Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

Legacy of Empire

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 4th November, 2019

Legacy of EmpireOn 18 February 1947 the Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, stood up in the House of Commons and declared, “We have reached the conclusion that the only course now open to us is to submit the problem [of Palestine] to the judgement of the United Nations. We shall explain that the Mandate has proved to be unworkable in practice, and that the obligations undertaken to the two communities in Palestine have been shown to be irreconcilable.” Those obligations had been set out 30 years earlier in the deceptively brief Balfour Declaration, which was in the form of a letter from the then (Conservative) Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, to a leading member of the UK’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, stating, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” [my italics]

UN partition planFor three decades successive British governments (and their representatives on the ground following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War) had struggled to reconcile those irreconcilables, trying to appease both the Zionists, who had won the backing of Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George for their “return” to the historic land of Israel, and the Palestinian Arabs who were alarmed by the growing immigration of predominantly European Jews into Palestine. That alarm turned to outright hostility in the mid-1930s and in true colonial fashion, the British administration put down the consequent Arab Revolt forcefully, while at the same time sending messages to London that a further Jewish influx would only inflame the situation. But after the Second World War, a mixture of collective sympathy and guilt over how appallingly Jews had suffered under Nazi rule — even worse than under earlier Russian and eastern European pogroms — as well as a nimby-esque policy of wishing to limit the amount of Jewish immigration into Britain and North America, led almost inevitably to the creation not of a Jewish homeland within Palestine but of the Jewish state of Israel in a substantial part of the previously mandated territory. Partition (as happened simultaneously in the case of India and Pakistan) seemed to be the only logical way forward, and that is what the fledgling United Nations decided after Britain threw in the towel.

Chaim WeizmannThis is the context for Gardner Thompson’s admirable history of Britain, Zionism and the Creation of Israel, Legacy of Empire (Saqi, £20). Unlike many books written about what would become designated as the Israel-Palestine conflict, Thompson’s eschews polemic, instead adopting a cool, rational approach and a judicious, critical use of a wide range of diverse sources. Some readers may be disappointed that the author does not overtly take sides regarding Zionism itself, though it is hard not to be shocked by the stated Euro-centric view of  “the Arab” from Chaim Weizmann (who would become Israel’s first President): “His laziness and primitivism turn a flourishing garden into a desert.” It was Weizmann, too, who articulated a plan (communicated in 1941 to the Soviet Ambassador in London) “to move a million Arabs now living in Palestine to Iraq, and to settle 4 or 5 million Jews from Poland on the land which the Arabs had been occupying.” That wasn’t quite what happened in the event, but the extent of Palestinian dispossession in 1947-1948 was on a similar scale; small wonder Palestinians still today refer to it as the naqba or Catastrophe and see it in terms of ethnic cleansing. Because of the very irreconcilables mentioned earlier, there were bound to be winners and losers, whatever happened.

Frequently the whole issue of Israel-Palestine is shrugged off as being impossibly complicated, as well as insoluble, but as Noam Chomsky (quoted by Thompson) has said, although the world treats it as a multifaceted and complex story, it is in fact “a simple story of colonialism and dispossession.” The great virtue of this book is that the reader is provided with the tools necessary to understand how colonialism was a determining factor in the territory’s destiny a century ago, as it remains today.

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Murder in Istanbul

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 28th September, 2019

Murder in IstanbulExactly a year ago, on the last Saturday of September in 2018, at a Palestine conference organised by Middle East Monitor, I met the Saudi journalist and former Saudi royal family intimate, Jamal Khashoggi. He seemed a little distracted, which I put down partly to the cold he was trying to fight off and anticipation for his upcoming marriage to a younger Turkish woman. He was due to fly to Istanbul on the Monday, but the day after that he was dead, apparently interrogated, tortured and then murdered inside the Saudi Arabian consulate building, while his fiancée waited outside. Through a series of leaks and a lot of speculation the story of what had happened gradually emerged, though anyone who did not follow things closely over the coming months — including a not inconsiderable number of red herrings — could be forgiven for not knowing all the details. That makes Owen Wilson’s book Murder in Istanbul (Gibson Square, £9.99) all the more useful, as well as timely. It painstakingly analyses the evidence, as revealed by the Turkish authorities and various media outlets, on both sides of the Atlantic, including the United Nations, as well as background information that makes the affair more understandable, if not forgivable. The author’s career as a journalist with the Financial Ties and as a writer of books on crime gives him just the right sort of experience and voice for the task. The British sigint agency, GCHQ, had, it appears, picked up traffic suggesting that Jamal Khashoggi (who was by this stage mainly resident in the United States and contributing to the Washington Post, critical of the regime in his home country and calling for media freedom across the Arab world) was at risk of being kidnapped and rendered to Riyadh from Britain; the logical assumption is that the British (perhaps also informing the Americans) made it clear through appropriate channels that that would be totally unacceptable.

