Burkinis, crosses, and bombs

So, France’s top administrative court has found that the town of Villeneuve-Loubet’s ban on the wearing of burkinis “seriously and clearly illegally breached fundamental freedoms“.  But the dispute about the ban hasn’t gone away. Apparently, a number of mayors have said they will continue to apply it.

The burkini ban is of interest for two particular reasons.

The first arises from an incident that took place at Nice last week, in which armed police officers approached a woman who was lying on the beach, and issued her with a penalty notice, which cited her for not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism“. Apparently, in Nice, one has to wear outfits that “respect secularism”.

The mind boggles.  An itsy bitsy teenie weenie lady’s swimming costume respects good morals, whereas an outfit designed for modesty doesn’t?  Seriously?  And is secularism so sacred to the French that they insist that people must show respect for it by the clothes they wear? Does that mean nuns who wear their habits as they walk around Nice can expect police officers to come and request that they take them off? (Apparently not. At least not yet.)

But it does remind one that the French take the traditions of the French revolution seriously, and one of those traditions is secularism.  It also reminds one that not only did the French Revolution involve the storming of the Bastille; it also involved the executions of large numbers of priests and nuns – and, interestingly enough, an incident in which the Archbishop of Paris was forced to resign his duties and made to replace his mitre with the red “Cap of Liberty.” One suspects that his mitre was not considered “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism.

Meanwhile, in the UK . . .

The burkini ban, however, reminds me of something closer to home – the case, a few years ago, of Nadia Eweida, A Christian who was told by her bosses at British Airways to hide a small cross she wore around her neck. While she lost her case for religious discrimination at the Court of Appeal, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) eventually ruled that she had faced discrimination for her Christian beliefs.

There are differences between the two cases. In the first place, BA’s objection to the gold cross the woman wore was not based on the fact that that the gold cross was religious, but on the fact that it was jewelry.  Secondly, BA is a private company and was simply enforcing a policy that applied to employees while they were at work. In France, the edicts prohibiting burkinis were issued by municipalities, in other words, governing authorities.  

But there is an important similarity: the question of how the bans were perceived.  Just as there has been widespread concern over the burkini ban, there was also considerable unhappiness about BA’s policy, because it was seen as discriminatory.  And, in particular, it was seen by many Christians as evidence of a society that was increasingly hostile to Christianity.

Hostility and alienation

And that brings us to the second reason why the burkini ban in many French towns is interesting. If Christians in the UK feel that British society is hostile towards them, it is not likely to cause problems for the British government. But if  Muslims in France think that French society is hostile towards them, that could cause big problems for the French authorities.

Why? Because if British Christians feel that British society is hostile to them, they are not likely to want to take it out on British society in some way. If French Muslims think that French society is hostile towards them, it seems to me quite likely that some of them may want to take it out on French society in ways that involve violence.

There are a variety of reasons for that. One is that Muslims in France have always been a minority, and quite a visible minority. They often live in largely Muslim communities. They tend to be less well off that the native French. There is every reason why they may feel like outsiders.  British Christians are a lot less likely to feel like outsiders than French Muslims.

And then there is the fact that war and bloodshed are very much a part of Islam. Simply compare the careers of Mohammed and Jesus Christ. Or look at the fact that for the first 250 years of Christianity, the church grew exclusively by peaceful means – whereas for the first 250 years of Islam, its spread largely came on the back of military conquest. The existence today of Islamic groups that believe in using war and bloodshed to advance Islam looks back to that heritage.

In other words, it seems to me that if French Muslims become disillusioned with French society, and feel like they are outsiders in French society, and feel that French society is hostile to them, it is quite likely that a small number may want to take it out on French society. There are about 4 million Muslims in France. If only one percent of them feel completely alienated from French society, and only one percent of the completely alienated feel so hostile to French society that they want to use violence against it, that’s still 400 people. I suspect that the number might be much higher.

