Category Archives: politics

Don’t be fooled by simple media “science”

This video is getting plenty of coverage – and despite its length, it is worth watching. The humour helps, of course. You certainly won’t be bored if you commit the 20 minutes required to watch the video right through.

Oliver warns about the way journalists often misrepresent the science. Further, he is warning that often the science itself is suspect – or even no good.

It’s a warning we should all take on board. If we are interested in understanding something, and not just cherry-picking to confirm an existing ideological bias, then we have to approach what we read in the media about science critically and thoughtfully. Not accepting things at face value. Nor interpreting a journalist attempt at a false balance as somehow authenticating an article.

Hell, all good working scientists know that we should approach the peer-reviewed scientific literature itself in the same critical way. So we should hardly be more gullible when it comes to the media reporting of science.

I do get annoyed at the way our media often presents scientific issues in simplistic and shallow ways.

But then again, I also get very annoyed at the way our media presents important political issues in the same way – or even worse. Just look at the disgraceful way our media covers important issues like the war in Syria.

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Victory Day celebration of defeat of terrorism in Palmyra

Victory over terrorism in Syria is still a long way off. But the liberation of Palmyra was an important and symbolic step towards that. This concert on Thursday, in the historic amphitheatre of the ancient city of Palmyra, was dedicated to the 71st anniversary of the defeat of fascism in Europe as well as an expression of gratitude to all those who fight terrorism today and memorial to the victims of terrorism.

During their occupation of Palmyra, Daesh committed public executions by beheading in this amphitheatre. One of the most prominent people beheaded in the city at this time was Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist and the head of antiquities for the ancient city. The New York Time reported the murder (see Syrian Expert Who Shielded Palmyra Antiquities Meets a Grisly Death at ISIS’ Hands):

“After detaining him for weeks, the jihadists dragged him on Tuesday to a public square where a masked swordsman cut off his head in front of a crowd, Mr. Asaad’s relatives said. His blood-soaked body was then suspended with red twine by its wrists from a traffic light, his head resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on, according to a photo distributed on social media by Islamic State supporters.”

According to Wikipedia:

“A placard hanging from the waist of his dead body listed al-Asaad’s alleged crimes: being an “apostate”, representing Syria at “infidel conferences”, serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran” and communicating with a brother in the Syrian security services. His body was reportedly displayed in the new section of Palmyra (Tadmur) and then in the ancient section, whose treasures ISIS had already demolished.

In addition to al-Asaad, Qassem Abdullah Yehya, the Deputy Director of the DGAM Laboratories, also protected the Palmyra site. He also was killed by ISIL while on duty on 12 August 2015. He was 37 years old.”

Archeologist

Portrait of murdered Khaled al-Asaad at concert in Palmyra ampitheatre.

Given the religious basis of terrorism in Palmyra, and Syria as a whole, I am a little put off by the title of this concert “Pray for Palmyra. Music Revives Ancient Ruins.” Sure, “prayer” can have a secular meaning – but to me it brings up pictures of terrorists chanting “Allah Akbar” – “God is great.” This chant seems to accompany the launching of all mortars, rockets and almost every bullet fired by jihadists.

Maybe the chant “Allah Akbar” also accompanied each beheading in Palmyra.

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Barrel bombs, hell cannons, Aleppo and media bias

The result of terrorist shelling of Aleppo

I guess most readers have become familiar with barrel bombs – an indiscriminate weapon currently being used by government forces in the Syrian war. But how many have heard of “hell cannons?”

I hadn’t until recently and I think this shows the bias in our media coverage of the conflict. Hell cannons are an indiscriminate weapon used by rebel/jihadist forces, cause terror and  civilian damage and loss of life. Unfortunately, our media often seems to paint the picture that only government actions cause civilian losses.

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“Rebels” load hell cannon with explosive filled gas bottle in Aleppo. (Getty)

This bias seems particularly bad in their current reporting of the civilian deaths in Aleppo. Here are some of the mythical stories our news media is promoting:

1: The government is not attacking a city held by “rebels” as many of our media stories imply. Rebels hold the smaller part of the city in the east and attacks by the government forces and its allies are aimed at removing them. There is also intensive fighting in areas around Aleppo – particularly in the north where Syrian and allied forces recently disrupted rebel supply lines with Turkey.

