David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Hypocrisy Celebrated with Sentimentality


The life and times of Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn had the richest flavor of hypocrisy. Born an aristocrat, he inherited the title of Viscount Stansgate but dropped it and then constructed a phoney proletarian personality as Tony Benn. Marrying a rich American heiress ensured that he would not have to suffer the penalties of the hardline socialism he was wishing onto everyone else. A pacifist, promoter of a Soviet-style economy, giving Soviet Communism the sole credit for winning the World War, praising Mao, he was wrong about almost everything, and oh! so sincere about it that large parts of the public overlooked the fact that Tony Benn was only exercising in modern guise the privilege of Viscount Stansgate to tell everybody else what to do.

For royalty and prime ministers there is a ceremony known as lying in state, whereby their coffin is placed in Westminster. Mr. Wedgwood Benn was not given the full works, but his coffin was nevertheless placed in Westminster — the last person honored in this way was Mrs. Thatcher. Next to Parliament and Westminster Abbey is Saint Margaret’s Church, traditionally associated with weddings and memorial services for aristocrats. The funeral service for Mr. Wedgwood Benn was some sort of ultimate instance of double standards. Here was an assembly of Communists, IRA leaders, oddballs like Mr. George Galloway who so much admired Saddam Hussein, and Michael Heseltine, the Tory politician who brought down Mrs. Thatcher. The theme that seemed to unify the congregation was that they had all done damage to Britain. At the close of the service, they sang The Red Flag not once but twice.

What explains this hallucinating nonsense? I suggest that Mr. Wedgwood Benn can be sentimentalized like this precisely because he achieved nothing and turned out to be a danger to nobody. Had he been successful and Britain gone through the revolution that he preached, half this weeping congregation would have been suddenly dry-eyed and busy cutting down the other half. Failure has its mercies.

Telling the Truth about Weakness


Coincidental positions taken by President Obama and Moshe Ya’alon, the Israeli Minister of Defense, tell us what a sad state we have fallen into. Obama has just received Mahmoud Abbas, the spokesman for Palestinians on the West Bank, and he came out saying that Abbas has “consistently renounced violence, has consistently sought a diplomatic and peaceful solution that allows for two states.” This of a man who has done everything in his power to replace the state of Israel with the state of Palestine, and is frustrated only because he lacks the means.

Ya’alon at that same time was telling an audience in Tel Aviv that the United States is “demonstrating weakness.” Ya’alon is responsible for his country’s security against an Iran that is all the time more deceitful and aggressive. When it comes to negotiating, he emphasizes, the Iranians are better. He puts it directly, “This is a war of civilization. If your image is feebleness, it doesn’t pay in the world.” So the conclusion for Israelis is straightforward. “We have to behave as though we have nobody to look out for us but ourselves.”

The Obama administration immediately claimed to be shocked and angry and mystified. Of course nobody wants to be told they are demonstrating weakness when that is exactly what they are doing on all fronts, with Russia, Iran, China, Egypt, even the Palestinian Authority. Telling the truth used to be considered not just a virtue but a necessity. One of these two men is confronting unpleasant facts, and one is hiding from them. I know whom I would choose to take decisions for my country.


Of the Dead, Nothing Unless Good


De Mortuis nil nisi bunkum is a truth currently being illustrated in Britain.  Consider first a Union boss by the name of Bob Crow.  1983 was the year this man showed how well he could look into the future by joining the Communist Party. He exploited his Union to wage class war unremittingly. Planning the latest shutdown of the London subway, he himself happened to be with his girlfriend on a cruise in Brazil. His abuse of power and privilege was feudal in character. As Mayor of London, Boris Johnson had to deal with the consequences.  Crow’s sudden death in time to avert strike action prompted Boris Johnson to call him “a fighter and a man of character” whose loss was “tragic,” when in reality for the traveling public it was timely.

