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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Under the Power of Beasts



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The German Democratic republic, that is to say Communist East Germany of the old days, was a forbidding place. Now and again, I used to go there, mostly to visit the Berliner Ensemble theatre under Helene Weigel, the widow of Brecht and an old harpy too. The menace in the air was palpable. In the street, people would offer to buy the clothes you were wearing, to change money, asking to be smuggled out, and the supposition was always that they worked for the Stasi, the Communist equivalent of the Gestapo. Everyone was afraid all the time, and that was true of Helene Weigel and her company of actors too. They had lived under dictatorship of one kind or another since 1933, and you could not help wanting to shout “Stop!” at history.

The movie The Lives of Others is a fitting memorial to this hateful atmosphere, and a great work of art. The dilemma of East German writers and actors is portrayed exactly as it was. They had to obey the demands the Communist Party made of them. This meant prostitution of their talents, and often of their bodies in the case of women. The majority took the line of least resistance, but a few had the courage to become dissidents, and some committed suicide. Something like a fifth of the population was employed by the Stasi as secret policemen or informants.  The movie also captures the miserable poverty of Communist Berlin. That was almost as lowering to the spirits as the human degradation. At the time, East Germany was said to have a successful economy, the tenth largest in the world. After its collapse, the finance minister Günter Mittag was to tell me that the country had always been virtually bankrupt, and he had never dared reveal his lying about it, especially not to Erich Honecker, the Party boss.

The story-line offers a Stasi operative ordered to spy on a writer and others suspected, quite rightly, of dissidence. In the course of his foul work, this policeman has a change of heart, and does what he can to save his putative victims from prison and ruin. No such Stasi man ever existed, or could have existed, but never mind, the character serves the admirable purpose of dramatising how a totalitarian system traps everyone into life-and-death choices about how to handle the evil it enforces.

Moving the plot is also a minister loosely identifiable as General Erich Mielke, the man in charge of the Stasi, a murderer, bully, rapist, and finally a fool. His office in the Normannenstrasse in Berlin is now preserved for the curious, with its bust of Lenin, its cheap furniture and a mammoth safe for stolen cash or documents. In the building are miles and miles of shelves with Stasi files, and those concerned can consult this X-ray of totalitarianism in action. How come, the dissident writer in the movie has the chance finally to ask, that government came into the hands of such a person?  Here is a movie that for once tells the truth, and does it really well.

Blair Departs



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Tony Blair today announced that he would hand his resignation to the Queen on June 27. Several features about this news are typical. First of all, leaks from spin-doctors have been advising for a long time what was coming. No previous British government has ever gone in for such media manipulation. Far from going cleanly, Blair is clinging on for several weeks, during which time he will attend a European conference and may sign there an agreement to a treaty that nobody wants and that will further curtail national independence. What a parting slap in the face that would be. Finally, Blair himself was fighting back tears as he set the date for his departure – tears of self-pity and thwarted ambition. In his abdication speech he thanked the British people for his successes and apologised for “the times I have fallen short.” Charles Dickens alone could do justice to the unctuous sentimentality.

Under John Major, the previous Prime Minister, the government simply fell apart. It has done so again under Blair. Culture, education, health, transport, are at abysmal levels. Crime is such that there is no more room in prisons for the convicted. Through legal and illegal immigration the country has lost control of its borders. Agriculture is shattered. Blair allowed the mass slaughter of livestock, and banned fox hunting, a nasty measure of class war. He tinkered disastrously with the constitution, abolishing the House of Lords, devolving power to Brussels, to Scotland and to Wales. In Northern Ireland, at the expense of the moderates he has installed in power the rival Catholic and Protestant men of violence, which is disgusting in itself but also an invitation to Islamist terrorists. He packed committees and appointments with his cronies, some of whom have been arrested for their financial dealings. “I’m a pretty straight kind of guy,” Blair once crowed, but the sleaze comes perilously close. Yes, Dickens had the measure of artful dodgers like this. With his usual accuracy Anthony Daniels hit upon the perfect phrase – Blair, he said, has “delusions of honesty.”

Yet he got one thing right. He supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and committed British troops to that end. He understood that the United States is the ultimate protector of Europe. It is a horrid irony that his best decision is the cause of his unpopularity and downfall. In his farewell speech he is reduced to apologising about Iraq, “We must see it through. It is a test of will, of belief,” adding, “hand on heart, I did what I thought was right.” Of course this is the issue that has forced him out of power because experience in so many other fields has taught the public to disbelieve and mistrust whatever he says, especially when he turns weepy about his hand being on his heart. That is his legacy.

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British Traitors



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Five Islamist terrorists have just received sentences of life imprisonment in Britain. There is much to be learnt from the case. All were British, though their origins were in Pakistan — with one exception, an Algerian who had changed his name to Anthony Garcia, presumably hoping to pass himself off as Mediterranean. All had benefited from the British way of life, its toleration and multiculturalism. Reasonably well educated by prevailing standards, reasonably well off and middle class, they could have been expected to lead decent and productive lives. The leader, one Omar Khyam, even had a grandfather who served in the British army in the Second World War. First and foremost, they all are traitors, and the presiding judge did not hesitate to condemn them as such.

