Sunday, 31 July 2011

Is Breivik British?

Anders Behring Breivik is British. At least he would appear to be. Most (if not all) sources assert that the Norwegian mass-murderer was born on 13th February 1979 in London, where his father was serving as a diplomat. That would make his default nationality British rather than Norwegian.

Prior to the Immigration Act of 1981, British nationality was determined by place of birth rather than by descent. Anyone born here up to and including 1982, even to illegal immigrants or to a tourist just passing through, is automatically a British citizen (or subject, as it was then expressed), entitled to reside here and to a British passport. Of course, Breivik's parentage also entitled him to Norwegian nationality. And he has spent most of this life in Norway. But none of that means that he ceases to be legally as British as I am.

I don't know about Norwegian nationality law, but since he is a dual nationality there's nothing in international law to prevent him from being stripped of his Norwegian citizenship and deported to Britain. He would not be left stateless. Furthermore, such a course of action has much to recommend it, and not just because the Norwegian people might be glad to rid themselves of him. In Norway, he is currently facing a maximum jail term of 21 years, which seems patently insufficient for the psychopathic murderer of 76 innocent people. At the end of his sentence, as things stand, he would presumably be released back into the community.

If he were tried in Britain, on the other hand, it's probable that a British judge would sentence him to life without parole. He could be tried here. Although his crimes were committed abroad, under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, English courts have jurisdiction over murder or manslaughter carried out anywhere in the world where the accused has British nationality. The normal course of action is of course to try an offence in the country where it occured. But this is not a normal situation. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Is Star Wars set in the future?

Here's a question for geeks. When do the events portrayed in the Star Wars films take place?

According to the Supreme Court, ruling on a copyright case involving a Stormtrooper helmet, the series is set "in an imaginary, science-fiction world of the future." David Allen Green, in a Tweet, chides the noble and learned judges for neglecting the opening words of each film's narration: "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." This proves, he thinks, that the films are not set in the future.

But for that to be true, the narration would itself have to be set in the present day. And there's no indication that that is the case. The most we can say is that from the point of view of the fictional storyteller the events took place "a long time ago". But since the Star Wars events do not form part of our known history, and are not set in a known past culture, it's most likely that the narration is itself imagined at taking place in the far future.

The films feature technology that is far in advance of anything available on 21st century Earth. They also include a large array of "alien" characters. The main players, however, are consistently referred to as " human". (At some point, Hans Solo also calls Jabba the Hut, a creature somewhat resembling a gigantic slug, "a wonderful human being", but we can perhaps overlook that. Hut may originally have been intended to be human in any case.) It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that the stories are set at a time when human beings have colonised not just this but other galaxies "far, far away". Or perhaps it is set in our own galaxy and it's the imagined narrator who resides in a faraway galaxy (in which case the events would necessarily be set "a long time away", given the limitations imposed by the speed of light). Either way, it seems reasonable to conclude that, from our perspective, Star Wars is set in the future.

Well done their Lordships. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Anders Breivik's Knights Templar: "a 'fictional' resistance group"?

In Foucault's Pendulum, Umberto Eco defined a lunatic thus:

The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars.

By this definition, if not in a legal sense, the Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik is a lunatic. He is obsessed with the Knights Templar of the Crusades and even believes himself to belong to a reconstituted Templar movement. A long section of his "Manifesto" is devoted to a group he calls the "Justiciar Knights Templar" or the PCCTS (abbreviating the Latin "Pauperes commilitones Christi Templique Solominici", which was the formal title of the medieval Order).

His new Templars are said to be a group secretly dispersed through Europe and whose long-term aim (and we're talking really long-term here, at least a hundred years) is to seize control of European governments from the present ruling clique of "cultural Marxists". Among the tactics to be employed in this "crusade" are terrorist outrages such as those he himself carried out on Friday.

Yesterday in court Breivik claimed to be in contact with two "cells" in Norway, and with more in other countries. He is certainly known to have had contact with Right-wing groups including the English Defence League, but there's no credible evidence so far of any organised terror network, however small, resembling the one he claims to belong to. The only evidence for the PCCTS is contained within the Manifesto itself. This might, though, simply be because the group has been successful in covering up its tracks. The Manifesto describes how that might work:

Each group is lead by a cell commander, often working solo, who makes all the decisions based on fixed fundamental principles. We therefore avoid the use of electronic communications (including mobile phones, email and internet chat), because electronic intelligence, signals intelligence, ELINT, SIGINT, is a strength of conventional militaries and counterintelligence organisations.

Solo Martyr Cells are completely unknown to our enemies and has a minimal chance of being exposed. The relatively indestructible and impenetrable nature of the Cell System allows the individual to stay hidden until he is ready to "activate" himself. Even then he will escape the scrutiny often reserved for young men of Arab descent. Optimally he should not have any affiliations to ”extremist networks” or to any extreme right wing movements for obvious reasons. This will disallow the National Intelligence Agencies to place the individual on their "radar"/under surveillance.

Breivik writes that as long ago as 2000 he "realised that the democratic struggle against the Islamisation of Europe, European multiculturalism was lost". Not wishing to become a Neo-Nazi (even he had some standards), he "came in contact with Serbian cultural conservatives through the internet".

This initial contact would eventually result in my contact with several key individuals all over Europe and the forming of the group who would later establish the military order and tribunal, PCCTS, Knights Templar. I remember they did a complete screening and background check to ensure I was of the desired calibre. Two of them had reservations against inviting me due to my young age but the leader of the group insisted on my candidature. According to one of them, they were considering several hundred individuals throughout Europe for a training course. I met with them for the first time in London and later on two occasions in Balticum. I had the privilege of meeting one of the greatest living war heroes of Europe at the time, a Serbian crusader and war hero who had killed many Muslims in battle. Due to EU persecution for alleged crimes against Muslims he was living at one point in Liberia. I visited him in Monrovia once, just before the founding session in London, 2002.

There's no such place as "Balticum", at least not so far as I can discover. Perhaps it's a codename. As for the Serb war criminal exiled in Liberia, he remains unidentified.

I was the youngest one there, 23 years old at the time. One of the key founders instructed the rest of the group about several topics related to the goal of the organisation... It was basically a detailed long term plan on how to seize power in Western Europe. I did not fully comprehend at the time how privileged I was to be in the company of some of the most brilliant political and military tacticians of Europe.


I had or have a relatively close relationship with at least one of them, an Englishman, who became my mentor. He was the one who first described the “perfect knight” and had written the initial fundament for this compendium. I was asked, not only once but twice, by my mentor; let’s call him Richard, to write a second edition of his compendium about the new European Knighthood.

This "Richard", if he exists, would obviously be of interest to the authorities. The Telegraph wonders if he might be the notorious anti-Islam blogger known as "Lionheart". Lionheart (real name Paul Ray) was arrested and questioned by the police three years ago on suspicion of stirring up hatred, but he's never been associated with violence and on his blog today he threatens the Telegraph with his lawyers "for linking me to such a horrendous crime."

Lionheart denies ever having met Breivik, and writes that

I might be a Christian fundamentalist who has a deep dislike for Islamic fundamentalism who looks to Templarism as an example, but anyone who knows me knows that I personally would play no part in such inhumane savagery that has no place in the civilised world.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that he wasn't, in some sense, "Richard". Not if the PCCTS is merely a figment of Breivik's warped imagination and the meetings he describes took place between him and his computer screen.

