Saturday, 31 March 2007

Atheism explained

As there has been so much persistent misunderstanding of atheism by theists posting here and on other blogs, I am copying below an excellent statement made on the Guardian's CiF thread "The anti-God Squad" by 'TheRationalist' on 31 March:

The argument that atheism is a religion that creates its own meaning, albeit a nihilistic one, seems to me to be a common misunderstanding that needs attention.

Atheism is a tiny subset of a much larger mindframe called amongst other things 'reason'. Atheism is, if you like, the branch of reason that responds to theology. That is all it does and it claims to do nothing more.

Let us imagine for a moment that clairvoyantism or astrology were proving a serious obstacle to human progress in the same way as religion, even at its best, is currently doing and must by definition do. There would be a branch of reason that opposed these irrational superstitions in just the same way. It would attack clairvoyantism but it would not be somehow another version of it. Atheism, like anti-clairvoyantism, makes no claims to anything beyond its opposition to superstitious notions. Atheism has no independent existence of religion and provides no alternative philosophies of life.

Reason, however, most certainly does. When, as atheism, it finishes its dialogue with faith it goes back to deciding how the being in its possession should best live a full, rewarding, meaningful and purposeful life.

To summarise: atheism posits nothing about the world - it makes no attempt to create alternative realities, or 'religions'.

If you live your life as a thoughtful, reasonable being, you will find much to do and great pleasure to be derived from art, science, literature, music and the discovery of new things. That, for the reasonable person, is what life is. Atheism, I repeat, for it needs constant iteration, exists only because of theology. When God disappears, so will atheism. Atheism makes no claims and has no desire at all to supplant religion. That is not to say that it does not wish to destroy it, as it wishes to destroy all forms of religious idiocy and oppression.

It is reason that envisages a world in which human beings think for themselves, control, as far as possible , their own destinies, behave socially and are happy. Most of all, perhaps, reason wishes to subvert the evils of authoritarianism, the control through mythologies of the many by the few. Reason wishes to free the minds of children from prejudice, fear and supersition so that they may become independent and thoughtful adults who will work together for the betterment of humanity. Reason wishes for open and honest debate between free and strong-minded people about how best we should live our lives as social animals.

Do not look to atheism for another version of religion or an alternative philosophical manifesto. I stress again that it is purely reactive and will die with religion. It is the governance of reason which we strive for. This, if you dislike the vision, should be the object of your dislike and your attack.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

A prayer by Mark Twain

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle—be Thou near them! With them—in spirit—we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it—for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen."

Monday, 26 March 2007

Americans observed

2. By one of themselves.

Is the American Empire on the Brink of Collapse? This book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, sounds well worth reading.

Wook's wisdom

Emmett [aka Bodwyn Wook] sends the following;

TO All:

HERE's a cheery little book-review I've just whacked out for the general edification.

THE Following two are accounts of some adventures in Morocco with my teacher of Arabic & Islam, MuHammad Nejmi:

"Food for All"

"Understanding & Conditioning"

Best Regards,

B Wook [/aka/ 'Emmett Smith']

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Does it matter whether or not God exists?

I am becoming increasingly convinced that it doesn’t. The truth or otherwise of the existence of a supernatural being or beings will never be conclusively decided in the absence of proof that convinces non-believers, and arguments around the topic merely cause bad feelings between people of good will who would be better employed bending their energies in solving the practical problems bedevilling the world.

What really does matter is the consequences of religious belief, as manifested in the actions of those who are self-professed disciples of the competing faiths of Jehovah, Jesus, and Allah. The hatreds and conflicts generated by these people rend the fragile fabric of peace into shreds, and endanger everyone all over the world, whether believers or not.

It only takes one person or group to make a quarrel; it takes both sides to make peace. It is futile to talk of peace when one side, or both, have no genuine wish for it. This is clearly the present position in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Both sides are stuck firmly in blaming mode, protesting that the conflict is the fault of the other. There are well-tried conflict resolution techniques aplenty, but they are not likely to get a look in until both parties to this and any other conflict are ready to put the past behind them and to consider the future realistically.

While religious myths retain their grip, this seems a remote possibility. And time is fast running out. Whether God exists or not, his devoted followers, alas, do.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Does reason matter?

Over at Jose's, the religious ramblings rumble on. anticant has withdrawn from the debate as his views are apparently too shallow for Jose's taste. 1loneranger suggests that we leave wine and wafers out of it if we can't be rational and civil.