Omar Khyam seems to have had the most fertile imagination, proposing blowing up shopping malls and nightclubs, crashing planes in the 9/11 manner, suicide missions, even buying a dirty bomb from the Russian mafia. To some extent, he and his fellows were fantasists, but at the same time prolonged training in al Qaeda camps in Pakistan had given their amateurishness a professional veneer. Operationally, they were in contact with the suicide bombers responsible for the London bombings of July 2005, which killed 52 people and wounded over 700 more. A picture emerges of young Muslims convinced by their preachers to declare war on society, and recruited into a globalized movement that gives them the means to wage that war. The man alleged to have been their controller, for instance, is Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, close to Osama bin Laden, and as it happens lately captured entering Iraq from Iran, and so transferred to Guantanamo. What can this be called except a war waged by an international terror movement?

British intelligence got on to the track of these men more by luck than judgment. An observant lady informed the intelligence services about secretive activities in a lock-up where the terrorists were storing the raw materials for their explosives. In the course of surveillance, the identities of the July 2005 bombers were also revealed a year or so before they committed their crimes, but the intelligence services then did not follow up these particular terrorists, leaving them free to kill. In this battle of wits, some 30 Islamist networks involving 1,600 potential terrorists are currently under surveillance.

Evidently the intelligence services have greater material resources than the Islamists, but they will remain at the mercy of events until they acquire an imagination equal to those they are up against.

Fortuitously, Edward Fitzgerald used the name Omar Khyam as the title for his famous poem, though he spelled it Omar Khayyam. Time was when every British school child knew the lines: “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough, A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou…” Yes, this idyllic picture was a romanticizing of Islam, and the brute reality of today has put paid to it for ever.

Brave and Boorish Boris



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Boris Yeltsin for most of his life was a Communist through and through. Like virtually all Soviet  people, he had a miserable youth of hardship and deprivation. No doubt he sincerely believed that he could help the Party and the Party could help him. He was physically strong, energetic, a man with presence. Rising through the ranks, he conveyed the standard Communist message, that everybody had only to work a good deal harder and then everything would become perfect.

Elected to the Central Committee, and then the Politburo, he had his chance to show whether this rather simple view of Communism as hard work could be made to apply. Yeltsin was famous for issuing orders as though they produced results just because he had expressed his wish, and turning up on sites to inspect, and to encourage – which was frightening to those under orders and inspection.

The more active he was, the more he aroused suspicion in the mind of his one superior, Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Party. A test of strength developed between the two men. Nothing quite like it had ever been seen in the history of Communism. The stakes were enormous. Gorbachev appeared to win when he fired Yeltsin. Yeltsin used the novelty of elections to fight back. Elected president of Russia, he played the nationalist card, and it proved stronger than Communism. Civil war might well have erupted between die-hard defenders of Communism and Russian nationalists.  Standing on a tank in August 1991, Yeltsin successfully appealed to nationalism. It was a brave moment, and will always mark his place in history. At the same time, he fulfilled his ambition of achieving supreme power. Nobody, certainly not Yeltsin himself, realised that breaking Gorbachev necessarily entailed breaking Communism too. The Party could not survive factionalism, Lenin had always warned, and so it proved.

As president of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin revealed that Communism retained some intellectual or psychological clamp on his thinking. Much as he proclaimed himself a democrat, his grasp of democracy was poor. The transition to the new society proved painful, as people with the skills for it made fortunes from privatising the wreckage of Communism, in effect plundering public wealth. Yeltsin himself was one of them. Like the Communist leaders before him, he thought he could do as he pleased. Nothing in his life was quite so unfitting as the deal he struck with his underling Vladimir Putin, whereby Putin became the next President in return for a guarantee not to prosecute Yeltsin. His country will continue for a long time to pay the price for his egoism, his vanity, and his corruption. In the end, little was left of this one-time hero except his feet of clay.  

A Piece of Picasso



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Pablo Picasso, it is generally appreciated outside museum circles, was an old fraud in matters of art, and a monster in all other spheres. Painting was to him primarily successful commerce. He behaved despicably to other people, especially women unfortunate enough to be his lovers. In politics, he was always on the make, backing whatever he thought was the winner. Guernica, his famous picture done during the Spanish civil war, was an exercise in being fashionably on the anti-Nazi side. But when the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, Picasso stayed, and his studio became a resort where German officers were welcome, especially when they bought his pictures. One such was Ernst Jünger, the cold-hearted but brilliant writer then on the German staff, and Picasso one day said to him that the two of them could bring about peace in twenty four hours. Picasso was an outright collaborator, and after the war the Communist Party blackmailed him on that account. The Party threatened to expose him unless he made amends by marching at the head of the mass demonstration in Paris on May 1, 1945. Marching next to him was the singer Maurice Chevalier who similarly needed an alibi for his collaboration with the Germans. “One goes to the Communist Party as one goes to a spring of water,” was how Picasso lied his way out of it at the time.

In 1950 Picasso came to England to attend a World Peace Congress in Sheffield. These Peace Congresses were organised by the Cominform, the Party’s international arm, as part of the program of misinformation and propaganda at the start of the Cold War. In fact this Sheffield Congress was cancelled at the last moment. Picasso stayed in London with Professor J.D. Bernal, got a little drunk and doodled a fresco on the wall. It consists of two heads, with wings but no bodies, hardly more than outline sketches in reddish colour.

Bernal was a scientist, and non-specialists have to take on trust that his work on X-ray crystallography is valuable. He was also the most persistent apologist for Stalin, the Soviet Union and Communism, all performed so blindly and faithfully that it is hard to credit that he possessed either basic intelligence or human feelings. Andrew Brown has lately published a biography of Bernal which is intended to praise, but of course cannot help showing what a debased human being he was. Needless to say, he travelled in luxury in the Soviet Union, he accepted a Stalin Prize, he listened to lies and passed them on as truth. It was the same in Mao’s China where he claimed that the shattered economy was really “extraordinary.” Mass executions did not trouble him.

