lone Voice" Green is offering £300 of his own money as the prize pot for an essay competition for young people in Kent, in which they are asked to write on the subject of "Marriage and Family in the Bible":
"Your essay can have any title, so you can be as inventive as you wish, but you will need to show to the best of your ability how marriage and the family, based on the union of one man and one woman for life, were the plan of God from the beginning of time and backed up by Jesus Christ Himself.

Your best source for material will be what is written in Holy Scripture, in other words, in the Bible. But material from other sources which supports the Bible view is OK. For example, there is now a load of evidence of the benefits of the marriage-based man-woman family for parents, children and society from social science. If you wish, you can illustrate your entry."

So basically "write as many words as you want (there's apparently no limit) on why being gay is evil". This essay competition (which, in a move that shows that Green knows the lingo and is wholeheartedly down with the kids, is entitled "Kent Comp 4 Kids") is, of course, a response to the competition run by Kent police to promote tolerance and discourage homophobia, which you may remember so enraged Green a few weeks ago. As with everything Green touches, this is at once both slightly scary and extremely laughable. The idea of children falling victim to his obsessive homophobia is definitely worrying, but at least we can take comfort from the fact that it will probably receive about 12 entries, all from children of Green's meagre band of supporters (feel sorry for them, but at least we're not talking hundreds).

Bizarrely the essay competition includes a category for 18-25 year olds (which even makes me eligible), and for the youngsters Green seems to have covered his tracks in some way by stipulating that "Under 18's need their parents' permission to enter". Perhaps the most creepy element of all is that anyone who enters will receive a lovely "Certificate of Effort" to put on their bedroom wall as a lasting symbol of the rabid homophobia their parents have indoctrinated them with.

I'd love to see one of those certificates. Since I'm young enough to enter, do you think if I wrote an essay based loosely on the theme but telling Green the opposite of what he wants to hear, I'd get a certificate for my "effort"?

Religious Right outraged by Oscars

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I must admit this didn't occur to me at the time, but in hindisght I'm not surprised to hear that Sunday's Academy Awards were the target of pickets from the Westboro Baptist Church and general outrage from the US Religious Right, as Sean Penn walked away with Best Actor for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, America's first openly gay elected official who was assassinated in 1978.

Westboro gathered outside the Oscars to protest against Penn, Heath Ledger (they claim the late actor deserved his tragic death because of his portrayal of a gay man in Brokeback Mountain) and, more generally, "the perverts of Hollywood".

They were joined in their anger (though not their pickets) by other conservative voices, including the website WorldNetDaily (host of Chuck Norris's weekly column), which declared “Oscars turn into blatant homosex-fest”, Focus on the Family, a host of bloggers and the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty Counsel, which seemed to endorse the Westboro Baptist Church's activities, saying “[Sean Penn] was protesting against those people who were out front who were picketing in favor of traditional family values.”

[Thanks Christina]

Loving life, living lent....

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Yesterday I blogged how the Church of England had joined the Twitterati in order to suggest ways to mark Lent with "simple acts of generosity and thoughtfulness in the real world". So of course it was with great anticipation that I logged on to Twitter this morning for their first suggestion. Here we go:
"Hi and welcome to our first Lent tweet. Give up your place in a queue to someone else."
Now I don't know who they've employed to dream these tips up each day, but when you start considering the practicalities this begins to resemble an unfunny Christian version of a Viz Top Tip. Contrary to popular belief, we heathens are all for acts of kindness, but how exactly is this one supposed to work?

Let's start by joining a queue in, for example, the post office. I've joined the queue at the back, so no point giving up my place just yet. But now someone's joined it behind me. So I give up my place to them, meaning I'm now 17th in the queue and that person's 16th. And now here's another person joining the queue. Do I now give my penultimate position to them? Or is one "act of kindness" quite enough for one day? Anyone joining the queue after my initial act can just deal with it and queue behind me. I was here first, that's my line, and I'm sticking to it. Except for that first time, when I gave up my place because the Church of England said I should on Twitter, because it's Lent...

Confusing stuff, isn't it? Silly little gestures dreamed up because the C of E wanted to get in on the Twitter craze and definitely doesn't have any jokes to tell. It looks even sillier when you see that on the same day the archbishops of Canterbury and York have launched an appeal for Zimbabwe and jointly condemned Mugabe in a piece in The Times to coincide with the start of Lent. Now that's something we can all support, and the Church would look a lot more credible if it stuck to things like that.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The Convention on Modern Liberty

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This Saturday I'll be attending the Convention on Modern Liberty, a national event taking place in London, Belfast, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Glasgow and Manchester. As the website states, the aim of the Convention is to address three broad questions:
  • Are our freedoms and rights threatened by an over-powerful state and if so how do we defend ourselves from this?
  • Are dangers to our security from terrorism and other threats, from climate change to pandemics being used to attack our rights, and how can we best defend ourselves?
  • How can we arouse sustained public interest?
The Convention were kind enough to invite New Humanist to be a partner organisation (hence the ad you see to the right of this post), and a look at the list of partners clearly demonstrates the staggering range of interests threatened by the erosion of civil liberties. So on the same list of partners you have organisations as diverse as New Humanist, the Christian think tank Ekklesia and the Muslim Safety Forum, as well as, to choose a varied range, Amnesty International, the Countryside Alliance, the TUC, the Football Supporters' Federation, and the anti-monarchy group Republic.

