A British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey for 2018 gave an increase in respondents saying they had no religion up 21% from 1983 to 52% (a BREXIT-thin majority). We seem, if only as far as box-ticking, to be a secular society so religion is unlikely to feature in an end of year round-up. Least of all after Britain’s intensely absorbing political upheavals.
Religious correspondents are the first to go when newspaper journalists are cut - which seems odd when events described as “Islamic terrorism” make the headlines. The last detail of Manchester City’s defensive tactics is required knowledge for an informed public. But the strategy and organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood compared with that of Da’esh?
Sexual abuse by ‘people of faith’ reaches the front page. Or controversial statements by religious leaders like Chief Rabbi Mirvis’ outspoken attack on Jeremy Corbyn. But unlike America where Right-Wing evangelicals helped bring Trump to power, thanks to the solid values of the UK Evangelical Alliance, we are spared stories of Christian support for the political Right. The significance of faiths’ social action is missed.
Indifference to, or ignorance of, the work of people of faith to alleviate the suffering of the poor in Britain, and in the developing world, may have bottomed out. There is the work of the Muslim development agencies in war zones, Zakat, Muslim philanthropy during Ramadan, the work of street pastors combatting knife crime, Christian groups and individuals of all denominations helping refugees and economic migrants, care for the homeless and destitute, (33,000 projects run by the C of E and some 8,000 parishes supporting or running food banks). This sometimes provides a sentimental story, around religious festivals. As do the Salvation Army who not only sing carols but quietly co-ordinate , for example, the work on sexual trafficking in this country. The impact is huge if hidden.
The founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, died in May. His work with - their words - people with intellectual disabilities, is little known outside religious circles. And one of Vanier’s sayings is more than pertinent for Britain 2019: ““Many people are good at talking about what they are doing, but in fact do little. Others do a lot but don't talk about it; they are the ones who make a community live.”
The contribution of religious ideas to the common good should not be underestimated. Pope Francis’ second encyclical, Laudato Si, (On Care for Our Common Home), published in June 2015, has percolated down throughout the Church and beyond, generating climate change action networks. In April Francis met with Greta Thunberg encouraging her to “go ahead”. In June he held a conference in Rome on climate change for government ministers and scientists. In October a controversial Synod on the pan-Amazon region showed he wanted Laudato Si implemented whatever the backlash from the Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro. If 2019 was notable for other than an acceleration of Britain’s descent into a “vortex of decline” (Will Hutton), it is for the gap between government action on climate change and the growing public anxiety about its widening into a scandalous gulf.
2019 was also the year when antisemitism and the two ill-named phobias, Islamophobia and ‘Christianophobia’ – like spiders? - broke into the public domain with a vengeance, and became politically significant. This was not just a phenomenon damaging the Labour Party. The European Right has made a comparable mark on Germany. The causes of hostility were different for each religion. For Christianity, beginning and end of life issues, together with gender and sexuality, remained the war-cry for illiberal liberals and the Left. The message from the Bishops of England and Wales on the General Election, a clear statement of Catholic Social Teaching which many would endorse, made abortion its first bullet point alienating its secular readership. Increasing anti-Muslim sentiment, dividing society was an important goal of ‘Islamic terrorism’– partially achieved. Half of those referred to the mentoring programme of PREVENT show signs of neo-Nazi influence.
Hate-speech directed at religious faiths has led to a worldwide rise in persecution and violence. The magnitude and extent of persecution of Christians, 245 million suffering to some degree worldwide, was highlighted by a report by the Anglican bishop of Truro, Philip Mounstephen in November. While the persecution of Muslims, predominantly by other Muslims, has been intensified by war in the Middle East, this focus on the plight of Christians was a first. That Jeremy Hunt, then Foreign Secretary, commissioned this report on religious freedom is a step forward.
Pope Francis has continued flagging up his priorities, the poor and interfaith reconciliation, in his visits, speeches and actions. He continued to improve relations with the Muslim world while visiting the UAE and Morocco. He was shunned by the Orthodox in Bulgaria. He cemented his relationship with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who visited Ebola-stricken areas of the Congo in November. In another brave démarche they have both indicated their intention to visit war-torn South Sudan. This initiative follows a moving religious retreat to build peace, held by them both for Salva Kiir, South Sudan’s Catholic President, and his rebel former Vice-President, Riek Machar, a Presbyterian, in the Casa Santa Marta hostel where Francis lives in the Vatican. The Pope’s kissing the feet of the two Congolese leaders, acting out his vision of leadership, was worth many words.
