Do Muslim international students want segregation? Polling on ISocs, religiosity and gender mixing

You’ve no doubt read by now of the much-maligned support of Universities UK for gender-segregated seating at campus events like those of the so-called Islamic Education and Research Academy, an organisation banned from several universities in Britain whose leaders explicitly oppose feminism and endorse violence against women and whose website doctors out photographs of female speakers offered only ‘to deliver talks, lectures and presentations to and for women‘. (The IERA and groups like it observe a strict taboo on women speaking publicly in front of men, as do a worrying number of Christian groups.) The recent withdrawal of UUK’s position, prompted by cross-party condemnation in Westminster and protests by people on this network, has encouragingly been welcomed and praised.

While their stance officially is under review, it seems unlikely now that anything but prohibition will follow. A more interesting question is how (or whether) it gets enforced – seating practices like this, and a post on the subject is in the works, are more prevalent among student Islamic groups than coverage has acknowledged, and likely to be difficult to police. (It’s important to stress that Islamic Societies aren’t necessarily representative of Muslim students at large – more on this below.) In the mean time, there’s a separate canard I think should be addressed.

The Observer‘s editorial applauding UUK’s retraction, topped with a twinkly-eyed photograph of Richard Dawkins from the Guardian site’s go-to album for any secularist story, states ‘it has been suggested that segregated meetings appeal to overseas Muslim students vital for university finances’ – referring, I think, to the statement by members of Reading University’s (banned) atheist society that authorities feared anti-segregation action ‘might eventually reduce the university’s intake of international students‘, specifically Muslims from ‘hardline religious countries’ whose higher tuition fees education bodies need.

The idea seems to spring from the assumption political Islam is a product of immigration, alien to Britain and imported from Sharia states; the reality is that British Islamism is largely a second or third generation phenomenon among the (grand)children of immigrants for whom fundamentalism is partly a misguided attempt at anti-Western cultural authenticity. (This why people like Alom Shaha are regularly smeared as ‘coconuts’, ‘brown on the outside, but white on the inside’, when they leave Islam, and why clash-of-civilisation arguments that portray Islam as essential to particular cultures and in conflict with ‘Western values’ only make things worse – that’s exactly Islamism’s selling point.)

The Centre for Social Cohesion, a conservative think tank now integrated into the Henry Jackson Society which (not) coincidentally funds anti-extremist group Student Rights, major players in the anti-segregation campaign, commissioned a YouGov poll of 632 Muslim students in 2008. I’ve referred to it before because it contained questions on atheists, gay people and sharia – to my knowledge, it’s the only poll specifically of Muslim students that’s been done. 80 of those surveyed self-identified as ‘Not British’; it seems reasonable to assume for the purposes of this post that these were the international students being talked about, since a ‘Partially British’ category (of 125) also existed, and was probably more likely to include immigrants to Britain or those of dual nationality.

What does the data tell us about Muslim international students’ attitudes to segregation, then? Specifically, does it back up the idea a clampdown would stifle numbers and starve universities of funds?

Well… no.

The first thing to say, of course, is that the idea prima facie is implausible. According to the UK Council for International Student Affairs, the number of international students on UK campuses in 2011-12 was 435,230, of whom 177,880 came either from EU countries or China. Of the top ten ‘sending countries’ outside the EU, only four (Nigeria, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan) had double-digit Muslim populations, providing between them 50,845 students, less than 12 percent of the total. Even assuming all of them to be segregation-supporters – moreover, segregation-supporters who wouldn’t study in Britain if it were banned – the hole left by their absence would hardly be gaping or irreparable.

Moving specifically to the findings of the CSC’s YouGov poll, only 21 percent of non-British Muslims were members of their university’s Islamic Society, compared with 26 percent of their British (and partially British) counterparts. 65 percent of British Muslim students weren’t members, rising to 71 percent for non-Britons.


This is striking both because it suggests practices in Islamic Societies aren’t at all a good barometer of Muslim student opinion generally and because they’re almost always where gender segregation happens. Of the fifth of non-British Muslims who do belong to one, 15 percent – that is, three percent of the total – were committee members, while only 31 percent went to most or all of its meetings and events (6.5 percent of the total). This compares with a third of ISoc members among British Muslim students (8.6 percent of the total) who attended most or all events, and 61 percent who attended either none or not many (15.9 percent of the total).

In summary: British and non-British Muslim students are about equally likely to be loyal ISoc members. Only 21-26 percent of either were members at all.

One thing that should be noted at this point is that the total of 81 non-British participants probably has a higher than usual error margin – perhaps ten percentage points or more. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about this: no other data exists for comparison as far as I know (please tell me in the comments if it does), and true figures could be either higher or lower than those shown here: we can’t second guess them. It’s probably a good idea not to put huge amounts of stock in this data, particular where smaller differentials appear, but there’s nothing else to go on currently.


While levels of religious observance aren’t necessarily a predictor of ‘radicalism’ – they can be the opposite – it’s worth pointing out non-British Muslims were again about equal in their use of campus prayer rooms and attendance of Friday prayer, with non-Britons slightly more observant over all in each case but numbers well within each other’s error margins.

28 percent of British Muslims used the campus prayer room between twice a week and daily, compared with 45 percent who’d never visited at all (37 percent) or went less than once a month (8 percent); among non-British Muslim students, a third used the prayer room twice a week to daily, whereas 44 percent had never used it (31 percent) or did so less than monthly (13 percent). 28 percent of British Muslims always attended Friday prayer while 27 percent never did, with intermediate frequencies also near-symmetrical; 34 of non-British Muslims always attended compared with 25 who never did.

These differences aren’t really statistically significant: British and non-British Muslim students are about equally observant, and both are somewhat polarised.


38 percent of British Muslim students said ‘Islam is a religion whilst Islamism is a political ideology’ while 14 percent said ‘They are both part of the same thing – politics is a big part of Islam’. This compares with 33 percent of non-British Muslims who distinguished the two and 25 who didn’t, a difference which seems significant if still small. Equal numbers in both groups (24 of British Muslims, 23 percent of non-British ones) agreed with neither of these statements, while 24 percent of the British and 20 percent of the non-British group said they weren’t sure.

So non-British Muslim students may be slightly more likely to be Islamists than their British counterparts, but the difference is slight and the figure still only one in four.

Finally, when questioned specifically about women…


61 percent of non-British Muslims thought women wearing ‘the hijab’ (this may have been ambiguous) fairly (28 percent) or very (33 percent) important to Islam, while 33 percent thought it not at all important (18 percent) or not very (15 percent). Among their British peers, 62 percent called it important (30 percent very important, 32 fairly important) compared 30 percent who disagreed (18 percent not very important, 12 percent not at all).

Non-British Muslims were somewhat less supportive of the statement ‘It is up to the individual Muslim woman as to whether or not she chooses to wear the hijab’, with 59 percent agreeing compared with 65 of British Muslim students. Notably, the opposing answer ‘Women should wear the hijab – female modesty is an important part of Islam’ (supported by 30 percent of British participants and 38 percent of non-British ones) isn’t necessarily contradictory, but in any case, the differential is again a fairly small one.

Interestingly, no obvious difference can be seen in male and female response to these questions across the sample group as a whole. Of course, we don’t have crossbreaks for how gender and nationality correlate here, and if we did the groups would be too small to interpret usefully. British Muslim students are more likely than non-British ones to say wearing ’the hijab’ is a woman’s choice, but only by 59 to 65 percent. This is quite a useful question, since groups and events where segregated seating is practised tend to require all women present to wear headscarves.

On the direct question of how acceptable it is ‘for men and women to associate freely in Muslim society’, 49 percent of non-British Muslim students said it was very (21 percent) or fairly (28 percent) acceptable, while 33 percent called it ‘not very acceptable’ and 12 percent ‘not at all acceptable’. British Muslim response was ambivalent, with 62 percent saying either ‘not very‘ (30 percent) or ‘fairly’ (32 percent), with extreme stances less popular (16 percent for ‘very acceptable’ and 11 percent for ‘not at all acceptable’).


One question that followed (emphasis YouGov’s) was ‘Do you believe that men and women should be treated equally?’ I haven’t bothered to include it here because, as more or less whenever pollsters ask this question, almost everyone said yes – over 90 percent in each national subgroup. It’s almost never a useful question: almost everyone thinks men and women should be equal, but disagree about what this entails. (Asking people if they’re feminists, for example, gets very different results.)

A similar problem may on some level exist with men and women ‘associat[ing] freely’. Exactly what does and doesn’t this describe? Most Muslims, I suspect, would support mosques separating men and women for prayer, and presumably those who called association unacceptable here oppose, say, unmarried men and women socialising together, but would all of them oppose mixed or unregulated seating at public events?

I don’t know. I’m somewhat inclined to think so, though, because the position stated here is so blunt: if believers are willing to say free association of men and women is unacceptable without qualification, it seems likely their views are fairly all-encompassing. We can probably assume, at least, that everyone who said association was ‘not at all acceptable’ is pro-segregation – otherwise, I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. The answers can at any rate be summarised thus:

Aggregate support for and opposition to male-female association are roughly equal in both groups, ranging from 41 to 49 percent. Support, however, was more moderate among British Muslims – among non-British Muslims finding it acceptable, opinions were more evenly split between ‘very’ and ‘fairly’ answers, where British Muslim students strongly favoured ‘fairly’. Students opposed to free association in both groups found it ‘fairly’ unacceptable close to three times as often as ‘very’.

The long and short of it? Educators can relax: Muslim students from abroad won’t flee Britain en masse if segregation’s banned. Nor would much change if they did: they’re only a small fraction of the UK’s international fee-payers, as well as of its campus Islamists and fundamentalists.


Bisi Alimi: Anglicanism spurred Africa’s homophobic clampdowns

If you don’t know who Bisi Alimi is, you should – currently he’s in Berlin, on a lecture tour revolving around politics, race, sexuality and secularism. The following is a translation from coverage in Der Tagesspiegel, where he speaks compellingly to the impact of African Anglicanism on recent escalation of state-sanctioned homophobia and civil violence in countries like his native Nigeria. (The original German leaves something to be desired; in places, it’s been lightly paraphrased.)

In 2004, Bisi Alimi came out as gay on Nigerian TV. Forced to leave the country, he claimed asylum in London; ever since, he’s advised governments on HIV-AIDS and equality policy. On Tuesday, he is speaking at the Free University of Berlin.

Bisi Alimi knew what he was doing when he took his place on the couch of Nigeria’s most popular talk show host, Funmi Iyanda. This was in 2004. And it was the first interview to be conducted on Nigerian TV with an openly gay person in the west African country – to date, the only one. For Alimi, coming out to the nation meant needing to leave the country. He was granted asylum in Great Britain, and has lived since then in London. There, he founded a consultancy.

A sought-after conversant for governments looking to review their HIV-AIDS policy, he has also advised them for several years on developing strategies to protect LGBT activists in Africa. That means lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people standing up for their rights, and fighting above all for their sexuality not to be penalised. On Tuesday, Alimi is speaking at the Free University of Berlin on his experiences as an openly gay man in Nigeria and the difficulties of developing a non-heterosexual identity as well as living (that is, surviving) with it.

Almost everywhere in Africa, homosexuality is among the great taboos. Almost everywhere, moreover, it’s forbidden by law. Only in South Africa are gay rights constitutionally protected, though still unrecognised in reality. The continent-wide wave of clampdowns based on existing laws only gained momentum, according to Alimi, once tensions arose in the Anglican church over homosexuality. Before that, he reports, an understanding existed in many countries simply to turn a blind eye to it. As long as one kept one’s mouth shut, one could count on not being troubled. But this unspoken agreement came to an end with the clashes in the Anglican church: African Anglicans refused to accept that homosexuals might become priests or bishops in their church. The argument has now divided Anglicans for the best part of a decade.

Alimi paid a high price for refusing to deny his sexual identity. Yet he is at least alive. For David Cato, from Uganda, and for Fannyann Eddy from Sierra Leone, campaigning for gay and lesbian equality proved deadly. Both were murdered – Eddy in 2004, Cato in 2011.

What England’s creationist schools are teaching

“It’s the crapness!” yelled my mother, who almost never says anything more offensive than ‘oh blow’.

“It’s not the doctrine or the terrible science or the politics… it’s the… CRAPNESS!

In hindsight, leaving three boxes of Packets of Accelerated Christian Education (PACEs) at her house was perhaps not the kindest thing I could have done.

“It’s a bubble!” she continued, warming to her rant. “It’s stuck in a 1950s timewarp and it’s all so twee. Do you know what I read in a science PACE earlier? There was a lesson about the first heart transplant, and then it said have you had your heart transplanted by Jesus?

Leaving Fundamentalism‘s Jonny Scaramanga has a new post. Jonny, whose blog I frequently enjoy, was raised in England’s unacknowledged network of private, Christian fundamentalist schools – schools which education authorities, for some reason, heartily endorse. If you want to know what’s actually taught there, consult his spread of multiple choice questions from their exams.

What does ‘wisdom’ (as in, they say, ‘The pastor spoke with great wisdom’) mean? ‘Godly thinking’, ‘a test’ or ‘tasty milk’?


‘Plunger’, as in ‘The plunger in the pump was broken’ – ‘a dolphin’, ‘a pump part’ or ‘a brown car’?


‘Some special men have used the [‘cookies’? ‘knowledge’? ‘classes’?] God gave them to discover more about our wonderful world – but, as Jonny notes, ‘no special women, obviously’.


These are questions for nine and ten year olds. They ask twelve and thirteen year olds whether a minister of music, Bible translator, programmer or usher ‘lead[s] the church in . . . song’…


…and whether a ‘Godly homemaker who yields to the Lord’ makes her home ‘a place of business’, ‘blessing’ or ‘beginning’. (Questions like this, Jonny points out, are the only time the papers ever use ‘she’-pronouns.)


No less scholastic rigour is demanded of students aged fourteen and fifteen, asked whether ‘the Creator of the universe and the center of all things’ is a) man or b) God, and whether Gregor Mendel, Adolf Hitler, Charles Darwin or Charles Mendel ‘formulated the theory of evolution’.



Jonny has procured these question papers, he tells me, at sizeable personal expense. Unlike papers of mainstream exam boards like AQA or Edexcel, ‘Packets of Accelerated Christian Education’ like these aren’t in the public domain or available in almost any libraries – in his words ‘they can effectively operate in secret’.

Think this doesn’t affect you? 

In the United Kingdom, UK NARIC has deemed qualifications based on ACE to be comparable to A-level. Ofsted routinely whitewashes ACE schools in reports, and ACE nurseries teaching creationismreceive government funding.

In New Zealand, ACE qualifications are accepted for university entrance.

