Orthodox Russia – an Ideology of Exclusivity

The links between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state have grown closer and closer in the last five years, resulting in the implementation of a number of hugely controversial laws, conceived in the image of the Church, which have sped up the country’s journey towards a conservatism whose victims are the social, political and ethnic minorities of Russia.

The last few years have seen the state make it a criminal offence to ‘insult the feelings of religious believers’; a federal law has been passed ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, known otherwise as the gay propaganda law; any form of domestic abuse that does not require hospital treatment has been downgraded from a criminal to a civil offence, punishable by a fine comparable to a parking ticket; and now there is widespread clamour for the state to implement an anti-abortion law. Thus, in effect, the constitution has provided further protection to the powerful Orthodox church, whilst leaving more vulnerable sections of society – women, children, the LGBT community – even less protected than before. And it cannot be a coincidence that these new laws are in line with the patriarchal brand of conservatism espoused by the Russian Orthodox church. And the ambiguity of these laws has led them to be freely interpreted. For example, the gay propaganda law has led to a justification and increased frequency of homophobic violence, as these people feel as though such behaviour is enabled by the constitution. Furthermore, prominent political figures have further stoked the fire, with member of the state Duma, Vitaly Milonov, equating homophobia to pedophilia, and former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, condemning homosexuality as being ‘satanic’. All of which has left the LGBT community in a state of peril, with their human rights recognised neither by the church nor the state.

The Soviet Union, for its myriad flaws, was one of the world’s most progressive societies on the issue of gender. In 1920, it became the first country to permit abortion in all circumstances. Barring a 20-year volte face from 1936 at the height of Stalin’s paranoia about population growth, amongst many other things, the law remained in place for the Soviet Union’s lifetime, and was symbolic of a hearteningly progressive approach towards gender relations. Yet the Russia of today is a different story. Borne out of a desire to instil traditional Orthodox values that predate Soviet Union, women are finding their autonomy further and further compromised. Domestic abuse of any kind should be wholeheartedly condemned, yet the decriminalising of less ‘serious’ degrees of domestic abuse effectively legitimises it in the eyes of the Russian people. To be sure, there will be a few rare instances of wives abusing husbands, but those affected, belittled and endangered by this law are, predominantly, women and their children. And therein lies a fundamental issue with this law: it is well known that the bullied become bullies and, likewise, the abused tend to abuse. There is a real danger that this law will set in train a cycle of abuse, as those who have been abused as children go on to do the same to their own families as adults, and such an abhorrent form of behaviour becomes normalised.

Accompanying the rising influence of the Orthodox church in matters of state policy, as well as in the general mindset of the people, has been the rise of activist Orthodox organisations. Although the most extreme are not directly linked to the church, and are actually publicly disavowed by it, their rising influence and religious extremism feels very symptomatic of a form of deeply conservative faith-based worldview that is utterly intolerant of all those it does not encompass. The list of such groups is long: the LGBT community, jehovah’s witnesses, women and ethnic minorities among many others. They promote a particular brand of patriarchal, almost militarised faith, with the straight white male standing alone at the very top of the hierarchy. Though these people worship Vladimir Putin as a ‘gift from god’, it must be said that these radical believers are unconnected to the state. Yet, at the same time, it could reasonably be argued that their the voice is growing louder and their popularity is increasing as a result of laws that have brought the state in closer alignment with the Orthodox church.

This political and religious conservatism is a phenomenon by no means unique to Russia. Despite huge progress over the last century in the way gender relations are perceived, there is a huge way to go, and many still consider the word ‘feminism’ to be threatening and in some way subversive, rather than simply a desire for everyone human being to have equal rights. And much of the same can be said for the way homosexuality is viewed the world over. There should be no problem whatsoever with the growing emphasis on Orthodox faith as a guiding principle for Russian people. But there needs to be a willingness to be amenable to and tolerant of those groups of fellow Russians who, for whatever reason, are not considered compatible with the views of the Church. Because an unwillingness to do so, an exclusive ideology of ‘Us vs Them’ leaves vast sections of society alienated, vulnerable and with their human rights in jeopardy.

