Happy Newton Day!

December 25th is a date to celebrate not because it is the disputed birthday of the "son of God" but

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel . . .

Advent, we learned at school, was a time of anticipation: of looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. But we boys knew better. Advent was looking forward to something a lot more interesting - Christmas. That great processional tune, played on the organ to announce the Advent hymn, still stirs my depths, fifty years on. It meant that Christmas, which was the main thing each boy had been looking forward to since his birthday, was really coming - and what bad luck on poor Jesus, having his birthday on Christmas Day.

The Advent hymn anticipated the excited sleeplessness of Christmas Eve, then the knobbly weight of the stocking, distended and crackling with promise of the "real" presents to come after breakfast or, in unlucky years, after church. That heraldic minor-key theme, on the trumpet stop, was a fanfare for Hamleys, for Meccano and Hornby Dublo, for overeating in a wasteland of coloured wrapping paper.

We knew little of the theology of Advent. "Emmanuel", we gathered, might be a rather daring misspelling, but it really was just another way of writing "Jesus". How else interpret the familiar words of Matthew (1:22-23)?

Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying/Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel . . .

We never wondered why God would go to such lengths simply to fulfil a prophecy. Nor, indeed, why God would go to the even greater lengths of sending his son into the world in order that he should be agonisingly punished for the sins that mankind might decide to commit at some time in the future (or for the past scrumping offence of one non-existent man, Adam) - surely one of the single nastiest ideas ever to occur to a human mind (Paul's, of course). We never wondered why God, if he wanted to forgive our sins, didn't just forgive them. Why did he have to scapegoat himself first? Where religion was concerned, we never wondered anything. That was the point about religion. You could ask questions about any other subject, but not religion.

We'd have been intrigued if our scripture teachers had come clean and told us that Isaiah's Hebrew for "young woman" was accidentally mistranslated as "virgin" in the Greek Septuagint (an easy mistake to make: think of the English word "maiden"). To say that this little error was to have repercussions out of all proportion would be putting it mildly.

From it flowed the whole Virgin Mary myth, the kitsch "Our Lady" of Catholic grotto-idolatry, the sub-paedophile spectacle of young girls in virginal white First Communion dresses, the goddess status of not just Mary herself but a pantheon of local "manifestations". Pope John Paul II thought he was saved from assassination in 1981 not just by Our Lady but specifically by Our Lady of Fatima. As I have remarked elsewhere, presumably Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady of Guadalupe, Our Lady of Medjugorje, Our Lady of Akita, Our Lady of Zeitoun, Our Lady of Garabandal and Our Lady of Knock were busy on other errands at the time.

Our scripture teachers could have gone on to tell us that Isaiah's "Emmanuel" verse was really nothing to do with Jesus, but referred to a temporary problem in Jewish politics seven centuries earlier. The birth of a child called Emmanuel was a sign to King Ahaz of Judah, to encourage him in his little local dispute with the neighbouring kingdoms of Syria and Israel.

It is typical of the religious mind to force a gratuitous symbolic meaning where none was intended. Christian writers later saw Judah's oppression as a symbol for mankind's enslavement to death and "sin", and ended up unable to tell the difference, like people who send Christmas cards to the Archers. An even funnier example is the late Christian gloss on the "Song of Songs", a frankly erotic document headed, in Christian bibles, by hilariously euphemistic epigraphs such as "The mutual love of Christ and his church".

The desire to fulfil prophecies is where our most heart-warming Christmas stories come from. There is no actual evidence that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, let alone in a stable. But he must have been born in Bethlehem, because the prophet Micah (5:2) had earlier said:

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou
be little among the thousands of Judah, yet
out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel . . .

So, Luke has Mary and Joseph starting in Nazareth, but forced to go to Bethlehem ("everyone into his own city") to pay a Roman tax (ancient historians rightly ridicule this tax story). Matthew, by contrast, has Joseph's family starting in Bethlehem, but moving to Nazareth after returning from the flight to Egypt. Matthew turns even Jesus's relatively undisputed con nection with Nazareth into a strained effort to fulfil yet another prophecy:

And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:23)

Mark, the earliest Gospel, doesn't mention the birth of Jesus at all. John (7:41-42) has people saying that he couldn't really be the Christ, precisely because he was born in Nazareth not Bethlehem, and because he was not descended from David:

Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee?
Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the

To add to the confusion, Matthew and Luke, though theirs are the only Gospels claiming that Jesus had no earthly father, both trace Jesus's descent from David through Joseph, not Mary (albeit through very different intermediates from one another, and very different numbers of intermediates).

