Monday, 31 December 2007

Pluto's Revenge

Happy New Year, everyone.

Though I say that more in hope than expectation. 2008 is the year that no-one is looking forward to. Even superstition gives little consolation. The astrologer Shelley Von Strunkel, writing in The Times, warns that this will be the "year of reckoning". Not because of the credit crunch, though. Or house prices. Or terrorism, or global warming, or political instability.

No. It's all down to Pluto.

It’s been in Sagittarius for the past decade, inviting us to face deep and complex inner issues – a few have taken up the offer, but most have preferred the distractions of glamour, gadgets, luxury brands and increasingly absorbing online worlds. Pluto symbolises truth, toxins – and transformation. Its move into the exceedingly practical Capricorn on January 26 begins the actual process of reckoning. From that point on, there will be no turning back.


So there you have it. We have been ignoring Pluto. Probably not too surprising, since it turned out not to be a planet at all but rather a superior sort of snowball, so insignificant it makes the moon look positively Jupiter-like in comparison, just one among many pieces of space junk out there on the outer edges of the solar system. Last August, the International Astronomical Union voted to boot Pluto out of the official list of planets; though as a sop to its many fans they agreed to re-designate it as a "dwarf planet". There's a much bigger dwarf planet called Eris.

And now it has its revenge. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Diva Augusta

My suggestion that the politics of Pakistan recalls that of ancient Rome (as brought to life so memorably by HBO) turns out to be truer than even I had imagined, with today's news that Benazir Bhutto has left her party (and perhaps her country) to her nineteen year old son in her will.

Not since the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44BC brought the teenage Octavian to the fore can political succession have been decided quite so imperiously. Like Caesar, Bhutto (who often cultivated the image of a Roman empress) apparently considered that her party was her personal plaything, to be disposed of after death as she willed, a belief that might in other contexts be considered entirely delusional. Of course, dynastic politics is nothing new in the region: democratic forms float frequently upon the deep waters of ancestral loyalty, and she herself inherited the "Pakistan Peoples Party" from her judicially murdered papa. But she was at least in her late twenties at the time, and had been serving a political apprenticeship for years. Bilawal is a student at Oxford: absurdly, obscenely young to be placed in such a prominent and dangerous position.

There may have been an element of Hobson's choice about the succession. There are other family members, but most of them weren't on speaking terms with the late Benazir. Her husband is set to be the de facto leader, but his reputation is so stained by years of kick-backs that his open leadership might have proved too much even for the Bhuttos' sycophantic acolytes to stomach. So the boy it is.

Octavian, of course, turned out to be one of history's most astute (and ruthless) politicians, but the initial result of his elevation was to plunge the Roman empire into twenty years of civil war. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Demon Dabbling

The Roman Catholic Church has some serious problems: declining church attendance in Europe, paedophile scandals from Ireland to America, a chronic shortage of priests, and a series of turf wars with protestant evangelicals or (in places like Brazil) voodoo-influenced syncretic movements.

Few people, however, when asked what challenges face the Vatican in the 21st century, would single out demonic possession.

So it's surprising to read, in today's Telegraph among other places, that Pope Ratzinger wants to employ more exorcists.

The octogenarian Father Gabriele Amorth, who heads the Vatican's demonology unit (it apparently exists), has been outlining plans to recruit hundreds of priests to specialise in the sprinkling of holy water and casting out of Beelzebub. No doubt they will also be given lessons in how to avoid projectile vomit.

Thanks be to God that we have a Pope who has decided to fight the Devil head-on.


Hitherto, he thinks, there's been a problem with apathy.

Too many bishops are not taking this seriously and are not delegating their priests in the fight against the Devil. You have to hunt high and low for a proper, trained exorcist.

That all this will now change is apparently due to the pope's personal enthusiasm for the project.

Thankfully Pope Benedict XVI believes in the existence and danger of evil, from the time he was in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I remember a meeting we exorcists had with the Holy Father last year, in which he implored us to follow our mission as exorcists.



Now all this seems distinctly odd. Ratzinger has about him the air of a serious intellectual. He was for many years a professor of theology. His recent encyclical, Spe Salvi ("Space Elves") was a tightly-argued analysis of enlightenment and post-enlightenment philosophy. His book on Jesus was a doorstopper weighted down with footnotes.

In contrast with the theatricality of his predecessor, who did have a pronounced interest in shrines and miracle-working icons (he famously attributed his surviving a 1981 assassination attempt to the "maternal hand" of Our Lady of Fatima), Ratzinger makes speeches about the compatibility of faith and reason. Yet here he is warning the world about the sort of monsters who only inhabit cheesy 1970s movies. What is going on?

I don't for a moment think that Ratzinger actually believes in this sort of nonsense. But it does fit in well with his medievalising agenda. He makes speeches quoting 15th century Byzantine emperors. He has reintroduced indulgences and reinstated the recondite Tridentine mass. He enjoys wearing fancy clothes and sitting on thrones. His headgear gets more elaborate by the day; I'm sure he secretly wants to bring back the Tiara.

It's all part of a plan, I think, to distance the Catholic Church from what the pope sees as the corruptions of modernity, to reassert the fullness of its historic mission, in a word to get back to basics. An aggressively anti-modern religion, he has noticed, is a successful religion, whether it takes the form of stoning, burkha-imposing Islam or Darwin-denying, Bible-spouting American Protestantism. People don't want a religion to be credible, to be easy for rational individuals to believe. Just look at the travails of the Church of England if you want to know what happens to a faith that attempts to compromise with the modern world.

After all, what's the point of a religion if you don't have to believe all of it? Why bother believing any of it?

Far better to insist upon dogmas that would strain anyone's credulity. Then they'll be queuing up to join.

Like Tony Blair. After falling for the weapons of mass destruction delusion, demons should be a doddle. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Death on the Indus

Somehow, as soon as I heard the phrase "reports that she has been injured", I knew she was dead. It was bound to happen eventually. Unlike in Britain where, despite the cynical fear-mongering of repression-hungry ministers, such an event is almost unthinkable, Pakistan is a land where politics is still raw and real, a matter of life and death. It is a politics that, for all the Westminster-style veneer of democracy, more closely resembles that of Rome in the dying days of the Republic: ambitious generals, demotic aristocrats with a vast clientage, the ever-present threat of assassination. And the looming spectre of dictatorship.

The assassins will no doubt prove to be Islamic militants of one sort or another. Yet the assassination this most resembles is that of Rajiv Gandhi: another charming, Western-educated, possibly corrupt dynast blown up on the campaign trail. Benazir, as everyone knew her, was our kind of gal. She never let her headscarf (a concession to Muslim sensibilities) obscure or dampen a coiffure almost worthy of Marie Antoinette. Contemporaries used to tell fondly of how she zipped round Oxford in a yellow sportscar. This was a woman so interested in baubles that she actually stayed on in Oxford after finishing her degree so that she could be President of the Union. The rural poor, the core of her power-base, seldom did well out of her stints in office. Out of power, she seems to have spent most of her time shopping in Knightsbridge.

For all her faults, the worst of which were her narrowness of vision and a prima donna style, Benazir Bhutto was undeniably brave (suicidally so, it turns out) and, most of all, a woman. Her presence at the head of the second-largest Muslim nation made Islam, in the 1980s, seem plausibly progressive, proof that Iranian ayatollahs and Saudi despots didn't have everything their own way. Now, more than ever, it is in the contemplation of the position of women that the west feels smuggly superior to the festering swamp that is Islam. And the Islamists know this. A pro-western leader is bad enough. But a woman is surely an abomination, a transplanted alien, probably an American agent.

