Moving on from Cologne

_87564582_030798902-1Friday 15 January 2016

Over the New Year’s weekend, reports that an organised gang of hundreds of men of North African/Arab descent attacked, molested, and raped women in the German city of Cologne were suppressed by the media. How could an attack like this happen? And why did the media not report it straight away?

The media was frightened. They thought that racist, right-wing gangs would respond to the news by marauding through the streets attacking any North Africans or Arab they saw. This fear, based upon a collective European history of Kristallnacht and pogroms, caused them to decide that running the story was too risky. When they eventually did, they explained really carefully that these people did not represent all North Africans and Arabs, as if pleading with a hostile population who could become savage racists at the flick of a switch. In the meantime, the victims of the attacks had been forgotten. The story became about the media protecting migrants. The motive behind protection is commendable, but the act is misguided. Yes, racists believe all Arabs and all North Africans are the same, but explaining that they’re not belittles the vast majority. Does, say, Al Jazeera really think most Europeans are violent racists just waiting for the right trigger?! This is the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Furthermore, by not discussing why these coordinated attacks happened and, instead, focusing on how these people aren’t representative, one leaves space for right-wing populists who are willing to have the discussions we’re not. Currently, in the United States, Donald Trump is leading the polls in the race to be the 2016 presidential nominee for the Republican Party. Trump should be a no hoper, but he’s far from it. His numbers keep going up and people continue to wonder why he has so much support.

In December 2015, at a campaign rally in South Carolina, Trump said that when he was elected president he wouldn’t allow any more Muslims into the country, his numbers went up again afterwards. A short incomplete clip was played on news shows the world over. If the whole sentence had been screened then maybe one or two careful listeners would have noticed something quite important. Trump, speaking in the third person, as all completely sane people do, said: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” (My emphasis) Less than a week earlier, a terrorist attack had taken place in San Bernardino, California. He did not understand why. Trump doesn’t understand Islamism; neither does his supporters, who increased in number. People aren’t idiots and if you treat them like idiots, they will treat you like an idiot. Since 9/11, the American people have been told that terrorism has no religion and that Islam is a religion of peace, but when they go online they see that Islamic State has cited the Koran as justification for another attack, or they see a suicide bomber screaming Allahu Akhbar before blowing himself up. This has left them with a stark choice: on one side they have the government saying that there is no link, and on the other there is the populist saying that there might just be a connection and that we’ve got to work it out before we can allow in any more Muslims. It’s understandable that some have sided with Trump over the government.

Safety is noble. Perpetuating ignorance to maintain the illusion of safety is doomed to failure. Not discussing Islamism has opened up a chance of real power for a fool who has no business being in politics. If we don’t openly talk about possible reasons why the events in Cologne occurred, then the same thing could happen in Europe, especially because at the moment we are being offered victim blaming, diversionary tactics and self-loathing instead. The Mayor of Cologne, Henriette Reker, said that women should try to keep an arm’s length away from all strange men, to which the Canadian polemicist, Mark Steyn, angrily responded:

This may work for Mayor Reker traveling around her fiefdom with a car and security detail, but, alas, out on the streets, men often have longer arms than women, and, when there are more than one of them, you can easily wind up out-armed: “Ich hatte Finger an allen Körperöffnungen,” as one young lady put it. “I had fingers on every orifice.”

Then there was Ralf Jaeger, the Interior Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, the region in which Cologne lies, discussing the right-wing response to the attacks: “What happens on the right-wing platforms and in chat rooms is at least as awful as the acts of those assaulting the women … This is poisoning the climate of our society.” The right-wing response is at least as problematic as the crime itself! Steyn again: ‘Maybe his cabinet colleagues might usefully stick some fingers in Herr Jaeger’s orifices, starting with his mouth.’

Finally, there was the Tunisian migrant living in Cologne who was interviewed on Channel 4 News: “It’s the fault of the German laws and not the people. Refugees and migrants who arrive have to wait six months to a year. During that time they can’t work and that means that often they turn to crime because they can’t make ends meet.” So, there we have it, the sexual assaults were the fault of Germany’s bureaucracy and the fault of the women themselves and it doesn’t matter anyway because the right-wing are just as bad as any rapist and we should focus on them. This is the nonsense we are currently being given. People don’t want to talk about why it happened, instead they skirt around the issue because, really, maybe we brought it on ourselves. This is masochistic stupidity and is because people are afraid of being called racist, which crushes debate and can have serious social ramifications for the accused. When talking about an issue as serious as this there cannot be any reservations, all ideas need to be put on the table to explain why it happened and how to prevent it happening again. Racist ideas will be shelved as racism is illogical and we need reason to work this out.To be told, therefore, that it is racist to even discuss why this happened because we are the root cause for our own downfall, as some have suggested, is disgusting! We have got to talk about this and it has to be now, because this wasn’t the first time. It is not an event without precedent, and that means it could happen again, which is terrifying.

