So the EU have thrown the future of Gibraltar into the Brexit negotiations. What a googly (curve ball for readers from across the pond). I trust that the British government will not give any ground on Gibraltar’s sovereignty – how to revive UKIP in one easy move!
If there is a mutually satisfactory and fully agreed settlement between the EU and Britain within the next two years then I will see it as a contender for the greatest diplomatic triumph in human history. Theresa May would deserve any and all accolades that would come her way.
Which is another way of saying – this is very unlikely to happen. To agree a trade deal with the EU – who don’t have a good track record of agreeing free trade deals – alongside settlement of bills and agreements on defence co-operation and all the rest of it – and then to get that deal agreed in each of the 27 nations (including sub-nation elements like Wallonia) – and to get the substance agreed within the next 18 months (so that there is time to get it legally ratified before the deadline kicks in) – I can’t see it happening.
Which means we need to start actively planning and preparing to shift to trading with the EU on the basis of WTO rules (which is what the United States does, for example).
This doesn’t actually worry me. I see this as being a much greater shock in the short-term, but probably much better for our national future, and economy, in the long term. Let’s get on with agreeing trade deals with the Anglophone community, India and Africa – there’s a very big world out there that we can now start playing in.
It will also add to the pile of burdens on the existing EU. Will it cause a final collapse? Probably not – but at some point there will be a straw added to the camel’s back. Britain is, at least, getting a head start on learning to live without the EU which will hold us in good stead and help us help other nations pick up the pieces when the collapse comes.
I write these words the day after the horrific terrorist atrocity in Westminster. Khalid Masood was a person who subscribed to a militant form of Islamic thought. As such, the attack on the civilians walking along Westminster Bridge fits with the pattern of other recent ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’ in Berlin and Nice.
The British Council of Muslims released a statement saying “We are shocked and saddened by the incident at Westminster. We condemn this attack and while it is still too early to speculate on the motives, our thoughts and prayers are for the victims and those affected. We pay tribute too to the police and emergency services who handled this with bravery. The Palace of Westminster is the centre of our democracy and we must all ensure that it continues to serve our country and its people with safety and security.” The head of the Council, Harun Khan, said: “This attack was cowardly and depraved. There is no justification for this act whatsoever.”
There are no grounds for doubting the sincerity of these words. From the earliest times of Islamic military conquest there have been clear guidelines prohibiting the use of force against non-combatants. The companion of Mohammed and the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, taught the Muslim army “You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man.”
Even more than this, surprise attacks – which the attack in Westminster certainly was – are explicitly forbidden. Does this mean, then, that we can share in the liberal consensus as articulated by Western leaders like George W Bush and trust that Islam is a religion of peace? That those who commit ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’ simply do not understand what it is that they are claiming to protect?
I believe that the situation is more complex than this and that British Muslims are slowly being impaled upon a painful dilemma.
In August 1996, Osama bin Laden was careful to issue a declaration of war against the United States, which was published in the London newspaper Al Quds al Arabi; bin Laden knew his theology! This fatwa (religious proclamation) can be seen as initiating our present experience of ‘attacks-in-the-name-of-Islam’. It was followed two years later by a further fatwa issued by bin Laden and co-signed by several others, amplifying and expanding the declaration of war, and including the following sentence: “to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…”
Given that bin Laden was scrupulously trying to keep to Islamic law and theology, how could he come up with such a conclusion? His answer, when pressed on this, was to say that killing of innocent lives was legitimate if it was understood as retaliation for the killing of innocents by the United States. The Koran is quite clear that proportionate retaliation is fully acceptable, surah 2.178 stating “O believers! retaliation for bloodshedding is prescribed to you: the free man for the free, and the slave for the slave, and the woman for the woman”.
There is therefore a debate within Islam about whether bin Laden and those who have followed in his footsteps are in fact theologically justified to apply the rule of retaliation to the question of murdering innocent civilians. It is surely beyond dispute that the United States and its allies (including the United Kingdom) have been killing innocent people across the Middle East, most recently through the extensive use of drones. Where this situation obtains, what is the response of a faithful Muslim to be?
Some Muslims believe that bin Laden is not justified in applying the rule of retaliation in this situation, some do. Within Britain, according to the most thorough recent survey (ICM for Channel 4, April-May 2015) some 4% of British Muslims believe that it is acceptable to use terrorism for political ends, including suicide bombing. This works out to around 100,000 people.
Khalid Masood was one of them.
The dilemma that British Muslims face is that the theological debate is not some abstract matter without practical consequence; rather it is one that will govern their relationship with the wider British society. Moreover, the need for that community to make a very clear decision and act on it will only become stronger over time, as more and more terrorist atrocities take place.
When the ICM poll results were announced, Trevor Phillips, former head of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, wrote this: “There is a life-and-death struggle for the soul of British Islam — and this is not a battle that the rest of us can afford to sit out. We need to take sides… There is one truly terrifying finding [of the ICM poll]. Muslims who have separatist views about how they want to live in Britain are far more likely to support terrorism than those who do not. And there are far too many of the former for us to feel that we can gradually defeat the threat… Muslims want to be part of Britain — but many do not accept the values and behaviors that make Britain what it is; they believe that Islam offers a better future. And a small number feel that these sincerely held beliefs justify attempts to destroy our democracy. Britain’s liberal Muslims are crying out for this challenge to be confronted. The complacency we’ve displayed so far is leaving them to fight alone, and putting our society in danger. We cannot continue to sit on the fence in the hope that the problem will go away.”
