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King Abdullah – Last Bastion of an Ancien Regime or Enabler of a New Era?

King Abdullah

I have read a lot about Saudi Arabia over the past few days, from Saudis who are grieving over the passing of King Abdullah, from analysts who worry about the country’s future and from denizens of the social media who are quick to criticise Western leaders who headed to Riyadh to pay their respects to the King’s family.

There are also those who object to flags being flown at half-mast in the UK to mark the King’s death, and those who have taken the opportunity to blame Saudi Arabia’s lavish funding of mosques and madrassas in unstable parts of the world for the rise of Islamic extremism.

One post on Facebook from someone within my circle of friends is fairly typical of the stuff being said about the country within the West:

“15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. A blogger was punished by flogging in Saudi last week. The world leader in beheadings is Saudi. A 79 year old half-brother of the just-dead King Abdullah …. is taking the House of Saudi. And Obama is going to the funeral? Oh please….”

I’m not a fan of capital punishment anywhere, and as a blogger I can’t support the punishment of Raef Badawi for expressing opinions that were not be to the liking of the Saudi establishment. I could ask whether decapitation is any less humane than electrocution, shooting or by a twenty-minute three-stage poisoning process. But I’m not going there.

I would however like to share a few thoughts about King Abdullah and Saudi Arabia in general. One or two of them I think have been missed in the torrent of comment and analysis.

First, there is a common misconception – brought about by the description of the Kingdom as an absolute monarchy – that King Abdullah and his predecessors only had to click their fingers for their orders to be carried out without question. Not so. Saudi Arabian leaders sit at the apex of a complex structure of competing interests. Within the royal family itself there are factions with differing views about the way forward. There are tribes that compete with each other for influence and a share of largesse. The country’s merchant families form a powerful constituency. Above all, the religious establishment – with which Abdullah’s father Abdulaziz made common cause when he created the kingdom that bears his family name – is a vested interest. Without the support of the ulema the royal family would find it almost impossible to rule other than through the barrel of a gun.

In other words, Saudi Arabia’s monarchy is far from absolute, and the King’s ability to act unilaterally is arguably no greater than that of Barack Obama or David Cameron, even if the constraints on his power are more fluid and less formal than those that apply to the leaders of Britain and the United States.

Am I suggesting that King Abdullah was what we in the West might see as a closet liberal struggling with the shackles of his predecessors’ legacies? Far from it. He was one of a series of leaders who believed that the preservation of his family’s power, the welfare of his people and the conservation of his people’s culture and way of life were all one and the same thing. He may have wanted to bring more change to his country faster, but he would never have been sympathetic to Western voices who wanted Saudi Arabia to “be more like us”.

My second point is that the world leaders who are flocking to Riyadh are not concerned about what has been. They have to deal with today, and what might be in the future. They will be acutely aware that without the unifying force of the royal family, Saudi Arabia might turn into a country far less of their liking than it is today. They are not naïve enough to believe that if the Al-Saud were to disappear tomorrow, it would be replaced by government of joyful liberal democrats. More likely it would descend into factional chaos with a large dollop of sectarian conflict, aided and abetted by regional players with opposing ideologies. The current regional instability would be dwarfed by the turbulence resulting from the fall of the Al-Saud. And for all the obvious reasons, not least the impact on energy supply, that turbulence would have global consequences.

As for King Abdullah himself, I can testify through personal experience that while many in Saudi Arabia may not be comfortable with the Kingdom’s current system of government, the King was respected by most Saudis and loved by many – not an accolade that can be granted to all of his predecessors, though King Faisal was equally respected.

Those who criticise his apparent indifference to human rights sometimes fail to mention achievements that Saudis and Westerners alike can agree upon. The West would be the poorer if the Kingdom’s wealth had not been recycled into projects from which it has benefited. Not just military and infrastructural expenditure, but the investment in education under his watch. His scholarship program has sent tens of thousands of young Saudis into foreign universities. Colleges around the world have had their coffers filled thanks to his initiative.

On all of his other achievements – his efforts to promote a settlement between Israel and Palestine, his attempts to foster dialogue between faiths and his support of women’s advancement – you will find plenty of discussion in the mainstream media. Many argue that he didn’t do enough, especially to free women from the social constraints that bind them. But his critics perhaps underestimate the power of the religious conservatives who stubbornly opposed even the moderate changes he brought about.

I am not in any way an apologist for Saudi Arabia or for its rulers. They have faults and have made mistakes over the years, like most countries. They are an easy target for those who frown on their social customs and religious conservatism. Life for many who were born in the country or came there to work is neither pleasant nor comfortable.

But I do believe that whatever the world thinks of Saudi Arabia, his people have much to thank King Abdullah for. And, for his role in enduring the stability of his country through two decades, so do many of us in the West – whether or not we realise it today. What happens in the next few years will determine whether he will be known as one of the last bastions of an ancien regime or the enabler of a more socially inclusive and outward-looking nation that others will be happy to have as a friend because of what it is rather than what it owns.

For the sake of my many Saudi friends, I hope it will be the latter.

Charlie Hebdo: Life After the Lost Boys

Paris Hebdo March

What now? Has anything fundamentally changed?

In J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the Lost Boys are children “who fall out of their prams when the nurse is looking the other way and if they are not claimed in seven days, they are sent far away to the Never Land”. Do the actions of three lost boys in Paris radically change our daily lives in the West, and particularly in the UK? Should non-Muslims look at every Muslim with a backpack on a bus, tube or train, and reach for a phone to call the police?

Should we give free rein to our government to monitor every phone call we make, email we send, tweet we post, every comment on Facebook and picture on Instagram? To share what they find with other intelligence agencies in the knowledge that information security is only as strong as the weakest link? Are we on Edward Snowden’s side or Theresa May’s?

