Diary

Extremism unbound

28 February, 2008

Today’s editorial in the Jerusalem Post is absolutely spot on in its analysis of Islamist terror in Gaza. The piece describes how in the last 2 years the Palestinians have wasted every opportunity for state building and economic progress, from the election of a Jew hating Hamas government, to the smashing of greenhouses and farming equipment. The editors conclude:

No other national liberation movement has ever garnered so much support and so much hard cash, nor been offered the opportunity to take major steps toward full independence by the unilateral withdrawal of the loathed "occupier" from a sizable proportion of its claimed territory. No other national liberation movement has ever spurned such opportunity with so determined an insistence on the terrorizing of neighbouring civilians.

Indeed. Since Israel’s unilateral disengagement of 2005, several thousand short range rockets have been fired from Gaza into towns like Sderot and Ashkelon, forcing residents to clamber into shelters with only seconds notice. Yesterday rockets claimed the life of a 47 year old father of 4 but young children have also been victims of this savage and relentless campaign of terror. Such is the scale and intensity of these attacks that Israeli strategists have been forced to contemplate the possibility of full scale military intervention in the Strip, an unpalatable (though arguably necessary) choice that will produce huge casualties on both sides.

Back in 2005, many people argued (myself included) that the plan for unilateral disengagement was doomed to failure. As the territorial concessions were decoupled from political reform, and as nothing more was demanded of the Palestinians than flimsy promises, the disengagement simply created a vacuum that would later be exploited by extremists. Within a year, the Strip was indeed handed on a plate to Islamists, first through the vote and secondly through last year’s bloody conquest. A similar vacuum was created by the sudden withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, a vacuum exploited by Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. Unilateral disengagement based on promises and decoupled from reform is unworkable. It is merely a recipe for further years of bloodshed and terror. The editorial concludes:

A mindset that loathes Israel more than it seeks its own freedom will not be remade by Israeli withdrawal or endless international funding and sympathy. A leadership inciting against Israel in its media, mosques and school system will not be rejected by the Palestinian public so long as much of that population is mired in a bigotry that inculcates permanent victimhood, refuses to recognize any shred of justice to Israel's sovereign claims and extols the virtues of violence and death.

It has been said many times before that the real occupation is not of land or water – but of the Palestinian mind. Change the Palestinian mindset and the prospects for peace will grow immeasurably.

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Notes on a scandal

26 February, 2008

The most disturbing thing about the New York Philharmonic’s crazy, cringeworthy visit to North Korea is their complete disconnection from reality. Here we have one of the world’s premier cultural institutions, a musical establishment that has hosted some of the greatest names in music, adding to the prestige of one of the most backward, repressive and dictatorial regimes in the world. Just what do the organizers of this lunatic circus think they are going to achieve?

The State Department seems to think that barriers can be broken down between the countries, while executive director, Zarin Mehta has claimed:

‘A wide distribution of the concert within the country has been a central element of our agreement to perform in Pyongyang from the start.’

Really Zarin? Who cares? Certainly not the vast numbers of starving and tortured North Koreans who will be unable to experience the wonders of Gershwin and Dvorak.

In any case, this argument underestimates the near infinite capacity for deceit and manipulation in any totalitarian state. As with all autocratic regimes that pray on the naivety of half witted appeasing liberals, the North Koreans will spin this visit for their own purposes. No doubt they will claim that America, after 5 decades of 'aggression', has at last recognised Kim Il Sung in an act of political and cultural weakness. After all, submission to the ‘great leader’ is the country’s state religion. My guess as to why Pyongyang has agreed to this is that it will provide them with a boost in the talks over its nuclear programme. But this too requires caution on the part of the West. For the North Koreans violated the nuclear deal that was signed with President Clinton in 1994.

Cultural exchange visits between countries certainly have their place but only when those countries broadly share a set of political and cultural values. North Korea is a deeply despotic, communist dictatorship which flagrantly violates human rights and tortures its political opponents. It is as far from benign as you can possibly get. The notion that Kim will undergo a sudden Damascene conversion to Western liberalism because of this cultural visit is risible in the extreme.

Yet how often we hear this self serving nonsense when repressive regimes are given time by the West. On a recent edition of Question Time the panellists (the irrepressible Melanie Phillips aside) argued that the Olympics represented a great chance for engagement with the regime, and an opportunity to defend Western values in the face of repression. What utter tosh! Can you imagine Beijing’s outcry were Linford Christie to call for an independent Tibet or for commemorating the victims of Tiananmen Square? He would be unceremoniously booted out before he could say Peking Duck. This is extraordinary naivety bordering on the insane.

