I set out for Greece today to do a long weekend of training in Athens: a country and city wracked by austerity measures, riots and fearful pessimism. And the complexities of the situation extend back far in the country’s history – they certainly defy soundbite rhetoric or easy-blame zingers. But as I return, I’ve been thinking a great deal about one person’s experience of this history, a history inextricably if painfully linked to that of its neighbour, Turkey: Dmetri Kakmi’s Mother Land. Read more
Church-planters probably never even consider factoring this in when they start. That was certainly the case for some friends of mine in Turkey. For who would have guessed that setting up a cemetery might have to become a key feature of their growth strategy? Read more
I really don’t think this book lives up to its hype, but I did work my way through roughly 3/4 of Simon Sebag-Montefiore’s epic Jerusalem, The Biography. It is a very uneven and, at times, curiously flat read. It is also (perhaps inevitably) littered with sweeping statements and an over-reliance on just a few partisan scholarly perspectives. This was especially frustrating when it came to plumbing the huge depths and breadths of biblical and archaeological scholarship. But there were clearly some gems and insights. And so thought I’d share just one or two. Read more
- Martin Bashir is interviewed about his interview of Rob Bell. I was particularly struck by his perception of what C S Lewis called chronological snobbery in contemporary theological debates – whereby those over a certain age (ie 30!) are dismissed out of hand.
- Ian Paul has offered a really helpful response to the BBC1 series Bible’s Buried Secrets
- A wonderful example of doing good to all – let’s hope it works in all senses… Christopher Hitchens and Francis Collins.
- And while we’re thinking about him, here’s a nice if brief interview with Francis Collins – quite old now (originally from 2007), but I’ve only just seen it.
- At the other end of of the spectrum, here is a list of the 25 most influential atheists (though quite how you measure influence is anyone’s guess)
- In case you missed it, here is the extraordinary testimony of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s assassinated government minister: Read more
Following on from previous post, there is GOOD NEWS.
Thank you so much for all your support of Sherif. Phase 1 of the campaign is complete! Fantastic. SHERIF IS HOME!!
Now for Phase 2 – this should never have happened. And who knows how many others there are out there suffering the same fate but without voices to plead their cause?
We will be working out how best to rephrase the letters to send out – and we’ll hopefully be able to explain more about exactly what has happened. But it is still worth working at this, even if the urgency has gone.
We will keep you posted and the website updated in due course. Watch these spaces…
On 9th November, we had the terrible news from friends at All Souls. Emma and her Egyptian husband, Sherif, who only got married at All Souls in the summer, were travelling to Cairo to visit members of his family. She was immediately put back on the plane she had come in; Sherif was detained. Over the last couple of weeks, contact has been sporadic, mainly by email but one brief phone call.
I was asked to set up a campaigning website for them, and this is now live. The address is www.ReleaseSherif.com
On it we are posting:
- up to date information of Sherif’s situation
- letters that you can write to your MP, William Hague (UK Foreign Secretary) and the Egyptian Ambassador to the UK
- links to background information about the situation of human rights and persecution of the Egyptian church
PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE
- Pass the message around – we’ve set up a TWITTER hashtag: #ReleaseSherif – please follow this for more news
- Write letters to your MP and other key figures
- PRAY for Sherif to be released
Lauren Booth is Cherie Blair’s half-sister, and therefore Tony Blair’s half-sister-in-law. She is a journalist – and in the last few years, she has become a Muslim.
So it was fascinating to read her account of her conversion to Islam in yesterday’s Guardian.
She describes how her experience of meeting people in the Middle East punctured the ‘swagger of condescension’ of ‘a western woman with all my freedoms’. Having expected only to engage professionally with men in positions of power, she found herself surprised by the wide diversity of women in a wide diversity of roles. She had succumbed to the prevailing prejudice and Islamophobia of which she claims now to be a victim.
But at one level there is nothing remarkable about this – my experience of working in various Muslim contexts has had a similar effect on me. These are real people, with real lives – and many are lovely people who have become good friends.
Yet it is interesting how Booth found that the removal of prejudices led to being further intrigued:
My own path to Islam began with an awakening to the gap between what had been drip-fed to me about all Muslim life – and the reality.
One of her big concerns is in what she sees as the disparity between the media’s portrayal that obsesses with Islamic terrorism, and the experience of ordinary Muslims going about their everyday lives. And she has a very reasonable point. There are a billion or so Muslims – very few are terrorists, relatively speaking. And let’s face it, out of the 2 billion or so Christians, there are going to be more than a few nutters. You can’t tar the whole with an individual brush. Booth’s article is certainly a helpful dispelling of myths (and I was struck by the last paragraph where she explains what is going on when people cry out “Allahu Akhbar!”).