Breivik writes:

The Knights Templar was re-founded as a pan-European nationalist military order and a military/criminal tribunal with two primary objectives. The order is to serve as an armed Indigenous Rights Organisation and as a Crusader Movement (anti-Jihad movement).

The founding session (two meetings consisting of 4 founding members and host as a security precaution) was held in London, United Kingdom – Apr, 2002.

He then lists the nine founding members supposedly present at the meetings, along with three others who were "unable to attend". The number is unlikely to be accidental. Nine knights, led by Hugues de Payen, founded the original Order of the Temple in 1119, and later Templar revivalists have read great esoteric significance into the fact.

Breivik's obsession with the Templars is in keeping with his narcissistic, self-dramatising personality, not to mention the love of dressing-up evident from the photographs. The Order was suppressed in 1307 for reasons that are still extremely controversial (Were they heretics? Did they know some forbidden truth about Jesus and Mary Magdalene? Or, more likely, did the King of France want to get his hands on their cash?) but it has been unofficially recreated many times. Previous Templar Revivalists have included early Freemasons, 19th century occultists and 20th century political extremists. The notion that the original Templars were some sort of conspiratorial secret society led people who wished themselves to belong to conspiratorial secret societies to adopt pseudo-Templar identities.

Breivik's own Islam-bashing version of the Templars is at least closer to the group's original military motivation than to the occult fantasies of most such revivals. But that does not mean it actually exists.

It might be a double-bluff, but the Manifesto includes a lengthy, somewhat contradictory disclaimer which describes the revived Templars as nothing more than "a hypothetical response to a perceived threat" and "a 'fictional' resistance group". (But why the scare quotes? To preserve the ambiguity?) It goes on:

The motivation for this “fiction-writer-approach” is to contribute to create a new type of innovative writing style. By defining, in a horrifically detailed way, a fictional scenario, the reader will be shocked due to the “hopefully” credible and extremely detailed elaborations. It should be noted that the author, as a sci-fi enthusiast, wanted to bring and create a complete new writing style that has the potential to shock the reader with an incredibly credible fictional plot (written in first, second and third person narrative). The author or distributor does not condone or agree with any of the descriptions or methods used in this book and the related chapters. However, the book was created to try to explain to the European political elites how the continuation of given political doctrines could result in similar manifestations (radicalisation of certain groups/individuals), as history has already proven, if they continue with their current policies. As such, it is a reminder to the current establishment what might happen if they repeat the mistakes of the past....

All ”threats” etc in these fictional books are ”in character” and its primary goal is to give an impression of what it would be like if we were under threat by an extremist organisation. However, certain aspects of the content describing a lead character (a fictional political activist who has decided to become a so called “Justiciar Knight”) sounds very realistic due to the detailed descriptions. However, all incriminatory information in this work is written “in character” and must not be confused with an actual plan, or strategy to attempt to harm any individuals or infrastructure, any political groups or attempt to seize political or military control of Western European regimes...

Of course, one can't actually believe a word he says:

It is therefore no need for concern by any police/state/government prosecutors or intelligence agencies about the content of this book due to its fictional nature. This legal disclaimer was created to remove any doubt whatsoever that the author or anyone chosing to distribute the book “2083” has any hostile motives or intentions.

It's dangerous to speculate, but the best guess right now must be that Breivik began by fantasing about a revived Templar movement and at some point (probably within the last two years) decided to turn his fantasy into ghastly reality.
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Monday, 25 July 2011

Does "extreme" ideology lead to terrorism?

Events in Norway have inevitably raised the question of the extent to which Anders Behring Breivik's murderous rampage was the product (predictable or not) of a warped ideology.

His ideology, as set out at tedious length in his "Manifesto" (which is largely a compilation of other people's writings, including Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski) has no agreed name, though it's quite familiar. It is not Neo-Nazi, or conventially nationalist, or (as some sources claimed) "Christian fundamentalist". Its principal targets are multiculturalism, immigration and "Islamification", the European Union and left-wing politically correct "cultural Marxists". It is culturally conservative (suspicious of feminism, pro-"family values", etc), vaguely libertarian (though libertarians might object to this characterisation), suspicious of conventional politics, generally a bit Daily Mailish.

There are many people who espouse all or some of these opinions on the Internet, and some high-profile writers and politicians who do likewise. Some (including our own Melanie Phillips) are quoted extensively and approvingly in Breivik's document. It is not their fault that a narcissistic murderer has taken inspiration from their ideas, any more than it was the Beatles' fault that Charles Manson was a fan of Helter Skelter. Any more than producers of video games should be held responsible for "copycat killings".

Does this not equally apply, though, to the "preachers of hate" whose hardline interpretation of Islam inspired the 9/11 and 7/7 suicide attacks?

The easy answer is that there's a clear distinction between actively inciting acts of terrorism and merely nurturing a sense of anger and grievance. No-one on Breivik's reading list, to my knowledge, has ever advocated murder or even violent resistance. There's no anti-multiculturalist Al Qaeda, no network of sleeper cells (unless Breivik's revived Knights Templar really exist). The English Defence League, an ugly organisation whose members have largely repellent views, do not blow things up and have never set light to anything larger than a Koran.

But then not all those characterised as Islamic extremists by the British security services incite violence, either. And they are often seen as a problem.

The latest version of the government's Prevent strategy aims to target the ideology behind Islamic terror. Those who commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam generally adhere to a strict and highly political form of their religion ("Islamism") that is shared by many Muslims who are not terrorists, or even terrorist sympathisers. It combines highly conservative views on such matters as women's dress or the alleged decadence of western society with a narrative of victimhood that sees Muslims as victims of Western foreign policy. They tend to be obsessed with Israel, a political passion that often slides into a more general hatred of Jews. Some dream of establishing a new Caliphate embracing all the world's Muslim societies, or of converting Europe to their faith. A proportion of them (a not inconsiderable proportion) entertain conspiracy theories about what really happened on 9/11.

Are these ideas "extreme", and do they lead to terrorism? Here's Tony Blair:

I believe we need a revolution in our thinking. I do not think it is possible to defeat the extremism without defeating the narrative that nurtures it. And there’s the rub. The practitioners of extremism are small in number. The adherents of the narrative stretch far broader into parts of mainstream thinking.

....It is a narrative that now has vast numbers of assembled websites, blogs and organisations. Of course many of those that agree with it abhor the terrorism. But as the support across the Middle East for the Muslim Brotherhood shows, far too many buy into far too much of the analysis of the extremists, if not their methodology.

This is the train of thought that underpins the Prevent strategy as well. The Home Office website tells us that from now on, "Prevent will tackle non-violent extremism where it creates an environment conducive to terrorism and popularises ideas that are espoused by terrorist groups." The previous version of Prevent was rather different: it involved channelling money to groups representing non-violent Islamists (sometimes described as "non-violent extremists", although "moderate extremists" would perhaps have captured the paradox more accurately) in the belief that they could better reach those young people who were "vulnerable" to radicalisation. As Douglas Murray complained, it became "a cash cow which any enterprising Muslim group could tap into."

