Justin Marozzi’s diary: Lunch with Saddam’s hangman, and a democratic revolution in Kensington

Plus: Why it’s wrong to call Daesh Islamic State; and the deeper meaning of Norwich

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

25 April 2015

9:00 AM

Lunch with the man who hanged Saddam. My irrepressible old Baghdad friend Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Ealing neurologist turned Iraqi national security adviser, is on top form. This may not be unrelated to the news that the noose with which he hanged Saddam is up for auction. Interested buyers are said to include Kuwaiti businessmen, an Israeli family, a bank and an Iranian religious organisation. Mischievous tales are circulating about an offer of $7 million being rejected. Hearing Rubaie relive Saddam’s execution reminded me of the late Sir Wilfred Thesiger recalling how he shot up a tent full of sleeping Germans during the Allied campaigns in North Africa. ‘It felt like murder,’ he said, and you knew he rather liked it.

Never mind the general election. A much more interesting contest is about to kick off in SW7. Not since the Royal Geographical Society was founded in 1830, as far as we can tell, has the presidency been contested. It’s time to blow away the cobwebs. Seven fellows have nominated Sir Ranulph Fiennes, ‘greatest living explorer’ (Guinness World Records): Sir Chris Bonington; Joanna Lumley; the mountaineer Rebecca Stephens; Professor Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute; Christopher Foyle of Foyles bookshop fame; and the travel writer Alistair Carr. I am thrilled to be a minnow among such great fish. We think Ran would be the perfect president. A hugely inspirational figure, he is an astonishingly successful fundraiser, a prolific author and a formidable communicator. As Joanna Lumley wrote in her nomination letter, he will ‘refresh parts of the society others cannot reach’. Ballot papers will soon be landing on the doormats of the society’s 11,000 fellows. Whoever wins, the victory is the election. Let democracy reign at 1 Kensington Gore! Vote Ran.

To Lancaster House as a guest of honour of His Highness Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, ruler of Sharjah. The last time I was here was as an adviser to President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of Somalia, when routine communications challenges included the jailing of alleged rape victims, child soldiers, female genital mutilation and terrorist attacks. Saying a few words about the Abbasid caliphate is a doddle by comparison. I feel a spot of oiling up to my royal host is in order. Apart from having reigned since 1972, he is a historian and playwright, the author of 31 books and eight plays and the holder of 17 honorary doctorates. I herald him as ‘a one-man Bait al-Hikma’, the 9th-century royal library in Abbasid Baghdad that, like The Spectator today, was the intellectual hub of the universe. Toadying aside, there is an important point to be made about the caliphate, a word we keep hearing from the homoerotic death cult of Daesh (known by the BBC as Islamic State, see below). The Abbasid caliphate, the Islamic empire at its most resplendent, was cosmopolitan, tolerant, progressive, intellectually inquisitive, dynamic and prosperous. Wine-drinking and naughty poetry were hugely popular. The dreary puritanism of these latest jihadists is way off the mark. One of the most depressing things about Daesh, apart from the beheadings (which pale into insignificance when you recall the 90,000 heads Tamerlane lopped off in Baghdad in 1401), is that they are complete bores.

Terrorists beware. The Ministry of Laughs is coming to get you. Drone strikes, surveillance, financial disruption and infiltration are all fine, but I fear we are missing a trick on the satirical front. Impressionable teenagers are less likely to join a group that is seen as a laughing stock. The Ministry of Laughs, a digital hub for anti-Islamist humour, will direct withering mirth against this preposterous enemy. The ministry’s message to the jumped-up, self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is this: ‘You’re not the caliph, you’re a very naughty boy!’ In the anticipated absence of advertisers beating a path to the ministry, Spectator readers of a patriotic disposition who might be amused to contribute to the cause in any capacity are invited to email minister@theministryoflaughs.com.

When will the BBC stop calling the terrorists of Daesh Islamic State? It confers religious and political legitimacy on an upstart organisation that has none. That’s just what the beardies want.

On Friday it’s off to Doha to discuss my latest book, a history of the Muslim world’s greatest cities, with the British Council and the Qatar Foundation. When I return to Norfolk, I will be reminded of my late, great friend Michael Parkin, the exuberant entrepreneur and art dealer known to his wide circle of friends as Frog. He was a huge fan of Norwich, he told me once. Nickers Off Ready When I Come Home.

Details of Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ nomination for the Presidency of the RGS-IBG can be found here

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