We are making language a battleground

Another forced apology. Cathy Newman, newsreader at Channel 4, has done what increasing numbers of people are doing – grovelling and apologising because of something they have written on Twitter, the micro-blogging site everyone’s talking about. But at least she still has her job, for now, which is more than some people can boast.

What seems to have happened is this: The Muslim Council of Britain organised something called #VisitMyMosque after becoming distressed that the British people might be getting the wrong idea of their religion because increasing numbers of its adherents are murdering people in the name of that religion.

The idea was to show, by inviting non-Muslims into local mosques around the country, how they and the religion of Islam were not fomenting unrest and hostility towards long-held British principles such as freedom to speak one’s mind without being shot. Indeed, freedom to speak one’s mind full stop.

The corollary was to confront the supposed epidemic of Islamophobia sweeping the country. If the mosques could just show how peaceful and contented Muslims were with Britain, just as she is, then non-Muslims would be less inclined to assume that all Muslims are violent, rampaging psychopaths just because some Muslims are violent, rampaging psychopaths.

It’s easy to be cynical, but this is probably a good idea, even though one might argue it is based on a false premise. There is a growing sense of separateness between the Muslim population of Britain and the rest, so anything that connects the two or breaks down the walls of separation is probably a good idea.

So what could Cathy Newman, a woman who seems to lean leftwards and support the general thrust of feminism, have done to require an apology? It can’t have been her leftish sentiment, which is at one with Muslim sentiment and grievance, so it must have been her feminist outlook. After all, we know the Muslims don’t like women much, so women flaunting their independence from and their equality with men is not going to go down too well, is it?

Well, who knows about that? And who knows why Cathy Newman chose to go along to the local mosque in Streatham? Her reasons are her own, but perhaps, as a journalist, she simply wanted to see what this MCAB initiative was all about; or perhaps she thought the #VisitMyMosque campaign to reduce Islamophobia was just the sort of thing to appeal to her progressive instincts. As I say, her reasons are her own.

So she went to the mosque; and then she left the mosque almost immediately, commenting on her #VisitMyMosque experience in terms that seemed disparaging, saying that, despite covering her head and taking off her shoes and not carrying the flag of Saint George in an offensive attitude and not crying death to the non-infidel, she had been ushered back onto the street.

Soon afterwards, and perhaps unwisely when the benefits of hindsight are factored in, she took to Twitter, that conduit of measured debate. She said she had been ‘ushered’ out of the building by a ‘man’ despite being ‘respectfully dressed’.

This was construed as her saying she was treated badly by a Muslim man because she was a woman and why oh why won’t these Muslim men learn how to treat women with respect – thus conforming to the ‘Islamophobic’ narrative these #VisitMyMosque visits were designed to confront.

She was duly found guilty of the newish and pressing crime of Islamophobia, with all the judicial efficiency only Twitter can offer. After all, justice delayed is justice denied. The obligatory apology soon followed.

Twitter fulminations tend towards the irrational, but in this instance it seems Cathy Newman really did have something to apologise for. The Huffington Post has since acquired CCTV footage of her arrival and departure, and it gives the distinct impression that the things she suggested happened in her tweets did not in fact happen. She arrived, took off her shoes, spoke to someone, put her shoes back on and then left with no sign of any sort of ushering taking place.

So, of course, it is right that she apologised. But for what? The relevant tweets are now deleted, but those captured by the Guardian newspaper suggest she was simply commenting on what happened.

First she tweeted, ‘Well I just visited Streatham mosque for #VisitMyMosque day and was surprised to find myself ushered out of the door…’ Then she tweeted, ‘I was respectfully dressed, head covering and no shoes but a man ushered me back onto the street. I said I was there for #VisitMyMosque mf’ And finally she tweeted, ‘But it made no difference.’

By your words will you be convicted. I have it in mind that someone famous said something like that, but I could be mistaken; might just be my words, but they seem apt. Those are the things she said on Twitter (assuming she didn’t delete other comments). But in a letter of complaint later released by the mosque she was accused of ‘suggesting she was forcibly ejected from our mosque for being a woman’.

Now, the word ‘usher’ is certainly on the same spectrum as ‘forcibly ejected’, but it is not quite the same thing: not by a long way. In fact, to be ushered somewhere is decidedly not to be subjected to force of any kind. Yet she was denounced for saying she was ‘forcibly ejected’ from the mosque. It doesn’t appear that she said this at all (again, unless there are other incriminating tweets).

And this is the problem, isn’t it? We are making language a battleground, quite literally in some instances. Just to remind ourselves: people have recently been murdered in Denmark because they attended a debate on art, blasphemy and freedom of expression and in France because they drew satirical cartoons. And there is a connection to Islam, isn’t there, no matter that the majority of Muslims would not murder people for what they say or draw?

