Tag Archives: Middle East

Could there ever be a Christian suicide bomber? Done already.

imageJRR Tolkien once wrote about the dangers of adventures that potentially lie ahead when you dare to step outside your front door and follow the road…any road…to see where it goes. So here’s an unexpected road my fingers took me on as I opened my digital front door to Googleland this week.

I have no idea why the old 1960s ‘Supermarionation’ TV puppet series sprung back to mind this week. Along with Joe 90 it was the lesser known of the genre after the still highly popular Thunderbirds, which has seen a modern revival. Personally, I think Scarlet would do very well if brought into the 21st Century and there’s some irony in that considering it was set in a century yet to come.

While I’ve never forgotten the classic theme tune sung by The Spectrum, I had forgotten how Captain Scarlet had become the ‘indestructible Man’ the Mysterons couldn’t kill. So I set off into Googleland to find out and came back with more than I bargained for.

imageI found the very first episode on YouTube via Google and watched it through and now recall how Scarlet gained his secret powers which again make sense of the opening credits. The episode was first broadcast in 1967. I never saw it then but like Thunderbirds, the series was repeated many times in later years. So I watched it again and found myself entertained but then shocked to see a suicide bombing and attempted assassination as the plot unfolded. A suicide bombing as we know it today back in 1967? How far sighted were the show producers? I had to find out.

imageBack out into Googleland I soon discovered to my horror that suicide bombings are not a 21st Century phenomena. It is centuries old and one of its most infamous occurrences was in the name of Christianity. I uncovered a number of references to an incident during the Tenth Crusade as Christianity and Islam fought bloodily over the Holy City of Jerusalem. In a sea battle the Knights Templar, a mysterious Sect which historians attribute to Christianity, but which no Christian denomination would own today, sacrificed 140 of their number by blowing up one of their own ships in the midst of enemy ships to take many more of them out.

I also discovered an interesting article in the Sky News archives which claims suicide bombing is recorded in and therefore seemingly sanctioned by the Bible. Well not quite. They refer to the death of Samson as recorded in the Book of Judges 16:30 who took his own life while inflicting death on many more as he destroyed a pagan temple.

imageWe ought to know from living history that suicide bombings are not a 21st Century phenomenon, even if they are far more common place than ever before. The Japanese military inflicted the first 9/11 with Kamikaze pilots ploughing into the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour in 1941. The first modern day suicide bombing was recorded in the 1980s in Lebanon and they became most frequently used to kill and maim in Israel but also Sri Lanka by Tamil rebels.

I don’t believe Christians invoked the first suicide bomb. I know of the Knights Templar from a while back as I delved into their links with the Illuminati (go Google) who were most certainly nothing to do with my faith. I have, however, long held the fear that sooner or later an atrocity will be committed in the name of Christianity whether by a deluded individual or by others wishing to ignite inter-communal strife with a deliberate act to tar all Christians but then that reality is being experienced by the majority of moderate Muslims today.

Son of Hamas

imageTo some he was known as the ‘Green Prince’, the son and heir to a father much beloved by a suffering people. His father was one of the seven men who founded the entity we know today as Hamas – leaders of the Palestinian people in Gaza, classified in the West as one of the world’s most deadly terror organisations. He was raised from childhood living and breathing the mind and soul of Hamas and was expected to be among its next generation of leaders who would continue the struggle against Israeli oppression. He is now living in exile in California under a death sentence from his own people, publicly disowned by the father he worshipped whom he betrayed by secretly working for Israeli Intelligence for a decade before turning his back on violence and hatred for good. He now spends his time speaking out for peace and reconciliation. How is it possible anyone in the boiling pit of Middle Eastern hatred centuries old could do this?

