What actually happened at Edinburgh Central Mosque

At Patheos, JT Eberhard writes of a young British couple jailed for a year for harmlessly pranking mosque members with ‘easily removable’ bacon, whose small child will suffer in foster care while the parents ‘rot in jail’ ‘because this building and the people who own it are special’ – a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ for what was only strictly speaking vandalism.

There’s another story about three hooded white supremacists who trespassed on private religious property to intimidate Muslims, harassed the only man inside as he tried to pray, threw objects around and desecrated the area to cause occupants distress, humiliate them and make them feel unsafe. I find this one more plausible.

According to reports from yesterday and earlier today, three people were just convicted of a ‘racially motivated attack’ at Edinburgh Central Mosque on January 31 2013.

  • Chelsea Lambie (18) received a twelve month prison sentence sentence in a young offenders’ institute after denying involvement despite CCTV footage.
  • Douglas Cruikshank (39) received nine months in prison, having pled guilty and received nine months.
  • Wayne Stilwel (25) also pled guilty and received ten months’ imprisonment.

Quite a few secularists I know have described this story in terms similar to Eberhard’s, calling these ridiculous punishments for hanging bacon on doorknobs and causing ‘religious offence’.

I’m not going to debate the merits of the sentencing specifically – partly because that would become an abstract discussion of the prisons system, ‘hate crimes’ and the use of authoritarian penalties against them, and partly because there’s lots of information I don’t have. I haven’t read Sheriff Alistair Noble’s judgement, so don’t know if details influenced him that haven’t made the news; I don’t know what previous convictions Lambie, Cruikshank and Stilwel had, if any; I don’t know how their prison terms compare to those for similar harassment in non-religious contexts, assuming that comparison is useful here. Edit: Lambie is reported in the Daily Record as having been fined shortly prior to this incident for verbally abusing and harassing a Pakistani shopkeeper; Stilwel was breaching conditions of bail for a previous misdemeanour.] (Helen Dale, a lawyer operating in Scotland, also tells me ‘all custodial sentences in Scotland are automatically reduced by half as long as you don’t do something like try to set a prison guard on fire’.) 

But the view that nine to twelve month sentences were obviously, categorically ridiculous, and that the right response to what they did (as Eberhard put it) would be to ‘fine them £20 and make them polish the door handle’, relies on seeing it how he does as a trivial and harmless prank by innocent-enough young vandals. Reports suggest to me that this is extremely inaccurate.

From what I’ve seen, there’s no evidence Lambie and Cruikshank were a ‘UK couple’. Reports refer to them as a ‘pair’, which doesn’t imply a relationship, and the BBC, the Edinburgh Evening News and the Scotsman all describe the former being arrested at ‘her boyfriend’s’ home: if this was Cruickshank, presumably he’d have been referred to by name and the two would both have been arrested there. While Lambie is noted to have a ‘very young child’, Eberhard’s emphasis on this and her perceived relationship with Cruikshank suggests the sympathetic tableau of a nuclear family broken up by injustice.

This doesn’t sync up with reality. Lambie was by all accounts part of the far-right Scottish Defence League, as according to the Edinburgh Reporter and the Scotsman were both Cruikshank and Stilwel. The SDL is a regional offshoot of the English Defence League, whose own ex-leader describes it as having been dominated by violent neo-Nazis and which has been linked to numerous arson attacks on mosques. (‘Religion is so persecuted’, Eberhard writes mockingly. While that may not be true in general, UK Muslims are targeted systematically as a religious group by the racist far-right.) Ties have also been found between the SDL and white supremacist British National Party, whose current leader started out in the National Front.

When Lambie’s mobile phone was examined by authorities, sent messages reveal her having bragged of ‘Going to invade a mosque, because we can go where we want.’ She and her accomplices hoped to intimidate worshippers by telling them they’d entered it unbidden – orders of magnitude more disturbing, fairly obviously, than an immature couple’s misjudged practical joke. According to the Scotsman, ‘a man who was inside the mosque praying [described by EEN as the only person in the building] . . . heard something hitting the prayer room window’, and judging by EEN’s reference to a ‘glass partition’, this was an interior window. Whoever threw uncooked bacon at it, which had been bought a few hours beforehand, did indeed invade the premises.

The Edinburgh Reporter adds that the man had already ‘noticed the trio at the door appearing to wave at him and (assuming they were coming in to pray) returned to his worship’. Rather than ‘hanging bacon on door knobs and tossing a few strings inside’, Lambie, Cruikshank and Stilwel – all of whom were hiding their faces under hoods – threw an object at the window of the room where they knew he was. I can’t speak for JT, but if three hooded strangers walked into my private building, found me alone and started hurling things in my direction, I’d feel attacked.

