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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Was the Assassination of al-Mabhouh a Frame-Up?



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The assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai poses a whole lot of riddles, as these things usually do. Al-Mabhouh was basically an arms’ dealer, that is to say, in an unlovely profession. He was a senior Hamas member, that is to say, a terrorist in unlovely company. He seems to have been in Dubai on his way to conclude a deal with Iran for arms destined to be smuggled into Gaza on behalf of Hamas. That certainly gave Israel an inducement to take him out. In addition, he is accused of being responsible for the murder of two Israelis, and those who commit terrorist acts of that kind are themselves killed by Israeli agents if this is feasible. So a finger points at Mossad, the Israeli secret service to which the rest of the world attributes legendary powers. Israeli media are indeed guessing that this is a Mossad operation, and, if so, Mossad got their man.

But there are counter-indications. The undercover squad was reported to have been eleven strong, and later seventeen. Such numbers are quite unnecessary and could only have maximized the danger of being caught. They traveled on foreign passports that had been tampered with, therefore bound to lead to high-level diplomatic ructions. They are further reported as wearing wigs and false beards, the equipment of 19th-century spies and easily detectable. Closed-circuit television cameras in the hotel where the assassination took place captured images of them all. Could Mossad really have risked such a mission in the certainty of its operatives being filmed? You would also expect them to be reasonably young and athletic, but the pictures show some portly gentlemen, rather absurd in shorts and carrying tennis rackets — more 19th-century disguise.

Fatah has almost as great an interest as Israel in seeing that Hamas does not acquire yet more Iranian arms that might well be used to oust Fatah from the West Bank. Jordan has arrested two Palestinians and extradited them to Dubai. Are they Fatah agents? Surely Israel could never have relied on Palestinians not to betray them in an affair as dangerous as this? Also, the Syrian branch of Hamas might have a score to settle with the Gaza branch, and that’s what these two Palestinians were employed for.

If all this proves to be speculation in the heat of the moment, and that huge squad with false beards and wigs and tennis rackets showing themselves openly on camera really were Israeli agents, then Mossad was immeasurably lucky to get away with it, and badly needs to sharpen its act. A thriller-writer, however, might raise the possibility that Mossad did it in this extraordinary way in order to frame Fatah. That would make it a class act, after all.

Oren You Worried, Too?



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Something that bodes ill for the future has just occured on the University of California’s campus at Irvine. A group of Muslim students, several dozen in number, disrupted a talk by Michael Oren, the historian who is also the present Israeli ambassador in Washington. They had prepared and coordinated tactics for the occasion. The hall was quite large, and they had packed it. Interrupting Ambassador Oren, one of them would rise to shout an insult, whereupon the guards would lead him out of the hall, and another would stand up to shout – and so on and on until sustained discourse was impossible. Appeals from the university authorities and Ambassador Oren had no effect at all. After a number of individual ejections, those who were still in their seats got up to leave together. The shrill shrieks of the female students injected a note of hysteria into the commotion.

Such contempt for free speech in a university is intolerable. The university has to defend its principles, and discipline those who have no respect for them. If they had their way, these Muslim students would reduce intellectual standards to those of campuses in Tehran or Riyadh. But there is a yet more ominous omen. These students are privileged, members of families able either to pay the fees to attend or who know the procedures for obtaining scholarships and grants. But they are here not to learn but to find confirmation of what they have already been taught about non-Muslims. The more education they obtain, the greater their bigotry. The more they experience freedom in the West, the more determined they are to abuse it. What that event at Irvine exposes is the growth of Islamism down the generations.  

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The Russian Shadow over Ukraine



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Viktor Yanukovich has won the presidential election in the Ukraine, and the news will greatly please the Kremlin, whose invisible hand has been hard at work. Ukraine is a huge and devastated country, mercilessly bullied by its Russian kith and kin down the centuries. In recent years, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoschenko, leaders of the so-called Orange Revolution, made a bid for real independence, which in practice meant joining the European Union and NATO. The Kremlin made sure that nothing like that happened.

The Orange Revolution took shape in the previous presidential elections in 2004. Yanukovich was supposed to be rail-roaded into office by the out-going president, Leonid Kuchma, the way that Boris Yeltsin had simply put Vladimir Putin into the Kremlin. The attempt at rigging was so blatant that millions took to the streets (memo to Ahmadinejad in Tehran: that’s not how to do it unless you want trouble). Yanukovich was defeated and even left the country. But he’s the kind of hard man that emerged from Communism. In his youth, he took part in gang warfare, and has a couple of convictions for robbery and assault.

What opened the way to his comeback was the stupidity and selfishness of Yushchenko and Tymoschenko. Supposed to be allies, they were busy sabotaging one another. Ukraine sank into debt, with inflation and unemployment adding to the general helplessness. For this election, Yanukovich was crafty enough to acquire the air of being a democrat. He called on the services of an American political consultant, Paul J. Manafort, who had once advised Sen. Robert Dole. Did Mr. Manafort really have to do his bit to make sure that the Orange Revolution has run its course?

