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11th Apr

published in The Independent, 11 April 2014


Peter Popham


We are living in increasingly interesting times. In eastern Europe, Russia seems intent on re-running the early days of the Cold War. A whole new generation is discovering the tingling of hairs on the back of the neck that you get when nuclear-armed nations start playing bad-tempered hands of poker.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, brace yourselves for a re-enactment of the event that set the Cold War in motion – war on the Korean peninsula, as the US and South Korea tomorrow [Friday] embark on their biggest ever aerial war games. The twice-yearly Max Thunder exercise, running to 25 April, coincides with two other ongoing exercises which have already provoked the North into a new bout of missile testing.

Two weeks ago, north and south traded fire across their maritime border, and there is a strong likelihood of further escalation before the fun and games are over. Remember, although the Korean War ended more than half a century ago, the two Koreas have never signed a peace treaty, and its tempestuous young leader has torn up what frail agreements did exist, declaring that the North is in a state of war with both the US and South Korea, and warning of his intention and ability to hit targets as far away as the continental US. It would be nice to treat Kim Jong-un, as a bizarre Korean joke; nice, but unwise.

The British response to this, if reports are to be believed, is to provide the regime with episodes of Teletubbies, Dr Who and Top Gear. Efforts to persuade the BBC to launch a dedicated Korean language World Service radio service to provide this actuality-starved population with real news have so far got nowhere.

Besides earning the corporation a few extra groats, it is hard to understand what sense there could be in bombarding the North Korean population with yet more incomprehensible fantasies, this time dreamed up in W1A. What passes for news in the Democratic Republic is bizarre enough already, without help from Dipsy, Laa-Laa, Po and Tinky Winky.

North Korean news has always had a credibility problem but since the accession of Kim Jong-un it has grown far, far worse, to the extent that people are looking back on the reign of his diminutive dad as a golden age of clarity and commonsense.

Of the recent alleged news stories supposedly coming out of Pyongyang, which have even a tangential connection with the truth? The report that Uncle Jang Song Thaek was torn to pieces by famished dogs turned out to be the Chinese idea of a joke. Jang’s crony O Sang-Hon has also been liquidated, but was he done in by a flamethrower, as reported by the reputable South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo? That too, was very likely no more than a gruesome rumour.

But the official news is equally weird. This week Pyongyang reported Kim Jong-Un re-election as First Chairman of the National Defence Commission. It is said that he obtained 100 per cent of the vote. Believe it if you will – the North Koreans certainly don’t. This week a defector told the Daily Telegraph, “Nowadays people believe less than 20 per cent of what is broadcast…They only use newspapers to roll their cigarettes.”

But through the fog of propaganda, rumour and baroque invention, certain facts about this rogue regime are discernible. The execution of Uncle Jang was clearly the young dictator’s bid to destroy his most serious rival for absolute power, and to prove, outside the country as well as in, that he and only he is the boss. But to the extent that this unprecedented purge exposed deep and dangerous rifts at the heart of the regime, it was evidence as much of his weakness as his ruthlessness. And that raises the most fundamental question about the North Korean regime: how will it end?

Kim Jong-un’s strategy for survival could not be clearer or cruder: terrorise and purge your enemies within, hurl threats and ill-aimed missiles at those abroad. It may appear extreme, but it is in line with the national psychology of the north, sedulously nurtured by all three Kims for 60 years: that of a plucky, uniquely virtuous country whose only hope, surrounded by vicious enemies, is to cultivate ‘juche’, self-reliance. And in the absence of reliable alternative sources of information such as the BBC World Service, the brainwashing inevitably works.

South Korea’s belligerent President Park Geun-hye, daughter of the military dictator Park Chung-hee, has decided to take Kim’s threats at face value, authorising pre-emptive military action if the army believes a missile attack from the north is imminent, authorising the military to respond without reference to political concerns.

But this approach, combined with ostentatious military exercises like the one that is about to start, play straight into Pyongyang’s hand. The underlying goal may be to weaken and even remove Kim, but the in the short run their likely effect will be to make him stronger.  And if his army again responds with firepower, we will be in terrifying new territory, given President Park’s new guidelines. There is a grave danger that the result could be a full-blown military confrontation, with results that no-one could safely predict.

That seems a crazy risk to run.  Kim Jong-un is the political equivalent of the late cult leader Jim Jones. Threatening him with annihilation is no way to talk him down. That’s like practically ordering him to start doling out the Cool-Aid.


Your Comments
4th Apr


Peter Popham


The world’s biggest democratic exercise gets under way on Monday, and if the pundits are right, Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will win the Indian general election by a country mile.

For the outside world, including both the European Union and the US, Mr Modi is the man who has turbocharged the economy of Gujarat, the state he has ruled for 12 years, and who promises to do the same for the flagging Indian economy as a whole. He has also said he will take effective action against corruption.

But nobody who, like me, was in Modi’s state 12 years ago and witnessed the carnage that took the lives of hundreds of Muslims in bloody, brutal and tightly organised pogroms can suppress a shiver of horror at the thought that this man may now be about to join the world’s top table.

Those scenes were reminiscent of the tit-for-tat massacres of Hindus and Muslims during Partition, and the mass killings of Sikhs in Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That this should happen in 2002 in a relatively prosperous and educated part of the country was profoundly shocking. No-one ever succeeded in proving that Modi had ordered or encouraged the massacres. But many reporters noted the failure of police to protect Muslim communities against the mobs.

