Johann Hari’s Orwell Prize

On Thursday 15th September, the Independent published a personal apology from Johann Hari. Hari wrote: “So first, even though I stand by the articles which won the George Orwell Prize, I am returning it as an act of contrition for the errors I made elsewhere, in my interviews. But this isn’t much, since it has been reported that they are minded to take it away anyway.”

Four and a half years before, on Monday, 30th April 2007, the Independent published what was to be one of the columns for which Hari won the Orwell Prize for Journalism 2008: How multiculturalism is betraying women.

On Wednesday 14th September, Johann Hari sent back the plaque which had been awarded to him on winning the Prize. He did not include any written explanation or apology, and even though he’d said he was doing it so that his apology would cost him something, he did not return the £2000 prize money. (After this had been publicly revealed, Hari contacted the Prize and offered to repay: Political Quarterly invited him to donate the sum to English PEN.)

Hari claimed in his apology to stand by this and the other articles for which he won the Prize, and to have returned his Prize as an “act of contrition” only.

To take a longer and more detailed look at this article:

Hari opens the article setting up a false dilemma: “Do you believe in the rights of women, or do you believe in multiculturalism?” He claims that a series of verdicts in the German courts in the past month – that is, Hari says they all occurred in April 2007 – show that “hot, hard logic” says you can’t have both.

(What kind of logic is “hot and hard”?)

The first case Hari references is that of Nishal, “a 26-year-old Moroccan immigrant to Germany with two kids and a psychotic husband.” This case is dealt with in an article in Der Spiegel, published 29th March 2007.

So right away you can see a problem. Hari claims on 30th April that all the verdicts he refers to occurred in “the past month”. But Nishal’s case, with the verdict Hari is outraged about, was written up in some detail in a news report published just over a month earlier. But perhaps Hari interprets “the past month” differently from the way I do – perhaps he means “the month before last”. Okay, pass on.

In Der Spiegel:

a 26-year-old German woman of Moroccan origin who was terrified of her violent Moroccan husband, a man who had continued to threaten her despite having been ordered to stay away by the authorities. He had beaten his wife and he had allegedly threatened to kill her.

By Johann Hari:

Since their wedding night, this husband beat the hell out of her. She crawled to the police covered in wounds, and they ordered the husband to stay away from her. He refused. He terrorised her with death threats.

Did Hari speak to anyone involved in this case? Hari’s paragraph looks pretty much like a paraphrase directly of the Der Spiegel paragraph: Hari’s juiced it up, taken out the careful “allegedly”, given us a vivid word picture of this woman crawling to the police (why “crawling”? To convey the picture of someone too beaten to stand, I suppose…) and the police ordering the husband away. It’s practically a picture-book. Does it come from anywhere but Hari’s own head, seeing this picture in his mind’s eye?

In Der Spiegel:

But German law requires a one-year separation before a divorce can be completed — and exceptions for an expedited process are only granted in extreme situations. When the woman’s attorney, Barbara Becker-Rojczyk, filed a petition for an expedited divorce, Judge Christa Datz-Winter suddenly became inflexible. According to the judge, there was no evidence of “an unreasonable hardship” that would make it necessary to dissolve the marriage immediately. Instead, the judge argued, the woman should have “expected” that her husband, who had grown up in a country influenced by Islamic tradition, would exercise the “right to use corporal punishment” his religion grants him.

The judge even went so far as to quote the Koran in the grounds for her decision. In Sura 4, verse 34, she wrote, the Koran contains “both the husband’s right to use corporal punishment against a disobedient wife and the establishment of the husband’s superiority over the wife.”

By Johann Hari:

So Nishal went to the courts to request an early divorce, hoping that once they were no longer married he would leave her alone. A judge who believed in the rights of women would find it very easy to make a judgement: you’re free from this man, case dismissed.

But Judge Christa Datz-Winter followed the logic of multiculturalism instead. She said she would not grant an early divorce because – despite the police documentation of extreme violence and continued threats – there was no “unreasonable hardship” here.

Why? Because the woman, as a Muslim, should have “expected” it, the judge explained. She read out passages from the Koran to show that Muslim husbands have the “right to use corporal punishment”. Look at Sura 4, verse 34, she said to Nishal, where the Koran says he can hammer you. That’s your culture. Goodbye, and enjoy your beatings.