In the USA, ACE’s Lighthouse Christian Academy is accredited by MSA-CESS. The curriculum is used in givernment-funded creationist voucher programs in eleven states.

In South Africa, based on HESA’s recommendation, a number of universities have signed up to accept ACE graduates.

ACE says its curriculum is used in 192 countries and 6000 schools worldwide. This is happening nearer than you think.

All this means that parents are more likely to choose this academically third-rate and theologically fourth-rate education for their children. This has got to stop.

Lists of ACE badness:

Related posts:

Read the original post.

“Waging all-out war against religion”: New Atheism, Alom Shaha and me

In his book The Young Atheist’s Handbook, Alom Shaha – now a physics teacher at a London school for girls – recounts a friend’s entry in his own school leaver’s book, ‘Watch out … because this boy is going to find out if God really does play with dice.’ He ascribes this statement sheepishly to zealous adolescent hubris, so I’m bound to stand up for it, but I’m not sure he should cringe on looking back: the slogan predicted, if inadvertently, his adult apostasy as well as scientific skill.

Alom is one of my favourite atheists. Around the time of his book’s release in summer 2012, I interviewed him for a piece reviewing it. Before all else, what struck me was that more than one voice came through in its pages. To quote myself,

Even his atheist rhetoric is chameleonic. In his introduction, Alom states his admission to eating pork ‘may be the most controversial thing I write in this book’. He later goes on to say ‘It’s one thing to be complicit in the unnecessary suffering of animals; it’s another thing entirely to suffer from sexual repression because you’ve been brought up to believe that God disapproves of masturbation, or to live as a second-class citizen because you’re a woman, or to live in fear for your life because you’re a homosexual. Yet this is the reality that is imposed on millions, if not billions, of people around the world because they live in communities or countries that base their morality and laws on religious beliefs founded ancient books and stories.’ A few pages later, he states ‘I wouldn’t necessarily agree that religion is morally wrong’.

One moment it’s a firebrand we’re reading, the next a diplomat. The division’s artificial, of course, but the question stands – why the inconsistency? It’s sometimes better, Alom tells me, to appear harmless before moments of secular rage. I’m only half appeased, but he submits ‘My opinion’s always changing and evolving. I hope that I’ll be better able to express some of my ideas a few years down the line, and I suspect I will have changed my mind about a few things.’

Eighteen months have passed. As if on cue, he sides in New Humanist’s current issue with the backlash against ‘New Atheism’:

“Muslims are destroying our way of life!” This is not a Daily Mail headline, but something an irate member of the audience yelled at me at a talk I was giving . . . parroting the kind of rhetoric that is not just to be found in the pages of our tabloids, but also amongst many people who wear their atheist identities with pride.

. . .

I also encountered hostility . . . because I am, according to some, an “accommodationist” – an atheist whose prime objective isn’t to wage all-out war against all religions and their believers, an atheist who doesn’t think it’s productive to go around telling people who believe in God that they’re ignorant, wrong or stupid . . . who is full of admiration, respect and love for many people who describe themselves as having some sort of “faith”.

I can’t help but feel that people who expend huge amounts of time and energy trying to convince people of the non-existence of God are largely wasting their time. It’s easy to criticise religious belief, to point out the irrationality of faith, to show that God is just an idea. . . . But even in the face of overwhelming evidence that their God is a fiction, many people continue to have “faith” because that’s how their minds work. . . . [W]e all have some irrational beliefs, dodgy notions that we hold on to despite an absence of evidence, because we want to feel them to be true, not because they are.

. . .

When there’s a religiously motivated terrorist attack, I’m not sure it’s helpful to attack religion, to vilify believers. When we have children being segregated from each other on the grounds of their parents’ religions, I’m not sure arguments about the non-existence of God are useful. When we want to implement laws and policies that tackle inequality, pointing out the silly, anachronistic rules in ancient religious texts is not how we ensure support from religious people who are on our side. . . . there are more important things to consider . . . in the battles we face to make the world a better place. If we want to eliminate sexism, racism, homophobia, if we want to address the inequalities and injustices of society, we cannot afford to alienate those with whom we differ only on the question of God.

. . .

I’m starting to think that identifying as an atheist isn’t terribly useful most of the time. As many others have pointed out, defining yourself in terms of something you don’t believe seems a bit pointless. I increasingly find myself introducing myself as a humanist, someone with positive views about how the world should be, rather than someone with a rather simplistic view on how the world isn’t.

I agree on most things with Alom, but not on this – my vote, predictably, goes to the case made by Tom Chivers overleaf against ‘treating religious beliefs with unearned respect’, which to keep from treading further on New Humanist’s financial turf I shan’t replicate here. (The magazine, and you ought to buy a copy, is in Smith’s for £4.95.) I could argue from first principles with any of the core points here – like Chivers, I think atheists should speak more accurately on Islam so as to hone, not blunt, our criticism; plenty of useful negative identities exist, ‘apostate’ being one, and if discrediting religion is so easy, why not try? – but all those points feel a touch tired by now, and in the end, Alom’s personal angle grips me more. To say time’s changed his viewpoint would be easy, but the truth is that I’ve always found his stance hard to pin down.

It’s an odd thing writing in the third person of someone you know privately, especially in disagreement, but we’ve exchanged the favour several times. I confess it was I who flippantly called Alom an accommodationist the second time we met, after hearing him say much the same in a Skeptics in the Pub talk. (Terry Rodgers, of Edinburgh Skeptics, sums up the version given there in the phrase ‘We have to move on from the era of The God Delusion’, asking on Alom’s behalf, ‘if someone’s beliefs give comfort or an illusion of being loved, to whose benefit would it be to take that away from them?’) It wasn’t a tense moment, at least from where I sat, and I’d like to think I’m quoted not because Alom puts me the way he views those concerned for ‘our way of life’, but because my wording captured the backdraught he’d faced more stridently elsewhere. Certainly I was surprised (and mildly dissatisfied) by how well his argument seemed to go down, but mainly I was incredulous: this didn’t seem to be the man whose book I’d read just months before.

At points throughout the Handbook, if not (see above) uncomplicatedly, Alom excoriates religion, quoting Thomas Paine in calling its institutions ‘human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind’. He dismisses NOMA, writing that ‘while it may be good for the societies we live in to be tolerant . . . we demean the concept of truth by reducing what it means to something that is determined by a misguided desire to agree with our fellow humans’ and stating ‘While I don’t condone the behaviour of “dick atheists”, I can empathise with their frustrations. I’d like to think I’m not one, but I’m not prepared, as I think [Stephen Jay] Gould did, to compromise my intellectual integrity to avoid causing offence.’ Crediting his life’s experiencing with having ‘freed [him] from the shackles of superstition and religion’, he goes so far as to say things like ‘Religion allows people to ignore the needs of real beings in favour of the supposed wishes of a being that does not exist’, and ‘just as many individuals outgrow religion, the human race as a whole needs to outgrow religion’, later adding ‘despite my best efforts to be reasonable, empathetic and understanding . . . the world would be a better place if there were more atheists, if a greater proportion of the world rejected religion and embraced the view that we humans can make a better, fairer, happier world without God.’ ‘Can we truly fulfil our potential as a species’, he asks, ‘as long as we hold on to, and encourage, the perpetuation of the lie of life after death?’ ‘It will be a huge failure of the human race if we do not evolve better, more relevant, more just ways of living our lives.’

These, one would think, are quintessential New Atheist stances, if not ones reminiscent at times of an older continental antitheism. It’s hard to believe they share an author with the piece in New Humanist quoted above, but he has a robust case for adopting them and makes it well. Alom’s book describes in its memoiristic stretches his being forbidden from birth from eating pork; his melancholy at missing out on Christmas unlike classmates whose religion(s) seemed not to revolve around ‘the forbidding of fun’; how a local imam told him ‘to be really, really scared of Allah’ and that non-Muslims would ‘burn in the fires of hell for eternity’; how he was, further to this, ‘brought up to believe in hell, a place where I would be made to burn and subjected to terrible torture’ failing good behaviour; how his mother, suffering mental illness, was said in the time before her death to be possessed by religious family members and adults; how an ‘older Bangladeshi boy’ told him her loss and his brother’s various disabilities ‘were proof that God thought there was something rotten with my family’; how acquaintances dub him ‘a coconut: brown on the outside, but white on the inside’ due to leaving Islam; how his secondary school made him choose to sing Christian hymns or be ‘excluded from the rest of the school’ with only one other (Jewish) boy; how relenting after two years of this to stand silently among classmates as they sang evoked in him ‘lingering bits of guilt’ for failing, quite literally, to keep the faith; how his physics teacher expelled him from a lesson aged eleven or twelve for exclaiming ‘Jesus Christ!’; how his father ‘glared at’ him in his teenage years for piercing his ear, ‘piss[ed] off’ since ‘good Muslim boys’ apparently refrained from this; how to keep up appearances, he was made to attend prayer with his brothers at the local mosque, learn suras by rote and mindlessly recite ‘La Ilaha Illallahu Muhamadur Rasulullah’ (‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’) under ‘the threat of a beating from our father’, even when one brother ‘would cry with desperation immediately before having to go to these miserable lessons’; how his brothers (Alom escaped their fate) were subjected to genital-cutting, nightmarish at any age, once old enough to be ‘terrified of the surgery and fully aware of the prospect of pain’, at the hands of someone he suspects ‘was just an imam with a scalpel and minimum training’, and ‘how heartbreaking it was to hear their screams and whimpers every time they moved the wrong way during the night, or when their bandages had to come off for cleaning during the day’. (Notably, their family is several times described as less religiously ‘hardcore’ than others in the area.)

It relates his close encounters, too, with believers and belief: the friend who declared in the wake of a natural disaster, ‘I don’t understand how an earthquake could happen in Pakistan [-] it’s a Muslim country’; the one who ‘“protects” his mother from his “true opinions”’; the numerous male acquaintances who ‘did not marry the love of their life because the girl was not of the same religion’; the white Englishman who converted for his Bangladeshi wife, both of whom are ‘now secretly atheists’ but hide this from her parents; the arranged marriages foisted both on his parents and on numerous current friends; the ‘months of shame’ his mother endured sleeping beside her children while her husband’s mistress visited their bed, an indignity Alom attributes partly to traditions ‘not uncommon in Islamic countries, where polygamy is sanctioned by Qur’anic law’; the streets of Elephant and Castle where he grew up, where ‘the men would walk several feet in front of the women, a sight that is not unusual in Muslim communities even today’; the sixteen year old who ‘went from taking an active interest in women’s fashion to wearing traditional Islamic dress almost overnight’, donning a hijab in her own words to Alom because ‘My brother has become a strict Muslim’ – in his own, ‘because she has no choice’; the student of his who like him had been raised reciting the Qur’an in Arabic without knowing passages’ meaning, but described it as ‘so beautiful that it  could not possibly have been written by a human’; the eleven year old who promised to boycott lessons on evolution, telling him ‘It’s against my religion to believe we’re descended from monkeys’, and the others who’ve told him his lessons on the Big Bang are ‘an attempt to undermine their religious beliefs’, ‘upset or offended by the suggestion that they should be “forced to learn this rubbish”’; the students in his science class who’ve told him ‘God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’; the trainee teacher of religious studies who recoiled at his suspicion physics classes made some students question their beliefs, a conversation which resulted in her ‘storming off after stating “You scientists think you know everything, but you don’t!”’

Then come the spotlights on religion in the wider world: 22 million sub-Saharan Africans living with HIV thanks to the Catholic Church, ‘an epidemic that is devastating these countries’; ‘the recent spate of homophobic violence in certain parts of Africa . . . fuelled by both Christian and Muslim leaders calling for communities to “flush out gays”’; the Islamist states where ‘homosexuality is strictly illegal, and punishment can range from a violent beating to death by stoning’; the U.S. Christian in 2011 who murdered a gay man ‘because “he read in the Old Testament that gays should be stoned to death”’; the two New Yorkers in 2009 who ‘viciously attacked’ a gay man there and were defended by a friend whose homophobic tattoo quoted Leviticus; Webster Cook, student at the University of Central Florida, threatened with death by Christians when he took a communion wafer home instead of eating it, accused by a local priest of kidnapping Jesus in so doing (‘If anything were to qualify as a hate crime’, the priest in question said, ‘this might be it’); Usama Hasan, imam and physicist, threatened with death by British Muslims when ‘he claimed that Islam was compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution’; the stonings or whippings prescribed in versions of Islam for women who have sex before or outside marriage, ‘carried out in many Islamic countries today’; ‘the requirement for women to be covered up’, and ‘reports of young Muslim girls feeling pressured by their peers into wearing the hijab’; genital-cutting ‘practised in many Muslim communities . . . in which the clitoris of young girls is removed with the specific intention of reducing, or even entirely destroying, their ability to enjoy sex’; ‘guilt, shame, and anxiety, all of which can lead to serious psychological harm’ promoted by widespread religious attitudes to masturbation; ‘unnecessary and avoidable pain’ caused to animals by religious slaughter; Jehovah’s Witnesses who ‘refuse blood transfusions when critically ill’ and ‘members of religious cults who commit mass suicide’; the ‘many wars . . . carried out in the name of God’ and ‘conflicts spurred by religion . . . around the world’, including between African Christians and Muslims and conflicting schools of Islam in the Middle East; the ‘promise of a reward in the afterlife’, ‘used to encourage young men and women to kill themselves, and others, so that they can become martyrs’, ‘to deny help to the poor, helpless, and oppressed’, ‘to explain away human misery rather than deal with it’; that ‘most children are . . . brought up with the impression that it is evil not to believe, and that they will be punished – often in horrific ways, such as burning for an eternity in hell – for deviating from the rules and regulations of their parents’ religions’; that ‘belief without questioning is seen as a virtue in some, if not all, religions’.

If ‘New Atheism’ can be seen as a distinct philosophy, its central precepts can I think be summarised as follows:

  1. Religion is to blame for widespread suffering and injustice, not just due to its contingent structural embodiments, but because of its inherent epistemic nature.
  2. Religion benefits from and has historically relied on unearned deference, rendering criticism of its claims heretical, unlawful or socially unacceptable.
  3. Religion’s claims and inherent nature deserve to be criticised unflinchingly, with this deference discarded in the name of combating injustices it lets them cause unchallenged.

I’m as up as any for a new New Atheism which pays deeper attention to the social contexts in which religion operates, including with regard to ‘sexism, racism, homophobia . . . inequalities and [other] injustices’ – this was the founding principle of Atheism Plus, whose supporters are (if nothing else) right to recognise the current secular movement is at base a push ‘to make the world a better place’. I don’t think that movement is, to date, without its major faults, but I do think its core ideas as stated here are right. It would be to the planet’s benefit for religious beliefs to be taken from, or rather abandoned by, its populace. Alom’s book gives all manner of reasons why.

