January 2012

The BBC has posted an essay on Sharia courts in the United Kingdom. There are voices of support and opposition to the things – mostly centred on the question of whether they’re biased against women. Me, I’m not just interested in specific views of these atypical arbiters but the ideological basis they’re proceeding from. A witness for the defence is Sheikh Haitham al-Haddad, who’s said to represent the Islamic Sharia Council, the largest Sharia body in the UK…

‘Our cases have easily more than tripled over the past three to five years,” says Sheikh al-Haddad.

”On average, every month we can deal with anything from 200 to 300 cases. A few years ago it was just a small fraction of that.

”Muslims are becoming more aligned with their faith and more aware of what we are offering them,” he explained.

Being a curious soul, I looked up the Sheikh and found an essay on whether Muslims should vote in the UK. It’s a tough question for many of us but ol’ Sheikh H-H doesn’t approach it from the normal angle – that the Tories, Labour and the Liberals are a pretty miserable bunch of options – but the more outre opinion that it might be contradictory to God’s commandments. His answer is that it’s not. But for interesting reasons…

…it is obligatory for those Muslims living under the shadow of man-made law to take all the necessary steps and means to make the law of Allah, the Creator and the Sustainer, supreme and manifest in all aspects of life. If they are unable to do so, then it becomes obligatory for them to strive to minimise the evil and maximise the good.In democratic countries which are ruled by man-made law, candidates from the various parties compete to attain power. Some of these parties or candidates are working against the benefit of humanity (i.e. against the law of the Creator), while the policies of others are less detrimental. Therefore, it is obligatory on the Muslims to utilise all means to promote the candidate who will best ensure the welfare of the people according to Islam, the law of their Creator, to be elected to the decision-making posts.

“The shadow of man-made law”, eh? You’ll be unsurprised to hear that al-Haddad yearns for a time when “the divine system is dominant”. This is not a rare opinion among such legislators. They don’t think their rulings should be limited to civil cases; they’re just the only ones they’ve got. The website of his organisation throws up some intriguing stuff. Asked about statements claiming that “shariah law [is] barbaric“, an anonymous prosecutor responds

Look at the current systems in placed and see their results and compare them to those countries using Islamic criminal law. The results are overwhelmingly supporting for the implementation of shariah law.

They are, are they? This mildly ironic because al-Haddad is quoted in the Beeb’s article as saying that…

If you ban us, then British Muslims will find somewhere else to go.

Many will go to Muslim countries abroad, where there will be no way to protect them.

Anyone who holds the views that al-Haddad propounds is welcome to go to Muslim countries abroad. I’ll go even further: they’re welcome to remain there. There’s hardly a shortage of countries who’ve instituted Islamic law as the basis of their legislation. If they’re so keen I’m sure they’ll have a whale of a time. Meanwhile, though, I’m supportive of attempts to minimise their influence within our society.

The Observer’s Barbara Ellen is smug about her vegetarianism. Why? Well, a recent study has shown that consumption of processed meats could increase the risk of pancreatic cancer…

Analysis of more than 6,000 pancreatic cancer cases published in the British Journal of Cancer says that eating just 50g of processed meat a day (one sausage or a couple of slices of bacon) raises the likelihood of pancreatic cancer by a fifth. 100g a day (the equivalent of a medium burger) raises it by 38%, 150g by 57%.

Sounds frightening. But, then again, if we stroll over to the research that Ellen is considering we’re told

About 8,090 people were diagnosed with the disease in the UK in 2008 – three per cent of all cancer cases — and around 7,780 people died from it.

The risk of getting pancreatic cancer seems pretty small so while you may increase it with your sausages, salami and bacon strips you’re unlikely to place yourself in mortal danger. A review by Cancer Research UK suggested that 2.7% of cancer cases “may” have been linked to the meats in the patients’ diets – below the proportion of cases that “may” have been linked to UV radiation (3%), alcohol (4%), deficiencies of fruit n’ veg (4.7) and obesity (5.5). In other words, if an Observer reader is lifting a breakfast sausage to their mouth as they peruse the commentary section they have little cause to hurl the thing across the room like a big, greasy dart. If the pleasure that you take from something is more consequential than the benefits of abstaining from it then, well – do what’s right for you.

