Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

#marriageequality #loveislove

Dear Reader, if you have spent any time at all reading our blog, you will be aware of two things. One, I have opinions. (Hence the name of the blog.) Two, I am a Christian.

So when the pro-same sex marriage rally was announced in Melbourne over the weekend, there was never any doubt we would attend.

Firstly, for me, equality for homosexuals has been a lifelong campaign.

My proudest “Button” in my collection of political ephemera is one that reads “Gay Liberation is Our Liberation”. (It is an ample example of how old we are now that no-one today would refer to “Gay Liberation”.)

Whenever I wore the badge, forty plus years ago, sooner or later someone would challenge me on it. I was stronger and fitter then, and ready to “look after myself” if I got a hammering. Typically some liquored-up idiot would prod me in the chest with an accusative finger and breathe “So, you’re a poofter, eh?”

This gave me the opportunity to say “Actually, no I am not. But Gay Liberation is about the heterosexual community freeing itself from our own bigotry.” This would usually result in the knuckle-scraper backing off with a confused look on his face (it was always men) and – now and again – a useful conversation. It was my small contribution to the struggle, because, of course, if a gay person had worn the badge the exchange would often have ended up with a punch in the face.

We also used to run discos when I was at University with the poster headline “Come and Meet a Real Live Queer” a decade or more before the LGBTI+ generally community worked out that they could “own” the word, and thus challenge and even change the negative connotations associated with it. Even if those days, communications was my passion.

Secondly, I have studied Christianity all my life – I have a degree in Theology – and I simply detest the way that the Church is often portrayed (and often behaves) as the home of wowsers and conservatives.

My Christianity is progressive, activist, small-l liberal and dedicated to over-turning shibboleths. I simply cannot abide the way that literal interpretations of Scripture (which are not even based on scholarship, but usually on bias and/or inaccurate translations) are used to support essentially anti-Christian behaviour – of which opposing “same sex” marriage is simply the most recent example.

Fundamentalist Christianity has been used to excuse burning “heretics”, drowning witches, slavery, banning contraception, destroying womens’ health provision, idiotic anti-scientific nonsense like Creationism, and much more. Little wonder the Church in the developed world is rapidly losing adherents.

In its blind opposition to same-sex attracted people having the same rights as everyone else it has caused huge suffering to many, including people who I know and love. The tactics used by the ugly confluence of the far-right and the fundamentalist Churches (epitomised by the often appalling Roman Catholic Church, the conservative Anglican diocese of the Sydney, and the utterly bigoted and so-called Australian Christian Lobby) seeks to portray all Christians as anti-gay.

Well we ain’t. At all. “Not in my name” comes to mind. So when the rally was announced, my attendance was inevitable.

But having decided to attend, what then? I have no standing in the Equal Love movement, so they weren’t going to ask me to speak. No public position to leverage. Was there anything I could do to help, over and above simply wearing out some shoe leather and getting some much-needed exercise?

Because I am in the comms business, I decided my brain should be given a bit of a workout as well as the legs.

I decided to actively take on the nonsense that is written about me and millions of people like me by those who should know better, or who should stop behaving so shamefully as trying to present their opinions as mine.

I decided to say, deliberately, “Hey – I am bulk-standard, standard-issue Middle Australian, and I am voting “Yes”.” With the obvious implied corollary, “You should too.”

I simply wanted to make it clear to everyone else attending the rally that the support for equal rights spreads right across the political and social spectrum. Because that’s one way to ensure that people outside of the core campaign group will be encouraged to stand up too: to come out and vote, and to campaign.

And because – above all – I think the LGBTI+ community deserves to know that the rest of us support them. They’ve been fighting this battle too long and too hard for us to miss this chance to help them get a “Yes” vote across the line. As one placard read at the rally, “I can’t believe we’re still fighting this shit”.

Quite.

Hence the placard.

Agit-Prop? Hell, yes it was.

Was I looking for publicity? Yes, I was. Not in the sense that I wanted ME to become famous. (At all. I’m too old for all that rubbish.) No, I wanted the principle embodied by the placard to become famous. Or at least, to spread out beyond my head.

Maybe a TV camera might snap it, and it could get seen? Or maybe a journo or two? Yes, I was aware of that possibility. Most of all, of course, I simply wanted to stand in solidarity with the other campaigners, and against the nonsense. But I’d be lying if I pretended I didn’t hope the placard might make some difference beyond that. Don’t ask, don’t get, eh? It’s worth trying anything to overcome naked wrongs.

As so often in life, though, what really happened was way beyond my expectations.

The moment Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and I arrived, and plonked ourselves strategically down on a well-positioned bench, we were deluged with smiling people wanting to photograph the sign. I completely lost track of how many people did. Hundreds, certainly. We had so many ‘thank yous’, so many thumbs up, not a few kisses planted on our cheeks and plenty of “high fives”. It was really quite overwhelming, and beautiful.

At one point I turned to Jenie and said “And this is what people are afraid of? All this love? All these terrible revolutionaries seeking to undermine the very basis of society.? These are the nicest people I have ever met!” Everyone was there – families with kids of all ages, masses of young people of all apparent sexualities, gay couples, and all age groups. It was uplifting in the best possible way.

One journo asked me why I was there. I had to stop and think for a moment, because I hadn’t planned an answer. In the end I said “Freedom’s important.” She smiled and said “That’s the best reason I’ve heard today.” She went down on the list of “Positives”.

One fundo Christian with crazy eyes came up to me and assailed me with every ridiculous argument the “No” lobby have been pushing out. I politely but firmly batted back every faux Biblical quotation with another, or with a more accurate translation. Every time I did, she moved the goalposts. In the end, after quite some time, I put her down as “irretrievably No”, and asked her (nicely) to move on. “There!” she said triumphantly, “when you’re losing the debate you just back out!” I looked at her sadly, and wondered, not for the first time, when and how children turn into adults with this level of stupidity. What happens to people? She wouldn’t leave. In the end I had to say firmly, “Please: leave me alone.” She wanted off, eyes blazing with self-induced fire, muttering.

But in general, we were deluged with kindness and positivity. I will never forget it. And at this stage, let me explicitly acknowledge Jenie’s role. My lovely wife, although she has her own strongly held opinions on just about everything,  is not a natural attender at rallies – she doesn’t like crowds, or public attention for that matter – yet she was utterly supportive of my goals in going to the rally, and she engaged with journos, and our neighbours around us, she helped me hold the sign, pointed out people who wanted a photo and – a million thanks – found us a coffee. “Whaddawewant?” “ Hot coffee!” “When do we want it?” “About ten minutes ago, thanks.” Sharing this life-affirming event with her made it all the more meaningful.

Later, we discovered that the placard had been snapped by a photo journo Tara Watson, and then tweeted and posted on FB by Guardian journo and opinion leader Van Badham, and then re-tweeted by Penny Wong, and essentially, that was that.

The picture was suddenly everywhere. Jenie and I were deluged with kind and supportive messages, and when our daughter re-posted the photo and said she was proud of us, then so was she. A more practical example of the essential goodness of folk you couldn’t wish for. It was embarrassing and wonderful in equal measure.

So much, so good. So viral. The world is an interesting place, these days. I am happy so many people got to see the message, and there it is.

But two people we met stand out in my mind, and the real point of this article is to tell you about them.

No names – they didn’t ask for publicity – but their stories deserve to be told.

One guy came up, and told us about his Dad, who had recently died of Alzheimer’s at the age of 90. He had never “had the conversation” with his Dad about his sexuality, and now he never would. But after his Dad’s death, he mentioned this to one of the nurses who used to look after him. “Oh, no,” said the nurse. “He knew.”

She had been walking the old chap in the garden, asking him about his family. He had three sons, he said. One did such and such, one did such and such, and one did such and such. He’s gay, of course.” The old man couldn’t have cared less, and he knew.

As he told us this story, tears started running down his cheeks. “Good thing I’ve got dark glasses on” he said, as he wiped them away. “Thank you so much for the sign. It’s so good to know that people like you understand.”

He made his apologies, and left. It was awhile before I dared to speak again.

A little while later, a middle-aged woman came up, and insisted on shaking hands. Momentarily, after struggling to smile, she started crying too.

“I just want to say thank you. I just want to shake your hand. Our son is gay, and he gets bullied at school. Badly bullied. That’s why I’m here. I’m here with my husband. I’m so excited to see you here, making this point. It makes all the difference to me. Thank you. Thank you. Sorry. Thank you.”

She turned away, too choked to say any more. I just said “You’re welcome.” It seemed totally inadequate, and it was, but what can you do? Here was the ugly side of this debate manifested in a real person’s life, in a real person’s family, raw, and unsanitised and brutal and sad.

I felt – and feel – deeply humbled and grateful for having met these people.

I wish everyone could meet them.

This stupid, unnecessary and divisive government opinion poll would be won by a huge margin, if people could just get past the propaganda of the “No” campaign, and talk to real people who are going to be affected profoundly, for good or ill, by the judgement of their peers.

God bless you, Australia. Please vote “Yes”.

And go to the next rally. With your own sign. It matters.

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The Warren Cup, from the British Museum. Roman man anally penetrating a youth, possibly a slave. Circa 1st century AD.

Many ordinary Christians are deeply conflicted by their desire to embrace homosexual brethren in the fellowship of the church, when some of their leaders are telling them that these people are sinners.

Numbers of people feel very discomfited by the current debate.

So what is the “Biblical” teaching on gays?

Opponents of homosexuality almost always treat scripture as being “literally true” in a historical sense. Certainly, that is the case currently.

It follows, therefore, that any rebuttal of their claims should also adhere to this assumption, if it is to convince them that they are wrong.

I personally believe the early stories in the Bible are no more “literally” true than ancient Norse myths. But I am prepared to put that aside for one moment, and consider this issue under the rules that the “literalists” would apply, because many argue that the oft-trotted-out “Biblical” case against homosexuality simply doesn’t appear to “stack up”.

Genesis 19: 1-28

The ancient story of Sodom and Gomorrah has been used throughout the centuries as a condemnation of homosexuality, to the point where anal sex is referred to as “Sodomy”.

And that’s the problem. It’s become a cliché. We assume it’s true, because it’s been around so long.

The verses in this story most commonly referred to as proof that the Sodomites were homosexual are verses 4 and 5: “Before they could lie down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house,from boy to old man, all the people in one mob. And they kept calling out to Lot and saying to him: ‘Where are the men who came in to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have intercourse with them.”

Examining this scripture, the first thing we see is that all the people, in one mob, demanded that Lot bring out the visitors to them. If we are to believe that the account of Sodom & Gomorrah is a condemnation of homosexuality, then we must also accept the conclusion that the entire city consisted of homosexuals.

But if we look in the previous chapter, Genesis 18: 16-33, we see an account of Abraham negotiating with God to spare the people of Sodom, with the final outcome of God promising “I shall not bring it to ruin on account of the ten” (verse 33).

God promised Abraham that Sodom would not be destroyed if only ten “righteous men” could be found I the city.

If we are to accept the previous logic, this would mean that the “righteous men” referred to were, per se, heterosexuals.

Now it is a matter of Biblical “fact” that God (or rather, his angels) didn’t find anyone at all worth saving. But at this point, we then need to ask ourselves: what would be the odds of less than ten people in the entire region of Sodom & Gomorrah being heterosexual?

The obvious answer is “impossible”, of course.

If for no other reason than to ask, “where did all the population come from?” They were all gay immigrants, presumably, begat by parents left behind in other places that were heteroesexual? We think not.

So if homosexuality was not being referred to in this passage, then what was? Looking at the scriptures in Hebrew, we find an interesting usage of a couple of different words.

When the mob cries out “Where are the men who came in to you tonight?”, the Hebrew word that is customarily translated men is actually ‘enowsh which, literally translated, means “mortal” or “human”.

This indicates that the mob knew that Lot had visitors, but were unsure of what sex they were.

We can divine this because the Hebrew word for “man” (utilized in this same passage in Genesis 19:8) is entirely different. And one really has to ask: why would homosexuals want to have sex with two strangers if they were unsure of what sex they were?

The passage translated as “Bring them out so that we may have intercourse with them” needs further examination as well.

Other Bible translations read “so that we may know them”. The Hebrew word that is commonly translated as “have intercourse”, or “know” is yada.

But this word, yada, appears in the Hebrew Scriptures a total of 943 times. And in all but ten of these usages, the word is used in the context of getting acquainted with someone.

Had the writer intended for his reading audience to believe that the mob wanted to have sexual intercourse with the strangers, he could simply have used the Hebrew word shakab, which vividly denotes sexual activity.

Many people argue, therefore, that the correct translation should be rendered something to the effect of: “Where are the people who came in to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may get acquainted with them.”

So then, if the story of Sodom & Gomorrah was not a condemnation of homosexuality, what was it trying to convey?

Two verses in Exekiel sum up the story this way: “Look! This is what proved to be the error of Sodom your sister: Pride, sufficiency of bread and the carefreeness of keeping undisturbed were what happened to belong to her and her dependent towns, and the hand of the afflicted one and the poor one she did not strengthen. And they continued to be haughty and to carry on a detestable thing before me, and I finally removed them, just as I saw [fit]”. (Ezekiel 16: 49, 50.)

It is commonly assumed, because we’re referring to Sodom, that the “detestable thing” referred to in this passage is homosexuality.

But in fact, the Hebrew word utilized here is tow’ebah, which translated literally means “to commit idol worship”.

This can be seen in the original Genesis passage, chapter 19, verse 8: “Please, here I have two daughters who have never had intercourse with a man. Please let me bring them out to you. Then do to them as is good in your eyes.”

One has to ask: If Lot’s house was surrounded by homosexuals, which presumably he’d know as everyone in the entire region was gay apart from him and his family, why would he offer the mob women?

Note also that these women were virgins. And that the Sodomites were pagans.

