Monday, January 08, 2007

it's a curse

What is, you ask. Well, I'll tell you: the ability to see both sides of an argument. The less charitable critic would say: the inability to decide what you really think. Actually, that's not true, in each of the examples I'm about to give I know exactly what I think, but I can understand others holding other points of view.

Example #1: the execution of Saddam Hussein. Just to start with a nice uncontentious one. Here's what I think about capital punishment: it's wrong. No ifs, no buts, no exceptions. And that means that it's as wrong to judicially execute Saddam Hussein, a man undoubtedly responsible for the 140+ killings back in 1982 that he was convicted of as well as countless others before and after that they couldn't (or didn't need to for sentencing purposes) pin on him, as it would be to execute, say, that little girl in the pink cardigan who sang There's No-One Quite Like Grandma. Not only that, but a more sensitive occupying power would have also recognised the symbolic power of executing him on the holy day of Eid and maybe held off for a week or so, and would have been a bit more careful about allowing people to just wander in carrying mobile telephones and video the whole thing for the benefit of YouTube viewers. I'm not going to post a link here, in case you're wondering. You can go and find it yourself easily enough, but you might want to ask yourself why you're doing it.

However.....the whole point of the US occupation of Iraq is to move towards a situation where the Iraqis have control over their own affairs, by virtue of having a democratically elected government. One of the first steps towards doing this was to have the Iraqis handle the execution. Plenty of other countries in whose affairs we not only don't see fit to intervene, but have positively chummy relationships with, carry out capital punishment, for example Japan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China, the last two as the tip of a whole scary iceberg of human rights abuses to which the western world chooses to turn a blind eye, for various reasons. And, of course, the good old U.S. of A. Just for information, the most execution-happy states in the USA are Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Missouri and Florida, with Texas alone accounting for over a third of the judicial killings carried out in the country since 1976. So watch your step.

So what's the answer? A hands-off "well, it's their country now"? Let's not forget that a constitutional democracy in the Middle East would be pretty unique, with the arguable exception of Israel, which of course qualifies in many people's eyes as as much of a do-gooders' experimental state as the new Iraq. Or further heavy-handed interventionism, which many would argue is how we got into the sorry state we're in in the first place. And if we get all "ethical foreign policy", to quote the late Robin Cook, about it, don't we then have to have a quiet word with the other countries mentioned above? Tricky, huh?

Example #2: If I understand this story correctly, the Exeter University Evangelical Christian Union has been suspended from the societies' guild for requiring that members sign a "statement of religious belief". Well.....obviously you don't want the Real Ale Society putting up a banner saying "No Jews", but surely there are certain entry restrictions which are implicit in the name of the organisation, and there's therefore no harm in codifying them a bit more explicitly? I mean, would the membership of the Cliff Richard Appreciation Society be affected if the members were required to sign a declaration that they really liked Cliff Richard? No. It'd be the same blue-rinsed brigade, smelling of mothballs and piss, as it would have been before.
Ditto the Ku Klux Klan if they'd put the "No Blacks" thing in writing. They weren't exactly queueing up to join, you know. And you have to ask: who in their right mind would choose to try and join the Evangelical Christian Union if they didn't have "religious beliefs"? Why would you do that? Trying to smash the system from within perhaps - in which case, lie. As long as you're right then there's no danger of going to hell anyway.

On the other hand if you're making the rules it's a bit more tricky; your first stab might go: no restrictions on membership of University societies. Your second stab might go: no restrictions on membership of University societies, except where these restrictions are deemed to be implicit in the name or stated purpose of the society. Your third stab might add: oh, but no societies whose name or stated purpose contravenes the law of the land, i.e the Lady-Skinning Serial Killers' Book Group will have to go.

Example #3: Once upon a time there was a Pakistani cricketer called Yousuf Youhana. Now Yousuf Youhana was a stylish and attractive middle-order batsman with a healthy mid-40's average in Test cricket, but a bit of a reputation for being flaky and inconsistent when the going got tough, giving his wicket away at inadvisable moments, etc. He was also unusual in being a Christian in a team of almost exclusively Muslim players.

Towards the end of 2005 Yousuf Youhana publicly converted to Islam (although he had apparently privately embraced the change of religion some time previously) and adopted the new name Mohammad Yousuf. Almost immediately he started scoring runs like they were going out of fashion, specifically: pre-conversion, 4272 runs at 47.46 - highly impressive; post-conversion: 2130 runs at 92.61 - phenomenal. In the course of this he broke Viv Richards' 30-year old record for the most Test runs in a calendar year (1710, set way back in 1976) with 1788. Oh, and he grew a beard (see picture).

Now much has been made, not least by the man himself, of the role his new-found faith has had in all this, specifically that he has a single-mindedness and dedication that he didn't have before, as well as a new target to dedicate his achievements to (he prostrates himself towards Mecca on the pitch every time he scores a century).

So what is an atheist to make of all this? Clearly any rivalry or switching between religions is a discussion on the same level as "my imaginary friend's better than yours", but wouldn't it be a bit churlish to dismiss the new-found inner peace and serenity and all that sort of stuff? And from a cricketing perspective it's clearly had a startling effect; would I really be objecting if someone as mentally flaky as, say, Steve Harmison suddenly embraced the teachings of the prophet, grew an Abe Lincoln-style beard and started bowling somewhere in or near the neighbourhood of the stumps as opposed to firing the ball straight to second slip? Maybe not. But I think my happiness at that turn of events (motivated by my desire to see the England cricket team do well) shouldn't be confused with my desire for people to think straight. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said: "The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one."

My personal view is that the religion thing is less relevant than people have suggested; it's just a case of a good batsman having a great year. And if one wanted to be churlish one could point out that not a single one of those 1788 runs was scored against the world's best Test team, Australia.


The Black Rabbit said...

Very interesting mate.
3 examples dealing in varying ways and levels with a pet subject of yours - religion, and how you see both sides of arguments.

regarding Saddam - I honestly don't particularly care, terrible though that sounds. The whole thing is such a sorry mess, that I'm not in any way surprised that the execution was also conducted that way - and I feel that the good ol' U.S. of A, even though they said they would have handled it differently, probably wouldn't have handled it any better.

Regarding your cricketer - you were absolutely correct when you suggested that it might be somewhat churlish to dismiss his "new found inner peace and serenity and all that stuff".
I take it you didn't dismiss that, because effectively it seems to me to be a classic example of "Horses for courses", bate.
Now whilst it wouldn't work for you, (or me for that matter), ie adopting or changing a religion to achieve this 'state of mind', it quite possibly has for him.
That's really all that matters isn't it? (Not "thinking straight" to quote you, or Mr.Bernard Shaw, who presumably forgot that alcohol is a depressant when he came out with that wonderful quote).

I certainly do agree with you, that the religion (or 'process') has been made too relevant, by him and everyone else, and he may just be "having a good year".

I dunno...
Whatever works for him I guess?

electrichalibut said...


I'm certainly not dismissing the inner peace and serenity. The only slight problem with the "well, as long as he's happy" argument is: it might make someone ecstatically happy to believe that they are Napoleon, and as long as they're not hurting anyone in the course of this belief, then it could be argued that that's OK, and maybe it is. None of that changes the fundamental truth that they're actually not Napoleon, though, and that their belief is a delusion.

But hey - am I losing a large amount of sleep over it? Not realzzzzzzzzzzz.......