This evening I was one of the speakers at a solidarity event for the people of Syria organised at the London Muslim Centre at the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. Since the beginning of the uprising last spring, maybe as many as 8,000 people have been slaughtered in Syria by the despotic regime in Damascus, which seems determined to carry on the killings, disappearances, torture and harrassment in a desperate attempt to hang on to power. In 1982, an estimated 38,000 people were killed in a devastating onslaught on the city of Hama, the centre of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. But little news of this filtered out to the outside world at the time, despite the valiant efforts of journalists such as Robert Fisk. Today, the murderous Assad government cannot act unseen. Even if most foreign journalists are banned — and those who are allowed in officially are strictly controlled — new media and social networks mean we get up-to-the-minute reports on what is going on from people on the spot, even in Homs, the city currently effectively under siege. Indeed, there was a direct link to a Free Syria activist in Homs at this evening’s event. Other speakers physically present at the meeting included Walid Saffour of the Syrian Human Rights Committee, Wael Aleji, a (Christian) member of the Syrian Revolution General Commission, and the human rights lawyer Toby Cadman. I spoke of the urgent need to get medical and other humanitarian supplies into beleagured communities, as well as for increased international pressure to get the Syrian authorities to stop their assault on the people, and finally supporting moves by other Arab states to oust the regime. When Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, there were widespread hopes in the West that he would introduce reforms. Some economic reforms did indeed take place and he opened Syria up to tourism. However, when the waves of the New Arab Awakening (aka Arab Spring) started to sweep across North Africa and the rest of the Arab world, prompting street demonstrations beginning in the southern town of Deraa, he adopted an iron-fist approach, with the aide of his brother Maher, the head of the security forces. Both will one day, I hope, be arraigned before the International Criminal Court (ICC). But in the meantime, everything needs to be done to express support for those brave people in Syria who are resisting oppression. British MPs should sign the Early Day Motion demanding the expulsion of the Syrian Ambassador from London and more should be done to publicise the fact that the British government, through William Hague, has acknowledged the oppposition Syrian National Council as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people. After nearly three hours of presentations, videos and pra7yers, the East London Mosque evening ended with a collection from people present for emergency relief for Syria, which raised several thousand pounds.
Archive for February, 2012
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 29th February, 2012
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Arab Spring, Damascus, Deraa, East London Mosque, Hama, Homs, London Muslim Centre, Maher al-Assad, Muslim Brotherhood, New Arab Awakening, Robert Fisk, Syria, Syrian National Council, Toby Cadman, Wael Aleji, Walid Saffour, Whitechapel, William Hague | 1 Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th February, 2012
The Jerusalem conference which ended in Doha, capital of Qatar, last night produced a Declaration which referenced at least some of the issues raised in the conference’s four working groups: (1) History of Jerusalem, (2) Jerusalem and International Law, (3) Israeli violations in Jerusalem, and (4) the role of civil society organisations in the defence and protection of Jerusalem. I attended the last-mentioned (along with many other Christians and Muslims and a small number of anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews), for which I had produced a paper on the role of NGOs in Britiain in raising awareness of issues relating to Jerusalem. A lot of the discussion in that group focussed on house demolitions, the difficulty Arabs have at getting building permits in East Jerusalem and the way Palestinians in the West Bank have had access to Jerusalem hampered or even blocked by both the Security Wall and the lack of necessary papers issued by the Israeli occupatin authorities. Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani financed the conference, as well as opening it, so it is not surprising that he figured prominently in the final Declaration, the English version of which was published by the Gulf Times newspaper today as follows:
The International Conference for the defence of Jerusalem was hosted by Doha, the capital of the State of Qatar, from 26 to 27 February, 2012, in implementation of the resolution no. 503 of the 22nd Arab Summit held in Sirte on 28 March 2010.
The conference was held under the slogan “Support the Steadfastness of Jerusalem”, under the auspices and attendance of HH the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, in the presence of the President of the State of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas, Arab League Secretary General Dr Nabil al-Arabi, Arab Foreign Ministers, heads of international and regional organisations an bodies, organisations and federations advocating human rights, clerics, as well as intellectuals, legal, political and historical figures who gathered in a historic global mobilisation to express solidarity with the Palestinian people in the city of Jerusalem and their legitimate rights.
