While I was in the States at the end of last month, I had an afternoon to kill in Philadelphia. So the completely obvious thing to do was record another Q conversation. This time I sat down to chat with Ruth Naomi Floyd, whom I’d met at the European Leadership Conference in Hungary a few years ago. It’s available on iTunes podcasts, or if you prefer a direct feed, here on Jellycast.
Nearly 10 years ago, a dear friend of mine was addressing a gathering of Ugandan MPs in the Parliament building in Kampala (around the 40th anniversary of independence). It included those from all shades on the political spectrum, including not a few post-colonial firebrands. My friend is certainly no great apologist for imperialism, but he posed two simple questions.
- “Which Ugandan regions (of those that the British failed to develop) have we since developed?”
- “What aspects of public life, government and rule of law have we improved on or done better in than the colonial regime?”
It is a truism to say that the media is influential in politics. But there is no doubting that its power to mesmerize and acclimatize contributed to Obama’s election. Having focused yesterday on the way in which Obama both innately and deliberately sought to build bridges across community divides and with historical landmarks (as described in David Remnick’s remarkable book The Bridge), I want to pick up on how he was able to surf the media’s wave all the way into Pennsylvania Avenue. Read more
If there is a point to Barack Obama becoming US President – and let’s face it, how can we ever reduce anyone’s life to having ‘a point’ – it is not his politics but his race. Race is what made his election seem so unthinkable, and yet, conversely, once he was the Democrat candidate, such a difficult opponent to beat in the 2008 election. And it is what will give him his enduring legacy (politics and 2nd term aside). Read more
I’d not really appreciated before quite how controversial Bernard Lewis (left) is seen in some circles (perhaps especially because he was regularly consulted by the Bush administration – though others had before him). But one of the foremost western scholars of Islam is a Jewish, British-born and now naturalised American, professor emeritus at Princeton. He has written many books and offered profoundly nuanced and scholarly reflections on the knotty issue of Islam’s relationship with the wider world – which is of course perhaps the biggest unresolved question of our times. He is feted or reviled (depending on your perspective) as the originator of the phrase (so famously taken up by Samuel Huntington in his book of the same name) ‘the clash of civilisations‘.
I’m returning to Turkey next week for a few days and so wanted to read this book, on the recommendation of a friend I was with in Albania last month. It was written in 2000/2001 on the back of a series of lectures (and summarised in this 2002 article from Atlantic Monthly) – but then published very soon after 9/11. Pretty timely, then.
A very provocative question!
Lewis asks a provocative but very significant question. How did the centuries-old Islamic civilisation, which was by any measure, an extraordinary historical phenomenon – fall so behind the rest of the world? It’s all the more surprising when it is recognised that they had been at the forefront of scientific, artistic and philosophical development, when the rest of Europe and many parts of Asia were in chaotic turmoil. Of course, the ‘Dark Ages’ is in many ways an unfair misnomer. But Europe wasn’t a patch on the Ottoman and Persian empires for example. And then from, say, the 1450s onwards, the tables started turning. As Lewis says:
… the Renaissance, the Reformation, the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the Western frontier as benighted barbarians, much inferior even to the more sophisticated Asian infidels to the east. These had useful skills and devices to impart; the Europeans had neither. It was a judgement that had for long been reasonably accurate. It was becoming dangerously out of date. (p7)
One example, which seems to remain to this day, is the issue of economics and manufacturing.
Later attempts to catch up with the Industrial Revolution fared little better. Unlike the rising power of Asia, most of which started from a lower economic base than the Middle East, the countries in the region still lag behind in investment, job creation, productivity and therefore in exports and incomes. According to a World Bank estimate, the total exports of the Arab world other than fossil fuels amount to less than those of Finland, a country of five million inhabitants. Nor is much coming into the region by way of capital investment. On the contrary, wealthy Middle Easterners prefer to invest their capital abroad, in the developed world. (p47)
I suppose the one exception to this is investment in property (as opposed to Middle Eastern oil revenues). But as Dubai’s recent meltdown has shown, this is built on sand (in more ways than one). To make matters worse, the cultural climate underpinning the business world leaves many things to be desired. Lewis offers this astute, if somewhat barbed, observation:
The difference between Middle Eastern and Western economic approaches can be seen even in their distinctive forms of corruption, from which neither society is exempt. In the West, one makes money in the market, and uses it buy or influence power. In the East, one seizes power, and uses it to make money. Morally there is no difference between the two, but their impact on the economy and on the polity is very different. (p63)
It’s hard to deny the truth of either claim – though why restrict it to the Islamic Middle East? It could certainly be said to be true of many parts of so-called ‘Christian’ sub-Saharan Africa, as we discovered more than once when we lived in Uganda.
