England’s forgotten Muslim history

Jerry Brotton writes: Britain is divided as never before. The country has turned its back on Europe, and its female ruler has her sights set on trade with the East. As much as this sounds like Britain today, it also describes the country in the 16th century, during the golden age of its most famous monarch, Queen Elizabeth I.

One of the more surprising aspects of Elizabethan England is that its foreign and economic policy was driven by a close alliance with the Islamic world, a fact conveniently ignored today by those pushing the populist rhetoric of national sovereignty.

From the moment of her accession to the throne in 1558, Elizabeth began seeking diplomatic, commercial and military ties with Muslim rulers in Iran, Turkey and Morocco — and with good reasons. In 1570, when it became clear that Protestant England would not return to the Catholic faith, the pope excommunicated Elizabeth and called for her to be stripped of her crown. Soon, the might of Catholic Spain was against her, an invasion imminent. English merchants were prohibited from trading with the rich markets of the Spanish Netherlands. Economic and political isolation threatened to destroy the newly Protestant country.

Elizabeth responded by reaching out to the Islamic world. Spain’s only rival was the Ottoman Empire, ruled by Sultan Murad III, which stretched from North Africa through Eastern Europe to the Indian Ocean. The Ottomans had been fighting the Hapsburgs for decades, conquering parts of Hungary. Elizabeth hoped that an alliance with the sultan would provide much needed relief from Spanish military aggression, and enable her merchants to tap into the lucrative markets of the East. For good measure she also reached out to the Ottomans’ rivals, the shah of Persia and the ruler of Morocco. [Continue reading…]


The EU’s message to Britain: We’re going to be just fine without you

In a review of Jean-Claude Juncker’s state of the European Union speech, Joris Luyendijk writes: “Never before have I seen so little common ground between our member states,” said Juncker, himself an EU veteran like few others. The EU is in greater danger than ever before, he continued, with greater levels of selfishness, nationalism and parochialism.

Yet Juncker also slipped in good news of the sort that somehow rarely reaches the mainstream British press. There had been one million jobs created in Spain over the past three years, and seven million more elsewhere. Public deficits are, on average, now below 2% across the eurozone, down from a terrifying 6.3% in 2009. Juncker might have added the eurozone’s healthy current account surplus, meaning it continues to export more than it imports. This is a stark contrast to the US and Britain, two nations that are becoming ever more indebted because they buy more from foreign countries than they sell.

Easily the most refreshing element in the speech, at least for those who have had to endure the Brexit “debate”, was Juncker’s emphasis on realism. Where Brexiteers continue to indulge in narcissistic fantasies about getting the best of all worlds from the EU while making Britain a world power again, Juncker struck a very different tone. Insisting that “solidarity is the glue that holds the union together” he pointed out that Europeans today make up 8% of the world population. In 2050 that will be down to 5%. “By then you would not see a single EU country among the top world economies,” Juncker went on. “But the EU together? We would still be topping the charts.”

To which he might have added: “And that is true with or without Britain.” [Continue reading…]


Theresa May ‘likely’ to launch Brexit talks in early 2017, suggests Donald Tusk

The Guardian reports: The UK is expected to launch formal talks to leave the European Union in January or February next year, one of Europe’s top leaders said after a special summit without Britain, aimed at rallying the bloc battered by Brexit and the migration crisis.

The European council president, Donald Tusk, said British prime minister Theresa May had told him article 50 was “likely” to be triggered in January or February next year, dashing remain voters’ hopes of delaying the UK’s EU exit.

The British government was also sent a stark warning not to expect any compromise on the EU’s cherished principle of free movement of people, if it wants access to the single market.

Speaking of his meeting with May in London last week, Tusk said the prime minister had been “open and honest” about her difficulties in launching EU exit talks this year.

“She declared that it was almost impossible to trigger article 50 this year but it’s quite likely that they will be ready, maybe in January, maybe in February, next year.” He said the rest of the EU was ready to start negotiations tomorrow. [Continue reading…]


Some British taxi drivers being trained to spy on passengers

Middle East Eye reports: Taxi drivers in the UK are being trained to become the “eyes and ears” of local authorities and police in the hunt for potential terrorists as part of safeguarding schemes being rolled out across the country.

Drivers in several British towns and cities are receiving Prevent counter-terrorism training as part of mandatory “knowledge” tests introduced by local councils.

