Garbage in, Garbage out, again

I’ve complained before about the habit of the intelligence community of inviting evidence from a very narrow group of experts, occupying what can only be called an extreme position. Well, here we go again.

The long awaited report on the Russian ‘threat’ by the British parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has finally come out. Having downloaded it, I immediately turned to the back page to see where the committee had got its information, on the principle of ‘garbage in, garbage out’. Having done so, I am afraid that I let out an expletive so loud that people from the other side of the house ran over to see what was wrong. For this is what I saw:

Oh, FFS. Applebaum, Browder, Donnelly, Lucas, and Steele. Really??? I’m assuming that most readers know these names, but just in case you don’t, it’s like they’ve pulled in all the most discredited, Russophobic ‘experts’ they can find, and ignored everybody else who has any sort of knowledge of the subject. This is not a representative sample of expert opinion about Russia.

I have no objection to one or two such people being summoned as witnesses, but when all you have is representatives of the most extreme wing of the Russia-watching community, some of whom, most notably Christopher Steele, have been thoroughly discredited, then what you are not getting is a balanced, all-round picture of what you are studying.

The report thanks these witnesses for the fact that ‘they provided us with an invaluable foundation for the classified evidence sessions’. In short, the five external witnesses mattered. The picture of Russia provided by these people is the ideological rock on which the rest of the report is built.

Such an extreme, one-sided set of external witnesses not only casts doubt on the value of the information provided to the committee, but also on the impartiality of the committee itself. It speaks to extreme lack of an open mind, as if experts were chosen because they conformed to a strong predisposition which the committee was not interested in challenging.

Intelligence work requires a willingness to consider multiple competing hypotheses. Looking at the list of ‘experts’ makes it clear that this committee has only been exposed to variations of one – ‘Russia is evil’, ‘Russia is out to get us’, ‘Russia is inherently aggressive and dictatorial’. This is no way to do intelligence work.

I’ll write something about the content of the report in my next post. But as I said, ‘garbage in, garbage out’.

Of Mosques and Churches

A few years ago, our local church closed down. Since then, a local group has bought the building and turned it into a successful business, renting out for the space for meetings, and opening up a café in the basement. Still, I can’t walk by it without a sense of loss. It was one of the most significant religious buildings in town, with some striking stained glass windows, including one dedicated to Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden, and another, very unusual one, in memory of the dead of the First World War. Borden’s funeral took place there, as did the only royal wedding ever to happen on North American soil. No doubt those who use it now will appreciate it, but something has been lost. Stripped of its religious function, it will never quite be what it once was.

Things are created for a purpose. To be all they can be, they have to fulfill it. Take it away, and they can remain beautiful, magnificent, awesome, but yet will still be incomplete. I feel this way, for instance, about British stately homes. It’s all very well and good to open them up to the public, so that all and sundry can see what lies within, but unless someone lives there too, they are no longer homes, just empty shells. The same could be said for the rooms. Is a dining room really a dining room if nobody ever dines there? Its true splendour can only be realized in the course of a meal. Likewise, a library is just books just gathering dust unless somebody comes in sometimes, picks one out of the shelf, and does some reading. A house needs to be lived in. A church needs to be worshipped in. And so on. Otherwise, they are mere husks.

For this reason, I never understood the fuss a couple of years ago about St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg, when citizens of that city protested against plans to restore control of the Cathedral – which the Soviets had turned into a museum in 1931 – to the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s a cathedral after all. It was designed as a place of worship, not as a cold, dead museum, and however much visitors may like gazing at it, its fully glory can only be understood during the act of worship. To insist that a church should not be a church strikes me not only as absurd but as contrary to the natural order.

Following the same logic, I likewise find myself unable to join in the general hysteria regarding the decision last week by Turkish president Recep Erdogan to turn Hagia Sophia in Istanbul back into a mosque.

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Completed in 537 AD, Hagia Sophia was perhaps the most important cathedral of the Orthodox religion until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when it was turned into a mosque. In 1935, in act strikingly similar to what the Soviets did with St Isaac’s, it was turned into a museum as part of Ataturk’s campaign of secularization. It is, I think, rather ironic that the prelates of the Russian Orthodox Church are now complaining about the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque at a time when they themselves are doing all they can to restore their own country’s religious sites to their original usage. What suits one should suit the other, it seems to me.

The outrage seems to reflect a fear of Islam, its growing strength in Europe, and the concomitant decline in Christian belief in the Western world. It is as if Erdogan is rubbing the ex-Christian world’s face in its own loss of faith and declining international power. But truly, there is no reason to be outraged. Hagia Sophia was a mosque from 1453 to 1935 – that’s almost five hundred years. Its architecture contains numerous Islamic elements, including four tall minarets. Most of its Christian imagery was removed centuries ago. It is a mosque. Pretending otherwise is silly.

If the complaint is that religious sites of one faith should not be usurped by another, then the outrage is nearly six hundred years too late. Besides which, the conversion of places of worship is a two-way process, from Christian to Muslim, but also vice versa. The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in Cordoba was once the Grand Mosque, and is considered one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in Spain. Should the Catholic Church shut it down, and turn it into a museum? I don’t see anybody arguing that.

Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba

Like the churches the Soviets shut down in Russia, for the past 85 years Hagia Sophia has been a mere shell of its former self, an inert simulacrum rather than a living being. Now, it will be filled with the sounds of worship; it will once again become what it was meant to be; at last it will be alive. I find no reason to object.