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faith & ideas

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Heartfelt rationality

Thu, 31 Dec 2015 11:47:39 +0000

The side effects of good intentions and tolerance can be more suffering. We must let our hearts set our goals, but use the mind to pursue them. Our former Editor-in-Chief, reflecting on rationality and the fallout of a TV-series. Archive: This article was first published on October 1, 2012. The alternative industry: it doesn’t work and why it does My last major project before leaving Oslo for openDemocracy was a six-part edutainment/documentary series on the ‘alternative industry’, its science and irrationality. It was produced by Teddy TV and broadcast on NRK1 (Norway’s  equivalent of BBC1, ie the country’s main television channel). We cheekily named ourselves Folkeopplysningen, “The Public Enlightenment”. The various branches of the alternative industry make a lot of claims, and a lot of money off these claims. We looked into homeopathy, healing, detox, acupuncture and strange panacea machines supposedly utilizing bio-resonance or quantum mechanics. (Astrologists, psychics and mediums got a showing too, but let’s leave them alone to lick their wounds for now.) We decided it was time for some critical scrutiny of this business, and based on reception and ratings, we are not alone in thinking this. Public Enlightenment. (c) NRK/Teddy TV With a physicist, a psychologist and researchers, we asked three main questions: Are the claims made by the various alternative offerings possible from a scientific point of view? What does the available research say? Why is it so popular? And yes, we found it is pretty much all hokum. Anyone spending a good amount of time honestly and objectively surveying the available scientific material will agree. The UK Parliament Science and Technology Committee did so on homeopathy. Dear Jeremy Hunt, Beckhams, Orlando Bloom, Thorbjørn Jagland, Jennifer Aniston, Prince Charles and King Harald of Norway: there’s nothing in those pills besides the sugar and the faith.   Only acupuncture has some credible documentation to show for itself. But it’s rather thinner than its standing suggests. Here too the placebo effect is due most of the credit, most of the time likely all of it.   Yet, it works - raking in money, but more importantly: producing many genuinely satisfied patients. While some of the popularity can be explained by our brain’s tendency to look for patterns where they don’t exist, ignore regression toward the mean, emphasise anecdote over data, justify its own choices and confirm the beliefs we already hold, many patients do feel better in a very real way. This has been proven to stem from the bouquet of psychological and biochemical mechanisms that we lump together as the placebo effect. The placebo effect has clear limitations (rather than cure, it mostly alters our experience of symptoms), but we should all be happy that it exists. It means that visiting a homeopath can make people feel better. This does not mean that homeopathy works. But it does mean they feel better - and that is a good thing. For many, what is needed to improve their well-being and outlook is attention and care. For someone to see them, touch them, discuss their life situation, unhurried and with empathy, to tell them that it’s all going to improve from now on, and that they’ve got a plan – this is what makes the difference. Some get this experience from their doctor, but many do not. Many people get nothing like this assurance from anywhere in their societies. In this regard, alternative therapists can perform an important service for people. Let’s talkBut the alternative industry is more than this, and much of it is problematic. So, as well as to educate and entertain, we set out in the hope of sparking debate on questions such as the following: -       Why is alternative medicine so popular? -       Is it right that a large and diverse sector dealing with health is almost completely unregulated? -    &[...]

Our fallible prophet

Mon, 24 Sep 2012 08:30:06 +0000

Rational reflection and reasoning should not be a threat to religion. Drawing on religious texts, the author argues Muslims should embrace the fallibility of the prophet, and so free themselves of the shackles of history and paralyzing dogmas. To read this article in Arabic click here.In a brief interlude between two debates at a culture festival, I encountered the film ”Innocence of Muslims”. Fast-forwarding through the trailer, three minutes was sufficient to make up my mind: an amateurish mishmash of overplayed, parodic scenes unworthy of notice. But notice it got. Anger is boiling in the Muslim world, with mass mobilisation to restore the honour of the prophet in East and West. In a few days an intricate picture emerged, too complicated for anyone to pretend they have grasped its complexities. Suicide bombings and attacks on embassies have led to the loss of many lives. Large demonstrations are held daily. We’re flooded with news and analysis. We see, hear and are tormented by the riddle of how a low budget flick of this calibre can trigger an international crisis. After all our efforts at drawing acceptable borders between freedom of religion and freedom of speech, we should have progressed further than this. But here we are again: conflict and strife. Some attempt to explain the new wave of protest by pointing to the post-revolutionary chaos in the Arab world, the rampant unemployment and widespread anti-American attitudes. One notes the growth of right wing extremist groups and increasing scepticism, or outright hostility, towards Muslims in the west. Experts have covered all these economic and political aspects. But where did the religious perspective go, in a conflict triggered by criticism of religion and festering because of the defence of it? It seems the analysts’ judgement is coloured by their local atmosphere, where the liberal version of religions has long since buried all memory of religious wars. As someone whose background is in Muslim culture and faith, I find these analyses good, but inadequate. The enraged demonstrators inside and outside the Muslim world, valuing the honour of the Muslim prophet over not only freedom of speech, but human rights and other man made laws, have different motives as well as varying political, social and moral values. But they all emphasize the status of the prophet in Islam. Exalted and unassailable. Infallible and untouchable. I argue that the questions arising from the current, tense situation cannot be formulated – far less answered – without taking the religious aspect into consideration. The history of religion So let me write a few words on religion, not as a static artefact, but as an historic process. The tradition and collective experience of Islam has been shaped by a multitude of influences – and I believe that is grounds for cautious optimism. The explosive rage on behalf of the prophet is inextricably connected to dogma and doctrine developed in a phase of Islam long after the death of the prophet himself. The orthodox dogma of the Quran an eternally existing, rather than created, message, and the doctrine of the infallibility of the messenger of God, is a theological-philosophical pairing constructed in a time when civil war raged under the caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib. In the year 827 the dogma was consolidated by the caliph al-Ma´mun, after one of two rival factions, the Umayyads (today’s Sunnis), had marginalised Ali’s followers (the Shias). In other words, centralizing political power in the newly established Islamic empire went hand in hand with the cementing of the holy texts and elimination of all theological challenges. A significant school at the time, Mu´tazila, distanced itself from these irrational doctrines, and for that reason had to go into hiding. But what has history from eight and ninth century Arabia to do with the attacks on embassies and widespread violence in response to a film critical of Islam produced in 21st century U[...]

Manchurian mormon?

Tue, 11 Sep 2012 18:57:57 +0000

Mitt Romney needs to answers basic questions about potential conflicts between his religious vows and his prospective presidential vows. We would never elect a rabbi, priest or ayatollah President. It would be a violation of the separation between church and state, and it would be un-American. Yet, Romney, who has served in leadership positions in his church as a bishop, priest and deacon, may be sworn to uphold church doctrine. There is, of course, nothing wrong with being religious; the problem is that religious perfectionists cannot simultaneously function as secular perfectionists. Facts seem to support Romney's consistent elevation of church needs over national or mainstream ones. Here are some of the matchups:  Wartime Matchup: Church vs. U.S. Army (1965 - 1969) In 1965, Romney sought to avoid going to Vietnam and applied for an exemption from military service on the basis that he was a "Minister of Religion". He received this and multiple additional deferments. Instead of fighting for his country, he chose to evangelize for his church in France. Why? If his church denounces a future war, will Romney act against his church's position? Racial Matchup: Church vs. African Americans (1947 - 1978) From his birth until 1978 (when Romney was 31 and had lived through the civil rights movement), blacks were ranked lower than whites in his church (and, related to the above issue, were more likely to be drafted). They had to give a chunk of annual income to the church but were not allowed to be priests. Did Romney ever protest this apartheid?  Mormon Temple in Utah. Flickr/Altus Photo Design. Some rights reserved. Family Matchup: Church vs. Ann Romney's Father (1993) Edward Davies, Ann Romney's father, shunned organized religion and refused to join Romney's church. Just a year after Mr. Davies' death in 1992, the Romney family posthumously converted Mr. Davies through a proxy baptism. Besides being a highly inventive way to get back at your in-laws, what message does this send about respect for the dead and for other religions? Religious Matchup: Church vs. Judaism (1947 - Present) Romney's church has baptized millions of dead people into their faith, including Holocaust victims such as Anne Frank. Romney has admitted to participating in these ceremonies and won't disown the practice. Does the economic benefit of swelling the church's vast genealogical database, a Facebook to the Dead, outweigh the negative associations of manipulating the personal information of millions of families? 2012 Election Matchup: Church vs. Tax Returns (2012 - Present) In Parade magazine's August 26th issue, Romney based his refusal to disclose tax returns on his church's policy of not disclosing its finances. Again, loyalty to church trumps precedent of full disclosure set by three decades of candidates (including his own father) to fully disclose. His church is very economically ambitious. Shouldn't a President go out of his way to assure voters that Oval Office decisions are appropriately delinked from his church's finances? Given Romney's lifelong religious and financial twinning with his church, it's fair for voters to expect some transparency as to the potential conflicts between a President's obligations to his country and church. Sideboxes Related stories:  "With friends like these..." on Romney's comments about Israeli and Palestinian culture Bain & Co. solves Middle East crisis NRA proves that guns actually save lives Sports for people who don't like sports Country or region:  [...]

India is ready for change, but censorship, taxation and corruption plagued the Art Fair

Wed, 14 Mar 2012 13:21:05 +0000

The fourth annual India Art Fair (IAF), held earlier this year, was hailed by Indian and international media as proof of an art culture come of age. The private opening was packed with the art-hungry moneyed class from all over the world, not least among them Indian buyers with an eye on potential investments. In the last few years, Indian modern art has taken its place on the international stage, and buyers in India have benefited; but there is also a hunger to experience work by international artists. The public days saw schoolchildren, students, aspiring artists and other keen spectators bypassing work by Indian mega-artists Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher to take pictures of each other by Tracey Emin’s 2011 neon, Love is what you want. A group of young Indian women at the White Cube stand were struck by Damien Hurst’s 2008 White Lies: a bright gold cabinet displaying row upon row of glittering zirconias. “I take the piece to signify something about the lies all men tell women,” said one visitor, and her girlfriends all agreed. Behind the scenes though, the IAF was showing symptoms of three maladies that are depressingly common in India. First, the curtailment of freedom of expression; second, prohibitive taxation; and finally a certain kind of black-market money-churning that makes it difficult for international gallerists to take part. Censorship casts a long shadow over Indian cultural life. The IAF took place in the wake of the Jaipur Literary Festival, which saw Salman Rushdie prohibited from attending through a combination of right-wing Muslim outrage and the capitulation of Indian politicians. A more insidious form of this censorship affects Indian cultural life everyday: the exercising of an unwritten moral code that encourages the banning of all manner of artistic expression from the public’s delicate gaze. At the Everard Read Gallery, visitors were able to enjoy astonishing work by South African artist Leigh Voigt, including a painting of two cockerels poised on a crumbling, whitewashed wall and facing off against each other like soldiers from opposite sides at the India-Pakistan border in Wagah. Given the political history between India and South Africa, a sculpture of Gandhi in his dhoti also attracted attention. But the crowd didn’t know what they weren’t shown: sculptures by internationally recognised artists Bryn Werth and Angus Taylor that were confiscated at the airport by Indian customs officials on the grounds that they were too ‘lewd.’ In the world’s largest democracy, cultural and moral policing comes as part of the job at customs. A spokesperson for the gallery who did not wish to be named said, “We had a few problems as a few works were confiscated at the airport. We have been told they will be sent back with the rest when we leave.” She added, “They were not suggestive. There are plenty of other nudes at the show.” A flick through the catalogue reveals she is right. Visitors to the stand of New Delhi-based gallery, Wonderwall, could see a photograph by an Indian artist of four (headless) female nudes, made in clay; countless other pieces celebrating and questioning our relationship with our own bodies were in evidence at other stands.  ‘Lewdness’ is in the eye of the beholder, and is a favourite charge of the Indian censor. That the censor is so arbitrary makes its prurient attitude all the more difficult to swallow. When I asked the spokesperson if the Everard Read Gallery would be coming back next year she simply said, “We thought coming this year would be a great idea. About coming back – we haven’t thought that far ahead.” It would be a great shame if they didn’t.  Laura Williams, of the Norwich based Art 18/21 gallery, highlighted the unique challenges presented by this particular event. “The first year was a massive eye-opener for me,” she said. “If you have no experience as an international gallery coming to India, it can be a steep learning curve[...]

