Monday, 30 April 2007

A brave attempt to define British identity

You have to admire his pluck. After his controversial intervention in the veil debate last year, Leader of the Commons Jack Straw has moved on to the thorny issue of British identity, and has met with a lot of predictable criticism. Today's Guardian leader, for example, linked his speech to a new report on poverty among minority communities, seeming to suggest that it was illegitimate to even raise the identity issue until economic inequalities were sorted out - as if a sense of Britishness would follow in a deterministic way from greater prosperity.

Straw is to be applauded for setting out the context for the identity debate in unequivocal terms:

Today the most fundamental world divide is between liberal democracy and certain narrow misinterpretations of religious belief. The most frightening expression of that is a brand of terrorism that uses religion to justify its evil. Democracy is incompatible with any such identity.

Straw argues that a shared British identity must be rooted in a belief in democracy, but he suggests that espousing such an identity need not mean groups and communities giving up 'distinctive cultural attributes', such as religion.

I'm always wary when politicans try to define 'Britishness' (Gordon Brown's recent intervention was particularly dire), but I think Straw makes a bold attempt. At least his version is free from the usual royalist sentimentality, faces up to the problematic legacy of imperialism, and is grounded in the story of the progressive struggle for liberty:

That means freedom through the narrative of the Magna Carta, the civil war, the Bill of Rights, through Adam Smith and the Scottish enlightenment, the fight for votes, for the emancipation of Catholics and nonconformists, of women and of the black community, the second world war, the fight for rights for minority groups, the fight now against unbridled terror.

Straw argues that Britain can learn a lot from countries that 'have a more developed sense of citizenship, and what goes with it: notably from the United States, Canada, Australia, and those in western Europe who have had to develop the idea of citizenship to survive as nations, or indeed, simply to be nations.' The difficulty for Britain is that many of these countries, notably the US, have a written constitution and/or bill of rights as a focus for common values. Without this kind of explicit statement of what we're about as a nation, Straw's narrative is open to dispute from others who may see Britain's 'story' in very different terms. I note that David Cameron's Conservatives have recently supported the introduction of a British Bill of Rights. Trouble is - would you trust them to write it?

A different opinion on Turkish secularism

Matt Yglesias has a slightly different take on supporting secularism in Turkey (via Andrew Sullivan). He argues that Western liberals should support the moderate Islamic politics of the AKP:

If America takes the attitude that only rigid, Attaturk-style secularism is an acceptable form of political organization, then this is precisely the sort of thing that drives the view that the United States is engaging in the global persecution of Muslims and Islam.

Andrew Sullivan agrees, despite his sympathy for Turkish secularists and their worries about encroaching fundamentalism, arguing that 'finding a way to allow religious expression in the public square more flexibly than Attaturk is not a capitulation to fundamentalism. It may be the best way to head it off.'

Well yes, by all means give credit to religious parties when they espouse democracy and pluralism, but there's a slight danger here of western liberals endorsing a form of politics they would never countenance in their own countries, and thus coming over as just a little bit patronising. I still think Turkish secularists who are battling to keep religion and politics separate are the natural allies of liberals and leftists in the west and deserve our full support.

More encouraging news from the Middle East

Following yesterday's massive rally in Turkey in support of secularism, today's Guardian carries more good news from the Middle East. According to Simon Tisdall:

A grand coalition of anti-government forces is planning a second Iranian revolution via the ballot box to deny President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad another term in office and break the grip of what they call the "militia state" on public life and personal freedom.

Although the immediate spark for current unrest is dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad's economic record, 'opposition spokesmen say their broader objective is to bring down the fundamentalist regime by democratic means, transform Iran into a "normal country", and obviate the need for any military or other US and western intervention', writes Tisdall.

As Danny Postel's recent book made clear, Iranian reformists are often frustrated by western ignorance of their plight. Tisdall reports the views of Fariborz Raisdana, an outspoken Tehran economist and former member of the banned Association of Iranian Writers, who was recently jailed for his opinions:

"Do people in the west realise that independent trade unions are banned in Iran?" he asked. Did they know that the bus drivers and construction workers had no representation? Did they know that the students, watched all the time, were not allowed to demonstrate, that teachers' leaders who asked for salary increases had been jailed?

Women's groups seeking equal rights had been forced underground, Mr Raisdana said; the latest outrage was an offensive police campaign to enforce strict hijab dress codes on young women. Newspapers were frequently banned and academics silenced, he complained. If he and six or more fellow writers and intellectuals tried to meet in a coffee shop, they (and the shopkeeper) faced arrest.

Now, more than ever, Iran's liberals and reformists need the support of progressive forces in the west, rather than any more attempts to 'understand' the perspective of Ahmadinejad's discredited regime and the reactionary version of Islam it perpetuates.

Sunday, 29 April 2007

Unaggressive secularism?

This looks encouraging.
According to the BBC, today 'hundreds of thousands of people have marched in Istanbul in defence of Turkey's secular system of government.' Apparently there's concern that if Abdullah Gul, the candidate of the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development (AK) Party, is elected president in coming elections he will not be loyal to Turkey's secular constitution, despite his protestations to the contrary. Some analysts believe his wife would be the first First Lady to wear a headscarf, 'a deeply divisive statement in Turkey'.
The BBC report adds this:
'Turkey is secular and will remain secular,' shouted demonstrators from all over the country as they waved flags and pictures of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. 'We want neither Sharia, nor a coup, but a fully democratic Turkey,' they added.
It's usually those who have direct experience of theocratic rule, or are faced with the imminent threat of it, who are most vehement in the defence of the principles of secularism. They're only too aware, from looking around at neighbouring countries, of the dangers of compromising the separation of religion and the state.
I wonder if those who complain about the apparent advance of secularism in western countries would find this kind of protest too 'dogmatic' or 'aggressive'?

Religion on the radio revisited

Further to this post, it appears that 'Thought for the Day', the regular religious slot on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, has become a battleground in the ongoing religion/secularism debate. (See here for a regular sideswipe at the platitudinous nature of contributions to the slot.) Humanists have suggested that atheists and agnostics should be given access to TFTD, alongside the usual multi-faith selection of Christian, Sikh, Jewish, Muslim etc. commentators. Jonathan Bartley, director of the progressive Christian website Ekklesia, even used a recent TFTD to support the idea.

