The Murder of James Foley

The barbaric murder of James Foley is being picked over by the media, as is only to be expected. The fact that the IS spokesman who did the foul deed is apparently British will have set alarm bells ringing in Britain, where there is already considerable concern about the role of British jihadists and the radicalisation of young Muslims by extremist clerics. Even here, in my monastic fastness, I feel uncomfortable. I have Muslim friends — kindly, civilized people, predominantly second or third generation British and middle class — who are as appalled by this kind of violence as anyone else. But, perhaps because I am a woman and a religious, I have also encountered another face of Islam, one that is much more hostile, much less ready to accommodate itself to British notions of law and justice or socially acceptable behaviour. It is this other face of Islam I find increasingly troubling.

One cannot argue with a gun or a knife, any more than one can ‘dialogue’ with someone who thinks one has no rights or value as a human being. The murder of James Foley, like the murder of Lee Rigby, confronts us with a form of Islamist violence that we do not know how to deal with. It is beyond our experience, outside our conceptual world. We can only ask, rather pathetically, ‘How can people do such things?’

In the past Britain has been, nominally at least, a Christian country. We haven’t always lived up to Christian ideals, but there has been general agreement on the Judaeo-Christian basis of much of our law, morality and social behaviour. That sort of cohesion is now breaking down. We have both an increasingly secular and an increasingly religious divide — but the religious divide is not Christian. A few days ago, newspapers were reporting that the most common newborn boy’s name in Britain is now Mohammed and it is the stated wish of some groups to establish areas where Sharia is applied to everyone living there. That presents a peculiar difficulty to our liberal Western minds. Are there limits to what is acceptable? How do we reconcile the demands of some Islamist groups with our societal norms?

It is a question that affects Christians no less than our secular-minded countrymen. To be expected to be complaisant in the face of Islamist outrages because Christians are, by definition, loving and forgiving is to forget that Christian tolerance is really only a pale form of Christian patience; and Christian patience means more than just putting up with things. We are children of Light, dedicated to the service of Truth. A readiness to forgive injuries does not mean that we condone them. A willingness to accept others’ differences and to defend their right to freedom of religious belief and practice does not necessarily mean we regard them as equal to our own. We walk a difficult path, seeking to be true to what we believe while allowing others to be true to what they believe. But still we must ask the question: do we have a common basis for deciding moral questions any more? Do we have a genuinely common response to the kind of militant Islam fostered by IS?

Inevitably, there will be calls for revenge, for more violence to try to end the violence we have seen in Syria and Iraq and, indeed, on the streets of Woolwich. No doubt Western governments are already planning ‘appropriate responses’ to try and guarantee the safety of their citizens. We know that our safety cannot be guaranteed unless there is a change in attitudes, and no one knows how to do that. It has been said that to adopt an ‘eye for an eye’ approach, tit-for-tat violence, leads ultimately to a world full of blind people. Can we be any more blind than we already are? IS fighters are determined to exterminate all who think or believe differently from themselves. Will there come a point when their brutality proves too much and destroys themselves as well as others? Is it possible for so much cruelty not to have a backlash? I do not know, but for all our sakes, Christian and Muslim alike, for the sake of everyone now living and for the sake of the children yet to be born, I hope and pray it may do, and soon.

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Courage in Sudan

The BBC report of the case concerning Dr Meriam Yehya Ibrahim Ishag makes horrifying reading: http://bbc.in/1otbfPa Allegedly brought up as an Orthodox Christian, married to a Christian and now eight months pregnant, she has been condemned to death by hanging for apostasy and in addition sentenced to 100 lashes for adultery on the grounds that, having had a Muslim father, she is an apostate from Islam and her marriage not merely invalid but adulterous. Local media are reported as saying that there will be a delay of a couple of years before the sentence is carried out, so that she can give birth and wean her child. Dr Ishaq’s lawyers are appealing against her sentence.

