Syria 3: Motes, Beams, and Russians

In my first two articles on Syria, I looked at the civil war in Syria, and in particular, the role played by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and America.

In this article, I want to look at the role played by Russia in the Aleppo area in recent weeks, and at the West’s response to it.

The battle for Aleppo began on 19 July 2012. Aleppo had, until that point, been largely unaffected by the war – but from that point on, the battle there has raged fairly continuously, broken only by sporadic ceasefires.

Russia had been a long-standing ally of the Syrian government, but was not militarily involved in the war until September, 2015, when it launched air strikes against ISIS and other rebel forces. It soon became involved in the battle for Aleppo, but it was not until September this year that its actions there started raising serious concerns – with western governments (notably those of America, Britain and France) criticising its actions, and suggesting that Russia may be guilty of war crimes. The US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said “What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism. It is barbarism. History will not look kindly on security council members who stay silent in the face of this carnage.” And that narrative has been well publicised by the Western media.

And it seems that Russian actions in Aleppo (and Syria in general), are, indeed, pretty bad. According to Chris Woods, the director of Monitoring group Airwars, “everything we understand about the way Russia is behaving shows they are deliberately targeting civilians, civilian infrastructure.”

The big question

The big question is “What about the Western powers that are criticising Russia?”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/reality-check/2016/oct/12/reality-check-are-us-led-airstrikes-on-syrians-as-bad-as-russias

A recent Guardian article begins: “A Labour party spokesman has suggested there is too much focus on Russian atrocities in Syria, which “sometimes diverts attention from other atrocities that are taking place”, and highlighted killings by the US-led coalition. The remarks implied the casualties were comparable, and that coalition attacks had been ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west, ” and asks “What are the facts?”

It tells us that

Airwars has recorded 3,600 civilian deaths caused by Russian bombing raids since they joined the Syrian conflict just over a year ago, a number Woods described as an “absolute minimum”. In contrast, the coalition has caused nearly 900 civilian deaths over 26 months of bombing, 19 acknowledged by the coalition itself and another 858 recorded by monitoring groups.

It also tells us that

The Violations Documentation Centre said just more than 147,000 civilians had been killed between the start of the war in 2011 and 11 October. It only attributes deaths with clear evidence so not all are accounted for, but its records hold the Syrian government and affiliated militia responsible for 92,000 civilian deaths, Russian forces for 3,412, Syrian opposition fighters, excluding Isis, for 2,470, and Isis for 3,078. It attributes 768 to the international coalition.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights had a higher toll than the VDC, but similar ratios. It said that by the end of December 2015, government forces had killed more than 187,000 civilians, armed opposition groups nearly 3,500, Russian forces 2,585, Isis 2,503 and coalition airstrikes 627. “

In short, the Guardian tells us that the vast majority of civilian deaths have been caused by Syrian government forces, and that Russia has killed far more civilians in Syria than the American-led coalition.  It thereby implicitly concludes that attention is not being diverted away from other atrocities, that there is not too much focus on Russian atrocities in Syria, and that coalition attacks were not being ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west.

However . . .

However, there are some things that need to be remembered.

1) If this is about civilian deaths and civilian suffering, then these statistics show that it is a matter of degree, not kind. The fact that the Russians are guilty of killing some three thousand civilians in Syria is a serious matter, because killing civilians in war is a serious matter. But the fact that the American-led coalition has killed several hundred is also serious. If the Russians are to be condemned because of the suffering they have caused in Syria, so is the coalition.

2) If you include the whole Middle East over the past 15 years, the US government (with its western partners) has caused far more civilian deaths – & civilian suffering – than the Russian government. Iraq Body Count estimates that the American-led coalition has directly killed over 16,000 civilians in Iraq since the beginning of 2003.

But it also has to be said that since the Iraq war began with an unprovoked invasion by an American-led coalition, there is a sense in which the invading forces are responsible for all civilian deaths in Iraq – and that is at least 167,000 people, according to Iraq Body Count. And if you add over 20,000 civilians killed in the civil war in Afghanistan that was sparked off by the 2001 invasion, then Putin’s total in Syria looks tiny.

And then there is the matter of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – not to mention Dresden. We don’t know the exact number of civilians killed in these bombings, but it could total a quarter of a million people. If the Russian government is guilty of war crimes because it has killed 3000 civilians in Aleppo, what does that say about the Allied governments in 1945?

3) The criticism of Russian action in Aleppo is not, however, just about the total number of civilian casualties It is also about whether civilian targets are being deliberately attacked. This is always difficult to prove. What, for example, does one make of the 17th September 2016 Deir ez-Zor air raid, in which the American-led coalition bombed Syrian government forces who were in a battle with ISIS, thus enabling ISIS to over-run government-held positions?

The coalition stated that the attacks were a mistake, but the Russian and Syrian governments have been sceptical. president Putin, nearly a month after the attack, said in an interview with French television:

Our American colleagues told us that this airstrike was made in error. This error cost the lives of 80 people and, also just coincidence, perhaps, ISIS took the offensive immediately afterwards. At the same time, lower down the ranks, at the operations level, one of the American military service personnel said quite frankly that they spent several days preparing this strike. How could they make an error if they were several days in preparation?

If the American-led coalition could make such a basic error in fairly straight-forward terrain in a sparsely populated area, how does one know that the Russians were deliberately hitting civilian targets in the much more messy situation of Eastern Aleppo?

4) Why are the US & UK governments talking about war crimes in Aleppo, but have been completely silent on Saudi bombing of civilian targets in Yemen (see my article). In fact, they have not just been completely silent on the subject; they have been assisting the Saudi Air Force in its bombing, and trying to ensure that the Saudi bombing doesn’t get too much scrutiny.

5) Who got Aleppo into this mess in the first place? While the blame does not lie with just one party, we need to remember (see my previous article) that the American government, by actively seeking to destabilise the Syrian government before the civil war began, was partly responsible for the outbreak of the war.

We also need to remember that from the early days of the war (2011), before the fighting reached Aleppo, the American government and its allies (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) were involved in supporting and supplying rebel militias. The Russian government did not intervene militarily until 2015. It looks pretty strange that America and its allies stirred up conflict in Syria, helped to get a war started, supported (directly or indirectly) Islamist militias seeking to overthrow the government, and are now complaining about what Russia is doing.

Hypocrisy?

In short, it seems to me that the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:1-5) are appropriate here:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a beam in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

That, it seems to me, describes the behaviour of the British and American governments. Indeed, it seems to me that they have more Middle Eastern blood on their hands than the Russian government. And it also seems to me that such is the affect of the beam in their own eyes that they are utterly incapable of seeing their hypocrisy.  (Of course, that’s just human nature, and our politicians are only human, but one should hope for better.)

And I am not the only one who thinks so. Gareth Porter, a prize-winning veteran investigative journalist, comes to exactly the same conclusion. He looks at the whole mess in a recent devastating article and ends by saying: “Heavy bombing in a city is inherently fraught with moral risk, and attacks on genuine civilian targets can never be excused. But such practices have been carried out and legitimised in the past by the very government that is now claiming the role of moral and legal arbiter. That hypocrisy needs to be recognised and curbed as well.”

And the media?

So let’s come back to the Guardian article. As I say, it implicitly concludes

a) that attention is not being diverted away from other atrocities,

b) that there is not too much focus on Russian atrocities in Syria, and

c) that coalition attacks were not being ignored by politicians, rights groups and the media in the west.

I am not so sure.

I think it is right to turn the spotlight on Russian actions in Syria. Is there too much focus on them? In one sense, no – there is probably not enough focus on them – if you are comparing them with some of the complete trivia that fills news broadcasts and newspapers. But if you are comparing them with the virtual silence about what Saudi Arabia has been doing in Yemen, and the way that America has been supporting Islamist militants in Syria, the attention given to Russian actions in Syria seems strange.

And hence it can be said that attention has been diverted away from other atrocities, and coalition actions are being ignored by most politicians, most of the media, and many human rights groups.

