Live at Peace with All

Stumbling along the dusty alleyway in the pitch black, guided only by the light of my mobile phone, my mind grasping for the lessons of my recent Hostile Environments training (Hint: don’t walk down a dark alleyway overseas), I really could have been anywhere.

Unless, that is, you ignored the wall of sound assailing me from both sides of the alley. On one side, the rhythmic chanting of the Muslim call to prayer jutted up against the melodic praise songs coming from the Pentecostal worship event, opposite, that I had just left. It was this fact which placed me in northern Sub-Saharan Africa; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to be precise.

For it’s here, in the Horn of Africa and the region known as the Sahel, that the populations – and necessarily the worldviews – of Christianity and Islam live cheek by jowl in the most explicit way. It’s not that the people of the world’s two largest religions can’t be found living in close proximity elsewhere; from Indonesia to the Balkans.  But it’s in this region of Africa that the populations tend to be both the most numerous and the most equally-balanced numerically. Regionally, there is no overwhelming majority of one faith group over the other: such as there is in the United States, or in the Middle East.

Of course, you also find a liberal sprinkling of secular democracy and other political ideologies, and those of both other religions and none. Ethiopia is, after all, a strictly-secular post-Communist, semi-authoritarian state. But it’s arguable that the majority of the population tend to find – perhaps increasingly – their transcendent identity (that is, beyond national, tribal or temporal boundaries) in their faith.

This scenario is peculiar to the popular culture of Western Europe on two counts. First, these are overwhelmingly-religious societies. The language of God is the norm, not the exception. Second, the significant and long-term influence of two of the world’s great religions makes for an interesting mix when it comes to negotiating contested public space. I suspect that – in the UK – the wall of sound which I experienced in this Addis Ababa alleyway would quickly attract the attention of a local government official in a High-Vis waistcoat, investigating complaints of noise pollution.

So what can The West learn from Africa about religion in the public square?

Not all religion is the same: Religion is being increasingly discussed in publishing, the media and politics. There was a time when the mantra ‘We don’t do God’ seemed to fit perfectly with the times. No more. The twentieth century axiom that religion has had its day, and that social progress will see the inevitable triumph of secularism and rationalism over mysticism and faith is looking very tired indeed.

But even as religion is increasingly discussed – in the polemics of militant atheists or in BBC documentaries – there is an astonishing level of illiteracy on the subject. The preceding hundred years of religious decline in the West really has impacted the common understanding of what were previously well-understood (if not always accepted) beliefs. Aside from a general ignorance of religious beliefs and practices, the most common mistake by many commentators is to lump all of the world’s faiths into a silo marked ‘Religion’. This is rarely explicit. But it’s often very clear to the faith-based viewer that many commentators really don’t understand the very fundamental differences between Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and the rest. Sure, these religions share many things in common; for example, the Golden Rule. But their core existential beliefs are also fundamentally at variance, leading to very different practices and worldviews across a range of subjects and even in their understanding of the purpose of life itself. The three Abrahamic faiths share much in common. But you only have to raise the question of the nature and purpose of Jesus and soon very different beliefs with their consequent implications will emerge. Even within religions, there can be considerable differences in belief between different denominations, sects or branches; Sunni, Shia, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Reform and so on. These differences need to be acknowledged and understood.

Religions are often competitors but not necessarily antagonists:  In spite of these differences, antagonistic relationships between religions are not inevitable. Of course, antagonism can be found easily enough. But conflict between humans of divergent identities can be found everywhere, even where religion is largely absent. 2015 is the 40th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – need I say more? Indeed, religions abound with resources to support an ideology of social harmony, peace-making and conflict resolution. Disagreement – even fundamentally so – is not inherently unhealthy. It is how we manage and accommodate our differences that matters.

There is a place for religion in public – and not just private – spaces: Part of the dominant narrative of Secularism is that, in order for fairness to be delivered, competing religious worldviews (interestingly, not other worldviews, only religious ones) should be consigned to the private sphere; what you do in your own home is up to you, but don’t bring religious reasoning or practices to the public square. As a result, religious groups who take their faith seriously have often found the public square to be a cold house for them. This is particularly true of counties like France, where the only religion allowed in the public square is the Cult of La Republique. Make of that what you will. But one thing is certain: if we are to address the threat of Religious Extremism, we must be careful not to marginalise religion as a whole. Which is why:

Theology Matters – Much of the lurch to Islamist extremism has been fuelled by bad theology. Of course, it has also been fuelled by an autocratic Saudi state awash with petro-dollars. But an extreme Wahabist interpretation of the Quran and Hadith in Sunni Islam is primarily a theological issue. The solution to this bad theology cannot be no theology: it is not an effective option to simply disengage with or parody the warped theology of ISIS or the Charlie Hebdo murderers. The ultimate solution to the problem of Islamism, Hindu Nationalism – or even the attempted co-option of Christianity by some elements on the extreme right – is good theology.

We need to do more to understand the complexities, differences and, yes, similarities between religious worldviews in order to understand how we can best live together. To this end, I’m reminded of two sayings of the Apostle Paul in the book of Romans. As we seek to address the core existential questions and understand divergent beliefs, we need to ‘Be transformed by the renewal of our minds’. As we seek to learn how to live together we should follow Paul’s injunction:

“Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good”.

