Is Islam Compatible with Liberal Democracy? (2007)

February 14, 2007
BOOKS OF THE TIMES
No Rest for a Feminist Fighting Radical Islam
By WILLIAM GRIMES

INFIDEL
By Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Illustrated. Free Press. 353 pages. $26.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali came to the attention of the wider world in an extraordinary way. In 2004 a Muslim fanatic, after shooting the filmmaker Theo van Gogh dead on an Amsterdam street, pinned a letter to Mr. van Gogh’s chest with a knife. Addressed to Ms. Hirsi Ali, the letter called for holy war against the West and, more specifically, for her death.
A Somali by birth and a recently elected member of the Dutch Parliament, Ms. Hirsi Ali had waged a personal crusade to improve the lot of Muslim women. Her warnings about the dangers posed to the Netherlands by unassimilated Muslims made her Public Enemy No. 1 for Muslim extremists, a feminist counterpart to Salman Rushdie.
The circuitous, violence-filled path that led Ms. Hirsi Ali from Somalia to the Netherlands is the subject of “Infidel,” her brave, inspiring and beautifully written memoir. Narrated in clear, vigorous prose, it traces the author’s geographical journey from Mogadishu to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya, and her desperate flight to the Netherlands to escape an arranged marriage.
At the same time, Ms. Hirsi Ali describes a journey “from the world of faith to the world of reason,” a long, often bitter struggle to come to terms with her religion and the clan-based traditional society that defined her world and that of millions of Muslims all over.
Ms. Hirsi Ali, now 37, belongs to the Osman Mahamud subclan of the Darod clan. Its members, by tradition, are born to rule, which may explain the author’s self-possessed, imperious gaze on the cover of her book. Her mother came from a family of nomads, and Ms. Hirsi Ali grew up listening to desert folk tales narrated by her grandmother, who, like many Somalis, followed a “diluted, relaxed” version of Islam that included traditional magic spirits and genies. It also required that young girls undergo genital mutilation, which Ms. Hirsi Ali, a victim of the practice, describes in horrific detail.
Somalia’s troubled politics provided Ms. Hirsi Ali with an eventful childhood. Her father, an opponent of the country’s Soviet-backed dictator, spent years in prison. The family, living on clan charity, moved to Saudi Arabia, where Ms. Hirsi Ali recoiled at the local interpretation of Islam, and later to Ethiopia and Kenya, where Ms. Hirsi Ali added Swahili and English to her growing list of languages. Without knowing it, she was becoming a permanent outsider, a misfit wherever she traveled.
The family was politically liberal but pious, with one foot in the remote past and the other in the modern world. In Nairobi, her grandmother kept a sheep in the bathtub at night and herded it during the day. Ms. Hirsi Ali, at her English-language school, devoured Nancy Drew mysteries and English adventure series, “tales of freedom, adventure, of equality between girls and boys, trust and friendship.” She eventually became a woman very like one of George Eliot’s heroines — earnest, high-minded and ardent, forever chafing at the limits imposed by her religion and her society.
Rebellion came slowly. Ms. Hirsi Ali, under the spell of a kindly Islamic evangelist, passed through a deeply religious phase. She describes, quite persuasively, the attractions of fundamentalism and the growing appeal of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood in disintegrating societies like Somalia’s. But nagging questions disturbed her faith, especially as she encountered inflexible doctrines on the role of women, and their need to submit to men.
“Life on earth is a test, and I was failing it, even though I was trying as hard as I knew how to,” she writes of her anguished, questioning adolescence. “I was failing as a Muslim.”
In 1992, in her early 20s, Ms. Hirsi Ali made a dash for freedom. Instead of joining her new husband in Canada, she bolted to the Netherlands. There, she pretended to be fleeing political persecution, and the authorities granted her refugee status. She had brought shame on her family and her clan, but the order and rationality of the Netherlands intoxicated her, right down to the houses “all the same color, laid out in rows like neat little cakes warm from the oven.” She could not imagine what the Dutch had to vote about, since everything seemed to work perfectly.
Ms. Hirsi Ali’s struggles to gain a toehold in her new country, and her perceptions of the West, told through innocent eyes, put flesh and blood on an immigrant story repeated countless times throughout Western Europe. Alienation, dislocation and the burden of too many choices warp the lives of people rooted in traditional societies based on clans and tribes. Ms. Hirsi Ali’s own sister, who joins her in the Netherlands, sinks into deep depression and psychosis.
Fluent in English, and determined to learn Dutch, the highly adaptable Ms. Hirsi Ali makes her way, first as a translator for various social services, then as a political researcher for the Labor Party, and eventually as a political candidate with uncomfortable views on Islam, immigration and assimilation.
Ms. Hirsi Ali, disturbed at the economic and social plight of Muslims, warned the Dutch that their liberal policy of helping immigrants create separate cultural and religious institutions was counterproductive. She deplored the crimes of violence against Muslim women committed daily in the Netherlands, to which the authorities turned a blind eye in the name of cultural understanding. After the 9/11 attacks, she was vocal in insisting that, despite well-meaning assurances to the contrary, there really was a meaningful link between the Muslim faith and terrorism.
“Holland was trying to be tolerant for the sake of consensus, but the consensus was empty,” she writes. “The immigrants’ culture was being preserved at the expense of their women and children and to the detriment of the immigrants’ integration into Holland.”
Ms. Hirsi Ali’s provocative comments on Islam and on the need for Muslim women to reject their traditionally submissive role (the subject of a short film she made with Mr. van Gogh) channeled mounting Muslim anger directly at her.
Death threats have since driven Ms. Hirsi Ali to the United States, where she has accepted a fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group.
This is a pity. As a politician, she focused Dutch minds on a subject they steadfastly ignored. In her brief career, she forced the government to keep statistics on honor killings, in which enraged family members murder sisters or daughters believed to have brought shame on the family or clan. Much to the surprise of the Dutch, it turned out that there were a lot of them. Unfortunately, Ms. Hirsi Ali is no longer in the Netherlands to point out these things.

