Monday, 31 March 2008

Relegation Zone

He might have been the chairman of a supermarket chain announcing that, despite continued growth in all the key areas, they had just been overtaken by their main competitor. Or a Premiership manager trying to explain how they had been knocked off the top spot without losing any vital matches. A grim, thankless task, but it had to be done. Monsignor Vittorio Formenti revealed the embarrassing statistic contained in his new Vatican factbook, recently launched.

"For the first time in history, we are no longer at the top: Muslims have overtaken us," he lamented to L'Osservatore Romano, the statelet's official newspaper. Against a mere 1.13 billion Roman Catholics, there are at least 1.3 billion Muslims. Almost (but not quite) one in five of the world's population now turns towards Mecca to pray, while at 17.4% the percentage of human beings looking to Rome is now lower than the British standard rate of VAT.

It's a rather questionable statement. There have actually been many times in history when there were more Muslims than Roman Catholics. There have even been times when there were more Buddhists than Roman Catholics. Were it not for the imperial legacy of Spain in Latin America and the Philippines, and later the French in Africa, Catholicism would still largely be confined to Europe, yet long before Columbus Islam had spread throughout large parts of Asia. These things come and go.

Of course, as Mgr Formenti was quick to point out, if you factor in around 700 million Protestants and an estimated 350 million Orthodox Christians of various sorts there are still almost twice as many followers of Jesus in the world as there are who look to the example of Mohammed. At least theoretically: the oft-quoted claim, more risible than ever, that Dr Rowan Williams "leads" more than 70 million Anglicans, depends on including everyone in Britain who has ever got within splashing distance of a font, and the same no doubt applies to havens of Catholic secularism like France. Still, it must have been good for the Romanists to be able to boast that on their own they could field a bigger army than the varied cohorts of Sunnis, Shias, Ismailis, Ahmadis and the rest all put together. Rather as the Royal Navy used to boast that it had more ships than all Europe's other navies combined.

Perhaps that's why Ratzinger has been so keen on encouraging reunion talks with the Orthodox (Protestants, of course, are beneath contempt, not counting as proper churches at all). Or why he made such a fuss of Magdi Allam, who converted from Islam in a lavish baptism ceremony at easter.

Does size matter? Is the growing popularity of Islam evidence of the superior selling-power of the product, or simply a matter of demographics? After all, religious affiliation is overwhelmingly an accident of birth. Reliable figures on conversions are hard to establish, but the great days of converting the heathen, whether to Rome, Canterbury or Mecca, are clearly in the past. Evangelical Christianity is gaining ground at Rome's expense in places such as Brazil, but that's rather like switching from Coke to Pepsi: the product is, except to its enthusiasts, more or less indistinguishable. Islam's spread in Europe is almost entirely due to immigration and higher birth-rates, both factors that have yet to peak, but which will before the century is out. An Islamified Europe seems implausible. Much less plausible, at least, than a Europeanised Islam that will, after a few years, become almost as emptied of meaning as Europeanised Christianity.

It must be particularly galling for the Vatican to find themselves overtaken demographically by Muslims. For while high birth-rates are a fact of life in much of the Islamic world, and in many Muslim communities in the west, there can be no religion that has done more to preach the gospel of fertility than Catholicism. Catholic women in the third world are even enjoined to have AIDS-compliant, condom-free sex so as to breed more communicants: a dead mother is, after all, still a mother, and she will have her reward in heaven. The only trouble is the likelihood of a death-rate at least as high as the birthrate, which may go some way towards explaining the church's static growth figures.

Whatever the explanation, Mgr Formenti's message is clearly "could do better". If the Church were a football club, the obvious solution would be to fire the manager. If it were multinational, the private equity funds would be circling. As it is, I guess they'll just have to pray. Read the rest of this article

Hardly worth bothering

The release of Geert Wilders' anti-Koran film has produced a vast amount of talk, but very little in the way of usuable film footage. Which may account for the relatively low level of TV coverage of the affair, certainly when compared with the huge media swarm that was the Danish Cartoons.

So far, most of the going has been made by officialdom. Iran made a formal protest to the Slovenian ambassador (as representing the EU). Despite the fact that the Slovenians had already condemned the film in terms which even the appeasement-minded Dutch government found a little too strong. The secretary general of the 57-nation Islamic Conference (whose name I can neither pronounce nor type) called the film "a deliberate act of discrimination against Muslims" which would cause "insult to the sentiments of more than 1.3 billion Muslims in the world." As though he had asked them. Even Australia's foreign minister Stephen Smith, for some reason, took time out of his busy schedule to condemn Wilders, calling his production "an obvious attempt to generate discord between faith communities".

Most of the world's Muslims, however, seem to have had other things to concern themselves with. Or perhaps they were too busy celebrating the news that they now outnumber Roman Catholics to give Fitna a moment's thought.

Finally, though, after three days during which Fitna was distributed across the Web, was withdrawn by its original distributor and swiftly re-emerged, like some unkillable vampire, on Google Video, YouTube and a thousand obscure file-sharers, a small but photogenic demo has taken place in Indonesia.

With more than 200 million Muslims, and the enormous international opprobrium that Wilders' efforts has attracted, it shouldn't be too difficult to round up a bunch of enragés to urge death on the blasphemer. So perhaps we should rejoice that a group calling itself the Islamic Defenders Front only managed to find 40 people to stand outside the Dutch embassy in Jakarta. Members of the party "threw a few empty plastic bottles and a couple of eggs at the compound" before dispersing.

Soleh Mahmud, one of the organisers, admitted that he hadn't seen the film. But he was sure, nevertheless, that it was "a great insult to Muslims". After all, that's what everyone has been saying, isn't it? "The Dutch government must arrest Wilders", he demanded. And then, perhaps thinking that didn't have quite the required force (or perhaps the reporter pressed him) added, that "Wilders must be killed because he has declared war on Muslims."

Is that the best they can do? Where's Rage Boy when you need him?

A few months ago, when the Grand Mufti of Syria addressed the European Parliament, he lamented, in the manner of an old-style gangster what a terrible shame it would be if anything unpleasant happened. "If there is unrest, bloodshed and violence after the broadcast of the Koran film, Wilders will be responsible," he warned. Rather than, say, those responsible for the unrest, bloodshed and violence.

There were large protests in Afghanistan prior to Fitna's release, involving hundreds of demonstrators. Dutch forces announced plans to increase security. The country's ambassador in Malaysia predicted "dozens of deaths" if the response of the world's Muslims followed the now-traditional pattern. Politicians and diplomats outdid each other in prognostications of doom. It was almost like talking up some cup final or heavyweight title fight. Doubless some of the world's press were looking forward to the trouble, in the way they kinda sorta look forward to wars. So far they have been disappointed.

Indifference, of course, is the last thing Geert Wilders wants. He was at it again today, telling Der Spiegel that Islam was "an ideology [that] endangers our values. I hate it." Moderate Islam, he claimed, was "a contradiction". Judging by their desperate calls for calm, expressed in a language most likely to provoke riots, leaders on both sides of the imagined civilisational divide share his scepticism: a "moderate Muslim", in the official lexicon, is one who, while mortally offended by Wilders and his film, nevertheless refrains from strapping a bomb to his or her waist and wandering into a crowded shopping centre. Why else would they be running scared of an imagined mob?

Could it be that the Danish Cartoon crisis marked the high water-mark of Islamic anger? That even as Western political leaders try to head off worldwide protests by compromising the long-cherished principle of free speech, and Muslim leaders attempt to bully, blackmail and bribe the UN into declaring criticism of Islam a human rights violation, the mass of ordinary mosque-goers from Kuala Lumpur to Morocco have simply lost interest? The politics of offence is both limited and limiting. It does nothing to address the very real problems of Muslim countries: the corruption, the poverty, the bad governance and lack of democracy, the genuine human rights violation, the lack of technological innovation or the oppression of women. It's not really relevant. At most it's a side-issue, providing a brief emotional relief for those involved. And it's been done so many times before. Who cares? Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 29 March 2008


Not all Muslims are up in arms about Fitna, the compilation of video-clips that UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon absurdly described, in language that suggested he was entirely unfamiliar with its contents, as hate-speech.

"Muslim reaction to Dutch film is muted" reports the FT. One of those unscandalised turns out to be none other than Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, for long the British press's second favourite mad mullah (after the hook guy). Now based in Libya after being thrown out of Britain, he was asked if he personally was offended by it.

"On the contrary," he replied. "If we leave out the first images and the sound of the page being torn, it could be a film by the Mujahideen".

How true. Almost all the inflammatory material in the film came from extremist preachers mouthing sentiments with which Bakri no doubt heartily agreed. He may even believe that some young Muslims will listen to the messages of hatred for the west and be inspired to join Al Qaeda. Mind you, in comparison with many jihadist videos out there on the Interweb, Geert Wilders' effort contained far less violence.

Bakri may be an absurd, posturing, self-important, rabble-rousing apologist for terrorism. But compared with the shameful equivocation of most western leaders his honesty is almost refreshing. Read the rest of this article

Service interrupted

As of some hours ago, LiveLeak stopped hosting Fitna as a result of unspecified "serious threats" to their staff. So while a still from the film appears on my post from yesterday (Friday), if you try to play it all you get is a statement lamenting "a sad day for freedom of speech on the net" "We would like to thank the thousands of people from all backgrounds and religions who gave us their support", it continues.

