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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Williams: Christian or Clown?



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The Archbishop of Canterbury, who is a man by the name of Rowan Williams, has just told the British that the introduction of Muslim sharia law into the country is not just “unavoidable” but “desirable.” Archbishops of Canterbury head the Anglican church, and it is their role to uphold the established faith. Over the centuries, some of have been odd, but all have been recognizably fulfilling their role as a Christian primate. Britain is a Christian country, and the Anglican church has spread far and wide elsewhere. As a departure from the Christianity that rests in Anglican hands, Williams’ advocacy of sharia law is without precedent. More than that, it is hard to think of any statement more damaging to British identity since pacifists in 1940 advised that there should be no resistance to Hitler’s panzers.

Saudi Arabia, Libya, Sudan, Iran, some provinces in Nigeria, have sharia law, and courageous fighters for human rights there are trying to be rid of it. The cruelties of sharia are enormous, especially for women who are treated as they would have been fifteen hundred years ago. Sharia courts survive for domestic issues in some Arab and Muslim countries, and usually conflict with the civil codes imported into those countries from abroad as essential aspects of modernisation. The existence of two systems of law is one reason why these Muslim countries fail to coalesce, and often have no rule of law at all.

Williams went further, saying, “Sharia is not intrinsically to do with any demand for Muslim dominance over non-Muslims.” Wrong. That is an exact definition of what it is. Just try to imagine a sheikh or an imam in any Muslim country saying that there is a great deal to be learnt from the Christians, and Muslims ought to follow their social and religious practices, and enjoy the diversity.

Perhaps Williams is a clown, after all he likes to describe himself as a Druid, which seems to go beyond anything a satirist could invent. Lately he held a secret rite for gay and lesbian priests, something for which under sharia the whole lot, including him, would be stoned or pushed to death from a high cliff. Perhaps he is that dreadful thing, a learned idiot unable to recognise that he is disintegrating what he supposed to be representing. Apparently there is no recognized process for getting rid of an archbishop. So the noise we will all continue to hear in the background is the death rattle of the Church of England, and who knows what its collapse will bring with it.

Studying@Oxford



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News of the Islamization of Britain comes thick and fast. In the last few days, the children’s story of the three little pigs who built a house against the Big Bad Wolf has been forbidden for fear of offending Muslims. I have eaten eggs and bacon with at least as many Muslims as Jews, and in Algeria I once shared a bottle of whiskey with the local imam, a near-alcoholic — but let that pass. According to a government program, British schools are now to be twinned with madrassas in Pakistan, to show how much the children have in common. Bigamy is a crime in Britain, but also this week it has been decided that Muslim husbands with multiple wives are allowed to claim extra welfare benefits. Along that route lies the introduction of sharia law, as demanded already by some Muslims, and which would complete their independence from British law.

Oxford, the famous university city (and where I once studied — but let that pass too) is the latest scene for a test to see how much, and how quickly, the British are prepared to surrender these days. The population is roughly 150,000, with 6,000 Muslims, some say 7,000. A huge mosque has just completed a seven-year building program in a residential part of Oxford some distance from where the Muslims live and where people are pretty well exclusively Christian. The mosque imam proposes to broadcast the call to prayer through loud speakers in the minaret three times a day — though it ought to be five times, and no doubt will be if permission is given. “We live here as British citizens and it is our right,” says the imam who takes it for granted that the city council will agree.

Actually they may be living here nominally as British citizens but Islam is their primary identity. The people of Oxford are making it known that they see the mosque and the call to prayer as alien, “un-English,” a step in the direction of “Islamic dictatorship” and the destruction of Western culture. The Daily Telegraph quotes a member of the Oxford history faculty: “this is a move to torment and torture non-Muslims. It’s not a matter of people’s right to religious freedom, it’s about making Islam the religion of public space…If this is granted it will show that Muslims have the upper hand in a Christian country.” The Church of England, needless to say, has abdicated any defense of its faith. The bishop of Oxford has urged people to “enjoy our community diversity,” and further urges them to be “as respectful to others as you would hope they would be to you.”

It is irresistible to recall one of the most famous and resonant passages in Edward Gibbon’s great history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. If Charles Martel and the Franks had not defeated the invading Muslims at the battle of Poitiers in 731 and so turned them back from all of Europe except Spain, he wrote, “the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.” Gibbon considered the clergy of his day to be contemptible and ignorant time-servers. What irony, what mockery, he would heap on a latter day bishop who supports the teaching of Islam, and in Oxford of all places.

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Bobby Fischer



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The Cold War threw up many challenges, but few so strange as the match between the American Bobby Fischer and the Russian Boris Spassky to decide which of them was the world’s chess champion. The match was held in July 1972 in Reyjavik, the capital of Iceland — and a dump of a place it is too, to be honest. Everyone wanted to see whether the winner was the United States and the individual, or the Soviet Union and the system. Suddenly chess took on a major political dimension.

