Opposites detract: Iran and the Netherlands in conflict over Qu’ran film

BBC NEWS | World | Europe | Iranians urge Dutch to ban film
Just the other day Al-Jazeera television refused to adopt a media code which would ban satellite channels deemed to have offended Arab leaders or national or religious symbols. Today, Iran urges the Netherlands to ban a film made by Dutch MP Geert Wilders on the subject of the Qu’ran. According to the BBC, Iranian justice minister Gholam Hussein Elham said ‘freedom of speech should not be used as a cover for attacking moral and religious values.’

Iran and the Netherlands are at the absolute polar opposites of views on freedom of speech. In Britain we would (I hope) be horrified at the suggestion that the media should not be allowed to offend national leaders. Our media (or, at least, a proportion of it) seems to exist for no purpose greater than to annoy, irritate and disdain our politicians. On the other hand, most of us would see a film which (apparently) ‘will show the Muslim holy book is an inspiration for murder’ as a tad on the injudicious side. Quite how this would play under incitement to religious hatred laws is a question which would have to be resolved by the courts, but most of us would baulk at such a hardline attack on another person’s religion. We were (sort of) all-right with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, because this was a Muslim criticising Islam. Geert Wilders has no Islamic credentials, and it could be argued that people who don’t understand something shouldn’t attack it. (As it happens, Islamic response to the Satanic verses was exactly the opposite — Rushdie was condemned in part because he was a Muslim: a non-believer would have been regarded with more tolerance).

This is in many ways similar to the furore around Theo van Gogh’s film, Submission, also made with the help of a Dutch politician, then then MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Van Gogh, who was killed by a Muslim extremist in 2004, described his 10 minute film as a ‘political pamphlet’. Its aim, ostensibly, was to demonstrate a link between the Qu’ran and abuse of women. Following Van Gogh’s murder, mosques and Muslim schools were fire-bombed, and there were subsequent counterattacks against Christian churches.

It would be simplistic (though attractive to many) to paint this as ‘Dutch stand for freedom – good, Muslims oppose freedom -bad’. But things are never this simple. The same Ayaan Hirsi Ali who worked with Theo Van Gogh resigned from the Dutch Tweede Kamer (lower house) on May 16 2006 after a prolonged attempt by another politician to have her stripped of her Dutch Citizenship. The attempt prompted scandal in the Dutch parliament, eventually, albeit indirectly, leading to the collapse of the government. Those with long memories will recall that her resignation was 100 years – less two months – after the final exoneration of Alfred Dreyfus in the Dreyfus affair which shook France. The parallels are more than frightening: at the time, France represented itself as the bastion of freedom in all Europe. Liberté, égalité, fraternité for all except Jews, who could be sloppily tried and deprived of all three of these virtues. Today, the Netherlands stands as the most outspoken proponent (perhaps alongside Denmark) of freedom in the entire world. Unless, of course, you are a Muslim or a foreigner, in which case things may not turn out as well for you.

In England, we have the Archbishop of Canterbury suggesting that Sharia could become a part of our legal outlook. In Holland, they are making films deliberately aimed at denigrating the Qu’ran. In Iran and the rest of the Middle-East, they are signing charters which forbid the criticism of Arab leaders.

What can we conclude from this week’s furores?

First, we must accept that there are fundamentally different views of the meaning of freedom in post-Christian Europe and in the Middle East. It is occasionally argued that the views most often associated with Islam are those of an extremist minority. Perhaps, but the charter which threatens to ban Al Jazeera satellite television is not the work of a minority of extremists, but of main stream Arab states – states with whom we have strong diplomatic relationships.

Second, we must accept that, whatever other states may adopt, in Britain we have a democratic tradition which depends on this post-Christian freedom of expression, which is a limited freedom, but not a strongly limited one. Our kind of democracy cannot function without this freedom. It might be argued that this demonstrates that our kind of democracy is the wrong kind, but only within the conscious paradox that one could not put forth that sort of argument in any other context.

Third, we must accept that it is incumbent upon us, if we are to maintain and propagate this kind of democracy in a wider global community, that we do so responsibly. But responsibility is something that people do themselves, not have done to them. The only person who could legitimately stop Wilders from producing the film he has produced is Wilders himself. However, the culture he is working in (a culture which I understand somewhat, as I am married into it) is one which celebrates giving offence as the mark of true freedom of speech.