First things first, if we think we can detect and de-radicalise every Kouachi, Reid and Tsarnaev lurking in our sink estates, middle-class suburbs or university Islamic Societies, we are mistaken, unless we are prepared to become a police state in the accepted sense of the phrase: we become subject to a government that exercises power arbitrarily through the police. Would we tolerate networks of informers in every street ran by a Stasi-like state security apparatus? And if we did become a police state, do we really think that we would be able to prevent every attack on our citizens and institutions? China, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf states are all countries with highly developed, well-funded security forces. They have not been able to stop Uigurs, Chechens, Al-Qaeda and ISIS from launching internal attacks far more frequently than those we have experienced in the West, Charlie Hebdo included.

That said, should we limit the ability of the security services to read our emails, listen to our phone calls and access metadata relating to our use of the web?  The debate in the UK over recent proposed legislation such as the Communications Data Bill – the so-called Snooper’s Charter – is centred on who is allowed to snoop, and on what activities they are allowed to snoop. Are organised child sex abuse, cyber fraud and human trafficking less important than conspiracies to commit terrorist offences? If the police and the security services are allowed to access this data, why not local councils, the Inland Revenue and other statutory bodies? “Snoop creep” is one of the main reasons why there is widespread suspicion of legislation that allows the state to monitor the activities of citizens.

From where I stand, the answer to the first question is that there is a case for making a limited set of criminal activities subject to “enhanced surveillance”, but with strict limits on which bodies can access the information. One of those crimes could be terrorist offences. As for the others, that’s an open question. But sex traffickers and fraudsters are not normally in the business of bringing decapitating soldiers, downing aircraft and detonating dirty bombs, though money launderers and hackers might be.

In terms of who might be entitled to carry out enhanced surveillance, access to the information should be limited to the security services and specific branches of the police – not all the police.

There should also be regular reviews of protocols governing what can be shared with foreign intelligence services. There should be no instances of “you share with me but I don’t have to share with you”. If that means that in some cases there are multi-level protocols that allow limited sharing with some countries – for example countries with shared interest in counter-terrorism but significantly different approaches to human rights – then that’s also worth considering. These protocols should be time-based – to be renewed or not depending on the level of threat at the time of potential renewal.

It should not be beyond the wit and wisdom of most countries committed to the rule of law and the right to privacy to come up with national and international agreements that do not infringe on the basic human rights of their citizens, yet provide effective tools for those whom we entrust with the task of keeping us relatively safe.

The technical issues around encryption are wickedly complex, as this article from the BBC points out. Yet whatever the protestations of technology and social media companies, a fundamental issue is often overlooked. These companies are facilitating the use of their sophisticated encryption techniques by actual and potential terrorists, by fraudsters and sex offenders. Yet they have the freedom to do business, make profits and enhance their value in the very countries that are affected by the malign activities of some of their users. Do they not have a moral responsibility to find a way to enable “dark traffic” to be decrypted by governments in those countries? If they object on the grounds that some governments are as malign as the users, this could be an issue that could be overcome by international convention, and the activities of signatories could be independently monitored, by Amnesty International perhaps. Far-fetched? Maybe, but let’s at least think about it.

Let’s now think about safety. In 2013 over 1700 people died on Britain’s roads. In the same year 551 people were murdered. The number of deaths in that year on British soil due to terrorism was just two: Lee Rigby, murdered in Woolwich by two Muslim extremists, and Mohammed Saleem, a Muslim, murdered by a Ukrainian racial supremacist. Those numbers don’t take into account how many people might have been killed had the police and security forces not done their jobs and thwarted potential attacks. But let’s just bear in mind that you would have had a greater chance over the past decade of being killed by lightning strikes (an average of three deaths per annum). The 2014 statistics are not yet available from the Office of National Statistics, but I’m not aware of any deaths through terrorist acts on British soil last year.

These figures are no cause for complacency. In 2015 there could indeed be instances where the “one attack in a hundred” actually succeeds, with mass casualties as a result. But we need to bear in mind that the 2013 death rate resulted from the current level of surveillance, not through any enhanced techniques currently being contemplated. But they do go to show that we have far more reason to fear for our safety on the roads, in our homes and in the streets for humdrum reasons than in some terror spectacular. Granted, 2013 was the year when Edward Snowden started leaking classified information. The full impact of those leaks, which the British Security Service claims damaged their efforts to monitor potential terrorists, had yet to be felt.

What the Paris attacks have undoubtedly achieved has been to increase fears among people in the West, even if those fears are unjustified by the statistics. And fear produces extreme counter-reactions, which is probably what ISIS and Al-Qaeda want. Attacks on mosques and rhetoric from extreme right organisations only serve to contribute to the extremist narrative of alienation and victimhood.

So what’s to be done about the lost boys waiting in the wings to make their bids for paradise? For those who are successfully indoctrinated, not much, I fear. The emphasis should be on those who have not yet fallen for the extremist narrative. As a number of pundits have pointed out, there is no point in trying to convince young people that the actions that they are contemplating are “contrary to Islam”, because it’s not difficult to justify any act of ISIS or Al-Qaeda by using a dark interpretation of scriptures. People will believe what best fits their own realities and offers them hope of a better life – in this world or the next.

What does make sense is to push the concept of “and” rather than “either/or”. In other words that you can be a good Muslim and a good citizen of the country where you were brought up; that you don’t have to make a choice between one and another. That starts in families and schools. Easily said than done, you might think, especially with the prevalence of self-appointed scholars preaching a message of extremism and – as the BBC’s Panorama put it the other night – leading people to the door and opening it without pushing them through.

In the long run the answer must surely be for governments and NGOs to encourage counter-narratives. Not middle-aged or elderly scholars speaking the language of the patriarch, but people who can communicate with the young at their level. And I’m not talking about state-sponsored stooges – the kids would see through them in five seconds. Any successful campaign will have to come from the ranks of Muslims themselves. The counter-narratives will need to make as much sense and use similar methods – video, social media and so forth – as ISIS and Al-Qaeda use. They must also challenge the interpretations on which the extremist ideology is built.