People who know me or anyone who has read this blog will know that I am an avid Middle East watcher and have been most of my life. It would be fair to say I am openly pro-Israel but never label me a Non-critic also. As I write, war rages in Gaza. In the lead up to and during I have consumed far more information, news and opinions on the situation than the average Joe. That’s not a boast, it’s fact. I am a news junkie – news and opinions from all angles, not just mine, and I’ve read the thoughts of those closer to me whose opinions matter more because they are in my social media circles. Until now I’ve not really posted up my own thoughts in any great depth and not because I haven’t wanted to. I felt a very firm nudge in my spirit not to…until now. The reason was because of a book that came back to mind I started reading I’d heard about but never read called ‘The Son of Hamas’ by Mosab Hassan Yousef.

A shameful admission for an Arts graduate is that I hate reading (books, that is). Can read all day stuff online or in newspapers so for any book to get my attention is going some. I’m late coming to this book. It came out in 2010 and been reprinted with a postscript since. It came across my desk at work some time ago and I can’t remember in what context. Don’t think I read more than the back cover. As the situation in Israel/Gaza looked set to blow big I felt prompted to get the book and from the first paragraph I was hooked.

I have never read a book that has done my head in so much.

The book is an autobiography by Mosab co-written with American freelance journalist, Ron Brackin. On its release it made the top of several international Best Seller lists. Mosab tells his story in an un-emotive yet instantly engaging way. Case in hand, I was reading it on my iPad on the Tube on the way to work one day and noticed the young, smart Muslim guy next to me start leave off what he was doing on his smart phone and I could sense him reading my iPad over my shoulder several times. I didn’t let on I knew this but later caught a glimpse of his phone screen where he had Googled and found the book and author and was taking a read through. I wonder if he ever bought it. It will not be the read he may have been expecting from the part of the story I was up to at that point that’s for sure.

imageThe autobiography charts Mosab’s childhood in the West Bank and what life was/is like for Palestinians. The perpetual struggle against Israel and Israel’s iron fist intelligence activities to stay ahead of terrorism. The account of his abduction and torture by Israel when only 18 is brutal and not a one-off occurrence for him, his father, brothers or many of his people. Yet, without giving anything away you will not read on the back cover, Mosab eventually agrees to work covertly for the Shin Bet, Israel’s notoriously ruthless intelligence arm. Was this through a sheer and understandable desire for self-preservation or had the Israelis brainwashed him to such a degree? You’ll have to read it to come to your own conclusion.

When I say that this book did my head in, I meant it. There were many times where what I was reading seemed so hard to comprehend or believe that I was many times tempted to abandon it. It also got to a point just before the end that I almost came to the conclusion that I did not trust the author anymore. I certainly could not comprehend how this man could apparently make a 180 turn from hating Israel to willingly working for it to protect Israelis at the expense of his own people. I Googled around to find out more about him, asked former colleagues who worked in publishing what they knew of him, asked Facebookers and Tweeters based in Israel what they knew of him. Even asked my friend on the staff of the Israeli Embassy in London what she knew. I got positive responses but not yet come across anyone who met him. Despite this and up to almost the end of the book I still had my doubts.

One person who I trust implicitly that I consulted as I tried to find out more on Mosab is a former colleague and current friend who has written a number of books on the lives of ordinary people out there on all sides of the divides. She managed to visit the West Bank for the first time this year. I emailed her on my angst at what I was reading and was it possible for this man to make such a volte face? Had she met him at all? Interviewed him? She hadn’t but had reliable friends who reported on his sincerity. In almost a scold at my lack of willingness to believe the impossible, she told me she has met other Palestinians who have made similar life-changing decisions in their regard toward Israel but who now live covert lives for fear of death if they speak out.

I pressed on with the book to the end. Just as well I did but also just as well I read the book now and not when it was first published. The postscript written in 2011 answered many of my questions on the author’s sincerity I still would have been left with after the first edition.

