British values and the Westminster attack

The week from the 17th to the 24th March made for an interesting seven days.

Let’s start with Wednesday the 22nd. A man who grew up with the name Adrian Russell Ajao, but is now known as Khalid Masood, and who had a history of knife attacks, went on a rampage, driving a car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, and then running towards the Houses of Parliament where he stabbed a policeman. He managed to injure over 50 people, and to kill four, including the policeman and an American tourist. Ajao himself was shot dead.

The incident was horrifying – but hardly unique. In 1987, Michael Ryan shot 16 people in Hungerford before killing himself. In 1996, Thomas Hamilton killed 16 children and one teacher at Dunblane Primary School before killing himself. in 2010, Derrick Bird, killed 12 people and injured 11 others before killing himself in Cumbria. In terms of death toll, the Westminster attack was not as bad as those incidents.

Two things are different about this incident. One is that politicians have spoken as if this incident is in some way was a threat to the British way of life. The other is the fact that it has been described as a “terrorist” incident.

Terrorism great and small

Which brings us to what happened on the previous day – Tuesday 21st. Martin McGuinness, a former leader of the Provisional IRA, died. The Provisional IRA killed over 1700 people during the course of the troubles in Northern Ireland, making them the most deadly “terrorist” organisation ever to operate on British soil.

But their terrorism was of a very different kind from that of Ajao. They used bombs and bullets, and they were a tightly organised body. Ajao was armed with only a knife (and a Hyundai), and he was not acting as part of an organised group. As far as we know, he acted alone. His terrorism bears no resemblance to that of the IRA. His career as a ‘terrorist’ lasted a matter of minutes. The Provisional IRA was active for almost 30 years.

One incident in Ajao’s history seems to me to be significant. According to the Independent:

“In an incident that … may have led to a sense of alienation and grievance, he was convicted in 2000 of wounding and criminal damage. After a row at the Crown and Thistle pub in Northiam, Masood, who had drunk four pints during the afternoon, slashed café owner Piers Mott with a knife, leaving him with a face wound that needed 20 stitches. It was said at the time that Masood had been one of only two black men in the village. And Alexander Taylor-Camara, Masood’s defence barrister, told Hove Crown Court: “There were racial overtones in the argument between himself and the victim. He let that get to him – unusually, because in the past he has been able to shrug off that sort of abuse.””

In short, he comes over as someone who has long felt alienated from British society – and a rather sad figure.

British values

And yet, listening to politicians talk, you would have thought that he posed a serious threat to British democracy. The Prime minister, Theresa May, is quoted as saying

“Yesterday, an act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy. But today we meet as normal, as generations have done before us and as future generations will continue to do, to deliver a simple message: we are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism. And we meet here in the oldest of all parliaments because we know democracy and the values it entails will always prevail .”

Indeed, the word “values” was the word of the day among politicians. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said “Our values are superior, our view of the world is better and more generous and our will is stronger.” ”

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary said “The British people will be united in working together to defeat those who would harm our shared values. Values of democracy, tolerance and the rule of law. Values symbolised by the Houses of Parliament. Values that will never be destroyed.

“We are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism.”

Huh? One man with a Hyundai and a knife?   And the Prime Minister speaks of how the nation’s resolve will never waver?  The way politicians speak, one would think the Luftwaffe were flattening the country, and plucky little Britain was standing up to incredible odds. (Indeed, Andrew Neil did invoke the spirit of the Battle of Britain and speak about the Luftwaffe.)

Are these people delusional? Well, they might be. But I think the more prosaic truth is that they are politicians. Politics is about power. And, to quote Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary, “Victimhood is the currency of our current cultural politics. Victimhood is power in our current society.” Hence politicians love to use the language of victimhood, and to portray their nations as victim nations that are under attack from powerful forces. I suspect that government ministers want people to think that Ajao represented powerful forces that threaten Britain, because it strengthens their political power if people believe that.

And, of course, victimhood is also a great enabler of self-righteousness. It enables us to become experts at seeing the specks in the eyes of other people, while not noticing the logs in our own.  That was undoubtedly the case with Ajao, but it doesn’t just apply to him.

Yemen, war crimes, and British bombs

And speaking of the Luftwaffe and bombs, there was Friday 17th March.

On that day, an Apache military helicopter reportedly opened fire on a boat packed with over 140 Somali migrants off the coast of Yemen. Forty-two people were killed in the attack, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). All 42 were reportedly carrying official U.N. refugee papers.

All the evidence suggests that Saudi Arabia was responsible. According to Human Rights Watch:

“All the parties to the conflict denied responsibility for the attack. Only the Saudi-led coalition has military aircraft. The Houthi-Saleh forces do not. Somalia, which supports the coalition, called on the coalition to investigate. But the coalition has repeatedly shown itself unable or unwilling to credibly investigate its own abuses.”

And Sarah Leah Whitson, their Middle East director, commented

“The coalition’s apparent firing on a boat filled with fleeing refugees is only the latest likely war crime in Yemen’s two-year-long war. Reckless disregard for the lives of civilians has reached a new level of depravity.””

And this is not the only horrifying story coming out of Yemen. While everybody knows about the Westminster attack, more than half of British people are unaware of the war in Yemen. A YouGov poll showed 49 per cent of people knew of the war there, which has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced three million more and left 14 million facing starvation.

Got that? Everybody knows about an incident in which 4 people were killed, but most people in Britain are unaware of a war going on at the moment which has killed 10,000 people.

And what is more, it is not as if the war in Yemen has nothing to do with Britain. The British Government supports the Saudi led coalition which is accused of killing hundreds of civilians – and of deliberately trying to starve rebel areas into submission.

Last year, Britain agreed weapons sales worth 3.3 billion dollars to Saudi Arabia. Some of the cluster bombs dropped in civilian areas were of British manufacture. Under pressure, the Saudis stopped using British cluster bombs and promptly replaced them with Brazilian ones, rather than giving up weapons which are known to kill and maim civilians and children decades after being dropped.

Last September, a Parliamentary report by the Committee on Arms Exports Control, which comprises 16 MPs from four parties, said it was likely British weapons had been used to violate international law.

The weight of evidence of violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition is now so great, that it is very difficult to continue to support Saudi Arabia.”

Theresa May rejected this conclusion, and spoke about the importance of Britain’s relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia, saying “When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.”

The following month, October, saw Parliament rejecting a motion calling for the British government to withdraw its support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen.

And, then in December, when the American government announced it would stop a shipment of precision-guided munition to Saudi Arabia following what it called evidence of “systematic, endemic problems in Saudi Arabia’s targeting” (in other words, Saudi bombings of schools, hospitals, wedding parties, and funerals), Theresa May refused to follow the American decision to end bomb sales to Saudi Arabia.

Iraq – and its body count

The day after the attack that killed 42 Somali refugees, was Saturday 18th, which, (by interesting coincidence) is the 14th anniversary of something else that happened in Westminster: the vote in Parliament that Britain “should use all means necessary to ensure the disarmament of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction”. In other words, on that day, Parliament voted to invade Iraq.  (Ironically, it turned out Parliament was mislead, and Iraq didn’t actually have weapons of mass destruction.)

As a result of this Parliamentary vote, the invasion began two days later – so Monday 20th March was also a significant anniversary. The invasion, of course, led to war, and the war led to violent death on a massive scale. The Iraq Body Count project has come up with a list of 174,000 Iraqis killed between 2003 and 2013, with between 112,000 and 123,000 of those being civilian non-combatants – a huge number compared to the four people killed in the Westminster attack.

And the Iraqi death toll keeps rising, because the invasion of Iraq led to war that continues to rage to this day. In particular, the war enabled a tiny, insignificant Salafist Islamic group to become a major power in western Iraq calling itself Islamic State – now generally known as ISIS. In 2014, ISIS had their most astonishing success: they capturing Mosul – a city of over half a million people.

In other words, what happened to Mosul in 2014 (and what is happening in Mosul today) is a direct consequence of that parliamentary vote in Westminster in March 2003 – together with US government’s decision to invade taken a few months earlier. And so yesterday’s BBC headline – concerning an American bomb attack on Mosul on the 17th March that apparently killed over 100 civilians) is a masterpiece of ironic understatement: Mosul battle: US ‘may be responsible’ for civilian deaths.” The fact is that the US and the UK, by starting off the fighting in Iraq in 2003, are unquestionably responsible – not just for the civilian deaths in the Mosul bombing, but all the civilian deaths in Iraq in the last 14 years.

Values?

