Like Mohammad Sidique Khan, who set off a bomb on the London Underground nine years ago, Elliot Rodger was young, educated and outwardly respectable.
Like Khan, he killed seven people including himself.
My guess based on his demographics is that Roger was probably an atheist – but otherwise, the two were in many ways twin souls.
Both men were part of violent movements with track records – ones which, while not representative of all they claimed to speak for (Muslims and men, respectively), exploited widely held beliefs’ potential at their most extreme.
Both saw themselves as political, each his movement’s defining rhetoric.
Both were radicalised by peer groups, both stated their motives explicitly and both fit the archetypal profile for the kinds of killers who did what they did.
Both, crucially, saw their victims as deserving what they got.
If the Santa Barbara shooter had been a jihadist, not much about him would have been that different – but the media’s reaction would have been the polar opposite.
The truth is that Elliot Rodger was a jihadist – for organised misogyny, if not for organised religion.
Read my new column at the Daily Dot.
Britain’s European elections are in three weeks, with the right-wing UK Independence Party predicted first place.
This blog’s core readers aren’t likely to vote for them, but the party has startling support in parts of UK secularism. Anne Marie Waters, who serves on the National Secular Society’s board of directors, was this month announced as UKIP’s 2015 candidate for Basildon, joining supporters like Pat Condell. (Her site now voices rather sudden fears about ‘erosion of British democracy and identity as a result of our membership of the European Union’.)
Given UKIP’s policies, I have questions for Waters and secularists tempted to vote for them.
1. What will secularists do without human rights laws?
The European Convention on Human Rights was a key part of recent years’ court success against homophobic B&B owners, and was cited initially in the NSS’s 2012 case against council prayers. UKIP want Britain to withdraw from it.
The Human Rights Act 1998, modelled on it and passed by Labour to make filing human rights cases easier, is cited frequently – not least by Waters – as demanding abolition of the UK’s 80-plus sharia courts; it’s also referenced by critics of state-maintained ‘faith’ schools. UKIP want to repeal it. (In a likely case of far-right influencing so-called centre-right, the Conservatives have now pledged to do so if reelected.)
Britain, unlike the US, is not constitutionally secular. Without an establishment clause dividing religion and state, these laws are the most powerful we have prohibiting religious privilege and abuse. This renders them essential to work like the NSS’s: scapping them as UKIP propose would make campaigns like those above inordinately harder if not impossible.
2. With Ofsted gone, what will stop fundamentalist schools?
The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) does exactly what its name implies, inspecting schools on everything from teaching to pastoral care – a remit which includes maintaining satisfactory science lessons, sex education and social diversity, areas mounting fundamentalism threatens.
While different schools have varying degrees of exemption from Ofsted’s rules, religious ones among them, and there’s evidence it’s granted some extremists far too much leeway, its watchdog role keeps many in check. According to a recent Guardian report, the current government’s ‘free schools’ – often religious, startable by anyone and with no requirement for qualified teachers – fail inspections at three times the average rate; the Office is currently investigating Islamists’ leaked plot in Birmigham to gain control of city schools.
The logical need from a secularist viewpoint is for more robust deployment of Ofsted’s powers. UKIP’s latest manifesto, meanwhile, promised ‘Ofsted will be abolished’, opening potential floodgates to a tidal wave of religious malpractice. (Perhaps on science teaching specifically, we shouldn’t have expected much: it also boasts the party, which ‘look[s] favourably on home education’, is the first ‘to take a sceptical stance on man-made global warming claims’.)
3. What do UKIP votes mean for a secular state?
The 2010 manifesto further states UKIP ‘oppose disestablishment of the Church of England’; around the same time, their website added ‘and believe the Monarch should remain Defender of the Faith – faith being the Church of England.’
The web page in question is now empty, and leader Nigel Farage has publicly distanced himself from the manifesto, arguing that since he wasn’t in office in May 2010, its doesn’t reflect UKIP under him. (He fails to mention that he was, in fact, leader from 2006 to 2009.) Current events suggest, however, that change is unlikely.
When David Cameron, amid cabinet praise for the Church of England, used his Easter message to declare ‘We should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical’, Farage replied on behalf of his party:
We have been saying for years that we should be more muscular in our defence of Judaeo-Christian culture, and after all, we have a Christian constitution. The Church of England is the established church of this country. What Cameron is doing, once again, was really mimicking what UKIP have been saying.
What happens, as such a party gains support, to prospects for a secular state?
4. What’s UKIP’s record on religious sexism and homophobia?
The NSS has long made equality and human rights a keystone of its work. Many self-declared secularists supporting UKIP and other far-right groups, in fact, do so ostensibly out of commitment to these goals – in particular, to ‘save’ women and gay people from invading Muslims. Beside opposing key laws that safeguard them against religious abuse, then, what’s UKIP’s record on LGBT and women’s rights?
