Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The Lonely Nobility of Brendan O'Neill

FGM & The Case Against The Case Against Intervention.

In an angry article for the Spectator, Brendan O’Neill inveighs against provisions in the Serious Crime Act (2015), which authorise the confiscation of passports, and mandatory vaginal examinations of young girls thought to be at risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

O’Neill’s writing is often described as a merely contrarian. But, while his irritation with consensus and received wisdom is dependably palpable, his objections are more-often-than-not libertarian in impulse. And since libertarianism is primarily concerned with the defence of personal autonomy, he tends to be reflexively hostile to any intervention by the state in the lives of its citizens.

But the state does not present the only threat to liberty. Young girls undergoing FGM at the hands of their own families are forcibly restrained and may be subjected to a combination of one or more of the following: clitoridectomy, labial excision, infibulation, and – in the most extreme variant of the practice – cauterisation of the vagina’s interior. The harrowing procedure is usually suffered without anaesthetic.

20,000 British girls are estimated to be at risk of FGM of one kind or another every year. This is also, I submit, an intolerable assault on personal autonomy, and one which state-sponsored FGM prevention is specifically intended to eradicate.

The monitoring of young girls most vulnerable to this kind of abuse, the restriction of their freedom to travel, invasive medical exams and so forth, indeed constitute state infringement of personal liberty. But a thoughtful and intellectually honest libertarian analysis must acknowledge the corresponding costs of inaction. If it does not, it risks sacrificing the defence of personal autonomy to a perverse opposition to state intervention, irrespective of intention and consequence.

O’Neill expresses his alarm that excessively broad guidelines alerting school and law enforcement authorities to indications of abuse may well result in false positives. This is a legitimate problem, but it is one without an obvious solution.

In the UK, FGM is a covert cultural practice conducted within closed communities behind closed doors. Until comparatively recently, the West preferred to turn a blind eye. However, awareness-raising campaigns (often led by victims of FGM) and gathering public anxiety about cultural relativism have resulted in widespread revulsion and official condemnation, which only encourages greater secrecy among those convinced of FGM’s necessity.

How many false positives is O’Neill prepared to tolerate to prevent the mutilation of a single child’s genitals? Ten? Three? Zero? He does not say. Instead, he condemns state prevention efforts that profile young British girls of African heritage while neglecting to acknowledge the perfectly obvious reason for this. “Guess whose vaginas would be interrogated?” O’Neill wonders scornfully of proposals to subject young girls at risk to gynaecological examinations. “Not little Chloe’s – just little Abebi’s.” To which one can simply return the question: guess whose vagina will be mutilated in the absence of action?

O’Neill is at pains to insist that he is no cultural relativist. “I’m happy to say FGM is a backward, barbaric act,” he announces. “Those who say it’s just another cultural practice, and we should respect it, are moral cowards, incapable of making judgements.” Well, good. But his implacable opposition to state intervention on ostensibly libertarian grounds desires the same state paralysis, nonetheless.

Like a self-flattering pacifist who prefaces every anti-intervention argument with a mumbled acknowledgement of the cruelty of the totalitarian regime at issue, O’Neill’s condemnation of FGM feels suspiciously pro-forma. He offers nary a constructive proposal to counter those he denounces, and which might better serve the interests of the young girls in whose defence he professes to write.

Instead he closes on a solipsistic note, with a defiant declaration of conscientious objection to an illusory state-enforced racism. At which point, his article’s true subject swims into focus, and it is neither FGM nor its victims. It is the lonely nobility of Brendan O’Neill.

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on July 21.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

On Motes and Beams

"Islamic State Is An Enemy Of Freedom But...."

Last week, the Guardian reported on an intriguing new counter-extremism initiative. Organised in partnership with a Muslim charity called Upstanding Neighbourhoods, it has been launched in response to alarming instances of young Muslims absconding to live in the Islamic State. Schools such as Saltley Academy in Birmingham - which only last year was embroiled in the Islamist 'Trojan Horse scandal - have been inviting young Yazidi refugees from Iraq to address pupils with unsparing accounts of what life in the Islamic State is actually like.