He states momentously that the slices of meat, which stuck to the window and door handles, would have been simple to remove. If someone were to break into his house and smear doorknobs and walls with faeces, cleaning it up would be equally simple; it would also be humiliating and distressing. As a vegetarian, having to handle raw meat would cause me the same kind of disgust. As an atheist, of course I don’t think Islamic pork taboos are sensible or philosophically sound, but mosques have every right to abide by them. Invading someone’s private building to strew the area in it and force them to handle it against their will, knowing it will cause them humiliation and distress, is still an act of harassment.

I’ve written plenty in opposition to public censorship on grounds of ‘religious offence’. A religious ban on bacon from shared secular space would have me up in arms. But one doesn’t have to accept religious doctrine to see desecrating private houses of worship as an intimidation tactic; look at how the Nazis went about it. (I remind you, before I’m accused of Godwinning, that the perpetrators belonged to a group with clear neo-Nazi ties.) This, on top of invading the building to make those there feel unsafe, throwing objects around and harassing someone alone there.

Whatever we say about the sentencing, this wasn’t anything like as trivial as Eberhard and others have suggested.

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Yes, Richard Dawkins, your statements on Islam are racist

[Disclaimer 1: this post isn’t intended as a character assassination – I’m not sure it’s helpful to talk about people (as opposed to actions or statements) as being innately racist, and what I say here refers to the latter.]

[Disclaimer 2: I’m writing from the point of view of a white atheist who isn’t and never was a Muslim; I accept I could be missing something important, and I’m open to being told so.]

Pat Condell is not a pleasant man. If you haven’t seen his YouTube channel, don’t bother looking it up – suffice to say that if someone’s Twitter page claims they ‘make videos criticising religion and political correctness’ (as if the one necessitates the other), I’m not likely to admire them.

In particular, Condell thought the building of Park51, the so-called Ground Zero mosque, should have been prevented in 2010 – because Muslims as a whole held collective responsibility for 9/11, and simply being a Muslim, to him, means endorsing Al Qaeda. He supports the United Kingdom Independence Party, who feel the need to describe themselves officially as a ‘libertarian, non-racist party’ and who wish to scrap the Human Rights Act, one major piece of legislation secularists have on their side, alongside Ofsted, the body responsible for standards in science and sex education at British schools. (They also promote home schooling, ever the fundamentalist parenting choice, deny the realities of climate change and describe gay marriage as ‘an aggressive attack on people of faith, and an act of intolerance’.)

Condell says this of the nationalist, Christian theocratic, anti-immigrant English Defence League: ‘I went to their website and read it quite carefully, looking for racism and fascism of course, because the media keep telling me that they are far right, but, well, I’m a little puzzled because I can find is a healthy regard for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Not a whiff of racism or fascism and not a whiff of far right politics of any kind.’ He describes Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who supports the government banning of the Qur’an, the deportation of Muslims and the taxing of women who wear hijabs without a €1000 licence, as a hero. (Wilders is fine, of course, with identical headscarves worn by Christian women.)

These strike me all in all as the statements of a thoroughly despicable man, unpleasant and unadmirable not least from the secularist point of view. Richard Dawkins does admire him, however.

When YouTube pulled a video named ‘Welcome to Saudi Britain’, in which Condell refers to Muslims as corner-shop owners and to Saudi Arabia’s whole population as ‘mentally ill’ and ‘barking mad’, then subsequently republished it, here’s what he said:

‘I congratulate YouTube on an excellent decision. Pat Condell is hard-hitting, but always quietly reasonable in tone. That some people say they are “offended” by something is never a good reason for censoring it. Incitement to violence is. Pat Condell never incites violence against anybody. He always signs off with “Peace” and he means it.’

Previously, his foundation’s website compiled and sold a collection of Condell’s videos on DVD, announced with the following comments.

‘RichardDawkins.net has now compiled the first 35 of Pat Condell’s videos onto this DVD collection, with an exclusive introduction by Pat. Enjoy this newly remastered collection, totalling 3 hours of video.
“Pat Condell is unique. Nobody can match his extraordinary blend of suavity and savagery. With his articulate intelligence he runs rings around the religious wingnuts that are the targets of his merciless humour. Thank goodness he is on our side.” ~ Richard Dawkins’

Mehdi Hasan tweeted this morning that Condell’s what he claims is an EDL supporter’s ‘hatchet job’ on him was retweeted both by Dawkins and Steven Yaxley Lennon (alias Tommy Robinson), the EDL’s leader. Dawkins himself had previously written,

Geert Wilders, if it should turn out that you are a racist or a gratuitous stirrer and provocateur I withdraw my respect, but on the strength of Fitna alone I salute you as a man of courage, who has the balls to stand up to a monstrous enemy.

(Fitna, if you’re unaware of it, was a film in which Wilders asserted that since parts of the Qur’an – like just about any ancient religious text – say violent things, all Muslims are by definition supporters of religious violence and deserve the pariah status prescribed by Wilders’ policies.)