I've never been happy with this idea, believing that the slot was anachronistic and beyond redemption, and that widening the range of speakers would simply lead to a slanging-match in which 'religion' was pitted against 'humanism' or 'atheism' in a reductive and unproductive way. Surely it would be better to have done with the whole concept and admit that thoughtful reflection on news events is better done in other formats.

However, I've changed my mind a little, after hearing historian Lisa Jardine's recent contributions to Radio 4's Sunday morning programme A Point of View. Today Jardine was discussing the French presidential election, using it as a springboard for a reflection on cultural change in Britain and France, based on personal experience of the revival of 'localism' in both countries. Last Sunday she used the publication of photographs of imprisoned sailor Faye Turney in a headscarf, as the starting-point for a powerful discussion of issues of gender and selfhood, prompted by memories that the photos evoked of uncomfortable childhood dreams about loss of identity.

You can imagine what the regular TFTD speakers would have made of this issue: we would have had either a reactionary defence of religious and cultural traditions, or an 'on the one hand this, on the other hand that' attempt to 'understand' both Iranian and western attitudes. Instead, what we got from Jardine was a model of what a truly secular TFTD might sound like - and not a mention of 'religion' (or for that matter 'secularism' or any other -ism) in the whole piece. Perhaps they should give Lisa her own regular daily slot on Today and ditch all the others.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Vatican archbishop loses all sense of proportion

Archbishop Angelo Amato, secretary of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and a close ally of Pope Benedict, has reportedly equated civil unions for gay couples with suicide bombing, describing both as examples of contemporary 'evil' (via Andrew Sullivan). I'm with Andrew Sullivan on this: 'The comparison is such a ludicrously cruel, absurd and demeaning one it doesn't even rise to the level of rational debate.'

I suppose the archbishop thinks gay marriages are 'evil' because they threaten 'the family', but I find this conservative Christian sanctification of the family a bit suspect. I remember hearing John Gummer, former Tory minister and Anglican-turned-Catholic on the radio some time ago, claiming that Christ had founded two great institutions: the Church and the Family. Never mind that families existed long before Christianity and what we think of as 'the Christian family' only evolved in the Middle Ages, before which marriage wasn't even a sacrament. This familialism is rather like the reification of 'faith' and 'religion' by contemporary religious leaders that I've noted before.

Lest this story should tempt you to dismiss all Catholics as a bunch of reactionary homophobes, tune into Radio 4's Sunday Worship tomorrow, which comes from the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer in the Castro district of San Francisco and explores 'how gay people can find a place in the Christian narrative and speak of the gift of faith'. The preacher is the gay Catholic Catholic writer and theologian, Fr James Alison, whose book Faith beyond resentment: fragments Catholic and gay offers a refreshing vision of an alternative, more humane Catholicism, though I have to admit I don't quite 'get' why the work of Rene Girard, which Alison is always quoting, is supposed to be so revelatory.

OK, so after this post the other day, it may seem ironic that I'm recommending a BBC religious programme, and it may turn out to be as cringe-making as all the others, but I think the fact that it's happening at all is cause for celebration.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

So that's what's wrong with Radio 1: not enough religion

'Not religious enough'. That's the verdict of some Church of England and Roman Catholic bishops on Radio 1, according to the Manchester Evening News. The bishops argue that it's 'illogical and inconsistent' that there's so little religion on the channel, given that it 'figures strongly in the output of Radio 2, 3 and 4' . Which is rather like arguing that, since there are already C of E bishops in the House of Lords, there should also be a few Catholic ones, and perhaps a smattering of other faiths too - rather than getting rid of the lot. Or like saying that since the existing blasphemy law only covers Christianity, it should be extended to other religions - rather than simply scrapped.

You'd think, given the cringe-making reach-for-the-off-switch record of Radio 4's Thought for the Day and the declining audience figures for religious TV programmes such as Songs of Praise, the bishops would be a bit more cautious about moving on to fresh territory. Their demand for more explicit religious coverage to reflect young people's 'thirst for spiritual input' conjures up some awful trendy-vicar-down-at-the-disco images, and it's good to see the progressive Christian website Ekklesia comprehensively dismissing it.

Of course, I'm not the best judge, since my Radio 1-listening days lie in the dim and distant past, when Smashy and Nicey-style DJs ruled and John Peel's late-night show was the only programme it was cool to listen to. But whatever else Radio 1 needs - a more diverse playlist, perhaps, or less reliance on 'celebrity' DJs who prefer their own prattle to playing actual music - I have to say, I really don't think it's more religion. The bishops' call (rather like Cardinal Murphy O'Connor's recent rethink on RC bishops in the Lords: see this post) is a rather bold bid to roll back the apparently 'aggressively secularist' tide - an example of 'aggressive faith-ism', perhaps?

Is there life after 'The West Wing'?

What do you do, now that there's no more West Wing? Until last year, our regular Friday night visits to Josiah Bartlett's White House were what kept us (and many other left-leaning, political-junkie households) going through the week - but no more.

Thank goodness for the DVD boxed sets, which made it possible for us to watch the whole thing again from the beginning of Season 1. But even that came to an end eventually, and we had to admit to ourselves that we'd never find out what kind of president Matt Santos would make, or whether Josh Lyman would cut it as his chief of staff.

Looking for a substitute for our Friday-night fix, we began rummaging through the back-catalogues of the main WW actors, starting with the obviously political stuff. If you want to see a trial run for The WW, then take a look at The American President, scripted by WW writer Aaron Sorkin and starring Michael Douglas as a widowed Commander-in-chief, but also featuring future WW president Martin Sheen as his chief of staff, as well as Michael J Fox in the Stephanopolous-like role that he would reprise as the deputy mayor of NYC in Spin City. Then you could do worse than dig out the 80s mini series Kennedy with Martin Sheen as JFK: very watchable, if you can put up with Sheen's mimicry of Kennedy's idiosyncratic accent.

Following up on Jimmy Smits (Matt Santos), we stumbled across NYPD Blue, which we somehow managed to miss first time round, and which is also now out on DVD (well, Seasons 1-4 anyway). We started with Season 2, which is when Smits' character joins the series, and which also features appearances by other WW regulars such as Bradley Whitford (Josh) and Richard Shiff - who we also saw 'live' recently when he was in London with his one-man show Underneath the Lintel - the audience actually applauded when he came on stage, as if, like us, they couldn't quite believe they were in the same room as Toby Ziegler.

