Rumy Hasan's blog posts for December 2013

Beware of Islamism with a liberal veneer



Beware of Islamism with a liberal veneer

The recent outcry among British politicians and the London press over gender segregation in universities has shone a light on a relatively new phenomenon: the recourse to the foundational principles of liberal democracy by Islamists in pursuit of their agenda. This approach appears to be working as is evidenced by Universities UK’s (UUK) policy guidance (now withdrawn) on gender segregation at events organised by Islamic Societies. In very reasonable language, UUK advised:

"Concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system".

A thoroughly reactionary, sexist, practice was justified on the basis of rights – specifically the right of Islamist speakers and Muslim women to have segregated seating. This demand is thought reasonable because of the importance afforded to religious beliefs – non-religious beliefs are not granted this privilege. Indeed, in an interview on BBC Radio 5, a member of the Islamic Education and Research Academy thought his society was being reasonable and liberal-minded by their allocation of segregated and non-segregated areas within the lecture theatre at a debate they organised in March at UCL. One of the invited speakers, Prof Lawrence Krauss, responded with admirable principle by strongly objecting to the segregation and stormed off.

It is curious – and revealing – that similar ‘liberal-minded’, ‘reasonable’, ‘freedom of choice’ arguments are not invoked for segregation on the grounds of race or ethnicity along the lines of the judgment – that set out the doctrine of ‘separate and equal’ facilities for races – of the US Supreme Court in the notorious Plessy versus Ferguson case of 1896. But, pray, why are so many who would rightly denounce this doctrine on the grounds of race, apply it on the grounds of gender? To this question no satisfactory answer is provided; a simple appeal to respect for religious belief suffices.

Now imagine if Brahmin Hindus applied UUK’s guidance on the grounds of caste, a core aspect of their religion. Would this be acceptable to ‘liberal’ apologists for gender segregation? If not, then on what grounds would it be rejected? Brahmin’s would doubtless consider opposition to the practice as ‘Hinduphobic’.

The General Secretary of the LSE’s Student Union, Jay Stoll, provided a simple answer to the outrage felt by UUK’s policy guidance: on Channel 4 News he baldly asserted that this was a manifestation of ‘Islamophobia’. He naturally hoped that such ‘analysis’ would quell the critics and end the debate. Now Mr Stoll has some form on this: back in October at the Freshers Fair, his Students Union forced two members of the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society to remove their ‘Jesus and Mo’ t-shirts on the grounds that this constituted ‘harassment’ of Muslim (not Christian) students (hence was Islamophobic but not Christophobic). Thankfully, after vigorous campaigning and threat of legal action, Craig Calhoun, the Director of the LSE – but not the Students Union – has apologised to the two students. One should, therefore, not be unduly surprised if the LSESU gives support to requests by Islamic societies for segregated audiences at meetings they organise on campus; and helps with its enforcement.

A more sophisticated argument was, however, provided by the Islamist scholar and activist Tariq Ramadan who opined:

"Depending on who is organising and when they are asking me, I don't have a problem talking in universities, in rooms and public venues where the people are together men and women ... If every time there is segregation I'm not going to talk then I'm not reaching the people that I want to reach and for them to listen."

Tariq Ramadan is a master of using liberal rhetoric for his fundamentalism, that is to say, the demand for liberal tolerance for intolerant beliefs and practices. But his true beliefs were provided in a recorded speech cited by Ian Buruma in an article for the New York Times in 2007: "I will abide by the laws, but only so insofar as the laws don’t force me to do anything against my religion". It is for good reason that he is also renowned for his ‘double speak’.

Another example comes from a recent conference I was invited to present a paper at (coincidentally at the LSE) with the title ‘Anti-Jewish and Anti-Muslim Racisms and the Question of Palestine/Israel’. I was somewhat reluctant to partake given that I do not believe that these two types of ‘racisms’ are of much concern.  Moreover, I have robustly attacked the notion of Islamophobia (in chapter 4 of my 2010 book Multiculturalism: Some Inconvenient Truths). The idea that Muslims are a race is patently absurd – a category error; moreover anti-Muslim racism and Islamophobia is a distinction without difference.