The Declaration welcomes the invitation of HH the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani to use Jerusalem’s freedom as a fulcrum of all Palestinians and an incentive for achieving reconciliation and ending division. The Declaration appreciates and supports the proposal of HH the Emir to go to the Security Council to adopt a Resolution for the formation of an international commission to investigate all Israeli actions taken since the 1967 occupation of Jerusalem with a viuw to erase its Arab and Islamic features. It also welcomes HH the Emir’s invitation to prepare a comprehensive strategy for the various sectors and projects that Jerusalem needs, and Qatar’s willingness to participate with all its capacities in accomplishing this strategy and putting it into practice. It emphasizes that Israel breaches International Law to forcefully displace the people of Jerusalem through Judaisation schemes, the denial of justice, obscuring history and heritage, land alienation and property confiscation. It expresses deep concern about the ongoing Israeli works including excavations in Al-Aqsa Mosque and around the Old City, which seriously affect the distinctive character of the city at the religious, cultural, historical and demographic levels, and are contradictory with the decisions of the decisions of UNESCO and UN resolutions related to the city’s territory and the rules of International Law and especially the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property of 1954.
The Declaration calls on international powers who remain silent towards Israeli violations to assume their responsiblity and compel Israel to implement all UN resolutions relevant to Jerusalem. The Doha Declaration calls on the UN and its relevant institutions to shoulder their responsiblities towards Jerusalem and its people; to ensure that they enjoy all their civil, economic and social rights in their city; and to preserve the city’s sacred sites, historical monuments and human heritage.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Al Aqsa Mosque, Arab League, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Doha, Doha Declaration on Jerusalem, Israel, Jerusalem, Mahmoud Abbas, Nabil al-Araby, Palestine, Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Sirte, UNESCO | 3 Comments »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th February, 2012
The Gulf state of Qatar may be one of the smallest countries in the world population-wise, but since Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani became Emir in June 1995, it has not only rocketed to regional prominence but has also claimed a place on the international stage. When I first started coming here 20 years ago, in the wake of the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the capital Doha was a sleepy backwater whose most remarkable features were the Corniche that ran alongside the central bay and the Sheraton Hotel — shaped like a decapitated Egyptian pyramid — at one end. Both of those landmarks still exist, though extensively refurbished, and the Corniche road is now a 6-lane highway. Roughly half way along is the striking Islamic Art Museum with its exquisite collection of pieces from across the predominantly Muslim world. Through its huge main windows one gets a good view of the skyscrapers that have sprung up over the past decade further round the bay. But it is not just the beautiful architecture and the rapid rate of growth that have put Qatar on the map. The Qatar Foundation, celebrating 15 years in operation and headed by the Ruler’s second wife, Sheikha Mozah, has funded many significant projects in the Arts and Sciences as well as community development. Sheikh Hamad meanwhile has not only overseen Qatar’s transformation into the most intellectually stimulating of the Gulf States — housing Al Jazeera TV, notably, as well as several overseas campuses of American universities and even a branch of Sherborne School — but has also blazed a trail in international diplomacy. Qatar predictably espoused the cause of the Palestinians, but far less predictably has become pro-active in encouraging the departure of dictatorial regimes in the movement dubbed the Arab Spring, the latest example of that being urging Syria”s Bashar al-Assad to step aside. Doha has become a major conference centre — I have been attended one on Jerusalem this weekend — and of course now rivals Dubai as a regional airline hub. Qatar Airways has grown from a very modest affair into a premier global airline. Having vast revenues from oil and particularly gas, as well as small population, has given Qatar an opportunity other countries can only envy. But what is interesting is the way that this has often been used constructively. Moreover, with both the Middle East and the Gulf in a state of high tension, we can expect Qatar increasingly to play a mediating role.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Bashar Al-Assad, Doha, Islamic Arts Museum Doha, Jerusalem, Qatar, Qatar Airways, Qatar Foundation, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa At-Thani, Sheikha Mozah, Sherborne School, Syria | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th February, 2012
Jerusalem is known as the City of Peace, yet for so long over the past two millennia it has been the focus of strife. The three monotheistic religions all claim a crucial stake in Jerusalem’s spiritual heritage and two peoples — Israeli Jewish and Palestinian Arab — see the city as their natural capital. The ideal solution would be to share the place equitably, of course, but prospects for that look as bleak now as at any time since the 1967 War, when the Arab defeat led to the occupation by Israeli forces of East Jerusalem and the West Bank (and more). Since then, as has been underlined by several speakers at the high-level International Conference on Jerusalem which opened in Doha, Qatar, today, the Israelis have acquired increasing amounts of land in and around Arab East Jerusalem, through purchase, confiscation or other means. The (justified) complaint of the Palestinians is that East Jerusalem has effectively been cut off from the West Bank, by a mixture of illegal Jewish settlements and the so-called Security Wall. And the judification of the city continues apace, as the pressure on Arabs — both Christian and Muslim — to move out grows. The entire Arab world stands in solidarity with the Palestinians in their plight, but as the Emir Of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad, declared bluntly this morning, this has failed to resolve the situation. Israeli violations of International Law are manifold, yet Israel seems to get away with this with impunity. As several speakers today pointed out, so long as the United States continue to give Israel carte blanche it is difficult to see an early solution. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), in his contribution, emphasized that there will be no new summit-level negotiations with Israel so long as it keeps on expanding settlements, and if things go on in the same way much longer I fear there will be no viable two-state solution possible. We may already have passed the point of no return. But as Afif Safiah, Palestinian global diplomat, said this afternoon, echoing Gramschi: ‘We need to overcome the pessimism of the mind with the optimism of the will.’