In Sweden, at a music festival in 2014, and then, again, at the same festival in 2015, the police were afraid to report large gangs of migrants from Afghanistan who were attacking, molesting and raping young women because they were afraid of being labelled racist. Their youngest victim was 12-years-old. Twelve! Why were the police afraid of being called racist? I put a lot of it down to the rise of cultural relativism.

Cultural relativism is the idea that one has to take into account culture, society and history before deciding upon truth, knowledge and morality. Something considered bad or immoral within one group, may be seen as positive or good or at least not decadent by another group. No judgment can be made about the value of either of these positions without taking into account all factors or ideally being a member of the group in question. Someone who doesn’t consider themselves to be a member cannot comment upon the group’s issues of without bias. Cultural relativists insist that discussing something as important as how women are seen by those who grew up in another society, another culture, is beyond our grasp unless we truly understand them. What this means is that a discussion can be shut down quickly by shouting racist at someone willing to talk about these issues but opposed to this methodology. Being labelled as racist can cause someone to lose their job, friends and even family, whether it a justifiable accusation or not. Cultural relativism is twaddle; nonetheless it is potent twaddle because in its armoury it has the accusation of racism.

We have got to discuss why these horrendous attacks happened. What drove these people to organise large gangs in which they could attack women? The problem is that the cultural diktat over our society which states that it is racist to speak about the worth of another can be overwhelming. Even I feel a pang of reservation when I start to consider whether the way women are treated in North Africa and the Arab world could be better. Should I really be discussing this? Do I really want to wade into this tricky debate? The answers should be yes, but that pang still reverberates. I’ve considered the merits of posting this article more than once. I’ve also had to force myself to not bend over backwards to explain myself more fully, to not do the whole “what I’m not saying is… what I am actually saying is this…” I haven’t done that because I’ve got to trust that you, the reader, will take me at my word. So, here, for what it’s worth, is my take on why the attacks happened and how to try to prevent another one:

I am worried by how men in the Arab world, North Africa, and third world countries view women. These are not, despite what some say, the most progressive societies. Some may argue that rape is perpetrated by Westerners too, which is correct, but it does not occur in the same numbers and is viewed as evil, rather than a Friday night out with the boys. To play the Rawlsian thought experiment: say you are going to be born tomorrow, you know you’re female but you do not know the socioeconomic status of your parents, in which country would you prefer to be born? I can honestly say that I would want it to be a Western country. So, while some claim that the West promotes ‘rape culture’, I would, bearing that in mind, ask how one should define the culture in North Africa and the Arab world. Let me give an example, one which, as you will see, is not unique: the horrendous rape of Lara Logan, the CBS journalist, in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, in 2011, during the Arab Spring. This is a summary from Wikipedia, which is compiled from a transcript of the CBS show 60 Minutes:

She said the incident involved 200–300 men and lasted around 25 minutes. She had been reporting the celebrations for an hour without incident when her camera battery failed. One of the Egyptian CBS crew suggested they leave, telling her later he heard the crowd make inappropriate sexual comments about her. She felt hands touching her, and can be heard shouting “stop”, just as the camera died. One of the crowd shouted that she was an Israeli, a Jew, a claim that CBS said, though false, was a “match to gasoline”. She went on to say that they tore off her clothes and, in her words, raped her with their hands, while taking photographs with their cellphones. They began pulling her body in different directions, pulling her hair so hard she said it seemed they were trying to tear off chunks of her scalp. Believing she was dying, she was dragged along the square to where the crowd was stopped by a fence, alongside which a group of women were camping. One woman wearing a chador put her arms around Logan, and the others closed ranks around her, while some men who were with the women threw water at the crowd. A group of soldiers appeared, beat back the crowd with batons, and one of them threw Logan over his shoulder. She was flown back to the U.S. the next day, where she spent four days in the hospital.