Jamal Khashoggi Sadly, he was less safe in Istanbul, where he had just purchased an apartment for himself and his future wife, though one of the most intriguing aspects of this book is the discussion of what the Turkish intelligence service MIT (and indeed, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) really knew and when. There were all sorts of fantastic stories, worthy of a latter-day James Bond novel, regarding alleged recordings of Jamal being dismembered while still alive, supposedly transmitted via his Apple watch to the iPhone he had left with his fiancée. Wilson rightly dismisses the more preposterous reports and theories, but inevitably the conclusion was drawn that the assault on Khashoggi had been sanctioned at the highest level in Riyadh. Indeed, just this week the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, accepted ultimate responsibility “because it happened on my watch”. So there will need to be a postscript to the book at some stage to analyse “So, what now?” — though if US President Donald Trump is anything to go by then the desert kingdom with its immense oil-derived wealth is just too rich to fall out with.

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Brexit without the Bullshit

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 23rd September, 2019

Gavin EslerThe day after Britain’s EU Referendum in June 2016 the most common google search term in the UK reportedly was “What is the EU?” Of course, many of those asking the question would not have voted in the Referendum and just wanted to know what all the fuss was about when the shock result (52:48 in favour of leaving) was announced. But the searchers would also have included people who did vote without really knowing what the EU is or does, or what Britain gets out of membership. No recent British government, including that of Europhile Tony Blair, ever bothered to explain to the public why we were members of the EU, preferring to bash Brussels when anything unpopular was happening or claiming all the credit for themselves when there were positive developments. For ordinary citizens the positive aspects included the right to travel, live, work and retire in any of the other now 27 EU member states, an end to mobile phone roaming charges and the EHIC card, guaranteeing free health cover on a reciprocal basis throughout the EU, to mention but three.

Brexit without the BullshitAll those, and many more, are now at risk as Boris Johnson determinedly presses on with his plan to take Britain out of the EU on 31 October. Parliament may have succeeded in postponing such an exit — the next few weeks should clarify that situation — but meanwhile the country is bitterly divided between Leavers and Remainers. Those wishing to stay in the EU claim with justification that the Vote Leave side lied shamelessly during the Referendum campaign (for example, that the NHS would benefit to the tune of £350 million a week when we left or that Turkey was about to join the EU, meaning Turks could flood into the UK), but they also have to admit hat the Remain campaign was lousy. The dire warnings of the economic cost of leaving were branded Project Fear by the Leave side and backfired badly. Three years on, the Government’s own warnings about the implications of crashing out on 31 October without a deal with the EU (outlined in the Operation Yellowhammer report that 10 Downing Street tried to suppress) are pretty disturbing, notably with regard to the continuity of medicine and food supplies. And the political debate rages on within an increasingly polarised electorate.

Cue the arrival of a sober, sane analysis of what Brexit is all about and what the likely consequences will be, namely Gavin Esler’s handy paperback, Brexit without the Bullshit (Canbury Press, £8.99). Many readers will know Mr Esler from the time he presented BBC 2’s Newsnight, but he also stood (unsuccessfully) as the lead candidate in London for ChangeUK in this May’s European elections. So there is no surprise about where his sympathies lie. However, his account of the EU and matters relating to Brexit is factual and buttressed by interviews he carried out with people up and down the country. The style and tone remind me of the 1980 Brandt Report of the Independent Commission into International Development: outlining the challenges and the dangers in clear terms without indulging in polemic. It is a reasonable book for reasonable people and therefore will be welcomed by many Remainers as a useful tool to help frame their own arguments. But in the heated atmosphere of today I fear other people may not be in the mood to listen to clearly articulated, reasonable arguments but will prefer to stick to their emotion-based discourse of alternative facts and fake news.

