David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Musharraf’s Bind


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.”


An Unbalanced BBC


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


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


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


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


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


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.

Putin Pushes


“He only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases.”  President Vladimir Putin must have basing himself on Lewis Carroll’s great poem. He’s been doing lots of annoying and teasing lately. Taking his summer vacation in Siberia and apparently out fishing on the banks of a river, he posed stripped to the waist, or better still, stripped for action, in a series of photo ops. All biceps and pectorals – got the message?  Alexander Solzhenitsyn was once in Siberia for rather different reasons and I could not help remembering his description in The Gulag Archipelago  of the mosquitoes swarming in Siberia in the summer in such numbers that if they settled on you they could sting you to death.

No sooner is Putin back in the Kremlin than he sends Russian bombers over European air space, and British pilots scramble to see them off. Better that, I suppose, than murdering exiles like Alexander Litvinenko in London, and then covering up for the suspect wanted by Scotland Yard – that whole case has gone into abeyance. And the next step was to test out the biggest non-nuclear bomb ever manufactured, one that wipes out all life in an area of several square miles. That should impress the unfortunate Chechens, Georgians, Moldavians, Estonians, Ukrainians, and others for whom Putin is duly flexing those biceps and pectorals. At the same time, they have just launched a super-submarine, nuclear-powered and capable of staying submerged for twenty days. More impressive still, he’s just sold the latest anti-aircraft defence system to Iran.

His most recent move, only yesterday, has been to dismiss his whole government, just like that, on the spur of the moment, no warning, no apparent motive – just the way they do these things in Russia. So he appoints a new government, with one Viktor Zubkov as prime minister. Only a very few in or out of Russia have ever heard of the man. Experts tell us that he too is a former KGB man like Putin, and a financial specialist who helped rob the oligarchs and send oilman Mikhail Khodorkovsky out to Siberia for ten years, without fishing. Boris Yeltsin once picked the then unknown Putin in exactly this personal manner, like the conjuror who pulls a rabbit out of a top hat.

What’s the meaning?  According to the constitution, Putin can serve only two terms as President. Nobody would be surprised if he were to wangle his way round a paper obstacle as flimsy as that. But perhaps he thinks he can install this Zubkov as his successor, and manipulate him like a puppet. If all this isn’t annoying and teasing, then it’s real trouble ahead.

Lebanon Is Key


Lebanon is the country to watch right now, it is the key point in the Syria-Hezbollah front that keeps on threatening to start another and wider war against Israel. At the end of the month, moreover, there are due to be elections that for the usual sectarian reasons are virtually certain to result in political deadlock. Syria demands subservience, however, and its determination to have its way generates brutality, murder if necessary. The disruption already created by the terrorist group calling itself Fatah al-Islam is a sinister portent, and it happens also to illustrate perfectly the whole Arab order and the difficulty of interpreting it.

Nobody knows who or what Fatah al-Islam really is. The name suggests Islamism but that may be a cover for some sort of military coup. A man called Shakir al-Absi and some three hundred well-armed followers simply turned up four months ago, and took over Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp outside the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli. Who paid for these men and their weapons ?  How were they recruited ? What was the purpose of occupying at gun point a Palestinian stronghold ? The experts more or less unanimously answer that Syria intended to give a warning that it truly means to have its way, and can prove it by restarting civil war in Lebanon with huge and disastrous consequences. And who was Shakir al-Absi ? Reports claimed that he had served a short sentence in a Syrian jail, the presumption being that he was now working his way back into favour in Damascus, a producer of terror satisfying his customers’ demand. In short, he was as much an entrepreneur as a terrorist.

It’s been a long time since I visited Nahr al-Bared. I remember looking down on it from mountainous rises to its east, and thinking how attractive the setting was. I had a PLO guide taking me through the little lanes and alleys so characteristic of an Arab medina, where privacy and the collective are in happy contradiction.  I met some rather scary members of Murabitun, a Sunni extremist group. The inhabitants of Nahr al-Bared are virtually unanimously Sunni: What was their real relationship to Fatah al-Islam ?