So, if anyone is attacking Aleppo it is the rebels/jihadists.

2: The claim that the government and its allies are attacking “moderate rebels” is biased propaganda. the anti-government militias are numerous and allegiances are complex. They often fight among themselves.  Some may well be “moderate” but they cooperate and are often integrated with Al-Nusra – the main terrorist/jihadist group in the area.

How does one define “moderate” in Syria, though? I guess one way is to characterize those rebel militia which accepted the recent cessation of hostilities and signed ceasefire agreements with the Syrian government, as outlined in the US/Russian initiative, as the real “moderates” ready to take part in a political solution. It would seem that the “rebel” militia fighting in Aleppo have not accepted the cessation of hostilities agreement.

3: I recently heard an Al Jazeera reporter imply that only the Russians and Syrian government classifies “rebel” groups like Al Nusra as “terrorists” implying this was unfair. Again biased propaganda. The UN specifically lists Al-Nusra, together with Daesh (ISIS) as a terrorist organisation. Those groups were specifically excluded from the cessation of hostilities agreement.

There is a media tendency to describe only Daesh as terrorist or to present the aim of the US-based coalition and the Russian Federation in Syria as fighting Daesh. US spokespersons seem to repeat that description. This is very misleading. The UN and the cessation of hostilities agreement make clear that Al-Nusra is also the enemy.

Al-Nusra is the Al-Qaeda group in Syria (ISIS/Daesh originally broke away from Al-Nusra). Its aims and programme are just as obnoxious as those of Daesh but Al-Nusra has been able to form links with other anti-government militia – often groups that have been backed, armed and financed by the US and its middle eastern allies (eg. Saudia Arabia and Qatar). Very often these militia are operating under the command and structures of Al-Nusra. The ability of Al-Nusra to form these arrangements probably means it will outlast Daesh – and may actually be the bigger danger.

The death of the “last pediatrician” in Aleppo?

A blatant example of bias has been the media claim that a pediatrician who died in the bombing or shelling of a hospital in the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo meant Aleppo no longer had any pediatricians. Horrible Syrian government denying medical care for children!

But Dr Nabil Antaki, who works in Aleppo, responded to this propaganda with this:

“For three days now, these media outlets have been accusing the “Assad regime” of bombing an MSF hospital [Medecins sans Frontieres] to the east of Aleppo and of killing the last paediatrician in the city. This demonstrates that, for these media, the only priority is this pocket of the city where terrorists are embedded.

The three-quarters of Aleppo under Syrian Government control where numerous paediatricians are practicing is of no consequence for this media. We witnessed the same bias when Al Kindi, the biggest hospital in Aleppo, was targeted by terrorist mortars and then intentionally burnt down about 2 or 3 years ago. The media ignored this criminal act.”

He refers to this sort of propaganda as “lying by omission” saying:

“This media never mention the continuous bombardment and the carnage we have witnessed in western Aleppo where every single sector has been targeted. On a daily basis we see dozens of people murdered.

What makes these omissions even more despicable is that these areas represent 75% of Aleppo and there are 1.5 million people living in them. Compare this to the 300,000 living in the eastern zone which is occupied by terrorist groups.

This twisted narrative engenders the belief that these terrorist groups that are attacking us are actually the victims. Even more abhorrent, these media have distorted our “Save Aleppo” appeal, to make it look as if we are calling for Assad and the Syrian Army to cease hostilities!

This is FALSE. Added to which, they are not “Assad’s forces“, they are the national forces of the regular Syrian army that is defending the Syrian State.

The western and gulf media could at least have had the decency to mention the terrorist massacres of our people. For example, on Friday 30th April, when one of their mortars targeted a mosque at prayer time.”

Footnote: I find the New Zealand media pathetic in its coverage of events like the Syrian war and tend to search for other sources. I regularly watch Al Jazeera but now find their coverage of Syria extremely biased. Perhaps this is because the organisation is based in, and financed by Qatar, a sponsor (together with Saudi Arabia and Turkey) of anti-government forces in Syria.

Of late I notice that Al Jazeera has been smudging out the logos identifying sources in many of the videos they display. Can’t help thinking they wish to cover up they fact they are relying on the “rebel’ news media for their videos of action in Syria.

Pathetic if true.