Of course, what British WW fans are really waiting for is Aaron Sorkin's new series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, starring Bradley Whitford, and Matthew Perry (Chandler from Friends, but also briefly a WW character), as well as Timothy Busfield (Danny from The WW and also a key player in Sorkin's 80s series thirtysomething). OK, it's about the world of TV rather than politics, but we hear good things. Does anyone know if Channel 4 have definitely bought the series and when we might expect to see it over here?

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

'Flawed but noble'? British Communism revisited

'A doomed, flawed but noble faith'. That's Communism, according to the late Raphael Samuel, whose posthumously published book The Lost World of British Communism is reviewed by Eric Hobsbawm in the current issue of the London Review of Books (subscription required). Hobsbawm's long review article, in which he characterises Samuel's book as 'full of melancholy empathy for an irrecoverable past', provides a critical overview of the story of the CPGB and contains some useful insights into its strengths, weaknesses and eventual decline.

Was Communism 'flawed but noble' and should we look back on it with 'melancholy empathy'? Not according to Oliver Kamm, who recently satirically rejigged Jeremy Paxman's sympathetic description of his partner's 94-year-old Communist aunt, substituting fascist for communist references, and wondering whether we'd be as affectionately indulgent with an ageing member of the British Union of Fascists.

I'm an admirer of Kamm's work, and these days as anti-totalitarian as the next Eustonian blogger, but this kind of equivalence still makes me uneasy. It may be because some of the writers and artists I've most admired, from Antonio Gramsci to Victor Jara and Jose Saramago, have been paid-up members of their national communist parties. Or it may be recently reading Primo Levi's claim, that the defeat of fascism was due at least in part to the dedication of the European communist parties. Or perhaps it's nostalgia for my time as an adult education worker in the 1980s, working alongside some good people who just happened to be CP members, at a time when Marxism Today was the must-read fortnightly fix for anyone on the Left.

But I also wonder if it's right to compare people whose 'good' motives (to help the poor, fight injustice and create a more equal society) led them to support a movement that went 'bad' - with those whose motives (to create a master race, annhilate the weak and inaugurate an authoritarian social order) were rotten from the outset? And isn't the blindness of some communists to the evils of Soviet totalitarianism actually more comparable to the dogged loyalty of many 'good' (charitable, saintly) Catholics to the Church, in spite of the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc. - than it is to fascism? I have to admit, I'm not sure.

Naomi Wolf on 'fascist' America: motes, beams and ignoring the obvious

Shuggy asks if anyone else read Naomi Wolf's article on 'Fascist America, in 10 easy steps' in yesterday's Guardian. I did - just haven't had time to post about it until now. Shuggy links to a comment on the article at Lenin's Tomb which I think goes too far in accepting Wolf's premise. Although I agree that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance and all that, and some of the signs of an authoritarian drift that Wolf identifies in the Bush regime are certainly there, I think the overall tenor of the piece is unduly melodramatic.

I hope I'm not being complacent, but the fact that the developments that Wolf mentions have been the subject of heated debate in the US itself, plus the nation's recent falling out of love with Bush and all his works (see the recent House and Senate election results, and the strong chance that the Republicans will lose the White House in 2008) are surely signs of the relatively health state of American democracy - certainly not of anything so cataclysmic as a drift towards fascism.

I detected a weary, almost apologetic note in Wolf's article, as though she knew she was going through the motions of a certain kind of tired, leftist critique of 'the West'. This was evident in the proliferation of qualifying phrases such as 'Of course, the United States is not vulnerable to the violent, total closing-down of the system that followed Mussolini's march on Rome': in that case, why introduce the deliberately inflammatory term 'fascist' at all?

There's a saying attributed to Jesus about removing the beam from your own eye before you bother with the mote in the other guy's. In the case of some leftist critiques of western democracies, I sometimes think a reverse version is called for: by all means be concerned about the imperfections in our own democracies, but don't let this detract from the task of tackling the more obvious manifestations of something resembling fascism elsewhere in the world. There's another over-used metaphor about ignoring elephants in the room that might be appropriate here.

I came across another example of this kind of 'ignoring the obvious' in a recent article by Jeremy Waldron in The New York Review of Books (subscription needed), reviewing a number of books by and about Hannah Arendt. Having posed the question 'What would Hannah say?' (if she were alive today), Waldron then catalogued a familiar list of apparent signs of a drift towards 'totalitarianism' in the US: the 'war on terror' came in for a lot of predictable criticism in the course of this. Once again, I'm sure Arendt, if she were still around, would be concerned about some of these things (though these exercises in second-guessing departed thinkers are always flawed) - but do you really think that, given the proliferation of totalitarian regimes and movements elsewhere, America would be the main focus of her concern?

Surely any neutral observer of the contemporary scene, with a knowledge of the fascist and totalitarian movements of the 1930s, would see familiar and worrying signs not in the US, but in the regimes of North Korea, Burma, some of the former Soviet Asian republics, possibly Iran, the recently toppled regime of Saddam Hussein, and in the ideology of Islamist groups such as al-Qaida?

Monday, 23 April 2007

Pots and kettles: it's the 'a' word again

Tom Horwood's' 'Face to faith' column in last Saturday's Guardian was refreshing in its call on 'faith communities' to be less defensive, and in the way it sought to take some of the heat out of the gay adoption argument. Criticising the 'new mood of defensiveness within faith communities', Horwood urges religious leaders to adopt instead a 'positive and constructive outlook' when they engage in public debate. But, for me, he spoils a generally level-headed contribution to the current debate about religion and public life with some needless swipes at secularists, who he says 'sometimes lazily fail to engage with a point of view simply because it is put forward by a believer' (not sure I've seen much evidence of that - pots and kettles and all that) and by referring to 'today's increasingly aggressive attacks on the role of religion in public life'. It's our old friend the 'a' word again, clearly the adjective of choice for pairing with 'secularism' as far as contemporary religious commentators are concerned, even the apparently 'sensible' ones (start here and work back through the links if you want to know why I find this usage so annoying).

Sunday, 22 April 2007


Following my own recent attempt to coin a new term - 'faith-ism' - to capture some aspects of contemporary religiosity, I've just come across another - 'something-ism' - in an article by Nicholas Buxton for this week's Tablet. I had reason to be critical of the usually insightful Buxton in a recent post, so I'm glad to have this opportunity to praise something he's written. The article is a thoughtful appraisal of the relationship between spirituality and consumerism, woven into a report on a recent conference on religion, media and culture.

