Muslims need to understand that rejecting us is the same as supporting ISIS

URGENT STATEMENT FROM THE QUISLING FOUNDATION

Quisling Tongue 2

The courageous hard-working and selfless men and women of the Quisling Foundation have dedicated themselves to the betterment of the Muslims community in the UK and across the world.  We are the Muslim Community’s brightest and best and all we have ever tried to do is use our talents to take on the extremism that blights our communities.

For years we have endured ridicule, harrassment and threats. It is a double insult that so much of the bile and vitriol that has been directed at us has come from self-appointed community leaders. Insulting because it happens at all and insulting because it happens to us, the brave few who have volunteered themselves to shepherd the Muslim community through its transition into a religion compatible with liberal modernity.

We have been accused of fronting a government-sponsored ideological vetting program when all we’ve done is use taxpayers money to help the security services and the media expose those whose beliefs threaten the British way of life.

We have been described as Liberal interventionists, simply for attempting to restructure the values and political views of Muslim communities according to our own beliefs.

Most recently there has been a smear campaign  against our founder, Maagreb Namaz, that is unprecedented even by the barrel-scraping standards of the Internet.

The smears include claims that Mr Namaaz has taken money from American right-wingers that also fund the US Tea Party – despite there being no evidence to support this other than highly tendentious, biased and selective reading of our accounts and financial records.

There have been even more outrageous claims: that Mr Namaaz exaggerated his credentials as a former Islamist; that he has facilitated the legitimisation of Electricite De France (EDF) leader Robby Tomlinson despite indications that the Tomlinson remains a swivel-eyed racist lunatic; that he has no intellectual background in Islamic Studies and is little more than a pompous narcissistic windbag with a Messiah complex.

 

Tommy Robinson EDL Pegida

Quisling has an undeniable track record when it comes to changing hearts and minds

Nothing could be further from the truth: Mr Namaaz is a man whose level of integrity is plain for all to see. He has dedicated the part of his life not spent espousing the simplistic, destructive fundamentalism of Islamic extremists to combatting it using its own logic and methodology.

But Mr Namaaz is an articulate, intelligent,and well spoken (not to mention charismatic and handsome) man, who can defend himself. Some of those who have been so mercilessly targeted don’t have that luxury.

Quisling has recently recruited the respected Imam, Sheikh Modareti. Modareti’s anti-extremist credentials are second to none, having studied at the greatest institutions in the Islamic world, including the esteemed University of Dagenham.

Far from being thanked for his efforts, Modareti has been pilloried to the point where he felt he had to resign from his teaching post the extremist Totteridge Youth and Community Centre. Soon after he resigned, it emerged that there is no evidence his life has not been threatened.

So-called liberals have not only failed to speak out, but are actively defending this behaviour and even taking part in attacks against us. The rot is so deep that it even reaches the heart of the establishment, with QCs, Human Rights Activists and the NUS joining a campaign to give succour to ISIS. Recently a select committee of Islamist MPs engaged in what can only be described as state-sponsored persecution by questioning our credentials and achievements in a ridiculous attack that makes a mockery of the Mother of Parliaments.

By voicing their opposition to Modareti and abusing freedom of speech to make scandalous allegations against Namaaz on the basis of mere evidence, British Muslims have once again demonstrated what Quisling has always believed: that Islam must undergo a Reformation to make it compatible with Human Rights. The more they reject our efforts to better them, the more clearly they show why we are needed.

The Qusiling Foundation therefore has no option but to inform the British Muslims that it has been authorised by Her Majesty’s Government to pronounce takfir on all those who continue to voice objections to HMG’s counter-extremism agenda or to be critical of the Quisling Foundation’s efforts to create a more tolerant and open form of Islam that is not disloyal or critical of the UK’s foreign or domestic policy.

This fatwa is effective immediately. We are aware of its gravity, but we can no longer tolerate the rejection of the Quisling Foundation and the values of pluralism, openness and respect that it represents. We will be contacting former Muslim organisations shortly with instructions on how to re-apply for membership of the Ummah.

ENDS

The Roar of the Word: Nimr Al-Nimr and the Implosion of the House of Saud

Dwindling cash reserves, a stalemate in Yemen, the Hajj Stampede and  increased scrutiny of Wahabism made 2015 a bad year for the petromonarchy. By starting 2016 with the execution of a prominent pro-democracy cleric, they have signaled both an irreversible decline and a determination to take the rest of the Muslim world down with them.

#Jesuisnimr

NimrSaudi Arabia, recently appointed Chair of the UN Human Rights Council, ushered in the New Year with mass executions. Among the assortment of alleged Al-Qaeda operatives (including the man held responsible for the 2003 shooting of BBC cameraman Simon Cumber in 2004) and dissidents swept up by the regime’s notorious anti-expression laws, was a man who stood out from the rest: 56 year old Shi’ite cleric Nimr Al-Nimr, a native Saudi who rose to prominence during the Arab Spring with his calls for civil rights and democracy in the Kingdom, particularly for it’s marginalised Shi’ite minority which makes up 15 per cent of the country and is concentrated in the oil-rich east. That he was killed along with criminals and terrorists is a ploy that will be familiar to those that have read the New Testament.

Amongst heightened sectarian tension in the wake of the Arab Spring, Nimr was an unusual figure. He resolutely avoided both partiality and violence,instead supporting those resisting oppression wherever they might be and whatever source their oppression may come from. Like Martin Luther King, Nimr (whose name means tiger in Arabic) believed that the “roar of the word” was the most potent tool for the oppressed.

Here is the man in his own words:

“The oppressed should unite together against the oppressors, instead of becoming tools in the hands of the oppressors. The Khalifa family [in Bahrain] are oppressors, and Sunnis are not responsible for their actions. These are not Sunnis, they are tyrants. The Assad family in Syria are oppressors, and Shiism is not responsible for their actions. Never defend an oppressor. It is never justified for someone who is oppressed to defend [another’s] oppressor.”

And again in response to post-Arab spring crackdowns by the Saudi regime:

“Not by violence, but by our determination, by our belief, and by our steadfastness shall your power be defeated.”

 And once more, in case the point hasn’t come across:

“The weapon of the word is stronger than bullets, because authorities will profit from a battle of weapons.”

The charges against Nimr, in Saudi Arabia’s notoriously unaccountable and draconian justice system included “disobeying the ruler” and “encouraging, leading and participating in demonstrations.” Among those calling for his release in the months leading up to his election were Ban Ki Moon, Reprieve, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International whose regional director stated: “The death sentence against Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is part of a campaign by the authorities in Saudi Arabia to crush all dissent, including those defending the rights of the Kingdom’s Shi’a Muslim community,”

In the wake of his death, Nimr’s family called for his followers to “respect the methodology of our martyr” by “continuing to demand their rights peacefully.” This despite Nimr’s nephew  17 at the time of his arrest, sitting in a condemned cell awaiting the executioner’s sword. That is a measure not just of Nimr but of the liberation movement he represented.

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A land without spring

Saudi Arabia and Gulf Monarchies avoided the convulsions of the Arab Spring with a combination of token reforms and increased oil-funded subsidies to their populations. In Bahrain, a Shia majority country with a Sunni ruling family, they crushed dissent with the aid of Pakistani mercenaries while the world looked the other way.

