Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Arabs in the UK

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 28th July, 2020

BBC Arabic documentaryAccording to the 2011 census there were almost exactly 250,000 Arabs in the UK, though I suspect that when next year’s census data are gathered that figure will rise significantly. So much has happened across the Middle East and North Africa over the past decade, causing large numbers of Arabs displaced by conflict or political persecution to seek a safe haven in Europe. London is a particular centre of the Arab community. Some, like the Moroccans in North Kensington, have been there for a long time. Many others arrived much more recently. Arabs are active in a wide range of occupations in the capital, with an especially high presence in the fields of health and hospitality. It was thus inevitable that the community would be hit by the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, the first three NHS doctors to die from the virus was from Sudan and Iraq. But what most Brits are probably totally unaware of is how many Arabs rallied round to help the wider community, with some restaurants turned into food distribution centres, others delivering meals to hospital staff, not just during Ramadan. These, as well as a bus driver and a pianist, feature in a brilliant and moving documentary for BBC Arabic TV made by Iraqi Kurd Namak Khoshnaw, which was the subject of an online discussion hosted by CAABU (the Centre for Arab British Understanding) this afternoon. It’s a story of tensions and risk assessment as well as of bravery and remarkable goodwill. It’s a world away from the flash cars of visiting Gulf Arabs racing round the streets of Knightsbridge in normal summers. But then this is no normal summer. And the hour-long documentary (in Arabic, but with English subtitles that can be turned on) serves as a remarkable testimony to these abnormal times.

Link to the programme:

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Siobhan Benita Stands Aside

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th July, 2020

Siobhan Benita Trafalgar SquareMany London Liberal Democrats will have been saddened this morning to receive an email from Mayoral candidate Siobhan Benita saying that she is regretfully standing aside. The election for London Mayor should have happened this May, but was postponed along with votes for the London Assembly and other local and regional elections round the country. The elections have been rescheduled for next May, which would mean another 10 months of campaigning on top of all the time and effort Siobhan has already put in — all unpaid, of course. As I know from my own experience as a serial Euro-candidate, standing for election is a costly business and, contrary to popular opinion, candidates do not usually receive any financial help from their party. Siobhan has been extraordinarily hard-working, supporting local party activities around the capital as well as taking a stand on many issues of concern to Londoners. But it is a sad fact that the messaging of kindness and “Love London Better” just wasn’t cutting through. The regional party is rightly having a serious rethink about what sort of campaign and messages will resonate as we all still struggle with the health and economic effects of COVID-19. When a new candidate is selected, he or she will of course be working alongside a new Party Leader (the result of that contest will be known next month). That is going to be quite an exciting challenge. London is a liberal city (and indeed voted decisively for the Liberal Democrats in last year’s European elections), not least because of its multiculturalism. A dynamic Mayoral campaign with messages that inspire Londoners will be needed if the Party is to capitalise on the city’s liberalism. I believe Siobhan would have been a super Mayor for London had things worked out differently. She deserves an enormous round of applause for everything she has done.

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Images of Iraq

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 26th July, 2020

Baghdad Al Rasheed StreetWatching the superb and at times harrowing five-part BBC documentary series Once upon a Time in Iraq this week has aroused many memories and emotions in me, as the country has repeatedly been a feature of my life for the past half century. Iraq was the first Arab country I visited, in the late summer of 1969, on my way back overland from the Vietnam War (as recounted in my childhood memoir, Eccles Cakes). I arrived on an overnight bus from Tehran, wandered through the collonades of Al Rasheed Street, smiled at the red London double decker buses and slept on the roof along with everyone else escaping the heat. By the time Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, in 1990-1991, I was working at BBC World Service radio at Bush House and for weeks did night shifts, putting together packages for the various language services based on material sent in by correspondents in the field.

Baghdad Al Rasheed HotelI was inspired by Charles Kennedy’s principled stand against the Iraq War and took part in the million person march in London against Tony Blair’s decision to go with George W Bush into War in 2003, though I was actually in Casablanca at a Liberal International event when the bombing of Baghdad started in earnest. Young Moroccans in the street were angry about it, and so was I, watching it all unfurl on CNN. I didn’t get back to the country itself until ten years later, however, when I was invited to Baghdad for an Arab League event on Palestine. It was eerie sitting in one of the main rooms of what had been Saddam Hussein’s palace under a rather kitsch ceiling painting of the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Like most Western journalists I was put up in the Al Rasheed Hotel in the Green Zone, a soulless modern edifice whose vast grounds featured a frustratingly empty swimming pool.

