Spotting a terrorist is easy. They look just like you.

This sign is common on London buses and trains. It seems the same can be said of terrorists. My latest blog on MIT’s CoLab Radio explores the shock of terrorism being committed on our streets – and the streets of Boston – by people who are, superficially at least, “one of us”.  >>read the full post.

NB Since publishing this post I received the following message from the person who was at high school with Dzokar Tsarnaev and whose prom photo I provide a link to in the post. He says:

“Good luck on your piece, but be sensitive to the fact that while he stands out in this picture, this is not an accurate representation of our entire “group of friends”, in reality we are far more diverse. And in a normal day to day setting, Jahar didn’t stand out from the group like he does here.” 

After my initial messages, I haven’t been able to find a way to publish a reply on your site, so if you are reading this, please accept my warmest thanks for your permission to link to the photograph you published on your site. I wish you and your friends a long life of peace and trust and hope that you will be able to find a way to make something – anything – good come out of the nightmare you’ve been through.



Who really killed Drummer Lee Rigby?

Yesterday afternoon Lee Rigby, a young, off-duty soldier was run over by a car and then hacked to death in Woolwich, 10 miles down the road from my home in London.

“The two alleged murderers made no attempt to escape capture by police,” said BBC security correspondent, Frank Gardner. “The investigators will want to know exactly who they are, who they know, and what their motive was for the attack.”

The motive won’t take much searching for (although there are probably many psychological and social layers underlying it). An astonishingly courageous and cool-headed passer-by, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, kept one of the killers talking to distract him from making further attacks. He told her, “I killed him because he kills Muslims over there and I am fed up that people kill Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.” His accomplice is caught on film by another passer-by explaining similar motives.

But finding out “exactly who they are”, will be easier said than done.

One of the attackers has been identified as 28-year old Michael Adebolajo.

But who is Adebolajo? What defines his identity? Is it his religion? If so, which religion? The one he was born into and of which he was a devout follower until he was 16 years old (Christianity)? Or the one he converted to twelve years ago (Islam)? Michael Adebolajo now goes by the name of Mujahid. And lest we leap to judgments about which of those religions is most violent, let us remember that one phrase he uses to explain his actions, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is echoed in both the Bible and the Quran (and also in the Jewish Torah).

I read that the attackers had been described as being “of Muslim appearance”. I assumed that this meant that they wore the length of beard, and ‘modest’ (ie loose) clothing prescribed by Islam and favoured by many Middle Eastern and Asian Muslims in the UK and elsewhere. So I was somewhat surprised to see in the news footage, that the man brandishing a bloodied cleaver and knife was a clean-shaven black man wearing a tightly buttoned modern duffel jacket, jeans and a knitted hat. (Perhaps whoever described him as being “of Muslim appearance” had access to more intimate views of Adebolajo?).

Or is his identity defined by his country? If so, which country? The media is describing him as “a Briton of Nigerian descent.” Yet he says in the video ” “I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our lands our women have to see the same.” It’s my emphasis, because the phrase leapt out at me, spoken as it was by a guy with an unequivocally London accent. Presumably he’s not talking about Nigeria.

Yet later he contradicts himself again by telling us to tell our politicians “to bring our troops back so you can all live in peace”. Again my emphasis. The blood of one of ‘our’ troops was not yet dry on his hands as he spoke these words.

Last night members of the English Defence League, the EDL, took to the streets and two men have been arrested in separate attempts to attack mosques. So clearly they’ve decided to define him by his religion. Not by his ethnicity, as has happened in the past when British cities have been rocked by black vs white ‘race riots’. (A spin-off identity crisis has hit the electricity company EDF which has had to respond to numerous Tweets denouncing – or praising – its participation in last night’s anti-Muslim demonstrations!).

It seems almost arbitrary what aspect of a killer will be chosen to define him; the Boston bombers’ Uncle Ruslan said they had “brought shame on their whole [Chechnyan] ethnicity”, while British Prime Minister, David Cameron, described yesterday’s murder as a ‘betrayal of Islam’. If they had been women, no doubt their gender would have been in the spotlight.

It’s tempting to try to reduce a horrific event like this down into something simple and understandable. Something we can neatly label and put in a box – like ‘Islamist extremists’. But the truth is always messier, more complex and full of contradictions.

