Book Review: A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré

I recall first hearing about George Smiley back when I was in Primary school. Alec Guinness was portraying him at the time in the now classic BBC TV adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. George Smiley, the Cold War era English master spy. A thoroughly decent, professorial sort – he would surely have been an Oxford Don had he not been recruited into the “Circus” – who enjoys his visits to the British Museum and is pained by the frequent unfaithfulness of his wife. How could you not adore him?

Smiley was first introduced to the world in 1961 in Le Carré’s novel Call for the Dead. In 2009 Radio 4 produced dramatisations of all eight novels that had featured George Smiley up until then. These are available for purchase as part of a single collection via Audible and are highly recommended. And now, with Le Carré in his mid-80’s, we surely have in A Legacy of Spies what must be the final novel that will feature our hero.

A Legacy of Spies begins with George’s right hand man and protégé, Peter Guillam, now long retired and living in his ancestral home in Britanny, France. One morning, Guillam receives a letter from his former spymasters in London requesting his immediate return to assist with some legal inquiries.

It transpires that two of the protagonists who died in very tragic circumstances in the 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, had both been parents of a child each, and those children were now intent on forcing the Intelligence establishment to admit that they – including Guillam – had deliberately used their parents as fodder to protect a British mole in the East German hierarchy. It is an ingenious plot device that allows Le Carré and us to revisit some of the dark scenes back in the fevered atmosphere of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

This allows for the pages of Legacy to be adorned with a cast of familiar characters including Control, Bill Haydon, Jim Prideaux and many others. It does mean that the reader will require knowledge of the plot of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to fully appreciate the nuances offered by this latest Le Carré offering. And if that means that more readers will now have to become students of George Smiley – well, that can only be a good thing.

As Legacy proceeds, Guillam keeps asking “Where’s Smiley? Is he still alive?” No one seems to provide a definitive answer. And when we finally do meet him, it is an encounter that fully does justice to him. We find him in a library, of course – where else? And what is he up to? Well, “…an old spy in his dotage seeks the truth of ages.” Smiley defends the Service as you would expect. They were not the same as their enemies. “We were not pitiless, Peter. We were never pitiless. We had the larger pity.”

And what does the old spymaster now value at the end of a long life after duelling with some pretty merciless foes?

“I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I were ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”

At a time when the achievements of Western civilisation and the insights provided by science are cheapened and derided by a host of global actors including an ignoramus US President on the one hand and closed minded religious fanatics and Brexiteers on the other, identifying Europe and reason as important goals to fight for is eminently worthy of our beloved spy master. This is a magnificently fitting tribute from Le Carré to his most memorable creation.

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The Attack on Our Freedoms by Israel’s Supporters

The current onslaught on the Labour Party by Israel’s supporters  is simply breathtaking to watch for the scale of its hypocrisy and deceit. The Labour Party has adopted a code of conduct that accepted the IHRA definition but quite sensibly does not accept some of the examples provided by the IHRA that clearly do not fall into the category of anti-Jewish hatred, but are transparently designed to stifle criticism of Israel.

In particular, these are two of the clauses from the IHRA “examples of anti-Semitism” that the Labour Party code of conduct does not accept as constituting anti-Semitism and which Israel’s supporters are now demanding be accepted in full. You can see why:

  • “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

  • “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”

How on earth could any political party adopt these “examples” as constituting anti-Semitism when the criticisms of Israel have nothing to do it?

No wonder that Hugh Tomlinson QC of Matrix Chambers in his official assessment of the IHRA definition declared that:

“The IHRA “non-legally binding working definition” of antisemitism is unclear and confusing and should be used with caution.”

It has long been apparent that many supporters of Israel have been trying to silence critics of Israel by claiming that their criticisms constituted anti-Semitism. If the IHRA definition was accepted in full they could then openly hound critics of Israel out of political parties such as the Labour Party by accusing them of anti-Semitism. One suspects that this may well be the true goal of many of the supporters of the IHRA definition.