In 2012 David Coburn, spokesperson for the party’s National Executive Committee, described government same-sex marriage support as ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance in itself’. In 2013, all but one of UKIP’s MEPs voted to halt progress on a motion in the European Parliament for increased provision of reproductive rights and women’s sexual health information. (The NSS lobbied for the bill; religious groups opposed it.) The exception was deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who appears not to have been present. Nuttall himself belongs to the mainly religious Society for the Protection Unborn Children and has spoken at their meetings. SPUC calls for a ban on all abortions, as well as numerous forms of birth control.
UKIP’s candidates, councillors and MEPs have furthermore called female audience members sluts whose place was cleaning fridges, called feminists ‘shrill, bored, middle class women of a certain physical genre’ and denied ‘the impossibility of the creationist theory’, called bisexual and transgender people part-time homosexuals, blamed floods on gay marriage and promised to scrap ‘politically correct laws’ that ‘made it possible for lifestyle choices to be placed above religious faith’. These may be individual views rather than policies, but is a party that attracts such people in large numbers good for secularists?
UKIP’s politics, in letter and in spirit, are anti-secular by nature; there are many arguments against a vote for them, but supporting them means siding with a party that consistently opposes disestablishment, appeals to the religious right, allies with them against minorities and women, imperils science and education and welcomes fundamentalists. Their mission is in zero-sum conflict with those of groups like the NSS, in whose place I’d be concerned to have their members on my council of management.
Update 30/04/14: Waters has now resigned.
Gordon Brown never managed to live down his tongue-tied boast he’d saved the world. If that came to be his defining gaffe, David Cameron’s claim last week to be continuing God’s work surely has similar potential. ‘Jesus invented the Big Society’, he told Christian authorities at Downing Street a week ago. ‘I just want to see more of it.’
Mockery, lasting several days, broke out on social media. Brown at least had the excuse of a verbal slip-up; his successor’s remarks, in a speech shared on the government’s website, were surely drafted by advisers who thought them a good idea.
More followed. ‘I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country,’ Cameron writes in this week’s Church Times, ‘more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical’. In a YouTube video, he says much of the same.
One can’t fault the PM for being on-message. Easter provides an annual basketful of reactionary religious soundbites: in 2011, as Cardinal Keith O’Brien attacked ‘aggressive secularism’, Cameron lauded ‘the enormous contribution Christianity has made to our country’; the next year, after Sayeeda Warsi’s ‘militant secularisation’ speech, his Easter message praised an alleged ‘Christian fightback’. ‘This government does care about faith’, he told church leaders in 2013, ‘and it does want to stand up and oppose aggressive secularisation’. (George Carey, ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, accused him of just such aggression the same week, calling Christians a persecuted minority.)
Ministers show no sign of changing the hymn sheet. Eric Pickles, secretary in all but name for tabloid-baiting, attacked yet more ‘militant atheists’ at this month’s Conservative Spring Forum, insisting ‘We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it, and don’t impose your politically correct intolerant on others.’ This was the same man who in 2010, during the annual war-on-Christmas panic, complained about ‘politically correct Grinches.’
The question lurks: if separating church and state is PC orthodoxy, why haven’t we done it?
It’s hard to be a pariah when national leaders heap praise on you. The test of political correctness is establishment support, which means at least the government’s. You’d think the cabinet could only fawn so much before calling Christianity marginalised became untenable. Seemingly, you’d be wrong. The Cameron government, besotted with the church, claims both to be a rebel force besieged by secularist powers-that-be and to run Britain as it’s always been run. Both can’t be true. Its ministers are the powers-that-be, their view the prevailing one by definition.
Not that they will admit it. Pickles, according to the Guardian, ‘accused the last Labour government of “diminishing Christianity” by suggesting that religion and politics could not mix’. To those of us who regularly say the same, this comes as a surprise. Likely, he has in mind Alistair Campbell’s interjection, ‘We don’t do God’, when a journalist sought details of Tony Blair’s beliefs; the sentence was a guideline in an interview and means of ending it, not a policy statement, but is trotted out ad nauseam by Tories keen to prove themselves more faith-obsessed than Labour was.
Their thirst to do so is an achievement of Blair’s governments, whose ministers fell over themselves as Cameron’s do today to say nice-sounding things involving ‘faith’. Religion, a much plainer-sounding thing, is rarely mentioned. Its followers are now ‘people of faith’, as in ‘of colour’; its hierarchs, especially the established church’s which Pickles admires, have been rebranded ‘faith leaders’. With seats in parliament, legal exemptions and a stranglehold on British education, but barely one percent of the populace in its pews, the C of E is a sick dog spoilt by owners all too aware its time is short.
