Switzerland has moved a step closer to imposing a nationwide burqa ban after politicians approved a draft bill by just one vote.
A new law proposed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) received 88 votes, with 87 against and 10 abstentions in the country’s lower house of parliament on Tuesday. But the plans remain far from coming into force after a previous proposal for a ban on Muslim veils that cover the face was voted down by state representatives at a commission in January.
Walter Wobmann, an SVP politician leading the campaign, claimed the law would “maintain public order and respect for the dignity of women”.
Known for his anti-immigration stance, he has previously said it was “unacceptable” for women to wear headscarves in passport photos and vowed to “stop further Islamisation in Switzerland” while supporting the 2009 ban on mosque minarets.
Writing in support of the “Yes to veil ban” campaign, Mr Wobmann claimed veils violate Swiss values and said the law would also prevent vandals and criminals concealing their identity.
“Veils are an attack on integration in a free society,” he continued. “The ban of religiously motivated coverings in public is proportionate and violates neither freedom of religion nor expression. It does not constitute discrimination.”
The proposed law would see paragraphs written into Switzerland’s federal constitution against the “concealing of one’s face” in public places, other than religious sites, with exceptions for health and safety, the climate and unspecified local customs.
The issue could now be decided by the Swiss Council of States or by a public vote, if supporters gain the 100,000 signatures needed to trigger a referendum.
Even if the petition succeeds and the public gave a “yes” vote, the proposals would still need to be made into law through approval in parliament.
Switzerland is one of several European countries currently debating similar issues, with burkini bans brought in by some French Riviera resorts provoking outrage.
France and Belgium enforce nationwide bans on full-face veils, while Germany and the Netherlands are considering similar laws. Regions of Italy, Spain, Russia and Switzerland also regulate religious attire.
The hijab goes haute: Dolce & Gabbana’s Middle Eastern collection – The fashion industry has embraced hijabs and abayas. For the first time, in 2015, Dolce & Gabbana released a collection of hijabs and abayas targeting Muslim shoppers in the Middle East.
Writer shot dead for sharing cartoon “offensive” to Islam.
A prominent Jordanian writer, who was on trial for sharing a cartoon deemed offensive to Islam, has been shot dead outside a court in Amman where he was due to appear.
Nahed Hattar, 56, was charged with inciting sectarian strife and insulting Islam after posting the cartoon on Facebook this year.
The cartoon, entitled The God of Daesh (Isis), depicted an Isis militant sitting next to two women and asking God to bring him a drink.
Hattar was arrested in August and released on bail early this month. On Sunday, he was shot in the head three times as he arrived for a hearing.
According to the Jordanian state news agency Petra, a man was arrested at the scene of the shooting in the Abdali district. The government denounced the killing as a “heinous” crime.
Two witnesses said the gunman, bearded and in his 50s, was wearing a traditional Arab dishdasha, or long robe.
“He was standing at a short distance of about one metre in front of Nahed on the stairs of the supreme court,” a witness told the Associated Press.
Saad Hattar, a cousin of the victim, said: “Nahed was accompanied with two brothers and a friend when he was shot. The brothers and the friend chased the killer and caught him and handed him over to the police.”
He said the family held Jordan’s prime minister, Hani al-Mulki, responsible for Hattar’s death. “The prime minister was the first one who incited against Nahed when he ordered his arrest and put him on trial for sharing the cartoon, and that ignited the public against him and led to his killing.”
In a statement, the family called on the government to hold accountable all those who had incited violence against Hattar. “Many fanatics wrote on social media calling for his killing and lynching, and the government did nothing against them,” they said.
A government spokesman, Mohammad Momani, who condemned the killing as a heinous crime, said: “The government will strike with an iron hand all those who exploit this crime to broadcast speeches of hatred to our community.”
Hattar had insisted that he had not meant to insult Islam by posting the cartoon, but wanted to expose how Isis “envisions God and heaven”. He accused his Islamist opponents of using the cartoon to settle scores with him.
A controversial figure on the left of Jordanian politics, Hattar has faced charges before, including for insulting the country’s king, Abdullah II. He has also been a prominent supporter of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and advocated depriving Jordanians of Palestinian origin of their legal and civil rights.
Hattar’s murder is the latest in a series of recent violent incidents in Jordan, which until recently had avoided the worst of the jihadi-related violence that has affected some other Middle Eastern states even though several thousand of its citizens have crossed into neighbouring Syria to join Isis.
Is the concept of cultural appropriation a passing fad?
I hate to disappoint you folks, but unless we stretch the topic to breaking point this address will not be about “community and belonging.” In fact, you have to hand it to this festival’s organizers: inviting a renowned iconoclast to speak about “community and belonging” is like expecting a great white shark to balance a beach ball on its nose.
The topic I had submitted instead was “fiction and identity politics,” which may sound on its face equally dreary.
But I’m afraid the bramble of thorny issues that cluster around “identity politics” has got all too interesting, particularly for people pursuing the occupation I share with many gathered in this hall: fiction writing. Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all. Meanwhile, the kind of fiction we are “allowed” to write is in danger of becoming so hedged, so circumscribed, so tippy-toe, that we’d indeed be better off not writing the anodyne drivel to begin with.
Let’s start with a tempest-in-a-teacup at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Earlier this year, two students, both members of student government, threw a tequila-themed birthday party for a friend. The hosts provided attendees with miniature sombreros, which—the horror— numerous partygoers wore.
When photos of the party circulated on social media, campus-wide outrage ensued. Administrators sent multiple emails to the “culprits” threatening an investigation into an “act of ethnic stereotyping.” Partygoers were placed on “social probation,” while the two hosts were ejected from their dorm and later impeached. Bowdoin’s student newspaper decried the attendees’ lack of “basic empathy.”
The student government issued a “statement of solidarity” with “all the students who were injured and affected by the incident,” and demanded that administrators “create a safe space for those students who have been or feel specifically targeted.” The tequila party, the statement specified, was just the sort of occasion that “creates an environment where students of colour, particularly Latino, and especially Mexican, feel unsafe.” In sum, the party-favour hats constituted – wait for it – “cultural appropriation.”
Curiously, across my country Mexican restaurants, often owned and run by Mexicans, are festooned with sombreros – if perhaps not for long. At the UK’s University of East Anglia, the student union has banned a Mexican restaurant from giving out sombreros, deemed once more an act of “cultural appropriation” that was also racist.
Now, I am a little at a loss to explain what’s so insulting about a sombrero – a practical piece of headgear for a hot climate that keeps out the sun with a wide brim. My parents went to Mexico when I was small, and brought a sombrero back from their travels, the better for my brothers and I to unashamedly appropriate the souvenir to play dress-up. For my part, as a German-American on both sides, I’m more than happy for anyone who doesn’t share my genetic pedigree to don a Tyrolean hat, pull on some leiderhosen, pour themselves a weisbier, and belt out the Hoffbrauhaus Song.
But what does this have to do with writing fiction? The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.
In the latest ethos, which has spun well beyond college campuses in short order, any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch. Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.
