Sunday, 30 December 2007

India in the imagination

People have asked me how I enjoyed my trip to India and the honest answer is that for the first time, I think I understand the country a little better.

For no matter how progressive your politics may be, there is always a first sense of excitement about the exotic idea of India. It’s a reflection of the Orientalism that Edward Said described so brilliantly, which is probably harder for someone raised on Kipling, Forster and the visible remnants of British India to ignore. It’s difficult not to become caught up in the thrill of finding everything unfamiliar and strange. For others, the mystical interpretation of the Indian sub-Continent, the focus on its ‘spirituality’ over other aspects of India’s cultural and social identity, is just another facet of this need to project a narrow vision on what India actually is.

Reading Amartya Sen’s excellent book The Argumentative Indian whilst on holiday, I was struck by the case he makes for comparing those who see the exoticness of India as somehow holding superior values, the people who attend the ashrams like the Osho international commune in Pune or who elevate some notion of ancient knowledge above post-Enlightenment reason and science, to the propaganda of the sectarian Hindutva organisations like the BJP or Bombay’s tiny but extreme Shiv Sena party, led by the loathsome Hitler-admirer Bal Thackeray. These extreme Hindu nationalists also reject everything modern for an entirely false reconstruction and revision of India’s history and culture, although their aim is very different from those on a personal and often very indulgent ‘journey’ of self-discovery. Too many times, I've heard visitors to India, seeking the mysticism of their imagination, disparage modern ideas in favour for the value of centuries-old 'wisdom' that is supposedly special simply because it is old and 'spiritual'. The BJP, in its brief period in government, was busy rewriting school textbooks based on a similar anti-intellectual pseudo-science.

Looking solely at any country's distant past is always liable to result in a wholly distorted view of its present. A visit to Britain that includes only Buckingham Palace, Stratford upon Avon and Canterbury Cathedral does the same to thousands of overseas visitors every year, but the difference is that Britain's historical, often turbulent religious controversies are not taken to have some particular bearing on modern Britain. The past is just the past. In India, however, the Victorian view that Indian culture is crude and incapable of embracing modernity still tends to persist. Amartya Sen argues that focusing almost exclusively on what India is perceived to be ‘good’ at – its religiosity – deliberately ignores a rich tradition of scepticism, invention and new ideas that continues to this day. And it’s fascinating that Sen’s book, along with Richard Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’, are amongst the bestsellers in India at the moment.

Like every country, India is also constantly changing and, in the seven years since I first visited, I have noticed the changes most clearly in Bombay. The gap between the rich and the poor has grown and modern India has become more evident and more confident, but perhaps less fair. There are ATMs all over Colaba and expensive car show rooms in Bandra, but literacy rates outside of a few states like Kerala and West Bengal are alarmingly low and the Dharavi district of Bombay remains Asia's largest slum. During this trip, knowing my way around meant that I could stop rubber-necking, relax a little and appreciate that India is far more than an exotic destination, but a place where people live and work, a modern country with very modern concerns. I read the newspapers more this time and whether it was the problems of traffic congestion in Pune, or attacks by Hindutva activists on art exhibitions for ‘blasphemy’; or protests in Goa against unaccountable Special Economic Zones, or most notably the fears about India’s nuclear neighbour after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto (on my final day in Bombay), what is most interesting about India is what is happening now, not just India’s past.

I don’t know the next time I’ll be in India, but I know it won’t be for anything as pointless as trying to discover myself - I can do that anywhere if I really wanted to. Don't get me wrong, I love ruined forts, temples and India’s history but India is much more than its distant past, more than its religious heritage. I hope next time it will be to discover more about what India is gradually becoming, what matters today.

But first, I'm going to have to start saving. Three continents in a year has taken its toll on my travelling funds!

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Christmas in Goa

Today, I saw Santa, on the back of a truck. And standing behind him was a woman in full hijab. Christmas is a little different in Goa than back at home.

For starters, its far to hot to be wearing a big red costume and a false beard - it was around 32 degrees today. Secondly, my Christmas celebrations look like they'll involve dinner on a deserted beach a little further south from Palolem, where I am now. It's be surprisingly good arriving here after a frantic wedding in Pune, with the pace of things much slower, even more than the last time I was here after Gilly & Debbie's wedding in 2005.