Archbishop Welby, a task-oriented purposeful man, shares the Pope’s commitment to reconciliation and has the same gift for the spirituality of symbolism. His prostration in Amritsar made as an apology for the 1919 massacre during a visit to India in October, was another reminder of the special nature of Christian leadership. “The souls of those who were killed or wounded, of the bereaved, cry out to us from these stones and warn us about power and the misuse of power”, he said.
So the profile of religion in 2019 has been, to say the least, complex. Decline in belief and practice may have levelled out at an all-time low. The British Social Attitudes survey for 2018 found only 1% of young people, 18-24, identified themselves as C of E. Figures for youth in the Roman Catholic Church, more of an identity because of Catholic schools, will be higher. As Pope Francis writes in a March exhortation to young people: “A Church always on the defensive, which loses her humility and stops listening to others, which leaves no room for questions, loses her youth and turns into a museum”.
A new interest may have been sparked, thanks in some measure to Archbishop Welby and Pope Francis. But we will have to wait until the New Year to tell. With apologies to Nietzsche, God is not dead. Though religious journalism may be on its last legs.
See also "God is not Dead" The Article.Com 25/12/2019
Britain’s future role in the world, not to mention current foreign policy, was virtually absent from national campaigning before the General Election. But once upon a time Britain seemed to care about ‘punching above its weight’ in foreign affairs, a consoling form of exertion after losing an Empire. Britain still has permanent membership of the UN Security Council even if this modest proximity to power, more often than not means being vetoed by Russia and China.
Apart from the danger of finding neurotoxins “on the knocker”, rather than BREXIT Party canvassers, there were a number of foreign policy questions that should have commanded public attention, including our relations with Turkey. Some may have noticed that President Erdogan, a grim presence at the recent NATO meeting, opened an eco-Mosque on 5th December in Cambridge. He told the audience that ISIS, the Gulen movement (an international progressive Muslim organisation some of whose members joined in the 2016 military coup against him) and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) “are all the same poison. They are the same blood-sucking vampires”.
Really? Who, in heaven’s name accepted his funding of the Mosque and invited him? I hope it was someone who knew nothing about Turkey.
Few people are aware that we, the British taxpayers, are paying for fanciful extradition proceedings in the courts of our own country, proceedings instigated by the Turkish State against Turkish refugees. Courtesy of the Home Office and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), innocent Turkish refugees can spend anxious and months waiting for court hearings and the opportunity to defend themselves, at great financial and emotional cost, against ludicrous accusations based on ‘information’ from Turkey in support of extradition. Bear in mind this charade is taking place at a time when our judicial system is creaking at the seams with the CPS and courts overloaded and accused waiting up to three years from arrest to trial.
What is going on? Well, Turkey is not just the Bosporus and beautiful historic Istanbul or booming Bodrum, discos and jolly holidays by an azure sea. After the military coup in 2016, Turkey under the authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became a police state.
Within four days of the failed coup Erdoğan sacked 110 generals and admirals. Some 650 of the country’s military officers were dismissed. Such swift and comprehensive action must have been pre-planned, the coup acting as pretext and trigger. To date about 150,000 people, many of them police, judges, university teachers, and businessmen, have been arrested and 78,000 so far charged. Turkey leads the world in imprisoning journalists. The once powerful, national Gulen movement, Hizmet, (Service), and the Kurds, as indicated in Erdoğan’s Cambridge speech, have borne the brunt of repression. Extradition requests to the UK, implemented by the Home Office and CPS, the Red Notices, have turned into long-range forms of punishment and intimidation.
