The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both - Vaclav Havel
Sunday, February 26, 2006
Iran's Uranium Enrichment to take place in Russia?
Have Iran and Russia reached partial agreement over the enrichment issue?
BUSHEHR, Iran (Reuters) - Iran has reached a "basic" agreement with Russia on a joint venture to enrich uranium and will continue talks in coming days, Iran's nuclear chief Gholamreza Aghazadeh said on Sunday.
It was unclear what this basic agreement involved. The original Russian proposal had been for Iran's uranium to be enriched in Russia, allaying Western fears that the atomic fuel could be diverted into a weapons program. (more, Reuters)
Other sources mention the possibility of Iranian personnel carrying out the enrichment task inside Russia. This could be an acceptable compromise solution.
Once in a while you come across a blog that offers an oasis of calm and rationality in an ocean of hysteria. Using Google's blogsearch I stumbled on such a blog, presenting some very well defended and highly rational viewpoints on Iran and the nuclear issue. Let me provide a few samples.
In a post entitled "In the Shadow of Iraq" the author expands on the desirability and consequences of a US led military attack on Iran's nuclear installations:
The fiasco of the Iraq War will define the context within which an attack on Iran would occur. A military strike would be a replay of the run-up to the Iraq War: the United States presenting evidence to the United Nations of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, declaring the process ineffective, then launching a military assault. It won’t matter this time around whether or not the evidence is true or not; we’ve cried wolf and we have no credibility left. All of the suspicions raised by the Iraq War will be confirmed and amplified: that the United States is trying to establish global hegemony, control the world oil supply, and even subjugate Islam in a war of civilizations. The backlash from the Iraq War in the Middle East will be amplified too: regional chaos, the empowerment of fundamentalists, and a dramatic increase in terrorism. (more)
Perhaps there is one comment I'd like to add. Whilst US military superiority over Iran cannot be denied, do not forget that Iran isn't Iraq. Whatever the US will throw at them (assuming for one minute that military intervention was started), the Iranians will fight back with great determination, especially against their historical arch-nemesis.
They are also well equipped and have recently taken delivery of a state-of-the-art air defence system (THOR) which is probably being deployed right now.
And in the Iran/Iraq war the former proved that even against superior firepower, motivation and gritty determination can be highly effective.
The Iranians haven't forgotten the 1953 coup, US support of Iraq near the end of the Iran/Iraq war or the downing of IR 655, even though these may be distant memories in the American general public.
In the United States, much of the discussion about the current nuclear crisis with Iran has been distorted by the assumption that a nuclear Iran would present a security challenge different from anything we have previously faced. This is because the Islamic Republic has a fundamentalist religious government, widely assumed to be run by irrational extremists, motivated by the same suicidal fanaticism as the 9/11 hijackers.
But nations do not behave like cells of suicidal religious extremists. Governments, in general, are concerned with ensuring their own survival from internal and external threat. Internally, this means that a government is responsible for the survival and well-being of its people, and particularly for serving the interests of those people from whom they derive power. And in fact, Iran’s government is more responsive to the demands of its citizens than many in the Middle East. Despite the authoritarianism of its ruling religious establishment, it has a multi-layered government with several power centers including a partially democratic parliament; it also has a significant faction within the ruling elite seeking improved foreign relations, largely to reap the economic benefits and curb popular discontent. (more)
If only more Americans accepted this view over the simplistic "Nuke the Mad Mullahs" attitude...
David Irving was jailed for three years in Austria for Holocaust denying remarks made some 17 years ago. Here someone is actually being imprisoned for stating an opinion. Here we're entering the realm of conditional Freedom of Speech: it's OK to say what you want as long as it's not "that" (or "this", or "the other").
Nor does it matter the statements were made 17 years ago or that Irving has retracted them. The fact of the matter is that he is entitled to his opinion, no matter how repugnant it is to others like me. David Irving remains of course nothing more than a pseudo-historian, an extreme rightwing activist and general arsehole but that has little if anything to do with the whole affair.
The whole point is that for Freedom of Speech to function, that freedom needs to be absolute or the whole principle comes down like a house of cards. There can be no ifs or buts. Individuals may wish to refrain voluntarily from expressing certain thoughts, opinions or convictions if they so wish but we cannot make any form of censorship legal.
Some use the following arguments to justify the curtailment of opinions like David Irving's:
1. The "fire!"-in-a-packed-public-place: this argument has started a life of its own and goes as follows. Expressing certain opinions is the equivalent of a person shouting "Fire! Fire!" in an enclosed and crowded place like a theatre. Is it bugger. A person claiming there's fire when there's not, isn't expressing an opinion: he is simply, for whatever reason, trying to cause a stampede.
2. The publicity argument: Irving and his ilk shouldn't be allowed to express their views because Holocaust deniers shouldn't get any free publicity. The truth is of course that Holocaust deniers around the world have now received the best publicity injection they've enjoyed in long time. We've seen the same here in Britain when Nick Griffin went to court in the race hate trial. Suppressing the opinions of the likes of Griffin and Irving only drives them and their ilk underground. No, let them openly say what's on their minds; then we can give them a piece of our mind too.
