Jonathan Fryer

Turks Rally for Democracy

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th July, 2016

Turkey demo 1Like many people, I first became aware of the attempted coup in Turkey last night through twitter. I turned on the BBC News channel, but it was still examining the aftermath of the Nice terrorist attack; however, true to form, Al Jazeera was already screening rolling news footage from Istanbul, Ankara and Gaziantep. For an hour of so it looked as if the coup might be taking hold, as rebel soldiers took over Istanbul’s Ataturk airport and false rumours circulation on US news channels that President Erdogan had fled to Europe. Then he appeared on CNN Turk via a video call on his mobile phone and one after another the leaders of the country’s other main political parties issued statements condemning the insurrection. Mr Erdogan called on Turks to go out into the streets to demonstrate their resistance to this assault on democracy and hundreds of thousands of them bravely did so, despite the dangers. As it is, according to official figures released today, 161 civilians were among the 265 fatalities overnight. However, shortly after midnight London time it was clear to me that the coup had failed and I was able to go to bed with a clear conscience.

Turkey demo 2Today, I was glad to have the opportunity to join some of London’s Turks and friends at a SoldarityForDemocracy rally opposite Downing Street in Westminster. In my short speech to the crowd I said that people in Britain stand side-by-side with Turks as they protect their democracy. Military coups used to be a regular feature of political life in Turkey but they cannot be allowed to become so again. But the challenges facing Turkey now are enormous. Thousands of mutineering soldiers have been arrested and there is bound to be a witch-hunt against alleged coup plotters; many within the ruling AKParty blame supporters of Fetullah Gulen, even accusing him personally of orchestrating it from America. I was glad to see that the affiliated Hizmet Movement in the UK was quick to put out a statement condemning the assault on democracy, but I fear that in Turkey — where already media associated with the Movement has been closed down or harassed — the Movement will come under greater pressure. Hundreds of sympathetic judges are said to have been dismissed today. Moreover, Turkey’s tourist industry, already severely hit by a number of terrorist incidents in Istanbul, Ankara and elsewhere, is now likely to go into free-fall, which will seriously hit the livelihoods of many thousands of Turks.

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Palestine and Anti-Semitism

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 15th July, 2016

Friends of Palestine meeting with HASCEarlier this week, in my role as Chair of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine, I was invited to a hearing on anti-Semitism at the Home Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, along with my LDFoP colleague Miranda Pinch and two representatives each of our Labour and SNP sister organisations (three of them MPs). Committee Chair Keith Vaz MP started off by asking me outright whether criticising Israel could be considered anti-Semitic, to which I was able to answer confidently “No!”; the continued occupation of the West Bank and other territories as well as some of the actions of the Israel Defense Force are in clear violation of international law and therefore can be justifiably condemned by anyone who has a sense of justice. As a Liberal Democrat I oppose all forms of discrimination and prejudice, so that of course includes anti-Semitism, but I argued that exceptionalism should not tempt us to single anti-Semitism out from other forms of ethnic, religious, gender or other forms of discrimination. The panel of MPs on the committee — which included David Burrowes as well as David Winnick — were astonished to learn that all six of us giving evidence and answering questions had been attacked as “racist” and “anti-Semitic” because we have campaigned for the Palestinian cause, but that is indeed the case. Miranda was able to give an interesting perspective as a (non-practising) Jew and she said that some of the worst attacks on her had come from Christian Zionists. We and the SNP participants pointed out that we try to avoid using the word Zionism because it can mean different things and instead are always careful to refer to the Israeli government or IDF, rather than saying, as many in the Middle East do, “the Jews”. Apparently Jeremy Corbyn, the embattled Labour Party leader, had a rough time before the committee a while ago, mainly because he had referred to representatives of Hamas and Hizbollah as “friends”. But one of the SNP MPs, Philippa Whitford (who has worked as a surgeon in Gaza, and hails originally from Belfast) pointed out that just as in Northern Ireland peace was only achieved by engaging with the IRA and Protestant extremists, so peace in Israel-Palestine will only come about if Hamas and other groups are included in talks. All six of us participants still in principle support a two-state solution, but all fear that ongoing settlement activity and the intransigence of the Netanyahu government mean that is in danger of being made impossible. But both Israelis and Palestinians will have be involved in determining their own future. The Home Affairs Committee report that will emerge from these hearings should be published in September.

