Sunday, 29 November 2015

Learning from history? It'll never catch on...

Imagine this scenario if you will: People in England, including the leaders, consider the country to be under threat by the "other religion". The fear of the "other religion" may not be entirely unreasonable when one considers that countries where this particular faith is the state religion have already been involved in wars with England, and these countries represent an ongoing threat of future wars against this green and pleasant land.

England, with the able assistance of government propaganda, is gripped by a fear of an invasion by the "other religion". People are genuinely fearful that the "other religion" will become the state religion and the principles of this religion will form the basis of English law.

The leaders deal with this perceived threat by throwing vast sums of money at the military in case there is an attack on English soil. They also go apeshit with surveillance and censorship. Spies are operating in England as well as in the countries that support the "other religion". Texts and other paraphernalia from the "other religion" are forbidden. Adherents of the "other religion" are forced to worship in secret and can even be arrested under the guise of national security laws.

Ironically, most adherents of the "other religion" in England go about their business peacefully, practicing their faith privately. They are ordinary people doing ordinary jobs or running businesses. For the most part, they are not remotely interested in proselytising, even though such evangelism is part and parcel of the "other religion".

This is what happened in England in the 16th century. The leader of the country was Elizabeth I. The countries that threatened England included France and Spain and the threats were real and did indeed result in war. The spies of Elizabeth I infiltrated people's private lives. The punishment for practicing the "other religion" included execution for treason by some of the most hideous means imaginable. The "other religion" was Catholicism.

There was even a massacre in Paris at the time - it is estimated that 3,000 French Protestants were killed in Paris on St Bartholomew's Day in 1572 and an estimated 70,000 more were killed across the whole of France. A grim religious civil war gripped France and Huguenot refugees fled the country in fear for their lives, with many finding a safe have in England.

It all sounds a bit familiar.

Despite the horrendous bloodshed - or possibly because of it and the growing popular discontent with a bloated and distant monarchy - the French Revolution ultimately came about in the 18th century and plenty of its seeds were sown with the events of 1572 onwards. From this, a secular France was achieved and freedom of speech was one of the principles of the revolution.

Except now we have a fearful French leadership, a France that, for now, is banning public demonstrations in the wake of the terrible events on November 13. It was heartening to see people in Paris defying this stupid ban this weekend, refusing to be as scared as Francois Hollande appears to be. Excellently, 10,000 people who planned to be part of the global climate marches placed their shoes at the Place de la Republique instead. Regardless of your views on climate change, if you love freedom of speech, this is something to be applauded.

Meanwhile, here in the UK, some people are calling for banning the burqa and increased surveillance even though neither of these things stopped the latest Paris attacks. Over in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders is moronically calling for the Quran to be banned even though banning books is not just profoundly anti-freedom and propagates ignorance, but is as useful as a fishnet condom now we have the newfangled internet. Then again, Wilders is also calling for Jordan, a country that has done some heroic things in terms of coping with Syrian refugees, to be renamed Palestine, so he is not to be taken seriously.

And it's not as if the world is even capable of learning from very recent history. Raqqa, the current target du jour for the west, was bombed by Syria last year. I don't know whether you've noticed but it achieved sod-all.

If I genuinely thought airstrikes would be an effective way to stop those pathetic Daesh losers, and if airstrikes didn't keep killing innocent civilians just as Daesh does, I wouldn't have a huge issue with it. But I am not convinced they will do anything more than create more radicalisation and add to the refugee crisis. And there are reports that Daesh is now encouraging their pitiful fans to travel to Sirte in Libya instead of Syria, where they are also entrenching themselves. It is a grotesque game of whack-a-mole and not one that we can simply bomb our way out of and expect peace at the end.