In my view the Irving trial shows that Muslims do actually have a point when they claim Europe operates double standards when it comes to Freedom of Speech: it shows an understandable sensitivity to all things Holocaust, up to the point of suppressing dissenting views on this subject, whilst failing to acknowledge sensitivities regarding Islam. But we shouldn't give in to any demands for laws prohibiting the depiction of the prophet.
Disenchantment with the New Labour Project is growing by the day in most areas of society and it's reflected by an increasing number of bloggers looking for ways to get Bliar and chums evicted from the House.
The New Labour project started as a method of making Labour electable again, by bringing under control their less, shall we say, thoughtful, elements. In government, it has taken that controlling tendency further. It is taking control of our lives.
1. We are to be tagged, numbered and categorised; [by means of an] "unhackable" database? 2. Businesses are to be regulated out of allowing their customers choices with legitimate products. 3. We are to be subject to summary confiscations and surveillance 4. Our right to protest has been restricted 5. If they could, they'd ban us from mocking religion 6. But they don't want us to "glorify" Bad Things 7. The vaunted change of leadership is being set as a coronation
So much for democracy and individual freedom.
To MatGB's concerns, I'd like to add the two utterly unnecessary and costly (in more than one way) invasions of countries that never fired a single shot at us, in the name of the "war on terror".
So, how is the miracle of toppling Poobah Bliar to be achieved then? Well, proposed tactics vary, so no surprise there. My own fear is that replacing New Labour brings its own dangers: replace it with what? What we're seeing on the Conservative side is hardly encouraging: Cameblairon's scramble for the centre ground means getting the Conservatives in could be no more than jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. And prospects for a Lib Dem victory remain bleak.
So I don't have a short term solution. But in the long term proportional representation is the only form of Government that can avoid another Bliar debacle, or another Thatcherite epoch for that matter. To many, even progressive bloggers the idea of coalition governments will sound like anathema, profoundly un-British and a purely continental form of government.
But we should look at the facts.
1. We have a winner-takes-all electoral system and as a result, provided the winning party has a clear majority, the latter can do exactly as they please. You can call that democracy or you can call it mob rule. 2. The system invariably leads to a de facto two party system: a stalemate as it were. Relatively few voters are interested in giving their vote to a party that has little chance of achieving executive power (for that party read: Lib Dems). 3. The system leads invariably to a scramble for the centre ground, the lowest common denominator: that's where the majority of the votes are. As a result voters effectively choose between almost identical manifestos. This is certainly true today.
Of course a two-party system can work but it relies heavily on a strong opposition. With a Conservative party in total disarray after the 1997 landslide, such a strong opposition is (possibly) only now starting to re-emerge. And as incumbent governments always have an easier time of holding onto power, that's exactly what we've seen happening with New Labour, resulting in the current hubris (to quote Clare Short).
Let's look at proportional representation. In this system, political parties present a clear and distinguishable programme for government, each appealing to their slice of the electorate. They don't need to appeal the whole of the electorate because they won't need a majority of the vote to be part of government.
After the election has been held, two or more parties agree on a common government agreement and form a majority government. The agreement will reflect voters' preferences.
The criticism that's perhaps most often levelled at the system of coalition government is that such governments are inherently less stable. To some extent that's true: compromises can be tricky to reach and prone to fractures. But it's also a common misconception that fallen coalition governments automatically require new elections. In most cases a new government agreement can be reached, perhaps involving a new government partner, based on the same election results.
Don't dismiss the idea out of hand, just think about it...
There simply seems to be no end to what the British sheople are willing to swallow, as long as it's served up by PukeLabor. After the Nation was led into an unjustifiable war with a country that never fired a single shot at us, posed no threat to us or our allies and on the shakiest of (possibly unconstitutional) grounds, to fight a metaphorical "war on terror", which has turned predictably into a quagmire, this Junta posing as a Government continues to ram-load the country with legislation that is either unnecessary, constitutes an attack on our civil liberties or seriously imperils our right to privacy and free expression.
So, in characteristic style the Lider Suprissimo, Poobah Bliar, has managed to get some more masterpieces rubberstamped in quick-fire succession.
On the ID cards bill, what is left to say? Let me put it this way: I'm a fervent convert of the anti-ID cause. Once I believed that ID cards could be a good thing for this country. Yes, I admit to this kind of stupidity. But I stopped believing this nonsense minutes into my reading of the actual bill. If you haven't already read it, DO IT NOW! And for any (I mean, ANY) questions that you might have, go to NO2ID.net, the forum is a great place to have all your questions heard. The introduction of ID cards will be the extreme extension of the database and mass surveillance state whose foundations are already being laid today. I'm tired of repeating myself, so read the damn thing...
On the Glorification of Terror bill, the least said the better, really. The poor definition of both "glorification" and "terrorism" makes this piece of paper about as useful as a plaster on a wooden leg, whilst nonetheless holding the potential for curtailing free speech. There is little doubt that some of my posts could easily be interpreted as "Glorifying Terror" (and I'm not a terrorist apologist in the slightest) by a zealous prosecutor. Of course we're being told that the innocent can sleep safely, as per usual. Well, with Great Poobah Bliar and little Poobah Brown in his trail, somehow I don't feel too reassured...