I have not seen many Muslims write about this but one person who certainly has is Mohammed Amin, the Chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He writes in support of adopting the IHRA definition and says:

“The [IHRA] definition has been consistently attacked by self-described “Anti-Zionists” as attempting to shut down criticism of Israel, when it does no such thing.”

Amin’s blog includes a link to the IHRA definition where the “examples of anti-Semitism” I cited above are included so he could not have been unaware of this and yet he does not mention them in his article. How bizarre.

The ongoing onslaught on Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party – often when news breaks of its lead over the Tories in new polls – is a remarkable story made all the more remarkable by the virtual silence of the usual freedom of speech crowd. Where are all those liberals who so vocally criticised Muslims for not understanding the value of freedom of speech when they were protesting against the cartoons of Muhammad or the Satanic Verses?

I pointed out in some of my earlier blogs  how important it was for Muslims to uphold these freedoms and accept that freedom means that things may well be said that are offensive to us.

Earlier today I was – once again – criticised on Twitter by the pro-Israeli website Harry’s Place – for defending Corbyn and the Labour Party in this matter. Ironically, the logo of Harry’s Place is the famous George Orwell quote “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

Well, apart from when they want to criticise Israel’s murderous and racist behaviour towards the Palestinians, right?

The most central and attractive teaching of Islam is the concept of Tawhid – the Oneness of God. Many Muslim scholars past and present have pointed out that belief in Tawhid should result in a person being wholly unafraid of any power on earth and hence s/he should never be cowed by bullies or dictators of any type including well-organised lobby groups. The only real Power is God. And that really is the truth.

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Defending The Values of The Enlightenment

Donald Trump’s visit to the UK has led to mass demonstrations in London, Scotland and elsewhere with protestors making clear that they oppose his anti-immigrant and anti-environment policies along with his appallingly misogynistic views.

On Monday 16th July, Trump is scheduled to meet the Russian President Vladimir Putin at a summit in Helsinki. Many Europeans leaders are deeply concerned over Trump’s friendly overtures to the Russian leader. Klaus Scharioth, who served as Germany’s ambassador to the USA during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama sums up this concern in today’s New York Times:

“For me, the key thing is the Enlightenment. I think that keeps the E.U. together, the values of the Enlightenment — a free press, religious freedom, minority protection, free elections, democracy, a free judiciary independent of all the other branches of government, tolerance, respect for others. I’m afraid the United States might no longer be speaking out for these values. And that makes me very anxious.”

I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, and it is hard to overstate how much all of us in Europe owe to the values of the Enlightenment. It is why we instinctively recoil from Putin’s authoritarianism. It is also why we are rightly sceptical of religious movements, including Islamic ones, that strive to create religious states – we recognise that in practice those states will almost certainly lead to increased discrimination against minorities and greater intolerance.

It is deeply concerning that we are witnessing the rise of populist movements in Europe and policies advocating intolerance towards minorities. The thuggish supporters of the English Defence League and the bans we are now seeing being introduced in parts of Europe against women wearing the burqa or niqab are examples of this increased intolerance.

As Scharioth notes in the New York Times:

“Nobody thought in the early 1920s that Italy would become a dictatorship. Nobody thought that Germany, supposed a quite cultured nation, would get rid of democracy in a very short time.”

It is time to stand up for Enlightenment values and actively challenge those who seek to undermine them – whether they come in the shape of populists like Trump or whether they are advocates of utopian religious states.

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Who’s Afraid of President Erdogan?

Last month, Turkey held both Presidential and parliamentary elections. They were – according to Al-Jazeera – the 14th elections that the incumbent President Erdogan has taken part in and “he has won them all”. It is a truly remarkable record. In a region where many leaders rule based on the principles of a police state and refuse to submit themselves to a free vote amongst their people, Erdogan’s record becomes even more impressive.

