The road less travelled, part V: Shakespeare in Sweden

 
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By Christian Nielsen

In his final stop on his ‘road less travelled’ tour, Christian Nielsen uncovers the possible prototype for Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a Swedish hamlet.

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Tuesday 28 August 2018

The first thing you notice as the ferry docks in Varberg, in present-day Sweden, is the impressive fortress built between 1287 and 1300 by Jacob Nielsen, an outlawed Danish Count, to rebuff likely attacks by Eric IV of Denmark who sought revenge for the murder of his father, Kind Eric V. Sounds like familiar territory methinks … except Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes place further south between royal antagonists in Helsingor (Demark) and the Swedish city facing it is called Helsingborg.

Vargerg’s ramparts overlook the township to the East and a quiet sandy beach facing the Kattegat sea area enclosed by Denmark’s Jutland peninsula to the West, with a quirky boardwalk and pavilion resembling something Aladdin had started after a few shots of Absynth.

Inside the fort are some private houses, a youth hostel nestled beside a cosy bar and restaurant called ‘Happy Fish’ (not so happy customers though … tasty but tiny dishes). The Varberg County Museum inside the inner courtyard tells the town’s story and boasts having the remains of a fully clothed victim of foul play in the 13th century. Experts say the so-called Bocksten Man had been impaled and weighted down in a lake which became a bog that preserved the body and garb from the period.

I’d arrived by ferry from Grenaa in Denmark, as part of a byways and myways tour from Brussels to Stockholm, in time for the World Cup quarter final showdown between Belgium and Brazil. The town had set up a big screen on the main square facing the port. Viking-style long tables were weighted down by out-sized beers. With no real skin in the game, the Swedes were more interested in watching the greats of Brazil do their thing, perhaps sizing up what they might face should they get through England the next day in what would be a 60-year grudge match (Brazil beat Sweden in the 1958 FIFA World Cup final, which gave the world its first glimpse of 17-year-old debutant Pele).

But a page had been torn out of that script because Belgium shocked the brilliant Brazilians, helped by the star of the 2018 Word Cup, the VAR play review technology, and the referee’s disdain for Neymar’s diving performances. (Postscript: England also put paid to it by beating Sweden the next day … a country in mourning, but only briefly … it is the stoical north, after all).

I returned to my semi-homestay for the night, which bills itself as a ‘bed and kitchen’ rather than ‘breakfast’. The arrangement is reasonably typical in Sweden, where families pitch up to these large purpose-built houses with all their own food, linen and toiletries (you can rent sheets and towels for a little extra). It’s not a hostel per se, because the places are more comfortable and the sleeping rooms are not communal, but you share bathrooms, and the clean kitchens, dining facilities and lounge areas set these homestays apart.

Outside at Anna’s Bed and Kitchen is an expansive garden with clusters of chairs and tables, summer games, a rabbit hutch and ample birdsong (from about 3:30 am onwards, when the sun starts coming up). Just over the road is a great bakery and what looks like a boutique brewery. They did a great breakfast (very reasonably priced), which fortified me for the home stretch up to Stockholm.

About halfway up the E4, the forest opens up to the city of Jonkoping, which borders the massive Vattern Lake. I couldn’t pass up the chance to stop at Granna, about 40 km further north along the scenic lake-side drive, a town made famous for its red and white ‘polkagris’ lollipops, invented by Amalia Eriksson in 1859. Today, the neat little town tucked between a hillside and lake, plies its many visitors with hand-rolled candy canes in all shapes, sizes and flavours. You can watch the candy-makers shaping, layering in the colours/flavours, then twisting and rolling the sweet treat. Timing is everything, as the whole blending and rolling process has to be done before the mixture gets too hard to work. Then it is cut to perfect length using a template and wrapped and folded by hand. You can taste the different flavours, and sometimes even buy the batch just made.