Most but not all scholars think, on balance, that a charismatic wandering preacher called Jesus (or Joshua) probably was executed during the Roman occupation, though all objective historians agree that the evidence is weak. Certainly, nobody takes seriously the legend that he was born in December. Late Christian tradition simply attached Jesus's birth to a long-established and convenient winter solstice festival.

Such seasonal opportunism continues to this day. In some states of the US, public display of cribs and similar Christian symbols is outlawed for fear of offending Jews and others (not atheists). Seasonal marketing appetites are satisfied nationwide by a super-ecumenical "Holiday Season", into which are commandeered the Jewish Hanukkah, Muslim Ramadan, and the gratuitously fabricated "Kwanzaa" (invented in 1966 so that African Americans could celebrate their very own winter solstice). Americans coyly wish each other "Happy Holiday Season" and spend vast amounts on "Holiday" presents. For all I know, they hang up a "Holiday stocking" and sing "Holiday carols" around the decorated "Holiday tree". A red-coated "Father Holiday" has not so far been sighted, but this is surely only a matter of time.

For better or worse, ours is historically a Christian culture, and children who grow up ignorant of biblical literature are diminished, unable to take literary allusions, actually impoverished. I am no lover of Christianity, and I loathe the annual orgy of waste and reckless reciprocal spending, but I must say I'd rather wish you "Happy Christmas" than "Happy Holiday Season".

Fortunately, this is not the only choice: 25 December is the birthday of one of the truly great men ever to walk the earth, Sir Isaac Newton. His achievements might justly be celebrated wherever his truths hold sway. And that means from one end of the universe to the other. Happy Newton Day!

Richard Dawkins, FRS is Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His most recent book is "The God Delusion" (Black Swan, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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Tearing down the "caliphate": on the frontline against Islamic State in Mosul

Truck bombs and drone warfare in the fight to take back Iraq’s second city from Islamic State.

The battle to retake west Mosul began, for me, rattling around in an armoured Humvee with two Abaases. “I’m Abaas One. He’s Abaas Two,” the driver, Abaas Almsebawy, said in English with a broad smile, pointing to the gunner on top.

“I have killed two Da’esh,” Abaas Two said, using an Arabic acronym for the so-called Islamic State (IS). “Well, one for sure. The other one crawled away but he was bleeding badly. I was told he died.”

Abaas One was jealous of his gunner’s luck. He was shot twice by IS in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq; he still had a bullet lodged in his back. “The doctor said it is my gift from Da’esh,” he told me and laughed.

Over the sound of gunfire and mortars, the two Abaases called out to each other, giving directions, spotting targets. The cry of “Abaaaaas!” was constantly in the air. One from Babylon, the other from Baghdad, they stretched out on a felt blanket inside the armoured vehicle during lulls in the fighting and fell asleep, oblivious to its discomforts and the IS mortars landing outside.

They had been involved in the fighting in the east of the city, which it had taken 100 days to recapture, in hard, street-by-street clashes and through an onslaught of IS car and truck bombs. Yet the battle to retake the west, which began on Sunday 19 February and is being led by Iraq’s Emergency Response Division (ERD) and counterterrorism forces, has proved different – and faster.

Abaas One, the driver, was exhilarated. As Iraqi army helicopters flew overhead and the air force strafed villages with machine-gun fire and rockets, he rolled on, part of an armoured assault on a front that stretched for miles. His Humvee was built for this kind of terrain, moving at speed across the desert towards villages, the airport and eventually the city of Mosul.

Something else was different about this battle, too. These men were not technically soldiers: they were policemen. Abaas One went into battle in a hooded top and a leather jacket. Stuck outside manning his gun, Abaas Two, like a fighter from another age, wore a greatcoat, small, circular spectacles and a woolly hat. One lean and broad-shouldered, the other bulky and round-faced, they were a contrast but a good fit.

The Abaases were part of Iraq’s elite ERD, which has led the charge into the west of the city, just as the country’s heralded “Golden Division”, the counterterrorism unit, had pushed into the east. The ERD, part of the ministry of interior, is the less experienced junior brother of the battle-hardened Golden Division but it was determined that west Mosul would be its prize. It made swift progress and, as it took back village after village from IS, troops posed for selfies with enemy corpses on the roadside.

The closer to Mosul you were, the more charred bodies you would see, lying along the route. Two in a ditch, killed by a mortar, and two on the road, the motorcycle they were travelling on cut in half by an air strike.

In command of the 1st Brigade was Colonel Falah al-Wabdan. In Ramadi in 2015, he and his men had been cut off and surrounded by IS forces and had escaped only when more troops came to their rescue.

