Assad and Saddam, Khan Sheikhoun and Halabja, 2017 and 1988

In interviews to BBC radios this morning about America’s attack on Syria, I kept calling Assad Saddam. No wonder, of course. They were fellow Ba’thists and genocidal monsters, and they both used gas on civilians. Unfortunately, the world didn’t act on Halabja then If it had, much suffering and possibly wars might have been avoided. But it was a little more difficult then. When Jalal Talabani telephoned me to tell me about it for The Times, even I, a man of Kurdish upbringing and a friend of his, had difficulty believing him. How could a government which was a member of the UN and had embassies everywhere dare to use banned weapons to inflict such lingering deaths on its own citizens on a such a large scale! It took us three days to put a paragraph in the paper. The horrifying pictures emerged much later. So Saddam got away with it, and he was emboldened. Margaret Thatcher even proclaimed that the reports were ‘controversial’ and so doubled Saddam’s Export Credit Guarantees to £390m.
Hopefully now, the new Saddam will not dare do it again. He has been punished to the minimum extent possible, but significantly enough, and must know that if he persists he might lose the whole of his airforce . And we must welcome America’s hardening of tone on his future. Nor am I worried about a confrontation with Russia. Putin would be humiliated in any aerial confrontation with Western airforces. He is only a paper tiger allowed to flourish by weak Obama.

In the end, however, out of concern for the survival of the Alawite minority in Syria, we must hope and work for a negotiated settlement in which – without the Assad regime – they would have a veto over a future constitutional settlement. The same must go for the Kurds of Syria, whose valour and resilience in standing up against Ankara and Islamic State have surprised even me and earned the admiration of the world.

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On the Donald: How worried should we be?

On the Donald:

I’ve been recently saying to my friends and family that Trump’s mannerisms reminded me of Mussolini. Having watched his acceptance speech this morning, I’m a little less worried in that respect. It was statesmanlike and let us hope he meant most of it.

There is also the truth of American democracy not being about one man. The Republicans have only a small majority in Congress and the Supreme Court will similarly not prove the rubber stamp he will hope it to be, even when he appoints new judges to it. Nor should we forget the press and the strong civil society in the US. One more factor is that Trump will now relax and realise that he needs practically-minded experts in every direction.

So, altogether, I’ll be sending emails to our American friends not to be disheartened too much. In some ways, if their democracy has now got in touch again with the people, rather than remain the preserve of law-makers who’ve forgotten the pain of their electorate in these ‘globalised’ times, that may not be a bad thing in the long term. Even in the shorter term, I’m not afraid that America will desert Europe or sell out the Ukrainians and other east Europeans to Putin. The Donald is now the boss and he will be ‘Washington Man’. His extremist well-wishers will be disappointed.

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Report of a high-level private debate on Brexit in London on June 14, 2016