Particularly sad, seeing that the reaction throughout most of the Muslim world has been resigned rather than (as many anticipated) demented. It was beginning to look as though the principle of free expression had, for once, triumphed over the bullies and the appeasers, a result which, far from stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment, would undoubtedly have helped community relations no end. I dared to hope that some degree of maturity and a sense of proportion might have arrived. It's only a short film, after all, no more inflammatory than many others widely available via YouTube and intellectually rather weak.

At the moment, it can still be seen via Google Video here, and also, for your convenience, below. But for how much longer, I wouldn't like to speculate.

Obviously one can't criticise LiveLeak for taking threats seriously, and they showed more integrity than the official hosts at Network Solutions; or, for that matter, Geert Wilders himself, whose agenda has always been highly questionable. I hope that LiveLeak's suspension will be a temporary one. Whatever happens, Fitna is now all over the place. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 28 March 2008


Well here it is: Fitna the movie. It does exist, after all. If you've got precisely 15 minutes to spare, and you haven't already watched the thing, sit back and enjoy:

Not entirely a damp squib, but a lot less explosive than a car bomb. A few predictable out-of-context quotations; some over-familiar (but perhaps that's the point) footage of terrorist incidents; a handful of satisfyingly mad mullahs (no names, but one or two certainly looked familiar) and President Ahmadinejad; and some music by Grieg, which for me was the highlight. Nothing we haven't seen before, and hardly the devastating critique Geert Wilders' supporters may have been hoping for (or his Islamist opponents for that matter). It is both less hard-hitting, and less aesthetically bold, than Theo van Gogh's Submission, with its genuinely shocking and original use of Koranic verses written on the naked body of a woman. The most memorable image in this new work is probably that of Kurt Westegaard's bomb-in-turban cartoon.

Some people will have been feeling a bit silly this morning. Network Solutions, for example, who last week suspended Fitna's official website on the grounds that it might violate its "acceptable use policy". Or the assembled ranks of pusillanimous European politicians, who have spent the past several months urging Wilders to stay his hand, fearful of the apocalyptic terrors that they imagined would sweep the earth in its aftermath. Or perhaps the Organisation of Islamic Conference, whose official commission on "Islamophobia" highlighted Wilders' desire to "release a film vilifying the Holy Quran" as one of the worst instances of western bigotry they could find.

The first question must be, was it worth it? Spiegel yesterday carried an interview with Wilders, in which he described his hunted existence, under constant protection, sleeping (rather like Salman Rushdie in 1989) in a different location every night, seeing his wife only every week or so. And yet, it went on, he "derives obvious enjoyment" from the discomfiture of his political opponents, forced simulataneously to defend and denounce his film. No doubt the notoriety which his publicity-seeking persona evidently craves is some compensation. But that might not last much longer, given the muted, even relieved, reactions of many to the film as released.

For months now, Wilders has been milking this for all it is worth. Did he, in the end, pull his punches, fearful of the chaos which might have followed a truly outrageous film? Or is he simply incapable of matching up to the hype? He is a politician, after all, not an artist. He speaks in the language of simplification and shallow soundbites; he repeats fearmongering platitudes. Originality eludes him. As I argued last week, Fitna was powerful as an idea, because the very absence of an actual film allowed fear of its eventual reception to fester in the minds of politicians and religious leaders both in the west and in Islamic countries. It forced discussion back onto the first principles of free speech versus sensitivity and "respect". It recalled the shocking fate of the murdered Theo van Gogh, and images (heavily used by Wilders) of masked protesters carrying "death to freedom" placards.

But now we've seen it, and the world shrugs. The middle east is not aflame. Wilders' bluff has been called.

UPDATE: LiveLeak have withdrawn the video after unspecified "threats". Google Video still has it, however. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Mad World

As I said yesterday, it isn't April 1st until next week. The Museum of Hoaxes is preparing for this annual clickathon by shifting most of its images onto another site. Otherwise they might well crash, as the mildly perplexed check up to see which of the morning's stories are true and which a wind up.

And it might be kind of hard to tell. This week has seem some credulity-stretching incidents, from the pregnant man (well, pre-op George Michael lookalike, but the law sez he's a he) to the supermarket thief who hypnotises checkout girls. Yesterday I brought you the German man who called the police to rid his flat of a mouse (they failed). Today, in another mammal-and-cops related incident, the Telegraph reports a court case from New Zealand. A 48 year old man was found guilty of wasting police time after he (take a deep breath) complained that he had been raped by a wombat, an incident which left him with an Australian accent. He made the whole thing up, of course: as everyone knows, wombats don't actually live in New Zealand.

Even big news stories this week have a large dash of the surreal. Thus we find France's oddly ludicrous president arriving in England just as a nude photo of his wife goes on sale in New York. Not a very good one, either, just going to prove that some women look better with their clothes on. The American election looks increasingly farcical, with Hillary Clinton's easily-debunked claims about having dodged Bosnian bullets just the latest inexplicable own goal. Meanwhile Britney Spears seems to be behaving like a normal human being for a change. Strange times indeed.

What are these weird stories doing, and why are they appearing now? I think it may be the press getting the silly season in early, while they still can. Odd believe-it-or-not news items typically dominate the summer months when no much else is going on, but that cannot be the case now. After all, Iraq, which has once again made it onto the radar screen of the west's restless consciousness, is in the midst of a renewed civil war. Afghanistan is an ongoing disaster. The financial gloom continues to deepen. We are looking, I suspect, at an approaching tsunami. Before the wave hits, water sucks from the beach, leaving behind the random detritus normally obscured by the shallows. There's just time to gawp before everything, and everyone, gets swept away. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Keep it in the Family

An explanation for Barack Obama's extraordinary progress towards the Democratic nomination - and perhaps the White House as well has emerged from the bowels of a New England genealogical society. The pedigree-obsessed gnomes who inhabit that institution (it can be no coincidence, surely, that it is based in Boston) have been delving into the Illinois senators antecedents and discovered that he is related to absolutely everybody. The Telegraph were leading with the revelation that Obama has some kind of kinship with Brad Pitt (while, deliciously, Hillary Clinton is vaguely related to Angelina Jolie). But those in the know will surely be more interested in the connections that Obama has to six presidents, including the present incumbent. He's also a ninth cousin to Dick Cheney.

So much interest has the story produced that the organisation's website has experienced severe crashes and delays. Though I'm not sure whether the connection to Pitt or to Cheney will seem the more relevant or appropriate. Certainly the discovery of such links is not new. At the time of the last presidential clash, it emerged that George W Bush and John Kerry were quite closely related. (They also shared a connection via the Skull and Bones Society of Yale, which some people found equally or even more exciting.) And the election before that saw two candidates, Bush and Gore, who might almost be said to belong to the same extended family. But all these men were born into the Washington purple. Obama is supposed to be an outsider: in many ways that's the whole point of him. So to find out he's genealogically connected to half the Establishment families is, at first sight, rather shocking. No doubt he can blame it all on his racist granny.

One person who will not be at all surprised is David Icke. Icke has long been of the opinion that all powerful individuals on the planet are related via an ancient bloodline descended from shape-shifting giant lizards. In 1999 he predicted victory for Bush: on the grounds that, while both Bush and Gore had many connections to the "Illuminati", Bush was marginally the more reptilian. Which is why the high-ups of the international brotherhood (rather than, say, Jeb Bush) fixed the result in Florida. Quite how he managed to explain how Clinton managed to beat Bush senior I'm not sure, though he's no doubt part tyrannosaur himself. As for Hillary, the best the Bostonian gene-hunters can give her is Celine Dion. Oh, and Alanis Morisette. And possibly Madonna.

As if we didn't know it already, she's history.

But back to Barack (which rhymes with Iraaq, as his opponents will no doubt be reminding American voters when the campaign proper gets under way). Much hilarity has been had over the past few days when someone unearthed reports from a year ago that he used to be known as Barry. Barry O'Bomber, to his friends, which makes him sound like an IRA terrorist a minister in the devolved Northern Ireland government. His adoption of the name Barack, which comes from Arabic via Swahili, seems counter-intuitive given good 'ol American xenophobia. Perhaps it's a pre-emptive strike, aimed at heading off accusations that he was "concealing" his true identity. Perhaps it was part of the flirtation with group identity politics that also brought about his association with the Rev Jeremiah Wright, which was arguably necessary to get his early career off the ground (as Dick Morris suggested) but which now looks potentially damaging. Or perhaps he just thought that "Barack" sounded cool. Anything sounds cooler than "Barry". Read the rest of this article

Rodent patrol

My favourite story of the day has to be this one from Germany about a 23 year-old Goettingen man who was so terrified of a mouse that he ran out of his flat in the middle of the night wearing only his boxers. He then used the nearest public callbox to phone the police. (Don't they have cellphones in Germany? Or did he just forget in his panic?). To make matters worse, it was snowing.