And then there's the smoking ban. Hailed by non-smokers as "it's a good thing because I'm not a smoker", a non-argument if there ever was one, the previously proposed compromise of leaving smokers at least a few smoking dens where they could congregate, has been steam-rolled over by a form of anti-smoking hysteria which I can only describe as health fascism. Again, I don't need to elaborate on my views, as I've already done so, see link above.
But with these three disastrous pieces of "legislation" passed, it would be too simple to just describe this latest episode as another a bad week in the Commons. No, think again. Look at what's to come (source: link at top):
Now I know what I am about to tell you is difficult to believe (Why isn’t this on the front pages? Where’s the big political row?) but I promise you that it is true. The extraordinary Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, currently before the House, gives ministers power to amend, repeal or replace any legislation simply by making an order and without having to bring a Bill before Parliament. The House of Lords Constitution Committee says the Bill is “of first-class constitutional significance” and fears that it could “markedly alter the respective and long standing roles of minister and Parliament in the legislative process”.
There are a few restrictions — orders can’t be used to introduce new taxes, for instance — but most of the limitations on their use are fuzzy and subjective. One of the “safeguards” in the Bill is that an order can impose a burden only “proportionate to the benefit expected to be gained”. And who gets to judge whether it is proportionate? Why, the minister of course. The early signs are not good. Having undertaken initially not to use orders for controversial laws, the Government has already started talking about abstaining from their use when the matter at hand is “highly” controversial.
Now, I am not an extreme libertarian. I don’t spend my weekends in conferences discussing the abolition of traffic lights and the privatisation of MI5. But I have to admit that the legislation being debated in the Commons this week — the new ID cards, the smoking ban, the measure on the glorification of terror — has tempted me to take up smoking and start attending lectures about Hayek organised by earnest men with pamphlets in carrier bags.
[Hear, hear. My intervention]
Yet the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill has made me realise that I may be missing the point — the biggest danger to civil liberties posed by these new laws is not the nature of them, but merely their quantity.
Let me explain my thinking.
The Government claims that it has no malign intention in introducing the reform to parliamentary procedures. It is just that it has such ambitious plans for deregulation — or “better regulation” as it rather suspiciously calls it — that Parliament won’t be able to cope. The previous Regulatory Reform Act, passed in 2001, was so hedged around with conditions and safeguards that it took longer to produce a regulatory reform order than it did to produce a Bill. So this time, the Government wants more sweeping powers.
During future detailed Commons consideration of the Bill, restrictions on the terms of the new orders will be resisted using the argument that business wants deregulation and government has to get on with it.
What does this argument, used often by the minister during last week’s debate, amount to? An admission that we are now passing so many new laws, so quickly, and so many of them are sloppy, that we don’t have time to debate them properly or reform them when they go wrong. Parliament is drowning in a sea of legislation. Instead of calling a halt to this, the Government is seeking a way of moving ever faster, adding yet more laws, this time with even less debate.
The problem with ID cards, smoking bans and new terror laws is not just the standard liberal one. It isn’t even that they are entirely unnecessary, since you can fashion an argument for each measure. It is that we should be reforming and enforcing the laws we have, rather than adding new complicated, poorly thought through laws to the stack that already exists. The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill isn’t just a dangerous proposal. It is a flashing red light.
[If this country excels at one thing it's legislative diarrhoea but clearly we're not looking for a cure. My intervention]
Our legislative activism is endangering our parliamentary democracy and we must stop before it’s too late.
Or am I a nutter?
I'm asking this question myself: does all the above make sense to everyone else? Is it just me and a handful of misfits that see a danger that's quickly growing past a few worrying telltale signs?
Or am I right in saying that the motivation to question the Government, to protest or even demonstrate, is inversely proportional to the average wealth of the Middle Classes? Sleep well sheople, Big Nanny is watching over you...
Smugness is abundant amongst the non-smoking, regarding the surprise outcome on banning smoking in most enclosed public places, including pubs, bars, clubs, social clubs and restaurants. Their main argument [sic] is "I don't smoke, so I'm really pleased". But that's not an argument.
Now let me be clear on this one: I fully accept passive smoking isn't something that should be imposed on non-smokers and to that effect smoking had already been banned in public places the general public cannot avoiding visiting.
Nor have I ever had any problems respecting the wishes of non-smokers to not smoke in their vicinity, even if that vicinity is in my own home.
But to extend this ban in such a draconian way to places people can choose to visit or not, is an insult to civility. It smacks of Puritanism and Big Nanny.
There were strong indications that the market was already starting to self-regulate with many establishments adapting to demands from their non-smoking customers for smoke-free dining areas and better segregation between smoking and non-smoking areas, as well as better ventilation. Others have really taken the bull by the horns by making their non-smoking policies part of their marketing strategy, often successfully and why shouldn't they [be successful]?