If saying so is politically correct, it doesn’t feel it. Indeed, ‘faith schools’, the media-friendly name for where governments have herded record numbers of children according to parents’ beliefs, is a very PC term for segregation.
A year from now, we’ll no doubt hear again of an intolerant, aggressive secularism with a grip on Britain. Once they’ve warned us, organised religion’s friends will stretch in their seats of power, pour millions more in public funds toward it and go back to work. Secularists like me will ask ourselves, meanwhile: if we never had it so good, why didn’t we notice?
Asif Quraishi, better known as drag queen Asifa Lahore, sits unassumingly in a TV studio. ‘One question I’d like to ask’, he says, ‘is when will it be all right to be Muslim and gay?’
The programme is Twitter-powered BBC Three debate series Free Speech, whose host Rick Edwards (of Tool Academy and, unexpectedly, Cambridge) makes Nicky Campbell seem subdued, and where no thought is too complex for 140 characters. Producers, show name notwithstanding, spiked the question from a previous edition when officials at Birmingham Central Mosque, where Free Speech filmed on March 13, ‘expressed deep concerns’ about gay Muslims being discussed. The speed at which showrunners acquiesced, postponing the segment, speaks to a wider trend.
At my new address, the scientist – passive-aggressively polite – told me I had to sign a retroactive rental contract. This could easily have been done by email — when he asked to meet, I should have smelled a rat, but obliged outside a supermarket in November, not stopping to wonder why both ex-flatmates turned up. ‘While you were here,’ he said once papers were filled out, ‘you used BitTorrent?’
I had, I said, like almost all my friends. Filesharing was in my eyes like speeding on the motorway, an illegality most practised and few cared about. ‘We all do it’, the Barcelonian said, who seemed to have come reluctantly.
The scientist produced a further wad of fine-print forms. ‘We got sued’, he told me, ‘by the music industry.’
* * *
Above is an extract from my piece today at Index on Censorship. Read the rest there.
‘It’s high time that the atheist left asserted itself against the atheist right
– an Occupy Skepticism, if you will.’ (Jeff Sparrow)
Three years ago, A.C. Grayling – till shortly thereafter, the British Humanist Association’s president elect – announced plans for a private university. New College of the Humanities, whose doors have opened since, was thought up in 2010 when David Cameron’s government cut eight tenths of higher education funding, including all state support for arts degrees, raising tuition fees from £3465 a year to £9000. These had only existed, at the time, for a few years, and fiery arguments broke out over free market education policies. Grayling founded NCH in their backwash, annual fees set at £18,000.
Results weren’t pretty. Only one or two private campuses existed at the time – to open one where degrees would cost the same as a small house was viewed with justified anger. Grayling’s public talks were picketed, a condemnatory public letter signed by dozens of his previous colleagues, and angry letters forced him to give up his BHA role before even assuming it. His presence in the secular scene dried up, societies no longer willing to promote him, and is only just recovering.
I raise this now because I never managed to weigh in on it back then, and more importantly because it illustrates the tensions of class politics in secular circles. NCH’s makeup was and remains distinctly humanist, its staff including Grayling, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Peter Singer and Stephen Pinker, as well as Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s partner Niall Ferguson, but its most indignant critics (if not the loudest) were from the same scene – BHA members, New Humanist writers, left wing atheists like me online and committee members who refused to book the New College’s founder.
In a 2012 interview with Caspar Melville, Grayling tried to portray the project as benign, a last-ditch effort to save humanities teaching from ministers desperate to kill it off. In reality, his actions validated the Cameroons’ education cuts: the way to fight the privatisation of campuses in line with a U.S. style system is not to set up a private, U.S. style campus. ‘A mature civilised society ought to be funding universities properly through tax,’ he told Melville. ‘Students should go to university for nothing.’ If this principle mattered so much to him, why let it go at the first sign of trouble? Why not champion the students who then turned on him, and the cause of existing universities?
It’s tempting to think Grayling, Dawkins and the project’s other faces saw accessibility as optional, keen to preserve humanities teaching at any cost, no matter how exclusive it had to be. The former acknowledged NCH would cater to the privileged, drawing in students mainly from private schools. ‘That’s bad news,’ he commented, ‘but it would be worse news if a high-quality education system were to be compromised by the struggle to do what should already have been done’ – as if the academy’s survival for its own sake was the goal, its reduction in the process to a bastion of privilege a mere unfortunate side effect.
