The Redemption of Tony Blair?

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Could this perhaps be the beginning of the rehabilitation of Tony Blair following the disastrous invasion of Iraq and its hideous aftermath? At Open Britain earlier this morning the former PM used his formidable oratorical skills to call upon those who oppose Brexit to rise up and convince those who voted for Brexit about the merits of remaining in the EU.

He made a number of telling points. He pointed out how the PM Theresa May and the Chancellor Phillip Hammond:

 “…were telling us that leaving would be bad for the country, its economy, its security and its place in the world.  Today it is apparently a ‘once in a generation opportunity’ for greatness. 7 months ago, AFTER the referendum result, the Chancellor was telling us that leaving the Single Market would be – and I quote – ‘catastrophic’. Now it appears we will leave the Single Market and the Customs Union and he is very optimistic.”

Blair correctly identified immigration as “the issue” which most persuaded those who voted for Brexit. However, the facts regarding immigration did not support a case for leaving the EU:

“Net immigration into the UK was roughly 335,000 in the year to June 2016.
But just over half was from outside the EU…And for many people, the core immigration question – and one which I fully accept is a substantial issue -is immigration from non-European countries, especially when from different cultures in which assimilation and potential security threats can be an issue.”

As for those immigrants from the EU:

“Future historians will be scurrying to investigate the antecedents of these migrants from Europe for whose restraint, we were willing to sacrifice so much.
What will they find – that they were a terrible group of people who threatened the country’s stability? They will find that on the whole they were well behaved, worked hard, paid their taxes and were a net economic benefit.”

He ended his speech with a rousing call for those who want to remain in the EU to stand up and work with others to persuade those who voted for Brexit to change their minds.

“The one incontrovertible characteristic of politics today is its propensity for revolt.
The Brexiteers were the beneficiaries of this wave; now they want to freeze it to a day in June 2016.
They will say the will of the people can’t alter. It can.
They will say Leaving is inevitable. It isn’t.
They will say we don’t represent the people. We do, many millions of them and with determination many millions more.
They will claim we’re dividing the country by making the case. It is they who divide our country – generation from generation, North from South, Scotland from England, those born here from those who came to our country precisely because of what they thought it stood for and what they admired.
This is not the time for retreat, indifference or despair; but the time to rise up in defence of what we believe – calmly, patiently, winning the argument by the force of argument; but without fear and with the conviction we act in the true interests of Britain.”

It was good to see this version of Tony Blair back again. It reminded me of the 1997 Blair who was voted in to power offering hope of progressive politics following 18 years of Tory rule. It is a tragedy that the current Labour team is unable to perform its duty as an effective opposition to the current government. If they continue to be unable to break through and win the centre ground, there will remain a massive gap just waiting to be filled. Blair could yet redeem himself of the disaster of Iraq.

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President’s Obama’s Farewell Speech – Science and Reason Matter

President Barack Obama’s farewell speech last night in Chicago took a look at some of his positive achievements in the past eight years – and there have admittedly been quite a few. In his own words, his Presidency helped:

…reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9/11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality, and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens…we’ve halved our dependence on foreign oil; we’ve doubled our renewable energy …

Those are impressive achievements particularly when one remembers that there were many influential players, not least the Israel lobby, who were eagerly pushing for war against Iran. Who can forget the former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who said “the day the United States finishes with Iraq, it should start with Iran” or Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s comical antics at the UN where he shrieked about the imminent danger of a nuclear capable Iran? Little wonder that Netanyahu has so warmly welcomed the election of Donald Trump.

Obama praised the spirit of the Enlightenment, the spirit that insists that “science and reason matter”, the spirit that:

… made us an economic powerhouse — the spirit that took flight at Kitty Hawk and Cape Canaveral; the spirit that cures disease and put a computer in every pocket.

He urged people to value their democracy and its values and be vigilant in protecting them:

I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it…we are all created equal, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing…If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.

He added that these Enlightenment values deserve to be spread around the world and that it was necessary to make the world a better and more safer place:

That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans…That’s why we cannot withdraw from big global fights — to expand democracy, and human rights, and women’s rights, and LGBT rights. No matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem, that’s part of defending America. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.