As the current situation in Gaza has intensified, I have had one eye on my TV screen and one on this book. I’ve read the blatherings and bleatings of the emotionally stimulated but uneducated and ignorant in both traditional and social media. I’ve seen the gathering pace of the global movement to ostracize and demonize Israel. Because I have watched this area for so long I can honestly say this is not a surprise to me nor should be to any Christian who has read to the end of that other Book. It is especially some of these people who need to read Son of Hamas.

Leaving aside all my doubts over Mosab, this book opened my eyes wider to my understanding and empathy with the plight of the Palestinians. Mosab took me deeper into the understanding of their mentality and culture. Moreover I got to understand the very many different ideologies that war with each other for control of the minds and souls of the Palestinians. Ask yourself this question: if what is going on in Gaza is war between Israel and the Palestinians, why is it that the far more numerous Palestinians on the West Bank are not up in arms too? What is the difference between those who lead the Palestinians of Gaza (Hamas) and those who lead the Palestinians of the West Bank (Fatah)? This is one of the many huge revelations Mosab reveals along with many, many others which will surprise and shock.

imageIn this book, the Son of Hamas or the Green Prince as was his code name while working for the Shin Bet, a man raised from childhood to eventually aspire to Jihad (Holy War against non-Muslims) reveals the mind and psychology of extreme Islam. If for no other reason than to gain an understanding of the global threat we all face by the Jihadis of ISIS and how they think and what their end goal is then you need to read this book. Hamas is aligned in thought, practice, hope and aspiration to ISIS, Hezbollah, Boko Haram and all the other extremists that threaten ANY culture that has not bowed the knee to radical Islam. I blogged on the coming creation of a pan-national Islamic Caliphate over a year before any of us heard of ISIS.

But even all the above is not the lasting core message Mosab wrote this book to leave the reader with. What was it that enabled a man of war to lay down his weapons and make it his mission in life to minister peace and reconciliation? What drastically life-changing experience did it take to bring him to forgive his enemies? What extreme antidote did it take to neutralise the deep poison of hatred birthed between two related peoples centuries ago? It is that tale that is the lasting legacy of this son of Hamas.

Son of Hamas is available in print at Amazon and is downloadable for e-readers.

Israel may be behind chemical weapons use in Syria?

knessetI saw this bizarre headline on my Twitter feed a couple of hours before I went to bed last night.  I would normally have just shrugged it off as another hysterical ‘blame the Jews for all the world’s evils’ rhetoric that is worryingly becoming more prevalent today.  Yet remembering the recent sickening media photos of Syrian civilians, allegedly victims of a chemical weapons attack by Syria’s brutal President Bashar Assad, I stopped and took notice – not least because the story was shared by two of Israel’s own popular newspapers – The Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz.  These reports were fresh as I wrote last night and not yet reflected in other media by the time I turned out the light and hit the sack.

It seems that ‘former Bush Administration official’, retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson has claimed publicly that the alleged use of chemical weapons that made global headlines recently may be a ‘false flag operation’ by Israel to implicate the Syrian President (i.e. that it was Israel that actually used the weapons on Syrian civilians) – something I find preposterous.  Col Wilkerson also went on to say that considering the ‘flaky’ evidence, the use of chemical weapons could just have easily been the work of the Syrian opposition as well as the obvious culprit, Assad.

The introduction of weapons of mass destruction into the conflict has raised the stakes all round in the unfolding events in Syria and there is much scrutiny both in Jerusalem and in Washington of the ‘red line’, which US President Obama said should not be crossed for risk of drawing American intervention by which he is reported to have been referring to the use of chemical weapons as a trigger for a robust US response.

As I have written about before, the turmoil of the ‘Arab Spring’ has backed Israel into a precarious position with destabilisation on virtually all its borders. Egypt to the south has a new radical Islamist and anti-Israeli government in place and civil unrest between secularists and Islamists is heated and bloody. To the north, Iranian-backed Hezbollah – Israel’s arch enemy – is highly active in Lebanon, which is also beginning to suffer the effects of the Syrian civil war to the east as refugees flee across the border taking with them the Sunni-Shi’ite inter-Islamic feuding that is at the root of so much of the conflict across the Islamic world we are witnessing. Only Jordan among Israel’s direct neighbours remains relatively calm at present, but not for long I forecast.