As he stood on the ruins of a former palace that had belonged to one of Saddam Hussein’s brothers, he had a view of all of Mosul. “I will be very glad when I see my forces move forward,” he said. “Also [when I see that] my soldiers are all safe. And I will be even happier when we have killed IS. These people [IS] are like a disease in the body, and we are now removing it, day after day.”

From there, the Iraqi forces took the town of Abu Saif, and then, in a six-hour battle, what was left of Mosul’s airport. Its runways were in ruins and its terminal buildings reduced to rubble. Yet that was the last open ground before they reached the city. By the end of the week, Colonel Falah’s forces had breached the IS defences. Now they were heading into the dense and narrow streets of the city’s old town. Meanwhile, the elite Golden Division was the secondary force, having earlier been bogged down in heavy fighting.

The competition between the two rival divisions had helped to accelerate the advance. The ERD, however, had a secret weapon. “We need to ask your men to hold off, sir. We have helicopters in the air,” the US special forces officer told an Iraqi lieutenant colonel on the rooftop as the assault on Abu Saif was in full force.

The Iraqi mortar team in the orchard and olive grove below held fire. Then the mighty thud of coalition air strikes could be heard and, just two miles away, a huge, grey cloud rose above the town.

 

***

It is Iraqis who are doing most of the fighting and the dying in the battle against IS, but since the Pentagon relaxed its rules of engagement late last year more Americans are at or near the front lines. They are calling in air strikes and laying down fire from their MRAP (“mine-resistant ambush-protected”) vehicles. They are not in uniform but, despite being a covert force, they are conspicuous and still wear the Stars and Stripes on their helmets. When journalists, especially cameramen, approach, they turn their backs.

In and around Mosul, it is more common now to get stuck in a traffic jam of US vehicles: either artillery or route-clearance teams. The Pentagon will soon respond to President Donald Trump’s call for a new plan – an intensification of US efforts against IS – but on the ground around this city, the Americans are already much more engaged in the fight against the militants.

British special forces were also in the area, in small numbers. Unlike their American counterparts, they went unseen.

Also seemingly absent in the early part of the offensive were civilians. It was three days before I met one: a shepherd, Ali Sultan Ali, who told me that he had only stayed behind because he could not get his flock to safety, as a nearby bridge had been destroyed.

As his sheep grazed, Ali explained: “They continued to attack this area, and now we are three days sitting in our homes, unable to go out because of attack and mortars . . . All the people, they have left this area one after another. They went to the east of the city of Mosul and they rented houses there because there are too many attacks here.”

Almost 60,000 people have fled west Mosul. In this area, with its population of three-quarters of a million, the battle has the potential to become a humanitarian crisis. Camps for internally displaced people still have capacity, but they are filling up.

IS, with anywhere between 500 and a few thousand fighters inside Mosul, is again using the local population as cover. But coalition air strikes may be taking a heavy toll on civilians, too. Officially, the US-led force claims that 21 civilians have died as a result of its bombs since November, but an independent monitoring group, Airwars, suggests that as many as 370 have been killed by Western aircraft since the start of March.

After the airport was recaptured, the columns of desperate people heading south began to thicken. The children among them usually held a white flag – perhaps a clever distraction thought up by terrified parents for their long walk to safety. Near the airport, I met a man who was too distraught to give his name. He told me that his brother’s family – six people – had been killed in an air strike. With his eyes red from crying and a blanket over his shoulders, he stood by the roadside, pleading. “For God’s sake,” he said. “We need you to help us. We need a shovel to get the dead bodies out of the building, because there are still two bodies under that building.”

But the battle was reaching a new pitch around him, so he left for a camp to look for his brother, the only remaining member of his family, he told me.

When the ERD finally made it inside the city, the first thing I noticed was the fresh laundry hanging in the yard of a family house. Then I heard a huge explosion as an IS truck bomb slammed into one of the Iraqi Abrams tanks.

The tank trundled on regardless and, by nightfall, the ERD had a tiny foothold inside the city: the al-Josak neighbourhood.

 

***

 

Islamic State is steadily losing Mosul and in Iraq, at least, the end of the so-called caliphate is in sight. In Abu Saif, state forces found the corpses of foreign fighters and, hiding, an IS operative who was still alive.

“He’s Russian,” one officer told me, but the man might have been from one of the central Asian republics. There were dead Syrians on the battlefield, too, men from Deir az-Zour; and for the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who joined IS, Syria will likely be a last refuge.

There may be another reason for the faster pace of the assault in west Mosul. The Iraqi forces, having fought IS in Ramadi, Fallujah and east Mosul, are getting better at dealing with the militant group’s tactics.

