Letters: Fanatics

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The Independent Online

Fanatics will not be defeated by theological argument

Sir: Johann Hari (9 July) applauds the siren song of the ex-Islamists, led by Ed Hussain. Their genuine experience of the menacing weirdness of revolutionary Islamist leaders has caused them first to reinstate President Bush's once discredited "They hate our freedoms" explanation of terrorism, then to suggest that if they were given resources to counteract Saudi gold they could eliminate the threat by theological argument.

"They hate our freedoms" remains misleading, implying that attending to legitimate grievances is useless since there are so many illegitimate ones which will be violently pressed on us. But revolutionary campaigns can't occur unless the leaders recruit followers. If the established powers throw back all grievances in the face of anyone who complains, the revolutionary movement will find all the recruits it needs.

Moreover it is impossible that something amounting to an official Organisation for Muslim Truth, funded by and so responsible to non-Muslims, would be taken seriously. Ex-Islamists seem very sure that their faith, resting as it does on personal piety not on political conflict, is faith in authentic form. But the most acceptable form of any worldview - Islam, Protestantism, atheism - need not be the most authentic.

Those of us who have never studied Islam should not be busy taking sides in disputes we don't understand. We should be concerned with treating everyone justly, holders of suspect beliefs included.



Sir: Johann Hari claims, "Free speech must apply even to the odious." He reasons that groups with "deeply evil intentions" should retain their freedom because they "would never win at the ballot box in Britain". But this is precisely why Islamist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir are so dangerous. They inevitably lose patience with non-violent political action, remain impervious to rational argument and, all the while, poison young Muslim minds against us.



Strong words about mangled language

Sir: Poor Mrs Thatcher, she does get blamed for every malaise in Britain today. Now, the present state of near-illiteracy is laid at her door because she decided that "teaching English was supererogatory" (Sarah Churchwell, 11 July). That piece of Thatcher ideology passed me by, although I have been teaching English for nearly 25 years, admittedly, for much of that time, in Scotland, where I suspect the teaching of grammar has only more recently fallen by the wayside.

What I do remember, whilst studying for my Postgraduate Certificate in Education at Nottingham University in 1973 (when Ted Heath was Prime Minister), was that pupils in a local comprehensive, where I did teaching practice, were less familiar with the rules of English grammar than the Zambian mine workers to whom I taught business English from 1971 to 1973. After one fruitless lesson, attempting to convey the concept of "subject, verb, object", I was quizzed by the head of the English department on my hour with the class. When I explained, his scornful reply was: "We feel we can get them through their secondary education without having to explain to them what a sentence is." This, despite the fact that the pupils couldn't write a correctly constructed sentence to save their lives.

The thinking then was that to teach such nuts and bolts of the language would stunt the youngsters' creative urge; I can remember many a heated tutorial at university arguing the contrary. The trouble is that those pupils who have been taught under this regime became the teachers of the next generation. That way, ignorance of grammatical rules was, and is, perpetuated.



Sir: It's hard to know which is more preposterous in Sarah Churchwell's rant about British students' writing skills: the belief that "What defines a complete sentence?" has a single correct answer, or the answer that she gives. She says "subject, predicate and complete thought". Linguists will have been choking on their breakfast at the idea that "complete thought" is a grammatical term like subject and predicate. Could Churchwell perhaps break down the first sentence of this letter into these three parts? I doubt it.

Churchwell's attitude to students with writing problems is terribly patronising: if they use malapropisms or have trouble with punctuation, surely a teacher should offer help and support instead of poking fun. In any case, someone who uses the term "beggared ability" (a malapropism for "beggarly", or perhaps "buggered"?) is living in a glass house.



Sir: Sarah Churchwell claims that there are only "a few happy exceptions" to the rule that British students can't write proper English. That may be true of her department at the University of East Anglia, but it is certainly not true of my philosophy department at the University of Leeds. Most of my students write perfectly good and clear English, and it is only a small minority who need remedial help.



Sir: What an artless demonstration of the progressive degradation of our universities is Sarah Churchwell's remark on a student of English who "nearly [my italics] failed her degree because her writing was so incoherent". How can such McDegrees be worth the small fortune students and their parents are buying them for?



What Tories need to know about drink

Sir: May I explain the mechanics of "binge drinking" to politicians of all parties?

First, five teenagers pool their resources of £4 each and purchase from a large supermarket two bottles of vodka (70cl) and two large bottles of cola. They now have 60 x 25ml measures of vodka, plus cola. This is imbibed with alacrity and they then board the train for a great night out in Cambridge. To purchase 60 vodkas and cola in my pub would cost £150. No brainer, or what?

So, what this has to do with an increase in the price of beer as proposed by David Cameron? Nothing. Even an addition of £2 per 70cl bottle duty would mean our heroes need to increase their share by 80p.



Sir: David Cameron commits a logical error in his advocacy of marriage to counteract family breakdown. He states that couples who are married are less likely to separate than those who cohabit, and concludes from this that more couples should marry.

This argument assumes that the two groups are comparable in all respects except for marital status. But that is unjustified. In fact, the reason that some couples do not marry may be because they are uncertain about the future of their relationship. It seems unlikely that most people who marry do so as an insurance policy against possible future breakdown of their relationship, which is what Mr Cameron's argument seems to imply.



