Monday, 30 May 2011

Peat Free Compost (Part 2) - The Actions

Having done a lot of digging regarding the issue of peat (a non-renewable resource) being used in soil improvers such as multi-purpose compost (see the first post here), BFTF wanted to make a small, practical difference to help improve the situation.

The first thing to do, of course, is to practice what you (are about to) preach - but since BFTF has been purchasing peat-free compost for several years, this seems to be a box that can be ticked off.

The next port of call is to raise awareness/provide a nudge to those who make policy. BFTF did this by:

a) Sending an email to DEFRA saying thank-you for the very comprehensive report they had written and to ask what the coalition was planning to do about the issue over this parliament.

b) Sending an email to Mrs Creagh MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asking what the Labour Party Policy was in this area and what they aimed to achieve in this parliament.

c) Sending an email to the local Councillor who was the Portfolio Holder for Energy and Sustainability asking whether the local council was "peat-free" and, if not, what they were doing to achieve this status.

d) Sending an email to local mosques (such as BFTF has email addresses for) suggesting that this is a topic that is both in keeping with the ideal of Islam and also an issue where, critically, the Muslim Community can find common ground with wider society - and that they may wish to lobby on behalf of their congregations (ensuring that they keep their congregations informed) on this or a similar topic.

UPDATE : 27 June 2011
DEFRA : Responded saying that the results of the consultation were on the website. (They can be found here). The results have been incorporated into a White Paper "The Natural Choice" (can be found here). The key aims are :
Phase out for government and public sector by 2015 (currently 1% of peat market)
Voluntary phase out target of 2020 for amateur gardeners (currently 69% of peat market)
Voluntary phase out target of 2030 for commercial growers (currently 30% of peat market)
Task Force to be set up to advise on how best to overcome barriers to reducing peat use.
The long timescales for amateur gardeners and commercial growers are disappointing, particularly given that peat has only been used as a soil improver since the 1970's and that no levy is being put on peat to recognise its value in flood prevention, as a carbon store etc.

Local Council : They sent a very informative reply stating that they were trialling partly and fully peat free composts and aimed to meet the governments target of eliminating its use by 2015.

Peat-Free Compost (Part 1) - The Issue

Should we be using Peat - an non-renewable resource - in our garden grow-bags and compost?

It is perhaps helpful to start at the beginning by expalining that peat is an organic material, formed as an accumulation of partially decayed vegetable matter, that forms in wetlands such as bogs, mires and swamps.

It has traditionally been used as a source of fuel (once dried) in many parts of the world but it's use in gardening dates from only the 1970s, when supplies of loam were suffering shortages and peat began to be used as an alternative.

Currently, the UK uses 3 million cubic metres of peat for horticulture every year (this is apparantly enough to fill 19,000 double decker buses, although BFTF prefers to convert this to a more conventional 1,200 olympic sized swimming pools).

According to DEFRA's 2010 "Consultation on reducing the horticultural use of peat in England" document,"extraction activities result in annual greenhouse gas emissions of at least 400,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from UK extraction sites. This is equivalent to 100,000 cars on the road each year and does not take account of the peat that we import from overseas, principally from Ireland (which supplies 60% of our horticultural peat) and the Baltic States (8%)"

In addition the consulation also states that peat stocks contain over half of the UK's soil carbon (around 5.5 billion tonnes) by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it as partially decomposed plants and mosses over many thousands of years. At the same time, their
cold and waterlogged conditions preserve valuable archaeological artefacts, with an
estimated 4200 archaeological sites in English lowland peatlands . . . and 1800 sites in upland peat habitats (for example, the Peak District). In lowland areas, like the Fens, peat soils are economically important for high-value arable and horticultural crop production, and in upland areas for livestock grazing and grouse shooting."

The Government has already made efforts to reduce the amount of peat used in soil improvers, and, since 1999, this has resulted in the amount of peat used reducing significantly, even as the total amount of the amount of soil improvers has increased by over 50%.

Some 30% of soil improvers sold to the "amateur garden market" are peat free and, overall, peat now comprises less than 10% of the volume of peat used annually.

The DEFRA consulation asks for views regarding a number of questions and options relating to a proposed elimination of peat from all soil improvers by 2030 at the latest.

A recent (26th May) Radio4 debate on the "You and yours" programme on Radio 4 this week hosted by the excellent Winifred Robinson (who is admirably Rottweiler-like in keeping the guests on-topic and focussed) looked at this topic with input from Mark Diacono, Head of Gardens at River Cottage and a supporter of "peat-free" gardening - and Tim Briercliffe, of the Horticultural Trade Association.

Mark Diacono presented pretty much the same arguements as those of the DEFRA paper, all of which seemed to make a lot of sense to BFTF. . . ,

Tim Briercliffe commented that the industry has spent over 100million pounds investing in alternative composts over the last 10 years but there has been little demand from the market (so far as BFTF can see, this does not seem to be supported by the data in the DEFRA report)

Tim also commented that, regarding peat-free soil improvers it was critical that the price "is the same because we have to produce sometihng. . . in a marketplace that is not particularly calling out for a change" (dear reader, BFTF would like to draw your attention to a RSPB survey of gardening experts which showed two thirds backing a phase out of peat by 2020, and also to the fact that B&Q, Aylett Nurseries, and Sainsburys are already committed towards a phase out of peat in their soil improvers).

At the risk of establishing a pattern, another of Tim's comments was that a proposed £1 per bag levy on soil improvers containing peat will just result in increased levels of peat coming in from overseas (is BFTF the only one thinking that the source of the peat is irrelevant if the levy is put on the bag at point of sale?)

Some of the emails from listeners were fascinating. In particular was a call from Landscape Gardener (and competition judge) Penny Bennett who mentioned that she had not used peat based products for decades and that if she was judging a competition, entries that did use peat were marked down significantly.

