30 April 2007

Discover What We Share

Hebrew text   Latin text   Arabic text

Last week I highlighted the need for us all to draw upon and learn from our shared heritage and positive cultural experiences. You will therefore not want to miss the British Library's "Sacred: discover what we share" exhibition, billed as the world's greatest collection of Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy books. Items on display include:
  • A Dead Sea Scroll fragment from AD 50,
  • The Syraic Pentateuch, the earliest known dated Biblical manuscript, written in Turkey in AD 463,
  • The Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest surviving complete copy of the New Testament in Greek, dating from the fourth century AD, and
  • The Ma'il Qur'an, from the first century of the Muslim Hijri calendar (early eighth century AD).
Running until 23rd September, associated events include a free afternoon next Monday with a food and crafts market, art workshops, and performances by the London Jewish Male Choir, IDMC Gospel Choir, the Ameer Khan Qawwali Group, and the whirling Dervish dancer Zia Azazi.

Labour's Poverty Legacy

Once again we have another report highlighting the scandal of poverty in Britain after ten years of Labour mismanagement, this time from the social policy research and development charity Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The charity's research shows that the rate of poverty among minority ethnic groups is double that found for the white majority (40% compared with 20%) and that minority ethnic groups are still being overlooked for jobs and being paid lower wages, despite improvements in education and qualifications.

On the Today programme this morning, Iain Duncan Smith highlighted the role that language and culture plays in preventing first generation immigrants from being able to integrate into society and noted that Government figures claiming success in getting these immigrants into jobs when they first arrive overlooks the facts that a great proportion of them are unable to hold down those jobs and find themselves unemployed within thirteen weeks. Although this clearly is a factor, the JRF research also shows that the poverty problem is not confined simply to first generation immigrants.

While there are clearly issues that need to be addressed if we are to tackle worklessness amongst ethnic minority communities, the wider scandal is that the number of people of any ethnic background living on less than 40% of average income has increased under Labour, and that fewer people are able to escape the poverty trap now than were able to a decade ago – that is, anyone born into poverty now is more likely to find themselves struggling with poverty as an adult than they would have done a decade ago.

29 April 2007

Turkey's Resurgent Islamism

Istanbul Rally [Screenshot from BBC News]This blog has raised various concerns about events in Turkey and the apparent threat to the country's modern, secular foundations. It is to be hoped, therefore, that the voices of the 1,000,000 people who took part in today's rally in Istanbul plus the 300,000 in Ankara a fortnight ago will prevail.

The protesters are calling for the government's resignation over the Islamist roots of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its presidential candidate, the present Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. Crucially, the protesters enjoy the support of the military, which is one of Turkey's most respected institutions and has led three direct coups against elected governments in the last half-century (in 1960, 1971 and 1980, also helping to engineer the "post-modern coup" of 1997 against the then Islamic-oriented government).

If any of our readers in Turkey could provide additional insight or a personal perspective, please do leave a comment or else email me.

28 April 2007

Blair's Self-Defence

"I got it wrong on problem families, admits Blair" declares the Telegraph. In actual fact his supposed admission of error was a self-righteous projection of blame onto unnamed advisors who "misguided us to the wrong policy conclusion" and an attack on David Cameron's recent call for a revolution in responsibility.

A younger Tony BlairThe outgoing prime minister is of course right no longer to agree with "the Blair of 1992" who believed that investment alone would deal with the "small and unrepresentative minority" of trouble-makers. However, he still fails to understand "the Cameron of 2007" and also seems not to recognise that the decisions he has been responsible for taking during his ten years in power have exacerbated the general social malaise through his consistent and deliberate destruction of our country's historic local and national institutions, from the family, through local councils, to Parliament itself.

He appears self-deluded when he maintains:

"I don't believe this is an issue to do with society as a whole. Obviously it impacts on society as a whole. But it is not part of a general breakdown in society, a tearing of our social fabric or a descent into a 'decivilised' culture. ... The reality is that we are dealing with a very small number of highly dysfunctional families and children whose defining characteristic is that they do not represent society as a whole. They are the exception, not the rule."
The reality is that five out of every six police officers have been assaulted in the line of duty during the last five years.

The reality is that almost three teachers a week are subject to serious assaults at work, 17 per cent of pupils have Special Educational Needs, and truancy is up by almost a quarter since 1997.

The reality is that more than 60,000 NHS staff are physically assaulted by patients and relatives of patients each year.

Those responsible for such widespread disorder are not merely a "small and unrepresentative minority" to be dismissed as easily as Mr Blair would have us believe.

As I have already said, he clearly fails to understand "the Cameron of 2007" for Mr Blair still thinks that the answer is to increase the powers of the state:
"I now think that the proper answer is to add to the ASB laws measures that target failing and dysfunctional families early, and place those families within a proper, structured, disciplined framework of help and insistence on proper behaviour.

"I know this is difficult and controversial, because it involves intervening before the child is committing criminal offences, at least serious ones, and when the families have not yet become a menace."
We have heard this predeterministic line from him before. However, in this regard, David Cameron's answer is the complete reverse of what Mr Blair is suggesting – and the reverse of what Mr Blair appears to be portraying as Mr Cameron's position. Unlike Labour, who would support Mr Blair's belief that "a nanny state is what we need," the Conservative leader wishes to decrease the role of the state or, as he puts it, "to roll forward the frontiers of society."

On one point, however, Mr Blair is right: We need to "Concentrate on the facts. The right analysis will bring a better answer."

Time is Up - Protect Darfur

Save DarfurAhead of tomorrow's global protests to mark the fourth anniversary of the conflict in Darfur, and clearly not appreciating that the time for mere talk has long passed, Tony Blair has yet again threatened "tougher action" against Sudan's government and rebels if they fail to act to end the crisis in Darfur.

The LibDem's Lynne Featherstone says all that's necessary in response:

"It is clear that what we are witnessing in Darfur is genocide. The British Government and the international community cannot continue to watch as this catastrophe unfolds in front of them. A no-fly zone, a proper and extensive arms embargo, targeted travel bans and asset seizures as well as meaningful sanctions are all essential yet the Government has so far done nothing. What will it take before this country takes the effective action that is so desperately needed?"

27 April 2007

At the Center of the Storm

George Tenet: At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIAIn a new book due out on Monday, At the Center of the Storm, America's former director of central intelligence, George Tenet, has accused Vice President Dick Cheney and other Bush administration officials of pushing the country to war in Iraq without ever conducting a "serious debate" about whether Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the United States or about the possibility of containing Iraq without an invasion. He now fears that US forces are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the management of sectarian violence in Iraq and questions the wisdom of Bush's "surge" strategy.

In an interview ahead of the book's launch, Tenet has also claimed that aggressive interrogation tactics such as the questioning of "high value" targets using sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, and "water boarding" saved lives, could not be defined as torture, and were worth more to the security of the United States than all the work done by the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, which tracks foreign electronic communications.

The first detailed account by a member of President Bush's inner circle during the 9/11 attacks and invasion of Iraq, the book looks set to be a controversial and perhaps illuminating read. If anyone gets to read it, do let us know what you think.

Transatlantic Rights

Britain and America [Credit: ConHome]Yesterday should have been a good day in British-American relations.

In the wake of the "9/11" attacks in 2001, Britain and America hastily drew up a treaty to help in the prosecution of suspected terrorists and organised crime networks by speeding up the extradition process. Replacing the previous arrangements that dated back to 1972, the British Government ratified this extradition treaty in 2003, no longer requiring the Americans to present any prima facie evidence before British citizens might be extradited to America. As with so much of Labour's dismissive approach to legislation*, there was no parliamentary debate or scrutiny of the new treaty. In contrast, the US Congress was more critical of the proposed new treaty, resulting in an asymmetry of justice lasting more than three years that was one of the issues in the debate over the so-called NatWest Three, accused in connection with the bankrupt US energy company Enron of conspiracy to defraud the National Westminster Bank of $20 million and extradited to America last summer.

