Woolwich: a terrifying symmetry

When a British soldier is hacked to death in broad daylight on a crowded street by two black Muslim men, it is hard to imagine a more fertile opportunity for the explosion of anger, outrage, and emotion that has inevitably ensued. The pattern is as tragic as it is predictable. The tearful, almost unbearably poignant press conference by the relatives of the murdered soldier. The protests by the English Defence League. The clichés by the politicians. The generally even cruder clichés from the press.

And so the familiar narrative takes shape. An innocent British soldier is attacked by crazed Muslims, but this isn’t anything to do with Islam, in case you thought it was. On the contrary, it’s only fundamentalists who’ve been brainwashed by internet radicals who do things like this, a point rammed home by exhaustive contributions by more cuddly Muslims asserting their undying solidarity with Britain and the British. In the meantime, the security forces will inevitably have had the perpetrators on some sort of list at some time or other, and will be accused of negligence. The explicit motivations expressed by the perpetrators – in this instance exclusively referred to as “perpetrators with bloodied hands” – are dismissed out of hand. This, we are assured, not only has nothing to do with Islam, it also has nothing to do with Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, or any aspect of British political or military behaviour. But most of all, we mustn’t waste any time or sympathy on the psychopathic killers, still less listen to them, but rather lavish all our attention on the brave victim and his family. This will ensure that we are able to focus on symbols and emotions that are consistent with the narrative that we are intended to absorb, whilst keeping us well away from anything that might undermine it. Set up in this way, the clear implication is that anyone who doesn’t swallow this narrative hook, line and sinker, is a callous bastard that doesn’t care about the brave soldier or his family.

Well, I don’t accept this narrative, and I do care very much for the soldier and his family. The agony of expecting your husband to be home for the long weekend, thinking him to be as safe as houses in the capital city, and then having to imagine his being butchered without mercy on the street, is beyond description, and beyond imagination.

But that is exactly the point. The horror of what has taken place demands that we do something to make it less likely to be repeated, not more likely. And this tired narrative, pitting the lunatic Islamic butcher against the innocent family man and brave soldier, all the while requiring that we firmly insert our fingers into our ears so as not to hear what the killers said in plain speech, is only going to make its repetition ever more likely.

Rather than refusing to listen to, or even acknowledge, what the killers said on the pretext that such publicity is exactly what they wanted, and that they must not thus be rewarded, we should listen very hard indeed. Michael Adebolajo, according to the BBC yesterday, is “28 years old and left college in 2001. He is said to come from a very devout Christian family but converted to Islam after college. He is described as having been bright and witty when he was at college.” He said to an unbelievably brave passer-by that “you people will never be safe…Remove your governments, they don’t care about you.”

These are not the words of a madman. Whatever else Michael Adebolajo is, he is evidently not a lunatic. Until we’re really prepared to try and understand what drives a “bright and witty” student to such an unspeakable act of barbarism as he carried out in Woolwich on Wednesday afternoon, then we will never work out how to stop his successors, as successors there will undoubtedly be.

What is clear, is this: that this young man has lost all ability to distinguish between real human people – that young and unsuspecting soldier – and the things that those people have come to symbolise for him. And I firmly believe that in a ghastly and symmetrical way, the narrative we are constantly enjoined to internalise does exactly the same thing back. Michael Adebolajo is no longer a human being, but a lunatic, a mere symbol of all we fear and abhor.

I feel deeply for Drummer Rigby and his family. But I feel just as deeply for Michael Adebolajo and his.

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There’s no right to be offended, but perhaps there’s no right to offend either

Many in the Islamic world are up in arms again. The American video is now followed by cartoons in a French satirical magazine, the BBC reports. France is taking precautions at its embassies and schools in Muslim countries. We’ve been here before, and will doubtless be visiting the same territory in future. In the meantime more innocent people will lose their lives.