Virgin sacrifices to idols were a common practice in this era. Therefore, it can easily be concluded that Lot was offering his daughters as a virgin sacrifice to appease the mob in an effort to protect the visitors.

In the Greek scriptures, the story of Sodom is summed up this way: “and by reducing the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them, setting a pattern for ungodly persons of things to come”.

This corroborates Ezekiel’s summation, once again showing that these were “ungodly persons”; in other words, idolaters, they were not worshippers of the true God.

If we have difficulty with the logic of 100% of any population being gay, can we rather believe in 100% of a population being adherents of a particular pagan cult? Yes, we certainly can. If for no other reason that there was no tolerance of those who didn’t share pagan beliefs in many early societies. Not to agree was to invite exclusion or execution. You were in, or you were out. The Jews themselves exercise this attitude continually throughout the Old Testament.

So the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, therefore, is almost certainly intended as a condemnation of idol worshippers, and of a greedy and inhospitable society that sought to treat visitors in a threatening manner – which was also a sin, to the early Jews, by the way.

Many people argue, therefore, that it is perfectly reasonable to propose that this key text on the judgement of this region had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with homosexuality!

Leviticus 18:22 & Leviticus 20:13

The message was clear to the ancient Israelites: semen was to be used for one purpose alone – procreation.

Wasted semen, whether by masturbation, anal penetration, or homosexuality, was not to be tolerated.

We have to place these edicts in some sort of historical context in order to understand them, if not to agree or disagree with them.

Life in those days was a “numbers game”. One of the Bible’s earliest edicts, a theme repeated through the Old Testament, was to “be fruitful and multiply”. If your tribe was numerically stronger than those around it, then good things would flow from that dominance.

(The same argument is currently used by the British National Party to argue for white Anglo-Saxon women having more children, but that’s another story.)

It’s an undeniable fact that many strict regulations were imposed on the ancient Israelites. The “chosen ones of God” understood each of these regulations to be equally important.

In the Greek scriptures, James points this fact out by stating: “For whoever observes all the law but makes a false step in one point, he has become an offender against them all.”

Fundamentalist Christians, however, selectively cite the two scriptures in Leviticus as a condemnation of homosexuality, overlooking James’ words which state, in essence, that if you’ve broken just one of the laws, you’ve broken them all.

So why do we focus so frequently on homosexuality?

Leviticus 19:27, for example, condemns haircuts and shaving. How many long-haired, bearded males attend your local Church? Or to put it another way, do we have agonised debates about Ministers who might have short hair?

Leviticus 19:19 also condemns wearing clothing made of more than one type of thread. Anybody reading this wear clothing made of 50% cotton and 50% polyester?

Taking the Bible literally, such individuals are equally guilty as homosexuals.

This leaves aside, of course, any concerns about whether or not it is still OK for us to grab our neighbours and use them as slaves, or to go around killing anyone who works on the Sabbath.

When questioned by the Pharisees regarding these ancient laws, Jesus’ reply was “I came, not to destroy, but to fulfil”. In other words, Christianity and love of God and fellow man was a replacement for the strict ancient codes, many of which were no longer practical or relevant.

But let us forget, for a moment, putting things in an historical context, or the fundamentalists will simply argue that we’re “messing with the truth”.

Let us look at the arguments of those who believe these two passages don’t really condemn homosexuality at all.

Looking at the scriptures in Hebrew, one sees a different condemnation. Leviticus 20:13 states, in part, and was historically translated as, “When a man lies down with a male the same as one lies down with a woman”.

But had the writer intended to convey homosexuality being condemned here, he would surely have used the Hebrew word ‘iysh, which means “man”, or “male person”.

Instead, the author utilises a much more complicated Hebrew word, zakar, which literally translated means “A person worthy of recognition”.

Zakar was used to refer to high priests of the surrounding idolatrous religions.

In ancient societies, surrounding the early Jews, it was believed that by granting sexual favours to the high priest (a fertility rite), one would be guaranteed an abundance of children and crops.

Taking Leviticus 18: 22 into proper context, then, one should also look at the preceding verse 21: “And you must not allow the devoting of any of your offspring to Molech”.

So what we almost certainly see here are warnings to the Israelites not to engage in the fertility rituals of the worshippers of Molech, which often required the granting of sexual favours to the priest.

Many believe that if this been a mere condemnation of homosexuals, the writer would undoubtedly have used clearer or simpler language.

Romans 1: 26-27, 1 Cor. 6: 9-11, 1 Tim. 1: 9-11

Greek, like Hebrew, is a much more descriptive language than English. As an example, while we have the word “love”, Greek has agape, storge, philia, and eros – each describing a different form of love.

Further, just as with English, the meanings of words can change over generations.

Ironically, “gay” is a classic example.

Some say that it is easy to understand why words in ancient Greek could be misinterpreted, as are the terms “men who lie with men”, “abusers of mankind”, “homosexual”, and “pervert” in the above referenced scriptures.

The two words in Greek used in the above scriptures that are commonly mistranslated as such are arsenokoites and malakoi.

Bible scholars now believe arsenokoites to mean “male temple prostitute”, as mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures at Deut. 23: 17-18.

The actual meaning of this word, however, has been lost in history, as it was a slang term which, literally translated, means “lift bed”.

The Greek malakoi, literally translated, means “spineless” (some linguistics scholars translate it as “limp”, or “coward”).

What is important to note here is that both of these words are nouns. In ancient Greek, there is no known noun to define homosexuality. It was always expressed as a verb.

So just as in the Hebrew scriptures examined earlier, it appears that the Greek scriptures actually make reference to those who engaged in idolatrous practices, much of which, as we know, centred around sex in return for favours.

Neither the homosexual nor the direct idea of homosexuality appears anywhere in these passages. Had the writer intended to make a clear point about condemnation of gays, surely the Greek verb for homosexual behaviour would have been utilised rather than these nouns which are directly related to cowardice and idolatry?

But last – and by no means least – what about Paul’s apparently incontrovertible statement at Romans 1 where “females changed the natural use of themselves into one contrary to nature and likewise even the males left the natural use of the female and became violently inflamed in their lust towards one another”?

This would appear to be a simple, trenchant condemnation of homosexuality.

But perhaps, yet again. the truth is actually more subtle than that.

A clue lies in Paul’s words in the earlier verses 22 and 23: “Although asserting they were wise, they became foolish and turned the glory of the incorruptible God into something like the image of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed creatures and creeping things.”

So obviously, again, Paul’s reference here is to worshippers drawn into the ever-present danger of idolatry, one danger of which is unbridled sexual licentiousness of the kind that a conservative Jew like Paul would have found abhorrent. Especially when put in the context of his mission to the Roman Empire, with its endless parade of cults and religions, and very lax sexual behaviour generally.

As mentioned above in examining the Hebrew scriptures, many pagan idol-worshipping religions of Paul’s day also taught that by granting sexual favours to priests, the one giving the favour would be rewarded with fertility of crops and offspring.

Indeed, many such cults were, in reality, little more than brothels with quasi-religious overtones.

Unfortunately, of course, we have to read Paul’s words without the benefit of knowing all the background to his letters, but it certainly seems reasonable to suppose that his attack here is on a complex set of behaviours to do with people who reject the message of Christianity and continue to adhere to older religions.

It seems clear that Paul’s reference was not a dedicated attack on loving same-sex relationships, but his condemnation was focused instead on people who were normally heterosexuals who had been prevailed upon to rebel against their own sexual nature, in the granting of sexual favours to the leaders of pagan religions, in expectation of reward by the pagan gods.

So whilst his apparent rejection of homosexual behaviour seems unambiguous, the context of the comments is much more complex.

In conclusion, nowhere in the Bible, according to many Biblical scholars, is any unambiguously negative reference made to stable, loving same-sex relationships. And after all, it is now widely agreed that anything up to 5-10% of the population identify themselves as predominantly “gay” as regards their sexual preferences. So are 5-10% of those sections of the Bible discussing relationships dedicated to condemning their choice? Undoubtedly not. In all he is recorded as saying, does Christ ever address any remarks condemining homosexuality to one-in-20 of the population, or one-in-ten? No, not a word.

In fact, many gays argue that two positive references appear in the Hebrew scriptures of love between two people of the same sex:

2 Samuel 1:26 states: “I am distressed over you, my brother Jonathan, very pleasant you were to me. More wonderful was your love to me than the love from women.”

Ruth 1: 16, 17 states: “And Ruth proceeded to say: ‘Do not plead with me to abandon you, to turn back from accompanying you; for where you go I shall go, and where you spend the night I shall spend the night. Your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I shall die, and there is where I shall be buried. May Jehovah do so to me and add to it if anything but death should make a separation between me and you’.”

And while it must immediately be conceded that no mention is made of actual sexual activity between these people, it must also be pointed out that these couples had therefore made covenants with each other. And to the ancient Israelites, a covenant was viewed as a holy bond; a powerful uniting of two people.

We all have to wrestle with the truth of this matter in our hearts. Personally, I find it much more helpful to see what the Bible is arguing for, rather than what it is arguing against. Those who are currently affected by some Christians’ negative stance towards gays and lesbians should perhaps also seek comfort in the much greater preponderance in the Bible of messages of inclusion, acceptance, tolerance and understanding.

And the injunction, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”

Post Scriptum

A correspondent kindly reminded me of this hilarious spearing of the literal truth of the Old Testament, from 2002. The introductory quotation is from that era:

The power of logic and quiet humour – “Dr Laura’s” anti-gay viewpoints – for which she later apologised – sparked a worldwide internet phenomenon which did more to mock anti-gay beliefs based on the OT than anyone could have imagined.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger is a radio personality who dispenses advice to people who call in to her radio show.

Recently, she said that, as an observant Orthodox Jew, homosexuality is an abomination according to Leviticus 18:22 and cannot be condoned under any circumstance.

The following is an open letter to Dr. Laura penned by a east coast resident, which was posted on the Internet. It’s funny, as well as informative:

Dear Dr. Laura

Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s Law. I have learned a great deal from your show, and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can.

When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination. End of debate. I do need some advice from you, however, regarding some of the other specific laws and how to follow them:

When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15:19- 24. The problem is, how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.

Lev. 25:44 states that I may indeed possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Mexicans, but not Canadians. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Canadians?

I have a neighbor who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?

A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?

Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle room here?

Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? – Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.

Your devoted fan,
Jim

Very early in the Koran, in verse 62 of the second book, it says this:

Those who believe, and those who are Jewish, and the Christians, and the Sabeans—any who believe in God and the Last Day, and act righteously—will have their reward with their Lord; they have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.

In the Koran, Christians are often referred to as among the “People of the Book,” that is to say people who have received and believed in previous revelation from God’s prophets. There are verses that highlight the commonalities between Christians and Muslims, as well as other verses that warn Christians against sliding towards polytheism in their worship of Jesus Christ, in that the Muslims believe Christ to be a Messenger (a prophet) and not a part of the indivisible Divinity.

Despite this disagreement, a number of verses stress the commonality between Muslims and Christians.

“…and nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant” (5:82).

“O you who believe! Be helpers of God – as Jesus the son of Mary said to the Disciples, ‘Who will be my helpers in (the work of) God?’ Said the disciples, ‘We are God’s helpers!’ Then a portion of the Children of Israel believed, and a portion disbelieved. But We gave power to those who believed, against their enemies, and they became the ones that prevailed” (61:14).

In addition, during his lifetime, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) sent a message to the monks of Saint Catherine in Mount Sinai. It is worth quoting at length:

This is a message written by Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, far and near, we are behind them. Verily, I defend them by myself, the servants, the helpers, and my followers, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be changed from their jobs, nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they (Christians) are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, this is not to take place without her own wish. She is not to be prevented from going to her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation is to disobey this covenant till the Day of Judgment and the end of the world.

Indeed, Jesus is mentioned with the deepest respect 70 times in the Koran.

So why do we turn to these matters today? Simply because of the brutal attack, claimed by Daesh, on Coptic Churches in Egypt. 44 are dead and 100 or more inured. Daesh claimed responsibility for deadly bombings at two churches in on Palm Sunday targeting a vulnerable religious minority on one of the most important days on the Christian calendar.

When it is so obviously not any part of a valid Muslim tradition, why would Daesh perform such an horrendous act? Why, indeed, did they previous stage a mass beheading of Coptic Christians in Egypt?

The answer is, of course, that Daesh are committed to bringing others into the Mid-East conflict, in order to radicalise Muslims with the oppression of their efforts which that would entail. The Sunni resistance in Iraq and Syria (for that is really what Daesh really is) is, in the simplest armed conflict terms, losing. That is why they are prepared to ignore the teachings of their own religion, and commit atrocities.

(The instant response of the Egyptian Government – to slap on a three month State of Emergency which allows the military to arrest whomever they like without warrant on suspicion – will also delight Daesh – nothing like provoking an extreme reaction from the governing elite to radicalise a new generation of footsoldiers.)

It is very important that worldwide we do not confuse or conflate the Muslim religion with the political actions of those who are prepared to perpetrate horror to advance their cause, whether they are the main Daesh actors in the Middle East, or their “lone wolf” followers in Bali, France, Britain, Germany, Australia and Sweden.

A generalised fear of the Muslim world by Christians is simply an over-reaction born of ignorance. As we have said many times in various social media, “There are 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide. If they really wished us dead, we probably would be by now.”

We remember as a young child growing up in an era when there was still awkwardness, if not outright hostility, between Christian sects. Driving home in the trusty Triumph Herald from our Anglican (Episcopalian) Church, we would point out the local Methodists leaving their much more boring-looking Church, to be met with “Yes, well, they’re quite like us, but not really. Not bad people though.” This was oddly faint praise, given that much of the rest of the family were non-conformist Chapel people in South Wales. Round the corner, we would pass the Roman Catholics tipping out. The response to them was more purse-lipped. “They don’t really believe what we do. They’re not like us.” To the best of our ability, we cannot recall ever even speaking to a Roman Catholic when we were growing up. We were in Belfast? Glasgow? The East End? No: we were growing up in an impeccably peaceful and strife-free middle class seaside resort. Nevertheless …

It seems hard to fathom such attitudes just 50 or so years later, yet they were a subtle hangover from religious conflicts that had raged for centuries. The conflict between Shia and Sunni has similar rolled on for hundreds of years – but we should not be bamboozled into thinking that it is a natural state of affairs from which the world has no escape.