What struck me when reading this sad story was the fact that Dr Ishag was given three days to renounce her religion but remained steadfast and quietly told the judge, ‘I am a Christian.’ With those words and that action we are all at once back in the age of martyrs. In truth, we have never left it; the only difference is that today we are more likely to hear of such acts of courage because of the improvement in communications. I cannot help wondering, however, whether this particular story would have made the BBC headlines were it not for the fact that Dr Ishag is pregnant.

Religious freedom is not a right universally accepted. Even among the religious, it is often interpreted as freedom for what I believe but not freedom for what you believe. That holds good whatever country we are considering, although it seems particularly true wherever a more exclusive form of Islam holds sway, e.g. Sudan, Saudi Arabia. Christians in Britain are not persecuted, but many think it acceptable to mock Christian beliefs and challenge Christian values even in Christian societies and institutions. We have seen what happened with Catholic adoption agencies, and I think it would be fair to say that there is uneasiness about possible legal challenges to the Church’s position on same sex marriages. We cannot assume that we will never be required to make the same affirmation of faith as Dr Ishaq. As we pray for her, let us also pray for ourselves; that we may not condemn others but work for peace, understanding and religious freedom for all.

Note regarding comments
I’m sorry to say that I am now having to hold all comments for moderation which, since I do not spend my life glued to the computer screen, means that some may be very late appearing on the blog. I’m sorry about this, but I’ve been forced to take this action by the increasing number of abusive comments and hostile attacks on other readers/commenters that the blog has been receiving. Some comments are also potentially libellous, which adds another layer of complexity to things. One consequence is that, while I’m away from the monastery, I’ll probably have to stop blogging as I won’t be able to keep an eye on the blog in the way I usually do.

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The Secret Islamicization of Britain?

This blog has not become a vehicle for conspiracy theories or religious hatred, but the title of today’s post picks up on something that is becoming a common media theme: the Islamicization of Britain by stealth. First we had stories about schools in the Birmingham area being targeted by Islamic fundamentalists in so-called Trojan Horse attempts to secure control; now we learn that many British supermarkets and fast-food chains are selling halal meat without labelling it as such. There is a feeling that this is not quite above board and many (including some Muslims) have expressed dismay that it will stoke existing fears and lead to further misunderstandings. The supermarkets and fast-food chains may have misjudged the public mood in their pursuit of profit, but have they unwittingly highlighted something that should concern us all and which has implications far beyond questions of how schools are run or meat is prepared?

You may remember that last year Channel 4 broadcast the Muslim call to prayer during Ramadam. At the time, many welcomed it as indicative of the religious pluralism that is now a mark of British society. Others were more neutral, wondering whether it was a sign of ‘special treatment’ hard to justify to other religious groups; a few were very hostile indeed. Today many would argue that while one can choose whether or not to listen to a broadcast, there is much less choice about where to send one’s child to school, and none at all about what one eats if the packaging/menu does not give the relevant information. So, it is not only the perceived underhandedness of this latest ‘scandal’ that is the problem, it is the lack of control and the fear it engenders. That feeds into all kinds of other fears — of State surveillance, E.U. bureaucracy, even the break-up of the Union. But it has an extra piquancy because, like it or not, many people in this country see Islam as an alien and often negative force. The activities of the Boku Haram in Nigeria, for example, are cited as just another instance of the cruelty and injustice many associate with contemporary Islam. Even as one objects that not many Muslims would identify with its aims, one must also acknowledge the reality of the sense of hurt and grievance people feel.

It is for Muslims to prove to the rest of the world that the behaviour of groups like Boku Haram is at odds with the teachings of Islam, but I think Christians also have a duty to ensure that there are no knee-jerk reactions of hatred and fear. The historically-minded may like to think back to the anti-Jewish movements of the earlier twentieth century and the importance of Christian defence of Jews. It wasn’t always what, with hindsight, one thinks it should or could have been, but without those instances of sometimes heroic courage and determination to see truth and justice prevail, things could have been much worse. We have a duty to protect our neighbours and see that they are not made victims of prejudice and fear. But we need to do more than that. I’d argue that it is not the secret Islamicization of Britain we need to worry about so much as the sometimes very public disintegration of social cohesion and concern that is becoming characteristic of Britain today. The banking and political scandals of recent years did not arise out of a vacuum. They proceeded from a selfish and immoral preoccupation with ‘what’s good for me’. They too were underhand. Maybe a forkful of halal meat could prompt us to do some serious thinking about bigger and more weighty matters — such as society itself and the ways in which responsibility and accountability are managed? I hope so.

