The last few pieces drawn from the reporting I did in the Middle East late last year are now out.
For the Spring issue of the World Policy Journal, I wrote about how Syrian women in Jordan are adjusting to life without men.
Studies show that at least a third of Syrian refugee households in Jordan are headed by women – meaning that, as in Sara’s case, there is no male provider. This is not unusual in war-time, given that men tend to enlist or be drafted. The number of female-headed households was thought to be even higher among displaced Iraqis during the first Gulf War . . .
Many of these women, hailing from traditional societies where men are the primary household earners, must work for the first time, even as they care for their children. As they deal with tough economic realities, many are also navigating bereavement, trauma, and loss.
The piece is no longer available for free online, but can be accessed here, and the first few pages of the clipping are below.
In the Spring issue of the New Humanist, I wrote a piece about the persecution of minorities in Iraq, and how their cause is being taken up by the far right in the west.
Dalu’s anger stems, in part, from a feeling that people overseas are not paying attention to the suffering of his community. But the persecution of religious minorities in Iraq has been exploited by international actors for many years, in ways that often exacerbate the problem. This raises serious ethical questions not just about assisting marginalised groups, but about the way these issues are discussed. In an era of increasing divisions and a worldwide narrative of a “clash of civilisations”, the situation of minorities in Iraq has been used to feed a dangerous discourse that does no favours to people like Dalu. How can outsiders support these groups without worsening the situation?
After a spate of terrorist attacks in Europe, we are hearing a lot about early intervention work – particularly deradicalisation programmes. In the Autumn 2017 issue of the New Humanist, I wrote a long feature examining what exactly these programmes are and how they function around the world. You can read the full piece over at theNewHumanist, and the clipping is below.
Yet the very terminology is disputed: what does radicalisation actually mean? By their nature, these schemes tend to be secretive, meaning little accountability on where they draw these boundaries. And if there no evidence that a crime has been committed, there is nothing to prosecute for. So how do deradicalisation programmes function, here and abroad? Should we be using them more? And do they work?
I’ve also written a few bits of analysis for The Pool:
Five years ago, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes. His crime was starting a website that discussed liberal ideas. In June, I interviewed his wife, Ensaf Haidar, who now lives in Canada with their three children. She has been campaigning tirelessly for his release.
The think tank Freedom House has characterised the media environment in Saudi Arabia as one of the “most repressive in the world”; Badawi is one among dozens of prisoners of conscience. But, despite the risks associated with talking freely about politics and religion in her home country, Haidar is defiant. “I always thought Raif had the right to express his opinions and engage in whatever public debate he wanted to. My opinion hasn’t changed. I would do nothing differently if I could go back. This is the 21st century. It was his right.”
As well as being a freelance writer, I am deputy editor of the New Humanist magazine and often cover issues related to free speech and secularism. (I’ve also written before about Raif Badawi’s case.)
I wrote a column in the latest issue of the New Humanist about the tragic death of another free-thinker, self-described humanist Mashal Khan who was murdered at his university halls in Mardan, Pakistan.
For all the public outpouring of grief and anger, there has been little attention paid to the law itself. Introduced by the British during colonial rule, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are among the world’s most repressive. Attempts at reform were halted entirely after the assassination of two politicians advocating the cause in 2011 – Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti.
The rest of the piece is here. I’ve been writing about Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for many years now – starting with this 2011 piece for the New Statesman. I’ve also written about violent attacks on atheists in Bangladesh. You can find more examples of my coverage on these issues elsewhere on the website.
During my latest trip to Pakistan in spring of this year, I traveled around the country and reported on different aspects of extremism. I recently wrote a long feature for the New Humanist (Summer 2016 issue) looking at the country’s notorious network of madrasas (religious seminaries), examining their relationship to terrorism and the reasons why successive attempts at reform have failed.
Mohammed Ishfaq and Naeb Amir, two of the teachers, stepped outside to talk to me. “Things were good before this, but now there are problems teaching and praying here,” said Amir. “The number of students – even boys – has decreased. People are afraid to visit. Many don’t want to send their kids here.”
Ishfaq jumped in. “We are teaching an approved syllabus to the boys, but we don’t know what Halima was teaching the girls. There’s no evidence that she changed the syllabus, and we didn’t know about it if she did. We never heard her mention Syria or ISIS or sectarianism. Everyone was surprised.”
I asked what they thought of Cheema’s actions: had she done the wrong thing in going to Syria? “She did wrong,” Ishfaq said, immediately. “Women cannot travel without the permission of their husband. She went against Islam.”
The full pieceis available at the New Humanist website and the clipping is below.
I’ve got a column in the latest issue of the New Humanist (out now) following up on the long piece I wrote about attacks on secularists in Bangladesh. The column looks at rising intolerance across India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and at some of the historical reasons for this.
