Review: “Islam in the West” Special Report in the Economist

The Economist has this week published a special 12-page report on Islam in the West. The report seeks to look at “how Muslim identity has been moulded by external and internal pressures since the mass migration to the West began in the 1950s.”

As you would expect from the Economist large parts of the report appear to be factual, carefully researched and where editorial views are provided, these are on the whole sensible and liberal-minded.

For instance, when acknowledging the challenges posed by what appear to be regressive religious views and practices amongst some sections of Muslims in the West, the Economist argues that:

“Rather than intervene in doctrine, it is better to deal with social conservatism through argument and persuasion.”

It argues against the forced banning of burqas that we have seen in Austria, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Hungary and Bulgaria.

“To many Muslims and Western liberals, such policies seem counterproductive. Muslims feel stigmatised, alienated and defensive.”

It calls on the West to continue to uphold its enlightenment traditions of religious tolerance and freedom of belief:

“Having settled in the West…Islam seems destined to stay. The journey so far has not been easy. But a third generation of Muslims now seems set to become a permanent part of a more diverse, more tolerant Western society – as long as that society continues to nurture those virtues.”

The Economist appears to be correct when it observes that an Islamic identity was especially appealing to those second-generation Muslims that were not comfortable with Western norms or with their parents’ more traditional norms.

There are reassuringly few obvious errors in the Economist report though the “brief glossary” provided does seem to be a bit misleading when it provides the following elaboration concerning Ahmadis:

“Ahmadis: A Muslim sect considered heretic by many Sunnis for proclaiming its 19th-century founder in India, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, as the Messiah.”

I am pretty sure that the Shi’a – and not just the majority Sunnis – also consider Ahmadis to be a non-Muslim sect.

The Economist identifies what it sees as four main strands amongst Western Islam: Salafis, political Islam, liberals and lapsed Muslims. The Brelvis are unlikely to be happy about this (though to be fair, many Salafis would probably agree to place them in the “lapsed Muslims” category anyway!).

The phenomenon of – an admittedly tiny number of – Western Muslims engaging in acts of terrorism and brutality has clearly shaken the Western public and has led to a lot of soul-searching about how best to integrate the now 26 million Muslims in Europe. The Economist has surely done the right thing by standing up for religious plurality and tolerance.

Still, having said that, I would have liked to have seen more written about the impact on Western Muslims of the West’s policy of effectively turning a blind eye to ongoing Israeli crimes and brutality in the Occupied Territories, and the nod and wink given to Algeria’s military rulers to launch a coup to prevent the democratic victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in 1990/1991 by arresting the FIS leaders and crushing all dissent. More surprisingly for a report on Western Islam there appears to be nothing said about the genocide of Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 and how that affected European Muslims.

As a third generation of Muslims in the West now prepares to take the helm, many interesting challenges face the Muslim communities in the West. In a West where the role of religion has been very visibly declining, will Islam follow the same course and be largely confined to the private sphere as the secularisation thesis asserts? Will Muslims accept that universal human rights must trump the restrictions advocated by conservative interpretations of ancient religious texts if human societies are to achieve greater equality and opportunities for all?

The editorial in the Economist is hopeful about the future:

“If today’s varied and liberal form of Islam continues to flourish, it may even serve as an example of tolerance for the rest of the Muslim world.”

Insha’ Allah.

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Independent Review of Prevent – An Opportunity To Raise Concerns

Almost a year ago, I wrote a short blog looking back at 15 years of the Prevent anti-radicalisation strategy and raised some concerns that UK Muslims had about Prevent and said that “the government and authorities should be seen to be engaging with those concerns [of UK Muslims] seriously with a view to improving the effectiveness of the Prevent strategy.”

Last month, in welcome news, the government announced an independent review of Prevent. We have all heard appalling stories about alleged Prevent-related interventions but on closer inspection, I have personally found that quite a few of these stories have been presented in a less than balanced way with important contextual and relevant information often missing. So, let’s be grown up about this. As I stated in my earlier blog:

“Let’s be frank about what a referral to Prevent actually means. It means that your case – if it is deemed to be a cause for concern – will be assessed by a panel which will include local police officials and local authority figures and they will discuss whether your case may benefit from intervention in the form of mentoring etc that might perhaps be useful to you. It is hardly waterboarding, right?”

So, this review should be seen as an opportunity for UK Muslim groups that have been critical of Prevent to come forward with their case and provide recommendations for what can be done to improve matters. And for their part, the government needs to ensure that the review is indeed really independent. The MCB’s Secretary-General, Harun Khan, raised a valid point and will have spoken for many when he said:

“We welcome the government’s support for a review. However, those tasked with its implementation must have the independence, credibility and trust required to deliver it.”