What interests me even more about the reporting in both Israeli papers is an implied insight into the  on-going deep rift that remains between the present American and Israeli administrations as was accidentally leaked to the world’s media in what they thought was a private conversation between former French President Sarkozy and President Obama.  While Col Wilkerson is not an official spokesman for the Obama Administration, it is clear from the reporting in the Israeli media that they view his comments as indicative of the gulf that now exists between Israel and its biggest- some would say only – global sponsor.

The US and Israel are already at odds over how to handle the potentially vastly greater theat to world peace posed by Iranian nuclear ambitions.  Israeli Premier, Benjamin Netanyahu has already made it clear that his Government is prepared to make a preemptive strike on Iran before Iran has the capabilities to strike Israel, an event that would by default drag America into the conflict as Israel’s chief ally.  I believe that what we are seeing taking place in Syria now, including this strange issue of chemical weapons will have far reaching effects on the looming Iranian stand-off.    Israel is being drawn ever into the Syrian conflict.   There have already been reports a few months back of Israeli airstrikes into Lebanon on military convoys from Syria allegedly supplying Hezbollah with weaponry.  Within the last day or so Israel has openly admitted that it has now made similar airstrikes into Syria itself from Lebanon to target Hezbollah-bound military convoys. As such, this is not an earth-shattering event in the Syrian saga. Turkey has done similar along Syria’s northern border when it too felt threatened.   Key to the current episode is how President Obama handles the situation.    His words that he will commit America to (long-overdue some would say) intervention should chemical weapons be used are increasingly viewed as shallow and even lacking substance in Jerusalem.   Israel has remained as patient as it has to be in the always critical glare of world opinion but ever vigilant of events on its very borders and has now seen fit to intervene more than once.  The danger is that Israel will get dragged in further, which President Assad would no doubt welcome so that an Arab world, hitherto critical of him, would forget their differences in temporarily uniting against the Jewish state.

President Obama is challenged with having to make clear to the world (as it is not just the Israeli press that is asking but even our own British media too), whether he is a man who will stand by his word and what exactly his word means. There is much speculation and criticism in his own media that his Administration is now attempting to blur what that red line he spoke about actually meant.  If he fails to act decisively now, when it comes to dealing with Iran the Israelis will be even less inclined to wait upon faltering and flaky US resolve but to take the initiative whatever the consequences.

I awoke this morning to the news (still breaking as I write) that overnight Israel’s Air Force has attacked targets they say were military research centers in the Syrian capital, Damascus and so in a trice the stakes in this war are raised even higher.  We await the fall-out but I am reminded again of things I’ve researched on concerning the city of Damascus itself, which has a very dark, ancient and still unfulfilled Biblical prophecy over it that I’ve been pondering about blogging on for some time…

Related:

Why are Muslims blowing each other up in Iraq?

Building the last empire

Never again Masada

 

Building the Last Empire

caliphateWhat’s going on in northern Africa? Why did it concern France so much that they very quickly deployed combative military in the deserts of Mali?  How is what’s going on in Mali and Nigeria connected to events on the borders of India? The answer lies in one word: Caliphate (cal-ee-fet)

A caliphate is an Arabic word meaning empire. It is governed by a caliph (cal-eef) – a ruler.  The ruler is both a political and religious figure.  Historically, caliphate was a name given to successive Islamic empires that spread out from Arabia where Islam was born, through the Middle East and into central and south-eastern Asia and west into the European Balkans, though northern Africa and into Spain and Portugal. Conceptually, caliphate is the trans-border unification of the entire Muslim world (or Ummah) into one empire under Shariah Law to which the radical elements of modern-day Islam aspires.  It was partly the resistance of the Frankish Empire in France that halted the advance of Islam into mainland Europe.