بناء عالم أفضل

الخنجر والرصاصة والقنبلة، لا يعرفون الأخلاق، غايتهم القتل وإنزال الضرر. ولكن من يملكون هذه الأسلحة، هم كائنات أخلاقية اختارت العنف. يستمدون هذا الاختيار من معتقداتهم، ومعتقداتهم مستمدة من القضايا او من الايديولوجيات التي اختاروها، او من الاثنين معاً.

إذا كان اختيارهم للعنف مستمد من التطرف الايديولوجي، ففي هذه الحالة هم يرون ان العالم منغلق وغير متسامح، بل ويجب ان يكون كذلك. فعليه، انه من الطبيعي بالنسبة لهم ان لا يبقون ولا يذرون كل من يقف في طريقهم لتحقيق غاياتهم. لذلك هم يتبنون مظهر القوة التي لا تقاوم.

ولكن، ماذا سيحدث عند تصادم القوة التي لا تقاوم بمجسم ثابت؟ في الواقع، لا يوجد شيء في الطبيعة لا يقاوم بشكل مطلق او ثابت بشكل مطلق. في واقع الصراعات على السلطة، الفعل وردة الفعل يحدثان بدرجات متفاوتة، وكلاهما يعكس الجانب الأسوأ من الآخر.

هل انا أصف داعش؟ قد اكون أصف نموذج كرومويل للجيش الانجليزي في فترة ما بعد ١٦٤٠ ميلادي. او قد اكون أصف الأنظمة الفاشية الأوروبية في الفترة ما بين ١٩٣٠ – ١٩٥٠ ميلادي. كلهم كانوا يعتقدون بأنهم بقوة لا تقاوم، ولكنهم كلهم قد هُزٍموا في نهاية المطاف. إرثهم الذي خلفوه كان ومازال هو العنف.

مقولة أفلاطون الشهرية، “وحدهم الأموات شهدوا نهاية الحرب”.

العنف يولد العنف، وأشقائه هم: العقاب والثأر والهجوم المضاد. الحكومات، بل وحتى الأفراد، يتبنون هؤلاء الأشقاء ويطلقونهم كيفما شاءوا وقتما شاءوا. ولكي نكسر دائرة العنف، يجب علينا ان نقاوم قوى العنف والانتقام من جذورها.

كل الحروب والصراعات تنتهي، وذلك يكون عن طريق إنهاك الأطراف المتنازعة او استسلامها او التدخل الخارجي او العملية الدبلوماسية. ولكن نهاية الصراع نادراً ما يكون بداية السلام المستدام، غالباً ما يكون توقف القتال مجرد انطباع بالسلام، وفي حين انه مجرد هدنة مستقبلها غير واضح.

لسنوات عديدة، لَبٍسَت امريكا وبريطانيا وحلفاؤهم عباءة الأخلاق التدخلية بالشؤون العالمية. وقد رأى الكثيرون ان هذه السياسة جاءت متأخرة جداً او على الأسوأ انها كارثة لكل من يعنيهم الأمر. ولأول مرة في التاريخ المعاصر، نتيجة للبس عباءة الأخلاق الغير صادقة في جوهرها، قد جلبت السياسة التدخلية العديد من ضحاياها الى شواطئ وشوارع الدول المتبنية لهذه السياسة. معاناة الصدمة واليأس والجوع والجرح الجسدي والنفسي لهؤلاء الضحايا تمثل خسارة للغرب، بقدر الخسارة التي يمثلها قتلى وجرحى جنود الغرب وحلفاؤه في الحروب الأخيرة.

وهناك رد فعل عنيف جديد يتجسد في عودة القوى السياسية الرجعية الشعبوية في امريكا واوروبا واماكن اخرى. الشعارات الشعبوية التي ينادون بها تنبذ ما يسمى بالقيم الليبرالية والديموقراطية التي هيمنت على الخطاب الدولي منذ عام ١٩٨٩ ميلادي. هذه القوى الجديد غير متحيزة الى، او تعارض، فكرة الأخلاق الدولية. وسيستخدمون العنف (الخطابي والفعلي) لتأمين حدود بلادهم، وسيولدون عقلية الحصار الوطني، وسيمارسون العزلة عن التدخل في الشأن العالمي، بدلاً من محاولة القيام بالتدخل بشكل أفضل.