But if murder and extreme violence is anathema to the majority of Muslims in the West, not quite the same thing can be said about Muslim attitudes to free speech, the use of language and satirical images. Earlier this month in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders thousands of British Muslims demonstrated in Whitehall and presented a petition signed by over 100,000 people to No 10 Downing Street that says, among other things, ‘I denounce the actions of all these people who are connected with the production of the cartoons of the Holy Prophet Muhammad peace be upon Him’.

Under the guise of a ‘Global Civility’ movement, a sizeable number of Muslims are campaigning to somehow end the rights of people in free countries to draw cartoons. The Muslim Action Forum has even devised a ‘legal strategy’ to ‘prevent the continuous insulting and derogatory publications depicting and abusing the personality of our Holy Prophet Muhammad peace be upon Him.’

They intend to mount a ‘series of legal challenges in the English Court system to establish that such depictions of our Holy Prophet peace be upon Him is the worst kind of ‘Hate Crime’ that can be perpetrated on the 3 million Muslims in the UK and 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide.’

Legal challenges?

This is a clear statement of intent, which should chill the blood of the civilised – even those who have no wish to draw any kind of ‘derogatory’ cartoon. This Forum even says it has plans for a Private Members Bill to bring this into effect.

It’s all linked, isn’t it – cartoons, language and the discussion of Islam?

Cathy Newman, however, finds herself caught in the melee. On the one hand her language was, as she said, ‘poorly chosen’. But her poorly chosen words were not the words for which she was condemned. Her words were distorted and inflated by those who wish to use the incident (such that it is an incident) to further their own authoritarian interests.

As such, her apology was perhaps overdone. She said, via Twitter naturally, that she offered here ‘sincere apologies for tweets she sent in haste’, and accepted her ‘tweets were inappropriate’ and that she had ‘caused a great deal of offence’.

Do some of those words sound familiar? ‘Inappropriate’; ‘offence’; ‘tweets sent in haste’. This is the pusillanimous language of political correctness. Those cartoons, we are told, cause offence. They are inappropriate. They are hate crimes that must be punished with the full force of the law.

So it seems we are at in impasse. On the one hand we have the principle of free speech and free expression, and on the other we have a desire for something they are calling ‘Global Civility’ which isn’t really about global civility at all but rather the introduction of a set of special legal protections for one religion in particular. It is difficult to see how these two positions can be reconciled.

Of course most people want to live in a world without insult or offence, but that world is not a real world. If someone wants to, they will always find offence in what someone else says or does. It’s the way of things. Muslims, above all, should know that the world is an imperfect place. Many of the countries in which they form a majority of the population demonstrate that simple, obvious fact every day.

If we try to legislate offence out of humanity, we will soon find that we are legislating something else out of humanity as well – and that something is freedom. He is offended by cartoons; she is offended by sexist language; we are offended by everything. There is no logical end to it. If we don’t watch out, this will consume us.


Has there ever been a more preposterous appeal against conviction than by the murderer of Lee Rigby?

It seems that Michael Adebolajo, one of the two men found guilty of the murder of Lee Rigby, is appealing against his conviction. The average person, with an average comprehension of the concept of guilt, might think this a little odd, but we have come to expect such appeals as a standard part of our criminal justice system.

It’s hard not to remember Lee Rigby. He is the soldier of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers who was murdered on the streets of Woolwich in May 2013. The case was horrific, as the images and news reports of the murder testified at the time. One might say it was barbaric, but we tend to resist such words for their other connotations – though it was barbaric; there is no disputing the truth of that statement.

We know that Adebolajo is guilty for two reasons. Firstly, there was the evidence we all got to see thanks to witnesses capturing the incident on their smartphones and then passing them on to various media outlets for transmission. Citizen journalism, I think it’s called. The images were enough to show pretty conclusive guilt, but when added to the admission and preposterous rhetoric of these Islamists – ‘soldier of Allah’ and the like – the evidence is damning.

Secondly, and most importantly, the jury sitting in the Old Bailey found him guilty. That is how we measure criminal guilt – innocent until proven guilty and all that. Magna Carta is our primary reference for jury trials, and Adebolajo was found guilty ‘by lawful judgement of his peers’ and by ‘the law of the land.’ Thus he is guilty. Any other system is arbitrary in nature, so we should be thankful that we have this tradition and that the jury was allowed to make its free decision on the guilt of these men.

But there is a problem. In fact, there are several problems. Although the guilty verdict was made in December 2013, neither of the killers has yet been sentenced. This is, as the presiding High Court judge, Sir Nigel Sweeney, tells us, because he is waiting for another Appeal Court ruling. There it is: a criminal, who has not received sentence because of an appeal, is lodging his own appeal against his conviction. As Shakespeare might have said: ‘The course of true justice never did run smooth.’ On this occasion, we await the result of the EU’s challenge to the British approach to whole-life sentences. Another knotty little issue!

