29 September 2005

Suspicious minds

By Marguerite Finn

"We can't go on together
with suspicious minds
and we can't build our dreams
on suspicious minds"

Thus sang Elvis Presley when I was a youngster. I was reminded of it again last Saturday when the Iranian President spoke at the UN General Assembly in New York. I was intrigued by the hostile reporting of his speech, and by the fact that the American delegation walked out in the middle of it and the British Foreign Secretary called it "unhelpful". So, I read the speech for myself. What I discovered was a respectful and honest appraisal of the current global situation - albeit delivered in a language using a more religious vocabulary than is usual at such events. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad caught the mood of the Summit precisely in his opening sentence: "Today we have gathered here to exchange views about the world, its future and our common responsibilities towards it." No disagreement there. "Truth will shine the light of faith and ethics on the life of human beings and prevent them from aggression, coercion and injustice". Yes, OK - but are some delegates beginning to shift uneasily in their seats ?

Maybe a smidgen of 'aggression, coercion and injustice' had crept into the foreign policy of some of the powerful countries attending the Summit, enabling them to acquire weapons and power that they wished to deny to other countries - not all countries, just certain countries.

Let us imagine why President Ahmadinejad would go out of his way to try to establish a level playing field in international affairs. He may not have had much confidence in the playing field's existence but he spoke in the fervent hope that one might develop.

A quick look at the history of Iran might help us understand his suspicions. Iran is not a motley colonial confection like Iraq, but a proud and ancient country three times the size of France, with a population of 70 million. It is OPEC's second largest oil producer and has the world's largest reserves of gas. Back in the 1950s, Iran was ruled by the Shah and with his acquiescence, British Petroleum produced and controlled Iran's main source of income: its oil - and therefore, its destiny.

BP's oil revenues were greater than those of the Iranian Government, which was paid royalties of 10% to 12% of the profits. The British Government received as much as 30% in taxes alone.

A few Iranian parliamentarians profited handsomely from this arrangement and were persuaded to maintain the status quo. Then Dr Mohamed Musaddiq became Prime Minister. His government was democratic, popular, nationalist, anti-communist and as the British Ambassador privately admitted, "free from the taint of corruption". In 1951, Dr Musaddiq nationalised Iran's oil operations. He offered to compensate the British. His offer was rejected. Iran's nationalisation and offer of compensation were perfectly legitimate under international law - but that was irrelevant to the UK government of the day.

Britain boycotted the purchase of Iranian oil in the hopes of bankrupting the country and causing a revolution. In 1953, the CIA and MI6 jointly organised a military coup overthrowing the popular government of Dr. Musaddiq and replacing him with the pro-western General Zahidi. The British Foreign Secretary at the time believed this was "evidence that United Kingdom interests could not be recklessly molested with impunity". The Shah, backed by Britain and America, thenceforth used repression and torture to institute a dictatorship that lasted until the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Islamic Republic of Iran today has good reason to mistrust Western Powers. It is sandwiched between nuclear Pakistan and nuclear Israel, with nuclear Russia to the north and nuclear America everywhere in the skies above. Far from posing a threat to anyone, Iran is surrounded by nuclear states of which at least one is openly hostile. Israel is determined that Iran can not be allowed to develop a civil nuclear programme - let alone nuclear weapons - and the smart money is on any future attack on Iran coming from Israel - not America.

Mistrust and Suspicion thrive in such arenas. President Ahmadinejad focussed attention on Iran's predicament and on the "nuclear apartheid" preventing it from developing nuclear technology for peaceful use.

America and Israel - even Britain - can't overcome their suspicions about what Iran might do next. Perhaps they feel Iran couldn't forgive them and the only way to assuage their guilt is to label Iran the perpetual 'enemy'. Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet: "if it is fear you would dispel, the seat of that fear is in your heart and not in the hand of the feared"

If only we could exist without the need for an 'enemy'.

17 September 2005

The law must protect black Americans

By Jacqui McCarney

Hurricane Katrina washed away the glossy fa├žade that America likes to project on to the world. 'Liberty', 'Democracy', 'Equality' and the 'American Dream' looked as washed up as the poor of New Orleans. The stench of poverty, segregation, neglect and blatant racism hung around the Superdome stadium and in the surrounding water.

The kind of racism that allows the government in the richest, most powerful country in the world to treat its largely black people with such casual indifference does not appear overnight, nor is it an accident. While the constitution declares "all men are born equal", the law has worked in the opposite direction, upholding and strengthening racial inequality at all levels of society. And where the letter of the law is non racist, the spirit of the law is blatantly, and apparently, unashamedly, racist. America TV is a witness to such prejudice, in its nightly showing of black young men in shoot outs, and arrests. Even during Katrina, we saw this constant negative coverage as white survivors were reported finding bread and soda in local grocery stores, and black people looting it.