‘The situation between the Shiites and the Sunnis varied a good deal over time and place. There was often a good deal of cooperation and coexistence between the two,’ said Professor Juan Cole, Professor of Middle East history at Michigan University and the author of Sacred Space and Holy War. ‘For instance, in the 9th and 10th centuries you had the rise of the Buyid dynasty in Iraq and Iran, which had apparently a Shiite tendency in the ruling family but employed many Sunnis and seems to have gotten along fairly well with Sunnis. So it hasn’t always been the case that the two have had rancorous relations.’

During the Ottoman Empire’s four-century rule over Iraq, Sunni religious leaders were favoured over the Shiites. Despite this, though, both the Sunnis and the Shiites in Iraq united in their opposition to the Ottomans during World War I.

One of the key historical differences between the Shiites and the Sunnis has been their attitude towards government. The Shiites have always rejected earthly authority, whereas the Sunnis have had a much closer relationship with those in power. In the aftermath of the two world wars, Shiites once more found themselves on the outer.

‘The Shiites of southern Lebanon, the Shiites of Iraq, Bahrain, of what became Saudi Arabia, all faced a new situation in which they were being incorporated into modern nation states, most of which were dominated by Sunni politicians and in which the Shiites were often very poor and marginalised,’ says Professor Cole. ‘So the history of modern Lebanon or modern Iraq has in some sense been a history of Shiites struggling back against this marginalisation and seeking greater political participation.’

In the 20th century, Shiites were increasingly drawn to leftist and communist parties across the region. In Iraq, the mainly Shiite Communist Party backed the government of Abd al-Karim Qasim, which was overthrown by the Sunni-dominated pan-Arabist Ba’ath Party in 1963. While the Ba’ath government, first under Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr and then Saddam Hussein, was secular and included representatives from various religious backgrounds, there was often tension between religious Shiites and the government.

Repression under Hussein ensured that religious tension never boiled over in Iraq, but the US-led invasion in 2003 opened the door to, and some say actively encouraged, sectarian conflict once more. According to Sami Ramadani, an Iraqi writer and academic, widespread opposition to the occupation was a situation US forces were unwilling to tolerate:

‘The United States quickly realised that this situation would defeat them in an even bigger way than in Vietnam, so they instantly resorted to violent type divide and rule tactics,’ he says. ‘They inflamed the situation, and unfortunately they did succeed in gaining political forces in Iraq, organised political forces, which were based on religion, on sects, on ethnicity, to divide new institutions set up by the United States along sectarian lines.’

The US withdrawal from Iraq left the country under the control of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was criticised for his increasing authoritarianism and his exclusion of Sunnis from political life. Critics of al-Maliki say that the government’s policies have sown the seeds of the Sunni insurgency, now known as Daesh or IS, just as Assad’s Shia dictatorship (although Assad is technically an Alawite) in Syria provoked a Sunni resistance there, too.

If history shows anything, it’s that there are long standing issues between the two denominations, but that their working together is not an impossibility. And a healing of the Shia-Sunni divide is the last thing Daesh want, which is why they continually employ “spectacular” terror attacks to keep the pot bubbling. This is a political struggle, under the cloak of religion.

We should not be fooled by their tactics, either into condemning or fearing Muslims generally, or, for that matter, of being dragged into a centuries old conflict that the protagonists really have to end for themselves.

We were recently enjoying reading a discussion of Koan on Huffington Post, those unique Zen buddhist stories that deliberately leave the mind searching for meaning and discernment. We were prompted to do so by the observation of a reviewer that Scorsese’s latest film – Silence – is not a parable, but a koan. Never having heard the word before, we beetled off in search of enlightenment.

Anyhow, a bunch of practitioners of Zen were asked their favourites, and this one stood out for us over here at the Wellthisiswhatithink temple.

Koshin Paley Ellison
Co-Founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care

Once a monk made a request of Joshu.
“I have just entered the monastery,” he said. “Please give me instructions, Master.”
Joshu said, “Have you had your breakfast?”
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then,” said Joshu, “wash your bowls.”
The monk had an insight.

That fascinating little snippet was attended by this work, entitled “Mumon’s Poem”:

Because it is so very clear,
It takes longer to come to the realisation.
If you know at once candlelight is fire,
The meal has long been cooked.

The Gateless Gate

Ellison’s discussion of the koan was instructive:

“I love this koan. I am the student in the midst of my life, waiting for life to happen. I am the teacher pointing to this latte on my desk. I am the bowl that needs washing and the breakfast already eaten.

How do we enter our life fully? It is right here. How do we want to live? Can we allow all the joys and sorrows to enliven us? Or do we just go along with all our patterns and habits?

People who are dying always remind me: ‘I can’t believe I wasn’t here for most of my life.’ That’s one of the most common things I hear, and the biggest regrets.

Many people have not inhabited their life because they’re just waiting for other moments. Are we waiting for life to happen in the midst of life? How can we give ourselves fully to our lives, moment to moment? Don’t wait. Life is always right here.”

empty-rice-bowl1

That is powerful ju-ju right there.

The comment ‘I can’t believe I wasn’t here for most of my life’ stuck us very forcefully. We can all find it easy to be distracted, both by the immediacy of what is going on around us, our “worries” and “cares”, and also by our hopes for the future. As John Lennon once put it, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

We left the reading full of determination to live more in the now.

To value each moment – every single moment – as being full, valuable, with purpose.

Not purpose to do something, or even to prepare for something, just full, in and of itself.

As we write, a desk fan blows cooling air onto us on a hot day. Listening to the world around, we become aware of music we were not consciously listening to, and of birds singing outside. Calm descends. It was always there, this calm, but we were ignoring it, choosing a busy – and ineffectively busy – mind, instead.

Wash your bowls.


Sometimes spooky stuff happens. I used to know a minister of the cloth who would simply call it “God stuff”. Moments when we are forcibly struck by the remarkable. Forced to consider whether something is simple coincidence, or evidence of something we do not clearly understand. Of something super-natural.

I have hundreds of friends who will tell me – some with pitying smiles – that the sun sitting perfectly behind the Christ in this statue on King Charles Bridge in Prague is nothing more than a coincidence. Indeed, that as I had to move my feet to frame the shot perfectly, it is more than coincidence. Worse, it is artifice.

And so it might well be. But what is the “God shaped hole” inside me that immediately excited me about the potential for the shot? That showed it to me in my mind before I took it, and compelled me to capture the moment? That left me so satisfied by having taken it, and so keen to share it?

Am I merely exhibiting my own confirmation bias towards my religious views, or was I moved by an infinitesimal moment of connection with the divine?

A miracle, it is said, is something which confirms faith. Thus, I prefer to herald this moment as a tiny miracle. A one person miracle – hardly significant set against the troubles of the world, but significant for me. After a few days of looking at religious art where figures were routinely shown with halos, an actual halo.

You call it what you like, Dear Reader. I won’t be offended.

girl runningA friend writes to Wellthiswhatithink with an encouraging and uplifting story of humanity shining through in a crisis.

Like most countries in the West, Australia has its own concerns about relations with our Muslim community, and concerns about the problems in the Middle East; this little story shows a kinder side of the problem.

“With the Olympics in full swing we recently took the kids to Doncaster Athletics track for practice – watching Usain Bolt had inspired them! – and there were a few people doing laps.

I noticed a little girl (no more than about eight or nine) running around the track on her own.

Suddenly I heard the most horrific screaming coming from the back straight of the track. I turned around and saw the little girl hysterical, screaming and crying and red all over her face then I realised that the poor little thing had lost concentration – the clever folk running the stadium place a metal barrier about four feet of the ground at two different points of the track allegedly to protect the first two lanes – and the kid had run face first into a metal pole.

I ran over to her (shocked that others were just standing there and watching) and her face was really swollen. She was shaking, screaming and had blood pouring out of her mouth, two teeth knocked, blood pouring out all over her face and clothes. The pain and distress must have been terrifying.

With a couple of kids of my own, I knew the most important thing was to calm her down. I told her she was going to be ok and placed my daughter’s shirt to her mouth to stem the bleeding and she basically started to faint as I carried her back towards the main entry looking for her family.

By this stage all my guys were with me and I sent them off to find the parents. By now I was frankly getting very concerned for the child’s safety. Suddenly an ashen faced woman and her equally pale young son came running towards me speaking a language I didn’t recognise. I tried to explain that we would take her to the Community Centre (which I noticed was open and had a small group inside) which was next to the track.

When we got to the Community Centre a group of young Muslim families were having afternoon tea (dressed in their traditional clothing) and they helped take the child from me, and one of the group (who might have been a Doctor, as he certainly seemed to know what he was doing) took charge and they started to help revive the child.

I asked the mother of the little girl what language they spoke and she said, in stumbling, broken English but loud enough for everyone to hear, ‘Hebrew’.

I didn’t say anything more and they continued to stem the blood from the girl and care for her.

The ‘Doctor’ didn’t look up from his work, but he had heard the mother. He just said, very quietly and intently, almost to himself but I knew he was talking to me, ‘We help everyone’  and they continued to do what they could. Nothing else was said and they washed the blood from the child’s face, and I was mightily relieved to see that she was now conscious again, and a lot calmer.

I advised the Mother to take the child straight to the Royal Children’s Hospital and she was so incredibly appreciative – she said thank you in her own way to all the people that helped and took the little girl off to the hospital.

I must say we were all shaken – and covered in blood, also – but it just goes to show that people really are people, whatever their social or racial background, and they will help others in need, and I felt genuinely touched by what I saw.”

We thank Simon so much for sending us this encouraging anecdote. Coming in the week that also saw that heart-rending photograph of the little Syrian boy sitting dazed and bloodied on a chair having been pulled from the rubble of an air strike, it struck us as well worth re-publishing.

If only – if only – we could all always see the human beings – the children – in our stories. Every one of them an individual. Frightened. Hurting. Deserving of our care.

Innocent.

Jo

 

At Wellthisiswhatithink we have often bemoaned the brutalisation of politics. The way “anti politics” has become the new norm. A politics which is little more than cynicism, mistrust, name-calling and sloganising. It is seen most clearly and more than ever in the mindless forwarding of memes that brook no discussion, because no discussion is possible.

Those with an agenda to drive will accuse this blog of descending into vitriol on occasion. We reject that accusation. Politics is a serious matter, and you cannot “do” politics without disputation. Indeed, disputation – the contest of ideas – is the very core of freedom. And if we have, and it can be demonstrated, then we will recant and apologise.

But there is a difference – a gulf – between healthy disputation and hatred. And hatred has become the new normal, and relatively recently, too.

Whether it is in America, France, Denmark, Norway, the UK or Australia. Whether it is a discussion of guns, of racism, gay rights, of female emancipation, the European Union, or, most obviously, immigration, refugees and specifically Islam. The attitude that “you are with me, 100%, or you are evil and worthy of whatever abuse I choose to throw your way” has taken deep root. With the ascension of Trumpism, most obviously, we see how the inchoate mass rage generated by mindless sloganeering translates into political power, and then political violence. Democracy is a fragile flower, and it is wilting.

This article discussing Jo Cox’s assassination – for that is what it was – says it better than we can. We strongly recommend you read it. Because hatred is never funny. Hatred is never smart. Hatred is never right. Hatred is never appropriate.

Sure, “politics is a contact sport.” It doesn’t have to be murder.

http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/06/a-day-of-infamy/

In slightly better news, #ThankYourMP is trending in the UK. Many people simply saying thank you to their MP, whether or not they vote for them. Well done, whoever thought that up.

In yet anther example that a loosening of the brutish theocratic rule experienced by Iran’s population is still very far from being realised, a concerted attempt to intimidate and prosecute women who choose to appear on Facebook’s Instagram app, and the creative people who work with them, has just been revealed by the BBC. All forms of cultural expression in Iran are still rigidly controlled by the State, despite the election of “moderate” Hassan Rouhani as President in 2013.

 

A woman walks down a street in Tehran, Iran (28 April 2016)

Image copyright EPA The covering of hair in public has been compulsory for women in Iran since 1979

Iran has arrested eight people working for online modelling agencies deemed to be “un-Islamic”, the prosecutor of Tehran’s cybercrimes court has said.

The arrests are part of an operation that has seen women targeted for posting photos showing them not wearing headscarves on Instagram and elsewhere.

Women in Iran have been required to cover their hair in public since 1979.

The eight unnamed people were among 170 identified by investigators as being involved in modelling online. They included 59 photographers and make-up artists, 58 models and 51 fashion salon managers and designers, according to a statement from the court.

‘Sterilising cyberspaces’

The arrests were announced by the court’s prosecutor Javad Babaei during a state television programme broadcast late on Sunday that focused on the “threats to morality and the foundation of family” posed by social media. Mr Babaei claimed modelling agencies accounted for about 20% of posts on Instagram from Iran and that they had been “making and spreading immoral and un-Islamic culture and promiscuity”.

Of the 170 people found to be involved in online modelling, 29 were warned that they were subject to criminal investigation, the prosecutor added.

“The persons who reformed their behaviour after receiving a notice did not face any judicial action, and eight out of the 29 have been arrested,” he said.

A spokesman of the Iranian Centre for Surveying and Combating Organised Cyber Crimes, Mostafa Alizadeh, said: “Sterilising popular cyberspaces is on our agenda. We carried out this plan in 2013 with Facebook, and now Instagram is the focus,” he added, saying fresh operations would begin in the coming days.

