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#HangAyazNizami is what comes of caving in to clerical rule

This article can also be read at Asia Times

What do you suppose is the correct response to angry religious people seeking to avenge injury visited on them by words (and sometimes cartoons)?

The Christian faith has its injunction to non-violence: “Unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.” Jesus’ advice is variously interpreted as a call for meek submission or provocative defiance – which means that, like a great deal of what is found in religious texts, it can be used to support any number of courses of action, or non-action. There’s also the old “eye for an eye” passage, of course.

For its part, the secular West has tended to react to violence occasioned by members of its Muslim minority populations with a distinctly accommodating passivity. No, we will not re-publish drawings that are deemed offensive, even if by doing so we enlighten our readers. Yes, we will tread very carefully in what we say with regard to Islam and its prophet. And yes, we will continue to agree that it is “the religion of peace.” The brandishing of cheeks seems an altogether reckless business.

Last week, Canada passed a motion to criminalize Islamophobia. Critics say it reframes blasphemy as hate speech and enshrines the kind of clerical oversight of public discourse that prevails in the 57 member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation – a pact that has long campaigned against the “defamation of religion” in non-Muslim countries. (Several of those states, incidentally, uphold a mandatory death sentence for blasphemers and apostates.)

What, though, if an erosion of the commitment to free speech in the West actually made life worse for Muslim, or erstwhile Muslim, critics of Islam? That’s certainly the view taken by the activist and commentator Maryam Namazie, who – as an Iranian-born secularist – belongs to a minority within a minority in her adopted UK. In her newsletter for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain this week, she wrote that: “The normalization of de jure or de facto blasphemy laws and accusations of Islamophobia when religion is criticized have created a climate where Islamic states feel free to persecute freethinkers with impunity … It’s crucial that we defend blasphemers and apostates unequivocally and ensure that freedom of conscience and expression are upheld for all – believers and nonbelievers alike.”

She was, in fact, referring to the case of Ayaz Nizami, a Pakistani scholar of Islam and blogger who happens to have renounced religion and is now suffering for it: on March 24 he was arrested and charged with blasphemy. In a country that is a signatory to all manner of bons mots about human rights and freedom of conscience, but where some 30,000 gathered last year to mourn the murderer of a governor who had called for the pardoning of a Christian woman sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad, he also now faces the death penalty.

Nizami’s plight has, ironically enough, been brought to global attention partly on account of a trending Twitter hashtag (#HangAyazNizami) about him. Ironic why? Because the Pakistani government earlier in March requested that Twitter and Facebook assist it in identifying and weeding out those suspected of blasphemy online. Twitter’s rules, meanwhile, state that users “may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm toward others …” Accounts have, in the past, been suspended over remarks considered Islamophobic; as yet, however, no Pakistanis have been banned for tweeting their encouragement to Nizami’s jailers.

The Pakistani government’s entreaties to American social media companies are just one strand of its recent assault on atheism. Since the turn of the year, it has arrested or abducted, and tortured, multiple writers and activists and called for citizens to become informants on the “enemies of Islam.”

It has curtailed freedom of speech and expression offline and on, and – at a time when the country’s elites are worried about Pakistan’s image abroad and reputation as a sponsor of jihad – it has worked itself into a froth against “liberal secular extremism,” branding atheists as terrorists.

In most functioning countries, the right to religion generally comes, as Namazie puts it, with “a corresponding right to be free from religion.” When confronted by it, one is free to turn the other cheek, or worse. Perhaps it’s time we showed those trying to win that freedom in the Muslim world a little more respect. Without more of them, there’s going to be a lot more avenging of injury.


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The messiah friend of President Duterte

This article can also be read at Asia Times

Their Sunday service has just ended and I’m trying to talk to some of the worshippers making their way out of the Southorn Stadium in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai district. Sonny, a middle-aged man who calls himself a Preaching Club Member and wants to know my purpose, seems keen on stopping me. As it happens, he has quite a lot to say for himself – both about the church to which he belongs (‘The Kingdom of Jesus Christ, The Name Above All Names’), and about the prospects for my own salvation (basically, unless I become a “Kingdom citizen”, they’re not good, I think).

