Friday, 19 August 2011

Ricky Gervais on cover of Sept/Oct issue of New Humanist – on sale 25 August

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This blog will be a bit quiet for the next two weeks, as both myself and the editor will be taking well-earned holidays. I say they're well-earned as we've just this week finished producing what we think is a very good issue of New Humanist, featuring cover star Ricky Gervais in this rather sacrilegious pose.

The September/October issue is on sale on Thursday 25 August, in stores nationwide, including selected WH Smiths (use the store finder box on our home page to find a stockist). Inside you'll find our interview with Gervais, in which he discusses his new show Life's Too Short, offence ("You have the right to be offended, and I have the right to offend you. But no one has the right to never be offended") and losing his childhood faith.

There's also a magisterial essay by historian Stephen Howe on the continuing reverberations of 9/11, Jonathan Rée on the many varieties of irreligious experience, former Heat editor Sam Delaney questioning his faith in football (West Ham, specifically), Vicky Simister's eyewitness account of being excommunicated from the Jehovah's Witnesses, Owen Jones on "Chavs" and the rise of class hatred, James Gray on whether we can trust religious groups to deliver public services in Cameron's Big Society, and much, much more.

We'll be posting some content online in a couple of weeks, but for now we advise you get out on Thursday 25 August and get your copy, with the iconic cover portrait of Gervais by celebrated photographer Nadav Kander. Or you can, of course, take the rational option and subscribe.

Enjoy! And see you in two weeks.

Montreal police make arrest over "Dave Mabus" spamming of atheist websites

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Those of you who know the sceptical/atheist/humanist blogosphere well will be aware of a character who calls himself "Dave Mabus", who has persistently launched spam attacks on such sites, including our own, for many years. If you follow and converse with us on Twitter, you may have been subject to one of his onslaughts on there, where he bombards anyone he can link to atheism with abusive, and often threatening, messages before those on the receiving end report his account and get it blocked by Twitter. His attacks aren't automated either - it has always been clear from the nature of them that "Mabus" must spend hours at a computer, setting up new Twitter accounts when his previous accounts are blocked, and manually posting his comments on various blogs and web forums. While many of us in the atheist blogosphere have joked about receiving his messages, with a "Mabus spamming" being viewed almost as a rite of passage, ultimately the fact is that we have been dealing with the work of someone who is clearly mentally ill and in need of help.

The reason I bring all this up is that, just this week, police in Montreal have arrested a man suspected of being "Dave Mabus". It has long been known that "Mabus" lives in that city, as he has never been particularly good at covering his online tracks, and that his real name is Dennis Markuze (he even turned up at an event PZ Myers was speaking at once), and numerous people, including PZ, have attempted to get the police to take notice of his activities. While this might seem like an excessive reaction to an internet spammer, the "Mabus" messages, particularly those directed at famous sceptics such as PZ, Michael Shermer and James Randi, have often involved death threats, giving some of those targeted reason to view Markuze as a genuine concern.

Most attempts to alert the police have proven unsuccessful, but in the past couple of weeks a Twitter campaign by sceptics has succeeded in encouraging Montreal police to take the case seriously, and an arrest was finally made on Wednesday. The campaign, which involved alerting local Montreal journalists to the story and launching a petition encouraging the police to act, is a great example of online activism, and is explained in full in this comprehensive post by the sceptical blogger Tim Farley. It's a fascinating post, and well worth reading even if you've never heard of "Mabus" until now.

Now that this arrest has been made, it seems likely that the days of "Mabus spamming" are over, which means it's now safe to converse with us (and PZ, and many other atheist bloggers) on Twitter without being bombarded with abuse. That's certainly a good thing, but I think perhaps the most important thing is that the man behind the spamming may now receive the help he has clearly needed for many years.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The riots and moral decline

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If you're a regular visitor to this blog you might have noticed that I didn't post about the riots last week, the reason being I didn't really feel I had anything to add. The question everyone was trying to answer was "Why are they happening?", and the only response I had to offer was "I don't know".

