Saturday, 20 July 2013

Bullets, Books & Pens

Relativising the Education of Malala

The wise saying, “The pen is mightier than sword” was true. The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them . . . That is why they are blasting schools every day. Because they were and they are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that we will bring into our society.
Malala Yousafzai at the United Nations
On Friday 12 July, the day of her 16th birthday, Malala Yousafzai gave a speech at the UN about the pressing need to support the education of women and girls in defiance of those who would murder children and destroy schoolhouses. The young activist had lived Pakistan's Swat Valley and campaigned there since the age of 12, until an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen on 9 October, 2012 almost brought her life to an end.

Six days later, the Taliban issued an unofficial response to her speech in the form of an open letter addressed to Malala. Its author was Adnan Rasheed, who is Head of Ansar Al-Aseer, a taskforce established by the Taliban (TTP) to free jihadi prisoners. But he was keen to point out that he was "writing in a personal capacity [and] this may not be the opinion or policy of Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan or other jihadi faction or group."

This prompted an odd article over at Pakistan Today accusing those who believe Malala was shot for her education advocacy of "an abundance of ignorance and volumes of hypocrisy".

For such strong words of condemnation, the objections are weak. The first is that the Taliban say otherwise:
Taliban commander Adnan Rasheed’s letter to Malala published on the web on Wednesday, which echoed Ehsanullah Ehsan’s open letter dated October 16, 2012 – written a week after the attack on Malala – reconfirms that she was never targeted owing to her stance on education. It was because of her leaning towards the “wrong” side of the ideological fault line, which led to the shooting and in turn the international convulsion.
The only thing Adnan Rasheed's letter to Malala reconfirms is the Taliban's propaganda line on the matter. Adnan Rasheed in fact accuses her of "running a smearing campaign to malign [the Taliban's] efforts to establish Islamic system in swat and your writings were provocative". He then complains:
[Y]ou and the UNO [United Nations Organisation] is pretending that as you were shot due to education, although this is not the reason, be honest, not the education but your propaganda was the issue and what you are doing now, you are using your tongue on the behest of the others and you must know that if the pen is mightier than the sword then tongue is sharper and the injury of sword can be hailed but the injury of the tongue never hails and in the wars tongue is more destructive than any weapon.
I have been unable to find an English translation of Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan's 7 page letter of the 16 October, but in a statement released the day after her shooting, Ehsan said much the same:
Its a clear command of shariah that any female, that by any means play role in war against mujahideen, should be killed. Malala Yousafzai was playing a vital role in bucking up the emotions of Murtad army and Government of Pakistan, and was inviting muslims to hate mujahideen . . . Malala is targeted because of her pioneer role in preaching secularism and so called enlightened moderation. 
She was, in short, perceived as a traitor to their theocratic tyranny. Given the disastrous consequences - from the Taliban's point of view - of their botched assassination attempt, it's unsurprising that they are trying to spin this as a regrettable but necessary act of war. But since they are fighting and killing for a morally bankrupt totalitarian ideology, this constitutes no justification at all. It takes some front to argue from victimhood when you have tried to assassinate an unarmed 15 year old girl as part of a campaign to silence and terrify.

The distinction between Malala's campaign for education and her alleged treachery is, in any case, a meaningless one. Malala presents a threat to religious fanatics because she represents the two things they fear most - the potency of knowledge and its capacity to empower women. It was her campaigning for the right to be educated while the Taliban destroyed schools in Swat that made her a dissident and therefore an enemy, a traitor and a target.