Airstrikes are generally popular with people who are highly unlikely to be standing underneath one. Attacking from on high comes across as a sanitised form of warfare, like a big video game, one where you don't have to look the people you are killing in the eye. It could well be that boots-on-the-ground warfare, the kind of warfare that has a more targeted approach, will prove more effective in breaking up oil supply lines, in stopping weapons getting into the hands of Daesh, in retaking the Syrian oil installations than flattening Syria - and no doubt Libya next - from on high.

And then then there is the paucity of discussion about an endgame. What should Syria look like if Daesh is ever neutralised? What sort of government should be in place? Are there any plans for job creation and rebuilding the shattered economy?

After Turkey shot a Russian plane down, people seemed to divide into Team Turkey and Team Russia, as if either country has covered themselves in glory of late, and as if the issue is so simplistically binary.

We have Turkey, a nation unfit to be in NATO and certainly unfit to attain EU membership any time soon, complicit in the sale of Daesh oil while continuing their campaign against the Kurds.

And we have Russia, whose leader, Vladimir Putin, is more interested in keeping Assad in power, particularly as he will uphold the 2013 oil and gas deal which is great for Russia but would deny Syria the opportunity to achieve greater energy self-sufficiency.

Energy self-sufficiency would be a tremendous thing for Syria if it ever attains its dream of democracy that started out in 1945 and has been comprehensively shat on ever since. Energy self-sufficiency would also mean Syria is not dependant on Saudi oil - and it is dependence on Saudi oil and revenue from weapons sales that keeps the world passive when it comes to dealing with that absurd kingdom's violent, conservative, oppressive Wahhabism, the very ideology that Daesh spreads in its bid to recruit people.

I don't claim to have the answers to this unholy mess but I am sure that failing to learn from centuries of human history and pushing for simplistic solutions are not going to make the problems go away any time soon.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Thoughts on Paris after the inevitable atrocity

Here, in no particular order and with absolutely no sense of optimism about anything I say having any kind of influence, are some musings on the aftermath of the horrific events that took place in Paris on Friday.

1. Firstly, let us refer to Islamic State as Daesh for they really hate it. This is something people from across the political spectrum agree upon. Hell, I even agree with Tony Abbott on this one. That said, it is important to recognise that they are indeed attempting to create a state, they have had some success in doing so over relatively large areas, and, therefore, it is important to treat them like any other vile, repressive state. We should not recognise their sovereignty over the land they have stolen. We should not trade with them. We should join with the people who have lost everything in doing all we can to help them return home and for prosperity and peace to prevail.

2. We need to call on the countries that surround Daesh's territory to come together as one on this issue, even if they disagree on many other issues. Saudi Arabia, in particular, cannot continue enabling Daesh's ongoing existence - they have played a major role in creating what is essentially a more violent version of the absurd Wahhabism that has turned Saudi into a gruesome laughing stock, even among its Arabian Gulf neighbours. And Saudi's neighbours have played their role in enabling poisonous ideology to spread, even if this has sometimes occurred by complacency rather than design. In any case, no one country or small group of countries should ever play the role of the global policeman.

3. And just as we need to acknowledge that Daesh's ideology is a particularly vile theocracy that is just as political as it is religious (if not more political than conveniently religious...), the West needs to acknowledge its role in destabilising the Middle East. This has been going on for a while now. And all we are left with are crude hypotheticals to which we will never know the answers. These include: Would 9/11 have happened if Gore than Bush was president? Regardless of who was president and 9/11 still happened, what would have happened if America took a truly Biblical turn-the-other-cheek approach and didn't plough into a misguided war with Iraq? What the hell has killing Osama bin Laden achieved apart from a mic-drop moment for Barack Obama? What intelligence has died with bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and even the relative minnows, such as Mohammed Emwazi?

4. Merely attempting to bomb our way out of the current state of affairs is probably not going to be particularly effective. Daesh should have its lines of communication cut off too. In the aftermath of this weekend's events in Paris, some idiots seemed amazed that murderous thugs in the Middle East could communicate with murderous thugs in France. It is the same mentality that leads to people saying moronic things such as: "Those people cannot be refugees if they have mobile phones!" as if modern telecommunication only happens in the West. Bombs are raining down on Daesh targets in Raqqa as I write this post but it will not be enough. The city was already bombed last November and the main casualties were civilians.

