Book Review: On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

“History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” says Timothy Snyder, at the very beginning of his latest book “On Tyranny”.

Snyder, a Professor of History at Yale University, wrote a Facebook post back in November 2016 following the election of Donald Trump – a post that went viral. The FB post listed twenty short lessons to be learned from the twentieth century and in particular how “democracy yielded to fascism.”

That Facebook post has now been expanded into a small (128 pages) book in which there are plenty of references to how fascism took root step by step in a modern industrial Germany.

Taken together, the twenty lessons in this book are an urgent and passionate call for all of us to train ourselves to recognise, challenge and fight back against the signs of encroaching tyranny.

Until recently, Snyder points out, it was fashionable to believe in the “politics of inevitability”. The Cold War had ended with the Soviet Union imploding and the future was surely marching towards an era of ever more liberal democracies and fewer and fewer fascist or autocratic states. We were near “The End of History” as a certain best-selling book informed us. This may have instilled in many of us a somewhat relaxed attitude towards our freedoms.

Interestingly though, Snyder does not mention Trump by name in this book, though there is a reference to “our President” and this only serves to increase the book’s power. It encourages the reader to take the abstract lessons and apply them using his/her own critical faculties to the real world.

Autocratic rulers despise the dissemination of truth. Hence, the restrictions on free speech and the press and now the internet in many parts of the world. And in the USA, we have a President who routinely denounces what he describes as “Fake news” and encourages his supporters to treat the media with contempt and engaged in a gigantic conspiracy against his administration which is, of course, doing “just great.” “Post-truth”, says Snyder, is “Pre-fascism.”

“It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual…the individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant…To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” (p73)

Here in the UK, the PREVENT programme has engaged in some very secretive funding of Muslim groups to allegedly “rebut extremism”. When Freedom of Information requests have been sent to the Home Office to find out the details of this funding and to whom this taxpayers money was given, the Home Office has been very obstructive.

Many publications such as the Huffington Post and The Conversation have now taken the laudable step of asking their writers to disclose any financial ties or links they may have to the subjects they are writing about. In parliament, MPs are required to make a full disclosure of their financial interests. This is  “… to provide information on any financial or non-financial benefit received by a MP or Member of the Lords which might reasonably be thought by others to influence their actions, speeches or votes in Parliament.”

Yet, in the UK we have the bizarre and hugely corrupt phenomenon of individuals and groups which are funded by PREVENT being called upon to comment on the effectiveness of the PREVENT agenda without any disclosure being required about the financial interests they have in that programme. I think you can guess the names…

On Tyranny’s lessons will prove essential far beyond the borders of the United States because the temptation to hide truths and trample upon the rights of others is sadly a universal characteristic. On Tyranny deserves to be carried around with us, referred to regularly in light of current events and its lessons shared with our friends.

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“Turkey is debt free” says Hamza Yusuf. Really?

I was sent the above video today. It features the well known Muslim speaker Hamza Yusuf speaking at a meeting of the Islamic Society of North America back in 2013 where he made the following remarks:

“The reality of Turkey is that Turkey has only recently paid off completely their IMF debt. Turkey is one of the only debt free countries on this planet. And why isn’t that on the news?”

I have heard similar claims from a number of other people, but are they true? Well, this article from 2013, from the Turkish publication, Hurriyet, backs up part of the claim. It confirms that Turkey did indeed pay off its debt to the IMF in 2013. However, it also points out that the IMF debt was only a very small portion of Turkey’s external debt. As of 2013, Turkey’s total foreign debt stood at 340 billion dollars, 43% of its national income.

And that debt has only gotten worse since 2013. Turkey’s own Finance Ministry now puts Turkey’s external debt in 2017 at 49.1% of its national income.

The lesson? As the motto of the UK’s leading scientific academy, the Royal Society, says: “Nullius in verba” – Take No One’s Word For It. Even if that someone is as famous as Hamza Yusuf. Study for yourself.