The problem with Islamic Secularism
The book’s title question is certainly a loaded one, presupposing, for example, that the west went right. And towards the end of the book, it’s clear from his perceptions of so-called fundamentalist Islam (a description he takes issue with) that there are many from Bin Laden down who feel that Islam failed precisely when it attempted to assimilate western development.
A good illustration of this problem is the wildly divergent attitudes to secularism, which was perceived by some in the Islamic world as (rightly or wrongly) being essential to European success. The problems were inherent at the start it seems:
Secularism in the modern political meaning – the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teachings of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by the later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.
… in this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. (p96)
Of course, as a Christian, it is interesting to read this analysis. For many are alarmed about what is perceived as a creeping secularising agenda in European and American society, whereby religious faith (and Christian faith in particular) are being deliberately privatised and marginalised. But that’s a whole other issue!
And yet, despite its Christian origins, I was very struck by the fact that one of the reasons why Muslims started taking secularism seriously was the 1789 French Revolution (which came at a time when Europe’s social, political, economic and cultural development was far outstripping the Ottoman world). The urgency to catch up and not be left behind was growing – but the attraction for some in the revolution was that it wasn’t Christian.
The first Muslim encounter with secularism was in the French Revolution, which they say, not as secular (a word and concept equally meaningless to them at the time), but as de-Christianised, and therefore deserving of some consideration. All previous movements of ideas in Europe had been, to a greater or lesser extent, Christian, at least in their expression, and were accordingly discounted in advance from a Muslim point of view. The French Revolution was the first movement of ideas in Europe that was seen as non-Christian or even anti-Christian, and some Muslims therefore looked to France in the hope of finding, in these ideas, the motors of Western science and progress, freed from Christian encumbrances. These ideas provided the main ideological inspiration of many of the modernising and reforming movements in the Islamic world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (p104)
Yet the problem with such secularising agendas is that they run completely counter to an Islamic worldview – where there is no dualism between civil and sacred, for example. The attempt to force the distinction is one reason why there has been such a strong reaction against it:
The arch-enemy for most of them is Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and the first great secularising reformer in the Muslim world. Characters as diverse as King Faruq and Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt, Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Shah of Persia and the kings and princes of Arabia, were denounced as the most dangerous enemies of Islam, the enemies from within.
[Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj, the ideological guide of the group that murdered President Sadat of Egypt [wrote]:
Fighting the near enemy is more important than fighting the distant enemy. In jihad, the blood of the Muslims must flow until victory is achieved… There can be no doubt that the first battlefield of the jihad is the extirpation of these infidel leaderships and their replacement by a perfect Islamic order. From this will come release. (p107)
This culture clash (and I use the word only because Lewis does) over the appropriateness of secularism explains a great deal about the tensions we see around. I’ll follow this up tomorrow with some other things i picked up from this fascinating book.
Just been leafing through the latest Tate magazine – one of my favourite bits is the regular feature MicroTate where people from different walks of life offer a brief reflection on something from the Tate collections.
I was gobsmacked by this picture painted in around 1827: John Simpson’s Head of a Negro. It portrays such dignity and yet also such stoicism – above all, it surely points to a common humanity. There shouldn’t be a surprise there – of course. But just consider what was going on in that year (a few very random factlets):
- George IV, the former Prince Regent, had 3 more years left to reign
- Beethoven and artist William Blake died
- Aluminium was discovered (!)
- More significantly, it was 20 years after the British Slave Trade Act (1807) but 6 years before the Slavery Abolition Acts (1833)
So slavery was still a gruesome reality around the British Empire at the time. The famous Wedgwood medallion was still profoundly necessary.
I don’t know whether John Simpson had a model for this portrait, whether he met a real black man who sat for him, or whether he glimpsed someone on the street whose eyes he could not forget, or whether the picture simply came straight out of his imagination. When I look at the painting, I like to imagine what its first viewers saw. Those eyes pull you in without looking at you; you cannot turn away. Did they recognise a common humanity shining from those eyes, those first viewers in the age of slavery? Did they recognise that beauty can come in this form? There is beauty in those eyes, yes, and there is a look of nobility and suffering borne with defiance.
I cannot help but think of the first two verses of HW Longfellow’s poem The Slave’s Dream:
Beside the ungathered rice he lay,
His sickle in his hand;
His breast was bare, his matted hair
Was buried in the sand.
Again in the mist and shadow of sleep,
He saw his Native Land.
Wide through the landscape of his dreams
The lordly Niger flowed;
Beneath the palm-trees on the plain
Once more a king he strode;
And heard the tinkling caravans
Descend the mountain-road.