Those three words aren't particularly popular when it comes to commenting on the week's news, but don't you wish we heard them more often? Would it not be refreshing to turn on Newsnight or the Today programme and hear a couple of pundits agreeing that they couldn't offer any definitive explanations for why rioting and looting had broken out in several English cities? It might not make for an explosive debate, but at least we'd be treated to an honest one. Because let's face it, no one really knows why last week's madness happened, but that hasn't stopped commentators pretending to know. In the last week we've heard that the riots were caused by the cuts, the welfare state, social exclusion, absent fathers, the decline of religion, the human rights act, rap music, violent video games and social networking, to name just a few.

I'm not saying that none of these things played a part (although some, such as the cuts and the welfare state, are mutually exclusive, and others, such as rap music or video games, are in my opinion ridiculous), but offering up one of them on its own as the explanation, as many have recently, doesn't really get us anywhere. In order to achieve anything, the debate over what caused the riots will require both patience and nuance, and neither of those play much of a role in current affairs commentary (this excellent post by the Telegraph's Tom Chivers was one of the few I saw that had the cheek to offer any of that).

One of the most common, and in my opinion one of the most useless, explanations offered has been that Britain has experienced a tragic and irreversible moral decline. Naturally, Melanie Phillips provided the most quotable version of this argument:
"So now the chickens have well and truly come home terrifyingly to roost. The violent anarchy that has taken hold of British cities is the all-too-predictable outcome of a three-decade liberal experiment which tore up virtually every basic social value.

The married two-parent family, educational meritocracy, punishment of criminals, national identity, enforcement of the drugs laws and many more fundamental conventions were all smashed by a liberal intelligentsia hell-bent on a revolutionary transformation of society."
To summarise: liberalism has brought about moral decline over the past 30 years, and this provides an explanation for why widespread civil disorder has broken out at this particular moment in time. You have to admit it's a tidy explanation. But as an excellent blog post by The Economist's Bagehot highlights, it's also the exact same explanation offered for practically every other outbreak of civil disorder or moral panic that has occurred over the past two centuries. It was used in 1981, 1974, 1958, 1956 (when the Daily Mail worried whether rock'n'roll and other forms of music were "the negro's revenge"), 1932, and all the way back into the 19th century, when people worried about the collapse of rural values in the face of industrial urbanisation. The Economist post, which is based on a 1982 book called Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears by Professor Geoffrey Pearson, even provides examples from before that time:
"In London, 1815 sees the foundation of the Society for Investigating the Causes of the Alarming Increase in Juvenile Delinquency in the Metropolis. 1751 sees Henry Fielding's "Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers" (Fielding fingered "too frequent and expensive diversions among the lower kind of people"). The seventeenth century saw moral panics about violent and rowdy apprentices, as well as about organised fighting among gangs (wearing coloured ribbons to identify their troops). Professor Pearson ends with the sixteenth century and puritan fears about, if not gangsta rap, popular songs that treated criminals as heroes."
Those who share Melanie Phillips' world view clearly look back to a golden age before liberals destroyed the moral fabric of Britain, but it's never quite clear when this golden age occurred. On this evidence, it could have been as long ago as the 15th century.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Non-belief on the rise worldwide

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This is the second demography/religiosity post in a row here, but I thought I'd alert you to another good piece on the issue, this time from the German magazine Spiegel. It reports on the efforts of sociologists to assess the global extent of non-religious and secular views, and again we are presented with some interesting statistics:
"Churches in the US are losing up to 1 million members every year. In Europe, secularization has advanced even further. The number of non-religious people, those who do not believe in God or any higher power, has reached approximately 40 percent in France and about 27 percent in Germany."
 And this is not just confined to the US and Western Europe:
"By now, non-believers have even infiltrated the churches: In a survey conducted by the Protestant Church in Germany, 3 percent of Protestants admitted that they did not believe in God. Church leaders may seek comfort in the idea that skepticism towards God is limited to Western Christian thought. China, South Korea and Japan, however, are commonly counted as being amongst the most secular countries."
As with my last post on the decline in belief in America, it's further evidence that there may still be life in the secularisation thesis.

In other news, we've just this afternoon signed off the September issue of New Humanist. There's lots to look forward to in that, and we'll post a preview later this week. 

Friday, 12 August 2011

Is America becoming less religious?