Scales of JusticeFinally, yesterday, the Home Office Minister, Baroness Scotland, and US Ambassador, Robert Tuttle, exchanged the Instruments of Ratification at a ceremony in London. However, the treaty remains unbalanced in that if the UK wishes an American citizen to be extradited to Britain, we must submit evidence for an American court to decide whether or not to proceed, whereas America simply has to present an outline of the alleged crime to force a Briton to stand trial in the US.

The treaty also permits the waiver of the "rule of specialty" that had previously protected individuals, preventing them from being prosecuted for any offence other than that for which extradition was granted. Given the Government's obsession emphasis on human rights, I would have thought they would have wanted to do more to protect the rights of citizens. Clearly they had more important things to focus on.

Once again, the Government seems intent on undermining the special relationship that we have traditionally enjoyed with our transatlantic cousins.

* In the 116 years from 1881 to 1997, 117 bills were subject to a guillotine motion, meaning that time for debate was restricted – an average of almost exactly once per year. From the time that Tony Blair came to power in 1997 to the end of the last Parliamentary session, time for debate and proper scrutiny of legislation has been cut short around 600 times – an average of more than 60 times a year, much of that since the introduction of so-called programme motions at the end of 2000 that allow just 45 minutes for debate!

Euro-Spin Update

Euro-spinFollowing my call at the start of last week for a little more honesty over Europe, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has now provided it. Daniel Hannan writes in today's Telegraph about a letter he has obtained from the European president:

I am clutching in my hot, trembling hands the most extraordinary document I have come across in eight years of Euro-politics. It is a letter from the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to her fellow EU heads of government. In it, she proposes a scheme to bring back the European Constitution under a new name - or, as she artlessly puts it, "to use different terminology without changing the legal substance".

Now this, in itself, is not surprising. Many of us have suspected all along that the Eurocrats would try to bring back their constitution surreptitiously: I have written as much in these pages. What is shocking is the brazenness. Mrs Merkel flagrantly admits that she wants to preserve intact the content of the constitution, making only "the necessary presentational changes".
So, at least she is being honest about her intentions, but it still sounds like spin to me...

26 April 2007

Linguistic Time-Bomb

As a one-time teacher of English as a foreign language, who established a language school for adults in the developing world, I feel a crucial factor has been missed in today's reporting of the sharp increase in children who do not speak English as their first language.

Take the recently-arrived child in the class where my wife works as a teaching assistant – Fresh off the plane from the other side of the world, barely able to read or write in any language, and not speaking a word of English, he was thrown into a class of nine-year-olds, albeit with full-time one-on-one support. Even though he was no further forward academically than the pre-schoolers soon to move up to reception, he was expected to gain something from the exercise and, presumably, catch up with the rest of the class at some point.

That one in ten secondary school-aged children and one in seven primary school-aged children speak a language other than English at home should worry us profoundly. Not simply because of what it reveals about the transformation that unlimited immigration from Eastern Europe is having on our communities or the pressure that it is placing on housing, the health service, or jobs. Neither should we simply be concerned, as the Commission for Racial Equality policy director warned today, that growing racial segregation in our schools represents a racial "time bomb," that risks exacerbating issues such as the recent wave of violent crime.

When China was first opening up to the West, it issued visas to teachers of English as a foreign language but warned them only to teach English. They did not want any new cultural, political, or economic ideas brought in. What they failed to understand is that a language comes as part of and is inseparable from a whole cultural package. The teaching of a foreign language is one of the most politically subversive actions a person can engage in.

The increasing proportion of children in this country who do not have English as their first language are therefore not simply a significant drain on teaching resources. More than that, it is the cultural divide that we should be most concerned about. Not sharing the language, they will not share the same worldview and will be exposed to a different set of ideas and ideology. If we do not understand the significance of this now, then, like the Communist Chinese authorities, we will one day wake up and discover that we are living in a different country.

Wanted: A Little Respect

Since 2002:

  • Five in every six police officers have been assaulted while on duty
  • Assaults against the police have more than doubled
  • Officers in some areas can be attacked at least three times a year
Dixon Of Dock GreenThese statistics, obtained by Conservative MP Grant Shapps under a Freedom of Information Act request, paint a worrying picture and fill in significant missing details in the wider portrait of the ASBO generation that this government has helped to create.

It also heightens the calls made by David Cameron earlier this week for a revolution in responsibility in this country. If even the police have lost the respect of a significant section of society, we clearly have an uphill challenge if we are to restore order to our communities. According to an independent audit published at the start of this year, since coming to power ten years ago, the Government has passed around fifty Home Office Acts of Parliament, yet legislation clearly hasn't helped. Neither is providing the police with the "best possible protective equipment and training," as called for by the chairman of the Police Federation in response to these findings, going to reduce or prevent the problem. And an increase in funding for the police of 21% in real terms between 1997 and 2005 has only confirmed, once again, that throwing money at a problem is not by itself going to deliver results – especially when, to quote the auditors, "questions remain over the value for money that the public is getting from this additional spending." No, the focus of any solution has to be the place where individuals learn their values: Burke's "little platoons" of family and civil society.

25 April 2007

Playing Climate Politics With China

The New Scientist has an unintentionally amusing juxtaposition of items this evening. The first announces that fossil evidence of a hippopotamus-like creature found on an Arctic island, together with existing evidence of sequoia-type trees and crocodile-like beasts in the Arctic millions of years ago, "hints at a once-balmy climate – 'rather like Florida' – in the polar region," when carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, was at about 1000 parts per million in the atmosphere as a result of natural swings in the climate (cf. present levels stand at a mere 390 per million).

The second warns that China's CO2 emissions are to surpass the US within months, and quotes the International Energy Agency's chief economist as calling for bold international initiatives to persuade China and India to address climate change issues.

One has a degree of sympathy for the head of China's Office of the National Coordination Committee for Climate Change, quoted as saying, "For some international organisations to reach the conclusion that China's carbon dioxide emissions are about to surpass the United States' is not only irresponsible, but is also being used to apply pressure on the Chinese government."

Spot The Difference

Read the following in the latest International Herald Tribune and then replace Cuba with Iran. Sound familiar?

It's time to trade with Cuba

Two things should be clear concerning America's Cuba policy: Everything the United States has tried over the past five decades has failed, and it is high time that Washington does something to help transform the country's Communist system. ...

All of this is not bad in itself. The danger is that this Cuban-Venezuelan axis will stimulate anti-American populism across the whole region.

If the risks of keeping the status quo in place seem obvious, it is even more evident that Washington's travel bans, economic sanctions, and the refusal to extend diplomatic ties to Cuba have not only failed, they have damaged Washington's interests.

These tough measures have harmed both ordinary Cubans and Washington's relations with Latin America and Europe. They have strengthened Cuba's Communist regime by increasing the state's grip on key economic resources, and they have helped cement Cuba's alliance with Venezuela.

Since we have not succeeded in bullying the Cubans into submission, we should try to woo them by offering trade with the United States and integration into the international market system. How long could the Communist economy - or the Communist government - survive such an opening?
As the article goes on to note about Iranian sanctions, "U.S. sanctions imposed in the era before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power blocked Iranian reforms, undermined the country's liberals, strengthened the clerical regime's grip on the economy and perpetuated its rule."