لقد تضائل النفوذ الغربي في بلاد الشام، بل وينظر اليه كأمر غير مرغوب فيه. وفي الوقت حينه، قد ملئت قوى إقليمية أخرى الفراغ، ولكن هذه القوى تملك أجندة تاريخية وايديولوجية معادية للغرب. وفي الوقت نفسه، يشهد الغرب افلاسا اقتصاديا؛ فإن منظمة الأمم المتحدة تواجه نقص في الدعم المالي وفي حالة من التحفظ على مجلس الأمن للأمم المتحدة، والنظام الأمريكي الجديد عديم الخبرة ويفتقر الى المصداقية، واوروبا تتفكك كمشروع سياسي. يبدو انه قد تم حصر التدخل الغربي الى جانبين: ضربات عسكرية مستهدفة في بلاد الشام ومن جانب أخر الى القلق بشأن الاتفاقات التجارية في مناطق أخرى. يبدو ان الغرب يعاني من الجمود او التعطيل الأخلاقي.

إذاً من أين ستنشأ طاقة جديدة للتوفيق والتقارب العالمي؟ هل من روسيا او الصين او تركيا او الهند؟ هل نحن في فصل الشتاء الدبلوماسي؟

(لا خير في كثير من نجواهم إلا من أمر بصدقة أو معروف أو إصلاح بين الناس ومن يفعل ذلك ابتغاء مرضات الله فسوف نؤتيه أجرا عظيما) – الآية ١١٤ سورة النساء.

(طوبى لصانعي السلام) – انجيل متى ٩:٥

اذا كان الأجر العظيم لمن يصلحون بين الناس فنحن نحتاج ثورة من صانعي السلام وجيش من المصلحين. (اراميا فاونديشن؟ نكست سينتوري فاونديشن؟ انيشيتف اوف شينج؟) نحتاج تحالف بين الذين يعملون بلا كلل ولا ملل ويضحون من أجل السلام؛ مطالبين بتجديد السياسات الخارجية القائمة على الأخلاق، وتجديد النزعة الدولية، ومد اليد الى الأعداء ووهب شيئا من النور الى أظلم الاماكن.

كشخص متديّن، انا اتفهم نقاط ضعف التديّن، ولكن في الوقت ذاته اعرف قدرة الدين على الإلهام وتغيير حياة الكثيرين وإضفاء الرؤية الطموحة والأمل للبشرية في أيام الظلام.

يجب ان يلعب الايمان والتدين دورا هاما في سوريا والعراق في مرحلة ما بعد الصراع. ستحتاج سوريا والعراق الى كل النوايا الحسنة التي يمكن حشدها، والى مشروع اقتصادي واجتماعي غير مسبوق مثل مشروع مارشال. هذه تكلفة ذنوب الغرب وعناد الشرق وعدم ترابط الشرق الاوسط.

في إطار اي خطط مستقبلية للمناطق التي مزقتها الحرب في بلاد الشام، يجب ان تحظى القدس على مكانها في هذه الخطط، تلك المدينة في أعلى التل، التي تمثل نقطة يتجه اليها الكثير من البشر الذين يتوقون للرب.

نتمنى ان نجد الأمل والرؤية والعزم لبناء مستقبل حيث يرى الأحياء فيه نهاية الحرب.

Poland’s authoritarian turn?

The recent decision by Poland’s government to pass a law that weakens the judiciary’s independence raises concerns on the overall soundness of the Polish democratic system. The law by which the government acquires de facto control of the Supreme Court represents a heavy blow dealt to one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary.

Such a decision is a cause for great concern as it represents the pinnacle of a more general trend of recent reforms that are dismantling the democratic tissue of the Country. Since 2015, Law and Justice, also known as PiS – the ruling right-wing populist party in Poland – has been implementing policies and reforms aimed at limiting civil liberties, controlling media and dismantling some of the major checks and balances in place since the end of the Soviet era. While the European Union is closely looking into this delicate issue and threatening the activation of a sanctions mechanism, protests broke out all over the country in response to this illiberal conduct from the Polish government.

