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25 Years Later: The Berlin Wall

In China, the Communists had just massacred the students in Tienanmen Square and won themselves another quarter-century in power. On the other hand, the Poles voted overwhelmingly for Solidarity in June, and by September Hungary had opened its border with the West.  But it was the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November, 1989, that really opened the flood-gates.

I had been spending a lot of time in the old Soviet Union since 1987, when I visited Moscow after a five-year absence and found the place unrecognisable. People had lost their fear: in the kitchens, and sometimes in the streets, they were saying what they really thought. It was the first time I had gone to Russia without feeling that I had left Planet Earth.

So I went home and told my friendly neighbourhood network that something very big was going to happen. I didn’t know exactly what, but if they gave me a travel budget I’d spend a couple of weeks in the Soviet bloc interviewing people every three months, and when the big thing happened I’d give them an instant radio series on it. Networks had more money and more nerve in those days, so they said yes.

By 1989 I had kind of worked out what was going to happen, but I didn’t know if it could all be done non-violently. The signs were good – I had spent much of the summer in the Soviet Union, and the first big demos had already happened peacefully in Moscow – but where and when the dam would finally break was still anybody’s guess. Then in early September I flew from Moscow to Hungary for a quick look around on my way home.

On the way in to Budapest from the airport, the streets were full of abandoned East German cars, mostly pathetic Trabis that any sensible person would abandon. But still….

The taxi driver explained that Hungary had opened its border with Austria. East Germans were coming down in droves across the “fraternal” Communist country of Czechoslovakia (no visa needed), to travel onwards to Austria and thence to West Germany. So I had the taxi take me up to the Young Pioneer camp in the hills behind Buda that was serving as a transit camp.

Every few minutes a taxi would pull up and East Germans – usually a young couple – would get out. Every hour an enormous coach would drive up and take them all off to the West. And after an hour or so interviewing them as they arrived at the gate, I knew what was going to happen next.

They didn’t see themselves as refugees fleeing to start a new life in the West. They were taking advantage of an opportunity to see the West, and they’d be safe there if things went badly wrong in East Germany, but most fully expected to be home again, in a democratic East Germany, within a year.

When I got on the plane home, I started writing a piece in which I compared East Germany’s Communist regime to a Walt Disney character who had run off a cliff – but wouldn’t actually start to fall until he looked down. And as soon as we landed, I booked a ticket back to Berlin for late October. I was just in time for a great party.

What astonished everyone was the way the old system just rolled over and died. This amazing new technique of non-violent revolution had been working well in Asia since 1986 – the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh – but taking down a COMMUNIST regime seemed like a much more dangerous and doubtful enterprise, especially after Tienanmen Square.

The party was so great because most people were enormously relieved that it had been so easy. They were fed up to the back teeth with the petty-minded, boring Communist bullies who dominated their lives, and they were sick of being poor, but nobody wanted to die in an old-fashioned revolution. Yet the Communist ideology OBLIGED the believers to launch a civil war rather than surrender power peacefully.

So when it turned out that non-violence worked even against Communists, at least in Europe, people quite rightly felt that they had been very lucky. And as a bonus, the threat of a nuclear World War Three went away. The old NATO alliance still trundles on a quarter-century later, picking up work wherever it can, but it has become the sound of one hand clapping.

There were some problems later on in places like Romania and Russia, but it was a radical, amazingly peaceful revolution in a part of the world that was not best known for its ability to change peacefully. So once the celebrations died down in Berlin I rented a car and drove off to Warsaw to see how the new post-Communist government was doing in Poland.

I parked outside a government ministry right on Nowy Swiat, and while I was inside interviewing the minister somebody broke into my car and stole my bag, including all the interview tapes from Berlin and the piece of the Wall I was bringing home to my daughter. The soldiers who were marching back and forth inside the fence saw it happen, but pointed out that stopping thieves was not their job.

So I reported the theft to the police for insurance purposes, and explained to them that if they spotted a well-dressed man who was limping badly, it was probably the thief. The stolen bag contained the suit I wore for interviewing presidents, but I had mistakenly packed two left dress shoes with it. They didn’t laugh – they had been trained by the Communists, after all – so I drove off down to Prague for the next revolution.
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This article is somewhat longer than usual, in case you want to use it as a weekend feature, but it cuts down to the same length as usual. To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 11 and 12. (“So…yes”; and “The party…clapping”)

American Spies in Germany: The End of Trust

The question to bear in mind, when reading this whole sorry tale, is this. If Americans are, on average, no stupider than Germans, then why are their intelligence services so stupid?

