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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

England’s Revenge



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On one occasion in New York, I listened to a speech by Mr. Rupert Murdoch in which he said something to the effect that at Oxford he had received a second-rate education in a third-rate country. Quite a few in that audience had been to Oxford and thought well of England, so a sort of shudder went through the room. Success of course led him to talk like that quite often and openly, making him unpopular, the envy and the hatred all mixed up. Right now, England is having its revenge on the man.

A miasma of accusation is sweeping the country. Murdoch journalists evidently hacked into private telephones, which is forbidden by law. Money has passed between such journalists and the police, which is also forbidden by law. So far, ten journalists have been arrested, and two senior police officers have resigned. There seems to be evidence of lying and prevaricating. Gagging orders have been placed on lawyers to prevent them from revealing what they know. Two committees have been set up to investigate, and parliament was recalled for a debate. One of the arrested journalists was the chief of communications for Prime Minister David Cameron, and he was obliged to resign. The issue enlarges into party politics.

Mr. Murdoch may have been far and away the richest and most influential media baron, but his competitors are showing neither respect nor mercy.

Photographers are sure to have caught him looking all his 80 years, badly dressed, harassed, past it. Questioned by one of the committees, he often hesitated, and of course the cameras dwelled on his apparent failure to find the answer he needed. At that committee some intruder threw a carton of some kind of cream in his face, and he could be made to look ridiculous for that — he seemed like some malefactor put into the stocks in a medieval village to be pelted with rubbish. He also apologised for his papers’ misdeeds, and the Daily Telegraph then ran the exultant headline in gigantic type, “Murdoch eats humble pie.” As for the BBC, it makes no pretence at objective reporting, glorying in one program after another in Mr. Murdoch’s predicament, exaggerating it with speculation that places him and all who come into this story in the worst possible light. Neither they, nor I, are in possession of enough hard facts on which to base a properly judged conclusion.

I have often wondered how people in the past joined in witch-hunts, suspending reason and passing sentence of death on the basis of prejudice and mass hysteria. Now I know how it happens.

Hari, Disgrace to the George Orwell Prize, Suspended



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More news about Johann Hari, a journalist on the Independent, a British newspaper very keen to claim the moral high ground and to rubbish everyone else. This Hari has an outstanding reputation for trickery. On one occasion he joined a National Review cruise passing himself off as an ordinary passenger and writing it up as though he’d been behind enemy lines. If that’s not being an imposter, what is it? But his speciality is to do interviews and incorporate into the published article whole passages as though they had been spoken to him when actually they have been written elsewhere. The Daily Telegraph for instance singles out that in a nearly 5,000-word interview with Ann Leslie, a very experienced reporter, he took 545 words from an article she had written in the Daily Mail. If that’s not plagiarism, what is it? His editor has now suspended him “pending the outcome of an internal inquiry.” This Hari was once awarded the George Orwell Prize, and those judges are having an investigation into what he did. Orwell is known to have attacked nuisance-types with an uplifted chair, and that is what he’d have done to this Hari trading on his name and reputation.

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Another Era of Peace and Justice for Sudan?



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A Sudanese novelist by the name of Tayyib Salih has retired to London. I practiced my Arabic by translating his novel Season of Migration to the North. Here is a tragic story of a Sudanese who tries to live up to the standards of the British, fails to do so, and kills his English girlfriend and then himself. And this is also pretty close to the story of Sudan.

True, at the battle of Omdurman at the close of the nineteenth century, the British sealed their occupation by killing ten thousand Sudanese, the bravest of the brave, in the face of machine-guns. The young Winston Churchill rode in the decisive cavalry charge and remained proud of it for the rest of his life. But it didn’t take long for Sudan to become the outstanding example of enlightened colonialism. About 200 British officials administered this vast country with its 500 or so tribes of different religion and ethnicity and language, and brought them peace and justice. Tayyib Salih acknowledges it in his book.

The news that Sudan has just split led me to look again at the writings of some of these former governors and district commissioners, men of immense experience and devotion to Sudan like Sir Reginald Wingate and Colonel Hugh Boustead. Wilfred Thesiger, the great explorer, joined the Sudan Service and left an unforgettable portrait of his time there in the 1930s and the humanity that he learnt. “Ever since then it has been people that have mattered to me,” he writes in his autobiography.

