“Either we are brothers and sisters or we will destroy each other” said Pope Francis just a year ago. Next week the Pope will visit Iraq where the stark logic of his warning is tragically visible.
Popes began making visits outside Italy only in the 1960s. Such journeys are meticulously planned and tightly organised. But this journey must rate as the most dangerous. Last month in Baghdad where the visit begins two Da’esh suicide bombers attacked a market killing 32 and injuring scores of others. The military base in the airport of the Kurdish regional capital Erbil, also on Francis’ itinerary, recently came under rocket attack from an obscure Shi’a militia group, the Guardians of Blood, killing a contractor and wounding several American coalition forces. The Iraq government has negligible control over sectarian conflict.
Iraq has long been blighted by Sunni-Shi’a violence dating from disputes about leadership in the 7th century. Sunnis make up at least 85% of the world’s Muslim population. The majority of Iraqis, 65% of its 39 million people, are Shi’a. As in Iran, their allegiance is to the family and descendants of the Prophet, Imam Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law and Husayn, his martyred grandson. Sunni leadership, though, dates back to Abu Bakr, a close companion of the Prophet considered the first to convert to Islam and the first of the ‘rightly guided Caliphs’, the Rashidun. Over the centuries, further differences in beliefs, law and pious practice developed. Today religious identity still fuels sectarian political conflict throughout the Middle East. It intensified after the 2003 invasion.
For some time, the Middle East, with Iranian, Saudi and Trump’s help, has been shaping up for its own Thirty Years War. Within Iraq the remnants of ISIS have used the pandemic to regroup even calling on adherents to catch the virus and infect the West. They hate Shi’a as much as they hate Yazidis, Jews and Christians. Not surprisingly Iraq’s Christian population, formerly 1.5 million, has been reduced by emigration to possibly as low as 400,000. Those remaining feel like second-class citizens. This is the political and religious minefield into which Pope Francis will shortly be stepping.
What has impelled the Pope to undertake this hazardous journey? First, solidarity with Iraq’s many displaced people and with its dwindling Christian communities. As well as Latin rite Roman Catholics, Iraq is home to ancient Christian Churches in communion with Rome, the Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Catholic and Maronites – who retained the original Aramaic spoken by Christ himself as their liturgical language. In the Bible the Nineveh plain is the location of Abraham’s home in Ur. Ninevah is the Babylon of Jewish exile. Francis is visiting the geography and roots of Christian faith.
Second, the Pope is committed to following the example of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi in working for Muslim-Christian dialogue and reconciliation. A quarter of his foreign visits have been to Muslim majority countries. In Cairo in February 2019 he met with the Sunni Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, Grand Imam and former President of Al-Azhar University. From this meeting, and after much preparation, emerged the joint document Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together, a manifesto for ending global conflicts. Given the dangers of sectarian wars, Shi’a leadership is an important element in the process.
So this time the Pope is scheduled to meet with Grand Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Ali Al-Husseini Al-Sistani in Najaf, the Shi’a equivalent of Rome, a town of some million people south of Baghdad, the site of ‘founding father’ Imam Ali’s tomb. Born in the Iranian town of Mashad, Al-Sistani studied jurisprudence in Iran’s theological centre of Qom and, in 1952, moved to the pilgrimage site of Najaf in Iraq where he taught in the seminary. In 1993 he was formally recognised as a Grand Ayatollah, Marja, one of a tiny number of the most senior and respected clerics in Shi’a Islam. The rank of Marja means ‘emulation of Islam’. Title holders are authoritative guides to understanding the Qu’rān and the Prophet’s sayings, Hadith, and thus to living a fully Muslim life. Al-Sistani could bring many Shi’a Muslims to engage with the vision of Human Fraternity.
The Americans had reason to be grateful to Grand Ayatollah in 2005 when he mediated between them and the Shi’a militia led by the fiery cleric Muqtada al-Sadr besieging Najaf’s Imam Ali Mosque. Al-Sistani had the personal qualities needed to lower the temperature: he was and is courteous and respectful of other people’s opinions, he leads a simple life in an ordinary house shunning ostentation - not unlike Pope Francis himself. He also rejects violence, does not approve of the velayat-e faqih, the theocratic rule of the jurists in Iran, though he supports state promotion of Shi’a teaching. His interpretation of Qur’ān takes into account, to some degree, the need to understand its historical context and Arab culture. But this does not make Al-Sistani a modern progressive liberal. He shares strict views about the relationships between young men and women with the Shi’a clerical class in general. No dancing outside marriage, modest dress code, plenty of prohibitions. Yet, his 2015 Advice to Believing Youth has more touching, tender and paternal wisdom in it than prohibitions. He is a jurist with deep pastoral concerns. There is clear water between him and the bellicose Iranian Supreme Leader.
Even amongst the Iranian clerics there is, of course, a spectrum of opinion though not a wide one. I remember listening through a translator in Tehran to Ayatollah Emami Kashani, head of Shahid Motahari University, denouncing Iranian youth for lack of piety and thinking this could be my parish priest in Galway in the 1960s. Ayatollah Kashani had initially impressed me, not to say puzzled me, when his translator described how he had talked with a ‘rock-singer’ during his visit to Rome. How very open-minded. The translator had misheard: the meeting had been with Ratzinger, a Cardinal at the time but of course later Pope Benedict XVI.
When Al-Sistani and Pope Francis meet and talk with accurate translation, there could be a profound meeting of minds. Whether Human Fraternity can generate tolerance for and between the many religions of Iraq, including the cruelly persecuted Bahai’s and Yazidis, remains to be seen. But it is clearly Francis’ intention to create an opportunity for the healing of Iraq’s wounds.
The Pope’s schedule – worryingly – has been published well in advance. One of the stops is Mosul, formerly an ISIS stronghold retaken in a bloodbath by US and Iraqi troops but with ISIS remnants, sleeper cells, still lingering. No political leader would risk releasing such a detailed itinerary in Iraq so far in advance. This is a brave Pope. His safety during this journey should feature in bidding prayers in all parishes this Sunday.
See TheArticle 24/02/2021
"Desecration, violation, sacrosanct”, words used to denounce the Trump-inspired invasion of the Capitol in Washington, terms more usually expressing religious sentiment. The Council Chamber where America’s elected representatives cowered as security officers drew their weapons was described in language suited to a secular Holy of Holies. The Capitol was the Temple of Democracy, “hallowed ground” where a civic religion was practised. This was not the capture of the radio station in a tin-pot dictatorship. It was something approaching blasphemy.
Tom Holland in his much praised 2019 Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind charts the persistence of Christian ways of thinking up to and beyond the Enlightenment’s rejection of religion and the triumph of secular scientific certainties. People still respect sacred national spaces, - or perhaps it would be better to say sacred places - buildings, land, monuments set apart. Think of the outrage when in 2010 a pop star’s son swung on the Cenotaph. Just as the chancel of a church is separated from the nave, or in the Catholic Church before the second Vatican Council, altar rails divided the sanctuary from the body of the church, or in an Orthodox church the iconostasis divides priest-celebrants from the congregation, so are some secular buildings and monuments set apart. The idea of sacred space persists.