The previously proposed legal compromise of allowing smoking only in pubs that don't serve food might have been messy but compromises always are and we embrace many of them. At least a compromise held the promise of satisfying more people and antagonising fewer. I have no problem going to a smoke-free restaurant (I do already), even if it means having the occasional fag in the rain. I also know non-smokers that don't mind coming out to the pub with me even if there are plenty of smokers around. Would this compromise solution really have displeased so many non-smokers? Yet this ban doesn't leave anyone any choice but was voted in nonetheless.
"Good, serves all of you right" say the majority of non-smokers, "smoking is bad for your health and even more importantly bad for our health". But there are plenty of human activities that are dangerous not just to the person in question but also those who are in his immediate vicinity.
Drinking is the most striking example. How many people in Britain die as a result of drink-related violence? How many sustain injuries as a result of it? How many still die or suffer injuries resulting from drink-drive accidents? Drink-driving is illegal you say? No, it's not. A person of average BMI can consume up to one and a half pints of beer and be perfectly within the legal limit, albeit slightly pissed (whether he accepts that or not). And on Friday and Saturday nights our town and city centres are morphed into drunken battle zones with scenes we generally speaking tolerate, no matter how abhorrent, in the name of freedom.
And drink-driving or not, a car driven by even by a tee totalling driver produces pollution and rather lots of it too. Should we ban idiots who take their SUVs on half mile trips to Bargain Booze, thereby contributing to traffic congestion, green house gases and the generally unpleasant smell of unburned hydrocarbons in the air? In the name of freedom we don't...
Then there's the argument that the ban will eventually cause Britain to stub out the last ciggy for good. Dream on: antagonising people rarely leads them to conform to anything.
Basically, the ban forces smokers to commit slow suicide within the confines of their homes, now that must be a real health break-through. Only a prissy c*nt like Patricia Hewitt could believe that.
A dissenting voice can be heard from the paper's columnist, Simon Jenkins, though. He agrees that the vote was simple and clean. It was also, he says, illiberal. "I dislike smoking as much as I dislike swearing, drunkenness, blaspheming and race-hate cartooning," Jenkins comments, but laws to curb what citizens find unpleasant should be exceptional in an otherwise free society. The Telegraph agrees with him. "The most draconian infringement of personal liberty yet imposed by the government," says the paper in its leader, arguing that the "nanny state" has failed to distinguish what should not be encouraged from what should be banned.
No, all this ban proves is that humans remain forever incapable of collective thinking: here we have basically one part of society giving another part the finger; very civil indeed...
I give it no more than a decade before discussions on making smoking illegal will begin in earnest.
There's no great shortage of blogging armchair Generals, calling for or supporting immediate military action against Iran, based on the assumption that that country seeks to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities. Some go further in stating that the regime probably already has some nukes.
This is of course complete and utterly dangerous nonsense. Even most US experts agree that Iran is at least 5 - 10 years away from obtaining such weapons, assuming the intention is there, which is squarely denied by the regime. The technical nature of the argument, regarding different types of reactors, different types of fissile material or what enrichment actually is, makes this fertile ground for oversimplification or downright misinformation by those who feel they need to support bombing Iranian nuclear facilities (or worse). The latter are either cynical or more likely, neither helped nor hindered by any real knowledge of the complexities involved in procuring nuclear weapons technology in general and specifically within the Iranian context.
Apart from the fact that IAEA's assessment (photo: Mohammad ElBaradei) indicates no evidence of such a nuclear weapons program exists today, there are other compelling factors to relegate the nuke theory to the dustbin.
Below I quote from an excellent article that demonstrates what a load of misconceptions there exist in the public mind regarding nuclear technology, weaponization of "plutonium" and such like. It further confirms to me that any kind of military action against Iran would be unnecessary, irresponsible, if not downright criminal.
President Bush declared on June 25 that "we will not tolerate" a nuclear armed Iran. His words are empty. The physical evidence for a nuclear weapons program in Iran simply does not exist.
Iran is building a 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plant in Bushehr with Russian help. The existence of the site is common knowledge. It has been under construction for more than three decades, since before the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979.
Two other nuclear research facilities, now under development, have come to light: a uranium enrichment plant in the city of Natanz and a deuterium ("heavy water") facility in the city of Arak. Neither is in operation. The only question of interest is whether these facilities offer a plausible route to the manufacture of plutonium-based nuclear bombs, and the short answer is: They do not.
The Bushehr plant is only part of the argument that Iran is embarked on a nuclear weapons program, but it is the part that can readily be analyzed. State Department accusations of dangerous Iranian intentions for the Natanz and Arak facilities are based on a patchwork of untestable, murky assertions from dubious sources, including the People's Mujahedeen (Mujahedeen-e Khalq, MEK or MKO), which the United States identifies as a terrorist organization. These sources assert that there are centrifuges for enriching uranium (an alternative to fissile plutonium for bombs) or covert facilities for extracting plutonium. Neither of these claims are especially credible, since the sources are either unidentified or are the same channels which disseminated the stories about Iraq's non-conventional weapons or the so-called chemical and biological weapons plant in Khartoum. (Full article).