‘I would be delighted to support free education’, Dawkins said when challenged at a BHA event with PZ Myers, detailing his desire to protect Oxbridge-style teaching. ‘however, we live in a world where that isn’t happening.’ Keeping the ivory towers standing was the main thing, and if it meant raising the drawbridge, tough. ‘Like it or not,’ he added, ‘some people are richer than others . . . if you want to picket Anthony Grayling’s new university, you might as well picket anybody who owns a car that’s above average price.’
The BHA has chosen to edit this moment out of its official event footage. Such squirming is understandable: the comparison is risible. Education isn’t simply a product, as a shiny sports car is. It helps determine the whole course of one’s life. That not many people can buy Jaguars is ultimately trivial – cheap cars get drivers just as easily from A to B – but access to education affects who can become an employee, public thinker, politician, judge. The shape of our society rests on who goes to college and who can’t. Only old boys like Grayling and Dawkins could equate Oxbridge so readily with something as shallow as a luxury car.
But Ant and Dick aren’t just old boys. They’re secularists. And secularists should know the dangers of a free market in education.
NCH coheres to the Cameron-Gove philosophy of schools and campuses – decentralised, deregulated and detached in general terms from government. The same philosophy led their administration to introduce ‘free schools’, tax-funded but with no duty to hire qualified teachers or stick to the national curriculum, which almost anyone can start. In practice, this means religious groups, who’ve filed almost all applications since 2010. Several have been discovered carrying out extreme proselytism or abuse.
The problem is multifaceted and longstanding. In his deconversion memoir, blogger Hassan Radwan recalls years spent teaching at Islamia School, a private religious school in London which relied on Saudi donors and was subsequently subject to prolonged ‘Islamicisation’ – including the banning of pictures and music and use of school property for Mujahideen fundraisers. As comparatively recently as 2010, Dawkins himself has visited somewhat similar Islamic schools where scriptural creation myths are taught as science. Some of these are state schools, others not, but Radwan describes Islamia’s extremism as being tamed when it gained public sector funding. (This is, I think, the one thought-provoking argument for state-maintained religious schools, though I’d rather no private sector existed at all.)
Jonny Scaramanga, author of Leaving Fundamentalism, was sent to one of England’s forty-or-so ‘Accelerated Christian Education’ schools, where parents pay for children to be kept in walled-off cubicles, forbidden from interacting and taught outright racism, misogyny and creationism via biblical syllabus. Many, many more schools like this exist in the U.S., where the programme originates. Katie Halper details at AlterNet the broader effects of right wing education cuts and ‘school choice’ policy in the U.S., including boys and girls at private Christian schools (where government vouchers allow children from poor families to be sent) being forbidden to make eye contact.
America’s university culture, which both Britain’s current policies and NCH’s opening evoke, is dominated by the private sphere, with state universities a small side dish. Founding one there is, for fundamentalists, at least as easy as it was for Grayling, hence the U.S. is home to Liberty and Brigham Young Universities, founded respectively by Jerry Falwell and the Mormon church. Only two private campuses in Britain predate NCH, and one of them is the Oxford campus of the Islamic Azad University of Iran.
Is this the higher education system Dawkins and Grayling want? Their project opens the door to it. When the free market of ideas operates as a real free market, abuse ensues. Teaching is one sphere where ideas should be regulated, because not all are fit for the classroom. The solution, and secularists must recognise it as the left already does, is free and secular public education, both at school at campus level. If they were as high-minded as they claimed to be, they should have fought for that.
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If you liked this post, consider joining the Occupy Skepticism Facebook group, a forum founded recently by David Hoelscher to unite atheists on the left, concerned with fostering a class-conscious secularism. Here is a selection of posts, some by members, representing our areas of interest:
Doubts costs nothing; voicing them can cost a lot. A piece I wrote for AlterNet last month, on the need for an economically inclusive secular scene, was well received. Readers from half a dozen groups said they’d implement ideas there, the Sunday Assembly asked my advice on reaching poorer congregants, and Conway Hall Ethical Society asked me to give a talk.
Conway Hall, beside boasting one of London’s most pleasant libraries, is the unspiritual home of British freethought; most major godless groups in the UK can be traced there, and the management is thought to be the world’s oldest surviving Ethical Society. Historically, it’s been a meeting spot for leftists, and the nineteenth century secularist movement it survives was frequently socialist itself. Harriet Law, one of its figureheads and the original Skepchick, was a farmer’s daughter and close colleague of Karl Marx; another, Edward Aveling, married his daughter and helped translate Das Kapital. Atheists nowadays think too little about class – there’s precedent.