In what amounts to a semantic argument, Adnan Rasheed pretends that he has no quarrel with Malala over "education" per se, because he too has learned from teachers and seeks to teach others:
You say a teacher, a pen and a book can change the world, yes I agree with, but which teacher which pen and which book? It is to be specified, Prophet Muhammad Peace be upon him said I am sent as a teacher, and the book He sent to teach is Quran. So a noble and pious teacher with prophetic curriculum can change the world not with satanic or secular curriculum.
Adnan Rasheed affirms further into his letter that said prophetic curriculum does not require a lengthy reading list:
Taliban want to implement what is in the book of ALLAH and UNO want to implement what they have in man-made books. We want to connect the world to their creator through the book of Allah and UNO want to enslave the world to few evil creatures.
In his Pakistan Today article, Kunwar Khuldune Shahid appears peculiarly impressed by this self-serving relativism, and reckons it provides food for thought:
Which teacher, which pen and which book should change the world? . . . Many an imperialist has posed as a teacher, using swords to pen down fallacious books brimming with the legacy of their veneration.
Shahid implies that the freedom to read as one wishes on the one hand, and the suppression of all books but one on the other, are simply different forms of "education", thus invalidating the topic as a meaningful bone of contention between Malala and the Taliban. What we must focus on instead, he argues, is the identity of the educator.

But the equivalence Shahid draws between the education Malala seeks and the 'education' offered by the TTP relies upon a confusion - certainly deliberate on the part of the Taliban - as to what is at issue when the term 'education' is used in this discussion. It is not just the identity of the teacher that is distinct here but the very process itself. The freedom to think as you are told to think is no freedom at all. Malala poses a threat because she wants the freedom to think critically and to freely inquire; to actively learn as opposed to being passively instructed; to earn qualifications that can empower her with a career and financial independence. The denial of this right is part of a systematic campaign to disempower women and girls and to keep the broader populace chained in a state of pious ignorance.

What the Taliban - or any other totalitarian authority for that matter - desire is not education but its antithesis: indoctrination and censorship. The former involves the emancipation of the mind and the empowerment of the individual; the latter, their suffocation. Which is why indoctrination has to be imposed at gunpoint and education does not. This is what Malala means when she speaks about education, and the Taliban knows it. Their counter-claim that they are also educators (and of a superior kind, no less) is simply sophistry.

What's frustrating about Shahid's Pakistan Today article is that his conclusions are basically spot on. The "ideological faultline" he identifies between oppression and freedom as the real epicentre of what he calls the 'Malalaquake' is self-evident. But Malala is on the correct side of the fault and it is her education activisim that put her there, so I'm slightly lost as to why he finds it necessary to chide her for her naivety and simple-mindedness:
Probably the most famous line from Malala’s speech at the UN was, “One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.” And this is the bizarre smokescreen that the poor child doesn’t even know that she’s fuelling. The Taliban do not have an issue with teachers, pens or books, their concern is: what is being taught, what is being written and what is being read.
Well, of course it is. But there is no smokescreen (an unhelpful term, by the way, which will only encourage the conspiratorially-minded). Shahid is creating nuance and finding equivalence where none in fact exists.

In Pakistan, the overall adult literacy rate is ~55%. The fight against obscurantist oppression is contingent upon the education of its foes, because the universal right to free inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge are the sine qua non of all liberties. Malala Yousafzai was shot because she understood this and because she is trying to make others understand it too. As she told the New York Times during an interview in 2010 for a short documentary about her life:
They cannot stop me. I will get my education if it is in home, school or any place. This is our request to the whole world: Save our schools; save our world; save our Pakistan. Save our Swat.
It really is as simple as her metaphor of bullets vs books and pens suggests.

Malala's speech to the UN can be watched here. The 32 minute documentary made by the New York Times in 2010 about Malala's life in Swat Valley can be seen here.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Day of the Demagogue

The Apocalyptic Fantasies of the Liberal Left and the Far-Right

This nugget of wisdom from ostensibly liberal, anti-fascist, anti-racist organisation HOPE Not Hate (HNH) was occasioned by the British government's recent decision to deny American anti-Islam activists Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller entry into the UK to address an English Defence League (EDL) rally. HNH were understandably pleased with the Home Secretary's ruling - it was an outcome they had vigorously lobbied and campaigned to achieve.