How long ago that all was, and how much better that lost world seems than the ghastly murderous decades since then. The Sudanese have been fighting each other now for almost half a century, in a free-for-all of Muslims, Christians, and animists, tribe against tribe, with women and children raped and left to die, villages burnt, wells poisoned, anything cruel that the strong can devise to send the weak to the wall.

The criminals who did this will be remembered for a long time as the janjawid, a local version of the Gestapo. It is said that between two or three million defenseless Sudanese were killed, and as many displaced, but the real numbers will never be known.

Sudan has just divided with the Muslims keeping the north, and the Christians and animists forming a new country, to be known as the Republic of South Sudan. Having lived and suffered under the rule of Islam in the north, the southerners voted almost unanimously to secede and they are celebrating their independence accordingly. They have a president, a capital at Juba, a flag, and an anthem. There are about eight or nine million South Sudanese, most of whom live on one dollar a day, and are illiterate. When Libya became independent, that country had nobody with a Ph.D, and I wonder if South Sudan is any better off.

Just about fifty miles of roads are paved. The country is potentially fertile for agriculture, and it has oil. This may lead to extended warfare, since the boundary with the north is not yet properly demarcated and it is not clear to whom the oil money should go. Equally ominous, it is an article of faith in Islam that territory once held by Muslims cannot be given up. The likes of those English officials are required if there’s to be another period of peace and justice.

Otto von Habsburg, RIP



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All things considered, Otto von Habsburg was pretty modest. Had history turned out differently he would have been Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. Born in 1912 he had memories, just, of the old world destroyed by the First World War. Aged four, he had walked with his parents behind the coffin of his grandfather, Emperor Franz Josef, who had reigned for 68 years, the final crescendo of the Habsburg Empire and a dynasty that had ruled for six and a half centuries. Succeeding to the throne, Otto’s father, Karl, had to play a dreadful hand. On the losing side at the end of the First War, Austria had the makings of revolution. The British King George V was haunted by the recent assassination of his Romanov cousins by the Bolsheviks, and he sent a train to rescue the Habsburgs. Otto was nine when his father died in exile, and he became head of the house, with a few loyalists calling him “Your Majesty.”

Otto learnt the main European languages, and could speak Latin, appropriate for the devout Catholic that he was. He hated Hitler, who hated him in return. Otto spent the Second World War in Washington, and had contact with President Roosevelt. Then he hated the Communists and they hated him. He never raised his voice, he had humdrum looks not improved by the spectacles he wore, but in his presence you knew that he had natural authority and would always do what he thought right. It was impossible to avoid imagining how much better and safer the world would have been if he were still ruling Austria.

The Habsburg Empire comprised sixteen different nationalities, and the Emperors always tried to find some way of avoiding national strife by constructing over-arching institutions that would make unity out of diversity. It didn’t work, it couldn’t be done. Otto became a member of the European parliament in Brussels, and for twenty years pursued the old illusion of unity there. The attempt to put together incompatible nations had ruined Austria as it must ruin the Brussels experiment. Croatia had been a Habsburg possession, and at the end of his life he was lobbying for it to join the EU. It seemed magnificently stubborn that he was so concerned with a country he might have ruled, and still refusing to learn what ought to have been the lesson of so long ago. He was 98 when he died. R.I.P.

Reagan Honored in London



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The centenary of President Ronald Reagan has just been marked in London by the inauguration of a statue of him in Grosvenor Square under the shadow of the American embassy. The larger-than-life bronze statue is a likeness of the man, with a smile and a stance that catch his spirit too. The American ambassador, Louis B. Susman, gave a breakfast for VIPs including Condoleezza Rice, former governor of California Pete Wilson, and a number of congressmen and a senator. But he earned poor headlines in the press by failing to attend a grand dinner in the Guildhall, where other guests were former Prime Minister John Major and four Cabinet ministers (Mrs. Thatcher declined for health reasons). One of these ministers, William Hague, earned good headlines with a speech containing an anecdote about the recent royal wedding. He had told an Arab ambassador, he said, “Look, a million people are heading for the palace — and we’re totally relaxed.”

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Humiliated Hari’s NR Connection



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Someone called Johann Hari has provoked a great burst of laughter throughout Britain. It’s always a joy when someone who strikes a fierce and moral pose is revealed openly and irredeemably as a hypocrite and cheapskate. And that’s our Hari, who is a journalist very keen to give us the benefit of his opinion, and at the top of his voice too.

