Thursday, May 29, 2008 

Standpoint magazine and the marginalisation of Christianity.

It can't be bad going for the first issue of a magazine to get one of its main articles featured on the front page of two national newspapers; it's only when you realise that the magazine in question is being published by the Social Affairs Unit and edited by Daniel Johnson, son of Paul, that it starts to make slightly more sense.

Before we get onto "his grace" Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, it's instructive to read Johnson's own piece on just why we need Standpoint itself. He opens with:

“When you have a good idea, start a magazine.” This, according to our board member Gertrude Himmelfarb, is the motto of her husband Irving Kristol. In a long and fruitful life, he has started three. (Their son Bill has started one, too.)

That would be the Weekly Standard, the neo-conservative bible published by Rupert Murdoch. It starts to make even more sense as he continues:

Ever since it folded at the end of the Cold War, many people in Europe and America have lamented the old Encounter. But it was only when a new kind of assault came from a very different quarter on 11 September 2001 that a new Encounter again became an urgent necessity. The aftermath revealed such moral cowardice and intellectual confusion on both sides of the Atlantic that the battle of ideas has sometimes seemed in danger of being lost by default. To defend and celebrate Western civilisation is not merely desirable; it is imperative.

To call this breathtaking would be to do a disservice to the first gulp taken by someone who has just emerged from a coma. "Moral cowardice and intellectual confusion" after 9/11? There was such confusion that it took just slightly less than four weeks before the bombing in response began; and less than a year and six months after that before the next stage of the response too was set in motion.

The intention of Standpoint is to provide a lever which can indeed move the world, by invoking the noblest ideals to which humanity has aspired. Free speech and a free press; the dignity of the individual and the family; the liberty to worship and to refrain from worship; scientific inquiry limited only by respect for human life; the rule of law; parliamentary democracy and the free market; human rights balanced by reciprocal duties; toleration of minority views and practices, but not at the price of moral relativism.

Motherhood and apple pie too no doubt. Exactly who is it that is opposing these noblest ideals? If the idea, as it appears to be, is to provide a counter-point to the left and its "moral relativism", then this is a waste of time, as it too shares all of the above. It's not too bold to suggest that the entire establishment of this magazine appears to be to fight against a straw man, the view shared by some on the right and also by what we've come to refer to as the "muscular liberals" that the left-wing bastions in both the United States and the United Kingdom are acquiescent, cowardly in the face of the new challenges posed post-9/11, i.e. Islamic fundamentalism, and almost willing to commit collective suicide in the face of this apparently ascendant new screed. It is, of course, the most exquisite of bollocks.

The thing I find most galling about this point of view is that it is so inherently contradictory. In the history of civilisation, never before has one system been so triumphant yet at the same time so lacking in apparent self-confidence. When Francis Fukuyama wrote the End of History, now so universally derided, he was, and still is, to an extent right. The end of the cold war did signify the victory of free-market capitalism, of human rights, of democracy. Where it fell short was in not realising that rather than there being anything to oppose such distinct hegemony, something which has still not emerged and seems highly unlikely to in the near future, was that so many of the true believers in all those values themselves could so easily become convinced that all they had achieved and yearned for could be snatched away so apparently easily. 9/11 and its aftermath was the cataclysm which they had failed to predict, but which when it happened, changed everything.

Except that it didn't. Johnson and his cohorts however think that it did. He writes:

As it dawns on us that the West is vulnerable, its adversaries gloat, while its champions often feel despondent.

How by any stretch of the imagination can the West really be termed as "vulnerable"? Jihadist violence against the West, as in innocent civilians who have died in terrorist attacks, has claimed less than 4,000 lives since 2001. Even in the most doom-mongering scenarios, an attack could not possibly destroy Western civilisation as we know; it could hardly even destroy a small-town. Just to get a inkling of this kind of thinking which Standpoint is encouraging, here's another of its lead articles, by Michael Burleigh:

In the United States, by contrast, the Senate committee on homeland security heard evidence in April about the likely effects of a terrorist nuclear attack on Washington DC. The chairman, Senator Joe Lieberman, said, “The scenarios we discuss today are very hard for us to contemplate, and so emotionally traumatic and unsettling that it is tempting to push them aside.”

