03 May 2017 5:44 PM
As I noted in my Mail on Sunday column on 30th April 2017, I recently sent a series of questions to the Foreign office about their apparent confidence that Syria',s government are responsible for the recent alleged poison gas attacks in that country. Muslim beard styles pictures.
The responses I received were, in my view, unresponsive and unsatisfactory. But I cannot publish them because of rules on such matters,which in general I support and to which I had willingly agreed in advance, and because the FO declined to waive those rules when I asked them to do so. ,
Here, for any interested, are my original questions:
In his article in the Sunday Telegraph of 16th April 2017, the Foreign Secretary states that:
‘British scientists have analysed samples from the victims of the [Khan Sheikhoun] attack.’
Where and when did they do this?
What assurances did they have of the provenance of the samples?
Who controlled the custody chain, and vouched for it?
How did they know that the samples were at no stage handled by persons with a propaganda interest in a certain outcome?
Were they at any stage under the control of Tahrir al-Sham, formerly Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (previously the Jabhat Al-Nusra), or any other part of that faction?
If not, how did they leave Syria?
Under whose custody were they between Khan Sheikhoun and the Syrian border?
He also says: ‘These have tested positive for sarin or a sarin-like substance.’
Eyewitness reports (cited in evidence by the Foreign Secretary) speak of ‘clouds of smoke’ (Independent 05/04/2017) and say ‘We could smell it from 500 metres away.’(Guardian 07/04/2017) and , ‘The smell reached us here in the centre, it smelled like rotten food.’ (Daily Telegraph 06/04/2017).
Sarin is odourless and invisible. Videos of the attack also show responders without protective clothing, handling victims, which would be highly dangerous in dealing with victims of sarin. Does the Foreign Secretary have any view on the apparent contradiction here? ,
The Foreign Secretary also writes:
The UK, the US and all our key allies are of one mind: we believe that this was highly likely to be an attack by Assad, on his own people, using poison gas weapons that were banned almost 100 years ago, under the 1925 Geneva protocol. In view of this horrific evidence, the world last week once again had a choice, just as we did after the gas attack at Ghouta in 2013.
This is doubly interesting.
‘Highly likely’ is well short of a declaration that the matter is in fact proven. Yet the United Kingdom has endorsed a missile attack on a sovereign country by the United States, the pretext or reason for which was given as the alleged gas attack, , which the Foreign secretary himself categorises not as proven fact but as ‘highly likely’, allegedly by the Assad government on Khan Sheikhoun. What is the status of this attack under international law? Under which part of the UN charter is it lawful? , If it *is* lawful in the case of such an action being proven, then is a belief that the alleged action by the Syrian state is ‘highly likely’ sufficient?
Who, if anybody, , does the Foreign Secretary say is responsible for the Ghouta attack? On what basis does he say this?
Some readers may be interested in this interview I gave to Durham University',s Purple Radio on Monday ,
On my computer the sound is a bit faint, but that may be specific to me. The meeting which followed was very well attended, with nearly 150 interrupting a pleasant May Monday evening to listen and ask questions. But it was not, I',m afraid, recorded.
I expect to take part in another public meeting, this time in London on the evening of Wednesday 17th May. It is a discussion on Grammar Schools. Tickets ,must ,be booked online exactly a week in advance (see below)
Online tickets will be available from 6 p.m. next Wednesday, 10
30 April 2017 1:39 AM
Instead of wasting time on an election where nobody has anything interesting to offer, let',s worry about some things that really matter – for example, the way this country is being sold to foreign governments and companies.
I don',t think any other nation would put up with this. Why do we? The most ridiculous is the way our trains – devastated by John Major',s mad privatisation scheme – are falling into the hands of foreign state railways.
S o, while the Government cannot bear to have railways run by the British state, it is happy to have them run by the German, Dutch, French or even Hong Kong state systems.
Yes, that',s right. Your journey to work may well be on a train operated by Abellio, part of the Dutch state railway, Deutsche Bahn, Germany',s state railway, SNCF, the French state railway, or Hong Kong',s MTR. And this is the country that invented the railway and once exported equipment and skills around the world.
And last week it emerged that SNCF is bidding to operate HS2, a pointless vanity line that should have been cancelled long ago but which the Government is too weak to abandon. So we might be hiring a foreign state railway to run a service we don',t even need, while Britain is full of sizeable towns with no railway station, which could be linked to the national system for a tiny part of the cost of HS2.
What is going on? What principle is at work here? Privatised railways have never been real private companies. Their jaws are clamped firmly to the public teat, and when they fail they can just stroll away from the mess they have made.
The increase in traffic they claim to have brought about was in fact caused by the hopeless overcrowding of roads and insane house prices, which produced a great surge in long-distance commuting.
I have been a long-distance commuter myself for more than 30 years and I long for the return of British Rail. Its undoubted arrogance and sloth were as nothing compared with its private successors, and its trains were faster and more comfortable.
It looked after its track far better and – given the money – it would never have made the mess its successors are now making of electrifying the Great Western line, which is years behind schedule, partly abandoned and vastly over budget.
Yet in the 20 years to 2013, state subsidies to the rail sector roughly tripled in real terms, while fares continued to rise. This is a small slice of our national life of which I have direct daily experience. None of it works properly.
I am apologised to, meaninglessly, by computerised voices, a dozen times a day. They do the same thing hours or days later. Nobody is really sorry. My trains are almost always late, frequently very badly so. But they get more expensive all the time. It',s the same in so many areas of life, and those responsible are protected from us by call centres and unresponsive websites, which only talk to us when they want to.
Yet this problem, and the problem of the takeover of our remaining industries by foreign concerns, isn',t seriously addressed or discussed by any of the major parties. The same is true – for example – of the needless power crisis caused by Green zealotry, and the stealthy legalisation of dangerous drugs.
I have ceased to be furious about all this, because it only made me unhappy. I now just observe and record it, as if it were a disaster that had already happened. Just don',t tell me that we have a ',strong and stable', Government. I can put up with Mrs May saying she',s not as bad as the alternative. That',s probably true, except if she decides to have a war. But the idea that our rulers have any idea what they are doing, or can be trusted with our national future, is a joke.
They',re just hoping the bailiffs don',t turn up before the Election. But if they do, what have we got left to sell, to pay our bills?
Stick to the day job, Rory - and stop peddling fake science
Ludicrous sight of the week was the mimic Rory Bremner, his head adorned with wires and electrodes, making propaganda for the non-existent complaint ',ADHD', on the BBC.
I stress here, there is not now, and never has been, any objective test for the presence of this complaint in the human frame. Yet it is ',treated', with very objective and powerful drugs, which are sold on the black market as stimulants and in some cases would be illegal if not prescribed.
Mr Bremner is as good at journalism as I am at mimicry. Perhaps less good. He fell for it all, the claim that ',ADHD',, a modern invention, was first discovered centuries ago, the comic pseudo-science which has sprung up to serve the needs of pharmaceutical companies who have pills to sell, and the need to create illnesses for which they can be prescribed.
The BBC programme involved ended with Mr Bremner and a doctor concluding he probably suffers from ',ADHD',. Astute viewers may have noticed just how vague and subjective this so-called ',diagnosis', was. They may even have noticed the careful mentions, from time to time, of the awkward fact (yes, once more, it can',t be said too often) that there is no specific test for ',ADHD',.