What to do about the poisonous imams who lead the lost boys to the door? If they are of foreign origin they can be deported. If they’re UK-born, not so easy. You can change the definition of hate crime in an attempt to silence them, at the risk of driving them underground. You can bug the mosques, as the Saudis have started doing, but that will only force them to find other venues. And even if you can clamp down on extremist agitators on British soil, you still have the problem of stopping those who use TV and the internet to broadcast their messages from other countries.

One thing you can do – preferably in concert with other countries, is to introduce laws that make the social media companies criminally or financially responsible for certain types of content that they inadvertently publish through their sites and fail to take down promptly. At the same time make it easier for individuals to issue “cease and desist” requests to the companies on pain of financial penalties. Yes, the devil is in the detail, and I know that there could be serious implications around freedom of expression with this approach, but again it should be possible to limit the scope of such provisions.

Next, how do you deal with ISIS and Al-Qaeda? Paradoxically, ISIS is potentially easier to deal with than the various Al-Qaeda offshoots, because it has chosen to create a state within defined areas even if those areas are continually expanding or contracting as the result of attempts by other countries to supress it. It therefore presents a defined geographical target.

On the other hand the groups in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and Sinai are waging guerrilla war from shifting bases. They are difficult to track down and their command structures are not always clear.

In another article from the BBC, Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, argues that the appeal of ISIS is strong among the disenfranchised poor of the region, and its military success is the result of assistance from military officers from Saddam Hussein’s defeated army. He claims that its indigenous fighters are driven by social and economic motivation rather than religious ideology.

“….one of Islamic State’s most harmful lasting impacts in the region is its strategy of neutralizing or expunging civilian-driven strategies that could forge not only national but regional transformation.

Accordingly, the key to weakening IS lies in working closely with Sunni communities it has co-opted, a bottom-up approach that requires considerable material and ideological investment.

The most effective means to degrade IS is to dismantle its social base by winning over hearts and minds, a difficult and prolonged task, and to resolve the Syria conflict that has given IS motivation, resources and a safe heaven.

Indeed, there is no simple or quick solution to rid the Middle East of IS because it is a manifestation of the breakdown of state institutions, dismal socio-economic conditions and the spread of sectarian fires in the region.”

The same could be said about the Al-Qaeda offshoots, and in 2006 that approach dealt successfully – for a while – with the insurgency in Anbar Province.

The problem is that winning over hearts and minds is difficult to achieve in areas that ISIS has conquered because of its ruthless suppression of opposition. But given its stated aim of creating a global caliphate, ISIS can’t stand still and consolidate without diluting its raison d’etre. It must continue to expand, or it risks imploding for reasons I outlined in a previous post:

“His (Baghdadi’s) credibility most likely depends on being able maintain forward momentum – to expand the caliphate ever outwards. If he calculated that that ISIS had reached a high water mark beyond which, even temporarily, it could not go without risk of implosion, he might find that his creation no longer offered the same attraction to the thousands of young people who have joined its ranks over the past year. After all, a state with no enemy to conquer and no unbelievers to massacre or enslave would eventually start to feel like any other state.”

Not only that, but economic and political isolation will eventually, as Gerges argues, weaken its appeal within the Sunni tribes.

Therefore, much as governments, politicians and public opinion, horrified by events in Iraq and Syria, would like nothing more than to see ISIS crushed by military action and its leaders brought to justice or killed, a better strategy might be containment – to prevent it from expanding further and isolate it from sources of funding – thereby halting its momentum.

Critics of containment would argue that leaving ISIS in place would allow it to consolidate its hold on the territory it already controls, which in effect could create one vast training camp for violent global jihad. Whichever option the current anti-ISIS alliance selects, there’s anecdotal evidence that de facto accommodation of the nascent state is already taking place, particularly on the border with the rest of Iraq, where rumour has it that Iraqi border authorities are refusing to allow truckers passage from ISIS territory unless they have certification that they have paid a levy to the caliphate’s tax collectors.

What is certain is that military action without parallel political initiatives could well make the problem worse. It could cause thousands of deaths and yet more bitterness. Even if successful, it would cause diehard foot soldiers to go elsewhere and try again.

If political settlements – within Iraq, Yemen and Somalia, between Iran, its neighbours and the global stakeholders, between Russia and the US – were to create the conditions for economic prosperity in the areas bordering ISIS territory, they would accelerate the disillusionment of those in the territories with no ideological or religious commitment to the cause. Easier said than done, but efforts should intensify.

Last but not least, if you are Westerner, and not a Muslim, reading your paper every day and talking to your friends about the threat of Islamic extremism, listening to politicians urging extreme measures against what they believe is a Muslim fifth column in your country, it’s time to stop and reflect. If you have no personal experience of interacting with Muslim people, try meeting them and talking to them. After all, people are first and foremost people. You might be surprised at how many people don’t conform to the stereotypes.

I have employed Muslims, worked with them and have many Muslim friends, both in Britain and in countries where Muslims are in the majority – and I’m not talking about Birmingham, the city of my birth! Our lifestyles may be different in some respects, and we may not agree about some things, but isn’t that something you can say about most people you meet and befriend, whatever their religious beliefs? If you think my tone is a tad sanctimonious, consider the gesture of the people of Sydney, who reached out to their Muslim neighbours after the recent attack there.

I know this is something easy for me to say as someone living a comfortable life far away from the banlieux and the sink estates. But that was not always the case. I have lived among poor Muslims, I have seen racism and poverty at first hand both in Britain and in Muslim countries and I have encountered many people who do not blame the West for their personal predicaments and have not resorted to extremist ideologies.