While at first you might think that New Humanist doesn't have the same direct stake in these issues as groups like, say, Liberty or No2ID, the events of the past few weeks have shown how the right to free speech can be threatened by the actions of the British government. The implementation twice in one week of new rules designed to exclude foreigners expected to engage in "unacceptable behaviour", firstly to ban the anti-Islam Dutch MP Geert Wilders from visiting the House of Lords, and then to ban the Westboro Baptist Church from picketing a play in Basingstoke, seems to have set a disturbing precedent.

In my opinion, Wilders and the WBC are both offensive and preposterous in equal measure, and purely in terms of what they were coming over to say/do it was no bad thing that they weren't allowed, but the idea that someone can be prevented from coming into the UK on the basis of their known opinions and what they are expected to say while they are here is worrying. As I read the Heresiarch saying earlier on the blog Heresy Corner, aren't we "the country that allowed Voltaire and Karl Marx - 'troublemakers' both - to come here to preach against religion and the status quo?" Wilders and the WBC may be devoid of credibility, and neither has anything remotely useful to say, but how long before someone is prevented from coming here that does? Imagine how useful a ban on "unacceptable behaviour" and an efficient immigration service would have been to European governments during the Enlightenment.

Since we signed up to the Convention on Modern Liberty, I've received requests for a "pledge" from New Humanist (as an example, this is the Institue of Ideas' "Challenge all curbs on liberty openly and rigorously ­ from libel laws to smoking bans, with no ifs, buts, or exceptions"), but as yet haven't had chance to come up with one. But the Wilders/WBC affairs have given me an excellent chance to think in depth about free speech, and in relation to those controversies here's what a pledge of my own might be – Defend the right to express unpalatable views, but always reserve the right to refute them with your own.
(Okay, so it's a far less eloquent variation on that old falsely attributed Voltaire quote, but what's wrong with that?) So Geert Wilders can come here and show his film, as long as we can tell him it's offensive, of no intellectual value and frankly rubbish, while the WBC can go and have their preposterous picket in Basingstoke, providing people can counter-picket in beautiful mockery.

So, that's just one major issue for New Humanist that ties in with the Convention on Modern Liberty. And looking at the choices of what to attend on the day, there are sessions on xenophobia, press freedom, faiths and freedoms, torture, blogging that all sound of great interest. Unfortunately the main event in London has now sold out, but you can find information on how to get your name on the returns list. You can also find information on the other venues here.

The Convention have also asked partners to share this video, which is a montage featuring famous faces who have offered their support:



Fred Phelps' message to the people of Great Britain

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One of the stories I didn't have chance to deal with in great detail while we were producing the magazine was the ban on the Westboro Baptist Church coming to the UK. Which means I didn't get chance to share leader Fred Phelps' YouTube message to us:



Come one, I really think it's time the people behind Westboro and Christian Voice just came forward and admitted to this very funny and elaborate hoax...

PS - if you watch the video to the end, you get the most ridiculus bit, and that's after just hearing Phelps denounce Basingstoke and Jacqui Smith: "For more timely topical Bible commentary go to Godhatesfags.com, Godhatestheworld.com and Priestsrapeboys.com".

Update: Annoyingly, as you'll see, the video has been removed from YouTube due to a "terms of use violation". Presumably that's because YouTube aren't massively keen on hosting deranged homophobic rants. You can still get it on the WBC's website though.

Twits from the Church of England

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If there was any fun to be had from Twitter, it's all gone now. The Church of England have joined in, and will be using it to promote their Love Life, Live Lent fun and games (previous attempts at making Lent cool include bishops shining people's shoes in the street, and encouraging people to build "prayer dens" under their stairs).

So now they're getting in on the Twitter action, and will be using it to urge people to mark Lent with "simple acts of generosity and thoughtfulness in the real world".

Okay, so let's not sneer too much at people encouraging others to do a few good deeds. But using Twitter? Surely those 140 character updates are best reserved for at best sharing jokes and interesting links, or at worst people telling you how their days are going, what they've had for lunch etc?

Anyway, I don't know exactly when the C of E Twitter launched, and I'm not setting myself up for a fall by saying they won't overtake us, but at the time of writing they have 201 followers to our 527. If you're on Twitter and not following us, we're on there as @NewHumanist – we promise there'll be no preaching from our tweets.

Date for your diary: Kenan Malik's BHA lecture on Race, Science and Darwin

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Just a quick note to let you know that tickets are now on sale for the British Humanist Association's annual Voltaire lecture, which will be given by New Humanist contributor Kenan Malik on 23 April, 6.30pm at London's Conway Hall. Here are the details:

"The Guilt of Science? Race, Science and Darwin": the 2009 Voltaire Lecture by Kenan Malik, chaired by Polly Toynbee

6.30pm – 8pm, 23 April, Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1R 4RL

Exploitation, oppression, war and genocide – ‘scientific racism’ helped justify all this and more. And no scientific theory provided more ammunition for racial scientists than Darwinism. So does science bear the guilt of ‘racial science’? How responsible was Darwinism for the outrages committed in its name? Was Enlightenment philosophy the ‘foundation of racism', as the historian George Mosse suggests, because of its ‘preoccupation with a rational universe, nature and aesthetics’? And did the scientific methodology help articulate, as the philosopher Emmanuel Chuckwude Eze believes, ‘Europe’s sense of not only its cultural but also racial superiority’? In the year that we celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, Kenan Malik’s lecture explores the relationship between science, race and Darwinism and challenges conventional views about the origins and nature of racial thinking.
Tickets are £5 for members of the BHA or South Place Ethical Society; £7 for non-members.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Magazine sneak peek: campaign copycats...

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Apologies for a lack of blog action recently – with a new issue to finish and send to the printers . . . you get the idea.