The Great Partnership: multiculturalism, faith and citizenship

Fri, 20 Jan 2012 15:57:49 +0000

Do the supposedly civilised values of human rights and responsible citizenry become exclusionary, used to divide rather than unite? Is religion a partner of liberty? On the day the British parliament considers a bill proposing the banning of headscarves in public places, Robin Llewellyn reviews Jonathan Sacks' ‘The Great Partnership: God, Science, and the Search for Meaning’ With head scarves and minarets banned in the name of freedom, some argue that faith and human rights are locked in a desperate conflict. But Jonathan Sacks’ work: The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning (Hodder & Stoughton, 370pp, paperback released 21 June 2012) counters this claim, strongly arguing that religion preserves liberty in contemporary states.   “The story I am about to tell” he begins, “concerns the human mind’s ability to do two separate things. One is to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact. The other is to join things together so that they tell a story, and to join people together so that they form relationships.” He sees science as the best example of the first ability, religion of the second, and the book itself reads like a long story taking the reader on a journey through teachings of Nietzsche, Marx, de Tocqueville, and Maimonides among many others, as well as those of the various atheistic and religious people whose influences and company he has cherished.We seem him in 1968 crossing America in a Greyhound bus, “meeting rabbis and asking them the big questions”, and his story is an often exhilarating discussion of topics such as improbability and the formation of the universe, the parallel impacts of the Bar Kochba Rebellion and the Thirty Years War, and the futility of trying to prove the existence of God. Such breadth is almost impossible to summarise, but its discussion of politics resonates with what I experienced in Switzerland while researching the ban on minarets a year ago, and I merely introduce the work in its relation to religious freedom. Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Sacks claims that liberty of conscience “was born in the most intensely religious of ages, based on religious texts and driven by a religious vision.”  Drawing on Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic, he argues that thinkers such as Hugo Grotius, Thomas Erastus, Peter Cunaeus, and later Thomas Hobbes, John Milton, and John Locke developed three principles that framed the secular approach to politics: namely that legitimate constitutions be based on the consent of the governed, that the state should fight poverty, and that government should abstain from legislating in matters of religious belief. Sacks claims all three of these propositions were based “not on Plato or Aristotle, but on Leviticus and Deuteronomy and the books of Samuel and Kings.  Even Hobbes, an atheist, based his political philosophy on the Bible, which he quotes 657 times in The Leviathan.”[1] This new emphasis on freedom of conscience followed the damage wrought by the religious wars following the reformation, for whereas in some areas such conflict had been won outright, in others victory was partial or elusive, a situation that engendered a variety of compromises. One response was to decide that: “Since religion is a source of conflict, let us ban it altogether, at least in public. If people must worship, let them do it in the privacy of their homes or places of worship but nowhere else. That was the view of Voltaire and the French revolutionaries: Écrasez l’infâme, ‘Crush the infamy’.” Another possibility, Sacks argues, emerged in an English society undergoing an era of unpredictability, when the day’s victor could be the morrow’s victim. The victors took the opportunity to instead grant religious liberty to all those who were wil[...]

2011, a year of wonder

Wed, 21 Dec 2011 07:28:52 +0000

A great scientific breakthrough is also a path to appreciating the core ingredient of our humanity, says Tina Beattie. Maybe every generation believes that it lives in uniquely interesting and challenging times. The last year seems too to fit the description. European nations that have struggled for centuries to realise their visions of freedom are seeing them disappearing into the rubble of failed neo-liberalism, while nations in the middle east are just beginning that same epic struggle. But while the political and economic rhetoric might change, there is nothing new about any of this. War and revolution, natural disasters, the rising and falling of nations, the inhumanity of the richest and the desperation of the poorest, do not mark us out as any different from the rest. However, there is one area in which we really are outstripping all previous generations, and that is in science and technology. On 13 December 2011, the BBC2 television programme Newsnight devoted considerable time to a story about the Higgs Boson particle, which scientists think may have made an elusive appearance in experiments at the Hadron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva. It was impossible not to feel a sense of amazement as images that could have been lifted from Terence Malick’s film The Tree of Life floated across the screen, with a voice-over by the programme's science editor, Susan Watts: "We don't really know why everything around us exists, why the universe has form, why objects have mass. The fundamental question about why we're here remains unanswered. But today's announcement could change all of that." When scientists talk about multiverses, a new cosmology and the meaning of life, they tap into an insatiable source of wonder which is the very essence of our humanity, and we do not have to understand the science to experience a sense of awe about the cosmos of which we are a part. Indeed, today at the furthest frontiers of modern physics, scientists still resort to the same terminology which inspired the earliest Greek philosophers in their reflections on the universe. When Susan Watts talks about existence, form and mass, she could as easily be reading from a pre-Socratic fragment as from a 21st-century science script. But there is a fundamental difference. Those ancient philosophers stood at the very beginning of the western philosophical quest for God, and today popular science has decided to close down that quest by claiming to be on the brink of discovering the answer. Scientists often refer to the Higgs Boson as "the God particle", and Watts invites us to believe that its discovery has the capacity to answer the "fundamental question about why we’re here". Of course it doesn’t, because that is not a question that science can ever answer. The quest for the Higgs Boson particle has been described many times as the Holy Grail of modern science, but the Holy Grail is a mythical symbol of a quest into the thickets of mystery and longing which make us truly human. Simone Weil once wrote: "In the first legend of the Grail, it is said that the Grail...belongs to the first comer who asks the guardian of the vessel, a king three-quarters paralysed by the most painful wound: 'What are you going through?'" The quest for the Holy Grail is a quest for hope and compassion in a wounded world, beyond all the cures and answers that science can offer. Science has a part to play in that quest, but only when it allows its knowledge to be tempered by wisdom and its genius to be the servant rather than the master of our humanity. The Higgs Boson is not a God particle. It cannot tell us why there is something rather than nothing, it cannot tell us how consciousness is possible, and it cannot explain the curiosity that makes us ask such questions in the first place. But it is a wonder all the [...]

An arch-visionary of Canterbury

Wed, 23 Nov 2011 05:46:44 +0000

The leading religious authority of the Church of England has disappointed many of the hopes invested in him. Rowan Williams has indeed failed to address the challenges facing the Church and the Anglican Communion, not least its historic entanglement with state power. This is the project that his successor must understand, says Theo Hobson. It seems increasingly likely that Barack Obama and Rowan Williams - alike leaders of institutions with both a national character and a global reach - will be haunted by the same question: had they been able to govern in less hostile circumstances, would they have become the great leaders they initially seemed to be, at least in their supporters’ eyes?The United States president may yet win another term in 2012. But the disappointments of his first leave many wondering whether a healthy economy could have given Obama the foundation to do what now seems unlikely: point America beyond its culture wars and launch a new era of liberal confidence after the malaise of the George W Bush era.The term-limit of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior prelate of the Church of England and worldwide Anglican Communion, is less precisely defined - though his retirement, after almost nine years in the position, is reportedly imminent. In his case, the counterfactual tends to go as follows. If the internal crisis over homosexuality had not blown up so dramatically, forcing him into damage-limitation mode and also leading him to suppress his own liberal instincts, could Rowan Williams have pointed Anglicanism beyond its own culture wars by articulating a vision both liberal and traditional? Could he then have renewed the Church of England, as well as taking the Communion in a progressive direction?The establishment fixYet such questions assume rather a lot. In particular, that Williams had a clear agenda for the renewal of the Church from which he was regrettably blown off course. This in turn suggests that the standard liberal narrative of disappointment at Williams is inadequate. For it falsely supposes that bold liberalism on the gay issue is the essence of reforming vision: if only he had resolutely defended gay rights, all would be well. But in reality the Church of England and the Anglican Communion face deep-rooted challenges that have very little to do with the dispute over sexuality. The real cause for disappointment is that Williams failed to confront these challenges.What are these deep-rooted challenges? They centre on the complex relationship between the Church of England and the rest of the Anglican Communion. The Communion of course arose from the British empire; an imperial state-church gave rise to satellite churches, which became independent, non-established churches in new states. The history of empire fades very slowly; in a sense it still hinders the development of this international Christian body (which does not call itself a church but a communion of churches, or ecclesial provinces). To a very large extent the Communion still finds its coherence in the imperial centrality of the Church of England. I suggest that it cannot easily move on from its imperial past while the Church of England remains strongly in tune with that past - by virtue of remaining established. Also, of course, there is a purely domestic case for disestablishment.Rowan Williams's origin in the disestablished church in Wales meant that he was well placed to start this conversation. Without explicitly advocating disestablishment, he could have put the issue on the table. He could have explained, in his capacity as leader of the Anglican Communion, that establishment is not essential to Anglicanism, but rather anomalous, and that the establishment of the mother-church might be seen as a structural problem, a barrier to Anglican coherence. If the Communion is to become stronger, may[...]

9/11: the identity-politics trap

Wed, 07 Sep 2011 14:30:48 +0000

The reaction to the attacks of 11 September 2001 included an instinctive veneration of their chief architect. Its deeper foundation is a regressive and widespread ethno-religious view of the world, says Sami Zubaida. A few days after the 9/11 attacks I was at a dinner-party at the house of middle-eastern friends. Most of the guests were exiled veteran communists. The discussion turned, inevitably, to the recent cataclysmic event. I was soon astonished and dismayed by the tone of veneration of Osama bin Laden, whom my companions clearly saw as a hero - even as they simultaneously cast doubt on whether it was the jihadists under his command who really were responsible.This was, of course, the contradictory position taken by many admirers at the time and subsequently: bin Laden didn’t do it, it was the work of the CIA and the Jews, and yet it was still deeply gratifying - an event that lifted those who were not even responsible to the ranks of heroes and prophets.The depressing ethos of that dinner-party was widely shared. In that particular case it was a phenomenon of the bankruptcy of a particular section of the left which, at the collapse of the Soviet world and its affective associations, had turned to various narrow nationalisms and a third-worldist anti-west stance.In other cases, 9/11 satisfied (well-earned) anti-American sentiment in many corners of the world. There were reported street-parties in Argentina, Chile and elsewhere; some Palestinians in their occupied land and camps distributed sweets; rich, smart Saudis sported wrist-watches with flashing images of their hero (who didn’t do it); Nigerian babies were named after him (who didn’t do it); and “Shaykh Usama” was for a while revered in the Muslim world.The raid in Pakistan which killed bin Laden raised echoes of this earlier veneration, a reaction partly occasioned by the way it was conducted. These sentiments continue to be toxic in many parts, notably in troubled Pakistan and among the Pakistani diaspora in the west.It’s true that in the intervening years, the many atrocities of al-Qaida which targeted Muslim populations weaned most people away from any sympathy with the organisation. Yet the reactions generated at the original moment survived as a layer of identity politics for many Muslims and westerners alike; and they were strongly reinforced by the “war on terror” and the military adventurism of the United States and its allies, in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. The idea of a universal Muslim umma confronting a hostile west (Christian and Jewish, as well as Hindu) became a standard motif, reciprocated by hostility to Islam in many western quarters.Such notions of confrontation have the consequence of subordinating geopolitical and economic to ethno-religious formulations. The complex and tragic events of Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, are simplified into America “killing Muslims” (ignoring the fact that most Muslims there and elsewhere have been killed by co-religionists). Israelis and their supporters can wash their hands of any efforts towards peace or settlement on the grounds that “Muslims hate us”, and no amount of negotiation or concession can alter that. Again, issues of land and settlement and military occupation are all subordinated to an essential ethno-religious conflict.The Arab uprisings appear to have brought a new political generation onto the field, one that eschews the old paradigms of nationalism and religion in favour of what has been called “constitutional patriotism”: liberty, democracy, economic reforms and jobs. There are fears, however, that this generation lacks the cohesion, the institutional or organisational base, and thus the potential for mobilisation that will be needed to turn its initial momentum into the lasting change that would a[...]