These killings were as disturbing as Germany’s Kristallnacht, and for the same reason. Hostility to Muslims is in the bloodstream of the Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindu nationalist organisations to which Modi and the BJP belong. Inspired by European Fascism and Nazism, the movement’s founding ideologist, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, prescribed radically different treatment for Hindus – children of the subcontinent’s aboriginal religion, according to the theory – and those who subscribed to other religions.

According to Golwalkar, India’s minorities were suspect. “They are born in this land,” he wrote, “but…are they grateful to this land?..Do they feel it is a duty to serve her? No! Together with the change in their faith, gone is the spirit of love and devotion for the nation.” The dominant theme of Hindu nationalism has been suspicion of and hostility towards minorities, Muslims in particular. The idea that Hindus enjoy an exclusive, mystical connection to ‘Mother India’ is central.  And as Europe discovered in the 1930s, the politics of hate are terribly potent in countries gripped by poverty or mass unemployment. When politicians’ promises of prosperity ring hollow, the quest for some group to blame becomes a seductive alternative.

Narendra Modi’s roots in the Sangh Parivar go deep. The child of poor shopkeepers, he became a quasi-monastic member of the movement as a young man, swearing lifelong fealty and celibacy. He has done nothing else in his life but work for and within Hindu nationalism. His choice of Varanasi to be his constituency bore out the depth of his devotion: for pious Hindus it is the holiest city in the world, where the devout come to die so they can immediately escape the cycle of birth and death and attain liberation. This week he again forcibly reminded India of that identity by raising the question of the slaughter of cows for export to Bangladesh – always an emotive issue for Hindus, for whom cows are sacred.

But on the most toxic question for a Hindu nationalist, the treatment of minorities under BJP rule, Modi has kept silent. He has never issued an apology for the massacre that took place in Gujarat on his watch, nor risen to journalists’ demands, in his rare interviews, to go into detail about what happened. Instead he sticks to those grievances guaranteed to excite Indians of all ethnicities and religions and social classes: the faltering the economy, corruption, the need to act tough with China and Pakistan. His calling card is his reputation for firm economic management in Gujarat – despite the persistence there of a large, deeply-impoverished underclass. Whatever happened in the shadows he leaves well alone.

Mr Modi’s success in escaping from his past reminds me of the similar achievement of Italy’s former deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini. The leader of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the direct heir of Mussolini’s Fascists, and in his youth quite as committed a political extremist as Modi, he spent his first decade as a sort of parliamentary leper: no mainstream politicians would have anything to do with him. But then he gave his party a neutral new name, the National Alliance, condemned anti-semitism, visited Jeruasalem’s Wailing Wall, and in 1994 entered Silvio Berlusconi’s first coalition government. A few years later his stock had improved so dramatically that this ‘post-Fascist’ was regarded as a pillar of respectability compared to his wayward boss. In no time he was co-authoring the (doomed) EU constitution with Giscard d’Estaing.

Mr Fini’s transformation was more dramatic and arguably more heartfelt than Mr Modi’s. But both of these shrewd men have done precisely what was necessary to emerge from political no-man’s-land and take charge, while retaining their parties’ support. Modi has never accounted for the Gujarat pogroms, but instead in 2011 undertook a series of quasi-religious fasts as part of a ‘goodwill mission’ to his state’s Muslims. In intention it was very much like Fini’s visit to Israel.

They do what works; the prize is high office, and admission to the world’s top table. And in return the parties they lead – which have done little to back their leaders’ sweet words with reforming actions – gain the glittering prizes of power.


Your Comments
31st Mar


Peter Popham


The west owes Vladimir Putin a big thank you. We were forgetting who we were and who our friends were and who they weren’t. Crimea has been a sharp nudge in the ribs.

The G8 was always a curious entity. Russia had no business being in it, its economy being so much smaller than those of the other members. It was admitted in 1998, 13 years after the group was founded, with the intention of trying to keep the big brat in order and teach him some table manners. Well that didn’t work.

It was part of the west’s programme – patronising, unrealistic and psychologically flawed as it now seems – to persuade the Russians that the collapse of the Soviet Union, the loss of their entire area of influence, the plummeting of their prestige and the arrival of NATO and the EU on the border need not be seen in a bad light, in terms of defeat, but as a precious opportunity to be seized.

This was a classic case of failing to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes. Imagine if things had gone the other way. Those of us who lived through at least part of the Cold War remember not only the nuclear terror but the lively fear that, given a few false moves at the negotiating table, the logic of co-existence would collapse and Russian tanks would be at the English Channel – ready to welcome us into the expanded Soviet Union. That’s why we tolerated the nauseating logic of Mutually Assured Destruction, as the best assurance that that would never happen.

Russia, of course, feared exactly the same thing – which is why for them 1989 and all that was not a moment of liberation but the start of a long nightmare of loss. And that’s why, at the height of the Crimea crisis, a top Russian TV anchor bragged that Russia was “the only country…realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” The old bruiser was dragging himself up off the floor.

The new-old G7 may indeed, as Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said in a tone of sour grapes, not have much relevance in the world in any more, but its re-constitution symbolises an important fact: the west is once again the West, and thanks to Mr Putin it is experiencing a frisson of unity such as it has not known for a long time.