Bernal’s apartment was demolished, and the Picasso mural chiselled off the wall and presented to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, one of the numerous publicly funded bodies busy presenting art as popular fashion. Now the Wellcome Trust has bought it for half a million dollars, to add to its museum. This trust is one of the richest in the country, devoted primarily to medicine. The Picasso mural will be shown in a new gallery about to open with the purpose of exploring the connection between science and art. The artistic director of the museum burbles about how the mural will “inspire generations in the future.” Actually this is how the lies of two hateful men come to be memorialized, and a false reading of history is passed off on to unsuspecting people.

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Arresting Kasparov



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Gary Kasparov is one of those brave and honorable men that Russia throws up against the odds in every generation. Aged 44, he is the former world chess champion, and leads a group called United Civil Front, a pretty miniscule part of the already miniscule opposition to President Vladimir Putin. Kasparov and his group wanted to hold a protest demonstration in Moscow. Permission was refused. Some hundreds held the protest just the same, and were met by 9,000 riot police. 9,000! That’s a military operation. As Kasparov later observed, it places Russia somewhere between Belarus and Zimbabwe on the dictatorship scale.

They arrested Kasparov, of course, and about 170 others. After holding Kasparov for ten hours, they fined him a thousand roubles – about $80 – and let him go. The money was a token, they had made their point. Now he has a criminal record, so next time they can imprison him as a regular offender.

Why is Putin drawing a line under Russia’s brief experiment with democracy? Some say that he is taking advance measures to fix the presidential election due next year, either to have an extra unconstitutional term himself, or to fix it for a stooge. Others think that he resents the American projection of power in the world so strongly that he is determined to restore the Cold War, and this can be done only by a Russia with authoritarian powers. It could also be the usual Kremlin fear of plots. Boris Berezovsky, the one-time oligarch who facilitated Putin’s rise to power but broke with him and settled in exile in Britain, just declared that Putin has to be overthrown. In classic Leninist language he said, “We need to use force. There can be no change without force, pressure.” Soon afterwards, he explained that the change he had in mind would be bloodless. Still, this was quite enough for the Kremlin to demand the extradition of Berezovsky and to panic the masters of the pre-emptive cringe in the British Foreign Office. The Russian authorities are busy trying to set him up as the murderer of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium 210 last November. They’d dearly love to send him and Kasparov off in freight cars to faraway Siberia, to join others there who have failed to please Putin. The fate of Kasparov is actually a litmus test for this increasingly odious regime.

Weakness & Humiliation



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The release of the 15 British sailors and marines is naturally a relief. They were held for less than two weeks, they were not put on trial, and seemingly subjected only to psychological pressure. But now is the time for recriminations. By means of breaking international law and disregarding civilized behavior, Iran has won a famous victory. It is monstrous that President Ahmadinejad could say at his press conference that freedom for the 15 “is a gift to the British people.” Held through an act of piracy, they were not to be gifted away in a cheap gesture to close down illegal action. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador at the U.N. draws the alarming conclusion that Iran has conducted “a low-cost way of testing British resolve.” Ahmadinejad can now ratchet up the nuclear program without fear of a strong response.

Britain has indeed suffered a significant defeat. Nobody yet knows what pressures and threats the captives were forced to submit to, and these may well have been cunningly applied to undermine their resolution. But the spectacle of the 15 ritually pleading that they were nicely treated and not harmed has resonated throughout the Muslim world. Prisoners of war are required only to state their military number, name and rank. In public, a British officer instead said ingratiatingly that he understood why Iranians were insulted by apparent intrusion into their waters. Another of the fifteen told Ahmadinejad, “We are very grateful for your forgiveness.” Only two or three among them seem to have kept their dignity, and refrained either from apologizing for themselves or thanking the Iranians for putting them through this ordeal. Immediately confronted with television cameras, their families at home unanimously praised Iran as though they really meant it. Nobody had the resolve even to say that they would reserve comment until the fifteen were home. Such reserve would at least have shown some condemnation of Iranian illegalities. Needless to say, the BBC particularly rejoiced in flourishing the general psychological cravenness and moral collapse.

Behind the scenes, diplomatic letters were exchanged between Prime Minister Blair’s foreign-policy adviser, and Ali Larijani, a hardliner who negotiates the nuclear issue. Whether some kind of deal has been struck remains unknown. There is speculation that Iranian officers held in Iraq may be part of a bargain, and if that proves to be the case, Iran will find confirmation for its view that the balance of power in the world is now in its favor. In the first place, though, Iran evidently let the 15 go because it had milked the hijacking for all its worth, and nothing more was to be gained. The British navy had been exposed as operationally unprofessional. Its ships and helicopters and radars were taken by surprise. In no position to defend themselves, its sailors and marines went meekly into captivity. In its predicament, the British government was helpless, turning for support to the European Union and the United Nations, which both limited themselves to verbiage, watered down at that. The whole West can expect to pay a high cost for such open weakness and humiliation at this juncture of the war on terror.