If we wish to fully address the problem of our home-grown terrorism we need to be much more robust in the assertion of our values. That will mean saying that some values are better than others, and therefore some belief systems – those systems through which values are taught and embodied – are better than others. We cannot combat terrorism without a vigorous reassertion of our own inherited beliefs and values. Ultimately, that means Christianity. It is a sign of the painful nature of the dilemma facing British Muslims that the peaceful majority will only be able to root out the violent minority if the wider community becomes much more devoted to a non-Islamic faith.
The most successful movie ever made is a story about resistance to immigration. The movie in question is Avatar, a movie that does not have a particularly original story. In large part it mimics Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, simply with the location shifted from the 19th Century American West, with American Indians, to the far future, when we have colonised other planets.
The core story runs like this: there is a native population, which carries on its distinctive life with all the joys and sorrows that intelligent life is usually suspect to. Into this settled environment comes an invasive force which is aggressive and disruptive, and which threatens the existing order. Through a process of struggle and growth the native community comes together in order to resist the invaders and repel them. The status quo ante is restored, leaving behind a strong residue of community cohesion, identity and integrity.
It is unarguable that the native population of Britain has experienced a huge influx of migration, with an especial acceleration of immigration following the election of Tony Blair in 1997 (see chart). It is therefore unsurprising that this has caused a great deal of concern, and that this concern has been expressed in both healthy and unhealthy ways. My question would be – is the situation in Britain analogous to the one portrayed in Avatar, and all the other great stories about indigenous resistance?
After all, whenever indigenous resistance is seen anywhere else around the globe, it is portrayed by our media as heroic. When we read of tribes in the Amazon seeking to preserve their environment from developers we cheer them on.
The only native tribe that is never cheered on is that of the white Anglo-Saxons. As with Avatar, the white Anglo-Saxon tribe is always the villain doing the immigrating and disrupting other cultures, it is never the one being disrupted.
Historically this is perfectly accurate. Despite the liberal shibboleths about Britain always having been a nation of immigrants, we are far more accurately characterised as an emigrant culture. Stories which portray the invaders as white males are simply describing what has so often happened.
So are we simply now getting our ‘come-uppance’? Having invaded so many areas around the world, is it simply now our turn to be invaded by others? Perhaps.
What I wonder is whether there is anything left worth saving in our indigenous culture; first and foremost I wonder whether any sense of the British inheritance of Christianity can be salvaged.
In Avatar, the invading culture is driven by economic interests. There is a substance called ‘unobtainium’ which is ridiculously named and ridiculously valuable. Economic interests have also been the principal driver behind immigration into Britain (alongside, if Andrew Neather is to be believed, some deeply cynical electoral manipulations by the Blair administration).
Essentially, lower cost workers have been imported into this country in order to drive down the wages (and therefore the costs) of those employing them. The upper and middle classes have enjoyed cheaper services whilst the lower classes have been pushed to one side to live on welfare. This was clearly one of the major factors behind Brexit, when the lower classes came together to say ‘enough!’
I cannot help but see this reaction as a healthy one, and a spiritual one – which again links in with stories like Avatar. The resistance to the invading forces can only ever work when there is a spiritual element involved; that is, when the resisting culture is able to call upon a greater power to aid their purposes.
So how might such a spiritual element apply in the present British context?
In Avatar, the hinge of the story is the conversion of someone from the invading culture to the native culture. The invader comes to see the higher quality of the host culture, that it provides a richer and more fulfilling path for their life. Most especially, the spiritual dimensions of life are a key element driving the conversion – the invader comes to see that their own culture is explicitly lacking in a vital aspect of life.
At present, in Britain, the domestic ‘host’ culture could not fairly be described as a spiritual one. Our cynical society, knowing prices but not values, offers very little that might appeal to the deeper parts of human nature. We offer an environment which makes it fairly straightforward to make money, if you have the luck or the advantages to develop such opportunities, but we offer little else.
Our cultural elite are blind to such considerations, and have been so for many decades. As such, it is not simply that they cannot develop appropriate and relevant solutions to the immigration crisis, it is that they would not be able to recognise such an appropriate solution even if one were to be presented to them already formed.
Unless spiritual aspects are taken seriously by our government, all those elements which depend upon such spiritual aspects will pass by unseen. Those elements are community cohesion, the practice of particular virtues, all that makes a common life harmonious and viable. Without the spiritual glue that binds a community together there is no basis for resistance to an invading community. The unobtainium is therefore easily obtained.
All that will happen is that the invading spirituality, showing itself to be stronger than the native spirituality, will supplant that native spirituality. To many minds this will seem unconcerning. If the economic processes could continue, what would it matter if the idols in the corner of the living room are named one thing rather than another, that the holy books are written in one language rather than another? Who cares?
That is the voice of the blind, one that cannot contemplate the consequences of their own myopia.