It has been argued many times over the past 20 years that NATO was losing its raison d’etre, that the US had lost or would soon lose its appetite for defending its European allies, and that the end of the Cold War had moved us all onto a totally new page. That view was strengthened by a series of events that drove new wedges between western Europe and the US. Europe’s dismal failure to agree on any kind of a robust, united response to the wars in former Yugoslavia exposed it to the scorn of the US, which seized the initiative in bringing the Bosnian war to an untidy but conclusive termination. The invasion of Iraq split Europe down the middle. Most recently, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scale of NSA phone-hacking infuriated and alienated European leaders.

Some of these rows were more significant than others; in particular the neo-cons’ urge, circa 2003, to re-boot the US as an imperial power ran deeply counter to the European tendency of the previous half century. But despite these rifts, what united Europe and the US – the West – continued to be far more important than what divided it: democratic institutions, strong but not tyrannical states, a growing recognition, embodied in trans-national institutions like the Organisation for Co-operation and Security in Europe, of how peace and inter-dependence were intimately linked, and how these placed limits on the traditional concept of sovereignty.

In his seminal essay published in 2000, The post-modern state and the world order, the British strategic thinker Robert Cooper argued that it was this willingness to accept “intrusion in areas normally within state sovereignty” in the interests of greater mutual security that defined “the post-modern element” of the modern world.  “It is important to realise what an extraordinary revolution this is,” he wrote. “The normal logical behaviour of armed forces is to conceal their strength and hide their forces and equipment from potential enemies.” It was, he argued, “The shared interest of European countries in avoiding a nuclear catastrophe” which had proved “enough to overcome the normal strategic logic of hostility and suspicion.”

Europe’s memory of centuries of war and its determination not to have any more of them was at the heart of that post-modern world, and the G8 was one of the ways we tried to bring Russia on board. The fact that Russia has agreed to let an OCSE mission monitor the military situation in the Ukraine may indicate that Mr Putin still sees himself as beholden to those arrangements, but nonetheless that attempt has now failed.

The annexation of Crimea throws us back into a polarised world, and if that is a more dangerous world it has the benefit of also being a clearer and a more honest one. It is the latest in a series of apparently malign accidents that have forced the West to re-assess both its limits and its potentialities.

The chaos that has followed the interventions in Iraq and Libya have brought a welcome if belated dose of reality to neo-imperialists in Washington, London and Paris: it is now obvious to nearly everyone that it is much easier to create a failed state than to put such a state back together again.

At the same time, the Crimea crisis makes clear that what has been achieved in the former Warsaw Pact countries since the fall of the Berlin Wall is precious and fragile and cannot be taken for granted. In many of those countries, as in Ukraine, it has a long way to go; but what has been achieved is to be defended. Russia cannot be allowed to doubt that.


Your Comments
26th Mar


Peter Popham


Last month Spain launched an extraordinary initiative: its Justice Minister announced a new law permitting all those able to demonstrate blood connections to the Sephardic Jewish community expelled in 1492 the right to return to Spain with Spanish (and therefore European) citizenship. The new version of the law, unlike the version trailed in 2012, does not require applicants to renounce their existing nationality. It has been enthusiastically received: one Israeli lawyer specialising in European citizenship applications reports around 1,000 enquiries. Spain’s Justice Ministry has received 3,000 applications so far.

In a mean and jealous world, Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon’s initiative shines like a light in the darkness. Now it’s the turn of other governments to follow his example.

Burma’s reforming government should waste no time in laying out the welcome mat for the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians thrown out by the xenophobic dictator General Ne Win in the early 1960s.

Greece should do the same for the Turks expelled after the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution, and in tandem Turkey should welcome back its ethnic Greeks. As all these communities –including Burma’s exiled ethnic Indians and Spain’s long-lost Jews – are characterised by enterprise, economic dynamism and familiarity with risk taking, such a policy would have a singularly dynamic impact on the struggling economies of the countries to which they returned.

The Sri Lankan government of President Mahendra Rajapaksa would find no surer way of convincing the world of its good intentions than by inducing the huge Tamil diaspora to pack their bags and come home. The exiled Palestinians are more of a challenge, given that their homes, towns and lands have been very substantially expropriated. But a really imaginative, path-breaking general secretary of the Chinese communist party would even now be thrashing out the minimum necessary to lure Tibetans, including of course the Dalai Lama, back to Tibet. Diasporas are a terrible menace, as the Chinese, the Sinhalese and the Israelis know to their cost. The loss of homeland does terrible things to the mind. Being wrenched away from your home is a trauma that never heals.

Of course, merely to list these cases of mass exile and to name the obvious remedy – repatriation – is to appreciate how unlikely such policies are likely to be pursued. And to be impressed all over again by Mr Ruiz-Gallardon’s political boldness in drafting his law.

Critics say that his real reason is not the marvellous culture to which the Sephardic Jews contributed in Spain’s Golden Age, not the persistent attachment of that community to “their country, their language and their traditions” as the minister put it, but the economic vitality they would bring to stagnant Spain. But if true, that does not negate the moral dimension.

But how about extending the gesture to the Muslims, booted out of Spain en masse about 100 years after the Jews?

It is argued that the cases are different: the Jews were merely persecuted, while the Muslims were conquerors and invaders whose invasion was eventually reversed. Inviting them back would be like inviting the Germans back into Poland, the Italians into Albania, the British back into Bengal.

Yet if we are talking about culture, Islam was just as much a part of the old Iberian culture as the Jews were – arguably more so.

