Saturday, February 14, 2015


If I am recruiting stock control assistants at my cherry pie factory (which, for the avoidance of doubt, I am not) and let it be known that, all other things being equal, I intend to give the job to the tallest applicant, then I am being sexist. Because most men are taller than most women.

Yes, I know that height is not a gender. And I know that you get tall women and short men. And I am sure that you can think of some particular circumstance where only employing tall people makes sense. Fact remains: if I say "I prefer to employ tall people" I am in effect saying "I prefer to employ men". Even though height is not a gender.

I am quite sure that every Mosque in England has a couple of white converts that it can bring out on special occasions. But it so happens that 90% of British Muslims are of Asian or African heritage. Most English Catholic churches are disproportionately full of people whose grandparents came over from the Emerald Isle and Anglican pews are disproportionately occupied by white English bottoms. That's just very much the way these things go. Excellent argument for not having faith schools, but that's not the subject of today's discussion.

If one spots that a particular club is being regularly singled out for criticism where other similar clubs are not, one might say: "Well, it just so happens that nearly all the members of that club have dark coloured skin but I'm sure that's just a crazy irrelevant coincidence."

Or one might say "The reason that club is being singled out is that so many of it's members have dark skins. The people who go on and on about that particular club are, consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally, racists."


On Feb 5 the Hinkley Times ran a news story under the headline Dispute Over Grave Plot After Burial of Gypsy. It was a very sad story out of which no-one came very well. It seems to go like this.

There is a municipal cemetery in Leicestershire. Some people -- the French, for example, and some Americans -- believe that if something is run by the state it has to be non-religious, in the sense of religion being prohibited. But this was a non-religious cemetery in the English sense: anyone of any religion could be buried there, there was a chapel that would do equally well as a church or a synagogue or a humanist meeting hall, and they did their best to accommodate different funeral traditions.

If you have never had to arrange a funeral, you may not know that you have to buy a piece of land in the cemetery to bury your loved-one in. You actually generally purchase a plot that will do for several funerals. This makes it pretty expensive, one reason why cremations are more fashionable nowadays. (In the case of a cremation, you merely rent a flower bed.) This particular cemetery seems to have had the policy of always selling families the next plot that was available: there was no question of segregating it into, say, Jewish and Christian quarters.

A Romany family purchased a large piece of land, as a family plot. The first person buried in it was an elderly gentleman with a large number of children and grandchildren -- and a very large funeral, with an astonishing number of floral tributes. The family wanted this particular plot because it the patriarch could be buried facing his home, which is a gypsy tradition.

However, it transpired that there had already been a burial on the adjacent plot, by a Muslim family. Islamic tradition says that you should be buried facing Mecca, and the cemetery had arranged this. But here comes the problem. Muslim tradition also says that Muslims shouldn't be buried alongside non-Muslims. This isn't a teaching of the Koran, and practice varies, but it was what this particular family wanted. The cemetery did the sensible thing and asked the gypsy family if they would consider selling the plot back to the cemetery and buying a different one, but they said no, dug their heels in, and went ahead with the funeral.

I think we have to read between the lines slightly here, but we can probably understand the Romany family's point of view. The settled community has never been welcoming of travelers: even some of my nicest and least racist friends have been known to remark that if you see how much rubbish gets left behind these damn tinkers etc etc etc. So I imagine that just about the worst thing you could do to a gypsy family a couple of days before a funeral is to try to, er, move them on.

Now it gets really complicated. According to the account printed in the local newspaper, the Romany family were asked, a few days after the funeral, if they would consider an exhumation and reburial. They not unnaturally told the council, and I paraphrase here, to fuck off. And that would seem to be the end of the matter: you can't exhume a body without permission from the next of kin. A little distressing to receive the request in the first place, but no harm done.

However the local council categorically deny that any request for an exhumation was ever made. "An inaccurate, divisive and inflammatory article printed in The Hinckley Times appeared to indicate that Burbage Parish Council has considered the exhumation of a person recently interred at Burbage Cemetery – this is totally untrue and without foundation." 

Which ever version you choose to believe -- and someone is evidently not telling the whole truth -- a mistake has been made. You would think that people in the death business would know about Muslim funeral customs, and would have warned the Muslim family that they had no control over who would be buried next to them. If the cemetery promised to leave a space between the two plots and then didn't, it's the Muslims who have the right to be aggrieved. You could take the whole thing as a lovely metaphor for secularism: how do you fit two contrasting beliefs into one space without doing any favours to either. How much, in a very real sense "space" should you allow? The cemetery proposed the most English solution that it is possible to imagine. They asked if they might put a hedge between the two graves. 