Another call that was interesting was from a listener who had stopped using peat-free soil improvers when she found out that Ireland had a number of peat powered power stations. "What's the point" was here perfectly reasonble conclusion. BFTF has to admit that this was very disconcerting to hear and has investigated further. . .

Bord Na Mona is the company that harvests peat for use in Eire's peat power stations. As of a 2001 report, some 4 million tons (not litres -as soil improver is measured) were being used per annum. According to Wikipedia, the level of peat depletion is such that most of the peat-fired power stations will be closed within 25 years. The amount of peat used as a percentage of total energy generation has been going down for several decades, and the government has set up schemes for the peat-fired power stations to use at least 30% biomass by 2015.

Ok, so that - at least in outline - is the issue. The next question is what should be do about it - to find out an (not "the") answer, get clicky here:

Further Information:
DEFRA Consulation report

World Peat Energy Notes

RSPB proposal for a levy on Soil improvers

RSPB Survey of Gardening Experts

Bord Na Moma 2001 introduction

Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Daily Mail and "The Iqal Campaign"

Sent the following to my local MP. It's pretty self explanatory:

Dear XXX

I am concerned about an article in the Daily Mail on Thursday 26th May that refers to a "Facebook campaign" that is "urging Saudi men to whip women who drive with the cord from their headdress".

Link :

My concern is that, according to one of the readers comments to the article alleges that "the Facebook page was created by a white dude who lists Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh as his interests. So in other words it was created to stir up hate against Islam, when the "no driving" rule has nothing to do with Islam - it's a tribal rule"

I am unable to find the relevant Facebook page anywhere, so am left wondering how I can find out whether this article is based on a "real" or a "fake" Facebook page.

You may think that this is a trivial point, and of itself it is - but this kind of article is part of a constant drip-drip of anti-Muslim coverage in the Daily Mail and, over time, this kind of coverage is very corrosive to community cohesion.

My question to you, at the end of this, is to ask how I can hold the Daily Mail to account for this article and assess whether this article has any basis in fact at all.

(Please do not refer me to the PCC, they will ignore me unless the article is about me specifically.)

Incidentally, if the Daily Mail (and Fox News who seem to be the other source for this story) had taken the simple step of providing a link to the page, I would have been able to quickly check for myself and would not now be taking up my time and yours with this communication.

Lastly, for the avoidance of doubt, as a Muslim I wish the women of Saudi Arabia well, and hope that they can soon overcome this inexplicable ban on driving.

Update (18 Dec 2011)
Slightly to BFTF’s surprise, the MP forwarded the complaint to the PCC.

In complete contrast to BFTF’s previous experience with the organisation, the PCC came back offering to deal with the complaint.

After a few months of email tennis between BFTF, the PCC and the Daily Mail, the following was agreed and placed as a record on the PCC website:

Mr Ash Choudry complained to the Press Complaints Commission about an online article which reported on a Facebook campaign urging Saudi men to whip women who planned to defy a ban on women driving. The complainant believed that the Facebook campaign was in fact a hoax.

While the newspaper did not accept that its article was in breach of the Editors' Code, the matter was resolved when it agreed to remove piece from its website.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011


The world is in a mess - and there is nothing we can do about it.

Correct ?

Cor-wrong !

In fact, we all make choices every month that affect whether forests survive (or are cut down), whether farm animals are treated humanely (or are kept in tiny cages) and whether small independent traders survive (or lose out to multinationals).

We make choices that ensure a fair wage for workers in the developing world (or leave them to flounder at the mercy of middlemen and commodity prices), reduce packaging (or waste materials and energy) and support local farmers (or support the long range transport of materials)

"Eh?", you may be thinking, wondering when it is that you wield this enormous power.

Well, dear reader, you have this power every time you go shopping. Every penny that you (and I) spend is making a choice - and whether we want to or not, we all make the choices listed above.

It's worth making that point again: Whether we want to or now, we all make these choices. When we buy, say, a pack of kitchen towels, we are making a choice about whether we want the paper used in them to be from a sustainable source (thus protecting biodiversity and preventing deforestation) or from an unsustainable source (thus contributing to loss of whole ecosystems and also to a reduction in forest cover around the world). It's pretty much one or the other - which one are you going to choose?

Having said that, we are all only human and all busy people.

We can't keep up with all the issues (sometimes we aren't even aware of them !) - but we can be aware of some of them (indeed, you would need to be living in a cave not to know that "free range" eggs are more ethical than eggs from caged hens) and make sure we make the right choices in these areas.

Sometimes, we can't financially afford to do the "right" thing - but even here we can play things cleverly. An approach that BFTF takes when the "right" choice seems a bit too pricey is to buy some of the cheap product and some of the "ethical" product, thus making the overall price somewhere in between.

To take a specific example, BFTF has been interested in a new line of tinned Tuna called "Fish4Ever" that is stocked in ASDA (and perhaps elsewhere). This product literature states that :

"This is a sustainably fished pole and line skipjack tuna. Most skipjack tuna is badly fished with high by-catch of endangered species and of juveniles causing risks to the survival of many species. Our skipjack fishing has no by-catch. Most skipjack is fished in parts of the sea where local domestic boats have been displaced and local communities have seen their fishing go to big foreign industrial boats. There is also a linked problem of high levels of illegal fishing in these waters. Our skipjack is not fished in this way: we support the local fisherman and only use small local boats and even local packing. This makes our product of higher quality - because it is fished in small quantities quite carefully, landed fresh and not kept on boats for weeks on end and then packed straight from the catch. Fish4Ever sustainability: land, sea and people, artisan and local."