The cartoon Wars take a new turn. Early this week an Iranian newspaper announced it would organise a cartoon competition:
Iran's best-selling newspaper launched a competition on Tuesday to find the best cartoon about the Holocaust, in retaliation for the publication in Denmark and other European countries of caricatures of the founder of Islam. (Reuters)
The object of publishing such Holocaust cartoons would be to test European sensitivities regarding free speech, on a super-sensitive topic such as the Holocaust.
But the Arab-European League (AEL), a small organisation based in Belgium has already beaten the Iranians to it, by starting to publish anti-Semitic, Holocaust denying caricatures.
On their site, the AEL state quite tongue-in-cheek:
Just like the newspapers in Europe claim that they only want to defend the freedom of speech and do not desire to stigmatise Muslims, we also do stress that our cartoons are not meant as an offence to anybody and ought not to be taken as a statement against any group, community or historical fact.
Now I'm a white Caucasian, agnostic male and I can assure you that what I've seen so far, I find indeed deeply offensive and saddening. That in today's world some will still deny or at least seriously diminish the scale of the Holocaust, defies belief. It is precisely because the events of the Holocaust and the incredible scale of it have been proven beyond any reasonable doubt that Holocaust denying is illegal in some European countries.
Personally I feel the legal issue doesn't really do much to solve the problem: sadly beliefs regarding the Holocaust as an exaggeration, or even a complete fabrication persist nonetheless and in spite of legal deterrents. In European countries those holding such beliefs are merely driven underground, exercising their right to free speech in private, amongst like-minded bigots and unchallenged. And in some parts of Arab society, such views are still fashionable.
The AEL's choice of an ethnic and religious group that had nothing to do with the original dispute is unfortunate and to some it will devalue their exercise in unfettered free speech. But that won't make the issue go away, nor is it useful to reduce it merely to childish tit-for-tat.
Others see a political dimension:
More broadly, European Union officials and diplomats said they were convinced that much of the violence against European diplomatic missions and citizens over the cartoons was not spontaneous but instigated by governments or political groups.
Some Muslims, while condemning the cartoons, have also voiced fears that radicals are hijacking the protests and distorting the debate over media freedom and religious respect.
Whilst this is undoubtedly true to some extent, my own reaction to the AEL cartoons shows something more basic is at work here. I dislike the cartoons because they violate what I hold to be true and dear: to me, Holocaust denial is a most vicious form of lying.
But I fully realise that the Prophet Mohammed wasn't a terrorist and that Islam is not a religion of terrorism: those also are lies.
There's an object lesson in modesty begging to be learnt here: just about anyone can be offended if the right "buttons" are pressed. Careful what you wish for...
Whilst it's definitely better to fight cartoons with cartoons than with killings and burning embassies, Iran's cartoon competition is likely to stir up more violence in the Middle East. If Iran believes it will delay the nuclear issue in this way, as some suggest, I believe it will be sadly mistaken.
The cartoon wars aren't over yet. We need to start taking action to prevent this row from developing from a war of words into an effective, bloody war.
The so-called clash of civilisations we hear of can only happen if we let it happen. Right now we're only at the stage of what Robert Fisk calls the childishness of civilisations.
But the rapid escalations of violent demonstrations, attacks on embassies and calls for bloody murder should make us aware that the predicted clash of civilisations can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It isn't an imaginary risk anymore. Soon those who feel such an epic conflict would play into their own hands will try and broaden the row to other aspects of the perceived Islam/West juxtaposition until it reaches the size of an all-engulfing conflict.
Yet ordinary people are those who have the power to prevent this from happening, more than world leaders, cartoonists and their publishers.
Let me first, briefly, underline my position on freedom of speech: I believe it is our unassailable right to say what we want, universally. There are strong theoretical (logical) grounds on which this principle can be successfully defended, as well as empirical evidence to support it. Regards the latter, suffice it to point to examples of legal restrictions on certain statements in various European countries, such as statements regarding homophobia, racial hatred or Holocaust denials, which have proven difficult to implement and ineffective as tools for anything at all.
But no-one will deny that unfettered freedom of expression does not bring with it a set of problems: where opinions meet head on, the clamour of conflict is never far behind.
Firstly, it's important to realise just how easy it is to cause offence and how relative it is at the same time. For example, as an agnostic person I find it hard to understand a depiction of the Prophet can cause such offence (I'm now specifically NOT referring to the bomb turban cartoon, which is quite a different kettle of fish). My background simply makes it quite hard to see the offensive side of a neutral depiction of what is supposed to be the Prophet, but I accept the fact that it caused offence, nonetheless.
And when less moderate Muslims keep telling us that there is no such thing as British Islam, European Islam or even British Muslims or European Muslims, that there is only the Umma, the Nation of Islam, then they must be aware that in the hands of people like Nick Griffin such a statement, no matter how true to Islam, is gefundenes fressen to demonstrate that Islam is trying to take over Britain.
We need to understand that what is innocent to one is offensive to another and vice versa. That is no cause for restricting free speech in my view. On a voluntary basis, adopting some moderation, an appropriate tone of language, courteousness and civility may do much to prevent causing offence but that is by no means guaranteed: the core of an opinion isn't altered by how it's uttered.
