Sunday, 15 May 2016

Religious Diversity

Ian Harris                     Otago Daily Times                        May 13, 2016

Is religious diversity a good thing? Yes indeed, if we make it so, says Ian Harris
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.

Female deacons could lead to female priests – and the Vatican knows it

Andrew Brown                         Guardian/UK                           13 May 2016

Pope Francis has made many friends outside the Catholic Church and
many enemies inside it. His latest, throwaway suggestion that women might be ordained deacons will make him thousands of new friends – and even more embittered enemies. For it touches directly on the most neuralgic question in contemporary Catholicism: the constitution of the priesthood.

Deacons aren’t priests, of course. They don’t, in Catholic doctrine, have the thaumaturgic powers of absolution and consecration; they can’t represent Christ in the ways that only priests can. But they do represent the church; they are in holy orders. And, at the moment, they have to be male, as do priests and bishops. On the other hand, they can be married, which very few Catholic priests can be.

The difficulty for traditionalists is that there were very clearly women called “deacons” in the New Testament. The arguments against ordaining women priests come down ultimately to the fact that Jesus didn’t do it, and neither did the early church. This is extended backwards into a belief that the whole of creation is gendered, so that being male or female has a cosmic, metaphysical significance. And that imaginative picture in turn forms the background to all Catholic teaching about sexuality.

But ultimately this all rests on a historical belief about what Jesus and his apostles did or didn’t do. He didn’t make women (or anyone) priests; but the early church did recognise men who were doing some of the things that bishops now do, and it did recognise women called deacons. The traditionalist argument is that those women did an entirely different job than what is now meant by the word.

This would be a purely academic argument were it not for the crisis that the Catholic church faces as a result of its efforts to maintain a celibate male priesthood all around the world. Broadly speaking, in countries where there are plenty of priests, few of them are celibate, while in the rich north there are very few priests, and celibacy is imposed by old age as much as anything. The median age of Catholic priests in the USA had risen to 64 by 2012, and is presumably higher still now. The obvious, and probably inevitable, answer is to ordain married men.

The second possibility would be to make a much greater role for the laity in the church, but the problem there is twofold. Priests like running things, and there are theological reasons why a Catholic parish cannot function without a priest to say mass and hear confessions.

The third problem is that the laity have ideas of their own, and – if they are women – can’t see why there should not be women priests.

Pope John Paul II attempted to close off the question of women priests for a least a couple of centuries. He may have succeeded. But ordaining women deacons would provide a way around the back of his prohibitions. Certainly this was what happened in the Church of England, where the ordination of women as deacons paved the way for their ordination as priests. Once lay people had seen women dressed in priestly robes and performing important functions at the front of the church, the theological distinction between priest and deacons – so very clear and important to anyone inside a dog-collar – came to seem completely irrelevant.

The traditionalists in the Catholic Church are well aware of this danger. Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who now heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican body responsible for enforcing doctrine, said in a 2002 interview that “it would be a real discrimination of woman if she is considered as apt for the diaconate, but not for the [priesthood] or [as a bishop]”.

“The unity of the sacrament would be torn at its root if [people believed] that woman, as opposed to man, has a greater affinity to serve and because of this would be apt for the diaconate but not for the [priesthood].”

The more the question is discussed, the less convincing the traditional answer becomes. If the commission manages to report before Francis dies, we should see real fireworks.

Turning a blind eye to refugees by calling them terrorists

Ironically, most refugees are trying to flee terrorist regimes like Isis that Western governments are trying to combat 

Kate Allen                                 Independent/UK                           11 May, 2016

A Syrian family run in a forest in Macedonia after illegally crossing Greek-Macedonian border near the city of Gevgelija. (Photo) Some 50,000 people, many of them fleeing the war in Syria, have been stranded in Greece since the closure of the migrant route through the Balkans in February

When Kenya’s Foreign Affairs secretary Karanja Kibicho announced plans to close the country’s refugee camps on security grounds this week, he threw down a challenge to world leaders. Acknowledging that the decision “will have adverse effects on the lives of refugees” he said the international community “must collectively take responsibility [for] humanitarian needs that will arise out of this action."