I flew there to cover the event for the Sunday Telegraph, and on the same flight was Arthur Koestler, reporting for the Sunday Times. I already knew him, and now we were staying in the same hotel. A Party member of standing in his youth, Koestler could criticize Communism from inside knowledge. In Spain during the civil war on a Communist assignment, he had been captured and sentenced to death, and then he had lived through the fall of France in 1940. His exposure of Communism in his famous novel Darkness at Noon, and in his great autobiographies and essays, had given him an international reputation. Remorselessly, the Soviet press and fellow-travellers in the West attacked him, sometimes calling for him to be murdered. Granted his c.v., this chess match might seem tame, but he was the right companion for it. He was also a good enough chess player himself to be able to analyze the board..

Play took place in a large cheerless hall. Quite often, Fischer’s tantrums meant that there was no play. One mini-crisis succeeded another. Arthur and I would fill in time trying to waylay the champions. We discovered where Spassky had lunch, and almost managed to talk to him in a restaurant. A phalanx of KGB officers simply shut out access by standing shoulder to shoulder in a square surrounding him. Executioners and potential victim had come face to face on neutral ground. Their expressions showed that they knew who Arthur was, and would deal with him if they could. Spassky could do nothing. Pale, he seemed vulnerable to the pressures he was under. Fischer was playing psychological games, and this surely helped him to defeat Spassky.

We got to talk with Fischer and with the grandmasters advising him, one of them a Jesuit. They did not hesitate to call him a genius. You had only to take one look at Fischer to know that this might be true but he was a kook at the same time. His rapid speech, the hunched way he walked as if he had to get that very moment to wherever he was going, were signs of self-obsession so strong that it verged on derangement. The rest of his life, alas, demonstrated it, as he railed whenever he had the chance in stupid and vulgar terms against the United States and against Israel, a self-hating Jew if ever there was one. Somehow it was poetic justice that he finished up a stateless person in dour and uninviting Reyjavik where the air smells either of the fish being processed in the fish factories, or of the sulphurated water piped in from the island’s geysers.

Fischer has just died, and as an epitaph there comes to me the tragic-comic tribute paid to him in his finest hour by Arthur Koestler, uttered in tones of amazement and in Arthur’s Hungarian-accented English too, “Better than anyone who has ever played the game of chess, he has understood the mid-field aura of the queen.”

Obituary for the Age



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Andrew Glyn is not a household name, and until I read his obituary yesterday in The Times of London I had never heard of him. But what an illuminating document that obituary proves to be, a perfect little insight into the age.

The opening sentence informs that Glyn “was one of Britain’s most prominent Marxist economists who produced searching critiques of capitalism,” going on to salute him as “one of the finest of Oxford dons.” He was apparently “more likely to be seen on a picket line at an Oxford factory than at the succession of black-tie events that are the circulation of Oxford life.”  Even for a sympathetic fellow-traveller — as the writer of this obituary evidently is — that’s a pretty one-dimensional way of describing what goes on in one of England’s leading universities, but let it pass. No doubt this fellow Glyn was a proletarian stalwart in dungarees, always loyal to his class as he left his college to support whoever might be striking.

Oh dear, no, not at all. Glyn was an aristocrat, with the courtesy title of Honourable, as his father was the sixth Lord Wolverton. He was a descendant of the founders of a bank bearing his name, and as the obituary coyly puts it, “born into considerable banking wealth.”  Educated at Eton, the famously elite school, [full disclosure: I was there too, but before Glyn] he was such a schoolboy success that his master judged “they don’t come better than this.”

What made him a Marxist? Some streak of rebellion, perhaps, if we are to be charitable about him. More likely, he imagined that Marxism would allow him to go on ordering other people about. Most likely of all motivations, he felt guilt about being so well-connected and rich, and wanted to build a fictional persona to avoid reality.   

Think of the abuse of privilege. Think of the false pretences. Think of the damage he did spouting rubbish year after year to students who would be expected to parrot it back to him. To one student, he is supposed to have said, “the three greatest men who ever lived were Lenin, Trotsky and Charlie Parker,” – a sentence that the obituary writer hilariously links to “his depth of knowledge.” Some of the unfortunate students will have recovered freedom to think for themselves, but some will be permanently damaged. The obituary writer does in the end concede that Glyn “will to some extent be deemed to have backed the wrong ideological horse” — that “to some extent” is a qualification that goes so far beyond hilarious that it is almost majestic.

First, people bamboozle themselves, and then they bamboozle others, and who knows where that finishes ultimately. Glyn may not have been personally responsible for murder like his heroes Lenin and Trotsky, but he did his bit to create a climate of opinion favourable to it. His obituary, and in The Times that vaunts itself as the paper of record, shows how manipulation of this sort continues to misinform and deceive. 

Musharraf vs. Disaster



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 The United States and Britain had both been pushing for the return of Benazir Bhutto to her native Pakistan.  The assumption in both capitals was that she would introduce democracy. After all, she emphasised in the many interviews and speeches she made in her enforced exile that she stood for democracy, and that she was a liberal-minded, secular, Western-educated person exactly fitted to lead her country out of military dictatorship and into the bright new democratic dawn, scotching the Taliban at the same time.

