6 February 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
You can hear them shouting it in the horrible mobile-phone footage of the mob killing the wounded, befuddled Muammar Gaddafi: “Not the face, don’t touch the face.” They weren’t feeling sorry for the dying dictator of Libya. They just wanted to make sure that his corpse was recognisable. A lot of people would not feel safe, and some other people would not give up fighting for him, until they were sure he was really dead.
They probably yelled the same thing while they were killing King Richard III on a battlefield near Leicester in 1485. He had only been on the English throne for two years when Henry Tudor came back from exile and overthrew him in the Battle of Bosworth, but it was essential that many witnesses saw and recognised his corpse. Otherwise there would be endless rebels claiming to be Richard and trying to overthrow the new king.
In fact, we can be pretty certain that the men who killed Richard III were indeed ordered to spare his face, because they have now found Richard’s remains under a car-park in the centre of Leicester. His face is pretty much intact, even though the rest of his skull is a mess. You have to be sure that the old dictator is dead before you give your allegiance to the new dictator.
They initially suspected it was Richard III because they were digging up the car-park to examine the foundations of the medieval Church of the Greyfriars, which is where he was buried. They were further persuaded because the skeleton’s spine was twisted by scoliosis in a way that would have made him look hunch-backed, as every account says that the last of the Plantagenet kings did.
Then they did a computer reconstruction of what the skull would have looked like with flesh on it, and used 3D printing to built up a plastic model that closely resembles near-contemporary portraits of the king. And finally they matched up his mitochondrial DNA with that of Canadian Michael Ibsen, who is descended from Richard’s sister, Anne of York. Yup, it’s Richard III – and here’s how he died.
There is a fist-sized chunk gone from the base of the skull where a heavy, sharp-bladed weapon, most likely a halberd (basically, an axe at the end of a pike) had sliced right through the bone and into the brain. Just below it is a smaller hole, probably made by a sword, that penetrated the bone and entered the brain. Either wound would have killed him in less than a minute.
There are about a dozen other wounds, most probably inflicted after he died, but only two small ones on his face. A mob of foot-soldiers – the people who killed him were using infantry weapons – enthusiastically took part in the slaughter, but they left him recognisable.
It all fits with the accounts that he was unhorsed in a cavalry melee and then surrounded and killed by Tudor infantry. “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” William Shakespeare has him cry as they close in, and that has the ring of truth.
So Henry Tudor became Henry VII, to be succeeded by Henry VIII, the closest that English history has ever come to a Stalin figure, and then by “Bloody Mary”, and then Queen Elizabeth I (“Good Queen Bess”), while Richard III became Shakespeare’s most monstrous villain, plotting and murdering his way across three of the Bard’s best-known plays.
It was all pro-Tudor propaganda: Shakespeare, who wrote his plays during Elizabeth’s reign, was not fool enough to question the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty, or to praise its enemies. We don’t know whether Richard III was really as bad as Shakespeare painted him, but he was undoubtedly pretty bad, because they all were: medieval politics was ruthless and bloody.
The temptation is to say that nothing much has changed. Gaddafi was also a monster and a killer, and he died in about the same way (except for the horse). History just repeats itself in different clothing, and things are as bad as they ever were.
The temptation should be resisted. Violence still works the same way it always did, but there is far less of it around. Even allowing for the great wars of the last century, the proportion of the population that dies violently now is ten times lower than it was in medieval times.
Tyrants still get overthrown violently, but more of them are removed by non-violent means, and there are fewer of them around anyway. Nor are they just succeeded by other tyrants. After Gaddafi’s death, Libya held free elections, and it now has a normal civilian government. One that has a lot of work to do to restore order in the country after 42 years of Gaddafi’s tyranny and incompetence, to be sure, but it is making progress.
There’s that dirty word again: “progress”. We’re not supposed to believe in that any more. What about terrorism? What about the “structural violence” of capitalism? “Progress” smacks of cultural imperialism, and even worse, it’s naive.
