Friday, April 11, 2008

"The Muslim Peril" (according to Mark Steyn)

I've just finished reading Mark Steyn's "America Alone; The End of the World as we know it" most of which sticks to the usual far-right paranoia outlined in similar books by Ann Coulter and Jonah Goldberg. But I was struck by how his argument for the inevitable decline of Europe was based on a claim that Europe would become Islamic in a few generations, using the 'logic' of extrapolating the currently higher birth-rate amongst Muslims compared to Non-Muslims to arguethat Europe would become dominated by Muslims and a Muslim agenda in the next few generations leaving "America alone".

After extrapolating wildly from a data set of birthrates that only goes back two generations, Steyn sets up his argument from a set of premises that conveniently overlooks biological, sociology and historical counter-factuals that contradicts him at every turn.

Steyn blames Liberals for allowing higher Muslim birthrates to develop by being 'lazy breeders' whose lack of future progeny will allow Western Liberalism to 'die out' in Europe. This claim seems to be treat Liberalism, a cultural meme if ever there was one, as if it was a genetic trait, as if no liberals have ever come from conservative families or vice versa, as if once a conservative always a conservative However all reputable biologists and sociologists would point out that extrapolating population trends for cultural memes such as “liberalism” and “religion” is nothing like extrapolating future population growth based on purely genetic traits such as eye colour. There are so many variables and unforeseen circumstances that affect the growth or decline of any particular cultural meme that extreme caution should always apply to calculations of trends for these memes beyond the very near future. When applied to such a variable and complicated area as continent-wide population growth even further caution is required when predicting the future. Those that refuse to be cautious like Mark Steyn, usually end up being badly embaressed as history denies their wild-eyed prophecies at every turn.

I think of many counter-factuals that denies his argument, but one historical argument that undermines his entire premise (that increased birthrates = increased cultural dominance) is the example of Catholicism in England. There was a lot of fear and prejudice directed towards Catholics living in England after the establishment of the Anglican Church in the 16th Century. This was based on a simple extrapolation that since Catholics easily out numbered Protestants per family it was inevitable that Catholics would replace Protestants in the population until they reached a tipping point a few generations hence and could take the country back for the Pope. This however is not what happened, and shows the fallacy of treating memes the same as genes. Not every Catholic child born into a Catholic family remained Catholic. Many converted to the Church of England, either through conviction, a desire to get ahead in the Anglican dominated state, or through inter-marriage and so the percentage of Catholics in the population increased a lot slower than was predicted and then further set back by the historical developments of the Enlightenment, the Industrial revolution and the rise of secularism and multiculturalism.

Catholics in Britain still have larger families than most groupings in the UK, but they are in no more danger of taking over the population through birth-rate than they ever were. The Catholic example has been repeated again and again throughout history regardless of whether the meme with the higher birthrate was Catholics, Orthodox Jews, or Conservatives. Now of course if you are talking about genes, rather than memes, then Steyns claims become more possible but even then, as the history of America has shown, ethnic and immigrant inter-marriage tends to be a natural deflator of even these population trends as the effect of the melting pot takes hold.

Steyn's book got quite a lot of press based on this contention and while many commentators were happy to describe his claims as "provocative" and "controversial", few actually bothered to dig down into those claims and examine the logic or maths that underpinned it. Of course those on the far-right have always been happy to exploit any fear and resentment amongst the general population of an 'enemy within' for political and personal profit. I just wish the mainstream media would do its job occasionally and accurately provide some substantive challenge and criticism when providing a platform for people like Steyn.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Human Colonisation

The entry was composed as a response to a short story I am writing that relates to the recent discovery of large numbers of exoplanets circling stars 'close' to our solar system that makes future human colonisation of other planets more plausable if not presently likely. In the process of writing the story I had quite a few thoughts on what human colonisation of other planets and the possible discovery of intelligent life would mean, both for us and for them. Below are some of those thoughts.