Apart from having the good fortune to have soldiers plunge into a crowd after her, it reads like the attacks in Cologne and Sweden. I had forgotten about Logan until I read an article by a Swedish journalist, Ivar Arpi, for the Spectator. Arpi writes:

In the Arab world, it’s something of a phenomenon. It has a name: ‘Taharrush gamea’. Sometimes the girls are teased and have their veils torn off by gangs of young men; sometimes it escalates into rape. Five years ago, this form of attack was the subject of an award-winning Egyptian film, 678. Instances of young men surrounding and attacking girls were reported throughout the Arab Spring protests in Cairo in 2011 and 2012. Lara Logan, a CNN journalist covering the fall of Hosni Mubarak, was raped in Tahrir Square. Taharrush gamea is a modern evil, and it’s being imported into Europe. Our authorities ought to be aware of it.

If Arpi is correct, then Taharrush gamea explains why the attacks happened in the way they did, and is a perfectly good reason to double check the backgrounds of migrants and refugees. We cannot allow this disgusting practice to be imported into Europe. Maajid Nawaz suggested in the Daily Beast that “classes [on social and sexual norms] should be mandatory for new arrivals across the continent. These classes should form part of a citizenship, integration, and employment course, before residency permits are provided. In any case, they would help refugees come to grips with the strange new world they have just fled to, and can only make their job prospects better.” This is a great idea, one which, as he explains elsewhere in the article, is already being put into practice in Norway, the town of Passau in Bavaria, and, soon, Denmark. Let’s hope the rest of Europe follows suit.

Another way to go would be to follow the example set by Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. Trudeau, realising that 90 per cent of migrants are males and that the vast majority of that percentage are unaccompanied, “announced in late November that, starting in 2016, [Canada] would accept only women, accompanied children and families from Syria. Specifically excluded would be unaccompanied minor males and single adult males (unless they are members of the LGBTQ community); those excluded will primarily be older teen and young adult men.” Admittedly, Canada has the luxury of the Atlantic between its borders and the origins of most migrants, nonetheless this is a sound policy from a country that wants to help and is doing so logically.

Something which may deter attacks is to finally enforce tougher punishments for rape. If it doesn’t, then at least the current insincere punishments will have been updated. In the meantime, we must learn more about the way women and sex are viewed by those migrants already here and those making their way to Europe. If we are to adapt to their presence we must help those who want to integrate to do so. We need to learn how to live together, we must be proud of how Western society treats women, noticing that we are not at equity yet, but that we are far more advanced than from whence they came. New arrivals must respect other people, whatever their age, gender, sexuality or ethnicity. They are to be told that if they try to import their current standards, then they will be sent back. There can be no compromise. We must learn how to have these difficult conversations. It is imperative that we suppress both the fear of being labelled racist and of inciting a right-wing backlash, especially when the topic is so important that it concerns the safety of 50 per cent of the continent’s population.

And we must hold rapists accountable for their actions, even if, as one of the men arrested showed, they are full of themselves: “I am Syrian. You have to treat me kindly. Mrs Merkel invited me.” No, we don’t, you’re a rapist and you’re going to prison where you will learn fast or you will be deported upon release.


Sombreros: Campus Censorship vs. Free Speech

Pedro'sFriday 9 October 2015

Just over a fortnight ago, on 24 September, the latest in a long list of bizarre incidents occurred at my alma mater, the University of East Anglia. Several representatives from the Union of UEA Students (UUEAS) confiscated sombreros which were being given out by Pedro’s, a local Tex-Mex restaurant, to potential customers at a fair for local businesses held on campus during Fresher’s Week. The Union reps said that the sombreros were a form of ‘cultural appropriation’ and were, therefore, ‘racist’. The story was first reported by a student newspaper, The Tab, before being seized upon by the national press.

The Union reps did not claim that they themselves were offended, instead they decided that someone else might consider the sombreros offensive. Let that sink in for a second. They did not receive a single complaint about the sombreros (why the hell would they?). Instead they took it upon themselves to highlight what another person might consider to be offensive and then proceeded to ban it on their behalf. Why? Well, in the words of the Union’s Campaigns and Democracy Officer, Chris Jarvis: ‘we want all members to feel safe and accepted’. If there is a better example of doublespeak then I am yet to come across it.

