Thursday, August 23, 2012

Assange-free link list

Book lists
Following this post, here are book lists from Sarah, Norm and Noga. All great lists. Possibly more comments to follow.

South Africa: frontline in the class struggle
The Marikana mine massacre - the televised spectacle of mainly black riot policemen shooting down of over 34 striking mine workers - followed by the bullying by the mine owners by the British-based owners of the mine, Lonmin, who in turn are fully suported by the governing ANC, its main component the South African Communist Party and the mainstream union, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the SACP-dominated trade union coalition COSATU. A close partner of Lonmin is Shanduka, the company of millionaire ANC politician Cyril Ramaphosa, close associate of Nelson Mandela and former president of the NUM; the Shanduka Group, through its subsidiary, Shanduka Resources, holds a 50.03% share holding in Incwala Resources, which in turn holds an 18% interest in Lonmin’s two principal operating subsidiaries, Western Platinum Limited and Eastern Platinum Limited, and a 26% stake in the Akanani platinum project. The wildcat strike is partly a strike against his union, the NUM, as well as against the Lonmin bosses.

The massacre is politically important for showing that racial justice does not lead to social justice; black plutocrats are no more kind than whiet plutocrats. South Africa's government is corrupt, thuggish and pro-business; inequality has grown since apartheid ended and the ANC cares nothing for the likes of the rock drillers except as vote-fodder. The massacre should serve as a wake-up call to the global labour movement about priorities - but alas probably won't.

Read Brendan O'Neill on the ANC’s Sharpeville;The Marikana Mine Worker's Massacre – a Massive Escalation in the War on the Poor by Ayanda Kota of Abahlali baseMjondolo (h/t SS); Umshini Wam by Chris McMichael; Blood on our hands, hands over ears by Jay Naidoo; and Semseni Na? by Chris Rodrigues. Contrast the disgusting half-truths, scape-goating of independent trade unionists and peddling of the ANC/NUM line by the Stalinists of the Morning Star - here, here. And the shameful response of COSATU's anti-Zionist thug Bongani Masuku.

Putin v Pussy Riot
Read Nick Cohen on the evil collusion between tyranny and theocracy in Russia and Hugo Rifkind via Mick Hartley on protests against Putin and the duplicity of WikiLeaks. (Sorry, Assange inserted himself there; meant to keep him out of this post.)

Jews, youth and socialism
I disagree with some of the things Peter Risdon says in this extremely thought-provoking post.

Secularism, theocracy, intolerance and double standards
Two very thoughtful posts by BenSix: Girl Accused on Pakistan's drift to theocracy and the West's relative indifference, and You Are Not Damien Karras…, on witchcraft allegations and those who ask the West to be indifferent. (My summaries don't do just to the content there.) And a thoughtful post by Pink Prosecco on the dilemmas of secularism. And here's a debate on the circumcision ban we were talking about earlier in the summer. (I might get back to that at some point.)

Alan Mendoza's putsch at the Henry Jackson SocietyEldridge Cleaver in 1968 on Jewish lessons for black nationalists. Sarah AB on the endlessly depressing topic of anti-Roma bigotry in Hungary. James Bloodworth on why railways are too important to run on greed. No future for French Jews? Who are America's heroes?

Image credits: AFP via Global Post; Reuters via The Atlantic via MH.

Monday, August 20, 2012

We Are Not All Julian, and Julian is Not Pussy Riot

Like most libertarians, I was vaguely impressed with WikiLeaks and its figurehead Julian Assange when they first entered my consciousness. As time has gone by, however, I find Assange more and more distasteful, with his megalomania, his promotion of a (para)politics of paranoia, and of course his disgraceful response to the credible allegations against him of sexual assault.