I am pessimistic as to how any interplanetary colonisation by humanity would play out. While the initial missions would probably have a fair share of idealists and dreamers if the missions were particularly successful these dreamers would be replaced by hard headed colonists of a militaristic or capitalist bent, keen on exploiting the new planet for all it was worth including any native fauna and flora. This would include any species of intelligent or super-intelligent species capable of being exploited. The day after first contact, once the euphoria of discovering an intelligent life-form wore off, the over-riding question will be what to do about it and whether it can be utilised or exploited for our gain. This state of affairs would be entirely consistent with the great periods of colonisation in human history and is sadly more likely to pass than the optimistim of utopian science fiction like Star Trek whose optimism is suspicious when one considers the history of human colonisation.

When discussing the possibility of alien life we sometimes seem to expect aliens – especially ones older and wiser to us – to confer some kind of paternalistic kindness and wisdom on us and perhaps give us the answers to the questions we have been asking since we evolved the ability to conceive of them, namely why are we here and how did we come to be. The treatment of aliens in science fiction has either been of the hostile ‘they are here to try and kill or possess us’ or as the paternalistic God surrogate here to soothe and protect us and answer our questions (War of the Worlds vs Contact). Aliens, like God, have become a receptacle for which we have projected all of our fears and hopes. The problem is that if we encounter aliens on strange new worlds they are highly unlikely to be either, even if far more intelligent than us, therefore failing to fulfil either our greatest fears or our greatest hopes. Indeed the most likely thing they will be is strange and indeed alien to us, and us to them. I very much doubt that they would have previous awareness of humans and would probably have very little to tell us about ourselves or the universe that we did not already know ourselves. Therefore I think that we will ultimately be disappointed with aliens after the initial thrill and wonder has worn off and that sense of anti-climax will only hasten our almost inevitable regard for them as something to be utilised and exploited for human consumption, especially if the stakes are high as they may well be if we are nearing the end of the window of opportunity for space travel and exploration.

After all if we still cannot show sufficient understanding, appreciation and sympathy for different members of our species how can we truly expect to make any exceptions for alien life-forms or civilisations. This pessimism is not designed to denigrate humanity but bringing this up in order to understand and investigate our true drives, motivations and likely behaviour and how they would progress in terms of discovering and colonising new worlds and alien species. In any battle with aliens would we naturally be the ‘good guys’? Except in extreme circumstances wouldn’t that be established by the case in hand such as who is the aggressor and why? Conservatives may claim that that view shows a loathing for the human race but they would be wrong, there is little sense loathing something that is so innate to us and completely understandable as a part of our evolutionary development. On the other hand, if I do not believe in the concept of ‘my country right or wrong’ then I certainly do not believe in the concept of ‘my species right or wrong’ unless the very survival of the human race can be proven to be at stake.

On a further note of both pessimism and caution, if there are more advanced and militarily proficient alien species relatively close by, is the reason why humanity has been allowed to develop unmolested (that we know of) simply down to humanity remianing undiscovered? A bit like how the Incas thought that they have unified and ruled the world until the Spanish rolled up and quickly disabused them of that notion. If we found the cosmic equivalent of fire or the wheel and quickly spread much further out in the universe do we run the risk of eventually running into a species capable of over-running us and taking us out both in space and then back on Earth? Is our anonymity our best bet for survival? Should this give SETI some pause for thought? I consider this unlikely, I think that even if we did crack that cosmic wheel we would find that most of the alien species that we encountered would represent no great threat in this way, being primarily what I described above. However the risk is there and worth considering.

Despite this pessimism and concerns I would still not advocate a policy of settling for being a big fish in a small but very beautiful pond. Humanity's need for endeavour requires an outlet that exceeds the scope of planet and we need something to inspire and unite us as a species to avoid the spectres of boredom and civilisational stagnation, possibility of terminal conflict, ruinous environmental degradation and dwindling resources. Eventually we must find a way to live beyond our planet and our solar system in order to survive beyond the lifetime of our sun. That alone is worth the price of the space programme as is the spiritual, technological and economic benefits of it. The first space age, which when all said and done only sent us as far away as the piece of space rock stuck in Earth’s orbit, produced well over a thousand tangible and serious benefits to humanity back on Earth that included everything from the Internet to advanced heart surgery to GPS and telecommunications and so on. Given the scientific and technological achievements of that first space age one can only boggle at the potential the spin off benefits of technology developed to launch subsequent space ages, especially ones that involve serious space travel beyond our solar system.