The police arrived. That's Teutonic thoroughness and efficiency for you. Here in Britain the boys in blue are usually too busy filling out risk-assessment forms or following up the latest complaint about Basil Brush's alleged racism. Certainly it's hard to imagine them turning out at 3.30 AM to catch a mouse. But I digress. What did the coppers do? Arrest the guy for wasting police time? Not a bit of it. They entered the flat armed with - a practical touch this - traffic cones in an attempt to apprehend the offending rodent. To no avail. In a statement, the constabulary admitted that "despite an intensive search of all the rooms" the intruder eluded detection. And the traumatised victim (the technical term for whose condition, if memory serves, is sminthophobia) had no option but to trudge through the snow to a friend's house.

"How the mouse spent the rest of the night remains a mystery," police said. "Maybe it came out of hiding and spent the night dancing on the table."

Ah, that famous German sense of humour.

Clarification: It's April 1st next week. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Top Nation

One of the day's best stories has to be the Times's report of the new pecking-order of nations, drawn up by military experts Jane's, which ranks countries in order of security, peacefulness and, by implication, prosperity. It was called the "Country Risk Survey". As we all know, risk is a Very Bad Thing indeed.

That Britain featured very near the top (7th) is perhaps a sign that the survey was somewhat limited in its scope. It was beaten by Sweden, Ireland, and some of those peculiar little principalities that survived the rationalising movements of the nineteenth century: Lichtenstein, Monaco, San Marino and the like. Though the UK was, amazingly, ranked higher than Andorra.

And the winner was...

An absolute monarchy, run along theocratic principles, whose rulers base their claims for legitimacy on the custodianship of some ancient shrines. All the top jobs are held by men: indeed, women are excluded by a matter of principle from all but the most junior positions. It is notorious for its sexual repression and its reactionary religious dogmas, which, via an international network, it has managed to impose throughout the world.

I speak, of course, of the Vatican.

That a "country" which consists of a few dozen acres of office space and a couple of decent museums should feature in the survey at all seems a little strange. But then it does, as the report's authors point out, have a number of things going for it. There's a low crime-rate. No national debt (no need to render unto Caesar, after all, when thou art Caesar). And, above all, political stability. You'd think, though, that there might be some sort of terrorist risk associated with the place, especially given Ratzinger's recent very creditable decision to baptise a former Muslim in a lavish ceremony at St Peter's. Apparently not. Britain also scored quite low on the terrorism scale, incidentally, something that I don't expect to hear the government shouting about. They like us to be scared, if only so that they can keep passing repressive new laws.

It was not ever thus. There was a time, say the early 16th century, when the Vatican had about as unstable a government as it was possible to get: murders, plots, sexual intrigues, the lot. But that was then: these days, one octogenarian succeeds another in a couple of puffs of smoke. Almost like that other very stable country which takes its religion very seriously.

No wonder they've been getting on so well lately. Read the rest of this article

Please take our cash

For the past several months the financial news, and often the main bulletins as well, have been dominated by an atmosphere of gloom. Bank collapses and rumours of collapse. The scandal of sub-prime mortgage lending in the US. Egg customers having their cards withdrawn. Talk of "credit crunch", of banks fearing to lend to each other or, indeed, to us, of mortages becoming more expensive and harder to come by, of loans being called in and new lending severely curtailed.

So I was surprised, to say the least, when a letter arrived this morning from Barclays. "Thank you very much for being a valued Barclaycard customer," it began. "As a token of our appreciation, we are delighted to offer you..."

There followed a list of goodies: a reduced interest rate, a refund of cash handling fees, and a doubling of my credit limit. The letter drew particular attention to the great deal now available if I wanted to borrow more cash from them, although even with the latest reductions using a credit card for a cash loan still looks pretty expensive.

"We hope you enjoy having more freedom with your Barclaycard," the letter concluded.

Translation: please take our money. Please get deep into debt. Have one on us.

Is this, I wonder, a case of conflicting priorities among lenders, or the difficulty of turning round the supertanker of easy credit? Or is all the talk of an impending lending famine exaggerated? Do the banks actually need more indebted customers to keep their profits from collapsing?

Needless to say, I won't be taking up Barclaycard's kind offer. I'm not that desperate. Yet. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 24 March 2008

Unwillingly to poll

An item in today's Guardian suggests that as part of a package of reforms the government is considering making voting compulsory. They hope thereby to "increase turnout and improve the legitimacy of the Commons." Measures will be "consulted on" (a phrase which, of course, usually means "pushed through") after the May elections have been got safely out of the way. They are also thinking about changing the voting system, possibly to alternative vote. Mind you, if that system delivers victory to Boris Johnson in the London mayoral contest they will drop it very quickly indeed.

As constitutional affairs minister Michael Wills is quoted as saying, "It should not be about parties choosing a system that will most advantage themselves, it's about a voting system that delivers democracy for all of us". Yeah, right.

It's a mistake made far too often by both politicians and political journalists that people don't vote because they're ignorant, apathetic or uninterested in the democratic process. In some cases, that may indeed be the case. Often, though, non-voters know only too much. They see MPs who no longer exercise any meaningful power over the legislation put before them, who are far more interested in their careers than in the details of the policies they are whipped into supporting, and who as a sort of compensation increasingly see themselves untrained social workers. They see that debate and discussion, both inside and outside Parliament, matter for little or nothing. They see that their supposed representatives don't actually represent them at all, yet presume to pass ever more pettyfogging and intrusive laws. And they think, why do these people deserve the legitimacy conferred by a high turnout?

I made a positive choice at the last election not to vote. Living in a safe Tory seat, I knew that my vote wouldn't affect the result (nor would I have wanted it to). In a marginal constituency, if I had the opportunity to help reduce the evil Blair's majority, then I would have taken it. As it was, though I couldn't alter the result in one constituency, I could by abstaining make a small dent in the national turnout. This would go some small way towards reducing the government's legitimacy.

I'd be willing to bet that a great many people made the same choice. Alternatively, they looked at all the candidates, and seeing the choice between a corrupt, incompetent Labour, a still unappealing Conservative party and a frankly flaky bunch of LibDems, decided, quite rationally, that there was no-one worth voting for. Instead of seeking draconian measures to force people to vote for them, the major parties could start by listening instead of preaching.

The only hope, I suppose, is that it could backfire spectacularly. If the plan is put into operation, and forty percent of the electorate is dragooned unwillingly to the polling booth, are they likely to give thanks to the governing party that passed the law by voting them back into office? If I were advising the Conservatives, I'd make sure to include a promise to repeal the measure in the manifesto. It could be worth millions of votes. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Shrouding the Truth

Let it not be said, this Easter, that the BBC has neglected Christianity. Over the past week they've treated us to three solid hours of a block-busting, expensive-looking, and largely reverential Passion. BBC4 (admittedly something of a ghetto) has begun a major new series about sacred choral music. And on Saturday, BBC2 transmitted what it claimed was an important new investigation into that well-known piece of medieval flim-flam, the Shroud of Turin. Presented by the foreign correspondent Rageh Omaar (who really should get back to covering wars) the film, Material Evidence, set out (according to a Beeb press release) "to discover exactly what it is about the image on the Shroud that has defied imitation and explore new evidence that may challenge the Carbon 14 verdict."

One would have expected, given the corporation's international reputation and much-vaunted objectivity, that any speculations in the film would be subjected to careful scrutiny, and that both sceptics and believers would be allowed their say. Instead, we were presented with one of the most egregious examples of special pleading, distortion, tendentious reporting and sensationalism I've ever had the misfortune to sit through. It was dire. Crude religious propaganda masquerading as science. Maverick enthusiasts presented as serious researchers. Misrepresentations of evidence, inconvenient facts passed over, ridiculous suppositions put forward as established fact.

There was even a "dramatic reconstruction" of events inside the tomb of Christ, with the body first wrapped in the shroud, then disappearing in the fashion of magician David Copperfield.

According to Rageh Omaar's accompanying piece on the BBC's website, many people had assumed that after three separate laboratories determined that it was a forgery the relic would be forgotten. "But the amazing story of the Shroud of Turin has simply refused to fade into obscurity and die, for the simple reason that a conflict of evidence has emerged which is about the re-ignite the debate around this compelling religious artefact."

Er, no, Rageh. The reason the story has refused to fade into obscurity is that there's a well-funded and persistent coterie of believers who refuse to face facts. They depend on the Shroud's "mystery", if not for a livelihood, then at the very least for psychological sustenance. They're like the CIA, confronted with the lack of evidence for Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, who told inspectors to go back and look again. They are simply in denial. And some of the most deluded and obstinate would seem to have been largely responsible last night's farrago.

The film's director, David Rolfe, is a well-known Shroud enthusiast. Indeed, it wouldn't be too much to say that he owes his whole career to the Shroud. His 1978 film, The Silent Witness and the Shroud, (which he made in collaboration with author Ian Wilson, who has also made a career out of plugging the shroud) put forward many of the pro-authenticity arguments advanced in this latest film, and looked forward to the final confirmation that would come when, or if, radiocarbon tests were allowed. Despite the setback of the 1988 tests, which dated the Shroud to 1350 or thereabouts, he was soon back on the case. In 2000 he announced plans for a Jurassic Park-style fantasy in which "blood" taken from the Shroud would be cloned. This latest documentary would seem to be in large part an attempt to revisit former glories.

