US Blogger Successfully Defends Libel Action

Journalist-blogger Richard Silverstein has won a libel suit, brought against him by a certain Rachel Neuwirth:

…She sued me for libel in Los Angeles Superior Court because I called her a “Kahanist swine.” Her claim was that this was the same as claiming she was a Jewish terrorist since Kahane Chai, Meir Kahane’s Israeli political party, is designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as a terrorist organization.

…We won the case with an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation) motion under which the defendant must prove that his speech was made in a public arena and furthered a public good and that the plaintiff was a public figure. Rachel’s key argument was that she is a private figure (she argued that she was merely a real estate agent) and…my blog was a private forum (because I “controlled” it), all of which are patently false since she herself calls herself an “internationally respected journalist” in her online bio.

…Unfortunately, others have threatened me with similar lawsuits in the past and perhaps some will do so in future. I think we have taken a stand that such intimidation will be met with a firm defense of my First Amendment rights and those of all bloggers.

Alas, not all bloggers have “First Amendment rights” for the simple reason that we are not all American. Where I live, there is no “anti-SLAPP legislation”, and there is not even legislation recognizing that the public good requires the free and unhindered scrutiny of those who choose to involve themselves in public affairs. Several responsible UK bloggers in recent months have had either to edit or to remove posts due to bullying legal demands, and in one case blogs were pulled by their webhost at the behest of a controversial billionaire (click “Silencer of the Blogs” button on the right for further details). Interestingly, among those dishing out the threats is at least one supposed “libertartarian” – the blogger Paul Staines, whose attack on Pickled Politics is dicussed here.

Silverstein adds:

The judge understood the important of protecting speech on an issue as critical and controversial as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…

Indeed.

(Hat tip: Jews Sans Frontieres)

Saudi PR on Lashes for Rape Victim

Extra whipping for woman who appealed sentence recommended by Supreme Judiciary Council

Hold your nose: the Saudi Justice Ministry has released two statements (available here and here) explaining why it is right and proper for a 19-year-old woman to receive 200 lashes (I blogged the case here):

…we regret what some media have circulated on the role of the woman in the case, and the dissemination of false information and misplaced defense. Such wrong activity has led to doubting the course of the case although most the information are false and in general inaccurate because these information are taken from persons who have nothing to do with jurisprudence and have no knowledge of the details of the case. That is why the Ministry of Justice has felt compelled, in view of what has been published, to clarify in details the role of the woman and that of her companion.

The statement claims that the woman, known to the media as “AG” or “Qatif Girl”, was with her lover in a car when both were “assaulted” (i.e. both were raped) by seven other men, and that “the woman and the young man who was with her concealed all what happened” for several months. Given how things have turned out, that last detail is hardly surprising; indeed, the couple’s assailants were probably counting on it. Although nothing can justify the court’s action, this version of events, it should be noted, is rather different from that of the woman’s own account of why she was with the “young man”.

There is also an explanation as to why the woman’s lawyer has been suspended:

…The Ministry of Justice welcomes meaningful criticism which serves public interest, away from emotions… As for the lawyer Abdulrahman Allahem, the judges of the Court have filed that he has insulted the Supreme Judiciary Council, opposed regulations and instructions and showed ignorance of them. Also, he refused at the session held on 7 / 9 / 1428 H. to sign the minutes of the session.

The statements also suggest that we should be impressed by Saudi mercifulness:

…After deliberations and hearings of all parties and verification of evidence filed by the prosecutor, it was not proved to the court that it should impose death penalty against the defendants; this is in compliance with the saying of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) / thou bar capital penalty by suspicions / as no capital penalty ordered by God is carried out unless there is a clear-cut evidence, that is the testimony of two upright adults on the occurrence of the crime, or the culprit’s unwavering plea of guilt until the execution of the sentence.

There is some surprise over the fact that the woman dared to speak out after her original sentence was passed:

…After reading out the [original] ruling before the Prosecutor General, and the defendants, including the woman and her companion, all of them contently accepted it, giving the verdict the characteristic of final judgment.

Further, we are warned that:

…The system has guaranteed the right to object for whoever has an objection and requests an appeal without resorting to provocation through media which may not be fair or grant a justice; rather media may have adverse effects on the other parties involved in the case.