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Turkey Goes Backwards By Refusing To Teach Evolution To Schoolchildren

The news this week that the Islam-oriented Turkish government has decided to remove the teaching of evolution from the national curriculum is a sad reminder of the continuing poor state of the Muslim world and the multiple problems many Muslims are having trying to cope with modernity. Who can forget how the former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaykh Abd al-Aziz Bin Baz, argued that Copernicus was wrong and that the Sun did indeed revolve around the Earth? Bin Baz was blind of course, both literally as well as metaphorically.

The Turkish government has justified the removal of the teaching of evolution for 14-15 year olds and the decision to delay any teaching until the undergraduate years by saying that children are “too young to understand ‘controversial subjects'”. The decision is especially lamentable as it is clear that – as the scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky said back in 1973 “Nothing in Biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Ever since the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection in which he persuasively laid out the case for the theory of evolution there have been attempts by religious authorities to oppose it by prohibiting it to be taught. Unfortunately for them, Darwin’s theory has withstood all attacks on it and has become more compelling with every passing decade. The evidence accumulated in its support is overwhelming and actually quite thrilling. I regularly advise anyone who argues with me on this issue to go and buy a good book on evolution by a reputable scientist (such as Finding Darwin’s God by Kenneth R. Miller) and then compare it with anything produced in opposition to evolution by anyone and – provided that they read with an open mind – they will immediately see that the difference is like between day and night.

Turkey is, of course, home to the Harun Yahya movement led by Adnan Oktar. His glossy books and videos – which are available for free download at his website – have for two decades now been pumping out anti-evolution propaganda. Some years back, I described how as a naïve young Muslim I too was taken in by his claims that the theory of evolution was a clever ploy by atheistic scientists to undermine belief in God. I had the opportunity to debate with Harun Yahya/Adnan Oktar and also on another occasion with a Christian creationist and it was eye opening for me to see how easily their arguments could be unravelled. However, the opposition to evolution is very widespread indeed in the Muslim world and is by no means confined to Turkey.

The scientist and prominent atheist Richard Dawkins visited the Madani Girls School in Leicester as part of a documentary he was making some years back and it resulted in a very interesting encounter with a Muslim science teacher who was unable to satisfactorily respond to one of the commonest objections to evolution when it was raised by a pupil.

Dawkins advised the school’s Principal to reconcile the Qur’an with evolution instead of making it a case of one is right and the other wrong.

It was good advice. For Madani Girls School and also for Turkey.

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Finsbury Park Attack – It Was Only A Matter of Time

It was only a matter of time sadly. The attack just after midnight which saw a van being apparently deliberately ploughed into a group of worshippers outside a mosque in Finsbury Park comes after a  series of very worrying anti-Muslim incidents over the past couple of weeks.

Just last week I blogged about how a hoax bomb had been left outside a mosque in Paisley with the chilling warning “You’re next.” Other recent incidents have included a man appearing in an online video with a machete ranting about his desire to dismember Muslims and blow up Mosques. He was later arrested and charged by the police.

I have previously written about how the recent ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks appear to have emboldened some racists to be more open about their anti-Muslim bigotry both in words and deeds.

We have many communities in this country and we are all part of one country. If any community is believed to be in danger then it is the duty of the state to ensure that the police have all the necessary resources to counter that danger. That is why we have a police force instead of leaving each community to defend their own places of worship and institutions.

So, the best answer to this appalling attack on worshippers appears to be threefold:

  1. To ensure that the police have sufficient resources to protect us all
  2. Challenge all forms of bigotry whether it is anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish or anything else. We all have a role to play in this. Let’s not leave hateful and bigoted views to go unchallenged.
  3. For the government and media to ensure that they do not wittingly or unwittingly promote bigotry through their own actions.
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Let’s Face Down Bigotry…Including Our Own

The above “jokes” were sent to a number of people including me by a former (non-Muslim) work colleague. How would you respond to them? The person who sent them appears to see no harm in them and even defended them as being “educational”.

I ask because in the wake of the latest terrorist attacks in Manchester and London Bridge, the Mayor of London’s office has reported a five-fold increase in the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the capital on June 6 2017 compared to a daily average for the rest of 2017.