Adebolajo has created a mythology for himself, he has clothed himself and his crime with multiple identities – Islamic jihadist, defender of women’s delicate sensibilities, messenger to British politicians, liberator of the British people. But these mythologies are just that, an attempt to give his crime a veneer of glamour.

So if we must reduce his identity to one comprehensible idea, maybe it should be that he is just a man guilty of a cruel and ultimately pointless murder – as cruel and pointless as the murder of an elderly Muslim man in Birmingham last month.

Click here to Save the World

save the world click hereMy Granny used to raise money for Mother Theresa‘s work with the destitute in Calcutta by running jumble sales and whatnot.  Then one day, to Granny’s deep chagrin, Mother T told her supporters that henceforth, simply running jumble sales was not enough. It was too easy. They should find ways of “giving till it hurts”.

How shocked she would be to discover that nowadays we can help simply  by pressing a button.

Granny was also one of the first to donate used clothes to Oxfam‘s (and the world’s) first ever charity shop in Oxford’s Broad Street. Charity, since then, has become big business. There are pros and cons to this. Oxfam at one point allegedly had more followers than the then ruling Labour party had members, and can therefore cause big (corporate) businesses to quake at the mere suggestion of a campaign.

Modern charities and campaigning organisations like these can harness the power of social media to make it easy – effortless even – for us to support their causes. Their healthy marketing budgets help them craft the sound bite that will most effectively push our emotional buttons so that we unquestioningly push their ‘donate’ buttons, or their ‘Sign the petition’ buttons.

I am not (necessarily) questioning the good intentions of these organisations, but I think it is too easy to be swayed by the pull of a heartstring. In this age of information democratisation,  I think we have a responsibility not to take the easy path, but to look deeply and honestly at both sides of any argument presented to us, and make our own informed decisions.

I learned this lesson last year when, like many in Oxford, I was being frequently waylaid by campaigners to ‘Save Temple Cowley Pool‘. They would regale me, like so many yellow-tshirted Ancient Mariners, with tales of corrupt Oxford City Councillors trying to deprive them of their swimming pool for nefarious economic and political reasons and build it in Blackbird Leys, a low income housing estate on the outskirts of Oxford. They argued that Blackbird Leys residents were being tricked into losing their green spaces to car parks and having their gardens flooded.

Then an actual Blackbird Leys resident told me, quietly, “We would really like to have the pool here – it would be great for the kids – but those town ladies don’t want us to have it for some reason”.

Another friend, who worked for Oxford City Council, told me the campaign was doomed because the pool itself was; it had a structural fault which meant it would be impossible to keep it open. Now all of this could be – as the campaigners tried to convince me – scurrilous misinformation, but at the very least it shows that the story is more complex than they would have had us believe. I expect the truth is always more complex than anyone thinks.

That’s when I vowed never to sign another petition or make another donation without first checking the facts for myself as far as possible. So I have been steadfastly hardening my heart to pictures of cute, sad-eyed beagles who may or may not be being tortured in science labs, hesitating over emails urging me to ‘donate now to end the killing of garment workers‘ and even callously refusing to share a Facebook post informing people (wrongly) how to survive a heart attack when they are alone.

Before I do anything, I will check the facts.

It’s not easy. It takes time. It seems cynical. But it’s better than supporting a flawed cause, spreading misinformation that could actually cost someone’s life, or being used as an emotional cash machine by organisations that may or may not be able to achieve what they claim they can.

Even this wouldn’t be going far enough for Mother Theresa, but I think she would approve of the principle. (Sorry, Granny).

Can a $4 tshirt bring down a factory building?

with great power tshirt cropThe sight of Reshma Begum being pulled alive and uninjured from the wreckage of the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh has sent a wave of joy and relief around the world. But on April 24th, when the world first woke to the news of the collapse of the eight-story factory crushing to death hundreds of men and women, we felt a tsunami of rage and immediately sought a culprit.

When it emerged that cut-price western brand name companies were sourcing from that factory, we sought no more. Multinational company = greed/evil/heartlessness. How could they possibly produce $4 t-shirts without exploiting workers and putting their lives at risk?

But can the price of a t-shirt really lead to a fatal crack in an eight-story building? In my latest blog for MIT’s CoLab Radio, I try to see the full picture. >>go to CoLab Radio

UPDATE: Top companies sign Accord on Fire and Buildling Safety in Bangladesh


Day of Action stall - ElmaThis morning I received an email saying that Elma, who I knew briefly through my time as a member of a FairTrade group, had died. I only met her a few times, but she was one of those people who made you instantly feel like a friend.  She will always be one of my heroes. Here’s why.