The poem about a dying slave’s remembered past life of contented nobility, complete with a dark-eyed queen, kissing children, a powerful stallion and bright flamingos, was written on the other side of the Atlantic, and long after Simpson’s painting, so it cannot have influenced this portrait. There is no possibility of a direct connection, other than in the idea of the enslaved nobleman, a romantic notion that has a strong pull on the imagination. Perhaps it was necessary that those first viewers saw this man as a king in chains in order for them to understand that black slaves were people too. This is ultimately what those eyes demand; a recognition of a shared humanity.
Head of a Negro was presented by Robert Vernon in 1847 and is currently not on display.
Having painted something of an amateurish potted 20th Century history of Sarajevo, here is one story that gave me great hope.
Last week, I was meeting in Sarajevo with a small group of pastors in Bosnia. It’s estimated that there are only around 750 Protestant believers in the whole country (pop: 4.6 million) – and one of the hard things about being Protestant in the Balkans is that you’re misunderstood at best, avoided or despised by everyone else (because, of course, religion is integral to Balkan identity: Croatia=Catholic, Serbia=Orthodox, Bosnia=Muslim).
And yet the Christian gospel has the power to rise above and transform these identities.
One friend, R, had been in what was then the Yugoslav army – after the fall of communism, this was commandeered by the Serbian government in Belgrade and in 1991 sent into Croatia to prevent it seceding from Yugoslavia. S was just a regular soldier, but found himself fighting in Vukovar – the subject of a post from a previous visit to Croatia and a brutal episode in a horrifying decade. R is ethnically Serb but from Bosnia, and wasn’t a Christian at the time. After a year, he went AWOL from Croatia, and left for his home town of Sarajevo. Only to find that this was now under siege. Unlike many of his relatives who joined the Serb army because of ethnic allegiance, S fought to defend his city with fellow Bosnians. But he was lost in life, a feeling exacerbated by month after month guarding his sentry post during the siege. Drink and despair drove him to a friend who told him about the Christian message. He is now full-time in ministry.
P is a Croatian by background, whose family comes from Vukovar. During the 1991 siege of the city, P’s mother was injured by gunfire, but mercifully not killed (unlike many others). P’s family has been in ministry over several generations, and he is now committed to working in Bosnia.
Years later, P was talking about the past in a meeting (not an easy thing to do in this part of the world) and he mentioned what had happened to his family in 1991. And suddenly R realised the implications – in fact, he could even remember the specific day. Horrified, he realised that it could even have been him who fired the very shot that struck P’s mother. And at that point, he was overcome. He asked R for forgiveness, which P was willing to give… to his brother in Christ. The gospel transcended horror, history and ethic strife.
What else could have the power to do this? What else could unite and reconcile like this or in the way I saw during a previous visit?
One of the most unsettling things in recent years is how the rosy-tinted, enlightenment perception of human nature has persisted for years, despite relentless evidence to the contrary. It staggers me that after the 20th Century we can still persist in thinking that we’re all basically good, just dependent on right circumstances. It’s just wishful thinking, surely? But still, surprising people emerge from the woodwork every now and then to cast doubt on this hollow mantra – and bizarrely in the last few weeks, I’ve encountered 3.
An Architect of Social Welfare
Some may take this quote as some sort a knock-down argument to undermine the whole premise of social welfare, just because one, if not many, of its key architects had this sort of view. But that’s obviously ridiculous as it is a far too complex a question for that. Still, it is intriguing to read this nevertheless:
Beatrice Webb, whom many consider the architect of Britain’s modern welfare state, wrote:
Somewhere in my diary – 1890? – I wrote “I have staked all on the essential goodness of human nature…” [Now thirty-five years later I realize] how permanent are the evil impulses and instincts of man – how little you can count on changing some of these – for instance the appeal of wealth and power – by any change in the [social] machinery…. No amount of knowledge or science will be of any avail unless we can curb the bad impulse.
from Tim Keller, COUNTERFEIT GODS (p xx)
An Historian of Disturbing Realities
One of my favourite reads is BBC History magazine. Fantastic stuff, full of all kinds of research. One highlight for me is columnist Dominic Sandbrook, who can be relied upon to come up with contrary views which challenge consensus and/or provoke a reaction. Well, last month, he bit the bullet in terms of going to ‘the darkest places imaginable’ in an article called ‘We’re not as different from the Nazis as we like to think‘. As he continues, ‘Far more than any religious text, the historical record of mankind is the story of sin and suffering played out again and again.’