Recently, in a “50 years of Space” supplement celebrating the 50 year anniversary of Sputnik there was a Sunday Times debate on space between Jeremy Clarkson and A A Gill with Clarkson celebrating the achievements of space and Gill disparaging it. I found I could identify with both of them and the two differing perspectives they encapsulated in their arguments underline the tension between a couple of the larger narrative themes the story addresses within its much narrower scope. I can relate to Clarkson’s enthusiasm for travel, for worlds and experiences anew, for the benefits it has brought humanity in the first space age and the inspiration it brought people around the world in the West with the Apollo programme. On the other hand I can also relate to Gill who rightly points up the flaw in Clarkson’s viewpoint, as Clarkson is notoriously dismissive of the need to take any care of this planet, which as Gill points out is ironic given that a greater appreciation of Earth and the environment was an unexpected legacy of the first space age, particularly with the moon landing which for the first time made us aware of the share beauty and fragility of Earth, a local/regional jewel in our part of the galaxy beyond compare.

Getting outside made us look inwards with new eyes and it is no surprise that it gave birth to the nascent environmental movement with the capturing of the famous ‘Earthrise’ on the moon. It is also notable that all of the astronauts of the Apollo programme who experienced this was awed and humbled by the sight and became budding environmentalists. These guys were hardly inveterate liberal, pinko treehuggers but conservative, hard-bitten military men the great majority of whom had spent their time flying fighter jets and experimental jet planes before joining the space programme. Yet it is the enduring memory of being far out in space enough to see Earth as a complete disk hanging in space with all the vastness, blackness and coldness around them that is their most enduring memory.

Both perspectives (Gills and Clarksons), one looking inwards and one looking outwards are legitimate and both are underlined in the famous T.S. Eliot quote appropriated by NASA at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida:

“We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.”

Finally, while pessimistic about the short and medium term future of human space colonisation I am cautiously optimistic about the longer term future when considering the pattern of human colonisation on Earth. We must remember that after the wave of gold-diggers, soldiers, missionaries and slave owners had exploited all that they found, they were eventually followed by the anthropologists, the historians and the philosophers who helped put the relationships between the colonisers and the colonised on a different footing and perhaps once the initial fever of discovery and settlement has settled down the greater implications of space exploration and colonisation will emerge and humanity can grow up another stage further as the old ties and the old conflicts on Earth begin to wither and either be discarded completely or evolve into a more mature and peaceful form (such as deism replacing man-centred theism or humanity-ism replacing nationalism). One would think that as we get further from Earth and our children and grand-children are born on other planets so the tensions and conflicts here will begin to diminish in importance and relevance and we will one day look back on them as perhaps the necessary growing pains of humanity’s infancy.


Friday, January 11, 2008

An icon passes... Sir Edmund Hillary dead

This is the brief comment I left in the NY Times comments section linked from the article:

"A great and humble man who has been an inspiration to New Zealanders everywhere being a living embodiment of that country's virtues. One of the best and most versatile adventurers of the 20th Century, the NY Times is right to compare his acheivements to the likes of Lindburgh. My personal favourite account of his life and times was his trip to the Sth Pole with other New Zealanders on a posse of tractors. Finally, he was beloved in India and Nepal where his good works and ceaseless advocacy of the people and the environment on and around Everest, contributed to a legacy far richer than just conquering Everest. He will be missed."

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Blasphemy Challenge; Atheism in America coming out?


This started off as a piece on the blasphemy challenge but developed into a longer piece on something that I think the blasphemy challenge just may end up being the tip of the iceberg. Now some people will no doubt to choose to respond to the blasphemy challenge and ignore the rest of my essay, which is just fine, but I want to make it clear that I don't think that the main thrust of my essay stands or falls on peoples opinions on the merits of the challenge.

Now you could perhaps dismiss this as a college level stunt, nothing more than a collection of spotty youths taking advantage of the opportunities that the new mass media provides to create some cheap controversy and public exposure that will blow over by next Monday. Maybe that is all true, but then again it may also be the slow beginnings of something that has been slowing stirring into action since 9/11 and the hold over the white house that the Christian Right has held since the election of a favoured son.