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 23rd February, 2012
How can culture help Europeans take a more optimistic view of the current state of affairs, despite the eurozone crisis and other economic woes? Uffe Elbaek, Minister of Culture of Denmark (which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency) and the EU Commissioner for culture, Androulla Vassiliou, offer the following view:
While it is impossible to deny the severity of the present crisis, it is also clear that Europe has many reasons for optimism and hope. As Europeans we should start looking at our cultural sector as a reservoir of hope, ideas and new economic growth that can lead us out of the crisis.
The Europe of tomorrow is only going to be as successful and liveable as the ideas we have to make it grow. We all need to be better at what the artists are already good at – making more with less, finding fresh new perspectives and exciting new combinations. Art is not only a pleasurable icing on the cake. It is also a way of thinking and a practice of working innovatively with reality that can inspire us all to do better.
Furthermore, while the crisis is economic and political – it certainly isn’t cultural.
European cities are right now among the most creative and vibrant in the world. Cities like London, Milan, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin and Copenhagen are not only major metropolises, but also major creative centres with hundreds of thousands employed in the creative industries, like film, music and art but also computer games, design and fashion. By including culture on a much broader level in city planning, social policy and business development we can create much more economically sustainable, attractive and liveable cities.
In Copenhagen, a recent survey by the Danish think-tank FORA shows that the creative industry is the city’s most important, with about 70 000 employed either directly in creative job positions or in businesses like fashion retail that benefit from the innovations of the creative industry. In 2008, 21 percent of Denmark’s new start-ups focused on creative value creation. In the European Union the creative industry accounts for at least 3.3 pct of the economy – up to 4.5 pct based on measurement methods. Employment in the creative industry also grows more rapidly than in other industries: 3.5 pct a year compared to a 1 pct growth in employment as a whole.
The European Commission’s proposal for a new support programme – “Creative Europe” – precisely aims at supporting artists and professionals in the creative sectors across Europe. We encourage all politicians to work for initiatives that can get art out of its silos and make art, creation and cultural activity part of society at large. There are really two tasks here: On the one hand, we have to encourage society to learn from the artists and creative innovators, and on the other hand we should make it easier for artists to learn from entrepreneurial practices in spreading their work and ideas.
We have to create real, lasting relationships between the artistic community, the creative industries and other sectors like education, business, production and research, but also our foreign policy and development work. There is a lot to gain simply by stimulating new relationships, and this strategy can create immense growth without a need for big financial investments.
For their part, the artists and creative innovators need to realize their own potential and take back their authority. They need to once again step into the arena as the central players in society’s own story about itself. We politicians need to be better at listening to the artists and learn their language, but they also have to be a lot better at reaching out to the rest of society.
We are not trying to coax the artists into sacrificing artistic integrity on the altar of growth. On the contrary we need them to do exactly what they are already doing – as artists, they are uniquely qualified to look at the chaos of the world and create a sense of perspective and hope.
While we all have to accept the crisis as it is, we have to see what it also can be: a great opportunity to realign our European community and reinvent ourselves in a new and better way. We have already seen how young artists played a major role in the Arab Spring of 2011. The next generation of European artists has both a great responsibility and a major opportunity – they should accept it and be courageous! To paraphrase Hillary Clinton: “Never waste a crisis – even if it is not a good one.”