Fortunately, it is not for us to determine the culture of the Netherlands. But we are able to determine our own culture. Freedom of speech is incredibly precious to us. Which is why we must propagate it by using it responsibly – not shying away from the true issues, but, equally, not giving needless offence for the sake of giving offence. That is neither liberal, nor democratic.

US mistaken to hail Hezbollah leaders death

BBC NEWS | World | Middle East | US hails Hezbollah leaders death

I’ve lost more than one friend to terrorism. In 1988 Flora Swire, who I knew in the joint Christian Union at King Edward’s, Birmingham, was killed in the Lockerbie plane bombing. In 1989 Romanian pastor Vasilie Gherman, who had visited our house not long before, was killed by the Securitate, apparently because it was believed that he would be a ring-leader in opposition to Ceaucescu. Ceaucescu, and his state-terror regime, fell anyway, a few months later. At that time, until 1996, I was working for an international Christian youth movement. Perhaps once or twice a year one of our number would fall victim to kidnapping, and never be returned, or to direct terrorism, as often as not when they were not even the intended target.

Let me make it clear from the outset, then, that I am no friend to terrorism or terrorists. I am utterly and implacably opposed to everything they stand for. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, it is sometimes said. But, as far as I am concerned, as soon as someone moves into the means of terror, their legitimacy is completely gone. There is a way back: terrorists can renounce terror and embrace peaceful means. But that is the only way back.

Be that as it may, I think the US has put itself in a morally indefensible position by ‘welcoming’ the killing of the Hezbollah leader Imad Mughniyeh in Syria last night. And I believe they have made yet another in a series of crucial diplomatic misjudgements in the Middle East.

Their position is indefensible because to welcome his killing is to embrace the means of terror. At the end of the Second World War, the Allies put the Nazi War Criminals on trial. Some were sentenced to death. Some were sentenced to life imprisonment. Was the death penalty justified? Perhaps. Was it right that some people who were implicated in the murder of hundreds or thousands were allowed to live, albeit in prison? Perhaps. We second-guess the judgements of our predecessors at our peril. But what is certainly true is that they were tried in a court of law – albeit an unprecedented court – and suffered the sentence that was handed out to them. There is not doubt that the actions of Mughniyeh were appalling, and that the consequences of those actions were appalling. But they were not more appalling than those of Göring, Frick and Von Ribbentropp. Each of these were convicted, and the sentence carried out.

Mughniyeh was murdered by exactly the same means – terrorism – for which he was wanted by the US government. Was he guilty? It seems certain that he was. Would he have been convicted if he could have been arrested and brought to trial? Again, it seems quite certain that he would have been. Would he have suffered the death penalty? Judging by the Iraq trials, yes, he probably would have done. But the crucial difference is that he was not arrested, not tried, and not sentenced. If I murder a murderer, am I innocent? Of course not. There is no suggestion that the US was implicated in Mughniyeh’s murder. But by welcoming it, they have given approval to it. From a moral point of view, this position cannot be sustained. It is to be hoped that the US will step back from it, with a diplomatic ‘clarification’, perhaps that they deplore the injustice and violence of his end, but that they believe a threat to the lives of others has been removed, notwithstanding the means by which this happened.

So much for the moral position. The miscalculation, however, may have more serious consequences. It is a truism of dealing with terrorists that we do not wish to ‘create martyrs’. This was discussed endlessly in relation to the trial of Saddam Hussain. It is one reason why it was decided that he should be tried by an Iraqi court, and not an American or international one.

But in welcoming this man’s death, they have done nothing more than create a martyr, and that when there was no need to do so. If they had simply issued a statement deploring all deaths by violence, stating that they regarded this man as an enemy, but believed that even an enemy should have had a fair trial, then they could have done a great deal to prevent Imad Mughniyeh’s death from spiralling into wider unrest. Or if they could not have said that, at the very least, they could have said nothing. Instead, once more they fan the flames in the Middle East. When will we learn anything?

