Britain stands a little taller

BBC NEWS | UK | Harry withdrawn from Afghanistan

Prince Harry is being withdrawn from Afghanistan. But Britain stands a little taller in the world for two reasons. First, he went there – not on a PR visit, or to encourage the troops, but as a soldier. Second, as much as possible, the establishment kept it secret. There was no attempt to harness Harry’s military service for publicity purposes. At a time when, with the Diana inquest running, the establishment might have jumped for some good press (though, in fact, the spectacle of Al Fayed making his accusations has rather neutralised the whole thing), but, instead, it chose to do things discretely, protecting the lives of troops, protecting the integrity of Harry’s mission. Good for him, and good for them.

Anybody who thinks carefully about these issues can find lots of reasons why Harry shouldn’t have gone. It was a risk. It didn’t achieve a great deal, since he was only one officer, it handed a media coup to the papers willing to break the embargo. But forget all that. At an emotional, human level, someone who didn’t have to risk his life did so, because he wanted to. Because he is brave. Because he shares something with his comrades. Because he has the strength of will to go through with what he started.

What a stinging rebuke – all the more powerful for being unspoken, perhaps unintended – to George W Bush, who avoided going to Vietnam when others with less influence were forced to go, but later made great political capital of leading the free world into the endless quagmire of Iraq.

Do you have to agree with war to be impressed by Harry? No, you don’t. Actually, most people, including me, did support going to war in Afghanistan. It made military sense, it was a direct move against the powers that sponsored 9/11, and there were strong humanitarian reasons for doing so. But even if you didn’t support that war, you have to be impressed.

The royal family has been bruised, battered and (I would argue, by the media at least) badly treated in the last twenty years. In Britain we seem to take a savage delight in tearing down our national institutions. Let us all note: they have in them that which still inspires men and women.

Harry is returning from Afghanistan.

Britain stands a little taller in the world.

Let us then, for one week, forget our national cynicism, and give him a hero’s welcome — not because his life is worth more than another soldier’s, but because in welcoming him, we praise all those who risk their lives in far lands on our behalf.

Opposites detract: Iran and the Netherlands in conflict over Qu’ran film

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | Iranians urge Dutch to ban film
Just the other day Al-Jazeera television refused to adopt a media code which would ban satellite channels deemed to have offended Arab leaders or national or religious symbols. Today, Iran urges the Netherlands to ban a film made by Dutch MP Geert Wilders on the subject of the Qu’ran. According to the BBC, Iranian justice minister Gholam Hussein Elham said ‘freedom of speech should not be used as a cover for attacking moral and religious values.’

Iran and the Netherlands are at the absolute polar opposites of views on freedom of speech. In Britain we would (I hope) be horrified at the suggestion that the media should not be allowed to offend national leaders. Our media (or, at least, a proportion of it) seems to exist for no purpose greater than to annoy, irritate and disdain our politicians. On the other hand, most of us would see a film which (apparently) ‘will show the Muslim holy book is an inspiration for murder’ as a tad on the injudicious side. Quite how this would play under incitement to religious hatred laws is a question which would have to be resolved by the courts, but most of us would baulk at such a hardline attack on another person’s religion. We were (sort of) all-right with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, because this was a Muslim criticising Islam. Geert Wilders has no Islamic credentials, and it could be argued that people who don’t understand something shouldn’t attack it. (As it happens, Islamic response to the Satanic verses was exactly the opposite — Rushdie was condemned in part because he was a Muslim: a non-believer would have been regarded with more tolerance).

This is in many ways similar to the furore around Theo van Gogh’s film, Submission, also made with the help of a Dutch politician, then then MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Van Gogh, who was killed by a Muslim extremist in 2004, described his 10 minute film as a ‘political pamphlet’. Its aim, ostensibly, was to demonstrate a link between the Qu’ran and abuse of women. Following Van Gogh’s murder, mosques and Muslim schools were fire-bombed, and there were subsequent counterattacks against Christian churches.

It would be simplistic (though attractive to many) to paint this as ‘Dutch stand for freedom – good, Muslims oppose freedom -bad’. But things are never this simple. The same Ayaan Hirsi Ali who worked with Theo Van Gogh resigned from the Dutch Tweede Kamer (lower house) on May 16 2006 after a prolonged attempt by another politician to have her stripped of her Dutch Citizenship. The attempt prompted scandal in the Dutch parliament, eventually, albeit indirectly, leading to the collapse of the government. Those with long memories will recall that her resignation was 100 years – less two months – after the final exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus in the Dreyfus affair which shook France. The parallels are more than frightening: at the time, France represented itself as the bastion of freedom in all Europe. Liberté, égalité, fraternité for all except Jews, who could be sloppily tried and deprived of all three of these virtues. Today, the Netherlands stands as the most outspoken proponent (perhaps alongside Denmark) of freedom in the entire world. Unless, of course, you are a Muslim or a foreigner, in which case things may not turn out as well for you.