 

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A New Divan

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th August, 2019

Genius Loci Weimar 2016 / Ackerwand / Foto: Henry SowinskiIn Weimar, where the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died in 1832, there is a monument: two solid seats, facing each other. They look as if they are waiting for two people to come along and exchange ideas across a divide that is nonetheless bridgeable. And that is indeed their function, actual and metaphorical, recalling the encounter between East and West, the Islamic world and the Christian, in particular the Persian poet Hafez/Hafiz (1315-1390) and Goethe. Hafez was born and died in the garden city of Shiraz and he wrote of love (towards favourites, whose gender is contested, thanks to the ambiguity of the Persian language), wine and religious hypocrisy. Not someone who the the mullahs at the head of the current Islamic Republic of Iran therefore might view with favour, one might imagine, though when I visited Shiraz some years ago (long after the 1979 Revolution), people in Shiraz still brought up Hafez’s name, and recited his poems. Even if one cannot understand Farsi the rhythm  is intoxicating. Goethe obviously felt this, too. His encounter with Hafez was through the translations of the gifted Austrian Orientalist and diplomat, Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall. In particular, Goethe was inspired by Hafiz’s work to write his own West-Eastern Divan, published in 1819 — a collection of lyrical poems suffused with the tastes and perfumes of the Orient and effectively an act of homage to Hafiz. Goethe’s work was not greatly appreciated by his contemporaries, unlike much of his output. But it caused echoes across many countries and resonates still today.

A New DivanTwo hundred years on, to mark the bicentenary of the original publication of East-Western Divan, the UK-based publisher Gingko has produced an admirable and elegant volume that is also an act of homage: A New Divan: A lyrical dialogue between East & West (£20) that is itself a celebration of artistic sensibility transcending geographical and ideological or religious boundaries. Edited by Barbara Schwepcke and Bill Swainson the volume contains poems by 24 authors, East and West, in nearly a dozen different languages, with English translation on the facing pages. The act of translation is itself at the heart of the project, as most of the poems in English are renderings by an English mother-tongue poet based on a more literal translation by a third party. To emphasize the importance of the nature and art of translation even more, there are three essays (among a few others) which follow the poems and which give added food for thought. The poems themselves are to be read and reread, some raising a smile, others a wince of pain, all inviting the reader to enter into the poet’s state of consciousness. Beautiful, certainly; troubling at times, particularly when one considers the traumas that the whole of the Middle East and North Africa has been going through in recent years. I think Goethe would have been intrigued, and I hope Hafez would have been proud — knowing that seven centuries after his birth, under the fiery reign of Timur/Tamerlane, his influence persists.

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Nicosia beyond Barriers

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 16th August, 2019

Nicosia beyond Barriers.jpgNicosia has a population of little more than 200,000, yet Cyprus’s capital contains more complexities and stressful memories than far larger cities. For three decades, from 1974, the city was physically divided, by the euphemistically-named Green Line, that had literally been drawn with a green pen on a map, though the polarisation of the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot people — with accompanied ethnic cleansing — predated that by several years, latterly becoming almost absolute. Add to the island’s mix the legacy of the Venetians, the Ottomans, Armenians, the colonial British, then the conscript army of the occupying Turks in the North, refugees from Syria and Lebanon, followed by black Africans (without even mentioning post-Soviet Russians) and you have an extraordinary human pot-pourri, not always giving off the sweetest of perfumes. In the 1990s, when the island was still rigidly divided, I used to love slipping with my British passport through the forbidden zone and past the fabled Ledra Palace Hotel — transformed into a barracks for UN troops — hopping between two worlds in a way that was forbidden to most Cypriots, and inevitably reminiscent of earlier shuttling as a journalist between East and West Berlin before the Berlin Wall came down. But this privileged access also left me feeling uneasy sometimes, an unease that intensified when the Republic of Cyprus (i.e. Greek Cypriot) was allowed into the European Union, while the Turkish-occupied north languished in a sort of half-way-house limbo.

Ledra StreetInevitably, foreign visitors tend to gravitate either north to Kyrenia or south to Limassol, to savour the sea, but it is Nicosia, inland, that is the troubling and sometimes troubled heart of Cyprus, even now that many tensions have calmed. And it is Nicosia that is the subject of an ambitious and enchanting new anthology of short stories, poetry, prose poems, memoir, reportage and fantasy: Nicosia beyond Barriers: Voices from a Divided City (Saqi, £12.99), edited by Alev Adil, Aydin Mehmet Ali, Bahriye Kernal and Maria Petrides. The voices are diverse, with women’s being particularly strong, not surprisingly given that the project was the child of the Literary Agency Cyprus, a women-led literary and arts movement based in Nicosia. But the selection encompasses a striking diversity of genres and perspectives. One moment the reader sits with a writer in a cafe near the Green Line in Ledra Street, watching with irony the cats and birds who flit casually from one side to the other; the next one is cruising in the city’s most popular gay pick-up park. Rather than separating the book into sections that group topics or literary forms together, the work of the 50 contributors is all mixed together, so one stumbles from one fascinating line of thought and mode of expression to another, wondering what will come next. What really impressed me, however, is that the whole collection has an under-current of nostalgia and loss, a sadness that is part mourning and part celebration — what the Portuguese call saudade. The whole can be read productively in a few sittings, but I suspect that this is also a book into which many readers will dip on return encounters.