President Musharraf, the actual military dictator, was sceptical. He warned that Pakistan is not ready for such an experiment, which would only destabilise his and other countries. It is not hard to imagine the messages he must have been receiving from Washington and London, telling him in ever more insistent tones what to do, or else prepare to face the dire consequences. A dictator he may be, but he is not a cruel or inflexible man, if anything too much of a worrier. Against his instincts, he cut a deal. Corruption charges were outstanding against Benazir, and they were to be dropped in return for which she would cooperate politically, and together the two of them would form a base that could be described with only a small ladling of falsehood as democratic.

Corruption charges against the white hope of democracy and the necessary ally of the West in the fight against Islamism? Unfortunately yes. The Bhuttos are a family from Sind, with large land-holdings and the sort of influence that comes with feudal power. To promote themselves, they founded the Pakistan Peoples Party, outwardly a mass movement but actually a private vehicle for the family. In the 1970s Zulfikar Bhutto became prime minister and PPP leader, but he and his two sons came to violent ends because they themselves resorted to extortionate and thuggish means. In doing so, they made their fortunes. Swiss banks and other sources have provided irrefutable evidence that successive generations of the Bhutto family have abused their powers to salt away huge illegal funds. Benazir’s husband, Asif Zardari, is known as Mr Ten Percent for very good reasons. Pakistani friends tell me that the real motive behind Benazir’s return may have been to obtain signatures from family members and others permitting the release of blocked millions of dollars.

Over the last twenty two years, there has been no process of election for leadership of the PPP. The Bhuttos have simply appointed one among themselves to party leadership according to seniority or wealth or power within the family circle, in what amounts to a civil parody of military dictatorship. Benazir liked to trumpet that “Democracy is the best revenge,” but what this actually meant is that democracy is the best ladder available for Bhutto advancement.

In fact, the PPP really does stand for a liberal and secular state and would probably be the best political option in the future. But first, the party must hold a genuine primary election to determine who is its legitimate leader. The omens are not good. Asif Zardari has already staked out a position as leader, thus continuing the old assumption that the party is nothing more than a Bhutto fiefdom. Promotion to party chairmanship of the 19-year-old Bilawal Bhutto, a first year Oxford undergraduate who cannot even speak Urdu properly, bodes ill for him and for many others.  

Democracy is surely the only viable alternative to the twin horrors of dictatorship and Islamism, and one day the country will enjoy it. The murder of Benazir and the PPP’s lack of legitimacy typify the obstacles blocking progress towards the desired goal. Washington and London made the elementary mistake of thinking that their recommendations would be enough to re-order reality. Now Musharraf stands between Pakistan and disaster.

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Saddam’s Dictum



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Saddam Hussein once made the unforgettable observation that law was two lines above his signature. One illustration of this has just occurred in Saudi Arabia. A nineteen year old woman from the town of al-Qatif was abducted and gang-raped by seven men. This November, she – the victim – was then punished for being in the company of men not members of her family. The sentence was six months in prison, and forty lashes, enough to kill a strong man, never mind her. She lost her appeal, and the clerics in charge of the court raised the punishment to 200 lashes. What kind of human beings can such clerics be? What kind of clerics?

This monstrous injustice raised a huge uproar of protest all round the globe. It is now the Muslim festival of Eid, and to mark the occasion the King of Saudi Arabia has the absolute prerogative to pardon criminals, and he has exercised it on behalf of the unfortunate woman who of course is no criminal. She appears to be free.

A second illustration of Saddam Hussein’s dictum comes from Dubai. There, a fifteen year old Swiss boy was abducted by some men, and raped. When the injured boy went to the police to report this crime, he – again, the victim – was arrested for homosexuality, a punishable offence in Dubai. The boy’s mother is a well-known Swiss journalist, and she at once began a press campaign, publicising another monstrous injustice. In the end, the ruling authority has discharged the boy, and the rapists have received lengthy prison sentences. 

The ruler has only to sign under a couple of lines, and hey presto, that’s law, that’s how to right a wrong. If we in the West protest loudly enough, then, we can shame cruel and unjust men into behaving in a civilised manner – sometimes, at least. That is worth bearing in mind.

Leading Europe



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They take things seriously in Sweden where a politician by the name of Jens Orback is attaining immortality for the things he says and does. A socialist, he has been minister for Gender Equality, and Minister for Democracy. Quotations from this chap are already part of the European heritage. In one splendid example, he has said, “We must be open and tolerant towards Islam and Muslims because when we become a minority they will be so towards us.”

The spirit of our Jens is evident in what has just happened to the heraldic badge of the Nordic Battlegroup, a force of 2,400 soldiers from Scandinavia with Ireland and Estonia thrown in for no very clear reason. Its badge used to show a lion rampant, the genitalia visible. Now this has been modified to cut off the offending parts.  Writing up this fascinating illustration of where we are today, The Times of London quotes an American military blogger, “A castrated lion – the perfect symbol for European defence policy.” 