A state which halts immigration from so-called Muslim countries, which deports and criminalises citizens specifically for being Muslims, which imposes exceptional limitations on the exercise of Islam, alone among other religions, and assigns all Muslims collective guilt for Islamists’ religious atrocities is not one any secularist should wish to establish. (We want neutrality, not persecution rivaling that of Europe’s anti-Semitic, theocratic past.) And yes, Richard, it’s racist.

Asserting that because Islam is a religion and not a race, one can never discuss it (or treat its followers) in racist ways makes about as much sense as saying that because ballet is an art form not a sexual identity, it’s impossible to say anything homophobic about male ballet dancers. Hip-hop musicians and immigrants aren’t races either, but commentary on both is very often racist – or at least, informed and inflected to a serious degree by racial biases.

KebabI’m an atheist and a secularist. Within the context of a broader critique of religion, I have no problem saying the architecture of public space, as a prerequisite for democracy and human rights, must be secular; that it’s absurd to think violent, inhumane ancient texts provide superior moral guidance to everyone else’s; that if you claim religious morality based on those texts should be enforced in the public sphere, you deserve to have their contents thrown at you; that the God idea is a bad idea; that Islamism is a regressive, oppressive political movement; that non-Islamist, non-fundamentalist, mainstream Islamic beliefs deserve as much scrutiny and criticism as any others; that they can and should be indicted for promoting sexual ethics based on the whims of an imagined being; that Mehdi Hasan deserved evisceration, not praise, for his article on homosexuality; that cutting apart infants’ genitals is violence and abuse; that subjecting animals to drawn-out, agonising slaughter is unspeakably cruel and religion no excuse; that going eighteen hours in July without eating or drinking is more likely to endanger your health than bring spiritual enrichment; that blasphemy is a victimless crime, and public prohibitions of it antediluvian. I am not ‘soft on religion’; I am not softer on Islam than any other.

But there are still ways to say these things that have racist subtexts and ways that don’t. There is nothing inevitable in facing a barrage of indignation from sensible people when you talk about Islam-related things.

There’s nothing racist about critiquing misogyny in popular music, including in hip-hop, a prominent genre. But if you’re singling hip-hop out as the sexist genre, or talking disproportionately about rap lyrics rather than songs outside traditionally black genres by the Beatles, Lady Gaga, the Rolling Stones, Taylor Swift or One Direction – particularly if you’re also essentialising hip-hop as misogynous by definition, ignoring all female and feminist hip-hop – you need to examine your motivations and consider where that bias is coming from.

If you’re singling out Islamic theocracies as countries with repressive laws about sex, you likewise need to think about why. In the civically secular, socially Christian U.S., it was only ten years ago that sodomy laws (used against unmarried heterosexual couples as well as gay sex) were struck down in Texas, and it was only in 2005 that the state of Virginia legalised premarital sex. In civically Christian, socially secular Britain, HIV-positive and transgender people are criminalised for having sex; in mainly Christian Uganda, gay sex is illegal. All over the Western world and the planet generally, sex workers face state violence, harassment and imprisonment. What sorts of countries have terrible, oppressive, violent laws about sex? All sorts. Of course we can attack Islamic theocracies, but if you’re not attacking them within a broader context – if you’re not discussing other nations with oppressive laws, and not talking about non-Islamic religious law’s use in policing consensual sexuality – you need to ask yourself why you’re driven to attack the religion especially and disproportionately whose image is most strongly racialised.

‘Richard Dawkins attacks Muslim schools for stuffing children’s minds with “alien rubbish”‘

Likewise, why concentrate specifically on Muslim schools when discussing creationism in the classroom, to the exclusion of other religions? Which choose Islam in particular as the exemplum of a very much broader problem? The British Humanist Association and other groups campaigned successfully against all (and not religiously specific) creationist teaching last year, such is the level of generalised malpractice in science education at British schools; a physics teacher at my wholly typical, religiously softcore and atheist-dominated comprehensive told my Year 10 class after explaining the formation of the Earth that if anyone had ‘any deeply held religious beliefs, this is just a theory’. In particular, a solitary network of 40 Christian fundamentalist schools (compared with 126 Islamic schools in total) exists in Britain where only a tenth of pupils deem Darwinism true – Jonny Scaramanga, who writes here, attended one and will tell you all you need to know – and according to a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll only 48 percent of Britain believes in evolution at all. Targeting Muslims seems curiously selective.