Both versions of Prevent shared a similar analysis of the perceived problem: that there was a conveyor belt linking Islamist thinking with terrorism. At one end of the spectrum one found Muslims with strong views about the Israel/Palestine peace process; at the other, mass murderers. Opinions - both religious and political opinions - were potentially dangerous, because while most of those with such opinions would just grumble into their beards a deranged few would actually try to blow things up. It was the government's job, therefore, to interfere in Muslim religious and political discourse so as to promote "moderate" views and discourage "extreme" ones.

One of the many paradoxes in the previous government's response to the Jihadist threat was that the very groups which it promoted as representing mainstream Muslim opinion (for example, the Muslim Council of Britain) tended to be imbued with Islamist thinking. This was perhaps inevitable. The most politically self-conscious strands of "Muslim" opinion are Islamist almost by definition. Non-Islamists tend to identify politically as Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem, rather than as Muslim. Islamists also have control of many mosques: they tend to be more devout and religiously committed than the "average" Muslim. Finally, there's a notable overlap between the Islamist analysis of Western policy and that shared by many on the Left, which has often made Islamists welcome allies for political progressives prepared to overlook their reactionary views about the role of women or homosexuality.

The new Prevent strategy is less friendly to Islamists but every bit as concerned with moulding ideology. The present government, like the last, enjoys banning so-called "preachers of hate", the most recent of whom caused embarrassment when he entered Britain despite being on the official blacklist. He delivered speeches in London and Leicester and had been due to address Parliament - at the invitation of Labour MPs - when he was arrested. His views have been deemed terrorist-friendly, but in his time here he doesn't appear to have said anything particularly outrageous.

I've never supported such bans. The way to deal with uncongenial opinions is to argue against them, not to try to suppress them. Banning ideas only lends weight to the feelings of resentment, self-pity and powerlessness that do, in a few cases, lead people to acts of murderous violence. Even sympathising with an act of terrorism is very different from actually carrying one out.

To some extent, Melanie Phillips and the others are now getting a taste of their own medicine. They have been far too quick in the past to elide the distinction between Islamist opinions and violence, and also between Muslims in general and Islamists in particular. The spread of hardline Islam is largely a phenomenon within Muslim communities, and poses the greatest problem to other Muslims (female Muslims, gay Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims...). If "Islamophobic" writers are now being tarred with the same brush as the appalling Breivik... well, perhaps it will give them pause for thought.
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Wednesday, 20 July 2011

David Cameron's problem

At the time of the last general election, an election which he notoriously (and to many Tory minds, unforgiveably) failed to win, David Cameron was asked why he wanted to be prime minister. "Because I love my country," he replied, repeatedly and plaintively. It didn't strike me at the time as being a particularly convincing explanation for a vaulting political ambition and seems even more curious in hindsight. It sums up the somewhat accidental quality of the Cameron premiership: well-intentioned, perhaps, but the nagging question is Why?

It was obvious why Mrs Thatcher wanted to run the country. It was obvious why Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did. They all, in their different ways, wanted to transform it in their own image. Even John Major had an identifiable agenda, at least to begin with. Cameron, however, remains curiously blank.

Tim Montgomerie, whose job (I had assumed) was to act as some sort of cheerleader for the Conservatives, now writes that Dave "is proving to be a very average Prime Minister doing very average things." That underestimates, I think, the very radical nature of the changes the Coalition government is bringing about in Welfare, in the constitution (for example, the five year fixed-term parliaments that no-one voted for), in local government, the police and other areas besides. Not to mention the austerity programme. This has been an active, perhaps over-active, government. Yet Cameron himself can seem curiously detached from all this. You really wonder (well I do) why he is there at all.

That doesn't mean that there's any obvious candidate to take his place. Ken Clarke is too old, too unacceptable to many Tory MPs and still tainted by the recent (and wholly avoidable) rape row. George Osborne might well precipitate a Lib Dem walkout. David Davis has been frozen out of the cabinet and so lacks ministerial experience; otherwise, he would now be in a strong position. Jeremey Hunt, Andrew Lansley and Liam Fox have all run into trouble in their departments. Theresa May is, I suppose, doing well enough as Home Secretary to look vaguely plausible as prime minister. But for the time being, Cameron looks safe enough. The News International affair has seriously undermined his premiership, though, if not for the reasons generally supposed.

To have hired Andy Coulson as his official spokesman in government, against the strongly-expressed advice of Nick Clegg and possibly even the Queen, was of course an act of crashingly poor political judgement. It is not in itself a resigning offence - even when combined with other manifestations of his infautation with News International. It is, though, a symptom of wider problems: a problem with Cameron himself, and a problem concerned with the political milieu in which he rose, of which he was a perfect exemplar, and which is now in a state of terminal decline.

First, Cameron personal problem, which can be briefly stated. He's a man who places too high a value on friendship. He is loyal to his friends, to an extent that occasionally veers close to nepotism. During the Parliamentary expenses crisis, it was notable that Conservative MPs who were close to him - shadow cabinet allies and personal friends - were let off with, at most, a slap on the wrists. Those outside his inner circle were thrown to the wolves with ruthless resolution. For David Davis, Cameron's former leadership rival who resigned from the shadow cabinet to fight a by-election in the cause of civil liberties, there has been no way back, though he is eminently qualified for high office. When the prime minister intervened in the recent controversy over unpaid internships, it was to say that there was nothing wrong with pulling strings to get your son or daughter a leg-up in the job market. Notoriously, he was socially as well as politically close to Rebekah Brooks.

There's a pattern here, and it does not reflect well on David Cameron's conduct in office. There is a virtue in loyalty, but not when it means turning a blind eye to misconduct or blurring the line between public service and private friendship.

But what of the broader issue? This feels like the end of an era - the era in which political power and media influence went hand-in-hand, in which politics (in the eyes, at any rate, of professional politicians) was a matter of appearance rather than reality; the age of spin, in which the media adviser became the linchpin of the political process. Although the age was inaugurated by Blair, Mandelson and Campbell, Cameron is in many ways its incarnation. His only "real-world" job was as a PR for Carlton TV (not just a media job, but a meta-media job). Alastair Campbell himself has claimed (though not disinterestedly) that Cameron was his heir, rather than Blair's. As he complained to the Cheltenham Festival in 2009, Cameron is "perfectly good technically at presentation but he thinks that's what its all about. It's not.''

In the Blair-Cameron era, though, if it wasn't all about presentation, presentation was in pole position. Political success in a naturally bored, consumer-driven democracy seemed to be a matter of managing perception - and that, in turn, meant cultivating close relationships with amenable journalists and media proprietors. In truth, this paradigm has been under threat for some time. It is fundamentally cliquey, whereas the emerging Internet-based society derives its legitimacy from decentralisation and transparency. Ironically, the Coalition has promoted the concept of open government in important ways. Yet Cameron, whoever much he has tried to embrace 21st century ideas, will always be a product of the late efflourescence of 20th century mass politics whose name was Spin.

Worse for him, he was left holding the parcel when the music stopped. As someone who came to power at a time when politics and media were unhealthily close, he will always be tainted by the events of the past few weeks. He is not best placed to usher in a new era of genuinely accountable politics. Especially as he has never managed to explain why he even wants to lead the country.
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Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The BBC: falsifying art and history in the name of respect

The BBC's decision to make a series about Mohammed without showing his face - a concession to what are said to be Muslim sensibilities - struck many observers as reasonable. It is, after all, a straightforward matter to make a documentary without resorting to the kind of dramatic reconstructions that seem to be de rigeur nowadays. It might even be an improvement. And, since no contemporary depictions of Mohammed (so far as anyone knows) any image of him can only be conjectural. (The same goes for Jesus, of course, although everyone in the world knows what he looked like.)