The Politics of Otherness

 

“It is now long ago that I learned this lesson from General Armstrong, and resolved that I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him. With God’s help, I believe that I have completely rid myself of any ill feeling toward the Southern white man for any wrong that he may have inflicted upon my race. I am made to feel just as happy now when I am rendering service to Southern white men as to when the service is rendered to a member of my own race. I pity from the bottom of my heart any individual who is so unfortunate as to get into the habit of holding race prejudice.”

Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery, 1900

Tourtoirac is a beautiful wee place, if in a kind of ramshackle way. Its intriguing maisons and petit chateau have a grandeur which, if somewhat faded, nevertheless retain a charm which deliver the sort of mystique that I was looking for on a maiden family holiday to France. Throw in a meandering river running through the centre of the village and the chance to buy fresh bread every morning from the bona fide boulangerie opposite the medieval Abbey, and you could say that I was happy with my holiday choice.

It’s the kind of place that seems untouched by the world. But not just by the apparent absence of satellite dishes and Dom Jolly-esque mobile phone etiquette; it gives the impression that the world has always passed it by. There is no urgency in Tourtoirac, and that is something I was very glad to experience.

And yet there is one very visible reminder that the paysage francais has not always been the sleepy, presiding reality in this Dordogne village. Situated beside the Post Office, opposite the village square, is an obelisk-shaped war memorial adorned in French flags, the state of which clearly shows the place of importance that it holds amongst the local population.

Tourtoirac War Memorial cropped

Around the base of the monument dozens of names of local men killed during the First World War are listed, grouped around an engraving which proclaims: ‘Tourtoirac, to her children killed for their country 1914-1918’. On the same level, but on a different panel is a smaller, but still lengthy, list of local men killed in their turn during La Deuxieme Guerre Mondiale.

In a sense, this monument and its rude interruption into my family holiday should not be a surprise. It stands to reason that most towns and villages in France, much like those in the area that I grew up in Scotland, have war memorials to those lost in the two conflicts which were played out largely in Western Europe, and largely in France. But I nevertheless felt a dissonance to the surroundings which I was enjoying and the peace that I was experiencing.

A plaque on the upper part of the obelisk particularly caught my eye. On that plaque are listed five names. The names have a decidedly Jewish tint – Kohn, Aaron, Samuel – and the testimony which accompanies them is chilling: Assassines par Les Nazis (assassinated by the Nazis), Le 1er Avril 1944.

Tourtoirac Jewish names cropped

I have visited a concentration camp. Yet this plaque particularly shook me. Since encountering the Tourtoirac War Memorial, I’ve found it difficult to forget. It may be that I’m feeling nostalgia for my grandparents and their experience of the Second World War, at a time when we as a family are marking the first anniversary of my Gran’s death, a particularly poignant loss for us as the last surviving member of my family from that generation.

However I think that my awareness of war, violence and hatred, and the dissonance to that peaceful place, was particularly heightened because of what was – and is still – going on around the world even as I was reading the names on that monument.

This year alone we have seen vicious civil wars taking place in eastern Ukraine, Syria and Iraq. We’ve seen hundreds of young girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria. We’ve seen Iraq fall apart in a sectarian blood-bath. And that was before the horrors of ISIS and the so-called Islamic State began to be visited upon much of that country. We’ve seen civil unrest in Missouri as yet another young African-American man is shot dead by the police. And, of course, we’ve witnessed the continuation of the ancient conflict in Israel-Palestine with thousands killed, maimed and displaced, predominantly in Gaza.

These conflicts bear witness to the triumph of fear and of scapegoating. They exemplify the politics of division, and the worldview which says; you can’t be part of this community unless you look like us, talk like us, think like us. It is, and always has been the politicisation of the Other: whether the Jew, the Russian, the Kafir, the Palestinian, the African-American – the list is endless and changes depending on where you’re standing.

Where have all the big ideas gone? The ideas which transcend identity – religious, national or racial? Many of the 20th Century’s big ideas, like Fascism or Communism, soon revealed their true colours. They were equally as hostile to the Other, and as equally prone towards using violence to achieve their ends. The Tourtoirac War Memorial shows that much.

Yet I can’t help noticing that the ideals around which we organise our world today are those which either idolise profit-making or seek to define us by the lowest common denominators. We seem to be left with either the Market or the Tradition. Important though these are, they leave me feeling cold as ideologies around which we will build our world. They lack vision, purpose, and often even a narrative. They represent the politics of survival, nothing more.

It may seem like a stretch to mention the Scottish Independence Referendum in a blog in which I’ve also mentioned Boko Haram. However – in a fundamentally much more benign form, of course – these are the terms on which even this debate is being conducted. Most of the key arguments on both sides are being made via appeals to Tradition/Identity (whether, Scottish or British) and the Market (i.e. which settlement will leave Scotland better off financially). This amounts to a great deal of heat and not a lot of light.

What inspires me are the possibilities that we have in this world to transcend otherness whilst recognising our differences; to find our shared humanity when it’s tempting to simply use labels to demean; to work for a whole that is greater than the sum of our parts; to aim for solidarity when it’s easier to divide.

In a word, Unity.