The woman’s original sentence of 90 lashes was increased to 200 when she appealed; according to a report in the Arab News, this was because the judges were annoyed with the negative publicity caused by the original judgement – they accused her of “attempt[ing] to aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media”. The ministry, however, claims that the judges were following the recommendations of the highest legal authority:

The Supreme Judiciary Council in its Permanent Body issued ruling No. 979 / 4 dated 16 / 6 / 1428 H. including a note of dissatisfaction on the ruling, and returned the case to their eminence the judges who first ruled the case, recommending them to increase the chastisement whipping of the defendants each according to his guilt, including the woman and her companion.

The Chief Justice of the Council is Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan; in 2004 he was famously taped encouraging Saudis to fight in Iraq. The Minister of Justice, meanwhile, is Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Ibrahim Al Al-Sheikh.

A couple of days ago, Prince Saud, the foreign minister, said the sentence is under review, although he also complained that

“What is aggravating in this matter is that individual acts like these are used to attack the Saudi people and its government.”

According to this BBC report, the Supreme Judiciary Council is about to be replaced by a new supreme court and appeals court as part of a modernisation process. Qatif Girl’s lawyer is also hopeful of change; in his view,

“That verdict signals the death throes of the judiciary’s old guard. They can see the end is near,” he said. “As black as it looked for me . . . I saw that the overkill in that verdict was a sign of desperation.”

Name variations: Shaykh Saalih al-Lehaydaan; Abdulrahman Al-Lahem; Abdul Rahman Al-Lahem

Philippine Businesswoman Unveils Giant Israeli Flag

The AP reports from Israel:

Beneath the ancient Jewish desert strongpoint of Masada, the world’s largest flag was unfurled Sunday, covering a large stretch of sandy hinterland.

The huge blue and white Israeli flag, 660 meters (2,165 feet) long and 100 meters (330 feet) wide and weighing 5.2 metric tons, breaks the record for the world’s largest, according to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

The flag was created by Filipino businesswoman Grace Galindez-Gupana, and a giant flag of the Philippines was placed alongside it:

“God spoke to me in thunder and lightening,” Galindez-Gupana said. “The Lord said, ‘Make the flag of Israel, the standard of my people.'”

This is the second time God has told Galindez-Gupana to make a flag, and in 2006 she announced the unveiling of the world’s largest flag at Nueva Vizcaya. Galindex-Gupana explained that:

“With our prayers for almost a year and a half, the Lord spoke to us, saying: ‘How can I love you if you yourselves do not even love your country? The first thing that you should do is to lift your flag because it has a spiritual meaning’,” she said.

Alas:

A bid to earn the record for the world’s biggest flag ended in shreds on Saturday when strong winds tore apart a giant Philippine national flag as it was being unfurled at a mountain town north of Manila, an organizer said.

…”Everybody is crying,” Grace Galindez-Gupana told Reuters by mobile phone. “The unfurling of the flag was almost over but a sudden gust of strong winds tore it apart,” said Galindez-Gupana, founder of the HalleluYAH PG Towers Ministries International.

Galindez-Gupina managed to put a positive spin on things, though:

The organizers led by Grace Galindez-Gupana said the torn portion of the four-ton flag resembled the shape of a heart. This showed that “God loves the Philippines, despite all our political and economic turmoils,” the organizers said.

“HalleluYAH PG Towers Ministries International” remains obscure, but Galindez-Gupana is also a successful businesswoman. A profile from Good Housekeeping reposted here has some further background:

From fishball vending at the Quezon City Hall, ABS Bitter Herbs creator Grace Galindez-Gupana went on to establish a multi-million-peso herbal supplements company without the aid of a business or a medical degree.

…It was during a trip to the US in 1998 with this group that Grace met a Filipina with an American husband, who told her to look for 7 types of medicinal vegetables and herbs that can only be found in the Philippines. These herbs, the lady said, was very good for the health. At that time, Grace was incidentally praying for a new business.

…ABS Gen Herbs International Corporation, a 100% Filipino-owned herbal supplement company–which includes a seven-story building in Quezon City and 2 factories Taguig and Rizal–was established by Grace and Paul in 1999. Grace, however, takes no credit in the success of the company. “Nag-bebenta lang ako ng fishball, anong alam ko, di ba?( I was just a lowly fishball vendor. What do I know?)” she self-effacingly shares, “Kaya si Lord talaga ang may bigay ng business na ito. Sa lahat ng desisyon, kinukunsulta namin siya.(That‘s why I can say that God is the one who gave us this business. We consult him in all our decision.)” They must be doing the right thing, because in 2002 the company received a Rising Star Citation from the Golden Shell Awards. It is also the only Filipino herbal supplements company that has received a certification from NSF, a world leader in standards development, product certification, education and risk-management for public health and safety.

