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Postcard from Saudi Arabia: The Interesting Journey of the Religious Police

 

haia

The officers of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Elimination of Vice are known by many names, some less favoured in official Saudi circles than others: the Haia (the Committee) and the Mutawa (the pious) are the most popular. Among expatriates, especially non-Muslims, the Haia are often seen as the bugbears, the big bad wolf, the killjoys.

Anecdotes about them of varying accuracy abound, particularly among those who have never encountered them: these are the stern-faced guys who wander around the shopping malls looking for women whose heads are not covered, who whack any exposed female ankles with sticks. They try to catch unmarried couples canoodling in cars and parks. They pounce on shops rash enough to sell red roses on Valentine’s Day. They investigate reports of sorcery (here’s a case featured in today’s Saudi Gazette). They have long beards, short thobes and no igal (the black cord that surrounds the gutra – the traditional headdress).

Stories of their more eye-catching activities are gleefully leapt on in the foreign media to support the narrative of Saudi Arabia as a country of extremists who wish to recreate the morals and behaviours of the early followers of the Prophet Mohammed. Recently the western press was excited by the story of the British expatriate who was set upon by a trio of over-enthusiastic members of the Haia for the “offence” of attempting to pay for goods in a female checkout line at a supermarket. The resulting ruckus in the car park led to blows. The British guy, a well-known personality in Riyadh whose wife is Saudi, had to be extracted from the situation by British Embassy staff.

It’s not just the expatriates who have uncomfortable encounters with these moral guardians. Over the past few years there have been some famous incidents where the bitten have bit back. A video of a Saudi woman giving a religious policeman a piece of her mind went viral on YouTube. There have been cases where enraged citizens have assaulted officers whom they considered to be carrying out their duties with undue enthusiasm, and there was widespread condemnation when religious policemen chased a car that subsequently crashed, killing its occupants.

Saudi officials are well aware of the damage to the country’s image that over-officious Haia members can cause. Over the past couple of years, Abdullateef Al-Asheikh, the latest head of the Committee, has gone to some lengths to curb the excesses of his charges. The Haia is active on the social media putting its best face forward, and Mr Al-Asheikh is regularly featured in the daily newspapers explaining the mission and policies of his institution. Members who exceed their remit are punished, as was the case with the incident in Riyadh – the officers who assaulted the British man were promptly relieved of their duties.

Mr Al-Asheikh’s efforts have not been unopposed within the ranks of the Haia, as he himself acknowledges. Only recently he was subjected to verbal abuse by a couple of disgruntled members while he was praying in the mosque.

International concern is less of a worry to the Saudis than controversy among the people themselves. Decades of foreign disapproval of the ban on women driving have not any difference to government policy – the ban remains. And the Haia likewise remains firmly in place. In fact its raison d’être still has wide support among ordinary citizens, as does the ban on women drivers.

But if a recent article in the Arab News is anything to go by, it is evolving. And on face value, some of its less controversial initiatives would not be out of place in western society. The article talks about blackmail, an activity that’s frowned upon more or less everywhere, as the writer points out. The main point of the piece is that blackmail by women is on the increase. Up until now a typical case in Saudi Arabia might occur when the blackmailer has evidence that a person is breaking a social taboo – taking part in an illicit relationship, for example. Sometimes the offender has been the other party in that relationship, which has ended. He or she wants revenge by shaming the other.

Money is not always the motive. Sometimes it’s the illegitimate desire for what the Saudi media delicately call “intimacy”. The blackmail device might be compromising photos or videos, though not necessarily the kind of stuff that would have the FBI applying for arrest warrants in the US. An innocent picture of a boy and a girl in each other’s company can be enough. Public exposure of a dangerous liaison can bring shame not only on the participant but on the person’s entire family – a powerful incentive to use any means necessary to avoid that outcome.

So the Haia has set up a new department to combat blackmail. Its role is not to prosecute the perpetrators but to expose them and hand them over to the police. As the article points out, the pervasive presence of the social media makes it easier for people to blackmail others without leaving their own homes. And apparently women are susceptible to being used by blackmailers to do their dirty work on their behalf:

Wafa Al-Ajami, family consultant and lecturer in the Sociology Department at Imam Mohammad ibn Saud Islamic University, commented that females were most easily used by blackmail perpetrators to do their work for them due to their tendency to be taken for granted in both public and private life.

“This is why they fall victims of blackmails. But all of us as humans in general, and females in particular, should make a good balance between emotions and reasonable thinking, between our instincts and our needs from one side, and our faith, Islamic creed and traditions from the other side.”

She said that blackmail actions began to rise to the surface in society recently due to modern communication devices and mobiles with their high capabilities to take photos and visual and audio recordings.

Note, incidentally, the implication that women find it harder to control their emotions than men – a thought that might raise a few female eyebrows in the west!

All this reminds me of a time when in the west blackmail on moral grounds was a powerful weapon in the hands of more than just grubby lowlife looking for a fast buck and maybe an interesting social encounter.

One of the Soviet Union’s most effective methods of recruiting spies was through “honey traps” that would catch adulterers and homosexuals in flagrante. They then threatened them with exposure unless they parted with state secrets. Their efforts were only successful because society frowned on homosexuality and adultery, just as Saudi society disapproves of “illicit” relationships today.

These days being gay – or a heterosexual with a wandering eye – would not be considered so much of a security risk in the west. Apple CEO Tim Cook’s public admission that he’s gay follows that of Lord Browne, former CEO of BP. However Browne only came out after he failed in a legal attempt to prevent a former lover from outing him. He promptly resigned his position. That was in 2007. Seven years later, Cook has no intention of doing the same. Yet the threat of sexual exposure remains. If the modern-day Russian FSB were to target paedophiles, for example, no doubt they would reap rich dividends.

Just as the moral climate has changed in the west since the days of the Profumo scandal and the USSR’s successful recruitment of the homosexual British admiralty clerk, John Vassell, will social mores and laws change in Saudi Arabia such that there will no longer be a role for the Haia?

Not, I suspect, if the Haia have anything to do with it. But I can see them evolving into a more traditional vice squad, concentrating their efforts on drugs, prostitution and other activities that vice squads everywhere exist to fight. However, this being Saudi Arabia, religion will remain at the core of their mission, and their efforts are bound to reflect the beliefs of the more conservative elements in society for as long as those beliefs are shared by a majority. In the Kingdom anti-social behaviour is almost impossible to divorce from the dictates of Islamic faith, even if some argue that Islam is used as a cloak to wrap around social conventions that are based in culture and tradition rather than religion.