I can’t say that ‘sombrero-gate’, as it has been named, came as a complete surprise. Throughout the United Kingdom students’ unions are embroiled in a push for political correctness (PC), led by the regressive Left who dominate student politics. They desire a utopia where nobody causes offence and they think that enforcing PC will achieve it. To them PC is appreciating and acting upon the knowledge that all people are different and thus see things in different ways. They believe that offence is the ultimate taboo and, even if it is taken inadvertently or retroactively, one must apologise profusely until they are forgiven. Special consideration is given to the feelings of people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, people who identify as a different sexuality or gender, and those who call themselves religious; therefore one must factor in how one’s speech, writing, clothing or action could be interpreted by one of these groups and act accordingly so as to avoid causing offence. The job of the regressive Left is to be the enforcer and make sure that we all cooperate. If we refuse then we risk being censored and blacklisted. Blacklisting, known as the policy of ‘no platform’, means that you are refused all opportunities to speak publicly on campus with or without a union official present.

The regressive Left believe that what they are doing is for the greater good. If they can prevent people from taking offence while, at the same time, opening the eyes of the privileged to the suffering of the dispossessed and the marginalised then they feel that curtailing free speech in pursuit of this goal is a necessary evil. As always, humans are all too ready to sacrifice liberty for security, not realising that they end up with neither. Offence is always taken, never given. If people want to consider something they have seen or heard offensive then no one can stop them, but what they do about it is more important. Do they debate with the party who caused offence, which could improve the understanding of both themselves and the offending party? Or do they act like a child: claim offence, complain, and wail until the offending party leaves or is forced out? The regressive Left favour the latter. To them offence is painful and causes psychological trauma which leaves lasting damage; hence, offending someone’s sensibilities is akin to abusing them. This is why they so strongly believe offence must be avoided at all costs. To do so they sacrifice the liberty of free speech for a heightened feeling of security. But that is all it is: a feeling of security.

I believe that offence – both being offended and causing offence – is necessary. It expands debate, offers ideas up to criticism, and improves or betters one’s intellectual position. In the past I have written in favour of Holocaust deniers and conspiracy theorists being able to express their ideas, explaining how their freedom of expression should not be diminished because said ideas might be considered unpalatable. They might behave like inconsiderate bigots – David Irving taking a group of Holocaust deniers to Auschwitz, for example, or 9/11 Truthers marching to Ground Zero – but free speech trumps offence every single time. For this reason their arguments must be given more protection than those holding mainstream views. The mainstream often finds it easier, and is ready, to shut down debate because it believes itself to own the final copy of the truth. I hate to sound like a broken record on this subject but ‘sombrero-gate’ and other incidents make me feel that I must repeat myself.

Freedom of expression must be free and must include the right to offend or it is not freedom of expression. I’ve quoted Salman Rushdie before so forgive me as I do so again: ‘you can’t slice it [freedom] up otherwise it ceases to be freedom.’ Let me also quote my soon-to-be step-father-in-law: “if you don’t like it, turn it off.” That’s not censorship. That’s not using a position of authority to order a decree of cease and desist. It is being a consumer in a capitalist market. I don’t like X; so I shall buy Y instead. I don’t agree with the views of Z, so I shall not read/watch them anymore. It really is that simple. When was the last time that someone forced you to read a Katie Hopkins article? You probably know that she writes some rather odious things for a living, yet you avoid her. She hasn’t been censored. She has the right to express herself and her newspaper, the Daily Mail, has the right to publish her. I defend Katie Hopkins’ freedom of expression. I defend Peter Hitchens’ freedom to express his belief that ‘addiction’ is a con and thus the concept of an ‘addictive personality’ is unfounded. I defend Brendan O’Neill’s freedom to express that transsexualism is a fad. These may be unpopular opinions, but the simple fact that they are unpopular does not mean that they don’t deserve the same protection as their mainstream counterparts. Freedom of expression protects the freedom of people you agree with and the freedom of those with whom you wholeheartedly disagree with every fibre in your body. That is how it works.

Unsurprisingly, the sombrero incident wasn’t the only time that the Union of UEA Students decided to censor freedom of expression.  In October 2013 the Union passed a boycott on the Sun newspaper, preventing it from being sold on campus.  People were, however, still allowed to read their own copy on campus. (In February earlier this year the Union voted to extend this boycott to include the Daily Star.) In November 2013, the Union put forth a motion to ban the Robin Thicke song ‘Blurred Lines’ from being played. Luckily, this was forced to a referendum (unlike those over the Sun and the Daily Star) and was comprehensively rejected by the student body (75.21 per cent voted against the ban). As part of the referendum the Union had to explain how the ban would work, even including protocol on what to do if a non-UEA radio station was being listened to on campus and the DJ chose to play the song: ‘immediately change the station,’ it said, without a hint of tongue in cheek. Each of these examples have similar approaches: make people ‘safe’ by stifling debate. So it was insulting when the Union’s Ethnic Minorities Officer, Hassam Hussein, put out an unctuous press release saying that the Union are ‘glad we’re having the debate’ about the sombreros, as if a debate consists of immediately shutting down the opposition. ‘We are just asking you to be aware of the possibility of mocking a culture, perhaps unknowingly’, Hussein wrote, not recognising the parallels with totalitarianism which keeps its populations docile through its ability to indict a group of people for a new crime which had not been a crime until they said so.

