September 11 reflection

I really hope it’s not ‘too soon’, but you never know. ‘Too soon’, of course, is the response topical jokes about catastrophes sometimes receive when the public mood is not quite ready for light to be made of whatever disaster, tragedy or scandal is being targeted by a comedian. It was also the response to several statements, articles and speeches written by very serious people in 2001, following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on 11 September. Several columnists, activists and philosophers were vehemently criticized within the first few months following the September 11th attacks, for daring to ask certain questions or make certain observations about the events. And even now, as I consider bringing them up nine years later, I suspect some people will be muttering: ‘too soon’ and wishing I’d be quiet.

But that is simply because ‘soonness’ has nothing to do with why people objected then (as they do now) to certain things being said about 9-11. It’s the same impulse that makes ordinarily rational people object to a mosque being built near the site of the Twin Towers (in which a Muslim prayer room operated peacefully for many years). Because of the great number of people killed in that area, on that day, both have taken on a kind of sacred character for many. This is understandable for the friends and relatives in particular of those who died, but it should not preclude us from asking a question that several people were lambasted for asking nearer to the time: was there anything fundamentally more important about the people killed on September 11 than all other people?

Philosophers and critics who pointed out that while the events of September 11 were tragic and horrible they were not that out of keeping with what was experienced by the rest of the world were attacked for being outrageous, disloyal and speaking ‘too soon’. Is it still too soon now to ask why we still care so much about the 3,000 victims of that attack while even then we could hardly muster as much sympathy for the 20,000 who died in India that January? Is it too soon to ask why every civilian casualty in America should be venerated and mourned, while in our wars in the Middle East they should not even be counted?

Is it still too soon to genuinely ask the question: ‘Why do they hate us?’ without resorting to cartoon answers that assume madness, fanaticism or unadulterated evil and take no factors into account like the historic and economic oppression of Muslim countries by western powers or of the millions of children that had died in Iraq due to American sanctions and been deemed ‘acceptable’ by the US Secretary of State?

Is it still too soon to point out that American lives (and British lives, for that matter) are not nor have they ever been, more valuable than those of civilians or combatants in states with whom we are at war or in regions where our friends or companies commit misdeeds? Is it still too soon to ask Christians in particular to recognise this fact?

Is it too soon to compare the motives of the hijackers to the motives of those who pushed for the Iraq invasion for moral worth?

Is it still too soon to start comparing the numbers of dead in Afghanistan and Iraq, through military conflict and subsequent chaos, on both sides, to the numbers killed on September 11?

I’m not saying that all or even any of these questions would in any way justify the taking of human life (on September 11 2001 or any other day). I am also not saying that the dead from the Twin Towers should not be mourned, and that with respect and dignity. But the ‘war on terror’ continues. Iraq and Afghanistan will live for generations with the consequences of the actions undertaken by governments we elected in response to 9-11. If we don’t ask questions now, or some time soon, we never will. And we will make the same awful mistakes again.


Burnin’ love

Korhaan (courtesy of

I really need to pay more attention. Last week I was with a bunch of fundamentalist nutcases and when they suggested a fun activity I dragged the lot of them to a bird-sanctuary, petrol cans in our hands and a song in our hearts. Turns out, they wanted to burn a Quran, not a Korhaan. A Korhaan, for those who do not know, is an African bird, also known as a Bustard – clearly destined to be unfortunately mispronounced. The Quran, on the other hand, is the holy book of Islam. Ah, well, it could have been worse. We could have been Seoul or Pyongyang. In my defence, too, burning Korhaans (or Koreans, for that matter) is not much more logical than burning Qurans. And, yet, in the news last week we read about the massively ironically named Dove World Outreach Center (‘Outreach’? Really? Like this?) in Florida, USA, which has made headlines because of a planned 9/11 memorial Quran-burning.

I like to assume, of course, that nobody in this country would be hateful or ignorant enough to support this sort of thing, but then, I look at some of the local comment on the ‘Victory Mosque’ or the frankly vicious (not to mention phenomenally stupid) attacks on Peter Tatchell’s very presence at Greenbelt last week, and I suspect it has to be said out-loud: burning the Quran is a bad idea.

I say this for many reasons that I suspect will be obvious to most followers of Christ. First of all: It achieves nothing. Like Bible-burning, it does not result in fewer converts or less power for the religion. So any pseudo-righteous justification based on wanting to keep people from the lies of foreign gods is (and I do hate having to use these sorts of words) dumb.

Second, it stirs up hate. Yes, yes, I know there is a school of thought among some Christians and secularists that says that Muslims will get angry at anything. But listen. Every culture and religion has certain things they hold up as in some way sacred. It might be the image of Jesus, it might be Sunday’s specialness, it might be a specific understanding of the innocence of childhood or the privateness of sex. The point is, if it’s something you take very seriously, and somebody who knows that about you goes specifically out to debase, destroy or denigrate that thing, what does that make the destroyer/debaser? That’s right. A bit of a bustard. [too much, Mark? Make it ‘swine’?]