Each manifestation of religion above is a blight that would, at very least, have far greater difficulty arising in a more skeptical world. Many of those mentioned simply couldn’t.

Many are also born, it’s true, from factors other than religion. Suicide bombings, sexism, genital-cutting – none of these should be understood as a purely religious phenomenon, uninformed and unaffected by world politics or cultural history. Nothing, religion and its performances included, exists in a vacuum. But the fact the God idea may not be sufficient for the flying of planes into buildings doesn’t mean it isn’t likely to be necessary. To say we can’t blame religion for it since a web of other factor exists is much like saying that since fallout from prior conflicts and centuries of European racism hung behind Nazism, the Stauffenberg plot was pointless. No Hitler, in Milton Himmelfarb’s words, no Holocaust; no God, no 9/11. A shot at either’s assassination couldn’t possibly make matters worse.

I’m acutely and painfully aware that I am, in essence, lecturing someone by telling them to read their own book. (Sorry.) I don’t mean to be condescending – if I seem to be, it’s because the obvious rebuttal to Alom’s NH piece is to list grievances against religion, and I wouldn’t wish to imply (equally condescendingly) he has none of his own. I know he does; what puzzles me is that I know them to have prompted justified missives from him in the past that would look at home in the very annals of the New Atheism he lambasts. People change their minds, of course, but I heard the same criticisms from him only months after his book’s release, ones it seems itself to answer.

Even there, it’s not always clear where he stands. ‘Just as religion can provide some people with answers,’ Alom writes at one point between statements (seemingly) that it needs to be discarded, ‘it gives some people a sense of meaning, solace, and happiness – and who am I to cast judgement on that?’ ‘If believers ‘come to different conclusions about what they believe, then, unless their beliefs hurt other people, I will not condemn that for it.’ Surely the point, made elsewhere in the Handbook at some length, is that faith beliefs routinely hurt people?

Sometimes the line he takes appears reformist – the incitement to ‘outgrow religion’, to be fair, is qualified: ‘At least . . . the primitive, anachronistic form of religion that still dominates so many people’s lives’. ‘Perhaps, in the future,’ he speculates, ‘societies will rise above the fundamentally divisive nature of contemporary religion and re-invent it to better encompass our scientific knowledge of ourselves, the universe, and morality; perhaps we will shift closer to the idea of religion as a philosophy, a way to provide those who need it with guidance on how to lead better, happier lives’. ‘It is time to modify or abandon the idea of God’, he says as if hedging his bets, and ‘redefine the concept of religion’. Alom doesn’t explore how this might happen – it reads like he’s looking for a get-out clause, a reason to say a less religious planet might not be needed after all.

I don’t buy it. If he means Alain de Botton’s Religion 2.0 or the non-realist theology of Karen Armstrong or Don Cupitt should supplant conventional belief, I agree the world would end up brighter for it, but how to popularise such an approach without first smothering mainstream theism? De Botton describes his project openly as ‘religion for atheists’, and it isn’t by chance that Cupitt formed his views (and Sea of Faith Network) at Cambridge and the liberal end of Anglicanism after centuries of decline in British religion’s power. To reconstruct religion wholesale in this way would necessitate destroying it first, just as New Atheists hope to; there’s no rebuilding the church, at least in such a fundamental way, if it hasn’t been torn down.

I’m not sure, in fact, why one would want to – if literal God-belief would need extinguishing before religion was reformed, why bother with step two at all? Why seek to preserve it in name only, a cloak of empty metaphor and ritual around secular beliefs, except out of emotional attachment or lack of confidence in outright atheism? Religion has no moral viewpoint of its own once claims of fact have been thrown out, its orders we ought or oughtn’t do something relying on the thought a god is watching by whom it is or isn’t earmarked. Stripped of these claims, used a pedagogic puppet of secular ethics, how could it still be called religion? That would be abrogation, not reform – an aesthetic departure from New Atheism’s plot to bury God, but not a substantive one.

Could theism be tamed perhaps, recalibrated to be free of ‘sexism, racism, homophobia’ and capacity to hurt others, as one senses in New Humanist and at points during the Handbook is Alom’s real hope? I’m inclined to say no, at least on a mass scale or completely. Religions evolve to suit their habitats, of course, and kinder, gentler versions can and do gain traction, prompted at times by combative secular Enlightenments and culture wars. (His column cites these as unproductive; they’ve produced a Church of England whose leader says it ‘must accept . . . a revolution in the area of sexuality’, a Vatican pleading quite suddenly to be tolerated.) But my sense is that a life rooted in faith, lived by the arbitrarily imagined whims of a god who may or may not be there, will always have its casualties. I’ve been one of them. I know Alom has too.

Given the options, anyway, to ‘modify or abandon the idea of God’ – and it hasn’t had the second one very long – which does humanity seem likelier to take? Rates of religious non-belief, as noted by Tom Chivers in NH, are soaring, while political and fundamentalist beliefs are widespread; both of these, in recent decades, have grown at the middle ground’s expense. It’s easier for me to think Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and their counterparts will simply lose their grip on world populations than that mainstream forms of each will become ecumenical champions of human rights and secularism, whose followers put down their arms and opt to co-exist in harmony.

When has a culture war ever ended in a truce? And why, moreover, call off one we only just started to win?

In defence of the War on Christmas

As 2011’s royal wedding happened, the Guardian hit on a stroke of genius. Perched in easily missed white type atop its sprawling coverage, a tiny button read “Republicans click here”, which when activated hid all related stories. The button, which proved popular enough to reappear this year when the couple’s child was born, made the paper’s site a refuge for the unenthused, the only place online or otherwise where bunting and bootlicking could be escaped. As Advent commences, I often wish such a filter hid reminders of Christmastime from view.

As Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience notes on the programme’s blog, arguments for the validity of godless Christmas celebrations have done well in recent years. These are the “Axial tilt is the reason for the season” shirts, the “Keep the merry, dump the myth!” placards of American Atheists, the selection of cards sold by the British Humanist Association, the Digital Cuttlefish’s books of festive (and fun) poems; they’re various chapters in Ariane Sherine’s Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, and by implication part of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, the Rationalist Association’s annual benefit; they fill countless column inches by Robin Ince (its host), Richard Dawkins, Elisabeth Cornwell, Myra Zepf, Alain de Botton, Alom Shaha and Jim Al-Khalili among others.

The case, summed up in AA’s slogan, is no doubt as familiar to atheists today as are the faults of Pascal’s Wager, both being discussions with believers one comes across too frequently for comfort. Many of our Christmas customs if not most – gift-giving, good will, feasts, festooned fir trees and Father Christmas – aren’t of a necessarily religious character, the argument goes. If superstitions bequeath us an excuse to have at them, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

The logic’s sound, but commonplace enough that it risks seeming both reflexive and received. I decided to give up Christmas last year, for no more grand a reason than that personally, I don’t enjoy it. With such passionately vocal thirst to reclaim it in the secular community, it’s hard not to feel at least mildly rebuked, as if my absence from the bandwagon endangers a key atheist PR objective, stopping images of secularist grinches waging war on Christmas being properly cast off.

The trouble, and I’ve only realised it in recent years, is that I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.

Yes, I’m turned off by the BBC broadcasting Bible readings, church services and carols about blood and gall – but I’m just as turned off by their annoying, repetitive melodies. I’m angered by Operation Christmas Child, and by millions of children being made to sing said carols in their schools or act out narratives from religions whose ideas they may not share and aren’t yet well placed to assess – but I’m just as angry parents lie to their children about who provides their presents, often objecting to them being told the truth, for no clear reason except finding the deception somehow sweet. I don’t enjoy the smell of tangerines, the putting up of decorations, the taste of mince pies or the expectation I gorge myself on food I’d never otherwise eat, enduring sit-down meals and light dinner conversation (no swear words allowed) with relatives I’d rather not encounter. In the end, I struggle mostly to be cheerier than usual for contrived and arbitrary reasons.

If you are a Christmas person, and clearly many of us are, I’m all for your enjoying the rituals of your choice – we’d do well to be cautious, though, of insisting “Of course atheists love Christmas”, implying as a chorus of this insistence does that we not only can but should. One perk of non-religious life, it’s been argued in New Humanist before, is the right to pick and choose our festivals. A status quo where atheists feel bad for not being Christmassy enough has something very wrong with it.

Atheism’s collective urgency to show festive credentials is understandable. As Glasser writes, “[p]opular culture is full of rotten characters who hate Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Narnia’s White Witch.” Alone among calendar dates, failing to love it ostentatiously provokes a barrage of reproach: I’ve been called a killjoy, a spoilsport and an Eeyore for disliking it, but never for finding Valentine’s Day crass or New Year underwhelming.

One wonders if the keenness to affirm secular love for Christmas stems in part from a desire to placate religious critics, assuring them our boat-rocking plans are limited. Certainly, Eric Pickles’ call three years ago for councils “not [to] allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity” drew valid fire for recycling myths about “the likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous” as evidence for a so-called war on Christmas, but Pickles also demanded councils fund “carol services and nativity scenes” – a valid target, surely, for secularist pressure?

Baulk as we might at the “war on Christmas” narrative, parts of how Britain marks it belong in godless people’s crosshairs, from government-backed proselytising of this kind to evangelism in state schools, religious programming at licence payers’ expense and the pollution at large of the public sphere’s secularity. However excised of religion Christmas exhibits might be in marketplaces and the media, they’ve undoubtedly opened the door to public religious displays more widely in the name of inclusivity – Oxford’s giant street-mounted menorah, say, lit each Hanukkah by the town mayor and a local Rabbi, or Channel 4’s broadcasting the adhān for Ramadan this year.

The object of a so-called war on Christmas (and on all these articles of faith as establishments of public life) is really a profoundly diplomatic settlement, an understanding of the public sphere as neutral, unclaimed territory rather than land divided among orthodox religious groups. This is why I can’t support the ‘multifaith’ approach above, espoused on Bill O’Reilly’s programme by Chris Stedman recently: a multifaith public square is as bad as a single faith one, in some ways worse, because it still gives public authority to clergy; still makes people outsiders who won’t participate; still pollutes the peaceful neutrality of a marketplace which asks no one to demonstrate their piety.

However secular or holy we think the festive season is, that détente matters. Those in atheism who sit happily with unwrapped gifts and hangovers on Boxing Day should think twice before they lapse into unravelling it themselves, keen to ‘destigmatise’ secularists by showing us as Christmas-lovers. A culture of pressure to participate fostered by atheists is as bad as one produced by theocrats like Pickles – neither tolerates dissent, and both perpetuate the notion those who don’t join in are spite-filled Scrooges.

If we care for people’s conscientious freedom or right to live by the calendar they choose, we shouldn’t let fears of seeming grinchish silence us when religion encroaches on public life at Christmastime; equally, we should support those in our ranks who don’t do Christmas, and oppose the spectre of the Grinch being used to guilt or smear them. Call this scaling back of peer pressure a war on Christmas if you must, and Bill O’Reilly is correct that it exists; to me, it seems like giving peace on Earth a chance.

Catching Fire straightwashes its stars

Catching Fire, the Hunger Games follow-up, ranks among this year’s best films, achieving the rare status of a sequel better than its predecessor. Praise for Jennifer Lawrence, fresh from Oscar success and giving one of her best performances, justifiably saturates reviews, but the real revelation is director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who draws magnetic work from the whole cast while dropping the shaky cameras and muffled sound that dulled the first film’s violent edge. Returning actors up their game without exception, none more than Donald Sutherland (whose scenery-chewing villain graduates here from standard beard-of-evil scowler to frame-filling, scene-stealing menace) and Elizabeth Banks, comic and tragic by equal turns as effete mistress of ceremonies Effie; newcomers Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright impress as gamemaker Plutarch and tech-savvy Beetee, winning me over despite clashing with my vision of their characters, and Jena Malone embodies deadpan, axe-wielding Johanna Mason to a tee. The film’s fidelity as an almost scene-for-scene dramatisation of Suzanne Collins’ novel is its greatest pleasure, hunks of dialogue lifted directly from the page – it’s a shame, then, that the book’s occasional homoerotic frissons are quashed by Hollywood.

Finnick Odair, the trident-wielding, frequently naked victor from District 4 emerges the one character the film gets wrong in my eyes. In the book, he’s described as follows on first meeting Katniss:

Finnick Odair’s famous sea-green eyes are only centimetres from mine. He pops a sugar cube in his mouth and leans against my horse.

. . .

Finnick Odair is something of a living legend in Panem. . . . [H]e was a Career, so the odds were already in his favour, but what no trainer could claim to have given him was his extraordinary beauty. Tall, athletic, with golden skin and bronze-coloured hair and those incredible eyes. While other tributes [his] year were hard-pressed to get a handful of grain or some matches for a gift, Finnick never wanted for anything, not food or medicine or weapons. . . .

The citizens of the Capitol have been drooling over him ever since.

Because of his youth, they couldn’t really touch him for the first year or two. But ever since he turned sixteen, he’s spent his time at the Games being dogged by those desperately in love with him. No one retains his favour for long. He can go through four or five in his annual visit. Old or young, lovely or plain, rich or very rich, he’ll keep them company and take their extravagant gifts, but he never stays, and once he’s gone he never comes back.

I can’t argue that Finnick isn’t one of the most stunning, sensuous people on the planet. But I can honestly say he’s never been attractive to me. Maybe he’s too pretty, or maybe he’s too easy to get, or maybe it’s really that he’d just be too easy to lose.

Note the determined absence of references to gender: ‘citizens’, not ‘women’ of the Capitol; ‘those’, not ‘girls’, who are in love with him; ‘four or five’ per visit, with no appended noun. Finnick, the text seems to imply, courts male and female desire as indiscriminately as ‘old [and] young, lovely [and] plain, rich [and] very rich’. In the third book, Mockingjay, he reveals just as non-specifically his sale by authorities as a sex slave:

‘President Snow used to … sell me … my body, that is,’ Finnick begins in a flat, removed tone. ‘I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. . . . To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewellery[.]’

On film, Sam Claflin’s Finnick seemed to me a womaniser in the classic sense, cocky, objectifying and chauvinistic, another of American celluloid’s preppy, athletic playboys. In a word, he seemed distinctly straight. The sugar cube scene in which he first meets Katniss plays as if he’s making Conneryesque overtures, but Finnick is no Sean Connery. He’s ‘pretty’, as much a sex object as she is if not more, seductive rather than entitled, coquettish rather than just coarse, wooing seemingly both men and women. (Beyond how his public appeal is described, it’s notable that almost all Panem’s higher-up movers and shakers, among whom Finnick is sold around, seem to be men.)