Yet were their authors honouring the new rules against helping yourself to what doesn’t belong to you, we would not have Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. We wouldn’t have most of Graham Greene’s novels, many of which are set in what for the author were foreign countries, and which therefore have Real Foreigners in them, who speak and act like foreigners, too.
In his masterwork English Passengers, Matthew Kneale would have restrained himself from including chapters written in an Aboriginal’s voice – though these are some of the richest, most compelling passages in that novel. If Dalton Trumbo had been scared off of describing being trapped in a body with no arms, legs, or face because he was not personally disabled – because he had not been through a World War I maiming himself and therefore had no right to “appropriate” the isolation of a paraplegic – we wouldn’t have the haunting 1938 classic, Johnny Got His Gun.
We wouldn’t have Maria McCann’s erotic masterpiece, As Meat Loves Salt – in which a straight woman writes about gay men in the English Civil War. Though the book is nonfiction, it’s worth noting that we also wouldn’t have 1961’s Black Like Me, for which John Howard Griffin committed the now unpardonable sin of “blackface.” Having his skin darkened – Michael Jackson in reverse – Griffin found out what it was like to live as a black man in the segregated American South. He’d be excoriated today, yet that book made a powerful social impact at the time.
The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”
What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?
I am hopeful that the concept of “cultural appropriation” is a passing fad: people with different backgrounds rubbing up against each other and exchanging ideas and practices is self-evidently one of the most productive, fascinating aspects of modern urban life.
But this latest and little absurd no-no is part of a larger climate of super-sensitivity, giving rise to proliferating prohibitions supposedly in the interest of social justice that constrain fiction writers and prospectively makes our work impossible.
So far, the majority of these farcical cases of “appropriation” have concentrated on fashion, dance, and music: At the American Music Awards 2013, Katy Perry got it in the neck for dressing like a geisha. According to the Arab-American writer Randa Jarrar, for someone like me to practice belly dancing is “white appropriation of Eastern dance,” while according to the Daily Beast Iggy Azalea committed “cultural crimes” by imitating African rap and speaking in a “blaccent.”
The felony of cultural sticky fingers even extends to exercise: at the University of Ottawa in Canada, a yoga teacher was shamed into suspending her class, “because yoga originally comes from India.” She offered to re-title the course, “Mindful Stretching.” And get this: the purism has also reached the world of food. Supported by no less than Lena Dunham, students at Oberlin College in Ohio have protested “culturally appropriated food” like sushi in their dining hall (lucky cusses— in my day, we never had sushi in our dining hall), whose inauthenticity is “insensitive” to the Japanese.
Seriously, we have people questioning whether it’s appropriate for white people to eat pad Thai. Turnabout, then: I guess that means that as a native of North Carolina, I can ban the Thais from eating barbecue. (I bet they’d swap.)
This same sensibility is coming to a bookstore near you. Because who is the appropriator par excellence, really? Who assumes other people’s voices, accents, patois, and distinctive idioms? Who literally puts words into the mouths of people different from themselves? Who dares to get inside the very heads of strangers, who has the chutzpah to project thoughts and feelings into the minds of others, who steals their very souls? Who is a professional kidnapper? Who swipes every sight, smell, sensation, or overheard conversation like a kid in a candy store, and sometimes take notes the better to purloin whole worlds? Who is the premier pickpocket of the arts?
The fiction writer, that’s who.
This is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous. And that is fiction writing at its best. When Truman Capote wrote from the perspective of condemned murderers from a lower economic class than his own, he had some gall. But writing fiction takes gall.
As for the culture police’s obsession with “authenticity,” fiction is inherently inauthentic. It’s fake. It’s self-confessedly fake; that is the nature of the form, which is about people who don’t exist and events that didn’t happen. The name of the game is not whether your novel honours reality; it’s all about what you can get away with.
In his 2009 novel Little Bee, Chris Cleave, who as it happens is participating in this festival, dared to write from the point of view of a 14-year-old Nigerian girl, though he is male, white, and British. I’ll remain neutral on whether he “got away with it” in literary terms, because I haven’t read the book yet.
But in principle, I admire his courage – if only because he invited this kind of ethical forensics in a review out of San Francisco: “When a white male author writes as a young Nigerian girl, is it an act of empathy, or identity theft?” the reviewer asked. “When an author pretends to be someone he is not, he does it to tell a story outside of his own experiential range. But he has to in turn be careful that he is representing his characters, not using them for his plot.”
Hold it. OK, he’s necessarily “representing” his characters, by portraying them on the page. But of course he’s using them for his plot! How could he not? They are his characters, to be manipulated at his whim, to fulfill whatever purpose he cares to put them to.
This same reviewer recapitulated Cleave’s obligation “to show that he’s representing [the girl], rather than exploiting her.” Again, a false dichotomy.
Of course he’s exploiting her. It’s his book, and he made her up. The character is his creature, to be exploited up a storm. Yet the reviewer chides that “special care should be taken with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell” and worries that “Cleave pushes his own boundaries maybe further than they were meant to go.”
What stories are “implicitly ours to tell,” and what boundaries around our own lives are we mandated to remain within? I would argue that any story you can make yours is yours to tell, and trying to push the boundaries of the author’s personal experience is part of a fiction writer’s job.
I’m hoping that crime writers, for example, don’t all have personal experience of committing murder. Me, I’ve depicted a high school killing spree, and I hate to break it to you: I’ve never shot fatal arrows through seven kids, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker, either. We make things up, we chance our arms, sometimes we do a little research, but in the end it’s still about what we can get away with – what we can put over on our readers.
Because the ultimate endpoint of keeping out mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction. Someone like me only permits herself to write from the perspective of a straight white female born in North Carolina, closing on sixty, able-bodied but with bad knees, skint for years but finally able to buy the odd new shirt. All that’s left is memoir.
And here’s the bugbear, here’s where we really can’t win. At the same time that we’re to write about only the few toys that landed in our playpen, we’re also upbraided for failing to portray in our fiction a population that is sufficiently various.
My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is “straight and white”. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga – about a white family. I wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.
You do indeed see just this brand of tokenism in television. There was a point in the latter 1990s at which suddenly every sitcom and drama in sight had to have a gay or lesbian character or couple. That was good news as a voucher of the success of the gay rights movement, but it still grew a bit tiresome: look at us, our show is so hip, one of the characters is homosexual!
We’re now going through the same fashionable exercise in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black.
Fine. But I still would like to reserve the right as a novelist to use only the characters that pertain to my story.
Besides: which is it to be? We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?
For it can be dangerous these days to go the diversity route. Especially since there seems to be a consensus on the notion that San Francisco reviewer put forward that “special care should be taken with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.”