So one thing that this story does illustrate is how dangerous ‘straw men’ are – for reality is seldom even remotely connected with such caricatures. Encounters with genuine articles lead people up all kinds of paths. Any effective case against something must have worked doubly hard to present an acceptable and fair description of an opponent’s position.
The Path to Conversion
But what led to her conversion? She seems to have become used to praying to Allah as opposed to God without really finding that strange (as she suggests other converts do). But the key seemed to have been her growing relationships with Muslims:
Then came the pull: a sort of emotional ebb and flow that responds to the company of other Muslims with a heightened feeling of openness and warmth. Well, that’s how it was for me, anyway.
Finally, I felt what Muslims feel when they are in true prayer: a bolt of sweet harmony, a shudder of joy in which I was grateful for everything I have (my children) and secure in the certainty that I need nothing more (along with prayer) to be utterly content. I prayed in the Mesumeh shrine in Iran after ritually cleansing my forearms, face, head and feet with water. And nothing could be the same again. It was as simple as that.
There have been significant life changes too:
In the past my attempts to give up alcohol have come to nothing; since my conversion I can’t even imagine drinking again. I have no doubt that this is for life: there is so much in Islam to learn and enjoy and admire; I’m overcome with the wonder of it. In the last few days I’ve heard from other women converts, and they have told me that this is just the start, that they are still loving it 10 or 20 years on.
Western Culture Exposed
But what interested me most of all was her realisation of what is really going on in western culture:
How hard and callous non-Muslim friends and colleagues began to seem. Why can’t we cry in public, hug one another more, say “I love you” to a new friend, without facing suspicion or ridicule? I would watch emotions being shared in households along with trays of honeyed sweets and wondered, if Allah’s law is simply based on fear why did the friends I loved and respected not turn their backs on their practices and start to drink, to have real “fun” as we in the west do? And we do, don’t we? Don’t we?
And so I now live in a reality that is not unlike that of Jim Carey’s character in the Truman Show. I have glimpsed the great lie that is the facade of our modern lives; that materialism, consumerism, sex and drugs will give us lasting happiness. But I have also peeked behind the screens and seen an enchanting, enriched existence of love, peace and hope. In the meantime, I carry on with daily life, cooking dinners, making TV programmes about Palestine and yes, praying for around half an hour a day.
I want to say Amen to pretty much all of that. But still, I’m not propelled towards Allah.
Perhaps, one of the prevailing myths in the Islamic world is that the west is as it is because of, and not despite, the influence of Christianity. I can’t remember where I discovered this, but it’s said that TS Eliot’s extraordinary modernist masterpiece The Wasteland was a major influence on Osama bin Laden, because of its brutal dissection of the lostness of the west. However, as a Christian, I would want to argue that it is by no means as simple as that. There are certainly unfortunate residues of Christian culture misapplied or twisted. But the cultural factors that leave people living the hollow lives Lauren Booth escapes from are as much the result of the Enlightenment and a de-Christianisation as anything else. This was something Eliot himself was on about.
Believing or Belonging?
All in all, there was one issue revealingly absent from this testimony: truth. Islam’s beauty, compassion, community, new perspectives, cleansing etc. But not truth. Or an apologetic. Of course many other Muslims work hard to build an apologetic. But that’s not what happened here. Lauren Booth found that reality confronted and dismantled her prejudices – which then led, in turn, to exploring being part of this faith community. Which resulted in deep spiritual experiences. She belonged and experienced, then gradually believed.
It’s not hard to see this being paralleled by countless people coming to Christ in the west too. Of course, this path is not exclusively western or modern – but Booth’s story is intriguing to me as a symptomatically western experience of religious conversion (whether Christian, Muslim or other). A need for community, a despair at the inability to change lifestyle, a sense of the hollowness of modern life, a longing to be spiritually connected.
The Christian community offers all of that. Or rather it should. Or rather it MUST. It is a scandal when it doesn’t.
But it does have one asset that is lacking anywhere else. And that is a message of grace. And grace needs to be lived out; and grace needs to be spoken. For the combination of the two is the greatest apologetic: a community of grace and truth following a Lord who is the Truth and the embodiment of grace.
Which is where, for all my profound respect and love for my Muslim friends, I must differ from them.
Was in Istanbul last week doing some Langham training each evening. Which meant that I never got back to my B&B until quite late. Which also meant that I was able to pass some of the great sights after dark and when there were very few people around. Wonderful. Here are a few snaps.