Lets' face it: we are constantly surrounded by images, people, behaviour, opinions etc that we don't much care for, don't like or find downright offensive. Mostly we do no more than perhaps sigh internally, shrug our shoulders and get on with it: it's simply the mature thing to do. It's called compromising and we practice it all the time. Even when surrounded by like-minded people.
And when we engage in debate regarding whatever issue we would do well to remember that. A true debate in which participants can freely express their views is the best way to build bridges and understand where the other party is coming from.
In the Islam/West debate we sometimes lose sight of these basic facts and it inevitably leads to the kind of pandemonium we're seeing today. Nonetheless, I see plenty of useful debate going on and see no reason to despair just yet.
Finally, and hopefully on a lighter note, here's a Guardian cartoon by Steve Bell which I DID think was funny. It appeared shortly after the row stared escalating. Dare I say "no offence intended"?
Should Iran be Referred to the UN Security Council?
The UN's chief nuclear inspector, Mohamed ElBaradei, is calling on Iran to freeze nuclear fuel production for up to 10 years as a way of defusing the escalating confrontation between Iran and the west. As the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency met in emergency session yesterday to debate sending the Iranian dispute to the UN security council in New York, Dr ElBaradei, the IAEA chief, said there was "no urgency" for Iran to embark on enriching uranium and said Tehran had a "window of opportunity" over the next few weeks for stepping back from a showdown with the west. (The Guardian)
Western hypocrisy reaches unprecedented heights when it comes to Iran's nuclear program.
There is of course no reason why Iran shouldn't be allowed to pursue nuclear energy for civilian use, or military use for that matter. Although Iran categorically denies its nuclear ambitions stretch to eventually acquiring the Bomb, it's reasonable to assume this is their long term goal. But experts agree that in unsupervised conditions it would take 5 - 10 years of development for Iran to achieve that target. And then there's the small problem of delivery:
And by eventually acquiring nuclear weapons, does that mean that Iran will want to use them, any more than that other rogue "nuclear state" Israel, or India and Pakistan for that matter? When was the last time Iran undertook an offensive war against another state? Let me see...
Really, think about it, what do you get for developing nuclear weapons and not being a signatory to the NPT, like Israel, Pakistan and India? A pat on the back and a membership card of the nuclear club.
Wouldn't Iran's nuclear capability restore the nuclear balance with its arch enemy Israel, in a Devil's pact of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), Cold War style? For over 40 years that was the official NATO-Warsaw pact doctrine but somehow that can't apply to the Israel/Iran situation.
The argument that Iran has publicly declared to want to wipe Israel of the map is also a non-starter: such threats have been retracted just as often. Besides, if anyone has the capability to reduce Tehran to a pile of smouldering radioactive rubble, it's Israel: they have the nukes and IBMs to deliver them. Calls for nuking Iran back to a radioactive form of the Stone Age are rife amongst conservative bloggers for instance.
The UK is soon to embark on a mightily expensive process to upgrade its nuclear arsenal to state of the art post-Cold War status. Should any nation in the world protest this, we would see an equally nationalistic "hands-off-our-nukes" reaction in our own country.
The row about a number of Danish cartoons about Islam and the prophet is yet to abate. The cartoons themselves are definitely in poor taste and decidedly not funny at all, not even worth the merest of smiles (find a link to the cartoons at the end of this article). But does that mean they should not have been published? Not in my view, no. If bad taste was to be the benchmark against which we decide to favour publication or not then most of what appears in the gutter press should never leave the printing presses. Much of their content I find really quite offensive, yet there isn't a hair on my head which feels that content should be suppressed.
Thing is, you see, I found the article quoted below quite offensive. Now where did I leave my death threat template?
Sukhvinder Stubbs' article in The Guardian condemning the cartoons starts out as follows:
Denmark's cartoons satirising Islam have inflamed Muslims across the world, but the injury runs much deeper than a religious insult. It touches feelings of exclusion and persecution, ...
The furore concerning the cartoon published in a Danish newspaper depicting the prophet Muhammad as a terrorist has yet to abate. In the wake of the government's defeat on the religious hatred bill, many have rushed to the defence of the cartoonist. These voices range from the chattering classes reaching for their book of Voltaire quotes and trumpeting the sanctity of free speech, to the sort of political-correctness-gone-mad types who email Radio 5 live, grumbling that we already "bend over backwards" to accommodate Muslim sensibilities and that enough is enough.
Ah, the chattering classes... Voltaire... Sukhvinder: freedom of speech is the basic, fundamental freedom upon which also rests your freedom to worship your imaginary friend. But freedom of speech also gives me the right to say I think you are a fool for doing so, which, incidentally, I do.
As regards Muslim sensitivities, as an agnostic person I'll gladly extend these sensibilities to religious sensibilities in general, as the storm-in-a-teacup surrounding Richard Dawkin's The Root of all Evil programme demonstrated, are very well alive.
