Who convinced these people to embrace the hideousification of the face? Why uglify yourself that way? Grateful to have preceded Generation Mipster; we were blessed with the natural elegance of an unassuming modest beauty. The grotesque, gargantuan inventions of today’s fashionistas are like comic turn. Clowns revelling in an identity without its core.
Two weeks ago the big news was that Turkey had paid off its IMF debt and had pledged a $5 billion loan to the IMF to help alleviate the European debt crisis. Turkey seemed to have an air of confidence. And yet today the Prime Minister, democratically elected with 49.83% of the Popular Vote in 2011, is presented as an autocratic dictator. Is this the real mood of the nation, or outside provocation?
In this month of clemency, our Lord sent us a mercy in the form of a man who refused to fly into an unholy rage when his son was torn away from him in the midst of the anarchic disintegration that had seized a nation in the preceding hours. He has become an example for a nation; a light. Commentators on the Left and Right have hailed his humble, understated words as the voice of reason in a sea of chaos. He has been an embodiment of this holy month.
Every year in the weeks before Ramadan, strange thoughts flutter into my mind, planting a seed whose roots push far enough down into my heart that it will begin to sprout just as the fasting month begins. As my pious brethren set about welcoming the month of mercy, this soul heeds another call. It has long been clear that while the transgressions of the tongue derive from the whispers of the cursed one, these indiscretions come from within; from the soul of the self.
And so, even as I abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk, the riotous nafs come into bloom. Each year the ailment is the same, provoking the same reaction, the same visions, the same plots and plans, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at its end. This year: in the first then days, when sensible believers are found seeking the Mercy of their Lord. Instead of imploring my Creator to forgive and guide me, I was found harbouring an argument within: between the soul that cherishes righteousness and the soul that prefers rebellion. The first was weak and feeble, petitioning unconvincingly of an imminent end; the second was brazen, unheeding and arrogant. In the conversations within, it was the seditious soul that appeared to be on the ascendency.
We might find that these long summer fasts in the northern hemisphere are a great mercy, though they may not seem that way as our stomachs growl and shrink, as our frames become skeletal, as our eyes droop with sleep. For where the long nights of the winter fasts provide broad avenues for feasting and misdemeanour, these long days and short nights seem to curtail the conspiracies of the mutinous soul. As the sun sets there is no return to normality, no recuperation for the dissenter within; there is time for food and then comes that heavy fatigue, from which there is apparently no escape.
A week ago there arose strange contrivances, demanding strategies for the weeks that will follow this blessed month, when we will believe ourselves free from the restraints that impose self-discipline upon us now. But suddenly — whether due to the du’a of a friend or stranger or to the exhaustion that accompanies us as the month wears on — those erroneous designs have left me. Now that brazen soul has become feeble, whispering when it can for a return to its plots and plans, but even it is unconvinced. The righteous soul is still nowhere to be found, resigning to the intervention of this weary hunger instead.
My pious brethren strive in this month; they stand their nights in prayer and whenever their nafs petition them to act upon their lowest calls, they turn their backs and pray some more. This soul can only look on in awe, for it is tiredness that restrains it now; not piety, not righteousness, not religious purity. This is a soul that would sin through a month of immense mercy, were it not for the constrictions of a summer fast.
Mine are riotous nafs, which would tear down all that is good for short term gains, of little worth or value. I have not been wronged, I remind myself, but I wrong myself. And England lost its senses last week, not for the call of the devil, for the devils are chained in Ramadan, but for the calls of a nation’s nafs. It took one man — a mercy from above — to remind us of a higher calling, of a better way. He was Ramadan incarnate, the word made flesh. For the Muslim, it takes these long thirsty days, these parched throats, this heavy sleep, the aches and pains — all of this — to burn away our unholy desires, to overcome our riotous nafs.
Who am I to pass judgement on the despair of the youngster who has only known this war, waged in his land since he was only four? Who am I to pass judgement on the man who lived and died dishonourably in East Harlem, who was eradicated in an instant in a hail of bullets splattered from beyond the blacked out windows of a Cadillac SUV? Who am I to pass judgement on a man who flew into a rage when his neighbour’s home was demolished by a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator drone? Who am I to pronounce and convict, to chastise and deconstruct? Who am I to judge, when all I have ever know is ease?