There's a difference, though, between simply not showing a thing and distorting history to disguise the fact that a thing ever existed. Last night's episode, presented by Rageh Omaar, told the story of the prophet's fabled Night Journey, a reverie in which he imagined being transported to Jerusalem on a flying horse and then upwards through the heavens. Some Muslims like to imagine that this physically happened; in its balanced way, the programme offered viewers both possibilities, as though they were both equally likely.

For obvious reasons, this story has appealed to Muslim artists down the centuries was illustrated by several pictures taken from the 17th century Persian book, History of Mohammed, including this one. As you can see, the prophet's face is clearly visible:

This, however, is how the BBC showed it.

By blanking out the face in a historical Islamic image of Mohammed, the producers might think that they are deferring to Muslim sensitivities. What they are actually doing, however, is falsifying history and abusing art. Omaar did not explain that the picture had been defaced. The picture was not on the screen for long, and a casual viewer might have imagined that it had been painted that way, with the prophet's face represented by a slab of pink paint. Such a viewer might think, indeed, that the ban on showing Mohammed's visage is an eternal and unchangeable part of Islamic theology.

What is the problem here? That some Muslims prefer not to be reminded that the history of their faith is complex and has in the past accommodated various interpretations of its rules? The Islamic ban on depictions of Mohammed (and the other prophets, including Jesus) derives, ultimately, from the second commandment which, taken literally, forbids any visual depiction of any living or supernatural creature. Some radical versions of Islam (such as the Taliban) go so far as to ban photography on this basis. Shia Islam, on the other hand, has been more accommodating of imagery, though even Shi'ites have often made an exception for the prophet. Though not, of course, always.

The ban is usually justified as aiming to prevent "idolatry". Mohammed is not, like Jesus for Christians, the Son of God; he was "merely" the prophet. It's an odd sort of justification: if Mohammed was just a man, why should he be treated differently from anyone else? In any case, it doesn't seem to work. The person of Mohammed is so sacrosanct that many Muslims are prepared to march, riot or worse to defend him from any perceived slight. The Satanic Verses and Danish Cartoon controversies suggest that the regard in which the prophet is held falls only just short of idolatry, with or without images to bow down too.

Quite why non-Muslims should feel bound to assent to such a restriction - or why any sensible Muslim would imagine that they should - is unclear to me. There's obviously no need to extend a ban aimed at preventing worship of Mohammed to people who don't even regard him as a divine messenger. Yet we are often told that Muslim sensibilities are offended if anyone, however respectfully, attempts to represent Mohammed visually. This might be against Islam - or the currently most mainstream interpretation of Islam - but so is not praying five times a day in the general direction of Saudi Arabia, not going on pilgrimmage to Mecca, or depicting Jesus Christ. It would be most peculiar for followers of any religion to expect adherents of others, or of none, to obey the rules of a different faith.

But that is by the by. Having made an understandable decision not to alienate Muslim viewers, the BBC could have avoided showing any images. Or they could have used some of the many original depictions in which the prophet's face was covered by a veil. They chose instead to take several pictures in which a Muslim artist had shown Mohammed full-face and doctor them to accord with Wahhabi ideology. It was an act of cultural vandalism.
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Friday, 15 July 2011

Sunny v. The Sun

The vultures are circling above the stumbling, wounded beast that is NewsCorp. MPs, newly released from their psychic chains, look forward to publicly vivisecting Rebekah Brooke and the Murdochs. In the US, lawyers salivate, as lawyers (especially US lawyers) tend to on such occasions. The Fall of the House of Murdoch may at last be at hand.

But who is to deliver the final, decisive blow? Whose vital task will it be to dig the Digger's grave and bury him six feet under? Who has the gravitas, the global reach, the moral authority to hammer the last nails into NewsCorp's coffin? One name, above all, stands out. Step forward Sunny Hundal.

The LibCon supremo is agonising - agonising, I tell you - over his tactics. Should he mobilise his online army and - gulp - declare a boycott of the Sun? People have been urging such a decisive course of action. "Several readers," he notes, "keep asking when the boycott of the Sun newspaper or the whole of News International will take place." But like any good general, Sunny knows that timing is everything.

Look, I’m not fan of the Sun newspaper by any stretch of the imagination, but this isn’t going to happen any time soon. If we do strike, it would have to be at the right time.

That isn’t to say a group of us haven’t discussed this already. The problem is, for a boycott to work would require a big scandal of that motivates lots of people outside the usual suspects.

Because if a handful of people who don't buy the Sun anyway declare that henceforward they're not going to buy the Sun, the effect on News International's global domination might be less than catastrophic, however psychologically satisfying. I was at college once. I remember with what grave deliberation my fellow students resolved not to have Britain's most popular daily tabloid contaminate the JCR. (In those days it was breasts, rather than phone-hacking, that rendered the paper beyond the pale.) Did Rupert Murdoch write personally, begging us to reconsider? He did not.

But that was a long time ago. Long before the name of Sunny Hundal resounded through the land. Such is Lib Con's power today, indeed, that authorities on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean defer to its wishes even before they have been publicly announced.

Yesterday, we were on the verge of launching a campaign to demand an FBI investigation into News Corp’s activities. We got that wish before the campaign even got off the ground.

Have the FBI been hacking into Sunny's phone? Or does the great man have psychic powers? I think we should be told.

He might feel emboldened by this pre-emptive success, but Sunny is still cautious. He's planning (Murdochs, take note) a three-pronged strategy to bring NewsCorp finally to its knees.

Firstly, "to line up American allies and push for a corruption investigation into News Corp in the US." They couldn't possibly manage it on their own initiative, after all. Secondly, to "focus on Andy Coulson", laying bare the facts about his relationship with David Cameron. "Third, since the PCC is dead, there is a debate to be had about what press regulation should look like."

And who better to start, lead and generally dominate that debate than the man of the hour, Sunny Hundal himself?

You thought it was bad for the Murdochs? Their nightmare has scarcely begun. Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Equality Commission outrages gays and humanists

Earlier this week, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission dropped a quiet bombshell. Four cases of religious discrimination brought by Christians backed by the hardline Christian Institute and rejected by British courts as worthless were going to be heard in Strasbourg, and the EHCR intended to "intervene" in their support. The cases include those of Lilian Ladele, the registrar who refused to officiate at civil partnership ceremonies; Gary MacFarlane, the Relate counsellor who preferred not to counsel gay couples; and Nadia Eweida, the BA check-in clerk who was told she couldn't wear a cross at work.

That some such move was on the cards might have been suspected after Trevor Phillips, the EHCR head, gave an interview to the Telegraph a couple of weeks ago in which he announced - to the loud indignation of the British Humanist Association, among others - that "our business is defending the believer". The BHA, the National Secular Society and Stonewall nevertheless reacted this week with something approaching stunned disbelief.

Gay activist Patrick Strudwick sounded like a man who had just been bitten by his own pet dog:

The EHRC... has switched colours, and what an extraordinary switch that is. To refuse to work with gay people is ipso facto discrimination, however you attempt to justify it. Yet now the commission will champion the discriminators. It will champion those who choose their minority status – people of faith – over those with no choice over theirs – gay people.