NB: Oct. 24, 2007 - Ms. Hirsi Ali has since returned to the Netherlands where she continues to work from an undisclosed location.

"Chicago School" Economics Are Alive and Well in Columbia


Defying Threats, Thousands Take to the Streets
BOGOTA, Oct 12 (IPS) - Arbitrary arrests, menacing warnings from the army and harsh crackdowns on protesters did not daunt the tens of thousands of Colombians who took to the streets over the last three days to protest against the rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe.

The Democratic Coalition, which groups trade unions, student groups, and associations of blacks, peasants and indigenous people, called the nationwide protests, which began on Wednesday and continued Thursday and Friday. Activists and human rights groups denounced threats and abuses by military and paramilitary groups. The organisers said Thursday that seven protesters were injured when the police tried to break up the demonstrations, and the press reported Friday that a total of 15 people were wounded.

The organisers also reported the arrest of community leader Isaac López, who was accused of ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the main rebel group involved in Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict. López, the leftwing Alternative Democratic Pole candidate for mayor in the town of Cartagena del Chairá in the southern department (province) of Caquetá, was arrested Wednesday on his way to the local protest, said the organisers.

In September, leaflets were circulated by the army urging people not to take part in the planned protests: "Do not participate in acts of terrorism. Do not let them continue to use you as cannon fodder. Do not go to the FARC demonstration. Do not be an accomplice to terrorists and murderers."

Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe Arias accused the demonstrators of links to the FARC. "That claim is aimed at diverting attention from the real aims of the national campesino (peasant farmer) mobilisation," Diana Nocua, one of the organisers of the nationwide demonstrations, told IPS. "We are independent, and we are defending the rights of the victims of persecution and anti-democratic measures."