Truck bombs took a huge toll on their men in eastern Mosul. It is hard to describe the force unleashed when one of these detonates near you. In an early assault on one village, IS sent out four truck bombs and one of them exploded a few hundred metres from where I was standing. The shock wave ripped around the building and shards of engine went flying over our heads. My mouth was full of dirt. The debris was scattered for what seemed like miles around – yet no one died.

The suicide attack driver may have been taken out by an Iraqi soldier firing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Whenever they advance now, men stand ready with RPGs, specifically to tackle the threat of car bombs. And they are becoming better at “hasty defence”. An armoured bulldozer is always in the lead. When a new street is taken, defensive berms made of mud or rubble are built to halt any speeding car bombs.

The IS fighters are crafty. Iraqi forces took me to a house on a captured street. Its yard was covered and the front wall was gone. Parked in the front room was what looked like an ambulance. Hidden from surveillance aircraft, this was another truck bomb.

“It’s still live. I wouldn’t go any further,” a major warned me. Even the bomb disposal team said that it was too dangerous to touch. It was later destroyed from a very safe distance.

Although the group violently suppresses modernity, IS fighters are innovators. They have no air force but they can get their hands on drones, which are commercially available, and they have “weaponised” them. If the battle for east Mosul was the attack of the car bombs, the battle for the west began as a drone war.

For the men on the ground, IS drones are enormously disconcerting. During a gun battle in west Mosul, I stopped to speak to some troops taking cover behind a wall. As I asked a final question, the captain I was talking to cupped his ear and leaned forward because of a sudden eruption of gunfire. Then, just to my right, I felt a shock wave of a detonation that seemed to come from nowhere.

A member of the BBC team was hit, receiving a small blast injury to the arm. When we got back to the Humvee, the driver explained that there had been a drone above us. The gunfire was from Iraqi troops trying to bring it down. The detonation had not come from nowhere; it had come from directly overhead. As we drove out of there, I noticed that the gunner had closed the hatch. We were protected inside, but he was outside manning his weapon, looking for more drones.

“They drop MK19 40mm grenades from the drones to stop the movements forward. All the time, they will use four to five drones to attack one location,” Captain Ali Razak Nama of the federal police explained. “As you know, we can’t always see these drones with our eyes, but if we do see them we can attack the drones with our rifles. [But] when we go into the battle, we are not looking at the skies. We are looking ahead of us for car bombs, suicide attackers, IEDs or snipers.”

A unit of the Golden Division was hit 70 times in a single day by wave upon wave of IS drones. The operator managed to drop a grenade inside a Humvee from above; all four men inside, members of a bomb disposal unit, were killed. Dozens more were injured that day.

The sound of a drone, even one of their own, is enough to make the Iraqi forces hit the dirt and scramble under a vehicle. They are difficult to bring down. I once watched as snipers and heavy machine-gunners opened fire on some drones; they managed to strike one but still it flew on.

The IS fighters control them from motorcycles in an attempt to prevent the operators being tracked and killed. They switch frequencies in the hope that they will not be jammed. Yet as a coalition commander told me: “The enemy aren’t going to win by dropping grenades from the sky. So it is certainly not a game-changer.” Iraqi and coalition forces now appear to be having success in countering the threat. Just how, they will not say, but in recent days there has been a “very significant” drop in their use.

 

***

 

Mosul has been the biggest battle for Iraqi forces against Islamic State, but commander after commander said that others had been tougher. In Ramadi and in Fallujah, IS had a better grip. In Mosul, the local people have been quicker to turn away from the militants.

In the eastern part of the city, the bazaars are busy again and children have returned to school. Girls are receiving education for the first time in nearly three years, since IS captured the city. The so-called caliphate was declared on 29 June 2014 and, four days later the new “caliph” and IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, made his first and only filmed appearance, delivering a sermon at the city’s al-Nuri Mosque. Iraqi forces are now in sight of the mosque, with its Ottoman-era leaning minaret.

Mosul is Iraq’s second-largest city and has a cosmopolitan heritage, but Islamists had influence here for many years before IS arrived. As one Mosulawi told me, after neglect by the Iraqi capital, “There is discontent with Baghdad, not support for Isis.”

Al-Baghdadi is believed to have fled the city already. According to US and Iraqi commanders, he is hiding out in the desert. Shia militiamen and Iraqi army forces are attempting to seal off escape routes to the west, into Syria. Yet senior commanders accept that in a city Mosul’s size, it will be impossible to close all escape routes. Capturing al-Baghdadi is not a priority, they say.

There is also an acknowledgement that neither his death nor the loss of Mosul will be the end of Islamic State. But in Iraq, at least, it will destroy the caliphate.

Quentin Sommerville is the BBC’s Middle East correspondent

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain