Some Thoughts on Representing Muslims

I was approached some time ago to make a film about the Senegalese community of Sussex. At least that’s how I read it. I was surprised that there was such a thing, so I thought it’d be both useful publicly and interesting privately.


When I arrived to meet them at an event they’d organised I realised that it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I’d had some inkling that it was religiously-related but that hadn’t quite bloomed into a full scale realisation of what that meant.


As usual with my film making I arrived completely unprepared and with no significant prejudice about who I was to encounter or what I was to witness. Now, I should pause to note that it was not exactly that something dramatic was to happen but rather that I found myself, an atheist, in the midst of a fervent religious celebration with the view to filming it.


Looking around the venue (the first of many ironies – it was a church hall) I realised that I would never have expected these people to be devout Muslims, had I passed them on the street. Some looked straight out of a 1980s hip hop crew – a Tribe Called Quest or suchlike. African men with dreadlocks, baggy colourful clothes and beads around the neck, albeit made of wooden beads.


The day progressed – coffee, chanting, prayer, coffee, poetry, coffee, food, coffee, prayer, chanting, the arrival of an important person, prayer, coffee and so on. It was indeed a wonderful experience. I couldn’t help but finding myself uplifted by it, and drawn to the kindness and hospitality of the subjects of the film: Sengalese Baye Fall, the Mouride Brotherhood, disciples of Ibrahima Fall.

You can see the day in the film here, alongside the interviews that drove it along. The point is that I was left, as an atheist, charged with marking a film about Muslims. Moreover, I had no idea about West African religion. I had a friend as a kid who was a Gambian Muslim but knew little about the faith. On the other hand I’d studied the sociology of religion – and of the Sufi form of Islam practiced here – at university and teach a number of courses in which we critically investigate the representation of Islam in the media. So something to go on.


In one sense the principles by which I make films suffice – the interviewees and subjects should drive the focus. Therefore the account of Islam and the account of the Baye Fall are driven by the subjects, with the strength of all their faith. A Spanish female, an Italian man and a local agnostic join the Senegalese, demonstrating the “ethnic” and cultural openness of the Baye Fall.


It is indeed an interesting experience to mediate claims of angels and miracles as one who believes in neither. How ought such a claim be framed? Part of the answer is given by a subtle nod to what appears to a philosophical rationalist to be an absurd question – the analogy of a belief in one’s parents with a belief in God. Both, it is claimed, are based on faith. Philosophy, it is said, clouds one’s mind and creates doubts. Very good, says the rationalist, but one can touch one’s parents, conduct DNA tests. Science shows the way. But that’s not the point. This is faith. One is left to make up one’s mind about the status of this faith.


It the social significance of this faith and the sense made of it that I hope to have foregrounded. Of course the notion that Islam is intrinsically violent is dealt with at the outset, but any doubt is destroyed by the account given of the campaign for Senegalese independence from the French.


We are told that the founder of the Mouride Brotherhood, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke, led a pacifist struggle against the French. Despite the fact that he commanded a following of tens of thousands he refused to undertake violence against the French. Indeed he retained this position even during appalling treatment by the French.


The significance of the Cheikh is in the faith followers invest in him. His example guides conduct – to be peaceful, kind hardworking and pious.


Of course the issue of gender must be addressed as one of the interviewees explains the role of women. To reflect this adequately was perhaps the most difficult task that was faced. Her account is clear – she states that the women work in the kitchen. Indeed, as the film shows, women did work in the kitchen at the event. However, from when I arrived to the end of the day the men we in the kitchen also, and until around midday it was only men who were in the kitchen. Unfortunately, beside the introduction to the Baye Fall in the kitchen, there is no footage of them working there.


It is on such occasions that one has to make a decision in a context that one has analysed over time. The interviewee’s comments play into a conception of Muslim communities as ones in which gender relations are inferior to those in Christian communities. Yet she did indeed say that and there were women in the kitchen. What she didn’t add was that this was little different in Christian and non-religious communities as well. Neither did she say that (apparently) men seemed quite happy to do their bit.


Given that I had no footage of men working in the kitchen I instead turned to a fair amount of footage of men serving food, and one in which a man is serving drinks to a woman. This in a sense disrupts the account of the role of women but hopefully not in a way that either rejects the account or affirms it. It simply complicates it. And this is the point, these things are complicated.