Humanism Vs Religion

Last week we had Lord Harrison of the British Humanist Association launch a debate in the House of Lords on "the position in British society of those who profess no religion," in which he criticised the Archbishop of York, called on the non-religious to stand up against what he claims is a "newly aggressive" religious lobby, and all but accused the leaders of monotheistic religions of an unholy alliance.

Now we have the Archbishop of Canterbury urging politicians to rediscover the "moral energy and vision" that inspired the anti-slave trade campaigners. He maintains that "Wilberforce – not to mention Equiano and the others – confronts us now with the question, 'If Christians, committed to personal responsibility and social justice, cannot keep before the eyes of the state and its legislators the greater issues beyond security and profit, who can?'"

It seems to me that this apparent stand-off between secularists and religionists is in fact another false dichotomy, not unlike the supposed clash of civilisations. We could all adopt intransigent positions and even burn effigies of those with whom we disagree on matters of truth and reality. Alternatively, we could recognise that everyone – be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, humanist, secularist, atheist, or agnostic – has a belief system that informs their decisions and influences the role that they choose to play in society.

The trouble, I suspect, is that for all too long the Church of England has taken a backseat when it comes to political debate in this country. It is only now that independent evidence is increasingly pointing to the loss of traditional, faith-inspired morality as a principal factor fuelling family breakdown and societal collapse that believers are waking up to the need for them to re-engage in the debate. This may upset certain vested interests who have grown accustomed to having their own way; however, if this means we see genuine debate over policies in this country once again, rather than the present perception that "all parties are the same," then this must be a healthy development for democracy. So long as we can avoid letting the extremists from polarising every issue...

Emerging Technology & Health Inequality

Isn't our humanity much more than our DNA?

You might think the obvious answer to be yes.  However, the Director of 2020health warns in next month's edition of The Difference that if we are not told the truth about the claims made on behalf of emerging technologies (such as nanotechnology, genetics, transhumanism, and cloning) and about the consequences of new treatments, we risk having our equality and dignity seriously undermined.

Don't miss out – order your copy today!

24 April 2007

Dialogue of Civilisations

  • What is the role of the Middle East conflict in Jewish-Muslim conversation?
  • Is the media a positive force for change in inter-religious relations?
  • How can local communities be successfully engaged together?
I made reference a couple of days ago to the dialogue of civilisations. The concept of a dialogue among civilisations was originally introduced by the former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami in response to an increasing emphasis on and belief that there exists a "Clash of Civilisations." Khatami's ideas were also the basis for the United Nations naming 2001 as the Year of Dialogue among Civilisations.

Jerusalem's Wailing Wall and Dome of the RockThis civilisational dialogue is usually thought of in the context of Muslim-Christian and Muslim-Western secular relations. However, another often forgotten but crucial dimension is Jewish-Muslim relations. In a new development, Jewish and Muslim organisations met together last week in Brussels and discussed questions such as those listed at the beginning at this post. They also compiled information on partnerships, initiatives and best practice in the field of Jewish-Muslim dialogue in Europe.

Initiatives such as these are crucial in helping to remove mutual prejudices and misunderstandings. Here in the UK, there was a recent conference of rabbis and imams in Manchester, but to date the Government's favoured body for interacting with the Muslim community, the Muslim Council of Britain, has not even recognised Holocaust Memorial Day.

The fact remains that Jews, Christians and Muslims both here in Britain and worldwide have a common history dating back thousands of years. Now, more than ever, it is time for us all to draw upon and learn from our shared heritage and positive cultural experiences.

23 April 2007

Europe's Boost To Turkey's Military

Brussels is to blame for the recent backsliding in Ankara.

Don't just take my word for it – read this from today's International Herald Tribune, coming just days after Turkish armed forces began "a spring offensive against rebels with the PKK" (Kurdistan Workers Party):

It is important to understand the dynamic effect the European Union has had on the Turkish political system. The very prospect of Turkey's EU membership has been nothing less than an anchor of economic and political reform.

The overwhelming popularity of the EU project among average Turks in 2003-2004 made it possible for Erdogan's government to undertake a series of far-reaching political changes. The overall affect of these reforms was the development of a more open and democratic Turkey and a much diminished capacity for the military to meddle in politics. Indeed, by the end of 2004 when the EU commission recommended that membership negotiations with Ankara begin the following calendar year, Turkey was firmly on a liberal, democratic trajectory.

Just as the European Union was decisive in spurring Turkish reform a few years ago, Brussels is currently contributing to a return of some old and bad habits in Ankara. ...

The consequence of European opposition to Turkey's accession is a precipitous decline in support for Union membership among Turks. In 2004, some 77 percent of Turkey's population favored taking the necessary steps to join Europe, now only 30 percent do so. Candidate countries often exhibit a drop in public enthusiasm for EU membership when their populations confront the reality of both abdicating some sovereignty to Brussels and the hard task of conforming to the Union's laws, decrees, and norms. The fact that Europe's opposition to Turkish membership is based on religious and cultural factors only accentuates this problem.

In Turkey, the negative signals from Europe and subsequent steep fall off in support for EU membership have provided the generals with room to maneuver in the political arena.

Welcome To Iran!

It has been brought to my attention [thanks Iain!] that Peter Hitchens has written an insightful article about his recent travels in Iran and a friend has suggested that I repeat here a small piece that I wrote after I visited Iran together with my wife and children ahead of the 2005 Presidential elections. For those of you who don't know and by way of background to some of the references below, I worked in the Persian-speaking world for a number of years and have always found the hospitality-based culture throughout Central Asia to be extremely welcoming.

"Welcome to Iran – I love you!"

TehranWe found Iranians to be extremely open, significantly more so even than elsewhere in Central Asia, constantly welcoming us as they passed in the street and stopping to talk – our favourite greeting was the cyclist who yelled the above quote at us as he raced past us.

We saw all the signs of a free and vibrant political process in the run up to the country’s presidential elections and, contrary to Western media portrayal, saw no evidence of anti-Americanism. Rather, we found a desire for improved international relations. Only one religious leader we spoke to in an Islamic school appeared somewhat perplexed by us – but that could have been because he hadn’t met Westerners fluent in his language before, because he hadn’t had an American woman in his school before, or because these two children had what he thought of as Muslim names but were apparently Christian. If he had seen how my son was moved to pray for the people of Iran in the Royal Mosque in Isfahan, he would no doubt have been even more baffled!

Another notable and unexpected observation was the comparatively unobtrusive influence of Islam. Whereas Turkey claims to be secular but every skyline is defined by its towering minarets and the call to prayer is inescapable, mosques in Iran were generally far more secluded and in the week of our visit we only heard the call to prayer four or five times. Yes, every woman has to cover her head completely, yet the boundaries of even this dress code are being progressively tested, especially among the young (who make up the majority of the population), with headscarves being worn further back across the top of the head with each passing year and repeatedly being allowed to slip and re-adjusted when in the workplace. One 26-year-old devout Muslim with whom I had a long religious and political conversation on one of our flights observed that most people are increasingly disillusioned with Islam because it promises "power and wealth in this life and the next" but the religious leaders failed to deliver on this promise after they assumed political leadership in the country. The demand for change is widely expected to increase in the wake of the elections.

Hopefully the above account will help explain some of my other posts about Iran that may have baffled some of you – and perhaps also some of those about Turkey.

Responsibility Revolution

"We need a revolution in responsibility in this country, and for government that means setting a simple test for every policy: does it give people more responsibility, or does it take responsibility away from them?"

David CameronConservative leader David Cameron has told Radio 4's Today programme that measures like anti-social behaviour orders have been counter-productive, because they allow people to abdicate responsibility for their actions.