Also much in evidence was the American researcher Dr John Jackson, a physicist by training, who has been "studying" the shroud for more than thirty years. While Rolfe and Omaar presented him as an independent expert, Jackson is in fact a long-standing member of the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) a religiously-motivated group that has never, so far as I have been able to establish, acknowledged a single piece of evidence questioning the authenticity of the Shroud. Together with his wife, Jackson now heads the equally biased Turin Shroud Center of Colorado.

In a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jackson was quoted as follows:

If the Shroud of Turin is authentic and it did wrap what we Christians believe is the Resurrection event itself, then we are dealing with an image that has radical characteristics... I'm Catholic, and the center of my faith is the holy Eucharist.

I'm not saying that devout Catholics can't make objective scientists or honest researchers. Many do. But Jackson and his fellow STURP enthusiasts were not experts in the field. As the sceptical investigator Joe Nickell put it, "having this group investigate the Shroud was a little bit like having the Flat Earth Society investigate the curvature of the Earth."

The fingerprints of STURP were certainly all over this "documentary". No sceptics were given the opportunity to contest Jackson's evidence or put forward alternative theories. Outrageous claims were treated as fact. For example, it was asserted that "bloodstains" on the shroud had been analysed as type AB, and that the cloth bore evidence of both pre-death and after-death bloodflow. It was also claimed that the blood matched that on another relic, the "sudarium" of Orvieto which was said to date to, at latest, the 4th century. The "only explanation", we were told, was that the two cloths had been in contact with the same body. We were left to draw the conclusion that the body must have been that of Jesus.

The sudarium was identified with the "face cloth" mentioned in the Gospel of John as having been found in the empty tomb along with the other "cloths" (plural, notice). Even on its own terms, this makes no sense. If the sudarium had wrapped the face of Jesus, why was the image not imprinted on it, rather than on the Shroud? If it had been taken off before the body was wrapped in a shroud, why does the gospel-writer mention its presence in the tomb? Why was the blood-flow from the head, which the cloth was supposed to have soaked up, also found on the Shroud?

In fact, there is no proof of blood on the shroud, type AB or otherwise. Tests carried out by many years ago by Walter McCrone concluded that the blood-like stains were in fact a mixture of iron-oxide, vermillion and red ochre pigment. While the oxide traces could conceivably be formed by blood, the presence of vermillion is only explicable, thought McCrone, as an artist's pigment. Needless to say, this fact wasn't mentioned last night.

Another example: the film claimed that microscopic examination of the fibres had yielded no evidence of tempora or other fixative agents that would be required to if the image had been painted. Yet such agents were, in fact, revealed by McCrone's earlier tests.

If the science was dodgy, the history was, if anything, even worse. Omaar stated, correctly, that the Shroud's first confirmed location was in Lirey, France, in 1355. He then made much of the fact that the shroud's supposed owner, Geoffrey de Charney, was descended from one of the knights who ransacked Constantinople during the 4th Crusade in 1204. This was sufficient, apparently, to identify it with another relic, showing the face of Christ, that was formerly exhibited in a church in the Byzantine capital. The assumption being, of course, that Geoffrey's ancestor nabbed it. The commentary failed to explain why it then disappeared for 150 years, while most of the other plunder from the crusade was proudly displayed (at St Mark's in Venice, among other places). It also failed to mention that, when the Shroud was first exhibited, it was as part of a money-raising scam by Geoffrey's impecunious widow, that it was denounced as a fraud by the local bishop and that it was withdrawn from public view after a forger admitted to having created it.

Omaar even claimed that, by normal standards of historical evidence, the ancient provenance of the Shroud was well-attested, and were it not for those pesky Carbon 14 results no-one would doubt its authenticity. Such a statement reveals a Dan Brown-style approach to historiography, the kind of thing associated with pseudo-historical conspiracy theories where the game is to throw a lot of "what ifs" and "supposedlies" and "if true, this could only means" into a big pot and come up with the plot of a sexy thriller. What the authors of the notorious potboiler The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail memorably called "the need to synthesise".

Important questions went unasked. Like how a piece of linen, kept under non-ideal conditions, managed to survive more-or-less intact for two thousand years: almost as fantastical a notion, surely, as that it bears the imprint of the Resurrection. Or who was looking after it in all the centuries when it was lost to history. Or why the image on the cloth accords so closely with late medieval representations of Christ, but is nothing at all like the earliest images as seen, for example, in the Roman catacombs. Or why Constantine's mother St Helena, who went around Palestine collecting fragments of the True Cross, never got hold of it. And so on.

Instead, we got the usual onus-shifting and presumptions of mystery. Rageh Omaar's commentary actually used the word "miraculous" to describe the formation of the Shroud image. "If it is a medieval forgery, then how was this image made?" asks Omaar on the website. "So far, no one has been able to explain it."

So what? There are lots of theories, some more convincing that others, about how it was done. But the fact that something is unexplained doesn't make it miraculous. There are many ancient artistic and engineering techniques that are now lost. No-one is entirely sure how the pyramids were built, or the ancient Chinese achieved some of their glazes, or even how the Vikings navigated to America. Technologies have often been forgotten when they ceased to be useful or relevant. It's a fascinating puzzle, nothing more.

The centrepiece of the documentary was to have been a new test examining Jackson's latest hypothesis that the carbon 14 results could have been distorted by atmospheric conditions. No doubt the programme makers were hoping for a dramatic confirmation of their beliefs. In fact, the experiment, carried out by Oxford professor Christopher Ramsey, produced no such vindication: there was nothing to suggest that the 1988 tests needed to be repeated. Of course, in mystery-speak this merely means that they were inconclusive. More research needed to be done to be sure, said Ramsey, who may now regret sounding so open-minded.

What is going on here? Does the BBC now see its role as propagating and sustaining fantasy? Perhaps it's the corporation's strange interpretation of "balance". Perhaps they feel they have to answer criticisms that they have given Christianity a tougher time than Islam, and so have to set things right by spending public money on some unsubstantiated bilge with an apparently Christian theme. Would they give equally unquestioning coverage to sightings of Bigfoot or David Icke's reptilian conspiracy theories? They might as well, given that the Shroud has been conclusively debunked on many occasions, not just in the famous 1988 tests. Or perhaps they are now so dependent on funding from American production partners that they don't any longer care about the quality of their output, so long as it's guaranteed a good audience share. And pseudo-history of this nature is nothing if not crowd-pleasing. Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Behind the Curveball

Der Spiegel today has more, much more, on its investigation into "Curveball", the Iraqi defector who provided the Americans with a great deal of bogus intelligence about Saddam Hussein's supposed biological weapons programmes. They make a convincing case that the source, who they name as "Rafed", was a fantasist who greatly exaggerated his importance and knowledge. How much responsibility he actually had in starting the Iraq war is rather less clear.

Among other tidbits, we learn that doubts about Curveball's reliability surfaced early - long before war in Iraq was even being contemplated. Spiegel mention a doctor from the US Defense Department, who had met Rafed in 2000 and who "sent emails for years warning as many as he could within the US intelligence community". The doctor noticed that the source "had a strong smell of alcohol on his breath" and that the German intelligence agent in charge of debriefing Curveball "seemed to have fallen in love" with him. Meanwhile,

The British secret service had expressed its doubts openly as early as 2001, after an expert from MI6 used a pretext to arrange a meeting with “Curveball." He came to the conclusion that elements of "Curveball's" behavior "strike us as typical of fabricators."

And were the Germans, whose government opposed military intervention in Iraq, really so keen to supply the evidence that would persuade the world of the case for war? It seems odd, to say the least. And, of course, the Americans were more than willing to be persuaded. As were other people, and I don't just mean Tony Blair.

Particularly telling are the full texts of the interviews with Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief-of-staff to Colin Powell, and the former weapons inspector David Kay. They strike noticeably different attitudes. Kay is full of anger and incomprehension at the German BND. He claims that the relationship between the BND and the CIA was "horrible and toxic", and complains that the BND obstructed attempts by CIA people to interview Curveball, "a blockade that made it impossible for any other service to validate his information". He gives a hilarious account of an occasion when the CIA, attempting to track the source down in Munich, knocked on the wrong door. The young Iraqi at the address "called the police to deal with the intruders" - which suggests that they didn't knock very politely.

Kay maintains that the BND "did not live up to their responsibilities or to the level of integrity you would expect from such a service." And he attributes the Germans' gullibility to "a desire to believe. Fabricators work best when there is a desire to believe." But was this not equally true of the Americans? When he got to Iraq, found nothing, and reported on his lack of success, he was met "with resistance and denial" and "an absolute refusal to face reality. I just kept on hearing, 'don’t stop now. Keep working. You must be wrong. You will find it. Keep looking.'" He is, he now admits, disillusioned:

I think that 'Curveball' was the biggest and most consequential intelligence fiasco of my lifetime. It shows how important effective civilian control of the intelligence services is, because non-transparency is extraordinarily dangerous for democracy. In an intelligence service, people who don’t make waves are rewarded. I am worried that the same mistakes could be repeated all over again.