In my experience, the Prevent brand was unfortunately badly tainted by the then Labour government’s decision back in 2008/9 to cut off relations with large community led groups such as the Muslim Council of Britain while funding (and promoting) new outfits such as the Quilliam Foundation which were widely disliked by UK Muslims because of their leadership’s support for the illegal war against Iraq and their attempts to whitewash the dispossession and terrorisation of the Palestinians by the Israelis.

In addition, a number of new Muslim outfits that emerged around this time under the Home Office/Prevent umbrella and claimed to be “independent” but were to UK Muslims evidently anything but independent.

Having said this, the government obviously must have a counter-radicalisation strategy. Bearing in mind that the government has strategies to tackle knife crime, gun crime and drugs, it would be clearly untenable if it did not also have a strategy to try and prevent people, be they Muslim or non-Muslims, from being drawn towards violent extremism.

I have heard some pretty unconvincing arguments against Prevent. One of the most common arguments that is repeated online is that a disproportionate number of those referred by Prevent to the Channel programme (which seeks to provide mentoring and support for vulnerable individuals) are Muslim. For example, the Guardian reported last month that:

“The Home Office said that since 2012 more than 1,200 people had been supported by Channel, a mentoring programme that is part of the Prevent strategy. Of the 394 people who received Channel support in 2017/18, 179 (45%) had been referred for concerns related to Islamist extremism and 174 (44%) for concerns related to right wing extremism.”

As Muslims currently constitute between 3-4% of the UK population, these critics say that it is a clear example of discrimination that 45% of those referred to Channel are Muslim. But is it really? If a significant part of the current domestic terror threat to the UK is from al-Qa’ida or ISIS-inspired terrorism – as it clearly is – then the laws of mathematics make it rather likely that a significant percentage of those referred by Prevent for possible mentoring will be UK Muslims. To argue that this constitutes discrimination is a bit like claiming that Christmas discriminates against turkeys or Qurbaani against sheep.

I very much hope that UK Muslim groups will actively contribute to the independent review and put forward their concerns about Prevent. By helping make Prevent more effective they will be contributing to the safeguarding of our country and its people. And there can be few better ways to demonstrate the genuine teachings of Islam in action than by cooperating with others to safeguard innocent lives.

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Best TV Programme This Xmas? The Royal Institution Xmas Lectures

What was the best TV programme shown over the Xmas period? Not the BBC’s adaptation of The ABC Murders with Poirot played by John Malkovich. Nor Bandersnatch – the gimmicky Black Mirror ‘interactive’ episode that was really a humourless rip-off of – the much more entertaining – The Truman Show. No, the best programme on TV this Xmas was the three part Royal Institution Christmas Lectures shown on BBC4.

Presented by the anatomist Professor Alice Roberts – who some years back also presented the wonderful series Origins of Us – this year’s lectures were on the theme “Who Am I?” The series discussed our kinship with all other living things including plants and animals in a very entertaining and informative way designed to appeal to a younger audience. If like me you are not a science graduate – (I did Computer Science, but it was not really science. Computer Engineering would have been much more accurate, but our head of department told us that many more students enrol if they called it Computer Science.) – then the annual Royal Institution Christmas Lectures serve very well as a kind of Dummies Guide to Science.

If you have ever wondered why babies wrap their hands tightly around your finger, or why some people can wiggle their ears or why some people are left-handed or why human embryos have tails in the earliest stages of their development, Alice Roberts offered some ingenious explanations based on our latest knowledge.

You can still watch the series on BBC iPlayer for the next 25 days – after that I assume they will be available on the website of the Royal Institution where you can watch the lectures from previous years.

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Book Review: Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, comes with an impressive recommendation from no less a figure than the principal founder of Microsoft and noted philanthropist, Bill Gates, who describes it as “my new favourite book of all time.” For my part, my spirits were lifted when I saw a familiar quotation right at the beginning of the book from the physicist David Deutsch: “Everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.” Deutsch happens to be the author of one of my all-time favourite books, The Beginning of Infinity.

The quotation from Deutsch is certainly very apt as it underlines a major theme of this book whose full title is “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress”.  At a time when populists and demagogues appear to be on the rise, Pinker’s re-affirmation of the values of the Enlightenment and his insistence on spelling out in detail via no less than seventy-five graphs how the human condition has improved in recent centuries is very welcome and for believers – and I include myself in this category – contain a number of passages that will prove very challenging.