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Fluoridation decisions to be made by District Health Boards

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Image credit: Constant Contact

This has been on the cards for a while. In recent years ideologically and commercially motivated activists have played havoc with the consultations organised by local body councils. Councils have shown by their own actions they are not capable of considering the scientific and health evidence related to community water fluoridation. The political intrigues of local bodies and the lack of scientific skills have prevented sensible decisions in many cases – and resulted in reversals of decisions – sometimes within a few weeks. yet New Zealanders have in most places voted to support community water fluoridation.

Councils have asked the central government to remove decisions on fluoridation from their responsibility. And now the government has decided to do just that.

This is the text of today’s  press release from the Hon Dr Jonathan Coleman, Minister of Health, and the Hon Peter Dunne, Associate Minister of Health (see Fluoridation decision to move to DHBs):


DHBs rather than local authorities will decide on which community water supplies are fluoridated under proposed changes announced today by Health Minister Jonathan Coleman and Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne.

“New Zealand has high rates of preventable tooth decay and increasing access to fluoridated water will improve oral health, and mean fewer costly trips to the dentist for more New Zealanders,” says Dr Coleman.

“This change could benefit over 1.4 million New Zealanders who live in places where networked community water supplies are not currently fluoridated.

“Water fluoridation has been endorsed by the World Health Organization and other international health authorities as the most effective public health measure for the prevention of dental decay.”

DHBs currently provide expert advice on fluoridation to local authorities.

“Moving the decision-making process from local councils to DHBs is recognition that water fluoridation is a health-related issue,” says Mr Dunne.

“Deciding which water supplies should be fluoridated aligns closely to DHBs’ current responsibilities and expertise. It makes sense for DHBs to make fluoridation decisions for their communities based on local health priorities and by assessing health-related evidence.”

A Bill is expected to be introduced to Parliament later this year. Members of the public and organisations will have an opportunity to make submissions to the Health Select Committee as it considers the Bill.

See also: DHBs could make call on fluoridating water

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Nadine gives a necessary message to her fellow Muslims

TV host Nadine Al-Budair made this statement on the Saudi Rotana Khalijiyah TV on April 3. I hope she survives to say more.

We need more, much more, voices like this among Muslims.

Here are some extracts from a recent article of hers.

“Imagine a Western youth coming here and carrying out a suicide mission in one of our public squares in the name of the Cross. Imagine that two skyscrapers had collapsed in some Arab capital, and that an extremist Christian group, donning millennium-old garb, had emerged to take responsibility for the event, while stressing its determination to revive Christian teachings or some Christian rulings, according to its understanding, to live like in the time [of Jesus] and his disciples, and to implement certain edicts of Christian scholars…

“Imagine hearing the voices of monks and priests from churches and prayer houses in and out of the Arab world, screaming on loudspeakers and levelling accusations against Muslims, calling them infidels, and chanting: ‘God, eliminate the Muslims and defeat them all.’

“Imagine that we had provided an endless number of foreign groups with visas, ID cards, citizenships, proper jobs, free education, free modern healthcare, social security, and so on, and later a member of one of these groups came out, consumed by hatred and bloodlust, and killed our sons on our streets, in our buildings, in our newspaper [offices], in our mosques and in our schools.

“Imagine a Frenchmen or a German in Paris or Berlin leading his Muslim neighbor [somewhere] in order to slaughter him and then freeze his head in an ice box, in a cold and calculating manner… as one terrorist did with the head of an American in Riyadh years ago.

“Imagine that we visited their country as tourists and they shot at us, blew up car bombs near us, and announced their opposition to our presence [there] by chanting: ‘Remove the Muslims from the land of culture.’

“These images are far from the mind of the Arab or Muslim terrorist because he is certain, or used to be certain, that the West is humanitarian and that the Western citizen would refuse to respond [in this manner] to the barbaric crimes [of the Muslim terrorists]. Despite the terrorist acts of Al-Qaeda and ISIS, we [Muslims] have been on [Western] soil for years without any fear or worry. Millions of Muslim tourists, immigrants, students, and job seekers [travel to the West] with the doors open [to them], and the streets safe [for them].”

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Why is Donald Trump so successful – and will he win?

Trump-web

I think Donald Trump is a buffoon – but perhaps I have got it all wrong. According to ‘Dilbert’ creator, Scott Adams, Trump is the ultimate politician – especially in deploying his powers of persuasion. And surely that is what all politicians want to do? In fact, Adams believes  Trump is so good at persuasion that he will win the election in a landslide.

