Wednesday, 28 January 2015

King Abdullah is dead, satire is on life support...

I had to check and double-check and check again. The world is currently such a ridiculous place that sometimes even the sharpest among us can accidentally fall for a spoof article. So when I found out a US Army General was sponsoring an essay competition in honour of the recently departed King Abdullah, I did a double take.

But sure enough, there it was, announced on the Department of Defense website on January 26, the same day the first execution by beheading under Saudi Arabia's new ruler, King Salman, took place. General Martin E. Dempsey is the brains behind this absurd idea.

I even tweeted the writer of the announcement to ask if this competition was real, if this really was the next innovation of the awful grief orgy for a despotic monarch of a terrible regime. He replied, rather adorably: "No, ma'am. Not a spoof. It is the real deal." I was last called "ma'am" when I went through passport control at the airport in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2009.

The thing is the focus of the competition isn't a terrible idea. The statement said that the competition focuses on "issues related to the Arab-Muslim world and is designed to encourage strategic thinking and meaningful research on a crucial part of the world." There is nothing at all wrong with intelligent research on the Arab-Muslim world. Indeed, intelligent research is a welcome alternative to oversimplification, ignorance and lack of understanding of a region that is both troubled and fascinating.

But the whole idea jumps the shark when it is stated that King Abdullah is a "man of remarkable character and courage" and a "fitting tribute to the life and leadership of the Saudi Arabian monarch." This would be the "leadership" of a man who, despite being an absolute monarch, has still let the religious arm of the state run an oppressive, evil regime. Come on, Abdullah - if you were going to be an absolute monarch, you may as well have tried for the benevolent dictatorship style rather than the useless style where you turned a blind eye to religious police being ridiculous, awful and violent to people trying to live peacefully in your country.

I get it. Saudi Arabia is joining the military effort in the fight against ISIS. Saudi is letting the US use their land to train and equip Syrian fighters. Saudi buys arms from the US and the UK for its well-equipped military, even though it has done pretty much bugger-all since 1991. Saudi is, naturally, are more than happy to let the US buy its oil - despite all the noise about the US being so close to energy self-sufficiency, 13% of oil consumed in the US is imported from Saudi.

But the sad fact is that Saudi lending a hand in the fight against ISIS won't do a whole lot to stop the radicalisation that leads to terrorism. It cannot be denied that ISIS has its ideological roots in Wahabbism, the extreme form of strict Islam which has formed the basis of Saudi law and society since the start of the 20th Century with its influence starting much earlier.

Saudi Arabia can throw whatever military might and money it likes behind the fight against ISIS, but as long as the country is beholden to Wahabbism, to the vile religious police, and to a judicial system that does not include fair and open trials and favours public beheadings for crimes ranging from murder to witchcraft, it is part of the problem. It sets a hideous example that inspires some of the worst of humanity.

But as long as there are arms deals at stake and cheap petrol to be enjoyed, it is clearly far preferable for the leaders of the western world to drop everything, including flags to half mast, and head over to Saudi Arabia like dumb labradors to lick the face of the new king in an unironic grief orgy.

Kudos to Michelle Obama for not covering her hair (and looking suitably bored) in Saudi this week - and kudos to Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush for also eschewing headscarves when they visited the kingdom -  but it would have been even better if she didn't go at all. Perhaps she could have released a YouTube video, dressed in one of her trademark sleeveless dresses, saying that she was defying her husband by not going to Saudi. That would have been cool.

Instead, we have witnessed commentators on TV news channels talking about King Abdullah as if he was the Saudi equivalent of Germaine Greer. He mentioned that women will be able to vote and run for office in this year's municipal elections, but we will have to wait and see if King Salman makes good on this promise. He promoted one woman, the Utah-educated Norah Al Faiz, to the position of Deputy Minister of Education for Women's Affairs. She is very accomplished but she is still the deputy to a man who oversees these matters pertaining to women. There are more women in higher education than men in Saudi, this is true, - but when these women cannot drive a car, when they cannot work or travel without permission from their male guardians, when not all professions are open to them, the potential to be gleaned from their education is reined in by misogynistic restrictions. Women's testimonies in courts are worth less than those of men. Women who have pressed rape charges have ended up being punished for immorality if the accused is found not guilty.