One of Catching Fire‘s more comic moments comes in the book as Peeta is electrocuted striking a force field. Katniss, with next to no knowledge of CPR, outlines Finnick’s attempts at first aid thus:

Finnick props Mags against a tree and pushes me out of the way. ‘Let me.’ His fingers touch points at Peeta’s neck, run over the bones in his ribs and spine. . . . I pull an arrow, whip the notch into place, and am about to let it fly when I’m stopped by the sight of Finnick kissing Peeta. . . . Then Finnick unzips the top of Peeta’s jumpsuit and begins to pump the spot over his heart with the heels of his hands.

Lawrence’s film not only fails to capitalise on this, but crops it conspicuously from the frame, no mouth-to-mouth contact left visibly in shot – something of a slap in the face, it must be said, for fans who enjoyed this moment’s ambiguity. (The pretext is medical, of course, but isn’t Finnick’s every action a double entendre of some kind?) It’s odd to say the least if public floggings, executions and fights to the death were deemed suitable for audiences but even ostensibly non-sexual male lip-locking got cut.

Similar comments could be made of Johanna, whose textual self like Finnick seemed coated in bisexuality. Unlike his, her personality remains intact in the adaptation, but various tense moments between her and Katniss are altered or left out. In Collins’ pages, their first exchange regards sartorial style. ‘That strapless number you wore in District Two?’, Johanna asks her. ‘So gorgeous I wanted to reach through the screen and tear it right off your back.’ The film, on the other hand, skips this line, bringing Johanna in moments afterward as she disrobes before Katniss and Peeta and playing up the safely heterosexual side of this encounter: as she has Peeta undo her zip and winks raunchily at wizened Haymitch, we’re invited simply to think she plans on psyching Katniss out by flirting with her man, where in fact the book’s both the earlier line and Peeta’s dialogue afterward suggest her stripping down, like Finnick’s teasing with the sugar cubes and another tribute’s unexpected kiss, is a come-on intended to fluster.

We’ve seen this kind of straightwashing in Hollywood before, of course – in GatsbyFried Green TomatoesThe Color Purple. I only wish The Hunger Games could have avoided it, since its characters lose out as a result.



First (and unenthusiastic) thoughts on ‘The Day of the Doctor’

I was asked a short while back if I’d penned an ‘I hate Steven Moffat’ post of the now-familiar kind. Having seen ‘The Day of the Doctor’, this is it.

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

I hated it.

[Major spoilers follow.]

I didn’t hate everything about it. A few aspects of it had me grinning brightly.

  • John Hurt is the Doctor! Now entirely and officially. (How’s the numbering affected by this, incidentally?)
  • Peter Capaldi! (And, to a lesser extent, Christopher Eccleston!)
  • Gemma Redgrave’s face twisting slimily into a Zygon: nightmarish. Good luck sleeping tonight, children. (On top of this, a sterling mention of the Brig.)
  • The Hartnell opening titles, and the I.M. Foreman sign!
  • The round things.
  • ‘I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but at the time, so did the Zygon.’
  • Clara being a teacher (getting much needed character development). More so, Clara on the motorcycle.
  • Eleven. People argue whether Smith or Tennant’s better. As far as I’m concerned, the argument’s over.

Speaking of which, though… things I didn’t like were legion.

  • Ten. I know you probably love him. I don’t. And this episode showed him at his babbling, abrasive worst. The Elizabethan scenes, especially early on, were an enormous weak spot. Oh, and… about that:
  • SO MUCH WASTED TIME. An hour in, I was still waiting for plot developments I cared about. 75 minutes is a long episode, but a painfully short feature film, which apparently was what this aspired to be, cinema showings and all. You do not have time to mess around with screwdrivers, fezzes, rabbits, picnics, helicopters or royal weddings. (Regarding the helicopter in particular, the lampshading ‘Why didn’t you just knock?’ did nothing to aid plausibility. It backfired, in fact.) Clara’s door-opening payoff made me laugh, but not enough to make up for the precious minutes wasted on its set-up, and all this is especially frustrating from a writer singularly skilled at prologues where lots happens rapidly (c.f. ‘The Pandorica Opens‘, ‘The Name of the Doctor‘). To specify what I think was a core problem…
  • TOO MANY PLOTS, only one of which I cared about. Zygons hiding in the National Gallery could have been a strong mid-series episode – the statues scene was inspired, even if it a little too reminiscent of the clock-smashing in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ – but I struggled to give a damn about it here, especially with all the complicated shapeshifting. I know I can’t have been the only one who found Ten romancing Queen Elizabeth a wholesale come-down after Daleks laying waste to Arcadia. Just because Moffat can spin several plates at once doesn’t mean he should, and in fact this made the whole thing rather joyless in my eyes.
  • I am sick of the overly self-referential nudge-nudge-wink-winking of Moffat’s scripts – the War Doctor bristling about lip-locking being a prime example, on top of the recurrent ‘timey wimey’ lines, which I’ve never found as funny as he seems to think they are. In moderation, this sort of thing is nice. Used as much as it’s used currently, it makes everything feel like a Children in Need sketch. (Remember those ‘Space‘ and ‘Time‘ clips? No? I’m sorry I reminded you.)
  • On the point of lip-locking, I’m no prude, but does anyone else feel the raunch is just over the top now? The Ten/Elizabeth smooching felt out of character even for an exceptionally romantic Doctor, and the ‘compensation’ line was frankly awkward on a teatime family series. (Eleven’s ‘tight skirts’ moment in ‘Nightmare in Silver’, which has ‘Moffat insert’ written all over it, remains the all time low.) Relatedly:
  • Steven Moffat can’t write women. I know this is blunt – I’m sorry – it’s just true.Rose/Bad Wolf/the Moment’s flirting with John Hurt’s Doctor early on was just out of character (see above), even accepting this wasn’t actually Rose (see below). It felt like Billie Piper was reading Irene Adler’s lines from Sherlock… or River Song’s from Doctor Who. Or Amy’s, early on. Or Oswin’s. Or indeed Elizabeth’s in the same episode, who felt (as Ten did, actually) like a panto character. Osgood meanwhile, bespectacled and with a hopeless, geek girl hero-worship crush, was Molly Hooper in a scarf.It’s not that writing women requires some special or distinct approach. Moffat’s women, with the odd exception, are just tropes rather than characters, and often repetitions of the same tropes. His habit of cavalier sexism in dialogue (‘She’s been brainwashed, it all makes sense to her. Plus, she’s a woman… shut up, I’m dying!’) doesn’t help: the ‘prettier sister’ line was just uncomfortable, and Elizabeth’s ‘Men!’ comment cements her status alongside River and Irene in the ‘sexy man-haters to be conquered’ camp. Further, the gags about Ten repeatedly insulting the woman he was seeing simply felt cruel.
  • Switching back to Bad RoMents (I heard it’s a song), why bother casting Billie Piper if not as Rose? I realise this is a rock-and-a-hard-place problem: if we’d had the vintage ’06 Rose-Ten drippery most expected, I’d also be complaining. In fact, I thought the character succeeded, but thanks to Piper’s performance and despite the script. Via the witches in Macbeth and Tina Turner in Mad Max, she gives a great mystery-desert-sorceress, and has more to work with than she ever did as a companion, but her actual casting felt perfunctory.
  • Similarly, and with no need of further verbiage: what the fuck was going on with that 79-year-old-Tom-Baker cameo?
  • The way the Doctors turned on an apparent sixpence from destroying Gallifrey to saving it felt wildly odd. It took nine lives, one death and assurance of the physical cosmos being destroyed for this to happen. One would think the War Doctor had slightly more resolve, having exhausted other options, than to be swayed at this point by a tear from Clara.
  • Likewise, saving Gallifrey should not have been that easy. We’ve been told Time Lords were the inventors of black holes, able to hop lightly between universes and eradicate, if need be, all material existence: it seems just possible that prior to opting for the latter, as The End of Time told us they did (and surely this would be worth mentioning as a decision-making factor?), they’d have considered ways to save their planet – not least ones based on apparently everyday technology. Paintings, for God’s sake. Seriously, no one thought of this?
  • How did those paintings, by the way, even reach Elizabethan England?
  • In more abstract terms, I’m sick of Moffat’s tendency to have his cake and eat it, saving everyone or bringing back the dead, handing the Doctor victories through ‘timey wimey’ paradox on paradox, thinking third options up at every turn. A tradition of the series has been that someone (nearly) always dies, that moral compromises have to be faced and hands are sometimes forced by universal laws.Especially considering how many of its audience are children, this is brave, mature, important storytelling. I liked, for this reason, the comment to Hurt’s Doctor by Tennant’s and Smith’s, ‘You were the Doctor more than anybody else: you were the Doctor on the day it wasn’t possible to get it right.’Like JK Rowling’s Snape, he’s a man whose heroism stems from the courage to take necessary steps with no alternative when others are unwilling. Should there be an alternative, then, provided by the writer? We shouldn’t forget either in all of this that The End of Time made the (inventive) point Time Lord society no longer deserved saving; that war had made it as monstrous as the Dalek enemy. This point was reprised as recently as ‘The Night of the Doctor‘, so it seems odd that it wasn’t in play here. I sensed briefly, wrongly as it turned out, that the Doctors would somehow mitigate Gallifrey’s annihilation – saving its billions of children, perhaps. This still seems more compelling than the contrived, too-easy resolution of the episode.
  • I’d looked forward to seeing the Doctors arrange to meet in a fantastic way, a little like series five’s invitations across time from River to the Doctor. The Christmas Carol style ‘Here’s your future – now make a decision’ gambit? It played as hackneyed and dull, especially only three years after Who adapted Dickens’ plot.
  • I confess I wasn’t living for the stock footage of past Doctors. It convinced in ‘The Name of the Doctor’, where it was used creatively. It didn’t here. (Why, more to the point and excellent though it was, were all thirteen Doctors involved in saving Gallifrey? How did they know about this plan? And if they all remember doing it, why does the War Doctor – body number nine – still try to use the Moment, embarking on a plan his past selves all averted?)
  • It seemed very strange to show a single planetary battle as the decider of the War, conflicting with what I felt previous dialogue implied. I’d always imagined a conflict spanning all of time and space, not just isolated physical battlegrounds, like Enterprise‘s Temporal Cold War but better and less cold. (‘Ten million ships’, the Ninth Doctor told us in Dalek, burned – a bit many even for Gallifrey, surely?)
  • Especially with all those people dying nearby, what did the War Doctor hope to achieve by writing ‘NO MORE’ on a wall in gunfire?
  • Why regenerate John Hurt at the episode’s conclusion? I’d hoped, especially after his arc this story, that the character might turn up again. He might still, I suppose, snatched from between his birth and this episode, but that bitter early self is less interesting than one reconciled to being the Doctor. On the off-chance Eccleston ever did say yes to coming back, it’d be nice too to have had Hurt on hold for a regeneration proper.
  • Also, ‘wearing a bit thin’?! Time Lords don’t just spontaneously die. (Fine, William Hartnell did. But he regenerated his bloody costume.) And how exactly wasn’t he wearing thin during the Last Great Time War?

These are only my initial thoughts, of course. On repeat viewings, they might change – and I’ll certainly be rewatching. Come to think of it…



Yes, I’ve experienced racism – why I’m not (always) the white Englishman I’m taken for

I’ve made several new discoveries of late. One of them is The Failed Gael, Dòmhnall Iain MacDonald’s excellent blog on Gaelic identity, atheism, social change and Scottish nationalism. (He runs, as it happens, the same godless group at Oxford University that I did several years back.)

I’d vote for independence in a heartbeat were I a Scot. As it is, I dread votes for it tightening the Tory party’s grip on parliament. This is, I’m aware, an attitude of quintessential chauvinism, making Scotland as it does a convenient electoral prop for left wing Englanders. My country practised empire in miniature before its ships had sailed, and a twee, home-baked colonialism survives in its treatment of the Celtic nations. I know that while I hope I’m an exception, I sometimes fail to be. (It was only months ago I learnt, to great but well-deserved discomfort, the effect of calling Ireland part of the British Isles.) In my mockery at every turn of U.S. politics, insistence commas stay outside of speech marks, fetish for shan’t and ought and cynicism in the face of wonder, I’m every inch the tea-sipping white Englishman – except that at times, and in many people’s eyes throughout my life, I’m not.

In a post which made me gasp in recognition, Dòmhnall Iain writes…

Always and without question, when I email someone I don’t know and sign my name off as:

“Many thanks and kind regards,

Dòmhnall Iain MacDonald”

They reply with:

“Dear Iain”.

I find this behaviour bizarre. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people choose to ignore the first part of my double-barrelled name. Do their eyes skirt over the exotically spelled part of my name, drawn to the more familiar, Anglo-Saxon-looking Iain? Do they deliberately choose not to retype a name which is an aberration to the rules of English spelling? Does only the English-like (i.e. Biblical!) part of my name count as proper?

One would have thought that it was common courtesy when corresponding formally with someone to address them by the name they themselves use. Dòmhnall Iain stands there, clear as the light of day, in both my actual email address and the name I sign my emails off with. It is not for lack of information my correspondents do not use it.

The familiarity was striking. Cultural Anglo-Saxon that I might seem, my actual ethnicity is Romany on my mother’s side, Lithuanian on my father’s. Where some aspire to make a name for themselves, I managed it at seventeen, changing mine my deed poll to the one you know; the name conferred on me at birth, surviving only in its first four letters, was Alexander Zudys.

I hate, and hated, everything about this name. From its putrid sing-song rhythm, emphasised by the alliterating ‘x’ and ‘Z’, to the novelty initials, every letter radiated pretension. I’m told my father, also an ‘AZ’, wished to name me wholly after himself (a fate, thank fuck, averted by my mother, who herself was coaxed fortuitously away from giving me the forename Derwent) – I’ve often imagined the ‘A’ was his insistence, bestowing on his son a fittingly grandiose set of initials. Certainly, I owe to him most of my loathing for the untrimmed ‘Alexander’. In his and his female partner’s voices when addressing me, the long second ‘a’ mocked by my northern hometown’s other children was drawn out to full potential, a drawling Alexahhhnder, and my every complaint about it drew reminders from him of its meaning – ‘benefactor’, as with proud pomposity he put it, ‘of mankind’. I wanted to throw up.

The surname though, his and his own, immigrant father’s, what what I longed from infancy to cast away. I did so ultimately for many reasons, connection with him being one of them. (If this smacks of teen rebellion, so should the lawyer’s letter two years earlier which scoured him from my life.) I’d lived through less than happy times with it, additionally, and a new name seemed a kind of second baptism or promise of emancipation, but the primary reasons were mundane. I didn’t want to be the last name in the phone book, rung occasionally in the small hours and so informed by drunks, the person at the back of every queue by surname. I simply didn’t want such an odd name – nor one, specifically, which like Dòmhnall Iain’s, people had a contrived tendency to get wrong.