From Granna it’s a hop and a skip to our cottage south of Stockholm, and honestly, I was keen to just get there. Of course, there were many other interesting places to stop on the way, including the Swedish Airforce Museum just outside Linkoping and the Rok Runestone, reportedly the longest runic inscription on record, and located just a couple of kilometres off the main highway. But no doubt I’ll be driving that section again in years to come, so maybe it’s not really the ‘road less travelled’, which means it doesn’t qualify for this particular series of stories.

____

Read part I: Navigating without algorithms

Read part II: Overwhelmed at Overloon

Read part III: The cycle of life in Groningen

Read part IV: The rich texture of the original Hamburger

 

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The UN’s Insecurity Council

 
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By Khaled Diab

The UN Security Council has a long track record of failing to resolve conflicts. Now it is also in danger of bringing the major powers to blows.

UN SC

Wednesday 4 November 2015

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s recent surprise visit to Israel and Palestine followed fast on the heels of France’s efforts in the UN Security Council to issue a presidential statement in support of the deployment of international observers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and other holy sites in Jerusalem.

Such a flurry of activity by and within the UN is clearly intended to calm the violence that has been escalating for the past month. But even with the best intentions, does the UN in its current form have any capability or credibility in this conflict?

The French draft on international observers, by focusing on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, above all gives credibility to the myth that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about religion – but it also confuses a symptom with the disease.

The Temple Mount is only a microcosm of the wider conflict and it is not where the greatest abuses occur. It would be far better and more useful if international observers were deployed across the occupied territories and in East Jerusalem to monitor the daily transgressions there.

Better still would be an international peacekeeping force, which would be good for both sides. For Palestinians, it would offer protection from Israel’s arbitrary and repressive military rule. For Israelis, it would provide security without the corrupting domestic influence of draconian militarism. For both sides, it could offer the breathing space required to rebuild bridges burnt over the past couple of decades.

However, it is near impossible that such an ambitious proposal would fly, if even the idea of proposing international guardian angels at Jerusalem’s holy sites is meeting with such stiff resistance.

Israel is adamantly opposed to the French proposal. “Israel is not the problem on the Temple Mount; it’s the solution. We maintain the status quo,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed defiantly.

And Israel, through its patron and ally, the United States, holds an effective veto over the UN. Washington has exercised its veto right, as one of the five permanent member of the Security Council, to shield Israel dozens of times, not to mention the threat, or fear, of a veto on numerous other occasions to stifle resolutions at their inception.

But it is not just the US that has exploited its veto power irresponsibly to undermine global and local security. Other permanent members have been similarly reckless.

Take Syria as an example. Moscow, along with Beijing, has vetoed four resolutions on Syria. Displaying a multilateralism of sorts, all five of the Security Council’s permanent members, either directly or indirectly, have been involved in the Syrian civil war.

Rather than working for the common global interest of, first, preventing, and now, ending the Syrian conflict, they have selfishly been pursuing their own perceived narrow national interests. Moreover, the Security Council’s failures do not just stop at the here and now. The council’s inability to defang conflict is legendary, with one of the most alarming examples being the Rwandan genocide.

This is partly because the Security Council’s architecture is not fit for purpose. Intended primarily to prevent global conflicts involving the major powers, it is ineffective in regional or proxy warfare.

The Security Council has arguably succeeded in this mission and, even during the Cold War, it helped prevent direct confrontation between the major powers of the capitalist and communist camps. However, they did, and continue to, engage in proxy conflicts, with Syria being the most notable current example.

Additionally, most conflicts today are local or regional ones, and so are difficult to defuse with this architecture, especially the incredibly problematic veto right, which blocks the ability for collective action if just one permanent member objects.

Moreover, we have reached a dangerous fork in the road. Nowadays the Security Council is in danger of magnifying, rather than dissipating, conflict, as its paralysis over Syria and the involvement of its permanent members in Syria demonstrates.

There is an urgent need to reform the UN’s architecture to make it a more effective force for global peace and stability.

A growing chorus of voices argue that the number of permanent members of the Security Council should be enlarged to reflect the contemporary reality of the world and to better include unrepresented regions. Candidates put forward include India, Brazil and the European Union.