caliph.gif

Not since the 1920’s has Islam been concerned with re-igniting the aspiration to restore the global caliphate and today to the vast majority of Muslims it is synonymous with the glories of Islam past.  Yet a future restoration of a global Caliphate that will appear in what the Quran teaches will be the End Times remains central in Islamic thought and teaching:

Prophethood will remain with you for as long as Allah wills it to remain, then Allah will raise it up wherever he wills to raise it up. Afterwards, there will be a Caliphate that follows the guidance of Prophethood remaining with you for as long as Allah wills it to remain. Then, He will raise it up whenever He wills to raise it up. Afterwards, there will be a reign of violently oppressive rule and it will remain with you for as long as Allah wills it to remain. Then, there will be a reign of tyrannical rule and it will remain for as long as Allah wills it to remain. Then, Allah will raise it up whenever He wills to raise it up. Then, there will be a Caliphate that follows the guidance of Prophethood.

— As-Silsilah As-Sahihah, vol. 1, no. 5

I believe that we are seeing going on in countries ranging from north and west Africa to the western borders of India is the prelude to the building of the Islamic End Times Caliphate. None of the events going on across the Muslim world come as any surprise to me. Both the main branches of Islam – the Sunni and the Shia – are actively engaged in its creation and our news reports are increasingly filled with the tensions and outright violent hostility between secularists and Islamists in predominantly Muslim nations. Even in Tunisia, the birthplace of the ‘Arab Spring‘ only in recent weeks was the leader of the secularist opposition to the Islamist Government murdered. Similar struggles are taking place at this time of writing in Libya, Egypt and Syria.

islamThe Quran teaches Muslims to convert the world to Islam by either persuasion or if that fails then by force.  Both of these ideologies are at work today in a resurgent, confident radical Islam.  One manifestation of the persuasive approach is Wahhabism –  through teaching in Mosques, schools and Universities even here in the UK. Radical groups such as Al-Quaeda and Boko Haram have chosen the forceful way.  Common in the belief and practices of radical Muslims who strive to restore the Caliphate under Sharia Law is Jihad. Jihad means ‘to struggle’.  In Islam it’s interpreted in two ways: the greater Jihad  is a spiritual struggle against the sinful self and the lesser Jihad against the enemies of Islam – the Infidel or faithless ones (anyone non-Muslim). Movements such as Al-Quaeda focus on the forceful way.

The two branches of Islam are divided as to who will rule the caliphate and this in part explains much about what we hear of Muslim-on-Muslim strife such as the ongoing suicide bombings in Iraq despite the fact there are no Western military there in any great number now. The two houses of Islam have been in an undeclared war over control of the hearts and minds of the Ummah (Muslim world) for centuries as I have written about before (here). The Sunnis believe that once this caliphate is created, it’s Caliph, or spiritual/political leader will be elected by the Ummah.  The Shia believe that this End Times role can only be fulfilled by a direct descendant from Mohammed. They believe this person will emerge from among Shia Islam based primarily in Iran and Iraq.    It would take a whole separate post for me to blog on what I have learned about President Ahmadinajab of Iran and his firm belief that he has a personal role to play in ushering in the End Times. It is something I will post on soon.

mosque_interior_083_jpgThere are a couple of thorns in the side of the Islamist dream of restoring the Caliphate around the Mediterranean at least. One is Spain and Portugal. Both became part of the Islam’s caliphate at its zenith. In Islamic thinking, once a territory has been claimed for Islam, it remains forever an Islamic territory and therefore part of the global Caliphate. We should expect to see the rise of fundamentalist Islam in these nations. The Spanish in particular have already been served notice that their infidelity to Islam will not be tolerated in the Madrid bombings of 2004.

