Tuesday, November 27, 2007


The urgent need for all courageous and determined people to band together and rid the world of the scourge of religion has been heavily underlined this week. If you have yet to hear of it, here is the grotesque situation: a 54 year-old teacher from Liverpool, Gillian Gibbons by name, volunteered out of the goodness of her heart to teach in a primary school in Khartoum, Sudan. The school was founded a century ago, when The Sudan (as it was apt to be called then) was a condominium jointly administered by Egypt and Britain. Its catchment is comparatively wealthy but I dare say a British teacher is still an asset and the school and its pupils can consider themselves lucky to have her.

One of the children brought a teddy bear to class and Miss Gibbons suggested that the children might like to think of a name for the toy. With a commendable – if perhaps unwarranted – regard for democracy, the teacher accepted the children’s choice of a name. It was Muhammad. There are two things to note about this moniker. First, it is the name of the prophet of Islam. Second, it is commonly given to Muslim boys or assumed by Muslim men (the world famous boxer Cassius Clay converted to Islam and renamed himself Muhammad Ali).

Now accounts diverge. Some say fellow teachers raised objection, others that parents protested to the school authorities. What is not in doubt is that offence was taken, the prophet had been “insulted” and Miss Gibbons was detained by the authorities and held in jail where, at the time of writing, she waits to discover her fate. She may be released in the unlikely event that common sense prevails or if the British embassy makes a sufficiently cogent case. Or she may be incarcerated for up to six months. Or she may be assaulted by forty lashes. Here we see the full wisdom, might, compassion and (above all) righteousness of Sharia Law in action. And – hoorah for the thoughtful pastoral care of the little children – the school has been closed down until next year. Everyone’s a winner, baby!

You might wonder, as I do, about Islam’s confidence in its own prophet if he can be “insulted” by a harmless teddy bear being given his name. Isn’t he just a bit bigger than that? Just a touch more untouchable? Doesn’t this touchiness on the part of his advocates make him seem something of a wuss?

Fundamentalist Muslims think nothing of threatening to kill infidels and anyone else to whom they take a gratuitous dislike. The charmingly preferred method is beheading, a suitably medieval method. We infidels might find such menaces a bit offensive. What about our sensibilities? For my part, apart from being scorned as an infidel, I am condemned as a homosexual. There isn’t any religion in the world that respects me, yet I am expected – indeed obliged by law – to respect them. The miserable, hypocritical bastards.

Who are these Imams who make their self-important, posturing, anti-human, po-faced pronouncements? It’s a teddy bear, for Pete’s sake. Grow up. And what about the seven year-olds who decided to call the teddy bear Muhammad? Are they to be flogged? Or their parents who didn’t teach them any better? Or their religious instructors who didn’t teach them any better – more at fault, surely, than a foreign non-Muslim teacher of secular subjects. And what about the prophet’s name being given to mere mortal boys? Doesn’t this insult the prophet? If a boy called Muhammad turns out to be laggardly in his studies of the Qur’an or parsimonious in the payment of zakat or progressive in the licence he gives to his wife or a butterfingers in goal, does he not dishonour the prophet more than a boy named Muhafiz or Mujaddid or Muharrem? Isn’t his name (to coin a phrase) a cross to bear?

Whatever the fate that awaits Gillian Gibbons, I hope that, when she’s safely back in Liverpool, she will have the gumption to take the Sudanese government before the International Court of Human Rights. I hope that the United Nations will have the gumption to take an effective stand on the issue. Most of all, I hope that others, apart from me and Professor Dawkins, will stick their heads above the parapet, even if the result is that those heads are swiftly separated from their bodies. And anyway, Muhammad: it’s a crap name, isn’t it?

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Wild claims are swilling around that the four national football teams’ wholly predictable failure to qualify for the next “major” international tournament will cost the United Kingdom anything up to £2 billion in lost revenue. What utter drivel.

In the first place, the drunks who follow these teams to their matches (the so-called “fans”) will be purchasing their liquor at home instead of in some hitherto blameless European town. The amount of alcohol needed to sing as badly as these “fans” do is obviously prodigious, so already the home economy is quids in.