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Chains of Sand

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 13th July, 2016

Chains of Sand 1The Arab-Israeli conflict is often presented in black and white terms, depending on which side one’s sympathies mainly lie, yet when it comes to the lives and emotions of people on the ground in Israel or the Occupied Territories there are in fact many shades of grey. Journalist and novelist Jemma Wayne chooses for the principal cast of her new book Chains of Sand (Legend Press, £9.99) young people struggling to come to terms with the tensions and at times outright violence of situations not only in the Middle East but also in the Jewish diaspora living in London. A girl from West Jerusalem becomes romantically involved with a young Arab man from the East in a case of forbidden love that can only end in tragedy. A young British Jew, against the wishes of his family, wishes to emigrate to Israel despite the fact that he might get dragged into the ongoing conflict in Gaza, while in a neat mirror image a young Israeli wishes to shift his life in the other direction. The characters’ dilemmas are exacerbated by politics, religion, gender, generational differences and above all by a quest for their true identity. Even when they are socialising, in the bars of Tel Aviv or the coffee shops of Golders Green, unseen but keenly felt dangers lurk off-stage, sometimes bursting in on them with shocking intensity. So many books on Israel-Palestine — both fact and fiction — embrace the narrative and perspectives of one side or the other, but to her credit Jemma Wayne avoids that easy option, instead weaving interlocking stories that constantly question one’s own understanding of the situation as well as that of the characters. That makes the novel unsettling, challenging, at times an uncomfortable read but stimulating in its acceptance of the complexities of the human condition and the challenge of conflicting loyalties.

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Peace Beyond Borders

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 4th July, 2016

Peace beyond Borders coverDespite what most Brexiteers believed, the European Union has been a great success as a peace project. That is the central thesis of veteran Indian peace and justice campaigner Vijay Mehta’s latest book, Peace beyond Borders (Catapult, £9.99), in which he argues that exporting the EU model to other parts of the world would help end conflicts. In fact, several other parts of the world have indeed been regionalising in recent decades, from South East Asia (ASEAN) to the Gulf Arab states (GCC) and South America (UNASUR). None has up till now gone as far in terms of economic let alone political integration as the EU, but they all acknowledge that they are stronger together. The author looks at each continent or sub-continent in turn, seeing how cooperation has overcome divisions and historic rivalries, as well as championing the potential of further cooperation. This strengthening of a multipolar global reality is healthy, he believes, rather than the United States being the only super-power (as it became after the collapse of the Soviet Union), acting like some sort of world policeman. In a final section, Vijay Mehta acknowledges that there are nationalist forces resisting the sharing of sovereignty, just as within some countries (including the UK and Spain) there are forces that want more regional autonomy or even independence. Scotland, of course, may well re-examine the case for independence if Brexit is now successfully implemented, preferring to remain within the EU. Reading this book one can only lament that just over half the voters of Britain did not understand the elements of peace and hope inherent in the European project. Had some been able to read it before they cast their vote on 23 June, maybe it would have changed their minds.

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London’s March for Europe

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 3rd July, 2016

Tim Farron on Europe marchI was so shattered by last week’s EU Referendum outcome that I haven’t been able to write my blog, but yesterday’s March for Europe in central London lifted my spirits. An estimated 50,000 people congregated at Hyde Park Corner, before marching to Parliament Square, waving UK and EU flags and holding aloft hand-made signs, many bearing witty puns. There was a large Liberal Democrat contingent, with Tim Farron leading; both he and the party got numerous cheers, as having campaigned overtly for Remain. What I found most encouraging was the response of the public as the march went past: waves and yells from visitors on the London Tour buses and lots of honking horns from motorists. There was a carnival atmosphere, aided by the sun and spontaneous outbursts of song, yet there was no ignoring the fact that many people in the crowd (including me) were angry that Britain may be taken out of the EU on a narrow referendum vote at least partly influenced by the lies of the Leave campaign. Having brought about this disaster, by calling an unnecessary referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron has now washed his hands of all responsibility, though he will stay in office over the summer, a lame duck while five contenders of varying degrees of charm/repulsiveness slug it out to succeed him. All, alas, are committed to going ahead with Brexit, though many on the march yesterday hopes that the almost inevitable failure to come up with a desirable post-Brexit plan might change some minds. Other marchers were demanding an election. And where was Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition? At an event in his constituency, apparently; having been lukewarm at best in backing Remain he had doubtless been advised that he risked getting booed if he turned up on the march.

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Don’t Let Jo Cox Die in Vain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 17th June, 2016

imageI never met the young Labour MP Jo Cox but for some time I had been aware of her campaigning — on International Development, Syrian refugees and, most recently, for the Remain side in the EU Referendum. The image of her that will ways stick in my mind was of her and her husband Brendan and their two very excited young children in a rubber dinghy on the River Thames on Wednesay,  waving an IN flag at the Brexit flotilla commanded by Nigel Farage. The Coxes got sprayed with water by one of the fishing boats in response. But that small act of aggression was nothing compared to the awful murder of Jo Cox yesterday, by a man who several eye witnesses say shouted “Britain First!”