During the period of Mughniyeh’s activity, some of my friends (though I knew them only later) were living in Beirut. They moved house to another part of the city. A few days later, they went back to their former home to pick up some things. The building had been obliterated by a bomb. I have no idea whether it was a Mughniyeh bomb, or a bomb dropped from a plane, or a bomb built by one of Mughniyeh’s alllies, or by his enemies. Bombs do not discriminate in this way. But their lives were saved, simply because they had moved house a few days before. Over the tortured years of the 1980s and 90s, and to the present day (though mercifully less than in the 1980s), many thousands of people’s lives were lost who did not happen to be in the right place when the wrong thing happened. Mughniyeh and his allies must bear a heavy share in the guilt of this. We in the West may agonise (if we wish) about to what extent our Middle Eastern policies may have contributed to those deaths. We might equally well speculate about how many lives our policies perhaps saved. To do either is in fact fruitless. We cannot analyse our guilt or virtue in this way. But we are left with a responsibility. To act, and to speak, in such a way that we do not cost more lives, that we do not inflame an already perilous situation. That we are peace-makers, not war-mongers.

It is time that we learned not merely to repeat the mistakes of the past.

What is the Archbishop of Canterbury on about?

BBC NEWS | UK | Archbishop defends Sharia remarks

Rowan Williams is undoubtedly a profound thinker leading the Anglican Church through some of its greatest crises in recent years. The ordination of women, gay priests and the adoption issue, alongside more traditional subjects such as the war in Iraq are areas where he has – successfully so far – walked a tightrope.

So whatever possessed him to sound off on a subject which he admits is largely beyond his competence? And, after so many years walking a careful path through many minefields, how is it that he so misjudged the prevailing mood?

For the record, the actual text of the Archbishop’s speech is here.

It is quite clear that the hysterical presentation of Dr Williams’s views in parts of the media is both unhelpful and unfair. But it is also clear the Dr Williams really is advocating (in his words) “a higher level of public legal regard being paid to communal identity”, or, in other words, the genuine enshrinement into national law of some of the religious laws of a particular community.

It has since been suggested that Williams is simply trying to put ideas into the public debate. But this leaves us with the question: why is it necessary to consider these ideas? In academic debate, certainly all ideas can be considered, and all ideas are in some certain sense (purely as ideas) acceptable. But, equally, in public political debate, some ideas are simply dangerous. Enoch Powell’s famous ‘rivers of blood‘ speech might have had a different impact if published in a dusty academic journal, and written in academic language. But its actual effect, in Birmingham in 1968, was purely negative.

Why might these ideas be dangerous? (I am not, at this point, saying that they are). Essentially, they create the notion in a community that (in parts at least) already sees itself as poorly served and beleaguered, that certain rights or moral expectations are denied to them.

Is this a bad thing in itself? Quite possibly not. If we decided to outlaw ideas which might be disquieting or destabilising in a particular community, then we would not have many ideas left, and they would not be very interesting ones.

Is it a bad thing that the Archbishop of Canterbury is putting this forward? I think, most definitely, yes. There is no ‘ex cathedra’ in Protestant religion in the way it exists in the Roman Catholic church. Rowan Williams does not speak for all Anglicans, and certainly not for all of Britain. But the people who know that are Anglican and other Protestant Christians, and people who are culturally close to them. Very few people – unless they have made a special study – have much awareness of how other religions function. Witness the Western reaction to the pronouncements of the Ayatollah Khomeni which, in yet less enlightened times than these, were interpreted by many as the statements of all of Islam for all of the Muslim world. Rowan Williams’s ideas are couched in the careful language of the academic, which denies as much as it affirms. But the authority they appear to carry immediately cancels that out. I won’t labour the point: the reaction which the Archbishop’s comments have generated in the secular British press clearly indicate the ambivalent status of Archepiscopal pronouncements.

But there is another question: are his ideas right? Are we fooling ourselves with the belief that the British legal system can continue without compromise with Sharia, or other legal systems? If the Archbishop is right, then his comments are all the more important for being controversial.

Rowan Williams makes much play of deconstructing Sharia, the Enlightenment, and the nature of Law itself. Has no-one mentioned to him that deconstruction, which was all the rage in the 1980s, has gone out of fashion as an academic tool? He talks about overcoming the crude opposites and mythologies, but he fails to recognise (at least in this lecture) that both the enlightenment discourse and Sharia are founded on opposites (crude or not) and on unproven, a priori positions (generally referred to by atheists with the shorthand ‘mythologies’).