Anyway, to get us back on track I thought I'd share my favourite Parish News item from our new issue. It's about the Christian bus ads campaign, which I largely skipped over on here because of magazine production, and more importantly it's about never forgetting the Christian Party leader's hilarious past pursuits, having, by his own admission, "lived life in the fast lane" (read the music section of his Wikipedia):

Campaign copycats

As you will all by now be aware, the original inspiration for the Atheist Bus Campaign was an evangelical ad on the side of a bus. If they can do it why can’t we, thought non-believer Ariane Sherine – and thousands agreed. Now the game of copycat continues as the Christian Party launch their own bus campaign.

Their ad reads “There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life” and, in a huge compliment to irreligious design, it’s in exactly the same typeface and colours as the atheist campaign.

The Christian Party is a real political party, in the technical sense at least. It was founded in 2004 by Rev George Hargreaves, who previously stood as a candidate for James Goldsmith’s much lamented Referendum Party and who, during a period when he “fell away from the Lord”, wrote the timeless pop classic “So Macho” for the never-to-be-forgotten pop chanteuse Sinitta.

Thankfully he got back on the righteous path, where he could devote himself to serious issues like trying to get the dragon taken off the Welsh flag because it’s Satanic. And derivative bus ads.

Friday, 20 February 2009

"Reader backs evolution story"

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I've always been a big fan of headlines concerning someone "backing" someone/something else – it's a classic sporting cliché, often used in the wrong context. However, I don't think I've ever seen it misused in quite the same way as in this headline, which popped up via one of my Google alerts:

"Reader backs evolution story"

Backs the evolution story? You don't back the theory of evolution – it's not a football manager on a run of bad results, or a batsman under pressure to make a few runs. You back Wayne Rooney to prove critics wrong on his return from injury, or David Beckham to continue playing for England.

I was only really blogging this because of the headline but, if you're interested in where it came from, it's a headline given to a reader's letter in a Canadian newspaper. No doubt there were other letters "backing" the usual garbage. "Reader backs Genesis", "Reader backs ID", "Reader backs the Xenu myth". . .

National atheist student society launches in London

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Unfortunately we were unable to attend the launch of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) yesterday due to the pressing need to finish the next issue of the magazine, but since (I hope) there are probably a few student readers of this blog, you can read all about it in both the Independent and the Guardian.

You can find out more by visiting their website, as well as their Facebook page.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Pope to visit UK?

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Well, Gordon Brown's just been to see him and invited him over. Please, please, please let it happen. It'll be the best thing to happen to this blog since Sarah Palin.

Then again, he might just get turned back by immigration for being too intolerant...

Britain hates the Westboro Baptist Church

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We're becoming rather good at banning people from entering the UK. As if it wasn't enough to send Geert Wilders and his rubbish film Fitna back from whence they came, the Home Office have now stepped in and told the delightful Westboro Baptist Church that they're not welcome either.

Wilders was on his way to the House of Lords, but there was to be no such granduer for the WBC (heavyweight champions of the intolerant world?). They were planning on rocking up in Basingstoke tomorrow evening to picket a sixth form college performance of the play The Laramie Project, which tells the true story of a student who was murdered because of his sexuality. In announcing their plans to do this, the WBC kindly informed us (and I've been waiting so long for them to do this) that "God Hates England". They also let us know that Prince Charles is a "whore", which, whatever you think of him, seems a bit harsh.

One imagines that many of those who were so keen Geert Wilders being allowed in won't be quite so bothered about the enforced absence of the preposterous Phelps family. Either way though, this banning is getting a little bit silly/worrying, isn't it? Does the government now just ban anyone coming in from abroad who might have something unsavoury to say? Better, if you ask me, to let people like this in so we get the opportunity, as a society, to tell them what we think of them. I know a few people had a warm welcome planned for them in Basingstoke tomorrow night. I was even going to get some pictures for New Humanist.

[Apologies for only getting on to this story late in the day - we've been deep, deep in production of the magazine and are only just beginning to emerge from the other side.]

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The Creationist method in action...

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There's a nice piece by Stephen Moss in today's Guardian, in which he meets members of the absurd array of British creationist organisations (one suspects there are almost as many groups as there are members).

It's well worth reading, but I just wanted to share my favourite passage:

The theme of pastor John Benton's sermon in the evening is "Genesis and Evolution: Do They Fit Together?" He holds up a recent New Scientist cover, headlined "Darwin was wrong," as evidence that the scientific base for evolution is crumbling, that the Darwinian tree of life can be uprooted.

Hmmm. Have they even read the New Scientist piece properly? It wasn't exactly what they were saying, as PZ Myers pointed out recently on his blog.

Guns in church redux

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Nearly a year ago, I reported on a move by the Christian Coalition of Georgia, USA to support a proposed piece of legislation to allow congregants to carry firearms in the state's churches, because "many of the state’s megachurches would like the option of using their congregants as an informal security force."

And now the news reaches us that the idea of praising the Lord while packing heat has spread several hundred miles west to Arkansas, where a controversial bill could soon make it perfectly legal. Those supporting the bill claim it's the necessary response to a series of recent church shootings but, in a wonderful understatement, "several ministers are concerned about the negative effect that concealed guns could have on the peace and tranquillity of church services".

When I saw the Georgia story last year, I thought of this clip from Brass Eye, so here it is again:

Thursday, 12 February 2009

An insight into the mind of Stephen Green...