The miasma of misogyny that floats around him and his supporters is one thing that puts me off him even more. Today, unbelievably, George Galloway claimed that "even if the allegations made by these two women were 100 per cent true. . . they don't constitute rape." A bit like the "not rape-rape" claims by Polanski's supporters. It follows Terry Jones on Twitter claiming that “Not wearing a condom is not a crime in this country”,. As Naomi McAuliffe writes, "If you find yourself needing to do intellectual somersaults to justify a rape or semantic back-flips to refine rape, then you might want to consider whether all your principles are so flexible."

But Assange himself and his supporters regularly come out with this sexism, that if it came from conservatives would have liberals denouncing them soundly. His associate Israel Shamir: "It is no coincidence that the enemies of Empire are all masculine males, be they Gaddafi, Castro, Chávez, Lukashenko, Putin – or Julian Assange. It appears the men have been targeted for elimination; the working ants need no sex." Assange himself:    "Western culture seems to forge women that are valueless and inane." And: "The reporters on the Guardian disappointed me. They failed my masculinity test." Loads more examples here. Mind-boggling.


And Assange's speech from the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy yesterday put him one notch down in my estimation.

It was good that he drew attention to one of the world's less well known acts of repression of free expression, near the end of his speech, when he said "On Thursday, my friend, Nabeel Rajab, was sentenced to three years for a tweet." Rajab was found guilty by a court in Bahrain of instigating and participating in several illegal gatherings and sentenced to three years in jail. Rajab, who is president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, is already serving a three-month sentence for posting anti-government comments on Twitter. Rajab is a real hero, and it is good that in an uncharacteristic act of sharing the limelight, Assange has put some of the public's attention on him.

Or is it rather that Assange suspects that sympathy for him is flagging outside of his zombie cult, and seeks to bolster his glamour by association with genuine heroes of free expression?

After mentioning Rajab, he continued: "On Friday, a Russian band was sentenced to two years in jail for a political performance. There is unity in the oppression. There must be absolute unity and determination in the response." The band in question, which he was oddly too prim to name, was of course Pussy Riot.

Pussy Riot's "punk prayer" against Vladimir Putin earned them  two years in a prison colony for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred". Again, they are genuine heroes of free expression, imprisoned for purely political reasons by an authoritarian regime.

But why should there be "absolute unity" between their cause and that of Assange. Assange's personal cause, when it comes down to it, is not about WikiLeaks but about whether or not he should answer serious sexual assault charges. By comparing himself to Pussy Riot, he demeans their cause.

And by offering solidarity to them, he is guilty of gross hypocrisy. As the Guardian reportedEvgeny Morozov, the author of the Net Delusion, tweeted: "Great that Assange supports Pussy Riot. Perhaps, he can have them on his TV show. Oh wait...."  Morozov later tweeted: "Another idea for a great Assange show on RT: interview the Belarusian whistleblower Alexander Barankov about to be extradited from Ecuador."

Assange's TV show was on Russia Today, the state-funded media outlet that is the main global mouthpiece of the Putin regime which locked up Pussy Riot. Russia Today (or RT) has been described by the Columbia Journalism Review as a "soft-power tool to improve Russia’s image abroad, to counter the anti-Russian bias the Kremlin saw in the Western media. Since its founding in 2005, however, the broadcast outlet has become better known as an extension of former President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational foreign policy." During Russia's Ossetian war in 2008, "Reporters who tried to broadcast anything outside the boundaries that Moscow had carefully delineated were punished." Shaun Walker, Independent’s Moscow correspondent, claims that.
“It is untrue that the channel’s journalists are able to report on what they want to without editorial influence; while as time has gone on there have been more features on “negative” aspects of Russia, there is still a total absence of any voices criticising Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev,” he says. “The channel’s coverage of Russia’s war with Georgia was particularly obscene. With Western TV networks hooked on a “New Cold War” headline and often not too well versed in the nuances of the region, there was a gap in the market for a balanced view of the conflict that explained Russia’s position. Instead, RT blasted “GENOCIDE” across its screens for most of the war’s duration, produced a number of extraordinarily biased packages, and instructed reporters not to report from Georgian villages within South Ossetia that had been ethnically cleansed.”
Another criticism often levelled at RT is that
  in striving to bring the West an alternate point of view, it is forced to talk to marginal, offensive, and often irrelevant figures who can take positions bordering on the absurd. In March, for instance, RT dedicated a twelve-minute interview to Hank Albarelli, a self-described American “historian” who claims that the CIA is testing dangerous drugs on unwitting civilians. After an earthquake ravaged Haiti earlier this year, RT turned for commentary to Carl Dix, a representative of the American Revolutionary Communist Party, who appeared on air wearing a Mao cap. On a recent episode of Peter Lavelle’s CrossTalk, the guests themselves berated Lavelle for saying that the 9/11 terrorists were not fundamentalists.
They also promote rapid 9/11 truth culter Alex Jones and "reported with boosterish zeal on conspiracy theories popular in the resurgent "Patriot" movement."