In the end, to be concerned about immigration is to be concerned with spiritual issues; ultimately, our concerns are with what is ultimate, what is of most value. Any culture coheres around a common awareness and appreciation of what is held to be most important; in this society we have historically called that God, and we have developed the language for understanding those ultimate values through our Christian inheritance. It is not wrong to be concerned about immigration; on the contrary, to be concerned about immigration is to be concerned about the most important human issues that there are.
Now it may well be that our culture has decayed too far to be rescued, that all is lost. That would be a different story to the one told in Avatar, and so many like it. I rather think that there is still some spiritual life in our nation, and it is beginning to wake up. For my part I shall do my very best to assist that process!
One of my favourite jokes is: a hundred thousand lemmings can’t be wrong! I like it because it is absurd, it is closely related to a philosophical type of argument called a reductio ad absurdum, and I like it because – once the requisite irony of the delivery is appreciated – it contains an immense and important truth.
That truth is simply this: just because everyone you know agrees with you, that doesn’t mean that you are right. You might simply be joining in with a crowd of small mammals joyfully committing suicide by jumping off a cliff, in obedience to long-defunct biological imperatives.
The interesting thing happens when a lemming realises that they are in fact a human being and stop and say ‘is this really the way that we want to go?’ (Doubtless many will say that this is a good metaphor for Brexit – that by deciding to leave the European Union the British population have decided to jump off a cliff, and the result will be messy and bloody. That is the sort of comforting lie that we tell ourselves when reality becomes too painful to be coped with immediately.)
After all, what 2016 has demonstrated, on both sides of the Atlantic, is that those in positions of power and authority and influence do not have any clue what is going on. They have manipulated the levers of power in order to maintain the status quo, in order to ensure that the world remains safe for global corporate capitalism, and yet the results have not reflected their choices.
I would say: the bubble within which they have been operating has finally burst. That bubble, that echo-chamber, that closed circuit has been dominant for many decades. It has been marked, as all religions are marked, by clearly expected standards of speech and behaviour, with shibboleths relating to the treatment of minorities and women, where transgressions lead to expulsion from the community.
What has happened this year is that the illusion of dominance and inevitable victory for that religious perspective has been shattered. The world does not operate according to the central tenets of political correctness. There are people whose suffering was not taken account of by that dominant ideology, and their numbers – of those who suffer and those who care about those who suffer – are now large enough to cause electoral earthquakes.
Earthquakes that were not seen; at least, not seen by those who have relied upon the official prognosticators and opinion formers and tea-leaf readers commonly known as pollsters. Why not? Simply because, as mentioned above, if you believe something that falls outside of the bubble then the bubble will react angrily and aggressively against you. You will be bullied at escalating levels of intensity until you repent of your transgressive thoughts. You might lose your job; you will at least lose some friends. In this sort of environment is it surprising that people keep their views to themselves until that one private space wherein their preferences might actually have some impact?
The reason why the bubble has burst, why the illusions have shattered, why the genie will never get back into the bottle is that all those of us on the outside of the bubble, who have watched the creeping madness and group-think take over and destroy so much of virtue and value in Western society – we now know that we are not alone. On the contrary, we have the momentum, we have the numbers, we have reality on our side. We refuse to go over the cliff.
Such language might alarm. Does this mean that we are going to watch a replay of the 1930s, with Trump as Hitler, and Farage as his bag-carrier? No, it really doesn’t – and the dominance of that narrative simply shows what the principal factors were which formed the politically correct bubble in the first place. These are the long-defunct biological imperatives that are driving the lemmings over their cliff. Put simply, the West was so traumatised by the experience of the Third Reich that it has chosen to do everything possible to prevent a recurrence, up to and including cultural suicide.
The paradox is that there is an ideology abroad today which has very clear and direct philosophical and cultural links with the Third Reich, which insists upon traditional roles for women, which is radically anti-semitic and excludes ethnic minorities from all positions of power and influence, which prescribes the death penalty for homosexuality, and which is committed to the path of violence and terrorism in order to pursue those objectives.
It is because more and more people are aware of the threat that this ideology poses to us that the bubble has burst. The bubble has prevented a full and vigorous engagement with the threat; it has instead acted to incubate the threat within our own society; and people have had enough.
Yes, there are direct economic interests in play as well. The promises of the bubble have not been kept; whole communities have been cut off from any increase in prosperity – rather the reverse; and all the while the spectacle of fat cats filleting their company’s pension systems before pushing their employees over a financial cliff has fostered the disaffection that is now too obvious to ignore.
This crisis has been decades in the making, and will take many years yet to fully unravel. It will not be a gentle time. What are our tasks for the months and years ahead?
Those of us who have been outside the bubble for some time have, I believe, to ponder one essential question: how can we remain civilised in the context of the coming conflict? To put that slightly differently, and more personally, how can we remain Christian and not succumb to Nazism? How can we insist upon the priority of one form of life in this nation – one that actually does preserve all the progressive achievements of our culture – without scapegoating a minority? On that question will this generation be judged.
For those who have been within the bubble, I am bold to offer some advice. The first and most important advice is simply: don’t assume that those who disagree with your views are racist, homophobic, sexist reprobates. That has been the default assumption for so long that those words have lost their power in the same way that they have lost their accuracy. If you reflexively reach for those insults in discussion with Brexiters and Trumpers then you simply commit yourselves to leaping from the cliff with greater conviction.