A few days ago I wrote of what I called the Trumpification of British politics, the way that a respect for truth and rational debate has increasingly gone out of the window in British political discourse. I lamented the way some politicians and campaigners are happy to lie brazenly, while on social media — not least Twitter — vile abuse against political opponents has become commonplace. I guess like many Brits I thought we might be spared the sort of physical aggression and outright violence that has been a feature of some of Donald Trump’s rallies in the United States, but clearly this is not the case. We even had Farage yesterday warning that people’s alleged anger at the number of foreign migrants coming to Britain could lead to violence. The poster he proudly stood by, showing a huge throng of migrants clamouring to be let in was horribly reminiscent of Nazi propaganda in 1930s Germany.

jo Cox’s widower put out an extraordinarily dignified statement after his wife’s murder, asking people not to forget what she stood for and to act in that spirit. It was right and fitting that political programmes such as BBC’s Question Time were cancelled last night as a sign of respect and that much of the Remain campaigning has been suspended. We need a period of calm reflection in Britain for us to come to terms with what has happened and its significance, and to bring us back from the brink. This evening, at 7pm, in Parliament Square, Westminster, there will be a vigil for Jo Cox and I hope to get back from Riga (where I was speaking yesterday at an event on the possible consequences of  Brexit) so I can attend. This should not just be an act of remembrance for a remarkable woman who during her brief year in Parliament was a beacon of decency and commitment but at least as important a loud statement that as Britons, we will not let her die in vain.

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Cypriots for REMAIN

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 14th June, 2016

Norman Lamb CypriotsGiven some of the depressing opinion polls about the EU Referendum over the past few days it was uplifting to be in a hall packed with Cypriots in north London this evening cheering on the campaign for Britain to Remain in the EU. There was a first rate line-up of politicians, including MPs Nicky Morgan (Conservative), Secretary of State for Education, Norman Lamb (LibDem) and Catherine West (Labour), all singing from the same song-sheet. As Commonwealth citizens, Cypriots registered in London can vote in next week’s referendum (as can Maltese and Irish) unlike other EU citizens, alas, and there are enough of them to make a difference. It was good to see the Cypriot High Commissioner (one of the most engaged members of London’s diplomatic community) sitting in the front row, in an audience that struck me as predominantly made up of businessmen and businesswomen (no bad thing). Norman Lamb stressed the positive aspect of immigration (including EU migration), whereas Nicky Morgan highlighted how many young Brits have benefited from Erasmus+, studying or getting work experience on the continent. Catherine West pointed out that the Labour Party has come out wholeheartedly in favour of EU membership (even if not all Labour voters agree). There is only a week to go before the vote, which means that it is vital that meetings such as this happen all over the country, to motivate those who back Remain to actually go out to vote, otherwise the Brexiteers could win by default.

Nicky Morgan Cypriots.jpg

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When Will America Reject Guns?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 13th June, 2016

The massacre of clubbers at a gay venue in Orlando, Florida, is the worst mass killing by a gunman in US history. Fifty people are dead and several others wounded; across the world there have been spontaneous vigils and acts of mourning. The gunman’s ex-wife says he has a personality disorder, which underlines why there need to be stricter controls on who can get access to guns and other weapons. Personally, I don’t think anyone outside the armed forces should have the ability to purchase a weapon that can slaughter so many people (and the armed forces should only have them for defence). Inevitably, there has been much comment — not least on social media — about the fact that the mass murderer, Omar Mateen, is Muslim and that he was said to have been offended recently by the sight of two men kissing. It is true that there are what in modern terms would be called homophobic passages in the Koran, just as there are in the Jewish and Christian bibles, but it would be wrong to use this incident as a stick with which to beat Muslims in general, especially during this holy month of Ramadan. I was pleased to see that Islamic groups in America have been among the first to offer condolences and material relief. Any people who might like to claim that Christianity is so much more enlightened when it comes to LGBT issues should examine how fundamentalist US churches promoted the hateful anti-gay legislation in Uganda and other parts of Africa, or look at the evangelicals in America who parade with signs saying “God Hates Fags”. What is clear is that the fight for LGBT rights and equality is far from over, both within religious communities and in the wider world. But for me the most striking thing about this dreadful incident is that yet again the United States has shown that its adherence to the “freedom” to bear arms has murderous consequences. I would argue that religious intolerance of homosexuality is an anachronism that needs to be confronted, but so too, sure;y, is America’s love of guns, more appropriate to the frontier age of the 19th century than to the postmodern 21st century. Until that issue is addressed, there will be more shootings by hateful or deranged individuals. And although the Orlando shootings have beaten the record for the number of dead, sometime before too long another atrocity will top that figure. While offering the Orlando victims, their families and friends our deepest condolences, we can only hope that one day the American public and legislators will see sense on gun control.