My concerns were soon proved correct: it seemed that pretty much all the 50 or so attendees (in the main from a Jewish or Muslim background, by invitation only) bought into the notion that Islamophobia/anti-Muslim racism existed and was a serious problem. It is as if a conference of the Flat Earth Society starts under the assumption that the earth is flat and proceeds from there. No interrogation of the phenomenon is undertaken nor rigorous evidence provided as to its validity.

In the presentation made by Maleiha Maliki (a law professor at Kings, London), she brazenly asserted that matters in Europe are "much much worse" than is commonly thought (meaning by those who subscribe to the Islamophobia phenomenon). She gave as an example how in some EU countries what she terms "far right" parties are polling at about 20 per cent. She then proceeded to castigate the French parliament for passing a law banning the full face veil (burka/niqab) describing the Communist MP who instigated the bill as a "useful idiot for the far right". Islamists and their apologists have taken this law for scrutiny to the European Court of Human Rights on the grounds of violation of religious freedom. But Ms Maliki also vented fury at the judges examining the law as she worries that they will rule in favour of the French parliamentary system; that is to say, uphold a democratically passed law on the grounds that the veiling of women is oppressive and which runs counter to France’s strong secular values.

Now what is interesting and relevant to this article is that she bemoans the burka-ban law as a failure by the French polity and ECHR to adhere to liberalism and the tenets of a liberal constitution. Again, such chutzpah is a clear manifestation of an Islamist attempting to utilise liberalism to undermine secular, liberal values – in order to defend the most appalling misogynistic beliefs and practices (my reasons for this view of veiling are provided in chapter 5 of my 2010 book cited above).

Ms Maliki provides a classic example of how Islamists with a liberal veneer operate. For Islamists, democracy is acceptable only when their demands for religious privileges are met; otherwise it is held in contempt. The fact that an overwhelming majority (80 per cent) of the French population supports the law that was unanimously passed and supported across the political spectrum is of no concern to her and her Islamist allies.  It barely needs reminding that it is extremely rare that such strong consensus is reached in parliamentary democracies. An adage that Islamists excel at is apposite: why let facts and reason get in the way of our ideological stance?

Jacqueline Rose, of Independent Jewish Voices, showed approval of Malheiha Malik’s arguments by stating that her group recognises the harm that has been done to other people, notably to Muslims from Islamophobia. Now I have great respect for groups such as IJV who have bravely spoken out against crimes committed by Israel. But this is a variant of ‘we who have suffered also feel your pain’; and is dangerous because it can lead to a race to the ‘victimhood’ bottom. Doubtless Islamists will nod with approval – and other religious groups avail themselves of the opportunity to play their own ‘phobia card’.

A blunt truth needs pointing out: if it were the case that Europe was becoming a hot-bed of ant-Muslim racism/Islamophobia, why are so many Muslims from around the world clamouring to get in? Surely we should expect them rushing for the exit door in their droves to the 56 Organisation of Islamic Conference countries? Lest one forgets, in the supposedly ‘Islamophobic decade’ of 2001-2011, the Muslim population of Britain (England and Wales) increased from 3 to 4.8 percent, that is, a 60 per cent increase. Such irrefutable facts do not register on the radar of purveyors of Islamophobia.

Whilst recognising that Islamists in Muslim-majority countries – from the Wahabbi House of Saud to Sunni Pakistan to Shia Iran – are contemptuous of liberal, democratic, values, many Islamists in the west now realise that this rejectionist approach is counterproductive to their cause. Hence they are skilfully resorting to arguments coated with liberalism. It is, therefore, imperative that those concerned by the corrosive values of Islamism: gender segregation, attack on freedom of expression, and veiling are only three instances – should see through this liberal veneer to reveal the reactionary agenda underneath and to put up robust opposition to their demands.