Hence it is at least arguable that she is a victim of misogyny no less than the Canadian teenager Pavez Aqsa, strangled by her father for her preference for western mores (and clothes). Twenty years ago her sex was scarcely an issue, just as her western connections merely added to her glamour. Indeed, having a female leader was to be following a trend. There was Indira Gandhi, recently murdered in Delhi. There was Golda Mair. And there was Margaret Thatcher, in full majesty, holding sway over the old colonial master. Now, though, it is very much the issue.

What will happen next in Pakistan I would not venture to suggest. But it won't be pretty. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 23 December 2007

And the Winner Is




The "unofficial" CiF commenters' poll has now closed, with Waltz a clear winner, receiving almost exactly a third of the vote. ExArmy just pipped MsWoman into second place. The result confirms the trend in the abortive official poll, which was scrapped prematurely after concerns about multiple voting and organised lobbying. Hardly a scandal of the dimension of Richard and Judy's You Say We Pay fiasco, but serious enough for CiF supremo Georgina Henry to spoil the fun.

(If you haven't the foggiest about what I'm on about, check out the Guardian's Comment Is Free website, an important and influential forum for intellectual debate, or a playground of mud-slinging prima donnas, according to taste.)

AllyF: 15%
Berchmans: 9%
Exarmy: 21%
Mswoman: 19%
Waltz: 33%

I didn't detect any incontrovertible evidence of multiple voting here - Heresy Corner recorded far more Guardian-referred visits than there were votes cast - but if anyone did manage to subvert the system I'm not going to lose any sleep about it. I prefer to regard multiple voting as an expression of enthusiasm. In any case, people who made the effort to click their way over to this by-way are likely to be those who pay closer than average attention to CiF debates, so I think, all things considered, Waltz can be well-and-truly crowned Queen of the CiF jungle. Please feel free to add your comments below.

Many congratulations to her, and to the other nominees, CiF stalwarts all who made it through a crowded and competitive field. A worthy winner, I think. Others may have been more prolific, more verbose, or angrier. Waltz, however, has stood out with her gift for pithy put-downs, well-reasoned and sparklingly-written opinions, and large dashes of unpredictablity and wit.

Just a few of her "best bits":

On religious hypocrisy:

Many newspapers contain unpleasant cartoons. But a robust religion shouldn't be too troubled by them.


From If you can't stand the hate, started by Inayat Bunglawala

On religion and environmentalism

Will these planet-saving Abrahamic cults be the same ones whose holy handbooks state things like this:

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." (Bible, Genesis 1:28)

Because I can't help thinking that it's this attitude - in which the earth is constituted as something to be "subdued", and mankind as having "dominion" - that has played a very big part in creating the current mess.


From Mark Vernon, Saving Souls and the Planet

On misanthropy

Of course. It's perfectly possible to like individual humans while disliking humanity en masse. Groupings of humans are very often capable of heinous behaviours that most individuals would not be capable of outside the group. That's why unpleasant, totalitarian societies are so intent upon crushing individuality and enforcing group conformity. Then there's the "psychology of the crowd" and all that.

It's also possible to look at the world and conclude that while individual humans can be good people, humanity as a whole is incorrigibly destructive, hugely damaging of itself, of other species, and of the planet.

From, Teen Dramas

And, a personal favourite,

Just to announce my own invention of the last half-hour: the fife.

The fife is designed to complement the knork. Before long, most meals will be eaten with a fife in one hand and a knork in the other. This shall be known as "eating with a fife and knork".


From, Kathryn Hughes, The Joy of the Knork
Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Not the Messiah

Stephen Green is at it again. Fresh from his drubbing at the hands of the High Court, who threw out his challenge to the BBC's broadcast of Jerry Springer the Opera in such uncertain terms that the law of blasphemy was effectively killed off for good, the publicity-seeking evangelical (who likes to go by the name of Christian Voice) has now set his sights on the Christmas Day edition of Doctor Who.

The much anticipated extravaganza, featuring Kylie Minogue as a waitress on board a star-faring Titanic, apparently makes use of robot angels, who assist the good doctor at a critical moment. And this, it seems, is too much for Mr Green, undermining as it does the centrality and uniqueness of Christ. After all, does it not say in the gospel that angels attended the birth of Jesus? And that, after fending off the temptations of Satan, "angels came and ministered unto him" (Matt 4,11).

Russell T. Davies, the show's presiding genius (who does, it is true, tend to make somewhat overblown claims for the importance of his TV shows) cheekily plays up the religious parallels. "The series lends itself to religious iconography because the Doctor is a proper saviour," he said. "He saves the world through the power of his mind and passion."

Finding religious messages in Doctor Who is not necessarily anathema to Christians. A few months ago, as the Heresiarch noticed, an Anglican church in Cardiff put on a Who-themed service, hoping to draw in young people with the remarkable similarities between the time lord and the son of God. As Fr Dean Atkins, the service organiser, put it at the time,

We are using the figure of Doctor Who as a parable of Christ. The language used in the series lends itself to exploring the Christian faith. Christ is a kind of cosmic figure as well if you like, somebody who does not travel through time but all eternity is found in him.


Green is having none of it. Perhaps he was invited to react by an enterprising journalist. If so he certainly rose to the bait. "The Doctor would have to do a lot more than the usual prancing around to be a messiah," he declared

"He has to save people from their sins."

People like Russell T. Davies, presumably. The openly gay writer and producer must have done much to earn God's eternal wrath with his sinful and un-Biblical proclivities.

Stop Press: Tony Blair now eligible for sainthood. He still has to die first, though, so it might be an exchange worth making. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 21 December 2007

Archbishop rubbishes beloved Christmas myth

I don't want to rehash the "Archbishop rubbishes Christmas" story, which was, of course, rubbish. All Rowan Williams said, as can be seen from the transcript of his 5Live interview with Simon Mayo (helpfully provided by the Telegraph), was that many of the elements in the Christmas story that appear on Christmas cards, in traditional cribs, and in nativity plays old and new, are not actually in the Bible at all but are later accretions, elaborations and extrapolations of the bare bones of the original account. This doesn't mean they should be scrapped, of course; indeed, Williams was careful to state that the legends have their place. On the headline-grabbing subject of the Three Kings, for example, he said this:

Well Matthew's gospel doesn't tell us that there were three of them, doesn't tell us they were kings, doesn't tell us where they came from, it says they're astrologers, wise men, priests from somewhere outside the Roman Empire. That's all we're really told so, yes, 'the three kings with the one from Africa' - that's legend; it works quite well as legend.

It works quite well as legend. Indeed it does. And in stressing the worth of such legends, he's arguably less radical than the Pope: this year's Vatican Christmas crib, as I reported last week, scraps Bethlehem entirely, although the Bible (if not many modern scholars) is quite clear on this aspect of the story at least.

He does slip a bit, though:

Joseph, yes, again, the Gospels are pretty consistent that that's his father's name


Whose? Jesus's? I thought the whole point was that Joseph wasn't his father...

Anyway, I'm not going to labour that aspect of the story, except to mention, en passant, that some of the press clearly did want Williams to rubbish the Christmas story, if only so they could have a go at him. When David Jenkins stopped being Bishop of Durham he left a great hole in our national life: the slightly dotty, other-worldly liberal bishop who doesn't quite believe in the religion he's paid to promote. The non-belief isn't sufficient, of course. Richard Holloway, for many years Bishop of Edinburgh, was an out-and-out atheist, but he never really cut the mustard as a dodderer. Rowan, for all his relative youth and famed intellect, has that rather distracted, carefully-phrased air that recalls Jenkins in his pomp. If only he wouldn't spoil things by actually believing things, he would be perfect.