Michael Cavna outlines Adams’s arguments in the Washington Post article Donald Trump will win in a landslide. *The mind behind ‘Dilbert’ explains why. Basically, it boils down to the fact that:

“On the stump, the real-estate mogul is not running on the knowledge of his numbers or the dissection of the data. He is running on our emotions, Adams says, and sly appeals to our own human irrationality. . . . .

“Most simply put: Adams believes Trump will win because he’s ‘a master persuader.’”

OK – that analysis appeals to me -I have often asserted that humans are not a rational species – more a rationalising one. Emotions play a huge role in our decisions – even when we think, and claim, we are acting rationally. “Psychology is the only necessary skill for running for president,” writes Adams, adding: “Trump knows psychology.”

So, here are 6 things Trump is doing to win hearts and minds:

People are irrational

1. Trump knows people are basically irrational.

“If you see voters as rational you’ll be a terrible politician,” Adams writes on his blog. “People are not wired to be rational. Our brains simply evolved to keep us alive. Brains did not evolve to give us truth. Brains merely give us movies in our minds that keeps us sane and motivated. But none of it is rational or true, except maybe sometimes by coincidence.”

2. Knowing that people are irrational, Trump aims to appeal on an emotional level.

“The evidence is that Trump completely ignores reality and rational thinking in favor of emotional appeal,” Adams writes. “Sure, much of what Trump says makes sense to his supporters, but I assure you that is coincidence. Trump says whatever gets him the result he wants. He understands humans as 90-percent irrational and acts accordingly.”

Adams adds: “People vote based on emotion. Period.”

Fact don’t matter

Apparently this cynical approach has the advantage that facts are not longer important:

3. By running on emotion, facts don’t matter.

Adams writes. “There are plenty of important facts Trump does not know. But the reason he doesn’t know those facts is – in part – because he knows facts don’t matter. They never have and they never will. So he ignores them.

“Right in front of you.”

4. If facts don’t matter, you can’t really be “wrong.”

Trump “doesn’t apologize or correct himself. If you are not trained in persuasion, Trump looks stupid, evil, and maybe crazy,” Adams writes. “If you understand persuasion, Trump is pitch-perfect most of the time. He ignores unnecessary rational thought and objective data and incessantly hammers on what matters (emotions).”

5. With fewer facts in play, it’s easier to bend reality.

Trump can be thin-skinned when his “reality” is challenged. “The Master Persuader will warp reality until he gets what he wants,” writes Adams, noting that Trump is “halfway done” already.

Identitiy politics

Finally, something which many of us find especially hateful – the denigration of people – turns out to be yet another powerful trick in Trump’s persuasion arsenal.

6. To bend reality, Trump is a master of identity politics — and identity is the strongest persuader.

“Do you think it is a coincidence that Trump called Megyn Kelly a bimbo and then she got a non-bimbo haircut that is … well, Trumpian?” Adams writes. “It doesn’t look like a coincidence to this trained persuader. . . .

“Writes Adams: “Identity is always the strongest level of persuasion. The only way to beat it is with dirty tricks or a stronger identity play. … [And] Trump is well on his way to owning the identities of American, Alpha Males, and Women Who Like Alpha Males. Clinton is well on her way to owning the identities of angry women, beta males, immigrants, and disenfranchised minorities.

“If this were poker, which hand looks stronger to you for a national election?”

It’s a pretty convincing argument. We ignore the irrationality of humans at our peril and most political commenters had dismissed Trump because he is irrational. They ignored the fact that he had special skills at appealing to emotion and using crude identity politics.

But, I hope Adams is exaggerating in his claim that Trump will win the presidency in a landslide. I hope there enough people who refuse to be led by such crude emotional and identity politics appeals. However, the fact that there is a large number of American’s who are persuaded by such buffoonery is a worrying thing.

Mind you – I think all politicians use similar techniques – appeal to emotions and our irrational nature, neglecting or bending facts and use of identity politics. But I like to think there is a large proportion of the population who are concerned with facts, are appalled by identity politics and are suspicious of emotional manipulation.

Hopefully, this proportion is large enough to prevent the landslide victory Adams is predicting. Mind you – the alternative may present equally large problems to the world?