Name variation: “Halleluiah PG Towers Ministries International”

Another Satanic Panic Yarn Concluded

This one’s all over the internet; NWANews has the fullest account:

…In November 1975, [Don] LaRose’s story made headlines around Maine, N. Y., when the then 34-year-old pastor disappeared from the First Baptist Church.

The circumstances were deemed mysterious, according to a Feb. 13, 1976, story in the magazine Christianity Today. Church members suggested the disappearance was an abduction by Satan worshippers.

According to early news reports, LaRose claimed to have been teaching a course on Satan when he received threatening letters from Satanists who accused him of blasphemy.

But when LaRose was found more than three months later, his claims of abduction and brainwashing were deemed unfounded. An extensive investigation by detectives revealed that LaRose had caused his own disappearance, according to the story in Christianity Today.

He then became pastor of the Hessville Baptist Church in Indiana, but in 1980 he disappeared for a second time. Had the Satanists finally got him? Apparently not, and a few days ago he was again found, living as Ken Williams, an evangelist and mayor of the Arkansas town of Centerton. He claims to have fled to protect his family, and the story came out after LaRose set up a website explaining his own disappearance, registered in the name of Ken Williams. Here he tells us why he was supposedly abducted, based on information he gathered after his memory had been wiped:

…I had learned shortly before riding away from Northwest Indiana that my abduction in 1975 had something to do with the son of one of the church members at Maine, New York who had apparently lived in Oklahoma City.  As I understood it, this young man had been killed in Oklahoma City some days after he had talked to me on the telephone.  While the phone conversation was in the time period for which I still had no memory, I assumed from my information that the fellow was trying to get out of some group or organization with which he had been involved, and that he had given me some information which I should not have heard.  The implication was that some sort of remote control device attached to his car was used to cause his car to lurch into the path of a train.  I was told I conducted his funeral in Maine, New York.

He adds elsewhere that:

…I believe that whoever was involved in the abduction used the letters as a ploy.   There were other pastors in the area that received similar letters about the same time, I am told.   While the plot obviously was Satanically inspired, I do not believe Satan worshipers were in any way involved, and you will see that as you read through the story.   The reason I make this point is that most of the news stories have played up the Satanic part of this story.

However, he also tells us of the disappearance that “there were signs it may have been a SATANIC inspired attack”.

LaRose claims that he only regained his original identity after being brainwashed when he was given a truth serum by Dr. Marvin DeHaan, brother of the radio evangelist Richard DeHaan. Richard W. DeHaan is the author of Satan, Satanism, and Witchcraft, published in 1972 by Zondervan. The book came out at a time when popular Christian paperbacks on Satanism were in their heyday: a year later, Mike Warnke (with the help of David Balsiger) produced The Satan Seller, a now thoroughly-debunked memoir of life as a Satanist. The momentum from books like these eventually led to the “Satanic panic” of the 1980s.

As Ken Williams, LaRose just a few weeks ago published a book entitled Finding Jesus in the Old Testament. On his Ken Williams Ministries website, he explains how a visit to Israel led him to appreciate the Jewish roots of Christianity, and how the growth of Messianic Jews, who accept Jesus as the Messiah, is a sign of the “fulfillment of Bible prophecy concerning the end of the age”. He also rails against the “Social Architects and Revisionists”, who

…have attempted to rewrite our history to show that our founding fathers created a secular government and wrote the idea of “the separation of church and state” into our constitution.  That is a lie!

Evolutionary biology gets similarly short shrift:

…If you believe there is no God, and therefore anything supernatural is impossible, you can make the evidence say anything you want to make it say.  If you believe in a Creator, the very same sets of evidence show His creation.  Today, there is much more evidence to point to a Creator than to Evolution.

As Ken Williams, LaRose had been mayor of Centerton since 2001. His story, however, has met with scepticism, and recent comments left on the LaRose website guestbook have not been kind.