Consider next Anthony Wedgwood Benn, a cast-iron member of the ruling establishment. Inheriting the title of Viscount Stansgate and a property to go with it, and marrying an American heiress, he forged a completely phony political career for himself under the would-be proletarian guise of Tony Benn.  Doing whatever he could to transform Britain into a Soviet-style economy and society, he actually succeeded in breaking the Labour Party and unintentionally paving the way for Mrs Thatcher. A greater abuse of power and privilege is hard to imagine. Now that he has died, the BBC naturally praises him on the news and in talk shows, but mysteriously the Conservative press almost unanimously thinks he was a political giant and will be much missed.

I am not given to rude language, and so can’t bring myself to quote what Kingsley Amis has to say about Wedgwood Benn in his Memoirs.  The insult on page 298 of that book is one I have found nowhere else.  I have reason to agree with Kingsley and object to the line taken these days in the obituaries that Wedgwood Benn was decent and meant well. Sir Oswald Mosley, the British Fascist, openly threatened me with violence for what I had written.  Wedgwood Benn did it more surreptitiously.  I had imagined that he had published memoirs under the title I Did It, and I wrote a spoof review of it forPunch, a humorous magazine. Peter Jenkins was a political writer on the Guardian, but in spite of that quite a friend. He didn’t enjoy telling me that Wedgwood Benn had sent him round. He’d read my spoof review, did not enjoy it, and he would choose his moment for revenge. I’d been warned.


Roaring Bill Wins Again


“Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight,
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.”

Hilaire Belloc’s famous couplet springs unbidden into the mind these days. Vladimir Putin couldn’t make it plainer that he thinks it right to fight. He began by devastating Chechnyna, killing an estimated hundred thousand Chechens who were of course his own citizens. No wonder he thinks it perfectly natural to support Bashar Assad in the killing of an even higher number of his own Syrian citizens. Next he invaded Georgia, and has unilaterally incorporated into Russia sovereign Georgian territory. Nobody objects. Israel builds a settlement on the West Bank and the White House and the United Nations have fits. Putin steals another people’s land and the White House and the United Nations have nothing to say.

Now it is the turn of Crimea. A land-grab, pure and simple. Russian troops are there in force. It’s always the same argument, that they’re defending Russians. It’s always the same scenario, that they find expatriate Russians who claim to need being defended. The former pliant Ukrainian President Yanukovych is in Moscow where his presence is taken as cover for the Russian troops. In a few days’ time there will be a referendum arranged to finalize the grab.

Putin is not Adolf Hitler, not by a long chalk, but he has taken a leaf from Hitler’s playbook. Hitler claimed to be defending Germans when he overpowered Austria, Czechoslovakia, Danzig, Memel, and other points east. He had Czech president Hacha brought to Germany; he fixed referendums. Hitler told lies about Bolsheviks; Putin is telling lies about Nazis and neo-fascists.

The very first reaction of our Ebenezers in high places is that fighting is so wrong that anything that could possibly be considered resistance is also wrong. A historian friend of mine has studied the many times Obama has said that yet another anti-American head of state is “on the wrong side of history.” Which is more remarkable, the meaninglessness of the idea that history has sides, or the inbuilt patronizing sneer? In any case, it raises the white flag. Roaring Bill wins again. Next stop a move westwards, towards the Baltic republics where expatriate Russians can be worked up to demand liberation. The expression on the face of Polish foreign secretary Radek Sikorski has suddenly changed from smugness to fear that Putin will overplay his hand as Hitler did, but this time nobody intends to help.

Dancing on the Volcano


Russian forces are mobilized on the borders of Ukraine. Troops from the Russian Interior Ministry have taken control of the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol, and Russian gunmen have raised the Russian flag over other government buildings in Crimea. In Moscow, the fugitive Viktor Yanukovych is asserting that he has not been deposed. Vladimir Putin has in place all the instruments for a military campaign.

Meanwhile in London, the German Chanceller Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron greet one another with kisses on the steps of Downing Street. She apparently considers him her “naughty nephew.”  They are distracted in a little to-and-fro of their own devising about what the European Union may or may not do.  What they have in place are all the instruments of tragic-comedy.