Yet, while a little thought would have revealed to Ellen that these findings aren’t all that dramatic, she seems to think they’re equivalent to the discovery that fags are rotten for your lungs. She says she’d never go back to her carnivorous ways…

…because, frankly, I’m not stupid enough. As in, I can read.

Meat eaters – all meat eaters – are, to her, a bunch of dumbasses…

With this in mind, isn’t it time to ask, exactly how thick, how hard to educate, are meat eaters and why aren’t they held accountable in the same way everyone else is?

Their foolishness baffles her…

It’s not as if they haven’t been warned countless times about the dangers – how wilfully ill-informed can people be?

For all I’ve criticised this article, I’ll admit it’s offered us a glimpse of how wilfully ill-informed people can be. It’s the wilful ignorance of the columnist: a breed of people who enshrine their prejudices as established facts and moral absolutes with a blithe assurance that’s fascinating. It’s characteristic of most people who hold forth on social and philosophical affairs, of course – yes, yes, including me at times – but it’s rather galling when people are paid for it.

I never “went” vegetarian, incidentally. In a brief, Singer-swayed phase I thought I’d lean that way but other arguments countered his and while I’ve drawn no firm conclusions on the matter, a feeling that animal consciousness is too crude to be of great moral significance ensures that if I’m presented with a free-range steak I’ll eat it. Akim Reinhardt once argued that meat-eating would be regarded as a moral crime on a par with slavery. Well, I share his loathing for the treatment of the animals involved and I might come round to the idea that killing them is wrong but it is not evil and tragic in the sense that the great wastages of human life have been. Those slaves could have enjoyed happy, fulfilling and productive lives. The cows and chickens would have moped around and scratched the floor a bit.

Update: My views on the latter question have evolved substantially since this facile piece was written. The sections that were specifically devoted to health also failed to consider other problems that may arise from consuming meat, which I regret.

Last year Flying Rodent made a point I thought was interesting. He discussed the reportage on “grooming” by Asian men in Britain…

And then I notice the single common factor to each piece (I’ll paraphrase, since the Times is paywalled) in that almost every one – report, leader, opinion piece – starts with the premise that the topic is taboo; that discussing it in racial/religious terms opens the speaker up to malicious attacks from the Politically Correct mob; that, in short, the Times isn’t allowed to discuss this stuff in these terms.

Wait a minute, I think.  You’re the nation’s paper of record, and you’re telling your readership that you’re not allowed to report on the things which you are in fact reporting on, in the specific terms in which you’re reporting upon them?

That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

I meant to write something about this phenomenon last year but, er – forgot. Something Nick Cohen scribbled in a column that I took a dig at recently brought it to mind, though…

Last year, members of the British Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation, which is not made up of the “rightwing extremists” of Larsson’s conspiratorial imagination, provided details of thousands of threats, abduction, acid attacks, beatings, forced marriage, mutilations and murders men had inflicted on Muslim and ex-Muslim women. If the victims had been white, the left would have gone wild.

Liberal opinion would have demanded that the police make tackling “honour” violence a priority and accused chief constables of sexist prejudice if they refused. As the victims were British Indians, Bengalis, Pakistanis, Kurds, Somalis, Arabs and Iranians, a nervous silence descended. Too few were willing to endure the accusations of racism from Stieg Larsson’s successors a consistent defence of women’s rights would have brought.

So, I turned to Google in search of Cohen’s writings on this consequential matter – here’s mine if you’re bothered – and found that his only comment seems to be this whinge about “liberal opinion” failing to give it due prominence. In other words, this widely-read and influential columnist insults people for their silence on matters he himself fails to discuss. There is, I’d suggest, a good reason for that: it’s easier to tell someone to do something than it is to do it. It’s easier to tell people to summon up a “defence of women’s rights” but harder to establish what it might entail. This, I’d guess, is also why the Times preferred to ramble on about the “taboo” status of the issue they considered; because pondering its significance and devising solutions would be a far more ticklish matter than reducing it to squabbles over p’l’t’cal c’rrectness. Ironically, then, one’s opposition to political correctness can, in fact, be a measure for the curbing of one’s own thought processes. It’s become such a pervasive and, in a sense, uncontroversial opinion that it’s easy to fall back on.