The Guardian's report, however, prompted an indignant response from Ella Whelan over at Sp!ked Online. Whelan offered two objections, the first of which is strategic, the second of which is philosophical.

On the subject of strategy, she had this to say:
[I]n the absence of being able to say what British society stands for, what its values are, and why, therefore, it is superior to IS, the state instead uses a group like Upstanding Neighbourhoods to scare pupils into staying in Britain. 
The language is tendentious and shrill, but this sentence carries the seed of a legitimate criticism: that any approach to counter-extremism, which focuses on the brutality of the Islamic State at the expense of a thoroughgoing advocacy of the benefits of life in the West, is of limited use. In this much, I concur. But why should one preclude the other? Whelan elaborates:
[I]t is also odd that some think this is educational. Trying to scare children into line with tales of the bogeyman works with five-year-olds. But when it comes to older children, or young adults, and the problem of terrorist organisations, society and schools should be engaging all pupils in a real conversation about freedom, not selecting Muslim students and scaring them rigid with gory details and nightmarish scenes.
In other words, Whelan objects to the initiative per se. She seems to believe that these young Yazidi women are merely instruments of propaganda in the hands of a cynical state, used to terrify credulous children into conformity. The "bogeyman", bear in mind, is a fiction.

But Iraqi refugees are not being asked to lie to children. On the contrary, they are being asked to testify to the punishing reality of life in the Islamic State, a reality totally at odds with the utopian propaganda used to seduce young recruits, and a reality from which Whelan - perversely - seems to want children protected, even as she protests their infantilisation.

Education involves the provision of information to allow for informed choice, a necessary part of which is a frank discussion of risk and consequence. Those disinclined to believe the claims of politicians (whom Whelan casually depicts as incompetent and mendacious) or the media (which she accuses of over-hyping the terrorist threat) may therefore benefit from the hair-raising testimony of those who have actually experienced life in Raqqa firsthand, and whose warnings are not so easily dismissed. That is, of course, unless they are persuaded by articles like Whelan's that such voices are merely circulating falsehoods on behalf of sinister state power.

And what of the philosophical objection - the "real conversation about freedom" Whelan demands? On this score, she is determined to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

When the state of Oklahoma badly botched the execution of convicted murderer Clayton Lockett in April 2014, my twitter feed was suddenly awash with histrionic claims that the United States had now conclusively forfeited its right to criticise, say, the Islamic Republic of Iran for its use of the death penalty. Self-examination and sober reflection metastasised into a deranged moral equivalence which held that a democracy allowing for the use of lethal injection in a narrow set of circumstances is morally no better than a theocracy mandating the public stoning of adulterers and the hanging of gays from cranes.

By the same token,  Ella Whelan is not convinced that Britain is qualified to sit in moral judgement on the genocidal Islamic State. She concludes her article with the following:
The British government is keen to posit IS as an enemy of freedom, and rightly so. But Britain is compromised, too. It is a society in which the freedoms of its citizens are increasingly restricted by assorted speech laws; in which the therapeutic state all too readily seeks to nudge and nanny its citizens through their daily lives. The West can criticise the elimination of freedom abroad, and endlessly pretend that our own liberty is intact, but until we protect and celebrate freedom at home, the argument against IS will never be that convincing.
Undergirding this paragraph's various problems is a peculiarly absolutist view of freedom. That is to say, either you have it or you don't. And, as Whelan would have it, until such time as the West (childishly denigrated in her preceding paragraph as "supposedly civilised") has succeeded in constructing a perfectly free society, it has no moral authority on the subject of individual liberty. So an article which began by demanding that we defend Western values instead of terrifying children, concludes by claiming that any such defence is invalidated by the West's less-than-perfect adherence to what it preaches. This is, I'm afraid, cynicism without even the benefit of coherence.

