Thursday, 19 December 2013


'Britons back Tory obsession with Growth' according to the i newspaper of 18th December. In a survey by ComRes, 41% thought the highest priority was for the economy to grow. It is depressing that so many still believe in the religion of growth, which is founded on the myth that the way to end poverty is for the whole economy to grow. In reality the way to end poverty is to use every means possible to prevent a minority of the population from taking most of the wealth and income, but that would attack the foundation of capitalism. As a country, Britain, like other rich countries, is already using resources at far beyond the sustainable level, and gains in income since the 1970s have added little to people's satisfaction with life.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

A Palestinian Mandela?

Israel and occupied Palestine are in many ways like Apartheid South Africa: two peoples intricately entangled, one completely dominating the other, notions of racial superiority, huge differences of income and wealth, largely segregated housing... And there is a Palestinian - Marwan Barghouti - with immense popular support, languishing in prison on five life sentences. An Israeli leader with the courage to release him might find an interlocutor capable of helping to bring about a political solution. Barghouti speaks fluent Hebrew, has many Israeli supporters and has the intelligence to realize that a solution must accommodate both parties. He was born in 1959, so it will be 2031 before he reaches the age at which Mandela was released - which is not a reason for waiting, but it does mean several Israeli prime ministers and American presidents could have the opportunity to achieve peace in this way. We shall soon see a succession of crucial centenaries: of the Sykes-Picot plan to dismember the Ottoman State, 1916; of the Balfour Declaration that Palestine would become the 'Jewish National Home', 1917; of the Treaty of Versailles, 1919; of the abolition of the Caliphate, 1924. This last event has had incalculable repercussions. The Caliphs were the only authority recognized by all Sunni Muslims - more than 90% of all Muslims. Without a Caliph there has been nobody to rule against the distortions of Islam propagated by fanatics.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Iran away from the brink

Iran has at last come in from the cold. 34 years after the Islamic Revolution and the ensuing siege of the US Embassy, the 5+1 agreement with Iran should mean the beginning of the end of the absurd stand-off between America and one of the four most populous countries in the Middle East. With a history stretching back over three millennia, and a culture older than that of any other country apart from Egypt, India and China, Iran cannot be ignored or treated as uncivilized. Having failed to prevent the agreement, Israel now talks unrealistically of making an alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states against Iran. What they should do is the opposite - seek for an agreement with Iran to put an end to chronic hostility. When Iranians speak of Israel "vanishing from the pages of time", they have in mind something like the disappearance of East and West Germany. A one-state solution for Israel and Palestine in a secular state, with equal rights for all its citizens, would satisfy all but the most extreme opponents

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Veil

Again nearly two months since I blogged, but I must say something about the veil, now that there are proposals to ban it. For millions of years the face has been the chief means by which monkeys and apes recognize each other as individuals and communicate emotion, and the human face is the most expressive of all. To cover it up is an offence against society. Fortunately, Islam does not require women to cover their faces. The Koran says merely that the wives of the Prophet should be addressed 'from behind a curtain' - hijab (33:53), and that Muslim women in general should 'pull close to them part of their dresses' in the presence of strange men (33:59), and that 'they should draw their head dress over their bosoms' (24:31). This is just a demand for modesty, which is required of men too. It is up to individuals to decide how to comply, given the climate and the social context. So I am in favour of banning face covering, but in order not to be discriminatory it should apply not just to Muslim women but to everybody, whatever their sex or religion. Men in balaclavas are far more threatening than women in burkas. There would of course need to be discretion in the case of protection against severe weather, bandaging in the case of facial injury and so on. Men's beards might seem contentious, but their variety of form and colour means that they play a part in facial recognition, and the idea of banning them borders on the farcical. In general anyway, if we are to be fully human we need to show each other our faces.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Roots of instability?

I haven't blogged for nearly two months. I have not commented on the ousting of Morsi, who asked for trouble by trying to change the constitution, bypass the judges and make himself into a new dictator. This week's New Scientist (20th July) has a fascinating article, 'Youthquake' about how the structure of populations affects politics. When improved health care causes a fall in infant mortality, there is usually a time lag before the birth rate falls. The consequence is a bulge in the younger age groups, and a diagram of the age classes looks like a pyramid. When the birth rate comes down, this bulging cohort moves up until eventually there is a large body of older people resting on a narrow base. The suggestion is that societies with too many young people are subject to political stresses and possible violence, with large numbers of unemployed youths, disaffected and ready to riot. In a more mature society, the large middle-aged cohort has an interest in the status quo. This could help to explain why Tunisia, with a relatively balanced age structure, has succeeded where Egypt has failed. Syria too has a pyramid that bulges at the base, but the older generation bears a heavy responsibility for the revival of the medieval quarrel between Sunna and Shia. The religious leaders of the 1920s were wiser, but the secular societies that they tried to create were undermined by British and French policies of 'divide and rule'.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Targeted killings

Random assassination is horrible wherever it happens, Woolwich or Waziristan, Boston or Baghdad, Oslo or Islamabad. But the sympathy of Westerners seems to be reserved for cases where the victims live in countries like our own. With the development of targeted assassination as a substitute for classical warfare we have entered a new era. One tragic result is that the very people who have the authority in their communities to put an end to violence are often those who are killed, for example Sheikh Yasin the blind and quadriplegic leader of Hamas, blown up in his wheelchair; he was on good terms with some rabbis, whose religion resembled his. At the moment most of the killing is by American drones or Israeli helicopters, and most of the victims are Muslims, but it won't stop there. The victims or their supporters are going to seek more and more opportunities for revenge in a tit-for-tat sequence with no foreseeable end. Sooner or later there will have to be some sort of agreement between all the states that have sponsored such assassinations: 'we shall stop killing your people if you will stop killing ours'.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Blogger's Blues: Cheer from Zarathustra.

Oh dear! I haven't blogged for more than 5 weeks. Since Obama's failure to say or do anything useful during his visit to Israel-Palestine, and with the continuing sectarian violence in Syria and elsewhere, I have been unable to think of anything positive to say. I need to remind myself by reading great Jewish writers that Judaism was at the origin of many of the greatest civilized virtues. Lately, though, I have been re-reading Zarathustra (not Nietzsche's fiction, but) the extraordinary Iranian who was the source of most of the values of post-Biblical Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Writing more than 3000 years ago, he rejected the old religion of caste, warring gods, animal sacrifice and shamanistic ritual. His Gathas (hymns) praise Lofty Wisdom, Ahura Mazda, origin of the world and source of the virtues of Justice, Integrity, Devotion, Good Government, Truth, Endurance and Human Wisdom. Ahura ('Lord') is masculine and Mazda is feminine, so there is not the skewed vision that comes of having a god who is a 'He'. Despite millennia of wars between the Persian and Greco-Roman empires, and later between Muslims and Christian powers, Zarathustra's ideas were carried all around the world by the daughter religions. I am not so keen on some of his other ideas - the Devil, the End Times, the Last Judgement, Hell and Paradise. It is interesting that later Zoroastrians believed that a Saviour would be born of a virgin, impregnated with the sperm of Zarathustra as she bathes in Lake Hamun, into which the Helmand River empties itself. Perhaps there is a virgin in the British Army who will come back pregnant from a swim in that lake before the troops are brought home. But it would be better if the British stopped thinking they can save the world.