He then took a pill and went on stage, where apparently all went well. What was the point of all this? The wealthy lobby, which has successfully persuaded millions of American and British parents to drug their healthy children with worrying and expensive pills, has stalled a bit in recent years.
But some genius has now come up with the idea of ',Adult ADHD',. If this new fantasy can take hold, there',s an almost limitless market to be exploited. For, if you think you',ve got it, you won',t find it hard to discover a doctor who will agree with you.
After all, there is – I say it yet again – no objective test for the presence of this complaint, and doctors are bombarded by drug companies with propaganda and blandishments, to persuade them to join in the game.
In the USA, you',ll actually be prescribed an amphetamine. Here, you',ll get a drug so like amphetamine that it',s hard to say what the difference is.
Amphetamine is very bad for you. That',s why it',s illegal without a prescription. Nasty effects include mood swings, insomnia, hypertension and increased heart rate, nausea and blurred vision.
I',d be reluctant to undergo that for a real objective disease, let alone an imaginary one.
Jesters such as Mr Bremner are valuable for our society. But it isn',t very funny when they start taking themselves seriously.
Al ‘Boris’ Johnson jeers at Jeremy Corbyn for being ‘mutton-headed’. He also continues to claim there is no doubt of Syria’s guilt in the recent alleged gas attack there. Actually there is plenty of doubt. , I sent the Foreign Office several questions about this, to try to discover why they seemed so sure. The answers were mutton-headed, , unresponsive and useless. I asked permission to publish the exchange in full on my blog. It was refused. We cannot go to war, as Mr Johnson seems to want to do, on this basis. This is how the disasters of Libya and Iraq happened.
28 April 2017 3:10 PM
Some readers may be interested in this interview I gave to Talk2me Radio on Thursday 27th April.
23 April 2017 2:47 AM
This is a flap election, not a snap election. It has been called to get the Government out of what might be serious legal trouble. I am amazed this has not attracted more attention.
It is this simple. The Crown Prosecution Service is now looking at the cases of 30, yes 30, Tory MPs and agents, who have been investigated for breaking spending rules at the last General Election.
The allegations have been probed by 14 police forces after claims that the Conservatives’ ‘battlebus’ campaign broke legal spending limits in several key marginal seats.
The Tories have already been in deep trouble over their new election techniques, where busloads of outsiders flood into winnable seats to round up crucial extra votes. This was a way of making up for the Tory party’s severe loss of active members, who used to do this donkey work. But it is sailing very close to the legal wind.
Last month they were hit by the Electoral Commission with a record £70,000 fine – the maximum – for failing to declare their spending. The forces involved are Avon &, Somerset, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon &, Cornwall, Gloucestershire, Greater Manchester, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire, West Mercia, West Midlands, West Yorkshire and the Met.
These cases are likely to result in some charges (I have no idea how many) in the next few weeks, probably just before polling day. Trials, assuming these go ahead, will be much later in the year and might not reach verdicts until well into 2018. If there had been no election, any convictions could have meant MPs found guilty being forced to stand down, and elections being rerun. A General Election makes this much less of a threat, especially if Mrs May manages to increase her meagre majority.
This menace has been worrying the Cabinet for some months, as it has become clear it will not go away. And it is a far better explanation of the Prime Minister’s change of heart than her rather weird and incoherent speech in Downing Street. I happen to think she is a naturally truthful person and meant what she said when she previously declared several times that she was going to stay on till 2020.
But the expenses allegations, which started as a cloud on the horizon no bigger than a man’s hand, have grown and grown. I suspect her advisers have been telling her she cannot risk them coming into the open late in a Parliament when, perhaps, the economy is not doing well, or EU negotiations are going badly or Labour has a new leader.
As a result of this semi-secret crisis, the Tory campaign this time will have to be a good deal more cautious about such things, which may weaken it, especially if the campaign goes wrong – and this is not impossible. Even now the affair could be highly damaging – but early in a new Parliament, with a secure majority, the Government should be able to weather it far better than if Mrs May had soldiered on. But all elections are risks. It is amazing how often governments lose control of them.
Politics in this country are a good deal less solid and stable than they seem.
I only ,watched Broadchurch, ITV’s Leftist feminist crime saga, to the end because it was so awful, and to make sure it never backtracked on its nasty, biased opening scenes, in which police officers quite wrongly declared that they ‘believed’ an alleged victim, which is emphatically not their job.
The culprit turned out to be that staple of the dud crime story, a secretly mad person whose actions couldn’t have been guessed at or predicted. There were no normal men. The most prominent Christian character was a weirdo. The police had dysfunctional families, yet lectured citizens on their private conduct. I couldn’t fathom why until it dawned on me that they were snarling at male suspects for not being feminist enough.
The rape itself was that very rare event, a violent attack on a woman by a stranger in the open. Ninety per cent of alleged rapes in the UK are committed by people known to the victim, and bear no resemblance to Broadchurch. If they did, there would be a higher conviction rate, I think.
Muslim beard styles pictures
This stuff matters. People know little of the lives of others and dramas such as this make them think the world is worse than it is. They also undermine the beliefs and morals of those who don’t share the modern, progressive ideas of TV executives. And I think that is what they are meant to do.
18 April 2017 6:47 PM
Personally I am with the woman called ‘Brenda’, interviewed by the BBC, whose response to the news of a sudden election was ‘Oh no! Not another one! I can’t stand it!’ ,How many times do the government need to ask us what they should do?
,I used to love general elections long ago, but now , find them ghastly festivals of boredom, money and lies, and would leave the country, if I could, for the whole campaign.
Also the announcement, which bears some of the signs of panic, and some of the signs of wild indecision, explodes the carefully-assembled image of Mrs May as an unflashy, responsible and calm person. ‘I am not going to be calling a snap election’, said *that
) announcement has more of the air of the bookmaker’s shop than the vicarage. , The great political commentator Alan Watkins said that all prime ministers were at bottom either bookies or bishops. Perhaps Mrs May is the first to be both.
The moment I heard about it, I was full of suspicion. My initial impulse, and one for which I have still seen no real counter, is that it is not a chosen election, but one pressed on her by circumstances - ,really to do with this fascinating and inadequately covered story from a month ago:
It begins: ‘A dozen police forces have passed files to the Crown Prosecution Service over allegations that up to 20 Conservative MPs broke local spending limits at the last general election. Prosecutors have to decide whether to charge the MPs or their agents, after a 10-month investigation into whether party spending on an election battlebus that brought activists to marginal seats was wrongly recorded as national spending.
‘Downing Street refused on Wednesday night to comment on the development, but senior party figures are concerned that any successful prosecutions of sitting MPs could lead to election results being declared void, causing a string of by-elections as the Brexit negotiations draw to a conclusion in late 2018 or early 2019.’ ,
And interestingly it goes on: ‘There was even speculation in Westminster that May would consider seeking an early general election to draw a line under the spending allegations about the 2015 election.’
I am sure that this very sticky problem has been causing a huge amount of grief in Downing Street. It has the capacity to do an extraordinary amount of damage at a crucial time. I suspect that when Mrs May said on 3
The same blog rightly notes that boundary changes which would help the Tories won’t come into force till 2018. , That is strange. Can she really hope to much increase a working majority of just 17? Can she even be sure her majority won’t get smaller? , ,For reasons explained above, the Tory campaign may be a bit constrained.