The second bit of advice is simply: listen. Those of us outside the bubble don’t have all the answers, and if we are to preserve a civilised society in this land then the polarisation of argument is not going to help us achieve that end. We have to work together. Yet that cannot happen if one side believes that the other is morally beyond the pale, an incarnation of barbarism, a return to fascism. No, we need you to listen. We need you to recognise that the bubble has burst, that there might be truth outside your world-view, and that a little humility on your part would go a very long way.
If this does not happen; if bubble-dwellers double-down on the rightness of their perspective; if they continue to turn towards violence and anti-democratic methods in order to insist upon the rectitude of cliff-leaping – then, in that case, I am gravely concerned for the future of our country and our civilisation. The stakes here are very high, and it is the lack of awareness of those stakes that seems to me to most characteristic of the bubble.
We have a future to build, a future which may yet be much better than what has been before. If we want that future to be bright, we are going to have to build it together, outside the bubble.
What is the future of Christianity in this country?
The received narrative of secularism – which is the dominant form of understanding in our media and academies – argues that Christianity is simply the local example of the general form of irrationality known as ‘religion’, and that as the world progresses into a brighter future, so the levels of attachment to religious forms of belief will diminish, until all that is left is a memory to be investigated by historians.
That myth of secular progress is now only argued for by those who are ignorant of the true state of affairs. The idea that we all are marching – or being dragged – towards a faith-free future is now recognised to be itself a form of faith, in the sense of something for which there is no evidence but which provides great emotional relief to those who accept it!
The trouble with this narrative is that the contradictions of atheism are all around us, and the atheist/secular world-view is being comprehensively disproven with the headlines each and every day. We are faced with so many challenges that cannot be engaged with at a shallow level, but only at a level that takes religious belief seriously on its own terms, and which sees the religious impulse in human beings as worthy of respect.
This is why it is so essential for schools to teach religious studies – and, I would argue, if we are to preserve our historic culture, with all its benefits, we need to ensure that those studies are principally of Christianity. Without this we will not know who we are.
So I do not see the future as one that belongs to the atheist/secularist point of view. It lacks the capacity to fully engage human beings in a project of shared endeavour, and this is most seen by the correlation with the rate of reproduction of more atheistic societies. Put simply, the future belongs to those who turn up for it – and it’s the religious who are having children.
So if atheism is not the future, what about Islam? After all, if the future belongs to those who are having children now, aren’t we destined to be a much more Muslim nation in the coming decades? I suspect not.
The trouble with Islam is that it cannot cope with modernity. The principal root of Islamic terrorism today, which is the Saudi-based Salafi or Wahhabi form of Islam, has its roots in a reaction to the development of modernity in the West, to which it set itself in opposition. That opposition is what has led to the terrorist atrocities of today, as the fanatics seek to accomplish by terror what they could not accomplish by reason or invention.
Sadly, this form of Islam is inherently self-destructive, and will simply ensure that the Middle East descends into a vortex of violence from which Islamic culture will find it ever more difficult to emerge. The West is already moving away from its dependence upon oil, which is what has propped up the prosperity of the Muslim world for so long (such as it is) and it is unclear to me that there are the intellectual and mercantile resources available upon which an alternative economy might be made to stand. No, I think it much more likely that Islam will suffer an existential crisis and begin a long slow death after its homelands have been destroyed.
So the future for faith lies almost certainly with a form of Christianity. I have no doubt that Christianity will become the majority world faith some time in the next thirty or forty years – I regard that as already ‘baked in’ due to demography and the rapid growth of churches in Asia, especially China (where there are more committed Christians already than in Western Europe).
Where I am more unclear is what that Christianity might look like in this country, for we are far more steeped in secularist thinking that almost anywhere else in the world (Scandinavia might be the only place that ‘beats’ us).
When Rome was breaking down and starting to decay as a culture, it was a small and marginal sect on the edges of that Empire that ended up providing the religious belief structure for the next several centuries. Nobody at the centre of Rome would have predicted it, and it may well be that something similar happens in Western society over the coming decades.
My suspicion is that the faith of the future will be the one that is most able to help people navigate a highly technological and urban society in such a way that their deepest human needs are still met. This will undoubtedly still involve meaningful human (face to face) contact for that is how we have been made, and if we do not participate in such things then we will suffer from an unfulfilled longing all our lives.
People will still need guidance on how to live their lives, and helped to navigate the emotional storms of human living in a way that enables proper integrity and fulfilment. It is because the Western church in general, and the Church of England in particular, has lost sight of this part of religious faith that we have been pushed to the margins and reduced to emotionalism and navel-gazing. This too will pass.
Of one thing I am certain. In a hundred years time there will still be people worshipping at St Peter and St Paul’s, sharing bread and wine and telling the greatest story ever told – simply because it’s true. We have, after all, been there doing it for 1500 years or so thus far, despite all that the world has thrown at us.
On a more personal note I have been writing this Rector’s Reckoning almost without interruption since March 2010, and like all good things it needs to come to an end, so this is the last one. My aim has always been to make people think, in which task I hope I have had some success. Thank you for reading, and God Bless.
