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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

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.

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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.

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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.

‘The Great EU Stitch-Up’



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Surprise greeted the morning’s news that one Herman van Rompuy, a Belgian unknown until a few days ago, had become first president of the newly ratified European Union, and one Catherine Ashton, a British peeress every bit as unknown, had become what is modestly called High Representative, in other words in charge of the EU’s foreign policy. Surprise almost immediately turned into a belly laugh that rumbles far and wide. British papers of opposing political outlook have carried the same headline: “The Great EU Stitch-Up.”

These two dim figures have emerged through an invisible process of horse-dealing between the 27 heads of state within the EU. Former prime minister Blair had always let it be known that he expected to be the European president, and I thought that he is such a master of charm and smarm that he would achieve this ambition. The return of an unpopular and retired prime minister as a superior president would have been felt as an insult throughout England, and presumably the 27 horse-dealers took note of that.

Party politics in Belgium has been the sum total of Mr. Van Rompuy’s experience in life. To his credit, he immediately said he hadn’t asked for this post. Lady Ashton’s career is even smaller and duller. She has never been elected to anything,but always risen by appointment and party affiliation. Your standard 20th-century leftie, she is unable to think anything that has not been thought and approved by others. Of course she worked for the Campaign of Nuclear Disarmament that, during the Cold War, did what it could to give the Soviet Union victory. The peak of her career was to head Hertfordshire Health Authority, a local body with the true socialist purpose of exercising state control over the health of others. By chance, I heard her speak — drone, actually — in the House of Lords as the treaty under which she is now promoted was being debated. She was reading a brief in so muffled and unintelligible a way that I doubt she could have understood the words. Prime Minister Gordon Brown is said to have lobbied for her. Praising her promotion, he launched another whole round of belly laughs by referring to her repeatedly as Lady Ashdown. So even he can’t be quite sure who she is.  

If only it was all just farce! Step by step, the precedent of replacing democracy with absolute monarchy is becoming a reality.

Something Other Than Divine



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A modern parody of absolute monarchy and the divine right of kings is being staged in Europe right now. The 27 heads of the executive — some of them presidents, others prime ministers — in the countries of the EU are in the process of choosing the president or fixed term head of state in the EU, as mandated by the new constitution that has just been ratified.

We have lately witnessed the primaries, television debates and nation-wide electioneering to which candidates for the American presidency have to submit. This reveals the character of those standing for high office. In Europe, by contrast, the 27 heads of state form an exclusive electoral roll of their own. At this very moment, each one of them is wholly employed telephoning the other 26, trying to find out who is going to vote for whom, to canvass for their candidate, and to discover some means of influencing or discreetly buying votes. The people of Europe will never know the true ins and outs of this horse-dealing, but tomorrow or within a few days if more time is needed,  they will be presented with the winner. The Bourbon-Parmas and the Hohenzollerns would thoroughly appreciate the closed-doors intimacy of the selection, especially the total elimination of any participation by their hapless subjects.

The press, you might have supposed, would be ridiculing this situation. With a few exceptions, commentators everywhere are behaving like courtiers, as though what is happening is in the proper order of things. Some weeks ago, Tony Blair was trumpeted as the likely president. Then several of the 27 graciously let it be known through careful leaks that they would oppose him on the grounds that he had been a friend and ally of George W. Bush.  Unfortunate Blair! He wrecked his own country for ten long years, but now is punished for about the only policy he got right. Quite probably, this is all spin as practised in courts and palaces, and many, including me, still expect Blair to be the rabbit popping out of the hat.

Instead, we are invited to contemplate one Herman van Rompuy. Before his name was suddenly leaked in its turn, it is safe to say that virtually nobody had ever heard of him. The 27 voters and their courtiers like to declare that this very insignificance is his finest claim to be president. A Flemish Christian Democrat who has been polishing obscure committee benches all his born days, for the last few months he was promoted to be prime minister of Belgium, a country that has had to do without such an office-holder for long and troubled spells. In 1830 Lord Palmerston, British foreign minister, invented Belgium in order for that space to be neither French nor German. Its French and its Flemish citizens hate one another to the point of advocating a split, which makes Belgium a perfect microcosm of the EU. In photographs, van Rompuy has the looks of a rarely observed humanoid insect. Here are a couple of samples of the haikus which apparently he jots down whenever he can: “A fly zooms, buzzes/ Spins and is lost in the room/ He does no one harm,” and “Hair blows in the wind/ After years there is still wind/  Sadly no more hair.” Perhaps this sounds less trite in its original Flemish, but it ought to disqualify him from any responsible office. The man wants to impose all sorts of new taxes across the whole continent and that is no doubt why the 27 voters warm to him. 

Who knows, the hectic telephoning may lead to the coronation of some other candidate.  Here is an odiously elitist contempt for the masses who in the past have struggled for freedom and democracy.  Common sense tells you that Europeans are not going to accept the return to this form of absolute monarchy. Should they do so, they will prove as intellectually and morally bankrupt as the 27 voters leading them down that path.