Okay. You go and live in the 15th century. I’ll just stay here and hold your horse.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“They…died”)
16 September 2012
By Gwynne Dyer
One of the first scenes in the ridiculous but thoroughly nasty film “Innocence of Muslims” shows angry Muslims running through the streets smashing things and killing people. So what happens when a clip from the film dubbed into Arabic goes up on the internet? Angry Muslims run through the streets smashing things and killing people.
It’s as simple as that: press the right button, and they’ll do what you want. Some Christian extremists set out to provoke Muslim extremists into violence that would discredit Islam in the eyes of the West – and it worked, of course. As the US consulate in Benghazi burned and the American dead were carried out, many people in the West thought to themselves: “The Libyans are biting the hand that freed them.”
Wrong conclusion. It wasn’t “the Libyans” who broke into the Benghazi consulate and murdered the US ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens; it was a heavily armed band of Islamic extremists. “The Libyans” recently voted in their first real election ever, and they elected a secular government. The film just gave the fanatics an opportunity to undermine that choice.
Maybe the Christian extremists don’t understand that their film serves the purposes of those who want to overthrow the moderate, democratically elected governments, both Islamic and secular, that have come to power in the “Arab spring”. Or maybe they do realise that, and hope that the violence that they are stirring up will bring Muslim extremists to power in those countries. After all, it’s easier to mobilise Western opinion against outright fanatics.
The grown-ups try to keep the situation under control. Grand Mufti Sheik Abdel-Aziz al-Sheik, the highest religious authority in Saudi Arabia, said that Muslims should denounce the film, but without anger: “Muslims should not be dragged by wrath and anger to shift from legitimate to forbidden action, (as) by this they will, unknowingly, fulfill some aims of the film.”
Exactly so, but the leaders of the Arab world’s post-revolutionary governments have to walk a fine line, denouncing both the film and the violent protests against it. Moderate Islamic governments like that of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi have a particularly tricky task, since they are competing with the Muslim extremists who are organising the protests for the support of the same pious and socially conservative bloc of voters.
“We Egyptians reject any kind of assault or insult against our prophet,” Morsi said last Thursday, “but at the same time we firmly say that this cannot be taken as a justification to assault consulates or embassies and cannot be taken also as a justification for killing innocent people.”
It was not a sufficiently robust condemnation of the violence for US President Barack Obama, who said on the same day: “I don’t think that we would consider (Egypt) an ally, but we don’t consider them an enemy.”
Obama has his own right flank to protect, and cannot afford to acknowledge in public that elected Arab leaders are in competition with Islamic fanatics for popular support, and so must choose their words with care. Most American voters are not sophisticated enough to understand the intricacies of Arab politics, or patient enough to care.
Similarly, most Arab voters do not want to hear about the American constitution, which guarantees free speech and means that the US government cannot just ban crude attacks on Islam by American citizens. The elected Arab leaders will certainly have had this fact explained to them in private by their political advisers, but in public they must demand that the US government suppress the film and punish its makers.
It’s not the United States that has attacked Islam, or even “Hollywood”; just a handful of Americans with a political and religious agenda. It’s not “Egypt” or “Libya” that has attacked American and other Western diplomatic missions in the Arab world, but small groups of Islamic extremists with a political agenda of their own, supported by a larger number of pious dupes.
Indeed, the film in question passed without notice when it had its single public screening in the Vine Theatre in Los Angeles in June; only a dozen or so people showed up, probably mostly friends of the producer. It attracted little more attention when a shortened version was posted on YouTube at the beginning of July.
It only took off when the religious Egyptian television channel al-Nas broadcast scenes from it on September 8, and then posted a clip online with an Arabic translation. That got hundreds of thousands of views in a matter of days, and the violent protests began almost at once. The Christian fanatics and the Muslim extremists are, in the old Marxist phrase, “objective allies.”