But perhaps some of their activities that are seen as somewhat bizarre in the secular west, such as the fight to stamp out sorcery, will take a back seat as the attitudes of succeeding generations change. Saudi Arabia may have an entrenched and powerful conservative establishment today, but as thousands of young men and women return from foreign study through the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, some at least bring with them different values and a willingness to challenge the old ways. The campaign among women to be allowed to drive has not slackened off, even if the confrontational tactics of yesteryear – women getting behind the wheel in defiance of the authorities – have been replaced by more subtle tactics of persuasion.

In the short term, the malign presence near its border of the self-styled Islamic State is likely to deter the government from approving any radical social change that might provide moral ammunition to IS supporters within the country who seek to recruit young Saudis to their cause.

But should the Islamic State lose its influence by implosion or military defeat, expect the slow beat of change brought about by King Abdullah to intensify, and quite possibly the role of the Haia to be curtailed.

One of Mr Al-Asheikh’s other recent initiatives has been a training programme to improve his people’s skills in dealing with the public, which will hopefully lead to less instances of angry young men barking in disapproval at their hapless targets.

And on the social front, changes that might appear trivial to external observers but are important to the beneficiaries are being introduced despite fierce opposition from the conservatives. For example, the government has approved the creation of sports clubs for women. In a country with high levels of female obesity and associated medical issues such as diabetes, that is a significant move.

But the nation’s moral guardians are unlikely to fade away any time soon, even if their kinder, gentler face results in the world’s media having less of an opportunity to take what many Saudis consider cheap pot-shots against their country. The odd thing is that despite their efforts to keep the good citizens of Saudi Arabia on the right path, all manner of on-line videos and satellite TV stations showing morals and behaviour that would make the average Haia member’s hair stand on end are freely available to view. Perhaps it’s a case of look but don’t touch. Just one of the contradictions of this fascinating country.

In any case, sorcerers, unmarried romantics and would-be blackmailers would be well advised to tread carefully for some time to come.

One Way to Cut the Deficit: Take the Hamsters Out of Their Wheels – Open Letter to David Cameron

David Cameron

Dear Prime Minister

I’m writing to you because according to Mary Beard you don’t respond to tweets. Nor do I for that matter, but then I’m not as important as you, and even if I was, I wouldn’t be bothered with maintaining a “social media centre” to pump out an endless stream of blather that impresses nobody but my own acolytes.

Which is a shame in a way, because what I have to say to you, whether you can be bothered to listen or not, is really quite simple – tweet-length actually. It’s this:

“If you’re really serious about cutting Britain’s deficit, stop legislating.”

I can picture the scene in your Twitter Command Centre if that pithy little message materialised on their IPad screens. “Laugh? We nearly went to the loo in a hurry” to paraphrase Peter Cook in Derek and Clive Live. Much the same reaction as would spontaneously erupt from Ed’s collective, Nick’s rabble and Nigel’s real ale club.

Hardly surprising really. After all, making laws is what politicians are there for isn’t it? Just as lawyers demonstrate their value by writing 500-word paragraphs without punctuation, and charge accordingly, you pols measure your effectiveness by the number of superfluous regulations you churn out during the lifetime of your mandate.

You call them initiatives, don’t you? You tweak, you replace, you modify, you cast your net upon the few remaining areas hitherto unbounded by the letter of the law. No matter that for the past nine hundred years we have laboured (no pun intended) under the weight of thousands of statutes that line the dark oak book cases of all those lawyers.

Is it so outrageous, Prime Minister, to suggest that we have enough laws to be going on with for the time being? Do you really think that the legislators of the past have been so stupid and negligent that they haven’t written laws to cover just about every facet of our lives? How is it that there are laws on the statute book that have survived for hundreds of years? Common law, like habeas corpus, dating from the Middle Ages? Is there so much new under the sun that needs to be revealed and burnished by your pin-striped policy advisers? I was going to say Old Etonian advisers, but that’s a cheap shot, so I won’t.

If I were to corner you with these questions in some Oxfordshire snug or Tuscan trattoria, no doubt you would very politely point out that life moves on. That we need to respond to “fresh challenges”, and that we can’t be hidebound by laws that were created for the reality of the time. To which I would respond that most of the challenges come from your opponents, not from an intrinsic need to change things. That the whole system of law-making has a life of its own devoid of purpose. That it’s there because it’s there. That it’s like a hamster in its wheel. And that it’s time the hamster took a break.

OK, I accept that you do need to pass one or two laws, especially those that sustain the body politic, like budgets. But the rest? Let’s look at the laundry list you gave our long-suffering Queen to parrot in her annual speech at the opening of Parliament. A statuary code for pub tenancies? Turning executive agencies into government-owned companies? Encouraging people to blow their pensions? More anti-slavery legislation? Yet more changes to serious crime laws? Governance of National Parks? Extending the powers of the Charities Commission? Do me a favour! No doubt these are all very worthy changes of the law, but each of them will come at a cost. New bureaucrats, or at least new desks for old ones. Reorganisations all over the place. Demands for more people, public enquiries, law suits, re-branding.

Prime Minister, stop. Think. Will our nation crumble into dust in the next five years for the want of these laws? How many of them are on the table just to keep the wheel turning, to sustain the illusion of progress, to feed the bureaucrats and to make work for the working man to do?

And yes, I know that this is the way that western democracy works. That legislators, executives and civil servants across the world – in the US, the EU, Japan and just about everywhere else the popular vote holds sway – have to prove their worth by endless, dynamic action. Hang on, did I say the EU? An exception perhaps, because the Eurocrats seem to be safely entrenched in a law-makers paradise – little accountability, squabbling members to play off against each other, a factory for concrete life jackets with its own unstoppable momentum.

But come on Prime Minister, do us all a favour. Do something really radical for a change. Freeze all but the most essential legislation. By all means deal with ISIS, and head off any other black swans that come winging towards us. But point out to the electorate that good government isn’t the same as feeding an endless conveyor belt of legislation. That 98% of the legislation any government needs to do a decent job is already in place, and for reasons of economic expediency, the remaining 2% can wait. Replace the Queen’s Speech with the Queen’s Tweet. God knows, these days Her Majesty’s getting a bit ancient for those interminable, mind-numbing declarations from the throne.