Maybe this can be categorised as the latest development in a conscious raising movement by a group that is increasingly discontent to remain mostly disorganised, private and underground. A group that historically been categorised by a series of Big Lies and enduring fables. A series of lies and fables that has been allowed to endure by a historically unwillingness or inability to have the kind of consistent public platform to debate, expose and explode those lies and fables.

If you wonder what the effect of those lies and enduring fables have had on this group remember that prejudice against any minority by the majority has always been perpetrated and defended by a Big Lie.

With Women it was that they were the weaker sex and mentally unformed. Also that they should cover themselves because they cause men to lose control and perpetrated original sin.

With Blacks it was that they were savages, less evolved, less civilised and less intelligent.

With Homosexuals it was that homosexuality was a life-style choice chosen by immoral people.

With Atheism, the Big Lie is that Atheists are ammoral and have no moral character or basis, are nihilists and/or pessimists, and are less trustworthy.

In each of the groups listed before Atheism real advance in the recognition and acceptance of the groups has occurred in recent decades but only after a vocal "coming out campaign" where the sub-groups got organised, got noisy, made their own platform and made their case.

In each case they were accused of being trouble-makers, of being radicals, of representing something that was outside the moral majority of a particular time and place, of being deeply offensive and tiresome, of being “UnAmerican”. All the same things are now being said against Atheism now that in America it is finally getting organised properly, using the mass-media tools at its disposal and taking advantage of the backlash against the extreme, fundamentalist and powerful Christian Right that has had a lot of say in the last six years through its privileged access to the white house and powerful propaganda tools such as talkback radio and Fox news.

The catalyst for Atheists in America finally getting properly organised apart from the new media revolution combined with the charged religious atmosphere since 9/11 may also have been the series of polling that was done last year which revealed that Atheists were the most disliked and distrusted minority in America and that an open Atheist was more unlikely to get elected to be President of the United States than a devout Muslim or open homosexual. These results may have been part of the final straw that broke the camels back for some of the prominent Atheists in America. The unease that Atheists have felt over all of this has been crystallised and channelled in a way familiar with the stories of the other previously ostracised groups. That is, a small number of hard-hitting, even extreme members of their communities have released books and films and gone on speaking tours where they have openly and explicitly defended and promoted their communities views and values in the strongest possible way, airing views and giving a voice to many of those closet atheists in America who are frustrated into silence by living in families and communities who they fear will ostracise them if they come out as avowed atheists.

Over the past year, those strident, unashamed voices for Atheism have started to appear and in the case of two of the leading lights; Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, their respective books made No.1 and No2 concurrently on the American bestseller list. Now I have been critical of both of these characters in the past, and some of those criticisms remain pertinent, but I wonder if they are not serving an important historical purpose in the form of the raising of public consciousness in a similar way that the Pankhursts did for the women’s movement, that Malcolm X did for the Black movement, and that Stonewall and Peter Tatchell did for the gay movement (in Britain). That is, providing strong, controversial voices that though often polarising and simplistic get themselves heard and their communities issues on the table, leading to a situation where softer, more nuanced, more considered voices could take up the baton for the acceptance of their on a platform where they could finally be listened to and appreciated. It is in this context that I would place the Blasphemy Challenge and the Rational Response Unit no matter what your personal response to some of the messages left on the challenge or the overall approach taken.

Illustrating this point further is a comment Richard Dawkins made about his highly successful and recent tour of America where at one point he literally went into the heart of the beast and was accosted for almost an hour in a Q and A session dominated by Liberty University students (Jerry Falwell’s outfit) who came at him from almost every conceivable angle in an effort to upturn his Atheism. The electrifying effect on the rest of the audience by Professor Dawkins unapologetic and rigorous defence of Atheism at every turn points to the value of having a ‘big beast’ of Atheism crystallise and justify the beliefs of every closet or defensive atheist in America.