In The Mandibles, I have one secondary character, Luella, who’s black. She’s married to a more central character, Douglas, the Mandible family’s 97-year-old patriarch. I reasoned that Douglas, a liberal New Yorker, would credibly have left his wife for a beautiful, stately African American because arm candy of color would reflect well on him in his circle, and keep his progressive kids’ objections to a minimum. But in the end the joke is on Douglas, because Luella suffers from early onset dementia, while his ex-wife, staunchly of sound mind, ends up running a charity for dementia research. As the novel reaches its climax and the family is reduced to the street, they’re obliged to put the addled, disoriented Luella on a leash, to keep her from wandering off.
Behold, the reviewer in the Washington Post, who groundlessly accused this book of being “racist” because it doesn’t toe a strict Democratic Party line in its political outlook, described the scene thus: “The Mandibles are white. Luella, the single African American in the family, arrives in Brooklyn incontinent and demented. She needs to be physically restrained. As their fortunes become ever more dire and the family assembles for a perilous trek through the streets of lawless New York, she’s held at the end of a leash. If The Mandibles is ever made into a film, my suggestion is that this image not be employed for the movie poster.”
Your author, by implication, yearns to bring back slavery.
Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.
In fact, I’m reminded of a letter I received in relation to my seventh novel from an Armenian-American who objected – why did I have to make the narrator of We Need to Talk About Kevin Armenian? He didn’t like my narrator, and felt that her ethnicity disparaged his community. I took pains to explain that I knew something about Armenian heritage, because my best friend in the States was Armenian, and I also thought there was something dark and aggrieved in the culture of the Armenian diaspora that was atmospherically germane to that book. Besides, I despaired, everyone in the US has an ethnic background of some sort, and she had to be something!
Especially for writers from traditionally privileged demographics, the message seems to be that it’s a whole lot safer just to make all your characters from that same demographic, so you can be as hard on them as you care to be, and do with them what you like. Availing yourself of a diverse cast, you are not free; you have inadvertently invited a host of regulations upon your head, as if just having joined the EU. Use different races, ethnicities, and minority gender identities, and you are being watched.
I confess that this climate of scrutiny has got under my skin. When I was first starting out as a novelist, I didn’t hesitate to write black characters, for example, or to avail myself of black dialects, for which, having grown up in the American South, I had a pretty good ear. I am now much more anxious about depicting characters of different races, and accents make me nervous.
In describing a second-generation Mexican American who’s married to one of my main characters in The Mandibles, I took care to write his dialogue in standard American English, to specify that he spoke without an accent, and to explain that he only dropped Spanish expressions tongue-in-cheek. I would certainly think twice – more than twice – about ever writing a whole novel, or even a goodly chunk of one, from the perspective of a character whose race is different from my own – because I may sell myself as an iconoclast, but I’m as anxious as the next person about attracting vitriol. But I think that’s a loss. I think that indicates a contraction of my fictional universe that is not good for the books, and not good for my soul.
Writing under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser on Vox, the author of the essay “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Scare Me” describes higher education’s “current climate of fear” and its “heavily policed discourse of semantic sensitivity” – and I am concerned that this touchy ethos, in which offendedness is used as a weapon, has spread far beyond academia, in part thanks to social media.
Why, it’s largely in order to keep from losing my fictional mojo that I stay off Facebook and Twitter, which could surely install an instinctive self-censorship out of fear of attack. Ten years ago, I gave the opening address of this same festival, in which I maintained that fiction writers have a vested interest in protecting everyone’s right to offend others – because if hurting someone else’s feelings even inadvertently is sufficient justification for muzzling, there will always be someone out there who is miffed by what you say, and freedom of speech is dead. With the rise of identity politics, which privileges a subjective sense of injury as actionable basis for prosecution, that is a battle that in the decade since I last spoke in Brisbane we’ve been losing.
Worse: the left’s embrace of gotcha hypersensitivity inevitably invites backlash. Donald Trump appeals to people who have had it up to their eyeballs with being told what they can and cannot say. Pushing back against a mainstream culture of speak-no-evil suppression, they lash out in defiance, and then what they say is pretty appalling.
Regarding identity politics, what’s especially saddened me in my recent career is a trend toward rejecting the advocacy of anyone who does not belong to the group. In 2013, I published Big Brother, a novel that grew out of my loss of my own older brother, who in 2009 died from the complications of morbid obesity. I was moved to write the book not only from grief, but also sympathy: in the years before his death, as my brother grew heavier, I saw how dreadfully other people treated him – how he would be seated off in a corner of a restaurant, how the staff would roll their eyes at each other after he’d ordered, though he hadn’t requested more food than anyone else.
I was wildly impatient with the way we assess people’s characters these days in accordance with their weight, and tried to get on the page my dismay at how much energy people waste on this matter, sometimes anguishing for years over a few excess pounds. Both author and book were on the side of the angels, or so you would think.
But in my events to promote Big Brother, I started to notice a pattern. Most of the people buying the book in the signing queue were thin. Especially in the US, fat is now one of those issues where you either have to be one of us, or you’re the enemy. I verified this when I had a long email correspondence with a “Healthy at Any Size” activist, who was incensed by the novel, which she hadn’t even read. Which she refused to read. No amount of explaining that the novel was on her side, that it was a book that was terribly pained by the way heavy people are treated and how unfairly they are judged, could overcome the scrawny author’s photo on the flap.
She and her colleagues in the fat rights movement did not want my advocacy. I could not weigh in on this material because I did not belong to the club. I found this an artistic, political, and even commercial disappointment – because in the US and the UK, if only skinny-minnies will buy your book, you’ve evaporated the pool of prospective consumers to a puddle.
I worry that the clamorous world of identity politics is also undermining the very causes its activists claim to back. As a fiction writer, yeah, I do sometimes deem my narrator an Armenian. But that’s only by way of a start. Merely being Armenian is not to have a character as I understand the word.
Membership of a larger group is not an identity. Being Asian is not an identity. Being gay is not an identity. Being deaf, blind, or wheelchair-bound is not an identity, nor is being economically deprived. I reviewed a novel recently that I had regretfully to give a thumbs-down, though it was terribly well intended; its heart was in the right place. But in relating the Chinese immigrant experience in America, the author put forward characters that were mostly Chinese. That is, that’s sort of all they were: Chinese. Which isn’t enough.
I made this same point in relation to gender in Melbourne last week: both as writers and as people, we should be seeking to push beyond the constraining categories into which we have been arbitrarily dropped by birth. If we embrace narrow group-based identities too fiercely, we cling to the very cages in which others would seek to trap us. We pigeonhole ourselves. We limit our own notion of who we are, and in presenting ourselves as one of a membership, a representative of our type, an ambassador of an amalgam, we ask not to be seen.
The reading and writing of fiction is obviously driven in part by a desire to look inward, to be self-examining, reflective. But the form is also born of a desperation to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience.
The spirit of good fiction is one of exploration, generosity, curiosity, audacity, and compassion. Writing during the day and reading when I go to bed at night, I find it an enormous relief to escape the confines of my own head. Even if novels and short stories only do so by creating an illusion, fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us, and for a short while allows us to behold the astonishing reality of other people.