He specialises in interviews, and one was with an Afghan women’s-rights activist by the name of Malalai Joya. A blogger spotted that the published interview passed off a number of quotes and formulations lifted word for word from a book by this lady as if they were direct speech. In the immediate wake of this plagiaristic subterfuge other bloggers showed that Hari had done the same in previous interviews, for instance with Toni Negri, the last surviving anti-capitalist Marxist-Leninist, and with Gideon Levy, an Israeli who thinks we all ought to bring down that country. Hari at once began wittering about “interview etiquette” in his “intellectual portraits,” and pretended that he wasn’t a plagiarist at all but quoting ideas as expressed by his subjects in writing rather than how they’d expressed it in speech. The belly laughs reached a crescendo before he confessed, “Now I see it was wrong, and I wouldn’t do it again.”

Another journalistic subterfuge of Hari’s should be out in the blogosphere as it helps to fill in the portrait of this fine fellow. He signed on for an NR cruise under false pretences, pretending to be on board like everyone else when his intention was to ridicule the magazine, its ideas, and the readers he was meeting.  What goes around always comes around. He’s now the object of ridicule, and has only his own untrustworthiness to blame for it.

Being a Panelist on Russia Today



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Russia Today is an English-language television station in Moscow. Out of the blue, an e-mail invited me to participate in a panel discussion on the subject of the Arab Spring. I happened to have caught a friend, a Washington insider, on a previous RT panel, and he had pulled no punches. So I accepted. Except that I am now in Florence, Italy, and it wasn’t clear that a studio could be found. Florence in fact has what was needed in its studio for Italy’s main television channel, the state-owned RAI Uno. At the gate on the day, a uniformed keeper said he had to see my passport if he was to let me in. I had no documents of any kind. I smiled. He smiled, and waved me through. I couldn’t help remembering how in the days of Tsar Yeltsin a huge Italian delegation had turned up in the hotel where I was staying, itself belonging to the KGB. They were manufacturers of leather goods come to exhibit and sell, only to discover that all prior arrangements were null and void. By next day, however, they had a hall and had already set their wares up. Moral: Italians, like Russians, have learnt how to negotiate their way through anything.

Russian foreign policy at the moment is every bit as misguided as it was in Soviet days, principally designed to recover its lost superpower status by playing the anti-American card. The power maniacs in the Kremlin are consistent spoilers. Building on Syria’s sovietised past, they have become the leading supporters of Bashar Assad, and make it plain that Russia will use its full influence to oppose any international measures against him. In other words, the Syrian people can go hang. And next week, a Russian minister will be in Iran attending the inauguration of the nuclear plant at Bushehr, the work of Russian engineers and a step in the ayatollahs’ nuclear ambitions that the West tried hard to prevent and Russia will one day regret. The ayatollahs’ missiles have Moscow in range.

I had worked out how to make these points in the hope that some Russians might take them on board. Instead the very articulate anchorman and the other two panelists stuck with generalities about democracy, human rights, intervention in Arab affairs, the mess NATO has got itself into in Libya. No opening for specifics about Russia, Syria, and Iran. That’s how public opinion takes shape. Or fails to.

Another Day . . .



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Another day, another Soviet spy revealed in the heart of the British establishment. The spy this time is James MacGibbon, who in the war worked in a special department of the War Office and passed documents to his Soviet handler in London. A Russian historian, Svetlana Chervonnaya, has been exploring the relevant files. At the same time, MacGibbon’s son, Hamish, has published an article in the London Review of Books, a left magazine that rejoices in anything harmful to Britain.

This article explains how James MacGibbon had been a member of the Communist party before the war but still passed the War Office vetting, like so many other dubious figures. German intelligence had penetrated parts of the Soviet secret service, and MacGibbbon could have given away information that exposed Ultra, the code name for British interception of German radio traffic unknown to the Germans. In that case, as Ben Macintyre, a specialist in these matters, points out in The Times, the Germans could have known in advance the details of D-Day, and the invasion would have ended in disaster. MacGibbon is thought to have received the Order of Lenin for his services.

After the war MacGibbon became a publisher, and it was easy to meet him in literary London. Suave and amiable, he seemed the standard fashionable lefty. As a matter of fact, he looked very like Kim Philby, and had much the same deceptive charm. In itself, his treachery hardly matters now, but it is yet one more illustration of the Soviet Britain that was taking shape in the shadows. Here was a failure of morals and intellect affecting a significant part of the elite, and you have only to read the London Review of Books to realize that the British are still paying for it.