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Why are our politicians so silent on Palmyra’s liberation from clutches of Daesh?

Palmyra_-_Monumental_Arch

Palmyra’s historic monumental arch. Bernard Gagnon

Robert Frisk, The Independent’s multiple award-winning Middle East correspondent, is angry with Western Political leaders who are silent about the liberation of Palmyra (see Why is David Cameron so silent on the recapture of Palmyra from the clutches of Isis?).

So am I. We should all be angry.

Frisk says:

“The biggest military defeat that isis has suffered in more than two years. The recapture of Palmyra, the Roman city of the Empress Zenobia. And we are silent. Yes, folks, the bad guys won, didn’t they? Otherwise, we would all be celebrating, wouldn’t we?

Less than a week after the lost souls of the ‘Islamic Caliphate’ destroyed the lives of more than 30 innocent human beings in Brussels, we should – should we not? – have been clapping our hands at the most crushing military reverse in the history of Isis. But no. As the black masters of execution fled Palmyra this weekend, Messers Obama and Cameron were as silent as the grave to which Isis have dispatched so many of their victims. He who lowered our national flag in honour of the head-chopping king of Arabia (I’m talking about Dave, of course) said not a word.”

Yes, the silence of these political leaders has been deafening. But not all leaders.

According to the Syrian Arab News the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed the restoration of Security and stability to Palmyra and the expelling terrorists of the Islamic State (ISIS) from the historic city:

“We were happy with the announcement of the Syrian army the restoration of security and stability to Palmyra… the Syrian army will protect and preserve this human heritage.”

He added ISIS terrorists don’t only kill people in a brutal way, but they also destroy the heritage of the human civilizations that date back to thousands of years.

UN Gen Sec

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon

Even the former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, expressed gratitude for the liberation of the ancient city of Palmyra. “Thank you,” he wrote in Russian in response to the message of the Russian Embassy in the US on the complete liberation of Palmyra.

McFaul

The Russian President congratulated the Syrian president on Palmyra’s liberation – although maybe that doesn’t count as his country contributed to this defeat of the Daesh jihadis in Palmyra.

Why this reticence?

Perhaps that is the problem – even if such a reason is childish. The policies and strategies of the US, NATO and the EU have been shown to be an absolute failure and then their political opponent – that upstart President Putin – comes along and shows them up. He gives substance to those criticisms of the failed policy of regime change in Syria.

As Frisk writes:

“When Palmyra fell last year, we predicted the fall of Bashar al-Assad. We ignored, were silent on, the Syrian army’s big question: why, if the Americans hated Isis so much, didn’t they bomb the suicide convoys that broke through the Syrian army’s front lines? Why didn’t they attack Isis?

“If the Americans wanted to destroy Isis, why didn’t they bomb them when they saw them?” a Syrian army general asked me, after his soldiers’ defeat.  His son had been killed defending Homs. His men had been captured and head-chopped in the Roman ruins. The Syrian official in charge of the Roman ruins (of which we cared so much, remember?) was himself beheaded. Isis even put his spectacles back on top of his decapitated head, for fun. And we were silent then.”

Back in September Putin asked during his speech to the UN General Assembly – “Do you realise what you have done?” He called for unity in the fight against terrorism – unity of the sort we experienced during the struggle against Nazism during World War II. But he didn’t sit back and wait for this unity – he provided help to the Syrian regime whose collapse, which was imminent,  would have thrown the country into anarchy of the sort that only breeds more terrorism. An anarchy which was the only clear future of the “regime change” policy. So, as Frisk points out:

“[Putin’s] aircraft attacked Isis – as US planes did not – in advance of the Syrian army’s conquest. I could not help but smile when I read that the US command claimed two air strikes against Isis around Palmyra in the days leading up to its recapture by the regime. That really did tell you all you needed to know about the American “war on terror”. They wanted to destroy Isis, but not that much.

“So in the end, it was the Syrian army and its Hizballah chums from Lebanon and the Iranians and the Russians who drove the Isis murderers out of Palmyra, and who may – heavens preserve us from such a success – even storm the Isis Syrian ‘capital’ of Raqqa. I have written many times that the Syrian army will decide the future of Syria. If they grab back Raqqa – and Deir el-Zour, where the Nusrah front destroyed the church of the Armenian genocide and threw the bones of the long-dead 1915 Christian victims into the streets – I promise you we will be silent again.