I'm told that the number of visitors is down, apart from today when the day trippers arrived from out of state. This may be because the police have clamped down on the all night parties and loud music has to stop at 10pm. Tomorrow night - Christmas Eve - is one day when parties until the early hours are allowed. The other is 31st December (obviously) but it seems likely that these will be nothing like the big raves of the past, with thousands of people in attendance. But despite the restrictions, party organisers will always find a way around them. I met a guy today who has 200 headphones in customs in Bombay, and once they arrive, the plan is to arrange a 'silent party', with the music sent wirelessly to each participant. Imagine a party where everyone dances in apparent silence to their own groove. It should be quite a night.

Sadly, there have been other changes. The island at the far right of Palolem beach has been bought, so I'm told, by the Russian mafia, who plan to build a luxury property on it. They also have bought the whole of Colom village, which has been effectively squatted for four generations, so the villagers worried about their future. All this information in 24 hours. If I was here for longer, I think I'd be as expert in the gossip as some of the regulars I've met today.

I'm back before New Year and I'm told that it's chilly in London, but that there's little prospect of snow for Christmas Day. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without some certainties like a lack of snow and crap TV. But not this year for me. It's a quarter to midnight and I'm still baking...

Saturday, 15 December 2007

India again - overwhelmed again

Fort, Bombay...

Have arrived in India and feel frazzled after the flight. Made the mistake of not trying to get some sleep before plunging into Bombay's busy streets and had to snooze in the afternoon.

Woke up feeling like an worker ant in a giant anthill, but without the sense of purpose - utterly overwhelmed. Momentarily it was terrifying. There were so many choices to make that it was all I could do to stop myself from doing nothing.

Bombay is not a city you really want to visit on your own. It's too frenzied not to have others around to wander into a bar with and forget about the madness outside. But still. I do love it here. Couldn't live in Bombay, but love coming here.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Déjà Vu

Another Christmas, another wedding. Another trip to Goa. Another long journey.

I’m starting to feel a really acute sense of déjà vu, in the proper sense, not just the compelling sense of familiarity but also the experience of eeriness.

It’s been two years since I travelled to Delhi and took a long drive to Buwan Kothi for Debbie and Gilly’s wedding. Recently, I was rummaging through a trunk (looking for old photos of my friend Ken from Brighton, who will be 40 this Saturday) and I found the invitations to both the India wedding and the ceremony in north London in 2006. India over Christmas and New Year in 2005 was a really happy time, from freezing in Haryana in the fog for the ceremony itself and then plunging into the afternoon sun at Dabolim airport in Goa, me and Rupee and Sukhraj, drowning in the excitement of suddenly, finally, feeling warmth.

Now much of coastal Goa itself is really a bit rubbish, completely divorced from the rest of India, a playground for holidaymakers looking for a couple of weeks on a beach and some winter sun, its ‘otherness’ perhaps explaining the coach parties who descend from outside of the state, apparently to do little more than ogle and ‘Eve tease’ the foreign women. Palolem in the far south may once have been a last refuge from the rampant commercialism but when we were there, every space between the tree line and the sand had beach huts or restaurants. Given the choice, there are a dozen places I would place a higher priority to revisiting India than Goa, but I definitely return to that warm feeling when I think about the ten days I spent there in 2005-06.

From 22 December, I will be back in the village in Palolem, staying with Putu who worried so much when Suk went missing for three days. I can visualize the walk from Putu’s place to the beach in complete detail. If I close my eyes, I can see the fishing boats on the beach and I bet when I get there, they’ll be in exactly the same place. But somehow I’m not sure that I’ll be spending much time at the Cosy Nook restaurant at the north end of the beach, because the memories I have are so strong and so happy. In darker moments over the last year, I’d always transport myself back there. And what I remember most is hanging out for days on end with Gilly.

Tonight I was in Shish in Old Street, meeting up with some of my favourite people, and the last time I was there was in February for my birthday, drunk beyond comprehension, eating chips with Gilly and Catherine in the upstairs restaurant, taking a breather from endless cocktails downstairs. So many places, people and situations are like Shish, coming back to remind me that my old mate has gone forever. But somehow, I think Goa is going to be the hardest of all.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

One Strike I Would Never Support

I'm with George Orwell on this one. Orwell remarked in Homage to Catalonia, "when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on."