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, R.I.P.



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Paddy Leigh Fermor was someone very special, a clever and debonair man, an idiosyncratic writer, someone whose whole personality and career could only be British. Once I went out to dinner in London, and there he was. Another guest has grown up in Communist Bulgaria but had managed to defect. Paddy immediately sang one Bulgarian nursery song after another in the proper language. As a young man, he’d walked through pre-war Hungary and Romania, and I expect he could have sung songs in those languages too. Those walks provided the material for books that evoke Central Europe as it then was, now far away and long ago, before politics destroyed the picturesque.

Real heroes are modest, and Paddy proved it. You could never have guessed that this sociable fellow apparently eager to be friends with everyone had a war record that made him a living legend. Twenty-five in 1940, he was commissioned into the Brigade of Guards and then transferred to special services. He took part in the British fighting and withdrawal from Greece and Crete, but then set about organizing the Cretan resistance to the German occupation. Passing as a Cretan, speaking the language, he turned out to be a natural guerrilla. The great and unforgettable exploit was the kidnapping of General Kreipe, the German commanding officer in Crete. In pure James Bond style, he and Stanley Moss, another Guards officer, disguised themselves as German soldiers, stopped the General’s car, dealt with the driver, put a gun to the General’s head and drove the car through some 20 roadblocks where sentries were deceived by appearances into merely saluting. They then frog-marched the General across the island to a waiting British submarine. At one point, a German search party failed to find them hiding in a cave. At another point as dawn was coming up on Mount Ida, General Kreipe quoted the opening lines of Horace’s ode praising this very snow-capped sight, whereupon Paddy recited the remaining verses.

“Ach so, Herr Major,” was the compliment with which the general ended this exchange, as unexpected as it is chivalrous. Stanley Moss wrote up the whole exploit in a memoir, Ill Met by Moonlight. I could never get Paddy to say much about it, except that he thought the film of the book was not much good. Could there be men like that again? In these thin days I doubt it, which makes me wish I could turn out the guards and give him a proper salute as he passes. R.I.P.

Assad’s ‘Dangerous Path’



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Videos of what is happening in Syria are revealing yet again how low the human animal can sink. How was it possible to torture the 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib to death, and then mutilate his corpse?  Or for five Syrian soldiers to kick a man senseless and then stand on his body and grin at the photographer, just as German soldiers were proud to do on the Eastern front? It is a fact of life that Bashar Assad is ordering helicopter gunships to fire on his people. Columns of tanks have forced whole populations to abandon provincial towns in order to seek safety in neighbouring Lebanon or Turkey. No Western journalist has entered the country, but still there are courageous Syrians filming the horror of it, persisting even though the Western media qualify these films with the weasel words, “We are unable to verify this.” The White House spokesman is another master of weasel words, saying, “there must be an immediate end to brutality and violence,” and warning Assad that he is leading his nation on “a dangerous path.” Must?  Why then is the United States doing nothing about it? And the path is merely dangerous, is it?  The American ambassador to Damascus, Robert Ford, is reported to be regularly applying to see Assad only to be refused. What insults would it take to withdraw him? Britain, France and Portugal are trying to get some motion through the Security Council. Portugal, that vast military power! Russia promises to save Assad by using its veto. Like Ambassador Ford, Ban Ki-Moon of the United Nations can’t get through to Assad who apparently refuses his calls. The feeling of being sickened contends with the shame of all this.

La Rafle



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There is a journalist in London, quite a well-known figure and author of several books, who once began an article in a leading magazine with the sentence, “Now is the time for all good men to come to the destruction of Israel.” This is exactly what the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad likes to repeat whenever he gets the chance. At a literary occasion this week, I happened to run into this English journalist, and the very next day, by coincidence, I was invited to a press showing of La Rafle, or The Round Up, a French feature film dramatizing the German campaign to destroy the Jews in wartime France.

If our journalist and the ayatollahs had their way, then there would be more atrocious scenes of the kind shown in this very sobering film. Of course one cannot help wondering what the would-be Iranian mass-murderers owe emotionally or ideologically to the actual European mass-murderers of the Second World War.

