Tuesday, 7 September 2010

9/11 Remembered: LET FREEDOM RING!

Nine years ago, on 11 September 2001, three hijacked airliners slammed into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. Had it not been for the bravery and prompt action of passengers, a fourth flight was destined for either the White House or Congress but ended up crashed in a field with all on board dead. As the Towers imploded and the defence centre at the Pentagon burned, 2,996 lives, including those of 19 hijackers, came to premature and terrible, violent ends.

As they say, the rest is history. Tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of deaths and one invasion of Iraq later, the so-called "War on Terror" continues under the new US President, Barak Obama. At the dawn of the 21st century, incredible as it may seem, religious conflict has re-emerged as a defining issue across the planet in a way unparalleled since Pope Urban preached his fateful sermon in 1095 declaring Holy War on Islam because "God wills it!"

And in New York, by the "Ground Zero" site of the former Twin Towers, a new battle rages. No explosives have been used, but the invective and hatred expressed by many more than compensates.

The Cordoba Initiative, an Islamic charity dedicated to interfaith conciliation and named after the Spanish city which, in the Middle Ages, was a haven of multi-religous tolerance, co-operation and learning has proposed to build a cultural centre dedicated to reconciling the Christian and Muslim faiths. Its leader, Imam Faisal, has stressed that "Not all Muslims are terrorists, and terrorists actions are certainly un-Islamic." He has received support from President Obama and from New York Mayor Bloomberg, both of whom have stressed that if the concept of America was built on anything, it was religious freedom.

But the Amercian Right has piled in, decrying the idea of the centre as an affront to the dead, a "Victory Mosque" (even although it is not a mosque!). It is as if the Caliphs have been resurrected and turned up in Manhattan ready to build their own Islamic Triumphal Arch. Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and the odious Glen Beck have decried it. Backed by calm, open-minded, reasonable people like this man - Youtube videoblogger "drinkingwithbob" (who to my mind gives the distinct impression of having spent a little too much time too much with Bob and leaves you mildly concerned about the state of his heart muscles), they have argued the old mantra that such a thing would not be granted to Christians or Jews in Muslim countries.

And here is the thing. Many people in the West assume that once you leave Greece and head east, you don't find another church until you reach Australia. From primary school onwards, the Islamic states are portrayed as a great totalitarian montolith. From Morrocco in the far west of North Africa in a great arc through the Middle east down to Indonesia, it is alleged that no other faiths are permitted and a theocracy of dour mullahs holds sway. And if they have their way, the Muslims are all engaged in a Great Conspiracy to turn countries like Britain and America into similar Muslim fiefdoms.

The West has long lived in fear of The Other. In the 1900s, it was the "Yellow Peril", the Chinese, who were portrayed as slanty-eyed non-Christian devils, cleverly positioning themselves to take over London via the cunning disguise of laundry operatives and waiters. Around the same time, German rightwingers were hawking the fictitious "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", the alleged blueprints for the Jews to take over the world: a conceit that was eagerly spread throughout Europe by the Right and one which persists even now.

Now, with significant Muslim minorities in most west European countries, it is their turn to be tarred with the same brush of alleged hostility and ill intent. With their Arabic script and bearded priests, they are painted as foreign, strange and, inevitably, not to be trusted. Their actual beliefs are largely ignored, their similarity and common origins with Christianity and Judaism unmentioned and even unwelcome as they too clearly challenge the prevailing image of them as strange and alien. Instead, a mosque is set on fire in the USA and a church group proposes to have a "Burn a Koran Day", on the anniversary of 9/11.

So, were we to turn to the Islamic world, would this drab, monlithic, extreme picture be what we would see? Are there really no churches after Istanbul? No tolerance of The Other by these universally blood-thirsty jihadis?

Let's take a quick tour: starting in Turkey, a firmly Muslim country. Its largest city, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), was the seat of the Patriarch (the head)of the Greek Orthodox Church in the days of the Christian Byzantine Empire. And it still is.

Lets move on south and east to Syria, at one stage threatened by the US with invasion following the fall of Iraq. Here, this summer, the government banned Islamic veils on university campuses, not great for individual freedom but hardly the actions of a theocratic regime. With nearly 1.2 million Christians living and worshipping freely in Syria, about 10% of the population, however, it seems Syria does not fit the Rightwing/Evangelical stereotype of an Islamic state. Perhaps though, with its socialist Baath party regime, it isn't typical.

South to the Lebanon. There was trouble there in the past but...what's this? An elected Parliament with two opposing blocks in it: on one side a pro-western/free market grouping composed of Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Catholic Christians, Maronite Christians and Druze; opposed by a pro-eastern, slightly social democratic grouping composed of...the same mixture of faiths. The President is a Christian. 40% of the MPs are Christian, as is a similar proportion of the population. Beirut is a bustling metropolitan city...