Perhaps the most interesting interviewee comes toward the end. I interject in an interview with a thought from my interpretation of the work of the German sociologist Max Weber – his account of the Christian Reformation, in which Protestant sects were founded on the principle that believers ought to read the bible themselves rather than listen to a priest. I always found it odd that people believed that an English translation of a book originally written in Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek, compiled three hundred years after the event, before various interpretations resulted in the modern versions to be the words of God. In the very first instance did the mediators really understand God? Might not there be a limit to a linguistic understanding of divinity? This is why Sufis tend to chant and dance, to feel God. And that was the consensus – the rituals are those in which one gets closer to God.


Despite the prejudices of some, we ought not think such people to be unreflective. Indeed the same interviewee remarks on how Islam is interpreted, acculturated and practiced in a variety of forms that reflect their cultural circumstances. Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, Sengal, they all have their different interpretations and cultural transformations. Human understanding is contextual, fallible. We try to understand but do so on the basis that we will never do so fully. The point is to try.


Of course all this belies a sociological and ethical understanding of religion. Of course the faith is believed, and this is essential. Yet the ways in which the spiritual leaders are venerated and in which that veneration leads to a life practice that is aimed ultimately at being a good person is beneficial to all.


And so we return to appearances. Just as with the representation of Islam as violent, so with its association with the Middle East and Asia, the Baye Fall undermine assumptions. As with anything else, appearances do not immediately reflect significance. The dread locks of the Baye Fall remind them that Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke was too busy doing good works to spend time on his appearance. The brightly coloured patchwork clothing reminds them that he was humble enough and simple enough to make his own clothes from bits of material.


The understandings of these practices neither naïve nor unreasonable. Despite the misgivings of some, what we see is intelligent, thoughtful people realising a way of living that makes them good, ethical beings.


To press the point, we have a media in which the mere utterance of “Muslim” instils dread, yet when a British Prime Minister, hundreds of pundits and almost every newspaper editor in the country cheers on the slaughter of a million people with not even a hint of responsibility they are rewarded. When millions of Palestinians are punished for the crimes of German Nazis, it is normalised. When a nation has presided over slavery, bonded labour and the domination of a quarter of the globe, it is celebrated. It is considered honourable to become a member or the British Empire. It is considered patriotic to celebrate the psychopaths who sent millions of people to their deaths over a dispute within an extended royal family between 1914 and 1918.


But to be a Muslim? Unforgivable. I hope I’ve done something that counters this and I hope the film is adequate to the people and the event.


Star Wars: The force awakens, review

So sorry about this, I’m going to ruin Star Wars.

There’s a thing called the Death Star Big or something like that and the rebels blow up, saving everyone.

It is utterly awful.

Instead of Darth Vader being Luke’s Dad, this time Kylo Ren is Han Solo’s son. Instead of Luke killing his Dad, Kylo Ren kills his Dad.

Seriously, it was pretty much as if Abrams hasn’t watched the originals, came up with the same ideas and nobody had the guts to tell him it had already been done.

Oh, and they need to find Luke Skywalker, which they do because a droid who had no ability to know turns on R2D2 to discover he had the missing piece all the time.

It is so utterly devoid of ideas and originality that it is actually a pain to watch. The Big Death Star is pretty much the same as one in Return of the Jedi and they actually have the same scene where they discover its “weak spot” (which one’d have suspected the bad guys would have realised by now) and organise the attack, complete with pretty much the same characters but with slightly different names and slightly different looks.

Harrison Ford spends most of the film looking confused and clearly had a clause in his contract that said something like, limited running and no Harrison Ford jumps-away-from-explosion scenes, lest he break his hip. Carrie Fisher just looks pissed that this is the first significant role she’s had for 30 years. Mark Hamil, bless him, really acts for the two minutes that he’s in the film, making the world realise that after Star Wars he was destined for greater things than Wing Commander.

There’s an attempt to introduce some progressive gender politics, which largely consists in making the only significant black character look stupid.

I did think in JJ Abrams’s Fringe was a fairly interesting project undermined by awful scriptwriting, but gave him the benefit of the doubt. It’s no better here.

I also read a meme shortly before watching Star Wars about how he ruined Star Trek, but as I have no interest in the latter, I paid no attention. It was right.

There are loads of plot holes and other awfulness, but I really don’t think the film warrants any further discussion.


corruption · elections · Politics

A Christmas Message: In defence of conservatism (and Christianity).

A news headline today read “Cameron calls Britain a Christian country”. My skin crawled. My heart bleeds for Christians, as it bleeds for conservatives.