One flagship scheme, run by Calderdale Council in West Yorkshire, northern England, was considered so successful that councillors discussed extending it to staff working in takeaway food outlets and bars.

Manchester City Council also incorporated Prevent awareness into a safeguarding handbook issued to taxi drivers last year, while Dartford Borough Council in Kent is among the latest to introduce Prevent training as part of its safeguarding requirements for taxi drivers.

But taxi industry organisations and trade unions have raised concerns about the training which they say is being introduced in a piecemeal and inconsistent way across the country and risks creating an “air of suspicion” within communities.

Critics of Prevent also questioned the legality of the training and accused the Government of seeking to turn the UK into a “counter-terrorism state” in which citizens were expected to spy on each other. [Continue reading…]


British MPs deliver damning verdict on David Cameron’s Libya intervention

The Guardian reports: David Cameron’s intervention in Libya was carried out with no proper intelligence analysis, drifted into an unannounced goal of regime change and shirked its moral responsibility to help reconstruct the country following the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, according to a scathing report by the foreign affairs select committee.

The failures led to the country becoming a failed a state on the verge of all-out civil war, the report adds.

The report, the product of a parliamentary equivalent of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, closely echoes the criticisms widely made of Tony Blair’s intervention in Iraq, and may yet come to be as damaging to Cameron’s foreign policy legacy.

It concurs with Barack Obama’s assessment that the intervention was “a shitshow”, and repeats the US president’s claim that France and Britain lost interest in Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown. The findings are also likely to be seized on by Donald Trump, who has tried to undermine Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy credentials by repeatedly condemning her handling of the Libyan intervention in 2011, when she was US secretary of state. [Continue reading…]

Chris Stephen writes: When Nato went to war against Gaddafi in the revolution, the US took a back seat, with Britain and France sharing the leading role. But with the revolution over, Cameron walked away.

In London, few parliamentary debates on Libya were called by the government or the opposition, even though British bombing had done so much to create the country’s new order.

When last year the foreign affairs select committee called on Cameron to give evidence in its inquiry into British planning in Libya, he informed them he had no time in his schedule.

Meanwhile, diplomats insist that Libyan leaders of all persuasions have shut out offers of support. Memories of domination by outside powers leave Libyans suspicious of the motivations of foreigners, and offers to help build a modern state were spurned.

London finally woke up to Libya last year, with people smugglers taking advantage of the chaos to build a booming business – and with Islamic State on the march.

The UK, along with the US and Italy, is a prime mover behind the troubled government of national accord (GNA), created by a UN-chaired commission last December. Unelected and largely unloved, the GNA has failed to create a security force of its own, relying instead on militias that are also busy fighting each other.

The capture of key ports by the powerful eastern general Khalifa Haftar this week may have sealed the fate of this new government, now deprived of oil wealth.

All of which leaves Libya, in the words of Britain’s special envoy, Jonathan Powell – a veteran of Blair’s meeting with Gaddafi – veering towards becoming “Somalia on the Mediterranean”. [Continue reading…]


For more than 100 years, Britain has been perpetually at war

Ian Cobain writes: For more than a hundred years, not a single year has passed when Britain’s armed forces have not been engaged in military operations somewhere in the world. The British are unique in this respect: the same could not be said of the Americans, the Russians, the French or any other nation.

Only the British are perpetually at war.

One reason that this is rarely acknowledged could be that in the years following the second world war, and before the period of national self-doubt that was provoked in 1956 by the Suez crisis, Britain engaged in so many end-of-empire scraps that military activity came to be regarded by the British public as the norm, and therefore unremarkable. Another is that since 1945, British forces have engaged in a series of small wars that were under-reported and now all but forgotten, or which were obscured, even as they were being fought, by more dramatic events elsewhere.

A great deal is known about some conflicts, such as the 1982 Falklands war and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Britain’s role in the two world wars has become in many ways central to the national narrative. But other conflicts are remembered only dimly or have always remained largely hidden.

One strategically vital war, waged by Britain for more than a decade, was fought for most of that time in complete secrecy. In January 1972, readers of the Observer opened their newspaper to see a report headlined “UK fighting secret Gulf war?” On the same day, the Sunday Times ran a very similar article, asking: “Is Dhofar Britain’s hush-hush war?” British troops, the newspapers revealed, were engaged in the war that the sultan of Oman was fighting against guerrillas in the mountains of Dhofar in the south of the country.