Swedes last fought in 1809, so perhaps the Battlegroup has the task of cutting its way through to Gender Equality. And maybe the immortal Jens has nothing to do with this great cut, but only encapsulates its approach. This week, a Treaty was signed by the twenty seven countries of the European Union, to give them a new and overriding legal and political entity. Europe is now to have a real president. Our Jens must be in the running for this distinguished job.

Defining “Artist”



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Two composers, the one very much in the public eye and the other relatively obscure, have just died. Comparing and contrasting them is instructive. Karlheinz Stockhausen and Petr Eben, were near contemporaries, the former born in 1928 in Germany, the latter in 1929 in what was then Czechoslovakia. Both had their experience of the horrors of Europe in their day. Stockhausen’s mother was a severe depressive, and murdered in the Nazi euthanasia program, and his father, an enthusiastic Nazi, was killed in 1945. How the young Stockhausen himself dealt with compulsory membership in the Hitler Youth is not clear. As for Eben, he was a Catholic, but with Jewish antecedents. In 1943 the Nazis deported him to Buchenwald, and he could recall standing with his brother in the camp’s shower room expecting to be gassed.

Music is perhaps the most direct and beautiful of the possible means of communication. Pretty well all of us recognise melody and rhythm, and these correspond to something deep in our common humanity. Stockhausen had other ideas. He preferred not to communicate, to ignore melody and rhythm, and simply to ambush his audience with strangeness and discord. His work is a gigantic gimmick. Much of it is electronic, or consists of the abuse of instruments and people. Players are often left free to begin or to stop, interpreting as they choose. Players are advised in one instance to “Live completely alone for four days, without food in complete silence.” One of his pieces lasts for an hour with six vocalists “meditating” on a single note. In another piece, the members of a string quartet played from an airborne helicopter, their sounds relayed through screens and loudspeakers. It is the musical equivalent of conceptual art. The degradation of the man’s character was shown when he described 9/11 as “a work of art.”

Petr Eben came out of Buchenwald with a reinforced religious faith. The Communists then took over his country in a coup, and it was their turn to do what they could to thwart him. Ideology could not suppress his music. The Daily Telegraph describes his classical approach: “He was a great believer in the repetition of motifs and sequential writing, building up an effect gradually and impressively, giving his listeners a clear structure.” Eben himself claimed that his work set out “to portray the fight between good and evil in the human heart.” After Communism collapsed, he composed a Te Deum in celebration.

Egomaniacs like Stockhausen are meat and drink to promoters and sensation-mongers, and nothing much can be done about it except to endure and wait for them to be gone. Unfortunately he and so many like him pass as “artists,” when they are nothing of the kind, but only destroyers of the culture they inherited.  Against all the odds managing to survive deadly enemies, Petr Eben acknowledged the ills of his times, but sought to repair them. Where Stockhausen brought sickness, Eben brings hope. 

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi



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We may never really know why the Sudanese ruler, General al-Bashir, wanted to make an example of Mrs. Gillian Gibbons, the English school mistress who went to teach children in Khartoum. The class she was teaching called a teddy bear Muhammad, and for this fictitious “insult” to the Prophet the unfortunate woman was arrested, and threatened with a jail sentence and forty lashes. Perhaps the Sudanese wanted to distract from the proposed intervention in their genocide in Darfur, insipid as those proposals are. Britain once ruled Sudan with no soldiers in garrison, and a civil service of 200 – since Sudan became independent, the civil warfare has been incessant and deadly, and perhaps General al-Bashir saw the chance for a historic revenge by holding hostage and humiliating an English woman out to do good. The Iranians have just given him a splendid example of how profitable this trick can be, by hijacking some fifteen British sailors and then gathering praise for releasing them. And maybe they roused the mobs to shout for Mrs. Gibbons’s execution just to show the world what Islamist business is like.

Everyone must welcome the imminent return of Mrs. Gibbons physically unharmed to her home in Liverpool. She is not to be imprisoned or lashed after all. What has happened is that two British members of the House of Lords, by name Lord Ahmed and Lady Warsi, flew to Khartoum, and interceded with General al-Bashir, and he consented to their petition for mercy, thus hoping to show himself in a benevolent light, and that too may have been an objective all along.

The two Muslim emissaries may be cast-iron figureheads in today’s establishment, but Lord Ahmed recently denounced the novelist Salman Rushdie’s knighthood, likening it to honouring the 9/11 hijackers,  and Lady Warsi recently said that expecting British Muslims to weed out extremism is “a very dangerous step.” Rather than send these two characters, the British government might have broken off diplomatic relations with Sudan, cut off millions in aid, revoked the visas of the thousands of Sudanese students in Britain, and prosecuted this barbarous regime for genocide. Instead it outsourced its foreign policy to two Muslims precisely and only because they were Muslims. Sic transit gloria mundi, as the philosopher Thomas à Kempis long ago said, which in translation is, can’t you see we’ve put our hands up.

