Burnin’ love

Korhaan (courtesy of realbirder.com)

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.


Muslims are the New Jews

Antisemitic propaganda, 1936. http://www.ushmm.org

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.

From faithfreedom.org

From faithfreedom.org

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.

What if Boris called a tapeworm ‘Liverpool’?

suicide teddyBlue Peter got off so lightly. Sure, John Leslie would, back in the day, possibly have warmed to the idea of a few lashes administered in public, but the current crop of presenters seem less up for that sort of thing. So they can count themselves lucky that they didn’t name the programme’s cat Mohammed, as a popular news-satire show pointed out last week.

Personally, I feel for Gillian Gibbons, the British teacher accused of blasphemy in Sudan. With the best will in the world and the desire to be as culturally sensitive as possible in a foreign country, one is going to slip up occasionally. Just ask Prince Phillip.

But the story raises some important questions, not least for the anti-multicultural brigade who are often heard to cry: ‘This is our country – we don’t expect other people to accommodate our culture overseas, so why should we have to make allowances for theirs over here?’ Anyone who has been to Spain on holiday and met compatriots there can see the weakness in that argument, but it was further undermined by media reaction to the ‘Bear Trial’ last week.

Radio 4’s flagship Today Programme said that the natural response to the news was ‘outrage’ and when faced with an explanation involving cultural differences in the perception of bears, called the proceedings: ‘revolting’ and ‘barbarous’; ‘cultural differences notwithstanding.’ Now please don’t get me wrong: public lashings are something I object to regardless of the circumstances. But is that what most people were reacting to in last week’s frenzy over this story? Or was it more along the lines of ‘those crazy Muslims and their stupid ways,’ once again? I ask because the same programme later suggested to one Muslim guest that such incidents justified the practice of the media making Islam the religion ‘we love to hate’. They even framed the question thus: does this case hold up a mirror to all Muslims, or is this a case of extremists getting it wrong? No possibility, then, that there might be any reasonable cultural explanation or justification for the strong reaction of Sudanese parents, then. Objective.

It seems that we are quite happy to accept cultural and religious differences if they are about dress (no, wait, head-scarves ‘create distance’); the private practice of religion (oh, hang on—let’s qualify that: ‘as long as it is politically moderate’) and language (unless we’re in ‘Londinistan,’ where we feel like *gasp!* ‘foreigners in our own country—that country being the country for English speakers). Okay, we quite like curry. But we find it quite difficult to accept when another culture makes decisions based on views we don’t understand or share. We expect Christian forgiveness, Protestant willingness to see the heart above the outward expression and Liberal freedom for individuals to disagree with the majority in countries and cultures that may have fundamentally differing views on those subjects. I personally think our values are good and right, but it would be unspeakably arrogant of me to expect someone else to accept them purely on that basis.

What we heard little of last week was why our way of approaching it is better, even for us, never mind for Muslims. And if the reasons come down to our experience of faith, can we really condemn non-Christians for refusing to behave like Christians? More importantly, when we ask others to compromise within their faith, we should ask if we would be willing to do the same. And where we have already done so, perhaps we need to assess whether we that was motivated more by a desire to fit in than to be true to our God. In which case, perhaps we have something to learn as well as teach.


BAA humbug!

‘We should invade North Korea.’ Why Korea? ‘They’re trouble.’ Why are they trouble? ‘Their attitude.’ That’s the voice of the American man on the street, apparently. I’m quoting an old video still doing the rounds on YouTube and office emails, entitled Who should the US invade next? It features an Australian ‘reporter’ supposedly doing a vox-pop survey of ordinary people’s opinions as to who George Dubya’s next target should be. Some other answers: ‘Iran’ Why Iran? ‘I think there’s a revolution happening there soon,’ and ‘Italy’ – no explanation given. It’s funny, though not as funny as when the interviewer brings out a facetious map and asks people to pinpoint their chosen targets. Maps with North Korea, Iran and Iraq all printed on the continent of Australia elicit no cries of ‘it’s not over there!’ from people, and the lesson we take away is that Americans, despite their impact on it, are ignorant about the rest of the world.

