Khomeini or Thomas Jefferson? Who did more for religious freedom?


Oliver Kamm

In a post last week I noted a new book that purports to expose Western propaganda about Iran’s nuclear programme. Its co-authors are Peter Oborne, the Telegraph columnist, and David Morrison, an obscure figure whose denial of the demonstrated historical facts of the Srebrenica massacre places him on the sinister fringes of political opinion.

Even so, before reading the book, I was prepared to accept that the authors’ depiction of Iran as a civilised country was nothing worse than an unfortunate ambiguity. It is beyond argument that, as a Times leader put it not long ago, “the civilisation of Persia is among the greatest in history”. I had assumed that this is what Oborne and Morrison meant too.

Our argument as a newspaper is that Iran has an historic civilisation and an appalling regime. Now that the publisher has sent me the book, I can see that my assumption that Oborne and Morrison would also make this distinction was wrong. Here is how they explain (pp. 19-20) the breakdown of relations between Iran and the US after the 1979 revolution: “One of the greatest theologians of all time, [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini’s teaching contained insights which went far deeper than anything the rationalists and materialists of the United States could imagine.”

Oborne and Morrison don’t say what these insights were, but I’m sufficiently hidebound an empiricist to suspect that they fell short of, say, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, stipulating “that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities”.

I can understand an argument critical of the diplomatic policies of recent US administrations. But I’m stupefied that Oborne and Morrison favourably contrast the philosophy of a repressive theocrat with that of the author of the seminal argument for religious liberty.

The authors complain (p. 15), by the way, that “western newspapers and television channels have disseminated fabrications which have fuelled hatred and suspicion, and sowed misunderstanding”. Yet one notable fabrication that they refrain from mentioning at all is Holocaust denial, and specifically its espousalby President Ahmadinejad of Iran.

You may feel that this silence about a fraudulent claim that demonstrably fuels hatred and suspicion is an odd omission. I’m afraid it makes complete sense in the narrow universe of this tendentious tract.

Srebrenica denial just will not die


Oliver Kamm

The Srebrenica massacre in July 1995 was the worst single atrocity in Europe since 1945. Bosnian Serb forces murdered around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in a crime judged by the International Court of Justice at The Hague to be an act of genocide.

That was a sound judgment. The intention in killing every male was to ensure that the Muslim captives could not remain a sustainable population. Many of the victims were blindfolded and then shot in the back. Whatever you call the Srebrenica massacre, there is no legitimate debate about the nature of that abominable crime or the number of its victims.

There are, however, a few extremists who maintain otherwise. Their motivations are obscure but appear to include the belief that the racist, imperialist regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade was somehow progressive, and unabashed conspiracy theories about Muslims.

I first noticed this phenomenon of “Srebrenica denial” when the Government of Republika Srpska (the Serb entity in Bosnia) issued a report in 2002 claiming that the victims amounted to some 2,000, most of them combatants. Lord Ashdown, then international High Representative for Bosnia, rightly dismissed it as “preposterous” and “an insult”. As I argued in this column, the techniques of Srebrenica denial derive from Holocaust denial. Its proponents use bogus demographics, non sequiturs, calumnies and outright fakery.

You won’t find Srebrenica denial in any reputable scholarly forum but, like other conspiracy theories, it spreads on the internet. Its most prominent advocate is Edward Herman, a sometime co-author of Noam Chomsky.

I believe (though am open to correction) that Herman has never visited Bosnia, but he has indefatigably denied the established facts of the Srebrenica massacre. Here is a new piece in which he rubbishes the notion of 8,000 victims (“they had never proved that there were 7,000 or 8,000, even men and boys killed. The bodies in the graves added up to something like 2,500”).

Be aware, if you encounter such material, that it’s baloney. Herman has been using bogus statistics for years. Scientists working with the International Commission on Missing Persons have excavated the remains of more than 7,000 Srebrenica victims from mass graves that were never intended to be discovered. Using DNA analysis, they have managed to identify and name these victims. That is harrowing, vital work. Yet the pernicious lies of the deniers never go away.

That’s why I fight these people. 


Goldmines dig up trouble for for Mongolia

Giles Whittell

Chilly? Spare a thought for the people of Mongolia. This is their minus 30 time of year.

Since the age of the great Khans, the nomads of the Gobi Desert have coped heroically with the most extreme weather on earth. This year is no exception, but there are complications. Their frozen landscape is host to an over-heated economy, an undernourished democracy and a general sense that Central Asia’s quiet success story may be grinding to a halt.

The focus of what ails Mongolia is also the main source of its wealth. About 400 miles south of Ulan Bator a Canadian firm part-owned by Rio Tinto – which yesterday fired its CEO over unrelated losses in Mozambique – is about to start extracting ore from a hole in the ground so huge and rich that it could account for nearly a third of Mongolia’s GDP over the next half-century.

The Oyu Tolgoi mine’s prodigious gold and copper deposits have been valued at close to $300 billion in today’s money. Already about $6 billion has been ploughed into it, making it the main driver of Mongolia’s breakneck economic expansion even before it yields its first ounce of gold.

So, who gets the money? The state has a 34 per cent stake, but Rio Tinto and its subsidiaries have the other 66 per cent and most of the profits for the next 30 years. This may sound like a good deal for Big Mining, and it is. But when the Government produced a draft law last month giving Mongolians an automatic 34 per cent stake in all future mining ventures, business cried foul. Foreign investors and their local partners wrote to the President warning that the new law would “shut down the entire minerals industry of Mongolia”.

Translation: put foreign capital in a straitjacket and you put yourself in the same category as Mongolia’s less savoury neighbours. Mining will continue in your country, but with less of our investment and know-how and less of the transparency required of us by the Western jurisdictions where we are domiciled.

The protesters have a point. Mongolia’s growth rate is already falling sharply and its foreign business community is increasingly spooked by apparently arbitrary official harassment on the Putin-era Russian model. The larger problem is the Government’s direction of travel towards populism and resource nationalism – at a time when people such as Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez have given them a bad name, and in a country that has done so well from doing right by investors.

Critics of the new law say it will replace a burgeoning market economy with sclerosis and corruption dominated by a few oligarchs. One critic in particular accuses the current regime of making sweetheart deals with the Oyu Tolgoi investors at the public’s expense – but his voice is seldom heard these days because he’s been locked up.

Nambaryn Enkhbayar, President of Mongolia until 2009, was arrested last year and jailed on one of the more comical rap sheets faced by a post-Soviet leader. The charges against him include one of abusing his office to require the national airline to ship eight books from Korea to Mongolia “without charge”. There are also corruption allegations relating to an ex-employee and a coal mine, but so far he has not been allowed to answer them.

If his case sounds a bit like those of Yulia Timoshenko in Ukraine and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, going quietly spare in a Siberian labour camp across Mongolia’s northern border, it should. None is a saint, but all are once-powerful reformist figures seen as contenders for leadership through the ballot box by rivals who have therefore muzzled them.

Sad, but true: a full generation after the fall of Soviet Communism there is not one country in the former Soviet bloc east of the Soviet Union’s old western border that has successfully combined a functioning democracy and the rule of law.

For many years, Mongolia looked like the exception – and a possible model for other landlocked, resource-rich countries scrabbling for a foothold in the global economy, like Afghanistan. Its backsliding on free markets and judicial transparency is by no means irreversible, but swift, enlightened action by the current Government is needed to reassure the world that it is serious about building an open society as well as getting rich on gold. Due process for Enkhbayar would be a good place to start.

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