Friday, 29 June 2007

Thoughts on the Haymarket car bomb

It was good to hear Ricky Gervais on BBC Radio 4 this morning say that he’d been an atheist since the age of 10. So have I actually. I worked out that what the “God Squad” said was unlikely to be true, and that was that. Anyone who wants a rational discussion about it is most welcome, but don’t use the “f” word, please. (I refer to “faith”.)
Just before that the news was reporting that last night the ideologues had been making another attempt to blast hundreds of us into oblivion. (Great isn’t it – I’d never been to the Tiger Tiger nightclub in Haymarket in my entire life until this week, and suddenly it’s all over the news as the place where the car bomb was left.)
As Ed Husain has shown in his book The Islamist, these ideologues are a load of know-nothings who forbid intellectual questioning and seek to impose by force an empire based on a medieval mentality. This regime will, according to the ideologues, be based on divine will, and they will be the only people entitled to interpret the divine will. Very handy for them, isn’t it.
If I recall rightly, I have heard of this sort of thing before - in English History lessons, where they called it the Divine Right of Kings, which got its come-uppance with the deposing of Charles I. My impression is that he was a bit of a twit.
Sorry if you think I should have been blogging about Gordo and his new cabinet. I can’t work up any interest. They just aren’t that important.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Deforestation - the cruel reality

On 27th June I saw a private pre-screening of a BBC programme about orangutans, to be screened on TV on 6 July at 7 pm in the Saving Planet Earth series. The BBC isn't allowed to be political, but this is a political issue. Watch the programme! See what the word deforestation really means.
I came close to despair watching the programme. There is a lot of evidence about the importance of rainforests not just for the creatures that live in them but for the world's climate systems. The trees absorb rainwater and carbon dioxide and put water vapour and oxygen into the atmosphere. It is not just Borneo rainforest but all rainforest that performs this vital role. Once the trees are gone, that process stops. Fertile topsoil is washed away, the land becomes sterile desert and the atmosphere is affected.
What the BBC didn't talk about, but we ought to talk about, is how to get the authorities in Borneo, where orangutans live, to stop the deforestation. If anyone has ideas on how to do that, please get in touch. Even if you don't like animals, it is in all our interests to save the rainforests and indirectly to save the orangutans that live in them.
The programme was about an orphanage for young orangutans which looks after them and reintroduces them to the wild. See or call 08456 521528. They are being orphaned because each orangutan (they are vegetarians) needs the equivalent of about 10 football pitches of rainforest to live. The rainforests are being bulldozed at a rate of 3 football pitches per minute to make way for palm oil plantations. To avoid starvation, the mothers forage for food in the plantations and are macheted to death by local people.
The long-term solution is to find a way for the local people to benefit from the rainforests staying, but since that involves politics, the BBC didn't talk about it much.
The scale of the destruction is vast. About 80% of the apes' habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years. At this rate it is predicted that they will be extinct in the wild in 10 years' time. But if the Borneo rainforests are saved, so will be the orangutans.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