This is not the direct plagiarism of the interviews. There’s no cut-and-pasting except where Hari is quoting the direct speech cited in the Der Spiegel article he read. But as far as I can tell, there’s no reporting going on here. Hari has found a good story and is sexing it up. (The judge did not say “Goodbye, and enjoy your beatings”. That’s Hari’s.) Contrary to Hari’s lurid portrayal of a country tilting over to Shariah law, Judge Christa Datz-Winter was widely condemned in Germany from left and right, her verdict overturned, and Nishal granted a speedy divorce.

In Der Spiegel:

Germany’s only minister of integration at the state level, Armin Laschet, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) from the state of North Rhine Westphalia, sees the Frankfurt ruling as the “last link, for the time being, in a chain of horrific rulings handed down by German courts” — rulings in which, for example, so-called honor killings have been treated as manslaughter and not murder.

By Johann Hari:

This is not a freakish exception. Germany’s only state-level Minister for Integration, Armin Laschet, says this is only “the last link, for the time being, in a chain of horrific rulings handed down by the German courts”.

Following this for the first time Hari acknowledges his source, but nothing in his acknowledgement says this is a single article published a month ago. “The German magazine Der Spiegel has documented a long list of these multicultural verdicts.” And these are all, according to Hari’s article, supposed to have happened in April (or at least in March) 2007.

Then he lists them – apparently, directly from the Der Spiegel article:

A Lebanese-German man who strangled his daughter and then beat her unconscious with a bludgeon because she didn’t want to marry the man he had picked out for her. Sentenced to probation. “Cultural background” a mitigating factor. Hari names the daughter Ibthahale. (In Der Spiegel this is identified as a sentence handed down by the municipal court in Leverkusen. In 2005. – “He hit her on the head with a stick. When it broke he choked her and threatened to stab her to death.”) Ibthahale is a name I have been unable to find anywhere except in Hari’s article, but it might easily be a mishearing of “Ibtihal”, a Muslim girl’s name meaning “prayer”.

A Turkish-German man in Frankfurt who stabbed his wife to death was given the lowest possible sentence. “because, the judge said, the murdered woman had violated his ‘male honour, derived from his Anatolian moral concepts’. The bitch.” Hari named the wife Zeynep. (In Der Spiegel this is identified as a sentence handed down by Frankfurt District Court. In 2003. To a Turkish-born man who killed his German-born wife “She had disobeyed him and was even insolent enough to demand a divorce.”) Zeynep is a Turkish given name.

A Lebanese-German man in Essen who raped his wife while whipping her with a belt was sentenced to probation. Hari named the wife Fatima. (In Der Spiegel this is identified as a sentence handed down by Frankfurt District Court. In 2002. Hari’s overactive imagination seems to have written in the rape occuring while the man whipped her with a belt: the DS article says he “routinely beat his children and wife with a belt and also raped his spouse”.)

I find it significant that literally the only new information, not referenced in the Der Spiegel article, is the women’s names. In normal ethical journalistic tradition, the women are not named or identified in the article. I don’t know, of course, that Hari didn’t locate the two surviving women and get their consent to be named in his article, but I find it highly unlikely, because if he had tracked them down and used his world-renowned interviewing skills on them, wouldn’t there have been more, and more interesting, background material he could have used to dress up his article?

I think he just made the names up. Zeynep and Fatima and Ibtihal are all findable on searchable databases of Muslim’s girl’s names. He may have thought that Ibtihal didn’t “look” feminine enough. But in any case. These happened not in the space of a couple of months in 2007, but over a span of five years. They’re horrible. But they didn’t happen when Hari said.