The last thing we fiction writers need is restrictions on what belongs to us. In a recent interview, our colleague Chris Cleave conceded, “Do I as an Englishman have any right to write a story of a Nigerian woman? … I completely sympathise with the people who say I have no right to do this. My only excuse is that I do it well.”
Which brings us to my final point. We do not all do it well. So it’s more than possible that we write from the perspective of a one-legged lesbian from Afghanistan and fall flat on our arses. We don’t get the dialogue right, and for insertions of expressions in Pashto we depend on Google Translate.
Halfway through the novel, suddenly the protagonist has lost the right leg instead of the left one. Our idea of lesbian sex is drawn from wooden internet porn. Efforts to persuasively enter the lives of others very different from us may fail: that’s a given. But maybe rather than having our heads taken off, we should get a few points for trying. After all, most fiction sucks. Most writing sucks. Most things that people make of any sort suck. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make anything.
The answer is that modern cliché: to keep trying to fail better. Anything but be obliged to designate my every character an ageing five-foot-two smartass, and having to set every novel in North Carolina.
We fiction writers have to preserve the right to wear many hats – including sombreros.
How a new form of atheism can combat jihadists who wish to end the world:
The world isn’t ending, but we face a tremendous problem from people who believe it is. The beliefs of many radicals have become increasingly apocalyptic over the past decade. They’re convinced the end of the world is imminent and that they have a special role in bringing it about. Whether or not you’re interested in the apocalypse, terrorists who believe it’s coming are interested in you.
Solutions are hard to come by. But there is a way to counter extremism that’s potentially as effective as it is unpopular. It’s a social and intellectual strategy that aims to undermine the religious beliefs that motivate jihadists—and one of the most controversial set of ideas to emerge in the West in the last quarter century: New Atheism.
New Atheism emerged in direct response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks executed by al-Qaeda, which demonstrated that acting upon certain religious beliefs could lead to catastrophe. The movement offered a heretofore unwelcomed perspective: That every religion has negative consequences, and that even religious moderates contribute to the problem because, by affirming that faith is a legitimate reason to hold beliefs, they enable religious extremists.
In making this case, the New Atheists famously broke one longstanding taboo against criticizing a person’s faith. But they broke a second taboo as well. Some New Atheists on the Left—including Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer—joined voices with many on the Right by saying there are unique dangers associated with jihad, such as martyrdom. New Atheists argued that focusing on generic religious extremism is a smokescreen, that the specific contents of religious doctrine delimit ways in which extremism plays out and thus some doctrines pose greater threats than others.
New Atheism has already succeeded in shifting the cultural landscape of Western civilization, making it far more acceptable to be openly atheist, giving atheists unprecedented public visibility, buttressing the legal boundaries of secularism and changing the nature of public discourse about faith, belief, God and religion.
New Atheist ideas like these have percolated into closed, traditional Muslim societies, giving those populations an opportunity to question their beliefs. In Muslim countries, New Atheist writings—which are illegal—have helped sow seeds of doubt and dissent. The Arabic translation of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, for example, has been downloaded ten million times, and pictures of people holding it while overlooking Mecca are remarkably commonplace given the draconian penalties for doing so—ranging from ten years imprisonment to death.
New Atheism may have inched into the Islamic world, but it has not found deep roots. And its current approach isn’t well-suited to further penetrate Muslim societies. The condescending speech of New Atheists—calling religious people delusional, for example—is not an effective cross-cultural strategy for generating change.
The next chapter in New Atheism will require a more nuanced, if not gentler, pen. The Dutch-American Somali-born author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for example, has eloquently argued that Islam needs an internal reformation before intellectual and religious pluralism can become commonplace in the Islamic world. Atheism, Ali points out, is a logical step that comes after Enlightenment values like rationalism and tolerance, and the liberties of a free, open and secular society are in place.
To that end, New Atheists have begun reaching out to collaborate with moderate Muslims and, arguably more importantly, ex-Muslims. Many of those former Muslims have become New Atheists and gone back into their communities to advocate for reform. For example, Maajid Nawaz (a liberal Muslim and a former member of a radical Islamist group who became a counter-extremist) and Ali Rizvi (a self-identified “Atheist Muslim”) have been intimately involved in an ongoing Islamic reformation by helping to erode blasphemy laws.
The way ahead requires being able to speak honestly about religion, and New Atheism has been the most effective cultural effort to broker this conversation. Its endeavors going forward, however, must recognize the humanity in religion while maintaining a candid dialogue about deep-rooted conflicts between reason and faith. A matured New Atheism is needed more today than ever before to offer a unique alternative to irreconcilable conflicts of faith, some of which wish to end the world.
Trigger Warnings – A University Declares War on The Concept of Safe Spaces.
Letters sent to the incoming class of 2020 make it clear the University of Chicago isn’t a fan of trigger warnings or safe spaces.
Academics around the country are embracing the relatively new trend of using trigger warnings to shield students from ideas that might be discomforting or trauma-inducing. These ideas often include topics that touch on “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.”
Though there is some debate surrounding how widespread the use of trigger warnings actually is, a survey conducted last year by the National Coalition Against Censorship found that a majority of educators had used trigger warnings at one time or another.
Similarly, many universities are creating “safe spaces” where students can relax free from ideas that might be stressful or anxiety-inducing. Among these is Brown University, which last year created a room “with cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies” because a debate on sexual assault was taking place on campus.
Apparently not all universities are on board with this trend. The University of Chicago recently made it clear to its crop of incoming students that academic freedom and inquiry remain pillars at the institution, and that the university does not support “so-called” trigger warnings or offer safe spaces that allow students “to retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own. Here is how the university welcomed its incoming class of 2020:
Welcome and congratulations on your acceptance to the college at the University of Chicago. Earning a place in our community of scholars is no small achievement and we are delighted that you selected Chicago to continue your intellectual journey.
Once here you will discover that one of the University of Chicago’s defining characteristics is our commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression. … Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion, and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort.
And then, the coup de grace:
Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.
You can read the entire letter below. (CLICK HERE to see how students and alumni responded.)
Researchers say religion may become extinct in nine nations.
A study using census data from nine countries shows that religion there is set for extinction, say researchers.
The study found a steady rise in those claiming no religious affiliation.
The team’s mathematical model attempts to account for the interplay between the number of religious respondents and the social motives behind being one.
The result, reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, US, indicates that religion will all but die out altogether in those countries.
The team took census data stretching back as far as a century from countries in which the census queried religious affiliation: Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland.
Their means of analysing the data invokes what is known as nonlinear dynamics – a mathematical approach that has been used to explain a wide range of physical phenomena in which a number of factors play a part.
One of the team, Daniel Abrams of Northwestern University, put forth a similar model in 2003 to put a numerical basis behind the decline of lesser-spoken world languages.
At its heart is the competition between speakers of different languages, and the “utility” of speaking one instead of another.
“The idea is pretty simple,” said Richard Wiener of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the University of Arizona.
“It posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.
“For example in languages, there can be greater utility or status in speaking Spanish instead of [the dying language] Quechuan in Peru, and similarly there’s some kind of status or utility in being a member of a religion or not.”
