Monday, 19 January 2009

"As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God"

(This is an extract from Eternal Radio Online:
“What in the World is Going On” - online every Wednesday Evening at 7.45pm.)
As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God
Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset by Matthew Parris – Times Online
Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.
It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.
But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.
First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.
At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.
We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.
Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open.
This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. “Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.
It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.
There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.
I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.
Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.
How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds - at the very moment of passing into the new - that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? “Because it's there,” he said.
To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It's... well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary's further explanation - that nobody else had climbed it - would stand as a second reason for passivity.
Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.
Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.
And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

No way forward while the Hamas hydra lives

(This is an extract from Eternal Radio Online:
“What in the World is Going On” - online every Wednesday Evening at 7.45pm.)
No way forward while the Hamas hydra lives
For Islamists in Gaza, Palestine is part of a global religious struggle not a battle to create an independent state
Amir Taheri author and Middle East commentator has to say……
The conflict in Gaza has been triggered by Israel's belief that the status quo has become intolerable and should be overturned.
There are several reasons why Israel felt it could not live with the situation in Gaza. The most immediate is the rocket attacks by Hamas that have made life for nearly a tenth of Israelis an exercise in anxiety. Also a factor is that Hamas, since it staged its revolt two years ago, has closed Gaza to all Palestinian groups that have accepted a two-state solution. This makes it impossible for Israel and the administration of President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) in the West Bank to restart negotiations that could lead to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
More importantly, perhaps, Hamas has forged an alliance with Iran based on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's strategy of “wiping Israel off the map”. Tehran's investment in Hamas is large enough to have given it a decisive say in shaping the group's strategy. Israelis see Hamas as one of the two arms of a pincer, along with Iranian-funded Hezbollah in Lebanon, that Tehran is building against them.
Thus, Israel's war aims are clear: end the rocket attacks, reopen Gaza to other Palestinian parties and eliminate the Iranian presence. This means creating a new status quo in which Hamas is not the dominant party in Gaza.
Some commentators have claimed that the cause of the current war is Israel's occupation. But Gaza - until last weekend - was the one bit of Arab territory nominally under Israeli occupation that was free of Israeli settlers and troops. Yet, most of Israel's troubles, in the form of rocket attacks and suicide operations, came from Gaza. At the other end of the spectrum, the Golan Heights, under Israeli occupation since 1967, have been as quiet as a churchyard despite the presence of large numbers of Israeli settlers and troops.
Hamas, as its charter and political literature make clear, does not want an end to Israeli occupation. It wants the end of Israel. That is because Hamas is part of a pan-Islamist movement with global messianic ambitions. Creating a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank is not its aim. A branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas dreams of world dominion for its version of Islam rather than a mini-state in 5,000 square kilometres of barren land in a geopolitical backyard.
Although officially created in 1987, Hamas's roots go back to the 1930s when Haj Amin al-Hussaini, the Grand Mufti of Palestine under the British Mandate, allied himself with Hitler and dreamt of reviving the Islamic Caliphate with himself as Caliph.
That Hamas cares little about Palestine as a would-be nation state is clear from its name and charter. Hamas is the Arab acronym for “Islamic Resistance Movement”, making it clear that the movement regards Palestine not as a nation in its own right but as a small part of the ummah, the community of believers. Hamas is the only significant party in Palestine whose name does not include the words Palestine or Palestinian.
To Hamas ideologues, such as the late Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, love of Palestine as a nation is a form of sherk, that is to say false worship or idolatry. Hamas sees Palestinian nationalists such as Abu Mazen as traitors to Islam.
To Hamas, Palestine is part of a cause rather than a political project. One cannot negotiate with a cause that claims celestial benediction, especially when it rejects the very legitimacy of one's existence. A political project, however, is negotiable because it is about worldly problems such as territory, borders, security, exchange of populations and joint administration of certain areas, which could have worldly solutions.
For decades, Palestinians suffered because their leaders - starting with the Mufti and ending with Yassir Arafat - linked the problem of Palestine with big power rivalries in which Palestine was a slogan and a pretext. It was only in the 1990s that the Palestinian leadership, led by Fatah, managed to redefine Palestine as a territorial conflict between two neighbouring nations, rather than as part of a clash of civilisations. That redefinition led to the Oslo Accords and the creation of a Palestinian administration - the first step towards statehood.
Hamas, however, rejects that redefinition and is trying to recast Palestine as a religious issue in Islam's global struggle against the “infidel”. Many Palestinians see this as a betrayal of their national aspirations. They do not wish to be the sacrificial lamb of pan-Islamist global ambitions as they were for pan-Arabism in the 1960s.
Cutting Hamas down to size would be good not only for Israel but also for the Palestinian people, more specifically the people of Gaza, who have become captives of a one-party state mired in corruption and incompetence.
That, however, is no easy task. Hamas is a many-headed beast. One head represents the part of Hamas that deals with welfare, health and education. It imposed its domination in that field by driving out more than 200 NGOs, seizing control of the running of independent clinics and schools and infiltrating its people into the running of international aid agencies.
A second head is represented by Hamas's political network that managed to win 46 per cent of the votes in the only free elections held in the territories. Although the Hamas political machine remains strong, it is not at all certain that it could deliver that many votes in the next elections.
A third head of Hamas consists of its network of business concerns. Through a mixture of patronage, judicious investments and intimidation it has gained control of the Gazan economy - everything from barber shops to textile workshops. It also runs a protection racket and a contraband network. As a business concern, Hamas raised its profile when it seized control of more than 600 companies controlled by Fatah and the Arafat clan.
Finally, there is Hamas's terror machine, a paramilitary force of about 20,000 men and women, answerable only to their own command structures. It is that part of Hamas that Tehran is trying to buy and control through figures such as Khaled Mishal, head of the Hamas political bureau.
Later this year Palestinians are due to vote for a new parliament and president. Divided into a Hamasstan in Gaza and Fatah-land in the West Bank, they would have little chance of creating a unified government capable of pressing for a Palestinian state. A change of status quo in Gaza could give them a chance.
Amir Taheri's latest book is The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution, published this month by Encounter Books

