Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘SOAS’

Radical

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th October, 2013

RadicalMaajid NawazThe radicalisation of Muslim youth has been a prime concern of Western governments and security agencies ever since 9/11. But it is sobering to realise that the path to militancy — with its intolerance and, in extreme cases, its contempt for human life — is not necessarily only one way. Readers of Ed Husain’s 2007 book The Islamist (Penguin, £9.99) will be aware of that, but it is useful to have the message reinforced by the record of another SOAS alumnus’s journey to Islamism and back, Maajid Nawaz’s Radical (W H Allen, £8.99). Born in Southend, Essex, in what white neighbours would doubtless have considered to be a “well integrated” Pakistani-origin family (his mother was positively liberal), Maajid experienced not just casual racism as a child but also the violence of white skinheads. He learnt to stand up for himself, carrying a knife around with him for years. But it was at college in Newham, East London, that he came under the influence of Islamist radicals, notably from Hizb ut-Tahrir. After witnessing a fatal stabbing there he was recalled by his family to Southend, enabling him to get the grades necessary to go to SOAS to read Law and Arabic. He met a similarly radical young woman, married and fathered a baby boy, moving with them to Egypt to work on his Arabic, following a prolonged stay in Pakistan where he worked to further Hizb ut-Tahrir’s cause. He hoped to do the same in Egypt, but the omnipresent Mubarak security forces had him under surveillance and before long he was taken away in the middle of the night from his apartment in Alexandria and entered the hell of the regime’s torture chambers, where every inmate was electrocuted on a rota system, the screams of their agony resonating through the dark dungeon hour after hour. Maajid was fortunate himself to narrowly escape the electrodes, instead being knocked about and threatened with rape, and eventually he was put on trial and transferred to a political prison, whose inmates included Ayman Nour, the Egyptian Liberal who had dared to stand against Hosni Mubarak in a presidential election and was incarcerated on trumped up charges for that impertinence. By this time Maajid was getting regular consular visits a well as some contact with his family, but his release was as sudden as his arrest and maybe partly because Amnesty International had adopted him as a prisoner of conscience, putting pressure on both the Egyptian and British governments. SOAS let him resume his studies, but his marriage had broken down and he had become disillusioned with the ideology that had driven him for several years. He met up with Ed Husain, who had defected to rationality well before, and made his own great leap away from Islamism; together they established Quilliam, a foundation dedicated to countering Islamist extremism (and also Islamophobia) and won open access to both the last Labour government and its Coalition successor. Indeed, so far did Maajid’s conversion go that he joined the Liberal Democrats and is now the Party’s candidate for the three-way marginal London constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn. I read Radical at one sitting, over eight hours on a plane back from Beijing on Thursday. It was literally a book I could not put down, passionate and at times chilling, but ultimately cathartic. Highly recommended.

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Crystal Clear on Language and Literature

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 22nd July, 2013

David CrystalWhen I was a boy there were two types of English: British and American. In England there was an attempt to wipe out regional accents and dialects (as a Lancashire lad, I was given elocution lessons, to speak all BBC. Shudder). And in Wales, where I spent a lot of weekends and holidays, there was an attempt to wipe out Welsh too. How times have changed! Over the past four decades or so a whole family of Englishes has developed round the world, from Jamaican to Singlish, and many more in between, and even the BBC these days celebrates regional and ethnic diversity. This subject was inevitably touched on by Professor David Crystal, when he gave the opening lecture to a week of studies for translators and people involved in the publishing industry at Birkbeck College today. I draw heavily on his English as a Global Language (Cambridge University Press, 2003) in the relevant module of my own Humanities course at SOAS, and I have enjoyed watching videos of some of his lectures. So it was a great pleasure to see him perform in the flesh — and perform he does, seated on a high metal backed chair, rather like the 1960s/1970s Irish comedian Dave Allan, sparkling in his fluency, playful and witty. His lecture was entitled “Language -blank- Literature” and he used well-chosen extracts from the works of William Shakespeare, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard to illustrate how writers can bend and break the rules of English (having first grounded themselves fully in the language). He naturally also paid homage to James Joyce. I asked him in the Q&A afterwards how he could reconcile precision with intelligibility, citing the jargon of Brussels Euro-speak — an English laden with foreign borrowings and obscure terminology that is alienating to most ordinary Brits. And I say that as someone who is deeply pro-European. Prof Crystal replied that what was needed is something like the Plain English campaign that has resulted positively in the UK in making HMRC and others phrase forms and letters in ways that make sense to any man or woman in the street, more user-friendly. At the reception after the lecture — kindly sponsored by Europe House — he (and therefore subsequently I) was informed that there is such a group or movement already in existence, called “Clarity”. I shall investigate!

