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Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Food Bank Controversy ...

Food Banks are much in the news at present, and are something of a 'hot' topic in many people's minds. The reason is not hard to find, we are bombarded with news items about the 'rising number' of Food Banks, and the need for them. Add in a liberal mix of politicians all trying to make political capital, abuse of statistics in the media and you have a ready made subject to 'prove' that poverty is on the rise. Recently a friend and former colleague who happens to be legally qualified and does voluntary work for a number of charities who work with those in need, on benefits or in low-paid employment. He had some very interesting things to say about the misrepresentation of the figures on Food Banks, and pointed me to a website which provides even more interesting information. 

The Trussel Trust is a major provider of food banks, and there website has a range of very accessible and readable statistics. According to their figures they have provided 913,138 people with 'emergency food supplies' sufficient for three days. Note that the numbers are for 'people' NOT 'families', and one more point of note in this is that each time a person returns, that person is counted as a 'new' customer. My friend informs me that this is further complicated by the fact that the referring charities hand out the food bank vouchers to individuals, NOT families, so a single adult applying and qualifying will receive one voucher, a second for a partner and another for each child. And they will receive the same number each time they reapply. Thus, someone who comes in say every fortnight and receives five food bank chitties is going to appear in the statistics as 26 times 5 people - 130 people in the years statistics.

Of course, not everyone does that, and the suggestion from the participating charities figures is that probably fully two-thirds of those in receipt of this assistance don't. The second half of this is, of course, to put the numbers into a proper perspective. As I said earlier, we are talking individual people NOT 'families'. Next we must look at it against total population in the UK, and we find that even with the 'repeat users' it is still actually quite a small percentage of the population. 

The Trust keeps a record of why people are drawing on the Food Banks, and now we find really interesting statistics on why people are 'in need'. The top three, in order, are -

1. Delayed Benefits
2. Low Income
3. Benefit Changes.

The fourth is equally interesting. It is listed as 'Other', but this includes those who persist in believing there is a horse somewhere, that will make them rich. Unsurprisingly, Debt and Unemployment come next, with Homelessness, Domestic Violence, and Sickness in that order. Certainly, in our society, the top three may be addressable, and numbers five, six and seven should be. 

Sadly, there is little one can really do about those who spend their wages (and family's domestic subsistence) in the local betting shop, short of shutting such premises altogether. However, we need, once again, to look at this in a balanced manner. Once again, the news papers and the 'word on the street' has been somewhat misleading. What it has failed to mention when reproting the 'increase in reliance on food banks' is that there has been a change in the way certain 'Benefits' were dealt with. 

'Benefit' is probably the wrong word to describe what used to be called a 'Crisis Loan' which was issued by a Local Authority and was supposed to 'tide a family over' a temporary shortfall in income. As of 1st April 2013, a change in the law switched off these funds, but switched it to an alternative system. Crisis Loans had to be repaid, which meant that ultimately all you were doing was deferring the crunch. Under the new system most Local Authorities issue 'Food Vouchers' which are redeemable at a Food Bank and give three days worth of food. These are not 'means tested' so anyone can, in an emergency, qualify. Naturally, those who would and could benefit most are the elderly, young folk struggling to get started, the homeless and the sick. 

We must also look at the sudden increase in the number of these food banks. Once again, it goes back to the changed legislation. The rise in the use of the food banks directly correlates to the rise in the number of these facilities. Did they increase due to demand, or did usage increase due to availability. It would seem to be a bit of both, not least due to the removal of a 'cash loan' system and its replacement with the vouchers redeemable only in food. As my friend put it, the loans had to be repaid, and there was no guarantee that the money handed out wouldn't wind up attached to a betting slip in the local bookmakers. Now, at least, those who receive the vouchers, get food on the table. 