My talk, ‘Godless and broke: making secular groups less middle class’, takes place on Sunday 23 March as a morning lecture, starting at 11am. To quote the blurb, ‘Secularists are broadening their image, but their cause remains seen, not totally unfairly, as middle class. We have to take action to reach hard up atheists and skeptics, or risk being a community for the well off.’ I’ll be discussing how.
Booking is online at £5 a head, unless you’re unwaged, a student or hard up, in which case it’s whatever sum you choose. Thanks to Sid Rodrigues at Conway Hall for introducing this – it’s great to see these things put into use – and for inviting me. See you there!
Some years ago, the Asian Women’s Advisory Service on Mare Street, Hackney had to close. In 2009, the rebuilding was bought up, transformed into an upmarket café (£6 per halloumi-and-avocado burger). Joking ostensibly at their own expense, the management named it the Advisory, retaining the old sign and furnishing walls with ironic citizens’ advice slogans. The Twitterati fumed on getting word of this last summer, and the owners – keen social media watchers, no doubt – agreed to dispense with the sign. The progressive Third Estate and countless commenters called this ‘A victory against hipster colonialism’, but victory would have been the Asian women’s centre’s survival. Taking the sign down was a mitigated loss, but only in aesthetic terms.
Why mention this? Because commentary on Sochi’s current winter games brings it to mind.
Courtney Caldwell, of the Cult of Courtney blog:
There’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled since the Olympics opening ceremony about the supposed LGBT themes that run amok in Sochi. Slate wasn’t the only outlet to write an article detailing just how “gay” the opening ceremonies were. But amidst growing rumbles from the progressive journalists about Russia’s increasingly backwards treatment of LGBT citizens (if you’ve not read Jeff Sharlet’s heartbreaking piece, go do so now. It’s lengthy, but worth it), many bloggers and Tweeters seemed excited by Greece’s supposed display of support for LGBT rights:
And who wouldn’t be excited? The fingers on their gloves appear to be the colors of the rainbow, a universal symbol for LGBT pride, which would seem to be a direct attack on Putin’s extreme stances on homosexuality.
. . .
The gloves are available for purchase, but the money goes straight to the Sochi Olympics[.] You see, those aren’t rainbow-colored fingers. Those are the colors of the Olympic Rings. What seemed at first to be a big gay “middle finger” to Putin, is nothing more than an expression of Olympic pride. But the story was believable, wasn’t it?
Not just the gloves, and not just Slate. Google’s rainbow logo, more undeniably an anti-homophobic gesture, drew the liberal commentariat’s applause, as did endless memes that echoed Slate by mocking every irony in sight. (‘Before you criticise Vladimir Putin for spending $51 billion dollars’, an admittedly amusing one from Red State Dems declared, ‘try forming a 51-strong male chorus without a single gay man.’)
Last-laughism fills the subtext here. If the whole thing’s a bit gay, we’re encouraged to console ourselves, Putin is showing himself up – his policies, once rainbow flags festoon the place, can’t be taken seriously; he and his friends have failed. Progressive forces have come out on top: sit back, bolstered, and watch the curling.
While we pat ourselves, chuckling, on the back, queer people are assaulted brutally on Moscow’s streets. Protesters like Anastasia Smirnova are arrested, as those police thought may cause ‘disruption’ were two years ago, ‘preemptively’, in London. Trans athletes, as Caldwell writes, face ‘regressive policies’ – not Russia’s, but the IOC’s – demanding they complete the forms, surgeries and drug courses deemed necessary in order to compete.
Those of us skeptical of boycotts hoped the games might magnify all this. Can they, if spectators’ impulse is to laugh at their own clever jokes about Olympic camp, as if once multicoloured gloves are worn, the day is won?
The Twitter mob who cheered the Hackney Advisory’s change of sign were as guilty as its owners were of reducing grim-faced struggles to marketing: a politics taking triumph in such superficial things is exactly that of the halloumi hipster. Mock the Olympiad’s medievalists and demagogues, by all means, but putting a rainbow on it gains us nothing.
‘I am very well aware that journalists, politicians and policymakers alike may have great interest in stories like mine, and may even attempt to use them solely to progress their own agendas, some of which have a distinctly Islamophobic taint to them. That does not mean those stories are not important.’
So writes Shaheen Hashmat (alias @TartanTantrum), one of my favourite bloggers, in a post a few days ago. Shaheen is an apostate of Islam, survivor of ‘honour’ violence and a writer on mental health, sex, Scotland and more; she speaks here of difficulty voicing rage at her family’s religion knowing anti-Muslim axe-grinders will hijack it.
I have Shaheen to thank for prompting this post. You have her to blame for it. I’d planned to write it and wavered, resolved then deliberated, recommitted and then shelved it. It won’t be fun writing or defending it – I don’t enjoy being dogpiled by those I respect, as I’ve been the last few days and am sure I will be now. But I’m also sure it’s worth it. This matters. Thanks for the push, Shaheen.