The demonstrators protested the free trade agreement negotiated with the United States, the privatisation of water utilities and the health and education systems, the current labour legislation, and incentives offered to foreign companies and investors, which they described as "a disgraceful giveaway of national sovereignty." They also took aim at cuts in funding for health and education in rural areas, demanded the repeal of the government’s "national development plan", land laws and mining code, and called for the cancellation of concessions granted to foreign extractive companies since Uribe became president in 2002. (emphasis mine)

In addition, the Democratic Coalition called the demobilisation of the ultra-rightwing paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) a "farce" and demanded respect for the collective land rights of black and indigenous communities. In response, Minister Arias told the media that in the southwestern department of Cauca, 12,000 hectares of land have been distributed to indigenous communities. But the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC) replied in a communiqué that land assigned to 12 displaced families formed part of an indigenous reserve and had been claimed by the Kokonuko native community for more than 25 years. Arias, meanwhile, said three more purchases of land for rural families had been suspended until the demonstrations came to a halt, and warned that the protesters would not be allowed to block roads "because the security forces will enforce respect for public spaces."

The organisers of the protests issued a communiqué with the names of seven people -- one woman, five men and one minor -- who were injured. "Civilians who gathered peacefully in Mondomo, Cauca, were attacked by the military police and counterinsurgency forces, who sprayed tear gas and ground glass, used explosives and fired shots," said the statement.

Similar crackdowns by the police and anti-riot police (ESMAD) were reported in areas near Cali, in the western department of Valle del Cauca, which affected children and elderly persons, and led to the arrests of 11 people.

In the central department of Huila, two military trucks parked across a highway blocked 1,200 campesinos from marching to the provincial capital, Neiva. According to the Rural Press Agency, Jorge Garzón said the campesinos were organised and ready to join the demonstration in the city, "but they are not letting us pass."

In Ibagué, the capital of the central department of Tolima, some 4,000 campesinos gathered in parks and public spaces around city hall. "They came in on Tuesday from different municipalities where they face serious persecution and arrest. But their health conditions are beginning to worry us," said Diana Nocua.

There have been similar demonstrations and complaints of harsh police action in most of Colombia’s regions over the past three days. The "Black Eagles", the largest paramilitary group made up of "demobilised" members of the AUC, which took part in a high-profile but controversial demobilisation process, were reportedly involved in some of the violent incidents.

The precedent for the current nationwide demonstrations dates back to 1996, when coca growers protested the start of aerial spraying of their crops in the southern departments of Caquetá, Putumayo and Guaviare. At the time, the farmers stressed that they did not grow coca out of choice, or under pressure from the guerrillas, but because they had no other way to earn an income.

Over time, the campesino mobilisation expanded to other regions, where the demonstrators have traditionally been the target of harsh crackdowns. "We have suffered 30 arbitrary arrests in the last two months" in the municipalities of Tolima, Cauca and Santander, Aydeé Moreno, another of the organisers, told IPS.

One case occurred on Sept. 29, when state security agents raided the offices of the Campesino Association of the Valle del Río Cimitarra (ACVC) in the northeastern city of Barrancabermeja, and arrested four of the group’s members. And on Oct. 5, in the town of Yondó in Antioquia in the northwest, army troops tore down posters publicising the coming protests and warned local residents, according to the ACVC, that they would "burn down houses if they found new posters, because the order is to not allow the protest to be held in the region."

The same day, in Planadas in the west-central department of Tolima, campesino leader Hernando Soto was arrested by the army. Three days later, in the town of Rioblanco in the same department, two young men were seized by an infantry battalion.

The Committee of Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) said that on Tuesday a bus was blocked from carrying food supplies for the demonstrators from the town of Rovira to Playarrica, and troops stopped another bus in Chaparral (in Tolima) that was carrying campesinos. The organisations denounced that campesinos were seized and "disappeared", and that others were murdered. The victims were later accused of belonging to leftist insurgent groups, especially the FARC.