I confess that for most of the past decade I was convinced that the so-called Smoking Gun video purportedly showing Osama bin Laden describing the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001 was a fake. I believed it to be a lazy contrivance thrown together to convince a gullible public of the rightness of a wrong war. I came to refer to it as ‘the video featuring a fat bin Laden’ — for, from the moment I first saw the video broadcast on Channel 4 news one weekday evening, I just knew that the portly figure with that broad, flat nose bore no likeness to the tall, thin Arab we had been accustomed to seeing on our television screens over the preceding weeks.
I am no longer convinced, however. In the past months, and for the first time in almost a decade, I have purchased a television licence (overseas readers may be surprised to learn that the British require a licence to watch live TV, but there we are). The act was brought on not so much for my benefit, but for that of my mother-in-law visiting from Turkey who requires a daily dose of ana haber and melodramatic, violin-backed dramas (British readers may be surprised to learn that we are required to have a licence to watch live TV broadcast anywhere in the world, but can watch the BBC iPlayer to our hearts’ content so long as it’s the catch-up service. But there we are). I will admit that I grew tired of trying to circumvent the TV licence by searching daily for non-live news broadcasts — a snippet here on YouTube, a summary there on the BBC website. In the end, the live broadcast was the way to go.
So now we have a TV. Er, well, no. We have a cheap netbook plugged into a cheap wide-screen monitor. We are not, honestly, all that fussed, although my mother-in-law does puzzle why we don’t just have a normal box with a normal remote like normal people. I would point out that we are not in Turkey, so she wouldn’t receive Turkish terrestrial broadcasts on our normal TV if we were normal people. And before you ask, no I’m not going to erect a massive satellite dish in my back garden for the convenience of having a normal television like normal people. I have an Internet connection, a cheap netbook and a cheap wide-screen monitor, and I find the stuttering and rebuffing altogether quite charming.
So to fat bin Ladens. I probably shouldn’t have watched the Royal Wedding, but I did. We had guests over who brought Union Jacks and declared a special interest; his cousin was (presumably still is) dating the bride’s sister. Hurrah. And of course I wanted to give my mother-in-law a cultural experience to take back home. Royal Weddings, Royal carriages, Royal mini-buses, Union Jacks and Jammy Dodgers were just the thing. So altogether we gathered around our cheap wide-screen monitor, precariously balancing miniature cups of Turkish coffee just within range of the enthusiastic flag waving of two toddlers and a four year old, to await the entrance of Rowen Williams and his guests. And there he came: not the Archbishop, but the fat prince. No, not the groom, but his best man, Prince Harry. He had shoulders like an American Footballer, a short, squat body, and a tiny orange head.
I configured the screen resolution correctly on the monitor when we first got it, but I have long since given up maintaining it. Every time the netbook comes out of the cupboard for a video call to Turkey, something goes awry. So now we just watch squashed TV on that plasticy 23 inch monitor at the netbook’s native resolution. As I said, we’re not fussed. To be honest, I just thought Huw Edwards’ and Gavin Esler’s chubby faces were the result of middle-age spread. It was the arrival of the fat prince that reminded me that our television viewing experience is far from optimal. If only we had a normal box with a normal remote like normal people.
If you had seen Prince Harry that glorious Jummah, you too would certainly have come to believe that the fat bin Laden was in fact Osama bin Laden. It is not inconceivable that the video in question has simply been squashed in transmission. Indeed, when the latest videos were broadcast following the reported death of Osama bin Laden last week, we even witnessed the frame switching from normal proportions to a slightly squashed wide-screen aspect in unedited form (or was it the other way round?).
Which brings me to the other fat prince: Alex Jones. Within days of the latest videos being broadcast, he was declaring that the latest videos were fake. ‘Fake, fake, fake, fake, fake,’ as the person who brought it to my attention put it, when he posted his video. It didn’t even look like Osama bin Laden, he declared, showing us photos of how he looked a decade ago. Possibly true, but then I don’t even look like Timothy Bowes, if you look at the head-shot in my passport from a decade ago. That character with the gaunt, pale face looks like your typical EDL member to me. It’s amazing what a decade of good home-cooked Turkish tucker can do the general flabbiness of a man’s body. Plus I smile a bit more nowadays. Ah no, but it is clearly a cartoon character, a computer animation. Well possibly. I must admit, his mouth did look weird to me, but then you should see Fiona Bruce on a misconfigured wide-screen monitor.