If and when North Korea abandons the cult of dictatorship, when it changes its political culture to become open and democratic, allowing a free press, an independent judiciary and political opposition, then cultural visits should certainly follow. But while the two nations are in a state of de facto war, nothing could be more inappropriate.

The New York Philharmonic may be a venerable musical institution but its directors have shown a lack of judgment here that is truly bewildering.

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This is no time for capital punishment

25 February, 2008

In the last 7 days 2 men have been convicted for some truly appalling murders. First a serial killer of prostitutes whose crimes devastated an entire county, then the depraved killer of a young model who had her whole life ahead of her. These murders are gruesome in the extreme. They send a shudder up the spine and make us recoil in horror and disbelief.

How are we supposed to respond to these savage killings? Many people argue for the restoration of the death penalty, in particular the victims’ families whose lives have been so horribly devastated by the death of their loved ones. These calls are surely understandable in the circumstances. It is hard to argue, from a moral viewpoint, that these criminals deserve to go on living while their victims’ families suffer a lifetime of grief and torment. But calls for a change in the law would be wrong.

The question that any advocate of capital punishment has to answer is this: how do you compensate the dead in the case of a wrongful conviction? Miscarriages of justice are common throughout history and even with an increasing reliance on DNA evidence, there is no guarantee of outlawing unsound convictions. There is a clear difference between proving guilt ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and proving it with the level of certainty required for capital punishment. You can compensate people who are wrongly imprisoned, but only apologise to the families of those wrongly executed, as Iris Bentley knows all too well.

In any event, do we really want evil murderers to avoid the lifetime of punishment they would face in the absence of being killed? For many murderers, the option of state sanctioned execution is a welcome release from the drudgery of prison life. It allows them to escape the consequences of their actions and to miss the opportunity of rehabilitation in the eyes of society.

Finally, the execution of a murderer may end up illustrating the law of unintended consequences. In aiming to prevent murders and reduce harm to society, the death penalty could actually deter liberal jurors from passing guilty verdicts. Thus even more dangerous criminals could be let off the hook, free to menace the rest of society.

Admittedly there will be problem cases, such as with Saddam Hussein, where extra judicial considerations become paramount. Arguably, it was necessary to execute the Iraqi leader in order to take the heat out of the insurgency (or try to) and deprive Sunni extremists of moral support. But this was an exceptional case, not the norm.

In general there are few political or legal grounds for changing the law. However, the government still has a duty of care towards its citizens. If dangerous killers are to be spared execution, people have the right to be protected from them. That can only mean that when a truly dangerous killer is sent to prison for life, they are never released.

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Never underestimate your enemy

23 February, 2008

As a member of the International Churchill Society, I have had the pleasure of meeting historian Sir Martin Gilbert on a number of occasions. As the official biographer of Winston Churchill, and a world famous historian of the twentieth century, he is an immensely knowledgeable and thoughtful individual and I have enjoyed my conversations with him. After studying his subject for over 4 decades, Gilbert clearly understands Churchill very well, in particular his opposition to appeasement in the 1930s. In recent years, Gilbert has drawn parallels between the West’s failure to deal with totalitarianism in the 1930s and the wilful blindness of Western leaders towards today’s jihadist menace. The parallels are certainly striking and Gilbert spelt them out in an interview with the Jerusalem Post here

‘A grave mistake was made in the 1930s in finding all sorts of reasons for not regarding the Nazi threat as being a serious threat. Therefore, when you're working out your thoughts on the current situation, about fundamentalism, just remember that it is very easy for highly competent, educated, civilized, sophisticated people to find excuses and benign explanations for everything that happens.’

The refusal to take the Nazi threat seriously enough, a failure made by many German Jews, British officials and much of the political class, could be blamed on many things: wishful thinking, which was the outcome of post war disillusionment with militarism, the belief that Hitler’s ambitions were limited to revising the Versailles Treaty and the popular belief that the Nazi regime would moderate over time. People could not face the idea that Europe’s most powerful nation was hell bent on territorial domination and that another war was in the offing. So people became trapped by the delusion that Hitler was a man of peace after all, that his fiery rhetoric and aggressive behaviour was reasonable and that once the necessary concessions had been made, all would be well. This was to fatally underestimate the Nazi’s leader’s personal resolve.

Gilbert believes that the failures of history may be repeating themselves over the Iranian threat. Regarding Iran he says "it is absolutely essential that you tackle it with everybody who is in danger. And presumably everybody is in danger.” He senses the danger of a return to the old realpolitik, as regards the key powers of Russia and China: “They see the rivalry with the United States, the European Union, Western values, as [offering] a way to get their client states back - you know, the old days when the Soviet Union had its client states in Africa, its client states in the Middle East.”