“Aren’t we supposed to be destroying Isis? Forget it. That’s Putin’s job. And Assad’s. Pray for peace, folks. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? And Geneva. Where is that, exactly?”

“Regime change” is a threat to Europe

Europe is suffering the largest immigration crisis since the last World War – a crisis caused by the thoughtless application of “regime change” strategy in the Middle East.

I don’t go along with the claims that this immigration is being used by ISIS to infiltrate trained terrorist groups into Europe – after all, the groups we have seen in action have been essentially “home-grown.” But jihadists have captured territory in Iraq, Syria and now Libya –  have set up their own “caliphate” which enables the training of such “home-grown” jihadis. This also provides an ideological “homeland” for these terrorists. Daesh (ISIS) public sponsorship of terrorist actions in Europe – and elsewhere (which our media practically ignores) is clear evidence of a direct link.

Yes, the social and cultural problems of current European citizens of Middle East origin contributes to their radicalisation as well. But surely this massive immigration will only help set up a future situation of increased ghettoisation and radicalisation of the immigrants and their children.

Politicians have failed to develop policies in Europe capable of preventing the current ghettoisation and radicalisation – it’s an open question whether they will be able to develop policies suitable for the new wave of immigration.

Meanwhile, these same politicians in Europe, NATO and the US have created the current problems with their ‘failed “regime change” interventions in the Middle East. Realists have started to realise this and complain about that strategy. But, so far, they seem incapable of completely rejecting it, accepting the right of the peoples in those countries to decide their own regimes – and decide for themselves any changes they consider necessary.

As for the possibility of united action to combat terrorism, I think there have been hopeful signs with the US-Russian cooperation over the cessation of hostilities in Syria and support for the Geneva negotiations on Syria’s future. Perhaps that is a good start which can be built on. But so far such cooperation appears to be confined to the activity of the US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Given that president Obama couldn’t bring himself to welcome Palmyra’s liberation I wonder what John Kerry says in private?

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The US speaks in two tongues on terrorism

Palmyra liberation

I wonder how democratically minded people reacted to news of the defeat of the Nazis at Stalingrad during World War II. Or to the liberation of inmates from German concentration camps in Poland by Russian forces towards the end of the war.

Surely they welcomed these victories – even reacted ecstatically. I find it hard to believe otherwise.

But now I wonder. Surely the liberation of the Syrian city of Palmyra from Daesh (ISIS) occupation must be welcomed ecstatically by democratically minded people. Yet we find this pathetic hand wringing by a US State department spokesperson Mark Tonner.

He was far from enthusiastic the other day when asked if the US considered Palmyra’s liberation a positive development. Less than 24 hours before the Syrian Arab Army’s major push, Toner was asked on Wednesday if the US would like to see “the regime retake Palmyra, or do you prefer that it stays in Daesh’s hands?”

But no clear support for such a liberation. Instead, Tonner talked about “alleged violations of the cessation of hostilities” by the “regime.”  How the hell could a responsible State Department spokesperson talk that way – surely he is aware that the cessation of hostilities agreement brokered by the US and the Russian Federation specifically excluded Daesh!

He effectively refused to answer the journalist’s question instead suggesting there was little difference between Daesh and the “regime” of President Bashar Assad. After giving an evasive non-answer, Toner was pressed to clarify his remarks.

“No, I mean, look, I mean, broadly speaking, it’s not a great choice, an either/or, but – which is worse, Daesh or the regime – but we think Daesh is probably the greater evil in this case,” Toner replied.

Bloody hell! With such an evasive attitude by someone representing a country which is claiming to play a decisive role against international terrorism no wonder we have problems.

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Life for women under Daesh (ISIS)

This video was taken in the Syrian city of Raqqa – the Daesh (ISIS) capital and stronghold in Syria. It portrays the life for ordinary women under the tyranny of these Islamic terrorists.

Fortunately, this situation may soon be reversed. Armed forces of Syria and its allies are currently massing to retake the historic city of Palmyra.

Palmyra

The ruins at Palmyra are shown here in 2009. Source: PETER RAYNER/AXIOM/ZUMA

Battles are also occurring around Deir ez-Zur. The capture of these cities well enable liberation of Raqqa.