I’m writing this for those of my friends who would have enjoyed being present the other day in London as a distinguished panel of speakers argued whether we should vote to remain or leave in the EU next week.
The gathering is called The Global Strategy Forum and was founded by Michael Ancram a few years ago. It’s been very successful in attracting influential speakers. They are keen to be there, for when it comes to question-time, you feel as if half the audience comes from Parliament and the other half are ambassadors. We usually meet in the large David Lloyd George Room of the National Liberal Club on the Thames Embankment (to which I belonged for a decade or so in the 90s). Another good thing about the GSF – apart from the delicious lunch it gives us beforehand! – is that television cameras are not allowed in and so the speakers relax and can be more frank. They feel they are among friends.
In this case, what I’m going to tell you is not private, subject to the so-called Chatham House Rules. The speakers have already said all of it in public.
The chair was taken by Sir Menzies Campbell, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, and he managed to remain fair and neutral. It was good to see him again, though I was taken aback by how suddenly aged he looked. Though standing upright like a soldier, he looked extremely grey. Age often descends on us too quickly. Some years ago ‘Mengies’ fought and survived cancer. I’m glad he put up with all that chemotherapy, for our sakes, as well as his own and his family’s.
On the panel were Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former Conservative foreign secretary, Jack Straw, the former Labour home secretary and the architect of Tony Blair’s liberal immigration policy, Norman Lamont, the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer on Black Wednesday, and Michael Ancram, a Tory ‘grandee’ and former Defence minister in the Thatcher government.
The first three’s stance didn’t come as a surprise to me. Rifkind and Straw have in recent years been passionately pro-EU, and Lamont’s turning away from Brussels is equally well known. What surprised me was Michael Ancram’s change of mind. I’ve always thought of him as on the left of the Tory party and could often not distinguish his thinking from that of his many close friends in the Labour and Liberal parties. The explanation must be that he is also the 13th Marques of Lothian. He suffers his share of ‘aristocratic guilt’. He told us that he loved Europe and his grandmother was an Italian. But the EU had become a threat to the stability of the whole of the whole continent and he didn’t want to hand over to his grandchildren the problems that it was now stacking up for Britain.
The first to speak was Lamont and he surprised us by the way he viewed the EU’s single market. He told us that it was really a sham and a hindrance to trade between members, not a help. He said that non-EU members paid a tariff of 4% on the goods and commodities they exported to Europe. Members paid no tariff, but as Britain had to make a net contribution of between 8 and 9 billion pounds for its membership each year, it ended up paying the equivalent of 7% on the things it sold to other EU members. If we left, we would pay 4% only and, in addition, we would be free to strike our own deals with the rest of the world.
Second to speak was Rifkind who paid absolutely no attention to what his former cabinet colleague had just said about the single market. In his powerful Ciceronian oratory, he devoted the whole of his seven minutes to praising it.
Now came Ancram. Beside what I reported of his speech earlier, he said that the did not believe David Cameron for a second when he said that Britain could stop the EU becoming a closer political union until it became a single country, with national parliaments acting only as provincial councils. The process happened, not in formal treaties, so that Parliament and the press noticed, but in stealth, little by little, under your nose, forced on you by officials in Brussels.
The last to speak and equally passionate was Jack Straw who talked of the EU’s peace-keeping role. He said that the long peace we had enjoyed since 1945 was not just due to NATO. NATO protects us from the outside. The EU keeps peace inside. I saw one man shake his head. I thought I knew what he was thinking: The days of the Kaiser and the Fuhrer were long over. Lamont disagreed and ridiculed the head of the European Commission Donald Tusk. He had said a few days earlier that if Britain left the EU, “political civilisation would come to an end”.
We now had 30 minutes left for questions from the floor. Among those I remember speaking was David Hannay, the former British ambassador to the United Nations and, perhaps more relevantly, one of the diplomats who had negotiated Britain’s entry into the EU in 1973. He was strongly for Britain remaining, but was attacked by a member of Parliament who used the sentence: It’s no good for Lord Hannay banging on about this point!