Who would have imagined that at such a moment of European crisis the German Chancellor and the British Prime Minister count for nothing? Is there a better illustration of the time-honored phrase, Dancing on the Volcano?



The Curious Case of Moazzam Begg


Two Nigerian converts to Islam have just received life sentences for butchering a British soldier in the streets of London and were carried out of court screaming and cursing. I do not suppose that Moazzam Begg has done anything so frightful, but his story is hallucinating in its own way. Born in Britain of Pakistani parents, he claims to want to live in an Islamic state. He just happens to turn up in Afghanistan before the American army, he just happens to have fought in Bosnia and hoped to fight in Chechnya, and he just happens to have had night goggles and a bullet-proof vest in his house when the police searched it. The West Midlands Police arrested him on suspicion of attending a terrorist training camp and facilitating terrorism overseas. The police statement says, “This is an arrest, not a charge . . . our naming does not imply any guilt.” Make of that what you can.

It also just happens that in 2002 the Pakistani authorities handed him over to the United States, and he spent three years in Guantanamo. When he was released, he claimed he had been tortured and had known two other prisoners beaten to death. He’s founded a pressure group on behalf of Islamists held in prison. Would you say there is a pattern in what he does? The British government paid him one million pounds to compensate him for being in Guantanamo. Now he happens to have been stopped leaving the country with an aid convoy to Syria. How much compensation will he manage to extract for that? Those whom the gods wish to destroy give money to the likes of Moazzam Begg.

How Will Russia Punish Ukraine?


Viktor Yanukovych evidently prepared his getaway from Kiev. Cars, a helicopter, a private plane, perhaps a yacht, were ready for him to make a run for it to Russia. Frustrated purely by chance, he has gone to ground in some safe house in the Crimea, the eastern part of Ukraine where Russian expatriates are the majority. He may well try to put himself at the head of these Russian nationalists.

The Hungarian revolution of 1956 offers quite a close precedent. The center of the capital, Budapest, was filled at that time with loyal Hungarians demanding reform, just as the center of Kiev these last days overflowed with loyal Ukrainians. New men came into power. Then suddenly Janos Kadar disappeared. He had slipped over the border in order to betray his country, bringing in Russian forces that maintained a hold over Hungary for the next three decades.

The Kremlin is thinking along those lines today. Dmitri Medvedev, the sinister Russian prime minister, calls the rejection of Yanukovych an “armed mutiny.” He goes on, “I see no legitimate Ukrainian partner for dialogue.” The general will has never been of much concern in Russia. Vladimir Putin has such contempt for Barack Obama that he might risk the Janos Kadar tactic of instigating Yanukovych to overthrow the protesters, and providing them the means for it. Perhaps the punishment meted out by Russia will be less than that, but it is a cultural and political certainty that there will be punishment. I wish I thought anyone in high office on the American or European side has any idea what to do about it.

Ukraine and Putin’s Second Soviet Union


Vladimir Putin is a throwback to the Age of Dictators. Cunning is usually enough for him to have his way. Rigging elections, for instance, is standard procedure. He and Dmitri Medvedev between them exchanged the offices of president and prime minister with open contempt that was bound to leave voters thinking they had better do what they were told. This pair of slippery thugs will be in power for years, most likely till biology takes its course. In the dictator’s playbook, force serves the purpose of backing up cunning, and Putin gives exemplary demonstrations of it.

Cyber war against Estonia was a preliminary warning. When Georgia was making friendly overtures to the European Union, armored divisions rolled in, Soviet-style, to put an end to it. In the instances of Ossetia and Abkhazia, Putin has taken over the territory of another state, actually shifting boundaries unilaterally in favor of Russia, just as Stalin used to do. He’s also arming and protecting regimes in Iran and Syria with a success that marks the end of American influence in the Middle East — how Stalin would approve! Supposedly there was “a peace dividend” at the close of the Cold War, and if so, then it’s been well and truly spent.