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I've just been reading an interesting piece on AlterNet about religious belief in the United States. The common perception is that the US is a far more religious nation than Britain or other Western European countries and, with the religious right seemingly growing in influence (you need only to look at the popularity of Republicans such as Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann), many would no doubt expect it to remain so for the foreseeable future.

However, demographic surveys suggest that religious belief is declining in the United States. In fact, it was in decline throughout the twentieth century, and it is declining more rapidly with every generation:
"Americans are becoming less religious, with rates of atheism and secularism increasing in each new generation. This demographic transformation has been in progress ever since World War II, but in recent years it's begun to seriously pick up steam. In the generation born since 1982, variously referred to as Generation Y, the Millennials, or Generation Next, one in five people identify as nonreligious, atheist, or agnostic. In the youngest cohort, the trend is even more dramatic: as many as 30% of those born since 1990 are nonbelievers. Another study, this one by a Christian polling firm, found that people are leaving Christianity at four times the rate that new members are joining."
I recommend reading the full piece, as the author Adam Lee goes on to offer an interesting explanation for why this is happening, suggesting that young Americans are turning away from religion because, as they become increasingly liberal in their views on issues such as sex, women's rights and gay marriage, the major denominations are becoming more reactionary.

The secularisation thesis may be unfashionable in the present day but, as this piece shows, perhaps it shouldn't be written off just yet.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Go-ahead for atheist festival on US Army base

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Earlier this year I reported on a dispute between American atheist and religious freedom organisations and the US Army over a proposed non-religious festival at the Fort Bragg base in North Carolina.

Rock Beyond Belief, which was due to feature Richard Dawkins as the headline act (speaking, not singing, I might add), was organised as a response to an evangelical event, Rock the Fort, which took place on the base last autumn. Sgt Justin Griffith, a soldier based at Fort Bragg and chief organiser of the Military Atheists and Secular Humanists (MASH), pointed out that the army would be violating the First Amendment of the US constitution, which guarantees government neutrality on religion, if it did not allow an equivalent non-religious event, and set about organising Rock Beyond Belief. The event was due to go ahead in April, but fell through due to various difficulties with funding and logistics, which Sgt Griffith blamed on a lack of cooperation from the authorities at Fort Bragg.

However, the organisers did not give up, and they have revealed this week that Rock Beyond Belief will now go ahead on 31 March 2012 on Fort Bragg's main parade field, with Dawkins again lined up as the star turn. Announcing the news, Sgt Griffith said:
"This just might be the turning point in the foxhole atheist community’s struggle for acceptance, tolerance and respect. It’s an amazing time to be a non-believer in the U.S. Military on the cusp of a major break-through."
Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which campaigns against religious discrimination in the US armed forces (we interviewed him in New Humanist a few years ago), also welcomed the news, saying:
"It's not a victory for atheism or agnosticism over any type of religion, it's a victory for the Constitution."

Friday, 5 August 2011

Smoke 'em if you've got 'em

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Unsurprisingly, the news that an amateur scientist has been trying to split atoms in his kitchen in southern Sweden has generated lots of interest. In this photo, you can see what happened when Richard Handl tried to cook Americium, Radium and Beryllium in 96% sulphuric-acid on his stove.

Looks messy, but what really caught my eye was the overflowing ashtray at the back of the stove. I suppose it makes sense – you need to steady the nerves when attempting nuclear fission, which surely makes 20 Marlboro an essential part of any controlled atomic environment.

(The photo's from Richard's blog, where you can read all about his exploits pioneering work.)

Dutch vicar tells his congregation: this life "will probably be the only one you get"

