Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Virgin birth: Branson does the nativity

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Not content with claiming space for his corporate empire, Richard Branson has reached back in time to claim the Virgin birth for Virgin. Here's an advent calendar that appears to have been sent to customers of his Virgin Media TV service, depicting the "NaTiVoty" (a plug for the company's TiVo digital TV box).

Of course Branson himself is included, but not as a mere shepherd, or even a wise man bending the knee to the baby Jesus. No. You'll need to cast your vision skywards, for there he is, depicted as the Angel Gabriel giving the thumbs up to proceedings on the ground in Bethlehem.

Happy Advent, everybody!

[Via @IainH and @HollyMix on Twitter]

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik declared insane

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Anders Breivik killed 77 people in two attacks in Norway
on 22 July 2011
Just a quick post to note an interesting development in the case of Anders Breivik, the far-right extremist who killed 77 people in Norway in July. The BBC reports that the psychiatrists assessing him have concluded that he is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and is living in his "own delusional universe where all his thoughts and acts are guided by his delusions".

Of course, it's not really possible for a distant observer to comment on Breivik's individual case or doubt the psychiatrists' assessment, but their conclusions do raise some interesting questions. While Breivik's justifications for the July massacres represent the most extreme manifestation of paranoia about the "Islamification" of Europe, many of the arguments he put forward in 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, the rambling "manifesto" he released online on the day of the attacks, are in line with wider discussion on the European far-right about Islam and the erosion of "Judeo-Christian culture". (Kenan Malik points out how widespread these ideas are in his essay in our latest issue.)

While paranoid schizophrenia may have led to Breivik's murderous actions, many on the far-right share a number of the views that make up his "delusional universe", as, indeed, do several more mainstream commentators in the European and American press. Whatever conclusions the Norwegian courts may reach about Breivik, such people should not be allowed to sidestep the questions raised by the appearance of their ideas in his "manifesto" by simply dismissing that document as the work of an insane criminal.

Bad Faith Award 2011: it's Dorries by a landslide

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We'll be covering this properly in our January issue, which we're producing this week, but it would seem strange not to acknowledge that the poll for our Bad Faith Award, which we present annually to the year's leading enemy of reason, closed last night and that the winner is ... (drumroll, etc) .... the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries by a landslide.

It's been a fascinating race for the award this year, as for the first time in its five-year history one of the candidates took note of the fact that they had been nominated and began a campaign to ensure they emerged victorious. As many of you already know, Dorries, who was nominated on account of her twin attempts to change the law on abortion counselling and introduce abstinence-based sex education for girls, noticed she was in the running shortly after we opened the poll, and published a post on her infamous blog ("70 per cent fiction and 30 per cent fact") stating that "it's scary to think how many people out there hold such extreme views dressed up as acceptable in an online glossy magazine". Those "extreme views", in case you're wondering, were those of a "humanist" who had "recently commented that, not only did he believe that abortion was acceptable right up to the moment of birth, but that termination of a child's life was acceptable up until the point where the child had the ability to reason, understand and justify life".

This post attracted plenty of attention online, and Dorries, who had also taken the time to describe New Humanist as an "an anti-faith, anti-religious cult" in an interview with a local newspaper in her Bedfordshire constituency, quickly soared into the lead in our poll with over a thousand votes (having had just a few hundred prior to blogging about it herself). Unsurprisingly, many people (a good example being this post at Ministry of Truth) called on Dorries to provide a source for the "humanist" who had supposedly "recently" advocated infanticide, and justify why she had denounced humanists in general by means of this unsupported assertion, and she duly obliged by posting a second blog post, entitled "Humanists (2)" (thankfully she hasn't, as yet, ruined the franchise by releasing a third installment). In this post, the humanist who had "recently commented" on infanticide had become the Australian philosopher Peter Singer in the late 1970s, and Dorries cherrypicked some quotes from his substantial and complex work around animal rights and the suffering of severely disabled children to back up her assertion that humanists are in favour of abortion after birth. Dorries did not link directly to Singer's own work, or provide citations from his books, but instead offered a link to an evangelical website which had used the quotes.

By this point, Dorries had gained an unassailable lead in the poll, and her opponents, who included such heavyweights as the Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips and the Islamic fundamentalist Anjem Choudary, were left chasing shadows. By the time the poll closed yesterday, Dorries had gained 2,038 of a total 3,857 votes – a stunning 52.84 per cent share of the vote.

