Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Cherie Blair: just misunderstood (again)... OR: That's not what I meant when I said it was 'a lie' you idiots! - it wasn't THAT lie I meant...

Apparently Carolin Lotter, a TV producer with the American news agency Bloomberg said she heard the Prime Minister's wife say "Well, that's a lie" after Mr Brown told delegates: "It has been a privilege for me to work with and for the most successful ever Labour leader and Prime Minister".

Clearly what Cherie really meant was simply that Tony Blair is most certainly NOT 'the most successful ever Labour leader and Prime Minister' - Clement Attlee was!

Actually given the woman's notorious hair-splitting ability (for example over whether a given Aussie conman helped her buy some flats...) she could in fact have been troubled quite separately by the truthfulness of both subclauses of the statement. For example viewing Attlee as the former (most successful Labour Leader) and say Churchill, or indeed, maybe her husbands hero Mrs T, as the latter!

Then again maybe she thinks Tony IS the most successful ever leader of Labour and its just the 'most successful prime Minister' tag that she can't swallow.

Just Like the rest of us...

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Islam and violence

Enlightening essay in the Australian that examines the doctrinal relationship between Islam and violence. Not because it focuses on the usual suspects, but because it helps contextualise it both in relation to modern Islam and Christianity.

Cynics might claim that only the mad and bad choose to justify their behaviour on this basis, and in the UK they may have a point, but as there are plenty of examples of energised minorities playing decisive roles in history - from the Bolsheviks to bin Laden - that does not mean we should dismiss them, or the basis of their belief, out-of-hand.

In addition to the inherent difficulty of the sources, many secular Westerners rely on certain crippling preconceptions. One is the often-heard mantra that "all religions are the same". Another is the claim that "anyone can justify violence from any religious text". This idea stretches back at least to Rousseau, who considered any and all forms of religion to be pernicious.

Either of these views, if firmly held, would tend to sabotage anyone's ability to investigate the Koran's distinctive take on violence.

There is another obstacle, and that is Western culture's own sense of guilt and suspicion of what it regards as Christian hypocrisy.

Any attempt to critique some of Islam's teachings is likely to be met with loud and vociferous denunciations of the church's moral failings, such as its appalling track record of anti-Semitism. And did I mention the crusades? Finally, the reality is that Muslims adhere to widely varying beliefs and practices. Most people are understandably afraid to come to their own conclusions about violent passages in the Koran, lest they find themselves demonising Muslims.

But does the Koran incite violence, and how does its message compare with the Bible?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Scheuer thing?

Former Chief of the bin Laden Unit at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center Michael Scheuer always gives good copy and his latest is worth reading.

He said, "I tell them your leaders are concealing from you the true size of the disaster which will shock you. The days are pregnant and they will give birth to new events with God's permission and guidance. I tell them: You have provided us with all the legal and rational reasons to fight you and punish you. You have committed ugly crimes, breached treaties that you used to impose on others to abide by. For our part, we have repeatedly warned you and repeatedly offered you a truce. So now we have legal and rational justifications to continue fighting you until your power is destroyed or you surrender...We have repeatedly declared our political offer to the West, but the leaders of the West, especially Bush and Blair, are keen on causing confusion about that. Sheikh Osama bin Laden, may God protect him, offered a truce to America and the West. I have already told the West that the way to peace is the withdrawal from our countries, stopping the plunder of our resources and ending support for the corrupt governments in our lands."

In previous articles, Scheuer has explained that these are far more than empty threats - it is his belief that their purpose is to provide theological "cover" for a forthcoming attack. This is why he refers earlier in the article to this impassioned reminder to his Muslim audience that he, bin Laden and al-Qaeda had done all that is possible to find a peaceful settlement to Islam's war with the United States, but to no avail as ominous.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Yo Neville!

If you've got Realplayer or similar, and you share my curiosity about how the weaknesses of great men shape events more surely than their strengths, I really recommend this lecture by mine and Chris B's old tutor at Newcastle University, the inestimable Professor Hugh Berrington. He more or less invented this subject of The Psychology of Politics, and still after all these years, he's as sharp as a needle.