And he mentioned some of the dangers that continue to face America:

…violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets and open democracies and civil society itself as a threat to their power. The peril each poses to our democracy is more far-reaching than a car bomb or a missile. It represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought; a belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or the propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.

Obama will have disappointed many Muslims around the world with his failure to make progress on the key issue of securing a just settlement for the Palestinians, yet it is fair to say – and perhaps particularly so given the impending handover of power to Donald Trump – that the world will miss him.

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Israeli Plot To “Take Down” Tory Minister Makes UK Headlines

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An Israeli Embassy official in the UK, Shai Masot, has been captured on undercover film talking about “taking down” the Deputy Foreign Secretary, Sir Alan Duncan, because he is “doing a lot of problems”. Masot also described the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, as “an idiot” who was a good friend of Israel but “if something real happened…it would be Duncan.”

Masot was also captured on film separately with the Labour MP and member of the Labour Friends of Israel, Joan Ryan, saying that he had obtained “more than £1 million” to pay for sympathetic Labour MPs to visit Israel.

The story has been published on the front page of today’s Mail on Sunday – who also publish full transcripts of the conversations – and is also carried by a number of other major media outlets including the Observer, the Sunday Telegraph and the BBC.

Sir Alan Duncan is a well known critic of Israel’s illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories and in October 2014 he delivered a speech at the Royal United Services Institute in which he was scathing about the illegal settlements. Duncan said:

“No settlement endorser should be considered fit to stand for election, remain a member of a mainstream political party or sit in a Parliament. How can we accept lawmakers in our country, or any country, when they support lawbreakers in another? They are extremists, and they should be treated as such…Many settlers are state-sponsored militia, defying international law, driving out the rightful inhabitants from their land, and creating an illegal economy at the expense of those who have been cruelly displaced”.

The undercover footage was filmed by Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit and is part of a four part documentary called “The Lobby” that is scheduled to be aired on Jan 15-18.

The Israeli Embassy has issued a statement saying that their Ambassador, Mark Regev, has apologized to Sir Alan Duncan and have added that Shai Masot “will be ending his term of employment with the Embassy shortly.”

Back in 2009, Channel Four’s Dispatches series broadcast an episode called “Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby” presented by the seasoned journalist, Peter Oborne, in which he looked at how the Israeli lobby operates in the UK. The episode can still be viewed at this link.

Update 1: Maria Strizzolo – the senior civil servant and former aide to Robert Halfon MP (who was himself previously the Political Director at the Conservative Friends of Israel) – has resigned following the release of video footage showing her discussing the “taking down” of Sir Alan Duncan. This is good news for those who are appalled at how Israel is trying to undermine British democracy. However, as Craig Murray has asked: why has the Israeli Embassy official, Shai Mosat, not yet been expelled by the UK government?

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Interview with David Deutsch

I have blogged previously about the Oxford physicist, David Deutsch, and his wonderful book The Beginning of Infinity.

There is a recent 30 minute interview with David Deutsch now posted on YouTube which explores several of the ideas he discusses in BoI. He is questioned about a number of issues including fallibilism, the value of uncertainty, moral progress and Karl Popper.

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US Elections -Celebrating the Peaceful Transfer of Power

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The victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election results has shocked many – including myself. It is dispiriting to see so many older white voters in the USA clearly energized by a campaign that tapped into some of the nastier undercurrents common in large parts of society including suspicion of immigrants, Muslims and the LGBT community.

However, amidst the disappointment, it is worth taking a minute to recognize the strength of the US political system which ensures regular elections every four years and, if the incumbent loses, then a peaceful transfer of power. Even if the incumbent wins, s/he has to vacate the office of Presidency after a maximum of eight years.

In her concession speech today, Hillary Clinton made reference to this precise point.

This is not the outcome we wanted or we worked so hard for and I’m sorry that we did not win this election for the values we share and the vision we hold for our country…

We have seen that our nation is more deeply divided than we thought. But I still believe in America and I always will. And if you do, then we must accept this result and then look to the future. Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.

Our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power and we don’t just respect that, we cherish it. It also enshrines other things; the rule of law, the principle that we are all equal in rights and dignity, freedom of worship and expression. We respect and cherish these values too and we must defend them.