So, we can formally announce that Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, is the winner, by landslide, of the 2011 New Humanist Bad Faith Award. At this point it's well worth noting that, while there was plenty of enjoyment to be had observing Dorries' outrage at her nomination, and picking apart her sweeping generalisations about humanists (which, as I suggested at the time, in my view betrayed, in spite of Dorries' own claim to be pro-choice, her lack of tolerance for anyone who dares to speak out against the anti-abortion lobby), there is a serious point behind her victory in this poll. While it is not, obviously, a scientific representation of national opinion, the fact that more than half of people voting in this poll opted for Dorries serves to highlight the weight of opposition that exists to the attacks she has mounted on abortion rights and comprehensive sex education. With her bill on abstinence due for a second reading in Parliament next year, Dorries will certainly be hearing more from her opponents in the coming months.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Undercover investigation exposes evangelical church claiming to "cure" HIV

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Synagogue Church of All Nations has
branches in the UK, Greece,
Ghana and South Africa
An undercover investigation by Sky News has found that the Synagogue Church of All Nations (SCOAN), a wealthy multi-national evangelical Christian organisation with a branch in London, has been claiming to "heal" HIV, and instructing sufferers to stop taking their medication.

A Sky News reporter, who is a genuine HIV sufferer, visited SCOAN's branch in Southwark, south-east London,  and was told by a pastor at the church, Rachel Holmes, that the ministry has a 100 per cent success-rate in healing HIV. The reporter was told that they could "discard their medication after their healing and that they would be free to start a family".

Sky report that churches in Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow are also claiming to cure HIV, and state that "Medical professionals have told Sky News of at least six patients who have died after being told by various churches to stop taking their HIV tablets".

When given the opportunity to respond to Sky's investigation, SCOAN made the following statement:
"We are not the Healer; God is the Healer. Never a sickness God cannot heal. Never a disease God cannot cure. Never a burden God cannot bear. Never a problem God cannot solve.

"To His power, nothing is impossible. We have not done anything to bring about healing, deliverance or prosperity. If somebody is healed, it is God who heals.

"We must have a genuine desire if we come to God. We are not in position to question anybody's genuine desire. Only God knows if one comes with true desire. Only God can determine this.

"That is why, if anybody comes in the name of God, we pray for them. The outcome of the prayer will determine if they come genuinely or not."

Thursday, 24 November 2011

New Humanist Podcast November 2011: featuring FGM, religion in schools, atheism in foxholes and Bad Faith

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In our bumper November podcast, we bring you interviews with three of the contributors to our November/December issue, plus a discussion of the runners and riders in the compelling contest for our 2011 Bad Faith Award.

In the first segment (00:58), I talk to journalist Alice Onwordi, who writes in our current issue about the horrific scandal of girls from Britain being taken abroad to undergo Female Genital Mutilation. Alice explains what the practice entails, why it is considered necessary within certain African and Asian cultures, and why more needs to be done to prevent it (taking a girl abroad for FGM is illegal in Britain, but no one has ever been prosecuted for it).

Next, comedian Rob Deering tells editor Caspar Melville why he's frustrated by the lazy default Christianity being taught at his kids' primary school (08:37). The school is secular and non-religious, yet Rob has found that the teachers seem to frequently fall back on religious answers to some of the children's questions, usually, he suspects, simply as a way of sidestepping the need to offer a more complex answer.

In the third part, Caspar speaks to Royal Navy Petty Officer Chris Holden, who recently returned from a six-month posting with the Commandos in Afghanistan (16:30). During his time there, Chris says he lost count of the number of religious memorial services to fallen colleagues that he attended, and he tells us about the complex questions and emotions these services prompted for an atheist such as himself. Chris wrote about this for our November issue.

Next, Caspar and I discuss the race for our 2011 Bad Faith Award (23:00). After running through the shortlist, they explain why the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries has stormed into the lead with a staggering 52 per cent of the vote, having taken note of her nomination and gone public with her views on the matter. There's still time to vote in the poll until 28 November.

