This fire

They demand that you speak up, say something, make your voice heard, as if everything is clearcut and obvious and true, and as though your voice would make a difference to the wronged, caught in the crossfire of conflict.

Perhaps the silent fear opening the door to another giant invasion from outside, sold as a humanitarian intervention like Iraq and Libya. Continue reading “This fire”

To be just

If you’re a humanitarian aid organisations claiming to be unbiased, non-partisan and apolitical, your social media feed really should reflect it. I understand that emotions are running high, as we’re moved by the intense suffering of innocents — but aid organisations claiming to support all humanity irregardless of their beliefs should be scrupulous in maintaining that stance.

In Syria there are thousands of innocent victims across all ethnic and sectarian divides. There are civilians held under siege in both rebel and pro-government towns and villages. Militants on all sides have committed atrocities, holding civilians hostage, forcibly conscripting fighters, killing their opponents and causing a mass exodus of people into neighbouring states.

No doubt someone has to apportion blame and hold aggressors to account. But humanitarian organisations claiming to help all? If they are to discharge their obligations justly, their job is to support the vulnerable and needy, no matter who they are.

Chosen people

Quoting a contemporary of William Wallace and applying it to the present day would normally be considered plain odd. People would say, look, they were different battles in different times with different proponents — and even then his views were considered controversial. But, no, the words of sheikh ul-islam in his battle with Muslims declared apostates in medieval Syria are regurgitated daily and passed on as if a directive from revelation. For in the legends of today, the people of sham are a chosen people — though, of course, not the rulers of sham and their army. But the people, yes, and the foreigners who have flooded in from outside to support them. Though not the foreigners aiding the rulers. No, only the chosen people of the chosen people. And this is the madness that unfolds.

Shock and awe

I don’t know what is happening on the ground. It is impossible for me to verify anything that is reported to me. I don’t know who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is bad. I do not know if the narrative that has reached me is a representation of reality, or mere propaganda.

I have heard claims and counter-claims. I have read differing accounts of the same incidents. I have followed dubious and suspect social media feeds. I have seen footage of war, repurposed from a music video — and aid workers playing the mannequin challenge. And, yet the harrowing accounts of presumed-to-be honest aid workers and relief organisations too.

What is the truth? What is the reality on the ground? Are civilians being targeted by that awful regime, or are they being liberated from four-years held hostage by terrorist groups? Are civilians being targeted by the conquering rebel groups, or are the rebels the saviours of the people, defending them when no one else would?

I honestly have no idea. It is impossible to verify most of what I hear. Yes, the reverse image search is always there, enabling us to separate old news from new. Yes, here and there you can divine the truth. But by and large, there are just great big questions, exaggerated all the more by the media’s sudden concern for people it usually despises.

Truth is the first casualty of shock and awe. Sympathy for the victims, whoever they are, the second. Objectivity the third. Compassion the fourth. Somewhere in this list are lessons for us all.

Delivering aid

The British Government is providing £100million in aid to Yemen, whilst simultaneously selling £3.7billion of weapons and military support to Saudi Arabia, whose actions have been causing massive suffering and damage there since March 2015 (almost 4000 civilians killed and 130 health facilities hit).

All aid agencies are going to struggle to get aid to those who need it most; Médecins Sans Frontières hospitals have been hit by Saudi bombs several times now, but continue to work there. We must trust that organisations such as Oxfam, Unicef, the Red Cross and Islamic Relief that explicitly ask us to support their work in Yemen have the means to reach those in need.

Yet it does all seems tragically futile when our own government has such an intimate and compromising relationship with arms dealers, who help fuel conflicts like this in the first place.

The little people have their good intentions, as they spend of their wealth on the poor and the needy, but they have no influence. Only governments can decide how they will behave in the world: to take a moral stance, or just focus on economic growth, whatever it takes.

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.

Continue reading “The schizophrenia of the times”

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?

Mockery

If on Remembrance Sunday we had been able focus less on who was wearing a poppy and more on the tragedy of that hideous war that was supposed to end all wars, how might we be reacting to this weekend’s terrible events? Less than two weeks after that profound moment of silence we are beating the drums of war one more. We make mockery of ourselves.