Deconstruction is not, in any case, a tool which has been much used by constitutional experts or by lawyers. We can talk about multi-layered discourse and contextualisation as much as we like, but the purpose of constitutions and legal systems is to be as unambiguously prescriptive as possible. Law is by its nature normative. Non-normative law is a contradiction in terms.

The progress of British jurisprudence from the Middle-Ages to today is the simplification of many systems into one system. In fact, to some extent, we still have two systems because civil and criminal law operate in tandem. However, civil and criminal law are administered by the same organisation. We have dispensed with ecclesiastical courts, courts of honour, courts for the nobility, for the commoner and for the serf. Whether or not this makes sense in a different cultural context is a moot question.

It was Samuel Rutherford in 1644 who, in Lex Rex (the law is king) refuted the doctrine of Rex Lex (the king is the law). After the Restoration of the monarchy he was cited for high treason, but his ideas (incidentally argued straight from the Bible, from Deuteronomy 17) set the stage for limited government and constitutionalism.

Rowan Williams argues that Sharia and Rabbinical courts are already in use in Britain for arbitration. This is a red herring: two persons may choose any means they like of arbitration, provided that they both accept the outcome. If, in retrospect, one party is unhappy with the outcome, they can still go to the courts. In many cases of civil law, the courts will first ask what attempts at arbitration have been made, and look askance at a case where no attempt at arbitration has been made.

In reality, while there may be space for more than one system within British jurisprudence – even if that is undesirable – there can be no basis for accommodation with a system which cannot exist as a subordinate partner. Rutherford’s argument about limited government and constitutionality apply as strongly to Sharia law as to absolutist monarchs. A system which cannot accept a restriction on its authority cannot be accommodated: and, without any attempt to mythologise or trade in crude opposites, Sharia is not a system (or tradition, if you like) which is designed for compromise.

For such an intelligent and profound thinker, it is surprising, and dismaying, that Rowan Williams did not think this through.
Finally, one more question. Should he resign? He may resign, but he should not. When we reach the point where Archbishops are subject to popular opinion in the same way that politicians are, we have reached a point where the freedom of the church – or any non-government body – has been fundamentally compromised. Rowan Williams has made a mistake. He should answer to his employer on this issue. But since, quite literally, his employer is the divinity, we should reflect on this common proverb: To err is human, to forgive divine.

Victory for democracy, but the system needs an overhaul

BBC NEWS | Politics | MPs info exemption plan scuppered
Liberal Democrats Simon Hughes and Norman Baker — with cross-party support — successfully ‘talked-out’ a bill by a former Tory chief whip which would have exempted MPs from the Freedom of Information laws which parliament itself introduced to make bodies such as the NHS, the civil service, the courts and the police more transparent.

The irony was that ‘talking-out’ was a special tactic of Tory David Maclean, which he had used to powerful effect on many occasions to delay legitimate business in the House of Commons.

Were Hughes and Baker right to use this tactic? Procedurally, absolutely. This is one of the arcane ways of the House of Commons. Morally? Also absolutely. For a body such as parliament to make rules that apply to everyone, and then to exempt itself because the rules are inconvenient is appalling. For politicians — who already enjoy less trust than almost any other profession — to make things easier for them to conceal their activities is bordering on the delusional.

Hughes and Baker — with Winnick and Shepherd — have done us a great service.

But it highlights something important. First, the time for filibustering really should be at its end. The reason they needed to filibuster was that this bill had slipped through on the nod on its first reading, had spent just an hour in the committee stage, and was facing a House of Commons packed with — wait for it — just about ten MPs, since the others were already back on the way to their constituencies.

Legislation that would have damaged democracy almost slipped through because there are no proper procedures for managing this kind of business.

Parliament needs reforming. It’s popular to talk about the need for reform in the House of Lords (and quite right too), but the ways of the House of Commons also need shaking up. Hughes and Baker saved us from a minor catastrophe by playing the game tightly according to its rules. But the rules ought to have been such that there was no need for this kind of thing.

The next generation of politicians must act early in their parliamentary careers to bring British democracy into the 21st century.

We fail in this at our peril.

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