On the upside, King Abdullah has daughters who have received university education. But these would be the daughters that he keeps locked up in the palace in terrible conditions, a hangover from his anger at that particular wife not giving him a son. He is a latter day, science-denying Henry VIII, seemingly unaware that it's his contribution to the reproductive process that determines the sex.

So, yeah, I'm not about to shout from the rooftops about what a great guy King Abdullah was for women of Saudi.

And no, it's not just a matter for Saudi Arabia to deal with internally. It is everyone's business. Even if you don't subscribe to the principle that no woman is free if even one woman is oppressed, how about considering, for example, that Saudi beheads people of other nationalities too. It is easy to say: "Well, just don't get a job there if you lose so many rights!" but with cases such as Burmese and Nepalese maids beheaded after farcical murder trials, it is clear that vulnerable people see working in a place like Saudi as an escape from poverty. There is a global problem to consider here.

After all, the world had the balls to impose sanctions against South Africa during the apartheid years. How is the gender apartheid of Saudi any less a crime against humanity?

Monday, 26 January 2015

Happy Australia Day to London's newest paramedics

To the Australian paramedics who are marking Australia Day by starting work for the London Ambulance Service, I say thank you. My hat is off to you all.

I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that there will be tough days ahead, that you will see awful things, that you may be called on the save lives in the event of another terror attack, and that you are not going to be resting on your laurels. You will also meet some amazing people who will restore your faith in humanity, both among your patients and your fellow staff members.

Some of you may not last the distance in the job and that is OK - working for the London Ambulance Service is one of the toughest jobs in this city. And I predict many of you will excel over here and go on to achieve incredible things even under trying conditions. I really hope you get to enjoy the great things about living in London on your days off - you will have earned that night at the theatre, the trip to the pub, a walk along the Southbank or whatever it is that floats your boat.

Twice I've had to call ambulances for people here in London and on both occasions, I was so impressed by the professionalism, compassion and skills of the staff. I saw paramedics quickly calm and revive one of my neighbours as she collapsed at a bus stop after a stressful time in her life, and treat another elderly neighbour who suffered a mini stroke with the good humour required when someone is ailing but does not want to go to hospital. I am proud that fellow Australians will be joining these dedicated people at a time when the London Ambulance Service is under immense pressure.

Indeed, A&E services in London and across the whole country are under pressure and many are under threat of closure. This will add to the stress of the job for the Australian paramedics who may find themselves having to treat patients in ambulances while queuing up for a cubicle at an overworked A&E department. This group of Australians will be joining the everyday heroes who already keep London's emergency services working perhaps as well as can be expected in this era of austerity, NHS mismanagement from on high, and abrogated responsibility from the Health Secretary.

It is impossible not to politicise this story for it is politicians, along with Clinical Commissioning Groups, who are making the decisions that will impact on the working lives of London's newest paramedics. Anyone who shuts down discussion on A&E departments on the grounds that it should not be a "political football" is usually someone who is responsible for undermining said A&E departments.

Here's hoping the Australian paramedics, along with those who are already working for London Ambulance Service, can just get on with doing their jobs. To see Australian paramedics on the news this morning starting work was a wonderful Australia Day alternative to the archaic, cloth-eared idiocy of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott awarding an "Australian knighthood" to Prince Philip. On the upside, as a republican, I hope this bizarre decision is just the boost the Australian republican movement needs after last year's royal visit led to Prince George being called "The Republican Slayer". Sorry, monarchists, but something has gone tragically wrong if someone who is not yet toilet-trained is influencing opinions on the state of the Australian constitution.

But I digress. Today is not a day to dwell on Tony Abbott's latest ridiculousness. It is a day to welcome Australian paramedics to London. May they love living and working here as much as I do.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo, part trois... The Plimsoll line returns. And has the bear been poked?