Amber Rudd can talk about the “values of democracy, tolerance and the rule of law” and how these values are symbolised by the Houses of Parliament. She may think that these values are symbolised by the Houses of Parliament. But perhaps not everyone sees the Houses of Parliament that way. I would suggest that if you want to know what the Houses of Parliament really stand for, you look at the words of Christ (Matthew 7:16): “ye shall know them by their fruits.” If you look at what the Houses of Parliament actually do, and the consequences of their actions, the truth about Parliament is considerably darker than what politicians would have us believe.

And what of these great values?

Amber Rudd talks about democracy. But is democracy really an important value? If democracy means that democratically elected politicians in the US and UK democratically vote to enable war crimes in Yemen, is democracy really that wonderful a value? If democratically elected politicians in the US and the UK vote democratically to set off a war in the Middle East that will rage for decades and kill hundreds of thousands of people, is democracy something that is sacred?

Amber Rudd talks about the value of tolerance. But what exactly are we supposed to tolerate? Looking at Parliament’s record, one gets the impression that Parliament believes in tolerating repeated Saudi attacks on civilians in Yemen. Is that such a good thing?

Amber Rudd talks about the value of the rule of law. It’s a bit of a shame that the rule of law, which was bad enough in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, went out the window completely in that country when the UK and the US invaded Iraq to overthrow him.

And there was also something a little odd about the words of sympathy for the victims for the victims of the Westminster attack that came from politicians. Theresa May, in her speech, said “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who have been affected – to the victims themselves, and their family and friends who waved their loved ones off, but will not now be welcoming them home. “

What is odd is that I cannot remember Theresa May saying anything about her thoughts and prayers going out to those affected by British (and American) policy in Yemen. What I can remember is the way she spoke about the importance of Britain’s relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia, saying “When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.”

Alas, that relationship has done nothing at all to keep people on the streets of Yemen safe. The opposite is true. It has helped make people on the streets of Yemen very unsafe.

One can talk as much as one likes about Parliament embodying values like freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. But actions speak louder than words, and the actions of Parliament in recent years show that there are other values at work in Parliament. Parliament seems to embody a national pride that verges on national self-righteousness, not to mention callous disregard for human life if the people concerned are in certain Middle Eastern countries.

How do we know that Ajao’s attack was an attack on freedom, human rights, or the rule of law? Perhaps, just perhaps, he was angry because he saw darker values at work in Parliament.

What exactly is Saudi Arabia exporting to Indonesia?

According to The Atlantic:

When Saudi Arabia’s King Salman landed in Indonesia on Wednesday, he became the first Saudi monarch to visit the world’s largest Muslim-majority country since 1970. Officials in Jakarta had hoped the visit would help them strengthen business ties and secure $25 billion in resource investments. That’s largely been a bust—as of Thursday, the kingdom has agreed to just one new deal, for a relatively paltry $1 billion.

The article then goes on:

But Saudi Arabia has, for decades, been making investments of a different sort—those aimed at influencing Indonesian culture and religion.

But I think the key sentence in the article is this:

Since 1980, Saudi Arabia has devoted millions of dollars to exporting its strict brand of Islam, Salafism, to historically tolerant and diverse Indonesia.

For some background about Saudi Arabia, see my article on the subject.  It’s not good news.

Some background about Indonesia: (courtesy of OMF):

Indonesia is home to both the largest Muslim population of any country in the world and the largest number of Christians in Southeast Asia.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution.

. . . in the 1960s and 1970s, … tens of thousands of people joined the churches, including many from Muslim backgrounds.

There has been inter-communal fighting between Muslim and Christian groups in Maluku and Central Sulawesi. Frequently conflicts have been initiated by outside “jihad” warriors demanding that the local Muslim communities take control of mixed Christian land areas.

Indonesia, in other words, is a country with a large Muslim majority, with more Muslims than any country in the world, and yet which is committed to religious freedom, and where Christians can and do share the gospel of Jesus Christ with their Muslim neighbours.

However, one can never take such freedom for granted, and one suspects that Saudi influence is not going to do anything to encourage that freedom – or any other freedom.

OMF requests for prayer concerning religious issues include praying about:

* Fanatical Islam breeding ethnic and religious hatred.

*The president and his government as they seek to tackle these issues.

Yemen: trusting in princes, trusting in chariots, and laying down one’s life for one’s friends

In my last article on Yemen, I wrote: “Despite the death of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens and the destruction of a $70 million Osprey aircraft – Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the mission was a “successful operation by all standards.” Apparently, the raid gathered some useful intelligence. Whether that is true is anybody’s guess.”

Within two weeks, it was looking increasingly like the answer (as I suspected) is that it wasn’t true. Although White House spokesman Sean Spicer had said on February 8th that “We gathered an unbelievable amount of intelligence that will prevent the potential deaths or attacks on American soil,” and Pentagon officials have said that the raid produced “actionable intelligence,” and Donald Trump spoke in his State of the Union Address of “a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies,”  the only example the military has provided turned out to be an old bomb-making video that was of no current value.

More significantly, in late February, several senior officials who spoke to NBC News said they were unaware of any.  Ten current U.S. officials across the government who have been briefed on the details of the raid told NBC News that so far, no truly significant intelligence has emerged from the haul. Retired Admiral Jim Stravidis is clearly sceptical that there is any. “When we look at evidently very little actual intelligence out, the loss of a high-performance aircraft and above all the loss of a highly trained special forces member of SEAL Team 6, I think we need to understand why this mission, why now, what happened, and what the actual output was.”

But from a moral point of view, does it matter? Because, of course, the really significant thing about the raid was the fact that it killed 25 civilians – including 9 children.  Would the killing of 25 civilians be more morally acceptable if the US gained useful intelligence as a result of the raid? And come to think of it, since when does gaining intelligence become a legitimate justification for killing 25 civilians?

What the Bible says . . .

Which brings me to my second point. Here is the full quote of what Donald Trump said about the Yemen raid in his State of the Union Address:

We are blessed to be joined tonight by Carryn Owens, the widow of a U.S. Navy Special Operator, Senior Chief William “Ryan” Owens. Ryan died as he lived: a warrior, and a hero –- battling against terrorism and securing our Nation. I just spoke to General Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, “Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.” Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom –- we will never forget him.

Let us leave aside the fact that I am sceptical that the Yemen raid did anything whatever to secure the USA. Let us also leave aside the fact that I would question whether Ryan Owens, in any meaningful sense, actually died for his friends, or for his country, or for anyone’s freedom.

What I find deeply disturbing is that these words of Jesus are not just quoted out of context; they are quoted in a context that is highly inappropriate. The words of Jesus are about laying down one’s life – voluntarily allowing oneself to be killed. To quote the New Testament scholar Leon Morris, “In the context, this must refer primarily to the love of Jesus as shown in the cross. There He laid down His life on behalf of His friends.” To apply it to an armed man, involved in a raid that killed 25 civilians, including 9 children, is simply grotesque – even blasphemous. And if anyone objects that Ryan Owens did lay down his life, in that he risked his life by going into action – then it could be said of every fighter on every side in Yemen’s civil war that “they lay down their life for their friends.”

Some lives matter more than others

And as Glenn Greenwald has pointed out,

The raid in Yemen that cost Owens his life also killed 30 other people, including “many civilians,” at least nine of whom were children. None of them were mentioned by Trump in last night’s speech, let alone honored with applause and the presence of grieving relatives. That’s because they were Yemenis, not Americans; therefore, their deaths, and lives, must be ignored . . . .

This is standard fare in U.S. war propaganda: We fixate on the Americans killed, learning their names and life stories and the plight of their spouses and parents, but steadfastly ignore the innocent people the U.S. government kills, whose numbers are always far greater. There is thus a sprawling, moving monument in the center of Washington, D.C., commemorating the 58,000 U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam, but not the (at least) 2 million Vietnamese civilians killed by that war.

Politicians and commentators condemning the Iraq War always mention the 4,000 U.S. soldiers who died but rarely mention the hundreds of thousands (at least) innocent Iraqis killed: They don’t exist, are unmentionable. After a terror attack aimed at Americans, we are deluged with media profiles and photographs of the victims, learning their life aspirations and wallowing in the grief of their families, but we almost never hear anything about any of the innocent victims killed by the United States.

Senior Chief Ryan Owens is a household name, and his wife, Carryn, is the subject of national admiration and sympathy. But the overwhelming majority of Americans do not know, and will never learn, the name of even a single foreign victim out of the many hundreds of thousands that their country has killed over the last 15 years. This imbalance plays a massive role in how Americans understand themselves, the countries their government invades and bombs, and the Endless War that is being waged.

Those words are worth reflecting on. So is the rest of what Greenwald says in his article. Do read it.