Britain treads carefully. The Times Turkey correspondent, Hannan Lucinda Smith, in her new book, Erdoğan Rising: The Battle for the Soul of Turkey, describes the importance of Turkey for the UK. In March 2016 Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the EU agreed that six billion Euros would be provided for the three million Syrian refugees now within Turkey. In addition, for each Syrian refugee returned to Turkey from Greece, one refugee would be resettled in an EU country. Turkish citizens were promised visa-free access to the Schengen countries – to which Britain does not belong. That was a deal that might have caught public attention. It was only in May 2016, just prior to the Referendum, that Gove/Johnson authorised a poster saying that a REMAIN vote would open the door to 76 million Turks, this at a time when Erdoğan was on the point of getting rid of Davutoğlu and abandoning negotiations to join the EU. There had never been any chance that the EU would let an unreformed Turkey into the club; accession to the EU required unanimous assent from member states which, of course, included Britain.
Business links with Turkey are important to both economies. Bilateral trade with Turkey amounts to $20 billion annually. Erdoğan adopted the Blair/Brown public-private partnership model for infrastructural development. PPI contracts now fund major projects such as the newly opened Istanbul airport. British companies stand to earn $2.5 billion from Erdoğan’s plans to build six new hospitals.
Erdoğan is a consummate, populist, leader, religiously a pious moderate in the Muslim Brotherhood mould, complex and ruthless, hated by secular urban dwellers and adored by the rural poor of Anatolia. Lucinda Smith describes his rise to power and how he skilfully plays contending forces off against each other. He is currently pivoting towards Russia.
While deploying economic strategies derived from the West, Erdoğan’s ambitions lie on the Ottoman east side of the Bosporus, in the Muslim world, where he seeks pre-eminence. Like all populists he has divided his country, in this instance between secular Kemalists (followers of Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey) versus those committed to Islam. He became Prime Minister in 2003 and has been President since 2014. He is well past the critical ten years when power becomes an addiction for national leaders, a kind of political dementia sets in, and bad things happen.
Turkey’s borders with Georgia, Armenia, Iran and Iraq, its Black Sea ports providing short sea routes to Ukraine and Russia, make it in geopolitical terms a pivotal country. Istanbul/Constantinople has long been called the bridge between Asia and Europe; until the end of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s geopolitical direction historically has been, and remains, of geopolitical importance. All this would justify Britain treading carefully. Yet how can any informed person believe that Turkish political refugees extradited from Britain on blatantly political grounds would get a fair trial in a Turkish court. Are decisions taken by our Crown Prosecution Service and Home Office to begin extradition hearings against Turkish refugees, rather than dismiss them, motivated by foreign policy considerations rather than conscientious application of the Law? Or is an overloaded system simply making egregious mistakes?
One thing is sure. If the values motivating our foreign policy are deemed to be of no importance at all in considering and debating the selection and decisions of our Prime Ministers, we risk becoming complicit in Turkey’s violation of human rights.
The first task of a new Prime Minister is to write the official sealed orders of last resort which immediately go into the safes of Britain’s four Vanguard Class submarines. That should make us think before we vote. These missives determine what happens in the event of a nuclear attack on the UK: every submarine carries sixteen Trident missiles each with six nuclear warheads targeted at an aggressor capable of causing millions of casualties and destroying many cities. When asked in a 2015 BBC interview shortly after becoming leader of the Labour Party, Mr. Corbyn said he would not authorise their launch. Or what he did not say, he refused to contribute to the destruction, or near-destruction, of human life on this planet in a thermonuclear war.
The Parties’ Manifestos appear to differ on Trident. The Conservatives’ says in a single line “we will maintain our Trident nuclear deterrent”. It might have said “our independent Trident nuclear deterrent will continue to be maintained by the US Navy at Kings Bay, Georgia”, but Mr. Johnson’s Party is never one for too much detail. The Labour Party Manifesto says it “supports the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent” and will actively lead multilateral efforts to create “a nuclear-free world”. The replacement of the four submarines would initially cost c. £35 billion and, over their lifespan of forty years c. £100 billion for maintenance as a viable deterrent, a lot of money for a weapon Mr. Corbyn would never use.
Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), inevitable nuclear retaliatory strikes, is considered the best way to ensure security and avoid nuclear conflagration in the future. The justification for this perilous belief is that MAD has “kept the peace” and that, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, use of nuclear weapons in warfare has been avoided. This conclusion is at best wishful-thinking projected into the past, at worst Mad is mad.