If a space is sacred the corollary is that only people of a certain standing or condition can enter it and only for specific purposes - prayer and worship, national remembrance, governance. Congregations feel the sacredness of space set apart in churches as if it diffuses outwards into the rest of the building demanding the special kinds of behaviour, and clothing, appropriate to religious buildings. Similarly for national monuments, sombre black in proximity to the Cenotaph marks ceremonial occasions. When a Republican senator shouted “You lie” at President Obama speaking in 2009 to a joint session of Congress in the Capitol Council chamber, though his backers enjoyed it the assembly’s reaction was “not in this setting”.
In secular Britain quite passionate debates are sparked when churches or cathedrals are used for secular purposes. Classical music with its sung masses by famous composers are acceptable. I remember a deeply moving art-work depicting the Holocaust in Chichester cathedral; it would have been hard to find a better place to display it. But what should we make of cathedrals sporting a helter skelter, like Norwich, or an adventure mini-golf course, like Rochester? Defended as an innovative way to draw people in – and most visitors were willing to stop and say, or listen to, the Lord’s Prayer - but greeted with derision by many, these experiments got a bad press. Vaccinating in Lichfield cathedral, an ancient pilgrimage centre for the sick, feels right. Healing and care for the vulnerable is part of the Christian story continuing in a modern secular form. And no one has laughed at the organ music accompanying the vaccinations in Salisbury cathedral. This use of church space as a hub for vaccinations seems to be entirely appropriate to the public.
The sanctity of sacred space in Catholic churches is intensified by the presence of the Eucharist in the tabernacle. In the Septuagint, an early translation of Hebrew Scriptures, the word for ‘tent’ - translated via 3rd century BC koine Greek - becomes in Latin tabernaculum. So sacredness is directly linked to the presence of divinity as the place where God pitches a tent amongst us. A space to which only certain dedicated individuals, priests and their assistants, should have access, by tradition all were men, a tradition enshrined in law. Section 230 of the Church’s legal code, Canon Law, allows laymen called ‘acolytes’ to assist the – male - priest during mass, read the scriptures except the Gospel and to distribute communion. In the absence of any mention of laywomen female presence was deemed to be officially precluded by law. After the Second Vatican Council, a law honoured in the breach. That is until 11 January when Pope Francis amended the legal text to ‘lay persons’.
As in all matters involving changes in Catholic worship this amendment evoked a variety of responses. For some, it was another promising sign that the Pope was cautiously edging the Vatican onto the nursery slopes of gender equality. For others, it was an underwhelming piece of catch-up. Women had for years been present in the sanctuary, happily unaware of canon 230, assisting the priest - who was supposed to have heard of it - by reading the lesson and, as Eucharistic ministers, distributing communion to those in church and to the sick in their homes. The ‘mind of the Church’ was way out in front of the mind of the Vatican. And contrariwise some traditionalists saw the Pope’s intervention as yet another sign of the damage done by the Second Vatican Council to the calm uniformity of the Catholic liturgy.
Sacred spaces with their charge of solemnity can unexpectedly produce the exact opposite. A few years ago a North London parish with a large congregation of African origin was delighted at news of a visit from a conservative African Cardinal. At this church women regularly did all that Canon Law 230 implied they shouldn’t. The Cardinal let it be known that there were to be no women on the sanctuary when he said mass or the visit would have to be cancelled. The priest in charge pleaded for some tolerance of local practice and a negotiation followed. From it came the remarkable compromise that women could be on the sanctuary but they must not move, for example to present the cardinal with the Gospel, if he was able to see them. You might say an ecclesiastical variation on Nelson raising the telescope to his blind eye. But as I said to the priest in charge, there was also an unfortunate similarity to the law controlling nudity in strip-clubs in the 1950s. But all concerned were appeased and the visit was successful.
The sense of the sacred is common to all cultures and goes back to the beginnings of human society. Secular scientific society has not killed it off. It is constitutive of religion. The feeling for the sacred has carried over in varying degrees into contemporary western societies. In others, for example Hindu societies the religious-secular distinction makes little sense, the concept of ‘religions’ being an imperial import. So is any of this of more than passing anthropological interest? Well, yes. In a world in which sacred trust in government is badly eroded and the pandemic has caused widespread anxiety and fear, we need to treasure our places of stillness, calm and symbolic meaning. The crypt of the Basilica of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine in Vézelay comes to mind, almost dark, full of young people silently praying, a dampness and cool humidity coming from walls saturated with prayer. Whether it is around a national monument, the Capitol in Washington, or in an Anglican cathedral, sacred spaces, secular or religious, should be respected and cherished for the wonder is that we create them.
The United States Senate impeachment proceedings against former President Trump have been many things: a contested Truth Commission, a national political reckoning for the history books, a nunca mas (never again).
I was lamenting seeing so little of the Democrats presenting a coherent, detailed case for finding former President Trump guilty of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ when I received an email from my friend in Oregon.
Here’s one perspective from a Democrat voter in a progressive State:
“I have been sitting glued to the TV for about two days watching the House Democrats present the case against Trump and I must say that I was very impressed by the nine House managers, most of them previously prosecutors I suspect, especially Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin the manager. It was an extremely well organized and well-argued case and all in less than two days. Not that anybody used the word 'coup', they did not except that the word slipped out of Jamie Raskin's mouth once. I think the Democrats learned from the previous failed impeachment to keep it short and sweet and forceful. Trump learned from that experience also; unfortunately the lesson he learned was that he could do anything he wanted.
The case made did not rest solely upon the rally and subsequent assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6th. Rather and logically to my mind, the prosecutors returned to the six months prior to the election. You’ll remember before the election actually took place, Trump, supported by Fox News and his followers, kept pushing the idea in hundreds of tweets that the election was 'rigged'. Mark you, this was before anyone actually voted. On election night itself, while votes were still being counted, Trump tweeted at 2:30 am that he had won the election by millions of votes. After the election there were many lawsuits (someone mentioned 62 today) filed by Trump concerning counting of ballots, dead people, boxes of ballots for Biden smuggled in at dead of night and various other nonsense, and they all failed. In some cases a judge just threw the lawsuit out before even hearing it because of the lack of any supporting evidence whatsoever. After a few weeks, in early December, all the states had certified their ballot counts, so then Trump started harassing election officials in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and the like. The family of Raffensberger, the Georgia official who refused to change the election totals to suit Trump, was threatened by armed Trump supporters who turned up at the family house.
So it went on for weeks and weeks with Trump holding more rallies on the theme of 'Stop the Steal', which became the favorite slogan of the Trumpies. There were many threats of violence, not just the ones made and very nearly implemented at the Jan. 6th rally. The irony of all this is that this was not some hidden conspiracy, where all the evidence has to be searched for and assembled, but all took place in plain public view, so it was not difficult for Democrats to collect evidence about Trump's intentions. My personal comment on why nobody was alarmed enough to do anything effective about it: I think by this time everybody was just looking forward to Joe Biden taking over, so most of the mainstream media just ignored what was taking place in Trump-world, suffering from a general Trump fatigue with fresh outrage every day becomes tiring.