It never mattered how clearly I spelt out the syncopated Z-U-D-Y-S. It never mattered how much pain I took to say my name so people heard, or how often I corrected them. (Front-stressed, for your reference; ‘Zu’ as in ‘Zulu’, ‘dys’ as in ‘dysfunctional’.) The population of my small, parochial thwaite simply refused to say or spell it right. To this day, my mother is known locally as MrsZudy – rhyming with Judy, thus wrong on both counts – and well into my teenage years, it was far from unusual to receive certificates or letters listing Zudy’s as my surname. Something, I know not what, about that ‘s’ – unlike, curiously, the one in Harris, Jones or Stevens – was just too much to handle. The only folk who could cope with it were those who added it to Zudy-as-in-Judy when they spoke, pronouncing my surname’s second syllable ‘dies’ as in ‘diesel’.

I’m fairly sure that in the time I went by it, I heard every mispronunciation possible, including that of Mrs Haslam, my eleven-year-old class’s rotund, rodent-like teacher who seemed to get lost after the first two letters and referred to me persistently as Alex Zoos. Since another horrid feature of my name was that shortening the first half in this way required a stop between the ‘x’ and ‘Z’ – impossible to say clearly, like Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Don’t you love farce‘, without pausing awkwardly in between words – her actual utterance of ‘Alex Zudys’ made my surname into ‘Ooze’.

It mattered nothing what I did. I might have branded the words Zu as in Zulu, dys as in dysfunctional across my face, spelt out my name across the sky in firework-text phonetics or mimed Z-U-D-Y-S in the style of the Village People: no one, no matter how much I corrected them, appeared to get it. As in Dòmhnall Iain’s case, it wasn’t for want of help – people misspelt my name even with written versions straight in front of them, misspoke it even when I’d just introduced myself. Nor was it hard on any clear linguistic level, a name of five letters and two syllables like Tyler, Tyson or Terry, to look only to ‘T’. My grandfather, as I only recently discovered, even tweaked it for Anglo-Saxon speech on fleeing Stalinism: the traditional spelling is Žudys, its ‘Ž’ pronounced the same way as the ‘s’ in ‘treasure’.

It’s only lately I’ve questioned my name’s connection with how I looked, both calling cards of my ethnicity, especially when viewed together. Though I’m almost always read as white by those who know or read me, or have otherwise been introduced to me by (current) name, it’s not uncommon – particularly when my hair is its natural dark brown, grown coiling out in all directions, my beard unkempt and my dress informal – for strangers asking the time to preface their questions with ‘…you do speak English, don’t you?’

I look, at these moments, exactly like someone of equal parts eastern European and Romany descent might be assumed to look. ‘You’re not all English, are you?’ someone asked me when I was eighteen, staring at (rather than into) my face shortly after meeting me. A classmate a year or two before phrased the query with more honesty:

‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but… you’ve got quite dark skin. Where does that come from?’

Most frequently in the hair-explosion that assailed me mid-puberty, I’ve often been imagined to be Jewish, having as I do a nose not totally unlike the prostheses of actors playing usurers in Shakespeare’s London. (More awkward Grindr conversations have begun with people asking if my glasses came attached.) Between the rough ages of fourteen and sixteen, a range of classmates – usually those sticking sharp things into my back during maths lessons – addressed me principally as ‘Jew’, prefaced with ‘dirty’ or suffixed with ‘boy’ at times, graffitiing these phrases onto exercise books, bag and personal effects of mine. I see now that the ‘Gypsy kid’ name-calling I’d had earlier, while actually accurate (at least more so), was of a piece both with these incidents and with my being determinedly misspelt and mispronounced, efforts to contextualise my foreignness: my skin, hair, nose and name specifically, beside the stated fact itself of the descent these symptomised, all of them raced.

Since adopting a more anglophonic name, if in fact (ironically) a Hebrew one, I seem much whiter. Introduced by it, I’m no longer asked why I look dark, where I’m from or my Englishness’s true extent, and the strangers who assume me to be foreign on scruffy days are the only ones in whose eyes I don’t pass. Those encounters make me wonder, likewise, if my name would have been better apprehended in my teenage years had I looked different. Being read as white British most of the time, to use the phrasing of the UK census, confers inordinate amounts of privilege; I’m aware that however I present myself, I’m unlikely to lose out on much of it. That said, and while I won’t reclaim my old name any time soon, I find myself wanting lately to recover some of my discarded foreignness.

What box in the census am I to tick, anyway? It’s true both my parents and I were born in Britain, and are white enough to be described that way by default – but not that we’re white enough, at least in my case until recently, for how we look not to need explaining, for our Britishness to go unquestioned or for strangers to assume consistently that we speak English. When I hear the far-right speaking of ‘indigenous’ Britons, I want to disclose I’m not part of this group – certainly, that I’m not the Anglo-Saxon I’m taken for nowadays. When I see the likes of Pat Condell smear eastern European migrants as scroungers, I want to say that this is personal, because it is: I am, despite my Oxbridge vowels and addiction to Earl Grey, the son of immigrants and travellers. I won’t allow this to be buried – either with an ‘s’ or ‘c’, I won’t let it remain erased.

Dear Pat Condell… why this homo-Islamic masochist rejects your anti-Muslim crusade

Dear Pat Condell:

I was recently linked to your ‘How gay is Islam?’ video by a fan of yours quite desperate to persuade me (as a queer left wing atheist blogger) that I need to spend more time attacking Muslims, intent as you say they are on killing me.

The reason you haven’t heard from me till now is not that I was stumped; it’s that the sheer amount of wrong in what you say is so extreme that it’s taken me a week to lay it out.

I’ve even divided my response in two: an extended, detailed examination of what polls on British Muslims actually say, contrary to your assertions, can be found here. (It grew long in the tooth, again, because there’s so much in your statements to correct.) For this post, I thought I’d go through your transcript point by point.

As you know, I don’t like to criticise anyone, but surely the most comically deluded people on this planet, outside creationists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists, are idealistic left-wing gay people who think they share a common cause with Muslims as two oppressed minorities when opinion polls tell us that most Muslims are disgusted by homosexuality and think it’s completely unacceptable.

No, opinion polls don’t tell us that, and the single poll you cite contradicts several key claims you make. You’d know this if, in fact, you’d read it.

What is true is that according to the BBC, the ‘Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks’ hotline recorded 632 incidents of harassment between last February and this March (more than a baker’s dozen a week on average), and a further 212 including 17 violent attacks between Lee Rigby’s murder in Woolwich and the start of June; that Woolwich was followed by attacks on mosques with bombs and knives in Essex, Kent and Lincolnshire, and the burning down of a Muslim community centre in north London; that by May 28, ten mosques had been attacked; that others were vandalised with racist and far-right slogans; that women’s headscarves were reportedly torn off by strangers as they walked the streets, a disturbingly familiar phenomenon today.

I have no idea what it’s like to live through this as a Muslim, and I wouldn’t presume to guess, but I do know what it’s like to feel unsafe in public – to fear going outside for homophobic catcalls from across the road, having objects thrown at me, being spat on, hit and kicked, having possessions grabbed, stolen or destroyed. I know what it’s like to be afraid all the time, and that no one – no onewhoever they are, whatever they think of me – should ever live in fear. I won’t be complicit in that.

What do you know about being queer, or about being a Muslim? (Not about Islam, in principle – about being a Muslim?) And what, in particular, about being a queer Muslim, doubly trodden on and ignored, including by you?

I expect this understanding to be returned, and that other people stepped on, pushed to the margins, know not to do this to me or other queer people. That they sometimes – often – don’t know this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t . Yes, negative views of people who aren’t straight are widespread in the so-called Muslim community; no, this doesn’t legitimise attacking, harassing or demonising Muslims, and it doesn’t free people who know what that treatment feels like from needing to resist it. I’m keeping my end of the bargain.

Among UK Muslims, disapproval is 100%. Admittedly, that’s from a sample of only 500 people who all happened to agree unanimously, but that’s hardly representative. After all, not all Muslims were included, so we can’t reasonably extrapolate anything from it without being racist. That’s a relief. I thought we might have to face an unpleasant truth there for a second, didn’t you?

Note the downsizing on several fronts: from disgust to disapproval, ‘most Muslims’ to 500 in Britain. Note too the treatment of British Muslims as archetypes of opinion in Islam, while citing a poll which shows them as far more conservative than those in Germany or France.

Gay people who look for common ground with Islam are a bit like left-wing Jews who want to boycott Israel. They’ve let their twisted “progressive” politics trump their common sense.

Excuse me: how did we get from ‘a common cause with Muslims as two oppressed minorities’ to ‘look[ing] for common ground with Islam’?

If you want to make comparisons, and your views on Israel speak volumes, I needn’t believe in God, the validity of zionism or the prudence of building a fence around the Torah to think synagogues shouldn’t be smashed, Jews targeted with ethnic slurs or societies and legal systems segregated – I certainly needn’t support the slicing of infants’ genitals, or the herding of children into proselytising schools. I needn’t think any of the above are even remotely good ideas – I don’t. I need only think people have rights.

From your claim – again, against the polls – that Muslims think otherwise and therefore should be shunned, I gather you agree. I can find Islam absurd, while also thinking mosques shouldn’t be banned or bombed, as easily as finding UKIP laughable, deranged and incoherent while not wishing to assault or expatriate its voters. (Come to think of it, I’ve met some sensible Muslims…)

It’s hard to know if they really believe in their fantasy gay/Islamic alliance, or if their “look-at-me-how-tolerant-I-am” Guardianista political correctness hasn’t just mutated into a kind of homo-Islamic masochism.

Independent if you don’t mind. Tribune on the side.

How else do you explain the willingness of otherwise intelligent people to indulge a religion that wants them dead?

Islam doesn’t want me dead. Islam doesn’t want anything. Saying religions want things is like saying homeopathy feels sad or Thatcherism likes watching Countdown.

Almost no British Muslims – one or two percent – support execution for homosexuality. The only other measure of what Islam ‘wants’, it having no single catechism or analogue to the Holy See, is what its texts say, and scripture on its own is a remarkably bad predictor of beliefs or practices within religions. (The cutting of more than one human in ten’s penis, unlike the female version a near-universal practice, would surely rank among Islam’s most undesirable manifestations, but is demanded next to nowhere – indeed, very arguably proscribed – in the Qur’an. Every religion’s texts, conversely, bear long-forgotten commandments.) I’m not interested in what scripture mandates, most of the time, but in what believers in the real world think and do, and British Muslims don’t think what you say.

And not dead in a symbolic or theoretical way, but in an actual string-them-up-in-public sort of way, as they do in the Islamic Republic of Iran where they regard death as too good for homosexuals.

Post-revolutionary, theocratic Iran and its governments being, of course, an oasis of democratic transparency and rule by popular consent, whose public have no history at all of protest or dissent. (This sentence isn’t even coherent. One either regards death as too good for someone or kills them. Both are not possible.)

If they could find a way to kill them twice over they know it would please Allah more than a Tel Aviv school bus suicide bomb, but what can they do? They’ll just have to wait for Islamic science to find a way, and pick up that long overdue Nobel Prize.

There is absolutely no reason – except to make Muslims sound particularly foreign – to refer to the god of Islam as Allah. ‘Allah’ is the Arabic word for God, and nothing more specific; it’s what Arabic-speaking Muslims, Christians, Jews and members of other faiths all call their god. (Among Muslims, heavy use of Arabic is often an Islamist strategy to frame Islam as un-Western and culturally distinct. This kind of racialising discourse, including when non-Muslims adopt it, makes leaving Islam harder for atheists.)

Surely it’s obvious even to the most PC-crippled among us that if any one group of people on this earth should be opposing the spread of Islam with everything they’ve got, it’s gay people. Nothing is a more serious threat to them.

Please don’t use words like ‘crippled’.

Please don’t assume you’ve thought at greater length about the consequences of my sexuality and other people’s beliefs than I, a queer atheist blogger, have.

And once again, the data contradicts this.

Islam will never be remotely gay-friendly. There will never be a pink crescent moon, unless you count gay bloodstains, and good luck finding an Islamic “scholar” who’s prepared to deny that.

Daayiee Abdullah; Junaid Bin Jahangir; Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle; Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed; Ziauddin Sardar.

That’s five, as many minutes after a Google search. Oh yes – and about what the data says

It’s true that not all “scholars” feel the same way about gays. Some think they should be stoned to death. Others favour throwing them off a mountain. Maybe on a good day you could even get to choose. In Iran they’ve settled the matter by hanging them from cranes in public. In Mauritania they use the more traditional method, stoning to death. In Saudi Arabia they prefer beheading, as they do for many things in that country, including witchcraft.

British Muslims are overwhelmingly opposed to punishments like these. If you’re determined to homogenise Islam, whose stance is the ‘official’ one: theirs, or the current Iranian, Saudi or Mauritanian governments’? (Mauritania, on a point of fact, hasn’t actually executed anyone since 1990.)

In countries that don’t impose the death penalty for being gay it’s still punishable by flogging and imprisonment.

States whose official religion is Islam (generically or one particular denomination), and/or with a Muslim majority…

…with laws against homosexuality: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Brunei, Comoros, Gambia, Guinea, Iran, Kuwait (men only), Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Palestinian territories (Gaza – men only), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Sierra Leone (men only), Somalia, Somaliland, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkmenistan (men only), United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan (men only), Western Sahara, Yemen. (Total: 26.5 28.5)

…without laws against homosexuality: Albania, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Jordan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait (women only), Lebanon, Mali, Mayotte, Niger, Palestinian territories (Gaza – women only), Palestinian territories (West Bank), Sierra Leone (women only), Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan (women only), Uzbekistan (women only). (Total: 21.5)

Other countries with laws against homosexuality: Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Belize (men only), Bhutan, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Cook Islands (men only), Dominica, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Grenada (men only), Guyana, Jamaica (men only), Kenya, Kiribati (men only), Lesotho (men only), Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius (men only), Myanmar, Namibia, Nauru (men only), Nigeria, Palau (men only), Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis (men only), Saint Lucia (men only), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles (men only), Singapore, Solomon Islands, Somaliland, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Swaziland (men only), Tanzania, Togo, Tonga (men only), Trinidad and Tobago, TR North Cyprus (men only), Tuvalu (men only), Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe (men only). (Total: 40.5 38.5)

(All data: Wikipedia)

And it was announced recently that several Islamic countries are trying to find a medical test to detect gay people and stop them at the border, so disgusted are they by homosexuality.

Not just gay people, actually, but LGBT (including transgender) people. This is alarming and a major human rights concern – much like refusing people entry to Britain, in fact, for being Muslims or coming from a ‘Muslim country’. (If you lived in the ones above, wouldn’t you want to leave?)