Over the last ten years, British police officers have received the equivalent of a 39% increase in their pay. Whatever they have wanted - new equipment, new more draconian laws, a practical veto over criminal justice policy - they have been given. And now it isn't getting its own way, the Police Federation, perhaps one of the most reactionary organisations in the country, is threatening to try and overturn the ban on strike action by police officers.

But were it not for the ban on strike action that followed the Police Strikes of 1918 and 1919, the Police Federation wouldn't even exist. It was set up as what was effectively a 'company union' in direct response to the emergence of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers, which started to campaign for better pay (which was poor and inconsistent) at a time of international labour militancy. The police union was outlawed and the Federation has enjoyed its special status ever since.

The last time the Federation tried to rattle the government with the threat of overturning the strike ban was over potential criminal charges for firearms officers - yet another claim for special treatment and immunity from prosecution.

There may be some on the Left who believe that any strike action should be supported (witness the support from Respect for the thugs in the Prison Officers Association), but this is just sabre-rattling by a bosses' union. The Federation knows that overturning the ban would mean the end of its monopoly as the representative body for the lower ranks.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Beware of Lockheed

Do you want an arms company collecting senstive details about you?

Trust in the government's ability to safeguard senstitive information is at an all time low, following the disappearance of the child benefit data for 25 million people that was lost in the post by HM Revenue and Customs and the increasing number of computer discs that seem to have gone missing.

The only positive outcome of the HMRC fiasco is that hopefully it will scupper once and for all the government's ID card scheme, but with ever more sensitive information being collected by the state, do we really want data about everyone in the UK being collected in the next Census in 2011 by an international arms company?

Lockheed Martin is one of the shortlisted contractors to provide data capture and storage services for the 2011 Census, but the majority of its business is with the American Department of Defense and other US government agencies. They produce missiles, naval systems and land mines, as well as providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnnaissance services. Most worrying is their claim to deliver 'integrated threat information' to the US military by combining and analysing a widde range of intelligence information from around the world.

With Lockheed Martin involved, people in the UK will not believe that their Census submissions will be safe from being incorporated into these systems, and this is likely to harm the reliability of the 2011 Census.

A new campaign, Census Alert, has started an online petition calling for a halt to the involvement of Lockheed Martin in the 2011 Census.

This is one petition that's defintely worth signing.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Are the attacks on Lee Jasper just dirty politics?

The Evening Standard has kept up its attacks on Lee Jasper, race advisor to London Mayor Ken Livingston, over allegations that he influenced the London Development Agency over £2.5 million of funding paid to organisations with which he had strong links. The paper alleges that Jasper is at the centre of a network of groups controlled by by himself or his close friends that have received large sums of public money in return for little or no work. Specifically, it says that:

  • Hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money paid to the companies is unaccounted for or has disappeared.
  • • Up to £295,000 of this funding is the subject of possible legal action for return of sums from Diversity International, a company controlled by a long-standing friend and business associate of Lee Jasper called Joel O'Loughlin. It received LDA funding for the Diversity Dividend, a web-based tool for London business, even though it allegedly has no expertise in IT and is based in Liverpool. The website does not exist, the company has now gone into liquidation and all the money paid to it has apparently vanished.
  • LDA officials had severe doubts about Brixton Base, a "creative training hub" for the black community whose patron is Lee Jasper and whose director is Errol Walters, another of Jasper's friend. Brixton Base has received £287,000 from the LDA over the past two years for "premises" - even though it has occupied an LDA-owned building throughout that time and was charged no rent in the first year. The Evening Standard alleged that the LDA wanted to evict the organisation from its building, but that in an email to the LDA's senior director, Tony Winterbottom, Jasper gave an order to "ensure that this action [the eviction] is withdrawn immediately and ensure I am consulted on all major decisions affecting [Brixton Base]".
  • Several of the organisations are based in the same small room at a business centre in Kennington.
  • The same people, friends or business associates of Mr Jasper - including Errol Walters and businesswoman and reality TV show star Yvonne Thompson - appear as directors or staff members of each organisation.
The Greater London Authority has refuted the allegations and called upon Andrew Gilligan, the reporter leading the story, to hand over any evidence to the police, saying that his failure to do so suggests that "the allegation is without any substance."