Meanwhile, despite tough talk to Ecuador, how have Cameroon and Hague stood up to Putin? As Denis MacShane notes, this week, in the wake of the Pussy Riot verdict, "British Conservatives will be at the Russian Embassy in London to launch a “Conservative Friends of Russia” group and William Hague has made clear that under his foreign policy trade trumps human rights."

And who is Alexander Barankov? Another genuine hero, whose fate contrasts sharply with Assange's. He got asylum in Ecuador three years ago, after whistle-blowing against corruption in the dictatorial regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. However, responding to pressure from Lukashenko during a trade visit to Quito last month, Barankov has been detained and looks likely to be deported to Belarus, to face trumped up treason charges.

The WikiLeaks outfit, while claiming to speak truth to power, is oddly economical with the truth when it comes to Lukashenko's power in Belarus. Belarus has one of the worst records for press freedom in the world, is widely regarded as "Europe's last dictatorship". Yet WikiLeaks have co-operated closely with its regime.

WikiLeaks links with Belarus are mainly through their associate and apparently “accredited” journalist Israel Shamir, a Holocaust denier, inveterate self-reinventor and antisemite. It was Shamir, in the odious CounterPunch, who publicised the identities of Assange's alleged rape victims, in deeply misogynistic articles making ridiculous claims that they were CIA operatives. Shamir has also published pro-Lukashenko propoganda in CounterPunch, claiming "the people were happy, fully employed, and satisfied with their government".

In early 2011, it was reported that Shamir met with Uladzimri Makei, the Head of the Presidential administration in Belarus. Subsequently, it was reported in the Belarus Telegraf that a state newspaper would be publishing documents about the Belarusian opposition. What has Assange's response been to allegations about Shamir? In  Kapil Komoreddi's words:
he upbraided Ian Hislop for publishing an article in the Private Eye that exposed Shamir as a Holocaust denier and white supremacist. There was, he claimed, a "conspiracy" against him by "Jewish" journalists at the Guardian. Addicted to obedience from others and submerged in a swamp of conspiracy theories, Assange's reflexive reaction to the first hint of disagreement by his erstwhile friends was to hold malign Jews responsible.
(Read more from WW4Report on that story.)

So, all in all, I concur with Jim's assessment of Assange: bleating fantasist, groveller, hypocrite and charlatan.


In The Commentator, a mildly amusing spoof Assange embassy diary. It turns on a lame and tedious gag idea about Ecaudorians eating guinea pig. Ha ha. I spent a month in Ecaudor a while back. Guinea pig is sercved, but mainly only in the mountains and not exactly ubiquitous even there. I don't recall seeing it much in Quito or in Ecuador's real metropolis, the wonderful coastal Guayacil. I refrained from eating it, but in general I can report that Ecuadorian cuisine is excellent. Lots of coriander. Lovely fresh fruit juices. Fanesca and other great soups. For the carnivores, tasty chorizos and roast pig. Loads of seafood on the coast, most notably great ceviche.