I feel as desperately sorry for actual conservatives as I do for actual Christians as opposed to their deformations. I’m used to hearing that X isn’t socialist because X strayed from the path. Stalin ruined Soviet Communism, Hardy sold out British Labourism, and so on. I often hear friends and commentators explain how ISIS isn’t Islamic or how the religion of peace is exploited by fanatics, thus subverting its “real” nature for evil ends.

It says something very significant, however, that such logic is not extended to Christianity or conservatism. Catholic paedophile networks somehow reflect the core of Christianity. Moronic U.S tele-evangelists encouraging people to bomb abortion clinics whilst cheer-leading the bombing of children in Afghanistan seem to encapsulate the reality of Christianity.

I understand the pain that a conservative must feel on being aligned with the likes of George Osbourne, David Cameron, George W Bush, Rush Limbaugh, Berlusconi, Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly, as much as the feeling of the Muslim associated with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It must be the same sort of feeling as socialists feel when Tony Blair, Hitler (when “national” is spoken more quietly than “socialist”) or Pol Pot are aligned with them.

Indeed, despite my public identity as “a dangerous anarcho-syndicalist” as a former Vice Chancellor once called me, I have much sympathy for and indeed am somewhat convinced by conservatism proper. And here it is perhaps necessary to speak of some sense of “real” conservatism as we speak of “real” socialism or “real” Islam.

It is sad that what passes for political conservatism tends to revolve around principles of the family, “enterprise”, sexuality, war and the like. This is wrong. There are no conservative principles beyond principles of epistemological (theory of knowledge) appropriateness. There are absolutely no absolutes about the family or sexuality. Conservatives ought not care about the particular configuration of family or sexual relations beyond their adequacy for a particular society at a particular time.

Perhaps some unpacking needs to be done here.


Understanding Conservatism

I can think of few better starting point for understanding conservatism than the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume effectively reacted to the German thinker Immanuel Kant’s rationalist philosophy in which he alienated our thoughts from our contextualised minds, abstracting understanding from the traditions and cultures we inhabit. As with previous British philosophers Hume was interested in sense-data, empiricism, as the foundation of knowledge. We know things not because of special functions in our brains, nor because of divide ordination. We know things because we experience them through our senses. Then, the next time we experience something, our understanding is confirmed, then re-confirmed each time we experience it. This is the fundamental basis of conservatism. Experience is the basis of knowledge. Reality is not a product of reasoning, but of experience.

In contrast, the rationalist liberal, as Michael Oakeshotte put it, has no ‘power of accepting the mysteries and uncertainties of experience without any irritable search for order and distinctness’. The rationalist ‘has no aptitude for that close and detailed appreciation of what actually presents itself”. The rationalist, according to Oakeshotte is trapped in pleasing self-delusion and a denial of reality. The rationalist ‘strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail. … a deep distrust of time, an impatient hunger for eternity and an irritable nervousness in the face of everything topical and transitory.’

The detailed appreciation of “what actually presents itself” that Oakeshotte commends cannot, however, be understood through the individual mind. To cite Hume directly,

‘Suppose a person, though endowed with the strongest faculties of reason and reflection, to be brought on a sudden into this world; he would, indeed, immediately observe a continual succession of objects, and one event following another; but he would not be able to discover anything farther. He would not, at first, by any reasoning, be able to reach the idea of cause and effect; since the particular powers, by which all natural operations are performed, never appear to the senses; nor is it reasonable to conclude, merely because one event, in one instance, precedes another, that therefore the one is the cause, the other the effect. Their conjunction may be arbitrary and casual. There may be no reason to infer the existence of one from the appearance of the other. And in a word, such a person, without more experience, could never employ his conjecture or reasoning concerning any matter of fact, or be assured of anything beyond what was immediately present to his memory and senses.’

Cause and effect cannot be reasoned

‘Suppose, again, that he has acquired more experience, and has lived so long in the world as to have observed familiar objects or events to be constantly conjoined together; what is the consequence of this experience? He immediately infers the existence of one object from the appearance of the other. Yet he has not, by all his experience, acquired any idea or knowledge of the secret power by which the one object produces the other; nor is it by any process of reasoning, he is engaged to draw this inference.’