These tensions were enforced by colonisation and then by Partition; divisions encouraged to cement power. Occasional outbursts of horrific communal violence have punctuated the Subcontinent since it was carved up at the end of the British Empire. Indeed, India and Pakistan were born amidst bloody Hindu-Muslim riots in 1947 that left an estimated 1 million people dead.
I also wrote something for The Pool, looking at the rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the UK in the aftermath of the horrendous terror attacks in Paris. My piece took as its starting point the Sun’s headline that one in five British Muslims has “sympathy with jihad” and focused particularly on violence against hijab-wearing Muslim women.
The Sun’s headline, bigoted as it is, does not exist in a vacuum. It is the natural product of a political and media culture that demonises British Muslims at every opportunity, creating the spectre of a terrifying “enemy within”. This has real consequences.
I’ve also continued to report on UK politics for Deutsche Welle, including this article on Britain’s relationship with India and China, and this on David Cameron’s plans for airstrikes on Syria. I regularly interview different people for the New Humanist, where I’m assistant editor. One recent example is this Q&A with David Wootton, the author of a new book on the history of science. And I wrote this article for Index on Censorship about the situation for atheist bloggers in Bangladesh.
The full length version of my report on the violence against atheists in Bangladesh, which appeared on the cover of the Autumn New Humanist, is now online. A shorter version appeared in the Guardian in September (see previous post) but this original article goes into greater detail about the historical factors, as well as including more from my two incredibly brave interviewees. You can read it online here, and the clipping (all six pages of it) is below.
One of the coalition’s flagship education policies was to establish free schools, which can be set up by anyone. The idea was to allow leadership and to encourage communities to address their own needs. But in practice, it hasn’t always worked out well.
In a piece for the New Humanist, I examined a specific type of free schools: those with a “religious ethos”. I visited Durham to report on the closure of a Christian-ethos school there.
The controversy in Durham feeds into two separate debates. The first is about the success or failure of the free schools programme. (The Labour Party has been highly critical, and made it a manifesto promise to overhaul the policy). The second is about the wider role of faith in education. The two issues are clearly linked. A recent report by the government’s Social Integration Commission warned that Britain’s education system is increasingly “segregated” along lines of social class, religion and race. It said that free schools have contributed to the fact that children increasingly spend their formative years in surroundings “dominated by a single faith group or community”, and advised that no further faith schools should be allowed to open unless the groups planning them can prove that pupils will mix with children from other backgrounds.
The rest of the piece is here and the clipping is below. (NB I’ve written on education policy before, notably in this article for the New Statesman about Hackney’s Mossbourne School).
In the aftermath of the horrendous attack on schoolchildren in Peshawar in December, I wrote this piece for the New Statesman looking at the impact of such terror attacks. I also appeared on Channel 5 News to discuss the incident.
Allegations of an Islamist plot to take over schools in Birmingham, which surfaced earlier this year, caused a national outcry. The debate was intensely polarised, with the government sending in a former counterterrorism police officer to investigate, and local residents arguing that the schools simply reflected the faith of their primarily Muslim intake.
In the aftermath of the scandal, I went to Birmingham to speak with people involved about the impact this national scandal has had on the local community. i wrote a long report on the subject for the latest issue of the New Humanist, which is out now.
The sharp differences in narrative illustrate the polarised debate over Birmingham schools: one camp argues that these schools were indoctrinating children, while the other maintains they simply accommodated the cultural needs of their Muslim intake. What is the truth?
You can read the full piece over at the New Humanist website, and the clipping is below.
On Saturday 16th August, the Norstream, a P&O Ferries commercial ship, arrived at Tilbury Docks in the British county of Essex. The ship, which had come from the Belgian village of Zeebrugge, was loaded up with 64 containers. Around 6am, dock-workers heard “banging and screaming” coming from one of the containers. It was opened. There were 35 people crammed inside. One man, in his 40s, had died on the journey. It turned out that the group – which included 13 children – was entirely made up of Sikhs fleeing from Afghanistan.
I wrote a piece for the German outlet Deutsche Welleabout the case, explaining the background:
Currently, a European law known as the Dublin Regulation dictates that someone seeking refugee status must make their claim in the first country that they land in. This means that there is a disproportionate strain on countries on the southern and eastern borders of Europe; countries such as Greece, Italy, and Poland. Many of these countries have overstretched asylum systems and struggling economies; therefore, many migrants want to remain under the radar until they can reach Germany, Sweden, or Britain.
The Independent points out that just 0.23 per cent of the British population is made up of asylum-seekers. The horrific plight of the 35 found at Tilbury should serve as a reminder that immigration policy is not simply a political hot potato over which to trade inflammatory rhetoric; seeking to make these policies more humane, to accommodate the world’s most vulnerable, is a matter of moral obligation.