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December 2014
» Stop wasting money on aid, and start letting in more refugees

Pictures from Calais have returned to our television screens, showing desperate men and women trying to break into lorries bound for Britain. A Sudanese man died jumping from a bridge onto a lorry heading for Dover. Another perished after falling from the axles of a bus. The mayor of Calais has blamed Britain for being an ‘El Dorado’ offering aspirational benefits to migrants — but as she’d know, the Africans arriving in her morgues would never have qualified for welfare. They risked death due to a sense of desperation, and hope, that we can scarcely imagine.

The same is true in the Mediterranean, where 2,500 have died after embarking on unseaworthy boats heading for Europe. Corpses of Syrians, Egyptians and others now regularly wash up on Italian shores. Britain’s decision not to support any future search and rescue operations on the grounds that they encouraged North Africans to make the dangerous journey was greeted with disbelief in Brussels. ‘It is as if you walk by a river and see a child being pulled away by the current and think: “I’ll let the child drown because then the other kids will know that they shouldn’t fall into the river”,’ said Michael Diedring, secretary general of the European Council for Refugees.

For once, the man from Brussels is right. Those climbing onto these boats will have seen the news, and know the risks. Yet they still take their families on board the inflatable boats, the airtight ship containers, the refrigerated cargo lorries. They are part of a worldwide exodus of which, whatever Nigel Farage and the Daily Mail tell us (‘Asylum: you’re right to worry’ is a typical headline), those coming to Britain are only a tiny proportion. The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, says last year was the worst for refugee crises on record, reaching levels not seen since the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago. The population of forcibly displaced people is now 51 million, twice the entire population of Afghanistan. Yet no one fights for them.

We are in the grip of immigration hysteria. Much of our panic about asylum seekers in Britain is strikingly self-regarding, not least the notion that our island is the destination of choice for most of them. The fact is, it isn’t. Below 1 per cent of the planet’s displaced people are in the UK. We Brits like to think we’re a decent lot, that we do our bit and stand up for the oppressed. We can hold our heads up high, we tell ourselves, exemplars of fair play in a cruel world.

Yet if we look at how other countries handle immigration and refugees, perhaps we would be rather less self-congratulatory. The truth is that we punch well below our weight. What do Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have in common — apart from being Muslim? According to the United Nations, they are the world’s top five hosts of refugees. Pakistan alone has 1.6 million. Earlier this year, the UNHCR called on countries to take in an additional 100,000 Syrians in 2015 and 2016. The UK’s response? The Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. As of August, the total number of Syrians resettled was 50.

How do we compare with our European neighbours, who are supposedly much less of a soft touch? Germany received 127,000 applications for asylum last year, France 65,000, Sweden 54,000 and Britain just 30,000 (Sweden’s population, for the record, is a sixth the size of ours). So not so much Floodgates Britain, Mr Farage, as Fortress Britain. And here it is worth remembering that we are signatories to the 1951 UN convention on refugees, under which asylum is given to those with a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ in their own countries. There is no shortage of these people, but we seem to have suspiciously few of them here. Statistics aside, this latest bout of British immigration fever reminds me of friends I have worked with during the past decade in the sort of conflict-ravaged countries that produce so many refugees.

When Fatima, my long-suffering Arabic teacher in Baghdad, decided it was time to leave Iraq, it was not the UK she chose, but America, to teach Arabic at a defence institute in California. Forced to seek asylum after raging violence in Baghdad, my Iraqi friend Manaf, a retired diplomat, scholar and Anglophile, found his way to Amarillo, Texas, with his wife. Where was Britain in Iraq’s greatest hour of need? Its approach could be best summed up in the refusal to give asylum to 91 Iraqis who had served as interpreters for British forces. During a visit to Afghanistan in 1996, Hazara warlords were reportedly staging ‘dead dancing’ shows, decapitating prisoners, cauterising the severed necks with oil and watching the corpses stumble around pour encourager les autres.

Eventually, like so many Afghans overcome by the conflict, my translator Arif fled the country. He won a Chevening scholarship and graduated from Stirling University with a Masters in communications. But this isn’t enough to guarantee residency — next year, he’ll learn whether he can stay permanently or be asked to leave. Given the government’s failure to meet its immigration target, it’s people like Arif — from outside the EU — who are at greatest risk of deportation.

If one good thing could come out of Britain’s latest fixation with immigration, it would surely be a long, hard look at the Department for International Development. Its dizzying growth contrasts awkwardly with our stinginess towards those seeking shelter in Britain. Whenever a crisis breaks out — think Syria or Ebola — Britain likes to donate more money than the rest of Europe put together. It is as if David Cameron believes a nation’s compassion can be measured by the size of its overseas aid budget. And how big that is.