Published on Open Democracy 23rd December 2013

Do you speak English?



Do you speak English?


Given the dominance of the English language across the globe, is it time to make knowledge of it a human right?

Last updated: 21 Dec 2013 10:01
Many professionals, like airplane pilots, are now required to speak English by industry standards [Reuters]

For the first time in history, the world now is close to having a global language so that people from all corners of the globe can communicate with each other without recourse to interpreters and translators. This language is, of course, English. The reason why English has become so dominant is certainly interesting and debatable, but there is no debate that it is the sine qua non for many aspects of life. It is the language of diplomacy and international relations - the Iranians recognised this by agreeing to speak in English in their recent negotiations on their nuclear programme with the P5+1 countries. It is increasingly the language of global news as evidenced by many non-English speaking countries having television networks in the English language.

It is also essential for international business and finance, sport, airline travel (pilots are now required to have good command of English as part of the drive to improve aviation safety standards) and, to a significant extent, for popular music (for example, in the annual Eurovision Song contest, all but a handful of countries have their representatives sing in English).

It is also the language of knowledge. In many academic disciplines - especially natural and social sciences - cutting-edge research is conducted in English and findings are published in English language publications and websites. Accordingly, international conferences invariably demand that papers be submitted and presented in English. There is no denying, therefore, that without English, many avenues of some of the most rewarding careers and activities are simply closed.

There is the suggestion that the dominant language of the future will be Mandarin in view of China's meteoric rise as an economic power in the past three decades. This, however, seems highly unlikely. Indeed, even in China, as a major survey in 2004 showed, standard Mandarin (Putonghua) is spoken by only 53 percent of the population (and just 18 percent speak it with family members). Moreover, an estimated 300 million Chinese (a quarter of the population) are learning to speak English (true, the standard remains very low), and plans are afoot to start teaching English in primary school, so there is good reason to think that by the middle of this century, more Chinese people will have knowledge of English than Mandarin. In this, the Chinese will emulate India where English is spoken more widely among literate Indians than any Indian language.

Even in France - the one country which has dragged its heels in coming to terms with the dominance of English (French was the diplomatic language of the 19th century) - the Higher Education Minister Genevieve Fioraso recognised the reality when she proposed that French universities must start teaching some courses in English. She authored a bill to this effect which, after much controversy, was passed by the National Assembly in May.

Why this caused such a stir is bewildering given that this is precisely what has been happening in many universities in countries where English is not the indigenous language. Indeed, many UK students are enrolled in English-language courses in European universities to reduce tuition costs. In the summer I spoke at a conference at the Middle East Technical University's campus in Northern Cyprus (an offshoot of the university in Ankara, Turkey) and discovered that all courses are taught solely in English; METU has clearly realised which way the wind is blowing in the knowledge economy.

Furthermore, in February, the German President Joachim Gauck no less called for English to be the language of the EU: If there were a vote on this, the majority of EU countries would probably be in favour (only France, Italy, and Spain would likely vote against).

The UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights stresses the importance of education. Article 26 (1) states:

"Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit."

By "elementary education" is meant literacy and numeracy. All this leads one to ask: If achieving basic literacy is considered a human right, might it now be the case that such literacy should also be in English? Perhaps not yet but this question is likely to be posed with great force among many throughout the world, for whom English is not the main language, desiring to be part of an increasingly inter-connected global community. The implications of this profound fact ought to be given serious consideration by the powers-that-be and properly prepared for.

Published on Al Jazeera English Opinion

Segregation and censorship on campus must not be tolerated




While mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, many are also celebrating the staggering achievement of those who struggled to overthrow apartheid in South Africa. Lest we forget, apartheid means separation or segregation on the grounds of race. There is overwhelming consensus that racial segregation is intolerable in a civilised society. Yet, until an apparent intervention by Downing Street, the policy maker in the citadel of learning in Britain – Universities UK – appeared to have given the green light to segregation, on grounds of gender.