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Hatred is a Killer

A man dresses his little sister in a suicide vest and we throw up our hands in horror; another chases someone, sets fire to him, then devours his leg, and we react with revulsion. We know the situation in Afghanistan is complex but we look at the end result: a brutalisation so complete that a child is merely an instrument of war and revenge. We know the situation in the Central African Republic is also complex, but again we look only at the end result: a man is so inflamed by the murder of his pregnant wife that he not only kills the person responsible but shows utter contempt for him. In both cases, our Western susceptibilities are outraged: we believe children should be afforded special protection; cannibalism is off-limits; the perpetrators of these acts are vile.

It is no good blaming religion as such for either of these atrocities. It was not Islam which made that man force his sister to wear a suicide vest; nor was it Christianity which made that man kill his neighbour and devour his leg. We are very much mistaken, though, if we don’t acknowledge that religion, however much misunderstood or perversely interpreted, has played a part in allowing such things to happen because it has become a convenient peg on which to hang visceral hatreds and rivalries. That is dangerous, because it affects public perception of the religion in question, not merely of the individuals who (mis)use it as justification for their actions.

Increasingly in the West, we are seeing Islam and Christianity pitted against one another in the popular imagination. Polarisation between the two has become an explanation, we might say the explanation, of every violent or aggressive act that involves adherents of either religion. The trouble is, that kind of ‘explanation’ merely stops us examining other motives or causes and, incidentally, does a great disservice to those who genuinely try to live good and peaceable lives according to their religious beliefs. Perhaps it is time to take stock and admit that even the most loving and merciful of us are capable of ugly acts.

We may think of ourselves as kind, compassionate people, always eager to do good to others and without a mean bone in our bodies. That may be how we are born, but we quickly learn behaviours that are not so pure or generous. It is only grace that keeps us in check, and it is a grace we must earnestly desire and pray for, not presume upon.

It is easy to condemn someone who makes a walking bomb of his sister or eats his neighbour, but the intense hatred that inspired such acts didn’t begin like that. Its origins may lie in mere dislike or minor antipathy, a half-remembered grudge from ancestral times or a sense of grievance never satisfied; but it was allowed to grow until it stifled every better feeling. One of the lessons to be learned from these tragedies is that hatred is a killer — and just as likely to be found in our own heart as in the heart of another.

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Lepanto, the Holy Rosary and Us

The feast of the Holy Rosary was instituted to commemorate the Battle of Lepanto, when a significant defeat was inflicted on the Ottoman Turks by the Holy League (a rather optimistic name for the coalition of southern Catholic maritime states that placed themselves under the protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary and ascribed their success to her intercession). The Holy League’s victory effectively prevented further Turkish expansion westwards. Today, many Christians, in Africa and the Middle East especially, feel threatened by the rise of a  militant Islam which seeks to exterminate them by every means possible. The West, however, is no longer Christian in any meaningful sense and seems to have no clear idea how it should respond to any perceived threat. We read about Boku Haram murdering children as they sleep and wonder how such intense hatred can exist, conveniently forgetting that drone attacks in Pakistan have also killed children as they slept. I certainly have no answers to any of the questions raised by terrorism or counter-terrorism in the world today.

My Muslim friends and I have often asked ourselves what we, as individuals, can do and the only answer we have been able to come up with is to pray and work for peace where we can. It often doesn’t seem much, but unless we do try to dissolve the old hatreds and antagonisms, we are doomed to go on living them. If you are a rosary pray-er, why not pray a rosary for peace between Christians and Muslims today?

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