The parallels between Chamberlain and Blair are superb, even if there is a difference between kissing Hitler and high-fiving Dubya.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Post-Osama terrorism

It's been on sale a few days already, but if you can get hold of it, I really recommend this week's New Yorker. Excellent stuff on Hamas, Sudan and a funny, almost affectionate portrait of the USA's top al Qaeda informant Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl.

It's worth getting solely for this brilliant piece by Lawrence Wright on jihadism. It picks up some of the themes of Jason Burke and the flawed but unfairly maligned Power of Nightmares documentary to illustrate how Osama isn't some omnipotent master criminal, but in fact one current of a powerful, varied and deeply worrying ideology.

It set me to thinking: if the muscular liberal/neo-con nightmare of the Salafists establishing a Caliphate came true, would it be the launching pad for a war against the west, or an economic basket case with no international sponsors to take a begging bowl to? In one section, a blueprint to build a Caliphate from scratch in 20 years (now there's a Good Housekeeping cover line I'd like to see) involves the Islamists persuading the world to switch to gold as the international medium of exchange to undermine the dollar.

Hmm, I'm sure there's a reason we did away with this.Isn't the point with gold as a medium of exchange that it's pretty much useless as a commodity and only works if you can find someone to buy it at a higher price than you paid for it? Or simply, only if you can find a bigger idiot than yourself? Not a great model for a putative economic superpower.

Elsewhere the piece analyses the writings of the shadowy Abu Bakr Naji, one of the more rounded and shrewder jihad theorists, where he airily dismisses health, agriculture, economics and more or less all non-war/ coercive functions of government as the business of non-mujahid technocrats. ("As for the one who manages the techniques in each ministry, he can be a paid employee who has no interest in policy.") I would suggest he's riding for a fall by entrusting the health of his theocracy to secularised civil servants. None of which lessens the jihadists' ability to cause murder and mayhem on a horrific scale while in opposition, but it provides an interesting spin on their pretensions to power.

Anyway, there's plenty to talk about here. And it's a much more rewarding read than that bloody Martin Amis thing. (BTW if your local newsagent doesn't stock it, the New Yorker puts a stupidly generous amount of its excellent writing online gratis. All this and the God-like Anthony Lane , the greatest film critic in the World too!)

The Unwinnable War and the Enemy Within

As it is still September 11th (which is to say that it was when I started writing this), I feel obliged to post something on what is ludicrously known as the War on Terror. Mis-conjugation (as opposed to Miss Congeniality) apart, this is not a notion I am fond of, but, for all that, it is easy to get lost in semantics and neglect to mention that this 'war' has killed (and terrified) an awful lot of people. The vast majority of this war's casualties are neither British nor American. Though that does nothing for those who grieve, in New York and elsewhere around the world, today. Then again neither did invading Iraq. Or destroying Lebanon's infrastructure and de-legitimising its fledgling democracy.

I am partly motivated to post by a need to reprise a '7/7' article which I wrote on July 8th last year. Thus, having missed that anniversary, 11/9 calls...

I was asked to write a personal response to the 2005 London bombings for a Kurdish newspaper and I duly wrote a call for unity against terror (natch) and commented on the fact that I saw these acts not as a part of any ideological or tactical battle but as attacks on humanity and civilisation by murderous nihilists. In particular I saw them as attacks on the flourishing international city which London (like New York) is. I further commented that I saw this as having nothing to do with religion and that no religious person I knew in London had anything in common with the bombers. Perhaps over-comprehensively I also dismissed Iraq - this was not about Iraq, I airily claimed.

Now I might not be so comprehensive, though I am in no way suggesting that our disastrous campaign in Mesopotamia in any way justifies the actions of the Midlanders who chose to blow up so many of my fellow Londoners in the course of taking their own lives last July.

I suppose I was polemicising, and while I rejected the notion of an international conspiracy of terror, I was well-aware of the dangers of a backlash against people who had nothing in common with the bombers except OUR perception of them as 'islamic'.