Shame, Honor, and the British Captives



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Exactly who in Iran ordered the hijacking of the 15 British sailors and marines will almost certainly never be known. Nor will the motivation be explained. Perhaps the regime is taking more and more serious steps towards a deliberate showdown with the West, and perhaps a mistake was made. The regime was unable to resist making propaganda out of it, putting Faye Turney, the woman captive and one of the sailors on television, and dictating their letters and speeches, sometimes in an idiom that only a foreigner would consider English.

At any rate, a stage has been reached when Iran expects Britain to apologize for wrongdoing that it did not commit, and Britain expects Iran to apologize for undoubted wrongdoing. Neither party can fulfil these expectations. The confrontation therefore turns from the political sphere to the cultural. Enlarging the issue by taking it to international forums, Britain is pointing out to the world that Iran’s behavior is barbaric and it should be ashamed of itself.  In the scheme of values that pertain in Iran, shame is the unacceptable opposite of honor, and nothing less than a challenge to manhood and a proper life. Whoever accuses another of being shameful is immediately accused in turn of being arrogant.  And so it is now, as the leaders of the Iranian regime speak about Britain’s arrogance, its meddling, and its impotence as a partner of the United States. They stage demonstrators demanding the execution for British “aggressors,” in full awareness that they themselves are the aggressors.

The only ways out of this impasse are the exercise of immense ingenuity to devise a formula that saves the face of all concerned, or unarguable force. Caught in exactly this same predicament over Iran’s nuclear program, the powers are equally uncertain how to play their hand. Shame and honour values are conducive to irrational emotion. The 15 now in prison are likely to have to endure a long and agonizing ordeal.

Iran vs. Britain



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The kidnapping of 15 British sailors in the Persian Gulf is a very serious violation of international norms. Those 15 were inspecting an Iraqi ship to see whether she was carrying smuggled oil, which was only too likely – the Iraqi government is losing immense sums of money through such smuggling. British sailors carrying out such a duty are no concern of Iran’s. The ship’s captain and now the British authorities state positively that the sailors were in Iraqi waters.  Even if that proves mistaken and they had strayed into Iranian waters, there was no cause to hijack them – they should have been met, had the situation explained to them, and sent on their way. Instead, the Iranians have charged them with espionage, which carries the death sentence. This is obviously a concoction. What could there be to spy on from two small boats in the middle of those waters?

The Iranian regime wants a test of strength in the belief that it will win it. God is on their side, they like to emphasise, and this means that they love death for his sake, while Westerners love life, lost in decadent dreams of creature comforts. The Iranian regime has gained a great deal out of previous tests of strength of just this kind. It held the American embassy hostages in full view of the world. It sent suicide bombers to kill American marines in Beirut. Only last summer, its agents in Hezbollah crossed into Israel, killed some Israeli soldiers and fled with two hostages who to this day have not been returned, while their captors refuse to give any evidence that the two unfortunates are still alive.

The 15 British sailors are all too likely be maltreated, dressed in Guantanamo orange suits, forced to make confessions, paraded on television, and perhaps put in front of some mullah who will browbeat them in court and even sentence them to death.

The Iranian regime needs the satisfaction of putting the British to shame publicly, and for a long enough period to be seen to be victorious. The hatred is very real, and with it comes fear of being humiliated. The British have caught Iranians covertly aiding terror in Iraq, and providing explosives to kill British troops. The British are also pressing for meaningful sanctions to prevent Iran from going nuclear. A few days ago, an Iranian general crowed that Iran could capture some blond and blue-eyed people, “and feed them to our fighting cocks.”  He probably had those sailors already in his sights as targets. You’re challenging us, the Iranian regime is telling the West, very well, let’s have a test of strength, and then we’ll see who is the stronger.

British Universities Go in for Censorship



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These are not good times for British universities. As from next year, it has been announced today, selection of students to be admitted will take into account whether or not their parents attended university. The intention, supported by the government, is to increase the number of students from poor backgrounds. The effect can only be to discriminate against those from educated backgrounds. In its early incarnation, the Soviet Union went in for this sort of social engineering, denying higher education to those defined ideologically as bourgeois. In the end, the damage to the nation became evident, and schools for the elite were opened, which was almost as iniquitous.

Free speech is also under attack. An Oxford professor, David Coleman, a demographer, has done research that suggests that mass immigration brings very little economic benefit to the country, if any. A petition has been got up to have him dismissed as a racist. Academics here and there, with the support of their trade unions, have attempted to boycott Israel and Israeli colleagues, purely on the grounds of who they are and where they come from. The cancellation of a lecture by Matthias Kuntzel at Leeds University is the latest step in making British universities irrelevant.

Kuntzel is a political scientist from Hamburg University, with an additional research fellowship at an institute in Jerusalem. An eminent authority on Iran, he has published a good deal about the messianic fervour of that country’s leadership. In particular, he has shown how Nazi propaganda and subsidies in the Hitler period laid the groundwork for modern Muslim anti-Semitism. And that was to be his subject at Leeds, under the title, “Hitler’s Legacy: Islamic anti-Semitism in the Middle East.”

Ahmed Sawalem, described as president of the university’s Islamic society, wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds, Professor Michael Arthur, to complain officially that he had searched for Kuntzel’s writings on the internet, “and they are not very pleasant.” Kuntzel was shown this complaint, and one other apparently from a Muslim student, accusing him of doing this “to increase hatred as I clearly regard it as an open racist attack.” The lecture, and subsequent workshops, were duly cancelled on the grounds that the decision to cancel was purely a matter of bureaucracy. As a spokesman put it, the university had to protect the safety of participants in the event and to maintain public order. Which is worse, the cowardice, the mendacity, or the foregone assumption that Muslims were about to resort to violence and the authorities were helpless in the face of it?