Note: On February 27-28 the Danish Minister for Culture, in Denmark’s capacity as chair of the EU Presidency, will launch a European “taskforce” called Team Culture 2012. Twelve creative thinkers and thinking creators will draft a manifesto on the role of art and culture in a time of crisis and then journey out into Europe to find dynamic cultural examples that will be presented at a big follow-up conference bringing European decision makers together in Brussels in June.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 23rd February, 2012
The 47-nation Council of Europe is little known and much misunderstood, particularly in Britain, where the populist media is in a state of permanent warfare with anything ‘European’. As I hope most readers of this blog already know, the CofE is a completely separate body from the European Union and embraces all of the countries of wider Europe, from Iceland to Azerbaijan and Russia, with the single exception of wayward Belarus. It has its own parliamentary assembly, which meets in Strasbourg, but this is not directly elected by European citizens, unlike the European Parliament, and it has almost no power. But the CofE does much useful work, for example in protecting media freedom, the rights of minorities (notably the Roma in recent years) and promoting transparent democracy. Of course, the main reason the institution gets into the British newspapers at the moment is because of the associated European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This has come under a lot of fire recently in Britain, including from Prime Minister David Cameron, who in turn was strongly criticised by London’s LibDem MEP Baroness (Sarah) Ludford last night, at a seminar on Issues around Reform of the European Court of Human Rights, held at Europe House in Westminster. Mr Cameron likened the ECHR to a small claims court, highlighting how some of the thousands of cases that are sent to the ECHR for consideration each year are of an essentially trivial nature. Certainly, there are far too many of them, which has resulted in a horrendous backlog. Moreover, the British Conservatives in general tend to oppose the idea that the ECHR should have the right to ‘interfere’ in or ‘overturn’ the decisions of British Courts, for example relating to prisoners’ rights to vote and the non-deportation of Jordanian extremist Abu Qatada. But as the QC and leading human rights lawyer Lord Lester pointed out eloquently last night, much of the press coverage of the ECHR in Britain is simply wrong. However, both he and Sarah Ludford and the third speaker Daniel Holtgen, Director Communications at the CofE, acknowledged that the institution is in need of reform. Indeed, the parametres for this may well be set at an upcoming CofE gathering in Brighton. The CofE should probably try to do less but better. And when the EU signs up to the ECHR, as is planned, there will need to be some readjustments to avoid duplication. But it would be helpful in the meantime if British politicians and journalists who should know better stop slagging it off and misrepresenting it. Human rights and democracy are the cornerstones of the European world view, and the CofE is the right forum in which to work for their enhancement.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Abu Qatada, Belarus, Council of Europe, Daniel Holtgen, David Cameron, Europe House, European Union, human rights, Lord Lester, Roma, Sarah Ludford, Strasbourg | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th February, 2012
For many people today, the idea of belonging to a Club (previously known as a Gentleman’s Club) is a mirth-inducing anachronism, but as someone who belongs to two — one political, one thespian — I know that they can play an important role in one’s social life, as well as being oases of calm in the maelstrom of London. It’s true that I myself took a while to seize the point of Clubs; when Philip Ziegler invited me to join the Chelsea Arts Club when I was the Liberal parliamentary candidate for Chelsea, 30 years ago, the idea seemed preposterous. I maintained my membership of the local gym instead. Perhaps it’s a generational thing. Yet there are some Clubs, such as the Savile, that have been rejuvenated in recent years by a sudden influx of younger members. Certainly, a century ago, any young man in London with an eye to political or professional advancement would have sought to be admitted into membership of one of them. And as about 80 of us were informed at an entertaining and informative talk on The History of London Clubs, given at the National Liberal Club this evening, by PhD student Seth Thévoz, in their heyday, there were over 400 Clubs in London, including several dozen for women. MPs in the late 19th century might be a member of as many as three. This was partly to escape their wives in many cases, but also because it was in Clubs like the NLC, the Reform, the Carlton and the Constitutional that alliances were made and policy discussed, more so than is the case today. St James’s was the heartland of traditional Clubland, though these days some of the action has moved further east, to venues such as Soho House, Groucho’s and even Shoreditch House. Seth’s doctoral thesis covers a period in the middle of the 19th century, whereas my own related researches for books has tended to be covering a period 50 years later. But for those who would like to get to know more about the subject while on a walking tour, Seth has joined up with colleagues to form Lost London Tours. Predictably, he leads the one on historic London Clubs – so if you see him loitering on the pavement outside White’s, you’ll understand why.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: Carlton Club, Chelsea, Chelsea Arts Club, Constitutional Club, Groucho Club, National Liberal Club, Philip Ziegler, Reform Club, Savile Club, Seth Thévoz, Shoreditch House, Soho House, The History of London Clubs, White's | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 17th February, 2012