A key to what is happening now in Ukraine is Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow. That authoritative book documents the terror-famine of the 1930s, in which Stalin sent 11 million Ukrainians to their death because they were peasants, kulaks as they were called. Nikita Khrushchev played the leading role in this genocidal procedure, and when he took over in the Kremlin he filled empty space in Ukraine with Russian immigrants and tried to buy the goodwill of Ukrainians by changing boundaries in their favor. Nobody could imagine a time when the Soviet Union would be no more, and an independent Ukraine would come into existence.

Every demonstrator in Kiev and Lviv and elsewhere is sure to have relations and friends victimized by the Communists, and will be throwing a home-made firebomb in their memory. In Putin’s view, these Ukrainians must understand that their nation and aspirations cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the Second Soviet Union. Russia wants a strong government, in the words of the creepy Dmitri Medvedev, “so that people don’t wipe their feet on the authorities like a doormat.”

Repression at home, proxy wars abroad, humiliation and whimpering on the part of the United States — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Vasil Bilak


Czechoslovakia under the Communists was a sad place. Oppression seemed to be in the air; there was no escaping it. One of the most brutal Party bosses was Vasil Bilak. His moment came in 1968. The Party leader then was Alexander Dubcek, whose proposals for reform were well-meant, though he lacked the psychological resources to carry them through. Even so, Leonid Brezhnev and the Politburo panicked, and had Dubcek flown to the Kremlin. To make their point, Dubcek was kept in chains during the flight. Bilak went too, and he signed the plea to the Soviet leadership to invade Czechoslovakia. Sure enough, the tanks rolled in. Dubcek was allowed to survive as a forester.

The reward for Bilak was promotion to be the ideological secretary of the Czech Communist Party. In that position he did what he could to turn the clock back, becoming known as “more Stalinist than Stalin.” Gorbachev was his nemesis. I always believed that the day would come when Gorbachev would do what every previous General Secretary of the Soviet Party would have done, and give the order to shoot as many demonstrators as he had to in order to maintain control. When this did not happen, I set about searching for an explanation, and my book The Strange Death of the Soviet Union duly emerged. The ideological secretaries in the Soviet bloc were key figures. Bilak was eager to open fire and put an end to an experiment he couldn’t understand. He put his downfall with wit that nobody had ever associated with him.  Picture yourself as the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo in the middle of the Inquisition, he said, and suddenly a message arrives from the pope to say, Hold your horses; don’t light the bonfires — I have converted to Judaism. He was never put on trial or obliged to be a forester, but just died aged 96. R.I.P.

Fear and Cowardice


“If you haven’t met Jesus and Mo yet,” Salman Rushdie has said, speaking of a cartoon strip that has been running on a website since 2005, “It’s about time you did.” Well, Salman had his troubles about publication of his work, and now so has Mohammed Jones, the nom de plume of the man who draws the cartoon strip. It’s rather thin artwork, and rather feeble jokes too, but apparently Muslims follow it. A recent drawing shows Jesus saying “Hey,” to Mohammed who responds with, “How ya doin.’” Not exactly Emile Zola, is it? 

Brouhaha erupted all the same. Thousands of Muslims complained. Accordingly, the artist was invited to appear on the BBC’s flagship program Newsnight. The anchorman there is Jeremy Paxman, a clever fellow whose stock in trade is to give offense to whomever he is quizzing. On this occasion, the artist sat with his back to the camera, presumably for fear of being recognized. All he ever had in mind with the cartoon, he said, was to make people laugh. His Muslim opponents were “self-serving rabble-rousers.” Dropping his voice as though to bring out the seriousness of the charge, Paxman persisted in trying to wring out an admission that the artist was guilty of giving offense. Truly, this was rich. The cartoon was not shown on Newsnight or other television programs or in the print media.

That’s by no means all. Maajid Nawaz is a British Pakistani, a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist group with the usual agenda of taking over the whole world. Egypt is one of the numerous Muslim countries that ban it, and Nawaz spent six years in an Egyptian prison in the days when Hosni Mubarak was cracking down on the group. Since then, Nawaz has rethought his position, and on the basis of his experience is now one of the more prominent Muslims taking a position against Islamism. A writer, he is standing for parliament for the Liberal Democrat party. Out of solidarity, he tweeted the cartoon. Thousands more Muslims were immediately up in arms, threatening fatwas and cutting off his neck. When these Muslims say Nawaz is not fit to stand for parliament, the Liberal Democrats — how to put it? — quake. It isn’t conscience that makes cowards of us all, as Shakespeare thought, it’s fear.