America's racist history goes back to the slave trade where white slave owners were protected by law. With the end of slavery the law jumped in to protect white supremacy. And it was in the city of New Orleans that a landmark case was fought. In 1892, a mixed race old man, Homer Plessy, challenged segregation in public places by sitting in the white compartment of a train heading out of New Orleans. The Judge upheld the law and cemented what had come to be known as "separate but equal" ruling legitimising segregation in the South.

Free from slavery, black people are still not equal. This legacy of injustice was all too apparent in the scenes emanating from New Orleans. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, has had little impact against powerful opposing forces of the law.

George Bush has said "The decision of the Supreme Court affects the life of every American" and it is strangely ironic, therefore, that as New Orleans struggled with the collapse of law and order, Chief Justice William Rehnquist died. His legacy in New Orleans was writ bold and large in those desperate days.

It was 1952 when a major challenge to racial segregation was launched in Brown vs. the Board of Education. Rehnquist, then, a mere clerk to judge Jackson, took it upon himself to intervene with a memo to the Judge in which he argued that "separate but equal" had been correctly decided and should be upheld. And so began a career dedicated to implementing a right wing agenda in opposition to civil liberties and racial equality.

As a Republican activist in Arizona in the 1950s and 1960s, he opposed the desegregation of restaurants. He also worked as a volunteer challenging the African-American voters at the polls, trying to get them stricken from voting on the day of the election. This tradition was continued in the first Bush election of 2000. Bush lost the popular election by 500,000 votes but "won" the election by taking the hotly contested State of Florida (see Greg Palast's book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy). Here 57,700 names were removed from the rolls on the grounds that they were felons - later research showing that 90.2 % were completely innocent of crime except for being African American.

As less than 10% of African Americans vote Republican, these votes would have lost Bush the election. It was Judge Rehnquist who oversaw the Bush vs Gore election and refused a recount.

Black Americans have entered the 21st century unrepresented, poor, angry and segregated. A pervasive and persistent form of Apartheid separates their neighbourhoods and schools.

Still separate but certainly not equal Black neighbourhoods are poorer and black children are more likely to fail at school, become unemployed, and are seven times more likely to end up in prison. Rhenquist took his mission to oppose integration personally, and had covenants on his houses in Phoenix and Vermouth prohibiting their resale to minorities. His career thrived in a culture where he felt free to write "It is about time the court faced the fact that white people in the South don't like coloured people. It is not part of the judicial function to thwart public opinion".

The America constitution boasts "all men are born equal" - its society won't survive unless black people's 200 years of demands for equality and justice are really met. As in this country, racial discrimination should be made illegal (although we should not be complacent). Black people should be given support to bring cases of discrimination against the police, employers and schools.

Black History month in Norwich and Norfolk starts on Monday 28 September (http://www.norfolkblackhistorymonth.org.uk/).

10 September 2005

Animal, vegetable or criminal?

By Rupert Read

When there is so much human tragedy in the world, who has time to spare a thought for our kin, the billions of non-human animals who share this planet with us? Well, I do, for one.

It seems to me that when we are trying to help fellow human beings who are suffering, we start from the assumption that those who are most powerless are the ones who most need our support. For example, people who are imprisoned and tortured for their political convictions; those whose homes or livelihoods have been devastated by natural (or manmade) disasters; refugees; women or children who have been sold into slavery; those on the receiving end of bombings or threatened with death in whatever way: all such groups of people, we aim to help the most, just because they are temporarily powerless to stop themselves from being abused or oppressed or simply destroyed.

The thing about our non-human cousins is that they are always in such a condition. Non-human animals cannot rise up in revolution against their oppressors; they cannot speak out in the media about what is being done to them; they cannot even begin to tell us (at least, not in words) what it is like for them. We have far more power over our non-human cousins than ever a tyrant has over his people, or a pimp over his prostitutes.

And this, I think, places upon us an absolute responsibility to treat our non-human kin with love, care and respect.

As a Quaker, I feel this especially strongly. We Quakers have a strong history of principled (non-violent) struggle against injustice and violence. In particular, against slavery, and for peace.

Obviously, it would be meaningless if human beings declared world peace but continued to wage an endless war against our non-human kin. And it would be a terrible omission, to free human beings, but to enslave animals the world over. And yet that - the mass enslavement and destruction of animals, for our commercial use - is exactly what is happening.

We have a clear kinship with non-human animals. They feel pain, they suffer, they scream; some of them can reason and care and empathise, too. And yet we subject them to the most extraordinary attacks. For example: Each year inside British laboratories, approximately 4 million animals are experimented on. Every 7 seconds, one animal dies in a British lab. Meanwhile, about 750,000,000 animals are slaughtered every year in Britain for food. That's right, you didn't read that wrong: 750 MILLION. That's almost 20 animals every second. By the time you finish reading this column, approximately 6000 British animals will have been killed inside farms and slaughterhouses, for casual human benefit. Most of these animals moreover are raised and killed in conditions that are - throughout - miserable and natureless.

Many readers will have seen the recent TV programmes on 'Supermarket Secrets', which depicted in graphic detail the way that animals suffer, in the course of becoming food for those of us who eat flesh. In particular, the programme showed the appalling conditions on a Norfolk factory farm raising broiler chickens for slaughter. Such farms are nothing less than the equivalents, for the animal world, of concentration camps and extermination camps.