At my first FairTrade meeting, Elma sparkled with energy, ideas and sensible suggestions. It was only when the meeting ended and we all got up – all except Elma – that I realised she was in a wheelchair.

And that was almost the last time I noticed that she was in a wheelchair. The wheelchair was not what defined Elma, any more than the mobility of our legs is what defines the non-wheelchair bound among us.

Elma was a woman on a mission. With the help of her husband, Ian, and a group of volunteers, she supported the work of another incredible woman, Maryam Bibi, whose organisation Khwendo Kor, does many things, including setting up schools for girls and income generation projects for women… in Taliban territory in North West Pakistan. Needless to say, Maryam and her team suffer regular death threats and attempts on their lives – but they insist on carrying on their work.

It was the same dogged determination and insistence on doing what was right in the face of adversity that kept Elma attending meetings, organising fundraisers and manning stalls selling piles of colourful baskets made by Pakistani women.

She told me once about getting the chance to visit Khwendo Kor. The Foreign Office strongly advised against the visit to one of the most dangerous places in the world. But, laughing mischievously, Elma told me she refused to pass up the opportunity of a lifetime, and ignored the advice, making Ian drag her up and down the mountains! Ian still looked a bit shaken at the memory of it!

Attached to the email about Elma’s death, was a letter she had left her family. I hope they will forgive me for sharing it with you, and I hope you will be as inspired, amused and moved as I was by Elma’s no-nonsense appreciation of the good in her life and her refusal to succumb to self-pity or pride:

“Dear family,” it begins, “Bossy and interfering to the last, I thought you might like some suggestions for my funeral…”

After listing the hymns and readings she would like, she continues;

“… Above all, don’t let anyone go on about illness and suffering bravely borne! I should like someone to say that I was blessed beyond anyone I know, in the family I was born into, the countryside I grew up in, the friends I made, the husband I married and the children I had, and the sense I had of the enveloping love of God which followed me all the days of my life and would not let me go.”

Needless to say, instead of flowers for her funeral she has requested donations to Friends of Khwendo Kor

Horse Tales

Image: Catholic Herald 

Good old Billy Bragg was on the radio the other day promoting Tooth & Nail, his new album of love songs – a departure from his usual pared down, political and protest songs. When challenged by the presenter on his objection to a preponderance of public school alumni in the music charts (“That’s just the market, isn’t it?”), he said “Yeah, well you know what you get if you leave everything to the market, don’t you? You get horsemeat in your burgers.”

To us vegetarians one large, herbivorous animal’s flesh is pretty much as unpalatable as another, but the point, I suppose, is that if it says beef burger on the tin and what you’re actually getting is horse – you wonder what else could have been smuggled in there? It has raised the spectre in the British psyche of the labyrinthine Supply Chain; Supply Chains that link farms and abattoirs and agents and contractors and packers and exporters and retailers and processors – looping back and forth across Europe like so many steaming entrails, until traceability becomes all but impossible.

How tightly those dark and twisting entrails bind us to our European neigh(sorry)bours! Because as well as the content of your food, you may also be surprised to learn how it is being processed – and by whom. Oh, what tales are secreted along those British food industry Supply Chains! Tales of Lithuanians being trafficked into the UK  and driven up and down the country for weeks, forced to chase free-range chickens all night (…not quite sure why) and sleeping in the van by day. Tales of Romanian children picking strawberries on Worcestershire farms – a grim parody of the jolly family outings to pick-your-own farms we enjoyed when we were children. Tales of teenage Chinese cockle pickers dragged to their deaths by the freezing tides of Morecombe Bay… (here’s Christy Moore’s tribute song for them).

But for me, the most curious tale of all is where all this cheap horsemeat has suddenly appeared from; another sobering reminder of how intimately globalisation has bound us all together. A few years ago, Romania banned horse drawn carts from its roads, creating an embarrasse des cheveaux. Well, if you were an impoverished Romanian horse cart owner, what would you do? Hark the quiet clacking of global economic dominoes falling… it begins with a Romanian government transport official’s signature and ends in the burger between your buns.

I’m sorry, is this post getting too depressing? To cheer you up again, here’s a joke I heard the other day: “There will be fewer Romanians than we feared flooding into Britain when they join the EU next year… we’ve eaten all their transport”.*

If Billy Bragg’s not busy penning a musical response to the horsemeat scandal he darn well should be.