The principles at stake are crystal clear. In contrast, the practical way forward is about as opaque as it’s possible to imagine. So let’s start with the easy bit, and establish the principles. I have a right to practise my religion without interference or constraint, other than where such practice abuses the rights of others. So no, I can’t freely practise my religion if that religion leads me to murder (as in the recent cases of “demonic possession”) for example, but if I want to waft incense around the place it’s no business of yours. I have the right to ask that my beliefs are accorded respect, but I have no right to demand that they are. I have no right whatsoever to demand of those who do not share my religious convictions, anything at all. I most certainly do not have the right to kill and maim those who profane my beliefs no matter how hurtful I might find that profanity. Whether the Islamic world likes it or not, it seems to me that these principles are inviolate.

So what should happen in practice? This is much more difficult. It’s tempting to elevate all matters of principle to the same level. The principle of free speech may seem to be so basic that every attempt to constrain it should be fought tooth and nail. But if, in pursuing my right to free expression, I have reason to believe that innocent people may well be brutally killed, should that give me pause? If people die because of the cartoons in that French magazine, notwithstanding that ultimate responsibility must lie with those who kill, and not with those who “provoked” the killing, is it sufficient to say that those deaths are merely an unfortunate collateral damage sustained in the fight for the assertion of freedom of expression?

I am in no doubt that a magazine in a free country should have the untrammelled right to publish any cartoon it bloody well likes, to include images of the Prophet Mohammed notwithstanding the views of those who think such a thing a blasphemy, and the devil take the hindmost. But I’m not at all sure that asserting that right is worth a single drop of other people’s blood. If I want to make a stand, I should make it at my expense. It’s all a bit too easy to make a stand when other people are going to pay the price, and pay it with their lives.

So, has multiculturalism failed?

Mr Cameron has used a speech in Munich to attack what he describes as “state multiculturalism”. There will be howls of predictable protest. Connections will be drawn between the country in which he has chosen to deliver his message, and the message itself. His use of the adjective “state” will be seen to provide continuity with his right-wing attack on the “big state”, and with his government’s savage cuts in public expenditure. The presence of Angela Merkel on the same platform will doubtless be interpreted as symbolising Mr Cameron’s desire to get close to EU leaders on this issue, to provide cover for the anti-European rhetoric that he is obliged by the right-wing of his party to endorse at home. And that today should as well be the occasion of a rally by the English Defence League will, I’m sure, also be seized upon as proof of his giving comfort to extremism and xenophobia on British streets.

I don’t doubt that some of the sentiments in these multifarious critiques will have some justification, and I have no wish to be seen as an uncritical supporter of the Prime Minister’s approach to race and culture. But I’ve previously written about the ultimately doomed nature of the multicultural project. Insofar as Mr Cameron has touched on these same points, then obviously I support him. It’s just that I don’t think he has touched on these same points. His points are different and largely, I think, mistaken. In particular, he is approaching this whole subject not from what one might term the principles that should guide how ethnic minorities and their host communities ought to interact, both in the short and the long term, but rather from a narrow instrumentalism. His question is not about how difference should be managed, but about how difference might be exacerbating the issue of public safety. The Munich speech was after all not at a conference on human relations, but indeed at one on security. And, since by security we really mean the problem of Muslim antagonism to Western interests, this inevitably leads to concentration on this one specific issue amongst the entire and much more wide-ranging canvas of how all minority groups might best live in Britain, and how the host community can most quickly work towards removing the relevance of ideas such as a “host community” in contradistinction to a “minority community”.

But these more general, almost philosophical ideas, are not Mr Cameron’s real concern. They only serve as a backdrop to his worries about extremists and terrorists. And that, at this moment, exclusively means Islamic extremists and terrorists. It is not, therefore, very surprising that those whom I’ve heard speaking thus far from the Muslim community have been less than enthusiastic.

It is to put it mildly an optimistic prospectus that sees the solution to the real and serious threats of terrorist outrage in the minutiae of “community relations”, and in the reward of moderate sermons and the punishment of extreme ones – when all the while the real source of anger is the attitude of the West to Muslim nations and Muslim interests across the world. The attitudes formed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, by oppression in the Middle East, by diplomacy based more on Western access to fossil fuel than access by the poor to a fairer share of the world’s wealth: these cannot be sorted out by a change in which kinds of Islamic charities get money from the government.