The Shock Doctrine - Naomi Klein

Among Ms. Klein's talents as a journalist is an uncanny ability to find connections between seemingly unrelated events - the Chilean coup of 1973 - the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 -the tsunami of 2005 - 9/11 - Hurricane Katrina and most recently, the American invasion of Iraq. In The Shock Doctrine she documents the deliberate imposition of unpopular economic measures by right wing governments and dictatorships in the aftermath of such disasters, natural or man-made, relating them directly to the 1950's neo-liberal economic philosophy of the University of Chicago School of Economics and its best known advocate, Milton Friedman.

"The core of such sacred Chicago teachings was that the econmic forces of supply, demand, inflation and unemployment were like the forces of nature, fixed and unchanging. In the truly free market imagined in Chicago classes and texts, these forces exist in perfect equilibrium, supply communicating with demand the way the moon pulls the tides. If economies suffered from high inflation, it was, according to Friedman's strict theory of monetarism, invariably because misguided policy makers had allowed too much money to enter the system, rather than letting the market find its balance. Just as ecosystems self regulate, the market, if left to its own devices, would create just the right number of products at precisely the right prices, produced by workers at just the right wages to buy those products - an Eden of plentyful employment, boundless creativity and zero inflation." - Klein

Under the "free market" or laissez faire economic policies of the "Chicago School" all government regulation of industry, working conditions and the professions would be abolished. Schools, highways, federal parks, the post office and publicly operated services such as water supply and transportation would be privatized. The welfare system including social security would end. All government efforts to stabilize the economy through fiscal and monetary policies, public works or other means would be terminated.

Friedman and his associates were well aware that these policies were unlikely to be adopted democratically even in countries with the most conservative administrations. However, the strategy they developed for new administrations, elected or imposed, was simplicity itself. Wait for a major crisis. Sell off state-owned assets to private interests while citizens are still trying to recover. Then quickly write the changes into law.

The psychological roots of this strategy can be found in the infamous (and highly unethical) experiments conducted at McGill University by Ewen Cameron under the sponsorship of the C.I.A. and the Canadian Government. Patients, suffering from mental disorders, were subjected to electroshock treatment and a variety of drugs as well as sensory deprivation techniques with the object of reducing them to a "blank state" of infantile helplessness after which they could be reprogrammed minus their mental disorders. The experiments were singularly unsuccessful in achieving the desired results, succeeding only in destroying the lives of the unfortunate subjects. Cameron's methods, however, were identified as torture techniques in the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation handbook and were disseminated throughout Latin America by the C.I.A.

Thus, in Chile in 1973, the first test of Chicago School economics, citizens were subjected to a three pronged attack - The military coup against the Socialist government of Salvador Allende by General Augosto Pinochet - the implementation of economic reform with the aid of the Chicago Boys, and for anyone foolish enough to protest - the threat of torture and death. Disappearances were common.

The success of the Chilean coup was followed by similar events in Uruguay (also 1973) and Argentina (1976).

Klein documents the implementation of Chicago School economics in Latin America , with particular emphasis on the resultant devastating social impact, ranging from massive unemployment as employers were allowed to fire workers at will, increased food costs as price controls were lifted, the loss of state owned businesses to the private sector, the transfer of wealth from public to private hands and the transfer of private debt to public hands. Throughout the Southern Cone torture and "disappearance" remained the de rigeur methods to discourage protest.

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Since the seventies attempts have been made to emulate the initial "success" of free market economics in the wake of disaster by a number of governments around the world including Poland, Russia, Korea, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and, oddly enough, communist China. Elements can be found in the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher who, along with Ronald Reagan, was a great admirer of Milton Friedman. (Thatcher was also an admirer of Augosto Pinochet.)

Klein is most effective in the latter chapters of her book wherein she describes contemporary situations of which she has first-hand knowledge: Iraq and New Orleans.

