Donald Trump is not a man revered outside the US, he’s regularly mocked by British and Europeans on social media. His recent outburst however has left many shocked, even UKIP supporters may wince at supporting his sentiments. And this guy is running for president!
“Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shut down of Muslims entering the United States, until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
– Donald Trump (video here of Trump’s statement along with Paul Ryan’s response)
He is an astute businessman and it shows, his statement here was a ruthless stroke of genius in terms of his election campaign. The advantage was handed to him by Obama and he has played that advantage perfectly. As an intellectual Brit or European this may not make sense, but from the perspective of the US this is an obvious and smart, albeit repugnant, move on Trump’s part.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, Obama refused to say that the attacks had anything to do with Islam. After the Paris attacks last month he again said that the attacks were nothing to do with Islam. He repeatedly refuses to draw any association between the attacks and the religion, constantly using phrases like “mindless violence”, “hateful terrorists”; but never, not once, did he talk about how those hateful terrorists are in some way connected with Islam. Those “madmen” make statements, before, during (and sometimes after) they have committed some despicable act, declaring in absolute and certain terms that they are operating in a religious context. Perhaps they’ll say they’re doing god’s work while citing a verse or sura that justifies their actions. They also talk about their grievances with western intervention (or lack thereof depending on the situation), they talk about the wars and the oppression of Muslims. We all accept these connections, some of the strongest anti-war movements on Earth are in ‘Western’ democracies, we’re aware of these factors. But Obama has repeatedly failed to address the role of religion in their motivations.
Americans are seen as impulsive by other countries in the world, we mock them as they let their emotions rule their intellect. But they’re not dumb. They are able to hear the cries of Allahu Akbar before the triggers are pulled. They can watch the videos posted by Islamists. They are not dumb, but it doesn’t matter, the religious motivation and fervour is something that doesn’t require intellect to detect.
Obama’s constant denial of this connection has left a gaping void, a vacuum of frustration. Maajid Nawaz coined a term for this trap, The Voldemort Effect: to not only refuse to name the threat but to then conclude that the threat that you can’t name doesn’t even exist. This creates an empty space of confusion, anger and fear. All Donald Trump needed to do was fill it, his short statement even amplified the feeling of confusion that naturally forms in this space.
The following is a video of Maajid’s powerful speech back in Feb 2015, in it he predicts that this void would occur due to Obama’s labelling aversion; if you haven’t seen it you’re unlikely to gain more from any other 11 minute period today than this.
We in the UK have a different situation, for all of David Cameron’s flaws he has named this threat as Islamism (or the Islamist ideology). He, among others, has named it and promoted the use of that lexicon to divide this war of ideas along its true ideological lines. Obama’s succumbing to The Voldemort Effect has left the US in a state where hysteria, hatred, bigotry and confusion will reign. Obama and Trump have played the game ISIL set for them and I fear that America’s Muslims will now become ever more isolated and radicalised over the coming years.
It’s not the fault of Americans that so many are backing Trump. His ideas about vetting and profiling are wrong, his blaming ‘Muslims’ is wrong, almost everything he says is simplified and ignorant. But to a public that doesn’t even have the terminology to identify what they’re afraid of, he is speaking sense. I hope that someone soon is able to call the threat of Islamism from inside American politics in a way that opposes him. For now though, it seems the left has lost its spine.
In this video Nicolas Henin voices some coherent, interesting and most of all important insights. One would be wise to listen.
Nicolas points out that ISIL are slightly delusional, but also self-coherent. They watch the news constantly and take everything they see as confirmation of their righteousness. He then goes on to talk about how the international community did nothing when the Syrian people were being attacked by the Assad regime.
Nicolas argues that the Western governments did not intervene when the Syrian regime was using barrel bombs and chemical weapons against its people. In his opening statement he also says that Mohammed Emwazi will have have killed many more Syrians than Western aid workers and journalists – but who showed compassion for them?
I absolutely agree with him up to this point. That it took a successful attack on a European city for us to intervene is something to admit with shame. Nicolas goes on to identify 3 ways to tackle the problem in Syria. The first seems perfectly logical, the acceptance of refugees in Europe was a major blow to ISIL, this is a very good point and one that can’t be stressed enough. They want us to close our borders. They want to show the fleeing Syrians that the narrative of Europe attacking Muslims is true. We have shown thus far that we will not let this happen. We believe in humanity, we believe in human rights and we will not turn away those fleeing from brutality. And the Syrian people know now that these are not mere words.
The second action he suggests taking is also an excellent idea, and one that members of the public in the UK can assist with from their own homes. The cities in Iraq and Syria have normal civilians living there. They have mobile phones and internet access. Some of these people do not want to live under the rule of ISIL and many don’t want the Syrian regime back either. The public from around the world, without leaving their sofa, can reach out to these people with a simple offer of solidarity. Listen to the stories they are telling, let them know that the West does not hate Muslims and is not attacking Islam. Let them know how you feel and listen to what they have to say. Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently is one such group. Don’t get all of your information from the media news channels, find civilian led groups on the ground, listen to them and let them know you’re listening.
It is Nicolas’ final suggestion that I just can’t accept without critique. He suggests implementing no fly zones over the ISIL occupied areas of Syria, to restrict the coalition, the Syrian regime and Russia from entering that air space. Nicolas argues that once this no fly zone has been applied ISIL will lose ground ‘very quickly’ and they will essentially collapse.
Let us set aside the rather practical fact that we would have to seriously consider whether we want to shoot Russian planes out of the sky should the contravene this restriction. This is a scary prospect and I’m not sure it is one we should follow through on, nevertheless this is a practicality and it is the principle of Nicolas’ proposition that I wish to address.
I wish he’d been able to expand on this argument a little more, I have so much I’d like to ask him about how this strategy would work. ISIL have money, infrastructure and are trying to build a caliphate in which Muslims can live, Nicolas seems to be saying that we should just leave them to it. But it is very feasible that ISIL could simply operate their caliphate successfully without our intervention. They could pump whatever propaganda they wished onto the news channels, restrict travel into and out of the area and implement an education system that indoctrinates and recruits young children to their ideology. Could this be an all too foreseeable outcome of Nicolas’ suggestion? Would this serve to strengthen their hold on the territory they already occupy?
There would of course be lots of ground fighting between the Syrian regime and ISIL, as well as other rebels, even if the air support was withdrawn. How would this play out if our air strikes were not supporting any particular side? What about the Kurdish fighters? Would they thank us for such a move? Would they lose ground? Would they lose soldiers?
Nicolas also fails to mention the fact that many nations have been bombing ISIL in Iraq and Syria for 16 months now and they have gained very little ground in that time. He has some great ideas and is correct when he identifies this as a war of ideas that will not be won with sophisticated weaponry. However, ISIL are most definitely attacking with military force and they are trying hard to gain more land for their caliphate through military means. It is imperative that we contain the geographical spread of ISIL, a large expansion in their territory would provide them with enormous power to recruit new members, they would be able to tell people that they are winning. Nicolas simply does not address this.
In short, Nicolas has said that when we didn’t intervene it provided ISIL with a narrative that we didn’t care. When we directly intervene they have the narrative that Europe is attacking Syria and Islam. In fact he readily admits that ISIL will scour the internet for news stories and will be able to use most of what they find for their own PR. He then suggests that we withdraw military intervention so they can’t use that as PR – this just does not follow a coherent argument.