And there is an obvious bit of evidence for this.  While I do hear people talking about Russia’s bombing in Aleppo (which only started less than two months ago) I have never heard anyone mentioning Saudi bombing of Yemen, which has been going on for a year and a half.  Not once.  And that is because of the Western media.

And Gareth Porter also highlights this failure of the media – albeit fairly gently: “The Russian-Syrian bombing campaign in eastern Aleppo, which has ended at least for the time being, has been described in press reports and op-eds as though it were unique in modern military history in its indiscriminateness.”   And of course, that is something that is obviously just not true.  It is far from unique.  In Porter’s words, “such practices have been carried out and legitimised in the past by the very government that is now claiming the role of moral and legal arbiter.

In other words, the problem is not just with Western governments. It is also with the Western media.  And in some ways, that is the really scary thing.

Syria 2: Politics, insanity and dishonesty

What exactly is going on in Syria, and what should we make of it?

I’ve been puzzling over this, and what is becoming clear is that the answers make for disturbing reading. In my first article on the subject, I started by looking at the situation from the perspective of the position of the Christian minority in Syria. Rather than looking at the pronouncements of governments, I looked at what (MERF) Middle East Reformed Fellowship was saying about the situation for Christians in Syria. Of course, the situation on the ground for Christians in Syria is, in many ways, very similar for those of their neighbours of other religions – particularly where those neighbours are members of other minority religious groups.

MERF’s reports didn’t just look at the situation on the ground. They also looked at aspects of the political and security situation – giving us a feel for the way the Syrian Christian community see the political situation – which is quite different from the way the situation is seen through the eyes of the western media.

In this article, I want to turn more to the politics of the situation. And I’ll start by recapping what MERF has been saying about the political situation.

1) Syria has been ruled by the Ba’ath Party, which came to power in a coup in 1963. Since then, Syria has been a one-party dictatorship. The Ba’athists are committed to a secular pluralist system, which has meant that by Arab standards, freedom of religion has been excellent.

2) While many of the people of Syria appreciate the religious and personal freedoms that a secular pluralist government allows, there are substantial numbers of Sunni Muslims who would like an Islamist government, and in the late 1970s, there was an Islamist uprising against the Ba’athists.

3) In 2011, there were anti-government demonstrations in favour of more political freedom, which were part of the “Arab Spring”. Things turned increasingly violent, and the movement for change was taken over by Islamists, directly supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, all of which have Islamist or pro-Islamist governments, and which are American allies (Turkey being a member of NATO). In addition to direct support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the anti-government Islamists received “encouragement” from America and some other Western governments.

4) The situation deteriorated into civil war, with large numbers of volunteers from outside Syria joining the Islamist rebels. Christians (and others) were often kidnapped and murdered by Islamists – and hence tended to flee from rebel-held areas to government-held areas, where they were much safer. Where government forces regained control, security was restored and Christians (and others) returned home.

The politics of the Syrian civil war

According to Wikipedia, Syria’s civil war broke out in March 2011, and it is estimated that between 300,000 and half a million people have been killed. That is straight-forward. Much less straight-forward are the groups who are actually fighting. Wikipedia’s colour-coded war map shows Syria divided between 5 different groups: the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition, the Federation of North Syria, Islamic State, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, better known as the al-Nusra front.

syria-map-1_crop_crop

The reality is, in one sense, even more complicated, since the “Syrian opposition” consists of many different militia groups.

The actual reality is, however, somewhat simpler.

Firstly, the Federation of North Syria is basically the Kurds, who, for a long time, have wanted to break with Syria and have an independent Kurdistan. Broadly speaking, all the other parties oppose this desire for independence.

Secondly, the Syrian government are the Syrian army, though they do have the support of some smaller militias.

Thirdly, the Islamic State is a hard-line Islamist group, originally Iraqi. At first, they were close allies of al-Nusra, but they broke with al-Nusra in early 2014. Their strength is in the eastern desert of Syria in the region bordering Iraq.

And fourth, there is everyone else. To split them into al-Nusra and “the Syrian opposition” as the Wikipedia map does is misleading (which is slightly surprising, since Wikipedia’s coverage of the Syrian Civil War is generally regarded as fair and accurate).

Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies described the rebel militias like this:

“Some, like the Al Nusra Front—one of the most successful in military terms—are linked to Al Qaeda. Others are less radical Islamist factions, but are scarcely secular or moderate, [and] have no ties to the hollow outside efforts to create moderate governments in exile, and are being backed by Arab states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The small groups being given limited support with U.S. weapons and Special Forces assistance are at best petty and uncertain players.”

The fact is that these militias are closely linked, most of them are Islamist, and in terms of military / political power, they are completely dominated by al-Nusra. And al-Nusra is a Jihadist organisation, that until a few months ago, was the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.

In short, there are the Kurds fighting for independence in the North of the country, and three other groups fighting for the whole of the country – the government, Islamic State, and a coalition of other groups who are almost entirely Islamist, and who are closely linked with al-Qaeda.

(Note, by the way, that this basically fits with what MERF reports. Hence the MERF report from June 2015 says “For four years, militant Islamic groups, heavily sponsored by pro-Western Sunni rulers and wealthy Sheikhs of the Arabian Peninsula and Turkey, have tried to topple the secular Syrian government and establish a Sunni Islamic state. The Syrian government is supported by secularists, moderate Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and minorities opposed to living under a radical Islamic regime.”)

If you ignore the Kurds, the civil war is basically between the Syrian government and militant Islamic groups.

Outside involvement

This is where it gets murky.

The Syrian government’s outside help (see Wikipedia) comes from Iran and Hezbollah, and from Russia. Help from Iran and Hezbollah is easy to understand: they are Shi’ite, and the Syrian opposition is militantly Sunni. The Shi’ites, like the Christians, are very much a minority group and hence fear rule by militant Sunnis and prefer the secular pluralism of the current government. Russia’s main motive for supporting the Syrian government is probably the fact that Russia and Syria are longtime allies.

What about outside support for the opposition? Very strangely, Wikipedia’s table splits the main opposition into two groups: the al-Nusra front dominated “Army of Conquest”, which it says is supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and the “Syrian opposition” which it says is supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France and America.

What is one to make of this? There two basic questions:

1) Who are Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey helping?

2) Who is America helping?

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey

A WikiLeaks release of a State Department cable sent under Hillary Clinton’s name in December 2009 states that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan].”

A recently leaked email from the Hillary Clinton archive provides some even more interesting information. This email appears to be a US State Department memo, dated 17 August 2014, says “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIS and other radical groups in the region.”

This was written at a time when ISIS were sweeping through Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria killing Yazidi villagers and slaughtering captured Iraqi and Syrian soldiers, and when the US government was not admitting that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies were supporting ISIS and al-Qaeda-type movements.

So Saudi Arabia and Qatar have, for years, not only been supporting al-Qaeda, but also ISIS in Syria.

What about Turkey? Last year, former CIA Officer Philip Giraldi, a well-respected source, wrote:

“From the start, Turkey, which nominally opposes radical rebel groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, has been curiously absent from the fray, instead arguing that the major effort should be focused on defeating al-Assad. Indeed, when I was in Istanbul last July bearded rebels were observed in the more fundamentalist neighborhoods collecting money for ISIS without any interference from the numerous and highly visible Turkish police and intelligence services. Turkey has also been surreptitiously buying as much as $3 million worth of smuggled oil from ISIS every day, virtually funding the group’s activities. Ankara has allowed ISIS militants to freely cross over the Syrian border into Turkey for what might be described as R&R (rest and recreation) as well as medical care and training. Weapons have been flowing in the opposite direction, cash and carry, some provided by the Turkish intelligence service MIT. “

The American government has, from the beginning, made it clear that it wanted to see the Syrian government fall. It was involved in stirring up discord in Syria before the civil war began. According to the Seymour Hersh:

“State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks show that the Bush administration tried to destabilise Syria and that these efforts continued into the Obama years. In December 2006, William Roebuck, then in charge of the US embassy in Damascus, filed an analysis of the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the Assad government and listed methods ‘that will improve the likelihood’ of opportunities for destabilisation. He recommended that Washington work with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to increase sectarian tension and focus on publicising ‘Syrian efforts against extremist groups’ – dissident Kurds and radical Sunni factions – ‘in a way that suggests weakness, signs of instability, and uncontrolled blowback’; and that the ‘isolation of Syria’ should be encouraged through US support of the National Salvation Front, led by Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president whose government-in-exile in Riyadh was sponsored by the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood. Another 2006 cable showed that the embassy had spent $5 million financing dissidents who ran as independent candidates for the People’s Assembly; “

Who is America helping?