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Wanted Man: Mukhtar Ablyazov

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 4th August, 2019

Mukhtar AblyazovWhen I first went to Kazakhstan in 1994, the fledgling nation was struggling to get on its feet. As the train I was travelling on trundled across the steppe from the then capital of Almaty to the frontier of Uzbekistan, old women wrapped up against the cold stood by the side of the track selling whatever they had managed to get their hands on. With US dollars, a visitor could live like a king for a pittance. But while the bulk of Kazakhstan’s population was having difficulties making ends meet, a smart but not necessarily honest minority were cannily seizing the opportunities offered by the disintegration of the Soviet Union to make fortunes for themselves. One such was Mukhtar Ablyazov, a Kazakh theoretical physics graduate from Moscow’s Engineering Physics Institute. In 1992 he started supplying different areas of the newly independent country with basic commodities such as salt, sugar, tea, chocolate and medicines, establishing a multi-sector private holding company, Astana Holding, He then moved into the energy sector, being appointed head of the state-owned Kazakhstan Electricity Grid Operating Company in 1997. After turning that into a profitable operation, in a rapid rise he was appointed Minister for Energy, Industry and Trade. For a while, at least, he enjoyed the favour of the then all-powerful President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. But that was not to last.

Mukhtar Ablyazov bookFast forward to 2005, by which time Mukhtar Ablyazov was Chairman of BTA Bank, which within three years had become the largest financial institution in the country. Blessed with colossal natural resources, from hydrocarbons to precious metals, Kazakhstan’s economy was starting to take off dramatically and oligarchs with the right connections were making huge fortunes. But all was not well with BTA. Auditors from Pricewaterhouse Coopers discovered a $10 billion shortfall in the bank’s accounts — and Mr Ablyazov was subsequently accused of embezzling a substantial chunk of that. He had meanwhile accumulated an impressive property portfolio on both sides of the Atlantic — including a mansion on Hampstead’s Bishop’s Avenue, “Billionaires Row”, and an estate in Surrey. BTA launched legal proceedings against their former Chairman in the British High Court; the judgment went against Ablyazov, but he managed to slip out of the country — using a false identity and a cheap bus to France, according to Gary Cartwright, a Brussels-based journalist and author of the slim volume Wanted Man: The Story of Mukhtar Ablyazov (Cambridge International Press, £9.95). In France, Ablyazov found himself the subject of an extradition order to Russia and spent some time in a French jail. Yet various human rights organisations as well as several members of the European Parliament campaigned to have that situation reversed on the grounds that he was the victim of political persecution and had a valid claim to asylum. He had indeed set up a putative opposition party and maybe even aspired to replace Nazarbayev one day in a fully democratic Kazakhstan.

BTA BankBut as Cartwright’s book outlines, the Ablyazov affair has murky tendrils that stretch into many countries, tax havens such as Luxembourg and networks of criminals and intelligence agencies. Ablyazov even stands accused of ordering the murder of his predecessor as Chairman of BTA bank, who was “accidentally” shot by a rifle when the car he was travelling in on a hunting expedition went over a bump in the road. The story is indeed worthy of popular fiction or a high-drama film and maybe one day that will happen. In the meantime, Ablyazov is assumed to be lying low in France, playing his guitar and hanging out with a close network of family and friends. Gary Cartwright’s book only skates over the surface of this extremely complex and intriguing affair, and it is very much the case for the prosecution (supported by some documentary evidence). As such, it whets the appetite rather than providing a definitive account. Presumably one day that will be written by someone, but for the present one is left with unsettling insights into the unseemly underbelly of not just Kazakhstan but of so much of the post-Soviet world, as well as elements of the support systems that dodgy oligarchs have been able to rely on across the EU, ranging from lawyers to false NGOs and sometimes gullible politicians. And in a world in which false news and alternative facts increasingly rule it may prove to be the  evil of a task to find out the whole truth.