* More horsemeat jokes? Here you go – with apologies to Ikea and Tesco.

Human Rights for Santa’s Elves?

Today, December 10th is International Human Rights Day. Are the rights of Santa’s elves being respected as they toil to make your gifts?

I finished most of my Christmas shopping yesterday. But this year I felt less morally conflicted about spending so much money on frivolous gifts while so many others don’t even have enough for their basic needs. Because this year I’ve had a revelation, thanks to my new workplace: virtually everything we buy in the wealthy West is made not by elves, but by someone in a developing country… >>read more


A beautiful solution to a natural problem

I was always embarrassed by sanitary towel adverts on telly – to my daughter’s disapproval. Then, in February this year, I went to India as part of a Pepal’s management development programme, and was allocated to a group looking at feminine hygiene. I discovered a fascinating world of cultural taboos, brave and ingenious entrepreneurs, ecological, social and economic dilemmas. My latest blog for MIT’s Colab Radio describes the problem, and some beautiful solutions.


The Tale of the Not So Good Samaritan

Photo: Eat Hackney website

It was a sunny Saturday morning. I was taking a shortcut across the St John-at-Hackney churchyard. Young women were collecting money for some charity. Stalls selling cheese, pies, fragrant soaps, second-hand clothes and handicrafts lined the path. People sat sunning themselves on the benches. Two squirrels were having a ferocious battle at the foot of a tree.

Stopping to watch them made me notice that beyond them, behind a gravestone, lay a young man. He was lying on his side with his arms stretched downwards towards his knees. His head flopped on the grass at an angle that didn’t imply sleep. Probably drunk, I thought. Another man stopped and looked to see what I was staring at. Perhaps he would deal with it. I was late for my appointment. I went on my way.

On my way back and hour or so later, I noticed the young man was still lying there in exactly the same position. Now there was a man in a blue uniform, jacket unbuttoned, relaxing on one of the benches.

“Do you think that man’s ok?” I asked him.

He turned round to look, shrugged and said,

“It’s not my job. I am not a policeman or an ambulance man.”

“I’m just asking you as a human being.”

“Same as you. You could call the police or ambulance!” he snapped back.

I went and had a closer look at the prone young man. He was dirty and had a few small cuts on him. He was breathing. Should I try to wake him? Would he attack me if I did? Would he need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation? The thought repelled me. Should I just buy him a cup of coffee or some water and just leave them beside him to find when he wakes up?

In the end I did nothing. I decided that he probably was just sleeping off a hangover and it would have seemed ridiculous for me to leave treats for him. If he was ill, I’m sure one of the charity collectors would notice and help him. Or the priest responsible for the churchyard. I’m from out of town. It’s not really my responsibility.

I’ve felt terrible about this decision ever since. My inaction was, if anything, worse than the man in uniform because he had made a conscious, unashamed decision not to get involved. Perhaps his contract forbade him from doing so. I had no real excuse. Even if the man was simply sleeping off a hangover, it would have been nice for him to wake up to a bottle of water or a coffee – a random act of kindness. And just because he was breathing, that didn’t mean he was not unconscious or in a coma.

My inaction was worse because I make a point of being socially aware and getting involved in community projects, buying fair trade and supporting good works in far flung countries. And writing these blogs.

For whom are we responsible? To whom are we accountable?

Somewhere I read that our duty in life is simply to do what is necessary; if you are in a room that needs sweeping and there is a broom, your duty is to sweep the room. It didn’t add – “…but only if it’s your job” or “…but only if it doesn’t make you look ridiculous or repel you.” It didn’t add  ” …as long as there’s non-one else around who looks like they might do it instead.”

Nettle Soup and Eco-Clowns Inspire a People’s Food Revolution

My latest blog post on MIT’s CoLab Radio is about the recent springing up of lots of new initiatives in Oxford that are putting food – it’s production and pricing – back into the hands of the people who eat it.

I asked four people what motivated them to make these initiatives. They include Chris Waites, who initiated The People’s Supermarket Oxford, a cooperatively financed and run food shop which is opening on the Cowley Road this Saturday (21st July) at 11 am.  Chris is pictured below beside my Just Change mural freshly painted on the People’s Supermarket wall.

Go to CoLAb Radio to read the full post