Through a combination of less state interference and more support for families and social enterprises, he claimed that a Conservative government would create a "framework of incentives that encourages civility and pro-social behaviour" and thereby encourage parents, neighbours, business people, and teachers to take responsibility for raising children to behave properly and keeping their own communities in order.

Of course, part of the problem is surely the lack of role models, particularly in public life. A generation ago, if a mistake was made, then the minister responsible would accept the need to resign. All that has changed in the last ten years. Now, if Parliament is misled to vote for a war that results in hundreds of thousands of innocent lives being lost and in which every major player accepts that inadequate thought was given to reconstruction plans, the most we can hope for is a conscience-striken rebel belatedly voicing their concerns after the event. No chance of any apology though, let alone anyone honourably quitting.

If the Government itself is incapable of taking responsibility for its actions, is it little wonder that others in society are becoming less inclined to do so? If so much of politics is negative and personal, is it little wonder that we find incivility and rudeness in our youth? If the historic institutions that have traditionally formed the bedrock of British society are dismissed so easily by the country's leadership, is it little wonder that so few show respect for authority any longer?

22 April 2007

Understanding Others

IMDB: House of Sand and FogLast night, thanks to BBC2, I watched a film that I have been meaning to see for a couple of years: Vadim Perelman's adaptation of the Andre Dubus III novel, House of Sand and Fog. I was not disappointed.

A tragic tale of an American divorcee ashamed of letting her family know the mistakes she's made in life and an Iranian Colonel trying to keep his family in the manner to which they were accustomed before they had to flee their home country, the character study provided an insight into some of the differences between Americans and Iranians, their contrasting moral codes and value systems.

The only thing I would have liked to have seen explored further was more about the Iranian family's earlier life in Iran and their forced exile. I felt this was a missed opportunity to provide further insight into the Iranian worldview. Nevertheless, it still compares favourably with Khaled Hosseini's debut novel, The Kite Runner, which similarly provides an excellent portal on Afghan culture. Both are highly recommended for anyone seeking to broaden their understanding of others' points of view in these days of global tension and regional conflict across the Middle East and Western Asia.

IMDB: Bamako ('The Court')On films, I should report back on my post earlier this month about the ten films shortlisted for the human rights film award, FACE (the Film Award of the Council of Europe). The winner was Abderrahmane Sissako's Bamako ("The Court"), in which representatives of African society put the World Bank and International Monetary Fund on trial in a backyard over loan repayments and their role in Africa's economic woes.

21 April 2007

Baghdad's Berlin Wall

Night-vision view of the site where the wall is being built, courtesy of the US military [Credit: BBC]First came the Berlin Wall - a symbol of the Cold War, of separation and tyranny.

Next we had the construction of the 370-mile-long barrier dividing the city of Jerusalem and the Palestinian-populated West Bank region. The American reaction to this was a threat to withhold part of a $9 billion Israeli aid package.

Now, despite their criticism of Israel, American military commanders in Baghdad are building a 12-foot-high, three-mile-long wall separating a historic Sunni enclave from Shi'ite neighbourhoods in an attempt to quell the widening sectarian violence.

If Israel's checkpoints were wrong both for isolating and entrapping Palestinians, how is Baghdad's new "Berlin Wall" any different?  Moreover, how is it going to prevent any violence?  Surely it is just going to increase sectarian tensions and make the US and Iraqi checkpoint guards another symbol of occupation to be targeted by insurgents?

A Nation of Immigrants?

Just a couple of days since the Immigration Minister, Liam Byrne, admitted that large-scale immigration has damaged our poorest communities, has deeply unsettled the country, and has resulted in inequality and child poverty, a new Civitas report reveals that immigration into Britain is now running at a level that is without precedent in our history and which threatens our cohesion as a nation.

Maintaining that immigration had never previously risen above very low levels or had any serious demographic impact prior to the last part of the twentieth century, the report's author, David Conway, claims that Labour's policies since 1997 have amounted to a virtual abandonment of the control of our borders, with net foreign immigration now representing an increase in Britain's population of one per cent every two years. He suggests:

"The country may possibly have already reached a tipping point beyond which it can no longer be said to contain a single nation. Should that point have been reached, then ironically, in the course of Britain having become a nation of immigrants, it would have ceased to be a nation. Once such a point is reached, political disintegration may be predicted to be not long in following."
Speaking earlier this week, the Immigration Minister cited the case of a school in his constituency where non-English speakers have soared from 1-in-20 to 1-in-5 in just a year and admitted, "It is true that a small number of schools have struggled to cope, that some local authorities have reported problems of overcrowding in private housing and that there have been cost pressures on English language training."

The new Australia-style points-based system that he revealed, restricting immigration to skilled workers (a policy adopted from the Conservatives' 2005 election manifesto) and to be introduced next year, is long overdue. However, this will have no impact on illegal immigrants or people coming from the European Union. Moreover, the Government still does not accept the need for a cap on how many migrants it allows into the country, so there is no reason to suppose that the new system will make any noticeable difference to our present laissez-faire migration.

If Britain is to remain a stable, free, and tolerant country, we need to recognise the extent to which Tony Blair's leadership of this country has radically and irreversibly transformed the face of our communities. Further, if we are to hold society together, we need to realise that the dialogue of civilisations is not merely an exercise to be carried out between nations but is now a requirement within our nation. Lastly, if we are truly to get a grip on this issue, we also need to reclaim full control of our borders from Europe – something that Blair's commitment yesterday to finalise a "basic outline agreement for a treaty" at June's European summit will not facilitate.

20 April 2007

Influencing Iran

Now that the Iran hostage drama has all but been forgotten and while we wait for the next escalation in the nuclear standoff, we are clearly in a period of quiet diplomacy. The question is, who is best placed to achieve possible results? Or, coming at the query another way, which global power is Iran's closest trading partner?

I'll give you a clue: Think about Britain. We are America's largest trading partner, as are they ours. That is reflective of the importance and, historically at least, the mutual influence between ourselves and our trans-Atlantic cousins.

So, what of Iran? A neighbouring Islamic oil-rich state, perhaps? Another Persian or Shi'a Muslim ally? Or one of the rapidly developing, oil-hungry countries in the far-east?

No – the European Union, accounting for more than a third of total market share and 44% of Iran's imports.

Some argue that the EU is therefore uniquely in a position to restrict Iranian access to nuclear technology and precision machinery through a trade embargo. However, this ignores certain other facts, such as that Iran's oil reserves are second only to those of Saudi Arabia and Iran last year purchased around one billion pounds worth of goods from Britain. If Europe doesn't buy from Iran, then countries such as China will quickly snap up the spare oil capacity and Pakistan the spare gas capacity, while others like Russia will be more than happy to sell Iran the equipment and expertise it seeks – the only economy that will be damaged by sanctions will be ours.

There is, however, another possibility. Coming yet another way at our original question about who is best placed to achieve possible diplomatic results, which global power has greatest potential to increase their trade with Iran?

The answer to that is, of course, America.

The United States has imposed a full trade embargo on Iran since 1995, but in reality to little effect as the Iranians have been able to find alternative markets elsewhere. If the White House were to adopt the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group and lift economic sanctions against the theocratic regime, they would raise living standards among the millions of Iranian citizens who were persuaded at their last presidential elections to give up on the seemingly slow progress of the reformists and to take a chance on the "man of the people." By developing trade links with the Islamic republic, America would be improving the lives of ordinary Iranians, fomenting popular pressure for political freedom to match their newly-gained economic liberties. At some point, however, the time for such a long-sighted approach to overcome the current impasse will run short.