It could be said that Mr Ruiz-Gallardon would receive scant domestic applause for throwing down the welcoming mat to people whose co-religionists brought bloody mayhem into the heart of Madrid in 2004, and whose growing presence is a nagging political issue in many parts of Europe.

But if the problem with the Muslims is that many of them in the Middle East have shown little aptitude for co-existing peacefully with other communities, Israel’s appalling treatment of Palestinians opens them to the same objection. Mr Ruiz-Gallardon’s initiative is a bright light in a nasty world. But he is going to have a debate on his hands before it’s all over.


Your Comments
26th Mar


Peter Popham


It’s how, in a sane world, we would all choose to live. The first sentence of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital reads, “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist method of production prevails takes the form of an immense accumulation of commodities.” We know in our hearts that this state of affairs is neither healthy nor sane. We can’t take those commodities with us, their production destroys the natural world and the gross inequality of their distribution poisons the social bloodstream. But now, as ever, that is how our societies function.

In a community called New Oasis for Life they are challenging those assumptions. Members of the commune, who range from illiterate peasants to middle-class refugees from the city, have no money or private possessions, they toil in fields and orchards that are owned and worked communally and they receive what they need to survive, nothing more. “What we’re doing here is basically communism,” says the community’s founder. “People do what they can and get what they need.”

The stinging irony is that New Oasis for Life is in China’s Yunnan Province, and although its ideology is directly inspired by Marx, the authorities of the People’s Republic are doing all in their power to shut it down. Members have been beaten up by thugs from outside, water pipes and generators have been destroyed, the police have set up a monitoring post at the entrance to watch comings and goings. In December the Forestry Bureau ordered the property returned to its original state before the commune was created and fined members 168,000 renminbi (£16,000). All the community’s children have been forcibly removed and sent to state schools.

We already know from the brutal persecution of Falun Gong, the spiritual movement characterised as an “evil cult” by Beijing, that China has very limited tolerance for groups that challenge the status quo. As the New York Times reported this week, New Oasis members suspect that the real reason the authorities are trying to close them down is because politically well-connected speculators are itching to get their hands on the land – and the plausibility of that scenario is a reminder of how far China has left behind the old time communist religion of Mao and his comrades.

But the emergence of New Life is yet more proof of the strength and persistence of the communist dream that has inspired generation after generation of revolutionaries, a dream that refuses to die. Bob Crow described himself as a “communist socialist”, and his great success in building up his union owed much to his passionate political convictions. Millions of people across the Indian state of Kerala, the Italian province of Tuscany and large swathes of the former eastern bloc look back on the social and educational provisions of the communist years with keen nostalgia.

At the bonsai scale – in one trade union, one collective farm, one European province – communism’s  achievements are inspiring. I remember the shock of discovering a remarkably pure strain at Kibbutz Malkiyya in Upper Galillee, where I volunteered before going to university, back before the Yom Kippur war: no wages, few private possessions, children reared communally, clothes dished out from a central store, meals eaten together. The founding kibbutzniks, intellectual refugees from eastern Europe, the walls of their simple homes adorned with prints by Miro and Klee, had found salvation. For them this really was the promised land.

Both the charm and the success of these experiments lies in their tiny scale. This is dwarf communism, and bears the same relation to Stalin’s Soviet Union as a gecko does to a dinosaur. Like Bob Crow, they are pettable, posing no threat to the established order. Communism’s economic contradictions – the idiocies produced by centralised planning and the denial of the market – are masked by the donations of outsiders. They flourish in their artificial micro-climates, when the brisk air of the real world would kill them stone dead.

Above all, they are all escapable: when they become Animal Farm-like tyrannies, you can run away. It’s much harder to escape the octopus tentacles of a communist party once it has achieved its goal of total control – as the nice communards of Yunnan are now discovering to their cost.


Your Comments
26th Mar


Peter Popham


Italy has been described as a laboratory of bad ideas – Mussolini and fascism, Berlusconi, Beppe Grillo – but with the arrival of Matteo Renzi in Palazzo Chigi, Rome’s very much grander answer to no. 10, perhaps the men in white coats have semi-accidentally hit on something rather wonderful. Just perhaps.

Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister for the past 12 days, is 39 and looks at least 10 years younger, except for a couple of tell-tale strands of grey hair above his ears. He is rather large and pudgy, like an overgrown teenager, has a plump, totally unmarked face which produces two small vertical lines above his nose when he is posed a tough question, and has a pleasing knack of lapsing into funny, buffoonish expressions. Likeable if bumptious one might decide if one found oneself in the same class at school, a bit of a smarty-pants. These are mild criticisms compared to those doubtless harboured by Gianni Letta, the prime minister and fellow member of the Democratic Party (PD) whom Renzi stabbed in the back to get the top job.

So Mr Renzi is very sure of himself, and cheerfully ruthless. Above all, unlike Mr Letta and all previous leaders of PD, he does not look tired, afraid, haunted; he does not look like an old political hack. Of the various leaves he has taken out of Mr Berlusconi’s book, that aspect of genial self-confidence is the most striking: like Berlusconi, he expects to charm, to get his own way; he is not terrified of being mugged around the next corner.