In Iraq, she exposes the rush by the Bush administration to privatize two hundred essential state-owned companies as new laws were passed to attract foreign investors. At the same time, reconstruction of the country was contracted solely to American corporations -Blackwater, Bechtel, Parsons and, most famously, Halliburton. Iraqis were excluded and stood by helplessly as foreign workers were imported at low wages. Resistance to the occupation continues to be suppressed by increasingly brutal methods.

Within three weeks of Katrina, George W. Bush announced several new "hurricane relief" measures as proposed by the Heritage Foundation, among them: "automatically suspend Davis-Bacon wage laws in disaster areas," - "make the entire affected area a flat tax free-enterprise zone," - "make the entire region an economic competitiveness zone" (tax incentives and waiving of regulations.) Parents were given vouchers for use at newly founded charter schools.

The reconstruction of New Orleans was contracted by the Bush administration to - wait for it - Blackwater, Bechtel, Parsons and Halliburton all of whom, as in Iraq, were reluctant to hire local workers.

Again, to quote Klein:"The Chicago Boys' first adventure in the seventies should have served as a warning to humanity: theirs are dangerous ideas. By failing to hold the ideology accountable for the crimes committed in its first laboratory, this subculture of unrepentant ideologues was given immunity, freed to scour the world for its next conquest. These days, we are once again living in an era of corporate massacres, with countries suffering tremendous military violence alongside organized attempts to remake them into model "free market" economies; disappearances and torture are back with a vengeance. And once again the goals of building free markets, and the need for such brutality, are treated as entirely unrelated."

Klein sees mounting world-wide opposition to neo-liberalism, much of it coming, appropriately, from Latin America. Leading this movement is thrice democratically elected Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. With its high oil revenues, Venezuela has become a lender to other developing countries allowing them to avoid entering into agreements with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank both of which demand draconian economic reform in exchange for loans.

My initial impression of The Shock Doctrine was "What we have here is a 500 page recipe for paranoia." However, Klein connects the dots in her thesis so carefully that one cannot avoid the conclusion that some governments are indeed utilizing Friedmanite methods to enrich themselves and their friends by deliberately destroying the economic welfare of their respective citizenry. That being the case, perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from The Shock Doctrine is that, without vigilance, our freedom and quality of life can be quickly compromised by rampant, uncontrolled government imposed greed in the guise of free market capitalism.

Future crises will no doubt emerge. We must learn to recognize them calmly and the possible dangers lurking in their aftermath.

The Dalai Lama and I

The following is an essay I wrote after a very emotional meeting with His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama. Inspired, within a month I took refuge, (a short ceremony, usually but not necessarily, conducted by a lama, by means of which one formally becomes a Buddhist) and became deeply involved in Tibetan Buddhist practice which I found both comforting and rewarding. Yet, only two years later I was to drop all religious belief and become a firm atheist. “Just a small glance is enough for us,” said Tsering Yanchen, a 29 year old who was in the crowd with her 13-month-old daughter, Tenzin. “We feel fortunate and peaceful just to see him.” Toronto Star, Sunday, April 25, 2004

Admittedly my motives were not entirely altruistic when I volunteered to help during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Toronto for the Kalachakra 2004 celebration at the National Trade Centre. I wanted desperately to see at least once, the person I most admire in the world and who influenced my life so profoundly in bringing me to Tibetan Buddhism through his books. Volunteering to work the Kalachakra celebration might be the only opportunity I would ever have to see the His Holiness in person, albeit only at a distance.

Thus, I arrived at the National Trade Centre at 10:30 AM to start my scheduled 11 o’clock assignment at the main doors. However, before reaching my post I was requested by a event organizer to join eleven other early arrivals to load a van with plants and flowers and be transported to the Skydome to aid in decorating the stage for the Dalai Lama’s appearance there later in the afternoon.

Disappointed, my first reaction was, “Rats, I’m not going to see him today,” as I had not planned on attending the Skydome event and if I were to attend, there would be a lengthy wait there until His Holiness arrived at 4:30 PM. For a moment I considered ducking out on the Skydome mission altogether in the hopes of seeing him up close as he left the Trade Centre. That, however, was really not an option. So reluctantly, I joined the others, helped load the van and set off for Skydome.