America has it within its power to undermine the mullahs' regime and promote democratic reform. Whether it chooses to exercise that power could have global ramifications for us all in the coming years.

Superstorm Threat Dissipates

"There is no evidence for a strong increase in hurricane activity in the Atlantic over the next century due to global warming."

'Storm of the Century' - 13 March 1993 [Credit: NASA]Just three days after European scientists questioned the profile of Kilimanjaro in the climate change debate, American researchers have concluded that increases in vertical wind sheer – differences between the upper and lower levels of the atmosphere in wind direction and speed – caused by climate change could counter-balance the effects of warming waters.

Based on an examination of eighteen different climate models, although contrary to recent claims that warmer waters result in an increase in hurricane intensity and frequency, this finding in fact confirms what hurricane forecasters have long known about vertical wind shear and its dampening effects on tropical storm formation and intensification.

Good science really doesn't make for good television or political posturing though, does it?

19 April 2007

"Model Immigrant" To Stay

Mohammed Samad reunited with his wife and son [Credit: The Argus]Tonight's local news celebrated the release of 23-year-old Mohammed Samad, who had been awaiting deportation since being detained without warning during a regular visit to immigration officials in Croydon last Tuesday.

Mr Samad fled Sri Lanka after being badly beaten by Tamil Tiger rebels in 1999 but had failed to gain asylum status as it was deemed safe for him to return. Despite not being authorised to stay in the UK, he had secured long-term employment as a groundsman at Hurstpierpoint College, got married, and now has a two-year-old son here.

However, human rights organisations had championed Mr Samad's cause, calling for a full amnesty for asylum seekers who have been resident here for seven years and a partial amnesty for those here more than two years.

And yet, however much one might sympathise with the plight that Mr Samad's wife would have faced, one can but wonder what signal this latest Home Office decision will send to other illegal immigrants – both those already resident and those still hopeful of finding a way in.

As I wrote in the Telegraph last summer, over the past 20 years, there have been five amnesties for illegal immigrants in Italy and six in Spain. In both cases, the most recent amnesties resulted in 700,000 applicants – more than double those seen in their previous ones, which, in turn, saw more applicants than in any of their earlier amnesties. Amnesties plainly do nothing to reduce the problem of illegal immigration and may in fact exacerbate it.

Before our compassion moves us to introduce any such amnesty in the UK, the Government must make clear both why an amnesty here would be any more successful and what effective measures, not already being taken, they would take in order to crack down on Britain's shadow economy.

Slaying the Dragon

St George and the dragonIf someone mentions St George, what do you think of?

Most likely, a dragon.

However, ahead of St George's day next Monday, the think-tank Ekklesia claims that the saint's image has been distorted over the centuries and instead of a dragon-slayer who backed the crusades we should reclaim the 4th-century image of George offering hospitality to a refugee, defending the marginalised, and challenging the persecution policy of the Emperor.

The report's authors suggest that any associations with racism and arrogant flag-waving should be replaced with a hopeful vision of "Englishness" as global and outward looking, inclusive and hospitable. St George's Day would then become a national "Day of Dissent" celebrating the English tradition of rebellion against the abuse of power, as exemplified by the pro-democracy Putney Debates, the equality-seeking Levellers, the anti-slavery abolitionists, the women's suffrage movement, conscientious objectors and peacemakers, anti-racism campaigners, human rights activists and those struggling against debt and poverty.

While the historical composite image of St George sounds very attractive and the idea of dissension certainly sits well with this country's Protestant culture, I'm not convinced that you can simply rebrand something just because you don't like what it has become. Then again, I suppose it has taken Mr Blair less than a decade to alter fundamentally many of the nation's centuries-old traditions and institutions, so there might be a chance of transforming George into "a post-Christendom saint" if we were to adopt some of Ekklesia's recommendations, such as making St George's Day a national public holiday in England and embarking on a renewed focus within churches on the history of Christian non-conformity.

Bible Publishers Murdered

A German and two Turkish employees of a publishing house that distributes Bibles in eastern central Turkey have had their throats slashed, their hands and feet first being bound and their mouths gagged, despite being police protection.

The attack took place in the city of Malatya, a known stronghold of nationalists about 500 miles southeast of Istanbul and the hometown of Mehmet Ali Agca, who attempted to assassinate the late Pope John Paul II in 1981. The police arrived in time to see one of the assailants jumping from a second floor window and detained a total of five suspects at the scene. A Turkish television station has claimed the youths were all carrying an identical note declaring, "We did this for our country. They are attacking our religion."

It is believed the attack was the work of a local Islamist militant group and police are investigating the possible involvement of Turkish Hizbollah, the Kurdish Islamic group that aims to form a Muslim state in the Kurdish-dominated south-east.

Once again, how the Turkish authorities deal with this case will reveal much about the country's commiment to religious freedom. It is just over a year since Father Andrea Santoro was murdered while praying in his church in Trabzon, also in the east of the country, and exactly three months since the journalist and former chairman in the Armenian Evangelical Church, Hrant Dink, was assassinated in Istanbul.

18 April 2007

Terminator: Rise of the Machines

TerminatorThe American Army already deploys robot soldiers in Iraq. Equipped with tank tracks and automatic weapons, these robotic units, known as SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection Systems), allow humans to attack the enemy by remote control.

Last week an engineer at the Naval Surface Warfare Centre, an American weapons-research and test establishment, published a set of laws to govern operations by killer robots. Citing the precedent set by the Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile, CAPTOR Mine, Aegis Ships, automatic Cruise missile defense, and Patriot automated air defense, John Canning made the following proposals:

  • Let the machines target other machines
    • Specifically, let’s design our armed unmanned systems to automatically ID, target, and neutralize or destroy the weapons used by our enemies –not the people using the weapons.
    • This gives us the possibility of disarming a threat force without the need for killing them.
    • We can equip our machines with non-lethal technologies for the purpose of convincing the enemy to abandon their weapons prior to our machines destroying the weapons, and lethal weapons to kill their weapons.
  • Let men target men
    • In those instances where we find it necessary to target the human (i.e. to disable the command structure), the armed unmanned systems can be remotely controllable by human operators who are “in-the-weapons-control-loop”
  • Provide a “Dial-a-Level” of autonomy to switch from one to the other mode.
Canning quotes a legal specialist as saying, "We can target objects when they are military objectives and we can target people when they are military objectives. If people or property isn't a military objective, we don't target it. It might be destroyed as collateral damage, but we don't target it. Thus in many situations, we could target the individual holding the gun and/or the gun and legally there's no difference."

Now, The Economist reports on the research of Ronald Arkin of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who is generating an artificial conscience for battlefield robots to ensure that their use of lethal force follows the rules of ethics, based on existing ethical decision-making protocols (e.g. the Geneva Convention), rules of engagement, and other ethical and military requirements.

Incidentally, for anyone feeling a little lonely, Mr Arkin is also working on behavioural development for a humanoid robot "with the long-term goal of providing highly satisfying long-term interaction and attachment formation by a human partner."  Hardly bears thinking about, does it...?!

So much for Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics!

Government's Drugs Policy Fails

As the government's ten-year drugs strategy draws to an end, the independent UK Drug Policy Commission reports that education schemes have had little impact and any benefits from treatment of addicts have been, at best, limited because so many drug users had relapsed or gone untreated.

Just last month the Royal Society of Arts claimed that UK drug law had been "driven by moral panic" and was "not fit for purpose."  Coming at a time when heroin from Afghanistan is increasingly available at ever lower prices, a radical rethink is clearly necessary.  Given that no other country in Europe faces the same level of problem as we do in this area (our addiction rates are double those found in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden), surely we can learn from and adopt the best practice of others?  After all, we are clearly not alone in the struggle against drugs and you would have thought that living on an island would have certain advantages as regards the supply side of the problem, if we had proper border controls.