Grievous Cultural Harm


Here’s a glimpse into modern times. Andrew Woodhouse lives in Wales and runs a garage business with tires. His premises have been burgled previously. And about a year ago here come two more burglars to steal diesel from his yard.  Mr. Woodhouse is 44 and in the videos he looks fit. At any rate he tackles the burglars, and overpowers them until the police come. In the kerfuffle, he has happened to break both legs of Kevin Green, one of the burglars. Green is taken to hospital where of course he is treated free. Yes, you guessed right — Mr. Woodhouse is arrested on a charge of Grievous Bodily Harm. The months waiting for the case to be heard, Mr Woodhouse says, have been hell. All he was doing was defending his property. Meanwhile the burglar Green claims that he is the victim and asks for compensation. The case has just come before the Crown Court in Cardiff, where the jury threw it out in a matter of minutes. You could hear the sigh of relief all over Wales. But how, and why, have we institutionalized  the astonishing moral confusion this incident exposes?


John Kerry and the Truth


Moshe Ya’alon is probably the best minister of defense that Israel has had since Moshe Dayan. Clear-minded and determined, he has experience of military combat and its civilian equivalent of domestic politics. He must have known what he was doing when he spoke his mind to a journalist about John Kerry. In other words, he arranged a handy leak.

Kerry is probably the least impressive secretary of state since . . . oh never mind, there are contenders. With the Arab world in turmoil, and half a dozen wars shaping up over the horizon, this is the moment Kerry chooses to lean on Israel to make concessions that imperil its future. In Ya’alon’s opinion, the American plan isn’t worth the paper it is written on. What we know of it is a proposal that Israel abandons the West Bank and relies for security on technology. A lot of use that is going to be against salafists and jihadis intent on one-man suicide bombings.

Kerry, Ya’alon says, “can’t teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians.” Which of them is the most believable on the score? The Palestinians are split into two irreconcilable armed camps, Fatah and the PLO under Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank, and Hamas under Islamists in Gaza. Ya’alon clinches his case with the observation that the Israeli army is all that maintains Abbas in power. Hamas is waiting to stage a coup. Remove the Israelis and you remove Abbas, and so you have a war with unforeseeable consequences.

Ya’alon is particularly criticized for saying that Kerry is “acting out an incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling.” Could this be expressed better? He’s been out to the Middle East ten times. His fancies about the future delights of peace are met persistently by Palestinian insistence that they will never accept a Jewish state.

The State Department finds Ya’alon’s analysis “offensive and inappropriate.” It is as good an example as any of the sad fact that people in positions of power go to any length to hide behind words and avoid analysis of their deeds and misdeeds. Ya’alon told the truth, that’s what’s upsetting them. “What is truth? said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer.” 


Ariel Sharon, R.I.P.


Ariel Sharon lived right through the heroic age of Israel and in many ways he was its permanent representative. Born in 1928 in the days of the British Mandate, he grew up in the certain knowledge that there would have to be a fight for independence and quite possibly even for survival.  In the present age, our politicians blather about sending signals and crossing red lines and involving the United Nations but for Sharon the whole point of fighting was victory, to crush the enemy so that it wouldn’t be necessary to do it again. Like Achilles, he had to have his way or he’d stay in his tent.

As a reporter for the Sunday Telegraph I covered the Yom Kippur war of October 1973. The Egyptians had overcome the Israeli line of defense along the Suez Canal. The Egyptian Third Army had taken up positions in the southern Sinai desert that they now occupied. Catching a rumor of a coming counter-attack, I went down to the Canal. I was alone under a blue sky, wondering if I had made a mistake. Out of nowhere, Israeli engineers arrived and with tremendous speed threw a pontoon bridge over the Canal. Then the tanks appeared, and there on the open turret of one of them sat Sharon. An Egyptian sniper could easily have shot him. No helmet. Looking as though off to a sporting occasion, he was like one of the great inspiring generals of the past who led their troops into battle.

