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     Volume 5 Issue 90 | April 14, 2006 |

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Food For Thought

Jack Straw versus Jack Frost

Farah Ghuznavi

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice's recent visit to northwest England was met by a decidedly chilly reception that - according to the UK Independent - "appeared to have a cooling effect on the previously cosy relationship" she had shared with the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw.

Whether or not that was indeed the case, there seems little doubt that her visit was dogged by controversy almost from beginning to end. While the numbers of demonstrators were lower than expected, they nevertheless made their presence felt, doggedly pursuing Dr Rice from one location to another; and ultimately, the protesters successfully disrupted her programme.

Things were relatively calm before the Masjide Al Hidayah mosque, in the heart of Mr Straw's Blackburn constituency, withdrew its invitation to Dr Rice. Although a member of the mosque's governing committee insisted that the visit wasn't canceled because they didn't like Condoleezza Rice, another committee member admitted that their initial decision to accept Mr Straw's request had to be reversed when the level of opposition to Dr Rice's visit became evident. He said, "The young members of the mosque… took a stand and the committee had to accept that they should've consulted members first".

This divide between older community leaders and younger members of the community only confirms existing worries over the lack of understanding between different generations within the British Muslim community. While Dr Rice and Mr. Straw spoke with some local Muslim leaders at the town hall, others - such as Abu Musa, a 27 year-old computer technician - held the view that "The Muslim leaders don't represent this community. They're just self-interested."

Several of the mosque's members stated that the committee had initially decided to accept Mr Straw's request to visit without consulting members (resulting in the subsequent withdrawal of the invitation), and this lack of consultation appears to have been a consistent theme of Dr Rice's visit - perhaps also mirroring the lack of consultation between the UK government, and the people of that country, in whose unwilling name the government's invasion of Iraq first took place…

There was fierce opposition from parents protesting outside the multiracial Pleckgate High School in Blackburn, who complained that the head teacher, Robin Campbell, had failed to consult them before agreeing to Dr Rice's visit! Some felt torn about whether to send their children to school that day. One mother, protesting alongside her two daughters aged 12 and 13, stated that she did not want her children to be "preached at" by Dr Rice. But another parent of two teenagers, said that, although he had come out to protest, his children were at school because he wouldn't "let a couple of warmongers" deprive them of an education.

The trip caused controversy at all levels. In Liverpool, a local newspaper column compared the visit to one by the British fascist leader Oswald Mosley in the 1930s. In a situation where it was recently revealed that Britain's casualties of the war in Iraq total 6700, with around 4000 requiring medical evacuation to the UK, the hostility is perhaps not that unexpected. As Peter Kilfoyle, a former defence minister from Liverpool said, "The first thing that strikes me is when Jack Straw and Condoleezza Rice are strutting around here, perhaps they should be looking at these figures... They show that we are paying a far higher price than we realized for… not a very productive role in Iraq." (UK Independent)

Local politicians were not particularly welcoming either. The leader of Liverpool's Liberal Democrats presented a letter of protest to Dr Rice. A local Labour councillor was also critical, saying, "It shows a certain insensitivity on Jack Straw's part… It's not appropriate that she comes here." The Mayor, Yusuf Jan-Virmani, said that he was "delighted" with the jeering of Dr Rice by the Stop the War coalition, which included demonstrators dressed in Guantánamo-style jumpsuits.

Meanwhile, the royal Liverpool Philharmonic Hall was reduced to selecting possible comperes from its C-list for a gala evening in Dr Rice's honour, after the poet Roger McGough and the actress Cathy Tyson turned down the opportunity!

At the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, there were rumors that some members of a gospel choir who were to perform for Dr Rice wanted to pull out, while students objected to the short notice provided (accusations about lack of consultation again rearing their ugly head!) One student protester said it was a "disgrace" that Dr Rice had been invited - "Why should we be seen to condone the actions of this woman?"

Unsurprisingly, the "gala" performance was affected by these concerns. The institute's founder, Paul McCartney (the former Beatle) was not present, and one performer, Jennifer John, made her agreement to perform contingent on being allowed to sing John Lennon's antiwar theme song "Imagine". She dedicated it to people protesting peacefully outside the hall before she began. And to make matters worse, half way through the song she switched to "Give Peace a Chance"!

Meanwhile, in London, eight-year-old Mohammed El-Banna was hoping that the visit of the US Secretary of State would result in the release of his father from Guantánamo Bay. "Please can you tell Dr. Rice I want my dad back…I miss him so much, and when he comes back I will give him a big hug." His father Jamil El-Banna, London-based Palestinian businessman, is being detained along with his friend Bisher al-Rawi, after the CIA and Gambian intelligence - on a tip-off from British intelligence - seized them during a business trip there.

While Bisher al-Rawi actually worked for MI5 as its intermediary with Abu Qatada, the Jordanian-born preacher alleged to be Al Qaeda's spiritual leader in Europe, Jamil El-Banna was arrested simply because he had once helped al-Rawi ferry Abu Qatada's wife and children around London. According to the UK Independent, CIA and MI5 believed that their fear of detention and torture would turn both men into key witnesses against Abu Qatada. The fact that al-Rawi was approached by and co-operated with MI5 for months before his arrest was somehow deemed of insufficient importance in this entire situation!

The UK government had previously insisted that it was unable to help any non-passport holder, but Jack Straw is now petitioning the US for the release El-Banna's friend, Bisher al-Rawi. Since it was al-Rawi's involvement with MI5 that had led to their arrest, the El-Banna family hopes Jamil El-Banna will also be freed.

But Mrs. El-Banna is also afraid that her husband could be left behind. She tries to teach her children not to hate their father's captors, because feelings of anger or hatred are "a dangerous disease". And she appears to have been successful, judging by the number of "citizenship" awards they have won for exemplary behavior at school. Mohamed's citation reads: "Always being kind to others and offering to help peers and teachers. Also for his positive attitude to do well in whatever he takes on."

For the sake of the El-Banna family, and others like them, one can only hope that Dr. Rice, who claims to be an avowed Beatles fan, will actually start listening to the lyrics of the songs that she professes to like so much…

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