There's also the predictable panpipe gag, which will bring a smile to those of the Fast Show generation. But actually Ecuadorian music, especially out of the mountains, is pretty good. On the coast most people listen to salsa. Their national music is the pasillo not the panpipes, and I've embedded a good example below.


All the links you need and more from The Soupy One.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Bob's lists: Novels

Following this great post, and the interesting discussion that it led to, I am presenting here two lists of novels. The first one is the novels that shaped me, inspired me, made me think about literature the way I do. I read them in my teens and early twenties. Although I have re-read some since, I suspect I would have less time for some of them now, but they will always remain amongst my favourite books. I realise it is a very boysy list, full of male writers. And I suspect some represent the fashions and fads of the 1980s.

The second list is books I have read as an adult, books I have loved reading, which I count as my favourite novels of my adult years. I have a lot less time for reading now than I used to. In fact, for a few years after the the period of the first list I only read detective fiction. Then in my mid- or perhaps even late-twenties, I read The Satanic Verses on a beach in Cuba and fell in love with literature again. I guess once you reach a certain fullness, there isn't enough space inside your heart and head for a book to really change you, the way books change you as an adolescent. The books in the second list came closest to changing me in that way, of leaving me a different person. This list is also a bit boysy, and seems to have too many Great American and Great Indian Novels.

No doubt I have forgotten things that should be added to each list. And the numbering is slightly arbitrary, though I have tried to rank them.

The books that shaped me

1. Joseph Heller Catch-22
2. Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude
3. Don DeLillo White Noise
4. Thomas Pynchon Vineland
5. Aldous Huxley Antic Hay
6. George Orwell 1984
7. Kurt Vonnegut Slaughterhouse Five
8. Jean-Paul Sarte Iron in the Soul
9. Italo Calvino If on a Winter's Night A Traveller
10. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o  Petals of Blood
11. Milan Kundera The Unbearable Lightness of Being
12 Graham Greene Our Man in Havana
13. Anthony Burgess Earthly Powers
14. Victor Serge Conquered City
15. William Faulkner As I Lay Dying

The books I have loved since

1. Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex
2. Philip Roth Human Stain
3. Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses
4. Michael Ondaatje In the Skin of a Lion
5. Rohinton Mistry A Fine Balance
6. Anne Michaels Fugitive Pieces
7. Javier Cercas Soldiers of Salamis
8. Arundhati Roy The God of Small Things
9. James Ellroy American Tabloid
10. Don DeLillo Underworld
12. Jonathan Lethem The Fortress of Solitude
13. Valerie Martin Property

I was aiming for ten in each list, and nearly made it with the second.

Want to share your list? Here in the comments thread, or on your own blog if you have one. Do bloggers still tag each other these days? I'll tag Noga, Norm, Max, MartinGeorge - the other people I'd tag are already in the other discussion thread. I'll also finish off my philosophy list and post that.

Assange open thread

Topics for discussion:

1. The British threat to storm the embassy: I've been having trouble with the facts on this. Was a threat issued, or misreported? Did it come from the government, the Met police, who? In any event, even the most strident anti-Assange-ite must surely agree that a threat was both stupid and reprehensible, including from the perspective of British embassy staff in authoritarian states like Venezuela and Belarus. Can anyone justify it? And hasn't the policing of the Assange zombie cultists outside the embassy been extremely heavy-handed?

2. The right to asylum: For those of us who argue for a more robust and expansive right of asylum, and indeed opening of borders generally, is it hypocritical to be scornful of Assange's claim to asylum? Or, rather (as I think), doesn't he de-value and weaken refugee rights by claiming fear of persecution in Sweden, surely with one of the strongest human rights protection regimes (and indeed one of the highest level of asylum claims granted) in the global North?