LaRose is not the first pastor to have lived a double life; in the late nineteenth century William James and others studied the case of Ansel Bourne, a Rhode Island evangelical preacher who switched between this identity and that of a Pennsylvania stationer and confectioner named A. J. Brown.

UK Tabloid Retracts Scientology Story

Andrew Morton “has not received threats”

Sunday Express gossip columnist Adam Helliker, 11 November (no longer on-line):

FORMER tabloid royal reporter Andrew Morton – author of revealing books on Princess Diana, Monica Lewinsky and Madonna – has run into serious trouble with his latest subject, Hollywood star Tom Cruise.

…”I have received threats from the Scientologists and things have become pretty heavy – to the extent that it’s almost more than my lawyers can ­handle,” Morton tells me.

“I’ve sold my flat and I’m not telling anyone where I’m moving to. I intend to disappear for a while.”

The Daily Express, yesterday:

…It is now accepted that this is not true and that Mr Morton has not received threats or that he was forced to sell his flat and move underground to write the book.

We apologise to the Church of Scientology and its members for the embarrassment and distress caused by the article.

Rumours that Morton has had to go “underground” actually predate the Helliker piece, and appeared on Lainey Gossip in October. However, in July Morton told Metro that “So far, I haven’t been harassed but I’m sure that will come.”

It should be recalled, though, that other writers have made claims of harassment while researching the Church of Scientology. A 1991 Quill article gives some background:

When British author Russell Miller wrote a critical biography of Hubbard in 1988, an anonymous caller to police implicated Miller in the unsolved axe slaying of a South London private eye. Miller was interrogated by Scotland Yard, which later admitted the investigation was a waste of time that had “caused Mr. Miller some embarrassment.”

…When the St. Petersburg Times planned a review of another biography that was critical of Hubbard, it received a letter from a Scientology attomey threatening to sue the newspaper.

“We have evidence that your paper has a deep-seated bias against the Church and that you intend to hit the Church hard with this review,” the letter from Los Angeles attomey Timothy Bowles stated….”lf you forward one of his lies you will find yourself in court facing not only libel and slander charges, but also charges for conspiracy to violate civil rights. If you publish anything at all on it, you may still find yourself defending charges in court in light of what we know about your intentions. We know a whole lot more about your institution and motives than you think.”

…But the biggest horror story belongs to New York author Paulette Cooper.

Cooper, who wrote a scathing 1972 book entitled The Scandal of Scientology, was indicted on charges of making bomb threats against the church. The charges were eventually dismissed after authorities discovered the church had obtained stationery she had touched and used it to forge the bomb threats.

As far back as 1967, Peter Horden MP complained that “every newspaper which so much as mentions Scientology is served with a writ for libel.” As well as journalists, the late sociologist of religion Roy Wallis also had a remarkable account of harassment  from the Church while writing his doctoral thesis.

Helliker was profiled by the Independent back in June 2005:

Adam Helliker, 45, described by a jealous rival as ‘the David Brent of gossip’. Cast in the [Nigel] Dempster mould, this inquisitive Somerset group captain’s son has a photographic memory for stories. Despite having no slush fund to reward tipsters he produces exclusives such as Prince William’s doomed romance with Jecca Craig and Jade Jagger stealing Kate Moss’s boyfriend Dan Macmillan…

Scoop: Zara Phillips breaking up with boyfriend Richard Johnson.

Don’t mention: Princess Diana’s address book and royal souvenir hawkers.

The “Diana’s address book” fiasco is explained in this 2004 Guardian story:

An exclusive tale about Princess Diana’s missing address book, a US dealer in royal memorabilia and a forged letter of authentication might have been a natural choice for a tabloid front page.

The Mail on Sunday newspaper, however, kept its story well away from the opening pages yesterday and saved the most peculiar detail to the last paragraph: the fact that it had sacked its diary editor for allegedly being the intermediary who benefited from the mysterious transaction…

According to the Telegraph – another former employer – Helliker said at the time that he was “very angry – they have defamed me”. But surely the Express is now defaming either him or Morton by inferring that one of them was the source of a untrue Scientology story?

(Hat tip: Cult News Network)

“Jerusalem Summit” Founder’s Phone Tapped: Three Arrested

Calls to Israel Deputy PM monitored by private investigators: link to Russia?