There’s a commonly quoted argument that most Christians and Jews don’t take extreme action when they find their faith being mocked, and that therefore Muslims should take an equally relaxed attitude. But it doesn’t hold up when you consider that many Muslims feel that they are personally defined by their faith, and to ridicule Islam and the Prophet Mohammed is a direct threat to their identity. Maybe the cartoonists understood that, but felt that nobody should be above ridicule. Yet would those cartoonists have mocked their children or friends for being fat, for having cerebral palsy or Downs Syndrone, or simply for being less talented than them? I doubt it, because what came over in a number of the obituaries was that these were “kind people”.

Non-Muslims may feel that the Prophet does not need to be protected, and so do many Muslims. Margo Catts, who writes an excellent blog from Saudi Arabia, explores this further in her post Too Big to Hurt. Rising above insults does not make them less hurtful, but as I learned as a small child, the best way you respond to teasing from your peers is not to react – no reaction, no fun for those who would try to torment you. But that’s not how the lost boys saw it.

Ignorance, lack of education, poverty, a sense of being adrift in a hostile country with alien values may be reasons cited for the rise of extremism among young people and the attack on Charlie Hebdo specifically. But they are not excuses.

We can bomb Mosul and Raqqah into the stone age. We can lock up anyone who shows even a suggestion of views with which we disagree. We can read people’s mail and watch them from street corners. But we can’t look into their souls. And the more we isolate those who don’t look, sound, dress and believe as we do, the greater the chance that things will happen that we can’t guard against.

The problem of the uneasy relationship between minority Muslim communities and fearful non-Muslims in the West will not go away. Muslim Britons, French, Swedes and Americans are not going away. They are not “the other”. They are part of us.

As for the lost boys, there are many still out there. We need to bring them back from Neverland before they are lost forever.

No, we are not all Charlie Hebdo

It’s hard to disagree with all the pious statements from the press and politicians in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack. But the sad likelihood is that the vast majority of people who pick up their newspapers or check out their favourite news websites this morning will sigh, maybe feel a frisson of fear and move on.

The victims happen to be journalists, which guarantees a reaction from the media. Columnists and leader writers around the world are lamenting this latest attack on freedom of expression, while politicians are busily urging the social media to clamp down on extremists who use that freedom to recruit for their causes.

Meanwhile a cold snap has blanketed much of the Middle East with snow, and millions of refugees are shivering in their tents. Atrocities against ordinary people are taking place in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia on a daily basis. Most people in those countries don’t care much about the freedom of expression. They want to live their daily lives in peace. They want enough to eat, clothes for their young, gainful employment. Talk to them about Charlie Hebdo and they would say welcome to our world, where fear is just around the corner.

Most of us in the west couldn’t give a stuff about freedom of expression either, because we take it for granted. And anyway, many might reply if asked whether such things matter, do we really have freedom of the press in our countries, where so much of the media is owned by so few? And what about democracy? A choice between one bunch of wasters and another, they might say.

What use is freedom of expression if all that talking doesn’t stop a tiny minority of people from owning and controlling the vast majority of the world’s resources and wealth? If the votes we cast are of no more significance than a speck of dust in the wind?

Actually it means everything, if we would only appreciate it, but most people are not prepared to defend to the death the right of other people to say what they want. Ask most people about whether magazines should be allowed to publish provocative cartoons, and they will say sure, but those guys at Charlie Hebdo should have known the risks they ran. They were foolhardy, and look at the consequences for their families.

Freedom of expression certainly means an awful lot to me. It allows me to write about bigotry, hypocrisy, the idiocy of bankers and the incompetence of politicians, but also to celebrate the goodness that can be found in the most unpromising situations. I try not to pass judgement on other people’s faith, but their behaviour is fair game. Equally I don’t publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, not because I’m afraid of some guy with a balaclava and an AK-47 knocking on my door, but because I have friends who would be offended by them.

I don’t believe that the pen is mightier than the sword. The two co-exist. The one feeds the other. More powerful than either is human behaviour – both for good and ill. The power of personal example – witnessed directly or indirectly, described by stories in oral as well as written tradition – dictates behaviour. We are inspired by tales of prophets, kings and heroes, by acts of kindness and courage that we encounter in our daily lives, by behaviour that causes us to re-think our prejudices.

The freedom to be inspired, to choose our own stories, to make our own minds up and to follow our own paths is what changes the world for better or for worse, not the freedom to insult and denigrate. And because most of us are followers, not leaders, we are not all Charlie Hebdo, sad to say, even if each time a Charlie Hebdo is snuffed out those more important freedoms are further eroded.

Postcard From New York – NYPD, a Prodigal Prince and Other Stories


There’s no city I enjoy visiting more than New York, but no city I would less like to make my home. The second statement is a bit of an exaggeration perhaps – give me New York any time over Karachi, Caracas and Mosul. It’s a city for young people, and I’m not young any more. But as a place to visit it’s superb.

It’s the first Monday of 2015, and New York hurtles back into work like a stampede of buffaloes. My wife and I are here for a long weekend, and the city has welcomed us like an old friend – not that it treats new ones with any less relentless enthusiasm.

I always check out the local media in any place I visit. The news story that’s been bubbling away for a while came to a head again over the weekend: the ongoing war between Mayor De Blasio and the New York Police Department. The other story attracting most attention is the allegation against Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son, that he had sex with minors procured from him by a zillionaire American financier and the daughter of a deceased British fraudster.

The NYPD story arises out of remarks by the mayor questioning the partiality of the police following the death of a man who died after being held in a choke hold. A number of officers responded by turning their backs on the mayor at the funeral of one of the officers killed by a mentally unstable man in Brooklyn.

Now at this point I must say that there’s any police force I would want on my side it would be the NYPD. Those guys are the roughest, toughest, meanest looking bunch of law enforcers to be found in any city I’ve visited. Not only that, but contrary to the popular myth about them being brusque and unhelpful to tourists , if you ask them directions, they will usually reply with courtesy.