For instance, did you know only 7% of Americans even own a passport? It’s true. I learned that statistic from the University of Facts I Pulled Out Of My Bottom To Support My Prejudices. Did you study there too? Actually all I could find about American passport ownership was that the European Travel Commission supposedly believes the number to be closer to 18% – this may or may not be true, it’s a long website and I honestly don’t care enough to find out. The point is: putting the lazy, racist, anti-American prejudices aside, do we really want to be a country with no experience of or interest in the rest of the world? Because if we do not, we need to question what Plane Stupid are trying to achieve.

Plane Stupid is the group eventually banned from protesting outside Heathrow Airport over airport expansion last week. I find their name inspiring (I myself want to put a stop to donkey and mule-related methane emissions and am starting a group called Dumb Ass) and their overall aim of taking radical action to save the planet admirable. But since only a few percent (real figures exist, I heard them on Radio 4) of global carbon emissions (and even fewer of UK carbon emissions) are produced by commercial aviation, or indeed aviation of any sort, why are we picking on the airlines? Because they are softer targets, isolated examples of emissions that are easy to identify and to denounce. But that is as lazy as an island race denouncing Americans as insular. Checking on the greenhouse gases emitted in producing, transporting, cooling, wrapping, housing, and feeding the clothes in your cupboard, the food in your fridge, the tv shows you watch and the packaging around your organic vegetables, that’s harder. But then, that stuff is harder to give up.

Don’t get me wrong, BAA, who initially wanted to ban a total of five million people from being in the vicinity of Heathrow, including the entire RSPB , are bullies of the first division. But then what do you expect? Of course they are power mad! They’re the airports! Have you been in an airport recently? They’re dilly with the power. Even before 9-11 being on a plane or in an airport (though thankfully not a stewardess) was pretty much a relinquishment of your basic rights and freedoms. You don’t believe me? Here’s an experiment: when someone says ‘what’s in the bag?’ in your local pub, say: ‘a bomb.’ If you’re not an obvious Muslim, you should get away with it (if you laugh and don’t just start running). Try the same in an airport. Where comedy is prohibited, power has gone mad. Sadly, picketing over that won’t make any difference either. Enjoy your holidays.

AAAAARGH! (I’m afraid)

Cue the cello music! Quick get out of the water! It’s (Aaargh!)… One Shark! Yup, the headline said it all. ‘Jaws 2’ warned the Sun last week, describing the second sighting of a shark, which had just horrified people on the Cornish coast by a merciless rampage in which it… swam around a bit. Er… we’re going to need a bigger boat? Apparently Great White sharks are unknown around Britain. So The Sun, as part of its ongoing ‘Everybody Calm Down There’s No Need To Panic’ campaign, ran with that headline. A move which I’m sure will prevent the shark from being killed. Of course, even if sensationalist headlines do spark shark-attacks (attacks on sharks, not attacks by sharks who read The Sun – though that would be cool), The Sun wins. Picture the headline: ‘Great White Murdered. Is your child at risk? De-fin your toddler. Details inside.’

Alright, that probably won’t happen. And I would have been stumped to come up with a better headline. But that’s really the point, isn’t it? In order to sell newspapers, the impartial arbiters of free information sometimes manufacture horror. ‘Gums – The Revenge’ is a rubbish title for a movie or a news story. Which is probably why there was less hype about the second major whale-in-a-river story than both the previous whale sighting and the second shark incident.

Fear, of course, sells newspapers. Not as much, admittedly, as half-naked celebrities, but well enough. You, of course, are a discerning person, having rejected the tabloid sleaze and horror-mongering in favour of this publication’s altogether more sober and integrity-based approach. We don’t need to sell our souls to fear and sex to sell our paper. In fact next week’s issue will discuss that very topic on the front cover. Right next to the photo-story about an immodestly dressed (but recently born-again) Paris Hilton exiting a London taxi. Covered in killer African bees. And surrounded by paedophiles. Radical Islamic paedophiles.