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From his latest press release, complaining about an essay competition organised by Kent police, intended to promote tolerance and discourage homophobia:
"I spent part of this morning mucking out a cattle yard. It brought home to me that a man who indulges in sodomy cannot be paddling with both oars in the water."
That's right. Where you and I would see a cattle yard full of cow shit, Stephen Green sees a representation of anal sex. Have we ever suggested he might be a tiny bit obsessed?

We love the idea of Green mucking out a cattle yard though.

Wilders to be sent back to Netherlands

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More breaking news – the BBC now reports that Geert Wilders is being sent back to the Netherlands after being detained by immigration officials at Heathrow. Apparently the Dutch ambassador to the UK was at Heathrow to show his opposition to the UK government's stance.

The showing of Fitna will go ahead at the House of Lords as planned.

If I'm blogging this in a rather matter of fact way, it's because I discussed my personal views on Wilders, his repulsive "film" and censorship at length in this blog post yesterday. One small point though - if you watch the video on the BBC website of Wilders arriving at Heathrow and the media scrum surrounding him, you'll see that by issuing this ban the British government has succeeded in giving the man the publicity he craves and allowing him to present himself martyr for the free speech he would happily deprive others of. I long for a day when we can just ignore people like him.

Wilders latest

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Just a quick update on Geert Wilders and the ban on him entering the UK (see yesterday's post for background). An email sent yesterday afternoon by Lord Pearson, who had invited Wilders to the Lords, stated that tonight's showing of Fitna is going ahead as planned, with or without the Wilders, but the hope was that he would be able to attend.

Now the BBC report that Wilders has landed at Heathrow and is being questioned by immigration officials. It remains to be seen whether he will be allowed to stay. I'll try to keep you updated.

Darwin Day treats

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Today, of course, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (likewise Abraham Lincoln, history buffs), so to celebrate we've delved into our extensive archive to bring you a selection of New Humanist articles related to the great man, the theory of evolution and the natural world.

First up, from our current issue, are a selection of poems by Ruth Padel, Darwin's great-great-granddaughter, extracted from her book Darwin: A Life in Poems.

Next, have a read of our Dinner with Darwin feature, produced last year for the 199th anniversary. Our editor Caspar Melville interviewed Steve Jones, John van Wyhe, Jerry Coyne and James Randerson about what they would ask, tell and bring Darwin if they could meet him today.

For the same issue as Dinner with Darwin, our commissioning editor Laurie Taylor had coffee with David Attenborough, during which the broadcasting legend discussed his own life on Earth. While Attenborough is keen to stress that he is not a scientist – "I have made no discoveries" – Laurie found that even his wonderful documentaries fail to do justice to his considerable scientific and moral intelligence.

Finally, if you're still looking for more Darwin, read this interview with John van Wyhe, director of the wonderful Darwin Online project, which last year made Darwin's entire private papers availble for free on the internet. There are links to the archives in that article – a fitting website to explore on today of all days.

Darwin Day lecture: Sir David King

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Last night saw the British Humanist Association's annual Darwin Day lecture take place at London's Conway Hall. Entitled "Can British science rise to the challenges of the 21st century?", the lecture was given by Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government, and chaired by Richard Dawkins.

I was in Conway Hall giving out copies of New Humanist, in satisfying contrast to the moustachioed character handing out Intelligent Design DVDs in the cold outside (I took one of his DVDs on the condition that he took a copy of New Humanist away with him, which in all fairness he did).

The lecture itself was absolutely fascinating. King set about demonstrating the central role science must play in the 21st century, arguing that "while you can govern without science, you can't govern well without science". If we are to deal with the major challenges now facing humanity – climate change, health and nutrition, energy shortages, water shortages, declining biodiversity, war and terrorism, rising population – then governments, and their people, must embrace science and give scientists the resources and support to tackle these challenges head on. Because science does have the answers to a lot of these problems – scientists just need the backing from governments.

It was a lecture that both inspired and terrified me, as well as filling me with both optimism and pessimism. I have never had the case for the urgency of dealing with climate change put so clearly to me before – it's not that I haven't read the arguments, or seen them on TV, but to hear so eminent a scientist as David King spell it out in person really hit home. The task facing all governments is absolutely immense – our own government has pledged to reduce our emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, but unless basically every developed country does the same, our chances of minimising the effects of climate change are negligible. And "minimising" is the key word there – King also made me realise that we're already well past the stage where we had any hope of actually stopping it. It's an enormous challenge, and unless governments can start cooperating in a way they never have before, it's hard to feel optimistic.

A section of the lecture focussed on GM crops, and this really highlighted the need for greater public understanding of science. King used the example of rice crops in Asia, which often suffer greatly from flooding (last year this was particularly devastating, resulting in soaring world rice prices and perhaps thousands of related deaths). Rice experts have actually found wild rice plants that are able to withstand several weeks of flooding, but that rice is not particularly edible. However, with genetic modification edible rice varieties could be given that characteristic to create an edible rice crop that can withstand flooding. This has been known about since the mid '90s, but it has not been done because of widespread laws against GM foods – had this flood-resistant rice crop existed, perhaps hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved in the past decade or so. It's a story like this that really makes you realise the damage that can be caused by an irrational fear of science (the Daily Mail's misguided and irresponsible campaign against "Franken-foods" was mentioned during the post-lecture questions), which can only be altered by efforts to improve public understanding.