While the BHA's Andrew Copson feared that the Commission was lending its influential backing to

a sustained attempt to weave a victim narrative in defiance of the facts and the construction of this narrative looks like a deliberate agenda to stir up support for a re-Christianisation of our public spaces as a reaction to feelings of persecution.

The tone of the EHRC's statement would seem to lend weight to gay and humanist fears. It explains that

If given leave to intervene, the Commission will argue that the way existing human rights and equality law has been interpreted by judges is insufficient to protect freedom of religion or belief.

It will say that the courts have set the bar too high for someone to prove that they have been discriminated against because of their religion or belief; and that it is possible to accommodate expression of religion alongside the rights of people who are not religious and the needs of businesses...

In other words, it will use its influence as a statutory regulatory body to try to persuade the European Court of Human Rights to overturn a growing body of case law that has been developed since the concept of "religious discrimination" was introduced here. British judges have made a point of interpreting the law quite narrowly. In the MacFarlane case, Lord Justice Laws drew a sharp distinction between protecting the believer as an individual from discrimination and protecting the substance of a particular belief. Here's part of what Laws said:

The common law and ECHR Article 9 offer vigorous protection of the Christian's right (and every other person's right) to hold and express his or her beliefs. And so they should. By contrast they do not, and should not, offer any protection whatever of the substance or content of those beliefs on the ground only that they are based on religious precepts. These are twin conditions of a free society.

Laws went on to describe as "deeply unprincipled" the notion that the law should give protection to particular moral positions "on the ground only that it is espoused by the adherents of a particular faith, however long its tradition, however rich its culture." This would be to "give effect to the force of subjective opinion". Indeed, he claimed, if such a concession were granted we should be "on the way to a theocracy" in which non-believers found themselves "out in the cold."

It is this principle that the EHRC has set its face against, preferring the argument put forward by the Evangelical Alliance (which has been lobbying the Commission for several years) that there should be a principle of "reasonable accommodation". That of course begs the obvious question of why it should be "reasonable" for a woman who believes that God opposes gay marriage to refuse to officiate at a civil partnership ceremony that is (1) not the same as marriage and (2) has no religious content whatsoever. As a Christian, should she not - if she is being consistent - refuse to countenance non-religious unions at all?

Especially worrying, perhaps, is the EHRC's assertion that it's simply trying to help people avoid costly legal battles:

The Commission thinks there is a need for clearer legal principles to help the courts consider what is and what is not justifiable in religion or belief cases, which will help to resolve differences without resorting to legal action.

Of course, cases like that of Lillian Ladele serve no-one's interest than lawyers'. But the Court of Appeal ruled in the clearest terms that she had no valid claim. Is the EHRC saying that employers should simply give in to unreasonable, bogus claims of discrimination just so as to avoid the courts? Or that the firm legal principles laid down by Laws LJ and other judges who have made similar decisions should be set aside in favour of its own imprecise notion of "reasonable accommodation" because this would cause less hassle? Such a policy would amount to little more than acquiescence in blackmail, and the result would not be "reasonable accommodation" but unreasonable privileges being accorded to those with the self-righteousness and sense of entitlement to kick up a fuss.

But this is to get into fine details and, perhaps, to miss the bigger picture. What lies behind the Commission's apparent volte face and what lessons might be drawn from it?

The EHRC's main job is to oversee, regulate and promote the burgeoning equality and diversity industry in the UK, a vital task for which it receives substantial amounts of public money. Around £60 million a year, in fact. Like all bureaucracies, it exists primarily to extend its own power and reach. Tasked with tackling race, gender, disability and various other discriminations, it has hitherto rather neglected the religious part of its remit. At least, Trevor Phillips seems to think so.

In the shiny, happy world of equalities quangoes, discrimination is "not a zero sum game"; there is no need for the right of gay people to receive public services to conflict with the right of fundamentalist Christians (or Muslims) to refuse to provide them, so long as the bigots concerned are working for the government rather than, like the owners of a Cornish guesthouse, for themselves. In the real world, however, rights do conflict. And certainly groups representing aggrieved rights-holders (real or imagined) are at each other's throats, for the moral high-ground and for the attention of the EHRC with its generous funding, official status and quasi-judicial functions.

The EHRC has a statutory duty to intervene in support of its understanding of equality and anti-discrimination. It does not, though, have a statutory duty to be "politically correct", however it might have behaved in the past. It might seem obvious to the likes of Patrick Strudwick that its proper role involves supporting gay "victims" and ignoring Christian ones, or to Andrew Copson that its proper role lies in promoting secular pluralism and opposing religious privilege. But that is not its job.

Evangelical Christians claiming that they have been discriminated against have just as much right to its offices as do gay rights activists. They are citizens, and taxpayers, too. The political process has also become increasingly sensitive to religious concerns, from Tony Blair's obsession with inter-religious dialogue to the Big Society's stress on encouraging faith-based initiatives. Recent talk of "Blue Labour" suggests that pro-faith politics remains a bi-partisan obsession.

It is only to be expected that the EHRC, anxious to assure politicians of its continuing relevance in an era of cutbacks and quango-culls, should respond to such a climate by looking with increasing sympathy on its religious clients. That's where the action is. Apart from anything else, gay rights are a bit old hat.

So to those condemning the EHRC's change of heart this week I say this: The bureaucracy is not your friend. Why did you ever imagine that it was?
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Monday, 11 July 2011

Paper, scissors, stone

Until last week, his ownership of Britain's two bestselling tabloids and (to a lesser extent) his large stake in BSkyB made Rupert Murdoch a power in the land, able to frighten politicians and, sometimes, get his own way. But he was never the dominant figure of myth. If you want to see what a media landscape looks like when it is dominated by one man, you have to go to Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi combines personal ownership of most commercial broadcasting with much greater power over the state broadcasting aparatus than any British politician would dare to dream of enjoying over the BBC. Britain is not Italy, thank goodness. Not even close.

Murdoch's power may have been great, but it was never absolute nor even in the majority, and total NewsCorp ownership of Sky would make little practical difference. That the bid -- almost certainly now defunct -- became a big issue at all is proof of the existence of a powerful, well-connected anti-Murdoch lobby in the UK. The coalition ranged against Murdoch includes not just the BBC and the Guardian and their union cheerleaders -- who have an ideological distaste for all his works that is at times only semi-rational -- but also (if intermittently) his commercial rivals at, for example, the Mail and the Telegraph.

The news market in this country has always been, and remains, incredibly tough and competitive. Politicians may have cosied up to Murdoch, but they haven't cosied up only to Murdoch; in recent years, both Labour and Conservative leaders have been every bit as solicitous of the Daily Mail. As Janet Daley pointed out yesterday, the real problem has been located elsewhere -- not in the power of one man but in a political culture in which journalists and politicians cultivate each other and share "the coded vocabulary, the discreet understandings, the accepted attitudes" of an extended club.

Taking down Murdoch won't stop this. It may even make things worse, by reinforcing a left-liberal mindset that does little for the "plurality" that the anti-Murdoch lobby so cherishes. But turning the phone-hacking scandal into a war against Murdoch also serves the interests of those whose involvement in phone-hacking and other questionable or illegal journalistic practice was at least as great. Because this is not, in truth, a story about Murdoch, or even about the tabloid press in general (whose sins were not confined to News International). It is a story about the dangerously entangled worlds of the press, the police and politics, a triad as inseparable and mutually menacing as scissors, paper and stone. They were all three in it together, all three playing the manipulation game, using influence, money and blackmail to increase their power and influence.