End these political anachronisms

Sir: The Government's constitutional reform programme proposes that in future, before calling an election, Parliament be dissolved only with the Commons' approval, not just by a politically motivated prime minister requesting the formal consent of a supposedly non-political monarch - an anachronism if ever there was one.

What is truly needed, though, is legislation - by a simple cross-party bill - instituting fixed-term (preferably just four- instead of five-year) parliaments elected on a set date (say, the first Thursday in May), except when, as hitherto, an early dissolution, or a "snap" election, is called for to end a bung parliament or resolve a political crisis. Not surprisingly, most other democracies, monarchies and republics alike, prefer that kind of playing field.

To redress the balance between the executive and the legislature further, the same method might also be used to limit a prime minister's tenure to two terms only.



Eccentric who found tolerance in Britain

Sir: The "Prussian barrister" whose name escapes Michael Bywater ("A lament for louche London", 7 July) can only have been Christoph Schliack.

Christoph escaped from the stifling pressures of conformist German society to study in Britain, having found the British to be more tolerant of eccentrics. As a student at Leeds University, Christoph habitually wore an academic gown, a formal dark suit, a stiff wing collar and a monocle, all of which gave him the look of a younger Evelyn Waugh. He would have been elected president of the students' union, but for his disdain for campaigning ("I vil not deign to electioneah").

Christoph entered the legal profession in hopes of making "lots of kvids, tannairs and bobs". Sadly, he was indeed murdered, as Michael Bywater says; a great loss to the gaiety of nations.



Happy to become a nation of informers?

Sir: Our new Home Office minister, Admiral Sir Alan West, would like us all to be unBritish and snitch on each other. I have seen very little comment on this. Would that be because no one is taking the suggestion seriously or are we all happy to become informers?

Will we be safer maintaining our current British way of life or, for security's sake, snitch - and accept the risk of being ourselves mistakenly, or (surely not!) maliciously, informed upon to a government that is keen to act on every suspicion and keep people detained without charge?



Sir: My family now have first-hand experience of "snitching". My dad is in terminal palliative care at home in Glasgow. He is on oxygen 24 hours of the day. A television company filming in an apartment upstairs saw the delivery of oxygen cylinders to our apartment. Without consulting the estate manager, they immediately snitched on us to the anti-terror police in Glasgow. And no points for guessing that my dad's background is Asian and Muslim.



Sir: Snitching is now encouraged. Does this indicate a shift from a Big Brother to a Little Sister society?



Old enough to vote, but not to smoke

Sir: This government now thinks that there might be a case for enfranchising 16-year-olds. This change was signalled by the Prime Minister just a few weeks after an announcement from the health minister that the very same age group could not be trusted to decide on the right course of action should cigarettes be openly available to them. Thus,they will be forbidden to buy.

The latest thinking must be that young people have the maturity of judgment to have a major say on who can send us to war, but on matters of personal choice, such as sampling fags and alcohol, they can't possibly be trusted.

We have come a long way from the days, not so long ago, when we were governed by politicians who thought it perfectly proper to send men aged under 21 into battle and to death without them having a vote on the government who sent them. Nevertheless, our political masters of today still display a lack of trust in the people, and plainly want to retain, indeed increase, their overarching say in what is good for us.



Floods at home

Sir: Thousands of UK citizens are suffering genuine hardship after recent floods, and will continue to do so for months ahead. Why has no TV- publicised Flood Relief Fund been set up, with the banks at the ready? Or does this only happen for floods abroad?



An eye out for eyesores

Sir: Thomas Sutcliffe (10 July) hopes that Bill Bryson, as CPRE's new president, will keep his eye on mobile billboards alongside motorways. He doesn't have to hope, because CPRE already keeps an eye on these billboards. Our roadside advertising campaign has seen the removal of over 300 of these blots on the landscape since 2005 . But neither Bill nor any one of the rest of us here at CPRE can spot all of these billboards. So if your readers have any information on where these eyesores are reappearing, please can they contact us?



Ancient hatreds

Sir: As a writer of "Godverts" (Extra, 10 July), I applaud the reported judges' decision. Godverters, however, should not fail to give credit where it is due: "How is it we have just enough religion to hate one another and not enough to love one another" was coined by Jonathan Swift some time ago.



The British siesta

Sir: The weekend luxury of a siesta "in pyjamas" with a companion (Elizabeth Nash in Madrid, 10 July) is not exclusive to Spain but has become a thing of the past in the UK where it was once a Sunday afternoon institution for the working classes, courtesy of the local churches. The man of the house would go out for his pint; on his return the family would have their roast dinner; he would then go upstairs for a nap; the wife would send the children off to Sunday School, and then join her husband.



Full curriculum

Sir: So now schools are also responsible for teaching about banking and mortgages (report, 9 July). Since they are also responsible for teaching the subjects of the National Curriculum, as well as sex education and relationships, healthy eating and lifestyles, drugs and alcohol abuse, "Britishness", community cohesion, manners and happiness, what is there left for parents to do? Could someone please offer a list?