So, as you can see, I enjoyed the lecture. Congratulations to the BHA for organising such a fascinating event. They have more coming up this year as part of their 2009 Darwin celebrations – we'll keep you posted on the dates on this blog.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Hypocrisy watch

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Melanie Phillips:
"The issue raised by the ... case is not one of freedom of speech. It is incitement of racial hatred. Context is everything. [His] statements are not a simple matter of gross historical error. They are not even merely an expression of prejudice. They are an active incitement to hatred. The real issue... [i]s the abuse of free expression."
Phillips talking sense about Geert Wilders? Hardly. Here she is writing about Holocaust denier David Irving, and why he richly deserves to be jailed and banned and not invited to the House of Lords for tea. As for what she says about Wilders, you can read that on the Spectator website. Completely different case, apparently, since one is a preening self-publicist keen to distort the facts to suit his twisted, hateful agenda, and the other....

Geert out of here: Wilders, the House of Lords and censorship

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The right-wing anti-Islamic Dutch MP Geert "Swiss Tony" Wilders (pictured) has once again succeeded in taking centre stage in a controversy over censorship and free speech, and this time it involves the government and parliament of these very shores.

Wilders, as you may know, is the man responsible for the repulsive 17-minute film Fitna, which depicts footage of Islamist atrocities alongside lines from the Koran, thereby implying that Islam as a whole is a violent, dangerous faith (if you can stomach it, you can watch it here). In Holland, Wilders has campaigned for the Koran to be banned, comparing it to Mein Kampf.

Regretably, in the past year or so Wilders has become something of a poster-boy for freedom of expression. He's currently facing prosecution in Holland for "hate speech", and now a proposed showing of Fitna at the House of Lords tomorrow means Wilders-related controversy has come to Britain. The showing has been organised by Lord Pearson of Ranoch, an anti-EU life peer who defected from the Conservatives to the UK Independence Party in 2004, and fellow Eurosceptic Baroness Cox, who is a cross-bencher. Due to oppostion from Lord Ahmed and other Muslim politicians the showing has been on-off for a while now, but yesterday it was finally confirmed for Thursday in a press release from Lord Pearson.

But now for the latest twist. Pearson and Cox have invited Wilders to the showing, after which it is intended that he will take part in a Q&A with the media. But yesterday Wilders received a letter from an Irving Jones, acting on behalf of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, informing him that he would not be permitted entry to the UK:

Dear Mr Wilders, The purpose of this letter is to inform you that the Secretary of State is of the view that your presence in the UK would pose a genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat to one of the fundamental interests of society. The Secretary of State is satisfied that your statements about Muslims and their beliefs, as expressed in your film Fitna and elsewhere, would threaten community harmony and therefore public security in the UK.

You are advised that should you travel to the UK and seek admission an Immigration Officer will take into account the Secretary of State’s view. If, in accordance with regulation 21 of the immigration (European Economic Area) Regulations 2006, the Immigration Officer is statisfied that your exclusion is justified on grounds of public policy and/or public security, you will be refused admission to the UK under regulation 19. You would have a right of appeal against any refusal of admission, exercisable from outside the UK.

Yours sincerely,
Irving N Jones
On behalf of the Secretary of State for the Home Department.

Unsurprisngly, this latest development has captured the attention of the national media (just to give a few examples, the BBC, the Telegraph, Reuters and the good old Daily Mail) and it's caused outrage among proponents of free speech, who argue, as would we, that the barring of an elected politician from a fellow EU country on the basis of a film he has made and his, albeit inflammatory, political views is wrong and sets a worrying precedent. For his part, Wilders has announced on his website that he fully intends to fly into London tomorrow, challenging the government to have him arrested by immigration officials.

Personally I find this whole controversy regreattable, as it forces me, as an opponent of censorship, to take the side of someone I would hope to only ever argue against. Having watched Fitna when it was first excreted onto the internet, I find its sweeping generalisations as to the nature of Islam, and by extention Muslims, repulsive and of no intellectual value whatsoever. It's a piece of irresponsible propaganda produced by a right-wing, anti-immigration politician, purposefully designed to manufacture the kind of controversy on which that politician, and indeed his brand of politics in general, thrives. But do I think he has the right to produce such a film? Yes I do – because in the direction of restricting what people have to say and, perhaps even worse, restricting their movement because of that, lies totalitarianism.

Which brings me to the showing of Fitna in the House of Lords. Again, it would be to support censorship if I was to argue that the peers involved do not have the right to organise the showing, but it's hard not to feel uncomfortable with the message portrayed by two members of the British legislature inviting Wilders and his film into the heart of our polticial system. The main man behind the showing, Lord Pearson, describes himself as "a UKIP Peer with a special interest in the European Union, Islamism and education", a political view that, it seems fair to say, would not have any representation in our parliament if only we had an elected House of Lords (there are, after all, no UKIP MPs).

But really this is beside the point. In banning Wilders from travelling, and so displaying a disturbing readiness to block freedom of speech, the government simply plays into the hands of Wilders and the supporters he seems to have in the UK, as the press release I received from Pearson's office just now demonstrates:
"The subsequent action by the Home Office to try to deter Mr Wilders from coming to the UK has, we believe, been rightly condemned by the Dutch foreign minister, and is a further example of the appeasement policies of the British government in giving in to the threats of militant Islam. We intend to show and discuss the film with members of the British Parliament and the press as previously indicated, with or without Mr Wilders."
The showing and press conference is taking place tomorrow at 1 Abbey Gardens from 6-7pm. I'm hoping to attend myself, so will let you know what happens.