Dark Days for Saudi G



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A nineteen year old woman known only as G is in the midst of an unimaginably horrible ordeal in Saudi Arabia. She was blackmailed into getting into a car with a man who was not a relation. He kidnapped her, and then he and six other men gang-raped her. She was a Shia, it seems, the rapists Wahhabis, or Saudi Sunnis. That only makes their crimes more primitive and objectionable. The rapists confessed, but were then sentenced to short prison terms. Saudi justice is in the hands of clerics who imagine themselves to be acting on Islamic principles. The unfortunate woman was condemned to ninety lashes because she had been in the company of men not members of her family. She appealed. The court then increased her punishment to jail, a fine and 200 lashes. The Saudi Bar Association (yes, there is such a phantom thing) then suspended her lawyer, Abd al-Rahman al-Lahem, a well-known civil rights advocate, for bringing this case to public attention through the media.

Meanwhile Gillian Gibbons, aged 54 and British, is undergoing her ordeal in Khartoum. Only a few weeks ago, she went to teach there at an international school. Before her arrival, her six and seven year old pupils had given the name Muhammad to a teddy bear whose adventures they were supposed to write up as an exercise. Accused of insulting the Prophet, Mrs Gibbons has been arrested and sentenced to forty lashes. Crowds of bearded fundamentalists are demonstrating outside the prison, and some are calling for her death. This is taking place in the city where an earlier generation of fundamentalists hacked to death General Gordon, and the British consequently sent an expedition to take over the country and put an end to the butcher’s work. When Field Marshal Kitchener took his title, he became Kitchener of Khartoum. But let all that pass. The current British foreign secretary is so upset that he has called in the Sudanese ambassador, and suggests that he might cut off aid, but not really, he doesn’t want to rock the boat as he is so terribly concerned about the plight of Darfur. Oh, how his brow wrinkles.

What is happening to these two women shames Islam and every Muslim who allows these cruelties to be done in the name of religious faith. What’s more, the whole of humankind is shamed to be idle spectators doing nothing about such grotesque injustices. Where are the demonstrators shouting outside every Saudi and Sudanese embassy and office? Where are the defenders of women’s rights? Why are our governments so supine? Why are we all pretending that there’s not much we can do to come to the aid of these two victims of customs and fantasies lingering from the Dark Ages? These lashes may maim, and in G’s case could be fatal. And if these disgusting punishments are carried out, we can be sure that the fundamentalists will conclude that they can do as they like, and worse, much worse, will follow.

Shameful



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I can tell you nothing concrete about a journalist called Hugo Rifkind, and I merely suspect that he is the son of one Malcolm Rifkind, a member of Parliament and once foreign secretary, a Conservative – not that you’d know it from anything he says. Hugo Rifkind has a column in The Times, and an unlovely mixture of gossip and sneering it is too. For Thanksgiving, this creepy fellow published a photograph of President Bush bending with good humor over a turkey in the ceremony of “pardoning” it. The caption has the lines, “Obviously, we don’t need to tell you which is which. Or do we?” New depths of shame are plumbed all the time these days, but I must say I didn’t imagine that the Times, not long ago a serious paper, could sink so low. Rupert Murdoch is the owner of the Times, and if he approves of such a cheap shot his new acquisition, the Wall Street Journal, will soon become unrecognizable as well.

Bureaucrats, Leaguers, Muslims, Readers ...



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Here’s a little story from the Italian press that people may have missed. Apparently there are 7,000 Muslims in or around the city of Padova – Padua to English speakers – and they have a mosque, but want another one. The so-called Northern League are opposed to this. In general terms, the League are either seen as local nationalists, or a bunch of semi-fascists. A document described as 5H4HID.b9(rev1154) offers guidelines on building mosques – nobody can possibly say that the bureaucrats who devised, drafted and now implement such a procedure are not earning their salaries. Studying the issue for purposes of blocking it, some Leaguers teamed up with a nearby farmer to loose a pig over the ground marked out for the mosque, in the full knowledge that the animal and above all its droppings would make the area unclean for ever. So it proves – no mosque here. The act is unworthy of Padua, complains the mayor. A spokesman for the Muslims is quoted going further: “They must choose between the Prophet and prosciutto. Islam is very peaceful, but when we are insulted we will turn everyone into sausages.”  Bureaucrats, Leaguers, Muslims, readers – who exactly has the last laugh?

Watching Sarko



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You have to give it to President Nicolas Sarkozy. There seems to be no limit to his ambitions or his self-confidence. His wife leaves him on the grounds that life in the presidential palace is simply too boring for words, and he is spotted with other beautiful women in restaurants. In America, he has a love-in with President Bush, shattering hardened Gaullist prejudices. The creation of the state of Israel, he thinks, is a 20th-century miracle, and this must have brought cardiologists racing round to the Quai d’Orsay where they are quite sure that Israel is a thorough horror.

He’s also rather more than doubled his salary, a sign that he must be very sure of himself. The timing is — what shall we say — unpropitious. France is in the grip of strikes. Work more to earn more, is Sarkozy’s Stakhanovite message, and people don’t want to hear it. Half a million transport and power employees are asked to work more years for smaller pensions. Some railwaymen are currently able to retire at fifty on full pay. So the trains and subways aren’t running, columns of traffic a hundred miles long build up, the bicyclists and hikers have to make the best of it on their way to work.