Buxton questions whether the widespread contemporary search for the 'something' that may be missing from consumer culture is necessarily evidence of a spiritual search. He notes that the press in Holland have coined the phrase 'something-ism' to describe the phenomenon, and wonders 'whether it indicates a resistance to consumerism or another manifestation of it'. He tends towards the latter view:

To me the search for something suggests a search for satisfaction of an altogether this-worldly variety. Something is missing from my life, which, if only I can possess it, will make me whole and complete. But what could it be? God? A flatter tummy?...The search for personal fulfilment and the search for God may look the same, but they might also be very different: let's not make the mistake of confusing something-ism with something it isn't.

I don't know. I think Buxton is spot-on in his critique of the consumerist nature of much contemporary spirituality, especially of the New Age variety, and the attempts of mainstream religion to find the right 'product' that will stem the tide of falling attendances. But I think he's a little harsh on spiritual seekers. Surely even the most self-centred search for personal fulfilment can be the starting-point for a journey towards something that Buxton and other believers might recognise as 'true' faith, and the dividing line between the two isn't as stark as he imagines?

I recall Buxton's erstwhile mentor from BBC2's The Monastery, Abbot Christopher Jamison, making a similar critique of contemporary spiritual seekers on Radio 4's Start the Week some months ago. Another guest took him to task, arguing that if people were adopting a 'pick and mix' attitude to spirituality, rather than opting for 'traditional' religion, it was at least in part the Church's fault for not doing enough to make mainstream Christian faith more credible for contemporary seekers. Surely if more people than before are looking for a 'something' that may turn out to be spiritual, then believers should make the effort to meet them half way, rather than dismissing their efforts as not quite the real thing?

Thinking about this further, you could argue that there's another way in which religious leaders bear some responsibility for the spread of a wishy-washy, consumerist 'something-ism', and it connects with my thoughts about 'faith-ism' last week. I suggested that among the underlying assumptions of the new 'faith-ism' gaining ground with religious leaders and commentators are a sense that society needs more 'faith', almost regardless of its content, and that any faith is better than no faith. This 'Any dream will do-ism' can be seen as reflecting, and indeed reinforcing the 'something-ism' that makes Nicholas Buxton uneasy.

Friday, 20 April 2007

NUJ boycott of Israel: outbreak of commonsense at 'The Guardian'

Norm has got in first (doesn't he always?) but I completely agree with him that today's Guardian leader on the proposed NUJ boycott of Israel is a (surprising, refreshing) model of good sense. The whole editorial is eminently quotable, but this is particularly well-put:

If it were press freedom in the Middle East that truly concerned delegates, Israel - which has a comparatively open and robust domestic press - would hardly be the obvious starting point. One might, for example, rather focus on Iran, Libya or Syria. If, on the other hand, the journalists' union prefers to busy itself with individual governments' foreign policies then, again, there is no shortage of unsavoury regimes around the world which might merit some form of consumer boycott.

The editorial is all the more welcome, given the newspaper's recent track record. As someone who's been a dedicated reader of The Guardian since the age of 16, I've recently had cause to consider taking my custom elsewhere, thanks to the paper's regular habit of giving over its comment page to supporters of totalitarian groups and regimes. (I long ago gave up on that other mainstay of my youth, The New Statesman: 'Blair's Bombs' indeed).

I'm in favour of liberal newspapers creating a forum for a diversity of voices but, as the good people over at Harry's Place and at Pickled Politics have argued, if you're going to allow a voice to Middle Eastern reactionaries, then to be consistent you'd need to provide a platform for homegrown versions such as the BNP (don't - please). The final straw (almost) came the other month when the comment page was given over to an article by Azzam Tamimi, a well-known apologist for Hamas and its use of suicide terrorism. Even worse, there wasn't a single protest in the next day's letters pages.

That was it: I was never going to buy The Guardian again. Trouble was: what was I going to read instead? The Independent was out, for obvious reasons (having an even worse record of flipping straight into 'it's all our own fault' mode following any fundamentalist outrage). I finally settled on The Times, but in spite of a few good columnists, it just wasn't the same, and in a few days I was back with the good old Grauniad, trying not to mind that the person they invited to comment on Iran's kidnapping of British service personnel was a regime apologist who blamed the whole thing on Britain's support for the Shah thirty years ago. Ah, well, so it goes...Now, I just try to skip quickly over the comment pages and on to the reviews and obituaries. Today, however, I'm rather glad that I didn't.

From Stalinism to Islamism: the journey of a French intellectual

The English edition of Asharq al-Awsat, the Arabic International Daily, carries an interesting review by Amir Taheri of a new biography of the French intellectual Roger Garaudy. Reading Garaudy's name immediately took me back to the halcyon days of the mid-1970s when his book The Alternative Future was one of the blue Pelicans that lined my bookshelf, alongside other classics of the time such as Ernst Fischer's Marx in his own Words and Alan Watts' Way of Zen. Ah, those were the days, when the future seemed to belong to a heady synthesis of humanistic marxism, oriental spirituality and post-Vatican 2 liberation theology.

Garaudy was originally an enthusiastically Stalinist member of the PCF, the French Communist Party, but post-Hungary started to look elsewhere for a spiritual home. By the early 70s he was dabbling in Christianity, but as Taheri relates he soon tired of it and experimented with environmentalism and oriental philosophy, before converting to Islam. His route to conversion was an unusual one, since it grew out of a fascination with the ideas of Libya's Colonel Kaddafi. He later associated himself with the Muslim Brotherhood and Khomeini's Iran, becoming a notorious Holocaust denier and conspiracy theorist who claimed that 9/11 was organised by the Bush administration. Taheri compares Garaudy's intellectual trajectory with that of his fellow French ex-communist Michel Foucault, who was 'fascinated by the Khomeinist revolution in Iran and in his typical hyperbolic mode wrote of " the spiritual explosion" he had witnessed during his visits to a Tehran set on fire and pillaged by revolutionary mobs.' Foucault's case is explored in Danny Postel's recent book on Iran (see this post) and more fully in Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson's book.