Yes, it is a great shame that we need them, but the fact is we do. Almost 70 years of political meddling to 'lift people out of poverty' haven't achieved it, nor are they likely to. Human nature is, by nature, inclined to certain behaviours, and some of those tend to drive people toward poverty. So we have food banks, and more food banks are being opened, but it doesn't mean more people are 'falling into poverty' because the usage is increasing. Changes to the benefit of 'Emergency Loans' mean food vouchers, not money for the betting shop or the pub. 

Unfortunately, the stigmatising of Food Banks by the ignorant is putting off many who should be making use of them. That is something that concerns my friend very deeply - to the point it makes him extremely angry when he encounters those he considers 'numpties' who are grinding ideological axes founded on complete ignorance of the subject. As my friend wrote to me - 
Finally with all the do gooders shaking their heads in disgust at the foodbank, they have by default made them unavailable to many folks who wont accept the vouchers (my experience), because there is a now a stigma about them, thanks to all the best meant criticisms. Many are too proud to be seen going to them. They are usually the proud OAPS and genuinely most needy.
Yes, it's sad we need them, but they, like many things in life, are a necessary evil, and I plead with everyone to be careful when ranting about them that they don't by accident stigmatise them and the people who need them.
And the next person I hear using foodbanks as a cheap political point scoring tool “wull get their heed pood aff”

For those who don't speak Glaswegian, that bit in parenthesis translates as - "will get their head pulled off". In my view, they will deserve it.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Turkey 'Aiding and Abetting' ISIL?

One gets the strong impression that Turkey is covertly aiding and abetting the Islamic State murder machine. Reading the argument over support for the Kurdish fighters defending Kobani, and how 'porous' the Turkish border with the territory now controlled by ISIS/L is, one wonders what all those Turkish troops are actually there to prevent. I suspect their orders are not to stop ISIS/L, but to prevent any Kurdish fighters from escaping IS thugs.

The Turks have watched this tragedy unfold, and they have made no effort whatsoever to stop the steady flow of 'Jihadis' rushing to join ISIS/L. One can only speculate on how much in the form of weapons, munitions and 'materiel' for the fight is being supplied directly to the ISIS/L fighting machine by the Turkish Army and across this border. If I were a NATO Commander, I would be seriously looking at how much 'Intelligence' material I gave my Turkish 'Ally' about anything planned against ISIS/L.

Turkey does have a problem with this little war, one which will come back to bite them very, very hard I think. A large part of their reluctance to do anything to prevent the slaughter on their border is that the victims are, largely, Kurds. Roughly a quarter of the existing 'territorial area' of modern Turkey is populated by Kurds who have long cherished the desire to have their own 'nation state'. This would include the area of Iraq and the portion of Syria that includes two major cities - one of them Kobani - and the Turks have fought a long and very bloody campaign to prevent this. It now sticks in their collective craws, that their 'enemy', the Kurdish PKK, is the only force that seems to be having any success against ISIS/L. Should the Kurds win, the Turks will face a battle hardened, rearmed and very determined army of Kurds who will want their independence from an oppressive regime that is currently prepared to see their people sacrificed in order to prevent just this scenario from arising.

Both ways the Turks face a major problem here. If they aid the Kurds - as other NATO members are doing - they will have to address the political ambitions of their 'enemy within'. If they allow the Kurds to be defeated, and allow the genocide to go unpunished and unchecked that will follow, they will, within a short time, face the ISIS/L Jihad to include their country in the 'Caliphate'. If the Kurds win ... Well, I don't have to paint a picture.

One thing is very clear, Turkey faces a 'no-win' situation of their own manufacture, and now the only thing they can think of doing is to prevent the Kurds from winning. So the are covertly helping the 'enemy of my enemy' in the hope the venomous ISIS/L will not turn and bite them when their objectives in Syria and Iraq have been achieved.

If the rest of NATO and the world have any sense at all, they will not allow this to continue. And they will not allow ISIS/L or their supporters anywhere in the world, to continue, to receive arms, or to 'fade back into the crowd'. Those that wave the black flag of ISIS/L anywhere must be hauled into court and face the full penalty of the law for their support, encouragement and participation in mass murder, genocide and religious oppression. Make no mistake, if the ISIS/L win in Kobani, they will not stop there, and the Turks know it, but are paralysed by their fear of a Kurdish 'settlement'.