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The “interfaith” trap – particularly for atheists

The video above shows some of the hassling of Maryam Namazie by members of the Goldsmiths Islamic Society when she gave a talk to the London’s Goldsmiths College on the topic “Apostasy, blasphemy and free expression in the age of ISIS.” The talk was sponsored by the Goldsmiths Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society but was opposed by the Goldsmiths Islamic Society and the Goldsmiths Feminist Society who attempted to get her invitation withdrawn. Warwick University Students Union and Trinity College Dublin had also originally withdrawn invitations to Maryam Namazie, citing fears of incitement to hatred of Muslims.

The video is long and the sound quality is not good. However I persisted and found interesting the fact that female Muslims in the audience were not able to ask their questions until  near the end – after the male disruptors had left!

Now University of Sheffield

The other day I saw a similar example of this attempted censorship at the University of Sheffield. But this time, the Sheffield Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (SASH) itself was the censor – they “turned down a suggestion by a student to invite Maryam Namazie to speak at the university. The reason? Her ‘hard anti-Islamist approach’ is not ‘conducive’ to the direction that the society wishes to go in” (see Atheist students are losing their faith in free speech).

So this is yet another example of the way group thinking and irrational arguments are being used to prevent open discussion of important issues like human and women’s right? (I discussed this in my articles Richard Dawkins and the Skeptics Conference controversy and Misrepresentation, misogyny and misandry – these should concern sceptics). But it is also an example of how “interfaith” activity, and indeed finding common cause with groups holding different beliefs, can result in the suppression of such vital discussion.

The author of the article is Hallam Roffey who is a writer and a student at the University of Sheffield. He writes:

“This isn’t a wind-up. Not only is the suggestion that you can be ‘too hard’ on Islamism baffling, but the fact that this statement came from an atheist, secularist and humanist society is almost beyond parody. To clarify, this is a society which aims to defend human rights and promote secularism declining to invite a renowned and influential ex-Muslim, secularist and human-rights campaigner. (Namazie has done extensive work supporting refugees, and has tackled both religious fundamentalism and far-right bigotry.)

“In its response to the inquiring student, SASH said that it would like to concentrate on ‘interfaith’ activities instead, stating that ‘interfaith between faith societies is vital’. Apparently, inviting Namazie, which may not be welcomed by some members of Sheffield’s Islamic Society (ISoc), would be antithetical to their objectives.”

So, in effect, this student society has thrown away some of its basic aims simply to further its “interfaith” activities.

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Photo credit: AP/Valentina Petrova

I find that incredible. While I accept that cooperation between groups of different beliefs is important and laudable what is this worth if it involves giving up such important principles. Would the Christian societies at Sheffield give up their bible studies and prayer meetings in order to further “interfaith ” cooperation with the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society? Would the Islamic Society give up their involvement in Ramadan activities for such vague “interfaith” reasons?

I think not.

I think that this example shows how the involvement of atheists and humanists or “interfaith” organisational activities can be a trap. After all, many of these sorts of activities already assume ideas and customs which exclude atheists (eg religious observations and collective ‘interfaith” prayers). Atheists should limit cooperation to issues where there is common ground – and they should not limit their own activity on issues like human rights because one or other of the theist groups do not support them.

Or is this just   a fashionable “political correctness?”

Mind you, I wonder if this “interfaith” issue is just a handy excuse for those who rejected the request that Maryam speak. I wonder if the bogeys of “anti-feminism” and Islamophobia” are not the real reasons, at least for some, in the way these arguments have been used in attempts to suppress the voices of others – like Richard Dawkins.

Hallam Roffey says:

“SASH was particularly concerned that there would be a repeat of ‘what happened at Goldsmiths’, when Islamist students disrupted a talk being given by Namazie. But this only projects a pretty dim view of Sheffield ISoc. As a Sheffield student myself, I’d like to think that ISoc members would be up for the debate, and would not act at all like those thugs at Goldsmiths. Not all Muslims resent apostates.

“What’s more, the subtext here is that Namazie was in some way to blame for the Goldsmiths incident. Though SASH insists it does not condone Goldsmiths ISoc’s actions, it is nevertheless siding with Islamists at Namazie’s expense. This is cowardly and pathetic.”

I agree – this sort of suppression of discussion on topic human rights issues is cowardly and pathetic.

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