(Aside – Hari says “like Soujourner Truth, the female slave who famously challenged early women’s rights activists to consider black women as their sisters – ‘Ain’t I a woman?'” This is interesting because Sojourner Truth (“Soujourner” seems to be the most common misspelling of her name) famously spoke at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, on 29th May 1851, and the earliest recorded version of her speech is a challenge explicitly to men not to women: “You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble.” The version of the speech which contains the refrain “And ain’t I a woman?” seems to have been an early Hari-isation of what Truth actually said, published by Frances Dana Barker Gage in May 1863, rewritten into Southern slave dialect – though Truth was born in New York State and spoke Dutch until she was nine. I’m not coming down on Hari especially for using a cultural icon in the way she is usually used – how many people except interested feminists and historians of the women’s suffrage movement know that the famous Gage version of the speech is what a racist white feminist thought a black woman ought to have said, written from memory 12 years later, getting major facts of Truth’s life wrong, and certainly in completely the wrong dialect? But I thought it was ironic, given the context, that Hari invented names, got a real woman’s name wrong, and has never ever looked past the Gage version of the Sojourner Truth speech.)

The article in Der Spiegel looks thoughtfully and in detail over several pages about the issues of “respecting” what has been described as “Muslim culture”. You could summarise the article into two paragraphs, if you really wanted to, and Hari does:

In Germany today, Muslim women have been reduced to third-class citizens stripped of core legal protections – because of the doctrine of multiculturalism, which says a society should be divided into separate cultures with different norms according to ethnic origin.

Too often this issue is mixed up with other debates and gets waved through for the sake of politeness. The right loves mashing “mass immigration and multiculturalism” into one sound-bite. Well, I think Britain should take more immigrants and refugees, not fewer – but multiculturalism is a disastrous way to greet them.

You could. But probably you shouldn’t. Better to quote and give attribution, or even consider the issue and look equally thoughtfully at our own culture, with actual examples (and it would help to get their dates right and not make up names, too.)

Hari then mentions something which isn’t in the Der Spiegel article. He says

Across Europe, many imams are offering advice to Muslim men on how to beat Muslim women. For example, in Spain, the popular Imam Mohammed Kamal Mustafa warns that you shouldn’t use “whips that are too thick” because they leave scars that can be detected by the “infidels”.

This is reported in a BBC news item from Wednesday, 14 January, 2004, when
Mohamed Kamal Mustafa was sentenced to 15 months in jail (suspended – Spanish law suspends sentences of under two years for first offences) and fined 2,160 euros for inciting violence against women in his book Women in Islam, published 2001. Hari identifies Mustafa as a “popular Imam” but I’m unclear on what he’s basing that assessment. Are we to suppose that Hari went to Spain to find out? Fuengirola, where Mustafa is imam, is a popular holiday resort on the Costa del Sol, so it’s possible that Hari was there, at some point. But “popular” in the national or international sense, widely known, no.

The BBC says In his book, Mustafa wrote that in disciplining a disobedient wife: “The blows should be concentrated on the hands and feet using a rod that is thin and light so that it does not leave scars or bruises on the body.”

Mustafa is quoted by the BBC (not Hari) as saying “he was opposed to violence against women and had been simply interpreting the Koran.” The book had been withdrawn from Islamic cultural centres around Spain when around 90 women’s groups filed a lawsuit. BBC journalist Katya Adler is quoted as saying from Madrid that “domestic violence is an issue of growing public concern in Spain, where until just over 25 years ago it was not considered a criminal offence.” and that “Women’s groups across the country were celebrating the sentence”. Ahead of the trial, the Federation of Muslim Entities and the Islamic Commission had come forward to distance themselves from the imam’s book, pointing out that the Koran and other sacred texts condemns violence against women.

Hari, if he did any online research at all, knew this as well as I do from the same BBC news report. But he writes:

And yes, we should admit that this is disproportionately a problem among Muslim, Sikh and Hindu immigrants who arrive from countries which have not had women’s rights movements.

I don’t know which countries he’s thinking of. Not India, surely? Does he buy into the conservative idea that Islamic countries don’t have women’s rights movements? It is doubly ironic that, in an article in which Hari cites Sojourner Truth (however vaguely) he also buys into the racist idea that feminism is something white women do. See also, just to take the racist taste out of your mouth: Diary of a Muslim Feminist, Sikhism – A Feminist Religion?, and Hinduism and Feminism.

Hari invites us to “Listen to Jasvinder Sanghera” – who founded Karma Nirvana (Hari doesn’t name it – he apostrophises it “as the best British charity helping Asian women”) I have no idea if Hari himself has ever actually met Sanghera, though he quotes her saying “It’s a betrayal of these women to be PC about this. Look at the figures. Asian women in Britain are three times more likely to commit suicide than their white friends. That’s because of all this.”