Finally (29:46), we end the podcast with a sneak preview of the newly-released audio CD of last year's Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, which is available for a mere £12 from the excellent mirth-merchants at Go Faster Stripe (the perfect Christmas present for those special heathens in your life, surely?). Sit back and listen to the incomparable Stewart Lee, a 3-year veteran of the shows, explains why he has actually grown to hate them.

To listen to the podcast, which is just over 30 minutes long, use the player below, subscribe via RSS or email, or download the full file via our podcast page, where you can also find the full archive of all our podcasts. We're also on iTunes - just search for "New Humanist" in the store and select the podcast subtitled "The podcast for godless people".

Thursday, 17 November 2011

South Park creators: Dawkins and the New Atheists have set atheism back a few decades

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South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker
When it comes to religion, the South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are equal-opportunities offenders, and it's an approach that has made them heroes to many atheists in age of heightened sensitivity around matters of faith. Last year, they stood up to the censors over the depiction of Muhammad alongside other religious figures in the 201st episdode of South Park (an episode which itself railed against hyper-sensitivity and censorship), and numerous faiths and belief systems have been lampooned during the show's 14-year history, including, famously, Scientology in the 2005 episode "Trapped in the Closet". More recently, the pair's latest project, the multi-award-winning Broadway musical The Book of Mormon, has seen them train their sights on the testament "revealed" to the 19th-centurt American prophet Joseph Smith.

In addition to fearlessly tackling supernatural beliefs, Parker and Stone have also satirised atheism, and in the 2006 South Park episode "Go God Go" saw Richard Dawkins enter into a passionate affair with South Park's transsexual teacher Mrs Garrison, having converted her from creationism to a belief in evolution. Much of the episode is set in the year 2546, when the world has become entirely non-religious, and several godless factions, each inspired by Dawkins, are at war over their interpretations of atheism.

Dawkins himself was unimpressed by his potrayal ("I’m buggered if I like being portrayed as a cartoon character buggering a bald transvestite. I wouldn’t have minded so much if only it had been in the service of some serious point, but if there was a serious point in there I couldn’t discern it."), and many atheists surely disagreed with Parker and Stone's characterisation of atheism as sharing religion's potential to descend into militancy and fundamentalism.

If you were one of those people, you may be slightly unhappy with Parker and Stone's latest take on Dawkins, which they put forward in an interview with the men's magazine Esquire. Asked about their positions on contentious issues, the pair point to the dangers of certainty and the importance of nuance:
'[T]he truth is that Parker and Stone, the creators of the decade's most extreme mass entertainment, are shockingly ... temperate. They say it themselves: "There is a middle ground, and most of us actually live in this middle ground." Consider the short film that launched South Park — The Spirit of Christmas.

On one side, Jesus demanded that Christmas be about remembering His birthday. Santa shouted that Christmas was about giving. They kung-fu-battled until they were rolling on the ground, strangling each other.

"The boys were in the middle saying, 'This is fucked up,' " said Parker. "Any side who thinks they're totally right is fucked up. That's the heart of every show."'
 They then proceed to apply this view to the debate over religion, and the work of Dawkins: 
'Consider, too, The Book of Mormon. For a play that includes the insertion of a holy text up a missionary's rectum, it actually offers a nuanced view of religion. Mormonism may be odd, but it produces kind, thoughtful, mostly happy people. "They always look like they're just about to break out into song anyways," Stone has said.

Religion has its upsides — a position that rankles hardcore atheists such as Richard Dawkins.

"He's such a dick," said Stone. "You read his book and you're like, 'Yeah, I agree with that. But it's the most dicky way to put it... I think the neoatheists have set atheism back a few decades. And I'm a self-described atheist."'
It is, of course, a common accusation levelled against Dawkins that his critique of religion is excessively forthright and lacking in nuance. What do you think of Parker and Stone's comments? Do they have a point, or are you disappointed that they have bought into the trend of depicting the "New Atheists" as unreasonable and aggressive?

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Baroness Warsi: Anjem Choudary and co are not Muslims

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Baroness Warsi
I'm aware that this is the second time in the last month or so that I've posted on arguments made by Baroness Warsi, the Conservative Party chair (take one here), but I was so bemused by her latest comments that I felt like I needed to flag them up here.