From the Israel News Agency:

On November 5, Israel police announced that they had arrested two private investigators in Israel, Rafi Pridan and Aviv Mor, on suspicion of illegally wiretapping several people in an effort to gather information about Israel Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman and businessman Michael Chernoy…

The police also arrested right-wing extremist Avigdor Eskin on suspicion of serving as a liaison between the private eyes and their employer. Israel Police believe the employer is Oleg Deripaska, the richest oligarch in Russia (his fortune is estimated at $22 billion), a business rival of Michael Chernoy who has been waging a public smear campaign against him [i.e. against Chernoy – RB]. A police source told the Israel News Agency that dozens of pages of material found at the suspects’ homes and offices indicated that Chernoy was the target of their “operation”, a part of the material relates to his ties with Lieberman.

This brings together a very nice gang of characters.

In one corner, we have (allegedly) Oleg Deripaska, a billionaire Kremlin insider and grandson-in-law of the late Boris Yeltsin, apparently in alliance with Avigdor Eskin, a notorious far-right extremist recently described by Haaretz as the “prince of the pulsa denura” – the Judaic “death curse“. Eskin’s antics include campaigning for the release of Rabin-assassin Yigal Amir, who “gave his soul for us”, and plotting to hurl a pig’s head into the Al-Aqsa mosque.

And in the other corner we have Avigdor Lieberman, chair of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu party – which supports the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians – and currently Deputy Prime Minister of Israel. Alongside him we find Michael Chernoy, the Russian-Israeli billionaire and philanthropist who finances the “Jerusalem Summit”, an organisation which brings together neo-conservatives like Daniel Pipes and Baroness Cox with Christian Zionists such as Mike Evans and members of the Israeli right like Benyamin Netanyahu. His Jerusalem Summit also promotes a rather weird idea called “Universal Zionism”, which would better be described as “right-wing New Age Zionism”. I blogged on Chernoy here, and on “Universal Zionism” here.

Deripaska is a former business partner of Chernoy, and both men became absurdly wealthy during the privatisation of Russia’s aluminium industry in the 1990s. They have, however, since fallen out, and Chernoy is currently planning to pursue his old partner through the courts for billions of dollars he claims are owed to him. Despite this being a Russian affair, Chernoy intends to bring his case in London, although some have questioned whether this is an appropriate jurisdiction. Chernoy has long been accused of links to criminal activity, although no evidence has come to light and all investigations have floundered (in one case, Israeli police investigator Moshe Mizrahi was forced to resign amid claims of a “witch-hunt” of honest Russian businessmen). Although Chernoy has in the past been associated with some questionable individuals, this was presumably simply bad luck, and Chernoy become a billionaire through totally honest means while in competition with ruthless gangsters.

Haaretz tells us something of the documents discovered by police when they made the arrests:

With regard to Lieberman, the documents detail how he and Chernoy first met, what meetings they held and their alleged business ties. The material includes an investigative report from Haaretz Magazine that discussed suspicions that in May 2001, three months after Lieberman was appointed infrastructure minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, a company owned by Chernoy deposited $500,000 in a Cyprus bank account from which hundreds of thousands of shekels were later transferred to Lieberman’s associates.

…The material also details the Interior Ministry’s failed efforts to strip Chernoy of his citizenship; his involvement in Gad Zeevi’s purchase of Bezeq, for which both men are currently on trial; and investigations against him in Switzerland, Russia and the United States.

Returning to the Israel News Agency:

The Russia news outlet Stringer reported that a number of Moscow – based oligarchs (some of them former business partners of Vladimir Gusinsky, Leonid Nevzlin, and Michael Cherney) indeed formed an alliance to neutralize these businessmen who settled in Israel. The alliance’s objective is to curry favor with the Kremlin and advance their own business interests: to protect themselves from the former partners’ lawsuits, to get tax breaks from the government, et cetera. At the first stage the Russian special services granted tacit approval of this “operation”, since the first two targeted oligarchs are the Kremlin’s political foes, and the third one is at least not a friend. In order to make sure that the campaign did not look like an obvious vendetta against ex-partners and to get extra points for “patriotism” from the Kremlin, Moscow oligarchs’ special services turned it into an unofficial branch of Compatriots program. Its purpose is to establish Russia political influence over the Russian-speaking communities within the diaspora in order to control or discredit their political and business leaders who refuse to toe Moscow’s line. In Israel among the former are Scharansky and Lieberman; among the latter, Gusinsky, Nevzlin, and Cherney.

