In January The Guardian reported the story of Hamza bin Walayat, a Pakistani man who had his application for asylum in the UK rejected because he could not correctly answer a question about the ancient Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. Walayat, who has been living in the UK since 2011, renounced his Muslim faith and became a humanist. He sought asylum in the UK because of the persecution he would face returning to Pakistan. The Guardian reported that Walayat “had received death threats from members of his family and community in Pakistan after integrating into secular British life, forming a relationship with a non-Muslim partner and refusing to conform to the expectations of conservative Islam.” However, in the report from his Home Office interview, Walayat was criticised because he had “been unable to provide a consistent or credible account with regards the main aspect of [his] claim”, namely that he is a humanist. The Guardian went on to report that the home office stated:
“When tested on his knowledge of humanism, Walayat gave a ‘basic definition’ but could not identify ‘any famous Greek philosophers who were humanistic’. The letter said: ‘When you were informed by the interviewing officer that he was referring to Plato and Aristotle, you replied: “Yeah, the thing is because of my medication that is strong I just forget stuff sometimes”.’ The Home Office concluded: ‘Your knowledge of humanism is rudimentary at best and not of a level that would be expected of a genuine follower of humanism.’”
Bob Churchill, of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, and Andrew Copson, of Humanists UK, both protested the decision. Churchill argued “[f]or many, the broad descriptive ‘humanist’ is just a softer way of saying atheist, especially if you come from a place where identifying as atheist may be regarded as a deeply offensive statement.” Copson worried that the move “set a dangerous precedent for non-religious people fleeing persecution”, adding that the questions Walayat was asked “reveal a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of humanism”.
Many philosophers reiterated this sentiment in an open letter to the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, with a shortened version appearing in The Guardian. The letter was coordinated by Helen de Cruz, a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes, and signed by over 120 leading philosophers, including Angie Hobbes, professor of the public understanding of philosophy at the University of Sheffield, and a distinguished scholar of ancient philosophy. The letter implored the home secretary to reconsider the decision to deny Walayat asylum on the grounds that he could not identify Plato and Aristotle as humanist thinkers. The letter said:
“Knowledge of Plato and Aristotle is not a reliable test for whether someone is a humanist. Even in the UK, one could be or become a humanist without ever encountering them.
There is no scholarly basis to think that Plato or Aristotle were humanist thinkers, which is defined by Humanists UK as atheists or agnostics who believe in leading a good life on the basis of reason and our common humanity. Both hold that there is a divine realm and stress its philosophical importance. Plato presents arguments for the existence of a divine creator, the immortality of the soul, and proposes a source of value in a supernatural domain independent of the human world (and thus does not reject religious belief). Aristotle is also complex: he believes in an objective human good, but he also believes that this good is shaped by its relation to a divine Unmoved Mover.
At any rate, in general, one need not know who the humanist thinkers are to be a humanist; similarly, one need not know who the Christian thinkers are to be a Christian (by this definition there would be few genuine Christians in the UK).”
While the home office is trying their hand at judging people’s philosophical credentials, philosophers have also been branching out and applying their powers of judgement beyond the walls of the academy. This is the news that Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor of philosophy and law at New York University, will chair the judging committee of the 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Appiah specialises in moral and political philosophy, as well as issues of personal and political identity, cosmopolitanism and nationalism. In 2016 Appiah gave the BBC’s Reith Lectures on the topic of mistaken identities and a book based on these lectures, entitled The Lies that Bind, will be published later this year. Appiah will lead the panel of five judges including humanities professor Jacqueline Rose, crime writer Val McDermid, literary critic Leo Robson and graphic novelist Leanne Shapton. On being appointed chair of the committee Appiah said:
“Who could resist an invitation to join a diverse and distinguished group of fellow readers to explore together the riches of a year of Anglophone fiction, drawn from around the world? The excitement around the prize can help draw attention to brilliant books and worthy writers and creates one of the more interesting literary conversations each year. I’m delighted to contribute to that process.”
The longlist for the award will be announced in July, the shortlist in September, and the winner will be announced at the award ceremony in mid-October.
But this quarter, philosophers have not only been making a splash in the literary world and petitioning for the rights of others, they have also been fighting their own battles. At the time of writing, 61 UK Higher Education institutions are in the middle of the biggest strike action ever seen on UK campuses. Over a four-week period there will be escalating waves of strike action, with a full week walk-out planned from 12 March. The dispute is over pensions and proposals from Universities UK, to shift from a defined benefit scheme to a defined contribution scheme. In a statement, the University and College Union (UCU) said “this would leave a typical lecturer almost £10,000 per year worse off in retirement than under the current set up”. With recent reports of the low wages paid to academic staff on hourly contracts, and stories in the media from those who have had to live in their cars or turn to sex work to support themselves in their low paid academic roles, it is not surprising that 88% of UCU’s members voted to back strike action and 93% backed action short of a strike, especially given the report from The Guardian in February that more than 60 UK vice-chancellors now earn in excess of £300,000 a year. Hopefully the strike will be successful and academics won’t have to live in their cars both in the early, precarious stages of their careers and in their retirement – I don’t think you can plug an electric blanket into a cigarette lighter. But in the short term, the silver lining comes in the form of some of the great philosophy placards on display on the picket lines, including “Foucault off UUK”, the universally applicable “Philosophers against irrationality” and my personal favourite “Cut our pensions? Don’t you Derrida”. Good to see continental philosophers taking a front seat in the ancient art of punning, if not in the curriculum, but that’s a conversation for another day.