To the Gulf Kingdoms, the Syrian civil war was a Godsend. It allowed them to reclaim legitimacy in the Sunni world and distract from their own failings by supporting the freedom of the Syrian people against the tyrant Assad while (entirely coincidentally) rolling back some of the strategic losses they suffered during the Arab Spring. Since then, two things have become clear, the first is that Assad is not going anywhere; the other is that even the “moderate” forces ranged against him are violently sectarian, fundamentalist and – in the case of ISIS – less interested in claiming the nation of Syria than creating their own. In that war, nobody looks good.

Both sides have supported and created monsters, meaning that flag-waving for the Syrian rebels no longer attracts the kudos it once did and so the Saudis and the other GCC nations have struggled to find new causes to deflect attention away from the conspicuous lack of accountability or democracy in their countries. Evoking the “Safavid threat” of Iran is, of course, the simplest, but there is also intervention in the Yemeni civil war in which long marginalised Houthi tribesmen belonging to the Zaydi sect of Shi’ism have swept out of the mountainous north to lay claim to large portions of the country.

Rolling back the Houthis was supposed to be a swift and painless victory, but despite more than 150,000 air strikes, all the intervention there has generated are horrific daily images of mass casualties from the deliberate bombing of civilians, documented in (grisly and deeply upsetting) detail and collated by Jamila Hanan.

The Yemen conflict is, if not turning turning public opinion in the Arab and Muslim world, certainly complicating the picture. And even aside from the horrifying pictures making their way out of Yemen, the fact that a bunch of ill-equipped tribesmen have fought to a standstill the world’s third largest military spender is not good for either Saudi prestige or the blood pressure of its rulers.

You had one job!

The House of Saud has never been popular in the Muslim world. Yes, it has enjoyed esteem as a result of its significant wealth; yes, the Wahabi strain of Islam has grown significantly across the planet as a result of its patronage, but the notorious excesses of the Sheikhs have passed into myth and folklore.  Amongst mainstream Sunnis, the hardline ideology it promotes and the debauchery its members indulge in were overlooked because it deployed so much of its oil wealth in supporting Muslim communities and restoring a sense of prestige lost in the process of colonisation.

As far as the wider Muslim world is concerned, the Saudis derive their legitimacy from their role as “Guardians of the Shrines,” maintaining the most sacred sites of Islam in Medina and Mecca and enabling the two million people who go on Hajj each year to complete the journey safely.

Hajj Crush

As Guardians of the Shrines, the Saudis derive legitimacy from enabling 3 million people to complete the annual Hajj Pilgrimage.

This year many of them were not able to do so. Instead they died in a crush apparently caused after crowds were diverted to enable a Saudi royal to complete the ritual of “stoning the devil” from the back of his limousine. Not only that, but the Saudis initially blamed the crowds themselves, saying that they had not followed instructions and have been very disingenuous about the number killed, with some reports suggesting that it reaches  well into the thousands. Right down to the fact that the dead were buried in mass graves, the whole Hajj incident was proof, if any were needed, that the House of Saud are failing in their custodianship of the Shrines.

The only things they have left to secure their continued control over those sacred sites, and the legitimacy they bestow upon their rule and the ultra austere, anachronistic and ideologically genocidal creed of Wahabism their ability to protect the “purity of the faith” and of course, those famous bottomless coffers.

The Well Runs Dry, The Blood Runs Thin

Without wishing to get bogged down in economic detail this, this, this, this and this demonstrate that the Saudi economy has resolutely failed to diversify out of oil and that their various foreign adventures are badly sapping their cash reserves.

With the price of crude low and dropping, the Kingdom has already been forced to begin cutting subsidies to its population. There have been some token reforms to sweeten this, the news was full recently of a very carefully placed series of stories about women finally getting the vote in Saudi Arabia (though they still can’t drive themselves to the polls), but overall, the country is not a bastion of freedom.

If you take away the magic black stuff, Saudia Arabia really is like something out of the Arabian Knights – ISIS with a Platinum Card and an account at Harrods. It may be that a larger portion of the population do well out of the Kingdom than the aspirant Caliphate, but those who are not protected by its royal largesse, like Nimr Al-Nimr, can die just as easily as some truth-telling Vizier from a fairytale.

The country’s cash woes are exacerbated by dynastic squabbling. King Fahad, who was de facto ruler from 1975 and King from 1982-2005 was hated by many but was nonetheless a consummate geopolitician who increased Saudi Arabia’s influence immeasurably, making it a world, not just a regional, power. After a stroke in 1995, Fahd’s brother Abdullah continued many of his policies, though to less effect in a changing world. Abdullah himself became King on Fahd’s death in 2005 and ruled until his own passing last year at the age of 90.

The ascension of King Salman and the influence of his hawkish and sectarian Crown Prince  Mohammed Bin Naif have led to a significant shift in Saudi foreign and domestic policy, described in a German intelligence memo as “a new impulsive policy of intervention” not just by Naif but also by the Deputy Crown Prince and defence minister, 30 year old Muhammed Bin Salman who is accused of destabilising the Middle East and, even in the “Game of Thrones” world of the house of Saud, has a reputation for volatility, arrogance and ruthlessness.

Where Fahd and Abdullah were careful, calculating men, the new generation seem to combine the hubris of those born to power with the insecurity of autocrats that sense they are out of touch with the times. It is a dangerous combination, one that ensures that the Kingdom can add internal strife in the House of Saud to its mounting list of worries.

Sect Appeal

To see Nimr Al-Nimr’s death as a sincere blow in an actual sectarian war is to mistake it. He was not killed just because he was a Shia, precisely. His crime was speaking truth to a brutally repressive regime on the part of its most marginalised members and organising demonstrations against it. The fact those people happen to be Shia is the product of a combination of 1400 year old repressions and the fact that the sect attracts those who are downtrodden and dispossessed because it is fundamentally a liberation theology.

But the fact of Nimr’s Shi’ism will undoubtedly have sweetened the deed for Al Saud, because with cash rapidly vanishing; wasteful military entanglements on all her borders; and opinion across the world beginning to turn against its preferred brand of ultra-literalist, anti-historic fundamentalism –the sectarian card is the only one the Saudis have left. The tendency has been to paint the current round of sectarianism as just another iteration in an ancient struggle. This is bunk. As the Sunni scholar in this Sky News video remarks. The divide is not Shia/Sunni, it is Shia/Wahabi.

Shi’sm is an obvious target for several reasons. The link with Iran is one, it is easy to paint Shia communities as a fifth column, the tip of an Iranian spear. Further, suspicion of Iran is so ingrained in many western journalists and analysts that they will happily look the other way, letting their own political partialities obscure their commitment so supposedly universal values.

By executing Nimr alongside Al-Qaeda prisoners, Saudi Arabia is attempting to legitimise the crushing of  internal dissent as part of the same war that is being waged against Al-Qaeda and ISIS . In fact, as the statements of other Gulf Monarchies show, the execution has nothing to do with ISIS or terrorism and everything to do with mediaeval dynasties struggling to justify their existence in the modern world. The response of the UAE to Nimr’s execution is perhaps the most illuminating, eliding terrorism (which one might in this context associate with Al-Qaeda or ISIS) and “sedition” which is coded language for demanding democracy and civil rights.

UAE Bahrain Nimr statement

Guardian.co.uk

The Gulf States are gearing up for a war with their own people, a second Arab Spring. Saudi, the UAE Bahrain and Qatar are putting in place all the instruments needed for sustained repression of the majority by a small ruling class. They are doing so because the low oil price is making it very clear what a Gulf future without the exceptionalising power of oil would look like.