- Top: Ataturk monument (Taksim Square); Blue Mosque exterior
- Bottom: Sultan Mausoleum (Hagia Sofia); Blue Mosque exterior
Most of the time i was in meetings – but I did have one free morning. So I was able to visit a couple of museums, the incomparable Istanbul Archaeological Museum and an Islamic Art Exhibition. Saw all kinds of things famous to those with an ancient historical bent. From the top:
- Statue of Shalmaneser III (Assyrian King, 858-824 BC); Bust of Augustus Caesar
- The Fountain of Life (in the Tiled Kiosk -Archaeological museum); Qu’ran calligraphy from AD1432 (Islamic Art exhibition)
Following on from yesterday’s post, Lewis offers a very helpful articulation of how the Western and Islamic worlds diverged so drastically over the last 500 years. From a situation of great and proud cultural preeminence, the Middle East seems to have stagnated and even regressed. How did this happen?
Hermetically Sealed Isolation
One factor was the complacent assumption that there was nothing to learn from those who were different from themselves (always a dangerous step). One illustration of this was the culture of learning foreign languages.
A translation requires a translator, and a translator has to know both languages… such knowledge, strange as it may seem, was extremely rare in the Middle East until comparatively late. There were very few Muslims who knew any Christian language; it was considered unnecessary, even to some extent demeaning. (p147)
So as Europe emerged from the medieval world into the flowering of learning we call the Renaissance, with its rediscovery of the texts of the ancients and the cross-fertilisaztion as well as tensions that arose from Europe’s different cultural identities, the Ottoman empire remained blissfully unaware. Very few European publications were ever translated, and the new-fangled printing press was largely absent, and in places even banned. Interestingly enough, this was not mutual. Various Arabic documents were translated into European languages by Renaissance scholars – including an important medical text about blood circulation that highly influenced one Dr Michael Servetus (yes, the very same person, familiar to those aware of some of the darker moments of Geneva’s Reformation history).
But the other way around? There’s hardly anything. And where there are translations into Middle Eastern languages, the reasoning is both obvious and revealing. For instance, medical treatises on the treatment of syphillis (called in the Ottoman world the ‘Frankish pox’) were fine for translation. (p39) After all ‘a European’ disease clearly requires European expertise! And then the only other major imports, acceptable for translation and assimilation, were European military strategy and the accompanying weaponry technology.
As time went on, then, the culture gap inevitably grew. There’s surely a lesson for all those who self-consciously avoid learning foreign languages – and even if people are not linguistically-minded or -gifted, to avoid engaging with other cultures is dangerously narrow.
While on the subject of translation, another revealing moment comes in the underlying assumptions of the Ottoman Sultan, Murad III, as he wrote to his enemy’s enemy, Queen Elizabeth I (a letter which bizarrely enough was the subject of very recent diplomatic niceties):
In the correspondence between the Sultan of Turkey and Queen Elizabeth of England at the end of the sixteenth century, the letters are mostly concerned with commerce, but they do occasionally refer to the common Spanish enemy, a shared concern of London and Istanbul at the time. It would be an exaggeration to call this an alliance, and it was certainly not on equal terms. In the documents, the sultan, addressing the queen, uses language indicating that he expects her to be “… loyal and firm-footed in the path of vassalage and obedience… and to manifest loyalty and subservience” to the Ottoman throne. The contemporary translation into Italian, which served as the medium of communication between Turks and Englishmen, simply renders this as sincera amicizia. This kind of diplomatic mistranslation was for centuries the norm. (p22)
Tolerance & Freedom
I’d often heard the Islamic claim to be a tolerant religion. And I confess that it had always been hard to see beyond the negative image painted by the Taliban, now, of course, a byword for profound intolerance. Yet the truth is that there is clearly some historical validity to this claim, as proven by the way people voted with their feet.
The confrontation between Ottoman Islam and European Christendom has often been likened to the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century. There are indeed some similarities between the two confrontations, but also significant differences. Perhaps most notable among these is the movement of refugees. In the twentieth century this movement was, overwhelmingly, from East to West; in the fifteenth, sixteenth and even in the seventeenth centuries, it was primarily from West to East. Surely, the Ottomans did not offer equal rights to the subject – a meaningless anachronism in the context of that time and place. They did however offer a degree of tolerance without precedent and parallel in Christian Europe. Each religious community – the Ottoman term was millet – was allowed the free practice of its religion. More remarkably, they had their own communal organizations, subject to the authority of their own religious chiefs, controlling their own education and social life, and even enforcing their own laws, to the extent that they did not conflict with the basic laws of the Empire. While ultimate power – political and military – remained in Muslim hands, non-Muslims controlled much of the economy, and were even able to play a part of some importance in the political process. (p33)
I found this was very striking indeed.