In summarising Garaudy's journey from Stalinism to reactionary Islamism, Taheri provides a useful reminder of the similarities between these apparently very different forms of totalitarianism, and their similar appeal for a certain kind of personality. (Garaudy as a French, intellectual version of George Galloway, perhaps?) Taheri is also scathing about western intellectuals who dabble in ideological movements of whose daily reality they know little:

Garaudy could admire Kaddafi because he did not have to live under the colonel's rule in Libya. He could have dinner with Khatami and discuss philosophy because he knew that he would leave Tehran a few days later loaded with gifts of carpets and caviar. Garaudy could mourn the demise of Saddam Hussein because he is sure he would never experience what the people of Iraq suffered at Halabcheh or during the Anfal campaign.

As a latter day Proteus, Garaudy could change opinion, ideology and religion as frequently as he changes his shirts because he happens to live in Europe at a happy time of peace and security. Others in other parts of the world, however, do not enjoy such luxuries. They could be exiled, imprisoned or killed for "the crime" of changing their mind and offending the established order.

I came across this review via the excellent Magazine Roundup at signandsight.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

'War on terror' ?

Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary, has said that the UK government will no longer use the term 'war on terror' 'because it encourages insurgent groups' by providing them with a sense of shared identity. Norm takes issue:

The only shared identity you 'give' terrorists by identifying them as that is one they already have: of being willing to use the same murderous methods to achieve their ends and (generally) having some sort of ideological back-up for doing that. The phrase 'war on terror' doesn't create these common features; they're already there. One could, I suppose, decline to emphasize them, but then one needs a reason for this beyond the false one that there are no such common features.

I agree. However, Michael Marten over at Ekklesia is critical of Benn's statement for very different reasons. While he agrees that terrorism needs to be tackled not only by 'hard power' but also by 'soft power', he argues that 'values and ideas are key to the debate, but not, perhaps, in the way that Benn and the UK government intend.'

Marten's next paragraph deserves a thorough taking-apart, or fisking as I understand it's called here in the blogosphere:

The suggestion behind the minister’s statement is that ‘our’ values and ideas (presumably such laudable aims as justice, good governance, democracy, and so on) are being sent into the fray against ‘their’ (undefined, but undoubtedly nefarious) values and ideas. There is no possibility of perhaps acknowledging that ‘their’ values and ideas have any context, let alone perhaps justification. This sounds remarkably similar to the discredited notion of a ‘clash of civilisations’ that played such a significant part in creating the original ‘war on terror’.

I can't make up my mind whether the scare quotes around 'our' and the use of 'presumably' mean that Marten does or does not think that 'justice, good governance, democracy, and so on' are 'laudable aims'. I suspect these rhetorical devices are intended precisely to create this kind of non-committal distancing. Ditto with 'their...undoubtedly nefarious values'. Does he agree that justice and democracy are good things, and that the values of Al Qaida et al are not, and if so why can't he just come out and say so?

Continuing in the same circumlocutory manner, Marten sort-of-suggests that we should 'acknowledge that "their" values and ideas have (a) context' and perhaps even a 'justification'. This is where we get into pretty murky territory. Let's be clear: the 'values and ideas' of reactionary Islamist groups that employ mass murder as a routine tactic are a toxic mixture of authoritarianism, anti-feminism, antisemitism, homophobia and religious intolerance. Of course these ideas have a 'context', just like any set of ideas. Nazism had a 'context', in the humiliation of Germany after the First World War and the Depression of the Thirties; the racism of the BNP has a 'context' in the alienation of white working-class youth in some urban areas. But it doesn't follow that acknowledging these contexts means entering into any kind of dialogue with the reactionary ideas they throw up. And it certainly can never provide any kind of 'justification' for those ideas, or for their enactment in the form of political violence and terror. But once again, Marten's deliberately tentative phrase - 'let alone perhaps justification' - makes it impossible to pin him down: is he saying that contextual factors could possibly 'justify' terrorist acts like 9/11 or 7/7, or is he just playing around with the idea?

Whatever you think of the 'clash of civilisations' thesis, Marten is surely wrong to blame it, even in part, for creating the 'war on terror'. That's like blaming anti-fascists, rather than the Nazis, for starting World War Two, as if invading Poland, or flying passenger planes into buildings full of innocent people, did not justify a response.

Marten goes on, in a fashion that has become drearily familiar, to enumerate western misdeeds, such as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and withdrawal of support from the Hamas-led Palestinian government, as offering 'further incentive for disaffected Islamist groups to wreak "revenge"’ attacks on western targets.' It's difficult to know where to begin with this sentence. Firstly, the invasion of Afghanistan was a response to terrorist attack, and whatever you think of the invasion of Iraq it was aimed at removing a secular dictator who had (among his other crimes) oppressed and massacred Muslims. You can argue the strategic merits of withholding support from Hamas, but here was a reactionary political party that openly supported and encouraged suicide terrorism against civilians. Secondly, does it really need to be reiterated that Al Qaida and other Islamist groups were engaged in terrorist acts long before the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and against non-western targets too - in Malaysia and the Indian subcontinent, for example. It's not the west they hate, it's democracy, secularism and pluralism, wherever these are to be found. Thirdly, as writers such as Paul Berman and more recently Daniel Postel have argued, to characterise the actions of Islamist terrorists simply as a 'response' to western 'provocation' is to deny any kind of agency to such groups, and to deny that they have any deliberate ideology or strategy of their own (rather like arguing that Nazism was merely a 'response' to humiliation by the European powers at Versailles). This ascription of passivity could be interpreted as a kind of unconscious racism ('we' have ideas and motives, 'they' simply 'respond to provocation') and a form of inverted imperialism that views everything through the lens of 'our' (western) actions.

Marten ends his article with some laudable sentiments about Christians needing to reach out to moderate Muslims, etc. But I was disappointed to find such a tired reiteration of 'blame the west' cliches on this usually eminently sensible progressive-christian website.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007


I've written before about the phenomenon of an increasingly vocal, inter-faith anti-secularism - evident in the pronouncements of a growing number of doomladen religious leaders and commentators. Since these figures are prone to using generalised labels to damn their opponents - 'aggressive secularism', 'Enlightenment fundamentalists', etc - I thought it was time to give them one of their own. In this post, I'd like to explore what I describe as 'faith-ism' - a set of assumptions that I believe are increasingly prevalent, fundamentally wrongheaded, and threatening to genuine secularism and genuine religious practice alike.