How to be provocative

So my question is “Why does French society seem to be so determined to do things that will make Muslims feel like despised outsiders?” (And here one must remember that for most of these Muslims, Islam is, to some extent, about culture and identity more than it is about religious belief – in the same way that in Northern Ireland, many people feel strongly protestant even when they don’t have any particularly strong religious beliefs. Being ‘protestant’ is part of their identity.)

So look at what the French have done.

In 2010, they passed a law prohibiting concealment of the face in public space. The intention was to ban the burqa. Not many Muslim women in France wore burqas but most Muslims would have taken this as a bunch of non-Muslims saying “You don’t have the freedom in this country to be the kind of Muslims you want to be; you have to be the kind of Muslims we want you to be.” And some Muslims would have taken this as saying “We, the French people, don’t have much time for your stupid religion.”

Then, in 2105, we had the “Je suis Charlie” phenomenon. Two gunmen, who identified themselves with al-Qaeda, attacked the offices of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and killed 11 people. The act was in response to the way that Charlie Hebdo had mocked and insulted Islam. It mocked and insulted Catholicism, Judaism, and various other groups as well, of course, because mockery and sneering were what it was all about. But Catholics and Jews were never likely to retaliate.  Muslims, on the other hand . . .

I’ve never read Charlie Hebdo, but I tend to take a dim view of mockery and insults. I don’t think there was anything honourable about what Charlie Hebdo was doing. But what they were doing was not just discourteous; it was also foolish.  If the people who produced the magazine didn’t realise that in mocking Islam they were playing with fire, they were dangerously stupid.

But the way that so many people in France reacted to the shooting by using the slogan “Je suis Charlie” to show solidarity with the Charlie Hebdo employees who had been murdered, was in my opinion particularly interesting. To say “Je suis Charlie” was basically saying to Muslims “I am the person who insulted and mocked that which was sacred to you.”  Which seems to me to be rather provocative.

And the French have kept at it. Earlier this month we had a bizarre incident in which a halal supermarket in Paris was ordered by local authorities to sell pork and alcohol or face closure. And now we have the burkini ban, which has widespread public support in France.

These things are all sending signals. The problem is that a lot of Muslims in France are simply going to see them as saying that the French people have complete contempt for Islam – at least Islam that doesn’t conform to French social norms.  In fact, many will see this as simply proving that the French have complete contempt for Muslims.  

A lot of non-Muslims – especially religious traditionalists and people with a concern for freedom, find France’s demand that a religion should conform to French social norms to be distinctly sinister. (See, for example, Tim Stanley.) I certainly do.  Over the past 2000 years, Christians have often faced pressure to conform to social norms, even if it meant ignoring Christian teaching.  But for most of the past 200 years, we have become used freedom of religion in western European countries.  To see the French authorities demanding that Muslims conform by taking off clothes or stocking pork in supermarkets should worry Christians.

But for the moment, it is Islam that is the target for secularism in France. And it seems to me that the way that France is going about it is likely to alienate and anger quite a lot of Muslims – including French ones. It isn’t good for France to have a community of 4 million in its midst which feels alienated from French society. That is particularly true if they feel not just alienated, but also angry. However, it is especially true if members of that community seem to have a particular predilection for high profile acts of violence and bloodshed.

The book of Proverbs (15:1) says “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” It seems to me that to respond to increasing signs of Islamic militancy by getting armed police to order a woman lying on the beach to remove some of her clothing does not amount to a soft answer.

Yemen: In the darkness, a light shines.

When I posted my article describing the way that the Saudi bombing was killing children in Yemen, little did I know that Saudi Arabia was just about to do it again.

On the 12th of August, I wrote:

According to Reuters, “The U.N. report on children and armed conflict – released last Thursday – said the [Saudi-led] coalition was responsible for 60 percent of child deaths and injuries in Yemen last year, killing 510 and wounding 667, and half the attacks on schools and hospitals.”

