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Friday 7 February 2020

Let me make the subtext clear

I believe I’ve become a good judge of character in my middle age. This will come as a shock to anyone who knew me when I was a young man. When I was studying philosophy – right through to when I completed a PhD in the subject at aged 28 – I wasn’t exactly an expert in the art of being a reliable and well-adjusted person; far from it! But that was then. I’m a recovered philosopher now. And, having escaped from that inner world of arrogance, fecklessness and responsibility-avoidance, I know the terrain inside out. I believe I can spot a ne’er-do-well a mile away.
Recently I made a swift judgment on a man’s character, and, several weeks later, I was vindicated spectacularly. I met the man at an Indian takeaway, near Durham, where I work as a delivery driver. He had turned up to drive on the same shift as me; it was his first night. I introduced myself to him, asked him his name, asked him where he was from – Egypt; he was an Arab Muslim – and exchanged some small talk with him. Then the pleasantries were over.
I was standing behind the counter; he was on the other side. Suddenly he placed his elbow on the counter, flexed his fingers, leaned a little too close to me, and said:
“My arm hurts? Is it a vitamin deficiency?”
Now, I’m sure you will appreciate that this is a strange question to ask someone whom you have only just met, especially when that person is a delivery driver, not a doctor (well, not a proper doctor).
However, you may not appreciate that the question was also subtly aggressive. Or, at least, that’s how I perceived it. Based partly on the man’s in-your-face demeaner, I reckoned that he was setting out his stall, as it were. He seemed to be saying:
I am in need; you owe me; and you don’t even know what you owe me; neither of us knows; maybe I have a vitamin deficiency; maybe I don’t; all the more reason for you to attend to me; you may need to help me in any number of ways; you should stay on your toes.
Moreover, my own response compounded my feeling that I was being reeled in. I said:
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. Are you OK? Maybe it’s a vitamin deficiency; I don’t know. Are you getting enough vitamins?”
The dynamic was in place: I was pandering to him. And I didn’t like it. I immediately judged him as a menace. Thankfully, at that exact moment, I was called into the kitchen by my boss, and I was temporarily extricated from the trap.
Perhaps you’re thinking that my judgement was harsh. Perhaps you’re thinking that hypochondria is a serious mental health problem that deserves sympathy not callousness. Perhaps you're thinking that the man might have had a vitamin deficiency! So let me tell you what happened in the ensuing weeks. His behaviour became increasingly obnoxious.  
The next incident occurred on a quiet night. The Egyptian and I were standing in the kitchen with the rest of the kitchen staff – a pleasant bunch of Bangladeshi Muslims, along with a cheerful young lad from Uganda who was earning some cash as a potwasher while he was studying in England. We were all chatting and joking about women, as men do. In fact, we were discussing my lack of a girlfriend; the men were giving me their advice. I cannot say that their advice was entirely politically correct, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable until the Egyptian made another strange pronouncement.
“You should go to Israel and buy a woman”, he suggested.
“I’m sorry?” I asked, genuinely confused.
He explained: “You can buy a woman for $1000 in Israel”.
Once again, I felt myself being drawn into a trap. And once again I responded too faithfully.  
“Oh, I see. So who is selling these women?”
“The Israeli government”, he replied.
Definitely a trap: this was Arab anti-Semitism of a particularly warped kind. I decided the best course of action was to try to shrug myself free of this nonsense.
“I don’t think so mate”, I ventured: “That doesn’t sound plausible to me.”
But he was adamant. His voice became strident.
“It’s true. You’ve never been to Israel. The Israeli government sells women for sex.”
He whisked his mobile phone from his pocket and started jabbing at the screen, then he thrust it in my face and said: “look at this”. It was a youtube video showing a department store where a bunch of sultry-looking women were sitting around in lingerie with price tags attached to their bare legs. The video was accompanied by a jabbering commentary in Arabic. The Egyptian declared:
“See. That’s Israel.”
Nope, no way. I just didn’t believe it.
“That’s absolute bollocks,” I said, with some needle in my voice.
And with that, the atmosphere shifted. A feeling of tension suddenly gripped us all, as though we had heard a distant scream. My boss sensed it too, because he immediately started joking around, saying that I couldn’t afford $1000 anyway. The air was cleared.
As I drove around that evening, I thought about the incident. I made a connection in my mind between the Egyptian’s hypochondria and his anti-Israel mindset. Both, I reckoned, were examples of ‘aggressive victimhood’, whereby a phoney victim tries to instil a sense of obligation in others not in the interests of justice or fairness but in the interests of control. An aggressive victim seeks to impose an agenda on others by appealing to their conscientiousness, by demanding special dispensations, special treatment. Conscientious people are made to feel that they are responsible for alleviating the plight of the aggressive victim. They feel guilt at the prospect of not being solicitous enough. They become the real victims; of their own good will, and of the manipulativeness of the aggressive victim.
