Saturday, 17 January 2015

On not calling murdered children 'suicide bombers'

While the world was preoccupied with events in Paris, Boko Haram was carrying out its deadliest yet attacks in northern Nigeria, using young girls as human bombs. The western media calls these children ‘suicide bombers’. Some reports suggest that they may have been from among the schoolgirls kidnapped in April 2014.

A British judge has been widely criticised for saying that a sixteen year old girl ‘groomed’ her abusive school teacher, showing how selective we are in our moral outrage. To call those little girls suicide bombers is like calling a victim of sexual abuse a rapist, but where are the howls of protest? We seem incapable of fully acknowledging the plight of those in the Muslim world whose persecution and suffering does not directly affect us.

Muslim victims of radical extremism and western militarism alike seldom capture the attention of the media in the way that non-Muslim victims do, even though a Muslim is much more likely to be killed by a radical Islamist or an American or British drone or bomb than a non-Muslim westerner is to be killed by a Muslim. The vast majority of Muslims are either innocent bystanders or victims of this present conflict between Islamic State and the modern secular state. They are less accountable for what is being done in the name of their religion, than the citizens of Britain and America are for what has been done in our name in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the continuing use of drones to carry out illegal executions of those identified, rightly or wrongly, as potential terrorists. It is our taxes which pay for these wars and attacks, and it is our 'democratic' laws which encourage heavy corporate investment in an arms industry which feeds on such conflicts. Whatever our religion or nationality, we are all caught up in events far outside our control, which leave many of us feeling both impotent and guilty by association.

Early in January, Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff wrote in a blog in the Catholic weekly, the Tablet, that ‘modern Islam seems to have difficulty in establishing that extremist interpretations are wrong in ways that command universal recognition’, and he suggests that extremism ‘tarnishes’ even peace-loving Muslims who fail to condemn it. A cartoon currently circulating on Facebook shows hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan alongside flag-waving members of Islamic State (ISIS), with the caption, ‘Nobody thinks these people are representative of Christians, so why do so many people think that these people are representative of Muslims?’

To expect any peaceful majority to gain ‘universal recognition’ is to fail to appreciate the pervasive power of violence to silence voices of moderation. Millions of us took to the streets in February 2003 to protest the war in Iraq, yet go to war we did, and the rest is not yet history. If our democratically elected leaders can unleash such slaughter in our name, how can we ask ordinary Muslims to take responsibility for the actions of those they never voted for or supported, simply because they appropriate the name of Islam for their cause?

That is the context in which we must speak of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, even as we unequivocally condemn the murders of the cartoonists. If those cartoonists had been satirising ISIS, the Taliban or Al Qaeda, they might have found widespread support among Muslims who shared their revulsion. But the Muhammad cartoons violated Islam’s most revered and beloved figure, more authentically revered by those law-abiding Muslims who devoutly practise their faith than by those who use Islam as a front for murder. Charlie Hebdo’s crude images lack the slightest subtlety that would make them worthy of the name ‘satire’. They were acts of crass and shameless provocation which demanded of every French Muslim citizen more tolerance than any civilized society should ask in the name of freedom of speech. As Pope Francis has reminded us, ‘every religion has its dignity’ and there are limits to freedom of expression. The cartoons are an assault on the dignity of Islam and its followers, and there is never any justification for attacking human dignity.

I do not ask my Muslim neighbour to apologise or explain, for she and I both agree that what is done in our name is not what we would choose. Let’s avoid the sloganeering of a faux innocence, and face the truth in all its savage complexity and fragile hope. And when children are murdered, let’s call each child by name and name what has been done to her in the name of some cause she will never know or understand. To call a murdered child a suicide bomber is to violate her all over again.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie

JE NE SUIS PAS CHARLIE. Without in any way wanting to mitigate the horror, grief and shock of the murders in Paris, I am growing weary of the disingenuity of so many in the media disclaiming the potentially violent power of the pen and the image. Public intellectuals are queuing up to  present themselves as the peaceful advocates of freedom of speech, bravely defending western values of tolerance, respect and democracy against Islamist extremists - which often seems to include all Muslims who haven't publicly and repeatedly denounced their co-religionists. (See, for example, Ian McEwan and David Aaronovitch on Newsnight last night).

The use of violence by rational, cold-blooded, educated people always begins with the pen - with an idea, with a book, with an image. Look at images of Jews in 1930s German cartoons. Look at those crude, provocative images of Muhammad and ask yourself if our 'free' societies would tolerate such images if they were anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic or more overtly racist than they already are. Ask a French Muslim woman who would choose to wear the niqab if she could what she thinks of freedom of expression.

Writers write because they know the power of the pen. I wonder what has happened to our understanding of freedom when the power to provoke, to offend and yes, to knowingly and willfully arouse murderous rage simply through insult and provocation has become the ultimate expression of freedom. Isn't freedom more complex and dignified  than that? If one is going to die for freedom, are there not better ways of expressing what freedom is than the freedom to ridicule, mock and belittle?

David Aaronovitch said on Newsnight last night, "we want as much free speech as we can possibly get". May I suggest that he starts by offering to satirise red poppies on the BBC next November, and see how far he gets? Consider this report in The Guardian, about a Muslim who was fined £50 for burning a poppy during a protest because, said the judge,
The two-minute chanting, when others were observing a silence, followed by a burning of the symbol of remembrance was a calculated and deliberate insult to the dead and those who mourn or remember them. 
The limits of toleration are narrow and the right to insult is seriously curtailed when it comes to abusing the dominant culture's sacred symbols. The dichotomous representation of tolerant secularism versus intolerant religion blinds us to the deeply rooted intolerance and growing limitations on freedom of speech in our own societies, for in truth, this mantra is invoked most frequently with regard to the right to offend religious people - usually Muslims.