Pinker gets into his stride right away and draws our attention to the facts about how major progress has been made due to science in the areas of life expectancy, child mortality, maternal mortality and reducing deaths due to disease. Pinker estimates that 177 million lives were saved due to the discovery of the benefits resulting from the chlorination of water alone. He notes how smallpox killed 300 million people in the 20th century and then asks us to now look at a dictionary definition of the disease:

Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola Minor. (p64)

Look at that again. “Smallpox was.” The last case was diagnosed in Somalia in 1977 after the World Health Organisation set itself the task in 1959 of eradicating the disease. It was a tremendous achievement and it was due to an increase in our knowledge about vaccinations. There has also been major progress made in the fight against measles, diphtheria and whooping cough with vaccines having been discovered for each of them.

Deutsch’s quote suggests that there should be many more victories in the future against disease if we continue on the path of reason and science. Pinker agrees and stresses that “It is knowledge that is key.” (p67)

For Muslims, this may serve as a reminder of the Qur’anic prayer “My Lord – increase me in knowledge” (Qur’an 20:114).

Yet, for Pinker, religion is not the answer. He makes the, by now, familiar humanist case that religion has served more to hinder than facilitate progress and asks why we now need religion at all? Did the God of the Bible not command “the Israelites to commit mass rape and genocide, and prescribed the death penalty for blasphemy, idolatry, homosexuality, adultery, talking back to parents, and working on the Sabbath, while finding nothing particularly wrong with slavery, rape, torture, mutilation and genocide.” (p429)

By contrast, Pinker refers to the progress made when we think about maximising human happiness and freedom. He contrasts the religious penalty for idolatry with the words of Thomas Jefferson.

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” (p417)

The choice is a clear one. Which form of government, religious or secular, will grant more freedom to human beings and prevent more discrimination? When we look at some of the most self-professedly religious states in the world today, whether it is Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Sudan or the Vatican city, Pinker’s argument does seem to have considerable force.

So, if we go along with the argument that reason and science and increasing our store of knowledge are all key to making progress then one has to ask, as Pinker does, “How to build a society that cultivates rational thoughts?” (p27). Pinker argues that a secular and rationalistic approach to education is the key to growth (p234)

“…education exposes people in young adulthood to other races and cultures in a way that makes it harder to demonize them. Most interesting of all is the likelihood that education, when it does what it is supposed to, instils a respect for vetted fact and reasoned argument, and so inoculates people against conspiracy theories, reasoning by anecdote, and emotional demagoguery.” (p339)

Pinker insists that allowing vigorous open argumentation and reasoned critiques (which interestingly the Muslim societies mentioned a couple of paragraphs above notably do not seem particularly keen on) will lead to good ideas prevailing and bad ones being rejected.

“…as people are forced to justify the way they treat other people, rather than dominating them out of instinctive, religious, or historical inertia, any justification for prejudicial treatment will crumble under scrutiny. Racial segregation, male-only suffrage, and the criminalisation of homosexuality are literally indefensible: people tried to defend them in their times, and they lost the argument.” (p221)

Will we see this progress in the Muslim world? Pinker is optimistic.

“…in every part of the world, people have become more liberal. A lot more liberal: young Muslims in the Middle East, the world’s most conservative culture, have values today that are comparable to those of young people in Western Europe, the world’s most liberal culture, in the early 1960s.” (p228)

Since Pinker’s book was published at the beginning of 2018, this year has seen Muslim organisations protesting in Tunisia – a country with a relatively free press and more liberal attitudes compared with much of the rest of the Arab world – against laws that would grant women equal inheritance rights with men. Maybe it is just birth pangs – because the growth of enlightenment values in much of the Muslim world is very much needed.

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The 40th Anniversary of Attenborough’s Life On Earth

Today sees the publication of an updated 40th anniversary edition of David Attenborough’s classic book which accompanied his major BBC TV series, Life on Earth (though I think the publication of this anniversary edition has been brought forward a couple of months because I believe the original was published early in 1979. See below).

It is hard to overstate the landmark undertaking that the BBC’s series represented. It was filmed over a period of three years and the result was one of the world’s most informative, beautifully filmed and best loved nature series telling the spectacular story of the evolution of life on earth according to our latest knowledge.

The book version of Life on Earth was divided into thirteen chapters – one for each episode in the TV series. It became a rapid and huge best-seller. My copy was published in November 1979 and it shows that it was reprinted no less than eleven times in the very first year of publication due to its immense popularity.