It took very little time to get the greenery up on stage where a professional florist did the final arranging. As anticipated, there were still several hours until His Holiness would arrive. I had just made the decision to leave for home when the woman in charge of the Skydome preparations asked me and a couple of others to stay in case she needed help – to run errands, keep the musicians and dancers organized with backstage passes and to assist in any other exigency that might occur. Trapped again! And again, I couldn’t refuse. However, now armed with a backstage pass, I began to think my chances of seeing the Dalai Lama might be improving. My hopes were beginning to rise.

The Skydome began filling very slowly because of security precautions that required all attendees to be scanned with a metal detector and all bags and purses to be opened for inspection. It soon became apparent that the event would be late in starting. The performance by the Tibetan musicians was cancelled. Finally, still some twenty minutes behind schedule, the program began with the dancers and a documentary film about the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Absorbed in watching the latter from behind one of the large screens positioned on either side of the stage engrossed in trying to read the titles backwards and from right to left, I failed to notice the entrance of His Holiness until he was just a few feet from me. With my head bowed and my hands assuming the “namaste” position in front of my heart, I stood frozen. Peeking from behind a large policeman, His Holiness, looking somewhat amused, smiled and waved to me. I think I waved back.

Because of the delay, His Holiness was asked to wait backstage until the end of the preliminary part of the program. Without a murmur, he sat down quietly a few feet from me on one of a number of folding metal chairs placed along the wall behind the stage. I realized that, aside from two or three security people some distance away, I was alone with the Dalai Lama. I was alone with the Dalai Lama!

Again with my palms together and head bowed, I stood there paralyzed – not knowing what to do. Seeing my indecision and obvious emotional state he nodded and, smiling warmly, gently patted the seat of the chair beside him, beckoning me to sit down.

Unable to believe my good fortune, I sat down gingerly and as I did so he grasped my right hand. Overcome with emotion, my eyes filled with tears, I was only able to mumble “We love you, sir.”

“Thank you,” he replied, squeezing my hand gently.

We sat there for a minute or two, the fingers of his left hand interlocked with those of my right, neither of us speaking. Then His Holiness asked me where I was born? (here in Toronto), where were my parents born? (mother in England, father in Canada), did I have children? (no), did I speak other languages? (yes, Spanish). Still scarcely able to speak, I answered the questions as best I could. I also told him of my companion animals and he was interested to know if the dogs and the cat get along together (they do).

Again, we both fell silent. Then, seeing a security officer nearby, the Dalai Lama laughed and spoke to him, “See us? We have never met before, but we are friends.” He laughed again and turning, touched his forehead to mine, an overwhelming and totally unexpected blessing.

As we sat quietly, neither of us speaking, he gently stroked the back of my hand. I could feel the atmosphere of peace, wisdom, love and compassion that surrounds this extraordinary man, this "simple monk.”

A few minutes had passed when we were approached by a young Chinese man who, kneeling, earnestly asked forgiveness of His Holiness for the actions of the Chinese government in Tibet. For the first time the Dalai Lama let go of my hand and clasped those of the young man. Speaking quietly, he said that he felt conditions were slowly improving and that patience was necessary. Clearly moved by the experience, the young man thanked His Holiness, stood, and slowly backed away, palms together.

A sound technician came to attach a microphone to the Dalai Lama’s robe remarking as he did so that he had performed the same operation some years ago during a previous visit by His Holiness. After a few more quiet moments it was time for him to make his stage appearance. Aided by his translator, Thupten Jinpa, he slowly ascended the steps to be greeted by a crescendo of applause as the crowd of nearly 30,000 caught sight of him.