Today the story is over. After a pretty dismal performance dragged out over these four months, the Lebanese army has finally routed Fatah al-Islam, killed Shakir al-Absi and his deputy, and identified some of the dead terrorists as Saudis and others as men who have fought in Iraq. Between two and three hundred have been killed, about half of them Lebanese soldiers. And meanwhile 40,000 Palestinians have fled from their homes, most probably never to return. Lebanese artillery has turned Nahr al-Bared into the sort of ruin the Russians have made of Grozny in Chechnya.

This whole ugly episode exemplifies the self-inflicted violence of Arab power politics. Probably Syria really did inspire it, but maybe some Saudis were the financiers, perhaps even al Qaeda – we are unlikely to discover the truth.

The media is no help, of course, hardly reporting the Nahr al-Bared crisis unless in a paragraph on some inside page. In contrast, just cast your mind back to 2002 when the Israeli army cleared Fatah terrorists from the refugee camp of Jenin on the West Bank. No artillery, no indiscriminate destruction, no 40,000 fleeing for their lives, less than a hundred dead all told, but pretty well every front page and every news bulletin accused Israel of war crimes and atrocities. I particularly remember one Professor Derrick Pounder on behalf of Amnesty speaking of massacre, and proclaiming that the dead under the rubble were too numerous to be counted. The absence of such media professors and human-rights groups from Nahr al-Bared now certifies the whole lot of them as foremost specialists in the double standards underpinning the usual Western representations of the Middle East.

Fisk in Training


A British newspaper called The Independent is a fine specimen of left-wing opinion. Occasionally I look at it to see what new conspiracy and disaster its Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, is making up as he goes along. Attributing all past, present and future wrongs to Western policy makers and their horrid little stooges the Jews, this Fisk has an imagination that affords much entertainment to readers.

A columnist in the same newspaper is one Johann Hari, supposed (I think) to be the voice of youth. I never took much notice of him since he never had anything to say which every leftist wasn’t already saying. Perhaps I was mistaken, however. He seems to have had a  conspiracy in mind, namely he bought a passage on the NR cruise last November, passing himself off as a reader like everyone else. In fact he was on undercover work. He proposed to have a go at the genuine passengers, and especially at the lecturers invited to speak, every one of them a conservative and therefore stereotyped n his mind. Why he then waited six months before writing the experience up – and in an American magazine The New Republic, at that – is a mystery.  One of those lecturers myself, I never discovered that he was on board, and it is obvious why he took pains to hide from me. I was the one and only person on the cruise likely ever to have ever heard of him, and also in a position to expose his purpose. I like to think of him hiding behind some life-boat at the sight of me. But he was able unimpeded to mock the likes of Bernard Lewis and Judge Bob Bork simply because they were older and more distinguished than him. There’s the spirit of The Independent for you.

Private Eye is a fortnightly London publication specialising in gutter press journalism, and does it rather well. In its current issue, the muck it rakes concerns our very own Johann Hari. First of all, in a review he totally misrepresented a book by Nik Cohen, a left-wing author who nevertheless – and unusually – castigates the Left for its refusal to welcome the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Hari defended himself by saying that he had once overheard Cohen speaking in this vein contrary to his book at a drunken dinner. Bloggers then moved in, and one of them posted the opinion that for a journalist “a reputation for making things up should be career death.”

At this, Hari “went ballistic,” as the Eye puts it, with threats of libel and damages, all allegedly supported by the Independent lawyers. The laughter of the bloggers grew all the louder, and ruder. The Eye went on to report Hari’s pretence that a package tour of archaeological sites that he’d taken in Iraq in 2002 was really investigative work, and how later he had reported that a pastor had been a human shield in 2003 until he saw the reality of Saddam’s rule. This was a pure fabrication. “I should have checked his story out more rigorously before I used it,” Hari was obliged to lament.