The difficulty is that religion is an irrational subject. Reason is adhered to by theists as long as they find it a useful weapon, but blithely abandoned as soon as they can't think of rational reasons for their beliefs. A while ago in the burrow, I posted an item which I called "Does reason matter?" As I think it does, I am re-posting it here in the hope that it will provoke some interesting discussion [as it did last time]:

Reason, we believe – it’s a matter of faith, of course – is what distinguishes the human species from all others. Or, rather, articulate reason: it’s quite clear from observation that some animals possess and use intelligence, and work things out for themselves by a process of reasoning, but they cannot exchange thoughts with us about it or anything else in a meaningful way, as adult human beings can do.

For centuries there has been an ongoing battle between reason and faith. Religious faith, being grounded in the supernatural – itself a speculative concept – claims human reason as its handmaiden, and always seeks to trump it in any argument. One sometimes feels, in arguing with religious people, that they are convinced they know all the answers: they know them right or they know them wrong, but they KNOW them. Their faith is invincible, so why bother to argue? Does it really matter whether the Earth is flat or globular, or whether prayer actually works? Yes it does; because if people base their actions on false assumptions, awkward consequences are bound to follow - not only for the perpetrators, but also for many others who don’t share their beliefs.

Logical reasoning, which is the basis of scientific method, proceeds by testing the probability of various hypotheses against the available evidence to obtain the best ‘fit’. Reasonable people are prepared to abandon even a cherished hypothesis if this is overtaken by a more convincing one. The upholders of faith are not; they know what they know because they BELIEVE it, sometimes against all the evidence. Evidence is not important to them; only faith is. The faith of many believers is grounded in a Holy Book which they are convinced was written by, or at any rate dictated by, a God. The trouble is, there are many Holy Books to choose from, and how do you know which is the “right” one? Jews have the Torah; Christians have the Bible; Muslims have the Koran; Mormons have the Book of Mormon; Christian Scientists have Mrs Eddy’s outpourings, and Scientologists have the works of L Ron Hubbard. A rich smorgasbord of faith! But according to each, theirs is the only true Word of God and the others are all fakes. A good beginning for harmonious inter-faith relations!

The irony of it is that, while denigrating reason, the religious use ingenious displays of it to bolster their irrational creeds. Their persistent casuistry is quite remarkable. The Pope, for instance, loses no opportunity to denounce the insolent hubris of the Enlightenment, an intellectual project which forms the foundation-stone of Western democracy and technological progress.

And of course, religious people are the first to avail themselves of the wondrous creations of modern science such as the internet, the jet airliner, and life-saving medical drugs. With few exceptions, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they do not refuse to benefit from the very thought-process which they are constantly denouncing as impious. But where would we be, I wonder, if religion had succeeded in stifling independent scientific thought? Still convinced that the earth is flat and the centre of the universe? [There was, and maybe still is, a Flat Earth Society presided over, I believe - ah, there we go again…- by a Mr Huttle-Glank.] Still travelling by foot, or on horse, camel or mule? [“That person who invented the wheel, impious they were, knew better than God, they did; good thing we put a stop to that by crucifying them! If God had meant us to travel on wheels, He would have built them into the human frame.”] Still relying on witch-doctors and herbal remedies to treat cancer, tuberculosis and malaria? Still burning harmless old women as witches?

Which reminds me, apropos of nothing, of the tale about the hell-fire preacher haranguing his subdued audience about the dismal prospects awaiting them in the nether regions. “And there will be weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth” he yelled. A little old lady in the front row quaveringly piped up: ”But I haven’t got any teeth.” “Make no mistake, Madam”, the preacher retorted, “TEETH WILL BE PROVIDED!”

Creationism is now the religionists’ favourite wheeze for attacking scientific method. It is a hypothesis based entirely upon faith, not evidence, but they want it to be taught in schools as a possible alternative to evolution – a hypothesis with a great deal of evidence to support it which has stood up for 150 years. I have no objection to Creationism being taught in schools, but not as “science”. It should be taught, if at all, as part of religious studies, or to illustrate the crucial differences between faith-based and scientific thinking.

The more religionists succeed in their attack on reason and its proper use, the more the world will descend into a chaotic, strife-ridden mess. It’s time to call a halt to the revolt against reason.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Bigots galore!

Swivelling our Intolerance Meter around the globe, we picked up the following gems to liven up your Sunday reading/viewing:

Dialogue at a West Midlands mosque.