As an aside, I think every theist worthy of the name should do themselves a favour and seek out a leading light on atheism at least once in their lives. I remember talking to an impressive dean from Cambridge University who said that going to listen to Bertrand Russell denounce God and defend Atheism did not ultimately make him change his beliefs but it did improve his opinion of Atheism and Atheists immeasurably because he was finally able to understand and even appreciate the Atheist position.

It may seem strange that I am defining the struggle for public acceptance of Atheism as a social issue in the same way as gays, women, blacks, jews and catholics once struggled for the acceptance and recognition. However, given that Atheism is apparently the most disliked and distrusted group in America and is demonised and caricatured in a way that makes Atheism almost the last acceptable prejudice in America (apart from gays where the battle is only half-won), I do think that characterising the struggle that Atheists face in America and the way they are beginning to respond to it, as a social justice issue. Until such times as Atheists are given a similar public platform as theists on debates that impact on them, when they are no longer demonised or ostracised, and when a Atheist candidate for President or Congress doesn’t have to lie and cover up their Atheism, then hopefully such cheap but conscious raising stunts as the blasphemy challenge will no longer by required to make their point and having Atheists present on media panels and Capitol debating religion with their theist counterparts will become as commonplace as it is in other parts of the developed world. As an example of the importance of having a reasoned Atheist voice represented in the media was highlighted by Dawkins as part of the media coverage on the blasphemy challenge, a lot of which highlighted the lack of sympathy and understanding in the US media on Atheist perspectives and motivations in most of the other coverage. (Fox news predictably won the most hyperbolic, overblown piece of media coverage).,644,Richard-Dawkins-interview-with-Paula-Zahn,CNN

Finally, I would say that the Rational Response Unit and similar American Atheist groups are providing an outlet for young Atheists to link up, form relationships and come out of the closet together, which if nothing else is an important social development for young Atheists, sceptics and free thinkers in a country where coming out in the wrong geographical location can have serious social and employment consequences.


Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Megan's Law coming to the UK?

Egged on by the tabloid that championed it, new Home Secretary John Reid is considering bringing Megan's Law to the UK, which in the UK is being campaigned under the sobriquent of "Sarah's Law" after a murder in the UK that has similarities to the murder of Megan Kanka. This is despite plenty of evidence that suggests that Megan's Law has been ineffecitive and counter-productive since being introduced in the US.’s_Law,,28009-2235061,00.html,,1803086,00.html

The News of the World, just about the lowest of the bottom feeders in Britains infamous guttersnipe press looks like they might have met their perfect match in Reid, the man Jeremy Paxman affectionately refers to as "Attack Dog" and who seems to share a love for the "flog em and hang em high" initiatives of one of his recent precedessors David Blunkett, attracting heavy criticism from his immediate predecessor Charles Clarke. There is little mystery as to why the News of the World and its ilk are supporting the Home Secretary over Megan's Law, having a public register of known sex offenders that it's journalists has access to 24/7 means it has a guaranteed headline story on any slow news day from the "so and so has recently moved to x, with y knowing nothing about it" stable of stories. Promoting this initiative is about sensationalism and selling newspapers through fear, and this would be the gift that just keeps on giving for the News of the World.

This current government under Blair has become deathly afraid of offending the sensibilities of the tabloids in issues over immigration and law and order, it is no surprise that Reid, one of Blairs staunchest remaining allies is peddling this idea for all of its worth. Like Blunkett before him (another of Blairs staunchest allies before two turgid scandals got rid of him from the front bench for good) Reid's remit is to shore up Labour's right flank from being savaged by the Melanie Philips of this world (she was toothless against Blunkett, more effective against Clarke) by ignoring common sense or good policy in favour of appearing tough on crime at all times as part of Blairs vacuous "Respect" agenda. Like the flurry of unnecessary attacks on civil liberties we saw before the last election that were designed to appease first the tabloids and then Muslim voters (in a grab-bag of contradictory policies), I think we can expect to see a lot more "policy by tabloid" initiatives in the coming months of Reid's term.