Several other things are going on. The Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland, whose support is important to the Tory whips in the Commons, ,are not doing well. The supposed Tory revival in Scotland is unlikely to produce much in the way of seats. A lot of voters everywhere may feel that they are being made to troop to the polls yet again for no good reason, and take revenge on the party that has caused this, either by staying at home or by voting for someone else.
UKIP, which kindly took a lot of votes from Labour last time, so indirectly helping the Tories, while doing itself no good at all, seems to me to be weaker than for many years. ,It may well be fighting itself. That would help Labour. ,By contrast, the Liberal Democrats are scrambling out of the slough of despond into which they were hurled in 2015, with EU supporters ready to forgive and forget tuition fees ,because they care so much more about the EU, and I suspect (especially if Tim Farron can be persuaded to step aside) they may well grab a number of seats back from the Tories in June. That would hurt the Tories. The SNP will, I suspect, hold on to what they have and do their utmost to gain advantage. Horror of horrors, what if the snap election so rearranges Parliament that it ends up giving the SNP a lever at Westminster?
Since the near-destruction of Labour in Scotland, there is no possibility of a majority Labour government, ,unless we get an economic collapse or some other cataclysm or cataclysmic revelation during the campaign(who will run this? The Tory Party is not crammed with election-winning talent just now) and very little chance of a Lib-Lab coalition(though I suppose that if the campaign goes really badly for Mrs May, this might conceivably happen).
All kinds of messy outcomes are thinkable, even including a new coalition. Not all of them would allow Mrs May to remain at Downing Street.
I am not predicting this. I genuinely have no idea what is going to happen. ,Nor, I have to say, do I care all that much as things stand. ,I can see no outcome that will make any of the things I care about materially worse or better. And I have seen enough elections to know that they do not always work out in quite the way those who call them expect. Apart from March 31 1966, , I can think of no recent government with a majority seeking a new election so soon after coming to office. And by March 1966, Labour’s majority of 4, won in October 1964, was down to three, and government was almost impossible – an excuse Mrs May does not have. ,Ted Heath’s ‘Who governs Britain?’ election of February 1974 comes rather more to mind. ,The answer, as Keith Waterhouse memorably recorded was ‘Not you, matey’. Could this be the Election that Goes Wrong? Do not rule it out.
17 April 2017 4:36 PM
You may find here an article by the Foreign Secretary published in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday.
As I read it, in the paper itself, on a train journey, I scored and scribbled on it so much that it was a mass of angry blue annotations.
I shall try to replicate this below:
Moscow should join the coalition fighting Isil to maintain its strategic interests in Syria ,
',It is in some ways bizarre that Bashar al-Assad should be so reckless. It seems mystifying that he should now raise the stakes by so blatantly murdering so many of his own people with chemical weapons.
,Indeed, there is a sense in which it would frankly be more convenient for the outside world to pretend that it did not happen.
*** PH: To say that it would be ‘convenient’ is to suggest that it would be lazy or evasive, and so discreditable. ,What if it might also be rather wise and sensible?***
Let us face the truth: Assad has been clinging on. With the help of Russians and Iranians, and by dint of unrelenting savagery,
***PH: He really should stop doing this. Our ‘friends’ in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and our ally in Cairo, are no strangers to ‘savagery’ ,against ',their own people', and, in Saudi Arabia',s case, other people,s people. ,But the Foreign Secretary does not, I think, ,write articles denouncing them with lots of emotive words in the Sunday Telegraph. This selective outrage is wearisome. If he is genuinely outraged, then his outrage must apply to all. If not, then it is not genuine.***
,he has not only recaptured Aleppo. He has also won back most of "operational" Syria. And so, before the chemical weapons attack
on April 4, the West was on the verge of a grim consensus - that it would be more sensible to concentrate on the fight against the terrorists of Daesh, and to accept reluctantly that removing Assad - though ultimately essential - should await a drawn-out political solution. And then came the attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
I have studied with care the dark fountain of propaganda about this event, much of it spewed by Russia Today and associated media. These mouthpieces claim the Syrian air force hit a rebel cache of chemical weapons - whether accidentally or on purpose - and that the civilians were killed in the dispersal of vapours. The trouble with this version is that it just cannot be made to fit the demonstrable facts.
Technical evidence shows that two Syrian Su-22 planes were in the air over the town at the time of the strike, at 6.39am. They took off from an airbase where chemical weapons have been stored.
***PH notes: This is really the only solid technical evidence that we have. The planes did take off. they did bomb the village. That is it. ,I am interested in this careful use of the words ‘have been’, perhaps the first truly cautious use of words so far in the article. ,This is an undisputed fact, that in the past, before Syria gave up its CW, ,the base was used to store CW. ,But why does he use the phrase ‘have been’ rather than ‘were’? Is it because he is perhaps unsure that CW was stored there *at the time
,All eyewitness accounts...
***PH asks: Who are these eyewitnesses? ,How can we verify their accounts? How much credence can we give them? Are they independent, and free of any pressure from or obligation to the Al Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, our enemies, which controls access to and egress from this area, and of whom anyone there must reasonably be at least cautious, if not actually afraid? It is all very well, and quite right, being suspicious of a ‘dark fountain of propaganda’ where the Russians are involved. They are a sinister, closed tyranny and they lie, and so do their propaganda organs. But are they alone in the world in doing this? Why does he have no such caution where al Nusra are involved? Have they or their propaganda never ',spewed', anything?***
the same thing: that a shell landed in the street, making a small crater. There was no damage to any weapons stores, because there were no weapons stores. There was a barn nearby that contained some manure and a dead goat - killed by poison gas.
That same gas killed upwards of 70 people, and you will have seen the pictures of children dead or dying, struggling to breathe and frothing at the mouth. British scientists have analysed samples from the victims of the attack.
***PH See above for important questions about the custody chain. Whose hands have these samples passed through before British scientists saw and analysed them? Do we know? If so, how?***
, ,These have tested positive for sarin or a sarin-like substance.
***PH asks: Surely there is quite a difference between sarin and a ‘sarin-like substance’. ,Cannot experts decide which is which, and if not, why is this? Also several of the eyewitness reports from the area, which Mr Johnson is otherwise so ready to accept, ,mention strong smells (in one instance of ‘rotten food’) and coloured clouds, inconsistent with colourless, odourless sarin.*** ,
The UK, the US and all our key allies are of one mind: we believe that this was highly likely
****PH notes ‘highly likely’ is well short of certainty. We are discussing violent military action in violation of national sovereignty and without the authority of the United Nations, action which is legally dubious to say the least. If he can be no firmer than than ‘highly likely’, is this sufficient for the United Kingdom, a Security Council member with a special duty to observe and enforce the UN Charter, to give its blessing to such action? ****
to be an attack by Assad, on his own people, using poison gas weapons that were banned almost 100 years ago, under the 1925 Geneva protocol.
In view of this horrific evidence, the world last week once again had a choice, just as we did after the gas attack at Ghouta in 2013.