I would argue that the key assumptions of faith-ism are as follows:

1. Religious faith is a good thing - good for individuals, good for society - more or less regardless of its content, and is certainly better than not having a faith.

2. Because of this, the state should actively encourage and promote religious faith, e.g. by supporting faith schools, funding faith-based welfare initiatives.

3. 'People of faith' - whatever the content of that faith - have a lot in common, and certainly more in common than with people of no faith - and form a natural constituency that should work together on faith's behalf.

4. The main problem with contemporary society is its lack of religious faith, and society would be a whole lot better if more people had some kind of faith.

5. Our society is becoming more 'aggressively secular' and hostile to faith.

6. In this increasingly hostile environment, 'faith' has a right to be protected against offence and insult - in fact, criticism of 'faith' is probably due to a prevalent and growing Islamophobia, Christianophobia or 'aggressive secularism' in contemporary society.

Here's a secularist critique of each of these assumptions:

1. Religious faith is not always a good thing. Faith can damage individuals, inspire prejudiced and reactionary attitudes, and losing faith is often healthier for individuals than holding on to it. At a communal and societal level the revival of 'faith' has often produced authoritarian regimes that stifle liberty and inhibit social progress.

2. Because of this, and because modern society is pluralist and the majority are not active believers, government should not intervene to support or promote the activities or interests of particular faith groups.

3. The term 'people of faith' glosses over real differences in belief and values between religions and obscures the fact that many believers (e.g. liberal Christians) have more in common with agnostics and humanists than with some followers of their own and other faiths.

4. The lack of a common 'faith' or sense of purpose in modern, liberal democracies is not necessarily a wholly bad thing. Conversely, the 'main problem' in the world today is not the absence of religious faith, but the threat posed by virulent strains of fundamentalist religion.

5. There is little evidence of a growing 'aggressive secularism'. Responding to the threats posed by religious fundamentalists, and to attempts by faith groups to hold on to outmoded political privileges, some secularists have expressed concern about the erosion of liberty and of the division between church and state. This has been defensively and hysterically misrepresented by some believers as a newly aggressive secularism or 'liberal fundamentalism'.

6. The right to criticise, mock or ridicule other people's ideas, even those that are deeply cherished, is a fundamental tenet of a free society, and religious groups are wrong to claim special exemption in this area.

Although not a practising believer myself, I would also dare to suggest that there may be good religious - and specifically Christian - reasons for criticising this drift towards a nebulous 'Any dream will do'- 'we're all victims now' - kind of faith-ism. I don't think Jesus was interested in defending or promoting 'faith' or 'religion' - I seem to remember that he was actually quite critical of the pious people of his day and of institutional religion. He also had quite a lot to say about self-denial and humility, warning his followers to expect rejection by society - certainly not to claim special privileges from it, or to complain when their beliefs were 'offended'. I'm sure he would have argued that believers should earn respect from the wider society by their actions - rather than claim it as of right. As for blanket tirades against the secular world, I understand that he actually preferred the company of the formally irreligious to the externally pious. Finally, it could be argued that one of his key messages was about being open to finding truth and goodness in unexpected places.

I was prompted to write this by a 'Thought for the Day' slot on Radio 4's Today programme earlier this week, in which the speaker talked at length about the value of 'religion' for the contemporary world - not God, or Christianity, but 'religion'. I know why he did it - as I've mentioned before, Christian spokespeople have had to broaden their sales pitch to hold on to their niche in the multicultural marketplace of ideas, and it wouldn't do to claim any special insights for your own brand of faith, rather than faith in general. But it did strike me that the result was elevating 'religion' or 'faith' into a kind of idol, when what both believers and secularists should be promoting is truth - wherever it is to be found. End of today's sermon.

P.S. Since posting this I've googled 'faith-ism' and noticed that the term is already being used by some religious groups (though without the connecting dash '-') to mean discrimination on the grounds of religious belief. Needless to say, this is a world away from the way I'm using the term. In fact, I would argue that it's misguided to list 'faithism' alongside racism, sexism, homophobia etc as if it were somehow similar - but let's save that discussion for another day.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Holiday reading

We took a short break in the sun over Easter, spending most of our time on a sunbed, reading. Holiday reading's a funny thing. We used to take only 'light' material, then realised we felt brain-dead after a few days away and started packing heavier tomes (in both senses) as a means of reconnecting with our everyday selves while away. This time, my reading straddled the popular-serious divide, as I spent most of my time absorbed in a couple of recent memoirs: Griff Rhys Jones' Semi Detached and John Cornwell's Seminary Boy.

My enjoyment of Rhys Jones' nostalgic evocation of growing up in the 50's, 60's and 70's was partly due to the pleasure of recognition: like him, I went to an Essex grammar school then on to Cambridge to study English, and at roughly the same time, but from a much more modest background. In fact, one of the things that struck me most forcibly reading the book was the way that the class system of 30 or 40 years ago constrained and stultified its beneficiaries as well as its victims. Coming from a working-cum-aspiring-lower-middle-class background myself, I found Rhys Jones' early chapters, about his middle-middle-class childhood in the Home Counties, almost unbearably suffocating.

The book also made me reflect on the nature of celebrity and the way it transforms the way we think about a life. Though entertainingly written, this memoir of childhood contains no great insights into why this particular middle-class boy ended up as a celebrated comic actor and presenter - and we wouldn't be particularly interested in the story if its author weren't so well known. Rhys Jones ends his narrative when he is on the verge of becoming famous, emerging from the dull anonymity of his background into the bright light of celebrity and 'known-ness' - which is the 'point' of the story, the transformation that casts a retrospective light on the preceding chapters and gives them meaning. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that celebrity (auto)biographies are rather like the religious conversion narratives of previous eras, with the dull ordinariness of pre-fame life standing in for the pre-conversion life of sin, and 'becoming famous' the contemporary equivalent of the moment of spiritual transformation.

However, rather like those conversion narratives, the celebrity memoir not only gives retrospective significance to its subject's otherwise dull pre-fame experience, it also has the effect of making everybody else's non-celebrity lives appear drab ('lost' would have been the religious equivalent) by comparison. There's a description in the book of Griff returning to his old school for a reunion, some decades on. Without the dazzling light of his celebrity shining on them, his erstwhile friends' post-school lives as businessmen, teachers, professionals might have seemed perfectly decent and worthy, but the effect of his presence is to make them appear rather disappointing - as if he were the only one to have achieved anything of note.