It will destroy them. Watch this space.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Meet the Archbishop of Canterbury

A fascinating interview with the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, ++Justin Welby.

It is just over an hour, but well worth spending the time listening to his responses to the questions from Canon Jeffrey John. Humour, humility, confidence, faith, personal tragedy ... The making of an Archbishop for the present.

So much he says in this accords with my own experience of faith, it is almost frightening.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Race or Religion?

Listening to a discussion yesterday on the conflict and tensions between 'Palestinians' and 'Israelis' one of the debaters, an earnest young woman, clung to her theme that 'Jews' are simply members of a 'religious movement' and not a distinctive 'race'. Her argument is the familiar secular/humanist one that revolves around the diversity of Jewish genetics, and the relative comparison with 'Palestinian' Arabs. Both, it can be said, are 'Semitic' peoples, and therefore, it is argued, the only distinction is 'religion'. This argument misses a key element of 'Jewishness' - which is that the 'religion' does not, as Shakespeare would phrase it, 'a Jew make'.

Anyone can 'convert' to Judaism, but that does not make them a 'Jew'. To be a Jew, you have to have been born of a Jewish mother. In typically pragmatic fashion, the Jewish 'Law' of inheritance states that 'a man may have many fathers, but only one mother' and therefore inheritance is through ones mother, not your father. As the admirable programme for the BBC by Simon Sharma on the History of the Jews explains, they are a very diverse population. A true 'rainbow' nation, and Judaism (the religion) is just as diverse. It is a monumental mistake to claim they are 'just followers of a religion' and not a 'people' of distinct lineage, whatever the 'genes' indicate. Unless one is completely isolated from contact with other human tribes for, I suspect, at least a thousand years, the chances of retaining one particular 'pure' genetic lineage are pretty remote.

One has only to look at the modern human population of Europe to see this. What makes anyone English, German, French, Scottish or Swiss? Genetic samples of any population with produce matches across the entire spectrum. Does this make us all members of some Pan-European 'tribe? Are all Scots inflicted with red hair and blue eyes? Of course not, but those who argue that 'Jews' are not distinct as a racial group try to advance that argument. In fact, they are misled by their own propaganda, since whether a Jew has his most recent roots in Europe, the steppes of Russia, or the US, there are a number of particular 'markers' in their genes that link them. Once again, that simple statement of 'many fathers, only one mother' comes into play. It is something that should be far more carefully considered - especially in relation to the Jews, who, as Simon Sharma so ably points out, have been the world's 'whipping boys' since the beginning.

So, if their genes are as diverse as everyone elses' (barring the already mentioned unique markers) why is their religion such a unifying force? After all, there are probably as many Jews who do not believe or practice it, as there are those who do. Why, as Simon Sharma tells us, do even those who do not believe or regularly 'practice' the religion, still call themselves 'Jews' and why do they still mark the major festivals following the timeless rituals? That is what seems to confound the secularists, because the 'religion' is a product of the 'race'.

What we call the Old Testament is a remarkable document. Though much of it is allegoric narrative, particularly the first five books, parts are a historical narrative of folk memory, and later parts are the moral discourse on the abuse of power and wealth by the political classes that lead, eventually, to the dispersal, it is a remarkably cohesive story. It is the story of the creating, the welding together, of a people, 'The Jews', as a single unit even in a worldwide 'diaspora'. Few, if any, people on Earth have such a cohesive identity as the Jews. It is far more than their genes, and it transcends their religion, but it is a mistake to attempt to categorise the one without the other. The Bible underpins both the Jew as a race, and the 'Jew' in religion, but, once again, one has to realise that the 'religion' and the 'race' are not just intertwined, but are both badges of 'indentity'.