The big story of the interview, in fact, came later when Ricky Gervais joined the party, and expressed the view that believing in God was like believing in Father Christmas (as we say in England). Oh no, said Williams, God isn't a bit like Santa Claus.















The thing is, belief in Santa does not generate a moral code, it does not generate art, it does not generate imagination. Belief in God is a bit bigger than that.


Strange that the good archbishop should denigrate someone who looks so much like him.

Doesn't generate a moral code? Au contraire, Cantuar. Good children get presents; naughty children don't. Like God, he is omniscient:

He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake


God, in the Book of Revelation, has the Book of Life. Santa has his list, and woe betide boys and girls whose names are down in the bad list.

Father Christmas has a work ethic that would put even Gordon Brown to shame:

Santa's a busy man he has no time to play
He's got millions of stockings to fill on Christmas day


He also teaches good manners. You don't just get his presents willy-nilly, you have to write and ask him politely; and, preferably, write again afterwards and say thank-you.

Admittedly, his super-powered sleigh might contribute more than its share to global warming, but on the plus side he must be the world's greatest philanthropist, giving away all those toys. In practice, of course, Santa gives better presents to rich kids, and this might might appear to contrast with the Christian promise embodied in the Magnificat:

He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away


But that's just saying that the practice doesn't always live up to the theory; the same might be claimed of many religions.

Doesn't generate art? Hasn't Williams seen Miracle on 34th Street? Or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians? Doesn't generate imagination? You mean, like, he's real?

Of course he is. Current address, Lambeth Palace. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Don't do God

It couldn't have happened in America. Other there, Republican and Democrat presidential hopefuls alike are falling over each other in the rush to boast about how many impossible beliefs they manage to hold, from Mike Huckabee's openly espoused creationism to Mormon Mitt Romney's proclamation, in his speech at George Bush Senior's Presidential Library, that he believed every one of his religion's preposterous doctrines. One of which, I believe, states that Jesus came originally from the planet Kolob. Romney also made the frankly terrifying statement that "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom".

In Britain, by contrast, we now find ourselves in possession of an avowedly atheistical party leader. Asked on Radio Five "Live" whether he believed in God, he paused for a moment, and let it slip out.

No.

Such clarity, bravery even in the current faith-obsessed climate, almost made up for his stumbling performance on the radio yesterday, when he feigned ignorance of Shane Macgowan's masterpiece Fairytale of New York.

Sadly, he went and spoiled it all a few moments later, once the spin doctors had got to him, with the following statement:

I have enormous respect for people who have religious faith. I’m married to a Catholic and am committed to bringing my children up as Catholics.

However, I myself am not an active believer, but the last thing I would do when talking or thinking about religion is approach it with a closed heart or a closed mind.


In other words, I may think it's all a load of baloney, but I don't mind teaching it to my children. Presumably he's been warned there aren't many votes in atheism.

According to Paul Woolley of think tank Theos (they of the Christmas general ignorance survey),

“If he is saying that is he agnostic, obviously that is probably not quite so serious politically as saying you are an atheist.”

Indeed. Except that he was asked if he believed in God, and he said "No".

What part of No aren't we meant to understand?

Don't listen to the advisers, Nick. People in this country couldn't care less what their leaders believe. If anything, given the disastrous foreign wars and pseudo-moralism of God-guided Blair, an injection of full-blooded atheism into the body politic might go down very well. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

In the Nick

A perfectly appropriate end to the Lib Dem leadership contest, with Nick Clegg beating Chris Huhne by a mere 511 votes.

Ever since the two virtual unknowns were introduced to the public following the defenestration of Ming Campbell, they have been all but indistinguishable. Same background, same school, same hairstyle. They have, of course, managed comprehensively to destroy one another's reputations: the effort to distinguish themselves only serving to make both seem repulsive and/or ridiculous. During the campaign, Huhne dubbed his rival "calamity Clegg". Today, looking crestfallen (as well he might) at missing out, he demanded to play a leading role in the new front bench team.

The result is effectively a dead heat. Though Clegg's narrow win has already been interpreted as bad for the Conservatives. The supposedly Cameron-like Clegg will, it is imagined, take attention and votes away from the Tory leader.

Quite the reverse, I would predict. Failing to present an identifiably different face to the electorate, Clegg is unlikely to give many would-be Tory voters a strong reason for not backing the main opposition. Is there any longer a difference between them? Only one I can think of. The Conservatives have some prospect of forming the next government. The Lib Dems do not.

They won't admit it, or even recognise it themselves, but the best hope for the Lib Dems lies in some sort of alliance with the Conservatives. An alliance in which they tacitly accept the loss of some Tory-Lib Dem marginals in return for the prospect of taking more seats off Labour. The latter would probably have been easier under Chris Huhne, who would appear to have more natural affinity with Labour-style language; Nick Clegg's Cameronesque touches are less likely to tempt disillusioned Labour voters. Nevertheless, the attempt must be made. A Tory-Lib Dem war can only benefit the incumbent government.

Clegg and Cameron talk the same language. They share the same concern for civil liberties and decentralisation. They share, too, a common interest in bringing down an incompetent, bloated, sleazy and authoritarian government. David Cameron has offered the new Lib Dem leader such an alliance. Undoubtedly, political calculation, even cheekiness, lay behind the offer. But Clegg shouldn't spurn it. In most things, they are on the same side. The days of the "anti-Tory" coalition are over.


Nick Clegg hasn't made that good a start, it has to be said. Interviewed by Eddie Mair on PM, he was asked for his view of the BBC's ridiculous decision (now abandoned in the face of almost universal derision) to censor Shane Macgowan's classic piece of genius, Fairytale of New York. He claimed not to have heard it. Can this be true? There are only two possible conclusions: either he's prepared to dissemble and wriggle rather than give a straightforward answer to a not particularly controversial question, or he really hasn't heard the song, which came out twenty years ago when he was a student and is regularly voted the greatest Christmas single of all time.

It's hard to know which of these alternatives is the more depressing. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 17 December 2007

Mission Accomplished

The British have formally handed Basra back to the Iraqis. Of course, they haven't really been in charge of the place for months; if indeed they ever were.

So what have been the achievements of the occupation? First and foremost, of course, the British presence has enabled peace and democracy to flourish in the country. The police and security forces in Basra have, under British tutellage, developed into fine, upstanding, impartial units, a credit to the warlords and religious militias who control them. The oil is flowing once more: back to its pre-war levels.

Everything, in a word, is excellent. Unless of course you happen to be:
  • a Sunni
  • a Christian
  • secular
  • poor
  • young
  • old
  • disabled
  • female
  • alive

The Basra police chief Jalil Khalaf, an honest man in an impossible position, was forgiving.

I don't think the British meant for this mess to happen. When they disbanded the Iraqi police and military after Saddam fell the people they put in their place were not loyal to the Iraqi government. The British trained and armed these people in the extremist groups and now we are faced with a situation where these police are loyal to their parties not their country.