Confutation

We need to stop rejoicing in what we think we have.

There’s a reason our scholarly refutations consistently focus on the question of authority and not on actual practices.

What would happen if, instead of revelling in our selective reading of tradition, we acknowledged all that we have inherited, both the good and the bad?

Would we still blindly celebrate the esteemed scholars’ every word, or would those unasked inner questions finally break surface?

Might we allow ourselves to ask if this is truly the prophetic way? If this is truly what we find in the Qur’an? Might we allow ourselves to truly follow the best of ways, and not just a schizophrenic reading of it?

A time to mourn

Europe is mature enough to mourn these acts of barbarism without descending into civil war or embarking on pogroms.

The days ahead will be hard for some, but our leaders — who gathered a week ago to remember the 13 million who died in WWI, 60 million who died in WWII and the hundreds of thousands killed since — know that the responsibility for what happens next is theirs. These difficult moments will pass.

Spare us the commentary, the fear-mongering, the conspiracy-theories, the appropriation of victimhood, the excuses, the blame, the calls to action, the false patriotism, the ethnocenticism, the propaganda, the pseudo-religious apologetics, the sectarian polemics, the moral equivalence, the misguided lamentations.

Let those who must grieve.

Beyond naïve apologetics

It may be a triumph for apologetics, but it is not a triumph for truth. Our activists undoubtedly have good intentions, but their arguments are not in the least convincing. Religious belief and religious ideology, it is claimed, have absolutely nothing to do with a person’s decision to commit acts of violence, and the sociologists’ summarised research backs this up. In short, we don’t have a problem with extremism, so let’s move on.

Of course all of this is nonsense. An in depth reading of history is hardly necessary to see that religious belief has often led to types of activism which have terrorised others. From the Zealots of Qumran to the Umayyad caliphate against its opponents, from the Inquisition and Conquistadors to the Stern Gang, we could enumerate hundreds of thousands of examples of acts of violence sanctioned as a religious duty.

Sure we can all argue that when representatives of religion promulgate violence they are acting against the essence of the religion itself, but this is a difficult argument to make given that religions are in a constant state of adaption and flux, filtered through the worldview and experience of their adherents.

All manner of arguments can be had about authentic teachings or orthodox beliefs — and all of us want to believe that we personally have a proper grasp of the truest and most authentic original faith as conveyed to us by the Messengers — but they obscure the reality that religious belief is expressed, interpreted and practiced in a multitude of ways, even when based upon the same sources.

It is undoubtedly true that millions of people have lost their lives during the past century for reasons other than religion; the scourge of nationalism and the rise of ideologies such as Communism have caused slaughter unmatched in earlier times. Nobody denies this. But recognising this fact does not absolve the religious of responsibility. It is truly not possible to claim that religion has nothing to do with violent extremism and it is foolish to pretend that this is so.

Have we not seen sincere young converts commit atrocious acts of barbarity thousands of miles from home because they were taught and convinced that it was their religious duty? To pretend that this is not so does a disservice to us all. If we are to address the situations in which we find ourselves and prevent atrocious acts of barbarism, we much start by acknowledging uncomfortable realities. Naïve apologetics cannot do that; only sceptical introspection borne of faith can fix the diseases which afflict us.

Sympathy for all

It’s your right to be upset, alarmed and angry when you witness a crime against a defenceless individual. But step back and take stock before you take it as a reason to foment sectarian and communal strife. The level of violent crime and sexual assaults on our public transport networks is frightening and unacceptable, but it serves to highlight than anybody can be a victim and anyone can be a perpetrator. We should have sympathy for all victims, not only those we share something in common with. We need to build a better society for all.

Clash of cultures

Does it not occur to the British-born fighter lamenting the manners and etiquette of local Syrians that they may in fact resent outsiders coming into their country to lord it over them? Has it not occurred to him that the populace of so-called liberated villages may not actually see themselves as a liberated people, but as a people conquered and brutalised by outsiders?