‘Fear,’ as Frank Herbert wrote in the Sci-Fi classic Dune, ‘is the mind-killer.’ When we are afraid, we revert to what evolutionary biologists would think of as our ancestral animal instincts and what Pentecostals would call carnality, the flesh. We literally have the beJesus scared out of us. Be it Nazi Germany terrified of Jewish plots or McCarthy’s America, worried about the reds under the bed, good people can be frightened into doing very bad things.

The McCarthy example is particularly relevant now, as last week four students were jailed for ‘possessing material for terrorist purposes’.  The material in question was not fertilizer or gas canisters, not semtex or pipe-bombs, but propaganda. It was nasty propaganda, to be sure. Much of it, if reports are to be believed, morally reprehensible. And yes, among the propaganda were apparently how-to instructions for terrorist attacks. But since anyone can get such instructions from the internet, The Anarchist Cookbook or similar how-to urban warfare manuals, without much fear of being nicked (tens if not hundreds of thousands of readers, downloaders and buyers still walk free), one must assume it was the content of the propaganda that sealed their fate.

And while they may well be guilty of plotting and may rightly be serving prison time, I think we are on dangerous ground when we start imprisoning people for political beliefs with which they have sympathy (or just curiosity). If it makes me scared to visit Al Jazeera to get another perspective on the news or to read Hamas press releases for myself (rather than the regurgitations of our tabloids or politicians), how much more afraid must young Muslims be? And if anything is more dangerous than a society living in fear, it’s a society divided by fear.  

Hang that Belgian freak with the Something About Mary hair

‘Adult education’, as a phrase always amuses me. I always picture education of an adult nature rather than adults being educated. It’s much like ‘children’s fiction’ (or ‘military intelligence’) in that it can be misleading as a phrase. In my day (to exercise a phrase my late grandfather overused, even when he wasn’t finishing the sentence with ‘this was all fields’) we were fed the classics. When I was only a wee columnist, we did not have contemporary bestselling children’s books revolving around children my age learning to use magic, tame mythical beasts and use esoteric powers to fight dark forces. No. We had to read A.A. Milne.

And while I quite like the idea of Milne’s ‘James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George Dupree, Occult Practitioner’, or Enid Blyton’s ‘Five Read Chicken Entrails in an Obscure Voodoo Ritual and Have a Jolly Good Time’ now, at the time I was perfectly happy with the originals. How things change. Last week’s news revealed that an online petition has been started, begging author JK Rowling not to kill Harry off for good (as she might in the latest instalment of the series, due out on 21 July). The petition was started and is administered by Waterstone’s Bookstores (for purely literary and altruistic reasons, I’m sure) and aims to reach one million signatures before the release of the next book.

Which is worrying, since the highest number of signatures on any petition on the 10 Downing Street Open Petitions website is about 244,700. At this point I should say something like: ‘Isn’t it sick that we seem to care more about a fictional character than real human beings and serious political issues?’ But I won’t. Because the Number Ten petitions are not all entirely serious. The top one aims to be, I’m sure. But really it isn’t. It’s the one where Christians petition against the building of a ‘mega-mosque’ in London. A mega-mosque for which there are currently no submitted plans, and about which, according to the Mayor of London, those sending those annoying petition emails have almost every fact wrong. But apart from that particular sterling bit of outreach to our as-yet unsaved Muslim neighbours, there are other cracking petitions.

For instance, the petition to repeal the laws against fox-hunting is countered by one to ignore the repeal petition. There’s a petition (in the top 15 petitions) to make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister. Innocent Smoothies have a petition to cut taxation on smoothies. One of my personal favourites (with almost 5,000 signatures) says: ‘We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to …stand on his head and juggle ice-cream.’ And, almost at the bottom of the pile, a petition that demands that all people in nightclubs be tested for drugs, and if they test positive, should have to be quizzed on current affairs, economics and social history.’ Those scoring less than 50% should ‘have their frontal lobe removed with a spoon as a lesson to others.’