If you care so much about human rights abuses, by the way, you should probably stop voting for a party that wants to scrap the Human Rights Act.

They even forced the United Nations to remove sexual orientation from a resolution condemning arbitrary execution, because Islamic countries want the right to arbitrarily execute gay people without being condemned for it, and the United Nations went along with that, which tells us something about the United Nations, but nothing we didn’t already know.

Yes, the six nations of the GCC and 73 other member states of the UN voted for this amendment. Of those 79, less than half (38) were ‘Islamic countries’ by the criteria above.

The concept of human rights is alien to Islam, as we know. The concept of gay rights is an insulting and vile obscenity to Islam, without putting too fine a point on it. Islam does not regard homosexuality as a different lifestyle, but as a disgusting form of sexual perversion on a par with paedophilia or bestiality, that should be severely punished.

Islam doesn’t regard anything as anything. Islam doesn’t have opinions independent of its followers’. (It has holy texts of course, but texts mean nothing without a reader, and again, they’re terrible predictors of what religious groups will think or do.)

While it’s certainly true the kind of Islamist states that have tended to develop in the last 50 years have notoriously poor human rights records, they’re far from unique in this, including among religious states more broadly. Of the non-Islamic countries above that criminalise homosexuality, almost all (41) are majority-Christian.

Further, polling of British Muslims shows high levels of support for secular legal infrastructure, human and LGBT rights and the respectful treatment of gay people.

Islamic preachers often conflate homosexuality and paedophilia, and are not challenged on it because the people they’re talking to generally agree with them.

Yes, it’s generally true that people who go to see people preach agree with them. (Hence the expression ‘preaching to the choir’.) How often do your regular viewers challenge you?

We know that the more Islam there is in a society the more physically dangerous it’s likely to be for gay people.

We don’t. You might, but you need a citation for this if you do.

There’s very little data available about correlation between religion and violent attacks on gay people, or about religious support specifically for these. (Anecdotally, speaking from experience among queer and human rights activists, the countries most infamous for this are generally Jamaica, Russia and Brazil.)

What we do know – from the survey, actually, which you cite to smear Muslims – is that those in Britain, Germany and France overwhelmingly oppose all forms of violence; that homosexuality is legal in almost as many ‘Muslim countries’ as it is against the law, and that substantially fewer states criminalising it are Muslim countries as defined above than are predominantly Christian.

In parts of Europe with high Muslim immigrant populations we know that openly gay men are far more likely to be attacked and beaten up on the street for being gay.

Citation desperately needed, once again.

I found none in the description to your video. I’m also impressed you seem so confident of this, since having been out as queer for the past ten years and a writer, researcher and activist on various queer issues (violence included) as well as religion for a good many of those, I’ve never been able to find a comprehensive study of homophobic assault levels by country. If you know more than I do about this, which you might (but I’d be surprised), why not share your data?

It’s a non-sequitur in any case that if homophobic violence occurs in places with high Muslim migrant populations, Muslims must be the perpetrators – rather like your claim that since 5 percent of Sweden’s populace are Muslims, they must be responsible for its rape statistics.

And there’s a good reason why they don’t hold gay pride marches down Brick Lane.

Actually, assuming by Brick Lane you mean Tower Hamlets and London’s East End, they do.

The march you mean was postponed and reorganised over concerns it would be used as an EDL front – concerns which came not from Muslim groups, but local LGBT ones, and certainly weren’t accompanied by threats of violence.

In a nutshell, gay people, Islam wants your blood, and if you’re ever stupid enough to go to an Islamic country and let them know you’re gay you’ll find that out the hard way.

I have – several times, in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Turkish Cyprus (if the latter counts). My pulse persists.

It doesn’t give a damn how tolerant or inclusive you are. It just wants you dead for being who and what you are, and it’s no more open to persuasion on the matter than you would be open to persuasion about letting sewer rats run around your house.

Stop saying abstract philosophies want or give a damn about things; stop calling my sexual identity ‘who and what I am’; start reading the data, which indicates decisively that queer-positive versions of Islam can and do exist, and that Muslims by and large (in Britain at least) are unsupportive of violence or oppression targeting LGBT people, whatever their moral view. (Yes, those views themselves do matter; no, not because they’re a threat to the way of life of gay or straight non-Muslims.)

You’ve got more chance of celebrating Christmas in a pub in Saudi Arabia than you have of finding common ground between Islam and homosexuality, and you’ve got absolutely no excuse for pretending otherwise because there’s nothing nuanced about the Islamic position. There is no ambiguity. There is no grey area. There is no common ground. There is no shared struggle. There are no bridges to be built, and there won’t be any until you stop being gay.

Again, what ‘common ground between Islam and homosexuality’ do I advocate by saying people shouldn’t be expatriated, attacked, harassed or slandered for their religion? (Or indeed perceived religion.) This as far as I’m concerned is elementary secularism.

Moreover: attitudes to queer sexuality within Islam are demonstrably varied, often sympathetic and at times explicitly affirmative. Of course gay imams are a fringe, but so were Islamists in 1960. Islam has shown itself to be as malleable and susceptible to evolutionary change as any other religion – there is no reason to assume queer-positive versions are somehow innately unsellable.

Would that option be on the table at all? For the sake of, you know, community cohesion? After all, by being gay you’re being culturally insensitive, disrespectful, divisive, provocative, offensive, Islamophobic and racist. What can I say, people? The bottom line is if you don’t want to be a filthy racist you’re going to have to stop being gay. And when you think about it, it’s really not that much to ask. After all, if you’re not willing to compromise on your sick and sinful gayness, how can you reasonably expect Islam to compromise on wanting you dead? Peace.

Oh, Pat. Stop.

Are British Muslims a threat to gay people? Polling on homophobia, sharia law and violence

I was recently linked to Pat Condell’s newest video, which argues ‘the most comically deluded people on this planet, outside creationists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists, are idealistic left-wing gay people’ who ‘indulge a religion that wants them dead’ by opposing his campaign against Muslims, migrants and the left – the likes, in other words, of queer atheists like me, Chris Stedman and Owen Jones. (Vilification by Condell is, I’m quite sure, the first thing apart from the above Stedman and I have ever had in common.)

The video, if you can stand to view it, is below.

Personal as this is, my first response was to fisk it start-to-end – unfortunately, and as I found out quickly, there is simply so much wrong with this that a post comprehensively rebutting it would be very, very long. Responding to Condell is like playing chess against a wasp, as unfulfilling as it is unchallenging, but the argument in question is one atheists need urgently to settle, so I’m splitting my reply in two. The blow-by-blow analysis, including the more philosophical points to be made, will come after this post, which I’m focusing more purely factually on his specific claims about the attitudes of (British) Muslims. These can I think be summarised as follows:

  • Attitudes to homosexuality within Islam are uniform.
  • Muslims find homosexuality disgusting and ‘completely unacceptable’, disapproving of it and supporting a ‘zero tolerance’ policy such as Iran’s, including punishment with death.
  • Muslims don’t support or recognise concepts of gay or human rights, finding them vile, insulting and obscene.
  • Muslims do support extrajudicial homophobic violence such as criminal assaults on gay men.
  • Muslim population growth (and Muslim immigration in particular) thus threatens gay people’s rights and safety.

Based on the former point – his insistence Islam is devoid of nuance, variation or capacity for change – and how he flits confusingly between using UK Muslims’ views and the actions of Islamic governments and lobbyists around the world to buttress his case, it seems Condell is arguing these premises apply to Muslims wherever on the globe they are. (Trying to summarise his claims with accuracy is challenging, in fact, since his statements sprawl so inconsistently.) Odd, then, that despite stating ‘opinion polls’ (plural) support his views, he cites only one survey of British Muslims.

Actually, he doesn’t cite the survey in his video description: he cites the Guardian‘s coverage of it, headlined ‘Muslims in Britain have zero tolerance of homosexuality‘, which features no link to the poll itself. I strongly suspect that despite it being the only statistical research he gives to back up his assertions, he hasn’t read it, since its findings refute several of his main points.

Moral views on homosexuality

Britain’s media, for those still unaware, reports opinion polls notoriously badly, preferring dramatic headlines to detailed analysis not just on Islam, but generally. Publicising them without linking to data is exceptionally bad journalism, and whether you’re a columnist, a blogger or a video maker, it’s almost always better to give links to polls themselves than stories about them in newspapers. Properly carried out and analysed, polls are a powerfully useful tool, but their results – as no doubt will become clear in this post – require careful interpretation. (I’m going to examine several polls of British Muslims which appear relevant here. While I don’t feel like I need to – Condell’s entire case stands or falls on one – the hotly-argued nature of the topic makes me think a meta-analysis would be a good resource for the commentariat as well as atheists.)

‘Most Muslims’, Condell says in his video, ‘are disgusted by homosexuality and think it’s completely unacceptable. Among UK Muslims, disapproval is 100%. . . . [T]hat’s from a sample of . . . 500 people who all happened to agree unanimously.’ The study he’s describing is The Gallup Coexist Index 2009: A Global Study of Interfaith Relations, which examines social attitudes of UK Muslims, comparing them with the general populace’s and of those in Germany and France. The part in question shows participants’ answers when prompted, ‘Tell me whether you PERSONALLY BELIEVE that [homosexual acts are] MORALLY acceptable or MORALLY wrong?’

‘Acceptable’ responses among Muslims ranged from 35 percent in France to 19 percent in Germany and none in Britain.


Among the general public, the same responses numbered 78 percent in France, 68 percent in German and 58 percent in Britain. The stark gulf between general British views and those of Muslims makes more sense framed as the product of two general rules: British attitudes are significantly more conservative than those in Germany and (especially) France, and Muslim attitudes more conservative than non-Muslims’, so British Muslims are correspondingly the most conservative group polled.

Whatever else we might say about these figures, it’s notable they contradict in several ways Condell’s assertion that ‘there’s nothing nuanced about the Islamic position’, since ‘Islam will never be remotely gay-friendly’ and isn’t ‘open to persuasion on the matter’, as well as his treatment of British Muslims as representative of Islam at large. Among Islam’s followers, views can and do vary, in line not just with country of residence but also with country of origin and/or ethnicity.

‘Sex between an unmarried man and woman’, on the next page of the study, was deemed morally acceptable by only three percent of British Muslims, compared with 27 percent of those in Germany and 48 percent of those in France, a similar difference of views to that on homosexual acts. Chris Green of the Independent writes that ‘this discrepancy is likely to be caused by the fact that British Muslims mainly originate from rural parts of conservative Islamic countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, whereas French and German Muslims tend to be from Morocco, Algeria and Turkey‘.

The second point here, moving toward a commentary on the actual views voiced by participants, is that these questions’ formatting is rather odd. Particularly given Gallup later adopt a scaled, 1-5 answering system to gauge support for certain actions (see below), I don’t know why they offer only two possible answers here, forcing individuals polled to call homosexual acts and other examples either ‘morally acceptable’ or ‘morally wrong’. Views in all populations are almost certainly less binary than this – of the 500 British Muslims all of whom ticked ‘morally wrong’ on homosexual acts, how many found them ‘absolutely morally wrong’ (comparable to, say, murder) versus ‘somewhat morally wrong’ or ‘not morally preferable’ (comparable to, say, lying)? If all 500 found homosexual acts analogous with murder or deserving of hanging, results would be the same as if they all found them analogous with telling lies.

Moreover, how does this formatting accommodate participants whose views are neutral or uncertain, when no ‘Unsure/Don’t know’ option is given? Given the general public’s view on this was less than 60-40 in favour of ‘acceptable’, a surprisingly low ratio in itself, it seems plausible respondents who felt no strong attraction to either answer were likelier to opt for ‘morally wrong’ than ‘morally acceptable’, though I’d like to see this properly investigated; certainly, in view of the overwhelmingly conservative leanings of the Muslim population, I can imagine some indifferent or indecisive Muslims defaulting to ‘wrong’ over ‘acceptable’. We can’t know how common this was because the question’s formatting is imprecise, and I wouldn’t like to speculate, but it’s worth considering. Certainly, Condell’s claim the 500 British Muslims surveyed ‘happened to agree unanimously’ implies a greater degree of consensus than was likely the case.

Finally and most importantly, the ‘homosexual acts’ question does not measure disgust around homosexuality or support for ‘zero tolerance’ approaches (this phrase, used in the Guardian and by Condell, is suggestive of hardline stances on crime) – it doesn’t measure tolerance at all, including stances on criminalisation, and it definitely doesn’t measure how many people (Muslims among them) support flogging, imprisonment or death for homosexual acts.

It’s quite possible, common in fact, to find something morally wrong but oppose its prohibition. Among members of the British public Gallup surveyed, 45 percent called abortion morally wrong and 85 percent called ‘married men and women having an affair’ morally wrong:



While we can’t compare results side by side from separate polls – different polls have different sample groups, questions, orders of questions and so on – research elsewhere shows comprehensively, and as one would expect, that only small minorities of Britons want either to be criminalised. (2-11 percent for abortion, according to various polls collated by Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report; 12 percent for adultery according to a YouGov survey.)

This effect is especially in evidence among religious groups. Catholics might, for instance, find contraception morally wrong while supporting its availability to those who wanted it; Jews might consider eating pork immoral without wanting it banned from supermarkets. Further, if we wouldn’t assume the 42 percent of the British public who called homosexual acts morally wrong support their recriminalisation, let alone violence toward or execution of those committing them, we shouldn’t assume Muslims who gave the same answer support this.

So far, then: Islamic attitudes to homosexuality, while predominantly negative, remain visibly varied, with over a third of German Muslims finding it morally acceptable. Islam is as malleable as any religion, and consensus among believers can and does change over time and between countries. British Muslims in particular unanimously describe homosexual acts as morally wrong rather than morally acceptable according to Gallup, but don’t necessarily oppose their legality or social permissibility.

The emphasis on ‘MORALLY’ of Gallup’s staff when carrying out its poll suggests to me the question is meant to gauge specifically religious attitudes to homosexual acts, rather than what participants thought the civic or social status of those acts should be – nonetheless, it’s very possible interpretation of the question varied. That it was the first one asked seems likely not to have helped this. Believers might understand moral acceptability differently having been asked already about secular social concerns like speeding on the motorway or refusing to vote from how they would after answering specifically religious ‘morality’ questions – condoms or expressions like ‘Oh my God’ for Catholics, sausages or writing ‘God’ for Jews, alcohol or interest-paying for Muslims and so on.

We know 100 percent of Muslims polled called homosexual acts morally wrong, considering them at least to be sinful, but can’t automatically read this as a statement about gay or human rights in a broader social/legal context – for data on this front, we have to look elsewhere.