Something else the Bible says

There is one other thing that Greenwald says that I want to comment on.

” . . . it is also intended that the soldier’s nobility will be transferred to his commander in chief who is so solemnly honoring him. As demonstrated by the skyrocketing post-9/11 approval ratings for George Bush and the endless political usage Obama obtained for killing Osama bin Laden, nothing makes us rally around a president like uplifting war sentiment. . . . War makes people instinctively venerate the authority and leadership of the president who is presiding over it. That’s why . . . presidents like wars due to all the personal benefits they generate.”

In other words, to put it crudely, in speaking about Ryan Owens, Donald Trump is saying “put your trust in me.” But the Bible says: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save.” Trusting in princes comes all too naturally. And not just in times of war. It is, however, always foolish. Politicians and rulers make great claims. People eat it up, but it is nonsense. And the more you examine it, the more obvious it becomes that it is nonsense.

And who does this prince, President Trump, put his trust in? Well, in the case of the Yemen raid, he put his trust in generals, in military men. On Fox News, he said

“This was a mission that was started before I got here. This was something they wanted to do. They came to me, they explained what they wanted to do ― the generals ― who are very respected, my generals are the most respected that we’ve had in many decades, I believe. And they lost Ryan.”

His enthusiasm for generals has been noted, as he has chosen a remarkable number of them for top White House posts. And that enthusiasm for generals seems to be related to a trust in military power in general – or, as the Bible would put it – relying on horses and trusting in chariots. Which, according to the prophet Isaiah (31:1), is not a good idea:

“Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD!”

It seems to me that the complete fiasco of the Yemen raid shows that Isaiah was right.

Nobody wants to talk about Yemen. Is the truth just too embarrassing?

Over the last year, story after story has come out of Yemen that is horrible. And yet nobody – well, almost nobody – is talking about it.

The Yakla raid

Let’s start with the Yakla raid. On January 29, 2017, a United States-led Special Operations Forces operation was carried out in Yakla village in central Yemen. Authorized by President Donald Trump, its goal was to gather intelligence on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and also, as claimed by unnamed sources, to target the group’s leader Qasim al-Raymi.

Not only was al-Raymi untouched, but it now appears, according to ABC News that the main Yemeni figure killed – tribal chief Sheikh Abdel-Raouf al-Dhahab – was a tribal leader who was allied to the country’s U.S. and Saudi-backed president.  (A more detailed account of the raid is given here, and makes for uncomfortable reading.)

Furthermore, survivors and witnesses say at least 25 Yemenis were killed, including 10 children and nine women, raising outrage in Yemen and prompting the government to ask Washington for a review of the raid.

U.S. Central Command claimed that 14 al-Qaida militants were killed. It counted among them al-Dhahab. If, as now seems possible, he was not part of al-Qaida, that figure of 14 seems questionable. Indications seem to be that all were low-level operatives.

Despite the death of Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens and the destruction of a $70 million Osprey aircraft – Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that the mission was a “successful operation by all standards.” Apparently, the raid gathered some useful intelligence. Whether that is true is anybody’s guess.  The number of people killed on American soil by al-Qaida attacks in the last 15 year is zero.   Was getting some intelligence on them really worth killing around 25 civilians, including 10 children and 9 women?

Indeed, it is entirely possible that the raid will turn out to have helped rather than hurt al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  Hence, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,

“Far from delivering a blow to AQAP, the raid may have strengthened it. “Groups like AQAP will contend [this attack] shows Trump is making good on his campaign pledge,” said Letta Tayler, Terrorism and Counter-terrorism Researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Even if Trump wasn’t serious, armed extremists are likely to jump on every photo of a Yemeni child killed in a US strike as a recruitment tool.”

“The use of US soldiers, high civilian casualties and disregard for local tribal and political dynamics… plays into AQAP’s narrative of defending Muslims against the West and could increase anti-US sentiment and with it AQAP’s pool of recruits,” said International Crisis Group in a report released three days after the attack.”

And some things need to be noted: The operatives who killed these children

  • were not acting in self defense – in any meaningful sense of the term. (They were the attackers.)
  • will not be punished for shooting unarmed civilians.
  • were not working for a Middle Eastern autocratic government, but for a western democratic government.
  • were not working for the government of the country where the killings occurred, but for a country thousands of miles away – a country that has never been attacked by Yemen, and is not at war with the Yemen.

I find that shocking.  How is this not a crime?  How is this not breaking the 6th commandment?

Furthermore, most voters in America seem completely relaxed about the fact that their armed forces are launching attacks that are killing children and other civilians in far away countries. What would people in America think if the armed forces of an Arab nation raided a small town in America, and in the process, killed 10 children? And does the teaching of Jesus in Luke 6:31 (“Do to others as you would have them do to you”) have any relevance to this situation?  Does it apply to the actions of nations and governments?

But it gets stranger.

In Yemen, there is a civil war going on. It’s a complicated affair, and broadly speaking, there are three sides – the government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, which is backed by Saudi Arabia; the Houthi forces, who hold the capital (Sana’a); and al-Qaida. However, a lot of the time al-Qaida have been fighting informally alongside the Hadi government against their common enemy, the Houthis. And since the USA is backing the Saudi Arabians and the Hadi government, they are sometimes sort of on the same side as al-Qaida.

(By the way, the ABC News story refers to the Houthi rebels as Shiites. This is not true. According to the Carnegie Endowment, until 2011, “the term “Shia” was not used in the Yemeni public to refer to any Yemeni groups or individuals. The Houthis do not follow the Twelver Shia tradition predominant in Iran, but adhere to the Zaidiya, which in practice is closer to Sunni Islam, and had expressed no solidarity with other Shia communities.”)

Saudi Bombing

Which brings us to the other side of the horror of Yemen – Saudi Arabia’s repeated bombing of civilian targets following its invasion of Yemen.  In the latest, eight women and a child have reportedly been killed in an air raid on a funeral reception (not the first time the Saudis have bombed a funeral) on the 15th February, near Yemen’s rebel-held capital, Sana’a.  (Edit: The death toll has now risen to 21)

And the Saudi-led coalition has the support of the American and British governments.

Daniel Larison’s comment is worth repeating:

“The U.S. continues to aid and abet the coalition as it carries out war crimes such as these, and based on what we’ve been hearing from the new administration that support is only going to increase. Our government is providing the weapons and fuel that allow coalition planes to blow up women and children at funerals, and it is doing this just so we can “reassure” a few despotic governments. U.S. support for the indefensible war on Yemen is an ongoing disgrace and an enduring blot on our country’s reputation.”

And it is not just America’s reputation. The British government rejected the recommendation of two select committees to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and is now facing a court case brought by Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which claims that “the indiscriminate nature of the airstrikes by Saudi Arabia in Yemen means there is a significant risk that British arms are being used in strikes that break international humanitarian law.”

What is even more tragic in all this is that Saudi Arabia is not only killing civilians by bombing them, but is also enforcing a blockade that effectively aims to starve the Houthi areas into submission, and has caused massive hardship. According to the United Nations, “About 3.3 million children and pregnant or breastfeeding women are acutely malnourished in Yemen, including 462,000 children under five suffering from severe acute malnutrition,” and the country has been described as being on the brink of famine.  What Saudi Arabia is doing is serious.  Indeed, Kevin Watkins of Save the Children has described it as a “de facto a humanitarian blockade from the Saudis, which incidentally is a war crime.”

And the silence is deafening.  A Yemeni woman, quoted in the Guardian, said “I also blame the whole world for watching us dying and for their silence against [the] Saudi-led coalition.”

But the blame lies more with some parts of the world than others.  Daniel Larison calls it an enduring blot on America’s reputation. But I think one could go further than that. This is not just a blot on the reputations of America and Britain. The actions of our governments – and the silence of the people in both nations as a whole – looks like a blot on us as nations.

And, as the Bible says (Proverbs 14:34), “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”

Why you shouldn’t trust the BBC

Many people in the UK get most of their news from the BBC. It is their window on the world, and therefore has a big impact on how they view the world. It is usually seen as more objective and less biased than most British newspapers, and unlike them, has official government support through its charter.

However, BBC news reporting is often so slanted as to be misleading. Indeed, its treatment of some news stories verges on the dishonest.

Let me give three examples.

Russian Hacking

The BBC News website has a page entitled “Can US election hack be traced to Russia?” dated the 22nd December 2016. It doesn’t give a definitive answer. But even the title is misleading. The basic question is “Where did Wikileaks get the emails?” There are two possibilities. One is that the emails were leaked by an insider who had access to them. The other possibility is that they were hacked by an outsider, and then passed to Wikileaks. But the title of the article does not even admit the possibility that they were leaked by an insider.  It assumes a hack.