We, however, should be angry. Very angry. Angry for the people of Iraq, who can now look on Saddam's ruthless dictatorship as a golden age of peace and liberty. Angry with Tony Blair, now off making millions on the lecture circuit. Angry with ourselves, who allowed and continue to allow the government to escape retribution for its lies and incompetence. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Zen and the art of fashion design


At last, a religion has found a way to attract publicity without threatening to murder infidels or descending into interminable squabbles about sexuality.

Step forward Japanese Buddhists. Faced with declining congregations - young Japanese, it seems, are too busy playing with their pet robots to seek enlightenment in the precincts of a temple - monks and nuns from eight different Buddhist orders have put on a fashion show, parading in their robes up and down a catwalk specially constructed inside the historic Tsukiji Honganji temple yesterday.

The Tokyo event, which must surely have been organised by Edina Monsoon, attracted praise and bemusement in equal measure. "We wanted to show the young people that Buddhism is cool, and temples are not a place just for funerals," said Koji Matsubara, a chief monk at Tsukiji. According to another of the organisers, Kosuke Kikkawa, "We won't change Buddha's teachings, but perhaps we need a different presentation that can touch the feelings of the people today."

Spoken like a true trendy vicar.

More photos here. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Away with the manger

One of the Christmas "facts" about which last week's Theos report failed to discover widespread ignorance was that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Everybody knows that: well, 73% of us at least, which shows that something is sticking, though whether it comes from junior school nativity plays, carols played ad nauseam in the temples of Mammon or something more explicitly religious isn't entirely clear. As that ineffable schmaltz-artist, Luke, puts it,

And Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem... to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.


If you go to Bethlehem (not an easy journey, since it involves negotiating Israel's security barrier and taking your chances among the depressed and radicalised population) then some among the town's dwindling number of Christians will show you a cave with a silver star on the floor where, according to long-established tradition, the Word of God took on human flesh.


So what, I wonder, is the Vatican playing at this Christmas?

In a radical departure, the official Vatican Christmas Crib has shifted the action to Jesus' home town of Nazareth. Out go the shepherds, the ox and the ass, even the manger. In come a carpenter's workshop, a "covered patio", and "the inside of a pub, with its hearth".

"It was time for a change," said a spokesman "and a return to St Matthew's gospel".

Which is even stranger, since Matthew quite clearly says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, where, it would appear, Mary and Joseph had been living all along. They only left because of Herod, who is supposed to have massacred all the male children in Bethlehem in a failed attempt to do in the Christ child. Joseph had however been warned by an angel, and took the family into Egypt. It was only some years later, with Herod safely dead, that the family moved to Galilee and "came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth."

Could the new Nativity setting actually be a tacit acknowledgement of one of Christianity's open secrets, that the evidence for the traditional story is non-existent? Jesus was almost certainly not born in Bethlehem. There was no census, no donkey, no fully-booked inn, no massacre of the innocents, no shepherds abiding in the fields. It's all hogwash.

Luke, who claims in the introduction to his gospel to be supplying "the certainty of these things", must go down as one of the most careless historians on record. "This census was first made when Quirinius was governor of Syria", he writes of the event that supposedly brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Small problem, Quirinius became governor in 7AD, by which time Jesus would have been at least ten, and quite possibly fourteen. And Herod had already been dead 11 years.

And what shall we make of this contradictory passage, from John chapter 7:

But others said, shall the Messiah come out of Galilee? Hath not scripture said, that the Messiah cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?


Which strongly implies that people who knew Jesus were well aware he had never been anywhere near Bethlehem.

It's quite clear what is going on in all these stories. There was a perception, based on the prophets of the Old Testament, that the coming Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Any would-be Messiah who didn't come from that town would therefore be at a severe disadvantage. If you believed that Jesus was the Messiah you had to account for the discrepancy. Easy: just say that he was born in Bethlehem after all. Make up some plausible story about a census to explain the otherwise inexplicable fact that a family from northern Palestine travelled all the way to the Judean equivalent of Windsor for the happy event.

These facts are easily available to anyone who bothers to find them, and few serious scholars of the New Testament, devout Christians included, dispute them. But officially, churches continue to promote the traditional story. Perhaps the Vatican's Crib redesign is a pre-emptive step, just in case the truth becomes more widely known. Or perhaps the complexities of Middle East politics have a hand in it. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Road to Nowhere

Europe has had it, thinks Camille Paglia. Writing in Salon, the arch-iconoclast declares that the continent has "settled into a comfortable secularism" and is "no model for the future". Great art, she believes, needs religion, or at least something more psychically stimulating and uplifting than the vapid consumerism that is presently on offer. "Without spirituality in some form, people will anesthetize themselves with drink or drugs".

The great era of European achievement in arts and letters seems to be over. There are local luminaries but no towering figures any longer of the stature of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or Ingmar Bergman. Europe is becoming a museum and tourist trap, as people from all over the world flock to see the remnants of Europe's royal and religious past -- the conservative prelude, in other words, to today's slack liberalism.

...It's as if Europe, struggling to incorporate massive Muslim immigration, has retreated into a bubble where the beautiful artifices of the past float like a mirage. Secularism evidently cannot stimulate creativity as profoundly as religion does -- whether in the artist's soaring affirmation or angry resistance.

Certainly the Europe to whose construction the finishing touches are being put today is a soulless and bureaucratic affair. Gordon Brown's no-show at the signing ceremony at a Lisbon monastery may be ridiculous - as though by not being there he can dissociate himself from the treaty (a.k.a. constitution), or perhaps give the impression to the ill-informed and gullible that it's really no big deal. It does, however, reveal how truly irrelevant such gatherings are. The European elites have an obsession with grand staircases, fresh-laid carpets, group photographs and empty speechifying, as though such things conferred profound meaning on their proceedings. Instead, they merely demonstrate the lack of vision. The EU is about power: the power of politicians and bureaucrats to make decisions behind closed doors and often contrary to logic, and then impose them on the citizens of nation states who didn't vote for them, don't need them and can't do anything, democratically, to stop them.


In its weasly defence of its backing out of the promised referendum on the constitution - an explicit manifesto commitment - the British government has stressed that the new treaty is "completely different". And, pressed for evidence that it is different, it offers as its prime exhibit that the EU flag and anthem are no longer enshrined within it. The flag and anthem are still present, of course: they are much in evidence at today's grand ceremony. But they aren't in the treaty. Thus what looked to all the world like the constitution of a new country is now just another treaty.

Such a childish argument shouldn't fool anyone, and doesn't. What matters are such things as the creation of an EU diplomatic corps, a permanent president and foreign minister (though in another piece of empty symbolism, he will no longer have that title), the vast increase in the scope of majority voting (which is a euphemism for the imposition on democratic governments of policies which both they and their people have voted against). Most importantly, the EU is still to gain a legal personality. It will be an international entity in its own right: no longer an association of individual countries like the African Union or even the old Eastern Bloc, it will take its place alongside the United States, India and other federal superstates. Indeed, thanks to the far-sightedness of the founding fathers, individual American states retain discretion in economic, political and legal matters which European nation states have given up.

Yet for all that, symbols matter. For with its anthem, its flag, its leaders glad-handing and mouthing platitudes (Brown excepted), as well as with such things as "youth" activities and propaganda in the classroom, the EU hopes to win itself a place in the hearts of the people who find themselves living within its borders. It wants us to be good Europeans, to dream fondly of a common European football team, to listen to Euro-pop, to develop a sense of patriotism and place. For its people to say, and think, "I am a European".