This peaceful transfer of power is a hugely important achievement of the American people. Contrast the eight-year limit on executive power with the condition of much of the Muslim world where we have so many autocratic Kings or Life Presidents who can only be shifted after they die – only to be replaced by a close relative – or are violently overthrown or killed. The result is constant mayhem and the development of society is held back by that chronically unstable political situation.

Even in the much-lauded time of the so-called “rightly-guided Caliphs”, we only saw a peaceful transfer of power once – and that was only because the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, died. The second Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab was murdered as was his successor ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan. The accession of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib resulted in a civil war which ultimately led to his own killing.

So, the democratic institutions that have been built in the USA deserve our respect and admiration. Despite, or especially because of, the election of Donald Trump, we have to hope that the checks and balances that are built into those institutions are strong enough to ensure that his offensive and divisive campaign rhetoric is not translated into actual policies in office. And let us also hope that those who voted for Hillary Clinton will not lose heart but will stand up for their values in the coming four years.

 

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The Qur’an: Science vs Ancient Myths

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This blog was created in large part to share my love of books and my wish to learn more about humanity, the universe around us and our place in it.

Over the years I have built up a nice little collection of ten separate English translations of the Qur’an including my most recent purchase which was The Study Qur’an – a collective translation and commentary effort undertaken by a small committee of academics under the leadership of the renowned Iranian Islamic scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

I have derived a huge amount of enjoyment and comfort over the years from reciting and reflecting on verses from the Qur’an and continue to do so. This post is part of a life long desire to learn and try and improve my understanding by asking questions and subjecting ideas to criticism.

This process has over the years seen me depart from some widely-held Muslim opinions on a number of issues including the Satanic Verses affair, free speech and the right to cause offence, the theory of evolution by natural selection, gay rights, the undesirability of living in a religious state etc.

History is littered with ideas and viewpoints/interpretations that were once passionately held only to be overturned by later discoveries, scientific findings or more convincing arguments. Recall the Catholic Church’s opposition to the ideas of Copernicus who held that it was the earth that revolved around the sun. The Catholic Church insisted that Biblical doctrine taught that it was the sun that revolved around the earth and it persecuted those who dared to believe otherwise. Even the celebrated scientist Galileo was brought in front of the Inquisition and forced to recant his adherence to Copernican views: an adherence that was based on his own astronomical observations with the telescope he had himself designed and built.

Does the Qur’an contain passages which – in their traditional interpretation(s) – do not stand up to modern scrutiny? And if that is the case, what consequences should that have as to how the Qur’an is viewed and interpreted today as a religious scripture?

In four separate passages in the Qur’an (15:16-18; 37:6-10; 67:5 and 72:8-9) reference is made which – according to the majority of Qur’anic interpretations I have seen – concerns the phenomenon of shooting stars. Let’s take a closer look at each of those passages:

And We have placed within the heaven great stars and have beautified it for the observers.
And We have protected it from every devil expelled [from the mercy of Allah]
Except one who steals a hearing and is pursued by a clear burning flame.
(Qur’an 15:16-18)

Indeed, We have adorned the nearest heaven with an adornment of stars
And as protection against every rebellious devil
[So] they may not listen to the exalted assembly [of angels] and are pelted from every side,
Repelled; and for them is a constant punishment,
Except one who snatches [some words] by theft, but they are pursued by a burning flame, piercing [in brightness].
(Quran 37:6-10)

And We have certainly beautified the nearest heaven with stars and have made [from] them what is thrown at the devils and have prepared for them the punishment of the Blaze.
(Qur’an 67:5)

And we have sought [to reach] the heaven but found it filled with powerful guards and burning flames.
And we used to sit therein in positions for hearing, but whoever listens now will find a burning flame lying in wait for him.
(Qur’an 72:8-9)

According to traditional Muslim commentators these above passages refer to jinns (a kind of ethereal being) who try to listen in to discussions between angels in the heavens and who are then pelted with bright flames which are associated with shooting stars. The Study Qur’an that I mentioned near the beginning of this post says the following in connection with the passage at 37:6-10:

“It is believed that after the Prophet Muhammad began receiving revelations, God cut off all such access to angelic discussions for the jinn, establishing angels as sentries and repelling the jinn with meteors.” The Study Qur’an, Note 10, p1086

Is the proposition that meteors are a punishment aimed at mischievous jinns trying to eavesdrop really a credible explanation? While it may perhaps have seemed a plausible explanation in past times, it is surely plausible no longer.