This is why Nick Clegg, himself part of the establishment (whether he likes it or not) was right to say that "the pillars of the establishment are tumbling". Or, rather, optimistic. They deserve to crumble, at least.

The most serious aspect of this whole saga may turn out to concern the behaviour of the police which, I suspect, goes much deeper than a few bent cops taking bribes from journalists in exchange for information. The Met in particular have used the press relentlessly and ruthlessly to get their message across, to campaign for more powers and greater curbs on civil liberty, to demand (and almost get) ID cards, to plant often misleading information about suspects in the public domain, and to increase their leverage with elected politicians. Who knows what inducements they have been able to offer, what quids pro quo, what threats they have whispered into the ears of politicians? No wonder they are worried.

George Michael has made some fascinating contributions via Twitter. I've turned his Tweets over the past few days into connected prose:

July 7th
Those of you that have wondered why I have had nothing to say this week about Rupert Murdoch, all I can say is that the time will come. But this much is worth saying now. Rebekah Brooks sat two feet from me in my own home and told me that it was never the public that came to them with information on celebrities, and that the Police always got there first. (Don't ask me how she got there. Believe me I didnt invite her.)

By the way, the things I have to say on the NOTW's corruption of the British justice system are by way of a public warning. These beliefs are in no way an excuse for any of my behavior in recent times. I was happy to do my time, because I was so ashamed. But I believe every individual, whether privileged or the average citizen, deserves the law. And many of us rich or poor have been denied it by News International. For many, many years. Like I said, today is a FANTASTIC day for Britain.

July 10th

One thing puzzles me, why is nobody talking to or about Sir Ian Blair? The man was obsessed with celebrity scandals.And he was in charge at the time that the so called 'list of victims' was discovered along with the names of the Royals hacked.Why has he disappeared into thin air? Isn't it possible that he had something to do with the decision NOT TO INFORM the hundreds (thousands?) of citizens of the danger? And we all remember his economy with the truth when it came to the poor Brazilian man who died on the tube post 9/11 [7/7 -ed].

Just a thought you understand. But the implausible becomes more plausible hour by hour as this all plays out. I just want to know, Why did the Metropolitan Police choose to hold on to the list for MORE THAN THREE YEARS?

July 11th

This thing is going to have legs, people. And not the pretty kind. Just spoke to my lawyer. Apparently they want to interview me about my comments on Rebekah Brooks here on Twitter. Like I said, glad to help. I have way more to tell the police than I can tweet to you here. Believe it or not, I've been careful so far!

From the very beginning of my self-made introduction to the police and the crown prosecution service, my main outrage was not for me. It was that I had been as naive as most of us who find ourselves dealing with the justice system for the first time. I really thought the Law was the Law.

Don't get me wrong, I met (a lot !) of perfectly decent policemen and women in my darkest, most shameful hours, but I knew that the press would get to my house before I did. On every occasion, some little creep in that police station would have called the press, cap in hand, and made a nice little wad of cash. I just became resigned to it. Perks of the job in the Met. But it was the first court trial that blew my mind.

Right now I am trying to get together transcripts and other information. Not because it will make any difference to me. It won't. In fact I can safely say that I am one of the few people amongst the thousands of News International's targets to have genuinely benefitted from Murdoch's attempts to destroy me. No, if I decide to say anything about how my first conviction came about, besides the fact that I was an idiot, it will be because I love my country, and I believe its judicial system MUST be trustworthy.

I am NOT trying to exonerate myself of anything, I did something bad and got my Karmuppance, as I like to think of it. Its just that the sequence of events between my being arrested and finally convicted for sleeping pills and exhaustion seemed extremely -- well, let's just call it ...illegal. I was going to say odd, but sod it, they seemed at the very least, outside of normal legal procedure. These are only my suspicions, but I think that if they hold water, then it's very important that they come to light for everyone's sake.

Here's the problem, though. The police, the press and the leading politicians have each other in a death-grip. Or, to switch metaphors, they each have a loaded revolver pointed at one or both the others. Politicians threaten the press with regulation, but are threatened in their turn by the possibility of embarrassing revelations (some, no doubt, courtesy of the police). The police cannot investigate the press too closely without pulling their own house down; and they continue to rely on the political class for new powers and kit. And the press, however vulnerable they now seem, know where the bodies are buried.

It is in no-one's interests to clear up the mess. Rupert Murdoch, though, in his present weakened condition, will make a most useful fall-guy. Some will call it just deserts; and perhaps it is. But it will really be a case of the media-political complex doing to News International what Murdoch tried to do to by killing off the News of the World.
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Home Office downgrades the terror threat

I see that the Home Office has downgraded the terror threat level from "severe" to "substantial". Officially, that means that "a terrorist attack is a strong possibility and might well occur without further warning." What it actually means is that there hasn't been any terrorist attack or near-miss for a long time and the security services don't think there's much to worry about. Mind you, the Home Office has a habit of reducing the threat level for a few months or weeks just so that they can put it back up again, amid much fanfare about a heightened risk, when they want to introduce some pointless new security measures.

This latest move could well be something to do with the Olympics next year. There is, after all, bound to be some sort of terrorist panic (real or imaginary) in the run-up to the big event -- along with the equally inevitable sex-trafficking panic. Raising the threat level to "severe" will be a psychologically important part of driving the message home. But to do so they have to reduce the level first -- preferably at a time when everyone's mind is on other things, like Rupert Murdoch's collapsing hegemony or (more serious, I think) police complicity in tabloid misbehaviour over many years.

Historically, there has been very little correlation between the official threat level and actual terrorist incidents. Or if there is a correlation, it has been negative, with such incidents tending to occur when the authorities were least expecting it and have toned down the warning. That's probably coincidental, however. More significant, though you wouldn't know it to listen to the Home Office, is the almost total disappearance in real Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist activity in the West -- a trend that was in evidence long before the elimination of Osama Bin Laden.

According to the Home Office, there are five levels of terror threat: low, moderate, substantial, severe and critical. In reality, though, there are only three. We will never see the level set at low or moderate. The other levels remind me of the possibly apocryphal condoms sold in three sizes: large, extra-large and colossal. Read the rest of this article

Friday, 8 July 2011

Whatever you think about Johann Hari's journalism, this is a great speech

The rather more serious matter of phone-hacking and the sudden destruction of the News of the World has taken most of the heat off Johann Hari in recent days (although new evidence continues to emerge of his unconventional approach to journalism). He was, of course, caught bang to rights fictionalising interviews, and will be lucky to recover any credibility. I'm prepared to forgive him almost anything, though, if he makes more speeches like this brilliant call to arms against the culture of censorship and compulsory "respect".

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Thursday, 7 July 2011

Rebekah Brooks, forces' sweetheart

As editor of the Sun in January 2009, Rebekah Wade (as she then was) delivered the Hugh Cudlipp Memorial Lecture to journalism students. Here's just a part of it:

Last November on a visit to Afghanistan I found myself wandering around camp Bastian in search of a missing page three girl, (as you do) when I was apprehended by an angry sergeant major.

With clear contempt for my blue press flak jacket and out of bounds location, he sneered as he demanded to know what media outlet I was from.