Yes, they are, by and large, a Semitic people, but that is simply a 'category', a 'label' for those who love to force large issues into small pigeonholes so they can ignore the more complex matters in dealing with them. That, I suspect, is why we have so many problems politically in the world today. By reducing everything to the 'lowest common denominator' those in power, and those on the peripheries who love to voice an opinion on such things, try to ignore and suppress the very real, and far more complex issues such actions are intended to hide. By denying the Jews a distinctive 'Racial Identity' the 'problem' of Israel/Palestine can be reduced to one of 'religion' and from there, the belief can be advanced, that 'religion is the cause of the conflict'.

Convenient, but far from accurate, and a major reason that no solution is likely to be found anytime soon. When those who bandy about the idea that 'being a Jew' is the same as 'being a Muslim' finally realise their assertion does not stand up to scrutiny, we may perhaps begin to find solutions to many more problems in this post 20th Century world.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

A Reaction of Revulsion

In recent days I have read a great deal in the media about the average Muslim's response to ISIS, and listened with interest to a number of Islamic scholars explaining why they reject the 'Caliphate'. Their response to the excesses of the psychopaths of ISIS/ISIL/IS and one or two other fundamentalist groups is interesting. In fact it suggests, strongly, that the many followers of Islam are getting tired of the agenda being set by those on the extreme conservative end of their Faith. One item which leaped out at me this morning provides a case in point.

A Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Leicester (which is one of the 100 or so branches experimentally using 'Halaal' chicken) had banned its staff from issuing alcohol based finger wipes on the grounds this 'might offend their Muslim customers'. Islamic scholars there have reacted strongly, pointing out that their faith does NOT forbid the use of alcohol as a disinfectant, in medical preparations and one or two other applications. They were quite upset that someone, presumably not themselves a Muslim, would make that decision as it simply lends fuel to the fires of anti-Islamic feeling in many quarters. Unfortunately, they are the victims of Politically Correct attempts to meet what outsiders perceive as 'requirements' of their faith. The same thing happens again and again with health and safety matters, and with the same result. All such pettiness does, is stir up antipathy toward what is perceived as a 'killjoy' problem.

Returning to the subject of the response to ISIS, I have noted with considerable interest the assertion of an Oxford based Imam, who points out that the Qu'ran actually forbids forced conversion. Chapter 2 verse 256 is quite specific on this, and is reinforced in Chapter 109 verse 6 which makes clear that everyone should be free to worship as they please. Chapter 22 goes further, and states that Christian and Jewish 'Places of Worship' must be respected and honoured. According to Dr Taj Hargey, the Qu'ran actually forbids killing 'unbelievers' and provides only two reasons a Muslim may take up arms to defend themselves. These are, to 'resist religious persecution' and because they are being driven from their homes. Since no western country 'persecutes' Muslims for their faith, their 'jihad' against the West is rendered invalid.

The Council of Muslim Scholars in the UK has recently issued a 'fatwa' - essentially a 'legal opinion' in Sharia Law - which is echoed by similar declaration from Grand Muftis in several other countries (the Grand Mufti of a country is the senior 'law' expert in Sharia Law) and condemns the beheadings and the war on other Muslims and faiths.

I note too, that there are many younger Muslims commenting in 'social media' that they do not think they should have to continually 'apologise' for their religion, yet that is, in itself, a reaction to the excesses of the extremists. A case of 'they are not acting in my name, therefore I should not be associated with them'. In one way, this is an encouraging sign, but it should also flag up the fact that many in the west do make that association, and think that every Muslim is an extremist. Let's be clear, the vast majority of decent, law abiding, Muslims are not potential terrorists, just as the vast majority of those who belong to and practice the Christian Faith, Buddhist, Hindu or any other religion are likely to become militant terrorists because of their beliefs.

