A good week for the smiting of the ungodly

Atheism has had a bad week. First there was the contest between the Church and the unbelievers’ Vicar on Earth which ended with a score of God 1, Richard Dawkins 0. Then the equality commissar, Trevor Phillips, came along with a stunningly inept analogy between Christian observance and sharia law – and got so resoundingly pilloried that he had to be carried off the field. Make no mistake: it was atheism that was on manoeuvres here. It may have marched under the banner of “secularism” but that was a deliberately misleading and, as it turned out, not very successful tactic. As Professor Dawkins himself said in one of his broadcasting appearances, secularism and atheism are different things.

You bet they are. Secularism as understood, for example, in the United States – the most famously successful secular society in history – is no enemy of religious belief. The separation of church and state enshrined in the American Constitution is designed to guarantee the freedom of worship: to protect the observance of all faiths from oppression or interference by the state. It is the ultimate acknowledgement of the importance – in effect, of the sacrosanct nature – of religious belief and practice, regarding it as one of the “unalienable” human rights.

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Syria’s crisis is leading us to unlikely bedfellows

When two car bombings killed nearly 50 people in the heart of the Syrian capital of Damascus just before Christmas, we in the West were quick to challenge claims made on state TV that the atrocities had been carried out by al-Qaeda. We were inclined to award more credibility to the Syrian rebels, who denied that the terror group was involved at all, and insisted that the attacks had been cynically staged by the government, perhaps as a bid for international sympathy.

However, all doubt ended last week when James Clapper, director of US national intelligence, informed the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Damascus bombings “had all the earmarks of an al-Qaeda attack”. Mr Clapper added that “we believe al-Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria”. So, it’s official. Al-Qaeda is acknowledged as an ally of Britain and America in our desire to overturn the Syrian government.

Think about it. Ten years ago, in the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers, we invaded Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda. Now the world’s most notorious terror organisation wants to join a new “coalition of the willing” in Syria (not just al-Qaeda: yesterday the Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir staged a march through west London in support of their Syrian brothers and the establishment of the Khilafah state).

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I’d rather not pay for Brenda Flanagan-Davies’s pillow-plumpers

I spent last Saturday comforting a friend, Sue, whose mother had been taken to Accident and Emergency following a fall. Sue’s mother, a 78-year-old widow, lives on her own outside Oxford. Sue and her family live in London, where she and her husband hold down full-time jobs. She immediately took a week off work, but after that, her mother would have to rely on social services: carers will visit her twice a day to help her wash and dress in the morning; practise walking with her new stick; and make sure she doesn’t slump into depression.

I was happy to know that my taxes were being used for this pensioner’s welfare. The infirmities of age come to us all, and, to use an old-fashioned term, this was a deserving case.

I feel differently about Brenda Flanagan-Davies. Britain’s fattest woman weighs 40 stone. That’s more than my refrigerator, double bed and desk combined. Brenda has reached these gargantuan proportions by chomping her way through nine chocolate bars and three fizzy drinks per day. Now immobile, she needs help to turn in bed, wash, dress and relieve herself.

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William Hague warns Israel over Iran military action

Amid rumours the Israeli government is considering strikes against Iran within months, Mr Hague insisted economic sanctions and negotiations had to be given “a real chance” to convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

In an interview with BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show, the Foreign Secretary repeated his warning that a nuclear-armed Iran would result in another cold war in the Middle East.

“They would either be attacked and there would be a war, or there would be a cold war in which Iran for the long term would be subject to these very intense economic sanctions and they would find that other nations in their region developed nuclear weapons,” he said.

But he urged against military action, although he said it was not ruled out as an option.

“I don’t think a wise thing at this moment is for Israel to launch a military attack on Iran,” he said.

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‘I look at Amy or Whitney and think, that could have been me’

Fame can kill young women like Katie Melua, and she knows it. “There is a loneliness at the centre of it all, a sense of isolation,” says the singer, who became famous at the age of 19. “You can’t cope, but you can’t say so because the life is what you always wanted.”

Katie became a national sweetheart and sold millions of records as the girl with the big eyes and ringlets who sang jazzy ballads such as Nine Million Bicycles and The Closest Thing to Crazy in a warm, husky voice. Then came a sudden personal crisis two years ago, that led to Melua being briefly hospitalised. “I had a breakdown and I had to drop out for a while.”

Now she is about to release a comeback album called Secret Symphony and looks healthy and happy at her flat in west London. But Melua knows the stakes are high. Last week, the father of the late Amy Winehouse picked up a posthumous Grammy for his daughter, who was once at the same performing arts school as Melua. “She was a troubled soul.”

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Baghdad suicide bomb kills 18 at police academy

It was the deadliest attack in Iraq since January 27, when a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed car outside a hospital in the Iraqi capital, killing 31 people.

Violence in Iraq is down from its peak in 2006 and 2007, but attacks remain common, killing 151 people in January.

Police said the suicide bomber was waiting on the street outside the fortified academy near the Interior Ministry headquarters in the east of the Iraqi capital. As the crowd of recruits exited the compound’s security barriers in the early afternoon and walked into the road, police said the bomber drove toward them and blew up his car.

All of the dead were either police officers or recruits. Another 27 recruits and policemen were wounded.

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