The words quoted in HNH's tweet are lifted (clumsily) from a longer quotation within the linked Independent article, in which their own spokesperson Matthew Collins expresses his "delight" with the Home Office decision:
There is enough hatred in this country at the moment; it is tense. There is a line in the sand between freedom of speech and the right to use hate speech. Freedom of speech does not guarantee you that right. We live in a democracy and we believe in free speech. People will now quote Voltaire but he never had the benefit of going to the gates of Auschwitz and seeing where unfettered free speech ends up.
The objection Collins anticipates is the absolutist defence of free opinion often (mis)attributed to French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
So, apparently responsibility for the Shoah lies with this most noble defence of liberty and tolerance rather than a fascist regime not noticeably overburdened with a fondness for either. Anyone under the impression that pre-war Nazi Germany suffered from a surfeit of free expression - or a surfeit of freedom of any kind for that matter - would do well to revisit the topic and reacquaint themselves with the facts.

The broader parallel being drawn - that pre-war persecution of European Jewry is somehow analogous to what is called 'Islamophobia' in the West today - is no less stupid.

Under the 1935 Nuremberg Laws, Jews were systematically stripped of their citizenship, their vote and their political rights. Subsequent laws mandated their complete exclusion from the German economy and institutionalised policies of "Aryanisation' aggressively enforced their segregation and stigmatisation. All of this was backed by an unrelenting flood of State-sanctioned pseudo-scientific anti-Semitic propaganda of the most dehumanising kind.

By contrast, in today's Western democracies, not only are the equal rights of Muslim men and women rightly protected by binding human rights agreements and enshrined in law, but exemptions are not infrequently made to indulge demands for special treatment made on religious and cultural grounds.

In the wake of an Islamist atrocity such as the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, one would expect a genuinely racist and bigoted society to use the opportunity to pass swingeing, collectively punitive laws designed to marginalise Muslims as a group. Instead, as befits a society in which this kind of prejudice is seen as culturally unacceptable, mainstream politicians of all stripes immediately urged restraint and were at pains to reassure Muslims that their faith would remain untainted by those jihadists claiming to act in its name. This did nothing, however, to subdue hysterical accusations of Islamophobia and intolerance.

At a time when Britain ought to have been preoccupied by the question of how better to address, contain and counter Islamist terrorism, Fiyaz Mughal, tin-eared founder and chairperson of the organisation TellMAMA (Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks) announced that there had been a "massive spike in anti-Muslim prejudice". "The scale of the backlash is astounding!" he cried:
A sense of endemic fear has gripped Muslim communities . . . I do not see an end to this cycle of violence. There is an underlying Islamophobia in our society and the horrendous events in Woolwich have brought this to the fore.
But, as reported by Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph, this counsel of despair turned out to be fear-mongering without foundation. 57% of the 212 anti-Muslim 'incidents' recorded in the week following Rigby's murder were revealed to have occurred online (some from abroad). Only 17 were said to have involved a physical encounter. No injuries were reported at all.

It would of course be far better if the number of physical encounters were zero, and if people did not call other people names on the internet. However, the idea that this reaction to Islamist terror justifies Mughal's apocalyptic language or HNH's warnings about the "gates of Auschwitz" is simply dishonest.  And yet it seems to meet with very little resistance. We are regularly reminded by liberal Cassandras (for example, here and here) that Britain is confronted by a "tide" or a "scourge" of Islamophobic bigotry and violence. And it doesn't appear to have occurred to the Independent journalist interviewing HNH's Matthew Collins to point out that his Voltaire-to-Auschwitz theory is very silly indeed.

Islamists, needless to say, find all this doomsaying to be highly satisfactory. Islamism is a supremacist ideology which seeks to overthrow democratic governments, either by force or by stealth, and to establish a totalitarian theocratic caliphate under Sharia law. This hasn't prevented Islamists from exploiting Europe's post-war guilt about the Holocaust and post-colonial guilt about the subordination of people of colour to further their own spurious claims to victimhood.