Alongside Nimr were 46 others. Some are accused of horrible crimes, but all their convictions are unsafe because the country that chairs the UN Human Right Council has the least accountable justice system of any recognised state in the world. However, they have come for the Shias simply for being Shias. This is not because of any threat Shias pose; it is because it helps Al-Saud keep the Wahabi base onside. Any blowback from Iran, they see as worth the price of keeping their internal populations from rising against them.

So far so geopolitical. But there is another dimension. The one that brought down the twin towers, that has made Bataclan and San Bernadino household names.

The Post-Modern Kharijites and the roots of “Militant Islam”

The rise of Daesh and attacks on Western soil facilitated or inspired by its ideology have further damaged the Kingdom’s status. Saudi Arabia came into being through an 18th Century alliance between the tribal chiefs of Al-Saud and the desert-riding Ikhwan of Ibn Al-Wahab. The partnership has always been a tricky one, with the worldly Saudis struggling to control the fanaticism of their militant wing.

For years, the Saudis balanced this by exporting Wahhabism and the violent fanatics it generates. Wahhabism has grown across the Muslim world because of Saudi cash but also because it claims to return to the fundamentals of the faith- an appealing prospect to Muslims who feel that the onslaught of colonialism and modernity has robbed them of true Islam. But if Wahhabism does have any roots in early Islamic History, it is not with the Companions of the Prophet, but rather the Kharijites, the first group who split from the entire Muslim community during the wars of succession that followed the death of the Prophet.

The Kharijites (literally “those who went out”) rejected what they saw as dynastic squabbling in favour of a “pure” form of Islam; rigid in its application, austere in its aesthetic and utterly devoid of the “rahma” or “mercy” which Muslims invoke every time they pray, engage in a new task or read the Quran. They also violently excommunicated all those who disagreed with them (“takfir”) and saw women, children and non-combatants as fair game for slaughter.

The parallels with Wahbism are clear. Additionally the status given to its sponsors as the Guardians of the Shrines and the fact that Wahhabism appropriates so many of the symbols of Sunni Islam has made it tricky for mainstream Sunnism to repudiate, particularly in an age when so many have access to online propaganda shorn of the centuries of nuanced debate amongst scholars who have dedicated their whole lives to the task. A Hadith (traditional narration) of the Prophet appears to forewarn of this threat:

“They will recite the Quran but it will not go beyond their throats.  They will pass through the religion as an arrow passes through a game animal. One could then look at the arrowhead and not see a thing remaining on it.” 

This is the religion of our allies in the war on terror. It is the very terror they claim to fight.

The Shia Genocide

It is often said that “most of those killed by ISIS and Al-Qaeda are Muslims” what is not said is that wherever the ideology of takfir finds safe haven Shias are more at risk than other Muslims. In Pakistan, militants funded by Saudi Arabia and supported by elements within the government have killed at least 10,000, splitting their efforts between targeted killings of prominent Shias,  and mass attacks. In Afghanistan, the Hazara have faced a campaign of extermination. In Iraq, much has been made of Shi’ite sectarian militias who are guilty of some horrible crimes. Less is made of the fact that before the formation of these militias, the then AQ in Iraq Leader Abu Musab Zarqawi was so extreme in his attacks on Shias that even Osama Bin Laden asked him to show restraint. In Nigeria, just a few weeks ago, the country’s small community of Shias, led by Sheikh Zakzaky was attacked by the military, leaving hundreds dead.

And the battle is not purely one of blood and bullets. Al-Azhar, the most respected university in the Muslim world recently set up an essay prize for students calling for ideas papers on “the spread of Shia Islam in Sunni society, its causes, dangers and how to combat it”. There are estimated to be between 800,000 and 2 million Shias in Egypt, despite the grand Imam of Al-Azhar stating that calls for a Shia seat in the parliament (which has a quota system) were absurd because “there were no Shia in Egypt except for a couple of peddlers of religion and sectarian strife.”

In many ways, Iranian influence has not helped the cause of the Shias. Hostility to Iran, ingrained since the Islamic Revolution, is one of the main tactics used by Al-Saud to deflect attention away from their own, much more potent support for terrorism and extremism. Iran has often been criticised for painting itself as the protector of the world’s Shias, to further an expansionist agenda. This may well be the case, but to condemn Iran for taking the role of protector ignores what it is that Shias need protecting from. Because these attacks take place sporadically and  all over the world, it is possible to paint each as an isolated incident. However, there is a common denominator: the creed that demands the deaths of Shias is the institutional religion of the House of Saud and it has been spread across the Muslim world using their petrodollars. It is also the same creed and the same cash that enables ISIS in its attacks on Shias, Sunnis, Yazdis, Kurds and the victims of 9/11, 7/7, Paris, and San Bernadino.

The deliberate targeting of the world’s Shia is one of the great unremarked upon crimes of our time. It is a genocide, plain and simple and the fact that the world looks the other way, refusing to make the connection between the deaths of Shias all over the world and the ideology of ISIS and the House of Saud shames the international community. While it goes on continued arms sales to Saudi, continued diplomatic and political normalization of their ways is a blight on the record of many nations, including America and the UK.


The Roar of the Word

While this article was being written, Saudi Arabia has responded to the torching of its embassy in Tehran by cutting diplomatic ties with Iran. Other nations including Sudan and Bahrain have followed suit and the UAE has downgraded ties. The embassy burning was almost certainly enabled by hardliners in Iran’s state apparatus and is a clear miscalculation, but calling for its condemnation without reference to the execution that catalysed is like condemning the black lives matter riots without reference to police killings, just as saying that Nimr was not killed because he was Shia is like saying that Tamir Rice was killed for being tall and carrying a BB gun.

The Iranians are guilty of many things, but there is only one genocidal ideology in the Middle East today. It is not Shi’ism, it is not mainstream Sunnism; it is the vile perversion that keeps the House of Saud in power and that drives the murderers of Da’esh.

It has been killing people with impunity for the last 40 years and where it cannot murder, depriving them of free worship and basic political participation. It has inspired Jihadi Johns and the sick parading of a 4 year old boy dubbed “Jihadi Junior.” If the West is to tackle homegrown militancy and the Muslim world is to overcome sectarian divisions, we must all unite against it. If we fail to, it will not just be Shias that suffer, but everyone who refuses to fall in line under the black flag of the post-modern Kharijites.

Ali Nimr, 17 at the time of his arrest for attending a peaceful demonstration awaits execution by Al Saud

Ali Nimr, 17 at the time of his arrest for attending a peaceful demonstration awaits execution by Al Saud

The tide of opinion is beginning to turn against the Saudi regime but its formidable PR and lobbying machine is doing its best to blame the West’s old enemy of Iran. Nimr Al-Nimr has been smeared as a terrorist, which he was not and an Iranian, which he was not. Instead he was a representative of the peaceful, pro-democracy Arab Spring. The hopes of Tahirir square may have bled out  bled out in the sectarian killing grounds of Syria and the counter-revolution in Egypt but it was the House of Saud that extinguished one of its final sparks. To allow his death to become just another blow in the tit for tat between Saudi and Iran would be a travesty.

The best way to keep his memory alive, and the memory of all the others who have suffered for freedom in the Arab and Muslim worlds is to uphold his example; the example of civil rights activists that went before him like Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. It is to use the “Roar of the Word” against tyrants and oppressors, wherever they may be. We can start with a very specific case. Ali Al-Nimr, the executed Sheikh’s nephew currently sits awaiting beheading for attending a demonstration when he was just 17. It is too late for Nimr Al-Nimr, but the fight to free his nephew must be the first step in holding the House of Al-Saud to the basic values of humanity.