3. Rafael Correa's Ecuador: What do we think of Correa? He has been accused of heavy-handed policies towards press freedom; he seems to both have a greater commitment to democracy than Hugo Chavez and a strong democratic mandate; his economically nationalist petro-socialism-lite is more moderate than Chavez's. Is the anti-American tirade of his foreign secretary a forgiveable blip, or indicative of Chavez-esque populism?

4. The embassy stay: Has Assange been living off the generosity of the Ecuadorian tax-payer while in there? Or have wealthier members of the Assange zombie cult subsidised him? Should we feel sorry for the Ecuadorians for having been chosen by him?

Background reading collected by the Soupy one: Owen JonesDavid Allen Green .

Previous: Assange/Shamir; Assange, Ardin and conspiracy theories.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The world's most difficult books

This is a guest posts by Jogo

Have any of you read the ten toughest books, as selected by The Millions?

Or even five of them?

1. Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes. I heard about this book in the 60s. If you were hip you were supposed to have read this book. I might have read 20 pages of it. But I can't remember what it's about.

2. Tale of a Tub, by Jonathan Swift. Never heard of it. Or, hmm, maybe that title is kinda slightly familiar.

3. Whatever, by GF Hegel. I have not read a word of it. I heard of it, though. Isn't this book tied in with Marx, somehow? I think "philosophy" doesn't matter, except to a minuscule soi-disant élite, that is my honest opinion. I wouldn't waste my time reading "philosophy." Before you sneer, tell me the truth: have any of YOU read a book of philosophy all the way through?

4. To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. I have never read anything by Virginia Woolf, though I hear she's a very good writer, and people I respect have read her. I'm open to reading one of her books.

5. Clarissa, etc., by Samuel Richardson. Never heard of this book, or this writer.

6. Finnegan's Wake, by James Joyce. Hasn't everyone heard of this famous book? I know I have. But has anyone -- you, or anyone you know -- read it? I doubt it.

7. Being and Time, by Martin Heidegger. I never heard of this book, but I have heard of Heidegger (Nazi lover of Hannah Arendt -- whom I haven't read, either). I have no idea what Heidegger wrote about, what his influence is supposed to be. Nor do I care. Have any of you read, say, 100 pages of this book?

8. The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spencer. I heard of this book. I love the title, and the way it's spelled. But I have no idea what it's about. I think I'll check out what the Wikipedia entry has to say.

9. The Making of Americans, by Gertrude Stein. Never read it (actually I never heard of it). Although of course I heard of GS. She is a moderately interesting person to me, but I doubt she has anything of importance to tell me. Wouldn't bother reading anything she wrote.

10. Women and Men, by Joseph McElroy. I never heard of this book or this writer? Have you?

11. Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. Now we're talkin'. Back in the 60s I read V and The Crying of Lot 49, both of which I enjoyed. But I don't think I need to read any more books by Thomas Pynchon. Have you read any of his subsequent books, or do you feel that you must read any before you die?

Finally ... 12. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. Nope. Never read one word by this guy. Am I missing something?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Slowly catching up

Back from some off-line time, wading through oceans of digital detritus. Here's some stuff which isn't detritus, on what are apparently the issues of the day.

Olympics London 2012

Sadly Brockley's own Olympian, Conrad Williams, who was apparently once a paperboy for Budgen's in Crofton Park, didn't make the 400m heats but almost got a bronze in the 4x400 hurdles, missing out by a whisker.

Further afield, Peter celebrates some of the Olympic reasons to be cheerful and the joys of being British in 2012. The Poor Mouth notes British excellence in sports involving sitting down and welcomes new countries to the medal tableChampagne Charlie celebrates Mo Farrah; the Soupy One celebrates Wojdan Shaherkani. Francis, on the other hand, is less celebratory in this interesting post on Critical Mass and the Olympic legacy, and Owen explains why the field is always already uneven. And I'll quickly pass over the various scandals, such as Mayor Boris using taxpayer cash to take Rupert Murdoch to the games.