The dinner-party revolution

Tue, 06 Sep 2011 09:29:33 +0000

The dinner-party is a symbol of complacent presumption, the last occasion to be associated with genuine dialogue or the jolt of rethinking. But it’s possible to renew the ritual in surprising ways - and really caring about the food is just the start, says Keith Kahn-Harris. Dinner-parties don’t always get a good press. They can be a euphemism for a certain kind of middle-class smugness, disguised under a thin veneer of sophistication. This image of superficiality is embodied in an old TV advert for coffee, where a hostess passes off instant for fresh coffee by making ostentatious brewing sounds from the kitchen. The dinner-party can also signify a kind of echo-chamber for the lazy assumptions and anathemas of the “chattering classes”. An illustration came in January 2011, when the chair of Britain’s co-governing Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, argued that Islamophobia had passed the “dinner-party test” - itself a mirroring of the accusation of the writer Rhoda Keonig in 2009 that “dinner-party anti-semitism” was now rife in Britain. Here, the dinner-party becomes the measure of newly acceptable social prejudice and conformity. Whether or not such characterisations of polite opinion in Britain are true, they themselves carry the danger of a sort of inverted stereotype towards the dinner-party as an “occasion” and the people who attend it - and perhaps a lazy prejudice about its possibilities. In fact, the reality of the dinner-party can indeed escape the casually reductive formula that surrounds the notion and be instead (as well as a place of enjoyable food) a forum of different views and a space of genuine challenge rather than smug agreement. I know this because, for the last couple of years, I have been organising private dinners that are intended to encourage dialogue and civility within the Jewish community. The Jewish community in Britain, although relatively small (under 300,000 people), is riven with internal conflict. In the last few years, one of the principle conflicts has been how to relate to the state of Israel. Whereas Zionism had, for the decades after the 1967 war, been a source of relative consensus in the Jewish community, since the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, Israel itself has become a source of dissensus. Questions of how and whether Jews should criticise Israel in public are extremely divisive and debates on the subject are often conducted with great bitterness and anger. At stake are fundamental questions about community and identity - including who is a Jew, and what are Jews’ duties to other Jews and to the Jewish state. My own difficult experiences of being embroiled in the Israeli conflict in the Jewish community - including losing a grant because of my views on Israel - led me to seek ways to encourage a more civil dialogue on the subject. But few existing conflict-resolution and dialogue models seemed appropriate, as formal dialogue can be stilted and most projects concentrate on relations between communities rather than within them. After a few false starts I hit on a model that made sense to me: why not invite small groups of Jewish leaders and opinion-formers to my house to discuss the issues in an informal and convivial setting? Across the divide So for the last couple of years, my wife Deborah and I have held a series of dinner-parties at our home. We have hosted nearly seventy people from all sides of the Israel debate, including such well-known figures as Jacqueline Rose, Melanie Phillips, Jonathan Freedland, Anthony Julius and Julia Neuberger. Each dinner is carefully put together to ensure a diverse spread of opinions, ensuring that everyone encounters views with which they (according to their publicly expressed views) do not agree. T[...]

Indonesia: pluralism vs vigilantism

Fri, 26 Aug 2011 05:25:51 +0000

A pattern of violence against the Ahmadiyah religious community, in which the perpetrators enjoy near-impunity and official indulgence, is disfiguring Indonesia. It also presents a wider challenge to the country’s vital search for a model of religious tolerance in public life, says Charles Reading. Indonesia’s political and social progress is shadowed by the indulgence of violence towards members of the country’s Ahmadiyah religious community. An example is the fallout of an attack in Cikesuik on 6 February 2011 that killed three people, of which a disturbing and graphic recording was made and used in evidence at the trial of led of twelve men accused of inciting hatred and mob violence. In the event the district-court verdict on 28 July found the men guilty only of a secondary charge of “participation in a violent attack that resulted in casualties”, and they were given lenient sentences of three and six months’ imprisonment.A worrying aspect of the trial is that the judges held the Ahmadiyah community itself responsible for the assault on the grounds that it had not left the scene as the police had requested, but rather stood its ground in face of the mob. One of the Ahmadis, Deden Sujana, was even prosecuted (and convicted on 15 August 2011) on charges of provoking the violence; he will serve six months in prison, more than some of the assailants.This clearly sends the dangerous message to vigilantes that violence can be perpetrated with impunity or at best very mild punishment. These actions pose a very real threat to local communities, and contribute to the growing political influence of vigilantes despite their proportionally small numbers. More broadly, the confrontational approach of vigilantism sidelines other actors in the important and vibrant debate concerning religious identity in modern Indonesian society.The assault on the AhmadiyahThe attack against the Ahmadiyah in Cikeusik cannot be described as a one-off, as members of the group have faced repeated targeting, stigmatism and intimidation. The Ahmadiyah, who number around 200,000 in Indonesia, revere the founder of their sect, Mirzan Gulam Ahmad, as a messenger; because of this, some Muslims consider them heretical. In 1980, the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Council of Ulama / MUI) issued an edict declaring Ahmadiyah heretical, and reiterated this in 2005.The situation was exacerbated in 2008 when a joint ministerial decree (SKB No 3/2008) from the religious-affairs and interior ministries and the attorney-general’s office called, if not for the outright banning of the Ahmadiyah, then for severe restriction on their activities. Some of the decree’s supporters - such as Itoc Tochiya, the mayor of the city of Cimahi in West Java province - had claimed the ban would be in the interest of the Ahmadiyah’s own security; and in May 2008, independently of the national government’s restriction Itoc Tochiya officially outlawed Ahmadiyah in Cimahi.Violence has continued, as in the burning of an Ahmadiyah mosque in Cisalada, West Java, in October 2010 and the gruesome attack of February 2011; so has persecution, as in the banning of the group in West Java by the province’s governor, Ahmad Heryawan, in March 2011.Several civil-society organisations - backed by Islamic organisations like the Muhammadiyah - have called for the protection of the Ahmadiyah community; they include the Bandung Legal Aid Institute (LBH-Bandung), the inter-religious network Jakatarub, and the Institute for Culture and Religion Studies (Incres). Indonesia’s government has paid little heed, and failed to counter regional prohibitions against the Ahmadiyah; rather, the minister for religious affairs, Suryadharma Alihas, regularly expresses his determinatio[...]

Bin Laden, Dostoevsky and the reality principle: an interview with André Glucksmann

Mon, 02 May 2011 07:33:41 +0000

Europe is trapped by complacency and an all too human desire for oblivious contentment, says a leading French philosopher. This helps ensure the success of the nihilistic terror and extremist ideology exemplified by al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Nobody wants war – but genocide is worse than war. Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: Why do you return to the work of Dostoevsky to explain the terrorism of the 20th and 21st centuries? André Glucksmann: In Dostoïevski à Manhattan I pose a philosophical question: what is the ‘idea’, the characteristic form of modern terrorism? And my answer is: nihilism. Socrates asked: what do a beautiful woman, a beautiful vase and a beautiful bed have in common? His answer: the idea of beauty. My question is: what do extremist ideologies like the communism or Nazism of yesteryear and the Islamism of today have in common? After all, they support ostensibly very different ideals – the superior race, mankind united in socialism, the community of Muslim believers (the Umma). Tomorrow, it could be altogether different ideals: some theological, some scientific, others racist. But the common characteristic is nihilism. The root element is the attitude that anything goes, particularly when with regard to ordinary people: I can do whatever I want, without scruples. Goehring put it like this: my consciousness is Adolf Hitler. Bolsheviks said: man is made of iron. And the Islamists whom I visited in Algeria said that you have the right to kill little Muslim children, in order to save them. Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: And this took you back to Dostoevsky? André Glucksmann: It is the highest achievement of Russian literature in particular that it has revealed this kernel of human experience in which ‘everything is allowed’. In Dostoevsky’s The Possessed there are atheists and believers (a figure like Shatov for example) who have very different outlooks on the future. But they share one thing in common: the right to kill, to burn, to overturn, in order to achieve tabula rasa. Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: When Dostoevsky talks about the devils, or the possessed, he still seems to be guided by the idea that evil is something which captures man from outside. The main protagonist Stavrogin, for example, even talks about the devil’s appearances. André Glucksmann: Actually, the beautiful thing about Stavrogin is that you don’t really know him. You don’t know if he believes in God or not. In the end, what surprised me was to find that he is a little like bin Laden; he might be very cynical, or fanatical, nobody really knows. The inner nature of this nihilistic terrorism is that everything is permissible, whether because God exists and I am his representative, or because God does not exist and I take his place. That is what I find so impressive about Dostoevsky: he is a secret, a riddle. Liss Gehlen/Jens Heisterkamp: The group of conspirators at the centre of The Possessed seems, from the outside, to have both a coherent programme and a great deal of charisma. From the inside, on the other hand, all that remains is a fascination with destruction. And this fascination develops its own dynamic, pulling everyone under its spell. Destruction takes over as the group’s raison d’etre, while some of those involved still believe it is about the content and messages it offers. André Glucksmann: Yes, there are several different layers of nihilists. There are the ‘outer’ nihilists who follow and believe, and then there are the nihilists at the centre of the action, the activists who pursue the logic of destruction. Dostoevsky has shown this very well indeed, as has Turgenev, in the persona of Bazarov. Or take Fritz Lang’s Dr Mabuse figure. [...]

Moderate secularism: a European conception

Thu, 07 Apr 2011 18:56:20 +0000

The question of religion’s place in modern secular societies is intellectually contested and politically divisive. Here, the scholar Tariq Modood argues that European experience and institutional development can favour an accommodative model that respects religion yet goes beyond both toleration and even civic recognition. This moderate secularism, he says, meets the test of core democratic values while avoiding the dangers that fear-induced exclusion of religion from the public sphere would entail. At a time when for many in western Europe politics are being defined by their views of Muslims and Islam, who are deemed to be not secular enough, Rajeev Bhargava has raised an important issue in discussing different conceptions of secularism that are at work in western states (see “States, religious diversity and the crisis of secularism”, 22 March 2011).I wholeheartedly agree with him that secularism needs defending but that the idealised French and American conceptions, with their interpretation of the separation of religions and the state as one-sided exclusion and mutual exclusion respectively are not the best models. I also agree with him that an alternative and better conception is to be found not by confining ourselves to the models that captivate western intellectuals but by looking at the best moments of historical experience and institutional developments. He suggests that doing this with India provides us with such an alternative. The Indian practice certainly offers resources to think about how the principles of freedom and equality work out in a context of deep religious diversity and where inter-religious, as well as intra-religious, domination are live issues. Such an inquiry is helpful for western Europe as it struggles to cope with Muslim challenges and the new multi-faithism; for again, as Bhargava observes, it is good for everyone to be open to learning from the institutional experience of others. If, however, Bhargava’s methodology is broadly applied to Britain - and indeed to northwest Europe more generally - we will find, or so I argue, that on two points it does not agree with Bhargava’s claims. These are:* the dominant conception of political secularism to be found in northwest European institutional arrangements are quite distinct from the French and American conceptions. So, it is not the case that there are only “two mainstream western secularisms”, and that if they are both flawed then the way forward is to look at the example of countries like India* the conclusion that “formally or informally established religions, and the establishment of a single religion, even of the weaker variety, is part of the problem not the solution” cannot be unequivocally reached on the basis of the argument.If I am right on these points, then to speak of “the crisis of secularism” is hyperbolic.A moderate secularismThe characterisation of western secularism in most of western (especially northwestern) Europe, where France is the exception not the rule, is best understood in more evolutionary and moderate terms than Rajeev Bhargava allows. There are several important features here that reflect a more pragmatic politics; a sense of history, tradition and identity; and, most importantly, an accommodative character which is an essential feature of some historical and contemporary secularisms in practice.It is true that some political theorists and radical secularists have a strong tendency, when discussing models and principles of secularism, to “abstract out” these features. If this tendency is countered, British and other European experience ceases to be an inferior, non-mainstream instance of secularism but becomes both mainstream a[...]