Indeed, is there not something very British about this strange lament? That of an uninvited guest complaining about the locals’ manners, whilst simultaneously destroying the fabric of their society? Oh, but the irony, seemingly lost on the author: the act of accidentally praising the West for its superior manners, administration skills, neighbourly relations, fairness and rules of the road.

I guess what was left behind was not all rotten; that a nuanced understanding of the world was always possible, if only dogmatism could be set aside. Instead foreigners descend on an unknown land, ignorant of its history and culture, and complain about self-inflicted misfortunes, all whilst the native population flee their homes in ever larger numbers, desperate to escape the imported madness unfolding around them. A clash of cultures indeed.

No precedent

A respected scholar writes,

“We are at a very critical juncture in the history of Islam. There is no precedent for the spectacle that is created around the atrocious crimes, killings and murders of takfirist movements.”

But of course there is precedent, isn’t there? One only needs to pick up and read a history book to find that these kinds of outrageous crimes have been perpetuated throughout history by our coreligionists, from the very earliest days.

This approach of romanticizing the past is part of the problem.

Those perpetuating these despicable deeds know there is precedent for their behaviour, both in the actions of their predecessors and in their literary inheritance.

The job for those that condemn them is to first condemn the evils of the past, acknowledging that they were also wrong. To proclaim with loud voices that ours is a diverse tradition and that such unspeakable wrong has been committed in our name before, just as much as the breathtakingly good.

But that is a dangerous road few wish to travel down. The stakes are too high: a precipice on one side, rock falls from above on the other.

Whitewashing history and covering the truth are always preferable… but fool no one. Least of all the barbarians we must condemn.

Irresponsible

Why do Tradtionalist Sheikhs insist on publicising the dreams of unknown individuals on Facebook as if it is certain proof of something? This evening it is the grandson of the Prophet, peace be upon him, telling an unnamed student that the coming of the Dajjal is near at hand. Perhaps it is so, but have some wisdom: stop causing despair and hysteria with these foolish Status Updates. Unchallenged apocalyptic eschatology has already laid waste to most of Syria and beyond. These teachers just need to stop and read some history: every generation has seen itself living amongst signs that herald the end of days. It has been thus for over a thousand years, since the earliest days. And every generation has been exploited by the tale bearers too. Won’t the Traditionalist scholars just desist?

Misadventures

Ah, I see we are beating the drums of war again. What a way to commemorate those who died in terrorist attacks in London a decade ago. What a way to mourn the dead! Will these vicious cycles of violence never end? Have we learned nothing from our last misadventure in Libya? From the anarchy which filled the vacuum left behind; from the unleashing of the jihadist, takfiri armies; from the endless stream of refugees embarking across the Mediterranean from Tripoli? Two Gulf Wars are ancient history, let alone Operation Boot or the Suez Crisis. The world is set ablaze. Somebody tell our leaders that you can’t dampen the flames by smothering them with petrol. Somebody call the peace makers. Or must we just resign to more killing, more war? Must we just resign to death and destruction and this war without end? Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

Pointing fingers

Another day and another tale of a family in disarray as sisters, wives, daughters, sons make the journey to their new utopia in the heart of Syria, apparently oblivious to the millions of refugees who have fled the country with their lives.

Back home, meanwhile, the local community expresses shock and surprise. Imams insist: not our fault, these people are being radicalised online. This is called having your head stuck in sand.

If our mosques provided services for women and young people, delivered relevant sermons in a common language, put aside ridiculous sectarian and tribal squabbles, I am pretty sure many of these people would not seek out alternative guidance online.

It is a tragedy, of course, but the online world is simply filling a gap. You don’t get to choose how people fill the void you leave wide open.

Sowing Division

I think we can all see through the hollow cynicism of Al-Shabab, who kill Muslims without compunction in Somalia, but seem to go to immense trouble to separate Muslims from non-Muslims when they commit atrocities across the border in Kenya. Divide and conquer is an old game; hopefully we are wise enough today to see blind killers for what they are.