As it happened, all it took for one distinctly un-islamic member of the Universal City's population, was for an armed and nervy copper to percieve him as looking a bit foreign (and maybe shifty). Eight bullets in the head later the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes wasn't in a position to explain anything.

Meanwhile, Asian commentators start to claim that our foreign policy is 'fanning the flames of extremism', our civil liberties gradually erode, and endless words are written about the exact nature of this 'islamic extremism' and how to combat it. Three Labour Home Secretaries have ludicrously promised to vet imans and 'monitor mosques'.

MI5 have speculated that 'we' have 1,200 'home-grown' islamic extremists - as if they are daring the politicians to order them to 'bang 'em up'.

This was Osama's first real victory, we handed him hegemony over our notion of islam and, because we are the majority and the hegemonic group in society, Osama's Islam became our Islam - and we were very terrified, and Islam was very alienated - because it did not recognise the version of itself which it saw reflected in our media.

In this frankly deranged context it is perhaps pertinent to look at exactly how terrorism exists within society.

Attempting to prevent domestic terrorists blowing up tube trains by banning 'extremist imans' and attempting to 'intervene to prevent the radicalisation of young moslems', as one of the younger Millibands recently promised, is a bit like banning caves so that you can prevent Osama hiding in them. That's before we even get onto how you define a 'hideable-in-cave' - or indeed 'a dangerous degree of radicalisation'.

In this sort of style, further endless words have been written on the progenitor of the enemy within, attempting to dissect 'islamic extremist' ideology in order to purge it from 'mainstream mosques' (and no doubt from 'hardworking families' too).

And so, maybe, to Iraq, where we are now fighting the War on Terror. According to George and Tony.

And, indeed, to my reservations about that airy dismissal I made, in July 2005, of Iraq's place in a discourse on the explosive hatred stemming from our so-called enemy within....

I have not changed my view that terrorism is NOT principally caused by an unpopular foreign policy but such a policy CAN just make it more successful. Not principally because this makes the terrorist recruiting sergeants's job easier, though clearly it does; nor because it may marginally legitimise the terrorists dialogue, though clearly it does; but because it makes it easier for terrorists to hide.

If there is a lot of background noise about our terrible foreign policy etc, etc, then it is easier for the real terrorist to be missed. Annoyingly if you look harder (- i.e. try to bang up all the 'extremists') you are likely to simply inflame opposition and dissent - creating more noise (if not necessarily more terrorists) and offering your real terrorist further cover.

So lets all think a little before we assume, John Reid style, that what is needed is a symbolic show of force to unsettle the opposition.

Our best defence really is ignoring the bastards and getting on with our daily lives.

Talking up the threat really is aiding and abetting the enemy - both because our terror is their victory and because they need Tony Blair and George Bush to hide behind. WE don't need either.

What is more if we accept the big scary definition of brothers in arms messrs Blair, Bush and Bin Laden, we actually run the risk of persuading more no-marks from the fringes of our society that they have an important role to play in the future of the world.

This above all is the link between today - and all the other numerous psycho-numerary anniversaries - and the actual risks posed by domestic terror.

The world really didn't change on the 11th of September 2001. Allow that belief to flourish and we are entering Osama's world, a future made by Al-Qaeda. I don't buy that - no matter how hard Mr Blair tries to sell me Dubya's delusions.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The trouble with Martin

I was absorbed yesterday by reading the Martin Amis essay on Islamism in the Observer and desperately wanted to post something on it. Damnably the always provocative Graham at Harry's Place has beaten me to it (unfortunately the comments box debate has been taken up by the usual self-styled Hammers of Islam, but ho hum).

Like much of Amis' stuff, the writing is fabulously fluent and technically astonishing, but the grasp on reality is tenuous. His old buddy Hitch has lent him some Paul Berman, and from this he has constructed a monolithic Islamist Frankenstein that dominates the religion and holds the middle east in thrall. The different political situations in these countries; the doctrinal differences between different schools of Islam, the economic influences that have shaped the variants of political Islam over the last 30 years are absent.