Moving onto the merits of Megan's Law itself, I think that it is a problematic law, especially for the UK which has such a sensationalist press. The telling statistic against Megan's Law is that it has been ineffective in the US, with no indication that Megan's Law has reduced assaults against children or the rate of reoffending. This is primarily because most children are not attacked by strangers but by people they know, most crimes of this nature goes unreported and this probably has been made worse with children not wishing to "have the world know what daddy did to me". This is followed up by a drop in the number of sex offenders in the US going on the register but instead supplying false addresses because of fear of the consequences of being on the register. As the Times article mentions, in Oregan it is required that offenders put a little sign in their windows, leading to a house being burned down and a pet being beheaded. In the UK 97% of sexual offenders are on the register, that number would be in jeopardy if Megan's Law came to pass. There is also the concern over the length of time someone is on the register, people on the register for minor offences when they were young and silly should be able to pay their debt to society and then get on with life without being hounded for the rest of their life (for once the press get hold of their name or their register is readily avaiable via the internet meaning the connection to the register is forever only a google away it will never disappear).
There is also a concern over vigilantism, one vigilante named Stephen Marshall murdered two offenders on the registry in Maine after accessing their home addressed via the internet. Such acts are a rarety but they do occur and would certainly occur in the UK at some point if the law is introduced.

The best approach and use of the register is a varient on the current policy where schools, nurseries and other vulnurable institutions can access the register under strict privacy laws to vet prospective employees, parent volunteers for school camps and outings and individuals that have otherwise aroused suspicion or concern. At the same the authorities should continue to alert the relevant individuals and institutions when someone on the register with relevant sexual convictions moves into their area, again with the appropriate privacy and discretion laws in place. This policy best juggles the very important concerns over safety with that of individual privacy and fear of persecution. Crime is one of those large, complicated policy areas like immigration, health, welfare etc, where sensationalist initiatives more often than not produce a cure at least as the bad as the disease and where in the end, effective policy is more often than not is going to be a trade off, a balancing act between competing concerns and priorities and an eye for the longer term and the bigger picture. I don't think that Megan's law fits that bill and I am concerned that it is going to be the start of a raft of similar proposals that do more harm than good.

Watch this space I suppose.

P.S. As an aside I was amused by the American advocate for Megan's Law that appeared on Andrew Marr's Sunday morning current affairs programme. Dressed in a loud suit he was a real-life cliche of Aaron Eckhart's character in "Thank you for smoking" down to wearing a 'Megan badge' the size of a small melon on his suit and for pulling out a dubious single factor statistic from the US Justice Department again and again, uttering the words "US Justice Department" as if he was mentioning the holiest of holy's, which for an American audience perhaps it is. Beware anybody that claims that sexual crimes have lowered over a period of sixteen years and then ascribes it to a single initiative, not only is that a favourite lobbying and lawyer tactic, but more often than not the link between the single factor and the statistic turns out to be bunkum. It was telling that though the federal version of Megan's Law was introduced in 1996 the advocate chose to go back to 1990 as his time period of comparision.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

David Irving is jailed for three years for Holocaust Denial,,13509-2049360,00.html

I think this is a dreadful judgement for what it means for freedom of speech no matter how offensive.

I personally believe that the line over freedom of speech should be drawn at speech which threatens accidental or deliberate harm on others, therefore speech and opinion that while deeply offensive does not threaten harm on others should be allowed. This includes Irving’s Holocaust Denial.

There are two other specific reasons why I deplore this judgement

1) It creates an unintentional hypocrisy after many European Nations rightly deplored Islamic reaction to the depiction of the prophet Mohammad as an unwarranted attempt at restricting freedom of speech.

2) Restriction of something even as deeply offensive as holocaust denial cuts against the notion that one of the best ways to deal with bad ideas entered into the boulevard of opinion is to allow it to be subjected to the intellectual and factual dissection (and in the case of really bad ideas, intellectual razing to the ground) the rest of society can subject it to. Locking people up for bad ideas also gives those ideas a cache and sense of martyrdom that those ideas don’t deserve, meaning that the burial that those ideas would have had received in an unrestricted public forum now simmer away unresolved to be picked up at a later date by the disaffected and the politically ambitious who will seek to make a cause celebre out of it's rebel status.