Did you hear about the young German louts who got in to the sacred shrine in Mecca in Saudi Arabia and went around pulling off the face veils of Muslim women there? No? Me neither. I did, however, hear about what happened at Cologne cathedral, where large groups of immigrants went round systematically groping and assaulting young German women, in at least two cases going so far as raping them. Why is it that we do not hear about the first, but our front pages are full of the second? For the simple reason that we have lost all confidence in the values of our own society. Consequently, those values will in turn be lost.
Consider this thought experiment. There are four tribes leaving close to each other. These four tribes are peaceable, and they trade various products easily. All is well. Now imagine that one of the tribes changes in such a way that they become warlike; they are no longer interested in trade with the neighbouring tribes, instead they simply decide to take up arms and go in to take what it is that they want. The other three tribes face a dilemma. If they do not resist in a warlike fashion, then their tribes will die and be assimilated. If they do resist in a warlike fashion, however, then their culture will be changed, from a culture of peace to a culture of war. As a result of the one tribe changing, all the other tribes will change, and the ‘culture of war’ has become universal. The culture that chose to become warlike has succeeded in changing the other cultures – even if they do not win militarily.
This is now happening in Western Europe. Muslim countries which are much more restrictive in their attitudes about sexuality and the role of women in society are now succeeding in imposing their own cultural values upon the West. Consider the advice that the Mayor of Cologne has given to the young women there – that they are to ‘stick together in groups, don’t get split up, even if you’re in a party mood’ and so on. Soon, no doubt, well meaning political leaders will start arguing that young women need to dress modestly if they are to go outside, then soon after that they will start saying that ‘it is only prudent’ that young women don’t go out without a trusted male relative to look after them. At that point we will have succeeded in importing muslim cultural standards wholesale into our society. Do we really want this to happen? And if we don’t, how will we make sure that it doesn’t happen?
Do you remember the ‘Arab Spring’? There was such a sense of optimism that various regimes in the Middle East would throw out their dictators and a wonderful rainbow unicorn fairy land would emerge. There was one incident in Tahrir square, however, which was deeply disturbing, and was clearly a harbinger of what was to come. The CBS reporter Lara Logan was caught up in a mass sexual assault by dozens of young men. She was rescued by the security services and flown back to the United States where she spent four days in hospital being treated for her injuries. This form of assault has a particular name in Egypt – it is called taharrush gamea. Young men seek the cover of a large crowd, and then pick on the vulnerable with impunity. The German police have now admitted that this is what happened in Cologne.
According to Gibbon, the Western Roman Empire did not fall because it was beaten militarily by the barbarians, but rather because it had first succumbed to a spiritual and moral defeat. That is, those who exercised power on behalf of the Empire no longer believed in a higher purpose to what they were doing. I believe that we are in a similar position – our spiritual roots have been discarded and we have lost ourselves in a search for material gratification, we have ‘sold our inheritance for a mess of pottage’. Yet I do not believe that the culture and civilisation of Europe is doomed to the same fate as the Western Roman Empire. If we are to avoid such a fate, however, we need to remember and renew our own spirituality, and refresh the well-springs of our own culture.
The reason that we do not hear about young German louts acting offensively in Mecca is because entry to the sacred sites there is restricted to those who are Muslim. The Saudi authorities take their religious obligations seriously, and this is both a source of strength and a symptom of strength. By way of contrast, we have turned our great cathedrals into tourist venues, picturesque museums which show how our ancestors lived. The vibrant vitality of our historic culture has now been absorbed into mindless consumerism, the confessional becoming the selfie.
We are facing a challenge to the very foundations of our civilisation. If we are truly to continue on an enlightened and Enlightened path then we need to start taking steps to ensure that those values that we are most committed to are transmitted forward. This is not a matter simply of words, although words are essential, but also of action. We need to embody our highest values and not simply pay lip service to them. Unless we become a virtuous people once again then our values will pass into history and forgetfulness.
A start to this process would be to reclaim control of our own borders, so that we can make sure that we can decide for ourselves whether we wish to endure the delights of taharrush gamea in England. Just one more reason for voting to leave the EU when the time comes.
When we are baffled about what we might do with respect to a particular problem, it can be worthwhile first to consider what not to do. Here are some examples.
Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has called for compulsory registration of all Muslims in the United States. Here is a perfect example of historical ignorance leading to morally repugnant thinking. Anyone who has any historical sense whatsoever will immediately ask – what next? Shall they be required to wear yellow stars sewn into their clothing? This is how the evils of Nazism began to take root in 1930s Germany. The Holocaust did not happen all at once but rather the human rights of Jewish people were progressively dismantled over time. First the Jews were identified, then they were segregated, then they were shipped in cattle trucks to Auschwitz. We cannot defend an open and tolerant society by disregarding all the human rights that make us who we are. Let us trust that Mr Trump quickly sees the error in his thinking and abandons these evil plans.
Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has called for our country to join in with air strikes in Syria. Please remind me: who we are trying to attack at the moment, Mr Cameron? After all, a few years back you were calling for air strikes against the forces of Assad, and supporting what became ISIS. Now we want to support Assad against ISIS? Is that with the Russians or against them? Is that with the Turkish government (presently profiting hugely from the oil sales that come via ISIS) who are our NATO ally or not? Committing our armed forces to an area of conflict, where our past actions bear a significant burden of responsibility for shaping the present fiasco, must surely be based upon extremely clear and convincing reasons, ideally ones which command wide public assent. Without those things a desire to act militarily is just so much knee-jerk posturing.