***PH: Mr Johnson does not mention here that the UN report on Ghouta attributed no blame for the Ghouta attack. He allows the reader to assume that it did so. But he must know it did not.***
Did we turn a blind eye? Or could we somehow respond, and show our feeling - that Assad had done...
***PH: Wait a minute. ‘Had done’? A couple of lines back Mr Assad was only ‘very likely’ to have had done this. Now Mr Johnson has ruled that he ‘had done’ it. What happened between these two passages to move Mr Johnson from likelihood to certainty?
,...something that was not only uniquely vile, but which we in the West would not tolerate? I am glad that President Trump chose to act. Those cruise missiles cannot bring those children back to life. But in exacting reprisals against the al-Shayrat airfield - from which it is highly likely....
***PH writes: ‘We are now back to ‘highly likely’ again, I note. He really cannot make up his mind, can he?***
... the deadly mission was launched - the president',s actions were timely, appropriate and essential.
They were essential because Assad learnt something from the experience of Ghouta in 2013. He learnt that he could get away with it.
He learnt that he could cross the "red lines" of the West with impunity.
***PH writes: again, Assad is said without qualification to have learnt’ from the consequences of an action which has never been proven to be his. ,On what does the Foreign Secretary base this assertion?***
And that, of course, explains the mystery with which we began.
That is why Assad launched his sickening strikes, on April 4, with what looks like such insouciance. He thought that he could simply get away with it again, and that his actions would be lost in the general fatigue over Syria. He allowed his air force to use poison gas because he has contempt for his own people, and because he no longer believes in the willingness of the world to stand up to him.
I hope and believe he has miscalculated. He certainly misunderstood Donald Trump. He has also underestimated the global repulsion that his actions have caused. He can issue his absurd and mendacious denials, but he is once again exposed for what he is: a man who leads a regime of vicious and unredeemed cruelty.
The question therefore is what we can actually do now, to what extent we can harness the momentum of the US strike to change the dynamics in Syria, to push for a political solution, and to relieve the people of that country of their misery. Of course we do not underestimate the challenge.
The brute facts of the strategic position, alas, are much as they were 10 days ago. Yes, America has struck and could of course strike again. That alone creates an ambiguity that should prey on the guilty minds of Damascus. But we all know that we are a very long day',s march from any large-scale deployment, any major western engagement in Syria.
The lessons of the 2003 invasion of Iraq are painful, and they understandably affect politicians and the public on both sides of the Atlantic. Which means that we should instead focus relentlessly on the reality of what Assad has done: killed innocents with a banned and abominable weapon.
We should follow all the logical imperatives of that massacre. First we should gather all the evidence at Khan Sheikhoun. Then we must use it to make the case first for personal sanctions and then for war crimes prosecutions for those responsible.
Above all, though, we need to show the Russians the horrific nature of the regime they are backing in terms they cannot fail to understand. This is, in fact, an opportunity for Russia. Moscow has reached the high point of its influence in Syria. They still have innumerable rebel groups to subdue, and they find themselves in a league of supervillains with Hizbollah and Assad. Is that what they want? Now is surely the moment for them to make a sensible compromise - to join a coalition of more than 60 countries in the fight against Daesh, to maintain their strategic interests in Syria, with the prospect of more productive relations with President Trump and in the knowledge that the West will eventually help rebuild the country.
In exchange they should commit to produce a real ceasefire, to end the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, and to bring about a political settlement that relieves the Syrians of the tyranny of Assad.
The Russians saved him. The Russians can help remove him, through a carefully supervised transition process that preserves key institutions of state - and usher in a stable and pluralist future for the country.
Assad uses chemical weapons because they are not only horrible and indiscriminate. They are also terrifying. In that sense he is himself an arch-terrorist, who has caused such an unquenchable thirst for revenge that he can never hope to govern his population again.
He is literally and metaphorically toxic, and it is time Russia awoke to that fact. They still have time to be on the right side of the argument.
Assad is an arch-terrorist, who has caused such an unquenchable thirst for revenge that he can never hope to govern again. We should gather all the evidence at Khan Sheikhoun. Then use it to for war crimes prosecutions for those responsible.’
Here is a reminder of what I have written in the past, as a preliminary to some thoughts about the events of this week:
In the summer of 2005 I read a brilliant, thoughtful, illuminating and potent despatch from Turkey (in the FT’s excellent Saturday magazine) , by the Financial Times’s then correspondent in Istanbul, Vincent Boland. I realised as I read it that Turkey was one of the great developing crises of our time, and that Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a person about whom the world should know more.
I prefer cold northern landscapes to sunny ones. At that time the closest I had ever been to Turkey was when I attended my late brother',s wedding in Cyprus, and slipped across for a day into the (then very beautiful) Turkish-occupied and governed North of Cyprus in the early 1980s. Cyprus was and is an unresolved crisis about which I have always had very mixed feelings. In those days you could cross for a few short hours through a strange no-man’s-land in Nicosia, part of which had remained utterly untouched by human hand since the war in 1974. I believe things are easier now.
I contacted Mr Boland and threw myself on his mercy. He gave me some valuable advice on how to proceed, and I went (for the first time in my life) to Turkey:
This October 2005 dispatch was the result:
‘Imagine Britain had a direct land frontier with Iran, Iraq and Syria – razor wire, watchtowers and all. Now stop imagining and start worrying.
If our political elite have their way, this is exactly what will happen within the next 20 years.
They plan a vast, borderless European Union stretching from the Atlantic to the Caucasus Mountains, crucially including both Turkey and us. If this is a good idea, it is hard to see why.
Unofficial accounts say that 2,000 illegal immigrants slip through this frontier each night even now. If it were a direct route to European prosperity, with Afghanistan not far over the Eastern horizon, these numbers might increase. And what use is a fence? Spain',s bloody struggles to keep migrants out of its enclaves in Morocco are a warning that wire is a poor barrier against the desperate.
And then there is the question of just how much we want to share with Turkey. Trade? Why not? But political power and economic decision-making, not to mention nationality and rights of residence? These are more tricky questions.
Now, Turkey is a fine and impressive country, despite having a military coup every ten years and an economic catastrophe roughly every three years since 1950. If you compare her with her neighbours, she is an island of progress, prosperity, order and peace in a region of lawless squalor and menace.
One prime minister, Turgut Ozal, once described his fatherland as ',the only bastion of stability between the Adriatic and the Great Wall of China',. Not long afterwards a far from stable nationalist extremist tried to assassinate the portly Ozal, but luckily managed only to shoot him in the thumb.
It is impossible not to be impressed with the heroic creation of a modern, serious nation here by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, whose martial spirit continues to rule this country from beyond the grave, a method of post-funeral government shared only by North Korea and Azerbaijan – but done rather better here.
Ataturk died in 1938, but his colossal, Stalinesque tomb dominates the capital, Ankara, and his wry, clever, whisky-drinker',s face looks down from every wall. Schoolchildren hymn his praises each morning in a semireligious rite held before his graven image. Though dead, he remains the most important person in the country, and why not?
He is the only man in modern times to have overpowered Islam in a Muslim nation by lawful methods, and it is thanks to him that his country is even being considered for EU membership. Turks could be Muslims, he decided, but they could not be governed from the mosque.
But he went further. He worked out how Europe and America had come to dominate the world, and copied everything he could. The recipe succeeded.