Yet it is such an empty and artificial construct, the European Union. It has all the attributes of nationhood except the one that really matters. A sense of patriotism, of belonging. A common dream. A reason, beyond itself, for its existence. In other words, a vision. It is this lack of a psychological dimension that will condemn the European project, ultimately, to failure. The eurocrats know this, but they have nothing to offer but trumpets and balloons.

Once, there was a vision. It was a vision formed of decades of war, and saw in the unification of the continent the only hope of lasting peace. Well, the wars are over; and they would probably have ended with or without the grand plans of Jean Monnet and his co-conspirators. The vision is well and truly out of date. Perhaps the European Community, as was, helped the reconstruction of a devastated continent: certainly Germany, France and the Low Countries had a better time of it in the decades after the Second World War than complacent, sluggish, unionised Britain. Now, however, as the centre of world dynamism slides inexorably towards Asia, the existence in Europe of an old-fashioned, bureaucratised, undemocratic monolith will condemn us to a lenghty stagnation.

Civilisations can give up and die. Western Europe did when the barbarians arrived in the fifth century, despite the supposedly revitalising effect of Christianity: pace Paglia, religion isn't always, or even usually, the answer. China did in the early nineteenth century, though it is now recovering. Islam, too, has long since succumbed, although its zombie-like rotting corpse now threatens to consume more than just itself. It's probably our turn once again, to be followed, soon enough, by the United States. Though in that case it is too much religion, rather than too little, that is at the root of the trouble. Yet there could still be hope, if only our leaders could abandon their attachment to the outdated and sclerotic model of a superstate and rediscover the nations and cities in which the arts and science were born.

For that to happen, however, a catalyst is needed. Such a catalyst might have been provided by a definitive rejection, by the British electorate, of the Lisbon treaty. Since British withdrawal from the EU would be disastrous for all concerned - apart from anything else, they need our money - a comprehensive renegotiation of the basis of the Union would almost inevitably follow; and what started out as British opt-outs might easily end up in opt-outs for all, as the benefits of a decentralised and truly flexible European system became more apparent. As it is, the road to a free and dynamic Europe will be longer and more painful. Perhaps the coming Great Depression will cause the whole rotten enterprise to come crashing down. Or perhaps we are, indeed, headed for slow irrelevance and ultimate oblivion.

Whatever happens, I can't imagine that the dynamic, creative, educated and successful countries of east Asia will be sparing us too much thought in the decades to come. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Happy Christmas from Tehran

There's a great tradition in this country of banning Christmas decorations, nativity plays and religious scenes in case they "offend" followers of other religions. Of course, the Muslims and Sikhs and Hindus usually aren't offended, and quite often the stories themselves turn out to be exaggerated. The trouble is that there sometimes are council employees, teachers and other assorted do-gooding simpletons who genuinely believe that their scrooge-like attitude is the "right thing to do". There are also company bosses who are looking for a good excuse not to subsidise the annual piss-up.

Just the other day, Equality supremo (and occasional voice of sanity) Trevor Phillips was calling for more nativity plays as a corrective to misplaced political correctness. He railed against "ludicrous paths... populated with winter festivals instead of Christmas celebrations; anodyne messages of ‘seasons greetings’ and pointless embarrassment over biblical nativity scenes."

Perhaps, though, anti-Christmas multiculturalists will heed that respected world statesman Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, whose Christmas greetings to the world have been published on his much-frequented blog.

"Merry Christmas to everyone! " it begins.

My sincere congratulations to everyone for the Glorious and Auspicious Birthday of Divine Prophet - confirmed and authenticated by Gabriel, the angel of Divine revelation - the Obedient of Almighty God,

Jesus Christ, the Messiah (peace be upon Him)

There follows a lengthy discussion of the importance of Jesus Christ, and an analysis of international politics.

Today’s status quo of the world is obvious of everyone. In occupied Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and South America and even in Europe and North America, due to the interests of despotic dominant rulers’ parties and clans and also for filling up their pockets, the dignity, benevolence, peace and tranquility of the human beings have been taken to abattoir and slaughtered. And then, lie and deception are positioned for honesty and truth.

Frankly, if Jesus Christ – the Messiah (peace be upon Him) was present today, how would He react?

But he ends on a conciliatory note:

While commemorating the birthday of the Prophet of amity, love and devotion – Jesus Christ, the Messiah (peace be upon Him and His beloved Mother) and congratulating the new year, I beg God – the Merciful, the All-Wise – a year of bliss, and health and a year replete of blessing, abundance, success, and affection for everyone, specially the Christians of Iran and the world.

How nice. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 10 December 2007

Intelligence test

The other day the CIA reported that Iran doesn't have an active nuclear weapons programme after all. Which came as a massive disappointment to the war-planners at the Pentagon, as well as Dubya, for whom bombing the ayatollahs back to the stone age would have provided a satisfyingly neat ending to his presidency. One would have thought that the British government would have breathed a sigh of relief. Blair's enthusiasm for military ventures isn't shared by many of the current crew, and certainly not Gordon Brown. Although Gordon is more than happy to pose with British troops in the depressing quagmire of Afghanistan (who today obligingly laid on a temporary victory for him to savour during his flying visit), he rarely looks like he's enjoying it. A massively unpopular war with Iran would seem to be the last thing the flailing Brown regime needs at the moment.

But no. British officials apparently believe that the latest intelligence assessment "has undermined efforts to impose tough new sanctions on Iran". The security services are worried that the cunning Iranians have been feeding disinformation to CIA dimwits, and that the Iranian claim to have no nukes is about as credible as President Ahadinejad's that his country had no homosexuals. Or perhaps the CIA were just desperate not to give Bush an excuse not to bomb Tehran.

If so, given the misuse of intelligence by both London and Washington before the Iraq disaster, one could hardly blame them.

Here's what the "source" said to the Telegraph:

We are sceptical. We want to know what the basis of it is, where did it come from? Was it on the basis of the defector? Was it on the basis of the intercept material? They say things on the phone because they know we are up on the phones. They say black is white. They will say anything to throw us off.

It's not as if the American intelligence agencies are regarded as brilliant performers in that region. They got badly burned over Iraq.


Yes indeed. They said that Saddam Hussein might have weapons of mass destruction. This would have been an excellent basis for making sure Hans Blix carried on his inspections. That it was twisted by the Bush-Blair idiocy into a reason for the most counterproductive war since Pyrrhus decided to have a pop at the Romans is hardly the fault of the CIA.

Admittedly, one's confidence in the CIA is scarcely raised by knowing that their headquarters is officially called by the gloriously oxymoronic title of "The George Bush Center for Intelligence". But for the "source" to claim that the CIA got "badly burned" over Iraq is a bit rich. It wasn't the CIA who gave us the dodgy dossier, the 45 minute warning, or the craven re-writing of intelligence reports at the behest of Downing Street spinmeisters.

And when the Americans needed evidence for their wild claims about Saddam having his own nuclear programme, the CIA had nothing. Happily for Bush and Rumsfeld, the obliging British came up with a half-baked claim about Iraq obtaining uranium from Niger. The CIA knew it was rubbish, but Bush used it anyway. It's called the special relationship.

Off the record, British officials are worried that, given the latest intelligence assessment, Russia and China would be less likely to agree to tough sanctions against the Tehran regime. "It's created a lot of difficulties because of the timing, just as we were about to go for a third resolution," said a "western diplomat". But if Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapons programme, why should they want the sanctions anyway? Is it just for fun? Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Christmas tradition


It's good to see that that old Christmas tradition, the "widespread ignorance of the Nativity" survey, is still going strong.