On the 13th of August, the New York Times reported:

In the Haydan District, another northern area, airstrikes on Saturday hit a school, killing 10 students and wounding 28 others, an official at a nearby hospital said.

When rescuers took the victims from the principal’s house to Shiara Hospital, which is supported by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, staff members asked the rescuers to leave immediately, fearing that the hospital would be hit by another airstrike, rescuers said.

Several Doctors Without Borders hospitals have been hit by Saudi-led coalition airstrikes since the conflict began early in 2015. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen after Houthi militants ousted the country’s president.

The Saudi story

The Saudi authorities deny the charges. Maj. Gen. Ahmed Asseri, the spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition, said the Houthi militants who dominate much of northern Yemen, including the capital, Sana, commonly station their fighters in schools and hospitals. But he said he had no specific comment on the airstrikes on Saturday.

We all know that these criminal organizations and groups are under pressure of the government.  So they keep lying and saying that hospitals and schools are hit because they know the sensitivities of the international community.

They use civilian installations as the command and control centers of their organization. Don’t focus on the technical details. This is a war. Collateral damage could happen, mistakes could happen. But we work in Yemen on behalf of the international community; we are in Yemen today because the fire is on our border. If we do nothing today, tomorrow all the area will be a failed state.”

Major Asseri later told CNN “The aircraft has bombed a training camp for the coup militias called (Huda) in Saada,” and added that it “confirms the Houthis practice of recruit and subjecting children to terror. “According to Asseri, Houthis regularly recruit children “and use them as scouts, guards, messengers and fighters,” ultimately “subjecting them to injury and murder.”

Should we believe the Saudi government?

Not everyone is convinced: witnesses insisted that no Houthi military forces were present in the school. And UNICEF’s representative in Yemen, Julien Harneis, told CNN the children were too young to be fighters. “We’ve had a verification team who went to the site and was there on the day. We’ve been to the hospital and we’ve spoken to parents. Many of these children were six years old, eight years old. There’s just no way that those were fighters.”

I don’t know what the truth of the matter is. However, Medecins Sans Frontieres and UNICEF have people on the ground who are flatly contradicting the official Saudi line seems significant.

I am also struck by the fact that the Saudi spokesman said “But we work in Yemen on behalf of the international community; we are in Yemen today because the fire is on our border. If we do nothing today, tomorrow all the area will be a failed state.”

It sounds good to say that Saudi Arabia is working on behalf of the international community, but that ignores a significant fact. Saudi Arabia’s intervention is far from being even-handed. They are attacking one group only – the Houthis. The significance of that is that there are two main branches of Islam: Sunni and Shia. The Houthis are Shias and the Saudi Arabian government is Sunni. About 10-15% of Saudi Arabians adhere to Shia Islam, but according to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, Shia citizens in Saudi Arabia

“face systematic discrimination in religion, education, justice, and employment. . . . Saudi Arabia has no Shia cabinet ministers, mayors or police chiefs, according to another source, Vali Nasr, unlike other countries with sizeable Shia populations. Shia are kept out of “critical jobs” in the armed forces and the security services, and not one of the three hundred Shia girls schools in the Eastern Province has a Shia principal”

Furthermore, earlier this year, Saudi Arabia executed a Shia religious leader, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr. Amnesty International was strongly critical of the execution, and Philip Luther, the Director of their Middle East and North Africa programme said: “The killing of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in particular suggests they are also using the death penalty in the name of counter-terror to settle scores and crush dissidents.”

In other words, when the Saudi government spokesman says “we work in Yemen on behalf of the international community”, he makes it sound like Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen is a basically humanitarian mission. The reality on the ground seems to look rather different. And when one takes into account that the people that the Saudi’s are bombing are Houthis, it begins to look suspiciously like part of the Saudi government’s ongoing campaign against Shia Islam.

Does anyone in America or Britain care?