His frustration with the abject failure of the international community to deal with the global refugee crisis was plain, but he won’t be the only one to feel it. His is one of just seven countries – the others are Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Jordan and Ethiopia - hosting half of the world’s refugee population of 15 million. If you include Palestinian refugees, that number leaps to over 20 million.

Over 600,000 people live in refugee camps in Kenya - mostly in Kakuma and Dadaab, the latter being the biggest in the world and home to more than 50,000 children under the age of four. The majority are of Somali origin – a country ravaged by conflict for over 20 years.

Sadly, it’s not just Kenya where the authorities are promoting this security narrative when it comes to refugees, and it is one that can have fatal consequences. Across Europe fences have gone up at borders to stop refugees moving through, and to “protect national security”. Turkey recently sealed its border, effectively trapping people in war-torn Syria. The recent bombing of a camp in Syria, which left dozens of civilians dead, was a stark reminder of the dangers faced by people forced from their homes.

And this security rhetoric is hardly accidental. Ratcheting up the fear factor hardens public attitudes against refugees and potentially stokes hostility towards people fleeing often the same violence and terror governments are seeking to combat. Painting them as ‘the other’ and as a threat to ‘our’ security is a convenient way for governments to push public opinion from sympathy to antipathy.

The UK government has stated its intention to create a “hostile environment” for immigrants. When Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond referred to “marauding” migrants last year, and the Prime Minister called those risking their lives to cross the Med as a “swarm”, dismissing those stuck in the miserable refugee camp in Calais as a “bunch of migrants”, they were attempting to do just that.

In September the UN will announce a plan for the resettlement of 10 per cent of the world’s refugees and other measures to deal with the crisis. World leaders must support and implement this plan. If they don’t, the crisis will simply deepen as ever more people are forced to journey further searching for safety.

Kate Allen is the Director of Amnesty International UK

Last week John Key was expressing guarded support for the proposal to double the numbers of refugees that we accept annually – at present 750. I applauded and urged him to do that. A.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

I am on the Kill List. This is what it is like to be hunted

Malik Jalal                                Independent/UK                                    12 April 2016

There have been 255 drone strikes on Pakistan since 2004. AP

I am in the strange position of knowing that I am on the ‘Kill List’. I know this because I have been told, and I know because I have been targeted for death over and over again. Four times missiles have been fired at me. I am extraordinarily fortunate to be alive.

I don’t want to end up a “Bugsplat” – the ugly word that is used for what remains of a human being after being blown up by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone. More importantly, I don’t want my family to become victims, or even to live with the droning engines overhead, knowing that at any moment they could be vaporized.

I am in England this week because I decided that if Westerners wanted to kill me without bothering to come to speak with me first, perhaps I should come to speak to them instead. I’ll tell my story so that you can judge for yourselves whether I am the kind of person you want to be murdered.

I am from Waziristan, the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. I am one of the leaders of the North Waziristan Peace Committee (NWPC), which is a body of local Maliks (or community leaders) that is devoted to trying to keep the peace in our region. We are sanctioned by the Pakistan government, and our main mission is to try to prevent violence between the local Taliban and the authorities.

In January 2010, I lent my vehicle to my nephew, Salimullah, to drive to Deegan for an oil change. Rumours had surfaced that drones were targeting particular vehicles, and tracking particular phone signals. The sky was clear and there were drones circling overhead. As Salimullah conversed with the mechanic, a second vehicle pulled up next to mine. There were four men inside, just local chromite miners. A missile destroyed both vehicles, killed all four men, and seriously injured Salimullah, who spent the next 31 days in hospital. Upon reflection I was worried that they were aiming for me.