Does anyone have knowledge or experience of what works or helps elsewhere that you could share with us?

17 April 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

"About five years ago Kilimanjaro was being used as an icon for global warming. We know now that this was far too simplistic a view."
Kilimanjaro's northern glaciers [Credit: Peter Haynes]So a team of scientists from the University of Innsbruck have told the European Geosciences Union General Assembly.

Based on their scientific research (rather than unfounded speculation), precipitation and not temperature is the key to the Tanzanian peak's future. One of their recent publications concludes that rather than changes in 20th century climate being responsible for their demise, glaciers on Kilimanjaro appear to be merely remnants of a past climate that was once able to sustain them.

Yet again, science finds itself at conflict with currently accepted political dogma.

Evening UPDATE: Given American resistance to what many there dismiss as the religio-political arguments of environmentalists, I rather expected the US military in its report National Security and the Threat of Climate Change to focus on practical issues such as oil dependency and energy security, especially given its acknowledgement that "uncertainty exists and debate continues regarding the science and future extent of projected climate changes" and its claim to be "moving beyond the arguments of cause and effect."  For the most part it does so, but the second of its five recommendations comes as something of a surprise.  For even they maintain that "the path to mitigating the worst security consequences of climate change involves reducing global greenhouse gas emissions."

Their five recommendations are:
  1. The national security consequences of climate change should be fully integrated into national security and national defense strategies.
  2. The U.S. should commit to a stronger national and international role to help stabilize climate changes at levels that will avoid significant disruption to global security and stability.
  3. The U.S. should commit to global partnerships that help less developed nations build the capacity and resiliency to better manage climate impacts.
  4. The Department of Defense should enhance its operational capability by accelerating the adoption of improved business processes and innovative technologies that result in improved U.S. combat power through energy efficiency.
  5. DoD should conduct an assessment of the impact on US military installations worldwide of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, and other possible climate change impacts over the next thirty to forty years.

Government Condones Polygamy

One aspect of our Judeo-Christian heritage that has contributed to legal principles in this country is that there should be one law for both alien and native alike. This differs from Islam, in which there is one law for men and another for women, one law for Muslims and another for non-Muslims.

Why, then, is today's Telegraph Spy reporting that the Department for Work and Pensions recognises polygamous marriages that were conducted overseas?!

In this country, bigamy is a criminal offence under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, subject to a penalty of up to seven years penal servitude, whereas under Islamic law a man is allowed to have up to four wives. Yet, the DWP's document RR2 - A guide to Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit states:

If you are legally married to more than one partner
This is called a polygamous marriage. In this case you get a special personal allowance. It is made up of two parts:
  • a couple’s allowance (determined by the age of whoever is the oldest of you and your partners)
  • and additional allowances for each additional partner.
Other allowances and premiums are added to the personal allowance if they apply.
So, you and I can be locked up for taking a second wife (as if one were not enough!), but our taxes go to support the multiple wives of foreigners who come to our country. Presumably there are also (or soon will be) implications for things such as pension rights and exemption from death duties?  Once the state recognises these, surely it is only a matter of time before "legislative creep" forces a change in the law upon us. After all, seven years ago there was talk of Muslims in Britain challenging UK law on the basis that Britain's ban on polygamous marriage violates their human rights and the Muslim Parliament of Britain maintains that hundreds of families are being forced to live outside the law.

So much for our Christian heritage – This, I suppose, will prove to be Blair's true legacy...

16 April 2007

Euro-Spin

Euro-spinFirst we were assured by our Government that the Charter of Fundamental Rights, part of the ill-fated European Constitution, would have no more legal standing than The Beano. But then the European Commission noted that it would become mandatory.

Then our Government introduced the Constitution to us as a mere tidying-up exercise. But a host of Europe's leaders assured it was "a great leap forward" (Giscard's d'Estaing), "a gigantic step" (Prodi), and "a capstone of a federal Europe" (Verhofstadt).

Now we have the British and Dutch prime ministers saying that the European Union does not need a "whole new constitution", just limited changes to existing treaties.

However the Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel wants, before her presidency of the EU ends in June, to set up an intergovernmental conference that will produce a new treaty by 2009 – a treaty that will "preserve as much of the old constitution as possible" and build on what Italy's Prime Minister calls the "very solid basis" of the rejected Constitution.

The truth is, anything that reduces our veto on EU regulations or even mentions an EU president or foreign minister will be a constitution in all but name.

Yet, just as Giscard d'Estaing once pointed out that a "no" vote on the Constitution would not take Britain out of Europe, we do not need even a simple "amending" treaty at this time. Without it, we will not lose our seat on the UN Security Council nor cease being a leading member of NATO and the G8. We will continue our membership of the World Bank and the OECD, and will remain central to the Commonwealth. We will also continue to hold our place as the world's fourth largest economy, the second largest global investor, and the largest trading partner with the world's sole superpower, America. Moreover, since the EU trades in surplus with the UK, our continued trade with the EU is certain, irrespective of our relationship with the rest of the Continent, so do not even need a treaty in what Blair now dismisses as "the tradition of the treaty that we negotiated in Amsterdam some 10 years ago."

What we need is a more outward-looking, flexible and competitive Europe – a community or association of free-trading nations – something closer to what Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein, Europe's wealthiest nations, enjoy as members of the European Free Trade Association and European Economic Area, free from the strait-jacket of the EU – something closer, in fact, to what voters were told they were signing up for last time we had a say on the matter, more than three decades ago.

And one more thing: no more spin.

Conscientious Objectors

"It is increasingly difficult to recruit doctors to abortion services. Within five to seven years, a woman's ability to get an abortion will be more shaped by the service's ability to provide them rather than the state of the law." [British Pregnancy Advisory Service]

News of a big increase in the number of doctors refusing to carry out abortions represents an interesting development in the pro-life, pro-choice debate. If women really do find themselves unable to obtain an abortion, doctors' rights will be added to the pot of women's rights and unborn babies' rights ... I suspect things could get messy – especially for health professionals working in the NHS, who may find themselves less free to choose than those in the private sector – nurses as well as doctors, if they come under pressure to perform abortions.

Sudan: Is Anyone Taking Any Notice?

BBC In pictures: Don McCullin in Darfur (opens in separate window)Days after Google Earth began its campaign to "to build a community of conscience" poised to respond to the crisis in Darfur, the renowned photojournalist Don McCullin, who has visited Oxfam's work among Sudanese refugees in Chad, is hoping that his skills as a war photographer will also function as a catalyst for education and action.

As McCullin concluded his interview with the Ten O'Clock News last night, "We cannot turn our backs and sweep this under some stone."  Yet, on the basis of recent inaction by the UN and EU, to borrow the title of a book containing a collection of McCullin's photos, "Is Anyone Taking Any Notice?"

No More Slavish Indulgence

Britain and America [Credit: ConHome]Over the years, Tony Blair's manifestly lopsided relationship with George W Bush has seriously damaged both the special relationship between Britain and America and our two countries' international reputations. As in other areas, we appear to have frittered away our moral authority.

Today's announcement by the international development secretary that Britain is to stop using the disingenuous phrase "war on terror" is therefore to be welcomed, especially if it means in a post-Blair era we will begin to question some of the other questionable policies and practices that have come out of the present US administration, such as outsourcing torture by extraordinary rendition and the reported mistreatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay.

