Thursday, 29 May 2008

Report from the protest

Posted by Rhiannon

I attended yesterday's protest in support of Hicham Yezza and academic freedom (in no particular order; for details of the events which led to this protest, see my previous post). We began, in the pouring rain, with academics and students reading the document which, downloaded and emailed, led to the inital arrests. I have to say, it seems to be very stirring stuff, from what I heard through the rain: if you're holding a secret meeting in new house, remember that the walls are thin so keep your voice down. If you want to recruit a new agent, find out what they'd like before deciding what to offer them. Try talking to people who work in coffee shops.

We were then addressed by Alan Simpson MP, who in a moment of daring spoke from the forbidden balcony of the Hallward Library. He actually spoke very well--gathering lots of applause--telling us that he too objected to the way things have been handled, especially the time it took to establish that the download was legitimate research. He made it sound like he is doing everything he can to help, though not knowing what's possible I find it hard to judge the truth of this.

Finally, we marched--silently, gagging ourselves to make visible the silence and suggest that we are being silenced by this attack on academic freedom, and also because it's still exam time--round the Portland building to Trent (Google Maps should give you an idea: down Portland Hill and along East Drive to the courtyard of the Trent Building). Once in Trent courtyard, we stood as a mass, in perfect silence for perhaps five minutes, perhaps more: I was very caught up in the moment, in the expectant gathered waiting. That makes it sound like Meeting for Worship, which it was in as much as the silence was powerful and expectant, even gathered, and not in as much as the purpose was very different.

I don't know how many people were there. It's very hard to judge numbers from the middle of the crowd, so I'll leave guesses to others. I did, though, recognise several fellow students and a few members of staff from my departments, and I was heartened to see people coming to the windows as we stood in Trent Courtyard with the cameras whirring, the birds singing, and an unanswered telephone going somewhere in the background.

Other reports:
Worker's Liberty,
Asian Image,
photos can be found here (you may even recognise my hat),
follow more news stories here.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

'Terror' on campus?

Recently, Rizwaan Sabir (a postgraduate student at the University of Nottingham) and Hicham Yezza (a former student and current employee of the University, and a peace activist) were arrested on suspicion of owning 'terrorist materials'. It was widely reported in the local news. Their 'crime'? Downloading and emailing an al-Qaeda handbook which was freely avaliable on the web, including from a US government website, as part of Rizwaan Sabir's politics research. The Muslim News seems to have the best details.

There are several aspects to this story which I find deeply disturbing. It's clearly a misuse of terror legislation and an attack on academic freedom, with racist overtones: Alf Nilsen, a research fellow in law and social sciences, is quoted in the Times Higher Education Supplement as saying that it is "occurring in tandem with several other attempts by UK authorities to increase surveillance of the academy and, in particular, non-Western students and staff". A police officer is being reported as saying that "This would never have happened if he had been a white student."

A protest will be held on Wednesday 28th May at 2pm outside the Hallward Library on campus. Academics from the University of Nottingham will be doing a public reading of the research material that led to arrests under the Terrorism Act, followed by a silent protest where students and academics will symbolically gag themselves to object to the attack on academic freedom.

Secondly, Hicham Yezza has been re-arrested on immigration charges- despite having been in the UK for 13 years as a student and now employee of the university, who are meticulous about checking visas and paperwork. An attempt is being made to deport him, probably to make him appear guilty. A corresponding campaign is being mounted, which has already been picked up by the Independent on Sunday: if it is to succeed, it needs to act quickly, as the deportation could happen as soon as Tuesday 27th May if the current appeal fails.

Like the attack on academic freedoms, these deportations seem to be getting more common. We need to act. Please take as many of the following actions as you can:
- attend the protest, outside the Hallward Library on Nottingham University Campus at 2:00pm on Wednesday, 28 May;
- circulate the press release about Hicham Yezza, by word of mouth, blogging, writing, and whatever other method you like;
- write to your MP asking them to write to the Immigration minister, Liam Byrne, in support of Hicham Yezza.