Since Matthew Oakeshott stood down as the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman in the House of Lords — almost exactly a year ago — he has enjoyed the luxury of saying exactly what he thinks about the way the Coalition government is approaching the ongoing financial and economic crisis, not least regarding the shortcomings of the Project Merlin approach to banks which have not been lending enough to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which would be a key element in any sustainable recovery. He has thus attracted a great deal of media attention. In fact, it has been rather useful for the LibDems to have Matthew as an ‘insider-outsider’, with a proven track record in investment management in the City (particularly relating to property), as he is able to speak out about issues in a way that no LibDem Minister could. Matthew comes from the Social Democrat branch of the Liberal Democrat family and still holds his one-time boss and mentor, the late Roy Jenkins, in high regard. He is an enthusiastic supporter of Vince Cable’s proposed ‘mansion tax’ (a tax on homes worth more than £2 million pounds) as a step in the direction of moving taxation away solely from earned income towards wealth. Indeed, a substantial chunk of his speech at tonight’s dinner of the Gladstone Club, at the National Liberal Club, was about taxation, as well as broader financial and economic issues. He said he was a supporter of the Coalition Agreement, but he does not think it has been totally adhered to. And he was very pleased about the work of the Vickers Commission on Banking, but obviously feels more needs to be implemented. Matthew is an ardent European, but interestingly told the Gladstone Club dinner that he thought that Greece ought to be allowed to leave the eurozone and then devalue.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: eurozone, Gladstone Club, Greece, Liberal Democrats, mansion tax, Matthew Oakeshott, National Liberal Club, Project Merlin, Roy Jenkins, Vickers Commission, Vince Cable | Leave a Comment »
Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 17th February, 2012
The Corinthia Hotel off Whitehall this lunchtime hosted a reception in honour of the 4th anniversary of independence of the Republic of Kosovo, the state that seceded from Serbia after a bitter conflict in which NATO convinced Belgrade by military means to release its iron grip. Many Serbs are still bitter about this, but the predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovans are jubiliant, and as far as the latter are concerned, the ‘war of liberation’ and the NATO action against Serbia was one of the high points of British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s tenure in office. In case anyone had forgotten the human misery of the conflict – and the related issues of ethnic cleansing — there were powerful images on show at the Kosovan National Day celebrations. I had forgotten just how prominent the Independent newspaper had been in highlighting what was going on then, not least through its correspondent Robert Fisk — better know for his coverage of the Middle East. Anyway, there was a large and distinguished turnout today at the reception, at which both the Ambassador, Muhamet Hamiti, and the British academic and writer Noel Malcolm, spoke, and it was pointed out that now just over half of the member countries of the United Nations now recognise Kosovo as an independent state, despite Serbia’s virulent object. It was interesting talking to some of the ethnic Albanian Kosovans present to hear that they (representative or not) would like Kosovo eventually to merge with Albania, but as I pointed out, if the European Union expands further to take in the Western Balkans, perhaps such a union would not be necessary? Anyway, it is not for a Brit to determine the future of the people of the region. But it would be useful if they could all agree on what the path ahead should be.
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 15th February, 2012
Mayoral candidate Brian Paddick, GLA list candidate Shas Sheehan and I joined Paul Burstow MP, leading Sutton councillors and of course the Worcester Park by-election candidate Roger Roberts this evening for a final eve-of-poll push in that pleasant part of suburban South West London. The Liberal Democrats seem to have been running Sutton for ever, winning many ‘green’ accolades in the process, but nothing can be taken for granted at the moment, even in a fight that is essentially against the Tories. The Conservatives have been strugggling for years to try to wrest back control of Sutton, yet despite the ongoing gentrification of many of the streets in the borough they’ve so far failed to make the breakthrough. Indeed, in the 2010 local elections — held on the same day as the General Election — they not only failed to snatch either, let alone both, of the parliamentary constituencies in Sutton but also proved unable to dent the majority of the Liberal Democrat council. This only goes to show that the electorate appreciates local campaigners who work hard on their behalf. Labour, of course, are the ‘also rans’ in this part of London, and it will be interesting to see if UKIP manages to push them into fourth place. I’ve never really understood why UKIP fights local elections, frankly, but I suppose it is to prove that they are a grown-up political party. It’s a pity some of their elected representatives in the European Parliament demonstrate the contrary. Anyway, tomorrow is polling day in Worcester Park, with the weather promised to be considerably milder than it has been of late, so London Liberal Democrats’ Team London will once again be out in force, getting out the vote. And it would be great to see Roger Roberts back on the Council.