In 1997, when I was director of the Runnymede Trust, I helped launch the Commission on Islamophobia, a newly coined phrase to describe a phenomenon that had grown in tandem with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. We found that "Islamophobia" wasn't just confined to BNP thugs hurling pigs' heads through the windows of Pakistani households, or the vile poison spouted by the recently acquitted Nick Griffin. It manifested itself in middle class circles also, around dining tables, on Radio 4, much of it in (understandably) indignant response to the Salman Rushdie fatwa. Under the pretext of taking a rearguard action against religious dogma, it became permissible to unveil a cultural contempt for peoples who tended to be brown-skinned and poorly off. I sense a similar undercurrent today, in the catharticexcitement with which some have rallied to the Free Speech banner, a sense of fear and loathing of the troublesome, brown hordes we see jumping up and down brandishing guns on our TV screens.
What a dim-witted attempt to turn the argument on it's head: "really, it wasn't the Fatwa itself that was wrong, but rather the indignant response to it because it belied basically a sense of a sense "of fear and loathing of the troublesome, brown hordes we see jumping up and down brandishing guns on our TV screens". I'd like to remind Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the now so revered moderate, whenever I can of his days of unconditional, opportunistic support for that Fatwa. And Hamas et al should indeed stop brandishing weapons and gratuitously firing in the air at every possible occasion. It puts their cause in a rather bad light and makes them vulnerable to cartoonists the world round, well-deservedly I feel.
There's more to it than that, however. Muslim grievances are not merely spiritual but, more pressingly, material. The rage expressed by demonstrators in Gaza against Scandinavian aid workers was, at a deeper level, the rage of the disenfranchised, the displaced. In the UK and across Europe, Muslims are, socially and economically disadvantaged, among those at the bottom of the pile. Cultural gestures such as the Danish cartoon may please well-to-do secular liberals in helping push back the envelope of free speech and cock a snook at religious dogma. To Muslims, however, they merely add to a sense of disaffection, of themselves as a Pariah people. Another insult to add to their social injury.
At the face of it this is a rather fair point but how can we justify Muslim demonstrators taking out their anger at Scandinavian aid workers? It is once again turning everything on its head. Sukhvinder also conveniently forgets that Islam is being used, abused and politically hijacked by those needing martyrs for their cause, a fact that rather clumsily inspired these banal and boring cartoons.
I suspect Muslim anger at this cartoon may be shorter lived and less widespread than initially feared. Some Muslims have themselves added to the pro-free speech chorus and suggested that Islam should be strong enough to withstand these brickbats. What the cartoon will add to, however, is a more longterm feeling of sadness, of exclusion and of being fair game for attack, either with the pen or with the bomb. Our first priority must be to address the material disadvantages many Muslims face worldwide. Until we do that in earnest, we should refrain from stupid, insulting cartoons, not by way of a self-imposed, legally binding gagging order (as the government have found, it's difficult to legislate in these matters) but out of discretion, good sense, good taste and goodwill.
Well, if we've got the Rushdie Fatwa to go by, this isn't really going to blow over all that quickly. Besides, there will always be more cartoons and this latest spat will likely have drawn attention to a phenomenon many disenfranchised Muslims weren't perhaps too aware of.
At the heart of this spate, lies nothing more than unjustified and misplaced religious sensitivity, no matter what Sukhvinder tries to make of it all. And we're all just a liiiiittle upset at the death threats that are being levelled at these cartoonists and their publishers. What do you think, Sukhvinder?
"If the Crown Prosecution Service feel they must continue to persecute us for speaking the truth, we will be here," he told the crowd. "This case has brought us more donations than ever before, including one of £20,000, the biggest in our history. We've never had such good publicity before." Mr Griffin, 46, who trailed last in an attempt to win Keighley in West Yorkshire at the general election, made no secret of airing his views during two days in the witness box. He distributed passages from the Qu'ran to the jury to back his argument he was attacking a religion not a race, and was warned twice by the judge he was not addressing a political meeting.
After the verdicts he nodded to what he described as "a very decent jury" from the dock, where he has used a laptop to post a daily blog on the BNP's website. The Cambridge graduate from Llanerfyl in Powys, whose wife Jackie and their teenage children let out a long "yesss!" in the public gallery, has also reported on his trial on the site's BNP TV.
No, I don't like to admit it but Mr Bush has actually said something I agree with. In fact had he said "the West is addicted to oil" I'd have equally agreed, but this was of course his State of the Union address.
No one will deny that amongst the worlds leading fuel guzzlers, the US takes a particularly prominent place:
It's a fact that the West's dependence on fossil fuels has been constantly on the rise basically from the moment we started exploiting this energy resource in its solid form (coal) up to today when our thirst for hydrocarbons is mainly for the liquid and gas forms.
This quickly rising combustion of fossil fuels results in the rapid increase of carbon emissions or green house gases (carbon dioxide mainly (see also top chart on the page linked above), which is causing concern as the potential major man-made cause of global warming.
Personally I'm not entirely convinced yet that global warming is closely linked to carbon emissions. Amongst the general public there exists a certain degree of confusion regarding the terminology used in the debate. Whilst it has been incontrovertibly proven that the Earth's average temperature is on the increase, we know from the ice record that global warming and global cooling have been regular occurrences during the Earth's history and these temperature fluctuations have often swung much more violently than what we are seeing today. In that distant past, human activity was negligible and could not have contributed to these temperature changes.