With the Holocaust Memorial Day having just happened, it is a fitting that this is a focus of discussion. A few years ago, I had what I sometimes refer to as my dictator phase – not that i expressed megalomaniac tendencies but that I read a string of books about the eras of Hitler and Stalin (sparked by reading Alan Bullock’s masterly parallel biography). One of them was Daniel Goldhagen’s ultra-contraversial but challenging book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, referred to in Sandbrook’s piece. Sandbrook tackles the lurking questions about human nature that the Holocaust doesn’t just provoke but demands. In relation to what one writer calls ‘the Holocaust industry’ Sandbrook touches on some important points. One is to recognise the legacy of British anti-semitism – which illustrates his bigger point:
The great danger, it seems to me, is for the Holocaust to become ossified, to be cordoned off as the stuff of museums and costume dramas. There is a tendency, exacerbated by our eagerness to cast the Nazis as supremely and uniquely evil, to see it as a uniquely German crime, orchestrated by a gang of fanatical madmen. In fact, many of the people who carried it out were otherwise decent husbands and fathers, people like us.
It was this sort of realisation that led to William Golding writing his chilling Lord of the Flies. And it led to the article’s unsettling conclusion:
… the truly chilling lesson of the Holocaust is not that the victims were people like us. It is that the perpetrators were, too.
An Internet Pioneer Facing Facts
Now, the final illustration is hardly on a par with the Holocaust – but it strikes me as on the same continuum, albeit a long, long way off from the extremes just touched on.
Pierre Omidyar, a co-founder of eBay, credits the success of his business to trust in the users; he has often said that one of his founding assumptions was that people are basically good. The reality is more complex: eBay may have been founded on a basic trust in human goodness, but within a couple of months after it launched, enough of the transactions were going awry in one way or another that the company had to respond. Ebay’s solution was to create a reputation system, allowing the buyer and seller in any transaction to publicly report their satisfaction with each other. The system was designed to cast the shadow of the future over both parties, giving each an incentive to maintain or improve their standing on the site; with that addition, eBay became the site we know today. Omidyar was right, with a caveat: people are basically good, when they are in circumstances that reward goodness while restraining impulses to defect. The rewards and restraints can be quite simple and small, but in big groups with relatively anonymous actors, they need to be there or behaviour will decay over time.
from Clay Shirky, HERE COMES EVERYBODY (p283)
These of course hardly amount to a coherent argument. They are merely resonances. But they resonate with what those far more ancient and far wiser than we are have been on about for centuries. The bible has insisted on the schizophrenic, disturbingly complex nature of human beings. Yes, we are surely remarkable beings, bubbling with potential for great good. There is such a thing as altruism and generosity, deeds that are truly good. Too many Christians overlook or even ignore that. But we are also full of gruesome perversities and destructive impulses. Too many moderns simply blind themselves to that.
Which is why it is so good to have people of sanity and humanity like G.K. Chesterton to turn to. Famously, in answer to a series of correspondence in the Times newspaper about what’s wrong with the world, Chesterton simply wrote:
Which is why it is such a joy to meditate on this other great axiom of his:
We do not want a religion that is right where we are right – we want a religion that is right where we are wrong.
Bit of a bumper edition this August – to help you while away the long idle hours of the summer…
- A FASCINATING article in the latest Themelios by Don Carson on the ins and outs of polemical theology. Was especially struck by Bryan Magee’s insights into Karl Popper’s debating approach. And while we’re on it, it’s just fab that TGC have resurrected Themelios.
- The Lord’s Supper on the Moon – in case you missed it (improbably amidst the (well-deserved) moon hype), Buzz Aldrin took communion while on the moon.
- Defacing the Bible: is this art? You decide… (HT Dimity G-F)
- Rod Liddle (former editor of Radio 4′s Today programme) has a brilliant sideswipe at the atheist nay-sayers opposed to Thought for the Day. But not for the reasons you might expect. Here is a taste:
The first problem, though, is that Thought for the Day is secular already. God is almost never allowed to poke His nose into a broadcast and when He does His appearance is heralded with apologies and embarrassment. He does no smiting, He is never angry, no matter what issue comes before Him. The God you hear in Thought for the Day has been created by BBC producers and made in their image — a slightly disappointed but nonetheless benevolent middle-aged man of confused sexuality who wishes that everybody might live together peaceably in a warm and caring multicultural society, m’kay? A middle-aged man not terribly convinced as to whether he exists or not.
- And while we’re on the subject of the moon landings, check out this awesome 1969 retraction in the New York Times after its 1920 assertion that the notion of rockets flying through a vacuum was palpably absurd.
- And this ingenious spoof from Slate V on how the US media might have reported the Moon Landings if they’d happened in 2009:
- Fascinating article in Time about Bush & Cheney’s last days in office and the internal battle over a Presidential Pardon for Scooter Libby. Bush seems to have had good instincts about the corrupt nature of the whole Pardons process (viz-a-viz Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich).