The really strange thing about the article, however, is not what it says, but what it leaves out. First, there is no mention of Julian Assange. Second, there is not even any mention of Wikileaks. It was not until the 4th of January 2017 that the BBC mentioned that “Mr Assange said Russia was not the source for the site’s mass leak of emails from the Democratic Party. ” Assange, however, had said this several weeks before, as was made clear in an article published in the Guardian on the 10th of December.

But it was not just Assange who said that Russia was not the source. In that Guardian article, Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, said “I know who leaked them.  I’ve met the person who leaked them, and they are certainly not Russian and it’s an insider. It’s a leak, not a hack; the two are different things.

And here is the interesting thing. While the Guardian and the Daily Mail both contacted Craig Murray, interviewed him, and published some of his comments, the BBC never contacted him, and never mentioned his comments. Why?

In short, the BBC didn’t actually say anything untrue. They simply omitted to mention a crucial fact. And that, it seems to me, is dishonest.

Bana Alabed

The BBC has, several times, run news stories about Bana Alabed, a seven-year-old girl tweeting out of besieged east Aleppo. The first on the 2nd October, 2016, was entitled: Meet the seven-year-old girl tweeting from Aleppo.  The most recent was on the 24th January 2017 (by which time she was living in Turkey).  In the initial report, the BBC says “As the Twitter account has gained followers, Fatemah [Bana’s mother] says people have accused her of running a “fake” account, or using her daughter for propaganda reasons. ” The BBC report does not say that these allegations are false, but it certainly implies it. And in the most recent report, no mention of these allegations is made.

However, it seems to me that Bana’s parents are almost certainly using the account for propaganda purposes.

In the first place, Bana’s tweets do make political points, and it is pretty obvious that any seven-year-old’s tweets on a political subject are going to reflect the point of view of whatever adult is supervising their tweeting. The political points made are subtle, and are appropriate for a seven-year-old, but the overall message has been “The Syrian Army and the Russians are killing the people of Eastern Aleppo”. The clear implication was that the Syrian Army and the Russians were the villains of the piece, and it would be good if someone intervened in some way against the Syrian Army and the Russians. The fact that the tweeting was in English made it clear that they were aimed at readers in the west.

Secondly, all the evidence suggests that all information coming out of Eastern Aleppo was controlled by the militants who ruled it at the time – and that these militants were pretty brutal. For example, Patrick Cockburn, a highly experienced and respected Middle East correspondent, recently wrote:

In East Aleppo any reporting had to be done under licence from one of the Salafi-jihadi groups which dominated the armed opposition and controlled the area – including Jabhat al-Nusra, formerly known as the Syrian branch of al-Qaida. What happens to people who criticise, oppose or even act independently of these extremist groups was made clear in an Amnesty International report published last year and entitled ‘Torture Was My Punishment’…

All wars always produce phony atrocity stories – along with real atrocities. But in the Syrian case fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda to a degree probably not seen since the First World War. The ease with which propaganda can now be disseminated is frequently attributed to modern information technology: YouTube, smartphones, Facebook, Twitter.”

Yes. Twitter.

The fact is that, at the very least, Bana Alabed’s tweets could not have been going out of Aleppo without the blessing of an extremely brutal group of Islamic militants. But I think we can go beyond that, and say that it is quite likely that these Islamic militants encouraged and facilitated her tweets.

However, you would never guess that from reading the BBC’s accounts.

Andrew Ashdown

Andrew Ashdown is an Anglican clergyman who has visited Syria several times. On one of those occasions, he was part of a group that included Baroness Cox of Christian Solidarity International, and Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester. He has discovered and reported that most ordinary Syrians support the Syrian government in its war against the rebels. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise anyone. Every source which is in contact with the Christian communities in Syria, and pretty well every independent journalist who has gone into Syria, says the same thing. This, however, is something that one would never guess from reading and listening to the mainstream media. They simply never say that.

Andrew Ashdown was interviewed by the BBC, about his travels in Syria. The experience was interesting. In his own words, they “gave me 2 minutes and told me I could not mention that refugees from East Aleppo were directly contradicting the mainstream narrative.They changed the subject when I tried to mention it!

That suggests that the BBC was determined to make sure that certain information didn’t get out.

What is interesting about this particular case is that Andrew Ashdown has been interviewed by RT (Russia Today), the Russian state broadcaster. While the BBC told him what he couldn’t say, I understand that RT placed no such restrictions on him. Similarly, western journalists who have worked for RT have made it clear that RT has not interfered in their journalistic freedom.

Deliberate misrepresentation?

It is clear that in all three cases, the BBC was not omitting crucial facts due to ignorance. But what is worth noticing is that in all three cases, the slant produced was in the same direction. The slant was against the Russian and Syrian governments. In other words, the bias was in exactly the same direction as that of British government policy.

Since the BBC is basically a state owned corporation, perhaps that isn’t surprising. But it seems to me that there is little reason to think that its news coverage is any more fair or objective than that of RT. Indeed, I suspect that in some subjects, RT coverage may turn out to have been more objective than that of the BBC. And if someone had told me 10 years ago that I would one day be saying that, I would have been surprised.

A look back at 2016: are we living in a post-truth world?

The last few days of 2016 have produced a few articles that particularly caught my attention, and which in many ways, summed up the year for me. They concerned two of the main stories that dominated world affairs in 2016: the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, and in particular the war in Syria; and the American presidential election, and in particular the allegation that Russian hacking had been the source of the Democratic Party emails published by Wikileaks.

They are by four writers who have impressed me over the course of the year. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they are independent minded, and strike me as being knowledgeable and honest.

These four writers are:

1) Phil Giraldi – a former counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer – who has a PhD from the University of London in European History, and spent eighteen years working for the CIA in Turkey, Italy, Germany, and Spain (and is fluent in Turkish, Italian, German, and Spanish).

2) Craig Murray – a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, who complained to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that intelligence linking the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan to al-Qaeda was unreliable, immoral and illegal, as it was thought to have been obtained through torture. After making these complaints, he was removed from his ambassadorial post.

3) Glenn Greenwald – an American lawyer, journalist, speaker and author, best known for his role in a series of reports published by The Guardian, beginning in June 2013, detailing United States and British global surveillance programs, based on classified documents disclosed by Edward Snowden.

4) Robert Fisk – a writer and journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent intermittently since 1976 and who (apparently) holds more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent and has been voted British International Journalist of the Year seven times.

Evidence for the Russian hack?

First, three on the alleged Russian hacking.

The last week of 2016 produced the astonishing spectacle of the American president expelling 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the alleged hacking. Perhaps even more interestingly, media coverage often seemed to assume that evidence had been produced which showed that the Russians really were involved. Giraldi, Murray, and Greenwald all take the view that no strong evidence has yet been produced.

Giraldi, writing on the 28th of December, said

“Nevertheless, even though it has been nearly three weeks since the Washington Post initially reported the story, no hard evidence has been provided to identify the actual hackers or to link them to the Russian government, much less to President Vladimir Putin. . . . Those who are fulminating most effusively about Russia should perhaps step back and reflect on the fact that they do not actually know what happened with the DNC computers.”

Greenwald, writing on the 31st, spoke of: “the U.S. government’s evidence-free report.”

Murray, writing on the 31st, simply reiterates his view that the American government is lying about the supposed Russian hacking of emails associated with the presidential elections, and says that the FBI report published on the 29th of December,

gives no evidence at all of the alleged successful hack that transmitted these particular emails, nor any evidence of the connection between the hackers and the Russian government, let alone Putin.

The dishonesty of western journalism

Then there was Greenwald’s article about dishonesty in the media – and in particular, the Guardian

Greenwald writes about a report published … by The Guardian “that recklessly attributed to [Julian] Assange comments that he did not make.” Furthermore, “those false claims — fabrications, really — were spread all over the internet by journalists, causing hundreds of thousands of people (if not millions) to consume false news.”

“The Guardian published an article by Ben Jacobs, which contained two claims, both of which were false. Furthermore, the Guardian article contained no original reporting. Indeed, it did nothing but purport to summarize the work of an actually diligent journalist: Stefania Maurizi. . . . Jacobs’s “work” consisted of nothing other than purporting to re-write the parts of that interview he wanted to highlight, so that he and The Guardian could receive the traffic for her work.

Ever since the Guardian article was published and went viral, Maurizi has repeatedly objected to the false claims being made . . . But while Western journalists keep re-tweeting and sharing The Guardian’s second-hand summary of this interview, they completely ignore Maurizi’s protests.”