Interestingly, in a documentary broadcast this year, four years after Hari wrote this story, Jasvinder travels to India to meet her older sister for the first time, and finds that the point of honour over which she was estranged from her family in Britain, means less in India:

Asked if she knew how Jasvinder had run away from the arranged marriage and whether she believe this brought shame on the family, Bugenol says: “Not at all. Just ignore them.” Jasvinder realises that the point of honour being defended so hotly by her parents in England seems to mean nothing to the family members she meets in India, who completely accept her. “I have lost 29 years of family who don’t have a grudge against me. I don’t know whose honour they were trying to preserve, because it’s nothing to do with anybody here. For the first time I am embracing my real culture. I can see beyond the oppression that my culture brought into my life in England.”

BBC producer Dan Farthing, who travelled to India with Jasvinder, says: “There does seem to be some kind of time shift in operation in all of this. The first generation immigrants to the UK became locked into an outmoded mindset. People in the village in India did not have the same feelings about it at all. It was a huge fillip to her that she had been right to believe what she believed about her mother using religion as a tool of oppression. Jasvinder heard from her sister that her father had been proud of her in many ways, which is perverse, given the situation that had gone on for so many years.

I’m quoting from the Yorkshire Post, Friday 25 March 2011, about the documentary which was broadcast on BBC One and available on BBC iPlayer.

When Hari said he “stood by his articles”, had he seen Jasvinder’s documentary? Hari defends Labour MP Ann Cryer as one of the “brave campaigners who have tried to help these women” but who have been “smeared as racist”. From reports of what Ann Cryer’s said I think both could be true – it would take a very arrogant white person to be sure they were not racist (look at Hari’s ignorance of his own racist dismissal of the women’s liberation movements in those countries that “Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus” come from). An MP doesn’t have to be particularly brave or much of a campaigner to speak out in defense of her constituents, and white MPs can have the best intentions and still come out with thoroughly racist tosh.

In fact, the real racists are the people who vehemently condemn misogyny and homophobia when it comes from white people but mysteriously fall silent when it comes from black and Asian men.

If you google the phrase “the real racists are” you get a real interesting set of results. In fact one link I found was an article by Mark Steyn, from 20th August 2002, entitled (what else?) Mark Steyn: Multiculturalists are the real racists, first published in the National Post. Incidentally, Johann Hari reviewed Steyn’s book America Alone, in March 2007 – a review published in the New Statesman just six weeks before this “multiculturalism” article was published in the Independent. (Via) Is it too much of a stretch to suppose that Hari had read that article?

Moving back to Johann Hari’s main source for his Prize-winning article, he wrote:

Indeed, in the name of this warm, welcoming multiculturalism, the German courts have explicitly compared Muslim women to the brain-damaged. The highest administrative court in North Rhine-Westphalia has agreed that Muslim parents have the “right” to forbid their daughter from going on a school trip unless she was accompanied by a male family member at all times. The judges said the girl was like “a partially mentally impaired person who, because of her disability, can only travel with a companion”.

The Der Spiegel version is

At the time, the higher administrative court in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia ruled that a female Muslim student in the 10th grade should be permitted not to take part in a school trip. The family had argued that Islam prohibits allowing girls to go on such trips without being accompanied by a male family member. The family also insisted that the girl was constantly worried about losing her headscarf. The judges found that such fears were “comparable with the situation of a partially mentally impaired person who, because of her disability, can only travel with a companion.”

The issue of Muslim adolescent girls not being allowed to take part in school trips because of family objections is a real one. But Hari conflates the comments made by one judge in 2002 in the Oberverwaltungsgerichte of North Rhine-Westphalia, with “the German courts”. The legal opinion on which the Oberverwaltungsgerichte based their decision had been written a few years earlier, Der Spiegel says, by Amir Zaidan, the then chairman of the Islamic Religious Community in the state of Hesse.