And yet…if we read much of the Western coverage of the elections we were provided with a somewhat different picture. We know that much of the UK press is quite bigoted in its coverage of Muslim affairs. A few years ago, I wrote about how the Daily Telegraph had to publicly apologise to President Erdogan after it published an entirely baseless story alleging that  Erdogan had accepted $25 million from the Iranian government for his AK Party. Interestingly, Erdogan had received quite a bit of favourable coverage in the West soon after he and his AK Party came to power in 2002. This changed some years later – particularly after Erdogan publicly scolded the former Israeli premier, Shimon Peres, at Davos for his defence of Israel’s genocidal behaviour in Gaza. You can watch the video here.

But what about the Guardian? The Guardian is generally held by many Muslims to be rather more balanced in its coverage of the Muslim world. In the run up to the elections, the Guardian printed two articles by its foreign affairs columnist and assistant editor, Simon Tisdall. You can get a flavour of their contents by looking at how they were headlined: “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: a dictator in all but name seeks complete control” and “Bully-boy Erdoğan is a threat to Turkey – and the world“.

Tisdall warned that “If he gets his way in Sunday’s polls, Erdoğan, a dictator in all but name, is likely to foment further instability in Syria and throughout the Middle East region.” Readers might raise their eyebrows that a journalist from the UK – a country which played such a key role in the illegal war against Iraq in 2003 which caused so much blood to be spilt and fomented no end of “instability” in the region in the years since – is not showing a bit more humility and a sense of introspection, but let’s carry on.

Tisdall then goes on to alert his readers about the following bit of crucial regional intelligence: “Prince Salman, the Saudi crown prince, says Turkey is part of a “triangle of evil” that includes Iran and Islamic extremists.” Yes, Prince Salman, that well known democrat belonging to the enlightened hand and head-chopping Saudi Royal family that is so well known for winning how many elections exactly? One wonders why on earth Tisdall thinks his readers would regard the words of the Prince as counting for anything. He then ended his column, just in case any readers had not got the message, by writing “Turkey’s voters have a duty to the world, not just to themselves. Kick him out.”

Alas, the people of Turkey voted rather differently.

It is right to carefully scrutinise those who hold executive power. Far too few Muslim leaders and their policies are subject to proper criticism in their countries. In many Muslim countries – including Turkey sadly –  insulting the leader is deemed to be a criminal offence. That is appalling. There desperately needs to be more freedom allowed in Muslim countries. It will be interesting to see how Turkey fares in this regard in the coming months and years. Will Turkey opt for strengthening the institutions of democracy and civil society or will it follow the sorry example of the Middle Eastern regimes? Time will tell.

Yet, behind much of the Western criticism of Turkey, one can’t help but sense that perhaps rather different agendas are at work. Just after President Erdogan’s victory in the elections, the US member of the House of Representatives, Adam Schiff, issued a tweet deriding Erdogan for  winning by “decimating the opposition through arrests, violence and squashing freedom of the press.” The same Schiff had earlier in June issued a press statement defending Israel after it killed over 60 unarmed Palestinians in cold blood. He said: “These terrorist attacks are outrageous and unacceptable, and Israel appropriately defended itself with airstrikes against militant targets in Gaza. I support Israel’s absolute right to self-defense, and condemn these terrorist attacks by Hamas.” Yes, Schiff’s response to the murder of 60 Palestinians and the deaths of, erm, no Israelis, was to condemn Hamas. That’s right – defend the strong occupying power and condemn the occupied.

Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s senior adviser, immediately fired back with this message telling Schiff “You need to shut up.”

Can you imagine a senior advisor to any of the Gulf states having the courage to respond like that to a US politician? And perhaps therein lies part of the reason of why President Erdogan and his AK Party continue to be so popular, not just in Turkey, but in much of the Muslim world.

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Anwar Ibrahim in Turkey: “The Future of the Muslim World”

The Malaysian political leader Anwar Ibrahim – who was freed from prison last month following the dramatic election victory of his Pakatan Harapan alliance – was in Turkey this week where he was invited to give a talk on “The Future of the Muslim World”. The talk and the subsequent Q&A session has fortunately been uploaded on to YouTube and can be viewed by clicking on the link below.