In its guidance on the use of external speakers on campus, the following recommendations are provided:

Segregation in the context of the facts outlined above would only be discriminatory on the grounds of sex if it amounts to ‘less favourable treatment’ of either the female or male attendees …

Concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system.

Universities UK chief Nicola Dandridge, defending the document, stated that gender segregation “is not completely alien to our culture”. Basically, this is an accommodation to university Islamic societies which demand that meetings they organise are segregated on gender grounds.

The guidelines were given as hypothetical case studies but the reality is that gender segregation on campus has been quietly tolerated until now. One outcome of the document was that it has brought the issue into the open – including protests and media coverage of the issue.

And on Friday evening, following comments by the Prime Minister David Cameron, that segregation on campus should not be allowed, there was an apparent change of direction. Universities UK said the guidance was being withdrawn while it reviewed its stance.

There is a wider issue, though. Recently, in the furore over the failings of the Al Medinah free school, it transpired gender segregation was de rigueur. But once you allow segregation along the lines of faith at school, it is not at all surprising that when these pupils enrol at universities, they demand the same rights. If these are granted, you have the beginnings of the corrosion of the core values of academia, which are progressive and secular.

The same point was notoriously made in the Plessy vs Ferguson case in the US in 1896. The Supreme Court upheld a Louisiana segregation law on the grounds that segregation does not mark “the coloured race with a badge of inferiority” unless “the coloured race chooses to put that construction”. This judgement provided the principle of “separate but equal” and paved the way for de facto apartheid in America. It was not until the Brown vs Board of Education in 1954 that this was reversed under the principle that separate facilities were inherently unequal.

Universities UK ought to pay heed to this important principle, but the law also needs to be firm on this issue. Indeed on Friday night, the body pointed out that the legal position in the UK remained unclear on whether the voluntary separation of men and women could be allowed at events such as lectures on Islam by visiting speakers.

But there is hope. It is pleasing to note that Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, has taken a firm stance on the issue. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that a future Labour government would outlaw segregation on campus. A spokesperson for Cameron said the prime minister also wants a ban on gender-segregated audiences on campus, but not in places of worship.

But government must now be pressed to pass a law that bans gender segregation in public places.

Prior to Universities UK developments, the LSE took its own misstep. At the fresher’s fair in October, two students of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (Abishek Phadnis and Chris Moos) were forced to remove their “Jesus and Mo” t-shirts by security guards and officers of the Student Union. What were the grounds for this brazen attack on a peaceful freedom of expression? The t-shirts were deemed to be creating an “offensive atmosphere” and could constitute “harassment”.

Unsurprisingly, this has generated much publicity and rancour; lawyers defending the two students are asking for assurances from the LSE management that freedom of expression – a bedrock of universities – will be guaranteed in the future.

There is another consideration which may be a factor in all this. Given cuts to university funding, universities are scrambling to recruit overseas students. In view of the income that can be generated from their fees, this is an effective strategy. From this perspective, it makes sense to accommodate as much as possible of the cultural and religious belief systems of students from Muslim-majority countries in particular; which tend to be more restrictive than those of students from some other countries. The toleration of gender segregation and the curtailing of freedom might help the recruitment drive. But that doesn’t make them right.

The lesson from these two recent events is that the spilling over of religious sensibilities into academia is a clear and present danger to values that have long been cherished. We must defend them with vigour.

Published in The Conversation on 13th December 2013

First world problems: why economic development categories need a rethink



Judging countries by GDP per capita, especially those with high income levels, is a blunt measure of categorisation.

Aerial view of Qatar

An aerial view of Dohar, Qatar. World Bank development indicators for 2012 show that Qatar had the third highest GDP per capita. Photograph: Fadi Al-Assaad/Reuters

The term "third world" came to be adopted around the time of the 1955 Asia-Africa conference in Bandung, Indonesia, of "non-aligned" countries – mainly former colonies of Asia and Africa, together with countries of Latin America – that were not part of the advanced west (the first world) or the communist bloc (the second world).