Kuntzel had previously delivered this lecture at Yale. His comment was, “Nothing like this has ever happened before – this is censorship,” adding, “This is a very important subject and if you cannot address it on university property, then what is a university for?” We know the answer to that – to keep out the children of the educated, and to give the children of the poor the impression that they are being educated.

Honorable Voices



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St. Petersburg, Florida, has just been the host to a summit meeting of secular Muslims. They have put out a final statement of their beliefs and aims, and a resounding document it is too. They have been brought together, they declare, by “a great struggle, not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the unfree.” Right. True. Humanly important. They go on to insist that it is proper to criticise or condemn Islamic practices that violate human reason or rights. Finally they address Muslim believers directly : “there is a noble future for Islam as a personal faith, not a political doctrine.”  They proclaim that they stand as free and equal citizens with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is and all non-Muslims. Right again, all of it, and humanly important too.

It is likely that this summit, its fine resolution and indeed its general significance, will not be recognized officially anywhere in the Islamic world. A ghastly combination of one-man rulers, clerics in turbans and secret policemen, will suppress all mention of the summit, not even allowing sarcastic or hostile criticism of it by paid hacks. Absolute power combines with bigotry to keep the teeming millions of Muslims in ignorance.

This will no longer work. The participants at this summit are comparable to the Soviet dissidents who once were also unknown and kept out of sight by the authorities until they were suddenly household names, playing a distinguished part in breaking tyranny. The influence of these free and secular Muslims is similarly spreading unseen but unchecked. In spite of the cruel and backward men who rule their lives, the Muslim masses know that they are oppressed, and they are listening to those who tell them so.

Men and women of high courage and resolution put their names to that resolution. Among them are Ayaan Hirsi Ali who was lately and shamefully driven out of the Netherlands; Nonie Darwish, founder of Arabs for Israel; Wafa Sultan, who scourged Muslim bigotry unanswerably on al-Jazira television; Magdi Allam, who writes in the Italian press; Mithal al-Alusi, the Iraqi legislator who visited Israel and whose two sons were murdered in reprisal; the American Iraqi journalist Nibras Kazimi. Let me further single out the Pakistani Ibn Warraq, author of the fine book Why I am not a Muslim, and  also Amir Taheri, the Iranian exile who is one of the best informed commentators on the Middle East. I am not a prophet, but I forecast with confidence that the day will come when the objectives of this handful will be accepted, and their names will enter the history books with honor.
  

Too Much of a Gamble



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Aspinalls is a well-known gambling club in London’s Mayfair, and it specializes in separating foolish English upper-class chaps from the fortunes, the castles and the Old Masters their fond but equally foolish parents bequeathed them. A Syrian by the name of Fouad al-Zayat is perhaps an unusual punter at such a club, but he can hold his own with the native English when it comes to chucking money away. In March 2000 he lost at roulette and wrote bad checks. Nevertheless the club allowed him to play more, whereupon he lost heavily again and still failed to pay. To obtain their winnings, the club took Fouad al-Zayat to court.

According to court reports, he seems rather larger than life, even genial. His nickname is “the Fat Man,” he lives in Cyprus where he operates a company, and has a private Boeing 747 and of course a Rolls-Royce as well. Apparently it is not unusual for him to tip a waitress $10,000 for bringing him a cup of tea. It came out in court that in the course of some 600 visits to the club over the last twelve years he had bet there about $200 million, losing about a quarter of that sum.

In more than one occasion in the recent past, Zayat escorted Republican Congressman Bob Ney from Ohio to exclusive gambling clubs in London, and gave him chips with which Ney won almost $100,000. Documents from the U.S Justice Department say that Zayat’s company paid for Ney’s “round-trip airfare, luxury accommodation, meal and entertainment.” Why so ? Because, The Observer newspaper reports, “Zayat wanted Ney’s help in getting his company an exemption that would secure a multi-million-dollar deal with the Iranians.”  The source of Zayat’s wealth, that report continues, is “something of a mystery” but he has been “an intermediary in a number of lucrative defence-related deals.” Say no more.

Syria today is a Sovietised slum in which the ruling Assad dynasty and their Baathist hangers-on monopolise such wealth as there is, and everybody else can do nothing to relieve their poverty. Those who know how to skim money off defence-related contracts and multi-million-dollar Iranian deals are helping to perpetuate the misery of these millions of helpless people, as well as making the world yet more unsafe.  The eagerness of clubs like Aspinalls for money from any source, no matter how suspect, to finish in their hands proves that corruption crosses cultures and frontiers with the ease and speed of an infectious disease.

Italian Games



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It’s business as usual in Italy. The government of Prime Minister Romano Prodi has fallen after a vote of no-confidence – the margin against him was no more than two votes, actually. In such circumstances, President Napolitano is empowered by the constitution to call on someone in a position to form a government, and he has duly summoned Prodi to do so all over again – in other words no-confidence is the same as confidence. Prodi is at the head of a left-wing coalition of nine parties, two of them Communist not on speaking terms with one another. Proportional representation reduces politics to a trivial game of musical chairs. Which is why since Italy was remade after 1945, governments on average have lasted less than one year.

Prodi was brought down apparently because Giulio Andreotti decided to vote against him. The octogenarian Andreotti is one of those leading European politicians – in the mold of the Frenchman Francois Mitterand or the German Helmut Kohl – who refuses to give up because there is always a little more damage to be done by the black arts of which such men are masters. His nickname as “the Prince of Darkness,” is well earned. Not long ago, he was charged with mafia connections and complicity in murder, but acquitted.