By coincidence, this just happens to be the same thing which some on the jihadist bulletin boards have been thinking about. The two things are connected: they are dreams, fantasies, which are about as likely to happen as Melanie Phillips deciding tomorrow to strap a bomb to herself and execute a "martyrdom operation" on the tube. The power of nightmares is fuelling this entire boom in such self-defeating and shockingly negative thinking from those who are meant to be pillars of strength while their opponents are so weak. We're so incalculably strong, our methods are just and our ideology is right, yet this towering, indefatigable mansion is apparently threatened by the molehill on the lawn.

Such muddled thinking runs through Nazir-Ali's piece. Its summary essentially means you don't have to struggle through the 3,653 words: "Christianity is central to British identity, but its marginalisation has created a moral vacuum which radical Islam threatens to fill." Straight off, it's impossible to ignore the central flaw: that Christianity is not being marginalised in the slightest. There's an huge streak of irony that runs through that idea when Nazir-Ali's warning that Christianity is being marginalised manages to make the front page of the Daily Mail and Telegraph. If it was, would he and his cohorts, both in the Church of England and in the Catholic church still have such a stranglehold over moral issues, as we've seen once again over the past few weeks?

Others more qualified to comment on Nazir-Ali's main thesis dispute it here and here, but I'm more interested in the thrust rather than the intricate details. The whole idea that Christianity is in decline or being marginalised while Islam is in the ascendant is not the real point here. That's just a sideshow to again, what was similarly going on yesterday, which is the revolt against 60s liberalism. Nazir-Ali blames Marxism, saying:

The aim was to overturn what I have called the Evangelical-Enlightenment consensus so that revolution might be possible. One of the ingredients in their tactics was to encourage a social and sexual revolution so that a political one would, in due course, come about.

This is, quite simply, garbage. The advancements of the 60s didn't come about because some homogeneous mass wanted a revolution but in the meantime was prepared to turn on fucking and social freedom while that happened; they occurred because society as a whole was changing, the economic security following the austerity of the post-war years enabling it to happen. Enlightenment values were also at the very heart of it, while the Evangelism and judgemental attitudes were being abandoned.

It's the rise of unbelief which is Nazir-Ali's real bugbear. Britain has become an overwhelmingly secular society, with even those that believe in God doing very little in actual worshipping or practising terms. Nazir-Ali, as a man of the church, regards this as a threat, as he well would. He and Standpoint as a whole seem to be mistaking this change as a sign of decadence and of weakness, somehow imaging that radical Islam is benefiting from it. They believe that we need a religious counterpoint to a threatening religious revival, which is a false dichotomy. It's the same old you're either with this or you're against us. It doesn't seem to occur that you can be for one side without going in for all of its arguments.

Jamie T calls it curiously Stalinist, and that seems to sum it up nicely. Stalin, the ever defining image of an iron leader, but one that was so paranoid and so insecure that he purged thousands of his own officers and politburo while murdering millions. The left is often accused of brooking no dissent and only looking to confirm its own prejudices: Standpoint and its inherent swivel-eyed looking for traitors could not more live up to that caricature.

Related post:
Dave Osler - Bishop Nazir-Ali and the collapse of Christianity

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Monday, March 24, 2008 

When you're obsessed, you will see your obsession everywhere.

Via Rhetorically Speaking, I note that Mad Mel has been going err, mad, over the attack by Asian youths on Canon Michael Ainsworth, which was apparently proof of a low-level jihad against Christians in east London by raging "Moslems" determined to make the entire place a no-go area.

Or not, as according to Ainsworth himself, who gave an interview to the same journal that carries Mel's rantings:

"We must respond calmly, and not jump to conclusions..." Coping with the hysteria from "wild" national press coverage had been "almost worse than being attacked." He felt helpless as his church was besieged by cameramen and reporters after the story broke last Friday. "They have their own agendas," said Mr Ainsworth, "as do the bloggers, both professional and amateur, who are using the story for their own ends and drawing bizarre, mainly racist, conclusions."