A book we should all read

The Lib Dems' core principles include opposition to conformity and ignorance. I suggest we had better all read Ed Husain's new book The Islamist published by Penguin last month. It is his story - at times a deeply personal memoir - and much more besides.
The early chapters of the book centre on places I know quite well: Limehouse and Whitechapel. The author was born in Mile End, east London, in the mid-1970s. His childhood was spent in Limehouse. It was happy at first, but his parents believed in single-sex schooling, and so sent him to Stepney Green, the nearest boys-only secondary school. He describes his first year there as the worst year of his life. "Here everyone was Bangladeshi, Muslim, and male," he writes.
He read avidly, and in one of his schoolbooks - Gulam Sarwar's Islam: Beliefs and Teachings - he first encountered the notion of Islam not as a religion but as an ideology. The textbook stated that there was no state in existence in which Islam was a system of government, and commended various organisations dedicated to the creation of 'truly Islamic states'. One such organisation was called Jamat-e-Islami. It had been founded in British India in 1941 by a journalist called Abul Ala Mawdudi, who, says Husain, was first to rebrand Islam as an ideology.
Through a friend from school, the author joined the Young Muslim Organisation UK (YMO) and, whereas his family worshipped at Brick Lane mosque, he started to attend the East London Mosque. He calls it a "strategically placed institution, at the heart of the densest population of Muslims in Britain". It is a building I have often passed by in my travels over the years. It is, as he describes, custom built with minarets and a dome. Often as I passed I would see crowds of unsmiling young men outside. I was unaware that it had received donations from Saudi Arabia and employed Saudi-trained imams. I was unaware that throughout the late 1980s the mosque had been the site of a bitter power struggle between rival factions of the Jamat-e-Islami.
By 1991 the author, then aged 16, had no white friends and his time was filled with YMO activities instead of revising for his GCSEs. Mawdudi's writings encouraged him to distinguish between 'true Muslims' - not partial ones like his own parents - and kafirs, a derogatory term for everyone who was not a 'true Muslim'. By the summer of 1992 his involvement was deep. When his father found Jamat-e-Islami leaflets at home, he gave his son an ultimatum to leave Mawdudi's Islamism or leave home. Husain left home.
Husain writes that he and his associates at that time "knew that the world we espoused was underpinned by the writings of Mawdudi and another, more crucial, character: Syed Qutb." Qutb "declared that a total jihad was the only way to remove the disbelieving presidents and princes of the Arab world", in order to abolish all systems that fell short of the true Islamist state. Nasser's government imprisoned Qutb and executed him in 1966, but not before he had smuggled his book, Milestones, "the Communist Manifesto of Islamism", out of Egypt.
Husain became an activist at Tower Hamlets College where among their activities his associates put up posters bearing the slogan: "Islam: The Final Solution". They despised Jews and gays: they agreed that "faggots would go to hell". Determined to be confrontational, they engineered a showdown with the liberal, secular college management about prayer facilities and were exultant when the management backed down. Among their oher activities they put pressure on women students to wear the hijab.
From Qutb's teachings Husain progressed to Hizb ut-Tahrir. An adherent told him: "The world today suffers from the malignant cancers of freedom and democracy... we will deliver the Islamic state through a military coup... The flag of Islam will rise above Downing Street..." Heady stuff for an 18-year-old.
Hizb was dedicated to the re-establishment of the caliphate. It was founded in 1952 by Tazi Nabhani (born in 1909 in what became Palestine). It was banned from the outset by the Jordanian monarchy and subsequently in other countries of operation. Hizb leaders targeted Tower Hamlets as the UK's most densely populated 'Muslim area'. The key to its progress was the dubious premise that the Islamic state was a religious duty or wajib.
The author attended a conference at LSE where, impassioned by the conflict in Bosnia, the audience soaked up Omar Bakri's advocacy of an Islamic state with a powerful army. Husain writes: "At one stage Omar Bakri was delivering as many as twenty-nine lectures a week... While the British state fed Omar, he sowed the seeds of terror in British Muslim minds." (Omar Bakri was banned from the UK in 2005. The BBC programme Real Story of 5 April 2004 states: "Omar Bakri's version of Islam is disputed by most Muslims.")
In passages suffused with irony, Husain explains some of the unshakeable and preposterous beliefs held by his zealot associates. For instance they "knew" that the prevention of escalation of the Bosnian conflict was only a pretext for the international community's refusal to arm Bosnian Muslims: the real reason was "a conspiracy to reduce the numbers of Muslims in Europe".
Thus the author was sinking into a quicksand of ignorance, arrogance and intolerance which led to some of his associates being convicted of serious crimes. He, however, got a wake-up call when an African Christian student was murdered outside the library where Husain was studying. He saw the body and the blood on the pavement. The victim had been involved in a dispute over use of a pool table. The author's Islamist associates were convinced of their own superiority over everyone else, and one of them knifed the student for having offended them. The killer was later convicted of murder. The author drew back from militancy from that day onwards.
Husain warns that trained members of the Hizb organisation "knew how to deny, lie, and deflect"... lying and deception were simply strategies of war. Besides, our enemies were kafir, not deserving of our honesty or integrity..."
In his later chapters, Husain describes how he was helped to "regain my sanity" by Sufi scholars, all of whom, ironically, were American citizens. He has acute observations on life in Syria. His comments on Wahhabism and his impressions of Saudi Arabia as a sick, sexist (as well as sex-starved) and deeply racist society policed by arrogant bigots, both fascinated and dismayed me, especially against the background of the BAE bribery scandal and the recent new arms deal between UK interests and the Saudi regime which I believe is extremely unwise.
Husain concludes with much to say that is relevant to security policy. He has trenchant criticisms of some prominent British Muslims such as Iqbal Sacrani, who supported the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. (Now both of them are knights.) He tells of the activities of George Galloway's Respect party in Tower Hamlets, accusing them of using colour, religion and language as if they were political beliefs in their own right. He is critical of the open sale of books such as Milestones in bookshops here. And he calls for a ban on the Hizb organisation. He asks how much longer we will tolerate the hypocrisy of Islamists enjoying British life while calling for its destruction.
An important question, indeed.
You can watch Ed Husain on
When watching, you can decide whether you think Husain or the Hizb spokesman is telling the truth. One of them isn't.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Thoughts on the Hitchens brothers