We need to understand that most observant Muslims take their scripture so seriously they wash before touching it. Burning it, to them, is a big deal. And all that it will achieve is anger and resentment. And when you deliberately go out to upset someone like that, you lose all moral high-ground when it comes to their response. That’s not to justify an aggressive reaction from Muslims, just to say that if they do get angry, it is intellectually dubious to try then to use that (as it was with the cartoons of Mohammed) as evidence that they, rather than their provokers, are unreasonable.

Another reason not to do it is because Christians from across the Muslim and mixed-faith world are begging Western Christians not to. Their job is hard enough. Their position already fragile because of equivalent angry nutcases on the Muslim side. We do not help them when we do or say things that make us look like the violent, arrogant, disrespectful creeps some extremists would like to paint all Christians as.

But the final reason is because it is not an act of love. Yes, we are called to sometimes say and do things that make people who don’t know our Saviour uncomfortable. But the aim is always to bring them closer to his truth, not shut them off forever. Even bigots who see all Muslims as their enemy must recognise that carrots and love are better than sticks, burning or otherwise.

Tony Campolo interview

I’ve just posted an interview I did a few months ago with Tony Campolo.

Click here to read it.

In it, he discusses (unsurprisingly) how ‘Red Letter Christians’ can change the world through politics.

He also discusses: death; Islam; making a fool of God and how he feels about the harsh criticism he’s received.

Fascinating guy, is Tony. If you’re wondering about what real Christian attitudes to politics might be, but are afraid of crazies or heretics, this is a safe and  good place to start — and you may find him more challenging than you anticipate.

I may post the video here at some point (or point you to where it does get posted).

Israel/Palestine: The Movie.(Oh, and the Islamic plot against Europe.)

Buy this film. Rent it, download it, torrent the living hell out of it, consume it in convenient YouTube-sized bites, but do watch it. Which film? Occupation 101.



Conversations about Israel and the Palestinians can lead to arguments, rifts in churches, damaged personal relationships and, worst of all, more conversations about Israel and the Palestinians. Shoutier ones. It’s a minefield. You could lose a limb. You could lose a friend. You could lose your sense of humour. But this film could perhaps help.

The fact is, the biggest obstacle in trying to communicate about many of the injustices going on within the Occupied Territories is not, as many Lefties would like to claim, the dreaded Israel Lobby, but ignorance. Or, as this film points out in its opening credits, ‘the illusion of knowledge’. And Occupation 101 is a great film to clarify facts and dispell illusions of knowledge about Israel and its occupation of what are, uner international law, Palestinian territories.

If you are a seasoned hand at trying to turn people on to the plight of Palestinians, you will know how hard it is to tell the whole story: the historical in justice, the complexity, the current violations of rights and also the mistakes that have been made by the Palestinian freedom movement as well. You could lend or even buy someone a book, but, as most of us know (and with apologies to Chris Rock), books are like kryptonite to ignorant people. There are many films that tell parts of the story of Israel’s abuse of power in the region, and many of them are not even made by weird conspiracy nuts, but none of the ones I have come across cover the full breadth of the Palestinian argument. And most suffer from simply not being up to date.

Occupation 101 was released in 2006 and runs all the way up to the terrible events of that year.

no idea who this is by unfortunately

no idea who this is by unfortunately

Let’s be clear: this film does not give as much time to Israeli government arguments as it does to opposing views. But it does feature Christians, Muslims, Jews, rabbis, priests, peace activists, women, children, scholars and politicians who have seen the situation first-hand and who all believe that if people knew what was happening, truly knew, they would be horrified. This film is not unbalanced, just as any rational and well-researched documentary about Apartheid need not be unbalanced in order to come to the conclusion that one side is in the wrong.

It has received honours at eight separate film festivals and with good reason. It is, in short, the film I have been looking for to explain concisely why Palestinians have been angry for a long time and why they remain so. And it highlights our role, as citizens of western democracies and particularly as Evangelical Christians serving the God of justice, in either letting injustice continue unchecked or doing something to make it stop.

One of Occupation 101’s greatest strengths is that for every assertion it makes and every fact it quotes it provides an accurate reference. This much cannot be said, apparently, for that YouTube hit and favourite of hysterical Christians and Islamophobes (and those repetative-strain mail-ghouls who can never resist forwarding any mail that claims to be important): the so-called ‘Muslim Demographics’.

islamophobiaThe dubious ‘facts’ in this video are investigated in a recent BBC piece and the results are illuminating. You can read it here.