Wilkerson is equally disillusioned, and a great deal more contrite. He thinks that the Germans deserve some share of the blame (though not as much as the CIA), and is of the opinion that Curveball's information was "absolutely essential, because it was the central pillar for the accusation that Saddam Hussein had mobile biological labs". But he's willing to admit that even with that bogus evidence the case for war was pretty thin. He recalls thinking that Colin Powell's presentation to the UN Security Council - which he helped to draft - had been "a total failure":

The whole time I looked over at the Iraqi ambassador and I thought to myself: 'Jeez, this is all circumstantial bullshit, it will never wash.' After I had gotten some sleep and then read a few newspapers, I realized the polls were saying it had been significantly effective.

He now calls that day "the lowest point of my professional life". But why was it so effective? Why were so many people - not just in the CIA, not just in the American and British governments, but also in an initially sceptical Congress, in a House of Commons dominated by Labour MPs many of whom had once belonged to CND, and in the wider public, a majority of whom on both sides of the Atlantic backed the war when it began and for a surprisingly long time thereafter?

Here's an illuminating quote.

Of course the people don't want war... But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along... All you have to do is to tell them that they are being attacked and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger.

Who said that? Appropriately enough, it was a German. Hermann Goering. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 21 March 2008

Coming Soon

Next week, perhaps, just maybe, the maverick Dutch politician Geert Wilders will release his long-awaited, much condemned film attacking Islam and the Koran. Alternatively, he'll announce yet another postponement. Who knows? At the moment, it's just an image on a website. "Coming soon".

In many respects the actual content of the film Fitna (if, indeed, there is such a film, and it isn't all an elaborate wind-up) is less important than the idea of the film. After all, what can it say? That the Koran contains statements that can be construed as misogynistic, anti-modern, or inciting of violence against unbelievers? Such things have been said many times, not least by Wilders himself, who last year compared the Islamic holy book to Mein Kampf and called for it to be banned.

What Wilders is engaged in, of course, is a stunt, a piece of deliberate provocation. One might almost say, a piece of political theatre. And for it to succeed, no-one actually has to see the film. There doesn't even need to be a film, merely the threat of a film, the idea of an artwork, or a political statement, so calumnous in its intention or effect that it creates havoc. In other words, Wilders isn't bravely setting his face against censorship and intimidation. He wants the censorship and intimidation. Because the censorship and the intimidation are the whole point. The actual content of the film is actually pretty irrelevant.

By that token, Wilders has surely succeeded, more than he could ever have hoped. Salman Rushdie had actually to write the Satanic Verses, and have it published, before the Ayatollah Khomeini could be prevailed upon to issue his fatwa. The Danish newspapers had to publish the cartoons (the most iconic of which, by Kurt Westegaard, I fearlessly reproduce on the left). Theo Van Gogh, Wilders' more honourable compatriot, had to broadcast the film that cost him his life. All Wilders had to do was announce that he was making a film and then sit back and watch.

Dutch broadcasters, initially looking to broadcast the film, have shied away. A press screening was announced, and then cancelled for "security reasons". The Dutch justice ministry raised the country's terrorist threat assessment, apparently all because of Fitna. Unrelated Dutch films were threatened with disqualification from a film festival in Cairo. Syria's Grand Mufti, in the European parliament, accused Wilders of "inciting wars and bloodshed". In Afghanistan Dutch troops came under increased pressure from the Taliban, who announced their intention to "exploit widespread disquiet among the Afghan population about the film". The 56 members of the Islamic Conference, meeting in Senegal, anathematised Wilders with all the solemnity of an ecumenical council of the early church, or of a communist party presidium.

Nor is it only Islamic governments who have attacked Wilders and his supposed film. The Dutch cabinet blasted the production as long ago as November. After a meeting with government ministers, Wilders complained of "an hour of intimidation". The Dutch prime minister, meeting French president Sarkozy, issued a joint statement regretting the film, while his Danish counterpart has "strongly condemned" what he termed Wilders' "grossly offensive" comments about Islam. So if part of Wilders' plan was to point up the timorousness of western governments in defence of free speech and against the designs of Islamic supremacists, then he would appear to have succeeded.

Just as the rioters against the Danish cartoons couldn't appreciate the irony that their violence made the illustrators' point for them, so both Islamist reactionaries and Western liberals are playing Wilders' game, dancing to his rather tired tune.

Fitna means "discord", by the way. The same as Eris, the Greek "bad fairy" who started the Trojan war by lobbing a golden apple at the feet of the goddesses of sex, war and money. How appropriate.

In the meantime, a more serious attempt to muzzle free speech has perhaps, fallen into a deliciously ironic bunker.

For several years now, several Muslim countries have been attempting to make blasphemy, or something like it, an international crime. Their argument, which has been adopted by the UN Human Rights commission and, last December, in a resolution at the General Assembly, has been that religious beliefs are uniquely deserving of respect and protection. They even managed to insert the following into the resolution:

"The General Assembly stresses the need to effectively combat defamation of all religions and incitement to religious hatred, against Islam and Muslims in particular."

Why Islam and Muslims in particular? Is criticism and defamation of Islam and Muslims is a worse thing than criticism and defamation of other religions? Are Muslims uniquely sensitive to such criticsm? Or is there just more of it?

The other week, a report on "Islamophobia" was adopted by the Islamic Conference. In a remarkable example of institutionalised hypersensitivity, the report's authors traced the history of "Islamophobia" which, they stressed, may only have been named in 1996 but has actually been around since the very earliest times. People who opposed Mohammed's conquest of Arabia were Islamophobes. "Barely a few years after the advent of Islam, Christian Byzantine and Greek monks, and the Church establishment launched an intractable campaign of slanders and denigration against Islam, depicting it as a mere apostasy and a sort of barbaric paganism". Then came the Crusaders, who inexplicably objected to the Islamic occupation of formerly Christian Palestine. A further wave of Islamophobia, we are told, began with the age of discovery, after which

Muslim populations from the confines of Indonesia to the shores of the Eastern Atlantic were subjugated to the brutal rule of the “colonial masters”, who claimed that their aim was to “civilize” the conquered nations. Under such rule, Muslims suffered depredation, foreign occupation, exploitation, and, subsequently, massacres and ethnic cleansing.

But that was as nothing compared with the situation today, what with the Motoons, and Geert Wilders, and all the rest of it:

In recent years, the phenomenon has assumed alarming proportions and has indeed become a major cause of concern for the Muslim world. Defamation of Islam and racial intolerance of Muslims in the western societies are on the rise. The proponents of Islamophobia, who for whatever reasons are either prejudiced or hold a negative view against Islam and Muslims, are active in defaming Islam. ...

As a result of the rising trend of Islamophobia, Muslims in different parts of the world, in the West in particular, are being stereotyped, profiled and subjected to different forms of discriminatory treatment. The most sacred symbols of Islam, in particular the sacred image of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is being defiled and denigrated in the most insulting, offensive and contemptuous manner to incite hatred and unrest in society.

There is therefore, the report concludes, an

urgent need for the international community to come up with a binding legal instrument to fight the menace of Islamophobia. The Report has underscored that the right to freedom of expression should be carried out with responsibilities and cannot be a license to cause hurt, insults, provoke and incite hatred among religions by defaming, denigrating and insulting the sacred religious symbols of Islam and causing unrest and violence in societies.

The fact that Islamic countries can get so worked up about a few cartoons while Christian archbishops are being murdered in Iraq, when the government of fairly liberal Qatar will only permit a church if it's stuck out in the desert and doesn't bear a cross, and Christian communities from Pakistan to Egypt come under increasing persecution shows, I think, a truly warped sense of priorities.

But, oh joy, the OIC's cunning plan of enshrining special protection for Islam by enforcing an international ban on the defaming all religions has hit a serious buffer in, of all places, Saudi Arabia. The Shoura Council, which is the nearest thing the kingdom has to a parliament (which is to say, it's hand-picked by the king and has no power whatever) this week rejected a resolution calling for international action to protect religious sensibilities. Why? Because the proposed laws wouldn't just protect Muslims. As one Shoura member, Khaleel al-Khaleel explained, it would create a dangerous precedent. "Some consider Buddhism, Qadianism and Baha’ism as religions," he warned. "Can we make it obligatory for Muslims to respect these faiths and avoid criticising them?"

(Qadianism, by the way, is the orthodox term for the Ahmadiya sect of Islam, which mainstream Sunnis regard as heretical.)

Another critic of the move, Talal Bakri, feared that it was all a trap: "If we approve the resolution it will be make it obligatory to recognise some religions and will facilitate establishing places of worship for them in Muslim countries."

Impeccable logic. What the Islamic leaders really want to see, of course, is an international agreement that while Islam is off-limits and beyond criticism in non-Islamic countries, Muslim countries can carry on repressing, persecuting and discriminating against non-Muslims as much as they like. And if you see anything wrong with that, you're an Islamophobe. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Let's blame the Germans

Rageh Omaar had it about right in the Telegraph magazine at the weekend. Surveying the blasted and benighted hellhole that the country has become in the past five years, he commented that "only the wilfully ignorant believe that Iraq is a better place than it was before the invasion." Some of the former pro-war cheerleaders have changed their tune as the disaster unfolded - David Aaronovitch, for example (though it took him almost five years to do so). Yet the war still, incredibly, has its defenders. And not just George W. Bush, who apparently believes that the world is a safer place as a result. If only because "The terrorists who murder the innocent in the streets of Baghdad want to murder the innocent in the streets of American cities" but are presumably a bit busy at the moment. Or even John McCain, here in Britain today, who promises us all a new hundred years' war.