The tanks rumbled across, and in a very short time Sharon and his armored column had cut off the retreat of the Egyptian Third Army and was poised to move on Cairo.  The politics of the Cold War imposed a cease-fire that saved Egyptian face, and meant that Israel would one day have to fight for survival all over again. In 1982, Sharon as minister of defense took it on himself to ensure Israel’s future by driving the Palestine Liberation Organization out of Lebanon and installing a friendly Christian government in that country. This was as bold in conception as the earlier crossing of the Canal. A Christian militia then massacred Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila. Again in the politics of the Cold War, this atrocity was enough to deprive Sharon of any victory and perpetuate the Israeli-Arab confrontation.

Israelis nonetheless were to elect him prime minister. His decision to uproot and evacuate Israeli settlements in the Gaza Strip was a final boldness. The supposition was that Palestinians would not want to fight if their demands were met.  It hasn’t worked out, perhaps someone or something will always stop it working out and Israel will have to fight all over again, but it was evidence of greatness that at the end of his life Sharon tried for more than military victory.


Be Careful What You Wish For


All my life I have been hearing the Left criticizing the idea of empire. The line is pretty simple: materialistic amoral white men occupied the territories of people of another color who were leading blameless lives. This must stop. When the whites have gone back where they came from and the people of another color do things their own way, the world will revert to peace and harmony. 

In boring fact, Empire keeps the peace and spreads civilization. The end of the Roman Empire introduced the Dark Ages.  The end of the Habsburg Empire was the prerequisite of European war and revolution.  Various lands and populations were destabilized at the fall of the Mughal and Ottoman Empires, and again at the fall of the British and French Empires.

The administration of President Barack Obama has already created the chaos and bloodshed bound up in the end of Empire. Withdrawal of the American presence in the Middle East fits perfectly into the Left Wing fantasy that whole populations will be happy if only they can do things their way. What actually happens is that ruthless thugs see their chance. The United States is allowing Iran to build its rival Empire, and into the political vacuum of the moment rush the Muslim Brothers, Hezbollah, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the many other jihadi groups.

Things in Syria have come to such a pass that the thugs are fighting it out between them. Bashar Assad has already killed about 200,000 of his subjects indiscriminately. The Free Syrian Army, FSA for short, tries to dislodge him in the name of nationalism. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams, ISIS for short, is trying to dislodge him in the name of Islam. Net result: The FSA and ISIS engage in a new civil war within the old civil war. The barbarism of both parties shames the human race.  From Assad’s point of view, it is a bonus that his enemies have turned on one another.  The United States has an interest in the destruction of ISIS, and objectively, as the Marxists used to say, is now siding with Assad who lets the dirty work take its course. The steadily mounting disaster seems to stem from Obama’s fantasy that peace is something that can safely be left to others.  

A Culture’s Heroes


How a society makes its heroes is a fascinating process, and a good example of it involves Alan Turing. No doubt he was exceptionally brilliant, a pioneer of computers. In the war he worked at Bletchley, the secret center where German codes were broken. It seems generally agreed that his contribution was important, even vital. A homosexual, after the war he was prosecuted, chemically castrated, and in 1952 committed suicide.

Chris Grayling, justice minister in the present British government, has just issued an apology for Turing’s tragic fate. Of course Grayling bears no responsibility, he was not even alive at the time. Too late to be in any sense a reparation, it is just a gesture. Apologies of the kind are now common everywhere, for instance for the Crusades, for Empire, for famines, for slavery, and so on. Obviously the apologists are making use of the past to support the very different values of the present. The assumption that present values are moral absolutes falsifies history and in the end is demoralizing. Our forebears are made to look irredeemably cruel and there is nothing to done about it except abase ourselves in penance. The cruelty done to Turing certifies his status as a hero.

