Friday 20 July 2007

20 July 2007

You know what an email is; and you know what e-commerce is (it’s when you buy a book, a CD, or book a hotel room online). But how about an e-coup?

Here in Turkey, that’s what they say they experienced last April, when the army put a statement on its website. If necessary, said a message from the top brass, they were ready to act to 'protect secularism'.

It didn’t need tanks in the streets or martial music blaring over the TV. The message was clear enough: Islamists, be careful. The army is watching you. Not a coup, but an e-coup (or at least the implied threat of one.)

This, remember, is a country – a member of NATO which also wants to be a member of the EU –where there have been two military coups (1960 and 1980) in less than 50 years. The army has also forced two more governments from power in 1971 and 1997. So when the military warns, Turkey listens.

Can secularism be a religion? Because if it can, it would be the official religion of Turkey. Or perhaps Kemalism is the better term, after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. (A couple of days ago, I visited the place in central Anatolia where he started his revolution in 1919.) Kemalism involves reformism, republicanism and populism, as well as secularism, which Ataturk defined as the absence of religious interference in government affairs.

Sorry about the history lesson, but if you want to understand the elections here on Sunday – which arguably are the most important in this nation’s modern history -- you do need to know just a bit about how this country was created out of the ashes of the defeated Ottoman empire at the end of the First World War.

But now let’s fast forward to 2007. Kemalism is still the state religion. But, er, the party in power for the past four and a half years is a party with a strong Islamist tradition. The party leader and prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, served four months in jail in 1999 for “inciting religious hatred”. His critics say he is planning to instal Islamism in Turkey by stealth … they quote him as having once said that “democracy is a train taking us to our destination”, by which they say he meant an Islamist state.

So far, there’s not much sign of it happening. But what prompted the army to rattle its sabres in April was a plan to make the foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, another man with an Islamist past, president of the republic. (His wife covers her hair with a headscarf, which in the eyes of Turkey’s secularists is definitely a step too far.)

Here, then, is the choice for Turkey’s 40 million or so voters on Sunday. Do they renew Mr Erdogan’s mandate, as a way of saying thank you for nearly five years of stability and economic growth – and perhaps as a way of saying to the army and the country’s traditional political elite: “Your day is done” – or do they withdraw their support because they’re worried that Islam will play a greater role in public life under a renewed Erdogan government?

This is probably the most secular Muslim country in the world. Here in Istanbul, few women wear headscarves. But as I write these words close by the magnificent Aya Sofia, the greatest church in Christendom for 900 years and then a great mosque for another 500 years, I can hear the muezzin loudly calling the Muslim faithful to prayer.

So, yes, the cliché is true: Turkey is a land of contradictions. On Sunday, just possibly, voters will have a chance to resolve a few of them.

I’ll be on air from Istanbul tonight (Friday) and again on Monday with the results of the election and what they might mean for Turkey’s future. Then I’m going to be taking a bit of a break – so the next newsletter will be with you on 17 August.

Friday 13 July 2007

13 July 2007

I’ve had another one of my dreams. I was in a courtroom, and the lawyers were delivering their final arguments.

Lawyer 1: “Members of the jury, you will recall that I represent all those people who believe it was a serious mistake to award a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. Let me summarise for you, before you retire to consider your verdict, the reasons that we have given.

“First, it was an unnecessary provocation to the many Muslims, both in this country and around the world, who, whether rightly or wrongly, were deeply offended by Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses. And surely, it can never be right needlessly to provoke people, especially when they are a minority who already often feel that their beliefs are misunderstood or ignored.

“Second, the granting of this award, at a time of heightened tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, has recklessly endangered the lives of all of us. I do not for one minute say that we should allow al-Qaeda to dictate who should receive an honour from Her Majesty the Queen – but I do say that those who recommend the granting of such an honour must be cognisant of the possible repercussions of their decision. It may now be nearly 20 years since Mr Rushdie’s book was published – and as you will recall, he has paid a high price for the offence he was deemed to have caused – but you will not need me to remind you that the extremists among us have long memories.

“Third, we recognise, of course, that freedom of expression is a principle that we must all value highly. I do not say that Mr Rushdie should not have published his book. But is it right for a government – or a State – to honour a writer who has so grievously offended a great many people? Does it not come close to saying: “We honour the fact that you have caused offence”? Or at least: “We know that you caused offence, and we regard it as a matter of no importance”? What message does that send to the many British Muslim citizens who wonder why their sensitivities apparently count for so little?

“Members of the jury, this was an unnecessary award and an unnecessary provocation. I urge you to find in favour of my clients.”

Lawyer 2: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I represent all those who argue that awards must be made purely on merit, and that to do otherwise would be to play into the hands of those who seek to impose their views on us by threats and by force. The question before you, I would submit, is a very simple one: Who should decide who is granted an honour in this country? The duly appointed awards committee, or the murderous extremists of al-Qaeda? There can, of course, be only one answer.