In a video interview with the Guardian's John Harris, Warsi discusses the recent banning of Muslims Against Crusades, the extremist Islamist group run by Anjem Choudary. She argues that the group's activities, which have included burning Remembrance Day poppies and supposedly establishing "Sharia Controlled Zones" in UK cities, mean that they can no longer be considered to be Muslims:
"From the Islam that I have been taught, and grown up with … and most people have been bought up with, it has to be rationed, reasoned, contextualised. Now if you detach reason from religion, then you are no longer a follower of that faith. If you are a follower of a religion that is so clear in its support of humanity [and you behave the way they do] then you are no longer part of that faith."
These comments are worth analysing further, as they relate to the argument that there is somehow a "proper" form of Islam that can be contrasted with extremist forms (similar arguments are made regarding Christian extremism), but it was Warsi's next statement that prompted me to write this post:
"Now I could stand up and say, I actually am Chinese. You take one look at me and say, 'well you're not Chinese, you don't look Chinese, and there's nothing about you that would allow you to say that'. That doesn't stop me from saying it, but it doesn't make me Chinese either. In my view, I fundamentally believe that the minute they detach reason from religion, they're not part of that faith any more."
With this bizarre statement, Warsi provides a useful example of the way in which concepts such as "religion", "race", "ethnicity" and "nationality" are conflated and confused in debates over multiculturalism and identity. By comparing Anjem Choudary's claim to be Muslim to her own hypothetical claim to be Chinese, Warsi seems to be suggesting that religion is equivalent to nationality or ethnicity – something that you are born into and permanently identified with, rather than a belief system that you can acquire and make a decision to actively identify with. Yet, in the case of Choudary, this doesn't work because she is arguing that he has forfeited his right to be considered a Muslim because he has deviated from the "reason" that she considers to be a key element of the Islamic belief system. And, even if we leave aside that problem, there's still an issue with her Chinese example, particularly if we consider it to be a nationality rather than an ethnicity – is it not possible for someone to acquire a national identity? Or do you need to "look Chinese" in order to be Chinese? (And how would this affect different ethnic groups within China?) You only need to try applying this to being "British" or "English" for a sense of how confused it is. And once again, it's hard to see how this works in relation to Choudary and co, who certainly "look Muslim", because Warsi is talking about what he believes, not how he looks. By that logic, do you need to believe certain things in order to belong to a particular nationality or ethnic group?

All in all, very confusing stuff, highlighting just how confused the identity debate can be. For a spot of sanity, I found myself returning to this 2008 essay by Kenan Malik, in which he debunks the notion that people's cultural backgrounds irreversibly define who they are. I highly recommend it, and not just because we published it.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Meditation in the classroom – followers of The Beatles' guru look to establish more free schools

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Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was "spiritual
advisor" to The Beatles in the 1960s
Followers of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi – the Indian guru who became "spiritual advisor" to The Beatles in the 1960s – have applied to open three more state-funded "free schools", having opened their first in Ormskirk, Lancashire earlier this year.
At the existing Maharishi Free School, which operated as a private school for 25 years before converting to a free school in September, pupils practise the guru's "Transcendental Meditation" (TM) as part of their school day. According to the school's admission policy, once a child has been offered a place at the school they are expected to begin practising the meditation before beginning to attend, and it is expected "that at least one carer/parent also learn TM at the same time as the child". As the British Humanist Association point out, the second expectation is particularly bizarre, as it "in effect places a requirement of faith-based practice upon the carer/parent".

The Maharishi School Trust has now applied to open three new schools – one in Suffolk, one in Hampton and one in north London. In an Evening Standard report on the Hampton proposal, the trust's Richard Scott espouses the virtues of a Maharishi education:
"Kids think more clearly, the mind is quieter and they become more responsive as a result of the meditation, and it comes through in their results."
However, the BHA, which campaigns against the growth of faith-based academies under the new free schools legislation, has questioned the benefits of TM, telling the Standard:
"There is no robust evidence to show that transcendental meditation is more effective than other meditation and relaxation techniques, or well-taught health education."
The BHA's opposition to the Maharishi schools is expressed in more detail on it website, in a statement from Faith Schools Campaigner Richy Thompson:
"The BHA have serious concerns, which we have been voicing for some time now, that Free Schools are extremely attractive to evangelical and pseudoscientific groups, who previously would not have been able to set up state-funded schools. The fact that the Maharishi School Trust is now proposing to create three schools, which would not previously have existed even outside the state sector, shows that this concern is becoming a reality.