Well, quite. Mel P does have form in this area, jumping as she did on the Sun's article about "Muslim yobs" attacking a house in Windsor which local squaddies had contemplated moving into. Only, it turned out that there was no evidence whatsoever to link it to Muslims and that the most likely culprits in fact turned out to be local residents who were concerned about the effects on house prices. When confronted with the Sun's own apology, she simply stated that the "[T]he correction did not deny the original information" and that "readers can judge for themselves". Which is usually something Mel does not leave to chance.

Still, in very slightly related news, wasn't it glorious to see the Bishop of Rochester, he of the "Muslim no-go areas" soundbite giving his Easter sermon? Presumably he somehow managed to get out from under the blanket of fear that was the apparent death threats sent to him for such insolence. Doubtless too the Bishop of Oxford, who similarly received death threats after he dared not to disagree with the proposed call to pray being broadcast in Oxford made his sermon, although without any of the press attention.

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Monday, January 07, 2008 

It's the bishop! (of Rochester)

I didn't particularly want to write about the Bishop of Rochester and his "no-go areas". If you're writing for a national newspaper and make lurid claims that are bound to be controversial, the onus has to be on you to provide the proof which backs them up. He has absolutely none, at least none for his specific claim that it's Islamic extremism that is creating the "no-go areas" for those of a different faith or race. His main complaint, apart from attacking multiculturalism, is that some mosques are broadcasting the "Adhan", the call to prayer; in reality, as Inayat Bunglawala writes, the (very few) mosques which are doing so have to apply to the local council for permission and agree on the volume levels, and it's only taking place in areas where there are a large volume of local Muslims. Complaints are bound to made over such things, whether they involve church bells or the Adhan, and they're for the local communities to sort out.

No, rather what
Michael Nazir-Ali is really concerned about, quite apart from Islamic extremism, is the promoting of Christianity. It would be daft if he wasn't; it is after all his job. He's concerned, as others have been, that the supposed Christian base of the country has changed into a multi-faith one, as if this somehow happened by government edict, when it has actually occurred because of the apathetic relationship the majority in this country have with religion and the natural demographic changes of a capitalist nation state. We nominally describe ourselves as Christian, but hardly any of us actually partake in worship, or probably even really believe in God. We are Christian by tradition only, not by practice. In Nazir-Ali's view, both this and the arrival of immigrants bringing their own religions with them are an equal threat: he claims that the secularist approach is not "neutral", without explaining how or why. His major beef is with how "chapels and chaplaincies in places such as hospitals, prisons and institutions of further and higher education is in jeopardy either because of financial cuts or because the authorities want "multifaith" provision" without realising that it might not be anything to do with the authorities but actually the people themselves who want a representative of their own faith, and that the authorities are responding to that demand. Nazir-Ali's answer is that "Christian chaplains can arrange for people of other faiths to have access to their own spiritual leaders without compromising the Christian basis of their own ministry" which is just the sort of wishy-washy half-way measure which he condemns multiculturalism for being. He swings at the government's "agenda for integration and cohesion" for its lack of a "moral and spiritual vision." Why on earth would anything the government does have or need to have a "spiritual" vision?

As some have already identified, Nazir-Ali's complaint when stripped down isn't really religious but racial. If he had identified this as the problem rather than Islamic extremism then he might have been on to something. There are undoubtedly tensions and problems with communities becoming cut-off or "ghettoised", but this happens under all races, all religions and those of neither. It's only been a few years since the riots in the north where polarised communities were identified as the main factor; due to the various reasons when they first emigrated here, the first-wave of immigrants overwhelmingly chose to live together, whether in Leicester or Bradford for example, out of both protection and fear of the unknown, primary human emotions and completely understandable, which has continued since. Communities such as these become insulated, and some will of course argue that consecutive government policy has done little to nothing to alter this, but if anyone can identify when multiculturalism was adopted as actual doctrine instead of coming about spontaneously and evolving other time with the various needs, they're welcome to try. These communities overwhelmingly did not come together because of their shared faith, but because of their shared ethnicity. Religion came along with them at the same time, but was certainly not anywhere near as influential in their decision-making as common similarity was.