Saturday’s post was a timeline of efforts made last year against gender-segregated seats at universities – mainly at Islamic Society talks, often for guest speakers like Hamza Tzortzis. (See the timeline for exemplary events.) It was written largely to clarify the roles of distinct political camps in opposing it, and especially to illustrate the right’s involvement.
Yes, the right propelled the segregation debate
Priyamvada Gopal was accused of inventing ‘conservative newspapers and politicians’ at the Rationalist Association, criticising how ‘battle lines were drawn once again between so-called “muscular liberals” (generally, in fact, deeply conservative white males with a commitment to the idea that West is Best) and defenders of the rights of minorities to their own customary or traditional practices’. Laurie Penny was accused (by Nick Cohen specifically) of ‘rais[ing] up right wing bogeymen’ in a similar piece at the Guardian.
It’s true both articles gave short shrift to the anti-segregation work of Muslim and ex-Muslim women – Shaheen, Maryam Namazie and the Council of Ex-Muslims, Yasmin Alibhai Brown and British Muslims for Secular Democracy, Sara Khan, Lejla Kurić, Ahlam Akram, Mari Nazmar – as well as that of women and the left at large. (Gita Sahgal, Pragna Patel and Southall Black Sisters, Polly Toynbee, Ophelia Benson, Kate Smurthwaite; any number more.) This work needs visibility: it’s often underfunded, unrecognised and, as Khan writes at the Independent, unaccommodated by existing politics.
It’s also true, however, that Gopal and Penny didn’t invent the Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Express, the Week, the Sun, the Standard, the Spectator – papers which dominate 2013′s press coverage of segregated seating. Nor did they invent, as Cohen says, ‘bogeymen’ like Toby Young, Charles Crawford, Graeme Archer, Matthew d’Ancona, Martin Samuel, Brendan O’Neill, Richard Littlejohn, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Vince Cable, David Cameron – nor Douglas Murray and Peter Hitchens, who since the timeline’s end have jumped aboard – to name only white and male and right wing ghouls. It’s not just about mentions per side: the latter voices speak overwhelmingly from bigger platforms too.
It’s a long post – eleven thousand words – that documents this. I thought I’d leave interpreting it, that in mind, to readers. After the response, it seems important to draw out some key points.
First, Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss put this issue on the map. That segregation happens at ISocs’ and other groups’ events came as no surprise last year to Maryam Namazie, prominent campaigners Student Rights (more on them shortly), me or many who’ve followed campus Islamism. Ask about and you’ll hear of it. What made the ‘debate’ at UCL on March 9 the case that caused a national stir, not one of the many prior cases? ‘Had it not been for the furious tweeting of Richard Dawkins’, David Aaronovitch wrote five days later in a column for the Times, ‘I doubt whether I would have heard of this event.’ Dawkins himself (873,067 followers today) tweeted it only because Krauss (63,369) did first.
This matters since their commentary set the tone. Dawkins, in the tweets Aaronovitch describes, accused UCL of ‘cowardly capitulation to Muslims’, exclaiming ‘Who do these Muslims think they are?’ ‘I don’t think think Muslims should segregate sexes’, he added, ‘Oh NO, how very ISLAMOPHOBIC of me. How RACIST of me’, and closed a post on it at RDFRS later cited in the Daily Mail by asking ‘Isn’t it really about time we decent, nice, liberal people stopped being so pusillanimously terrified of being thought “Islamophobic” and stood up for decent, nice, liberal values?’ Speaking to the Telegraph in an article headlined ‘Britons afraid to challenge radical Islam’ (largely regurgitated by The Week as ‘Brits too afraid of “aggressive” Muslims’), Krauss said segregationists ‘feel their cultural norms are not being met’, attacked the notion ‘these cultural norms should be carried out within a broader society that not only doesn’t share them but that is free and open’ and called it their obligation ‘to mesh with broader society, not the other way around.’
This is the ‘clash of civilisations’ standpoint’s racist rhetoric. I’ve chastised Dawkins since for using it. It describes Islam with the language of invasion (compare Dawkins’ ‘cowardly capitulation’ with the EDL’s ‘never surrender’), homogenises Muslims and chides Islamists not with puritanism, polluting a secular public sphere or violating essential rights but with failing to cohere with ill-defined standards of Britishness or ‘Western values’. We see it again as time goes on in the anti-segregation commentary of Anne Marie Waters, Toby Young, Louisa Peacock, James Bloodworth, Chuka Umunna, Richard Littlejohn, Jennifer Selway, Graeme Archer and the Daily Telegraph‘s December 4 editorial, as well as to various implicit extents elsewhere. I don’t think it’s by chance it’s used most by commentators who were never Muslims. The myth of two dichotomised ‘cultures’ at loggerheads, Islam versus the West (or Britain specifically) is the engine of Islamism; it’s what gets ex-Muslims shunned at times as race traitors, pariahs, ‘coconuts’.