Unsurprisingly, groups like The 1990 Trust, where Jasper was once Director, and Operation Black Vote, run by Jasper's friend Simon Woolley, have launched a counter attack on the Evening Standard. Karen Chouhan of the 1990 Trust has highlighted significant inaccuracies in Gilligan's reports, whilst Woolley has said (rather melodramatically) that the accusations are "an attack on the capital's African, Asian, Caribbean and other minority ethnic communities." Both accuse the paper of using the story to discredit Livingston as part of the coming electoral fight for the London Mayor's office. And certainly the latest attacks are so personal that they suggest an bitter vendetta - include the revelation that Jasper, who earns £117,000 a year, lives in a £90 a week housing association property in Clapham.

The problem for most of us, looking in from the outside, is to separate facts from rhetoric on both sides. Those who have known Lee Jasper for many years would find it hard to believe that Jasper would personally seek to involve himself in corruption - his main interest has always been political, not financial. However, hearing the story for the first time, it's hard to forget that Jasper has always surrounded himself with a coterie that he has protected, and that when Livingston first came to power, many of them ended up in City Hall. That's the problem - there is often a grain of truth in even the most outrageous lie. Certainly, if Gilligan and the Standard have evidence of criminal activity, they should put up or shut up, by passing their dossier to the police. But if they decide to do so, Jasper has to stand down until the case against him is thrown out or taken to court.

As for the idea that attacking Jasper means attacking London's minority communities, there is a grain of truth in this too. I spoke to a friend in one group in Newham that receives LDA funding, on the day the Standard's first story appeared. She was concerned that it would lead to an attitude of greater suspicion towards black-led organisations, which is a real concern. But in spite of the impression that Jasper has fostered over the years, his persona and London's black communities are not interchangeable. Most funders are likely know this, even in the event that there might be an unfair level of extra scutiny given to some organisations in the future, simply on the basis of past association with Lee Jasper.

Indeed, even if you accept the ludicrous idea that there is such a thing as a 'spokesman' for black Londoners, Jasper has long given up any credibility to hold such a role. He has firmly supported the Mayor's staunch defence of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair and defended the police on two issues that continue to anger many black Londoners - stop-and-search, which black communities are around four times more likely to be targeted for than white people, and the introduction of the police DNA database, which will soon encompass around three-quarters of young black men.

Jasper represents a wholly different approach to "anti-racism" from the progressive, community-led politics that once meant there was something resembling an 'anti-racist movement' in Britain. The road he has travelled, largely abandoning work with local communities to stride the corridors of power, has depoliticised the fight against racism, created an 'anti-racism business' rather than a movement, where black communities are clients and where the fortunes and reputations of the 'leaders' are more important than the impact that anti-racism is able to make on the ground.

Lee Jasper is now more like any corporate business leader, liable to hostile briefings from rivals and open to outright attacks from the press at any point. In the rough and tumble, the 'business' is likely to get hurt.

But considering his profile in the past, it's just surprising that it has taken the newspapers so long to turn on Jasper.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue

This remains the greatest radio program ever... from the South Bank Show on Humphrey Lyttleton, chairman of 'I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue'. Sadly Samantha had already nipped out with her gentlemen friend when these moments were captured.

Millennium Dome was insolvent from the start

The BBC reported yesterday that National Archive files from the Millennium Commission, which funded the Dome, show that on 28 January 2000 the project had run out of money and was insolvent.

The report also mentions that in 2002 a public consultation on lottery funding concluded that "there is (public) agreement that the (Millennium) Dome was a waste of good causes funds and that this project in itself has tarnished the supply of funds to large capital projects."

On Wednesday, Third Sector magazine reported mounting anger over losses of lottery good causes money to the 2012 Olympics is being fuelled by the Government's refusal to pledge that there will be no further lottery raids. Olympics minister Tessa Jowell has met third sector groups associated with the four lottery distributors but has so far declined to give this promise.

Some things never change.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum *

Radio 4's Today programme this morning followed up a story in yesterday's Times, which reported that the daughter of a British imam is under police protection after receiving death threats for converting to Christianity. The woman has been hiding for 15 years but only recently placed under guard by the police after the most recent threats on her life from one of her brothers.

A spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain made a fair attempt at condemning this appalling situation. He pointed out that British Muslims are not exempt from UK laws forbidding murder and threatening behaviour, do not live under sharia law and that even in a country that practices sharia, it would be for courts rather than gangs of thugs to pass judgement (not a great deal of comfort, admittedly, but better than nothing).

presenter John Humphries tried, as he often does, to imply that this story reveals something particularly sinister within Islam, which is clearly not backed by the evidence. In minority communities across the country, where identification with strong religious beliefs in Islam, Sikhism or Hinduism are commonplace, where religion is what Marx called "the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress", similar cases occur with depressing regularity. Bounty hunters track down young men and mainly young women who refuse to enter into forced marriages, or have partners from outside their parents' faith, or who abandon their faith altogether. It's not that Islam is unique in this respect. All faiths have elements that are equally guilty and all are as bad as each other in failing to stop those resonsible. This includes Christianity - the Church of England may be as non-threatening as a children's teddy bear, but try asking those in hiding from sectarian gangs because of cross-denominational relationships in northern Ireland whether the Christian religion is as tolerant and peace-loving as it is often claimed to be.

What is most surprising about this story is perhaps its most obviously missing element. At a time when the police have committed to take a far more robust approach to tackling violence against women, why aren't all those responsible for hounding this young woman and threatening her life currently under arrested and facing trial and imprisonment?

* To such heights of evil are men driven by religion - Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Inside source in Menezes investigation?

Did Met have inside source in Menezes investigation?

As The Times reports today, rumours and allegations are rife about the sudden resignation of Andy Hayman, the senior Metropolitan Police officer with responsibility for anti-terrorism.

Hayman was criticised recently by the Independent Police Complaints Commission for briefing journalists about the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Tube station in 2005. He provided information that he allegedly failed to also pass on to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair and the IPCC recommended that Hayman faced disciplinary action.

Now, the latest allegations against Hayman are that he sent 400 calls and text messages to a female member of staff at the IPCC at the time that it was finalising the Stockwell 2 report. The IPCC has said that the contact was not work-related and that the unnamed staff member has moved on to work at the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Having announced his retirement, Hayman cannot be disciplined. Theoretically, the Metropolitan Police Authority could refuse to accept his resignation, but it has proved completely supine when dealing with senior Met officers in the past. And the IPCC's statement seems to suggest that Hayman had been having an affair, which of course the media love. But there is something uncomfortable about this story and saying so runs the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist.

  • Why is it impossible to believe that sending repeated phone calls and text messages to a member of staff in the IPCC could very likely be to gain information on a hugely controversial case that could have a direct impact on Hayman and his boss Sir Ian Blair?
  • Why should anyone take at face-value the relevance of the IPCC's assertion that the "member of staff, who was not an investigator, had no involvement or contact with the IPCC’s two Stockwell inquiries" or that "we have satisfied ourselves as far as we can that there was no improper sharing of information"? Anyone who has ever had any contact with staff at the IPCC will know that, like most organisations, rumour is commonplace within its Holborn headquarters and that inside information regularly leaks out to other staff. Despite the security over the Stockwell reports, people in the IPCC knew what was in it well before publication, which is why details were leaked to the press. Why not also directly to the Met Police?
  • Why is it impossible to believe that MI5 had an insider - one of its officers or at the very least a paid informer - in the IPCC because of the controversy over the Menezes case? Why is it beyond the realms of possibility that Hayman, who led the Met's Specialist Operations and was in regular contact with MI5 in his role as the senior anti-terrorism chief, was being passed information by a security services contact?
  • Why is it also impossible to believe that Hayman has been pushed into retirement though an engineered 'sex scandal' to prevent him facing disciplinary action? After all, someone was obviously trying to force him out, which is why the investigations into his expense claims were leaked to the press. Why not to prevent Hayman potentially revealing more insider details about the Menezes case - a killing the Met have done as much as it can to keep its secrets about, including obstructing official investigations and briefing reporters with false information?
  • How does someone who allegedly had an 'improper work relationship' with the country's most senior anti-terrorism officer end up vetted and working for the Association of Chief Police Officers? Perhaps because it was never considered to be 'improper' by the police and security services?
It sounds crazy, doesn't it? But because this story is tied up with the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, what may otherwise have sounded off-the-wall in other instances shouldn't necessarily be dismissed.

More to come, I'm sure.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Arkansas introduces Apostrophe Act

I can't believe I missed this story from earlier this year. It's a classic.

At a time when the governor of the US state of Arkansas Mike Beebe was busy declaring a number of counties as disaster areas due to thunderstorms and tornadoes, the state Senate was supporting a resolution declaring... “Arkansas’s” as the correct way to write the state’s possessive case.