And what was the vote about? Under Nato auspices, Italy has a thousand troops in Afghanistan, and against all odds Prodi was asking for a commitment to keep them there. The no-confidence vote was driven by anti-Americanism, a card Andreotti and other leading European politicians love to play. Put another way, appeasement of Muslims brought down the Italian government as it did the Spanish government after the Madrid bombings.

I find I can’t get out of my head this bravura passage from John Stuart Mill, written long before the present moral collapse of Europe, but pertinent to it. “War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature, and has no chance of being free unless made or kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

The Mitford Sisters



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Decca was the nickname of Jessica Mitford, one of six sisters and daughters of an English peer, Lord Redesdale. In their various ways as Fascists, Communists, writers and society figures, they seemed to epitomise in one family the life choices and struggles of the Thirties and Forties. Decca was the Communist among them but very much a society figure as well, trading on her impeccable upper class credentials to get her way in whatever she wanted. Her voice and accent could cut glass, as they say. In Oakland, California, she married a lawyer, Bob Treuhaft, and settled down to a career of writing muck-raking books about the United States while greatly enjoying everything the country offered. Much as she pretended to be a rebel, her life was an exercise in privilege.

In 1972, teaching summer school at the University of California at Berkeley, I took the Treuhaft house, and very large and comfortable it was too. Very visibly on the desk lay their two Communist Party cards, no doubt left there deliberately to provoke me. In the library were the books of Unity, the Nazi sister who succeeded in picking up Hitler and hitting the headlines for it. Her personality came alive, as a study in fanaticism. Decca then helped me to write a biography of Unity, and much relished the row that followed with the other sisters who preferred to bury Unity’s wretched example – with the exception of Nancy Mitford, the novelist, who also supported me. In the book, however, I concluded that Unity and Jessica were two sides of the same totalitarian-minded coin and she angrily repudiated this. If I had lived before the war, I too would have been a Communist, she said, to which I answered that I hoped and expected I would have always supported democracy. Decca was that harmful but all too common a phenomenon, an intelligent fool.

Peter Y. Sussman has recently edited Decca. The Letters of Jessica Mitford, and a monstrous volume of 744 pages it is too. In it, the story of my biography of Unity, and the quarrels with the sisters afterwards, are reported rather fairly. Something quite else caught my eye. In 1980 Decca is writing to Hillary Clinton as wife of the governor of Arkansas to plead the case of a man convicted for murder in that state, but escaping from prison only to be re-arrested in California. To another correspondent Decca later reveals the connection to Hillary, namely that Hillary had worked for Bob Treuhaft as a student intern while at the Yale law school. She fears that the White House of the first President Bush has discovered this strange fact, and will use “to dig up dirt.” At the close of her letter, she judges that Hillary “seems to be an excellent person.” The Treuhafts and their colleagues delighted in flaunting their Communism, and I have yet to hear of anyone insisting that Mrs Clinton explain how and why she came to choose for an internship this particular politicized firm out of the many thousands in the country.

The Debt Owed the Brits



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Outside my window at the moment is the Matterhorn, a huge and imposing spike of rock that rises some 15,000 feet, as high as any mountain in Europe. Its peak looks sheer, unclimbable, yet people do go up all the time,  and accidents are rare.

One of the local hotels has a plaque commemorating a famous mountaineer, the Englishman Edward Whymper, who earned immortality as the first to climb the Matterhorn in the late 1860s. One dreads to think of the antique equipment he must have used. But while Whymper was taking his life into his hands and popularising mountaineering, other British people of that day were launching and standardising association football, rugby football, lawn tennis, golf, skiing, hockey, lacrosse, croquet, cricket, horse-racing – in fact polo seems to be the only sport that did not originate in Britain.

What is the explanation of the fact that British sportsmen spread their sports so swiftly and acceptably to the rest of the world? No doubt the supremacy in the nineteenth century of the British Empire played some part – people wanted to be doing what the British were doing. William James, brother of the novelist Henry James and a better psychologist than Freud, held that sports were valuable because offering what he called “the moral equivalent of war.” That’s convincing, but doesn’t explain why the British were pioneering in this respect, while the French or Germans, say, were stuck with war and revolution, contributing no sports.

The British were – at least till recently – rather good at war. They were also early to suffer the consequences of civil war. They developed sports, it seems to me, because they knew what they were capable of, and so devised ways of managing conflict, ways so varied that there was an outlet for everyone, whether as a team player or an individual. And maybe this is an indispensable feature of a civil society.  In any case, millions indulge in sports without awareness of what they owe the British. This has  surely been a more successful colonization even than the adoption of the English language.

Putin on the Same Old Threads



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Investigation into the murder of Alexander Litvinenko has simply run into the sands.  British detectives in Moscow were not allowed to work freely there, and the Russians in retaliation are pushing to send their detectives to London to build the case they make that Boris Berezovsky ordered the murder – he is a former oligarch who befriended Vladimir Putin but began to oppose him politically and therefore had to flee for his life. In the gathering circle of Russian exiles in London, he befriended and employed Litvinenko, and the idea that he wanted a hit on Litvinenko is on the face of it absurd. But not a surprise. An old Leninist trick, perfected by Stalin, is to displace on to someone else, preferably the victim or his associates, the responsibility for the crime you have yourself just committed. This worked well throughout the Soviet era.