I do wonder, though, whether they’ve become a little too absorbed in their own mythology. All that stuff about New York’s Finest and the affectionate if warts-and-all portrayal of the force in NYPD Blue reflects an admirable esprit de corps. But when it comes to public arguments with politicians, the gesture against De Blasio looks a little like arrogance.

Nobody in New York questions the NYPD’s bravery, and few around the world will forget the sacrifice they and the fire fighters made on 9/11. Yet the De Blasio incident gives you the feeling that here is an organisation that has forgotten that it is part of a chain of command at the head of which is the elected mayor. If members of the US armed forces were to pull a similar stunt at the expense of their commander-in-chief, the President, there would surely be an almighty row, followed by severe disciplinary action. Heads would almost certainly roll.

If the NYPD feels that it is above criticism – and I leave it to you to judge on the basis of this video whether the criticism of the conduct of arresting officers in the choke-hold incident was justified – it’s not the only police force to take that view. In my country, the UK, police forces have come in for serious hammering over the past couple of years from the Home Secretary Theresa May. Accusations of “institutional racism” on the part of the Metropolitan Police, and the more recent Plebgate affair, in which an officer invented evidence to support allegations of inappropriate language against a Cabinet Minister, suggest an adversarial culture in the police’s relationship with their political masters.

One thing does surprise me though, both from personal observation of officers around the Rockefeller Center this weekend and from the video, is how many officers seem seriously overweight. Is physical fitness a requirement of New York police officers? I would bet strongly in favour of a fleeing suspect in a contest for speed against at least 50% of the cops I saw. So if an officer is unable to chase a suspect on foot, what alternative does he or she have? Presumably to draw a gun, taser them or call for support. Does the officer’s inability to give chase increase the chance of a violent outcome? I don’t know enough about policing to say. But compared, for example, with the (more-or-less) unarmed officers of London’s Metropolitan Police, athleticism would not seem to be at a premium within the NYPD.

The story about Prince Andrew made headlines in New York partly because of America’s fascination with the British aristocracy (the latest series of Downton Abbey made the front page of USA Today), and partly because the legal proceedings around Andrew’s friend Jeffrey Epstein, a convicted paedophile, are taking place in the US. For fear of finding myself locked up in the Tower of London I will say no more about Prince Charles’s younger brother than to suggest that his finest hour came 30 years ago when he was a navy helicopter pilot in the Falklands war. Given his subsequent well-publicised private life, perhaps he should have gone on to a career as an airline pilot. He would have had plenty of opportunity to travel, not to mention regular proximity to the opposite sex.

When I say we visited New York, I should actually say Manhattan, because that island is really a city within a city. Most of the places we visited were within walking distance, or otherwise a few hops on the subway. But mostly walking, which brings its own special pleasure. New Yorkers are great walkers. Most of them at this time of the year are wrapped up as if for a trip to the North Pole, though one difference from London is the prevalence of leggings. Now leggings look good on some people, but on others they look, well, spectacular. You don’t have to walk far to encounter an extremely large woman waddling past, her gargantuan backside protected only by skin-tight leggings, leaving nothing – cellulite, dimples, wobbles and all – to the imagination. I’m not talking Kim Kardsashian here – more Walking with Dinosaurs. One of the notable sights of the city, in a gruesome kind of way.

One of the more delightful aspects of New York is the lightness with which – at least on the surface – it wears its multiracial character. Not to say that there aren’t problems, as the accusations against the NYPD attest. But on the streets and in the towers of Manhattan black, white, Asian, and Hispanic citizens work happily together. It’s also worth noting that the NYPD has a vastly more diverse workforce than any of the British forces. The two officers killed recently were of Hispanic and Chinese descent.

Even among more recent immigrants you sense the urge to be American, to fit in. The extent to which the instinct for cultural homogeneity is more than skin deep was explored in Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s dark play that we saw on Broadway. Take Amir a high-flying lawyer of Pakistani descent, Emily, his white wife, Isaac, a Jewish art dealer and Jory, his wife, who is black, and happens to be a colleague of Amir. Emily is an artist who has an interest in Islamic art. She is hoping that the dealer will include her work in an upcoming exhibition. Her husband is hoping to be made partner in his firm. He is a self-proclaimed apostate from Islam, yet finds himself drawn into the case of an imam who has been jailed on suspicion of promoting terrorism.

The four of them get together for dinner, at which loin of pork is to be served – an obvious symbol of the assimilation of the Jewish and Muslim participants. Amir is half drunk on scotch by the time the other couple arrives, a reaction to being told that he has not made partner, partly, he thinks, because of the adverse publicity over his comments to the press on the imam’s detention.

Banter between Amir and Isaac turns sour as each reveals a mindset less liberal than was initially apparent. The action descends into darkness and destruction in a manner only matched by Edward Albee at his best. The uneasy position of America’s Muslims post 9/11, the contradictions inherent in the Quran, tensions between black and white and the divided loyalties of Jews when confronted with criticism of Israel combine in a toxic and combustible mix. A powerful piece of theatre for the largely moneyed white audience to think about. With the best seats selling for over $400, how could they not be moneyed?

Speaking of Jews, New York is home to over a million, probably the largest population in a single city outside Israel. Not surprising then that the city boasts a museum dedicated to Judaism and the Jewish heritage. Since I’m currently reading Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews, and no trip to the city would be complete without at least one museum visit, the Jewish Museum – which is just a short walk down 5th Avenue from the Guggenheim – was an obvious choice.