This is not a “turning point” in Western relations with the Arab countries or the broader Muslim world (as some excitable commentators have suggested). The whole thing will blow over after a little while, just like the violent protests against Danish newspaper cartoons about Muhammad did six years ago. It is a tempest in a teapot.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 12, and 13. (“Wrong…choice”; and “Indeed…allies”)
11 July 2012
The “Arab Spring”: Good News
By Gwynne Dyer
The good news about last weekend’s election in Libya, as relayed by the Western media, was that the “Islamists” were defeated and the Good Guys won. The real good news was that democracy in the Arab world is still making progress, regardless of whether the voters choose to support secular parties or Islamic ones.
The Libyan election was remarkably peaceful, given the number of heavily armed militias left over from the war to overthrow the Gaddafi dictatorship that still infest the country. Turnout was about 60 percent, and Mahmoud Jibril, who headed the National Transitional Council during last year’s struggle against Gaddafi, won a landslide victory.
The explicitly Islamic parties, the Justice and Development Party (Muslim Brotherhood) and Al-Watan, did far worse than they expected, getting barely 20 percent of the vote in Benghazi, the big city in the east. But they should not have been surprised.
In Tunisia to Libya’s west and Egypt to the east, the Muslim Brotherhood was the mainstay of resistance to the dictatorships for decades, and it paid a terrible price for its bravery. It was natural for voters in those countries to reward Islamic parties when the tyrants were finally overthrown. Gaddafi was more ruthless and efficient in crushing all opposition in Libya, and the Muslim Brotherhoood had scarcely any local presence.
So Libya gets a “secular” government, while Tunisia and Egypt get “Islamic” governments – but the point is that they all get democratically elected governments, and stand a reasonable chance of becoming countries that respect human rights and the rule of law. Tunisia, indeed, has already made that transition, and Egypt, with one-third of the entire population of the Arab world, is still heading in that direction too.
The relevant question is not whether a party is Islamic; it’s whether it is democratic. The Western prejudice against Islamic parties (and local prejudice as well) comes from a confusion between Islamic and “Islamist” groups, the latter being the English word for fanatical groups that reject democracy and advocate violent jihad against infidels and “heretical” Muslims.
This confusion, sad to say, is often deliberately encouraged by Western and local interests that really know better, but want to discredit those who oppose them. That phenomenon was much in evidence during the recent Egyptian elections, where the other major parties, instead of offering serious policy proposals of their own, concentrated on trying to scare the voters about the “Islamic threat”.
It didn’t work in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s party won both the parliamentary and the presidential elections. This did not please the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its allies from the old regime, and they arranged for the Egyptian Supreme Court to dismiss the new parliament on a flimsy constitutional pretext.
Egypt’s newly elected president, Mohammad Morsi, has refused to accept the army’s decrees, and a delicate game is underway in Cairo in which he is trying to discredit the soldiers and gradually drive them back into their barracks without risking an open confrontation that could trigger an actual military coup. He will probably win in the end, because the army knows that the masses would promptly be back in Tahrir Square if it did try a coup.
And if Egyptians don’t like what their Islamic government does, they can always vote it out again at the next election.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
28 December 2011
By Gwynne Dyer
Every year brings changes, but some years really are turning points: 1492, 1789, 1914, and 1989, for example. Does 2011 belong in the august company of such Really Important Years? Probably not, but it definitely qualifies for membership in the second tier of Quite Important Years.
Three big stories ran right through the year, any one of which would have qualified 2011 for membership status. The Arab Spring is an epochal event, even if democratic revolutions may fail in some countries in the end. The euro crisis threatens the European Union with collapse and confirms the shift of economic power from West to East. And the struggle to prevent disastrous climate change was abandoned for the rest of the decade.