After the most recent revelations about American spying in Germany, there was considerable speculation among members of the Bundestag (parliament) that Germany might “get even” by inviting US whistleblower Edward Snowden to leave his Moscow exile and come to Berlin instead. But last weekend Chancellor Angela Merkel, at her traditional pre-summer vacation press conference, rained all over that idea.

“We learned things (from Snowden) that we didn’t know before, and that’s always interesting,” she said – but “granting asylum isn’t an act of gratitude.” Given that one of the things she learned from Snowden was that the US National Security Agency was bugging her mobile phone, this showed admirable restraint on her part, but even Merkel’s restraint only goes so far.

Only a week before, her patience with persistent American spying even after Snowden’s revelations snapped quite dramatically, when she ordered the US Central Intelligence Agency’s “chief of station” at the American embassy in Berlin to leave the country. German media reports stressed that such drastic action had only been taken previously when dealing with “pariah states like North Korea or Iran.”

Clemens Binninger, the chair of the parliamentary committee that oversees the German intelligence service, explained that the action came in response to the US “failure to cooperate on resolving various allegations, starting with the NSA and up to the latest incidents.” The “latest incidents” were the arrest of two German citizens, accused of spying for the US – whose key contact was the CIA station chief in Berlin.

The United States has never formally apologised for tapping Merkel’s phone. It refused to give her access to the NSA file on her before she visited Washington in April. And it went on paying a spy who worked for the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND – Federal Intelligence Service) right down to this month.

“One can only cry at the sight of so much stupidity,” said Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, insisting that the information given to the US by the spies was of no real value. That’s probably true – yet the American controllers paid their spy in the BND almost $40,000 in cash for 218 secret German documents downloaded to computer memory sticks and handed over at secret locations in Austria.

Some of those secret documents were even about the discussions of the German parliamentary committee that was investigating the earlier American spying efforts, including the bugging of Chancellor Merkel’s phone. The American spy agencies simply don’t know how to stop spying, even when they have been caught red-handed.

They only got away with such brazen behaviour for so long because the Germans naively trusted them. The spy from the BND, for example, simply sent the US embassy an email asking is they were interested in “cooperation”. The German authorities didn’t pick up on it because they didn’t monitor even the uncoded communications of a “friendly” embassy.

The spy was caught only when he got greedy and sent a similar email to the Russian embassy. Russian communications are monitored as a matter of course in all Western countries, so the German authorities put the spy under surveillance, and almost immediately they discovered that he was already selling his information to the Americans.

“We must focus more strongly on our so-called allies,” said Stephan Mayer, a security spokesman of Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, and one of the first consequences will be the cancellation of Germany’s “no-spy” agreement with the United States. In future, US activities in Germany will be closely monitored by the German intelligence services.

What is clear from all this is that the American intelligence agencies are completely out of control. They are so powerful that even after the revelations of massive abuse in the past year very few politicians in Washington dare to support radical cuts in their budgets or the scope of their operations. They collect preposterous amounts of irrelevant information, alienating friends and allies and abusing the civil rights of their own citizens in the process.

The German intelligence agency (there’s only one) doesn’t behave like that. It chooses its targets carefully, it operates within the law, and it doesn’t spy on allies. Why the big difference?

It’s because the annual budget of the Bundesnachrichtendienst is just under $1 billion, and it employs only 6,000 people. The United States has only five times as many people as Germany, but its “intelligence community” includes seventeen agencies with a total budget of $80 billion dollars. There are 854,000 Americans with top-secret security clearances.

The American intelligence community grew fat and prospered through four decades of Cold War and two more decades of the “War on Terror”. It is now so big, so rich, so powerful that it can do practically anything it wants. And often it does stuff just because it can, even if it’s totally counter-productive.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 11. (“Clemens…Berlin”; and “We…services”)  Please note that this is the second and last article for this week. The first was sent early, on Friday, in response to the MH17 incident.