Link: http://www.davidcrystal.com

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Jeremy Browne the Golf Club

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 21st March, 2012

Foreign Office Minister Jeremy Browne has increased his empire recently, adding India to East Asia and Latin America. But as he told a meeting of London Liberal Youth and others which I chaired at SOAS this evening, there is logic to this, in that he is now broadly responsible for emerging economies (outside the former Soviet Union). These are now ranked, reasonably, in FCO terms in three bands: the top one including China, India and Brazil; the second, countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Colombia et al; the third, the Philippines and others. He used some inventive analogies in his talk and during the subsequent Q&A, saying that at Foreign Affairs question times in the House he often feels like that oddly-shaped golf club which a player almost never uses, but you are jolly glad to have with you when the need arises. Almost all questions tend to be about Europe, the Middle East (including Afghanistan) and North Africa, with the United States being a recurring point of reference. But he is on to a good thing (my editorialising) by concentrating on countries that are on their way up. Europe, including Britain, is shrinking both in its share of global population and in its share of the global economy. But the EU is still the world’s largest economic bloc, and Britain still maintains considerable influence over ideas (through the Financial Times, the Economist, the BBC, etc). So providing Jeremy remains a reasonably long time in his job, he’ll be performing at question time in the House not so much as a chipper but as a wood.

 

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Iran and the West: Is War Inevitable?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th January, 2012

This lunchtime at the National Liberal Club I was a member of a panel discussing the inevitability or otherwise of war between the West and Iran, held under the auspices of the Global Strategy Forum, which is chaired by Lord Lothian (aka Michael Ancram). The place was packed as the subject could hardly have been more topical and there were three fine other speakers: Sir Malcolm Rifkind (former Foreign Secretary), Sir Jeremy Greenstock (former UK Ambasador to the UN) and Dr Arhsin Adib-Moghaddam, a colleague of mine at SOAS. There was sufficient variety of views for a lively debate and some useful input from the audience, which included many Ambassadors, several members of the House of Lords and a number of journos, including Frank Gardner and Nick Childs from the BBC. We speakers were allotted just eight minutes each, so I used my time first to make the general point that whereas there are sometimes justifiable wars — recent examples being the Coalition that ousted the Iraqis from Kuwait in 1991, and the intervention last year in Libya under the principle of Responsibility to Protect — in general War is an admission of failure. I do not believe that war with Iran is either inevitable or desirable, despite the regime’s apparent desire to develop nuclear weapons (strongly denied officially in Tehran, of course). I worry about the rachetting up of pressure on Tehran by several Western governments, including and in particular that of Britain, whose own history of interference in Iran’s affairs has an inglorious past. I stressed that an atomosphere needs to be created in which there could be meaningful multilateral talks, with no pre-conditions (a view contested by Malcolm Rifkind). We should also respect Iran as a great civilization, I argued, as well as a country whose people understandably feel surrounded and threatened, not least by US bases on the other side of the narrow Persian Gulf. And I concluded by proposing a Middle East conference that would look at the whole region — including the Palestinian issue — and not just Iran in isolation. All the countries of the region, including Israel, shnold be present, and although Western countries, including the EU and US, might facilitate such a gathering ( a point also made by Jeremy Greenstock), we in the West should not try to run the show or dictate an outcome. That era has passed, and rightly so.