For Hume, then, the more experience the better. But human beings – even the cleverest – are in the first instance a bit thick, not least because they cannot experience that which they haven’t experienced. But moreover, they cannot accumulate significant experiences beyond their lifetimes – we die too much. Therefore, a fundamental principle of conservatism is that custom and tradition must guide us. As Hume suggests,

‘All inferences from experience, therefore, are effects of custom, not of reasoning. Custom, then, is the great guide of human life. It is that principle alone which renders our experience useful to us, and makes us expect, for the future, a similar train of events with those which have appeared in the past.’

The likes of Edmund Burke, Karl Popper, Michael Oakeshotte, and Fredrick von Hayek developed this kernel of an idea. The political reality they argue is that the individual human mind is frankly a bit crap, and is unable to fully understand the utter complexity of human society, so any attempt to plan is doomed to failure and will probably result in significant repression in the folly of making reality fit an idea. Moreover, rapid change will always be accompanied by unintended consequences – akin to chaos theory, the world is so complex that a well-meaning change here may result in the opposite of that which is intended there.

This is why Popper talks of “piecemeal” change. This is why Oakeshotte writes, “To patch up, to repair [the rationalist] regards as waste of time: and he always prefers the invention of a new device to making use of a current and well-tried expedient”.

So there are two elements of conservatism here. First, that it is not opposed to change as such, but rather that any change ought to be guided by custom and tradition and take place slowly so as to adjust to any unintended consequences.

The other element is that of the purpose of tradition. Tradition is not supposed to prevent change, but rather to guide our understanding of it. Consider, for example, Edmund Burke’s reflections on the destructive orientation of the French Revolution

‘The science of government being therefore so practical in itself and intended for such practical purposes- a matter which requires experience, and even more experience than any person can gain in his whole life, however sagacious and observing he may be- it is with infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes.’

It is this last point that is crucial here. The individual mind can neither understand nor plan adequately. The accumulation of experience in tradition enables us to see further than the eye, to think further than the present. Yet tradition is of course intangible, difficult to grasp without institutionalisation. Think, perhaps, of the value of a library. It is a store of experience and knowledge that goes beyond our individual capabilities.

However, the institutionalisation of tradition is not an end in itself. It has no purpose outside its social function. The key question to ask of a tradition is, has it “answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society”? If not, then it ought to change. If so, then we keep it as is (of course I don’t share Burke’s notion of what counts as “society” here). The notion that a particular family form ought to be imposed and be unchanging is absurd within conservative thought – a nuclear family would be disastrous in a tribal society. As social forms change, whether from changing working patterns, environmental conditions or housing patterns, so too does the appropriate family form. If single parenthood or communal parenting serves the “common purposes of society” to any tolerable degree, then the conservative will admit its virtue.


A Few Examples of Conservatism

It is thus that we can distinguish a conservative from usurper. To take an obvious example, the NHS. It is doubtless that it has indeed served the common purposes of society to a tolerable degree. Flawed, no doubt Oakeshotte would suggest it ripe for patch up and repair. Tradition guides us in understanding its social utility. Institutionalised history helps us understand our experiences prior to it. Of course Cameron’s devious attempts at privatisation are intended to serve no social purpose but to enrich his friends.

Despite the fact that idiots referred to them as “neo-conservatives” the devilish cabal who sought regime change in Iraq and around the Middle East and North Africa were anything but. Indeed, some of the most powerful arguments against invasion came from conservatives. It was clear to conservatives that the level of unpredictability resulting from intention would be dangerous. The unintended consequences of invasion may not have been clear to see but that there would be unintended and uncontrollable consequences was obvious to any conservative.

The rapidity with which financialisation is destroying traditional communities everywhere from Chiapas to Sunderland ought to be as obvious to conservatives as it was to Marx when he wrote: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” Institutions, traditions, customs and practices that not only gave meaning but provided the guide for social action have to degrees been obliterated by capital.

It is perhaps the most distressing aspect of the fake, co-opted, corrupted “conservatism” that for some reason the desire to breathe clean air, drink clean water, grow food or not wade around in floods is juxtaposed to conservatism. To conserve an environment that has to a tolerable degree served society is anathema to the usurpers of conservatism. The unintended consequences of brutal industrial overproduction of more or less useless and socially disadvantageous goods are no less than the inability to sustain life itself. Ought conservatives not be concerned that such rapid and unchecked change is promoted by those who stole their political parties and ideology? ‘That which presents itself’ environmentally cannot be empirically denied, yet usurpers and those who have come under their hateful spell continue to deny it – an absolute inversion of proper conservative epistemology that exposes its corruption by vested interests.