Dr Wiener continued: “In a large number of modern secular democracies, there’s been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40%, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60%.”
The team then applied their nonlinear dynamics model, adjusting parameters for the relative social and utilitarian merits of membership of the “non-religious” category.
They found, in a study published online, that those parameters were similar across all the countries studied, suggesting that similar behaviour drives the mathematics in all of them.
And in all the countries, the indications were that religion was headed toward extinction.
However, Dr Wiener told the conference that the team was working to update the model with a “network structure” more representative of the one at work in the world.
“Obviously we don’t really believe this is the network structure of a modern society, where each person is influenced equally by all the other people in society,” he said.
However, he told BBC News that he thought it was “a suggestive result”.
“It’s interesting that a fairly simple model captures the data, and if those simple ideas are correct, it suggests where this might be going.
“Obviously much more complicated things are going on with any one individual, but maybe a lot of that averages out.”
Bayer and Monsanto merge in $66B mega-deal that will reshape world’s food supply.
The German chemical company Bayer said it will take over U.S. seed giant Monsanto to become one of the world’s biggest agriculture conglomerates.
The $66 billion deal — the largest corporate mega-merger in a year full of them — could reshape the development of seeds and pesticides necessary to fueling the planet’s food supply.
Bayer first made a $62 billion offer for Monsanto in May and has increased its bid over months of negotiations. The all-cash deal is valued at about $128 a share, making it the weightiest all-cash buyout in history, beating the $60 billion deal between brewers Anheuser-Busch and InBev in 2008.
Bayer in the U.S. is known largely for its pharmaceuticals, with scientists who developed modern Aspirin and Alka-Seltzer. But the deal would pivot the 117,000-employee company more towards its farm-targeting business in agriculture chemicals, crop supplies and compounds that kill bugs and weeds.
Monsanto is the world’s largest supplier of genetically modified seeds, which now dominate American farming but are still a major source of environmental protests in Europe and abroad. The 20,000-employee company also develops Roundup, the weed-killing herbicide.
Bayer’s sales totaled 46.3 billion Euro last year, or roughly $51 billion, about 30 percent of which came from its crop division. Monsanto’s sales totaled $15 billion last year.
The deal is a sign of just how influential the industry of genetically modified seeds has become around the world. Decried as unsafe and chemically tarnished “Frankenseeds” by some environmental activists, they have also allowed for greater harvest efficiency, stronger pest resistance and more widespread crop availability around the world.
A National Academies of Sciences panel of experts said in May that there was no “substantiated” evidence that genetically engineered crops had triggered human health concerns or hurt the environment, though they added that more research was needed.
The companies portrayed the deal as a landmark that would help them invest more in seeds, pesticides and technology for the global harvesting of fruits, vegetables, corn, cotton, soybeans and other crops.
“The whole agricultural industry around the world is basically going thru a transformation. It’s the last big industry in the world to be digitized,” said Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer. “This allows to make more investments, have more capabilities and build better products for farmers, that they can use to grow crops with higher yields … and farm better, farm smarter.”
The deal is likely to warrant intense scrutiny from American and German antitrust regulators, who will assess whether the merger would unfairly lead to higher prices for farmers worldwide. The new company would preside over roughly a quarter of the world’s seed and pesticide supplies.
Regulatory crackdowns have busted several high-profile mega-mergers this year, including a $150 billion deal between pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Allergan.
Justice Department investigators have in recent years launched probes into “possible anticompetitive practices” in America’s Monsanto-led seed industry, though a formal investigation was closed in 2012 without pursuing charges.
Bayer and Monsanto said on a Wednesday call that they would be seeking antitrust approval in 30 global jurisdictions. Bayer has committed to paying a $2 billion antitrust breakup fee if the deal falls apart.
Asked if they were worried over the uncertain regulatory challenge from a new U.S. presidential administration, Monsanto chief executive Hugh Grant said on a Wednesday call that the companies were “much more focused on the innovation horizon than the political horizon.”
Liam Condon, the head of Bayer’s crop science division, said the company was “pretty confident” that the deal would be approved by regulators because both companies have “highly complementary” product lines and geographic offerings.
“We have very, very little overlap,” Condon said. “The whole strategic rationale of the deal is built around encouraging more innovation.”
David Balto, a former Federal Trade Commission policy director who now does legal work on mergers for farmers and consumer groups, said there was a strong chance the deal would be opposed by the Department of Justice.
Regulators, he said, will take a sharp look at the potential for a deal that would lead to few benefits for consumers and limit innovation.
“Antitrust cops are learning they’re cops,” Balto said. The companies “have chosen to do a deal in the year of merging dangerously. They are in for a tough time.”
The companies said the deal, the largest German takeover of a U.S. firm, would help them save $1.5 billion through cost-cutting, added purchase power and other “synergies” within three years.
Monsanto’s current headquarters, in St. Louis, will become the companies’ commercial headquarters for North America, though it’s unclear how the mega-deal could affect jobs there. Grant said on a Wednesday call that the merger would help the city become a “global center” for the seed business, adding, “This is good news for St. Louis.”
A cadre of megabanks, including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan, will provide $57 billion in short-term bridge financing to help finalize the deal, the companies said.
Bayer was trading up about 1 percent on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange as of Wednesday morning. Monsanto was up less than 1 percent in early trading.
The $100 billion global market of seeds and pesticides has grown increasingly competitive, as farmers duel for crop and market share on a planet whose population is expected to grow more than 30 percent by 2050, to 9.7 billion people.
Tensions have escalated further because global crop prices have fallen for three straight years, squeezing profits and forcing the seed and agriculture industries to cut costs and trim their workforces. Monsanto said last year it would lay off 12 percent of its employees, or 2,600 jobs.
Rival seed and chemical giants, including Dow Chemical, DuPont and Syngenta, have launched their own megadeals in recent months as part of a growing race to consolidation.
A Chinese state-owned chemical giant said in February that it would pay $43 billion for Syngenta, the seed and pesticide conglomerate. That deal faces a number of antitrust reviews but received clearance from an influential U.S. regulatory agency last month.
Bayer chief executive Werner Baumann said the deal with Monsanto would deliver “substantial value to shareholders, our customers, employees and society at large.”
Pressure builds for President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden.
Bernie Sanders leads a chorus of prominent public figures calling for clemency, a plea agreement or, in several cases, a full pardon for the National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Writing in the Guardian, the runner-up in the race to become Democratic presidential candidate argues that Snowden helped to educate the American public about how the NSA violated the constitutional rights of citizens with its mass surveillance program. Sanders argues that there should be some form of resolution that would acknowledge both the “troubling revelations” that he had brought to light and the crime that he committed in doing so, that would “spare him a long prison sentence or permanent exile”.
Sanders joins 20 other prominent public figures – from Hollywood actors and rock musicians to politicians, professors and Black Lives Matter activists – who call on Barack Obama to find some way of allowing Snowden to return home to the US from exile in Russia. The Guardian’s voices are raised in the week that Oliver Stone’s film, Snowden, is released in the US and that a coalition of groups including the ACLU and Amnesty International launch a new campaign for a presidential pardon before Obama steps down.