MosulLater I had the chance to travel in Iraqi Kurdistan, too, to savour the historic splendour of the old citadel of Erbil but also to visit the chamber of horrors that was the Red House, the Mukhabarat security service’s interrogation centre and prison in Sulaymaniyah, as well as the scene of Saddam’s chemical attack on Kurdish civilians in Halabja. There is graphic footage of the brutality of the Ba’athist regime in Once upon a Time in Iraq, but in many ways what happened after the Americans overthrew him turned out to be much worse, through sectarian civil war and then the rise and fall of first Al Qaeda in Iraq and subsequently Islamic State. Some of the testimonies in the documentary series are likely to stay in my mind for the rest of my life; so much suffering and sadness, but also remarkable bravery. At times there was a jolt of recognition as shots showed places I remembered, though many, like Al Rasheed Street, were comprehensively trashed in fighting. The major ISIS stronghold Mosul, which still contained significant elements of Ottoman heritage when they took over, was literally obliterated in the fight to crush them. Yet still peace and security are elusive in Iraq, no longer what it was or what it might have been.

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The Lantern

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 22nd July, 2020

The LanternGeorge W Bush famously hoped to export Western-style democracy to Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, though many of us who had been covering the region as journalists or academics for years believed that notion to be unrealistic, even misguided. That was true after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and just as much so when the so-called Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East in 2011. Egypt never was going to be another Sweden or Great Britain. And why should it? Surely each country — and perhaps region — devises its own political system people see as best suited to its needs, though of course that has often led to various forms of despotism in the hands of hereditary rulers or dictators who have seized power by force. But can one nonetheless apply concepts and principles from Western political science to countries in the MENA region? That is the intriguing premise of Ayman Aborabh’s book The Lantern: Political Philosophy and the Arab Spring (Matador, £13.99), which shines a light on the political experiences of various countries in the MENA region, not least in Egypt, through the prism of Western political concepts.

At the beginning of most chapters there is a sort of neo-Socratic dialogue between an Arab Everyman, Aam Araby, and a political activist, Harara (named after a brave dentist who went out into the streets in Cairo during the 2011 demonstrations and was blinded by action by the security forces), where some pertinent questions are debated, but I found the main body of the text much more substantial, interestingly pitting the ideas of Hobbes, Mill, Kant and many more into the MENA cauldron. It is a valuable and frankly unique exercise, demonstrating a good understanding of aspects of Western political theory but expressed in a way that is entirely accessible to the non-specialist. Ayman Aborabh is a vlogger and active on social media, in Arabic and English, so certainly worth following for anyone with an interest in the region.

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In Defence of Experts

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th July, 2020

Anthony Fauci and Donald TrumpIn the run-up to the EU Referendum in June 2016, the then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, declared that “we have had enough of experts”. That argument unfortunately helped carry the day as millions of voters ignored the warnings from economists about the likely negative consequences of Brexit — and will soon have to live with them. The prejudice against experts also featured in the successful campaign by Donald Trump to become the 45th President of the United States. Indeed he took this philistinism up to another level, denying truths and propagating his own “alternative facts”. That willful amateurism may still resonate with much of Trump’s base, but in the age of coronavirus it is increasingly obvious that whereas populists may feel empowered by the conviction that anything they believe in must be true nonetheless scientific fact must take precedence. We see this acted out most starkly in the way that NIAID Director Anthony Fauci has resolutely offered a scientific counter-narrative to the President’s fantastic ramblings about COVID-19. This clearly irritates expert-phobes like Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, but large swaths of the population in the Americas do seem to be preferring facts over fantasies when their own lives are at stake.

Boris Johnson and Dominic CummingsHere in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson — whose own statements about the best way to react to the pandemic have been confusing and at times plain misguided — still enjoys the vocal support of a claque of loyalist Ministers who are regularly trotted out to defend him when he makes a gaffe, or even to promote disinformation. For example, Health Secretary Matt Hancock the other day blithely stated that the coronavirus lockdown in Britain had started on 16 March when it self-evidently began a week later, when Boris Johnson went on TV to announce it. UK opinion polls suggest some of the shine is coming off the Johnson government, but there are still significant numbers of voters who are prepared to swallow his disinformation and outright lies. Moreover, the PM’s eminence grise, Dominic Cummings, is carrying out a frontal assault on the civil service because civil servants do acquire expertise and act on facts rather than ideology. In this ongoing battle, on both sides of the Atlantic, one can only hope that the experts prevail.