Much of the estimated loss is accounted for by pub sales: apparently thousands of people take themselves off to public houses to watch these football matches. Why they would want to stand for the duration on a carpet that is sticking to their footwear, barely able to see the screen of the pub’s television or hear anything above the hubbub beats me, but then I rarely go to pubs, even for a quiet half. Is this the legendary “atmosphere”? You can so keep it. Anyway, the only “atmosphere” really worth savouring would be at the ground where the match is being played. Even I can understand that.

What is certain is that this combination of drink and football, frequently at a point in the day far from the mid-evening because of the time difference between the venue and the viewer, is responsible for a vast amount of absenteeism, both during the match and thereafter. Assuredly, many (perhaps most) employers and supervisors take a liberal view of such lax practices at work – after all, they will be drunk and shouting along with the rest. It would be instructive to determine how many workers who have no interest in football and who hence stay back and toil diligently during the long hours of euphoria and/or self-pity and subsequent recovery are allowed comparable time off of their own choosing, to attend an opera at Glyndebourne or an exhibition at Tate Modern, for instance, or just to kick back.

But my larger point is that this mass absenteeism must also go into the calculation of lost revenue. It would be fascinating to have an authoritative and persuasive estimate of the revenue that would be lost to the nation if it ever happened again that one of the national football teams got within a match of actually winning one of these oh-so-important trophies. Perhaps, like the 1966 World Cup final, it would take place on a Saturday, thereby considerably diminishing the impact on absenteeism (Sunday for millions is a day of rest, i.e. sleeping it off). This would not be the case, however, if a British team were to reach a final played in, for instance, Israel.

Apart from absenteeism (surely the biggest single cost of national success or near-success at football), there would be many smaller hidden costs: police and bar-staff overtime; the repair of damage caused by drunks; the comparative losses sustained by all manner of enterprises that would have enjoyed a regular day’s business but which will have lost takings because so many customers are detained elsewhere; the immediate pressure on the health service caused by exploding bladders and other binge-drinking damage and the long-term pressure on the health and other public services caused by the hastening of the effects (physical, mental, social) of alcoholism – all these should be factored in.

Finally, there is the unquantifiable cost of the embarrassing behaviour that premature celebration engenders. At the outset of the knockout stage of the last World Cup, Radio Times published a graphic of Beckham and his team-mates holding aloft the Jules Rimet trophy that they were to get nowhere near winning in practice. Such infantile hubris erodes still further the dwindling, vestigial regard in which Radio Times is held by those who remember a time when it had some status (not since the 1970s). Put into the calculation, then, the declining market value of Radio Times.

After the qualifying match wherein Israel’s team (vainly) eased the pressure on England with an unexpected win, the still callow Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who was in Telaviv, appeared before news cameras to “thank” Israel’s foreign minister on behalf of “all Englishmen”. It was hard to gauge what was most embarrassing, the assumption that “all” Englishmen are as soft-brained as Miliband evidently is, the assumption that only men are interested in football or the assumption that anyone in Israel or anywhere else in the world gives a flying fuck about England’s bloody football team. So Miliband’s stock in the next-leader race declines and the bookies notice a falling off. At any rate, the Israeli foreign minister’s face seemed to suggest so; and who can blame her?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


My principal objection to ID cards has always been that, while of course I accept that the present government will not sell or release the data that has been collected about me, I have no confidence that future governments will not see this data as a useful source of revenue. Indeed, if this country ever elects a prime minister comparable to, for instance, Robert Mugabe, the ID data bank will be of great use to him in establishing absolute power and suppressing democrats.

But the absurd security breach at HM Revenue and Customs, whereby discs containing bank and tax details of some 25 million people have been mislaid, adds a further dimension to my objection. Along with the possibility of greed and expediency, breath-taking incompetence must form the basis for a strong objection to allowing the authorities access to my private information.