Mr Renzi’s other advantage is that you do not know where to place him on the political map. The political family trees of other leaders of the Italian centre-left can be plotted with the mad precision with which ZigZag magazine used to tease out the genealogies of rock bands. Their tracks can usually be followed back to the once-mighty communist party or the corrupt and discredited socialist party, or one of the powerful trade unions. Such a bloodline gave a leader a good chance of unwavering support from one or more of Italy’s major dailies, all of them packed with party loyalists of one stripe or another, but by the same token it means they have to carry a lot of baggage. It means there are all sorts of lobbies they don’t dare to touch. That’s why they look in fear of their lives.

Mr Renzi’s sensational arrival in the top job was greeted by the most muted of receptions in the heavy dailies. He was not their man: they didn’t know what to make of him, or what to expect of him. All this was good, even if it did not appear so at the time. It means he is not captive to the powerful lobbies that have held Italy submerged in aspic for the past several decades.

Mr Renzi is the product of a political system whose most striking contemporary aspect is its amazing fluidity. That may sound like a good thing but it’s the product of serial failure. The collapse of the Christian Democrats and the Socialists in the corruption scandals of the early 1990s was the original failure, and yielded Berlusconi and Forza Italia. Berlusconi himself utterly failed to do as he promised and revive the economy, and that failure eventually produced the threat of Italy going the way of Greece. But instead of galvanising the political class into a spasm of realism, as happened in Greece and elsewhere, the crisis merely persuaded the haunted hacks of the nomenklatura to cede power to the unelected dictatorship of Mario Monti, the bankers’ friend. It was a shameful failure of courage by the political establishment for which they will pay for the rest of their careers.

The proximate result was the triumph of the comedian Beppe Grillo and his Five-Star Movement, which gained one-quarter of the popular vote in the last election. This was the ultimate victory of anti-politics, but Matteo Renzi is betting on the disaffected millions who gave Grillo their vote being utterly disenchanted by his behaviour since then, his brutal negation of democratic practice within the party, the tyrannical expulsion of those who cross him, including five more senators booted out this week. Those who voted for Grillo were refugees from both the right and (more numerously) the left, whom successive disillusionments had rendered politically homeless. But now they are finding that Grillo’s totally negative approach to the nation’s dramatic problems is barely more satisfactory than the policies enacted by his adversaries. Something, they realise now, must be done: it is not enough, like Grillo’s sinister Rasputin, Roberto Casaleggio, to conjure nihilistic dreams of a third world war followed by a brave new world ruled over by Google. You have to deal with the Here and Now.

That’s Mr Renzi’s trump card: his bustling air of determination to get things done.  This week the European Union said that Italy faces a “major challenge” in tackling its debt which is now more than €2 trillion, 132.6 per cent of GDP.   Also this week, Mr Renzi, who yesterday [Thurs] had his first meeting as pm with David Cameron, Angela Merkel and other top EU leaders to discuss Ukraine, has promised immediate action on jobs, affordable housing and crumbling schools. Italians are wearily habituated to their leaders accomplishing very little, and taking forever about it. Some prompt and efficacious action will be much appreciated.


Your Comments
26th Mar


Peter Popham

When I was this paper’s correspondent in Rome, Laura Boldrini was a treasure. Once or twice a month, sometimes far more frequently, leaky boats crammed with migrants from Africa and beyond limped into the harbour of Lampedusa, or were rescued and towed into port by the Coast Guard. If there were storms very often the boats would sink and the Coast Guard and the UN refugee agency would have the task of recovering and counting and disposing of the bodies. It was a relentlessly depressing and repetitive news story about which it was hard not to become jaded. But Boldrini, who worked for the UN for 20 years, for many of them as spokesperson for the UNHCR, never grew jaded or cynical or dismissive. She was empathy incarnate. She always knew exactly what was going on, was always available for interview on her mobile. I never had cause to doubt that she was totally committed to the welfare of the thousands of poor people washing up on Italy’s doorstep every year.

So I was delighted and amazed when, one year ago, following her election as an MP with the Left Ecology Freedom party, she was pulled from the ranks of novice parliamentarians and promoted Speaker of the Camera, the lower house. Delighted  because commitment of Laura’s sort is precious in any sphere of life; amazed because in the Italian system the speakers of the two houses are, along with the President of the Republic, the three senior-most officials in the land and the jobs normally go to very senior politicians with long careers behind them. It was great to see her get the recognition, but it did not seem exactly the sort of recognition she merited.

In the next week or two that situation may well change for the better. Italy is in the middle of an old-fashioned power struggle between centre-left factions, with the young pretender, Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi, predicted to oust his Democratic party colleague Enrico Letta as prime minister some time soon. So far so normal: only the Berlusconi anomaly, it seems, interrupted the tendency of Italian governments to lead short, intense lives. Mr Renzi is fancied by many who know him as the most exciting new face to emerge for a long time, with the freshness and drive to break Italy’s long weary cycle of stagnation and decline. We shall see. Hope springs eternal.

This week he let it be known that, if he does form a government, Laura Boldrini will be in it. That is a good thing. It would the strongest way to send the message that he is in the business of changing ethics, not merely faces.

Italian politics has been dogged for as long as anyone can remember by a sense of caste entitlement, symbolised by the huge salaries and expenses and pension arrangements, the swollen fleet of oversize blue Lancias at politicians’ beck and call, the pervading sense that having got elected they are beyond the reach of the hoi polloi. That mentality has been under siege for a long time, but as in Britain it takes a lot of shifting. The 25 per cent of the electorate who voted for comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement were protesting above all against the political caste. Likewise a generation ago the notherners who put Umberto Bossi and the Northern League in Parliament, with the slogan “big thief Rome”. Yet Bossi and his crew succumbed to Rome’s blandishments in the end.