As is so often the case, this Prime Minister has got cause and effect arse over tit. Cultural separation is an effect, not a cause. We need to address it, because enclaves are in truth not healthy for their insiders, nor for the wider societies in which they are set. Until the causes are dealt with, the effects will continue, whatever Mr Cameron may choose to say in Munich, or anywhere else come to that.

An immaculately conceived offence

The Advertising Standards Authority has decided that an ice-cream advert featuring a pregnant nun, and bearing the strap-line, “An immaculate conception”, is likely to cause offence to Roman Catholics (and apparently more so than to other Christians) and should therefore be banned. The authority said that “to use such an image in a lighthearted way to advertise ice cream was likely to cause serious offence to readers, particularly those who practised the Roman Catholic faith.”

I think this ban is misguided, although it is a useful riposte to the Christians who bleat that their religion can by ridiculed with impunity whilst Islam must be handled with kid gloves for fear of its touchy, and sometimes violent, adherents. Indeed, some readers might think that I am indulging in just such double-think given my somewhat immoderate tirade recently against Mr Terry Jones’ proposal to burn copies of the Koran. I don’t think so.

First, although it is painful to admit, I think pragmatism does demand that in giving consideration to an act or publication that might be deemed offensive, one takes the probable consequences into account. Thus, however galling, it’s a bit different if the offence is likely to result in rioting, deaths, international incidents and the like, than if it’s merely likely to cause people to splutter into their cornflakes. Lacking in principle, perhaps, but true nonetheless.

Second, burning someone’s holy book in a deliberate attempt to insult, antagonise and politically infuriate is not the same as poking gentle fun at a single doctrinal conceit.

Third, throwing offence across cultural divides isn’t the same as engaging in disputation with one’s cultural fellows. The western culture within which Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism specifically, has grown and thrived is a culture which values tolerance, freedom and contention. Those values are indeed (pace the new atheists) one of the consequences of Christian influence on our culture, a fact that isn’t dissolved by the other fact that there have also been some very much less attractive consequences from the same source.

But my real discomfort with this ban comes from other considerations. It feeds the complaints of those who accuse Christianity of claiming some kind of general exemption from the dominant mores of the times. It’s perfectly legitimate for Christians to take issue with that dominance, to criticise it, to seek to change it. But it isn’t legitimate to expect or demand that the organs of civil society, the ASA amongst them, should do it on our behalf. More fundamental yet is that this offence should not be offensive. Christians should not mistake the symbols of their religion for the literal truths of it. I believe in the Incarnation for what it signifies, not for its historical exactitude. As I’ve argued before, having faith is not the same as believing in literal facts. So to my fellow Christians I say what I might say to a child who’s being teased: it can only have power if you allow it that power. And to my fellow citizens I say that I don’t need protection from your ridicule. I really couldn’t give a fuck.

“Rev” Terry Jones: or how to be a total fucking pervert

Today’s post will be short, sharp and incandescent.

We generally reserve the word “pervert” for those whose twistedness is of a sexual nature. I don’t know why since any process, or set of beliefs, or indeed anything else, can be perverted. And in my view the perversion is the more heinous the further the perverted version is from the original. In the case of the so-called Reverend (I’m more likely to revere a holy dog-turd) Terry Jones then I suspect a new physical constant will need to be developed to describe the distance between the teachings of Jesus Christ and Mr Jones’ sick misrepresentation of them. Certainly light years don’t do the separation justice.

So just in case there is any scintilla of doubt, perhaps I could provide a few theses and antitheses to drive the point home:

  • Jesus was a tolerant, anti-establishment and radical moral revolutionary: Mr Jones is a blinkered, crass and pathetic conservative.
  • Jesus wanted us to love our enemies: Mr Jones hates every fucker who isn’t exactly like him.
  • Jesus encouraged us to remove our own planks before worrying about others’ motes: Mr Jones evidently wasn’t fucking-well listening.
  • Jesus exorcised demons: Mr Jones wants to demonise half the planet.
  • I am a Christian: I have no idea what the fuck Mr Jones is, but it isn’t that.

And as if the perversion of Christianity wasn’t enough, Mr Jones wants to pervert the memories of those tragically killed in the 9/11 atrocity. They deserve better than that. Much, much better.