This is certainly true; after all, both Russia and China have economic self interests in bolstering the Iranian regime, as they did Saddam’s Iraq. As a result, the sanctions obtained at the UN have had to be substantially watered down, the effect of which has been to embolden Ahmadinejad in the eyes of his cronies. The Iranian nuclear programme is still very much on with the danger to Israel and the wider region that much greater.

Yet, the dangers of underestimating Iran transcend this Sino-Russian axis. The recent, rather lamentable NIE report suggested that the Iranians had suspended their nuclear programme, a conclusion rejected by both MI6 and Mossad officials. In any case, the current occupant of the White House seems desperate not to rock the Iraqi boat by inflaming the Iranians. The appeasement mentality of the State Dept. seems to have influenced enough of the Republican Administration into inaction over Iran, paving the way for a unilateral Israeli strike in the near future.

But then the Israelis are threatened by Iranian inspired jihadism in many guises. They are obviously menaced by the Iranian backed Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Every day, these Islamists fire rockets at beleaguered Israelis in Sderot and Ashkelon. In Lebanon, the Iranian backed Hezbullah have issued blood curdling warnings of their intent to kill Jews, ostensibly in retaliation for the assassination of Imad Mugniyeh though they hardly need any excuses for mass murder. Yet while Iran and Hezbullah issue their dire threats to exterminate Israel, the Western intelligentsia fall silent, pray no doubt to the delusion that this extremism ‘will boil over.’

Meanwhile Mr. Brown and his progressive acolytes in Whitehall have banned any reference to ‘Islamic’ terror, frightened not to offend Muslim sensibilities, even though genuinely moderate Muslims would hardly care less. The words ‘history’ ‘learn’ and ‘nothing’ seem strangely appropriate here.

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The Foreign Office and Israel

21 February, 2008

It is hard to know what to make of the leading story in the Guardian today. Under the headline ‘Labour used the law to keep criticism of Israel secret’ the paper spells out how the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) ‘successfully fought to keep secret any mention of Israel contained on the first draft of the controversial, now discredited Iraq weapons dossier.’ It goes on: ‘At the heart of it was nervousness at the top of government about any mention of Israel's nuclear arsenal in an official paper accusing Iraq of flouting the UN's authority on weapons of mass destruction.’ So what was the reference to Israel contained on the dodgy dossier that the FCO was so anxious ‘to keep secret?’ In the opening paragraph of the draft, an unidentified FCO official had scribbed ‘Israel’ against this claim: ‘No other country [apart from Iraq] has flouted the United Nations' authority so brazenly in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.’ According to Neil Wigan, an FCO official, the disclosure of this remark would have seriously damaged UK-Israel relations, thus the FCO fought to remove it. Yet slightly in contradiction, the same official is quoted as saying that ‘there is perception already in Israel that parts of the FCO are prejudiced against this country.’

It is indeed no secret that Britain’s Foreign Office has long maintained an unhealthy Arabist bias against Israel. This is recognized in Israel itself where the FCO’s ill judged pro Palestinian sentiments are often received angrily by Israeli diplomats. On the face of it, it seems quite bizarre that the Foreign office would seek to mute any criticism of Israel. But what Wigan misses is not just the seriousness of the comparison between Saddam’s regime and Israel over WMD for UK-Israeli relations but the absurdity of the comparison itself. Wigan rightly observes that the ‘implied accusation of a breach of the UN's authority by Israel’ was ‘potentially very serious’ but he says nothing about the fact that Israel’s nuclear programme has always existed as a deterrent to aggressors, not as a form of aggression in itself. Israel has not sought to destroy its neighbours or used WMD against its own population, unlike the butcher of Baghdad. A rather important difference you would think.

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Prince Philip should sue Mr. Al Fayed if he cares for his reputation

19 February, 2008

Yesterday’s disgusting tirade from the Harrods hatemonger is final proof that this overindulged Egyptian playboy has lost the plot. Quite how Mohammed al Fayed was allowed to get away with his statement in court is beyond me, what with calling Price Philip a ‘Nazi’ and his family the ‘Draculas’, and reiterating his belief that an unholy triumvirate of MI6, Tony Blair and the Duke of Edinburgh collectively plotted his son’s murder. Of course, we must not forget that Diana’s sister was in on the act and, who knows, maybe Elvis and Sherlock Holmes too. Still his offensive calumny is on record and if Tony Blair and Prince Philip care for their respective reputations, they should sue this man for defamation of character.