The video itself is obviously annoying. But as a Christian, what is more shaming is that so many of us are only too willing to buy into and promote rumours, hearsay and actual hate, simply because we want to discredit ‘the competition’. It’s stupid, it’s hateful and it does our witness (to Muslims, to the world and particularly to smart people, who need Jesus too) no good.

So, if you sent the video that ‘proved’ there were ‘facts’ ‘proving’ that Muslims were going to ‘overrun’ Europe (quotation marks = irony. many quotation marks = savage irony), make amends. Write to everyone you sent it on to and apologise. Tell them it was a lie. Send them this link, explaining it all:

And if you really want to do the cause of speaking truth to power some good, buy a copy of Occupation 101 and start passing it round your friends.

Muslims are the New Jews

Antisemitic propaganda, 1936.

Like Jews in Germany, 1930, European Muslims are in danger. Germany at that point was a country that was too civilized, too great a culture, home of great thinkers and a great history to ever be suspected of an eventual descent into barbarism and animal hate that would result in the death of millions because of their race. Similarly, we assume, according to the cliché, that it ‘can’t happen here’. And in a narrow sense it can’t. But that’s because we only imagine ‘it’ happening to the same victims.

In 1930, when Hitler’s party started having more success, it was riding on a number of factors, but one of them was a rise in anti-semitism. There was a mood, spreading across Europe, of increasing intolerance for Jews as a race. Scapegoating, blatant racist lies (the global Jewish conspiracy, for one), suspicion of their insular culture and the unwillingness of the orthodox to fully integrate into European society all played a part.



Can you think of another racio-religious community in Europe that is also suspected, as a group, of plots and conspiracies to destroy our way of life, who are regularly and publicly criticized for failing to integrate culturally, whose insularity and zealous religious fervour are a source of fear and suspicion for even the politically moderate masses?

I’ll give you a clue: it’s not the Swedes.

Last week’s Daily Express ran a huge, front-page headline that demanded that the Muslim Burkha be banned in Britain, as some politicians are seeking in France. Not quite Kristallnacht, I admit, but the fact that there was no general outcry against such a vehemently anti-Muslim statement is telling of our culture’s mood.

The burkha issue is as silly as it is an example of anti-Islamic feeling. Why s

hould Muslim women not be allowed to choose whatever they wish to wear, in order to express their religious convictions? Are the Express (or the rest of the tabloids) brave enough to demand that orthodox Jews cut off their sideburns and take off their hats in order to integrate better into Britain? I didn’t think so. Xenophobes are, by definition,


But it’s disconcerting that we can’t see their faces, you say. Diddums. Get over it. This point is made often on radio call-in shows and on internet comment sites, which kinda proves that it is stupid, no?

‘But what about the poor women who are pressured to wear the burkha by their husbands?’ some people ask. And that, I agree, is a terrible thing. And as soon as those champions of women’s rights find ways (or even bother trying) to prevent non-Muslim women from wearing (or, indeed not wearing) clothes in order to please husbands, boyfriends, potential mates or magazine style gurus, I’ll believe that they are motivated by something other than a dislike for Islam.

Am I saying Muslims are in danger of extermination within the decade? No. But as hateful, xenophobic rumours about the horrors of Islam ‘overrunning’ Britain (or France, or Germany) keep being perpetuated, I want you to see the similarity between these rumours (and the much-forwarded emails accompanying them) and those early German films, portraying Jews as vicious, subhuman, greedy and dangerous. I’m pointing this out so that when political decisions (be they to do with limitations on citizenship or wars against Muslim peoples) are made, you will know what you are doing when you do not speak out. So that you cannot say ‘I didn’t know.’

Update: Click here to read a story about the mood of intolerance spilling over.

Iran: the facts

From wikimedia

A terror-sponsoring state with massive ambitions in the Middle East, convicted by the World Court of criminal aggression, is violating the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). We need to pray for peace in the region. But before we close our eyes in intercession, a question: Did you think I meant Iran?

I didn’t. I meant the USA. But it was not America last week that was making news by announcing the firing up of their controversial new nuclear reactor this week. Iran’s act, despite the way the media tends to portray it, is not a violation of the NPT. Quite the opposite, in fact. The NPT is a treaty that makes provision for nations without nuclear weapons to receive help and have total freedom in developing nuclear power for peaceful means. Which is what Iran (a signatory to the NPT) is doing. The NPT also requires that signatories with nuclear weapons work to reduce their nuclear arsenal. The USA (another signatory) has not done this, opting, like Britain, to replace nukes. It has also supported allies like India, Israel and Pakistan (none of them signatories) in their development of hundreds of nuclear warheads.