It has, it claims, the largest collection of Jewish artefacts outside Israel, and very impressive they are too. Before reading Schama’s book I was relatively unaware of the historical context of pre-Christian Judaism, and particularly the strong Hellenistic influence on Jewish culture and religion. This was much in evidence in the Jewish Museum, in the form of pottery, sculpture and coinage. I was also unaware that struggle for supremacy between political and religious leaders goes back so far. The tension between the religious and the secular in the present state of Israel is merely the latest iteration of a debate that started two and a half millennia ago.

The museum is well worth a visit for the art and artefacts alone. But it also serves as a reminder to those who view Jews and Judaism through the prisms of the Holocaust and the current Israeli state that here is a rich culture that has contributed as much to human thought as Christianity and Islam. Perhaps the critical difference of Judaism lies in its exceptionalism. The idea of one small group of people being anointed by God as “chosen” is dramatically different than the other two faiths, whose followers have actively sought to convert non-believers.

There are no doubt any number of theologians and historians who know far more about this than me, but Judaism’s history as a faith that looks inwards rather than proselytises has surely contributed to the paranoia and envy that has led to persecution and isolation over its long history. Yet which religion has inflicted the most pain and suffering on humanity? One that holds others at an arm’s length, or ones that for much of their existence have used the pen, the sword and the torture chamber to convert non-believers?

Not a subject on which I’m prepared to judge. My philosophy has always been to seek humanity wherever I can find it. Museums that emphasise humanity over inhumanity would always be my preference, and the Jewish Museum certainly does that.

And that, apart from a bit of shopping, a magnificent Sunday brunch at a restaurant called 8½ on 57th Street West and a visit to Ground Zero, now the site of a glimmering new tower, was our New York weekend. The latest of many, and hopefully not the last.

Thoughts on 2015: ISIS – Religion, Politics and the Yearning for Identity


The rise of ISIS has troubled and fascinated me in equal measures. For all the global attention it attracted in 2014, it remains an entity about which there are more questions than answers – at least to onlookers like me and surely to millions of others.  One way to try to understand the phenomenon is to think about the motivation of the leaders, the followers and those who oppose them.

For what they’re worth, here are my thoughts.

Let’s look at the leaders first. Is Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi just another religious fanatic with leadership skills? Does he in his heart of hearts really believe in the establishment of a caliphate – a model as flawed and unsuccessful as any other system of rule? Is he a reluctant leader – a man thrust into leadership – or is he an opportunist – a man with an eye on the main chance?

What about the followers who flock to Syria with Islam for Dummies in their backpacks? Are these boys and girls religious fanatics, or impressionable kids in search of an identity that fits them better than the choices at home? What leads them to become fighters and suicide bombers? Deep belief, or peer pressure and a desire for respect?

To the first question, it seems to me that ISIS is a political organisation first, and a religious one second. In another universe, Baghdadi and his crew would most likely be just as happy in Nazi jackboots or Mao suits. Religion is the instrument of his power, and he is using it to create a political entity. It’s an old game. His tools are ideology and hatred of the other – the other being anyone he proclaims to be non-believers. Perhaps he studied Hitler’s ideology of racial purity and the Fuhrer’s tactics in the Sudetenland and Austria. It’s a game he will probably lose, because unlike Hitler he doesn’t have the military means at his disposal to hold on to what he has for any length of time. What he has created is the result of political weakness and division on the part of regional and global stakeholders. When he is defeated – whether by military or other means – it will be at the cost of countless lives sacrificed on the altar of his personal ambition.

So perhaps we should stop being side-tracked by the religious dimension, and start treating him as just another political leader, albeit a murderous and possibly psychopathic one. We’ve come across a few of those before, haven’t we?

As for the followers, in This Year’s Best-Seller: The Rough Guide for Jihadis? I described the young men and women flocking to Syria and Iraq as gap year backpackers with attitude. The gap year analogy goes further. These are educated people, often with university degrees. But many of them are strangers in a strange land. Of a country but not part of it. Easy marks for what amounts to a cult masquerading under the cloak of a great world religion. In that other universe they could be storm-troopers or young communists. The common theme would seem to be a yearning for identity that leaves them vulnerable to manipulation by figures with spiritual or ideological authority.

Do religious considerations drive the coalition of Muslim countries determined to wipe out this dangerous interloper? There are countries close by that share much of ISIS’s ideology. Like ISIS, they police public morality on religious grounds, and exact harsh punishment on those who infringe their reading of sharia. So why would they not welcome this new addition to the fold? Although there are significant doctrinal differences – mainly centred on the definition and treatment of non-believers – the main issue seems to be that ISIS undermines the legitimacy of neighbouring regimes, and is actively recruiting from their populations. No wonder that the relatively stable states nearby regard ISIS – with good reason – as a political, military and social threat.

What of the role played by religious leaders? Are they part of the problem or essential to the solution? Critics of organised religion would claim that it’s a rare religious leader who reaches the pinnacle of their establishment for whom politics doesn’t to some extent compromise faith. They have a point. Religious leaders need political skills, especially if they are in their positions by appointment or election. They are to a greater or lesser extent beholden to those who put them there. I say this with apologies to Pope Francis, for whom principles seem to have informed politics rather than the other way round. His struggle with the Vatican Curia – an institutionalised bureaucracy for which “do what I say, not what I do” has long been a dominant ethos – is a case in point.

But who will history judge the more influential: popes, bishops, lamas and caliphs, or monks, poets, martyrs and outsiders whose examples have inspired generations? Who will be remembered longest for their spiritual impact? St Francis, Rumi and Martin Luther, or Pope Francis, Ayatollah Khomeini and Archbishop Cranmer?

As for the Muslim world, I struggle to find a religious leader universally respected for who they are, rather than for the position they hold. Most are products of the establishments that put them there, and their utterances, delivered from the safety of their state-sponsored pulpits, almost invariably follow the political line of the government in power.Worse still, clerical establishments are losing credibility with the youth of those countries. There are of course national religious figures who are respected by their own people. There are also those – such as the tele-sheikhs – who connect widely and across borders through satellite TV and the social media. But as far as I can see, there are none who appeal across the spectrum of belief; people to whom, when they speak, all Muslims – regardless of age, sect and school of thought – listen.

Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi is hardly a transcendental figure. But he is beholden to no one. His message reaches out to the excluded, the disaffected and the idealists who no longer want to be in a minority in the countries where they were born. For him, religion is politics, and politics is religion. Western powers will never neutralise the appeal of ISIS by diluting the secular nature of their societies. Distrust between generations will ensure that appeals from parents and religious figures in the west will often fall on deaf ears.

So we’re left with war, politics or a combination of the two. But to what end? To limit further destruction and loss of life, to return to a status quo ante that was already unstable and toxic, or a combination of both?

Your bet is as good as mine as to whether the defeat of ISIS by military means or by a strategy of political containment will save more lives in the long run. And to go back to the conditions prevailing that provided ISIS with its launch pad would be undesirable and impossible to achieve.

But my point is that despite the sectarian dimension that underlies the current conflict we’re not witnessing a religious war or a clash of civilisations. It’s a political struggle. If the cycle of violence is to be ended, it needs to be treated as such. Something the western powers learned to their cost in the aftermath of the defeat of Saddam Hussain. Military victory was not enough then, nor will it be now.

So what are the political options? Assuming enough force can be brought to bear to defeat ISIS militarily, the future victors should be working on a post-war political settlement now. Are they? Unlikely, since the potential participants in a decisive ground war have yet to be identified. Will Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Russia and the USA be able to agree on a post-war political settlement that stops the cycle of violence? Possibly, but there are so many conflicting interests at play that it will be extremely difficult to arrive at a workable consensus.

How about thinking the unthinkable – doing a deal with Baghdadi that recognises his caliphate in return for his undertaking not to expand its borders? To do so would be to accept that for decades to come there would be a volatile entity bent on exporting its creed by one means or another, capable of destabilising its neighbours just as Gaddafi did in his back yard. It would be a bitter pill for the new state’s neighbours to swallow, especially as it would have plenty of oil resources at its disposal.

It would also be by no means certain that Baghdadi would accept such a deal. His credibility most likely depends on being able maintain forward momentum – to expand the caliphate ever outwards. If he calculated that that ISIS had reached a high water mark beyond which, even temporarily, it could not go without risk of implosion, he might find that his creation no longer offered the same attraction to the thousands of young people who have joined its ranks over the past year. After all, a state with no enemy to conquer and no unbelievers to massacre or enslave would eventually start to feel like any other state.

On the other hand, as Osama bin Laden eventually discovered, a life of constant vigilance against bombs, drones and hit squads can have a debilitating effect on personal morale. How long can Baghdadi and his associates tolerate living in hiding, in constant fear of betrayal? The temptation to cash in his chips must eventually become very great. And even if the “caliph” himself opted to hang tough, would his lieutenants continue to stand by him, at the increasing risk of being picked off one by one?

These are all political, not religious, considerations.

In 2015 we will surely find out just how adept a politician ISIS’s leader actually is.

On Christmas Day – A Quotation for All Seasons


Ibn Arabi

On this Christmas morning, I came across a quotation from a poem written over eight hundred years ago by Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, a Sufi scholar born in Murcia, Southern Spain, then part of Muslim Andalusia:

There was a time when I used to reject those who were not of my faith.

My heart has grown capable of taking on all forms.

A pasture for gazelles, a convent for Christians.

A temple for idols, a Kaaba for pilgrims.

A table for the Torah, the book of the Quran.

My religion is love. Whatever path the caravan of love shall take, that path shall be the path of my faith.

Which makes me wonder what we’ve learned in eight hundred years.

My thanks to Haitham Haqqi, who quoted it in an article in Al Araby Al Jadeed.

I can think of nothing more to add, except to wish all my readers, regardless of faith, a happy and peaceful day.

A Dream for the Season – The God of Big Things


I woke up the other morning to the sound of voices arguing over the nature of divinity. Not something I normally do. But it’s Christmas, and I’m conscious of the message of faith struggling to make itself heard through the noise of rattling tills and jingling bells.

I’d been thinking about rockets raining down once more on Gaza. Of explosions, screaming children and righteous justifications. Of the Pope’s condemnation of the Curia, the Vatican’s civil service, as suffering from “Spiritual Alzheimer’s”, “Feeling immortal or immune”, “Suffering from existential schizophrenia”, “Committing terrorism of gossip” and “Becoming spiritually and mentally hardened”.

I’d been reading about the religious scholar in Saudi Arabia who had the audacity to question the origin of the requirement for women to wear the face veil. To back up his assertion that the practice is cultural rather than ordained by God, he appeared on TV accompanied by his wife, duly uncovered. The sheikh’s beliefs were greeted with a chorus of disapproval, and even death threats.

In my half-awake state, I imagined a giant debating platform like a floating Rubik’s cube. No matter how you rearranged the squares on each face of the cube, the same squares would be there in different combinations:  full of Muslims, Christians, Jews, doubters, atheists – believers and sceptics of all stripes. All seemed to be talking at the same time. None of them listening.

The occupants of a red square were arguing about the face veils. “The idea”, they said, “that God, the all-seeing and all-knowing, busy as He is creating and destroying galaxies and universes, would be remotely concerned over whether the females of one species on one planet out of the trillion He has created should cover approximately eight square inches of their anatomy with a piece of cloth – but only under certain circumstances – is fanciful, to say the least.”

“God’s universal attention is entirely logical”, came the reply from a green square. “He is everywhere, so why would He not be concerned at the behaviour of each and every creature he has created, which is why he has sent prophets to us on order to relay His word?”

“In which case”, replied someone from a yellow square, “His word is being pretty widely ignored on this particular cosmic truck-stop. So tell us – are the billions of women who show their faces and bodies to the world condemned to that other universe He created, known to us as Hell? And what about people who have eaten and drunk prohibited things over the ages? Are they all roasting away in the other place?!”

