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November 21, 2005

Might and Mitres - Why the Church of England Bishops are wrong about how best to fight terrorism

Posted by Jon Davies

Countering Terrorism: Power, Violence and Democracy Post 9/11
A Report by a Working Group of the Church of England's House of Bishops

Earlier this autumn (19th September 2005) a working group of Church of England Bishops (the Bishops of Oxford, Coventry, Bath and Wells, and Worcester) issued a report on how best to counter terrorism. Jon Davies - recently retired as Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University - examines the Bishops' report in detail. He finds it deeply wanting.

With what ease do they dream and prate of the creation of innumerable worlds, measuring sun, moon, stars and earth as by a thumb and thread; rendering a reason for thunder, wind, eclipses, and other inexplicable things; never hesitating in the least, as if they had been admitted into the secrets of creation, or as though they had come down to us from the council of the Gods.

Erasmus: In Praise of Folly.

In 100 pages, four Anglican Bishops (Oxford, Coventry, Bath and Wells, Worcester) address the issue of Christian attitudes to terrorism, the international order and the "ambiguity of American power", and political change in the Middle East. An Appendix offers real-time practical advice on dealing with Iran. All of these very serious issues are located within "Just War" teaching, which binds Anglican Bishops who, of course, promise to uphold the 39 Articles of the Church of England. Article 37 states:
It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the magistrate to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.
In form and lay-out, the Report is well presented, and properly referenced. In substance, however, it is full of rhetorical tricks and traps, rather like The Da Vinci Code or The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, in which the tentative "perhaps" of one sentence becomes the definite "is" of the next; and where third parties, often "anonymised", are wheeled in to express an opinion clearly held by the writers but where they wish to fight shy of open avowal or adoption.

In particular, any criticism of Islam (the Bishops have difficulty in particular with the position of women in Muslim societies) is "balanced" with a barrage of negative comment on the West, even though the authors deny, really deny, that they are proclaiming the moral equivalence of Western-style liberal democracies and the Arab-Islamic states . . .

The Journey to Iraq
Much of the publicity surrounding the Report centred on the call the Bishops make for "a mature, public act of institutional repentance" for the military intervention in Iraq. The four Bishops, getting their apologetic in first, write that they realise that this could be:

cost-free as far as the Church leaders are concerned . . [and could therefore be] dismissed as a cheap gesture.
This, they continue, is "not entirely true" as such an event would be "very difficult to arrange", and likely to elicit hostility and suspicion from the Muslims (pp 28-29). This seems, certainly, to have been true. The Anglican "Bishop over Iraq", Bishop Clive Handford, was not consulted by the four England-based Bishops: and Canon Andrew White, leader of the only Anglican Church in Baghdad, said that the Report could have very serious consequences for Christians in Iraq [Church of England Newspaper, 23rd September 2005]:
The situation is dangerous on the ground and what is said in the UK has a profound effect.
By the end of September the five Iraqi-born leaders of the Anglican Church in Baghdad were reported missing, believed dead. Our four Bishops live, of course, very well chaperoned lives. There is no reason at all why they should not, now, go, chaperoned or otherwise, to Baghdad to open discussions with those "people with deeply held convictions" (as opposed to "liberal minded people") with whom, the quartet feel, it is possible to "co-exist peacefully". After all (page 17):
Religious leaders have a particular responsibility to bring together those adherents of the different religions who are most resistant to this kind of encounter.
Muslims in particular are in "a hunker-down mode" and "Islamic emotions are stronger than ever" (page 64). A worthy challenge, then.

Bishop Michael Moore
Whether before or after their visit to Iraq, the four authors might well also undertake a visit to the United States, in particular the Southern or Bible Belt of the US, where live:

aggrieved and embittered sections of white America, resentful and defeated by modern American culture.
(Peter Selby, the Bishop of Worcester, once visited Alabama). The Report refers (page 41) to:
a Gallup poll [which found] that 48% of southerners described themselves as "born again" Christians compared with only 19% of North Easterners.
(Note which set of Americans merits a capital letter). The "Christian Right" (southerners, evangelicals etc) believes that (ibid):
Christianity has an inbuilt gospel imperative to carry the Christian message to all parts of the world.
The Bishops associate this with a similar global mission for the United States, aimed at spreading liberty, law, equality and democracy to the rest of the world (page 42).

The USA, like other Western democracies, is a (pp 68):

society dominated by the market and therefore a society that contains a radical divide between the rich and the poor, as in the USA, it is financial resources which dominate the political process. It is the wealthy and the powerful who control the media . . [working] the present system to their own advantage . . [pandering] to the lowest common denominator of human desires . . [full of] pornography, lewdness and vulgarity [offensive] to most Islamic societies.
Need I go on? This is the Michael Moore view of America, the obese and blundering bully of the world.