So we arrive at the fatal day of Jan.6th, where Trump and his supporters invited any 'patriot' to come to Washington and stop the steal. And in fact people took flights, booked hotels, drove and made their way to Washington by any means they could, often subsidized by a Trump related fund of some kind. I'm sure you have seen videos of the riot in the Capitol, in fact everyone is much too focused on that single event, horrible though it was. An interesting thought is that many Senators had not previously seen the video footage of the riot in full gory detail for the very simple reason that they were part of the event and being hastily hurried off to a safe place. A bit like personally being in an accident, when one is not usually paying much attention to the surroundings. There was a gallows set up outside with signs that said "Hang Mike Pence" (he had told Trump that he could not change the state election results) and a rioter talked about shooting Nancy Pelosi in the head if she could be found. So, as many of the prosecutors have repeated, it is hard to imagine anything worse: if this is not an impeachable offence, what is??
And, if more were needed, the prosecutors detailed the fact that Trump sat in the White House (delighted they say), refused to tell the rioters to stop and did not call in reinforcements for a couple of hours - all a matter of public record.
Yes, Trump has a defence team of lawyers - but definitely a couple from the B team as opposed to the A team who declined to represent Trump and bailed out a few days earlier. On first viewing, one of them got very bad reviews, rambling, disorganized etc. Perhaps it makes no difference and the Senate will not vote to find Trump guilty. This is what most people predict. As the Democrat team points out: "If you do not find Trump guilty, then another future President will feel free to do the same thing again." Which is true of course and one can only hope that the very convincing case presented by the Democrats might change some minds in the Senate”.
Despite defeat the Democrats have achieved important aims. They have told the nation the true story. It’s indelibly on the record. The Republican senators were demonstrably complicit in Trump’s offences. They continue to be so. Seven only voted for conviction. The wily Republican former Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell denounced Trump but voted for acquittal. The majority were never going to admit his guilt because they shared in it. It is more than notable that to avoid the Party splitting and/or a Kamala Harris Presidency they haven’t concluded Trump must be made ineligible to stand again, unable to contest the next Presidential election. Many would have faced deselection at the next Primaries had they done so. They look over their shoulders at the Republican voters for whom belief in and loyalty to Trump was, and remains, paramount. So Trump, diminished, remains a menace to American democracy.
See TheArticle 13/02.2021
“Nature is a blind spot in economics that we ignore at our peril”. Pithy comment from respected Cambridge Professor of Economics, Sir Partha Dasgupta. On 2 February the BBC’s Today programme ran a story about his new report The Economics of Bio-diversity. A supportive response from Sir David Attenborough provided a popular touch. It is not reality that has blind spots. They belong to the economists whose tunnel vision of economic growth as the key measure of progress is increasingly irrational. Professor Dasgupta argues convincingly that a narrow and exclusive focus on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – meaning the total value of economic activity within a state’s borders in goods and services – is a misleading measure of economic success.
The inadequacy of growth as the unique economic measure has been debated for decades. What has made this report a news story? Has there been a major theoretical breakthrough, a rethinking of economics triggered by the pandemic and climate change? There seem to be three principal reasons that made The Economics of Bio-Diversity newsworthy. First, it was commissioned by H.M. Treasury. Second, its strong and clear injunction that good economics must respect and manage nature better. And third the UK will be hosting and chairing the UN Climate Change Conference, COP 26, in Glasgow this November.
After the Second World War Mark Twain’s old aphorism, “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics”, took on a whole new dimension: the economic measurement of progress. Success in the competition between nation-states was measured by a single statistic, the value of Gross National Product (GNP), later recalibrated as Gross Domestic Product (GDP). An annual increase of GDP of several percentage points meant pride and progress; low or negative growth, despondency and decline. As economics, its language, theoreticians, statisticians and beneficiaries, came to dominate political life so for governments economic growth became the overriding proof of political virtue.
But what counted as economic activity? What was excluded from the aggregated calculations that made up GDP? By definition ‘externalities’, such as women’s domestic labour and childrearing and the large ‘informal sector’ in the developing world. On the debit side, the social, health and environmental costs of material production were ignored. And this despite perennial challenges from sociologists, developmentalists, progressive economists, environmentalists, trades unions, religious leaders and feminists all contesting the adequacy of the prevailing economic growth paradigm.
Progress, critics of GDP argued, could be measured in a completely different way: by improvement in the standard of living, by increase in the well-being and happiness of a population, clean air, bio-diversity, leisure time, increase in human capabilities, decrease in the harms of inequality, and so on. In 1972, Sicco Mansholt, a Dutch former farmer, a founding father of the European Union and the fourth President of the European Commission, coined the term "Gross National Happiness (GNH)”. But only tiny Bhutan, which shares borders with India, Nepal and Bangladesh, adopted GNH as a national policy with a strong Buddhist flavour.
Critics of the growth paradigm seem to gain momentum when the stability of the global economy is shaken by crises. In the early 1970s, after the events of 1968, limits to growth became a UN conference topic. After the 1973 oil-shock when OAPEC (Organisation of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries) raised oil prices fourfold. After the 2008 banking meltdown, fantasies of unlimited natural resources and the benefits of unregulated markets were challenged by reality. Stephen Macekura’s scholarly The Mismeasure of Progress: Economic Growth and its Critics charts in detail the history from the 1940s of such alternative economics and their failure to gain traction once the crisis has passed.
So Dasgupta and his Treasury report are a continuation of a long tradition that even includes popular writers: Rachel Carson published her readable Silent Spring in 1962 and Ernst Friedrich Schumacher his Small is Beautiful in 1973. During the same period pioneering developmental economists such as Barbara Ward, Mahbub ul Haq and Dudley Seers were grappling with the problems of achieving what they called ‘sustainable development’ and with environmental issues in the newly independent ‘Third World’ countries. Macekura shows that despite the best efforts of the growth critics, the dominant economic ideology never lost its self-confidence and power to convince, even though slowly but unsurely big guns such as the World Bank began to support some aspects of alternative economics and its vision of progress. Human development indexes burgeoned with measures of health, literacy, social inclusion and wellbeing to the fore. The intended beneficiaries of development aid were consulted about what they wanted rather than what governmental donors following the latest economic theory prescribed. But economic growth with GDP as its indicator remained the global orthodoxy, the common sense of Economics and Progress, with a dismissive ‘this-is-the-way-we-measure-things-around-here’ being the last word.
Today we inhabit a deranged world of economic statistics in which, according to the BBC Today programme’s introductory script, Amazon, the company, is valued at $1.6 trillion and Amazon, the river and forests at nothing - unless and until they are cut down for wood and farm-land. Nothing on the debit side, rivers silting up, extreme weather conditions, global warming. And the pandemic has woken us up to just how poorly equipped we are to evaluate statistics, even those which count ‘excess deaths’.