Well it’s all possible, of course. But I have another theory. Could it be that Alex Jones is a figment of his own imagination? The thing that got me thinking about this was, well, his existence. If the United States of America has become — or is fast becoming — a Police State as he perpetually claims, how is it that the Police State Apparatus hasn’t taken him out? Surely he would have fallen down the stairs by now, been run over by a tram or had his website flushed down the loo, speaking as he does of the truth about the evil-doers. But maybe I just don’t understand how the Secret Police work. Ah, but you’ve got me. This isn’t a new thought at all; I first thought this thought a couple of years ago when he uncovered the top-secret goings on of the top-secret and highly secretive Bilderberg Group during their Annual General Meeting. That’s the trouble with Secret Societies these days: we know all about them. Lest we forget Vigil. Codswollop, is what I thought.
I’m sure I probably mentioned before that my grandfather (or was it his grandfather, or my great-grandfather’s son?) was reportedly a member of the Free Masons, but apparently it was just like a social club. I have in mind that they played Dominoes on an evening, but I may be getting mixed up with a Jamaican barber shop. If they were hatching plans for world domination, RISK would have been a better choice of board game. But who knows? Perhaps it’s the Premium Masons we should be worried about.
Alas, alas. I set out this evening to write a serious article about a serious subject, but alas it has descended into farce. But perhaps farce is all that the subject deserves. When Muslims start referring you to Alex Jones as purveyor of the truth, you can only laugh or cry. What great analysis, what penetrating insight. Or not. Personally speaking, I still have great difficulty believing that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were the work of private individuals, but I wouldn’t dare tell you I know what really happened that fateful day. In God we trust. I have no knowledge of the unseen.
Life is filled with trials and tests, but somehow we never recognise half of them in the mundane encounters of daily life. ‘Do you think you will be left to say, “We believe”, and will not be tested?’ we remind ourselves as calamities unfold on our television screens. Tornados rip a town to pieces, and we remember. Cruise missiles rain down on a city, and we remember. An earthquake flattens a province, and we remember. But in the disputes between friends, the argument between a husband and his wife, in the pay cut, the job loss, the crashing computer, the rain on a day out, the broken down car, the bill for repairs, the ungrateful response to a favour done, the guest out-staying his welcome and the slugs eating the seedlings in the garden; in all things that demand us to choose between flying into an unholy rage and resigning contentedly to the good in the bad, we forget, repeatedly.We expect the kind of trials we would never be able to bear, wandering on, oblivious to the perpetual assessment that is our life. How easy to decry from afar the deperate residents of a permanent refugee camp picking up the bomb and a gun in rage; how hard to sit down, lie down, repeat one’s wudu, to bite one’s tongue, to go for a walk, to simply say sorry, or never-mind, when dinner wasn’t ready or the tea was cold, when the children raised their voices and scattered toys across the floor, when she had a migraine and forgot your special appointment. How hard it is to face the tests of our lives. How hard. How hard to face the mundane.
As sections of the media and governments worldwide congratulate themselves for telling Israel off for shooting civilians on the Mavi Maramara earlier this week, I am struck by the absolute lack of outrage at that hideous by-product of America’s robotic assassinations: the incidental deaths of women and children.
In the course of the war on terror, we have slipped into the alternative fictional world of 2000AD in which Street Judges sentence and execute offenders instantly in their effort to enforce the law. We have lost all sense of moral proportion, shrugging off the actions of the squadron of MQ-9 Reaper “hunter-killer” drones as some kind of norm. Judge Dredd now sits at a computer terminal at a military base in Nevada, sending his robotic army wherever he wills. All the world is Megacity 1: Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq. In this alternative reality—now our tragic actuality—the world is his oyster. And we dumb clones.