The Arkansas Senate voted to support the resolution introduced by Rep. Steve Harrelson, a Democrat from Texarkana, who argued that adding apostrophe-s makes sense. Apparently (and you learn something new every day), although Arkansas became a US state in 1836, formalising its spelling was complicated by maps from the time often dropped its final “s.” A resolution by the Arkansas Legislature in 1881 formalised the state’s current spelling and pronunciation, making its final “s” silent.

Harrelson introdued the resolution on behalf of Parker Westbrook, who describes himself as a “longtime practical Arkansas historian.” Westbrook described the Senate vote as a vindication for his long-held view and told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazzette (which does not use the extra 's') that "we’ve waited 126 years for this.”

Harrelson, who apologised repeatedly to legislators about the attention the bill had received, said he had no regrets, although he has no plans to offer additional grammar-related bills in the future.

“I’ll tell you I never expected all the attention I received on this resolution,” Harrelson said. “I did this as a gesture and tribute to a well-known historian. I was glad I did it for him.”

Monday, 3 December 2007

Brick Lane gets its own Tube station?

The Evening Standard has reported today that London Mayor Ken Livingstone's plan to rename Shephard's Bush station on the Metropolitan Line as 'Shepherd's Bush Market' could followed by the renaming of at least four other Tube stations.

The Mayor has indicated that the two Edgware Road stations could also be renamed to end the confusion between them, with the Circle, District and Hammersmith & City line stop changing to Chapel Street and the Bakerloo Line stop becoming Church Street Market. Apparently there is also pressure to rename Aldgate East, the Tube station I spent so much time travelling to and from when I was at university, as 'Brick Lane'. Livingstone has said that he is prepared to look at these suggestions.

So what other changes could be made locally? If West Ham FC finally bugger off to the former Parcelforce site next to West Ham Station (we can but hope), then there is no excuse for not renaming Upton Park as 'Green Street' - not if Brick Lane is a serious proposal. And now that Transport for London has taken over a number of train services under the banner of 'London Overground', Woodgrange Park badly needs renaming (perhaps to 'Romford Road') and Wanstead Park really has to be called 'Wanstead Flats'.

We just have to hope that in 2013, any tube station renaming plans involving 'Stratford Olympia' are fiercely resisted.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Outrage Over A Teddy Bear Called Mohammed

You've got to feel sorry for the British teacher Gillian Gibbons, who has been jailed for 15 days after allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet by allowing her pupils in Sudan to name a teddy bear Muhammed.

Not only is her situation driven by an interpretation of religion that is as twisted as those who believe Harry Potter should be put to death, but Ms Gibbons is also the citizen of a country whose press love a story about the travails of the English abroad, especially when it's a white woman in a Muslim country.

The Sun claims today that "all Britain is outraged by the jailing of this innocent schoolteacher" and speaks of the demonstrations in Sudan in support of the prosecution as "scenes of savagery yesterday [that] sent chills down our spines." It's little wonder that the British government, long a hostage to the tabloids, seems to have expended more energy on Gillian Gibbons than it has on real scenes of savagery, the genocide of 200,000 people in Sudan's Darfur region. Or in helping others trapped in unfair legal proceedings overseas.

Some questions have been rattling around my head over the last couple of days:

Isn't Ms Gibbon's detention less about religion and more about politics, an attempt by the Sudanese government to threaten and discredit international aid workers from countries pressurising it over Darfur? Wasn't it the children that named the teddy bear, not the teacher? Are we to hear that they too have been locked up - or could this be an excuse for the government in Khartoum to close the British international school that allows Muslims and non-Muslims to be educated together?

Moreover, what 'mistake' has Ms Gibbons actually made? As there was no intention to use the toy as a representation of the Prophet, how can naming it Mohammed be idolatrous if there is no idol worship? And if there was no intention to used the toy to cause deliberate offence, how can it be an insult? For years, the Islamic Society in Britain has apparently sold a soft toy made for British Muslim children named Adam the Prayer Bear, named after the prophet Adam. What are they to do now?

Will every British Muslim who looks on this sorry affair with embarrassment now be required to "stand up and be counted" as opponents of extremism, just like after the London bombings and after every story around the world that involves extreme interpretations of Islam?

And will Archbishop Rowan Williams make a statement on 'Jesus Camp' (as he has over the treatment of Gillian Gibbons)? Harry Potter fans everywhere demand to know...

Random Blowe | Original articles licensed under a Creative Commons License.