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An interesting report on the BBC website describes the efforts of Rev Klaas Hendrikse, a vicar in the Dutch Protestant Church, to offer a modern interpretation of Christianity free from notions of the supernatural. In one of his sermons, Hendrikse tells his congregation:
"Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get".
Interviewed by the BBC's Robert Piggott, the Reverend explains his philosophy further:
"Personally I have no talent for believing in life after death. No, for me our life, our task, is before death. When it happens, it happens down to earth, between you and me, between people, that's where it can happen. God is not a being at all... it's a word for experience, or human experience."
It's easy for atheists to joke about this kind of story, and no doubt firm believers would also find it absurd. But I think it's worth noting that Hendrikse's perspective (which is shared by one in six Dutch clergy, apparently) probably reflects the way millions of churchgoers (and followers of other faiths) feel about religion – for many, it's not about literal belief in the supernatural, or even the promise of an afterlife, but rather about accessing a mythology that imparts meaning and helps make sense of the world, as well as a like-minded community. This is made clear by one of Hendriskse's colleagues at the Exodus Church in Gorinchem, central Holland, the Rev Kirsten Slattenaar, when she explains her perception of Jesus:
"I think 'Son of God' is a kind of title. I don't think he was a god or a half god. I think he was a man, but he was a special man because he was very good in living from out of love, from out of the spirit of God he found inside himself."
Of course, atheists or agnostics may also dispute the allegorical value of the Bible, but that's a slightly different argument than the one over the existence/non-existence of God(s). There's a tendency in the "God debate" for atheists to reduce religion to its fundamentalist, creationist variety, and I think we risk underestimating the appeal of religion if we don't consider the kind of perspective taken by Rev Henrikse.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Creationist Everyday Champions Church passes to interview stage for its proposed Free School

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Earlier this year, we reported on how a creationist ministry, the Everyday Champions Church, had applied to open an "Everyday Champions Academy" in Newark, Nottinghamshire under the government's flagship free schools programme. The church was up front about its plans with regards to teaching evolution, with one of its members, John Harris, who runs a "Creation Science" website, saying:
"We have no intention of not teaching evolution in the school but my recommendation would be to not teach it as fact or science. Evolution should not be taught in science lessons – it’s a theory and as religious as any other theory. If you’re going into a classroom and saying, ‘We come from monkeys’ but without any evidence, don’t call it science.”
The ECC's plans prompted education campaigners to put pressure on the government to make it clear that the teaching of creationism would not be acceptable in free schools, and in March schools minister Nick Gibb MP gave the following answer to a parliamentary question from Julian Huppert MP:
"Academies and free schools will benefit from having freedom over the curriculum they deliver. However, we have been clear that creationism should not form part of any science curriculum or be taught as a scientific alternative to accepted scientific theories. We expect to see evolution and its foundation topics fully included in any science curriculum. Under the Government's planned reforms to school inspection, there will be stronger focus on teaching. Teachers will be expected to demonstrate that their subject knowledge is secure. If creationism is being taught as a scientific fact in science or any other areas of the curriculum outside denominational RE and collective worship, this would be noted in the Ofsted report."
While in some respects this did not go far enough, as the implication was that creationism would need to be prevented as a result of Ofsted inspections, rather than blocked before the school was allowed to open, the government appeared clear in its opposition to the teaching of creationism, and it seemed unlikely that we would be seeing creationist schools opening as a result of the free schools policy.

All of which makes it surprising to hear that the Everyday Champions Academy proposal has progressed to the interview stage of the free schools application process, with the ECC due to meet with the Department for Education this week. In a statement on its website last week, the ECC proudly declared:
"We are delighted to inform you that the ECA proposal HAS PROGRESSED to the interview stage of the process. This will be held at the Department for Education in London next week.

Following the interview, our application will be considered further and the outcome of the assessment and any next steps will be communicated to us by the end of September.

Should our application be approved to the next stage of the assessment process, we will be allocated a named contact within the Department to support us through the pre-opening phase of developing our proposed Free School."
Considering the government's position on creationism, and the fact that the ECC has been upfront about where it stands on the teaching of evolution, there should be no possibility of the ECA opening as a free school, so it seems strange that the Department for Education would allow the application to proceed to the interview stage.

Of course, it is possible that the interview stage is the point at which the DfE is able to quiz the ECC about creationism and conclusively establish that it would make an unsuitable contributor to the state education sector but, if it turns out in September that the application has been allowed to proceed beyond this point, some serious questions will need to be asked of the government.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Crisis pregnancy centres and anti-abortion tactics: an interview with Life's education officer

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This is a guest post by New Humanist contributor James Gray
New research published today by the charity Education for Choice reveals that a number of crisis pregnancy centres (CPCs) run by anti-abortion groups provide factually inaccurate information to women. One of the largest providers of this kind of counselling is Life, whose appointment to a new sexual health forum was seen by many as clear evidence that David Cameron was opening up government to the agendas of hardline faith-based groups.