The Cuban Missile confrontation of 1962 showed MAD to be false. We have luck to thank for avoiding nuclear conflagration then, not possession of a nuclear deterrent and threat of its use. Nuclear war has to date been avoided because prudent people were in the right place at the right time, and responded well to the miscalculations and mistakes of fallible people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In October 1962, in international waters off Cuba, the Soviet and US navies confronted each other as the US imposed a naval blockade. On 27 October 1962, the US Beale destroyer and a formation of eleven US warships which had located a “Foxtrot” class B-59 Soviet Delta patrol submarine and had been shadowing it for hours, dropped signalling depth charges to indicate that the submarine should surface.
The Soviet captain, Valentin Savitsky, hiding at depth, had lost communications with the Soviet Union and had received no order to turn back. The temperature in the submarine soared, peaking at over 50 degrees centigrade. Crew members were fainting. Under great stress, Savitsky concluded that war must have broken out, and gave the order to arm his nuclear-tipped torpedoes ready for firing. The vessel’s deputy political officer who was the second half of the dual authorisation needed to launch the nuclear weapons agreed. From that moment only one man stood between a Soviet nuclear weapon being fired at a US warship. By sheer luck, Commodore Vasili Arkhipov who commanded the submarine flotilla of which the B-59 was a part was on board. Though not in command of the vessel he outranked the captain and vetoed the decision to launch, almost certainly avoiding a thermonuclear war.
This was not the only incident that could have sparked an escalation to thermonuclear war. That same day, Black Saturday, Fidel Castro gave an order which resulted in the shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane over Cuba killing its pilot. Then a few hours later, another U-2 pilot, unsighted by an intense aurora borealis, strayed into Soviet airspace over the Chukotka peninsula in Siberia. MIG-19s were scrambled. Fortunately, the pilot found his way back to international airspace where two F-102s escorted him to an Alaskan airfield. Everyone involved, from MacMillan in London with nuclear armed Vulcan bombers in the air to Khrushchev in Moscow, desperately recalibrating his not-so-clever plan of putting nuclear facts on the ground in Cuba, Operation Anadyr, and fearful Castro was out of control, were on a knife edge.
In retrospect it was luck that events such as these did not escalate into a nuclear war. By good fortune the Soviet and American leaders were both rational and capable of accurately calibrating the risk of a nuclear conflagration. John.F. Kennedy had the self-confidence, born of an almost aristocratic disposition and the wise support of his brother Bobby Kennedy, to resist pressure from his military chiefs immediately to bomb the Cuban missile bases and invade. Nikita Khrushchev, wily, brash, from peasant stock, had a clever gambler’s ability to see when it was time to fold on a bad hand. The US Jupiter missiles in Turkey, proved a crucial bargaining chip. Kennedy secretly traded the removal of US Jupiter missiles for the removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba. By one of those quirks of history Kennedy’s offer of a swap-deal was made before he knew Khrushchev had already ordered his vessels to withdraw.
Huge questions arise from the Cuban missile crisis. Does deterrence work? Had Trump been in the White House, and Putin in the Kremlin, would there have been a happy ending? If Arkhipov had been in another submarine would Savitsky really have launched? We will never know.
But if the future of humankind and the planet actually depends on happenstance, luck, and having political leaders with common-sense, we should urgently be taking a lead in seeking multi-lateral nuclear disarmament. Only in an ideal world led by rational, prudent statesmen, a world devoid of mistakes and miscalculation where we always get lucky, would humanity be safe. Is that the world we are looking at today. I don’t think so.
See TheArticle.com 10/12/2019
Secular States like religion to be a private matter. Religious leaders are perennially warned “not to meddle in politics”. So how come the Chief Rabbi writing in The Times last week, widely described as ‘unprecedented’ in his attack on the leader of a political party campaigning in a general election, didn’t receive the customary treatment? The simple answer is the intervention came from the leader of Britain’s Orthodox Jews, and, however outspoken the attack on the Corbyn Labour Party by Ephraim Mirvis, it expressed genuine concern that was widely considered legitimate.