Britain's relationship with America should be characterised by honesty and, as in the closest of friendships, the space to express criticism. Only then will the "West" truly be a global force for good.

Afternoon UPDATE: A three-part series examining the origins of anti-Americanism starts on Radio 4 at 8pm tonight: Death to America

14 April 2007

Do You Dare Leave A Comment?

What's the worst that could happen? Here at The Difference, nobody is even going to give you a screenful of abuse, for this blog has its own voluntary code of conduct and inappropriate comments will not be approved. You might even win a copy of the magazine!

Police raidIn Russia, however, you could find the police knocking on your door. On 15th February, 21-year-old Savva Terentyev left a comment on the blog of his local journalist, Boris Suranov, who had posted about a police raid against the offices of the opposition newspaper Iskra.

Now, the comment was admitted rather lacking in tact and wouldn't have got past this blog's code of conduct. It has since been deleted, but Terentyev allegedly wrote that Russian police are "filth," "the most stupid, uneducated representatives of the living world" and recommended that six police in every city be "ceremonially burned daily, or better twice a day (at midday and midnight, for example)." However, he is now being prosecuted for hate crimes and faces two years in prison or a fine of 300,000 rubles (£5,860).

So, are you scared to express your opinions?  If not, exercise your freedom, and leave a comment!  Not sure how to do so? Then see this beginner's guide.

NuLab's NHS

Have you seen the report in The Times about the hospital in Birmingham that has been reusing dirty bed sheets instead of giving clean linen to every patient in a bid to reduce its annual laundry bill?  Bringing the vast saving of just 0.275 pence for every sheet re-used, the hospital recorded 36 cases of MRSA in the nine months to January.  Talk about penny-pinching – yet, this is the kind of lengths that professional doctors and nurses have been driven to by ten years of incompetence and mismanagement under NuLabour!  Lengths that, once again, are directly putting people's lives at risk.

You may recall the story last month about a crisis in maternity care that has caused a record number of women to die or be harmed as a result of childbirth.  Well, the NHS Blog Doctor picks up the story with a lot more detail.  Commenting on Patricia Hewitt's response to a recent article in the Guardian on maternity care, the blogosphere's Dr Crippen notes, "That a Cabinet minister, responsible for one of the most important government departments, should be replying personally to articles in a newspaper is a sign of desperation. That the reply should be so breathtakingly duplicitous both demeans her office and calls her probity into question. I suppose we should be used to it by now."  It's quite a long post but worth the read.  He concludes:

Patricia Hewitt’s reply might be acceptable from a government which had been in power for ten weeks. They have been in power for ten years. The time has passed for more promises of more action to be taken in the future.

After ten years, the people of this country are entitled to ask not what will be done, but why it has not already been done.
We are desperately short of midwives

We are short of medically trained obstetricians

We are short of maternity units.

We may be doing better than Chad, but more mothers and babies are dieing during or shortly after labour since this government came to power.

This truly is new labour.
Sunday UPDATE: A Royal College of Nursing report, Our NHS - Today and Tomorrow, is also warning that the NHS debt crisis is "real and entrenched" and claims that 22,300 health jobs have been lost in the last 18 months and almost three-quarters of newly-qualified nurses have been unable to secure jobs. When's the rot going to stop?

13 April 2007

IMF Hinders African Progress

International Monetary FundAn average of just 30 pence in every pound of foreign aid increases to Sub-Saharan African countries can be spent because the International Monetary Fund requires governments under its supervision to redirect the use of foreign aid increases to either boost international currency reserves or to pay down domestic debt.

This is the shock finding reported by the IMF's Independent Evaluation Office in meetings today and directly undermines Africa's fight against AIDS, illiteracy, and hunger.

Now, the IMF is not an independent body. It is an intergovernmental body. That means the governments responsible for approving an increase in their foreign aid budgets are also the ones responsible for deciding IMF policy. Our charitable leaders are therefore giving with one hand, only to take away with the other ... behind our backs. So much for the exhortation to "Let your giving be in secret" – the Western world's leaders have paraded their giving (and, even more so, their unfulfilled promises of giving) but hidden the fact that they've not been as generous after all.

The Rise Of Islam

"Not long before the British surrendered to the Americans at Yorktown in 1781, assurances were still being given in parliament that ‘so vast is our superiority everywhere that no resistance on their part is to be apprehended’. Today, with not even Baghdad secured after over four years of war — and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars — the White House still talks in terms of a ‘victory’ over ‘extremists’ and ‘killers’, even if the delusion that a Jeffersonian democracy can be created in Mesopotamia appears to have been abandoned."

Drawing parallels between George Bush's war in Iraq and George III's war against the American colonists, David Selbourne argues in The Spectator that "the American imperium has entered on its decline after only some six decades" and that it is now "the turn of Islam to assert itself, for the third time in history, across large swaths of the globe."

If he is right, then not only is it imperative that we in the West should understand the contribution of Christianity to Western culture, but we also need to understand Islam and the differences between moderate Islam and fundamentalist Islam, or Islamism.

One of the principal differences between Islamism and Western democracy is in their approach to academic scrutiny. Like the predominant threat against our Western ideals throughout much of the last century, namely Communism, Islamism is intolerant of dissent, looking to and justifying its ideas and beliefs on the basis of an ultimate authority that cannot be questioned. By contrast, ideas in the West are accepted by submitting them to public inspection.

For Islamists, truth and knowledge are thus not to be discovered through open criticism and public enquiry but are represented by the revelation of God to the prophet Mohammed as recorded in the Koran and supplemented by the record of Mohammed's actions and sayings. As far as such Muslim fundamentalists are concerned, Western society is corrupt and weak because it is different from, and therefore inferior to, the perfect society described in their Scriptures – one that dictates, for instance, inequality between men and women and between Muslims and non-Muslims. By denying the equivalent of the separation between Church and State that allowed Western society to flourish, they promise those who accept their worldview not utopia in this life but paradise in the next and promise their martyrs a certain salvation that is unavailable in Islam by any other means.

You may recall a year or so ago when producers of Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great at the Barbican censored references to Islam in order to avoid the risk of a violent backlash from Muslims to the playwright's scenes in which the hero burns the Koran and says that Mohammed is "not worthy to be worshipped" and "remains in hell." Such censorship was not only a victory for political correctness over common sense but a defeat in our attempt to defend the Western tradition of freedom in the ongoing clash of civilisations that is the wider stage upon which the so-called war on terror is being conducted.

Countries such as Indonesia prove to the world that Islam is able to embrace the concept of individual liberties, such as freedom of expression. We whose societies are founded upon the freedoms imparted by our Christian heritage need to engage constructively with such moderates, seeking to understand their faith from their perspective, if we are to prevent the freedoms that are the building blocks of our way of life from being increasingly eroded over the coming years.

12 April 2007

Time For Change?

Ofsted's latest report, Time for change? Personal, social and health education, maintains:

There is no evidence that ‘abstinence-only’ education reduces teenage pregnancy or improves sexual health. There is also no evidence to support claims that teaching about contraception leads to increased sexual activity. Research suggests that education and strategies that promote abstinence but withhold information about contraception can place young people at a higher risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
What the report fails to mention is that the Government's £138 million Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, which includes making morning-after pills available to teenagers, has failed to stem the rise in teenage pregnancies, has had no effect on conception or abortion rates and, most damning of all, has been blamed for fuelling record levels of STIs. As reported earlier this year, latest figures for the rate of underage pregnancies showed the biggest single annual increase in ten years and areas that have promoted the government's strategy most heavily have experienced the biggest increases.