Lewis does note, however, that many of the more aggressive propagators of Islam today would have little time for such attitudes. And furthermore, this tolerance and equality was by no means uniform (nor, to be fair, was it anywhere else). This is clear from the prevailing status of 3 groups of people, who, down the centuries, have suffered wherever they have lived: foreigners (or in an Islamic context, infidels), slaves and women. Lewis goes to some length to analyse their respective situations (and though he doesn’t draw the parallel, it reminded me of that old Jewish, Pharisaic prayer “Lord I thank you that I was not born a Gentile, a slave and woman.”) and makes this observation:
According to Islamic law and tradition, there were three groups of people who did not benefit from the general Muslim principle of legal and religious quality – unbelievers, slaves and women. The woman was obviously in one significant respect the worst-placed of the three. The slave could be freed by his master; the unbeliever could at any time become a believer by his own choice, and thus end his inferiority. Only the woman was doomed forever to remain what she was – or so it seemed at the time. (p67)
And therein lies a strange tension that is current in the Middle East. Lewis nicely articulates this as the difference between Westernisation and Modernisation. Thus:
[Western dress has] become powerful emotive symbols of cultural choice. They are especially so in Turkey and Iran, the two countries that most clearly formulate the alternative choices and alternative futures that confront the Muslim – and not only the Muslim – Middle East. For men to wear Western clothes, it would seem is modernisation; for women to wear them is Westernization, to be welcomed or punished accordingly. (p76)
But this is where the biggest difference with gospel equality truly lies. And for me, this was the most revealing thing of the book…
But no grace…
It is often said that Islam is an egalitarian religion. There is much truth in this assertion. If we compare Islam at the time of its advent with the societies that surrounded it – the stratified feudalism of Iran and the caste system of India to the east, the privileged aristocracies of both Byzantine and Latin Europe to the West – the Islamic dispensation does indeed bring a message of equality. Not only does Islam not endorse such systems of social differentiation; it explicitly and resolutely rejects them. The actions and utterances of the Prophet, the honoured precedents of the early rulers of Islam as preserved by tradition, are overwhelmingly against privilege by descent, by birth, by status, by wealth, or even by race, and insist that rank and honour are determined only by piety and merit in Islam. (my highlights)
The realities of conquest and empire, however, inevitably created new elites and in the natural course of events these sought to perpetuate for their descendants the advantages that they had gained. From early until modern times there has been a recurring tendency in Islamic states for aristocracies to emerge. These are differently defined and arise from varying circumstances at different times and in different places. What is significant is that the emergence of elites or casts or aristocracies happens in spite of Islam and not as part of it. Again and again through Islamic history the establishment of privilege was seen and denounced by both severely traditional conservatives and dubiously orthodox radicals as a non-Islamic or even an anti-Islamic innovation….
… none of these movements ever questioned the three sacrosanct distinctions establishing the subordinate status of the slave, the woman and the unbeliever. (p82)
So therein lies the problem. There will always be a clear set of distinctions in the community – and I don’t just mean slaves, women and infidels. I mean an even more profound and alarming distinction. That formed by personal merit. For in the Christian gospel (as Galatians, for one, is at pains to make clear) the true reason why there is no status distinction whatsoever between Slave & Free, Jew & Gentile, Male & Female is the double whammy of our creation in the divine image, and the wonder of divine grace. (Galatians 3:28-29) In other words, a religion of grace alone can bring true equality, in a way that a religion of merit and works never can.
Not on our watch…
This is certainly a fascinating book and I learned much. I don’t think I’m much the wiser in answering the specific question of the title, though. Perhaps the book is too short (at only 160 pp) and the issue is so deep and complex. Or perhaps the question is not quite the right one. As a description of how (as opposed to why) the shifts in balances of power happened, this is a helpful analysis. What’s certainly clear is that history is messy, that the Christians in history certainly didn’t get it all sorted, and that there were many aspects of Islamic culture and history from which there is much to learn. This thought did cross my mind though: ‘Christian’ societies fared little better, and were often much worse, than other cultures as soon as they lost their moorings in the gospel of grace.
Pray that we never allow that to happen under our watch.
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.
Some good friends have been involved in this great project, a 30 minute documentary called The Jesus Accounts. Filmed in Istanbul and in the UK, it is designed to help those who are sceptical about the NT documents (especially those from a muslim background). It draws on the expertise of a number of excellent NT scholars. It helpfully explains the background to the spread of the first manuscripts, giving details of the creation of papyrus and vellum parchment. Real highlights include the John Rylands fragment in Manchester, and footage of St Catherine’s monastery at Sinai in Egypt, where the Codex Sinaiticus originated.