Interestingly enough, the BBC website did not carry a report on this story, but the following day, it did get mentioned by the BBC in yet another story about Saudi bombing in Yemen, in which Medecins Sans Frontieres reported that one of their hospitals in northern Yemen had been hit by a Saudi air strike, killing at least 11 people, adding that the attack took place “less than 48 hours after MSF said a coalition air strike on a Koranic school in Saada’s Haydan district had killed 10 children.”

While the publicity that these air strikes have received has been very limited, and most people in the UK and the US seem to be either oblivious to or unconcerned about what is going on, a few voices are speaking out, including two American senators. Chris Murphy (a Democrat) said “There’s an American imprint on every civilian life lost in Yemen,” and Rand Paul (a Republican) is “looking for ways to stop a $1.15 billion weapons deal with Riyadh that would include the sale of 130 Abrams battle tanks, 20 armored vehicles, and other military equipment”, saying “I will work with a bipartisan coalition to explore forcing a vote on blocking this sale. Saudi Arabia is an unreliable ally with a poor human rights record.”

Meanwhile, the Guardian and the the New York Times have called for a halt to arms sales to Saudi Arabia.  According to the latter,

“Mr. Obama has also supplied the coalition such indispensable assistance as intelligence, in-flight refuelling of aircraft and help in identifying appropriate targets. Experts say the coalition would be grounded if Washington withheld its support. Instead, the State Department last week approved the potential sale of $1.15 billion more in tanks and other equipment to Saudi Arabia to replace items destroyed in the war.”

Journalist Daniel Larison has gone further and said (and note the word ‘always’)

“U.S. support for the war was always indefensible because the war was unnecessary and reckless. The Saudis and their allies were not defending themselves when they starting bombing Yemen, and no U.S. interests were being served by helping them attack their neighbor. . . . It should be clear by now that the Saudis and their allies “do not care about killing innocent civilians,” which shouldn’t come as much of a shock to anyone considering that the coalition includes the likes of Sudan. The coalition made this clear when they illegally declared all of Saada a military target and they proved it again when they dropped cluster bombs in civilian areas.”

All this raises big questions about US and UK foreign policy in the Middle East.

But perhaps the biggest question is “Why is it that nobody seems to care?” According to the BBC, “The conflict in Yemen that began in 2015 has left more than 6,400 people dead, half of them civilians, and displaced 2.5 million others, according to the UN. ”

That’s 3000 civilians killed by bombs and bullets in just over a year, and nobody is concerned. Many of them are children, and most were killed by Saudi Arabia and its allies. According to U.N. figures, the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for 60% of the 1,953 children recorded as killed or maimed in the conflict in 2015.

49 people were shot in Florida and the Scottish Parliament observed a minute’s silence. 35 people were killed in bombings in Brussels and there was an outpouring of horror and sympathy in the UK. 84 people were killed in Nice when a man drove into crowds celebrating Bastille day, and it dominated the news in Britain. But when 3000 civilians are killed in Yemen, it’s different.

And the 3000 civilians killed and the 2.5 million people who have been displaced are only part of the suffering of that country. Oxfam has estimated that three million women and children under five are suffering from malnutrition. Why are we more concerned about Orlando, Brussels and Nice?

The gospel of peace in Yemen

Yemen is overwhelmingly Muslim. But there is a small Christian community there. Middle East Reformed Fellowship reports:

A sectarian war has raged over a year in Yemen, located in the southern Arabian Peninsula. Millions have only sporadic access to clean water, sufficient food, electricity, and basic medical care. The safety and well-being of the small communities of believers in this war-torn country is a serious concern. Although email and text message contacts with some have continued in both Sana’a and Aden, three groups of local converts can no longer get together for worship, even in homes.