However, an enlarged Security Council in which its new permanent members also exercised a veto would likely paralyze this body even more than it already is. It is my view that, with or without enlargement, the veto has to go.

Given the gravity and importance of the issues it deals with, a supermajority voting system could be established in which  a resolution would pass if, say, at least two-thirds of the 15 members of the Security Council (including the 10 temporary one).

However, this does little to address the fundamentally undemocratic and paternalistic nature of the Security Council, which effectively subordinates the will of the international community of nations to that of just five countries.

This can be addressed by making the Security Council subordinate to the General Assembly, and the executor of its will. Of course, for the current permanent members, who would have to agree unanimously to such a step, it would be tantamount to turkeys voting for Christmas.

In addition, if that kind of power is transferred to the General Assembly, larger countries would justifiably say that this unfairly discriminated against them. The UN’s current system of one country, one vote means that tiny Tuvalu, with a population of just under 11,000, carries as much weight as China’s 1.35 billion. This means that if the General Assembly were to start handling issues of international security directly, it would also need to be reformed, with a weighted voting system reflecting individual country’s populations – or the division of larger countries into voting regions, each of which would receive a seat at the UN.

Some small or pariah countries, such as Jewish Israel and Shia Iran, feel that the General Assembly has an intrinsic bias against them. Many Israelis are convinced Israel is held to a different standard.

Whether or not this view is accurate, such situations are possible. Just like a national democracy can turn into a dictatorship of the majority, the same can occur within an international democracy. Avoiding such eventualities would require a powerful constitution to govern the UN’s reformed security mandate and a “do no harm” philosophy.

But even if the Security Council were reformed to overcome its inertia, could it resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Many peace activists on both sides are convinced it could, while the Palestinian Authority and PLO have premised their global diplomatic strategy on the idea that the international community, represented by the UN, holds the keys to peace.

At a certain level, this is a valid point of view. Centralising the international response and rooting it in international law would, at the very least, remove the foreign meddling that created and fuels the conflict. At best, it would empower the international community to address the root causes fuelling the conflict. However, this would require a shift away from the long-deceased Oslo paradigm and towards a civil rights platform, identifying and empowering local partners who can build the popular support necessary to lead their peoples towards peaceful coexistence.

But even if the international community were able to act as a single voice and find creative ways to tackle and address the root issues, this would not necessarily resolve the conflict. After all, the UN played a major role in helping create the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the first place.

When it voted for the partition of Palestine in 1947, the newly conceived UN failed to ensure local buy-in, and this foreign hubris had dire consequences. Back then, failing to gain Palestinian and Arab acceptance led to war. Today, failure to gain Israeli support also risks leading to war or, at the very least, Israel openly embracing its pariah status, entering into self-imposed global isolation, and taking the gloves off completely.

The UN and the wider international community can only help lead Israelis and Palestinians to water. But they cannot force them to drink from the font of peace against their will.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 20 October 2015.

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Send Qatar off and bring on Tunisia for 2022 World Cup

 
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By Khaled Diab

If Qatar gets a red card for the 2022 World Cup, Arabs should enter a joint bid to host it in Tunisia, regional role model for revolution and reform.

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Jubliant Qataris celebrate news of 2022 win. Image: Qatar 2022 official site

Thursday 12 June 2014

Like many people of conscience around the world, I am alarmed that Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar’s successful bid to organise football’s greatest tournament has trained the international spotlight on the inhumane and dangerous treatment of South Asian migrant workers in the tiny emirate and the wider Gulf region.

Many Qataris and some other Arabs see hypocrisy in the controversy. “Over 20 countries have organised the tournament and they only make this fuss about Qatar,” one Twitter user complained.

Some went even further: “We have to stand assertively against this kind of racist behaviour,” said Kuwaiti politician Ahmad al-Fahad al-Ahmed al-Sabah, who is also the president of the Olympic Council of Asia.