Nicolas presents a very eloquent, impassioned speech; that this man was imprisoned by ISIL for 10 months makes it well worth listening to, but does not mean it should be accepted uncritically.
(Figures correct on Thu 3 Dec 2015)
These are the locations of all air strikes since August 2014 in Iraq and Syria. Over 8000 air strikes, mostly by the US. Current estimates are that 23,000 ISIL fighters have been killed in these air strikes. These figures do not include any ground combat.
- Between 682 and 977 civilians have been killed in 115 incidents
- Between 703 and 804 claimed deaths in incidents that are either weakly reported, single sourced or the claims about who carried out the air strike is contested.
(Data taken from http://airwars.org/)
These figures are sobering and don’t alone provide sufficient information to justify nor condemn the air strikes, for that a great deal more detail is required. There are however conclusions we may draw at this point
- The civilian casualties are too high. The minimum estimate is currently 682 in 16 months. To posit that figure would be morally acceptable over the next 16 months simply isn’t viable. Any air attack that causes civilian casualties is a failure.
- Anyone that says “we’ve been bombing them for a long time now and it hasn’t defeated them, it isn’t working and isn’t going to work” (I’ve heard these sentiments countless times, almost always by someone who has done little research and cites no sources). It’s absurd and a denial of the facts to suit a particular ideal. Let’s assume 23,000 is a vast overestimate, let’s assume the real figure is half that. Removing 11,500 soldiers from any army is significant. Anyone that is currently against the bombing has got to answer the question, what do you imagine ISIL would be doing now if they had an extra 11,500 (or 23,000) soldiers in their army? ISIL would be much stronger now if the air strikes did not start when they did? Anyone that claims air strikes have no effect is making claiming that those thousands of armed militants would have made no difference to their strength. Please, for the sake of intelligent debate at least admit that the air strikes thus far have weakened them. Denial of this prevents the debate going any further.
To understand these statistics in some context we must look at the involvement of the allied forces over the last 16 months. There is no alternative but to quote the statement of context from Airways in full:
“After the swift capture of much of Iraq by Islamic State, the US began military actions at the invitation of the Iraqi government on August 8th 2014, focused mainly on airstrikes. It was later joined in its Iraq campaign by
- France (from September 19th);
- the UK (September 30th);
- Belgium (October 5th);
- the Netherlands (October 7th);
- Australia (October 8th);
- Denmark (October 16th);
- Canada (November 2nd) and
- Jordan (unspecified date.)
The US began Syrian operations against ISIL on September 23rd 2014, initially aided by
- Saudi Arabia;
- the United Arab Emirates;
- Bahrain and
These actions did not have the consent of the Assad government – and most other Western nations have not engaged militarily. US targets in Syria have also included a faction of the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, labelled the ‘Khorasan Group.’ On April 8th 2015, Canada also began airstrikes against ISIL in Syria, followed on August 26th by Turkey, by Australia on September 15th and by France on September 27th.
The coalition’s war against ISIL has inevitably caused civilian casualties, certainly far more than the six deaths Centcom presently admits to. Yet it’s also clear that in this same period, many more civilians have been killed by Syrian and Iraqi government forces, by so-called Islamic State and by various rebel and militia groups operating on both sides of the border.”
Further Historical Context
An eloquent, well researched, well produced and reasonably objective documentary on the history of the middle east throughout the 20th century has been put together by Adam Curtis. His Bitter Lake throughly explains the history of various political developments in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. At over 2 hours long this investigation documents the exportation of Wahhabism from Saudi Arabia right back to the 1920s and follows the story through to the present day. The trouble with this is that however in depth and historically accurate this documentary is, it is necessarily rather summary. The history of the geographical region that stretches from West Libya to East Afghanistan over the past century is not a history that can be condensed into 2 hours without omissions and summaries. If you haven’t seen this documentary you should probably reserve comment until you have. If you have seen this documentary however, you should probably be open to changing your mind if you are going to read more. It doesn’t, nay could not, tell you everything.
Any history of the Middle East in the 20th century that offers no detail of the Saddam Hussein regime, the Murkhabrat nor even the Iraq and Syrian Ba’ath parties must be considered incomplete. These are not simply details.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine was also touched on in the documentary, as was the changing political nature of Iran over the decades. However the rise of Hamas and Hezbollah were barely mentioned, again these are not minor players in the region.
This is not a review nor critique of Bitter Lake, quite the opposite, it gives an excellent grounding in the subject and even those well versed in this subject will likely learn something, I certainly did. However, please think of this as a foundation, a timeline, a framework on which to hang future knowledge and understanding.
If there is one point I would make about Bitter Lake and this is a point admitted in the beginning of the film. It is a story of the Middle East told through the prism of our intervention in Afghanistan. It necessarily expands into other areas to give a fuller picture but if we are to draw from this film the conclusion that air strikes in Syria are a mistake (a conclusions that seems implicit at the end of the film) then we have to ask how appropriate a comparison of the situation in Afghanistan is to Syria. This is a comparison the film draws without considerable examination and unfortunately the similarities fall down on a number of levels. Learning from the mistakes in Afghanistan is essential, but I wish the film had highlighted some of the key differences between the 2 conflicts before drawing its conclusion.
To arrive at a decision on intervention in Syria on statistics alone would be to avoid some very chilling truths, knowledge that many would prefer to never know. At present the statistics we have are only estimates, and perhaps they always will be, but we also have many stories told by the people living there.
Here is a report with a more qualitative analysis. Before forming a final opinion consider an essential, albeit uncomfortable, read. This UN report has many details, broken down some important subsections:
A. Killing and maiming of children
B. Recruitment and use of children
C. Sexual violence against children
D. Attacks on schools and hospitals and their protected personnel
E. Abduction of children
Do you consider yourself left wing? do you wish to take up that mantle of sitting on the left of the French national assembly? A believer in the enlightenment, and defender of freedom of the people? If you wish to post a hashtag on your Facebook profile to facilitate a clear conscience then by all means do it and carry on with your day. But if you want to attempt to truly act on behalf of the Syrian people then please read this report. Read about the number of dead civilians at the hands of ISIL. Read the individual stories.
“At least 1,297 children (685 girls, 612 boys) were abducted in 322 documented incidents.”
How you feel is a personal choice, please visit Airwars, look at the data for yourself and make your own mind up. Also before you decide please read about this particular group of activists, “Raqqa is being slaughtered silently” is a campaign operated by activists in Raqqa, they’re under constant threat from Bassad and ISIL forces and put their lives in great danger to report this information, do them the respect of reading their words.
If you just need to make a few comments denouncing war and claiming you’re a peaceful being, then go ahead and get on with your life with a clear conscience. Honestly it’s fine. But know this, unless you have faced all of the uncomfortable facts in this case, then arguing that civilian casualties will result from our bombs is a matter of discomfort for you, and alone does not justify a vote against air strikes. I’m afraid to say that inaction comes with its own civilian body count that may be much, much higher.
Lecture on Free Speech, Canada, November 2006
Christopher Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011)
Full video is here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyoOfRog1EM
Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!
Now, you’ve heard it. Not shouted in a crowded theatre admittedly as I realise I seem now to have shouted it in the Hogwarts dining room. But the point is made, everyone knows the fatuous verdict of the greatly overpraised Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who, asked for an actual example of when it would proper to limit speech or defy it as an action, gave that of shouting fire in a crowded theatre.