Nimr Martyrdom StatementIf you have read to the end of this article, I hope you have gained from it. Please share so that the legacy of Nimr Al-Nimr and the many others who have given their lives for democracy  and equality in the Muslim world lives on.

Christmas in Karbala

In these troubled times, The concept of the sacrificial son, as embodied in Abraham, Jesus, and Hussain Ibn Ali provides a vital bridge for understanding across the Abrahamic faiths.

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Going somewhere nice?

One of the more curious aspects of growing up in Britain as a member of the Shia branch of Islam is that you regularly find yourself in places and situations that are unfathomable to those around you. How to explain to your school friends at the age of 15 why you take a day off each year to beat your chest and weep for a man who died almost a millennium and a half ago. How to get your Sunni co-religionists to understand that while you may possess a version of history that casts some of their most revered figures in a less than flattering light, you still regard them as brothers in Islam.

And turning to more prosaic matters, when the obligatory pre-Christmas holiday conversation happens, how do you get your colleagues to understand why it is that while they are opening presents and chasing reluctant Brussels sprouts around the plate you will be spending your extra Christmas holiday time in the deserts of southern Iraq, pushing your aged aunt in a wheelchair towards a shrine that is the prime target for the suicide bombing, mass-murdering, blasphemous death cult that calls itself The Islamic State.

The answer, or at least my answer, lies in three pivotal events in the history of mankind: the sacrifice that Abraham was prepared to make (the Islamic tradition states that the son in question was Ishmael, the Judeo Christian that it was Isaac), the sacrifice of Jesus, and the sacrifice of Hussain Ibn Ali.

As numberless as the stars

The story of Abraham’s sacrifice, where God comes to him in a dream to demand he slit the throat of his young son and, at the moment that Abraham is about to do so replaces the boy with a ram, is one of the pivotal not to mention most problematic passages in the Bible.

It is often cited by atheists raised in the Abrahamic traditions as one of the reasons why they cannot believe: “What kind of God would do that?” they ask, choosing to interpret the story with a bloody-minded literalism that has more in common with Bible-Belt fundamentalism than the critical traditions of the Enlightenment.

In the attempt avoid such easy dismissal I have tried to frame my argument in the terms of materialist psychology on the basis that those with religious belief already know what I am talking about.

The story of Abraham’s sacrifice is not one of abortive filicide. It is about placing immediate desires and fears in the context of both the arc of one’s own life and the arc of human history.

To put it another way, each of us is subject, minute by minute, and hour by hour, to a vast, bewildering and contradictory array of thoughts, impulses, worries and wants. To make human life meaningful, we need a way to contextualise those feelings in relation to our whole lives. Additionally, to overcome the fact that we alone amongst the creatures of the earth are aware of our own mortality, we also need a means to relate ourselves to all the humans that have gone before and all those to come; to feel connected to something that was there long before we became and that will endure long after we are dust.

Abraham is asked to sacrifice that which he holds most dear. His reward for overcoming the instinct to protect one’s offspring is to be raised out of time, to be given eternal life as part of the collective consciousness of the species, for his “offspring” to become as numberless as the stars, as Deuteronomy so elegantly phrases it.

Jesus, too, fits this paradigm. His suffering is given pathos by the gap between the reception he received in Jerusalem as the returning King and his drawn out and painful death by crucifixion, a form of execution reserved for criminals and traitors. His purpose is to renew in blood the covenant between God and his people, to irrigate and bring new life to the dessicated, legalistic ritualism of the religion of the Pharisees.

Even his moment of doubt serves to elevate him, showing the completeness of his humanity and thereby making his determination to see through to the end the thing he believes in all the more powerful a lesson.

That lesson, in a nutshell, is that we are more than our bodies, or at least that we are capable of being so, and that our full actualisation as human beings comes through dedicating those bodies to something that is not subject to their caprices.

If we fail to attempt this as a model for living, the only thing that separates us from animals is the extent of our cunning.

This lesson, taught to Jews by Abraham and Christians by Jesus resonates throughout the Islamic faith, which self-consciously sees itself as a continuation of the same tradition.

But Islam has its own sacrificial son, and as I happen to have been blessed to spend Christmas Day in the place where he made his stand I will do my best to articulate his story.

His name was Hussain Ibn Ali. He was the grandson of the Prophet of Islam and he could have chosen to live his life in honour and comfort. Instead he was killed, after being deprived of water for three days at the scorching nowhere land of the southern Iraqi desert by men who had once pledged allegiance to his father and his grandfather, not just as temporal rulers, but as holders of a sacred trust on behalf of the Lord, Master and Creator of all.

A brief history of schism

To begin to understand how Hussain was called upon to make his version of the sacrifice of Abraham, an overview of the history of the schism between Sunni and Shia is needed. The differences between them are not my subject but to understand what is, a brief history of the crisis of succession that followed the prophet’s death is inescapable.

The Shia narrative is that the Prophet, returning from his last Hajj, stopped his followers at a place called Khum and declared to the assembled faithful that he was leaving them two weighty things as his legacy the Quran and the “bayt” or House of the Prophet. He also declared his cousin and son in law Ali was to be their “mawla,” a word that has some dozen or so meanings in Arabic and that the Shia translate as “Master” in the sense of liege Lord.

The Sunnis believe that the word “mawla” is better glossed as friend or close companion; that “bayt” includes the wives of the Prophet as well as his line through his daughter and Ali’s wife, Fatima; and that the Prophet died without naming a successor. A Shura council was convened and selected the eldest of the Prophet’s companions Abu Bakr as the heir. After Abu Bakr, the Sunnis recognise three more “rightly guided” caliphs of whom the last was Ali.

After Ali’s assassination while leading prayers at the hands of a malcontent former supporter, the Caliphate was seized by a Mu’awiyah, very much a worldly rather than a spiritual ruler and the Golden Age of the rightly guided Caliphs was over.

For the Shia, the perceived usurpation of the Caliphate was an event that stopped history. We live, generation after generation, awaiting the Mahdi, the 11th in line from Ali, to return and institute once again a society that combines just temporal rule with charismatic authority as existed under the Prophet.

For Sunnis too, there is a recognition that the age of divinely sanctioned rule is in abeyance. They also await the Mahdi. And so, having been divided by history, the two sects anticipate, without necessarily recognising this to be the case, being reunited at its end.
In the meantime, both suffer a separation between temporal and religious authorities.

In Shiism, this has led to yet more splits and schisms, with the main Twelver branch competing with around a dozen others, each following a charismatic leader or succession of leaders. In Sunnism it has led to the blurring of boundaries between Islam as faith and Islam as a social instrument. This is particularly true in the Wahhabi strain, an ultra-austere and literalist branch which must somehow also justify the rule of its morally bankrupt, brutal and authoritarian Saudi sponsors.

There is however a place where the two can intersect before the end of history. It is Karbala, where the Hussain, the last great sacrificial son of the Abrahamic tradition gave up his blood so that life might continue to flow through the religion brought by his grandfather and its truths might not perish from the earth.

Death in the Desert

Some time around the middle of 680 AD, Hussain gathered a small band of followers (traditionally numbered as 72) and along with the women and children of the house of the Prophet, left Mecca to make the long journey to Kufa in Southern Iraq.