Right from the beginning of the conflict, the American government was involved in supporting and supplying rebel militias. Writing in 2011, in the early days of the Syrian Civil war, Philip Giraldi said

“Unmarked NATO war planes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to Iskenderum on the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals as well as volunteers from the Libyan Transitional National Council who are experienced in pitting local volunteers against trained soldiers, a skill they acquired confronting Gaddafi’s army. Iskenderum is also the seat of the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian National Council. French and British special forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA and U.S. Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause, enabling the fighters to avoid concentrations of Syrian soldiers.”

And the American government has remained on the side of the Syrian rebels against the government, despite the fact that the Syrian rebels are dominated by Jihadist Islamists who are closely associated with al-Qaeda and have a track record of brutality against Christians and other religious minorities in Syria.

Furthermore, the American government is well aware of the Syrian opposition is dominated by Jihadist Islamists. As long ago as August 2012 the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, said that the “Salafists [Islamic fundamentalists], the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, later Isis] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”

And we’ve seen that the American government continued to work together closely with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, despite knowing that they were actively supporting Islamist militants in Syria (including ISIS).

And the American government has been actively involved in supporting this opposition – despite knowing what it is really like.

In August 2012, an intelligence official with the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) stationed in Iraq wrote a report saying that out of the Syrian war could emerge “a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime….” Which supporting powers? The memo said, “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition.” That seems to be saying that the American government wanted an Islamic group to take over Eastern Syria – which, of course, is what happened when ISIS seized most of Eastern Syria in 2014.

The American government has been involved in funding and supplying rebel groups. While, in theory, they are not funding and supplying Islamist militias, the reality is that in practice, they are. Brad Hoff, writing in the Foreign Policy Journal, supplies some examples.

1) The American Ambassador to Syria was filmed alongside a Free Syrian Army commander who, not long afterwards, personally led ISIS and Nusra fighters in the rebel’s seizure of the Syrian government’s Menagh Airbase (August 2013). The future high commander of Islamic State’s military operations, Omar al-Shishani, himself played a leading role in the US-sponsored Free Syrian Army operation.

2) US advisors assisted the Al-Qaeda linked “Army of Conquest” in its 2015 takeover of Idlib from an “operations room” in Turkey.

3) Independent weapons research organisations like the UK-based Conflict Armament Research have documented Balkan origin anti-tank rockets recovered from ISIS fighters that are identical to those shipped in 2013 to Syrian rebel forcesweapons which were likely part of a joint CIA/Saudi covert program.

In the words of Former MI6 spy and British diplomat Alastair Crooke, “The West does not actually hand the weapons to al-Qaida — let alone to ISIS…, but the system they’ve constructed leads precisely to that end.”

In short

1) the American government has made no secret of the fact that it wants to see the Syrian government replaced.

2) The American government was actively seeking to destabilise the Syrian government since before the civil war began.

3) Those fighting against the Syrian government are Islamic militants. The existence of a “moderate” armed opposition of any strength inside Syria is simply fiction, and this is well known by the American government.

4) The American government has worked closely with allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) who are supplying those Islamic militants.

5) The American government has been involved in supplying rebel groups who are fighting alongside (and, therefore, on behalf of) the Islamic militants, or to put it another way, the American government is, indirectly, supporting and supplying Jihadist Islamists.

Russia, Syria and the media

Despite the fact that it is well known that the rebels are militant Islamists, most western media reporting of the fighting plays it down. Patrick Cockburn, writing in the Independent, again:

But as news spread this week that the Russians had started bombing in Syria, the FSA and the “moderates” were disinterred in order to suggest that it was they and not Isis who were the targets of Russian air strikes. [The Guardian] claimed that Russian bombs “mainly appeared to hit less extreme groups fighting Basher al-Assad’s regime”. David Cameron worried that if Russian action was “against the Free Syrian Army in support of Assad the dictator, then obviously that is a retrograde step”.

Television presenters spoke of anti-Assad forces being bombed in northern Syria, but seldom added that the most important of these were Jabhat al-Nusra and Bahrain ash-Sham. More than 30 air strikes were against Jays ill-fated, the Army of Conquest, which has seized much of Idlib province but is led by al-Nusra.

Aleppo

That is certainly the case in Aleppo at the moment: US Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, recently said: “it’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo.” And yet in all the reporting of the recent battle in Aleppo, there has been almost no acknowledgement of the fact that the Syrian armed forces, assisted by Russia, are basically fighting to take back part of the city that has been occupied by militant Islamists.

Which brings us to the question: Are we being systematically misled in a way which is fundamentally dishonest? Vanessa Beeley, an investigative journalist who spent some time in Aleppo recently, says that we are. Her interview a month ago, which has accumulated 200,000 views on Youtube, is well worth watching.

She doesn’t pull her punches. What she says is shocking. It is very different from what people in the west are hearing from the western governments, and from the mainstream media. But it fits with what MERF have been saying, and what the American intelligence services have been saying, and what respected reporters have been saying.

What comes out of it is that the Syrian Army, assisted by Russia, are basically fighting to liberate eastern Aleppo from NATO-backed Islamic terrorists.

Insanity and dishonesty

The shocking truth is that some 15 years after the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers by al-Qaeda, the American government and its allies are now spending millions of dollars backing an attempt by al-Qaeda (or al-Qaeda lookalikes) to take over Syria.

Have I got this wrong? I don’t think so. I don’t think the facts that I quote are in any doubt. At least I an unaware of any credible sources that are questioning them.

I come back to the comparison with Libya and the report by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and in particular, their quote from Amnesty International:

“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.”

Almost the same thing could be said about Syria today.

I wrote:

“In short, not only were the governments of Britain and France saying things that were highly misleading, but it was also the case that much Western media coverage of Libya was highly misleading.

It is worth noticing that Western media were biassed in exactly the same direction as the Western governments. That raises an interesting question: “Were Western governments unduly influenced by the biassed media, or was the media coverage biassed 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?”

Again, I think the same thing could be said of Syria.

If I have got this right, then this whole thing is totally insane – as well as being evil. And it seems that either very few people have noticed that – or that they are not prepared to say it.

The situation in Syria: 1) The Christian community

What exactly is going on in Syria, and what should we make of it?

I’ll begin by saying that if you want to understand the situation in Syria today, the last place to start is to listen to the pronouncements of the American and British governments.  Listening to the news may not be much better. For, as Amnesty International said, with regard to British involvement in Libya, “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events.” (See my post Honesty in public life: What we were told about Libya.)  The same is true for Syria. Much Western media coverage is frighteningly misleading.

Background

I want to suggest that one might want to start by thinking about the Christian community in Syria. Syria has a large Christian minority. In 2006, it was reckoned that about 12% of the population of Syria was Christian; and it is estimated that in 1920, that figure was 25%.  Most of Syria’s Christians are Eastern Orthodox, though there are substantial numbers of Catholics, and quite a few Protestants.

Politically, the situation for Christians was generally not too bad over the past 50 years. The apostle Paul’s view of what Christians should look for in a government is probably best expressed in his words to Timothy (I Tim 2:1-2) “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” And that was pretty much the way it was in Syria. By Middle Eastern standards, Christians were able to lead a peaceful and quiet life, with freedom of religion that was pretty close to western standards.