But there are indications of a psycho-political change of climate in the Kremlin. Take Nashi, which translates more or less as “For us.”  This is a movement of young men, outwardly civilian, but evidently Kremlin storm-troopers. One of their standing orders is to picket and intimidate the British ambassador, Anthony Brenton. They harass him wherever he goes. One reason is because the British are trying to pursue the Litvinenko case, and also refuse to extradite Berezovsky. And take the row that has blown up in Estonia. The Soviets invaded that Baltic country in 1940, were driven out by the Germans but returned in 1944. By the time the Soviets had fully swallowed up the country, they had killed somewhere between a third and a half of the population, and installed large numbers of Russian colonizers. In the centre of beautiful and historic Tallinn, the capital, they erected an outsize bronze statue of a Soviet soldier, supposedly a liberator to them but in the eyes of the locals a real killer. Estonians have a very strong and patriotic national identity, they are free people, and their parliament voted to remove the statue to a war cemetery. This perfectly polite compromise has prompted Kremlin shrieks that the Estonians are neo-Nazis, and Putin is threatening sanctions.

Same old trick. Who is closer to Nazi practices here, the Estonians or the Kremlin? In any case, other cities in eastern and central Europe have been getting rid of similar mendacious and forcibly imposed public symbols ever since the Hungarians in 1956 destroyed the gigantic statue of Stalin that disfigured Budapest.  (In contrast to the Estonians and everyone else, the Austrians are too lily-livered to take down the statue of the Soviet soldier that remains one of the tallest and most visible monuments in central Vienna, and their abiding badge of subservience.)

On a wider scale, Putin is proposing to found a cartel of gas producers on the lines of OPEC. He protects North Korea and Iran, providing the latter with nuclear scientists and anti-aircraft missile defences. Evidently the hope is to build another anti-democratic bloc. The size of the country, its immense natural resources, and perhaps some sense that the task of evolving a decent civil society is for ever beyond reach, seems to impel whoever is in the Kremlin to resort to naked power. The rest of us had a respite after the fall of Communism, but this was evidently too good to last. 

Saintliness and Show



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Abbé Pierre who has just died at the age of 94 was perhaps a good, and even a saintly, man. Certainly he looked the part, a white-bearded sage, habitually wearing a comforting French beret and a dramatic black cape. He started Emmaus in 1949, a movement to provide shelter for the homeless, and now an organisation in some 30 countries. That is to his credit.  Hearing of the death, Jacques Chirac called him, “an immense figure, a conscience, a man who personified goodness.”  And that’s quite enough to make anyone have second thoughts.

Abbé Pierre was born Henri Grouès, one of the numerous children of a well-off family in Lyons. As a teenager, he felt he had a vocation, and duly became a Capuchin monk. It is not clear quite how he left the order at some point before the war, nor how he lived, but he always had family money and a large house. Everyone who writes about him copies repetitively from each other that during the war he was a resistance hero, adding that he saved the lives of some Jews either by forging papers or by smuggling them into Switzerland. To my knowledge, nobody seems able to verify this, neither grateful Jewish survivors nor Yad Vashem, the organisation in Jerusalem that awards the title of Righteous Gentile to any Christian who saved any Jew. All that is known beyond doubt is that Abbé Pierre turned up at General de Gaulle’s headquarters in Algiers well into 1944, in other words turning his back on the real resistance to the Germans that was then really starting in France. So he might qualify for the sardonic title ascribed to thousands of his compatriots as “un résistant de la dernière heure,” or a last-minute member of the resistance.

For a while he was a Gaullist politician and member of parliament.  His flair for self-dramatising was genuine, and it became a familiar feature of French life to discover this former monk and sometime priest swooping down in his black cape on poor down-and-outs, grabbing headlines for his charity. And certainly again, he made many French people feel good about themselves, regularly putting him at or near the top of polls of the greatest Frenchmen.

Then in 1996 he came out to endorse a book called “The Founding Myths of Israeli Policy.”  Its author was Roger Garaudy, a veteran Stalinist, who after the Soviet collapse converted to Islam (what else?), moved to Cairo, and became a Holocaust denier. Nobody who had ever saved Jews from Nazism could conceivably have come to the support of the disgusting Garaudy. But the Abbé did. Proud to claim fifty years of friendship with Garaudy, he compared the Holocaust to what the ancient Israelites had done, and referred to Zionism as an American-based worldwide plot.

Perhaps he was in his dotage. And perhaps in his case, as in so many in a century that smoothly converted morality into a branch of public relations, the distinction between a good man and a charlatan is too fine to be perceptible.

Debating Clash



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Michael Wharton, a satirist of genius who wrote under the pseudonym of Peter Simple, liked to describe some of the people about whom he fantasised as “genial, unpopular.” Such a fellow is Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London. He specializes in being genial and unpopular, probably attracting more general hatred than any other politician in Britain. Not at all the tribune of the people he pretends to be, he is an old-style Communist or more exactly Trotskyist, who never passes up the chance to wage class war, to slam the United States, to swipe at Israel and Jews, and to promote today’s hard Left. He is planning a festival in honour of his hero Fidel Castro, and lately visited Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in search of cheap oil. He also supports anything and everything on the Muslim agenda, for instance inviting the egregious and retrograde Sheikh Qaradawi, spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamists and the hard Left in fact have nothing in common except hatred of the West, and their alliance is unnatural on both sides.