Just as we oppose schools that propose to teach a particular faith as true, or as we oppose the teaching of creationism, we would also oppose schools that teach other beliefs not supported by scientific evidence but instead based on irrational dogma."
If the Maharishi applications are successful, the three new schools will open for the beginning of the school year in 2013.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Muslims Against Crusades banned ahead of expected poppy burning demonstration

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Anjem Choudary (centre) and followers present their perfectly
reasonable demands
The organisation run by the Islamist extremist Anjem Choudary will be banned from midnight tonight, hours before it was expected to conduct a "poppy burning protest" near London's Royal Albert Hall to coincide with tomorrow's Remembrance Day ceremonies (the group conducted a similar demonstration last year).

Well, that's surely the last we'll hear from Muslims Against Crusades, formerly the now-banned Islam4UK, which was formerly the now-banned Al Ghurabaa, which was formerly the now-banned Al Muhajiroun...

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

"Atheist" still the dirtiest word in US politics

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As the race for the Republican nomination for the 2012 US presidential election gathers momentum, and Barack Obama continues to struggle in the face of the faltering US economy, it's tough to call who will take office in January 2013.

These are unpredictable times, but one aspect of US politics remains constant – the American public would still not accept a non-religious president. The Public Religion Research Institutes's 2011 American Values Survey, which was released yesterday, finds that 48 per cent of all voters would feel "very uncomfortable" with an atheist president, with 19 per cent feeling "somewhat uncomfortable". Only 14 per cent would be "very comfortable", with 17 per cent "somewhat comfortable". By way of contrast, 64 per cent would be either somewhat or very uncomfortable with a Muslim president.

The way in which the survey results are presented suggests that the institute wanted to gauge how the public would feel about a Mormon president (i.e. Republican front runner Mitt Romney), and in that respect the findings are also interesting. While 53 per cent of respondents said they would be somewhat or very comfortable with a Mormon president, only 42 per cent of respondents actually knew that Romney is a Mormon. Meanwhile, the finding that 49 per cent of evangelicals do not believe Mormonism to be a Christian denomination could have implications for Romney's hopes of appealing to the Republican base in his campaign for the presidency.

Overall, 67 per cent of respondents said that it is very or somewhat important for a presidential candidate to have religious beliefs, which suggests that we are unlikely to see an atheist in the Oval Office in the foreseeable future. As the Friendly Atheist notes, this is despite the fact that atheists are one of the fastest growing groups in America – in the long-term, demographics would suggest that opinions toward the idea of an atheist president will change, but in the short-term non-believers must confront the reality that "atheist" is still one of the dirtiest words in US politics.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Daily Mail finally admits it was wrong about Winterval

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A poster for Birmingham's 1998 Winterval
promotion (note the word "Christmas" at the top)
It has become an annual tradition, almost as old as Christmas itself (okay, maybe I exaggerate slightly), for the tabloid press to run stories claiming that someone somewhere has "banned" Christmas in the name of political correctness, out of fear of "offending" Muslims, or atheists, or any other group that could not possibly bear to witness an end-of-year celebration rooted in the Christian faith.

Like all good traditions, the banning of Christmas required a founding myth, and the tabloids found that in "Winterval", a campaign that Birmingham City Council ran in 1997 and 1998 to attract visitors to the city centre. In the tabloid narrative, Birmingham had replaced Christmas with the politically-correct, sanitised "Winterval", excising Christianity (which of course in this view underpins "British culture" itself) from the seasonal celebrations in England's second city. The only obstacles for this interpretation were the facts – as Oliver Burkeman highlighted in the Guardian in 2006, "Winterval" was nothing more than a promotional campaign, running from November to January (so both before and after Christmas), and Christmas-related events and decorations continued as normal in Birmingham alongside the campaign. As someone at the council told Burkeman:
"We get this every year. It just depends how many rogue journalists you get in any given year. We tell them it's bollocks, but it doesn't seem to make much difference."
This year the Daily Mail got things started nice and early, with Melanie Phillips wheeling the myth out on 26 September, before getting into an angry email exchange with the blogger Kevin Arscott over the issue. However, in its corrections column, which it has been featuring more prominently following a pledge by editor Paul Dacre before the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, the paper has today printed a surprising clarification of this latest Winterval reference:
"We stated in an article on 26 September that Christmas has been renamed in various places Winterval.