The reason for his journey had its roots in the schism described above. With the era of the Rightly Guided over, the growing Muslim empire fell victim to dynastic politics. Mu’awiyah had recently died, appointing his son Yazid as Caliph, in violation of treaties between Mu’awiyah and the House of the Prophet and to the disgust of many Muslims who tolerated the father but saw the son for what he was: an arrogant, oppressive, licentious drunk who did not so much as pay lip service to the new faith and the limits that it placed on the exercise of power. Were he to go unchallenged, it was unlikely that the new religion of Islam would survive.

Yazid had asked Hussain for his fealty and Hussain had refused, saying “one such as I cannot swear fealty to one such as him.” And when the people of Kufa, who had been strong supporters of his father, Ali, asked him to offer them an alternative to Yazid’s rule, he agreed to go to them.

Although initially the conditions were favourable, a new governor appointed to Kufa by Yazid killed Hussain’s emissary, to little protest from the local people. Hussain was made aware of the situation before he left but elected to go anyway, declaring in a speech before his departure that death was a certainty for all mankind and calling on all those who wished to give their blood for his sake and for the sake of God to come with him.

Hussain was well aware barring an unlikely change in the hearts of the armies of the Caliph or a sudden surge of courage on the part of the Kufans, he was going to his death. He also knew that all that was needed to avoid it was to pledge allegiance to Yazid. Like Jesus on the Mount of Olives, he was given the choice to be an ordinary human, cowering from fear of death or to become something greater and so to not only fulfil the potential of his humanity, but to show the way for generations of others to do so in the future.

Two days away from Kufa, Hussain was intercepted by the forces of Yazid. Cut off from the river Euphrates, his little caravan’s supplies ran dry and after three days in which children as young as six months old were deprived of water, Hussain and his small band of companions gave battle in the searing heat against an army numbering in the thousands.

The battle of Karbala, which took place on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, known as Ashura, has inspired vast bodies of literature in languages as diverse as Wolof, Urdu a a Azeri. I do not have the skill to try and emulate those who have articulated its key moments, but I will do my best to relate just three to give an inkling of the character of the man, his followers and their opponents:

Traveling with Hussain was his six month old son, Ali Asghar. Before the battle, Hussain went to his enemies to beg water for the child. Your quarrel is with me, he said, please do not make my innocent child suffer. Sensing that the resolve of his soldiers was about to break and that the cruelty that they were inflicting on the family of their Prophet might be too much for them, Yazid’s commander ordered his best archer to kill the child with an anti-cavalry arrow, as a reminder of who held the power of life and death in the situation.

The poets say that as the arrow pierced his son, Hussain’s hands filled with blood, as it overflowed onto the earth, the earth cried out that if a single drop fell, nothing would grow there again, so instead Hussain raised the blood to the sky, which cried out that of it were to take the blood of Ali Asghar no rain would ever fall again, so Hussain smeared the blood on his beard and returned with his child’s body to camp, turning back seven times because he could not bear to face the boy’s mother. This narration is metaphor, of course, but it drives home the point that the blood shed at Karbala was innocent and that those who shed it were capable of a preternatural cruelty against that which they professed to hold most dear.

A second story is that of Hussain’s half brother Abbas, renowned as the finest warrior in Arabia and Hussain’s standard bearer. In the thick of battle Abbas penetrated the enemy line, managing to take a waterskin to the river. In an act of almost incomprehensible loyalty he did not take a drink but turned back to ride to the camp. On the way he was ambushed and his right arm cut off. Taking both standard and waterskin in his left hand he rode on. Another attack took his left hand and so he let the standard fall, taking the water skin in his teeth. Unable to catch him and unwilling to let the water reach Hussain’s camp, Yazid’s forces aimed their arrows at the waterskin. It was only when the waterskin was empty that Abbas’s resolve broke and he fell from his horse.

The final story is of Hussain’s own death. With the day drawing to a close and almost all his companions dead. The mortally wounded Hussain stopped in the middle of the fight to say his obligatory prayers. While he was prostrate, one Shimr came up to him and slit his throat. As if stopping the fight to pray was not mockery enough of his enemies pretensions to greatness, Hussain’s final words to his murderer were “have you said your prayers yet today?”

And with that, the deed was done. In the aftermath of the battle, the bodies of Hussain and his companions were mutilated with a fetishistic relish; the remaining women and children beaten and abused and dragged in chains to Yazid’s court in Damascus where many perished in captivity.

To those who remember, Sunni or Shia, Christian, Hindu or secular, the cruelty of Daesh is nothing new. We are all to well aware of the viciousness human beings can inflict, even on those that supposedly represent all that they hold sacred.

The story of Hussain is not well known in the world, it has been deliberately suppressed by tyrants, dictators and mere bad politicians because it is a perennial focus for resistance to injustice and unfettered power.

Revolutionaries in the Muslim world, both believing and secular have stood behind the slogan “We are not the people of Kufa” as a demonstration of their fidelity to their cause.

The resonance with the example of Jesus is strong. Pope Francis, truly the right Pope in the right place at the right time, uses it to chastise the leaders of the world as the pursue wealth and war over equality and peace. Even David Cameron has fallen foul of it, his Christmas address highlighting the absurdity his appeal to Christian values in the light of his policies and spawning the hashtag youaintnochristianbruv.

Peace and goodwill to all

I have written this article because circumstance has led me to be in the place of Hussain’s sacrifice on two immensely important days: the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad on 24th December and the celebration of the birth of Jesus on the 25th.

Both are part of my heritage and I refuse to give in to those who peddle hate and division by choosing one or the other. In Hussain, I find the bridge between the two.

Both Jesus and Muhammad brought a message of brotherhood, peace and goodwill. Jesus suffered and died for doing so, and while Muhammad died of natural causes, the calamities suffered by his descendants were no less than those of the son of Mary, nor was their courage in the face of them any less.

In a time of deep antagonism within Islam and between Islam and the Judeo-Christian and post Christian worlds, we do well to meditate on those who sacrificed themselves to demonstrate our common humanity.

The scourge of Wahabism is tearing the heart out of the mainstream Muslim tradition. It obliterates the history of co-existence and cross-fertilisation between sects and faiths, the pluralism, that has for so long characterised Islam. It seeks to rewrite history in a manner that (entirely coincidentally, I’m sure) happens to fit the agendas of the House of Saud and their various autocratic allies.

If it is not tackled at its root we may drop as many bombs as we like but even if Daesh are defeated, their hateful death cult, all the more grotesque because it walks in the garb of Islam and quotes scripture to its purpose, will spring up again.

To do that, Sunnis must reclaim the sacrifice of Hussain for their own, an example by which they may judge those who have stolen the symbols of their tradition and excise them; Shias must open hearts made hard by generations of persecution and reach out in order to enable that process; and all of us, Christians, Jews and Muslims, must look back to the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice the immediate and the instinctual for the sake of that which is greater and harder to perceive.

Atheists and agnostics too must be open to the possibility that while they may see us believers as superstitious children, the great religions of the world have endured because they tell fundamental truths about humanity.

We are all of us on the same little raft, sailing through the night. We possess the power to destroy it and ourselves many times over. If we cannot learn to see our common humanity and to collectively resist those who deny it for the sake of the certainty that comes from fundamentalism, then it is all of us together that drown.

And that is why I am in Karbala, taking advantage of the Christmas public holidays to spend time with my family and remembering what it is to be human.