Now that all seems wonderful and certainly seems like something worth supporting - but it costs over twice the price of the ASDA own-brand tuna (£1.62 vs £0.76 for a 185g can). With the BFTF household needing four cans for a typical Tuna-Mayo-Sweetcorn mix, this is an eye-watering price difference.

So what BFTF does is to buy three "own brand" cans and one "Fish4Ever" can.

This gives Fish4Ever a 25% share of the "BFTF market", which is almost certainly a much bigger percentage that they are getting of the UK market as a whole, and brings the average price per can down to 98p, which feels a lot more acceptable.

Everyone is a winner.

BFTF gets to support this product, to send a message to ASDA that this is a line that they should stock and to purchase Tuna at an acceptable price.

Fish4Ever sells product and gets a regular revenue from the BFTF household.

So there you go - a way to do the right thing - at the right price. Oh and by the way, the Fish4Ever Tuna is a good quality product in terms of looks and taste too.

More background on the issues related to overfishing can be found here.

More information on the issues related to deforestation can be found here.

Lastly, just to give some easy pointers on products that are a good ethical choice :

Paper products (kitchen towels, printer paper) - look for paper that is either recycled or has the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo
Fish - look for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) logo
Fruit/Veg - look for the Fairtrade logo
Dairy Products - look at the small oval logo to ensure that they are made in the UK

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Redemption at the Daily Mail

It is human nature to try and categorise things, whether they be people, organisations or even ideas.

This tendency can result in a view that specific groups (or companies, or countries) are “good” or “bad”. Anything said by “bad” people can be dismissed as being wrong, irrespective of the merits of the argument being made. Anything said by “good” people is automatically correct, irrespective of whether it makes any sense or whether there is any evidence to back it up.

But life isn’t really like that. Most people, companies and even governments are actually shades of grey rather than being black or white.

This blog tries (and occasionally succeeds) in recognising this fact.

For example, The Daily Mail is a paper that has a depressing habit of portraying minorities in a negative manner (often by ignoring the Press Complaints Commission guidelines on only mentioning a person’s race or faith if it has a direct relevance on the story). It is also a paper that is often factually incorrect, especially when it comes to science and technology reporting. It is also scathing about council recycling initiatives (presumably the Daily Mail has shares in landfill companies), about the Health and Safety industry (which is generally quite sensible but gets undermined by people who take “advice” and treat it as cast-iron-law-that-must-be-applied-in-all-cases-regardless-of- whether –it –is –appropriate-or-not) and frankly, schizophrenic in its view of house prices (they are simultaneously too high and also must not be allowed to fall)

But despite all this, it has to be said that the Daily Mail does run some brilliant photo journalism stories (I think it helps that they are mostly pictures, so the paper doesn’t get too much opportunity to put it’d foot in it with its words)

To take just three examples,

This story shows some incredible photography of the seabed, near Iceland, where the European and North American tectonic plates are slowly moving apart.

And here, we can see some serious wow-factor in the pictures shown of small tropical frogs.

Lastly, check out this set of images of dew covered insects.

So there you go.

The Daily Mail - It’s not all bad.

Elf and Safety in the Media

Imagine you are a newspaper editor, a Rottweiler like Kelvin McKenzie or Anne Robinson perhaps. Or maybe you see yourself as someone a little more cerebral, Andrew Neil, say, or Rosie Boycott. Or maybe you want to go the whole nine yards and fancy yourself in the role of Daily Bugle Editor J Jonah Jameson from the Spiderman comics and movies.

Either way, you have a lot of power, you can set the tone of the paper, decide what kind of stories it covers – and what it omits, decide whether to support a particular cause – or to attack it.

Against this level of control, what chance do the poor readers have?

Perhaps the first step is to realise what else the papers could be covering instead of bashing minorities and devoting page after page to celebrities.

Let’s take a practical example.

A number of papers, the Daily Mail being a particular culprit, moan relentlessly about “elf and safety” as though regulations aimed at protecting people was an inherently evil thing.

Oh yeah? Well, lets have a look through the pages of three random issues of the H&S trade magazine “Health and Safety at Work” (May and Sep 2011). What we find are the following :

A story about car part manufacturer Calsonic Kansei who were fined £495,000 for an incident where a worker suffered fatal head injuries when a forklift truck reversed into him. He was due to take voluntary redundancy on the day of the accident. The company had already been warned about the poor control of it’s fork lift working procedures when a fork-lift ran over an employees ankle two years ago.

The case of Piperdam Golf and Leisure, who failed to control bacteria in their water supply – resulting in the death of a guest at the centre. The head of the Crown Office said that the company’s control measures were inadequate and that the guest would still be alive if the company had met its statutory obligations. The company were fined £120,000.

Demolition contractor Micor and their subcontractor Crane and Transport Services were fined £160,000 for an incident where a 31-tonne concrete beam fell from a low-loader and fatally crushed a worker. The HSE said that “There was no forethought or planning of how to attach a very large lump of concrete, which was an inherently unsafe load, to the back of the lorry”. Perhaps, dear reader, you will agree with me the perhaps risk assessments aren’t such a bad idea after all. . .

Dutch owned firm (Coolrec Group) who supplied recycling systems were fined £82,000 for a plant that had poor guarding, resulting in an operator getting their arm caught in rotating machinery. Emergency services took 45 minutes to free the victim but his arm could not be saved and had to be amputated below the shoulder. The sentencing judge said that whilst Coolrec was not alone in causing injuries, it had “designed a system that was dangerous and had wholly inadequate provisions for guarding”.

The story of a truck driver who was fatally electrocuted when the crane on his lorry touched overhead 11kV power lines. The HSE commented that the driver had not been provided with suitable training and supervision, particularly in terms of the risk from overhead cables. The yard manager said that he knew of the overhead cables but “did not consider them dangerous”. Commenting further, the HSE added that “proper training, simple checks and procedures could have prevented this horrific accident”. The company was fined £50,000.