With a woman as passionate and honest as Laura Boldrini involved as a minister, with her wide knowledge of the larger world and her vivid understanding of Italy’s moral failings, the new government would have a good claim to be making a fresh start. But there is no point in pretending it would be easy for Boldrini herself.

Her decision to stand for parliament last year unleashed a tidal wave of sexist hostility against her: threats, insults, vile images. Her sudden promotion to Speaker brought out the sarcasm in her political adversaries, who addressed her with exaggerated formality as “signor presidente” (a handle to which she is entitled). But the real aggression began when she recently used her authority to cut short a filibuster by the comedian Grillo’s party. The comment section of the blog which is Grillo’s main portal to the world filled up with insults and violent threats. She received photos of herself pasted onto the image of a woman being raped. Grillo himself, supposed godfather of a brave new world of cyber democracy, posted a video on the blog with the title, “What would you do alone in a car with Boldrini?”

Vulgar abuse and menaces and innuendo of this sort bring home how much damage Silvio Berlusconi has done to Italy’s moral fibre. Grillo and Berlusconi are worlds apart politically, but Grillo is heir to the latter’s ugly macho bravado. By filling his party up with topless models and wannabe starlets, Berlusconi’s reductive view of women and their role became the Italian norm. Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, was dismissed as “an unfuckable lard arse.” Politicians whose looks were not their strong suit were relentlessly sneered at. Even Margaret Thatcher, whom Berlusconi admired, he insulted in sexual terms. The bizarre world-view of this pathetic lothario insinuated itself everywhere.

Giving Laura Boldrini a senior ministerial post would send the strongest imaginable signal that at last the times are changing.


Your Comments
26th Mar


Peter Popham


Yes folks, we journalists are at it again: putting two and two together to make something a lot more interesting than four. Yesterday’s Mail on Line’s headline was “Raffaele Sollecito is caught by Italian police ‘trying to flee the country with his girlfriend’.” Sky News had the racier “Kercher Killer Sollecito Held Near Border”. The implication of both was that Sollecito, found guilty of Meredith Kercher’s murder for a second time yesterday, was desperately (and foolishly) trying to run away.

In fact he was in a hotel well inside Italy, near his girlfriend’s home, having checked in under his own name. The police did not need to “apprehend” him, as Sky News put it, with the suggestion of handcuffs. He merely went with them to surrender his passport, as the court had ordered.

In this way do we smear. Sensational reporting of facts that are intrinsically unsensational is at the root of the mess that Amanda Knox and her ex-boyfriend Sollecito find themselves in. This West Coast hippy girl and her new Italian lover kissed and canoodled outside the flat where Meredith Kercher was murdered. That was inadvisable with cameras clicking but was it suspicious? Was it the act of a killer that she did the splits in the Perugia police station, or just that of a wacky young woman with unusual ways of relieving her tension?  Was it the act of two killers that they themselves called the police, that awful morning in November 2007, and waited for them to break down the door to Meredith’s room?

The ugly fact now, after Thursday night’s verdict, for all concerned including the Kercher family, is that now there really is no way to find out what happened in Meredith’s room that night. Rome’s Court of Cassation overturned the appeal court’s acquittal, not on a re-examination of the evidence but because they accused that court of doing a sloppy job. Whether or not that was fair, the latest bench had even less to go on than the earlier trials, because the samples of DNA on the knife which prosecutors claimed was the murder weapon, and on the clasp of Meredith’s bra, were so small that they could not be re-tested. As for the motive, the scenario we all got excited about – that a sex game or black Masonic ritual went bloodily wrong – was rightly discarded by the new prosecutor as there was no evidence at all that it happened.

The baseless smears with which the first prosecutor filled the Italian media, eagerly re-cycled in the British tabloids, became what everyone “knows” about this case. Meanwhile Italian justice chases its tail, and instead of establishing truth, disappears up the fundament of process.


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26th Mar


Peter Popham


Bilawal Bhutto, 25-year-old son of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto, this week issued a clarion call for the Pakistani army to drive the Taliban from his country.

The dramatic demand by the heir of the nation’s most revered political dynasty’s came in an attack on Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who on Wednesday scuppered carefully-laid plans to launch a full-scale army offensive against the Pakistani Taliban in the north-west of the country and called for talks instead. Bhutto promptly tweeted, “I want [Sharif] to be our Churchill. Unfortunately he is becoming our Neville Chamberlain.”

He expanded his thoughts in an interview with the BBC’s Lyse Doucet.  “Dialogue is always an option,” he said, “but we have to have a position of strength. How do you talk from a position of strength? You have to beat them on the battlefield. They are fighting us. It’s not only confined to North Waziristan. They are attacking us in Karachi. We would like to eradicate the Taliban from Pakistan.”

His fiery declaration comes after a long series of unprovoked attacks by Pakistani Taliban against Shias, Sufis, Christians and Hazaras – the typically diverse enemies of the totalitarian Islam they want to impose. They have also killed schoolchildren and paramedics struggling to inoculate the poorest people in the country against polio, as well as many soldiers.