Back in September 2013, long before most of the world had heard of Charlie Hebdo, I blogged about the Plimsoll line of modesty. I was ranting, as I sometimes to, on how frequently women can't win, no matter what they choose to do/say/wear etc.

Get your boobs out on Page 3 and risk being called a slag and a traitor to other women, wear something Islamic and you'll be told you're oppressed as if you are a stupid child, wear a short skirt and you might be asking to be raped, dress a little dowdily and you run the risk of some concern troll offering you a makeover, and whether your shoes are high or low, you may have to defend your choice to wear them and declare them as "empowering" even if you're just wearing them to keep your feet dry.

It is as if there is an imaginary Plimsoll line for hem lengths and square inches of flesh exposed before a woman crosses from slapper to sheepish. And now it would seem there is a Plimsoll line for offence as well.

The question has been asked over and over again since the Charlie Hebdo massacre: Did the magazine poke the bear?

And this is where there has been a global exercise in missing the point and, ultimately blaming murder victims for their own demise from everybody including the Pope. That said, the Pope is perfectly entitled to express his views and anyone who uses words rather than bullets for dissent is doing it right.

So the big question is: At what point is something fair comment, accurate reportage or "acceptable" satire and at what point does it become offensive? There is no one point for all people for this to happen. It depends on the individual. There is no Plimsoll line for offensiveness. This is not a question with a solitary right or wrong answer.

Plenty of people, and not just IS-loving extremist terrorists, found plenty of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons for different reasons - but the people who are not extremist lunatics have used their freedom of speech to call out Charlie Hebdo, as is their right to do so. They have not shot people dead as the extremist lunatics have done. It is a tragedy that the dead magazine staffers are no longer around to engage in any sort of meaningful conversations about their work and answer their critics.

As I said, there is no Plimsoll line for offensiveness. Monty Python's The Life Of Brian, for example, offended countless Christians when it was released in 1979 but there were plenty of Christians who found it hilarious. Likewise, who is to know where the line should be drawn with material that may offend Muslims? Again, it depends on the Muslim. Plenty of Muslims are offended by Charlie Hebdo but defend the magazine's right to free speech. And other Muslims may disagree with this entirely. Nobody speaks for all the world's Muslims any more than anyone spoke for all the world's Christians in 1979.

But the Monty Python team were not assassinated for making The Life Of Brian, just as nobody has been killed over The Book Of Mormon. Indeed, the Mormons have used the show as a PR tool which is rather brilliant.

So does all satire about Muslims need to be tempered in case more maniacs decide to gun down journalists, cartoonists and editors? This is the question that shows a lack of understanding about terrorism. Terrorism is effective because of the horrific element of surprise. Even after 9/11 and 7/7 and the Madrid bombing, we are still shocked when something like this happens, we remember where we were when we heard the news, we panic when it happens close to home or close to our loved ones.

Charlie Hebdo could, I suppose tone down the satire. But that would not necessarily save any more lives. And what is stopping another publication from being the next target? The Daily Mail, for example, sometimes renders satire redundant. It, like the Daily Express, is also a newspaper that does not exactly give Islam an easy ride. So, should these newspapers stop publishing stories on, say, the Rotherham sex abuse scandal just in case some maniac turns up at their offices and shoots everyone? Or how about Jezebel, a US website that often publishes stories about the latest insane thing Saudi Arabia has done to women? Plenty of Muslims find Saudi to be a ridiculous regime. Others may think banning women from driving and making sure male guardians give women permission for everything from working to travelling is perfectly reasonable. So should Jezebel quit calling out Saudi's sexist bullshit?

If any of these outlets became the target of a terrorist, we'd still be shocked. And then fearful. And then we start censoring, editors start second-guessing themselves, people start cancelling travel plans or changing their daily routine. And that is how terrorists win.

See? Where does it end? Does every news outlet in the world have to keep self-censoring and neutering stories and tempering opinion pieces until all it is left with is bland, inoffensive material that is of no use to anyone?

Charlie Hebdo may have poked the bear but everyone has their own bear and the level of poking it can withstand can vary wildly.