Greenwald’s point is that “those who most flamboyantly denounce Fake News, and want Facebook and other tech giants to suppress content in the name of combating it, are often the most aggressive and self-serving perpetrators of it.”

And note what Greenwald said about western journalists re-tweeting and sharing the Guardian’s misleading summary of Maurizini’s interview, but completely ignoring her protests that the Guardian’s story was seriously misleading. Doesn’t exactly encourage one to trust western journalists, does it?

Robert Fisk on Syria

And finally, on the subject of western journalists, Robert Fisk on the war in Syria. Fisk had previously expressed reservations about the way the war in Syria has been reported in an article earlier in Decemberin which he spoke of how we were being given “a narrative of good guys versus bad guys [which was] as explosive and dishonest as “weapons of mass destruction” and then said “But it’s time to tell the other truth: that many of the “rebels” whom we in the West have been supporting – and which our preposterous Prime Minister Theresa May indirectly blessed when she grovelled to the Gulf head-choppers last week – are among the cruellest and most ruthless of fighters in the Middle East.

But in this more recent article, on the 29th, he wrote:

“The use of social media in reporting the battle of eastern Aleppo has been extraordinary, weird, dangerous, even murderous, when not a single Western journalist could report the eastern Aleppo war at first hand. Much damage has been done to the very credibility of journalism – and to politicians – by the acceptance of one side of the story only when not a single reporter can confirm with his or her own eyes what they are reporting.

The 250,000 “trapped” Muslims of eastern Aleppo – now that 31,000 have chosen to go to Idlib, many more to western Aleppo – appear to have been somewhat fewer than 90,000. It’s now possible that at least 160,000 of the civilians “trapped” in eastern Aleppo did not actually exist, but no one says so. That vital statistic of 250,000, the very punctuation mark of every report on the besieged enclave, is now forgotten or ignored (wisely, perhaps) by those who quoted it.

Can we really shake our heads in disbelief at electoral lies when we have been lying to our readers and viewers for years?”

A post-truth world?

But Fisk’s most interesting comment is this: “We do not live in a “post-truth” world, neither in the Middle East nor in the West – nor in Russia, for that matter. We live in a world of lies. And we always have lived in a world of lies.”

I think that Fisk may be onto something.

For me, 2016 has been the year when my confidence in the western mass media hit rock bottom. Before 2016 I believed that it was biassed and often misleading – but broadly speaking honest and accurate. By the end of the year, I had come to the conclusion that it was often dishonest and sometimes completely inaccurate. Individual reporters often told the truth, but when what they said was not what the powers that be wanted to hear, it was usually buried in obscure places.

But does that mean that the only thing that happened was that the scales fell from my eyes? Or is it also the case that in recent years there has been a real decline in respect for truth, honesty, and accuracy in the west – or at least in some western countries? I don’t know – but it seems to me that this is certainly a possibility.

Some 3000 years ago, the Psalmist David seemed to think pretty much the same thing:

Help, LORD; for there is no longer any that is godly;
for the faithful have vanished from among the sons of men.
Every one utters lies to his neighbour;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak,
May the LORD cut off all flattering lips,
the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongue we will prevail,
our lips are with us; who is our master?”
“Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan,
I will now arise,” says the LORD; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.”
The words of the LORD are pure words,
like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
You, O LORD, will keep them;
you will guard us from this generation forever.
On every side the wicked prowl,
as what is vile is exalted among the children of man.
                                                                                          (Psalm 12)

Yes, we live in a world of lies, for we have lived in a post-truth world since the Adam ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. But the truth is not dead. The world may be dark, but the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Yes, people love the darkness rather than the light – because their works are evil. (For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.) There are a lot of people with plenty to hide, who do not want the truth to come out.

Of course, all the truth will one day come out, for there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known and come to light.

But even before that day comes when the whole truth comes out, a remarkable amount of it does come out – and it seems to me that for that, we must be grateful to those people who make it known.

Bearing false witness: The western media, Syria, and the evil Russians

Last week, the Independent published an article by Patrick Cockburn entitled “This is why everything you’ve read about the wars in Syria and Iraq could be wrong.” What I found most surprising about it was that a newspaper saw fit to publish an article that not only said that western media reports about Syria and Iraq tended to be one-sided and misleading, but also effectively suggested that readers shouldn’t believe everything they read in newspapers.

Fake News

What Cockburn has to say is scathing:

“The present wars in the Middle East started with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was justified by the supposed threat from Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Western journalists largely went along with this thesis, happily citing evidence from the Iraqi opposition who predictably confirmed the existence of WMD.

Some of those who produced these stories later had the gall to criticise the Iraqi opposition for misleading them, as if they had any right to expect unbiased information from people who had dedicated their lives to overthrowing Saddam Hussein or, in this particular case, getting the Americans to do so for them.

Much the same self-serving media credulity was evident in Libya during the 2011 Nato-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.

Atrocity stories emanating from the Libyan opposition, many of which were subsequently proved to be baseless by human rights organisations, were rapidly promoted to lead the news, however partial the source.”

Syria

On Syria the crucial paragraph is this:

“The Syrian war is especially difficult to report because Isis and various al-Qaeda clones made it too dangerous to report from within opposition-held areas. There is a tremendous hunger for news from just such places, so the temptation is for the media give credence to information they get second hand from people who could in practice only operate if they belong to or are in sympathy with the dominant jihadi opposition groups.”

For example, one of the most reported stories from Syria this year concerned the attack on an aid convoy in Aleppo, which the American government blamed on Russia. 

However, as is pointed out by Gareth Porter in his article “How a Syrian White Helmets Leader Played Western Media “, all the evidence that points to Russia comes from extremely dubious sources who are close to the Syrian rebel forces.

The subheading says it all: “Reporters who rely on the White Helmets’ leader in Aleppo ignore his record of deception and risk manipulation.”

Who decides the story?

But this is the really interesting thing that Cockburn says:

“A word here in defence of the humble reporter in the field: usually, it is not he or she, but the home office or media herd instinct, that decides the story of the day. Those closest to the action may be dubious about some juicy tale which is heading the news, but there is not much they can do about it.

Thus, in 2002 and 2003, several New York Times journalists wrote stories casting doubt on WMD only to find them buried deep inside the newspaper which was led by articles proving that Saddam had WMD and was a threat to the world.”

Cockburn seems to be saying that reporters often report the truth back to head office, but that editors simply publish whatever suit their agenda.

And that really is the big problem with the media.

Those evil Russians

And just as significant as Cockburn’s reference to “deciding the story of the day”, is his use of the phrase “a threat to the world”. In 2003 the threat was Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction. Today it is Vladimir Putin and his alleged cyber-attacks on western elections.

Last Friday, the Washington Post published a story about claims that American “intelligence agencies have identified individuals with connections to the Russian government who provided WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails” from both the DNC and John Podesta’s email account.

The reaction has been astonishing.

Earlier this week, Ben Bradshaw, M.P. for Exeter, speaking at the Aleppo debate in Parliament, said

I don’t think we have even begun to wake up to what Russia is doing when it comes to cyber warfare.  Not only their interference, now proven, in the American presidential campaign, probably in our referendum… We don’t have the evidence for that yet, but I think it’s highly probable. Certainly in the French presidential election they will be involved, and there are already serious concerns in the German secret service.’

I don’t believe a word of it. Note that Bradshaw said that this was “now proven”. That is complete nonsense . Glenn Greenwald, writing in the Intercept, describes the Washington Post’s story as “in many ways .. . classic American journalism of the worst sort” and continues: “The key claims are based exclusively on the unverified assertions of anonymous officials, who in turn are disseminating their own claims about what the CIA purportedly believes, all based on evidence that remains completely secret.”

Far from being “now proven”, there is, in fact, not a shred of evidence – at least not that Ben Bradshaw will have seen.

But it gets better. Not only is there not a shred of evidence, but the CIA’s apparent claims have now been completely debunked. Craig Murray, former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan tells the story on his website:

“I have watched incredulous as the CIA’s blatant lie has grown and grown as a media story – blatant because the CIA has made no attempt whatsoever to substantiate it. There is no Russian involvement in the leaks of emails showing Clinton’s corruption. Yes this rubbish has been the lead today in the Washington Post in the US and the Guardian here, and was the lead item on the BBC main news. I suspect it is leading the American broadcasts also.

A little simple logic demolishes the CIA’s claims. The CIA claim they “know the individuals” involved. Yet under Obama the USA has been absolutely ruthless in its persecution of whistleblowers, and its pursuit of foreign hackers through extradition. We are supposed to believe that in the most vital instance imaginable, an attempt by a foreign power to destabilise a US election, even though the CIA knows who the individuals are, nobody is going to be arrested or extradited, or (if in Russia) made subject to yet more banking and other restrictions against Russian individuals? Plainly it stinks. The anonymous source claims of “We know who it was, it was the Russians” are beneath contempt.