- Evocative photo-history of Obama’s journey from the Senate to the White House by photojournalist Pete Souza
- Charlie Booker has an interesting take on the lack of trust in institutions (HT Stephen Beer)
- This is truly scary: US Fox News (accidentally?) somewhat rearranged Middle Eastern geography earlier this week (HT Mediamatters):
- Fascinating interview with Iain Sinclair about the late J G Ballard (HT Islingtongue>Leytonstongue)
- What happened when United Airlines wrecked a Canadian country singer’s guitar… Nice.
- Stuck for ideas of what book to read next? Check out The Book Seer
- Playful dolphin wouldn’t let NZ woman swim to shore.
- This is fantastic: Bach’s Suite No 1 for solo Cello – played on a 6-stringed bass guitar by bass genius Martin Motnik (HT Steve Lawson for putting me onto this).
Yesterday’s Observer carried a chilling article about the BNP. Having surveyed various candidate’s blogs and websites, it brings together a number of things they have said (including truly hateful responses the recent death of the Camerons’ disabled son Ivan). Some of what they say can barely be repeated, but this sort of thing deserves wider readership, far beyond the bounds of Observer/Guardian readers.
This is truly a hateful party which needs to be stopped at all costs. This is not about political correctness: it’s actually about profoundly Christian principles of equality, generosity and justice.
Just been reading a scary article in today’s paper: Nick Griffin (leader of BNP) is poised to be elected as an MEP and could possibly become leader of the far-right nationalists in the European Parliament. Their policies are nothing if not racist prejudice; yet they are exploiting the current fury about parliamentary expenses and corruption to gain new support. This is terrifying and is good enough a reason to vote for anyone else in the coming European elections as any.
Some have produced this video which deserves wide viewing:
Chris Martin & Bono did this cover of Marvin Gaye’s classic ‘What’s going on?’ back in 2001. The original was a reflection on the madness of the world at the time – with Vietnam looming large, as well as black-on-black violence in America’s inner cities.
MosAzian has made this video compilation of photos from Africa to accompany the cover. I pondered quite a bit about whether to include it. Because, as the piece read by Djimon Hounsou earlier this week made clear, it is all too easy to tarnish the wonders and joys of this great continent with the stereotypical images of famine-starved families and child soldiers.
Well this video manages to avoid a monochrome approach – with some wonderful, life-embracing and inspiring images interspersed throughout. But, we can’t escape realities. Despite the difficulties of navigating the waters of political correctness, the fact remains that there are STILL millions starving, disease-riven and war-torn across Africa. And if I was one of them, I wouldn’t care less whether or not my suffering was stereotypical - I’d want my story heard far and wide in the (vain?) hope that someone could do something about it.
The first step has to be getting informed – for without that, the ghastly modern neurosis of ‘compassion fatigue’ would cause all but the most devoted to skulk quietly past. And above all, it is the gospel in action that can make the difference (as Matthew Parris so brilliantly articulated last week).
We wanted to give the children a sense of what has happened in South Africa. And so after failing to get to Robben Island (because it was booked up until after the New Year), we plumped for the District 6 Museum. And I’m really glad we went there. It had a profound affect on all of us.
Visit the official District 6 Museum website here. But it’s an extraordinary place so, of course, a virtual visit doesn’t convey the power of this building: a converted church in the heart of what was an incredibly rich, vibrant, and above all multi-racial community right in the heart of Cape Town. Consequently, District 6 was anathema to the apartheid ethos of separation, and therefore had to go. Under the infamous 1950 Group Areas Act, the place was razed, cleared and recreated as a whites only area, the job being only completed as recently as 1984. I can remember 1984 well – it’s not that long ago.
This museum is a testimony and a memorial to those who suffered under such irrational and cruel injustice. It is heartbreaking to look up close at the huge floor map of the district, now on the main museum floor. And all over it, former residents have written in by hand where they used to live, where they had their hair cut, where they went to church etc etc (see below).
Particularly powerful is this poem, presented as one of the first things you see on entry. I’ve transcribed it here:
South End, East Bank
Sophiatown, Makuleke, Cato Manor.
Remember District Six.
Remember the racism
which took away our homes
and our livelihood
and which sought
to steal away our humanity.
Remember also our will to live,
to hold fast to that
which marks us as human beings:
our generosity, our love of justice
and our care for each other.
Remember Tramway Road,
In remembering we do not want
to recreate District Six
but to work with its memory:
of hurts inflicted and received
of loss, achievements and of shames.
We wish to remember
so that we can all ,
together and by ourselves,
rebuild a city
which belongs to all of us,
in which all of us can live,
not as races but as people.
