Monday, January 07, 2008

This Bishop speaks Bosh; Disestablish the Church!

ON a weekend when most Church of England clergymen would have been preaching to half-empty pews, the Anglican Bishop of Rochester was accorded nationwide airing for his views, on radio and TV news, lunchtime and evening. The Bishop,Michael Nazir-Ali, had claimed there were places in England that had become "no go areas" for non-Muslims,because of Muslim extremists encouraged by policies of multi-culturalism.

He named no areas. But as evidence of attempts to "impose an Islamic character on certain areas" he cited the amplification of the muezzin's call to prayer from the minarets of mosques. If that is intimidatory or discomforting to those of us who are non-Muslim, I suppose I should have felt uncomfortable as a non-Christian growing up in an area where church bells rang out loudly every Sunday morning as I was going to Hebrew class. Not to mention the Sunday school processions with Boys Brigade bands blowing bugles and banging big drums.

If there are neighbourhoods where people are threatened if they don't "belong" that's bad. I suspect the culprits are yobbos for whom religious or other extremism is but an excuse. It is still safer being a non-Muslim in areas where many Muslims live than being perceived as different in some areas where the Bishop's co-religionists (at least nominally) still hold unrivalled sway. Indeed, Christian clergyman though he is, the Karachi-born bishop's face alone would make him a target.

It is true that wherever religion provides a cloak for claiming privilege and political power, messages about loving thy neighbour are liable to give way to oppression and thuggery, whichever the brand of faith that's being asserted, and whether its banner is raised by generals, political opportunists, neighbourhood gangsters or members of the clergy themselves. We recently saw on television ugly scenes of Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem who considered it their duty to stage nightly harassment of a Christian family. Zionist settlers claim religious sanction for terrorising Palestinians in Hebron. From India comes news that Hindu extremists attacked Christians in the state of Orissa over Christmas, ransacking and burning six churches. Leaders of Iraq's ancient Christian minority had said they would not be able to celebrate Christmas in Basra this year because they feared attack from Islamic militias encouraged by the Iraqi government. From what I remember they did not have this problem under Saddam Hussein. But then as we have seen in that part of Ireland which is governed as part of the UK, Christians are not always gentle, meek or mild when determining which sect should inherit the earth.

As his attack on "multiculturalism" indicates, Bishop Nazir Ali was not calling for live and let live, religious tolerance. Whatever confusion may be sown by well-meaning liberals or not so well-meaning characters using cultural relativism to excuse accommodation with backward elements and half-fabricated traditions, the current fashion for condemning "multiculturalism", like the worn-out stories of "political correctness", is really an attempt to rehabilitate bigotry and chauvinism. Bishop Nazir-Ali himself is on the conservative wing of Evangelism, sharing the Muslim fundamentalists' distaste for gay and lesbian rights, though not of course advocating the Iranian regime's drastic way of "curing" them. He has urged restrictions on the Muslim veil. Not as a secularist of course. Nor is this evangelist content to rely on preaching. In place of multiculturalism he urges government to reassert Britain's "christian roots", whatever these are.

It would not do to remind some of those applauding the bishop that their professed religion was founded by Jesus of Nazareth, in the Middle East, not Essex. His remarks against multiculturalism were welcomed by Tory spokesperson David Davies, but I'm sure he will also be quoted by others further to the Right, like those who went rampaging through Oldham claiming they were entering a "no go area". Being able to quote a "Paki bishop" will only add to their fun.

Labour's Hazel Blears, a "townie" of mine so to speak, has rightly rejected the bishop's claims, and declared Britain is a "secular democracy". I wish. Perhaps she has got confused about the government in which she serves, as she seemed to do when turning up at a health protest in Salford. her heart is on the right side perhaps, wherever her head is. Britain still has the anachronism of an Established Church, headed by that other antiquity the Queen, with MPs regardless of faith or lack of it expected to pronounce on its affairs, and bishops entitled of right to sit in the Upper House of Parliament. Why else, apart from wanting to encourage his views, should the popular media pay attention to the opinions of some cleric, from a Church whose declining attendance makes it doubtful whether it can still claim majority status among believers, let alone the rest of us?

What's worse, this government has encouraged faith schools subsidised by the public, and handed state education provision and resources over to city academies, where wealthy individuals and institutions can impose what beliefs they like. Former prime minister Tony Blair, now a declared Catholic, sent his son to the Brompton Oratory school (no mere state Catholic school would do) and was happy to consign other school students to an academy run by Creationists. His appointment of Opus Dei member Ruth Kelly as Minister for Integration might have been a clue to his subsequent affirmation. Not quite "British roots" perhaps but certainly "Christian" enough.

Hazel Blears is right in a sense, mind you. So far as most people's inclination goes, whether or not they believe in any religion themselves, Britain should be a secular democracy, where your faith or ability to live without it is nobody else's damn business, least of all government's. Bishops, rabbis and imam's deserve no authority beyond the voluntary respect of their particular followers, and religious bodies should have no right to frighten and brainwash young kids. How does that grab you, bishop?

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