For many in the west, this was brought home by William Dalrymple’s book “From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium“.

Dalrymple describes his journey, starting in Greece, and travelling through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt. In particular, he looks at how the Christian churches have fared over the centuries in the places he visits – and about their current situation. And what comes through fairly clearly is that the situation for Christians was probably better in Syria than in any of the other countries.

One of the best sources of information about Christian work in the Middle East in recent years has been MERF (Middle East Reformed Fellowship). MERF is not a political organisation. It describes itself as

“an evangelical Christian missionary organization which serves in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia on behalf of Reformed and Presbyterian Family of Churches and believers worldwide. Our work is bearing fruit for the Kingdom of Christ among the twenty-two nations of the Arab League and other Muslim areas in Africa and Asia. MERF strengthens national churches with ministries of evangelism, church extension, biblical training, and diaconal aid.”

However, because it is desirable that Christians are able to lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way, and because this does depend to a large extent on kings and others in high positions, MERF’s prayer letters do include information about the political and security situation in the countries it serves – including Syria.

So what has MERF been telling us about the situation in Syria?

In June 2013, they gave an overview of the situation.

Of the twenty-two nations in the Arab League, only Syria and Lebanon grant religious freedom to all citizens. Confessing Christians are a large portion of Lebanon’s population, but they are only about 12 percent in Syria. Other Syrian minorities are 18 percent, including the powerful Alawites. . . . Most Syrian Sunnis are moderate and have been content with the modern secular pluralist system of the ruling Baath party to which many of them belong. A small but significant Sunni minority identify with extremist Islamic movements, aspiring to topple the secularist system.

Notice four things:

1) Syria had just about the best religious freedom in the entire Arab world.

2) This was basically because the ruling Baath party was committed to a secular pluralist system.

3) Syria’s secular pluralist system was not only good for the 30% of the population that belonged to religious minority groups, but was also appreciated by moderate members of the majority Sunni community.

4) There were a lot of Sunni Muslims who were not moderate – i.e. they wanted an Islamic government.   Indeed, In the late 1970s, an Islamist uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood was aimed against the government. Islamists attacked civilians and off-duty military personnel, leading security forces to also kill civilians in retaliatory strikes. The uprising had reached its climax in the 1982 Hama massacre, when some 10,000 – 40,000 people were killed by the Syrian Army. In other words, in the fairly recent past, Syria had experienced serious problems with Islamist violence, and the Syrian government had responded harshly.

Things fall apart: the Arab Spring

In 2011, things changed. Again, from MERF:

The “Arab Spring” uprising began by internet-based social media activists calling for peaceful demonstrations for more political freedom and the end of one-party dictatorial rule. Encouraged by Western opposition to the Syrian regime and by support from Sunni states (like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey), organized underground Syrian Islamists joined the demonstrations, quickly introducing guns, bombs, and other weapons. A very few radical Sunnis in the armed forces were lured in by oil-rich Arab Gulf sheikhs. Most significantly, well-trained, well-armed and well-financed radical fighters have flocked to Syria from all continents.

Notice five things

1) Baathist rule in Syria was (and is) dictatorial.

2) The Arab Spring began with calls for more political freedom.

3) What actually happened was that it was taken over by Islamists, and started turning violent.

4) The Islamist rebels were supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – and, in some way, encouraged by Western governments. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are both Islamist monarchies (in which apostasy from Islam is punishable by death); Turkey’s ruling political party has strong Islamist tendencies. All three countries are Sunni.

5) Islamist fighters flocked into Syria to join the conflict.

In particular, notice that from the beginning, this was more than a civil war between Syrians. Outsiders played a crucial part. And notice especially that direct support for the Islamic militants came from countries that are close allies of Britain and America.

Wikipedia provides more useful background information:

“The Assad government opposed the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration undertook to destabilize the regime by increasing sectarian tensions, showcasing and publicising Syrian repression of radical Kurdish and Sunni groups and financing political dissidents. Assad also opposed the Qatar-Turkey pipeline in 2009. A classified 2013 report by a joint U.S. army and intelligence group concluded that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences; the opposition supported by the Obama administration was dominated by jihadist elements. According to Michael T. Flynn, the then-director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the report was ignored by the U.S. administration. “

Wikipedia confirms everything that MERF says.

Notice, in particular, three things:

1) Qatar and Turkey had their own reason for being hostile to the Syrian government.

2) The American government was involved in destabilising the situation in Syria before the outbreak of the Arab Spring, by (among other things) financing political dissidents.

3) The American government supported the Syrian opposition despite the fact that the opposition was dominated by jihadists – and the fact that intelligence sources warned that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences.

What MERF leaves out is the fact that the Syrian government’s response to the protests was pretty harsh – see Wikipedia – but MERF does mention the government’s one-party, dictatorial rule, which means that we shouldn’t be too surprised at the harshness.

What happened?

The result for Syria, and in particular, its Christian community, was fairly predictable. Here are some excerpts from MERF’s June 2013 prayer letter:

“Armed Islamists closed in on Syrian Christian areas of Aleppo and Homs, forcing many in suburbs and villages to leave their homes, jobs, and businesses. Hundreds have been murdered and many are missing. Others used their life savings to ransom their safe passage or to release kidnapped loved ones. Most remain in Syria, sheltering with relatives or friends in the safer government-controlled areas. Others fled as refugees, mostly to Lebanon. As government forces regained neighborhoods and villages, penniless refugees returned to destroyed or looted homes, jobless and hopeless. In the meantime, major electricity and water facilities have been destroyed. Weakened by Western economic sanctions and an exhausting guerilla war, the government can offer little help to returning refugees.” 

Notice

1) Islamic forces were murdering and kidnapping Christians – and, presumably members of other religious minorities – and indeed, anyone who opposed them.

2) Government controlled areas were safer than rebel-held areas, and when government forces regained control, those who fled were able to return home.

3) One of the things that prevents the government from helping returning refugees is sanctions by Western countries.

From July 2013:

“While Western diplomats host opposition figures promising a democratic agenda, it is well documented that on the ground in Syria, passionate Islamists effectively head the opposition forces. . . . major media have shown little interest in the fact that opposition militias in Syria have also specifically targeted murderous cleansing operations against Christian civilians. . . . Two pastors, one in Aleppo and the other in Homs, give thanks to the Lord for being able to remain in their neighbourhoods, and that, after security was restored by the army, many members of their congregations returned and Sunday services resumed.”

Notice

1) Western diplomats meet with opposition figures, and there are promises that if government falls, democracy will come to Syria. The reality is that on the ground, the opposition consists of hard line Islamists.

2) The Syrian Army brought a restoration of security to areas of Homs and Aleppo and enabled church services to resume.

3) The mainstream media tended not to report the fact that the opposition militias were doing terrible things.

May 2014:

“Christians throughout Syria continue to suffer from the war waged in their country. A large number of Christians live in the city of Aleppo, the second largest city and a leading commercial centre. Because of this it has been targeted by Islamists, who occupy significant portions. The city has been repeatedly under siege, without utilities or communication and little food.

At the end of March, thousands of well-armed and organized Islamists suddenly crossed the borders from neighbouring Turkey to attack the predominantly Armenian Christian region of Kessab in northwest Syria. Most of the population descend from survivors of the early twentieth-century Turkish genocide of Armenian Christians. The Syrian army was only able to defend the community against the armed invaders for some hours, but it gave enough time for most families to run away to the south and take refuge in the government controlled areas of Latakia.”

June 2015:

“For four years, militant Islamic groups, heavily sponsored by pro-Western Sunni rulers and wealthy Sheikhs of the Arabian Peninsula and Turkey, have tried to topple the secular Syrian government and establish a Sunni Islamic state. The Syrian government is supported by secularists, moderate Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and minorities opposed to living under a radical Islamic regime.”