Interestingly, I also found personal points of connection with Cornwell's memoir. Like my own parents, he was born in working-class East Ham, in the East End of London, though a few years after them, and into a Catholic rather than a Nonconformist family. As others have noted, his story of delinquent youth transformed by the experience of a Catholic minor seminary, followed by progression to higher education and loss of faith, has the imaginative power of good fiction. This is a memoir that has an intrinsic and universal interest - for its recreation of the progress of a young mind (and soul) and its insight into relationships between sons and fathers (and father-figures) - regardless of the fame or otherwise of its author. It's a conversion (and de-conversion, then re-conversion) narrative in the more conventional sense, but a remarkable one. Highly recommended.

I also read (or tried to read) a couple of popular novels while on holiday. I don't like giving up on books once started, but I just wasn't able to get on with C.J.Sansom's Winter in Madrid, despite the acclamatory reviews peppering its covers. Despite what they say, Shadow of the Wind it ain't, and in its mining of the Spanish Civil War for popular fictional material, it's not in the same league as Javier Cercas' brilliant Soldiers of Salamis. It just doesn't have the pace and verve of those books. Although I mustn't rush to judgement until I've made a greater effort to finish the thing, I have to say that (so far) I agree with the rather mixed and lukewarm responses posted by Amazon reviewers of Sansom's book. I got on much better with Jeb Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder, which cleverly combines the real-life story of Freud's only visit to the US with a fictional murder mystery - and manages to be both thought-provoking and a page-turner.

There's a lot of snobbery attached to holiday reading, isn't there? For some, it's important to be seen with a volume of Proust or Anthony Powell poking out of the hand luggage. I thought I was immune, but realising that at least two of my chosen holiday books were Richard and Judy Bookclub recommendations prompted a moment of snobbish queasiness before departure. On such occasions, there's nothing for it but to remove those little round recommendation stickers and, next time you're passing a bookshop, attach them mischievously to some little-read academic volume, perhaps one in which you've had some personal involvement (not that I've ever done this myself, you understand).

Monday, 16 April 2007

'Aggressively promoting secularism'? (yet again)

Just back from a week's holiday and already forced back into the fray by yet another example of cliche'd anti-secularism from a religious commentator whose opinion I have valued in the past. Nicholas Buxton was the hippy-ish ex-Buddhist PhD student from the BBC series The Monastery, now apparently training to be an Anglican priest, who was one of the few to question the therapeutised, belief-lite character of the programmes. All the more disappointing then to read him in a 'Face to faith' column in last Saturday's Guardian complaining that

so-called liberals who aggressively promote secularism in the name of an objective truth or rationality routinely fail to realise that they have simply substituted one set of mythic narratives for another.

Norm has already deconstructed Buxton's defence of religion, but my concern here is with the latter's lazy pairing of 'secularism' with 'aggression'. As I've pointed out on various occasions in the brief life of this blog, this verbal tic irritates me no end, firstly because it is fast becoming a tired cliche among even liberal religious commentators, secondly because it erects barriers that block dialogue between believers and humanists, and lastly because no evidence is ever presented of secularists (or to use Buxton's needlessly derogatory term 'so-called liberals' ) acting 'aggressively' towards believers. Certainly not as aggressively or as threateningly as some believers have acted recently towards those who dare to criticise or mock religion. Equally lazy is Buxton's attempt to equate the 'mythic narratives' of religion with the constantly self-questioning traditions of rational humanism.

Buxton ends his article by drawing parallels between the fate of Christians under the Roman empire and their experience in contemporary secular society, arguing that 'we have come full circle', and that 'Christians are once again atheists and heretics because they do not worship the "god" of today's orthodoxy'. If I remember rightly, Christianity was outlawed in imperial Rome and believers faced torture and death for professing belief: in modern Britain, Christianity is not only tolerated but actively supported by the state (subsidies for church schools, bishops in the Lords, regular comment slots on Radio 4 and in The Guardian), so that particular analogy doesn't really hold up. What I find more worrying about this increasingly pervasive strategy to cast Christianity, and religious faith generally, as marginal and persecuted is its suggestion of a desire among Christians to play the role of victims, even when the evidence of victimisation is terribly thin.

P.S. Here's a sensible Christian response to this kind of persecution complex (thanks once again to Ekklesia).

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Secularism under threat?

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor's anxieties about the onward march of 'aggressive secularism' (see this post) seem to have forced a personal re-think on whether Catholic bishops should sit in the House of Lords. According to this week's Tablet (subscription required):

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has declared that Catholic archbishops should sit in the House of Lords in what appears to be a personal change of heart on the subject. The cardinal said he regretted that there is no Catholic bishop to speak for the Church in Parliament though he conceded there was no consensus on the subject among his fellow bishops and that canon law presents an obstacle to such a plan.

The Cardinal went on to assert that 'an argument could be made for the five archbishops to sit in the Lords by right'. He's already picked up support from the retired Anglican bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries, himself a life peer who (according to The Tablet's report) 'said this week that he supported official Catholic representation in the Lords along with representatives from other faiths but added that space would be a problem.'

Oh well, if that's the only problem, I'm sure they could build an extension to the Palace of Westminster, then everyone could squeeze in - leading Scientologists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses. After all, they all represent sizeable constituencies and could make an equally convincing case that they should sit in the Lords 'by right'. But perhaps there are other 'problems' with the Cardinal's plan, such as the mockery it would make of democracy and the already compromised separation of church and state.

A brief interlude

This blog will be taking a brief holiday in the sun over Easter, so - after today - no new posts will appear here for a while.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Religion and identity revisited

Further to this post on not privileging religion as the key feature of people's identities (especially if their affiliation is purely nominal or they do not regard themselves as particularly religious), see this speech by Mina Ahadi, reported on Maryam Namazie's blog. Here's a flavour:

I have lived in Germany for 11 years; I was first interviewed on stoning by national German TV seven years ago. When at home, I watched the interview and saw that they had introduced me as ‘Mina Ahadi, a Muslim woman’. I immediately called to complain. I asked if a German politician or spokesperson was interviewed on your TV programme, would you label her a ‘Christian woman’?