David Irving was shocked that he was locked away and rightly so, it is surprising that in this day and age that a modern European State such as Austria can be as doggedly censorious and prescriptive as this. But then again Austria has never been on the right side of Holocaust history and perhaps the one (erroneous) justification that the Austrian government can give for this law is a fear that public expressions of such an opinion might bring out the underlying racism that doesn’t lie that far under the surface of Austrian society.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

New Zealand newspaper publishes cartoons of Mohammad

Interesting, the Dominion Post, New Zealands second largest daily newspaper has decided to post the cartoon in full. I will be interested to see at this stage what the backlash will be.,2106,3561502a12,00.html

This was the accompanying editorial that went with the republication of the cartoon:,2106,3562143a1861,00.html

The precious right of freedom of speech

04 February 2006

Modern society rests on the contest of ideas, the ability to question perceived wisdom and to challenge authority, The Dominion Post writes in an editorial. Without that contest, and the right to free speech that makes it possible, societies stultify and become entrenched in their beliefs. That freedom to question and to challenge must include the right to be offensive, to affront people's most heartfelt beliefs, even to disparage that which they hold sacred. Otherwise it is an empty freedom.

Our decision to publish the 12 cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (Jutland Post) at the centre of the escalating row between the Muslim world and the nations of the West is not one that the newspaper has taken lightly. However, in the clash of values at the centre of the dispute not to publish because of fear of disturbing the sensibilities of Muslims would be to give way in the face of bullying threats. That is what Muslims are seeking to have the Western democracies do with their threats of bombs and trade boycotts. There is no doubt that Muslims find the portrayal of the Prophet offensive. The Koran is clear that the slander and mockery of Islam and prayer crosses a sacred boundary, and warns that those who cross that boundary will be hurled into "crushing disaster". Mufti Abdul Barkatullah, a member of the British Muslim Council, calls it a no-go area at any cost, adding "the Prophet is held above everything in the universe, over one's own person, family, parents, the whole world. It is less offensive to condemn and vilify God". That is certainly true – for Muslims.

However Denmark, and the other countries where the cartoons have been reproduced, including in Britain by the BBC and in newspapers in France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy and Germany, are not Muslim countries. They are democratic, secular countries which are not ruled by religious dogma, whether it be Muslim or Christian. They have the same values as New Zealand, which includes the right to free speech in its Bill of Rights. There is an acceptance that people can write and say what they wish – except in tightly defined circumstances – even if others are offended by it, and that being shocked can be part of the price for being informed. The Muslim case is not helped by the hypocrisy when it comes to respecting the religious values of others. No doubt many fundamentalist Christian Americans find it deeply offensive for their country to be constantly labelled the Great Satan. And, as the German newspaper Die Welt pointed out when it published one of the cartoons, "when Syrian television showed drama documentaries in prime time depicting rabbis as cannibals, the imams were quiet". There have been earlier cultural confrontations between the West and a resurgent Islam, beginning with the death sentence pronounced in 1989 on author Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses, and including the murder in 2004 of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh after he made a film dealing with violence against Islamic women. They are confrontations the West cannot afford to lose. The right to freedom of speech is a precious one that has to be defended. If there is a backlash in the form of boycotts then that could have a effect of New Zealands current buoyant economy as trade with the middle East in the form of providing halal meat and other agricultural goods is not insignificant.

If there is a backlash in the form of boycotts then that could have a effect of New Zealands current buoyant economy as trade with the Middle East in the form of providing halal meat and other agricultural goods is not insignificant.


I had some spare time after a meeting this afternoon to sneak away to the Danish Embassy to witness the protests against the Danish Embassy for the cartoons illustrating the prophet Mohammad.