Bravo, Hari, keep it up, and in due course you’ll be just the chap to step into Fisk’s shoes.

Life After Blair


Tony Blair has got out of Downing Street just in time, leaving a whole range of crises, any one of which might well scupper Gordon Brown, the new British prime minister. Scotland is one of the issues with potential for immediate and lasting harm.  Blair initiated a process of devolution that gave the Scots limited powers of self-government. At the time he was warned that this threatened the integrity of the United Kingdom, and so it is proving. This summer, the Scottish National Party won elections to the Scottish parliament, though by a very thin margin. The SNP’s sole purpose is to break away from the United Kingdom so that Scotland becomes an independent and sovereign country.  Its leader, Alex Salmond, has just completed his first 100 days in office, and with a mixture of ability and guile he is playing the independence card long. It so happens that Brown is himself a Scot, and it is the rawest of ironies that he has to confront the SNP. This duel of the two Scots will decide whether Britain continues to exist in its historic entity, or becomes as obsolete as the Soviet Union.

Opinion polls suggest that almost two-thirds approve of Salmond’s administration so far, and also that independence one day is inevitable although under a quarter of the respondents actually were in favour of it. I have just spent some time in Scotland, and pretty well everyone I spoke to there confirmed the broad outlines of these polls. However unenthusiastic they might be at the prospect, almost everyone considered that independence was the virtually certain outcome of devolution. And that would be Blair’s irreversible legacy.

One Scottish grandee, a Unionist, had an interesting angle. The Scots, he said to me, have a very strong sense of their own identity, and do not take kindly to others coming to live among them, or telling them what to do. This is tribalism, with its plusses and minuses, and it means that when they look at Britain they see that immigration is out of control, and there is a diminishing sense of identity, and even less national pride. The Scots hope to avoid such a fate. In a nutshell, then, repudiation of multi-culturalism is the motor driving Scottish independence and the ultimate break-up of Britain.

Arbitrary divisions loom, involving all sorts of unquantifiable confrontations and losses. More Scots live abroad than at home. What nationality is theirs to be ?  What about the many English who live in Scotland ? How are long intertwined commercial and industrial interests to be sorted out in a just and peaceful manner ? In the event of Salmond having his way, the Scots look set to become the Palestinians of Europe.  

Forgery, False Allegations, Abuse of Power ...


France does scandals well, and the latest one there has really explosive potential. It goes by the name of Clearstream, which has its comic touch, considering how murky everything is.

The scandal begins in January 2004. The then minister of foreign affairs, and later prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, had a meeting with two friends. One was General Philippe Rondot, lately head of the military secret service, and the other was Jean Louis Gergorin, a highly placed executive with the aerospace company EADS. At this meeting Gergorin produced a list of secret and therefore illegal bank accounts supposedly held by prominent French people in Clearstream, a finance company in Luxembourg. On the list were two accounts attributed to Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of the interior and the main political rival of Villepin for the coming election for President to succeed Jacques Chirac. General Rondot was asked to investigate. The list proved a forgery. Press commentary now suggests that Villepin was trying to smear Sarkozy, and even more damaging, that President Chirac was the originator of this unlovely stratagem.

The Clearstream list was also sent anonymously to a magistrate, Renaud van Ruymbeke, who was investigating bribes paid in connection with the sale of warships to Taiwan. This magistrate is known to have met Gergorin, and his involvement adds another level of mystery. Two other magistrates have meanwhile confiscated the detailed notes of General Rondot’s investigation. As the evidence piles up, and leaks are published bit by bit, Villepin has been warned by the two magistrates that he has to answer to several serious charges, including complicity in calumny, resort to forgery, and concealing theft (in French, recel de vol.) He has had to post bail for about $300,000, and most injuriously he is forbidden to contact Chirac. He promises to take the gloves off in his own defence.

Forgery, false allegations, abuse of power, conspiracy apparently calling on military intelligence, and implicating the offices of president and leading politicians, why, think Clearstream, think Dreyfus.