Slate magazine had the amusing wheeze of asking a cross-section of pro-war enthusiasts from the left-liberal perspective how they came to be so wrong. Most were prepared to produce a mea culpa, or (more often) blame someone else. Christopher Hitchens, by contrast, still thinks the war was a great idea: just a shame about the aftermath. "We were never, if we are honest with ourselves, 'lied into war'", he claims. "The president's speech to the United Nations on Sept. 12, 2002, laying out the considered case that it was time to face the Iraqi tyrant ... was easily the best speech of his two-term tenure and by far the most misunderstood." Equally puzzling is this one: "The role of Baathist Iraq in forwarding and aiding the merchants of suicide terror actually proves to be deeper and worse, on the latest professional estimate, than most people had ever believed or than the Bush administration had ever suggested."

Meanwhile, back on planet earth, the blame game continues. Because, of course, it can't be the fault of the US or Britain that they were so wrong about the weapons of mass destruction, can it? They had the finest intelligence services, the best equipment, the most reliable sources. And, as Tony Blair likes to say, it wasn't just he who believed in Iraqi WMD. Everybody and his specially-trained sniffer dog knew the things existed. Although, as chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix wrote in the Guardian today, by March 2003

Unmovic inspectors had carried out some 700 inspections at 500 sites without finding prohibited weapons. The contract that George Bush held up before Congress to show that Iraq was purchasing uranium oxide was proved to be a forgery. The allied powers were on thin ice, but they preferred to replace question marks with exclamation marks.

What a shame Blix couldn't have been quite so forthright at the time.

Embarrassment all round. Thankfully, though, a new culprit has now emerged. According to Spiegel, the Americans want to put the blame where it surely belongs, on the Germans. The belief that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling biological weapons was, it now turns out, all down to dodgy information from Germany's foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (and try saying that on a full stomach).

Indeed, when then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell gave his infamous presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003 during which he made the case that Iraq presented an immediate threat to global security, his comments about Saddam Hussein's alleged biological weapons program were based largely on information provided by the BND.

The BND told the Americans that Saddam's evil scientists had "mobile weapons laboratories" (remember them?) which were - oh the beauty of it - both incredibly dangerous and hard to detect. Which is why when the Americans got into Iraq they started rounding up ice-cream vans. As Scott Ritter later admitted,

The discovery by U.S. forces in Iraq of two mobile 'biological weapons laboratories' was touted by President Bush as clear evidence that Iraq possessed illegal weapons capabilities. However, it now is clear that these so-called labs were nothing more than hydrogen generation units based upon British technology acquired by Iraq in the 1980s, used to fill weather balloons in support of conventional artillery operations, and have absolutely no application for the production of biological agents.

This invaluable piece of intelligence - one of the reasons close to a million Iraqis are now dead, let it be remembered - came from a single source, codenamed "Curveball". Curveball was a senior Iraqi engineer who had worked closely with Dr Rihab ("Germ") Taha. Or perhaps he was just a Baghdad taxi driver. Whatever. He arrived in Germany as an asylum seeker in 1999 and was "interviewed by BND agents more than 50 times ... and provided them with detailed information about the alleged mobile biological weapons laboratories."

Lawrence Wilkinson, an aide to Colin Powell at the time, claims that the German information was "not just a chance operation... it was carefully weighed". So that the Germans deserve their "share of the blame" for the fiasco. The former US weapons inspector David Kay goes further, noting that the Germans failed to make "all the appropriate efforts to validate the source". The BND's decision to question Curveball themselves rather than let the CIA do it, moreover, was "dishonest, unprofessional and irresponsible".

Perhaps the Germans were worried about what the CIA might do to him. After all, they don't have a completely clean record in this area.

Or perhaps the Americans are simply engaged in a desperate game of passing-the-buck.

Because, it turns out, the Germans never placed the absolute faith in Curveball's evidence that the CIA did. Indeed, in December 2002 the head of the BND wrote to his American counterpart, George Tenet, that the information, while plausible, "couldn't be confirmed".

This is spyspeak for "here be codswallop". As the then German ambassador to the UN, Gunter Pleuger, put it, "For me it was a perfectly clear warning, and I assumed that the information provided by 'Curveball' would no longer be used by the Americans."

And who can forget the spectacle of the German foreign minister Jocshka Fischer squaring up to Donald Rumsfeld at Munich:

My generation learned you must make a case, and excuse me, I am not convinced. That is my problem. I cannot go to the public and say, 'these are the reasons', because I don't believe in them.

He wasn't alone. Robin Cook stood up in the House of Commons and stated that he had seen no evidence that Saddam Hussein had operational WMD's when he was foreign secretary. Jacques Chirac denied it. Vladimir Putin denied it. Even Condie Rice denied it, when it was convenient to do so (i.e. when her job was to explain how effectively the sanctions were working).

And yet you still get apologists from the war claiming that, no, it wasn't just them. Everyone in the whole wide world believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Even Saddam himself. His henchmen just couldn't bring themselves to admit to him that they had been destroyed years ago.

And what of Curveball himself? It turns out that he's still in Germany (for some reason, he didn't want to go back to the country whose liberation he did so much to achieve), where he has recently been granted citizenship. "I am not to blame," he told Spiegel. "I never said that Iraq had weapons for mass destruction. Not at all, not in my entire life."

But then he would say that, wouldn't he? Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Back on home turf

After his recent foray into the vexed area of Sharia law (a subject on which he will no doubt say less in future) Dr Rowan "plain-speaking" Williams has been exploring rather more familiar territory. This week he has been at Westminster Abbey, lecturing after evensong on the relationship between faith and science, politics and history. Monday's lecture was on "faith and science".

Williams seems to have taken the fashionable line, outlined by John Gray among others, that religious fundamentalists and "fundamentalist science" are about as bad as each other. As the only account of the address so far available, by Joanna Sugden, told it,

Dr Rowan Williams, said "Neo Darwinism and Creationist science deserve each other. Creationism is a version of slightly questionable science pretending to be theology, and Neo Darwinism is a questionable theology pretending to be science."

The Archbishop hit out against the "two extremes" in the range of theories of how the world began in his Holy Week lecture on Faith and Science last night. He said "Science has more to do than is simply covered by these theories."

Creationists believe in the literal version of creation as told in Genesis, and argue that man walked the earth at the same time as the dinosaurs. Neo Darwinists argue that culture is subject to evolutionary forces which will eventually weed out religion.

It sounds suitably Anglican: a good compromise. "On the one hand, there are these guys who claim the world was created in six days. On the other hand, some people think it all evolved by chance. Surely the answer must be somewhere in between." But, of course, truth and falsehood don't work like that. Imagine Williams in the seventeenth century:

There are some who think that the earth goes round the sun. Traditionally, we have understood the earth as being the centre of the universe. Well, some people still insist on that; but I think that the work of Dr Galileo has undoubtedly pushed the debate further on. Surely, the truth lies somewhere in the middle: between the twin extremes of the heliocentric and geocentric world-views. Perhaps the other planets revolve around the sun, but the sun, in turn, goes round the earth.

Rather a strange definition of creationism, too: "slightly questionable science pretending to be theology". It would be better described as a questionable theology pretending to be science. It doesn't qualify as science at all. Although, to be generous, "slightly questionable" is perhaps just Williams-speak for "bollocks".

Neo-Darwinism, by contrast, isn't any sort of theology. It's merely the theory of natural selection combined with the discoveries of genetics. It's the view, advanced most famously by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, (but not his alone) that the gene is the basic unit of evolution because bodies are constructed on the basis of instructions encoded in DNA. Far from being pseudo-science, it is the very thing that makes Darwinism scientifically valid. Once again, it would seem that Rowan Williams has opened his mouth to pontificate on subjects he doesn't fully understand. Last month, the rule of law. This month, science.

What he's driving at, I suppose, is the old idea that science and religion belong in separate boxes. Science is all very well at explaining the "how" of things, but it's the job of religion to explain "why". Williams doesn't like it when scientists, like Dawkins, try to explain religion in scientific terms. Some evolutionary thinkers do indeed argue that culture is subject to evolutionary pressures. For example, a culture that values pictoral representation is more likely to produce a Raphael or a Picasso than one that values calligraphy.

Religious ideas may be subject to similar forces. A religion that offers people the possibility of life after death may well prove more attractive than one which can only promise an eternity of nothingness, and so spread. But no scientist would say that such a thing is proved. And even an atheist like Dawkins wouldn't claim that "evolutionary forces... will eventually weed out religion". He might wish it were so, but the evidence, as I'm sure he would agree, tends to be against it.

"Science can be seduced into making exaggerated claims" said Williams.

Unlike religion, obviously.

Williams' basic problem is that he thinks in ancient Greek. The standard Attic sentence has a balanced structure. The first clause, introduced by the particle men makes one point; the second, beginning de, says something either contrasting or complementary. On the one hand... on the other. It isn't so much that the truth lies somewhere between the two, rather that both are somehow true, or at least relevant. Philosophy proceeds via such equivocations. Science doesn't.