Governments compromise with Islamic groups – the German, British and European governments. They organise conferences with terrorist organisations about how to integrate people like us in society. When they label us as Muslims and put us all in one sack, they make the leaders of Islamic organisations our leaders and leave it up to them to ‘integrate us’.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Indian review of Postel book on Iran

Further to this post about Danny Postel's important book on liberalism and Iran, see this review for a non-western perspective on the book, and specifically on the western Left's abandonment of Iranian liberals, by Rafia Zakaria in the Indian journal Frontline (via normblog).

Rock music still exciting shock horror

I must be the last person in the world to attach myself to this particular bandwagon but everything they say about The Arcade Fire is true. I've only just discovered them, courtesy of YouTube and (this will really show my age) it reminded me of hearing Joy Division, or Television, or even The Velvet Underground, for the first time. Having long ago deserted rock for jazz and world music, I'd forgotten that new music could be so thrilling, powerful and transfigurative (gasp!). If you're not yet a convert, watch the videos here and here.

Kurdistan the model for Iraq?

Here's Christopher Hitchens describing his recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, and giving a sense of how the rest of Iraq might have been - democratic, pluralist, secular - and might still be? (via Mick Hartley)

Monday, 2 April 2007

'Chocolate Jesus' and a sense of proportion

Harry's Place has a post here about the 'Chocolate Jesus' furore in New York. David T has great (and justifiable) fun with the po-faced 'anti' campaign by the Catholic League et al. But just to show that some Christians have a sense of humour and can keep a sense of proportion, see this post by Eduardo Penalver on the blog pages of the US Catholic journal Commonweal. All these sensible believers are beginning to seem like an answer to my plea (prayer?) here for alternative, liberal Christian voices to make themselves heard.

Resisting polarisation in the secularism debate

Further to these posts about secularist 'persecution' of believers, and this one on how some secularists might not be helping matters, I've just come across this eminently sensible contribution to the debate by Simon Barrow over at Ekklesia, the 'liberal' Christian website (though I know they don't like that label). Think I'll add them to my resources list.

Religion and identity

Yesterday's Observer sports magazine had an article by Jason Burke about the latest young bullfighting sensation:

Mehdi Savalli is French, an Arab and just 20. He defies bullfighting tradition and the purists object to his theatrical style yet he is already a sensation of the ring.

Apparently Savalli has become known as 'The Muslim Matador', which is also the title of Burke's piece. Trouble is: I discovered when we met, Savalli is neither Muslim nor Arab. His mother is of Moroccan origin, although Savalli has never been to her homeland, and his father is of Sicilian descent. As for being a Muslim, he says: 'They just pigeonholed me. I eat pork, I don't pray and, if it wasn't for the training, I would drink. I am not the Muslim matador. I am a French matador.'

A salutary reminder of the dangers of assigning individuals (particularly members of minorities) to singular-identity slots - especially religious ones. Recent years have seen members of western Europe's populations of Arab, North African and South Asian heritage increasingly redefined according to their religious affiliations - particularly if that affiliation is Islamic - even if they are not particularly religious, or if other identities (national, ethnic, political, professional) are more significant for them. To be fair, this is partly a reflection of shifts within minority communities themselves - I remember Salman Rushdie regretting the diminution of the power of non-sectarian trades unions and political organisations among British Asians, as the mosques gained in influence and redefined communities along confessional lines - and the campaign against Rushdie himself was crucial in bolstering a new sense of (victimised, radicalised) 'Muslim identity' in the UK and elsewhere.

But the white majority, led by their governments and the media, have certainly done their bit to reinforce these singular, sectarian identities. There's now a tendency for media reports to describe individuals from Asian backgrounds primarily in terms of their nominal religion - especially if that religion is Islam and even if the individual is not particularly religious. And government funding, especially in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7, has often been targeted at 'Muslim' (rather than, as previously, 'Asian', or 'inner-city') communities.

I was thinking about this when I read Graham's post at Harry's Place in which he reports a speech by Professor Yehuda Bauer, on strategies for countering radical Islam. Although Bauer believes that the battle must be fought primarily within Islam, he believes that non-muslims can play a part by reaching out to ordinary, moderate Muslims. That's all well and good, but I would add that 'non-muslims' can also play a part by 'reaching out' to people not solely as Muslims, acknowledging other aspects of people's identities, and also acknowledging that religion may be of little or no importance in the identities of many people who get labelled as 'Muslims', just as it is for many whose birth certificate has them down as 'Christians'.

This links to another news item in the last couple of days (sorry, can't locate it just now), about yet another effort by the UK government to encourage the recruitment of 'moderate' imams to British mosques. Once again, all fine and dandy, as long as it's accompanied by efforts to support the work of secular, non-sectarian groups working within black and minority ethnic communities, and other communities for that matter.

Along similar lines, see this post by Andrew Sullivan.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

At last a sensible Christian voice on 'secularism'

Canon Dr Judith Maltby, the chaplain of Corpus Christi College, Oxford and a Reader in church history at Oxford University, takes the heat out of the 'aggressive secularism' debate, and at the same time restores one's faith in liberal, thoughtful Christianity, in her 'Face to faith' column in yesterday's Guardian. Reminding Christians that their prayers on Good Friday will include remembering those who are persecuted for their faith, she affirms: 'It is right that Christians in the west should pray for our sisters and brothers in parts of the world where the religious liberties we take for granted are scarce'. But she adds:

There is a growing view, however, that Christians in the UK are suffering persecution. In the debate over sexual orientation regulations, the removal of the right to discriminate is being presented as a form of discrimination. One leading conservative Christian critic of the regulations recently wrote: "The Berlin Wall may be down, but Lenin rules in Whitehall".

As I said in earlier posts on this topic (here, here and here), this point of view has become increasingly strident recently and (disappointingly) not just among Conservative (or conservative) Christians. But Canon Judith's response cheered me up no end:

I cannot be the only Christian in Britain who detects a lack of proportion in the protestations of "persecution" and an erosion of "religious freedom" because some Christian B&B owners will be forced to take money from gay couples (of whom some will be Christians themselves). In a world of genuine suffering for religious beliefs - at times with the support and collusion of church leaders, including some Anglicans as in Zimbabwe - this sort of comment seems at best self-indulgent and in poor taste.

I hope Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor and whoever writes the Tablet editorials read The Guardian and have taken note. Dr. Maltby goes on to argue that Christians should also pray for those who are persecuted in the name of Christ, and she has in mind those American Episcopalians who have been 'subject to cheap jibes about trendy liberalism' (not least for their support of gay clergy) from some of their co-religionists.