‘Save Harry Potter’ is looking positively relevant now, eh? But other children’s characters were also in trouble last week. Tintin, and his adventures in the Congo were the target of a banning demand for inherent racism (not to mention bloodthirsty killing of a rhino with dynamite). ‘Political correctness gone mad’? I think not. Racism is repugnant and not something we want to teach our kids. But I think the decision to simply move the title to the adult ‘graphic novels’ section was probably sufficient. Bookstores, after all, can sell Mein Kampf and the Marquis De Sade. Herge (who revised and all but disowned Tintin in the Congo) is hardly in their league. That said, I’m still starting a petition to hang Tintin for crimes against humanity. Seriously.


(see comment section for Number Ten’s response)

Hamasteopaths? Medical-Qaeda?

‘Doctor, doctor! I think I’m a sheep!’

‘Really? That’s baaaad…’

Ah, doctor-doctor jokes. They’re just not going to be the same after last week’s revelations of suspected bomb-plotters being on the NHS payroll. Now it will all be: ‘Doctor, doctor! I’m a wig-wam, I’m a teepee!’ ‘Your problem is you’re too tense. Take three gas-canisters and two thousand nails, go to Glasgow airport and call me in the morning. Allahu Achbar!’ (Two tents, geddit?)

And that is, I think you will agree, less funny than the original. What is kinda funny is a BUPA study that last week showed NHS consultants get private treatment themselves—and that was before we started worrying that all our nice young foreign doctors are potential Jihadis. Yes, BUPA, of all people, saying that the NHS is not up to scratch. What possible motivation could they have for saying that? The point is that last week’s news was full of shock and horror that doctors could have been involved in the recent failed bomb-attacks.

BBC Radio 4 had one of its reporters talking in tones of horror about how foreign doctors working in the UK are only screened and checked in terms of their qualifications and medical skills. Now I am all for letting more of the single, pretty ones in, but that is not what she meant at all. She went on to complain that currently there are no procedures in place to check on foreign doctors’ political sympathies. Because that would be relevant to saving lives, apparently. And acceptable in a society where freedom of conscience is protected.

How, asked other commentators, could people who had sworn to save lives end up trying to take lives? Did their Hippocratic oaths mean nothing to them? I am inclined to agree. Yet, if I have no fundamental problem with a trained British doctor joining the military, not in his professional capacity but to become a fighting soldier, should I ask the same questions of him? No. because, as the old saying goes: ‘there are no anaesthetists in foxholes.’

Much comment also revolved around the fact that this plot challenged the popular profile of a terrorist as an uneducated disaffected youth, easily manipulated and with nothing to live for. Another BBC commentator made the startling discovery that terrorists could be ‘intelligent, well-educated professionals’ and sounded perplexed. And if you see terrorists as madmen or dupes, then perplexing it must be. If you see them as people with a combination of deep (if, in my opinion misguided) religious faith and political determination, backed into a corner by a sense of powerlessness and overwhelming injustice at world events, it doesn’t seem so crazy. Just terrible.

Because killing innocent people, no matter what your cause, is terrible. And if we say that, then we cannot dismiss as ‘terrorist rantings’ their feeling that in Iraq and Afghanistan our own society has similarly erred. As Christians we cannot and must not support their methods, even if we sympathise with their frustration. But equally we have a duty to listen to and try to understand the reasons why decent, educated people would do this. As people of another absolute faith, who subscribe to higher standards than this society’s humanism and materialism and who also take martyrs as heroes, we are also extremists. But because we are called to love and forgiveness, we have a duty to help our secular society understand better where those less loving extremists are coming from, so that the violence can be stopped. Trying to censor political thought or continuing in the illusion that people must be mad or stupid to hate us will at best get us nowhere and at worst get us killed.