Another strange thing he said, according to the Times report:

Both Neo Darwinism and Christianity are telling stories, the Archbishop continued, Christianity acknowledges that fact, Neo Darwinism doesn't.

Really? Inasmuch as Neo-Darwinism is scientifically valid, it is not "telling stories". When it is being speculative, it readily admits as much. As for Christianity, I thought that was supposed to be true. Most Christians would say so. They probably won't thank Williams for telling them that they are merely "telling stories". Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Iraq - what really happened

It's five years - Gosh, doesn't time fly when you're having a blast - since American and British tanks rolled unopposed into the fertile soil of Mesopotamia, to be greeted with flowers by happy Iraqis, liberated at last to pursue their dreams and build a model beacon of democracy and peace for the entire world. Freed from the iron rule of the evil monster Saddam Hussein, Sunnis and Shi'ites joined hands in celebration. All sectarian differences were forgotten in the general rejoicing. Small boys clambered aboard the armed vehicles. Women, in gratitude and expectation of undreamed-of new horizons, offered their sexual favours to the heroic Western troops - who nevertheless, chivalrous to a fault, declined with a reluctant smile.

Under the wise planning of Donald Rumsfeld, whose strategic genius was matched only by his mastery of the English tongue, the minimal disruption necessitated by the campaign was swiftly put right. Electricity flowed like the oil, and the oil like water. The Ba'athist regime vanished like snow that falls on a bright summer morning. And any remaining doubts about the justification, even the legality, of the war - though it were more apt to call it a police action - were set aside when Saddam's bunkers were opened, revealing to a complacent world the vast stockpiles of chemical weaponry which, but for the alacrity of the Allies, would surely have been unleashed. Even George Galloway joined in the cheering in the end.

Fears that a power vacuum would arise, to be filled by rival militias and Iranian sponsored religious extremists, proved groundless. Instead, Iraqi men and women formed themselves peacefully into secular, progressive political parties, and within six months the people went trippingly to the polls. In scenes reminiscent of post-apartheid South Africa, a free populace danced the dance of democracy. Music, literature, film and sporting achievement flourished in the what soon came to be referred to as the Baghdad spring. Young men and women walked hand in hand through the verdant gardens. It was even whispered that the Iraqi capital might host the Olympics in 2016.

The country's small but ancient Christian community felt particularly blessed. Tolerated only grudgingly under Saddam, they now found themselves the surprised beneficiaries of the mood of national goodwill. That it was Christian troops, inspired by a born-again president and a theologically-learned prime minister, that had effected Iraq's liberation, was seen to redound to their advantage. Grateful fellow-citizens contributed money towards the beautification of the churches, and when Pope Benedict XVI - well-known for his enthusiasm for the intervention - made his visit to Baghdad in the autumn of 2007, the senior ayatollahs and religious scholars of the whole country came to greet a great friend of Islam and extend their thanks.

But perhaps the greatest legacy of the Iraq campaign was to be found outside its borders. The dictatorship of Syria collapsed. The gulf states introduced progressive reforms, while even Saudi Arabia last year announced a timetable for full democratic elections. Iran had experienced a second, bloodless revolution as the people deposed their reactionary clerical elite. In Jordan, the king had survived, along with his lovely wife, but he was now purely a symbolic figure, spending his hours opening airports and making guest appearances on Will and Grace. Deprived of support from surrounding regimes, Hamas and Islamic Jihad laid down their arms, and Palestinians and Israelis marched together towards a peaceful future. Even Osama bin Laden has recanted. In his latest audio-tape, leaked from his underwater lair (for neither in Pakistan nor in Afghanistan could he find refuge) the al-Qaeda leader urged his remaining supporters to embrace democracy, secularism and the free market. As he declared with a tear in his eye, "America has always been the best friend of Islam".

News of the victory, and its happy aftermath, was especially sweet to Tony Blair, now looking forward to his fourth consecutive electoral landslide. His enemies were everywhere routed. Cook was dead. Clare Short had conveniently forgotten her brief flirtation with resignation, and told everyone who would listen how she had always been fully behind the war. Gordon Brown, prised from the Treasury in the aftermath of Blair's 200 seat victory in 2005, is, it is true, a disruptive force on the backbenches. But no-one pays any attention to him. The Liberal Democrats, humiliated in the election, tried to put all the blame for their anti-war stance on their erstwhile leader's alcoholism. Charles Kennedy had had a few too many whiskies and wandered into the wrong lobby, it was said. As for the million misguided souls who had come onto the streets of London to protest against the war in 2003 - well, where are they now? No-one, apart from Tony Benn, will even admit to having been there.

In the US things are much the same. George Bush, everywhere hailed as the greatest president since Reagan, or perhaps even Roosevelt, is now looking forward to a lucrative future as head of the Iraq Oil Corporation. And while the constitution bars Dubya from running again, Dick Cheney was selected almost without opposition as the Republican candidate. He and his dynamic, attractive running-mate Ann Coulter look to be an unbeatable combination for November. His likely opponent, Joe Liberman - selected as the only Democrat seen as sufficiently pro-war to be credible - has so far failed to identify any issue on which he and Cheney disagree.

With terrorism defeated, dictators displaced, the price of oil reaching a twenty-year low and the people of Europe and America looking forward to an era of unparallelled peace, prosperity and security, it seems like the good times will never end. To cap it all, Britain's most successful bank, Northern Rock, last month posted record results. They plan to open a new office in Baghdad. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 17 March 2008

Head banging

Here's an ITN news report from the other week. I missed it at the time but it's fairly timeless. It comes across disconcertingly like a Chris Morris parody, but apparently it was actually broadcast.

The story claimed that lampposts in London - and soon in other towns and cities across the landn - were to be fitted with protective padding to prevent people from bumping into them and injuring themselves while sending text messages. A survey, said the report, found that more than one person in ten had sustained such a lamppost-related injury (which was extrapolated to produce a figure of 6.5 such incidents nationwide). It also found that 44% supported the idea of padding lampposts, while 27% favoured the creation of specially marked-out lanes on pavements which mobile users could safely walk down without bumping into lampposts (or, I suppose, other people). Brick Lane was identified as London's most dangerous street when it came to lamppost hazard, hence the filmed "trial".

The media loved this story, which, like many such tales, fed into widespread popular ideas about overzealous and overcautious local authorities. It had a grain of plausibility (I've certainly bumped into a lamppost, and I wasn't even texting at the time). It contained that old journalistic standby, the "scientific" survey. And while the whole thing was being sponsored by the directory enquiries service, a known pressure group, Living Streets, was also involved. So that the Mail was able to report that,

Brick Lane has been made the country's first “Safe Text” street, with brightly coloured padding, similar to that used on rugby posts, placed on lamp posts to test if it helps protect dozy mobile users.

If the trial is successful, the idea could be rolled out to other London blackspots, including Charing Cross Road, Old Bond Street, Oxford Street and Church Street, Stoke Newington.

The only trouble was, no-one had told Tower Hamlets council, who were not only furious at the use of their lampposts for unauthorised marketing stunt by, but soon found themeselves at the receiving end of a good deal of derision. Lucy Mangan in the Guardian, for example, wondered what might happen next:

· A sherpa on every corner, to usher the texter safely through the crowded streets.

· Replace cars with tyreless chambers running along fixed rails to enable "drivers" to text more safely.

· A stairlift in every home to negate the possibility of tripping up or downstairs while urgently texting your friend or family member about your plans for 2nite

The council sent a crack team of demolition experts to Brick Lane to remove the padding as soon as they heard the reports. It was too late. The foam had been taken down as soon as the photographers were out of the way. There never was a trial, even an unofficial one. But the story had already been reported as far away as New Zealand.

The whole story reads like a textbook case of what Nick Davies calls "churnalism". Don't bother checking the facts, but re-write the press release slightly so it looks like you've gone out and done some investigation. As the editor of the East London Advertiser Malcolm Starbrook said "In general the media coverage was a suspension of disbelief. They wanted the story to be correct and they never went into it."

Hard-pressed journos like their stories easy and ready-made, and a "survey" sounds impressively impartial and newsworthy, even if it is a transparent puff for whatever company commissioned it. And who actually bothers to peek beneath the user-friendly headline stats to find out what the survey actually asked, who it actually asked, and why. And, of course, the story fits the prevailing meta-narrative of "health and safety gone mad" - stories of councils banning hanging flower baskets or cutting down horse chestnut trees just in case conkers fell on people's heads, or acrobats being told to perform in hard hats. Se non è vero, è molto ben trovato, as the saying goes: it may not be true, but it sounds as though it ought to be.

It'll be April 1st soon. Perhaps the news media could celebrate the date by making sure, for once, that all their stories are actually true. Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Easter Charade

Radio 4's Sunday programme this morning excitedly unveiled the findings of a new opinion poll, timed for Easter, into the state and nature of Christian belief in Britain. Carried out by ComRes on behalf of theological think-tank Theos it revealed, as such surveys invariably do, a "surprisingly high" belief among the general population in the status of Jesus Christ as Son of God, and his resurrection from the dead.

