• European leaders legitimise anti-Muslim sentiment: latest is burqa ban in France

    This is my weekly column published in The National (UAE) today.

    France has gone all burqa-phobic again. As of Monday, it will be illegal in France for anyone to cover their face in public. The ban has been on the horizon for some time, so nothing much new here, but the wider context has intensified.


    The leader of the far-right Front National, Marine le Pen, is campaigning hard against Muslims and immigration, and her popularity is increasing. She has compared crowds of Muslims praying in the streets outside mosques to the Nazi occupation.

    Not to be outdone, the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, this week organised a debate on secularism and the role of religion. His prime minister, François Fillon, refused to attend, saying that it would further stigmatise Muslims. Abderrahmane Dahmane, who was fired from his post as Sarkozy’s adviser on integration for criticising the debate, called on Muslims to wear a green star in protest against the discussion. It is aimed to echo the yellow star that Jews in Europe were forced to wear during the Nazi era.

    With such emotive references on both sides to the Nazi era, it’s clear that France still needs to come to terms with its own history in dealing with minorities.

    Despite arguing that the ban and the debate are in defence of secularism, Sarkozy has had no qualms in simultaneously praising the “Christian heritage” of the country.

    And even though a 1905 law separated church and state, churches and synagogues still receive indirect subsidies from the state. If mosques were included in this it might help put an end to the lack of space in them that forces worshippers to overflow onto the streets.

    It is easy to understand the motivation behind the ill-conceived debate on secularism held this week, as it is the political context for the ban on face veils in public.

    However, this would fail to illuminate the bigger picture. By pandering to the far-right to gain votes, Sarkozy is giving anti-Muslim sentiment legitimacy and a national platform that it does not deserve and that could have long-term and dangerous consequences.


    He is not the only leader guilty of this. Germany’s Angela Merkel was keen to score cheap political points last year when she stated that the “multikulti” project had failed, and pointed her finger at Muslims. Merkel would do well to remember that Germany’s earlier mono-culture project in the 1930s and 1940s did not work out so well.

    Following hot on her heels was the UK’s prime minister, who repeated the same vacuous mantra in February this year at a conference in Munich.

    He told world leaders that state multiculturalism had failed in the UK and pledged to cut funding for Muslim groups that failed to respect basic British values such as freedom of speech and democracy. Strange words from a government that harped on about “stability” when the protesters of Tahrir Square were demonstrating for democracy.

    Europe must be more principled in its approach to dealing with its Muslim populations. Countries such as the UK and France are taking bold actions in Libya to support the movement towards freedom and democracy. At the same time, domestically they wish to suppress Muslim self-expression.

    You can’t have it both ways. Freedom, self-expression and democracy need to be accompanied by one more value to be meaningful: a consistent standard for all.

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  • Selling impossible dreams

    This article was just published in EMEL magazine.

    Yes, it’s true, you too can be perfect. L’Oreal can give you the perfect hair, Oil of Olay can give you perfect skin, and Ralph Lauren can dress you in the coolest clothes.

    You too can be like the perfect models in their adverts. You just need to believe in the dream, and oh yes, cough up a few pennies to buy the products. Thick glossy hair created by L’Oreal products, demonstrated by Cheryl Cole. Smooth wrinkle free skin under your eyes courtesy of Oil of Olay, as seen on model Twiggy, and a hip outfit demo’d on skinny models at Lauren.

    Cole spends up to £200,000 per year to achieve her beauty, of which hair extensions are a regular cost. L’Oreal don’t feel it is misleading for her to promote their products even though their shampoo could never give the look of Cole’s extension-enhanced hair. The Advertising Standards Authority said this level of deception was acceptable because for two out of the thirty seconds of the TV advert, in small writing, it indicates that ‘some’ extensions may have been used. Twiggy’s advert for wrinkle-reducing eye-cream had all her under-eye wrinkles airbrushed out in post production.