Such an immoral turn for Polish politics, however, was hardly unexpected. The PiS is an unorthodox populist party whose members are unpredictable mavericks with no sense of responsibility. Playing games with people’s rights is standard procedure for them. The most glaring example is the controversial immigration policy in force in the country since 2015. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq have been progressively denied asylum in Poland on a simple matter of religious belief. Poland indeed is one of those eastern European countries which has recently engaged in the contentious strategy of favouring Christian refugees as eligible for their resettlement scheme.

While a blade, a bullet or a bomb does not make any distinction between a Christian or a Muslim refugee making all men equal when faced with war or persecution, the enlightened leaders of Poland cynically reserve the right to decide on the fate of thousands of innocent lives on the grounds of their religious faith. Fairly odd for a country which suffered similar discrimination and illiberal laws not such a long time ago and whose social identity is proudly claimed to be based on Christian values. But as we all know, people have a bad memory and they learn very little from history. Do not be surprised if democratic countries such as Poland in 2017 still impose limits on civil liberties, still exert control over media or judiciary, still discriminate against people on grounds of religion. Sit down and make yourself comfortable, a new era of populism is about to start.

The Blade, the Bullet and the Bomb

The blade the bullet and the bomb know no morality, they have one purpose only, to kill and injure. Those who wield these weapons of destruction have choices; they are moral beings who have chosen the way of violence. This choice is informed by their beliefs and their beliefs informed by their chosen cause or ideology; or both.

If choosing the way of violence is based upon an extreme ideology then they have adopted an uncompromising  view of the world and how it should be ordered which requires them, and their co-believers, to spare nothing or no one in pursuit of their ultimate aims; barbarity is unleashed, violence spirals and any semblance of humanity abandoned; they appropriate for themselves the appearance of an irresistible force. However, as in the paradoxical proposition “What will happen if an irresistible force meets and immovable object?” nothing in nature is absolutely irresistible and nothing is absolutely immovable. In the gritty realities of power struggles action and reaction happen by degrees and each mirrors the worst aspects of the other and thus violence breeds violence “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” (From the Christian Gospel)

Am I describing Daesh? I could also be describing Cromwell’s Model Army in the England of 1640s or Fascist regimes in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. All believed themselves invincible all were ultimately vanquished. Their legacy was and is more violence. Violence breeds violence.

(Quote)”The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that”. Martin Luther King Junior

Plato said, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

Violence breeds violence and its siblings are: vengeance, reprisal and retaliation. Governments, as well as individuals, adopt these siblings and unleash them at will.  To break the spiral of violence we must contend with these forces of vengeance and violence at their root cause.

All wars end. Either through attrition, intervention, diplomacy or capitulation conflicts cease. But the end of conflict is rarely the beginning of a sustainable peace; too often the end of fighting is merely the impression of peace when in reality it is an armed truce vacillating between possible futures.

For years, America the UK and their allies have appropriated to themselves the mantle of a global, interventionist morality. This policy has been seen by many as either little too late or at worst disastrous for all concerned. For the first time in modern history the consequence of this deeply flawed morality has brought the victims of intervention, in seemingly overwhelming numbers, onto their shores and into their streets. Traumatised, at times half dead, physically and psychologically scarred, starving and despairing they are as much the West’s casualties as any of our armed forces killed or injured in recent wars. Violence breeds violence.

From the violence suffered by traumatised refugees coming to our shores, a new violent reaction is being embodied in the resurgence of reactionary, populist political forces in America, Europe and elsewhere. The populist slogans they scream and chant are a repudiation of the so called liberal, democratic values which have dominated international discourse since 1989. These new forces are indifferent or opposed to any assertion of international morality. They will use violence (rhetorically and actual) to secure their nation’s borders, engender a patriotic siege mentality and practice isolationism from global intervention; rather than try and do intervention better they prefer not to do it at all.

In the Levant, Western influence has waned and is seen as fatally flawed, other regional powers have filled the vacuum but they have historical and ideological agendas which are inimical to the West.