Whelan appears to believe that she is unmasking a fraud. But the arrogant pretence of Western perfection is characteristically asserted, not by the West's defenders, but by its enemies who then proffer every flaw as a self-discrediting hypocrisy. It is news to no-one that Western democracies are riddled with inconsistencies, absurdities, and contradictions. Some result from explicitly pernicious ideas, others from the unintended consequences of well-meaning ones.

But defending the West and harshly judging theocracies does not require a stipulation that Western nations are themselves perfect, still less that their governments and/or populations are so. It requires an understanding that liberal democracy provides a framework within which all people can best win and defend their own emancipation. Democratically-accountable governance. Wide parameters of freedom of speech and inquiry. The separation of revelation from reason. An independent judiciary. An acknowledgement of the universal rights of individuals. Developments midwifed by Enlightenment thought, and essential to the subsequent pursuit of incremental Western progress.

The perfectly liberal and free society Ella Whelan apparently demands before she will seriously entertain Western criticisms of Islamic State will never materialise, and for the same reason that utopians favour totalitarianism as a means of achieving their ends: that liberal democracy renounces the pursuit of the perfect for the pursuit of the good. And, in so doing, it is able to offer something more valuable than a utopian mirage: a stuttering process of self-correction which has eventually led the West, stumbling through trial and error, to reverse the historic errors of slavery, empire, and discrimination and to enshrine rights and freedoms in law still denied to much of the world's population by despotism.

Western self-criticism - of which Whelan's article is a particularly crude example - has, of course, been instrumental in achieving such gains. But there is a tendency amongst those who take them for granted to surrender to a self-lacerating masochism as a means of advertising their own moral virtue. The democracies of secularised Christendom, with their internalised narratives of sin and redemption, are more vulnerable to this tendency than honour/shame cultures. It was Christ, after all, who is said to have cried:
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.
Human fallibility being what it is, no eye will ever be completely free of blemish. And the world being what it is, the complete suspension of all moral judgement is neither possible, nor desirable. And so, instead, when evaluating imperfection, it is important - in the name of perspective, moral clarity, and sanity - to make unapologetic distinctions between motes and beams, and to remember which is which.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Reactionary Radicals

Owen Jones and the Rainbow Qur'an

In a 2012 article for the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland had defended his friend Mehdi Hasan by convicting Hasan’s critics of a strange form of racism:
[Subtle examples] can be confusing, because they often dress up in progressive, Guardian-friendly garb – slamming Islam as oppressive of gay and women's rights, for example – but the thick layer of bigotry is visible all the same. Call it progressives' prejudice.
An example of the pitfalls into which this kind of thinking can lead the Left was recently provided by a fractious twitter exchange on the subject of gay rights and Islam involving Freedland’s Guardian colleague Owen Jones [storified here].

The US Supreme Court ruling legalising gay marriage had been handed down a few days earlier and the summer’s Pride festivities had just begun. Profile avatars superimposed with solidarity rainbows swept social media in celebration of both; a touching display of the breadth and depth of support the once-lonely campaign for marriage equality has come to enjoy.

A mischievous variation on this theme was an image of the Qur'an, tweeted by the ex-Muslim writer and activist Saif Rahman, which a twitter user calling himself ‘Colt’ then gave a speculative punt in the direction of Owen Jones:

When Rahman asked why this had not been dignified with a response, Jones answered: "Because I think this is self evidently trying to provoke [rather] than win people over to LGBT rights? Are you LGBT (genuine question)?"

Owen Jones is a notoriously thin-skinned and bad-tempered tweeter, so the petulant tone was hardly a surprise. But I would imagine Jones is also understandably anxious to avoid accusations of bigotry from people like Jonathan Freedland.

The difficulty here is that Islamic homophobia is not a mere calumny or figment of ‘progressive prejudice’. Muslims are not simply the hapless victims of Western prejudice, as Jones and Freedland apparently prefer to believe; they are individuals perfectly capable of holding bigoted views of their own, which it is surely every progressive’s responsibility to oppose.