But clear proof that the current spat of global warming is entirely due to human activity, in particular carbon emissions, remains elusive. Scientists tell us the body of evidence is growing but equally many will tell you that in the light of past global temperature fluctuations, more evidence and corroboration of existing evidence is needed to establish the responsibility of fossil fuel consumption with regard to global warming.
It's certainly fair to say that allegations that recent phenomena like super hurricanes and other freak weather can be attributed to green house gases alone, aren't based on any scientific evidence but rather on popular perception of a phenomenon that is incredibly complex: the Earth's meteorological system.
Nonetheless, in view of what's at stake here, I personally favour a "better safe than sorry" approach and believe we should take more steps to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and our global carbon emissions.
There are broadly speaking at least two divergent approaches. My comparison is of course over-simplistic and serves mainly illustrative purposes:
1. The Kyoto approach: it largely depends on our own volition to make the necessary life-style changes to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. I find this whole approach rather naive. The idea that Western consumers will somehow change their patterns of behaviour to achieve such a lofty, collective yet elusive goal is rather laughable. Most people in the West pay a little lip service to environmental issues and then go merrily about their business in their "fuel economical" SUVs. Many aspire to the dream of the rural idyll, away from crowded and polluted towns and cities, thereby requiring two, sometimes three vehicles per family for commuting purposes only, in so doing inadvertently contributing to the problem.
And then there's China, the fastest growing economy in the world and set soon to become the biggest. Do we really believe China will renounce the use of its massive coal reserves to save the world? Considering the West has practically devoured every morsel of this resource, it would be hypocritical to ask this of the Chinese.
2. The US approach: a technology driven approach with strong emphasis on capture of carbon emissions, as well as development of technologies that can reduce carbon emissions without affecting human behaviour and economical growth too much. In my view, this is far more realistic and even presents opportunities to share these technologies with other, less technologically advanced nations.
The US has gone remarkably far in producing hybrid cars which are routinely sold as standard. Other alternative fuel technologies such as bio alcohol are also fairly widely available although the latter doesn't actually have much impact on carbon emissions as such.
While so-called alternative sources of energy like solar, wind, geo and waves may well contribute in the future to reducing global carbon emissions by 10 - 15%, they are unlikely to ever make a massive impact.
No, then I prefer the hands-on US approach: develop technologies that can cap and reduce carbon emissions without having to give up the valuable resource of fossil fuels altogether or rely on the fickle human sense of responsibility...
Pressure mounts on Blair to withdraw troops, as British casualties in Iraq climb to 100.
He is Corporal Gordon Alexander Pritchard, of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, another casualty of war. His death yesterday was a grim milestone - the 100th British soldier to die in Iraq.
The 31-year-old, who was killed by a roadside bomb, had three children. He was a veteran of Bosnia and Kosovo. His brother Peter and father, Bill, were soldiers in the same regiment.
Last night, as his distraught wife, Julie-Anne, was being comforted by the family in Edinburgh, the death sparked protests once again over this most bitterly divisive of conflicts, with fresh demands for British troops to be pulled out of Iraq. A cross-party group of MPs renewed their calls for an inquiry into Tony Blair's conduct in taking Britain into the war.
Three other soldiers were injured, one seriously, when their Land Rover was blasted by an explosive device in the early hours of yesterday while on a routine supply-run, killing Cpl Pritchard, who was leading a convoy of three vehicles. The wounded were treated at Shaiba medical facility south of Basra.
The former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle said the death of the 100th British soldier in Iraq was "testament to a war that should never have been embarked upon".
He urged Mr Blair to make it clear in Prime Minister's Questions today that Britain's military presence in Iraq is not open-ended. "There should be a clear statement of intent that the deployment of troops is indeterminate," he said.
The recriminations came as the Prime Minister was hosting an emergency international summit on Afghanistan, a country left on the brink of disintegration after another US and British invasion, before the "war on terror" moved to Iraq.
Mr Blair, John Reid, the Defence Secretary, and other government ministers expressed their condolences over the deaths of Cpl Pritchard and others killed in the conflict. But they made it clear that the deaths would not lead to a withdrawal from Iraq or stop the deployment of almost 6,000 British troops to Afghanistan.
Reg Keys, whose son was one of six Royal Military Policemen killed at Majr al-Kabir, in Maysan province, and who stood against the Prime Minister in the general election, said: "We have had 100 chances to learn our lesson. It just goes on and on. The lads are dying for a falsehood. As long as we are there, we will see a steady trickle of coffins coming back home. The military and political leaders should hang their heads in shame."
Anti-war demonstrators, including six MPs, read out the names of the British dead in Iraq and placed a hundred wooden crosses in their memory at Parliament Square. A similar act recently led to the arrests of a young man and a woman, but this time the police did not intervene.
Deaths in Iraq:
COALITION MILITARY DEAD:
El Salvador 2
Iraqi military, security and police deaths since official end of the war in June 2003 4,059