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The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 8th June, 2016

Chris Bickerton European UnionCampaigning to Remain in the European Union ahead of the 23 June Referendum I have been struck by how little most people know about the EU. Perhaps that is inevitable, given that no previous British government has bothered to explain the Union to the electorate prior to the recent referendum brochure, which Brexiters have been damning as propaganda. Moreover, anyone relying on tabloids such as the Daily Mail or (worst of all) the Daily Express has been fed a diet of anti-EU prejudice and outright lies for years. So with little more than a fortnight to go before this crucial vote it was timely for Penguin Books to issue a dispassionate account of the EU, its history, its workings and its possible future: Chris Bickerton’s The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide (Pelican, £8.99). Europhiles will be disappointed that Mr Bickerton does not share their passion for the European project; he is quite dismissive of the peace dividend (despite the EU’s Nobel Prize) and does not really do credit to the founding fathers. However, he will equally dismay Eurosceptics because he does not write the whole thing off as an expensive, anti-democratic con-trick. Steering a middle line should in principle therefore enable readers to make up their own minds, though I personally wish that he could have made parts of text more engaging. He himself benefited from the EU’s freedom of movement, taking up teaching positions in the Netherlands and in France, but his main observation about that is how easy it was in Amsterdam because the Dutch speak such good English, whereas the wretched French insisted in speaking French. I can’t help but feel he somehow missed the point. That said, this is a useful and compact little volume which should help the uninitiated steer their way through the mysteries of the EU. Let’s hope it also then enc0urages people to vote on 23 June, preferably for Remain.

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Brexit: The Commonwealth Has Its Say

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 7th June, 2016

International Liberals Yes To EuropeOne of the favourite arguments of more lucid adherents to the Vote Leave campaign is that a Britain outside the EU would be able to rebuild a special trading relationship with the Commonwealth. However, the evidence does not bear this out. Trade links to the Commonwealth (as well as the nostalgia of Empire Loyalty) was a factor in Britain’s decision not to join the infant European Communities at the beginning, but the situation is very different today. Australia, for example, is much more focussed on China and the rest of East and South East Asia than on the “Mother country”, while Canada is closely tied economically to the United States. Former African colonies have grown and diversified their patterns of trade and relations, beneifitting from a series of aid and trade deals that they have enjoyed through the EU. Moreover, one after another, the leaders of Commonwealth states have been queuing up to declare to Britain: don’t opt for Brexit! One of the reasons we really like you these days is because you are part of the EU and its single market.

PA, KF, JEBut there is an even more important Commonwealth dimension to Britain’s EU Referendum on 23 June. All legally resident Commonwealth citizens in the UK (as well as the Irish) are entitled to vote, so long as they are on the electoral register (for which the cut-off time is midnight tonight). That means that people originally from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and elsewhere can all have their say. Paradoxically, citizens of other EU member states — who risk being most affected by any vote in favour of Brexit — cannot, unless they happen to be from Cyprus or Malta.Some diplomatic missions, such as the Irish, worried about the impact of Brexit, have been urging their nationals to vote — and ideally for REMAIN. And a number of community groups and NGOs have been organising events, not least in London, to inform and energise their members. Last night, at the National Liberal Club in Westminster, an International Liberals Yes to Europe evening chaiored by Baroness Kishwer Falkner brought speakers from Canada (John English) and Cyprus (Praxoula Antoniadou), as well as a South African MP (Stevens Mokgalapa) via Skype link, all of whom stressed how crucial it is for Britain to be part of the EU if it wishes to remain a powerful player in the world. Otherwise, we attendees were warned, many richer Commonwealth citizens are likely to leave or to pull their money and investments out of Britain. This is not scaremongering. Already, billions of pounds have been withdrawn from Britain overall over the past six months, just because of the fear of Brexit. Praxoula Antoniadou, leader of the Cypriot (Liberal) United Democrats and a sometime Central Banker, warned that Britain after Brexit would see a brain drain, too. Even London would risk no longer being the magnet that it undoubtedly is today. That’s why so many Commonwealth citizens will be voting on 23 June — and they are numerous enough in a tight-run contest to make all the difference.

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