Earlier this week a Liverpool man was arrested and charged after he appeared in an online video with a machete ranting about his desire to dismember Muslims and blow up Mosques.

In Paisley, last Sunday night, a man was caught on CCTV leaving a hoax bomb outside a mosque along with a chilling note that said “You’re next”.

And in Sutton, South London, an Islamic centre had graffiti sprayed on to it, last Sunday morning, with the words “Terrorise your own country”.

The terrorist attacks in Manchester and London Bridge appears to have emboldened some racists into being more open about their bigotry, both in words and deeds.

The police to their immense credit appear to have been exemplary in their response to both the terrorist attacks and the increase in hate crimes. They have urged all people who witness hate crimes to come forward and report them and have stated that they have a “zero tolerance” policy towards all such incidents. They appear to be doing their best to perform their duty with professionalism and even-handedness and have stepped up patrols to reassure worried communities.

We as British Muslims also should be conscientious in discharging our responsibilities to our country. Bigotry in all its forms should be repudiated. Whether directed at us or directed at others by parts of our own community.

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The Conservative Friends of Israel Election Letter May 2017

The letter above – posted to an address in the constituency of Ilford North – reminds me of a documentary that aired back in 2009. The journalist Peter Oborne presented a highly informative Channel 4 Dispatches documentary called “Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby” in which he discussed – amongst other matters – the role played by the Conservative Friends of Israel in our electoral process. The documentary – which is 48 minutes long – can still be viewed here.

Oborne also co-wrote an accompanying pamphlet which still makes for very interesting reading.

Let’s hope that other organisations are also doing their best to lay out policy concerns to UK voters.

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The Tragedy in Manchester … and in Islam?

At the time of writing, the Police have issued a statement that they are treating the deadly attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester as terrorism-related. It remains to be seen whether this was related to specifically AQ or IS-related terrorism or something else, so my comments below are necessarily tentative.

We know that AQ/IS-related terrorism is a phenomenon we will have to sadly deal with for a number of years to come before it is finally defeated. It is still worth asking, however, whether there are actions we can take now that can hasten the coming of that day. Some actions may well make the problem worse – just think of US President Trump’s grotesque $110 billion arms deal at the weekend with the reactionary Saudi regime – the same regime that internally is an absolute monarchy that represents a human rights disaster zone and externally actively finances the spread across the world of perhaps the most intolerant and narrow-minded strain of modern Islam.

But are there actions that we could take that may help reduce the allure of terrorist groups? Have our own policies in the UK been the most appropriate ones to protect young people from being seduced by AQ/IS propaganda? The UK government for several years now has been leaning on Internet Service Providers to block AQ/IS-related websites. This is reminiscent of the counter-productive and ultimately futile efforts in the 1980s by the Thatcher government to block Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams from appearing on the television. We should ask whether it might be more fruitful to be willing to openly allow – and even to encourage – debate and critical thinking about AQ-IS and their vision of an “Islamic State”. The government’s Prevent agenda – which sounds defensive and rather defeatist – might more effectively be re-named and re-fashioned as Expose or Engage.

At the same time, Muslim leaders must hopefully realise by now that they have a duty to disavow the idea of an “Islamic State”. It cannot be a good idea to teach children and young adults that a state that would necessarily discriminate on the grounds of religion is something that could benefit the world in the 21st century. A secular state that treats every citizen equally regardless of their faith is by far a better proposition. This is not a call for jingoism or anything like it, but rather, to appreciate the good we enjoy in the UK and the West in general.

There is little point in denying that much of the Muslim world is having enormous problems adapting to modernity. Freedom of religion, freedom of association, women’s rights, gay rights – these are areas where the vast majority of Muslim majority countries have been left far behind most of the rest of the world. A key reason for this appears to be the baleful influence of religion.

Religion, which at its best can be a force to inspire humility, wonder and to rouse our curiosity about the world and our place in it, has generated a lethal mutant form within parts of the Muslim community and it needs much more focused attention.


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