Dasgupta deploys economic language to get his message across. But it grates. He refers to our demands for nature’s “assets”, its “goods and services” have to be balanced against the earth’s capacity “to supply them”. The concept of the earth’s “natural capital” stretches the meaning of words to the limit. Don’t biodiversity and the environment have an incommensurable value? But ‘talking the economic talk’ is the most likely way to convince economists to ‘walk the walk’, heed their critics’ arguments, and avoid catastrophe. The assumption that a technological fix is going to make unnecessary a major change in how we measure economic success and how we conduct our lives, is a dangerous gamble and verges on magical thinking; as far as containing irreversible climate change is concerned current half-measures are set to fail.
One consequence of an emerging conceptual dissonance at the heart of the dominant economics is that we repeatedly hear politicians placing surviving the pandemic in binary opposition to saving our economy. Only an economy that has the nation’s health not as an ‘externality’ but as one of its key measures of success is worthy of being described as rational. Mark Twain was right. The statistics that have embedded economic growth in our minds as the only measure of progress hide a particularly insidious lie. So well done the BBC for giving a heads-up to a report about how we might now move on, at last, to a rational economics.
See TheArticle 05/02.2021
Lying, half-truths, ‘misspeaking’, or obfuscation are now political skills much as was rhetoric in ancient Greece. Honesty and frankness – and there are many honest politicians – come as a welcome surprise. Many blame governments’ general disposition to avoid the truth and cover up how they got us into our current mess. They have certainly contributed to mushrooming belief in conspiracies.
The implausible has becomes plausible. A public accustomed to being hoodwinked and manipulated has become prone to mistrusting the trustworthy as trust in those with power evaporates and the line between truth and falsehood is deliberately blurred. Groups form networks around misinformation shared on the internet. It is not all to governments’ disadvantage. People confused are easier to control.
The internet has accelerated a privatisation of truth creating different worlds, mind-sets and ideologies each with their different certainties. The internet giants now sustain political sub-cultures with targeted flows of information and misinformation alongside targeted advertising. And targeting depends on what the data-brokers know about us, what we think and what we want. In the digital world the idea that the CIA staged 9/11 as well as the type of sweater you like are both passed on in ‘packages’ of data travelling at lightning speed along networks of cables. Someone in the internet’s human infrastructure gets vastly richer in the process. And it is not going to be me or you.
What happens after we lift the lid on our laptop and log on, or pull down the endless tweets on our mobile phone, is hidden from all but the canniest members of the IT aristocracy. Talking heads on TV lying to us risk being exposed in their lies but there is no transparency whatsoever on the internet. There we are plied with cookies and the cookies make our data available, data which is sold on by whom or to whom we know not. This is just one reason I recommend in passing James Ball’s The System: who owns the internet, and how it owns us, published by Bloomsbury last year. It tries to explain to my generation, those who sat at school desks with inkwells not laptops, how it all began, what goes on, why and how something can be done about it, and how the paradox of the ‘privatisation’ of our politics accompanies our loss of privacy.
The overall impact of the internet is ambiguous like that of all epoch-changing technologies. On the one hand it is a tool of direct democracy. People find each other, are alerted to their strength in numbers, decide to act, sometimes to take to the streets against authoritarian rulers. We are beginning to see the impact in Russia. The original dream of Tim Berners-Lee and other founders of the internet - still glimpsed in Jimmy Wales Wikipedia - that they were creating a benign mode of communication and information flow that would defeat the limitations of time and distance, still lingers on. Families and friends can keep in touch, or rather communicate with each other though not ‘in touch’, and whole libraries of information are a few taps away.
On the other hand people in reinforcing cyber-enclaves share and absorb misinformation and pernicious fantasies. The silo syndrome is older than you think. Amongst the earliest users of the nascent internet in the 1980s were US white supremacists and militias. A quarter of a century ago, the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh’s bedroom was reported to be like a computer laboratory. More recently Da’esh online recruitment was famously professional. The 2017 Unite the Right riots in Charlottesville showed how effective online recruitment can be in bringing together disparate groups.
Why this receptiveness to lies? Yale history professor, Timothy Snyder’s believes that the decline of local newspapers ended the kind of reporting that readers could verify for themselves. If you spelt the names right of the winners of the flower show people were going to believe you got the big stories right too. And heaven help you if you didn’t. National newspapers were too distanced for many - and thus a shared local community perception of social reality was lost, replaced by shock-jocks’ ranting, extreme right websites, and whatever Big Lie was circulating nationally or even internationally. Enter far right the heterogeneous mob that attacked the Capitol.
Authoritarian regimes are well aware that the truth is their enemy. We owe the rapid spread of the Coronavirus to an entrenched culture of falsehood and deception within the Chinese Communist Party. At all costs Party officials tried to avoid delivering bad news for fear of the messenger being punished. Putin seems genuinely frightened by Alexei Navalny because he is brave enough to defy the kleptocracy’s terror tactics to the point of repeatedly risking his own life. His courage and ability to survive assassination attempts have inspired Russian youth. The truth may not always set you free but it has got 100,000 people out onto the streets of Russia’s cities.
Against this grim background are there lessons for our own small island? First, democracy cannot thrive if the electorate is routinely misinformed by government and by a partly supportive Press disguising deceit, incompetence or worse. We are becoming aware that democracy cannot be taken for granted. And increasingly citizens are taking action to defend it.
Finally, there is an accepted right to truth. The UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides a basis for the right of victims of grave human rights violations and their families, as well as society as a whole, to find out the truth. It has not been without results, notably the Truth Commissions. The UN has an annual Right to Truth Day on 24 March chosen to coincide with the date of St. Oscar Romero’s assassination in El Salvador. It is an interesting example of Catholic thinking about human dignity converging with UN thinking about human rights, two approaches often thought of, and presented as, dissonant.
Actually the Catholic tradition also puts truth into a wider human rights context. Pope John XXIII, less than two months before he died of cancer in 1963, writing in his encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) addressed not just his Church but all people: “before a society can be considered well-ordered, creative, and consonant with human dignity, it must be based on truth. St. Paul expressed this as follows: ‘Putting away lying speak ye the truth every man with his neighbour for we are members one of the other’. (Ephesians IV.25). Not a bad text for the Republicans in the USA and the Johnson coterie here in the UK to consider.
See TheArticle 01/02/2021
My generation lived through the Cuban missile crisis. Our lives were threatened not by an invisible, spikey, round virus but a nuclear mushroom cloud. Today, 22 January, after many years of campaigning and debate the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, (‘The Ban Treaty’ for short) with 86 signatories, including 51 ‘states-parties’, came into force. It had taken over three years to collect more than the 50 state signatures that were required for implementation of an agreement reached in 2017.
In the summer of 2017, a rolling conference convened by the UN General Assembly produced a legally binding prohibition of nuclear weapons in the hope of their ultimate elimination. Developing, testing, producing, manufacturing, transferring, possessing, stockpiling, using or threatening to use nuclear weapons, or allowing nuclear weapons to be stationed on their territory, were all banned. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the Treaty’s principal non-governmental mover and shaker, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, later that year. The Vatican celebrated the Treaty with a conference for the forty or so campaigning organisations that had contributed to its creation. But I would guess worldwide few people know of this treaty or its significance.