For a long time the French have been unable or unwilling to face their collaboration with the occupying Nazis. Marcel Ophuls’ pioneering film Le Chagrin et la Pitié was for years virtually boycotted. The films Au revoir les Enfants and Lucien Lacombe broke the taboo, and French historians at last began to research occupation and collaboration. The Round Up is based on the reality of the first mass arrest of Jews in Paris in July 1942. The Germans did not have the manpower or the desk-work intelligence for this, but relied on the French authorities, the police and the transport systems, to do it for them. The Vichy politicians, Marshal Pétain and Prime Minister Laval, are depicted in this film as the deliberate accomplices in crime that they were. Jean Leguay was a civil servant who organized the eventual deportations to Auschwitz, and he too is portrayed here truthfully. He’s the sole Frenchman ever accused of crimes against humanity, but he managed to escape justice. When I interviewed him for my book Paris in the Third Reich he was still trying to excuse and justify himself.

Annette Monod was a heroic and devoted nurse, a Protestant assigned by the Red Cross to help the Jews. Her eye-witness account of that July round up and deportation is a moving document in itself, and serves as the peg for the film — Melanie Laurent impersonates her beautifully and the well-known actor Jean Reno magisterially plays the part of the Jewish doctor with whom she works. In the film, as in real life, children were separated from their parents, and deported by themselves, some too young to know their names. This horror could not be hidden completely. Pastor Boegner, head of the Protestant church, protested to Laval who knowingly lied that the children were to be agricultural workers in Poland. Boegner left a rebuke which should be remembered, “Je lui parlais meurtre, il me répondait jardinage,” that is, “I was speaking to him of murder, he answered about gardening.”

And here they go again, speaking as though the destruction of this whole people were a perfectly normal process that anyone might anticipate.

The Preemptive Cringe



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This week I happened to meet one of the panjandrums of the British Foreign Office, a man who has been at the center of issues involving the Middle East and Afghanistan. What he had to say was a fine example of the FO’s persistent institutional personality. The invasion of Iraq, this man held, had been a mistake, and he was against it. The campaign in Afghanistan is an even more dire mistake. George W. Bush, he believed, had greatly over-reacted to 9/11. The Taliban were disposed at first to throw al-Qaeda out of the country, and a subtler president could have served the national interest better and at less cost by manipulating an open split between the two groups. In his view, fighting has achieved nothing, and never will. The only course of action now is to strike a deal that gives the Taliban what they want. You cannot put down an insurgency with military measures, he concluded as though this was the last word, and the Communist insurgency in Malaya, for instance, had not been defeated.

Listening to this Foreign Office grandee, I couldn’t help being reminded of my old friend Professor J. B. Kelly, in his day the foremost authority on the Persian Gulf and who also coined the immortal phrase “the preemptive cringe” to describe the FO’s manner of operating. In a rather obscure but telling dispute, the Sultan of Oman had retained him as an adviser when Saudi Arabia seized the Omani oasis of Buraimi. The Saudis were completely in the wrong, but they were more important than the Omanis and therefore the Foreign Office was determined to let them have their way. Just a glance round the room was enough, John Kelly told me, to reveal officials whose careers had been devoted to internalizing all the bad things ambitious foreigners charged them with, and consequently devising how best to haul down the flag. They were so long accustomed to appease and surrender to strength and violence that they couldn’t imagine anything else.

To come to terms with the Taliban now would expose Afghans and Pakistanis to tyranny, with many of them becoming refugees or corpses. In his recent pronouncements, President Obama is similarly pressuring Israelis to come to terms with Fatah-Hamas who would make refugees or corpses of them. The preemptive cringe is turning into policy, and it’s deadly.

Unreality Diplomacy



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President Obama’s latest thoughts about the Middle East add to the confusion that seems to be his special contribution to American policy. It is right to support Arabs and Muslims who are in the street demanding justice and freedom. Unfortunately, Obama is too late in the day to have much practical effect. He should have spoken out two years ago, when the Iranian extremists rigged their election and fired on demonstrators, just as he should have spoken out two or three months ago when the Syrian president Bashar Assad started to kill his people. In both cases, silence indicated that Obama’s heart wasn’t in it. To say now that Assad must make a transition to democracy or “get out of the way” is just verbiage. What transition? And how is he to get out of the way without being helped at gunpoint to do so? And there is no explanation of the utterly mysterious approach to Libya; Obama demanded that Qaddafi get out of the way but refuses to implement such a policy. Obama has infuriated the Saudis, which in itself is no bad thing; the kingdom is monstrously unjust and unfree. But when he omits any mention of the Saudis themselves and comes down heavily on their little dependency of Bahrain for shooting protesters, he’s either resorting to hypocrisy in the hope everyone will understand that American national interests have priority over morality, or he’s just unaware of reality.