How can it be that the deaths of wives, children and grandchildren are all considered an acceptable side effect of a policy of assassination? We no longer even talk of collateral damage: it is only necessary to mention that the target was an Al-Qaeda militant and anyone around him is suddenly non-human, whose death is inconsequential.
Some would point out that this is nothing beside the German blitz of British cities during World War Two, or in light of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What is the death of a few children to the massacre of 50,000 civilians and the destruction of the entire city of Hamburg during one week in July in 1943? It is the way of war, is it not?
Not last time I checked. While it goes without saying that the targeting of civilians is absolutely prohibited in Islamic Law, with clear conditions laid down to avoid accidental civilian casualties, the Geneva Convention also makes plain the status of combatants and civilians on the battlefield. Civilians may well have borne the brunt of military action over the past century, but under humanitarian law they are supposed to be protected people.
It is claimed that a man said to be a leading militant in Al-Qaeda—that great spectre of the war on terror—was killed last week by a missile fired from a robotic drone in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, near the town of Miran Shah. Nobody advocates capturing those charged with terrorism or rebellion and bringing them to trial, for this is war; indeed to even make such a suggestion is to admit some sort of sympathy for the worst of the worst.
Dare we speak up for those killed alongside him though? For it is claimed that his wife, three of his daughters, his granddaughter, and other men, women, and children, were also killed in the missile strike. They were collateral damage? They were guilty by association? Or is this a new post-patriarchal age when we dare not speak of women and children for fear of patronising the victims of war? Must we remain silent in reverence to the new wisdom of our age?
If not now, when will we awake? Last July, the US Air Force released a report entitled, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047,” in which it proposes a drone that could fly over a target and then make the decision whether or not to launch an attack, all without human intervention. The drones are not going away, nor the so-called war on terror.
So I see those crocodile tears for Israel’s actions this week are already dry, for if the nations truly cared then, surely they would condemn these other breaches of international humanitarian law too. Isn’t it this the death of civilisation?
I opened The Independent this morning to find a photograph of someone I once knew staring back at me. An entire decade has passed since we last set eyes on one another, but this article by Johann Hari brought memories flooding back. Not because his article resonated with me, mind you, but because his narrative troubled me. In Renouncing Islamism: To the brink and back again, Hari presents that old acquaintance as an ex-Jihadi—or he presents him as presenting himself that way. But the fellow I knew back then was nothing of the sort.
I cannot say I was ever a close associate of his—and so it is quite possible that I missed the portion of the tale that Hari recounts in his article—but we did encounter one another frequently between 1997 and 1999, as we were both students at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in central London.
I first encountered him in the student common room in the SOAS halls of residence on Pentonville Road, where he would play pool and chain-smoke cigarettes. He wore designer clothes, had a very fashionable hairstyle and was always cleanly shaven. His rhetoric constantly concerned neo-colonialism, but this never had much impact on me as a student of International Development, where the post-colonial discourse was already commonplace. At SOAS, his assault on the mischief of the West was nothing extraordinary, for the socialists’ arguments were the same.
Even as a non-Muslim I found myself socialising with him quite frequently through my Muslim pool-partner, whom I had met going to a bizarre comedy show at the student union earlier in the year. Our gatherings often took place on Friday evenings in the cafes of Edgware Road, where we would drink bitter black tea and smoke fruit-flavoured tobacco. Again, the talk was of neo-imperialism, of western-proxies ruling the Islamic world and the Khilafah, but memorably the sources were Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and John Pilger.
Those social meetings ceased when I became Muslim in 1998, as I considered the smoking and time-wasting un-Islamic, but I continued to encounter him on campus. I largely kept company with a group of apolitical Salafis at the time, who were fiercely critical of HT whom they considered to hold heretical beliefs. The Salafis believed that the Muslim world would only be reformed by individual Muslims reforming themselves and adhering to the sunnah, whereas HT had a Leninist view that change would come about upon the establishment of the State. Thus I frequently stumbled upon arguments between this fellow and my friends, with the latter mocking HT as the Socialist Worker Party for Muslims.