In the White House, they may have installed that much-touted reset button to deal with Russia, but someone must have forgotten to wire the wretched thing up properly.     

The Eurozone’s Greek Tragedy



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The crisis question right now is: What’s going to happen about the euro? This is the common currency that sixteen European countries adopted after scrapping their national currencies a decade ago. People warned at the time that one interest rate didn’t fit different economies, and worse still, there was no state to back the currency up as a lender of last resort. But a handful of politicians were determined to push ahead at all costs, evidently in the belief that the common currency was bound to lead to a single European state.

Spain, Portugal, and Ireland are among the countries that treated the euro as an excuse to spend money they didn’t have. Presumably the expectation was that the other eurozone countries would act as the rich uncle and bail them out. Greece is the supreme basket-case. Its debt is so high that conventional borrowing through the issue of government bonds cannot pay it off. The logic of its position is to default. Then it should leave the eurozone, issue its former currency of the drachma, devalue, and so stimulate employment and trade.

The handful of politico-fanatics who monopolise the European Union can’t possibly allow anything of the kind to happen, because that would put paid to their dreams of a European super-power. So they are laying down the law for the Greeks, cutting the country’s expenditure and raising its taxes. Greeks are being told that they are too profligate and incompetent to run themselves. Commentators are saying that Greece is being turned from a sovereign state into an economic protectorate. What humiliation, what an authoritarian exercise! It’s never going to work. The Greeks are prone to dangerous fire-raising rioting, and in the face of austerity and mass unemployment imposed by foreigners there will be mounting resentment culminating in strikes and violence.

The only alternative is for Germany, the one eurozone country that really works, to pick up the bill for the Greeks. In other words, fulfilling the role of lender of last resort. Why ever should Germans pay for others to give themselves a good time at their expense? Besides, if they pay for the Greeks, the Spaniards, Portuguese, Irish, and all the rest will come asking for a similar favor. Treated as suckers, the Germans will also take to the streets, with every excuse for turning violent.

Thoughtful people have long predicted that the eurozone was an unfounded and rash experiment pretty well certain to break up in just this way. The politico-fanatics are unable to admit that they have pursued policies harmful to Europe, and will fight to the bitter end for the privilege of being wrong. The lesson is going to be more painful than it need have been. The Greeks will be the first to go through the fire, but the others will soon be following.

The Complicated Prime Minister Blair



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The inquiry currently chaired by one Sir John Chilcot into how Britain came to participate in the 2003 Iraqi war is producing high-class political theatre. Friday was a climax. It was Tony Blair’s turn to give evidence, and much of the country was hoping that the occasion would be a preliminary trial that would establish him as a war criminal, therefore due to face a real trial.  A hostile crowd gathered outside the building where the inquiry is being held. They had banners expressing a view that is now passing into general perception (note the agitprop spelling of the name): “Blair Lied Thousands Died.” While it was still dark, Blair slipped in via some back entrance.

Blair told the inquiry that 9/11 had changed things, making regime change in Iraq virtually inevitable. It would have been an unpardonable risk, he said, to leave a man like Saddam Hussein in a position to develop weapons of mass destruction that could be passed on to terror groups.  It was brave of him to add that today he feels a similar but even stronger fear of Iran. A trained lawyer, he dealt pretty easily with objections, for instance that Saddam was found to have no weapons of mass destruction, that the invasion of Iraq was illegal under international law, and that lack of planning for post-war Iraq caused the confusion and fighting that has given liberation a bad name.

Blair was a disastrous prime minister of Britain, leaving a trail of damage that it will be difficult to repair. A strange mixture of arrogance and naivety, he has evidently convinced himself that whatever he thinks must be right just because he’s thinking it. But he did understand that the West cannot live in peace while the Arab world is in the hands of dictators and tyrants. If we do not manage to meet on equal terms, the Arab world will pull everyone else down. The removal of Saddam opens the Arab world to a future that allows for a meeting on equal terms. If that happens, Blair and Britain will be able to claim a share of the credit. But when Blair said he was indeed responsible for the decision to attack Iraq, that he had no regrets and would do it all over again, he was met with boos and shouts.

Prime ministers have often been condemned, of course, but Blair’s predicament is unique: He gets away with wrong and harmful decisions about the United Kingdom, devolution, the abolition of the House of Lord, Europe and much else while being written off in the popular mind for the only thing he got right. He cannot recover, he will be some sort of pariah, jet-setting because unable to show his face at home. The next act of the political drama will be the appearance before the Chilcot inquiry of Blair’s successor Gordon Brown. The curtain will then fall when the general election takes place, in May or June at the latest.