According to the Bulgarian Standart (sic – the Israel News Agency mis-cites this as “The Standard“), the “Compatriots programme” included payments to Haaretz journalists and attempts to bribe Israeli ministers, and involved Russian security agents. Apparently all of the negative coverage against Chernoy and the others can be traced back to Russia and Deripaska:

People are not stupid and they do understand that whenever five or six people holding placards are in the street yelling against someone, somebody must have paid them to do it…

It is also suggested that Eskin may in fact be an agent provocateur in the service of Russia. However, the Standart is good enough to disclose that its owner, Todor Batkov, is Chernoy’s lawyer, and represents him in London. The paper also highlights possible international repercussions of the recent arrests:

According to the Israeli police’s official, Liberman lodged a complaint, since the spies miscalculated and leaked his private telephone conversation to the media. According to some sources, the plot was exposed by Shabak, Israeli counterintelligence, who are in charge of protecting members of Israeli cabinet. Currently Lieberman possesses super secret information as the minister who coordinates Israeli policy vis-a-vis Iran, including a potential preventive strike on their nuclear facilities.

…Wiretapping a minister in charge of strategic planning, and a bribery attempt, which leads to recruitment of Israeli ministers, all traceable to Russian security officers (even if retired and working for private clients), put Russia on the verge of yet another Litvinenko-type scandal and provides Israeli government with a trump card against Russia that the Kremlin would prefer to do without.

The Israel News Agency also mentions

…a highly defamatory book on [Chernoy] written by a Russia journalist Andrei Kalitin, which is due out in Russia soon. Russian media has reported that this “black book on Chernoy” was also commissioned by people close to Oleg Deripaska.

 However, it doesn’t mention that Kalitin was shot and wounded in June, although Cherney claims the incident was staged. This occurred ten years after a journalist critical of Cherney was found beaten to death in a Moscow garage – doubtless another unhappy coincidence which has unfairly tarnished the philanthropist’s reputation.

Name variations: Michael Cherney; Michael Chernoy; Michael Chornoy; Michael Chernoi; Michael Tcherny; Michael Chyorny; Mikhail Cherney; Mikhail Chernoy; Mikhail Chornoy; Mikhail Chernoi; Mikhail Tcherny; Mikhail Chyorny; Michael Chorny; Mikhail Chorny

Russian Council of Muftis Organises “Muslims in Support of President Putin” Movement

A curious brief item from Interfax-Religion, consisting of a one-paragraph quote from a press release:

“At a working meeting of the Council of the Muftis, its members instructed Abdul-Vahed Niyazov, the head of the Islamic Cultural Center, to organize a Muslims in Support of President Putin movement and ensure its membership in the National Movement in Support of President Putin,”

According to this site, the purpose of the Council is

a) organizational consolidation of Russia’s Muslim religious unions with a view to joint solution of the most important problems concerning the entire Muslim community in the country; b) coordination of activities and mutual assistance of its member organizations in their relations with institutions of central and local government, organizations representing other religions and international and foreign organizations…

Nothing there about fanatical devotion to the president. However, the Council of the Muftis is not the only religious organisation to suck up to “Polonium” Putin. As I’ve blogged in the past, Jewish leader Chief Rabbi of Russia Berel Lazar awarded Putin with a medal in Auschwitz, while Pentecostal leader Sergei Ryakhovsky takes an unswervingly pro-Kremlin line. Both in turn have received backing from the government; I noted in 2005 that

Lazar’s dodgy election was backed by the Kremlin, since when Lazar has been continually close to Putin; various Pentecostal groups have complained about enforced membership of Ryakhovsky’s Union, while Ryakhovsky has accused critics of Putin of working for foreigners and has denounced the change of government in the Ukraine.

Both men are also part of a wider Interreligious Council of Russia, which also includes the Council of the Muftis. As well as this, of course, there is a growing symbiosis between the Russian Orthodox Church and the state, which I blogged most recently here. This includes a cult of Putin, and a few months ago the church where his parents were baptised underwent a restoration.

A couple of days ago the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” site ran a piece by Simon Tisdall about democracy in Russia, drawing on observations by former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov:

“Increased regulation of political parties, civil society and NGOs, the cancellation of elections for regional governors, changes to the Duma election procedures, and raising the threshold for parties to win parliamentary seats are all measures that have advanced this cynical approach,” Kasyanov said.