The fact that it is in Iraq is of course a source of worry, but also of joy. Daesh will not stop our remembrance, just as Saddam did not stop my mother, when she came in 1998. No Herod, no Yazid can take away our humanity, we alone can do that through cowardice and lack of fidelity to the ideals we claim to adhere to.

Peace be upon you Jesus Son of Mary, Spirit of God.

Peace be upon you Muhammad son of Abullah, Messenger of God.

Peace be upon you Abraham, beloved of God.

Peace be upon you, Hussain Ibn Ali, Prince of Martyrs.

(This article was written on a phone without access to reference materials, responsibility for any incoherence or factual inaccuracy lies with me. God alone knows best)

 

 

BREAKING: Saudi Arabia announces “anti-coalition coalition”

34-nation alliance hailed as a success as Lebanon, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia deny knowledge of membership

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Oil rich kingdom also considering war on irony

 Riyadh, 16 December: Senior Saudi officials have today confirmed that following months of delicate unilateralism, they have successfully identified 34 allies to join them in an unprecedented alliance to take on the concept of coalitions.

Speaking on condition of infamy, a source close to the Royal Family told reporters that they considered coalitions one of the greatest threats to stability in the 21st Century:

“The Islamic world needs to take a stand. We need to confront and push back coalitions and those that help them promote their violent ideologies.”

The official cited Iraq, Syria, Lybia, Yemen and Afghanistan as just some of the places where the destructive and hate-filled actions of coalitions and their sympathisers had led to massive suffering on the part of civilian populations.

Analysts were initially divided as to whether Saudi Arabia was committed to tackling the scourge of coalitions, with some suggesting that the announcement was a PR stunt. However, as it became clear that almost none of those included in the coalition were aware of their membership opinion has shifted.

Bernard Lewis of think tank ICBS said:

“Some have accused Saudi Arabia of standing idle or even being a sponsor of coalitions itself. However, by announcing this coalition without informing many of its most important members, they have struck a blow against the very concept of knowing and consensual involvement in an international alliance based on mutual goals.”

 Initial reports had suggested that the coalition was intended to target terrorism, but this was dismissed by the Saudi officials:

“Saudi Arabia creating a coalition to take on terrorism would be as absurd as Saudi Arabia chairing the UN Human Rights Council.”

Well we sure as hell have got to bomb something- A guest post from the British commentariat

It may have failed in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Lybia in 2011 and we may be proposing to attack the opposite side in Syria than we were in 2013, but this time, military intervention is morally necessary, strategically sound and guaranteed to succeed

Syria is not Iraq, ISIS is not a river in Egypt

As a commentator in a right-wing broadsheet, I was full-throated in my support of the Iraq War as a just and necessary intervention against a brutal dictator who was murdering his own people by the thousands while posing an imminent threat to our country, our values and our way of life.

And although that intervention was an unmitigated disaster, I believe I made the correct decision based on the government line at the time. After all, it isn’t my job to  examine the claims made by politicians or use my  critical faculties to help my readers gain a balanced and informed view of the situation, and anyway, nobody could have known back then that an invasion fuelled by the messianic zeal of Bush and Blair, underpinned by doctored intelligence and reliant on the optimistic belief that people we had spent over a decade bombing would welcome us as liberators would end so badly.

Statistically, the more sides to a conflict, the less likely you are to be on the losing one

“Statistically, the more sides to a conflict, the less likely you are to be on the losing one” Image from http://www.caglecartoons.com

The strategic situation in Syria today is very different. This time we are not proposing to use boots on the ground to take out a tyrannical strongman. Instead we are proposing to join an existing bombing campaign with the aim of taking out the most brutal of the groups that we helped to create to fight a tyrannical strongman and so clear the way for his more moderate opponents to sufficiently weaken his position so that he is forced to negotiate a transition from power.

Moreover, our involvement will be marginal compared to the thousands of sorties already flown. But if anything this makes our intervention even more necessary.  Although small, our forces will weigh the balance, just as 70 years ago the brave Spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain weighed the balance in our fight against an enemy almost as powerful and ruthless as ISIS is today.

Not only that, but where Iraq was an ill-conceived imperial adventure with no overarching plan, David Cameron has promised us that this time any intervention will be part of a comprehensive strategy. This firm commitment to a comprehensive strategy should reassure even the most sceptical that there is a strategy in place and that it is comprehensive.

It is certainly having an effect on Labour MPs who are clamouring for the free vote that will allow them to support an intervention and put the ghost of the Iraq war to bed once and for all. In so doing, they have once again exposed Jeremy Corbyn’s extreme ideological commitment to unworkable and idealistic solutions. Of course we’d all like to settle wars by peaceful means, but anyone who has studied history knows this is never achievable: the Congress of Vienna created the conditions that led to the outbreak of the Great War, The Treaty of  Versailles led directly to the outbreak of World War Two and the Yalta Conference created the Cold War.

Ready to deploy in 45 minutes

The comprehensive strategy is underpinned by the fact that there is a highly trained, well-equipped and battle proven anti-Assad faction on the ground.  The Free Syrian Army is a cohesive, disciplined force that displays an impressive combination of ethics and military effectiveness. The government’s latest intelligence, which we have no reason to doubt, indicates that there are 70,000 fighters ready to deploy within 45 minutes of the UK  joining the conflict.

This is why those who compare the situation to Libya in 2011 are just as misguided as those who compare it to Iraq. Libya was a classic example of how airpower can  be an effective and low-risk way to remove a dictator and sow the seeds of democracy and freedom. The fact that the Libyan people could not take advantage of the opportunity given to them by the brave fighter pilots of the West is a sad indictment of their backwardness and tribalism, not a critique of either the principle of intervention or its execution.

Unlike the Libyans, the Free Syrians are educated, liberal and secular with an open and sophisticated culture that has been struggling to break free of the chains of oppression for decades. We need to support them just as we supported the democratically elected government of Abdel Al-Fatah Sisi in its struggle against the longstanding military dictatorship of Mohammed Morsi; just as we supported the tolerant and freedom loving Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen against Iranian backed Islamic State fighters; just as we supported our staunch friend and ally the former president of Iraq in his 7 year war of liberation against the fanatical Ayatollahs.

Moreover, with our staunch allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and gulf states like the UAE and Qatar funnelling support to anti-Assad factions in the region, we can be sure that we will be part of a coordinated response on behalf of the entire international community.

Remember the Twin Towers Charlie Hebdo the Alamo the black hole of  Calcutta The Paris Attacks

By rehashing all these old anti-war arguments, we are playing into the terrorists’ hands. We must never forget that less than two weeks ago, Paris, the City of Light, was targeted by ISIS in a brutal series of attacks that left 139 people dead.

The terrorists may claim that Paris was targeted partly because it is “a capital of prostitution  and vice” and partly because France has been at the forefront of fighting ISIS,  not just in Syria but also in North Africa and Mali, but we should know better by now than to fall into this trap.

There is always an excuse to justify the latest atrocity. Muhammed Siddiqe Khan, the leader of the 7/7 bombers claimed that it was Britain’s re-election of the Labour government that invaded Iraq that prompted those attacks and in 2003, Osama Bin Laden wrote a letter to the American people in which he itemised hundreds of years of purely imagined grievances to justify his campaign of violence and fear. Radical Islamists may talk of Baghram and Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition and Abu Graib, but it is worth remembering that all of these came into being after 9/11, so how could they possibly have caused or fuelled the violence in the first place?