The Sun, I said. Hoping this was the right answer. Well, it was as if I had told him he was coming back home to Brise Norton with us that night.

A broad smile. A big handshake. A thank you for all the Sun readers' support.

A shout to his colleagues, more thanks, everyone wearing our Help for Heroes band. Their pride in our pride for them.

And Becky, 22, from Bromley was safely returned.

I wonder what the Sergeant Major's reaction would be if she repeated her trip today? Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Did Cameron personally save Rebekah Brooks' job?

There was a remarkable story in the last issue of Private Eye which, if true, could be a source of considerable embarrassment for the Prime Minister. Yet it seems to have been overlooked amid the blizzard of revelations of the past few days.

According to the Eye, back in January Rupert Murdoch came to London determined to head off future trouble by sacking Rebekah Brooks (despite the fact that she "remains the apple of his rheumy eye").

It was time, Rupert told is flame-haired protégée, with the faintest hint of a quaver in his voice, to move on. Rebekah pleaded with the Dirty Digger not to be cut adrift and begged her friend David Cameron to intercede on her behalf. Following this intervention Murdoch, who is quite an old softie at heart, relented. The harpy hung on.

The report went on to suggest that the former Miss Wade has been attempting to get pregnant, which would give everyone concerned a face-saving formula for her departure. That cunning plan (if true) has probably been overtaken by recent events: if nothing else, it's hard to see her surviving the collapse in sales and advertising revenues shortly to be visited upon the News of the World. In any case, it's the Cameron angle that interests me.

Everyone knows that the two are good friends. But still, the suggestion that he personally persuaded Murdoch to keep her on, against his better judgement (and, whatever you think of him, his judgement usually is a whole lot better than that of most politicians, at least when it comes anything touching his own interests) at a time when the phone-hacking scandal was already big news at Westminster, will hardly look good on his record. Perhaps his loyalty to a friend is commendable. And it is, of course, inconceivable that Rebekah had the slightest idea of what her journalists were getting up to at her behest while she was editor of the Screws. Still. The public aren't going to like this; nor, I suspect, is Rupert Murdoch.

As I said, it's surprising this hasn't been a bigger story. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Ronald Reagan and the meaning of greatness

There's widespread agreement that Ronald Reagan - whose statue was unveiled in London yesterday - was a "great president". The largely positive reaction to the event comes as something of a surprise, albeit a welcome one, to someone who remembers the combination of derision and distaste in which he was held by the BBC and other parts Britain's Leftish establishment during the 1980s (if you don't remember, think George W Bush). I wonder if Lady Thatcher, when the inevitable time comes, will get such sympathetic coverage.

But was Reagan a "great president"? And what does being a great president mean? At one level, I suppose, it means being generally regarded as great. It is, after all, an accolade given to few presidents (or, for that matter, prime ministers). Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, perhaps Teddy Roosevelt, possibly Kennedy... after that, it's largely a matter of debate. All of these, except possibly Washington, whose eminence you'd have to be Lord North to deny, have their detractors, as does Reagan himself. Though not as many as you'd expect. Not any more.

So what makes a great political leader? Personality and achievement are both essential. A great leader has to do things of real substance, but he or she also needs to be memorable, to stand out, to have sufficient charisma (or just noticeability) to give the impression of shaping events. Roy Jenkins, in his biography of Churchill, suggests that great leaders have "strong elements of comicality in them." That goes for Churchill, of course; it also goes both for Reagan and for Margaret Thatcher. But then it also goes for Sarah Palin, so it can't be the whole story.

The most crucial ingredient of all is timing. Reagan, along with Mrs Thatcher and even Pope John Paul II, is widely credited with bringing an end to communism in the Eastern bloc. His popularity in that part of the world is largely based on that supposed achievement. Strangely, Mikhail Gorbachev, who played a more crucial (though to some extent unwilling) role in the collapse of the Soviet Union only gets credit for it in the West.

Reagan does deserve a slice of the credit. He contributed in two major ways to the undermining of Soviet Communism. His soaring rhetoric of freedom, including his talk (widely ridiculed at the time by the Left) of Russia as the "evil empire", fortified many dissidents behind the Iron Curtain and may have helped spread dissatisfaction among a wider public. It was only after Reagan had left office, though, that his rhetoric really bore fruit. He was great because he was a symbol: because he believed with a perhaps too simple faith in the greatness and goodness of America and caused others to believe it too. [Although as Alex Massie points out, Reagan's policies were often more pragmatic than his black-and-white language might have implied.]

More practically, Reagan hugely increased the US defence budget, partly by exaggerating the power and threat posed by the Soviets, in ways that the USSR was unable to match but helped to push it close to bankruptcy. The price paid was the near bankrupting of the USA itself - but Reagan was lucky, and luck is another indespensible precondition of greatness.

In the end, though, what toppled Soviet Communism was that its time was up and the Party proved itself unable to institute the necessary changes early enough, far-reachingly enough and ruthlessly enough while keeping itself in power. The Chinese communists did. Timing may have been crucial here. Mao died in 1976 and was soon succeeded by reformers; by the crucial year of 1979 the great structural revolution was underway. The dead weight of Brezhnev and his moribund successors was only lifted in 1985, by which time it was probably too late.

Winning the Cold War, though, was a long and slow process. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, all in their way great presidents (yes, even Nixon; perhaps especially Nixon) came too early to claim the glory. As for George Bush I, on whose watch the Soviet Union actually did collapse: he had the timing, but he lacked the charisma and, later on, the luck. As Major dwelt in the shadow of Thatcher, so was it with the older Bush - who was, nevertheless, an intelligent man, a shrewd diplomatic operator and a far better president than his son.

In the Guardian Mehdi Hasan decries the mythmakers while indulging in quite a bit of mythmaking himself. In what is rather a confused piece, his main point seems to be that Reagan was "not a Neocon", the principal evidence for which assertion is that in his day the United States was not involved in so many wars as in more recent years. The only two military actions Reagan launched were the brief invasion of Grenada in 1983 and the even briefer bombing of Libya in 1986. This is true, so far as it goes, but it doesn't really tell us anything; certainly it doesn't tell us that Reagan was "not a Neocon" - except to the extent that no-one was in those days, not officially at least.

I particularly balk at this

In contrast, consider the blood-spattered record of his successors. George Bush launched Gulf War I and sent troops into Panama and Somalia; Bill Clinton bombed Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia; George W Bush invaded Afghanistan and gave us Gulf war II and the war on terror. And the Nobel peace prize winner Obama had troops surging in Afghanistan, launched a war on Libya and sent drones into Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

George Bush did not "launch Gulf War I"; Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Perhaps Mehdi Hasan thinks that he should have been allowed to remain there. The younger Bush may have given us Gulf War II, but the war on terror had something to do with Osama Bin Laden. I realise that Mehdi Hasan prefers to deny such plain facts to their face, but they deserve a mention.

The truth, though, is that all these later conflicts were part of the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. The tearing down of the Iron Curtain was great news for the people of Eastern Europe (on balance, and for most of them) but was massively destabilising elsewhere, as the collapse of great empires, however welcome, tends to be. In a newly uncertain world, the United States found itself in the unexpected role of sole superpower, inaugurating the age of foreign intervention, of usually unwinnable wars, that is now slowly drawing to a close.
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Sunday, 3 July 2011

Karen Armstrong and the relics

There are relics (or, in most cases, relic-containers) on show at the British Museum - the exhibition Treasures of Heaven is running there until October - and there's a heavy, lavishly-illustrated catalogue to accompany it. The show represents a spectacular assemblage of medieval bling - bejewelled boxes, golden crosses (some look as though they might have been designed by Christian Lacroix), gilded upraised arms, medallions, ornamental statues. My personal favourite is in the shape of a foot, built to exhibit a bone from that part of the body of St Blaise. Seriously weird.