Sonny has known the sect’s leader, Pastor Apollo Quiboloy, for many years, he says. Pastor Quiboloy claims to be the ‘Appointed Son of God’ and has amassed considerable wealth and power in the Philippines in recent decades. So what kind of man is he, I ask. “He is just an ordinary guy, but there is something special from within,” Sonny insists. “Many, many people love the pastor. He is the one who encouraged our good president (Rodrigo Duterte) now to stand up and make the Philippines better.”

Earlier, video of a sermon given in Davao City by Pastor Quiboloy (who claims to have dreamt 17 years ago that Duterte, his long-time friend, would one day be president) had been relayed live on two large screens. As he waxed on about how it has pleased God to make him wealthy – when he had nothing in life, he shouldered that burden with equal grace – I couldn’t help but notice that many of the women around me seemed more concerned with browsing Facebook on their smartphones.

Admittedly, it’s an entirely different story when the music gets up. At the Kingdom’s Southorn services, a full choir and half an orchestra, perched in front of a giant print of two golden staircases ascending into the clouds, occupy one end of the basketball hall. The congregation, around 1,000-strong and composed largely of Filipina domestic helpers immaculately attired in pristine white dresses, can’t seem to get enough of the hymns – jaunty gospel numbers laden with endless euphoric key changes.

It would be tempting to describe the effect as Stepford-ish. In truth, there is something rather touching about the sense of personal and collective pride on display. And even if it’s hard to fathom the appeal of their curiously un-spellbinding figurehead, there’s no obvious sense of anyone having been actively coerced into attendance. Annabel Arroyo, a woman in her mid-30s from Mindanao who has been attending for four years but only submitted to being baptized last December, tells me: “The church is our community. I came because I had friends who came and they talked to me about it.”

Pastor Quiboloy’s ministry is, nevertheless, by most definitions, a cult. And like most cults, its unsavory facets – more of which at length – do not lurk far beneath the surface.

In Hong Kong, The Kingdom of Jesus Christ is listed, along with a legion of similar-sounding Christian churches, on the Inland Revenue department’s register of Tax-Exempt Charities, although it does not have a permit from the Social Welfare department to collect money in public. Nor indeed do either of two philanthropic concerns – The Children’s Joy Foundation and the Sonshine Philippines Movement – related to the church. Women claiming to collect for these programs are a common sight on the streets of Hong Kong Island’s busiest nightlife districts, but the church denies any knowledge of their activities and when approached by the Asia Times they were evasive about any links to Quiboloy’s sect. Rumors abound that they are “on the make”.

Quiboloy set up The Children’s Joy Foundation, its website states, in 1998, “to help feed, clothe, and send to school” destitute children. Meanwhile, donations to the Sonshine Philippines Movement are directed towards “the complete restoration of man and his environment” – and there are details online of its reforestation programs and rebuilding work in communities devastated by typhoons. What’s clear is that these endeavors are no mere ruse. “The pastor has helped many poor people,” says Rose, a member of the church for 18 years who says Quiboloy put her through school in Davao. “He paid for everything – because he is a very good person.”

Where his benevolence ends and his personal wealth begins is not so apparent. Suffice to say that, having risen from poverty, being the messiah has made Quiboloy a very rich man – besides occupying a large estate in the foothills of Mount Avo, near Davao City, he was able to lend Duterte his private jet and helicopter during the former Davao mayor’s recent, successful bid for national office.

As Quiboloy tells it, God came to his mother in the form of a cloud after he was born, declaring “That’s my son.” He left the United Pentecostal Church to start preaching his own gospel in 1985 and now claims to command the allegiance of four million tithed followers (meaning they give the church a tenth of their income) in the Philippines and two million more overseas, in addition to reaching 600 million viewers worldwide through his TV station.

In a rare interview with a mainstream media outlet, he told ABC News, in 2010, that every member of his Kingdom shares in his wealth and is welcome to stay at his mansion. In explaining, however, that the Almighty had revealed to him in 1983 that he wanted Quiboloy to own a jet, he also made it clear that each of us ought to accept what is apportioned to us. “If it is not God’s will for me to have these things I have, you can take it away,” he told his interviewer. “It is God’s will that we follow… If he wanted me to live like a rat, if he wanted me to live in wealth or in poverty, it does not matter to me. Put me there and I’ll be happy as long as it’s God’s will.

My own attempts to score an interview with Quiboloy were met with friendly suspicion then ultimately rebuffed after I complied with a request to submit a list of questions to his office. I’d wanted to sit in a room with someone who describes his state of spiritual perfection as being similar to that of Adam before the Fall and who has convinced several million self-identifying Christians that he is justified in putting himself on an even footing with Jesus Christ. I’d wanted to ask him about his conversations with God – and about allegations against him of brainwashing and of holding a young woman against her will.

I’d wanted to ask, too, about stories linking him to intimidation and land grabs against indigenous peoples in Mindanao – including an episode that resulted in the death of the Bagobo K’lata tribal leader Dominador Diarog, who was gunned down in 2008 shortly after refusing to sell Quiboloy two hectares of land near the so-called Garden of Eden Restored on the Pastor’s grounds. At the time, Quiboloy was able to call on Duterte – himself widely suspected of overseeing extrajudicial killings during his tenure in Davao – to dismiss rumors of his involvement.

In the end, I have to make do with watching him preach on a big screen. Quiboloy made one of his semi-regular appearances at the Southorn in June, but on my visit his presence was virtual. He’s fatiguing to listen to – by turns straw man-denouncing demagogue, late-era Elvis impersonator and used-car salesman – and I’m unable to discern the “something special from within” that Sonny alludes to. Maybe it’s simply stamina, or conviction. “No other pastors or preachers have the knowledge that he has,” says Rose. “He teaches us to work hard and make money for the Father’s glory and to pay for the ministry and its work.”

As I look around the hall, I get the sense I’m witnessing a show of strength that thrives on vulnerability. Maybe that’s how all religion works. Maybe not. Maybe I’m just too cynical. I can’t help but suspect, however, that the greater cynic is Pastor Quiboloy himself.


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It’s always rush hour in Hong Kong

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

I don’t expect it’s a hugely controversial observation for a foreigner to make that for all their many virtues Hongkongers are possessed of a certain impatience. People here seem to be in a constant hurry: to get out of the lift, to get on the train, to put in more hours at work, to make sure their lunch doesn’t run off its plate. Everything is time lost or gained; results must be instant. There’s a problem? Sack the helper. Send in a tutor. Fire off a dozen instant messages.

The other day, out on my rounds, I took a phone call from an unrecognised number – something I’m usually careful not to do because nine times out of ten when I pick up I’m met with a snatch of music, followed by a couple of rings and then someone saying “wai?” (Which puts me in a distemper, because whoever is on the end of the line made the call, not me). But no – this time it was a member of our much-loved public relations community phoning me about a story. Had I received her email? Possibly… When had it been sent? Just now. Awkward pause. What did it say? Oh, maybe you need to read it and reply to me. Yes, OK. I checked: it asked me if I could acknowledge receipt of an attached document. Dutifully, I did.

Perhaps I do Hong Kong a disservice by imagining things are different elsewhere. Certainly, the proliferation of channels of instantaneous communication, all jammed into your smartphone, means that unless you throw the damn thing away it is harder, wherever you are in the world, to attain serenity. But, really, we’ve arrived at an appalling state of affairs, as a society and a race. Take Whatsapp, for example. It shows when you’re online – so if you’re already having a conversation and someone else starts in with a whole other thread of messages, it’s impossible to duck out without seeming like you’re deliberately ignoring them.

The contention, of course, is that all of this “connectivity” means people are getting on with their lives more efficiently, that they’re doing things quicker and better and with fewer misunderstandings. Rubbish. All it means is that you spend half your waking hours responding to demands for updates and worrying about whether it’s bad form not to reciprocate emoticon usage.

For some people, responding to emails at midnight, or 6am, or two minutes after their out-of-office ping-back has informed you they are on annual leave, shows how hard-working and committed they are. They’re suckers. But it’s also not really their fault: they’ve simply internalised all the angst governments and corporations go about spreading to make us all feel like we’re personally responsible for slackness in the economy. You might spend your days recycling information in the hypomanic mills of the post-industrial knowledge economy. You might labour as a mere pusher of digital pens. But you’re a lazy bastard and anaemic growth is your fault. Got that?

Over the last few decades, time-saving plant and machinery has increased “productivity” in ways that make the sweat of our brows like unto driblets in the ocean. My guess is that we feel a sense of collective redundancy and guilt about this – anxieties which the dismal, and dismally inexact, science of economics can easily be mobilised to bolster. Growth is one thing, productivity another. But productivity growth must also be maintained.

Not all technological innovations are equal, though. And while instantaneous information might be useful in battle, or for nailing criminals, it is not always. Twitter consists entirely of media folk preening themselves and not doing any actual work. Rolling news is increasingly just people talking about what’s in tomorrow’s newspapers, which ruins the fun of buying a newspaper. And real-time market information (at least according to the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Intelligent Investment’ columnist Jason Zweig) is a terrible idea that probably leaves investors worse off over the long run.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my phone is making all kinds of noises and I must go to it – if only to maintain the illusion of productivity.


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A toast to Xi’s crackdown on boozing

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

Donald Trump apparently once jeopardised a business deal with a group of Hong Kong billionaires by declining to indulge in a drinking contest with them.

According to the unwritten ordinances of contemporary punditry, this preamble should lead – like all Trump-related preambles – into some veiled, or even unveiled, disparagement of his lack of deportment, his racism, and most crucially his hair.

Not today, though. No sir. Even a stopped clock tells the right time every 12 hours and I’m with Trump on his tee-totalism. The man is mad, bad and dangerous enough without getting on the El Dorado. But look: as arguments for abstinence go, the prodigious drinking that attends a large part of both state and commercial activity in these latitudes is hard to beat.

Therein also lies the reason why President Xi Jinping ought to be given some credit for his campaign against the mainland’s drinking classes. Last month (June) brought a win in his efforts to curb what might properly be described as Russian levels of boozing in public life as cadres in Anhui province were told that, with the exception of events involving foreign affairs, or held to attract investment, there would be no more drinking at official dinners – otherwise known as “the office”.

The ban, designed to combat an ingrained culture of “working at the drinking table” according to Xinhua, came in the wake of an investigation into several deaths in the province among functionaries who had been too assiduous in their gan bei toasts and succumbed to alcohol poisoning. It also followed Xi’s move, shortly after assuming office in 2012, to place restrictions on alcohol at military functions. The practice of lower-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army endlessly toasting their superiors was held to be causing widespread liver disease and elevated blood pressure, not to mention chronic badger breath, among the officer class at large.

It’s my suspicion that listening to Party orders of business in Anhui province is not something that can easily be endured sober. It would be wrong to make light of this matter, though. Where politics and drink intersect it is customary to refer to Winston Churchill, and if there is one point about drinking on which Britain’s “Greatest Briton” is clear, it is that no-one but he could achieve what he managed on the drinking regimen to which he was devoted. “I have been brought up and trained to have the utmost contempt for people who get drunk,” said the man who liked to drink almost as much as he liked being at war.

The reality is that many who drink to excess in public life are tragic, second-rate characters, and it seems to me the archetype here is Boris Yeltsin, a Falstaffian figure who revelled in representing a tradition of alcoholism bridging Russia’s new era of capitalist autocracy with its Communist and Tsarist ones. As Bill Clinton tells it, he (Yeltsin) once got so bladdered on a visit to Washington that he was found roaming Pennsylvania Avenue, outside the White House, dressed only in his underpants and attempting to hail a taxi. He wanted to get pizza, see. As an adjunct to that, he was completely incompetent, sold off the state’s prize assets to gangsters and started two wars in Chechnya.

In the mainland, where in certain contexts it’s considered bad form to refuse a drink, there’s something of that buffoonish macho spirit of recklessness in the alcoholic brinksmanship of the baijou dinner. As one civil servant in the Anhui city of Ma’anshan told the China Daily: “Many Chinese believe they can judge a person’s quality through observing the attitude and style of one’s drinking.”

It may be that Xi Jinping’s main concern is to see that his country’s officials do not dilute what the writer Yuan Weishi called their “wolf’s milk” – Yuan’s phrase to describe nationalistic indoctrination – with headier brews. Yet while the President’s crackdown on corruption means a little transparency here and there without significantly changing how things work, clearer heads in government as a result of reforming the country’s drinking culture might actually result in actions that make life better for people.


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Her Majesty was probably just trying to be polite

This column can also be read at SCMP.COM

If you didn’t know better, you might have been excused last week for thinking The Global Times had suddenly unearthed a sense of humour.

In a piece only published in its Chinese-language edition, the sister paper of The People’s Daily lambasted the “barbarians” in the British media responsible for reporting on Queen Elizabeth being captured on video describing Chinese officials as “very rude”. “As they experience constant exposure to the 5,000 years of continuous Eastern civilisation, we believe they will make progress” when it comes to manners, the paper declared, adding a description of British journalists as “’gossip fiends’… who bare fangs, brandish claws and are very narcissistic.”

It is quite probable that some British journalists merit this characterisation. Some may even feel flattered by it. In their narcissism, moreover, they may not have considered how fortunate they are not to be bundled off at airports for crossing their political masters, as happens in China. Whatever their feelings, though, one must resist the urge to discern satire in the pages of a Communist Party mouthpiece. Indeed, the view expressed by The Global Times rather confirms something we all knew anyway and which the British monarch has exposed afresh: that the Chinese state takes itself rather more seriously than is good for it.

Let’s just recap how an off-the-cuff remark blew up into what the world’s news channels were on hand to label an “explosive” diplomatic wedge. At a garden party at Buckingham Palace last Tuesday, Her Majesty was introduced to the police commander who had been responsible for overseeing security arrangements ahead of Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain last October. As this police commander related how a Chinese delegation had walked out of a meeting with the British ambassador to Beijing, Barbara Woodward, the Queen said: “They were very rude to the ambassador.”

Pressed into welcoming Xi with the full pomp and pageantry of the British state by a government desperate to grease up to the world’s rising superpower, the Queen would have been well aware that his emissaries had been, well, somewhat demanding. It has been reported that they wanted Chinese security officials to be allowed to carry guns and for anti-Chinese protests to be banned. Both requests were denied; however, during the visit a bodyguard tried to insert himself alongside Xi and the Queen in her royal carriage. Sources have revealed, too, that the Palace had to insist that none of the delegation use laptops or tablets during the state banquet in Xi’s honour. The President’s support staff had their own food flown over from Beijing. Moreover, on a previous visit to Britain, in 2014, premier Li Keqiang’s minders complained that the red carpet rolled out for him at Heathrow Airport was not long enough.

In short, if the Queen felt that Chinese officials had at various turns been “very rude”, she almost certainly had good reason for it. Unfortunately for her on this occasion, her own officials let her down by allowing a private conversation to be first filmed then released to media outlets. It has been suggested that she might have been more guarded, but for goodness’ sake, the woman is 90 years old and has spent her entire adult life being guarded. Not for nothing is she parodied for being anodyne in conversation.

One can only speculate as to what Xi Jinping might have had to say in private about his visit to Britain. Perhaps he thought the beer he shared with Prime Minister David Cameron revolting; perhaps he found it amusing that the English Football Association inducted a Chinese player, Sun Jihai, into its Hall of “Fame” when very few people in England know who he is; perhaps he misinterpreted protestors’ two-fingered salutes as gestures of friendship. In any event, some poor hack would be made to pay the price if it ever got out.

As for the Queen, in this day and age she has no choice but to tolerate members of her own fourth estate dragging up their country’s imperial past, and the opium wars, and calling her a hypocrite. In reality, when it comes down to it, she probably just thought it polite to agree with a policewoman.