Going Back, Way Back …

28 Dec

The UK is renowned for its political correctness.  From the V&A paying £400 to a man who burnt his thumb with the restaurant’s soup to the London school that removed pupils’ Ofsted-praised art and craftworks because they presented a fire risk, the Brits could win an award for disproportionate reactions.  Among the sea of PC absurdity though, there is a root idea that is sensible: fair treatment for all.

In March, a job centre in Southend-on-Sea apologised to a benefits claimant after he alleged that his ‘Jedi faith’ had been scorned when staff required that he remove his hood.  Religious tolerance gone wrong, yes – especially given that the man later said that the main reason he was a Star Wars follower was “I want to wear my hood up.”  But the principle – respecting a belief – was laudable.  Awareness of the importance of racial and religious tolerance has undeniably increased.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights sees to that, though putting the law into practice across the world is a different matter.  Currently, though, there seems to be a trend of regression at the moment rather than progression: countries that have traditionally demonstrated will when it comes to recognising the rights of others are going back in time.  The Middle East may not be an internationally-hailed flag-waver for freedom, but its practice of religious tolerance has improved over the years.  Jordan frowns upon religious extremism of any kind; Lebanon’s government is sectarian.  Where religious freedom does not exist – as in Saudi Arabia, where overt practice of any religion other than Islam is illegal – prejudice is publicly declared and is set out by law.  Syria’s Christians and Muslims recognise one another and between them there is relatively little tension.

Yet the trend is reversing.  Christianity in the Middle East has been receiving substantial coverage in British national papers recently.  This was partly because of the lead-up to Christmas and a public interest in what has become of the Holy Land (apparently now the land of commercialism) but partly also due to the Middle East’s shifting religious attitudes.  Where Christianity was once born, it is now scarcely welcome.  Christian exodus from Bethlehem has been traced to two factors: Islamic extremists and the Israeli military occupation of Palestinian territories.  Regional violence is keeping tourists away.

In Egypt meanwhile, plans to build churches cause controversy that makes the outrage over the US plan for a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero look tame.  Last month, police in Cairo used teargas and rubber bullets in order to control the crowd; a Coptic Christian was killed, dozens injured and over 90 arrested.   An Egyptian Christian laid the fault at the door of his own: some Egyptian Christians “just move within a Christian circle only.”  “If they continue like this it’s segregation.”

About 3,500 Christians live among 1.5 million Muslims on the Gaza strip, and relations have traditionally been good.  Gaza residents emphasise their solidarity as Palestinians in the fight against Israel.  During the Hamas takeover three years ago, however, there were some spates of violence.  A Roman Catholic convent was ransacked; since then, a bomb has been detonated outside a Christian school and a Christian bookshop firebombed, killing a Christian who worked there.  During a period of anxiety and disruption in the Gaza strip, though, it is perhaps unsurprising that animosity should surface between religious sects.  Witness the West post 9/11 and 7/7: intolerance erupts at times of attack.  British and American Muslims have been persecuted for no reason other than that of their religion, just as Christians are now in some parts of the Middle East.  The UK’s system of (extreme) political correctness is at least in place to help combat bigoted attitudes.  While attacks of a personal nature may persist, there is no room for systematic persecution – as, some argue, there is in the Middle East.  Certainly Saudi Arabia makes a strong case for it.

If lack of tolerance towards Christians in the Gaza strip emerges at times that are particularly fraught, it thrives in Iraq.  More Christians have left Iraq in 2010 than in any time since the invasion almost eight years ago.  Christmas services this year were more or less cancelled, in an area where the religious – whichever their choice – need religion’s support more than most.  Al Qaeda made it clear in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day that Christians would be targeted.

Why? It is not religion, surely, so much as the idea of something other; the idea that one’s own beliefs are threatened if one is surrounded by beliefs that are different.  Amin Gemayel, a former Lebanese president and a Christian, made a telling comment when speaking of the Christian exodus from Lebanon.  “When the region is completely cleansed of other religions [apart from Islam] it will be a surrender to the fundamentalists.”  No: it will be a country comprised solely of Muslims.  Gemayel, too, has fallen to using politically charged language, as though a Muslim country in itself is a crime.  His words blur the barrier between Islam and fundamentalism – in precisely the way he asks for the barrier not to be blurred between Christianity and anti-Islamists.

Religion in the Middle East is part and parcel of politics.  Perhaps that is no bad thing; one can see the results of an atheist, or unspiritual, society in Britain.  But the UK has got one thing right, and that is enforced tolerance.

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