Church of England bans clergy from joining BNP

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Here's a special treat for you – on seeing the news that the Church of England's General Synod voted yesterday to ban clergy from joining the British National Party, our esteemed cartoonist Martin Rowson drew this cartoon and sent it to us as a gift. We pass it on to you as a New Humanist Blog exclusive - just click on it to see a larger version.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Pretending al-Qaeda

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Getting on for two years ago now, we found ourselves eagerly awaiting the publication of Hassan Butt's Leaving al-Qaeda: Inside The Life And Mind of a British Jihadist. I mean, what could be more interesting than the true story of one young British Muslim's flirtation with the sworn enemy of the Western world? I even remember calling Butt's publishers on several occasions to enquire about getting hold of a review copy. Each time I called, the book had been delayed, although I was assured that they would send me an uncorrected proof as soon as one bacame available.

Funnily enough, we never did receive that review copy. The last we heard of Butt, he'd been arrested in Manchester because it was though that he was set to admit involvement in terrorist acts in the book, which was being co-authored by the freelance journalist Shiv Malik.

So it was with great interest that we read this morning of Butt's recent appearance at the Manchester trial of another man accused of terrorist offences, in which he admitted that he was "a professional liar" who had said what "the media wanted to hear". In short, he was a fantasist, albeit a fantasist who wanted to make some money out of the media interested in former Islamic extremists. He took everyone for a ride – spoke to the papers, grabbed himself a book deal with a large publishers and even got himself invited to advise government ministers on extremism.

But he was never a member of al-Qaeda, and he never recruited British Muslims to fight for the Taliban. I wonder if this will now draw a line under the rent-an-ex-Jihadi fascination we've seen in the past few years?

Monday, 9 February 2009

...and finally

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Our cartoonist Martin Rowson gave us a bit of name check on Start the Week today (you can listen again here for a week) - referring back to that infamous cover we did with Dawkins and Hitchens (that's it there on the right) - and Danny Finkelstein picked it up on his Times blog. Fame at last!

An alternative Thought for the Day

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If you're tired of only hearing religious voices give Radio 4's Thought for the Day, you may find some relief in the Humanist Society of Scotland's annual fortnight of rational alternatives, Thought for the World. They've kicked off today with a contribution from AC Grayling, and in the days to come you can hear podcasts from such leading humanists as Polly Toynbee, Mark Thomas, Claire Rayner and many more.

When Church meets State

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Anyone searching for reasons why Church and State should never cross paths need look no further than the constitutional crisis currently engulfing Italy as a result of Silvio Berlusconi's Vatican-backed intervention in the sad struggle to allow the end of treatment for Eluana Englaro, a now 38-year-old woman who has been in a vegetative state for 17 years as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash.

For an in-depth look at this story, I recomment this excellent report that appeared in yesterday's Observer but to summarise, Eluana's father Beppino has spent the past 12 years campaigning for the legal right to have doctors cease treating his daughter. Finally, in November last year, Italy's highest court ruled that to remove feeding tubes would be lawful. This was begun this weekend, but now Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, following a great deal of direct consultation with the Vatican, has issued an emergency decree that would ban the withdrawl of treatment from coma victims like Eluana, with a view to the later passage of legislation on the matter. But the country's president, Giorgio Napolitano, has refused to sign the decree into law, causing a constiutuonal crisis that encapsulates questions not only over the powers of the prime minister, but also the complex relationship between the Vatican and the Italian state.

It's an issue that feels familiar, given the interventions we've had from the Church of England bishops in the House of Lords over issues like assisted dying, though we've never had an instance like this where a political leader has backed the clerical line so firmly and publicly. What feels particularly familiar is the emotive language being used by those opposing Englaro's right to die – Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, the Vatican's spokesperson on "health issues" described the planned removal of feeding tubes as "monstrous and inhuman murder", while Church newspaper Avvenire accused the court of "necrophilia". Meanwhile, Berlusconi ensured the award for 2009's most disgusting comment was tied up in early February by stating that physically Englaro is "in the condition to have babies", adding "This is murder. I would be failing to rescue her. I'm not a Pontius Pilate."

It reminds me of the debate we had in Britain over the Embryology Bill, where clergy from both the Church of England and the Catholic Church (notably the Bishop of Durham and Cardinal Keith O'Brien) used phrases like "grotesque", "hideous" and "of Frankenstein proportions" to describe elements of scientific practices such as stem cell research. Few secularists would deny that there are legitimate debates to be had over issues like assisted dying and abortion, but such emotive language only serves to frustrate mature, rational argument and provide further evidence of the need to separate religion from the politics.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Bishop bets are off....

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We think any story that involves betting and bishops deserves blogging, and for that reason I want to pass on the news, found via Damian Thompson's blog, that "Bookie Paddy Power today forced suspended betting on the next Archbishop of Westminster after a torrent of bets were placed on Bishop Malcolm McMahon at odds ranging from 8/1 to a closing price of 5/4."

Now there's not really a great deal more to be said about this. We just love the fact that there are people out there betting on bishops. The thought did cross my mind that it would be amusing if there was ever a betting scandal surrounding a bishop – you know, like the match fixing allegations you sometimes get with snooker. Could the Pope have taken time out from welcoming back holocaust-denying bishops to put a few grand down on Bishop McMahon at his local Paddy Power? You know, that branch of Paddy Power in Vatican City...

Gower Street vs The Kremlin

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Having read the somewhat amusing story of how Vladimir Putin paid £20,000 to bring Abba tribute band Björn Again to Russia for a private gig (which he then danced along to behind a lace curtain), we were reminded of the time the real Björn paid us a visit here at the Blasphemy Lab.

Sorry Vlad...

[Bjorn Ulvaeus visited the BHA and New Humanist during a trip to London last September. He's a prominent supporter of humanism in Sweden, and I took this pic of him holding his copy of NH with, from left to right, Christer Sturmark, who's chairman of the Swedish Humanist Association, our editor Caspar Melville and Andrew Copson of the BHA.]