At a time when the Director of the UK’s Natural History Museum, Michael Dixon, feels compelled to write in a national newspaper this week about his concerns about how Darwin’s powerful theory of evolution by natural selection is being attacked in Turkey, Israel and India by those who have allowed themselves to be blinkered rather than enlightened by religion, this week’s 40th anniversary publication should be seen as an opportunity to share Attenborough’s work with others around us.  Dixon writes:

Darwin’s theory of evolution not only underpins all biological science, it has an immense predictive power. From understanding the emergence of antibiotic-resistant organisms, to the ways in which different species might respond to global warming – emerging as new pests or sustainable sources of food – human health and prosperity will depend on decisions informed by evolutionary evidence.

For those of you who like me cannot get enough of David Attenborough – you can now purchase the Audible version of the updated 40th anniversary edition of Life on Earth which is narrated by Sir David Attenborough himself.

Below is a short clip about the original series.

 

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Book Review: The Fight (Ali vs Foreman) by Norman Mailer

For years I had been meaning to get round to reading Norman Mailer’s The Fight but somehow other books kept diverting me away. Finally, a couple of months ago I bought it to read on my Kindle on my commute to work in London. I had watched the October 1974 boxing bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, the legendary Rumble in the Jungle, many times on YouTube and had been impressed with Mailer’s commentary on the fight in the Academy Award winning 1997 documentary When We Were Kings, so it was with much excitement and anticipation that I began to read his book length take on the fight.

A word of warning at the outset: in this nineteen chapter book, the actual description of the fight does not begin until chapter thirteen. Don’t let that put you off though. Mailer was a giant of twentieth century American literature and his observations on the build up to the fight and his encounters with the characters surrounding Ali and Foreman, including Bundini Brown, Don King and not least, President Mobuto of Zaire, are fascinating and add much colour to the background of the fight.

George Foreman is such a jolly and kindly fellow today that it is easy to forget just how terrifying his reputation was back in 1974. He had knocked down Joe Frazier six times before stopping him in the 2nd round in 1973 and had destroyed Ken Norton also in just the 2nd round at the beginning of 1974. And both Frazier and Norton had beaten Ali on points. As Mailer notes: “Each time Foreman knocked a man out, frustration showed on his face. Foreman looked like he still wanted to kill them.”

Ali at this time was thirty-two years of age and widely regarded as being past his prime. He had cruelly and unjustly had his championship taken away from him in 1967 after refusing to be drafted into the army for the Vietnam war and had been banned from boxing for three and half years – years when he should have been in the pinnacle of his boxing career. Now, seven years later, while he was clearly eager to regain the Championship, boxing commentators openly questioned whether he was still as quick with his hands and able to dance around the ring as he had so dazzlingly been able to do in his younger years. How would an older and slower Ali be able to avoid being hit by Foreman’s murderous punches?

Mailer was in Ali’s dressing room just before the fight and he paints a gloomy picture indeed. All those around Ali were clearly afraid of the imminent encounter and worried about Ali’s safety. Ali’s personal trainer, Ferdie Pacheco, had quietly booked a helicopter in case they needed to fly Ali out for emergency hospital treatment. The only person who seemed unafraid was Ali himself who said. “What’s there to be afraid about? This ain’t nothing but just another day in the dramatic life of Muhammad Ali. Why should I be afraid of Foreman? My God controls the universe.”

Ali certainly saw a bigger picture. Mailer notes that Ali saw himself as a tool in God’s plan. He would create history by beating Foreman against all the odds. He would then use his resulting fame and influence for the benefit of poorer black people. To this end Ali did not merely rely on his prayers, but trained appropriately. Mailer even went running with Ali late one night until he ran out of breath and had to walk back to Ali’s camp alone in the dark. He tells us that his heart started beating much louder and faster when he heard what was unmistakably the roar of a lion. Later that morning when Mailer shared this story with other colleagues from the press who were there to cover the fight, they laughed and pointed out that Ali’s camp was very close to the zoo.

And on to the fight itself. Mailer was sitting in the second row just behind the photographers and live radio and TV commentators. Just before the fight begins, he describes the posture of the two mighty warriors.

“Ali pressed his elbows to his side, closed his eyes and offered a prayer. Foreman turned his back. In the thirty seconds before the fight began, he grasped the ropes in his corner and bent over from the waist so that his big and powerful buttocks were presented to Ali. He flexed in this position so long it took on a kind of derision as though to declare: “My farts to you.” He was still in such a pose when the bell rang.”