The Road to Cultural Surrender


J. Millard Burr, a former USAID coordinator and Robert O. Collins, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, teamed up to write a book with the title Alms for Jihad. At the end of 2006, Cambridge University Press published this book. The authors are both serious men, and the CUP has been one of the most reputable publishing houses in the English-language world.

The book involved an examination of the funding of Islamist extremism. I have not read it, and know nothing of the merits or otherwise of its contents, and now I guess I never shall. The libel laws in England are scandalously out of date, designed to protect a plaintiff, and therefore time and again vexatious litigants come to harm the public interest. So it is in this case. At the threat of a libel suit from a Saudi billionaire, the CUP dropped this book down the memory hole — as Orwell would have said — withdrawing it, pulping all copies, and publishing a cringe-making letter of apology discrediting their authors for making “defamatory allegations.” And they’ve also paid damages.

The row got up by Islamist extremists over the cartoons about the Prophet Mohammad prompted an initial wave of cowardly appeasement in the West. The fate of this book is another shameful step towards outright cultural surrender. A rich Saudi is able to exploit our own laws in order to negate our own free speech, something our forebears fought for as a value that was not negotiable. Suicidal stupidity, degeneracy, or what?

Unfit for the BBC


Three times now the BBC has rung me up to suggest that I might take part in a program about prisoners at Guantanamo. When I then explain that in general terms considerations of public security have priority for me over civil rights for the internees, the BBC hastens to tell me that my opinions are not going to be broadcast. The program has to be “rebalanced” in the rather comic term with which the BBC people fob me off.

But consider how difficult it is to pass sensible judgments on the guys in those orange jump suits. Bisher al-Rawi is a 39-year-old Iraqi who has lived in London since childhood. In 2002 MI5, the British intelligence service, tipped off the CIA that he was an extremist, and had flown to Gambia in West Africa. The CIA arrested him there, and in an act of “rendition” took him to Guantanamo. At the same time they picked up a friend of his by the name of Jamil al-Banna. Released, al-Rawi claims that all along he was working for MI5, and that he feels badly let down by an agency that should have supported him. How is a member of the public to know whether that is true or an inventive lie?  The only clue is that the British government is not seeking the return of his friend al-Banna, which would be the case on a presumption of innocence or wrongful detention.

Consider also the case of Ahmed Belbacha, an Algerian who says that he happens to have been in Pakistan and Afghanistan for religious studies in 2001  – which was mistimed, shall we say. Since 2002 he’s been in Guantanamo, and now he is using the American courts to prevent a planned deportation to his native Algeria. He’d rather stay in custody, he says, on the grounds that he’d certainly be tortured or even killed in his own country. Once again, there’s no way of knowing whether or not he’s hit on a fable contrived to exploit human rights concerns in order to hide the reality of his deeds.  

As we scratch our heads over these cases, and many more of the same morally and culturally baffling kind, the authorities tell us that one in ten of the men released from Guantanamo have been caught committing jihadi violence once again. 

The Shadow Over Europe


Here’s a prophecy that bears thinking about under the shadow of Islamism, with the Pakistani — and soon Iranian — nuclear weapon now a reality. It’s from Aldous Huxley, one of the most humane men of the last century, with an all-round intelligence that made him responsive to other cultures. In June 1925, he visited Tunisia. After seeing the locals picking and packing the date crop, this is what he wrote to Norman Douglas, of course all in the language of a time when aesthetes like them could still take absolute freedom of expression for granted: “How tremendously European one feels when one has seen these devils in their native muck! And to think that we are busily teaching them all the mechanical arts of peace and war which gave us, in the past, superiority over their numbers. In fifty years time, it seems to me, Europe can’t fail to be wiped out by these monsters.”