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Booing Blair Off the Stage of Political Theater



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Political theater of the most dramatic kind is now playing in London. A retired civil servant by the name of Sir John Chilcot is chairing an inquiry into the origins of the Iraq War, with the purpose of discovering that familiar will-o-the-wisp, what lessons are to be learnt. The inquiry is public, in a building near Parliament, but so many people want to attend that there has to be admission by balloting. And what began as inquiry has turned into an unofficial trial of Tony Blair. It has long been evident that most British people believe that he lied deliberately about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, it was illegal to go to war against an Iraq that did not directly threaten Britain. Blair is held to have lied and prevaricated about that too. All because he was somehow in thrall to President Bush.

A succession of Blair’s advisers, cronies, and cabinet ministers has appeared before the inquiry. So have several diplomats and high-ranking members of the Foreign Office. Yesterday, Lord Goldsmith was questioned. As attorney general, he was responsible for advising about the legality of the war. In the run-up to the war, he appeared to state that military action would be illegal, but then a visit to Washington and consultations there led him to change his mind. The suspicion that he was put under disgraceful pressure  has considerably raised the temperature.

Those who run the country, the politicians and the mandarins, are being exposed to view on television as never before. They accepted the honor and glory of their jobs, the titles and decorations, the government expenses and salaries and index-linked pensions. Now they squirm, they excuse themselves, they pretend to have a conscience and all the while they are fighting to preserve their offices and privileges. Most nauseating are the confidential and secret letters some of these high-ups wrote to express reservations at the very time they were preparing the campaign. Evidently such letters were insurance policies, due to be produced if and when things went wrong and a public inquiry followed, as now. Actually there was one legal adviser who did resign, and she is now presented as a heroine.

What is revealed unmistakably is the poor quality of those running Britain. The government, indeed the whole administration, is in a process of deliquiscence, melting before our eyes into a blur of incompetence and self-serving opportunism. The overthrow of Saddam is accepted as a crime to be ashamed of, not as an action that destroyed a dangerous tyranny. The national interest is hurt.

Tomorrow Blair himself is due to face the Chilcot inquiry. He is said to have been closeted with advisers preparing and practising his answers. A bad omen. There are also rumours that a huge demonstration will be held. Blair is adept at talking his way out of a mess, but in this act of the drama he looks like being booed off the stage.

Chemical Ali’s End



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Today in Baghdad, Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as Chemical Ali, was hanged. He was Saddam Hussein’s cousin, brought up like him in Tikrit, in the Sunni heart-land. There was a family resemblance, physically and morally. Chemical Ali acquired his sobriquet in the Iran–Iraq War. The Baath elite feared that the Kurds were turning against them and siding with the Iranians who anyhow looked as if they might break through. Chemical Ali was in charge of the operation to crush them by using poison gas. Some 5,000 Kurds were killed in this way. It was not the first time an Arab power had used gas. President Nasser of Egypt had gassed Yemenis in his campaign in that country in 1966 and 1967. But this Iraqi atrocity convinced Western intelligence services that Saddam possessed wider weapons of mass destruction and obviously the will to use them. This determined Western policy, leading to the occupation that followed and the consequences the world is now living.

Chemical Ali was made governor of Kuwait in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion. At the time, a clip of film captured a scene that told all there was to know about this brutal man. Chemical Ali was shown standing in a stretch of desert surrounded by Iraqi officers. A prisoner was brought to him and made to kneel with his hands tied behind his back. Chemical Ali then abused him verbally, and started kicking him. Some weeks later, Iraqi forces were driven out of Kuwait. Encouraged by American policy, but not in fact supported on the ground, the Shia rose in revolt against Saddam. Chemical Ali was given the task of crushing the Shia and he did so mercilessly, with an unknown number of thousands murdered at his orders. Again he was recorded boasting of the use of gas, saying that nobody could prevent it and cursing the West in foul language for its opposition.

If anyone deserved to die, it is this sadistic killer. But execution is an awesome thing. I have just been reading Michael Scammell’s new biography of Arthur Koestler. He was sentenced to death in the Spanish civil war, and it affected him all his life. In later years, he campaigned hard to have the death penalty banned in Britain, and succeeded in doing so. The arguments he put forward are unanswerable intellectually, concerned as they are with miscarriages of justice, wrongful identification, and the like. Yet this doesn’t cover a case like Chemical Ali.

I had supposed myself to be against capital punishment for the reasons that Koestler had given. But I attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, heard the evidence against him, and was present when his final appeal was turned down. Half an hour later we all heard that he had been hanged. I was amazed to find that the world seemed a better place, because justice had been done. It is the same now with the news from Baghdad.