I expect you know what happened next. The original news item didn't major on the Muslim aspect of the story. "Dispute over grave plots after burial of gypsy" is a fairly neutral description, even if, "gypsy" isn't the preferred term. But within a couple of days the national media had got their fangs into it, and it became all about the -- wholly fictional -- exhumation.

Daily Mail: "Gypsy Man's Body Could Be Exhumed Because He Was Buried Next To A Muslim".

Daily Mirror "Grieving Family Asked To Move Grandad's Grave Away From Muslim Buried Nearby Because He is Non-Believer"

And then off into the wilder shores of the internet: "You won't believe what a Muslim family want!" "Tolerant Muslims demand this Grandfather's body be moved" and my favourite "Muslims Can Have Your Body Exhumed Now."

A fairly nuanced story about a dispute between two religious traditions has transformed into one in which the poor Romany victims are going to have to fight "tooth and nail" in the "highest court in the land" to prevent a local council digging up a corpse at the behest of Muslims. The council had already issued a rebuttal: no request for an exhumation had been made. The local paper had withdrawn the story from their website. But this makes now difference: an increasingly fictional version of the story is now all over the national press. The comments attached to some of the online reports are enough to make one feel physically ill: "Enough is enough. Outlaw Islam, Nuke Mecca" "FFS I've had about enough hearing what the Muslims want.....Not their country, so they need to get over it."

What first drew my attention to the story was a comment on Twitter, which put an exceptionally nasty spin on the whole thing: 

Virtually nothing in this iteration of the story is true. It is no longer a request: the grave is quite definitely being dug up. We are not being asked to imagine "they", whoever "they" are coming down on a particular side in a rather messy dispute. We are just being asked to imagine that "they" woke up one morning and said "How can we please Muslims. I know. Let's go and disinter a Catholic." (And it's not to please one particular group of justifiably aggrieved Muslims. It's to please Muslims in general. Who are, as we all know, an undifferentiated blob.) 

Where was this posted? Where else but on the Twitter Feed of the Leader of England's Atheist Community. In case we didn't understand the point, one of his minions stepped up to the crease and explained  "So, even in death, the great leveler, Muslims expect special treatment." (*)

Some people, including the Atheist Community Leader, think that religion means something like "a theory about the origins of life on earth, now disproved". But "feelings about what happens to someone when they die; the ceremonies and rituals you perform around dead bodies" might be a much better starting point. If we were all Rational, I suppose we would leave our dead relative bodies out for the bin men, who would harvest any transplantable organs and dispose of the rest hygienically. I believe that around the turn of the 20th century there was a humanist fad for doing exactly this. But it never caught on. Fewer people want traditional Anglican funeral services, but they have invented replaced them with their own ceremonies: scattering a person's ashes in a place that they loved, or paying a great deal of money to have them shot into space in a rocket. Since, I guess, 1989 the tradition of creating a shrine close to the place where a person died has taken off: every busy road as a sad collection of flowers, cards and teddy bears somewhere near it. And lots of people have magical beliefs and practices that they couldn't, in the cold light of day, justify. The belief that a person should be buried near members of his own community and the belief that a corpse should under no circumstances be disturbed are both equally "religious" beliefs. From the Atheist point of view, worrying about whether dead people are dug up and worrying about who they are buried near are both equally mad. The Atheist Community Leader is a man who purports not to understand why anyone could possibly object to people throwing bacon at synagogues. But he appears to unqualifiedly endorse one set of beliefs (not disturbing dead bodies) while repudiating the other set (burying Muslims near Muslims.)  He doesn't even perceive that this is dispute between religions. He regards it as the arbitrary demand of one community for special treatment.

But that's what happens: even to the most rational and skeptical of us. The superstitions of our tribe are not superstitions, but the neutral, incontestable, rock-bottom values of humanity. Whereas the superstitions of your tribe are arbitrary demands that we shouldn't make any attempt to accommodate.

 "I've had about enough hearing what the Muslims want.....Not their country, so they need to get over it." Not their country. Not their country.

But this is okay and not racist at all. Because Islam is not a race.

(*) I suspect that this is what the whole thing comes down to, actually. In a neutral space like a secular cemetery, Muslim and Christian feelings get the same amount of attention paid to them. But Christians are used to have more attention paid to their feelings. So to white cultural Christians, paying any attention at all to the wishes of Muslims amounts to doing them special favours. The local council are said to have "bent over backwards" to accommodate Muslim feelings, where what they actually seem to have done is tried very hard to come up with a compromise. The expression "bending over backwards to accommodate Muslims" is almost as much of a Common Sense Brigade dog whistle as "Political Correctness Gone Mad."

If you want me to write more of this kind of thing, the best thing you can do is buy one of my books...

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