Oct 2015

Syria continues to be wracked by violence as zealous Islamists from all over the world strive to remove the secular government. Much suffering in Syria and Iraq has come at the hands of these violent Islamic militants, most of whom came through Turkey. In coordination with Turkey’s Islamic government, the well-armed militias are supported by fanatical, oil-rich Sunni Muslim rulers, including sheikhs of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States. All these Sunni Muslim states are long-time allies of the West. The West has also, more selectively, supported rebellion in Syria.  The Islamic government of Turkey seems not only to enable the entry of fighters into Syria, but also the crossing of thousands into Europe.

The same story comes over again and again and again. The rebels in Syria are largely Islamic extremists. Their main support comes from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, all close allies of America and Britain. And the American and British governments are also supporting the rebels while being careful not to be seen to fund groups that are known to be Islamist. Where the rebels have control, Christians and members of other religious minorities face violent attack, and tend to flee to government held areas for refuge.

And who is to blame? Well, obviously a large part of the blame lies with the Islamist radicals doing the killing in Syria. But they would be powerless if it wasn’t for the powerful forces behind them – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. However, it is not just those nations who were involved. There have been even greater powers at work.

I quote from MERF again – this time, their July 2014 prayer letter:

Against the advice of those knowledgeable of the history and nature of the region, Western powers got involved in the Iraq and Syria wars. The consequences continue to unfold. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost; millions more grieve the loss of family members, homes, and entire livelihoods. Christians and other minorities in both countries have suffered the most from the resulting collapse of regional equilibrium.

That, basically, is the gist of what is going on in Syria at the moment – and in particular, how it affects the Christian community there. There is, however, more to be said, and I hope to return to the subject of Syria soon.

Politics in the age of Zedekiah

Zedekiah, who reigned from 597 B.C. to 586 B.C. , has the distinction of being the last king of Judah. In actual fact, the kingdom of Judah had pretty well come to the end of the road before Zedekiah became king, because Jerusalem had already fallen to the Babylonians. The previous king, Jehoiachin, who had reigned for only 3 months, had surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and had been taken off to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar as a prisoner. In place of Jehoiachin, Nebuchadnezzar appointed Zedekiah (who was Jehoiachin’s uncle). In other words, Zedekiah was not the ruler of an independent kingdom, but a vassal of the king of Babylon, or as we might say today, a puppet.

Zedekiah, however, was not content to remain a vassal, and rebelled against Babylonian rule. The rebellion was not successful, and Zedekiah ended his days in a Babylonian prison.

The story is told in II Kings 24:11-25:7 – but several interesting details of the politics of Zedekiah’s reign which are not mentioned in II Kings are recorded in the book of Jeremiah.

One of the most interesting and important incidents is recorded in Jeremiah 38:

Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jehucal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malkijah heard what Jeremiah was telling all the people when he said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. He will escape with his life; he will live.’ And this is what the LORD says: ‘This city will certainly be handed over to the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.’ ” Then the officials said to the king, “This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.” 

Basically, Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was under siege by the Babylonian army, and God had told Jeremiah that Jerusalem was not going to hold out. If people wanted to stay alive, they needed to flee the city and surrender to the Babylonians. However, Zedekiah and the leadership of Judah were not prepared to accept this and were fighting on.

In the circumstances, the message from God that Jeremiah was proclaiming to the people didn’t go down at all well with Judah’s political leadership. They felt that Jeremiah was undermining the war effort – i.e. government policy – and that to undermine government policy during war was such a serious offence that Jeremiah should be put to death. As far as they were concerned, he was seeking the ruin of the people of the city instead of their good.

The truth, of course, was the opposite. Government policy was, in fact, bringing ruin on the people – and Jeremiah was pointing that out, and telling people how to survive.

Alas, no government appreciates that.

As for the accusation that he was discouraging the soldiers defending the city – well, it was true enough. But since that battle was not winnable, and continuing with it would be disastrous for everyone in the city, the best thing for the troops to do would have been to ignore their leaders and surrender. It wasn’t even as if there was anything honourable about the war. Zedekiah was Nebuchadnezzar’s vassal; in rebelling he had broken his word – which is a seriously dishonourable thing to do.

2600 years later, it is clear that human nature doesn’t change – and nor to the ways of kings and rulers. Those in government still tend to believe that to oppose their policies is to oppose the good of the nation and its people – and that is particularly true in times of war, when opposition to government policy is often seen as unpatriotic, disloyal, and even treacherous.

Just under a hundred years ago, Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American Socialist Party was imprisoned for a speech he made in which he criticised American participation in World War I. While he did not explicitly call for people to refuse to be conscripted, he did praise those who had obstructed conscription, and was thus convicted of violating the Espionage Act, on the grounds that he had the intention and effect of obstructing the draft and military recruitment. (The Act, of course, covered more than just espionage.) The American President, Woodrow Wilson, described Debs as “a traitor to his country.”

It is interesting to compare what Debs did to what Jeremiah did. In saying “Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live,” Jeremiah was effectively suggesting that soldiers should stop fighting and surrender to the enemy – which seems far more radical than what Debs was saying. If Woodrow Wilson thought that Debs was a traitor, it’s hardly surprising that the political leaders of Jerusalem thought that Jeremiah ought to die.

The truth, of course, is that governments are not perfect. Every government makes mistakes, no matter how good its intentions are. And many governments do things which are not just mistaken, but immoral and even wicked. And yet the truth is that many rulers tend to remain so convinced that their policies and actions are what their country (and the world) needs, that they regard those who oppose these policies as actively trying to hurt the country and its people. Such is human pride.

Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Alliances: my question answered

Last month I wrote about my concerns about Saudi Arabia’s bombing of civilian targets in Yemen, including schools and hospitals, and the resulting deaths of men, women, and children. Indeed, a US member of Congress, Ted Lieu,who is a colonel in the Air Force Reserve and an attorney, said there is “significant evidence” that the Saudi coalition has committed war crimes in Yemen.

And I said, “But perhaps the most worrying thing about this is the involvement of the American and British governments.”

America and Britain are arming the Saudi Government. America has supplied the Saudi Arabia with such indispensable assistance as intelligence, in-flight refuelling of aircraft and help in identifying appropriate targets.” When the U.N. was going to investigate Saudi killing of Yemeni children by bombing civilian targets, all the evidence suggests that America and Britain supported Saudi Arabia’s efforts to ensure the investigation didn’t take place.

In the words of Daniel Larison “The Obama administration and Cameron’s government have not only provided the Saudi-led coalition with the means to pummel and starve Yemen, but they have gone out of their way to make sure that the coalition’s wrongdoing (and their complicity in it) is covered up as much as possible.”

And I asked the question: “Why have the US and UK governments been behaving like this?” And I said that the answer is “Because the Saudis are our allies.”

Confirmation of that came from on the British side from Theresa May, who when asked about the fact that Britain providing weapons that were being used to commit crimes against humanity, responded “Actually, what matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. 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.”

There is the key point: What matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.

We now have confirmation from America as well. According to the Washington Post,

“. . . .When the operation began, support for a key ally was a foregone conclusion, one official said. “There was this great sense of ‘this is the right thing to do,’ ” the official said. . . . Despite repeated strikes on schools and hospitals, officials see little choice for now but continued support, given the intense desire to shore up a bilateral relationship rocked by President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and new legislation linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

There is that key point again: “Support for a key ally was a foregone conclusion. Officials see little choice for now but continued support, given the intense desire to shore up [the] relationship.”

It is all about alliances. Britain and America will continue to support a country that is probably committing war crimes, because they are our ally.

And it is not just bombing schools and hospitals. Saudi Arabia is also imposing a blockade on Yemen. The BBC reports “After two years of war in Yemen and a Saudi-led blockade lasting 18 months millions of people are slowly starving – some are already dying for lack of food.”

Millions of people are slowly starving. This is a major humanitarian disaster. And it is completely man-made. Saudi Arabia, an incredibly wealthy oil country, is starving the people of Yemen – which has always been one of the poorest countries in the Middle East.