A warning from the Middle East.

Jeremy Paxman interviews Ann Coulter.

Have a nice day!

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Islam and free speech

Another instance of free speech being curtailed because of fears of Muslim protests is reported in the Telegraph.

The text of the undelivered paper is here. It is well worth reading.

Friday, 16 March 2007

The ugly face of the Christian Right

As long ago as the 1980s, my old friend Charlotte Wolff - a Jewish lesbian refugee from Hitler's Berlin - said to me: "This country is beginning to have the smell of Weimar".

That smell is now a stench - even more in the USA than in Britain. Please read this alarming report to see the real face of Christian Fascism in action. And please don't tell me that this isn't "true" Christianity.......

Thursday, 15 March 2007

A New York Muslim fireman's account of 9/11

The following transcript, obtained by the New York Times, is a personal statement by a Muslim officer of the New York Fire Department who was on duty when the Twin Towers were attacked on 9/11/01. It is included in Yankee Doodle's latest post.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Reason, religion, and reality

Discussion of religion is becoming more and more hazardous in the 21st Century as believers of various stripes all over the world engage in increasingly irrational, aggressive, and violent antics in the name of their faiths. Apologists for the creeds in question, or for religion in general, are fond of saying “Ah! But you see, what these misguided people are doing isn’t the TRUE Christianity, Islam, etc. They woefully misunderstand the lofty teachings of their faiths.” On the contrary - it is abundantly clear that religion makes otherwise good people do bad things.

What, in fact, IS religion? And how “real” is it? I am increasingly coming to realise that religion, like all other constructs of the human mind, has no objective reality outside the imaginings of those who profess it. Of course, the actions religious belief generates impinge, often horrendously and disastrously, upon millions of non-believers; but the reality of religiously motivated behaviour does not make religion itself, or the existence of a supernatural deity, any more real.

To clarify: unless one believes in Platonic universals, there is no “perfect” archetypal Judaism, Roman Catholicism, or Islam “out there” in the abstract, any more than there is a perfect archetypal Platonic table or chair. Institutionalised religions have history, traditions, possessions, priests and other functionaries, but these do not make the religion any more “real” than it is in its individual living believers’ brains.

Religions are based upon faith, not reason. At some point – however sophisticated their self-regarding arguments – all religions demand the suspension of reason and a crucial leap of faith. They have no room for sceptical doubting Thomases. That being so, they will always attempt to ring-fence their “sacred” doctrines from reasoned criticism, which they denounce as blasphemy or - in the case of lapsed believers - apostasy, and regard as heinous crimes, sometimes even punishable by death.

So even if we confine this discussion to the three monotheistic religions, we are confronted with the spectacle of a myriad of conflicting sects each claiming that they are the “true” brand of the religion in question, and that those who disagree with them are wicked heretics: “My doxy is orthodoxy; your doxy is heterodoxy.”

What is the non-believer to make of all this? In the first place, we should be very wary indeed of taking sides with any religion, creed, or sect against its self-designated enemies of the same or other religious traditions. “A plague on all your houses” is the only rational response. We should seek to confine the propagation of religious dogmas to those which do not incite hatred of other faiths, or of non-believers, and which are privately funded. The state should give no public countenance to, and much less subsidise, any religious education. On the contrary, the state should ensure that all children, whatever their religious or community background, are educated in a cohesive system of national education which treats all religious beliefs even-handedly and encourages children to think about them, and everything else, in an open-minded way.

Above all, we must recognise that what religion means to those who count themselves as believers is the only “real” aspect of the whole business. If Catholics are brought up to believe that theirs is the only “true” faith, and that Protestants are wicked heretics, and vice versa, the results will be as we have seen in Northern Ireland for the past couple of centuries and more. If Muslim youths continue to be indoctrinated with the notion that Allah commands them to prevail over “infidels” by whatever means necessary, all we can expect in the foreseeable future is far worse threats of terrorism and sporadic violence than we have yet experienced. If “twice-born” Christians in the USA and elsewhere believe that a nuclear Armageddon in the Middle East will result in their being wafted up to heaven in Rapture, it behoves all who do not share that delusion to do everything possible to disabuse them of it and to abort any possibility of such a scenario occurring.