Women were emancipated, European legal codes and school systems adopted, the Western alphabet introduced. A unique hybrid state resulted that is neither Western nor Eastern, nor a bridge between the two.
But it functions, in a way its Muslim and Arab neighbours would envy if they had the sense.
The secret masters of Turkey',s mysterious state, the generals and admirals, act in his spirit when from time to time they send the tanks into the streets and hang a few politicians, usually to the joy and relief of the people, sick of corruption, thriftlessness and irresponsibility.
They have not done this for a while, preferring a so-called ',post-modern coup', the last time they overthrew an Islamist government in 1997. This involved hardly any tanks but a lot of power. But it would not be wise to assume they will never do it again. I suspect many Turks are secretly glad this is possible.
Which is why although Turkey currently has another Islamist government, it is one that does not dare to do what everyone suspects it would really like to do, and abolish the important symbolic laws that stop women wearing the veil in schools, universities and state buildings.
Nor can it abolish laws that discourage the young from attending Islamic schools.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was a fervent Muslim who once went to jail for reciting a militant poem including the lines ',our minarets are our bayonets',. He also gave up a promising football career because he refused to remove an Islamic beard, as required by the clean-shaven team.
But since winning an election in 2002, the now beardless Erdogan rules with cunning and luck and continues to steer Turkey towards an apparently Western destiny, with the enthusiastic support of George W.Bush, who seems to think Turkish membership of the EU will persuade the world',s Muslims that the West does not despise them.
Erdogan',s wife always wears a headscarf and is not allowed to enter the President',s residence in Ankara, but she has been welcomed in the White House in Washington, home of the ',War Against Terror', which otherwise views militant Islam pretty much as a plot against America.
If you want paradoxes, Turkey has plenty more of them. Enver Basyurt is a modern young man who writes sympathetically about Islam in several publications, including one called Aksiyon which he edits from super-cool modern offices near Istanbul airport.
When we meet, he is fasting because it is Ramadan. He has not eaten since 5.30am and cannot touch so much as a glass of water until 6.30 that same evening. Millions of other Turks, outwardly Western in habits and appearance, are doing exactly the same and the whole country, very movingly, sighs with relief when the moment comes to break the fast at sunset.
Basyurt rejects what he sees as Western excuses for keeping Turkey out of the EU. ',The real reason is that some of the people of Europe think Turkey is a Muslim country and culturally different,', he says.
When I suggest there is some truth in this, and that Islam everywhere is becoming more vigorous and assertive, he makes light of the headscarf issue, saying that few Turks want Sharia law or an Islamic republic. And he attributes the apparent rise in Muslim fervour in Turkey',s cities to the recent arrival of migrants from the remote, pious villages of Anatolia.
This is true enough. Istanbul, Turkey',s mega-city on the Bosporus, may be physically modern with clogged freeways, cashpoint machines that cough up three currencies, concrete architecture and the other signs of the 21st Century. But it contains suburbs where the Muslim Middle Ages still continue.
In these hardcore headscarf precincts, many women are shrouded in the black robes of Arabia. In the Umraniye district, a recent survey revealed that 44 per cent of women needed the permission of a male relative to leave their homes in daylight, and 96 per cent needed that permission to go out after dark.
The horrible practice of ', honour killings', of women who offend their families was until recently treated leniently by the law. A recent case highlights the problems Turkey has in handling the contest between law and attitudes. A young woman, Guldunya Toren, escaped from her home in the far south-east after she was caught having an extramarital affair.
Her brothers pursued her to Istanbul and shot her. When they learned from the television news that she was not dead, they shouldered their way into her hospital ward and finished her off as she lay in bed. One of the brothers has been imprisoned for life and another given a long jail term. But in the area they come from, 38 per cent still believe these killings are right.
The fear is many such murders will still be passed off as ',accidents’ or ',suicides', and escape the law.
Wherever this is in time or space, it is not in modern Europe, nor is there any reason to think it is moving in that direction. While people such as Enver Basyurt rightly deny Turkey is turning into Iran, I am far from convinced it is becoming some sort of secular Islamic Germany either.
Those who think it is are currently having to cope with the prosecution of the much admired novelist Orhan Pamuk for daring to say what everybody knows, that there was an official massacre of Armenians by the Turkish state during the First World War. Pamuk, who favours EU membership, is embarrassed that the move against him has damaged a cause he approves of, and nervously declined to talk to me about it.
But the respected columnist Fehmi Koru, who writes for the influential New Dawn daily newspaper, was optimistic. A few years ago he was unsuccessfully prosecuted under Turkey',s restrictive speech laws, in a curious but typical court case. He had argued Muslims had a right to explain the 1999 earthquake as Allah',s wrath against a sinful Turkey. ',I was acquitted. I believe Pamuk will be acquitted too.', Several people told me that Pamuk',s prosecution was obviously embarrassing for the government- but this proved only that the prosecutors were truly independent of the state.
I thought this was a good try, but missed the point that there should not be laws on the books that allowed people to be arrested for their opinions. Mind you, I felt nervous making this case.
As a citizen of the Blair state, I do not have much to boast about. Perhaps Britain is converging with Turkey rather than the other way round. There was some evidence of convergence when I stopped off in the small village of Bugduz on the way to Ankara. Many of the picturesque older houses were crumbling, the outhouses were still of grey mud brick, the few womenfolk in evidence were in traditional dress that must have been unchanged for centuries.
At the teahouse, deserted because of Ramadan, owner Recai Yurek spoke of the recent foundation of a new Koranic school – just the sort of thing the secular state dreads. Yet the village also contained a smart new state school, several expensive new concrete buildings and a costly, well maintained mosque of some size.
Not far away, new industrial estates rear out of the dry, brown landscape of central Anatolia. On the approaches to Ankara itself, I had been warned to expect large shanty towns on either side of the motorway at a place called Yeshil Tepe. But they were gone. Perhaps stung by Press jeers that such sights will not speed EU entry, the government has just bought out the residents and the crammed, insanitary Turkish Soweto has been flattened, leaving acres of rubble and glass and a derelict mosque.
There is almost always a mosque nearby, staffed by a government paid Imam who does what he is told. The Istanbul suburbs are packed with them, in case anyone was in any doubt this is not a European city. But in Ataturk',s Ankara they have been almost completely banished from the city centre, where you can look out of a high window across the concrete and imagine yourself in one of the duller towns of Germany, perhaps one rather thoroughly replanned by the RAF.
Nowadays, the domes and the minarets are quietly creeping closer and the call to prayer can be heard clearly at Ataturk',s Mausoleum, where the deceased Great Leader can hardly be pleased at the resurgence of Islam as he slumbers in his marble sarcophagus.
I would guess he is also far from pleased about the idea of EU membership. When he rallied his beaten nation after the First World War it was sovereignty he wanted most of all. And if Turkey bends the knee to the Brussels power, it will become a vassal state like all the rest of us. Yet there are hardly any Euro-sceptics here.
One of the very few is Professor Hasan Unal of Bilkent University, an international relations expert. ',I am a Euro-sceptic. I don',t see the Turkish membership proposal as practical. It will probably take 20 years of protracted and acrimonious negotiations, and in the end what we will get is membership that is no longer beneficial anyway.', He points out that the EU honeypot is empty. The new East European members have already found this out. The great handouts given to Spain, Italy and Portugal are over. The vaunted foreign investment, which advocates always claim as a benefit, is nowadays heading to China, where the returns are far better than under the EU',s tiresome regulations.