And Britain and America are supporting Saudi Arabia. Why? Because, as far as the British and American governments are concerned, their relationship with the Saudi government is so important.

Postscript: Here is part of a speech by Hillary Clinton, which sets out the basic American government position on alliances.  I suspect that the British government would be in agreement.

When we say America is exceptional, it doesn’t mean that people from other places don’t feel deep national pride, just like we do. It means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity. Our power comes with a responsibility to lead, humbly, thoughtfully, and with a fierce commitment to our values.

Because, when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void. So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead. The question is how we lead. What kind of ideas, strategies, and tactics we bring to our leadership. American leadership means standing with our allies because our network of allies is part of what makes us exceptional.

No other country in the world has alliances like ours. Russia and China have nothing close. We stand with our allies because generations of American troops fought and died to secure those bonds, and because they deliver for us every day.

Honesty in public life: What we were told about Libya

It’s almost a month since the Foreign Affairs committee published its report “Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options,” but there are some things in it that should be noticed.

1) The reason given for the intervention

Why did western powers intervene militarily in Libya? The reason given was that they feared that if the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, recaptured the rebel-held city of Benghazi, he would probably order his forces to massacre civilians there.

What does the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report say?

Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence. The Gaddafi regime had retaken towns from the rebels without attacking civilians in early February 2011. . . when Gaddafi regime forces retook Ajdabiya in February 2011, they did not attack civilians. . . .

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.”

Many Western policymakers genuinely believed that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered his troops to massacre civilians in Benghazi, if those forces had been able to enter the city. However, while Muammar Gaddafi certainly threatened violence against those who took up arms against his rule, this did not necessarily translate into a threat to everyone in Benghazi. In short, the scale of the threat to civilians was presented with unjustified certainty.

Note three sentences:

1) “the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.”

2) “In short, the scale of the threat to civilians was presented with unjustified certainty.”

And, perhaps most significantly, the quotation from Amnesty International:

3. “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.”

In short, not only were the governments of Britain and France saying things that were highly misleading, but it was also the case that much Western media coverage of Libya was highly misleading. I suspect that Amnesty International was understating the problem, and that the truth is that most Western media coverage presented a very one-sided view of the events.

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?

The lesson, it seems to me, is that we in the West should be a lot more sceptical of what our governments are telling us about the Middle East (and other subjects) – and also a lot more sceptical about what our media are telling us – probably about everything, but certainly about the Middle East.

2) The real reason for intervention in Libya.

What was the real reason for military intervention in Libya? It’s always difficult to know, but part of what the report says is alarming (though perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising).

The report says “We were told that the political momentum to propose Resolution 1973 began in France. France sustained its push for international action in relation to Libya throughout February and March 2011. ” (Resolution 1973 was the UN resolution that authorised member states to establish and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and to use “all necessary measures” to prevent attacks on civilians, and which thereby led to the Western intervention in Libya.)

And the report goes on to say

On 2 April 2011, Sidney Blumenthal, adviser and unofficial intelligence analyst to the then United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reported this conversation with French intelligence officers to the Secretary of State:

According to these individuals Sarkozy’s plans are driven by the following issues:

a. A desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production,

b. Increase French influence in North Africa,

c. Improve his internal political situation in France,

d. Provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world,

e. Address the concern of his advisors over Qaddafi’s long term plans to supplant France as the dominant power in Francophone Africa.

The sum of four of the five factors identified by Sidney Blumenthal equated to the French national interest. The fifth factor was President Sarkozy’s political self-interest.

In other words, in the case of at least one Western nation (the nation which was most active in pushing for intervention), the motivation was largely national self-interest and personal self-interest.

Or, to put it another way, it was basically about earthly glory.

Of course, that’s not what was said publicly. Publicly, it was all about avoiding a massacre – which sounds a lot better.

One is reminded of the response of Jesus when his disciples began to argue about which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:25-26): “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”

In other words, the disciples were not to emulate earthly kings – and one of the characteristics of these kings who ordered their subjects around was that they expected their subjects to call them benefactors.

Earthly rulers, then as now, like to be thought of as basically being philanthropists. The truth of the matter is that their motivations are not always as selfless as they would have us think.

Government schools and indoctrination

Last week, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, launched a document called “Proud of our Diversity“, which has been described as an LGBT+ manifesto.

In the section on education, he says, “Schools are not only a place for learning but a miniature version of society and we must implement nurturing practices in education and promote the rich diversity of our social fabric in schools in order to overcome homophobia and transphobia in society as a whole. ” Among his proposals for how to do this are the following:

Advance LGBT+ inclusion in the education system by updating the national curriculum to reflect LGBT+ historical figures and LGBT+ rights.

Ensure that inclusive Sex and Relationship Education is made compulsory in schools with a focus on sexual health, healthy relationships and tackling homophobia and misogyny.

First, notice that this is about the national curriculum – in other words, this is something that will apply to all state schools (at least in England, Wales and Northern Ireland). Second, notice that it includes compulsion: it will be compulsory for pupils to be given lessons designed to seek to ensure that they do not practice homophobia or misogyny (however those words are defined).

Christine Blower of the NUT liked it, and said parties standing for election should adopt its proposals. “This includes making it compulsory for all schools’ sex education policies to include a positive portrayal of same-sex relationships, promoting LGBT History Month in all schools, and encouraging schools to develop a curriculum that is inclusive of LGBT issues”.

In Scotland

Meanwhile, in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, as part of a plan on LGBT rights, has included a pledge to “Promote children’s health and well-being right throughout early years, primary and secondary education, so that all children and young people learn tolerance, respect, human rights, equality, good citizenship, to address and prevent prejudice and about healthy relationships through refreshed, age-appropriate strategies and resources.”

David Robertson was not impressed:

“We are concerned that what is being proposed is not teaching children facts but indoctrinating them with a particular political/sexual philosophy.” The bottom line is that we are opposed to our state education system being used for social engineering and for foisting propaganda upon children. We believe that no one should be subject to bullying but that the way to combat bullying is to teach people respect for all human beings, not to indoctrinate children.”

And in California

Across the Atlantic, similar things are happening. In Bakersfield, California, a Baptist pastor called Chad Vegas, who had been a long-time (and highly respected) school board member, announced in July that he was not going to run for re-election.

He wrote a letter about his decision to his congregation, part of which reads

“Today, I sat in a meeting as our board voted to bring into our district policy the full spectrum of the LGBTQ agenda. I realized as I listened to the numerous legal justifications and requirements that board members uphold these deeply offensive and immoral laws that I can no longer serve in this role. I am a Christian pastor above all else. I could not vote for these policies. I can not remain on a board to enforce these policies. I spoke out against the board voting for this. I called on them to realize that they will answer to God on this vote, and they should fear Him more than the state. I did not prevail.

I plan to address further my own personal realization that government education has been hijacked as a cause for the indoctrination of your children in nihilism, hedonism, and atheism. I will also address more my realization that I was naive not to think this was the only direction government education could go.”

Note those words: “government education has been hijacked as a cause for the indoctrination of your children in nihilism, hedonism, and atheism.”

He was asked by thousands of people to reconsider his decision not to run for re-election. In response, part of what he said was this:

The State and Federal governments have co-opted your local schools. They mean to indoctrinate your children in their radical secularism. They mean to cause your children, and Christian teachers and administrators, to bow to their sex gods. I simply can’t be part of enforcing that.

It is now law in CA that your children must be taught how to have safe homosexual sex, how to obtain an abortion, and that gender does not correspond to biological sex. Think of that! It is legally required to teach your children the LGBTQ sexual mores while simultaneously illegal to mention God.

And he added: “We must wake up to the reality of where our state has headed. We must prepare the church to live as sojourners in a foreign land, a land that feels more foreign by the day. We need to help parents find alternatives to public schools as they disciple their children.” 

What are schools for?