A Christian primary school teacher in Yemen wrote: “… what a joy to receive a written note from parents of one of my pupils to thank me for teaching her to memorize the heavenly words of Jesus about loving one’s enemies…”

Even in Yemen, the good news of Jesus is being heard, and the work of that Gospel goes on. Please pray for the protection of God’s people, the work of the Gospel, and restoration of peace. That is the outside intervention that Yemen needs.

General knowledge question: which country . . .

General knowledge question: which country . . .

1) practices public beheading of convicted criminals

2) has a government which had close links to the 9/11 hijackers

3) invaded a neighbouring country last year

4) has, in the past year, killed hundreds of civilians, including children, by bombing hospitals

5) forbids its citizens from becoming Christians, bans the selling of Bibles, and tolerates no church buildings on its territory?

1. Only one country in the world practices public beheading.

Four countries in the world practice public execution.  Of these, only one uses beheading as its standard method.

Here’s a story published last August by MintPress News:

“In January, a Muslim woman from Myanmar screamed “I did not kill” and pled with her attackers for mercy, but they showed none. In the center of an intersection, she was publicly beheaded in front of spectators, her death caught covertly on video.

It’s the kind of horrifying tableau that has become almost commonplace in Western media, as it plays out each time ISIS claims its latest victims. But this woman, Laila Bint Abdul Muttalib Basim, wasn’t a victim of ISIS, but one of 110 prisoners executed by Saudi Arabia so far this year. In fact, this U.S. ally has beheaded almost twice as many prisoners as ISIS in 2015 and may be on pace to achieve a record-breaking number of executions.”

While I don’t know if it is true that Saudi Arabia was beheading more people than ISIS in 2015 (I doubt that anyone knows how many people ISIS has beheaded), what we do know is that Saudi Arabia does behead people in public, and it beheads plenty of them. The Guardian reported earlier this year that

“According to data collected by Amnesty International, at least 151 people were executed in Saudi Arabia between January and November 2015 , while Human Rights Watch recorded 158in total during the year. The figures mark the highest number of recorded executions in one year since 1995, when 192 people were killed. It also marks a 67% increase on the 90 in 2014. Saudi Arabia does not release its own figures on the number of people it executes.”

2. The Saudi government had several rather unexpected links to some of the 9/11 hijackers.

Most press and media reaction to last month’s release of the previously classified 28 pages of the US government’s 9/11 Commission Report have given the impression that they proved conclusively that the Saudi government had no involvement. For example, the BBC‘s angle was “The White House has said previously classified papers concerning the 9/11 attacks released on Friday show there had been no official Saudi role. ”

The Guardian was more cautious:

This information does not change the assessment of the US government that there’s no evidence that the Saudi government or senior Saudi individuals funded al-Qaida,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. “The number one takeaway from this should be that this administration is committed to transparency even when it comes to sensitive information related to national security.” The publication, awaited for 13 years, will not necessarily end speculation around Saudi influence, however.

However, if you really want to know what was in the 28 pages, a report by independent journalist Larisa Alexandrovna Horton (which goes into much more detail than the BBC or the Guardian) concludes that “The 28 Pages make it clear that the hijackers had handlers who were reporting to, funded by and taking directions from figures at the highest levels of the Saudi government.”  Read it yourself.  It makes very interesting reading.

3. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen.

Admittedly, Yemen was already in a state of civil war when Saudi Arabia went in, so it’s not the case that they invaded a peaceful country and brought chaos. However, what has happened since the invasion indicates that Saudi Arabia is not only not bringing peace or stability – it is doing some pretty shocking things. Which brings us to . . .

4. In the past year, Saudi Arabia has killed hundreds of civilians in Yemen, by, among other things, bombing hospitals.

According to CNBC, “U.N. investigators say that air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition are responsible for two thirds of the 3,200 civilians who have died in Yemen, or approximately 2,000 deaths. They said that Saudi forces have killed twice as many civilians as other forces in Yemen.”

The United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, Johannes van der Klaauw, said Sunday that coalition strikes over the weekend had targeted schools and hospitals, in breach of international law.