The existing nuclear powers were and are determined not to sign. So another piece of paper on the shelf of the UN Secretary-General, not even to be honoured in the breach, just ignored? No, far more significant than that, both opponents and supporters would agree. The Treaty represents a growing global legal consensus concerning international humanitarian norms. An international regulatory body for its implementation will be set up – the Austrian government is preparing for a first meeting of states parties in late 2021 - and there is a legally time-limited opportunity for the nine existing nuclear powers to start what they have notably failed to do: negotiate the elimination of their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Or, as former President Khatami of Iran replied to my question on the status of nuclear weapons in Shi’a Islam: “Haram, haram (prohibited) for both possession and use”.
Because of their immense destructive power and long term consequences nuclear weapons along with chemical and biological weapons are clearly a unique threat to humanity. But it has to be said that as the Syrian and Iraq governments have demonstrated by using chemical weapons this is no guarantee of future compliance with international law. And here is the rub. While it is just conceivable that public pressure and actual cost might persuade Britain to abandon Trident, neither of these pressures would make North Korea, China or Russia sign up to and become compliant with the Treaty. We have to acknowledge and accept the potentially asymmetric impact of pressure for total elimination of nuclear weapons. It’s a big ask. South Africa did not have any enemy on its doorstep in 1991 when it led the way and dismantled its nuclear warheads the apartheid regime developed with – suspected - Israeli help.
The renunciation of nuclear weapons by any country or countries requires prolonged diplomatic engagement and peace building. The conflict between India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers and embroiled in a bitter dispute over Kashmir dating from Britain’s withdrawal, is only one example. For all the BREXIT talk about sovereignty, Britain’s own options are constrained by our membership of a defensive nuclear alliance, NATO. What would be the strategic implications of Britain’s adherence to the UN Treaty? Again decisions about nuclear weapons can only be made in the context of a national discussion about what we want Britain’s role in the world to be, and what we think security and responsible geo-politics should look like in the future. Apart from these questions NATO’s total rejection of the Treaty should stimulate a much wider national discussion than the one intermittently taking place within the peace movements and the military about Trident.
NATO has been deploying powerful arguments. Michael Rühle, the main interlocutor for NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division does not pull his punches. He writes that advocates of the Treaty ‘ignore the international security situation’ , engage in ‘moral grandstanding’ and that it ‘pulls the rug from under’ the 1970 Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The Ban Treaty reflects the frustration of many states in the Global South at the failure of the NPT to change the nuclear weapons landscape. It challenges the strategy of mutually-assured destruction. But the Ban Treaty is consistent with Article VI of the NPT which commits states-parties to ‘pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.’ That more or less covers the process which led to the Treaty.
Religious opinion is increasingly vocal and united. The Pope, the Vatican and the British bishops, both Catholic and Anglican, have clearly called on the British Government to “forsake its nuclear arsenal”. This month the British Catholic bishops stated:
“On Friday 22 January 2021 the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comes into force. This is an historic milestone on the path to nuclear disarmament and an opportunity to refocus on genuine peacebuilding rooted in dialogue, justice, respect for human dignity, and care for our planet.
In setting out the ‘moral and humanitarian imperative’ for complete elimination of nuclear weapons, Pope Francis reminded us that ‘international peace and stability cannot be based on a false sense of security, on the threat of mutual destruction or total annihilation.
We urge support for the Treaty and repeat our call for the UK to forsake its nuclear arsenal. The resources spent on manufacturing, maintaining and upgrading these weapons of mass destruction, should be reinvested to alleviate the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, for the Common Good of all peoples”.
But nuclear disarmament remains the dog that doesn’t bark in British politics.
If the Treaty does its job of making people once more aware of the terrible consequences of nuclear warfare, and if it initiates a national and international debate about a responsible geo-politics, what we mean by security, what sort of alliances we must make in the face of ruthless authoritarian regimes, it will have accomplished a great deal. The nuclear issue has disappeared from the manifestoes of our political Parties. The gulf between the settled opinion of the securocrats and politicians and the clear message coming from the faith communities, peace movements and what used to be called the non-aligned states of the Global South, is daunting.
On 5 February this year the US-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty New Start which caps each country’s nuclear weapons at 1,550 comes up for renewal or extension. China refuses to engage. Looking back on the near-nuclear disasters of the 1960s, the eventual outcome of an entrenched belief in a strategy of mutually assured destruction will probably be accidental ….mutually assured destruction.
See TheArticle 23/10/2021
An American would be forgiven for feeling as lost in Washington today as the Jamaican singer Jimmy Cliff in his song Many Rivers to Cross. The United States may be on the verge of serious civil violence.
There are different contending stories about the 2020 US Presidential election. The comforting one is that Joseph Biden, with his black running mate Kamala Harris, won a popular mandate by seven million votes. The disturbing one is that Donald Trump increased his popular vote by over eleven million. It is estimated that 93% of those who voted Republican in 2016 renewed their support undeterred by the evidence of four years of misrule by a manipulative demagogue consciously cultivating resentful, violent, and what Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder calls pre-fascist movements promoting the politics of white supremacy. Besides the pandemic, four rivers stand out for President Biden to cross.
The first is 74 million voters who chose Trump. What got into almost a quarter of the country’s population? The short answer is fear. There is nothing novel about that. McCarthy knew how to tap into it in the 1950s. But from the beginning US political culture, born in the lonely conquest of an expanding frontier and a violent confrontation with Native Americans was imbued with fear. In the South, slave owners’ own violence was projected onto its black victims. An abiding anxiety that only brutal punishment stood in the way of insurrection and retaliation, was the result. What other country has a powerful and successful lobby persuading families of the need to own guns for protection? And in what other country do gun sales soar when protests take to the streets against unlawful police killings of black people?
A substantial number of angry Americans seem to see, or countenance, white supremacy as a defence against black, or non-white, advancement. Demographic changes in the USA are felt as a zero-sum game. Non-Hispanic Whites make up 60% of America’s population but to many the Obama Presidency, despite his best efforts, looked like a period when the White majority lost control. Trump’s attempt to undo everything Obama had achieved spoke reams to his constituency: he understood their fears and resentments, he was their champion. The Biden team must now promote the traditional promise of the ‘City upon a Hill’, and destroy the lie that equality of opportunity and fairness is an evil un-American force called Socialism. Failing that, Biden may have to fall back on his Catholicism for a coherent counter-narrative.
The second swirling river to cross is the Republican Party itself. Trump drew in a rag-bag of small extremist movements addicted to racism, wild conspiracy stories and hatred of ‘elites’. They now both support and threaten the hundred or so Republican congressmen and perhaps ten senators, shaped by the former Tea Party movement and fearful of their voter base, who went along even after 6 January with what they knew to be Trump’s blatant lies, and particularly his Big Lie of having won the election. Professor Timothy Snyder divides these elected representatives into two categories: the ‘gamers’ who cynically surf the wave of popular feeling rather than lose office and the ‘breakers’, quasi-anarchists bent on destroying ‘the system’. Were the Republican Party to split, the ‘breakers’ would form the core of a Trumpist Party. The Republican Party as it now stands is a huge obstacle in the path of national reconciliation and, while the Senate is so evenly balanced, will make it very difficult for Biden to produce economic gains for his black supporters and the disaffected workers who once would have voted Democrat. Already a daunting task after the pandemic’s damage to the economy.