There's a suggestion that the Middle East isn't ready for democracy, because they always vote for the wrong parties that smacks of Brecht's demand that the government should dissolve the people and elect a new one. Then he castigates Ken Livingstone for being too understanding of the root causes of suicide bombers, before dabbling in some inverse rationalism of his own by implying Islamist "horrorism" has somehow brutalised the West into creating Gitmos and Abu Ghraibs. But the thing that really rankles is the lack of politics at the heart of the essay. Amis lives in a stately bubble of big ideas, with little appreciation of the material actions and opposite reactions which birth an al Qaeda, a Hezbollah, or a second term Bush presidency.

In his recent short story about 9/11 ringleader Muhammad Atta, Amis ignores the real figure of Atta to impose his own vision of an atheistic nihilist motivated solely by a hatred of humanity and a disgust for his own flesh. In truth he was a far more complex character, arguably politicised to the apocalyptic creed of al Qaeda through his disgust at poor town planning in his native Egypt. The reality provides more blackly comic material for a writer, but it also calls for an engagement with the issues of real people, Amis seems reluctant to commit to.

Craig Brown, whose parody of Amis included here is one of the funniest things I've ever read, raised another chuckle recently when discussing the Betjeman forgeries which recently fooled his biographer AN Wilson.

"In fact, one might almost say that authors are their own worst forgers: most people are agreed that Martin Amis has been producing some pretty unconvincing Martin Amises over the course of the past decade."

Well maybe all too convincing as himself I fear, but convincing as a guide to the complex times we live in? Maybe if you believe that Bono's an economist.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Racism in football? Makelele and Gallas comments show us that Jose Mourinho is no more a fascist than Luis Aragones... but no less a disgrace

Football first.

Jose Mourinho has a particular approach to team motivation. It is an approach honed on his achievements with mediocre players at the highest level. It is about subjugation of personality to team ethos. Because a great team comprised of average players will (and indeed should) always be greater than the sum of its parts. It is also about leadership, about who is boss and following orders. But it is also about individual skill and motivation in the service of shared goals. In many ways this is an applaudable approach, which would be praised in areas of human endeavour far wider than sport; and not least in business and public service.

Every now and again this approach meets a rock in the road like William Gallas. This inevitably happens more often as your club's buying power grows.

Mourinho sticks to the book in such instances - unfortunately the book concerned is the Lord of The Flies, rather than the FIFA rulebook.

For Mourinho is a bully. And like the streetfighting gangster he pretends to be, he must first humiliate those who threaten his authority; before binding their loyalty to him with a kiss and the offer of a position in his family business.

Gallas however declined to kiss the ring, perhaps because he always felt a lingering loyalty to the very different Chelsea manager who brought him to the Club, the disarmingly emotionally open Claudio Ranieri. A man who not only wore his heart on his sleeve but garlanded it with his every human uncertainty.

Ranieri was among the first to express his personal horror and professional distaste for Chelsea's statement alleging that Gallas had threatened to sabotage the team if played against his will. But he was not short of company, whether from Gordon Taylor of the PFA or from the Manager of the French National Team, Raymond Domenech.

When all is said and done Mourinho is above all a cold-eyed tactician to Ranieri's emotionally uncertain Tinkerman. And, while Jose is undoubtedly personally slighted by Gallas' decision to turn his back on the somewhat Mansonian Chelsea 'family' he has created, his main aim in attempting to blacken (sic) Gallas name is to overshadow the victory Arsene Wenger has achieved over him with the acquisition of Gallas (and £5 million) from Chelsea in exchange for Ashley Cole.

Arsenal get a player who has won at the highest level and who can play in any defensive position, if admittedly one who wishes to be played consistently in one of them. Chelsea get a sulky one-trick pony who can play in only one, has won little and who had alienated the fans with his unseemly courtship of Roman Abramovitch's deposit account. Not only this, Arsenal had flourished without Cole last season during his long period of injury.