I visited Life's central London office recently as part of my research for a forthcoming New Humanist article on the Big Society. As a believer in unrestricted access to abortion, I found the conversation with Life's education and research officer Niall Gooch quite revealing.

Life has cultivated a moderate image, strategically distancing itself from more outwardly militant pro-life pressure groups: the word “abortion” is not even mentioned on the home page of its slick website. I started by asking why this was. “It's been a deliberate decision to make ourselves stand out by not just being the guys in the corner wagging a finger,” Gooch explained, “but getting out there and saying, actually, if a woman's in crisis pregnancy she doesn't need someone having a go at her.”

Beneath the exterior of a modern social care charity, however, lie views every bit as uncompromising as the most aggressive pro-lifers such as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (who Life seem keen to distance themselves from). Gooch seemed uneasy when I reminded him of a Life teachers pack (PDF) that informs children: “abortion following rape often only ends up masking the crime and more often than not leaves the woman even more vulnerable.”

I asked Gooch if he understood that most Britons would regard this as an extreme position to advocate, especially in the classroom.“Yes, I think that it's an unusual view,” he said. “A lot of what we say is quite challenging, not something that's very popular, but it's only one hour out of their whole school career in a society which completely disagrees with us.”

If this is what Life does in the classroom, what about the counselling room? Are pro-choicers really expected to believe that Life's counselling is “non-directional”? “Our counsellors aren't interested in persuading women not to have abortions,” Gooch maintained, “they don't use images or videos or unpleasant arguments to persuade them.” Education for Choice's research very strongly suggests otherwise. Their undercover researcher, who visited a Life counsellor at the office where I met Gooch, was given a leaflet on vacuum aspiration abortion which said "the unborn child is sucked down the tube" and that "the woman should wear some protection. She has to dispose of the corpse."

I pointed out that if a woman came to Life considering an abortion and then decided not to, that must surely be considered a success. “I think to be honest our counsellors would be glad if people don't go on to have an abortion,” he conceded, “but I don't think that means that in the counselling setting, as professional therapists, they try and influence women.”

Life likes to tout its membership of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) as evidence of its impartiality, so I contacted them directly to verify exactly what membership entails. They explained that Life is an organisational member and as such agrees to abide by BACP's code of ethics. However, BACP doesn't vet organisational members before approving them and will only investigate complaints reactively. They also stressed that counselling is not an advice service - counsellors are under no obligation to give information to clients (although they could do) but are there to help them explore emotional problems.

The box of tissues in the counselling room where I met Gooch was a poignant reminder that many women who turn to CPCs are extremely vulnerable, often rejected by their families or partners. Counsellors may be the only people who treat them kindly and listen with sympathy. But that's precisely why it's so important they are properly regulated.

In light of Education for Choice's research I believe that BACP should immediately suspend Life's membership and launch a full investigation into it and any other CPCs on its books. I wrote to Laurie Clarke, BACP's CEO, this morning to urge him to do so. I hope others will join me.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Christian midwife sues hospital for requiring her to wear trousers

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An artist's impression of the
trousers not worn by Hannah Adewole
The seemingly never-ending run of legal cases involving Christians alleging persecution in the UK appears to have descended to a new level of absurdity, as a midwife sues a hospital for requiring her to wear trousers in surgery. Her justification? Deuteronomy 22:5, which states:
"The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God."
Hannah Adewole, who works at Queen's Hospital in Romford, is suing Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust for religious discrimination and harassment after she was ejected from an operating theatre in March 2009 for wearing a dress instead of the required scrub trousers. At her tribunal, which is ongoing, Adewole said she had been told at her interview that she would be able to wear skirts instead of trousers, thereby enabling her to fulfil "a mandatory requirement in order to adhere to the scriptures". She said she "was traumatised by the intolerance towards my religious needs" and said:

"I consider that the failure to meet my religious needs as respects the scrub dress and the hostile reaction to me when I raised this issue constitutes unlawful direct religious discrimination against me for being a Christian."

This, surely, has to be the most obscure "Christian discrimination" case to emerge so far. If bizarre and obscure verses from the Old Testament are grounds for suing your employer, perhaps this run of cases really will never end.