I am puzzled, therefore, when Hari writes that my acquaintance, ‘wanted to be at the heart of the jihad’, for I never heard him talk about this even once, even theoretically. Instead he was perpetually obsessed with the idea that ‘intellectual argument’ would be the driver for change in the Muslim world. He went on about ‘intellectual arguments’ to such an extent that it became something of a joke amongst the other students.
I have no idea whether the tale of a coup plot involving junior Pakistani army officers is in any way true. However, it is the case that he was involved in an attempted coup in 1999 rather closer to home: not in dusty Karachi, but in the tiny second-floor prayer room at SOAS. Here he intended to wrest control of the Islamic Society from the Iqwanis, who had wrested control from the Salafis earlier in the year.
I know this, because he thought this quite amiable, decent chap would help him. His great talent, as I recall, was not so much in being able to convince people and win them over, but in talking them into submission. He would go on and on at you with circular arguments so that in the end you would agree with him just to be able to change the subject.
And so it was one day when he came over to my flat to argue that something had to be done about the Islamic Society, which he claimed was corrupt and unrepresentative of the Muslim students: he talked at my flatmate and me for ages until we finally agreed to put our names to his vote of no-confidence. Unfortunately he did not get the message when I rang him back to tell him I had changed my mind and the next I knew about it was when members of the Islamic Society came for me, demanding to know why my name was listed on a petition pinned to the notice board in the prayer room.
Alas, I never had the privilege of reading the notice, but was in any case called on to attend a special meeting of the Islamic Society to explain what it was all about, for the instigator had disappeared and was unreachable on his mobile phone. As in Hari’s article, he was never drawn on the details of this coup plot either, but it did make my remaining days at SOAS somewhat uncomfortable where the Islamic Society was concerned.
Meanwhile, he continued to organise lectures on campus, inviting academics like Fred Haliday to duels where he would demonstrate the power of his ‘intellectual arguments’. Nobody I knew ever considered him a jihadi, but only something of a friendly bore. Rather than taking him seriously, people dismissed him as a caricature socialist wrapped up in Muslim garb.
Reading Hari’s article, however, he sounds like a great Missionary, steaming off to one Muslim country and then another as if on an adventure inspired by Indiana Jones. Hari writes that he ‘decided to move on to Egypt’. Yet to say that he decided to move on to Egypt is to stretch language a little far. In reality he was undertaking a degree in Arabic at SOAS and was required to spend a year in Alexandria as part of the course, like every other student.
Even there his capacity to talk people into submission was well noted, even by his lecturers, who advised him to reign in his tongue. But he was not one to listen to such advice and was soon arrested for belonging to a banned political party. Upon his release several years later, he appeared on Hard Talk on the BBC News channel, still eloquently and passionately defending HT, once again talking of those ‘intellectual arguments’.
All these memories signal my trouble with Hari’s article. Yes, he was indeed a recruiter for HT and he was dedicated to this cause. But to claim he was a jihadi is to stretch the truth too far. Granted I never attended any of HT’s gatherings to learn what may have lain beyond the mockery of my friends; perhaps, if I had, I might have formed a different picture of him. But in the ordinary interaction between us, and in witnessing his debates with friends and his famous debates with secular academics, I believe I framed a fair picture of the man. He was a passionate and eloquent disputant, absorbed in the kind of post-colonial rhetoric common to many students of the time, like my many socialist acquaintances.
I am not dismissing his devotion to HT or excusing it. I am merely suggesting that the article I read this morning was full of exaggerations. I am not in denial about the threat of extremism within the Muslim community—indeed, I have noted elsewhere the advice I was given to steer clear of known extremists when I first became Muslim. My objection to Hari’s article is that for me it raised more questions than it answered.
Why, I find myself wondering, is it necessary to build oneself up as a great sinner who saw the light—like Paul on the road to Damascus—in order to denounce what is wrong? There are many, many Muslims who have been quietly, modestly, cautiously working on the ground to counter extremism for years and years. Theirs is a thankless task. Condemned by the extremists and ex-extremists alike, their work is ever more difficult. These men and women did not need to venture to the brink and back to realise that it was wrong; they had already delved into their faith and forged a forward path.