Egypt, and the post-Islamist middle east

Tue, 08 Feb 2011 15:43:37 +0000

The portrayal of Egypt’s uprising in terms of its potential capture by Islamists is doubly misleading, says Asef Bayat: for this misses both the true character of the people’s movement and the transformation of the Arab world’s religious politics. For years, western political elites and their local allies have charged the Arab peoples with political apathy and lethargy. The argument that Arabs are uninterested in seeking to wrest greater democratic freedoms from their authoritarian rulers always rested on shaky foundations. But now that millions of Egyptians, following the Tunisians’ example, have proved it wrong by mobilising against power, the sceptical ground has adjusted: toward the murmured fear that Egypt’s uprising would develop into an “Islamist revolution” along the lines - demagogic, violent, intransigent, expansionist, anti-western - of that of Iran in 1979. The idea of an “Islamic revolution in Egypt” is voiced by four sources. The first is the Hosni Mubarak regime, in the attempt to dissuade its western allies from supporting the uprising. The second is Binyamin Netanyahu’s Israel and its allies in the United States and Europe, which wish to maintain the autocratic regime more or less intact by keeping such players as Omar Suleiman (the new vice-president and former intelligence chief) in power after Mubarak. The third is Iran’s Islamist hardliners, who are making a desperate effort to downplay the democratic thrust of the Egyptian revolution and present it as Islamic and Iran-inspired one. The fourth is a section of Egypt’s own citizens who express genuine concerns about a possible new Islamic revolution in the heart of the Arab world. It is true that there are some similarities between today’s Egyptian uprising and the Iranian revolution of 1979. They share the quality of being nationwide revolutions in which people from different walks of life - religious, secular, leftist, men and women, middle classes, working classes - participated. Both movements aimed at removing western-backed autocratic regimes; both sought to establish democratic governments that would ensure national and individual dignity, social justice, and political liberties. But there are also fundamental differences. In ideological terms, the Iranian revolution was a nationalist, third-worldist, and anti-imperialist movement, which took a strong stance against the US government for its continued support of the Shah (whom the US had reinstated via a CIA-engineered coup in 1953 against the secular-democratic government of Mohammad Mosaddeq). In addition, the Iranian revolution - unlike the Egyptian upheaval of 2011 - was led by a religious figure, Ayatollah Khomeini, backed by an elaborate Shi’a clerical hierarchy and religious institutions. So, once the Shah had fled, the Islamist hardliners and the new revolutionary organisations combined - the former using religious institutions (mosques, madrasas, and shrines), the latter mobilising support while marginalising liberals, democrats, and other non-conformist - in a final push to establish velayat-t faqih (the rule of the supreme jurist), i.e. a semi-theocratic state. The Islamic revolution then ushered a new era of Islamism which was to dominate the middle east and Muslim world for the next two decades. A political-religious shift But today’s Egyptian uprising is also different. It is neither nationalist, anti-imperialist ,nor third-worldist. The largely civil, peaceful, and jubilant mood of the protesters (until the pro-Mubarak thugs triggered a vicious spate of violence on 2 February) and their demands are more reminiscent of the democratic revolutions of[...]

Multiculturalism, Britishness, and Muslims

Thu, 27 Jan 2011 21:49:44 +0000

The idea of multiculturalism has been subjected to greater criticism in recent years, especially on the grounds that it is divisive and undercuts other solidarities of society, class or nation. But a fuller understanding of the context in which the arguments for multiculturalism arose and evolved can help both address some of the simplifications that now cluster around it and achieve a more nuanced view, says Tariq Modood. Much has changed in relation to the discussion of Britishness since my collection of essays, Not Easy Being British: Colour, Culture and Citizenship was published in 1992. For me the most important is that the suggestion made there - that the issue of racial equality led inevitably to the bigger questions and “isms” of multiculturalism, national identity and rethinking secularism - is now commonplace.When the essays in Not Easy Being British... were being written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, very few observers made these connections. Most racial egalitarians thought that “multiculturalism” was not sufficiently challenging of racism; indeed that as it was merely about “steel bands, saris and samosas” it did not cut very deep into society.Moreover, those who did think of themselves as political multiculturalists - for whom it meant more than black music, exotic dress and spicy food - saw British nationalism as the property not of the British people but of rightwing ideologues. Their main reaction to any talk of “Britishness” was to denounce it as reactionary and racist; many argued too (or instead) that as no one could define what they meant by “British” in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, the concept referred to a fiction and should not be used.In this sense the “anti-racists” and the the “multiculturalists” were united in their rejection of the discourse of Britishness (as indeed over their view that secularism was intrinsic to anti-racism and multiculturalism). It was these views that I set out to challenge almost twenty years ago.At the time I was in a very small minority, especially amongst racial egalitarians. The essays collected in Not Easy Being British: Colour, Culture and Citizenship were written in my private time whilst I was working as an equal-opportunities officer at the London Borough of Hillingdon, and then at the head office of the Commission for Racial Equality. I was forever being told that the issues I was raising were unnecessary, confused and divisive - above all that they had nothing to do with racial equality. The rest of my career has more or less been spent in proving this charge mistaken. I may not have been as successful as I would have liked, but in at least three ways there has been a substantive change in the intellectual and social climate.First, the vast majority of people now believe that a broad, serious discussion of multiculturalism, national identity and secularism is essential if Britain is to become a society in which ethnic minorities are treated with respect and are not the targets of prejudice.Second, in the late 1980s it was still routinely controversial (especially amongst racial egalitarians) to say that most ethnic-minority people actually wanted to be British, indeed that many wanted to be British more than some white people did, and that this particularly applied to Asian Muslims. This proposition too is no longer as contentious as it used to be, though in the case of a minority of Muslims some misunderstandings persist.Third, the post-1997 devolution of power from Westminster to Edinburgh and Cardiff (and agreement to transfer powers back to Belfast when certain conditions have been met), reflec[...]

The religious crisis of American liberalism

Wed, 26 Jan 2011 16:42:18 +0000

The extraordinary arc of Barack Obama’s popular appeal tells a deeper story of America: of how the relationship between liberalism and religion was forged, then frayed and broken, and how the president’s rhetoric offered the mirage of healing. Theo Hobson asks what, if anything, can be recovered from the ashes of a once-potent compact. During his campaign in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to be doing more than getting himself elected president. He seemed to be launching a revival of liberal idealism, shifting the United States’s political landscape in the process. This impression hardly lasted beyond his inauguration as president on 20 January 2009. Never has a national mood of progressive optimism evaporated so fast. The parlous state of the economy doesn’t fully explain this: economic turbulence might actually be conducive to forging a new liberal movement, as Franklin D Roosevelt showed in the 1930s.Maybe, nowadays, liberal idealism is something that can be conjured up at election time, to a greater or lesser extent, but is otherwise dormant. If so, this is an acute problem for liberalism. For its adversary, in the form of the Tea Party movement, has proved itself to be a dynamic populist force, which motivates its followers between elections as well as during them. The only popular American ideology, it has seemed in the last two years, is of the small-tax, anti-government variety.Alongside campaigning on economic issues, the purpose of the Tea Party has been to expose Obama’s rhetoric of hope as inauthentic, even un-American: for here is the site of real popular American idealism. Ours are the real, passionate voices queuing up to demand freedom from state interference. Liberals have no response, except to recoil in distaste. They were excited recipients of Obama’s campaigning rhetoric, but lack the ability or inclination to echo this rhetoric themselves, to participate in it. The huge advantage of the right is that every ordinary conservative knows how to hum its tunes: liberals have a more passive relationship to their leaders’ rhetoric.Why is liberalism so much culturally weaker than conservatism? Part of the answer, I suggest, lies in the relationship of liberalism with religion.An alliance endedBarack Obama’s vision of hope had religious echoes. He boldly presented himself as the heir of the civil-rights movement, which, thanks to Martin Luther King and others, was an expression of liberal Christianity as well as progressive politics. King himself was inspired by the “social gospel” movement that influenced Roosevelt’s New Deal.The American liberal-left in the 20th century had clear links to religion. This overlap goes back to the abolitionist movement: Frederick Douglass was a forerunner of King. Lincoln was more reticent on religion, but powerfully suggested that divine justice was the fuel of the democratic project.Obama knowingly drew on this tradition, with his impassioned talk of hope. This went much further than the “hope” rhetoric of other politicians; it often referred to the biblical concept of faith - implicitly, of course. He repeatedly characterised his candidacy as “unlikely”, and “improbable”: as if his career was a reason-defying miracle, as if he were not a normal politician but the amazed witness to God’s action, like Abraham or Joseph. It is little exaggeration to say that this prophetic theme gave him the edge over Hillary Clinton, a more experienced politician with very similar policies, and won him the Democratic candidacy, and then the presidency.He understood that that the liberal vision is most powerful when in touch [...]

The “Islam” drumbeat: an Orwellian story

Thu, 28 Oct 2010 13:27:31 +0000

A reductive and tendentious portrayal of Islam and its followers is spreading across Europe and America. It is all too reminiscent of the chilling world imagined by George Orwell, says Arshin Adib-Moghaddam A few metres from my office at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the heart of London’s Bloomsbury area is the Senate House of the University of London, a remarkable neo-classical colossus of a building which functioned as the headquarters of Britain’s ministry of information, where George Orwell worked occasionally during the second world war.The building’s influence on Orwell is apparent in his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) which  powerfully evokes a lobotomised society controlled by Big Brother, whose Thought Police dominate a brainwashed populace while torturing anyone guilty of “thoughtcrime” into submission. Winston Smith, the tragic hero, is charged with the daily task of  altering the historical record to conform with whatever the current position of the regime (Oceania) happens to be in relation to its counterparts (Eurasia and Eastasia); he works at the Ministry of Truth, which Orwell drew on his wartime experiences of Senate House to depict. The novel is most often viewed as a political satire of the totalitarianism of the era (especially Soviet, as the Fascist regimes had fallen by the time the book was written) and an indictment of ultra-controlled illiberal societies. Among the most memorable themes is its emphasis on the state’s use of mass media  to establish complete power over language and thought. Orwell elaborates this theme via the concept of “Newspeak”, the language of the ruling Party, used to smooth over any complexity in favour of easy and clear dichotomies: “goodthink” versus “thoughtcrime”.Orwell writes elsewhere, in a famous essay, that “(political) language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. In this non-fictional context, Orwell seems to be acknowledging that “thoughtcrime” is not limited to Soviet and Fascist regimes, that the distortion of reality is a feature of politics in general, and (as other parts of this essay illustrate) that the media is complicit in the assault on independent thinking.The formulaThe word “Orwellian” has itself become instantly recognisable in modern media and political discourse as its description of a world of lies, propaganda and indoctrination. Its connotations seem to become even more sinister when it is used to identify, not direct and overt deceit, but the kind of “thought control” that operates in advanced capitalist societies: more ciphered, clandestine, opaque, flatly networked, horizontal, penetrative,  global and politically transcendent than that in the intensely vertical and vulgar top-down form indicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four.This current form of “thought control” can be seen operating in relation to many politicised topics. In this short article I consider its relevance to media coverage of “Islam”, and argue that most consumers of the “Islam” story are socialised into accepting the dominant narrative of their societies in a much more subtle and clandestine way even than George Orwell imagined. A single example of what has been written and said recently about “Islam” (the quote-marks are used to emphasise that this is a media construction) illustrates the point. Thilo Sarrazin, a board member of [...]