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GCHQ

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th July, 2019

GCHQ. AldrichOn 1 November the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) will be celebrating its centenary. The very fact that it is acknowledging this landmark is a reflection of how things have changed. Much of GCHQ’s work may still be top secret, but in an era of greater transparency, it doesn’t need to pretend it doesn’t exist. Moreover, the distinctive “doughnut” building in Cheltenham that houses most its UK-based staff has become iconic, even if it does not allow in visitors, unlike its US equivalent. Though the doughnut cost a small fortune, it has proved to be too small, thanks to the recent proliferation of hostile actors and threatening activities, from Islamist terrorists to drug cartels and cyber warriors. A cogent exposition of these is one of the most valuable parts of Richard J Aldrich’s updated unofficial history of the organisation, GCHQ (William Collins, £12.99), issued in time for the centenary. In nearly 600 pages, Aldrich (Professor of International Security at Warwick University) provides not just a chronological account of GCHQ’s development and its sometimes fractious relationship with counterparts both in Europe and beyond but also an overview of how dramatically the post-modern world has changed, thanks to technology, not least computers and satellites.

GCHQ doughnutThis would have been unimaginable to most of the people — mainly in the armed forces — who decided after the First World War that it would be useful if Britain had its own unit to develop codes and cyphers as well as to crack those of the enemy. Though the work started relatively modestly, the onset of the Second World War changed all that and Bletchley Park (a mansion astonishingly purchased privately by the man who was determined to see it up and running) became the ultra-secret hub of “sigint” work, home to Alan Turing and other pioneers in the field as well as linguists and code-breakers whose contribution to the war effort was duly acknowledged by Winston Churchill. Peace brought no real let-up to the activity, as the Soviet Union had become the new focus of prime attention and GCHQ became a key partner in Britain’s intelligence community, with outposts in Cyprus and elsewhere.

Subsequently, GCHQ’s reach has gone truly global as well as monitoring groups and persons of interest within the United Kingdom itself. That aspect of surveillance has caused concern among civil libertarians and at times GCHQ’s activities have themselves come under sharp scrutiny from campaigning journalists such as Duncan Campbell. In an age of metadata we are all under various kinds of scrutiny, not just from governments but from giant tech companies as well. This situation raises all sorts of moral questions about the right balance between national security and individual freedoms, and Richard J Aldrich does not shy away from these. But one great value of this book is his fairly dispassionate approach to the subject of GCHQ; he is neither its champion nor its critic, but based on an immense amount of research he has produced a gripping account that leaves one with much food for thought. GCHQ has commissioned its own, official history to mark its centenary, but I doubt whether even in the age of transparency that could be as richly informative as this unofficial one.

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Madam Atatürk

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 6th June, 2019

Madam AtaturkAs father of the modern Turkish nation, Mustafa Kemal posthumously continues to enjoy a super-human status, which in fact he had already acquired during his lifetime. He was a brilliant military commander who played a pivotal role in preventing the further dismemberment of the territory by foreign forces following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and almost single-handedly he shaped his country’s destiny, as a largely secular, Westward-looking land that would be dragged through the process of modernisation. Honoured with the surname Atatürk, Father of the Turks, he obliged his countrymen to take on European-style family names and discouraged the use of Oriental dress. On that latter point he was influenced by someone little acknowledged in the outside world for the significant role she played in Turkey’s evolution, his wife Latife. They were only together for two-and-a-half years, before he dismissed her; though she was devoted to him, she both fascinated and exasperated him. She incurred the wrath of both her husband and his cronies when she tried to curb his drinking and to stop him staying up half the night. Damned by some of her contemporaries after the divorce, Latife was an exceptional force of nature at a time when women were supposed to be obedient and quiet. The daughter of a fabulously wealthy businessman from Smyrna (Izmir), she was educated partly in Europe, was fluent in several languages and intellectually robust. Despite intermittently poor health, she outlived Atatürk by nearly four decades and could doubtless have had a brilliant international career as a speaker and writer had she not been effectively silenced and for a long period forbidden to travel. İpek Çalışlar’s biography Madam Atatürk, now available in a new paperback edition from Saqi Books (£12.99), fills an important lacuna in presenting this remarkable woman in a largely favourable light. As the author laments, some valuable source material remains inaccessible because of the family’s wishes, but she drew heavily on the memoirs of people who knew Latife and her husband intimately, as well as on Western journalists’ accounts of the time. Mustafa Kemal was a notorious womaniser (my own Austro-Hungarian honorary grandmother had to flee Turkey to escape his persistent attentions) and while he largely supported female emancipation he clearly found some of Latife’s admonishments irksome. What is really fascinating about this biography, though, (in spite of sometimes veering perilously towards hagiography) is the vivid image it gives of Izmir in the 1920s and of the hick town of Ankara, which Atatürk had chosen as the infant nation’s new capital. There is a cornucopia of telling detail as well as a different perspective on Mustafa Kemal himself, much of it conveyed between the lines.