Iran has been called part of the ‘axis of evil’ by the US for many reasons. For one, its leadership is internally oppressive. Which, it seems, is okay for US allies, Saudi Arabia, who are the second most oppressive regime towards Christians in the world, according to Open Doors (one spot above Iran on the list, in fact), but not Iran. Iran sponsors terrorism. This is clearly true. But, then, so has the USA, as shown in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola and a number of other states in which militias comparable to Hamas and Hezbollah committed atrocities and waged civil war with American funding (the International Court of Justice famously ruled against the US regarding Nicaragua).

Of course, none of this means that Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a nice guy who doesn’t say alarming things. And it doesn’t mean Iran doesn’t want a nuclear weapon, right? Well there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that Ahmadinejad is a hard-liner (though few papers remember he was in a small minority of student leaders in 1979 who voted against taking American hostages during the Iranian revolution). The fact that America has invaded Iraq on his eastern border and Afghanistan on the west does not make him less so. But the good news (on nukes anyway) is that he is not in charge. He reports to Iran’s Supreme Leader, a cleric called Ayatollah Khamenei, who has final say over everything that happens in Iran, including foreign policy. And the Ayatollah has issued a fatwa against the manufacture, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons, calling them ‘sacrilegious’. Which means quite a lot in Iran.


Countries hosting US bases near Iran

The fact is that Iran was branded part of the ‘axis’ after it had offered to submit to full nuclear weapons inspections, recognise (and normalise relations with) Israel and withdraw support from Hamas and Hezbollah. In exchange, what has become known in diplomatic circles as Iran’s ‘grand bargain‘ only required the US to remove it from the axis, guarantee not to attack Iran, to lift sanctions and to allow European investment to return to Iran. The offer was rejected.

That’s a lot of facts for an opinion column, I know. But sometimes facts speak louder than comment.

Here’s a clip from an excellent film called Iran (is not the problem) — which was very helpful in compiling this column:

The Muslim Threat ?

anti-naziEmbarrassed, horrified and a little dirty. That’s how I felt last week when I discovered that an acquaintance who had been joining me in denouncing Israel’s slaughter of civilians in Gaza on a social networking site was possibly only doing so because he dislikes Jews. Cliché can be disturbingly real as well as disappointing.

My acquaintance describes himself as an ‘ethnonationalist’ and a ‘race realist.’ He resists the term ‘Nazi’ when I suggest it, not for any of the reasons you or I might, but because he rejects nationalism in favour of race-orientation and socialism just on principle. He believes races should not interbreed; that we should defend the ‘uniquely’ brilliant and beautiful accomplishments of white European culture against dilution by the ‘evil’ of multiculturalism (which, inexplicably, he blames for global capitalism) and that Islam is the greatest threat the world faces. He is a racist. He is more thoughtful and honest than most bigots, but that is also what he is. And he is not alone.

Last week saw a furore erupt over a Dutch politician, Geert Wilders being denied entry to the UK because of a film he made: a disgusting piece of Goebbels-style, violently anti-Muslim propaganda (I watched it on the internet – it really is), called Fitna. The film quotes (and, many Muslims online contend, misquotes) passages from the Quran and illustrates them with atrocities supposedly committed by Muslims. It then asserts that Muslim populations are growing in Europe and that we (supposedly White, Judeo-Christians) should fight Islam.

Many Christians will have some sympathy with these ideas. After all, growing Islam means fewer Christians and therefore fewer people in heaven, right? Maybe Christians should support the likes of Wilders, despite the racism?

I think not. The Quran may contain disturbing verses, but so does the Bible. Start from Deuteronomy 13 and work outward. Muslims have done terrible things, but so have Christians. Start from the first Crusade and the rape and murder of men women and children, Jew and Muslim by conquering Christians and move forward through Bosnia and Nigeria. Western European culture (calling it ‘white’ is ridiculous) has much to recommend it, but so does Islamic culture, and both have incubated extremists, evil, corruption and destructive forces.

Another example of why racism is stupid (from

Another example of why racism is stupid (from

To oppose the growth and spread of Islam on these grounds makes the fundamental mistake of secularised Christendom: confusing culture and nation with faith. The reason to follow Christianity is not found in its followers (though we hope we would give some reason). It is in the one whom we follow. So the spread of Islam can be seen either as an opportunity for witness or a failure on our part to do so because we are more concerned with outward culture than inner faith, more focused on worldly influence and power than the growth of the Kingdom. Hating our ‘enemies’ is a seductive temptation for all Christians, but racist Islamophobia should be resisted as the moral filth and intellectual excrement it is, while never being ashamed to proclaim the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ. We may reject Islam’s truth claims, but never Muslims as people or their right to their own culture.

As the Bishop of Blackburn rightly said last week, in defence of banning Anglican clergy from BNP membership: ‘You cannot be a racist and speak on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ.’