Eye on Libya



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A big effort has been under way in Washington and London to pretend that Muammar Gaddafi is no longer the brutal dictator of Libya, but a reformed character and we need have no qualms about doing business with him. Roll on the contracts for oil. We were becoming accustomed to seeing Gaddafi welcomed in Paris, Rome, and New York, and finding excuses for the outrageous carry-on of his sons, at least two of whom are in the mould of Saddam’s late and unlamented boys, Uday and Qusay. And now the fate of Jaballa Matar breaks the tranquil illusion that is supposed to cover those oil contracts.

Libya has had a handful of dissidents, brave men all and made to pay for it with their liberty if not their lives. One of them is Jaballa Matar, once an army colonel, always an opponent of Gaddafi’s. In the 1980s he began to call for democracy. To save himself, he fled to Cairo. In 1990, he was kidnapped there, either by Libyan secret agents, or by Egyptian secret agents who handed him over to Libya. In 1996, the Libyans massacred 1,200 prisoners. It doesn’t bear imagining what those scenes were like. Six years or so were to pass before the news got to the world outside. Prisoners have been massacred in Egypt, and in Syria where at the Tadmor prison perhaps as many as 100 were shot down, and of course in Iran. That’s how they do things over there. Jaballa Matar managed to smuggle letters out of jail, but today the Libyans deny all knowledge of him. The unfortunate man has disappeared into the darkness of a police state.

Hisham Matar, Jaballa Matar’s son, lives in London where he has become a successful novelist. He has been the moving spirit behind an appeal to Gaddafi signed by over 200 British writers to disclose whether Jaballa Matar is alive or dead. This appeal is published in the Times. Elsewhere in the paper, Hisham Matar is quoted: “I love my adopted country, but it has really soiled itself by dealing with a criminal regime and treating it as legitimate.”

While we are on the subject of Libya, the Lockerbie bomber Abdulbaset al-Megrahi was released last August on the humanitarian grounds that he had terminal cancer and could not possibly live more than three months. Six months later, he is still alive. The 200 writers whose names are on the Matar appeal are speaking as though they had the moral authority to ask Libya for decent behaviour. Unfortunately the British authorities have shown that a Libyan refugee can call them “soiled” and be right to do so.

Winston Churchill’s French Connection



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President Obama may have thrown a bust of Winston Churchill out of the White House, but the French have taken him up. The Times reports that François Kersaudy has done a new and much better translation of Churchill’s well-known account of the Second World War. Kersaudy is a historian who teaches at the Sorbonne and Oxford, and is totally bilingual. The Times carried an interview with him and quotes him saying, “There is special nostalgia for Churchill, with his great contempt for the opinion of the man on the street at any moment when present leaders are obsessed with opinion polls.”

Kersaudy has previously written in close detail about the relationship between Churchill and de Gaulle. De Gaulle’s flight to London in 1940 undoubtedly allowed France to salvage its identity, so allowing the country to recover confidence once Germany was defeated. It was a moment that had destiny in it. In the course of the war, de Gaulle often stood up to Churchill, and Churchill often had fierce rows with him, sometimes threatening him in his notoriously bad French. The British navy sank the French fleet at Mers el-Kebir in order to prevent it falling into German hands, but the Churchill-de Gaulle relationship survived even that. In fact, Churchill romanticized all things French, and de Gaulle seems to have recognized that and even traded on it.

The Germans pulled out of Paris on Aug. 20, 1944. A few days afterwards, Churchill and de Gaulle headed a triumphal procession along the Champs Elysées. It was observed that the emotion of this ceremony of the liberation of France overcame Churchill, and tears were pouring down his face. There were still a few snipers somewhere on the rooftops, either German soldiers who had stayed behind or French collaborators, and some of these began firing on the procession. Everyone scattered and threw themselves down, except Churchill and de Gaulle who continued marching in the middle of the great avenue, oblivious of a small thing like sniper-fire. Their bravery is one thing, but those tears is another, truly signifying greatness.

The Next Theater in the War on Terror?



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Yemen is fit to become another major theater in the War on Terror. The country is tribal, divided into Sunni and Shia, and hardly centralized or governed at all. Like Afghanistan or Somalia, it is more of an inhabited space than a nation-state. People just do what they like there. Never mind the rule of law, there is not even a proper system of car registration. Once the vehicle I was in was overtaken on the left and the right side simultaneously — the drivers were probably high on qat, which acts like an amphetamine as they chew it. Men carry daggers habitually, and even small arms. In Saada, there is an open market where every sort of weapon is openly for sale, and for cash you can buy a tank. According to hearsay, African slaves are also available.

Once this was Felix Arabia, Fortunate Arabia, the mythical site of the Garden of Eden. The Tihama area on the coast receives plentiful rain, the desert is manageable, with ruins like the Marib Dam, its perfect stonework said to date from the time of the Queen of Sheba but really from the seventh century A.D. In magnificent mountain ranges are fortified medieval towns like Ybb, one of the most picturesque places I have ever seen. The capital, Sana’a, has a unique local architecture. But you are on your own. Once I began walking down a handsome tree-lined street in Sana’a towards a large building when I realized that several soldiers in concealed emplacements were aiming rifles at me, and one of them came out to say they’d shoot me dead if I proceeded. The building ahead was the palace of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president these 30 years, and a typical Arab one-man ruler.