It’s very often forgotten, what he was doing in that case was sending to prison a group of Yiddish speaking socialists, whose literature was printed in a language most American’s couldn’t read, opposing president Wilson’s participation in the first world war and the dragging of the United States into this sanguinary conflict which the Yiddish speaking socialists had fled from Russia to escape (Schenck_v._United_States). In fact it could be just as plausibly argued that the Yiddish speaking socialists, who were jailed by the excellent and overpraised Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, were the real firefighters. Were the ones who were shouting fire when there really was fire in a very crowded theatre indeed, and who is to decide?
Well, keep that question ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, I hope I may say comrades and friends, afore your minds.
I exempt myself from the speaker’s kind offer of protection that was so generously proffered at the opening of this evening. Anyone who wants to say anything abusive about or to me is quite free to do so, and welcome in fact, at their own risk. But before they do that they must have taken, as I’m sure we all should, a short refresher course in the classic texts on this matter. Which are John Milton’s Areopagitica – Areopagitica being the great hill of Athens for discussion and free expression – Thomas Paine’s introduction to The Age of Reason and I would say John Stuart Mill‘s essay on liberty. In which it is variously said, I’ll be very daring and summarise all three of these great gentlemen of the great tradition of especially English liberty in one go; what they say is it’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear. And every time you silence somebody you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something. In other words your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases, as is the right of the other to voice his or her view.
Indeed as John Stuart Mill said, if all in society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person, it would be most important, in fact it would become even more important that that one heretic be heard because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view.
In more modern times this has been put, I think, best by a personal heroine of mine Rosa Luxembourg who said the freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently. My great friend John O’Sullivan, former editor of the National Review, and I think probably my most conservative and reactionary catholic friend once said (it’s a tiny thought experiment) he said if you hear the pope saying he believes in God you think well the pope’s doing his job again today, if you hear the pope saying he’s really begun to doubt the existence of God you begin to think he might be onto something.
Well, if everybody in North America is forced to attend, at school, training in sensitivity on holocaust awareness and is taught to study the final solution about which nothing was actually done by this country [Canada] or North America or the United Kingdom while it was going on. But let’s say as if in compensation for that everyone’s made to swallow and official and unalterable story of it now and it’s taught as the great moral exemplar, the moral equivalent of the morally lacking elements of the second world war, the way of stilling our uneasy conscience about that combat. If that’s the case with everybody, as it more or less is, and one person gets up and says, you know what, this holocaust I’m not sure it even happened, in fact I’m pretty certain it didn’t, indeed I begin to wonder if the only thing is that the Jews brought a little bit of violence on themselves. That person doesn’t just have a right to speak, that person’s right to speak must be given extra protection because what he has to say, must have taken him some effort to come up with. Might contain a grain of historical truth. Might in any case give people to think about why do they know what they already think they know. How do I know that I know this except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else?
It’s alway worth establishing first principles, It’s always worth saying what would you do if you met a flat Earth society member? Come to think of it how can I prove the Earth is round? Am I sure about the theory of evolution? I know it’s supposed to be true, here’s someone who says there’s no such thing it’s all intelligent design. How sure am I of my own views?
Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus and the feeling that whatever you think you’re bound to be OK because you’re in the safely moral majority.
One of the proudest moments of my life that’s to say, in the recent past, has been defending the British historian David Irving, who is now in prison in Austria for nothing more than the potential of uttering an unwelcome thought on Austrian soil. He didn’t actually say anything in Austria. He wasn’t even accused of saying anything. He was accused of perhaps planning to say something that violated an Austrian law that says only one version of the Second World War may be taught in our brave, little, Tyrolean republic. The republic that gave us Kurt Waldheim as secretary general of the United Nations, a man wanted in several countries for war crimes. The country that has Jörg Haider, the leader of it’s own fascist party, in the cabinet that sent David Irving to jail.
You know the two things that have made Austria famous, given it it’s reputation, by any chance, just while I’ve got you – I hope there are some Austrians here to be upset by it – well pity if not, but the two great achievements of Austria are to have convinced the world that Hitler was German and Beethoven was Viennese. Now to this proud record they can add, they have the courage finally to face their past and lock up a British historian who’s committed no crime except that of thought and writing. And that’s a scandal. And I can’t find a seconder usually when I propose this, but I don’t care, I don’t need a seconder. My own opinion is enough for me and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get in line and kiss my ass.
Now, I don’t know how many of you don’t feel you’re grown up enough to decide this for yourselves, and think you need to be protected from David Irving’s edition of the Goebbels diaries, for example, out of which I learned more about the Third Reich than I had from studying Hugh Trevor-Roper and A J P Taylor combined when I was at Oxford. But for those of you that do I’d recommend another short course of revision, go again and see not just the film and the play but read the texts of Robert Bolt‘s wonderful play Man For All Seasons, some of you must have seen it. Where Sir Thomas More decides that he would rather die than lie or betray his faith, and at one moment More is arguing with a particularly vicious, witch-hunting prosecutor, a servant of the king and a hungry and ambitious man. And More says to this man, you’d break the law to punish the devil wouldn’t you? And the prosecutor, the witch-hunter, says, break it? I’d cut down every law in England if I could do that, if I could capture him.
And More says, yes you would wouldn’t you and then when you corner the devil and the devil turned round to meet you where would you run for protection? All the laws of England having being cut down and flattened, who would protect you then?
Bear in mind ladies and gentlemen that every time you violate or propose to violate the free speech of someone else you in potentia, you’re making a rod for your own back. Because the other question raised by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is simply this, who’s going to decide? To whom do you award the right to decide which speech is harmful or who is the harmful speaker? Or to determine in advance what are the harmful consequences going to be that we know enough about in advance to prevent? To whom would you give this job? To whom are you going to award the task of being the censor?
Isn’t it a famous old story that the man who has to read all the pornography in order to decide what’s fit to be passed and what is fit not to be is the man most likely to become debauched?
Did you hear any speaker of the opposition to this motion, eloquent as one of them was, … to whom you would delegate the task of deciding for you what you could read? To whom you would give the job of deciding for you, relieve you of the responsibility of hearing what you might have to hear? Do you know anyone, hands up, do you know anyone to whom you’d give this job? Does anyone have a nominee? You mean there’s no one in Canada good enough to decide what I can read or hear? I had no idea? But there’s a law that says there must be such a person, or there’s a sub-section of some piddling law that says it. Well the hell with that law then. It’s inviting you to be liars and hypocrites and to deny what you evidently know already.
About the censorious instinct we basically know all that we need to know and we’ve known it for a long time. It comes from an old story about another great Englishman, sorry to sound so particular about that this evening, Dr Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer, author of the first, compiler I should say, of the first great dictionary of the English language. When it was complete Dr Johnson was waited upon by various delegations of people to congratulate him, of the nobility of equality, of the commons, of the lords and also by a delegation of respectable ladies of London who tended on him in his Fleet Street lodgings and congratulated him. Dr Johnson, they said, we are delighted to find that you have not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary; ladies said I congratulate you on being able to look them up.
Anyone that can understand that joke, and I’m pleased to see that about ten percent of you can, gets the point about censorship especially prior restraint as it’s known in the United States where it’s banned by the first amendment to the constitution. It may not be determined in advance what words are apt or inapt, no one has the knowledge to make that call and more to the point one has to suspect the motives of those who do so. In particular the motives of those who are determined to be offended, of those who will go through a treasure house of English like Dr Johnson’s first lexicon in search of filthy words to satisfy themselves and some instinct about which I dare not speculate.