An incident at Corus Steel in which poor guarding on a pipe strapping machine resulted in a worker receiving serious chest and abdominal injuries, including several broken bones. The HSE commented that, as well as the poor guarding, the company had failed to follow its written safe system of work. The company was fined £20,000.

Serco and Birse Civilis, who were contractors working on the M5, failed to inform a worker who was working in the pitch dark that there was a 12 metre vertical drop immediately behind the crash barrier. The worker hopped over the barrier, thinking that the foliage he could see was bushes (instead of the canopies of trees that it actually was) and fell to his death. The companies were fined a total of some £200,000.

A skip company allowed untrained workers to maintain the wheels and tyres of waste-moving vehicles. The worker (together with colleagues) had tried to fix a "split rim" wheel by using spot welds. These failed when the the tyre was inflated, sending the rim and flange directly into the workers face and chest. He was thrown into the air and hit a loading shovel head-first. He died from his injuries n hospital later that day. The HSE inspector commented that "There's enough compressed air in a split rim wheel of this type to send a family car 26 metres into the air". The company was fined £150,000, plus £50,000 in costs.

The cautionary tale of Greenway Environmetal, who did not think through the risks of shredding large batches of aerosol cans (which often contained flammable contents). An explosion resulted which spread over more than 10,000square metres and required 25 fire engines to bring it under control. The HSE commented that "there could easily have been fatalities". The company was fined £37,500.

Northumberland County Council were fined £21,000 for poor warnings that there were overhead power cables at depot. A lorry drove off with its crane still extended and brought down the power line. The case is an example of how workplace accidents are often caused by multiple effects because the alarm on the crane (which would have warned the driver that he was driving off with the crane still extended) had been disabled.

The case of INEOS oil refinery at Grangemouth. Important procedures on how to deal with high pressures in the pipelines were communicated by word of mouth and not documented anywhere. Inevitably, the day came when neither the control room operator nor the external technician were staff who had not been informed of what to do when the oil pressure became dangerously high. As a result the pipeline burst and sprayed highly flammable oil over adjacent pipelines. The oil could easily have ignited, resulting in a much more severe incident. The company was fined £100,000

These were not “accidents” – they were all instances of employers putting their employees in harms way. They were, essentially, acts of negligence.

Why were they not reported in the mainstream media? Why is there no Daily Mail campaign to “put an end” to these this kind of tragedy? Why is it so much more important for the national press to report poppy burners or “bogus asylum seekers” than to go after companies that show scant regard for the safety of their employees?

You can find out more about the valuable work of the HSE by visiting their website. A good place to start is probably their press centre

Thursday, 5 May 2011

A Result : Part2 - End Water Poverty

A Result : Part1 - Daily Mail
A Result : Part2 - End Water Poverty

Having sent what can perhaps best be described as constuctive criticism regarding the fact that the government does not speak out against the hateful and divisive reporting shown by papers such as the Daily Mail, BFTF was feeling a little guity and wondered whether the MP had been doing anything praiseworthy recently that would warrant some kind of encouragement or compliment . A brief look at the MPs website revealed that they had indeed been doing something interesting. An article described how they had joinded other MP's in "walked for water" as part of a global campaing to raise awareness for the world water and sanitation crisis on UN World Water Day - an event organised by End Water Poverty who are calling for governments to work towards ending the water and sanitation crisis in the developing world.

The website of End Water Poverty ( showed that this was an organisation who had the support of charities around the world and aimed to be a focus point for achieving change.

Reading on further, it was shocking to learn was that some 2.6 billion people live without a safe toilet and that this results in devastating effects on:
health (over 50% of sub saharan hospital beds are taken up to people suffering from sanitaiton related diseases);

children (some 400 die from preventable water related diseases every day, more than the number who die from AIDS, malaria and measles combined) and

economies (in Africa 5% of GDP is lost to sanitation related illnesses)

Even more disturbing was an article in the Guardian by Maggie Black( that pointed out how sanitation (sewers, clean toilets etc) needs to be funded by the government. After all, it was government funding that was required to end the "Great Stink" in 1850's London.

Yet, according to Black, the situation in many developing countries is that "Privatisation of municipal utilities - at the bidding of the World Bank and others - has compounded the problem, since any profits to be made are all in water supply, which people need to survive. But sanitation is a public good and, as the Victorians discovered, needs to be subsidised from the public purse"

Critically, water and sanitation programmes in the developing world "conveniently forget the "S" word too. They spend the lion's share of their resources on water: 95% in Madagascar, for example, leaving just 3p per head a year to spend on sanitation".

This was all eye-opening stuff and it seemed only fair to tell the MP concerned that I was gratefull for their activity on this front and that they had certainly raised awareness of the issue for me.

An email also followed to local mosques, suggesting that supporting the MP was an opportunity to do something positive in the political field, rather than just focussing on narrow issues of self-interest.

And another email followed to a local Islamic charity suggesting that this might be a good cause for them to back, and to wonder what the effect would be if they could get a large number of local Muslims writing to the Government asking for action on this issue. Imagine what that would do for the perception of the Muslim community by the wider society. Imagine what that would do for the self-image of the Muslim community. And, of course, image what it could do for the millions in the developing world who have to spend so much time finding water and have no access to a toilet.

Alhumdulillah, dear reader, you may note how such positive actions have come out of an initial wish to right a wrong in the Daily Mail !

Perhaps BFTF can close out this post by mentioning that, whilst it cannot write poetry, or indeed easily read poetry, BFTF does have a soft spot for a good lymeric. A particular favourite goes like this :

There was a young lady named Kite
Whose speed was much faster than light.
She left home one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.