A 2006 Populus poll conducted for Policy Exchange found that 61% of UK Muslims thought "homosexuality is wrong and should be illegal", a figure consistent across genders and social class. This figure is admittedly nearly 10 years old, but the Populus also reported that younger generations were less tolerant on this issue than their elders, which does nothing to inspire optimism that things have been moving in the right direction.

Nevertheless, their survey did provide a reminder that UK Muslims’ views on homosexuality – whilst profoundly dispiriting – are not uniform. A majority appear to be deplorable and reactionary, but a minority – evidenced by projects like the Inclusive Mosque Initiative – are enlightened and progressive. The aim of gay rights activism, surely, is to stigmatise the former and empower the latter. And on this point, Colt's tweet to Jones was specific.

If Rahman's original image of the Qur'an was intended to mock the incompatibility of modernity and the Qur’an's 7th Century ideas, Colt's additional reference to LGBT Muslims and solidarity invites another interpretation: that LGBT Muslims living in communities and families hostile to the open expression of their sexuality deserve support in their struggle for acceptance under a modernised, gay-friendly Islam.

But, sensing a trap, Jones reflexively counterattacked with a spurious distinction between 'provocation' (bad) and advancing LGBT rights (noble), before accusing Colt and Rahman of the former.

To see a self-professed radical advance an argument of such painful conservatism makes me cringe for Jones. Had his activist forebears afforded reactionary attitudes the respect he demands from contemporary critics of Islam, he would not enjoy the freedoms he takes for granted today.

The overthrow of religious authority in the West – a necessary precondition of sexual liberty – was not achieved simply by the polite suggestion of a rationalist alternative. It also required the unrelenting mockery of its Enlightenment enemies who took great pleasure in making its ideas look ridiculous.

Nor was the later movement for gay liberation and acceptance bashful about provoking its opponents, for whom its mere existence was an affront. Provocation and offence were understood by activists to be engines of change, not its regrettable by-products.

In 1971, for instance, radical Gay Liberation Front activists in drag invaded a meeting of Mary Whitehouse's Christian pressure group, the Nationwide Festival of Light, held at Westminster's Methodist Central Hall, and began kissing one another and unfurling sloganeering banners before shutting off the power. The queer art, literature, music, theatre, and cinema that proliferated with the rise of gay activism likewise revelled in its capacity to generate traditionalist outrage.

Had he been alive, would Owen Jones have pursed his lips in disapproval and defended the sensibilities of offended conservative Christians?

But times have changed, and in the process radical opposition to reactionary inter-cultural ideas seems to have mutated into a perverse solidarity. Multiculturalism's emphasis on the need to show deference to cultural and religious difference, and the concomitant empowerment of all kinds of identity politics, has meant that a declaration of offence taken is no longer presumed to be the start of a discussion but its final word.

"Are you LGBT?" Jones had demanded of Rahman in his first tweet. An irrelevance to the matter at hand, but a question of pressing importance to Jones who - as an openly gay man - reserves for himself the right to decide who may and may not advocate for gay acceptance and under what circumstances.

"If you want to be a straight ally, welcome," Jones instructed Rahman. "But I'm done with people only mentioning LGBT rights when Islam is involved." When an Indian ex-Muslim calling himself ‘Desi Liberal’ pointed out that it was Jones who was proving himself to be a feckless ally by downplaying Islamic homophobia so as to comport with politically correct niceties, Jones retorted: "I'm not going to be lectured on LGBT rights by a straight man. Incredible."

It is undercover of this politics of identity and broad-minded respect for other cultures that, as a non-Muslim, Jones excuses himself from criticising even the most regressive elements of another minority group. In his own mind, it is not his business to do so. 

So, instead, he declares his unconditional and indiscriminate solidarity with all Muslims, irrespective of how hostile a given individual's views and values may be to his own. And, consequently, he finds himself objectively defending the Islamic religious right from the pressures of progress at the expense of those they victimise.

The message for LGBT Muslims may be the unintended consequence of a well-meaning impulse, but it is clear, just the same: gay liberation for me, but not for thee.