Now, I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion, and organised religion. Absolutely convinced of it. I’m glad that you applaud because it’s a very great problem for those that oppose this motion, isn’t it? How are they going to ban religion? How are they going to stop the expression of religious loathing, hatred and bigotry? I speak as someone who’s a fairly regular target of this and not just in rhetorical form. I’ve been the target of many death threats. I know within a short distance of where I’m currently living in Washington, I can name two or three people who’s names you’d probably know, who can’t go anywhere now without a security detail because of the criticisms they’ve made of one monotheism in particular. This is in the capital city of the United States.
So I know what I’m talking about. And I also have to notice that the sort of people who ring me up and say they know where my children go to school, and they certainly know my home number and where I live, and what they’re going to do to them and to my wife and to me, and who I have to take seriously because they’ve done it to people I know. Are just the people who are going to seek the protection of the hate speech law if I say what I think about their religion, which I’m now going to do.
Because I don’t have any, what you might call, ethnic bias, I’ve no grudge of that sort. I’ll get along with pretty much anyone of any, as it were, origin or sexual orientation or language group, except people from Yorkshire of course – who are completely untakeable. And I’m beginning to resent the confusion that’s being imposed on us now, and there was some of it this evening, between religious belief, blasphemy, ethnicity, profanity and what one might call multi-cultural etiquette. It’s quite common now for people to use the expression, for example, anti-islamic racism as if an attack on a religion was an attack on an ethnic group. The word Islamophobia in fact is beginning to acquire the opprobrium that was once reserved for racial prejudice. This is a subtle and very nasty insinuation that needs to be met head on.
Who said what if Orwell says he hates fags. What if people act upon that? The Bible says you have to hate fags, if Orwell says he’s saying it because the Bible says so, he’s right. Yes it might make people go out and use violence, what are you going to do about that? You’re up against a group of people who will say, don’t you put your hands on our Bible or we’ll call the hate speech police. Now what are you going to do when you’ve dug that trap for yourself? Somebody said that anti-semitism in Kristallnacht in Germany was the result of ten years of Jew baiting. Ten years? You must be joking. It’s the result of two thousand years of Christianity, based on one verse of one chapter of Saint John’s gospel which led to a pogrom after every Easter sermon every year for hundreds of years because it claims that the Jews demanded that the blood of Christ be on themselves and all their children to the remotest generation. That’s the warrant and license for and incitement to anti-Jewish pogroms. What are you going to do about that? Where’s your piddling subsection now? Does it say Saint John’s gospel must be censored? Do I, who have read Freud, and know what the future of an illusion really is and know that religious belief is ineradicable as long as we remain a stupid, poorly evolved mammalian species, think that some Canadian law is going to solve this problem? Please.
No, our problem is this. Our pre-frontal lobes are too small and our adrenaline glands are too big and our thumb-finger opposition isn’t all that it might be and we’re afraid of the dark and we’re afraid to die and we believe in the truths of holy books that are so stupid and so fabricated that a child can, and all children do as you can tell by their questions, actually see through them. And I think it should be, religion, treated with ridicule and hatred and contempt, and I claim that right.
Now let’s not dance around, not all monotheism’s are exactly the same at the moment. They’re all based on the same illusion, they’re all plagiarisms of each other but there’s one in particular that, at the moment, is posing a serious menace not just to freedom of speech and freedom of expression but to quite a lot of other freedoms too. And this is the religion that exhibits the horrible trio of self-hatred, self-righteousness and self-pity – I’m talking about militant Islam.
Globally, it’s a gigantic power, it controls and enormous amount of oil wealth, several large countries and states, with an enormous fortune it’s pumping the ideology of Wahhabism and Salafism around the world, poisoning societies where it goes, ruining the minds of children, stultifying the young in its madrasses, training people in violence, making a cult of death and suicide and murder. That’s what it does globally, it’s quite strong.
In our societies it poses as a cringing minority whose faith you might offend which deserves all the protection that a small and vulnerable group might need.
Now, it makes quite large claims for itself, doesn’t it? It says it’s the final revelation. It says that God spoke to one illiterate businessman in the Arabian peninsula three times through an Arc-Angel and that the resulting material, which as you can see when you read it is largely plagiarised from the old and the new testament, almost all of it actually plagiarised, ineptly, from the old and new testament, is to be accepted as a divine revelation and as the final and unalterable one and those who do not accept this revelation are fit to be treated as cattle, infidels, potential chattel, slaves and victims.
Well, I’ll tell you what, I don’t think Mohammed ever heard those voices. I don’t believe it. The likelihood that I’m right as opposed to the likelihood that a shepherd, a businessman, who couldn’t read had bits of the old and new testament re-dictated to him by an arc-angel, I think puts me much more near the position of being objectively correct.
But who’s the one under threat. The person who promulgates this and says I’d better listen because if I don’t I’m in danger, or me, who says, no I think this is so silly you can even publish a cartoon about it? And up go the placards, and up go the yells and the howls and the screams. Behead those. This is in London, this is in Toronto, this is in New York. It’s right in our midst now. Behead those, behead those who cartoon Islam. Do they get arrested for hate speech? No. Might I get in trouble for saying what I’ve just said about the prophet Mohammed? Yes I might.
Where are your priorities ladies and gentlemen?
You’re giving away what is most precious in your society and you’re giving it away without a fight and you’re even praising the people who want to deny you the right to resist it. Shame on you while you do this. Make the best use of the time you’ve got left. This is really serious.
Now, if you look anywhere you like. Because we’ve had invocations of a rather driveling and sickly kind tonight of our sympathy; what about the poor fags, what about the poor Jews, the wretched women who can’t take the abuse and the slaves and their descendants and the tribes who didn’t make it and were told that their land was forfeit. Look anywhere you like for the warrant for slavery, for the subjection of women as chattel, for the burning and flogging of homosexuals, for ethnic cleansing, for anti-semitisim, for all of this you look no further than a famous book that’s on every pulpit in this city and in every synagogue and in every mosque. And then just see whether you can square the fact that the force that is the main source of hatred is also the main caller for censorship.
And when you’ve realised that you’re therefore this evening faced with a gigantic false antithesis I hope that still won’t stop you from giving the motion before you the resounding endorsement that it deserves.
I’ve been trying to understand the ideas put forward by someone I recently had an online chat with. Without wanting to paraphrase too much, the concepts that were presented are often referred to as quantum consciousness or the quantum mind. I don’t want to definitively align the original arguments precisely with these theories but that seems to be the idea that most closely resembles what was put to me.
I wanted to reply in the original Facebook thread but after several hours of writing and revising what I thought I knew about the subject I had over 2500 words written and that sort of response does not go across too well on such fast paced social media, especially several weeks after the original discussion; also this is an area that required a lot more than a cursory glance. So here hopefully, is a more considered response.
First, let me recap my understanding of the hypothesis, then at least any mistaken assumptions I may be making can be revised and corrected in the future. A key tenet of this theory is that consciousness cannot be explained by classical mechanics; this proposition, while I don’t fully accept its truth, is something I can relate to fully. The idea that consciousness miraculously emerges out of pure biological mechanisms seems literally unbelievable, it seems deeply unintuitive, and when analysed further is very troubling to many in arguments concerning sentience, free will and the concept of self. I will come back to this later for further discussion – for now let’s just say I totally understand why we humans have a problem believing our consciousness is purely material or deterministic.