A Result : Part1 - Daily Mail

A Result : Part1 - Daily Mail
A Result : Part2 - End Water Poverty

Whinging and whining, sometimes it feels like the Muslim communities pastime-ing. (You see now why I should never attempt poetry).

It is something that BFTF tries to avoid, by doing somethng positive to make a change rather than just sitting at home telling friends that the establishment, or whoever, hates Muslims (they would agree, of course, but that won't do anything to resolve the situation)

To this end, BFTF noticed a really rather racist statement in the comments section of a Daily Mail article recently. Wondering what to do about this, BFTF noticed an "abuse" button next to the post (which was near the top of the "best rated" comments section).

A click on the button allowed the composition of a message to the Daily Mail stating that the comment was racist and demonised an entire country - and by implication the Pakistani community in the UK.

Somewhat to BFTF's surprise, within 24hrs the offending comment was gone.

I'd call that a result. A small result, but a result nonetheless.

If we all got a small result like that every month, that would, inshallah, add up to something big.

But perhaps we can go a little further. One wonders why the post was put up in the first place, given that comments are moderated. Why should the Daily Mail be allowed to peddle such hate? It is inconceivable that this kind of comment would be allowed for any other group in the UK. Why should the Muslim community accept this kind of treatment?

So and email followed to the local MP stating that, whilst press freedom is important, that does not absolve the Government from speaking out when publications such as the Daily Mail peddle hate and innuendo against minorities. This kind of behaviour actively degrades community cohesion and makes it MORE difficult for those working to find common ground between communities to do their work. In what way, BFTF asked, does the MP and their party, speak out against this kind of divisive media reporting.

There are some powerful force multipliers in the Muslim community - they are the mosques and community centres. Politicans listen to those who represent the most people and for the Muslim community (or rather communities) this means the mosques. Mosques can genuinely influence the attitudes and policies of the state, especially when they work on an agenda that is based on fairness, equality and the common good . So an email also went out to mosques requesting that they consider also asking their local MP's what they were doing to combat the kind of reporting often shown by the Daily Mail.

Lastly, the local council has a "Muslim Communities Facilititator", so an email went off to them asking for this issue to be raised at the next meeting, along with an offer that BFTF would be happy to help with drafting of emails and letters, but that mosques (or the MCF) needed to take responsibility for sending them, chasing for a response and communicating all this to their congregations.

Now, at this point, BFTF was all set to wrap up this post as "job done", but they thought "This is all a bit negative. Surely there is something somewhere we can praise. And it turns out that a mere 30seconds searching found something wonderful that a local MP was supporting, something that certainly needed "bigging up" and praise. You can find out what was Part 2 of this post. . .

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Framing the Debate : Part 2

Framing the Debate : Part 1
Framing the Debate : Part 2

Capacity Building
Lakoff describes how the differing priorities of the conservative and liberal political groups has resulted in the conservatives dominating the media. He comments that “In the right’s hierarchy of moral values, the top value is preserving and defending the moral system itself. If that is your main goal, what do you do? You build infrastructure. You buy up media in advance. You do things like give fellowships to right wing law students to help them through law school”.

He elaborates on this by pointing out that “The right wing think tanks get large block grants and endowments. Millions at a time. . . These institutions build human capital for the future. . . the interns are building lifetime networks. . . These are social networks that will pay dividends for years and years. The conservatives who built the think tanks are not dumb people.”

In contrast, progressive foundations focus on providing direct services to people in need and are focused on providing the most help for the most people – and on ensuring that no money is wasted.

The Conservative Mindset
Lakoff describes the conservative mindset as being the “strict father model” which views the world as a place where people compete to succeed and where there are winners and losers. Critically, this mindset believes that, if people are disciplined and pursue their self-interest in this land of opportunity, they will become prosperous and self-reliant.

When translated to government social programmes, this mindset believes that “It is immoral to give people things they have not earned, because they will then not develop discipline and will become dependent and immoral. . .if there are a lot of progressives in Congress who think that there should be social programmes, and if you believe that social programmes are immoral, how do you stop these immoral people. It is quite simple, what you have to do is to reward the good people - the ones whose prosperity reveals their discipline and hence their capacity for morality – with a tax cut, and make it big enough so that there is not enough money left for social programmes. By this logic, the deficit is a good thing. As Grover Norquist says “It starves the beast”’

Activating Models
Most people have both “strict father” and “nurturant” models to some degree. Thus, liberals are able to understand a John Wayne movie, whilst conservatives are able to understand a program like the Cosby Show. In addition, many people have different models in different aspects of their lives, for example “Reagan knew that blue-collar workers who were nurturant in their union politics were often strict fathers at home. He used political metaphors that were based on the home and family , and got them to extend their strict father way of thinking from the home to politics.”

An example of how this is done is given in the form of Frank Luntz, a conservative language expert. One of Luntz’s recent books of language guidlelines commented that the science was increasingly going against the conservative position on global warming, but that this could be countered by using the right language. “People who support environmentalist positions like certain words. They like the words “healthy”, “clean”, “safe” because these words fit frames that describe what the environment means to them. Therefore, says Luntz, use the words healthy, clean and safe whenever possible, even when talking about coal or nuclear power plants”

It’s the values, stupid !
Many politicians believe that if they just tell people the facts, then people will act according to their best interest and vote for them.

Yet, this is not what happens. For example ”In the 2000 election, Gore kept saying that Bush’s tax cuts would go only to the top 1% and he thought that everyone else would follow their self-interest and support him. But poor conservatives still opposed him.”

Cognitive scientists such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown , that people do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. Instead, they often vote their identity, or values, or who they identify with.