Absolute, centralised controls on internal security forces, on expanded state monopolies and on the electronic mass media were also part of Putinism’s toolbox, he said.

…Speaking to the Russia Foundation in London today, Kasyanov warned that a “KGB spirit” was dominating and haunting his country. If Russian voters and the outside world “swallowed” parliamentary elections that were certain to be deeply flawed, and accepted the theft of the presidential poll as well, then a “dark totalitarian future” awaited Russia.

Saudi Arabia Used Libel Lawyers in Ofcom Complaint

Schillings Used by Kingdom and Embassy

The UK television regulator Ofcom has rejected a complaint brought by the police about the Channel 4 documentary Undercover Mosque. As was widely blogged a few weeks ago (and by me here, here, and here), the documentary found extremist speakers and videos at a prominent mainstream mosque. The programme was investigated by the West Midlands police, who unexpectedly decided that the programme-makers had presented “distorted” material, and took the unprecedented step of contacting Ofcom. This rather unfortunate decision brought the police force widespread derision, and of course inevitably gave ammunition to the anti-Muslim right.

Much less attention, however, has been given to a second complainant: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. According to Ofcom:

In summary the complaint stated that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia had been treated unfairly in the programme as broadcast in that:

a) The programme falsely alleged that the complainant was aware of, supportive of and ultimately responsible for the alleged spread of a “radical ideology” of “intolerance and bigotry” to British Mosques and Islamic organisations in Britain. The complainant said the programme suggested that it promotes and condones extremism, when it clearly does not.

The rest of the complaint deals with “right of reply” issues. Channel 4 responded by stating that

Channel 4 stated that it was firmly of the view that the complainant was not entitled to be given any opportunity to respond to the contents of the programme, because no criticisms or allegations were made against either the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia” or the “Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia”. Channel 4 said the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should not be defined more widely than the Saudi government and/or the Saudi monarchy, and being so defined it could not be authorised to complain on behalf of “mainstream Islam”.

Channel 4 denied that the programme alleged that the complainant was aware of, supportive of, or ultimately responsible for the spread of extremism throughout the British Islamic community. Nor did the programme suggest the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia promoted or condoned extremism. Channel 4 said the programme had been carefully scripted and whilst the programme did allege that the fundamentalist ideology being described “had its roots” in Saudi Arabia and was spreading “from the Saudi religious establishment” the complainant was not implicated.

Ofcom concurred, and rejected the complaint in full.

One worrying aspect of this was that the Saudi Arabians decided to make their complaint through Schillings, a law firm well-known for its aggressive “reputation management” services. Infamously, the firm acts for Russian-Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov, and it recently forced a webhosting service to pull a couple of blogs which had reported allegations about his past (another new Schillings client is the MP Nadine Dorries).

Public debate about Saudi Arabia in the UK is already considerably curtailed; Nick Cohen noted in September that

Britain’s repressive libel laws are becoming a threat to security and racial harmony. ‘Saudi money is now a major source of income for London libel firms,’ one lawyer told me. ‘School fees and second homes depend on it.’

At least six books that make allegations about Saudi Arabia and terrorism have been suppressed in the UK, and articles have been pre-emptively spiked by the Economist, the Observer, and the Spectator.

A recent report on extremist literature available in a minority of UK mosques judged that

…it is clear that the influence of Saudi Arabia is both powerful and malign. Much of the material featured here is connected in some way with the Saudi Kingdom – whether by virtue of being written by members of the Wahhabite religious establishment; being published and distributed by official, or semi-official Saudi institutions; or being found in Saudi-funded, or linked, mosques and schools in this country. For this reason, the report argues, there needs now to be a proper audit of the costs and benefits of the Saudi-UK relationship.

How long before report author Denis MacEoin – not to mention a host of other critics of the Saudi regime from across the political spectrum – receives a letter from Schillings?

(Hat tip: MediaWatchWatch)

Turkish Report Slams Israeli Excavations

From Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman:

A Turkish technical mission sent to Jerusalem to inspect Israeli archaeological work near the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque has criticized the excavations and called on Israel to consult with Palestinian and international authorities on a final plan, the mission’s report, obtained by Today’s Zaman, revealed.