Though I don’t think racism comes into it, at a certain level there do appear to be double standards.  After all, there is a long history of the World Cup being abused as a political football by unscrupulous regimes: from fascist Italy in 1934 to junta-ruled Argentina in 1978. Inmates at the notorious Esma detention centre could hear the ecstatic crowds cheer Argentina to victory against the Netherlands in the final.

Even the 2014 Brazil world cup has not been without controversy, with protests over the costs and the treatment of indigenous tribes.

But it looks likely that allegations of bribery, which Qatar denies, rather than human rights abuses, may drive the final nail in the coffin of the Qatari tournament.

Both Qatar’s initial awarding of the 2022 World Cup and the possibility that it may lose it have stirred mixed emotions in the wider Arab world. It sparked enthusiasm in Qatar and some quarters that an Arab country had finally joined the major league of organising football.

“Congratulations to Qatar and to us for the football victory,” wrote Jihan al-Khazen in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat back in 2010. “Winning the right to host the championship is an honour to all Arabs.”

Even if they were perplexed as to why minute Qatar with little footballing tradition to speak of had gained this “honour”, many Arabs echoed al-Khazen’s sentiments. For example, both Egyptian fans and the Egyptian Football Association sent Qatar congratulatory messages at the time.

However, the recent strain in Egyptian-Qatari relations over allegations that Qatar bankrolled and supported the despised Muslim Brotherhood have curbed the enthusiasm of some Egyptians.

This prompted Kamal Amer of pro-government Rose al-Youssef to urge his readers last year to overlook what he described as temporary differences and to focus on the “Arab, Middle Eastern and Islamic dream” of hosting the World Cup. He even suggested that Qatar could benefit from Egyptian expertise in the run-up to the event.

So far, the latest round of allegations has elicited little reaction in Egypt, which is preoccupied with meatier matters, such as the recent presidential elections and the anointing of its probable latest dictator, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.  Nevertheless, the FIFA corruption allegations have received a civil handling. For example, the outspoken, pro-regime TV presenter Amr Adeeb, rather than gloat at Qatar’s predicament, focused on the ethics of the matter.

“It’s not a question of whether Qatar should host the World Cup, it’s a question of morality,” he said on his popular talk show Cairo Today. “We were happy that Qatar was the first Arab country that would embrace the World Cup,” Adeeb noted.

However, if Qatar gets the red card for the 2022 championship, which I think it should still stay in the region. The World Cup has left its traditional venues of Europe and Latin America, to visit Asia, the United States and Africa, so the Arab world should get a shot too.

Although I prefer the idea of a fixed venue  classified as international territory, I believe holding the World Cup in the Middle East can be an opportunity to honour all those who sacrificed for the dream of the Arab Spring, provide relief to a troubled region and promote some inter-Arab co-operation amid the strained relations afflicting the region. This can be done through a joint Arab bid from several countries.

Given how it spearheaded the Arab revolutionary wave and has been a relative trailblazer in democratic reform, I would argue that the honour should go to Tunisia to be the actual host. Moreover, the Eagles of Carthage have significant footballing pedigree. Tunisia has qualified for four World Cups and was the first African side to win a match at the championship, back in 1978.

However, given the country’s modest means, a regional fund should be established, bankrolled by the rich Gulf states, including even Qatar, to finance preparations for the tournament. Other regional footballing heavyweights – like Egypt, Algeria and Morocco – can provide their technical expertise.

In addition, to avoid the waste associated with the tournament (which can only truly be curbed with a fixed venue), a blueprint should be drawn up that creates the maximum number of jobs ethically and every piece of infrastructure must be recyclable.

This would not only help to raise Tunisia’s prestige and stimulate investment in the country, creating much-needed jobs, it would also promote a deeper sense of shared identity across the region.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 5 June 2014.

 

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Are we now ‘friends’ of al-Qaeda in Libya?

 
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By Badra Djait

Belgium was one of the ‘Friends of Libya’ in Paris. But does the prime minister realise that these Libyan ‘friends’ include a former al-Qaeda fighter?

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Belgium’s acting prime minister, Yves Leterme (CD&V), represented the country at the ‘Friends of Libya‘ summit which took place in Paris on 1 September. The National Transitional Council of Libya, a political  body representing the anti-Gaddafi rebels, also took part in the gathering.