train

As I write, Egypt and Syria are in turmoil. I also predict the destabilisation of Jordan soon. In Syria what started as a civil uprising against n unpopular autocrat has been hijacked by practitioners of Jihad who want to add  fundamentalist Islamic Syria to the rising Caliphate.  When they succeed, as I believe they will, they will start to turn their focus on Israel.  Egypt, too, is still going through the throws of revolution but the secularists, Christians and Islamists who were once brothers in arms against President Mubarak are now at each others’ throats in the struggle for power. More worrying for me is the man the Egyptians elected to rule them; Mohamed Morsi.  Only in January this year did Western media pick up on his view of Israel. The Israelis and others such as I who watch the Middle East closely, knew of these comments long before.  The New York Times reported as follows:

His scurrilous comments from nearly three years ago about Zionists and Jews, which just came to light, have raised serious doubts about whether he can ever be the force for moderation and stability that is needed. As reported by David Kirkpatrick in The Times, Mr. Morsi is shown in a video from 2010 delivering a speech in which he urges Egyptians to “nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred” for Jews and Zionists. In a television interview months later, he described Zionists as “these bloodsuckers who attack Palestinians, these warmongers, the descendants of apes and pigs.”

Mohammed Morsi

That neatly brings me to the other thorn in the side of the rising Caliphate…Israel. The creation of any Islamic End Time Caliphate will inevitably be faced by the existence of the Jewish (Infidel) state breaking the chain through the hoped for unified caliphate across the Muslim believing nations that rim the Mediterranean Sea and into Asia. The entire world is heading for an almighty collision when Islamic fundamental ideology and the Jewish state meet each other head on.   Anyone who knows me well enough, knows my interest in and many travels to Israel.  I am a friend of Israel, though not an uncritical one. This friendship does not in any way cause me to be anti-Islamic but it does cause me to watch closely at what is going on concerning that region. I am also a Christian and in the extreme views of the radical Islamists, I fall into the category of the Infidel along with the Jews that must be subjugated or wiped out.  It was among my travels to Israel that I first heard the saying: “First we kill the Saturday people, then the Sunday people”. It is a belief held among many radical Islamists that basically means – first we will kill the people who worship on a Saturday (the Jews) and then those who worship on a Sunday (Christians).  Muslims worship on a Friday.  This short video explains it better than I can from people experiencing this already.

The desire to build the End Times Caliphate among radical Islam is not confined to the nations that were once part of the original empires of Islam but to the whole world. That includes countries such as the UK  where Wahhabism is highly active and where Jihad has also reared its ugly head as on 7/7 in London.  I was just at Euston Station just after the 4th bomb detonated that day.  Though it is barely reported in the national news, Christians are perishing across the world at the hands of Islamic extremists. In Egypt and Nigeria, churches are being bombed with worshipers in them. I am party to these stories and much, much more because I work in Christian media.  Just today, a friend of mine posted up on Facebook an alarming message he’s got wind of posted by Islamist radicals concerning the safety of Christians in Tanzania.  The guy works for a charity that is working to be a voice for Christians being violently persecuted across the world.  I have known this guy some 16 years and can personally vouch for his sanity and lack of any hysterical tendencies.  I’ve not known him to post such a message before but here’s what he said:

aaThis is very sinister and worrying
TANZANIA: “THE COMING EASTER WILL BE ONE OF DISASTER” WARNS “ISLAMIST” EXTREMIST GROUPS. Geita (Agenzia Fides) – “We thank our young men, trained in Somalia, for killing an infidel. Many more will die. We will burn homes and churches. We have not finished: at Easter, be prepared for disaster”; Signed “Muslim Renewal”. Fides was told about a terrifying SMS in Tanzania, received by local bishops and priests , in which Islamist extremists claim responsibility for the murder of the Catholic priest Fr. Evarist Mushi, aged 55 , killed in front of the Catholic cathedral early on Sunday 17 February. 