Bilawal’s Hal-to-Henry V transformation was surprising given his earlier reputation as an effete, westernised young man who struggled with his Urdu and during the last elections campaigned from a base in Dubai to improve his survival chances.  For younger, urbanised Pakistanis, as for their Indian counterparts across the border, political dynasties are so last century: a Gujarati taxi driver told an Indian friend of mine that Rahul Gandhi was “a puppy still suckling his mother’s milk, who hasn’t yet learned even to bark!” But the flipside of dynastic privilege, on both sides of the border, is assassination, generation after generation. In Bilawal Bhutto at least it seems to have produced some steel.

A full-scale campaign against the Taliban would pose many dangers, not least of retaliatory terror attacks in population centres well back from the front line, such as Lahore and Islamabad. But Bhutto’s call resonated with many Pakistanis because the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban are two very different things.

The Afghan Taliban, who have stubbornly resisted the worst that the US and Britain could throw at them for the past 12 years, brought a measure of peace and stability to their war-racked country during the late 1990s. Sons of the Pashtun soil, their claims to being pious and honest gained them widespread support, even though their version of Islam was brutally reductive. That helps to explain why they are still a force to reckon with today.

In Pakistan by contrast, which for all its failings enjoys a measure of civilisation unknown in Afghanistan beyond the watering-holes of Kabul, the shaggy-bearded, bloodthirsty Islamists of the Pakistani Taliban are seen in the same light as ancient Romans regarded the Visigoths – as terrifying barbarian invaders.

That is why Bhutto’s backing for military action has gone down well. For all its corruption, the Pakistani state enjoys a degree of democratic legitimacy that is the envy of countries like Libya and Iraq, let alone Syria or Somalia. The fact that, for the first time, the country last year experienced a peaceful transfer of power was a sign that its political culture is beginning to mature.

The Pakistani Taliban would love to put a bomb under all that, but do the beneficiaries of the ballot box have the courage to stop them? Bilawal Bhutto doubts it.


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26th Mar


Peter Popham


Fifteen hundred years ago, a wandering monk called John Moschos described the eastern Mediterranean as a “flowering meadow” of Christianity. The religion had been born here 600 years before, but while, in the early years, it had been a persecuted, militant cult, under the patronage of the Byzantine emperors it had matured and mellowed. “The meadows in spring present a particularly delightful prospect,” he wrote in his book The Spiritual Meadow, which became a seventh century best seller. “One part of this meadow blushes with roses; in other places lilies predominate; in another violets blaze out…”

Christianity, in other words, was now flourishing right across the region. No intolerant tyranny menaced it, no other religion contested its right to grow and prosper and develop in different ways. “The Eastern Mediterranean world was almost entirely Christian” in Moschos’s day, William Dalrymple wrote in his book From the Holy Mountain. “At a time when Christianity had barely taken root in Britain…the Levant was the heartland of Christianity and the centre of Christian civilisation…The monasteries of Byzantium were fortresses whose libraries and scriptoria preserved classical learning, philosophy and medicine against the encroaching hordes of raiders and nomads [and] the Levant was still the richest, most populous and highly educated part of the Mediterranean world.”

Today the picture is dramatically different. Every corner of the Middle East is locked in more or less violent struggle, but whatever course the future takes, it is safe to predict that Christians will only play a marginal part in it – if they survive at all. Already, as Prince Charles recently pointed out, there is a smaller proportion of Christians in the region than in any other part of the world: just four per cent, and falling fast. Sunni Muslim extremists see them not as “people of the Book”, members, like Muslims, of one of the three great Abrahamic religions, but as infidels, bracketed as the odious Other alongside Shias, apostates, atheists, Bah’ais.

For Muslim extremists, the Christian minority has become a favoured target: because they belong to the “wrong” religion, because they are numerically few, weak and vulnerable, and because they are identified with the oppressive policies of the Christian US and Europe.

Dr Khataza Gondwe of Christian Solidarity Worldwide told The Independent, “In Egypt and elsewhere, extreme Islamism portrays Christians as a non-legitimate or foreign community that has no right to be there – as a special interest group of the West. In Iraq, the debate surrounding the invasion and war has distorted the issue, and meanwhile the Islamist extremists there have decimated one of the oldest Christian populations in the world.”

Christians of course have no monopoly of persecution. According to the Pew Research Centre, the number of countries in which religious groups experience harassment or intimidation soared from 147 in mid-2009 to 166 in mid-2010; one-third of all countries experienced high levels of hostility involving religion, up from only one-fifth in 2007. In recent years not only Christians but also Jews, Buddhists and followers of folk or traditional religions have all experienced persecution in more countries than ever before. In 2010 Christians were harassed in 111 countries, but Muslims were not far behind, being abused in 90 countries, while Jews were harassed in 68 countries.

Social hostility involving religion is never a one-way street: the abuse of adherents of one religion often leads directly to attacks on the community from which the abuse came, either in that country or elsewhere. Seen from this perspective, the world seems locked in a downward spiral of religious intolerance and hatred. And Britain is not exempt: the same organisation found that the UK had the highest incidence in Europe of social hostility connected to religion, even worse than countries such as Burma, Uganda, Thailand and Algeria where such hostility is endemic.

Some of the most shocking cases of religious persecution in recent years have seen Muslims targeted. Twelve years ago in the Indian state of Gujarat, nearly 800 Muslims died in riots orchestrated by Hindu nationalist militants. In Burma, violence against Muslims committed by Buddhists, including Buddhist monks, has erupted repeatedly since the killing of a Buddhist girl in Arakan state in June 2012, despite condemnation by the outside world.