The most credulous aspect of UUEAS’s clamping down on free speech is that the reps seem to believe that the student body are easily brainwashed and cannot think for themselves. The Union imagines that exposure to the Sun, the Daily Star or Robin Thicke is like feeding a mogwai after midnight: men instantly metamorphose into rapists who hunt the vulnerable women reduced to tears after hearing the chorus of ‘Blurred Lines’ or seeing  why ‘Kate, 20, from Birmingham’ sometimes has back ache. Surely, if that were the case, rape on campus would have dropped since the boycott of the newspapers or spiked because Thicke’s song wasn’t banned. I’m sure it won’t surprise you that humans are not robots brainwashed by the media and that they can actually think for themselves, which is why no statistics have been published anywhere to reinforce the Union’s stance.

This surrendering of critical faculties is not solely the domain of those students clinging to power in the union of my alma mater. It is a problem with the regressive Left and is only most obvious in universities because they have managed to achieve power there. Pick another university, any university, and you will find an example. At Warwick University, last week, the Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists’ Society invited Maryam Namazie to speak at one of their meetings. Namazie is a human-rights activist who fled Iran with her family during Khomeini’s Islamist revolution; she subsequently renounced Islam and now works for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and several other secular organisations. Unsurprisingly, the students’ union at Warwick banned her on the grounds that her appearance would ‘incite hatred’ of the university’s Muslim students. The union only backtracked after Namazie found support in the media and on Twitter. They said she could attend pending a review, and shortly afterward said no review was necessary. Namazie proved that small victories can be won, but they will remain small because of the opposition’s desire to curb free speech for PC.

On 26 September, in Copenhagen, Denmark, just a few days before ‘sombrero-gate’ flared up, there was a conference to commemorate 10 years since the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. Douglas Murray, a journalist and Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society, a bi-partisan think-tank based in London, made a speech which he concluded by saying

Freedom never was a very popular idea. If you look back at history, at almost any phase – not just the mid-20th century which is all anyone seems to know about these days – but almost any period in history: most people weren’t bothered particularly about freedom. They wanted security, and they wanted safety, and they wanted a comfortable and an easy life, and they wanted to be cosy. Freedom of speech was only ever defended by a few people. Just as freedom in general was only ever defended by a few people, but maybe it only ever needed a few people.

Maybe it did, but it could always do with a few more. The Union at UEA are not the most prolific censors in the UK, but as they stand against free speech they should be opposed. A few days before the sombreros were confiscated, the T-Shirt Party, another Union event, was held. Each student was given a t-shirt to decorate in their own time however they liked. A few had written ‘YES MEANS ANAL AND NO MEANS YES’ on theirs, so Union officials forced them to change before they could enter. Making them change was wrong, and I defend the students’ right to express themselves. Nobody should feel ashamed because of what they decided to wear. Sound familiar? It should do, as this is what is said – rightly – in riposte when bigots complain about women wearing almost anything, from nothing to a niqab. The right to wear a t-shirt with crass slogans on it is as fundamental to freedom of expression as the right to wear a bikini. Defend both. If you need another example: defend the right of a Jew to wear a yarmulke, but also defend the right of a neo-Nazi to wear a swastika. The regressive-Left don’t understand that freedom of speech is universal. They want to choose who gets to have it and who does not. But if it isn’t universal it ceases to be freedom. I’ve chosen to sound like a broken record on this subject because so many people don’t get it. Being one of the few is an honour.

Charlie Hebdo, Binary, and Freedom of Expression


Friday 16 January 2015

James [Fenton] was unable to forget the embarrassment of an undergraduate dinner with [George] Steiner, in which he had overdone his own insouciance and had too languidly said that there were no great unifying causes left anymore: no grand subject of the sort that had sent Auden to Spain or China. Steiner had snapped at this Fentonian display of the blasé and told him to take a hard look at what seemed to be happening in Vietnam.

– Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22: A Memoir

Having studied the 1960s I have often wondered what it was like to be involved in an honourable struggle like the discussion over the morally corrupt Vietnam War. The quote – which describes a dinner in the late 1960s (probably ‘67 or ‘68) – highlights that everyone is liable to nostalgic tendencies, even as great a poet as James Fenton. Current events are difficult to string into a coherent narrative, they move by at the pace of life. We get drawn into idolising the past and we cannot see the wood from the trees. It has only been in the week after the attacks in France that I’ve come to understand what has been staring me in the face since my mother asked me to turn over to CNN on 11 September 2001. The major ideological battle of our age is the one concerning militant Islamofascism. The irony is that we – the West – are not one of the prizefighters in the ring, we have a ringside seat and sometimes the fight spills over and continues on our lap.

I’ve been a critic of religion for a while and an atheist for longer, but it’s only in the last year or so when I have started to consider the psychological aspect of faith. Human beings want to think in binary. By this I mean that in an attempt to understand events and their root causes we love to think that someone is certainly, or certainly not, something – an idea, a belief, a reason. That person is either a racist, or they are not. The Columbine massacre happened because of video games, or it had nothing to do with video games. The Kouachis butchered the staff of Charlie Hebdo because they are Muslims, or their faith had nothing to do with it. It was to do with immigration, or it was not. It was the West’s foreign policy, or France’s history of colonialism, or because they were crazy. Expecting one simple answer to be one hundred per cent correct is an elementary mistake and one of which we need to rid ourselves. Sometimes A happened because of B, but more often than not A happened because of a mix of parts of B, C, D, and E. To some this may be a truism, but from the last week of coverage vast swathes of our media and many of the most important politicians think otherwise.

Protest At Ground ZeroThe ‘à la carte’ nature of modern religion is an example of this. Christianity has a central core of beliefs which are followed by all variants of the faith (e.g. that Jesus Christ was the son of God). Outside of the core there is the Bible, Christianity’s holy text, which contains some beautifully written sections, but it also has depraved lines, passages and books. To name but a few: homosexuality is an abomination, slavery is common place, rape is a way to pick a wife, genocide is divinely mandated, and women are fundamentally inferior to men. Must one give credence to all of these concepts to be a Christian? No, mainstream Christianity has moved away from the majority of these repugnant ideas. If a man in holy orders were to state that God hates homosexuals, however, they would be correct because the Bible says God hates homosexuals. Any argument against this statement would not come from the Christian faith. This passage has not been struck out, but it is routinely ignored. Who’s to say that the liberal Christian is more of a Christian than the literal homosexual hating Christian? Both are Christians and neither speaks for the whole of their religious faith. One interpretation has more subscribers than the other, but both represent separate sides of a pretty serious division within their religion. Biblical literalism is an ongoing problem. Personally, I could not be more in favour of loose readings of holy books (so loose, in fact, that they aren’t even open).

In the aftermath of the attacks in France we have heard both extremes of a binary story. We have been told that these men do not speak for Islam, that they have damaged the religion, and that they were not Muslims in any sense of the word. Others have said that they are typical Muslims, that this was the true face of evil Islam, the fifth column inside Europe waiting to destroy our civilisation. To take either of these positions is to misunderstand Islam. Like Christianity, there are a core set of beliefs and practices which all Muslims hold dear. And, like Christianity, there are liberals and there are puritanical literalists who believe that some parts of the Koran and certain Hadith are more important than others. Both are Islam. Undoubtedly Saïd Kouachi, Chérif Kouachi, and Amedy Coulibaly were all Muslims. They spoke for a subsection of Islam – Jihadism. To listen to those who say that they were not true Muslims is akin to stating that Catholics are not really Christians.

2014-08-18 11.58.15
A visualisation by Information is Beautiful attempting to explain the various branches of Islam.

Islam has two major branches (the Sunni and the Shia), and those branches split into schools, which in turn can divide into movements. Jihadism is a movement out of Salafism, a subsection of the Hanbali school which has its origins in Sunni Islam. Jihadism is not a peaceful movement. I wish I didn’t have to type that, but I feel I have to because “Islam is a religion of peace” is being repeated again and again by those in power. This subdivision of Islam is not peaceful. Let me repeat that so that I am wholly understood: Jihadism is not peaceful. Islam has extremists, conservatives, moderates and liberals, like every other religion. Jihadism stands ululating at the violent extreme of the scale. Now, once again, to amplify what I am saying and what I am not: Islam is not a religion of peace; it is also not a religion of war as some English Defence League bigots would have us believe. The majority of Islam is peaceful, certain subsections are not. While these violent elements continue it is not possible to call Islam a religion of peace.

