Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for June, 2011

Turkey: Not a Model but an İnspiration

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th June, 2011

During a lively discussion over dinner in İstanbul this evening, İ was pleased when a distinguished Turkish newspaper columnist (and former BBC Turkish service employee) from the Journalists and Writers Foundation chrystalised a thought that had been germinating in my own mind for some weeks, namely that Turkey should be seen not as the model for Arab countries currently experiencing an Awakening, but rather as an inspiration. Across North Africa and the Middle East people have seen how Turkey over the past eight years or so has moved towards progressive democracy and a greater respect for human rights, without denying its overwhelmingly Muslim heritage. Of course, Turkey still has a way to go in stifling the worst repressive characteristics of the ancien regime, including nuancing the way the government deals wıth the Kurdish question. However, progress is very real, and by no means only in economic terms. The journalist said that is largely thanks to pressure from the European Union, which is gratifying for those of us who have been involved. But he warned that the EU is losing its leverage over Turkey becaue of the way that the country’s EU accession process has effectively stalled and because of hostility to Turks and indeed to İslam in some EU member states. İt is up to countries such as Britain to overome the negative sway of France and Germany, in particular. And that means also recognising that Turkey is playing and can continue to play a vital role in inspiring some of its Arab neighbours and friends.

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Tallinn, European Capital of Culture

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th June, 2011

During the long years of Soviet occupation, most of the coast around Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, was off-limits to the local population, as a military, ‘frontier’ zone. From viewing platforms in Tallinn’s magnificent old city (now thronged with tourists), they could look out across the sea towards Finland, but otherwise the city and its inhabitants were forced to look in on themselves. It’s 20 years since Estonia regained its independence and this year also sees Tallinn as one of the designated European Capitals of Culture. The programme for this is less ambitious than some in the past have been in other European cities — at a time of austerity, funds are low — but there is nonetheless a wide range of exhibitions, concerts, plays, films (including screenings in the open air on the roof of a shopping centre), children’s drumming under a Brazilian Master and a host of other events. But maybe the most striking new venture is the work currently still going on in the old seaplane hangar that was put up in 1916, when Czar Nicholas II was boosting the defences of St Petersburg in the First World War. This extraordinary structure — the most advanced concrete building of its time, erected by a Danish company for which Ove Arup worked — boasts three domes and when restored it will form Tallinn’s new Maritime Museum. The star exhibit of that will be the 1936 UK-built submarine ”Lembit’, which is currently in dry-dock being tarted up. Though the project won’t actually be finished in time for the 2011 cultural capital deadline, the whole area will be a wonderful legacy for the city and should lead to a total regeneration of the coastline which, at long last, is in the people’s reach. 

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Being Untouchable

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 14th June, 2011

There are an estimated 170 million Dalits or ‘Untouchables’ in India, despite the fact that the country’s constitution prohibits the formalised discrimination inherent in India’s traditional caste system. Even the British tried in vain to overcome this situation during the Raj.The current Indian government has endeavoured to advance Dalit rights, including giving them quotas for university places. And indeed some Dalits hold high public office or are MPs. Yet the everday reality of most of their fellows is miserable, even disgusting. One task performed by many is so-called ‘manual scavenging’, whereby Dalit women, usually, have to clean public toilets with their hands, taking away human excrement in baskets on their heads. Dalits are also often the victims of violence. A powerful small exhibition of photographs by Marcus Perkins — which opened this evening in St Paul’s Cathedral, London — documents the suffering of those who have been beaten, abused or had their pitiful homes burned down or who live with leprosy. There is one particularly striking image of a seven-year-old girl, Kamlesh, who received horrendous burns to her right arm and leg when she was pushed into a burning pile of rubbish for daring to walk along a path reserved for higher castes. No wonder some Dalits have rejected Hinduism, which they feel has rejected them, instead turning to Christianity or, more recently, Buddhism. St Paul’s Cathedral is hosting the Perkins exhibition to draw attention to the systematic human rights violation of untouchability and is collecting money to help provide plastic surgery for little Kamlesh. The exhibition runs until 6 July.