I had planned, in the interest of enjoying the occasion, not to speak. Furthermore, I sat next to two old friends who had just told me how emotionally attached they were to ‘Europe’ (as in fact am I). They are Raymond Hylton, a lovely man who, as a descendant of prime minister Asquith, has devoted his considerable fortune to getting religious communities to talk to one another. Our friendship began in the 1990s, through my late friend, the Irish peer John Kilbracken. Later, Raymond asked me to travel to Somerset to deliver the main fund-raising speech for a retreat he has set up for people recuperating from mental illness. Until recently, we had an arrangement by which we paid for each other other’s lunch in turns! One month he came to my club, the next I would go to his (the House of Lords). Unfortunately, we’re both going deaf now and lunches are becoming a little hard. The other friend is someone to whom I became close in the course of numerous discussions on television from when Saddam grabbed Kuwait in 1990. Sir Harold Walker – or ‘Hooky’, as we all call him – served as British ambassador in Baghdad, but, I’m glad to say, he was never allowed to meet the Monster in person, as was customary diplomatic conduct.
I must not digress. The discussion drifted inevitably onto the effects of Brexit on immigration into Britain, and, as you all know, large-scale immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, has worried me for years. Fear of the rise of the far right which normally follows large-scale immigration from one culture into another caused me to join the Council of Migration Watch UK as far back as 2008. In addition, MWUK had just brought out a detailed report on the prospects for immigration if we remained in the EU. Our experts had announced that there would be an average of 275,000 new immigrants into Britain over the next 20 years if we remained, including many of the present wave of Syrian and other refugees who are settling in Germany and elsewhere. 275,000 is the equivalent of a city the size of Southampton every year in a country which is already congested in many places and where government services such as health and education are causing popular discontent. By coincidence, as we spoke, I noticed that some in the audience carried copies of The Times (for which I wrote for over 20 years). On a prominent page that same day, the paper was reporting that the EU was now issuing 900,000 European passports to immigrants, of which the majority were from Morocco and other Muslim countries. That figure is bound to rise hugely when the new refugees acquire European citizenship in five years and are then allowed to bring over their dependants.
So I rose to speak, but to shouts of ‘speak up, we cannot hear you’ from the back of the hall. As a result, (and perhaps sensing that I was going to be on his side,) Michael Ancram passed me his microphone! I began by saying that I hoped everyone had read our report. It had been covered by BBC television and the newspapers. Then I asked the following question: “As a writer on the Middle East, all my reading suggests that Islam in large numbers has never lived in peace with any of its host communities. How many members of the panel think that the humanitarian principle of giving permanent residency to large numbers of refugees, especially Muslim refugees, justified the risk of greater political instability through the rise of the far right?” I could have gone on to speak of my fear of the return of fascism to Europe, France first of all, from which I had just returned. But I knew that the chairman would cut me short, as time was running out.
Straw, whose former constituency of Blackburn has a large Muslim presence, was the obvious person to answer first and, as I expected, was in denial. The bulk of EU citizens who came over were not Muslims, he said, and, in any case, we in Britain had successfully integrated our Muslims. There was no problem. I raised my hand to ask that if he were right, why had Britain in recent years quadrupled the number of its spies watching the population for terrorism? Why the waste of all these billions on security? Were the police really worried about white grandmothers in airport queues when they force us to take off our shoes, or the Muslim men with bushy black beards? But Mengies would not allow secondary questions.
However, Lamont interrupted Straw: “All the new refugees and the previous immigrants will have the right to come and settle here”, he shouted. It was Rifkind’s turn to throw up his hands in horror as he growled at Lamont: “That will require 20 years”, he roared. Straw came back, but to his credit: “No, no, six years, six years”.
In the brawl, Mengies forgot who had spoken and who had not. So he didn’t let Ancram have his turn. It would have been interesting, for he would have given a considered reply.
As we rose to leave, a general of the army, whose name I’m not at liberty to mention, came over to say hello and that the panel did not really address my point. An Armenian diplomat came over and asked me whether I was one of his people. I said I wasn’t, but that a former president of his country had authorised me to call myself an honorary Armenian. He could trust me!
A former soldier, who’s now a professor of international relations in London and a fellow of an Oxford college, accompanied me for coffee to the other side of St James’s Park. He said that he had been unsure how to vote next week. Now he was certain that we must leave.