The lurking question after seeing this is how would we have felt if it had happened to us. I asked one of the children, and he saw the point – “I would have wanted to kill the people who did this”. But this is one of the enduring miracles of South Africa despite all its profound problems and challenges. It did not become a bloodbath of retribution – instead there was magnanimity, as evoked up by the second verse of this poem. As powerful reflection of gospel forgiveness as any from recent history…
But of course, this sort of thing is not ancient history. It is not even recent history. It is in fact CURRENT AFFAIRS. Look at this image from Zimbabwe and a town called Murambatsvina, near Harare:
I’ve joined up to (RED)Wire – Bono & Co’s weekly music ‘magazine’ which gives you great music in aid of HIV/AIDS work in Africa – and I THOROUGHLY recommend that you do too. Fantastic stuff.
In the 2nd edition (the one which included U2′s I Believe In Father Christmas), is found this brilliant short. That hugely compelling Beninois actor Djimon Hounsou reads excerpts from a brilliantly satirical article written by a Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, for Granta Magazine. The background music is provided by another Kenyan Ayub Ogada, whom I’ve loved for ages. Some of his stuff was used for the film The Constant Gardener.
All in all a powerful combination. So here it is:
Now read the original essay at Granta. It’s biting satire at its very best. Clichés are bad enough in literature – but when they simply re-enforce patronising stereotypes, they are dangerous. I find this acutely challenging and am all too conscious of falling foul of not a few clichés that he exposes.
Having just returned from South Africa, my heart was stirred afresh by that great continent of life. So I thought that this week I’d celebrate with our very own QUAERENTIA AFRICA week. The Southeaster will lure us back in time I suspect…
Johnny Clegg has been called the White Zulu. And his is certainly an extraordinary life. Born outside Manchester in the UK, an early childhood in Israel briefly before moving to southern Africa where he has been ever since. And his music reflects all these different influences – singing fluently in English and Zulu, as well as occasionally in French and other South African languages. Having seen a poster for his outdoor gig at the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens on the very day we arrived, we jumped at the chance of getting tickets (having heard him back in the UK summer at Mandela’s 90th concert). We had a right laugh going - a few pix on our Flickr page here.
Here are 2 of Johnny’s protest songs which seem particularly poignant when placed side by side. The first, written in 1987 years before a multi-racial government seemed possible, is perhaps one of his most well-known in the UK: ASIMBONANGA. It is Zulu, meaning ‘we have not seen him’ and is all about Mandela’s imprisonment across Cape Town’s bay on Robben Island. But watch this clip – and see who appears! From Frankfurt in 1998, at Mandela’s 80th.
This one is more recent. Recorded in Jo’burg in 2006, this song is about another African president who was heralded at the start in terms not unlike those used of Mandela 10 years later. But how differently the tyrant of Zimbabwe is now regarded. This is: THE REVOLUTION WILL EAT ITS CHILDREN (ANTHEM FOR UNCLE BOB).
He never thought he’d see the day – but politics and policy aside (whether of Jesse Jackson or Obama), this picture of Jackson last night says it all. And McCain caught the mood in his more than gracious concession speech (eg references to Roosevelt and Booker Washington).
(Photo HT: Christian Scharen)
Blonde Roots is a remarkable book. That should be reason enough to check it out – but of course, most will need more than that to go on. I spotted a Saturday supplement review of it and so picked it up – and couldn’t put it down.
It was one of those books that got under the skin and provoked a response – so i ended up reviewing it for Damaris, here on their CultureWatch site. But to give you a hint of why it stuck in my mind, here is an excerpt from the review:
How on earth do we help an ethnic majority to understand the realities of racism? What needs to be done to expose any lurking prejudice?
Bernardine Evaristo’s answer was to write a novel. Blonde Roots is the daring and shocking result. Her premise is simple. What if it had been Africans who enslaved Europeans for 400 years, and not the other way around? What would that have looked and, more importantly, felt like? As someone who is half-English, half-Nigerian, she is perhaps more well-suited to write this book than most.
The book depicts a universe that is both eerily alien and yet also unnervingly familiar. Geography and place names are familiar but in the wrong place or spelled differently; history is not so much revised as ransacked – and yet the way she does it leaves one in no doubt about the horrors of ‘real’ history.
But the reason I found this book so challenging in the end was not its utterly reasonable attacks on racism and slavery. No instead, it is the fact that Evaristo makes a pretty well crafted case for dismissing all truth claims on the grounds that they tend to be at root power claims. And that is a challenge that is not easy to dismiss.
This simple advert (from Transport for London) is simple genius.