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Stand up for China’s Uyghurs

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 17th July, 2020

Uyghurs 2I first became aware of the distinctiveness of China’s Uyghur minority when I travelled across Xinjiang en route to Kazakhstan in 1994, savouring the tranquility of rural communities that were more like Central Asia than Han China. The local people were polite but reserved, their adherence to the Islamic faith evident but low-key. I returned to Xinjiang in 2013 — so nearly two decades later — and was shocked by the changes. The vineyards of Turpan that had been almost deserted before were thronged with Chinese domestic tourists treating the area like a gigantic theme park, while in Urumqi the atmosphere was tense and the sinicisation of the city had accelerated, reminding me of what had happened to Lhasa in Tibet, where Han migrants have changed the demographics dramatically.

Uyghurs There are other similarities between Xinjiang and Tibet as in both cases the religious practices of the indigenous population have been deliberately undermined in what has been referred to by some international human rights organisations as cultural genocide. Since 2013, the situation of the Uyghurs has got much worse, as the Chinese authorities have carried out a heightened security campaign supposedly targeting Islamist extremism. What in fact has been happening is state suppression of Islam and the incarceration of a million or more Uyghurs in re-education campas to try to turn them into model Communist Chinese citizens. Numerous reports of brutality and forced labour have leaked out from these camps and last night BBC Newsnight broadcast a harrowing report detailing how Uyghur women are being coerced into having smaller families, including through involuntary sterilisation. Because China is not a member of the International Criminal Court there are restrictions on the degree to which it can be held to account there, but Uyghurs now living in exile have been highlighting the systematic abuse in Xinjiang in fora such as the European Parliament and the US Congress. Some of these exiles are now using their status to push for an ICC case, accusing China of crimes against humanity. Beijing naturally denies such charges, but the evidence is compelling.

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Why I am Backing Layla

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 16th July, 2020

Layla Moran 3Politics in Britain is about to enter the summer silly season, though with coronavirus still lurking in the shadows one should not be surprised is Parliament is suddenly recalled after the current session rises. But for Liberal Democrats there is an added inducement to engage in political debate over the coming weeks as a leadership election is now underway, the outcome of which will be known towards the end of August. Though the Party currently has only 11 MPs (but with a much bigger cohort in the House of Lords), it boasts around 120,000 members, many of whom were galvanised into political action by the 2016 EU Referendum and what has happened with Brexit ever since. So the two leadership candidates — Ed Davey and Layla Moran — have quite a sizable body of people to pitch to. I have known both for a long time, consider them as friends and have great respect for both of them. But as so many people have asked me who I am backing, I thought it worth setting out not just who, but why.

Layla Moran nomination I was one of more than 1,000 Party members who nominated Layla Moran last week because I feel she offers an exciting and engaging radical alternative to Boris Johnson and Kier Starmer. That is not just because she is younger and a woman (though both those characteristics will appeal to sectors of the electorate) but also because whereas most LibDems preach internationalism Layla is an embodiment of internationalism: half Palestinian, partly raised in Jordan and Jamaica and with extensive experience in Europe, including Brussels. Before getting elected as MP for Oxford West and Abingdon in 2017 she worked in teaching, physics and maths being her specialities. She is currently the Party’s Education spokesperson — a crucial portfolio which will be even more important as Britain in the autumn faces up to the challenges to all levels of education in the post-COVID-19 “new normal”. I urged Layla to stand when the leadership was last up for contest, when Vince Cable stood aside, but I recognise that she was right to demur then, to concentrate on making her parliamentary seat secure and to gain more experience in the House of Commons. But I sincerely believe her time is now. She is not just different from the usual ranks of UK politicians, she is full of vim and verve, to rally people to the LibDem cause and to help hold the appalling Boris Johnson-led Conservative government to account.