Should I be grateful that I saw that face peering back at me from the newspaper this morning, for reminding me of all of this? I’m not sure to be quite honest, but of one thing I’m pretty sure: Johann Hari has just been sent on a wild goose chase. I hope he realises this before he invests too much hope in his new found friends.
Why all the killing? I really cannot comprehend it at all. A bomb planted in a Peshawar marketplace extinguishes the lives of 91 in an instant as it rips through everything in its path; 200 more are left injured. Just a matter of hours earlier 150 are slaughtered in Baghdad.
Islam holds that indiscriminate violence is makruh (offensive) on the battlefield and haram (forbidden) in a place where there are civilians. This slaughter follows not the sunnah of our Prophet, upon whom be peace, but that of the twentieth century, during which 250 million people were needlessly killed. Fifteen million during the First World War, 9 million during the Russian Civil War, 20 million under Stalin’s regime, 55 million during the Second World War, 2.5 million during the Chinese Civil War, and on, and on.
Who gave Muslims permission to adopt the sunnah of the Luftwaffe and RAF, who once championed terror bombing for utilitarian ends? And who gave them permission to abandon the sunnah of the Messenger, peace be upon him, which forbade attacks on non-combattants?
Who now will stand up to the killers and defend our deen and the common man? If a man in the midst of this anarchy must now blunt his sword and resign himself to a fate like that of the better of the two sons of Adam, does the burden then pass to those of us living in safety and security?
For years Muslims have lamented that though we condemn terrorism repeatedly, nobody hears us. But today we realise that all this time we have been addressing the wrong ears. Those who needed to hear us were not our angry neighbours, but those men wielding high explosives and an alien utilitarian way.
Amidst the carnage of a bombed-out marketplace, who now will make themselves heard?
Recent months have seen a sudden upsurge in devotion to the Christian faith amongst followers of the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL). In June the BNP chimed against the Islamic colonisation of Britain, seen in the widespread conversion of churches throughout the land: the Central Mosque of Brent; the former Forest Gate Church; Peckham’s St Mark’s Cathedral; West Didsbury’s Albert Park Methodist Chapel; Oldham’s Glodwick Baptist Church; and 250 year old Brick Lane Church in London’s Spitalfields (once a French Protestant church, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now a Bengali mosque). All of these churches — and many more — have fallen to the Islamic invasion.
The BNP are not alone. As the EDL prepare to descend on Manchester on 10 October to protest against Islamic extremism, a video has appeared on the internet, making a rallying cry for England’s Christian heritage.1 In his video entitled, ‘EDL: Defending our heritage & birthright – Manchester Oct 10th 2009’, Lionheart of Luton, Paul Ray, builds a picture of a nation under siege. While it begins with headlines captured from the Daily Mail and the Express to illustrate how Muslims receive special treatment — whilst England’s natives suffer at their hands — this is another ode to the churches of England.
‘Manchester England,’ reads a slide midway through the video, ‘The destruction and desecration of a Christian Church and graveyard to make way for a Mosque’. The slides intersect a video showing a tracked Komatsu digger moving earth within the grounds of Longsight’s St John’s Church. The next slide reads:
Are yesterday’s politically correct Church leaders irrelevant to us in todays United Kingdom? Psalm 81:9 There shall be no foreign god among you; Nor shall you worship any foreign god.
In this video, the EDL has messianic pretensions, likening church leaders to the corrupt Pharisees of old, but they would rather not share the Christian message here. Instead, invoking the book of Samuel, they turn to an earlier saviour for inspiration. The EDL is David to the Muslim Goliath in England’s midst:
The Saul generation of Church leaders is coming to an end with the emerging David’s poised to take their place. Please show God where you stand and pray for the United Defence Leagues and their members
The video from St John’s is followed by newspaper clippings about the resignation of Bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali — the only bishop, we are told, who grasped the extent of the threat of Islam to British civil society. Nobody mentions Kenneth Cragg these days, while the intellectually brilliant Rowan Williams is dismissed as some sort of loony. And so it is left to the EDL to defend Christianity, not just from the Muslims, but also from parish priests, pastors and impotent Bishops:
The David generation leaders are already in place and speaking the truth on-behalf of His people
Are you one of them who is willing to stand against the Islamification of this Christian land?