Foreign Policy
Regarding the “collateral damage” the has come with Us military adventures since 9/11, Lakoff comments that ““The argument the killing civilians in retaliation would make us as bad as them works for liberals, not for conservatives. The idealistic claim of the Bush administration that is the they intend to wipe out all terrorism. What is not mentioned is that the United States has systematically promoted a terrorism of its own and has trained terrorists, from the contras to the mujahideen, the Honduran death squads and the Indonesian military. Will the US government stop training terrorists? Of course not. It will deny that it does so. Is this duplicity? Not in terms of conservative morality and its view of good versus evil and “lesser evils (such as collateral damage and support for dictators)”. Indeed, Newt Gingritch has commented on the Fox network that “Retribution is Justice”.

Lakoff further describes the Iraq invasion as being viewed by the Bush administration as an invasion that “furthers our self-interest in controlling the flow of oil from the world’s second largest known reserve, and in being in the position to control the flow of oil from central asia. This would guarantee energy domination over a significant part of the world. The United States could control oil sales around the world. And in the absence of alternative fuel development, whoever controls the worldwide distribution of oil controls politics and economics”

Framing the Debate : Part 1

Framing the Debate : Part 1
Framing the Debate : Part 2

Framing – What is it?
Framing is an aspect of argument which takes advantage of the fact that words evoke frames (such as images or other information). Even negating a frame results in invoking it, thus telling someone not to think of an elephant results in them. . . thinking of an elephant.

Linguist and Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff , who teaches at Berkely, California (and has a distinctly Democrat leaning political view point), uses this exact example as the title of his book , “Don’t think of an elephant!” (Pub: Chelsea Green) and gives the practical example of Richard Nixon who, during the Watergate crisis, memorably said “I am not a crook” at which point everybody thought of him as a crook !

Lakoff describes this as a key aspect of framing- When arguing, do not use the language of the other side- it will use a frame and that frame won’t be the one that you want.

Another example given is that of the phrase “tax relief” used by George W Bush. Lakoff considers the framing for the word “relief” and comments that “For there to be relief, there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction, and is therefore a hero. And if people try to stop the hero, those people are villains for trying to prevent “

Furthermore, “A conservative on TV uses two words, like tax relief. And the progressive has to go into a paragraph-long discussion on his own view. The conservative can appeal to an established frame, that taxation is an affliction or burden, which allows for the two-word phrase “tax relief”. But there is no established frame on the other side. You can talk about it, but it takes some doing because there is no established frame, no fixed idea already out there.”

Perhaps, if the Democratic party had been airing adverts for years to construct their frame, it would now be easier for them to argue their case. Lakoff gives an example of the kind of ad that might have put across a different perspective on taxes, ““Our parents invested in the future, ours as well as theirs, through their lives. They invested their tax money in the interstate highway , the internet, the scientific and medical establishments, our communications system, our airline system the space program. They invested in the future, and we are reaping the tax benefits, the benefits from the taxes they have paid. Today we have assets – highways, schools and colleges, the Internet, airlines that come from the wise investments they made.”

Or the following :
“Taxation is paying your dues, paying your membership. If you join a country club or a community centre, you pay fees. . . otherwise (it) won’t be maintained and will fall apart. People who avoid taxes, like corporations that move to Bermuda are not paying their dues to this country. It is patriotic to be a taxpayer. It is traitorous to desert our country and not pay your dues”

Lakoff comments that if you are faced with an opponent who is being disingenuous, you should point out what their real goal is and then reframe. For example, suppose he starts touting smaller government. Point out the conservatives don’t really want smaller government. They don’t want to eliminate the military, or the FBI, or the Treasury and Commerce departments, or the nine-tenths of the courts that support corporate law. It is big government that they like. What they really want to do away with is social programmes – programs that invest in people, to help people help themselves. Such a position contradicts the values the country was founded on – the idea of a community where people pull together to help each other.”

In a nutshell, Lakoff recommends the following four guidelines for political debate:
Show respect, Respond by reframing, Think and talk at the level of values, Say what you believe

Monday, 2 May 2011

Reclaiming Islam : Part 3 (“Critical Friend” Emails)

Reclaiming Islam : Part 1 (The Muslim State and the Muslim Ummah, Democracy)
Reclaiming Islam : Part 2 (Women and Islam)
Reclaiming Islam : Part 3 (“Critical Friend” Emails)

In a spirit of being a "critical friend", the email below was sent (with some minor changes) to the Muslim Communities Facilitator (who works for the council) and to a local group of mosques:

"I have just read a book called “Taking Back Islam - American Muslims Reclaim their Faith (Ed: Michael Wolfe, Pub:Rodale) and was saddened to hear some of the stories of American Muslim Women, two of which are summarised below:

Saraji Umm Zaid describes how she has often been denied access to mosques on the basis that “there isn’t room”. She comments that mosques will not explicitly ban women from entering, because the Prophet specifically forbade keeping women from the mosque. “’We don’t have room’ becomes code for ‘we don’t want you here, go home’. If people were really interested in keeping with the Prophets practice then they should make sure their mosque doesn’t aid them in violating this command”.

Samer Hathout (founding president of the Muslim Women’s League) mentions the case of Mirian (not her real name). Miriam was married to Ali, she was often beaten and abused. “When Mariam did attempt to speak with her local Muslim community leader, she was made to feel that the abuse was her fault – if she was a better wife, Ali would not have to beat her. She was also told not to discuss her marital problems with other people and that it was important for her to stay married at all costs to preserve the family.Eventually, Mariam left home and sought refuge in a local battered womens shelter. She received assistance and Ali was convicted in US court for spousal battery. “But when Mariam appeared at Muslim functions she was shunned, the Muslim community wanted nothing to do with her. She was viewed as a woman who had left her husband for no reason. Ali, on the other hand was viewed as the victim of a broken marriage and of the United States criminal justice system. He was greeted by the Muslim community with open arms. Mariam found no support from the Muslim community and eventually stopped attending Muslim functions.”