In today's "best of the blogosphere," Archbishop Cranmer notes that "the UK has the highest teenage birth rates in Western Europe - twice as high as in Germany, three times as high as in France and six times as high as in the Netherlands" and concludes:
"Cranmer simply wants to know why sex education has been divorced from talk of marriage and love. He wants to know what is wrong with promoting sexual abstinence and traditional family values. And he wants to know why the spiritual side of the sexual act, so eloquently communicated in Scripture, and pervasive throughout the New Testament, is not talked of at all."
We asked for a response from the government but no spokesman was available to comment...

Poverty or Race?

Mr Blair claims that recent violence is "not a symptom of a broader social malaise and should not be treated as part of a general crime wave." Instead he blames London's spate of knife and gun murders on a distinctive black culture and says people have to drop their political correctness and recognise that the violence will not be stopped "by pretending it is not young black kids doing it."

The Prime Minister may be right in maintaining that "what we are dealing with is not a general social disorder but specific groups or people who for one reason or another are deciding not to abide" by society's codes of conduct. And he is surely right when he implies that we have all taken political correctness too far. However, is he also right to dismiss any connection with other factors?

Home Office minister Lady Scotland clearly thinks not, as just last month she told the Home Affairs Select Committee that the disproportionate number of black youths in the criminal justice system was a function of their disproportionate poverty, and not to do with a distinctive black culture. The chair of the National Black Police Association also thinks not, saying "Social deprivation and delinquency go hand in hand and we need to tackle both."

What do you think?

11 April 2007

Turkey Wins Human Rights Award

Following Turkey's objection's to the UN's genocide exhibit, you might be interested to learn that the Council of Europe, ever sensitive to such delicate matters, is launching its inaugural human rights film award, FACE, this weekend at the 26th International Istanbul Film Festival.

Each of the ten films shortlisted for the prize deals with themes of political liberty and individual freedoms:

  • Rachid Bouchareb's Days of Glory – soldiers from France's North African colonies who helped liberate Gaul from Nazis during World War 2,
  • Bruno Dumont's Flanders – a soldier leaves his childhood sweetheart for the front where he discovers camaraderie, barbarity and fear,
  • Julie Gavras' Blame It On Fidel – social unrest seen completely through the eyes of a seven-year-old girl,
  • Rajko Grlic's The Border Post – the first co-production between all the members of the former Yugoslavia,
  • Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Dry Season – a poignant and lyrical tale from Chad of a young man’s desire to come to terms with his and his country’s tragic past,
  • Chris Kraus' Four Minutes – the impossible relationship between an aged piano tutor and her one-time musical prodigy student, an extremely violent convict at a women’s prison,
  • Abderrahmane Sissako's The Court – African civil society spokesmen put the World Bank and IMF on trial for their role in Africa's economic woes,
  • Volker Schlöndorff's Strike – a solidarity saga set in Poland,
  • Omer Ugur's Home Coming – a contentious Turkish film that deals scathingly with the 1980 Turkish military coup, and
  • Francisco Vargas's The Violin – the double lives of an old violinist, his guerrilla son, and his silent grandson.
If any readers have seen any of the films, please do let us know what you think of them.

Bursting at the Seams

"Let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests, and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity, for in the final analysis our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's future, and we are all mortal."

Bursting at the SeamsSo concluded Professor Jeffrey Sachs in the first of this year's Reith lectures this morning, after asking some challenging questions about the geo-political problems facing our generation as a result of living in an unprecedentedly crowded world:

Can it be true that because we don't want to talk to Iran, H5N1 won't pass through Iran, we won't have to deal with avian 'flu in places we don't want to speak to, because we put on pre-conditions to negotiations, that we can't see the commonality of our problems? And can it really be, ladies and gentlemen, that the solution to Darfur, one of the most urgent crises on the planet, is all about peacekeepers and troops and sanctions, when we know that in Western Darfur the rebellion started because this is just about the poorest place on the whole planet, where the rebellion started because there's not enough water to keep people alive, where the livestock have no veterinary care, where there's no basic infrastructure, where a power grid may be a thousand miles away? Can we really think that peacekeeping troops and sanctions will solve this problem?

And how can it be, ladies and gentlemen, that we think we can be safe? We think we can be safe when we leave a billion people to struggle literally for their daily survival, the poorest billion for whom every day is a fight to secure enough nutrients, a fight against the pathogen in the water that can kill them or their child, a fight against a mosquito bite carrying malaria or another killer disease for which there's no medicine though the medicines exist and are low cost but there's no medicine in the village available to save the child and thus a million or two million children will die this year of malaria. How can we think that this can be safe? And how can we choose, as we do in the United States, to have a budget request this year of six hundred and fifty billion dollars for the military - more than all the rest of the world combined - and four and a half billion dollars for all of African assistance, and think that this is prudent? One might say oh it's a science fiction that a zoonotic disease could arise and somehow spread to the world, except that Aids is exactly that. How many examples do we need to understand the linkages, and the common threats, and the recklessness of leaving people to die, recklessness in spirit, in human heart, and in geo-political safety for us?
However, despite Sachs' infectious optimism, like a number of people in the audience, I felt that the kind of "gradual evolution in human institutions" that Sachs is calling for if mankind is to rise to these great global challenges requires too much faith in intergovernmental institutions and a step change in human nature which is simply not going to happen.  Any thoughts anyone?

10 April 2007

Calling Things By Their Names

"Following World War One, during which one million Armenians were murdered in Turkey, Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin urged the League of Nations to recognize crimes of barbarity as international crimes."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moonA United Nations exhibit that was supposed to be opened by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday has been delayed following Turkish objections to the inclusion of the above sentence. Speaking on the thirteenth anniversary of the Rwanda genocide in which 800,000 Rwandans were slaughtered in an orchestrated campaign, Mr Ban called for a "global partnership against genocide" and made the U.N. special adviser for the prevention of genocide a full-time post.

Meanwhile, evidently more comfortable arguing over history than taking concerted action on the subject, the international body is still waiting for approval from the Sudanese government to send in U.N. troops to Darfur.

Labour's Lost Generation

The Prince's Trust: The Cost of Exclusion - Counting the cost of youth disadvantage in the UKA new report by The Prince's Trust confirms fears expressed by this blog as recently as Sunday, that Labour's neglect of the needs of young people over the past decade has lost us a generation.

The report reveals that:

  • England and Wales has the highest percentage of prisoners under 18 in Europe and the second highest percentage between 18 and 21
  • Youth crime is costing the UK economy £1,000,000,000 every year
  • Twice as many 16 to 24-year-olds are classified as not in education, employment or training (NEET) as are unemployed
  • The proportion of young people with low-level or no qualifications in the UK compares very unfavourably to competitors such as France and Germany
  • Educational underachievement costs £18,000,000,000 each year in lost earnings
  • Youth unemployment costs UK tax payers £20,000,000 per week in Job Seeker’s Allowance
  • In addition, loss of productivity to the economy from youth unemployment costs over £70,000,000 per week
The Daily Telegraph comments:
In his first Budget, Gordon Brown gave a statement of the Government's intent to tackle the debilitating impact of state dependency with a £5 billion windfall tax on the privatised utilities to pay for an ambitious welfare-to-work programme. The scheme envisaged four options for the young unemployed: a government-subsidised job, voluntary work, full-time education or training, or a place on an environmental task force. "There will be no fifth option to stay at home on full benefit," the Chancellor warned. ... A "lost generation" of young people seem to have found Mr Brown's non-existent fifth option.
Having so thoroughly identified and described the problem, it is imperative that we now find new ways to re-engage young people and enable them to turn their lives around, helping them to gain the skills and qualifications they need to get a job, especially in the UK's poorest areas.