Winterval was the collective name for a season of public events, both religious and secular, which took place in Birmingham in 1997 and 1998.

We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas."
This is a specific correction for 26 September, so it is perhaps too much of a stretch to view it as a collective correction for the countless occasions on which the Mail has repeated the Winterval/War on Christmas myth, but it will certainly be interesting to see whether it appears in the paper again. It's actually pretty difficult to imagine a world in which the Daily Mail doesn't refer to Winterval (just do a search for the word on their website), so I'm not holding my breath.

Update: Just as an interesting addendum, here's Mike Chubb, former head of events at Birmingham council and the man who devised "Winterval", explaining the whole thing back in 2008. (If only some journalists had read it then.)

Friday, 4 November 2011

Was the Met in bed with Islamists? My interview with Bob Lambert

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Robert Lambert
For the latest issue of New Humanist, I interviewed Robert Lambert, the former Metropolitan Police detective who ran the Muslim Contact Unit, a Special Branch team which, from 2002-2007, was responsible for working with Muslim groups within London to combat the influence of al-Qaeda sympathisers.

The MCU, and Lambert in particular, became controversial due to their choice of partners – in order to counter the activities of extremists such as the infamous Abu Hamza, the MCU worked closely with Muslim groups which are themselves viewed by many as hardline. In Finsbury Park in north London, where Abu Hamza and his followers had seized control of the local mosque, the unit developed a close partnership with two Islamist groups, the Muslim Association of Britain and the Muslim Welfare House, while south of the river in Brixton they worked with a group of black converts who follow a literalist Salafi interpretation of Islam.

Since leaving the police, Lambert has continued to attract controversy. He is now researches Islamophobia as an academic and runs the European Muslim Research Centre at Exeter University, which has received heavy criticism on account of being funded by the Cordoba Foundation, which has a close relationship with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (David Cameron has described it as a "front" for the Brotherhood). He has remained close to various Islamists, and has recently been criticised for supporting Raed Salah, the Palestinian preacher who is fighting deportation from the UK amid accusations of inciting anti-Semitic hatred.

The MCU's strategy and Lambert's relationship with Islamists are discussed in more detail in my piece, but the reason I'm also publishing this blog post is that the story took an unexpected twist after our magazine went to press. On 16 October, it was revealed in the Guardian that Lambert had worked as an undercover police spy in the environmental and animal rights movements during the 1980s. Under the name "Bob Robinson", he posed as an activist in London Greenpeace between 1984 and 1988, and even had an 18-month relationship with a fellow activist who was unaware of his true identity until the revelations broke last month.

Inevitably, the revelations about his undercover work in the environmental movement raised questions about his work with Muslim groups after 2001, not least for the groups that actually worked in partnership with him. In a statement, he has reassured his Muslim partners of his "ability to build genuine trust with groups campaigning for social justice" and pointed to his book on his MCU work, Countering al-Qaeda in London, as evidence of his "good faith moving forward".

While the revelations don't intrude directly on the subject of my interview with Lambert, clearly it will have to be read with this news in mind. For those who have criticised him for becoming too close to hardline Muslims, his activities in the environmental movement in the 1980s could be viewed as further evidence of an alleged tendency to "go native" in his police work. Meanwhile, for those sympathetic to his arguments around Islam and terrorism, his emphasis on partnership could be undermined by his history of spying on activist groups.

As you'll see if you read my piece, I end by considering where Lambert's arguments fit in to the wider debate over counter-terrorism and counter-extremism. Should the authorities simply be looking to prevent violence, or should they take a broader approach and reject all hardline Islamic groups, with a view to moulding a moderate, distinctly British version of Islam? The revelations about Lambert clearly have no bearing on these questions, but, depending on how you view them, they could be seen to undermine his own contributions to the debate.

See what you think – my article is online now on our main website.

French daily Liberation loans office space to Charlie Hebdo and reproduces Muhammad caricature in solidarity following firebomb attack

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The scene outside Charlie Hebdo's Paris office
following Wednesday's firebombing
Following the firebomb attack that destroyed the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly which features "guest editor" Muhammad on the cover of its latest issue, the leading left-wing daily newspaper Liberation yesterday published a four-page supplement featuring the Muhammad image and other caricatures from the Charlie Hebdo team.