But can Leterme, in the name of Belgium, befriend a certain Abdelhakim Belhadj, who is  not only the Transitional Council’s military commander but is also a former al-Qaeda fighter and the former leader of the  Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)?

“From holy warrior to hero of a revolution,” read the sarcastic headline in the London-based al-sharq al-Awsat sarcastisch.

Against the Soviets

 In 1988, Belhadj moved to Afghanistan to take part in the anti-Soviet jihad there. In 1990, the returning Libyan mujahideen set up LIFG. Belhadj was the former emir of this group which has been defined as a “terrorist” organisation since the 11 September 2001 attacks in America.

In 2004, Belhadj was arrested in Afghanistan, interrogated by the CIA and delivered to Libya, where he was eventually released in 2008. Earlier this year, he seized the opportunity to transform his defunct fundamentalist party into the Libyan Islamic Movement, which became one of the main opponents of the deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. In this capacity, he became the military commander of the Transitional Council.

Meanwhile, rumours have been circulating that Gaddafi has fled to neighbouring Algeria. A convoy of six Mercedes with tainted glass was seen crossing the border. A number of Libyan rebel leaders accuse Algeria of supporting Gaddafi. Algeria denies the allegations.

Until now, Algeria has refused to recognise the Transitional Council until it receives assurances that the new Libyan government will co-operate in combating al-Qaeda in North Africa. Why has Belgium not taken a similar stance?

In contrast with Libya, Bahrain and Syria will not be on the receiving end of a military intervention from NATO, the UN or any other international coalition, in the name of democracy, human rights or the “responsibility to protect”.

Syria has a mutual defence pact with Iran (renewed in 2006 and 2009). This means that an attack against Syria would constitute an attack on Iran. And didn’t China and Russia recently warn that attacking Iran could trigger a world war?

Why are the popular democratic protests in Bahrain, the neighbour of Western ally Saudi Arabia, not appreciated? More importantly, why were the elite Saudi troops sent to crush the uprising in Bahrain trained by Great Britain? It was confirmed in the British parliament that the Saudi National Guard was taught how to “maintain public order”.

Reconstruction

The West has declared its official commitment to help build democracy in Libya. Restoring security, improving the humanitarian situation and the establishment of a multi-party, pluralistic political system are officially the top priorities. But Mustafa Abdul Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council, knows better what it is all about. He promised, in a statement, to grease the palms of the the countries which helped Libya in the fight against Colonel Gaddafi with lucrative oil contracts. Libyan oil is highly sought after for its high quality which, among other things, makes it ideal for the production of kerosine, which is often used as jet fuel.

 A number of countries, including Britain and Germany, have promised to release tens of billions of dollars in frozen Libyan assets to the Transitional Council. Other countries which did not immediately take part in the military intervention – such as Brazil, China and Russia – are hoping to get a second chance with the transitional government.

But the question for now is whether the “friends of Libya” will co-operate with a former al-Qaeda fighter in order to acquire those lucrative oil contracts?

 

This column is based on an editorial published, in Dutch, by De Morgen, on 30 August 2011. Published here with the author’s consent.

 

 

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Tainted honour

 
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Rana Husseini's book about honour killings

Rana Husseini's book about honour killings

By Khaled Diab

The taboo surrounding the cruel murder of family members in the name of honour is slowly being broken.

May 2009

Though relatively rare, killing a family member in the name of honour should be a cause for shame, not pride, as it reflects a cowardly compliance with inhumane norms.

Killing someone, especially a family member, is something I cannot begin to contemplate. Of course, I realise that it is a sad fact of life that some of the worst physical, sexual and psychological abuses – and even murders – are perpetrated by relatives.

In some ways, it is more horrifying and tragic when abuses are committed not to satisfy some base motives but for the apparently exalted ideal of “honour”. Each year, thousands die around the world – from the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent, and from Latin America to China – in the name of family honour. The victims of these crimes are mostly women.