Among the writers in the Guardian are Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who released the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s, who calls for Snowden to be allowed to make a public interest defense in any US trial. From the world of arts, actor Susan Sarandon and director Terry Gilliam, novelist Barry Eisler and Sonic Youth singer Thurston Moore all make impassioned calls for an Obama pardon.
Senior politicians from both sides of the Atlantic, including former US senator Mark Udall, UK parliamentarian David Winnick and German Green party member Hans-Christian Ströbele all fly the flag for a Snowden homecoming. Similar calls are made by public intellectuals including Noam Chomsky, Cornel West and Sanders’ former Democratic presidential rival and Harvard law professor, Lawrence Lessig.
Not everyone writing in the Guardian today is empathetic towards the whistleblower. The former director of the NSA, Michael Hayden, says Snowden should face “the full force of the law” were he to come home. Stewart Baker, also latterly of the NSA, argues that Snowden’s leak caused harm to US national interests – a contention that is strongly disputed by many of the other people writing here.
The information disclosed by Edward Snowden has allowed Congress and the American people to understand the degree to which the NSA has abused its authority and violated our constitutional rights.
Now we must learn from the troubling revelations Mr Snowden brought to light. Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies must be given the tools they need to protect us, but that can be done in a way that does not sacrifice our rights.
While Mr Snowden played an important role in educating the American people, there is no debate that he also violated an oath and committed a crime. In my view, the interests of justice would be best served if our government granted him some form of clemency or a plea agreement that would spare him a long prison sentence or permanent exile.
Ed Snowden did this country a great service. Here was a man who had a well-paying job and a good life in Hawaii yet tore it all up so that he could reveal to all of us what the NSA was doing to us in the name of national security. He did so for no personal gain, and at massive personal cost, because he cared about a basic principle: that governments should not lie to their people.
I think President Obama should do the right thing: pardon Ed and let him come home to his family and his people.
I don’t think a person like that should be exiled from their country. I don’t think a person like that deserves to be locked away for decades like Chelsea Manning. I think President Obama should do the right thing: pardon Ed and let him come home to his family and his people.
Ed Snowden should be freed of the legal burden hanging over him. They should remove the indictment, pardon him if that’s the way to do it, so that he is no longer facing prison.
The NSA and US government have revealed no evidence that the information Ed Snowden released has caused any harm. Inconvenience, yes, embarrassment certainly, but what has truly been revealed is that the NSA itself was unquestionably committing international, domestic and constitutional crimes.
Were the government to have any evidence that Snowden revealed information that should have been protected, I think he should be judged by a jury. I was the first person to be tried for a leak under the Espionage Act, and I certainly didn’t object to my case being weighed by a jury, although it never came to that. But there has to be a public interest defense, which doesn’t exist in US law now.
As things stand, I think the chance that this or any president will pardon Snowden is zero. They wouldn’t dare to challenge the intelligence community that remains so hostile to him. Nor does Snowden have any chance of a fair trial under the Espionage Act, any more than I did.
So nothing would be gained by him coming back and standing trial unless the Espionage Act were changed to permit that public interest defense. He’s said to me that he’s willing to come back and serve one, two or conceivably three years as a result of a plea bargain arranged beforehand, but they haven’t offered him one as far as I’m aware.
I think anyone helping to strengthen the workings of democracy should be rewarded. What Edward Snowden’s prize should be, I don’t know, perhaps something as unglamorous and hard to display on his mantelpiece as a presidential pardon. That would be nice.
What Snowden did amounted to the greatest hemorrhaging of legitimate American secrets in the history of my nation.
What Edward Snowden did amounted to the greatest hemorrhaging of legitimate American secrets in the history of my nation.
If he wants to come home, and that’s his choice, I think he should face the full force of the law. Then he would be able to mount his defense. I would not be supportive of a public interest defense, however, because the American people declare some things to be legal and some things to be illegal, and don’t anoint the individual citizen to decide whether that’s a good or a bad idea.
If Snowden really claims that his actions amounted to genuine civil disobedience, he should go to some English language bookstore in Moscow and get a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Thoreau points out clearly that civil disobedience gets its moral authority by the willingness to suffer the penalties from disobeying a law, even if you think that law is unjust.
It would be incredibly unwise for this president to offer a pardon. President Obama and his successors are dependent on the 100,000-plus people inside the American intelligence community – the people Edward Snowden betrayed. For any president to align himself with Snowden’s approach in this controversy would carry an incredible cost to the spirit and morale of the intelligence community.
Right now, Black Lives Matter activists protesting deadly police and other forms of state violence who have not been accused of any crime are being spied on with Stingray cellphone interceptors, tracked through biometric facial recognition software and license-plate readers, among other things. And, this isn’t limited to black activists.
Black people of all kinds know that since blacks were enslaved in the western hemisphere, to be black in America is to suffer persistent surveillance, to be watched as if being black was a spectator sport. How many black people right now are wearing electronic monitors? Are in databases we can’t get off? Are on the no-fly list? Are living in communities that are so over-policed they have been turned into open-air prisons?
This is why Edward Snowden must be pardoned – because the ability of black communities to organize for our collective liberation depends, in part, on whistleblowers like him. Black movements for peace and freedom demand that out of the darkness of empire, truth-tellers emerge to sound the alarm.
His revelations directly challenged the commonly held belief that media, phone and technology corporations must always give into state interests to target and harass the public. His bravery was a catalyst for the modern movement to defend democracy from both state and corporate overreach.
President Obama should provide Edward Snowden with a form of clemency that would permit him to return home to the United States – and still more appropriately in my view, remove all threats of criminal investigation as well.
He should not be punished for the services that he has performed in the interests of democracy and civil rights.
Snowden should, in my opinion, be welcomed home with honors for his service to his country, and for his courage and integrity in the manner in which he performed this service. Apart from exceptional circumstances, citizens have every right to know what their government is doing, in particular what it is doing to them – in the present case, as Snowden revealed to us, keeping citizens under extensive and deeply intrusive surveillance.
No case has been made that relevant exceptional circumstances prevail. As well known, initial claims about prevention of terrorist actions collapsed under investigation, and no credible case has been made that the massive invasion of privacy, arguably in violation of constitutional rights, is warranted. Snowden made every effort to follow established procedures for bringing this crucial information to the general public. When these failed, he took the courageous and honorable step of transmitting the information through the medium of careful and highly reliable and experienced journalists, who, along with him, carefully vetted the material to ensure that no possible harm would be caused to individuals or to security.
Citizens of the United States – and indeed the world, considering the extraordinary range of the operations that have been revealed – are very much in Snowden’s debt. He should certainly not be punished in any way for the services that he has performed in the interests of democracy and civil rights. At the very least, he should be granted the full freedom to return home without fear of prosecution, and, I very much hope, to be welcomed with the respect that he richly deserves.