Shirley Williams was undaunted by three boors plus Tony McNulty on Question Time. Boris Johnson, whom incidentally I often spot cycling in Westminster, did his usual buffoon act which is likeable enough I suppose. The two Hitchens brothers were another matter.
Peter's angular features and humourless glare reminded me somehow of Cully in T H White's The Sword in the Stone (look it up boy, look it up). With perfect public-school diction and authoritative delivery, out rolled some absolutely barking mad sentiments, particularly on the sovereignty of states which for some reason he regards as an unalloyed good, hence his intemperate rant against the European Union.
Christopher sat glowering, sweating and red-faced. Almost every time Shirley spoke, he interrupted. When she objected to this, did I really hear him telling her not to be so self-important? Excuse me, Christopher, even if Shirley were not brilliant and especially qualified to speak on public affairs by her record of electoral success (unlike you), she is a fellow panellist on Question Time so you shut up and let her have her say.
Christopher's style reminded me of Ed Husain's description in The Islamist of debates between the Hizb ut-Tahrir leader Farid Kasim and the president of the National Secular Society, Barbara Smoker. The latter was "constantly jeered, mocked and patronized by a travelling crowd of Hizb apparatchiks... Farid's lack of grace in those debates was notorious. And we loved it. Our style of debate and discussion was confrontational, designed to provoke outrage, to "destroy concepts", as we called it..."
Christopher and Peter Hitchens, I learn via Google, are sons of a Naval officer and products of a Cambridge public school. Christopher is a Balliol man, graduating with a Third (to demonstrate his contempt for the system perhaps?) It is the prerogative of such people, because they were born to lead and trained to have total self-belief, to spout forth fluently, and often in published print, ideas which, if the hoi polloi were to express them, would be quickly branded complete tosh. But Christopher and Peter say it so confidently! So that's all right then. And Christopher being abominably rude is fine. Carry on, gentlemen.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Campaigning in Westminster - the other side of the tracks

On Saturday we were at Church Street market, collecting signatures on a petition to save local shops from a proposed new supermarket, which would be Tesco's tenth within a square mile. Times have changed since I used to shop in Church Street: now it looks rather like Cairo as far as attire goes, many of the women being entirely covered from head to toe. I would estimate that at least half the people could understand English poorly or not at all. Some dealt with the situation by ignoring us completely, as if we were invisible and they deaf. I saw a similar technique used in downtown Marrakech where it is a useful defence against constant pestering. Here, however, it ensured that communication on an issue that actually affects them, because many of their community have market stalls, was made impossible. I stood like a prow of a boat as the stream of shoppers divided and flowed past.
Of those who were prepared to talk, quite a number needed no persuasion and readily signed up - in fact we quickly gathered several sheets of signatures. Of the rest, few displayed understanding of, or curiosity about, the implications for them or the local economy - a microcosm of the enormous difficulty of mass political communication.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Baroness Miller defends Manor Garden allotments

Baroness Miller has taken up the cause of the Manor Garden allotment site which is under threat from the Olympic quangos. (I wrote about them on 10th April.) She commented last week: "The London Development Agency seems determined to use the slash and concrete approach to these allotments. They... plan to bulldoze the lot, including 100-year old apple trees, concrete it over and call it sustainable.
"It is ironic that the thriving community at the heart of these allotments are just the sort the Government talks of creating." It is indeed.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Those BAE payments

I find it odd that when the BBC today reported that armaments company BAE with UK Ministry of Defence co-operation secretly paid Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia more than £1bn in connection with Britain's biggest ever weapons contract, various opinion-formers commented that such payments were outlawed in 2002. A cursory glance at section 1 of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906, which is very widely expressed and still in force, suggests that such payments were outlawed a great deal earlier than that - over a century ago, in fact. I look forward to being told the legal arguments to the contrary.
So much for the criminal law. As for civil law, it could be that the State of Saudi Arabia has a heck of a claim against Prince Bandar for repayment of secret profits.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

More films to see before you die

A couple more films to add to that all-important list. Babette's Feast - based on the story by Karen Blixen. Is it about food? Art? Life? You decide. It Happened Here (dir. Kevin Brownlow) - a vision of England after a hypothetical Nazi invasion and occupation in 1940. And if you don't think it could have happened here, remember Oswald Moseley and the Brownshirts really happened here. Pauline, a nice Englishwoman who is a nurse, is not allowed to work unless she joins the Party. She is drawn into well-intentioned collaboration until the point when (not to spoil the plot) she realises that she has been an unwitting accomplice to murder. She joins the Resistance. What would I have done if I had been in her shoes? What would you have done? The budget was a shoestring, almost all the actors were amateurs, the film took eight years to complete and it is a masterpiece.