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Peter Cave on my review of Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions

Those of my few ‘followers’ who liked my recent review of Bryan Magee’s latest book may like to know that I lost a little sleep after posting it. Who was I, I said to myself, an amateur reader of philosophy, to be so bold as to criticise Magee? I shared my worries with the philosopher and London University don Peter Cave, and he reassures me that I’m not mad. Peter is, of course, a close friend, but a man of great integrity and high standing as chairman of The Humanist Philosophers Association. I do not believe that, despite his famous wit, he would put any thought into writing without meaning it. Nevertheless, my discomfort persists, though somewhat less intense, and I will therefore go on following the ‘mid-body’ debate among the philosophers. Links to Peter’s own books can be found on his website .

Dear Hazhir,
I have read your review and it comes over as generous and thoughtful and admiring, even with the criticisms.

With regard to the criticisms, well, you are standing up for views held by many philosophers, yet also disputed by many. Yes, of course, the term ‘soul’ has religious connotations, but it can be used without them — to point to whatever the ‘I’ designates (if anything), to the self. Bafflements regarding how to handle the self persist, as do those regarding how we are to understand the relationship between consciousness and neural states and activities. I have sometimes written of concepts such as the self and free-will as muddled or mythical concepts that we cannot live without.

As for scientific progress regarding understanding the world, well, I’m inclined to proclaim: ‘who knows?’ Theories can have radical revision. So I would await with interest, though given my age, the wait will lack sufficient duration. A highly respected atheist philosopher, Thomas Nagel, for example, has recently published on why, in his view, neo-darwinism is probably wrong:

“… the widely accepted world view of materialist naturalism is untenable. The mind-body problem cannot be confined to the relation between animal minds and animal bodies. If materialism cannot accommodate consciousness and other mind-related aspects of reality, then we must abandon a purely materialist understanding of nature in general, extending to biology, evolutionary theory, and cosmology. Since minds are features of biological systems that have developed through evolution, the standard materialist version of evolutionary biology is fundamentally incomplete. And the cosmological history that led to the origin of life and the coming into existence of the conditions for evolution cannot be a merely materialist history. An adequate conception of nature would have to explain the appearance in the universe of materially irreducible conscious minds, as such. No such explanation is available, and the physical sciences, including molecular biology, cannot be expected to provide one. The book explores these problems through a general treatment of the obstacles to reductionism, with more specific application to the phenomena of consciousness, cognition, and value. The conclusion is that physics cannot be the theory of everything.”

Yes, lunch with Brian Magee is a splendid idea.

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Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions, Princeton University Press, 2016.

Before I explain why this book didn’t quite come up to my expectations of Bryan Magee, let me express my gratitude of a lifetime to him. He’s been a guide and an inspiration since the 1970s, and I’ve had the good fortune of meeting him a couple of times, including a journey all the way from Oxford – where we’d been at a conference – to London in one of those tiny railways compartments that harked back to the age of steam. There were only the two of us and I got almost drunk on his wisdom and kindness (I’m a decade younger than him).
In some respects, Ultimate Questions scores 100% in my eyes. Magee has no place for God in explaining our existence, saying, in effect, that the moment you bring even a little religion into philosophy, you abdicate, you throw your hands in the air and say you’ve resigned from the chess game. He is also optimistic about the ability of scientists to solve some of the puzzles that remain. The book’s English is also, often, wonderful, coming close to poetry in places. Furthermore, an autobiographical chapter that at first suggests indulgence redeems itself with the joy of being alive that has enriched his long life in ideas, literature, music, friendship, love, nature.
Having admitted to these attributes that made this book a thoroughly enjoyable read for me, may I, with regret, say also why I’m disappointed. When he says that he doesn’t know if we have souls or not, he implies a strong supernatural element at our very core. To me, it’s clear that consciousness develops only gradually in us, taking at least a couple of years before the wonderful ‘I’ dawns upon the toddler. In other words, consciousness develops with the developing brain in the world and will disappear from the world the moment the molecules in our neurons fall apart on no-longer receiving oxygenated blood from the heart. To say, or imply, that there might be a consciousness or ‘soul’ that could exist outside the body is unacceptable. ‘Soul’, by the way, comes with as much religious baggage as does ‘God’. We know what a fellow empiricist philosopher such as Bertrand Russell or a Humanist biologist such as Julian Huxley would have thought of any such agnosticism.
More fundamentally, Mr Magee says that we can ever know very little because of the limitations of both language and our senses. On the former I would say that he is himself not doing too badly. He has conveyed tons of precise thought to his readers for decades through a highly developed language. On the latter, the dazzling ability of our eyes and the astonishing power of our brains alone suggest again that natural selection has had a long time to achieve for us a nearly-full – I’m tempted to say miraculously full – image of the world around us. Could what we see in a colourful meadow in bright sunshine really be improved?
Mr Magee is also disparaging of what the scientists have achieved in the past three centuries of precise instruments, advanced mathematics and super-fast computers. By saying that we still know ‘very little’ and that we shall go on discovering enormous numbers of new wonders, he implies that there will be a regular succession of Einsteins and Bohrs in the millions of years that he expects to be the future of humanity. But the evidence suggests the opposite. For a whole century now, equally brilliant scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, have struggled to come up with a theory that combines relativity and quantum mechanics and they have failed. Yes, with the aid of supercomputers and telescopes in space, we have proved the existence of black holes – as required by relativity – and pushed back the boundary of the visible universe, but these are only details. I believe there won’t be many more breakthroughs. Even the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere would not revolutionise the world for me. We already know what wonders Darwinian natural selection can lead to given the combination of a mild climate and a billion years of stability. Only one mystery may evade us for ever, and that is the presence of things instead of absolute nothingness (There are a few pages on this subject in my Consolations of Autumn: Sages in Hard Times, London 2015).
To sum up, Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions is a wonderfully stimulating book, beautifully written, full of information and insight, even beauty. But in places, it lacks philosophical rigour and an up-to-date grasp of physics and biology. For the latter reason, I will give it only four stars out of five. Despite this meanness on my part, though, I remain hopeful that, because of his love of life and conversation, my old guide and master will accept an invitation to come to lunch with me in our beloved central London soon. Hazhir Teimourian, March 2016.