It has been said that people who believe nonsense will experience awkward consequences. Unfortunately, it is not only the believers in the nonsense who suffer because of it. Indeed, it is those of us who simply want to be left alone in peace to think what we choose and to live as we wish who have most to fear from religion. As a society, we cannot afford to extend tolerance to the intolerant, or to pay respect to the disreputable.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Why bother blogging?

Jose – of all people! – says he is withdrawing from anticant’s arena because he is not prepared to consider the views of another blogger, Yankee Doodle, whose comments, he says, are lacking in “respect” to him. Untypically for such an even-tempered person, Jose seems to be offended by having a cherished point of view contradicted. But is it logical to state one’s beliefs, as Jose frequently and properly does, with a qualifying “only in my opinion”, and then to take umbrage when someone questions them?

Surely, if we adopt this attitude, we shall close ourselves off from new information and different perspectives, so that political blogging becomes a pointless exercise. I blog in order to discover what others are thinking, and to identify new sources of insight into what is going on in this increasingly disturbing and uneasily dangerous world. We all of us have our preconceptions and preferences – largely drawn from reading and reflection rather than from direct experience – and the great virtue of the internet is that there are all shades of opinion, and a great deal of expertise, out there to be consulted, considered, and – sometimes – rejected.

I do not expect to agree with, or to receive deference from, everyone whose blog I peruse or exchange comments with. All I ask is that people keep a civilised standard of politeness and good humour, and in the end agree to disagree if there is nothing further to be gained from the exchanges.

In this instance, however, I find it hard to believe that there is nothing to be gained from studying such well-informed posts as those of Yankee Doodle, who is obviously engaged on much thorough hard-working research. He says things which are alarming and even distasteful, but which we need to know and evaluate. To ignore the implications of his material would, I believe, be very negligent. In a comment I posted on the thread which has upset Jose, I asked:Do you think there is a mephistophelian hook-up between the Bush, bin Laden and Saudi families to screw America? Interesting thought....” On reflection, I would substitute “Western civilisation and democracy” for “America”. Yankee Doodle is building up a series of pointers to an extremely disturbing answer to my question, and so I for one shall continue to read his blog with great interest and concern.

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Tyranny's tools

Although politically aware and on occasions active since my ‘teens, I have never been a ‘tribalist’ politician. The often vicious infighting and personal mudslinging that takes up so much energy on the part of the ‘politically committed’ I find distasteful and boring. What matters, in my view, are issues – not personalities. Although pretty despairing of the poor calibre of some of those who govern, I have never felt the fierce degree of personal hatred that many evinced towards Margaret Thatcher, or nowadays to Tony Blair. While deploring their stupidity, ignorance and sometimes deceitfulness, I have no wish for them to come to personal harm – still less to administer it myself.

The lengths to which some are prepared to go to vilify those with whom they disagree never ceases to surprise me. This is especially true when the target is somebody regarded as a turncoat by former allies. Reading the political blogs, one can hardly fail to be aware that a prime target for demonisation by his erstwhile comrades of the Left is a writer called Nick Cohen, of whom I must confess I had not previously heard until the current storm broke. His prime offence is, apparently, not only that he supports the war in Iraq, but that he has the temerity to criticise those on the Left who, as he sees it, have because of their ingrained anti-Americanism abandoned their socialist and democratic principles and are turning a blind eye to the totalitarian and theocratic mindset of Islamic extremism.

So the intensity of the abuse being hurled at the wretched Cohen prompted me to read his book What’s Left? How Liberals lost their way to see what all the fuss is about. As I might have predicted, the anguish is a product of Cohen’s hard-hitting, robustly radical defence of democracy, pluralism and free speech against the tergiversations of those elements of the Left who, ever since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, have been seduced into supporting tyranny against democracy and have made themselves the creatures of reactionary, cruel and sometimes murderous regimes.

I am by no means convinced that all the policies which Cohen advocates are the correct ones. His detailed account of the horrors inflicted by Saddam Hussein upon his own people is not a clinching argument for the US-led invasion of Iraq. Leaving aside the moral and legal issues, the acid test was whether that invasion would make matters better in the Middle East, or make them worse. I was one of those who said long before the troops went in that the ultimate outcome would be prolonged and widespread bloodshed and chaos, and this has turned out to be the case. Nonetheless, Cohen is spot-on in his contempt for those who, having railed against the iniquities of Saddam’s dictatorship for years, suddenly discovered qualities of martyrdom in his messy end.