(further information and corrections welcomed)

Friday, 23 May 2008

Yearly Meeting - twitters and blogs

posted by k

Every year, Quakers in Britain have a sort of annual general meeting called, quite sensibly, "Yearly Meeting." It lasts for several days and all members are invited to attend. This weekend, Yearly Meeting is at Friends House in London and there may be as many as 1,000 Quakers there.

Decisions are reached by all the people present - by agreement of everyone and not by voting. It's a matter of listening to what other people say with openness - it might be expressed as waiting on the Spirit or in some other way.

So far as I know, only one person from Beeston Meeting will be attending - he's 16 and will be taking part in the Young People's programme.

I'll be following the BYM blog - if anything gets posted there. This year BYM will be twittering - see

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

What is 'Universalism'?

posted by Rhiannon

Following my brief blog post from the Quaker Universalist Conference, I've been asked for more on that topic, and especially about what exactly 'universalism' is (particularly whether it is what I said it was!). The answer, as in so many of these matters, is 'different things to different people', but being a student of analytic philosophy, I'd like to take a few minutes to try and say what those things are, focusing on theological uses of the word.

The word 'universal' itself simply means 'applies to everyone/everything', and has no theological content. To make distinctions, I'm going to tack on some other words to clarify what is universal in each kind of universalism. These three are not mutally exclusive, but they can be separated and held as differentiated positions.

Firstly, there's the kind in which "every person who ever lived will ultimately be saved" (quote: Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry). I term this eschatological universalism (it has also been called universal reconciliation) and it has a long and respectable history in Christianity (I seem to remember learning at A-level that Irenaeus was a universalist in this sense).

Secondly, there's the kind of universalism which says that every religion can lead to God ("salvation" in Christian terminology). This has been called theological pluralism, though I think the term 'universal' would accurately support the position that every religion can lead to God.

Finally, there's the kind of universalism which claims that every person alive can have knowledge or experience of God here and now. I call this mystic universalism, and consider it the kind most distinctive to Quakerism. There is no demand that every individual does experience God, nor is there necessarily any eschatological or next-life belief involved.

The Quaker Universalist Group states that their understanding is that "spiritual awareness is accessible to everyone of any religion or none, and that no one faith can claim to have a final revelation or monopoly of truth." If this is an accurate reflection of the beliefs of their members, I would say that most Quaker Universalists (including myself) are concerned with mystic universalism (they also say, further down the page to which I linked, that "mystics of every religion tap the one universal consciousness"), and with a strongly stated theological pluralism. Of course, this does not mean that some are not also believers in the traditional eschatological universalism, but the position of the group does not focus on eschatology (which is in keeping with the general trends of today's Liberal Quakers, who in my twenty-two years of exposure have never shown any sign of an agreed eschatology).

I would be very glad to hear from other people on this topic. Are you a Quaker and/or a Universalist in any of the above senses (or in a sense I've missed)? Whatever your own position, how would you characterise 'universalists'?

Military celebrations

posted by Kathy

It sounds as though celebrating the military is to become a compulsory part of life. I've blogged about this, in a personal capacity, elsewhere but I paused before posting to a blog labelled "Quaker".

I haven't read the whole document yet as it's a large pdf file but I've seen a number of the proposals (which havthe e support of the government) which are widely reported in the press. There are, so far as I can see, three categories, although these sometimes overlap.

First there is a concern to make life easier for serving soldiers, particularly serving soldiers in uniform and those returning from war. It wouldn't be realistic to expect this concern to lead the government to disengage from war at once, disband the army and compensate ex-soldiers but I note that there's more interest in homecoming parades (which councils will be expected to organise) and discounts for serving soldiers in uniform in shops and at sporting events. It's disappointing that there's nothing to meet real concerns of soldiers about housing and health treatment - and nothing about the high level of homelessness and mental health problems among soldiers who have left the army. There's a provision which would make it a crime to discriminate against a soldier in uniform that I'll discuss later.

