The schizophrenia of the times

My newsfeed reveals a schizophrenic attitude to faith and conflict. Today’s conflicts and violence are condemned absolutely, while the triumphant conquests of the past enjoy great eulogies, their reality whitewashed and distorted. We pine after a glorious past, oblivious to former transgressions, to doctrines of perennial war and imperial rules of engagement as cruel and unforgiving as the battles of any of the zealots of today.

What a strange situation to find ourselves in. Faced by the realities of war and conflict in modern times, we find ourselves perpetually on edge, worn down by the constant litany of barbaric acts and savagery, craving a legendary past when all men were just, all conquests honourable and six hundred years of war a time of peace. Somehow we are meant to reconcile the two implacable positions: to condemn today’s infractions and praise the misdemeanours of the past at exactly the same time. To take a different stance on the same behaviour, depending on when it occurred and who was in charge.

Too often the only element that differentiates one from the other is the question of authority. Barbarity under the auspices of a legitimate religious or political authority is sanctioned and sanctified, clothed in folklore and pious mythology.

Do not cut the tree, do not kill the child, do not kill old people, do not destroy the temple or church, do not kill the woman, do not kill the monk or priest, be good to prisoners and feed them, do not enforce Islam. Yes, all of these are found in the teachings of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and in the verses of the Qur’an. But open those classical books of fiqh, or read our history. How many times were these noble injunctions — spread so widely today — ignored?

Were not many of those past conquests, so celebrated today, offensive and not defensive? Did armies not seek to expand the borders of the state annually, to carry the faith far and wide? Did the empires of the past not believe they were liberating the people they conquered, like the armies of today bringing democracy to whole peoples with the aid of cruise missiles, stealth bombers, mass invasion and proxy wars?

So this is the schizophrenia of the times — on all sides. Civilised nations which invented the concept of terror bombing in World War II and carpet bombing in the decades thereafter, now look on perplexed at indiscriminate bombs placed in market places, condemning their barbarity without a trace of irony. Meanwhile, the faithful, schooled in the nobility of their tradition with its varnished history, sob and wail at our tragic reality today — the unending conflict and violence — while singing the praises of the vast armies of the past and their magnificent leaders, whether they were just or not, or any less sectarian than today’s bedeviled warriors.

How will we exorcise these demons? Surely not by hankering after an imagined past, or speaking of mythical laws in classical texts, or by petitioning us with tales about legitimate authority, apparently unachievable today. A paradigm shift, it seems to me, is needed — a better way of thinking — that unburdens us of these schizophrenic mindsets which cause us such unrest and discomfort. We need to open our minds and forge a thoughtful forward path.

Great games

Is Fethullah Gülen the head of a terrorist organisation? On outward appearances, I find that somewhat implausible. Followers of the Gülen movement are actively engaged in education, social welfare projects, humanitarian aid and interfaith dialogue all around the world. To the outside observer, they could only be an altruistic social movement; the idea of a malignant conspiratorial secret society seems preposterous. Continue reading Great games

In their shoes

I’m not an AKP groupie. The president’s style of leadership and temperament is not my cup of tea. The government deserves much credit for growing the economy, developing infrastructure and bringing about positive social change in Turkey, but uncritical fanatical followings help no one: there is the good and the bad.

Still, any objective person can see the that coverage of Turkey’s reaction to the coup attempt in our newspapers is far from balanced and fair. Compare coverage of France’s state of emergency instituted after the Paris terror attacks, to coverage of Turkey’s reaction after F-16 fighter jets repeatedly struck their Parliament, tanks rolled on the streets, prosecutors prepared an emergency constitution and made plans to hang not just members of the ruling party, but also of the opposition.

I wonder how exactly Turkey is expected to react to a massive terrorist insurrection, when it is yet to determine exactly who instigated the coup, and whether it has been fully thwarted or whether it will yet succeed. How would our state respond to such an incident? Would we not institute a state of emergency? Would we not see widespread arrests and suspensions in the course of the ensuing investigation?

I passionately believe that the Turkish government should use this near catastrophic event to reinvigorate its process of democratic reform, to carry the people with it and build a positive, vibrant, inclusive and tolerant society for all. I pray that they will not disappoint in this regard.

But let’s not be so naive to think that our reaction to events would be any different. If rogue officers hand commandeered several RAF Tornados on Friday night and dropped bombs on the Houses of Parliament, nobody would be calling on Theresa May’s government to show restraint.

If tanks had rolled down The Mall, crushing everything in their path, or if helicopters had fired on protestors gathering in Trafalgar Square, or if Balmoral had been bombed, you can imagine exactly what our reaction would be. We too would overreact. We too would take missteps and make mistakes. We too would institute emergency laws. It may not be right, but it is entirely understandable.

The influential

The obvious answer that alludes the scholar who asks, “Why must we condemn actions we’re not responsible for?” is not to assuage the demands of a hostile press or opportunistic politicians, but to offer unambiguous guidance to the kind of folk drawn towards extremism from amongst ourselves. That’s the role of people with influence.

Data mining sacred texts

Social Media timelines are awash with the results of a textual analysis of the Old Testament, New Testament and Qur’an, which in a very cursory way seems to suggest that the Qur’an is a more peaceful text than the Bible. Unfortunately it is one of those feel-good stories, easily shared, which falls apart on closer inspection.