The Life of Ashraf Marwan


The case of the Egyptian Ashraf Marwan is truly intriguing, something for Sherlock Holmes, and perhaps even he would not be able to get to the bottom of it. At the end of last month, Marwan was found dead on the pavement below his extremely expensive apartment overlooking Saint James’s Park, a prime spot in the centre of London. He was 62, and the third Egyptian in recent times to have died after falling from a London balcony. Scotland Yard quickly asserted that they were not conducting any criminal investigations, and this death was either an accident or suicide. The drama of the poisoning by radiation of Alexander Litvinenko – with its implications of a revived Cold War – has anyhow driven Marwan’s fate out of sight and out of mind.

Since moving to London in the 1980s, Marwan has been well known in cosmopolitan circles. He was at first a friend of Muhammad Fayed, owner of the famous store Harrods, and a man who believes that the royal family arranged the murder of Princess Diana to prevent her from marrying his son Dodi. For obscure reasons, the two Egyptians fell out.  Marwan in any event was an arms dealer, and as such a self-made billionaire. So there may well have been clients or – conversely – their enemies keen to murder him. Also he was writing his memoirs, and there may have been people wanting to rub him out on that account.

But it is his earlier career in Egypt that has to be examined more closely for lurking perils. He had married Mona, daughter of the Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. Apparently this all-powerful father-in-law didn’t think much of him. However, under the succeeding president, Anwar Sadat, Marwan’s career took off. He attended secret meetings of Sadat and Brezhnev; he headed the military-industrial complex (from which he was probably able to skim large sums). And seemingly in 1969 he offered his services to the Israelis. Mossad ran him, and is said to have been impressed by the information he supplied, and may have paid him as much as a million dollars. Its head at that time was Zvi Zamir. On the eve of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Marwan warned of the coming attack across the Suez Canal, though it actually occurred some hours earlier than he said, which may have been a crucial element in a deception plan. Another Israeli general, Eli Zeira, then in the vital position of head of military intelligence, seems to have been so misled by Marwan that he concluded there was no attack in the offing and the Egyptians were bluffing. In the event, the Israeli forces were caught unprepared, and almost overwhelmed. Held responsible for an intelligence failure that endangered the state, Zeira has ever since been a scapegoat. His counter is that Marwan all along was a double agent who had been feeding Mossad with a cunningly calculated mix of information and disinformation.

More or less by hazard, with a dash of inspired guesswork on the part of Israeli journalists, Marwan’s name and his role became public knowledge in about 2004. The very idea that Mossad had Nasser’s son-in-law as an agent was a real sensation. Zamir accused Zeira of leaking the name, and Zeira filed a libel suit against him. Last month, an arbitrator, a retired Justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, rejected this suit and ruled that Zeira had indeed blown Marwan. It is not possible to determine whether in 1973 the Israelis failed to recognise what quality intelligence they had been provided with, or whether they were brilliantly deceived.

Marwan’s funeral in Cairo was virtually a state occasion. His coffin was draped with the national flag and his decorations. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar, a great Sunni dignitary, led the prayers. Gamal Mubarak attended, and his father, President Mubarak, saw fit to make a statement about Marwan, “I do not doubt his loyalty.”  It is not possible to determine whether they were covering up for a traitor, or paying respects to a hero.

Finally, the cause of Marwan’s death will probably never be determined either. Here is a story of our times, a glimpse into the world’s murky under-depths. No doubt we shall also learn one day that either Marwan had never written a word of that planned memoir, or that the manuscript has mysteriously vanished.

Summer in France


I’ve just been in France, in Auvergne, a land which has something immemorial about it, with its long mountainous vistas, castles, and Romanesque churches. The fields were rich with wheat and sunflowers. I went for a special occasion. Longtime friends own the chateau of Parentignat, which has been called the Versailles of Auvergne, and they were giving a party to celebrate that forebears of theirs had built this house in 1707 and descendants of the same family have therefore lived there for three centuries.

The house is in a whitish local stone, an immense block with 15 windows along the principal façade, matching Mansard windows in the roof, cupolas at either end, and an orangery and stables flanking it. You can only gasp at the magnificence. The rear facade has French windows at ground level, giving on to a terrace, ornamental water, and an English park of ancient oaks stretching away into the distance.