Unawareness of reality is the least that can be said about his approach to Israel and Palestine. His promotion of the Palestinians rests on the pretense that their state would be normal. In fact, the Palestine Authority is only a miniature version of the usual one-man tyranny that millions of Arabs are now doing their utmost to reject. Moreover, the rivalry between Islamist Hamas and the quasi-secular rival Fatah is already a civil war in embryo, and their agreement to cooperate is a stage in the power struggle between them. Never mind that previous American presidents committed the United States to support border revisions and land swaps; no Israeli government can possibly agree to return to the pre-1967 borders. Besides, if more than a million Arabs live in Israel, why is the future state of Palestine permitted to declare that it will be Jew-free?

Obama advises Israel to be bold. “Bold” here means dividing Jerusalem, leaving the West Bank and in particular the Jordan valley in hostile hands, and it is really a euphemism for risking Israel’s security. His heart is evidently engaged in promoting the Palestinian cause, and it won’t take much more for this to end in another bout of armed conflict.

French Socialism’s State



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The French Socialist party has been in disarray since its leaders Ségolène Royale and François Hollande could not make up their minds whether they were unmarried partners in domesticity or rivals in politics. Dominique Strauss-Kahn bills himself as a Socialist. Presidential elections are due to be held in France a year from now. Nicolas Sarkozy has poll numbers suggesting that he is unlikely to be reelected, leaving the field open to the Socialists and their candidate Strauss-Kahn — or in these dramatic circumstances perhaps to Marine Le Pen of the revitalized Front National. The mind boggles at what the thoughts of the one in the Elysée Palace in Paris must be, as also the thoughts of the one in Rikers Island jail in New York. The writer of a letter in the Daily Telegraph has a special line, finding it refreshing that in this time of austerity Strauss-Kahn “sticks to his socialist principles by flying first class and staying in a $3,000-a-night suite in New York.” Strauss-Kahn’s wife, a celebrity in her own right and very rich too, immediately posted bail for one million dollars, but the judge seemed unimpressed by this evidence of how far socialism has come.

Sulphuric Injustice



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Majid Movahedi is an Iranian and in the available photograph he looks like any other young man. He pursued a woman called Ameneh Bahrami, and in the available photograph she is very pretty, smiling under the black niqab that covers her hair and head. She rejected his advances, whereupon he threw a bucket of sulphuric acid over her. In spite of seventeen operations her face is still appallingly disfigured, unrecognizable, and she remains blinded. Under the operative law of retribution, known as qisas, she has the right to blind him, literally to take “an eye for an eye.” The man’s father, and bodies like Amnesty, have tried to pressure her into showing mercy. She would relent, she says, if she received two million euros to take care of her future needs. In the absence of money, she will have retribution. A doctor is due today to pour sulphuric acid into the man’s eyes. “I wish I could drip it myself,” so Radio Free Europe quotes Ameneh. It is impossible to decide which of these stricken people, the doctor included, deserves the most pity. Imagine a country which likes to boast of its moral and spiritual superiority, its supposedly universal values, but where a horror of this kind passes for justice.

Decomposition of the Social Body



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In one Arab country after another, some small local outrage has been enough to spark revolution across the nation. The pattern began in France. In October 2005, two young Muslims escaping from the police jumped over a fence into an electricity sub-station and were electrocuted. Sure that some injustice had been done, disaffected and angry Muslims launched a proto-uprising. In over 300 cities and towns, according to official statistics, there were 110,206 incidents of urban violence. One leading commentator thought he was witnessing “the decomposition of the social body.”

A court in Paris has just absolved the policemen who chased the two young Muslims, finding that there was no case to answer. However, it is doubtful that the issue has died. France has passed a law imposing penalties on women wearing a burqa in public. Whole quarters of Paris seem arabised, as shops advertise halal products often in Arabic, and agencies exist to transfer money to Arab or Muslim countries. The relation of the French to the large and growing and ever more militant Arab minority in the country is more and more fraught, and sure to be an essential feature in next year’s presidential elections.