The name, it should be noted, is the Arab Spring, not the Muslim Spring, because a majority of the world’s Muslims already live in countries that are democratic: Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and even Iran (in roughly descending order of how democratic they really are). But the Arab countries seemed remarkably impervious to democracy – until it suddenly became clear that they weren’t.
The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were not just about elections. They were revolts against the arrogance and corruption of the ruling elites, against poverty, against the reign of fear that underpinned all of those regimes. But there was and still is a genuine democratic idealism at the heart of these revolutions, and despite all the disappointments and detours that will inevitably follow, something profound has changed in the Arab world.
Similar revolutions could well succeed to other Arab countries in the coming year, but in some cases they may not even be necessary. Formerly autocratic monarchies like Jordan and Morocco are in full retreat, hoping to safeguard their privileges by granting political freedoms to the people. And the long and increasingly bloody struggle in Syria could still end in a relatively peaceful transition to democracy, not a civil war.
We should have learned not to underestimate people by now. The Arab Spring is the culmination of a wave of non-violent revolutions that started in Asia in the 1980s (Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Bangladesh, plus failed attempts in China and Burma). They spread to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1989-91, ended apartheid in South Africa in 1994, and brought down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 2000.
Then there was a decade-long gap, but now they’re back, and not just in the Arab world. The ruthless Burmese regime is retreating from power under relentless pressure from the pro-democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi, and even Vladimir Putin in Moscow must suddenly feel vulnerable as he watches the crowds come out in Russia to demand their country back. Non-violence works. It will even work in China eventually.
From the sublime to the ridiculous. The decade-old euro, which aspired to become the common currency of the European Union and even a rival to the US dollar, is in acute danger of collapse, and the efforts of European leaders to save it have been comically inept. Seventeen of the 27 countries in the EU, including all the big economies except Britain’s, use the euro, but that number may drop sharply in the next few years. It might even drop to zero.
The euro was a political project from the start, and it may also die of politics. The initial idea was that a common currency would bind the EU members closer together, but it never made any sense for low-productivity economies like Spain, Italy and Greece to use the same currency as high-performing economies like Germany.
The only way it could have worked was for the richer countries to subsidise the poorer countries forever (like the richer regions of France or Japan subsidise the poorer regions). Then, provided that there was also a powerful central bank to stop the poorer countries from borrowing too much (because they now had a strong currency, which let them borrow almost unlimited amounts of money at very low rates), the whole project might work.
The richer countries like Germany and France had no intention of subsidising the poorer ones, and they wouldn’t allow a powerful central bank either, but the project went ahead anyway. The euro might have stumbled on, amid growing difficulties, for another decade – but the international financial crisis of 2008 put an end to that.
When the tide goes out, as legendary investor Warren Buffett put it, you find out who’s been swimming naked. The European economies were as naked as jaybirds, and so the vultures began to circle (to mix a metaphor). Every month of this year has seen another “crisis summit” meeting of EU leaders, but they have produced no credible solution to the euro’s problems because the richer countries are still unwilling to subsidise the poorer ones.
There are three possible outcomes to this mess. One is that the poorer countries simply bail out of the euro and revive their old separate currencies, which would cause some serious bank crashes in Europe and collateral damage elsewhere. The second is that the euro as a whole collapses, causing severe damage to all the Western economies including the United States. The third is that the European Union itself fall apart.
Option one is almost certain to happen. Option two is getting more likely by the month. Option three is still relatively unlikely – which is just as well, given what a disunited Europe used to be like. But the sheer vulnerability of what are still technically the world’s most powerful economies is now plain for all to see.
The power shift from the old Atlantic world to the emerging economies of Asia was going to happen eventually in any case: the five centuries when the Europeans and their overseas kin were global top dogs are at an end. But the arrogant risk-taking, blind greed, and sheer ignorance that caused the crash of 2008 and its after-shocks are making the shift happen a lot faster.
