The empire strikes mac

Some Americans have a shaky grasp of Scottishness. I saw this first-hand at a music festival in Scotland once. An American Rap group strutted onto the stage, gazed out over the crowd with its myriad of Saltires and lions rampant and shouted: “Hello, England!”

It did not go down well.

And the Wu Tang Clan (who are, themselves, nothing to funk with) have nothing on the American Senate, which last week ‘summoned’ Alex Salmond and Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill to answer questions about the Lockerbie bomber and BP.

Some commentators thought it was fair enough, that the pair should indeed answer questions about whether Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was freed in order to facilitate a Libyan oil deal for BP. Others felt that all necessary explanation had been given and that, since Megrahi’s release had been obtained on compassionate grounds, Scotland’s hands were clean and the head of government could stay put.

Personally, I just pictured any numer of my Scottish friends squaring up to an American senator, saying: “And who the hell are you, Jimmy?” I mean, not to be petty, but what gives them the right to summon anyone who is not one of their citizens? It’s bad enough when they lord it over the (primarily English) British government. But Scotland? Did they really think that the Scottish would have no inherent resistance to being pushed around by a foreign (mostly Anglo Saxon) nation that doesn’t think of Scotland as a real country? Haven’t they seen Braveheart? Didn’t they make Braveheart?

Let’s not be distracted, however. The fact that American politicians are actually going after a multinational corporation for its transgressions is a minor miracle. I’m even willing to overlook the fact that they are probably motivated by upcoming mid-term election jitters rather than a desire for justice. I’m even a little willing to ignore the fact that the American who shot down an Iranian airliner full of civilians (Iran Air Flight 655) in 1988 was never jailed, making their obsession with Megrahi a little hypocritical. But I would like to ask them to extend their sudden righteous anger to other multinationals. In fact, I’d like them to extend it to the way they deal with big corporations generally. Banning BP from offshore drilling for a few years because of its failures? Excellent. But what if they do it again? Does the American (or this) government have the guts (or haggis) to put repeat-offenders out of our collective misery? That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

an american empire? why, yes, actually.What would also be nice is a little less of that imperial hypocrisy. Because, unfortunately, the USA, for all its many good points (and one only has to look at Noam Chomsky, Magnum P.I. and Bob Dylan to be prompted to think of more) has imperial hypocrisy in spadefuls. And that should worry all Christians (particularly those obsessed with interpretations of Scripture that see Beasts and Dragons in globally dominant political powers), because our witness to the world seems so tied in with America, that most public ‘Christian nation’, which regularly engages in conflict and destructive economics to further its control of the world. And it’s not only our witness. Christians in this country should be particularly worried by last week’s news that Britain seems at some point to have gone from being an accessory to the USA’s programme of torture (under the auspices of ‘war on terror’) to active participant. It’s not that we should worry that God will judge the entire nation, in an Old Testament fashion, for the sin of torture. That is by no means certain. But we should worry that he will be displeased with us, because we have not used our position as voters in a democracy to ensure that justice is done and the innocent are not oppressed in the cause of catching the guilty. He has a thing about justice.

Rumpole and the ever-eroding liberties

There’s a great series of radio plays on the BBC iPlayer. Called Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, the first one is both amusing and profound (as well as being really good radio).

John Mortimer’s greatest creation faces the challenge of trying to defend a client who is not allowed to know the charges he is facing.

An excellent exploration of the idiocy and injustice inherent in much anti-terror legislation in Britain today, and funny to boot.

Is Britain evil?

most popular storiesAs Iran exploded, Spain experienced another terrorist attack and a Somali MP was executed by militants in his own capital last week, do you know what the three most popular stories on the BBC website were? ‘Duck charms restaurant customers’; ‘Squirrel nuts over builder friend’ and a medieval recipe for cooking porpoise that is now available online.

At the same time, Gordon Brown was objecting, in the strongest possible terms, to the Iranian supreme leader calling Britain ‘evil’. Evil we may not be, but shallow and indifferent we apparently are.