It can sometimes be easy to evince concern for the plight of humans suffering in New Orleans, or Indonesia, or Palestine, or Abu Ghraib. And it is of course both vital and wonderful that we do so. But care for our fellow creatures, like charity, needs to begin at home. Next time you reach for your wallet to give to the victims of wars and disasters abroad, spare a thought too for the mass torture and extermination of animals that is going on all around us, every day. In Norfolk, in shoots and traps and hunts across the country, in our seas; in factory farms, in scientific laboratories, in slaughter houses.

As a Quaker, I believe that there is 'that of God in everyone' - including in my friends, the non-human creatures with whom I share this world. But you don't have to believe that, in order to take action (a good place to start is by going vegetarian). And action is sorely needed to stop this holocaust of suffering that I have merely begun to gesture at, in this article. Non-human animals are suffering, as you read these words, in their billions. For instance: in disguised 'concentration camps' scattered across the green and pleasant countryside of Norfolk alone, millions of chickens and other birds are suffering, right now. And all over the world, the pattern is repeated.

Non-human animals are in this pain, because of us humans. It is a moral crime, to ignore their wordless screams.

3 September 2005

A country whose time has come

By Marguerite Finn

"When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then let my epitaph be written"

Thus spoke Irishman Robert Emmett in his speech from the Dock prior to being executed in 1803. In our house, a large print of Robert Emmett hung on the wall at the bend in the stairs. I passed the picture on my way to and from bed every day for 23 years. I used to wonder who would write Emmett's epitaph - and when. Perhaps the time has come?

In 2004, The Economist Intelligence Unit reported that the Republic of Ireland is the best country in the world to live in. Irish adherence to family values on the one hand, while embracing economic growth on the other, enables Ireland to maintain the delicate balance between tradition and modernity.

The Lake Isle of InnesfreePhoto: The Lake of Isle of Innesfree

I was born in Howth - a fishing village 9½ miles north-east of Dublin. It was a wonderful place to grow up in. The population was a glorious mix of Catholic, Protestant and other faiths (the Dalai Lama took refuge in Howth for a while!). In this close-knit community, Catholic children met up after school with their Protestant friends to go swimming or play tennis. Catholic Priest and Protestant Minister were buddies, invited jointly to all village functions. Both churches were a vital part of the community, an integral part of daily life. That was Ireland in 1967, just one year before the ambush of a Civil Rights march in October 1968 triggered the onset of Northern Ireland's recent "Troubles".

It must be said that the denial of civil rights denied to Northern Ireland Catholics in the years leading up to 1968 was unjust. Readers today may find it hard to believe that a substantial group of UK citizens were denied a vote and were discriminated against in housing and employment. This continued unchecked by Westminster for decades. Thirty years of pain and terror followed.

There has been an unwillingness to face up to the injustices of Northern Ireland, both on the part of the UK government and the UK media. It was tempting to concentrate on the terrorist activities of the "Sinn Fein /IRA" rather than paint a more balanced picture of a failing society.

How many readers know that Catholic families in County Antrim, have now been issued with fire blankets by the Ulster police, to thwart sectarian attacks by loyalist paramilitaries? Last month, a Catholic Primary School was fire-bombed, and the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) warned Catholic families living peaceably on a mixed housing estate near Belfast, that they would be burned out if they did not leave. It is easy to pretend that such things don't happen in our democracy. But this 'blind spot' allowed years of pent-up resentment, mistrust and suspicion to harden into extremes, manifested in the revival of the IRA and Loyalist paramilitary groups.

In July, the IRA formally announced the end to their armed campaign and signalled their willingness to "assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means." This was a groundbreaking statement. The British and Irish Prime Ministers responded in kind. But much remains to be done. The people of Northern Ireland need our unbiased support. Northern Ireland stands on the brink - it can move forward into the 21st Century, with a just and peaceful society, or it can slide into a sectarian hell. All of us, as members of the 'civil society', can help prevent that by being aware of the problems facing the divided community on our doorstep, and by being interested in resolving them.

Mo MowlamAugust saw the untimely death of Mo Mowlam, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and a good friend to that country. Mo worked very hard for all the people of the province, enabling nationalists to engage constructively with the British Government, leading to the Good Friday Agreement, which still remains the best hope for peace.

Mo Mowlam appealed to the basic humanity of ordinary people and this humanity may yet prevail where politics fail. A group of Protestants in Ballymena are planning a vigil to show their support for Catholics whose church was repeatedly attacked. Our Lady's Church was paint-bombed and daubed with sectarian graffiti four times in August. Protestants from a nearby Presbyterian church helped clean up the mess, wanting to show Loyalists that they did not support sectarian violence. Protestants from throughout Ballymena plan to join them and pray at our Lady's Church - a gesture deeply appreciated by the Catholic congregation.

The Protestants of Ballymena are giving Robert Emmett a reason to be proud of his country.