Second: Student Rights, as vigorously denied by Nick Cohen and others following Gopal’s post, was instrumental to the anti-segregation push. Between publications, news stories and citations in the press, they’re the ones most often mentioned on the timeline by a comfortably wide berth, twice as much or so as the nearest runners up. ‘Unequal Opportunity’, their May 13 report on segregated events at universities, made headlines across the British press within days of its release and was cited frequently thereafter, particularly following Universities UK’s release of guidance on November 22 condoning side-to-side segregation of men and women. Student Rights (specifically, researcher Rupert Sutton) provided breaking coverage of various segregated events, as it regularly does, including at Queen Mary’s and Northampton Universities, were initial signatories of Maryam Namazie’s petition for UUK to withdraw its guidance, covered the organisation’s response to opposition and covered the December 10 rally outside its headquarters supportively.
Unlike Priyamvada Gopal, I don’t in practice consider Student Rights a right wing group; certainly, I don’t think their work for the most part (the odd Islamist lambasted as ‘anti-British’ notwithstanding) is innately rightist. It is, however, funded and supervised by the neoconservative Henry Jackson Society, whose Associate Director Douglas Murray calls the EDL – whose ex-leader greatly admires him – an ‘extraordinary phenomenon’ and ideal ‘grassroots response by non-Muslims to Islam’ (see the Youtube comments), having infamously said in 2006 that ‘Conditions for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board: Europe must look like a less attractive proposition’. Like Shaheen’s righteous rage or the anti-segregation cause in general, Student Rights’ work and Sutton’s personally isn’t discredited by the forces seeking to exploit it, but the latter are concerning. As Chris Moos of LSE’s atheist society, who oddly denied the prominence of Student Rights’ campaign work, wrote at the Huffington Post in May, ‘It is a lamentable fact that it is being left to an organisation with possible ties to a neo-con associated group to highlight what the Left should’.
Third: the loose, broadly left group behind the December 10 anti-segregation rally, many of whose members took credit for UUK’s eventual withdrawal of its advice, were amplified largely by right-leaning media. Their rally in particular gained noticeably greater coverage than similar ones held previously by One Law for All and its associates – I’m doubtful this would have been the case, or that UUK would even have weighed in on segregation, had reports of the UCL event with Krauss and subsequently Student Rights’ report not raised awareness earlier. Apart from the Independent, publications covering UUK’s release tended initially strongly toward the right – objections on the left from people like Namazie, John Sargeant and Rosie Bell were confined to smaller blogs, if very worthy ones. The exception is Polly Toynbee’s Guardian column of November 26, seemingly the paper’s only coverage till December 12, by which time the Telegraph alone had published eight separate pieces on the issue. Once the dispute had been put on the radar, a number of ‘progressive’ or more neutral outlets followed suit, reporting on the December 10 demonstration – Channel 4, the BBC, politics.co.uk, Huffpost – but it remains true that beyond the blogosphere, the right set the agenda.
Fourth, last and doubtless most incendiary: I am not wholly convinced December 10′s protest made the difference it’s been thought to have.
Ophelia Benson said that for once ‘making a stink worked’. Maryam Namazie said the rally ‘received widespread coverage, including when Prime Minister David Cameron intervened to oppose sex segregation’. Yasmin Alibhai Brown said ‘Result! In one week, we, a small group of stalwarts, Muslims and non-Muslims, who are opposed to sexual apartheid in our universities, raised the slumbering politicians and jolted gutless academics. Universities UK (UUK) will reconsider its guidelines’. Student Rights called UUK’s retraction ‘a great success for those who have been campaigning on this issue’.
Jim Denham said ‘At first it looked as though we were shouting into the wilderness: a few blogs . . . drew attention to the outrage, and a small demonstration took place; just 8,000 people signed an online petition. It looked as though Universities UK (UUK) would get away with [it]. Then the issue seemed to take off. To his credit, Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umanna declared that a Labour government would outlaw gender segregation’.
Rosie Bell said ‘Student Rights picked [UUK's guidance] up’, ‘the bloggers you’d expect [Benson, Namazie, Bloodworth] produced angry posts’, ‘mainstream media [Cohen, Alibhai Brown] moved in’, ‘there was a petition and a small demonstration which Channel 4 covered’, ‘the BBC began to thunder’ in discussions on Radio 4 Today and ‘politicians – Chuka Umunna, Jack Straw, Michael Gove, David Cameron – spoke out’, ‘So now the UUK has withdrawn gender segregation from its guidance’.