In any case, he thinks the EU does not want a huge new nation of 90million – Turkey',s likely population by the time she joins. When talks first started in 1963, incredibly, Turkey had only 27million people. No other European nation is growing like this, and Germany and France don',t need a rival this big.
',I think the EU should say it',s not on soon, instead of coming up with all these unconvincing excuses,', says the professor. His scepticism gets him into trouble here, a sort of trouble that seems strangely familiar. ',There',s an "EU terror" in the Turkish media,', he says. ',If you say this sort of thing you are labelled as "anti-European". Yet my lifestyle is European and I am married to a Greek Orthodox Christian.', If Turkey',s establishment has any sense, it will listen to the lone Euro-sceptic professor. And so will we. There are many reasons to be wary of the sprawling superstate that would make us neighbours with a political earthquake zone.
Turkey has little to gain by being the remotest and poorest bastion of the prosperous world.
And with cold east winds starting to blow from China, it is hard to see why any nation will be safer and warmer in some bureaucratic club than it will be on its own. It is those with energy, initiative, adaptability and a strong sense of their uniqueness that may well have the best chance of survival and happiness. That counts for Turkey as well as for us. It is not unfriendly to say so.
02 August 2010
Down a glum, dark back alley in Istanbul, I found a sinister sight. In a workshop two stern and bearded men were bent over sheets and patches of very black cloth, their sewing-machines whirring urgently.
I was plainly unwelcome and they objected to the very idea of being photographed. I quickly saw why. They were making dark robes and masks for women to wear. They looked to me as if they longed for the day when every woman in sight was clad in their workmanship.
They knew the women would wear them, because one day, not far off, they would have to. These robes would be, literally, a ',must-have', for the women of Turkey.
Those who think of Turkey as a relaxed holiday destination, or as a Westernised Nato member more or less ',on our side', need to revise their view.
And that very much includes our Prime Minister, David Cameron, who last week joined in the fashionable chorus urging Turkish membership of the European Union. Mr Cameron plainly hasn',t been properly briefed.
Leave aside the fact that such a step would allow millions of Turks to live and work in Britain, and give us - as EU members - a common border with Syria and Iraq. Mr Cameron really ought to realise that the new Islamist Turkey he so ignorantly praises is much more interested in making friends with Iran than it is in joining the EU. And it is becoming less free and less democratic by the day.
I would say there is a strong chance that we will soon lose Turkey to the Islamic world, much as we lost Iran to the ayatollahs 30 years ago. And there is not much we can do about it - least of all the daft scheme to include this nation in the EU.
Panic-mongering? Well, perhaps. But I would rather monger a bit of panic now than ignore what I saw.
I will come in a moment to the bizarre alleged plot against the Turkish state, which has swept dozens of government opponents into prison in dawn raids.
But first let us take a stroll round the Istanbul district of Fatih. It is noon, and the rival calls to prayer of two mosques are wavering in the baking, humid air.
Not far away is a gigantic Palestinian flag draped over the side of a building. Nearly opposite, a group of pale, intense men in turbans loiter on a street corner whispering into their mobile phones. Where am I? The flag suggests Gaza. The whispering men bring to mind Peshawar or some other Taliban zone.
Or am I in Saudi Arabia? For round the corner comes a phalanx of veiled women, under the vigilant eyes of a bossy man in a prayer cap. There are several grades of these women. First there are the wholly shrouded, their downcast eyes glimpsed through a slot, imprisoned in shapelessness. Most disturbing for me - because I have been to Iran - are those in chadors exactly like those commanded by the ayatollahs in Tehran. There is something particularly harsh about the inverted triangle through which their pale and sombre faces peer.
With them come the women they call ',Tight-heads', - ',Sikmabash', in Turkish. These are a new feature of Istanbul since I was last here a few years ago, in evidence all over this enormous city.
They are mostly young and often attractive. But they have swathed their heads tightly in voluminous, brightly coloured scarves. Their lower limbs are covered by long dresses or trousers, and over this, in the oppressive heat, they wear thin raincoats. Such outfits are available in a successful chain of shops called Tekbir, which means ',God is great',.
Covering up the female sex is big business here now. The owner of an independent Islamic clothes shop complains to me that trade isn',t as good as it used to be because he now faces so much competition. He notes that more and more of his clients are young women, rather than conservative rural grandmas.
The Tight-heads are startlingly similar to their Iranian sisters a few hundred miles to the east, who wear a near-identical uniform. Like them, they look as if they are making a point. But there is one crucial difference. The point they are making is the opposite one. The Iranian women mock the headscarf as they wear it, pushed as far back as possible on the head, revealing as much bleached-blonde, teased hair as the piety police will allow.
Muslim beard styles pictures
Their message is: ',The law can make me wear this, but it cannot make me look as if I want to.', The young Turks, by contrast, are saying: ',This is how I want to look, even if the law says I cannot.', For the scarf is banned by law in many universities and in government offices, and they view this ban as a challenge they must defy.
There is no simpler way of making the point that, while Iran is a secular country with a Muslim government, Turkey is a Muslim country with a secular government.
Or so it was. Now Turkey is in the midst of a revolution. In a fashionable waterfront cafe looking across the Bosphorus towards Asia, I spotted two young women sharing milkshakes , - , one veiled, the other displaying her curly hair and attired in barely-there T-shirt and jeans. I asked them if they didn',t find each other',s garb awkward. No, they didn',t. The swathed one explained that she had decided, from religious devotion, to wear a scarf aged 15. Now 19, she had to go to university in North Cyprus, because most mainland universities banned the veil.
Her companion said she thought it quite possible that, in a few years, she too would be covered from head to toe. My guess is that she will be , - , the growing numbers of covered women across the Middle East place pressure on others to do the same.
But these are just symptoms. A deeper change is under way. Deliberately unremarked by Western commentators for some years, Turkey has a fiercely Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Even now, Barack Obama, like George W. Bush before him, still bleats about how Turkey should be allowed to join the EU. And establishment commentators, encouraged by liberal Turkish intellectuals, absurdly continue to insist that Erdogan is in some way ',moderate',.
How odd. Back in the Nineties, this supposed moderate was railing that: ',The Muslim world is waiting for Turkey to rise up. We will rise up! With Allah',s permission, the rebellion will start.', Erdogan was even imprisoned for quoting a fervent Islamist poem that declared: ',The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers...',
Now he is Prime Minister, he has not stopped thinking this. He simply knows better than to blurt it out.
Fashionable liberals in the West prefer to worry about the sinister Deep State, or Derin Devlet, which they claim really governs Turkey through a combination of military power and thuggery. And they have a point, though not as much of one as they used to.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the dictatorial-founder of modern Turkey, was almost as ruthless as Stalin, using military and police power in the Twenties to sweep away the fez, the turban and the veil, impose Western script and emancipate women. His inheritors are the Turkish army, who have emerged from their barracks four times since the Second World War to stage a putsch, hang a few politicians and drive the mullahs back into their mosques. Even further out of sight, and based on a Cold War organisation designed to perform acts of resistance in the event of a Soviet takeover, are profoundly secret networks of government agents committed to safeguard Ataturk',s secular order.