Ever since the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, President Saleh has been losing such control as he had. Government habitually consists in buying the loyalty of the tribes, and he’s been running out of money for it. Toughened by centuries of tribal and religious warfare, Yemenis have been volunteering in quite large numbers to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they have formed a high proportion of Guantanamo inmates. Released, they take to the field again. So al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has been making the most of the opening to be building up its power. The bin Laden family has origins in the Hadramaut area, and it has always seemed to me likely that Osama is hiding out there among his own tribe.

Saleh came to power in the wake of the damaging civil war in the 1960s that threw out the Imam, Yemen’s traditional ruler. The Houthi, a Shia tribe about 5,000 strong, are starting another civil war that may well be more damaging. Iran is promoting it, arming and subsidizing the Houthis in the expectation of extending the Shia reach. It’s a move in the Cold War Iran is waging with Saudi Arabia. On behalf of the Sunnis, Saudi Arabia is bombing and shelling the Houthis. The terrain facilitates defence rather than attack; fighting is not between professional or well-trained soldiers, so casualties remain low for the time being, but about 150,000 people have already become refugees.

Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as this franchise calls itself, is a Saudi off-shoot, and its links to the Saudi royal regime are invisible. It may be that the Saudis want AQAP to do their dirty work in the confrontation with Iran. Those engaged in this three-way contest between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and AQAP can’t be left alone to come up with whatever bloody or bribed outcomes they can. With or without Saudi backing, a rooted AQAP presence in Yemen is a serious new danger, to be met with skilled intelligence work, Predator strikes, and special services capable of operating in this wild and closed country. It’s a tall order.

How the British Government Funds Radical Islam



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The East London Mosque is one of the largest and most influential of Islamic institutions in Britain. It has a Muslim Centre, a meeting place which acts a bit like a college, offering lectures and sermons at which like-minded people may meet. One who gave lectures there was Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Islamist imam whose fingerprints have turned up in more than one place. He groomed Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood killer, and we now learn that the Detroit would-be bomber, Umar Abdulmutallab, while a student in London between 2005 and 2008 listened to a number of video-link lectures given by al-Awlaki at this mosque’s Muslim Centre. By then, al-Awlaki was communicating at long distance from Yemen where he had taken refuge, and become affiliated to al-Qaeda. And when Abdul Mutallab himself went to Yemen where he was trained and equipped as a suicide bomber, he had personal contact with al-Awlaki, evidently his mentor.

The authorities ought to have been able to pick this up. Far worse than their laxity, however, is the fact that in the past two years, according to the Sunday Telegraph, the Muslim Centre has received at least 60,000 pounds from a government initiative known as Preventing Violent Extremism. The intention is to fund moderates to oppose extremists, but the very opposite has happened. Violent extremism has been subsidized. In the last two years, al-Awlaki has addressed at least two gatherings at the Centre via video-link, including one last year called “The End of Time,” advertised with a poster showing the destruction of New York.

At the same time, I have been reading David J. Rusin on a website called islamist-watch.org. He reports how “misguided” the Preventing Violent Extremism program has been. Close to a million pounds has been handed out to Islamist organizations that are propagating Muslim supremacy, hatred of non-Muslims, and terrorism. It beggars belief that politicians and civil servants can be idiotic enough to device a crack-brained scheme of the kind. What naïvety, what self-deception! PVE positively invites trickery and misappropriation of money that non-Muslims are unable to supervise, let alone control. All those involved are a danger to the public and ought to be summarily fired, yet as far as I can find out, they have not even been identified. What will it take to bring these people to their senses? David J. Rusin sums up with the unanswerable judgement: “Only one adjective properly describes a government that funds those who seek its destruction: suicidal.”

Privileged Terror



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You often hear the usual suspects on the Left pontificate that Islamism and jihadi violence is the revenge of the poor on the rich. That view contains two very nasty assumptions: that the rich act in ways always harmful to everyone else, and that the poor respond to everything mindlessly and brutally. Besides, the evidence is otherwise. Look at Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be Detroit bomber. His father, Umaru Mutallab, is one of the richest men in Nigeria, a banker and a former cabinet minister.    

Those who drive Islamism are almost all like Umar Mutallab, or Osama bin Laden, sons of men who have allowed them to grow up with unearned privilege. That, no doubt, is the main factor conditioning them to set in motion the blind murder of those they hold in contempt. This seems to explain what I can only call the playboy element in what they do. The planning of suicide bombing – and to a lesser extent, its performance – has attracted a disproportionate number of qualified professionals, doctors, engineers, town planners and of course men who claim to be trained scholars of religion. 