Sharia, British law and LGBT/human rights

One headline-making survey from YouGov two years ago (Gallup’s data was collected in 2008, and in specified cases 2006-7) gauges agreement across various social strata with the phrase ‘I am proud of how Britain treats gay people’. It seems sensible to treat this as a measure of support for LGBT legal and social rights in the UK, assuming most people considered Britain to treat gay people well – one annoying aspect of this poll was that it didn’t cross-reference by sexual/gender identity, so we don’t know how many LGBT people were surveyed who disagreed because they felt they weren’t treated well enough or hadn’t enough rights. (Bear in mind this is from 2011, before Britain introduced gay marriage.)

On the page surveying various religions, Muslims are tied with Anglicans and Episcopalians as the second-most agreeable faith group (behind Sikhs) at 47 percent agreement each, though Muslims were also slightly more likely (by 19 percent to 12) to disagree.


I include this poll largely because it was cited widely by the left as evidence of Muslims supporting LGBT rights in Britain (even while, according to Gallop, considering homosexual acts to be condemned by their religion – the same essentially secularist, if not-unproblematic position advanced by Mehdi Hasan this May). Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy, for instance, headlined news of YouGov’s findings as ‘Muslims prouder of gay rights than others‘ and wrote, noting its relationship with Gallup’s data, ‘Muslims can agree that Islam does not tolerate homosexuality, while celebrating gay rights enshrined in the law’; LGBT site Pink News, cited by Owen Jones, called the data evidence Muslims are proud of Britain’s gay rights record.

I’m actually extremely hesitant about this interpretation, though no more than any other, for the simple reason this was a poll of 2088 Britons of whom only 42 were Muslims – the margin of error in this subcategory is therefore very wide, particularly as compared to Anglicans (648 were polled) or the non-religious (355). The average error margin for surveys of 1000 people by major pollsters is +/-2-3 percent; for surveys or crossbreaks of 100, it can be as wide as +/-10 percent. Numbers for almost all groups mentioned here are therefore close to meaningless in and of themselves, though they may be useful signs further research is needed: even accounting for the tiny sample size, we’d expect significantly less diversity among Muslim opinion if Condell’s characterisation of them as invariably opposed to gay people’s rights were accurate. (Still, I’d advise extreme caution about trying to extrapolate anything from this table except about non-religious people, Anglicans and perhaps Catholics.)

Where else to turn, then? In 2009, a research group of four in Birmingham (two Pakistani Muslims, two white non-Muslims) polled 1511 Muslims in Alum Rock, a Muslim-dominated part of the city. While I’m usually inclined to take amateur polls with a heavy pinch of salt, their survey work is impressive – the questions, while not always formatted with much nuance, are clear and unbiased, and the sample size is the biggest by far of all polls under discussion here.


Asked ‘If your son/daughter came out as gay, would you accept them?’, 1487 participants – that is, 98 percent – answered ‘Yes’. While all Gallup’s British Muslims found homosexual acts morally wrong, then, popular views of them as sinful don’t seem necessarily to impact on behaviour toward gay people. It’s a shame the only survey here to give control data from other religious groups was the unreliable one on ‘how Britain treats gay people’: I’d imagine that among Christians who found homosexual acts immoral, for example, answers to questions like this would be fairly similar. (More on the Birmingham data below.)

Another YouGov poll, this time of 632 Muslim and 831 non-Muslim students in Britain during 2008 (the same year most of Gallup’s work was done), asked respondents how much respect they had for Jewish people, atheists and homosexuals.


Crossbreaks here are generally – particularly for men and women, and unlike those of the previous poll – large enough, the questions straightforward enough and the answers accommodating enough (unlike in parts of Gallup’s poll) for results to be firmly reliable. They’re also, as it happens, interesting.

Perhaps surprisingly, non-Muslims are ten percent less likely than Muslims (by 56 percent to 66) to respect atheists as much as anyone else. (Muslims are also more likely to have no or not very much respect for atheists, by 11 to 2 percent, but in both cases these are small minorities, and ‘not very much respect’ covers everything between ‘no respect at all’ and ‘the same as anyone else’.)

The same isn’t true for Jewish people: non-Muslims, by 81 to 59 percent, are likelier to have the same respect for them as anyone else, although the numbers of each who have little to no respect are close enough (four percent among Muslims, seven percent among non-Muslims) to be statistically indistinct when error margins are considered – it’s the Muslims who aren’t sure (14 percent, versus 2 percent among non-Muslims) and those who have ‘a lot of respect’ for Jewish people (16 percent, versus 9) who chip away at the ‘same amount’ figure.

On ‘homosexuals’ specifically, Muslims had the same amount of respect as for other people significantly less often than do non-Muslims, by 53 percent to 77, and were dramatically more likely (by 25 to 4 percent) to have little or no respect. Factoring Muslims who have ‘a lot of respect’ or ‘a little respect’ (which from its placement I assume to mean a little more respect than average) for ‘homosexuals’, 62 percent in total have a positive view of their status, compared with a quarter whose attitude is decidedly negative; the remaining 13 percent are unsure.

While it’s probably coincidental considering the previous YouGov poll’s unreliability, the two paint quite a similar picture of a Muslim population polarised on how it views gay people, with a significant minority staunchly opposed but a large number (62 percent here) supportive and the rest undecided. If at first it seems concerning that none of the 632 polled identified themselves as gay or lesbian, only five percent among of the 831 non-Muslims did, numbers well within each other’s error margin. Considering that being either a Jew, an atheist or a ‘homosexual’ is proscribed under traditional and currently dominant versions of Islam (in the latter case, considered morally wrong by all British Muslims Gallup surveyed), we can probably interpret respondents’ declaration of respect for them as support for their legal/human rights, including gay people’s.

The only thing which might affect how much we can read into this poll is that all its participants were students. It’s unclear, perhaps unexpectedly, in which direction this is likely to skew data: earlier in the poll, only 33 percent said when asked that their perception of Islam was very different (11 percent) or fairly different (22 percent) from their parents’, of whom 73 percent (i.e. 24 percent overall) called their parents stricter Muslims than they were, compared with 18 percent (5 percent overall) who said their parents were more liberal.

Assuming they have an accurate perception of their parents’ stances, which seems likely, this suggests the poll’s results are more or less representative of Muslim sentiment at large, with a slight liberal bias. (One other possibility is that Muslims who don’t go to university, or whose children don’t, have significantly different views – this feels plausible, but I’m not sure how to test for it on current data, so for now it’s just conjecture. Moreover, it’s hard to guess just what the difference would look like – on the one hand, we might expect university-educated people to be broader-minded; on the other hand, universities are often, not entirely without basis, accused of being targeted as breeding grounds for Islamist fundamentalism.)

Conversely, data collected by Populus and presented in Living apart together: British Muslims and the paradox of multiculturalism, a report by conservative think tank Policy Exchange, shows Muslims between the ages of 16 and 24 consistently to support more radical positions than their older counterparts, especially those aged over 45. (The Centre for Social Cohesion, for whom YouGov surveyed the students, was run by Douglas Murray and also widely perceived as a rightist group, so we can’t attribute these contrasting findings about Muslim youth’s attitudes to opposite political agendas. In almost all cases, in fact, shouting ‘Right wing think tank!’ is a very bad way to dismiss reputable polling firms’ results when unaccompanied by substantive commentary on survey methods.)

Asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement ‘If I could choose, I would prefer to live in Britain under sharia law rather than British law’, 37 percent of Muslims between 16 and 24 agreed and 50 percent disagreed, compared with 28 and 59 percent among Muslims generally. (Among those over 45, only 16-17 percent agreed while 75 percent disagreed.)


It’s worth noting that Policy Exchange’s final report only shows net ‘Agree’/’Disagree’ figures, conflating participants’ views who said they ‘tend to (dis)agree’ and that they ‘strongly (dis)agree’.


This is in itself slightly misleading: while one might think results were simply being summarised in brief, I’d be willing to bet that had the same sample group been asked ‘Do you agree OR disagree with the statement, “I would prefer to live in Britain under sharia law rather than British law”?’, answers would have looked at least slightly different. More importantly, it’s clear those who disagreed did so more strongly than those who agreed. More than half as many participants again strongly preferred British law to those who only tended to prefer it, whereas about equal numbers ‘tended to prefer’ sharia and preferred it ‘strongly’.

Polls on sharia exemplify the press’s habit of sensationalising complex data with misleading headlines. In 2006, for instance, the Telegraph reported on an ICM poll conducted for its Sunday edition with the header ‘Poll reveals 40pc of Muslims want sharia law in UK‘. What ICM actually found looked like this:


The first point is that, while it’s technically true 40 percent supported sharia’s introduction, an almost exactly equal number (41 percent) were opposed to it. (Again, the question offers a binary choice – we can only guess whether strength of feeling follows the same pattern Populus identified.) 18 percent also said they didn’t know, suggesting they hadn’t thought enough about what the introduction of sharia law would be like to have a clear opinion on it. A fairer headline, then, would have been something like ‘Muslims divided over sharia in UK’.

More to the point, the association most non-Muslims have with sharia law operating in Britain is the kind of Salafi-style transformation of the UK into a theocratic, totalitarian state like Saudi Arabia or Iran warned of in high-pitched tones by Pat Condell and figures like him. What this question describes, particularly given how UK sharia courts caused a lot of (not unjustified) press furore in 2006 when the poll was published, seems much closer to a parallel legal system for Muslims, contained within the wider infrastructure of British law much like arbitration over workers’ disputes or global trade – these are the kind of things, in fact, that the Arbitration Act 1996 was drafted to govern whose support sharia courts now claim.

There’s obviously still a lot to be concerned about here from a secularist point of view (for the most part, I’m trying to keep personal views out of this post and focus on what polls show), but the issues aren’t necessarily the ones we might assume. Specifically, Muslims who say they support introduction of sharia can’t automatically be said to support British law’s nationwide replacement with rules based on Islamic texts – further, they certainly can’t be assumed to hold a particular view either on whether homosexuality should be prohibited under sharia or whether it should be punished with floggings, imprisonment, execution or at all.

Populus did ask a question gauging agreement with orthodox views on sharia law, in particular ones relating to marriage, conversion and sexuality. While the sample of 191 Muslims between 16 and 24 (compared with 1003 overall) has a wider-than-average error margin, they were significantly more likely than Muslims at large (by 71 to 61 percent) to agree with the statement ‘homosexuality is wrong and should be illegal’. (Bear in mind that the survey switches at this point, for no apparent reason, from asking about degrees of agreement – ‘tend to’ versus ‘strongly’ and so on – to a simple ‘Agree’/’Disagree’ format, and all the potential effects this might have.)


Similarly to the point about the meaning of sharia’s introduction, we need to ask what ‘illegal’ means here. 61 percent agree with scholarly tradition that homosexuality should be illegal, but we don’t know exactly what this implies – it might be illegal under sharia law as understood by historical authorities, but then if supporters of sharia today want it as a parallel court system specific to Muslims rather than a top-down national body of law, replacing current legislation, this very possibly isn’t the same kind of ‘illegal’ as burglary or copyright infringement. If nothing else, we certainly don’t know what its consequences would be.

Participants in the Birmingham poll of Muslims were asked both whether they’d like to live under sharia themselves and whether it should apply to non-Muslims. Only 21 percent said they’d like to live under it, and only 2 percent said it should apply to non-Muslims.

1Asked about their attitude to homosexuality and adultery – both things prohibited by orthodox understandings of sharia – respondents’ collective answers on both issues were exactly the same: only 1 percent supporting stoning, and only two percent supporting any kind of punishment. (For reporting purposes, both these results can be glossed as ‘practically none’ when margins for error are considered – in other words, the difference of one percent is probably meaningless.)


These figures necessarily include the fifth of participants in the study who said they’d like to live under sharia – so while, in line with Gallup’s findings, they might consider homosexuality to be frowned on in Islam, they oppose the treatment of it we’d usually (and correctly) associate with sharia states.

Among its less specific findings, the Populus poll also shows significant support for reinterpretation of sharia according to human (e.g. LGBT) rights and other ‘modern ideas’:


Slightly more Muslims polled (45 percent) said sharia should be reinterpreted in line with human rights concerns than said it was sacred and fixed (39 percent), though again the true figures may be about the same. It’s hard to guess how this gels in reality with the views measured by the homosexuality question (and adjacent ones on orthodox sharia positions), and it’s annoying that we don’t know how these findings show up when compared with desire to live under sharia rather than British law – Populus missed a trick, I think, by not asking the ‘reinterpretation’ question separately to participants based on their answer there. (Are the 28 percent who said they’d rather live under sharia contained within the 45 percent who think it should be reinterpreted, or are supporters of reform opposed to living under sharia because they don’t consider it to have been interpreted the right way in its current form?) What is clear is that there’s around 40 percent support both for strict/hardline interpretations and for modernising approaches, further illustrating Muslims to be far from agreed on what institutionalised sharia should look like in Britain.

Compare these findings to YouGov’s poll of students for the Centre for Social Cohesion – remember, this is the survey where 62 percent respected ‘homosexuals’ at least as much as other people. Asked ‘How supportive if at all would you be of the official introduction of Shari’ah Law into British law for Muslims?’, responses were extremely mixed.


The Daily Mail‘s coverage of this study as a whole was spectacularly misrepresentative, dressing it up as ‘a survey revealed by the WikiLeaks’ publication of U.S. diplomatic cables’ when in fact YouGov had published it two years before (as is the norm for polling) and claiming ‘40% [of Muslim students] want Sharia law’, conspicuously dropping ‘for Muslims’ to tap into the same paranoia as the Telegraph. In fact, 21 percent of participants were ‘very supportive’, 19 percent ‘fairly supportive’, 16 percent ‘not very supportive’ and 21 percent ‘not at all supportive’, with ’23 percent’ – the most popular category – ‘not sure’.

All these figures are within each others’ error margins, so it’s sensible to treat the numbers as the same to practical extents. Moreover, I’m strongly suspicious of the formatting, which smacks more than anything else in all these polls of an agenda: why is there no neutral option in the middle? Responders who were ambivalent, equally supportive and opposed – which isn’t the same as being unsure – were clearly forced to choose between declaring themselves ‘fairly’ or ‘not very’ supportive, of which the former sounds much more balanced. (A ‘fairly full’ glass, to use a clichéd image, could be either half-empty or half-full; a ‘not very full’ glass sounds distinctly like it has less water in it.)

The same poll’s supplementary questions on religion and government, even adjusting for the sample group’s slight liberal bias, suggested very little support for a violent, theocratic or fundamentalist version of Islam. 68 percent said Islam was fairly or very compatible with ‘the Western notion of democracy’, while a further 19 percent said they weren’t sure. Only 13 percent said it was fairly or very incompatible, and 43 percent said it was fairly or very compatible with ‘the separation of religion and government’, whereas 28 percent said it was incompatible and 29 said they weren’t sure.