Interestingly, the outrage over the Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting the victims of Boko Haram's kidnapping and sexual enslavement as pregnant welfare queens was, I thought, ridiculous. I was so relieved when someone else interpreted it the same way I did - not as a sexist dig at the victims but a poke in our collective consciences over our attitudes in EU countries to Muslims on benefits. There is always outrage at asylum seekers on benefits and immigrants on benefits - and if they happen to be Muslim, that seems to kick the outrage meter up a few more notches. But there is still outrage, sometimes from the same people, at the kidnappings and forced marriages. To me, it posed the question of what we'd do if all the victims turned up on our borders, pregnant to their Boko Haram rapists, seeking asylum and state benefits. Would we all suddenly be collectively generous to these women or would attitudes remain unchanged?

I thought it was one of Charlie Hebdo's better cartoons. The cartoon depicting a black female politician as a monkey was, I thought, rather repulsive and I have no problem with saying that without reaching for a gun.

If this whole story has taught us anything, it's that satire doesn't always travel well and a lot of people have been left either baffled by French satire or simply unamused. But satire doesn't have to be universally amusing. Not everyone has to get it. And nobody should be killed over it.

You should be able to poke the bear. It is up to the bear to respond in a civilised manner.

Photography by Lilla Frerichs

Monday, 12 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo, what now? Part Deux

Following on from last week's blog post on the Charlie Hebdo murders, it is clear we still really don't know what to do about all this terrorism and the threats to free speech and a free press. What is clear is that the right to free speech includes the right to say something stupid (and this is as it should be) and plenty of people are exercising their right in this manner.

Still, facetiousness aside, it is heartening to see people in multiple cities come out in their thousands in a show of defiance against threats to free speech but ironically, the wall-to-wall coverage of these marches has taken up so much of the news cycle that other important stories are not being reported.

Indeed, to add to the irony, among the leaders of nations who linked arms to show their support for free speech in Paris were plenty of people who would do well to clean up their own backyards.

We have Francois Hollande demanding to know how the attack could have happened despite laws passed at the end of 2013 which increased government surveillance powers. Here's a clue, Francois: Your stupid laws aren't working. Then there is David Cameron who rushed through email and phone surveillance laws last year, describing them as "essential".Oh, and let's not forget Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel. That'd be the same Israel that jailed three journalists in 2013 and targets journalists, especially those trying to cover the situation in Gaza. Not that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also at the march, is any better with attempts to control the messages people hear via state-controlled media and ensuring peace negotiations are kept secret and not properly reported. And Queen Rania of Jordan was there too. She'd be the one everyone says is so amazing yet she is also queen of a country that blocked 300 news websites in 2013 and isn't above jailing journalists either. But she seems to get a leave pass because she has such great style.

Barack Obama and John Kerry were criticised for not being there, despite the US ambassador to France and the Assistant Secretary of State being there. John Kerry was in India and is off to Paris next week for talks on countering violent extremism. Maybe Obama couldn't be arsed to attend, maybe he was busy doing other things, maybe he didn't want to link arms with a bunch of hypocrites, maybe it seemed like a futile exercise to him. I don't know and I don't really care just as I wouldn't really care if Bush was still in the White House and he didn't take a trip to Paris.

The reason I don't care is because one of the more ridiculous responses to all this has been to demand that every newspaper in the world print the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in a show of solidarity. "Demand" is the operative word here. While it was certainly absurd that numerous media outlets ran pixellated versions of the cartoons with their coverage of this story, trying to force every newspaper to run the controversial cartoons is not what free speech is about either.

If a newspaper doesn't want to run a cartoon for whatever reason, they shouldn't have to do that. You don't have to publish every single thing that has offended someone in order to be an advocate for a free and fearless press, or to defend the right of others to publish things that may cause offence.

A great way to not hand victory to those who threaten press freedom would be for journalists to simply keep on working, to be fearless, to not be bound by political agendas, to pause every time they are self-censoring to ask why they are doing this and what they - or their masters - are so scared of.

Having worked for five years in the UAE, I was involved in some absurd self-censorship. I wrote an opinion piece about how easy and transformative it would be for the UAE to have a rail service to link all seven emirates. If it ever happens in my lifetime, I will be stunned. As such, I ended the piece with: "Do the leaders of the UAE have the political will to make this happen?". Cue a panic-stricken editor emerging from his office, fearful that I had broken the country's laws against criticising the rulers.

"But Georgia, it sounds like you don't think they have the political will to do this!" he wailed at me.

"That's right. I don't think they do."

"But people might think that we think they can't do this."

"I know, hence I wrote it as a rhetorical question so people can make their own minds up."

"Can you please tone it down, Georgia?"

As a result, a wishy-washy ending to my opinion piece went to press. Sigh... But I was working in a country that does not have a proper free press or freedom of assembly. I knew the score when I moved to the UAE and my time there was sometimes frustrating but the experience was still worthwhile. And it was obvious my boss was terrified of jail and deportation over a little column in the corner of the newspaper's motoring section.

For those working as journalists in the Middle East, I hope you can one day be a bit more fearless than I was over an opinion piece about trains. And for those of us who are working in countries that are doing better on the Reporters Without Borders Free Press Index, a lot of us can probably do better ourselves. We don't need to be forced to print anything we don't want to print. But a media governed by fear, even if there is nothing in legislation to justify the fear (and even if there is, quite frankly...), is not much of a media at all and it serves nobody.

Picture by Petr Kratochvil

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

After the Charlie Hebdo murders, what now?

There it is. One of the cartoons that has caused at least 12 people in the office of Charlie Hebdo to lose their lives today.

For those who can't read French, it is a cartoon of the leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the words simply say: "Best wishes, by the way. To you, al Baghdadi," and he says: "Especially to your health!". One wonders how weak one's beliefs are if they feel the need to shoot 12 people over such a statement.

Yet for this and other similar cartoons, two cowardly murderers who didn't have the balls to show their moronic faces stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine and opened fire.

And the response to this latest act of terrorism, this latest attack on free speech, is the same old, same old. There's the usual blaming of every Muslim on the planet, the usual calls for moderate Muslims to speak out (which every moderate Muslim/agnostic Muslim/lapsed Muslim I know, and plenty I don't know, do all the time, over and over again, and I really do not know how much more they can do...), the usual plaintive calls for better understanding among all people of the world, the usual pointing out of violence by non-Muslims...

In short, we really don't know what to do.

You don't have to dig too deeply in the comments section of an online news story about, say, burqas to find people saying that France has the right idea on this issue, even those who may otherwise think France is a seething den of sinful socialism. The European Court of Human Rights upheld France's right to ban the burqa last year, a law that has been in place since 2010. France also bans all outward signs of any religion in all government schools. None of this stopped today's disgusting, terrifying events. Equally, Australia, the UK, Spain and the US do not ban the burqa and do allow outward symbols of religion to be worn in state schools and these countries have all experienced the deadly evils of warped Islamic extremism as well.

On top of all this, reports abound of French Jews are leaving their country because of a rise in anti-semitism, including violent attacks on people and synagogues. In 2013, a record 3,270 French Jews immigrated to Israel, a 63% increase from 2012.

So, yeah, there are problems in France, just as there are problems globally with people struggling with the basic concept of live and let live.

Fighting poverty and ensuring everyone has access to education are important actions in the fight against extremism. But plenty of educated, affluent people have gone on to be jihadis.

We really don't know what to do.

I will share the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, although this isn't some heroic act of courage on my part. I fully expect to make it home safely tonight without being targeted by a lunatic over this blog as I anonymously walk to the tube station. I will continue to support the right to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and a free press. But I've always done this, as have so many people everywhere, and still this shit happens.

But we cannot go on censoring ourselves, censoring those with whom we disagree, wanting to ban all the things that might offend us, deliberately trying to be offended instead of ignoring that which one might find offensive, seeking to police humour, and squashing satire along the way.