The second proposition is that quantum theory in the past century has blown holes in all of our previous understandings of classical physics and certainly our own intuition. We know full well that quantum theory is not compatible with general relativity – this has led many to search for a deeper ‘unified theory of everything’ – so far that search is in vain and most physicists would probably say we’re not even close! More remarkable than anything though are the discoveries of quantum theory; things like superposition, quantum entanglement, the uncertainty principle present conclusions that are as alien to us humans as any sci-fi movie. Quantum physics makes little sense, it’s counter-intuitive, it goes against all other known physics and yet it’s ability to make astoundingly precise and repeatable predictions is not in any doubt. The universe is truly queerer than we supposed.
The Quantum Mind
While no one is in doubt that quantum theory is a real thing, its connection to consciousness is somewhat more dubious. Firstly I’d like to address quantum superposition. The premise of this is that a quantum system (a sub-atomic particle such as a photon) can be in more than 1 position at any given time so long as it remains unobserved. It can be spinning in 2 different directions and can even take many different paths from one location to another. Most physicists agree that this is true but simply imagining what this means is why quantum theory is so alien. Think about it again: a sub-atomic particle seems able to take more than one path from point A to point B – then when it arrives at point B it is observed, and subsequently ‘collapses’ into one single path, one single history. Yet, and this is the crucial part, its position of detection at point B is a position it couldn’t possibly have ended up at were it to have only had a single history. The strange thing is that the histories interact with each other in what appears to be a waveform, and they interact in a way that seems to correlate very closely with both probability and wave theory in classical physics – “If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet” – Neils Bohr. To many this sounds like science fiction but it has in fact been an established scientific theory for nearly a century now and has a great deal of empirical evidence supporting it.
The problem comes in the next step. This critical next step, which goes as follows – if the sub-atomic particle is unobserved then it doesn’t exist in any state, therefore we can’t say with certainty that reality exists outside our own observations. Quantum theory seems to be suggesting that it is the very act of observing that brings reality into it’s collapsed state, without that conscious observation reality doesn’t necessarily exist.
Now, this is the point at which the majority of physicists diverge away from a very small minority who concur with this viewpoint. The main argument here, that is often only implicitly stated, is that the observer has to be conscious in order for the superposition collapse to take place. There are 2 sides to this argument
- How can we ever possibly disprove this? In order to do this there would have to be a history that at some point led to conscious observation, how can we disprove that the collapse took place at that moment and at some unconscious observation instead?
- How can we possibly prove this? What experiment can be devised such that the unconscious observer can be shown to have a different effect to the conscious observer? At some point both tests must come into contact with a consciousness to be known by them.
I’m not a quantum physicist, it’s just an interest, so I couldn’t possibly devise the experiment. But it seems that to assume that consciousness was necessary in these experiments is to say that, not observation, but consciousness itself is required for reality to exist. This would be deeply profound and would be an incredible discovery. However, I would posit that something as extraordinary as this would require evidence of the highest calibre; we believe the remarkableness of quantum mechanics not because it’s theoretically interesting but because it has vast amounts of empirical evidence and makes incredibly precise, repeatable predictions. To postulate a theory of reality dependent on consciousness would require a similar amount of evidence in support.
An alternative and widely held viewpoint, however, is that a superposition state will collapse when subject to any detection, unconscious or otherwise. It could be argued that this viewpoint might have a similar lack of evidence, but it does goes a long way to explaining why quantum effects are so very rarely observed by conscious observers on ‘macro-sized’ systems in the ‘macro’ world (it’s not impossible, just incredibly rare). All a sub-atomic particle needs to do is interact with some other particle or molecule or larger object and it will then collapse. It provides some explanation as to why macro-sized objects don’t behave in the way quantum systems do – and why the macro-world is so very consistent in this regard.
But… What’s Consciousness?
… and it is a big but. This does leave us with the problem of what consciousness is and where it comes from.
Well, luckily I’m a little more knowledgeable about this subject and I’m very much aware of the advances in neuroscience that have gone some way to trying to answer this, one of the deepest of questions that there is.
Firstly let’s consider a few facts about consciousness that science certainly does have a view on and that most people are blissfully unaware of, starting with the most deeply profound of all. There’s very little evidence that the decisions you make are being made by your consciousness; by your brain yes, but not by what most would call their conscious self.
Benjamin Libet’s work from the 1980’s (I have no idea why this isn’t taught in schools) is a cornerstone in this area of study and well worth reading in some depth. Without going into too much detail here, the main conclusion is that most people are made aware of their decisions by their brain but their consciousness doesn’t actually make those decisions. Most of the decisions you make (including the next thing you type, the next thing you eat or whether you read to the end of this blog post) belong to processes in neural networks deep in your brain. They are made several seconds before you’re aware of them. The various motor neural centres of the brain for controlling movement of the arms, legs, mouth etc. are triggered, calling on stored motor routines (standing up, walking, opening the fridge). These processes can take several seconds to prepare and fire off the action. The subjects of Dr Libet’s experiments report consciously making a decision to move after those seconds have elapsed and the motor neuron began to fire (incidentally in future experiments in fMRI machines we also see activity in the higher brain especially around frontal lobe at this point – typically this activates when the subject reports making a conscious decision).
As a small thought experiment: Imagine the situation was different, imagine your conscious mind did make a decision to stand up. You would have to wait a second or two for your brain to fire the correct neural centres and for your body to respond – it would be like playing a laggy video game.
We see this phenomenon of neural processing making our decisions all the time. Let’s take 2 driving examples. These examples assume you’re a seasoned driver with responses already stored in the motor centres in your brain.
- A child (or cat or whatever) runs out in front of your car while you’re driving and you immediately slam on the brakes and stop the car. Anyone who has been in this situation will likely have congratulated themselves on stopping the car before they even knew what was going on. And yes, given that you are your brain and not just the conscious part of it you should be commended, well done! This is an example of the brain detecting an emergency situation and responding by triggering pre-stored motor reflexes (as long as you’re an experienced driver). The system in your brain that would normally let the consciousness know what’s happening and supply it with a feeling of volition is overridden; volition it’s not part of the emergency procedure, it’s not an essential. The consciousness is largely superfluous in this scenario and gets cut out of the process until later.
- Again while driving, perhaps on the route to work, some route you’ve driven a thousand times (or perhaps riding a bike or even walking), your conscious mind wanders to thinking about all sorts of other things – and leaves the driving to your subconscious. We’ve all done it, and sometimes the hippocampus doesn’t even find the experience significant enough to record the memory. We end up getting to work without remembering the much of the journey. When this happens your subconscious mind (or unconscious mind depending on the school of definitions you prefer) drove you to work and left you none-the-wiser about the experience.
These 2 scenarios have a lot to do with the brain’s ability to step in during emergency scenarios (an evolutionary survival trait, since taking those vital few seconds to engage the consciousness might mean you end up as something’s lunch), and also to allow us to conduct mundane tasks without boredom setting in (our consciousness is allowed to observe streams of thought about all sorts of other things while the rest of the brain gets on with driving the car).