Update: Some readers, both in the comments and on Twitter and Facebook, have been suggesting other Deuteronomy-based reasons to sue your employer. There are worse ways to spend a Tuesday afternoon - fire away.

Anjem Choudary exploits Norwegian tragedy to publicise his "Sharia Controlled Zones" for UK cities

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Posters declaring "Sharia Controlled
Zones" have appeared in parts
of east London
Anjem Choudary, the outspoken fundamentalist who has made a name for himself with such stunts as protesting against homecoming troops in Luton and proposing a march through the town of Wootton Bassett, took advantage of the recent murder of 96 people in Norway to hold a press conference last weekend, at which he outlined plans to introduce "Sharia Controlled Zones" in UK cities.

Speaking in Walthamstow, east London, at an event organised by his group Muslims Against Crusades (formerly the now-banned Islam4UK, which was formerly the now-banned Al Ghurabaa, which was formerly the now-banned Al Muhajiroun), Choudary and his associates announced the launch of their "Islamic Emirates Project" – a "campaign to bring the Sharia to the doorsteps of London, Paris, Brussels and Rome" that is "approved by leading scholars and jurists such as Shiekh Omar Bakri Muhammed". This campaign, the audience were told, is the "perfect reaction" to the 22 July attacks in Norway.

The video of the press conference is online, and I've embedded it below, but since it's over an hour long I'll summarise what was said. In outlining his proposal, Choudary explained that, since Muslims in the West can not integrate "into the alcohol, pornography, drugs, prostitution, thug life and loutish behaviour that the cities of Britain have become accustomed to", the "only option" is to "bring home here in Britain" the "authority that the Muslims have in Somalia, Southern Iraq and Afghanistan". This authority, explained Choudary, would involve "enclaves where the Muslims take control of the security and welfare of their own people", with the eventual aim of one day establishing "the Islamic Emirate" in Britain, Europe, and the rest of the world.

In order to achieve this, Muslims Against Crusades have announced the establishment of 25 "Sharia Controlled Zones" around the UK, in areas targeted by the government in their anti-extremism Prevent strategy (posters announcing their establishment have already appeared in some east London boroughs). In those areas, said Choudary, his supporters will set about "encouraging awareness of Islam among the Muslims and non-Muslims" and "educating the Muslims to make sure they struggle to implement the Sharia wherever they are". Muslim residents will the encouraged to live in "enclaves, where they will trade with each other, resolve their disputes according to the Sharia, and protect and defend each other".

Exactly how the group intends to enforce this system became clearer when the press conference was opened to questions, and one journalist asked whether the plans amount to the formation of vigilante groups in the target areas. Choudary responded with the following:
"Groups have been formed and are patrolling in the streets in Tower Hamlets and Whitechapel, as well as Waltham Forest, Cardiff, Luton, Derby, Birmingham and other parts of Britain. Going up and down the streets taking the youth away from drugs, alcohol and thug life culture, sometimes even forcing them to throw the alcohol and drugs and bringing them into the institutions and telling them about Islam as the solution for their problems. If we can forcefully change any evil on the streets, if that is within our capability, we will do so.

Sadly much of the evil is linked with the government, so you can not stop the sale of alcohol unless you change the regime. Whereas thinks like drugs, crack, heroin etc are already forbidden by the government, therefore it is within our ability to change these things on our streets and even to drive prostitution out of our areas and to clean up the streets, basically in accordance with what we believe."
Asked whether he might be accused of setting up his own police force, Choudary responded:
"Yes, I think that is the case. There's nothing wrong with having our own police force. If the police are raiding and arresting us, harassing us on the streets ... if we are going to be living under the anarchy type of system, we need some sort of order and we will bring that. ... It is a fifth column and we will rise up one day and implement the Sharia."
All this, of course, is in many ways utterly preposterous. The atheist author Sam Harris tweeted the video to his 33,000 followers, suggesting it contains "a few reasons to worry" about the future of Islam in Europe. I have to say I disagree. Muslims Against Crusades are a fringe group accustomed to garnering disproportionate publicity through shock-stunts, and as such the "Sharia Controlled Zones" campaign should be viewed in a similar light to the aborted plan to march through Wootton Bassett in response to the respect shown by the town's residents during the repatriation of service members killed in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, Choudary's brazen attempt to exploit the atrocity in Norway for his own benefit should not be allowed to pass unnoticed. The fact that an Islamist extremist such as Choudary would use the actions of a far-right extremist in Norway as an opportunity to announce plans designed to sow discord among Muslims and non-Muslims (something that Anders Breivik might well approve of) highlights the manner in which multicultural communities in Britain are threatened by extremism on both sides.