At the same time students are blocking thirty of the 85 French universities, because they fear they may have to pay tuition fees and lose other privileges. Magistrates are striking in the face of a re-ordering of the courts. At the Opera, the terms of employment of the technicians were drawn up in Louis XIV’s day in 1698, and proposals to update have brought them out too. No Nutcracker Suite. Terms of employment for civil servants have hardly changed since they were drawn up by Colbert, Louis XIV’s minister who put his centralizing stamp on the country, and they’re threatening strike action too.

“Everyone to the barricades!” is the grand old cry of a grand old French tradition that also goes way back. 1968 was the last time that there was anything like real rioting, and it had a Cold War dimension on to which the Communists latched. Recently, the element of theatre has generally prevented anything much worse than cobble stones flying in the air and tear-gas fired back by the police. The government then gives way with as much grace as it can muster.

This time, things may well be different, and there may not even be much of a test of strength. The Communist trade unions have lost the appetite for class warfare, anti-capitalism and all that, and they seek compromise. A poll in the Figaro shows that 84 percent expect Sarkozy to stand firm. Spoilsport! If he wins, and succeeds in pushing through his modernizing reforms, France won’t be quite the same again.

Musharraf’s Bind



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What’s happening in Pakistan reveals the inner dynamics not just of that country but of all Islamic countries. It’s a question of power: who is to hold it, and by what means? Previous rulers of Pakistan have sought to exercise absolute power, and this means ruling through the army and the intelligence service. Other institutions, including the legal branch, have the primary function of endorsing one-man rule. And like previous rulers in Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf knows how to play the brutal game that this form of government necessarily involves.

It was never going to be easy. Pakistan is a country of some 165 million, well over half of them illiterate. Radical Islam has found it easy to fanaticise them. The Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan, appeal to tribal instincts and to anti-Western prejudice. No doubt Musharraf’s worst error was to believe that he could make a treaty with al-Qaeda and the Taliban and trust them to respect it. In addition, Pakistani Sunnis and Shias murder each other. Suicide bombings are a daily occurrence.

As the situation deteriorates, the West is caught in a horrible bind. The United States continues to back Musharraf with money and weaponry, but cannot condone the methods he has to employ to retain absolute power, instead publicly pressurising him to “democratise.” This opens the way to a vicious power struggle. Former failed and disgraced (and disgraceful) absolute rulers pretend to be democrats, military men plot a coup, and judges led by the dodgy Chief Justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, make their bid to end up on the winning side by deciding no longer to endorse one-man rule.

What is Musharraf to do in such circumstances? He could follow the example of the Shah of Iran, throw his hand in and fly into exile. Or he could do what Saddam Hussein and Hafiz Assad and other Arab one-man rulers have done, and murder as many as need be to restore the status quo, however bloody and vengeful. In the event, he has declared a state of emergency, sacked the judicial activists and arrested about 500 opponents. Addressing his fellow Pakistanis in Urdu on television, he broke into English for the sake of Washington and London, pleading, “Please do not expect or demand your level of democracy which you learned over a number of centuries. Please give us time.”

And that’s the nub of it. The political establishment in Washington and London are mouthing the usual mindless clichés about their “grave concern” and the press throughout the democratic West is shrieking that Musharraf has doomed himself, and deserves to go. In reality, it is hard not to feel sympathy for his plight. He has proved to be neither a quitter nor a killer. If anything, his measures are too mild to protect his rule, and he may have to arrest more, and prevent street demonstrations sponsored and paid for by the several would-be one-man rulers striving to replace his person with theirs. The alternative is the continuation of the power struggle by force of arms, the certain talibanization of large parts of the population, and perhaps even the total break-down of the country. The timing of this crunch could hardly be worse. In the near future, both Iran and Pakistan could be in a position to place nuclear weapons at the service of Islamist terror, and what then is the world to expect?

A sample of Islamic wisdom that goes back a thousand years is applicable to Musharraf at present: “Tyranny is better than anarchy.”


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An Unbalanced BBC



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Why is it that the media can no longer be relied on to be fair? The slanting of news and comment to give the worst possible interpretation of public figures and public life is a phenomenon that goes to the heart of today’s culture. The mixture of cynicism and frustrated power drives provides the rich but unhealthy mix spooned out every day in the press and on television.  For instance, anyone who relied on the New York Times for a world picture would be seriously misled. And the same goes for the BBC.

To listen to the BBC output is to be assured that everything in the United States is in bad hands, and nothing there goes right. Night after night, Matt Frei, a chief correspondent in Washington, finds some way of twisting the news in an anti-American sense. He reached a low recently when President Bush announced that a sum of several million dollars was to be given to help eliminate AIDS in Africa. Frei then showed us four AIDS victims in the American South who said they could get no treatment.  So in doing good to others, the President was actually doing harm to his own. That’s the moral of Frei and the BBC.