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Cruelty and Silence in Gaza

Cruelty and Silence in Gaza
(This is an extract from Eternal Radio Online:
“What in the World is Going On” - online every Wednesday Evening at 7.30pm.)
Unremarked upon by the Western media, a systematic campaign of persecution is taking place in the Gaza Strip, and to a lesser extent in the West Bank. The general silence surrounding this campaign aids its perpetrators. The victims are Palestinian Christians, in particular the small Christian community of Gaza.
The perpetrators are a variety of Islamist groups, all of which are manifestations of a process of growing Islamic militancy and piety taking place across the region.
The Christian population of the Gaza Strip is small - 2,000-3,000 people. Gazan politics has long been characterized by a conservative, Islamic bent. Gaza's Christians as a result have tended toward political invisibility.
Since the Hamas coup of July 2007, this position has become increasingly untenable. Islamist organizations, empowered by the indifference of the authorities, have begun to target Christian institutions and individuals in Gaza with increasing impunity. Intimidation, assault and the threat of kidnapping are now part of daily reality for Christians.
The trend became noticeable with a series of attacks on the Palestinian Bible Society's "Teacher's Bookshop" in Gaza City last year. The shop was the subject of a bomb attack in April 2007. Its owner, Rami Khader Ayyad, was abducted in broad daylight, and found dead on October 7, 2007.
Over the following year, a series of bomb attacks on Christian institutions in Gaza took place. Particular attention was paid to places of education. The Rahabat al-Wardia school run by nuns in the Tel al-Hawa neighbourhood of Gaza City, and the American International School in Beit Lahiya were both bombed, most recently in May 2008. The Zahwa Rosary Sisters School and the El-Manara school, both in Gaza City, were also attacked this summer. The YMCA Library was bombed, as was the Commonwealth War Cemetery.
Most of these attacks took place at night, and hence casualties were avoided. In a number of cases guards were the victims of violence.
Who is carrying out these attacks? The perpetrators are thought to be Salafi Islamist groups like Jaish al-Islam, Jaish al-Uma and similar organizations. The larger Popular Resistance Committees terror group has also stated that the Christian presence in Gaza should be eradicated, since it exposes Gazans to a pro-Western, anti-Islamic influence.
Where are the Hamas authorities in all this?
Hamas is officially committed to tolerance toward the Christian community, and spokesmen for the authorities have criticized the attacks. In practice, however, only superficial investigations have taken place, and arrests are rare. In the few cases where arrests have been made, the suspects were not charged and were quickly released. This was the case, for example, with two members of the Jaish al-Islam who were suspected of involvement in the YMCA bombing.
The persecution of Christians is not emerging from a small Islamist fringe. Rather, it is part of a larger process of Islamization taking place in Palestinian society. The rise of Hamas is part of this.
But the cadres of the divided Fatah movement are not immune. The Popular Resistance Committees group, for example, noted above for its anti-Christian stance, was founded by ex-Fatah officers who sought an organization reflecting their religious zeal.
The situation in the West Bank is different, reflecting the larger Christian population and the greater strength of secular forces. Yet here, too, anti-Christian trends are serving to embitter lives.
A recent article in the Palestinian Al-Ayyam newspaper drew attention to the long-simmering issue of "compulsory purchase" of land owned by Christians. This trend has been particularly noticeable in the Bethlehem, Ramallah and al-Bireh areas. Individuals with close links to the Palestinian Authority security forces, or too powerful clans, have adopted a variety of means to lay their hands on Christian-owned land. These have included false registration documents, squatters, and the involvement of senior PA security officers.
The Al-Ayyam columnist, who raised this issue, Abd al-Nasser al-Najjar, lamented that no "constructive action" by the authorities to protect the Christians has taken place. Najjar listed the PA authorities, the Palestinian political factions, and the myriad of NGOs present in the West Bank among the bodies who might have been expected to take an interest in this situation, and who have not done so.
The official bodies of Palestinian nationalism continue to claim that the Palestinians are a single nation, with harmony between Christians and Muslims. The official leadership of Palestinian Arab Christianity repeats this claim.
Meanwhile, on the ground, Palestinian Christians are fearful, and are voting with their feet. Bethlehem, for example, has seen its Christian population decline from a 60 percent majority in 1990 to fewer than 20% of the population today. The small and harassed Christian community of Gaza may simply cease to exist in the near future.
These events reflect broader regional processes. Their failure to become known is also part of a larger trend. The foreign media, NGOs on the ground and some Western political leaderships prefer to foster a version of events in the West Bank and Gaza based on illusion and wilful ignorance of the evidence. The slow death of an ancient community is one of the fruits of this.
The writer of the above analysis is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Centre, IDC, Herzliya.

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