This all raises the question: “Is that what schools are for?” In fact, it raises the even more basic question “What are schools for, anyway?”   One starting point is the National Curriculum which Jeremy Corbyn referred to.

It was introduced by the Education Reform Act of 1988, by the Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher. According to the 2004 edition of the secondary teachers’ handbook to the curriculum, “The school curriculum will aim to promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and prepare all pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life.”

That includes, among other things,

The school curriculum should pass on enduring values, develop pupils’ integrity and autonomy and help them to be responsible and caring citizens capable of contributing to the development of a just society.

It should promote equal opportunities and enable pupils to challenge discrimination and stereotyping.

It should develop their awareness and understanding of, and respect for, the environments in which they live, and secure their commitment to sustainable development at a personal, local, national and global level.

In other words, the curriculum includes teaching pupils about what is right and what is wrong; it is about teaching them values.

And to be honest, schools have always taught values; they have always taught pupils about what is right and what is wrong. A lot of the time, that is not controversial.

golden-rules

Many primary schools teach children “Golden Rules” – which most people would consider completely uncontroversial – things like “We are honest: we don’t cover up the truth” and “We look after property: we don’t waste or damage things”.

And these are not simply taught as school rules; most if not all primary school teachers would believe that these are universal truths that apply out of school, and not just in school. And that belief would surely come over in what they say to their pupils.

Indoctrination?

So – when teachers speak to pupils about being honest and looking after property, are they involved in indoctrination? The answer is that they most certainly are. Indeed, originally, the word “indoctrinate” simply meant “to teach”. These days, to indoctrinate means to teach someone to accept a belief uncritically. And I think that most primary school teachers would teach children to accept uncritically that one should be honest, and that one look after property.

In other words, education has always involved indoctrination. The only question is “What values and beliefs are children indoctrinated in?”  For of course the values of parents may not be the same as the values of the teacher.

What is becoming clear  (whether one is in England, Scotland, or California), is that governments increasingly take the view that it is their duty to determine the values which children are to be indoctrinated in. Furthermore, they do not just see state schools as places where children are taught about mathematics, grammar, history, and science. They see state schools as places where children should be taught values – the values that will make children fit with their vision of what a citizen should be.

In a sense, it has long been accepted that schools should teach children appropriate values. But two things are changing.  One is that politicians increasingly think it is their job to declare what those values are.  The other is the values themselves: the values that politicians hold and proclaim today are not the same as the values that politicians held 50 or 100 years ago. And for those who hold to traditional Christian values as taught in the Bible, that is a major concern.

That is why David Robertson says “We are concerned that what is being proposed is not teaching children facts but indoctrinating them with a particular political/sexual philosophy.”

That is why Chad Vegas says “Government education has been hijacked as a cause for the indoctrination of your children in nihilism, hedonism, and atheism.”

The idea that rulers should have the power to decide which values children would be taught is a fairly recent one. Today, many people simply accept it uncritically. But is that what Christians should think?

The Bible does not specifically answer that question – largely because in Biblical times everyone would simply have assumed that children would be brought up by their parents and taught the values of their parents. No one would have dreamed that rulers would have the power to indoctrinate children, though some philosophers might have dreamed about it.

But just suppose, for a minute, that one had been present at the Council of Jerusalem, described in chapter 15 of Acts, when there was an important gathering of apostles and elders. And suppose, with all those leading Christians present, someone had asked “Do you think it would be a good idea if Caesar set up schools throughout the empire, where all children could be instructed in reading and writing and arithmetic, and taught the values that Caesar wanted them to be taught?”

I think there can be no doubt that not only would the answer have been “no”, but that the apostles and elders would have been horrified by such a suggestion.

And yet, oddly enough, many people in the church today seem to accept such a situation as completely normal.

The terrible consequences of British folly in Libya

A few months ago, I wrote about the way that government action so often achieves exactly the opposite of what was intended.

This past week has provided another vivid illustration of that, in the publication of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on Britain’s military intervention in Libya five years ago – a report that has widely been described as scathing.

The result of the French, British and US intervention that took place in 2011, the report finds, “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL [Islamic State] in north Africa”.

According to the chairman of the committee, Crispin Blunt, “we had no proper appreciation of what was going to happen in the event of regime change, no proper understanding of Libya, and no proper plan for the consequences.”

In other words, the government hadn’t a clue what it was doing.

Perhaps the most memorable bit of the report is where Sir Alan Duncan, a serving Foreign Office minister, is quoted as describing the plans for postwar planning as ‘fanciful rot’.

What happened in Libya?

In 2011, as part of the “Arab Spring”, there was an uprising in Libya against the rule of Muammar Gaddafi, which turned into a civil war. NATO intervened on the side of the rebels, and the civil war came to an end with the fall of Gaddafi. Shortly afterwards, David Cameron visited Tripoli and Benghazi with the then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, receiving a hero’s welcome. It looked like it was a great success.

A year after Cameron’s visit, however, the American ambassador and three others were killed in an attack by Islamists in Benghazi. And it was pretty much all downhill for Libya after that. The political situation continued to decline, and a second civil war started in 2014 which is still ongoing.

One of the most chilling and poignant events was the murder by ISIS of 30 Christians in February 2015. They were kidnapped, paraded, and beheaded simply for being Christian. One by one, they were urged repeatedly to recant their faith in Christ. Not one did. In the first YouTube recording, one is heard saying in Arabic, “Jesus, my life is in your hands,” as he felt the knife on his neck. The man beside said, “Amen.”

The mother of one of the young men was interviewed on TV a few days later. She was asked what she wanted done to the murderers. Sobbing, she said: “We forgive them and pray for the Lord’s mercy for them and for their families .” The interviewer, a secularist Muslim, afterwards commented: “Now I understand how Christians take to heart the glorious words of Jesus about loving one’s enemies and forgiving those who persecute them.”

But the problems caused by NATO’s intervention are not just being felt in Libya itself. Hence the recent article in the Independent entitled “How David Cameron’s intervention in Libya is fuelling war and terror around the world.”  

It is, however, greatly to Britain’s credit that the House of Commons has published this report. Daniel Larison (contrasting the UK with the US) comments:

At least there is some attempt at reviewing the errors of the Libyan war in the U.K., and Cameron is being belatedly called to account for them. There has been and will be no such effort made in Congress, and the only thing that Clinton’s opponents seem interested in investigating is a lone attack that likely wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the wrongheaded intervention that she supported the previous year.

Do not put your trust in princes.

In other words, it looks suspiciously like this is yet another case of government doing something, and achieving exactly the opposite of what it hoped to achieve.

When I wrote in April about how government policy often achieves the opposite of what was intended, I was looking at health policy: the way that government advice on healthy eating in America and Britain may actually have caused British and American people to have less healthy diets.

But it seems to me that if it is bad when the foolishness of governments cause unfortunate consequences for their own people, it is surely worse when the foolishness of governments cause problems for people of other lands. After all, one could say that the British and American people elected their governments, so while it is not exactly fair that they suffer the consequences of the folly of their governments , there is an element of justice in it. However, it seems particularly unjust when the people of one nation suffer because of the folly of another nation’s government.

Furthermore, while it is foolish for governments to give out advice on health which is based on ignorance and bad information, it is much more serious when governments start bombing people as part of a policy based on ignorance and bad information.

I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: the schemes of governments often fail, and the actual consequence of policies is sometimes the opposite of the intended consequence. And yet people keep on seeing politicians as saviours. We really need to heed the warning of the psalmist (Psalm 146:3): “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men who cannot save.”

Yemen, political alliances, and the righteousness of nations

I’ve written before about my concerns about Saudi Arabia’s bombing of civilian targets in Yemen, including schools and hospitals, and the resulting deaths of men, women, and children.

But perhaps the most worrying thing about this is the involvement of the American and British governments. One form this has taken is that America and Britain are arming the Saudi government. That is not to say that the American and British government are selling (or giving) arms to Saudi Arabia – but they are allowing arms manufacturers to sell arms to the Saudi government, something that they would not be prepared to do for just any government. And this, in itself, virtually amounts to the American and British governments arming Saudi Arabia.