But those ugly events are peculiar to the countries where they occurred. The attacks on Christians, by contrast, follow a clear pattern from country to country. From Nigeria and Somalia via Egypt, Syria and Iraq to Pakistan, Christians are being targeted ever more frequently by Islamist extremists. A sample of atrocities across these countries gives an idea of the rising tide of terror from which Christians are suffering.


  • In Egypt, many supporters of deposed President Morsi irrationally blamed Coptic Christians for his downfall, and took revenge on them. They seized control of the remote town of Delga, burning down three of the five churches there, and forcing thousands of Christians to flee. They looted the 1,600-year-old monastery of the Virgin Mary and St Abraam and set fire to it. “They [the Copts] alone were set as scapegoats and erroneously blamed for instigating the violent dispersal of pro-Morsi demonstrators,” Bishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK told a US Congressional hearing.


  • In Syria, as jihadists gained the upper hand over more moderate rebels, the village of Maaloula, where many still speak ancient Aramaic, the language of the Bible, was invaded by rebels who attacked churches, forcing many among the 3,000-strong population to flee. Elsewhere in the country, two archbishops were abducted by gunmen in April last year and have yet to re-appear.


  • In Iraq on Christmas Day, 24 people were killed when a bomb exploded outside a church in Doura, southern Baghdad, as worshippers were leaving at the end of a service. Dozens more Christians were killed elsewhere in the country over the Christmas period. Prior to the Iraq war, there were 1.4 million Christians in the country, around three per cent of the population. Since then the number has fallen to about 300,000. Raphael I Sako, the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, said, “If emigration continues, God forbid, there will be no more Christians in the Middle East. [The Church] will be no more than a distant memory.”


  • In Pakistan, 85 Christians were killed when two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside a historic church in the frontier city of Peshawar in September 2013. Standing in the church’s courtyard and comforting the wounded, the Bishop Emeritus of Peshawar, Mano Rumalshah, commented afterwards, “It’s not safe for Christians in this country. Everyone is ignoring the danger to Christians in Muslim-majority countries. The European countries don’t give a damn about us.”

Christian campaigners have long lamented the reluctance of politicians or media in the West, and Europe in particular, to take a stand against the growing wave of violence. Dr Gondwe remarked, “Sectarian attacks on Egyptian Copts have been occurring for decades, but many people in the west have appeared reluctant to speak out about them. For a time it seemed as if journalists and human rights organisations were anxious not to be seen as displaying a bias towards Christianity.”

But now, said Dr Gondwe, there has been “a complete turnaround. In Nigeria the brutality of the Islamist militia Boko Haram has meant that people could not ignore the events on the ground. In Egypt, Copts and young Muslims participated alongside each other in the Tahrir Square protests, and members of the Muslim community speak out strongly against sectarian violence. There are voices in the Muslim community saying, we are Egyptians first.”

Meanwhile the recent changes at the top of the Catholic and Anglican churches have also made a difference, with Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby focusing attention on persecuted Christians. But it was the Prince of Wales who said the previously unsayable in a blunt speech to religious leaders at Clarence House at Christmas. “We cannot ignore the fact,” he told them, that [Christian communities in the Middle East] are increasingly being targeted by fundamentalist Islamist militants.”

He went on to except Jordan from the charge – “Jordan has set a wonderful example…[it] is a most heartening and courageous witness to the fruitful tolerance and respect between faith communities.” Yet the Prince appears to be out of date: the latest research – from Open Doors, an American organisation that publishes annual figures for Christian persecution – shows that jihadi violence is increasingly spilling over into Jordan from the Syrian civil war, causing Jordan to jump up eight places in the list of countries where Christians were most at risk of persecution.

The long period during which the persecution of Christians was downplayed in the west has clearly ended; now there is a risk of swinging too far the other way. An American research organisation, the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity, has claimed 100,000 Christians are “martyred” every year. But closer examination reveals that this claim includes the deaths of tens of thousands in war, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, whose faith was only an incidental factor in their deaths. As Judd Birdsall, formerly of the US State Department’s Office of International Freedom, points out, this “expansive definition…doesn’t ring true to the religious freedom activists who carefully monitor persecution and martyrdom year after year.” Additionally, he says, it “risks cheapening” the meaning of martyrdom. His department produces estimates of Christian martyrs ranging from dozens to hundreds per year. Some Christian human rights organisations place the figure higher, but no greater than 1,000.

What is beyond dispute, however, is that Christians are being deliberately killed in large numbers on account of their faith in the region where it first flourished. When John Moschos was gathering his “flowers” from the unmown meadow of Christianity in the late sixth century, the Byzantine Empire was already in steep decline, and it was not long before the followers of the Prophet Mohamed finished it off. Yet despite the loss of its imperial protector, Christianity in the region has survived more than a millennium of Muslim domination. Its congregations may have shrunk and its culture stagnated, but it was permitted a place and a role of its own both in the Ottoman Empire and in the nation-states that succeeded it.

The idea that Christians – those fellow People of the Book – should be bombed and slaughtered and terrified into flight, their churches and monasteries burned down and their history expunged: these evil developments are quite new. The Nazis did their best to wipe out the all trace of Judaism in Europe. A similar effort – less systematic and scientific, certainly – now menaces the survival of Christianity where it was born. We are beginning to see this disaster for what it is. But it may be too late to reverse it.


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