I’m hoping that you can provide some reassurance on the situation in Nottingham regarding these issues. Specifically:

a) Do you expect all mosques in Nottingham to allow entry to sisters? If so, can you provide some reassurance that this is actually the case?

b) Can you provide any reassurance that no mosque in Nottingham would treat sisters in the way that Miriam was treated?"

As part of the ethos of this blog is to try and balance out criticism with praise, BFTF was chuffed to be able to aslo send the email below to a local mosque :

"I just sent an email to XXX (see below) and just wanted to say that your masjid sets very high standards in this respect. Please keep up the good work."

Reclaiming Islam : Part 2 (Women and Islam)

After 9/11, a number of American Muslims began to reclaim the core values of Islam. One vehicle for this was a book entitled “Taking Back Islam - American Muslims Reclaim their Faith (Ed: Michael Wolfe, Pub:Rodale) which contains essays from a number of prominent American Muslims, as well as non-Muslims working in faith related fields.

This post touches very briefly on some of the topics discussed in the book, in the hope that this will provide some food for thought. And in keeping with the theme of this blog, some emails sent by BFTF as a results of the comments in the book are also listed:

Reclaiming Islam : Part 1 (The Muslim State and the Muslim Ummah, Democracy)
Reclaiming Islam : Part 2 (Women and Islam)
Reclaiming Islam : Part 3 (“Critical Friend” Emails)

Women and Islam
Saraji Umm Zaid (a freelance writer and poet) describes how she once took a trip to Colorado with her family and was dismayed to find that she would not be allowed to pray in the local mosque (her husband was later told that there just “wasn’t room” for women).

Similarly, she recounts how, whilst shopping in New York with her daughter and a friend they tried to perform the afternoon prayer at a mosque but were met at the door by a very angry teenager who told them that they should return to their homes and that they were a fitna upon the brothers who were there.

She comments that “If a small child and two sisters in hijab are a fitna upon these men then whatever do they do as they walk around New York and encounter women who cover nothing more than what they are legally required to cover?” Again, another brother told her that “it’s not that women aren’t allowed, just that there isn’t any room for you in this mosque”

Feeling that this excuse is getting a little old, she mentions that she once went to a tiny mosque in Monterey, about the size of her living room , where the brothers had curtained off a corner of the room for women to use, if required

Saraji comments that mosques will not explicitly ban women from entering, because the Prophet specifically forbade keeping women from the mosque. “’We don’t have room’ becomes code for ‘we don’t want you here, go home’. If people were really interested in keeping with the Prophets practice then they should make sure their mosque doesn’t aid them in violating this command”.

She further comments that people who speak out against this injustice are often labelled as “troublemakers”. When she wrote a letter to that New York mosque, giving reasons for from Quran, Sunnah and the writings of our esteemed scholars as to why it is forbidden to block women from the mosque, she was labelled as a “radical feminist”

Furthermore, Saraji feels that keeping women away from the mosques has the result of eliminating their viewpoints, ideas and energy.

“When you ensure that women are included in the mosque, you are ensuring that the entire community has access to the teachings of Islam. You are showing others that Islam does not stand for the exclusion of women and children, that Islam is not a “mans religion”. You are showing others that a woman can be modest, can be religious and can still participate in community life. You are showing the next generation of Muslims that cultural ideas about excluding women and keeping them in the home are not from Islam.”

Samer Hathout (founding president of the Muslim Women’s League) gives the example of Mirian (not her real name). Miriam was married to Ali, she was often beaten and abused. “When Mariam did attempt to speak with her local Muslim community leader, she was made to feel that the abuse was her fault – if she was a better wife, Ali would not have to beat her. She was also told not to discuss her marital problems with other people and that it was important for her to stay married at all costs to preserve the family.”

Eventually, Mariam left home and sought refuge in a local battered womens shelter. She received assistance and Ali was convicted in US court for spousal battery. “But when Mariam appeared at Muslim functions she was shunned, the Muslim community wanted nothing to do with her. She was viewed as a woman who had left her husband for no reason. Ali, on the other hand was viewed as the victim of a broken marriage and of the United States criminal justice system. He was greeted by the Muslim community with open arms. Mariam found no support from the Muslim community and eventually stopped attending Muslim functions.”

Hadouth also describes the experience of “Iman”, a student activist who wants to organise relief efforts for countries such as Bosnia and Palestine. Whilst she is able to form coalitions with other groups at University to achieve these aims, she finds that when she tries to organize similar efforts at local mosques she finds that she cannot reliable access the mens section and is not allowed to make announcements after Friday Prayers because she is a woman, nor is she allowed to run for the board of the mosque. Instead she is invited to participate in activities such as organizing Eid carnivals and preparing iftar meals during Ramadhan. Eventually, she stops going to the mosque because she is able to achieve more through the non-Muslim groups at University.

Kecia Ali (a researcher in marriage and spousal rights in early Islamic Jurispudence) has a number of comments to make regarding classical Islamic Jurispudence and begins by stating that “The legal schools have historically demonstrated significant variability in method and doctrines. . .These differences are not, as some have suggested, merely matters of detail”. She goes on to explain in more detail that, “The Shafi’i school allows a wife to obtain a divorce on the grounds of nonsuppot after as little as three days, the Hanafi School never does, even if the wife is indigent and her husband fails to support her for decades. The Maliki school allows a father to contract a marriage for his never-married daughter over her objections even if she is a thirty five yr old professional; conversely, the Hanbali school says that the fathers power to force a girl into marriage ends when she turns nine. . . .These mutually contradictory positions cannot all be equally correct interpretations of an infallible divine will. All, however, are significantly shaped by the patriarchal constraints of their times of origin. Once Muslim recognise this, the need for qualified Muslims to create a renewed jurisprudence should be clear.”