5. Likewise, Daesh should have its weapons supply lines cut off. This will be quite the task but it is essential. Daesh's arsenals are made possible because of modern transportation as well as weapons from eastern European arms manufacturers getting safe passage into Syria through Turkey, Libyan armouries ending up in Syria, captured arms from the US and Saudi ending up in extremists' hands, arms supplied by funding from Saudi extremists with Saudi laws against such funding not really being enforced at all, Daesh sympathisers in Pakistan and Afghanistan obtaining US surplus from the black market in Quetta and Peshawar...

And then there is the money to be made from the global arms marketplace that supplies the "good guys", but war has always been great for business.

6. There has been some good and responsible reporting on the events in Paris amid the bloody awful reporting. Tragically, Sky News word-puker Kay Burley tweeting a picture of a dog with the words "sadness in his eyes" was not even the daftest thing she did this weekend. She also asked someone lining up to give blood why they were giving blood. Merde, I dunno, Kay. Because they were really looking forward to the banana afterwards?

7. The relentlessly hungry beast that is 24/7 news coverage has given rise to some awful journalism, in particular on the issue of passports found at the scene. Most distressing was an Egyptian passport found at the Stade de France that some reporters were quick to link to the terrorists, except it turned out to belong to a spectator who is currently critically injured. Unfortunately, the nonstop model of news means that being first tends to take precedence over being accurate.

8. Andrew Marr got it so wrong this morning on BBC when he said that Paris is the only story today. No. It is not. There are other ongoing stories that have a Paris terror angle, such as the government's rush to pass the snoopers' charter even though such powers proved ineffective in France this weekend, what impact cuts to police, the military, and the NHS will have if a similar attack happens in the UK, and the refugee crisis. But even so, there are still other stories both in the UK and abroad that still need to be reported and it would have been good to see coverage of other news especially when the news channels inevitably started repeating themselves and news tickers remained unchanged for hours.

Amol Rajan, who often makes sense, described 9/11 on Marr's programme as an attack on capitalism. No. It was not. The twin towers were an easy target for amateur pilots. It was an attack on so much more than that. Equally, Bono describing the attack on the Eagles of Death Metal concert in Paris as an attack of music was head-up-the-arse nonsense of the highest order.

9. Despite what you may be seeing, hearing and reading in mainstream media sources, there are plenty of brilliant journalists out there who are working tirelessly to cover stories other than Paris. Lebanon, Yemen, Burma, Iraq, South Sudan, Kenya, the list goes on of places where newsworthy events are taking place. Despite what many a moaner says, other stories are being reported - but you might have to actually do some damn research and find some alternative news sources or recognise that it was covered in mainstream news outlets but you might not have bothered to pay attention. Additionally, local and regional news sources are often easily found online - and when you do find these stories, share the hell out of them. In this free market world of news, consumers have the power to give all manner of news the airplay it deserves.

10. An interesting quote from Richard Dawkins that sprung up this weekend deserves more analysis: "They're the ones who don't take their religion seriously." He was referring to the religious people, in particular Catholics and Muslims, who he deems to be "good". My instinctive interpretation of "not taking religion seriously" is to refer to the people who happily identify with a particular religion but don't follow every single example of their faith's book to the letter.

They are, for example, the Muslims who drink alcohol, the Muslims and Christians who have sex outside of marriage or blaspheme when they're angry or surprised, the people who may indeed have conservative attitudes to issues such as homosexuality but do not believe that execution is an appropriate punishment despite some of the more startling passages from their holy books, the people who may indeed be offended at jokes at the expense of their faith but do not seek to kill or even arrest anyone over such humour.