But what about when we feel that we are actually making a considered and conscious decision? Well it seems this isn’t all it’s thought to be either, even though it certainly feels as if we’re making the decision to have 7up instead of Pepsi numerous experiments have provided huge amounts of empirical evidence for our consciousness’ lack of decision making. Using EEG and fMRI machines among others it can be shown that many of our decisions are made between 2 and 8 seconds before we’re consciously aware of them.
Let’s imagine that right now you are wired to an EEG machine that can detect small fluctuations in your brain patterns. Then you are asked to simply put your right hand flat on the table and lift your index finger at random intervals over the next 60 seconds, all the time the EEG is sending live information about your brain wave patterns to a computer screen. It would probably take a few passes of the experiment to get a base reading of what your brain looks like just before a ‘finger raise’ but in a relatively short time, the computer would be able to report that you were about to raise your finger a second before you did it. No matter how hard you focus, concentrate and try to catch the computer out, it would see the neural networks in your motor centres firing before your finger lifted up. You would remain convinced of your own volition, subjectively observing the decision as if you’d just made it. But you haven’t, it was made elsewhere in your brain a second before.
It would seem that in day-to-day life consciousness really doesn’t do that much except be convinced that it does a lot.
There is one final and important point to make about consciousness and that is its consistent degradation with physical injury or damage to the brain. It seems that as the brain is affected physically, by disease, by trauma, by chemical compounds (drugs) then relevant brain operations are also affected accordingly; our motor reflexes, our ability to sense, our ability to balance among many other functions, and of course, our consciousness. They all degrade and are similarly affected by the physical brain as much as each other, consciousness it seems is affected by the physical as if it were dependent on it – not the other way around.
Based on current evidence there are few conclusions we can draw that would make us comfortable or that seem intuitive, nevertheless the evidence suggests that we are a product of our entire brains and that consciousness is merely a part of that. I’m afraid that neuroscience, philosophy and psychology have knocked consciousness down from the glorious centre of our beings to the processing in a neural network. But there is hope, and this comes from biological evolution.
While science debunks our cherished ideas of consciousness being some ethereal spiritual entity and reduces it to the product of a deterministic system, evolution simultaneously posits ideas as to what it might be for. Consciousness is a result of thousands of years of natural selection. I’ve heard it argued that subjective consciousness could just be a by-product of a neural network as complex as our brain. It’s possible but personally I don’t go for that, it is far too involved in the brain’s processing patterns to be a mere by-product. I would suggest it has some evolutionary advantage. As far as I can see there are 2 broad ways in which it can be useful
- It actually does make some decisions – I hope I haven’t ruled this out completely, I just haven’t found any convincing empirical data for it yet
- It is involved as part of an intricate feedback loop for the brain to handle very complex decisions that require the processing of multiple sources of information (i.e. it acts as a ‘desktop’ where summaries of information can be brought together) visual and auditory input can be analysed, drawing on memories, applying pattern matching, reasoning and logic. Maybe it’s a way of the brain being able to analyse large amounts of complex information over time (a few seconds, hours, days, weeks). The eventual actions that result from this analysis will still be generated in the motor centres at the end of the analysis, but unlike the child in the road, the situation is recognised as complex and nuanced and requiring the processing of a large amount of information before reaching a conclusion and reacting
This would have many evolutionary advantages
- being able to outwit predators, building walls, weapons and other defences
- being able to outwit prey by devising traps and ambushes
- being able to develop empathy – which would in turn enable a community or team effort
- devising better and more elaborate tools for getting food and avoiding adverse weather conditions
Thinking about it there are dozens of evolutionary advantages a conscious being would have over a non-conscious opponent, such that a non-conscious rival race could very easily succumb to the process of natural selection. The genetics required for a conscious part of the human brain are prolific maybe because they enable the brain, the individual and perhaps even the group or species to adapt to complex situations in a world where being able to adapt is a survival advantage.
There is an important argument regarding free will (which has no bearing on the truth or falsity of this view of consciousness). Put crudely the argument could be stated as: since I’m not in control of my decisions then why not just quit my job and sit in bed eating chocolate every day. My conscious mind isn’t responsible, I’m not accountable. For this I have 2 immediate responses, I’m sure there are more eloquent way of verbalising these positions
- Taking no responsibility is still making a decision – your brain is making the decision based on input it has interpreted and comprehended (i.e. this post) – your brain is still responsible – it is you
- Go ahead. Do it. Quit your job, sit in bed, eat chocolate. Hell, have some ice cream too. I’ll bet you won’t make it past 24 hours of sitting in bed before your brain will make the decision to get up and go out and do something else.
Free will is not ‘random behaviour’ (something we know we are almost entirely incapable of) but it is the freedom to make decisions based on current experience, current knowledge, stored memories, imagined predicted future consequences and to some extent genetics. It is the freedom for your brain to draw the conclusions it does without external entities (people, governments) explicitly making the decision for you.
I can provide a great deal of further reading on this, for now though here are 2 great books on the subject
“Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again” – Andy Clark [0262032406, 9780262032407] – An excellent introduction to the subject of the brain and body as immersive systems in the world, how the seemingly well-defined lines between brain, body and world are really not so rigid at all and we don’t just take part in the world, we’re immersed in it
“Being and Perceiving” – Dan Haycock [0956962106, 978-0956962102] – A very thorough compendium of this very subject, providing detailed accounts of all the major brain areas and functions, how these relate to all sort of phenomenon such as mental disorders, nervous breakdowns, brain damage, religious experiences, hallucinogens and then onto community, culture, civilisation and a whole chapter analysing various different forms that religion takes throughout history and around the world, though it is nearly 700 pages (138 of which are just references and bibliography) so I’ll understand if you don’t have the time for something quite this big.
http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/documents/fnint-06-0009321.pdf – Stuart Hameroff’s research paper on the effects of microtubules on the conscious mind is a technical document that goes into much more depth than I have here. Very interesting but you may need to do some introductory reading before attempting to understand the more complex parts. It makes a strong case that the effects of quantum physics on some could have some impact on the firing of neurons. However, it is not a research paper on the necessity of consciousness for reality to exist, though this subject is mentioned on page 10, “Despite the absurdity, limitations on quantum superposition remain unknown.”
Coming To Terms With It?
Don’t worry, you won’t have to.
You will not spend tomorrow connected to an EEG machine, instead you will spend it in exactly the same state as you did today. You will believe fully that you are making the decisions you think you are; convinced, without doubt, of your own volition. It’s fine. Don’t worry about it for another second. You will continue as normal because that’s what your brain does.
“Of course I have free will, I have no other choice”
And most importantly, whatever the science says about the most complex machine in the world that’s sitting inside your skull at the moment, it still does not take away from your subjective experience. We know very well that red is a frequency in the electromagnetic spectrum, we can visualise in real time the neural pathways that fire when you see that colour, but your experience is different, it’s subjective and it’s yours. Keats accused Newton of destroying the poetry of the rainbow, Keats was wrong. Knowing the details of how the rainbow comes to be, knowing how DNA molecules replicate, knowing the details of the stars in the night sky, knowing your brain has billions of neurons with trillions of synaptic connections; these details don’t destroy poetry they establish a profundity never imagined by our ancestors. They allow us a level of awe hitherto unattainable, enjoy it.
A day like this; mid-March, a light breeze, discussions of weekend barbecues, and we daring to suggest to ourselves that the onset of Summer has begun.