Mr Al Fayed will clearly stop at nothing to publicize his sensationalistic rants. He will continue to vent his fury at the establishment until a judge gives his ideas the credence they don’t deserve. But unlike a great mass of the public, who lap up every conspiracy theory going, the law courts operate on rather different principles. They must reach conclusions that are supported by the weight of available evidence, even if those conclusions are fairly dull. It is obvious that at the end of this hideously expensive and needless process the coroner, Lord Justice Scott Baker, will rule out an establishment cover up in the deaths of Diana and Dodi. Instead he will focus on a reckless driver whose overindulgence in drink and drugs largely contributed to the demise of the tragic couple. Strangely enough, we knew all that a decade ago.

And when he delivers his verdict, it won’t take long for the conspiracy hunters to pounce on yet another ‘establishment’ cover up, led of course by the irrepressible Mr Al Fayed.

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Canada is boycotting Durban II. So should every civilized nation.

17 February, 2008

In 2001 the United Nations organized a ‘World Conference against racism’ in Durban, South Africa. It turned out to be nothing of the kind, at least as far as its Jewish representatives were concerned. Jewish delegates at the conference were subjected to a primitive orgy of race hatred: copies of the notorious anti semitic book, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were openly on sale, Zionists were compared to Nazis and there were reports of death threats made against Jews. A motion to describe Holocaust denial a form of anti Semitism was roundly defeated. This ‘anti racism’ conference effectively descended into a medieval hate fest worthy of National Socialism, yet the Nazi Jew haters of 2001 were lionized by the very body that was designed to oppose them. To call it ironic would be an understatement.

In 2009 the world will be treated to a re-run of this farce, namely Durban II. In true fashion, the UN has appointed Cuba, Libya, Pakistan and Iran to its steering committee, so as to live up to its reputation for buttering up failed states and dictatorships. Given the UN’s long standing success in rewarding tyranny, its wanton failure to combat virulent anti semitism and its abject surrender to hate mongers in 2001, you might have expected every decent, liberal democracy to announce a boycott of Durban II. The Canadian government should therefore be warmly applauded for doing precisely this.

Yet some liberals are queasy about boycotts. Take an article in this week’s Jewish News by Mark Ross called ‘Counter fiasco of racism conference with the facts.’ In the face of intolerance and hatred, he says ‘does it not say more to participate and stand your ground? To counter the anti Israel, anti Jewish argument with truth and fact? Is it better to fight the fight that need fighting or just the ones that you can win?’

Of course, anti Israeli, anti Zionist and anti semitic bigotry should always be tackled with the utmost vigour and determination. No sane anti racist would want to take the Rowan Williams path of hoisting up the white flag in the face of unrelenting intimidation. But the point Ross misses about dictatorships and tyrannies is that they don’t give a damn about our liberal tolerance. They don’t care about respecting truth and reason or adhering to the rules of intelligent debate. Tyranny cannot exist in the market place of ideas.

What tyrants do care about is prestige and recognition and throughout history, ‘useful idiots’ have done precisely this. In the 1920s naïve utopian socialists descended on Moscow, eager to embrace the Leninist world view as an alternative to capitalism. A decade later, Hitler became the recipient of goodwill because of his apparent economic miracle. The Berlin Olympics of 1936 also did wonders for Hitler’s regime by presenting a sanitized image of Nazi Germany. Today the useful idiots of the UN massage the egos of autocrats by rewarding them chairmanship of their events, including Durban II. The rest of the civilized world should have nothing to do with such a gross political travesty.

Misguided liberals miss the point about boycotting. A mass refusal to attend Durban II would symbolize the most profound opposition to an international system that places democracies on an equal footing with tyrannies. Were all humane, liberal democracies to withdraw from Durban II, you would end up with an emasculated ‘rump’ of corrupt states who could do no more than vent their collective fury at the First World.

Canada, the US and the other boycotters should organize their own conference against racism and for democracy. They could make a commitment to combat irrational prejudice but not at the expense of associating with rogue states and dictatorships. Wouldn’t that make a really powerful statement?

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Is it lawful to assassinate terrorists?

14 February, 2008

Tuesday’s killing of Imad Moghniyeh will leave some people wondering about the morality of ‘targeted killings.’ There is bound to be some soul searching about whether it is preferable to capture terrorists and haul them before a court of law as opposed to killing them from a distance. To take a recent example, when Israel ordered the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004, some commentators (Israelis included) were critical, arguing that while he was a criminal, he deserved to have his day in court.