And before that, there was always an invasion here, a repression there  and a line in the sand over there to give fuel to the Islamist narrative of a perfidious West always seeking to humiliate and subjugate Muslims or to outsource that humiliation and subjugation to brutal client regimes that suppress freedom but prop themselves up by supporting reductionist, violent and ahistoric versions of Islam while the West turns a blind eye for the sake of oil revenue.

Let us be absolutely clear. There is no way in which any Western nation has done anything to inflame the situation in the Middle East and even if they had, there is no link between such actions and the violent hatred of the Jihadis. They hate us simply because we exist, because we are free. Any attempt to attribute causality to the situation not only plays into the terrorists’ hands, it disrespects the victims of the Paris attacks, not to mention the hundreds of thousands who have been killed across the Muslim world in our long and selfless fight to bring the lights of reason and freedom to those benighted lands.

The Cycle

By viewing this image you are giving succour to the terrorists

The West’s Burden

There are two clear sides to the debate – should we bomb ISIS now or should we have been bombing Assad for the last two years – but in the end, it boils down to this: We have a moral duty to act and failure to do so is an abdication of our responsibilities as an enlightened liberal democracy. As a free people, it is our burden to defend the freedom of others to their last breath.

There is a chance that intervention will make the UK a higher priority target for ISIS, but that higher risk is the price we must pay to keep our citizens safe, just as increased surveillance and police powers are the price we pay to protect our liberty. Our past interventions have not in any way fuelled radicalisation, extremism or terrorism but they have been co-opted by Jihadists into a narrative that does.

In order to break that narrative we need to show that we have the strength and commitment to see through to the end the job started in Iraq in 2003 and to show that we stand by our humanitarian values. Throughout a thousand years of history, we have never failed to be there when the French were on the field of battle and we will not start now. Nor can we  abandon the people of Syria who are even now crossing the Meditarranean desperately trying to escape war, brutality and aerial bombardment only to find that the gates of Europe are closed.

ISIS has grown because we did not have the courage to halt its advance. It has preyed on the fear of intervention that we have had since Iraq. But this is the Island of Henry V, of Nelson and Wellington, Churchill and Boy George, it will not be cowed by terrorists or forever shackled to past mistakes. If we are to deserve our seat at the top table, if we are to be able to still look ourselves in the eye and call Britain “Great” then we need to act.

It doesn’t even matter who we end up bombing in the end, Assad and his death squads; ISIS;  the Al-Qaeda affiliated brigades of the so-called Free Syrian Army, they are all as bad as each other. The critical thing is, we sure as hell have got to bomb something, otherwise how will they know we’re right?

(This article was first published about once every three months over the last 15 years)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Doctor is Out

As the BMA ballots its members on strike action, the workings of the government’s spin machine need to come in for an examination

When you think of selfish, over-privileged scumbags being paid far too much for a job that adds no value whatsoever to society, what springs to mind? Is it bankers, corporate lawyers, politicians; or is it NHS doctors?

Doctor, My head is spinning 

As the Tory government squares up for a confrontation with the BMA over changes to the contracts of all doctors below consultant grade, the spin machine is in overdrive trying to persuade us that the NHS is staffed with grasping, entitled and overpaid good-for-nothings milking the public purse.

The row has been rumbling now for the better part of a year, with the government shifting its position on a regular basis as each of its arguments have been knocked down or shown to have little traction with the public. The claims made to win headlines and then dropped as soon as they’ve been proven false or otherwise lost their utility include:

  • That this is not a pay cut. It is merely a change that requires NHS doctors to work more hours on the same salaries.
  • That this is a pay cut, but only for a minority of doctors.
  • That they have no idea whether or not this is a pay cut.
  • That 10pm on a Saturday does not constitute anti-social hours, to which Private Eye responded with this gem

NHS Number Crunching

In addition, the government has been running a parallel campaign that claims to be pushing for a “truly 7 day NHS” and conflating the issue with that of doctors’ pay. This has lead to people putting their lives at risk by not in to hospital for emergency treatment on weekends because the government’s line has made them think there will be no staff there. So pronounced is this phenomenon that doctors have dubbed it #thehunteffect.

The idealised form of the government’s argument can be found in this remarkable piece of propaganda in Rupert Murdoch’s Sun Newspaper.

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Now, painting the government as reasonable and doctors as unionised fat cats looking to keep their cream is a hard sell so it is worth looking at the Sun article in detail because it brings together all the techniques used by the government’s (publicly funded) spin merchants in one neat package. It is also very likely, based on my experience in the ugly world of spin, that it was directly briefed to the journalist by a Special Advisor in Jeremy Hunt’s Office.

The first technique is decontextualisation: the 11 per cent pay offer the article was referred to was not made at the negotiating table it was made through the media on the day that ballot papers went out from the BMA. As the doctors’ representative Johann Malawana observed, it was “megaphone diplomacy” not intended as an actual offer but designed to undermine the doctors position as a pure public relations exercise. The same goes for the claim that doctors have “shut the door” on negotiations. It is true that they have refused to negotiate given that the government is willing to discuss only one of the 22 points they have issues with, but putting forward an unacceptable offer and demanding that 90 per cent of it is acceded to without question before “negotiations” begin is not negotiation at all it is a cynical manipulation of public perception.

The second technique is the conflation of issues: The claim is made that keeping doctors’ pay at present levels stops the NHS from providing adequate staffing over the weekend. This just isn’t true. It is the case that non-urgent surgeries only take place on weekdays, but emergency care is available 24/7. While this particular article stops just shy of making the claim that there is no 7-day NHS, the claim has been given currency by articles in other newspapers and it taps into that latent understanding.

The third technique is comparing two different things as if they were alike: “Junior Doctors… are well paid compared to other public sector workers.” Yes, they are, compared to cleaners, traffic wardens and even nurses. This is because they are more highly trained and skilled. The idea that someone who is more skilled should be paid more is one that should be relatively easy to fathom.

The fourth is an appeal to prejudice and envy: By accusing the doctors of acting in “typical trade union style” they have been placed in a discourse that harks back to the winter of discontent, rubbish piling up on the streets and general strikes. The bad old days, in other words. The appeal to envy is straightforward enough to dissect – doctors have an overtime gravy train. The typical Sun reader does not. That is unfair and so the gravy train must be taken away.

And the final, most pernicious technique is dereliction of duty: This  is summed up in the last line condemning the BMA because “it puts its members financial interests ahead of the public’s needs.”

It is worth bearing in mind that the row is not about new contracts for people just qualifying as doctors, but existing agreements.  If your boss came to you one day and told you that your contract was being unilaterally altered to make you work longer and less sociable hours for less money, you would feel entitled to withdraw your labour because that was not what you signed up for. If your boss then said “you can’t strike because your skills are too important” you would wonder why they weren’t paying you what those skills are worth in the first place.

What is disgusting about this is that every NHS doctor is already taking a hit because they are working for the NHS at much less than the market rate for their skills, generally because they feel a sense of duty towards their fellow human beings. Hunt appears happy to use doctors’ consciences against them while appearing blissfully unencumbered by the Department for Health’s own duty of care towards its employees, leaving both the government and the Sun in the incongruous position of supporting the anti-capitalist stance of paying people less than the market rate for their wages.

[Addendum: It has been pointed out to me since this article went live that junior doctors can’t choose their overtime as the Sun article asserts so we can add “bare-faced lies” to the techniques listed.]