Earlier this year the Prince of Wales visited Saudi Arabia to pay his personal condolences to the Royal Family following the death of their King. In amongst other matters there was doubtless discussion about the ongoing major arms sales to the Saudi regime. After all, the UK has been selling arms to the Saudis for many years. Some of those sales were even investigated by the Serious Fraud Office, until political pressure forced them to stop. Let’s remember what Saudi Arabia is – it is a feudal monarchy that retains the death penalty for gays and adulterers and from that country came 19 out of the 20 hijackers on 9/11. The particular strain of Islamist nutjobbery which dominates ISIS has clear roots in the Wahhabi ideology which is dominant in Saudi Arabia. This ideology cannot tolerate any compromise with the West – and it is this ideology which is preached in all the mosques financially backed by the Saudis throughout the world, including many in the UK. Perhaps we need to be clearer as to which sorts of ideology help mutual flourishing in our society, and which do not?
If we are to engage constructively with this present crisis we would surely benefit from some clear and honest thinking and conversation about these issues. We face an ideology that is committed to the destruction of our western ways of life. As a minimum, might I propose that we stop financially and militarily supporting that ideology?
The critique of our society which that ideology offers is not entirely without merit. By which I mean that it makes sense to significant numbers of Muslims – for if it did not make any sense, nobody would support it. According to a BBC survey earlier this year, one in four British Muslims “have some sympathy for the motives behind the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris”. Clearly our society is doing a very poor job at assimilating those who come to this country with different values. This is where we need to concentrate our energies – not in some vainglorious foreign adventuring, or in short-term political posturing, or simple money-grubbing obsequiousness to murderous dictators.
The philosopher Karl Popper, writing in ‘The Open Society and its Enemies’ (written during the Second World War), argued that for a tolerant culture to exist, it must tolerate all things except for intolerance. He wrote, “If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.” This is the situation that we are presently living in.
It is undoubtedly true that most Muslims are not suicide bombers. Most Muslims – as with most human beings – simply want to live a peaceful and prosperous life within which they can love their families and pursue the goods that God has given them to seek. Yet it is also undoubtedly true that most suicide bombers are Muslims and that, in the last fifteen to twenty years, whenever there has been a terrorist attack, the chances of one of the perpetrators being named Muhammed is pretty high.
We simply cannot tolerate this, for if we do then we shall cease to exist. By ‘we’ I am not referring to our biological existence; rather, I am referring to all the things which make up British life. I like the fact that we live in a country where sexual orientation is no longer a matter for legal investigation and blackmail. I like the fact that we live in a country where my daughters can receive a full education alongside their brothers and are enabled to pursue their own interests. I like the fact that we – still, just – enjoy a culture of free speech and open debate in which the pursuit of truth is allowed to proceed without government interference. If we tolerate the intolerant then all these good things, and many more, will come to an end. That is what I mean by saying that ‘we’ shall cease to exist.
I do not believe that we can engage properly with ISIS and all the other strands of Islamic terrorism without properly rooting ourselves in our own deepest traditions. We cannot succeed militarily without engaging intellectually – and that means spiritually. Without it, military means are pointless and self-defeating. Yet we also cannot engage spiritually unless we recognise our own spiritual blindness, the way in which we have turned away from spiritual truth in favour of materialist and utilitarian ends. We have to assert our values, and we can only do that when we have rediscovered them for ourselves.
Gibbon’s analysis of the decline of the Western Roman Empire remains of value for us today. He argued that it was the moral corruption of Rome that rendered it vulnerable and impotent in the face of new challenges. We do not have to suffer the same fate.
What shall we do about all the refugees? I want to make three points about the present situation, to provide some background context for how a Christian might understand what is happening.
Firstly, there is some clear biblical guidance to draw upon, which is unanimous in saying that we are to be generous and merciful to those who are without a permanent home. In Scripture the refugees are often called the ‘alien’ – in other words, those who are unknown and unfamiliar in a particular context – and so we get texts like these: “You are not to wrong or oppress an alien, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22.21); “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice” (Deuteronomy 27.19); and “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 23.22). Scripture is insistent that the alien is to be treated with justice, that the alien is not to be abused or exploited, but rather to be fed and clothed and treated with compassion. This, then, must guide our immediate response.
So far, so good. What is not so often referenced when discussing the present plight of refugees is all the other law written out in Scripture, which offers something of a balance for that emphasis upon compassion. For alongside the insistence on compassion comes an even stronger insistence upon the necessity not to worship foreign gods, and for those who are alien to come under the same law as the native. So we have texts like this, from Numbers chapter 15: “The community is to have the same rules for you and for the foreigner residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the foreigner shall be the same before the Lord: The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the foreigner residing among you.” This law for the natives is founded in the ten commandments which begins, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” This stark insistence comes with a promise – from Deuteronomy chapter 30, “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed.” So the second point that I want to make is that, in Biblical terms, compassion for the refugee is set directly alongside the requirement for the refugees to come under the same spiritual and legal framework as the native.