The argument now could be that no matter evil Moghniyeh was, he too should have been captured, interrogated and brought before a court (American, Israeli or Argentinian – you take your pick) so that he could receive just punishment.

This argument may seem seductive but it is also based on a fatal flaw. Moghniyeh and Yassin were not just common criminals operating outside the law. As I argued on 22nd March 2004 (see JC letters), Yassin was a self declared ‘enemy combatant’ engaged in a daily ritual of mass murder. Without wearing enemy ‘clothes’ he was effectively at war with the Israelis through his spiritual endorsement of suicide bombings in Israeli cities. He could not therefore expect to receive the normal treatment meted out to a civilian ‘enemy.’

With Moghniyeh, the argument for targeted killing was even clearer cut. He too was an enemy combatant yet one who was almost impossible to catch. He operated from foreign territory, directing a string of murderous attacks against civilians across the world. Whichever state directed his assassination was under no legal or moral obligation to risk its soldiers’ lives in capturing him in hazardous territory and then bringing him to trial. They were, however, under an obligation to protect civilians and save lives. Removing Moghniyeh will achieve both aims.

Of course, one must always question counter terrorist techniques to ensure the most humane and effective ways of tackling this threat. A targeted killing must also meet certain criteria, including the protection (as far as possible) of any innocent bystanders. It would surely not be justified to destroy a tower block with 300 civilians in order to kill a terrorist mastermind. But in doing this soul searching, we must never lose sight of who we are dealing with. Contrary to New Labour, militant Islamists are not petty criminals and the world would be much safer if they were.

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The killing of Imad Moghniyeh

13 February, 2008

The killing of Hezbollah leader Imad Moghniyeh in a targeted car bombing in Damascus last night is a coup in the war against radical Islam. (You can read a statement about it on Al Manar’s website) Moghniyeh was on the FBI’s most wanted list for years and has been blamed for many attacks, including the 1983 bombing of the US embassy and marine barracks in Beirut which over 200 people died and the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina that killed nearly 100 people. He was reportedly in overall effective control of Hezbollah’s campaign against Israel in 2006. The car bombing certainly bears the hallmarks of a major Mossad operation, though understandably there is no comment from the Israelis and we may not know the full details for some time. But no one can doubt that the region, and the wider world, is better off without this tormentor.

Whoever carried out the operation has sent out a defiant message to every terror group in the Middle East. The leaders of these organizations know that it is only a matter of time before their victims exact retribution. Sheikh Yassin, the spiritual head of Hamas, preached a doctrine of hate and blood lust to a generation of embittered Palestinians. He sent dozens of suicide bombers to immolate themselves in Israeli cities, destroying their lives and those of their victims in the process. He was killed in a carefully planned targeted assassination, as was his successor, Abdel Rantisi. What these leaders had in common was that they were willing to plan their evil deeds, using the bodies (literally) of others, before they scurried for cover like cowards. Now they must pay the price for murder with their own miserable lives. The long arm of justice is never far behind.

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So what reaction did Sheikh Williams expect?

9 February, 2008

If the Archbishop of Canterbury is truly astonished at the avalanche of condemnation heaped on him in the last 48 hours, he must be more naïve than we thought. It is incredible that he did not anticipate the backlash, not just from the press and politicians, but from people from within the Church who are appalled by his speech. But now after bending over backwards to Islamists and undermining the legal framework on which our civilised society depends, he has started to backtrack.

His website (http://www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/1) features an astonishing statement that ‘the Archbishop made no proposals for sharia in either the lecture or the interview (Radio 4).’ Really? So the whole thing was just another ugly manifestation of Islamophobia in our press? Perhaps the bishops who denounced Rowan Williams’ speech were merely using this opportunity to air their anti Muslim prejudices. Apparently this is what we are supposed to believe!

I urge all readers to read the actual speech, which can be downloaded whole from either the BBC website or the one mentioned above. Once you get past his appallingly convoluted language, you will be able to tease out exactly what he said. Take this one statement from his BBC interview as a much needed clarification.

‘a lot of what's written suggests that the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody; now that principle that there's one law for everybody is an important pillar of our social identity as a Western liberal democracy, but I think it's a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don't have other affiliations, other loyalties which shape and dictate how they behave in society and the law needs to take some account of that…

‘…an approach to law which simply said, 'There is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or your allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts'. I think that's a bit of a danger.’