In an excellent article in The Guardian, entitled The myth of religious violence, the author, Karen Armstrong, traces the rise of the present trend in Muslim communities to adopt a 'puritan' style in dress, eating and so on, is a reaction against attempts to push religion out of the public domain by secularists. She mentions Kemal Ataturk's 'secularisation' of Turkey, with his bans on headscarves, burkhas, face veils and so on, citing these as one reason there is now a reactionary swing to the opposite extreme. Western 'imperial' powers fell into the same trap in Muslim lands they occupied, often imposing western models and ideals on cultures completely at odds with them - and no we reap the backlash. You cannot 'impose' change - you have to persuade a populace, and often that takes a lot longer than the 'modernisers' like. So they impose their ideas, riding roughshod over traditions, heritage and cultural issues - and are then surprised when the meet resistance, or outright rejection.

In Ms Armstrong's view, the attempts to impose westernism and liberal secularism in Iran (Persia), Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, gave the fundamentalists the opening they needed to seize the 'moral high ground' from the moderate voices within their faith. ISIS is the ultimate extreme of that.

The one ray of hope in this is that their extreme behaviour, their blatant use of murder, rape and torture to achieve their ends is turning more and more of their coreligionists away from such behaviour and belief. No, we will not see the collapse of Islam as a world faith as a result of this, but we may, just, have reached what Sir Winston Churchill would have described as 'the end of the beginning'. More and more I see Muslim Scholars sticking their heads above the parapet and denouncing violence, denouncing some of the more fundamentalist utterances and preaching against such actions. Among those who practice that religion there are wider debates beginning to take place as well. Among them many of the practices that have developed under the umbrella of Islam in places such as Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and others.

Among the things that caught my eye this morning in the article concerning 'alcohol' in Islam, is the fact that many Muslim scholars argue that the Qu'ran does not forbid drinking alcohol - it forbids drunkenness. Many people will not know that until the late 1950s, alcoholic beverages were freely available in almost every Muslim country. Indeed, wine lovers will be familiar with the wonderful flavour of wine made from the Shiraz grape - and Persia was one of the largest wine producing countries in the Middle East. Much of the beautiful poetry of the great 12th Century Persian poet, Umar Khayyam, celebrates wine and the pleasure of drinking it.

If the opening of this and other debates is anything to go by, we may well be seeing the first tentative budding of a refutation of Salafism, Wahabi-ism and other brands of fundamentalist Islam. All I can say, is thank the Lord!

Monday, 8 September 2014

A step too far ...

The German people are, I find, generally pretty tolerant. Politically, they tend to bend over backwards to try not to be 'oppressive' and to tolerate the little foibles and quirks many immigrant communities bring with them. But there are some things they will not give ground on, and one of these is the law of the land.

Like many other European nations, Germany finds itself host to a growing Muslim population, and is quite comfortable with their presence. However, in recent years, a group known as 'Salafisten' have come to prominence, actively driving people to 'convert' to Islam, and agitating for a very strict and conservative form of Islam to be practiced. Where, a few years ago, Muslim women living here hardly ever wore the Hijab or the Burkha, these are now becoming more visible, as are the little 'gazebo' tents at weekends in public squares and shopping centres manned by obviously European young men in Arab dress, sporting the de rigeur Mujaheddin beard, and enthusiastically handing out 'free' copies of the Qu'ran.

However, they haven't confined their activities simply to that. The 'Salafists' are the chief recruiters for the ISIL it appears, with over 400 known 'jihadis' having 'gone East' to fight in Syria, most converts or with strong ties to the 'Salafisten'. Finally, however, according to the Interior Minister of the Bundes government, action is to be taken. The trigger was the appearance on the streets of Wupperthal of orange tabard wearing 'Sharia Police' organised by the Salafists. There declared aim is to enforce Sharia Law on all Muslims in the city - or at least their version of it. This includes women being fully covered, a ban on touching, handling or consuming alcohol or any 'non-Halaal' product, and on 'music'.

Now the Germans are pretty touchy about 'Polizei'. Only someone carrying the authority of the Landestag Ministerium, or a part of the Bundespolizei may use that title, or 'enforce' the law, and, as the Minister made very clear over the weekend, Sharia is NOT the law of Germany, and any attempt to impose or enforce it will meet the full force of German Law head on.