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Turkey’s Landmark Election

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 12th June, 2011

Across Turkey voters are going to the polls today — and at the polling stations İ have been visiting in Diyarbakır in the predominantly Kurdish south-east, voting has been brisk. Lots of extra police and security forces have been drafted in, and outside some polling stations there is a heavy police presence. Just the other day the distance at which police must remain from ballot boxes was reduced from 100 metres to 15 metres. The police say this is to protect voters from intimidation, but many Kurds see it as a form of intimidation itself. More irregular practices have been reported from several rural areas in Diyarbakır province, however, as well as pressure being put on Kurdish voters as far away as Bursa. Despite this, the 2011 general electıon in Turkey is being seen as a landmark. Few people doubt that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and hıs AKP wıll be returned with a third successive mandate, which is remarkable enough in itself. But the crunch is what happens afterwards, when there will be an attempt to write a new constitution, which could in principle open the possibility for greater autonomy for Turkish Kurdistan (though many Turks in the rest of the country are hostile to the idea). The main Kurdish party, the BDP, is not officially contesting the election, as under current rules there is a 10% threshold that parties must cross before any of their candidates can be decalred elected. The high level of that threshold is another thing Kurdish MPs are likely to press for in post-election constitution negotiations. Meanwhile, a number of prominent Kurdish political figures are standing as independents and are likely to be returned, including here ın Diyarbakır.

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Glorious Urfa

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th June, 2011

Şanlıurfa or “Glorious Urfa” received its honorific title in recognition of the city´s resistance to French occupation between the end of the Fırst World War and 1920, as the modern state of Turkey started to take shape.  Not far from the border with Syria (across which some refugees have been escaping in recent weeks) Urfa has a large Arab population, many Kurds and other minorities, as well as ethnic Turks. But it is not just for that multiculturalism that Urfa is more evocative of the old Ottoman Empire than most places in Turkey. İt has a beautifully preserved and often tastefully renovated historic quarter in a valley of gardens and mosques, as well as an impressive hillside in which Abraham´s cave is located. The whole place is redolent of the traditions and legends of the three Abrahamic Religions of the Book and pilgrims in their thousands, along with local families, flock to the banks of a long pool in which even more thousands of greedy, sacred carp vie for their offerings. Yesterday there was a large group of Iranians there, the women clad ın black chadors, giggling and joking in Farsi as the fish thrashed and fought over the titbits sold by park vendors. Against that rather idyllic backdrop İ was interviewed on film about the relationship between the Arab Spring and Turkey´s ongoıng political reform process, which is something İ will write about at greater length elsewhere. Urfa people are famous for their piety, in comparison with many more secular Turks and it was interestıng that there was hardly any election atmosphere in the cıty, although pollıng is tomorrow. That is in sharp contrast to the Kurdish heartland city of Diyarbakır, where İ am now staying and where feelings in some districts are electric.

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Egypt’s Tahrir Revolution and the New Media

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 8th June, 2011

There’s been a tendency to label the momentous changes that have taken place in Egypt over the past five months as the Facebook Revolution, but as was stressed by the panelists at an excellent seminar hosted by ThomsonReuters at their Canary Wharf HQ this evening, although new media helped, the real victors were the Egyptian people, who overcame their fear of the Mubarak regime and its state security services and held out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square until the regime fell. Former Google rep Wael Ghonim, who was one of the Revolution’s stars, joined us all on video link from Dubai, where he is busy writing a book about the whole experience. Dr Sally Moore, a British Egyptian psychiatrist who was in the thick of things in January/February, reminded us how many women were involved in the popular uprising and emphasized how important it is that their voices are not lost. Srdja Popovic, Executive Director of the Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) brought an interesting Serbian perspective from someone who had been at the heart of the action that brought down Milosevic. He argued that the three essential components for any such exercise of People Power are unity, planning and non-violent discipline — all of which the Egyptian revolution had (though sadly not the Saffron Revolution in Burma, for example). The panelists were not worried about the fact that the Egyptian Revolution was leaderless, though now it is important that strong political figures emerge who can appeal to the electorate in September. Sally, for one, thought the elections ought to be postponed, as there is no way that the scores of new political parties, groups and coalitions can get their act together in time, especially as life as normal will shut down during August because of Ramadan. But the likelihood is that the elections will indeed take place as planned and it must not only be the Muslim Brotherhood that has the organisation to succeed.