Democrats will also have to tackle Republican power at a state level. Where Republicans control state legislatures and governorships gerrymandering and voter suppression on a large scale will persist. Frightened people are gullible. In key states voters behaved differently from expectations. For example 18% of the black vote in electorally all-important Florida, voted Republican in addition to the state’s Cubans and Venezuelans, taken in by the portrayal of Biden as a Socialist Front candidate propped up by a female Vice-President who as a public prosecutor had sent a lot of black Americans to jail. In South Texas (along the Mexican border) the Biden Democrats took the Latino and farmworker vote for granted but they fared worse than Hillary Clinton.
A third river to get over for Biden, and crucial to Trump’s success, is the endless flow of misinformation from radio and TV stations which act as echo chambers for his lies presenting him as the leader of victimised white Americans. Equally, until the shock of the storming of the Capitol pushed the great social media platforms to ban Trump, they’d given almost free play to various pre-fascist and conspiracy groups of different kinds. The internet giants then tried to put the genie back in the bottle. Their regulation by government will be a complex task. Curbing the impact of pernicious radio and TV shock-jocks and their popular angry and emotional presentation of politics will be equally difficult. Biden will have to establish some kind of consensus about a regulatory programme consonant with the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.
Fourthly and finally, reversing the flow of foreign policy directed by Trump won’t be simple. Multilateralism has a price tag in domestic approval and dollars. Isolationism is popular. Given domestic pressures, Biden will be disinclined to cut the Gordian knot that is Israel, a knot tightened by Trump. The difficulties of re-opening a peace process based on a serious two-state solution are great. The US needs to support Lebanon in danger of disintegration. Attempts to reinstate the nuclear deal with Iran will not be welcomed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards nor by concessions from the Supreme Leader, nor by those pre-occupied by Iran’s proxy militias in the region. The Iranians have already increased uranium enrichment to 20% in retaliation for Trump’s reneging on the international nuclear treaty. China is the key to effective action on climate change, said to be Biden’s priority, and is crucial in blocking North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. But, post-Trump, how can there be any Nixonesque diplomatic demarche towards China given its appalling human rights record which the incoming administration cannot ignore?
Electoral defeat for Trump doesn’t mean that the pursuit of white supremacy and Trumpism will disappear. At last, after the debacle of 6 January, the focus of national security has swung towards the internal threat of armed militias and white supremacist terrorism. Biden has to decide how to clamp down hard on the leadership of such extremist groups without creating martyrs. The currency of white domination is fear and violence. Biden’s greatest immediate task is to stop its circulation. To do so he must make America less angry and less fearful. Many rivers to cross and they run deep and wide and flow fast.
See TheArticle 15/01/2021
People recognise corruption when they see it though they would find it hard to define. The abuse of entrusted power for private gain is a concise definition used by the Berlin-based Transparency International, a not-for-profit authority whose Corruption Perception Index scores and ranks corruption by country across the globe. Transparency International points to poorly regulated financing of political parties as the source of the trouble. Political bribery, bungs, ‘buying influence’ to use Tony Blair’s words, are all part of a wider story. In societies ranked as the worst at the bottom of the table, corruption is endemic reaching beyond the political into business and into access to public services bringing misery to those too poor to bribe. In many countries like Nigeria it is a longstanding feature of the political and economic culture. You wonder when and how it started and became so pervasive.
Forty-five years ago in Nigeria I received my first - and last - bribe, more of a sweetener really, on the campus of Ahmadu Bello University, situated in the North. One evening just before the final exams there was an unexpected knock on the door. It was Mr. Chukwuma Onyeme (name changed) a mature Ibo student of mine from the South who had once whispered to me ‘we foreigners must stick together’ - it was not long after the Biafran war of secession. Mr. Onyeme, father of seven children, was bearing a six-pack of Nigerian Guinness as a gift. I graciously accepted.
This transaction could be construed as a bribe. Mr.Onyeme had struggled with the course and I expected him, at best, to get a borderline pass. He probably expected the same. But the six-pack was a bad choice. Nigerian Guinness tasted sweetish to me and looked like brown Windsor soup. I would go to considerable lengths to avoid it. In the event the examination board awarded Mr. Onyeme his degree without my help. His school-teacher salary would rise. The school fees of his children would be paid. In the round a good result but giving a sight of the tip of an iceberg that sank a country’s development despite, or possibly because of, its oil wealth.
Several years’ experience of corruption in Nigeria now prompts the question whether Britain, twelfth from the virtuous top in the Transparency Corruption Index, but dropping points in the last three years, might be too complacent about risking its reputation for probity. In a predominantly service economy respected for its diplomatic, legal, educational and financial services, probity matters. The behaviour of government has consequences and can destroy a country’s international reputation remarkably quickly.
Take as an example our Housing, Communities and Local Government Minister, Robert Jenrick, and the recent saga of Richard Desmond’s £1 billion property development at Westferry Printworks challenged by the Council in London’s Tower Hamlets. To avoid the Council’s £45 million community benefit levy - for health and education – the Minister, lobbied by Desmond at a Conservative Party fundraising dinner, needed to approve the project before 15 January 2020. On 14th. January, overruling his own civil servants and inspectorate, Mr. Jenrick granted this permission. Two weeks later Mr. Desmond donated the very modest sum of £12,000 to the Conservative Party, in proportion to his reward the equivalent of a six-pack of Guinness. The lobbied Minister should have recused himself. When the story broke in June, Jenrick was obliged to reverse his approval because, in his own words, it looked ‘unlawful by reason of apparent bias’. He was not sacked nor does he shun the glare of publicity. On the contrary he comes in third or fourth in the batting, read obfuscating, order of ministers led by Mr. Gove on the BBC4 flagship Today programme.
The question whether such behaviour, and tolerance of such behaviour, heralds a general onset of corruption in government became particularly pressing in March and April when, during the first wave of the COVID pandemic, there were shortages of PPE for frontline medical staff. While several European countries began to initiate PPE procurement procedures in late January 2020, it was a month before the British government, in panic mode, set to. Tendering, following the normal rules for getting good value for public money, went out the window and, according to the Treasury, £15 billion was – wastefully - spent on supplying PPE to retrieve the situation. A special pathway was set up for Cabinet Office and VIP contacts – read friends and associates of Tory peers, MPs and councillors - to submit proposals for multimillion contracts. The Good Law Project, a not-for profit membership organisation that uses the law to protect the interests of the public, is seeking a judicial review and litigation in the absence of any official enquiry into negligence or corruption. They cite remarkably that three of the biggest PPE contracts awarded were to a pest-control company, wholesale confectionary company and a private fund operating out of a tax haven.