State of ignorance

They travel thousands of miles to build new lives in somebody else’s land, oblivious to the desperate, shattered lives of millions of refugees scattered from their homes and livelihoods. What irony: when Israel did this, they jumped up and down at the eternal injustice and wickedness of the nascent state. But now they do the same: they are now the thoughtless settlers, taking advantage of the misfortune of others. Here is a land that has been emptied of its native population; children risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of peace and safety. In their place come the maniacs from comfortable lives in the West, some with children in tow. They dream now of their great religious state, enforcing their own kind of apartheid, discriminating against all except their kind. These squatters have learned nothing from history, because they never bothered to study it. Capitalising of the misery of others, they will have their state. But it will not last.

Selective Sympathy

Of course we are selective and reductive in deciding where our sympathies lie. Between 3 million and 7.6 million people died as a result of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1998 and 2008. Over the same period the conflict received minuscule coverage, and ongoing violence even today is largely ignored. The news we consume, the alliances we make, the sides we take: all of this is political. We choose to make some lives more worthy than others. We choose where our sympathies lie.

Twentieth Century

Has history known any period as horrific as the twentieth-century? Even today’s strife seems to pale against the excesses of the last century. Are we more human now than the generation which conceived the Terror Bombing of hundreds of thousands of civilians, the use of napalm and the nuclear bomb? Or are we just ill-informed? Will we also be just a footnote in the history books in another hundred year’s time?

Pity the children

It’s incredible that thousands of refugee children risk their lives to escape conflict in Syria every day, crossing dangerous seas and hostile states in search of safety… and yet relatively properous British children are prepared to go the other way, entering a brutal war zone as if it is but a playground. A sure sign of a failed education.

For riches

From the outside, these battles seem so straightforward. Revolutionaries countering imperialist forces.

But scratch the surface and underneath we discover factions warring with factions, tribes killing tribes, families settling scores, all in the name of wealth and power.

It is exactly as was foretold. A community defeated not by outsiders, but by its lust for the riches of the world.

Histories

Contemporary events puzzle most of us because we have learnt a whitewashed version of history. Many of us could enumerate the shortcomings of Winston Churchill with great ease, but would struggle to provide an account of the rule of Muawiyah or Yazid. Many of us harbour a very romantic view of Muslim history. Unfortunately ISIS would feel right at home in many periods of our past. Alas, our community, for centuries, has been guilty of covering up mistakes and crimes, which has sadly lent legitimacy to groups like these. We need to step back and take stock.

Whose side were you on?

Politics prevent us from condemning atrocities universally. Politics make us blind to some victims and extraordinarily sympathetic to others. Politics demand that we adopt a partisan morality. Politics make us say that some lives matter and that some don’t matter at all. That some crimes are more important than others. That the crimes of our allies and friends, however heinous, are of no consequence. Politics prevent us from doing justice.

Fortunately, God is above politics and partisanship. God will not ask, “Whose side were you on?” but, “Were you just and true?”

Heed the lessons of history

On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp from the Nazis, perhaps it will be helpful to reflect on the experiences of an ethnic-religious minority in Europe over a period of a decade until 1945…

“It was a difficult time for Jewish families, as suddenly the law no longer protected us and overnight we lost our civil rights… Jewish children were thrown out of Hungarian schools, so right away we had no choice but to concentrate on hunkering down and trying not to bring attention to ourselves…”[1. Tales from Auschwitz SurvivorsThe Guardian ]

I cannot envisage a return to the dark days of World War Two in Western Europe — certainly not a programme to round up minorities en masse.

But a pervasive atmosphere of far reaching discrimination? Alas, I believe that could be on the cards.

I cannot help but fear that the broad sweeping legislation which the Home Secretary is currently rushing through parliament in the form of the Counter-terrorism and Security Bill will unfairly deprive a contemporary ethnic-religious minority of its rights.

We could say that something must be done to protect the security of the nation at a time of heightened concerns about terrorism; that if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.

But reflecting on the experience of Jewish communities in Europe during the early part of the twentieth century, the thoughts which keep me from my sleep tonight are these: let’s hope that our leaders really have learned the lessons of 70 years ago.