From the perspective of someone born in the friendly ’50s in the USA, it has become normal to witness the uncovering of classified information over time …
Living in this day in age one would imagine that we – so connected now – could’ve found a way to share resources in a more socially responsible way. It’s absolutely perplexing to me to try to understand people involved in The Bilderberg Group, or see people, even friends and colleagues in places such as Los Angeles, spending hours and hours and hundreds of dollars bleaching their hair every week and purchasing absurdly priced designer clothing whilst in travels on the same tours through Europe and witness to young Syrian refugees or young disenfranchised children and kids in Detroit or Mexico City or even London on the streets, starved. There is an obvious and embarrassing injustice.
We are grateful for the courage and the conscience of the whistleblowers. Everywhere.
Simultaneously going to the cinema, there are sometimes advertisements/campaigns before the trailers to join the military – and there we are in the audience boo-ing! How dare these guys boast their heartless, imperialist activities in an effort to recruit young people. It’s sickening.
It’s difficult to talk about. It’s hard to even talk anymore. I listen more now. We listen to our Palestinian neighbors. We listen to the brave men and women and trans people fighting for basic rights. We seek out film festivals and documentary festivals where activist artists bravely tell stories to try to affect change in communities. We read everything Chelsea Manning has written. It inspires us. We try to make a more universal music of peace and love.
We are grateful for the courage and the conscience of the whistleblowers. Everywhere. From Angela Davis and the Black Panther party in the USA, Anna Mendelssohn (aka Grace Lake) and Stuart Christie and The Angry Brigade in the UK and today’s activist beauties such as Snowden, Manning, Assange … others. All I can say to them is thank you, and try to honour them in my music. They are heroes. They will be remembered, hopefully honored in their own lifetime.
In an age of pervasive mendacity and massive criminality my dear brother Edward Snowden exemplifies courage and integrity. I call for President Obama to give him a pardon owing to his public service for truth and democratic accountability.
Frankly, I believe that were Snowden to return to the US, he would be treated badly; so much so, that even if he were fully pardoned – and could convince himself that that were truly so – he still would still be treated very badly.
I’m certain that most of the following of Donald Trump would want him in prison for life at best and hanged at worst.
That, sadly, is the nature of our country these days (some would argue we have always been thus and point to all manner of cases from the Salem witch trials to Alger Hiss, to the Rosenbergs, to the San Francisco 49ers quarterback now being shouted down for his refusals with respect to the US national anthem). Snowden’s actions, in many minds, constitute treason. I’m quite certain that most of the following of Donald Trump, for example, would want him in prison for life at best and hanged at worst.
After listening to Snowden on tape and video multiple times, I believe him to be a highly courageous and extremely ethical young man. He just might be the type who could weather such a storm and lead an otherwise productive life, like Daniel Ellsberg has for example. That might make him a martyr to some; but he will remain a villain to many others.
Am I for pardoning him? I would have to know a great deal more about the real impacts of his revelations – not the lies the government tells – before I could formulate my view. None of this truth is about to be forthcoming, so I really cannot make an informed judgment. It’s shameful because I don’t think any reasonable citizen can.
The essence of America’s precious freedom is the right to speak up. For people all over the world, especially in countries where whistleblowers’ only fate is death, Snowden has become a symbol of citizenship and moral courage. He has changed the way we feel about possibility of freedom.
He has taught us that in times of moral crisis, neutrality is not the side we want to be on. In pardoning Snowden, America strengthens itself and the ideas it stands for. Bring him home, honor him.
I wholeheartedly support a full presidential pardon for whistleblower Edward Snowden.
As a CIA officer 25 years ago, I knew the government classified too much information. Everyone knew it. But no one spoke up. And today the problem is far worse.
For his service to his country, he deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But because of Edward Snowden, we now know the head of US intelligence was lying to the Senate committee responsible for intelligence oversight. Programs concealed from the citizenry have been declared unconstitutional by federal courts. For the first time, the country has the minimal information necessary to grapple with the benefits and dangers of a surveillance apparatus far more vast and intrusive even than the one Senator Frank Church warned 40 years ago could lead to the eradication of privacy and the imposition of
Surely in a democracy, the people have a right to know about the implementation of programs with risks as vast as that. Surely in a democracy, the people have a need to know.
That today we do know, that today we are able to engage in this critical conversation about how properly to govern ourselves, is almost entirely due to the conscience and courage of one man: Edward Snowden. For his service to his country, he deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom. But a presidential pardon might be acknowledgment enough.
Philosopher and professor of political science at the CUNY Graduate Center
The charge of espionage against Snowden makes no sense. How can he be guilty as an agent of an enemy power, when his goal was to defend the people of the United States against secret and illegal actions by their own government?
What would a pardon of Edward Snowden signal? It would acknowledge the very principle of democratic rule.
A line between hero and traitor in this case is impossible to draw. And that is the deeper issue. What would a pardon of Edward Snowden signal? It would acknowledge the very principle of democratic rule. Nothing protects us from the abuses of executive power more effectively than their exposure by individual citizens who make them public and sound the alarm.
UK member of parliament and vice-chair of the Home Affairs Committee
From the start I thought that Edward Snowden had made a significant contribution in revealing the excesses and, in some instances, illegal surveillance carried out by US agencies.
If not for his actions, there would not have been the tightening up of such operations and we would never have known how even leaders of various democracies, such as Chancellor Merkel, had their phones tapped by the National Security Agency.
A half a century ago, Daniel Ellsberg was denounced in the US as a traitor for releasing the Pentagon Papers, which contained information concealed from the public about the war being waged against Vietnam. His actions have long since been vindicated, and there is a general consensus that what he did was absolutely right. Mr Ellsberg has strenuously defended Edward Snowden.
Snowden could be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which would bestow him a certain degree of immunity in the US
When I met Edward Snowden in Moscow in October 2013, he told me that he would eventually like to live in a country where democracy and the rule of law are respected. I can think of two ways to make that happen.
First, President Obama could pardon Snowden at the end of his last term, in the way other outgoing presidents have done in the past. Second, Snowden could be awarded the Nobel peace prize, which would bestow him a certain degree of immunity in the US even if he isn’t pardoned: during the cold war, for example, we saw that Soviet Union was unwilling to prosecute people who had been awarded with such an internationally recognised honour.
The key to both of these solutions doesn’t lie in our hands, but there is something we all can do. Like Oliver Stone’s new film, we can try to help emphasise that there is another side to Snowden’s story than the one that prevails in the US media: that this is a man with a lot of integrity, who did a great merit for the civil rights and privacy for the mankind and who knew what he was doing when making a extremely risky decision.
Whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures provided powerful confirmation that the NSA was spying on the digital lives of hundreds of millions of innocent people, undermining digital security and attacking American companies. The leaks caused a sea change in policy and secrecy related to government spying that led to the first piece of legislation to rein in the NSA in over 30 years, reform to the secret Fisa court, and significant, long-overdue public releases of critical information by the government about its spying on innocent Americans as well as millions of others around the world.