The supplement was wrapped around copies of Liberation, which has offered office space to Charlie Hebdo in the aftermath of the attack, and saw the satirical magazine declare: "After their office blaze, this team defends the 'freedom to poke fun'." It featured new cartoons, including one described by Reuters as depicting "a prophet-like figure tries to restrain his billowing robes in a pose reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe as a draft blows up from Charlie Hebdo newspapers below him", and another showing "an airborne fire-bomb with a face in the flames and the caption, 'So, is this how you see the prophet?'"

There was also a piece by Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier in which he explained why the magazine decided to publish another Muhammad caricature, having previously drawn criticism and legal action from Muslim groups for publishing the 2005 Danish cartoons:
"We thought the lines had moved and that maybe there would be more respect for our satirical work, our right to mock. Freedom to have a good laugh is as important as freedom of speech."
Charlie Hebdo is also to print another 175,000 copies of this week's "Sharia Hebdo" issue, after the initial 75,000 quickly sold out.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Offices of French satirical magazine firebombed following publication of issue "guest edited by Muhammad"

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Charlie Hebdo's "Sharia Hebdo" edition.
The caption reads "100 lashes if you
don't die of laughter".
The Paris offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were firebombed overnight, just hours before the latest issue of the magazine, which is "guest edited" by the Prophet Muhammad, went on sale on news stands.

The publishers revealed the theme for this week's issue yesterday, announcing that "Muhammad" would edit the publication – which would be temporarily renamed Sharia Hebdo – to mark the victory of the Islamist Ennahda party in last week's Tunisian elections:
"To fittingly celebrate the victory of the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunisia, Charlie Hebdo has asked Muhammad to be the special editor-in-chief of its next issue. The prophet of Islam didn't have to be asked twice and we thank him for it."
The cover of the issue, which was circulating online yesterday, features a character, who is supposedly the Prophet Muhammad, telling readers "100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter". On the back of the magazine is another cartoon of Muhammad, this time wearing a red nose, with the caption “Yes, Islam is compatible with humour”. Charlie Hebdo was previously the subject of an unsuccessful lawsuit by two French Muslim organisations over its publication of the controversial Danish cartoons of Muhammad in 2005.

Speaking to the news agency Agence France-Presse the magazine's editor-in-chief and cartoonist Stephane Charbonnier, who is known as Charb, said:
"We don't feel like causing further provocation. We simply feel like doing our job as usual. The only difference this week is that Muhammad is on the cover and it's pretty rare to put him on the cover."
Inside the issue, an editorial explains that the "Muhammad" theme is intended to make a serious point about the success of Islamism in the wake of the Arab Spring:
“No religion is compatible with democracy from the moment a political party representing it wants to take power in the name of God What would be the point of a religious party taking power if it didn’t apply its ideas. 'Hello, we are the Bolshevik party and if you vote for us we promise never to speak of Communism' …Come on.”
The firebombing coincided with the magazine's website being hacked with a message in English and Turkish that read:
"You keep abusing Islam's almighty Prophet with disgusting and disgraceful cartoons using excuses of freedom of speech. Be God's curse upon you!"
Responding to the incidents, Charb said:
"We no longer have a newspaper. All our equipment has been destroyed or has melted. We cannot, today, put together a paper. But we will do everything possible to do one next week. Whatever happens, we’ll do it. There is no question of giving in.
The arsonists haven't read this paper, nobody knows what's in the paper except those who buy it this morning. People are reacting violently to a paper without knowing anything of its contents, that's what's most abhorrent and stupid."
Meanwhile, French politicians have spoken out in defence of Charlie Hebdo. Christophe Girard, a deputy mayor of Paris, tweeted to say that the city would assist the publication with finding new premises, describing it as "the duty of the republic" to assist the free press, while Jean-François Copé, head of the ruling UMP party, said the attack "serves as a reminder of what kind of acts can be committed by fundamentalists who manipulate religion for political ends".

One of the strongest condemnations came from Jean-Luc Melenchon of the left wing Front de Gauche, who urged the French people to distinguish between "a handful of imbeciles, numbskulls who will severely punished, I hope" and "the vast majority of our Muslim compatriots who practice their faith perfectly calmly".  