The next attack came on 3 September 2010. That day, I was driving a red Toyota Hilux Surf SUV to a ‘Jirga’, a community meeting of elders. Another red vehicle, almost identical to mine, was some 40 meters behind. When we reached Khader Khel, a missile blew up the other vehicle, killing all four occupants. I sped away, with flames and debris in my rear view mirror. I learned later the casualties were four local laborers from the Mada Khel tribe, none of whom had any ties to militant groups. Now it seemed more likely that I was the target.

The third drone strike came on 6 October 2010. My friend Salim Khan invited me to dinner. I used my phone to call Salim to announce my arrival, and just before I got there a missile struck, instantly killing three people, including my cousin, Kaleem Ullah, a married man with children, and a mentally handicapped man. Again, none of the casualties were involved in extremism. Now I knew for certain it was me they were after.

Five months later, on 27 March 2011, an American missile targeted a Jirga, where local Maliks – all friends and associates of mine – were working to resolve a local dispute and bring peace. Some 40 civilians died that day, all innocent, and some of them fellow members of the NWPC. I was early to the scene of this horror.

Note: This is an edited first section of a long article. It concludes like this:

 I am aware that the Americans and their allies think the Peace Committee is a front, and that we are merely creating a safe space for the Pakistan Taliban. The mantra that the West should not negotiate with “terrorists” is naive. There has hardly ever been a time when terrorists have been brought back into the fold of society without negotiation. Remember the IRA; once they tried to blow up your prime minister, and now they are in parliament. It is always better to talk than to kill.

Islamic State can’t win in Brussels – we are fighting hate with love

Bleri Lleshi                         Guardian                               22 March 2016
People are afraid here, that is normal. But the way to show that the jihadis are wrong is through solidarity and support
My city is in pain and mourning. Dozens of innocent people have lost their lives; more than 200 are wounded. Brussels is locked down, once again.

After the
Paris attacks last November, Brussels was locked down, too. Some of the terrorists who hit Paris came from here. Since then, the police and army have been present in public spaces and on every corner of the city centre.

The commune of
Molenbeek, where I work, was at the centre of a media storm. “The jihadi capital”, the media called it. Because of a few individuals, a community of 100,000 people is now considered a dangerous place filled with terrorists.

As if the media’s reporting wasn’t bad enough, we have politicians who make scathing statements about Brussels and Molenbeek on a daily basis.
Jan Jambon, Belgian minister of interior affairs, declared right after the Paris attacks that he would “clean up” Molenbeek.

I work in various Brussels schools as a youth coach. Many of my students live in Molenbeek and were shocked by such statements. “Is it because we are Muslim?” they asked me. “Is it because we are of Moroccan origin?” “What did I and my parents do wrong?”

 Most of these young people are in a precarious situation. Some 40% of Brussels youth live in poverty. More than a quarter leave school without a diploma of secondary education. Youth unemployment is huge. Many young people have no prospects and low self-esteem, and share the wider fear of terrorism and other violence. Verbal and physical violence towards migrants in
Belgium, in particular Muslims, has increased by 50% in the last five years.

Young people, I, all of us will have to continue with our lives, just like people did in Ankara, Beirut and Paris. Together we must refuse to resign ourselves to the fear that is sown by terrorists – and by politicians and the media.

 Politicians and the media are falling into the terrorists’ trap. Movements like Islamic State have a clear goal: to sow panic and distrust. Terrorism specialist Béatrice de Graaf has aptly called this the “theatre of fear”. It’s not only Belgian politicians and media that are giving the terrorists what they want: look, for example, at
the reaction of French president François Hollande. The answer to terror is not vengeance or fear. We cannot fight fear with fear, or violence with violence.

This does not mean that we should not tackle terrorism. As well as addressing socio-economic misery, we need a foreign policy that rejects militarisation and wars in favour of political solutions and dialogue.

Moreover, it is important to offer an alternative. We need to strengthen vulnerable communities and groups. We need to invest in young people so that they develop self-respect and engage in society. We need to offer them clear prospects. This is one of the most effective ways to fight terrorism.

And to those who sow fear we must respond with love, because love is a powerful weapon against terrorism.