I also pondered the fact that aggressive victimhood is often found in religion. Many religious people demand special treatment, whether it’s legal privileges, the right not to be offended, immunity from criticism and mockery, or just a superior reputation. And I pondered the most diva-like religion of them all: Islam. These days, any criticism of Islam, however slight, is greeted by cries of “Islamophobia” – not just from many Muslims but from some misguided Westerners too. Even when Muslims are known to have carried out despicable acts, such as vicious terrorist attacks, or the sexual abuse of tens of thousands of children, you can guarantee that an angry chorus of apologists will demand that Islam itself should escape censure. Hysterical calls for ‘community cohesion’ drown out any scrutiny of Islam, as though Muslims could never be bad neighbours, and as though Mohammed’s own bad behaviour – including relentless warmongering, polygamy, endorsing sex slavery, and consummating his marriage with his nine-year-old ‘wife’ – could never explain the behaviour of people who see him as an exemplar.
In turn, I pondered the fact that aggressive victimhood goes some way to explaining the way women are treated – and allow themselves to be treated – in Islam. Women are nurturers by instinct, which makes them especially prone to being manipulated by aggressive victims. Women pride themselves on their ability to be unconditionally loving and caring; hence their consciences are bound to be pricked by any needy person, especially one who makes them feel obligated or guilty. Like insecure bullies, many Muslim men keep their women onside by consigning them to a chronic state of penitence. If you think I’m being unfair, ask yourself: how else – without paying them – might you convince someone to walk around in a Burka in the middle of summer?
Anyway, a few weeks after he made his unsavoury Israel comments, the Egyptian upped the ante, by behaving threateningly towards one of our female staff members, who was working behind the counter. I wasn’t there when the incident happened, but it was recalled to me by someone who was there: a feisty but likeable young local lad, another of our drivers. The counter girl was the local lad’s sister. She had antagonised the Egyptian by handing out three deliveries to her brother (which was perfectly correct of her, by the way: the three deliveries were going to the same area, and her brother was the next driver in line). Unfortunately, the Egyptian, being an aggressive victim, complained bitterly, and the row escalated to the point where everyone was shouting.
In the middle of all this, the Egyptian wagged his finger in the counter girl’s face and snarled:
“Women like you should be hit!”
Hearing this, the local lad went ballistic. He and the Egyptian traded a few punches, before the fight was broken up, and the local lad and his sister sped off in their car.
A few days later, my boss recounted the drama to me. He told me that the counter girl had quit, but the local lad and the Egyptian wanted to stay, because they both needed the money. The consensus among my boss and the other Bangladeshis in the kitchen was that the fight was a storm in a teacup; it would all blow over. I wasn’t convinced. I tried to explain to them that it was wrong of the Egyptian to speak threateningly to a woman. However, they just stared into space, their eyes glazed over. My words fell on deaf ears. And when I suggested that the Egyptian should be sacked, my boss just shook his head.
As I drove home that night, I realised that I had been somewhat reckless. The Bangladeshis were bound to tell the Egyptian that I had been badmouthing him. I was now his adversary. However, as it turned out, I had no reason to be concerned for myself. On my next shift, the Egyptian was friendly to me – overly, obsequiously friendly. He started complaining about Brexit, presumably because he thought I would sympathise with him. Perhaps he thought we’d find common ground by scapegoating all those so-called “thick” and “racist” leavers. In any case, just when I was on the brink of telling him he was talking bollocks again, I had to go out on a delivery, and the conversation was over.
And now I’ll never get to tell him. A few days later, he finally got himself sacked. I arrived at work one evening, where I found my boss on the telephone, looking ashen-faced. He was shaking his head and saying ‘no, no, no’ and ‘OK, OK, OK’. After he put down the receiver, he explained what had happened. One of our customers, an attractive young Zimbabwean lady, had ordered food the previous night, and the Egyptian had delivered it. Apparently, the pair of them had got chatting on the doorstep, at which point he had blurted out:
“I’ve got a big willy. Do you want to suck it?”
He then “leaned” against her door, whereupon she shut it forcefully in his face.
Obviously the girl was upset by all this. My boss said she was crying on the phone, and threatening to call the police. Having assured her that he would deal with the situation, he said to me, half-questioningly: “I don’t want the police involved; I will have to sack him; he will ruin my business.” I agreed, of course, while also pointing out that this behaviour was sackable regardless of any other considerations. My boss nodded, although he seemed predominantly worried about the police. I assured him that I would back him up if things got rowdy again.