A second problem is that Adebolajo is appealing at all. We have a system of appeal to protect the innocent from injustice. We like our jury system, but occasionally juries get it wrong, or new evidence comes forward after the original trial, or lawyers abuse accepted legal procedure. And yet it is hard to see on what grounds either of these two murderers might appeal against their convictions. It seems that appealing is simply the thing that happens after a conviction, even in the most clear-cut of cases.

Considering the evidence, the most likely outcome is for the appeal to be rejected at the first hearing. But it will be interesting to see what the lawyers come up with. If it’s good, then the public might just wear it, but if it’s just another spurious and legalistic game, then anger and cynicism might just be the outcome.

How undesirable is Trenton Oldfield?

It seems Trenton Oldfield has successfully appealed against having his visa revoked. He is the Australian thirty-something who took it upon himself to disrupted the 2012 Boat Race in a supposed protest against elitism while failing to notice that Oxbridge is more meritocratic than elitist on account of its really hard exams.

He calls it protest, and still thinks he has the right to do what he did that day. But it was in fact a form of sabotage; it was an attempt, partially successful, to deny freedom to others while at the same time claiming to exercise his freedom to protest. It doesn’t work like that, Trenton, really it doesn’t. It falls into the same category as forcing your way into someone’s office or place of work and denying them the ability to do their work. You don’t exercise your freedom by denying freedom to others who are simply going about their lawful business.

The decision, right or wrong, is a kick in the teeth for Theresa May, the Home Secretary. But what should she do now? What should happen, supposing we agree with her that the narcissistic, selfish little man’s presence in the UK is indeed ‘undesirable?’

He clearly loves Britain. Well, he said he ‘fell in love with London within hours of arriving,’ so one supposes he loves Britain too. The reason, you see, or one of them at least, was that he got the impression ‘there was room for people like me.’ There was room in London for people interested in justice and fairness. Which is nice to hear. Though one can’t help concluding that what he really meant was that he has a special regard for justice and fairness that is otherwise lacking in Britain. But he’s here now, so all is well!

Is it possible, however, that his love for country and olympian self-regard could be used against him? Is it not about time we, Perfidious Albion, lived up to our hard-won reputation? We doubly know he loves Britain because he fought so hard to stay here, despite the country’s inherent and odious elitism. His struggle is all the more impressive because he tells us he wants to raise a family here, too. O what sacrifices he is prepared to make for his love of country!

No, that last bit doesn’t make much sense to me, either, unless he’s like all those other middle-class revolutionaries who love Britain so much they want to move here, live here, enjoy the peace and harmony our rotten people and unjust political system seem to have quite inexplicably produced, and turn us into some utopian fantasy – not unlike Karl Marx and his fellow-travellers, now I think about it.

Anyway, that love he has for our country. How do we make use of it? Well, here’s a suggestion. You may or may not know that our cricketers are finding it hard going in Australia. It’s not clear if this is because Trenton (Old Trenty, as I affectionately like to call him) is right when he says Australia is unnacceptibly racist and they are giving our Yorkies a particularly torrid time because of it, or because the Aussies are just playing better cricket than us at the moment. But it is clear that our cricketers are definitely not finding it easy. How about we tap into Old Trenty’s obvious love of country and call him up to play for England in the next test match?

It is true that he might not survive the experience, considering the reception the Aussie fast bowlers, revved up by Oldfield’s outrageous slander of their country, are likely to give him; or, for that matter, the Aussie public. But he’d be willing to risk it, I’m sure. We know he’s brave: he risked decapitation last year while fighting the Oxbridge elitists. If that’s a just war, then surely fighting the Aussie racists is equally just, even a duty. It is also true that convincing him to play for England might not be entirely straightforward: not because he doesn’t like England, we know he luuurves England, but because he might think selecting a cricketer to play for his country just because he’s the best is a bit elitist. But I’m sure his newfound regard for Blighty would win out.

So far, so good. Now comes the sneaky bit. When the Ashes are over (unfortunately not to English satisfaction, as is the most likely outcome at the time of writing: and now doubly-unfortunately confirmed.) and it is time for the cricketers to come home, Andy Flower mislays the man’s passport.

But don’t worry too much for Old Trenty; he won’t be too inconvenienced – he would already be home.

This is only one option, of course. Another might be to slip him on a different plane to Cooky and the lads: the one going to Syria, perhaps. He might then learn what genuine injustice and unfairness in society looks like.