If the word ‘alien’ is one you’d use for creationism in Muslim schools, would you use it when discussing schools like Jonny’s – creationist, white-dominated and Christian? Would you, do you think, use a word meaning ‘foreign’, ‘unfamiliar’, ‘not from round here’ to describe white-British creationists outside a recent of context of immigration? Likewise, whether or not you consider all Muslims ‘Islamic barbarians’, is a historically imperialist term for foreign people to be ‘civilised’ through conquest one you’d have been as likely to apply if white Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. torched the Library of Congress? As much as describing Nigeria’s Christian fundamentalists as savages or calling opposition to Islamism a crusade, using such a racially inflected word in reference to Islam – whose members in Europe face racism from the assembled far-right forces of figures like Wilders, Condell, Lennon’s EDL, Anders Behring Breivik and Stop Islamisation of Europe – is spectacularly tone-deaf, regardless of intent.

It should be no surprise these people now claim the Dawkins name-brand in their support: a rhetoric which objects to Islam and Islamism as foreign, alien, un-British, at odds with Western values, barbarian and so on plays straight into their hands – and indeed into Islamists’, who trade on the idea democracy, freedom, human rights and secularity are Western notions, and that adopting them constitutes cultural betrayal. Hamza Tzortzis, theocrat, Islamic fundamentalist and the organiser of UCL’s notorious gender-segregated debate earlier this year, is on record claiming ‘We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even of freedom’; it seems conceivable he doesn’t speak for all of Earth’s 1.8 billion Muslims, nor all those who’ve existed throughout history, but reactions to the debacle from camp Dawkins suggested the same.

Tzortzis is an individual. He runs one particular organization, and espouses one particular politicised form of Islam. He has a name. Referring to him in lieu of it as just ‘a Muslim’ or ‘some Muslim or other’ suggests he’s as generic a representative of those 1.8 billion people as he claims he is – and referring, moreover, to ‘these Muslims’ (not ‘these Muslim fundamentalists’, ‘these Islamists’ or ‘this organisation’) as juxtaposed with UCL suggests not only that Tzortzis’ group, the IERA, are ambassadors for Muslims everywhere but that Muslims as a homogenous, theocratic and foreign mass are being capitulated to; that ‘they’ are an external threat to ‘us’, and that no one could be both part of UCL’s establishment and a Muslim. We’ve seen this homogenisation again since then, in the statement that no happily Muslim women could possibly exist – that every Muslim woman everywhere is beaten by her husband and whipped for being raped, and by implication that the experiences of Muslim women in Sharia theocracies are representative of others’ elsewhere who practice non-violent, non-fundamentalist Islam. Again, I’m certainly not of the view that just because someone’s religious views aren’t murderous, violent or theocratic, there can be nothing wrong with them – but to erase all Muslims except merciless Salafists hands not only them, but racists, fascists and far-right imperialists the validation they crave.

My argument isn’t necessarily that you have to mean this consciously as and when you make the statements above, but these are your rhetoric’s implications and connotations. Rhetoric matters, and when your job as a writer – especially a globally recognised, influential writer – is saying things clearly, it’s one of your responsibilities to take into account how what you say could reasonably be (mis)interpreted. An analogy might in theory be possible which compares the Qur’an to Mein Kampf without implying Muslims are Nazi-like by definition, but when far-right figures like Condell and the EDL insist with characteristic lack of irony that Muslims have no place next to ‘human rights, democracy and the rule of law’, it’s absurd not to anticipate that reading; it might in theory be reasonable to say someone with a journalist’s critical nous is inconsistent if they believe in literal winged horses, but when Muslims are at heightened risk of falling victim to unemployment, a tweet which could be construed as endorsing discriminatory practice – with Muslims turned away from jobs just the way the EDL’s members would like – almost certainly will be so construed.

Two paragraphs back I mentioned merciless Salafists. Originally, the adjective would have been ‘savage’ or ‘bloodthirsty’, but it struck me that a comparison of Muslims with aggressive, predatory wild animals or reference to them with words traditionally justifying conquests of dark-skinned nations had unhelpful connotations – and connotations matter. If what you’re about to say has the potential to uphold racist or imperialist impulses – if it’s something fascists might end up quoting in their support – say something else or find a better way of saying it. When the leader of the EDL’s retweeting you, it’s time to rethink your rhetoric.

The last thing secularism needs is a clash-of-civilisations narrative. The problem with Islam, as with any religion, is that it makes unknowable claims; the problem with Islamism, as well as relying on those unknowable claims, is that it’s theocratic, violent, oppressive and inhumane. To object instead to either, even by implication, on grounds of being culturally alien, foreign, un-British, un-Western or ‘barbarian’ is to racialise the terms of discussion, accepting ahistorically that the so-called ‘Muslim world’ is theocratic by definitive nature, legitimising the U.S.-led militarism which fuels Islamism’s anti-Western appeal, and enforcing the idea those who leave Islam or refuse to practice it hyper-devoutly are cultural and racial traitors – that to be an atheist ex-Muslim or religious moderate is to be a ‘coconut’, brown on the outside but white within.

There are better ways we can discuss Islam.

There are better ways we can critique Islam.

Please, Richard Dawkins.

Stop.