The production values are excellent and the content stimulating. It is thoroughly recommended. Here is a 90 second trailer to whet appetites.
It’s coming out soon, so click here to register interest in getting hold of it.
If you had to sum up postmodernism in one word, I think a strong (but by no means only) contender would be the word SUSPICION. Suspicion of power, suspicion of motives, suspicion of truth claims – in short, suspicion of absolutely everything and everyone. And of course what is one insidious but pervasive manifestation of suspicion? The Conspiracy Theory.
The twentieth century seems to have bred such theorists – they’re everywhere. And they have their audience over a barrel – if you question or disagree with them, you’re just a patsy, gullible putty in the oppressors’ hands. Then if you present a substantial case against them, well, you can hear the lines already:
- ‘aah, but there’s no smoke without fire…’ (that cowardly retort of the gossip);
- ‘hey, I’m just asking questions’ (when of course, they’re doing no such thing);
- ‘but what about Watergate?’ Well yes, that was a conspiracy, and yes, politicians are often corrupt. But think about it. Watergate was such a grubby and unambitious conspiracy (i.e. covering up the business of eavesdropping on political opponents) compared to the more extreme theories people tenaciously hold to.
And they are often extreme and extraordinarily ambitious. If true, many of these would need not just scores but hundreds and even thousands of accomplices (unwitting or otherwise) – who ALL keep quiet (by force or voluntarily). Just glancing down the list of conspiracies tackled by the journalist David Aaronovitch in his recent book, Voodoo Histories, makes clear how ambitious some of these are:
- Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world (now clearly proven to be a fraud – and yet scarily, still touted in Islamist circles as a justification of their opposition to Israel’s existence)
- Stalin’s purge of Trotskyites incl Pyatakov in 1937
- President Roosevelt knew (and even wanted) Pearl Harbor – even people like Gore Vidal subscribe to this view
- Senator McCarthy’s suspicions of communists in government
- The ‘mysterious?’ deaths of popular ‘deities’: JFK, RFK, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana
- Doubting whether or not the moon landings ever took place
- The ‘mysterious?’ death of Hilda Murrell & nuclear conspiracies in the 1980s (a conspiracy championed by the otherwise redoubtable Tam Dalyell MP)
- Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s thesis about the descendents of Jesus in Holy Blood and Holy Grail, as picked up by Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code
- Erich Von Daniken’s theories and books Chariots of the Gods? Was God an Astronaut?
- 9/11 & 7/7 conspiracies – from the ”let it happen on purpose” (LIHOP) types to the ”made-it-happen-on-purpose” (MIHOP) types.
- David Kelly’s suicide after his Commons Select committee testimony about Iraqi weapons evidence
- The ‘birthers’ who doubted Obama’s birth certificate & rumours of the Clinton “body count”.
It’s an extraordinary, comprehensive list – and these are just some of the most prominent ones (go online and you’ll find a conspiracy theory to suit every conceivable taste and obsession). This book is a fascinating but chilling read. Some theories are very popular – and even regarded as de rigeur if you don’t want to look a fool (e.g. JFK was shot by two shooters at least. Wasn’t he?).
Aaronovitch is clearly a sceptic. But his research methods and approach seem impeccable, logical and at times exhaustive. He presents a convincing case at many points. He produces clear evidence to prove their idiocy, even if it has appeared long after their fashions has waned. There is so much common sense here – that it is a book worth lending to any with conspiracist inclinations.
Bizarrely enough, one of his most compelling chapters (I’d not anticipated this at all as I’d not even noticed its inclusion when I picked the book up), was his merciless dismantling of the ludicrous theories behind Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Many Christian apologists have done a great job at approaching the evidence from an ancient historical perspective. What was so compelling here was his observations of the evolution of this particular narrative: a nineteenth century catholic parish priest who mysteriously becomes rich. So of course, that clearly means that was paid off by Rome to keep schtum about what he’d uncovered – i.e. the genealogical line of Jesus & Mary Magdalene. Well Aaronovitch shows that this whole business bears many of the hallmarks of other conspiracy theories.