Nobody speaks for the whole of Islam, just their chosen interpretation. That goes for everybody: extremist, conservative, moderate and liberal. Furthermore, the actions of the Kouachis and Coulibaly were a direct result of the teachings of Salafi Jihadist Islam. Not in the name of, but as a direct result of the preaching of a very extreme and absolutist subsection of Islam. In the same way as some of those who voted against same-sex marriage did so because of a fealty to their version of Christianity, these men carried out these attacks in part because they believed themselves to be doing the work of God. As the Nobel Prize winning American physicist Steven Weinberg said:

Many people do simply awful things out of sincere religious belief… because they believe that this is what God wants them to do, going all the way back to Abraham being willing to sacrifice Isaac because God told him to do that. Putting God ahead of humanity is a terrible thing.

Devotion to Salafi Jihadist Islam will be in large part the reason why these men decided to kill those who they believed had insulted their Prophet. It will not have been religion one hundred per cent, to believe so is to capitulate to binary thought and would not explain why it was these men and not other Salafi Jihadists, but to deny that it played a role and claim that they were really lashing out because of, say, Western imperialism is akin to burying ones head in the sand. Radicalisation is an ongoing problem in both French and British society. We need to address what faces young Muslims and why some are being radicalised. I’ll go into this in greater detail next time, for now bear in mind that there is an ongoing ideological war within Islam between extremists and moderates. Terrorist attacks which take place in the West are mostly an attempt by extremists to attract other Muslims to their side. For us in the self-centred West it is difficult to understand this. As I said, I will explain further in my next entry, but for the rest of this piece I wish to address the discussion held by the media about freedom of expression over the last week.

Some have posited that, in some way, the fate of the staff of Charlie Hebdo was inevitable because their caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were racist. Asghar Bukhari, a founding member of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK (MPACUK), took a similar line during a debate on Sky News the day after the shootings. Bukhari opened by saying that “the images that they are actually drawing of Muslims and of the Prophet himself are racist. It’s like drawing a black person as a zoo animal or a Jew as an evil banker.” A week later Catherine Heseltine, another MPACUK member and former CEO, appeared on Channel 4 News and said “This magazine was pedalling a racism against the Muslim community, dehumanising a powerless and discriminated against group in a way that stokes the Islamophobia and the violence, in turn, that Muslims are suffering.”

Simply put there is only one race: the human race. Humanity is not subdivided into different races. There are different ethnicities, but not different races. Whatever your ethnicity, you and I are both human underneath. (Incidentally, this is why I dislike ‘racism’ as a term – it leads to people using the word ‘race’ to describe different ethnicities.) I actually think that the definition of a racist is someone who believes humanity is partitioned into different races. Regardless of what I think, in modern parlance racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” In the media there appears to be some confusion over whether Islam is a race. My favourite, ludicrous, example is from Big Think where David Ropeik, who also thinks religion had nothing to do with the attacks, wrote:

It was not being German that led Adolph Hitler (born in Austria) to form the National Socialist German Workers Party and in the name of a national tribe commit some of the most atrocious crimes against humanity the species has ever suffered.

Well, quite. However, Hitler did not form the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, Anton Drexler did, and the comparison is nonsensical. Islam is not an ethnicity/race because converting to or leaving Islam is a choice. One cannot choose to change their ethnicity, but they can choose to change their religion. The caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were not racist because they were a critique of an idea, not an assault upon a people. Here is one of the cartoons in question:

The speech bubble says "100 lashes if you don't die of laughter!"
The speech bubble says “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!”

See? Not racist. Islam has followers on all the major continents who all share the same core beliefs of Islam and they are not all of the same ethnicity. Once again, it is a belief, not an ethnicity. It goes without saying, therefore, that the asinine comparison between the caricatures and antisemitic or racist cartoons is spurious. One is racial prejudice; the other is criticism of a belief system. No belief system is above criticism and, in fact, all should welcome it because it is always a good idea to question why one believes something and to re-establish first principles. The axiomatic insecurity of religion is highlighted by the need to refuse questions about its foundations. (Strangely enough the prohibition of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad was a good idea initially because it rejected idolatry. However, as time has worn on, the prohibition has itself become a form of idolisation. One can name a person Muhammad – Atta, for example – without uproar, but drawing a picture of the Prophet is condemned.)