“The members of the committee who recommended Mr Rushdie for a knighthood say they did not discuss any possible political ramifications of their decision. That, I would suggest, is entirely as it should be. If he is a talented writer whose achievements merit official recognition, that is all that matters. I have no way of knowing whether you have read any of his books, or if you have done, whether you enjoyed them. But it matters not a jot: the distinguished people whose appointed task it is to make such recommendations decided that Mr Rushdie is an appropriate recipient of an award.

“Article 19 of the United Nations universal declaration of human rights states: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ Nowhere does it say – nor indeed has it ever been suggested – that this right should apply only if there is no risk of causing offence.

“Members of the jury, my learned friend talked of an unnecessary provocation. But we have long recognised in this country that writers do have the right to provoke, as well as to offend, so long as they remain within the law. What kind of society would this be if we were to say no artist may be honoured if he or she has ever offended or provoked anyone? If that were to be the criterion, I suggest, there would indeed be few artists honoured.

“I urge you, therefore, to find in favour of my clients and uphold our cherished values of freedom and tolerance.”

And then I woke up. So you be the jury, you decide. Let me have your verdict.

Friday 6 July 2007

6 July 2007

Yes, here it is. Your personalised, limited edition, souvenir 100th newsletter, something you will want to treasure and pass on to your children and grandchildren. A unique moment in history. And how better to celebrate than by welcoming home Alan Johnston, free at last after 114 days as a hostage in Gaza. Thank you, all of you, who signed the petition calling for his release and sent messages of support. We now know that he was aware of the campaign because he was able to listen to the BBC World Service in his Gaza dungeon … so it did make a huge difference, to him if not to his wretched kidnappers.

My very first newsletter was written on 8 July 2005, one day after the suicide bombings in London that killed 52 people. This one, almost exactly two years later, comes in the immediate aftermath of the attempted car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow. Who says there’s no symmetry in history? (And although maths was never my strong point, am I right in thinking that if I’ve written 100 newsletters in two years, it must mean that I’ve taken only four weeks holiday in that time? I really should get out more …)

Gordon Brown may have been planning his first week as Prime Minister for years – but he could never have planned for what his first weekend was like. A major security alert, a raising of the national threat level to “critical”, which is as high as it gets – it was certainly a brutal introduction to the reality of being at Number 10.

All the commentators – and the opposition parties – seem to agree that he’s acquitted himself pretty well. And they seem to have been particularly impressed by his new Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith – but I thought I detected a slight whiff of: “Well, well, who would have thought it? A woman can do the job of Home Secretary.” And there was me thinking we’d moved on from there …

But as I remarked last week, political honeymoons don’t last long these days, and I fancy that when trouble comes for our new PM, it will come from two directions. First, he should remember that old parliamentary advice: “Your opponents may be in front of you, but your enemies are behind you.” (In other words, among his own backbenchers.) True, he has one advantage over Tony Blair – he doesn’t have a Gordon Brown scheming next door all the time. But wait till the autumn … the grumbling will soon start.

Even more ominous, if I were Mr Brown, I’d be keeping a very close look at the property pages. Because if house prices start tumbling, he’s going to be in big trouble. Interest rates go up (and, of course, there’s nothing he can do about that any more, since he gave the Bank of England full independence over interest rate policy), property prices go down … result: tens of thousands of very unhappy voters. If their pockets start feeling emptier than they have been for the past decade, they’ll stop buying so many giant flat-screen TVs and cheap flight holidays. And before you know it, the economy will be stalling.

And whom do you think they’ll blame? Remind me, who’s been in charge of economic policy for the past 10 years …?

I’m not making any predictions, simply pointing out where the political storm clouds may be gathering. Opinion poll “bounces” are all well and good, but bouncing balls return to earth soon enough, no matter how high they’ve bounced.

But enough of the doom-mongering … this is a weekend to celebrate my centenary. So I am delighted to be able to announce that I am now to be found online on Facebook (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask someone you know who’s under the age of 30). The idea is that I can jot down inconsequential musings whenever the fancy takes me, and keep you up to date with what I’m up to. I also hope to be able to reach a lot more people with these newsletters, and I hope that you, and whoever else joins me there, will chat back and we can form a nice big friendly World Tonight family.

It’s called “social networking” and thanks to Facebook, I’ve already been able to wish a happy birthday to a listener in Paris whom I’ve never even met. If you like the sound of it, do join up and get in touch. (Just type Facebook into your search engine and take it from there.) If it doesn’t appeal, perhaps you’d be kind enough to pass the word to anyone you know who you think might enjoy it. I think it could be a lot of fun.