What is not often appreciated (I certainly hadn’t realised this) is that practically ALL the main perpetrators in France of the Merovingian mythology have since admitted that the whole thing is a hoax. Here’s a flavour of Aaronovitch’s style (himself from a Jewish Marxist background with certainly no axe to grind in favour of Christianity):
The playful Henry Lincoln [one of the co-authors of Holy Blood & Holy Grail] has also been fond of using the partiality and contradictory nature of New Testament interpretations to sanction his own liberties. Is it more likely, he asks, that a man should have been born of a virgin, been able to walk on water and rise from the dead than that he should have been born as other men are born, married, and raise a family? It’s a good line, but the trouble is that while the Gospels do create some evidence for a man called Jesus who led a religious movement in the early years of the Roman empire, there is no evidence whatsoever from any source at all for that man being married or having children. None. (pp199-200)
This is how he sums up the chapter – the main protagonist, Pierre Plantard, being the centre of the story’s attention as the one claimed to be a descendent of Jesus Christ himself.
It was all a hoax, every bit of it. It began with a story, which then developed into a massive fantasy, support for which was manufactured by forging documents. Many of these were lists of names copied from other genealogists and registers, and then tinkered with; others were invented travelogues. The motives of the participants are varied. De Cherisey was interested in surrealism and in the 1960s was involved in an organisation called the Workshop for Potential Literature (Oulipo), in which the members played around with puzzles, ciphers and codes. Plantard, as we have seen, had been trying most of his life to give himself some significance through shadowy or secret organisations, joining the many people through the centuries who have been attracted to the idea of membership of a clandestine society with elite, and sometimes occult, powers to organise the world. Finally, there were those motivated simply by money. (p204)
There are some great lines. In a previous section, referring to Princess Diana’s death in a Parisian tunnel, he refers to the theories put by some ex-MI5 agents, and draws in a magnificent line from Umberto Eco’s breathtaking Foucault’s Pendulum.
Studying the competing claims of various secret sources, one can see that to believe one is to disbelieve the others. Whether the authors who used these sources were complicit in what must, at the very least have been a series of hoaxes is impossible to say. But if one were to ask the old conspiracist question Cui bono? (Who benefits?), the answer seems obvious. I say ‘seems’ because in this world every debunkable theory could in fact be disinformation put out by the Establishment/security services to throw investigators and the public off the scent. Such a hypothesis was put forward by former MI5 officer Annie Machon on Channel 4’s Richard and Judy in 2005. It was the very stupidity of some of the theories surrounding Diana’s death, she told her interviewers, that first convinced her that the accident was in fact murder. She had been alerted to the conspiracy by the classic MI6 disinformation technique of suggesting conspiracies. Or, as Umberto Eco put it, “The Rosicrucians were everywhere, aided by the fact that they didn’t exist.” (p150)
Or take this, about the death in the 1980s (subsequently proven to be the result of a break-in gone horribly wrong) of Hilda Murrill a known anti-nuclear activist. This was taken up as a cause by the famous Labour Old Etonian MP, Tam Dalyell.
While the notion of members of the British security services going around bumping off little old ladies in English market towns (more or less the exact opposite of their official role) may have amazed most MPs, it simply angered Mr Dalyell. (p175)
And I like this idea of an ‘equal-opportunity conspiracist‘, in his analysis of Gore Vidal’s various political theories!
Vidal, like Philip J Berg, was an equal-opportunity conspiracist, and was comfortable whether accusing FDR, Harry Truman, LBJ, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, of complex and dastardly secret acts for various nefarious purposes – usually as pretexts for war or domestic crackdowns. (p303)
So what do these theories have in common? Well, in drawing various threads together, 4 features particularly struck me (from the perspective of a Christian worldview)
The Islamic Republic of Iran in the previous year acted more harshly and severely than ever before to limit, through arrests and detentions, the existence and growth of Evangelical Christians.
Farsi Christian News Network ( FCNN) and the Committee of Human Rights Advocates Report
Last year, with the start of the year 2009, we reported that Mr. Carl Muller of the Open Door Ministries had stated that, “based on existing reports we predict that in 2009 the Christians around the world will be persecuted more than ever before”. He added that, “we are not seers and can not see into the future, but we feel that brutality and persecution of Christians, especially in parts of the world like the Middle East, is on the rise.” Moreover, in this report by the Open Door Ministries, the list of countries with the worst human rights records towards Christians is published annually. In 2009 passing the previously second ranked Saudi Arabia and only outpaced by North Korea, was the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The following summary analysis is based on the visible and official incidents of suppression against Christians in Iran that have been reported. The reality is much worse than what has appeared in the International media and based on these facts the international human rights advocacies have declared the Islamic Republic of Iran as one of the worst offenders and persecutors of Christians in 2009. The following summary only reflects those incidents that were committed by the judiciary and the public security organizations in Iran and were thus reported in the international media. A great part of the unreported persecutions continue to be the systematic oppression and discrimination against Christians at the work places, threats and humiliation by people in the community, which are cleverly manipulated and orchestrated against Christian believers. Many of these incidents have not been reported and verified due to the arrests and threats of retaliation against the persons and their families and have prevented them from speaking against their persecutors.