The phrase "don't take their religion seriously" is a glib soundbite but my broader interpretation probably encompasses more religious people than we realise, even those who may bristle at being described in that manner. It strikes me as a lazy shorthand term for moderate religious people but, in my experience, moderates are actually the majority. It's just that moderate voices, especially in the wake of terror attacks, are seldom heard. Noisy idiots, such as Anjem Choudry, end up getting airplay as representing entire faiths and all this achieves is a recruitment drive for Daesh.

11. It's OK if you don't put a French flag filter on your Facebook profile photo. It's OK if you do. Whatever you do, don't be dick about it. There are enough of those in the world already. See Bono etc.

Photo by Lode Van de Velde

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Airport whining and perspective failures

How do you know when a load of Australians has landed at Heathrow? You can still hear the whining long after the plane has landed. Yes, very droll. But airport whining is not restricted to people from the country where I was born.

On November 2, I returned to London after a weekend in Newcastle and picked up a copy of the Evening Standard at Kings Cross station for the tube ride home. The front page and a spread inside were dedicated to the "chaos" caused by thick fog at Heathrow airport. While the story was a change from their usual worship of Boris Johnson, it was just a compendium of first world whiners. Even Olympic cyclist Sir Chris Hoy joined in the moaning.

Apparently, the airlines and the airport could have done more. Nobody seemed to have any concrete suggestions about what could be done to fix a weather event beyond human control, but "more" of something was apparently required. The gripes centred on not receiving texts or emails from airlines in a timely enough manner. People were furious about turning up at the airport - presumably they travelled to the airport with their eyes closed, oblivious to the pea souper that shrouded the nation - only to be stunned that fog delayed their flights. Aside from the texts and emails warning passengers of likely delays and cancellations owing to fog, I'm not sure what else the airlines could have done. Tried to blow away the fog with giant hairdryers? How the hell did these overgrown babies cope with air travel before the advent of texts and emails?

Cancelled flights suck but flying in a plane where the pilot cannot see beyond the nose cone is hardly a reasonable alternative.

And this week, we've witnessed endless news time gobbled up by footage of British tourists stranded at Sharm el-Sheikh after the Russian plane crash and complaining that they just want to go home. I get it. Even after an idyllic holiday, there comes that bit at the end when you've packed up, headed to the airport, and your thoughts turn to being reunited with your own bed.

But, seriously, being stranded for a bit longer at a secure resort - and the resorts have stepped security enormously since the 2005 terror attack - is hardly the worst thing in the world. If I had to take an enforced extended Sharm holiday while I was waiting for a safe flight home and a news channel rocked up at my resort, I would happily appear on camera. I'd be thrilled to give a big up-yours to the terrorists by letting them know I was not scared of their murderous bullshit, that, despite the tragedy of the plane crash, I was determined to enjoy some bonus time in the sun, wearing a sinful bikini and drinking cocktails. Hell, it is only the fact that I am happily married that would stop me from adding fornication to my list of haram behaviour.

Of course, as soon as last night's Dr Who showed a scene where a plane was shot down, a Twitter fauxrage erupted. When I tweeted that the show is fictitious and the writers are not actual time-travellers who were to know that a plane crash, possibly linked to terrorism, was going to happen that week, some random internet stranger accused me of showing no respect to the Britons stranded in Egypt. Said internet stranger made no mention of dead Russians, just people stuck on sun loungers for a few more days.

This is the pathetic level of analysis going on at the moment - misplaced sympathy and kneejerk reactions to an episode of Dr Who. Of course, if the people who freaked out about the scene of the plane being shot down bothered to watch the entire episode, they would have seen it in its full context, which was a powerful allegory about the sorry state of the world and the futility of attempting to achieve peace with more war.

It was a stellar piece of acting by Peter Capaldi, it rose above such flinty noise as people whining in airports, and it was entirely appropriate for this Remembrance Sunday weekend.

Photography by Luisa Mota