A Tale of Intrigue



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The story of Shabtai Kalmanovich, resumed in just four short and amazing paragraphs in the Daily Telegraph, is a challenge that a thriller writer would have to be very inventive to match. Kalmanovich, it appears, emigrated to Israel from his native Lithuania in 1971. Lithuania was then a fully-fledged Soviet republic, and by the look of it the KGB must have already recruited Kalmanovich. Once an Israeli citizen, he joined the Labour party, worked as a parliamentary aide, and is reported to have “penetrated Golda Meir’s government on behalf of the KGB.” Detected, he fled to Africa in the 1980s but was extradited to Israel to serve five years in prison. Then, in an intelligence deal in 1993, he was handed back to Russia where he evolved somehow into a prominent businessman with links to the Russian mafia.

A few days ago, a gunman in Moscow killed him by firing about 20 shots into his chauffeur-driven Mercedes. One would like to know the ins and outs of Kalmanovich’s doings as an agent (posing as a double agent?) in Israel, of how the Israelis persuaded some African government or other to return him, and the nature of that intelligence deal with the Russians. Mossad or the successors to the KGB may have wanted to settle scores, but disgruntled Africans or Russian mafiosi are just as likely to have had reasons to take him out. Was he a victim of circumstances, navigating the times with a certain black brilliance, or just an utter crook?

Remembering the Fall of the Berlin Wall



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The sight of the Berlin Wall told you all you needed to know about Communism. The way it ran through the city, the ugliness, the armed guards with field-glasses dominating it, were a monument in cement to inhumanity. As a soldier stationed in Germany I had had sightings of the whole Iron Curtain, its minefields, electrified wiring, and watchtowers. Later journalistic assignments in East Berlin were enough to convince me that Soviet Communism had East Germany in its grip and would never relent. In October 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev came to East Berlin and warned his faithful party servant Erich Honecker not to be left behind by history. Gorbachev and Honecker — I didn’t believe anything they might be saying, and prepared myself for a declaration of emergency, military rule, the shooting of large numbers of demonstrators, nuclear alert, the lot.

Honecker would have had no scruple about giving orders to fire on the crowd, and nor would Erich Mielke, brutal head of the Stasi. Egon Krenz likes to boast that as prime minister he killed nobody but this was because he lost the chance to do so. Plans for armed repression certainly existed. Instead, as often seems the case at historic turning points, accident took over. Gyula Horn, on behalf of the Hungarian Communist party, decided to open the Hungarian section of the Iron Curtain. To a certain extent, the Hungarians wanted to make life difficult for the Soviets, but more generally, they hadn’t perceived that from that moment East Germans would come and go as they pleased in huge numbers. The moment the Soviet bloc was no longer a properly controlled entity the Berlin Wall became a relic.

That November 20 years ago, Günter Schabowski was the East German Politburo member who had the task of explaining to the world’s press this sudden and unexpected breech in the Soviet empire. He had drawn the short straw. Maybe he was even an honest man, as such types go. Once he was no longer a Communist apparatchik, he took a job as a lowly journalist in Rothenburg, an unspoilt little town in West Germany, and there I interviewed him. At the outset of his famous press conference, he was to say, he had had no intention of declaring that the Berlin Wall was now open. But the questions threw him off balance, (Daniel Johnson, son of Paul Johnson, was one of the questioners) and he misspoke — as politicians like to put it — giving the unintended impression that people could indeed now cross the Wall freely.

Within a short time, the picks and jack-hammers were out and cheering people were dismantling the Wall. In another interview, I questioned the Stasi officer who had been on duty that night at the crucial point. When Schabowski’s press conference brought the demonstrators charging towards him and his men, he would willingly have opened fire but needed the order to do so to cover himself. His urgent telephone call to his superiors for instructions went unanswered. What is the likelihood that this was deliberate rather than incompetent? So this officer and his bewildered Stasi men were overrun with their weapons in hand, and so Schabowski played the sort of minor role on whom the plot turns that Shakespeare loved to write about, and so Gorbachev was as surprised as the rest of the world to be granted the great good fortune of entering the history books as the man who freed millions from Communism.

Stop Press



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Abdulbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, is alive and doing quite well, thank you. In July he was declared to have terminal cancer and therefore was sure to be dead within three months. On compassionate grounds, therefore, he was released from prison and sent back to a rapturous reception in his native Libya. The three months have passed, and Megrahi is reported in the Sunday Telegraph to be showing “no sign of deterioration” but having telephone conversations long enough “to suggest that Megrahi is not at death’s door,” as the Telegraph puts it. If he dies within a short span — a year or two, say, it will come as a surprise. I rather expect him to turn up in Cairo or somewhere like Monte Carlo. The man is a walking lie, and everything that has passed between him, Muammer Gaddhafi and the British government stinks to high heaven. 

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