The West, meanwhile, is verging on economic bankruptcy; the UN is also deprived of funds and in thrall to the Security Council, the new American regime is inexperienced and lacks credibility and Europe is fragmenting as a political project. Western intervention seems to be reduced to targeted military strikes in the Levant and anxiety about trade deals elsewhere. The West seems gripped by a moral inertia. So from where will arise new energy for global conciliation and rapprochement come? Russia, China, Turkey, India? Are we in a diplomatic winter?

(Quote from Quran)  “There is no good in most of their secret talks save (except) (in) him who orders Sadaqah (charity in Allah’s Cause), or Maa‘roof (Islamic Monotheism and all the good and righteous deeds which Allah has ordained), or conciliation between mankind; and he who does this, seeking the good Pleasure of Allah, We shall give him a great reward” (Quran, Surah An-Nisaa, 114)

If the Great Reward goes to the conciliators of this world (“Blessed are the Peace makers” Quote from Christian scriptures) then we need an uprising of peacemakers and an army of reconcilers. (The Aramea Foundation, NCF, IoC?). We need a coalition of the willing who will work tirelessly and sacrificially for Peace; demanding a renewal of ethically based foreign policies, a renewal of internationalism, reaching out to enemies and bringing light to the darkest places.

As a person of faith I know faith’s shortcomings but I also know its power to inspire and transform lives and situations and to give vision and hope to humanity in its days of darkness:  “To turn spears into pruning hooks and where people will study war no more” (Quote from Jewish Scriptures).

Faith must play a significant role in post conflict Syria and Iraq, Syria and Iraq will also need all the goodwill that can be mustered and a Marshall type plan of economic and civic reconstruction unprecedented in modern times. This is the cost of the West’s repentance and the East’s intransigence and the Middle East’s incoherence.

Within any plans for the possible futures in the war torn areas of the Levant, their  must be a plan for  the future of Jerusalem, that city set on a hill which is the rallying point for so much human longing for God.

May we find new hope, new vision and new determination to shape a future where it is not the dead who see an end to war, but the living.

Fr Larry Wright

FGM: Why have we not eradicated it yet?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) causes severe bleeding and health issues including cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth. It affects at least 200 million girls and women alive today. Despite this, very few charities, Non-Government Organisations or activist groups focus on this as one of the most serious issues the globe currently faces. FGM could be eradicated within one generation yet the current response to FGM by government and the media is one of denial and inaction. Why is this?

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The UN defines FGM as all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and this is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

FGM is a global problem, not just an issue facing central African countries, and should be tackled as such. The UN have been ignoring the prevalence of FGM globally most particularly in parts of the Middle East and Asia. Indian activist, Masooma Ranalvi, recently urged governments and donor countries to help fund research and data collection in Asia at the 2017 ‘Ban FGM’ conference in Rome. This would allow a much better picture of the seriousness of FGM across the globe and would help to spotlight which countries and cultures need the most attention.

It is not just a lack of funding and research which undermines attempts to eradicate FGM. Many cases of FGM go unreported but cases which are reported tend to have very lenient prison sentences. This sends the wrong signal to those who continue to practise FGM. In January 2017, four people were prosecuted for FGM after 17-year-old Mayar Mohamed Moussa died from undergoing a procedure in Egypt. Mayar’s mother and doctor were given a fine of £1000 (EYP) and a suspended sentence of only one year. Lawyer Reda Eldanbouki, who was representing Mayar, expressed shock at the sentences saying “it is unfair and unjust and will be ineffective as it sends the wrong signal”.

A serious side effect has occurred because of the pressure that is starting to be put on communities that perform FGM in Africa. There are a greater number of reports suggesting FGM is being performed on much younger girls and in the dead of night in order for people to avoid the consequences of the law. This ‘under the radar’ approach makes it more complicated for authorities to effectively deal with the problem. The UN and human rights groups need to come together to stop these inhumane procedures by educating people on the dangers of procedures being done incorrectly or in unsanitary conditions.

We have an obligation as compassionate humans to eradicate FGM and help to rebuild the lives of the millions of women and girls it has already affected.

Eid Mubarak!

Eid Mubarak to all our friends celebrating around the world!

 

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