His motivations … were clearly to benefit the public and restore privacy and security to the internet.
The information he revealed was critical to starting a conversation about realigning a broken relationship between the intelligence community and the public. His motivations – and the impact of the leaks – were clearly to benefit the public and restore privacy and security to the internet.
The heavy price that the government seeks to exact – indicting him under the Espionage Act as if he had sold secrets to an enemy with no chance of explaining the broader public benefit – is wrong. Snowden’s behavior both before and after he brought this information to the media is that of a whistleblower who brought necessary public attention to a corrupt surveillance system still in need of further reform.
Strong oversight of our intelligence agencies is essential so the American people trust what they are doing to keep us safe. That trust was shaken when Edward Snowden disclosed the disconcerting truths about US surveillance that fueled my years-long effort, alongside Senator Wyden, to end the dragnet, warrantless collection of Americans’ communication records. Although Snowden’s actions aided my push for reform, the fact remains that Snowden broke an oath he willingly took to protect our national security and classified secrets.
I do not believe the president should pardon Snowden. You can make the case that he did our nation a service, and that is why I believe he should return to the United States to make that argument in court and to the public.
Senator Ron Wyden: ‘I think it’s very clear that mass surveillance was never going to end until the public found out about it.’ Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
I’m not going to sit in judgment on pending criminal charges, though I certainly don’t think there should be a double standard where defenders of particular programs can disclose classified information get and off scot-free, while critics of those programs go to prison.
I think it’s very clear that mass surveillance was never going to end until the public found out about it. That’s why I spent years urging the Bush and Obama administrations to begin this discussion with the public. I wish this debate had started earlier, but I’m glad it’s happening now.
What if there hadn’t been a Snowden? A program that violated the principles that this country holds dear may have continued to this day. A program that an appellate court in New York found illegal, that was so egregious in terms of law and civil liberties, may have continued or even been expanded.
Edward Snowden was immensely important and will only become more important as time goes on. Not only did he show the American public what was being done in their name and to them, he ended a program which, upon examination, national security and legal experts concluded did not work.
The importance of what he did for the country outweighs the law that he violated
When considering whether or not he deserves to be pardoned, the president should remember that even former attorney general Eric Holder said that Snowden performed a public service. His revelations were the tidal wave the nation needed to change its ways. The importance of what he did for the country outweighs the law that he violated and the just move is a pardon for Edward Snowden.
Owner of webmail service Lavabit that he shut down in 2013 rather than comply with US government orders to facilitate spying on Snowden
Snowden has stated he would be willing to stand and be judged by a jury of peers, but doesn’t believe he would receive a fair trail. I believe the conduct I encountered proves his contention. The individuals responsible for investigating, prosecuting and adjudicating his actions have lied in court, ignored conflicts of interest and irrevocably tainted the evidence against him. I believe it amounts to prosecutorial misconduct.
I think asking President Obama to pardon him is a lost cause.
The charges against Snowden should be dismissed with prejudice; just like the case against Daniel Ellsberg was dismissed. To quote Judge Byrne, from his decision in 1973: “The totality of the circumstances of this case offend a sense of justice.”
On the other hand, I think asking President Obama to pardon him is a lost cause. Snowden revealed misconduct by the very person who is being asked to grant him the pardon. If we were to petition anyone, it should be Congress, or possibly the four presidential candidates (Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Green).
There should be nothing less than a full pardon. The information that Snowden released to the public was critical: it made Americans aware of the way the law was being violated or at least subverted by unchecked government officials.
Then there was the manner in which he released the information. It was careful and limited, given the unresponsiveness he had experienced inside the NSA and from other branches of government.
Whistleblowing is an essential part of the architecture of checking government power. We’ve recognized the importance of whistleblowers in the past, and it’s entirely appropriate that Obama now recognizes the role that Snowden played in America in exposing the way in which extraordinary power was abused.
I am not in the “pardon Snowden” camp. And the longer he stays away, the fewer people will be in that camp.
In the early days after his leaks, Snowden was a bit of a paradox – a plausible, intelligent commentator who seemed to have done something that was irresponsible at best and actively hostile to US national security at worst. We were just not sure what to make of him.
It turned out [the benefits of the leaks] could have been achieved by leaking three or four documents.
But the public benefits of those leaks were spent within a week or two, as they spurred a genuine debate about surveillance. And it turned out they could have been achieved by leaking three or four documents.
In the years since then, the massive flood unleashed by Snowden has been used for one purpose only – to harm US intelligence and national interests by exposing perfectly legitimate intelligence sources and methods.
As the debate wanes, the ongoing harm to the United States remains front and center. So the longer he stays away the more he becomes, in reality and in perception, simply one of Putin’s tools. And a willing tool to boot, one suspects. That fact naturally casts a new and unflattering light on his deeds in 2013.
Edward Snowden clearly acted in the public interest. He sparked one of the most important debates about government surveillance in decades, and brought about a global movement in defence of privacy in the digital age. Punishing him for this sends out the dangerous message that those who witness human rights violations behind closed doors should not speak out.
It is ironic that it is Snowden who is being treated like a spy when his act of courage drew attention to the fact that the US and UK governments were illegally spying on millions of people without their consent.
First cousin marriages in Pakistani communities leading to appalling disabilities among children.
Couples who are getting married should be forced to have a DNA test first to ensure they are not cousins amid growing concern about incest within Pakistani communities, Britain’s first Asian peer has claimed.
Baroness Flather, a former Tory who now sits as a cross-bencher, said in the House of Lords that it is “absolutely appalling” that first cousin marriages in Pakistani communities are leading to “so much disability among children”.
She said: “There are a lot of first-cousin marriages in certain communities, particularly among Pakistanis who come from the Pakistani Kashmir area. We know so much about DNA now, but there is so much disability among the children, which is absolutely appalling.
“You go to any such family and there will be four or five children, at least one or two of whom will have some disability. That is absolutely unacceptable, and if we cannot do anything about it, is it fair to the children?”
Baroness Flather, a former barrister who was born in the Pakistani city of Lahore when it was part of India, said: “Never mind the parents — it is not fair to the children that they should be allowed to become disabled because of a social practice. It is a social practice which does not belong in today’s age, when we know so much about DNA. There should at least be some rule which says that you must have a DNA examination before your marriage can be registered.”
The noble Baroness Flather also raised concerns about Sharia law, under which women struggle to get a divorce.
She said: “I know I am probably talking about Muslims, but we now have this business of sharia marriages. It is appalling that the man can get a divorce by just asking for it, while a woman may have to wait years, and may still not get it. She can get a British divorce, but not a sharia divorce.
Noble Lords may ask, “Why does that matter?”, and I asked that of those women. They replied, “It means that we can’t go to Pakistan”.
“If they go there, the husband can come and take the children away, no matter what age they are. In any case, the husband can take the children from a sharia marriage when they are seven. All marriages should be automatically registered in this country. It is not fair to the women that some British women — they are British women when they come here — are treated in a different and unacceptable way from others.”