You’re doubtless as shocked as I am to hear that protracted conflict makes people behave in unconventional ways; that battling men you’ve been trained to view with fierce indifference makes you less appreciative of the moral inhibitions others hold; that experiencing the fraught conditions of battle can, well – make people act like goddamn psychos. It’s a shock, I tell you. A shock.

I mean, sure – there was a bit of torture at Abu Ghraib. But that was a one-off, no? Ah, and there were all those people gunned down at Haditha. But this is a matter of exceptions and rules, surely? Yeah, okay, there was that “kill team” in Afghanistan that murdered people and cut off and kept their fingers as trophies but, still, they might have done that if they’d stayed in Montana and become microbrewers. No? No. Well, do the Yanks just have a really bad army? I mean, you’d never find the British, Russians or Chinese doing that. What? Oh. You would.

Why, it’s almost as if war screws people up. How about – and this might sound a bit radical – we avoid fighting them unless they’re absolutely necessary.

That’s the kind of far-out thinking you people return for.

In this post on amateur theatre, I wrote…

One of the things that makes it especially nice, for me, is that unlike with writing and – years ago – music I have no aspirations to pursue it as work. In fact, I half-suspect that working as an actor would be miserable. If you’re Johnny Depp then it’s fine, yes, but if you’re a jobbing performer slogging round ill-attended provincial theatres spouting lines from Beckett day after day, night after night  for months I can’t help thinking you’d end up slumped inside a chilly dressing room howling, “Just come, Godot! Bloody come!”

(I’ll grant that if the opportunity arose I’d take it. Yes, of course I would. Hell, I’d take anything – Subways and prostitution excepted – to avoid working in an office.)

I get slightly miserable when I read about the transformation of the publishing industry. If thousands of young writers are inspired to try their luck that is, of course, thousands of people I’ll be competing with. Selfish? Yeah. Ultimately, though, there are finite readers and commissions and the more people who target them the worse my chances are of attracting enough of them to give me the time and space to write. (Oh, wait. That doesn’t make it less selfish; that’s just expressed my selfishness in different terms. Oh, sod it, I guess I’m selfish. So are you, you know.) I guess the same feeling is experienced by young journos, sitting among hundreds of like-minded students in one of hundreds of like-minded courses; would-be actors, treading boards already marked by tens of thousands of futile footprints and hopeful musicians, praying that their song uploaded to Myspace – unlike the countless others – will be met by more eardrums than a whisper in a forest.

Thing is, this utopian ambition is a relatively new phenomenon. In the 60s – as far as I can tell – it was generally acknowledged that you only broke into, say, television if you’d been to Oxbridge. Thus, horny-handed sons of toil – or, y’know, people who’d gone to a polytechnic, never viewed such a career as attainable and kept their minds fixed on other things. Nowadays, competitions, scouts or the combined voice of the public elevates people from humble origins to exalted positions. Only a few, of course, but enough to make thousands of others feel it’s possible. It can’t last. The weight of unfulfilled ambitions will crush the fragile dreams of coming generations and leave a new realism in its wake. On the other hand, with platforms for their words and music, and societies and circuits for their performances, that needn’t mean the hundreds of thousands of dreamers will stop practicising the arts they’d placed their hopes in.

Amateur sportsmen used to be viewed as a refined breed in part because there weren’t too many people with the time and money to do something as frivolous as play a game. Nowadays, we have more – if not, perhaps, enough – of both and we have opportunities once restricted to the upper crust. New technologies – allowing people to broadcast their works to like-minded individuals in lands far beyond the village hall – have also served to foster a society that is, in many ways, a ripe one for hobbyists. In time – as more and more people abandon dreams of going “pro” – our society could experience one of the most extraordinarily creative periods of its existence. Now, I’ll qualify that – I don’t mean that we’ll be producing better music, art and literature than we have – in fact, I really doubt we will – but that more people will create music, art and literature than ever. This may have unwelcome consequences. Naturally, much of it will be derivative and dull and it could be harder for people to devise and appreciate more lastingly valuable art. Elitism had its uses. On the other hand, I’d be interested to see the effects of hitherto impracticable creativity on the artists themselves. Few of us will be John Lennons or William Goldings but if the exploration of melody, poetry and other values of aesthetic toil is at all enriching in even their rudimentary forms it could give solace to people in what are liable to be otherwise darker times.