Cohen is rightly scathing, too, of the Stalinist-worshipping Lefties of the 1930s and the Cold War, who obediently turned about tail at Moscow’s crack of the whip in their attitudes to Nazism following the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, and again when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 and what had – according to them - hitherto been a wicked “capitalist imperialist” war became a virtuously patriotic one overnight. The mindless relativism of the postmodernist multi-culturalists of the last quarter-century, with their weaselish and implicitly racist defence of primitive practices such as wife-burning and genital mutilation on the specious grounds that these are excusable as manifestations of a different cultural norm from our own, are also castigated, as is the fashionable present-day fad of much of the noisy Left to regard Muslims as ideologically innocent “victims” of the West regardless of their aggressively triumphalist and intolerant Islamic doctrines and frequently violent behaviour.

This failure to distinguish between democratic, liberal, pluralist, tolerant values and their assorted tyrannically totalitarian opponents has, in fact, been the Achilles heel of much Left-wing politics throughout the past century. And it is still alive and well, even in quarters who claim to know better. I find it quite incredible that the much excoriated Tony Blair has just delivered himself of the following sentiments in an article A Battle for Global Values in the January/February 2007 edition of “Foreign Affairs”:

“To me, the most remarkable thing about the Koran is how progressive it is. I write with great humility as a member of another faith. As an outsider, the Koran strikes me as a reforming book, trying to return Judaism and Christianity to their origins, much as reformers attempted to do with the Christian church centuries later. The Koran is inclusive. It extols science and knowledge and abhors superstition. It is practical and far ahead of its time in attitudes toward marriage, women, and governance.

“Under its guidance, the spread of Islam and its dominance over previously Christian or pagan lands were breathtaking. Over centuries, Islam founded an empire and led the world in discovery, art, and culture. The standard-bearers of tolerance in the early Middle Ages were far more likely to be found in Muslim lands than in Christian ones.”

While the final sentence may possibly be true, the preceding statements display a stupendous ignorance of both history and theology, Christian and Islamic. It’s this sort of twaddle that convinces me that our dear prime minister has gone totally round the twist. If he believes that, he’d believe anything. Such as that you can square circles – which just about sums up his foreign and domestic policies.

There may well be millions of peacefully inclined, “moderate” Muslims around the world – though I have never noticed them declaring that they prefer our open, tolerant, free-speech, pluralist democratic society to the putative theocracy enjoined by their holy books and learned preachers.

The challenge which an increasingly assertive Islam poses to democracy as we in the West understand it is the real clash of global values, and it is hard to see how this challenge is going to be successfully and peacefully met unless the issues are candidly clarified and the necessary consequent measures taken to safeguard our democratic way of life against ALL totalitarian threats, from whatever quarter they come.

Friday, 2 March 2007

Worrying - and not surprising

According to a Karachi correspondent of ASIA TIMES ONLINE, Syed Saleem Shahzad, Al-Qaeda will this year significantly step up its global operations after centralizing its leadership and reviving its financial lifelines. Crucially, al-Qaeda has developed missile and rocket technology with the capability of carrying chemical, biological and nuclear warheads, according to an al-Qaeda insider.

While al-Qaeda will continue to operate in Afghanistan and Iraq, it will broaden its global perspective to include Europe and hostile Muslim states, and is ready to resume the offensive. New fronts will soon be opened in several countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, where al-Qaeda has its own command and control apparatus. The group's alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan, however, is under strain, as the latter have struck a deal with Pakistan over mutual cooperation, which is anathema to al-Qaeda

Although al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has not made any recent public pronouncements, he is said to be active in al-Qaeda's planning. Since 2005, the al-Qaeda leadership had been talking to many groups, including Egyptians, Libyans and the takfiri camp (which calls all non-practicing Muslims infidels). Al-Qaeda paid for differences in tactics and ideology among these groups as its structure unraveled and the organization developed into an "ideology" rather than a cohesive group.

As a result, al-Qaeda's global agenda was largely shelved and the international community's financial squeeze definitely hurt. This problem has been overcome, the contact claimed. Even US intelligence agencies concede that the group's finances have improved, but they have no idea how. All the same, they have pressured Pakistan to clamp down on some charitable organizations in that country.

Several militant Islamic Libyan and Egyptian groups have joined forces with "Jamaat al-Qaeda" under the leadership of bin Laden. Now al-Qaeda has completed regrouping organisationally and financially, major operations can be planned. But to ensure that 2007 would be "the year of al-Qaeda", a "great compromise" had to be made. Before the "Mother of all Battles" [the Gulf War of 1991] bin Laden offered to help the Saudi monarchy fight Saddam Hussein's forces in Kuwait. The Saudi royalty ignored the offer and opted instead for US military assistance. The presence of American troops in the land of the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina inflamed bin Laden, and he split with the Saudi royalty.