They have made some unsavoury allies. Their existence gives credence to the genuinely creepy Ergenekon trials, aimed at a misty and possibly non-existent secret network of conspirators. The plotters are supposed to have sought to foment a fifth military coup. Personally, I think it a swirling tub of fantasy. In a brilliant demolition job (Ergenekon: Between Fact And Fiction: Turkey',s Ergenekon Investigation), Turkish expert Gareth Jenkins has gone through more than 4,000 pages of indictments. And he accepts some wrongdoing has been uncovered.
But he concludes: ',The majority of the accused...appear to be guilty of nothing more than holding strong secularist and ultranationalist views.',
As the case wears on, Turkey slips decisively towards the more alarming end of the Islamic spectrum. Sudan',s sinister president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has been an honoured guest , - , despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Erdogan defended the visit by saying: ',It',s not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide.',
Equally welcome has been the unlovely Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, tainted by the repression of democratic protesters and by his simpering Holocaust denial. No wonder he is welcome. Iranian gas heats the homes in Turkey',s eastern provinces.
And the real significance of the recent clashes off the Israeli coast was missed in the West. Gaza and its problems were not the point. Turkey',s new Islamic ruling class was glad of the pretext to downgrade its alliance with Israel. This link, dating back to Cold War days, got in the way of Erdogan',s plans to snuggle up to Syria, Israel',s bitterest enemy.
Were Turkey only shifting her foreign policy from West to East, that would be startling enough. Remember Turkey is a long-standing Nato member with a huge American airbase on its territory. Thanks to its position, its religion, its military strength, its language and its former imperial rule over this region, it has a powerful influence in the Middle East and in the new oil and gas states of Central Asia. Remember, too, that Turkey',s attitude will be crucial to the future of post-war Iraq, with which it has a border.
But things are changing, and growing darker, at home as well. And this is thanks to the Ergenekon affair. Foes of the Islamist government are arrested in surprise dawn raids. One of those scooped up in the arrest net was a 73-year-old woman, head of an educational charity, in the final stages of cancer. Many of the 200-odd accused have been held for years on vague charges. But their arrests fuel the government',s claim that it is threatened by a vast alleged conspiracy to bring it down. This supposedly implicates everyone from army officers to journalists.
Above all, the charges are aimed at the army, the force that has kept the mullahs in check, and incidentally kept the women unveiled, in Turkey for the past 90 years.
The supposed plot has now become so enormous that a special courthouse has been built in the suburbs of Istanbul to handle the hearings.
Ilter Turan, Professor of Political Science at Bilgi University, Istanbul, says: ',Erdogan has authoritarian proclivities. He will take journalists to court if he does not like what they write about him. He scolds them for writing critical things. He asks editors, "Why don',t you come and tell us about the problem in private before printing it?" He',s a potential autocrat who likes to engage in acts of personal generosity, like an old-fashioned monarch.',
But such personal government cuts in more than one direction. If Erdogan disagrees with members of the public he can treat them harshly too. Prof Turin says: ',A farmer came to him about some grievance and said, "My mother is weeping." Erdogan replied, "Take your mother and get out of here!" ',
Under Turkey',s proportional representation voting system, Erdogan can - and does - choose all his candidates. Critics and opponents can be easily got rid of. His power is about to increase if he wins a planned constitutional referendum set for September 12. If voters want increased ',human rights', they will also have to increase Erdogan',s power to appoint judges and other key officials.
Not everyone agrees with the professor. On the far, Asian side of the Bosphorus, I get a different point of view from Ahmet Altan, a columnist and breaker of stories on the dissident newspaper Taraf (the name translates roughly as Partisan). I have to pass through elaborate security to find his paper',s office. Altan is without doubt a brave journalist, who has got into trouble by challenging the orthodoxy of oldfashioned nationalism.
And he believes there is a profound, reactionary plot against Turkish democracy, and that the Deep State is out of control.
',Ergenekon is a most serious conspiracy,', he says. ',Their objective is chaos, to keep the Kurdish war going, to topple the government and keep the way open for a coup d',etat, to keep the army in politics and to keep the civilian government weak.',
He is also icily critical of European snobbery towards his country, saying: ',Europeans are mistaken about Turkey. They tried to keep Turkey always at the door, but did not let Turkey in.',
But, in a blast of worrying prophecy, he mocks the weakness of modern Europe, compared with China and America, and predicts that one day Europe will need the Middle East. This is a curious echo of warnings from European conservatives that a new continent called ',Eurabia', is taking shape around the shores of the Mediterranean, which will in the end mean the Islamisation of northern Europe.
He says nobody can really understand-Turkey until he has seen the new Anatolia, the bustling economic miracle, based on a new Islamic middle class, which is the powerbase of Erdogan',s AK (Justice and Development) Party. And he warns me against Westernised Istanbul intellectuals who, he says, will mislead me with scare stories.
Perhaps so. One such intellectual is so nervous about Erdogan',s thin skin that he asks me not to name him. Some of his allegations against the government - of corruption and Judophobia , - , are so alarming that I can only hint at them here.
And he flatly contradicts Ahmet Altan about Ergenekon, saying: ',All the government is trying to do is to humiliate and intimidate the army, and make sure it is powerless to interfere in politics in future. This coup attempt is supposed to have been hatched years ago, and never took place , - , because it had no support in the army. Among all these dozens of people in the dock there is not one who has the power or the prestige to lead a putsch. They',re just nonentities. The documents in the case come from nowhere. ',
Even more emphatic is an impressive retired general, Haldun Solmazturk, a quiet professional who certainly can',t be dismissed as a Westernised intellectual. He told me: ',Ergenekon is a tool to intimidate democratic opponents. I cannot call Erdogan a democratic leader. He has no interest at all in progressive Turkish democracy.
',They have shown no interest in finding a middle way. Ergenekon is a huge pot into which they throw anybody associated with any kind of opposition - the military, the universities, the media. There are people still in prison after three years, with no convictions. Many friends of mine have been arrested. I have no doubt that the majority of the suspects didn',t commit any crime.',
Wasn',t the general afraid? No. ',They can',t intimidate everybody. I am not afraid of them. That is exactly what they want.',
But he is contemptuous of Western politicians who fail to see the direction Turkey is taking. ',I, and many like me, are angry with those in the United States and Europe who have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to attacks on democracy here.',
Nobody is sure what will happen next. The constitutional referendum next month will test Erdogan',s strength. A general election is likely to follow. The secular opposition, useless for years, has just been reinvigorated by a timely sex scandal.
Deniz Baykal, its leader, has been overthrown after a video emerged of him apparently in bed with his mistress. He has now been replaced by a new more competent leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu - who is a famous foe of corruption. Opponents of the Islamist takeover see him as their last best hope.
But this has probably come too late. Erdogan remains popular with the new middle class, Muslim, prosperous and numerous, happy to be Middle Eastern.
We in Western Europe have long assumed that the world that was created in 1945 would last for ever. But we have not paid enough attention to the rising new nations to our East, or to the new powers, fat with oil and gas, heedless of the old laws of liberty, which are gathering strength as America weakens.