The Catholic Church in Tanzania is concerned and anxious. Reaction has come also from national leaders: Tanzania’s Prime Minister called an immediate meeting with leading members of the Christian and Muslim communities, but the outcome was not positive. Certain Muslim leaders called for the release from prison of the suspected assassins of a local Protestant pastor, Mathew Kachira, killed on 10 February. Local Catholic Church sources told Fides that clearly, behind these attacks and murders lies Islamist extremism spreading across the country. 

Fides sources also say that some responsibility falls on Tanzania’s president, Mr Jakaya Kikwete, because during the electoral campaign he promised the Muslim population he would change the Constitution and introduce measures in keeping with Islamic Sharia Law. Today the majority of Tanzanians oppose the plan, but Islamist extremist groups, in reaction, have started a campaign of terror. 

The local Catholic Bishop of Geita, Bishop Damiani Denis Dallu, told Fides: “All we desire is peace and unity and love to reign among the citizens of Tanzania, irrespective of religious beliefs”. This is also the desire of other Christian leaders, heads of traditional religions and moderate Muslim leaders. The latter, however, the Bishop told Fides “are afraid because they too are targeted by Islamic extremists”

PLEASE LETS PRAY FOR GOD GUIDANCE AND PROTECTION FOR THE BELIVERS, THE CHURCH IN TANZANIA.

[This post is not intended in any way to be anti-Islamic. It s my personal take and interpretation of the world events I see unfolding around me. My views are personal and do not reflect those of my employers.]
BAKU-CRYSTAL-HALL2

BBC to spend 6 figure sum on ‘talent’ show from Iran?

Yes, it’s quite almost true.  The maths is right… just a little off with my geography.  The show will actually be broadcast from just north of the Iranian border….in Baku, Azerbaijan.   It’s guaranteed an audience of around 300 million before a single mic is switched on and it goes by the name of Concours Eurovision de la Chanson. You and I know it better as the Eurovision Song Contest.  OK, well at least I kept you this far, but hold on…this post is not about Eurovision.

(Pictured above: The Baku Crystal Hall, venue for Eurovision 2012)

Embarrassed friends of mine know that over the years I’ve been a huge fan of the contest.  I’m not as much nowadays and in fact I was not intending to watch it this year until the BBC revealed that dear old Engelbert Humperdink will sing the UK’s entry and so the whole thing took on ‘car crash’ appeal.

Next week the contest will be beamed to the whole of Europe and to  Australia, the US, Canada, Argentina, Japan, South Korea, India, Taiwan, the Philippines…..from  Baku, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.  It’s a place I know nothing about so I thought I’d investigate.

On the map, Azerbailan looks to be slap bang on in the Middle East, bordering Russia to the north and Iran to the south. Azerbaijanis (sometimes called Azeris) are closely related to the Turks and the country is predominantly Muslim, though like Turkey with a secular government.  Also like Turkey, there is greater freedom of dress code for women, a more liberal society and Western aspirations. The local currency is the Manat.

With 86,600 square KM, Azerbaijan is the largest country in the Caucasus region, the area from which white people derive their racial tag Caucasian. The Caucasus Mountains were traditionally the ancient boundary between Europe and Asia and the fact that a small part of Azerbaijan sits north of those mountains qualifies its European credentials – just. There are just over 8 million Azeris according to the CIA World Fact Book (9 million, says Wikipedia). Baku, the capital, is the largest city on the shores of the Caspian Sea and home to around a quarter of the national population. ‘Baku’ is a derivative of the Persian name for the city Bad-Kube meaning ‘wind-pounded city’. The city is prone to strong winds all year round which has a cooling effect on what would otherwise be hot sub-tropical summers but it also suffers from fierce and sometimes snowy winter storms.

Though it has only existed as an independent state again since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, it is a very ancient nation and culture, claiming to be one of the lands where humanity originated. In ancient days it would have been at the heart of civilisation bordering the empires of the Medes, Persians, Assyrians and the Greeks.