Seated in the large white wing-backed chair we had placed there earlier, Jinpa at his side, the Dalai Lama gave his lecture on “The Power of Compassion”. Lost in thought, I heard practically none of the speech. Had I missed an opportunity? Should I have asked His Holiness a question about my practice? I’m sure he would have answered. But then I realized how inappropriate and selfish that would have been under the circumstances and I was glad that I had made no demands of him. Perhaps, I conjectured, I might have even been giving to him in that, as I quietly kept him company, he was able to relinquish for a few minutes the pressures of his incredibly hectic schedule. I hope so.

From backstage I could not see the proceedings. So, it was only as His Holiness, having concluded his talk, descended the steps, audience applause still sounding, that I awakened from my reverie. This time we were not alone. Surrounded by uniformed and plain clothed police plus his personal Tibetan “men in black,” he stopped only for a moment or two to shake hands with some local Tibetan dignitaries before being whisked to a waiting limousine. I followed to the motorcade parking area and stood there hoping to catch a final glimpse of His Holiness. As his limousine started to move, he rolled down the window. Our eyes met and he waved goodbye to me. My eyes again filling with tears, I waved back.

Follow-up: Public Funding of Faith Based Schools

Looks like John Tory has shot himself in the foot. So much for the Regressive Conservatives this time 'round.

Conservative insiders lament leader's missteps in Ontario election campaign

Fri Oct 5, 2:35 PM
By Chinta Puxley, The Canadian Press

TORONTO - With election day in Ontario just days away, frustrated insiders close to the beleaguered Progressive Conservatives - rattled by fallout from the religious school funding firestorm - are laying the blame for the party's campaign-trail struggles squarely at the feet of their leader.

John Tory, long billed as the man who would rescue the Conservatives from the lingering memory of the Mike Harris era, has instead become the party's biggest liability, they say, thanks to a single issue: his ill-advised proposal to fund faith-based schools.

And as the vote draws closer, at least two veteran caucus members fear the Conservatives no longer have a chance to form even a minority government. As a result, the party is asking itself some tough questions.

How, they wonder, could Tory - a veteran of Ontario's political backrooms since the days of Bill Davis and the Conservative dynasty known as the Big Blue Machine - fail to anticipate the ensuing controversy and how it would play into the hands of the incumbent Liberals?

Did he genuinely expect, after weeks of staunchly defending the proposal, that giving his caucus members the freedom to effectively kill it by voting it down in the legislature would undo the damage wrought by months of sustained criticism and media attention?

"People thought John Tory was going to be the new guy - they all believed in him and they had a lot of faith in him," said one veteran Conservative caucus member.

"Nobody wanted to vote for McGuinty. But this just turned it around. I just can't believe it."

One frustrated Conservative member said it will take a "miracle" for Tory - who also has to worry about a difficult battle against Education Minister Kathleen Wynne in his hand-picked riding of Don Valley West - to win his seat, let alone become premier.

While strategists within the Tory campaign say the leader's free-vote strategy did mitigate the damage somewhat, others remain baffled about why the policy was adopted in the first place and why it took so long for Tory to distance himself from it.

Although Tory spent months defending his plan as a "matter of principle," of equity and fairness, his hands were tied three years ago when he promised to address the issue when he ran for the party leadership.

Under pressure from right-wing opponents Frank Klees and Jim Flaherty, who wanted to restore the unpopular private-school tax credit axed by McGuinty, Tory said he agreed to offer some form of support to private schools.

"That is a commitment that I honoured because I believe that when you make these kinds of commitments, it is important to honour them," he said earlier this week.

Those schools would have to be faith-based, teach the provincial curriculum, hire accredited teachers and administered standardized tests, he said. Given that prominent Liberals like McGuinty and Wynne have in the past espoused similar views, Tory felt it wouldn't be a tough sell, insiders say.

Months before the writ was dropped, Tory tried to soften the idea by announcing he would form a commission headed up by former premier Davis, his mentor and close friend, to study the issue.

But the Liberals had already come out swinging. McGuinty called the plan a "segregation" of children and said Tory planned to take $400 million out of existing public schools to fund the religious institutions.