The report was commissioned over the “Mughrabi ramp” controversy of March:

…The report suggested that the excavations should not be viewed as a distinct event but as a part of a continual effort by the Israeli authorities to reshape the area, starting with the 1967 invasion of East Jerusalem. Quoting from a March 12, 2007 UNESCO report on the excavations, the report pointed out that the pathway extending from the Western Wall square to the Mughrabi Gate of Haram al-Sharif is the last remaining part of the Mughrabi neighborhood, which was destroyed by Israel during the Six Day War in June 1967, and that its destruction will represent the completion of a 40-year project.

Using rather convoluted language, the report complains of

…a planned and systematically implemented effort which aims to destroy the values associated with cultural assets and the sources of information of these cultures.

Publication of the report was delayed because the Turkish authors did not want it to appear to have been produced in retaliation for the Anti-Defamation League’s recent recognition of the Armenian genocide. The report mirrors Israeli complaints that the Muslim authorities have destroyed ancient Jewish remains on the site of the mosque. The publication also contradicts an Israeli statement on the subject which appeared last month:

Israel has decided to resume controversial renovation work near the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem, a project which earlier this year sparked protests from Muslims worldwide.

…An independent Turkish committee which inspected the controversial site in March “approved the project,” Mr [Yaacov] Edri said, adding the construction work will begin “very soon”.

Edri, a right-wing Likud MK, chairs the ministerial committee dealing with the matter.

Jim Davila of Paleojudaica notes one problem with the report – the claim that the significance of the Western Wall is “a fairly new phenomenon as it had no religious connotations in the period of King Herod.” Davila comments:

If this is what the report actually says, and not some misunderstanding, it is disturbingly tendentious. The Wailing Wall or Western Wall is part of the Platform of the Temple Mount. Although it was not part of the Temple itself, the Temple stood on the Platform and the whole area was considered sacred. It is simply not true that “it had no religious connotations in the period of King Herod.” I have discussed the Herodian Temple Mount Platform in greater detail here.

The archaeology of Jerusalem is a subject I’ve blogged from time to time in the past. On the one hand, the leading Palestinian archeologist employed by the waqf Muslim authority which controls the site of the Al-Haram al-Sharif (i.e. Temple Mount) has admitted on British television that for political reasons he is unable to confirm the existence of Jewish remains. This of course means that the waqf is unlikely to protect such remains when they turn up, and indeed that they even have a motive for destroying them. One the other hand, there are questionable links between some Israeli archaeologists and nationalist groups, and archeology was invoked to justify plans to demolish Palestinian houses in Silwan in 2005. Further, Gabi Barkai, the archaeologist in charge of the excavations at the Mughrabi ramp, is a PR disaster – when Paddy Ashdown raised some reasonable questions about the how the project had been conducted all he got was an aggressive and self-righteous “I don’t like your attitude and I don’t like this conversation at all, I’m sorry to say.” However, it’s a huge jump from that to the report’s claims of a “systematically implemented effort to destroy” Muslim remains, and the extracts from the report cited by the Zaman are not adequate to proving what would be a major international scandal.

Despite the delay, the timing of the Turkish report’s publication is still unfortunate, for a rather different reason; Asia News reported just a few days ago from Istanbul that

…A XVII century chapel dedicated to Our Lord’s Transfiguration, which lies in front of the Haliki School of Theology, was almost completely destroyed yesterday by Forest Guards.  The Church had been recently restored with the permission of local authorities.

…Diplomatic and journalistic circles mummer [sic] that cases such as these are on the increase and are not casual either: they are part of a strategy adopted by powers in Turkey who are against the nations process of integration in the European Union and are testing the Governments will to protect religious minorities.

(The Zaman report also contains one other inaccuracy, when it mentions that a mosque pulpit had been “totally burnt in a fire set by an Israeli in 1969”. In fact the arsonist was a non-Jewish Australian, and he was a deranged follower of Herbert Armstrong.)

Physician Heal Thyself

A curious snippet (not online) from the Daily Mail, which highlights some “quirky cures” for baldness that Prince William might like to try:

A bald guru in India recommends combining headstands with a herb called bhringara.

(sic – should be “bhringaraj”)

Alas, the identity of this “bald guru” is not given, although a bit of googling shows the herb at least is linked to Ayurveda.

This sage advice is contrasted with that of John Wesley, who suggested rubbing the head with onions until red, and then applying a dollop of honey.

Of course, I’m only blogging this because of my purely objective academic and journalistic interest in religion.