At a concert in the orangery, an American pianist originally from Baltimore played Chopin, a piece of calm rhapsody by Mompou, and then jolly twentieth century things like the Charleston rag, and a spirited Portuguese lady sang some fados. Some three hundred guests in black ties sat down to dine in the several state rooms. On the walls are paintings by the great French artists of the 17th century, Rigaud, Largilliere, Lorrain, Desportes – portraits of splendidly arrayed soldiers and cardinals, and of course pink-cheeked wives, and in some cases mistresses, in silks and satins. Afterwards there were fireworks in the park, the illuminations reflected in the ornamental water, and finally a ball. When Parentignat was still relatively new, Lord Chesterfield, that supreme arbiter of elegance, was writing that a Frenchman with a fund of virtue, learning, and good sense is “the perfection of human nature.” We’ll be seeing if Monsieur Sarkozy is capable of living up to such standards.

Now They’ve Gone and Destroyed Aida


Aida is one of Verdi’s greatest operas, a drama of love and honur and patriotism in the grandest 19th -century style. The setting is pharaonic Egypt, say about 1000 BCE. Verdi clearly believed in the universality of human nature from the earliest ages to his day. And on the day that I saw the new production in the Zurich opera house, the newspapers were reporting that the mummy of Queen Hatshepshut had just been identified in a Cairo museum. Time to glory in the spirit of ancient Egypt, then, the civilization that gave us that famous Queen, its hieroglyphics and pyramids and mysterious gods.

The singing was excellent, so was the dancing and the conductor’s tempo. But these welcome features had their limitations. The moment the curtain rose, it became obvious that the producer could not resist demeaning high art through political preaching.  The scene consisted of an art nouveau hall with stained glass and pillars appropriate for a fancy hotel a hundred years ago. Instead of an Egyptian king, a high priest and acolytes in some approximation of what they would really have worn and in a setting suitable for them, the cast was dressed in uniforms styled on the British in Egypt. So the king in gold braided court dress and tarboosh was the image of Valentine Baker Pasha, the British officer who had once commanded the Khedive Ismail’s army. The chorus were either in similar Egypto-British uniforms, or in splendid costumes with silks and bustles, top hats and parasols – no expense spared for these idle rich wintering in Egypt. The producer at one point staged the women in an obvious quotation of J.F.Lewis’s famous Orientalist painting of a harem. (For this scene, I blame Edward Said directly). The captured Ethiopian slaves were delivered in a huge battleship complete with long-range naval guns. Whereupon the crowd of these spectacularly dressed ladies and gentlemen waved Union Jacks, although a few suddenly had French flags and half the chorus now appeared in uniforms such as the spahis wore for Beau Geste. These same soldiers and ornate ladies and gentlemen were very peculiar indeed when they had to sing in temples in worship of Isis and Phtha, as the libretto demands.

What was the producer thinking about ?  The first performance of Aida was in 1871, to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, a boon to Egypt ever since. The British occupied Egypt only in 1882. Who cares about anachronisms when every detail is a loving travesty? Who cares about historical absurdities? The idea was to turn the drama of ancient Egyptians fighting Ethiopians into yet another onslaught against British and French imperialism.  All those beautiful and thoughtless people celebrating the conquest of natives cannot possibly empathize with Aida’s love story that must have an unhappy ending. A stickler for proper staging of his work, Verdi would have fired the producer the moment he discovered his intentions, and never called on his services again.

Grand opera is fit to be compared to the tradition of Chinese or Indian musical dramas, while at the same time being a specifically Western contribution to civilization, a kind of cultural citadel. Everything else in our culture might be undermined, I used to think, but this citadel was impregnable. I underestimated contemporary opera producers. Exploiting the culture in the name of creativity while actually making sure to hollow it out from within, they reveal that they have no confidence in what they do, and no genuine imagination either.  As Western cultural life goes down, it’s the same in all the arts, of course. Perhaps we have to be grateful that although producers can abuse Verdi’s grandeur, so far nobody has yet devised a way of spoiling his music.