Hysteria and the Veil

18 July 2010

Hysteria and the Veil

By Gwynne Dyer

Monkey see, monkey do. Soon after France’s National Assembly passed a law making it illegal to wear a full-face veil in public, British MP Philip Hollobone announced a private member’s bill last weekend that would make it illegal for people to cover their faces in public in Britain. Neither bill mentioned Muslims by name, of course.

Hollobone has previously called the Islamic veil “offensive” and “against the British way of life,” so we may safely assume that his bill is not aimed at people wearing motorcycle helmets. We can also assume that it will never become law, for British immigration minister Damian Green immediately replied that “telling people what they can and can’t wear, if they’re just walking down the street, is a rather un-British thing to do.”

Good: the last thing anybody needs is for another major European state to copy the French initiative. But it cannot be denied that a great many Europeans feel profoundly uneasy when they see these shrouded, masked women moving silently in their midst.

I grew up in regular contact with women wearing traditional Middle Eastern costumes, and it didn’t make me uneasy at all. They were Catholic nuns, wearing the head-to-toe shroud and with not a wisp of hair visible. Their faces were not covered, but in other respects they were dressed just like the women that Philip Hollobone finds so offensive. Indeed, becoming a nun was colloquially known as “taking the veil.”

The veil is not Islamic at all. Indeed, it predates all the Abrahamic religions. They all come from the Middle East, and that’s why they all – Jews, Christians and Muslims – used to be obsessed with female “modesty.”

The principle of “modesty” was a way of controlling the behaviour of women who had the power to upset the social order, so how poor women behaved didn’t matter. The early Mesopotamian laws ordaining the veiling of women applied only to the wives of powerful men. Several thousand years later, Greek, Roman and Byzantine upper-class women still went veiled, while their poorer sisters moved freely with their faces uncovered.

We cannot know what proportion of women in seventh-century, pre-Islamic Arabia went veiled, but until quite recently poorer and rural Arabian women, and especially Bedouin women, covered their hair but otherwise went unveiled. It seems a safe assumption that the situation was not much different in the Prophet’s time.

I do not presume to interpret the Quran, but its injunctions on veiling were simply an endorsement of existing social customs. I would also observe that most Muslim communities down through history have interpreted these customs as requiring the concealment of a woman’s hair but not her face.

Traditionally, only rich and powerful men’s wives and concubines wore niqab (a mask concealing all but the eyes) in most Muslim societies. The burqa, a more extreme form of concealment that hides even the woman’s eyes behind a cotton mesh grill, was largely confined to the hill tribes of what is now the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier area.

So why have women in non-rich Muslim families living in major European cities now taken to wearing full-face veils or even burqas? Not a lot of women, to be sure: France estimates that only 2,000 women go about fully veiled, and the real numbers for Britain are unlikely to be much different. But why are they doing it at all? Two generations ago, their grand-mothers almost certainly did not.

One reason is fear, on their own part or that of their husbands, that the majority society’s values are so powerful and seductive that good Muslims must be completely isolated from it. This also explains why you regularly see little girls as young as two or three wearing hijab (i.e. with their hair completely covered ) in Paris and London: their parents believe that the habit must start very early if it is to withstand the majority society’s influence.

A second reason is defiance: think of it as a non-gay version of “we’re out and we’re proud. Get used to it.” And both anecdotal evidence and personal observation suggest to me that a large proportion of the fully veiled women in Britain – maybe as many as half – are actually recent converts to Islam who grew up in the dominant post-Christian culture. Same for France. Converts often get carried away.

So which part of this is a threat to public order? None of it, obviously. Why did a ridiculous law banning the full veil pass through the French parliament without opposition, whereas a similar bill will never reach the floor of the British House of Commons? Not because the French are more anti-Muslim than the British, but because they are the heirs of one of the great battles between religion and the secular state.

Britain hasn’t seen such a battle since the 17th century, and the official religion just gradually retreated to the sidelines of modern life without a fight. The fight was long, bitter and much more recent in France, so the French state takes public displays of religious allegiance a lot more seriously. But it is still behaving stupidly.

And what about Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland, where similar bans have been or are being discussed at the national level? They should be ashamed of themselves.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“I grew…veil”; and “Traditionally…area”)