Counter-intuitive, I know, but you have a chance to claim the moral high ground from your rivals as they flood the airwaves in the run-up to next year’s election with their usual cornucopias of unachievable promises and appeals to the prejudices of the masses.

I also know it’s the longest of shots to expect you change the habits of a lifetime in politics. But I know that you’re an angry and frustrated man. Upset with the EU’s cash demand, annoyed with those pesky UKIP defectors and their “bastard” fellow travellers in your party, furious with your bodyguards for failing to head off random joggers barging into you. Half the time you look like you’re about to self-combust. It’s time to take a leap into the unknown.

You might lose the argument and be pitched into political oblivion. But that might happen next year anyway. Why not go down in flames by reminding us that despite our rather curious unwritten constitution, there is a difference between governing and legislating, and that you intend to focus on the former without leaning on the latter to convince us of your dynamism?

Who knows, you might strike a chord with all those voters who have grown heartily sick of Westminster and the futile posturing of all those MPs who have never held a “real job” outside politics, and end up winning another term. And you might end up saving us all a lot of money. If you do crash and burn, at least  you can enjoy the second half of your life as an elder statesman, flying around the world as you collect fat consulting fees from all corners of the globe.

Go on, Prime Minister. Take a risk. You know you want to.

Yours in sympathy,

Steve

Postcard from Saudi Arabia: The Metro Cometh

Riyadh Metro

Riyadh is nothing if not cosmopolitan. Every day this week I have spent the journey to my client speaking a different language with Kamal, my Sudanese driver. On Monday it was Spanish.On Tuesday it was Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. On Wednesday we spoke Finnish and on Thursday Irish. Plus a little English and Arabic, of course.

Kamal has become my friend. He speaks in an operatic baritone that rarely fails to break into wheezy laughter at the slightest excuse. We have nicknames for each other. He calls me Sheikh Sleep because on the 45 minute journey I rarely fail to close my eyes at some stage, and I’m always moaning about how ridiculously early we have to set off from my hotel. I call him Sheikh Yalla (yalla means hurry in Arabic), because he’s always hustling me to get moving when he comes to collect me at the end of the day.

The reason for our multi-lingual mornings is Silva and Hani. Silva is a flirtatious Lebanese radio presenter on one of the Arabic stations, and Hani is her rather gormless sidekick. Every day this week they have been giving us lessons in the aforesaid languages.

So picture Kamal and me, weaving through Riyadh’s ridiculously dense traffic, risking life and limb as lunatic drivers overtake us from either side of the highway, counting from one to ten in Finnish, each trying to outdo the other with our extravagant interpretations of the Finnish/Lebanese accent so sweetly enunciated by the lovely Silva.

Our car is one of an estimated 18 million on the roads of Saudi Arabia. Most of them are to be found in the urban areas – Riyadh, Jeddah, Mecca and the Eastern Province. In a population of 30 million, of which 9 million are foreign workers, most of whom can’t afford a car, that’s a lot of cars. Especially when 30% of the Saudi population are under 15 and therefore – theoretically – are not allowed to drive, and when 50% of the rest are women, who are also not allowed to drive. If you exclude the elderly and the rural population, and that’s still a lot of cars and a lot of male drivers in cities like Riyadh.

It’s not uncommon for some Saudi families to own five or even six cars. One for Dad, one for Mum (complete with driver of course), and one for each of the older sons who are not yet married and away.

So it’s not surprising that the roads are gridlocked in the mornings. And every year it seems to have been getting worse. OK, it’s not quite like Lagos yet, as a Lebanese guy who has spent the last four years in Nigeria’s capital pointed out the other day. But it must be a pain for those who have to spend an hour or two every morning on the main highways into the city year on year.

All that is about to change, or so we’re told. Outside my hotel, which is on Olaya Street, one of central Riyadh’s main business thoroughfares, our side of the road is blocked off by massive red and white barriers formed into contraflows and U-turns – elegant geometrical swirls that from the coffee shop on the first floor look rather like concrete crop circles.

The arrival of the blocks adds at least ten minutes to my journey. But no matter. This is the beginning of one of those mega-projects beloved of Saudi Arabia and its wealthy neighbours in the Gulf: the Riyadh Metro.

The statistics are on a grand scale. 6 lines, 78 stations, 170km of overland and underground track, $22 billion cost and 30,000 workers who will beaver away to complete the project in four years. Yes, you read that correctly – four years. Not long when you consider that the vast majority of London’s 270 Underground stations and 402km of track took 50 years to build. Obviously technology and construction techniques have moved on since work on the London Underground started in 1854. But still, it’s an ambitious schedule.

As this article in the Arab News highlights, constructing the new Metro will not simply be a matter of sinking a few tunnels, laying the track and building the stations. Many of the buildings that are likely to sit above the tunnels were not constructed to the highest standards, and for some of them the architectural drawings will be long gone. What will be the effect of all that boring underneath houses built on sand?

Though I’m not an engineer, common sense suggests to me that four years for the whole project is a stretch target unlikely to be achieved. If they complete at least one of the lines within the period, that would be a significant enough achievement.

More to the point, will Riyadh’s shiny new Metro entice urban Saudis away from their beloved cars? For a number of reasons, I’m not sure.

The first challenge is that even with 78 stations, the Metro is unlikely to be within walking distance of every home in the city. Many Saudis have inherited the American habit of driving to the convenience store a few hundred yards away rather than walk. To an extent, this is understandable given the extreme summer temperatures. In July and August the thermometer can hit 40C early in the morning and up to 50C in the middle of the day. So if you need to get into your car to reach the station, it’s very tempting to keep driving.

The second issue is the Saudis’ famously protective attitude towards their women. Will the average father or husband be relaxed about their loved ones jumping on a crowded metro line full of men of varying nationality and social status? In the trains themselves that problem could be solved with women-only carriages. The buses have had female compartments for decades. But what about the stations? They may be new and shiny when the Metro opens, but will they be crawling with low life later on?

Then there’s the walk to wherever you’re going when you arrive at the nearest station. No doubt low-status expatriate workers will be happy to walk to the office, construction site or mall, especially if their employer no longer sees a need to provide them with transportation. But will that apply to the average Saudi? Or will we see the station approaches clogged with cars waiting to drive passengers to the doorstep of their destinations? In London, few people object to a ten minute walk through a leafy suburb to get to the tube station, and then another short stroll along the well-ordered pavements of the West End or the City to get to the office. But the Riyadh sidewalks – if they exist at all – are a different proposition. All kinds of obstacles, from potholes to concrete barriers and half-built steps, and sometimes no pavement at all, which requires you to brave the oncoming traffic and weave around badly-parked cars.