It’s an oil-rich nation. Two thirds of the country sits on vast energy reserves and as a result its favour is courted around the world. If you watch the show next week, expect to see lots of references to fire. The theme and emblem of this year’s show is called ‘Light Your Fire’.   In ancient days, Azerbaijan was called Atropatene  after a Governor set in place by Alexander the Great. The current name of Azerbaijan is a derivative of this and means ‘Land of Fire’. It was said to be a land of ‘burning hillsides’ as first recorded in the first century AD that were actually caused by ignited fissures of natural gas set alight by the heat of the sun.   The country became home to the ancient Zoroastrian religion – one of the world’s oldest monotheistic faiths –  for whom fire was a sacred symbol and many temples were built around the natural burning fissures.  The country was subjugated under Tsarist Russian expansionism ans remained part of the Soviet Union until the close of the Twentieth Century.

If you tune in to the opening credits of Eurovision next week, prepare to be surprised by what you see as I have been by some of the videos I’ve dug out on YouTube.

Of course the national tourist office will only be putting the best on display but I must admit from what I’ve seen and read it looks like an extraordinarily beautiful country. Baku, the capital is highly developed.  The country is heavily dependent on its oil revenues and its fortune rises and falls depending on the global price of oil, hence why hosting Eurovision is a hoped for kick-start to an under-developed tourist industry.

Several notes of caution here. While Azerbaijan has a liberal and progressive society, it’s leadership is considered heavily authoritarian and corruption is rife. There has been recent rumblings of social unrest and civil protests have been harshly dealt with.  It also sits on one of the worlds most deadly geo-political fault lines bordering the Middle East and the power struggle between the two branches of Islam that I covered in a previous blog.  Oddly, that while sharing the same side as its southern neighbour Iran in the inter-Islamic faith struggle between Shias and Sunnis,  Azerbaijan and Iran have frosty relations.  Azerbaijan has up to now had positive relations with Iran’s arch-enemy, Israel. The Iranians have accused the Azeris of harbouring Israeli spies, which the Azeris deny. The country was also at war until fairly recently with its western neighbour, Armenia, over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh which is internationally recognised as part of  Azerbaijan but broke away in 1991. That region sits outside the borders of Azerbaijan with a mostly Armenian population. Sovereignty over it was ceded to Azerbaijan by Russia in the 1920’s and today it is a self-proclaimed though unrecognised independent state. An uneasy truce is now in place but the conflict remains unresolved and is a serious impediment to the stability of the entire Caucasus. Armenia has chosen not to participate in Eurovision this year due to this dispute.  There are also territorial tensions between all the countries bordering the Caspian Sea due to the vast oil reserves believed to be beneath the lake.

Azerbaijan also has a very dark side in that it is a source, transit and destination country for sex industry trafficking of women and children and for forced slavery.

The country has around 9 weather zones ranging from sub-tropical in the south to moderate in the uplands, sizzling heat in the Summer and bitter cold in the Winter.

While we in the UK think of Eurovision as a trivial farce, other countries view it as a huge potential boost to national kudos and for tourism as the host nation is profiled to millions of eyes across the world.  The Azeris are taking the contest very seriously indeed. It’s the biggest and first truly global event they have hosted and it is reported that they are spending a colossal £80 million on the event making it the most expensive show in the Contest’s history.  The national tourist office has been busy filming the little ‘postcards’ that will be screened next week giving us a taster of this extraordinary country as you will see from this short clip:

Azerbaijan – the land of magic colours

As for my predictions on a winner for Eurovision?   Well, it won’t be the UK and not because everyone hates us or the song is rubbish. In fact it’s not bad at all.  We were drawn as the opening song in the Grand Final – a position from which no one has ever won, so we can save ourselves from the trauma of the public voting results.   For me, the best songs this year come from Italy, Romania, Ireland, Ukraine, Spain, France and the Netherlands.  However all the hot money is on this one:

“Euphoria” – Sweden 2012

(That said, watch out for a surprise attack on the top spot from 6 Russian grannies…)