Not there. So how about Jordan, with its 400,000 Christians (7% of the populace), or Egypt, where one in five people worship in the ancient Coptic Christian Churches. Or among the Palestinians, where 75,000 Christians, are honoured by their Muslim neighbours as "The Living Stones" owing to their ancient traditions. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, denounced by the West as a Muslim terrorist organisation, was in fact founded by a Christian, George Habash. More recently Hannan Ashrawi was a prominent female Christian legislator elected to the Palestinian National Assembly.

Christians are smaller in number in North Africa beyond Eqypt, but there are churches of ancient provenance all the way across the Maghreb to the Atlantic shores. And in the opposite, eastern direction, 300,000 Iranian Christians worship at over 70 churches - although in Iraq the once substantial Christian community has ironically largely fled the country following the violence that accompanied the arrival of the US and British forces there in 2003. In Pakistan, nearly 3 million Christians hold to their faith, exempted from many of the laws on clothes and behaviour that are imposed on Muslims and even enjoying a free ration of alcohol from the government each week.

And so it continues, on into Malaysia and Indonesia, where millions more Christians worship, normally untroubled by their Muslim neighbours.

I am not saying that all is sweetness and light. There is real restriction and persecution of people who think the wrong way or don't conform to very restrictive rules in countries like Saudi Arabia - although the Wahabist regime there owes much to western oil companies and governments for its rise and continuation in power. States with sharia law do impose restrictions which we do not see in the West, though they are not of the magnitude imagined by many Americans and Europeans - nor are they necessarly specifically or solely targetted at Christians. As in many other parts of the world following other faiths, politics often twists and manipulates religous belief to cause fracture and discord quite at odds with the core principles of the faith in question.

There has been and is violence and interfaith conflict and in all too many places religion keeps people apart, living parallel rather than joint lives. But this is as common between Christian communities such as the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the Catholics and Orthodox in former Yugoslavia as in the Muslim world. And unlike both Judaism and Christianity, Muslims specifically are enjoined in the Koran to protect the followers of the other two faiths as being "Peoples of the Book" as Muslims are also.

And so, to portray Muslims as either monolithic or totalitarian is plainly wrong. Their faith is interpreted by believers in many different ways. Many of their leaders have issued fatwas (decrees) condemning violence and terrorism as plainly un-Islamic - yet efforts by people like Dr Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri and the 1,300 young Muslims at an anti-terrorist Muslim conference in the UK are simply ignored outside the liberal press.

And likewise the Cordoba Initiative in New York. It is not a mosque and is not on Ground Zero, but rather several blocks away. (There are in fact already two mosques closer to Ground Zero than the proposed centre).
And, anyway, what if it was?

Over 70 Muslims were inside the Twin Towers and died in pain and innocence alongside the other victims. These were ordinary people, like 35 year old Sarah Ali from London, who had taken a job there just three weeks earlier and whose father was harassed in the street by rightwing thugs vowing revenge for the "Muslim" attack. Is her death somehow less than the death of her fellow Britons and others who perished? Was she, as a Muslim, somehow collectively culpable?

If this was the case, then by logical extension, are all Christians therefore culpable for the appalling massacre of 7,000 Muslim men and boys by Serbian paramilitaries (who were formally blessed by their Christian priests before carrying out their slaughter) at Srebrenica in July 1995? Or for the 33,000 Muslim civilians killed in the same war (80% of all civilian casualites)?

No one is their brother's keeper. And no one is defined purely by one aspect of themselves. In his wonderful book, "Identity and Violence", Amartya Sen argues that harmony can only come when we start to see each other as individuals first, shaped to some extent by our cultures and faiths, but not helpless victims, or unchangeable automatons. We are each complex and worthy. Only when we recognise that and rise above our apparent desire for simplistic tribal identities that define us so one dimensionally - white or black; Muslim or Christian; man or woman; gay or straight;golfer or tennis player (!)- will we reach a point where we can value and be valued for the multi-faceted humans we are.

There is no war by Islam against the West. There should be no war by the West against Islam. There are many competing interests. Some of them are dark and powerful and selfish. Some of them want to oppress others, force a single world view on everyone else. These can all be found in all countries and among people of all faiths and none. It is only by reaching beyond the simplistic, self-limiting barriers these forces create that we can reach a point where there is true understanding, genuine stability and real, lasting peace.

So, America, be the Leader of the World. Let the Cordoba Initiative build its centre and, in the words of one of the greatest American Christians, "Let freedom ring!"