No doubt the city’s urban planners are aware of all these issues. And they will be aware that public transportation is a sensitive ecosystem. Safe sidewalks, a regular bus service – Riyadh is not blessed in this respect either – and perhaps congestion charges to deter motorists from clogging the commercial districts at peak time – all form part of a complex, inter-dependent equation.

Another factor is that every year the number of Saudis of drivable age is increasing. Despite the 8400 road deaths and 38,000 serious injuries expected in 2014, pressure on the road system will intensify. More cars, more roads, more pollution – Riyadh’s planners are facing a moving target. And if the decline in the oil price becomes a long-term reality, how many more huge capital projects will the country be able to afford over the next few years? Riyadh is not the only city that needs a Metro. The traffic situation in Jeddah is as bad if not worse.

If costs need to be cut, the concern must be that compromises may result in half-measures. That some essential components of the transport ecosystem will be delayed or sacrificed, which will mean that those components that do get finished – such as Metros – will not yield all the benefits that they should.

I wish the Metro project well, though I suspect that if I’m still visiting Riyadh in four years’ time, Kamal and I will be swapping platitudes in Basque, Japanese and Serbo-Croat, and Silva will still be soothing the frustrations of thousands of motorists crawling towards their offices. But maybe I’m wrong – I’ve learned over decades never to underestimate the Saudis.

Nine Habits of Successful Procrastinators

Speaking of hypocrisy, as I did in my last post on internet trolls, I have a further confession to make. Despite running regular workshops in which I urge participants to avoid the sin of procrastination, I am a master of the art of putting off until tomorrow what I could do today. In fact I revel in it.

I was reminded of my apparent character weakness by this article on the BBC website. It examines the pros and cons of procrastination, and describes the anti-procrastination tactics of historic figures, including Victor Hugo, who was in the habit of removing his clothes and having his butler hide them, so that he couldn’t leave the house – presumably until he’d written his few thousand words for the day.

My career as a world-class procrastinator began at school. I would do everything possible to avoid handing in assignments until a minute before the deadline. My exam revision consisted of fourteen hours before each exam spread over the eighteen immediately preceding the exam, punctuated by four hours sleep. It worked for me, and for my elder daughter, who arrived at the same techniques as me and used it to get a decent degree from a well-regarded university.

Since then, and throughout my business career, I have been incapable of finishing anything early. I’m energised for the task only when the deadline rears over me like an approaching tsunami. I’ve usually regarded deadlines as boring necessities of life which prevent me from doing what’s really interesting and important. Yet I hardly ever miss them, driven as I tend to be by self-interest, social obligation and a desire not to let others down.

So from the pen of a master, here’s a little guide to procrastination without tears:

Forget about the urgent/important matrix: there’s a hoary old model popularised by Steven Covey in his zillion-selling book, Seven Habits of Effective People. It’s called Covey’s Four Quadrants, and it’s beloved of those who preach the gospel of time management. It states that we should categorise all tasks in front of us into combinations of four conditions: Urgent, Important, Not Urgent and Not Important. So stopping the world from imminent nuclear meltdown might be considered Urgent and Important. Checking your Facebook page to look at comments on the picture of a two-headed cat you posted a few minutes ago may well rate as Not Urgent and Not Important. The fatal flaw is that the model doesn’t define in whose terms something might be considered urgent or important: yours or someone else’s? Sticking a chicken in the oven might be considered urgent and important by your family. But if you really don’t care that the sacred deadline of 7.30 for dinner might be overrun by an hour, it’s neither urgent nor important for you, except as a means of avoiding universal opprobrium within your family.

So forget it. You don’t need Covey to help you analyse each task and act accordingly. Unless you’re thoroughly stupid, you know what you have to do to avoid divorce or instant termination of employment. Use your common sense. If you must have four quadrants, I suggest you use Fun, Useful, Not Fun and Not Useful – a far more faithful reflection of human nature than Covey’s mechanistic creation.

Practice selective procrastination: by which I mean there are some things you can sit on, and some you can’t. Take lottery tickets for example. I’m entirely indifferent to the lottery, but my wife is a believer. So occasionally I’m sent up to the shop to buy the ticket that will surely turn us into multi-millionaires. For her, one lottery draw missed is a fortune lost. For me, no big deal, there’ll always be another one on Saturday. However, in the unlikely event of our numbers propelling us into the national rich list, it doesn’t make sense to wait until the last moment before cashing in. I would prefer the moment before the last moment. This way my wife would have time to divorce me and spend the millions, and I would have time to prepare myself for life in a monastery.

So, following on from the previous rule, selective procrastination is all about having a well-developed sense of what you can and can’t delay. As long as you’ve worked out what the really impactful consequences will be, you can afford procrastinate away with impunity.

Rejoice in serendipity: one of the joys of my life is being diverted. The internet is an endless labyrinth of accidental knowledge. No alley is blind, because it leads you somewhere else. The same goes for sitting around doing nothing. If you’re so minded, you can see, hear, feel and think things that you would otherwise screen out in getting-on-with-it mode. I learned this a long time ago when I had what some people would consider one of the most boring jobs in the world: sitting in front of a machine that put chocolates in bags. The machine never broke down, but my job was to be there when it did. I spent several weeks of my college summer vacation on 12 hour-shifts, with nothing to distract me other than what was going on in my head. When I had exhausted one subject, I had to think of something else to think about, and so on until it was time to say goodnight to the infernal machine. I much of the time in a kind of dream state. I created new political systems, plots for novels, compound nouns and more efficient bagging machines. I thought of what questions I might ask of famous historical figures, of novel opening lines to try out on girls I fancied at parties. I created recipes, TV game shows and goodness knows what else. And promptly forgot most of what I’d thought about at the end of the shift, leaving a few ideas as delicious cud to chew again on the next shift.

I discovered that there was nothing like sitting in front of a bagging machine for experiencing the delights of lateral thinking, even though Edward De Bono hadn’t invented it yet. Serendipity is the enemy of efficient time management, yet it’s the friend of the brain. Never be afraid to stop, look around and think. The chances are that you’ll discover things that are far more useful than the output of the dedicated one-track-minds around you.