An Alternative Reading of the Muslim World


It can be discouraging to note a huge crowd in Tehran apparently calling for the destruction of the United States and/or Israel, or to observe Hamas men marching and shouting about the murdering they intend to commit. Or else to watch the Pakistani establishment rising up in apparently genuine rage and eagerness to have Salman Rushdie killed because the British have honoured him. And yet all is not always quite what it seems.

Here are possible clues to an alternative reading of reality in the Muslim world. As Hamas took over in Gaza, hundreds of local Palestinians sought refuge in Israel. Among them were Fatah members now being hunted down. A few who had been  wounded were admitted to Israeli hospitals. In Gaza hospitals, they knew, they would be murdered, but in Israel they would be treated. Covering the civil war in Jordan in 1970, I had seen this phenomenon before, when the terrified residents of Baqaa refuge camp outside Amman had set off for Israel, many of them shouting that they were going to Musa (Arabic for Moshe) Dayan. Hundreds of Arafat’s gunmen had also fled to Israel from King Hussein’s army, as now they flee Hamas.

And here is a report from Khalid Abu Toameh, the admirable and courageous Palestinian journalist featured in the last issue of NR writing about Gaza. According to him, thousands of Arab Jerusalemites living outside the city have moved back for fear of being left on the wrong side of the Israeli security fence. So it is Arabs as much as Israelis whom the fence makes more secure. He quotes a businessman who doesn’t like the instability and anarchy: “Life inside Israel is much better than the West Bank.”  Farid Ghadry writes in just the same spirit – he is the head of the Syrian Reform Party, a democratic movement operating out of Washington, and he has been visiting Israel where he addressed a Knesset committee. His enemy, he declares, is his own repressive government “and not the country you have been taught to hate.” adding, “I felt very safe in Israel.”

And finally thousands of refugees from genocide have been fleeing Sudan. Many went to Cairo, where the police have scandalously harassed, beaten and scattered them. A thousand have found safety in Israel. These people, it is clear, are well able to reject a lifetime of hate propaganda, and recognise the reality that Israel will be more humane than any Muslim country.

It isn’t that the man on the street has some character defect, then, which programs him to be a killer. In my view, the huge majority of Muslims know that the United States and Israel could offer them freedom, peace and prosperity, but for the sake of keeping power their own Muslim leaders stand in the way of it, and whip up a hate which the mob doesn’t really feel but to which in these police states it is obliged to pay lip service.

EU Wonderland


Remember the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, that Lewis Carroll gem of absurdity in which assorted odd-balls and talking animals defy logic and sanity?  The European Union offers a regular reprise of that Tea Party, taking what Carroll himself would have caricatured as at least one absurd decision every day. Except that its latest decision is not just absurd, but death-dealing. Hideous civil war is erupting in Gaza and the West Bank as Hamas and Fatah gunmen shoot out which of them is to have power and the spoils that go with it. To date, Norway alone of European powers had given financial support to Hamas – the Norwegian government and many Norwegians have long been willing to do whatever is in their power to disregard all morality in the Middle East. Why this should be the case with Norway escapes rational analysis. But at the very moment when the corpses of unfortunate Palestinians are mounting in number, with one atrocity leading to another, and civil war looking imminent, the EU has decided to give financial support to Hamas. Needless to point out, the people of Europe have no say in the matter, but have been committed to take sides in the civil war whether they like it or not, and so fund certain bloodshed. More than that, they are now committed to the side of Islamist extremism and the Muslim Brotherhood, the side of suicide bombers and perpetual jihad. Why they should be obliged to become accomplices of a group of Islamist terrorists also escapes rational analysis. On reflection, comparison to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party may prove too cosy and domestic a touch. Better is the image of the EU as the Ship of Fools, sailing to certain disaster.    


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