In briefer terms, don’t knock the hobbyists. And, yeah, I realise that none of this means loads of people won’t just watch the tele.

I like swear words. Not because of some callow attraction to the transgressive; let’s face it – obscenities are as transgressive as Cliff Richards nowadays. No, I like ‘em because of their phonetic qualities. Take “fuck” – it’s a marvellously compact expression of feeling; from the tense hiss of the “f” to the sharp consonants of the “ck”. “Shit” is another good ‘un – a tidy amalgam of the gasp and cry that follows pain or frustration. There are doubtless  ethical questions as to when and if they’re appropriate – I know it would discomfort me if some four-year-old passed reference to his “fucking tricycle” – but that doesn’t preclude them from being splendidly constructed words.

Here, then, is a tribute to great swearers of our time. My favourite musical employment of obscenities is in “Red Thread” – one of the fragile compositions of the brilliant songstress Lisa Germano, who somehow makes foul-mouthed abuse sound downright beautiful…

In comedy, the finest swearers were P. Cook and D. Moore’s slightly fictional duo of Derek and Clive. “This Bloke Came Up To Me” – from Derek and Clive (Live) – is such a funny satire of mindless rage that it’s a shame their work descended so quickly into, er – mindless rage.

The greatest swearing in drama is in David Chase’s classic The Sopranos. This half-an-hour-long video, a nonstop stream of every curse that’s voiced on it, has a strange, musical quality…

They can be like cigarettes in old films noirs: mere adornments to the drama that are nonetheless important signs of tone and character. I guess the danger is that, like the cigarettes, they become a crude, compulsive habit; fouling up one’s innards with, instead of tar, some kind of base aggression. Ultimately they’re ugly words because they’re meant to express ugly sentiments. They do it very elegantly, yes, but – still – that’s no reason to let ugliness intrude where it’s unnecessary.

I think forgiveness is important. (How could I not? I’ve spent a lot of time asking for it.) When is forgiveness due, though? God apparently extends it to all those who ask for it but, then, he’s supposedly powerful enough to rummage about in our minds so he can tell if the apology is a sincere one and if there’s a genuine desire to change one’s behaviour. We don’t have that option and, thus, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask the penitent to demonstrate their sincerity – with, say, consistently admirable deeds – before offering one’s forgiveness. Without wanting to elide political opinions and personal morality the same kinda applies to those who publically convert from some ideas to some others: you don’t just accept that they’ve become reasonable; you wait for them to explain the changes in their thoughts and see if they’re put into action.

What complicates things, as far as I can tell, is the “forget” that always seems to be attached to the idea. Must one’s forgiveness represent a wiping of the slate – an agreement to exclude a memory from one’s thoughts? I don’t see how. I think it’s well established that our actions and ideas are the products of ourselves – features of our character, shaped by our genes and our surroundings. Even if you’ve made a sincere and determined effort to change your behaviour the temptations and inclinations are liable to endure and it seems right for your companions to bear them in mind. (An extreme example: a former alcoholic. Their friends and family would have to remember that they could descend back into dipsomania. Otherwise they’re liable to pour ‘em a glass of wine and get a nasty shock as four bottles later they’re nude, wielding a croquet mallet and singing My Generation.) I guess it’s more of a process than a single deed. You forgive somebody inasmuch as you grant that there’s no resentment and acknowledge . Over time, depending on the extent to which their sins reflected their character, and how thoroughly they’ve changed to arrest them, you might just forget they happened.

This implies that one might need to hold an act against someone despite accepting their repentance. You might, for example, be initially cautious of their responses to scenarios that would have been conducive to their lesser deeds.  (To bring up an earlier example, you’d be a sod to ask a recovering alcoholic, “Mind my drink?”) At other times, while granting that someone’s sincerely regretful, you might be in no position to allow them to prove it. Take a columnist who’s spent years defying journalistic ethics. He might go out of his way to demonstrate his penitence and we might grant that he’s sincere and, yet, there’s a limited amount of column inches to be filled and lots of bright young people who’d love to have a part in filling them. Why, then, extend the privilege to someone who – as much as one might like him – hasn’t shown himself to be reliable.

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