A fine example of this inverted moral is to be found in a two-part BBC film, shown these last two days, with the title No Peace, No Plan – the Inside Story of Iraq’s Descent into Chaos.  These films purport to reveal that President Bush and his administration had no idea what they doing by invading Iraq. Ignorant, whimsical, incompetent, they threw other peoples’ lives and money to the wind. A story-line for the Left is being established, and it goes like this: Colin Powell would have stopped the overthrow of Saddam Hussein if he had known how to, but Donald Rumsfeld overrode him. Praise the supposed liberals, blame the supposed neo-conservatives.

A slew of self-important and sneering Americans were interviewed, including Ambassador Barbara Bodine and Larry Wilkerson, Powell’s aide, to bad-mouth their colleagues and denigrate everything that had been done or not done. In their eyes, it was purposeless to single out mistakes of conception and planning because everything was a mistake. The BBC demonstrated to its satisfaction that the British should have had nothing to do with all this. Tony Blair was too superficial even to criticize Bush, let alone stop him. A general with a face like a boot and no powers of articulation had the gall to call Rumsfeld “intellectually bankrupt.” One slimy British diplomat after another looked to camera, said that the whole Iraqi affair was a disaster and none of it was their fault, they had entrusted everything to the Americans and were shattered to find that the Americans had let them down.

Intermittent clips stressed the horrors of suicide bombings, the shelling of Falluja or riots in Basra. Failure all round the compass, then. Not a single voice suggested that the overthrow of Saddam might be a necessary prelude to a new and humane Iraq, and perhaps a challenge to other disgusting regimes in the region. Nobody put the argument that it makes geo-strategic sense to have a large military force in between Iran and Afghanistan. Nobody even hinted that it is better to fight Islamists on their territory rather than have them come and fight us on ours. To these moralists of the age, an ultimately pacified and successful Iraq would still be presented as imposition and failure. 

The BBC has really become a political party, and these films are advertising its campaign. The sooner the BBC puts itself up for election, the better.

Marwan’s Fall



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The Case of Ashraf Marwan is one to intrigue Sherlock Holmes. To recap it, Marwan fell to his death this June from the balcony of his apartment in the most expensive part of central London, almost within view of Buckingham Palace. Aged 62, he had risen from humble origins in his native Egypt, reaching the very top when he married President Nasser’s daughter. Afterwards he became an advisor to Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor. Israeli sources have revealed that he volunteered information to Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Other Israeli sources say that on the contrary he deliberately misled them. Egyptian sources ostensibly treat him as a patriot, not a traitor. After the accusations of being a double agent, at any rate, he went into exile, making a huge fortune as a businessman, notably dealing in arms. He is also reported to have finished writing his memoirs.

A whole range of people, then, might have an interest in killing Marwan. The police maintain that his death is unexplained, and they are investigating. Now The Times has tracked in Budapest a Hungarian by the name of Jozsef Repasi, one of several others including Marwan who were directors of a company called Ubichem. On the day of Marwan’s death these directors were meeting in a building at an angle to Marwan’s apartment. Repasi says, “I was discussing the company. And then someone said, ‘Look at what Dr. Marwan is doing.’ I turned left and saw him falling.” Two men in dark clothes were standing on what he believes was Marwan’s balcony, looking down with suspicious self-control, and they were “of Middle East appearance.” The police claim to have identified the two men, but have no other information or activity to report. One more piece in the detective story is that the only known copy of Marwan’s memoirs disappeared that same day. That same day too, by a coincidence that a fiction writer would hardly dare invent, at the moment of Marwan’s death Tony Blair was driving past on his way to Buckingham Palace to resign as Prime Minister, and the skies were full of helicopters for security purposes.

Marwan is the third Egyptian with alleged ties to security services to have died falling from London balconies. This has prompted one Egyptian commentator, quoted in The Times, to wonder what it is about these damned London balconies on which controversial Egyptians “stand and suddenly fly like a pair of socks.”

Famous Last Words



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There are several anthologies of famous last words. You know the kind of thing. A servant lit a candle at the bedside of the dying Voltaire, and he said, “The flames? Already.”  A priest implored a monarch on his deathbed to forgive his enemies. The reply: “I have none. I have killed them all.”

Here’s an apposite anecdote which might well make its way into immortality. Doris Lessing, this week’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, grew up in Southern Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe then was.  Only a few miles away lived Muriel Spark, a future writer of equal fame. Their age, their circumstances, were very similar but amazingly the two had no awareness of one another even though both went to the same Catholic convent school, though at different times. Only years later, in London, they were to meet and became friends, and in a certain sense rivals.

Muriel died in April last year.  The lady who was with her at the end quotes Muriel’s last words, and they provide comfort as well as a final touch of inimitable Sparkian fantasy: “I must remember to tell Doris that when you come to die, you don’t give a damn.”

Diana’s Clash of Civilization



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An inquest has just opened in London for the purpose of examining the death of Diana Princess of Wales in a car crash in Paris no less than ten years ago. The French authorities and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg have already determined on the evidence that the crash was the result of wild and drunken driving by the chauffeur. Lord Justice Scott Baker in charge of the inquest opened proceedings by saying that many members of the public are concerned that something sinister may have caused the collision, and suspicion is now to be “either dispelled or substantiated.”