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The tragedy of at least two Islamic State killers

I thought my heart would never go to Islamic State murderers, but this video of two of them speaking to their Kurdish captors brought out the father in me. Two intelligent and even beautiful young Syrians who could have been so useful to their country reveal how they were readily drawn into the clutches of that abominable organisation. They seem to be beginning to open their eyes to the horrors they committed and through which they have passed. One can’t be quite sure. They are prisoners and afraid. But their body language – though understandably nervous – indicates sincerity. Above all, their tragedy, the waste of their promising lives, points to the greater tragedy of the Muslim world: how millions of its people are driven by rage, ignorance, overcrowding and false pride inculcated in them by mullahs with a false long memory and vested interests, are ready to lend themselves to barbarism. The video is long and its producers are not skilled, but it justifies the pain it inflicts on the watcher. Come up with your own theory on whether Islam itself plays a pivotal part in the mess.

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Goodbye Peter Hopkirk, legend of Fleet Street, writer on Central Asia and good man

It occurs to me, more and more frequently these days, that we don’t often cherish the wonderful people we know when they still live. I thought of this particularly last week during a memorial service at St Brides church in Fleet Street that the Hopkirk family organised for their father, Peter. As my old friend Denis Taylor recalled for us some of his memories of working with Peter, and as Peter’s children and grandchildren spoke of the much-loved father and grandfather they had lost, I thought of my own – much smaller – loss, of not making an effort to seek him out in his last decade, when he would have had time for former colleagues and admirers.

If you wish to find out more about Peter’s journalistic achievements, his narrow escapes from dangerous places, his books on Central Asia and his wisdom and interests, you cannot do better than seek out the many obituaries that the press published on him in the wake of his death last August. In particular, I recommend the long obituary in The Times – whose brilliant authors I know, but am not at liberty to tell you!  Here I would like to recall Peter’s kindness towards junior colleagues and his patience to give them more confidence and to guide them to write better. Denis told us that when Peter himself started on The Times in 1966, he went to a senior writer on the paper to ask for advice. He was told: Write exactly as you have done until now, but make sure your paragraphs are twice as long!

Only five years of my being on the paper coincided with his, from 1980 to 1985, but I remember that every time he passed through the newsroom, he stopped by my desk to chat and to re-assure.

The organist and choir of St Brides bestowed full honour on Peter’s life with their fabulous musicianship. We heard Kyrie from Haydn’s Mass in Time of War, Tomas Luis de Victoria’s O Quam Gloriosum and Faure’s Sanctum from his Requiem. But I found the rector’s heavy invoking of Christian dogma a little overdone, particularly as Peter – though the son of a vicar – was not into God at all. At the reception afterwards, I grumbled a little to his son James. He had been over-ruled on the matter, he said.

The gathering proved altogether a memorable day and an occasion also to meet again the many old friends and colleagues with whom I had lost contact. For it all I am grateful to Peter’s wife Kathleen and to the rest of the extended family also. They had gone out of their way to spend a fortune on the service and on the accompanying booklet on Peter’s life and writings. Furthermore, they strengthened my new resolve to seek out long-lost friends before one or the other of us similarly becomes lost to seeking out!

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