Politician, Heal Thyself

Ginuwine Remedys for ailments rehumatic, pneumatic and phlegtastic

Ginuwine Remedys for ailments rehumatic, pneumatic and phlegtastic

The interesting thing about the whole row is quite apart from the government’s position being cynical and constantly shifting, it is terrible politics and terrible economics. It also cuts to the heart of wider debates on how our society judges value.

Now it might be the case that doctors are on a publically funded gravy train and are destroying the NHS with their greed (it isn’t) but even if it were, I personally would rather than the person reattaching my arm after it has been severed by falling machinery or saving my child from meningitis wasn’t simultaneously worried about their mortgage or how they will pay for their daughter’s school uniform.

After all, the same government that claims to be on your side against grasping, greedy doctors has cut the 50p tax rate, wants to sell the public stake in RBS at a discount, is giving a free ride to millionaires through changes to inheritance tax and put forward a bill to cut tax credits that was so egregious that even the House of Lords – hardly a bastion of left-wing agitation- could not stomach it.

The people who have benefitted from these policies are sometimes called “wealth creators” in the hope this will distract from the fact that so much of the wealth they create either ends up in their own pockets or in political donations. Doctors, by contrast, do not create wealth, they merely help our workforce to be healthier and happier (not to mention more productive) for longer. A form of value those in power seem unable to process. In fact, for a government that prides itself on being stuffed full of business-minded, results-oriented people the Tory stance also betrays a lack of understanding of the basic rules of labour flow and the relationship between pay and conditions and the retention of skilled workers.

Unlike tube drivers or steel workers, Doctors do not fit easily into the bracket of bolshie militants. Many of them will be Tory voters or the children of Tory voters and all of them are articulate professionals both able to make their case and to access the media to ensure that their arguments are heard by the public. Moreover, most unionised workers have very limited options if things don’t go their way. A London tube driver can’t just up sticks and go to work for the New York Subway, a Redcar steel worker can’t just head off to China if the local works is shut down, but a medical professional with the best training in the world who is already working at 1/3 of the market rate can and will move to other countries if the combination of horrible hours, low pay and unrelenting insults to their value and professionalism continue.

But then, Hunt has already stated that his long term aim  is to privatise the NHS so maybe running it down by making conditions untenable for the junior doctors who are its backbone is exactly what he’s trying to achieve.

Doctors have yet to make the decision on whether they will strike. But their considerations should not include the ridiculous notion that the removal of their labour is unethical because the job they do is so important. If their work is so vital, they should be paid a fair amount for it. Unlike bankers who continue to get bonuses when the institutions they work for are part owned by the public, doctors add value and make daily sacrifices to look after the health of the nation. The government’s attempt to paint them as selfish for doing so is deeply destructive and morally bankrupt.

The Greatest most Britainest Great Britain Ever: Cameron’s bizzare mix of jingoism and leftie buzzwords shows a PR man at the height of his powers

No pigs were harmed in the writing of this blogpost

No pigs were harmed in the writing of this blogpost

It is one of the quirks of our political culture that that the last thing that happened is the only thing that ever happened. Thus, over the course of a few days it is entirely plausible and consistent for Theresa May to condemn immigration in terms that left business leaders aghast and even some of the Tory faithful shifting uncomfortably in their seats; for Jeremy Hunt to declare that that tax credits would encourage the British to work as hard as the Chinese; for George Osborne to extend the franchise to corporations and then for the man who leads their party to declare an assault on poverty and vow to end discrimination. 

This was Cameron of old, the hoodie and husky hugging Compassionate Conservative, boldly setting out a vision for the future of Britain carefully crafted by Tory strategists to appear to offer something to everyone. After all, with the bake-off final high in the nation’s consciousness, who could argue with the idea of a Greater Britain? Albeit one where income inequality among the highest in OECD countries, where livings standards are undergoing a “prolonged squeeze,” where the young are disproportionately suffering the results of  both the global economic crash and the policy choice of austerity that followed it and where, after all the rhetoric and all the cuts, the deficit has widened this year.

Next year's Bake off will be Greater and More British

Next year’s Bake off will be Greater and More British

But in essence, this was not a political or an economic speech, it was a cultural one. The core of Cameron’s message was that with the recession over and with the task of bringing the country’s finances under control well advanced, it is time to turn to the task of reimagining society. In choosing this tack, Cameron’s strategists are attempting the unenviable task of responding to Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a more decent politics while at the same time shoring up their base. It is a tricky manoeuvre and one that Cameron pulled off in the eyes of the pundits. Some of whom went so far as to call his speech “Blairite,” presumably meaning it as a compliment.

There are two significant problems with the approach that Cameron has taken. The first is that Blairism and the neoliberal economic consensus which underpinned have both been consigned to the dustbin of history, the latter by the deepest recession in history, the former by the fact that the convergence of political parties on the centre ground alienates the base.

The second problem is that even if what Cameron is attempting turns out to be possible, it will be far more difficult to persuade the nation that the Conservative Party is capable of social and cultural inclusiveness than it was for Blair to persuade business leaders and global markets that New Labour were capable of financial responsibility. Financial responsibility can be easily measured, the intent is shown by policy and the achievement is shown by evidence. Winning trust on cultural issues will be much more challenging. These are not about policy so much as mindset. The issues that get prioritised, and those that get ignored, the rhetoric that is employed and the depth and breadth of the experience of the PM and those around him will all be critical factors and ones that are very hard to quantify when assessing how well policy choices are being made.

The omens on this front are not good. It is widely agreed in political strategy circles that the Tories won the last election through a combination of last-minute fear-mongering on the economy to secure floating lower middle class voters and  whipping up English nationalism against the SNP to head off the UKIP threat. It showed that the Tories were happy to have more control over a smaller polity than to try and put forward a policy platform that appeals to Britain as a whole. Against the background of both the more divisive parts of his own speech and those of his cabinet ministers, references to an assault on poverty or a drive to end discrimination ring hollow.

Certainly there was little evidence of inclusiveness on display when he characterised the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition as a terrorist sympathiser who hates Britain and thinks the assassination of Osama Bin Laden was a tragedy. It is hard to imagine the great Conservative politicians whose ranks he was so consciously trying to join using such disrespectful language of a fellow Parliamentarian in public.  Indeed, for a speech so centred on Britishness, it was strange that so many of its tactics –  unapologetic use of an out of context quotation , with-us-or-against-us rhetoric and appeals to a flat, two-dimensional patriotism that claims to transcend the divisions race and class while at the same time reinforcing them – came straight out of the playbook of the less reputable elements of American Republican Party.

On stage, under the spotlight and with the news cameras on him, David Cameron delivered a speech that no doubt electrified the base, thrilled the pundits and may even have begun to persuade those in the centre that he is interested in their concerns. But as the cut to tax credits bites and the upcoming spending review lays out precisely how deep the next round of cuts will be,  it is likely that he will struggle to persuade voters that his vision of the greatest, most Britainest Britain ever is anything more than an anachronism, a pastiche of Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia.

This country faces serious challenges, the experience of many ordinary British people is far out of step with the vision Cameron painted in Manchester. David Cameron’s response may well have been what the Tory faithful wanted and what the media have learned to regard as good politics, but it was the politics of the bubble. Cameron’s gamble is that there are more of us inside the bubble of his vision of Britishness than outside. It is a PR man’s gamble and it may yet cost the United Kingdom dear.