Denham’s and Bell’s accounts seem in some ways tenuous to me. The Times, Times Higher Education, the Independent and the Telegraph (twice) picked up UUK’s guidance before any of the bloggers mentioned covered it, and there was a great deal of noise in (again, mainly right-leaning) papers long before the demonstration or Umunna’s comments. There’s also cause, I think, to question the notion in Namazie’s post and various reports that Cameron’s intervention via a spokesperson was what prompted the guidance’s withdrawal. On December 12, before Cameron’s comments hit the press, the Equality and Human Rights Commission had announced via the Telegraph it would ‘help re-write’ UUK’s advice, the story there noting ‘A Downing Street spokesman refused to comment’: Huffpost‘s report the next day, where both Cameron’s statements and UUK’s retreat appear first to have surfaced, mentions only in passing its Chief Executive’s comment, ‘We are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position. Meanwhile the case study which trigged this debate has been withdrawn pending this review.’ It seems highly plausible to me then, contrary to what headlines intimated, that Cameron stepped in after UUK retracted its advice and not before.
This blows something of a hole, moreover, in the idea the demonstrators prompted it. Whatever led UUK to seek the EHRC’s involvement, Cameron was still unwilling to comment on December 12, two days after their rally. It’s certainly true it added urgency to the climate of debate, increasing pressure on authorities to act – many media sources used photos of demonstrators or made passing mention of the row having ‘sparked protests’, politics.co.uk referring rather generously to ‘a week of protests’ – but that’s a vexed thing to quantify. We know the Telegraph put pressure on Theresa May for comment on December 4, and that the following day she obliged. We know statements followed from Jack Straw, Chuka Umunna and Michael Gove, and that at some point in this time Vince Cable wrote to Universities UK. This seems more like the kind of thing to me that would put Cameron under gradual pressure than a protest by 100 people.
This isn’t to say it and associated actions weren’t worthwhile. They’ve galvanised crucial alliances, developed awareness of the issue on the left and led to plans for future projects. Nor do I think their organisers wrong to celebrate UUK’s u-turn, whatever the cause. I share their relief, and don’t care to rain on their parade – but I do care about this.
Yes, this bloody well matters
You’re not a good journalist if you don’t know who has the most clout in the room. You shouldn’t be a journalist if you don’t care. Likewise it matters in politics, at least as much as who’s in government, which voices hold most sway.
I’ve been told at every turn that who made the difference here is academic, that it matters only that the argument is won and not who wins it. Would we speak that way of an election outcome – of what put and kept Blair’s governments in power, say? James Bloodworth might. But I see the papers cluttering my timeline and recall headlines like these.
If these kinds of press outlets, indeed, these outlets specifically, were instrumental to the anti-segregation pushback – if they were the ones with influence enough to make the difference, for which I find the evidence compelling – do you see why I and others are concerned? It’s all very well not caring who fights the good fight, so long as it gets won, but what happens when the biggest guns turn out to have a fight all of their own, and it isn’t good at all? We cede the debate to kulturkämpfer at our peril.
I am told, additionally, that since I didn’t campaign myself – in other words, blog on the subject – I’m not entitled to complain. I’m flattered on the one hand by the thought my profile’s anything like high enough to’ve made a difference (Penny’s, perhaps), but frankly resent the claim I forfeited my right to comment by not being on the picket line. I’ve taken on any number of ‘Islamism on campus’ fights: Mohammad cartoons at UCL two years ago; at LSE; ‘Islamophobia’ bans there that prohibit criticism; threats of violence at Queen Mary; threats previously at Leeds and other universities; threats I and friends got for writing about those threats;, LSE’s secular group not being allowed ‘ex-Muslim’ in their name; the same group being harassed and threatened at freshers’ fair last year; the measures taken against another group at Reading for calling a pineapple Muhammad; their being banned for it last year. I’m working at present, among other things, on a long, detailed post about segregated seating’s prevalence in British ISocs. But there’s only so much work one feels able to do, and fights are hard. Hang me if I don’t turn up to every last one, every time. Sitting one out now and again doesn’t make me a hypocrite, but even if it did, I’m still not wrong.
Why do we pine perennially at the British left’s reluctance to contend with Islamism, then clutch our pearls tight at the corollary: that the anti-Muslim right, in its absence, holds the floor? Those prepared to make alliances with it, thinking perhaps to take advantage of its firepower, may find their shots at segregation ricochet. You underestimate my boredom if you doubt I can duel both at once till then.