"It's like starting a forest fire and it caught on very quickly," another Conservative veteran said.

At the same time, Tory was being warned that the policy could torpedo his chances in an election that was widely considered his for the taking. Prominent political historian Michael Bliss wrote to Tory several times during the summer, warning him he was "sleepwalking towards electoral disaster."

Bliss never received a reply.

He said Tory surrounded himself with "young smart-asses" who denied him the sense of history that makes it clear it's a mistake to mess with people's public schools or to advocate crossing the streams of church and state.

"The McGuinty government dug itself into so many holes, this election was Tory's for the taking," said Bliss, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. Tory, he said, has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

"This was suicide," Bliss said. "I've never seen a more suicidal campaign."

The party tried to douse the controversy early, the week before the writ was dropped, by holding an event at a Jewish school so Tory could highlight the policy early.

Instead, his musings that creationism could be taught in Christian schools on top of evolution and "other theories" just added fuel to the fire.

As the days went on, "no matter what we did, that was the focus each day," said one of Tory's top advisers.

Concern about the issue was "growing in intensity" - something that wasn't lost on any of Tory's advisers, caucus members or candidates.

"We're not stupid," the adviser said. "We weren't sitting here saying, 'It's okay, carry on.' . . . It was frustrating. It became the elephant in the room."

Veteran caucus members began to mutiny, privately warning Tory they were going to speak out against the policy to ease the concerns of their own constituents unless something changed.
Polling in those ridings found the policy to be just as unpopular as the caucus members had warned. All the while, Tory continued to pound the pavement with the media in tow, getting a tongue-lashing from voters about the issue at virtually every stop he went to.

Yet he stuck to his guns, convinced voters would embrace his mantra that "you can't go wrong doing the right thing." (John, John, John, you've got it backwards. That is, if you want to win an election.) A few days after maverick Conservative Bill Murdoch openly opposed the policy and said he would vote against it, Tory finally seemed to see the light.

He attributed his change of heart to the upbraiding he received from voters, but party insiders say he knew he had no choice. He spent days huddled with advisers, trying to work out how to maintain his staunch support for the policy while giving his caucus some badly needed breathing room.

In conference calls with his caucus and candidates, Tory said he was urged to drop the policy entirely or put it to a referendum. Minority rights shouldn't be decided by the majority, Tory said, nor was he interested in killing a policy he believed in.

The free vote was a "logical conclusion for John to reach," said one Conservative caucus member. "We (had) to . . . allow the dust to settle on this."

Tory gave his war room the go-ahead to book the economic club for Monday, Oct. 1. They wanted to explain the "significant decision" on his terms, in a detailed speech without the hurried nature of a press conference or scrum.

"This was never the most important issue to me nor is it to the people of Ontario," Tory told reporters after the speech. "I'd like to move on to discussing some of the real issues."

The about-face - party spin-doctors vehemently insisted it wasn't a flip-flop - was a "big gamble," said pollster Greg Lyle. But the Conservative hand was forced when Tory's strong, poised performance in the televised leaders' debate failed to move the polls, he said.

"The status quo wasn't really an option," said Lyle, of Innovative Research Group. "The numbers were simply too strong to ignore."

Tory's top advisers admit they could have offered a free vote earlier, but say the impact of the Oct. 1 announcement has been palpable. Phone calls have started coming in, requesting signs and donating money. Volunteers are more enthusiastic and optimistic.

"The phone calls turned 180 degrees from negative to positive," said one of Tory's top advisers. "I've never seen anything like it."

Others feel the fight has already been lost. A longtime party stalwart grumbled that the flip-flop has breathed new life into the divisive issue, allowing it to continue dominating headlines.

"It doesn't look too good. He may not even win his seat," said one caucus veteran, adding the faith-based issue remains top of mind for voters when he goes door-to-door.

"It's still out there."

Final Note: Election results - Liberals 71 seats
P.C.'s 26
N.D.P. 10

John Tory failed to win the riding he was contesting.