Civil rights, Shahida Kiani and others

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We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy

We all have a responsibility to protect our democracy

Sir: The Government needs to consider what might happen, beyond innocent people and communities losing their civil rights, when they take the power of political arrest and punishment. What will it do when the News of the World demands to know who has been given a control order? How will they prevent vigilantes from attacking whoever they guess that might be? The far right will feed on the situation and they will be strongly and violently opposed. What will the Government's next move be then?

The Anne Frank Foundation produced an exhibition showing the lessons to be learnt from Europe in the 1930s. The present might be a very faint echo of the build up to fascism, it might just be a shadow of a shadow, but it feels more substantial than that. The Home Office minister responsible for community safety is only concerned about the safety of some communities. The Commons so far has not protected us from the Government taking power from the courts.

The move from a liberal democracy in Germany in the 1930s was made by many small steps over time. It took Hitler five years to reach Kristallnacht and nine to decide on the "final solution". He started with changes to the structures around institutions, including the courts. He needed identity cards. He needed an enemy and a scapegoat.

The Foundation's exhibition asked "Would we have believed the propaganda that depicted Jews as inferior, untrustworthy citizens? Or would we have continued - perhaps with a feeling of powerlessness - our daily routine?" It stressed that the rejection and prevention of discrimination had to start early on; we have to be ready to see the early signs, and we each have a personal responsibility to act.

Writing letters, lobbying, forging links, marching. If enough of us do it, it can make a difference and the Bill can be defeated. At the election we can vote for candidates who have the individual strength to stand up to the whips and an over-powerful government.

Penycaemawr, Monmouthshire

Shabina's dress code lacks moderation

Sir: According to Shahida Kiani (letter, 5 March) we can all learn from Shabina Begum's dress code. Really? What is it that we can learn? To be ashamed and afraid of the female body? To be prudish in our approach to women's sexuality and puritanical in our thinking? Maybe even to deny women any sexuality at all in order to protect men from their own impure thoughts?

While I would support any individual who wants to dress modestly, no one should be driven to extremes. Shahida Kiani fears that society could "make us feel the need to succumb to total nakedness in order to be classed as 'trendy'." I think this unlikely and I wouldn't want to see it any more than she would. But neither would I want to see women feeling the need to cover every part of their bodies, except their eyes, in order to appear pious. There are reasonable degrees in all things and extremes are best avoided, whichever way they go.

Todmorden, Lancashire

Sir: The British Humanist Association respects human rights and recommends "reasonable accommodations" of religious and other world views in schools and wider society. But we do wonder if the Court of Appeal's decision in favour of Shabina Begum's choice of the jilbab is going well beyond the reasonable. In this case an individual seems to have been allowed to decide what her religious obligations are, despite Muslim traditions and authorities that say otherwise.

While this religious anarchy and individualism might not matter if religion were, as humanists would prefer, a private matter, it does matter when public authorities and society in general are constantly being urged to defer to religious sensibilites. This new judgment appears to oblige us to respect and meet just about any requirement that any individual chooses to label "religious".

Education Officer
British Humanist Association
London WC1

Sir: Shamim Chowdhury is incorrect to write of a "racist headscarf ban in France" (4 March). Firstly, Muslims are not a racial group. Secondly, French law prohibits the wearing of any overt religious symbol or clothing in school, a ruling which applies to all regardless of religion, race or gender.

Colchester, Essex.

Lib-Dem prospects

Sir: I, and no doubt many others who have voted Liberal Democrat in recent elections, have done so mainly as a protest against the puerility of the debate between the two main parties ("Time for the Liberal Democrats to come out of the shadows", 5 March). Although the pursuit of wavering Conservative or Labour voters in vulnerable constituencies is likely to provide increased representation in the House of Commons, I hope that Charles Kennedy will be more voluble in relation to the genuinely momentous issues of the moment.

The invasion of Iraq is an obvious example, as is the need for a more progressive tax system, and the issues of immigration and asylum. It would be delightful to see the muscular intervention of Mr Kennedy into the discussion, advocating the benefits of the influx of hundreds of thousands of motivated incomers willing to take on jobs which do not appeal to us natives and/or where there are numerous vacancies.

Charles Kennedy is not going to be the next Prime Minister (or even the one after that) irrespective of how "sensible" the policies of his party are, but it would be a shame if the most substantial, honest voice in the whole charade is to be muted for the sake of electoral gain. Labour has been in power for almost eight years but at the expense of its soul. It would be sad to see the Lib Dems go down the same road for the sake of a dozen seats in a marginalised House of Commons.

London SE1

Sir: Your leading article says it's good news for the Liberal Democrats that "major broadcasters will be forced to give [them] more coverage" once the election is called. But were I a Lib Dem I wouldn't be so pleased.

Many Lib-Dem policies won't stand up to much scrutiny. Their opposition to Britain joining the Americans in their Iraq War showed principle, but their lack of a viable alternative strategy has never been properly examined. Their flagship proposals to scrap tuition fees and council tax, neither of which the poor have to pay, are crude attempts at bribery of the middle classes.

The hastily drawn up council tax certainly needs reform, but it remains the only hint of a wealth tax we have in Britain. A rush to replace it with another ill-thought-out system would repeat the folly of its introduction. Voters should beware politicians bearing superficially attractive policies.

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Infant mortality

Sir: While it is good news that a strategy is being put in place to save infant lives ("New strategy to cut three million baby deaths", 4 March), your article glosses over the main sticking point for any such strategy: the dearth of healthcare professionals, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. I hope the strategists have included this in their planning.

There are a number of reasons for the shortage, of which the "brain drain" to the affluent north is just one. Insufficient training opportunities, the rural/urban imbalance and the deteriorating health of the remaining workforce due to Aids, are others. In Zambia and Malawi, the deaths of nurses equate to 40 per cent of the numbers of new nurses completing training each year.

There has hitherto been little emphasis placed by either donor agencies or recipient governments on the maintenance of the healthcare workforce, and this is the thing which has most clearly got to change. Specific measures are harder to point to, but a recognition of the problem and a commitment to its solution are necessary first steps. Raising salaries and providing more training opportunities are likely to be among the second steps.

The control of TB, which kills two million a year worldwide despite being easily and cheaply curable, is one of the efforts being sabotaged by lack of health professionals. That is why World Stop TB Day on 24 March will have frontline TB care providers as its theme.

London N13

Viva la food revolution

Sir: The introduction of payments to all farmers for environmental protection is, as you say, the most significant shift in agricultural policy for decades ("Farmers to be paid for protecting countryside", 4 March). It signals a serious start to what will be a long and difficult process of restoring life to the soil, and wildlife to our farms. It also represents another important landmark: the continuing environmental and wildlife benefits of organic farming have been recognised for the first time, with organic farmers in the new scheme receiving payments of £60 per hectare, compared to £30 for non-organic farming.

This revolution in public payments to farmers needs to be matched by a revolution in our attitudes to the food we eat. High quality, fresh, tasty, seasonal, local, traceable and healthy food needs to replace our decades-long love affair with the cheap, highly processed and mass-produced food that has done so much damage to our environment, and to our and our children's health. For the Government to insist on unprocessed, local and organic food being used in school dinners would be a good place to start the food revolution that has to underpin the revolution in farming.

Policy Director, Soil Association,

Solar schemes vital

Sir: The RSPB would be extremely disappointed if changes to DTI grants lead to a reduction in financial support for solar energy ("Government pulls the plug on solar schemes", 3 March).

We know how difficult it is to develop the required amounts of renewable energy. Solar is the one area where ordinary people can make a difference, making energy for their own homes.

Encouraged by Government grants, the RSPB launched its own solar products two years ago. Our solar energy products bring us no revenue; we simply want to get more people making and using clean energy.

Yes, solar is expensive. That is why the grants are so crucial to getting this fledgling industry off the ground. An encouraging start will have been wasted without continued Government support.

Chief Executive
Sandy, Bedfordshire

Forces' class system

Sir: Robert Hughes (letter, 4 March) hits the nail right on the head; the British Armed Forces preserve a social class system long abandoned by the rest of society.

On one occasion when I was serving in the RAF, an Officer's Mess function got out of hand and the place was trashed by some of the junior officers. This was laughed off as "high spirits", yet when the same thing happened in the Airman's Mess it was vandalism and those responsible were punished.

It seems this sort of mentality has been carried over into Iraq at Camp Breadbasket and I find it quite staggering that no Senior NCO or officer has been charged.

London W14

Ethical leadership

Sir: Andrew Cullen raises an interesting point in his letter (3 March) on the church and homosexuality. He is right to expect the church to set a lead in ethical and moral matters. However, he cannot expect it to follow the lead set by others if it is at odds with its own basic beliefs, any more than one would expect the Countryside Alliance to subscribe to the strong ethical lead set by the anti-hunting legislation.

Long Buckby, Northampton

Darwin's bulldog

Sir: Jonathan Brown ("1861 And All That", 3 March) is incorrect when he refers to Darwin's debate with "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce in 1861; the bishop's opponent was actually Thomas Huxley, aka "Darwin's bulldog". As well as neatly wrong-footing Wilberforce, Huxley was also responsible for coining the term "agnostic" to describe his religious beliefs.

London E7

Yakult in Japanese

Sir: Donald Harlow (letter, 4 March) does the manufacturer of Yakult an injustice by saying that the company claims that "Yakult... means yoghurt in Esperanto". On its Japanese website the manufacturer explains that the original Japanese name derives from Esperanto jahurto and was created in 1935 as a variant of the Esperanto word easier for Japanese-speakers to pronounce. The Japanese name in romanised form is yakuruto, which was then made easier for English-speakers to pronounce when the product was released outside Japan by being transliterated back into alphabetic script as "Yakult".

London W5

Reactionary students

Sir: What is going on with students today? When I was a Young Liberal at University in the 1980s we would regularly go onto the streets to harangue Tory apologists for apartheid and Labour homophobes alike. This weekend, a bunch of students from Leeds University Labour Party heckled Charles Kennedy for wanting to give the vote to people in prison. Who'd have thought that "progressive" students would berate a middle-aged white guy for being too radical. Is this a little bit sad or am I just getting old?

London N1