So who do we trust?

SOMETIMES - and right now is one of those times - the world can be a pretty hard place to understand.Thousands of people go out rioting, burning, threatening, even killing, in frenzied protest against a cartoon.

SOMETIMES - and right now is one of those times - the world can be a pretty hard place to understand.

Thousands of people go out rioting, burning, threatening, even killing, in frenzied protest against a cartoon. A cartoon almost none of them can have seen, published in a country, Denmark, most of them had probably never heard of before last week.

What is going on here?

Who exactly is bringing the Prophet into disrepute? Those who draw and publish cartoons - or those who threaten and commit violence in his name?

But before we react to this provocation, let's take note of one thing. Most Muslims are as horrified by the rioters' anger as the rest of us are.

Yes, we have seen ugly, frightening scenes on the news. But think back a few years to the news footage of violent scenes in Britain. The miners' strike, the Poll Tax riots, the explosions of destructive mayhem in Toxteth, Tyneside, Bradford and Brixton, even football hooliganism.

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Those pictures didn't mean we were all out there flinging bricks and petrol-bombs.

But it might have looked that way to the world outside. In Russia, film of those events was used to show viewers that the UK was on the verge of revolution.

The fanatics are a minority in their own countries - and most of the anger they are expressing is not as focused as it seems.

One thing is clear, though. In countries such as Iran and Afghanistan, the West is not popular.

Afghanistan has long been a battleground between East and West. America's first response to 9/11 was to start bombing it.

Iran was always going to be next on the US agenda after Iraq, and now we see it happening. If they are frightened and angry in Kabul and Teheran, no wonder.

British and American politicians continue to insist there are no plans for a “military solution” in Iran. They said that about Iraq too.

Of course, the Iranian government is being highly provocative. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is very bad news indeed. There can be little doubt that he and his extremist party are behind the outpourings of anti-Western feeling.

He is not someone I would trust with his finger poised over the nuclear button.

But then, who is? George Bush?

In his State of the Union address last week Bush spoke of America's need to break its “addiction to oil”. Never has he said a truer word.

From there, though, he promised to invest more in nuclear energy. Just as Tony Blair did a little while before.

So how come it's okay for the US and UK to build up their nuclear industry, but not okay for Iran - or North Korea - to have one at all?

The answer, of course, is because nuclear power stations can also be factories for nuclear weapons material.

And when President Ahmadinejad insists his nuclear intentions are entirely peaceful, we don't believe him, do we?

Well, no, actually. I don't believe him any more than I believe Messrs Bush and Blair when they say the same thing.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, America has been on the lookout for a new Bad Guy.

Al-Qaeda was a start, but quickly proved difficult to pin down. Muslim extremists in power in foreign countries - particularly countries with big oil reserves - are perfect.

And, of course, the ayatollahs need a big bad wolf to focus on just as much.

They and the Republicans need each other. There's nothing like a wicked enemy to stir up your own people and keep you in power.

In both cases it's hard to say whether it's religious bigotry at the service of tyrannical politics, or tyrannical politics at the service of religious bigotry.

Either way it's a scary scenario.

Remember MAD? It stood for Mutually Assured Destruction, and while it was the most apt acronym ever, it did what it was supposed to do - it kept the peace throughout the Cold War.

“We” didn't actually bomb “them”, and “they” didn't bomb “us” because both sides knew it would be the end of us all if anyone started it.

But that only works if you assume neither side actually wants to die.

And when the religious loonies on both sides talk openly of preparing for “the Last Days” that no longer looks a safe assumption.

Maybe Bush and Ahmadinejad are preparing to meet each other in Hell.

WHAT price happiness?

Priceless, you might say - but try living for a week or two on absolutely no money at all and see how happy it makes you.

A more realistic answer comes from economists with the giant investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein.

They say happiness costs £25,000 a year. That, they say, is all you need to live well in the UK - any wealth above that won't make you any happier. Which goes to prove something I have always thought. That Britain, America, the whole capitalist world in fact, is run, dominated and driven by mad people.

The engine of capitalism - what makes our system work - is greed; the desire of those with money to have more and more money.

But if £25,000 is all you need to be happy, what on earth is the point of striving for a million? And as for the second million, or the third, or the forty-third, how much more good can that do you?

If you build your whole life around acquiring something that won't make you any happier, you must be mad.

Yet that is what all those rich, powerful people spend their lives doing - as investment bankers know better than anyone.

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