I am not going to pretend I have all the answers to this one. I don't. I am not sure who does or if anyone does.But I have just seen scenes from Paris appear in my newsfeed. It's a large gathering in France's gorgeous capital city of a diverse group of people gathering in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and, as a result, with journalists everywhere. A similar gathering is about to start in London. This is moving, important stuff and to scoff at such gatherings is to be, quite frankly, a bit of a dick.

I will end this blog post with an abridged version of my friend Luke Thornhill's Facebook status. As a sports journalist, he is thankful that the only backlash he gets in his line of work is the odd accusation of bias against a sporting team or a tweet from an angry fan, but that does not make him any less of a champion for a free press.

In a world where we really don't know what to do, Luke's resolution and subsequent actions in response to today's events sure as hell beat doing nothing at all.

I have decided to be a bit more Muslim-like and give more of what would loosely be termed as zakat. The Big Issue seller in Hull was the first beneficiary, with a cuppa and sandwich to go with his tip in return for his wares, I hope that the perpetrators of this attack die a little bit more inside on the coals of hell when they realise they're helping turn me into a better person, and that today I did it by adopting a pillar of Islam and supporting a magazine which exercises its freedom of speech in such a brilliant way. Peace be upon you.


Friday, 2 January 2015

20 ways to not be a dick in 2015

Happy new year! Here are a few tips on how to not be a dick in 2015. You're welcome.

1. Do not mistake UKIP for the party of free speech. They will only publicly defend your right to free speech if you agree with them or say something racist, sexist or homophobic because that means you have the "courage" to say what we are all really thinking. Apparently. This is also a party that is desperate for its members to stay off social media lest someone says something stupid.

2. On the same token, UKIP members can use their freedom of speech to say something stupid. Indeed, anyone can use their freedom of speech to say something stupid. Always remember that you have the freedom to ignore anything someone says that you find stupid. If you are seeking to silence someone, ask yourself whether this is because you feel threatened by what they are saying.

3. If you succeed in getting something banned that you don't like, do not act all surprised if something you do like also gets banned.

4. If you walk down the street with your face in your phone, do not get all indignant if you walk into someone. It is not their fault.

5. Before you blame immigrants for any problems with the NHS, bear in mind that the real cost pressures are coming from rancid PFI deals and the astronomical costs of administering the tender process for contracts.

6. If you whine about "BBC lefty bias", you will sound like a weapons grade bellend.

7. Vaccinate your kids.

8. Do not interrogate women without children about why they don't have children or when they might have children. It is none of your business.

9. If you are an MP, consider not giving yourself another massive pay rise this year. You also might like to consider paying for all manner of stuff yourself. Such as meals. And home maintenance.

10. Londoners! Unless it is the last tube of the night, there is no need to run for it or barge open the doors with an enormous bag of shopping just as they are beeping closed. There will be another train.

11. Refrain from eating oranges or mandarins on public transport. It's gross.

12. I am sure your children are adorable. They will be even more adorable if they do not ride scooters in supermarkets with narrow aisles and will be more likely to celebrate another birthday if they don't ride said scooters at speed on busy high streets. This and point number seven comprise the full extent of my parenting advice.

13. If you live somewhere like Dubai, a pet husky is a stupid idea.

14. The Duchess of Cambridge is not amazing. If you think she is amazing, you are too easily amazed.

15. Do not get all your news from one source. This will turn you into a moronic caricature.

16. I know it's an embarrassment of embarrassments rather than an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the talent of many MPs or potential MPs in Britain but it is still smart to vote. You never know. Your vote may even make a difference, especially if your MP has a tiny majority.

17. Don't whine about the death of the high street if you never actually use the shops on the high street.

18. Detoxing is a myth. We detox every day by doing a poo. But there is no money to be made in telling people this. Eat well, everything in moderation, et cetera et cetera. Boring but effective.

19. Similarly, if you don't eat sugar/gluten/meat/whatever food is declared lethal this week, that is your choice. But don't bore me with your sanctimony. I will continue to eat all of the above in varying quantities.

20. If another person's sex life is consensual, mind your own business. They probably don't want you to join in.