As Julian Assange has made crystal clear, the leaks did not come from the Russians. As I have explained countless times, they are not hacks, they are insider leaks – there is a major difference between the two.”

Got that? Unidentified sources say that the CIA says that Wikileaks got the leaks from the Russians. Identified named individuals (Craig Murray and Julian Assange) associated with Wikileaks, say that they did not get the leaks from the Russians. In fact, Murray says “I know who leaked them. I’ve met the person who leaked them, and they are certainly not Russian and it’s an insider. It’s a leak, not a hack; the two are different things.

Who are you going to believe? Murray and Assange should know what they are talking about – and they are known to be reliable sources. Murray was sacked as Ambassador to Uzbekistan for revealing that MI6 was using intelligence obtained through torture from Uzbek intelligence services via the CIA – which, in my opinion, indicates that he is a person of integrity. The CIA, on the other hand, is not exactly known for honesty and integrity. And we don’t (yet) even know what the CIA says; we only know what some anonymous individual says that they said.

Selective reporting

But it gets worse. The way the western media have largely ignored Murray’s account is astonishing.

The Guardian did refer to what Murray said, but buried it deep within an article headlined “CIA concludes Russia interfered to help Trump win election, say reports.” (Note the words “say reports” – i.e. the CIA has not issued a statement; this is just “Someone says that the CIA says”.)

And, furthermore, the Guardian has continued to run stories that simply take for granted that Russia did indeed covertly intervene in the American elections – here, here, here, and here.

And guess what? Not one of these other Guardian pieces mentions Craig Murray (or Julian Assange).  

At least the Guardian did report what Murray wrote  – as did the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.  The BBC, however, has been silent on the matter.  Not one single BBC News report on the story on the BBC website has mentioned either Craig Murray or Julian Assange, even though they have covered the story.  Indeed, their original report on the story says “Democrats were enraged when hackers breached email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and Mrs Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta,” even though Wikileaks has said that the email accounts came to them through a leak (an insider giving out the information) rather than a hack (an outsider breaking in and taking it).

False witness

Fake News? Well, not exactly. But, in choosing to cover the story that the CIA apparently believes that Russian hacking was the source of Wikileaks emails, while not mentioning what Murray and Assange have said, the BBC is deliberately misleading people. And that is simply dishonest.

But it goes further. A lot of people have been getting angry at the Russians because of this. Ben Bradshaw certainly sounded displeased with them, and Lindsey Graham, a member of the American Senate has been quoted by the BBC as saying “We should tell the Russians that on no uncertain terms, you interfere in our elections, we don’t care why, we’re going to hit you and hit you hard, we’re going to introduce sanctions.”

meme-putin-hack

For myself, I am not convinced that by hacking into the DNC emails, and then passing them to Wikileaks, the Russians would have been doing anything wrong. After all, the emails were perfectly genuine, so all the Russians would have been doing (had they done this) was making information available to American voters about their politicians which would have otherwise been unavailable to them. It sounds to me like that would be performing a useful public service. Messrs. Bradshaw and Graham apparently disagree (which may have something to do with the fact that they are politicians!)

But the point is that the Russian government is being accused of something which is widely regarded as bad, and could lead to people taking action against them.

And that brings us to the heart of the issue. An accusation has been made against the Russians. It is apparently serious. And yet evidence of their innocence is available, and the BBC, and much of the rest of the western media are not reporting it, and and thus causing people to get angry at Putin.

Let’s put it this way. If you had been accused of something, and people were getting angry at you and threatening you, and someone had evidence that you were innocent, but was choosing just to keep quiet about it, how would you feel?

In other words, the BBC is not just being dishonest, it is also, by choosing not to report a significant bit of news, causing someone’s reputation to be damaged. In short, the BBC is in breach of the 9th commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.”

And that forbids (according to Question 78 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism) “whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbour’s good name” – and that means anything at all that hurts someone’s good name – including undue silence.

So the BBC may not be guilty of what is called Fake News. But it is guilty of bearing false witness.  And that, it seems to me, is much more serious.

Church buildings and humanist ceremonies

Recently, St. Andrew’s Church of Scotland in Golspie made headlines for deciding not to allow the use of its Fountain Road Hall for a humanist funeral. For the last two weeks, the matter has been covered in the Northern Times, and it is clear that some people are unhappy with the church’s decision.

Appropriate uses for church buildings

What is an appropriate use for a church building? To answer this question, the church needs to turn to the Bible. And here, we immediately run into the problem that the Bible does not say anything about church buildings as such. In New Testament times, churches met in people’s homes. This situation is neither commended nor regretted in the New Testament; it’s just the way it was.

The Old Testament, of course, tells us about the Temple in Jerusalem (and its predecessor, the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting), which could, I suppose, be described as the ultimate church building. But it was one of a kind – God gave special and detailed instructions for every aspect of its construction, which do not apply to other church buildings – and so what the Bible says about what it was used for does really apply to the buildings used by Christian congregations.

So how should congregations think about their buildings? And the answer is that congregations tend to own a variety of buildings – they own church buildings, they own church halls, they own houses for their ministers / pastors to live in – and indeed sometimes they own buildings which don’t come into any of those categories. And since churches in New Testament times didn’t own any buildings, none of these categories is recognized in the Bible. In short, these buildings are merely property that churches own.

So how does a congregation decide what is an appropriate use for a church building? The same way any Christian decides what is an appropriate use of possessions: ask the question “What would glorify and honour God?” Broadly speaking, that means that the building will not be used for anything that would be displeasing to God.  

Furthermore, it seems to me, that there is no Biblical reason for saying that there may be some things that would be appropriate in a church hall, but not appropriate in a church building. So, for example in the case in Golspie, if something would not be an appropriate use of the St. Andrew’s Church Building, it would not be an appropriate use of the Fountain Road Hall.

Humanism

So – is it appropriate for church buildings (including church halls) to be used for humanist ceremonies – e.g. humanist funerals, weddings, and naming ceremonies? At this point we need to ask the question “What is humanism?”

According to Wikipedia, the term ‘humanism’ was coined in 1808 by a Lutheran theologian Friedrich Niethammer, who “wished to introduce into German education the humane values of ancient Greece and Rome.” Many early humanists were Christians, However (Wikipedia goes on to say)

“Since the twentieth century, however, Anglophone humanist movements have usually been aligned with secularism, and today humanism typically refers to a non-theistic life stance centred on human agency and looking to science rather than revelation from a supernatural source to understand the world.”

In other words, when people in Britain today describe themselves as humanists, they generally mean that they don’t believe in God, or they think that if God exists, he has not communicated with us to tell us anything about the meaning of life. Or to put it another way, they believe that Christianity is simply wrong.

And if you look at the websites of British Humanist Association, and the Humanist Society Scotland it is pretty clear that this is where they stand. They proclaim clearly that they believe that this life is the only life we have, and that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side. And notice that these are not minor parts of what humanists believe; they are their core beliefs. You will find them in the very first paragraph of the British Humanist Association website’s description of what humanism is

The rejection of Christianity (and other theistic religions) is what they are all about.   While they never actually use the words “Jesus was completely wrong”, they make it clear that they think he was.

Is it appropriate for Christian churches to allow their buildings to be used by such groups? Does it honour and glorify God to allow the church’s buildings to be used by them? It seems to me that there is a good case for saying that the answer to these questions is “no”.

Perhaps someone will say “But surely Christian churches should allow anyone at all to use their buildings, because that is the generous thing to do?” And the answer to that is “Anyone? Should churches really allow anyone at all to use church buildings, and use them to say anything they want? Are there not some things that people might say that would be so wrong, so offensive, so wicked – that it would be inappropriate for them to be said in a church building? Are there not some organisations whose aims are so obnoxious that it would not be appropriate for them to allowed to use a church building? And I doubt that many people would disagree with that. The only question is “Where does one draw the line?”

So – what about humanists? Many people in modern Scotland may think that there is nothing particularly unacceptable about saying “Jesus was completely wrong”. However, if you are a Christian, then you must regard such a view as dangerously mistaken – and you will regard any organisation whose main purpose is the rejection of faith in God as an enemy of light and truth, and as an agent of darkness and ignorance. And it seems to me that you will draw the line at anything that would give the impression that you regard this group and its message as something acceptable.

Yes, I believe that they the Humanist Society should be free to proclaim their beliefs and argue their cause. But in no way would I want to be seen as suggesting that its message was something that offered anything positive to the world.