We need to hold both these things in mind today, and not just with respect to the present surge of refugees fleeing from the Middle East. We need to be very clear about what our own values are. Without that, we cannot ensure that anyone who comes to this country as an alien is treated with compassion and justice but also required to accept those values. Some might find this uncomfortable. Isn’t this a form of imperialism? Who are we to say that our values are better than somebody else’s? I find that when I mention such things in polite society it isn’t received very well. I become marked out as some sort of right-wing proto-fascist. After all, who are we to boast of our society, of our values, of our God? For that is what commitment to one set of values over against another – one God over against another – that is what it means: it is to say, we believe that this is better than that.
Well – who are we not to? Is every culture in the world to be accorded dignity and respect except for our own? I believe it is healthy and good to feel proud of our own values. Moreover I believe that it is impossible to be humanly committed to a particular way of life without it, and that it is a form of self-hatred to try to avoid all forms of national pride and celebration. To see those things in other cultures is wonderful – why can we not enjoy the same sense of wonder and celebration at all that makes our own culture distinctive? To do so, however, would mean recognising and honouring the place of our spiritual and religious beliefs within our national life, and the particular debility which we endure is that our dominant narratives are entirely secular, with no place for such things. Our tragedy is that we have blinded ourselves in the belief that it will enable us to see things more clearly.
Which brings me to my third and concluding point. We cannot avoid sharing in the responsibility for the mess in the Middle East. We are by no means the principal source of the difficulties there – my view is that each country is largely responsible for its own destiny, and the fact that the Middle East is such a blighted region culturally and economically is best explained by reference to indigenous factors, not the impact of outside agents. Yet we have intervened militarily and culturally, and we have done so on the basis of our own blindness. The critique given of Western society by groups like ISIS are not entirely without merit, however barbarous their methods. Until we learn to engage seriously with the underlying theological analysis that they draw upon, and recognise that such analysis is shared very widely throughout the world, we will not be able to begin making amends for what we have done wrong, and enabling a greater peace in the Middle East.
Human beings live within worlds of story and meaning, in the same way that fish swim within water. It is the medium within which we live and move and have our being. When those aspects of our lives are deliberately scorned and belittled, in the name of another story and another God – secular technocratic science in our society – then it is as if we have started to pour toxic waste into our own water supply. We cease to function properly, and we move blindly from one mess to another, each one worse than the last. If we are to navigate through these crises effectively, we need to draw once more from the deep wisdom of our own spiritual tradition. “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”
I write this a few days after the resounding ‘Oxi’ from the Greek people to the demands from the Troika. In previous years the EU has been able to overturn the results of referenda when they didn’t go in the direction wanted (as with Ireland and Denmark); something tells me that this won’t be possible this time.
Which means that there is every chance that the Greeks will leave the common currency very soon; that will be a glorious and happy day. The setting up of the Euro as a common currency was a politically driven project. It was argued for as a step towards a single state, with a common fiscal and monetary policy. The fact that a common currency wouldn’t be able to function without a central authority implementing those common policies was pointed out at the time, along with predictions of disaster if a single currency was put in place without such a central authority. Sadly such predictions were ignored, and those making them were ridiculed and marginalised, and now we are where it was reasonable to expect us to be.
There is something about a common currency which is akin to a common language. Where there is a common language then the difficulties in communicating are (mostly) removed, and it is possible for speech to flow freely between different people. In the same way, a common currency removes barriers that hinder or prevent trade between different people. Those who share in the common currency share in a common pattern of life, a common civilisation.
The word ‘barbarian’ comes from Ancient Greek usage. It originally referred to a ‘tribal’ people, who were outside the ‘polites’, civilisation (think of it as ‘polite society’). So the barbarians were those who didn’t speek the Greek language and ‘babbled’. Over time it developed the additional meaning of someone who was simply uncivilised or uneducated, and it therefore became a term of abuse within Athenian politics. The barbarian was the person who didn’t share civilised values, who behaved like a monster – hence our inherited meaning of the word ‘barbarian’ today.
Yet who are the barbarians now? I notice, for example, that the cost of a full ‘bail-out’ for the Greek government is estimated at being some 320 billion Euros (I don’t want to say too much about the origin and responsibility for that debt, only to point out that it was accrued in order to save French and German banks, amongst others). Now compare that sum of 320 bn to the sums given in recent memory to the banking system, in order to preserve their private status. The UK government in September 2008 announced a total funding package of 500 billion pounds in order to preserve the financial industry. The US government’s total outlay on a financial rescue package, not including guarantees to institutions, is well over 5 trillion dollars. Barclays Bank alone, which boasted of not having to be bailed out, in the end received over £550 billion pounds of subsidy.
In other words, the actual cost of simply writing off all of the Greek debt would be small change compared to the enormous sums of money that have been used in recent years to prop up the world financial system. The decision on whether to help the Greek government out of its financial distress is a purely political decision, not a financial one. The decision is all about whether the Greek people are part of ‘us’ – the civilised world deserving of civilised care – or whether they are part of ‘them’ – barbarians, best left to their own devices, stewing in their own juice.
Clearly the mood in Northern Europe is to chastise the Greeks for borrowing profligately and spending recklessly, leaving those Northern Europeans to warm themselves with their own sense of pride in their fiscal rectitude. Of course, if we were thinking about proper fiscal virtue then banks that made reckless loans would be required to meet the costs of those loans themselves when they failed. A proper banker would exercise prudence and caution and assess whether someone who was borrowing money was in fact able to pay it back over time. This did not happen, for the simple reason that the Northern European economies did very nicely, thank you, out of an exchange rate that was much lower than it would otherwise have been, because it included less developed economies like Greece.