Four years earlier, the devaluation crisis had forced Harold Wilson’s government to pledge that British forces would be withdrawn from all points east of Suez by December 1971 – the only exemption being a small force that was to remain in Hong Kong. Now the Observer article was demanding to know: “Has Britain really withdrawn all her forces from the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula? Or is the British government, like the Americans in Laos, waging a secret war without the full knowledge of parliament and public?” The Observer located one of the insurgency’s leaders, who told its reporter that the war had begun with an “explosion” in the country on 9 June 1965, triggered by what he described as poor local governance and “the oppression of the British”. By the time the Observer and Sunday Times were publishing their first, tentative reports, Britain had been at war in Oman for six-and-a-half years. [Continue reading…]


Fatal beating of Polish man fuels bebate over xenophobia in Britain

The New York Times reports: Two Polish immigrants were eating takeout pizza against a brick wall on a muggy night in Harlow, a working-class town about 20 miles northeast of central London.

As they chatted in Polish, witnesses said, a group of young boys and girls attacked them. The group repeatedly pummeled and kicked one of the men, Arkadiusz Jozwik, 40, a meat factory worker, in the head. He died two days later from his injuries, in a killing that the police are investigating as a possible hate crime.

The second man, who was not identified by the police, was hospitalized with bruises and hand fractures.

Six boys from Harlow — five 15-year-olds and one 16-year-old — have been arrested on suspicion of murder in the attack, which occurred shortly before midnight on Saturday. All have been released on bail. The police have appealed for witnesses to come forward, and they said they were investigating reports that the attackers had hurled racist abuse at the victims.

The brutality of the killing and its apparent targeting of immigrants shocked many Britons and prompted soul-searching. It renewed alarm among Eastern European immigrants that the campaign leading to Britain’s decision in a June 23 referendum to leave the European Union, known as “Brexit,” has unleashed a wave of xenophobia. [Continue reading…]


‘Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests’

Henry Porter writes: As I watched half a dozen Eastern European workers cutting zucchini and placing them on a slow-moving trailer in the small English village where I was brought up, one of the hard truths regarding the epic, self-defeating lunacy of Brexit came home to me: Britain’s precarious food supply.

Under the European Union’s right to the freedom of movement, some 250 Eastern European workers come here each year to pick vegetables — mostly onions, parsley, beans, Brussels sprouts, and cabbages — which are grown in the alluvial soil beside the River Avon. This is a sensible arrangement that suits both the farmer and migrant workers. But it was not always so. When I was a teenager, roaming the countryside with a .410-gauge shotgun or a fishing rod, I only ever came across one foreigner in the fields: Franz Reinwart, a Sudeten German from Czechoslovakia, who was brought to Britain as a P.O.W. during the last war and stayed on. The others were English and they came mostly from the local town in Worcestershire.

Franz was a gentle, good-looking man and a hard worker, too, much like his young successors from Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, and Lithuania, who toil long hours in all weather and earn enough to make the summer trip to the U.K. worthwhile. About 60,000 seasonal workers come to Britain every year and it is fair to say that British farmers would be lost without them. More important, if Brexit goes ahead, they cannot hope to replace them with the local labor force, which has come to see this kind of back-breaking work as beneath itself, or, in any case, is probably not very good at it.

I have no idea whether this local farmer voted to stay or leave the E.U. in the referendum, or if he even voted at all. Yet it was often farmers, who need foreign workers — and the rural working class, who are reluctant to become agricultural laborers — who voted to “take their country back.” Watching those men in the zucchini field this week, I wondered, not for the first time, how voters have become so blinded to their own interests. [Continue reading…]


Brexit is not inevitable, says former civil service chief

The Guardian reports: Brexit is not inevitable and Britain could still remain a part of a changed European Union, the former head of the civil service has said.

Gus O’Donnell, who was the cabinet secretary from 2005-11, told the Times (subscription) that he anticipated the UK would retain EU laws and rules regardless of its status in the union.

The crossbench peer said: “Lots of people will say, ‘We’ve had the referendum, we’ve decided to go out, so that’s it, it’s all over’. But it very much depends what happens to public opinion and whether the EU changes before then.

“It might be that the broader, more loosely aligned group is something that the UK is happy being a member of.”

Before the referendum Lord O’Donnell had said that leaving the EU would be complicated and take a long time.