Then there are provisions to celebrate and glorify the army. Soldiers are to be more visible. Military parades, tattoos and so on will become a more frequent part of life and will be covered on television. There will be a new bank holiday (probably in June) to celebrate the armed services and veterans.)

Finally there are the provisions that will affect people's rights, especially the rights of children and anti-war activists. "Military awareness" will become part of the national curriculum and state schools will be encouraged to set up cadet corps for their pupils. No-one is talking about a right of conscientious objection from military awareness courses. Quakers and others may feel worried about the effect of this increased emphasis on the military in schools. It's bad enough already. In addition, we should watch out for the laws which make discrimination against serving soldiers a crime - and the laws which deal with abusing soldiers.

Obviously the first response of Quakers may be to say, "But we'd never do that." Nonetheless, laws are often used against peace protestors in surprising ways. I recall when Lindis Percy was accused of racial abuse for mistreating a United States flag. Will these laws be used against peace protestors. I've stood outside Chetwynd Barracks with other members of Beeston Quakers and anti-war protestors. I've handed out leaflets and spoken to soldiers through a megaphone. Would this be treated as discriminatory or abusive? We won't know until we see the law and how it is used.

The press has, on the whole, greeted the new proposals with enthusiasm and Gordon Brown has indicated that they will become law. These could be difficult days for peace-makers.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Saying "no" to war

posted by kathy

A review in today's Guardian reminded me of the history of pacifist conscientious objection - and how difficult it was. One of the books discussed, We Will Not Fight by Will Ellsworth-Jones, looks at the case of Bert Brocklesby, whose two brothers were at the front. War was against Bert's Christian beliefs (he was a Methodist) but he wasn't granted conscietntious objector status. Instead he was shipped out to France and sentenced to death.

The review, by Francis Beckett, is full of telling quotations and anecdotes about the horrors of the First World War. It wasn't just a time of jingoistic patriotism but also period in which general conscription was first introduced. Most British Christians were war-mongers and the review quotes Archdeacon Basil Wilberforce, chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, preaching that:

"To kill Germans is a divine service in the fullest acceptance of the word."

It's hard to stand out against trends in the way that Bert Brocklesby and others did. In the twentieth century, Quaker pacifists probably had an easier time than most because they had the support of their Meetings. There was a whole organisation supporting them. They might be sent to prison but I've heard accounts of Quaker Meetings in prison in wartime. Conscientious objectors acting alone and without the support of their churches - like the Austrian Catholic anti-Nazi Franz Jagerstatter - had a much harder time. Bert Brocklesby, who eventually survived, was neglected and condemned by army chaplains:

Under sentence of death in Boulogne, in a filthy cell, Brocklesby was visited by a chaplain, who held his nose against the smell. "What is your religion?" asked the chaplain. "I'm a Methodist." "Oh, I'm sorry, I can't help you - I'm Church of England." Worse was the chaplain who visited Brocklesby after his reprieve and called him "a disgrace to humanity"."

Today it's pretty well accepted that Quakers are conscientious objectors. But Quakers are also involved, more controversially, in direct action: in the campaign against the U.S. spy base at Menwith Hill, for instance; in protesting against arms fairs and the arms trade; opposing extraordinary rendition, torture and the theft of Diego Garcia from the Chagos Islanders. Meeting for Sufferings (the central administrative committee of the Society of Friends) may be concerned with such bureaucratic tasks and the central framework of the society, but it also considers questions which may be unpopular today - such as the need asylum seekers have for friendship, care and support. And from time to time, Meeting for Sufferings still records the arrest and imprisonment of Friends.

It's good to remember how people have suffered for their beliefs in the past and to acknowledge how much we have built on the work of people who stood against attutudes, policies and laws which most people now agree were wrong. But that's not enough. George Fox's question "What canst thou say?" still has force. Perhaps we should also ask ourselves, "What canst thou DO?"

Note: The Housmans website has a good list of books on Pacifism and Non-Violence.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Do you Twitter?

posted by kathy

I don't twitter often - just two or three times a day, unless I'm bored or feeling frivolous. Sometimes I don't twitter for a few days at a time. And I always twitter on my computer - never on a mobile phone.