It is true that the theft and corruption of conservatism was in part a result of the social basis from which it arose – it was appealing to privileged classes in Britain to subscribe to an ideology that appeared designed to protect their interests. The wealthy huddled around the lifeboat of conservatism, eventually diverting it to their selfish ends.

That conservatism grew up in large part as a philosophical response to “European” or “continental” rationalism is explicable in part because of different material experiences – largely because in Britain the rise of industrial society and the rationalist individualism that arose as its ideological counterpart was not accompanied by a fracture in class rule. The British aristocrats were smart and merged with the new industrialists and capitalists. This ability to absorb opposition is what makes the British ruling class so successful. Heads need not roll here, but contradictions abound.

As new traditions and customs arose from the working classes, and became institutionalised in their own right, so conservatism’s apparent monopoly on custom and culture weakened. There was another choice. But this other choice was one that would challenge the privilege of a few and their corruption of political institutions. So on one hand Labourism was pragmatically coopted by the establishment, but fearful capital lined up behind the party whose interests it could promote.

And so we arrive at today. The theft of conservatism, its corruption and subversion is complete. There’s hardly a conservative in any “conservative” government in the world. “Conservative” has become a byword for hatred, greed, avarice, corruption, selfishness and everything so unchristian. How dare Cameron speak of Christianity! The pursuit of social harmony, virtue and common purpose has been abandoned by “conservatives” parties around the world, which are now moved only by oil companies, financiers, bankers, investors, carpet baggers, criminals and gangsters (I haven’t got time here, but it’s simple enough to look at party donations, appointments and the theft of public property in backroom deals).

I feel so, so sorry for them.

Activism · Anarchism · bankers · budget · cameron · corruption · crisis · cuts · democracy · economic crisis · economy · Media

How to Grow a Documentary

We present a new version of the teaser for our documentary film Money Puzzles.

There is no fixed definition of what a teaser is. In advertising it might be a cryptic ad that anticipates a full-blown campaign. Movie teasers are like trailers (so called because they were originally shown after the feature in the cinema) but nowadays they are sometimes produced before the film is finished, even well in advance, and typically intended to target a known fan base through the internet.   In our case, the teaser has a triple function. First, of course, to publicise the project and direct attention to our crowdfunding campaign. Second, to be screened as a trigger for discussion around the issues, which contributes greatly to our thinking. The first time we did this was back in March at a seminar at Goldsmiths on changing the terms of debate on the economy. The second was in Greece in July, at ‘Democracy Rising’, a timely conference–which we also filmed–organised by the GCAS, but that was a new version, expanded to 15mns. We shall be screening the latest version at a seminar on ‘The Language of Money and Debt’, at Roehampton on 7 September. (It now runs 17mns and is probably the last version we’ll make, since any longer and it will no longer work as a trigger.) Each time we do this also helps to expand the network of interests that the film is intended to address and on which it draws for its arguments.

This gives a clue to the third function, that of a work in progress, an evolving map of the direction the film is taking. In this sense we’re learning as we make the film, and this learning is embedded into the film-making process, with the evolving teaser drawing in the audiences we engage. A possibility created by the flexibility of digital video, this, we think, is what political documentary should always be like, bringing forward new information and new ideas, while drawing on living experience.

This work in progress forms the foundation of Money Puzzles. As we learn more and film more, new chapters will emerge (including the two we’ve already released, Greece on the Edge? and Greece, Europe, Undemocracy). But there’s another structuring element affecting the production process. It is not without irony that a film about money is constrained by lack of it: the subject of the film is necessary for making it. It is in this sense that money has a structuring effect. Choosing to make the film without a production company or one main financial backer entwines us in a set of relations in which each part of the film is made under differing financial circumstances with differing sources of support, and sometimes with none. The film’s mode of production is thus affected by both our dialogical intent and by the necessary structuring constraints of money.

As the film evolves, our investigation into money and debt takes in the the fight against austerity at home and abroad. We are shortly filming in Argentina, to see what happens when a country defaults, and then going to Spain to film debt activists in the run up to the elections, but our plans are constrained by our financial limits. You can help us by contributing to our crowd funder. As the slogan puts it, every little helps: why not match the £3 you paid to become a Labour Party supporter? You can also become part of the dialogue by following us on Twitter (@moneypuzzlesdoc) and Facebook. And we also invite you to get in touch if you’d like to arrange a screening of any of our work in progress.

M.C. & L.S.