Firstly because the Bible and the Qur’an are very different texts. What would happen if we were to compare biblical oral histories with those of Muslim tradition? Or the Acts of the Apostles to the accounts of early Muslim communities? The New Testament is made up of accounts of the life of Jesus, pseudo histories and letters of encouragement: though of course it informs the life of the Christian believer, it is of a completely different genre to the Qur’an. The Old Testament is an even more diverse body of literature, containing histories, poetry, canticles, mythology and law, spanning two thousand years.

More pertinently, however, the analysis was undertaken not on original sources in their native languages, but on English translations / interpretations. For the Bible, the New International Version was selected. For the Qur’an, Muhammad Ali’s Ahmadiyya rendering was used. Clearly data-mining any interpretation or translation of a text other than the original is going to severely skew the results.

It’s true that mining the original texts in Arabic, Hebrew or Aramaic would present its own set of problems. Even in their Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek forms, biblical texts have long histories spanning centuries of oral transmission, the written record and subsequent editing and refinement.

It doesn’t stop there. The nature of language itself is an issue for all traditions. The meanings of words are not independent of religious authority, which itself is not independent of the political establishment; naturally the definitions of words are very often politicised. Even so, a word-for-word analysis of earlier texts would at least avoid some of the layers of interpretational, doctrinal and linguistic bias introduced by the translator.

Textual analysis of this kind no doubt has its place, but it is too limited to be used on its own, other than to generate the kinds of headlines helpful to a small technology company seeking to stand out from the crowd.

A real analysis of sacred texts demands years of very patient work — much more than most of us are willing to pledge — taking in the meanings of surrounding words, grammar, ellipsis, philosophy, practice, historical context, later political developments and so on. On the road to understanding there are no shortcuts: it is a lifetime’s work.

To war

The irony of parliament’s decision is that it will now make it impossible to confront extremism in our communities. The world will now be framed as a polarised us and them, silencing voices of reason and restraint. Today, just like the government, our activists will silence all dissent, writing it off as treachery and dereliction. It is a tragedy of far-reaching and epic proportions.

Those who oppose warmongers of whatever shade will always be shouted down. In one fell swoop, parliament has radicalised a generation. Now is not the time to speak of food banks, or a winter fuel crisis effecting the elderly or the disintegration of public services. We now know why the Chilcot Inquiry has been delayed: because we dared not learn lessons of the last misadventure lest it dampen our enthusiasm for today’s.

Is there really a hierarchy of evil that makes it acceptable for us to sell arms and provide technical support to a regime responsible for killing thousands of civilians and displacing over a million more? We’re doing just that in Saudi Arabia today with respect to Yemen. Why lament these tragic hypocrisies? We have been engaged in this war without end for well over a century, but collective amnesia allows us to project our reality onto the other without a moment’s introspection.

Patriotism demands that we go to war. Peacemakers are terrorist sympathisers. That was the Sermon on the Mount nobody heard. Only the odd voice in the wilderness truly recalls the Beatitudes, and he is labelled an extremist. To war!

Illogical

I admit that logic does not necessarily have a place in international relations, but each time I hear this claim that da’ish want us to attack them, I find myself asking, “Why would they do that?”

If I had a mind to create my own State, I would start by making alliances. I probably wouldn’t try to provoke the most powerful army in the world into sending more stealth bombers, drones, aircraft carriers and cruise missiles to attack and wipe out my nascent state.

Maybe these people just have confidence I don’t. Maybe a fleet of Toyota Helux pickups really can take on a fleet of F-35B Lightning joint strike fighters (if so, somebody better start questioning the cost effectiveness of that particular $1.1 trillion project).

Either these people have been raised on different books to me — The Prince or Tauromaquia perhaps — or this script has been written really badly. To go boldly where so many have gone before: it is all highly illogical.

Smoke and mirrors

It’s intersting that the media is abuzz with panic about the mercenary army.

It’s not the mercenary army that’s sending its bomber jets to the edges of UK air space. Nor do they have nuclear submarines lurking off the northern Scottish coast, which only our French allies can detect because we scrapped our own recognisance aircraft.

Yes, the mercenary army has its sympathisers capable of committing attrocities as we have seen, but they pose no existential threat.

Is David Cameron’s rushed procurement of military hardware really about mercenary armies armed with Toyota pick-ups and cannon-fodder? Or is it about a nuclear power flexing its muscles?

Russia tested the waters in Ukraine. Nobody did anything.

They are now in Syria, bombing rebels armed by the US and its allies. Nobody did anything.

Could it be that, behind closed doors, the powers that be are just a little alarmed by this bold new resurgent Russia?

False witness

It is disturbing how willingly we will share photographs from one situation and pass them off as new images of another.

We have witnessed this repeatedly this week as France stepped up its bombing campaign against ISIS.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that there have been civilian casualties as a result of this action.

However, every one of the phtotographs provided as evidence has on investigation turned out to be several months old. Some actually depict the victims of the regime’s bombardments.

Using photographs of one conflict to depict another is not just unethical, but also alters the historical narrative. Who nowadays recalls the crimes of the regime?