The catalogue brings to bear varied academic perspectives on the whole subject. The essays take us from the emergence of the cult in late antiquity, through the collecting mania of the high Middle Ages to its later manifestations and distant echoes (including even the artist Piero Manzoni's ironic distribution of his own canned faeces). Theology features (for example, the way in which the architecture of churches came to reflect the place of relics in worship) but so does the relationship between patrons and artists and the impact of pilgrimage of international trade and diplomacy.

Interesting stuff, and a good reminder that the Middle Ages were not simply (as some continue to believe) sunk in stupidity and unquestioning faith. Medieval people were not wholly alien. Despite the very different conditions of life and the era's pervasive religiosity, they were human beings with the same mixture of motivations high and low, mercenary and altruistic, power-seeking and idealistic as people today. The cult of relics brought the sacred down to earth. On the one hand it transfigured bits of old cloth and bone into something holy, the focus of religious yearning and superstitious dread. Just as significantly, however, it turned the spiritual realm into something that could be touched, trampled on, traded in, stolen, an opportunity for profit or for the accumulation of power and prestige.

Unfortunately, the British Museum (hoping, perhaps, to appeal to modern-day pilgrims) seems to be selling the exhibition as some sort of spiritual event. Director Neil MacGregor has claimed that it is "all about trying to represent the universal human desire to reach out and touch the absolute." He will no doubt be thrilled by the predictable outpouring of twaddle the show has brought forth from that world-class purveyor of free-floating, feelgood, pseudo-intellectual spirituality, Karen Armstrong.

Writing in the Guardian (obviously) Armstrong wants us to believe that we have much to learn from the degraded religious sensibility of the late Middle Ages, and (unlike, say, Martin Luther) she is prepared to take at face value contemporary theological expositions of its deep sacred significance.

Far from being an unfortunate eruption of popular religion... the cult of relics was in fact a serious attempt to explore the full dimensions of our humanity; surprisingly, it has much to teach us today.

As usual, Armstrong disregards and undervalues modern rational, evidence-based modes of thought, preferring to genuflect (perhaps literally) in awe at the ineffable wisdom of other times and places. But in fact an "eruption of popular religion", unfortunate or otherwise, was exactly what the cult of relics originally was. It emerged spontaneously some time during the late Roman empire. Authorities both temporal and ecclesiastical acted rapidly to bring the emerging devotion under some kind of control and to give it a theological framework, but the impetus came from the bottom up. (And hang on a minute, Karen, what's so wrong with "popular religion" anyway, you elitist snob?)

For centuries, the official response was ambiguous. Relic-worship was positively encouraged - and lavishly funded by both church and state - but its popular excesses were the subject of concern. Controlling both the supply of relics and the theology of their veneration was seen as vital. It was said (and it may well have been true) that the empress Helen, mother of Constantine, personally travelled to Jerusalem where she found - or was given, more likely - what was claimed to be the True Cross. There's no doubt that by the end of the 4th century bishops and emperors were giving the cult of approved relics there full backing, and by the 8th century it had been officially decreed that every church was to have its own relic.

And so it continued. By the high Middle Ages an elaborate pan-European relic industry had developed. It gave rise to the first international tourist industry, with places like Santiago de Compostela in Spain and Canterbury in England becoming rich off the backs of their saintly associations. The tomb of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral makes a particularly interesting case study. He was not (like Santiago's St James) a New Testament apostle, and the fact that he died on the orders of King Henry II might have made him seem a subversive figure. Yet his cult was encouraged - in an act of contrition - by the very king who had had him murdered. He might have remained a local hero, yet thanks to a stunningly successful international marketing campaign (which included sending small pieces of the saint's body to carefully-selected rulers and churches throughout Europe) Canterbury was soon the 4th most important pilgrimage site in Europe.

That was the official cult of relics, characterised by elaborate gilded containers of the sort on show in London, grand chapels built to house them, lavish donations from the rich and powerful. Armstrong, typically, says of the latter that "the profane wealth of an oppressive aristocracy was redeemed in the exquisitely crafted golden reliquaries and transferred from the rich to the realm of the sacred." Of course, rulers were partly demonstrating their piety; but they were also showing off their wealth in a socially approved manner. Some amassed vast collections of sanctified bones. Notable examples were the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, the French king Louis IX (who spent over a quarter of his country's annual income acquiring the supposed Crown of Thorns) and, in the early 16th century, Frederick of Saxony whose holy hoard eventually ran to more than 19,000 relics. It seems unlikely that Frederick's motivation was entirely religious - especially when you consider that his collection really took off when a wealthy cardinal in a neighbouring state began building up a rival relic museum.

All this magnificence served to encourage popular devotion to the saints, but it also (and just as importantly) served to channel and contain it. The bones themselves were generally not visible: what the pilgrim saw were gilded, bejewelled containers, stained glass windows, soaring Gothic arches. The relics might have been at the centre of this theatre of devotion, but they were, in most cases, hidden from profane eyes. The remains themselves were, largely, the preserve of the priestly elite.

Armstrong has it exactly wrong when she writes that

...the relic forced pilgrims to come literally face to face with their mortality. They had to overcome their natural revulsion for a corpse by kissing the relic, pushing themselves into a new realisation: because humanity was divine, even dead flesh, redolent of our ultimate defeat and corruption, could become pregnant with sacred power.

What forced people in the Middle Ages to come "literally face to face with their mortality" was the pervasiveness of death itself - death by disease, death by violence, death by starvation, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in fact. Kissing a bejewelled box reputed to contain a phial of Christ's blood or the fingerbone of an apostle was about meeting the divine, gaining spiritual credit (there was a close connection between relics and the trade in indulgences that so infuriated Martin Luther), praying for divine or hoping for a miracle. Only in a limited sense, if at all, was it about contemplating mortality.

The elaboration of the medieval cult was partly about controlling access and reinforcing both spiritual and temporal power; and it was partly about maintaining theological orthodoxy. It existed in tension with popular devotion, which was more immediate and animistic, never far from superstition and magical thinking. Theologians worried about the danger of relic-veneration tending towards idolatry. Some also worried about the proliferation of fake relics - the exploitation of the gullible satirised in the figure of Chaucer's Pardoner, as even the soppy-minded Karen Armstrong has noticed.

Yet she's able to write romantic guff like this:

Medieval pilgrims did not question a relic's authenticity as we would today, because they had actually felt the martyr's powerful presence for themselves. ...

Medieval pilgrims had not yet lost the art of participating in the "play" of ritual, which required them to behave as if something were the case, an imaginative exercise that propelled them into new vision. ..Most of us have lost this skill; indeed, since the Reformation the very word "ritual" has been capable of inspiring distaste. But the contradictions in the relic cult familiarised even the simplest pilgrim with the essentially paradoxical nature of religious thought.

I'm tempted to ask: how can she possibly know? How many medieval peasants has she actually interviewed?

[Image courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum]
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