There was no immediate comment from the photo-sharing site Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.

 

Retired bishop Ronald Mulkearns has died, aged 86

A former Catholic bishop accused of covering up the sexual abuse of children in Ballarat, Australia between the 1970s and 1990s has died.

Retired bishop Ronald Mulkearns died aged 86, the Catholic Church confirmed.

Last month he was asked once again to testify before a child sex abuse inquest following evidence from Cardinal George Pell.

Cardinal Pell said the bishop deceived him about the activities of notorious paedophile priest Gerald Ridsdale.

Ridsdale committed more than 130 offences against young boys while working as a chaplain at Ballarat’s St Alipius school between the 1960s and the 1980s.

“I can’t nominate another bishop whose actions are so grave and inexplicable … His repeated refusal to act is, I think, absolutely extraordinary,” Cardinal Pell said of Bishop Mulkearns in March.

In February, Bishop Mulkearns told the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse he was sorry for moving paedophile priests.

“I certainly regret that I didn’t deal differently with paedophilia. We had no idea, or I had no idea, of the effects of the incidents that took place,” he said.

One suspects the Bishop’s eternal rest might not be quite as restful as he was hoping.

  

In today’s world, everyone makes much more of Christmas than Easter. It’s become a quasi-secular festival, full of joy and fun, especially for kids, and has strong echoes of earlier pagan festivals marking the middle of winter for northern hemisphere types and the summer solstice for us lot down south. But for all that, the Christmas story still resonates for many who do not consider themselves especially “religious”, with its gentle story of new life and new hope, even if many of the traditional elements of the story are actually not strictly Biblical.

But for those who truly explore the Christian story, Easter is by far the more significant celebration. In the open tomb we see the actual point of the Christ story, which is that death is a mere interruption of an eternal life, no more to be feared than any other event. This is why Christians cry out “He is Risen!” with such excitement. In Christ’s victory over death there is a triumphant answer to the most frightening and indisputible fact of all – we will all die. Every single one of us.

But if death is a mere transition to a new form of life, then one can live without that fear, even if we mourn the passing of those who have been dear to us.

We don’t die when we die. It’s a stupendous, incredible thought. It seems impossible, of course, which is why Jesus went to such lengths to impress upon those he met outside the tomb that he was a real person … a real body, not just some spectral form or spirit.

He got up and walked out of the tomb, requiring the stone to be rolled away so he could get out, in a new body, miraculously transformed from the beaten and broken one deposited in the tomb on Good Friday.

For every individual, a choice must be made as to whether the story is true, and it is a huge leap of faith, to be sure. What a staggering suggestion it is. We don’t die when we die. We live on, transfigured, healed, and contented. Quite whether this occurs at the moment of death or at some “end time” is the matter of theological debate but the essential point is the actual survival of the individual. With their own memories and experiences. It alters our whole view of the Universe. Of reality itself.

Some will say, of course, that the end of the Christ story is simply made up, a fiction to put a good gloss on the end of a social movement that was in danger of collapsing in ignominy. But without the literal truth of the story, the rest of the Christian tradition becomes meaningless. Read from beginning to end, the whole Christ story inexorably leads up to his death and rebirth. He kept it from his closest supporters – it was the most dramatic and unexpected coup de theatre. Along the way he warned them that they didn’t really understand what was going on, but also told them not to worry, because they would, one day.

And that is the ultimate message of Easter. That one day, we will all actually know what is going on. In our own death, we will be awakened to the actual truth of what the Universe is all about. No matter how stressful, how frightening, or how terrible the world may be, something better awaits us all.

As they hung on the cross, in unimaginable agony, Christ’s instinct was still to tell the world not to be scared. “Fear not,” he says to the dying thief hanging next to him, “tonight you will be with me in Paradise.” In extremis, he is still trying to reassure us of the miracle that we cannot yet see.

In two millenia of Christian theological debate, it seems that humankind can manage to argue endlessly about anything. The sterile and ultimately pointless debates about whether the bread and wine actually turn into the body and blood of Christ cost many a principled man and woman their head. Today’s endless musing over Creationism is another mindless distraction, as is our obsession with sexual niceties.

At Easter, we are given the opportunity to stop and refocus on what truly matters. Imagine if every Christian in the world turned to every other non-Christian tomorrow and said “By the way, do you know that you don’t die when you die?”

Now THAT would be Good News.

judgement

We are indebted to Vox for this brilliant little video, which apart from anything else is just very interesting. It also bears showing to everybody you know who believes in the Biblical account of Creation. The stupid is strong in many of them, of course, and literal belief in Creation is as much a tribal cultural construct as it is actually a matter of faith. So they will probably reject your good intentions out of hand. Still, such battles are won an inch at a time.

And God said: “Lo, I have given thee a brain, that thee might wonder at the beauty of my creation, and revere me for my genius.”

And man sayeth, “not only that, but you did it in seven days. You’re the real deal, God.”

And the Lord sayeth, “well actually it was over a few billion years. I used a little trick I called Evolution.”

And Man sayeth, “Fuck that’s some complicated shit Lord. Explain it all again please?”

And the Lord sayeth, “there are none so blind as those who choose not to see.”

devil

And the Devil piped up and said “You go for it Man, you argue about Creation back and forth while I fuck up the world and organise your children dying every three seconds from starvation and illness, and arrange it so you destroy the very planet, and I’ll get Kim Kardashian to be Queen of the World and take her clothes off regularly so you won’t have time or need to worry.”

And the Lord cried out, “Man, I have given you Science and Rational Thought so you can come to marvel at the Universe around you!”

And Man said, “Sod that Lord, we prefer to Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

And God saw what Man had done with his Creation, and wept.

So God despaireth of Man, and sent him Donald Trump and nuclear weapons at the same time. And as the night followers the day, soon all was silent. And God turned to the cockroaches and said, “For so it is written, in the End of Days thou shalt inherit the earth.”

And after a few more billion years, a new race stood on the Earth and marveled at God’s bounty, and it came to pass that there rose among them peoples who chose to believe the God had created the entire Breadbasket in just seven days, and had put the holes in the floorboards at exactly the right level for the cockroaches to find the leavings on the kitchen floor, and Lo was it not a miracle that the holes and the cockroaches were exactly the same size? Surely this was evidence of a great Home Design Architect?

And God did express a little frisson of irritation and sayeth unto the cockroaches, “We’re not going to do all this shit again, right?” And the cockroaches had a think and said “Er, no, Lord, sorry, and did fiercely bind the “Creationists” mouths with fly paper until their voices could no longer be heard. And peace reigned on the Earth, and everyone got on with something more important.

red carpetYesterday, in the context of populist politics, we railed against the warped value systems and mindless celebrity that are skewing everything from how we feel about ourselves on a day-to-day basis to the result of the next American Presidential election.

Today, we’ve just watched one of the best things we’ve ever seen. Certainly the best thing in a long time. Also great to see one of my heroes, Josh Radnor, opening the video.

This is celebrities thoughtfully, honestly talking about the value of being a celebrity. Their real lived experience of celebrity.

 

Watch it. Most of all, share this blog post with your kids. Because if we are ever to stop the runaway train that our society has become, it will start with young people rejecting what we in the West have done to our values system.

Let’s get back to what’s important. Because fame (certainly for its own sake) isn’t. Celebrity isn’t. A recent survey in America asked teenage school-kids what they wanted to be when they grew up. The biggest single answer given was “famous”.

Famous? Really? Famous people are unable to do what they want without continual scrutiny. It can be life destroying. They are held up to impossible standards of behaviour, far more rigorous than the rest of us. Merely because they are well-known. They can’t drop into their local pub or restaurant for a meal without being hassled by fans. They’re not even safe: they’re far more likely to attract the attention of stalkers or crazies. Remember Sharon Tate? John Lennon? Jill Dando? Gianni Versace? Tupac Shakur?

Fame? Be careful what you wish for.

And ever-increasing wealth simply does not bring happiness. Ask just about any genuinely wealthy person. They’ll tell you one of the biggest stressors in their life is now losing the money they have accumulated.

Remember, the Bible never said “money is the root of all evil”. It said “the love of money is the root of all evil.

Think about that.

Enjoy.

Poem

We suspect it would be fair to say, Dear Reader, that Contemplation is a way of being that is largely ignored by the young, and of increasing solace to those of us who are irretrievably ensconced in middle or old age.

As you are aware, in the last couple of years we have become increasingly enamoured of standing or sitting around doing very little. And of spending that rescued time thinking.

Not with a deliberately blank mind, as in meditation, but with a mind that is focused on the moment – mindfulness is the de rigeur pop-psychiatry phrase that is currently in vogue – and really looking at the world and thinking about it.

cabbage-white-butterflyThis has led us to think harder about Death. And Fear. And how we deal with both.

We have even been moved to write a poem about the “Sweetness” of Death.

And one of the posts we are actually more pleased with than most, a chewy 2500 words, no less, is about how important it is to really look around oneself from time to time on Calendars, and life, and gardens, and days and marriages and butteflies and more. If you haven’t read it yet, please take the time to do so.

Life is simply so busy – so filled with stuff – that we lose the ability to be still and really think. To truly see the world around us, in all it’s intricate complexity and to learn the lessons we are offered by it.

bruce and the spiderRobert the Bruce was a famous Scottish King who laboured long and hard to free his country from English rule. Although this brave man had been driven out of Scotland, he was not ready to give up. Several times he tried to win back his kingdom, and several times he failed. An interesting story is told of how he gained the courage to persevere so patiently.

He was lying in a poor thatch-roofed cottage one day, wondering whether he had not better cease all efforts. Suddenly his eye rested upon a spider which was weaving its web. It climbed away up to the roof, but before it could fasten its thread there, it lost its hold and fell to the ground. A moment later, he saw the spider climb up and try again. Nine times the insect fell; but at the tenth attempt the thread was fastened and the web woven.

Bruce, who had watched the nine failures, gladly saw the patient spider succeed, and declared that the little creature had taught him a good lesson, and that he too would persist, in spite of repeated disappointments, until he should triumph at last. So instead of giving up Bruce tried again, and soon found that his luck had turned. From a moment of Contemplation came the campaign that drove Edward 1st out of Scotland.

I was reminded of this story today by a single bee, working industriously to harvest pollen from the  coastal daisies that grow along one end of our swimming pool. Unkempt clumps of them have now taken over the retaining wall in front of our home and the path around the pool, but despite protestations from Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink (a much more active gardener than we are, it must be said) we have resisted trimming them back.

Firstly, because Erigeron glaucus is one of our all time favourite edging plants, because this little daisy plant is incredibly drought hardy, will spread readily and is very easy on the eye. Secondly, it also attracts bees.

Even late in the summer, when all fruit trees have had their pollen used up, and even this ubiquitous little clump of daisies has already been visited umpteen times, still the bees return, pausing only momentarily on a flower head that has already been harvested, but hopping uncomplainingly to the next, and the next, until they find one still bearing its life-giving essence.

Their patience is inspirational.

beeAs we flicked the pages of the Sunday newspaper’s insert magazine up to our chest in deliciously cool water, we kept one eye on the hard-working insect. It was unhurried, thorough, and uncomplaining.

As you will know, Dear Reader, if you can dredge the matter up from the dark recesses of your mind, we have previously written about the bees in our area, and how they have tangentially reminded us of what’s important, in Drowning Bees and Men.

Well, today they reminded us that patience and persistence, married to industry,  is the great common denominator for success, and we all surely need to contemplate that from time to time.

spotted dove_0The other natural intersection today was some time spent cooing to a Spotted Dove (Spilopelia chinensis) that alighted on our pool fence and, after looking around anxiously for a minute or so to check the coast was clear, settled down to bask contentedly in the late afternoon sun.

Yes, we are aware that most people do not seek to talk to birds in their native tongue, which is why we keep our strange little habit to ourselves, but hiding alone behind a high fence seemed a safe spot to indulge.

For some years now, we have had pair of Spotted Doves that return to our home every spring to nest and produce their young, and early summer mornings we are always greeted by their unmistakeable coooo, coooo, crooo call, which depending on whether one is slumbering gently already half awake, or deeply asleep and rudely woken by it outside the bedroom window, will generally determine one’s reaction.

Their nest is seldom more than a few sticks thrown together, and for many years they nested at the top of a brick pylon inadequately supporting our car-port roof. That pylon has now been repaired, however, robbing them of their birdy AirBNB, so they have decamped to the nearby ornamental cherry.

The pairs are monogamous, although the bird also congregates in groups when feed is plentiful. This year, we had the unusual situation of two males vying for the attention of one female, with both walking along branches and other elevated surfaces cooo, cooo, crooooing for all they were worth and bobbing their heads up and down, in order to display the white spots at their neck. Mating follows immediately after such displays, so one Mr Dove made it, and one didn’t.

Looking at the Dove on the pool fence, we wondered whether she was the female taking a short break, or one of the two males enduring a lonely vigil, as the sexes are very difficult to tell apart. We imitated the male call, and immediately the bird tilted its head on one side and fixed us with rapt attention. It didn’t seem in the least concerned by our impersonation, even though we are perfectly sure, Dear Reader, that we do not present any resemblance to any Spotted Dove it had encountered before, and as we have a somewhat sore neck at the moment we weren’t about to head bob, either.

This little idyll persisted for what seemed like forever, although in reality it was just a minute or two. On climbing out of the pool and retrieving a towel from the side of the pool nearer to where the bird sat, we heard an identical (to our ears) coooo, coooo, crooo from a tree on the next property, and a second bird suddenly flew to sit next to the first one, which shifted uncomfortably for a moment or two.

The new arrival allowed the breeze to ruffle and fluff up its feathers, and it suddenly looked for all the world like a giant grey shuttlecock, at least twice the size of any normal bird. His mate, as we now presumed her to be, settled next to him, apparently comfortable again.