Ho hum! If only things were that easy. The thing is, I think perhaps he should be allowed to stay. You see, he is in fact married to a British citizen. They have a child, but that’s immaterial. It’s her British citizenship that is key. They could go and live in Australia, despite his ridiculous argument against doing so, but British citizens do have rights – inalienable rights. Genuine spouses should have automatic residency rights in the country of their spouse. That’s basic. It’s a matter of individual liberty over arbitrary state power. If he breaks the law then the law should punish him, but his residency, on balance, and barring extreme misbehaviour, should not be affected. No matter how disagreeable he is. And Trenton – Old Trenty my lad – you are disagreeable.

The rule of law and military service

The rule of law is what separates the civilised from the uncivilised – that and morality, of course. Not only does it define the things a society considers wrong, which are then called crimes, but it also deters people from committing those crimes – if, that is, they are accompanied by suitable punishments. Without this mechanism, society ends up being regulated not by reason, consideration and legitimacy, but by what is arbitrary and illegitimate. Violence and oppression ensue, followed by revenge and disorder – in other words, society becomes uncivilised.

I suppose we should, therefore, be happy that the rule of law has been allowed to take its course in relation to the conviction of a Royal Marine for murder while serving in Afghanistan. Murder is wrong, it is uncivilised, therefore people committing murder should be charged and, if found guilty through due process, punished. This, seemingly, is what has just happened at the Military Court at Bulford. Apparently it is the first conviction of its kind since the Second World War.

Senior officers have said the right things – and, no doubt, meant them. Brigadier Dunham, Deputy Commandant General Royal Marines, said: ‘It is a matter of profound regret that, in this isolated incident, one marine failed to apply his training and discharge his responsibilities.’ True, I’m sure. And: ‘It was a truly shocking and appalling aberration. It should not have happened and it should never happen again.’

It also goes without saying that whenever we fall short of our own exemplary standards, the critics and enemies of the very marines on trial seize on the opportunity for its propaganda uses. And there is, of course, the requirement to do the right thing (or not to do the wrong thing), no matter the circumstances. As General Sir Mike Jackson said: circumstances do not change the law.

Why, therefore, do I feel uneasy? It’s not just me. Major General Julian Thompson, Commander 3 Commando Brigade during the Falklands War, has reportedly refused to condemn the convicted sergeant, saying, ‘I’m not going to stand around bad-mouthing him.’ He has, of course, said that what happened was wrong, and that the law had been broken, but he clearly feels a certain conflict within.

After this verdict, which we are told carries a mandatory life sentence, there will be much discussion, especially in various barrack rooms across the Marines and the Army. Some will argue that he has been ‘hung out to dry,’ and they will do so in the fruity barrack-room language we might squeamishly prefer to think aberrant. Others, the other side of the fence, will say that this case should be followed by many more just like it. Individual prejudices, which we all possess, will determine which view people are most likely to take.

But the thing that sits uneasily is the simple fact that none of this would have happened if the marine in question had not been sent to Afghanistan to fight a war on behalf of his government and his country. He chose to serve, of course, but he was only in that specific situation because his country put him there. And neither am I aware of any evidence – though I may have missed it – to suggest he is the sort of person who breezily shoots people on the way to the shops at home. No. The circumstances were unique. He was in Helmand.

This is not an argument, of course, that excuses law-breaking. People commit crimes while at ‘work’ all the time. It’s no excuse. But, being sent to fight a war – and this deployment subjected these servicemen to experiences of a particularly vile nature – puts the person in question under unique stresses and strains. It is like no other. No other job involves going to a place of work where your competitor is not just trying to do better at this particular ‘business,’ but actively trying to kill you. Indeed, we are told that twenty-three of his colleagues were killed on the same tour. This changes the work dynamic, doesn’t it? How do we know how we would react in a similar situation?

Marine A is, incidentally, called Marine A because the authorities fear reprisals. We might say this could apply to the families of all those convicted of murder. But it doesn’t. This is a different situation. The problem in this case is the way the ‘friends’ of the victim operate. They are unremittingly uncivilised. We saw their modus operandi in Woolwich. They have no rule of law; they only have arbitrary, medieval barbarity – and that’s doing the word medieval a disservice. That’s what Marine A was fighting against. Again, how do we know the effect of this type of environment on otherwise law-abiding people?

But we have the rule of law, as I said earlier. This is what makes us different. The court will have heard the charge and the evidence and made what it thought was the right decision. I suppose, despite any reservation we might have – especially from ex-soldiers and ex-marines – this is the sort of thing our Armed Forces are there to fight for. And if we do not live by our own rules, how can we expect others to recognise the superiority of our system?

It’s just rather saddening, as General Sir Mike Jackson said, that’s all. Casualties of war are more numerous than we might think. It’s not just the killed and the wounded. Almost everyone who has served is affected in some way by that service. And this, it seems to me, is just one more example. Marine A did the wrong thing. He has paid for his mistake. But if some of us are going to condemn him, we should probably thank him too – for being prepared to serve and risk his life for his country in the first place. His life, like so many other lives, is never going to be the same again, all because he volunteered to serve.