    Ralph Lauren's model looks impossibly ridiculous

    Ralph Lauren’s model had been photoshopped so that her head was bigger than her pelvis. When criticism of the adverts was posted online, their lawyers sent round threatening letters to silence the critics. 

    The beauty industry justifies airbrushing because it claims it is selling a dream. But their products are sold based on a deception and incapable of delivering the advertised airbrushed perfection.

    These are con artists – people who set out to sell a product to meet a state that has been manufactured to be unattainable. And con artists have always existed.

    Yet we are deceived today into believing this perfection is attainable through a number of more modern tools. We have a more visual culture now, where images visualise on giant billboards the perfection that our lives ought to be. Of course, those lives are airbrushed and carefully staged, impossible for the products to deliver against. However, because we can now actually see the utopia that the products will turn our lives into, the impossible dream reaches a new dimension – suggesting to the believing innocent eye that the impossible is in fact possible.

    But the bigger problem is this: selling dreams that can never be realised is now sanctioned. Corporations have now established as legitimate ‘right’ to sell impossible-to-achieve dreams.

    The financial sector sold things that were never real, products that were derivatives of products and not real actual things. We were told this was good for us and for our economy. But what was sold was so vapid and intangible that it took but a blink of an eye for it to disappear. No wonder ordinary people with ordinary common sense were left baffled as to where did all the money suddenly go? The boom was built on fluff that never existed and as soon as one part of the manufactured dream was exposed as an ephemera, the whole thing vanished in an instant.

    Political parties are doing the same – they create a brand like “Broken Britain” and then ‘solve’ it with their own branding and puff. The Conservative party will solve Broken Britain with Big Society.  It’s all just so much upper case branding, and so little real product.

    Even extreme religious leaders sell the ‘dream’ of paradise to persuade innocents into killing themselves and others. They say: it’s us or them, and then offer a solution of violence and criminality, where the death of innocent people is airbrushed out of the equation, and utopia is created from an act of violence.

    We’ve institutionalised the legitimacy of selling a dream that can never become reality. In fact, selling dreams has been made to seem to be a good thing because shopping for a dream life is supposedly in the interests of consumers. We’ve been told that what consumers want most is to buy into a dream. No matter the hollow feeling that’s left when failing to achieve perfection from oversold products.

    We’ve been told that the fluff and stuff is important in creating our dream lives. Fluff is not fulfilling. And aspiring to something impossible simply results in heartache.

    Our institutions are condoning selling ephemeral intangible fluff, rather than real things that will make things better in real terms. But it is to producing and selling real things, that can achieve real outcomes, based in reality, that we must return.

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  • UK and US come bottom of child well-being report

    According to a recent report from UNICEF A League Table of Child Poverty in Rich Nations, the UK and the USA are the worst places for children out of 21 developed countries. This is shocking news for countries which are the fifth richest and the richest nation on earth respectively. What is going wrong? Have these countries identified the wrong strategies? Are their priorities focused elsewhere? It seems their gaze is not firmly fixed on social issues and the moral authority of the state, and the moral authority of society as a whole to create a palpable sense of community have withered.

    David Cameron has come out to say that fatherhood needs more emphasis. He is suggesting tax breaks to encourage fathers to get more involved. How does a state force fathers to spend time with their kids? The report threw up some intriguing data. Children from really poor and deprived backgrounds do better when they go to breakfast clubs, get fed breakfast, get away from their families where the stress of the relationships and the behaviours of their parents cause detriment to them. But equally children want to spend time with their parents and crave the solidity of positive social relationships with their family and their peers.

    There is clearly a re-forging of relationships that is required between the ‘adult’ generation and the ‘child’ generation, but there needs to be some work done to recreate the sense of community and solidarity amongst ‘adults’ to share the responsibilities of bringing up a generation. Today, there seems to be no shame in leaving your kids to it, whereas perhaps twenty, thirty or fifty years ago, taking your parental responsibilites was a social norm, and those parents that didn’t had social fingers pointed at that. Perhaps what we need, rather than tax breaks and ASBOs, is for social honour and a sense of moral responsibility to be instilled once again.

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