Now we may have to pay attention. Among the bayonet-like minarets and helmet-like domes of ancient Istanbul an East wind is blowing, which I think will chill us all.
Mr Erdogan Changes Trams
I like to think that I have been ahead of most British journalists in grasping that something momentous is taking place in that fascinating and important country. I have visited it twice on assignment, and have long mocked the ‘Economist’ Magazine for its ridiculous description of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government as ‘mildly Islamist’.
Here’s an article I wrote four years ago ( I was amused that some readers disbelieved the description of , Fatih, or doubted that the black-clad women I saw – and who were pictured by the photographer accompanying me - were Turkish. In fact a Turkish colleague had taken me to the district to illustrate the growth of this sort of Islamic expression in Istanbul).
Even the ‘Economist’ has now dropped this absurd designation of ‘Mildly Islamist’, though it has never fully acknowledged just how repressive and despotic Mr Erdogan is, and how much more so he is becoming. Funnily enough it was not his absurd show trials and accusations of ludicrous impossible plots (the ‘Ergenekon Affair’), ,nor even the imprisonment of journalists and cowing of the media, which turned opinion among naïve Western liberals. It was Mr Erdogan’s repression of a protest against the destruction of a treasured and much-loved park, and his menacing behaviour when challenged, which seemed to alter matters. During subsequent protests, Mr Erdogan’s state, like that of our friends in Kiev, ,has ',killed its own people’ but without producing the wave of righteous wrath which this action brings about when done by regimes of which we disapprove.
In which case, of course, it isn’t really our reason for disapproving of them. Always hunt for such anomalies. You will then be able to expose alleged reasons for action as what they really are, pretexts. And you will be able to penetrate the disguises in which history advances itself.
This has been a particularly strange disguise. When I wrote my article in 2010, Mr Erdogan seemed genuinely keen on good relations with Iran and Syria. Since then, he has veered in a completely different direction, more or less openly helping the attempt to overthrow Syria’s President Assad, having first had a public row with him. This, it seems to me, must put him much closer to Saudi Arabia than to Iran, and the two are pretty much mutually exclusive. Since Turkey is very much a Sunni rather than a Shia Muslim country (though it has an Alevi minority who are close to Shia Islam), and since Turkey’s days of imperial glory gave it control over what is now Saudi Arabia (not to mention Syria, Iraq, Lebanon Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and a large chunk of south-eastern Europe), and since Ottoman Istanbul was also the seat of the Sunni Caliphate until Ataturk abolished it in 1924, these are all profoundly sensitive matters.
The great paradox of Turkey was that its turn to the West under Ataturk was undemocratic and repressive. So when the EU began courting Turkey, it demanded the dismantling or weakening of Ataturk’s ,army-backed Deep State – just the sort of bright idea the ‘Economist’ would support.
Alas, the more democratic and free from the army Turkey became, the more Islamic it became. And so democracy has been used ( as it so often is used) as a means to a stronger state, though of a different kind.
Mr Erdogan famously said a very important thing back in the mid-1990s when he was just Mayor of Istanbul (to a journalist from the newspaper Milliyet): ‘Democracy is like a tram. You ride it until you arrive at your destination, then you step off.’ ( Istanbul, I should note here, ,has some very fine trams, though they don’t actually go all that far before you have to get off and find some other less smooth and modern means of travelling).
Imagine the fuss that would be made if Vladimir Putin said any such thing. Turkey is just as important as Russia, and indeed many more British people are familiar with it than will ever visit Russia. But Mr Erdogan’s illiberal and cynical outbursts and actions are forgiven because he is (so far) a friend of the liberal globalist movement. Mr Putin’s are not because he is not. Here’s another anomaly, clue to another pretext.
Mr Erdogan’s words about the tram ,are ,even more startling than his verses about Minarets and Bayonets, featured in the article to which I link.
And now that he has (almost unnoticed by a one-track British media) become the directly-elected President of Turkey, with new executive powers ( potentially despotic) coming his way, I reckon he is unstoppable. In many ways his switch from premier to president parallels Mr Putin’s. But there is so much less concern.
He is already making messianic orations about how a new Turkey has been reborn from the ashes of the old.
One of the few accounts of him which really illustrates his menace appeared in a , leader in the ‘Independent ’ ,. It noted: ‘The polls put him well ahead of his two rivals, a septuagenarian exdiplomat and a young ethnic Kurd, which is not surprising, as the public has not learnt much about either candidate. Figures for last month showed that while Mr Erdogan received 533 minutes of airtime on state television to make his pitch, his two rivals got three minutes and 45 seconds respectively.
‘That farcically lopsided allocation of media coverage is only one of many indications that Turkey is morphing into a Russian-style "shell" democracy, in which managed plebiscites mask the essentially autocratic character of a system containing few or no checks and balances.’
It added: ‘Like Vladimir Putin, Turkey',s strongman specialises in the rhetoric of "us and them", in his case, railing against a strange and unlikely combination of Jews and supporters of the US based Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen, who, he insists, are plotting to destroy him. Lest anyone dismiss this as hot air, it should be noted that Mr Erdogan has made good use of these alleged conspiracies to ram through key changes, purging institutions of his opponents, starting with the army and police. When he began putting generals on trial, Western governments were inclined to applaud, seeing the Turkish armed forces as over-fond of politics and their own privileges. But the purges have continued to the point where the only serious resistance to Mr Erdogan',s whims now comes from the judges, who in April bravely struck down his attempt to ban the use of social networks.
‘This is where Turkey',s foreign friends should really start to worry, because if - or rather when - he becomes head of state, Mr Erdogan will be able to nominate judges and sap the Supreme Court',s ability to oppose him. It gets worse, because Mr Erdogan also plans to transform the hitherto largely ceremonial presidency into the beating heart of government, with the power to appoint ministers and dissolve parliament.’
Isabel Hunter, writing in the ‘Independent on Sunday’, gave a flavour of the man which confirms much of what Turks have told me (in many cases in private conversations which they did not wish to have quoted):
‘During the election campaign, state media has been accused of favouring Mr Erdogan. Yesterday, the editor of a leading Turkish newspaper resigned after Mr Erdogan criticised the news coverage of the paper',s owner, Dogan Media Group.
‘In a separate incident last week, Mr Erdogan lashed out at correspondent Amberin Zaman, calling her a "shameless militant woman disguised under the name of a journalist". She was accused of insulting Islam and Muslims and told she should "know her place". Yesterday another prominent Turkish journalist, Mehmet Baransu, was detained, reportedly as part of a crackdown on dissenting journalism.’
If Vladimir Putin behaved in this fashion, it would not be on page 27.
I must confess to being puzzled by Mr Erdogan’s foreign-policy trajectory - swerving towards Teheran and then towards Riyadh, and incidentally crashing into Israel (once , a Turkish ally) ,on the way - just as I am puzzled by his very successful moves towards integrating the country’s Kurds (previously a harried minority) into Turkey as a whole. ,Does he hope to integrate them fully, or is he ready to contemplate a nominally independent Kurdistan under some sort of Turkish ‘protection’? I have no idea. It is a thing to watch, and Mr Erdogan is a man to watch. He’s nearly reached the end of his tram ride, as far as I can see. I wonder what sort of vehicle he will use for the rest of his journey?