For at least a hundred years now, the best and brightest Muslims have been coming to London, Paris, Berlin or other Western cities, to pursue their careers. There they find themselves without friends, lonely, in a culture that is not theirs. Dissatisfaction comes naturally. What then happens is more or less standard. Someone picks them up, a professor with Trotskyite views, a do-gooder intoxicated by the virtue of the Third World, an embittered politician or intellectual riven by self-doubt and guilt. Such unrepresentative Westerners have been steadily feeding the fantasies of young Muslims with whom they come into contact, inspiring dreams of revolution and power and the supremacy that they are led to believe is their due. When such Muslims turn to jihad and suicide bombing they are only repaying with interest what they have learnt in lecture halls and Left-wing circles about the decadence and corruption of the West.

Umar al-Mutallab lived in the most expensive part of London, in an apartment worth millions of pounds bought by his indulgent father. He studied engineering at University College London, which is about as excellent as it gets, and should have prepared him for a worthwhile life. The chances are that at some point his path crossed that of some typical English self-hater who persuaded him that even playboys like him could serve the purpose of stopping in its tracks the malevolence of the West. That’s what makes killers out of the likes of young Umar.

Watching Derek



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Faith in human nature is hard to maintain in this world of daily brutalities, but now and again someone or something restores it. In the latest instance, I went to a concert in my local town of Brecon, not the centre of Wales let alone the universe. But it has what it calls Theatr Brycheiniog, which is Welsh, as you will easily gather, for Brecon Theater, and a huge modern hall it is too for a town like this.

Derek Paravicini was to play the piano. To declare an interest, he is the son of friends and neighbors, but that does not make him any less of an extraordinary prodigy.  Born prematurely, he was given too much oxygen and this left him blind and impaired mentally. Aged thirty now, he speaks and responds like a little boy and it is not clear if he is really following the thread of the conversation. But when he was still very small, this handicapped child forced his way to a piano, sat down and played it, as he has done pretty well every day ever since. He has total recall of all the music he has ever heard, and can improvise on it for fun in his own style up and down the octaves. In this concert, people in the audience were invited to shout out what they would like to hear him play, and he could do it every time, playing pieces ranging from Saint-Saens to popular hits. The brilliance is incredible, and he can’t see the keyboard! Tokyo TV was filming this concert. Derek has played several times in the United States, and soon he is appearing with Mike Wallace on Sixty Minutes.

Adam Ockelford has sacrificed his career as a music teacher — and his private life as well — to make this phenomenon possible. He looks after Derek in matters big and small, travelling, rehearsing, explaining, and guiding him with a gentle hand on and off the concert stage. He’s even written a book about Derek with the satisfying title In the Key of Genius.  As far as I can understand it, Derek is like the hero of the film The Rain Man, autistic, so his performance is also part of his condition.

The Brecon Theatre was sold out that night, and we were all moved. Derek is not a freak show, and the reason is because Derek’s life-long pain and suffering has found an expression that gives amazement and delight to his listeners. Surely the real purpose of art is not to rub our noses in the ceaseless brutalities of the world, as most modern artists do, but instead to make something human and life-enhancing out of them. That’s an idea to make Christmas and the New Year that much the happier.    

A Miraculous Cure?



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Last August, we were told that the Lockerbie bomber, Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, had prostate cancer and would be dead within three months. The authorities then returned him from his Scottish prison to his home town of Tripoli in Libya, but you would have to be pretty simple to believe that they had acted purely from humanitarian motives, as they claimed. Were they not inspired by vast oil and gas contracts with Libya? Six months have now passed, and al-Megrahi is still with us. More than that, he has broken the terms of his release, which involved keeping in touch by telephone with Scottish authorities — not much of a restriction either. The guard outside his house says al-Megrahi is not there, and he is not in the hospital either, in fact, he’s up and away somewhere. The British government evidently has played its part in effecting a miraculous cure for that terminal cancer. It is easier to imagine al-Megrahi in a tuxedo in the Monte Carlo casino than in the morgue in Tripoli.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished



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The hunt is up, and the quarry is former prime minister Tony Blair. Two previous inquiries have been held into the circumstances surrounding the Iraq War of 2003 and they have been innocuous and inconsequential. A new inquiry under a Whitehall mandarin, Sir John Chilcot, is proving very different.

Already other mandarins including Foreign Office advisors, British ambassadors to Washington, and the United Nations, and the head of MI6, the intelligence agency, have given testimony suggesting that Blair went to war as a favor to Mr. Bush, and not in the national interest. The legality of the war depended on Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction, and one and all looked foolish when none were found. Senior military figures have complained that their opposite numbers in the United States were remote or snubbing, and therefore no plans existed after victory in the field. Hence occupation and chaos, al-Qaeda and the Shiite militias, all of it unnecessary and incompetent.