Hari then goes on to “interview” the Iranian author Azar Nafisi (which is to say, he quotes something she probably wrote at some point, which Hari will have read, but gives it without context or attribution):

“I very much resent it when people – maybe with good intentions or from a progressive point of view – keep telling me, ‘It’s their culture’ … It’s like saying the culture of Massachusetts is burning witches.” She is horrified by the moves in Canada to introduce shariah courts to enforce family law for Muslims.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that this quote would make solid sense in context and support Hari’s argument. But I surely would like to know where and when Nafisi wrote it, since I’m damn sure Hari didn’t call her and ask for a quote.

Patrick Tucker, senior editor of THE FUTURIST magazine, interviews Azar Nafisi:

Iran has a unique history; it goes back 3,000 years to the beginning of Zoroastrianism. Even now, the Islam practiced today in Iran is mixed and mingled with pre-Islamic traditions. The Iranian New Year is celebrated on the first of March; the names in the calendar are Zoroastrian deities. We are a multicultural society, with different religions, different traditions, living side by side. This provides the flexibility the country needs to accept the new.

Hari asserts finally

It is multiculturalists, for example, who are the biggest champions of the Government’s massive expansion of “faith” schools, where children will be segregated according to parental superstition and often taught the most literalist and cruel strain of a “faith”.

Well, no, Hari. The biggest champions of faith schools are, understandably enough, the religious organisations that run those faith schools. In the UK, those religious organisations aren’t Muslim: they’re primarily the Church of England and the Catholic Church.

When a white atheist man informs Muslim women that “we” need to empower them “to reinterpret the Koran in less literalist and vicious ways, or to leave their religion all together, as they wish” I find my skin itching. As a white atheist. As a believer in multiculturalism, not the fake straw doll put up by Hari to be shot at. (An actual Muslim interpretation of the Sura which was referenced by the German judge. (Before getting righteously angry because in the 7th century the Prophet Muhammad wrote that it was acceptable under some circumstances for a man to beat his wife so long as he caused her no injury, bear in mind that it wasn’t until the 20th century that wife-beating or rape in marriage became crimes in this country: and that distasteful though I find it, it’s a world away from Hari’s gloating over beaten women and declaring that imams all over Europe are recommending methods of wife-beating to Muslim men.)

Given that I’m now really pretty certain that all Hari knows about the cases he revamped and quoted in this article is what he read about them in Der Spiegel, and that he made three of these names up, I found the final two sentences of his Prize-winning article ironic, though I’m sure Hari thought they were profound:

But I can give you a few good reasons not to. Their names are Nishal and Ibthahale and Zeynep and Fatima, and, yes, they were women.

The Orwell Prize can’t research the work submitted: they have relied on “the integrity of authors and of their publisher’s editorial practices”. In July 2011, the Council of the Orwell Prize met to investigate the basis for the allegations being made about Hari’s work, and found – as I have just done – that the article contained “inaccuracies and conflated different parts of someone else’s story”.

The Council ruled that the substantial use of unattributed and unacknowledged material did not meet the standards expected of Orwell Prize-winning journalism. 27th September 2011

I’m really astonished that Johann Hari stood by this article – I have no idea about the others he submitted, but at least one of them was actually based on a real overseas trip, even if it’s now alleged that Hari made up some of the best quotes. But this one? It reads like Hari had been inspired by Mark Steyn and a German news story to spend an evening putting together a blog post, except most good bloggers would be more methodical about citing their sources.

Johann Hari ripped off Mark Steyn. And the writers who actually researched the material in the Der Spiegel article. (Matthias Bartsch, Andrea Brandt, Simone Kaiser, Gunther Latsch, Cordula Meyer and Caroline Schmidt. The article was translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.) And I’m pretty sure he nicked some material casually from the BBC. I hope he pays his license fee. And he obviously owns books by Jasvinder Sanghera and Azar Nafisi. Good for him. This is not journalism. This is blogging, of the “bored, tired, can’t be bothered to have an original thought, let’s dig some stuff out of the ‘Net and my bookshelves and throw it together” kind.

And Mark Steyn. Dude.


Filed under Racism, Women

2 responses to “Johann Hari’s Orwell Prize

  1. Wetherby

    It’s DER Spiegel.

    Normally not worth quibbling about, but since this is a piece about journalistic accuracy and the importance of doing your own research…

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