Team up with a non-procrastinator: if, like me, you have a partner in love or work for whom procrastination is a deadly enemy, then you are blessed. Because you can get on with doing what you enjoy – procrastinating – safe in the knowledge that your partner is taking care of stuff that they love doing – finishing things off, doing things on time and kicking you up the backside when there’s something seriously useful to be achieved. I’m not talking about delegation here. It’s easy to pass down the chain of command all the dirty stuff you couldn’t be bothered to do on some unfortunate who is no more enthusiastic about the task than you. We’re talking about teamwork, mutual interest and happy cooperation, not the exercise of power to make your life easier.

I’m married to someone who loves paying the bills on time, who delights in beating mobile phone companies and insurers over the head to get a better deal. A self-confessed credit card tart who changes our cards so often that I sometimes have to ask her which card I can use on which particular day. A fanatical collector of air miles who enables us to travel like Joan Collins (not that she would deign to step on to a Ryanair aircraft as we do occasionally). When she’s in scourge mode, I call her Vlad, after the Impaler of that name. In short, she does all the stuff I hate doing, which leaves me with the time to do what I enjoy doing. A near-perfect partnership, even if I do have to hide under the table to escape her wrath at my dilatory behaviour from time to time. Find that relationship at home or work, and you can procrastinate to your heart’s content.

Celebrate your ability to do the impossible: one of the particular talents of successful procrastinators is the ability to perform miracles. The fourteen-hour last-moment revision technique I referred to earlier is one example. The ability of a 10-stone weakling to lift a car single-handedly off a person who finds himself crushed underneath it is another. People who leave things impossibly late and yet pull off some spectacular last minute stunt are harnessing powers that stitch-in-time merchants never realise they have.

Armed with the knowledge of what you can achieve when you really need to gives you great confidence. Making a habit of exceptional effort can be counter-productive, because then people expect miracles from you all the time. But knowing that you can put your foot on the gas when required is rather like being a judo black belt. Your skills may never be needed in a critical situation, but you gain an inner confidence from knowing that they’re within you and can be deployed if necessary. I once caused my father to burst into censorious laughter at my complacency when, after surviving yet another last-minute crisis, I commented “imagine what I could achieve if I put this kind of effort in all the time”. But what I didn’t say, and should have, was “but think of all the stuff I would miss out on by working hard all the time”.

Don’t be defined by the expectations of others: this gets easier the older you get. When we’re  young, most of us are anxious to fit in, don’t want to be seen to stand out (unless we’re in a business where you’re dead if you fail to stand out – like acting and music). You get on with your job, hope your talents are noticed and take discreet measures to make sure of it. But unless you run your own business, or are so ridiculously wealthy that you don’t need to “work” for a living, you are to a greater or lesser extent at the mercy of other peoples’ expectations, particularly in terms of what you do and when you do it. Even deadlines you set for yourself are framed within larger imperatives over which you have no control. You are not only a wage slave. You are also a time slave.

However there are strategies you can use to win back control of your time, and allow yourself to get away with a fair bit of creative procrastination. For example you can negotiate. Gone are the days when Oliver Twist brought the workhouse down when he asked for more. If you question deadlines you not only have a chance of redefining the commitment, but you might also win the reputation of being someone who doesn’t accept everything at face value. On the other hand, you may be perceived as a pain in the backside, but that’s perhaps a risk worth taking.

You can also try the Doctrine of Tactical Ignorance. This works on the principle that if you ignore a request long enough it may go away, revealing itself to have been unnecessary in the first place. I once knew a middle manager at IBM who turned the company’s clean desk policy to his advantage. He binned virtually every piece of paper that arrived on his desk. He worked on the basis that if something was sufficiently important to someone else, they would chase him up. No chase-up, no action. This happens often in Saudi Arabia, one of the countries I visit regularly. The Saudis have an additional gambit when faced with something important that they want to duck. They form a committee to consider it. By the time the committee has finished its deliberation – maybe in a year or two – the subject is no longer relevant. The committee gambit has the additional advantage of satisfying their love of social interaction – and the Saudis are very sociable people.

Re-visit your attitude towards time: “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date”, said the White Rabbit. My wife and I share a love of movies, concerts and theatre. Oddly enough, given my tendency to procrastinate and her fanatical adherence to deadlines that relate to family business, we are the opposite when it comes to making it on time to events. I can’t stand missing the start of the movie or a concert, and I’m prepared to sit through endless commercials, or leave home 30 minutes earlier than is strictly necessary to make sure I’m settled in my seat, ice cream or programme in hand, ready for the start. She, on the other hand, is quite happy to pitch up 5 minutes late and squirm past disapproving occupants of nearby seats. Are our brains wired differently? Perhaps. For her a movie or a concert is like boating on a river – you join it at one point, leave at another, and enjoy the view on the way. For me though, there’s a start, a middle and an end, and missing the start compromises the whole experience.

But when it comes to things she didn’t do when she had the time, she is sometimes consumed with regret. “Why didn’t I do this, and why didn’t I think of that?” To which I reply (even though I know a reply is neither requested nor desired): “because you didn’t. So put it down to experience and learn from it what you can.”

The lesson from all this? Think of how you perceive time. If you see it as a non-rechargeable battery, you might end up a sad procrastinator, forever regretting squandering the power that can never be regained. Or you could be a happy procrastinator, delighting in the meadows, the wildlife and the pubs as your boat cruises down the river of life.

Re-visit your purpose – constantly: when I was 12, I wanted to be Prime Minister – for about five minutes. Later on, I wanted to play cricket for England, until I discovered how inept I was at at putting bat to ball. Then I was going to be a lawyer, then a rich and successful concert promoter. As time went on one specific goal gave way to another. I achieved some, not others. Once achieved, the view from the mountain-top was spectacular for five minutes, then common-place. Time for a new mountain to climb, then.

The older I became, the more modest the goals I set myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t get a kick out of achieving them. But over a few decades I slowly came to realise that what was really important was not what I achieved, but what sort of person was doing the achieving. Would I kill to achieve? Was it OK that my advantage would result in someone else’s disadvantage? If I’d stuck to my goal of becoming Prime Minister, I might have got there – a slim chance admittedly. But at what cost? Would I have turned into a Francis Urqhuart, effortlessly plunging the knife into opponents who got in the way? I suspect there are many people who have reached their mountain top, only to find that they were looking out over valleys of sewage.

The master procrastinator may only reach the foothills, but the willingness to stop, ponder and do nothing for a while, rather than press on working towards a goal that no longer has a meaning other than the fact that long ago you set out to achieve it could be the difference between a life of illusory success and the ability to sleep well at night. I know which I value more highly.