In reviewing the following survey one can see that fortunately in 2009 there were no incidents of mass killings, executions, or long term prison sentences handed to Christians. There were only 2 cases in which the judicial authorities passed verdicts or ordered punishments. But this is only one side of the coin. The other side consists of systematic arrests and detention of Evangelical Christians in order to, more than even before, reduce and limit the scope of their activities in Iran.
Many Evangelical Christians in Iran are mainly new converts who have left their previous religion of Islam and become Christians. In reviewing the following list one can easily notice that this particular group, namely the new Christian converts, is the primary target of the security forces and the judiciary authorities. One can attribute this to the rapid growth of this group in all the segments of the Iranian society that has puzzled the leadership of the Islamic Republic. At the start of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 there were an estimated 500 Farsi speaking Christians, out of a 35 million population, in Iran. Now, after the passage of almost 30 years and a population that has exceeds 70 million, there are estimates that the Farsi speaking Christians are in the tens of thousands who have abandoned their Islamic beliefs and have embraced Christianity as their faith. This shows, even in the worst case scenario, a growth of many thousand percents.
- Tim Keller has 5 Big Issues facing the western church. Challenging but utterly realistic stuff.
- But here is the flip side: Demand for the Bible outstrips supply in China! (HT David McGregor)
- If you can penetrate the prolix verbiage (i like both those words, despite the tautology), then the Archibishop of Canterbury has some very sensible things to say about the reasons for opposing elements of the recent Equalities Bill in Parliament.
- Iain Campbell over at Reformation 21 offers ’26′ golden rules for writing well. fun.
- This is important but hasn’t hit headlines: some good friends in Morocco work in the same area as this military raid on a bible study. They’re fine but it has definitely shaken things up.
- Ushahidi – the power of the net at work in Kenya and beyond…
- Twitter tweeters beware… Never keep a running update of where you are because burglars take note as well…
- One of my favourite screenwriters is Andrew Niccol (e.g. Truman Show, Gattaca, Simone) – i’ve given talks on his stuff in various places. But one film that is needlessly underrated is The Lord of War (perhaps because of the silly title and because protagonist is played (reasonably well) by Nicolas Cage). But here is a fascinating article about a real life arms dealer, of whom Cage’s character could almost be a cardboard cutout: Monzer al-Kassar, recently imprisoned.
- Don’t know who did this Morgan Freeman gag on the right – but it’s great (cf. Voice of God).
- You’ve heard of the Swiss Army knife – but bet you didn’t know about the Imperial Roman army knife…
- In case you’ve ever been tempted by a casino, check this out. You have been warned.
- How to be prepared for the misfortune of losing your camera…
- And here’s one that really happened: the amazing story of a submerged camera being restored to its owners…
- Ever wanted to know where the ‘black box’ is on a plane – well, now you know…
- I can’t imagine the patience involved in creating this stop-motion animation of the history of Charlotte, NC – was blown away.
- This UNICEF ad is chillingly clever (HT Ads of the World):
This has ended up being a bit of a bumper one too! Hey ho. Enjoy.
- Some wise words on Haiti from Graham Tomlin
- BibleArcs is a really helpful study tool from John Piper. It doesn’t take too long to pick up, and while it may initially look weird and unwieldy, it provides a significant means to getting under the skin of texts.
- It speaks volumes for the difference between British Islam and British Christianity that Newsbiscuit can make these sorts of gags: Banning the Salvation Army and The Radicalising dangers of Victoria Sponge at Church fetes.
- Mapping sin by nation: Australia is apparently the worst! As if you could measure such things…
- In case you missed it in all the hubbub of snow and politicking, here is Anne Atkins honest account of vicarage life and joining unions from the Times.
- Rian Malan wrote one of the most searingly powerful books I’ve ever read: My Traitor’s Heart – reflections on his white liberal experiences in Apartheid South Africa. Which made me sit up and notice when I saw he’d written reflections on Clint Eastwood’s Mandela film, Invictus. Thought-provoking stuff.
- An example of Google censorship and fear of Islam’s power? You decide…
- How the iPhone saved a life in Haiti – literally (c/o Wired mag)
- No idea how this got into the public domain but here is the letter supposedly written by George Bush Snr to his family on the eve of the first Iraq War.