Similar to the concept that these cartoons were racist is the question along the lines of “why are cartoonists allowed to draw the Prophet Muhammad, but not a picture questioning the Holocaust?” (see Channel 4 News, Al Jazeera) This is, also, asinine as it is an idea played up against a historical fact. Simply put, the Holocaust is verifiable and provable; that Muhammad had the Koran dictated to him by the Archangel Gabriel is not. The implication is that if probing the Holocaust is not legal, then the Prophet should not be allowed to be questioned either. There are two points here:

  1. Laws banning the questioning of the veracity of the Holocaust oppose the freedom of expression. The French law – the 1990 Gayssot Act – is wrong and should be repealed.
  2. It should be plain with the evidence we have that Muhammad is technically on the side of the Holocaust deniers. That is to say, there is as much evidence pointing towards him having heard those voices as there is that Auschwitz was a Jewish holiday camp.

People actually spend their lives trying to prove the conspiracy theory that the Holocaust never happened, which is an improvement upon taking it as read that Muhammad was a prophet. Also, there is not a single country in which one would be killed for saying that the Holocaust never happened, but there are still countries where if you leave Islam – commit the alleged sin of apostasy – you will be executed. The comparison between questioning the Holocaust and caricaturing Muhammad is a poor one – six million dead human beings played off against, maybe, a blunt pencil.

18nz6sfmyw4aapngWhen neither of these two approaches have been chosen, the line becomes: while it is okay to caricaturise the Prophet because of free speech, Charlie Hebdo was a rather nasty magazine which created racist cartoons and gave fuel to the French far-right (see Irvine Welsh on Channel 4 News, Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman). I plead a Wittgensteinian defence on my knowledge of French culture, however I have read articles by people who know far more about France than I do who say that Charlie Hebdo mock racist attitudes, rather than incite them. To me, that sounds plausible when one considers that Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing magazine. If one knew nothing about American culture, or did not share the cultural similarities with the United States that we do, then upon viewing South Park for the first time one could infer that Trey Parker and Matt Stone are bigoted racists. The show draws and plays upon existing prejudices in an overt manner which to the uninitiated would appear incriminating. Until proven otherwise, I feel that I should give Charlie Hebdo the benefit of the doubt that I would want others to give South Park.

Nonetheless, let us play devil’s advocate for a moment: imagine that it has been proved conclusively that Charlie Hebdo is a racist magazine, does it matter? Not in the slightest, even if it is a racist publication it still has the right to publish. As per Salman Rushdie: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” People have the right to place their thoughts into the public sphere and everyone else has the right to test their own arguments against them. The late Carl Sagan wrote that “the cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas.” Freedom of expression gives people the right to learn and investigate for themselves. Democratic societies need freedom of expression, otherwise the society is neither democratic nor free. Taking offense does not equate to the need to censor.

The final chosen path of argument was one of self-censorship. Both Sky News and al Jazeera said they would not show the cartoons because they did not want to offend anyone. If that is true, then it’s sad. I would prefer to think that both were afraid of inciting a lynch mob. The pinnacle was on Channel 4 News when The Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson and novelist Will Self discussed self-censorship. Rowson, who had appeared on numerous networks discussing the tragedy, admitted that he does occasionally self-censor because the publications he works for will not print certain images. Furthermore, he said that during the controversy over cartoons depicting Muhammad in the centre-right Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 he did publish a cartoon depicting the prophet.

Will Self then put forward his view that “free speech comes with responsibilities… [the notion that] freedom of speech is some absolute right… is exactly the same as a religious point of view, interestingly. It places the ethics – human ethics – outside of human society… and that’s not the case. All rights have to be counted with responsibilities.” He also said that satire has to target the powerful and that Islamic terrorists “are not in power in our society”. While I disagree with him about his unspoken undertone, he has a right to say it and I am glad that he did not censor himself. Self-censorship is fine, I have no disagreement with the concept, just so long as people do not mind saying that they are censoring themselves because they are afraid of the consequences. Also, applying self-censorship does not mean that others should do the same. Will Self is correct: free speech comes with responsibilities, the greatest of which is to make sure it is unimpeded. Free speech has to be absolute and it must – must – include the right to offend. To, again, quote Rushdie – he has some experience of people trying to kill him for writing a novel, so I think quoting him twice is acceptable – “Both John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela use the same three-word phrase which in my mind says it all, which is, ‘Freedom is indivisible,’… You can’t slice it up otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hebdo… But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.” I cannot finish on a higher note than that.