On 3 September, the far-right English Defence League will stage a march through the east London borough of Tower Hamlets. Given that Tower Hamlets has one of the largest Muslim populations in Britain, this march is clearly intended to provoke, and it's hard not to draw parallels with the 1936 fascist march on the East End, which took place at a time when the area had a large Jewish population. While Tower Hamlets must contend with the EDL, it is also a focal point for the efforts of Anjem Choudary, and it is one of the areas where "Sharia Controlled Zone" posters have already appeared. When I spoke to Sam Tarry of the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate for my recent report on the demonisation of  Muslims, he told me he believes there is "a symbiotic relationship" between the EDL and groups like Muslims Against Crusades, with each requiring the other in order to survive.

Watching this video of Choudary proposing Sharia for the UK, this relationship becomes particularly clear – Muslims Against Crusades cite far-right extremism as the rationale for their campaign, and in turn the far-right will cite videos such as this as a reason for their own campaign against the perceived "Islamicisation" of Europe (the two groups even use the same terminology, with Choudary expressing a desire to establish "Eurabia" is the video). By actively rejecting the extremism of both sides, the majority can help threaten the very existence of groups like the EDL and Muslims Against Crusades.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Controversy in Yorkshire as "Religion" nightclub opens in Wakefield

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Back in my home town, we used to have a nightclub named "Heaven and Hell". As you might expect, it was a venue that only lived up to half of its name. It had three rooms, "Heaven", "Hell" and "Purgatory", the latter included, I would guess, only because the previous club to be housed in the premises, "Utopia" (the proprietors of such venues seemingly believe that transcendence is what the average provincial club-goer strives for), had also consisted of three rooms.

I can't be totally sure, but I don't recall anyone ever complaining about the name of Heaven and Hell. Of course, it's possible that his was because people were more preoccupied with the other reasons to be outraged at the club, such as the drug-use, under-age binge drinking and casual violence. But perhaps it was because the early-2000s, when Heaven and Hell was the place to be in our particular corner of post-industrial Lancashire, were simpler times.

For now, across the Pennines, controversy has broken out in Wakefield over the opening of a nightclub named "Religion", which plans to nights with names like "Friday Salvation" and "Monday Mass". Some of the town's residents, reports the Yorkshire Post, are outraged, and the Bishop of Wakefield, Stephen Platten has weighed in on the issue:
“Some of the names of the events are insensitive and inappropriate. Religion is about taking life seriously. Would people have been amused if they’d called it health, which is an equally serious topic, and named some of the rooms A&E and gynaecology? If any other aspect of people’s lives was taken and trivialised in this way I think people would be upset. In particular, in this case, it affects Christian people.”
Of course, you could argue that the Bishop's words suggest religion is about taking life too seriously (or devising bizarre analogies, for that matter). And his arguments certainly don't wash with the club's owners, Leisure 99, who defended their new venue's name:
“The definition of the word religion is a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion, which is what partygoers in the city are doing. We chose the term Resurrection for a Friday night, because the night-time economy’s suffering and we’re hoping to revive and revitalise it, as its definition suggests. The same is true of Salvation, and the word Mass was chosen because it’s a massive Monday night of massive music.”
While it's tempting to end this post by complimenting the unassailable rationale behind "Monday Mass", it's worth noting that some of those objecting to the club have suggested that the owners would not have dared co-opt Muslim terms in such sacrilegious fashion. Indeed, while defending the rights of the club owners to commit blasphemy, Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance pointed out to the Yorkshire Post "the club might be living under police protection had they been promoting club nights called Jihad or Ramadan".

Perhaps so. But thinking back to some of the incidents I witnessed in the halcyon days of Heaven and Hell, I have to say that "Jihad" might have been an entirely appropriate name for a night at that particular venue.