More can be said. The charge of anti-Semitism that has bedevilled the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, emerged in the context of denunciations of Israel felt as a threat by British Jews. For many, the land, Eretz Israel and the State of Israel, are at the same time both a cherished theological and political reality. Many view their future looking back over the rim of an historic abyss, the Holocaust. This is not a place for measured conversation. Least of all when the other interlocutors denounce the human rights violations of the State of Israel. These have been shocking: for example when live fire from Israeli troops at the Gaza border killed over fifty Palestinian demonstrators with 1,000 hurt on 14 May 2018, many with life changing injuries. Events such as these are known to increase incidents of anti-Semitism.
The term “Zionism” lies at the intersection of radical disagreement and profoundly conflictual positions centred on the right to self-determination. Neither side in the war of words bothers to define what is meant by Zionism nor notice there have historically been several brands. So the word itself has become an empty container to be filled positively, indicating the State of Israel and Jewish redemption, or pejoratively, indicating State Terrorism and Jewish culpability. By elision with – one kind of - Zionism, anti-Semitism rears its ugly head. And ‘Zionism’ then moves to the centre of highly charged debate and becomes a word so tainted by accusations that it is a disguised anti-Semitic term wise speakers avoid using it.
I have had some experience of how such a process happens. During the last decade of apartheid regime in South Africa, the young black ANC supporters with whom I was acquainted would often report killings by the South African military, a conscript army like Israel’s, as “the Boers have killed ...”. I may have done the same myself. Were we being racist when we spoke of the Boers? Shorthand? Sometimes perhaps. In more reflective moments the words used were “the system” was blamed. Is all British anti- Semitism the result of elision of this kind? No. But quite a lot of it is on the Left and in today’s Labour Party, I suspect. That does not make it any the less insensitive or troubling. And just to be clear I’m not claiming that Israel is a facsimile of the 1980s apartheid State, just saying that words can become freighted with racial significance while having a purely descriptive political-historical meaning.
Full-frontal Anti-Semitism has not gone away. Think of the Nazi-style cartoon put up in Tower Hamlets, which the Council had removed. Jeremy Corbyn supported the artist, without bothering to look at the cartoon properly, so he claimed in a later apology. Jewish MPs have been ‘hounded out’ of the Party. Is it any surprise the Jewish community is worried? Anti-Semitism remains a persistent theme of the extreme Right. There have been repellent versions of it from the Left in social media.
What exactly has been going on in the Labour Party will emerge but after the Election. We have to wait for the report from the independent Equality and Human Rights Commission enquiry. A variety of anti- Semitism has clearly manifested itself within the Labour Party: often in the form of sometimes passionate, sometimes sententious, support for the Palestinians, or in careless use of social media. And with an uncontrolled influx of some 400,000 members to the Party, the number of such cases has mounted up. Here the weakness of Corbyn’s leadership becomes obvious. Weeding out offenders started too slowly and took too long. The buck stops at the top. Mr. Corbyn was never going to be given the benefit of the doubt.
Given all this, does it make Mr. Corbyn himself anti-Semitic? The Chief Rabbi justifiably worries about the soul of Britain, but the warning about looking into men’s souls, Mr. Corbyn’s soul anyway, should apply. Better to focus on what he has, and hasn’t done. He has clearly shown a lack of political and prudential judgement, with little empathy for Jewish feelings and sensitivity to the impact of their historical experience.
Fellow religious leaders, sensitive to the growing persecution of religious minorities around the world, have shown Rabbi Mirvis great solidarity. The Archbishop of Canterbury underlined the “deep sense of insecurity and fear” in the Jewish community. But the Chief Rabbi risks being seen, inappropriately for a religious leader, as overly politically partisan.
It might be wise for him now to give an equally timely warning to Mr. Johnson. The following wisdom from the Talmud recommends itself as good counsel: “The liar’s punishment is that even when he speaks the truth, no-one believes him”.
See The Article 03/12/2019
It was not long before Press reaction to Friday’s tragic terrorist attack turned to seeking a culprit other than the perpetrator and his poisonous ideology. Praise for the heroism of those who tackled him, and the courage of the armed police, soon gave way to questions about the length of sentencing, problems in the probation service, and the adequacy of rehabilitation in prison. The irony was that the vile act that left two dead and three injured seems to have been perpetrated by a man who was attending a conference precisely because of his experience of rehabilitation.