Some of these communities may indeed now be potential "no-go" areas for those not of the same background; there's anecdotal evidence turning up on legions of blogs and forums about low-level intimidation and unfriendliness, but this occurs in all communities and to all outsiders. Women might be insulted for not wearing the hijab in some areas, just as some are no doubt mocked and hurled abuse at in others for wearing one. Unfortunately, casual abuse on the street for looking "different" is a fact of life. Rachel wrote a post I remember from last year where she described how when wearing a headscarf the youths that had previously made lewd comments at her said nothing as she went by. Most of all though, we build our own barriers around certain places, based only on innuendo and reputation. In every city or large town there's a "rough" area which you're supposed to avoid at all costs. Most likely, if you walked through it on an average day you'd probably meet next to nobody and wonder what the fuss was about. We also know all too well about how town or city centres are meant to be "no-go" areas at weekends or in the evenings, either because of anti-social behaviour or binge drinking, or a mixture of the two. It's mostly media hype, but most will avoid them like the plague simply because of the impression they have of what it'll be like. In some cases, they might be right. In others, breathtakingly wrong.

The Bishop of Rochester is then undoubtedly scaremongering, and he was right to pulled up on it. His article is a partisan, even sectarian reaching for the supposed past glory that is as illusionary as ever. 30 years ago it would have been about race rather than religion, it's only in these days of universal terror threats, and concern about all those of brown skin who might just attend mosque about what they're being preached to, what they watch, and what they're planning to do that Islamic extremism is brought up as the latest bogeyman. There are undoubted problems with integration in some communities, and with the lack of belonging that the latest generation especially are experiencing. Some have turned to a perversion of politicised Islam, just like previous generations have turned to similar all-explaining ideologies. We were too lax on the extremist preachers that many suspect of having links with the security services, a nod and a wink that allowed them to do what they liked as long as Britain itself was not the target. Those days are thankfully over.

The reason I didn't particularly want to write this post was because I didn't think that Nazir-Ali didn't need any more of a response, or if there was any need to provide much of one in the first place. His article is, to be brutally honest, complete bollocks. When someone spouts complete bollocks, you can either attack it viciously or let it lie in its own filth. Nazir-Ali's claims ought to have been left to lie in their own feculence, but they came at a time where there isn't much news to come by, at the start of the new political season, and because they're inflammatory it means that the tabloids now have an excuse to jump in with their own prejudices. Like when Jack Straw opened his mouth about the niqab, which was a perfectly decent subject for debate, what has to be remembered is that much of the press doesn't abide by those same rules of contact. What happened was open season on Muslims in general, with the Express demanding that the veil be banned in the most visibly hostile move. Hence today we have the resurrection of that now infamous picture of the woman in the niqab flashing a v-sign, without the explanation that it was taken during last year's arrests over the "beheading" of a British soldier plot, when the community was quite entitled to feel under siege (how flashing a v-sign is anything other than quintessentially British is also laughable). The article it illustrates claims that the "reaction from the politically-correct establishment is an indicator of the weight of his case." On the contrary, the fact that the only person who endorsed his article was David Davis was an indicator of how wrong he was. The government itself failed to make any comment on the matter until today, when Hazel Blears, the minister you'd least want to respond put her head above the parapet. That she has no knowledge of any no-go areas isn't surprising; only last week there was a Grauniad article about how a man was forced from his home in her constituency because he had the temerity to accept Poles as lodgers. William Hague showed Tory disunity on the matter by disagreeing with David Davis and saying he didn't recognise the description either. The Scum only amplified the lack of any argument whatsoever behind its endorsing of Nazir-Ali's comments by saying that he's "no scaremonger". Or a fishmonger one would imagine.

The one disappointing thing about the response was that we still can't have a debate without immediate calls for someone to resign simply for expressing their opinion, even if it only appears to have come from the Ramadhan Foundation. It has to be remembered that the same Muslim leaders that have quite rightly disagreed with Nazir-Ali are still incredibly slow to condemn those within their own community, such as those featured on Undercover Mosque, when they express their own far more inflammatory views. That has to change, instead of finding excuses and other reasons to skirt around the real issue. When organisations such as Policy Exchange appear to embellish evidence they need to vigorously challenged, but so do those who were found to be propagating extremist material. We all need to get the balance right, and as yet, all sides have been unable to find it.

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