Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Irish-Americans convert to Islam

Something I missed in my usual email flood:

Abdul-Malik is not a typical Irish Gaelic speaker. He isn't elderly, rosy-cheeked, or particularly fond of wool sweaters -- and his Muslim faith prohibits him from stopping at the pub for a pint of Guinness.

But for the past several weeks, the 32-year-old Homewood man has spent Saturday afternoons inside a classroom on Chicago's Northwest Side, navigating the sometimes confusing grammatical structure of the Irish language....

...Eleven years ago, when Abdul-Malik converted to Islam, he rediscovered his Irish roots and developed an interest in language, particularly how it was used by Irish political groups involved in the lengthy struggle against British rule.

Read the whole piece here.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Society Sleepwalking

A shaven-headed burglar and self-confessed ram raider. An anaemic 14-year-old born to smackheads, praying to a willow called the 'Death Tree'. The gypsy child, destroying a bedroom in front of my eyes, playing out the memory of the beatings and bestiality visited upon him by his father...

They have come to be known as the 'Savage Generation'. Twelve year olds convicted of rape; gangs of 10-year-olds mugging elderly women; a 14-year-old running a school protection racket.

The press speaks of a growing hardcore of children gone wild, responsible for a massive 50 percent increase in violent crime amongst the 10-13 age group. One retiring magistrate has labelled the trend "unbelievable, like something out of a horror film".

I had just spent 10 days inside a privately-run institution. All about me were excluded children: a lost generation. I witnessed a riot, had my ear slashed, and saw the horror of 'settling time', as those traumatised by sexual (and other) abuse fought night-time terror.

That was over a decade ago. A century previously, in Arthur Morrison's A Child of the Jago, set in London's notorious East End, children even carried coshes and would rob adults. Of course, surely that must have changed...

Yet read now, and Britain has the worst-behaved children in Europe, according to a new report from the Institute for Public Policy Research.

What's more, we're a nation of drunks and alcoholics. We have a property market going into overdrive (fuelled by low interest, the influx of East Europeans willing to rent, and a plethora of get-rich-quick TV programmes making us all instant millionaire investors), a high cost of living (London being one of the most expensive cities in the world), a love of petrol, a train service in some cases slower than it was when built, rising asthma and allergy rates, a pensions crisis yet hostility to almost all foreigners, and a plethora of other issues that suggest a population out of touch with the bigger picture. And that picture contains the notions of "community" and "society" in it - things sadly lacking in today's everyday discourse.

From the estates of inner London, where I have witnessed youths kotching and blazing on brown, rocks and skunk; to the leafy 'burbs where I now live, children seem to be raising themselves: groups running around, unsupervised, taking over the streets as everyone else around them jumps into cars. Go the continent, see people - normal people - walking the streets at night; see people dining out together as families; see people getting their kids used to the odd sip of wine at a meal; see young and old, socialising together.

Yet, crazily, we now live in fear of our own kids! Sheesh.

Here, I quote from the BBC report on the IPPR:

"The mental well-being of our adolescents is among the worst in Europe: one in 10 teenage girls has self-harmed. Child obesity is increasing.

Southern European nations with a strong Catholic tradition and a focus on the family do not share the same level of delinquency

Our youngsters are more consumerist in their outlook than the Americans.

Concern about adolescents is not new, but what this research does is put the UK's experience in an international context - and the conclusions are troubling.

The European comparisons, putting our youngsters at or close to the top of every indicator of bad behaviour, suggest the causes are cultural.

Southern European nations with a strong Catholic tradition and a focus on the family do not share the same level of delinquency.

Scandinavian countries with a large welfare state and a strong sense of civic engagement also perform better.

But in the UK, where we have seen big changes in family structures - rising rates of divorce and single parenthood - and where the state traditionally resists intervening in domestic life, young people have been left to their own devices.

"Hanging out with mates" is what teenagers do in the UK."

I have seen that casual violence. The pack mentality. Kids attacking kids. Kids attacking adults. Poor empathy and lack of social skills; a nation raising a generation without raising it itself. The government has responded with ASBOs, Acceptable Behaviour Contracts and other initiatives (most recently, appointing 80 child psychologist positions in the biggest problem areas).

When will parents, and we as a society, learn that if you don't set an example for your children; if you, as the adult in their life, do not spend quality time with them; how will they learn social skills, the ability to integrate and better themselves? You cannot "farm out" your children to others, and expect no consequence. Worse, you cannot farm out your children to themselves, and to the streets, without consequence. Others do not raise their children. We do. Others do not inhabit this world of ours: We Do.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Banning of the Burqa

News just in that the Dutch parliament has passed a law banning the wearing of the burqa (the full-length covering for women, used mainly in Afghanistan) in public.