It must have seemed a good idea to this sinister clown to hold a conference sponsored by London, and to participate himself in a debate on whether or not there is a clash of civilizations. He no doubt saw his chance to make more anti-American mischief, and perhaps pin the blame for everything on the “neo-cons,” a portmanteau phrase for everything the hard Left hates. Inviting Daniel Pipes to come from Philadelphia and fit the role of scapegoat, he in fact got more than he bargained for.

This morning, the large hall and two overflow halls were filled. Many in the audience were Muslims. As expected, Livingstone praised multi-culturalism as the source of peace, love and (Muslim) brotherhood. Here was really an updating of the old Comintern doctrine of internationalism whereby the Soviet Union waged war on everyone and called it peace. The Cold War was all the fault of the West, and he charged that we were making the same mistake with the Muslims. A young lady in a hijab seconded him, shrilly repeating that the real terrorists were America and Britain.

Scholar that he is, Daniel Pipes explained that the war is actually between civilization and barbarism. Carefully he distinguished the religion of Islam from Islamism, a totalitarian ideology with which there could be no compromise. He was looking for victory over it. He and his seconder, Douglas Murray, a brilliant young British intellectual, made the point that moderate Muslims had to be supported against extremist Islamists. And suddenly their arguments began to shift the audience away from Livingstone, and to attract a lot of applause. The war on terror has a long way still to go, but victorious battles like this one in a debating hall may mean fewer, or even no, future battles in the field or on the streets.

Guardian of the Hard Left



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The Guardian is a very special newspaper, the voice of the Left and therefore the voice of self-righteousness. It has just pulled off a characteristic trick. One of its reporters joined the British National Party, pretending to share its beliefs but actually to expose it. Not that there is much to expose. The BNP consists mostly of working-class people who are natural Labour Party supporters but fed up with Labour’s betrayal of the national interest, mainly through support for the European Union and the collapse of immigration policy. Thanks to a xenophobic and nasty component, the BNP will never become more than a fringe group, but of course people like the Guardianistas love to set them up as the fascist enemy.

After seven months of intrepid activity, the undercover journalist was able to reveal that Simone Clarke was a member of the party. Scoop! The lady is a premier ballerina with the English National Ballet company. Her view is that “immigration has really got out of hand,” adding that lots of people think like her. So a body called Unite Against Fascism disrupt her dancing in Nutcracker and demonstrate outside her house, having clearly studied fascism and learnt its tactics. Someone with the glorious title of “equalities director for the mayor of London” has called for her to be sacked.

A good many members of the British government are former Communists. Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, persistently attacks Jews in spite of his equalities director, and is planning a festival in honour of his hero Castro. George Galloway, a member of parliament, praises Saddam Hussein.  Thanks to freedom of speech, all such hard Leftists are able to have their misdemeanours and outrages addressed solely at the level of argument and debate.

Not long ago, the Guardian carried an article by one Richard Gott, shrilly accusing President Bush of running a real evil empire. The Guardian did not see fit to explain that in Soviet days Gott had taken money from the KGB, in effect a Communist stooge. Why is it all right to persecute Simone Clarke for her views but to give Gott the privilege of a platform without explaining who he is and what he stands for ?  Why the double standards ?  Guardian, thy name is hypocrisy.

What in the World Is Going on with Israel and Iran?



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The Spectator is a serious weekly magazine, and Douglas Davis is a serious journalist who now and again contributes to it on Middle Eastern topics. The cover of the current issue has a big bold headline: “The nuclear option: how Israel can stop Iran.” Slightly smaller type-face below continues, “Douglas Davis says that Israel is likely to launch a nuclear attack this year.”

Strong stuff indeed. Davis makes clear in his article that he has been talking to “a senior Israeli source,” whom of course he does not identify. There follows some discussion of centrifuges, hardened facilities, the neutron bomb, but nothing too technical. Davis concludes that the Iranians may be flaunting their nuclear programme to goad the Israelis into a pre-emptive attack. In which case, their own nuclear response might already be prepared, and the world would see it as justified.

Now the day after Davis’s article appeared, the Daily Telegraph, a serious newspaper, ran an article by Michael Burleigh, a serious academic and author of several books of great insight into the totalitarian movements of the 20th century. Burleigh made exactly the same point that the Iranians hope to provoke Israel into setting a course that leads to its own destruction.   

And the day after that, the Sunday Times, another serious newspaper, ran a front-page story that splashed, “Revealed: Israel plans nuclear strike on Iran.” These plans were said to have been “disclosed” and refers to “one of the sources” who did the disclosing. This article was more circumstantial in detailing possible air-paths, targets and operational methods.

What on earth is going on? “Sources” are at work manipulating the press. Israel put out a rather angry denial, but then it would, wouldn’t it? Unless the intention is to frighten the Iranians, but that would be pointless as this confrontation is entirely of their own making. Could it be a double bluff? Having leaked what they about to do, that is to say, the Israelis will expect the Iranians to conclude that this is exactly what they will not do.  In the Second World War several intelligence master-strokes operated on these lines.

More unidentifiable “sources” have gone further, suggesting that these stories have a sinister inspiration, in short that the Iranians originated them. It is hard to see how this could be possible, as it would involve conspiring with the quoted Israeli “sources” and that is not credible. We are in that famous hall of mirrors where intelligence and politics criss-cross and distort what the public gets to hear. The only reliable conclusion is that this particular crisis is moving irresistibly forward, and its resolution will have an immense impact on the future of the world. 

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