At least this glitch is out in the open. You could understand a government seeking to bury such bad news as this. In the Commons, Chancellor Alistair Darling and the PM appear to have made a clean breast of it on successive days. The Tories are presently stopping short of demanding any ministers’ heads on platters, perhaps mindful that no future Tory minister is going to be able to invigilate every civil servant’s daily caseload. If HMRC and other departments make a concerted effort to blame staff cutbacks and/or government targets and other methodologies on ministerial fiats, Gordon Brown himself, after ten long years as Chancellor, will inevitably come into the frame. Government managers must be braced for this crisis to get worse before it gets better.

Over the next few days, Darling will be praying that another wave of panic among customers does not sweep through the already jittery banking market. On the other hand, customers are entitled to be sceptical. Only because of this much more serious security breach have I learned that records went missing as long ago as September from a finance company with which I have an arrangement. The company has not seen fit to alert me of this breach. ‘Caveat emptor’ cannot be allowed to apply when the data holder has failed to protect its customers’ confidence.

We need a clear statutory obligation on all data collectors wholly and in perpetuity to protect the security of that data, on pain of a fixed and punitive scale of compensation to anyone whose data has been accessed by an unauthorised party, whatever the outcome of that access. It’s not good enough for HMRC blithely to advise all those parents who have received child benefit – the sector of society directly affected by the security breach – that any passwords they have used that reflect their child’s name or date of birth should be changed. As a basic security precaution, such advice should have been given when the parent first registered for child benefit. Putting out a public statement now that may be heard by those who happen to watch or listen to the news or read the more public-spirited newspapers is not going to reach all the recipients of child benefit.

Whenever some sudden crisis engulfs an administration, the best tactic is to ensure that ministers do nothing to exacerbate an already regrettable situation. Tested thoroughly by a succession of unlooked-for events in the first weeks of his premiership, Gordon Brown won great credit for establishing his authoritative grip and being steady under fire. He will need to invoke that heady honeymoon period if his government is not to be stuck with a lingering appearance of incompetence, especially if that incompetence can be characterised as a failure to implement its own measures.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is passing through the House of Lords. Among its provisions is one that grants the full legality of parenthood to both partners of a relationship that generates a child by IVF treatment. Needless to say, that fiercest of lobbies, the sanctity-of-marriage brigade, is back up on its high horse. A lesbian couple, they shriek, will be able to co-parent without benefit of a father figure.

The reigning father figure of the Catholic church in Britain, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, leads the charge. His letter to The Times on Monday raised a number of disputed areas upon which the bill touches, but none is more clearly in his sights than the family that does not conform to scriptural teaching or rather (to be scrupulous about it, given the lousy deal that women receive throughout The Bible) to contemporary theology. The Cardinal is most famous, of course, for his history of giving succour to pederast priests who operated in his see when he was a mere bishop. Despite being an unmarried virgin, he reckons to know more about the morality of parenthood than anyone else in Britain. We should listen to him carefully, though only because he wields power and influence out of all proportion to his experience of parenthood and family life.

On Monday’s World at One on Radio 4, M-O’C declared that “children need a known father and this bill seems to me to be saying that children don’t need a known father and I oppose – I think the majority of people in this country oppose – the deliberate creation of a situation where there’s no father”. Later, he said: “It’s not just about rights, about legislation even, it’s about the fundamental understanding of our country about marriage”.

A number of elements are at work here. The religious lobby – particularly in the United States – has been squaring up for a long time to grow a movement that aims to overthrow the legislature by irresistible force or to seize power by electoral means and control the legislature or (the least preferable option for them but the most likely to occur) to begin a campaign of civil disobedience. You see a nod to that development in the Cardinal’s sly downgrading of rights and legislation.

Meanwhile, the fear among the religious that the church’s control of the notion of family has been seriously weakened since World War II has persuaded even moderate church-goers to start to sound more fundamentalist on the differing family models that now obtain, even in religiously influenced nations like the States. Marriage and family have become interchangeable concepts for these people since co-habiting (as opposed to “living in sin”) became widely accepted and civil partnerships between same-sex couples were enshrined in law. M-O’C and his kind desperately wish to turn the clock back. Preferably a couple of thousand years.