This America is contrasted with Europe ("a post historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity", page 49 from Robert Kagan) and with the Arab states. Arab states are unlikely to (page 60):

evolve into a liberal democracy in the foreseeable future without some kind of external pressure, political or otherwise.
Why? Primarily because of Western colonialism, especially support for Israel, plus a general tendency by Arabs to identify with a wider Arab-Islamic world than with a single state. In addition, oil wealth inhibits democracy, there being no need for taxation, therefore neither need nor call for political representation (pages 60-62). However, "leading Islamic thinkers" are moving towards a conception of Islam which will or may result in full democratic development, grounded in an electorate of men and women.

Americans, even East Coast Americans, must be wondering how they can apply "external pressure, political or otherwise", without eliciting (yet again) the charge of hegemony or imperialism. They must wonder, too, how much of a paradise Europe is when its peace-loving troops presided over the massacre of Moslems at Srebenica and its armed force stood idly by while the Balkans engaged in fratricide.

Er, Can I Fight You Please?
The bishops are subscribers to the Just War doctrine, where all states (the "magistrate" of Article 37) have the right to self-defence. Above them, as the (only?) site of legitimate international law is the United Nations which is seldom united but certainly comprised of nations. The Just War doctrine evolved along with the nation state, and did so in Europe which very slowly came to conduct war more or less according to its prescriptions formal declarations of intent to go to war, exchange of diplomats and military attaches in peacetime, formal treaties or armistices to end war, etc etc. The Bishops are aware that things are no longer like that: and are supportive of the idea of "anticipatory self-defence", which under certain circumstances is justifiable, but not of "preventative war", which isn't, because of the danger of "prematurity".

The distinction is subtle. In order to avoid "anticipatory self-defence" from slipping over into "preventative war", the Bishops invoke the authority of James Turner Johnson, "the American moral theologian" (page 24):

it is absolutely required that the other's intent be certain. Uncertain fear of a neighbouring country whose power is swelling is explicitly named as an unjust cause for war. The causes of a war should be made, so that everyone may decide as to their justice. If any doubt remains, it is necessary to wait, meanwhile seeking to avoid war. It is thus obvious that the intent of an enemy must be manifested overtly.
This doctrine makes all war, especially war on terrorist cells and cross-national networks, impossible: and is therefore the pacifism the bishops explicitly reject. Terrorist groups all over the world will take note: just say "no we are not" - until you have.

Danegeld: Iran's Nuclear Activity
The bishops provide very considerable detail on what is going on in Iran. They generally insist that (page 12):

the Church has no direct contribution to make in the field of intelligence.
But they appear to have, "extensive contacts in the Middle East" [Bishop Harries, Church of England Newspaper, 23rd September 2005). Thus we learn of various Iranian groups, some opposing Iran's nuclear programme, some for the civil but not for the military programme, some zealous for both. We are told (pages 87-88):
Iran possesses a vibrant civil society ... many sections of Iran's civil society hold that possessing nuclear weapons contradicts Islamic principles.
Yet on page 92 we read of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Annual Human Rights Report of 2004, which depicts a civil society more in fear of its existence than keen to demonstrate its vibrancy: restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, closure of newspapers, arbitrary detentions and disappearances, abuse of non-Muslim minorities etc.

The Report describes the geo-political problems Iran faces, and in so doing makes a case for "understanding" its nuclear ambitions. Several times, the Bishops ask how, in the uncertainties of the world, when some states have nuclear weapons, can others be denied them? They answer by adopting a unilateralist position, clearing the decks for a moral probity at least for themselves when they complain about the Church of England whose General Synod continues to hold to its 1982 position that (page 88):

it is the duty of Her Majesty's Government and her allies to maintain adequate forces to guard against nuclear blackmail and non-nuclear aggressors.
It would indeed be a triumph for the Iranian government if Synod were to take an opposite view of the duties of Her Majesty's Government.

Talking to Islam
The Bishops are speaking, primarily, to the Moslem world. Thus, for example, their only comment on the London bombings is express concern for the expressions of "Islamophobia" which occurred. Why, when Islam in the UK (and Europe) is both a minority religion and Moslems merely one of many minorities, do we in the UK (and Europe) spend so much time talking about Islam and Moslems? The answer, of course, is that Islam has bombed itself into the news, into the conference rooms and into the bishops parlours. A reasonable man, contemplating the murders in London and Bali, might well feel that, wherever Islam is, are to be found enemies of the West. Hindus, Buddhists, and indeed many millions of other Moslems might feel that they have a similar problem.

The test of the good faith of the four Bishops who wrote this report would be for them to board, forthwith, a plane for Baghdad. En route, they might care to ponder the words of Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar and "liberal" [Islam, the West and the Challenge of Modernity, the Islamic Foundation, 2004, page xvi]:

The world of Islam is vibrating at this end of the twentieth century as it was vibrating at the end of the seventh: God is witness of this strength of faith. The mosques open up, the roads are mosques, and the earth is a mosque. The Umma is here.
God Speed, Bishops.

Jon Davies recently retired as Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University. He is the author and editor of books on urban planning, contemporary social attitudes, and death in the ancient world; and is currently working on a book on the patterns of enmities surrounding the West.

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