The NASA website has a far more convincing explanation for the phenomenon of shooting stars: they are dust particles in space that burn up on entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Indeed, when the earth passes through a trail of debris left by a comet then we see meteor showers whose dates astronomers are able to accurately predict each year based on the earth’s revolution around the sun.

So, it is disconcerting and very regrettable to see the Study Qur’an published in 2015 still repeating the discredited older explanation without any criticism or updating whatsoever given the additional knowledge we have gained in the intervening fourteen centuries since the Qur’an was first preached by the Prophet Muhammad.

The esteemed team behind the Study Qur’an are by no means alone though. On the Ask Imam website, when a correspondent asked about the Qur’an’s apparent references to shooting stars he was given an answer that to me seems long-winded, highly evasive and thoroughly unconvincing. You can read the Ask Imam response here and decide for yourself whether it was a convincing explanation.

Is it impious or sinful to raise questions regarding interpretations of the Qur’an which do not appear to make sense? Surely, it should not be. Progress depends on all ideas being allowed to be criticised. If the ideas are good ones then they will be able to withstand the criticism and its proponents will be able to convince others of their merits. If not, then bad ideas should be replaced by better and more convincing ideas.

Update (14th Aug 2016): The above blog attracted some of the nonsensical views below I had expected including someone who claimed that the fact that we have meteor showers at certain times of the year merely serves to show that God knows exactly when Jinn tend to be at their most mischievous because he is all-knowing. Still, for those who prefer objective knowledge to stupidity, here is a fine extract from The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch in which shows how science helps us choose between rival explanations of the same phenomenon:

…the ‘angel’ theory of planetary motion is untestable because no matter how planets moved, that motion could be attributed to angels; therefore the angel theory cannot explain the particular motions that we see, unless it is supplemented by an independent theory of how angels move. That is why there is a methodological rule in science which says that once an experimentally testable theory has passed the appropriate tests, any less testable rival theories about the same phenomena are summarily rejected, for their explanations are bound to be inferior.

(The Fabric of Reality, David Deutsch, p66)

Posted in Books, Islam, Science & Evolution | Tagged , , | 59 Comments

Orlando Massacre: The Need To Challenge Homophobia

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Just over six months after a Muslim couple killed 14 people in San Bernardino County, USA – killings in whose aftermath US Presidential candidate Donald Trump would call for an immediate ban on all Muslims entering the USA – we have witnessed yet another massacre committed by a US Muslim.

It is too early at this stage to say whether the killer Omar Mateen’s possible mental health issues played a role in the massacre. There will also no doubt be the usual questioning of the ridiculous US gun laws which appear to make lethal weapons readily available to aspiring murderers.

What we can perhaps most safely say at the moment is that the killings which took place in the Orlando gay club were motivated by a virulent form of homophobia.

The main monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all have a lamentable record when it comes to the persecution of gays.

A few years back, when I was in the MCB and had written an article for the Guardian defending gay rights, I recall shortly afterwards that the MCB received an email from a leading figure in a Salafi mosque in Luton criticising me in pretty severe terms for my “deviant views”. I just shrugged it off at the time as being the usual narrow-minded nonsense from Salafi nutjobs, but perhaps, in retrospect, I should have called them out openly at the time and challenged their views.

It is sad to see so many Muslims who have first hand experience of anti-Muslim bigotry and discrimination, being too ready to indulge in anti-gay bigotry. As a society, we in the UK have come a commendably long way in just the past thirty years when it comes to recognising anti-gay attitudes and challenging them. It could be that more needs to be done in our schools to teach about the benefits and value of living in a free, secular and liberal society that prohibits discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, religion or sexuality.

Just over three years ago, in May 2013, two UK Muslims killed Fusilier Lee Rigby openly in the streets and boasted that they “wanted to start a war in London.” Fortunately, they failed to achieve that vile aim. It could be that the San Bernardino killers and the Orlando killer, Omar Mateen, also wanted to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash in the USA to further civil disharmony. If so, with the frightening spectre of Donald Trump looming large in the background, one can only hope that they too fail to achieve their dishonourable goals.

Posted in Extremism, Islam | Tagged , , | 48 Comments