Another mandarin, Sir Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, has made things much worse. A hippy in his youth, he seemed a dubious appointment, but he was a friend of Blair’s and in the same law firm as Mrs. Blair. He has certainly learnt how to prosecute. In an article, he calls Blair a sycophant, a narcissist whose belief in himself does not amount to principle, and who deceived the British people into waging war by concocting a story that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when this was not the case and he well knew it. President Bush made a mess, and Blair readily jumped into it on account of a misplaced sense of his own importance. British mandarins are not in the habit of speaking about anyone, never mind prime ministers, with such anger and contempt.

Blair has made matters still worse for himself by giving an interview to say that if he had known Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction he would have gone to war for the sake of regime change — Saddam was too dangerous to be allowed a free run. The pack of media critics and human-rights lawyers have immediately begun to label Blair a war criminal, and raise the prospect of tribunals to incriminate him.

In office for ten years, Blair took a series of disastrous decisions that did harm to the internal condition of Britain, casting a dark shadow over its future. Since he resigned, moreover, he has cashed in with a shamelessness that generates great resentment. But it could be said in his favor that he had a hand in helping the Arab world move towards the democracy it needs but cannot introduce by itself. “A pretty straight kind of guy,” in his own words, he has a track record of wriggling Houdini-like out of blame, but in the perspective of the moment he looks like being established in the public mind as someone whose one good deed fixes him as an irredeemable liar and warmonger.

The Wrong Crowd



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The sole discernible reason for awarding the Nobel Peace prize to President Obama just a few days after he entered the White House is that he is not George W. Bush. The Norwegians on the committee are all hard-line leftists, and unanimously suspicious of the United States, psychologically conditioned to condemn it for whatever it is or does. Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman, was apparently some sort of informer or correspondent with the old Soviet KGB. No sane person, certainly no statesman, would want to be mixed up with this conceited and priggish bunch.

Evidently Obama couldn’t resist, just as he couldn’t resist coded swipes against George W. Bush. The fear is that these Norwegians are people whose worldview he shares, and with whom he feels comfortable, when the rest of us would head for the door as quickly as we could. So right at the beginning of his acceptance speech, he said with a truth that cannot be denied, “my accomplishments are slight.” The embarrasment that he had to overcome is that, as this slightly accomplished man, he was receiving the top peace prize for waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and of course also against Islamist terror, which he conveniently forgot to mention). So the thrust of his speech was that for the sake of peace you often have to wage war, and he’s the commander-in-chief with the responsibility to do so. This is a statement of the obvious, but coming from him it conveyed an unmistakable groundswell of apology. The question to be asked is why ever an American president should put himself in a position with such potential for humiliation.

No Room for Free Thought at the Inn?



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Could it be that things are beginning to turn, and people in the West will at last stand up for their beliefs? First came the referendum in Switzerland that mosques could be built, but no more minarets. Muslims of course protested that this was bigotry, racism, and the rest of it. It was not. The Swiss fully granted freedom of religion, and were merely making the point that they wanted the landscape to look the way it always had. And now comes a follow-up in Britain, in the case of Mr. Ben Vogelenzang and his wife Sharon.

The Vogelenzangs are committed Christians, two among thousands of members of a semi-missionary organisation called The Christian Institute. They own and manage a small hotel in Liverpool, catering specially to patients in a nearby hospital. Mrs. Ericka Tazi, a 60-year-old, stayed for a month in this hotel while undergoing treatment in the hospital. On the final day she came to breakfast in a hijab. Born Catholic and British, Mrs. Tazi has a Muslim husband and converted to Islam about twelve months ago.

In the dining room that morning words were obviously exchanged. Mrs. Tazi said that “the Bible is untrue anyway and Jesus is a minor prophet.” She adds that the Vogelenzangs compared Muhammad to warlords in history, including Hitler and Saddam Hussein. The Vogelenzangs admit to saying that Islam is a form of bondage for women, but also say that Mrs. Tazi exaggerates everything else.

Mrs. Tazi went to the police. Six inspectors from the “hate crime unit” of the local police force — yes, such units act as thought-police all over the country — duly investigated, and the Vogelenzangs were prosecuted. The couple faced costs, the folding of their hotel and bankruptcy. In court, however, the judge took very little time to throw the case out. Freedom of speech was the issue here. The Vogelenzangs, the judge ruled, had every right to speak their mind in a discussion about religion. Incidentally, he also observed that Mrs. Tazi’s resort to dirty language could not be squared with her religious views, and he as good as called her a liar and hypocrite. Mrs. Vogelenzang had the last word: “As Christmas approaches, we wish everybody peace and goodwill.”