Meanwhile, David Cameron rightly added a note of sobriety, with his speech to mark the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics (an anniversary the IOC itself shamefully refused to commemorate). Jeff Weintraub passes on two good links on the past and present treatment of Israeli athletes - by Hampton Stevens and Deborah Lipstadt. And Eric Lee identifies that moment in 1972 as pivotal in the left's turn to antisemitism.

Wisconsin Temple Shooting - and other hate crimes

I am not an opponent of gun rights, but it does seem as if mass shootings occur with what President Obama called "too much regularity" in the USA, although the statistics perhaps suggest we might expect this. The terrible shooting by Hammerskin Wade Michael Page at the Wisconsin Sikh Temple, is particularly shocking.

The attack is sadly just the latest in a long line of terror attacks by the American far right - some 180 people killed by far right activists in America in acts of ideological homicide from 1990 to 2010, not counting the 168 killed by Timothy McVeigh in 1995. In recent years, Muslims have been the main victims of such attacks, with examples including the plot by JDL terrorists Irving David Rubin and Earl Leslie Krugel to bomb the King Fahd Mosque in Culver City in 2001, or Sandlin Matthew Smith's detonation of a pipe bomb at a rear entrance to a mosque in Jacksonville, Fla. while worshippers were inside in 2010. Since the Wisconsin attack, the mosque in Joplin, Missouri, has been razed to the ground, the second arson attack in as many months. And, on this side of the Atlantic, an Islamic centre in Horley and a mosque in Gatwick have been desecrated.

However, as Sunny H writes, Sikhs have been America's silent scapegoats since 9/11. And some people can't really tell the difference; shamobilic Mitt Romney unbelievably spoke of an attack on a "sheik temple" not once but twice.

(See also my previous post on Jared Loughner, which rehearses some relevant issues.)

Honour [sic] Killings

Incomprehensible celebrity prof Jacqueline Rose penned a particularly atrocious article in the ever-gullible CiF using the sentencing of Shafilea Ahmed's parents/killers as an excuse to ponderously ponder on various inconsequential issues. Jim Denham takes a very sharp razor to Rose's piece, accusing her of dishonouring Shafilea's memory. He draws on a very good piece by the inspirational Muslim feminist activist Sarah Khan, who in turn draws on the powerful work of Southall Black Sisters. Sunny H also writes well on the issue, in The Times and New Statesman, and replying to some criticisms here. See also Shaheen Hashmat. Talking of honour-based violence, although not in this case homicidal, Jogo sent me this further example, which puts a different spin on the issue.

Dead white men

In my late teens, I was a great admirer of Gore Vidal, his wit and insight, his devastating scorn for liberal and illiberal pieties. Over the last decade, I came to dislike him more and more. I therefore loved reading this brilliant pre-obituary of him by the late Christopher Hitchens. If you don't have time, read Francis' more pithy and not un-Hitchensian* assessment, while Paul Berman's "requiem" is also brilliant.

Another figure I admired at the time was Robert Hughes, who also passed this week. I remember a late night TV programme of the late 1980s which consisted of Hughes, Hitchens, Edward Said and Camille Paglia, three of the greatest minds of their generation, sitting around a coffee table dissecting the sickness of postmodern culture, shortly after the publication of Hughes' brilliant polemic The Culture of Complaint. Nick Cohen celebrates him here.


George Szirtes: In the lion's mouth and In Chagall's yellow room (both very highly recommended, beautiful writing). Marko Attila Hoare: Montenegrins, Serbs and anti-fascists. Mike Harris on funding questions for Progress. Dave Semple says goodbye to blogging. Tim Flatman on Sudan's oil wars. Andrew Coates on Rosanne Barr, 9/11 Truth and the decline of the American left, on John Rees, Syria and "anti-imperialism", on Seymour v Hitchens. Snoopy on Norman Finkelstein's hubris. From EntinglichungMaruti Suzuki Manesar Workers: Resisting Caste Violence – Facing Brutal Repression (Radical Socialist); ‘Peaceful patriots’ fail to stop anti-fascist march in Liverpool (Searchlight); Tense anti-racist march underscores the task ahead for Liverpool’s anti-fascists (LibCom).

