Sunday, 11 June 2017

Angela Merkel shows how the leader of the free world should act

Suzanne Moore                  Guardian/UK                 30 May 2017

There’s a statesmanship – a vision, a morality and a core – to her that was thrown into sharp relief by Donald Trump’s shambling visit to Europe

Angela Merkel – or “leader of the free world” as she is now to be known – did not wait long to see the back of Donald Trump before she made it clear that things have changed. She told a rally of 2,500 people in Munich where she kicked off her campaign to be re-elected that the EU must now be prepared to look after itself, that it could no longer depend on the UK or America. “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over … I’ve experienced that in the last few days. We Europeans have to take fate into our own hands.”

This is a truly dramatic statement from a leader who doesn’t do drama. She is not going to be holding Trump’s hand any time soon. He may be relieved to hear that, but then the underestimation of Merkel as a dowdy physicist has often allowed her to run rings around egotistical male leaders.

It was said to be a coincidence that she met Barack Obama the same day as Trump. It took a while for her to establish a friendship with Obama. She apparently disliked the “atmospherics” around him when he was first elected and wanted a more “conversational” relationship. She got it.

Watching her at the G7, her statesmanship, her ease, her ability to broker deals and relationships is ever more impressive. More and more I hear people say they that they like her. Even those on the left respect her though she is a centrist. While Trump shambled around Europe with his goon display of ignorance of other languages, cultures or even basic manners, Merkel was in her element. While he was trailing behind in a golf cart as he lacked the stamina to actually walk anywhere at all, she strode out with the other leaders.

Every gif of Trump shows him vacantly bumbling away, arrogantly shoving or being batted away by Melania. Gifs of Merkel, on the other hand, are a delight: her bemused expression when she has to deal with him, that twinkle, that little shrug she gives. She is at the top of her game – a game he has no idea how to play. Vladimir Putin knew she was afraid of dogs, so brought a labrador to meet her on 2007. She didn’t flinch, later observing: “I understand why he has to do this – to prove he’s a man … He’s afraid of his own weakness.” No wonder Emmanuel Macron pulled off that wonderful swerve last week walking straight to Trump but greeting Merkel first.

Of course not everyone likes her. The Irish, the Portuguese, the Greeks, the Spanish and the Italians have felt the force of her pushing through stark austerity measures as the price of EU membership. At one point Greek protesters portrayed her with a Hitler moustache. Her expansionary politics, whereby every other country should seek to be as wealthy as Germany, have come at a huge price to countries she sees as fiscally irresponsible. Critics in Germany say she achieved a kind of “paralysed consent”. They complain about the number of opinion polls she has commissioned and her methodical, scientific way of dealing with politics. et this, in reality, is why Mutti is considered so good at crisis management. Theatrics don’t interest her but there is a vision, a morality, a core to her that meant she could push through a policy of taking in refugees that required real guts.

Asked if she was a feminist while sitting next to Ivanka Trump, Ivanka immediately raised her hand to say she was, and Merkel, who has done so much for women, hesitated and then said: “If you think that I am one, go and vote on it.” Friends say that she always considered herself emancipated by her studies and growing up in East Germany, where it was normal for women to work. Her husband, professor of theoretical chemistry Joachim Sauer, needs no security. They lead an unshowy life. The pictures of Merkel nipping out for chips, ecstatic at the football, drinking beer, are not set up. It’s what she does, though she no longer smokes or bites her nails to the quick in the way she did when she was younger. This all added to the geekiness that helped her to rise up through the party.

And look where she is now, unlike our prime minister, able to oppose Trump directly and to say his America is not a friend of Europe. What an extraordinary woman. There are no problems, she says, only “tasks” to be solved, as she sits rapidly texting in meetings. Refusing to see herself as a female leader, she prefers to think of herself as part of a class of political heavyweights. Increasingly she is in a class of her own and watching her, one thought comes to mind: this is what strong and stable actually looks like.

Saying 'enough is enough' is to misunderstand terrorism completely

Waleed Aly                   The Age                 8 June 2017

Terrorism once seemed isolated, each attack hitting us like a massive thud, now it is a drum beat: steady, regular, some whacks combining to form a relentless sound track to our time. The exasperation is thorough, real and pervasive. You probably said those words to yourself well before you heard May say them. “Enough is enough.”