In his response to the 7/7 bombings in 2005 which had just claimed the lives of 52 innocent people, Tony Blair took care to distinguish between ideology and people:
What we are confronting here is an evil ideology. It is not a Clash of Civilisations - all civilised people, Muslim or other, feel revulsion at it. But it is a global struggle and it is a battle of ideas, hearts and minds, both within Islam and outside it . . . This is a religious ideology, a strain within the world-wide religion of Islam, as far removed from its essential decency and truth as Protestant gunmen who kill Catholics or vice versa, are from Christianity. 
Nonetheless, Mohammed Naseem, Islamist chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque and Home Affairs spokesman for the Islamic Party of Britain, responded to the government's subsequent announcement of new anti-terror legislation by comparing Tony Blair to Adolph Hitler:
[Hitler] was democratically elected and gradually he created a bogey identity, that is, the Jewish people, and posed to the Germans that they were a threat to the country. On that basis, he started a process of elimination of Jewish people. I see the similarities. Everything moves step by step. I am saying these are dangerous times and we must take note of this.
That the immediate aftermath of 7/7 felt like a particularly dangerous time is no excuse for the BBC to be indulging those inclined to delusional prognostication. It's particularly galling to have to read this kind of thing, given that there isn't an Islamist alive prepared to defend the existence of the Jewish State, but plenty prepared to dispute the historicity of the Holocaust.

Besides which, as Rumy Hasan matter-of-factly points out in his book Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths:
[C]ontrary to the fear-mongering by the likes of Naseem, we are certainly not dealing with a situation remotely comparable to the Jews under the Nazis in the 1930s . . . If the situation had been akin to [this], then we would surely have witnessed a mass exodus of Muslims to Islamic countries. This has patently not been the case. In fact, the reality is quite the opposite: large numbers of people from many Muslim-majority countries have sought, and continue to seek, asylum in Britain and other Western countries...[T]he alleged Islamophobia in the West appears to be of little or no concern. Contrast that with Nazi Germany: no Jew or gypsy in their right mind sought entry into Germany during the period of Nazi rule. [Pg. 127]
The need to be seen as sensitive to other cultures and ruthlessly critical of one's own has helped infantilise the debate about Islam. Worse, it has led to an apparent reluctance on the part of HOPE Not Hate and like-minded 'anti-racists' to criticise Islamist organisations like Unite Against Fascism with the same vehemence reserved for the nationalist extreme right, particularly if the Islamists in question denounce violent jihad.

The reasons for this silence are beyond the scope of this post, but important among them is a fear of espousing views that may be echoed or applauded by the white nationalist far-right. The irony is that in seeking to deny the far-right an opportunity to indiscriminately stigmatise a group of people, the paralysis of HOPE Not Hate and the broader liberal left has provided one.

This is what explains the growth in popularity and notoriety of far-right nationalist groups like the EDL and anti-Muslim demagogues like Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer. Geller and Spencer style themselves as informed, principled and forthright critics of Islam; noble and fearless defenders of democracy and freedom. However, they share more in common with their enemies than either would care to admit.

Like Islamists, Geller and Spencer aver that the distinction between Islamic extremists and Muslim moderates and reformers is illusory, and that the only the most literal and cruel interpretation of Islam may be regarded as legitimate. Both Geller and Spencer frequently cite Islamist clerics in support of this contention and Geller invariably encloses the words 'moderate' and 'reformer' in scare quotes.

The claim that Islam is therefore "unreformable" satisfies the bigot's need for an eternal, immovable foe and is justified with reference to the Islamic belief that the Qur'an is the final and perfect word of God. Geller and Spencer both affirm (correctly) that Islam is a false religion and that its texts are the work of men, so it takes considerable perversity to insist that these particular man-made ideas are, uniquely, somehow immune to revision. When confronted with the opinions, beliefs and behaviour of secular, reformist Muslims, they either deride their opponents' views as "theologically baseless" and explain that 'their' Islam does not exist, or they accuse those claiming to be moderates of engaging in deliberate mass deception. Not only is this demonstrably false but, unpardonably, it stigmatises those who risk most in the battle to confront Islamism and reform their faith.