A little probing reveals that the source of the video showing building contractors working on the church site is a BNP supporter, who posts the full version on YouTube entitled, ‘Saint Johns, Christian Graves Desecration’2 with the description, ‘Graves desecrated at Saint Johns Church in Longsight, Manchester, England as Church is converted into Mosque.’ The BNP itself has an article featuring both the video and further photographs on its website.
There is a problem, however. When I researched the history of St John’s, Longsight, I found that it was decommissioned in 1999. Neighbouring St Agnes — ‘in this place will I give peace,’ inscribed above its entrance — now houses the abandoned church’s statue of St John the Evangelist in its nave. It has taken the BNP and EDL an entire decade to lament the loss of this historic place of worship and its descent into disrepair.
Of course, the key issue riling the nationalists is the desecration of the site. But here again there is a problem. A quick enquiry with the City Council reveals that St John’s Church is a Grade II listed building, which means that it is considered nationally important and of special interest.3 To make any changes to such a building requires the owner to apply for building consent.
Lo and behold, we discover that planning permission for a 16 space car park in the church garden was granted early in 2007. In the intervening period, the owners have spent £50,000 repairing the building, which now houses Dar-ul-Ulum Qadria Jilania mosque and Islamic Centre. A photograph on the BNP website clearly shows that the graveyard has been carefully preserved, although the picture has been tagged, ‘grave-in-front-OF-DIGGER’, since the work in the church garden can be seen in the background.
It turns out that the graveyard has not been touched at all. But if it had been, should we not expect the BNP and EDL to be enraged whenever a graveyard comes under the developer’s gaze? Locals certainly protested when a builder obtained planning permission to redevelop a derelict chapel in Coedpoeth, Wrexham, which included plans to build luxury flats and a car park on top of approximately 100 graves in 2007. But as far as I can tell, the BNP did not join their protests.
The truth is, the redevelopment of graveyards is a fairly common occurrence in the United Kingdom. Rehoboth Baptist Church in Horsham, for example, has just completed construction of a seven space car park and garden of remembrance on its former graveyard. Planning permission to remove the headstones without disturbing the actual graves and to block pave part of the site was granted in 2005. The BNP and EDL, of course, will not be protesting about this car park on this graveyard.
And that’s the problem. The BNP and EDL wish to use the redevelopment of church buildings as ammunition against Britain’s Muslim population, but the facts do not support them. Reading their literature, you would imagine that hoards of Muslims were running amok throughout the land, confiscating church property at the expense of lively congregations. Nowhere is the reason for church closures mentioned — ironically for people that speak of a David Generation, a term commonly employed by those concerned with conquering the personal Goliaths of the ego, there is no introspection here.
Nor are the numbers of closures put in context. For while seventeen hundred Anglican churches have been made redundant since 1969, there are still over 48,500 churches of different denominations serving their communities nationwide. Moreover, over the same period, The Church of England opened more than 500 new churches, while continuing to maintain over 16,000 others. If, as some claim, there are now seventeen hundred mosques in the United Kingdom, this is still only 3.5% of the total number of churches in the country (interestingly the Muslim population of the UK is a similar proportion of the whole).
If Muslim worship appears to be more visible than that of the Christian, it could only be because the Muslim still views the Friday Prayer as England’s Christians viewed Sunday Worship one hundred years ago. Even a believer on the borders of his faith still feels duty bound to put on his Friday-best once a week. But it would be misleading to suggest that seventeen hundred mosques have sprung up in place of the seventeen hundred Church of England buildings closed over the past forty years, for Anglican churches have covenants conferred upon them which usually prevent them from being used by other faith communities. While BNP leader, Nick Griffin, has claimed that Church of England buildings are being turned into mosques, ‘up and down the country,’ it is actually rather hard to find any. The closest I can find are a couple of gurdwaras utilised by the Sikh community.
If my own experience reflects a wider trend, I would suggest that only a handful of mosques in Britain are of great note. Converted houses, rooms above shops, disused warehouses and hired halls in multi-cultural centres are all included in the number of mosques in Britain. The Archbishop’s cubbyhole under the stairs for private prayer would not seem out of place in our sometimes ramshackle collection of prayer halls. Nevertheless, it is true that Muslims have bought former churches — notably redundant Methodist chapels which seem to be in great supply.