But it goes further than that. The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Obama has also supplied the [Saudi-led] coalition such indispensable assistance as intelligence, in-flight refuelling of aircraft and help in identifying appropriate targets.” Hmmm.

Three months ago, it looked like the UN were going to seriously criticise Saudi actions in Yemen, but then it caved in to pressure to remove the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition from the UN’s list of states and armed groups that violate children’s rights in conflict.

According to Ray Offenheiser of Oxfam,

“In June, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced that the U.N. had documented widespread abuses of children’s rights including the recruitment of 762 child soldiers, largely by the Houthis, and the killing of 785 children, mostly as a result of bombardment by the Saudi-led coalition.

Saudi Arabia promptly insisted that the U.N. remove it from the report’s blacklist and threatened to cut off relations with and funding for the U.N. if it did not comply. Amazingly, and to the U.N.’s great discredit, the threat succeeded.

It is tempting to view the U.N.’s betrayal of Yemeni children exclusively as a failure of the U.N.’s leadership, but this incident is not an anomaly. For over a year, powerful U.N. member states have helped insulate the Saudi-led coalition from culpability and, in so doing, fuelled its righteous outrage at attempts to hold it to account. Since its intervention in Yemen began over 15 months ago, the coalition has found the U.N. a highly convenient venue in which to be absolved of human rights abuses—thanks largely to the enabling of Saudi Arabia’s powerful allies, the U.S. and the U.K.”

In other words, Saudi Arabia was committing war crimes, and the U.S. and U.K. governments were doing what they could to protect Saudi Arabia from being criticised.

Journalist Daniel Larison put it this way:

“The Obama administration and Cameron’s government have not only provided the Saudi-led coalition with the means to pummel and starve Yemen, but they have gone out of their way to make sure that the coalition’s wrongdoing (and their complicity in it) is covered up as much as possible. The Saudis have worked hard to whitewash the coalition’s record, and in this Washington and London (among others) have given them significant help. “

Actions have consequences

Politically speaking, what is happening in Yemen is not actually helpful for the US.  Reuters reports that the Saudis’ bombing campaign has had the effect of greatly strengthening al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.  Meanwhile, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, commented  “If you talk to Yemenis, they will tell you that inside Yemen this is not perceived to be a Saudi bombing campaign, this is a US bombing campaign.  What’s happening is we are helping to radicalize the Yemeni population against the United States.”  Put those two things together, and they spell long-term trouble for America.

But aside from the practical consequences of the Saudi action, there is a more basic issue: the US and the UK seem to be complicit in war crimes. And I do not just say that the US and the UK governments: I think that one could go beyond that and argue that since the US and the UK are both democracies, and since what has been going on in Yemen is no secret, but has been widely reported for several months (though not on newspaper front pages or in TV news bulletins), then it looks like the US and the UK as nations have blood on their hands. And one is reminded of the words of the book of Proverbs (14:34): “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”

It’s about alliances

The question is “Why have the US and UK governments been behaving like this?” And the answer is “Because the Saudis are our allies.” For decades, the Saudi regime has kept on the right side of the US and the UK, unlike most other governments in the Arab world. Throughout the Cold War, Saudi Arabia was reliably pro-western. When the US decided to intervene after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, it depended on Saudi cooperation. And of course, without the cooperation of Saudi Arabia, the 2003 invasion of Iraq could not have gone ahead. The US was not about to do anything that would threaten their relationship with Saudi Arabia.

In other words, this is all about political alliances. And political alliances have a habit of having very unhappy side effects. The point is that political alliances are not simply about goodwill and friendship, despite the language that is often used about them. They are about power, and often lead countries to do things that they would never do if it were not for the obligations that alliance brings. Just go back 100 years, and consider World War I. The shooting of one man in Sarajevo led to just about every nation in Europe (and some outside Europe) getting involved in a conflict that led to at least 10 million violent deaths. But it was not so much the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand that led to the devastation of much of Europe – it was the political alliances that were in place at the time.

Political alliances and the Bible

Political alliances are, of course, not new. They existed in Old Testament times. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah were very much involved in political alliances – alliances which often involved military cooperation in the face of threats from common enemies. However, the forging of these political alliances by the kingdoms of Israel and Judah is rarely seen as a good thing in the Old Testament.

In I Kings 15, we read the unedifying story about how the two Israelite kingdoms, Israel and Judah, were at war with each other. But what was worse was that the king of Judah then made an alliance with the king of Syria, and paid him to attack the kingdom of Israel. In other words, we have an alliance which meant some of God’s own people were paying pagans to attack another group of God’s own people.

“There was war between Asa and Baasha king of Israel throughout their reigns. Baasha king of Israel went up against Judah and fortified Ramah to prevent anyone from leaving or entering the territory of Asa king of Judah. Asa then took all the silver and gold that was left in the treasuries of the LORD’s temple and of his own palace. He entrusted it to his officials and sent them to Ben-Hadad son of Tabrimmon, the son of Hezion, the king of Aram, who was ruling in Damascus. “Let there be a treaty between me and you,” he said, “as there was between my father and your father. See, I am sending you a gift of silver and gold. Now break your treaty with Baasha king of Israel so he will withdraw from me.” Ben-Hadad agreed with King Asa and sent the commanders of his forces against the towns of Israel. He conquered Ijon, Dan, Abel Beth Maacah and all Kinnereth in addition to Naphtali. “

The prophets warned that these alliances were not something that God wanted them to do, and that the results would be militarily disastrous. Hence we read in Isaiah 30:

“Woe to the obstinate children,” declares the LORD, “to those who carry out plans that are not mine, forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin; who go down to Egypt without consulting me; who look for help to Pharaoh’s protection, to Egypt’s shade for refuge. But Pharaoh’s protection will be to your shame, Egypt’s shade will bring you disgrace.

These alliances often led to actions which were spiritually disastrous. Hence the case of Solomon’s wives, as recorded in I Kings 11.

“King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been.”

And why was Solomon marrying all these foreign women? Well, the significant thing is that Solomon wasn’t marrying just any foreign women. He was marrying the daughters of kings. And it all started with Pharaoh’s daughter: I Kings 3:1 “Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt and married his daughter.” This is about political alliances. And the point is that political alliances invariably involve compromises – including compromises of principle.

Indeed, the prophet Jeremiah (22:20-22) calls Judah’s allies her ‘lovers’.

“Go up to Lebanon, and cry out, and lift up your voice in Bashan; cry out from Abarim, for all your lovers are destroyed. I spoke to you in your prosperity, but you said, ‘I will not listen.’ This has been your way from your youth, that you have not obeyed my voice. The wind shall shepherd all your shepherds, and your lovers shall go into captivity; then you will be ashamed and confounded because of all your evil.”

In many modern Bible translations, the word ‘allies’ is used. (Hence, in the NIV, “your lovers are destroyed” becomes “your allies are crushed”) But that misses the point that is brought out in the more literal translations that there is something dubious and illegitimate about these political alliances.

The Bible is unremittingly negative about the political alliances made by the kings of Judah and Israel in the Middle East in ancient times.  That, I believe, should warn us of the dangers of political alliances in the Middle East (and not just in the Middle East) in our own day. For these alliances could result in nations such as the US and the UK having innocent blood on their hands.

UPDATE: When I posted this, I had not seen the exchange between Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May in the House of Commons this week, in which Theresa May said (and the linked article in The Independent is worth reading) “Actually, what matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. 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.”

I think that what I wrote above is all the comment that is needed.  But I will add that I was absolutely horrified.

Burkinis, crosses, and bombs

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

The burkini ban is of interest for two particular reasons.

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

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

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

Meanwhile, in the UK . . .

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

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

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

Hostility and alienation

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

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

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

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

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

How to be provocative

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

So look at what the French have done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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