You may know what I'm talking about - or you may have heard, seen or read something on the news. Broadcasters spent a few days saying that twitter was the big new thing in communications - and then, as usual, they forgot about it.

Twitter is a means of keeping in touch with people through very short communications. The limit is 140 characters including spaces - shorter than some text messages. The idea is that people post answers to the question "What are you doing?" and use this to keep in touch with one another. It's fun trying to get a message into so short a space. And of course, twitter invites the answer my brother gave when he first twittered: "What do you think I'm doing? I'm typing in this message in an attempt to avoid working."

But Twitter has other possibilities. It could be used for very short poems or six-word stories. I'd like to try that, though I haven't yet.

It's also a quick way of keeping in touch with organisations or campaigns if they sign up to twitter and, given the mobile phone facility, it's got a great deal of potential.

I haven't found campaigns on twitter yet - do you know of any that are using it? I've signed up to follow 10 Downing Street, which is often immensely boring. I'm not that interested in the Prime Minister's visit to the Eden Project, although I wish I could go there again.

More useful are the short updates from QuakerQuaker, a United States round-up of many Quaker blogs. (We're not listed on the blogroll.) I hardly ever get round to checking out the blog-site but every so often twitter alerts me to a story or reflection I want to follow.

So are you twittering? Do you have any tips about who to follow or how twitter can be used? Would you like to see Beeston Quakers on twitter? Or would you like to use twitter more informally, to keep up with friends (or Friends)?

I'm kazbel on twitter, by the way. So far Beeston Quakers hasven't taken to twittering as a Meeting - do you think they should?

Sunday, 11 May 2008

The smell of paint

posted by kathy

Today's after-Meeting conversation ranged from the serious (Spinoza, dating the Old Testament) to the frivolous. We seem able to shift from difficult topics to light-heartedness quite easily when Meeting is over. And, of course, conversation is governed by who is there and what they have been doing or reading. At the moment we're in the shadow of exam revision and marking.

A couple of weeks ago, those of us at Meeting decided to shift Meeting for Worship to the next-door room. There were good reasons for this: it's a larger, airier room; there's a better table for books; the chairs are even more comfortable and we thought it time for a change of pictures. (The view of the garden isn't quite so good but it's still visible, especially if one of us remembers to tie back the curtains.)

We don't own a Meeting House. We rent space on Sundays. This includes the right to leave some things in boxes - our varied range of after-Meeting drinks and biscuits and activities for any children who turn up. Our youngest attenders are now in the mid-teen range and prefer to bring computers with them when they turn up.

When Beeston Meeting came into being, we wanted to but the building we used for Meeting for Worship. The Monthly Meeting (now called Area Meeting) agreed but we lost out in a sealed-bid auction. That's how we ended up in the Day Centre, with a 4-hour booking every Sunday morning.

For a while, I wished we had a proper Meeting House. It would have been good to have a noticeboard and freedom to use the Meeting House as we wished. We all liked the idea of a space that other local people could use.

But there are advantages to renting, so long as we're able to keep using the same space. There's nothing in Quakerism that says we have to be the landlords. We're a small Meeting and welcome the opportunity to focus on our main activity, Meeting for Worship. We don't have to worry about lettings or employing wardens or paying for repairs. Mind you, I think we're all glad that there are Meeting Houses elsewhere that we can visit.

But renting means a little less control over our environment. We were just getting used to our new Meeting room when the Day Centre, quite reasonably, decided to paint it. The pictures we liked were down, our drinks' supplies had been moved (but we found them) and the room itself smelt of paint.

So we returned to the room with slightly less comfortable chairs and the old familiar pictures. The sun was so bright that we needed the curtains drawn and couldn't see into the garden outside. I missed the comfy chairs, the new pictures and the sight of bright grass outside. But I could hear the birds and be part of the deep silence of Meeting for Worship. And that's what matters.

Meeting for Worship didn't look a bit like the picture, by the way. But I couldn't resist including it.