But does that justify the Iranian jibe? The easy response is to write it off as one of the ravings of a madman or to become offended at the unprovoked insult. Or, as some lefties and fundamentalist Christians might: agree with him. Personally, I do not. But,why is the Ayatollah being so rude? Is there any truth in his accusation?

t-shirt available at Zazzle.com

t-shirt available at Zazzle.com

Britain’s actions towards Iran in the past could easily be filed under ‘evil’. Questionable acts do not an evil country make, but it understandably colours the Iranian view of Britain. Britain for years ‘owned’ and siphoned off Iran’s oil reserves (through the corporation that was to become BP), the proceeds never reaching the people of Iran. Britain propped up the oppressive regime of the Shah, and when a popularly elected Prime Minister nationalised oil revenues and started improving the position of ordinary people, Britain convinced the CIA to topple him and reinstate the dictator. When the United States designated Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil’ despite Iranian help in ‘defeating’ the Taleban, Britain was America’s greatest ally, with a foreign policy and attitude effectively indistinguishable on the matter. You see, we’ve called them evil too.

Image from bristol.indymedia.org

Image from bristol.indymedia.org

Ah, you say, but that is all just history. But what is the source of most Britons’ distrust of and antipathy towards Iran (an antipathy evident in media coverage and public feedback)? Is it really the (very real) political repression and human rights abuses in the Islamic republic? If it is, it is odd that we don’t have such strong opinions about Saudi Arabia or any number of other British allies with similar records. Or does it have more to do with images of hostage-taking and angry shouting from clerics that are also ‘history’? Is it really about Iran’s support for armed groups in Lebanon and Palestine? If so, that seems an uncharacteristic interest in the local affairs of foreign countries from a nation that seems in reality to be more concerned with squirrels and ducks than suicide bombers abroad.

As, last week, Britain tried to remedy the crisis born of rampant capitalism by trying to ensconce itself more deeply in that fatally flawed philosophy (evidenced in increasing cases of economic hardship being met with further emphasis on private profit as a ‘solution’, at the expense of ordinary people in the museum, broadcasting or industrial sectors), the Ayatollah may have been wrong to call us evil. The beam in his own eye is, after all, great. But, then, he is not a Christian. And before we react indignantly we should examine how foolish, shallow, selfish and hypocritical we ourselves have become. We can focus on the falsehood in his one word, or choose to find the truth in the sentiment, repent, and be changed. Or we can surf the net for funny animals, eating slices of porpoise and pretending everything’s fine.

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.

iran-us-bases

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 www.someofnothing.com)

Another example of why racism is stupid (from http://www.someofnothing.com)

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.’

Culture war?

mithuro.com/presscuefiles/january/contrast.jpgThe ‘clash of cultures’ is more than just throwing Danone Fruit Corners or Muller Light in a food fight (in an attempt to put the ‘hurt’ back in ‘yoghurt’). Its convenient short-hand for giving titanic moral and emotional weight to conflicts whose motivations are a little more prosaic, like say those between Al Qaeda and the West. At least that’s how Observer columnist Khaled Diab saw it last week in a piece that outlined how many of us, on both sides of the Islamism vs Democracy ‘struggle’, have been duped into believing that a fight over natural resources, land and political power was in fact a fight between good and evil.

It’s particularly tempting for Christians to believe this, because Islam is, of course, The Competition, if not The Enemy. And if we believe that Jesus is the only way to God in the afterlife and a truly fulfilled existence in this one, we can logically not be in too much sympathy with Islam’s plans for taking over the world. At the same time we also need to remember that we ourselves wish to see the entire world become Christian and should realise that such an idea is as profoundly distasteful to many secularists as the idea of a Muslim world is to the BNP.

It is falling into clash of cultures thinking that has meant that while many Christians believe that the Iraq war is about oil more than freedom, they still somehow believe it’s not such a bad idea, because at least it’s fighting our enemy, Islam. A popular t-shirt depicting the war said we were ‘freeing the %*#$ out of them’. The death and suffering caused by this mental laziness is easy to imagine, if not to calculate (Allied forces in Iraq do not count Iraqi dead).

The fact is, as Mr Diab points out, Iran has better democratic credentials than our ally, Saudi Arabia (and is lower on the Open Doors list of top Christian persecutors), and yet is denounced as the enemy of democracy. Despite many such inconsistencies, we often lazily bvelieve the rhetoric of both George Bush and Osama Bin Laden: that this is a simple fight between concepts of good and evil.