Pope Benedict: the faith of authority

Fri, 22 Oct 2010 23:14:41 +0000

A delicate papal visit to Britain was in the end a diplomatic success. All the more reason to examine the ideas it advanced, says Michael Walsh. When Pope John Paul II returned to Rome from his visit to Britain in May-June 1982, it was widely reported that the Vatican regarded the trip as one of the pontiff’s most successful. After Benedict XVI’s journey to Scotland and England from 16-19 September 2010, a similar reaction has been heard. But a month after the event, any such judgment must relate to the content of the pope’s message as much as the impressive atmospherics surrounding the trip. The latter were significant in that the pre-tour reports of low interest seemed confounded by the day. The crowds along the route in on Edinburgh were relatively sparse, and Glasgow’s Bellahouston Park in Glasgow could have held many more (a comparison with the numbers in 1982, the largest single gathering of Scots in the history of the country, may be unfair). Yet London’s Hyde Park looked packed for the evening prayer-vigil, and even more impressive (as seen on the big screens which dotted the venue) were the thousands that lined the pope’s route to the vigil celebration.All went remarkably smoothly. There were guards of honour on his arrival and departure, there were state trumpeters welcoming him into Westminster Hall to address assembled politicians and civic leaders; but the formal state trappings of the visit were kept to a minimum. Protesters against the cost had themselves partly to blame for the overwhelming presence of police and rather too zealous security personnel at the various sites. But as it turned out, opponents of the papacy - from Ian Paisley’s coterie to Geoffrey Robertson QC bellowing into a microphone - made little or no impact, and certainly did not mar the enjoyment of the occasion for the hundreds of thousands of Catholics and others who celebrated.The doctrinal heartYet if the visit may have been a success for those who participated, and fuelled the self-confidence of British Catholics, its long-term consequences are much more difficult to measure. Benedict came, no doubt, because he wanted to beatify Cardinal John Henry Newman, and that he duly did in a relatively simple but moving ceremony. Monsignor Rod Strange, the rector of Rome’s Beda College and an authority on the new beatus, somewhat piously remarked that Benedict was like a parish-priest in his parish church - though with a rather larger congregation (and, it might be added, with a very much larger choir, a plethora of television cameras and an extravagance of bishops). But he had a point. For those present it was not only a beatification but their Sunday mass. The sermon, with its touching tribute to the anniversary of the “Battle of Britain” fought over the skies of southern England in 1940 - when Josef Ratzinger, though he did not mention this, it, briefly helped operate a German anti-aircraft battery - was perhaps rather more intellectually demanding than most congregations are used to.That may perhaps be one of the lasting legacies of the visit. The Oxford historian Diarmaid MacCulloch - no great friend of the Roman Catholic church - remarks that Pope Benedict used the visit to introduce a much needed note of seriousness into religious discourse. Nowhere was this more evident than the pope’s address in Westminster Hall. There, he paid the appropriate compliments to Britain’s parliament; spoke of the achievements of the country’s democracy, highlighting as one example the abolition of the slave trade under Christian (thou[...]

Ayodhya: verdict and consequence

Tue, 05 Oct 2010 18:54:29 +0000

An Indian court’s ruling on the Hindu-Muslim dispute over the sacred site of Ayodhya sheds light on the relationship between two forms of rationality in India, says Deep K Datta-Ray. The high court in Allahabad in India’s northern state of Uttar Pradesh made an important judgment on 30 September 2010 on the long-running Ayodhya saga, where the ownership of a site sacred to both Hindus and Muslims has been bitterly contested in the courts since the early 1990s. The judgment, a compromise that divides the land in dispute between the religious claimants - and seems thus to create the possibility of defusing the deep-rooted tensions between them - elicited a collective sigh of relief from India’s intellectual elite. But this very reaction tells a sobering story about the nature of the elite and its understanding of modern India. This understanding is reliant on assumptions drawn from Europe to make sense of Indian state practice, which are then embodied in narrow explanations which simultaneously trap the elite in a siege mentality. By dissecting this elite approach, it is possible to tease out the state’s rationality from its very practices - and Ayodhya provides the terrain. The alien logic The starting-point is the Indian elite’s curious interpretation of the Allahabad ruling, The formal issue at stake may be ownership of land where once stood a temple and then a mosque (the latter torn down by Hindus in December 1992 who claimed the site as the birthplace of Lord Ram); but the elite prefer to infuse the judgment with symbolism, so that they can take it as example of the state having weathered a primordial storm. In this view, the state is presumed to be motivated by an imported rationality  - developed in a faraway land, generated a certain set of practices such as parliamentary democracy, transplanted to hostile climes by a vanguard, obliged to be secured by educating the recalcitrant masses, and thus always under threat of extinction. This elite story about all Indians embodies the notion that the elite are the ones who crafted India and keep it going against the opposition or misunderstanding of millions of others. This attitude explains the profound insecurity of the Indian elite, which permeates their writings and indeed defines their very being, usually behind high walls in metropolitan areas. They believe that their oases of civilisation are constantly under siege from a population it regards as barbaric, or at best infantile, whose Bharat (the uneducated masses’ term for India) is a very different country from its own, western-influenced one. Yet this binary story is rendered chimerical by the state’s own practice. True, the Ayodhya verdict can be used to validate the elite assumption that its rationality is irredeemably superior to that of the masses. But things are not so simple, for a closer look suggests that practices imported by the vanguard continue to thrive in India thanks to the survival of a rationality among the masses that is resolutely non-western and firmly local. This puts democracy on a far stronger footing than the elite presumes, and relieves them of their angst and even their self-appointed role of vanguard. But by continuing to assume that only they qualify as civilised, the elite miss the local intellectual foundations of the Indian state. The universal divine The Ayodhya ruling, an exemplary case of the state being animated by a civilised local rationality, undermines the elite Indian story about India. The relevant section deserves quoting in full: “[...]

Europe's Muslims: burqa laws, women's lives

Thu, 15 Jul 2010 22:45:16 +0000

Several European states - France, Italy, Belgium and Britain among them - are involved in legal, social or political disputes over the dress-codes of Muslim women. A detailed and alert survey of the variegated experiences and attitudes involved is the best way to understand a complex issue, says Sara Silvestri. The burqa, and items associated with some Muslim women’s dress (the niqab and jilbab) is once more at the centre of political controversy in Europe. In fact, the immediate event that has propelled it to the centre of attention - a near-unanimous vote by France’s lower house of parliament on 13 July 2010 in favour of a bill to prohibit concealment of the face in public places - is but one episode in a more or less continuous saga that tends to produce more speculation than informed understanding. Perhaps then this is a good moment to disentangle some of the “burqa debate’s” many threads, in part by bringing to bear some of the detailed research I have been conducting into the issue of Muslim women’s dress and the wider question of “Muslim integration” across several European countries (see "Europe's Muslim women: potential, aspirations and challenges", King Baudouin Foundation, 2008). Between law and politics The evidence that the burqa and other coverings are increasingly becoming a matter of public discussion, emotion, regulation and legislation in Europe is widespread. Yet there is also little that is definitive about how this “problem” is defined or the measures taken to “solve” it. The high-profile parliamentary vote in France is an example. The 335-1 result sounds overwhelming, but the bill remains highly divisive in the country; several parties (including the socialist, green and communist) abstained from voting; France’s council of state has already (in May 2010) issued an “unfavourable opinion” about a total ban of the burqa in public spaces, which it deemed legally “unfounded”; the senate (upper house) will examine the issue in September; and France’s constitutional council too may be called on give a ruling. Even after that, opponents of the measure could in the event it passes have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights. Thus, the French vote is only part of a wider and more messy situation. This is true elsewhere, for example Belgium. Belgian MPs for their part have since the mid-2000s agreed that the “integral veil” should be banned. This was the eventual result of a gradual process whereby the hijab became condemend as a form of oppression of women. At the same time, Belgium’s internal political divisions have come into play in relation to the issue; the lower house of parliament voted in 2010 for a bill to prohibit clothes that do not allow the wearer to be identified (including the burqa and niqab), but a governmental crisis halted the bill before it could become law. Yet the “contagious” element of the anti-burqa mood is undisputed. Spain, Britain and Italy have their own public campaigns, legal proposals and social sentiments on the issue. Everywhere the details are different, yet there are many crossovers of shared concern. Is all this an indication that anti-Muslim feelings have spread and become rooted across Europe, five years after the 7/7 bombs in London that led to fears over security being linked to Muslim women’s dress? This may be a simplification which disregards other possible elements in play: that mixed feelings about how to respond to the epiphenomenon of the burqa/hijab finds in [...]

Siberian Shamans Come in From the Cold (part 3)

Mon, 17 May 2010 15:50:25 +0000

After decades of repression, Siberia’s shamans are re-emerging. Ken Hyder is a musician who performs with a Tuvan shaman. His novel describes the culture of contemporary shamanism as it emerges after decades of repression. Part three of three. Making music by the Mongolian SteppeThe kamlanie at the spring, with Zoya, gave Chimit the answer to his onstage visions.   He was being called.  It was more than an invitation.  Individuals who were singled out to become shamans could always decline.  But Chimit knew that usually, they would suffer sometimes a succession of illnesses, or just one big, long affliction. Of course, the idea of becoming a shaman attracted him.  It gave status and power, and if not exactly popularity, it meant small-scale celebrity. He could see how it would fit in with his personality.  He could carry it off with style.  When he shamanised it would be a powerful performance.At the same time, he knew it was a serious business, a serious step to take.  There were pressures and stresses which went with the job. He would be dealing with the uncertainties and dangers of the spirit world, daily.  And there was the shamanic politics.  There was always the shamanic politics. Shamans tended to be fiercely proud to the point of seeing sleights in the smallest gestures of other shamans. Sometimes the fights were sneaky affairs, black magic behind closed doors.  But every now and again it was a full-scale public call-out like a western gunfight. Then each shaman would chant his or her own kargysh – a personalised invocation or curse - in an attempt at destroying the other with black power. But Chimit thought he could handle all that.  He was used to fighting.  He was a powerful man, capable of silencing opponents with a hefty punch. So he agreed to begin his apprenticeship with Zoya.  He left  his wife Irgit, and daughters Nelli and Natasha in Kyzyl and moved back to Erzin for a month, staying with an uncle, not far from Zoya’s home. There were no concerts or tours planned for another two and a half months, so he had time, and there was enough money left over from the last European tour to tide the family over.It was like going back to school.  Zoya was thorough and strict.  She felt she had to control Chimit’s flare for extravagant gestures and showbiz posturing. Although there has always been a strong display aspect to Tuvan shamanism, Zoya thought that Chimit had more than enough already, and clipping his flamboyant wings would not reduce his effectiveness. Zoya also believed in doing things by the book – except that there was no book, only a tradition which was interpreted more liberally by some shamans than others.  For Zoya, every ritual had to be performed with the right words, the right procedures, in the right order. Again this did not sit easily with Chimit’s more fluid approach to life.  But he was decided on one thing.  He was going to do this with conviction. And as Zoya was his teacher, he resolved to follow her instructions with respect. She started by looking at Chimit’s astrological background.  There were two systems.  The first is the familiar 12-year cycle – the year of the dragon, the snake, the horse – used by the Chinese and others. The other is an unusual system which probably arrived in Tuva from Tibetan Buddhists, via Mongolia. The Tuvans called it the[...]

Siberian Shamans Come in From the Cold (part 2)

Mon, 10 May 2010 11:48:59 +0000

After decades of repression, Siberia’s shamans are re-emerging. Ken Hyder is a musician who performs with a Tuvan shaman. His novel describes the culture of contemporary shamanism as it emerges after decades of repression. Part two of three. Zoya lit the fire with a cigarette lighter decked out in the Marlboro colours. Alexei the driver sat down, not knowing what to do.  Some shamans insist participants hold their hands together in a Buddhist pose of concentration.  But Zoya gave no indication.  She fanned the small flickering flames with her hands and when she thought it was established, she began a quiet incantation, so quiet that neither Alexei nor Chimit who was standing beside her could make out any of the words. “You should believe in something very strongly and the soul will be powerful and clean.”  -  Kungaa Tash-Ool Buu She addressed the spirit of the spring and called on Hiarakan the supreme bear spirit to observe the séance. She then picked up the bowl and began throwing spoonfuls of the milk and juniper mixture into the air with her tos-karak ritual spoon. Some of the droplets were caught in the firelight as she moved round the fire.  Then both Zoya and Chimit warmed their drums by the fire, moving them horizontally over the flames to even out the heat. Every now and again they would hit the skin once or twice with their drum-beaters listening to the dulled thud as the sheepskin of the beater moved the drumhead and the air. Then they might hold the dungur at an angle of 45 degrees to the heat, only moving it slightly to distribute the heat. Then another couple of quick hits, listening to the raised pitch, but also feeling the heaviness of the way the drum spoke.  Some shamans liked their dungurs slacker than others.  They liked the wet-sounding muffled slap, the darker sound, and the way you could almost dig the beater into the skin.  They liked the contrast of the black sound of the drum’s depth and the white sound of the high-pitched bells on the inside of the shell. That was Chimit’s style. Although he wasn’t a shaman. Very dark, very masculine. Zoya’s dungur was smaller, her goatskin head thinner, and her drumstick smaller and lighter. She kept coaxing the pitch higher. But not too high, or the drum would not speak. Too tight, and it is choked. When it was right, she began playing. Chimit joined in. He knew this wasn’t a musical performance. He knew the drumming was not directly for anybody’s benefit but his own.  He knew that musical rhythm, timing, and phrasing were not what was needed.  And it was harder for him, because he was a musician. He remembered what an old shaman told him when he was starting to act shamanic roles onstage.  “Listen to the drum,” he said. And it instantly made sense. Listen to the drum.  Listen closely.  Each beat was different.  Each stroke a little harder or lighter than the previous one.  And landing in a different part of the skin. And the metal rings in the beater would vibrate differently. And the bells inside the dungur would respond a little further or nearer the beat each time. And as the shaman listens to the drum, it informs the next beat to be played. And the drumming becomes a circle.  A loopback. An ever changing loop.  There are no bars, no accents.  Because every beat is just one beat. It is one-time[...]