To which the believer in the green square answered that only God will determine the punishment due to those who break His laws. “We, his creatures, can only warn of the risk you run when you disobey Him. And where He has mandated us to punish on His behalf here on earth, so you will be punished – if we can get our hands on you.”

“OK,” came a shout from a white square, “so tell me why He waited billions of years to create a species intelligent enough to understand His word? Or did the dinosaurs, the birds, the termites and the sabre-toothed tigers receive instructions from prophets of their own species that they could understand and follow? By what holy book do elephants, sharks and hyenas live their lives? And why don’t chimpanzees circumcise their male offspring?”

“Those are dumb questions,” a voice cried from a black square. “A billion years and a single second are one and the same to the Creator. So he didn’t wait a billion years as we understand them. And anyway, He created our world in a week eight thousand years ago. And all the evidence to the contrary – the dinosaur bones, the carbon dating, the 40,000-year-old cave paintings – is an illusion designed to test our faith.”

“For what purpose?” came a question from the yellow square. “Why would our faith need to be tested? If it was so obvious that a woman is worth half a man, that religious rituals must be observed without exception, that non-believers and apostates should be killed, why aren’t we all following God’s ordinances?”

By now I could no longer tell from which square the words were coming. Arguments seemed to be raging from every direction.

“Well that would be too easy. Man was put on earth to prove his worth, and to make it all the more difficult God sent Satan amongst us to sow doubt and discord. Going to Heaven is a reward, not a right. You have to earn it. Otherwise what’s the point of our existence?”

“So life is an obstacle course? And all those children killed in Peshawar get a free ticket because they haven’t even started the serious hurdles. And the suicide bombers, the preachers of hate, the oppressors of others in the name of religion get to go to Heaven? For what? To blow up the sinners there? Of course not, I forgot – there are no sinners in Heaven. So presumably there are no rules, because with no sinners there don’t need to be any.”

“It’s not for us to speculate on Heaven. Nor should we try to second-guess God’s plan for us. Just be aware that He sees everything we do, and on the Day of Judgement your sins are weighed against your good works, and on the outcome depends your ultimate destination. So follow his ordinances, and if you fail to do so, repent, and hope for his abundant forgiveness.”

“Then kindly enlighten us on this point. There seem to be plenty of good people who live by lots of different creeds. What happens to them? And what about the animals? Are you saying that there is only one way to Heaven? And for only one species? And for only one set of believers?”

“That’s exactly what we’re saying. There are no variants of belief. Only believers like us, or non-believers. If you do not believe, you will be left floundering in the darkness at the end of days, which, by the way, is due any time now.”

And so the arguments went on – an increasing babble of ever more extreme positions, accusations of superstition, sacrilege, blasphemy, bigotry and intolerance, until suddenly there was a clap of thunder, followed by a terrifying roar.


“What is this Tower of Babel you have built, in which everyone speaks the same language, and yet none of you understand each other?

Do you think it pleases me to see you standing there arguing about rules, about the nature of the universe and about why your belief is superior to others?

Do you believe it pleases me to see you going about your observances dressed in your comfortable clothes, with your fat bellies, your fast cars and your well-furnished homes?

Do you think it pleases me that you seem content with your lives of comfort when beggars sit in the streets, when your brothers murder innocents in my name, when you treat those who don’t share your beliefs as lesser beings, when you live on the fruits of exploitation, of human trafficking and slavery?

Do you think your observances are more important to me than your cruelty to others, your lack of compassion, your lies, your lack of tolerance, mercy and forgiveness?

Do you think I sent Moses to destroy the Golden Calf, Jesus against the Pharisees of Jerusalem and Mohammed against the idolaters of Mecca so that you can worship at the altar of material things, while at the same time you argue about the correct observance of a thousand rituals as though your salvation depends on them?

And you, the doubters and the unbelievers, are you so arrogant as to admit no reality beyond your experience? Do you really think it matters when the earth was created and who created it? Do you really believe that there is no mystery that science cannot solve? Are your minds so closed that you can’t see the unexplainable all around you? Are you proud when your discoveries lead to the extinction of species and threaten life itself on this beautiful planet?

I am not here to reward or punish you. You achieve those things by your own actions. I gave you life.  I gave you guidance for life that you have interpreted as commandments and turned into laws. You and the generations before you have twisted my words to justify your lives of comfort and privilege. You ignore what is important because to do what is important is hard. You pay attention to trivia because the small things are easy.

I will not speak to you again. Go away and think about what is important. Not about what others should do or not do, but about what you should do. And when the time comes for judgement, be prepared to pass judgement on yourselves. For I am in you and you are in me. We are one and the same. Yet I am everywhere. When you harm others, you harm yourselves. When you harm the air, the mountains, the seas and all the things that live in them, you harm yourselves. When you harm yourselves, you harm me.

So think, and act accordingly. This is my only guidance.”

By now the voice had become still and small. The arguing rabble melted into shadows. The squares on the cube turned grey and gradually faded away. In their place was a mosaic of a thousand vistas. Of the past, the present and the future, each coming into focus as I set my eyes upon them. Each was different. Some were too painful to linger on. Others were painful to leave. And as I moved from one to another, each successive landscape became less clear, more mysterious, increasingly beyond my comprehension.

I lay transfixed in my conscious twilight, trying to make sense of what I had seen. Then it came to me. I got the message.

But you know how it is when you wake from a dream. What seems vivid, real and logical to the dreamer revels itself to be – just a dream, to be filed away in the archives of the unconscious.

But dream or not, perhaps the purpose of the whole experience was to give me my resolution for 2015.

Don’t just talk. Do. And in doing try harder to make the world a better place. Not very specific, I know. But at least it’s a start.


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