 

spotted doves

 

He bristled there and looked at us fiercely, with what we suppose was the equivalent of a Spotted Dove protective glare. She just gazed into space, unconcerned. It would be very easy to imagine her response to his later over-protective questioning would be “Who? Me?”

Rather than provoke an inter-species incident, we quietly retreated, and they settled down next to each other, for all the world like the King and Queen of their domain on their rickety paling pool fence thrones. Just enjoying the sunshine. Probably chatting about the need to get a new twig or two for the nest.

And somewhere, we assume, a single Dove was off resolutely looking for his conquest. Or maybe, the thought occurred, he has already found her, and they are seated too, somewhere nearby, basking in conubial avian bliss.

An unseen world, all around us, if we did but look. Not that the realisation will stop us turning the TV on tonight, but it did delay us. Today at least.

trump hands

In a move which once again encourages us as to his credentials, the most fearless Pope in living memory has questioned US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s Christianity over his oft-repeated call to build a border wall with Mexico.

With admirable bluntness, Pope Francis said “a person who thinks only about building walls and not of building bridges, is not Christian”.

The New York businessman also supports deporting nearly 11 million un-documented immigrants.

But calling himself a “proud Christian”, Mr Trump blamed Mexico for the Pope’s remarks, calling them “disgraceful”. Mr Trump has previously alleged that Mexico sends “rapists” and criminals to the US.

Pope Francis made the comments at the end of a six-day trip to Mexico.

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel,” he said.

He declined to say whether Americans should vote for Mr Trump, who is leading the Republican race for president.

“I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and I will give him the benefit of the doubt,” the Pope said.

Over here at the Wellthisiswhatithink religious affairs desk, we think Trump is a solidly evil individual with hateful views that are (take your pick), mindlessly triumphalist, quasi-fascist, racist, anti-female, and typically moronic in their presentation and content. We don’t actually think he’s the Anti-Christ, but then again anything’s possible. Popularity is one of the signs of the Anti-Christ, after all. And as it now looks like it wasn’t President Obama, well … (Hang on a sec while we adjust our tinfoil hat.) 

Frankly, we think Il Papa let the New Yorker off easy. We miss the good old days when Popes excommunicated leaders.

pope-francisAnyhow, addressing a rally in South Carolina, Mr Trump responded to the Pope’s comments.

“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian,” Mr Trump said. “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”

Which is an interesting commentary on the role of a religious leader, really. What role they have other than to question everyone else’s religion and faith is hard to discern. The mobile toupe then went on to say “[The pope] said negative things about me. Because the Mexican government convinced him that Trump is not a good guy.”

Of course, in God-fearing South Carolina – the next state to vote in the primary process – to have the Pope say that he is un-Christian is potentially very damaging. On the other hand, many US protestants are also rabidly anti-Catholic, so who knows exactly how it will play in the South.

Over the course of the campaign, the billionaire property developer has been at pains to prove his religious credentials, appearing at rallies with a copy of the Bible that his mother had given him as a child. He has also said the Vatican was the so-called Islamic State group’s “ultimate trophy” and that if it attacked, “the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened”.

Two of Mr Trump’s Republican rivals, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, both Catholics, wimpishly said they look to the Pope for spiritual guidance, not political direction.

Referencing Mr Trump’s much vaunted wall between America and Mexico, Mr Rubio said the US has a right and an obligation to control its borders. Mr Bush told reporters he “supports walls where it’s appropriate” and that “Christianity is between he and his creator. I don’t think we need to discuss that.”

cleansing temple giorJerry Falwell Jr, the president of the conservative Christian Liberty University and a Trump supporter, told CNN that the Pope had gone too far. “Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country,” he said. Funnily, Mr Falwell appears to have forgotten a few of Jesus’s more choice comments about the Jewish rulers the Pharisees and Saducees, not to mention dear old King Herod. And his attitude to rapacious capitalism was pretty clear, too. Of course we should never let our political bias get spoiled by a few facts even when commenting on religious matters.

The war of words between the right-winger and the Pope has been going on for a while. Earlier this month, Mr Trump called Pope Francis “a very political person” in yet another interview with Fox News, aka Trump Central.

“I don’t think he understands the danger of the open border we have with Mexico,” Mr Trump said. An alternative reading is that the Pope perfectly well understands the situation – which is, if course, essentially economic in nature – and doesn’t think Mexicans are automatically a danger to Americans who need to be forcibly kept out of the country by forceful measures.

American Roman Catholics are seen as an important voting bloc in US elections. Many traditionally support Republican candidates because of their opposition to abortion and gay marriage. This might well be why Mr Trump has responded so abrasively to the Pope’s comments, especially as he has been courting the evangelical Christian vote, often successfully, despite his fellow Republican rivals trying to argue that his religiosity is not sincere.

There is another interpretation of course. Which is that Trump is actually not any type of Christian at all, despite his public protestations, and that the truth hurts.

Meanwhile, in more religious trouble for the hotelier/developer, Ted Cruz’s campaign is now running an advertisement featuring a 1999 television interview Mr Trump gave in which he said he was “very pro-choice” when it comes to abortion.

In January, Mr Trump faced ridicule after flubbing a Bible verse when giving a speech to a Christian university in Virginia. The thrice-married businessman has also said he is a Presbyterian Christian but has had trouble recalling his favourite Bible verse when asked.

We think Mr Trump needs to stop sounding off and consider this:

Trump table

We have decided, Dear Reader, to have a regular-cum-occasional posting that collects together those snippets of news that fall into the “Wait … what?” basket. You know, those items where you simply shake your head in disbelief at how incredibly inappropriate, silly, bizarre, insulting or head-scratching the world can be.

Usually about poliphiltics. But by no means exclusively.

Today we have the retirement from the Australian Parliament of  dear old Phil Ruddock. The current “Father of the House”, which means the silly old bugger has been there longer than anyone else having racked up 42 years at the grindstone – way past any realistic use by date – Ruddock’s unemotional delivery has become so dead pan over the years it’s sometimes necessary for interviewers to stick a pin in his thumb to see if he’s still alive.

Mr Ruddock was previously attorney-general, Indigenous affairs minister and immigration minister, and when announcing his retirement nominated counter-terrorism and family law changes as his key achievements.

He has campaigned against the death penalty and chaired the human rights sub-committee of Parliament’s joint foreign affairs committee. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced that Mr Ruddock would now be Australia’s first Special Envoy for Human Rights, with a hardly-defined brief to trot around the world, as she puts it, to “focus on advancing Australia’s human rights priorities of good governance, freedom of expression, gender equality, the rights of Indigenous peoples, and national human rights institutions. Mr Ruddock will actively promote Australia’s candidacy for membership of the Human Rights Council for the 2018–20 term. He will represent Australia at international human rights events and advocate our HRC candidacy in selected countries.”

Widespread rumours that Ruddock is actually the evil Emperor from Star Wars are very unkind and will get no credence in this column.

Widespread rumours that Ruddock is actually the evil Emperor from Star Wars are very unkind and will get no credence in this column.

Hmmm. Once renowned as a “wet” Liberal and vocal on human rights issues, Ruddock nevertheless morphed into a very different creature in Government. Astute followers of Australian politics will note that following the Coalition’s rise to government at the 1996 election, Ruddock was appointed to the Cabinet as Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. In this role, he administered the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs and presided over the Howard government’s tough policies on asylum seekers. During his time in office, the previous Keating Labor Government’s practice of mandatory detention of asylum seekers was continued and extended. Under his watch, asylum seekers, including children, were locked behind razor wire in Australia’s deserts. Even a daughter, Kirsty, publicly turned against him over the mandatory detention of children, which continues to this day.

In 2001 Ruddock was also appointed to the role of Minister for Indigenous Affairs. By this time he had become a high-profile figure enjoying considerable support within the Liberal Party, while being strongly opposed by left-wing activists and some human rights advocates. His “Pacific Solution” – which prevented asylum seekers receiving legal access to Australia – was condemned by Human Rights Watch as contravening international law, as being a human rights violation: Oxfam and the UNHCR (United Nations refugee agency) agreed with this viewpoint. At one point he was one of the few senior ministers (besides the prime minister) to have needed personal security details. Some of his decisions were highly controversial in Australian politics, and led to Amnesty International’s public attempt to distance the organisation from him (he had once headed the Amnesty International group in Parliament) by asking him to remove his lapel badge.

In 2003, Ruddock became Attorney-General in a cabinet reshuffle. On 27 May 2004, Ruddock introduced the Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill to prevent any possible court rulings allowing same-sex marriages or civil unions. It has prevented same-sex marriage in Australia ever since.

Now, Ruddock will represent Australia’s human rights concerns overseas. We do not wish to be mean: we have no doubt he deserved some sort of sinecure for his long service. That it should be this one seems simply astonishing.

fashion_designer_1bbhvs2-1bbhvsbMeanwhile, mesmerised by imagined and real threats – often more imagined than real – the world continues on its overly terrified, for which read biased, way.

Waris Ahluwalia, who is a ubiquitous presence in the fashion world, was reportedly banned from a flight for wearing a turban.

The model and designer behind House of Waris posted a selfie to Instagram on Monday morning holding up his boarding pass with “SSSS” – which stands for Secondary Security Screening Selection – circled on the ticket.

“This morning in Mexico City I was told I could not board my @aeromexico flight to NYC because of my turban,” he wrote in the caption. He also included the hashtags #FearisanOpportunitytoEducate, #humanrights, #dignity, and #lovenotfear.

Ahluwalia, who appeared in a recent Gap advertising campaign (including posters which were subject to racist graffiti), and is a regular on the New York City party circuit, initially complied with the supplemental security measures before boarding his flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport, including having an agent swab his hands and the bottoms of his feet to test for explosives.

But when asked by an airline worker to remove his black turban, an accessory in his signature style he is never seen without, he refused. “That is not something that I would do in public,” the Grand Budapest Hotel actor told the New York Daily News. “That’s akin to asking someone to take off their clothes.”

After abstaining from removing his turban without being brought to a private screening area, he supposedly was told, “You will not be flying Aero Mexico. You will need to book another flight.”

On his Instagram post, commenters aired their frustration with Ahluwalia’s mistreatment. “This is outrageous. Sikhism is not even related in any way to terrorist extremists,” Angie wrote.

“What a sad day, a beautiful faith of love and peace is treated in such a horrible way.”

Kirthan Aujlay added, “Absolutely disgusted by this. How much longer are Sikh men going to be targeted by bigots?”

Many also shared similar experiences and praised Ahluwalia for publicising the discriminatory incident.

In our view the fact that many Muslims are profile-stopped because of some Muslim extremists is bad enough, but perhaps understandable given world tensions, if regrettable. But these idiots don’t even seem to understand that a Sikh is a unique northern Indian religion that is related to Hinduism. (In previous unprovoked attacks on Sikhs in America – aimed at terrorising Muslims – people have been killed.)

Mind you, not all social media comment was supportive. On Facebook, Sukhi Sagoo offered a counter argument: “Regardless of whether you are a Sikh or you wear any kind of headdress, I think for security reasons and for the safety of fellow passengers it’s not a bad thing to cooperate with the authorities. As long as it’s done in a private room and not in a public place. If you have nothing to hide, then why not cooperate?” Mahtab Singh Shergill also said that a hijab for Muslim women is just as precious yet they, in general, cooperate with security checks (the same can be said for nuns). “You need to understand that it’s their job to make sure that the flight is secure and retaliation can cause serious doubts,” he wrote. “They don’t make every Sikh they see remove the turban; if he was asked he shouldn’t have denied.”

The actor and designer was still at the airport more than 12 hours later. Mr. Ahluwalia, who has a record of anti-racist activism, said he planned to remain there as lawyers from the Sikh Coalition and Aeroméxico discussed the matter by telephone. He said he had no immediate plans to board another flight.

Sikh men wear the turban as a symbol of commitment to equality and social justice. Gurjot Kaur, a senior staff lawyer with the Sikh Coalition, said that the episode in Mexico City highlighted similar problems that men with beards, people with religious headwear and women in Islamic head coverings often encounter at airport security, where they are often unfairly associated with terrorism.

“It does play to the larger issue of profiling,” she said.

Ms. Kaur said the coalition had asked Aeroméxico’s lawyer for a public apology for Mr. Ahluwalia and a commitment for security personnel to undergo diversity training. She said she was speaking with the airline’s lawyer, John Barr. He could not be immediately reached for comment.

Mr. Ahluwalia said he was in Mexico to attend an art fair as a guest of L’Officiel magazine. He said he did not encounter similar scrutiny at John F. Kennedy International Airport when he boarded his Aeroméxico flight in New York last Tuesday.

Mr. Ahluwalia said it was not the first time that his turban had caused consternation. He said he had been questioned about the turban at airports in the United States and abroad but had never been denied access to a flight.

At some airports, however, he said he has had to “rub the turban,” while trying to hold a straight face, for security officials “and then put my hand in front of them, and they swab my hands.”

Anyhow, in response, Waris, who has a runway show as part of New York Fashion Week this week, sent an additional social media note to his fans. “Dear NYC fashion week. I may be a little late as @aeromexico won’t let me fly with a turban. Don’t start the show without me.”

More nonsense soon.

living buddha of Tibet stands outside the Great Hall of the People in China's capital Beijing

Image copyright Getty Images ~ China’s buddha database includes photos and other personal detail. Here, a living buddha of Tibet stands outside the Great Hall of the People in China’s capital Beijing

In a move that will confuse those who simplistically assume that a Marxist regime doesn’t normally officially endorse the religious concept of reincarnation, China has published its first list of “authentic living buddhas”, saying that growing numbers of fraudulent buddhas are using their status to swindle money from believers.

Beijing has taken the unusual step of concerning itself with such matters by releasing the names, photographs and locations of 870 “verified” buddhas on the website of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Xinhua news agency reports. It’s a move that’s been praised by one of the men who features on the list. “As a living buddha, I feel genuinely happy about it,” Drukhang Thubten Khedrup tells the state-run news agency.