I want to ask the Cardinal: “which is more desirable: for a child to have a quelled mother who works in vain to bring in money and a wastrel father who fritters the money away on drink and/or drugs and abuses (mentally, physically or both, take your pick) both the mother and the child; or for a child to have two loving, well-adjusted mothers?” It’s what is now called “a no-brainer”, isn’t it?

It is odd that Catholics prelates, who themselves foreswear conventional family life, fight so hard to uphold the conventional family model. Today, Elizabeth Windsor and her Greek husband mark 60 years of supposed wedded bliss. There is no need for me to air any of the rumours, some of them going back almost 60 years, of the Duke’s many and sustained infidelities. Conceivably they are all groundless. Your guess is at least as good as mine.

But the royal couple, whose durable arrangement was celebrated in the Abbey on Monday, head a family considerably more dysfunctional than the families of many of her subjects (and probably most of her church-going subjects). The Queen’s late sister and three of her four children went through the divorce courts. To the generation of Her Majesty’s mother, such a thing would have been unthinkable. After all, her own brother-in-law was obliged to abdicate because he insisted on marrying a divorcee.

To Catholics of the generation of Murphy-O’Connor’s parents, divorce was simply not permitted. Yet you don’t hear this leader of British Catholics condemning the royal divorcees. Perhaps the simple truth is that unnamed lesbian couples make a safer target.

Monday, November 05, 2007


The present crisis in Pakistan is far more dangerous for global stability than the now-forgotten crisis a few weeks ago in Burma/Myanmar. Western governments will, in my estimation, come to rue their failure to react immediately and decisively. Announcing that they "may" have to “review” their aid to the Musharraf regime is pusillanimous and evasive.

Pervez Musharraf has taken draconian powers, putting the whole superstructure of the justice system, the opposition parties and the independent media under house arrest or worse, casting aside any undertaking to hold free elections and to divest the government of its military cloak. His prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, announced that these powers were “to ensure the writ of the government”. If the writ of the government can only be ensured by the suspension of civil rights, then it is not the government’s writ that runs but the government’s oppression.

At a stroke, General Musharraf has transformed himself from a benevolent despot who was inching towards free elections into an old-fashioned dictator. The west will rationalize its continuing (if now more conditional) support by claiming that Pakistan remains withal a key bulwark against the Islamic fundamentalism that expresses itself in terrorism. This is a false reading. Musharraf’s state of emergency is the best news that either al-Qaida or the Taliban have heard from Pakistan in years. It is the most effective recruiting sergeant that those organizations could have dared hope for and any possibility of characterizing the west as a continuing ally of a man who is now seen to be a ruthless dictator will be seized upon as more evidence of the west’s infidel credentials.

This is where Condoleeza Rice can play a role that transforms her from one of the least effective Secretaries of State since World War II to one who really makes a difference. I doubt that Gordon Brown can do this because he has no clout with the Bush regime. Rice does. She needs to square up to Bush (with Cheney safely shut out of the oval office) and make it clear to him that all his prating about loving democracy and freedom means diddly-shit if he doesn’t pull on his cowboy boots and ride into the east to save Pakistani democracy and freedom from the world’s latest absolute ruler. Washington needs to make it crystal clear to Islamabad that the state of emergency is to be suspended forthwith or Pakistan will no longer be supported politically, financially, economically, militarily or diplomatically. The US embassy will be closed, the UN security council will be summoned to declare Pakistan a pariah nation and – yes, it may come to this – American troops are standing by and ready to invade Pakistan and remove Musharraf (“the General” as Bush famously called him in a pre-presidential interview when he had no idea of the leader’s name or, come to that, the whereabouts of his nation) from power. And Rice needs to do this today. Every hour of delay is an hour closer to an unprecedentedly horrific outrage against western individuals and interests in the name of revenge upon our perceived support for Musharraf.