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How Not to Go to War

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th May, 2019

How Not to Go to WarWith tensions rising in various parts of the world and forceful leaders in power in China, Russia and the US, we are right to be concerned about things boiling over into global conflict (and on more local levels, not least in the Middle East, such conflicts are ongoing). Moreover, with global warming and desertification taking a hold over large areas of our precarious planet, the possibility of water wars and other disputes over resources rises as we head to what otherwise risks becoming auto-destruction. But is war inevitable? Vijay Mehta, veteran peace campaigner and author, argues in his latest book, How Not to Go to War (Catapult, £9.99), that it is not. He makes the valid point — proved by historical evidence — that making war is part of the male psyche (Margaret Thatcher being the exception that proves the rule), so by addressing issues of postmodern masculinity one might be able to challenge conflict as a default option. But new technologies also mean that we really should be terrified at the prospects of any Third World War. The annihilation that would be brought about nuclear weapons in a war has long been known, but nuclear deterrence (MAD — mutually assured destruction) may not necessarily guarantee a no-use situation forever. Safer to get rid of the lot of them, as well as more “moral”. Mehta does of course take moral positions, but the strength of this book is in the practical details, for example how establishing Departments of Peace and Peace Centres worldwide could reduce tensions and pomote understanding. There are extensive appendices describing various countries’ experience in setting these up — they are not theoretical pie in the sky — such as Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Nepal. But the section that struck me most covers the development of miniature drones programmed by AI to target individuals or types of people discriminately. The image of swarms of these insect-like devices coming in through the window is absolutely chilling. No, let’s try and make Peace work instead!

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Iran, Islam and Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd April, 2019

Iran-Islam-and-Democracy--653x1024Contemporary Iran is much maligned and little understood in the West, especially in Washington, where the Trump administration (like several of its predecessors) views Iran as the devil incarnate. Of course, the Islamic Republic returns the compliment by frequently calling the United States the Great Satan. Each country has good reason to object to some aspects of the society and government found in the other. Yet international relations would be much smoother, and the world safer, if both made a greater effort to work out what makes the other tick. Hence the great value of Ali M. Ansari’s monumental Iran, Islam and Democracy (Gingko, £30/$44.95). Through his close examination of the leadership records of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mohammad Khatami, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hassan Rouhani in particular, the author presents a penetrating view of the complexities and tensions within Iranian politics, far different from the two-dimensional picture proffered by Donald Trump or Binyamin Netanyahu.

The very name “Islamic Republic” illustrates a contradiction at the heart of the system in Iran. Republics — particularly those influenced by French or indeed American revolutionary thought — are inherently bottom-up societies in the sense that ultimate authority derives from the people. But religious societies in contrast are usually top-down. For much of Iran’s history a patrimonial shah or king was in charge, with a firm hand on the driving wheel, and even after the last shah was overthrown in 1979, a new top-down type of authority was imposed, by the Ayatollah Khomeini and since his death, Ayatollah Khamenei. This new authority has the added status of being in principle God-given and it is significant that the spiritual Leader of Iran takes precedence over the elected President, even when the latter has clearly been the Leader’s intellectual superior (not something one could say about Ahmadinejad).

There is an ongoing dialectic between conservatives and reformists within Iranian society and one of the most stimulating parts of this significant book is an extended examination of the record of and expectations regarding the comparatively “liberal” Mohammad Khatami (previously published as a separate volume, now supplemented with additional and more recent texts). Just as conservatives in the country’s religious hierarchy sometimes exaggerate the “threat” of reformist politicians and intellectuals — periodically leading to the closure of allegedly offensive newspapers and magazines — so the West has often put undue faith in the ability of reformists and in particular the Green Movement to affect rapid change. Things move slowly in Iran, where the ousting of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953 still rankles. But even revolutions evolve with time. And it seems clear that if the outside world wants Iran to become more “normal” in its internal and external behaviour, then engagement rather than confonrtation is likely to produce better results.

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