'God bless British People'

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According to Alex Massie over at the Speccie Tony Blair told a 'prayer breakfast' (two words that really should never be seen together, surely) yesterday that he almost signed off one of his big Iraq war speeches with the line 'God Bless The British People'. Just made me wonder, what if he had...

Back to work for the praying nurse

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Funny what a bit of publicity can do. Caroline Petrie was suspended from her duties as a bank nurse in Somerset on 17 December after offering to pray for an elderly patient's speedy recovery. Just over a month later the story became public – cue a week of tabloid outrage vs secularists backing the NHS trust's decision, that has now ended with the nurse being approached with a view to going back to work.

This is the what a statement from the North Somerset NHS Trust had to say on the matter:
"We have always been keen to bring this matter to a timely resolution. It has been a distressing and difficult time for Caroline and all staff involved."
So the big question is why has Petrie's suspension been dropped this week? Is it a coincidence that the decision has been reached amid rabid Daily Mail outrage – i.e. after careful consideration they realised it had been unduly harsh to suspend her? Or did the NHS trust lose its resolve in the face of said outrage? I can only hope it's the former, or we'll all be calling each other "golliwogs" in affectionate jest by the end of next week.

Either way, it seems the matter's now closed. Which leaves us with just one ongoing "PC gone mad?" row as the week draws to a close...

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Secular witch-hunts?

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The other day I got a little bit of stick on this blog for suggesting that, in my opinion, the suspension of a Somerset nurse for offering to pray for a patient might have been a bit harsh. In the end I wasn't arguing that her bosses were wrong to take action – I do think suspension without pay is drastic, but I also don't think people whose publicly-funded jobs put them in contact with the members of the public should be permitted to involve their religions in their work. Say a prayer in your own head by all means, but keep it to yourself while you're working.

I bring this up again just to pass on a link I just received from online magazine Spiked. Their commissioning editior Nathalie Rothschild (who has previously criticised the Atheist Bus Campaign) argues that the outspoken support secularists have offered for the decision to suspend the nurse suggests the existence of a witch-hunt to bring down anyone who dares to involve their religion in the public sphere.

Now, if you didn't agree with my suggestion that the suspension was harsh, you definietly won't agree with Rothschild. Thoughts please - how should secularists react to cases like the praying nurse?

The Edge of reason

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We blogged about Jerry Coyne's rather magnificent article for The New Republic about science and religion a few days ago. Unsurprisingly it has generated some heated debate, not least in the scientific community itself. Go visit the Edge to see what Dan Dennett, Steven Pinker, Lisa Randall, Lee Smolin, Sam Harris and others have to say on the never-ending subject.

[Via: Sam Harris]

Affectionate racism?

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Having flicked on the TV over breakfast this morning, I was subjected to the somewhat absurd spectacle of BBC 1 controller Jay Hunt debating the meaning of the word "golliwog", and whether or not it's racist, with the morning news presenters.

The reason for this, of course, was the row over Carol Thatcher's sacking from The One Show for using the word to describe a black tennis player off-air. Hunt pulled out the dictionary definition, which was similar to this definition I just found online – "A doll fashioned in grotesque caricature of a Black male", so any argument for it not being racist was quickly put to bed (and if you want any further evidence, the fourth Google result for "golliwog" involves the BNP trying to argue that banning golliwog dolls is political correctness gone mad).

So then the debate moved on to whether or not the word was simply used in "jest" (let us remember she was using it to describe a person, not to talk nostalgically about the evolution of the Robertson's jam brand). This reminds me of the debate over Prince Harry's "affectionate" use of the word "Paki" in the army and Prince Charles' "affectionate" use of the nickname "Sooty" for his Asian polo friend (interestingly, in a spot of breaking is-it-racist-or-is-it-not news, a shop on the Queen's Sandringham estate has just removed some golliwog dolls from sale and apologised, saying it "did not intend to offend anyone").

I don't think the Thatcher row, or the two royal examples, demonstrate that the individuals in question are racist per se. What I do think they might demonstrate is the impact privileged backgrounds can have on attitudes to race and racism. Having never been in social situations where use of such terms can be truly damaging, Charles and Harry fail to understand the true implications of "nicknames" like "Paki" and "Sooty", while Carol Thatcher is more likely to think "golliwog" is a jokey reference to an Enid Blighton or jam jar charcter than a "grotesque caricature of a Black male". "Sooty" may seem like an affectionate nickname when you're a Prince playing polo with an enormously wealthy Indian property developer, or "Paki" might seem okay when addressing a member of the Pakistani officer class at Sandhurst, but such words have far more damaging implications when they're used all-too-readily in the multicultural Lancashire town I grew up in. (And we'll save for another time my question of whether, if it is okay for Charles to call his Indian friend "Sooty", the friend is allowed to call Charles "Big Ears"?)