Anwar began the talk by recounting how two of the first people who got in touch with him following his release, the former Vice-President of the USA, Al Gore, and the popular Qatar-based Islamic scholar, Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, called him to say that the situation regarding democracy in the Muslim world had been a picture of gloom and despair and that the recent elections in Malaysia which saw the ousting of the corrupt Barisan Nasional government – which had been in power for almost 61 years – had given much needed hope to democrats everywhere.

The victory in Malaysia was only possible, Anwar said, because the Pakatan Harapan alliance had gained the overwhelming trust and support of all sections of Malaysian society including the Muslim Malays but also the Chinese, the Hindus and the animist population. The Malaysian people spoke out resoundingly in favour of democracy, freedom and the end to the abuse of power.

Regarding Mahathir Mohamad, who was responsible for the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Anwar back in 1998, and is now Prime Minister again due to his role in the Pakatan Harapan alliance, Anwar said that he had forgiven Mahathir due to his support for institutional reform and agreement to strengthen the institutions of governance.

Anwar publicly acknowledged and thanked the Turkish President, Racep Tayyip Erdogan, for standing by him and his family when he was imprisoned and for being prepared to courageously speak out on issues that mattered to the Muslim masses including the Zionist dispossession and persecution of the Palestinians and the Burmese junta’s genocide of the Rohingya minority. He added that Erdogan’s wife Amine had visited the camps of the displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh to learn about their situation first-hand.

The Qur’an describes the Prophet Muhammad as “uswatun hasanah” (Qur’an 33:21) – a good example – and Anwar urged Muslim governments to similarly lead by example instead of just issuing fine words and then failing to back them up with correct actions. The key issues facing many Muslim countries included good governance, establishing a free media and an independent judiciary. He said too many Muslim governments were mired in the deepest hypocrisy whereby they would talk about their respect for Islam but would happily imprison their citizens and leave them to rot in jail for years on end for unjust reasons.

The video is about 75 mins long and the introduction to Anwar begins at 09:21 into the video.

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Why Prevent Matters – Addressing the Rise of the Far Right

A couple of months ago I wrote a short post looking at the government’s Prevent strategy. Prevent has come in for a lot of sustained criticism over the years and some of it has been justified. I argued, however, that some inevitable mistakes made in the implementation of Prevent were no excuse to abandon an entire strategy that seeks to safeguard young people from all backgrounds – not just Muslims – from being drawn towards violent extremism.

Sean Arbuthnot, a Prevent practitioner, has written a very useful article this week looking at a far right Prevent referral he was involved in. A lot of misinformation and sometimes disinformation is spread about Prevent so it is helpful to be provided an insight into what actually happens during a referral and the methods utilised to try and draw young people away from a potentially violent path.

This week’s worrying far right demonstrations in support of the anti-Muslim rabble rouser Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (or Tommy Robinson as he is also known) who has been jailed for contempt of court should give those opposed to Prevent an opportunity to reflect on their stance. The anti-Muslim far right in the UK have been becoming bolder in their actions. Last summer’s terrorist attack on Muslim worshippers coming out of a mosque in North London was carried out by Darren Osborne who it transpired had been influenced by the propaganda of the far right.

A few years back, the Quilliam Foundation, announced to the world that Tommy Robinson had left the far right English Defence League and that they were planning to introduce him to their contacts in government. Many UK Muslims were understandably wary of this attempt at white-washing Tommy Robinson’s anti-Muslim past and were deeply sceptical about his supposed conversion to decency. I met Robinson during a TV interview soon after and wrote about it at the time saying that he didn’t seem to me to have really changed his beliefs but appeared to be looking to cleverly rebrand himself.

Maajid Nawaz and Tommy in happier times

By all means let us challenge government policies that are unfair or discriminatory. It is right to cast a sceptical eye over government initiatives. Yes, politicians often lie. That does not mean, however, that every statement a politician makes is a lie or that all government initiatives are worthless. This week’s actions by the emboldened far right should serve as a reminder of why Prevent is a vital part of our counter-terrorism strategy which aims to keep all of us – Muslims and non-Muslims – safe from those who wish to cause us harm.