Rana Husseini – a courageous and outspoken Jordanian journalist who has dedicated most of her career to campaigning against this warped cultural practice – will publish a book on the subject at the end of May.

Murder in the Name of Honour (pdf) continues Husseini’s groundbreaking efforts to break the silence on this disgraceful crime. The book shines a human light on some of the victims of honour killings, exploring their lives, circumstances and deaths – an epitaph to women whose families and communities would rather forget.

The first case Husseini investigated, back in 1994, was that of Kifaya, a young woman from a very traditional family in a conservative neighbourhood of Amman, who became pregnant after being raped by one of her brothers, Muhammad.

Instead of understanding and sympathy from her family, the poor young woman who had been violated by her own kin was forced to marry a man 34 years her senior to cover up the scandal. When the marriage ended in divorce six months later, the perceived shame led the family to decide that Kifaya had to die, and her other brother, Khalid, was forced to carry out the ugly deed.

Although most honour killings are ordered by men and carried out by men, Kifaya’s father, who worked abroad to provide for his family, had no idea of the plot co-hatched by her mother, and the news of her death devastated him. “I would never have allowed anyone to kill my daughter, no matter what,” he confessed to Husseini.

The fact that Kifaya was a victim twice over – once for being blamed for her rape and then being murdered for dishonouring the family – is not unusual in the grizzly annals of this type of crime, where a woman’s virginity is worth more than her life. In fact, there are women in the most conservative circles who have paid with their lives for the malicious gossip of others.

Husseini points out that only a small number of men are murdered in the name of honour, despite the fact that they played a major role in the supposed dishonour. Indeed, men – even rapists – do get off lightly in this type of sex-related honour crimes. But her assertion overlooks the fact that there is a whole other world of honour that overwhelmingly claims men as its victims: the vendetta – think Romeo and Juliet or mafia films but in real life.

One place where this dated practice, known locally as ‘el-tar‘, still continues, despite decades of efforts to wipe it out, is Egypt’s stronghold of conservatism and tough traditions, al-Said (or Upper Egypt). Highly codified and ritualised, some of these feuds can last for generations, perpetuated by a stubborn belief in “el-tar walla el-aar” (“revenge is better than disgrace”).

It’s not just the fact that someone can muster up the ability to murder a loved one that disturbs, it is also the cruel manner and abandon some people bring to the task. One father hired two thugs to rape his daughter for two hours – as punishment for shaming him – before killing her. To my mind, there is no way a father like that can be anything but completely diseased in the head.

The crime can also be cruel on the chosen executioner. Families often choose one of the younger men – often a minor – to carry out the crime because he will probably get off with a lighter sentence, although the powerless youngster is condemned to a lifetime of trauma and often regret. “I know that killing my sister is against Islam and it angered God,” said Sarhan, a young honour-killer Husseini visited in prison. “She was close to me, she was the one who resembled me the most,” he said. “I alone cannot change or fix things in my society. My whole society has to change.”

And change is coming gradually. Thanks to the efforts of Husseini – who has endured slander, unpopularity and even death threats – and other activists and campaigners, the issue has become a very public one in Jordan, and concern about it has grown in other countries, particularly Pakistan.

This breaking of the taboo has incensed many, not because they approve of the crimes but because of the shame and embarrassment it brings upon their societies. At one level, this is understandable: although honour killings are pretty isolated occurrences, many in the outside world have the warped idea that most Arab and Muslim men are bloodthirsty women-bashers. However, sweeping the issue under the carpet is not an option, and it must be dealt with.

Although Jordanian campaigners have so far failed to change the law that enables honour murderers to get off lightly, the struggle is as much about changing cultural perceptions and attitudes as it is about legislation. Public and judicial tolerance of these crimes is wearing thin as the silent majority begin to raise their objections to these barbaric acts. “The protection of every woman’s life should be a key issue for the government and community alike,” emphasises Husseini. “Real honour is about tolerance, equality and civil responsibility.”

This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 3 May 2009. Read the related discussion.

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