A decade ago, the government gave £4.3 billion of taxpayers’ money to charities of its choice, via Dfid. Now, it’s £11 billion and rising steadily. For civil servants, corrupt foreign governments and the army of consultants who feed from this largesse — and here I declare an interest having served as one — Dfid is the gift that keeps on giving. Compare this with the Foreign Office, once the parent of Dfid’s modest predecessor the Overseas Development Administration, now the poor relation with a budget of £1.7 billion. While no one would argue the UK has caused this latest global tide of migrants, we certainly had a hand in some of it.

The Iraqi Christians being turned away here were never singled out for elimination under Saddam Hussein. We have become good at deposing dictators, but bad at filling the resulting power vacuum. Our well-intentioned interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have led to population upheavals on a grand scale. The Afghans found in Tilbury Docks recently (one of them dead) were reportedly Sikhs, targeted by the resurgent Taleban. If we had left Afghanistan a stable country, would they have ended up in Essex? Where was Britain in Iraq’s greatest hour of need?

Our approach can be best summed up in the refusal to give asylum to 91 Iraqis who had served as interpreters for British forces. Yet in previous eras we opened our doors more readily to Sassoons, Saatchis, Hadids, Dallals, Auchis, Yentobs, Zilkas and Shamashes. History will remember another Iraqi-British friend, the former national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie, a London neurologist, as the man who hanged Saddam. There’s a serious intellectual inconsistency here. Prime Ministers Blair and Cameron have insisted there is a connection between failing foreign states and domestic problems, such as terrorist threats and heroin on our streets — and used that argument to justify interventions abroad. Yet they have remained silent about the backlash from these decisions when waves of migrants flee these states. If we were all Libyans in 2011, as those who advocated the removal of Muammar Gaddafi put it, aren’t we all Libyans now?

Britain’s response is to the refugee crisis is to offer fewer than 1,000 ‘resettlement places’ a year. It’s pitiful. Of course we can’t house them all, but part of any nation’s moral duty is to shelter the genuinely persecuted — and Britain does disgracefully little, for a country that accepts 1,200 immigrants a day. Reallocating some of Dfid’s budget to help shelter those who arrive would be a start. And given that this problem will not go away, it is time to consider it properly. Somehow, a fixation with overseas aid budgets has broken the government’s moral compass. The public can be trusted to support overseas charities; it is the government’s duty to help refugees who arrive here needing shelter. For the Prime Minister to neglect that basic British duty diminishes us all.

Justin Marozzi’s latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.

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» Mecca: The Greatest Paradox of the Islamic World

Mecca is the greatest paradox of the Islamic world. Home to the Kaaba, a pagan-era cube of black granite said to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael, it is the lodestar to which 1.6 billion Muslims direct their five daily prayers. Mecca is the single point on the planet around which Muslims revolve — quite literally for those able to perform the once gruelling, now simply expensive, pilgrimage or haj.

Yet the prodigious, world-illuminating gifts of Islamic civilisation in the arts and sciences, from architecture to astronomy, physics to philosophy, came not from Mecca but from cities such as Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and Istanbul. Where those metro-polises were cosmopolitan and open, melting-pots of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, of all faiths and none, Mecca has long been insular, closed and chauvinistic. It remains to this day a bastion of purity, forbidden to the non-Muslim visitor.

If one wanted to examine what is wrong with a certain strain of Islam in the 21st century — the patterns of intolerance, attitudes towards women, dismissal of other faiths, intellectual and cultural stasis, the rejection of modernity — one could do a lot worse than begin with a long, hard look at Mecca, exporter-in-chief of the doctrinally uncompromising Wahhabi brand of Islam.

Ziauddin Sardar, a British Muslim who grew up in the Punjab, is well qualified to do this. In the 1970s he worked in Jeddah’s Haj Research Centre, unsuccessfully attempting to steer the Saudis towards a more sympathetic architectural development of Islam’s holiest city.

Much of Mecca’s distinct character, to a large extent shared by its inhabitants, derives from its uniquely harsh geography. For the early Islamic poet Al Hayqatan, not quoted in these pages, Mecca was a place where ‘Winter and summer are equally intolerable. No waters flow… not a blade of grass on which to rest the eye… Only merchants, the most despicable of professions.’ Sandwiched between two barren mountains, it sits in an inhospitable depression scorched by the Arabian sun, 45 miles inland from the Red Sea port of Jeddah.

Lest we be too harsh on the townsmen (the history of Mecca is largely a male preserve), this ferocious environment of desolate mountains, desert and mind-warping heat explains, and perhaps excuses, the attitude expressed in the local saying: ‘We sow not wheat or sorghum; the pilgrims are our crops.’ Visitors have always been there to be fleeced. A pilgrim today, rich or poor, will need to find £3,000–£4,000 to fund his or her haj to Mecca. Already by the ninth century the extremist Qarmatian religious sect was attacking caravans to Mecca and ‘inflicting humiliation and bloodshed’ on the holy city. ‘What is it about visions of paradise that turns minds hellish?’ Sardar wonders.

Mecca’s moment in history came in 610 with the first of a series of divine revelations of the Koran to the Prophet Mohammed. The subsequent birth of Islam, a radical restructuring of polytheistic life within the Arabian Peninsula, was a violent affair that set tribe against tribe, Mecca against Medina, with Mecca firmly on the (losing) anti-Muslim side. Once the Meccans had succumbed to Mohammed and converted to Islam, with the rebranded Kaaba as totem of the new Muslim faith, the city grew rich quickly. In the late eighth century it was the beneficiary of imperial largesse from visiting Abbasid caliphs from Baghdad. Tribute came from far and wide. Kings of distant Kabul and Tibet sent lavish gifts to honour Mecca.

A sacred sanctuary where feuding tribes set aside their differences long before the advent of Islam, Mecca nevertheless has been no stranger to violence over the centuries. One can only guess at what the Prophet Mohammed would have made of the extraordinary instance of cannibalistic fratricide in 1314. After the ruler Abu Nomay abdicated, his son Humaida, bent on preserving power in the teeth of rivalry from his brothers, killed one of them and invited the others to dinner. In a scene more worthy of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover than a family reunion in the holy of holies, they were horrified to find the body of their brother Abul Ghaith as the pièce de résistance — cooked whole and served well done.

The Meccans are not everyone’s cup of tea. Sardar considers them ‘narrow, enclosed and indifferent to the changing realities of the wider world’. Though they pray towards Mecca, many Muslims are much more favourably inclined towards Medina, the City of the Prophet, which welcomed Mohammed after his world-changing flight, or hijra, from Mecca in 622. Had it not been for this well-timed escape, Meccans would have assassinated Mohammed, whose insistence on monotheism and criticism of their long-established idol-
worship was bad for business. As Mohammed put it, ‘O Mecca, I love thee more than the entire world, but thy sons will not let me live.’

Sceptical about the Saudi regime, Sardar is less questioning of the traditional accounts of Mecca by early Muslim historians. He refers to ‘the sanctity and centuries of deference that must accompany Muslim readings of Mecca’ when a little less deference might be in order. Important revisionist histories of pre-Islamic and early Islamic Mecca by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, among others, which cast doubt on the city’s primacy as a centre of trade and pilgrimage, deserve more engagement than an endnote.

The Saudis quite rightly get it in the neck here. One does not need to be a historian to wince at their desecration of Mecca’s built environment. Sites of immeasurable historical interest and significance, such as the Bilal mosque, which dates to the Prophet’s time, have been bulldozed in recent decades. The house belonging to Mohammed’s most revered wife Khadijah is now a public lavatory, an apt symbol of the Saudi regime. Looming 1,972 feet over the sacred shrine in an unholy cross between Big Ben and Las Vegas, the Makkah Royal Clock Tower stands on an estimated 400 sites of cultural and historical importance. Saudi clerics want to demolish the Prophet’s house for fear that Muslims could start praying to Mohammed rather than Allah. Anyone looking for the house of Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s closest companion and the first caliph of the Muslim empire, will find instead the Makkah Hilton, a garish edifice that has no business overlooking the Kaaba. But then business appears to be what it is all about. If the Hilton is full, incidentally, visitors can find additional accommodation on Airbnb.

Nor does the destruction end there. The exquisite, Ottoman-era section of the mosque is the oldest surviving part of the sanctuary. Its marble columns, resplendent with carved Islamic calligraphy dating back to the 16th- and 17th-century Sultans Suleiman, Salim I and Murads III and IV, are due to give way to multi-storey prayer halls 80m high.

This is not the rebarbative carping of an infidel reviewer. Many Muslims, not least Sardar, find the architectural destruction and transformation of Mecca profoundly troubling. ‘What the Saudis have done to Mecca is completely ghastly,’ a British Muslim told me recently. ‘It’s a retail extravaganza right up to the Great Mosque. During my haj, the last things I saw before turning towards the Kaaba were a Samsonite shop and Häagen-Dazs. They’ve turned Mecca into a shopping mall.’ The charge sheet against the Saud family runs much longer than this, of course. Official custodians of Islam’s holiest places, they have hijacked and perverted the religion they purport to define.

Yet for all the Saudis’ ruinous genius for kitsch and extremism, Sarda’s Mecca at least will remain ‘a place of eternal harmony, something worth living for and striving to attain. It has always been and it will always be.’

This is a captivating history and memoir, a hymn of love to a place sacred to the world’s Muslims, soured by a family wholly corrupted by petrodollars.

Mecca: The Sacred City Ziauddin Sardar
Bloom, pp.448, £25, ISBN: 9781408809204

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