Eight thousand people worked at Bletchley, my father was one of them, and so was a lady called Pamela Egremont. Her husband John had been personal assistant to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. She knew everybody who was anybody, among them Alan Turing. According to her, people in the know at Bletchley forecast that after the war the price of silver would soar. Turing, she told me, got together as much money as he could, bought physical silver and buried it in the grounds of Bletchley. After the war, the price of silver indeed rose as predicted. When Turing went to dig up his investment, he found that housing had been built over his plot. A few weeks ago, Pamela Egremont died, so this story can no longer be checked; maybe it is urban myth, or a fantasy arising from a persisting sense that Turing was after all his own victim.

Stalingrad, Again


Security services in many European countries are letting it be known how worried they are about Islamists slipping into Syria, acquiring training and battle experience, and returning to their countries of origin to perform acts of terrorism. Estimates of numbers are pretty fluid, but there may be 2,000 such volunteer terrorists. Some are European converts to Islam, all the more dangerous because they are familiar with home ground and they pass easily in the crowd.

The city of Volgograd in southern Russia used to be called Stalingrad, and so they know about destruction there. Anyone who wanted to sabotage the Winter Olympics billed to start in Russia in February might well start by showing their capacities in a place of such symbolism. And that’s just what they have done. Two suicide bombers on successive days in Volgograd have exploded themselves, killing about 30 people and wounding over twice as many. Of course this is not so devastating as the wartime fighting there, but the aim is to frighten and it succeeds in this. One of the bombers has already been identified as Oksana Aslanova, shown in a photograph as a “black widow” in Islamist gear that hides half her face. She’s from the Caucasus where Russian forces have been brutally suppressing Islamism for a couple of decades, with nothing to show for it except ruins and hatred. President Vladimir Putin has ground down Islamism here as hard as he could. President Obama and the United States have gone out to lunch, which is restoring Russia as a superpower.

There are plenty more black widows in the wings waiting to explode themselves. Who wants to be a spectator at the Winter Olympics so badly that they will take the risk of being blown up? This should put a spoke in Putin’s wheel. How odd it is that Islamists in Russia — like Islamists in Syria — should be doing dirty work helpful to a United States that doesn’t and won’t lift a finger on its own behalf.


Khodorkovsky’s Future


The injustice done to Mikhail Khodorkovsky will be held against Vladimir Putin as long as anyone has an interest in history.  One of the first and richest Russian oligarchs, he ran Yukos, an oil company second only to the giant Gazprom.  The moment he looked like moving into politics, Vladimir Putin fixed him by inventing charges of tax evasion and having him sent to a prison camp in Siberia. When the five-year sentence ran out, Putin had it extended for another five. That’s how they do things over there, and always have, from the czars to the Communists.

Nobody knows what’s been going on behind the scene, but there has been some deal. Khodorkovsky asked for a pardon, saying that this was not an admission of guilt but a request to see his aged and infirm parents. You wouldn’t want to ask Vladimir Putin for mercy, would you, but Putin has let him go. The poor man looks like a zek, as they used to call political prisoners in old days — the skull shaven, trying to make the grimace on his face look like a smile.

Germans received him in Berlin, just as 40 years ago Germans had received Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The more things change, as the French put it, the more they stay the same. Published in exile, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago changed perceptions in the West. Khodorkovsky is a businessman not a writer, but he too could change perceptions. The injustice done to him is the basis for a political platform, if he so chooses. Quite a few commentators are comparing his situation to that of Nelson Mandela — it’s a winning hand to enter politics to rectify a wrong that everyone can recognize.

Unfortunately quite a few other commentators argue that Putin would never have let him go if he foresaw any danger of Khodorkovsky becoming a figure in the opposition. They say Putin did it to smooth the way of the winter Olympics coming up soon at Sochi in Russia. It will be intriguing to see who is right.

Not a Religion of Peace


Islam, so say apologists, is a religion of peace. If so, how come that Muslims happen to be fighting Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, and animists right across the world? The official body representing Muslim countries has recently put out a statement that the question reveals prejudice they like to call Islamophobia. For them, the price for freedom of speech is too high, and they recommend banning criticism of Islam altogether.