According to China’s religious affairs agency, the system has been inaugurated to counter “fake” buddhas who are undermining Tibetan Buddhism by cheating believers out of cash.

However, the spiritual cataloguing scheme has already been criticised as a means of further controlling Tibetan affairs. “This living Buddha database and the whole policy toward reincarnation is clearly a pre-emptive move by the government to control what happens after this Dalai Lama,” Amnesty International’s Nicholas Bequelin told Time magazine in December 2015, when the list was first announced. It’s also seen as a means of confirming state choices for other religious appointments.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th and current Dalai Lama, is – according to Buddhist belief – a reincarnation of a past lama who decided to be re-born again to continue his work. He has been based in India since fleeing Tibet after the unsuccessful 1959 uprising against Chinese invasion. In 1995, both he and Beijing appointed different boys as Panchen Lama, the second most important role in Tibetan Buddhism. Now aged 25, China feted the lama on the 20th anniversary of his enthronement in December, presenting him as the one, official holder of the role.

What might be more helpful than dabbling in such esoteric matters, especially to create political advantage, would be for the Chinese regime to normalise relations with what is now called the Tibetan Autonomous Region and to allow the Dalai Lama to return as spiritual head of the country, rather than absolute ruler. The occupation of Tibet is now a political fact. It is now surely time to address the many complaints of the indigenous Tibetan people against the newly-settled Han Chinese, and to allow the area to retain its traditions while continuing to enhance matters such as health outcomes and economic growth.

(BBC and others)

To be utterly frank, Dear Reader, we do not even pretend to fully understand the current Middle East crisis and have even less idea what to do about it. It is times like this that we are very pleased we no longer pursue politics as a career.

This map, for example, purports to show Daesh’s view of a future Caliphate. It suggests that its ambitions stretch at least as far as the historical spread of Islam. The white lines, incidentally, do not relate to modern boundaries, but to Daesh-suggested administrative boundaries, as Daesh does not recognise modern nation states.

Daesh map

Anyhow, in the search for clarity, we reproduce in full below a long but scholarly article which first appeared in New Statesman in early March this year, and then in New Republic, because to us it has the smack of good research and commonsense.

It is a trenchant and thorough re-evaluation of the by-now famous article in The Atlantic (which we were impressed by at the time, and which we believe still has value, as regards, at least, the leadership of IS) which argued that IS – or as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius now urges us to call them, Daesh – is an eschatological “end times” cult that wants nothing more than to provoke a wholesale invasion of Syria and Iraq by the West to usher in the return of Christ and thus the end of the world.

Both articles appear well researched and credible, revealing again (as if we really need to have it reinforced) that this is a highly complex issue that does not succumb to simplistic explanations.

In any event, we urge you to read this article as well, because it goes to the motivation of people to join Daesh and it squarely argues that it is NOT an Islamic movement, and, indeed, that labelling it as such is aiding its existence and even growth. Given recent events worldwide, that analysis is more pressing than ever.

What’s more, as the leader of the “free world” this is a live issue for President Obama, in particular, who is enduring considerable criticism for his nuanced and oft-expressed view that Daesh is not an “Islamic” or “Islamic terrorist” problem. It may be that his reasons for doing so are simply too subtle for many social media readers and posters, especially those who detest Obama anyway, but if this article is credible then his attitude thus far is completely justified.

What is more important is that this is a discussion that every community in the Western world needs to have, as non-Muslim and Muslim communities seek to live peaceably together.

Whatever the precise truth of the situation we now face – and like all situations, there are layers upon layers of meaning and evidence – this article places the responsibility for the radicalisation of Muslim and recent-convert Muslim youth absolutely specifically to the aftermath of the Iraq war, and the subsequent bias and incompetence of the Shia government in Baghdad.

And it asserts – with compelling evidence from experts working in the intelligence field – that grievances in Western societies (poor housing, perceived racism, lack of opportunity, and a desire for belonging and meaning, above all) are all merely exacerbated by the echoes of 2003 and afterwards.

In effect, the article is saying that the war in Iraq never really ended, and that it is now conflated to include Syria.

We might also note that the next domino to fall, in this regard, would be Lebanon, which puts last week’s murderous bombing in Beirut into a critical context.

Please. Take the time to read this article.

UnderstandingWe believe it is an important contribution to current discussions, and should be taken into account as we examine what on earth to do next.

And if there is ever to be peace in the Middle East, we have to start somewhere.

In that regard, understanding what is going on seems a good place to start.

Article begins:

It is difficult to forget the names, or the images, of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, David Haines, Alan Henning and Peter Kassig. The barbaric beheadings between August and November 2014, in cold blood and on camera, of these five jumpsuit-clad western hostages by the self-styled Islamic State, or ISIS, provoked widespread outrage and condemnation.

Liberation newspaper journalist Didier Francois who was freed after 10 months in captivity.

Liberation newspaper journalist Didier Francois who was freed after 10 months in captivity.

However, we should also remember the name of Didier François, a French journalist who was held by ISIS in Syria for ten months before being released in April 2014. François has since given us a rare insight into life inside what the Atlantic’s Graeme Wood, in a recent report for the magazine, has called the “hermit kingdom” of ISIS, where “few have gone . . . and returned.”

And it is an insight that threatens to turn the conventional wisdom about the world’s most fearsome terrorist organisation on its head.

“There was never really discussion about texts,” the French journalist told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour last month, referring to his captors. “It was not a religious discussion. It was a political discussion.”

According to François, “It was more hammering what they were believing than teaching us about the Quran. Because it has nothing to do with the Quran.” And the former hostage revealed to a startled Amanpour: “We didn’t even have the Quran. They didn’t want even to give us a Quran.”

The rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has been a disaster for the public image of Islam – and a boon for the Islamophobia industry. Here, after all, is a group that calls itself Islamic State; that claims the support of Islamic texts to justify its medieval punishments, from the stoning of adulterers to the amputation of the hands of thieves; and that has a leader with a PhD in Islamic studies who declares himself to be a “caliph,” or ruler over all Muslims, and has even renamed himself in honour of the first Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr.

The consequences are, perhaps, as expected. In September 2014, a Zogby poll found that only 27 percent of Americans had a favourable view of Islam—down from 35 per cent in 2010. By February 2015, more than a quarter of Americans (27 per cent) were telling the pollsters LifeWay Research that they believed that life under ISIS rule “gives a true indication of what an Islamic society looks like.”

Yet what is much more worrying is that it isn’t just ill-informed, ignorant or bigoted members of the public who take such a view. “The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” wrote Wood in his widely read 10,000-word cover report (“What ISIS really wants”) in the March issue of Atlantic, in which he argued, “The religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

Bernard Haykel of Princeton University, the only scholar of Islam whom Wood bothered to interview, described Muslims who considered ISIS to be un-Islamic, or anti-Islamic, as “embarrassed and politically correct, with a cotton-candy view of their own religion,” and declared that the hand-choppers and throat-slitters of ISIS “have just as much legitimacy” as any other Muslims, because Islam is “what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts.”

Many other analysts across the political spectrum agree and have denounced the Obama administration for refusing, in the words of the journalist-turned-terrorism-expert Peter Bergen, to make “the connection between Islamist terrorism and ultra-fundamentalist forms of Islam.” Writing on the CNN website in February, Bergen declared, “ISIS may be a perversion of Islam, but Islamic it is.”

“Will it take the end of the world for Obama to recognise ISIS as ‘Islamic’?” screamed a headline on the Daily Beast website in the same month. “Which will come first, flying cars and vacations to Mars, or a simple acknowledgment that beliefs guide behaviour and that certain religious ideas—jihad, martyrdom, blasphemy, apostasy—reliably lead to oppression and murder?” asked Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and high priest of the “New Atheism” movement.

So, is ISIS a recognisably “Islamic” movement? Are ISIS recruits motivated by religious fervour and faith?

The Analyst

“Our exploration of the intuitive psychologist’s shortcomings must start with his general tendency to overestimate the importance of personal or dispositional factors relative to environmental influences,” wrote the American social anthropologist Lee Ross in 1977.

It was Ross who coined the phrase “fundamental attribution error”, which refers to the phenomenon in which we place excessive emphasis on internal motivations to explain the behaviour of others, in any given situation, rather than considering the relevant external factors.

SagemanNowhere is the fundamental attribution error more prevalent, suggests the forensic psychiatrist Marc Sageman, than in our navel-gazing analysis of wannabe terrorists and what does or doesn’t motivate them.

“You attribute other people’s behaviour to internal motivations but your own to circumstances. ‘They’re attacking us and therefore we have to attack them.’” Yet, he tells me, we rarely do the reverse.

Few experts have done more to try to understand the mindset of the young men and women who aspire to join the blood-drenched ranks of groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda than Sageman. And few can match his qualifications, credentials or background. The 61-year-old, Polish-born psychiatrist and academic is a former CIA operations officer who was based in Pakistan in the late 1980s. There he worked closely with the Afghan mujahedin.

He has since advised the New York City Police Department on counterterrorism issues, testified in front of the 9/11 Commission in Washington, D.C., and, in his acclaimed works Understanding Terror Networks and Leaderless Jihad, closely analysed the biographies of several hundred terrorists.

Does he see religion as a useful analytical prism through which to view the rise of ISIS and the process by which thousands of young people arrive in Syria and Iraq, ready to fight and die for the group?

“Religion has a role but it is a role of justification,” he tells me. “It’s not why they do this [or] why young people go there.”

ISIS members, he says, are using religion to advance a political vision, rather than using politics to advance a religious vision. “To give themselves a bit more legitimacy, they use Islam as their justification. It’s not about religion, it’s about identity . . . You identify with the victims, [with] the guys being killed by your enemies.”

For converts to Islam in particular, he adds, “Identity is important to them. They have . . . invested a lot of their own efforts and identity to become this ‘Muslim’ and, because of this, identity is so important to them. They see other Muslims being slaughtered [and say], ‘I need to protect my community.’” (A recent study found that converts to Islam were involved in 31 per cent of Muslim terrorism convictions in the UK between 2001 and 2010.)

Sageman believes that it isn’t religious faith but, rather, a “sense of emotional and moral outrage” at what they see on their television screens or on YouTube that propels people from Portsmouth to Peshawar, from Berlin to Beirut, to head for war zones and to sign up for the so-called jihad. Today, he notes archly, “Orwell would be [considered as foreign fighter like] a jihadi,” referring to the writer’s involvement in the anti-fascist campaign during the Spanish civil war.

Religion, according to this view, plays a role not as a driver of behaviour but as a vehicle for outrage and, crucially, a marker of identity. Religion is important in the sense that it happens to “define your identity”, Sageman says, and not because you are “more pious than anybody else.” He invokes the political scientist Benedict Anderson’s conception of a nation state as an “imagined political community”, arguing that the “imagined community of Muslims” is what drives the terrorists, the allure of being members of – and defenders of – the ultimate “in-group.”

JJ“You don’t have the most religious folks going there,” he points out.

ISIS fighters from the west, in particular, “tend to have rediscovered Islam as teenagers, or as converts”; they are angry, or even bored, young men in search of a call to arms and a thrilling cause. The ISIS executioner Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John” – who was raised and educated in the UK – was described, for instance, by two British medics who met him at a Syrian hospital as “quiet but a bit of an adrenalin junkie”.

Sageman’s viewpoint should not really surprise us. Writing in his 2011 book The Black Banners: the Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda, the Lebanese-American former FBI agent Ali H Soufan, who led the bureau’s pre-9/11 investigation into Al Qaeda, observed: “When I first began interrogating AL Qaeda members, I found that while they could quote Bin Laden’s sayings by heart, I knew far more of the Quran than they did—and in fact some barely knew classical Arabic, the language of both the hadithand the Quran. An understanding of their thought process and the limits of their knowledge enabled me and my colleagues to use their claimed piousness against them.”

Three years earlier, in 2008, a classified briefing note on radicalisation, prepared by MI5’s behavioural science unit, was obtained by the Guardian.

It revealed: “Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could . . . be regarded as religious novices.”

The MI5 analysts noted the disproportionate number of converts and the high propensity for “drug-taking, drinking alcohol and visiting prostitutes”. The newspaper claimed they concluded, “A well-established religious identity actually protects against violent radicalisation.”

As I have pointed out on these pages before, Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, the two young British Muslim men from Birmingham who were convicted on terrorism charges in 2014 after travelling to fight in Syria, bought copies of Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies from Amazon prior to their departure. Religious novices, indeed.

Sageman, the former CIA officer, says we have to locate terrorism and extremism in local conflicts rather than in grand or sweeping ideological narratives – the grievances and the anger come first, he argues, followed by the convenient and self-serving ideological justifications. For example, he says, the origins of ISIS as a terror group lie not in this or that Islamic book or school of thought, but in the “slaughter of Sunnis in Iraq.” He reminds me how, in April 2013, when there was a peaceful Sunni demonstration asking the Shia-led Maliki government in Baghdad to reapportion to the various provinces what the government was getting in oil revenues, Iraqi security forces shot into the crowds.

“That was the start of this [current] insurrection.”

Before that, it was the brutal, US-led occupation, under which Iraq became ground zero for suicide bombers from across the region and spurred the creation of new terrorist organisations, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

ISIS is the “remnant” of AQI, Sageman adds. He believes that any analysis of the group and of the ongoing violence and chaos in Iraq that doesn’t take into account the long period of war, torture, occupation and sectarian cleansing is inadequate—and a convenient way of exonerating the west of any responsibility. “Without the invasion of Iraq, [ISIS] would not exist. We created it by our presence there.”

The Spy

BarrettLike Marc Sageman, Richard Barrett has devoted his professional life to understanding terrorism, extremism and radicalization.

The silver-haired 65-year-old was the director of global counterterrorism operations for MI6, both before and after the 11 September 2001 attacks, and he subsequently led the Al Qaeda and Taliban monitoring team at the United Nations between 2004 and 2013.