The survey, carried out for think-tank Theos, asked the usual thousand adults four questions about the Nativity story "according to the Bible".

This is how the Telegraph reported it:

A survey found 27 per cent of Britons aged 18 and over were unable to identify Bethlehem as Jesus's birth place, while the figure rose to 36 per cent of people aged between 18 and 24.

One in ten of those questioned thought the answer was Nazareth and a similar number said Jerusalem.

The poll also found that more than one in four people - 27 per cent - were unaware that an angel told Mary that she would give birth to a son, with some saying she was informed by the shepherds.

Most people surveyed believed that Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Nazareth rather than Egypt when they escaped from King Herod, and a few even said the holy family's destination was Rome.

The survey also revealed that just over half did not know that John the Baptist was Jesus's cousin.


Of course, you could turn it round the other way and express amazement that three-quarters had somehow acquired the basic information, which is something of a miracle if there's any truth in that other festive staple, the "multiculturalists ban Christmas" story. Which there probably isn't, of course. Indeed, regular churchgoers did little better than the general population, with only just over a third getting all four questions "right".

Interesting, however, that the survey should couch its survey in terms of what it says in the Bible, which led to that rather odd question about John the Baptist. No-one learns about the birth of Jesus from the Bible. They learn it from their parents, from school, from Christmas carols, by taking part in Nativity plays. Even, occasionally, from the church. Most of the story isn't even in the Bible, and the two gospel accounts, Luke and Matthew, not only tell entirely different stories but contradict each other at several points. Though they do agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, something that most modern scholars find highly unlikely.

Which I suppose explains those rather odd questions about Egypt and John the Baptist, and the widespread ignorance the survey claimed to find about them. Both are peripheral to the main event, extremely dubious historically, and play almost no role in the popular narrative. Stick to the Bible, as the survey tried to do, and you miss some of the most important details. Such as:

- the innkeeper
- the ox and the ass
- the three kings, along with their names Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior
- their camels
- the donkey
- the stable
- the date

The Nativity story in the Bible is only half the story. And not even the best half. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 7 December 2007

All Done with Mirrors

Holy Blood, Holy Grail co-author Richard Leigh, who died last week at the age of 64, would have loved this Dan Brown-style story about secret messages concealed within the works of Leonardo da Vinci.

Apparently, by playing about with mirrors you can find esoteric hidden images in some of Leonardo's best-known masterpieces. In the Last Supper, for example, images of demons and angels, as well as the Holy Grail, magically appear if you place a mirror along the length of the table and then rotate the picture. Hidden in the Mona Lisa's sleeve is what looks vaguely like the head of Darth Vader. The artist's painting of John the Baptist, when subjected to the mirror treatment, reveals what could be a naked four-legged female Buddha meditating under a tree. However, we are given to understand,

it is not a human female, as explained by Philo of Alexandria, but the symbolic name given in the Bible to the corporal sensibility (the biblical woman) that transmits the five senses to the intelligence which was symbolically called “man”.

Several videos demonstrating the technique, along with much philosophically-dense commentary of this sort, can be found on a website entitled The Mirror of the Sacred Scriptures and Paintings. It is the work of what The Telegraph describes as a "mysterious group", and is linked to a forthcoming book. Well worth a look. The pictures are pretty, even if the theory is completely bonkers.

It's a sort of Rorshach test, of course. It reminds me slightly of the work of Maurice Cotterell, who discovered messages concerning the end of the world in Mayan carvings by manipulating strips of acetate. He went on to "decode" the arrangement of the treasures from the tomb of Tutankhamun to equally enlightening effect. Come to think of it, Leigh's erstwhile colleague Henry Lincoln predicated many of his ideas about secret societies on symbolic designs he "discovered" in Nicolas Poussin's painting The Shepherds of Arcadia. The world of the esoteric is like politics or soap opera: the same old themes keep recurring in slightly different guises. There's nothing new under (or indeed in) the Sun. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Samina's sentence


That Samina Malik is not in jail tonight is clear evidence that the Judge does not consider her to be any sort of terrorist. That she was convicted at all meant, I suppose, that some sort of punishment was in order. But since she isn't a terrorist, what is her crime? Poetry? Hardly, although the sentiments she expressed formed a large element of the prosecution's case. Possessing materials likely to be useful to terrorists? Technically, yes. But every home contains many items likely to be useful to terrorists. The Al Qaeda training manual she downloaded from the internet has been downloaded many times by many people for many purposes. If a proper terrorist wanted to get hold of it, he'd hardly need to borrow it off Samina. He could have my copy. Sending an email to a terrorism suspect? Only insofar as that brought her to the police's attention. Working at Heathrow?

That must have been it.

After all, we know how much terrorists love airports.

While the punishment of 100 hours' community service isn't the outrage many had feared, it's still wildly disproportionate for what is fairly clearly a thought-crime. Because, make no mistake, if there had been any serious suggestion that she was a terrorist, or even a potential terrorist, she would have gone down. For a long time.

Like Mohammed Atif Siddique, who was sentenced to 8 years at Edinburgh High Court in October for downloading terrorism-related material onto his laptop. The material comprised videos, pictures and sound files "concerned with radical Islamic politics", and included footage of Osama Bin Laden and the World Trade Center attack. He also published links on his website to sites offering such material. This amounted to the offences of "providing instruction or training in the making or use of firearms and explosives by means of the Internet", and of "distributing or circulating terrorist publications with the intention of encouraging or inducing or assisting in acts of terrorism."

Sentencing Siddique, the judge noted,

The only purpose in setting up a website containing links to this material could have been to provide others with instructions or training material in the making and use of firearms and explosives...Given that you were providing internet access to what are admittedly terrorist publications, it is difficult to see what else was intended other than the encouragement of terrorism.


It's hard to see the difference between Malik's crime and Siddique's, except that of scale: the operation to arrest Siddique involved more than a hundred police officers, while Malik gave herself away by sending e-mails and posting her poetry on the net. Which either shows that the law is working as it should, distinguishing between real threats and harmless fantasists, or Malik was fortunate to have a pretty face and a butter-wouldn't-melt pout. To be a girl, in other words.

If she had appeared in court wearing a beard instead of a hijab, and the facts presented to the jury had been exactly the same, does anyone believe she would have got off so lightly? Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Jerry Springs It

Today was a good day for freedom of expression. In a clearly-worded judgement dismissing Stephen Green's attempt to prosecute the BBC for blasphemy over their broadcast of Jerry Springer the Opera almost 3 years ago, Lord Justice Hughes effectively scrapped the age-old law. This is the central paragraph:

There is therefore ample basis for the common ground before us that the gist of the crime of blasphemous libel is material relating to the Christian religion, or its figures or formularies, so scurrilous and offensive in manner that it undermines society generally, by endangering the peace, depraving public morality, shaking the fabric of society or tending to be a cause of civil strife. It was on this basis that the application was made to the Magistrate for the summonses in the present case. It should clearly be understood that this second element of the crime must not be watered down. What is necessary to make such material a crime is that the community (or society) generally should be threatened. This element will not be shown merely because some people of particular sensibility are, because deeply offended, moved to protest. It will be established if but only if what is done or said is such as to induce a reasonable reaction involving civil strife, damage to the fabric of society or their equivalent.


The days when society might be said to be in danger of civil strife as a result of insulting Christianity are long gone. Not so Islam, of course, or even (given the furore over the play Bezhti) Sikhism. These religions, however, are not protected under the law of blasphemy, and the offence of "inciting religious hatred", which the government finally managed to pass into law last year, includes clear exemptions for artistic works.