Update : 13 Aug 2012 See also this disheartening experience of a Muslim woman wishing to pray at a mosque in the US. Here is a snippet :

"I asked someone if there was an area for women to pray and how to get there. He said there was and pointed us in the direction of what lead to a shoe rack. He then asked someone else how to get to the women's area and this second young man told us to go outside and around the corner where we would find a back entrance that led into the area designated for women. . .as we turned the corner we stumbled over a hose and breathed in the fresh scent of garbage from three cans placed conveniently there. We then turned into a pitch black darkness that was illuminated all of a sudden with a sensor light that turned itself off almost as quickly as it turned itself on."

And also this by Hind Maliki, which includes the following :
After a week of praying Taraweeh in a cramped and over heated basement, with some bug-infested areas smelling like mildew, she asked her male relatives what their praying experience was like. Upon hearing that they had air conditioning and extra space in one of the 3 levels of the mosque, my friend and a few other young women decided to pray behind the men on the 2nd floor. For their trouble, they were yelled at and were threatened that the mosque would call the police if they didn’t leave the men’s area. In the end, these brave women prayed outside on the grass (where they could see that the all-male first and second floors were not full).

Or, you get the awesomely hilarious glass panels at another multi-million dollar mosque. This mosque has one of the best prayer spaces for women in the Chicago area, but the interior design caters to the male experience, right down to the glass panels on the ladies mezzanine floor engraved with “Allah” and “Muhammad” that face outward. As I joked to my friend, the only people who can read the panels are the men downstairs who look upward trying to get a glimpse of the ladies.

Reclaiming Islam : Part 1 (State, Ummah, Democracy)

After 9/11, a number of American Muslims began to reclaim the core values of Islam. One vehicle for this was a book entitled “Taking Back Islam - American Muslims Reclaim their Faith (Ed: Michael Wolfe, Pub:Rodale) which contains essays from a number of prominent American Muslims, as well as non-Muslims working in faith related fields.
This post touches very briefly on some of the topics discussed in the book, in the hope that this will provide some food for thought. And in keeping with the theme of this blog, some emails sent by BFTF as a results of the comments in the book are also listed:

Reclaiming Islam : Part 1 (The Muslim State and the Muslim Ummah, Democracy)
Reclaiming Islam : Part 2 (Women and Islam)
Reclaiming Islam : Part 3 (“Critical Friend” Emails)

The Muslim State and the Muslim Ummah
Farid Esack (a Pakistan trained scolar) points out that the Muslim community has only two paradigms to work by - that of a community under oppression in Mecca, and that of a community in control in Medina. It does not have a paradigm for co-existing with people in equality. Farid suggests that exactly such a paradigm can be found in the way in which a group of emigrant Muslims lived peacefully under the rule of the King of Abyssinia during the time Muhammed (PBUH).

He is also aware of the sense of resentment against the global economic system that exists within much of the Islamic World. This resentment is present elsewhere in the third world. Farid points out that, “on 9/11, people in many black townships in South Africa were rejoicing, as were some in Latin America. But the news value of this rejoicing was only extended to reactions in the Middle East”

Having said that, he goes on to explain that, for many Muslims, there is an extra resentment because they are unable to reconcile their glorified past with their current reality, and that this results in a “pretty messed-up psyche”

Dr Khalid Abou El Fadl(Lecturer in Islamic Law at the University of California) comments that “the real challenge that confronts Muslim intellectuals is that political interests have come to dominate the public discourse, and to a large extent, moral discourses have become marginalised in modern Islam”. This in turn, results in Islamic groups that work from a viewpoint that “is akin to a perpetual state of emergency where expediency trumps principle and illegitimate means are consistently justified by invoking higher ends. What prevails is a siege mentality that suspends the moral principle of the religion in pursuit of political power.”

Esack feels that this kind of mindset is driven by fears and insecurities and that to engage with it you need to address these fears.

Taha Jabir Alalwan (Al-Azhar trained scholar, now head of the Fiqh Council of North America) comments that “In all of my studies, I never felt that Islam was too concerned about building a state. Islam, from the beginning, was working to build an ummah, and there is a big difference between building an ummah and building a state. . . God created us and gave us certain values. He told us (that) the details of how to build your political or your economic system are up to you”

Alawan also points out that “In our religion, we have many obligations to the community. You must have hospitals, doctors, engineers. . . Muslims think, by mistake, that if you pay to build a mosque, you will get more reward than from Allah than is you pay to build a hospital. . . .This is a misguided and distorted understanding of Islam.”

Development of Democracy
Karen Armstrong (former Catholic Nun and writer of a number of book on religion) points out that the democracy we know in the West today emerged only gradually over a period of some three hundred years and that during this time there was religious extremism, worker exploitation and destruction of the countryside. Society found that it needed to provide a basic level of education for everyone in order to function efficiently, and these newly educated people began to demand a share of the decision making process.

Whereas the West has had hundreds of years to undertake this huge change, the developing world is having to make this change in the space of a few generations.

Regarding the problem that some Muslims have with ruling by the majority (i.e. democracy), Alawan says “If there is any protection from Allah, it is for the majority not the minority. Prophet Muhammed(PBUH) said “My Ummah will never agree on wrongdoing”. There are about 18 hadiths like this. . .Thats why the concept of ijma (consensus) should be revived to move away from the individual and minority rule”

Of course, the West has not been as keen on democracy in other countries as it has been at home. Karen Armstrong reminds the reader that in 1900s Iran the Ulema demanded representative government and got it in the shape of the “majlis” parliament. But this was shut down first by the Shah (with Russian help), then the British rigged elections to get the result they wanted, then, in 1953, the US and UK restored the Shah to throne -and he set about closing the majlis and denying the population their human rights.