It was therefore an indicator more of a country's geo-political stance rather than its level of development. Notwithstanding the inherent limitations of such a broad brush typology, it nevertheless described the reality of a very large part of the globe. It was also progressive – here were newly independent countries articulating not only an independence of political thinking, but also refusing to be sucked into the dangerous spiral of the cold war driven by two superpowers. While usage of first world and second world was always minimal, third world did garner traction.

Gradually, however, there began to be an unease with the term in that it had connotations of "third class" . In the post-colonial era, it was not considered politically correct to use such terms, especially by those in the former colonial powers. Accordingly, alternatives – not least in academia – such as "developing countries", or "the global south" or even just "the south" began to take preference. Certainly, with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet bloc – and with it the loss of the original rationale for using second world – it seemed that third world would also be made redundant.

This has not been the case. Indeed, the term is still used quite frequently in its economic sense, that is, the level of a country's economic development and standard living as evidenced by GDP per capita. Moreover, many third world countries, especially in east Asia, have forged ahead with development and were accorded a new epithet, newly industrialising countries (Nics). In the development sense, these would now better be described as being part of the second world. They are no longer in the third world, but most are not yet in the first world either. And the old Soviet bloc countries can also fit within this grouping.

In my experience as a longstanding academic, I have found little discomfort in the use of third world by students and academics from the developing world. In the same vein, last year, in an interview with Channel 4 News, Barack Obama's Kenyan half-brother was asked what he thought was the key difference between himself and Obama. He replied quickly that Obama was from the first world and he from the third world. Similarly, in his 2011 book on the modern history of Singapore, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew makes use of the terminology by using the title From Third World to First to highlight the astonishing transformation of a small impoverished country into a modern state with one of the world's highest living standards.

So there is some evidence to suggest that, despite the unease from some quarters, the term third world still has some mileage left when used to refer to countries that are relatively poor with low levels of development. But it is interesting to consider whether the term first world ought to be applied to some countries that have attained very high levels of income per capita. I am thinking of the Gulf states in particular.

The World Bank's world development indicators for 2012 shows that Qatar had the third highest GDP per capita at $83,000; UAE had the 16th highest at $42,000; Saudi Arabia 29th at $32,000. In 2011 Kuwait had the 10th highest at $45,000, with Oman and Bahrain a little further back at $26,000 and $25,000 respectively.

All these have a GDP per capita which would suggest that they are part of the first world. However, in the IMF's country categories, none of the Gulf Cooperation Council GCC states comes within other advanced economies (which exclude the G7 and euro area countries). Rather, they all fall within the highly disparate grouping of Middle East, north Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Yet South Korea, which has a GDP per capita slightly lower than Saudi Arabia's, is considered an advanced economy. Has the IMF got it wrong? Surely the GCC states should also be included in this exalted grouping? There are good reasons to think not: putting it somewhat euphemistically, these countries have quite some way to go.

Judging countries solely by GDP per capita is a blunt measure of categorisation. While it might be a necessary criterion, it is certainly not a sufficient one. GCC Human Rights, a campaign group highlighting the plight of migrant workers in the Gulf provides clear reasons for this. It reported: "In GCC countries non-white ethnic groups experience blatant discrimination ... [they] consistently deny immigrant workers the same rights enjoyed by their own citizens."

GCC Human Rights website provides evidence of the most appalling abuse of human rights of non-white migrants, including systematic brutalisation and torture, which was also recently highlighted by the Guardian and Amnesty International. Their mission statement concludes with these words: "Persuade the GCC countries to treat immigrant workers with the respect that is due them, remove all discrimination against them, and acknowledge them as first-class citizens – by doing so, these nations will become great."

What constitutes countries becoming "great" is highly contentious but if and when the GCC countries grant international norms of human rights to the large numbers of migrants within their ranks, then their eligibility to join the ranks of the first world can be considered. Currently though, despite their stellar GDP per capita, they are better considered as part of the third world – and there should be no unease at the derogatory meaning attached in this context.

On Guardian's Econ Blog


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