In the end, you will be forgiven for the deadlines you missed: well, there are exceptions to that statement. Hitler, who held back Guderian’s tanks at Dunkirk; Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned (or didn’t, depending on who you believe); perhaps even Barack Obama, who conveniently forgot the red line he drew in Syria and sat hesitating as ISIS rampaged all over Iraq. But by and large, master procrastinators know that they will be forgiven for all the times when they sat on their hands. They will be remembered for what they did achieve, and what sort of person they became in getting there. So while they might apologise for keeping people waiting, they don’t really mean it, because they know that things will turn out OK in the end.

I rest my case with the career of Quintus Fabius Maximus, known to history as Fabius Cunctator (Fabius the Delayer).

Fabius is credited with saving Rome from final defeat by the invading Carthaginian general, Hannibal. Twice, after other generals had led the Roman forces to catastrophic defeats at the battles of Lake Trasimene and Cannae, he picked up the pieces and kept Hannibal at bay, refusing pitched battles but mounting a very effective war of attrition. For his pains he received the insulting nickname of Cunctator from his critics in Rome. But thanks to his strategy of starving Hannibal of his supply lines and depleting the invading army with a series of small guerrilla attacks, Fabius eventually forced the Carthaginian to leave Italy. Without the efforts of this supreme procrastinator, it’s fair to say that that there would have been no Roman Empire and no western civilisation as we know it.

So when it comes to the great debate on procrastination, I will always come down on the side of the procrastinators. At some stage. When I get round to it. When I can be bothered.

Hypocrisy and the Inner Troll

Gollum

I find myself in a moral bind about internet trolls. The story of Mrs Brenda Leyland, who was found dead in a Leicestershire hotel the other day after having been “unmasked” by a Sky News reporter as one of a number of people posting abusive tweets about the parents of missing toddler Madeleine McCann is both sad and instructive.

Before the internet, would-be trolls had limited outlets for whatever drove them to say nasty things about people. Gossip in the pub and in the secret recesses of the home would usually reach a small and geographically limited audience. Poison pen-letters, crafted with cut out letters to avoid detection would only go to as many letterboxes as the perpetrator had the time and energy to reach.

These days it’s possible to hide behind an online identity and reach millions of Twitter users in seconds it takes to write a hundred characters and press a button.

As a Huffington Post contributor noted here, the motives and states of mind of people we refer to as trolls are many and varied. Mrs Leyland, apparently, wouldn’t have recognised the description of herself as a troll. She considered herself to be a member of a community campaigning to expose some kind of conspiracy related to the McCann case. So one man’s troll is evidently another man’s conspiracy theorist, freedom fighter, holy warrior, animal lover, member of UKIP and goodness knows what else.

I’m only joking about UKIP by the way. Or perhaps I’m not, because what seems to drive many UKIP voters is exactly the same set of darker emotions that lie behind so many of those sour and abusive tweets: envy, anger, disappointment, alienation and hatred.

In the United Kingdom we have laws that prohibit abuse of various kinds – most notably racist abuse, expressions of religious hatred and threatening behaviour. So it’s entirely appropriate that the police should make efforts to track down and prosecute those who break the law. But the law is incapable of preventing gratuitous abuse that falls outside its boundaries, and there are enough grey areas to make it difficult for police and prosecutors to apply the law consistently. And where the criminal law doesn’t provide a remedy, the civil courts often allow suits for libel, as Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons discovered when she tweeted about allegations of paedophilia on the part of a prominent political figure.

So my moral bind is this.

Leaving aside seriously disturbed individuals who spew forth their venom for no superficially apparent reason, is it not in our interest to know that there are racists, religious extremists – in fact, extremists of all varieties – in our midst? Are we better off because people no longer feel the need to keep their opinions confined to the pub, the kitchen and the place of worship?

The British security services would undoubtedly say that the social media offers them clues about the people who threaten us with their posts from Syria and Iraq. And the Saudi intelligence directorate would probably feel the same about the host of poisonous tweets emanating from that country every day. Two recent examples in Saudi Arabia particularly come to mind. 900 comments about the Saudi girl who was caught on video cheering her team in the UAE – women are not allowed to attend matches in the Kingdom, and her presence at this match unleashed a torrent of abuse. And then there was the 12-year-old who performed a poem for the Minister of Education and was rewarded with a fatherly kiss on her head, which prompted a similar reaction.

On the other hand, do we want to encourage the manipulators, the recruiters and the poisonous pack hunters who flock to pour abuse on public figures like Mary Beard? And are public figures who take to the internet with their views fair game, within the confines of the law?

Mrs Leyland’s case, along with the numerous examples of successful prosecution of online trolls, shows that anonymity is something of an illusion, so perhaps all those except people and organisations that are expert in covering their tracks will start to become more circumspect about what they post, just as life is becoming increasingly risky for paedophiles who buy, sell and swap their stuff online.

The internet was never a Garden of Eden, even though it might have seemed so in the golden days when we first discovered the joys of email, WYSIWYG and hypertext. As soon as it became possible to transact, we realised that the net could be used for bad things as well as good. The social media has merely served to bring that neutral canvas to half of the world’s population.

And anyway, how pure are we who have never posted an offensive tweet in our lives? Whether or not we use twitter as our mouthpiece, or content ourselves with sounding off among friends, an inner troll lurks within all of us. Is it less reprehensible to say nasty things about people behind their backs than to spew the poison over the net? Poison, after all is still poison. Within a circle of friends, it just spreads more slowly.

The fact is that we humans have always yielded to the temptation to say and do nasty things when we judge that we won’t have to face the consequences. People like Hitler and Stalin got others to do their dirty work for them. Personally, neither hurt a fly once they were in power, and both deliberately avoided sight of the human destruction they unleashed. At a more mundane level, how many of us who own a car have never honked our horns in anger or raised a finger at the behaviour of other drivers, knowing that the other person is unlikely to stop and take a baseball bat to us? How many of us have pulled out of a house purchase or some commercial transaction, knowing that we will not have to explain ourselves to the other party, who might suffer considerable financial loss as a result? How many bosses have the courage to fire people face to face, rather than leaving the dirty work to HR, or to George Clooney’s professional firing expert in Up in the Air?

Unfortunately for those who take to Twitter to enhance their careers, gratify their egos, sell their products or promote their politics, there will always be people emboldened to disparage, insult and hurt them, and sometimes to tell untruths about them. Anyone stupid enough not to realise that that’s the deal will find out quickly enough.