Siberian Shamans Come in From the Cold

Fri, 30 Apr 2010 16:39:57 +0000

After decades of repression, Siberia’s shamans are re-emerging. Ken Hyder is a musician who performs with a Tuvan shaman. His novel describes the culture of contemporary shamanism as it emerges after decades of repression. Part one of three. They heated the drums by an open fire. Zoya and Chimit did not notice the big sky. The big, dark sky. With all the stars you could want, or need. There was always a big sky at Erzin and over the border too, in Mongolia. The steppe had a huge boundless feel, but when you’re used to it, it’s normal.  And it was normal too, for villagers to ask a shaman for help.  All kinds of help. Every sickness, lost animals, a drunken husband or wife, cleaning out the home of bad, or trapped spirits.  But this kamlanie séance was unusual.Zoya Sedip, although just thirty-two, had been a shamanka for eight years.  Her initiation followed a classic pattern. She became ill with an inexplicable depression.  For six months she lay in the platform bed in her family’s round white felt yurta tent on the outskirts of Erzin where most of the homes were traditional Russian-style single storey wooden houses which could remind you of North American frontier cabins.“Knowledge is a vocation. When knowledge becomes a calling that calls us toward our own being, we can discover it in art and music and poetry as well as in rocks and trees and stars.  Knowledge is found in all living things, as well as in numbers and symbols.  It is found in all creativity and inspiration. Knowledge is beauty, delight, and joy, like rich, full humour and laughter. It is love and appreciation, alive with the richest feelings that the heart can offer.”  -  Tarthang Tulku Kadai Every day her mother Larissa fed her white food – sundried cream, white smoked cheese, and white salt-milk tea. Kaigal-Ool, the oldest of the three remaining Erzin shamans, visited the yurta every two or three weeks to see Zoya.  But he knew there was little he could do.  The spirits wanted her – whether or not she knew it herself.  Later, the visions would come, and Kaigal-Ool would tell her what they meant, and the choices open to her. Simply put, she was being marked out to become a shaman.  Few of those selected in this way actually wanted to surrender.  Of course there was status, respect even. And now it was safe, politically at least. Until the Gorbachev era it was dangerous being a shaman.  Thousands of Tuvan shamans died in government purges, some thrown out of helicopters to their deaths.  Others were sent to the gulag. Kaigal-Ool himself was an underground shaman for 31 years, sometimes fleeing across the border to Mongolia when KGB officers came south from the capital Kyzyl and started asking questions. The Erzin shamans uniquely wore all-black costumes.  But that did not mean they were necessarily black shamans who dealt with negative energies and who fought black spirits, and when necessary, carried out dark rituals. Kaigal-Ool was a white shaman, able to visit the white sky - and heal people with white, positive energy.Eventually, towards the end of her depression, Zoya succumbed to the imprecations of the spirits.  Kaigal-Ool told her that if she hadn’t, the spirits would never have left her alone, and she may never have recovered.  So, here she was, an ini[...]

The Catholic church’s scandal: modern crisis, ancient roots

Wed, 14 Apr 2010 22:27:18 +0000

The sexual violation of young people within the Catholic church is the poisonous legacy of a long tradition of contempt for human sexuality in an institution which has privileged secrecy and unaccountable power over transparency and participation. But the silence and darkness revealed by the scandal must not be allowed to define the majority of Catholics who are the living church, says Tina Beattie. The scandal engulfing the Roman Catholic church as a result of the exposure of widespread and long-lasting sexual abuse of children and young people by priests in a number of countries created a global media and political firestorm around the institution. Many analysts and commentators have reached for images such as “tsunami” to describe what is happening. Two eminent church historians not given to hyperbole – Diarmaid MacCulloch and Michael Walsh – have described it as the worst crisis facing the Catholic church since the 16th-century reformation (see Michael Walsh, “The Vatican’s fix: abuse and renewal”, 22 March 2010).   However, I am not convinced that the Vatican is yet aware of what a challenge this scandal poses to its authority and moral credibility. Rome’s smooth-talking representatives are capable of astounding feats of verbal dexterity when it comes to refusing to fully acknowledge the culpability of those responsible for decades of evasion and concealment. Moreover, some attempts to target the media show the Vatican hierarchy to be profoundly out of touch with the perceptions and values of everyday people. The failure of leadership Undoubtedly the sex-abuse scandal has provided a smokescreen for the expression of anti-Catholic sentiments, but in this case there really is no smoke without fire. There was widespread public outrage when Pope Benedict XVI’s preacher, Reverend Raniero Cantalamessa, compared the treatment of the Catholic hierarchy to the persecution of the Jews, and the pope sought to distance himself from these remarks. But for one of the most influential men in the Vatican to liken the church’s elite to innocent victims of a pogrom or a campaign of persecution shows an ongoing failure of moral judgment, and a refusal to accept that it is in fact being held to account for a catastrophic failure in the exercise of leadership. If they are to respond effectively to this crisis then they need to do much more than simply create more effective systems of reporting and control, for the current scandal has its roots deep in the church’s attitudes towards the related issues of sexuality and power, and it will take a leader of quite remarkable courage, wisdom and vision to address that fundamental problem. Unfortunately, having been part of the problem for so long, it is questionable whether the church’s current leadership can now become part of the solution.  Whatever Pope Benedict XVI did or did not know about cases of sexual abuse when (as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), it is known that he was a zealous authoritarian when it came to defending the doctrinal absolutism of the church’s teaching on issues such as contraception and abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women. The institutional paralysis which gripped the Catholic hierarchy when dealing with sexually abusing priests does not seem to have affected its ability to respond with ruthless effic[...]

Iran: torch of fire, politics of fun

Wed, 24 Mar 2010 23:31:23 +0000

The doctrinal contempt of Islamist regimes for popular festivals such as the Iranian nowrooz (new year) extends to suspicion of every expression of spontaneous life. The result is to conjure the very rituals of resistance they fear, says Asef Bayat.  Chahārshanbe-Sūri ("wednesday feast") is an ancient Persian festival whose origins lie in the Achaemenid era of Persia’s civilisation (549-330 bce) and its successors, when Zoroastrian beliefs were strong. By tradition it is celebrated on the last Wednesday night before nowrooz (Iran’s new year) in mid-March. It is a jubilant collective moment for Iranians in the country and among diaspora communities across the world. In Iran itself, people gather in streets and back-alleys to make bonfires and (in the case of the younger and more adventurous) jump over them; set off firecrackers; play music, dance and sing; and enjoy special foods and the joys of conviviality. In the life-affirming Chahārshanbe-Sūri, modern Iranians each year take the fire that was at the heart of the Zoroastrians’ sense of their world and their collective self-definition, and make it the centrepiece of their own modern ritual. This year, the approach to the Chahārshanbe-Sūri - which fell on 16 March 2010 - was of a different character to any in the country’s history. Iran’s doctrinal regime politicised the ritual and made it an object of official fear. A campaign to discourage people from joining the celebrations began when the head of the national police warned parents to prevent their children from going out, and continued with plans by the state-run television to show popular movies to keep youngsters indoors. Then, the authorities deployed security forces (including basij militias armed with guns and batons) in the streets and around the strategic locations of Iran’s major cities. The campaign culminated in the issuing by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of an unprecedented fatwa that castigated the ritual as both “irrational” and in Islamic terms “illegitimate” (gheir shar‘i).   It didn’t work. As ever, millions of Iranians poured into their neighbourhoods  to observe the national “calendar custom”. Many of them responded to the state’s politicisation of Chahārshanbe-Sūri by using the occasion to express their own defiance of the clerical regime, chanting slogans and songs of resistance. In Tehran, fifty people were arrested after clashing with the police and basij vigilantes.  Repression as fear Why does the Islamist regime express so much paranoia over Iran’s great annual festival with deep roots in the country’s history? The immediate answer would refer to the political context: in particular, the eruption of popular protest against the fraudulent presidential election of 12 June 2009, when Iranians poured onto the streets in a defiant affirmation of justice that only the most ferocious repression could subdue (see Farhang Jahanpour, “ Iran's stolen election, and what comes next”, 18 June 2009). In these circumstances, the regime’s attitude can be seen as inspired by fear that any occasion when Iranians gather in numbers is now an opportunity for the opposition “green movement” to mobilise popular anger and demonstrate how hollow is the regime’s legitimacy (see “ Iran: a green wave for life and liberty”, 7 July 2009). The Islamic R[...]

Religion in schools, finally

Fri, 25 Sep 2009 10:20:16 +0000

Russia's Orthodox Church has finally won its battle to make religious education compulsory in schools, says Russian Orthodox Church official Viktor Malukhin. But the secularists have won concessions too Patriarch Kirill's public triumph in Ukraine in July was preceded with another achievement no less important for the Russian Orthodox Church. This took place in the much more intimate atmosphere of the presidential residence in Barvikha, in the Moscow Oblast. There Dmitry Medvedev met with the leaders of Russia's traditional religions, and responded to two appeals from them. He agreed that the history and culture of the country's main religions should be included in the core school curriculum. He also agreed that the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation should have military priests. Patriarch Kirill was the first to sign both documents. The Muslim and Jewish religious communities supported the Orthodox position, despite previous objections from some muftis and rabbis. What will this decision mean in practice for schools? Twice a week from the spring of next year, pupils in the fourth and fifth classes will study one of three new subjects. They and their parents will be able to choose between the religious culture of one religion (Orthodox, Islam, Judaism or Buddhism), the history and cultural background of the world's great religions, or the foundations of secular ethics. It will be compulsory for pupils to choose one of these three modules. To start with, it will be introduced in 18 regions in six of the seven federal regions of Russia. The three-year experiment will be introduced in 12,000 Russian schools, 20,000 classes, 256,000 children and 44,000 teachers, according to the Ministry for Education and Science. From 2012, the new modules will be introduced to all Russian schools. These three modules, "Foundations of religious culture", "Foundations of history and culture of world religions" and "Foundations of secular ethics",- will be taught by teachers who have taken a special training course, though most of them will probably have had  a secular education. The rector of Moscow's State University V.A. Sadovnichy has already expressed a desire to put the resources of the country's leading university behind the re-training of these specialists. But it is clear that at first the main problem will be a serious lack of qualified teaching staff. The contents of the textbooks for these modules is also likely to prompt public debate. Consequently, the Church has already declared its readiness to work with the Ministry of Education and Science, the Russian Academy of Education, and a number of other institutes in order to inspect the new textbooks and study materials. This has already been announced by the head of the Synodal Department for Religious Education, Bishop Zaraisky Merkury. The patriarchate has entrusted the writing of the new textbook on the foundations of Orthodox culture to the well-known Deacon Andrei Kuraev, professor of Moscow State University and the Moscow Spiritual Academy. "We must hope that these various textbooks will be written in such a way that whatever religion the children belong to, if they are going to fight during the school break, they'll use the books, rather than the words contained in them as weapons!" said the protodeacon. "There should be no [...]