Prodigious public spending provides governments with enhanced opportunities to benefit their friends and supporters. Alongside the pressures created by government indecision, the ideological drive to outsource responses to the COVID crisis when there were already competent local public authorities available, opened up another door to the Tory ‘chumocracy’. Isn’t it problematic that an individual can move seamlessly via the Department of Justice from a key position in a company such as SERCO, awarded a whopping Track and Trace contract, to become a Minister of State for Health? Aren’t the perennial Tory fundraisers, private dinners, sustaining a host of questionable relationships and creating potential conflicts of interest, the intricate foreplay to potential corruption? And what does it say about our society when consultants to SERCO’s Track and Trace, drawn from the corporates, are paid up to £7,000 of public money a day, while newly qualified nurses start risking their lives in the NHS on £23,000 a year. How long can our public services survive such dystopian priorities?
From his days as Mayor of London, Mr. Johnson’s approach to conflict of interest has been shown to be, shall we say, casual. Impunity is the handmaid of corruption. But when it comes to his supine coterie Johnson doesn’t do resignations or sackings, and unlike Mrs. Thatcher, doesn’t do God. “Freedom will destroy itself if it is not exercised within some sort of moral framework, some body of shared beliefs, some spiritual heritage”, she told the congregation of St. Lawrence Jewry in March 1978. That’s a warning the libertarian Tory back benches might heed. When breaching international law and treaty becomes part of our negotiating toolkit, you wonder in what sense the Prime Minister is still leading a Conservative Party defending conservative values.
We have too long been watching the misuse of public power with its predictable reputational consequences. It is misplaced complacency to believe we are not wandering down the road to corrupt government.
See TheArticle 4/01/2021
Just over five years ago, in Paris on the evening of Friday 15 November 2015, in three simultaneous attacks terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam killed 130 French citizens. Ninety died and a hundred were injured at a rock concert in the Bataclan theatre, several died outside the Stade de France where France and Germany were playing a friendly football match and others were maimed in attacks on cafés. Only eleven months had passed since another Da’esh-inspired group attacked Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket taking seventeen lives.
Then came a wave of ‘lone wolf’ atrocities, the worst in 2016 when a 19-tonne truck ploughed through Bastille Day crowds on the Nice seafront killing 86 and injuring 458. Since November 2019 there have been ten such further attacks some at random, others aimed at Christians, priests and a schoolteacher. France feels that it is a nation whose very identity is threatened by these assaults on its way of life. Over seventy mosques and their sources of finance are now under investigation. In November 2020 President Macron re-affirmed in speeches that laïcité, a radical form of secularism, is the essence of French identity and that the Muslim community must conform to a ‘Charter of Republican values’. But what precisely are these values, and when does laicïté begin to erode the right to religious freedom? And is laïcité as the definition of French identity a solution to the problem of terrorism or a provocation? All questions Christians have reasons to be interested in hearing answered.
“All my life I have held a certain idea of France.” “Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France”, wrote General Charles de Gaulle in the opening sentence of his first volume of war memoirs, (The Call) L’Appel:1940-1942. The General, reflecting his own heroic martial virtues, was always preoccupied with grandeur. So President Macron’s somewhat grandiose deportment and attempts to muster the French people around the Republican flag against terrorism, is not unprecedented. But he can’t reinvent himself as De Gaulle any more than Johnson can reinvent himself as Churchill. Macron needs his own idea of France. And what he needed was at hand: ‘Republican values’ and laïcité as the backbone of French identity.
A few years ago, at a government interfaith conference in Pristina, capital of Kosovo, I gave a well-received talk which gently suggested that banning the head-scarf, hijab, in State schools was a bad idea. Towards the end of lunch I was informed that the French Ambassador wanted to speak to me. I was escorted to her table where she delivered a long harangue on the oppression of Muslim women. According to the Ambassador Muslim women were oppressed by Islam and did not wish to wear the hijab. Laïcité liberated Muslim women and was civilization’s answer to backward religious practices. No ifs or buts, no room for dialogue or nuance. I’d just encountered ‘une certaine ideé de la France’. A rather different emphasis from de Gaulle’s but foreshadowing Macron’s.
France’s population contains Western Europe’s largest Muslim minority. The Pew Research Foundation puts the number of Muslims in France, mainly from the North Africa but also from the Middle East, at c. 6 million which makes them 8.8% of the population (the CIA estimate is between 7-9%). Of these about 100,000 are converts. Some 76 mosques are due for government inspection and 18, some of which should have closed, will be shut down.
In France the hijab is the subject of long running controversy. President Chirac extended an existing government ban on all wearing of ‘ostentatious religious symbols’ in State schools to every secondary education establishment and this was quickly voted into law in March 2004. In 2010 full length Burqās and face-concealing Niqābs, which barely left wearers’ eyes visible, were banned from public places. In August 2016 the Mayor of Cannes opened up a beachhead in the apparel-wars with a ban on burkinis, body- concealing swimsuits, a ban upheld by the French Council of State which presumably viewed them as un-Republican and a symbol of separatism. Criticism of this ruling from non-Muslims has been ineffectual.
In the middle of November this year, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), under growing pressure from Macron, announced its proposal for a National Council to vet foreign-born imams. Macron plans additional legislation to ban home-schooling, and to initiate training of imams in State controlled colleges requiring signing on to ‘The Principles of the Republic’. His target is ‘separatism’ and thus taqfiri brands of Salafi and Wahabi thinking and behavior - disavowal and rejection of all who do not share their excluding Puritan ethic - which he seems to see as a precursor to, and breeding ground for, terrorism. All this is laïcité in practice. This is not the procedural secularism, the separation of Church and State, of the USA. And it’s not secular Britain with its established Church where very few would consider the Jewish kippa or a head-scarf or a cross an ‘ostentatious’ religious symbol – though occupational restrictions by employers involving wearing of crosses have been upheld in court. The difference is that French secularism, enshrined legally in law separating Church and State in 1905, has become prescriptive and ideological.
But in September the French Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, did attempt to formulate an inclusive female standard of dress ‘de façon républicaine’ (in a republican fashion) for State schools. He condemned both short skirts - indécence - and the wearing of hijabs by mothers accompanying school trips. The anti-clericalism of the French Revolution has left its trace in hostility to religion in the public domain with little acknowledgement that culturally the hijab for many Muslims is an expression of modesty just as much as longer skirts.
In France since 9/11 conflict over women’s dress seems to be in step with the growth of terror in the name of Allah. And it is an easy jump to the assumption that ‘conspicuous’ religiously approved clothing is somehow a link in a causal chain leading to violence, as well as being a breach of laïcité undermining the foundations of the Fifth Republic. Such a view may indeed coincide with the social perceptions of French governments. But not with the perceptions of France’s disadvantaged and increasingly alienated Muslim communities, who are daily bombarded with extremist recruitment material on-line, and who protest against their government’s hardline laïcité.