The matter of public funding

There was one other matter that was raised in the Northern Times. Some people have pointed out that the church received grant funding for the refurbishment of Fountain Road hall, and suggested that the congregation might be in breach of the terms of the funding. Graham Phillips, a member of Highland Council, is quoted as saying

“I am writing to the board to ask if their decision is compatible with the criteria of funding bodies – such as the Big Lottery – who stipulate that there should be no religious discrimination attached to the projects they support. . . . The funding case was that it was a community facility and would not be restricted to religious use.”

In fact, according to the Northern Times, the Big Lottery was not one of the funders of the project. However, even if it was one of the funders, it seems to me that there would not be a problem. According to the Big Lottery Fund’s quick guide for faith-based organisations, they “regularly fund minor refurbishment and upgrades for the likes of church halls”, adding

“we recognise that these are important assets in many communities, and host a wide range of other groups and activities. However, we would not typically fund a building that is used primarily as either a place of worship or for other religious activities. . . . The main thing faith-based groups need to be aware of is that we cannot fund the practice of religion, or any activities that actively promote religion or particular belief systems (or indeed the lack of belief). This is because these activities could exclude people from accessing a project on religious grounds.”

While I have not read the detailed terms and conditions, I cannot see that any of that in any way conflicts with what St. Andrew’s Church in Golspie have done.

But there is a more basic issue here. What happened was that the congregation decided not to permit a funeral to take place in Fountain Road hall because the funeral was going to be conducted under the auspices of the Humanist Society. They were, in effect saying that they believed that this was something inappropriate – because of what the Humanist Society is and does.

Any hall that is available to the public is going to receive requests from a variety of people who want to hire it, and for a variety of purposes. A lot of these purposes and people are completely uncontroversial. But some of are not. What if a hall was approached about hosting a performance by a comedian who was notorious for jokes in extremely questionable taste? What if a hall was approached about hosting a performance by a stripper? What about if a hall was approached about hosting a public meeting for a political party that was seen as racist or extremist? No funding organisation, be it the Big Lottery Fund or anyone else, is going to say to a hall that applies for grant funding “You have to accept every group that wants to use your hall.” Because most people respect the right of other people to say “no” to certain things.

I think the unhappiness at what happened in Golspie basically arose for two reasons. The first is that many people thought that the church was saying “no” to the family. That is not the case. The church had no problems with the family, or with the gentleman who had passed away, or with their religious beliefs. The church’s problem is with the Humanist Society.

The second problem is that most people don’t think that there is anything particularly controversial about Humanist Society funerals. But would they react differently if the church declined a request for a Satanist funeral or a Nazi funeral? I think a lot of people would. Most people believe that one has to draw the line somewhere – that some element of ‘discrimination’ is acceptable – they just believe that St. Andrew’s Church in Golspie drew it in the wrong place.

 But surely in an open and tolerant society, it is necessary for people to accept that other people that will draw the line in a different place, and respect their decision. 

St Andrew’s Church Golspie has effectively said to the watching world

We believe in life after death, and that God made the heavens and the earth, and that through Jesus Christ (and only through him) we can have everlasting life. We believe these things are important. 

In fact we believe that these things are so important, that we will take a stand on them and say (not just by our words, but also by our actions) that those who deny these truths are pointing people to a way that leads to death, instead of pointing them to the path that leads to life.”

And for that, they are to be commended.

Barnabas, Amnesty, and the Media

One of the things that concerns me most about the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East is the matter of how it has been reported.

A friend of mine recently attended a public meeting organised by the Barnabas Fund to publicise the suffering of Christians in different parts of the world. I wasn’t at it, so emailed my friend to ask what had been said at the meeting. I was told

“The baptist pastor from Aleppo was very negative about our secular media’s reporting of the situation in Syria. He spoke very highly of their president, Assad. He highlighted on one slide that Syria was a very stable country throughout the 90s and In 2003 they accepted many Iraqi refugees (which it did without a single ‘refugee camp tent’) until 2011 at which point the war in Syria began. . . . loud and clear was a disgust at secular Western media and their portrayal of the war. “

The Barnabas website

Not surprisingly, the Barnabas Fund’s website also had a lot to say about the western media – particularly about events in Syria.

To give some examples:

After a month of relative quiet, the Christian quarter in government-held Aleppo has again been hit, with Islamist rebels firing rockets and mortars indiscriminately. As Western media focuses on the renewed Russian air assault on the rebel-held eastern enclave, Christians continue to face the threat of sudden bombardment by the rebels.”

Fighting resumed in rebel-held east Aleppo on Saturday (22 October) following the end of a unilateral three-day ceasefire announced by Russia. Western media outlets, with their focus on the rebel-held areas, continue to present a largely one-sided picture of events, so the suffering in the streets of the government-held areas tends to be overlooked..”

The relative silence of the Western media over the situation in the government-held areas of Aleppo extends to the government’s provision of humanitarian aid to the rebel-held eastern region, where tons of milk, vegetables, canned food, wheat and bread have been distributed in the last few days.

. . . “Unfortunately – your media is totally silent and nothing mentioning of this,” commented the Aleppo church leader.

Immense suffering has been caused in the rebel-held region where, according to UN estimates, over 250,000 people currently live. It is right that attention is drawn to this. But there is a tendency for the Western media to tell only part of the story, implying that the government-held region, which houses at least 1.2 million people, is largely unaffected when this is simply not the case.

Several expert commentators are calling into question the narrative being spread by Western media about the nature of the unrest in Syria. Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Aid, said “The Christian community in Syria is already suffering as a result of the unrest there and this will surely only intensify in the event of Western-backed military intervention. Christians in the West should not stand by and allow their governments to destroy Syria – and the Syrian Church – in pursuit of their own political interests in the region. I urge Christians not to accept blindly all the mainstream media reports about this conflict but to read for themselves the carefully considered arguments of dissenting voices.

And it is not just the Western Media’s coverage of Syria that the Barnabas Fund is concerned about. Regarding the case of Aasia Bibi, in Pakistan, they write:

However, what is equally disturbing is the reporting of this case in much of the Western press. In some countries, major national newspapers and TV simply did not cover the story at all. In those which did, rather than explaining why Aasia Bibi and hundreds of other Christians have suffered under the “blasphemy laws”, some Western media twisted themselves in contortions to avoid making any link between Islam and Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which specifies a death penalty for defiling the name of Muhammad.

Amnesty

And it is not just the Barnabas Fund that is concerned. There’s Amnesty International.

According to the  Parliamentary report on Britain’s military involvement in Libya in 2011, and in particular, the part that reads

“An Amnesty International investigation in June 2011 could not corroborate allegations of mass human rights violations by Gaddafi regime troops. However, it uncovered evidence that rebels in Benghazi made false claims and manufactured evidence. The investigation concluded that: “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”

And journalists are also concerned. Patrick Cockburn, an award-winning journalist recently described as “the best western journalist at work in Iraq today”, last month wrote: “The extreme bias shown in foreign media coverage of similar events in Iraq and Syria will be a rewarding subject for PhDs students looking at the uses and abuses of propaganda down the ages.

Government and the media

One thing particularly concerns me. I’ve said it before, but I’ll repeat it.

“It is worth noticing that Western media were biased in exactly the same direction as their governments. That raises an interesting question: “Were Western governments unduly influenced by the biased media, or was the media coverage biased because the media did not want to be out of step with the politically powerful, or was there a general bias in Western countries which affected both media and governments?”

Gareth Porter, a veteran reporter and historian, seems to simply assume that most of the mass media in America is closely aligned with the political establishment.  Hence, in one recent article on Syria he says

“In fact, most of the news media, think tank specialists on the Middle East, and the Democratic Party political elite aligned with Hillary Clinton, now lean toward treating al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate as a strategic asset rather than a security threat.”

In another, he writes

“Could senior Obama administration officials have been unaware that a war to overthrow Assad would inevitably become an enormous sectarian bloodbath? By August 2012 a US Defense Intelligence Agency report intelligence warned that “events are taking a clear sectarian direction,” and that the “the “Salafist[s], Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq]” were “the major forces driving the insurgency”. Furthermore, the Obama administration already knew by then that the external Sunni sponsors of the war against Assad were channeling their money and arms to the most sectarian groups in the field. But the administration did nothing to pressure its allies to stop it. In fact, it actually wove its own Syria policy around the externally fuelled war by overwhelmingly sectarian forces. And no one in the US political-media elite raised the issue.”

When Porter talks about the “political-media elite”, he is saying that the political elite and the media elite are so close to each other that they are basically one.  And he knows what he is talking about. He has been reporting and writing about current events for over 40 years.