As a bonus, the learned judge considered the question of criminal libel. Under long-established English law, you can't libel the dead. But aren't Christians constantly telling us that Jesus Lives? Not legally, he doesn't:

The target of criminal defamation must be a living person and not an idea or a faith, nor can Christ be regarded as a living human being for these purposes, despite Christian belief in His resurrection, which is not as a presently living human being but rather to the realms of the Almighty.


The last successful prosecution for blasphemy was in 1979, when Mary Whitehouse brought an action against the publisher of Gay News over a homo-erotic poem about Jesus. The elements of the offence, stressed by milud Hughes in his judgement, haven't changed since then. Has Britain so much altered, then, that less than thirty years ago that Gay News threatened "damage to the fabric of society"? It's hard to believe that it has. Whatever the judge said today, it's clear that a Gay News trial would not succeed today, and should not have succeeded then.

Blasphemy is now effectively a dead letter. There is not even any need to scrap it, except for symbolic reasons. How ironic that the absurd Mr Green, whose stated aim is to defend Christianity and God from insult, has produced a result that campaigners for free speech have striven for, unsuccessfully, for decades. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Hitler's Children

Anas Altikriti, an Iraq-born Islamist with close links to both the Muslim Brotherhood and George Galloway's Respect Party (or whatever they're called this week) has been complaining on the Guardian's misleadingly-named Comment is Free blog about the Muslim Council of Britain's decision to attend Holocaust Memorial Day next year. Up until now they have boycotted the admittedly superfluous event, a stance that has attracted growing criticism. Hence the U-turn which, however, has led to splits within the supposedly representative organisation. Altikriti appears to have put himself at the head of the dissidents.

Here's what he says about HMD:

It glorifies the state of Israel, turning a collective blind eye to the immeasurable suffering of Palestinians at the hands of Israelis every single day. Rather than remembering the dead and vowing never to allow similar crimes to occur ever again the event, led by the Israeli ambassador in London, keeps similar crimes hidden, lest the memories of those who died in Nazi camps be disturbed.

The MCB now seems to have made its decision as a result of pressure from the government and certain sectors of the media. It betrays a position of weakness, suggesting that we will relent and change our ways as long as you keep up the pressure. Despite this sorry episode, Muslims and non-Muslims around the world will never forget Palestine.


The statement that Hitler's attempt to murder every Jewish man, woman and child in the whole of Europe and Israeli policy in the West Bank constitute "similar crimes" is particularly telling as to where Altikriti is coming from, isn't it?

A little further down, responding to the Heresiarch's chum Inayat Bunglawala, he attacks the MCB spokesman for:

Your apparent failure to see that this event which remembers the victims of Nazism has become a national day for the state the creation of which has perpetuated one of the most tragic cases in human memory... The tragedy is that those who kill, torture, maim and humiliate the Palestinians today are the very same who weep over the crimes committed by the Nazis against their parents, often resorting to the same means and methods which the Nazis employed.


And then, finally, the mask slips:

The Palestinians had nothing to do with the crimes committed against the Jews in the 20th century, but they certainly bore the brunt of Europe and the West wanting to wash their collective conscience from the guilt of either directly or indirectly allowing those crimes to take place. In a sense, and for the Palestinians, the Holocaust has not yet come to an end.


Is it too much to say that this man is a Nazi? He certainly has a background in an organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood (whose British front, the Muslim Association of Britain, he chairs) which was founded and inspired by Nazi sympathisers.


EXHIBIT A


The man on the left is the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, effective head of the Muslim Palestinian community during the 1930s and 1940s and one of the spiritual founding fathers of the Muslim Brotherhood. The man on the right needs no introduction.

Husseini spent much of the war in Berlin, where he pumped out propaganda for the Nazis via an Arabic language radio station. According to the German academic Dr Matthias Kuentzel, in a lecture delivered a couple of months ago at Leeds University,

The Mufti’s aim was to “unite all the Arab lands in a common hatred of the British and Jews”, as he wrote in a letter to Adolf Hitler. Antisemitism, based on the notion of a Jewish world conspiracy, however, was not rooted in Islamic tradition but, rather, in European ideological models. The Mufti therefore seized on the only instrument that really moved the Arab masses: Islam. He invented a new form of Jew-hatred by recasting it in an Islamic mould. He was the first to translate Christian antisemitism into Islamic language, thus creating an “Islamic antisemitism”.


The fuehrer was only to happy to support Husseini in his grand project. He was himself an admirer of Islam, which he believed was the best religion for a soldier (along with Shinto). As he confided to Albert Speer,

The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?


Not Islam's fault, of course. Any more than Hitler's enthusiasm for the Ring Cycle can be blamed on the antisemitic narcissist who wrote it.


EXHIBIT B


Here is Husseini again, this time reviewing some members of the SS Handzar division (recruited from Bosnian Muslims) in 1944. In an address to the troops after the parade, he said "there are considerable similarities between Islamic principles and National Socialism".

Husseini held the rank of honorary colonel in the SS, courtesy of another of his good friends, Heinrich Himmler. Here is part of a telegram Himmler sent Husseini to mark the anniversary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which paved the way for the eventual creation of Israel.

The National Socialist movement of Greater Germany has, since its inception, inscribed upon its flag the fight against the world Jewry. It has therefore followed with particular sympathy the struggle of freedom-loving Arabs, especially in Palestine, against Jewish interlopers.

In the recognition of this enemy and of the common struggle against it lies the firm foundation of the natural alliance that exists between the National Socialist Greater Germany and the freedom-loving Muslims of the whole world.



None of this would matter, of course, if Hajj Amin al-Husseini was an isolated crank. But his ideas, and the poison of antisemitism which he injected into the Arab body politic, remain extremely influential, and go some way to explaining the difficulty successive Arab governments and popular movements have had coming to terms with even the existence of the state of Israel.

While the Arabs were not directly involved in the Holocaust, this was not for want of trying on the part of Husseini and his supporters. And while the horrors of the concentration camps have produced postwar generations of Germans ready to face up to their parents' and grandparents' guilt, in much of the Middle East the old (originally European) stereotypes live on. In Egypt, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is the stuff of tea-time entertainment. In the Gulf, Ken Livingstone's friend Yusuf al-Qaradawi fulminates against the Jewish "apes and pigs" with as much virulence as he denounces gays, apostates and unveiled women.

That supposedly mainstream representatives of British Islam such as Amin Altikriti and his colleague Azim Tamini (a regular "Muslim voice" on the BBC) continue to make odious comparisons between Israeli policy (which, however deserving of criticism, is based on a desire to achieve security for its people) and Nazism, the more the rest of the community will suffer by association, as it suffers, often unfairly, by association with terrorism. Inayat Bunglawala has said that some MCB affiliates might defect over its decision to attend Holocaust Memorial Day. I've got a better idea, Inayat. Don't wait for them to leave. Throw them out. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 3 December 2007

Teddy bear: No picnic

Self-important Labour peer Lord Ahmed is delighted to be returning to a hero's welcome after rescuing the innocent teddy bear teacher Gillian Gibbons from spending another six days in what was, by all accounts, an unusually comfortable cell. Thanks to his intervention, and that of the even more self-publicising Tory Baroness Warsi, Mrs Gibbons will shortly be in the arms of her family (and no doubt an exclusive newspaper deal/ TV interview/ film rights: My Week in Hell), a whole week early. Sadly, her release does nothing for the people of Darfur or the almost completely forgotten victims of the Khartoum regime's war in the south.