It was just this sort of day that I arrived with anticipation to collect someone who I envisioned to be staunch and hard-nosed. A trained legal professional, an ex-politician who resigned for political reasons, an activist with a reputation among activists of being a force not to be underestimated. In preparations I had read stories about connections with the EDL, accusations of racism and aggressive demonisation by minorities and majorities alike. Was this propaganda? Was it all true? For a fleeting moment it crossed my mind that this was the first time I’d been a chauffeur to a high-profile political activist who had received legitimate death threats. Whatever the case, the evidence suggested that the night would at the very least be lively.
And it was.
The discussion included several topics, opening auto-biographically with some talk about the work of the NSS was a nice introduction but things were only getting started. The topic of multiculturalism rapidly ballooned as the subject of Secularism and Citizenship got under way. It was argued with both passion and verbal elegance that multiculturalism is not only having a negative impact but the resulting moral and cultural relativism is positively dangerous to civil liberties. While the subjects of disestablishment and the power (or lack thereof) of the Vatican were covered most members of the audience remained in agreement. When the multicultural argument came to the subject of Islam however, the stakes were raised and the debate caught alight – as a debate should.
A critical point argued virulently by both sides was the idea of interfering in other people’s lives, in other people’s affairs and even in the running of other people’s countries. Opposing this sort of intervention is not a difficult task and on the surface it may sound like a good argument to the uninitiated. Put simply, if a Muslim wishes to follow the holy scripture that he so faithfully believes then who the hell are you to tell him he can’t? You don’t have to respect a religious person’s beliefs but you can’t start telling people what they can and can’t do.
To most reasonable people, the idea of telling another that they can’t pray at a certain time or they can’t eat a certain food or wear certain clothes seems preposterous and almost fascistic. And while one may initially assume that this was the speaker’s proposal, one would not be forgiven for maintaining this view for very long. It misses the point.
The speaker eloquently brought to the fore that in fact I, you, we all, have a right to interfere in other people’s lives and cultures when those things lead to the harm of another human being. When a belief leads a man to beat his wife or when a culture finds it acceptable to cut the genitals of young girls then the time for respecting that belief or culture is at an end. The very idea of relativising such acts is to most people, when read on paper, presumably abhorrent. The actions of the Vatican have not gone unnoticed, the public voice to bring to justice the Catholic priests who raped (and rape) young children is a very vocal one. People are not afraid to offend the Catholic church, it was argued; but people are afraid to offend Islam, and this fear coupled with the ruse of political correctness and multiculturalism has stopped people saying about Islam what they would easily and publicly say about Catholicism.
It is worth noting that the distinction was clearly and carefully made several times between Islam and Muslims. There is a very obvious argument that many millions of Muslims are peace-loving and go about their daily lives without causing any harm to anyone. They care deeply for their children and don’t beat their wives. However, the speaker argues, these Muslims have chosen not to follow the Qur’an and Hadith literally, some have in fact chosen to completely ignore entire sections, and some even ignore the entire Hadith. It was too admitted that the Qur’an includes beautiful and moving verses. But this very point highlights the difference between Muslim’s and Islam. A Muslim can be a person of deep peace and spirituality, can be a campaigner for equality and free speech or can be a jihadist and can hold views supporting the advancement of Sharia. The speaker has argued on many occasions, not least at the notorious Oxford debate, that the Qur’an and Hadith taken literally are unambiguous, the commandments are written clearly and without room for interpretation. Individuals and communities of Muslims may choose not to follow these parts of the texts but according to scripture they are still a part of Islam.
Incidentally, at the end of the evening all members were invited to not believe a word that was spoken and go do the research themselves – a worthy message and with so much to think about I hope many do.
But. But. But. What about interfering in the policies of other countries, how can this possibly be justified. Isn’t this colonialism? Surely this is just wrong? There have been enough examples of ‘the West’ marching into countries as they see fit and imposing their law. Again, to the uninitiated ear this may seem like a tough argument to oppose. However, it just takes a simple moment of dialectical thought to resolve. To hypothetically respond by leaving ‘those countries’ to figure it out themselves, without too much effort one could very easily imagine the continued subjugation of women, the marrying of young girls, the stonings, the beheadings, the killing of people for atheism, apostasy, homosexuality. Hoping my paraphrasing won’t do the speaker an injustice I think the poignant response was expressed so simply, “What is to happen to these people while their countries slowly come to the conclusion that torture, rape and death are wrong”? And in a more challenging tone, “How many children have to suffer before people will act on this”?
It’s a shame the event only lasted two hours, barely enough time to get started. I desperately wanted to add that in fact international law does cover the protection of human rights and this prevents governments from simply doing what they want to their people without consequences from the international community, something that many that argue for this moral relativism seem to ignore. Pragmatically however a country breaking international law isn’t quite as straightforward as calling the police to a domestic disturbance, there are usually many political angles to be considered. However, it does stand that if human rights contraventions are taking place in a country then having the international community intervene is a valid action from a legal standpoint. I would add an obligation from a moral one too.
To put forward that there are objective truths, things that are really real and some of those truths are moral ones is quite an argument to make, and yet this pertains to a subject about which so few people are in any doubt. It is not easy to find a left-wing liberal that agrees with stoning a woman for adultery. And yet the tired moral (and legal) relativism is often wheeled out by asking what makes the law of England more applicable than the law of Sharia. Why choose one over the other? It is terribly unfair not to give them equal respect.
And the speaker’s retort was, as expected, pointed and direct. Sharia condones the demotion of women to property, the marrying of a girl at the age of nine, the right of a man to beat his wife, the right of a man to keep the children after divorce, the execution of homosexuals. And without any ambiguity it was made clear that these subjects are not morally relative, these represent people who suffer pain, fear, torture and death at the hands of this oppressive legal system, to argue that this deserves equal time and respect is a mistake to say the very least.
I would argue however, that the speaker perhaps gave too much on this point. The argument that an oppressive, malevolent totalitarian system is wrong due to it’s negative rules, for me has already missed the first step. Oppressive or benevolent, tortuous or loving, it is still a totalitarian system. I’m always sorry when I don’t get the chance to quote Thomas Jefferson at an occasion such as this, but I can hopefully make up for that now
“If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”
This doesn’t mean that we should only obey the laws we agree with, but more that an objective legal system may not always correlate with justice. Disobeying an unjust law does not involve merely flouting it as an individual but demolishing it as a community. To oppose and repudiate laws and change the legal system as a society’s ideas of freedom and justice become more refined is what Jefferson was alluding to. It was a revolutionary idea at the time.
You want to know which legal system should be given more respect than the other? Begin by disagreeing with that system and attempt to change its laws in the name of justice. Picket and protest it. If you are told that the rules are fixed and will never change, benevolent or otherwise – this is not a gift it is a curse. In the case of Sharia, not only are you told the laws will not change but you risk your life by proposing that they should.
In conclusion and in the name of correcting misconceptions, Anne Marie Waters was nothing like her stereotype portrayed. The power-dressing all out aggressor I’d been led to believe I was meeting was all but absent. In her place was an unassuming, polite, well-educated and eloquent young woman. Driven by an obvious passion for human rights, equality and justice, she had the mind to formulate ideas and spoke with clarity and wit.