It was impossible to put these details out of mind on the National Review cruise that has just sailed up the Seine from Paris to Normandy. The ship had no facilities for the internet — hence the prolonged silence of David Calling. The countryside was summery, idyllic, offering houses and views much the same as once Van Gogh, Manet, Flaubert, and other famous men had seen them. Crowded cafes and restaurants seemed recession-proof.

Yet that is not a complete or realistic picture. Just a few short years ago it was unimaginable that we should have to be vitally concerned with the fate of one of the many sons of a Saudi building contractor.

Many, probably most, people are glad that Osama bin Laden has been killed. The end of the cruise, though, and therefore access at last to the internet, brought a quite contrary opinion. Many were distressed and angered by his death. They spoke of him as a martyr. To the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the most extreme Islamist group in Pakistan, bin Laden was “a great person.” Ismail Haniya, leader of Hamas, thinks him “the prince of jihad fighters,” while for the militant branch of Fatah his death is “catastrophic.” Indeed, a poll shows that just under two thirds of Palestinians would like him to have been buried among them.

The BBC loves to give broadcasting opportunities to Abdul Bari Atwan, a newspaper editor, who referred to bin Laden as “our dear sheikh,” and who doesn’t believe the Americans are telling the truth about his death. The chorus of lamentation included Tariq Ramadan, a specialist in selling Islamist snake-oil, Moazzam Begg who has made a career out of his time in detention in Guantanamo, assorted Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen, and Salafist demonstrators in Cairo. Useful idiots, that is to say non-Muslim critics of the operation, are of course totally predictable, most of them professors sheltering in a library. Noam Chomsky can be relied on to defend the indefensible. There cannot ever have been an Archbishop of Canterbury so unworldly as Rowan Williams.

The moral confusion of such people is a warning of the imminent decomposition of the social body.

As the cruise ended, news became available that Qaddafi’s soldiers were shelling a Red Cross ship with medical supplies; a Tunisian had shot dead a protestor; Yemeni forces had killed three people and wounded eighty; in Cairo, Muslims had burnt down two churches, twelve people had died, and the Archbishop of Canterbury found nothing to say on that subject. In Syria, snatch squads are arresting and then torturing in prison those judged to be potential rioters, probably up to 10,000 in number; tanks are out in the streets of several towns; and nobody knows how many have been shot dead, at least 800 but probably many more. This is what happens when the social body finally decomposes.

The Death of a Disastrous Fantasy



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The death of Osama bin Laden is many things, for instance a reckoning with an enemy, an enforcement of justice, a feat of arms, evidence that the United States is after all prepared to defend its interests, also evidence that its old relationship of giving way to Pakistan is over. But there is more. The Arab and Muslim world spent the twentieth century lamenting that the West had overtaken it in terms of power, creativity, political stability, and so on. What was to be done? In mid-century, Arab and Muslim intellectuals came to London and Paris and there they studied the ideologies of the day. The likes of Michel Aflaq and Sami al-Jundi were hypnotized by nationalism, and army officers such as Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar Sadat imitated them. The Arab one-party dictatorship followed. This failed utterly. Osama bin Laden tried something else, the installation of a Muslim caliphate. This is a disastrous fantasy. The death of bin Laden ends it.

How Many Torments Lie . . .



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No foreign journalists appear to be in Syria. It is hard to be sure what is going on there. Such reporting as there is depends on local demonstrators with modern pocket cameras. The film that comes through is flickering, obscure, perhaps with momentary glimpses of unfortunates killed by gunfire on the street. Our newscasters and editors have to intone each time that what they are showing cannot be verified. The Sky TV reporter of the Syrian crisis is actually broadcasting out of Israel. What a comment that is on the difference between a free society and a tyranny, though the media would not pause to make the comment.

The similarity of tyrannies is also striking. Moammar Qaddhafi and Bashar Assad, Abdullah Ali Saleh in Yemen and the al-Khalifa ruler of Bahrain are all engaged in having their subjects shot in the street during peaceful demonstrations. In the background, Iran and China and Russia back them out precisely because of their similarities.

These are important developments with the potential to change the balance of power in the world. Whether Syria ends up as an even more subservient colony of Iran in its campaign against the United States, or on the contrary becomes independent and — who knows — free, is an issue of life and death. Nobody would think so from the lukewarm responses of Washington and London. It is hallucinating to hear that the White House is examining policy choices towards Syria and considering imposing sanctions. How urgent is “considering?” The president is not even recalling the American ambassador who has just arrived in Damascus, which is inexplicable. William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, trots out the word “unacceptable” about the crimes of Assad against his subjects. Unacceptable, from the man who occupies the office once held by Lord Palmerston, Canning, Curzon.