Still, it's a great victory for common sense and moderation and a defeat for the Islamic Offence Industry. Or is it?

As part of the deal, Mrs Gibbons issued an obviously heartfelt but rather OTT apology for her outrageous action in letting her children choose a popular boy's name for their class bear.

"I have great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone and I am sorry if I caused any distress," it ran.

She is sorry if she caused distress? The only distress that I'm aware of was caused to Mrs Gibbons and her family by the Sudanese authorities and assorted religious nutcases, whose mock-outrage last Friday did so much to confirm people's impression of Islam as an enlightened and tolerant faith.

To their credit, of course, the leading Muslim figures in Britain have been unusually forthright in their criticism of the Sudanese decision. Although since the case threatened to make Islam a laughing stock, there wasn't much else they could have done. (Though I prefer the more imaginative gesture of Canadian Muslims who sent teddy bears to the Sudanese ambassador.) Still, their attitude was an improvement on that of the usual white liberal self-haters, who lost little time in criticising Gibbons for her failure sufficiently to accommodate herself to the local culture. Appeaser in Chief Rowan Williams somehow managed to criticise the sentence, but only as "an absurdly disproportionate response to what is at worst a cultural faux pas". Disproportionate, eh? I wonder what a proportionate response should have been? Since none of the children's parents were actually offended (the complaint came from a disgruntled ex-employee) it's hard to view the "local culture" as quite as monolithic and cretinous as such "liberals" seem to believe.

Here's an extract from Lord Ahmed's careful, slyly insinuating statement:

"This is a case which is an unfortunate, unintentional, innocent misunderstanding, and as British Muslim parliamentarians we, Baroness Warsi and myself, we feel proud that we've been able to secure Gillian Gibbons's release."

This is the same Lord Ahmed who, a few months ago, made such an ass of himself over Salman Rushdie's knighthood. In an interview with Le Figaro, he absurdly compared Rushdie to the perpetrators of 9/11. "What would one say if the Saudi or Afghan governments honoured the martyrs of the September 11 attacks on the United States?" he asked. Martyrs! So Ahmed's stress on "innocent misunderstanding" is pointed. It's one thing for Rushdie to consciously write a provocative book: he deserves anything he gets, presumably, up to and including Khomeini's fatwa. But Gillian Gibbons was "innocent".

Of course, no-one is likely to run out into the streets of Khartoum and shout "Mohammed was a war-mongering paedophile, and rather too fond of his camel." But the notion that offending Islam is only acceptable if it's "unintentional" hardly bodes well for the future of free speech. Read the rest of this article

Union Jap

A few days ago, Labour MP Ian Lucas complained, in a Commons debate about "Britishness", that there was no Welsh element in the Union Jack (as our national flag is properly referred to, Beeb or no Beeb). Here are some helpful ideas from Japan.



Some of them are actually quite good. But please, no more senseless debates about "British values". We know who we are. We don't need to be told by Gordon Brown. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Pecunia non olet

As this blogpiece is let out into the world, a Chilean prostitute (or "escort VIP" as she is charmingly described in the local media) will be coming (or at least faking) towards the end of a 27 hour sex marathon, which she has embarked upon to raise money for the nation's equivalent of Children in Need. Already "one of the best known escorts in Chile", apparently, Maria Carolina's tale and image have sped round the world over the past few days. And the organisers of the Teleton charity appeal are, understandably, rather nonplussed.

The Santiago Times quoted Maria as saying, “I will work during the time that the program lasts in order to earn money for the children of the Teletón, and then deposit it in the bank. They will be my own 27 hours of love.” She was, she said, affected by the plight of disabled children. “I am going to contribute with my work to a purpose that touches me deeply,” said the brunette, adding that she expected to raise at least $4000.

The news has put the show's presenter, Mario Kreutzberger, is a somewhat awkward position. Chile's answer to Terry Wogan, who is popularly known as Don Francisco, admitted that the charitable shagfest was "outside my moral boundaries" (although he apparently doesn't mind being photographed with Barbara Bush). "Everyone can do what they want," he added. "But if someone tells me that they'll do something immoral ... I'm not going to encourage it."

It seems unlikely, however, that the organisers will turn down the cash.

Prostitution is legal in Chile and, as in other Catholic countries, occupies a morally ambiguous position. While the Church officially condemns it as "a social scourge" and proclaims that "it is always gravely sinful", it has historically been admitted as a necessary evil. (Though there were limits; the popes always used to shut down Rome's red light district during Lent). Indeed, a number of popular saints are supposed to have begun their careers as prostitutes, most famously Mary Magdalene.

Among those welcoming Maria Carolina's gesture was leading Catholic historian Ricardo Krebs, who described it as "a very good decision, and one of high moral value." Citing the example of the Magdalene, he commented,

That a person can offer herself to give her time and earnings (Sp: entradas, "entry fees"!) to help a cause like telethon, I think is very noteworthy, and it is appropriate that it is a prostitute who has performed such noble acts of Christian charity.


Appropriate or not, it won't have done Maria Carolina much harm, exhaustion aside. She has already garnered high-profile interviews, as well as appearing on the front page of Chilean glossy magazine Las Ultimas Noticias (which title translates as the rather less than glamorous "latest news"). And the gallery of sensuous photos on her website suggests that her earning capacity may stretch well beyond the merely horizontal.


Indeed, it is likely that the source of the TV station's unease derives as much from the possible ulterior motives of their benefactress as the morally questionable provenance of the money. Though the two are, perhaps, difficult to disentangle. By taking the cash, are they legitimising a sordid, immoral and exploitative industry? An industry which exploits the very children they are trying to help? Perhaps. Perhaps, too, the money itself, however transfigured by the good cause it is being donated too, retrains some psychic trace of its origins as the wages of sin. And will thereby taint the purpose for which it is spent.

Mary Douglas, in her seminal study Dirt and Disorder, examined the role that sex plays in many societies as a source of ritual pollution. The Yurok indians of Northern California, she noted, "so much believed that contact with women would destroy their powers of acquiring wealth that they held that women and money should never be brought into contact".

Or does transubstantiating power of Charity take that stain away? Is that, in fact, the problem? Somehow, to think kindly of this gesture, one has first to imagine Maria Carolina as a person, rather than a degraded whore, a victim, or a statistic. A person with concerns beyond the mercenary impulse implied by the very word "prostitute", which can only attribute motives of cold-hearted cynicism to one in the sex industry by choice rather than by compulsion.

Charity is always a two-way street, of course. Performers give their time for free, hoping to enhance their status (or, indeed, resurrect defunct careers) in return. Philanthropy has, moreover, long been the surest route to respectability, even power. In this country, knighthoods and OBEs are dished out, almost as a matter of course, to actors, sports stars and businesspeople who have put in the required number of hours for "charidee". Nor is this new. In the 18th century Thomas Coram, a sea-captain of humble origins, worked his way into the heart of the establishment (and found himself dining with Hogarth and Handel) through his endowment of the Foundling Hospital. And as the aristocracy gave way to capitalism in the industrial revolution, the path to noblesse of the nouveau riche was laid with charitable paving. The Heresiarch attended an Oxford college largely funded by the proceeds of Polynesian birdshit.

So with her charity sexathon Maria is, among other things, aiming a well-aimed dart at the always ambiguous intersection of beneficent intent and cold calculation that makes modern fundraising work. Read the rest of this article