On Saturday, he said leaving would mean “a huge administrative and legislative change” because of the vast amount of EU law that had been implemented over the last 40 years. As a result, he said he believed the UK would keep them in place even if it did officially leave the bloc. [Continue reading…]


UK in denial over Saudi arms sales being used in Yemen, claims Oxfam

The Guardian reports: British weapons sales to Saudi Arabia are a serious violation of international law, because the Gulf nation’s bombing campaign in Yemen is regularly hitting civilian targets including schools and hospitals, Oxfam has warned.

The UK government has switched from being an “enthusiastic backer” of the Arms Trade Treaty to “one of the most significant violators”, a senior executive at the charity told a conference on Tuesday on the global agreement in Geneva.

The Saudi-led air campaign was launched in March 2015, aiming to put down a rebellion by Shia Houthis, who have backing from Iran. It was widely seen as part of a regional sectarian proxy war between the two nations.

Since then Riyadh has been criticised by the UN, the EU and human rights groups for repeatedly killing or injuring civilians.

The bombardment has been so intense that medical charity MSF recently announced it was withdrawing from six hospitals in northern Yemen after the fourth airstrike against one of its facilities in less than a year. [Continue reading…]


Uncovering the brutal truth about the British empire

Marc Parry writes: Help us sue the British government for torture. That was the request Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian, received in 2008. The idea was both legally improbable and professionally risky. Improbable because the case, then being assembled by human rights lawyers in London, would attempt to hold Britain accountable for atrocities perpetrated 50 years earlier, in pre-independence Kenya. Risky because investigating those misdeeds had already earned Elkins heaps of abuse.

Elkins had come to prominence in 2005 with a book that exhumed one of the nastiest chapters of British imperial history: the suppression of Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion. Her study, Britain’s Gulag, chronicled how the British had battled this anticolonial uprising by confining some 1.5 million Kenyans to a network of detention camps and heavily patrolled villages. It was a tale of systematic violence and high-level cover-ups.

It was also an unconventional first book for a junior scholar. Elkins framed the story as a personal journey of discovery. Her prose seethed with outrage. Britain’s Gulag, titled Imperial Reckoning in the US, earned Elkins a great deal of attention and a Pulitzer prize. But the book polarised scholars. Some praised Elkins for breaking the “code of silence” that had squelched discussion of British imperial violence. Others branded her a self-aggrandising crusader whose overstated findings had relied on sloppy methods and dubious oral testimonies.

By 2008, Elkins’s job was on the line. Her case for tenure, once on the fast track, had been delayed in response to criticism of her work. To secure a permanent position, she needed to make progress on her second book. This would be an ambitious study of violence at the end of the British empire, one that would take her far beyond the controversy that had engulfed her Mau Mau work.

That’s when the phone rang, pulling her back in. A London law firm was preparing to file a reparations claim on behalf of elderly Kenyans who had been tortured in detention camps during the Mau Mau revolt. Elkins’s research had made the suit possible. Now the lawyer running the case wanted her to sign on as an expert witness. Elkins was in the top-floor study of her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when the call came. She looked at the file boxes around her. “I was supposed to be working on this next book,” she says. “Keep my head down and be an academic. Don’t go out and be on the front page of the paper.”

She said yes. She wanted to rectify injustice. And she stood behind her work. “I was kind of like a dog with a bone,” she says. “I knew I was right.”

What she didn’t know was that the lawsuit would expose a secret: a vast colonial archive that had been hidden for half a century. The files within would be a reminder to historians of just how far a government would go to sanitise its past. And the story Elkins would tell about those papers would once again plunge her into controversy. [Continue reading…]


Hate preachers to be held in separate prison units in England and Wales to curb radicalisation

The Guardian reports: Influential hate preachers will be held in separate prison units after an official inquiry found inmates were acting as “self-styled emirs” behind bars.

A government-ordered review into radicalisation in jails has concluded that some charismatic prisoners exerted a “radicalising influence” over fellow Muslims. It also claimed that some have attempted to engineer segregation, encouraged aggressive conversions to Islam, and been involved in the intimidation of prison imams.

The claims have emerged in a review led by former prison governor Ian Acheson and commissioned last year by then justice secretary Michael Gove. Such concerns in Whitehall were disclosed by the Guardian in February.

Its conclusions will overturn 50 years of dispersing the most dangerous prisoners across the prisons system. Critics have previously warned that such a move could also provide a focal point for public protests and claims of a “British Guantanamo”. [Continue reading…]