But private conscience and religious affiliations must be irrelevant in the courts if the principle he claimed to espouse (one law for everybody) is to be defended. Clearly people can and do have other loyalties, including religious ones, which shape how they behave in private but the point is that if they conflict with the fundamental rights in our existing legal framework, they are set aside and not accommodated. Muslims can and should use their own sharia ‘courts’, where they exist, for private advice and informal decisions but these decisions must not be recognised in English law. In the same way, religious Jews can obtain a get (a divorce in Jewish law) as is the custom in orthodox tradition but they must go through the civil courts if their divorce is to be recognised in this country. Jewish law is not a competitor with English law.

Williams cannot deny that he said that Sharia was ‘inevitable’ in Britain because of existing arrangements, including in finance. But its introduction is not inevitable so long as the political and religious establishment rejects the calls made by vocal Muslims for its introduction. Progressive Muslims have been trying to do just this, yet now they can only feel undermined by Williams’ inane intervention. He said, after all, that not only was this process ‘inevitable’ but desirable in the interests of community cohesion.

Moreover, if a Muslim girl were offered the choice of settling a family dispute in a Sharia court or an English one, she would hardly be faced with an equal choice. Under Sharia, a woman’s testimony is worth merely half that of a man. This is why, in an adultery case, a woman can be found guilty if there are 4 male eye witnesses but if the eyewitnesses are female, 8 are required. If a Muslim girl came under pressure to bypass an English civil court, she would find herself stripped of the protection afforded her by the law of the land.

A month ago I lamented the fact that Dr Michael Nazir-Ali was not in Williams’ position as Archbishop of Canterbury. Here was a man prepared to speak honestly about Islam in Britain. Dr Williams should resign at once and be replaced by someone willing to uphold the dignity of his office and the values of our society.

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This archbishop can no longer command our respect

8 February, 2008

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s dangerous and inflammatory suggestions have at least received the unanimous condemnation they deserve. Regardless of party affiliation, the panel on yesterday’s Question Time collectively slammed Dr Williams’ call for aspects of Sharia law to be incorporated into English law. Quite rightly so for his idea is unrealistic, divisive and immensely dangerous.

What Williams was suggesting, so far as we can make out from the tangled text of his speech, was that Sharia court decisions in civil matters (e.g. marriage and divorce) should be incorporated into English law. In other words, the decisions of those private religious courts should receive some form of legal recognition in English courts, and that this new legislation should run effectively parallel with English law. Britain already has Sharia courts which offer private ‘advice’ on some civil issues, just as British Jews have recourse to the private courts of the Beth Din. Indeed Williams cited this apparent advantage for the Jewish community to buttress his case for a parallel legal system.

Yet crucially for Jews, the decisions of the Beth Din in marriage and divorce have no legal status in the UK. There is no parallel system of Jewish law that sits side by side with English law and when Jews are married or get divorced, they have to do so like everyone else through the normal official channels. As David Frei of the Beth Din admirably explains: "In the case of divorce, the parties must still obtain a civil divorce alongside the religious one."

The crucial difference between the Jewish and Muslim case is that many Muslims wish to see Sharia court decisions given legal status in English civil courts.

But if this is the case, it breaks the fundamental principle that there is one law for every citizen of the country. A nation’s culture and values, indeed its very existence, is tied up with the laws it adopts towards its citizens. A parallel religious and legal system for a minority would result in division, ghettoization and fragmentation. It would sound the death knell for the nation state.

Yet incredibly that appears to be what Williams was endorsing. This is what he said in his speech, available here

There is a position – not at all unfamiliar in contemporary discussion – which says that to be a citizen is essentially and simply to be under the rule of the uniform law of a sovereign state, in such a way that any other relations, commitments or protocols of behaviour belong exclusively to the realm of the private…this is a very unsatisfactory account of political reality in modern societies…Societies that are in fact ethnically, culturally and religiously diverse are societies in which identity is formed, as we have noted by different modes and contexts of belonging, ‘multiple affiliation’.

The danger is in acting as if the authority that managed the abstract level of equal citizenship represented a sovereign order which then allowed other levels to exist. But if the reality of society is plural – as many political theorists have pointed out – this is a damagingly inadequate account of common life, in which certain kinds of affiliation are marginalised or privatised to the extent that what is produced is a ghettoised pattern of social life, in which particular sorts of interest and of reasoning are tolerated as private matters but never granted legitimacy in public as part of a continuing debate about shared goods and priorities.

These comments should strike people as rather odd. The notion that a religious minority has its own private customs, affiliations and practices is rarely called into question. Religious toleration is one of the great foundation stones of our modern heritage and values. But when the private affiliations and values of a minority start to impinge on public life, when they threaten the existing legal framework, they must be put to one side. Under Sharia law, a man may have multiple wives and beatings can be administered, as they currently are in Muslim countries, for certain crimes. Clearly these judicial decisions stand apart from British law and have no place within it.