The president of the French Council for the Muslim Faith (CFCM), Mohammed Moussaoui, also said he "firmly condemned" the attack. The CFCM was one of the organisations that sued Charlie Hebdo over the 2005 cartoons but, while pointing out that "the very fact of caricaturing the Prophet is considered an offence to Muslims", Moussaoui said that the contents of this week's issue are "not on the same level".

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Refusing to take the test: TV medium Sally Morgan involves lawyers following Simon Singh's psychic challenge

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Many of you will be aware of the ongoing saga surrounding TV psychic Sally Morgan and the sceptics challenging her to take a test to prove her "abilities", but for those who aren't, it's probably a good idea to begin with some background. In September it was alleged that Morgan had been receiving information from assistants behind the scenes, after a woman who attended her stage show in Dublin reported that she had heard someone in a theatre control room saying things such as "David, pain in the back, passed quickly”. The suggestion was those in the control room had been eavesdropping on pre-show conversations among audience members, before relaying information to Morgan via radio during the show. Morgan strongly denied the allegations, and insisted that the headpiece she wears on stage is simply a microphone, and now a two-way radio as suggested by her critics.

Since the story appeared, speculation about Morgan's methods has continued, prompting science writer Simon Singh, in collaboration with the Merseyside Skeptics and parapsychologist Chris French, to issue a challenge – in the grand tradition of James Randi's "million-dollar challenge" to those claiming supernatural abilities, Morgan was invited to attend an event in Liverpool where she would take a test devised by French, as explained on the Merseyside Skeptics website:
"The test will involve photographs, which are an integral part of Sally’s usual show. Sally will be presented with 10 photos of deceased women and 10 first names. Then she will be asked to connect with the spirit of the person in the photo in order to match the name with the image. Those who have provided the photos will be in the room, but they are not known to Sally and will not be able to provide any clues or information, thus removing the possibility of so-called hot or cold reading."
(If you're interested in reading more about the test, it's explained in further detail here.)

The test was scheduled for yesterday (i.e. Halloween), and French, Singh and an eager audience all attended the event at Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel, but the chair reserved for Morgan remained empty. As you might guess, there was never really a serious likelihood of Morgan showing up, as she had already informed the sceptics, via her lawyer (more on that later), that she would not be attending.

But Morgan did find time to speak out about the issue yesterday in an interview with the Staffs Live website (she was performing her show in Hanley, Staffordshire last night), claiming the burden of proof lies with those who deny that she has the power to commune with the dead
“I don’t have to prove anything. They [the critics] have to prove to me there is no afterlife. I prove every night that there is an afterlife.”
Meanwhile, the story looks like it could become one about lawyers and libel rather than the veracity psychic abilities, with Simon Singh receiving a series of emails from Morgan's solicitor Graham Atkins. In the first email, which Singh published online at the weekend, Atkins writes that Morgan could take legal action over the campaign encouraging her to take the test:
"Sally Morgan has instructed us to take libel proceedings, if necessary, in relation to allegations that she is a cheat. Doing your test or any other test is not part of our plans for this case. You have been involved in a libel case yourself. You well know that we all have far more important things to do than take part in this or any other “test” at this point. She will not attend at Liverpool or at any other time. Maybe you and your friends can prove she is a cheat and/or a fraud instead. I know she isn’t, and I have known Sally a good few years."
A back-and-forth followed between Singh and Atkins, which Singh has published on his site with some (amusing) annotations. It will be interesting to see how this develops – as the British Chiropractic Association discovered last year, taking libel action against Simon Singh in relation to practices with debatable scientific grounding is not the world's most successful legal strategy.

In the meantime, I thought I'd close this post with a quote from Derren Brown, who ended his own comments on the saga last week by pointing out what could happen if Morgan did come forward and proved her abilities:
"Sally may decide to show the world tomorrow that she can really do it, and the course of human knowledge will take a sudden swerve to the left. We can look forward to her and other verified psychics working with governments and scientists and finally, perhaps, these proven individuals can engage with the forces of the departed in order to advance our race, help us find peace amongst ourselves and understand the nature of eternity, rather than merely pass on bland condolences or upsetting revelations from the Other Side."
Exactly. Come on Sally – we don't want to doubt you, but by choosing to restrict the use of your powers to £25-a-pop stage shows and £1.53-per-minute hotlines you're giving us no choice. But take the test, prove yourself, and you can change the world forever!