Another startling insight comes from veteran journalist Michael Cieply, who left The New York Times this year after 12 years as a reporter and editor there. What he says about the New York Times is very interesting.

For starters, it’s important to accept that the New York Times has always — or at least for many decades — been a far more editor-driven, and self-conscious, publication than many of those with which it competes. Historically, the Los Angeles Times, where I worked twice, for instance, was a reporter-driven, bottom-up newspaper. Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?”

It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.

Reality usually had a way of intervening. But I knew one senior reporter who would play solitaire on his computer in the mornings, waiting for his editors to come through with marching orders. Once, in the Los Angeles bureau, I listened to a visiting National staff reporter tell a contact, more or less: “My editor needs someone to say such-and-such, could you say that?

The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.”

Another veteran journalist, Eric Margolis, is even blunter.

The great Mark Twain wrote early in the 20th century: ‘if you don’t read newspapers you are uninformed. But if you do read them, you are misinformed.’ Amen. As with the 2003 war against Iraq, the US media totally dropped its mask of phony impartiality and became a cheerleader for the Clintons and their financial backers. Media was clearly revealed as a propaganda organ for the ruling elite. No wonder its disgusted clients are decamping to online sources or just ignoring the biased media.

It is not just the Barnabas Fund and Amnesty International. Experienced journalists are openly sceptical about and critical of the western media.

The bigger issue

And Eric Margolis, in quoting Mark Twain’s comment that “if you read the newspapers, you are misinformed”, raises an important issue. Today, if you live in the west (or, indeed, almost anywhere in the world), there is a very good chance that you either read a daily newspaper or watch the news on TV or listen to it on radio. For many people, this is a daily ritual – and is, indeed, seen as a duty.  And this ritual has a big effect on the way that those who practice it see the world – which means that it has a big effect on the way they think about everything.

That marks a major change that has taken place over the last 200 years. For most of history, this didn’t happen. The fact that it happens today means that the mass media has huge influence. And Cieply’s comments about the New York Times having a “narrative” and seeking to run stories that fit a “pre-designated line” and “setting the agenda for the country” are particularly interesting.

Now, one might say “Well, that’s just the New York Times – there are a lot of newspapers, TV channels and radio stations. I can choose the Guardian or Telegraph, the BBC or ITV.”

But look again at what the Barnabas Fund, and Amnesty International, and Patrick Cockburn and Gareth Porter and Eric Margolis said. They spoke about “the media” as if it was one entity. And the problem is that on many matters, the western mass media does speak with one voice. And that one voice is often seriously misleading. Yes, you can find the truth if you look around – there are journalists who are telling it – and they are sometimes published in mainstream publications – but you have to look hard. And sadly, the mainstream media is often seriously misleading on some of the biggest and most important issues of the day.  And if the mainstream media does have a big effect on how we see the world and how we think about things, then that is a BIG problem.

And that is one of the reasons that I blog.

I blog to warn people about the dangers of trusting the mass media. I blog to try to get the truth out there. I blog to try to get stories out there that people are not hearing.

Am I biased? Perhaps. But I try to be as balanced as I can and to give both sides of the story. In the darkness, I try to shine a light.

And there is some good news. “There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Luke 8:17) One day, the truth will come out. All of it.

But in the meantime, I intend to try to do what I can to make at least some of it known.

Trump, Brexit and Babel

History seems to be repeating itself. When I got up on the morning of the 24th of June, I fully expected that the main news headline was going to be that the UK had voted to remain in the EU. To my surprise, I discovered that it had voted to leave.

When I got up on the 9th of November, I fully expected that the main news headline would be that Hillary Clinton had been elected President of the USA. To my surprise, I discovered that, while the counting of votes was still going on, it looked like Donald Trump would be elected – and shortly afterwards, it was confirmed that he was.

Similarities

My expectations had been based on opinion polls and the forecasts of experts. In both cases, they turned out to be wrong. But the similarity between the two votes does not end there. Not only were both results unexpected – but both results got similar reactions. In both cases, there was fear and horror – and not just in America. Throughout Europe, there has been widespread apprehension, even among children.

And the similarities go on. Donald Trump supported Brexit; Nigel Farage of UKIP supported Trump. Just as ethnic minorities were much less likely than whites to support Brexit, they were also much less likely to support Trump. Just as rural voters were much more likely to support Brexit than urban voters, they were also much more likely to support Trump. Similarly, support for both Brexit and Trump came disproportionately from older voters, and from voters with less formal education.  And one could continue (see, for example Glenn Greenwald’s recent article).

And for that reason, the people who were fearful about Brexit tend to be almost exactly the same people that are fearful about Trump.

The difference

There is, however, an important difference between Britain’s decision to leave the EU, and America’s election of Donald Trump as President.

Suppose that Donald Trump had been elected, not as President of the USA, but as president of Senegal, or Sri Lanka, or Suriname. Or, since Trump is not a citizen of those countries, suppose that someone from one of those countries who was exactly like Trump was elected president. My guess is that the reaction in America and Europe would be pretty muted. Indeed, it probably would not be reported widely in the media, and few people would have been aware of it. But even if it did receive media coverage, and people knew about it, I suspect that few people would be worried. And the reason for that is that Senegal, Sri Lanka, and Suriname are small countries whose rulers have little impact beyond their borders.

The reason that people are apprehensive, or even terrified, by the prospect of a Trump presidency, is that, by virtue of being president of America, Trump will be the world’s most powerful man. The decisions of American presidents have enormous impact outside America – for good or ill.

And that is the case for two reasons.

First, America is an enormously powerful nation. A quick google indicates that while American has less than 5% of the world’s population, its military spending accounts for 34% of the world’s total. America currently has troops on active duty stationed in 150 countries around the world. And under the presidency of Barack Obama, America bombed seven different countries.   As president, Trump will have a lot of firepower under his control.

meme presidential power.jpg

The second reason that Trump, as president of America, will be enormously powerful, is simply that America gives a large amount of power to its president. In 1973, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote a book entitled The Imperial Presidency out of his concerns that a) the US presidency was uncontrollable and b) it had exceeded the constitutional limits.

Is Schlesinger right?  Not everyone thinks so.  The American political system has checks and balances built into it.  However, there is no doubt that the American president does, personally, wield considerable power – and the fact that a lot of knowledgeable and intelligent people are very concerned about Trump’s election, suggests that perhaps there are not enough checks and balances in the system, and that the president does have too much power.

The obvious solution is for America to amend its laws so that less power is vested in the hands of the president. Clip Trump’s wings, and there is much less to be scared of.

Make America great again???

But there is another answer to the problem. A much more radical answer. It is about the fact that America is an enormously powerful nation. This is something that most Americans think is a good thing. The fact that America is the most powerful nation on the face of the earth is a source of much pride to many Americans – and also gives them a sense of security. But whether it should be a source of pride to them, and whether it gives them real security is extremely questionable.

And this brings us back to Brexit. In May, concerning Britain’s referendum on leaving the EU, I wrote:

I think that a lot of people are attracted to the idea of being part of a large union because it feels ‘safer’ – remaining outside feels risky. This way of thinking believes that big is good – or at least that it is good to be part of something big – that a united Europe would be secure and strong in the big wide world out there.

I have to confess that I am uneasy with that view. In my opinion, the worst possible political arrangement for the world is a world with one central government exercising political control of the entire planet. It simply concentrates far too much power in one place. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And it seems to me that the second worst option is a world divided into a small handful of powerful blocks. Again, far too much power would be concentrated in only a handful of places. What I would prefer to see is a large number of independent countries – the more the merrier. That would share power out, and provide diversity instead of uniformity.

And that is basically why I would like to see Britain leaving the EU.

Babel

And I referred to the Biblical account of the building of the Tower of Babel, and in particular to words of the builders of the tower:

Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. ”

God clearly did not believe that this unity project was a good idea:

The LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”

The words “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” suggest that God did not think this huge amount of (political) power concentrated in one place was a good thing. And so he scattered them over the face of all the earth – in other words, into many smaller political units.

America, Trump, and Brexit

Which brings us back to America, and to Donald Trump.

If the country that Donald Trump was about to become president of was Senegal, Sri Lanka or Suriname, I think most of us would be a bit more comfortable. Part of the problem is that too much of the world’s power is concentrated in one country.

I supported Brexit because I believe that the EU is concentrating too much political power in one place. If that is true of the EU, it is even more true of the USA. It seems to me that America, to put it bluntly, is too powerful for its own good, and the good of the world.

The reason that I am concerned at seeing Donald Trump becoming President of the United States of America is precisely the reason that I supported Britain leaving the European Union.