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Dr Harris’s Prescription for the LibDems

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 5th June, 2011

The second year of Britain’s Lib-Con Coalition government is going to be a tough one, especially in the wake of last month’s local election results, which seemed to reward (slightly) the Tories for what the government is doing and punish (heavily) the Liberal Democrats for everything that is deemed unsatisfactory. Of course, the reality is much less straightforward than that. And as Dr Evan Harris — former MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and now a leading voice in the Social Liberal Forum — pointed out this afternoon in a speech at a Hackney LibDems’garden party, there is much to trumpet about what LibDems have achieved since May last year. Unfortunately, the media, Labour and to some degree the general public focus instead on the ‘car crash’ of the tuition fees débacle and a level of public spending cuts which before the election the Party was claiming would be too far, too fast. More significantly, Evan said that maybe the chumminess of the Cameron-Clegg relationship had been allowed to go on for too long. It has to turn into a more realistic presentation and understanding of what a Coalition between two parties with different ideologies actually means. That is not something that can wait until a month or so before the 2015 General Election, when Liberal Democrats and Conservatives will be fighting each other. In a deligtfuol mixed metaphor, Evan also said that we had to learn to see ‘elephant traps hurtling towards us’, in order to lessen their impact. In London, of course, we have the urgent task of running an effective 2012 campaign, in which Mayor Boris Johnson will be an obvious target — and it was good to see Mike Tuffrey, London Assembly member, at the Hackney event, to remind us of this. All help and advice from beyond the M25 will, of course, also be welcome!



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Three Ways of Thought in Beckenham

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 4th June, 2011

Up-market restaurants whett their pampered clients’ appetites with sorbets between courses. But Beckenham Liberal Democrats, at their fund-raising dinner in the Churchill Rooms of Bromley Parish Church this evening, employed an effective alternative: a different, very short, speech from three local members before every dish. Tom Papworth, Crystal Palace Councillor and now Leader of the LibDem Group on Bromley Council (which interestingly has a LibDem Mayor and Deputy Mayor this year) kicked off strongly with a defense of the current Coalition government, saying that whatever flak our Ministers are coming under, many LibDem policies are being implemented. Tom also dreamed of a time when there could be 30 LibDem Councillors on Bromley Council — and what a difference that would make. Indeed. Second in, between the consommé and the lamb, was David Crowe, former local councillor (most recently in Clock House) and stalwart of the Beckenham Liberals/LibDems since the 1960s. He took us down memory lane, reminding us of both the highs and the lows of the past 50 years, and ended with an impassioned plea for the LibDems to remember that they are a centre-left party, essentially progressive. In sweet contrast (before the baked peaches served with Greek yoghurt and Amaretti biscuit crumble), relatively new member and live-wire Anuja Prashar drew on her own background as an Asian woman who grew up in East Africa before settling in Britain with her business-oriented family to encourage us to think centre-right, or rather, not centre or right at all, but progressive capitalist — asking us to remember that it is the BRICs these days that are setting the pace globally and that we can learn a thing or two from them. The menu, incidentally, was put together brilliantly by Bromley’s perennial LibDem chief, Steve Daniell.

Photo: Anuja Prashar with local party bastions Cllr John Canvin and Reg Baskett (President)

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Dee Doocey on the London Assembly

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st June, 2011

Most Londoners have no idea what the London Assembly actually does, even though next year electors in Greater London will be able to vote for its members for the fourth time (alongside the far more high-profile contest for Mayor). One hopes that political activists in the capital, at least, know that basically the Assembly scrutinises the Mayor (currently Boris Johnson). As former Assembly Chair and current Chair of the body’s Economy, Culture and Sport Committee, Dee Doocey, told Kensington and Chelsea Liberal Democrats at their Food for Thought event in Kensington this evening, even if the Assembly has no real power, it has a great deal of influence. Dee herself has spent a lot of the past seven years dealing with policing issues (as she sits on the Metropolitan Police Authority), as well as keeping a sharp eye on the preparations for the London Olympics 2012. There are currently just three LibDem members of the Assembly, all elected on the top-up city-wide list. But Caroline Pidgeon — who is the only one standing again — will be hoping to bring in some bright new talent with her next May. Dee herself was appointed to the House of Lords in the last intake. And she’s quickly found herself dealing with policing issues there as well.


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