Such a preoccupation with controlling female dress does not easily admit to reasoned distinctions. Seeing the face of a person is a major part of human communication, not just a security concern. In this sense the niqāb and burkā which seclude and exclude women – unlike the hijab - are anti-social and might reasonably be considered a direct challenge to French values, more a form of what Macron calls ‘separatism’ than an expression of modesty and human dignity. France’s adopted Lithuanian Jewish philosopher of ethics, Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995), a champion of dialogue, symbolically grounded his idea of ethical human relationships in face-to-face encounters.
The major problem with Macron’s approach is that it does not appear to be evidence based. First, ‘separatism’ is common to all three Abrahamic religions: the Amish, the Jewish Haredi as well as Salafis. It is a response to seeing the world as sinful and a source of potential moral contamination. The vast majority of Salafis are peace-loving and pious. Indeed, because they can talk the talk and walk the walk which has taken a tiny minority into violence and terrorism, some are notably good at de-radicalisation. Some of the first assassinations undertaken by Boko Haram in North East Nigeria were Salafi scholars who opposed the movement’s violence and were seen as an immediate threat. Second, recruitment to jihadism in France takes place predominantly through relationships within families and between friends often in particular banlieues or small towns. If the UK is anything to go by 40% of those recruited have suffered from some form of mental illness. It is often because they have little of the Qur’anic knowledge that might have accrued from mosque attendance that many can be duped. Violent criminality is given a ‘glorious’ religious legitimation. This makes recruitment via social media, manipulating emotional reactions to videos and Qur’anic verses out of context, that much easier.
Britain’s Muslim communities, unlike France’s, trace their roots to the Indian sub-continent and Britain’s approach to cultural differences, multiculturalism, has been less doctrinaire than France’s. But we have had our own tragedies and agonizing failures, the 2017 Manchester bombing in which 22 died still has the power to shock. So we can readily and deeply emphasize with our friends across the Channel. Multi-culturalism is no panacea. There are dangers of social division of tolerating what should not be tolerated. But because, at least in this respect, we aren’t deducing counter-terrorism policy from a rigid set of ideological principles, we are able to see what works and what doesn’t, and, at best, adjust policy to changing circumstances. France’s tragic losses suggest that the answer to the failures of laïcité is not more laïcité.
“Lullay lullay. Thou little tiny child”, the opening words of the Coventry carol composed in the 16th century and sung by millions over the ages. The carol is as much a lament as a lullaby: a mother’s goodbye to a baby to be killed in the net cast around Bethlehem by King Herod, the Romans’ puppet ruler of Judea, in an attempt to kill the baby predicted to become King of the Jews. Holy Innocents day is commemorated on 28 December by the western Christian Churches. This year it falls during the full rigour of government anti-COVID measures. But it’s also a date when Christians – and others too - might turn their thoughts to the rights of children around the world.
Whether in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Nigeria, Congo, Central African Republic or Myanmar – to name only a few of the worst cases -we have become accustomed to children dying or being maimed in wars or as a result of dictatorial regimes’ State terrorism. And in a few African countries militias routinely recruit child soldiers by force. Sometimes the savagery of the war means civilians are deliberately targeted. More often their deaths are described as ‘collateral damage’. Even more frequently children die because war has reduced their families to starvation, flight from home, freezing temperatures, and the breakdown of anything that might be described as a health or education service, or law and order, putting whole populations at the mercy of disease, hunger, warplanes, landmines and militias.
Civilian deaths, the deaths of children are not just some phenomenon of the Global South. The Nazis and the Japanese militarists were defeated in the Second World War. But their strategy of total war won. The Allies appropriated the practice of total war, bombing German cities and dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Korea, the blanket bombing of Eastern Cambodia and massacres in Vietnam are only the best known of the conflicts that have perpetuated the civilian death toll in war into the 1960s. The establishment of international courts, scrutiny by human rights organisations and TV coverage raised the political risks in flouting ethical restrictions on the conduct of war. Today in the western world conformity with strict legal and ethical standards is expected in the conduct of targeting, and in the treatment of civilians, even if these expectations are not always fulfilled. Where there is no accountability as in Syria and Yemen such restraints are generally ignored.
The 2015 movie Eye in the Sky dramatizes the tension between the expedients of war and the demands of ethics, international conventions and law. Colonel Katherine Powell, played by Helen Mirren, must decide whether to execute the firing of a Hellfire missile at a house in Kenya where three key terrorists are preparing a suicide bombing. If the missile is fired, a little girl, Alia, who lives next door and sells bread outside her home will almost certainly die in the blast. We the viewers watch the scene on the ground via surveillance footage from a USAF MQ-9 reaper drone. Should Powell, shouldn’t she, tell the Nevada air-force base to make the strike? When she does the child dies and so do the parents in a second strike aimed at a surviving terrorist. It is gripping cinema. The dilemma, viewers understand, is real and not without precedent. Over recent decades, in the bombings of civilian areas in war torn countries which we undertake or support, or are carried out with weapons supplied by our armaments industry, are we really to believe that ‘due diligence’ is scrupulously observed? Or, when it comes to the big spenders such as Saudi Arabia, isn’t ‘due diligence’ an ethical fig-leaf?
Jus in bello, the ethical constraints that should determine conduct of war once begun, is a key part of just war theory, that common pool of mediaeval ideas and debates largely shared by Christians and Muslims and whose principles inform the Geneva Conventions. The first topic in Shari’a law is who has the authority to declare war, the why, when, and how of jihad. In both faiths the protection of innocents and non-combatants is a fundamental principle of military action. Naming the killing of civilians ‘collateral damage’ is too often the thin edge of a wedge of worse human rights violations to come. Vacuous religious extremist arguments justify terrorist atrocities against democracies by denying any category of innocents amongst ‘the enemies of God’, a case of perversity beyond casuistry.
Whether it is courageous war correspondents filming mutilated children brought into bombed hospitals by the White Helmets in Syria, or Da‘esh videos of children bombed in Afghan villages, the emotional charge of children’s suffering is enormous and evokes empathy. Yet, pilots of different nations continue to unload their ordinance from a safe height and drop their barrel bombs on fleeing refugees. In those Middle East conflicts covered by television, every last vestige of acceptable conduct in war seems to have been abandoned. The consequences are brought into our living rooms. We know that worse horrors take place unseen. Worse, we become accustomed to them.
In November last year on the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Holy See had this to say:
“While the importance of the Convention is unquestionable and its thirtieth anniversary should indeed be celebrated, the Holy See also welcomes the fact that this celebration does not shy away from the reality that despite the near universal ratification of the Convention, many children are not respected nor protected around the world. That any child suffers violence, abuse, exploitation and that any child’s rights are violated, rejected or ignored is unacceptable and among the gravest of injustices.”
Sadly the prevalence of sexual abuse of minors over decades in the Catholic Church saps the moral force of these admirable words.
The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child is celebrated on 20 November. Holy Innocents on 28 December is not just a day when we begin to emerge from the fairy lights into the grey winter dawn of reality. Or if we live in London and the South East don’t emerge at all. It is, though, also an opportunity for Christian Churches to intensify their work for peace, just government and the most basic of all the Rights of the Child: the right to life.
See TheArticle 22/12/20