- Mr Plimpton’s Revenge: I just love it - who’d have thought you could tell a story through Google Maps? But you really can. (HT John Naughton)
- BACHTRACK is a truly EPIC resource for Classical music nuts (and comes with a cool free iPhone app) – find concerts and other performances near you, best recordings of different works and some excellent suggestions for children and teens. This sort of thing is what the internet is FOR!
- While we’re on webby things, make sure you subscribe (while it’s free) to Radio 4′s fantastic new series from Neil McGregor at the British Museum: A History of the World in 100 Objects.
- Britain under snow from space on Jan 7th 2010 – eerily beautiful
- This surely has to be one of the most satisfying newspaper headlines ever devised (oh to have been the one to think of it).
- Some sage advice from an international reporter on avoiding silly errors when travelling abroad.
- I love this update of the old classic advertising for the Mini
- An wonderfully quirky, but nevertheless excellent, guide to how to use the needlessly feared semicolon (HT Tony Watkins)
- This is pretty cool: Stargate Studios have produced a compilation of their virtual backlots:
There is a play on words that gets lost in translation from Turkish into English. I am by no means a Turkish speaker (as if), and I only discovered it when looking up information about the town in which Orhan Pamuk’s celebrated 2002 book is set. Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006 and the citation said that he:
in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.
One of my reading habits/disciplines is to try to read about every place I work in or visit. One of the dangerous joys of living near the unsurpassed Daunt Books is that it feeds this habit perfectly! If you don’t know it, Daunt’s warrants a visit to London W1 all by itself. Its genius is simple – a travel bookshop that groups fiction, history, maps and guidebooks altogether, by country and region. Now why don’t they all do that.
Because my Langham Partnership work takes me to Turkey twice a year (see various previous posts), I’ve been reading quite a lot about the country and its history over the last few months. I picked this book up there as a result and couldn’t put it down. Some may be familiar with Giles Milton’s other books (like Nathaniel’s Nutmeg and Big Chief Elizabeth etc) and he is a wonderful writer. This is no exception, though the focus is of a particularly dark chapter in European history. Read more
Appropriately enough, I’ve just finished Louis de Bernières’ Birds Without Wings while here in Turkey. And I have to say that it is quite simply one of the most breathtaking and moving novels I’ve ever read.
It’s crafted on an epic scale (600+ pages), and has a fascinating dual focus:
- at the MICRO level, we get to know and love the many and varied inhabitants of Eskibahçe, a small fictitious town near the Aegean coast (placed not far from Telmessos, now called Fethiye)
- at the MACRO level, we follow the determined but bumpy path of Mustafa Kemal, as he forges the modern Turkey out of the embers of the defunct Ottoman Empire, becoming the father of the new nation, Atatürk. Read more
This photograph depicts an act of real courage. But of course, it probably doesn’t seem like it at first sight. But this is Turkey. And Christians simply do not share the rights that ordinary Turks enjoy in this society. Worse, though, is the fact that they are not necessarily safe here either. For it was only a matter of months ago that 3 Christians were brutally murdered in Malatya. The photo is of the car of one of the delegates at our gathering – bravely sporting a Christian ichthus symbol.
I talked about Malatya a year ago when I first came here (CT has some updated news on the investigations into the murders); but as I talk with believers here, it is a frequent topic of conversation. One can’t avoid it. And as we were working on Paul’s letter to the Philippians during our time together this week, the letter couldn’t have been more relevant. One of the more challenging verses in that letter has Paul explaining the impact that his Roman imprisonment had on the church there.
Phil 1:14 – Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
It seems so counter-intuitive. Any sensible person would surely keep their heads down as the result of such persecution? But that’s not what necessarily happened in Paul’s day. And that’s not what has happened for many believers in Turkey. Many have been all the more prepared to be known as Christian. So here, having a fish badge on your car is more than simply the equivalent of those truck bumper stickers that ask ‘How is my driving?’ (as it is for many in the west). It is a very public, and therefore risky, declaration of one’s priorities.
But the illustration that really brought this courage home to me was given by one of the pastors I met. A few weeks after the Malatya tragedy, 2 members of his fellowship went to the authorities to get their Turkish identity cards updated. Every Turkish citizen must carry one; and one of the few details that it contains apart from the obvious is religious affiliation. These 2 brand new believers went deliberately to get their cards altered from Muslim to Christian, thus radically impairing their job prospects and their own safety.
I was profoundly challenged and encouraged myself by their willingness to stand and be counted. For just as with Paul in Rome, so with these brothers – if they are prepared to do this, the gospel is obviously something important enough to risk everything for…