As I said at the beginning, the Germans are generally pretty tolerant, and they pride themselves now on the fact they have developed a system that embraces many different ideas, cultures (to an extent) and religions - but they will not tolerate someone bringing a foreign and alien legal system to their country and imposing it on anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim. Perhaps that is something the UK government and all the various local authority dictators of matters 'tolerant' would do well to emulate.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Recognition of the problem?

It is encouraging to read in recent days that the Grand Mufti of Mecca, the British Council of Muslims, the Saudi King, and now the UAE's government have all come out against the Islamic State terrorists. The Muslim Council and the Grand Mufti have both issued 'Fatwas' (Opinions) condemning the terrorists as engaging in 'Un-Islamic' activities, but, as is always the problem, a 'fatwa' is essential 'advice' and not something 'enforcable'.

It is, however, encouraging, precisely because they set out in detail the fact that the Qu'ran actually forbids many of the things they are doing, including forcing people to convert, murdering them for refusing and desecrating churches, synagogues and shrines. Murder, rape and pillage is forbidden in the Qu'ran, but therein lays a bit of a problem. The two other sources which are often used to 'clarify' the Qu'ranic injunctions, the Hadith and the 'commentaries' however contain passages, and ideas which are frequently used to justify some of the more unacceptable issues in the west, such as the 'Islamic Dress' and forced marriage, etc.

The British fatwa itself is interesting. In setting out their 'opinion' the Scholars review several passages from the Qu'ran, then state inter alia 
5. Based on all of the above: IS is a heretical, extremist organisation and it is religiously prohibited (haram) to support or join it; furthermore, it is an obligation on British Muslims to actively oppose its poisonous ideology, especially when this is promoted within Britain.
The opinion expressed by the Grand Mufti of Mecca has a similar clause, and I note that this theme has been continued by others. Will it stop the IS? There I must express doubts. As other Islamic scholars have stated recently, the Muslim mythology of the 'Caliphate' is a rather idyllic and alluring one, but hardly factual. The original Caliphate was riven with intrigue, several Caliphs were assassinated and internal corruption and abuses were rampant. Nor is there much comfort to be drawn by looking at places like the Yemen, Pakistan, Bangladesh and several other 'Islamic States' in our world today. Part of the problem is that 'interpretation' is highly individual, as there is no hierarchy with authority over all preachers and teachers.

Nor is it helped by the fact that for the last century at least, many of today's Muslim countries have supported, promoted and encouraged 'insurrection' in one form or another to achieve political, territorial or religious aims. Saudi Arabia would look very different had the political power gone, as the British hoped, to the coastal city and agricultural dwellers, and not to the Berber tribesmen of the interior. The first were progressive, and their religious views more liberal than the Berbers who belonged to one of the more fundamentalist wings of the Sunni strand. In the end, the Berber Sauds  got the kingship and the result is the country we see today.

Equally interesting is the fact that most of the Gulf States, have Sunni rulers, but largely Shia populations. Should the IS prevail, there could be some interesting problems arising from that as well. It is therefore very encouraging to have the UAE's rulers calling for an 'International Anti-Terrorist Force' to deal with ISIL and, presumably, one or two of their close relatives. I think it will be even more interesting to know who they would put on the list of 'terror' organisations. I rather think there might be a small clash of ideas on that one.

In my view ALL 'terror' organisations are a threat to everyone. I'm sorry to say that however 'justified' the cause may be, those who join them inevitably include the sort of psychopaths we've seen beheading people in Iraq and Syria, and, if they actually succeed, seldom usher in a free and fair society. What is worse, their activities invariably impact on their neighbours, and destabilise those countries. Possibly worse, since terrorists have, to an extent been 'glamorised' in certain societies, they tend to incite others to try an emulate them, so starting a vicious cycle such as the one we currently see.

I am convinced that all 'terrorists' must be suppressed, but, as Mr Hammond has said, it is not just a matter of military action. We have to address and counter the ideology as well - and that will take decades. Still, we have to take one step at a time, and an 'international' anti-terror effort may be a very good start.