And so to the really bad news. The Arctic sea ice is disappearing faster than even the pessimists feared, massive floods are devastating huge areas (Pakistan, Thailand, Australia), and sea level is rising at twice the predicted speed, but nothing will be done about it for the next ten years. That, effectively, was the decision – or rather, the non-decision – taken at the annual climate change summit in Durban in December.
It has been clear since the debacle at Copenhagen in 2009 that a global agreement to curb the warming was in grave trouble, but the deal in Durban may have been worse than no deal at all. The only existing agreement, the Kyoto Protocol of fifteen years ago, has been extended for another five years, but it only limits the emissions of the developed countries, and even they will not be required to meet any stricter targets than those they accepted in 1997.
The emerging economies, whose emissions are growing very fast, still face no restrictions at all, although China is already the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases. The target date agreed for a new, more ambitious global agreement is now 2015, but they won’t even start talking about that until 2013. And even if they do make a new deal by 2015, which is far from certain, they have already agreed that it will not go into effect until 2020.
It is not the first time that short-term self-interest has triumphed over the long-term common interest, but it may be the worst time. By 2020 it will probably be impossible to prevent the rise in average global temperature from exceeding 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), which is generally agreed to be the point of no return. After that, we will probably find ourselves in a new world of runaway warming. We know it, and yet we do nothing.
Compared to these huge changes in world politics, the global economy, and climate policy, everything else that happened in 2011 was very small potatoes, but some of it was very interesting.
Three bad men died, two of them violently: North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and al-Qaeda’s founder Osama bin Laden. Four Latin American countries – Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Peru – elected new presidents. Five African countries – Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Zambia – achieved higher economic growth rates than Brazil (though that was partly due to higher commodity prices).
An earthquake and tsunami devastated a large area of northern Japan, and the radioactive emissions from damaged nuclear reactors – about one-tenth of what came out of Chernobyl in 1986 – caused a global mini-panic. But in the end, the only country that announced a plan to shut down its reactors was Germany. (They’ll burn coal instead. Oh, good.)
American troops finally left Iraq in December, still insisting that they had accomplished their mission, whatever it was. NATO deployed its air power to help the rebels win in Libya, but it isn’t going to Syria. And the final shuttle flight from Cape Canaveral went into orbit in July. Dr Mike Griffin, the former head of NASA, said that “the human spaceflight programme of the US will come to an end for the indefinite future” – but the Russians and the Chinese are still sending people into space, and the Indians and the Europeans are working on it.
The multi-national African “peacekeeping” force that is fighting in Somalia grew dramatically in size, although that is no guarantee of success. Sudan split into two countries. And Nigeria faced a growing terrorist threat from the Islamist “Boko Haram” sect.
The race to become the Republican presidential candidate in the United States started as farce and went straight downhill, with each “anybody but Mitt Romney” contender less plausible than the one before. It resembled the old film “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines,” about a 1910 air race from London to Paris, in which a collection of extremely weird pilots in ramshackle biplanes and triplanes took turns being briefly in the lead and then crashed and burned. So Barack Obama will probably be back in 2012.
There were widespread riots in England in August, and the “Occupy” movement spread across the United States like measles (and went away almost as quickly). They were both really about the growing gap between the rich and the poor, but they had as little visible impact on how governments do business as anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare’s televised hunger strike in India.
India probably grew faster than China this year, though the final figures are not in – and India’s economy, unlike China’s, is not threatened by the biggest housing bubble in the history of the world. That race, if it really is a race, may have an unexpected result, though we will have to wait a couple of decades to know for sure.
Oh, and the world’s population reached the seven billion mark in 2011. It passed through one billion around 1800, and was still only 2 billion in 1940. Enough said.
I’m not going to suggest which paragraphs to cut if you want a shorter piece, because papers in different continents will have different interests. But any of the last eight paragraphs can be cut (except the very last) without affecting the flow of the piece. For deeper cuts, you could drop one of the three big chunks on non-violent revolutions, the euro crisis, or the climate, though that would require some editing work.