Surely it is now obvious to even the most obtuse observer that the EU is a system set up to further the interests of global financial capitalism? That it has very little to do with civilised values, and much more to do with making the world safe for the free flow of money? Rather than talking about barbarians, I keep thinking about ball bearings – those small, weight bearing spheres that need to be lubricated in order to keep the machinery working smoothly. That is what modern capitalism requires, to remove all the obstacles and friction that get in the way of the efficient workings of the market. Get rid of different languages, different currencies, different customs in order that the marginal cost of production can be reduced by the extra fraction of a percentage that maximises share holder value!
The suffering that this is causing to the people of Greece is starting to become clear. The people of Greece, not the bankers of Greece or the politicians of Greece, but the people of Greece are the ones who are going to be losing their jobs, deprived of medicines, worrying about where their food is going to come from. So where is civilisation? Do we really want to stay in such a system, that has such contempt for civilised values? Who are the barbarians now?
It amazes me when I hear progressive friends apologising for the barbarity that is the necessary consequence of the way that the EU has been structured. I only hope that enough people can see the truth about the beast that we also say a resounding ‘oxi’ when we get the opportunity.
Like most of us I was surprised by the outcome of the last general election. I was expecting the Conservatives to have more seats than other parties but not an overall majority; instead, I rather assumed that we were in for a Labour-SNP coalition government for the next five years. The result has been described as a political earthquake but, whilst it was a stunning development, I believe that the real earthquake is still to come.
Notice, first of all, that once the euphoria of victory has subsided, the Conservatives have an extremely small majority, smaller than John Major’s from 1992-1997. That government was significantly hampered in its objectives by having to cope with backbench rebellions, not least over Europe. Anyone remember Major’s expletive-filled denunciations of them? It is very unusual for incumbent governments to win by-elections, so we can expect that majority to shrink over time.
Furthermore, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party has not diminished in strength over the last twenty years or so, rather the opposite. This gives those backbenchers, who are clearly a well organised group, a very significant amount of leverage. Whereas Cameron was able to manipulate the process with respect to the referendum on electoral reform, thus killing off the prospect of proportional representation for another generation, I doubt whether he will be able to do the same with the forthcoming referendum on membership of the European Union. That might be my own hope speaking – I am strongly in favour of our leaving the EU – but there do seem more grounds for such hope at the moment. I can’t see any political compromise that would be acceptable to both those Eurosceptics and the other member governments of the EU. Consequently, Cameron will either have to try and sell a manifestly ‘weak’ package to the British people, or else he will campaign for an ‘out’ vote.
This will be complicated, alongside many other things, by the situation in Scotland. That was where a true political revolution took place, and it will clearly be some time before all the implications of the SNP’s success work themselves through our system. However, just as with the referendum on electoral reform that has settled a question for a generation, so too has the referendum on Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon was very clear that the general election vote was just that, and that it was not a vote for another referendum. That, of course, may change over time, but there seems little appetite for another referendum unless there is a very clear sense that there will be a decisive victory for the independence cause. That would require a major shift in the political landscape.
Which may well come if the EU referendum votes for an exit. The headlines over the coming months and years are unlikely to be favourable to the EU cause. The situation in Greece will come to a head, where Greece is likely to be forced to leave the Euro with the consequence of extreme financial hardship. This will, quite correctly, be blamed on the central EU institutions, which sought to set up a single currency without the necessary political centralisation that would have enabled it to work. Those institutions will therefore work towards putting that increased centralisation into effect – and how that then ties into the British referendum will be fairly clear.
So what happens if Britain as a whole votes to leave the ‘ever closer union’ of the EU, whilst Scotland votes to stay? That would be the ‘major shift in the political landscape’ that would justify another independence referendum in Scotland. Would it, could it take place before the actual withdrawal happened, and if so, would Scotland be allowed to stay in the EU whilst the rest of the United Kingdom departed? Legal advice would suggest not, that instead an independent Scotland would be required to apply for membership – and it would only be able to do that once it had set up all the apparatus of independence for itself, including its own currency.
We are, as a nation and as a society, arriving at a major crossroads in our national story, and it is not yet apparent in which direction we shall soon be travelling. Will we vote to stay within the EU and finally abandon any sense of independence as a nation? Or will we vote to leave the EU, which might, paradoxically, sound the final death knell for the country of Great Britain? Or will ‘events, dear boy, events’ once more render these questions irrelevant?
Questions, questions, questions – of such things is a speculative opinion column made. Yet my mind keeps returning at the moment to the ‘serenity prayer’, which runs like this: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference. There are very few ways in which we can make a direct difference to these major historical events. There are things that we have direct control over, things that we can influence – both of which are comparatively small – and then there is the vast world over which nothing that we do has a direct impact.
In the end the real political earthquake is internal; as Jesus once put it, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. The arena where we can most effect significant change is in our own soul. If we can overcome all the darkness and evil that lies within each of us, then we will be in a much better position to eliminate all the darkness and evil that lies without. The fundamental political task is an inherently religious one – which is why the greatest religious teacher that ever lived was executed by the state. We live in interesting times.