It is entirely understandable to want to find out what went wrong, how a convicted terrorist was able to commit an atrocity after years in prison for terrorist offences. But what if, in such cases, in a civilised society, nothing that could be remedied had gone wrong? What if this type of lone-wolf barbarity is a fact of contemporary life and sometimes cannot be detected in advance, and if such cases suggest no obvious remedy save prevention much further upstream?
Most people will reject the idea as a kind of defeatism. It undermines our sense of security. It is a frightening thought that the State’s best efforts over more than eight years – this particular terrorist had been through a course of de-radicalisation – can be to no avail. Such a reaction would be less likely if many people fully grasped the difficulties of dealing with violent religious extremism.
At the most basic level, this recent attack poses the question how should jihadi offenders be handled in prison. Should they be mixed in with others offenders who may be vulnerable to recruitment? To keep safe in many jails you will often need the protection of a gang, and you may naturally be drawn to co-religionists. When it comes to a fight about cooking bacon in the kitchen, you know which side you are on and who is going to watch your back. My experience giving a talk in Wormwood Scrubs was that the front row was solidly Muslim, men who knew something of their faith and stuck together. Among them were one or two impressive men who had kicked a drug habit thanks to their Muslim prison chaplain.
My ANC friends in South Africa, very different prisoners, doing time for political offences in the 1970s, called their prisons “our universities”. The question is then whether religiously-motivated terrorists should be quarantined in specialist units, separated from other kinds of offenders, where a hot-house atmosphere might foment even more fanatical thoughts? No easy answer - though government seems to favour such units.
The path to violent religious extremism is varied. Profiling doesn’t work and there is no guaranteed formula for de-radicalisation. Conservative Salafist scholars who reject violence can be effective but they are rarely advocates of liberalism and pluralism. Their effectiveness stems from the very fact that they share, or once shared, ideas that the general public find repugnant. Using people of this kind to influence men convicted of terrorist offences is controversial and open to challenge.
The belief that winning the debate about the significance of certain verses in the Qur’ān is all that is needed to change minds is far from the truth. De-radicalisation is highly skilled: a matter of instilling trust, grappling with identity, belonging and passionate emotion, and then maybe hitting the right cognitive buttons. The first question should be along the lines of “can I get you a coffee” and “would you like to phone your wife before we chat”. “Do you think Allah might have another purpose for you in life other than jihad” is the last question not the first. It should come as no surprise that de-radicalisation often doesn’t work.
As prison authorities and Muslim chaplains will tell you, counter-intuitively, the aggressive man mouthing the tropes of the jihadist creed is in many ways the least dangerous. You know where you are. The quiet one, saying all the right things, apparently repentant, co-operating with the authorities, may be the most dangerous and quietly recruiting in prison, planning his next move on release. But how can you tell? You can’t. As in clever paedophiles who take years manoeuvring into key positions in schools, care homes and social services with access to children, a clever, devious terrorist is going to fool the most attentive of observers or mentors. It was one such individual who carried out the London Bridge attack.
There is no alternative to prevention. Several things need to be done. The big tech companies, Google, Facebook, ought to be spending more of their advertising revenue on blocking jihadist content and removing links to it. We need to expand the sort of community policing that encourages a Muslim parent to ask the advice of a sympathetic police officer after finding his son looking at a Da’esh website in his bedroom. Increasing the budget of the Intelligence Services while cutting the number of police is no solution. Supporting the mentors in the Channel part of the much-criticised Prevent programme is more to the point. Peer group to Peer group education in schools, even earlier, can work well.
Even if we had room in our overcrowded prisons, which we don’t, imprisonment of violent extremists for more prolonged periods without the money for intensive efforts to de-radicalise them and monitor risk better, won’t eliminate lone-wolf attacks such we have just experienced.
We are in for a long haul. It is time that the sententious attacks on our main counter-terrorism programme, PREVENT, give way to contributions towards improving it. There are many dedicated people trying to keep us safe and many different ways of doing it. Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones were two outstanding examples of them. We have lost two people who were part of the solution. Political points-scoring is part of the problem.
See TheArticle 02/12/2019