Unable or unwilling to get into Syria, the British media instead report on such things as the color and consistency of the icing on the wedding cakes baked for Prince William and the bride he marries in a few days. Of course the British are fortunate to have a constitutional monarchy, and no doubt this attractive couple in due course will do their duty to the best of their ability. But there is only one word for the way their wedding crowds out the news of the future taking shape in the Middle East, and that word is — hallucinating.

High Stakes in Syria



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Elie Kedourie, the most far-sighted and informed of commentators, always used to say that Syria held the key to the future of Palestine, Israel, and the wider region. It seems true right now. But how Bashar Assad will take the determining decisions is unclear. He seems to be leaving open all options, hesitating between the alternatives of reform and harsh repression but giving signs that either response remains possible and depends on the strength of the protests. He has the security forces shoot four demonstrators here, two there, six in another place, as it were showing that he could mow down thousands if their disobedience obliges him to do so. Is this a sign of strength? Or on the contrary that he doesn’t really know what to do? Either reading of the situation is valid.

In a dictatorship like his, the change of prime minister and cabinet is an empty token. The promise to rescind the emergency law still leaves him in absolute power, and he is resorting to the traditional fiction that he needs absolute power in order to deal with the “armed gangs” supposedly threatening the country’s “stability.” It would be equally traditional to create some diversion involving Lebanon or Israel.

Presumably there are telephone calls in which the King of Saudi Arabia makes threats of retribution and promises of aid, and then more telephone calls from Tehran in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warns Bashar not to listen to the Saudis, and makes his rival threats and promises.

The voices must be rising along with the stakes. A wrong decision, even a small slip, can lead to sectarian or ethnic massacre on a hideous scale. And it is all in the hands of a one-time ophthalmologist who accidentally became a dictator because his elder brother was killed driving too fast.

In the Phony “Spring,” Arab Politics Stay the Same



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Any day these last few weeks you could turn on the television and hear some media pundit promoting the idea of an Arab Spring. Arabs in their hundreds of thousands supposedly were going into some central public place to free themselves from tyranny. Democracy at last! Elections! Freedom! The media pundits compared what was happening to the storming of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is all too possible to see now that the Arab Spring is a Eurocentric fantasy resting on the inability to grasp how other societies actually operate.

Moammar Qaddafi and Bashar Assad are making sure to smash up their own cities, killing at random by way of exercising power. It is the same in Yemen and Bahrain, and might well replicate elsewhere, for instance Jordan and Algeria. The Iranian regime shoots and executes its people on a horrifying scale, and sees fit to support Assad’s repression in Syria while condemning the repression in Bahrain. Such cruelty and hypocrisy may look like evidence of bad character, but more to the point derive from the fact that the Arab and Muslim order does not have, and never has had, any agreed means of handing power over peacefully. Those in power or who want it have to be ready to resort to violence. At this moment rival forces — Islamists, secular Westernised folk, the military — are frustrated because absolute power so far has escaped their grasp, and now they have the chance to grab hold of it. Ersatz nations are dissolving as their constituent sects and tribes jostle with each other for supremacy.

What is passed off as a Spring, in other words, is really a repeat of the brutality that is the age-old instrument of everyone who has ever sought power in the Arab and Muslim order. The process is self-perpetuating, as vital as it is lethal. The would-be power-holder has only his family, tribe or sect to rely on, and he has to be rid of everyone in his way, exactly as Qaddafi and Assad and the rest of them are doing. So the former Tunisian and Egyptian ministers are already in prison. So the Egyptian security forces are already arresting dissidents and beating them to death in prison. As the French proverb puts it, the more things change the more they stay the same.

Finally a train of thought for the pundits and politicians: What induces the likes of Barack Obama and Tony Blair to keep on trying to breathe life into the defunct peace process? It defies history, custom and political reality to believe that a Palestinian state will abolish violence in the Middle East. In Gaza and the West Bank they too have only set up tribal or sectarian tyranny. Meanwhile Israeli Arabs are going about their business peacefully instead of holding mass demonstrations in some central public place. They’re the only Arabs living in a real democracy and maybe that enables them to recognize a phony Spring when they see it.

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