To be fair, I am sure that Rowan Williams would not disagree at this point. But the reason why we refuse to accommodate these practices is precisely because they conflict with the existing law which is designed to protect everybody, regardless of their religious background. What you do in the private sphere is your own business but when your ‘private’ affiliations affect your rights as a citizen, those affiliations must give way. How indeed could any civilized, pluralistic society survive otherwise. English law must retain its monopoly and that is all there is to it.

By endorsing the demands of a vocal Islamic minority, the Archbishop is encouraging a double defeat. Not only is he betraying his primary purpose, which is to uphold the sacrosanct status of the existing religious settlement, but he is appeasing the very forces that are seeking its overthrow. Instead of signalling his approval of a system that is associated with barbaric, medieval customs, he should be defending those Anglicans who are persecuted because of it. This abject surrender by a leading light of our establishment is utterly misguided. The Archbishop is simply not fit for purpose.

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Banning Qaradawi is just common sense

8 February, 2008

Thank heavens for a modicum of common sense. Many people will be relieved that Sheik Yusuf Al Qaradawi has been banned today from entering the UK on the grounds that he has dangerous, extremist views. As the Times reports today, this is a great victory for David Cameron who, to his credit, has been calling for just such a ban on the Sheikh for some time.

If you haven’t read any of his hate filled speeches, this is the world famous spiritual figure from the Muslim brotherhood who believes suicide bombings against Israelis are a form of martyrdom, who also welcomes the execution of homosexuals and who defends the right of husbands to beat their wives. In addition, at a conference in 2005 he said: Read here

‘There is no choice but to continue the resistance in Palestine, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and in every country that has been conquered by foreigners.’

In other words, he believed that the presence of our troops in those countries justified an insurgency there. Quite why we should be hosting a figure who obviously gives spiritual succour to our enemies is wholly beyond me. His presence is clearly not conducive to the general good.

True to form, the Islamists are already denouncing the decision. According to Muhammad Abdul Bari, the secretary-general of the MCB, the decision will ‘send the wrong message to Muslims everywhere about the state of British society and culture. Britain has had a long and established tradition of free speech, debate and intellectual pursuit.’

This argument just doesn’t wash though. People can see and hear the ranting Sheikh every week on al Jazeera where he is one of the most widely heard Muslim voices in the world. His exclusion from Britain hardly makes him a martyr for free speech while it does mean that we don’t have to hear his demented views on killing gays and Israelis. Clearly Bari’s own Islamist sympathies mean he is unlikely to see the banning of a religious fellow traveller in anything but negative terms.

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Political debate is not for royalty

5 February, 2008

Prince Andrew appears to have won support for the comments he made in an interview with the International Herald Tribune yesterday. Judging by the comments left on British websites, it seems the Prince has struck a chord with people who feel disillusioned about the antics of the Bush administration. According to the Tribune, where the full interview can be read here:

Prince Andrew's view that post-invasion chaos in Iraq could have been avoided if President George W. Bush's administration had listened more is widely shared in Britain. Geoff Hoon, the former British defense secretary, has said that British views on Iraq were ignored in the decisions to outlaw the Baath Party and dissolve the Iraqi military. The fallout from Iraq has fueled, the prince argues, "healthy skepticism" toward what is said in Washington, and a feeling of "why didn't anyone listen to what was said and the advice that was given.

It hardly takes a political genius to work out why these comments resonate with swathes of the British public. It’s the Iraq war, stupid. You only have to mention the words ‘Bush’ and ‘neo cons’ in the same sentence and Middle England raises its eyebrows and lets out a collective sigh. Add to that the unhealthy dose of anti Americanism that seems to accompany Republican administrations and you can understand why the Prince’s comments win plaudits.

Yet these comments ought to be attracting the same healthy dose of skepticism. As Lord Owen documented so effectively in his book ‘The Hubris of Power,’ the strategic failures of post war planning were not solely a Washington problem. To repeat something mentioned in the January 31st blog, Blair ‘was dismissive of any difficulties’ and ‘immune to all arguments about the practical difficulties that might ensue’ in the absence of a post war plan. Whatever warnings Britain gave Washington about the negative repercussions of disbanding the army and security services, the pre war failures are just as great.

But whether we agree with Andrew or not, there is something even more disturbing about what he said; namely that he felt he could say these things in the first place. For there is an unwritten constitutional code that frowns on royal intervention in politics. On sensitive political issues, the Crown should be neutral and detached, ensuring that opinions are kept in private, whenever possible.