57% of those questioned believed that Jesus rose from the dead in some form, with almost one in three apparently accepting the traditional view that there was a physical resurrection: empty tomb, doubting Thomas, road to Emaus and all the rest of it.

Theos director Paul Woolley was excited about the survey. "The fact that over half of Britons believe that Jesus rose from the dead is particularly striking and demonstrates that society is not as 'secular' as we often imagine it to be." he claimed. I'm less convinced.

Clearly the compulsory religious education in primary schools is having some impact. But I wonder in what sense that 57% (who must make up a good proportion of the 70% who told the census that they were Christians) actually believe in the resurrection, or even know what it is that they are being asked to believe. Most of them don't go to church, except for weddings and funerals and perhaps the odd carol service. I would imagine that their largely passive belief in the factual truth of Christian doctrine has little or no impact on the way in they lead their lives. They probably never even think about it. Perhaps many of them thought that they were answering a different question, namely "What does the Bible say happened to Jesus after his death?"

If I believed in the resurrection I would be on my knees praying. It is a profound, unsettling, shocking belief. It radically undermines the whole complacent, materialistic basis of our society. It would mean, if true, that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was, not merely the most important event in human history, but possibly the only event of any real significance. It would demonstrate all religions other than Christianity to be at the least false and very probably roadblocks to salvation. So utterly transformative an event would the resurrection be, if true, that I severely doubt whether many of those who profess to teach it - bishops and suchlike - have actually thought through its implications. The Bishop of Oxford, for example. Would he be so laid-back about the Islamic call to prayer being broadcast over the city if he believed that it was a profound statement of untruth? Yet, if Jesus was risen from the dead, Islam represents not merely an untrue religion but a denial of Christianity's central premise. Muslims (officially, at least) don't just deny that Jesus rose from the dead. They deny that he was even crucified.

The rest of the survey compounds this sense of unreality. For example, 40% claimed to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. That is a whole 17 percentage points fewer than the proportion believing that he rose from the dead, at least in some form. So nearly one fifth of the population are happy to believe that Jesus was resurrected, yet don't consider him to have been in any way divine. 47%, meanwhile, accepted the description of him as "a holy prophet". (The two opinions were not mutually exclusive.) Leaving out the 3% of Muslims, for whom this statement is an article of faith, we are left with 13% of the population who allegedly believe in the resurrection but don't think Jesus was even a prophet.

Clergy will doubtless be pleased to know that 95% of regular churchgoers assented to the proposition that Jesus was the son of God. They must be doing something right. They might be more surprised to learn that a third of those belonging to another religion (not including Muslims) shared the same opinion. As did 15% of self-declared agnostics (which makes you wonder what they think "agnosticism" means). As did, even more staggeringly, 7% of atheists.

That last statistic is so implausible that it simply cannot be true. My guess is that the atheists concerned thought that they were answering a question about Christian theology rather than their personal belief. As for those belonging to another faith, my guess would be that a sizeable proportion of them were Hindus. Hinduism tends to be quite generous in such things. After all, what's another God when you've already got 300?

There are some interesting things buried in the fine detail of the poll. The highest levels of belief were found among the middle-aged (55-65), lower middle-class, women and those living in the north of England. Young people with professional-level occupations living in the South East were least likely to believe. This scarcely tallies with recent claims (from David Cameron, among others) that Britain is becoming a more religious society. On the contrary. As prosperity increases, religiosity declines. Indeed, only half of all 18-34 year olds - the entire younger generation - agreed that Jesus was "a good man and a wise teacher." More than a third were "don't knows". Perhaps they really didn't know. Perhaps they don't have a clue. Perhaps some of them haven't even heard of Jesus.

For me, though, the most bizarre statistic was the 2% of churchgoing Christians who agreed with the proposition that Jesus never even existed, while a further 3% didn't know. Who are these people? Why are they wasting their Sundays? Read the rest of this article

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Secret Stories

Update 15/5/2008
Events in the Shannon Matthews case turned out somewhat differently from my assumptions, owing to the extraordinary circumstances of her family; however, the phrase "hiding, or being hidden" turned out to be fairly precient.

As for the other "secret stories" discussed below, one that has returned with a vengeance, in the wake of Cherie Blair's recently-published memoirs, concerns the mysterious "family crisis" alluded to in 2003 by Lord Bragg. There was no mention in the book of this incident, widely rumoured to concern his then 15 year-old daughter Kathryn being rushed to hospital after overdosing on sleeping pills. The circumstances that led her to this "cry for help" are themselves controversial, and not something I will be going into any further. The press's collective decision not to allude to this story strikes me as perfectly reasonable. Besides, there are far more significant stories that remain untold by the mainstream media, many of which are not even "secret".


The press today have been gorging themselves on the story of Shannon Matthews, miraculously restored to life after spending more than three weeks hiding, or being hidden, in some guy's flat. It is the feast before the famine. Once her abductor is charged, the veil of secrecy will descend. Shannon's name will disappear from the archives of major news organisations; in reports of the trial, she will be merely "a girl from Yorkshire"; her mother, whose face has latterly been ubiquitous will henceforth be seen only in shadow, her name withheld, her voice disguised or her voice spoken by an actor. And the public will be assumed to have taken one of those amnesia pills they use on Torchwood.

Such legal restrictions are, of course, supposed to protect the vulnerable child at the centre of the story from harassment. Whether it actually works is, however, a moot point. When Charlene Lunnon and Lisa Hoodless were rescued from the clutches of paedophile Alan Hopkinson in 1999 they became briefly famous, pictured frolicking on a beach in every newspaper. Then they vanished. When they emerged from legally-imposed anonymity last year, they told a tale of schooldays ruined by rumours and bullying. Everyone in their small East Sussex town new who they were; and the fact that this knowledge was, theoretically, a secret probably made things worse.

The anonymity that almost always attaches to children involved with the law, whether victims or delinquents, is assumed to be for their protection. Often, though, it has the opposite effect. All cases before the family courts are subject to quite draconian restrictions, which protects children from press intrusion at the price, often, of preventing genuine scrutiny and debate on subjects of legitimate public interest. Families who find themselves in "the system", faced with care proceedings which may be biased by dubious diagnoses or official determination to get a result, are silenced. In a society in which recourse to media campaigns has become the major, perhaps the only effective, mechanism for correcting injustice, such rules are tantamount to loading the system in favour of the state.

Rape victims, indeed any woman making an accusation of rape, are also guaranteed anonymity, whether or not a conviction follows, while the accused man has no such protection. Even if he is completely exonerated, his reputation will have been trashed. Most of the time, this is probably justified, if only because otherwise few if any victims would come forward. But it does lead to anomalies.

The acquittal the other week of Cambridge graduate Jack Gillett for the attempted sexual assault of a fellow student led to renewed questioning of the rule. Especially since the victim - and we can safely call her that, for no-one contests the fact that she underwent an unpleasant experience - found that the one-sided view of the case presented after it ended left her painted as a devious and flaky liar. A friend penned a defence for the Mail, claiming that she had never even wanted the affair to reach the courts and going so far as to describe the accused man as "a great guy". In this account, the true villains were the police and prosecutors who resorted too easily to legal solutions, forcing the victim to give evidence against a friend. She, no less than her attacker, was a victim of the system: she was even "glad it came out in court that he's a lovely, decent, responsible and caring chap."

Given the anonymity that must prevail in such cases, her side of the story can never be properly put. In the Cambridge case, moreover, there was a hidden dimension veiled from the public, which might explain the frustration exhibited by some sections of the press. For the complainant was - well, "celebrity" is pushing it a bit far, although she did have her fifteen minutes of fame about a decade ago. But her mother is well known for her religious views. More than that I had better not say.

If this was a story that the press could not tell, there are many others that, for various reasons, they choose not to. Recently there there was Prince Harry's jaunt in Afghanistan, of course. Then there was the Duke of Westminster, the long-standing scandal of whose hiring of prostitutes via the London Branch of the Emperors Club VIP was briefly exhumed, before being swiftly reburied, probably for legal reasons. Going further back one may find the strange affair of Labour politician George Robertson and his association with Dunblane gunman Thomas Hamilton, or the interesting (to some) complications of Andrew Marr's private life. In 2004 Melvyn Bragg alluded to a "family crisis" which almost caused Tony Blair to resign before the last election. Breathlessly, the cohorts of the press and broadcast media waited to see if any horse would try this particular fence. But none did, and the story, which involved the prime minister's daughter, remains virtually unknown (outside a charmed circle of insiders, ingenious googlers and serendipitous stumblers) to this day.

To tell this story would have served no conceivable public interest, of course (though this hasn't stopped newspapers revealing things on other occasions). But other silences can seem suspiciously like cosy conspiracies against the public. That many leading members of the younger generation of politicians were once students is a fact no-one would deny. That many leading journalists attended the same universities, often at the same time (as, of course, did many others who never became either politicians or journalists) is equally obvious. But that members of these different tribes might actually have known each other, partied with each other, slept with each other, stabbed each other in the back during long-forgotten (but didn't they seem important at the time?) student elections, or bonded over the odd line of cocaine is hardly ever mentioned. Cui bono? Read the rest of this article