*Apologies to the Hitch for using a formulation which violates all of George Orwell's rules on writing.

Image sources: Boat Magazine, CNN, Daily Mail, Channel 4.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

From Bob's archive: Secular fundamentalism

Like the last one, this post comes from June 2007, when Salman Rushdie was knighted, but it is very relevant to some of the recent discussions here too

promised, some weeks back, to clarify my position on what I have been calling “secular fundamentalism”. This post will not really clarify it, but clear some ground, prompted by the latest twist in the on-going Rushdie affair.

Salman Rushdie has become a cause celebre of the secular movement, not so much because of the content of his work, but because of the hatred he has stirred up in the theocrats of Islam. It is worth asking, though, why his work, and not, say, the explicitly anti-religious polemics of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, arouses such anger from the clerics of hate. Obviously, the fact that he comes from a Muslim background is crucial – as it is with Ayaan Hirsi Ali – in other words, the fact that he is seen as an apostate.

But I believe that there is something more important. This is the fact that he takes religion seriously, that he understands it – understands it spiritually. His novels – and I am thinking in particular of his two great works, Midnight’s Children and above all The Satanic Verses, one of the greatest novels of our age – are not anti-religious. Instead, they rigorously explore the magic and myth of religion, the aesthetics of faith, the narrative power of scripture, and, crucially, its spiritual and moral truths. He writes, not to deconstruct, to denounce or to scorn, but to understand and, in some ways, to do justice to religion.

It is because I think we must do justice to religion in such a way that I differ from the contemporary partisans of militant secularism – Hitchens, Dawkins, Ophelia – however much I respect their crusade and share some of their positions.

I have decided, Will might be glad to hear, to abandon my use of the term “secular fundamentalism” for their position. My abandonment was prompted by reading the opening lines of the letter Mohammed Bouyeri, the Islamist murdered of Theo van Gogh, wrote to Hirsi Ali, which he pinned to van Gogh’s body with a knife: “You, as unbelieving fundamentalist…” To create (or appear to create) a moral equivalence between Hitchens and Bouyeri is clearly obscene.

But there is a dogmatic and messianic quality to some of this militant secularism. Etienne Balibar, a very wise French Marxist, responding to the headscarf debate, has written of “the powerful religiosity that animates anti-religious political ideologies – sacralized ‘secular struggle’, as in France, socialist or nationalist messianism”.

What is at stake, here, is two conceptions of secularism, two conceptions of the Enlightenment, two conceptions of radical politics. Ulrich Beck (not usually a theorist I much care for, but I like this quotation) has written: “To me, Enlightenment is not a historical notion and set of ideas, but a process and dynamic where criticism, self-criticism, irony and humanity play a central role.” The Enlightenment, the secularism, I want to advocate is perhaps the “Spinozist” secularism Balibar proposes: where the public sphere is not cleansed of religion (as in the Lockean and Hobbesian models), but where citizens (or collectives) are free to bring their commitments, their faiths and their heresies, into the space of politics – but contentiously, opening them to dispute.

This means – and again in the spirit of Spinoza and, I believe, Marx – reconstructing the ideal of universality, not as the imposition of residual Christian theology or as generalised Western rationalism, but allowing universality to be, as Balibar puts it, “the stake and the result of a confrontation of all the political discourses” including religious-political ones.

As I finish writing this, however, on Thursday night, the News at 10 comes on, showing an Afghan school where the Taliban attacked and shot young girls because they object to the education of girls. This makes debates about headscarves in French schools or Salman Rushdie’s place on the honours list seem a little trivial…