Extraordinarily high numbers of ‘Not sure’ answers are a recurring aspect of this poll – again, they suggest to me that answerers just didn’t have strong concepts of what things like ‘the separation of religion and government’ actually meant. (Not all that encouraging for secularists, but on the other hand, we might expect committed theocrats or fundamentalists to recognise the term.) Nowhere is this more evident than in answers to the question, ‘How supportive if at all would you be of the introduction of a worldwide Caliphate based on Shari’ah Law?’, where 41 percent said they were unsure. Like most questions on sharia being implemented, this would benefit from greater specificity, but while a hardline hump of about 20 percent seems to persist throughout this poll, two thirds of participants are either unsure (not knowing, I’d guess, what ‘a worldwide Caliphate based on Shari’ah’ would look like, thus probably not supporting it) or unsupportive.

What may be a useful predictor of views on homosexuality and LGBT rights is that while half of participants said they’d be ‘fairly’ or ‘very unsupportive’ if a friend wanted to leave Islam (compared with a quarter each who’d be supportive or were unsure), only 6 percent said they should be punished according to sharia, and only half those people said the punishment should be death. The hardline hump, then, is obviously only so hardline, and I’d guess somewhat tentatively that apostasy and homosexuality, both being traditionally prohibited, would be viewed the same way, just as homosexuality and adultery were in the Birmingham Muslims poll.


The Populus poll for Policy Exchange seems to be a bit of an outlier viewed as part of a bigger picture, then, although I’m not sure what’s determining the discrepancy in its results from other polls’, particularly this one’s. Both are studies by respectable polling firms for centre-right think tanks, conducted with large sample sizes – there are some problems I’d identify with their phrasing and formatting, as with most of these polls, but they don’t account for the difference in findings, and the student poll (contrary to what one might expect, perhaps) seems to fall more in line with broader data than Policy Exchange’s.

It may come down to something circumstantial in their methods which I haven’t noticed or they fail to mention – how they polled participants (in person, by telephone or online, for instance), how sample groups were selected and so on. This is the kind of area where a professional polling expert’s view would be much more useful than mine. What we can say, however, is that none of the data supports Pat Condell’s views, either that Islam is set in stone and unaccommodating of diverse views or that Muslims are opposed to human rights or humane treatment of gay people.

Although support for sharia law exists among British Muslims, this appears only to be the view of a significant minority ranging between surveys from approximately 20 to 40 percent (for comparison, about the same as the proportion of the general populace who vote for any of the major parties). Moreover, while advocacy for Iranian-style theocracy does exist among a few percent of British Muslims (see the polls in full for this), sharia as endorsed by these 20-40 percent seems to be understood best as a court or arbitration system specifically for Muslims rather than as the overthrow of Britain’s current political and human rights regimes.

More and better research is needed to determine exactly what most Muslims consider the requirements of sharia to be, including specifically on homosexuality – views here seem to vary – but large majorities support non-religious mainstream law outside Muslim communities, including established human and LGBT rights, and equally large if not larger majorities voice attitudes of acceptance and respect toward gay people, even while dominant understandings of Islam in the UK consider homosexual acts immoral. The people actually endangered by Islamic attitudes to sexuality in Britain are LGBT people within the so-called Muslim community whom Condell ignores while smearing them and it in general. (More on this in the blow-by-blow response, coming up next.)

Violence in the name of religion

The final claim to address is that Britain’s Muslims, irrespective of their stance on gay people’s legal or human rights, are supportive of violent, criminal homophobic attacks. To quote, ‘The more Islam there is in a society, the more physically dangerous it’s likely to be for gay people. In parts of Europe with high Muslim immigrant populations, we know that openly gay men are far more likely to be attacked and beaten up on the street for being gay. And there’s a good reason why they don’t hold gay pride marches down Brick Lane.’ (At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, everything about this is categorically and completely wrong, but a full rebuttal is beyond this one post’s scope. Sit tight, it’s coming.)

Assuming the amount of Islam in a society is measured by the number of Muslims, and it’s hard to see how else to quantify it clearly, research on Muslim attitudes to anti-gay attacks specifically, beyond things like the Birmingham poll’s question on stoning ‘homosexuals’, is hard to come by. (If anyone knows of any that I don’t, please let me know.) What we do however have – including in Gallup’s report, the lone one cited by Condell – is consistent polling evidence Muslims are by and large strongly opposed to violence.

Asking respondents to answer on a scale of 1-5 between ‘Cannot be justified at all’ and ‘Completely justifiable’ (if only they’d done that on the ‘homosexual acts’ question), French, German and British Muslims in 2008 were asked to rate numerous actions, among them ‘attacks in which civilians are the target’. Overwhelming majorities in all three countries answered in opposition.


99 percent of British Muslims said either that such attacks ‘cannot be justified at all’ (89 percent) or rated them a ‘2’, which I imagine we could gloss as something like ‘Only justifiable in exceptional circumstances’ (10 percent). The remaining one percent answered ‘3’, whose precise meaning Gallup’s researchers queried. The only figure anywhere higher than Britain’s was the 91 percent of German Muslims who answered ‘Cannot be justified at all’, but the difference of only 2 percent is statistically negligible. While British Muslims may have considered homosexual acts most immoral, they were also the most opposed to attacks on civilians.

We can’t interpret this on its own as conclusive, of course, since ‘attacks in which civilians are the target’, while strictly speaking still descriptive of homophobic assaults, is more suggestive either of terrorist activity targeting the West (suicide bombings etc.) or military activity abroad (drone strikes on villages, etc.). Also, no control figures from the general public were given in this question, making a direct comparison difficult – Gallup does, however, cite identical polling from 2006 and 2007 in which nationwide publics in all three countries were compared with Muslims in their capital cities.


London Muslims in this period were slightly more sympathetic to civilian attacks than British non-Muslims, but nothing like significantly: 92 percent of the public rated them ‘not justifiable’, a 1 or 2 on the scale of response, compared with 88 percent of Muslims in the capital, but sample error could easily account for this. What does seem noticeable, though again it could conceivably be sample variation, is that 9 percent of London Muslims gave a ‘3’, compared with only 3 percent of the public, showing perhaps more hesitance to answer such a generalised question. We don’t, of course, have data specifically for non-Muslims in London at this time: I’m not sure it would tell us anything very different, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

On ‘use of violence for a noble cause’, an answer which more conceivably could include homophobic assaults (and a much wider range of actions generally) British Muslims were more sympathetic than those in Germany or France – or rather, more polarised.


While answers of 2, 3 and 6 were about the same across the board, only 48 percent of British Muslims answered ‘Cannot be justified at all’ compared with 75 percent in France and 80 percent in Germany, and 31 percent answered with ‘4’ (something like ‘Often but not always justifiable’) compared to only 1 percent in both European nations.

This is exactly the kind of finding – though in this case, the ‘homosexual acts’ question jumped the gun – that tends to be shouted in panicked tones by the right wing press, as if to suggest Muslims support jihadism, but the previous question almost certainly rules this out: Muslims are almost all categorically opposed to attacks targeting civilians, so it seems extremely likely those who rated ‘violence for a noble cause’ a 4 (this is where numbers answering ‘1’ have gone, compared with European figures) had something other than terrorism in mind. Crucially, this question isn’t specifically religious: one commonly cited example of violence justified by a good cause would be the Second World War; mine would be the Stonewall Riots.

All we can reliably conclude from this is that British Muslims are less likely to be pacifists than those in Germany or France, which if trends between countries resemble those on sexuality may not be at all unique to them. Control data for the general population would once again be useful here for just this reason – it’s given in the 2006/7 equivalent question, whose results are curiously different.


Whereas among Muslims throughout Britain in 2008, only 51 percent called violence for a noble cause unjustifiable (compared with 37 percent who called it justifiable and 13 percent in between), 81 percent of London Muslims in 2006 and 2007 found it unjustifiable, compared with 8 percent for unjustifiable and 11 percent in between – not significantly different from the British public’s views in the latter cases, and nine percent higher on the ‘unjustifiable’ count.

I’ve struggled to account for the discrepancy between the 2006/7 and 2008 results. While the ‘homosexual acts’ data was dramatic, it was also in keeping with established patterns in the data; the difference between Muslim views in these cases (especially in view of questions’ wording and formatting, and presumably administration of the survey, being identical), seems totally anomalous. One possibility I have considered is that since Muslims in capital cities seem more often to have been against all forms of violence, Muslims in London – especially while being polled self-consciously as Muslims in London – may have been primed to interpret ‘violence for a noble cause’ specifically in relation to things like the 7/7 attacks, quite plausibly more of a presence in public consciousness there than across the country. I don’t know though, and I’m very reluctant to advance any solid interpretation without 2008 data from the general public for comparison.

Taking a quick detour, the Centre for Social Cohesion’s YouGov poll of Muslim students included a (widely and badly) reported question specifically on killing in the name of religion. Again, we can’t compare different polls’ numbers side by side, but it may serve to address the question of how many Muslims support religiously motivated violence in particular, which presumably would cover homophobic attacks.


1 in 3 British Muslim students back killing for Islam‘ the Mail reported when the poll came out, perhaps the greatest and most outrageous misrepresentation of any data here. While 32 percent did say killing in the name of religion could be justifiable, only 4 percent answered ‘Yes in order to preserve and promote that religion’ – i.e. the kind of violence that commonly makes headlines when fundamentalists plant bombs.

The other 28 percent answered ‘Yes but only if that religion is under attack’, an annoyingly vague statement – what constitutes an attack on a religion? (Most people would, I think, call Muslim participation in the Crusades a justifiable response to being attacked; on the other hand, the Christian right in Britain regularly describes itself as ‘under attack’ when prayers aren’t part of council meetings and so on, so I can’t help thinking this question feels obfuscatory by design. Additionally, the formatting of the question gives no other opportunity for a ‘Yes, sometimes’ answer that doesn’t fall into the ‘preserve and promote’ category, as for instance a more neutral, open-ended statement like ‘Yes, but only in extreme/exceptional circumstances’ would have allowed.) 53 percent answered that killing for religion was never, in any circumstances, justifiable, and given the other findings of this same poll (high levels of respect for ‘homosexuals’ in particular) I’d find it very odd if more than negligible numbers supported killing gay people.

Treating Gallup’s 2008 figures as anomalous, then, what’s obvious is that Muslim populations are likely to be opposed in principle to any kind of violence, presumably including homophobic violence. We can’t compare urban Muslims with nationwide non-Muslims head-for-head, but the trend for 2006-7 Muslims to be more opposed to violence than the general public may be confirmed by Gallup’s finding that particularly religious Muslims were at least as likely to oppose it as less religious ones – possibly more so, though figures are close enough to be treated as the same.


In all three countries surveyed, participants who said Islam was important them displayed slightly higher rates of conviction that ‘violence for a noble cause cannot be justified at all’ than those who said it wasn’t important. The 7 percent differential for British Muslims, in fact, is the highest of the lot. All these numbers are near enough that repeat polls might reverse or equalise them, but it’s obviously not true that Muslims’ religiosity makes them more likely to condone violence.

On top of the fact Muslims in general are especially predisposed to pacifism in Gallup’s research – again, the only research Condell actually cites – it may just be possible that how heavily religious they are correlates with how non-violent they are, if only slightly. All this is pretty damning news for the claim Muslims at large endorse homophobic attacks, and given he deems its source authoritative enough to mention no other polls, he has no excuse not to withdraw that claim.


All the data analysed in this post is available online, and I recommend you read it in full yourself (particularly before making wild, unsupported assertions about what polls show Muslims think.) Here they are in order of appearance:

For those who’ve skipped to the bottom, as a tl;dr summary, the landscape they suggest can I think be distilled as follows:

  • Muslim attitudes are often highly varied, in some cases powerfully polarised, including on questions of sexuality.
  • Determinants of this variation, in addition to other less obvious ones, include nationality, ethnicity and age.
  • All of these, age in particular, challenge the view conservative and fundamentalist approaches to Islam are ‘imports’ through recent immigration; their followers are often young, born or raised in Britain, more ‘strict’ or ‘radical’ than prior generations.
  • Most if not all British Muslims consider homosexual acts ‘morally wrong’ over ‘morally acceptable’, but large majorities in various polls tend to express respect, acceptance or otherwise humane responses to gay people.
  • Supporters of sharia law are not an ‘extremist fringe’ as some have claimed, but are a clear minority, with most surveys showing them at somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of Muslims.
  • More and better polling is required on what exactly sharia supporters understand it or its (ideal) function to be in Britain, but advocates almost always desire it as a Muslim-specific legal system within Britain rather than a totalitarian alternative to the country’s current governance.
  • Further, strong appetites exist for reform or reinterpretation of sharia in line with contemporary views on human (and LGBT) rights, although it’s unclear what the relationship of ‘sharia reformers’ to ‘sharia advocates’ is.
  • Muslim support for extreme draconian punishments and human rights abuses such as the Iranian government’s executions by stoning or hanging is extremely low most of the time.
  • More broadly, Muslims are by and large extremely unlikely ever to find violence justifiable, though Muslims polled by Gallup across Britain in 2008 were an unexplained exception to this. (This does not, however, suggest support for terrorism or homophobic attacks, and other data explicitly suggests a near-universal lack of support in these areas.)
  • All of us – think tanks, journalists, agitators on the right and left, opponents of Islam, defenders of Muslims and people who are both – need to become more literate in polling analysis, more willing to survey the bigger picture and less exploitative of polls as propaganda.
  • Polling companies need to be more judicious about wording, formatting and research methods, refusing to use biased or imprecise techniques when agreeing questions with clients (especially those, like newspapers or think tanks, with particular outlooks).
  • Numerous points raised by research above are legitimately concerning for secularists and human rights campaigners – not just the minority of Muslims supporting fundamentalist or violent practices, but the view itself that queer sexuality is immoral (even when no structuralised oppression follows this belief) and the support and continued operation of sharia courts as parallel, separate legal institutions in the so-called Muslim community.
  • These concerns are not well dealt with by smearing, homogenising and misrepresenting Muslims generally, and sensationalist xenophobia which characterises the presence of Muslims as a major threat to ‘the British way of life’ is both unfounded and unhelpful: non-Muslims (or those outside the ‘Muslim community’) are directly threatened very little by the issues above, whereas Muslim women, LGBT Muslims and other parts of that community marginalised by conservative religious tendencies are strongly affected.
  • Atheists, secularists and skeptics should stop engaging in anti-migrant/anti-Muslim racism, taking on the actual problems.
  • Pat Condell should stop citing polls he hasn’t read.

See also: Dear Pat Condell… why this homo-Islamic masochist rejects your anti-Muslim crusade