The rest of us who look on and tut-tut piously about all the sad and twisted individuals whom we call trolls should first look at ourselves, and ask how successfully we curb our own inner trolls.

Let’s encourage the law enforcers to do their jobs, and, when judging those who aren’t breaking the law, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

ISIS: collective insanity or just the latest generation’s death cult?

The day will come when ISIS has no more hostages like Alan Henning to kill. What then?

One only needs to look at the killing of Lee Rigby and the events in Saudi Arabia in 2004 to realise that there are many options open to people who are prepared to give up their lives for a cause.

Lee Rigby’s public slaughter is relatively fresh in our memories. For those who were in or around Saudi Arabia when al-Qaeda affiliates bombed western compounds, dragged the body of a western worker behind a pickup truck and kept the head of a slaughtered hostage in a fridge, the memory of those events will not easily fade, even though the perpetrators didn’t have the benefit of the social media to advertise their murderous piety. Frank Gardner, the BBC’s security correspondent, who was gunned down in Riyadh, will not forget those times in a hurry.

The fact is that we westerners are wide open to attack, whether we are walking the streets of cities in the Middle East or going about our business in our home countries. A few weeks ago I was one of several hundred people packed into a holding area queuing up to go through security at one of Britain’s main airports. There was no evidence of any measures outside the entrance or in the hall to detect a potential suicide bomber. It occurred to me then that a detonation would cause carnage, just as it did in Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport three years ago.

As the military cliché goes, we live in a target-rich environment. Nothing new about that. In Britain there are plenty of people still living who remember the Blitz, and plenty, including me, whose lives were touched by the activities of the IRA. The only difference is that these days an essential element of the terrorist’s tool kit is a mobile phone and a Twitter account. Our wonderful digital age has served to spread the terror way beyond those immediately caught up in it.

But we also have to be aware that each three-minute horror show diminishes the impact of the previous one. Just as when the Apollo space program died through lack of public interest, our sense of reality becomes desensitised to the familiar. Consider Ebola. The world has become used to people dying of the disease in Sierra Leone every five minutes. Only when one of their own falls victim to the virus do the people of Dallas become exercised.

I remember visiting a friend in South Africa a couple of decades ago, a time when apartheid was tottering and the wave of violent crime that is now endemic in the country was getting underway. Our friend lived in a whites-only suburb. She had a panic button that summoned an armed response team. She had one room in the house protected by iron bars where she and her daughter could take refuge. Supposedly one of the gun-toting patrols would come to her aid within three minutes of getting the call. She had a guard dog. She accepted as inevitable that her housemaid might at some stage steal from her. When we were visiting her, she and my wife witnessed a murder in a supermarket. They were three yards away from a man who killed a woman at the checkout.

How can you live like this, we asked her? Well, she replied, it’s not as bad as the foreign media portrays it. And I remembered that back home we had become used to the IRA bombings, and scoffed at depictions of our country as a war zone. Being blown up in the streets of Birmingham, or robbed and raped in Johannesburg had become an accepted hazard of daily life, just as for Londoners in the Second World War death from the sky was an ever-present prospect.

The moral of this gloomy meditation is that normality is an ever-shifting thing. We adapt, our expectations change and we find blessings where we can even in circumstances that would have been unthinkable the day or the week before.

ISIS will be defeated, and we will relax again, maybe for a few years, maybe for a couple of decades. But then some other group will rise up and threaten us, and another generation will become used to looking anxiously across its shoulders while riding the tube or walking the streets. And once again, we will rage about death cults and twisted morality. We will describe the cruelty and the killings as acts of collective insanity.

Every generation discovers first hand a reality about the human condition: groups like ISIS that carry out acts of horrific violence are not collectively insane. They are simply doing what humans do under certain conditions, and have been doing for as long as there have been humans on the planet. Morality has little to do with their behaviour. It’s just that the thin veneer of what the majority considers to be civilised behaviour is easily cracked. All it takes is a convincing ideology, unfulfilled human needs and ruthless, manipulative leaders. Thus has it always been and ever will be.

One only has to think of Josef Stalin and his cabal of drunken, fawning underlings presiding over the starvation of millions of smallholders for the sake of an ideology, the torture and execution of millions of imagined internal enemies and the sacrifice of yet more millions of soldiers and civilians through his blundering tactics in the Second World War to know that ISIS is only the latest, but by no means the most virulent, in a long line of death cults.

While we should never accept the murders of Alan Henning and the other hostages as anything other than disgusting acts, we should not be surprised or shocked. This is the world we live in laid bare by media more pervasive than in any other era. Could we really have expected much different when so much money and artistic creativity is invested in mass-audience movies and TV series that depict levels of pornographic cruelty, malice and destruction far exceeding what we see in those nasty snuff movies churned out by ISIS?

Yet against that dark backdrop, even in Syria, Sierra Leone and other grievously damaged societies, people still find it within themselves to live, love and laugh. Because that’s what humans do. Thus it has always been and ever will be.

Memo to the BBC: today’s zeitgeist is faith, not civilisation

Sistine Chapel

Suppose you could go back in time to when early humans were emerging from caves. You’re a genetic engineer, and you have the means to switch off a gene that causes us to form religious beliefs. You have the ability to snuff out religion before people become sufficiently organised to practice it. You know that if you do so, you will remove one of the principal causes of war, and thereby allow millions to live full lives that will otherwise end in early death by violence, starvation or disease.

But you also know that some of the most inspiring and beautiful works of art, literature and music will never be. No Iliad, Ramayana or Masnavi of Rumi. No Aya Sofia, Sistine Chapel or Angkor Wat. No Monteverdi’s Vespers, Bach’s Matthew Passion or Mozart’s Requiem. No Leonardo’s Last Supper, Michelangelo’s David or Rubens’ Descent from the Cross. No Holy Quran, King James Bible or Torah.

Would you switch off the gene?

A crazy thought, and among millions of believers in the divine hand in life, it would probably be seen as an act of blasphemy to suggest that religious faith is a mere genetic predisposition.

Certainly it would be crazy to think of just about any civilisation past or present without the religions that have defined them.

Back in the Sixties and Seventies, when television was coming of age as a medium not just of entertainment but of cultural enrichment, families like mine would be encouraged to sit down together and watch programmes dealing with such weighty matters. These days Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man and Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation would be regarded as special interest, screened on satellite TV and punctuated every ten minutes with interminable ads for things we neither want nor need.