[photo by Jacqueline Jinks of JF, Lord Lothian, Sir Jeremy Grenstock and Dr Arhsin Adib-Moghaddam]

Link: (though site still under construction): www.globalstrategyforum.org

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Cruising the Thames with Brian Paddick

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 10th December, 2011

London Liberal Democrats scored a ‘first’ last night when about a hundred of us were entertained on a Thames river cruise aboard the M.V. Eltham. We were blessed with a clear night, which meant that the illuminated buildings on either shore looked truly magnificent. The new vista of Tower Bridge with the half-completed Shard of Glass rearing up not that far away was particularly striking. The event was a fundraiser for the London 2012 Mayoral and GLA campaigns, with mayoral candidate Brian Paddick and most of the GLA candidates on board — indeed one of them, Merlene Emerson, was the prime organiser of the event. After a supper of lasagne and salad, we were given a performance of African music and dance by a group from the university where I teach, SOAS, and the evening was compered with Yuletide panache by LibDem activist Ben Mathis, whose jokes were as corny and seasonal as those inside Christmas crackers. I was roped in to be Santa Claus — my fault for growing a white beard, I suppose — and doled out the raffle prizes from a scarlet sack. The whole evening was a great success, as well as being fun; the London campaign is more advanced and already better funded than in 2008, and Brian Paddick is positively fizzing and popping with energy for the fight ahead.

Link: http://libdems4london.org.uk

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We Don’t Need a Religious Right in Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 30th August, 2011

One topic I get my students at SOAS to discuss each year is the familiar proposition that Religion and Politics should never mix. Of course, historically in Britain they often did. Until the emergence of the SDP in the early 1980s, the Church of England was often referred to as the Conservative Party at prayer. And both Methodists and Quakers had a big influence on the old Liberal Party. But secularism has swept Britain over the past 50 years and the fall in church attendance has been mirrored by a distancing of most politicans from overtly religious standpoints. As Alastair Campbell famously said when he was the master of dark arts at 10 Downing Street, “We don’t do God.” — though in the case of Tony Blair himself, that proved to be completely untrue. One cheeky journalist is said to have asked Blair if he prayed with George W Bush. And of course, in the United States, religion and politics most certainly do mix, whether it is in the form of the liberal Christianity of Barack Obama or the disturbing beliefs of the Christian Right and the Christian Zionists, with their hatred of homosexuals, Muslims and many others who aren’t like themselves. Liberals in Britain have comforted themselves with the assumption that we don’t have that sort of Religious Right here in the UK, but recent trends have suggested that may not be the case. Maybe the Religious Right didn’t dare show its head above the parapet before, or simply didn’t get organised. That doesn’t mean it won’t. And if it does, both the secularists and those believers of moderate or even radical political views need to be prepared to rebut any suggestion that the Religious Right has God and morality firmly on their side.

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20 Years of Abuja

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th July, 2011

For the past week, I have been at a Leadership Conference in Abuja, Nigeria, which has attracted an extraordinary range of Ministers (past and present, including several former Heads of Government), academics and religious figures, particularly from Africa but in fact from all over the world — as well as the odd entertainer, such as the singer Patti Boulaye, who is here promoting the work she does on AIDS with children in Africa. I’ll be writing about some of the discussions we’ve had elsewhere, but I want to highlight here the host city itself: one I have often mentioned in my lectures at SOAS — as a planned capital, built from scratch, like Brasilia — but had never actually visited before. This year it is celebrating its 20th anniversary as federal capital, which is a convenient milestone at which to pause and reflect. Building began in the 1970s, at the height of Nigeria’s oil bonanza, but that subsequently stalled, and the construction is still continuing, far from complete. Many high-level civil servants and foreign diplomatic staff reportedly used to go back to Lagos (the former capital and by far the country’s largest city) at weekends, as they found Abuja to be so boring. But these days there are more facilities and it is actually rather a green and pleasant place, with a nicer climate, fewer traffic jams and a much lower rate of criminality than Lagos. There are few “OMG, wow!” buildings than in Brasilia, but the main mosque is rather fine and stands out against the skyline. I visited the National Christian Centre, which is an immense non-denominational church, which I imagine must be quite impressive when thronged. Here, as all over Nigeria, religion is taken very seriously, and the number of different churches is dizying.