According to Reuters, “The U.N. report on children and armed conflict – released last Thursday – said the [Saudi-led] coalition was responsible for 60 percent of child deaths and injuries in Yemen last year, killing 510 and wounding 667, and half the attacks on schools and hospitals.”

According to Medecins Sans Frontiers “Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces have carried out a series of air strikes targeting schools that were still in use, in violation of international humanitarian law, and hampering access to education for thousands of Yemen’s children, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today. The coalition forces are armed by states including the USA and UK.” Note the word “targeting”. MSF seems to be saying that Saudi Arabia is deliberately attacking schools.

And from the Red Cross: “The International Committee of the Red Cross says Saudi war planes have targeted hospitals in Yemen, killing staff and wounding patients.”

5. Saudi Arabia is one of the worst countries in the world for freedom of religion

Saudi law requires all its citizens to be Muslims. It is illegal for anyone to publicly practice any faith other than the state’s official religion Sunni Islam. Members of other faiths can worship privately, but non-Muslim houses of worship may not be built. The Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, otherwise known as Saudi’s morality or religious police, enforce Shariah law on the streets. Apostasy and blasphemy against Sunni Islam can be punished by death, as several high-profile Twitter cases have reminded global media in recent years.

Saudi Arabia does not just have a poor record for freedom of religion – it is one of the worst in the world for every kind of freedom. According to Freedom house, of the 55 countries and territories designated as “Not Free”, 12 have been given the worst possible rating of 7 for both political rights and civil liberties. That makes Saudi Arabia one of the 12 most repressive countries in the world.

For example, Reuters reports that in October 2014, three lawyers were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.   One man, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics.

According to The Independent, Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.

What is going on?

To be honest, I find this shocking. In the past 15 years, the USA, with the help of the UK, has invaded and brought down the governments of Afghanistan and Iraq, sent in bombers to help bring down the government of Libya, and has made attempted, by the use of air power, to bring down the government of Syria.

But here is a regime which, like ISIS (but unlike Iraq, Syria, and Libya), practices public beheading. Here is a regime that has invaded a neighbouring country, bombing hospitals and schools and killing hundreds of civilians, including children, in apparent violation of international law. Here is a regime which has an appalling record of repression of its own citizens. But despite all these things, it remains on remarkably good terms with the governments of the US and the UK.

The fact that the Saudi government had several strange and remarkably close links with some of the 9/11 hijackers is particularly interesting. Iraq, Syria, and Libya – countries that America attacked as part of its “War on Terrorism” – had no such links. These links don’t conclusively prove anything. But one suspects that if any other country in the Middle East had such close links to the hijackers, the US would have invaded it.

Furthermore, in terms of freedom of religion (and in particular, freedom for Christians), Libya under Gaddafi was better than Saudi Arabia – and Iraq under Hussein and Syria under Assad were much better.

And yet, despite Saudi Arabia’s appalling record on so many fronts – a record that in many ways is worse than countries that the US and UK governments have attacked and bombed – the American and British governments keep on supporting it. The response of the White House to the release of the 28 pages is pretty typical.

Despite the fact that those pages raise huge questions, the White House is at pains to say that there is no evidence that the Saudi government or senior Saudi individuals funded al-Qaida.

Despite the fact that there Amnesty International, Medecins Sans Frontiers, the UN, and the Red Cross are concerned at the way that Saudi forces are attacking schools and hospitals, the British Foreign Secretary insists that Saudi actions comply with humanitarian law – despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

And, perhaps more interestingly, the amount of press coverage of Saudi Arabia’s behaviour is remarkably limited. Yes, there is some. But it is not on the front pages, and it is rarely in the TV news headlines, where, instead, we get things like intruders trying to climb into Buckingham Palace and Peter Sutcliffe being moved from Broadmoor Hospital to an ordinary prison.

One wonders how many people in the west actually care.