Anyhow, moving on from the debate (if you can call it a debate) over whether such terms are racist, an interesting slant on the story comes from Jo Glanville writing on the Index on Censorship blog. One of the unusual things about Thatcher's sacking is that it comes as a result of remarks she made off-air, in the green room backstage at The One Show. Her fellow presenters, not viewers (who never even heard the comment), were the ones who were offended and complained to BBC bosses. Glanville points out that this raises questions over the lenghths to which the BBC is now willing to go to police offensive comments made by it's presenters, arguing that "it extends the broadcaster’s expectation of its contributors to unacceptable lengths":
"Does this now mean that if someone catches Jonathan Ross making a tasteless comment in the local pub, and reports it, that the BBC will censure him? Or does this only apply when presenters are on BBC premises? If the Beeb wants to ensure that its presenters are gaffe free, it’s not only going to have to police them, but vet them for their political and personal views on sex, race and religion. That’s the implication of their decision to remove Carol Thatcher from The One Show."
It's a fascinating way of looking at this row, especially in light of the fall out from the Ross/Brand controversy. There's no doubt that the word "Golliwog" has enormous racist connotations, but should people be punished on-air for things they do off-air? I think I'll throw that one out to comments.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The West Wing of the Vatican

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Since we are on vaguely holocaust-related themes today (see below) I can't resist pointing you to this blog post from a few days ago by editor-in-chief of The Catholic Herald, Damian Thompson. Its revealing in so many ways - about Pope Benedict's plan to unify the Catholic church around a traditional agenda, about Thompson's enthusiastic support for this agenda, about the frustrations of Thompson and those others who support Ratz at the negative PR generated by the fact that notorious holocaust denier Father Richard Williamson has been welcomed back into the Catholic fold. But most of all it reveals the fact that the Vatican is like some kind of camp version of The West Wing, where the men wear the dresses.

Money quote: "What is the point of being theoretically infallible if so many senior curial officials are quietly briefing against you?"

Denying denial

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I have to be honest – Roman Catholic doctrine can be a bit confusing from time to time. I mean, just as an example, if you recant something, such as, oh I don't know, various statements in which you denied that the Holocaust ever happened, does this then mean that you didn't mean it in the first place?

Answers on a postcard, or as comments on this post.

The Pope and the Holocaust Denier

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No doubt many of you will have enjoyed sitting back and watching the Pope systematically shoot the entire Catholic Church in its undoubtedly large collective foot over the past week by reversing the excommunication of Holocaust denying priest Richard Williamson. I know I haven't covered the matter in any detail on this blog, but given the widespread media coverage I can't imagine many of you have failed to notice this RC PR disaster (I nearly said "unprecedented", but then I remembered all the other Papal faux pas).

The reason I bring the matter up now is that I wanted to point you in the direction of this excellent post by the Heresiarch at Heresy Corner. If you're looking for some detailed analysis of the Papal row from a secular perspective, then look no further.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Stephen Green's clarion call to unite Rangers and Celtic fans against Jerry Springer

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In a way, you have to hand it to Stephen Green. He just doesn't know when he's beaten – like a journeyman boxer he just keeps on coming back for his next fight, before taking the obligatory pummelling and then doing it all over again.

Take his protests over Jerry Springer The Opera – not content with having inadvertently brought about the abolition of the blasphemy law he tried to use against the show, and as a consequence having practically bankrupted himself, he's set to take the streets once more with his handful of followers to protest against a student production of the show at St Andrew's University in April.

Of course the Christian Voice press release is standard Green fayre, although one line did catch our eye. It seems Stephen is hoping for massed ranks of football hooligans to get offended by the St Andrews production, before dropping their long standing sectarian differences and descending on the university town to take care of those pesky blaspheming students:
"How long will it be before the message that it is now acceptable in Scotland to insult people's religious beliefs reaches the terraces of Ibrox and Celtic Park?"
We look forward to the warm welcome Green will receive when he shows up on the terraces of Ibrox and Celtic Park to recruit people to the cause.

The perfect formula for a Daily Mail column...

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Apologies for the lack of action yesterday - we were well and truly snowed off, unable to reach the Blasphemy Lab due to the complete collapse of London's infrastructure in the face of several inches of the dreaded white stuff.

With the news dominated by snow (Metro - "More snow news: pages 2-9"), I've been looking for anything else we might have missed. One story is that of a Somerset nurse who's been suspended without pay for offering to say a prayer for a patient during a home visit. It's always hard to get to the bottom of these stories – on the one hand it seems a bit harsh to suspend someone without pay, but then you find out that this wasn't the first time the nurse in question had been doing a spot of proselytising during her rounds, and you have to admit it's nice to see that the NHS does take a dim view of it's staff bringing their religion into their jobs, which tend to involve them dealing with the sick, elderly and vulnerable (classic targets for conversion, naturally).

Like I say, harsh to withdraw an income from the nurse, but you suspect this wasn't the first time she'd been told to leave Jesus at home while representing our public health service. Which in one respect leaves me almost in agreement with Daily Mail columnist and professional secularist-basher Melanie Phillips. Note, however, the emphasis I place on the word "almost" – Phillips thinks the punishment is a bit harsh too, but she also thinks it's a sign that our society is dying.

What follows could be the perfect Daily Mail column - take one story about a wronged Christian and another completely unrelated story about some rowdy Muslims who escaped arrest during the riotous Gaza protests, blend them together, and argue that they're signs of the death of Western civilisation.

It's that standard argument – Muslims can get away with anything, while Christians are persecuted by the secular authorities. By alluding to these unrelated incidents, Phillips makes the irresponsible implication that Islam as a whole is causing problems in British society, while good old benign Christianity is being forced into the margins. I know we're dealing with a Daily Mail column here, but what you wouldn't give for a spot of nuance. Yes, the Gaza protests did highlight worrying signs of extremism among sections of young Muslim protesters, but to present this as evidence that Muslims (with little distinction between the majority and a radical minority), by order of the government, can get away with anything in Britain is both dangerous and untrue (after all, I doubt terror detention laws have led to the wrongful imprisonment of many Christian nurses without charge). And perhaps the police backing away from the protesters in the video were too busy trying not to inflame an already charged situation to think about carrying out a perceived national policy of pandering to Islam.

But then again, what I'm saying is just political correctness gone mad, isn't it?