In England, we have the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting that Sharia could become a part of our legal outlook. In Holland, they are making films deliberately aimed at denigrating the Qu’ran. In Iran and the rest of the Middle-East, they are signing charters which forbid the criticism of Arab leaders.

What can we conclude from this week’s furores?

First, we must accept that there are fundamentally different views of the meaning of freedom in post-Christian Europe and in the Middle East. It is occasionally argued that the views most often associated with Islam are those of an extremist minority. Perhaps, but the charter which threatens to ban Al Jazeera satellite television is not the work of a minority of extremists, but of main stream Arab states – states with whom we have strong diplomatic relationships.

Second, we must accept that, whatever other states may adopt, in Britain we have a democratic tradition which depends on this post-Christian freedom of expression, which is a limited freedom, but not a strongly limited one. Our kind of democracy cannot function without this freedom. It might be argued that this demonstrates that our kind of democracy is the wrong kind, but only within the conscious paradox that one could not put forth that sort of argument in any other context.

Third, we must accept that it is incumbent upon us, if we are to maintain and propagate this kind of democracy in a wider global community, that we do so responsibly. But responsibility is something that people do themselves, not have done to them. The only person who could legitimately stop Wilders from producing the film he has produced is Wilders himself. However, the culture he is working in (a culture which I understand somewhat, as I am married into it) is one which celebrates giving offence as the mark of true freedom of speech.

Fortunately, it is not for us to determine the culture of the Netherlands. But we are able to determine our own culture. Freedom of speech is incredibly precious to us. Which is why we must propagate it by using it responsibly – not shying away from the true issues, but, equally, not giving needless offence for the sake of giving offence. That is neither liberal, nor democratic.

US mistaken to hail Hezbollah leaders death

BBC NEWS | World | Middle East | US hails Hezbollah leaders death

I’ve lost more than one friend to terrorism. In 1988 Flora Swire, who I knew in the joint Christian Union at King Edward’s, Birmingham, was killed in the Lockerbie plane bombing. In 1989 Romanian pastor Vasilie Gherman, who had visited our house not long before, was killed by the Securitate, apparently because it was believed that he would be a ring-leader in opposition to Ceaucescu. Ceaucescu, and his state-terror regime, fell anyway, a few months later. At that time, until 1996, I was working for an international Christian youth movement. Perhaps once or twice a year one of our number would fall victim to kidnapping, and never be returned, or to direct terrorism, as often as not when they were not even the intended target.

Let me make it clear from the outset, then, that I am no friend to terrorism or terrorists. I am utterly and implacably opposed to everything they stand for. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, it is sometimes said. But, as far as I am concerned, as soon as someone moves into the means of terror, their legitimacy is completely gone. There is a way back: terrorists can renounce terror and embrace peaceful means. But that is the only way back.

Be that as it may, I think the US has put itself in a morally indefensible position by ‘welcoming’ the killing of the Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh in Syria last night. And I believe they have made yet another in a series of crucial diplomatic misjudgements in the Middle East.

Their position is indefensible because to welcome his killing is to embrace the means of terror. At the end of the Second World War, the Allies put the Nazi War Criminals on trial. Some were sentenced to death. Some were sentenced to life imprisonment. Was the death penalty justified? Perhaps. Was it right that some people who were implicated in the murder of hundreds or thousands were allowed to live, albeit in prison? Perhaps. We second-guess the judgements of our predecessors at our peril. But what is certainly true is that they were tried in a court of law – albeit an unprecedented court – and suffered the sentence that was handed out to them. There is not doubt that the actions of Mughniyeh were appalling, and that the consequences of those actions were appalling. But they were not more appalling than those of Göring, Frick and Von Ribbentropp. Each of these were convicted, and the sentence carried out.

Mughniyeh was murdered by exactly the same means – terrorism – for which he was wanted by the US government. Was he guilty? It seems certain that he was. Would he have been convicted if he could have been arrested and brought to trial? Again, it seems quite certain that he would have been. Would he have suffered the death penalty? Judging by the Iraq trials, yes, he probably would have done. But the crucial difference is that he was not arrested, not tried, and not sentenced. If I murder a murderer, am I innocent? Of course not. There is no suggestion that the US was implicated in Mughniyeh’s murder. But by welcoming it, they have given approval to it. From a moral point of view, this position cannot be sustained. It is to be hoped that the US will step back from it, with a diplomatic ‘clarification’, perhaps that they deplore the injustice and violence of his end, but that they believe a threat to the lives of others has been removed, notwithstanding the means by which this happened.