Unlike Sageman, however, Barrett partly sympathises with Graeme Wood’s and Bernard Haykel’s thesis that “the Islamic State is Islamic”. He tells me that some ISIS followers “are clearly convinced they are following Allah’s will” and he insists: “We should not underestimate the extent of their belief.” However, Barrett concedes that such beliefs and views “will not be the only thing that drew them to the Islamic State”.

The former MI6 officer, who recently published a report on foreign fighters in Syria, agrees with the ex-CIA man on the key issue of what motivates young men to join—and fight for—groups such as ISIS in the first place. Rather than religious faith, it has “mostly to do with the search for identity . . . coupled with a search for belonging and purpose. The Islamic State offers all that and empowers the individual within a collective. It does not judge and accepts all with no concern about their past. This can be very appealing for people who think that they washed up on the wrong shore.”

Whether they are unemployed losers or well-educated professionals, joining ISIS offers new recruits the chance to “believe that they are special . . . that they are part of something that is new, secret and powerful.”

While Barrett doesn’t dismiss the theological angle in the way that Sageman does, he nevertheless acknowledges, “Acting in the name of Islam means that, for the ignorant at least, the groups have some legitimacy for their actions . . . They can pretend it is not just about power and money.”

LouiseThis irreligious lust for power and money is a significant and often overlooked part of the ISIS equation.

The group—often described as messianic and uncompromising—had no qualms about demanding a $200m ransom for the lives of two Japanese hostages in January; nor has it desisted from smuggling pornography into and out of Iraq, according to Louise Shelley, director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Centre at George Mason University in Virginia. (Shelley has referred to Isis as a “diversified criminal operation”.)

Then there is the often-ignored alliance at the heart of ISIS between the so-called violent Islamists, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s secular Ba’athist regime – an alliance that Barrett has referred to as a “marriage of convenience.” If ISIS is the apocalyptic religious cult that Wood and others believe it is, why was Baghdadi’s deputy in Iraq Abu Muslim al-Afari al-Turkmani, a former senior special forces officer in Hussein’s army? Why is Baghdadi’s number two in Syria Abu Ali al-Anbari, a former major general under Hussein? (Welthisiswhatithink note; al-Anbari was reported killed in Libya in June.) 

“The Ba’athist element was certainly very important . . . as it gave the Islamic State military and administrative capability,” Barrett says. “It also made it possible [for ISIS to] take Mosul so quickly and cause defections and surrenders from the Iraqi army. There was and continues to be a coincidence of interest between Islamic State and other anti-government Sunni groups.”

Here again, it seems, is the fundamental attribution error in play. We neglect to focus on the “interests” of groups such as ISIS and obsess over their supposedly messianic and apocalyptic “beliefs.” The “end of times” strain may be very strong in ISIS, Barrett warns, but: “The Ba’athist elements are still key in Iraq and without them the Islamic State would probably not be able to hold on to the city of Mosul.”

Baghdadi’s appointment as leader of ISIS in 2010 was orchestrated by a former Ba’athist colonel in Hussein’s army, Haji Bakr, (killed in January 2014) according to another recent study produced by Barrett, in which he noted how Bakr had “initially attracted criticism from fellow members of the group for his lack of a proper beard and lax observance of other dictates of their religious practice”. Nevertheless, pragmatism trumped ideology as Bakr’s “organisational skills . . . and network of fellow ex-Ba’athists made him a valuable resource” for ISIS.

Apparently, Baghdadi’s supposed caliphate in Iraq and Syria was less the will of God and more the will of Saddam.

The Theologian

Perhaps the most astonishing achievement of Isis has been not the sheer size of the territory it has captured, but the way in which it has united the world’s disparate (and often divided) 1.6 billion Muslims against it.

Whether Sunni or Shia, Salafi or Sufi, conservative or liberal, Muslims – and Muslim leaders – have almost unanimously condemned and denounced ISIS not merely as un-Islamic but actively anti-Islamic.

Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi grand mufti.

Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, the Saudi grand mufti.

Consider the various statements of Muslim groups such as the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, representing 57 countries (ISIS has “nothing to do with Islam”); the Islamic Society of North America (ISIS’ actions are “in no way representative of what Islam actually teaches”); al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world (ISIS is acting “under the guise of this holy religion . . . in an attempt to export their false Islam”); and even Saudi Arabia’s Salafist Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz al ash-Sheikh (ISIS is “the number-one enemy of Islam”).

In September 2014, more than 120 Islamic scholars co-signed an 18-page open letter to Baghdadi, written in Arabic, containing what the Slate website’s Filipa Ioannou described as a “technical point-by-point criticism of ISIS’ actions and ideology based on the Quran and classical religious texts.”

hannityYet buffoonish right-wingers such as the Fox News host Sean Hannity continue to refer to the alleged “silence of Muslims” over the actions of ISIS and ask, “Where are the Muslim leaders?” Meanwhile, academics who should know better, such as Princeton’s Bernard Haykel, insist that the leaders of ISIS “have just as much legitimacy as anyone else.”

MuradLegitimacy, however, “comes through endorsement by religious leaders. If Sunni Islam’s leaders consider ISIS inauthentic, then that is what it is,” says Abdal Hakim Murad, who teaches Islamic studies at Cambridge University and serves as the dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, which trains imams for British mosques. The blond-haired, 54-year-old Murad is a convert and is also known as Timothy Winter (his brother is the Telegraph football writer Henry). Murad has been described by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Jordan as “one of the most well-respected western theologians”, whose “accomplishments place him amongst the most significant Muslims in the world”.

The religious world, whether Muslim, Jewish or Christian, is “packed with fringe and fundamentalist groups that claim the mantle of total authenticity,” Murad tells me. To accept those groups’ assertions at face value is “either naive or tendentious.”

He continues: “Just as Christianity in Bosnia 20 years ago was not properly represented by the churchgoing militias of Radovan Karadzic and just as Judaism is not represented by West Bank settlers who burn mosques, so, too, Islam is not represented by ISIS.”

Contrary to a lazy conventional wisdom which suggests that a 1,400-year-old faith with more than a billion adherents has no hierarchy, “Islam has its leadership, its universities, its muftis and its academies, which unanimously repudiate ISIS,” Murad explains. For the likes of Haykel to claim that the ISIS interpretation of Islam has “just as much legitimacy” as the mainstream view, he adds, is “unscholarly,” “incendiary” and likely to “raise prejudice and comfort the far-right political formations”.

As for ISIS’ obsession with beheadings, crucifixions, hand-chopping and the rest, Murad argues: “With regard to classical sharia punishments, the religion’s teachings in every age are determined by scholarly consensus on the meaning of the complex scriptural texts”—rather than by self-appointed “sharia councils” in the midst of conflict zones.

Many analysts have laid the blame for violent extremism among Muslims at the ideological door of Salafism, a regressive and ultra-conservative brand of Islam, which owes a great deal to the controversial teachings of an 18th-century preacher named Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and which today tends to be behind much of the misogyny and sectarianism in the Muslim-majority world. Yet, as even Wood concedes in his Atlantic report, “Most Salafis are not jihadists and most adhere to sects that reject the Islamic State.”

Salafists tend to be apolitical, whereas groups such as ISIS are intensely political. Even the traditionalist Murad, who has little time for what he has deemed the “cult-like universe of the Salafist mindset”, agrees that the rise of extremism within the movement is a consequence, rather than a cause, of violence and conflict.

“The roots of ISIS have been located in rage against . . . the 2003 occupation of Iraq. Before that event, Salafist extremism was hardly heard of in Syria and Iraq, even though the mosques were full in those countries,” Murad says. “Angry men, often having suffered in US detention, have reached for the narrowest and most violent interpretation of their religion they can find. This is a psychological reaction, not a faithful adherence to classical Muslim norms of jurisprudence.”

In the view of this particular Muslim theologian, ISIS owes a “debt to European far-right thinking.” The group’s “imposition of a monolithic reading of the huge and hugely complex founding literature of the religion is something very new in Islamic civilisation, representing a totalitarian impulse that seems closer to European fascism than to classical Islamic norms.”

The Radical

Raised in Toronto, the son of Indian immigrant parents, Mubin Shaikh went from enjoying a hedonistic teenage lifestyle involving drugs, girls and parties to embracing a militant and “jihadist” view of the world, full of hate and anger.

CSIS and RCMP informant Mubin Shaikh at his Toronto home on February 6th, 2007. Shaikh's information led to the arrest of dozens of terror suspects in the summer of 2006.

CSIS and RCMP informant Mubin Shaikh at his Toronto home on February 6th, 2007. Shaikh’s information led to the arrest of dozens of terror suspects in the summer of 2006.

He felt as though he “had become a stranger in my own land, my own home,” Shaikh told PBS in 2007, referring to an identity crisis that helped spark his “jihadi bug.” After 11 September 2001, he wanted to fight in Afghanistan or Chechnya because: “It felt like the right thing to do.”

It is a familiar path, trodden by the likes of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers accused of bombing the Boston Marathon, as well as Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo attackers in Paris. (A former friend of Chérif said that the younger, pot-smoking Kouachi “couldn’t differentiate between Islam and Catholicism” before he became radicalized by “images of American soldiers humiliating Muslims at the Abu Ghraib prison”, as the New York Times put it.)

Yet Shaikh eventually relinquished his violent views after studying Sufi Islam in the Middle East and then boldly volunteered with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service to infiltrate several radical groups in Toronto.

The bald and bearded Shaikh, now aged 39 and an adviser to Canadian officials, tells me it is “preposterous” to claim that the killing of Christians and Yazidis by ISIS is rooted in Islamic scripture or doctrine. If it was, “Muslims would have been doing those sorts of things for the past 50-plus years. Yet we find no such thing.”

YAZIDIS(Wellthisiswhatithink insert: This becomes a particularly trenchant comment as a mass grave believed to contain the remains of more than 70 female members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority has been recently discovered east of Sinjar town after Kurdish forces claimed victory over Daesh militants in the area, the mayor and locals have said.

The insurgents overran the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar in north-west Iraq in August 2014, systematically killing, capturing and enslaving thousands of its inhabitants in what the United Nations has said may have constituted attempted genocide.

The mayor of Sinjar and local Yazidis who visited the site of the mass grave said last Saturday that they saw clumps of hair, bones, money and keys which they believed belonged to older women from the village of Kocho, whom the militants separated from younger women during their onslaught.)

Shaikh offers three distinct explanations for why ISIS should not be considered or treated as an “Islamic” phenomenon. First, he argues, “The claim that ISIS is ‘Islamic’ because it superficially uses Islamic sources is ridiculous, because the Islamic sources themselves say that those who do so [manifest Islam superficially] are specifically un-Islamic.”

He points to an order issued by the first and original Muslim caliph, Abu Bakr, which declared: “Neither kill a child, women [nor] the elderly . . . When you come upon those who have taken to live in monasteries, leave them alone.”

Takfiris are those who declare other Muslims to be apostates and, for Shaikh, “It is the height of incredulity to suggest that they [members of ISIS] are in fact ‘Islamic’ – an opinion shared only by ISIS and [Islamophobes] who echo their claims.”

As for Baghdadi’s supposed scholarly credentials, Shaikh jokes, “Even the devil can quote scripture.”

Second, he argues, it is dangerous to grant ISIS any kind of theological legitimacy amid efforts to formulate a coherent “countering violent extremism” (CVE) strategy in the West. “It is quite possibly a fatal blow in that regard because, essentially, it is telling Muslims to condemn that which is Islamic.” It is, he says, a “schizophrenic approach to CVE which will never succeed”.

Third, Shaikh reminds me how the former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often included verses from the Bible at the top of the intelligence briefings that he presented to President George W Bush. “Could we say [Iraq] was a ‘Christianity-motivated war’? How about verses of the Bible [reportedly] engraved on to rifles for use in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars?”

The former radical points out that highlighting only the role of religion in the radicalization process to the exclusion of, or above, other factors is short-sighted. “Fear, money . . . adventure, alienation and, most certainly, anger at the west for what happened in Iraq . . . [also] explain why people join [ISIS],” he tells me.

Shaikh therefore wants a counterterrorism approach focused not merely on faith or theology, but on “political, social and psychological” factors.

The Pollster

What Dalia Mogahed doesn’t know about Muslim public opinion probably isn’t worth knowing. And the former Gallup pollster and co-author, with the US academic John L Esposito, of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, based on six years of research and 50,000 interviews with Muslims in more than 35 countries, says that the survey evidence is clear: the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims reject ISIS-style violence.

DaliaGallup polling conducted for Mogahed’s book found, for instance, that 93 per cent of Muslims condemned the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

The 40-year-old Egyptian-American scholar tells me, “In follow-up questions, Gallup found that not a single respondent of the nearly 50,000 interviewed cited a verse from the Quran in defence of terrorism but, rather, religion was only mentioned to explain why 9/11 was immoral.”

The 7 per cent of Muslims who sympathised with the attacks on the twin towers “defended this position entirely with secular political justifications or distorted concepts of ‘reciprocity’, as in: ‘They kill our civilians. We can kill theirs.’”

It is thus empirically unsound to conflate heightened religious belief with greater support for violence. Mogahed, who became the first hijab-wearing Muslim woman to hold a position at the White House when she served on Barack Obama’s advisory council on “faith-based and neighbourhood partnerships”, says that she was “surprised” by the results, as they “flew in the face of everything we were being told and every assumption we were making in our counter-terrorism strategy.”

As for Haykel’s claim that Islam is merely “what Muslims do and how they interpret their texts”, Mogahed is scathingly dismissive. “If Islam is indeed ‘what Muslims do’, then certainly numbers should be a powerful factor dictating which Muslims we see as representing it,” she says.

“ISIS is a tiny minority whose victims are, in fact, mostly other Muslims.