When I arrived about 2.30pm it all looked singularly unimpressive with a small number of protesters waving banners in Arabic on the opposite side of the street away from the embassy with both media who were positioned outside the embassy facing the protesters and police marshalling the protesters and the traffic out in much greater numbers. With not much going on I took a walk down a side street in what is a very attractive part of London (Knightsbridge/South Kensington) and spotted a lovely Presbyterian Scottish Church to duck into to escape the cold. After having had a good look around and being warmed up a bit I went back out to have another look at the protests, initially it was the same scene as I had left it and after five minutes I had just about decided to scoot back to the office when there was a sudden escalation in police activity with the arrival of four extra police vans and a rapid unloading of extra barricades alerting us that something was up and sure enough I heard the sounds of what turned out to be a much larger protest coming down towards the embassy from the direction of Regents Park. I crossed the road and headed down the side street where the sounds of the protest was coming from before the police had the chance to block off that access road, Although I walked parallel to the police along with some other bystanders and media no one tried to stop us or turn us back.

Before I turned the corner of the side street the protest was upon us with a sizable number of Muslim men and women turning the corner surrounded by police waving banners written in English and all yelling and chanting abuse and threats at the top of their voice. I then decided to get a closer look at the signs, so I got off the side of the road and walked amongst them with my notepad recording what I reading and hearing. Here are some of the examples that many of the signs said:

“Kill the Kaffir”
“Behead those who insult Islam”
“Butcher those who mock Islam”
“Kill those who insult the prophet”
“Liberalism go to hell”
“Free speech go to hell”
“You dug your grave, lie in it”
“Europe, we will make you pay”
“Europe you will pay, 3/11 is on its way”
“Europe you will come crawling when the Muhajadin come roaring!”
“UK 7/7 is on the way”
“Europe is the cancer, Islam is the answer”
“Be prepared for the real holocaust”and many other similar pleasantries…

Once these group of protesters joined up with the original protesters they stopped and a group of men on top of a small cart started addressing the crowd and the Danish embassy through a loud hailer (when I say “address” I mean more “scream at the top of his lungs”) Bits of his “speech” if you could call it that include: “Denmark you will pay, the Muslims are on their way”. “Those people responsible for this insult should be handed over by the disbelievers to be punished” “There is only one punishment, one punishment that is suitable for insulting our beloved prophet and that is death, death, there is no other way!” “We will always dominate, we will always dominate and we will rule every corner of the world”

The surreal thing about all of this, is that while all of this tirade is going on, and the most astonishing threats and insults are being made, the police stand there, the media stand there and members of the public stand there and say nothing, although a few whipped out their mobiles to take some photographs. After the address had finished everybody mills about for a while and I walk amongst them recording what I can. It struck me how many women protesters were there and I stood by as a woman addressed a bunch of her “sisters” to line up and march behind their brothers by saying “sisters, lets show them that we will not be mocked by disbelievers”. I listened to two of the protesters trying to establish if the embassy next to the Danish embassy was Norwegian or Peruvian, luckily for whoever embassy it was, they decided that the flag outside that embassy was probably “not Norwegian”. The male protesters then lined up and began their daily prayer ritual bending over on their knees in unison. This continued for a while and at that point I decided to leave with not much else looking to happen at that point.

As for my thoughts on it, I have never seen anything quite like it, even though I have witnessed quite a number of angry protests over my political career to date. I have never witnessed such visible anger, aggression, threats to perpetrate murder and ritual killings and mocking contempt towards our liberal, democratic traditions in my life. All carried out in a surreal atmosphere of bemused British bystanders observing a demonstration more reminiscent of the West Bank being perpetrated by people enjoying the freedoms and protection of the very institutions and traditions that they were threatening and mocking. For me, it was the personal experience of staring my enemy in the face and get a sense of the hate and the viciousness behind it (and let me be clear that by “enemy” I mean Militant Religion in general, and Militant Islam in particular, rather than any particular individuals who I have no wish to dehumanise on a personal level). It also revealed to me the disconnect between that mentality that suffers no insult, no shades of grey, no messy compromises with the things that we do not like, and that of the tolerance, respect and multiplicity of our much maligned liberal, secular, democratic traditions.

Today I witnessed those traditions being put under great pressure by those who openly espouse to hating it and I saw that tradition underlining by its actions, the truth of Voltaire’s maxim that underpins that tradition. That is, “I may hate what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it”. Seeing these police men and women guiding and protecting these people so that they could exercise their right to express how much they hate it, and us, is the ultimate test, and ultimate proof of the greatness of that tradition. But it still makes you whistle through your teeth at the spectacle of it.