The holding of this inquest so long after the event, and the Lord Justice’s remarks, are an amazing tribute to Mohamed Fayed. His son Dodi died in the car with Diana. Rumor has it that Diana and Dodi were in a relationship, to use that euphemism. Fayed has since maintained that Diana was pregnant and about to marry Dodi. In his view, the crash was “murder in the furtherance of a conspiracy by the Establishment, in particular His Royal Highness Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who used the secret services to carry it out.” And the motive? Supposedly it was intolerable that the mother of the future King of England might be married to a Muslim. Fayed uses his position as owner of Harrods, the famous London store, to publicize these accusations as loudly and as often as he can.

There is no record of British secret services murdering anyone anywhere at any time. Brigadier Mason-Macfarlane was British military attaché in Berlin before the war, and in a memorandum in 1938 he offered to shoot Hitler. Horrified superiors had him transferred at once to be governor of Gibraltar. Michael Grant, a wartime intelligence officer and afterwards vice-chancellor of Belfast university, once told me how early in the war he had had a hand in recruiting a Military Intelligence team of assassins. The authorities were then so frightened by the men they had trained that they kept them enclosed in a country house in Worcestershire for the rest of the war, and disbanded them as quickly as they could. The concept of the Duke of Edinburgh using the secret services for anything, never mind murder, is so far out as to be rather comic.

But that is how they do things in Egypt, the country in which Mohamed Fayed was born and grew up. Those with the power to do it may well murder whoever gets in the way. Prominent victims of past power struggles have included Hasan al-Banna, head of the Muslim Brothers, and Prime Minister Noqrashi Pasha. President Nasser almost certainly had his friend and rival Field Marshal Amer murdered, and he ensured the judicial execution of the Muslim thinker Sayyid Qutb. Islamists murdered the free-thinker Faraj Fuda, and the secret police cause Islamists to disappear regularly.

Mohamed Fayed’s conspiracy theory is a revealing illustration of how someone can misinterpret British culture in the light of his very own different culture. His vision of the world sounds demented but it’s conditioned by what’s familiar to him. In their culture, what the British actually do is set up inquests and Lord Justices to deal with issues through due procedure, something unknown in Egypt.

Nobody has a clue what – if anything – Diana and Dodi felt for one another, but if the two of them had settled down together the whole Establishment would have gasped with relief at an example of a Muslim at last integrating, and at the top of society too. Fayed’s insistence that the mother of the future King couldn’t be allowed to marry a Muslim is evidence of the victim complex that runs through Islam – the poor man is simply not equipped to understand the British.

Party Time



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The British Labour party has been holding its annual conference, and a very triumphalist occasion it’s been too. Much crowing and boasting on the part of the Labour elite, as the rest of us prepare ourselves for another long spell of high-tax-and-spend socialism. Where will we be at the end of it?

Lord Kinnock was once the leader of the Labour party, and he is supposed to be an elder statesman. He lost elections to Mrs Thatcher, and has been busy amassing privileges ever since. He’s a member of the House of Lords, and for some years he’s been a Commissioner of the European Union in Brussels. His wife is a member of the European parliament, and the press from time to time point out their tax-free earnings, expense accounts and massive pension rights. Few conservatives have done so well out of the public purse as he and his wife.

Well, Kinnock addressed some of the Party faithful, the cameras recorded him, and he appeared grinning on television to say to the country, concerning conservatives, that he wanted “to grind the bastards into the dust.”

Which is more depressing, the vileness of the language or the hypocrisy of pretending that there’s a class war, and he’s a loser in it?

Saving Lars Vilks



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Those who comment on the Muslim world and Islamo-fascism are likely to receive death threats. What is to be done about that ?  Rebecca West, someone whose courage matched her intellect, showed the way. Years ago, when the PLO under Arafat was casting its first shadows over the Middle East, she went to Jerusalem. There she met lots of people. One of them was evidently a secret PLO agent. Her next stop was Beirut.  The telephone rang in her hotel there – the famous and now burnt-out Saint Georges – and a voice told her that she had been fraternising with the Israelis, and they’d come to kill her.  She replied that she’d had a long and wonderful life, had written the books she’d wanted to write, and had nothing more to look forward to. She told me how she had explained to the PLO chap which room she was in, and how she would leave the door open for him. She had called him “dear boy” and added that he had to be sure to bring his gun and take off the safety catch, and aim straight.

This morning, I heard that some al-Qaeda thug is offering $100,000 to anyone who can kill Lars Vilks – he is Swedish and last month drew and published in his local newspaper an unflattering cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad. He had already received a number of threats, The Times reported, but none so explicit as this call to murder him. “I suppose that this makes my art project a bit more serious,” he went on, “It is also good to know how much one is worth.”  Whereupon I remembered Dame Rebecca and the marvellous sarcasm she had put into telling about how she’d seen off her would-be gunman. And by the way, she knew Sweden, and liked the fierce dramatist August Strindberg, and I bet she’d have approved of Lars Vilks too.

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