What Goes Around Comes Around



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A little incident in Paris just now ought to cheer up George W. Bush if he bothers to keep abreast of the news. Muntader al-Zaidi is the Iraqi journalist who became well-known for throwing a shoe at the president, disrupting a press conference and obliging the president to duck. Al-Zaidi went to prison for some months, but is out now and touring the world, hoping to attract sympathy for the way the law treated him and also to raise money for a charity he has started on behalf of “the victims of the U.S. occupation in Iraq.” At al-Zaidi’s own press conference, another Iraqi stood up, and started a speech in Arabic to accuse him of “working for dictatorship in Iraq.” Then he shouted, “And here’s another shoe,” and threw it. It was al-Zaidi’s turn to duck. The shoe-thrower identifies himself only as Khayat, and maybe he judged it prudent to conceal his name, but at least here is one Iraqi emerging from the crowd to show that, unlike so many in his country and in the West, he knows how to distinguish between freedom and dictatorship. Besides, what goes around comes around — here’s a wonderfully pointed illustration of the wisdom of that saying.

A Line in the Air



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The Swiss have just taken the significant step of banning the building of minarets. Right across the continent of Europe this ban is sure to have important repercussions.

Some will say that here is evidence of racism and xenophobia, while others will hold that the Swiss are people who believe in their historic identity, and Muslims who wish to live in Switzerland will have to respect it.

The ban follows quite a bit of contention which started when the king of Saudi Arabia bought a house on the shore of Lake Geneva. Launching a building program without first obtaining the requisite permits, he was obliged to stop and pull down extensions. Geneva already had a mosque, and when the Saudis wanted to build another one, the city fathers replied that permission would be granted only when the Saudis reciprocated by allowing the building of a church in Saudi Arabia. Also following the brief arrest of his charmless son, Colonel Gaddhafi, the Libyan dictator,  uttered such threats that the authorities quickly and abjectly apologized.

In a population of some seven million there are 400,000 Muslims worshipping in about 150 mosques, half a dozen of them with minarets. In the small town of Wangen, in 2005, the imam of a largely Turkish community applied to add a minaret to his mosque. He was allowed to do so, but the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a crypto-Islamist, had been unwise enough to issue a blanket defiance to Western countries: “Mosques are our barracks, domes our helmets, minarets our bayonets.” A politician by the name of Christoph Blocher picked up the challenge and made a national issue of it. A lawyer by training, he is a successful industrialist, the founder of the Swiss People’s Party which has a right-wing platform, and he has been a government minister.

In Switzerland, the people are sovereign, and express their sovereignty through referendums. Blocher and the Swiss People’s Party have been campaigning for a couple of years for a referendum on the minaret issue. Posters depicted women in burkas surrounded by sharp bayonet-shaped minarets. In the minds of Swiss women, minarets herald sharia law and discrimination, and their votes appear to have been decisive. This is all the more remarkable because the institutions of government, the civil rights lobby, churchmen of every stripe, and finally the press, have been almost unanimously in favour of minarets, condemning any idea of banning them, and also putting about a fearful whisper that Islamists are bound to resort to reprisals and terror, as in the case of the cartoons in Denmark.

No country in Europe quite knows what to do about the Muslims who have come to live there. What exactly should be conceded to them, and why? These puzzling questions go to the core of national identity. Defying those who claim the right to set the terms of public debate, the Swiss have tried to draw a line. Whether the opinion-making elite of the entire continent will allow them to keep to it is quite another matter. 

Remembering Robbie



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H.C. Robbins Landon — always known as Robbie — was one of the world’s leading musicologists. Haydn was a passion with him. Born in Boston, he was American through and through but lived in one European country after another, and came to look and behave like a ruling Grand Duke. 

Once I called on him in Vienna, where his rooms were filled with musical instruments, and he told me the story of one particular piano there. Beethoven, it appeared, had written to his patron, Prince Lichnowsky, to say that Haydn was the greatest composer of the times, but nevertheless had an unfair advantage. Haydn possessed a Broadwood, an English model then a novelty because it was the first to be fitted with pedals, thus enlarging tonality and making redundant the former keyboard instruments like the harpsichord. A Broadwood would give Beethoven the chance to be as good as Haydn. How much does it cost? Prince Lichnowsky wanted to know.  Eighty pounds — a tremendous sum then, the equivalent of many thousands now. The prince told Beethoven to send him the bill. For years, Beethoven composed on this instrument.

Studying the documentation, Robbie worked out that this historic piano might have finished up in a castle near Salzburg belonging to a Count Herberstein. The count said he knew nothing about this, but the castle was huge with many abandoned wings and towers, and Robbie was welcome to have a look. Sure enough, in some remote and dusty attic, there it was. The count then said to Robbie, We didn’t know it was here, you traced it, it’s yours.

Is not this sequence of events a sufficient defence of aristocracy? Incidentally, Robbie often travelled behind the Iron Curtain in search of musical scores, and he was almost as passionate in his criticism of Communism as in his devotion to Haydn. He’s just died, aged 83, and they don’t make characters like this any more. R.I.P.

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