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Charité at War ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th July, 2020

Charité at WarAs a child growing up in 1950s England I was told that there was no such thing as a good German. Memories of the War were still raw and rowdier boys than myself ran round with wooden sticks pretending they were rifles for shooting Krauts. But as I grew older and read more I realised that of course there were people in Germany who opposed the Nazis, often sacrificing their lives or liberty as a result. On 20 July 1944, Graf Claus von Stauffenberg, the leading figure in a group of conspirators, narrowly missed assassinating Adolf Hitler, triggering terrible retribution. Other dissidents, less brave, kept their heads down and waited for the nightmare to be over. This is the background to the German TV series Charité at War, available on Netflix. The story is based on the reality (with a sizable degree of poetic licence) at the Charité hospital in Berlin during the War, up to the time the Russian forces arrived in May 1945.

Charité at War 2 The key figure in the series is the esteemed surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch, who is shown with his wife as being part of a cultivated circle that included von Stauffenberg, as well as the anti-Nazi Hans von Dohnanyi and the (by then deceased) Jewish painter Max Liebermann, who indeed painted Sauerbruch’s portrait in 1932. Sauerbruch in real life did oppose the NS-Euthanasia T4 programme that exterminated handicapped children and other “undesirables”, which features in Charité  at War. But what is not shown in the TV series is that as a member of the Reich Research Council he supported medical “research” on inmates of concentration camps. Nonetheless, after the War the Allies dropped charges against him for lack of evidence. The actor Ulrich Noethen (who incidentally has twice played Heinrich Himmler in other contexts) makes Sauerbruch an essentially sympathetic character, above all motivated by his medical vocation and loyalty to the Hippocratic Oath. Many of the other characters in Charité at War do fall neatly into “good” and “bad” categories, though others are tormented by the moral conflicts and personal safety issues involved in the deteriorating environment and are accordingly far more ambiguous. Dilemmas are heightened when people are revealed to be Jews or homosexuals. Much of the work of the hospital is realistically portrayed and there are occasional snatches of original colour newsreel films of the time to give one a greater feeling of what life in wartime Berlin was actually like.

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Mask Common Sense and Nonsense

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 12th July, 2020

COVID-19 maskMichael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has muddied the water over whether people in England should wear face masks in shops or not, declaring today that no law would be introduced (unlike in Scotland), and that the matter should be left to the public’s “common sense”. This is typical of the laisser faire approach of the UK government to the whole COVID-19 pandemic, failing to give clear guidance or instruction and basically allowing people to mask or not to mask as they see fit. Wearing face coverings is mandatory on public transport, but there are still plenty of people not wearing masks on London Underground and mainline trains and if my local supermarket is anything to go by, only a minority of customers bother to cover their faces (unlike the staff). Bars and restaurants in England opened a week ago, but despite the management’s attempts to enforce social distancing in most cases, people are merrily mixing closely in many places, almost no-one wearing a mask. Recent street scenes in Soho and the beach areas at Southend, for example, have shown frankly frightening degrees of crowding given that the coronavirus id still out there. What is happening in parts of the United States, where cases and deaths are soaring again, should be a stark warning. But with many English youths, in particular, apparently believing that they are immune to the virus, or that it would just be like a cold if they get it, a much firmer position by the UK government is needed.

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Litigante *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th July, 2020

LitiganteSometimes when I am sitting on an underground train I look at other passengers and wonder what is the story of their lives, because behind even the most ordinary face there are often extraordinary stories. I was reminded of this while watching the Colombian director Franco Lolli’s new film Litigante (available on Curzon home cinema), a closely observed family drama among people who would easily pass unnoticed in the street. A single mother, Silvia (played by Lolli’s cousin, Carolina Sanín), has to juggle looking after her energetic little boy with caring for her irascible and terminally ill mother (played by the director’s own mother, Leticia Goméz), while also facing an imminent court appearance for alleged criminal mismanagement at work in a local government office. The emotional pressures on her are intense, only partly relieved by a casual affair with a radio journalist who is himself a bit of a lost soul. But the brilliance of this film lies largely in the way that the tensions are kept in check most of the time, visible mainly in the contours of Silvia’s face, only occasionally exploding at critical times. The main character’s relationships, with her mother, her son and her new boyfriend, are all troubled by behavioural defects on both sides, yet held together with real love and a certain resignation that life must go on. Luis Armando Arteaga’s cinematography draws one into the domesticity of the story, his palette of colours subdued. But it is the acting by the three main characters — including the engaging little boy, Antonio Martinez — that really triumphs, especially in the frequent close-ups. It is so natural that one feels one is watching real people living out the everyday dramas of their lives, just as if they were strangers sitting on the other side of a train carriage.

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