Iyad El-Baghdadi, once a Salafist and jihadist, now strongly condemns Isis. According to him, love is the best answer to Isis, for “love destroys their faith”. By forging friendships with Muslims, he says, “you defeat Isis”. If we respond with fear and hate, this will strengthen it.

Brexit: Lessons from the east about what folly it would be to choose isolation

Andrew Rawnsley                             Guardian/UK                              24 April 2016

Vietnam has its dark side. But it is impossible not to be wowed by the progress it has made over the past three decades, nor impressed by its potential. Poverty has fallen steeply; levels of education and health have risen sharply. Average incomes are many multiples higher than they were. On its current growth trajectory, Vietnam’s economy will soon surpass several European countries. With a population rising above 90 million, it is already the world’s 14th most populous country. That population is very young. More than half of the Vietnamese are under 30. They seemed to this observer to be sparky, hard-working, pragmatic and eager to get on.

This is one of the happening countries of the world and the world is noticing. Barack Obama will be visiting in May. Philip Hammond, the foreign secretary, called in on Hanoi in the past fortnight. David Cameron visited last year, the first British prime minister to make the trip.

A Britain that wants to maximise its future prosperity will seek to be part of the future of coming countries such as Vietnam. There is Vietnamese interest in aspects of Britain, particularly a perceived British expertise in insurance, banking, science and technology. But compared with other global actors, we are not that significant in the Vietnamese scheme of things. Certainly not as important as its complex relations with the US and its Asian neighbours, especially the historic enemy and one-time occupier to the north. In so much as the UK matters to a country such as Vietnam, our influence is leveraged through membership of the EU. After three and a half years of negotiation, the EU and Vietnam recently signed a free trade agreement (FTA). When Mr Hammond came visiting, getting the FTA ratified was the main point of the talks from the perspective of his hosts.

That is one of more than 50 agreements with countries on every continent that will be forfeit if Britain quits the EU. Brexit would not only trigger years of horribly complex and acrimonious renegotiation of the terms of trade with our former EU partners – it would also mean starting again with the rest of the world. The Brexiters don’t like to talk about this. When they are forced to address this consequence of self-ejection from the EU, they airily dismiss it, as Michael Gove did in the Panglossian speech he recently delivered on behalf of the Outers.

You do not have to accept every doomsday projection to see that this would impose a steep penalty on growth. The renegotiation of so many trade deals would take time, a punishingly protracted amount of time, time that Britain really cannot afford to waste when the shape of the global economy is changing so rapidly, new players such as Vietnam are jostling for pieces of the action and the rest of the world is organising itself into trading blocs. It is extremely hard to see how Britain could possibly get better terms negotiating on its own rather than as part of a team of 28 nations. It is incredibly easy to see how Britain would get much worse terms.

Those are self-interested reasons for sticking with the EU: we will be better off in. A more altruistic argument was suggested by my journey through Vietnam. The embrace of globalisation by its rulers has not been accompanied by an adoption of a free market in politics. Vietnam is still a one-party state. The Communist party retains a monopoly on power. All the TV stations and newspapers are state-controlled. In the latest index of world press freedom, Vietnam is ranked 175, fifth from bottom. Pro-democracy campaigners are chucked in jail. Monitoring bodies describe the human rights record as “dire”. Publc resentment at corruption is so widespread that Vietnam’s prime minister recently felt obliged to tell the rubber-stamp parliament that he would do something about it.

Can Britain nudge Vietnam towards a more democratic path? Acting alone, we just don’t matter enough to Hanoi to have a chance. As an actor within the EU, there is a better hope. As a price of the free trade agreement, the Vietnamese government had to swallow a commitment to legalising workers’ rights, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. It also signed up to higher environmental standards. Britain within the EU can help to achieve that sort of progress; Britain acting alone cannot. There is strength in numbers. If Vietnam, a country with such a fiercely forged sense of national identity, can grasp that there is no future in trying to hide walled against the world, then it will be mighty perverse if Britain makes the opposite choice.

This is the concluding section of a long article.