As it happens, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale are now standing trial for the murder and partial decapitation of a soldier in an open London street in front of passers-by. Of Nigerian origins but born British, they are both converts from Christianity to Islam. They plead not guilty and express no regret on the grounds that they are “soldiers of Allah,” engaged in war with enemies. On account of many passages in the Koran, they explain, “We must fight them as they fight us.”

The evidence that the faith conditions Muslims to fight for it is by now overwhelming. Yet every horror precipitates Western leaders to parrot that Islam is a religion of peace. This is a classic case of transference in the jargon of psychology, whereby the aggressor and the victim exchange roles and responsibility.

Apologetics of the kind are escapes from reality, a refusal to look at consequences, accepting blame that belongs to others in the hope that a quiet life will follow. A Muslim who calls himself Ibn Warraq is the only writer I have come across who addresses this crucial phenomenon. Why I am Not a Muslim, an early book of his, openly condemns Islam as backward and bigoted, totalitarian and unreformable. He was the first to point out that Western apologists for Islam are simply not telling the truth. Sir Walter Scott’s Crusades and Other Fantasies, his new book, is a bit more specialized but still for the general reader. He makes the point that Arabs conquered the Middle East and it was only after centuries of abuse and persecution that Christians tried to recapture it. Popes and presidents apologizing for the Crusades are out of order, absurd even. Walter Scott put in place the falsification reaching down to the present that Muslims are peace-loving gentlemen and Crusaders war-mongering thugs. Not even Ibn Warraq can explain the transference, but his description of its sources is enough to clear the air.

In that great anti-totalitarian novel 1984, the hero Winston tries to reassure himself that people don’t really surrender to deception and lies, thinking, “If there’s hope, it lies with the proles.”  Today, if there’s hope it lies with finding many more Muslims like Ibn Warraq.


Thought for the Day


Four American presidents are attending Nelson Mandela’s funeral, and not one attended Mrs. Thatcher’s funeral.


Praising Mandela, with Gratitude and Guilt


Nelson Mandela leaves this world amid a massed chorus of praise. A colossus, a hero, a statesman, another Churchill, he “guided the world” according to Mr. Blair, “a legend in life and now in death,” according to Mr. Cameron. Public figures of all kinds are speaking in those high tones. Apartheid in South Africa was inhuman, and the part that Mandela played in bringing about its collapse is indeed historic. In the 1950s and 1960s, so it appears, the banned Communist Party of South Africa and the African National Congress started an armed struggle. In a much-publicized speech, British prime minister Harold Macmillan had encouraged “the winds of change” throughout Africa. National movements duly recruited followers and the likes of Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania took advantage of these movements to come to power.

The question then was the fate of the whites. On what terms could they stay in independent African states? Might they be expropriated or killed? French, Portuguese, Belgian, and some British settlers thought it prudent to flee, and some were expelled — this transfer of land and power is still current, for instance in Zimbabwe. These various collapses on the part of European settlers radically changed perceptions of Empire. Hitherto Empire had been seen as positive, developing what needed to be developed, introducing the infrastructure of hospitals, communications, transport, resolving tribal disputes, and keeping the peace. Nationalist Africans could now claim that Empire had served only to enrich Europeans, and was nothing more than a criminal enterprise. Most Europeans have internalized the accusation, and believe it.

Apartheid South Africa fought with arms to survive, and when that proved a failure the victorious Africans were expected to exact revenge. Seemingly, it was not in Mandela’s character to shed blood and that is most certainly to his lasting credit. A lesser man might have behaved like Robert Mugabe and attacked the whites, wrecking the political and economic future of the Africans in the process. Now and again, Mandela showed that he could have been another Third World tyrant, sincerely embracing and approving Fidel Castro, Moammar Qaddafi, Yasser Arafat, and others. Instead he let the whites off the hook, and the massed chorus of praise rests partly on gratitude over the present, partly on guilt over the past.


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