Just as Islamists promote a conspiratorial view of Jewish mendacity and evil, Geller and Spencer and the far-right promote a corresponding view of all Muslims. The refusal to recognise the distinction between moderates and extremists forces them to adopt the Islamist's claim that the West is at war with Islam, which in turn licenses the objectification of all Muslims as indistinguishable, deceitful members of a fascist army and fifth column puppeteered by the Qur'an.

I thought that this kind of defamatory cant had reached its squalid nadir in Geller and Spencer's endorsement of apologists for Serbian fascism and anti-Muslim genocide (examples here and here). But, more recently, Geller outdid herself in her eagerness to portray the ugly persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Burma as an elaborate Jihadi hoax:
Why doesn't the media ever ask, hmmmmm, everywhere Muslims immigrate there is conflict. The higher the population, the bigger the conflict. Why is that? Buddhist monks have to carry guns for self-defense. Think about that. Don't buy the Muslim myth of victimhood in Burma. What's comical is that Buddhism really is a religion of peace. [emphasis in original]
This argument and the language used are indistinguishable from anti-Semitic theories advanced by Islamists and the neo-Nazi far-right and used to justify the indiscriminate persecution of Jews. But this deranged anti-Muslim conspiracism is nevertheless attractive to some because Geller and Spencer speak with utter clarity and conviction in a debate largely disfigured by euphemism, double-talk and self-censorship. If people are repeatedly told that Islam is a religion of peace following each violent outrage committed in its name, they will start to conclude that their intelligence is being insulted and look for answers elsewhere. Like all demagogues, Geller and Spencer feed a hunger for certainty, provide a receptacle for bitter resentment and derive their popularity from a confusion of clarity with the Truth.

Which is why the banning of Geller and Spencer has been been so maddeningly counter-productive. In practice it will of course achieve little. After all, Geller and Spencer's views are all freely available online. And, as a strictly symbolic statement, it has only served to reinforce the paranoid far-right's conviction that a dangerous truth is being suppressed by the Establishment in order to perpetuate a lie. Upon receipt of their Home Office rejection letters, Geller and Spencer immediately (and predictably) posted scans on their respective websites (Spencer under the headline Britain Capitulates to Jihad while Geller went for UK Caves To Jihad) and have since been busily promoting their own vainglorious martyrdom narrative.

Fascist ideology is indeed present in the West, both on the Islamic far-right and on the white nationalist equivalent with which it shares so many characteristics. Islamist jihadis have already proven themselves to be a lethal menace and a recent rise in attacks on British mosques indicates that the nationalist far-right may yet become one. Racism, intolerance and bigotry exist in liberal democracies, just as they exist everywhere, but the apocalyptic predictions of civil war and death camps are lurid fantasies peddled by both the Islamic far-right and the nativist far-right to further their conspiratorial grievance narratives.

That some on the liberal left selectively co-opt these narratives in the name of restricting free and open discussion is depressing, if not particularly surprising. HOPE Not Hate would have us believe that the travel ban for which they campaigned sends a message of liberalism and tolerance. On the contrary, the ban is as petty, near-sighted and stupid as the United States' comparable decision to ban Islamist preacher Tariq Ramadan in 2004 (this was finally overturned by the Obama administration in 2010) or the decision by some European countries to criminalise Holocaust denial.

Voltaire's defence of free expression is perfectly suited to opinions like those of Geller and Spencer. HOPE Not Hate realise this which is why they tried to pre-empt it. But it's simply a reluctance to acknowledge just how absurd the parameters of this discussion have become that allows a supposedly serious-minded organisation like HOPE Not Hate to inform us that "unfettered" freedom of speech results in industrial mass murder, and that censorship can help save Muslims from the ovens.

What Voltaire understood but HOPE Not Hate apparently have not, is that the debate about free speech is not simply a quarrel about what we should be permitted to say. It is also a also a quarrel about what we should be permitted to hear. Those who censor opinions they do not like presume to make this decision on behalf of the rest of us. Not only is this reactionary and authoritarian on its own terms, but it will do nothing in this instance to advance a vital debate, already badly compromised by cultural taboos and a dearth of plain speaking, about how Western societies address the challenges presented by political Islam.