It is a joy to read Mailer’s account of the fight. His round by round commentary is intelligent and vivid. Here is a taster from the beginning of the very first round:

“[Ali] drove a lightning-strong right straight as a pole into the stunned centre of Foreman’s head, the unmistakable thwomp of a high-powered punch. A cry went up. Whatever else happened, Foreman had been hit. No opponent had cracked George this hard in years and no sparring partner had dared to. Foreman charged in rage. Ali compounded the insult. He grabbed the Champion around the neck and pushed his head down, wrestled it down crudely and decisively to show Foreman he was considerably rougher than anybody warned, and relations had commenced.”

In the second round, Ali introduced the world to his Rope-a-Dope technique whereby he would lay on the ropes and seemingly allowed Foreman to come in and hit him. At the time, the commentators thought this showed that an older Ali was simply not able to keep up with George Foreman and was inevitably going to be worn down. Mailer writes that Joe Frazier – who was commentating on the fight for an American network, kept asking “For what reason is he on the ropes? Get off the ropes!”

For those who haven’t seen or heard about what then happens in the fight I won’t reveal any more…apart from saying that Ali triumphs! We are fortunate that the open mouthed and flabbergasted reaction of Norman Mailer and (on the left) boxing journalist George Plimpton to Ali’s knockdown of the mighty George Foreman has been captured in a wonderful photograph.

Over twenty years later, Ali – now debilitated by Parkinson’s and barely able to whisper – would be asked what the biggest thrill of his career was. His response: “Zaire. Got my title back. In Africa.”

Mailer’s book rises admirably to the occasion and is a splendid reminder of an encounter that will long be remembered fondly and with much love by all who have been fortunate enough to watch The Fight. Ali somehow lifted us all up.

Now is the time

Here is the mountaintop

When one man climbs

The rest are lifted up

(When We Were Kings, Brian McKnight and Diana King)

 

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Book Review: A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré


I recall first hearing about George Smiley back when I was in Primary school. Alec Guinness was portraying him at the time in the now classic BBC TV adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. George Smiley, the Cold War era English master spy. A thoroughly decent, professorial sort – he would surely have been an Oxford Don had he not been recruited into the “Circus” – who enjoys his visits to the British Museum and is pained by the frequent unfaithfulness of his wife. How could you not adore him?

Smiley was first introduced to the world in 1961 in Le Carré’s novel Call for the Dead. In 2009 Radio 4 produced dramatisations of all eight novels that had featured George Smiley up until then. These are available for purchase as part of a single collection via Audible and are highly recommended. And now, with Le Carré in his mid-80’s, we surely have in A Legacy of Spies what must be the final novel that will feature our hero.

A Legacy of Spies begins with George’s right hand man and protégé, Peter Guillam, now long retired and living in his ancestral home in Britanny, France. One morning, Guillam receives a letter from his former spymasters in London requesting his immediate return to assist with some legal inquiries.

It transpires that two of the protagonists who died in very tragic circumstances in the 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, had both been parents of a child each, and those children were now intent on forcing the Intelligence establishment to admit that they – including Guillam – had deliberately used their parents as fodder to protect a British mole in the East German hierarchy. It is an ingenious plot device that allows Le Carré and us to revisit some of the dark scenes back in the fevered atmosphere of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

This allows for the pages of Legacy to be adorned with a cast of familiar characters including Control, Bill Haydon, Jim Prideaux and many others. It does mean that the reader will require knowledge of the plot of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to fully appreciate the nuances offered by this latest Le Carré offering. And if that means that more readers will now have to become students of George Smiley – well, that can only be a good thing.

As Legacy proceeds, Guillam keeps asking “Where’s Smiley? Is he still alive?” No one seems to provide a definitive answer. And when we finally do meet him, it is an encounter that fully does justice to him. We find him in a library, of course – where else? And what is he up to? Well, “…an old spy in his dotage seeks the truth of ages.” Smiley defends the Service as you would expect. They were not the same as their enemies. “We were not pitiless, Peter. We were never pitiless. We had the larger pity.”

And what does the old spymaster now value at the end of a long life after duelling with some pretty merciless foes?

“I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I were ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”

At a time when the achievements of Western civilisation and the insights provided by science are cheapened and derided by a host of global actors including an ignoramus US President on the one hand and closed minded religious fanatics and Brexiteers on the other, identifying Europe and reason as important goals to fight for is eminently worthy of our beloved spy master. This is a magnificently fitting tribute from Le Carré to his most memorable creation.

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