Mourinho had thought that his acquisition of Cole would be a psychological sucker-punch for Arsenal in a season also likely to see Thierry Henry head to Catalonia's cathedral of football the Camp Nou. But the best laid plans can come to naught and ironically it is Chelsea's discarded striker Eidur Gudjohnssen who now plies his trade for Barca, while Thierry earned himself immortality on the Holloway Road for his almost universally unexpected decision to grace the Emirates with his prescence this season.

Against this background Mourinho saw his best option in attempting to make Gallas appear as sullied a batch of goods to Arsenal as Cole undoubtedly is to Chelsea - for Cole's name is already pretty black among most football neutrals and Chelsea fans must wonder a little at the defensive limitations his prescence underlines.

Then of course there is the small matter of slavery. What? Yes, 'slavery', for that apparently, in Mourinho's manipulative little world, is what the relationship between Raymond Domenech's French national team and Chelsea midfielder Claude Makelele represents, when he is called to play for France after earlier announcing his international retirement.

But should I have read I the Sun yesterday it would have been Gallas I encountered first.

Bizarrely, as the British PM clung to power and UK troops suffered another of the grimmest days of casualties in combat since the 'end' of the (latest) war in Iraq, Sun readers woke to see a front page dominated by Gallas and the word 'Blackmail'.

Now I know (really) that the editor of the Sun is not as racist as this front page might lead you to believe. It is essentially a joke and a good way to fill the front page after Rupert and Tony fell foul of the international dateline and Mr Blair had to find another day to announce his likely departure from what one might call 'frontline' politics.

But with its ironic nod to all those infamous but utterly apocryhphal stories about 'loony lefty' councils banning 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' in the 80s and, more recently, 'political correctness gone mad', the Sun is, like Mourinho, sailing close to the wind and while Gallas might have a job pinning a charge of racism on them, he would certainly get them on what laughing boy Tony and his authoritarian cohorts might call 'a lack of respect'.

First witness for the prosection, Mr Lilian Thuram.

Friday, September 01, 2006

A very British neo-con?

Had a blast from the past this week when I read the obituary of proto-Thatcherite Sir Alfred Sherman. He's someone whom I confess to not having thought about in many years, but in the spicier political climes of the eighties he was a perfect folk devil. The brains behind Keith Joseph who was the brains behind Thatcher, he was responsible for introducing scorched-earth monetarist economics to our shores, as well as a few crazier stunts designed to raise the hackles of the eminently teasable eighties Left, such as inviting Jean Marie Le Pen to address a Tory conference fringe meeting.

It's tempting to dismiss him as an Eighties anachronism, but maybe he was the forerunner of the current crop of crazy American Trots who moved to the hard-right of the GOP without ever losing the desire to try to stick a saddle on a cow. Some selected highlights: he too began on the left: a Communist Party firebrand who jacked in his studies to fight for the goodies in the Spanish civil war; much later via an organisation called Western Goals (even the name summons up one of those slaps in the face for "relativism" neo-cons are always promising to deliver!) he espoused a neo-con's obsession with terrorism as a self-serving entity in itself, notoriously trying to demonise the ANC by linking it to the IRA. He finished up as a pioneer of "Eurabia", his curious attachment to Serbian nationalism rationalised by his fear of a muslim Bosnia. Some of his bizarre writing on the subject, here and here has more than a touch of Mark Steyn or Mad Mel, a sort of Silovitz Likudism if you will.
There's a cautionary tale here for the "Hitchensist" left.

The important thing is not where you start or where you finish but the progress of your ideological journey. Sherman's Guardian obituarist Dennis Kavanagh described him as a "political entrepreneur", a wonderful phrase I've had in my head all week. Among such characters there's often an addiction to the thrill of new ideas that makes old principles look staid and dull. The only constant is the urge to change the world, but to invert an aphorism from a wiser man than me, maybe the point is actually to understand it first.

He's a biggun

He's a one. Fascist's friend Ken Livingstone brands black chair of the CRE racist.

One can't help wondering if he's familiar with a technique pioneered by some other bogeymen he's fond of evoking.