I’m sure there are all kinds of implications from this – from issues of racism to worldviews, to missing the wood for the trees. It is a parable for our times. It reminded me of that wonderful essay by C S Lewis, Fern Seeds & Elephants (in the book of the same name), in which he berates biblical scholars for being so focused on the minutiae of modernist biblical source criticism (the fern seeds) with its strongly anti-supernaturalist approach to the texts, while completely failing to see the extraordinary changed lives of those who encountered Jesus (the elephants)
PS you can tell that today is a sermon writing day – struggling to keep on the case, hence taking regular surf-out time
This book has courted controversy in all quarters. It’s not hard to see why – read some of the different reviews linked here (which range from secular adulation to inevitable Islamist repudiation, via moderate Muslim dissatisfaction). The important thing is that it is a personal memoir by someone who escaped Islamist fanaticism by being drawn to the more individually ‘spiritual’ world of Sufism. He had been sucked in as an impressionable and rebellious teenager, only to see the error of his ways as acquaintances from Hizb ut-Tahrir were involved in the murder of a non-Muslim undergraduate.
As critics have therefore frequently noted (including this one from Hizb ut-Tahrir themselves), this makes for an inevitably partial and subjective account of developments from 15 years ago in London’s East End. It does not necessarily describe today’s realities. But that is to miss the point – not least because, while there may be various inaccuracies, this book helps one to understand the mental journey that leads people to descend into barbaric inhumanity. More than anything else I have read (which, frankly, is not very much at all), this has given insight and awareness to what has clearly been going on in significant quarters of Britain’s Muslim communities. It is about psyche and worldview, motivation and attitude. And as such, it has made me pause. Well, stopped me in my tracks, to be more precise. From 3 perspectives, really: as a human being; Briton; Christian.
reflections from a fellow Human Being
Ed Husain (picture courtesy of Penguin Press) seems like an approachable chap. And I’ve no doubt that writing this book took guts, since he more than many knew the sorts of reactions it would provoke (he has inevitably received death threats – which in itself seems to prove something about how little has perhaps changed since ‘his day’). But it is also Husain’s humanity that permeates the book. Human life matters – always. And it doesn’t matter whether that life is Muslim, Christian, Communist, prostitute, politician or terrorist. Life matters. Full stop. And that is what makes his frequent accounts of pervading attitudes within some extremist quarters so chilling. Even more chilling is when some of these quarters are heralded as moderate spokesmen for the British Muslim community and end up on Channel 4 news. The reluctance of some famous names to reject the fatwa on Salman Rushdie (however heinous his crime might have been) seems to be a case in point. If that’s moderate, well…
Of course, people are usually quick to point out that there are Christians who appear to speak in similar terms, even if jihad isn’t exactly part of their vocabulary. So what?! I would disagree with such positions as well! Despite having friends who are of a more dispensationalist predisposition, I find some of the pre-mill / Christian Zionist / Armageddon rhetoric very difficult to stomach as well. Surely we never win lives round to the truth by taking lives? It merely generates fear and a kowtowed resignation. Surely the truth stands unaided on its own two feet?
Husain describes how 9/11 exposed his own latent Islamist views, despite his own shifts in view:
Even though I had accepted Sufi Islam, and consciously tried to decontaminate my mind, there were still aspects of Islamist political strategies that I thought of as ‘normal’: an acceptance of terrorism, an unconscious belief that those who ‘opposed Islam’ were somehow less than human and thus expendable in the Islamist pursuit of political domination over palm and pine. (The Islamist, p202)
Scary also, are his findings on a return visit to the bookshop at East London Mosque in Whitechapel (a place that had played a role in his teenage years) in 2006.
At the bookshop, I bought an updated copy of Qutb’s Milestones, published not in Riyadh but in Birmingham, England, in early 2006. It contains lengthy articles in the appendices from leading Wahhabis, chapter headings such as ‘The Virtues of Killing a Non-Believer’, and ideas such as ‘Attacking the non-believers in their territories is a collective and individual duty.’ Just as I had done as a sixteen-year-old, hundreds of young Muslims are buying these books from Islamist mosques in Britain and imbibing the idea that killing non-believers is not only acceptable, but the duty of a good Muslim. I showed the passages to a Muslim friend that evening and we shook our heads in disgust. From such messages are suicide bombers born. (The Islamist, p280)
One of the most poignant paragraphs was his note about the timing of the London 7/7 bombings – how ironic that they occurred precisely the same time as the Gleneagles G8 summit in Scotland which was debating issues of African poverty, Third World Debt Relief and Fair Trade (at the instigation of the likes of Blair, Bono & Geldof).