The Dutch cabinet said burqas - a full body covering that also obscures the face - disturb public order and safety. But Dutch Muslim groups say a ban would make the country's one million Muslims feel victimised and alienated.

This comes hot on the heels of Britain's Jack Straw, MP, calling for Muslim women to remove the niqab (nearly-fulll face covering, leaving just the eyes exposed) when attending his constituency surgery. And follows on from riots in the French banlieux last year, involving youths from many of the North African underclass.

With the debate raging over Muslims and belonging in western societies, the issue looks certain to hot up.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Guilt-free hate?

Before the events of 7/7 ever took place, this movement helped birth London's first homegrown terrorist bomber. One of its senior bodyguards was a known figure in the Liverpool underworld. Meanwhile, his boss had denied the existence of the Holocaust - the massacre of millions of Jews by Hitler in World War Two - as "the Holohoax".

Once vice-chairman of the National Front, that same man had denied rumours of a gay love affair with NF leader Martin Webster and spent time visiting Colonel Gaddafi in the 1980s, as the Libyan president was sending money and arms to the IRA. Of course, before he ever joined the British National Party he'd met his wife (also in the NF), spent time with a bunch of Catholic nuts in the French wilderness (though he himself is said to be a pagan), managed to lose an eye, and became good friends with a former head of the Ku Klux Klan in America.

Now, as the anniversary of the Nazi's Kristallnacht passes, British National Party leader Nick Griffin has been been found not guilty of inciting racial hatred. The charges stemmed from secret filming undertaken by a BBC camera crew in 2004, in which Griffin had called Islam a "wicked, vicious faith" to a crowd of potential BNP voters in a Yorkshire pub. Nick Griffin, though now positioning himself as a "moderniser", is the very same man who cleared the way for me to travel through an international network of extremists, for my book Homeland.

Whether charges should have been brought against Griffin is another matter. The British Chancellor, and future leader of the Labour Party, is now calling for tougher race hate laws. Unite Against Fascism beats its breast, but has little actual influence on the white, working class estates where the BNP rises, unlike Searchlight; meanwhile Griffin sees himself as a resistance fighter of sorts; and on the fringes of London, where both Islamic and far-right identities have been rising, people are living geographically closer - but ideologically, culturally and politically - further apart than ever.

The irony, if there is one, is that the parties with the most "fundamental" ideologies are rising, in part, thanks to an "old Labour" approach to social welfare. With the breakdown of traditional communities gathering apace; with the rise of these "new tribes" offering black and white, fundamentalist identity in the vacuum left behind; what chance now for the moderates of our land to regain the landscape?

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sad memorial to Sherlock Holmes

The Times of London reports this week that the house of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, the slightly batty creator of Sherlock Holmes, remains sadly abandoned to vagrants and the elements.

"THE curse of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has struck again. For years the house that he built in 1896 and where he wrote his classics The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Return of Sherlock Holmes was a small hotel where fans flocked from as far afield as China and America.

"But now, two years after the building was bought by a developer, the building is being allowed to fall into rack and ruin.

"A fortnight ago, on a chance visit to Undershaw, in Hindhead, Surrey, a leading expert on Doyle was shocked to discover its heraldic windows smashed, rainwater cascading through three storeys and the front door left open. Vagrants had left behind beer cans, cigarette packets and their makeshift sleeping arrangements."

Heritage campaigners, including the Victorian Society, are appealing for a benefactor to come forward, as well as trying to have its listing elevated from Grade II to I.

Kathryn Ferry, a senior architectural adviser to the Victorian Society, said of the property: “As a monument of one of our greatest literary figures, it is extremely important.”

A sad reminder of a great man reduced to a rather inglorious ending. Towards the end of his life Conan Doyle became an ardent spiritualist. After "passing to spirit" (as his spiritualist friends liked to call it) of a heart attack in 1930, a chair was left empty for his return. Unfortunately, he failed to put in a physical appearance, though of course some of the mediums claimed to have communicated with him (and still do).

Maybe old Holmes was a bit of an addict himself; and it sounds as though his creator's house may be used by the same. Still, it seems a shame, and sign of the times, when the memory one of our best-known and lovably eccentric writers can fall so quickly into sorry ruin.