"Born-again" Muslims: cultural schizophrenia

Thu, 10 Sep 2009 23:15:00 +0000

In the immediate aftermath of the skybombing of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington on 11 September 2001, anyone with a minimum of human sympathy will be overwhelmed by feelings of rage and despair. Politicians, responding to the public mood, declare a “war on terrorism”. The airline industry goes into the proverbial nosedive. The stock markets tumble and experts predict that to the cost in human sorrow will be added the pain of economic recession. Muslim statesmen and spokesmen, fearful of the consequences of America’s ire, denounce the attack as contrary to everything that Islam stands for. But Palestinian Muslims are shown on TV dancing in the streets and in Pakistan, Islamic militants are shown demanding jihad (“holy war” or “struggle in the path of Allah”) against the United States in the event of an attack on Afghanistan. Pakistan, pressured by the United States, agrees to join the “coalition against terrorism” despite fears that collaboration with the US will meet resistance from the Taliban and their Pakistani supporters. Yet a US attack on Afghanistan could trigger the overthrow of the moderate, pro-western government headed by General (and now President) Pervez Musharraf, placing Islamist fingers on the nuclear button long before President George W Bush’s "national missile defence" initiative is ready for action. An American attack on Afghanistan could well precipitate the overthrow of pro-western regimes not only in Pakistan, but in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Egypt, Jordan and north Africa. Should this occur the attack on New York and Washington will no longer be seen as acts of “nihilistic” violence as some commentators maintain. Seen from the terrorists’ perspective it was an act of provocation aimed at unleashing a global conflict between a revitalised “Islam” and “the west”. Whether or not George W Bush’s “war against terrorism” will generate such direful consequences remains to be seen. The dust has to settle and the debris cleared, with its hideous burden of human remains, before the international ramifications become fully apparent. Yet certain patterns are already beginning to emerge. Contrary to the rhetoric of politicians, the attack was far from being “cowardly” or “mindless”. A brilliantly executed feat of planning, coordination and execution backed by an astonishing degree of courage, the attack exemplifies something that has come to characterise the modern (or "post-modern") world: the union of the symbolic with the actual, the mythical with the material, in a single act of destruction shown live on television. Solidarities of tribe and faith The United States president, using the language of a Texan sheriff, has announced Osama bin Laden is “wanted dead or alive” for mass murder in New York City and Washington. The evidence linking the Saudi dissident with the atrocity appears to be largely circumstantial and it is doubtful if, on present reckoning, it would stand up in a court of law. One should, of course, be cautious before drawing firm conclusions. But if press reports fed by leaks from the FBI are accurate, the finger points directly to Osama bin Laden. Although the networks over which he presides are loosely structured - he does not apparently use his own satellite phone in case the calls are trace[...]

Antichrist: the visual theology of Lars Von Trier

Thu, 13 Aug 2009 16:30:32 +0000

Lars von Trier is a tantalising film-director who provokes his audiences sometimes to the point of humiliation. He is also a master of visual theology. His Antichrist is the antithesis of Mel Gibson's tawdry and emotive The Passion of the Christ, offering as it does an exploration of the violent underbelly of the Christian story of sin and redemption. If Antichrist offers us any glimpse into the tortured psyche of its director, then it is a psyche sculpted around a visceral Catholicism of a much darker and more existentially credible kind than Gibson's lurid fantasies of crucifixion. A number of critics at the Cannes film festival derided von Trier for his dedication of Antichrist to Andrei Tarkovsky, and in doing so missed their affinity: for like the great Russian director, von Trier has a capacity to use the moving image as a celluloid icon through which to offer us glimpses into the depths of the Christian unconscious with its metaphysical terrors and yearnings. In von Trier's Breaking the Waves, the female character Bess (Emily Watson) is a Christ-like figure, a disturbing representation of mysticism and madness who sacrifices her life to redeem the man she loves. It is a harrowing and controversial film, not least for the questions it raises about the extent to which Bess's prostitution and murder reinforce violent sexual stereotypes about female sexuality and martyrdom. Antichrist pushes these questions even further by asking us to contemplate what it would mean to portray woman not as a Christ figure but as Eve, who in the Christian theological tradition has been represented as the personification of evil and bringer of death to the world. Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England. Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Allen & Unwin, 2002), New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005), and The New Atheists: The War on Religion and the Twilight of Reason (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007). Her website is here In the 2nd century, Tertullian wrote of women: "You are the devil's gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God's image, man. On account of your desert - that is, death - even the Son of God had to die." Von Trier takes his audience into the malevolent brew of these masculine beliefs and the havoc they wreak in women's lives. The elusive source Antichrist is an allegory of the Genesis myth which exposes the psychological terrors of Christian beliefs about the origins of sin. It draws its imagery not only from modern horror films but also from the teeming fears of medieval imaginations with their pervasive sense of evil and the power of Satan. The Antichrist of the film's title is everywhere and nowhere - a viscous and elusive presence that seeps through nature, including human nature, and infects it with futility, death and decay. The Antichrist is perhaps also the God-man himself, alluded to in the figure of the husband, whose misogynistic cult has sacrificed generations of women through persecution, burning and torture, while implanting in women themselves a deeply rooted sense of guilt and self-loathing. The film opens with a prologue of exquisite pathos, filmed i[...]

Leszek Kolakowski: thinker for our time

Wed, 29 Jul 2009 03:23:30 +0000

A few weeks ago I was at a dinner in Bucharest, hosted by a small centre-right think-tank, at which the discussion focused on the continuing dominance in western universities of certain familiar styles of intellectual subversion: postmodernism, Michel Foucault, American feminism and the occasional bureaucratised version of these things in Jürgen Habermas, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens.   Roger Scruton is a writer, philosopher and public commentator. Among his recent books are Gentle Regrets: Thoughts From a Life (Continuum, 2005); News from Somewhere: On Settling (Continuum, 2006); Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (Encounter Books, 2007); A Dictionary of Political Thought (Palgrave Macmillan, 3rd edition, 2007); Beauty (Oxford University Press, 2009); Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation (Continuum, 2009); and I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine (Continuum, 2009). His website is here Roger Scruton's many articles in openDemocracy include: "Maurice Cowling's achievement" (26 August 2005) "Jane Jacobs (1916-2006): cities for life" (2 May 2006) "Power inquiry, public debate" (6 March 2006) "The great hole of history" (11 September 2006) "England: an identity in question" (1 May 2007) "Richard Rorty's legacy" (12 June 2007) "Ingmar Bergman: the sense of the world" (4 August 2007) "Islamic law in a secular world" (14 February 2008) "Alexander Solzhenitsyn: the line within" (7 August 2008) Most of those present had spent time in a western university, and all had been troubled by the curriculum they had encountered there. In their eyes the western curriculum seems to have no other appeal than that which comes from deconstructing the forms of authority and order which have come down to us from our Judaeo-Christian culture. And yet that appeal is enough: nothing else seems required for academic legitimacy, and even if you write the kind of constipated sociologese of a Habermas or a Giddens, you can be guaranteed a position by those who would read you only so far as to extract the subversive and postmodern message. Someone put on the table a copy of the first volume of Main Currents of Marxism, which had that day appeared for the first time in Romanian, and invited us all to contemplate it. The question on everybody's lips was "How did he get away with it?" How did Leszek Kolakowski not only survive coming into the open with the most devastating critique of Marxism and its intellectual fellow-travellers in existence, but go on to enjoy an academic career of unparalleled success in western universities, becoming a fellow of All Souls College at Oxford University, winning the MacArthur "genius" prize, normally reserved for prominent leftists, and the million-dollar John W Kluge prize for a lifetime's achievement in the humanities? He picked up honorary degrees and awards by the score, and retired to a comfortable life in Oxford, there to write books on subjects normally held to be marginal, if not shocking, by the liberal establishment - topics such as man's religious need, the concept of the sacred, and the need for a counter-Enlightenment in defining our spiritual home. I was not able to answer t[...]

Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009: a master figure

Tue, 21 Jul 2009 12:39:18 +0000

Poland, and Europe, are losing our best. A year ago it was Bronislaw Geremek, now it is Leszek Kolakowski. This great philosopher and public intellectual spent years after 1956 in brave and critical opposition to the communist orthodoxy that ruled Poland, before moving to the west in 1968. He chose to believe what he saw with his own eyes and could judge with his own mind, not what the party preached. When the gap became intolerable, he dared publicly to speak in defence of his core values: reason, truth and decency.   Adam Szostkiewicz is a writer and journalist with the weekly magazine Polityka in Warsaw Also by Adam Szostkiewicz in openDemocracy: "The Polish lifeboat" (22 September 2005) "The Polish autumn" (26 October 2005) "Poland's past and future pope" (13 April 2006) "Poland marches: the people sound the alarm" (12 October 2006) "Bronislaw Geremek: Polish and European liberal" (15 July 2008) As a young man Kolakowski was himself a communist activist in post-1945 Poland, but soon turned into a socialist critic of the abuses of "really existing socialism"; this earned him the enmity of the establishment, which in 1968 forced him from his post as a philosophy professor at Warsaw University. His journey continued as he became a renowned champion of human rights and democracy, supporting peaceful struggles for change in Poland in a way that made him a hugely influential figure during the Solidarity era. A ban on his ability to work or publish could not stop him inspiring Poland's independent-minded scholars and students, a deep influence that continued during his long years in the west. His prolific output included many articles, essays and books; most substantially, a three-volume intellectual history of the rise and fall of Marxism, which won him renown in Europe and the United States. In official Poland, he continued to be persona non grata until the transformations of 1989 and after.   But Kolakowski's work filtered through via unofficial channels: copies of his Main Currents of Marxism trilogy were smuggled into Poland, and widely (if secretly) read by students and intellectuals - as well as high-ranking party and government functionaries. He acutely identified the loss of belief in official doctrines: "This ideology was supposed to mould the thinking of people. But it became so weak and ridiculous that nobody believed in it, neither the ruled nor the rulers." The world and Poland too When the democratic opposition movement became stronger in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the gestation of the Solidarity movement, underground printers took the risk of jail by reprinting Leszek Kolakowski's writings.  Among the most popular of these were Kolakowski's "manifesto of hope against hopelessness" and his short presentation on "how to be a liberal-conservative-socialist". When I read those clandestine (an added thrill!) musings I was overwhelmed: that's the way, I thought, that's the path I want to pursue. In reacting this way I was only one of the many who found in Kolakowski an inspiration to think and act for myself in my then captive country. The Solidarity generation to which I belonged found Leszek Kolakowski[...]

Musawah: solidarity in diversity

Mon, 23 Feb 2009 13:55:49 +0000

"This was inspirational. I got the same goose bumps at the rally the day Mandela was released," grinned Waheeda Amien, a founder of Shura Yabfazi which works to empower Muslim women in South Africa, at the close of the five-day launch of Musawah: a global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family last week.   "It speaks to the true you that combines your identities as a feminist and as a Muslim woman," commented Hadil el-Khouly, a young Egyptian activist who coordinated the young women's caucus at the event.   "For young women especially these battles are very personal: most young women are living at home, have to fit in with society, face pressures to get married. Musawah takes you out of the isolation"   "When I began reading and looking for answers, I used to think there were only one or two other women who thought like me. Now I know there are millions!" laughed Shaista Gohir, Executive Director of the Muslim Women's Network-UK, gesturing towards the Kuala Lumpur conference hall filled with some 250 women activists and scholars - and a handful of men - from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and countries of the North.   For one young Uzbek woman who cannot be named for her own safety, "We solved the issues of the laws decades ago. We have the laws. For us the question is the implementation. So I could relate to some of the experiences: like Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia where the laws are in place and we now need to tackle inequality at home." But for Raissa Jajurie of the Alternative Legal Assistance Centre in the Philippines it is a very different story: "We are a minority group in Mindanao. With the armed struggle going on, it is difficult to look into gender issues among the Muslims, but we are nevertheless taking baby steps. Musawah has inspired us to look at the various possibilities and given us the tools to work with."   Yet the similarities were clearly visible, in particular the misuse of culture and religion to deny women full citizenship and equality in the family. As United Nations Special Rapporteur Yakin Ertürk put it in her keynote speech, "Culture has become the new stage for global wars. Women stand at the centre." However, the participants in our debate were keen to challenge the dominant understanding which pits human rights against culture: "This meeting has added value to the women's movement with its approach of bringing fiqh [Muslim jurisprudence] and universal human rights together," noted Ghada Shawgi of the Khartoum Human Rights Centre, Sudan.   Several participants came from countries such as Iran, Mauritania and Uzbekistan where women's rights activism and public opposition to state gender policies can carry a heavy personal price. Others, such as 31-year old Nassirou Zahara Aboubacar, one of only two women on Niger's Islamic Council, occupy positions of recognized public authority in their countries.   Many women present, especially from North Africa and South Asia had previously used purely secular strategies. But as senior Egyptian feminist Amal Abd el-Hadi explained, "I need to learn now to demystify religion and these claims.&q[...]