The fact that hundreds of children die in Africa every day would be of no relevance for a committed Islamist. In the extremist mind, the plight of the tiny Palestinian nation is more important than the deaths of millions of black Africans. Who in the Arab world cares that some 6000 people die each day in Africa from AIDS? Let them die, they’re not Muslims, would be the unspoken line of argument. As an Islamist, it was only the suffering of Muslims that had moved me, that provoked a reaction. Now, human suffering mattered to me, regardless of religion. (The Islamist, p256-7)
Amen to that. Isn’t that one of the lessons of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan?
reflections of a fellow Briton
The 7/7 bombings went off in a sort of ring around where we now live – on the day before we returned to London from 4 years in Uganda. I’ll never forget, watching the news in Entebbe, thinking that we had to be mad to be returning to London – Kampala was a far safer place to live. Husain and his wife Faye were actually watching the same reports while working for the British Council and living in Saudi Arabia, just a few days before their return to Britain. Like many ex-pats, being abroad made them feel more British. When in England he felt more Muslim. And yet London is his birthplace and home. Now, such tensions between faith and nationality are not unique. But his experiences of the quality of life in Saudi for Muslims, let alone non-Muslims, is certainly chilling (and they chime with plenty of other accounts) and the grass in Britain was made to look far greener.
Husain has been accused by some of being a Labour stooge for Blairite multiculturalism – and he certainly makes no secret of his political affiliations – especially because to play a part in the democratic process is regarded with deep suspicion if not hostility by key Islamist elements. This is not to say that he gives British society a clean bill of health – with its culture of ASBOs, high abortion rates, addictions, city centre pub crawls and happy slappers. I don’t know anyone who thinks that these anything but grounds for real shame. But what is clear that many people in the Islamist movements are quite prepared to bite the hand that feeds them: they take advantage of Britain’s freedoms and safety nets when they want to preach their ‘concepts’ or need protection or consular support when languishing in Middle Eastern jails. They’re wanted men in Syria or Egypt but free to hold fort in this country. Husain is understandably astonished by this – whether outright banning will achieve anything, I’ve no idea – but he is certainly highly (and rightly) critical of political correct spinelessness and a plain old fear of standing up to things. For tolerance of ideas MUST have boundaries (as the PC brigade are only too quick to mention when it comes to orthodox Christianity – they just can’t bring themselves to do it for Islam as well).
One of the things that most struck me was that many of the places mentioned in the East End are familiar, especially because my wife trained as a nurse-midwife at the London Hospital. Meeting rooms at the hospital itself as well as houses and streets around (including one or two where Rachel actually lived) were places where rabbles were roused, and at some points, weapons were stashed. We drive past the East London mosque very regularly. So this is not some far off conflict – this is on the streets of my home town, by people who share the same passport as me. As a British non-Muslim, i’m only grateful that people like Husain are willing to speak his mind.
reflections from a Christian friend
But I suppose I should say something about all this from a Christian perspective. There is much to admire and respect in this book. I was impressed by Husain’s honesty, charm and humility. And I certainly wouldn’t expect an apologia for why he is not a Christian – that would be absurd. Still there were a few moments where I was frustrated by the grounds for his rejection of the gospel (those old chestnuts of difficulties in understanding the Trinity, and of the apostle Paul’s so-called invention of Christology). But there is no hostility or aggression to his arguments, and he admits a curiosity about Jesus having been born on Christmas Day as well as a respect for other ‘people of the book’. Such aggression belongs to the attitudes of the Wahhabist/Islamist world from which he has escaped.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help spot a number of uncomfortable parallels with extremes of Christianity. And that is surely something to learn from?
Activism without piety – it was when Husain began to appreciate his total lack of spiritual vitality that he realised that his entire lifestyle revolved around a political agenda (largely but unconsciously derived from Marxism and western enlightenment philosophy and not ‘pure’ Islamic state or caliphate at all – oh irony of ironies!!). And that agenda was power and domination. How easy it is for us all to slide into such an attitude – both of activism and power-hunger. How elements of the US Christian right appear to have missed something here perhaps. But would we be prepared to learn lessons from an ex-Islamist who has learned the error of his ways?
Faith without context – Husain’s shift was in part the result of the discovery of the importance of culture. We are shaped by our cultural and historical contexts so much – and this is especially the case with those who claim to be able to restore a ‘pure’ form of belief system. Particularly telling were his discoveries that the hijab/veil originated and still are found amongst Arab Christians – there is nothing intrinsically Islamic about them. He also discovered first hand the dangers of selling one’s soul to the thought of one or two charismatic leaders as if they themselves were not the products of their age. Likewise, it would be foolish for Christians to think that Luther or Calvin had it all sussed. As a Christian I would say they are only ever right insofar as they are faithful to the ancient faith in the scriptures.
Devotion without grace – and this is the clinching difference between us, in the end. For all Husain’s piety and impressive dedication to rid himself of pride, in the end my fear is that it is beyond him. It is Pharisaic works righteousness of a classic kind. What we need is not law-keeping, but grace. And in the end, that is what Jesus brings. That is the good news of the gospel!