But they're also misleading. "Enough is enough" implies a level of control. It's what you say to a misbehaving child just as you decide it's finally time to impose a punishment. It's what you say when you decide to quit the job you hate. But terrorism is nothing like that. It does not exist merely because we haven't yet decided to extinguish it.

To see this, consider that we've been saying this kind of thing more or less since the September 11 attacks. That, you will recall, was meant to be the moment that changed the world, that ushered in a new war unlike anything we've seen. "There was before 9/11 and after 9/11", explained a former CIA director of counterterrorism. "After 9/11 the gloves come off." So we rushed off to two interminable wars. And we've been taking gloves off ever since, introducing new counterterrorism legislation to a drum beat of our own, steadily expanding the power of the state, and its ability to gather intelligence. Still the attacks come. Indeed, they increase.

Australian counterparts haven't quite got to the point of adopting Nazi terminology, but we're flirting with the internment idea. Here it takes the form of proposing special courts for terror suspects in which they can be held indefinitely precisely because we lack the evidence to convict, as both Tony Abbott and retired army general Jim Molan did this week. To be fair, Molan refused internment as a description of this, accepting the "appalling back story" that word implies. But we are talking about incarcerating people on suspicion and without trial. With respect, I'm not sure what else to call that.

"We are at war" tweeted one of Sunrise's regular commentators – who was quite prepared to call it internment – by way of support, as though it was some urgent, original diagnosis. But we've been using that exact phrase, and building policy on it, since at least September 12, 2001. This approach has failed because it has always made the same fundamental miscalculation that terrorism is some more-or-less static, finite evil that can be isolated and destroyed. When Katie Hopkins says "we need to start incarcerating, deporting, repeating until we clean this country up" she's imagining a day when the last potential terrorist is imprisoned, where we've finally caught all the bad guys, and anyone we think might one day become one.

But when the attacks continue because some 14-year-old kid wasn't on the radar, or because authorities monitored someone and decided he wasn't a serious risk, we'll then expand the circle. Even the most fleeting levels of suspicion will become enough grounds for detention. Then, when that doesn't finish it, we'll go for people we think should have known about an attack on suspicion they're supporters of terrorism. Eventually, we'll decide it's all too hard sorting the benign from the malignant and propose the internment of Muslims altogether. This, after all, is the logical extension of the idea of banning Muslim immigration. And then, when potential terrorists start masquerading as non-Muslims to avoid incarceration, what will we do?

What exactly is our end point here? Because there will always be a case to make. Take Iran: an awesomely brutal security state that has shown no compunction in imprisoning and torturing dissenters, and which defines its security threats extremely broadly. However tough we might want to be on terrorism, we will surely never match that. And yet Iran has just now witnessed a major IS terrorist attack of its own, despite being an overwhelmingly Shiite nation scarcely known for housing masses of IS supporters. The truth is that while hard police power is important, the track record of governments trying to eliminate terrorism predominantly by force isn't an encouraging one.

That's because at terrorism's heart is the narrative that sustains it. That narrative is itself a complex of things: social circumstances, an array of grievances and crucially, an ideology that makes these things coherent and directs that anger towards an enemy. Islamism is currently potent because it does this so efficiently. You can't imprison that potency out of existence. You can only try to make it ring less true, so fewer and fewer people are attracted to it. And given one of Islamism's most common conspiratorial motifs is that Western societies are out to destroy Islam and will never accept Muslims, the road to internment seems a fraught one to walk. We're fortunate for now such ideas are marginal in our politics. But we're heading that way unless we can at some point look at our instinctive, visceral responses and say enough is enough. [Abridged]

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Faith Evolves

Ian Harris                      Otago Daily News                   May 12, 2017

I was startled to learn recently that I’m engaged in a war on truth. Really? I thought I was engaged in a search for truth. But no, one Paul Thomas, writing in The Listener, declares that “the biggest battalions in the war on truth are those deployed by religion”. That’s because it “elevates belief above rationality and groupthink above independence of mind”.

He then fires the same broadside at religion’s “secular equivalent ideology” (is there only one?). Both, he says, make claims that defy logic, cannot withstand objective scrutiny, and impose the mindset that “if you have commitment to the cause, you won’t need evidence to know these claims are true”. Then the clincher, a Dawkinsesque recourse to “a fundamentalist Christian who believes Earth was created 5000 years ago and Adam and Eve were real people”.