“By what logic would this gang of killers, which has been universally condemned and brutalizes Muslims more than anyone else, get to represent the global [Muslim] community?”

The former White House adviser continues: “Any philosophy or ideology, from Christianity to capitalism, has normative principles and authorities that speak to those norms. Each also has deviants who distort it to meet political or other goals. If I deny the existence of Christ but call myself a Christian, I’d be wrong. If I say the state should usurp all private property and redistribute it equally among citizens but call myself a capitalist, I would be wrong. Islam is no different.”

Echoing Murad, Mogahed points out, “Islam’s authorities have loudly and unanimously declared ISIS un-Islamic.”

Because of this, “Making a claim that violates normative principles of a philosophy, as defined by those with the authority to decide, is illegitimate.”

What about Haykel’s claim that ISIS fighters are constantly quoting Quranic verses and the hadith, or traditions from the life of the Prophet, and that they “mug for their cameras and repeat their basic doctrines in formulaic fashion and they do it all the time”? Why do they do that if they don’t believe this stuff – if it isn’t sincere?

“The Quran [and] hadith according to whom?” she responds. “As interpreted by whom? As understood by whom?”

Mogahed, who served as the executive director of the Gallup Centre for Muslim Studies until 2012 and who now works for the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) and runs her own consulting firm based in Washington DC, argues that ISIS uses Islamic language and symbols today for the same reason as Palestinian militant groups used the language of secular Arab nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s.

“Any organisation uses the dominant social medium of its society,” she says. “Today, the dominant social currency in the Arab world is Islam. More than 90 per cent of Arab Muslims say religion is an important part of their daily life, according to Gallup research. Everyone, not just IS, speaks in Islamic language, from pro-democracy advocates to civil society groups fighting illiteracy.”

For Mogahed, therefore, “a violent reading of the Quran is not leading to political violence. Political violence is leading to a violent reading of the Quran.”

In a recent despatch from Zarqa in Jordan, birthplace of the late AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and “one of the country’s most notorious hotbeds of Islamic radicalism,” Foreign Policy magazine’s David Kenner sat down with a group of young, male ISIS supporters.

“None of them appeared to be particularly religious,” Kenner noted. “Not once did the conversation turn to matters of faith, and none budged from their seats when the call to prayer sounded. They appeared driven by anger at humiliations big and small – from the police officers who treated them like criminals outside their homes to the massacres of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq – rather than by a detailed exegesis of religious texts.”

It cannot be said often enough: it isn’t the most pious or devout of Muslims who embrace terrorism, or join groups such as IS. Nor has a raft of studies and surveys uncovered any evidence of a “conveyor belt” that turns people of firm faith into purveyors of violence.

Religion plays little, if any, role in the radicalisation process, as Sageman and countless experts testify.

It is an excuse, rather than a reason. ISIS is as much the product of political repression, organised crime and a marriage of convenience with secular, power-hungry Ba’athists as it is the result of a perversion of Islamic beliefs and practices.

As for Islamic scholars, they “unanimously repudiate” ISIS, to quote Murad, while ordinary Muslims “universally condemn” Baghdadi and his bloodthirsty followers, in the words of Mogahed.

The so-called Islamic State is, therefore, “Islamic” in the way the British National Party is “British” or the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) is “democratic.”

No serious analyst considers the latter two entities to be representative of either Britishness or democracy; few commentators claim that those who join the BNP do so out of a sense of patriotism and nor do they demand that all democrats publicly denounce the DPRK as undemocratic. So why the double standard in relation to the self-styled Islamic State and the religion of Islam? Why the willingness to believe the hype and rhetoric from the spin doctors and propagandists of ISIS?

We must be wary of the trap set for us by Baghdadi’s group – a trap that far too many people who should know better have frustratingly fallen for. A former U.S. State Department official who has worked on counterterrorism issues tells me how worried he is that the arguments of the Atlantic’s Wood, Haykel, Bergen and others have been gaining traction in policymaking circles in recent months. “It was disconcerting to be at [President Obama’s Countering Violent Extremism summit in February] and hear so many people discussing the [Atlantic] article while the president and others were trying to marginalise extremist claims to Islamic legitimacy.”

Mogahed is full-square behind her former boss’s decision to delink violent extremism from the Islamic faith in his public pronouncements.

“As [Obama] recently remarked, giving groups like IS religious legitimacy is handing them the ideological victory they desperately desire,” she says. This may be the most significant point of all to understand, as politicians, policymakers and security officials try (and fail) to formulate a coherent response to violent extremism in general and IS in particular.

To claim that IS is Islamic is egregiously inaccurate and empirically unsustainable, not to mention insulting to the 1.6 billion non-violent adherents of Islam across the planet.

Above all else, it is dangerous and self-defeating, as it provides Baghdadi and his minions with the propaganda prize and recruiting tool that they most crave.

 not afraid

 

DO NOT WEEP FOR THE DEAD

Do not weep for the dead,
They do but sleep. See?

See. They float on a river of dreams,
gently rocked by ripples and currents.
Warmed by sun, cooled by zephyrs.
Do not even weep for their lost futures.
For their future is peace. And
when they awake, it will surely be to you.

Weep now for the sisters, leafing sadly through albums.
Touching a face, here and there.

Weep for the mothers, who hold their empty bellies.
Rocking with horror, a life unraveled.

Weep for the fathers, lips bitten through in inchoate rage.

Weep for the brothers, with no one left to tease.

Weep for the grandparents, dreams of second carings shattered.

Weep for the friends, struck suddenly dumb.

Weep for family celebrations with one chair always empty.

Weep for all who are
mesmerised by pictures,
strangled by sirens,
crying in bathrooms,
staring into emptiness,
fearful for the children,
losing perception,
uncomprehending,
casting this way and that,
uncertain,
picking flowers
in case it mattters.

Do not weep for the dead.
They would not wish it.
Think on them, because
you know it is true.

Weep now for the living.
The left behind.
Bind their wounds.
Listen in silence.

And weep for the world.
Wash it clean. And cleaner, still.
Make that their memorial.
And let it stand forever.

 

Pamela Smedley with her mother Betty in 1990

Image copyrightP amela Smedley Pamela (right) reunited with her mother in 1990.

Up until the late 1960s the UK sent children living in care homes to new lives in Australia and other countries. It was a brutal experience for many.

In the winter of 1949, 13-year-old Pamela Smedley boarded a ship to Australia with 27 other girls. She had been told by the nuns from the Catholic home she lived in that she was going on a day-trip. In reality, she was being shipped out to an orphanage in Adelaide and wouldn’t see England again for more than three decades.

“We thought it would be like going to Scarborough for the day because we were so innocent and naive,” says Pamela, who is now in her 70s and still lives in Adelaide.

“The nuns said that in Australia you could pick the oranges off the trees, and I was very excited because I loved oranges.”

Pamela’s unmarried Catholic mother had been pressured to give her up as a baby and so she was sent to live under the care of nuns at Nazareth House in Middlesbrough, Teesside.

Pamela Smedley at Goodwood Orphanage, 1952

Image copyright Pamela Smedley. Pamela Smedley at Goodwood Orphanage in 1952.

The place was cruel and joyless, according to Pamela, and she remembers that when the Reverend Mother asked who wanted to go to Australia, every girl in the home put their hand up.

Once the SS Ormonde set sail for its six-week voyage, the girls soon realised this would be no day-trip. Instead they were allowed to believe there would be families waiting to adopt them.

“We arrived wearing our winter coats and hats and I remember being hit by this stinking 100-degree heat,” recalls Pamela. “I hated it and when we found out we had travelled 10,000 miles just to be put in another orphanage we all just cried and cried.” Anyone who has ever been in Adelaide – a desert city – during summer will have the greatest sympathy with the new arrivals.

Children en route for emigration to Australia

Image copyright Molong Historical Society. Children en route for emigration to Australia, the subject of a new exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London.

Pamela would spend the next two years at the Sisters of Mercy Goodwood Orphanage, an imposing redbrick Catholic institution, home to about 100 children.

She was one of as many as 100,000 British children to be sent overseas to Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries as child migrants between 1869 and 1970.

Run by a partnership of charities, churches and governments, the schemes were sold as an opportunity for a better life for children from impoverished backgrounds and broken homes. In reality, an isolated and brutal childhood awaited many of them.

Pamela was one of an estimated 7,000 children to go to Australia, some as young as four. They were often given the false status of “orphans” to simplify proceedings – and most never saw their homes, or their families again.

Boy on ship

Image copyright Molong Historical Society An estimated 7,000 children were sent to Australia, like this boy

“Child migrants were actively solicited in Australia as a way of building up the white Anglo-Saxon population and to give the growing economy there a boost,” explains Gordon Lynch, Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent.

This was not something which happened under the radar – the vast majority of children were sent to Australia with government funding.

“It is sometimes easy to assume childcare continuously improves and becomes more enlightened, but by the time Pamela went out [to Australia] the child migration schemes were really running against the grain of accepted childcare practice in post-war Britain,” explains Lynch, who is also a contributing curator to a new exhibition around the subject at the V&A Museum of Childhood in London.

Upon arrival at Goodwood, all the children’s personal mementos – photographs, letters, toys – were taken from them and they were left with just a Bible. Everyone was terrified of the Reverend Mother, even the other nuns, says Pamela. She recalls the big strap the nun had around her waist which her rosaries would hang from.

“It is what she’d use to beat us – at night she would walk up and down the dormitories and if you so much as twitched in your bed you’d get the strap.”

Child migrants picking peas at the Fairbridge Farm School in the 1950s

Image copyright Molong Historical Society. Picking peas at the Fairbridge Farm School in the 1950s.

When she arrived, Pamela remembers defiantly shouting out “God Bless England!” during morning prayers, rather than saluting Australia, for which she received “the thrashing of her life” from the Reverend Mother. Eventually, the nun retired and was replaced with someone much kinder and more progressive, according to Pamela.

Daily life at Goodwood consisted of early prayers, chores and then school, followed by more chores, prayers and an early bedtime of 6pm.

A few hours a day would be spent making the strings butchers use to hang their meat. “It was very coarse string and it made our fingers bleed,” says Pamela. “If you did anything wrong the penalty was an extra 100 strings and the nun in charge would hit us with her walking stick.”

Forced child labour helped schemes like the one at Goodwood to be financially viable, according to Lynch.

Boys working on building site at Bindoon Boys' Town

Image copyright Molong Historical Society The migrant children were often used as cheap labour.

“It would often be presented as an opportunity for children to learn useful skills or a trade but it was much more about providing some economic contribution,” he explains.

Pamela also remembers working in the laundry room and would spend school holidays living with a family and being worked hard throughout her stay. “The two daughters in the family were very good to me but their mother just saw me as free labour,” she explains.

Pamela says that every now and then a priest would come to check up on how the children were getting on. “The nuns would stand right beside us when we were asked questions and toys would appear in time for his inspections, but as soon as he left they were taken away,” she says.

One of the biggest failings of these schemes was that staff were often poorly trained and poorly resourced and very few follow-up checks were made, explains Lynch. Eventually, the Ross Report came out in 1956, as the result of a visit to Australia by a British team of inspectors, commissioned by the Home Office.

“It made grim reading and said that children who’d already had disruptive backgrounds and been subjected to traumatic experience in the UK were really the last people who should be sent overseas,” says Lynch. Reflecting the sensitivity of the subect, confidential appendices, containing the worst of the findings, were not publicly released until 1983.

But despite the report, children continued to be shipped overseas. According to Lynch, the reality became “an uneasy truth” – the Home Office weren’t prepared to publicly go against the Commonwealth Relations Office (who were in charge of the schemes) so they tried to discourage local authorities from continuing to send children overseas instead.

A diary of the voyage to Australia written by one little girl, Maureen Mullins

Image copyright Molong Historical Society. Pages from the diary of 12-year-old Maureen Mullins, who emigrated to Australia on SS Otranto in 1952.

“Furthering the British Empire was still very much a priority and there was also a fear of going up against not only the Australian government, but the Catholic Church,” he explains.

The Australian government soon countered the Ross Report with its own glowing review of all the homes under criticism.

Sexual abuse was a harsh reality for many of the children under the care of these schemes, including Pamela, who was assaulted while on the voyage over to Australia and while working at an isolated shearing station, aged 15.

“We were taught never to let a man touch you and that was all I knew- so I believed I was a sinner and would go to hell for it,” she says. When it happened for the first time on the boat, the nuns in Pamela’s charge insisted she was just dreaming. “I was terrified and I still go to sleep with my hands guarding between my legs,” she says.

At the shearing station Pamela had just one weekend off every six weeks and spent her entire first pay on a ceramic miniature English house. “I bought it to remind me of England,” she says.

Desperate to break free of the scheme’s clutches, she got married three days after her 18th birthday. In 1989 she was connected with the Child Migrants Trust, who helped her to be reunited with her mother Betty. For 40 years Betty had believed Pamela was adopted by a loving family in England.

They kept in touch until Betty died, and in 2010 Pamela was one of 60 former child migrants to be flown over to England to hear an official apology from the then prime minister, Gordon Brown.

“I still have nightmares about what happened but hearing the apology gave me a little bit of peace,” says Pamela. “It showed that finally somebody cared about what happened to us.”

Pamela Smedley meeting Gordon Brown after the British government apologised for the migrant programme, 2010

Image copyright Pamela Smedley. Pamela Smedley meeting Gordon Brown after the British government’s official apology in 2010.

(Story from the BBC)

Along with the “Stolen Generation” of aboriginal kids removed from their families and their attempted “whitiefication”, the forced expatriation of British children remains one of the most shameful episodes in British history.

That so many of those children have gone on to be stalwarts of their community is entirely besides the point – so might they have become had they been left with their birth parents or cared for empathetically in their home country. The stagering cruelty of the Churches and the Governments of the time beggars belief.

The same question occurs again and again – “What on earth did they think they were doing?”

And what similar lunacies are still being pursued around the world?