So the BNP and EDL have a point? Well I don’t think so. While ranting about St John’s, Longsight, they completely ignore St George’s, Hulme, a Grade II listed building built in 1823 which has been converted into a place of residence, a mere two and a half miles away. But why should this surprise us when they also ignore the conversion of former churches into restaurants, gyms, pubs, nightclubs, shops and private apartments? Brixton’s St Matthew’s church is now the Mass nightclub, which promises revellers loud music, all night dance and expensive spirits. O’Neill’s on Muswell Hill Broadway, housed in a grand old church, offers cheap food and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Cheltenham’s St James’ is now an Italian restaurant. St Luke’s in Heywood, Lancashire, located 14 miles from Manchester City centre, has been turned into a huge family home, featuring six double bedrooms. And for between £250,000 and £500,000 you too can own one with estate agents listing hundreds of former chapels, rectories and churches, already converted or waiting to be converted, with planning consent already obtained.
If the BNP and EDL were genuinely concerned about the loss of historic places of worship and the demise of their Christian heritage, they would say to their members, ‘Look, churches are closing all around us because we don’t use them. We need to start making Sunday special again.’ That task, however, would entail asking their followers to take personal responsibility for their lives: that only ten percent of British Christians regularly attend church cannot be blamed on the mainstream political parties, on multi-culturalism or political correctness. It certainly can’t be blamed on the Muslims.
But the likely response of such people would be to say, ‘Don’t bring religion into this.’ Though they claim to be defenders of the faith, they are in fact like the utilitarian jihadis who dispense with the boundaries of religion, claiming that the end will justify the means. Like those who ignore the prohibitions of their faith, the BNP and EDL ignore the message at the heart of the religion they claim to hold dear. When Jesus — peace be upon him — was asked which were the greatest commandments, Christians believe that he replied:
“The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbour as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”4
If this message is unclear to those of the David Generation, Jesus — peace be upon him — is reported to go on to say, ‘But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’5 And if they insist on bringing, ‘I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword,’6 let them read it in context: Jesus — peace be upon him — knew that most of his people would reject his teachings, which would divide both families and communities. His was a vision of a just society: he overturned the tables of the moneylenders in the temple, he promoted fair treatment of the poor and forgave his enemies. In the context of his time, many of the parables appear as much an assault on the social injustices of his society as messages for spiritual growth.7
More famously, perhaps, we have the Beatitudes: blessed are the are the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the hated, the meek, the merciful, those pure in heart, and the peacemakers.8 A worthy message indeed, but one clearly lost on those self-declared champions of Christianity in Britain, the BNP and EDL.
Last Thursday, twenty Muslim gravestones were pushed over and a number were broken at Manchester’s Southern Cemetery on Barlow Moor Road.9 It is not possible to say at this stage who was responsible and what motivated them, but the Police are treating it as a racially-motivated crime. It is not inconceivable that it was a revenge attack for the alleged desecration of Christian graves at St John’s, Longsight — a mere ten minute, four mile drive away.
Love your neighbour as yourself? Love your enemy as yourself? Blessed be the peacemakers? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the authenticity of the nationalists’ new found faith, and where it is liable to lead us.
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWcGOt4btwY (spiritofstgeorge) ↩
- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z6o5Ccwb0A (SuperAceofDiamonds) ↩
- Listed buildings in Manchester by street, Manchester City Council — http://www.manchester.gov.uk/info/514/listed_buildings_register/1908/a-z_of_listed_buildings_in_manchester/18 ↩
- Gospel of Mark 12:29-31 ↩
- Gospel of Matthew 5:44 ↩
- Gospel of Matthew 10:34 ↩
- See for example Jesus the Prophet: His Vision of the Kingdom on Earth by R David Kaylor, John Knox Press, 1994 ↩
- Gospel of Luke 6:20-23 and of Matthew 5:1-14 ↩
- Manchester Evening News, 2 October 2009 — http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/1153293_muslim_graves_targeted_in_hate_attack ↩