Poor Mr Thomas, bobbing blithely on his backwater! Apparently he is unaware that a progressive theological current has been running within all the mainstream churches for more than a century, and thinking has moved a long way from the dogmatic bunkers of the past. Doesn’t he believe in evolution, which includes the evolution of Christian thought? But he’s not alone. A letter-writer asserted in this newspaper that in Christianity truth has never mattered very much, and tilts at the Bible as “essentially just a collection of fables, full of nonsense”.

It isn’t, actually. It’s a 1000-year record that shows people of integrity wrestling with the great questions of life – meaning, purpose, destiny – in light of the knowledge and understanding of their own times. They teased those questions out in myth, poetry, song, drama, parable, history, law, ethics, philosophy, teaching, preaching, interpretation. In other words, their Bible is a very human book – and a model for moderns to do likewise in our vastly changed world. To literalise the myths, as some conservative Christians and the letter-writer do, is to miss the mark by a country mile.

Reflecting on such distortions, Irish-American theologian John Dominic Crossan says the point is “not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take them literally”. Yes, there are churches still stuck on the reefs of medieval beliefs about God, the Bible, heaven and hell, and they give oxygen to those who dismiss religion on grounds of rationality and logic. I share a distaste for that style of religion, but it’s far from the whole picture.

So why do the critics focus solely on that segment of the spectrum? Is it too much trouble, in pursuit of truth, to see the Christian enterprise in all its diversity, and see it whole? Their approach is akin to judging science by its capacity to build nuclear weapons and wage biological warfare, while ignoring its advances in medicine, astronomy, transport, communications and much else. Besides, finding meaning and purpose in life, and determining the values that will be central to the way one lives, was never a science project, and isn’t now.

Rationality is one platform for this, but the search also draws on emotion, imagination, creativity, dreaming. How very human! The knowledge explosion of the past 200 years does not jettison the deep human wisdom of the ages, as if nothing counted until we came along, but provides a basis for re-interpreting and re-integrating that wisdom in the light of new knowledge. There is truth for living that is different from the truths of scientific experiment and discovery. And that is the sphere of religion.

All that is meat and drink to those on the liberal/progressive end of the Christian spectrum, looking to the future rather than trying to shore up the past. The modern world poses questions about aspects of the tradition that once seemed self-evident truths, but may now be regarded as the cultural embroidery of a past age, centred as it was on a theistic God, a supernatural reality, a heavenly after-life. The quest for truth leads many Christians to quietly abandon those assumptions, and build on new understandings that make sense within their secular world.

Christianity then comes down to earth with a bump, and is freed to evolve in fresh ways. It’s all less tidy now, but the motive power is still the same: a truth for living based on relationships impelled by love, respect, freedom and concern. That is central to what the apostle Paul means by “living in Christ” – which is the beating heart of the Christian lifestyle

Corbyn is Right - Manchester was linked to British foreign policy

Simon Jenkins                Guardian/UK                26 May 2017

We committed armed aggression against sovereign peoples who had not attacked us, claiming our motive was ‘to keep terror off the streets of Britain’

Jeremy Corbyn is
perfectly right to relate this week’s Manchester terrorist atrocity to British foreign policy in the Middle East. Whenever Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron struggled to explain why British blood and finance had to go on toppling regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, they were explicit: it was “to prevent terrorism in the streets of Britain”. The reason was given over and over again: to suppress militant Islam.

When that policy clearly leads to an increase in Islamist terrorism, we are entitled to agree with Corbyn that it has “simply failed”. Regimes were indeed toppled. Tens of thousands died, many of them civilians every bit as innocent as Manchester’s victims. Terrorism has not stopped.

Whenever al-Qaida or Isis seek to explain their atrocities, reference is usually made to British intervention and the military killing of innocent Muslims. It is mendacious to try to sanitise our overheated and jingoistic response to domestic terrorism by pretending that it is unrelated to British foreign policy. It was we who made the link, and before the terrorists did.

Of course this does not exonerate anyone. Yes, militant Islamists are seeking to subvert the west’s sense of security and its liberal values. Yes, the west’s continued bombing of markets, hospitals, weddings and villages is “accidental” – albeit inevitable, given the nature of modern air war.

But we used the language of “
shock and awe” in bombing Baghdad in 2003. We gave the current era of Islamist terrorism a cause, a reason, an excuse, however perverted. We committed armed aggression against sovereign peoples who had not attacked us.