Civilisation didn’t have to compete with a thousand digital channels, Netflix and the attention deficit disorders of twitchy teenagers switching between WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. For British TV viewers, it was on when it was on, and if you missed it, you would have to wait for the repeat. If you didn’t want to watch it, you watched  BBC1 or ITV, or just switched off the TV. Not much choice, really. And since Civilisation occupied a prime-time slot on BBC2, it got far bigger audiences than it probably would today.

So I was surprised to hear a few months ago that the BBC was planning to produce a new version of the series. As the UK’s Daily Telegraph commented when Britain’s public broadcaster announced the planned remake:

“The original, presented by Kenneth Clark as an emphatically Eurocentric personal view of mankind’s greatest artistic achievement, was unashamedly didactic and would nowadays doubtless be seen as stiff and boring. Invariably wearing a suit and tie, Clark would stand before a painting, building or sculpture and just talk about it. To watch Civilisation was to be enriched, enlightened and educated – and no gimmicky shots were needed of the presenter walking in silhouette across a beach or lying on his back. It is hard to imagine a new version will be done in the same way, and nor should it be. But is it too much to ask that the programme is presented by someone who, like Lord Clark, knows what he or she is talking about and is not fronted by a “celebrity”?”

I got to thinking about the original programme a few nights ago as I was listening to a sublime performance of Berlioz’s Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem Mass) at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Berlioz wrote the work to commemorate the dead of the 1830 revolution in France. A religious commemoration of a secular conflict – a reminder that not all wars are caused by religious divides.

The world in which Civilisation was conceived and produced was dominated by secular concerns. It was first shown in 1969 – the year of the first Moon landing, the year after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. In 1969 two secular superpowers – the USA and the USSR – faced off against each other in an endless Mexican stand-off. The Arab-Israeli dispute was between a largely secular Israel and nationalist regimes in Syria and Egypt. Religion had its place, but it was not the cause of conflict and anxiety as it is today. Sectarian tensions – except in Northern Ireland – were underlying, not often overt.

Today, the power of religion is at the forefront of our concerns. We in the west worry about the divisive issue of Islam in our societies and about the Islamic State. In America, the religious right has become ever more strident and assertive. Ultra-Orthodox politicians hold the balance of power in Israel. In India a Hindu nationalist government has taken power. The Middle East is riven by sectarian tension and open conflict. China battles to suppress religious sentiment in Tibet and Xinjiang. Russia has seen the return of the Orthodox Church as a major influence in society, and is engaged in a long-term counter-insurgency campaign against Islamist fighters in its southern republics. And few days pass without stories about the activities of various al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia, Mali, Algeria, Nigeria and Yemen.

It may have been appropriate to explore and celebrate European civilisation in 1969, but today?

If there’s an underlying theme about the world that has evolved since then, it’s the role of faith and religion, and how they intersect with and define politics and society. And if there’s a consistent theme among adherents of faiths, it’s ignorance on the part of the vast majority of the faithful about the origins and essence of the beliefs of others.

So I suggest that instead of devoting vast sums of public money on further perspectives about the origins of what we call western civilisations, the BBC should be focusing on a history of faith.  What did the first humans believe in? How did the great world religions evolve? What lay behind the schisms that produced Sunni and Shia, Catholic and Orthodox? What do religions have in common? What of the outliers, the deviations, the beliefs that most of us find inexplicable? How does society shape religious belief? What influence does the physical environment exert? To what extent have religions been fashioned in support of political ends?

Big questions, and there’s probably not a single individual alive who could do justice to all of them. Too big for a Kenneth Clark or an Edward Gibbon. Yet we do have a wealth of thinkers who would be able to contribute to what would be a compelling series. I have my favourites – Mary Beard, Tom Holland, John Julius Norwich, Michael Shea, Karen Armstrong and Simon Schama for example. There are many others to choose from. But to create a truly global perspective there would need to be Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu contributors, as well as archaeologists, anthropologists and even economists.

It’s unlikely that such a series would be required viewing by the occupants of an ISIS dugout. And yes, it sounds like a very liberal middle-class project, as the original Civilisation was. But if it were to cause a few people to stop and think before coming to conclusions about the religions of others, it might do more good than a hundred well-intentioned inter-faith gatherings.

Leopards do change their spots. Think of the Reverend Ian Paisley, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, who died earlier this month.  Here was a man who spent most of his life denouncing in thunderous language the Catholic Church and all its works, and championing the Unionist cause against the Irish nationalists of Sinn Fein and the IRA. And yet in his later years he felt able to work with Martin McGuinness, the former IRA chief, in a coalition government. He and McGuinness even became friends. In the end common humanity overcame political and religious differences.

If we could at least understand better the legacy of Greco-Roman divinity, the similarities between early Muslim and Christian practice, the origins of the ISIS ideology, the beliefs of the Twelver Shia, Confucian values, Tibetan Buddhism, the history of the Sikhs and the multiplicity of Hindu deities, then surely we might learn to show greater respect  to “the other”. We might even learn to fear less, to tolerate more and to disentangle political and social issues from matters of faith.

You might argue that the efforts of a British broadcaster would be dismissed as propaganda in the cause of a country that is firmly aligned with the values of the western civilisation that Kenneth Clark celebrated in his broadcasts. But if any country in the west has a public broadcaster that could undertake such a monumental project it is Britain. After all, we have probably the most culturally diverse, multinational and multi-faith population in the world.

Perhaps the values of the BBC have changed since the days when Sir David Attenborough as controller of BBC2 commissioned Civilisation. The broadcaster is still funded by public money, but perhaps not for much longer. It is as much a commercial concern as it is allowed to be. A quarter of its income comes from sales of its programmes overseas. It long ago embraced the digital future. Its website is among the most popular news sites in the world.

Commissioning decisions are no longer made by visionary broadcasters like Attenborough, but by career bureaucrats anxious to protect their turf and conscious of the need to protect their organisation from the jealousy of commercial broadcasters, accusations of bias by politicians and the consequences of a culture that allowed the likes of “Sir” Jimmy Savile to treat it as a playground for sexual exploitation. Avoidance of risk would seem to be a dominant concern in an organisation under siege.

But maybe the ethos of public broadcasting embodied in its motto – that “Nation shall speak peace unto Nation” – is still to be found in the BBC’s DNA.

If so, what better way of showing it than to bring some of the best minds on the planet together with the object of promoting religious tolerance through understanding?

A History of Faith would be a project for our time.

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