Musawah: there cannot be justice without equality

Fri, 13 Feb 2009 09:11:57 +0000

A call for equality and justice "in the Muslim family" is being launched by a group of Muslim scholars and activists who insist that in the 21st century "there cannot be justice without equality" between men and women. Musawah (which means ‘equality' in Arabic) insists that change is possible by combining arguments from Islamic teachings, universal human rights principles, fundamental rights and constitutional guarantees, and grounding these arguments in the realities of women and men's lives in Muslim contexts today. Some 250 scholars and activists from 48 Muslim countries and minority communities will launch Musawah, a global initiative, starting today in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  The launch will include the public presentation of the Musawah Framework for Action, two years in the drafting, with input from activists and scholars from over 20 countries around the Muslim world, (, going live on 14 February). Aware that the arguments it contains will be controversial, the Framework has been kept under wraps until today.[i] The Framework The Framework lays out three principles as the basis for equality and justice in the Muslim family. The first is that "The universal and Islamic values of equality, non-discrimination, justice and dignity are the basis of all human relations." This bold statement is heresy for a formidable range of potential critics: for universalists who tend to see expressions of religion and culture as incompatible with human rights, and for Islamists who believe Islam's norms have a different conception of rights. Both cannot envisage religious men and women as feminists, and feminists as finding anything useful in religion. However, the Musawah Framework cites several Qur'anic verses that can be regarded as mandating equality between men and women. While acknowledging that there exist at least four verses that speak of men's authority over women in the family and gender inequality in society, the drafters of the Framework argue that interpretation is a human act, and that the holy texts must be understood in their contemporary social contexts. "Understandings of justice and injustice change over time," they explain, noting as an example that slavery used to be a part of Muslim societies, and that laws and practices relating to slavery had to be reconsidered as these societies changed. "Similarly, our family laws and practices must evolve to reflect the Islamic values of equality and justice, reinforce universal human rights norms, and address the realities of families in the twenty-first century." To assert that Muslim family laws are not divinely ordained but are human interpretations, open to reason and change, is to jump into one of the most contentious debates in Muslim scholarship. Sunni traditionalists assert that after the 10th century, the previously vibrant process of diversity in interpretation was correctly shut down, an event known among Muslims as the closing of the Gates of Ijtihad - ijtihad being the process of juristic endeavour. The fear was that diversity would lead to chaos in the Muslim world. Musawah, on the other hand, seems to be arguing that social chaos has anyway ar[...]

Barack Obama and the American void

Sat, 24 Jan 2009 17:20:16 +0000

There is something desperately lonely about Barack Obama's universe. One gets the overwhelming sense of someone yearning for connection, for something that binds human beings together, for community and commonality, for what he repeatedly calls "the common good". This is hardly news. We've known since his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention that "there's not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America - there's the United States of America." Simon Critchley is the chair of philosophy at the New School, New York. Among his books is The Book of Dead Philosophers (Granta/Vintage, 2008) This article is adapted from remarks delivered at the American Political Science Association in Boston on 30 August 2008 and at the New School in New York City on 18 September 2008. An extract from these was also published in Harper's Magazine (November 2008) Obama's remedy to the widespread disillusion with politics in the United States is a reaffirmation of the act of union. This is possible only insofar as it is possible to restore a sense of community to the nation. That, in turn, requires a belief in the common good. In the face of grotesque inequality, governmental sleaze, and generalised anomie, we need "to affirm our bonds with one another". Belief in the common good is the sole basis for hope. Without belief, there is nothing to be done. Such is the avowedly improbable basis for Obama's entire push for the presidency. A subjectivity of vision The obvious criticism one could make is that Obama's politics is governed by an anti-political fantasy. It lies behind the appeal to the common good, that "no one is exempt from the call to find common ground"; or "not so far beneath the surface, I think, we are becoming more, not less, alike". This, one might claim, is the familiar delusion of an end to politics, the postulation of a state where we can put aside our differences, overcome partisanship, and come together in order to heal the nation. The same longing for unity governs Obama's discourse on race, with his call for a black-brown alliance and his appeasing remark that "rightly or wrongly, white guilt has largely exhausted itself". Obama dreams of a society without power relations, without the agonism that constitutes political life. Against such a position one might assert that justice is always an agon, a conflict, and to refuse this assertion is to consign human beings to wallow in some emotional, fusional balm. One might add that the source of this longing for union is its absence. We anxiously want to believe, because we don't and we can't. The yearning for the common good comes from the refusal to accept that perhaps Americans have very little in common apart from the elements of a sometimes successful civil religion based around a sentimental, indeed sometimes teary-eyed, attachment to the constitution and a belief in the quasi-divine wisdom of the founding fathers. In the face of George W Bush's ultra-political presidency - his massive extension of executive power and his prosecution of a politics of fear based on the iden[...]

The politics of ME, ME, ME

Fri, 09 Jan 2009 11:23:58 +0000

The conflict in Gaza has dominated world headlines since the closing days of 2008. The war there is an exceptional event yet it also contains many elements of the familiar - in part because even at the “best” of times, media coverage of the middle east can be intense. In the new media age this coverage includes featuring and reflecting the intense engagement of people from around the world in the affairs of the region. Indeed, it seems unarguable that anyone with even the slightest knowledge of world affairs knows “something” about the various middle-east disputes, and indeed is more likely than not to have an opinion on their rights and wrongs (which cannot be claimed with equal confidence for other conflict-zones, such as Kashmir or Abkhazia or the Democratic Republic of Congo). The middle east is distinguished by the way that legions of people across the globe - politicians, activists and commentators among them - are invested in its conflicts, often to a degree of passionate and partisan engagement. They may believe that the region is where the fight to defend western civilisation is being fought or that it is the place where the struggle against American imperialism needs to be won; that Israel in Gaza is justly defending itself from terrorism or that it is engaged in a brutal colonial enterprise - but in either case, many global protagonists are united in a sense of involvement in the region and even a sense of “ownership” of its issues and contested claims.Keith Kahn-Harris is a research associate at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His website is here Also by Keith Kahn-Harris in openDemocracy: “The attractions of denial” (13 September 2007)     “How to talk about things we know nothing about” (21 February 2008) The elusive victory In principle, there is nothing wrong with this. After all, one result of media or public indifference to the many “forgotten” wars in Africa and elsewhere is that they remain of interest only to those who are physically involved in it - which often contributes to their more or less indefinite perpetuation. At least in the middle east the interest of those around the world also ensures a ceaseless search for solutions and for reconciliation. This very process of involvement has a twofold downside, however. First, it ensures that the more extreme protagonists on the ground are given moral support for their often violent struggles, their own passions fuelled rather than moderated by outsiders’ engagement. Second, those who choose or feel obliged to get involved in conflicts such as Gaza often do so in ways that are polarising, dogmatic, repetitive and damaging to the space of democratic debate they choose to enter. A prime example is the Guardian’s Comment is Free (CiF) site, one of the most popular outlets for political commentary in Britain (and the United States). At the time of writing it is dominated by opinions on the conflict in Gaza. But even on an “ordinary” day there will normally be at least one comment piece on Israel-Palestine, Iraq or another middle-eastern issue (indeed an entire section of CiF is now devoted to the region). The articles tend to[...]

John Milton’s vision

Tue, 09 Dec 2008 14:09:42 +0000

To honour the English writer John Milton on the 400th anniversary of his birth is to acknowledge his persistent otherness in the country he tried to transform, says Theo Hobson. There are, according to the received wisdom of our day, two sides to the greatness of John Milton, who was born in London on 9 December 1608. First and foremost he was a great poet (despite being religious). Also, he was a champion of liberty; a key architect of the English-British tradition of liberalism (despite being religious). It is principally the latter assumption that I want to discuss, though I will come back to his literary reputation.Theo Hobson is a theologian and writer. He is the author of Milton's Vision: The Birth of Christian Liberty (Continuum, 2008). His earlier books include Against Establishment: An Anglican Polemic Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004)Anarchy, Church and Utopia: Rowan Williams on the Church (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2005) Also by Theo Hobson in openDemocracy:"Rowan Williams: sharia furore, Anglican future" (13 February 2007) "The Anglican vision after Lambeth" (4 August 2008)  The idea is that he helped to put his country on the path to an enlightened constitution, in which such things as freedom of the press are firmly enshrined. Liberty is "the greatest gift that Britain gave the world", in the words of prime minister Gordon Brown; and John Milton was a founding father of this noble tradition (Brown mentioned Milton in his 25 October 2007 speech about liberty). This subtly misrepresents what Milton was about. It's a variant of the Whiggish fallacy, that the history of ideas is essentially about how freedom unfolded into its present-day fullness. To call Milton a key figure in British liberalism is like calling Karl Marx a key figure in British political history. True, his thought was influential, but it is far more important to note that the entirety of his vision was shunned, rejected, reacted against. The nation defined itself in opposition to Milton's vision, considered as a whole - and still does. Unless this is acknowledged, he is treated with condescension: he is patted on the back for contributing something really useful to national identity, while his actual thought is ignored. If we are to honour Milton on his 400th birthday we must clearly recognise the persistence of his otherness - the fact that he cannot be claimed as a noble exemplar of the national soul. The nation chose against him, and still does.  It is far more accurate to say that Milton was a key founder of the American liberal tradition, than of the British one. This is not just because of his republicanism: even more important to him than republicanism was his aversion to religious establishment. During the interregnum (1649-60) he worried that England's revolution was uncertain until Oliver Cromwell had clearly separated church and state, and instituted an explicitly secular liberal state (which Cromwell never quite did). This was the ideological obsession of Milton's life. So if Milton were to revisit us today he would not rejoice at the progress of liberty since his death. He would be depressed to see that the country [...]

Along the precipice: visions of atheism in London

Thu, 06 Nov 2008 10:53:28 +0000

"One wants to do this thing of just walking along the edge of the precipice." (Francis Bacon) An enterprising plan to display an atheist message on the side of sixty of London's red buses from January 2009 suggests that, if there is a God, she has a rather wicked sense of humour. The advertisement, which is sponsored by donors who include the British Humanist Association and Richard Dawkins, reads: "There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The idea may have struck more of a chord before the world's financial convulsions, when the popular Zeitgeist included indulging the extravagances of a consumer economy sustained by unlimited credit, than at a time when people are very worried about basic monetary security. It is in such a time, after all, that the search for faith and transcendent meaning often flourishes; when the easy comforts of a society whose only pursuit is of "enjoyment" can begin to seem hollow.   Tina Beattie is professor of Catholic studies at Roehampton University, England. Among her books are God's Mother, Eve's Advocate (Continuum, 2002), New Catholic Feminism: Theology and Theory (Routledge 2005), and The New Atheists: The War on Religion and the Twilight of Reason (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2007). Her website is here Also by Tina Beattie in openDemocracy: "Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words" (17 September 2006) "Veiling the issues: a distractive debate" (24 October 2006) "Religion in Britain in the Blair era" (10 January 2007) "Religion's cutting edge: lessons from Africa" (14 February 2007) "The end of postmodernism: the ‘new atheists' and democracy" (20 December 2007) "Rowan Williams and sharia law" (12 February 2007) In any event, there is nothing original or provocative about that banal agnostic slogan. It has been the credo of our western consumerist societies since the 1960s. A "probably" non-existent God has been banished from the public square and confined to increasingly empty churches in the company of a few deluded pious souls, leaving a large part of society to make merry (and money) with a sense of glorious liberation from the repressive effects of religion. For the followers of a new and more ruthless deity have been building their temples in this society's midst. The fervour of their worship is familiar: a horde of over-excited, gesticulating men (like most religions, this one is dominated by men), shouting their prayers and petitions at the great glowing icons above them, placing their faith in the random and unpredictable whims of the gods, offering human sacrifices when necessary and creating a cult of secrecy so dense that the rest of us failed to see what they were up to until their creed had insinuated itself into so many institutions - governments and political processes, workplaces, schools and universities, shops, even homes and families. What is the name of this all-powerful, all-controlling God? It may have once been called Mammon, but most today know it as The Market, and his fo[...]