Nevertheless, the growing influence of Shi'ite Iran in the Middle East, especially in Iraq after the US invasion of 2003 and Lebanon, concerned al-Qaeda and the anti-Shi'ite Salafi Saudi oligarchs, which included the royal family, scholars, tribes and the state apparatus. In this environment, a speech by bin Laden was aired on Al-Jazeera television in which he called the Saudi monarchy extremely corrupt, the most contemptuous aspect of which was its alliance with US interests. Having said that, he asked the Saudi monarchy to step aside, saying that the mujahideen did not at that stage want to confront it. Rather, the Saudis should leave al-Qaeda alone to fight against Americans in Iraq.

The speech was, in fact, the beginning of dialogue between al-Qaeda and the Saudi royal family through various Muslim scholars at numerous places in the Middle East. Eventually, the Saudis agreed to turn a blind eye to Maaskar al-Battar (al-Qaeda's training camp) in Saudi Arabia on condition that the fighters would not carry out any operations in Saudi Arabia and go straight to Iraq.

ASIA TIMES ONLINE’s contact said that al-Qaeda is so powerful in Saudi Arabia that the monarchy had no choice but to strike a deal. Similarly, it was al-Qaeda's choice, he said, that it concentrate this year on Iraq. The intention is to consolidate in Iraq to the extent that al-Qaeda and the "coalition of the willing" have their respective and identified occupied areas from which to fight each other. The Saudi front is thus only deferred until al-Qaeda gains sufficient ground in Iraq.

The "arrangement" between al-Qaeda and the Saudis reveals a diplomatic double-step by Saudi Arabia, which Washington considers an important ally in the "war on terror" and in helping establish a Sunni front against rising Shi'ite power in the region, led by Iran. Al-Qaeda uses Maaskar al-Battar in Saudi Arabia to train youths in guerrilla warfare, including the use of SA-7 surface-to-air missiles. Research is also conducted at the camp, as well as in Afghanistan.

This includes work on "Abeer" rockets to carry nuclear or chemical weapons. Last October, the insurgent group Islamic Army in Iraq claimed to have successfully built and tested a rocket with a range of 120 kilometers. It was named Abeer after the 14-year-old Iraqi girl raped and killed by a US soldier who last month received a jail sentence of 100 years. In video footage released online, the group said the Abeer rocket could carry a payload of 20 kilograms. Iraqi engineers linked to resistance groups are now developing Abeer rockets with upgraded accuracy and payload capabilities.

According to the ASIA TIMES ONLINE contact, basic work on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons has now been completed and the next main task is to mount them on suitable missiles - which it is hoped the upgraded Abeer now is. In the meantime, the Maaskar al-Battar camp is preparing to send an additional 10,000 trained youths into Iraq by the middle of the year.

This coincides with al-Qaeda organizing all segments of the Iraqi resistance under its umbrella. It has already declared an "Emir of the Islamic Emirates of Iraq" comprising Baghdad, Anbar, Diyala, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din and Ninawa, and in other parts of the governorate of Babel. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi has been declared the emir of the state.

This development signifies that in the coming months, al-Qaeda's epicentre will shift from the Pakistani tribal areas of South Waziristan and North Waziristan to Iraq and its neighbourhood, including parts of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. It also means that the almost-independent "al-Qaeda in Iraq", once headed by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, killed by the US, will not function as an entity.

Although many Arab fighters left Afghanistan and Pakistan after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 to join hands with the Iraqi resistance, others are now following. These include al-Qaeda's Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, who moved from Waziristan. This will further weaken the link between al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the latter's decision to strike a deal with Pakistan. According to al-Qaeda sources, it is only a matter of time before the entire al-Qaeda leadership abandons its bases in the Pakistani tribal areas and moves to the Middle East.

Previously, Iran allowed al-Qaeda members to pass through its territory on the way to Iraq or other places. But in the wake of the sectarian troubles in Iraq, Tehran is somewhat hostile toward al-Qaeda. So it remains unclear whether Iran will facilitate al-Qaeda entering Iraq and destabilizing a Shi'ite government that is pro-American, but certainly also friendly with Iran.