So much for the moral position. The miscalculation, however, may have more serious consequences. It is a truism of dealing with terrorists that we do not wish to ‘create martyrs’. This was discussed endlessly in relation to the trial of Saddam Hussain. It is one reason why it was decided that he should be tried by an Iraqi court, and not an American or international one.

But in welcoming this man’s death, they have done nothing more than create a martyr, and that when there was no need to do so. If they had simply issued a statement deploring all deaths by violence, stating that they regarded this man as an enemy, but believed that even an enemy should have had a fair trial, then they could have done a great deal to prevent Imad Mughniyeh’s death from spiralling into wider unrest. Or if they could not have said that, at the very least, they could have said nothing. Instead, once more they fan the flames in the Middle East. When will we learn anything?

During the period of Mughniyeh’s activity, some of my friends (though I knew them only later) were living in Beirut. They moved house to another part of the city. A few days later, they went back to their former home to pick up some things. The building had been obliterated by a bomb. I have no idea whether it was a Mughniyeh bomb, or a bomb dropped from a plane, or a bomb built by one of Mughniyeh’s alllies, or by his enemies. Bombs do not discriminate in this way. But their lives were saved, simply because they had moved house a few days before. Over the tortured years of the 1980s and 90s, and to the present day (though mercifully less than in the 1980s), many thousands of people’s lives were lost who did not happen to be in the right place when the wrong thing happened. Mughniyeh and his allies must bear a heavy share in the guilt of this. We in the West may agonise (if we wish) about to what extent our Middle Eastern policies may have contributed to those deaths. We might equally well speculate about how many lives our policies perhaps saved. To do either is in fact fruitless. We cannot analyse our guilt or virtue in this way. But we are left with a responsibility. To act, and to speak, in such a way that we do not cost more lives, that we do not inflame an already perilous situation. That we are peace-makers, not war-mongers.

It is time that we learned not merely to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Banning prostitution is not the answer — but fining the clients might be

BBC NEWS | Politics | UK should outlaw paying for sex

After endless amounts of backwards and forwards discussion, Harriet Harman is considering “banning” prostitution. Her reasons are something I applaud – to reduce the sex market, thereby decreasing the profits of sex-trafficking, and moving towards eliminating the modern slave-trade.

Actually, though, ‘banning’ is something that patently does not work as far as what is generally referred to as ‘vice’ is concerned. The American experiment with Prohibition of Alcohol is invariably cited as the case in point. On the other hand, the solution recommended by the English Collective of Prostitutes – to legalise building-based prostitution, as has been done in New Zealand – has also been proven not to work. In Amsterdam and across Belgium, building-based prostitution has been shown as the best of all worlds for people-traffickers. Their victims are out of sight, easy to control.

This sounds like the counsel of despair. If banning doesn’t work, and if legalisation doesn’t work, we are almost at the point of saying that we are living in the best of all possible worlds – and what a terrible world that is.

Some solutions, have yet to be tried. It has been hinted at in radio interviews, but the best solution is to target the clients. Any kind of restrictions on sex-workers invariably results in more pressure by pimps and traffickers on illegal immigrants. The threat of law is used against the victims. What’s more, those involved in semi-consensual sex, which is most prostitutes, can only pay the fines that are currently dished out to them in magistrates’ courts by engaging in more prostitution. Targeting the clients, on the other hand, goes (as the Inland Revenue say) ‘where the money is’. There are at least three kinds of prostitutes: trafficked women, semi-consensual prostitutes, and (most often heard on the radio) prostitutes who choose to do what they do. There is only one kind of client: men who want sex, and are prepared to pay for it. The experience of research in Belgium is that men are unwilling to distinguish between the three kinds. Target the clients, and the market reduces.

However, this approach can only be pursued if routes are created out of prostitution for those who want to exit the trade. This is not only for trafficked women. There are plenty of semi-consensual prostitutes, working to pay for drug-habits, or because their economic situation is one for which they cannot find another solution. We don’t (as yet) have sufficiently integrated paths out of drug-use. Any way out needs to be carefully constructed at a local level to provide drug rehabilitation, dental treatment (almost always essential for drug users), training for employment, social housing, and more. This can only happen if we commit to it as a society: far too often initiatives of this kind are held back because ‘ordinary’ people (or their local political representatives) say that they don’t want public money to go on helping people out of their own bad choices to this extent. It’s the same argument that says that teenage girls get pregnant in order to get housing benefit. True, or not? Hard to say. But irrelevant. In a civilised society, we need to invest in people’s lives to bring them back into mainstream society, no matter how they fell out of it. If we are not willing to pay the price, then we must accept that we will never approach an answer to human trafficking.

Which makes all of us guilty.

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