Where Corbyn spoils his pitch is in relating terrorism not just to foreign policy but to domestic austerity. He stoops to Theresa May’s level in seeking to make electoral capital from a tragedy. Were he not grandstanding himself, he could accuse her of peddling the politics of fear by flooding the streets of the capital with soldiers. He could plead with the Muslim community to do more to combat and expose terrorist “grooming”. But there is no evidence that the security services are impeded in their work by staff shortages. It is the one aspect of policing that has been showered with money.

Politicians who exploit moments of public tragedy play a risky game. Whether Corbyn was tactful to return to the election campaign by citing
Manchester is moot: he would have been wise to wait a few days. But Islamist terrorism is related to foreign policy. However hateful it may seem to us, it is a means to a political end. Sometimes it is as well to call a spade a spade.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Religious Diversity

By Ian Harris                             Otago Daily Times                         May 13, 2016

Colonised New Zealand began as a largely homogeneous Christian society, remaining so until well into last century. Now the reverse is true: in terms of religion, our society has become one of the most diverse in the world. Resented, this diversity will exacerbate division and hostility. Welcomed, it will help provide the social cement of trust which people in a globalising world sorely need, in a way that economic integration, currently all the rage, never could.

All it requires is acknowledging “the dignity of difference” – which happens to be the title of an important book by the former Commonwealth Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks. Religion has a vital role to play in shaping the way ahead. Some will look at history and object that religious difference has actually fomented antagonism around the world, especially when used to reinforce the social, economic and political domination of one group over another. Invariably, that has resulted from an abuse of power, in denial of a tenet affirmed by every major faith: Always treat others as you would want them to treat you.

Christians and Muslims have the worst record here. Think of the crusades, Catholic Spain’s expulsion of Muslims and of Jews, the mutual bigotry of Irish Protestants and Catholics, and in today’s world, Muslim intolerance of Christians in much of the Middle East, and outright persecution by extremists in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan.

Adherents of other faiths are not blameless. Hindus have sacked Christian churches in India. In Myanmar, Buddhists seek to suppress Christian and Muslim minorities. While their motivation is basically nationalistic and political, they invoke religion to cloak their prejudice in a mantle of sacred duty. Add to that some people’s Dawkinsesque intolerance of anything religious at all, and you have the makings of a witches’ brew of discord.

To that there is a religious answer, and people of every faith, and even of none, are called on to contribute to it. From a faith standpoint, Lord Sacks explains why: “Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one gateway to his presence. To the contrary, it is the idea that the unity of God is to be found in the diversity of creation.” It is therefore essential to let go of any sense that all would be well if only everyone could be crammed into the same mould (your own, of course): “The test of faith,” says Lord Sacks, “is whether I can make space for difference.”

In light of that, it should come as a relief that there are those who see New Zealand as potentially a role model for religious diversity in the world at large. That was given form and focus in March through the launch at Parliament of the Religious Diversity Centre in New Zealand. It expands on a variety of local interfaith groups, but does not replace them.

The professor of religious studies at Victoria University, Paul Morris, reminded the gathering that New Zealand had moved from being 91 per cent Christian in the 1961 census to around 50 per cent in 2013, while those declaring “no religion” had risen from 5.5 to around 40 per cent. We now have sizeable Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities, and nearly a quarter of a million members of religions other than Christian.

A 2014 report by the Pew Research Centre ranked New Zealand 19th among 232 countries and territories for religious diversity, above Australia, Belgium, France, Britain, Germany and the United States. Most diverse is Singapore. Prof Morris said such diversity could either threaten social cohesion or be an enormous positive resource for social harmony. But its positive value had to be consciously developed.

Studies showed many professing “no religion” nevertheless say they are “spiritual” and interested in religious issues. Also, perhaps counter-intuitively, members of religious communities are more likely to be open to people of other faiths than the “nones”. Presumably they know the value of faith for their own identity, so can value it in others. As Lord Sacks observes: “Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others.”

The new centre will carry out research, offer training in religious diversity, educate, give policy advice, and comment on relevant public issues. Launching the centre, patron Helen Clark said: “The world badly needs voices of reason and tolerance and people who will work to build dialogue and respect across faiths and beliefs. I do believe that New Zealand can show the way.” Let’s prove her right.