So, a few minutes later, when the Egyptian returned from a delivery, my boss told him about the telephone call. The Egyptian responded with an avalanche of whiny protesting: “I was being friendly to the customer”, “I asked her if she was single”, “where is the proof?”, “what have I done wrong?”, “I’ve never let you down”, “she is crazy”, “I have a wife”, and so on. (A wife?!) At no point, I noted, did he actually deny the allegation. My boss, who is a mild-mannered and likeable chap, clearly wasn’t expecting a debate; he backed down immediately, saying “OK, OK”, then retreated to the kitchen. The Egyptian then turned to me and said: “She is crazy!” I was damned if I was going to continue my boss’s debate for him, so, rather pusillanimously, indeed nihilistically, I just frowned and shook my head. Then I too retreated to the kitchen.
The Egyptian continued with his shift, and I avoided him. Later that evening, I went into the kitchen and told my boss that if he didn’t sack him, I would resign, and I suggested that the local lad probably would resign too. I tried to get my boss to join the dots when it came to the Egyptian’s creepy behaviour: this latest incident was hardly out of character. But, again, I don’t think my analysis hit home. My boss’s verdict was that the Egyptian was a “pervert” because “Allah says you should only touch your wife”. This sounded somewhat ad hoc to me, but at least my boss did the right thing in the end. After I had gone home, he relieved the pervert of his duties.
On the next shift, I chatted to the Ugandan guy, who told me he had taken an instant dislike to the Egyptian. I also spoke to the local lad, who of course was relieved at the outcome. He told me something else I wasn’t aware of: that his sister had already warned our boss about the Egyptian’s creepiness. Apparently, she and the Egyptian had been colleagues in another restaurant, but she had quit because he had propositioned her crudely one evening. When he had come to work for us, she felt uncomfortable from the start, as did her brother. Clearly I wasn’t the only one. Unfortunately, our boss saw the writing on the wall too late, and it cost him. Even after the Egyptian had been sacked, the counter girl declined to return to her job because she felt that our boss had let her down.
Her brother said one final thing to me, and it summed up the whole sorry saga. He told me that, during the fight, he had shouted at the Egyptian: “We don’t say shit like that in our country, you fucking moron!” This wasn’t exactly an eloquent statement, but it wasn’t exactly not eloquent either. I laughed when I heard it, and the local lad laughed along with me. In fact, we laughed knowingly. But we were too polite, too British, to take the discussion any further. 
Let me make the subtext clear: our culture, British culture, is better than the culture that the Egyptian was practicing. No doubt there will be multiculturalists who will shake their heads at this. They will say that no culture is better or worse than another. But I will reply: the Ugandan lad wouldn’t agree with this, and nor would the Zimbabwean girl. Nor would anyone who wants to live in a nice country. British culture is one of the best cultures in the world precisely because it appeals to so many nice people throughout the world.
And let me make the subtext even clearer: the Egyptian’s culture was Islamic. He was the sort of guy who wore his Islam on his sleeve. The sort of guy who, if you offered to share your food with him, would say “no, it’s haram” instead of “no, thank you”. The sort of guy who was obsessed with the Middle East conflict. The sort of guy who sneered at women, sneered at Israel, and sneered at anyone who didn’t share his views. He was an aggressive victim, the likes of whom can be found all-too-often within Islam. Again, no doubt, the multiculturalists will shake their heads at this. They will call me “Islamophobic”. They will say: just because some Muslims behave obnoxiously, this doesn’t mean that Islam itself deserves criticism. After all, they will ask: what about the Bangladeshi Muslims in the kitchen? Not all Muslims go around harassing women, or demonising Israel. Some Muslims are pleasant characters. Islam isn’t all bad.
So – which is the ‘real’ Islam? The pleasant Islam? Or the bigoted Islam? Well, anyone who has met any real Muslims will know that the answer is: both. Islam produces plenty of pleasant characters; and Islam produces plenty of bigots. Indeed, many Muslims are somewhere in the middle: they are pleasant characters with some bigoted views. Reality is messy, but let’s clear one thing up: we need to criticise Islam for its bigotry and its bigots, just as we would criticise any belief system. We need to talk about the bigoted actions and pronouncements of Mohammed himself. We’d be fools and cowards if we only ever accentuated the positive with Islam; we’d be like those fawning cockneys who used to praise gangsters for giving flowers to their mothers. Moreover, we’d be fools and cowards if we delegated the task of criticising Islam to Muslims themselves, instead of taking on the responsibility ourselves. Muslims, as I have discovered over the last few weeks, are hardly likely to perceive and confront Islamic misbehaviour as unflinchingly as we ourselves can and must.
In the end, the warped suggestion that we should judge Islam only by its best adherents and never by its worst adherents is another instance of aggressive victimhood. When it comes to Islam, we are expected to believe that bad views and bad deeds can be whitewashed by howls of protest. Some of us are not falling for it.