Some aspects are simple One culture worships money, that parades licentiousness and sex as base commodities, despising its poor and glorifying the rich, is the first culture in history where trade dominates all other aspects of society. The other is conservative, simplistic and governed by a strict moral code that demands personal restraint and public acknowledgement of the importance of religion. Obviously there are other factors at play, particularly from a Christian point of view, but it is certainly not a done deal (if we are really experiencing a clash of cultures), that we are on the side of right. Ignoring that fact, regardless of the side on which you generally fall, will allow lovers of freedom to embrace regime change and lovers of the religion of ‘peace with God’ to endorse suicide bombers.

Similar things have been happening in domestic party politics over the last week. The beleaguered Brown government has been pushing its MPs to vote in favour of its proposals to extend detention without trial to 42 days. Failing to do so, it has intimated, will damage the party as a whole. Now, I’m no Tory. Personally I was cursing my luck that the disgraced Tory MEP was called Den and not Ben Dover, just for the sake of a cheap joke. But further denigrating the protection from detention without trial (that has been in British law since Magna Carta) is something that is worth opposing, even if it sinks the Labour Party. Domestic culture clash or no.

Free-range pensioners?

Yay! It’s ethical investment week! And I’m already sick of fair-trade chocolate. And free-range eggs, organic tomatoes and sweatshop-free pashminas. Because they’re not enough. I want more. I want free-range pensioners, I want organic humans, a fairly traded sense of security and independent information. I want security without cruelty, locally grown justice.

Let’s talk Free-Range pensioners. Last week we read the news of yet another pair of octogenarians, married for 60 years, who were about to be split up by Social Services. The system created to care for them was going to split up two old people who have forgotten how to live without each other.

The Daily Mail will no doubt call it a disgrace and a failure by the Labour government. And possibly somehow related to asylum seekers and Muslims. It certainly is disgraceful and it is a failure by government. But if we viewed pensioners and other vulnerable people in our society as Free-Range, we could avoid all this. As with chickens, Free-Range pensioners would be treated as individual lives, whose quality was more important than numbers on a balance sheet. Of course, Free-Range pensioners are currently only available to families of above average means, so let’s campaign to make them standard across the industry by objecting to the New Labour/Conservative belief that public services should be run and treated like businesses. Chickens, eggs or human beings, if profit and targets drive us, quality of life will suffer.

What about organically grown humans? I’m thinking human beings, born in the natural way, conceived in the natural way (I’m aware there are a range of options in both, space for ‘free choice for the discerning consumer’) that don’t require the DNA of animals to make them more perfect than God intended. News last week suggested we may be further than we’d hoped from the Organic goal in terms of fetuses, but we can still choose organic for ourselves. Applying a label reading: ‘“and it was very good” – Gen 1:31’ to your and everyone else’s body, face, skin and hair would be a good start. Convincing people that outside of illness they are probably beautiful as they are is another.

A Fair-Trade sense of security is trickier. Like a lot of Fair-Trade products, it’s likely to cost more. And the first few versions are likely to be unpalatable. The key is to keep pushing them in your church. So at last week’s news that the UK was debating whether to carry on using cluster-bombs (a weapon many civilized countries have discarded as barbaric and cruel), consumers of a secure life should have made it clear that they no longer wanted to buy that life if it came at the expense of the lives of poor people around the globe. More than that, for our sense of security to truly qualify for Fair-Trade status, we should avoid buying security that is linked to ‘sacrificing our children and killing all our enemies’ as Larry Norman once put it. Fair-Trade security is, of course, not just an international issue. It should not harm the domestic market for liberty and democracy either…

And so on. We do-gooders need to expand our horizons from coffee, chocolate and Freeset bags. A just world will require more than consumer influence. It will take democratic power. Government can legislate that every aspect of our lives, every product we consume, is free of the taint cruelty, economic injustice and environmental damage. And as with slavery before it, so far no major party has suggested taking that line, because it threatens the god our society really serves. So how okay are we with the sacrifices Mammon demands? And how much do wee really care about being ethical this week?