Her speed of response to questions complemented well her emotional involvement in the subject. Far from being a demonic racist of some religion-hating feminist agenda, she was charming, knowledgeable and an attentive conversationalist. Sure, she would not back down from probably the most serious issues we as a global society face today, and why should she? She fought her stance with honesty, virulence and a forthright dignity as a compassionate and emphatic ally of those living and suffering under barbaric rule across the world. I distinctly recall a number of members asking what they could do to help the cause as well as people wishing her well and to “keep up the good work”. I got the impression that she was used to being spoken to aggressively, hated and even threatened and while there were many disagreements throughout the evening, I do hope Anne Marie takes with her the compliments too.
Sometimes a journey of discovery is a choice, a feeling that the time for change has come; other times it is an experience we never aimed for nor knew we’d embarked on. The difference between the preconception of the idea and the contemplation of it in hindsight can be drastic. The arduous tasks of backpacking around Thailand or living for 6 months in Prague may seem like a dream to many, the expanding of minds, the experience of being immersed in a new culture with a different language and unfamiliar history.
This is all fascinating, spiritual and beautiful, but what of the guy that moved to Prague for a few months and was kidnapped; bailed into the back of a car at gun point and taken. With, still now, no knowledge of why his abduction took place, at the time he was alone in a foreign culture and genuinely not knowing whether he’d live to see tomorrow’s sunrise or experience the 90p beer in that quaint historic bar at the end of his street. It seems that the will to depart our comfort zones can lead us to remarkable and breath-taking places but can just as well leave us in a circumstance of danger and confusion. Nevertheless leaving our homely world of comforts, whether an adventure of blinding brightness or to walk an intrepid and lonely darkened path, we’re led to either death or to learn (unless of course we spent the whole experience bored, then it’s likely neither will have occurred).
My own journey of late has been trying. To this point my various adventures have been light and welcoming; marred only by hangovers, misspent finance and a noticeable weight gain, but not this last one. Some journeys don’t reveal an enlightenment but test us by darkening the shadows. My point however, is not in the detail of the story but in the weight of its shadow. Until I had walked many miles along my own winding, confusing, unguided and often misleading path, until I had spent evening after evening in the darkest recesses of blind alleyways and dead ends I could never have been sure that my preconceived ideals would really stand the test of pragmatic torment. Would that buoyant affirmation of youth be extinguished after spending time among feelings of solipsistic isolation?
It’s always been mysterious to me how being aware of your own frailty apparently makes you stronger. My impression so far is that this is untrue and the old saying about what doesn’t kill you etc., is mostly false. It helps you defend against your now known weakness, it forces you to stop thinking you’re invincible and take precautions, but doesn’t actually make you stronger, just more tactically proficient. So, I’m not back stronger and fitter and ready and willing; I’m back for sure, but more aware, less confident and perhaps less fearful, in an apocalyptic rather than courageous way. A feeling of necessity is the driving force, though it is not a feeling of hope nor the sharing of wisdom and is at best the need to fight.
A very real tale of the test of one’s principles became prominent this week. A test of one of the two most important ideals – the necessity of freedom of expression.
This tale comprises of two parts, the first is the story of Maajid Nawaz, who has a petition asking the Liberal Democrat party to suspend him from his duties because of his liberal views on Islamic cartoons. The charge is that he tweeted a rather mundane and largely unfunny cartoon portraying Jesus and Mohammed having a conversation less amusing than a Dilbert comic strip.
There is a counter-petition asking the same political party to fully support Maajid and not encroach on his freedom of speech. (I’ve signed the latter). The case for not punishing Maajid is that he has broken no law and has merely exercised his right to speak freely and express his opinion, an opinion that many people (19,000+ at time of writing) have said is offensive to them. If his opinion is deemed to break some internal code for the Liberal Democrats then let them deal with it in-house, and if they allow him to run for election the let his constituent voters decide what they think of him. But the idea of getting thousands of people from across (and from outside) the country to effectively bully a political party into dismissing a political candidate based on perceived offence is uncomfortable at best, an insult to democracy and free expression at worst.
However, within the same week we are faced with another case of a politician offending a large and vocal minority and another petition asking for him to be removed. Now I’m in an unfamiliar quandary where I probably would have signed the petition against David Silvester just last week, but this surely goes against my position on Maajid on allowing a politician to exercise their freedom of speech. If I am to sign the petition to remove David Silvester must I also follow that same principle and sign the petition to remove Maajid Nawaz? I would argue yes, necessarily so, the two petitions are significantly similar. Sign both or neither otherwise accept your doublethink.
All Silvester was doing was exercising his right to freedom of speech, the majority of people will find his comments utterly absurd not to say disgraceful. But if we start firing and suspending politicians for expressing their views where does that end?
To any reader it is clear that David Silvester has remained well within the confines of the law and has simply and clearly exercised his right to freedom of speech. From what I know of David thus far he seems like a vulgar bigot, ignorant in the most basic of principles of reason and a cretinous excuse for a politician. Nevertheless, if I were to call for his removal because he has offended me or because I think he’s offended someone else I would be setting the precedent about which Thomas Paine so eloquently speaks.
There are details of the cases that differ for sure; one is an insult to a person’s innate disposition while the other to a choice of belief; one subject is an elected official the other has yet to win an electoral campaign. I’ve tried to square these as justifications for taking action in one case and not the other but I just can’t see them as relevant details. This is not an argument of semantics or technicalities, it is about the fundamental premise of protecting free speech even when it offends your own beliefs (in fact especially in that case).
As for the political nature of either case, I’ll leave it to the relevant constituents to decide who represents them and to the political parties who they think are the best candidates for a particular area. Should Mark Lancaster or Ian Stewart enter the national sphere based on their opinions I’ll support or oppose them based on whether they represent my view and may even call for their resignation, but I’ll do this as a constituent and wouldn’t want the national collective to weigh in on the localised democracy to which I belong.
Neither David nor Maajid has tried to incite violence or attempted to start riots in the streets. Just as neither has prevented another person from doing something based on their beliefs, gender or sexuality. The true test of freedom of speech is not when it’s used to justify your own opinions but when it’s extended in direct opposition to them.
Persecution For Expression
This reminds me of two separate cases of well known authors; Salman Rushdie and David Irving (perhaps one author is more well known than the other). Both authors have been persecuted throughout a large portion of their careers for books they’ve written, for the opinions expressed in those books and based solely on the fact that those opinions caused offence. Salman Rushdie presumably needs no explanation, his case is arguably the most famous of its kind in the world. David Irving was imprisoned in Austria for his writing and opinions. He is a foul, bigoted racist whose texts would be offensive to any sane, rational and civilised person, but this, in my opinion, doesn’t warrant a prison sentence. In the same way that an author writing a book that “offends 1 billion muslims” (as is so often stated) does not warrant a death sentence. I mention this to highlight that David Irving and his opinions are in direct conflict with everything I stand for and believe in, and this should be not where freedom of speech is simply recognised but where it is given the most attention – since this is where it is most difficult to uphold.
Free speech must take precedence over my own offence and at the moment I don’t think I can sign the petition that calls for suspending or firing a politician for expressing his views within the confines of the law.
I understand that my opinions may not be particularly well received (I suspect I won’t have many backers) but having been interested in free expression for a long time it seems that it’s not just a phrase to be pulled out when required but rather a concept that reaches to some very dark subject areas indeed and when explored takes one along some extremely uncomfortable paths of thought.
“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself” – Thomas Paine