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Book Review: The Human Instinct by Kenneth R. Miller

I have written previously on several occasions (see here for an example) about the influence that Professor Kenneth R. Miller’s splendid book “Finding Darwin’s God” had on me. Miller, a believing Catholic, very persuasively tackled a series of common objections to Darwin’s important theory and explained just how crucial it was to our understanding of the natural world. In the years since, I have recommended Miller’s book to many Muslims who have come to me with questions about evolution and the feedback I have received has always been very positive.

So, it was with a keen sense of excitement that I learned that Miller had just published a new book, The Human Instinct, this time tackling the issues of free will and consciousness and humankind’s place in the world.

One of the most common reasons for rejecting evolution is surely a fear that we would be relegated to being just another animal. Are we just another animal sculpted by evolution? Yes we most definitely are, insists Miller, but he points out that this is certainly not the end of the story.

“We are surely part of Darwin’s tangled bank. But we are also the only creatures to be able to transcend it.”

Along the way to establishing the key unique characteristics of human beings, Miller takes aim at some evolutionary psychologists who would seek to reduce all our behaviour simply to adaptations caused by Natural Selection.

There is no question that we are part of the natural world and that we evolved from earlier species and share common ancestors with the rest of the natural world. So what does Miller mean to tell us with his statement above that we “are able to transcend” those origins? Miller provides a telling example. He cites a Canadian study which found that stepchildren were 120 times more likely to be beaten to death by their stepfathers than children who were killed by their genetic fathers. Miller points out that this study was not a one-off. Similar results have been found in other studies in the US and elsewhere. This is a “chilling” statistic as Miller says, and appears to provide data to back up the thesis that there is a greater likelihood that stepfathers will kill children not related to them to ensure that their resources go only to their biological offspring and not unrelated children. That seems to be sadly true judging by the data, yet Miller refuses to allow the argument to rest there. He delves deeper and finds that the actual rate of stepfather infanticide in Canada was 321.6 per million i.e. the frequency of such tragedies was less than 1 in 2500.

“…the real question is not why evolutionary pressures are powerful enough to induce murder, but rather why they are so incredibly weak that in reality they almost never do…One might fairly generalise that stepfathers, by a huge margin, love and care for their spouses’ offspring effectively and are certainly not inclined toward violence directed at their stepchildren. If the drive to propagate one’s genes, which resides at the theoretical heart of evolutionary psychology, is so powerful, we should ask what other forces exist that seem to have checked that drive so dramatically. What about human nature today has enabled us to largely escape the amoral behavioural claims of our evolutionary past? There must be another, even more powerful influence, acting on the behaviour of stepfathers and everyone else, and I think we know what that is.”

Miller also looks at the current arguments promoted by the neuroscientist Sam Harris and others that seek to portray free will as being an illusion. The argument for behavioural determinism goes something like this: we, including our brains, are made of atoms. These atoms obey physical laws. Hence, there is no room for free will. What we think of as “our choices” are in reality made by our brains in advance according to physical laws. Miller disputes this line of reasoning and says that if we lack free will then our scientific logic itself would not be valid. We would no longer be able to claim we are making decisions on the basis of evidence and reason because our “reasoning” would be due to a combination of “genetics, circumstance, and uncontrollable external stimuli.”  So, the argument that free will is an illusion would appear to undermine the whole of the scientific endeavour.

Miller’s book can be regarded as a welcome pep-talk to remind humankind that although we are creatures of evolution that is not something to be ashamed of. Indeed, there is something truly unique to celebrate.

“What is truly remarkable…is that a mind made up of atoms was able to discover the atom. It is that a creature composed of cells was able to discover, dissect, and understand the cell. And finally, that an animal produced by evolution could identify that very process, to understand the marks that descent with modification left on body and mind, and then to rise far above the demands of mere survival. Evolution does not undermine our humanity, our capacity for reason, or our science. It is, in fact the foundation of each. We have become the reasoning animals we are because we are the products of evolution.”

Miller’s latest book contains evidence of his prodigious reading and mastery of his subject matter on virtually every page and this makes for a wondrous read.

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