The violent killing of one human being by another is always a profound and incurable wound to our humanity, for no person is an island. But that is true of every child, woman and man butchered in the name of a cause - any cause. Until we join the dots and acknowledge the complexity of this spiraling conflict, there will be no end to the violence and the killing of innocents by and on all sides in the name of their gods - God, Allah, Yahweh, Jesus, France, Britain, America, Freedom of Speech. When an idea demands blood sacrifice, it is an idol. When it enables us to reach out to one another and ask 'who art thou?', it is a god worthy of worship.

I mourn the deaths of those defiantly brave journalists, and I mourn the further wounding of our increasingly fragile and threatened democratic freedoms. But the greatest threats to those freedoms are not a small minority of religious conservatives (and not all offended conservatives are violent extremists). The enemy which most threatens the future of our values and institutions and indeed of our very planet is a ruthless political and economic system undergirded by western militarism and the powerful corporate interests of the arms trade. Long before radical Islamism conquers the world, we will be drowning in the suffocating fog of our own polluted environment, victims of a ruthless and inhumane secularist ideology colonised by the politics of greed and exploitation. Let our intellectuals, artists and comedians satirise the real enemies of freedom, so that we might become societies that reasonable people of all religions and none might agree are worth living in - and maybe even dying to preserve.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Women's Cultures, Women's Stories

The Pontifical Council for Culture is holding its next Assembly in February 2015 on the theme of Women's Cultures: Equality and Difference. There is much to be welcomed about this initiative, not least because it seems that some of the invited participants are women who will challenge established stereotypes and raise issues not normally addressed at such gatherings. It is also further evidence that the more enlightened members of the hierarchy are slowly putting into practice Pope Francis's repeated insistence on the need to examine women's roles and contributions to the life of the Church.

As part of the preparations for the February Assembly, women have been invited to submit a photograph or a one minute video message to be considered for inclusion in the programme. However, the promotional video used to publicise this idea has caused considerable consternation. It is further evidence (if any were needed!) of just how out of touch Rome is with the realities of ordinary women's lives.

Yet whatever the obstacles and struggles, I am convinced that this is a vital year for women in the Church. Not only is there the forthcoming Assembly on Cultures of Women where at least there has been some effort - however bungled - to solicit contributions from women, but the Synod on the Family in October 2015 will be a decisive event with far-reaching consequences for Catholic women's lives. The Lineamenta, which is available to download on the Vatican website, includes a questionnaire that once again seeks to solicit a wide range of views from across the Church.

I believe that we women must take whatever opportunities are offered to us to respond to these invitations and to speak out in the hopes of being heard. We must also share our contributions and responses so that they do not disappear into an engulfing silence if we are saying what some of the men in Rome would rather not hear. With this in mind, I have started a Facebook group - 'Catholic Women Speak' - which has attracted nearly two hundred members in a few days. I have also spent a ridiculous amount of time putting together a video submission in response to the invitation from the Pontifical Council for Culture.

I trawled through my photographs from the last fifteen years, when my new vocation as a Catholic theologian began to jostle for time, space and meaning in the context of my more timeworn and familiar ways of living and loving as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a wife, a mother, and more recently a grandmother. I gathered together snapshots - all either taken by me or with me in them - which are simply a glimpse into the vast diversity of one woman's relationships, encounters and friendships. I decided to take a certain liberty with the time limit and to double it to two minutes, but even then I can offer only the most fragmented and fleeting images of women and girls I have had the privilege of knowing - some of whom are among my deepest loves, others whom I have only met briefly along the way.

There are photographs of my mother, my sisters, my mother-in-law, my daughter, my sisters-in-law, my daughters-in-law, some of my nieces, my most beloved friends and more distant acquaintances, my students, my colleagues and other theologians. There are pictures of women and girls on the margins whose lives have touched mine in different ways, and who have left an indelible imprint on how I do theology and how I understand my faith. There are married women and single women, women in religious orders, straight women and gay women, rich women and poor women, young girls whose lives are just beginning, and others whose faces bear the noble signs of growing old with grace and dignity. Some of these people have died since their photographs were taken, others struggle on against formidable odds. Many who should be there are not, simply because I ran out of time in looking for images to use.

I offer this as a different way of representing women and girls from that promotional video issued by Rome. There are most certainly some bubbly young blonde women in the Church - thank God - who could easily appear in advertisements for feminine hygiene products, shampoo or cornflakes. In this particular case, perhaps the model was chosen to represent 'feminine genius' - a term Pope Francis frequently borrows from Pope John Paul II. But we females come in many shapes and sizes, we represent many ages and stages in life, we come from many cultures and contexts, and we have many stories to tell. Our stories have not yet been listened to, acknowledged, respected and represented by the Catholic hierarchy and its carefully selected female spokeswomen and cover girls.

My video does not tell any story, but it shows the faces of women and girls who have stories to tell. I offer it as a tribute to those untold stories, and to the ways in which these people are part of my story, in great and small ways. Every photo here awakens a memory, an emotion, a desire, a prayer. I hope you enjoy sharing these faces of wisdom and beauty with me.