 

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The Arabs and the Holocaust

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 1st July, 2010

This evening I chaired  a book-launch, hosted by the Council for Arab-British Understanding, Arab Media Watch and Independent Jewish Voices, at the Arab-British Chamber of Commerce in Mayfair. In the hotseat was my SOAS colleague Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations, but perhaps better known for his books, including The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder and Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy (with Noam Chomsky). His latest work is the provocatively-titled The Arabs and The Holocaust (Saqi, £25), which is a very thorough, challenging and thought-provoking study of the Arab-Israeli War of Narratives from the birth of Zionism to the present day. The book is remarkably even-handed in the way that it looks both at the Holocaust or Jewish genocide as well as the Naqba or ‘catastrophe’ of the Palestinian expulsions of 1948 and beyond objectively. That very even-handedness, as well as the author’s scrupulous use of a fascinating range of both primary and secondary sources, has won plaudits for the book from many progressive Jewish as well as Arab scholars. Indeed, Brian Krug, Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and founder member of the Jewish Forum for Justice and Human Rights as well as of Independent Jewish Voices — gave a well-prepared and enthusiastic citique of the book as an introduction to Gilbert’s talk. I am pleased to say that the event was heavily over-subscibed and a good number of copies of the book were sold and signed.

Link: www.saqibooks.com   

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Tim Llewellyn and Lebanon’s Spirit of the Phoenix

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 19th May, 2010

SOAS played host to the Arab British Centre and the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU, on whose Board I sit) this evening, for a talk on Lebanon by the former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn. We must have overlapped briefly in Beirut, while I was doing some work for the Middle East Council of Churches in 1980, though our paths didn’t cross in the city. Tonight’s event also served as a book promotion for Tim’s latest volume: Spirit of the Phoenix: Beirut and the Story of Lebanon (I B Tauris, 2010; sale price £12.99), a series of vignettes in a style that Tim described as akin to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. Several of these tales are amusing, though the tone of Tim’s talk was grave, as he fears that it is only a matter of time before there is renewed conflict with Israel. Asked in the question time afterwards what he thought of Tony Blair’s effectiveness as the Quartet’s special envoy to Israel/Palestine, Tim commented damningly, ‘Useless!’

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An International Court for the Environment?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th March, 2010

Everyone’s in favour of the environment these days, even the Tories. Yet the planet continues to suffer appalling degradation and biodiversity is being compromised at an alarming rate. Of course, some of this is due to natural causes, but most is the result of the activities of humankind — whatever the climate change deniers say. Yet at present there is no global mechanism to bring many of the worst ecological abusers to book (with certain exceptions such as oil spills), particularly if they are sovereign states. Hence the need for an International Court for the Environment (ICE), whose case was put by Stephen Hockman, QC, at the eighth annual Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen International Law Lecture in the Brunei Gallery lecture theatre at SOAS this evening. The presentation was more of a lawyer’s brief than a stirring piece of rhetoric, but the message was one that appealed to the large numbers present — including many members of the United Nations Association. At present, the ICE is just an idea being floated rather than a concrete proposition and many countries would doubtless be reluctant to sign up to it (as is already the case with the International Court of Justice). But that should not stop the campaign to get one instituted. The environent is screaming out loud for itself about the abuse being inflicted on it, but it needs a human court to bring some of the worst violators to justice.

Link: www.environmentcourt.com

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