This is the true glory of our constitutional monarchy. Our monarchs are supposed to transcend the bickering of party politics, allowing them to be truly non partisan and representative of the entire nation, not a sectional interest. That is why the Queen has so successfully dealt with 10 Prime Ministers whose political leanings have, of course, varied dramatically. True, Andrew is only 4th in line to the throne but as a representative of the Royal Family, he is still subject to the same unwritten code.

Prince Andrew's supporters would no doubt claim that the commentators doth protest too much. After all, the special relationship is accepted across the Westminster divide, regardless of party affiliation. True enough, but issues connected to the post war failures in Iraq remain highly contentious and can easily divide the main parties. That is quite simply why Andrew should not have made his views public. For the sake of our monarchy, let us hope this gaffe was just a one off.

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Patriotism in the classroom

04 February, 2008

It is a sign of the sickness of our times. A new report from the Institute of Education says that there is no intellectual or moral case for the promotion of patriotism in our schools. Instead patriotism should be taught as a ‘controversial subject’ with students deciding for themselves how they feel about their country. Here is the crux of the argument: ‘Patriotism is love of one’s country, but are countries really appropriate objects of love? Loving things can be bad for us, for example when the things we love are morally corrupt. Since all national histories are at best morally ambiguous, it's an open question whether citizens should love their countries.’

The moral ambiguity stems from the fact that the evils of ‘warmongering, imperialism, tyranny, injustice, slavery and subjugation’ are part and parcel of every national history, indeed are sometimes inseparable from them. Dr Hand, who co-authored the report, continues: ‘Students tend to feel strongly that their feelings about their country are their own business and schools have no right to try to influence them.’

In their desire to make a big noise, these authors are really attacking a straw man. No one in their right mind would expect school teachers to force patriotism on their students, if such a thing were even possible in a free and democratic society. We have moved on from the nineteenth century where the education system, the military and the churches collectively thrust Britannia down people’s throats. Indeed history, as a dignified search for the truth, would scarcely be such if it were based on a deliberately partisan reading of the past. What matters is that students are exposed to our ‘national narratives’ in the hope that they expand their knowledge and interest in their ‘nation.’ Genuine affection follows later.

Let’s face it, when we study British institutions through their past, there is a lot to be proud about. Parliamentary democracy, constitutional monarchy, freedom of speech and thought and the rule of law are British products that have evolved in specific ways and through particular historical developments. The countries that received these exports, most notably the hyperpower across the water, have really never looked back. They are the true foundation stones of Western civilization and the pillars of the human rights industry.

The authors are right that ‘loving our country’ should not blind us to its faults. Slavery is certainly an abomination that should never be airbrushed from the historical record. But in the current climate of national breast beating, it is often forgotten that Britain abolished the slave trade through the influence of its home grown evangelical movement. That was why the orgy of national self deprecation on the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade was so inappropriate. 2007 should have been a year of celebration, not lamentation.

The report found that ‘74 per cent of teachers agreed that they had an obligation to point out to students the danger of patriotic sentiments’ and that in dealing with patriotic sentiments, it was important to have ‘open discussion’ and ‘correct factual errors.’ Again, this seems to be another straw man. Patriotism, the feeling of genuine affection for one’s country and its achievements, is not the same thing as nationalism, which is often more aggressive and chauvinistic. Patriotism should always be compatible with respect for other cultures, traditions and nations; nationalism less so.

The government will try and distance itself from this report, claiming that it undermines their own agenda for promoting Britishness. But this accusation sounds absurd coming from politicians who have so badly undermined this nation’s independence through their support for devolution and the EU. Worse, New Labour’s apparatchiks understand even less of our island story than the PC intelligentsia. When asked to define the values that shape this nation, ministers have usually offered a series of tepid and hollow New Labour soundbites: equality, tolerance, diversity, mutual respect.

This is the language of political correctness latched on to an imagined British past. But all these words fail to convey anything that is specifically British, as opposed to French, German, Russian, European and so on. Most liberal, educated Europeans (or Westerners) would probably describe their national story using the very same words; they would hardly call themselves intolerant or disrespectful. Instead of engaging with the forces that have shaped us, for good and ill, the government have adopted a universalistic moral code that is a cross between the UN Charter and the Human Rights Act.

Tony Blair once attacked ‘the forces of conservatism’, describing Britain as a ‘young country.’ Perhaps that was why the empty, rootless, Millennium Dome so aptly symbolized New Labour in 2000. But this ‘young country’ has ancient roots and it is impossible to get a sense of our present bearings without understanding the past. Teach that past respectfully, and with balance, and you will arouse the reverence it so richly deserves.

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